Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 20 April 2015

House of Comments - Episode 125 - The Challenger Debate

The latest House of Comments podcast is now out.

This week I am joined by Isabel Hardman the Assistant Editor of The Spectator to discuss the challenger's debate, the growing influence of the SNP on UK politics and what would happen if no stable government can be formed after the general election

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

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

Friday, 17 April 2015

Is FPTP so much simpler than AV? Ask the voters of South Thanet

During the AV referendum (I'm not bitter, honest) we heard time and again from No campaigners how much simpler First Past the Post is than the Alternative Vote.

After all, all you need to do is put an X next to the person you want to win and then job done. That's so much easier than faffing about having to rank candidates, surely?

Well it depends where you live and what you want to achieve with your vote. Under FPTP you only get one choice. It's a system with limited inputs and therefore there is a limit to how the system can process that input.

There are plenty of examples of three way marginals in the current general election but let's take a live example. South Thanet.

This is the seat that Nigel Farage hopes to win for UKIP. Indeed if he doesn't win it he has already said he will resign as leader so the stakes are pretty high for him. But an average of recent polls in the constituency put UKIP on 31.6%, the Tories on 30% and Labour on 29.8%.

Let's put aside the fact that on these numbers, UKIP would win the seat on less than a third of the vote with nearly 70% of voters voting against the somewhat extreme Mr Farage (which is a definite defect of FPTP as well).

What I want to focus on here is what a voter in South Thanet who wants to keep Nigel Farage out should do. So if you wanted do this you could vote Tory. After all they were slightly ahead of Labour in the polls. Well, 0.2% ahead, but given that there is a margin of error of 3% in the polls it's actually equally likely that the Tories are behind Labour and you'd be better off voting Labour to keep Farage out. This is an invidious position to be in for a voter. You are almost being forced to vote for someone you might not actually want to vote for. Let's say you're a natural Labour voter but you become convinced that the Tories actually have the better change of keeping UKIP out. In order to keep Farage out you'd have to vote blue. But that might be the wrong choice. Doing that might let Farage in! There's no way of knowing until the count.

This is where AV would be a much better system. If our Labour inclined voter wanted to keep Farage out he could simply vote Labour 1, Conservative 2 (and either not rank UKIP at all or rank them at the bottom below all other candidates). Then when lower preferences are distributed at the count, if Labour are eliminated our voter's vote would go to the Conservatives who would then be in the final round with UKIP. But if it turned out Labour were in the final round, he/she had already voted for the other party in the final round to keep the purples out.

This is a scenario where AV is actually a much simpler system than AV. The voter would not need to second guess how everyone else if going to vote in order to try and make sure their vote made the difference. They would simply rank their votes in such a way as they would definitely know it would count in the final round.

Sadly we are not voting under AV or any sort of preferential system. The electorate rejected the change to the system so we are stuck with the current system for probably a long time to come.

But when, eventually electoral reform creeps back onto the political agenda (as it may if we keep seeing hung parliament after hung parliament) just remember South Thanet in 2015 when someone tries to argue that FPTP is the simplest system.

There are plenty of occasions when this is manifestly not the case.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Labour hypocrisy on government advertising

The opposition has complained that the government has upped its advertising budget in the run up to the general election.

This is of course an egregious use of taxpayers money with the suspicion that it is being done to promote the agenda of the government for electoral advantage and it should definitely not be happening.

Oh, did I mention this story is from January 2010 when Labour were in government and the Tories were in opposition? Back then Labour claimed doing this was vital to "promote important campaigns".

There is a similar story in the news today in the run up to the 2015 general election but now Labour are in opposition the fact that the government has increased its advertising spending is apparently "an abuse of official resources and ministers must urgently clarify how this was agreed". This is according to Angela Eagle, now shadow leader of the Commons who back in January 2010 was a Labour government minister and strangely silent on this issue at that time....

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

House of Comments - Episode 123 - Menage a Sept

The latest House of Comments podcast is now out.

This week I am joined by Guardian journalist James Ball to discuss the seven way debate, the alleged Nicola Sturgeon memo and the Labour attack on the Lib Dems for being "soft on drugs"

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

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

Thursday, 2 April 2015

House of Comments - Episode 122 - The Long Short Campaign

The latest House of Comments podcast is now out.

