Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday 31 December 2011

In which I disagree with Ewan Hoyle on alcohol pricing

My friend Ewan Hoyle has posted a piece on Lib Dem Voice arguing that Cameron's minimum alcohol pricing idea could be the government's first evidence based drugs policy.

His basic thesis is summed up in the final part:

Once we demonstrate that the harms caused by legal drugs can be effectively diminished through evidence-based policy, we can then take the fight to the criminals and terrorists of Big Illegal Drugs. It is a fact the government urgently needs to confront that we can only ever win the “War on Drugs” if they are legal. Only then can the policies of government have a significant moderating impact upon the market.

Ewan has done fantastic work within and without the party pushing the case for liberalisation of our drugs laws in his role as head of LDDPR but in this case I am afraid I disagree with him.

I should first point out that his argument is the best stab I have seen at defending Cameron's idea and a good attempt to look at the potential positive side. Unfortunately from my point of view it overlooks too many of the negatives and there are too many hopeful assumptions about what may need to happen to underpin the policy.

Numerous commenters below his piece have taken issue with his approach, although to be fair there are some supporters too. The objections range from it being an "illiberal" policy (Mill is even rolled out to back this up at one point of course!) through to it not being likely to work and that the evidence is not there.

Whether something is "illiberal" or not is always the source of much contention in any debate like this and there often seem to be nuanced arguments on both sides so I will leave that to one side for now. However I want to briefly tackle whether the policy is likely to increase or decrease harm. In order to do that I am going to reference what us drug policy reform campaigners love to do, the period of prohibition in the USA during the 1920s.

One of the strongest arguments in my view for legalising drugs is that when alcohol was banned we saw a massive increase in crime and harms associated with alcohol consumption. The inherent harms that alcohol consumption can lead to were hugely exacerbated by its very illegality. It encouraged people to distill their own spirits or buy them on the black market or at "speakeasys". The illegal liquor was often of variable and unpredictable strength and sometimes mixed with all sorts of other substances to increase the effect more cheaply. Many people died or suffered horrendous effects such as blindness during this period as a direct result of the legal change. Indeed within a few short years the Americans reversed the policy, so disastrous had it been.

Now I understand that Ewan is not advocating banning alcohol but instead imposing a minimum price. But given that as he rightly points out alcohol can be available for as cheaply as 12p per unit, moving to a situation where the cheapest alcohol is instead quadruple that price or higher is very likely (I would argue inevitably) going to lead to a large increase in the amount of home-made and illegally manufactured spirits. And I would be very surprised if in turn this did not lead to wider harm with the sort of effects that were seen during prohibition in the USA.

Whenever I have been arguing about drug legalisation with someone and they try to argue that there would still be an illegal market in drugs even if they were legalised (look at cigarettes and booze they say) I always respond that the illegal tobacco and alcohol markets are very small in comparison to the legal variants. And I am right about that, the evidence backs me to the hilt. I then counter by suggesting that were drugs legalised we would need to make sure that the scope for a remaining illegal market was vastly reduced by ensuring we made the illegal variants highly unattractive through  ensuring taxation was set at the right level.

So if we erode that argument by increasing the size of the illegal alcohol market then we could end up doing the exact opposite of what Ewan intends by giving succour to those who argue substantial illegal markets would remain so "what's the point".

In my view alcohol pricing should remain roughly where it is now. I do not see the case for a big increase being made convincingly enough without account being taken of the potentially major downsides.

However where I do very strongly agree with Ewan is where he calls for "effective investment in outreach and treatment services" in order that for vulnerable people such as impoverished alcoholics "life doesn’t suddenly become an intolerable struggle.". There is no reason why we can't have a big push for investment in that area.

We don't need a minimum price for alcohol in order for that to happen though. It should be happening anyway.

Friday 30 December 2011

How did I do on my 2011 predictions?

The short answer is it's a mixed bag.

The longer answer:

  1. Labour will win the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election but the Lib Dems will be a close second.
    • CORRECT. They did indeed win and Lib Dems did indeed come a fairly close second. Certainly by the standards of later by-elections!
  2. All 3 main party leaders (Cameron, Clegg and Miliband_E) will still be in post by the end of the year.
  3. The AV referendum will be (narrowly) won.
    • WRONG. I could not have been more wrong really. We were trounced 68% to 32%. Polls in the months before really did make it look like it would be close but in the end it was not to be.
  4. Sarah Palin will do something that will effectively end her chances of being a serious candidate for the 2012 US presidential election.
    • CORRECT. Although there are various things she has done I think the "cross hairs" thing and the "Blood libel" comment in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting torpedoed her chances within a couple of weeks of me making the prediction. This Guardian article here from back in January pretty much sums it up.
  5. A Lib Dem MP will resign the party whip to either sit as an independent or join another party.
    • WRONG. Not even close. In fact despite lots of problems it looks like the coalition is determined to hold together without this sort of upset.
  6. England will win the Rugby World Cup.
    • WRONG. They deservedly got knocked out in the quarter-finals.
  7. For the third year running I predict that Eddie Mair will become the new host of BBC Question Time.
    • WRONG AGAIN! I think I might stop predicting this now although it's become a tradition and I might not be able to resist...
  8. Liam Fox will no longer be a cabinet minister by the end of the year.
    • CORRECTAMUNDO! I am extremely pleased with my predictive skills here! He is the only cabinet minister from the start of the year who was not in post by the end. And when I predicted it it was far from likely he would go. Indeed the bookies had him way down the list of likely casualties. To be fair I could not have predicted the nature of his downfall but the reason I chose him is because he has always seemed a little bit too hubristic and I just felt somewhere down the line this would trip him up as indeed it proved.
  9. Including Old and Sad there will be 3 by-elections during the year.
  10. A petition signed by more than 100,000 people will trigger a debate in parliament about legalising cannabis.
    • WRONG. There have been several debates in parliament triggered by the new e-petitions site but cannabis legalisation was not one of them. Probably a bit of wishful thinking on my part there!
So 4/10 but the Liam Fox one somewhat redeems me I feel.

2012 predictions coming soon...

Wednesday 21 December 2011

How much does geographical accident influence politics?

I have been wondering for a while how much of a role geographical accident plays in politics.

When I first decided to get involved with politics a few years back I chose the Liberal Democrats because they were the party that most closely matched my views. In my local area the party did not have any council seats but there are a small group of very dedicated and experienced local members and campaigners who have fought a number of local and national elections with alacrity since I joined.

The situation though has got me thinking about how political careers are nurtured and developed. Through my blogging and tweeting I have got to know a lot of activists from across the country from lots of different parties. Some of them have gone from being activists to councillors and in a few cases MPs or MEPs. Some of those councillors will doubtless use that valuable experience as a springboard to further political ambitions later.

For my part I fought a council by-election here in Sandhurst in 2010 and despite putting lots of effort into it I lost very heavily to the Conservatives (I blogged about my experiences here). In this area they are very strong. I have no complaints however, they fought very well and won fair and square. I also stood in the local election this year and again lost heavily.

Realistically it would be very difficult for me to win a council seat here. That's not to say impossible of course, with enough time and dedication this party has proved repeatedly that even the most difficult of areas can be cracked. But at the moment I do not have the amount of time available that would take in this area.

But if I happened to live in an area where my party was a lot stronger, by now I may already have been elected and be getting good political experience under my belt representing people and helping to improve their lives.

One day I may have more time to be able to devote to this, but for now, where I live it is unlikely to happen. It makes me wonder how many other people like me would like to get involved in representative politics but because of geographical accident and their political persuasion (e.g. Conservatives in parts of the north, Labour in parts of the South West) it is unlikely to happen.

This post was first published on Lib Dem Voice.

Monday 19 December 2011

Ricky's too short. On ideas.

I have followed the career of Ricky Gervais since the late 1990s with great interest.

I first recall seeing him playing an obnoxious character on Channel 4's 11 O'Clock Show where he seemed to be deliberately trying to offend as many people as possible. Not long after this there was an attempt at a parody of a chat show called Meet Ricky Gervais which is now largely forgotten but I thought at the time was a brave attempt to extend the "obnoxious persona" into the field of chat. Not least because again he retained his actual name rather than making it clear he was playing a character like Alan Partridge or Mrs Merton who were clear antecedents.

