Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday 30 September 2013

House of Comments - Episode 78 - 2013 Conservative Conference Special

Episode 78 of the House of Comments podcast "2013 Conservative Conference Special" is out. Myself and Emma are joined by Graeme Archer of The Telegraph and his fellow Conservative member Amy Gray to discuss Conservative conference including conference locations, married couple tax allowance and the extension to help to buy.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Friday 27 September 2013

Power Trip by Damian McBride - Review

When Iain Dale first made public the fact that Damian McBride was going to publish a book about his experiences as Gordon Brown's spin doctor I instantly suspected it was going to be one of the most important political books of the decade.

Despite largely being out of favour since he was fired in April 2009 as a result of the leak of the "Red Rag" emails, in recent times he had begun something of a political rehabilitation due to his brilliantly written blog where he would occasionally comment on former and current political events. In this format he wrote with sincerity, self-criticism and with deep insight regarding the issues he was covering. In particular I recall his blog post* following the omnishambles budget last year where he revealed the secrets of the "score card" system that had been used during his time at the Treasury and how the fact that some of the measures that Osborne had tried to introduce would never had (and indeed didn't) made it through in his time thus demonstrating weaknesses in the current setup.

So it was clear that McBride is an excellent writer of long-form blog posts (my favourite kind) and he clearly had lots of experience at the heart of the Labour government. I was therefore greatly looking forward to the release of Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin. I am happy to say that I have not been disappointed.

The first thing to say is that I think the book is structured very well. It is essentially in the form of 52 long-form blog posts. As this was clearly a format that worked well for him the decision to structure it in bite-sized chunks certainly seemed to work. I suspect there was more than a little of Dale's influence at work here, himself an experienced and successful political blogger. One result of this decision is that although the book does follow a sort of chronology there is a fair bit of jumping about in order to link things that had happened previously and that also happened in the future that were relevant in some way or that presaged later events. But I think it works as a device as it helps set the context and also shows like a flashing beacon as the book progresses the car crash that is inevitably coming.

When I saw McBride interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight just before the book's publication Paxman rather sneeringly (as is his wont) asked him how we could believe anything in the book given that in various places in it he admits to having previously lied when a spin-doctor. I can't be 100% sure that everything in the book is 100% true but all I can say is it reads as if written from the perspective of someone who is deeply sorry about the worst of his actions and is still trying to come to terms with the person he became as he was sucked further and further into the mire of dirty politics.

I'm not going to single out any of the revelations in the book as they have been done to death in the mainstream media. I knew a few of them but there are plenty that were new to me. It is really however more interesting for the general picture it paints of life as close adviser to Gordon Brown.

Brown comes across as a kindly but irascible figure, prone to outbursts of temper whilst also capable of extraordinary acts of kindness such as his words to McBride on the death of his father about how proud he must have been of him and his brothers whilst he sat there in a pub with tears rolling down his face. Brown is also painted as an intellectual titan and voracious reader who never, ever stopped thinking about politics and what the next job was.

A laugh out loud moment is when he has to deliver bad news early on to Brown who predictably reacts badly, shouting with his fists balled moving towards him (although McBride makes clear Brown was never physically violent towards anyone in his experience) and he figures the best response is to get angry himself so he starts shouting, swearing and kicks over a chair. At which point Brown instantly stops and tells him to calm down! An interesting tactic I might have to remember myself one day.

The two Eds, Miliband and Balls regularly pop up and are treated sympathetically. They come across as highly intelligent both with economics and also politics and are key figures throughout the book. There are also some interesting insights from McBride as to what drives each man based upon his up close observations. The section where Ed Miliband eventually decides he can't trust our protagonist any more is chilling with respect to the sang-froid with which the final call where he repeatedly tells him he thinks he is a "liar" is delivered. Food for thought for anyone who thinks Miliband does not have the steel to be Prime Minister one day. He clearly does if this is anything to go by.

On the subject of dirty tricks which are covered extensively McBride goes into lots of detail as to how stories were leaked, political editors and reporters effectively bribed with "better" stories to head them away from things he and his boss would not have wanted splashed on the front pages and generally would seem to serve as a guide to spin-doctoring. I suspect many current and aspiring spinners will be scouring this book for tips and tricks from one of the best in the business. McBride even seems to implicitly point to his not being there as one of the main reasons for various media cock-ups such as the Gillian Duffy episode from the 2010 election where Brown was inadvertently recorded describing her as a "bigoted woman".

