Monthly Archives: May 2007

48 hours, £2,000? No sweat!

Supporting Gender BalanceAt midnight this Thursday, the deadline by which the various Campaign for Gender Balance pledges have to have reached their targets expires. Thus far, we’ve reached 60% of our target and more than £3,000, but need 19 more people to sign up in order to hit our target. Will you be one of them?

The Campaign for Gender Balance, formerly known as the Gender Balance Task Force, has made a tremendous impact over the last 5 years not just in terms of nudging us forward in terms of the number of women candidates in winnable seats, but in terms of their quality. It’s been good at cultivating a “can do” attitude amongst female candidates at a time when, frankly, a lot of people who claim to be interested in seeing more women in Parliament tend to carp by the sidelines and promote a defeatist attitude. The principle behind it is simple: overall, while no-one questions there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of sexism amongst local parties, the fundamental problem the party has in terms of gender balance is that we don’t have enough women prepared to put their names forward. It is a supply-side problem. CGB helps this by going out and encouraging women to put their names forward and provide them with training, mentoring and support.

Could it do more? Yes, lots. It has, however, always been hampered by a lack of funds. Indeed this year, despite the party getting a £200,000 donation for a diversity fund, it has had its funding cut in favour of an alternative approach of encouraging more female and BME candidates by offering seats greater resources if they select one. The jury is out on whether this approach will work (I personally have major qualms with it, both in principle and in practice), but either way there remains a place for CGB.

So, rather than moan about grant cuts, it was decided to go out and do something positive and develop a support fund that is independent of the party and thus less subject to the vagaries of party committees. This is where you come in. While not everyone can afford a fiver a month, most of us can. So how about it?

For me, this is a test, and not just a personal one (as trying to raise 5 grand in this way was my idea in the first place – and yes, I am putting my money where my mouth is). There are lots of projects out there that the party needs to do, but which consistently fail to get funding from the party centrally. While I have been known to occasionally whinge about this fact, and I really do think that overall the party’s priorities are skewed too much towards the target seat campaign (a debate for another time), the bottom line is there are only so many ways you can cut the cake. Projects like this really do need to be self-financing to as great an extent as possible. But is there enough residual goodwill out there to make this possible? We don’t have the same sort of giving culture that is taken for granted to the US, but if UK politics is to survive, we need to cultivate one.

Alex Salmond: flying the flag or flying a kite?

It’s good to see Alex Salmond reminding us quite so quickly about why the Lib Dems would have made a terrible, terrible mistake to go into coalition with him. He knows he can’t get this plan through Parliament, so why bother? The answer to that question is too obvious for me to bother answering. Stick to claymores, Alex.

But fundamentally, why would Scotland want the burden that would be its own Olympic Team? Every four years Team GB returns from the Olympics with a handful of medals and the media eviscerates them for not having enough. If Salmond gets his way, Team WLOGB would not be noticeably affected, but Team Scotland would come back with even less. Just what would this do for Scottish pride?

It is fair enough that they insist on having their own football team. It keeps Del Amitri in work, anyway. But why is it such an indignity for the Scots to cheer on their fellow Brits every once in a while? What happened to all this guff about Salmond wanting to be England’s friend?

Now Eurovision on the other hand, that might be a different prospect. If we’re doomed to be screwed over by the Balkans, why not Balkanise our own entries and take advantage of the voting system? We wouldn’t be able to trust the perfidious Scots to vote the right way, but with our Skype accounts we could all rig the Scottish phone-in to give England votes. In any case the incomer English population would probably help, just like those pesky Russians in Estonia rigged that vote. Salmond could do worse than to wash his hands of all responsibility for Flying the Flag.

And, of course, Del Amitri might get some work on the side (on a semi-serious note, I suspect the Proclaimers would kick serious arse at Eurovision: how about it, lads?).

The Great Wi-Fi Swindle

Last week, BBC’s Panorama did an expose on the Scientologists, a cult that believes we are all imprisoned space aliens. This week, the same programme is purporting to prove that wi-fi fries your brain. And so, the cosmic balance of the BBC’s sensible/face-slappingly idiotic halves is once again restored.

