Monthly Archives: June 2006

Africa, America and the UK Constitution

Simon Jenkins infuriates and delights in equal measure, but today’s article in the Guardian fell in the latter category.

The Church of England is simply absurd.  I was unaware of how the number of Bishops has sky-rocketed over the past 100 years, but I was aware of how the jealously guarded seats the Church has in the House of Lords are, by and large, left vacant.

According to Public Whip, the Bishop with the best attendence record is the Bishop of Chester, on 11.8%.  The average Bishop turns up to vote 2.76% of the time.  What is the point of them?  You don’t need a Bishop to read out a few prayers; if Simon Hughes and John Battle can cope, surely anyone can do it?

If the Anglican Church does split, where will that leave Establishment?  It is very curious to have a part of our constitution determined by a spat between a bunch of Americans and Africans, yet that is what we are left with.  Which Church should then sit in the House of Lords?  Almost certainly the socially conservative wing which has simply nothing to say about 21st century Britain.  Worse, because this side is more politically active, it means that at the same point that the church becomes less representative of the country, it is likely to start using its constitutional position more.

This is a recipe for disaster.  Now is the time to start seriously calling for disestablishment.

Did I lose the Bromley and Chislehurst election?

Not withstanding my irritation about Lib Dem campaign techniques, a sincere well done to the Bromley and Chislehurst team.  I wrote my post last night suspecting that it was going to be close; the fact that it was as close as it was does of course give me pause for thought.

With the majority slashed to 633, could I have made the difference between winning and losing if I’d gone to help a couple more times?  My efforts certainly would have probably slashed a few more votes off.

The aftermath of this campaign will be interesting.  The Tories are already spinning that the Lib Dems ran a very nasty and personalised campaign.  The truth is, we did, but not entirely without justification.  It is legitimate to question how good a job Bob Neill will do if he also has responsibilities in the GLA, although frankly I suspect it is the other residents of his Bromley and Bexley GLA seat who will suffer from poor representation rather than the ones in Bromley and Chislehurst who will now get to decide whether or not he gets to keep his seat at the next general election.  Attacking him for being a barrister is a less strong argument, ditto his seat on the North East London SHA (although his admission that he knowingly signed a false statement on his nomination form ought to make the Bar Council raise an eyebrow or two).

I’m not convinced it was in the Lib Dems’ best interests to make so much of the campaign about him, however.  Pretty much all the literature I’ve seen was either about Bob Neill or the World Cup.  Maybe I’m naive about expecting us to campaign on what the Lib Dems stand for, but it does seem to me that had we won, it would have been a bit of an empty victory.  It will also now only enforce the image of the party as dirty campaigners.

All parties go negative: the Tory campaign in the seat I helped in in 2005 was one of the nastiest I’ve ever seen.  Fortunately, it was also one of the most incompetent.  Iain Dale, who loves accusing people of being the proverbial pot calling the kettle black, spent pretty much the whole of the two years leading up to his crushing defeat in North Norfolk personally attacking Norman Lamb MP on the most spurious of grounds.  The Tories are in no position to take the moral high ground over this, but that won’t stop them, and it seems to me we’ve made it just that little bit easier for them to do so.

Waiting for the results…

I probably won’t stay up for much longer waiting for the by-election results, but while waiting, I did come across this bizarre story about one of the more pointless candidates standing in Bromley and Chislehurst.

Apparently the BBC is riddled with gay sex, which is news to me. Concrete slab sex on children’s programmes maybe, but clearly Mr Hemming-Clark has been looking hard – certainly rather too hard to be accusing one of his opponents of being a closet homosexual.

Now that the polls have closed, I can get away with saying that Hemming-Clark comes across to me like the typical Bromley resident. I can’t remember who it was who said to me after a day’s campaigning that Bromley was stuffed with “rich chavs” but it is a very accurate description.

Bromley is mainly famous for being the place that lots of talented people leave, the first chance they get. David Bowie, Hanif Kureshi, Siouxsie Sioux (we’ll forget about fellow Bromley Contingent member Billy Idol), H.G. Wells… for over 100 years the inane, casually cruel suburbia has inspired a loathing that few other places even begin to reach.

You may have guessed by now that I too am a Bromley escapee. Going back to help in the by-election for me was very painful. Just as I thought I was giving the old place too hard a time, some brainless wanker starts trying it on in the queue leaving the train station. It all came flooding back.

Fortunately for me, the Bromley campaign team made it impossible for me to go back. They published the results of a “crime survey” which “proved” that 2/3rds of residents don’t feel safe going out at night. Regular readers will know how my bete-noire is Lib Dems playing silly games with crime statistics and choosing between going to help the campaign and spending a day with my girlfriend suddenly became very easy indeed. The fact that so many Bromley residents seem to think they’re living in a war zone rather than one of the most affluent parts of the country just made me realise I don’t actually want a Lib Dem in Parliament representing the morons.

