Monthly Archives: December 2005

Just passing through

Just got back from my parents’ and due to go off to Wales for my annual Youngish Bilderbergs’ retreat tomorrow, assuming I don’t get snowed in.

It’s interesting to see how many Lib Dem bloggers have chosen to write about Doctor Who over the past few days; there’s something about that series that is very Lib Dem. Laughing in the face of near certain disaster, depending on your wits to get you out of trouble, a strong dislike of tyranny and the idea that everything can be sorted by a nice cup of tea… it does tend to tick our boxes.

For Christmas, I got the usual mishmash. Particularly welcome was my digital camera, Wall and Piece by Banksy (about which, I must write more about at some point) and a couple of Jack Yeovil (Kim Newman) novels, both of which I had already – mostly, sorta – but were welcome all the same. I’m particularly intrigued by they way Demon Download appears to have been updated and set around 2020 (rather than 2000 as it was originally), particularly given that one would have thought this would affect a certain major character who is the subject of book three in quite a big way. We shall see.

A final thought before I go; what was all this stuff about Prince Charles changing his name on coronation? I knew about that years ago, so why the big hullaballoo now? I know the Christmas period is a bit of a news blackout at the best of times, but even so.

Consistency? Please?

An interesting story from Yellow Peril:

British Iranians protest outside Lib Dem HQ in protest at a leading party member’s attitude to the repressive, Islamist, regime in power there.

A small point that Harry’s Place and KK could do well to remember: Emma Nicholson is one of the few outspoken supporters of the Iraq War in the Lib Dems. That didn’t make the Lib Dems pro-intervention then and it doesn’t make the Lib Dems pro-Iran now.

If you want the Lib Dem line on Iran, you only need to go to the party’s website.

Bah humbug!

kinnockkid“: I appreciate your blog exists to slag off the Lib Dems, but resorting to slagging off spoof stories about Christmas is a little desperate isn’t it?

What with Yellow Peril, Fib Dems and the possible redux of Lib Dem Watch (it was offline until a few days ago), it looks as if Labour activists are intending to spend 2006 procrastinating about their own internal problems by offering us helpful advice about our own. Good news.

Lynne Featherstone’s crime screed

Lynne Featherstone MP has written an article on crime for the Meeting the Challenge website.

Lots and lots to digest there. Early thoughts are that it is a shame she saw fit not to mention anything about drugs and prohibition, particularly given that she started the article with the maxim that “when it’s a choice between reducing the number of future crimes and punishing people now we should take the tough choice and say – stopping future crimes takes priority.” I’d have been interested to see how that squares with drug laws which appear to make criminals out of desperate people.

She also talks a bit about my personal hobby horse “fear of crime”:

we should be willing to tackle fear of crime head-on. Far too often fear of crime is treated as if it isn’t really a proper problem to acknowledge – “oh the problem isn’t actual crime, it’s just people’s whipped up fears …” etc. But fear is real, it affects people, it hurts lives and it hinders freedom. So we need to tackle it as a serious problem in its own right.

No-one questions that the fear is real. What is questioned is whether a lot of that fear is rational.

The causes are a mix – actual crime levels, media coverage of crime, fear of strangers and so on. More and more people don’t know those around them so more and more people are strangers. Grotty or dark environments, the lack of reassuring safe official faces, and many more causes all add up to a greater fear of crime.

There’s an undertone for some people, especially older ones, of the good old days having gone and the world around them being different. This is more than just about crime, it’s about people feeling unsettled by the changes in the modern world and part of the nostalgia is for the good old-crime free days (that actually never were).

Indeed. We should be tackling this head on.

What all this boils down to is not so much crime but quality of life. Miserable, lonely people have a much greater fear of crime than happy, gregarious people. The point is, it isn’t nasty criminals making people frightened to go out at night but a lack of community spirit. And the more we talk up those nasty criminals, the tougher it is to create that community spirit.

Some examples of other actions – improving lighting, installing CCTV and clearing up areas of graffiti and grime are now common parts of the crime-fighting agenda, making people feel safer in these areas.

Does CCTV make people feel safe at night? It doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me think I’m in danger of being mugged and I’m not at all confident that a bloke in a balaclava is going to be identified from a few pixels on a TV screen. More people in this country are convinced that crime it at an all time high than ever, despite it being the lowest in decades. Is it a coincidence that that irrational fear has coincided with the explosion of CCTV? We’re the most monitored countries in the world.