I don’t really know where to start. James Randerson gives it a gentle booting in the Guardian, which broadly sums up the response, but no words can quite describe the sheer appallingness of comparing a mobile phone mast signal from 100m away with a wi-fi signal from 1m away and coming up with the scare statistic that the latter is 3 times more powerful than the former. So I have to get this off my chest. Indulge me.

If the two signals were exactly the same strength, the inverse square law would mean that with a distance differential of 100, the 1m away signal would be 10,000 times more powerful. So, taking that into account, you can conclude from these figures that the wi-fi signal is more than 3,000 times weaker than the mobile phone mast (3,333 point 3 recurring, but who’s counting?). The mobile phone mast which, lest us forget, there is no evidence causes any harm in the first place.

It beats me why they stopped their. If they had compared a wi-fi signal from 10 cm with a mobile phone mast signal from 1 km away, they could have shouted about wi-fi being 30,000 times stronger than mobile phones. That sounds much scarier. And why not? There’s nothing particularly significant about 1m and 100m – just two numbers they plucked out of the air.

Compared to all this, Scientology sounds positively evidence-based, and at least Martin Durkin can come up with a couple of impressive looking graphs. On which point, I recommend everyone picks up a copy of this week’s New Scientist, which rather satisfyingly eviscerates the Great Global Warming Swindle point by point (in fact, the online version appears to have even more myth debunking).

Peter Bazalgette on Privacy: a poacher turned game-keeper?

Peter Bazalgette has written a thoughtful piece about privacy and social networking sites, so for once I will dispense with the usual toilet jokes. I do think he’s got it slightly wrong however.

Firstly, attitudes amongst young people and those websites. I have to admit, I’m amazed at the number of people who are quite happy to have anyone read the most personal of information about them on sites like Facebook. One of the first things I did was to look at the privacy settings and find out what casual visitors to the site could learn about me. Very little, as it turns out, unless I let them. I can even change what my ‘friends’ can see. So I’m fairly happy.

On the other hand, clearly a lot of other users don’t have such concerns. They should, and maybe such sites should do more to educate them about the risks. With that said however, Bazalgette doesn’t seem to understand the technology. If I decided to join the “A woman’s place is in the kitchen” group I could do so, knowing that I could both leave and remove any public trace of the fact that I had joined in the first place. Even if I did make all my details public, a future employer would struggle to find me amongst the dozens of James Grahams (they’d have an easier time finding a Peter Bazalgette admittedly). To an extent I suspect people are indeed taking account of the risks, and concluding (rightly or wrongly) that they are worth taking.

But is there a chance that attitudes are fundamentally changing? I’ve noticed that the sort of people who have an exaggerated concern about their conduct as a 20-something being regarded as ‘private’ tend to have something in their past to be ashamed about. I don’t have an issue with people knowing that I used to be heavily involved with the Manchester University Film Society, but then, why should I? It is part of who I am, and I don’t believe I have fundamentally changed. By the same token, I find it hard to believe that David Cameron has fundamentally changed since his days as a member of the Bullingdon Club and I’m pretty certain John Reid hasn’t fundamentally changed since his days as a Communist.

These aren’t particularly private acts – we all leave traces, from photos to mentions in student union newspapers. I don’t believe we have a right to restrict the media from mentioning them – that is going beyond privacy and steps into censoring what is in the public domain. David Cameron doesn’t have a right, in my view, to keep his life before he entered politics private. He has a general right to privacy about both his past and present – one he compromises every day he flaunts his disabled child in front of the press. And he should be able to reconcile his past; if he can’t, it is an important issue.

So I don’t think these websites represent a particular challenge to people entering public life since most normal people don’t join toffs’ clubs or totalitarian political parties. If it introduces a little more Darwinian selection into the mix, that can only be a good thing (joining misogynistic Facebook groups even as a ‘joke’ suggests your values are dubious), but in the face of such things applying to simply thousands of people simultaneously, it will be balanced out to an extent by a degree of proportion – which can also only be a good thing.