I probably don't need to go into detail about Gervais's most famous creation The Office which followed soon after and which in my view is one of the greatest sitcoms of the last 20 years. He also produced another hit sitcom, Extras which although not achieving the same level of accolades as its predecessor was nonetheless very good and ensured he would not just be remembered as a one-trick sitcom pony.

So I had high hopes for his latest sitcom creation Life's Too Short starring Warwick Davis. It is supposedly a fly on the wall documentary about "the life of a showbiz dwarf". Sadly it has not lived up to my expectations.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the underlying concept. I imagine that done well this could have been a good way of highlighting the sort of prejudice that people with disabilities can encounter. The problem is it has not been done well.

The character of "Warwick Davis" played by Warwick Davis is clearly a caricature. He is vain, self-serving, grasping and regularly gets himself into traps of his own making where he ends up embarrassed and looking stupid. Does this remind you of anyone. That could have been a  verbatim description of the character of David Brent from The Office. Even some of the mannerisms and asides that Davis employs are textbook Brent. It's almost as if he has studied Gervais's previous creation and used it as a basis for his performance here.

So we've seen it all before. Which means that many of the scenes are groaningly predictable. Davis goes on a date arranged through an agency and feels that he has been misled by the picture of his date not making it clear she is also a dwarf. Perhaps this is supposed to be ironic but it is almost identical to a scene from the final Christmas special of The Office where Brent goes on a date with a woman he has met through the internet and also feels he has been misled about her looks. Davis muscles into an interview with the head of an activist organisation he is involved with and says a load of politically incorrect stuff which, surprise, surprise ends up being edited out of the broadcast interview. Davis offers to make a speech at the wedding of someone who has hired him because he and his wife are sci-fi fans (Davis has starred in a number of such films) and he makes an idiot of himself by making a terrible and insulting speech. Etc. etc. etc.

Life's Too Short is not just derivative of the Brent character, it also purloins what was probably the best character from Extras. In that sitcom Stephen Merchant (Gervais's writing partner) played Darren Lamb, Andy Millman's (the main character's) agent. He was completely clueless and regularly made comments that made it clear he didn't know what he was doing. Merchant's performance was superb; he managed to find just the right balance between likability as a wide eyed ingenue but also doing enough to screw up Millman's career at every turn. Davis's character in LTS has an accountant (Eric Biddle) who is clearly based on the Lamb character, useless at his job, having landed Davis with a massive tax bill through his errors but has none of the charm of the Merchant performance. And Davis even goes on to use Biddle as his solicitor in his divorce even though he is terrible and is not even legally qualified. I know it's only a sitcom but the universe for these things need to be a bit believable.

But what's worse is that the whole thing seems to be exploiting Davis and those with dwarfism more generally. The scenes where Johnny Depp has Davis dancing along to a flute while he shouts at him and separately standing in a toilet, all the while Depp appearing to be bizarrely excited by his height are difficult to view as anything other than distasteful, however many layers of irony we are supposed to be filtering it through. And the scene where he gets locked in a bathroom whilst house viewing because he can't reach the handle and ends up throwing his shoes at the window followed by falling off the toilet when his assistant comes to rescue him are in a similar vein. I expect we were supposed to be laughing at the thoughtlessness of those who locked him in but whichever way you look at it it ends up being "dwarf falls off toilet".

There are flickers and glimmers of what this programme could have been. Gervais and Merchant actually appear in multiple episodes as "themselves" (i.e. parodies of themselves trying to get Davis out of their office as quickly as possible and clearly finding him tiresome). In one of these scenes in "Gervais's" "office" Liam Neeson walks in unannounced and demands to be trained in improvised comedy but has some preconceived ideas about how this should work which as a dynamic worked very well and there was a payoff line at the end of the scene that had me laughing for several minutes. Another scene which starts off in a rather embarrassing way with Davis trying to get out of giving a child with a tumour a free signed book ends amusingly with his prediction of "everyone is going to be saying that" coming true immediately. But there are far too many misses for these little moments to make up for it.

Gervais clearly has lots of talent as The Office, Extras and his sell-out tours as well as his widely admired radio work shows but overall it is a disappointing effort from him this time round. I wonder if he now needs to move outside his sitcom comfort zone of deliberately un-PC fake fly-on-the-wall documentaries as he essentially now just repeating himself for rapidly diminishing returns.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Aidan Burley should not have been fired

I realise this is unlikely to be a popular blog post but yet again I find myself compelled to stick up for a politician who has done something highly inadvisable in their private life and who has paid for it with their political career.

Aidan Burley, the Conservative MP for Cannock Chase has been fired by David Cameron as a PPS to Justine Greening because he attended a stag do where some guests were wearing SS uniforms and during which there was a toast to "the ideology and thought processes of the Third Reich". The story broke last week but he seemed to be weathering the storm claiming he was merely an attendee and should have left when he realised what was happening but in the last day or so it became apparent that he had hired one of the SS suits, hence he had clearly been deemed part of the organisation of the event and therefore fired.

Now I fully appreciate that some people will have been offended by what he did. The problem from my perspective is that the reporting of the event and the subsequent sacking take no account of nuance and the highly likely fact that the participants were doing this in a totally misguided attempt at irony. I do not believe that any of them actually do agree with the thought processes and ideology of the Nazis. If evidence emerged that Burley actually did hold these beliefs then it would be a different matter. Instead he went on a stag do where a few people wore distasteful fancy dress costumes and made a few comments almost certainly for shock effect in an attempt at humour. And for that he has now likely paid with his political career.

The reporting by the Mail on Sunday today also tries to show a pattern of behaviour by Burley. They have gone through his history as a student and dredged up the fact that he was kicked out of halls of residence because of an "undisclosed incident" involving a female and a dance floor, that he once stole a sign from outside a dentist's surgery and that he once dressed up as Timmy Mallett and was pictured licking a woman's face.

I've no idea what the "undisclosed incident" was, but until it is substantiated in some way it is frankly immaterial. Stealing a sign from outside a dentist's is stupid of course but how many graduates have done similarly stupid things involving traffic cones etc. when they were students? As for the Timmy Mallett thing, that is where the MoS's agenda becomes crystal clear. They had him on the ropes because of the stag do so they are just pouring as much shit over his head as they possibly can to try and smear him to the point where his position becomes untenable. And they seem to have succeeded. If it had not been for the main story, these other elements would never have been deemed newsworthy as of course they aren't.

Burley did a very stupid thing. He should have known that attending a party like that could easily come back to bite him. His apologies should really have been enough though. I am sure he will not do anything like that again. But to have to pay for it with his career seems disproportionately harsh.

Sadly it is par for the course. We've seen time and again how any transgression can be fatal for political careers. And then we wonder why we so often end up with automatons as MPs who struggle to relate to ordinary people and often seem to have had a sense of humour bypass.

Saturday 17 December 2011

The logical endpoint of drugs policy

The government has signalled it is to ban all forms of skydiving in the wake of more than a dozen deaths in the UK linked to the activity in recent years.

"It is a dangerous thing to do and we need to send a message to people that is is not acceptable." a government spokesperson said. "There is no such thing as a safe way to skydive and we need to protect our children and communities from its potentially deadly effects".

Ministers have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Sports to review the category that skydiving is placed in in order to determine the appropriate penalties for people found indulging in the activity including mandatory prison sentences for anyone caught supplying parachutes.

A senior placed source also indicated that they were looking into potentially banning other sports where people have died in recent years including bungee-jumping, horse-riding and table-tennis.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

David Cameron is not a failure

Before I start this post I should just point out that I am far from David Cameron's biggest fan. There are numerous areas where I disagree with him, in some cases profoundly. You only have to look at the responses he gave to some of the questions posed by the great and the good in the Guardian's recent Q&A to see plenty I take issue with not least his extraordinarily dismissive answer to Jonathan Ross's question about drugs policy.

However I want to tackle something that I keep hearing and reading about Cameron. Essentially I keep hearing that he is a failure. This is from across the political spectrum including a number from his own party.

It goes something like this.

Brown was unpopular. Very unpopular. We were in the midst of the worst financial crisis since before the Second World War. On top of this Cameron had had several years in which to prepare for the election and yet in the end he couldn't even get an overall majority.

