Monthly Archives: October 2008

Where’s Lemby’s Answers? Day 7

Lembit OpikWell, Lembit won’t answer my questions, but he is keen to talk to politics.co.uk, where he criticises the party for “fear of standing out” and portraying its policies in “pastel shades” (I know there are people out there who criticise Lembit’s talk about “pastel shades” as being misogynist but I have a more fundamental objection: what the hell does it mean?). He also claims that:

“a good president turns up the volume of messages decided by the leadership.”

Leaving aside the unfortunate Iain Duncan Smithism, is that actually true? Is it really the role of the leader to sit back and determine the messages, and the president to be the one campaigning at the front? This suggests a significant redefinition of the role, in which the leader and president compete for air time. I’m not sure I want to see that happen.

But fundamentally, where, please, has Lembit been able to demonstrate this ability? Linda Jack is currently running down her 101 facts you may not know about Lembit. There are some duplicates there, but this is fair enough. By all accounts, when it comes to Northern Ireland for instance, Lembit has done a lot of good work behind the scenes. But why does Linda Jack need to tell us all this if Lembit is so great at putting his best foot forward? And where is the tangible evidence of him making headway front of house?

I’ve already mentioned his tenure as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, during which time the party has been stuck with 6 AMs and actually decreased its regional list vote. Lembit of course prefers to concentrate on the doubling of our Welsh MPs during the 2005 general election, but that was a campaign he was far less centrally involved in.

But I could also cite the example of his role as housing spokesperson. During a time when repossessions have been on the rise, this is an issue the Lib Dems could have been making real headway on. So where is the evidence? As I wrote in Comment is Free last month, during one of the housing debates at party conference, Lembit was outside of the conference centre wowing crowds with his segway skills. The only housing issue I’ve ever seen him take a stance on is eco-towns; great if you happen to be in one of the few areas where the building of one is an issue, but pretty useless if you live anywhere else.

The point is, Lembit has a pretty patchy record when it comes to using the various party positions he has had over the years to actually make an impact, and this is entirely relevant both to the role of President and the direction he claims to want to take it. The fact that he won’t answer them speaks volumes. If you think it is time he answered them, then join my new Facebook group, and get others to do the same.

The questions he has yet to answer are:

a) Since Lembit claims to have such great campaigning and communications skills, why have the Liberal Democrats in Wales stagnated in the last two assembly elections (sticking with six AMs in 1999, 2003 and 2007)?

b) Given the deep problems at the heart of the Kennedy leadership, wasn’t it an error of judgment to stand by him? Loyalty is easy – a nodding dog at the back of a car can do it. Don’t the “rebels” – including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable – deserve credit for taking a difficult decision that Lembit lacked the resolve to take?

c) Why didn’t Lembit stand against Simon Hughes in 2006? Hughes presided over a string of failures, most notoriously watching the party’s membership fall by 10,000 members despite having pledged to treble the membership in two years. Again, doesn’t that suggest a lack of resolve?

d) Why wasn’t Lembit’s campaign ready in Bournemouth? Frankly, it was a total mess. Ros Scott launched her campaign exactly 12 months before, so it isn’t as if Lembit didn’t know she was serious. Is this the level of professionalism we can expect from him? Don’t actions speak louder than words?

The NHS: my tax money at work

I managed to fill in a registration form for my local surgery today, on my second attempt. To be clear, I didn’t actually register – that is a formal appointment next Wednesday. But they did at least let me fill in the registration form, which I have to do before I can have the registration, once I had gone all the way home to pick up some proof of address.

It all seems horribly familiar. I last attempted to register for a GP at my old address four years ago. Tried several local surgeries – all were “full up”. Even my landlord’s tip of emphasising that I lived in the leafy Finchley Garden Village* didn’t pay off. Things came to a particular head when I managed to contract the mumps from a dirty intern (thanks a bunch evil media) and no-one would see me. In a state of delirium I ended up walking to the nearby hospital and getting completely lost. I really didn’t think we lived in a country where it was so easy to get into such a state even after going to the authorities for help, but we do.