We all need to get to grips with the implications that the internet has regarding privacy. I have to admit that from time to time I worry about whether I’m too careless about it myself. But social networking sites aren’t really the problem. Credit card details, passwords and those dubious black boxes that now sit in every single ISP’s office… that’s a different story.

Comical Tommy’s War against Information

Via Iain Dale, I come across Tom Watson‘s spirited defence of his decision to back the Freedom from Information (none of your fucking business) Bill. Apparently, the Tories Made Him Do It. But, for a bit more detail, here is his argument point-by-point (I’d comment on his blog, but he banned me years ago):

1. If the speaker had not guaranteed that MP’s expenses will continue to be published, I would not have supported the Bill. I repeat – you will still be able to see the expense tables like you have been able to for the last three years.

This is a mischevious half-truth. The fact is there are currently numerous appeals to the Information Commissioner calling for MPs to disclose more detailed information. The Commons’ expenses disclosure isn’t even close to the Scottish Parliament where literally every single invoice is available to view online.

Note that he says “you will still be able to see the expense tables like you have been able to for the last three years” – in other words the detailed information about travel expenses published earlier this year as a result of a case brought forward by Norman Baker would be the first to go.

2. Despite people saying that there is protection under the Data Protection Act, public sector bodies are still revealing the private correspondence between them and MPs regarding constituents.

If it is illegal now and yet people are doing it, it follows that it will still happen if this new Bill is passed. How does passing another law stop people who are already breaking the law? The issue is enforcement – yet the government forces the Information Commissioner to get along with a shoestring budget.

3. This Bill was put forward by the former Tory Chief Whip. Don’t be fooled by the disingenous comments and synthetic outrage of Iain Dale and his chums. Incidentally, he seemed to know how many MPs from each party had voted on the Bill yesterday afternoon – before they are made available in Hansard. He can only have got this information from a source in one of the Whips offices (I’m certain the parliamentary clerks would not help him). This suggests to me that he is part of a Tory spin operation – understandable but funadamentally dishonest in regard to this piece of legislation.

This is worth looking at because it is simply hilarious. Like Iain Dale, I was following the debate on Hansard, which now has less than a three hour time lag. I certainly agree with Tom that the Tories were equally complicit, but I don’t extend that criticism to individuals like Richard Shepherd, John Redwood and, yes, Iain Dale, any more than I do Labour rebels like David Winnick. For Watson to try to blame the Tories for this Bill when Labour has a majority and three times as many of them voted for the Bill as Tories is just eye watering, Comical Tommy stuff.

4. Finally – If Menzies Campbell thought so strongly about this Bill, why wasn’t he there to speak and vote against it?

Because like most MPs he usually has constituency work on Fridays. We can’t all lounge around in Westminster ready to serve as government lickspittles at a moment’s notice.

If I wanted to sum up everything that I truly find deplorable about the Labour Party, it is Tom Watson. A dirty tricks campaigner par excellence, a House of Lords abolitionist (and simultaneously supporter of the status quo), anti-electoral reform, pro-compulsory voting, bemoans the civil liberty implications of RFID tags while voting enthusiastically for ID cards, die-hard Blairite loyalist right up until he can detect the wind has changed whereupon he attempts to orchestrate a coup for newfound best friend Gordon Brown, friends of even bigger moron Sion Simon… what it all adds up to is a nasty little man who is just a little bit too much in love with totalitarianism.

Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, join the Protect Freedom of Information Facebook Group.

My sandal-wearing, yoghurt weaving, beardy secret life exposed!

The readers of The Times must think I’m a right old Liberal stereotype, thanks to Mary Ann Sieghart:

You have to read these comments through the prism of the typical Lib Dem member. In general, Conservatives adore their leader, Labour activists tolerate him and Lib Dems would rather he didn’t exist. As James Graham writes on his Lib Dem Quaequam blog, “Like most sensible people, I see party leaders as a necessary evil.” In a Utopian world, Lib Dems would be like the Greens, with nobody allowed to tell them what to do.

