Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Quote of the day

Taken from Iain Brassington's excellent post about Professor David Nutt's sacking by Alan Johnson on the BMJ Group Blogs. His friend Kate's response to Mr Johnson is:

I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to make decisions as Home Secretary. I would therefore ask you to step down from the Government with immediate effect.

Is Chris Grayling Alan Johnson's mini-me?

I think the most depressing thing about this whole latest drugs policy farago is that it is looking like things will not be any better if the Conservatives get in after the next election.

Every time there is a story about drugs, the government will pop up with what it perceives as tough rhetoric about needing to "crack down" and "tighten up" etc. But what also happens is that the Tories also pop up in a sort of "mini-me" role echoing whatever the latest government minister has said.

This was an inevitable decision after his (Professor Nutt's) latest ill-judged contribution to the debate but it is a sign of lack of focus at the Home Office that it didn’t act sooner given that he has done this before.

Thus setting down a clear marker for more of the same from a future Tory administration. If anything they would be worse given that his one criticism seems to be that Professor Nutt was not sacked even sooner.

David Cameron once understood that current drugs policy is not working. When he was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, upon publication of a report on the issue he said:

Drugs policy in this country has been failing for decades. Drug abuse has increased massively, the number of drug-related deaths has risen substantially and drug-related crime accounts for up to half of all acquisitive crime. I hope that our report will encourage fresh thinking and a new approach. We need to get away from entrenched positions and try to reduce the harm that drugs do both to users and society at large.

I don't understand what's changed. He is now leader of his party and may well be Prime Minister in a few months time. If drugs policy has been failing for decades, why do we seem to be drifting towards more of the same?

We need sensible evidence based policy in this area. We cannot allow such an important area of policy to continue to be dictated by tabloid headlines.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Why has Alan Johnson sacked Professor David Nutt?

The news has broken this afternoon that the Home Secretary Alan Johnson has sacked Professor David Nutt, the head of its own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Johnson's statement on this says:

I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as Chair of the ACMD.
I would therefore ask you to step down from the Council with immediate effect.

Mark Easton, the BBC's home editor has the exchange of letters between Johnson and Professor Nutt detailed on his blog here.

As I blogged yesterday on the Left Foot Forward blog, Professor Nutt had questioned the government's decision to reclassify cannabis from class C to class B and had made comments that the government was not listening to evidence.

Back in February, Professor Nutt was criticised by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith when he stated that taking ecstacy is no more dangerous than riding a horse as I blogged about at the time. She had demanded that he apologise. The thing is that everything that Professor Nutt has said on this subject throughout his entire tenure has been backed up by evidence. The government's decisions seem to be largely based on what they think the tabloid newspapers will like.

Yesterday I asked if Alan Johnson would listen to Professor Nutt's advice. Far from listening to him, he has sacked him. David Nutt is an expert on drugs and their effects. Rather than listen to what he has to say based on painstaking research and evidence, the government would rather try and shut him up.

I very much hope he does not shut up. I hope he uses the freedom to speak he now has to denounce the government's approach in the strongest possible terms.

It is telling that the government seems unwilling to put anyone forward to defend this decision. Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News has just tweeted the following tweets:

Alan Johnson, and rest of Home Office, so far refusing to do interviews tonight to explain their sacking of David Nutt

Johnson's letter accuses Nutt of undermining public understanding of govt messages on drugs

Bizarre - nobody will come on to defend Alan Johnson. They all prefer to issue statements that can't be questioned.....

I think that sums up the government's cowardice.

The blogosphere is already reacting to this story:
  • Duncan Stott has suggested that the ACMD should all resign in protest.
  • Mark Pack, co-editor of Lib Dem Voice is also asking why Professor Nutt was sacked. Mark makes an excellent point that essentially what the Home Secretary is saying is that he wants only people who agree with government's pre-determined position to advise them. This makes a nonsense of any claim to be basing policy on the evidence.
  • Alex Wilcock has done an excellent post entitled "Considering the Evidence Means You Must Consider Your Position".

And these are just the posts I have noticed in the last 10 minutes as I have hurriedly thrown this post together (I have guests downstairs!).

I am sure I will come back to this story again over the weekend as the implications sink in but for now I will just leave this thought. Perhaps something like this has been necessary in order for the public to start to see government drugs policy for what it is. They are not interested in evidence, just political posturing. It's time this was fully exposed and this sacking is an opportunity to do this.

Interesting "Bloggers' Circle" posts - October 2009

I am part of a project called "Bloggers' Circle" which encourages bloggers to link to interesting content from other bloggers.

This month a few have caught my eye:

Joe Nutt with a fascinating piece on "Policy based evidence making"

A subject close to my own heart (given my weekly Live Chats on this blog) but Max Atkinson asks why BBC Question Time is not as entertaining as it used to be and has some suggestions for how to improve it.

Dazmando writing on Bracknell Blog does something that some shy away from and discusses the underlying reasons why people might decide to vote for the BNP.

Currybet tackles the PCC with respect to the Jan Moir article on Stephen Gately.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 29th October 2009 - #bbcqt

It's Thursday which of course means that it's #bbcqt day again and as usual the Live Chat on this blog will start tonight at 10:30pm.

Coming from Llandudno, the panel will include the former home secretary Jacqui Smith MP (wonder what she'll have to say about Professor David Nutt's latest comments about drugs), shadow Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillan MP, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Lembit Opik MP (hurrah, Lembit!), Plaid Cymru's Elfyn Llwyd and the broadcaster John Sergeant (always good value).

Liberal Democrat Voice also always have an open thread for BBC Question Time which is usually posted just before the start of the programme.

I've tried making the height of the chat window a bit bigger tonight. Let me know if this causes problems.

Join us from 10:30pm below.

Will David Nutt be listened to by Alan Johnson?

Professor David Nutt has made some more comments today about the relative harm of drugs including alcohol and tobacco and has accused politicians of distorting and devaluing the debate. It sounds like he agrees wholeheartedly with me! Perhaps I should see if he will do a guest post for this blog....

Anyway, I have written a more detailed article about this including the media coverage and questioned whether Alan Johnson will turn out to be any more sensible on this subject than Jacqui Smith was in one of my regular pieces for Left Foot Forward today.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Is Arnold Schwarzenegger a fan of acrostics? 200 billion to one chance he isn't

Paul on Liberal Burblings has drawn my attention to a letter written by Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the members of the Californian State Assembly refusing to sign an assembly bill. The thing is there is an interesting message if you just read the first letters of the two paragraphs in the letter. They are in order F, u, c, k, Y, o and u. Is Mr Schwarzenegger a fan of acrostics I wonder.

A rather crude calculation by Gary Langer from ABC news puts the odds of this happening by chance at one in 10 billion although he is assuming uniform distribution of letters throughout the language and is simply using (1/26)^7 which of course is a bit simplistic (and is actually around one in 8 billion - he's rounding up by 2 billion).

A slightly more sophisticated way of doing this would be to weight the letters using letter frequency within English. According to this Wikipedia article, the letter frequencies are: f = 2.228%, u = 2.758%, c = 2.782%, k = 0.772%, y = 1.974%, o = 7.507%.

So I calculate the odds as 0.02228 x 0.02758 x 0.02782 x 0.00772 x 0.01974 x 0.07507 x 0.02578 = 0.00000000000504173890853168

Or to put it another way odds of one in 198,344,265,370 (nearly 200 billion).

