Monthly Archives: November 2005 links

I wonder if there is anyone out there of a techy bent that would like to check something out for me.

I am a bear of very little brain, and have been struggling to figure out how to put newsfeeds up on this blog. I kind of supposed it would be a simple few lines of code and everything would appear as if by magic. Clearly not so.

In particular, I’ve been wanting to put a feed from my account here for some while, but haven’t been able to find a plugin that would do the trick. Frustrated, I’ve attempted to come up with something myself, which you should now see at the top of my sidebar.

The code for the plugin can be found here (delicious.txt) – it is based partly on a more complex system by Alexander Malov which I couldn’t get to work. I’ve gone for simplicity here, but now I’m worried it’s going to make my website explode or something. Can anyone help?


UPDATE: I’ve just updated my plugin to 1.1 – this version caches the file every half an hour with a view to reducing strain on the site itself. Can think of a couple of tweaks – eg. subroutine for not creating a new cache if the site is down – but still can’t quite believe it could be so simple (or everyone would be doing it). What have I missed?

Meeting the Challenge 3: Political Challenges

The handout says:

In addition there are specific political challenges that must be faced up to:

  • Trust: public participation in party politics is at an all-time low, even if interest in political issues remains high. The public largely feels that it is not listened to and that ‘politicians are all the same.’
  • New Political Climate: both the Tories and Labour are likely to have new leaders in time for the next General Election.
  • Greater scrutiny: the Liberal Democrats were scrutinised more than ever before in 2005 and this is set to increase for the following General Election.
  • Political narrative: the Liberal Democrats need to develop a better account of our analysis of the UK and its challenge as well as coherently explain how our policies relate to each other and add up overall.

What opportunities and threats will the Liberal Democrats face over the next 5-10 years?

The full paper can be found at the website here.

On trust…

Trust has been a buzzword in politics over the past couple of years but I think it is slightly misleading. Firstly, people have never trusted politicians, nor should they. I could wax here at length about how most politicians are trustworthy, honest sorts (I’d rather trust my wallet with the most lunatic Tory MP than a randomly selected person in the street), but the fact is they have control over people’s lives and that will by definition create suspicion and cynicism.

What is important isn’t trust, but accountability and representation. Accountability was a word that the David Cameron-penned Tory manifesto this year made a bit deal about, yet it was remarkably thin, both in general and in particular on this specific point. Bizarrely, the Lib Dem manifesto was absolutely chock full of accountability measures, and yet it was deemed that we should keep absolutely mum about the issue, except in the case of Iraq (when we didn’t go any further than question Blair’s judgement rather than suggest, as we should have done, that the system was at least partially to blame), during the campaign itself.

The Lib Dems have deliberately downplayed constitutional reform in recent years. In 2001 this was understandable as there had been a lot of it in the previous parliamentary term. But in 2005 it gave us the foundation for a real political narrative, in which we could have explained how politics has swung too far into the hands of professional politicos and away from the general public, and that we thought it was time to reverse this trend.

Whatever else changes over the next few years, I can’t see that disillusion with our political system will have gone way. We do however need to get away from the perception of self-interest and an obsession with specific systems. Rather, what we need is a package of measures that embrace direct democracy even to the point of allowing people the freedom to decide on measures that a Lib Dem government would not approve of. Citizens’ initiatives, citizens’ assemblies and juries, etc.

On the political climate…

I’m inclined to be optimistic about this to an extent. Gordon Brown has been elevated to impossible heights by a Labour party and commentariat that is simply sick of Blair – when he is PM reality will rapidly sink in. Cameron, too, is being hyped to the point of absurdity.

There are two real challenges we must face however. Firstly, we are closer to a no overall control situation in the Commons than we have been since the mid-90s, and the Terrorism Bill vote last week was just a taste of things to come. Unlike the mid-90s however, this isn’t a result of the pendulum being in the middle, poised to swing away from the government in power. Rather, we are in a real three-party situation. That means that no overall control is a real possibility in 2009, which it would only have been in 1997 if Labour’s swing had been minimal.

That means that the Lib Dems will have to spend the next four years weathering speculation about who they should do deals with, swings to the left/right, etc. In fact, this has already started, with people like Jackie Ashley and Andrew Grice in theguardian and Indy respectively confidently predicting that a secret deal is being hatched by the Lib Dem and Tory front benches. I don’t believe such speculation has any basis of truth, but I am aware that four years of it will be problematic.

Kennedy has actually taken the right line, that being that we wouldn’t prop up a government of either party. But that leaves us with another uncomfortable problem, that being the possibility that a weak minority government might go to the polls early. Whenever we have been in this situation in the past we have been wiped out, so any Lib Dem strategy being cooked up now needs to address the possibility of surviving a general election in both 2009 and 2011. It won’t be easy.