One criticism I would level at the book is that some of his behaviour towards the Blair camp is brushed off with a rather insouciant "they were as bad as we were" mentality. I have to say that from what I know of what happened on the Blair side of the camp, yes they were not great but any objective analysis would surely show that the Brown spin camp spearheaded by McBride were worse. Indeed McBride spells it out in painstaking detail throughout the book rather undermining his complacency in this area. A little bit more humility about this would have helped I feel.

Overall though it is an excellent read and for a political geek like me there was enough behind the scenes colour and filling in the gaps for episodes that I recall seeing unfold from the outside to keep me glued to it for the 2 days (on and off) it took me to read it. It does however lend itself to dipping in and out of due to the blog like nature of it as described earlier.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in politics and/or the processes that go on behind the scenes. I suspect that all the main movers and shakers of all parties will have it on their reading lists, and that's if they haven't already read it. In the world of Westminster there is almost no bigger compliment for political memoirs. It shows you once mattered and Damian McBride certainly did.

PS: We covered the fallout from Damian McBride's book in this week's House of Comments podcast recorded in Brighton at the Labour conference.

*Incidentally his entire blog now appears to have been taken off the internet, perhaps because of the publication of this book but his budget post can still be seen in this cross-posting on Liberal Conspiracy.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

House of Comments - Episode 77 - 2013 Labour Conference Special

Episode 77 of the House of Comments podcast "2013 Labour Conference Special" is out. Recorded in a restaurant on Brighton seafront myself and Emma are joined by Rob Marchant, Andy Harrop and Christine Quigley to discuss all things Labour including party reform, immigration, the full employment target, housing and Damian McBride.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Friday 20 September 2013

HS2 vs my vision of the future

I have a vision of one aspect of the future. It's perhaps not particularly outlandish, certainly from a sci-fi perspective and yet whenever I have mentioned it to anyone either in the real world or online I have had a lot of scepticism.

OK, here it is. I think that within the next 20 years (perhaps sooner) many people will have an entire wall in their house as a display. It will be 3D and the technology will be such as to allow correct parallax so whatever you are watching will simply look like an extension of the room in which you are sitting. The quality and resolution of the screen will be so good that it will be virtually indistinguishable from things actually in the room. And broadband connectivity will be so fast that it will allow videoconferencing with anyone in the world with similar capabilities which will effectively allow their living room to appear as an extension of yours and vice-versa.

The consequences of what this means will be huge. Many of my longest standing friends live a long way away from me. Most of us went to University and ended up all over the place. I live in Berkshire and have friends and/or family in Exeter, Runcorn in Cheshire, Chester, North Devon, Bristol, London, Crewe, Derby and Bedfordshire amongst other places. In order to get to see any of them usually takes weeks of planning and generally requires a full day to be set aside once you factor in travelling etc. But imagine if you could click a couple of buttons on a computer and have their living room suddenly appear alongside yours. This would revolutionise how we communicate with each other.

I'm not saying it would be a complete replacement for face to face contact. Of course human beings are always going to want to be able to share the same physical space on occasion for all sorts of reasons. But if I just wanted to catch up with some friends for an hour or two I really do feel that this way of doing it would be an excellent substitute for travelling half way across the country at expense of both money and dead travelling time. Perhaps this seems a little soulless. But on the contrary I think this could very much help people maintain friendships and stay close with friends even when geographical barriers are in the way. And that's even before you start to think about how much this could improve the situation of people who have family and friends who have emigrated.

All of which brings me in a roundabout way to HS2. When I first heard of the plans for this I was in favour of it. Our railway infrastructure in the UK is creaking at the seams and something like a high speed line from the south to the north seemed like a no-brainer. The fact it is going to cost tens of billions was by-the-by for me as the benefits were surely going to outweigh the costs. But after long reflection I am not so sure.

If living rooms are going to be revolutionised by technology then business meetings will also be. Perhaps even more so as sharing the same physical space is not as much of an imperative for many business meetings. Sharing the same documents and screens, sure but technology can already help with that and in 20 years time I would expect that would also be streets ahead of where it is now.

So if we assume that maybe 50% of meetings that are currently conducted face to face would be able to be done remotely using this sort of high res 3D technology (and if anything I expect that will be an understatement) then straight away you can see that the case for more and faster railway capacity starts to diminish. If the same applied to friends meeting up (i.e. half the time they save themselves the expense and travel time and simply living room share) we start to see how, far from railway capacity filling up with passengers in the coming decades it may well go in the other direction*.