This, to put it mildly seems vanishingly unlikely...

Here's the original letter:

Ammiano Veto Message

MPs on Twitter blocking followers

Sara Bedford has tweeted today about how she has been blocked from following an MP. She hasn't said which one (although I can take a wild guess). UPDATE: Sara has done a blogpost herself about this now and it is who I thought it would be - Nadine Dorries MP.

After that I tweeted asking if anyone else has been blocked by MPs and had a few responses both publicly and privately. Sara's case is not an isolated incident. So there are multiple examples of MPs deciding to block members of the public on Twitter from following them. Obviously I can't know all the reasons why these "blocks" might have occurred but I strongly suspect in at least some cases the MP is trying to prevent an opponent from having (easy) access to their Twitter stream.

This seems a bit odd to me. The way Twitter works is that your tweets go into the "public timeline". Anyone can see these either via direct links or just by going to your public page on Twitter. If someone follows you on Twitter, you don't have to follow them back. So to block someone is a bit of a drastic step in my view. Thus far, I have never blocked anyone from following me as I am quite happy for the world to see what I am tweeting about.

Of course people have the right to do what they want on Twitter including MPs. I am sure there are cases (e.g. where someone is being very abusive to you) where you might want to take a step like this, however in the case of Sara above I am sure that was not happening and in the other cases revealed to me I am pretty sure too.

The fact that some MPs are doing this makes me question whether they have understood the nature of the medium. It makes it look to me like they have something to hide or are afraid of allowing their opponents access to their public statements, because that's what Twitter is, a public forum.

(Incidentally it is possible to make all your tweets private but none of the MPs I am talking about here have done that to the best of my knowledge).

UPDATE1: Stu has pointed out in the comments that another result of blocking someone is that it stopping you seeing @ replies which I was not really aware of (probably because I have never blocked anyone). I can understand them not wanting to see @ replies from people being abusive but from people who just genuinely disagree and are questioning them (which I think is the case in the ones I have seen)? That's the Twitter equivalent of having someone kicked out of a public meeting because you don't like their comments or questions.

UPDATE2: Parlez_me_n_Tory on Twitter has also drawn my attention to this blogpost he wrote a couple of weeks ago on a similar theme about former Speaker contended and Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda who has blocked a constituent on Twitter.

My idea for POWER2010

Guy Aitchison from OpenDemocracy has tagged me in a meme asking for my big idea for POWER2010 (which I blogged about here previously).

There are obviously lots of things that I would like to see changed about our political system and Westminster. Most importantly for me would be electoral reform of the House of Commons to a roughly proportional system (I favour STV with multi-member constituencies). However I bang on about that all the time on this blog and I am sure there will be plenty of people submitting that idea already so I thought I would try something a bit different. Here goes:

What's the big idea?

I would like to see the chamber of the House of Commons and the way it operates reformed in a number of ways:

1) The chamber is too small to fit all MPs in. On budget day they end up standing at the back and sitting on the stairs. It's ridiculous that a chamber designed for 427 people is still being used for 646. It should be updated to seat all members. If it can be done in situ, fine otherwise it may mean moving the location of the chamber. So be it.

2) MPs should have desks in front of them for papers etc. MSPs have them. Why cannot MPs? It is not very dignified for them to have to stand up holding sheafs of paper.

3) Jeering and heckling should be stopped in the chamber. It belongs in another age. It makes our politicians seem like schoolchildren and is one of the things that turns members of the public off. Any MP heckling or barracking in this way should be suspended from the chamber and persistent offenders should be disbarred. This sort of behaviour would not be tolerated in most other institutions where people make speeches and need to be heard. Why do we tolerate it in our primary legislative chamber?

4) At the very least MPs should be able to vote electronically from their seats in the Commons as MSPs can in the Scottish Parliament. However I also think there is a case for MPs to be able to vote remotely if necessary. I should clarify this though, in that I do not think this should be done as a matter of course. It is better if MPs have been at a debate in order to listen to the arguments but let's not kid ourselves that that is what always happens now anyway. What I want to get away from is the silly situation of forcing members to make long trips back to the chamber in order to vote (sometimes even from abroad). This is unneccessary and again belongs in a different age. I accept this proposal needs to be tightened up a bit but in principle there should be a way to make it happen.

5) MPs should be able to address each other by name.

Why is this change important to you?

The House of Commons is our primary legislature and the way it is currently constituted and run belongs to a different age. My proposals might seem marginal and perhaps even petty to some but the current operation reflects very badly on MPs and our whole political system. Things like those listed above are part of the reason why people feel disconnected from politics and why it seems so alien. I have many friends and family members who are not that interested in politics and they are baffled by these things.

Of course there are lots of other, more important reforms that should be implemented (many of which I have blogged about before) and hopefully they will be submitted in large number to the POWER2010 commission. However I do feel that the measures above will go a long way to bringing the chamber and operation of House of Commons into the 21st century and helping the process of re-engaging the electorate with those who are supposed to represent them.

I now tag the following 5 bloggers to put forward their ideas:

Will Straw, editor of Left Foot Forward

Dazmando from Bracknell Blog

and The Fluffy one, Millennium Dome Elephant

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Elizabeth Truss should not be deselected

Elizabeth Truss, the newly selected Conservative PPC for South West Norfolk is facing potential deselection following the revelations that she had an affair with fellow Conservative (and MP for London & Westminster) Mark Field.

My response to this is W. T. F.

There are several aspects to this that are noteworthy:

  • There is no suggestion that Mark Field is going to be deselected. Why should it be that a woman is held to a higher standard than a man? Didn't it take both of them to have an affair?
  • It seems that the local Tories in Ms Truss' constituency are angry because she didn't bring it up. Why the hell should she? It's her own personal business and it's not like 5 minutes googling couldn't have discovered it anyway.
  • Why should the fact that anyone had an affair mean they should be deselected anyway? If that was the case we would have MPs being deselected all the time!
  • What sort of people do we want in politics? Bland automatons who have never done anything remotely exciting or interesting in their entire lives? I would rather have people who have lived a bit. If that means some people who have had affairs or done other things that might not be 100% perfect then all the better. We are supposed to have people representing us with all our character flaws. Not some unattainable ideal.

I sincerely hope that Elizabeth Truss is not deselected. I also hope the selection process is not opened up again as it would be unneccessary. The candidate has been selected under the existing system, that should be an end to it.

The world has moved on, thank God from the time when women who had affairs were shunned by "right thinking society". The Tories in South West Norfolk need to move on with them.

Tory Bear in hyperbole shocker

Everyone's favourite young Conservative blue coloured fluffy bear has a shock headline this morning: "Lib Dem PPC in Bribery Scandal".

It turns out that the "scandal" is that Lib Dem York Outer parliamentary candidate Madeleine Kirk has put out a statement where she talked about the record number of people they had signed up to the party and the "bribery" portion is that local students were able to join the party for free rather than for £5 (an already heavily subsidised rate of the sort that all parties do).

So it's not really a scandal and it's not really bribery. It's just the sort of thing that political parties do to attract members.

There are other ways of looking at this story. How about: "Lib Dems help increase student involvement in politics". Or: "Young people given civic encouragement by political party". I would have thought that Tory Bear, being a young person involved in politics himself would be pleased to see all the stops being pulled out to try and increase student involvement.

