Monthly Archives: June 2007

Reshuffling to victory

It’s still sinking in, but first reactions?

  • Yay! 6 years since Straw left the post, we get to call someone Jack Boot again. Okay, Jacqui Boot.
  • Will Ruth Kelly abolish public transport on Sundays?
  • Des Browne to be defence AND Scotland? Are we going to be fortifying Hadrian’s Wall?
  • Geoff Hoon as Chief Whip. Not sure putting him in charge of the troops is a good idea. Look at Iraq.

How many newspapers and blogs will use the following headline: “A woman’s place is in the Home Office“? Is it even worth counting?

Jon Cruddas: the real winner?

Lest I be accused of denigrating Jon Cruddas, it has to be said that he has emerged as one of the true victors of the Labour deputy leadership contest. To come third, even if not within the membership college, was a real achievement for a candidate who has never had ministerial experience.

Reading Brown’s speech, he has won at least two other victories: firstly, he has got the Labour Party – and everyone else – talking about housing again. For me this is one of the most important issues that must be tackled over the next few years, and a crucial tool in the battle for intergenerational equity and against the extreme right. Of course, the fact that the Housing Minister since before the stone age happens to be married to Gordon Brown’s representative on Earth does suggest that she is not about to be sacked for failing to make progress on this issue, but we can at least hope she will be moved sideways.

Secondly, his pledge to not accept a ministerial post if elected has resulted in Brown pledging that the new deputy leader will do precisely that, making it analagous to the Lib Dems’ Federal President.

I don’t agree with Cruddas on everything, and certainly some of his statements such as his support for raising the basic rate of income tax were too much in Labour’s comfort zone, but the fact that he has done so well in pushing the party’s internal debate forward is to be congratulated by all of us who believe that politics ought to be more about ideas and less about personality.

Electoral Russian Roulette

One of the most remarkable things about the Labour Party is why it persists with an internal electoral system that has served it so badly. We can all remember the scandalous 2000 selection for a Mayoral candidate when Ken Livingstone won overwhelmingly amongst the membership but was blocked by a combination of the MPs and union block vote. The deputy leadership contest was nearly a repeat of this, albeit less so.

The figures, which someone has now helpfully posted on Wikipedia, tell the full story. In the final round Harman won more than 56% of the membership vote and around 52% of the combined membership and affiliated organisations’ vote. Yet, even assuming all 371 cast their votes, if just 5 MPs or MEPs had given her a lower preference over Johnson, she would have lost. Indeed, Johnson was consistently and comfortably beaten by Benn in the membership college right up to the point until the latter was excluded. We’ll never know, but it is entirely possible that Benn was robbed.

Cruddas’ vote is also interesting. He didn’t do terribly well in the membership college, yet did brilliantly amongst the affiliated organisations (I couldn’t help but laugh when I read the comment from a Cruddasista on LabourHome that their candidate had lost due to the “Soviet” electoral system – if the system was less Soviet, Cruddas would have got less far than he did!). Unlike the Livingstone debacle in 2000, all the unions and other affiliates now ballot their members, yet it is clear that the steer from the union leadership still has a significant influence in a way that CLP support does not. It would be interesting to see what the turnout for this college was: I suspect that it was quite low, indicating that a large number of union members are technically affiliating to Labour (and giving the party cash) while not identifying with the party in any way.

What we’re left with is a system that I simply fail to see is justifiable in 2007. The fact that the MPs and MEPs get a whole third of the vote to themselves is appalling, especially when you consider that they already get to pick the shortlist and get to vote in both the other colleges as well. The affiliates’ college is easier to justify, but even then it leads to a situation whereby the number of times an individual gets to vote is only limited by the size of his bank balance. Instead of this current system of one-member-one-third-of-a-vote (or alternatively one-member-however-many-votes-one-can-afford), why not simply aggregate the memberships of all the affiliate organisations and members together? If the trade union-Labour link is so vital, this should be a no-brainer. But then, the voice of the individual trade union member has always been a low priority for both the Labour Party and the trade union leadership themseles. Why else are they currently embarking on this mad rush for mergers and acquisitions?

Announcement: this blog is now an opinion-free zone (sort of)

For the time being, I will be scaling back the political content of this blog. For better or worse, the current debate raging about Lib-Lab deals, and my day job as a press officer for an organisation campaigning for democratic reform have come into direct conflict. As such, I’m going to have to be much more careful. Journalists: please don’t bother calling (and certainly not at work – not very clever that).

That doesn’t mean I won’t be able to indulge in ranting about other political topics, let alone my other, even geekier interests.

Deny everything, Baldrick (UPDATE)

For me, the most interesting thing about the Guardian’s exclusive today about Lib-Lab talks is that it is credited to an anonymous “staff writer.” Clearly whoever wrote it (Wintour? White? Mulholland?) considered it so explosive that they didn’t want to alienate their sources by being outed as the author.

The other interesting aspect is the non-denial denials. From Lord Kirkwood:

“We are getting this sort of speculation all the time from people who want to write stories about cooperation [between the parties] at levels which are in their imagination.

“But they [Mr Brown and Sir Menzies] talk all the time, they talk about Fife and other things. If you start getting into particular meetings it’s impossible. This suggestion is not known to me and not admitted. Some of these players do have to trust each other in relationships one-to-one.”

From Ming’s office:

“We are not commenting on this tittle-tattle or any other story based on rumour and speculation, now or in the future. We are an independent party which firmly disagrees with Labour and Gordon Brown on the issue of Iraq, civil liberties, including ID cards and 90-day detention, nuclear power and council tax to name but a few.”