All of these things are true but they fail to take into account a number of factors.

1) The Conservative Party were a basket-case of a party after 1997 and by 2005 after 3 consecutive trouncings they were still in a woeful state. William Hague who is one of the most gifted politicians of his generation couldn't improve their fortunes very much and nor could the subsequent two leaders they had which included a former cabinet minister and Home Secretary of immense experience. Cameron forced through a programme of modernisation which at least left them electable in 2010. In fact it was nearly 20 years since his party had been in such a position (since 1992 when the polls dived following Black Wednesday and never recovered until Cameron's time).

2) Cameron was not facing just Brown but also a fresh-faced insurgent named Nick Clegg who was able to seize the mantle of change that Cameron wanted for himself (if Cameron had just managed to get a couple more percentage points at the expense of the Lib Dems he would have had a majority). I know lots of Tories think it was a terrible mistake for Cameron to agree to the televised debates which helped Clegg forge this impression but Cameron had little choice. Sky were on the verge of "empty chairing" him and the other broadcasters may well have followed suit, after all they could not be accused of political imbalance if the 3 leaders were invited but Cameron refused to show. In fact this would have been disastrous for his campaign as he would have rightly been seen as a coward. What Cameron actually did as soon as he saw that Clegg was in the ascendancy is what he always does when his back is against the wall which is to come out fighting and by the second and third debates he did very well and helped to puncture the Cleggmaina bubble.

3) David Cameron is actually the most successful national politician in terms of percentage of the vote won of the past 10 years. The Conservatives under his leadership in 2010 got 36.1% of the votes. In 2005 Tony Blair only managed 35.2%. It is only our "interesting" electoral system that translated Blair's 35.2% to 55% of the seats when it only gave Cameron 47% on a higher vote share than Blair.

4) He is Prime Minister. This might seem like an odd point to make but it was not guaranteed that it would happen. The coalition negotiations could have gone very differently. The fact that Cameron came out straight away with his "open offer" to the Lib Dems enabled all that flowed from it. His political judgement was spot on and he only had a few hours in which to make the call the morning after polling day. Had he flunked it and allowed Labour to make the running and retain power the Conservatives could well have moved against him. Instead he is safely ensconced in Downing Street. It is David Cameron who gets to take the decisions about things like the Libyan action, the UK's response to the financial crisis and he has the highest and most listened to political platform in the land. And will likely have it for at least another three and a half years.

It is worth bearing in mind that there are only 5 other people who have become Prime Minister of the UK following a General Election in the last 50 years. Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Major and Blair. It is a very difficult thing to do but Cameron has managed it.

Whatever you might think about how he got there it seems perverse to consider him a failure having done so.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Monday 28 November 2011

Why electoral reformers should want boundary changes to fail

I know, I know! AV lost. Decisively.

So why am I still banging on about electoral reform?

Well partly because I can't help myself! It is one of my pet causes and I still think that eventually circumstances will arise in which FPTP becomes indefensible. I appreciate this is likely to be a fair way into the future but it is worth considering how it could come about.

Which actually brings me to the point of this post. One thing that is abundantly clear following the AV failure is that we will only be able to get a majority to back change if there is perceived to be a real need for it. That is one of the main reasons why AV struggled to get traction and opponents were able to argue there was no need to change.

The more I have reflected, the more I am convinced that the only way we are eventually going to be able to convince the electorate that change is needed is if there is an unequivocal and unanswerable failure of FPTP. The most likely scenario I can see leading to that is a situation where FPTP chooses the wrong winner.

With the current boundaries and 650 MPs this is actually quite likely to happen within the next two or three general elections. It would take Labour to get within a couple of percentage points of the Conservatives, say 34% Labour and 36% Conservative. Under this sort of result Labour would almost certainly end up the largest party and may even end up with a majority of MPs. Were this to happen, the time would then be ripe for a huge push to change the electoral system to a more proportional one. Defenders of FPTP would be on the back foot trying to argue for a system that had just picked the wrong winner and would be rapidly losing credibility with the public.

But if the boundary changes and MP reduction goes through then suddenly the above scenario becomes a lot less likely. We would of course still have the broken FPTP system but with things nudged a bit more back towards the Conservatives as a result of the changes.

Which means that when the time comes for MPs to vote on these changes we could find an interesting coalition against them forming. It could consist of Labour MPs who are against the changes as a party, numerous Conservatives who fear losing their seats and other MPs who want to ultimately see a proportional system for Westminster. That could well be enough to see the changes fail to get through the Commons.

I usually try and argue for electoral reform from a position of principle but having been thrashed in the AV referendum I am starting to think that reformers need to employ other tactics to get their message through. Trying to ensure that the broken FPTP system is more easily able to be exposed for what it is could be the start of such an approach.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Should Nick Clegg have held out for the Chancellorship?

Should Nick Clegg have held out for the Chancellorship during the coaliton negotiations last year?

I know, I know but bear with me.

I was suprised following the coalition negotiations that none of the jobs that are traditionally considered the big 4 (PM, Chancellor, Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary) were given to Lib Dems. Sure, we got Deputy PM which depending on how you looked at it could have been a bigger job than any of the big 4 except PM. But I am not convinced it has turned out like that nor was it really very likely.

From my understanding of what happened during the negotiations themselves, gleaned from various contemporaneous accounts I do not think that the idea of any of these jobs going to a Lib Dem was seriously entertained. To be fair there are specific problems with each of them:

PM: Non-starter. This role clearly has to go to the leader of the largest party.
Chancellor: Economic policy is the lynchpin of any government and it seems superficially obvious that the role should go to a member of the largest party. But I will come back to this.
Foreign Secretary: Figurehead of the government's foreign policy and given how important this area is to the Conservatives it is difficult to imagine them being happy with a Lib Dem in the top job at the start of a new coalition.
Home Secretary: Given the Conservative Party's traditional stance on issues like Law and Order it would be surprising if they took a Lib Dem in this role lying down. You've only got to look at how the "Sixth Lib Dem in the cabinet" ((C) Nick Clegg 2011) Ken Clarke is doing in the more minor role at Justice to see how this could have gone. Plus Home Secretaries are often only one or two prison or immigration scandals away from political oblivion so Clegg would likely have wanted to steer clear of this anyway.

So how do I think Clegg could have held out for the Chancellorship?

Well all the talk at the time of the negotiations, not least from David Cameron was of an open and generous offer to the Lib Dems to help form a government. It was clear that Cameron and Clegg wanted to bind the two parties together in a strong coalition primarily to reassure the markets that the incoming government was serious about getting a grip on the finances. As Clegg and the other senior Lib Dems made clear following the discussions that they were indeed serious about getting the deficit down there is no reason to think that this programme would have needed to be watered down had Clegg become Chancellor. Indeed if anything it could have sent an even stronger message to the market that the government was seriously committed. After all, Clegg would hardly be likely to demur later in the parliament from an economic policy that he was chiefly responsible for.

There is also of course the political dimension to this. I can certainly imagine that a good number of Conservative MPs would have been less than impressed with such a move. But it is easy to forget now just how opposed they were to a referendum on any sort of electoral reform until they were faced with the stark choice of potentially not forming the next government. I strongly suspect with the right leadership from Cameron that they could have been persuaded.

Which leads me to perhaps the most important point here. Part of the official title of the role of PM is "First Lord of the Treasury". This is often forgotten about, especially these days in the aftermath of the way Gordon Brown managed to use the Chancellor's office to essentially run an alternative government within government from Tony Blair. But that was an extreme example thrown up by a unique set of political circumstances. Cameron and Clegg are generally much more collegiate and it is reasonable to assume that their relations as PM and Chancellor would have been cordial. And of course Clegg would not have been able to get anything through without Cameron's backing so it's not as if he would have been able to go on manouvers even if he had he wanted to.

Another political aspect to this is how the allocation of the role of Chancellor would have reflected the political strengths of the people in the two most senior roles in government. We know Cameron can command 307 MPs through the lobbies (caveat - on subjects other than the EU!). But Clegg can command 57 MPs through the lobbies. How many can George Osborne command? Officially none. But even unofficially he would struggle to get the same number as Clegg through. The truth is that Clegg could effectively bring down the government if he wanted to. Osborne probably could not. He could weaken it for sure but the only person apart from Cameron himself who has the political clout to do this is the man who is currently our Deputy PM.