TB himself in the comments to the post (in response to a comment I left) points out that it's the "deception and lies" that he objects to in Kirk's press release. It looks more to me like the sort of thing you get from all parties including the Tories highlighting what is perceived as good news within the party. Is he honestly saying that every single Tory press release highlights everything that pertains to the story? Come off it.

As it happens, if I had been putting out that press release, I would have been singing from the rooftops about how we had offered free membership for students. I don't think it's a bad thing at all, I think it reflects very well on us as a party.

TB also says in his comment to me that there is a big difference between "giving away flashy tat" and actually paying for people's membership. Really? It's all just part of the same continuum as far as I am concerned. In these days of falling party membership the parties have to adapt to try and engage people, especially the young. This is one way of doing that.

Nadine Dorries did not get to parliament on the same basis as everyone else

There is an interesting piece by Unity on Liberal Conspiracy this morning which highlights how Nadine Dorries' comments about having got to parliament without having needed any form of positive discrimination seems to be contradicted somewhat by a contemporaneous account published in The Times.

What I want to focus on though is the following claim from Nadine in her Conservative Home piece:

I have never, other than when looking into the eyes of my new born babies, felt as proud as I did on that night. That pride, that sense of achievement, the knowledge that I was selected on the basis of my performance and merit above all other candidates on that day is what enables me to hold my head up high in this place. It’s what humbles me every morning when I walk into Members’ Lobby. It gives me confidence to take on my male colleagues with not just a little bottle, because I got here by exactly the same process that they did. They are no better than me and I no lesser than they.

The thing is that isn't really true. There are 646 parliamentary seats in this country and not all are equal. Nadine was selected for the seat of Mid-Bedfordshire which is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. This means that Nadine effectively won the seat at the selection contest. The selectorate chose her as the candidate that night and it would have taken a major, major upset for her not to have won the subsequent election which she of course did with a majority of 11,355. (Incidentally there was a 2.6% swing against Nadine in the 2005 election against a modest 0.6% swing towards the Conservatives nationwide).

In other words Nadine could have done virtually nothing during the 2005 election campaign and still have won with a huge majority . I'm not really sure how by her own terms Nadine can look people like Labour MP Laura Moffatt (majority 37), Lib Dem MP Sandra Gidley (majority 125) or her own parliamentary party colleague David Jones (majority 133) in the eye and see equivalence. People like them really, really had to fight to win their seats and they are all at real risk of losing them at the next election. Nadine realistically, as long as she can keep her local association sweet can remain the MP for Mid Bedfordshire as long as she likes.

The certainly did not get into parliament by "exactly the same process" as Nadine.

Monday, 26 October 2009

House of Comments podcast - Episode 2

Myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion political blog are doing a series of political podcasts called "House of Comments". The website for the podcasts is here and the second episode which we recorded yesterday is now live and available to download via this page here (raw mp3 file here if you prefer). You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

The format is to invite one or two other political bloggers each week and discuss a few of the stories that are making waves in the blogosphere.

This week, we were joined by leading Lib Dem blogger Alix Mortimer, and Will Straw, founding editor of the Left Foot Forward blog. We discussed various issues including Nick Griffin's Question Time appearance, government sex trafficking figures and their veracity, the continuing recession and women only shortlists.

I hope you enjoy it.

Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform website launch

The Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform website has been launched today by Ewan Hoyle the founder of the group. As a member of LDDPR, I look forward to seeing how this develops and hope to attend future events.

Ewan organised an excellent inaugural fringe event on drugs policy which inclued Danny Kushlick of Transform Drugs Policy Foundation as one of the speakers.

He has already seeded a few threads in the forum which looks like it could be a good place to get discussion about aspects and consequences of drugs policies going.

You can also follow Ewan on Twitter here.

Will Howells raises an interesting question about Twitter

In the last few days I have been listening to the first few episodes of "The Pod Delusion", a collaborative podcast about "interesting things". There have been some good contributions so far on subjects as diverse as Can you be a Formula 1 fan and still green?, a review of the first UK "Amazing Meeting" and what should young children be taught?

Lib Dem Will Howells is one of the semi-regular contributors and something he said in his review on Gordon Brown's recent conference speech has raised an interesting question for me. He talked about how all the people on Twitter were live-tweeting the speech (of which I was one) and how when he got to his section about young single mothers and the group accommodation they would be provided with, we all decided what we thought of the policy within literally a couple of minutes. I remember this and indeed recall that Brown had barely moved onto his next topic before I started to see tweets denouncing the policy as "Gulags for slags", "Huts for sluts" and various comments about it being a return to a "poorhouse" mentality. I doubt there was anyone following it on Twitter who had not seen a multitude of conclusions about this well before Brown had even sat down.

Will's comment on this mentioned that of course for the journos in the hall there would have been press people ready to brief them directly after the speech to put Brown's words into context. The usual thing of "explaining what he really meant". The thing is though there is no briefing for those on Twitter or blogs. Instead we just make our minds up, based on what we have heard and then post our views online usually very quickly.

What this little vignette has made me wonder about is the longer term viability of the old way of doing things. Speech is drafted. Advance copy is circulated to the press. Speech is given. Speech is "put into context". Hacks go away and write it up with this context made clear. OK, I know it doesn't always work perfectly as journalists have their own agenda but it is the system. The "Gulags for slags" line was very amusing and was around the internet like wildfire within minutes. So much so that the mainstream media (many of whom also tweet and blog) picked it up straight away and it found its way into the newspaper coverage of the speech too.

In 1994, when Blair made his famous "Clause 4" speech to Labour conference, he was not totally clear about what he meant. He spoke in generalities and left it up to his spin doctors to brief the hacks afterwards as to what was really going on. I wonder how all this would have gone down were he doing it today.

Perhaps what will start to happen is that politicians will realise that being vague about something in a speech and then "clarifying" it in a briefing afterwards will not work in the world of Twitter and blogs.

Who knows, they might even have to start saying what they actually mean in a way that cannot easily be misinterpreted....

Sunday, 25 October 2009

James Forsyth highights problem with our electoral system

John Pienaar's guest on his 5 Live political podcast this week was James Forsyth, the new political editor of The Spectator (it is still accessible here for a few days). The discussion was about BBC Question Time, Nick Griffin and the BNP and James made a number of what I thought were good points about the programme and how it played out.

What caught my ear most though was when he highlighted what he perceives as a major reason why the BNP has increased in popularity. It is a short section from about 9 minutes in for about 20 seconds:

A colleague of mine went out canvassing with them (the BNP) recently and he said it is amazing to talk to people on the doorsteps who are voting for the BNP and they are voting because they haven't seen a politician because they live in a seat that is so safe for the Labour Party that no-one's been there for 20 years. That's what we've got to, you know, politicians have to realise that they can't take votes for granted.

I suspect the point that James was trying to make here is of a one with lots of right-wing commentators and bloggers who are constantly trying to make the point that the BNP is growing due to Labour's failures. Of course what he has inadvertently highlighted is one of the huge problems with our current First Past the Post electoral system. In areas that are very safe Labour, or Conservative or any other party, there is no real incentive for politicians of either the incumbent party or realistically main opposition parties to focus their efforts there. This is not being defeatist, it is being realistic. Parties are bound to target their resources where they think they can make the most difference and under our current system that is in the marginal seats and wards. This produces situations where people are effectively disenfranchised.

The political voids that this then creates can be filled by parties like the BNP who can step in and as they are the only voice that is being heard make council gains before the Labour and other parties who have sluggish or non-existent local party infrastructure even know what has hit them.