What the latter source appears to not appreciate is that this tittle-tattle was nipped in the bud between 1999 and 2006; basically the inter-regnum period between Ashdown and Campbell. Kennedy had many faults, but he at least appreciated the danger of a third party getting distracted by this sort of endless speculation. By contrast, and in spite of his rhetoric, Campbell is developing a talent for getting dragged into this non-issue.

And of course Ashdown used to make a habit of dismissing this “tittle-tattle”. He used to enjoy denouncing anyone who claimed he had been having secret talks with Blair as fantasists and liars. I should know; back when I was the (elected) LDYS sabbatical, his office leant on the LDYS Chair to get me sacked. Then, months after stepping down as leader, he flogged his diaries to Rupert Murdoch for a six-figure sum in which he proudly boasted about the wool he had been pulling over our eyes.

As such, Liberal Democrats ought to be highly sceptical about statements that, once again, we should believe that there is smoke without fire, especially given how integral Campbell was last time around.

As for the substance of what is being suggested, it seems hard to understand what the Lib Dems’ role is here. Apparently “Mr Brown is thinking of launching an all-party initiative on the future of the British constitution, and it may be that he would like a senior Liberal Democrat involved on a specific basis. He may also make a move on Iraq that could require the help of other parties.” So why aren’t these talks happening with Cameron as well? Is this a return of the Joint Cabinet Committee on constitutional reform? Back then it turned out to be a complete waste of time; bipartisanship on constitutional reform in any case leaves almost as much a sour taste in the mouth as unipartisanship. Both models are concerned primarily about self-interest as opposed to the nation’s. The debate in democratic reform circles is currently coalescing around new models such as Citizens’ Assemblies: these ideas don’t require bipartisanship and have the advantage of being under the control of members of the public. The thought of Campbell and Brown stitching up the electoral system and other reforms together isn’t just undemocratic (and I can guarantee that we would never get PR for the Commons out of such a negotiation), but frankly a little old-fashioned.

The lesson that the Welsh Lib Dems have taught me over the past month is that we should never say never to the idea of coalition. We should have red lines. But Campbell’s infamous Harrogate speech earlier this year illustrated all too clearly that Labour is currently in breach of pretty much every red line we might care to come up with. So what is there to discuss? There is no halfway compromise between the Lib Dems’ position on civil liberties and Labour’s. It’s all or nothing. Sorry if I come over all tribalist here, but I don’t consider human rights negotiable in exchange for local fucking income tax (or even, dare I say it, LVT).

Instead of this distraction, Ming ought to be redoubling his efforts to give his own party better definition. Last week’s housing policy launch demonstrated that we still have much work to do on our presentation. Any negotiation now is from a position of weakness, not strength. I still believe the party can turn itself around in time for the next General Election, but not if Campbell keeps allowing this sort of speculation to break out.

UPDATE: The official Party line –

There is no prospect of any Liberal Democrat joining the Brown Government.

On so many issues, the Tories and Labour are part of a cosy consensus and Liberal Democrats are the real opposition.

Tories and Labour now agree on:

  • tax breaks for the richest
  • the Iraq War
  • council tax
  • nuclear power
  • student tuition fees

The need for a strong independent Liberal Democrat party, to challenge the cosy consensus of Labour and Conservatives has never been stronger. We are committed to remain that strong and principled voice of opposition.

Sounds good to me. I would wryly observe that some of us have been pushing this ‘cosy consensus’ line for some time and have been rebuffed. Indeed, I recall Ming dismissing it during the leadership election Question Time last year when Chris Huhne mentioned it. C’est la vie.

Government to force ‘vulnerable’ to pay double for digital TV?

Somebody please tell me this isn’t true:

The Government is asking pensioners and disabled people to pay £40 towards the cost of the digital switchover, despite digital boxes being available for as little as £20.

Government figures have revealed that up to four million people will be asked to contribute a total of £160m towards the cost of switching the UK’s television broadcasting to digital.

However, the Liberal Democrats have found that whilst people will be charged £40 for the digital switchover ‘targeted assistance’ scheme a new digital box with more advanced features could be bought from the high street for as little as £20.

The digital boxes being offered as part of the scheme could also be hopelessly out of date in just a few years time.

Commenting, Liberal Democrat Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, Don Foster MP said:

“We were told targeted assistance would be ‘the lowest cost option’. But, like other government contracts, it looks set to be overpriced and out of date.

“Even with installation help, charging pensioners and disabled people £40 for this service isn’t much of a help scheme.

“Not only are the Government using licence fee payer’s money to fund digital switchover, they’re now charging over the odds for help to the most vulnerable.”

Bear in mind that part of the justification of the license fee hike is to pay for this.

Holds head in hands.

DVD economics: what price Doctor Who? (UPDATED)

Can someone explain this to me?

Life on Mars Season 1 Box Set

  • DVD Release Date: 15 May 2006
  • Run Time: 472 minutes
  • Amazon Price: £16.98 GBP
Doctor Who Season 1 Box Seat

  • DVD Release Date: 21 Nov 2005
  • Run Time: 585 minutes
  • Amazon Price: £49.16 GBP

Those 113 minutes seem awfully expensive. Is this really the most profitable price the BBC should be charging for Doctor Who, two years after original broadcast? That would suggest a remarkably inelastic demand compared with other DVD boxed sets.

UPDATE: Via Facebook, a friend of mine has just pointed out the following pricing regime for another group of BBC DVD box sets:
Red Dwarf Box Set (Season 1-8) – £104.99
Red Dwarf Box Set (Season 1-4) – £24.98
Red Dwarf Box Set (Season 5-8) – £24.98

Would it really be too much of a strain on the license fee to give the chaps pocket calculators?