If Clegg had become Chancellor then the dynamics of the cabinet would have had to be quite different. There would have needed to be a strong Conservative as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (my money would have been on Phillip Hammond) and a suitable role would have needed to be found for Osborne (perhapsa beefed up Deputy PM role combined with Conservative Party Chair?). There would have been other knock-on effects such as Vince Cable would have been unlikely to be Business Secretary but I suspect things would have settled down quite nicely.

The problem I see with the current situation is that Deputy PM at the moment is a bit of a non-role. I know that Clegg has all sorts of responsiblity for constitutional change but with AV out of the window and Lords reform looking ever more tinged with chlorophil from that lengthening grass I can't help but feel that his political skills would have been much better served with the job that is actually number two in the government hierarchy rather than his current one that often seems difficult to define.

This sort of arrangement may have proven more sustainable in the longer run too. Since the failure of the AV referendum the Lib Dems in general and Clegg in particular have started to pursue a much stronger differentiation strategy from the Conservatives. This would have been much harder for him to do if he personally had been much more tightly bound into the centre of government decisions in the Treasury.

We'll never know for sure how this would have played out but Cameron and Clegg could be forgiven for reflecting that it might have been to the advantage of both of them if such a bold move to bind the current parties of government together had been taken from the outset.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Lib Dems should not have whipped against EU referendum

Apologies for lack of posting recently. I've been a bit busy and will likely continue to be for a good while. I will dip in and out as I can though.

I really felt that I had to comment though on the debacle of the Lib Dems having been made via a 3 line whip to vote against a referendum on membership of the EU.

Frankly, what the hell were we playing at? I lost count of the number of times I heard party spokespeople in the run up to the election last year repeat the mantra that we should have an "in/out referendum". Over and over again. It was clearly a device to try and neutralise an issue on which the party recognises it is in the minority ay least on superficial polling evidence. I know that the actual manifesto commitment was if there was to be a transfer of powers to the EU then there should be a vote but frankly that nuance will be lost on most people and the caveat was not always invoked when it was discussed either. The man/woman in the street will just vaguely recall having heard that the Lib Dems were in favour of a referendum to give people their say on the EU and then watched only 1 Lib Dem MP (Adrian Sanders) vote for it with the rest either abstaining or voting against.

Way to go guys. In the wake of the tuition fee catastrophe you would think giving ammunition to those who accuse us of breaking our pledges would be avoided at all costs. But apparently not.

I cannot understand why Clegg and the party leadership did this. They could easily have pointed at the manifesto and said "Sorry Dave, we're not going down this road again" and fulfilled the spirit of the pledge. Instead it's more fodder for those who would love to see the Lib Dems destroyed as a political force which includes lots of Dave's own party.

Numerous people quit the party over tuition fees. I have already seen at least one Lib Dem blogger quit the party already over the EU vote. I have not seriously entertained this thought but I am one of those footsoldiers who has stood on doorsteps trying to persuade people to vote for us in the past. Where is my motivation to do this in future if it turns out that even when we are perfectly politically able to fulfill our pledges we choose not to? I could see how difficult the tuition fees situation was but this latest one is 100% self-inflicted.

I just hope the leadership reflects in the aftermath of this and resolves not to put us in such a position again.

Monday 12 September 2011

Osborne cocaine allegations highlight political hypocrisy on drugs

Guido has details today of a story about how someone who knew George Osborne when he was in his early twenties is claiming that she saw him take cocaine on multiple occasions.

Osborne has had these allegations made to him before and has always strenuously denied them. It is possible that this latest round of allegations will come to nothing too. It is not clear if there is a smoking gun.

But if it turned out to be true would Osborne have to resign?

If it was up to me he would definitely have to. Not because I think taking cocaine as a 22 year old is such a terrible thing, I don't and I know many young people take all sorts of illegal drugs and go on to have completely normal lives. The only person he was likely to harm is himself and if he was willing to take the risk, it should have been up to him.

But Osborne is one of the most senior members of a government that supports punitive measures against people who take cocaine. In fact it is possible for someone caught in possession of a small amount of a "Class A" drug such as cocaine to be sentenced to 7 years in prison. The same sentence you can get for armed robbery.

So if it turned out that he had taken cocaine, by the terms of the drugs policies that he himself supports he has committed an offence equivalent to this. That's why he should have to resign. Because he himself insists that anyone caught doing what he is alleged to have done can have that sentence imposed on them.

Of course we already know that people like Louise Mensch have admitted drug use in the past and Nick Clegg and even David Cameron himself have refused to deny similar allegations. Cameron insisted that he is entitled to a "private life before politics".

The fact that Osborne could survive something like this, and that numerous of his colleagues have survived too demonstrates the truth of the matter. That despite the "tough on drugs" rhetoric, politicians actually understand that drawing a parallel between a crime like armed robbery and ingesting a powder that affects nobody but yourself is ludicrous.

If you don't believe me, ask yourself whether Mensch, Clegg, Cameron or Osborne could still continue as MPs if there was a strong suspicion that any of them had been involved in an armed robbery.

Of course not. Robbery is a real crime.

Monday 5 September 2011

Howard Jacobson should read more blogs before attacking them all

Booker Prize winner and Independent columnist Howard Jacobson has taken it upon himself to make some comments about blogs:

“When I wander off from the newspaper and into the world of blogs I’m a bit chilled.

What you read is extreme ignorance and pure poison. It is a poisonous, poisonous medium. You can’t believe how malicious, how ignorant, how stupid… and you do wonder if they don’t have anything better to do than attack people who have written articles. And you do wonder whatever happened to the idea of the critic; of the reviewer… people who have given their lives to honing the art of what they do.”

This is a ridiculous tirade. To assume all bloggers are one homogenous mass is a fundamental error. To follow this through imagine if I was to apply to same reasoning to his own profession of newspaper columnists.

I often have problems with the writings of Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens, Richard Littlejohn, Liz Jones, Jan Moir and others. Perhaps not every single column they have written, sometimes each of them will have interesting points to make but I am very sure I could quickly pick out several from each of them that I could characterise as poisonous, ignorant, malicious and stupid. And then I could use this as a stick with which to beat all columnists with and dismiss them all.

But that would be to dismiss the writings of people like Matthew Parris, Matthew D'Ancona, Danny Finkelstein, Steve Richards, Mary Ann Sieghart, Julian Glover and countless others whom I respect and admire and who usually produce thought provoking columns of a very high standard. So of course I would never do something as crass as this.

For Mr Jacobson to make a statement like this suggests that he has not read many blogs at all which for an intellectual such as him who doubtless considers himself very widely read is odd. I mentioned this on Twitter and sometime contributor to Dale & Co Louis Barfe sagely suggested that it is probably because he has only ever read blogs that people have pointed him towards that are being negative about his writing. Hence he would be getting a very distorted view of what is out there.

If Mr Jacobson gets pointed towards this article, in an attempt to balance his experiences, can I suggest that he tries the following blogs:

People's Republic of Mortimer (wonderful writing on politics and lots of other subjects from Lib Dem Alix Mortimer)
Scarlet Standard (relatively new blog from a long term committed Labour activist who is thought provoking and highly politically aware)
Ellee Seymour (Ellee has been active in Conservative politics and works in PR - she usually has an interesting take on stories of the day)

I would argue that all three of these bloggers on their best days are up there with the best of the columnists I cited above and there are countless others out there too political and non-political. The idea that it is only people who are being paid to write their opinions and analysis that are worth reading is I am sorry to say ill-informed elitist nonsense.

And I am sorry if that is construed as a poisonous comment!

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Saturday 3 September 2011

This Lib Dem conference vetting farce cannot happen again #ldconf

Cast your mind back to October 2007. A fresh faced recently elected MP is running for the leadership of his party. One of the most eye-catching and in some ways audacious comments that the MP made was on ID cards which he was clearly completely opposed to:

“If the legislation is passed I will lead a grassroots campaign of civil disobedience to thwart the identity cards programme … I, and I expect thousands of people like me, will simply refuse ever to register.”

The MP was Nick Clegg and as we know not long afterwards he was elected leader of the Lib Dems. And now he is Deputy Prime Minister leading a party of 57 MPs as part of a coalition government.