But why not do more and tackle more of the other causes of fear? Crime statistics will always be prey to the temptation of instant headline seeking, but why not invest them with more independent authority by taking them clearly away from the Home Secretary and the Home Office? But also look at the range of statistics published – where the basis of a statistic changes, we should do more to try to rework older figures on the same basis. Otherwise changing the way crimes are counted far too often leads to a false impression of increase. Yes – such recalculations will involve some estimates, but far better to give a realistic estimate as to what the actual change has been.

Seriously for a second. Do you really believe that making crime statistics independent of government is going to stop the Daily Mail one bit from playing its fun and games?

Sentences too should feature – it’s a common opinion finding that people greatly under-estimate how long jail sentences really are on average (because it’s the short sentences that generate the controversy and get the coverage). So why not have annual statistics published alongside the crime figures for average sentence length and so on?

Nice idea, but again, what is it going to achieve? Who’s going to report this when it doesn’t suit their agenda to do so?

Generally, I am a fan of the British Crime Survey over recorded crime statistics as the latter are far too vulnerable to under-reporting, miss-reporting and changing definitions. Perhaps we need to do more though than just address some of the criticisms of the BCS – such as extending the range of crimes it covers – for if it really is a better basis for making decisions (as I believe it is), do we not needed to massively expand its size so that statistics are available reliably for much smaller geographic areas? At the moment we have the BCS as the best indicator of crime at a national level – but when you get down to police forces and councils looking at their patch, they have to fall back on recorded crime. In addition to expanding the scope of the BCS, local crime-fighting partnerships should be monitoring fear of crime and have targets for it, alongside the more traditional approach of looking at crime figures.

It’s nice to see a Lib Dem spokesperson on Home Affairs support the BCS – I’ll happily quote this the next time I see a “CRIME OUTRAGE?!?!?!?!?” Lib Dem tabloid. And that brings me to my final point. This article is full of ideas about what the government should be doing, but as a political party we have a responsibility to make a change as well.

It is 2 days before Christmas. The solemn Lib Dem prediction of a “Christmas Crisis” fuelled by liberalisation of the licensing laws has proven to be completely wrong. Let’s make 2006 the year we stopped playing games with crime policy.

What might have been

Inoffensive-looking Oxford and Eton toff appeals to Lib Dem supporters to join his fold:

“My Conservative Party believes passionately in whatever you believe in, especially if lots of other people believe in it as well. We support whipping the servants, crumpets by the fire, windfarms in every garden, a glass of brandy before bed, free slippers for the over-75s and pulling silly faces at the French.

“So I believe it’s time for all you Liberal Democrat voters, councillors and MPs (not that there are many of you!) to have a jolly hard think about whether or not you wouldn’t be better off with my new Conservative Party. If enough of you join us we can have our own rugby tournament, and think about how to really kick Blair’s butt over the next few years.

“Issues that once divided Conservatives from Liberal Democrats are now issues where we both agree after Labour nipped in and took the best bits of our policies, and we changed the worst bits of ours.

“I’m determined to tackle the challenges faced by our country today, like not being able to elect a Conservative government. I hope, over the next weeks, months and years, that enough of you defect to make us electable and form a majority against Gordon Brown.”

Cripes! Er, I think he might be onto something. At the very least, Lord Bonkers has got to be tempted.

Dissent in the Liberal Democrats

Who is Neil Craig? Well, he’s certainly not an orthodox Lib Dem, being a climate change sceptic, pro-Nuclear and an apologist for the Serbs’ actions that lead to the NATO intervention in Kosovo. He even tiresomely has opted to describe Paddy Ashdown as a “Nazi” for backing that conflict.

Craig has been thrown out of the Scottish Lib Dems for writing a blog and letters to the press expressing views that are “illiberal & irreconcilable with membership of the Party.” And he was thrown out; Matt Bowles argues to the contrary, but it is clear from the letter that a unanimous vote by the Executive has already been taken to kick him out, and that his membership has been suspended until the 21 January when he has been given a right to appeal.

Tim Worstall believes this is an attack on free speech. Absolute tosh. In principle, any political party should have the right to throw out a member who clearly does not believe in the principles the party is founded on. The question at stake here is if Neil Craig is or is not ia liberal and has been fairly treated. Disagreeing with specific policies is simply not good enough, and a party which defines itself as a champion of non-conformity and freedom of expression should not be kicking people out lightly.