So James highlights a very real problem but makes no attempt to define how to resolve it, just a plaintive cry that "politicians cannot take these votes for granted". The reality is that the current situation will perpetuate. The weakness is systemic and even if the bigger parties plug the voids in a few areas, the BNP can just move into other areas. The solution is to remove the safe seats and wards by reforming the electoral system to make every vote count.

James didn't say this though and from what I can tell The Spectator's editorial line does not favour electoral reform either. I would therefore be interested to hear what alternative practical steps he thinks can be taken to avoid from what I can tell is an inevitable consequence of our existing system.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

LDV piece on where to get ideas for blogposts

My contribution to the Lib Dem Voice "Introduction to blogging" series has been posted today.

The topic that I was asked to contribute on is "Where to get ideas for blogposts".

The series will eventually be compiled into an e-book which will also comprise comments contributed so if you have any thoughts on this topic please pop along and add them to the LDV thread.

Anton Vowl skewers press hypocrisy on the BNP

I don't often do blog posts that basically just link to a single other post but Anton Vowl's post on "The Enemies of Reason" today entitled "Hmm... remember this?" is absolutely superb and deserves to be linked to widely. He contrasts the "outrage" expressed on the front pages of today's tabloids regarding Nick Griffin (largely directed at the BBC for letting him on) with many previous front pages of each of them showing headlines that could pretty much have been BNP press releases.

His conclusion is:

It's all very well people blaming Labour, or the BBC, or whoever, for the 'rise' of the BNP. But if there has been a significant increase in BNP support - and it hasn't translated into votes yet, despite a severe recession and growing unemployment - perhaps that might have more to do with the legitimisation and absorption of their extreme views by newspapers creating scare story after scare story concerning race and immigration, often baseless stories created simply to scare? It's one thing going to a BNP meeting but it's quite another to hear exactly the same thing over the breakfast table from a publication which purports to report the facts.

It is one of the best blog posts I have ever seen. If you haven't read it yet, go and do so right now!

Interview with Julia Hobsbawm, Chief Executive of Editorial Intelligence

I have attended a few events organised by Editorial Intelligence in the last few months. They are a company that works to aggregate the interesting comment from the mainstream media and blogs amongst many other things.

I recently spoke at a breakfast event organised by them (which I blogged about here and here) and afterwards I took the opportunity to grab a quick interview with Julia Hobsbawm, the founder and Chief Executive of the company to find out a bit more about what they do which I have embedded below:

Friday, 23 October 2009

"Gordon Brown resign" petition closes with 72,000+ signatures

The "Gordon Brown resign" petition which was still in No 1 position for live petitions yesterday has now closed with 72,222 signatures. It is now in the top 10 of all time petitions. As we all know, these petitions generally reflect much wider opinion but I think it is a decent snapshot of those who think for whatever reason that he should no longer be our Prime Minister.

Indeed it is notable that despite all his rhetoric, it had been announced today that the UK is still in recession. The only developed economy still to be in that position. This just underlines for me that even on the one thing Brown is supposed to be experienced on, the economy, he has utterly failed.

I just wanted to say congratulations to Kalvis Jansons, the organiser of the petition. I know he worked tirelessly to promote the it and I think the fact it was top of the live petitions for so long and achieved so many signatures is a sure sign that he tapped into a strong feeling across the country.

The is some MSM coverage of the closing of the petition here and here.

Jan Moir "clarification" on Stephen Gately is full of holes - #janmoir

Jan Moir has published a "clarification" about her hateful article last week on Stephen Gately's death today in the Daily Mail. There is a cached version of it you can read here so that I don't need to link to her article. There is also a cached version of her original one here.

She seems to be trying to justify what she did and apparently it's all our fault for misinterpreting poor old Jan. The thing is, her explanation of what she meant is full of holes. I am not going to do a full fisk, I don't have the time or energy but here are a few of her points with my thoughts:

The point of my article was to suggest that, in my honest opinion, Stephen Gately's death raised many unanswered questions. What had really gone on?

After all, Stephen was a role model for the young and if drugs were somehow involved in his death, as news reports suggested, should that not be a matter of public interest?

Ah, the old "public interest" defence! Why is it in the public interest though Jan? The only thing I have seen (alleged) is that some cannabis was smoked on that night. Even if that was true is it really likely to have contributed to the death? Even if it did, why is that in the "public interest". It may be of interest to the public but that is a very different thing. Stephen was not a politician or public servant. This is thin, thin stuff from Moir clutching at straws.

We were told that Stephen died of 'natural causes' even before toxicology results had been released. This struck me as bizarre, given the circumstances.

Absolutely none of this had anything to do with his sexuality. If he had been a heterosexual member of a boy band, I would have written exactly the same article.

Really Jan. REALLY? In that case why did you say the following in your original article?:

"Another real sadness about Gately's death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.

Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael.

Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened."

These comments are not compatible with your claim that none of your comments had anything to do with Stephen's sexuality. They had everything to do with it. You specifically suggest that this case (and bizarrely a completely unrelated suicide) raise "troubling questions" and that "happy-ever-after civil partnerships" are a myth. It was hateful and homphobic and trying to deny you said or meant it is desperate stuff at this late stage.

Yet despite this, many have interpreted my words as a 'bigoted rant' and suggested that my motive was to insinuate that Stephen died 'because he was gay'.

Anyone who knows me will vouch that I have never held such poisonous views.

Was someone else typing those words last week then?

My assertion that there was 'nothing natural' about Stephen's death has been wildly misinterpreted.

What I meant by 'nothing natural' was that the natural duration of his life had been tragically shortened in a way that was shocking and out of the ordinary. Certainly, his death was unusual enough for a coroner to become involved.

What you actually wrote was:

"Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again.

Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one. Let us be absolutely clear about this. All that has been established so far is that Stephen Gately was not murdered."

which seemed to be setting yourself up as some sort of medical expert. Perhaps you could point us towards the actuarial graphs that show massive dips in mortality rates at the age of 33, after all no-one seemingly healthy and fit of that age just dies apparently.

Regarding the reaction to your column you say:

To say it was a hysterical overreaction would be putting it mildly, though clearly much of it was an orchestrated campaign by pressure groups and those with agendas of their own.

There's a big difference Jan between an orchestrated campaign and something that lots of people feel revulsion about when they become aware of it who then decide to act upon it. You are failing to understand the digital world we live in and how systems like Twitter and blogs can accelerate the reaction of the public to something they feel strongly about. Paul Bradshaw on the Online Journalism Blog does a good job of explaining this here.

No Jan, a good example of an orchestrated campaign would be something like the complaints about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand last year that your newspaper organised. That was a situation where before your paper got involved there had been two complaints and afterwards there were thousands, often from people who hadn't even heard the original broadcast. I sense a bit of Rovian projection going on here (the deliberate projection of one's own behaviour onto one's opponent).

You round off your "clarification" by saying:

Finally, I would just like to say that whatever did or did not happen in Majorca, a talented young man died before his time. This, of course, is a matter of regret and sadness for us all.

So if he was so talented, why in your original piece did you say:

"A founder member of Ireland's first boy band, he was the group's co-lead singer, even though he could barely carry a tune in a Louis Vuitton trunk.

He was the Posh Spice of Boyzone, a popular but largely decorous addition."