The technology to achieve this sort of thing is no longer science fiction. We already have massive HD screens. We already have fast broadband. We already have 3D and soon there will be 3D without the need for glasses. All the pieces of this particular technological jigsaw puzzle are in place. We just need time for them to improve and mature to the point where bringing them all together will make what I have described above a reality. In fact if you think about it, this is pretty much inevitable. The tech is moving in this direction and it is simply a matter of waiting.

Coincidentally 20 years is how long it is going to take for HS2 to be completed. It would be ironic indeed if by the time the extra high speed capacity was available, it was largely not needed due to other advances that were available for almost zero public expenditure rather than the many billions slated for HS2.

*I am aware that a decent chunk of the extra capacity is expected to be taken up by freight. Of course if my other predictions are correct and there are fewer passengers then this will free up more room for freight anyway. But perhaps even more importantly another technology, 3D printing is already ramping up and it is predicted by increasing numbers of those working in this field that many items will be able to be manufactured in homes**. I strongly suspect that this has not been factored into any of the future freight predictions.

**Yes, yes I know that anyone manufacturing things in their home is going to need the raw materials used for the production and that these will need to be freighted. Smartarse. But I would suggest that a large block of raw material that can be used to make almost anything will be much more efficient to be moved around than billions of mass produced and pre-packaged items in terms of volume alone.

The universality question

The announcement at Lib Dem conference that all infants in state primary schools will get free school meals is an interesting one.

Firstly the party leadership clearly thinks it will be popular and they are probably right. Secondly it's a distinctive policy that the party can point to to say "this would not have happened without us". It's almost certainly impossible to measure the benefits of such a policy in cost terms mainly because the benefits will likely be in ways that cannot be measured very easily or quickly such as improved concentration and long term health outcomes. That in itself feels rather liberal and open minded.

You knew it was coming though.


The problem is that this policy is universal. All infants at public schools will get free meals. That includes children of multi-millionaires. It includes Frank Lampard's 5 year old daughter as Nick Ferrari pointed out to Nick Clegg on LBC this morning.

Now I think a good case can be made for a policy like this being qualitatively different from some other benefits that are applied universally. The fact it is children receiving it, who are generally too young to make informed decisions about what they eat is a big one. Also the fact that children eat together and the cultural separation that the current system of some children having free meals and others whose parents pay for them imposes at an age when difference is often pounced upon in peer groups is a very important factor.

But the Lib Dems need to be very careful. Because this level of nuance was sometimes lacking in some of the previous discussions about e.g. pensioner benefits. Those who argue for maintaining other universal benefits that the Lib Dems are seeking to abolish have just been handed a powerful argument that could if not handled correctly make the yellows look hypocritical.

All Lib Dems put up to talk about this need to be hyper-aware of this potential problem and be ready to deploy quick and convincing arguments why this case is different.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

How First Past the Post could save the Lib Dems in 2015

We Lib Dems really dislike First Past the Post.

A post, yesterday

In fact I'd even go so far as to say that we hate it.

We hate the distorting effect it has on our politics. We hate the way its ossifying influence helps to keep the red/blue duopoly of our system. We hate the way it keeps smaller parties (not just ourselves but e.g. Greens and UKIP) out of power or even in some cases parliament altogether.

So I think it's fair to say we are generally not fans. And yet in 2015 the First Past the Post electoral system for Westminster could perversely be the thing that saves us. Let me explain how.

The Lib Dems got 23% of the vote in 2010 but only just over 8% of the seats (which meant 57 seats). As unfair as this is (and I regularly bang on about this as regular readers and listeners to my podcast will know) the reason is because the majority of that 23% of votes were wasted. When I say wasted I mean they were cast in seats where we didn't get an MP. In other words our vote was not very efficiently distributed given how seats are actually won.

But because of the way FPTP is structured we don't need to get 23% in order to return 57 MPs. In fact theoretically we could get way less than 23% and still hold all our existing seats. We could even get less than 8% of the vote and get 57 seats.

With 650 seats up for grabs the way to be certain of getting 57 seats is to make sure you get 50% of the vote in 57 of them. In reality you can often win seats on less (in some cases much less) than 50% but for illustrative purposes let's assume that's what we want to do. So if each seat has 1/650th of the voters we can see that the percentage of votes we theoretically need is actually

(100 x (57/650)) / 2

Or around 4.4% of the vote.