That’s certainly what I wrote, but I like to think I was making a slightly more nuanced point than that. To continue the quote:

[Leaders] are necessary because you need a figurehead and you need someone in the driving seat; it is far better to have someone do this with a clear mandate than pretend you don’t have leaders in the way that the Green Party does and have lots of unelected demagogues jostling like cats in a sack. But they are bad because the leader themselves invariably develops a bunker mindset and even in a party such as the Lib Dems which has non-conformism and the importance of the individual flowing through its collective veins, a cult of personality invariably develops.

My point wasn’t that the Green Party doesn’t have leaders, but that it does and pretends not to. My experience of the Greens, based on personal observation and the testimony of lots of ex-members is that the factional feuding within the party is intense with lots of individuals trying the pull the party in different directions. Having anarcho-syndicalist Derek Wall at the top of the tree one minute and glamour-puss realo Caroline Lucas there the next isn’t not having a leader, it’s changing the captain partway through the voyage.

So yes, I suppose I would quite like to live in an ideal world where leadership wasn’t necessary, but I can’t see it ever working in practice. The Green Party is proof of that, not a refutation.

Thanks for the plug though Mary, and I agree with much of what you have to say. Although you might have pissed off a lot of Lib Dems by implying that I am ‘typical’.

Bending the truth like Beckham in Islington

The Islington Tribune haven’t yet blamed the Liberal Democrat council for the weather, but I’m sure it’s only a matter on time.

This week, the paper is laying into them because they have ‘snubbed‘ Arsenal’s women’s football team after winning an historic quadruple of the FA cup, the UEFA cup, League title and league cup. Guardianista Michelle Hanson has laid into them, as has the Labour Opposition leader Catherine West.

Except that, as usual, it is total bollocks.

If, unlike most people, you can be arsed to read the second page, you will find a number of inconvenient truths to undermine Labour’s crusade:

  • Arsenal themselves aren’t interested in letting the women have their celebration. They don’t even let the team use the Emirates stadium.
  • The ladies’ team manager himself states “I don’t think it would (attract) enough people to attend it.”
  • Rhona Cameron who, as an amateur footballer herself is possibly the only woman in this whole article who knows what she’s talking about*, says “I think it is expecting a bit too much to expect street parades and mass jubilation.”
  • And finally, the coup de grace. It turns out that the council has actually contacted the club for advice on how to celebrate.

Talking of manufactured outrage, the other thing the council are being pillioried for this week is the fact that charities who have been renting property from the council at subsidised rents are outraged that they are now being forced to pay market rates as part of the mass council property sell off. For once, Cllr West has opted to remain silent; fortunate since she was in the paper a fortnight ago claiming that the council should be forcing rents up even more. Some of us might want to know why charities, which already receive subsidies from the taxpayer, should expect to be further subsidised by the local authority as of right, but clearly this is not a view shared by the Green Party.

What I most like about this article is the transparent grasping attitude of the charities and the Greens:

“We’re a charity and obviously couldn’t afford to pay a market rent.”

Well, obviously.

“We are often a thorn in the side of the council and if they wanted to get rid of us this [rent increase] would be the way.”

It’s all a sinister conspiracy, see. Green PPC Emma Dixon goes on to explain in the letters page:

…even the council realises voluntary groups will not be able to afford market rents, so it proposes to give grants to some lucky groups on the basis of stringent criteria.
These include whether the council thinks the group makes an “appropriate contribution” to Islington; whether the group has a “business plan” to reduce “dependency” on the council (a dependency only created by the rent rises); and whether the group is located (in the council’s view) in “the most suitable property for their needs”. If not, they may be asked to move out into a “managed office” hub – or, presumably, fail to qualify for a grant for their rent.