Back to the present, once I had provided my proof of address and established that my partner was already registered there, the actual form filling went along quite smoothly. The fact that beyond a cursory glance they took no interest in my proof, and that this rule was neither mentioned to me on the phone or on their website, suggests this isn’t a national policy, but a filtering mechanism. It wasn’t a way of determining who I was, but a trial of willpower.

Why is this? I can’t help but suspect it is related to the experience of one of my work colleagues. Of Turkish descent, but born and bred in Sussex, he registered for his GP on the same day as his fiance. Her form went through instantly. His, complete with his name full of Eastern promise, somehow managed to get stuck in limbo for three months and only got processed once he started making some not-too-veiled threats to them down the phone.

What I want to know is, to what extent are my and my colleague’s experiences related to a policy – unofficial or otherwise – to crack down on health tourism? This is the only semi-rational explanation I can come up with. But how well thought out is this policy? From where I’m sitting it is a policy that is doomed to fail. If you are determined to register, you will get on (and if you’ve come all the way from another country, you will be pretty determined). If on the other hand you aren’t really that bothered, you stay adrift. I’m only registering now, partly because of the endless nagging from pretty much my whole family (it’s a conspiracy!) and the fact that my asthma has come back with a vengeance after being in abeyance for the best part of six years.

In the case of the asthma, if I had managed to register four years ago, I’d have always had a beclazone and salbutamol inhaler on hand. If truth be told, it would almost certainly not have got as bad as it is now. Result? Assuming I do manage to get registered, I will probably end up taking more time than I would have done otherwise. And yes, I know, I should have seen this coming. I should look after myself more in general. But life gets in the way, and pretty much my entire experience of the NHS when I was a kid was having my mother told off by my dreadful then-GP for wasting his time (if he’d been a little more helpful, I somehow suspect my allergies would have been diagnosed before my twenties) and a dietician whose wonderful advice began and ended with eating more digestive biscuits. The clear message I got from the NHS when I was growing up was that I was broadly on my own and to only come to them in the case of a real emergency. So that tends to be what I do.

The NHS does a great job at looking after extremely sick people, treating injuries and in crisis situations, but in my experience it is absolutely appalling at preventative health. Is it really that difficult to provide everyone with the basics such as a registration system that can cope with people moving house every now and again? I do believe in universal healthcare, free at the point of need, but I do wish they didn’t seem to go so out of their way to test my patience.

* Which is basically a ridiculously cute little road with its own war memorial, village green, Lion, The Witch and The Wardobe-esque streetlight** and property prices in the millions. Needless to say I was renting!

** Since the Pevensie children are supposed to come from Finchley, I’ve often wondered if this was somehow an inspiration for the Narnia books, but have no way of knowing.

Stoke dumps mayor

Stoke on Trent has voted to get rid of its directly elected mayor, something which a large number of Lewisham residents have been trying to do for years. Can anyone explain to me why the former referendum was allowed but not the latter?

Part of the explanation may be the comparative strength of the BNP in Stoke – Labour might be able to live with the odd Tory or Lib Dem mayor, but a BNP mayor – whose decisions could only be overturned by a two thirds majority in council – is not a prospect they were prepared to face. It’s okay to have elective dictatorships, just not if the people are in danger of electing the wrong elective dictatorship.

Glancing at their council’s political makeup, the politics of the place are a little idiosyncratic, with a large grouping of “City Independents,” a “Conservative and Independents Alliance”, a “Potteries Alliance” a smattering in non-aligned councillors and of course the blogosphere’s own cause celebre Gavin Webb. I remember campaigning in Stoke in a by-election during an LDYS conference back in 1998 (someone will have to remind me – was Gavin the candidate?). At the time, I seem to recall the Lib Dem success meant that there was a non-Labour councillor on the council for the first time in years. I appreciate I’m biased, but I do get the distinct impression that all these “independents” are an illustration of a system collapsing following years of hegemonic control. Only when they finally get some proper party politics back into the area will they finally begin to inject a bit of vision back into the city.