This attempt to distance yourself from your words and views will not wash I am afraid Jan. We all saw what you said. It was a nasty, hate filled homophobic piece and no amount of "clarification" will change that.

You should apologise properly. This wriggling you are indulging in now is just pathetic.

Nick Griffin on BBC Question Time - the verdict, #bbcqt

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Well that was quite a mad evening. The BBC Question Time Live Chat on here was the best attended ever for the one that included Nick Griffin.

I do not think Griffin came across well at all. He tied himself up in knots a few times and faced with the quotes of things he had said before ended up all over the place trying to justify and/or distance himself from them. He also seemed to be trying to laugh along when comments were made against him which for me did not work.

However, I am bound to think all of this given how different my politics are from his. I do think though that he will not have come across well generally out there in the country. There was too much evasion and frankly he actually sounded too much like the sort of politician, not answering the questions properly that people are often turned off by.

On the Live Chat there was a feeling that the show was too dominated by him and questions about his policies. I agree with this although it was inevitable I suppose given the build up and hype. Also, I suspect many of the questions submitted by the audience were about this and the purpose of the show is to reflect what the audience want to ask about. I still think the producers should have made sure at least half the programme was dedicated to non-BNP stuff though. As it was only the Jan Moir issue was raised outside of Griffin-centric questions. What about the postal strike? What about Afghanistan?

I still think the BBC were right to have Griffin on and I suspect they will again at some point, after all he is going to be an MEP for 5 years. However next time they should think a little bit more carefully about how they structure it.

Yes, Griffin and his views are widely reviled but to allow the show to become dominated by him in this way makes him and his views seem more important than they really are.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 22nd October 2009 - #bbcqt

It's Thursday which of course means that it's #bbcqt day again and as usual the Live Chat on this blog will start tonight at 10:30pm.

This week's show is from London and has been the subject of controversy as one of the panelists is Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP (British National Party) who was recently elected as an MEP. There have been protests outside BBC TV centre about this and my namesake, the Director General of the BBC has had to step in to back Question Time's decision to allow him on.

The panel will also include the Justice Secretary Jack Straw MP, the Conservative spokeswoman for community cohesion Baroness Warsi, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne MP and the playwright and author Bonnie Greer.

Liberal Democrat Voice also always have an open thread for BBC Question Time which is usually posted just before the start of the programme.

Join us from 10:30pm below.

The BBC are right to have Nick Griffin on Question Time

I think the BBC are right to have invited the British National Party leader Nick Griffin onto Question Time this evening. He is the leader and an elected MEP of a party that got 6% of the vote at the most recent European elections. To deny him a place on one of their shows would be to single out the BNP for special treatment and as my namesake Mark Thompson (the director general of the BBC) points out in a Guardian article today, it would be to expect political censorship of this kind to be outsourced to the BBC. That is not their job.

I have written before about why I think the policy of "No platform" is a mistake. As I said previously, my view is that you win debates and arguments by taking on your opponents, not by banning them from the debating arena. That way allows them to claim political martyrdom. Darrell Goodliffe also has a good blogpost about this here today.

I have read some blog posts and commentary that have expressed the concern that Nick Griffin might not actually come out all that badly. He might even do quite well in the forum of Question Time where populist rhetoric and soundbites sometimes get applause. I am afraid my response to this is that yes, it is possible that he doesn't go down dreadfully as me and I suspect most other people would like. It cannot be guaranteed that it will play out like we hope but again that is no reason to ban him from the show. It is the job of the fellow panelists and the members of the audience who oppose what the BNP stand for to take him on. Beyond that, we cannot control the outcome. That is democracy.

For those who are interested, I will be running my regular BBC Question Time Live Chat on this blog from 10:30 pm this evening.

Taking illegal drugs is normal for millions of people in the UK

There was a fascinating article by Melanie Reid in The Times on Monday. It covered the release of a report by Dr Fiona Measham and Dr Karenza Moore, criminologists from Lancaster University which set out to "explore the hidden world of pharmaceutical intoxication in Britain’s bars and night clubs". Here are a few snippets along with my thoughts:

They discovered evidence that almost all Britain’s thousands of clubbers routinely take drugs, in particular cocaine (tried by 83 per cent of people), cannabis (93 per cent) and ecstasy (85 per cent). Eight in ten had taken a drug within the previous month, and nearly two in three of those questioned had taken, or were going to take, drugs on the night they were surveyed.

So in the world of clubbing in which hundreds of thousands of UK citizens indulge every year, taking illegal drugs is normal.

The extent and complexity of drug use that the academics uncovered surprised them. “Everyone knows that it goes on,” says Measham, a senior lecturer in criminology, whose 2001 study Dancing on Drugs was until now the seminal study of recreational drug use. “How else would the clubbers stay awake until 5am, when the club closes? But it’s unspoken.

Not only is it normal, but everyone knows it is and in fact it is obvious if you think about it. Staying up dancing until 5am to repetitive beats is not something that is easy (or even desirable) to do for many without some sort of chemical assistance.

...Here too is highlighted another contradiction: between the growing commercialisation of the night-time economy and the increasing government policy of what Measham calls “the criminalisation of intoxication” without education, advice or treatment services attached. The people who suffer, under the present situation of tacit tolerance of drugs, are the users. “Even if the club owners wanted harm reduction literature in their club, it would acknowledge that there was drug taking on the premises. And they are concerned about being arrested or shut down.”

Last year the owner of the Dance Academy in Plymouth, Manoucehr Bahmanzadeh, and its manager, Tom Costelloe, were found guilty of allowing the venue to be used for the supply of Ecstasy and jailed for nine years and five years respectively. This despite neither man having actually sold drugs on the premises.

So all the talk by governments of pursuing harm reduction and education of the risks alongside criminalisation is highlighted for what it really is. The two policies are incompatible with each other. If you keep drugs criminalised then by definition you are providing a strong disincentive for people wishing to use drugs to seek help and advice and those in a position to be potentially able to provide help, advice and possibly medical assistance will of course be very wary of doing anything that may result in their prosecution and imprisonment.

Clubbers of all ages queue quietly outside the Manchester venue — many, Measham’s evidence would suggest, already “front-loaded” with drugs. Notably, only people who have taken alcohol are behaving obnoxiously. The security on entry is strict but not too strict: Measham and Moore found that in practice only large quantities of drugs — ie, too much for personal use — will be removed from clubbers.

Surprise, surprise! As I have been saying for years, groups of people taking drugs like cannabis or ecstacy are far less of a nuisance to the rest of society than those who are taking alcohol. This snippet also highlights how much of an ass the law is. The security know full well of the extent of drug taking and mainly turn a blind eye to it. Disobedience of a law on such a scale must surely bring the repute of said law into serious question.

What is important, Measham and Moore say, is to draw the distinction between this kind of recreational drug use, and the problem drug use that dominates the political agenda and absorbs its resources. The two groups do not overlap; the dealers are different; and so are the drugs. Clubbers almost never take heroin or crack cocaine, the academics’ surveys show, and they remain in society. The UK’s problem drug users, with a daily dependency on such drugs, may be hugely outnumbered by the recreational drug takers — 150,000 as opposed to four million — but they remain the focus of government policy.

Highlighting that the main focus of drugs policy is on the very small minority of drug users who develop problems, rather than the millions who can manage just fine, holding down careers, families and being good citizens contributing to society in many other ways. Those millions of people are criminalised by the current system and are exposed to potentially dangerous "cut" variants of their drugs of choice as well as lack of access to help and information, all so that the government can appear "tough on drugs".