One of the big problems is Derek Barrie’s letter itself, which does not appear to abide by any standard of natural justice I recognise. The letter alludes to the blog and letters in the press, but not what the specific problem is. Writing letters or blogging is not illiberal per se. How is Craig expected to defend himself?

All the letters I’ve seen he has written would appear to be about nuclear power and energy policy, arguing about the practicalities. I can’t believe this is the reason for throwing him out; apart from anything else, Craig points out John Thurso’s equivalence on the issue; has he received a similar letter?

On the matter of condemning the Kosovo intervention, and specifically Ashdown, calling someone a Nazi is pathetically crass, but hardly grounds for removal. As a poster said on Tim Worstall’s blog, Jenny Tonge has made equally crass comments about suicide bombers, and was subsequently rewarded with a peerage. I don’t begrudge Jenny being given a place in the House of Lords as otherwise I’ve found her to be quite sound, but it does highlight the fact that basically good people occasionally say silly things on an issue they care deeply about.

More to the point, I suspect a great many people within the Lib Dems regard Noam Chomsky with esteem. Chomsky was similarly opposed to the Kosovo intervention. Personally, I tend to side with Oliver Kamm when it comes to his appraisal of the “great man”, but that doesn’t mean I want to see a purge.

But all of this is to get ahead of myself. The truth is I have no idea why the Scottish Lib Dems opted to kick Craig out. It may be that there is irrefutable evidence to show that Craig is all sorts of things that I wouldn’t want in the party. The fact that Derek Barrie omitted to point this out in his letter is a pretty serious failing however, hence this post. I’ve written to him to inquire what the reason is and look forward to his reply.

That petition

It looks as if the cat’s well and truly out of the bag with this Liberal magazine petition website calling for Kennedy to resign (you’ll forgive me if I don’t include a link).

I think first of all it cannot be emphasised enough that the Liberal is not the party’s “in house” magazine, let alone the voice of the grassroots. Bizarrely, Tom Watson has hit the nail on the head here.

The Liberal was launched just over a year ago to spectacular indifference within the party. It has sought to define itself as a kind of small-l liberal answer to the Spectator and its content thus far has contained writing from at least as many Tory and Labour leaning writers as Lib Dems. Frankly, it hasn’t really been my cup of tea being the sort of uncultured philistine who instinctively distrusts poetry (making words rhyme together? Witchcraft!), although I did like the last issue.

Now, if Liberator were to do such an initiative, that would have significantly more impact within the party. It’s been going for 35 years and is regarded by many as required reading. While Liberator contains a more authentic voice of the activists however, it is less activist itself.

In all honesty, I think this petition is perversely good news for Kennedy. It will have the effect of over-egging the pudding just before Christmas. They don’t appear to have troubled themselves with the hassle of introducing any way of differentiating members who sign the petition from non-members, which means it can be easily dismissed even if they suddenly came up with tens of thousands of names. And they haven’t included a data-protection statement or opt-out, meaning they will not legally be able to use the email addresses they collect to campaign.

It does however, increase pressure on Kennedy to raise his game. The anonymous source quoted in the Western Mail today is quite correct:

“Charles genuinely believes he can take on Cameron and win. In a curious way this is an opportunity for us to define ourselves more clearly.”

No more starts and stops – this is the real deal, mate. If Kennedy can rise to this challenge over the next few months, then the party will be in a stronger position than ever.

Here it comes

I was wondering how long it would be before one or more of the Tory-Lib Dem defectors caught that the wind had changed and started making the journey back to where they came from. To be honest, I thought it would be a couple of months away now, but Harold Elletson has fired the starting gun.

To be fair, he hasn’t actually done a double rat. Rather, he is advocating that the Tories and Lib Dems make an informal electoral pact in “strategically important seats” (one would have thought that all our seats are strategically important, so presumably this is code for Operation Fuck the Lefties). His reason for now being the time to do so is on the basis that Cameron has slain his “sacred cows” by saying some nice things about asylum seekers once without making any policy commitment (Michael Howard was constantly saying nice things about asylum seekers, after all he was one – didn’t stop his policy from stinking), some nice things about the environment (he rides a bicycle and gives tinfoil hat wearers jobs so it must be true) and the fact that he won’t be a mouthpiece for big business (show me a party leader who has ever claimed to be the CBI’s bitch. Anyone?).

Who is Harold Elletson you may ask? Well, so did most of us when he joined. Apparently he was an MP before 1997, something which ranks him as a “big beast” in the impoverished game of defection politics.