Labour’s answer to one-party strongholds was directly elected mayors, yet they have spectacularly failed to set the world on fire. Watford Mayor Dorothy Thornhill wrote an article in Lib Dem Voice a few months ago in defence of the policy, but failed to cite how they had made a difference in any tangible way. And while I have no love of Ian Blair, his single-handed dismissal by Boris Johnson easlier this month chilled me to the bone. A single person should not be able to effectively sack a police chief like that. No-one politicised the role of Metropolitan Commissioner more than Ian Blair himself, but the answer was less politicisation not more.

So well done Stoke for making a good decision. And here’s hoping the rest of us will get a similar opportunity.

Pallin’ around with sexists?

So is the left condoning sexism against Sarah Palin? Kira Cochrane thinks so, and cites numerous examples. I’m less convinced.

Is there sexism out there about Sarah Palin? Absolutely. But what is so remarkable about Larry Flynt making a Sarah Palin film, as opposed to all the other porn films he has produced over the years?

The more serious charge is that progressives are indulging in misogyny to attack Palin. Here, Kira has an ally in Peter Hitchens who was making such claims as early as late August, loudly applauded by Iain Dale (Iain has since changed his mind about her), and it is certainly true there have been the odd attack that sneaks into sexist territory. I’ve been looking through the Sarah Palin Sexism Watch pages on Shakesville and some of them are on the money while others, not so much. But here’s the thing: people have been openly discussing Palin and misogyny pretty much since the day she entered the world stage. It’s one of the most hotly contested subjects out there at the moment. Cochrane’s article implies somehow that there is a conspiracy of silence to not talk about it; I simply don’t accept that.

We also get into very murky territory; where does legitimate criticism end and sexism begin? It is surprising for an article on the subject for Cochrane’s not to mention the whole lipstick on a pig/pitbull debacle, yet this was one of the iconic moments of the campaign so far. Is “Caribou Barbie” sexist? Yes, actually, although it is something Palin herself referred to on her SNL appearance. What about the reports that she has spent $150,000 on clothes for the campaign? On one level, this is a simple story of a grasping politician. On the other hand, it feeds into the “Caribou Barbie” sentiment. So should we not mention it, or that she spent the money on clothes? For feminists, Palin’s attitude towards abortion is a particular talking point. Somehow the fact that it is a woman expressing those views is more provocative than if it was a man (cf. Nadine Dorries). How to do ensure that criticism of the candidate is entirely ungendered without muting that criticism? This is a more interesting discussion in my view than a handful of anecdotes of people clearly crossing the line.

When it comes to Palin and sexism, what I don’t see is any particular trend. By contrast, when it comes to discrimination I have seen far more ageism in the media (both MSM and amateur variety) about McCain. Regarding Palin herself, I’ve been uncomfortable on more than one occasion by the way she is attacked not for being a woman but for being a hick. From this side of the pond, the US looks like a pretty divided nation at the moment – something which Palin herself is particularly responsible for. But her opponents have been happy to go for the bait. And again, is it really fair to say that the attacks on her intellect are gendered when we have just had eight years of abuse heaped upon the current US President, who happens to be male?

Finally, Cochrane writes that one of her interviewees has received emails from women who were considering entering politics who have been put off by the attacks made on Palin. But how many women will have seen Palin and been inspired? We don’t know and it is an entirely moot point at the moment, but I do think we are seeing a sea change. Even twelve months ago, the idea of having a male-female ticket was not even on the agenda. Despite failing to secure a place for herself, Hillary Clinton changed this (irrevocably? We’ll know in four years). I simply refuse to believe that any woman worthy of political office could not have seen that, and the obstacles that Obama has overcome, and not find some inspiration. Whatever happens on 4 November, history will be made. The question is, will attempts be made to capture that inspiration, or will key opinion formers and campaigners purely focus on the negative? The history of the political women’s movement suggests that there will be a bit of both.

Where’s Lemby’s Answers? Day 4

Adrian Pennock” (is this some obscure football/Ipswich angle I haven’t come across?) has a new angle on the conspiracy theory:

Lembit’s conspiracy angle sits well with the refusal to organise official hustings and let members see for themselves that the Baroness ought not to be party president for very obvious reasons which would be exposed in a hustings scenario.

The fundamental flaw in this theory is that with Lembit by far the highest profile candidate, he is the main beneficiary of the lack of official hustings (although in point of fact there have been several unofficial ones).