Of course this assumes an absolutely perfect distribution of our vote, i.e. getting exactly the votes we need (50% each) in the seats we are targeting and zero votes everywhere. In reality this would never happen. But what this demonstrates is that FPTP is almost infinitely elastic in the lack of correspondence between number of votes cast and number of seats.*

It doesn't take a massive leap from this to see that if the Lib Dems are very smart and target their resources with ruthless efficiency they have a reasonable chance of retaining most of their seats. When combined with the incumbency factor that many Lib Dems are expert at using to their advantage it becomes a potent scenario. The casualties of this of course would be all those candidates running in all the other non-target seats. If we follow this through to its logical conclusion then in order for this strategy to work they would get next to no or perhaps actually no help. We could see a large number of lost deposits. But I suspect the leadership would see this as a small price to pay if they get to retain a solid number of MPs.

Come 2015 I suspect the Lib Dems will get more than the 8% - 10% we are currently seeing in the polls. It will probably be into the teens perhaps around 15% in my view. But even if it isn't and it actually ends up being 10% or even lower, First Past the Post offers us plenty of scope for gaming the system to return us far more MPs than a simple "Universal Swing" analysis would suggest.

The only question really is whether the party leadership is ruthless enough to follow such a strategy and thus use the invidious and rightly despised First Past the Post system to its full advantage.

*As an aside here consider that UKIP could get 10% or even 15% of the votes and would still likely get zero seats because their vote is quite evenly distributed across the country which is an absolute killer for political parties under FPTP.

House of Comments - Episode 76 - 2013 Lib Dem Conference Special

Episode 76 of the House of Comments podcast "2013 Lib Dem Conference Special" is out. This week I was joined by Caron Lindsay and Nick Thornsby to discuss all things Lib Dem - live (well OK, recorded but you know) from the party's conference in Glasgow covering topics as diverse as fracking, Trident and porn filters.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Monday 9 September 2013

House of Comments - Episode 75 - The End of her Teather

Episode 75 of the House of Comments podcast "The End of her Teather" is out. This week myself and Emma Burnell were joined by Nick Denys from Platform 10 to discuss the Lobbying Bill, the Universal Credit debacle, further Falkirk fallout and Sarah Teather's decision to stand down from parliament.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Saturday 7 September 2013

10 PRINT "Must use computer"; 20 GOTO 10

I've ranted before on here about my dislike for self checkout machines in shops. But when I went on holiday to Canada a few weeks ago I noticed another form of these sort of machines and there was a telling twist.

We flew from Terminal 5 at Heathrow which I guess is the most modern of them having been built only a few years back. We were checking in at the BA counters. Well I say counters but that is where the computer side of it kicked in. Because we were not allowed to check in at the actual desks, they were just for dropping your bags off. The check-in and generation of the boarding passes etc. was done at a booth just back from the desks before the cordoned off queueing bit.

They're coming for you...

As I was a bit unsure what to do and did not want to make a mistake on something as important as checking in for a flight I called over one of the assistants who helped us through the computer system and made sure we did it right. It went quite smoothly and I suspect the next time I will be able to do it myself. I still find the concept of this sort of irritating though as I do feel like ultimately people are being done out of a job and also that the passengers are having to do more of the cognitive work of checking in, saving the airline money but with this absolutely not reflected in the prices.

The telling part of this was when I talked to the lady who helped us through the process. I asked her whether we could just go to the desks to check-in and was told no, we had to use the computer. This ties in with what I said in my previous post about shop check-out machines. Although in shops there is (usually) still a choice to go with a normal till, increasingly they are moving to a position, particularly in "metro" type stores where queueing up to pay a human is the strange option. They have done this by only having one or two humans on tills but having maybe 8 or 10 (or more) machines, thus making the automated way the default. I did wonder how long it would be in some stores before they phased out ordinary tills altogether.

Well at the BA desks in Heathrow Terminal 5 I saw the next logical stage of this. Mandatory use of the computerised booths to check in.

Oh, but did I mention about First Class? That was the one exception apparently. If we'd have had First Class tickets we could have checked in at the First Class desk where there was, yes you've guessed it, a human being.

So that demonstrates that we are slowly moving towards a situation where interaction with a human being when paying for goods, checking in for flights etc. is increasingly being seen as a luxury.

But if you're a pleb, get in the queue for the computer.

Monday 2 September 2013

House of Comments - Episode 74 - Syria

Episode 74 of the House of Comments podcast "Syria" is out. This week myself and Emma Burnell were joined by James Hallwood of the Constitution Society to discuss the political and constitutional implications of the recent government defeat on potential action in Syria.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.