I am not convinced how "tough" any regime can be considered when the law is largely ignored and considered ridiculous by such large swathes of the government's own population.

As soon as politicians get near power some sort of blinkers in this area of policy descend and they refuse to countenance the blatantly obvious, that the "war on drugs" has manifestly failed. Perhaps this report will help contribute to the existing wealth of evidence against current policy and will help stiffen the spines of those politicians who privately accept this fact but publicly still pretend that the "war" is winnable.

Millions of the government's own citizens are telling them their position is untenable.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

"Open Up" campaign is a distraction from real reform

There is a new campaign called "Open Up" which was launched a couple of days ago and seeks to get all parties to run open primaries in order to select their parliamentary candidates.

James Graham has already done an excellent job of pointing out how expensive all of this would be on his blog so I won't go through that here except to say that I completely agree with him.

James also makes another point which I want to elaborate on:

I worry because the anti-politics rhetoric that is informing this campaign (and others) is leading people up the garden path. Instead of embracing the opportunity to shout loudly for pluralist politics and for moving beyond politics meaning little more than voting every few years, people are grasping at ideas that don’t even amount to half measures.

This sums up my main concern about this campaign. There are huge problems with our politics in this country. The expenses scandal is but one small facet of a multifarious group of issues that we will ultimately need to tackle. People feel disconnected from politics and politicians. This happens for various reasons one of the most important being that politicians all try and crowd onto the narrow centre-ground in order to attract the very small number of floating voters in marginal constituencies. Anything that could be perceived as jeapordising the votes of these few hundred thousand people is beyond the pale. We see this happen time and again at every election and it constricts the flow of ideas and debate to the point where people struggle to tell the difference between the parties much of the time.

Aside from all the logistical problems with open primaries, they will not solve this basic problem. The candidates for the seats will all still come from the same parties and the safe seats and marginals will all still be there. James is right to describe this as not even a half measure. I'm not even sure it is a quarter-measure.

What is does do however is allow people like David Cameron to look as if they are grasping the reform nettle and doing something about it. The truth is that Cameron wants to do as little as he thinks he can get away with whilst putting maximum spin on the paltry measures he has taken. It is clear that he will never implement any sort of radical political reform. In a way I can't really blame him. If he just sits tight and waits for a few more months, he will likely be Prime Minister with a decent (perhaps very large) majority and the chance to be Prime Minister for 5 years, possibly even a decade or more. He will not want to do anything that might introduce a more pluralist element into our politics and heaven forfend actually have to win the argument on something before being able to legislate on it.

Just because Mr Cameron will not want to put his considerable prize at risk however does not mean that the rest of us should fall into line. Anyone backing the "Open Up" campaign should be aware that if it succeeds it will make arguing for meaningful political and electoral reform that much more difficult. There is a big risk that many will feel that reform has been "done" and we could find our arguments are heard even less.

I feel very strongly that the current political climate is the best opportunity we will have in this political generation for electoral reformers to get our voices heard. We should not allow this to be derailed by measures that are at best tinkering at the margins.

How open was the Conservative Bracknell primary?

I have come across an interesting video on Youtube this morning. It is from local Bracknell constituent Dan Haycocks who is campaigning to try and get current MP Andrew MacKay to pay back the money he seems to have overclaimed or instead step down if he is not willing to do so. He has created a campaigning website called Goodbye MacKay.

The video shows Dan and other members of his campaign trying to gain access to the Bracknell open primary/caucus that was held here on Saturday. Despite currently living in the constituency and having a valid ticket for the event, Dan was physically prevented from entering the event by a bouncer. No real reason was given for this.

Two of Dans fellow campaigners entered the event and tried to distribute "Goodbye MacKay" literature and were ejected.

What Dan wanted to do was to ask each of the primary candidates whether they thought Andrew MacKay should pay back what he owes or instead resign. It seems to me that given the reason for the primary taking place at all in the first place is because of the actions of Mr MacKay that this is a valid question to have been asked. The fact that the Conservative association actively prevented Dan and his fellow campaigners from being present at the meeting and asking this question really makes me wonder just how open the process is and how seriously the Conservatives locally here are taking the expenses issue.

Dan also speaks to a number of Conservatives and local association members on the video outside the event to get their views. I was surprised to hear one of them towards the end of the video who seems to be saying that because Mr MacKay was such a good MP he should not have to pay anything back. I wonder what David Cameron thinks about this attitude!

I have embedded Dan's video below:

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Women only shortlists would be unneccesary under STV

David Cameron's announcement today that he is going to impose all women shortlists in some seats for the next election has met with a mixed reaction, not least from Conservative bloggers, many of whom think that this is a profoundly unconservative move.

I absolutely agree with Mr Cameron that we should have more women in parliament but I do not think women only shortlists are the answer.

At risk of seeming a bit like a broken record, I think the answer is electoral reform. Bear with me here...

If we had Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies (with say 5 members per constituency) then each party would be encouraged to supply a diverse range of candidates in terms of gender, ethnicity, age etc. Any party just supplying white, middle aged male candidates would likely find themselves suffering electorally. It would then be up to the electorate to choose the MPs from the various available candidates from all parties but crucially, no party would feel they had to go with a traditional candidate profile "just to be on the safe side" as I fear all too often has happened in the past.

I firmly believe that if we had such a structure in place then strong candidates of both genders and all sorts of different backgrounds would end up as MPs. There would be no need to restrict shortlists to any particular type.

The answer is staring Mr Cameron in the face.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

If leaders can't agree on TV debates, broadcasters should instead

Mike Smithson on Political Betting today is speculating that the TV debates may now not happen. He quotes reports of arguments going on with both Brown and Cameron stipulating different formats and numbers of debates. Nick Clegg of course also wants to be involved in all the debates which as I have stated before I think has to happen.

Mike thinks that Cameron is using the Blair playbook from 1997 on this which is agree the principle but allow the negotiations to get bogged down in the hope that it will all fall apart and not actually happen, after all as the front runner he probably feels he has most to lose. Mike thinks this ploy may actually work too.

I am not so sure. Back in July I called for a broadcaster to promise a televised debate for the 3 main leaders and threaten to "empty chair" any of them that refuse to attend. In early September, Sky News stepped in and did exactly that. At the time it seemed that Brown would be the one to bottle it, however if it turns out that Cameron is trying it on too then the same should apply to him. We are a bit further down the line now and the main broadcasters have agreed the principle of holding the debates with the minimum number I have seen mooted as 3. Therefore, if agreement from the party leaders cannot be reached soon, I think the broadcasters should again step in and say they will have 3 debates with all 3 main leaders and threaten to empty chair any of them who refuse to attend.

I know some people will think this is allowing the broadcasters too much power but I feel very strongly that political manouvering should not be able to rob the people of this country (yet again) of the chance to see proper televised debate between the party leaders.

Full review of Bracknell Conservative Open Primary

Dazmando has done a sterling job on Bracknell Blog of recording what happened during yesterday's Bracknell Conservative Open Primary/Caucus event that was eventually won by Dr Phillip Lee.

He has detailed how each of the seven candidates performed as well as provided details of their leaflets and his thoughts about how the event went as a whole with the things that worked well and some problems with the process too.

It is well worth a read.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Has Bracknell sent a message about local candidates in primaries?