This too, is frankly unacceptable. I can happily justify a lot of Lib Dem campaigning, most of which is simply effective marketing. Rival party activists who get precious about the use of “misleading” bar charts in our literature strangely don’t get upset about Labour spending millions of pounds on advertising in the last general election making misleading claims about how a Lib Dem vote would help get Tories elected. Putting out literature that notionally looks like a local tabloid or a handwritten letter is about getting people’s attention. I don’t see the same outcry over TV adverts that “look” like TV programmes or newspaper adverts that “look” like articles. It is a gross insult to the public to claim they are so stupid they can’t tell the difference. What’s more, to pretend we are any worse than the other parties is simply a lie.

But merely being as bad as the others is not good enough. I draw the line at dishonesty, I dislike ambulance chasing and I detest scaremongering. The photos of Ben Abbotts “cleaning up” graffiti that is then left is a disgrace. It is similarly a disgrace to go around taking photographs of every single piece of litter on every single street in the constituency in order to present a misleading picture of a constituency drowning in grot, as is now a standard by-election tactic.

I’m sorry if such negativity annoys some of my Lib Dem coleagues, but I am absolutely sick of it. It puts me off wanting to help in by-elections and I’m sure others feel the same. Is it too much to ask for us to follow a basic code of conduct? I’m sure we were better at not crossing the line five years ago. Perhaps I’ve just been blind to it all these years, but I can honestly say I’ve never done the same sort of thing myself in elections, with some modest success.

What do fellow Lib Dem activists think? Am I just whinging about nothing, or is it time we got our shit together? I’d like to think the former, but I’ve gone from loving campaigning to dreading it and I’m quite sure something’s changed.

UPDATE: Labour have conceded defeat in both the Blaenau Gwent Assembly and Parliament seats.  If nothing else, at least I have Schadenfreude.

My links with the Modern Review

Well, actually, they’re extremely tenuous at best, but I did enjoy watching When Julie Met Toby last night on BBC 2.

My “links” such as they are were that I went to Manchester University just after Charlotte Raven had left. Raven was the sabbatical Women’s Officer when Derek Draper was a sabb as well (in fact, they went out with each other for a time). Back then, these two obsessed the UMU hacks no end – they all hated them, they all wanted to be them. Both of course fell from grace shortly afterwards, Icarus like, but at least Derek Draper is still tabloid-fodder due to his marriage to Kate Garraway. Raven has disappeared; at the end of the programme Julie Birchill mentioned that she’s now married to a truck driver and has grown so fat she has to use one of those mobility scooters. I hasten to add I have no idea if that is true. One other theory is that she got a peroxide job and transmogrified into Marina Hyde, but I think the fattie story is kinder.

My other link to the Modern Review is that at work, we still get their post (the ancient Egyptians believed that you only truly died when no-one could remember your name – I have a theory that no-one will ever truly die again now due to us remaining on junk mail lists until the end of time). No mention of 6 Cynthia Street was made on the programme however and it would appear that the first incarnation of the Modern Review was edited entirely in Toby Young’s flat. What of Charlotte Raven’s short lived second incarnation? The rumour is they used to do their ad sales out of the place, but no-one seems sure. Anyone out there know?

I’m feeling oddly nostalgic about my uni days at the moment – see the mention of Nick Angel in my previous post. 1996 was a fucking great year for me and one of the few times in my life when it actually felt good at the time.

Coming Attractions

Got the latest Empire this evening. A few film related things:

  • In July we are to be treated to both Pirates of the Carribean 2 and Superman Returns (which is either Superman 5 – after the Quest for Peace – 2.5 – sort of set after 2 – or 2 – the spiritual sequel to Richard Donner’s original disregarding the slight hash Richard Lester made of 2 – depending on your point of view). I can’t wait for either of them.
  • The Spider-Man 3 teaser is now online. Got a year to wait for this one. Looking forward to it as I am, I’m not sure about the wisdom of having 3 major villains. Joel Schumacher’s Batman films show what happens when you don’t exercise enough restraint (on the other hand, both Batman Returns and Batman Begins both have three villains in them and cope okay).
  • Richard Kelly’s first film since Donnie Darko – Southland Tales – was apparently panned at Cannes. Kelly himself is robust, arguing that Donnie Darko got the same response at first. I wouldn’t be so complacent. Love Donnie Darko as I do – I saw it on its first release – Kelly made a complete Horlicks of the Director’s Cut. The good news is he’s cutting 45 mins out of this new film, so hopefully he can turn it around.
  • Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost are back soon in Hot Fuzz. Yay! Intrigued to see Jessica Stevenson claiming they are still planning to make Spaced 3 given how long ago 2 was now. It had entered the part of my brain that is reserved for all those other uncompleted masterpieces such as Halo Jones Book 4 and Sleaze Castle (side fact: Simon Pegg’s character is called Nicholas Angel. I wonder if this is a homage to Shaun of the Dead’s Music Supervisor? I used to know a Nick Angel – I was in a student version of a Midsummer Night’s Dream with him 10 years ago. He went on to edit Matthew Parris’ The Great Unfrocked and I think went on to become some kind of photo-journalist).
  • They’ve cast Lyra for the His Dark Materials films. Looks like they’re actually going to make them. Good news: she’s English. Bad news: she’s called Dakota Blue Richards. Will this series be the next Lord of the Rings or the next Chronicles of Narnia? Only time will tell.
  • Oh, and Empire thinks the Da Vinci Code is shit. Big surprise there then.