Er, where do I start? How is a charity which needs rent subsidies not dependent on the council? What is wrong with encouraging them to become more independent? What is wrong with a council examining how best to spend taxpayer’s money instead of just doling it out willy-nilly to whichever organisation is lucky enough to already be a council tenant? This woman is apparently a barrister. I hope she’s never mine.

The real problem here is not anything the council have done but the over-heated nature of the London property market. Subsidising rents here, there and everywhere doesn’t just cost us more council tax, but ensures the market remains over-heated and makes it harder for people like you and I to get onto the housing ladder. When politicians and the press over-indulge such misguided nonsense they do us all a great disservice.

* Before the hate mail starts to pour in, I’m not saying women don’t know anything about football. I AM saying that women (and men for that matter) who up until last week were probably unaware that Arsenal even had women’s football team and have decided to jump on a political bandwagon, don’t know what they’re talking about.

The Janus faces of the commentariat

You wonder what planet these people are from sometimes. Iain Macwhirter writes:

The whole point of proportional representation is that it is supposed to prevent one-party rule.

No, the whole ‘point’ of proportional representation is that seats in the chamber should reflect votes. As it turns out, in Scotland, it has prevented one-party rule. A minority executive is neither unprecedented, nor necessarily unworkable.

Despite agreeing with 90% of the SNP manifesto – everything from local income tax to nuclear power – they refused even to sit down and talk about a coalition with the SNP, unless Alex Salmond abandoned his policy of a referendum on independence first.

This was something they knew he could not do, and was transparently an excuse for refusing to negotiate the coalition that Scotland expected.

The SNP hinted at a constitutional convention to look at the whole constitutional question – something the Liberal Democrats had campaigned for in the election.

Simply not true. The price the SNP were insisting on was Lib Dem support in Parliament for a referendum on independence, and that was the price Nicol Stephen was not prepared to pay. Sure, they were prepared to ‘compromise’ by making it a multi-option referendum, something which Salmond was confident he would be able to trash with the help of his pet millionaires like Souter. The Lib Dems would have been propping up an executive that was spending all its energies on making the case for independence. Something tells me that in a parallel universe where the Lib Dems did make this mistake, another Iain Macwhirter is currently ripping them to shreds.

The irony is that, across Scotland, Liberal Democrats and SNP councillors have been forming coalitions to run local authorities like Edinburgh.

That’s because the price isn’t a referendum on the independence of Edinburgh.

Moreover, it was the week Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness agreed a coalition in Northern Ireland assembly – but somehow the Liberal Democrat leader, Nicol Stephen, couldn’t even sit down with Alex Salmond.

That’s because even a former armed insurgent like Martin McGuinness isn’t insisting that Ian Paisley has to support a referendum on independence. Just what part of this aren’t you getting Macwhirter?

Now, Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland, is in with a real chance of propelling Scotland out of the United Kingdom. It’s a funny old world.

Really? He’s going to get a referendum? How? Planet Macwhirter is a funny place to live.

Dealing with failure

Frank Field’s deconstruction of the New Deal for Young People makes damning reading. What is perhaps is even more damning is that despite the fact that despite the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions have had all day to formulate a response, the ‘rebuttal’ on the BBC website remains ultra-lame:

“Since 1997 the number of young people on unemployment benefits has fallen – not risen – by well over 100,000.”

… which only helps to make Field’s point. These kids are not getting jobs, they are turning into what is now ubiquitously referred to as ‘neets‘.

It is easy to forget quite what a flagship policy this was for Labour back in 1997. It was the basis of one of their famous five pledges and was initially funded by the only tax increase they promised – a windfall tax on utility companies. For a decade, if any opposition MP raised the merest of objections to how effective the policy is, the government came down on them like a ton of bricks. For years this has been trumpeted as one of their main, and most proud, achievements.

So for the New Deal to have not only failed to make progress on youth unemployment, but to actually go backwards, is a body blow to the pretty much everything Labour have stood for over the last decade. Add to this the disastrous tax credit fiasco and you can only marvel at the fact that the only person who has a shot at being their next leader is the main architect of such failure.