This week I am joined by Lib Dem Voice editor Caron Lindsay as the "Short Campaign" begins to discuss the Cameron/Miliband interview with Paxman, the impact of Scotland on the upcoming election and how mental health problems are being portrayed in the media following the Germanwings tragedy. And they find time to speculate about Lib Dem prospects.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

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

38 Degrees are hypocrites

A full week ago the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees published a post on their Facebook feed that included a graphic that claimed the NHS needs £8 billion per year by 2020 and listed the amounts pledged so far by each of the parties claiming Labour are the highest at £2.5 billion with the Tories and the Lib Dems on £2 billion each.

The problem is that figure for the Lib Dems was wrong. The party had already pledged to spend the extra required £8 billion as this Guardian piece from January makes clear.

Many, many, many people pointed out this error in the comments below the piece. And each time, painstakingly 38 Degrees responded individually to these comments conceding that they had made an error and acknowledging the Lib Dems had made the commitment they were asking for.

At no point did 38 Degrees update the graphic in the original post. So the thousands of people who saw the post but didn't scroll down and read the comments, after 38 Degrees realised their mistake would still have been misled.

Of course the best thing to do would have been to create a new Facebook post with a new graphic and to highlight the error they had made to make it clear what the real Lib Dem figure is.

I tweeted 38 Degrees two days ago when I became aware of this error:

To be fair to them they did tweet this in response to me:

But as I then pointed out to them:


to which they responded:

At the time of writing, a week on from the original mistake and two days after they promised me they would to do a new, correcting post, 38 Degrees have still not done this.

They have clearly been active on the feed though doing posts about zero hours contracts and the NHS.

They now appear to have deleted the original post (although the cynical amongst you might feel this is less to correct the error and more to clean the feed so such a blatant error is no longer visible) which is why I cannot link to it.

The hypocrisy in this situation is quite evident. 38 Degrees was one of the organisations who most vociferously supported the Leveson Report and even launched a petition which currently has almost 30,000 signatures calling upon the government to implement Leveson in full.

Of course one of the key recommendations of Leveson was for the new body to have powers to enforce the prominence of timely corrections when newspapers make errors to have an equivalent prominence to the original story.

38 Degrees have singularly failed to do that in this case where they have made a mistake. Of course a lie is half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. In this case many of the thousands of people who saw the original Facebook post and chart (before it became an unpost) will still likely believe it.

It appears that 38 Degrees think that equal prominence should only be given to corrections by other people.

At least that is now clear.

This is a strange way for Labour to try and woo Lib Dem voters

Ever since the formation of the coalition, Lib Dem voters have been abandoning the party and in a lot of cases going to Labour.

I have always found this a little surprising given all the things that Labour did while in power but if a week is a long time in politics then 5 years is a lifetime and memories of course fade.

But if you are trying to woo voters who at the most recent general election voted for a liberal party, why on earth, 5 weeks out from polling day would you release this leaflet?
The Labour leaflet attacking the Lib Dems on crime.

I am particularly referring to the final bullet point on the "Lib Dems Have" side:

"And they would end prison sentences for drug posession - even for the hardest drugs like heroin and crack".

Now to me this just seems like a cynical attempt at vote grabbing. I suspect even those who drafted this leaflet know the current legal regime around drugs is self-defeating and damages the most vulnerable in society. But I think campaigning in this way is actually very misguided if you think about it.

Labour's best shot at being the largest party in parliament is by holding onto (and getting more of) those people who voted Lib Dem last time. Whatever else the Lib Dems have done, as a party their drugs policy is very clear. Indeed it is one of the most distinct "clear yellow water" issues between the Lib Dems and the two main parties. And many Lib Dems really, really like that policy. I know from personal experience having been one for several years. In all my discussions when I was a member on this subject (and that is a lot) I can count on one hand the number of Lib Dems I met who thought the current laws on drugs are right to stick with. This even applied to the older generations of Lib Dems in my experience.

So if anything, campaigning like this is likely to push wavering former Lib Dem voters back towards the yellows. Or at the very least make them hesitate when deciding whether to put their cross next to Labour. And let's not forget there are other options out there for voters too. The Greens also have a very progressive drugs policy and I am sure this will have pushed some who were going to vote Labour towards them too.

Labour should probably be grateful that this leaflet and the reaction to it in the media has largely been confined to online comment and articles in The Independent and The Guardian. Because the wider coverage this gets, the more likely I think it is to actually cost Labour votes.

They have fallen back on what they think is a "safe" issue to campaign on when in actual fact it is anything but for them given the current political situation.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Cameron answered a simple question - we all need to grow up

Q: What have Bill Gates and David Cameron got in common?

A: They both pre-announced their departure from a key role years before they intended to actually stand down.