The other problem is the Lib Dem’s stated objective to replace the Tories as the official opposition, and then to go on to replace Labour as the government at some later date. Sorry folks. I don’t want to rain on our parade, but it ain’t gonna happen. If, this year, our decapitation strategy had worked, we had 10 more MPs in place now and at least 5 front bench scalps, we’d be in prime position now. But we aren’t, and even if we took every single seat we are in second place to Labour in the next General Election, we would still be behind the Tories.

What is a realistic position would be to be the second party in terms of popular vote. It sounds like a big ask, but we could overtake Labour in percentage terms with just a 7% swing. All it takes is the political momentum. But let’s be clear; it still won’t put us in second place in the Commons – indeed, achieving this goal would be a pretty fatal blow to our electoral system.

On scrutiny and narratives…

There isn’t much you can say about scrutiny in a response to a policy paper, other than: don’t fuck up. But I do think that greater scrutiny has been useful over recent years.

It has been our opponents, not the party within, that has highlighted how the party can at times be horribly inconsistent and that the desire to be all things to all people is ultimately fruitless. The question is however, will the party learn from this or will it simply assume that the solution is slicker media relations and an even greater adherence to policy-by-opinion-poll?

The solution is to have a ‘narrative’ but that means being prepared to junk anything that doesn’t fit into that irreducible core. Do we, for example, spend the next four years being shouty about smoking in pubs and complaining about irresponsibility whenever the government does somthing vaguely liberal, or do we respond to that in a constructive light? The key here is principle: if we support the principle behind a piece of legislation we should be far less vociferous in our opposition. Yet compare our opposition to the Terrorism Bill with our opposition to the Licensing Act: would the proverbial man from Mars really think that the former was a point of principle while the latter was a concern about practicalities? It’s easy to talk about having a narrative, but it will inevitably be coloured by our actions.

My head hurts!

Okay, so, we’ve clearly established that Lib Dem MPs are being a bit daft opposing new laws to devolve pub licensing to local authorities, right? Well, it turns out (well, it’s news to a lily livered southerner like me), that in Scotland – where they already have liberalised licensing hours – Labour have just reneged on a coalition agreement to introduce legislation to devolve off-license licensing to local authorities. And the Lib Dem MSPs are up in arms:

A Lib Dem minister said: “In the past, we fought very hard to prevent rebellions and there was usually only one [Mike Rumbles], but now you could see the whole party in revolt.”

The cause of Lib Dem anger was the vacillation and confusion among Labour ministers over changes to off-licence opening hours. The agreed coalition position was to hand over control of opening hours to local licensing boards but, at the last minute, Labour ministers were persuaded to drop this policy by mutinous back-benchers.

One Lib Dem MSP said: “Labour ministers actually voted against one of the guiding principles of their own bill. We cannot live with that.”

Another said members of the Lib Dem parliamentary group were “spitting blood” over Labour’s capitulation and that MSPs had decided they were now in a “looser coalition” with Labour than before and would approach legislation on an “issue by issue” basis.

Well, yay to Lib Dem MSPs then, but you’ll forgive me if I’m a little confused. In both the cases of the Lib Dems and Labour, it would seem that both parties are totally all over place on this issue.

Wacky euro-fun

I like to dip into Margot Wallstrom’s blog occasionally, especially as she seems to inspire a certain breed of loon who can’t stand the fact that a dark and shadowy Brussels bureaucrat might actually be quite open and accessible.

Today though, she writes:

Scotland seems to be fertile breeding ground for UK ministers…

Not sure David Blunkett ever made it that far north. A-hem-hem.

Oh, and it’s Dougie Alexander, not Ali Douglas.

24 November 2005: the day the world officially ends

If you can’t guarantee at least denting the government’s majority a bit, why waste your time trying to annul legislation that is about to be enacted?

Mark Oaten has made the solemn prediction that the Licensing Act will lead to a “Christmas crisis” (it must be so, ‘cos it alliterates), with Theresa May saying much the same thing. No one is denying it will lead to an increase in consumption in the short term, but a full scale crisis? This sort of alarmist nonsense devalues politics.

Meeting the Challenge 2: UK Challenges

The mini-handout we did for the local parties reads as follows:

Although no-one can predict the future, whoever is in government after the next election will need to face a number of challenges:

  • The struggle to extend freedom: to what extent is it justified to limit civil liberties in order to fight threats to those liberties such as terrorism and crime?
  • The pursuit of happiness: to what extent should government be involved in attempting to improve people’s quality of life and well-being?
  • Building a fairer society: what should we do to reduce inequalities in health, education and prosperity?
  • Developing an economy for the long term: how can the UK compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace?
  • Achieving environmentally sustainable development: what should government do to tackle the effects of climate change and look after the interests of future generations?
  • Living in a changing world: how do we ensure global security and respect for international law?