The result has just been announced of the Conservative Bracknell open primary/caucus and the winner is Dr Phillip Lee. I want to extend my congratulations to Dr Lee for his victory in this hard fought contest.

The contest has been very closely tracked in the blogosphere not least because of the presence in the shortlist of the leading Conservative blogger Iain Dale who came third. My commiserations to him.

What I wanted to focus on in this post though is what message Bracknell may be trying to send to the Conservatives and politicians in general about these primaries and the candidates they were offered. I should state that despite being a constituent I was not at the meeting (I am abroad at the moment) so I do not know how each of the candidates performed. However I was concerned right from the outset that there were no local candidates on the shortlist.

My friend Darren did some interviews with some of the candidates on Bracknell Blog and from Phillip's interview, as well as other information I have seen it struck me that although he did not live in the constituency, he was the "most local" of the candidates having been a GP just 10 miles outside the seat boundary and actually having some on-call patients within the constituency. Given all of this, my hypothesis was that if the "localness" of a candidate was a crucial element in the minds of the voters then Phillip would win. That has now come to pass.

Of course I do not know if this was the crucial element in his election, there may well be other reasons. I would however be surprised if it was not at least a factor and given how close the contest seems to have been (it went to 5 rounds) it could easily have been what made the difference. So, perhaps there is a lesson here for all parties but especially the Conservatives who have been most keen on this form of caucus/primary type election.

I think it will be worth looking at how other contests of this nature go in the future to see if a pattern of local (or "more local") candidates being selected is borne out. If it is then it will be food for thought for the party bosses making the decisions about how to select candidates. After all, if it becomes increasingly difficult to parachute favoured candidates into safe seats in the future I suspect they will not like that. At all...

PS: I should just make clear my view that I think contests of this nature would be unnecessary if our electoral system was changed to Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies. That would give the entire electorate the chance to rank multiple candidates from different parties as part of the election itself.

The Jan Moir case and the PCC

Mark Pack has a great post on Lib Dem Voice today where he dissects the Press Complaints Commission's remit and explains why he thinks their oft-used criteria of "normally" requiring the person or family of the person directly affected to complain should not apply in the Jan Moir, Stephen Gately article case.

He suggests the following reasons:

(a) The widespread public reaction to the publication of the piece, resulting in the crashing of your website, a special page being added and your staff going on the record that they have received a near record number of complaints. That by itself is not a “normal” case.
(b) When someone’s relative has died there are all sorts of reasons as to why they may not wish to take up any regulatory actions. People may wish to grieve in private. They may have bureaucratic complications to deal with. They may wish to think about the media coverage of their personal tragedy as little as possible. Whatever the reason, these are precisely the sort of circumstances in which normal rules about requiring them personally to complain should not automatically apply.
(c) The nature of the complaints about the article, particular on the grounds of discrimination, is one that affects the wider population. For example, if a newspaper piece was to incite racial hatred, that could have an impact on people other than those named in the piece.
(d) Your remit explicitly provides for considering complaints from people other than those directly affected – hence the use of “normally”. If this is not such a case, what is?

I think all his points have merit but for me, point b) is the strongest. Why should his grieving family have to cope with pushing the complaint through? I also think point c) is strong as well as I think it could well have the effect of spreading discriminatory sentiment more widely.

The PCC has seemed largely toothless to me over the last few years. They need to grow some quickly.

If you want to lodge a complaint with the PCC yourself, you can do so here. You should make sure that you address the remit question in your complaint, perhaps using one or more of the above (in your own words!) or other criteria if you see fit.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Jan Moir and The Daily Mail vs Twitter and the Blogosphere

I'm on holiday at the moment and have just dipped briefly into the blogs and Twitter again before heading out for the evening but I have been disgusted by Jan Moir's horrible, hate filled smear against Stephen Gately of Boyzone (I'm not linking to it) full of innuendo about his death which she has tried to relate to the fact he was homosexual.

However at the same time, I have been heartened to see the number of people on Twitter and across the blogosphere, literally from all corners, Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and others all expressing their disgust at Moir's article and at The Mail for publishing it. Apparently the pressure has been so intense that the advertisers have asked for their adverts to be removed from the online page where the article sits.

I am also heartened by the number of comments below the article itself (500+ at last count) expressing their disgust with it. It means that they cannot fail to hear the message.

The Mail has recent form for this sort of thing. They have to understand how reviled they are making themselves by publishing stuff like this. Hopefully the reactions they have had to this and other recent examples will start to have an effect on their editorial policy.

I've been FactChecked!

Channel 4 News' fact-checking department did a piece yesterday which analyses my safe seats and expenses scandal correlation work from back in May.

It has been prompted by an article that Nick Clegg wrote in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday about expenses where in the final paragraph he says:

And of course, if we’re to sort out politics fully, we need to think about the future, not just the past. Britain needs voting reform to abolish the safe seats that make MPs complacent – those in safe seats were three times as likely to be identified as having abused their expenses by The Daily Telegraph. If we want to rebuild faith in politics, there can be no half measures. Only fundamental reform will be enough

Nick Clegg's office confirmed to Channel 4 that these figures were based on my research.

A very nice lady named Alice from Channel 4 called me on Wednesday to discuss all of this and to request the source data. At the time I didn't realise that they were going to do a full article where they analyse the work in detail and essentially try to pull it apart and see how it stands up. You can find the results of their analysis here. It is worth reading the whole thing to see the points they make for and against the research.

Addressing one of the counter-arguments to the usefulness of the source data they say the following:

...How important is the minister-factor in the make-up of the Telegraph's list?

It's not the case that everyone included is a big name. Thompson told us there were a large number of MPs he hadn't heard of - and he's a self-confessed political anorak.

Phantom mortgage claimants Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, both of whom have now been banned from standing again as Labour MPs, weren't exactly big household names. Neither was Margaret Moran, she of the £22,500 dry rot bill, or Fabian Hamilton, or Stephen Crabb - all mentioned in the early Telegraph investigations.

Their verdict is:

Clegg's claim is based on some fairly detailed analysis of a big tranche of MPs which made up the Telegraph's early expenses revelations, and found those in the top quartile of safe seats were three times as likely to feature as those in the bottom quartile.

Re-doing the analysis at a later date, when the paper had covered more MPs, showed those with the biggest majorities were twice, rather than three times, as likely to feature as those with the smallest.

Clegg implies that one factor causes the other, using the finding as a basis to call for reform of the first-past-the-post system which gives MPs such differing majorities.

But doesn't necessarily stack up. A correlation between two factors does not mean that one causes the other, and it's also worth bearing in mind that top frontbenchers are more likely to have safe seats than MPs as a whole.

Still, it's an intriguing piece of research - though perhaps one that we should be careful about stating as political fact without question.

I think their conclusion is fair here although I also think it is fair for Nick Clegg to highlight this situation in articles and bring it to people's wider attention.

I am pleased to see on their scale they give Nick's claim a 2 which on their scale of 0 - 5 seems pretty good (the lower the number better).

PS: As I am currently on holiday, I may struggle to respond to any comments on this quickly.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 15th October 2009 - #bbcqt

It's #bbcqt day again and as usual the Live Chat on this blog will start tonight at 10:30pm. This week I am away so Dazmando from Bracknell Blog has very kindly stepped into the breach and will be your host.

The panel will include Home Secretary Alan Johnson, Conservative shadow immigration minister Damian Green, Lib Dem shadow transport secretary Norman Baker, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and journalist and broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell.