Empire also has an interesting looking article about DVD piracy but I haven’t read it yet so can’t comment.

Edifying Campaigning?

Ed Vaizey is angry at the Lib Dems for their dreadful unprincipled campaigns.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I can be a bit ambivalent about Lib Dem campaign techniques myself sometimes, but one thing I won’t do is accept lectures from Labour and the Tories.

Andy Mayer has been taking Labour to task over their systematic abuse of the postal vote system. Ed Vaizey meanwhile clearly needs reminding about the Cheadle by-election:

One leaflet superimposed a local newspaper report of a rape over a headline saying “shocking crime record of Mark Hunter”, the Lib Dem candidate and leader of Stockport council. His party threatened legal action. Another ran a headline “Hunter in school cash scandal”, attributed to the Stockport Express, whose sister paper denounced it as a misrepresentation and attacked the Tory campaign in a front page editorial.

Over at Liberal Review, Jabez Clegg has more.

This, we are to understand, is what Ed Vaizey regards as “principled campaigning.” Coming from one of Cameron’s closest aides, we should take note.

Granny Temper Tantrum

The phantom council tax payer has struck again, this time thwarting Jo Rooney’s campaign against litter. Previously, Sylvia Hardy’s protest was undermined in the same way.

Council Tax has struck a deep emotional chord amongst the public, not quite to the same extreme that the Poll Tax did, but the fact that so many pensioners are willing to get locked up over it suggests something is going on.

It is a very silly tax that doesn’t seem to achieve anything and it is curious that both the Tories and Labour have lined themselves up to defend it with their dying breath. Strictly speaking, it can hardly be described as a property tax as (in England at least) properties haven’t been revalued since 1991, meaning that it has very little to do with the actual value of your property. What’s more, the 8-band system means that effectively it is capped: those who own the most expensive properties pay the least proportionately. A random, regressive tax is pretty indefensible.

But one thing is does not do is hurt poor pensioners. Prof Iain McLean has calculated that just 1.2%-2% of the population is ‘an owner-occupier with below 60% of median income living in a house in Council Tax bands E to H’ (the majority of whom will be pensioners). What’s more, pensioners on a fixed income are entitled to Council Tax Benefit. The still smaller minority this does not apply to could (whisper it!), always downsize to a smaller property.

Don’t tell Help the Aged however. Apparently, council tax affects people “below the poverty line” – how? They claim that an elderly couple with just £182 per week income “could end up paying the same level of Council Tax as their neighbours, a young and wealthy couple with an income of tens of thousands”. Yet, according to entitledto.co.uk, (which the Help the Aged website links to elsewhere), that couple won’t have to pay any council tax at all.

Help the Aged also bleats about how council tax has increased out of step with pensions – but that just means that more pensioners are entitled to council tax benefit. It then goes on to cheekily complain that very few pensioners are aware they are entitled to council tax benefit. Well of course they aren’t if organisations like Help the Aged go around pretending they aren’t entitled!

Pensioners like Rooney and Hardy are being goaded on to make themselves martyrs not because of a serious issue that is effecting thousands of pensioners, but because a number of relatively comfortably off pensioners resent paying a tax that pays for basic local services. These women really don’t appear to realise what they are letting themselves in for by going to prison; they probably believe the Daily Mail’s claims that it is akin to spending a couple of weeks at Butlins.

The Lib Dem local income tax solution I’m ashamed to say is to let pensioners off the hook entirely and simply increase the tax burden onto that wicked rich young couple with an income of “tens of thousands.” The fact that those wealthy young wasters may be bringing up a family and have an enormous mortgage to pay is neither here nor there.

The irony is, pensioner poverty is a real issue, but council tax is a total red herring. The income-poor, asset-poor pensioners (IPAPPs) have been let down by a system that has squeezed them throughout their lives, left them with nothing to call their own and then does not support them in their dotage. Money spent on subsidising the relatively wealthy pensioners is money that can’t be spent on the truly needy. The IPAPPs are our allies and a warning of what millions of younger people have to look forward to under the current system.