And yet the reaction to these two announcements could not really have been more different. The response to Gates' statement in June 2006 that he was winding down his responsibilities and would eventually stand down two years later was measured and sensible. It was generally perceived as a good thing that the then CEO of Microsoft was giving a fair amount of notice to allow for succession planning to take place and ensure the eventual transition was smooth.

Contrast that with the reaction to David Cameron's recent comments that he would like a second term of office as Prime Minister but would not stand for a third term in 2020.




are just some of the more printable responses from other politicians and some commentators.

It seems the Westminster Bubble consensus is that this was a very bad move from Cameron. He has "undermined his authority". He has "fired the starting gun on his succession". He has "given up any chance of shaping the future of his party".

But why? Why is it so terrible to declare that as a Prime Minister fighting his first attempt at re-election he would not want to go on beyond 2020?

The truth is it isn't so terrible. Having watched the reaction to this, and listened on the radio earlier it seems there are plenty of members of the public who can see this for what it is. A politician answering a question with a straightforward answer.

How many times have we asked for just this? When a politician is asked a straight question we want a straight answer. But when they unexpectedly give one like this the entire political world goes into meltdown and it is portrayed as his biggest gaffe in years.

This reaction is utterly pathetic. These sort of pre-announcements happen all the time in industry. There is no reason why our politics and the Tory party cannot handle a Prime Minister announcing that he only wants to serve at most another 5 years. A similar announcement by Tony Blair in 2004 did undermine his premiership. But the main reason for that was because he had a Chancellor who felt like he had a God given right to succeed him and had spent over a decade plotting for just this sort of moment. It is a sign of the general stability of the current Conservative Party leadership that Cameron feels that he can make such an announcement and will not find himself undermined at every possible opportunity.

Cameron is still a relatively young man and has a young family. It is hardly surprising he wouldn't want to continue on beyond 10 years in office.

It would be a sign of political maturity in our culture for us to accept that leaders will not go on and on without the sort of spasmodic reaction we have seen in the last 24 hours.

Politics and the media need to grow up.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Six reasons why Cameron has hugely miscalculated on the TV debates

I sometimes wonder how politicians can manage to make terrible errors whilst thinking they are being oh so clever.

Gordon Brown's high wire manouvering in the Autumn of 2007 springs to mind as a classic example. He thought he had the opposition on the run and was privately and publicly toying (and allowing his acolytes to toy) with the idea of going to the country early. In the end he bottled it and it defined his premiership.

Cameron's short term tactics on the TV debates this time round are another example of this effect. He obviously thinks he's been extremely clever on this. It's pretty obvious that all the other parties who have been invited have played a relatively straight bat. They wanted debates and the broadcasters have tried to accommodate them all. They were invited to meetings to try and sort out the niggles and they attended them. The only party that has played games with the process are the Tories. But they thought that the "he said, she said" would blur things to the point where nobody would understand who had really scuppered this.

I believe Cameron and his team are profoundly wrong for six reasons:

1) He allowed his back-room spinners to brief journalists about what he was really up to, i.e. he never really wanted the debates in the first place. There are just too many people who have been spun this line and have reported it for it to be ignored.

2) Because he is the only one refusing to turn up it almost doesn't matter whose fault it is (although it is quite clearly his fault). Even if he was blameless and had somehow been stitched up it would still be a fatal mistake to appear to be the one trying to stymie democracy in this way.

3) He has underestimated the broadcasters. He never thought they would empty chair him but rightly sick of all the games and spin they have thrown down and decided to go for it. Good for them but it leaves him in a terribly isolated and dangerous position.

4) The previous debates were watched by 22 million people. However disengaged people feel with the political process that is a huge audience so it is obvious that in that respect it improved that engagement. And with such a legacy from the most recent campaign, anyone seen to be wrecking the chances of a similar set of debates this time around will have those 22 million people to answer to.

5) There are simply too many on the record examples of Cameron going on and on about how good a thing TV debates would be prior to the 2010 election. It's abundantly clear that he wanted them then when he was Leader of the Opposition and contrasted with the shenanigans now make it equally clear that he is trying to wriggle out of them for no other reason than partisan advantage.

6) One of Cameron's (and the Conservative Party in general) main weakness is arrogance. They have spent a lot of time and effort trying to clean house in this respect and appear more responsive. But spurning these debates plays right into their opponents' hands allowed them to define Cameron and his party as high handed and not willing to be held to account.

I'm not yet sure if this move could cost Cameron the election but with things so finely balanced I would not be at all surprised.

And frankly if that does happen it will be deservedly so. Maybe future Prime Ministers will think long and hard before playing such transparently obvious and cack-handed games with a process seen as important to our democracy by so many voters.