The party's federal conference in Birmingham is due to start in a couple of weeks time. And in a new twist, delegates registering to attend have to submit themselves to a police check.

The noises from the top of the party are very much in the vein of "that is the price we have to pay for being a governing party". I have read that without such checks the party would not have been able to get insurance for the venue. I have also read various comments of the ilk that because we have cabinet and junior government ministers wandering around conference we need to have more stringent security than we had previously.

Regarding the insurance comments I am afraid I am going to call BS on that one. I cannot believe that it is not possible to find insurance that will cover such an event without intrusive police checks on every single attendee.

Regarding the comments about ministers being in attendance, I know for a fact that at other events such as Nick Clegg visiting Newbury recently there were no such checks needed. You only needed to bring your party membership number. So why on earth is police vetting required for federal conference all of a sudden?

There is something deeply unsettling about the party that I joined over 3 years ago precisely because it stood for such strong liberal values such as being completely against ID cards acquiescing so easily to police vetting checks for its members and democratically elected conference representatives.

I really do not see why they are necessary. As Caron rightly points out there is already airport style security and scanners at the entrances to the conference venue. Surely that should be sufficient to ensure protection?

I have heard stories of people having their clearance rejected for various reasons. In some cases it is clear, in others not so much. Gareth Epps for example, a 3 time PPC and former councillor from Reading appears to have been rejected because of a problem with his photograph. I really wonder what danger Gareth will be deemed to pose if his picture is slightly indistinct. I guess the problem lies in the possibility that someone who is not Gareth but looks like him attempts to gain access to the conference. But even if that bizarre scenario was to occur, like I say there is ample security at the venue to prevent weapons etc. from getting in.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, should it be up to the police to decide who does or does not get to attend the main conference of a democratic party? Not to mention the fact that some people (e.g. transgendered) may not wish to submit themselves to a clunky process that may reveal information about themselves that they wished to keep private.

But aside from the principled objections I have there is a practical objection to the way this whole thing has been administered. Lots of Lib Dems have been commenting and tweeting that they have still not had the clearance they need to attend. With two weeks to go this is completely unacceptable. Hotel rooms get booked up in conference season and prices for booking at the last minute can be twice as much (or more) as if you are to book longer in advance. Train tickets are much cheaper in advance too and can be prohibitively expensive so close to the date of travel. I expect there will be people who wanted to attend and will ultimately be cleared to do so but will not be able to because of cost considerations. Not to mention those who take a chance, pay for the train ticket or the non-refundable hotel room only to find they cannot attend after all and have completely wasted their money. And bosses are sometimes not sympathetic towards people who book time off and then need to change their plans at the last minute etc. etc. etc.

None of this is liberal or democratic. I cannot believe that the Nick Clegg of 2007 would have been happy with any of this and I very much hope he is not happy now.

The upper echelons of the party need to reflect long and hard on the problems their attempts to adhere to more stringent security have caused. There are lots of activists who are pretty disgusted with it frankly, myself included.

There is a motion proposed by Stephen Gilbert MP at 9am on the Sunday morning of conference which will hopefully go some way towards redressing this woeful situation for the future. If you are attending conference I urge you to attend and make your voice heard and to vote for it if you have voting rights.

I can only hope that good sense eventually prevails and this sort of farce never happens again.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Tuition fee myths need to be challenged

Through a mutual acquaintance, I recently heard someone I know outside the world of politics (yes I have ordinary friends!) had been bemoaning the "fact" that he was not going to be able to afford to pay £9,000 per year for his daughter (who is soon going to be 18) to go to university.

This person is pretty well educated and I suspect does regularly watch the news but the fact that the money is paid back over 30 years following graduation by the recipient of the degree, not the parents of the recipient seems to have completely passed him by. He's not the only one from what I can tell. Various vox pops on radio and TV in recent months that I have heard and seen suggest that this misconception is pretty widespread and infuriatingly often not corrected by interviewers or presenters.

That such a basic aspect of the new system is so widely misunderstood is a pretty damning indictment of how the policy has been communicated. Lib Dem and Conservative ministers and MPs need to accept some blame for this. But another big problem as far as I can tell is that the media narrative has focused on the most negative and politically contentious aspects of the scheme. This has led to headlines such as "UNIVERSITY FEES TREBLED" and "LIB DEMS IN DISARRAY OVER FEES". Both of those things were true to an extent but the Lib Dem woes on this topic were focused on so much around the time of the parliamentary vote as well as the protests that I honestly think the substance of the policy was not properly covered. Which given how much airtime the subject was supposedly given is frankly absurd.

For me, the 2 main aspects of the new system that seem to be regularly misunderstood are:

1) It will cost parents £30K+ up front to send their kids to university. This is palpably untrue. The graduate, not the parents pays the loan back at 9% of income above £21K. And they don't pay anything back after 30 years regardless of how much they have paid to that point. So quite a few, probably most will never pay back the entire loan anyway.
2) Graduates will be worse off under the new scheme just when they need disposable income the most, in their 20s making it harder to get a mortgage. This is completely wrong too. Compared to the previous system, graduates will be much better off in their earlier years when trying to build a deposit for a house etc. It is of course true that they will still be paying through their 30s and 40s too (assuming they earn over £21K) but that's the trade-off.

There are loads more (see FOOTNOTE) but they are the two that have most irritated me.

I suspect there will be some who accuse me of being a government patsy on this as I am a Lib Dem but the truth is I would be saying this no matter who was in government. I am always happy to debate the consequences and fairness of policies with anyone but in order to do this properly, the facts need to be clear.

And far too often in this debate they are inadvertently or in some cases I suspect deliberately distorted.

FOOTNOTE: The widely respected Martin Lewis of the Money Saving Expert website who himself is no fan of the changes is nevertheless appalled at the terrible reporting on the subject (I heard him bemoaning it on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 show recently) and has taken it upon himself to produce a "20 Key Facts" page which goes into great detail and busts a number of myths about the new system. It's definitely worth a read if you have half an hour.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Monday 15 August 2011

Vote for meeee! (Total Politics Blog Awards 2011)

The Total Politics Blog Awards for 2011 are open for voting until the end of this week.

I've been a bit tardy with my annual "shameless grubbing for votes" post this year but here it is in in all its glory!

If you have liked what I have blogged here or elsewhere then please consider voting for me in the poll.

This year there are two sections, favourite political blog and favourite individual political blogger. I would be most obliged if you could consider me for both categories. You need to nominate at least 5 in each section for that section to be entered in the poll and you nominate a maximum of 10 in each category.

You can vote here.



Wednesday 10 August 2011

Rebuild Reeves

Like many other people I was very moved by the dignity of the Reeves family in the face of what must be an horrendous time for them in the last couple of days. For anyone who is not aware, they own the family run "House of Reeves" furniture store in Croydon which was burnt to the ground on Monday as a result of the riots that took place.

The shop has been in their family for almost 150 years and it was burnt down in only a few hours. I suspect that building ablaze for a long time before fire-crews could get to it (because their safety could not be guaranteed) will become a symbol of this period of civil unrest.

I felt compelled to try and do something to help the Reeves family and to demonstrate that there are lots of people in this country who also want to help. They have already indicated that they intend to rebuild their shop which I find immensely heartening so I have set up a Pledge Bank page where I have pledged a small amount of money to contribute towards this and am asking others to pledge what they can too.

I have already had people asking me whether they are insured and I am not yet clear on what the situation is there but irrespective of that I thought this was a good way of showing solidarity with them at this dreadful time. Also, I know that insurance can take a long time to come through whereas I have set a deadline of two and a half weeks on this pledge to reach 1,000 people to give a small amount each which would I am sure be of good practical use to them in the meantime.

I suspect lots of other initiatives to help other business in particular and generally affected by the riots will be underway soon too and I will donate what I can to those too and would encourage everyone else to do so as well. I just felt this was a specific way to help one of the most visible symbols of the riots be restored.

Monday 8 August 2011

Where's Cleggy?

Before I start this post properly, I know politicians can't really win. If they take regular holidays they are swanning off leaving the country in the lurch and if they don't they're workaholics out of touch with ordinary people.