Apparently, any discussion of the prospect of Lembit appearing on Celebrity Big Brother is nothing but a vicious slur made up by his opponents. The very idea! So, I thought I’d show you all a video of Lembit, erm, appearing on Celebrity Big Brother:

Lembit of course claims that appearing on such programmes keeps the party in touch with people who would otherwise ignore us. Believe it or not, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that theory, but surely we have enough evidence now to demonstrate it one way or another. So come on, where is it?

Where’s Lemby’s Answers?* Day 3

Another day, another opportunity for Lembit to exercise his right to reply. Not much to add today, so I thought I’d just provide a little light entertainment:

The questions in question, of course, are:

a) Since Lembit claims to have such great campaigning and communications skills, why have the Liberal Democrats in Wales stagnated in the last two assembly elections (sticking with six AMs in 1999, 2003 and 2007)?

b) Given the deep problems at the heart of the Kennedy leadership, wasn’t it an error of judgment to stand by him? Loyalty is easy – a nodding dog at the back of a car can do it. Don’t the “rebels” – including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable – deserve credit for taking a difficult decision that Lembit lacked the resolve to take?

c) Why didn’t Lembit stand against Simon Hughes in 2006? Hughes presided over a string of failures, most notoriously watching the party’s membership fall by 10,000 members despite having pledged to treble the membership in two years. Again, doesn’t that suggest a lack of resolve?

d) Why wasn’t Lembit’s campaign ready in Bournemouth? Frankly, it was a total mess. Ros Scott launched her campaign exactly 12 months before, so it isn’t as if Lembit didn’t know she was serious. Is this the level of professionalism we can expect from him? Don’t actions speak louder than words?

* As featured on MoreFourNews.

C4 News Poll: Cable for Chancellor! (UPDATE)

I was on MoreFourNews this evening, talking about Channel Four News’ YouGov poll of marginal constituencies:

(it’s all televisual LIES by the way – the whole thing was done in green screen in ITN’s underground Danger Room. I half expected Gollum to virtually take part as the fourth guest.)

Because the poll is mainly focused on Lab-Con marginals (with a couple of Lib-Cons and three way marginals thrown into the mix), there isn’t much to comment on from a Lib Dem perspective. The main lesson is that the polls are incredibly volatile at the moment. C4’s poll last month predicted a 150 Tory majority; now it’s down to 50. If that was the situation going into a General Election, a hung parliament would very much still be on the cards.

The other lesson is that the Tories are doing really badly when it comes to public confidence in their ability to manage the economy; a complete inversion from 20 years ago. George Osborne’s ratings are atrocious. And this is a potential opening for the Lib Dems. While 15% think Darling is the best chancellor, 12% say Osborne and 19% say Cable (and among Tory supporters, Osborne only beat Cable by 28% to 20%, a damning indictment in itself in my view). If this was a nationwide poll, Cable’s rating would no doubt be even higher.

As I discussed in my CiF piece today, that isn’t translating into support for the party. It is however something to build on. We finally appear to have started moving beyond our media-imposed narrative of going through a period of implosion and uncertainty. 2008 has been a relatively gaffe-free year.

All the post-Kennedy crap is still lingering, but it is fading fast and will have almost vanished by 2010. My prediction is that with Cable lending us credibility and Clegg an unknown quality, we’re currently looking at quite a good general election. Both Ashdown in 1992 and Kennedy in 2001 managed to defy the low expectations people had of them.

Clegg still needs knocking into shape; nothing will convince me that the confusions this summer over tax didn’t lead to our autumn conference being a wasted opportunity. But if he can learn from his mistakes then I still wouldn’t rule out net gains.

Over on Comment is Free: Party like it’s 1909

My latest article on Comment is Free:

At a time when Vince and Nick are supporting government policy of giving banks high interest loans with the aim of getting them to pay off their debts before handing anything back to shareholders, it seems a little odd to say that the chancellor should not adopt the same fiscal prudence. That isn’t to say the party’s policy on shifting tax should be abandoned, but we are unlikely to be in a position to issue overall tax cuts any time soon.

I’m also going to be on MoreFourNews this evening, apparently with Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home and Jag Singh of Labour Home.