Welcoming defectors into your ranks is always a risky strategy; once they’ve done it once, there is a real danger that it becomes a habit. Paul Marsden is an excellent example of this. Defectors rarely join for positive reasons; they defect in order to send a message to their party of origin. In a very real sense they never leave. The one thing Elletson is absolutely right about in this article is that we should not have accepted Brian Sedgemore’s defection mid-campaign, if at all.

We saw a swathe of social democrats rejoin Labour in the mid-90s and I have no doubt we will see the same happen with the Conservative Party. The worst thing is, because these people almost always expect (and are given) a reward in terms of prestige for their act of betrayal, when they go back it is actually more damaging to us than it was to the party they originally came from.

Kennedy would be well advised to start moving these people out of such positions where they can do us damage, or at the very least stop giving them fucking peerages. What is the Foreign Affairs Forum anyway? I’ve never heard of it.

UPDATE: Chris Huhne gives a much more appropriate (and constructive) response to Cameron’s tarting.

Lib Dem strategy

My post yesterday about the Guardian/ICM poll has attracted considerable debate, particularly from Peter and Tabman. Rather than comment there, I thought I’d continue the debate on a new post.

First of all, there is a big difference between playing for vote share and playing for seats.

Playing for seats, which is what the party has concentrated on over the past decade and a bit, means concentrating on marginal areas and attempting to attract voters depending on whatever is tactically advantageous to us there: Labour voters in Tory/LD constituencies, Tory voters in Lab/LD constituencies, etc.

Playing for vote share means attempting to woo specific cleavages nationwide. But, it means attracting votes in areas that do us no good whatsoever in terms of gaining seats. The electoral system works against us here (and to a large, though lesser, extent, the Tories). If all three parties got 32% according to Baxter, Labour would be on 307 MPs, Tory 210 and Lib Dems 97. You could improve that through tactical voting but not by much.

The reality is that we do a bit of both – air war and ground war. But the Lib Dems have traditionally concentrated on ground war. My argument, in essence, is that we need to be concerned more with the air war.

Why? Because I think there will be all to play for in the next general election. Fundamentally, most likely scenarios see Labour losing overall control but the Tories failing to win outright. For a third party, that is an explosive situation; the lesson from both 1929 and 1974 is that a new general election will be called sooner rather than later and at that point the third party is squeezed to nothing. Our entire strategy should be based around minimising the possibility of that second general election without going backward and giving another party a majority, and ensuring we are in as strong a position as possible if it happens.

Voter share is therefore vital for the Lib Dems. It increases our argument for electoral reform (it is perfectly conceivable that Labour could be third in terms of popular vote and yet have the plurality); it increases our mandate in the eyes of the public; it vastly increases the number of places in which we are in second place (all those lovely bar charts…). So if a general election were called, we’d be in a strong position to fight it, which in turn minimises the chance of it getting called.

Concentrate too much on the ground war now and we might get more seats, but most votes would be soft and we would have difficulty arguing against the squeeze given that we had spent the previous campaign making the same case. If it came down to a choice between 20 more MPs and 5% more voter share, I’d go for the latter.

To an extent they are complementary; I’m certainly not saying we should pack up our target seats and leave it to the Cowley Street press office. But the campaign message will be very different. In essence, with a ground war focused campaign we can’t afford to have a national message that particularly annoys anyone because we have no target demographic. With an air war focussed campaign our aim is to appeal to a number of key cleavages, even to the extent that it will alienate other groups.

Is the economy the most important issue for a lot of voters? It wasn’t in 2001 or 2005. The general expectation is that in 2008/9 the economy will be in a mess. But then, that’s what they said in 2001 about 2005 (and in 1997 about 2001). I’m not saying Gordon Brown has been perfect, but I do think it is dangerous to base your strategy around the assumption that we will be neck deep in recession by the time the next election comes around.

Again, I’m not arguing against having a good economic policy – I’ve probably written about the economy on this blog more than anything else. I’ve outlined my position: a tax shift from income to resource use and an agenda for tackling intergenerational equity. But for a third party which hasn’t been in power for decades it is a “shield” issue, not a “sword” issue. Shouting about the economy while both Labour and the Tories do the same is going to do very little in terms of making us look distinctive, and distinctiveness is as important as credibility for a third party.

Finally, one of the key factors for having a credible economic policy is having been in government in living history. We could have the best economic policies ever and still not be able to convince anyone to take a chance with us especially if the economy took a severe downturn. You can’t just argue yourself credibility.