However that aside I was a little surprised to hear on the news on Friday that David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne were all on holiday at the same time. Apparently William Hague was the most senior cabinet minister still in the country and he was taking charge of the initial response to the current turmoil in the financial markets.

That strikes me as a little bit odd. Nick Clegg is the Deputy Prime Minister. His role includes deputising for the Prime Minister when he is not around, e.g. on holiday. So why did Cameron and Clegg schedule their holidays for the same time? Surely they could have divvied it up so that one of them was around in the country and available during the summer at any one time?

Clegg has made it almost to the top. He is second in command of the government, a position that his predecessors as Lib Dem and Liberal leaders would have given their eye teeth for. And given the position of the third party, second in command is the best we are going to get for a very long time. Yet when Clegg has the opportunity to fulfill one of his primary duties in this role, standing in for the Prime Minister, he has chosen not to do it.

As a Lib Dem I find this quite frustrating. For years we have been told that our party cannot be trusted with the levers of power and now when our leader has the chance to do just that and show those naysayers they are wrong he decides to go on holiday. And this is not the first time it has happened. Back in February he was quoted as having "forgotten" that he was in charge of the country whilst Cameron was abroad and that he was going to head off on holiday at the end of the week so "someone else would have to do it" then. I did not like the casual implication of that comment then and I like even less the pattern that seems to be emerging.

I know that people, especially senior politicians are never fully out of touch these days but the fact that Hague was chairing meetings in London last week demonstrates that there are some things that require a physical presence, especially when there is a crisis.

I hope that next time the PM and his deputy are planning their time away from the country, a little more thought is put into coordinating it.

This post was originally published on Dale & Co.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Has Guido got this #restore campaign all wrong? #retaintheban

The Guido Fawkes blog run by Paul Staines and Harry Cole has been pushing a campaign recently to try and get 100,000 signatures on a government e-petition for bringing back capital punishment for the murderers of children and on-duty police officers.

I am personally not in favour of this but others have written extensively about the arguments against and I am not going to focus on that today but instead on the approach that Guido Fawkes has taken.

Both Staines and Cole are very experienced media performers and campaigners, especially when it comes to new media. And there is no denying that they have stimulated a debate about the issue. But thanks to Lib Dem campaigner Martin Shapland there is a big fly in their ointment.

As I write the "Restore Capital Punishment" petition has 8,949 signatures. But another petition on the same site that Shapland introduced recently entitled "Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment" has 15,881 signatures. Also it is worth noting that the Shapland petition was introduced a while after the Guido backed one and hence has not had as much time to garner signatures.

It is true that there are other pro-death penalty petitions on the site which may be "splitting the vote" to an extent but there are also multiple anti-death penalty petitions too so effectively both votes are being split. But it would appear that the anti-death penalty supporters online are in the ascendancy.

We shouldn't be too surprised by this. Although there has been a long vaunted majority in favour of the death penalty amongst the public (although I have always felt this is somewhat overstated and once the debate is engaged with the liberal argument is there to be won) that majority is highest amongst older people and lower amongst younger people who are more likely to be active online. Also, as we have seen from previous surveys of things like Twitter there are lots of people with liberal views active on there, perhaps not in proportion to their make-up of the population.

Which brings me back to my main point. I think Guido may have got this one wrong by trying to use new media to push an illiberal measure like the death penalty. Although the initial petition has been a good springboard for provoking a debate, it is looking increasingly likely that online at least the anti-death penalty petition has more momentum behind it. If this continues to be the case then it could be dead in the water before any parliamentary debate even takes place because the government (who probably do not want this distraction) can point to the fact that the petition site is showing we should keep the status quo. And any complaint about this only focusing on the online population could be skewered because the only reason the subject is even being discussed is because of the original e-petition. Which is online. The existence of the more popular opposing petition is a huge spoiler.

The biggest spoiler of all would be if the Shapland petition could reach 100,000 signatures before any other one and especially the Guido one.

I've just signed it and if you are opposed to the reintroduction of the death penalty, you should too.

Friday 5 August 2011

Louise Mensch has missed an opportunity on drugs

Following Conservative MP Louise Mensch's excellent work on the Culture Media and Sport Committee, pursuing News International with robust questioning about the activities of their newspapers the tabloids have recently tried to strike back. They have of course tried the tactic that they know best. Muckraking.

They apparently have evidence that during the 1990s, Louise took drugs whilst partying with violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy amongst others. Louise's response was swift and was clearly an attempt to cut the story off at the knees:

"Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable... since I was in my twenties, I'm sure it was not the only incident of the kind; we all do idiotic things when young."

As I heard this on the radio I found myself vocally praising her riposte to this. Essentially she was saying "so what". She was young and she did what young people do. She went up in my estimations.

However later on that same day I spotted this tweet from her account:

She is using the old politician's trick of admitting having used drugs when she was younger but insisting they should remain illegal now. This has been the standard way that MPs have recently tried to avoid charges of hypocrisy by distancing themselves from their previous behaviour using their former "stupidity" or "youth" as an alibi.

This is particularly disappointing in Louise's case because this tactic is usually used by MPs to keep the tabloids at bay. But she and her committee have the papers on the ropes at the moment. If ever there was a time to break free of the ridiculous strictures the print media in this country impose on public discourse about drugs, now would surely be it? She could easily have said something like "I did take drugs when I was younger as did many of my contemporaries and I think we need a mature debate about this subject rather than these salacious attempts by the tabloid press to use it as a means to push their agenda.".

Now it is of course possible that Louise genuinely thinks that taking drugs as her and her contemporaries appeared to have regularly done (judging by her own comments) was idiotic and anyone doing the same today should be prosecuted and potentially imprisoned. But if that is true then then anyone finding themselves today with a criminal record for having done this would find it impossible to ever get selected as a candidate for a party in a winnable seat, let alone get elected. So the logical conclusion is that she is saying that she is not really fit to be an MP but that she didn't get caught so was lucky. It is very hard to view this as anything other than hypocrisy.

Louise Mensch knows she is on safe ground using this sort of formulation. After all, the Prime Minister led the way with his "entitlement to a private life before politics" comments during his leadership campaign. It would appear today's politicians can have their cake and eat it on this issue.

To be fair to her, maybe she does not want to be fighting on multiple fronts given the current circumstances. That would be understandable in a way although regrettable in my view.

I can only hope that as the power of the press in general and the tabloids in particular continues to wane, partly as a result of Louise's (and others) sterling work that eventually other MPs in her position will feel emboldened to speak up honestly about their experiences and use it as a way to open up a serious debate about drugs policy.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Why Cameron discussing BSkyB with Brooks would matter

Yesterday, David Cameron repeatedly refused to answer whether he discussed the BSkyB bid with Rebekah Brooks on any of the multiple occasions he met with her since becoming Prime Minister. Instead he has relied on a rather precise formulation of words where he claims he had "no inappropriate conversations" with her and he also points out that he had been taken entirely out of the BSkyB bid process.

It is true that the ultimate decision lay with Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary and that he is supposed to be following a quasi-judicial process.

But it still matters if (and I repeat if) Cameron did discuss the BSkyB bid with one of News International's most senior executives. The fact that the relationship between the Prime Minister and Brooks (and also Andy Coulson) was so close provided almost deafening mood music as a backdrop to the bid. Hunt would have to have a particularly tin ear not to have picked up on it. And of course Hunt is relying on Cameron for future promotion and preferment. I am not saying there is anything provable about how one may influence the other, there almost definitely will not be. The main protagonists may not be consciously aware of it even if there was; it could happen on a subconscious level. They are only human beings.

So Cameron should never have discussed the BSkyB bid with Brooks. At all. If she had started to go near it he should have cut her short and insisted it would be wrong to discuss it. If he had done this though I imagine he would have had no problem saying so in the Commons.

Cameron's attempt to draw a line under the affair yesterday with his statement to the House and the questioning he faced afterwards appears to have been partially successful. For the first time in two weeks the "hackgate" saga is not leading the bulletins. But his refusal to answer this properly yesterday has opened up more questions about precisely how close the relationship was and casts further doubt on his judgement.

After all, why would a Prime Minister put himself in a position where he is having to use terminological contortions to obfuscate on this question when he should just be able to say unequivocally that he never discussed the bid?

Monday 18 July 2011

What if this is as good as it gets for the Lib Dems?