Assets should count for something – the current government was wrong to put so much stock into the pensioner credit and thus create a disincentive to save. But it’s time we recognised that the culture of encouraging people to lock all their assets into property causes all kinds of social problems; specifically a restriction on the housing supply which screws over the following generation, depopulates villages and towns and subsequently leads to increased pressure on local public services that old folk depend on. Emotive arguments about turfing old people out of the family homes notwithstanding (and what about the emotive argument about people not being able to get a foot on the property ladder?), pensioners and their families benefit from property taxes. The issue is making them fairer and taking off their harshest edges, not scrapping them.

Dave the Leviathan

For a perfect example of how confused David Cameron’s speech on human rights yesterday was, you need look no further than Iain Dale’s blog:

David Cameron is getting excellent coverage this morning for his Human Rights Act policy. I just heard Baroness Helena Kennedy saying positive things, which is deeply ironic considering she was one of the prime movers behind the original legislation.

There’s nothing “ironic” about Kennedy supporting calls for a Bill of Rights, as that is what she and Charter88 were calling for in 1998. The HRA was regarded by them as a compromise.

What is “ironic” is that both Kennedy and David Davis’ Representative On Earth seem to like what Cameron was saying. One of them is surely going to be deeply disappointed. My suspicion is that it will be the Baroness as I think I can just make out the high-pitched screeching of a dog whistle.

Rebekah Wade can quite clearly hear one. She reckons that what Cameron is proposing accords entirely with the Currant Bun’s “string’em up” campaign. The rhetoric is all there: he isn’t calling for reforms of the HRA, but to scrap it. This nonsense about the Strasbourg courts backing off from countries with their own Bill of Rights (only if they believe that the Bill of Rights is worth the paper its printed on, Dave). And to many Tories, the Bill of Rights is something that came down from Mt Sinai in tablets of stone circa 1689.

Meanwhile, Cameron is trotting that old canard about having to balance security and liberty. To be fair, he’s probably only saying it because Blair said it first, but it is still utter balls. Was it safe to live in Saddam’s Iraq? Is it safe to live in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? Blameron’s logic would have you believe these were paradises of security. Karl Popper may as well have never existed as far as these two are concerned: political theory begins and ends with Hobbes for them.

The fact is though, liberty buys us security. It isn’t a perfect trade-off but if people are free, by and large they behave responsibly. If people are treated like impudent children, they behave like impudent – or if you go too far, traumatised – children. Politicians who believe otherwise are potential tyrants who deserve to be treated with nothing but contempt.

Cammawon

Just watched Jonathan Ross’ interview with “Dave”.  Very good job by Ross in my opinion at walking the fine line between remembering it is an entertainment programme and not giving the guest too easy a ride.

One thing though: he says at the start that he has never had a politician on the programme before.  I distinctly recall watching his interview with Charles Kennedy a few years ago when he gave Charles a signed David Bowie album.  Cue cheap shot about Charles Kennedy not being a politician I suppose, but doesn’t the same jibe apply to the Chameleon?

When is a chair not a chair?

I’m a little confused. Ed Davey has been elected unopposed as Chair of the Lib Dems Campaigns and Communications Committee. But Lord Rennard has simultaneously been appointed Chair of the General Election Campaign. This is confusing, because the CCC Chair post replaced the Chair of the GE Campaign post back in the late 90s. What’s more, Rennard, as Chief Executive, is technically accountable to the President and, on campaigning, the Chair of the CCC. So who takes the decision, and who takes the blame? Are we seeing a bit of a conflict of interest here?

Personally, having sat on the Party’s Federal Executive for three years, I had come to the conclusion that the elected nature of the CCC Chair was a mistake. It was established as a reaction against the fact that Paddy Ashdown had appointed Richard (now Lord) Holme as GE Chair because of his links with Rio Tinto Zinc. However, the effect has been that accountability over campaigning has been dispersed: no longer could you blame the leader for ballsing up campaigning as the FE now elected the person in charge. Yet the FE can’t be held to account as it is elected by STV and is thus a representative body. Add to that the decision (which in retrospect I think was a mistake) to effectively merge the roles of Chief Executive and Campaigns Director, and we already had the confusing situation where it was unclear who was in charge. With Rennard’s appointment as GE Chair, that situation has become even more confusing.

The party has a major issue with accountability, as the Michael Brown affair exposed when it first came to a head six months ago. This suits the establishment as it means they can always take the credit for when things go right and blame others for when it goes wrong.

We need more checks and balances. But we need a simpler model for who gets appointed to what, and we need fewer job titles. Fundamentally, we need clarity about who is in charge. Since Charles Kennedy declined to rule out this week whether he might one day go for the leadership again at some point in the future, it should be pointed out that he is chiefly responsible for our current mess. That is why I’m not quite as excited by the prospect of Kennedy for President as Andy Mayer appears to be, regardless of the superficial attractions.