Liberal Democrat Voice also always have an open thread for BBC Question Time which is usually posted just before the start of the programme.

Join the chat from 10:30pm below.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Off to The Big Apple

Blogging may be light for the next week as I am off to New York, New York, New York (so good they named it several times or something) on Thursday. I may get the chance to post intermittently but I will mainly be focusing on having a good holiday. In an unusual move (for me) I'm going with my Mum. I haven't been on holiday with her for about 20 years!

However, rest assured that the BBC Question Time Live Chat will still be on on Thursday evening. There will be a guest host this week, Dazmando from Bracknell Blog is stepping into the breach so play nice with him!

Monday, 12 October 2009

New political podcast - House of Comments

Myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion political blog have started a new series of political podcasts called "House of Comments". The website for the podcasts is here and the first episode which we recorded yesterday is now live and available to download via this page here (raw mp3 file here if you prefer). You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

The format is to invite one or two other political bloggers each week and discuss a few of the stories that are making waves in the blogosphere.

For the first one, Iain Dale of Iain Dale's Diary joined us and we discussed various issues including conference opinion polls and if they mean anything, Gordon Brown's eyesight and whether it is a valid topic for debate, The Taxpayers' Alliance and their director who does not pay UK tax and General Dannatt joining the Conservative party.

I would be interested to hear what people think about this venture and the first one. We hope to do them weekly (although we have to skip next week due to holidays) and intend to ask a variety of political bloggers from across the spectrum to participate in future episodes.

UPDATE: Stuart has blogged about the podcast here now as well. He has pointed out something I forgot to mention which is that originally we were also going to have a Labour blogger on the first one alongside Iain although they had to pull out at the last minute for health reasons.

If MPs reject the expenses report they will regret it, fast

There is a report in this morning's Times which suggests that members of the Estimate Committee are considering throwing out Sir Thomas Legg's independent report on MPs expenses as they think it has exceeded its remit.

My response to this is, are they insane? Part of the reason the furore of a few months subsided in the way it did is because an independent report had been commissioned. Do they honestly think that the public are going to stand for them rejecting the report, whatever the grounds?

My experience is that many non-politically involved people are absolutely disgusted by the expenses scandal and they will not be interested in the arguments or nuance of this, all they will hear is that the MPs have rejected the independent report.

If they go down this road they will regret it and very quickly. They should accept it with good grace and quietly follow the recommendations.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

More reasons to avoid Morrisons

This story in today's Observer is almost too silly to believe but it is true. Jackie Slater, a 50+ year old woman was refused when she attempted to purchase a bottle of wine in a branch of Morrisons because she was accompanied by two young women (her daughter and her niece), one of whom was 17 and neither of whom had any ID. The reasoning was that the older woman may have given the alcohol to the girls after leaving the store.

I barely know where to begin with this ridiculous, illiberal nonsense. The thing is though, it's not just Morrisons. I have heard anecdotally and also read on numerous occasions of this sort of thing happening in different supermarkets across the country. This is the natural progression of the sort of authoritarian diktats that we get from our government. It puts supermarket managers in fear that they will be prosecuted for allowing youngsters to get hold of alcohol and they react by being ultra-cautious. The net result of which is that they appear a laughing stock and get coverage like Morrisons have done today.

The thing is that even if Jackie had been buying the wine for the woman who was 17 years old this is perfectly legal as long as it is drunk at home.

I am very uncomfortable with the idea that we are now in a situation where stores are so terrified that they feel compelled to take massively disproportionate action in this way.

Surely the Lib Dems should be doing better than this?

I don't hold much stock with opinion polls during conference season. The focus on each of the three big parties in turn causes distortions in the responses. I think it will be another week or two before the dust settles and we can see where the three parties stand.

However I am going to stick my neck out here and say that when that dust does settle, the Lib Dems are likely to be roughly where we were before, around the high teens perhaps pushing 20%. Labour will be around the mid - high 20s and the Conservatives will be in the 40s. I will be happy to be proved wrong on this by the way and if we are consistently polling in the early - mid 20s I will be delighted, I just don't get the feeling it's likely.

So if that is the case then it looks like with a bit of a following wind and decent coverage in the run up to an election which always gives us another 2 or 3 points in the run up to polling day we could well find ourselves in terms of percentage of vote share, roughly where we were in 2005 (around 22% or so). The number of seats we get might of course be a bit down depending on regional variations.

If all this does pan out like this then the biggest question I think my party will have to answer is how the hell did we allow the best opportunity for electoral advance in a political generation to slip through our fingers? Let's have a run-down of the situation we are in and some of the major political events that have happened in the last couple of years:

  1. We are in the worst financial crisis in most people's living memory. The government and the Conservatives did not see it coming. Vince Cable did predict a fair bit of what has happened and was ahead of the curve for much of the crisis. Most importantly he is widely trusted and respected on this issue across the country. Non political people I know say how he "always talks sense" on the economy. The Lib Dems should be reaping huge political rewards for this.
  2. The government is desperately unpopular. They are tired, clapped out and bereft of ideas. It is clear that the electorate has had enough of them. At the same time, I do not detect any huge groundswell of enthusiasm for the Conservative party. At best what I sense is people feeling that "this lot" have had their chance and blown it, and it's time to give "the other lot" a shot. It definitely does not feel like 1997 when not only were Major's Tories widely despised but Tony Blair was widely admired and there was great enthusiasm for him and the new dawn he appeared to herald. We barely seem to feature in this. Voters appear to be switching in large numbers straight from Labour to the Tories.
  3. Politics is in crisis. Politicians have never been less trusted. They appear to be a remote political class talking an excluding language that many people cannot really understand. They got themselves into a position through cowardice whereby there was a nudge-nudge culture regarding expenses where many MPs effectively topped up their salaries to what they thought as a "decent level" through administrative sleight of hand and lax rules. There has been an explosion of public anger about this and there is a general feeling that the way MPs are elected is at least partly to blame with 70% of seats being safe and not changing hands leading MPs to be less accountable to their electors. The Lib Dems, although not exactly squeaky clean have been much, much better than Labour or the Tories. There has been no flipping, no London Lib Dem MPs claimed a second home allowance and frankly the infractions committed by our MPs pale almost into insignificance compared to the other big two. On top of this, we are the party who have been arguing for the sort of reform that would have made MPs much, much more accountable for decades. We should be being listened to now as experts in this area and making the political weather regarding the reform agenda. Instead we appear to have ceded the ground to the Conservatives who talk a very good game but are really not offering anything substantial in this area. The existing electoral system favours them too much.

As a member of the party who is well aware of the great talent we have within our parliamentary ranks and more widely it is intensely frustrating to watch as what really should be our moment start to slip through our fingers.

We of course do not deserve all of this to fall into our laps. We have to fight, tooth and nail for it. I have seen plenty of evidence that we have the wherewithal to do this, but all the battles seem short term and tactical rather than adding up to a grand strategy. A good example is Nick Clegg's 100 days idea from the early summer. What happened to that? He announced it, the other parties ignored him and it disappeared. At the very least he could have insisted that Lib Dem MPs stay on over the summer and hammer out a plan or something. Instead Nick slipped off on holiday like the other party leaders.

I intend to write about this more over the next few weeks with some concrete ideas on what we can do, however I am interested to hear what Lib Dems and others think about this.

Do you agree that this is the best chance we have had in decades and what should we be doing?