In the recent local and devolved elections, the Lib Dems polled around 16% of the vote. This was down around a third on the 23% the party polled at the last General Election. Lots of very hard working councillors lost their seats and as a result of this the party's local base has doubtless been damaged. Of course I feel desperately sorry for those people. Fighting against a national trend is very difficult and can feel like one hand is tied behind your back before you even get started.

However what I wanted to focus on today is how the national political picture is likely to pan out over the next few years and to put this into historical context.

Since 1945 there have been 17 General Elections and of the 16 up until 2010 the Lib Dems or Liberal Party achieved precisely 0% of the power in the aftermath of each of them. There was a brief period of influence at the fag-end of a Labour government in the late 1970s with the Lib Lab pact but that was a mere blip and did not result in ministerial office for any Liberal MPs. So effectively we were looking at 65 years when the third party had no executive power to implement its policies.

That historical trend was well and truly bucked last year however when the Lib Dems formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. They got a little over 20% of the cabinet positions including Deputy Prime Minister and a chance to implement all sorts of policies across the political board, even in departments where they did not have the Secretary of State. Indeed recent BBC research suggests that so far the indications are that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is being implemented in the government programme vs 60% of the Conservative manifesto! That is an incredible achievement when you consider that the Lib Dems have 57 MPs against 307 for the Conservatives.

But that context is thrown into sharp relief by the opinion polls which regularly have the party in single digit or low double digit figures and the local election results in May which were not quite that bad but still well down from last year as I mentioned at the start.

I suppose there are a number of reasons why the party is doing so badly in the national polls now. Amongst them will be the way Lib Dem MPs mostly signed a pledge promising to vote against a rise in tuition fees and then as a governing party did the opposite (although plenty of individual MPs kept that promise of course), the fact that the party has signed up to a deficit reduction programme that is rather at odds with what was said during the election campaign and so on and so on. The party is in coalition and has had to make compromises but some of them have been hard for Lib Dem inclined voters to swallow.

This would have been the case whoever the Lib Dems had formed a coalition with though. Even if a Lib/Lab coalition had been feasible (and from what I have read I remain convinced it was not for various reasons, both political and mathematical) the Lib Dems would have ended up in a similar position now as well. Lots of people who had voted for the party as an anti-Labour protest vote would have been disgusted that it had "propped up" Labour and would have gone off to vote for another party or not voted at all.

And I think this is the crux of the matter. We have to face up to the fact that a decent chunk of our support in 2010, and for many years before then was made up a protest vote of various kinds. Anti-Conservative certainly, but also Anti-Labour and perhaps even anti-politics. After all, people could vote Lib Dem safe in the knowledge that they would never be in power to do anything about it. Couldn’t they?

Because of the vagaries of the First Past the Post system for Westminster, a drop in support of a third can produce outcomes whereby the number of MPs lost is much more than a third. On some projections, current Lib Dem polling could see us with 15 MPs at the next General Election or perhaps even less. Now in reality there are likely to be local issues and incumbency factors at play that mitigate this somewhat but if the polls stay roughly where they are (even assuming a bit of a bounce if the economy improves by 2015 and the Lib Dems get some credit for this) the number of MPs the party has the next time the voters are asked could easily be half or even less than now.

For the individual MPs and the local parties they represent this will be very difficult. In many cases decades of extremely hard work will have been put into winning and retaining the seat.

But to put this into the historical context I mentioned at the start, all those decades of work, the long, long march from fringe party with only enough MPs to fit in the back of a taxi, never being able to execute any of the 16 manifestos since 1945, to a position where 75% of the 2010 manifesto is actively being implemented is worth considering very carefully. In a way, the investment that those who put all that effort in over all those years is now being realised in terms of political capital, power and policies.

So what if this is as good as it gets? Maybe the party gets one shot at power when the electoral cards fall in a certain way under FPTP and it has to make the most of that when it happens. And that will never be easy for all the reasons mentioned previously. There will always be some voters who will feel betrayed by a party of protest becoming a party of government. And maybe also, the party will lose seats at the next election even if things go very well for the economy and the strong influence the party had had on the government produces very positive outcomes. Nobody ever said life, or politics was fair!

I have talked a lot about positive outcomes of policy but I still think there are plenty of things the party in government could do much better. I certainly think as I have said before they need to make it much clearer to the public what difference they are making (which to be fair to him, Nick Clegg seems to have belatedly realised). And we should certainly keep fighting for as much of our programme as we can get.

But if this is as good as it gets for the Lib Dems when they are in power then I suppose the party has a choice. It can, perhaps after another round or two of bad local election results (which seem inevitable, certainly as the cuts bite) decide it has had enough and withdraw from the coalition, maybe even defenestrating the public face of the Lib Dem compromises on the way in an attempt to shore up its political position. And let’s not kid ourselves that that route would be a panacea. Electoral meltdown could easily follow then too.

The other choice available to the party is to take the long view that this is its chance to make a real difference for the remaining years of this parliament. That difference might not yield immediate political dividends and might leave the party having to rebuild its local base for years to come but at least all the years of hard work in achieving those Westminster seats would have resulted in a very heavily Lib Dem influenced government in the first half of the decade that started with such a remarkable General Election result and one which the party embraced in the national interest.

That is the route I would choose.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Will Cameron's honesty on press influence spread to drug policy?

Something struck me during David Cameron's press conference about the "Hackgate" scandal last Friday. It was this particular passage:

Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers, we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, get on top of the bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated.

It's a bit like MPs' expenses.

The people in power knew things weren't right.

But they didn't do enough quickly enough – until the full mess of the situation was revealed.

Now, when the scandal hits and the truth is plain for everyone to see ... there are two choices.

You can downplay it and deny the problem is deep – or you can accept the seriousness of the situation and deal with it.

I want to deal with it.

I was a bit surprised, although pleasantly so that Cameron should admit that politicians have been too much in thrall to the tabloid press and the Murdoch press in particular. It is one of those aspects of public life that has been so prevalent for so long that it barely even merits a mention and of course politicians would never have admitted what Cameron has just done in public. Ed Miliband has also said something similar publicly too.

Cameron is of course responding to the current firestorm around the News of the World and tabloid phone hacking allegations. But the influence of the press generally and the tabloid press in particular runs much deeper.

Already Lance Price, Tony Blair's former spin doctor has off the back of this said that Murdoch had a very strong influence on Labour's attitude to the Euro during his time in office.

But there are lots of areas of policy where there is a strong suspicion that the influence of the tabloids and The Sun/NotW in particular has held sway. One of the most obvious has been in drugs policy.

I have become fairly active in campaigning for a relaxation of the drugs laws and lobbying for a more evidence based approach in recent years and have blogged about various aspects of it on many occasions. Given the fact that in his early days as an MP, David Cameron had put his name to a Select Committee report that recommended a more liberal approach to drugs I had hoped his election as Conservative leader would have heralded a new way of dealing with this. But by the time of the leadership campaign in 2005 his views were downgraded to "options should be considered" and by the time I questioned him on the subject in early 2010, just before the General Election he had very firmly distanced himself from his former views.

The strange way in which politicians seem willing to engage with and consider evidence based approaches to the subject of drugs policy when they are a long way from power and how that changes to backing the status quo as they get closer to power is somewhat hard to understand. Unless you factor in the way the press treats the issue with labels like "Soft on drugs" and appeals to emotion regarding keeping children safe (despite the fact that more children than ever can get drugs now under the current regime). Any senior politician who steps outside the narrow tramlines permitted for debate regarding drugs is apt to find themselves hounded by the tabloid press.

Here is what former Conservative Minister Phillip Oppenhein told me about the subject when I interviewed him a couple of years ago:

I think that politicians would be surprised at the response they would get to a serious debate on the subject. My experience is that a lot of Tories now favour reform, but they are terrified about being seen as soft on drugs by the media and prejudicing an almost certain election victory. Cameron had a chance to start a real debate when his own drug taking experiences became an issue, but I guess he was too timid to do so.

If politicians from the PM down are now genuinely throwing off the shackles off the tyranny of the tabloid press then they should no longer have anything to fear from an open and honest debate on this subject.