What specific challenges do you think the UK will face over the next 5-10 years?

In addition, the paper itself can be found on the website.

First, a few random comments in response to the paper.


On crime…

Yes, tackling rational fear of crime is a real challenge, but indulging irrational fear of crime most certainly is not. That leads to one of the major challenges that need to be tackling which is having a clear idea about the threat we face, in terms of global terror, organised crime, low level crime and anti-social behaviour. I’ll develop this point further later, but in short it is not only bad for the individual to have pensioners afraid to leave their houses at night for fear of being attacked (despite its unlikeliness), but it arguably causes crime by depopulating our streets and making opportunity crime that much greater. The politics of fear, which the Lib Dems indulge in almost as much as the other main parties, creates a vicious circle that we struggle to escape from.

On political freedom…

Much of the problem with the stagnation that has hit the movement for constitutional reform and devolution is that it is structure-centric and not people-centric. The problem with the North East referendum for example was that it was very much a case of the government recommending a model for regional government which people who wanted something more were told to lump. Not surprisingly, the air escaped from the campaign like a burst balloon.

Compare this to the Scottish Constitutional Convention, where civil society had far more control over the whole process. This leads me to conclude that while political parties should introduce reforms to enable change to happen, constitutional change must be lead by civil society not by political parties themselves. Self interest, and perceived self interest, derail things all too often.


On quality of life…

A lot of people seem to have trouble talking about quality of life and wellbeing as they can’t see it as being any more meaningful than “happiness”. It would clearly be a bad idea to have the state pursuing “happiness” in the narrowest sense as doggedly as it current chases economic growth as the easiest way to do it would simply be to put something in the water supply. But it is equally unsatisfactory to argue that a strong economy is all that is needed to maximise “pursuit of happiness”.

I would argue that quality of life can be expressed in another way: the freedom to have real control over how one lives one’s life. That is wider than simply choice in the consumerist sense – allowing me to decide which brand of washing powder I want to use doesn’t give me control over my life. Neither is it libertarianism – allowing me to get addicted to heroin if I choose doesn’t give me control over my life, quite the opposite. Real control means being aware of the consequences of my actions and being able to do something about it. Two immediate things spring to mind from this: improved education on, for want of a better term, ethics and the cost of externalities being better reflected in market cost.


On fairness…

I’ve already written about fairness a great deal in my Tax Commission response.

I need to look at this in more detail, but I have a theory about social mobility. Social mobility shot up when the Tories introduced right to buy in the early eighties, but that improvement was not only unsustainable but in the long term is now holding down social mobility. My generation, broadly speaking, has never been entitled to right to buy as council housing is now for the most needy meaning that the people who could afford to take advantage of it never move into council housing. It was a lottery that benefited a few families who happened to be in the right place at the right time, while the rest of us have paid for it through the subsequent reduction in social housing. It’s not that I object to a right to buy, just that people are entitled to discounts (which no-one who rents privately is entirled to) they can instantly cash in on through property speculation, and that local authorities were specifically prevented from building more houses.

I mention this here because I feel it is fair access to assets that the paper glosses over. My generation will never be given what Auntie Maggie handed the previous generation on a plate, yet now we are being expected to pay for our own pensions, our parent’s pensions, property at inflated property prices and, under Lib Dem plans, the right for older people who own enormous assets to keep them and pass them onto their next of kin. People a few years younger than me have tertiary education to pay for as well. Is it any real wonder that social mobility is going in reverse? Will the Lib Dems finally have the nerve to advocate doing something about it, or will we keep our policies that would make the situation worse? Time will tell…

For me then, the key challenges are:

  • How do we give people real control over their lives, as opposed to narrow consumer choice and a free-for-all that disregards externalities?
  • Linked to that, how can we give the population real ownership – and a real sense of ownership – of their local community, nation and state?
  • How do we manage natural resources globally on an equitable basis?
  • How do we champion the ideals of liberalism – democracy, rationality and secularism – both at home and globally, in the face of fundamentalism and irrationality?

Action not email!


Live8 organiser Sir Bob Geldof has revealed his contempt for emails, blaming them for tying up people’s time and stopping genuine action.

Sir Bob told a conference in London that emails “give a feeling of action, which is a mistake”.

…whereas wearing white wristbands and watching music concerts is far more decisive, I suppose?