If that was to happen, perhaps something very good could come of this horrible scandal with the harm caused by drugs in our society greatly reduced under a liberalised, controlled regime rather than leaving it to the gangsters backed by screaming tabloid headlines.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Monday 11 July 2011

Outline of a No2STV campaign

Now that the AV referendum has been lost, those of us who supported the change are licking our wounds and wondering when the next opportunity for electoral change for the Commons may present itself.

At the moment it is looking like a long way off. However I think in the aftermath of the failed AV bid it is worth having a look at what those of us in favour of electoral reform can learn from this campaign to be borne in mind in the future, whenever the next opportunity may present itself.

The system I and most other Liberal Democrats (and more generally most in favour of electoral reform) favour is Single Transferable Vote. It is much more proportional than FPTP (or AV) but importantly it is similar to AV in that you rank candidates in order of preference. The big difference being that more than one MP is elected for each larger constituency (between 3 and 6 is optimal).

Having witnessed at close quarters the tactics used by the No2AV campaign I think we are in a position to at least have a stab at predicting what the outline of a No2STV campaign may look like further down the line. I think this will be a useful exercise in order to ensure that those campaigning for a Yes vote are ready to handle the sort of things that are likely to be thrown at us.

Here are variations on five campaigning messages that I expect we would face:

1) "It's too expensive". This was one of the No2AV campaign's most pushed lines certainly in the early days. Having spoken to people it would seem that this message was resonating. The claim that AV would cost £250 million was bunkum. But it worked this time so you can expect it will be tried again. And of course next time it is likely to be harder to rebut as we already know that counting machines are used for some STV elections. I would suggest that the response to this has to be firmly and consistently on the basis of principle. Moving to STV may cost a little more but what price democracy? I have made the point previously that moving to the universal franchise (twice as many ballot papers to print, issue and count) was more expensive but nobody seriously argues now that women should not have the vote. I have found when trying to make this point that I have faced scorn for appearing to try and conflate votes for women with electoral reform but I maintain it is a fair comparison because to argue it is too expensive to change the electoral system is a diversion and this highlights it. A Yes2STV campaign would definitely need to get on the front foot regarding this message from the off.

2) "It's too complicated". Again, this is a message that was used to apparently good effect against AV. And let's be honest, if AV is considered too complicated then STV could arguably be even more so. Even though I certainly think most people can grasp the concept of what is going on in both cases, a big failure of the Yes2AV campaign was in educating people about how it works. Instead of the first referendum broadcast featuring people shouting at "MPs" using megaphones they would have been much better off explaining how AV actually works (there was none in that broadcast) and highlighting a small number of key reasons why it is better than FPTP. Similarly for STV it will be vital that the system is concisely explained as often as possible and with key messages as to why this is better. With STV I actually think the second part of this will be easier because there is a very clear message regarding fairness with the proportionality factor.

3) "It will help the BNP". Or substitute BNP for whatever extreme party (or parties) exist at the point of the campaign. It proved remarkably difficult to shake this accusation against AV during the recent campaign. This was particularly surprising to me because the BNP was actually in favour of keeping FPTP. However the No campaign rather deftly managed to sow confusion by discussing how lower preferences from those voting BNP as their first preference could end up "deciding elections". I am not going to deconstruct the counter arguments here, it has been done elsewhere many times (best example I have seen is here in this excellent post by mathematician Tim Gowers which incidentally rebuts pretty much all the No2AV campaign's claims) but I will make the point that if the No2AV campaign was able to make this message stick when the BNP are against the change themselves, then I think we can have a pretty good guess at how hard they will push this message when the BNP are likely to be for the change. And I would imagine moving to a more proportional system, even STV would be something that extremist parties like the BNP would be in favour of. I actually think it would be pretty hard for parties like the BNP to get any MPs under STV because it is preferential and therefore makes it very hard for parties that are actively strongly disliked by most people. However having seen what happened during the AV campaign I would expect this message to be drowned out as it relies on a fairly detailed understanding of the underlying counting process for STV. What I would suggest for this message right from the off is that it needs to be rebutted with the argument that the way to beat parties like the BNP is not to rig the electoral system against them. All that does is make them look like martyrs. Instead the way is to beat them by arguing against their extreme and unworkable policies. There are other arguments that can be deployed here too but I think the one of principle is the one that is on strongest ground and should fit in with other campaign messages well too.

4) "Under STV, candidates that come first can end up losing". This was another effective message from No2AV. Of course it all depends on what your definition of "coming first" is. No2AV was relying on the number of votes after one round of counting which is what we are all used to under FPTP. Because under STV there would be multiple seats up for grabs it would be a little different. But I can certainly imagine them trying to argue that STV is "unfair" because a candidate that is way behind when first preferences are taken into account could still eventually end up getting a seat. I expect because the move would be to multi-member constituencies that the change is quite wide reaching and therefore a direct comparison with FPTP is harder. But I am certain No2STV will find a way, and probably quite an effective way of portraying this as unfair. It would be tempting for Yes2STV to try and rebut this claim with technical details but I think instead the "fairness" mantle has to be seized immediately by Yes regarding the proportionality argument. Once people understand that the proportion of MPs elected will be much closer to the number of votes cast, any claim about fairness regarding second, third and so on preferences would hopefully have much less potency.

5) "It will lead to weak and unstable government.". The Yes2AV campaign expended quite a lot of energy trying to claim that coalitions and hung parliaments were no more likely under AV than FPTP. This was a very defensive approach and they may well have been better off trying to argue in favour of coalitions in principle rather than the rather muddled messages that ended up coming across. At least a Yes2STV campaign would have little choice but to argue from the off in favour of coalitions as STV is certainly much more likely than FPTP to produce them. Indeed that is precisely why most campaigners for reform want it!

This is obviously just a very first pass by someone who is admittedly biased but followed the campaign from both sides with great interest. I was disappointed by both AV campaigns as I have blogged about in detail previously. But I still think it is worth thinking ahead whilst the wounds the Yes campaign are licking are still very fresh! I expect others will have their own ideas and I have almost certainly missed some important lessons here. One that springs to mind instantly is the "multiple votes" argument. But I am very tired of rebutting that particular one and let's face it, we have a lot of time to learn all of the lessons!

In conclusion, in some ways STV will be easier to argue for than AV. It has some advantages over FPTP (from a reformer's perspective) that are probably easier to sell than AV. Its proportionality is whatever your view certainly a clear change, rather than the rather mixed change in this respect that AV would have given. However the counting process is harder to explain than AV and that is the area in which I expect No2STV would try to make the most capital (I plan to come back to this point in a future post where I will discuss some other potential broader consequences for the electoral reform movement from the AV No vote). I think another thing that is clear from the AV failure is that more time would be needed to ensure the new system could be explained and understood much better than AV was by 5th May 2011.

Oh, and one more very important lesson. Please, please, please let's not have the referendum on the same day as any other elections!

FOOTNOTE: I have made the assumption for the purposes of this post that an STV campaign would follow roughly the same blueprint as the AV one did, i.e. a single question referendum with only two choice with a No and Yes campaign batting for each side. I actually think there are much better and more sophisticated deliberative processes that could and arguably should be used for something as important as changing our electoral system but that argument is for another day.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Thursday 30 June 2011

Almost two thirds of people think drug users should not be criminalised

Interesting result from a recent YouGov poll on drugs. The following question was asked:

Suppose people use illegal drugs but have not committed any other crime. In general, should such people be treated as criminals and brought before the courts, or should they be treated as people who may need medical treatment and other forms of support?

And the responses were:

  • They should be treated as criminals and brought before the courts: 30%
  • They should be treated as people who may need treatment and other forms of support: 62%
  • Don't know: 7%

So more than two thirds of those who expressed a view and nearly two thirds of all respondents think that drug users should not be criminalised.

Given this sort of finding, I find it bizarre that politicians and ministers are still unwilling to enter a serious debate about decriminalising or legalising drugs. The reasons I hear again and again are that it is politically difficult to do so and that's why most senior politicians are not willing to engage with it. But how on earth can that be true when the majority of people actually think drug users should not be being criminalised? And what does it say about our political structure that these people and that view are largely being sidelined? A shrewd politician would surely be able to find the words and the approach to go with this very strong grain of public opinion?

So who from the senior ranks of all parties is going to step up to the plate and speak for two-thirds of the British public on this subject?