Monthly Archives: December 2008

One Year On: Orange Bookers Found Wanting

If the newspapers are anything to go by, Nick Clegg has taken the party irreversibly to the right; we are all economic liberals now.

Strange then that, on the day Clegg marks his first year as leader he unveils a policy of purist Keynsianism. Still, as the old saying goes: if you have a reputation as an early riser you can lie in until noon.

The Green Road Out Of Recession is not merely not a tax cut – it is an alternative to a tax cut. That low rumbling noise you can here is David Laws’ teeth grinding.

But I am here to praise Clegg, not bury the so-called Orange Bookers. I was relatively supportive in principle of a VAT cut; a VAT cut is better than the Tory plan to do nothing. The Green Road Out of Recession is better still.

Cobden’s complaint that the money won’t be spent immediately is, to use his choice turn of phrase “utter bollocks.” If the UK government were committed to this plan, it could start handing out cash to private contractors within a matter of days. That would mean saving real jobs at a vulnerable time; jobs and skills that no fiscal stimulus could save.

Reading through it all (pdf), it really is a great piece of policy work, matching campaign objectives with specific costings. In short, it is everything Make it Happen and Clegg’s ill-advised blagging about vast bulky tax cuts was not. On top of that, it offers economic relief in the short term followed by a boost to our environmental and social goals in the longer term. Steve Webb deserves hearty congratulations. It kicks caboose.

Fundamentally, it shows that for all his talk about not wanting statist solutions, there is still a real place for precisely that. In this case, one of purest economics, the more rightwing economic liberals simply have nothing to say. They’re whole case is built on a presumption on excess capacity and endless growth; as soon as both those presumptions go out of the window all they can do is stare dumbly.

So at end of a… variable year, I find myself with a big smile on my face. A clear sign that we are going in the right direction at last. Here’s hoping the next twelve months will have a lot more days like today in it.

Coleman’s hatch should be trapped shut

There is something excrutiating about being represented by Brian Coleman. I’m not so partisan that I cannot tolerate having MPs and Assembly members of other political parties. I’ve never particularly felt shame at being represented, through the years, by Jackie Lait, Gerald Kaufman, Hilary Benn (must stop namechecking Benns!), James Plaskitt or Rudi Vis. Yes, being represented by the Labour government’s pet-filibuster-in-chief has been known to grate on occasion. But nothing – nothing – amounts to the shame in having Brian Coleman represent me in City Hall.

The episode regarding gratuitously insulting Lynne Featherstone is just the latest in a series of examples perfectly illustrating how the man is unfit for public office, and yet the London Conservatives continue to place him in top jobs. The man calling for Lynne to repay him £250 racked up £8,000 in taxi fares last year. The man who accuses Lynne of not having an accurate view of safety is scared of driving through Haringey. The man who bandies around sexist insults accuses people of homophobia when he doesn’t get his own way. I would recommend people go to the Facebook group dedicated to following his career for more.

Coleman’s career is entirely reliant on an electoral system that denies people a proper choice. Most Tory supporters, given the choice, would happily get rid of him and replace him with another Conservative who didn’t make them look stupid. Instead, we’re all stuck with him.

Lembit Opik: real men hate women

I wasn’t going to blog about Lembit’s new column (fnarr! fnarr! snork!) – I figure I’ve fulfilled my quota of Lembit bashing for the year. But then he went and said something stupid:

“This is part of my own stated objective to reach beyond the normal political limits to people who may not be particularly interested in Parliament, but will find it interesting if the info is presented in a non-pompous or technical way.

“That’s my goal, and I hope anyone who values the benefit of a politically informed society will agree with this approach.

“It’s politics for real people, and, thanks to the Sport, I’m glad to have the opportunity.”

How does one define “real”? If by “real” you mean people who aren’t obsessed by politics, fair enough, but that doesn’t make Daily Sport readers “real” by definition. The Sport has 80,000 readers. That’s less than half the readers of the worst selling UK “quality” (I would demur from this description) daily, The Independent. If he was claiming to be reaching out to people that mainstream politics usually ignores, that is true as far as it goes. But suggesting they are ordinary and typical of the man in the street is not merely factually wrong, it is demeaning to the typical man in the street.

Whichever way you dress it up though, the Daily Sport is misogyny. We can argue about whether porn can be empowering or not until the cows come home, but there is no fuzzy grey area where the Sport, Nuts and Zoo are concerned. The days when it used to get away with presenting itself as a UK version of the National Enquirer (double decker found on the moon!) are long gone. I wouldn’t ban it, or even insist it is on the top shelf, but letting it crawl into a corner and die would be a thoroughly good thing for society. Is Lembit going to challenge that misogyny or just go along with it? We shall see.

One of the things I find remarkable about all this is how even criticising the Sport and other soft porn titles as sexist has somehow become socially unacceptable. The debate on Lib Dem Voice skirted around the issue (I have to admit to failing to get my outrage on there), merely focusing on whether Lembit’s decision to do this would do the party more harm than good. The argument – from Julian H, Iain Coleman and others – went that, so long as it didn’t actually harm the party electorally, and potentially reached out to new voters, it was unimpeachable.

I can’t help but suspect this phenomena is all too closely related to Emily Benn’s avowed post-feminism. Lembit, lest we forget, is Liberal Vision’s “most liberal MP” – liberalism, we are to believe, is now to be graded according to which Early Day Motions you have signed. If British liberalism really has become so timid and self-conscious that it feels it cannot even criticise (as distinct from ban) the illiberal, then it is lost.

Representation in politics: what has gender got to do with it?

One anniversay, two very different ways of covering it. The Today programme opted to mark the 90th anniversary of the first woman elected to the Commons by interviewing the son of a hereditary peer and his granddaughter. Both of them poured cold water over the idea of all women shortlists altough, this being Tony Benn, he then instantly contradicted himself by calling for a system of doubling up constituencies to ensure they were all 50% male and 50% female.

Emily Benn, I’m afraid, rather drew my ire by describing herself as “post the 1970s, 1980s feminist agenda.” So, that would make you anti-equal pay, anti-choice, pro-casual sexism in the workplace and pro-domestic violence, then? If not, what was the 1970s, 1980s feminist “agenda” you consider so irrelevant? What do they teach in that school of her’s these days?

As someone who spent a lot of time in youth politics in the 90s, I found Emily’s “I am not a feminist” stance wearily familiar. In fact, she reminded me a lot of the 19 year old Jo Swinson. The older Jo Swinson however is much wiser, and on politics.co.uk has this to say:

“It’s not harder for women. It’s just harder for carers.”

“The division of family duties in society is still very unequal. This is what we find all the time. Women get involved in politics in their twenties and then in their thirties they say ‘I’ll take time out’. But men don’t take that time out.”

This is an absolutely crucial point, and one which so often gets missed or glossed over – sadly all too often by organisations like Fawcett. So often this debate gets turned into a simplistic, and thus irrelevant, debate about all women shortlists and not about what a truly representative parliament would look like. It wouldn’t look like the current one except with the male lawyers and political careerists replaces with female lawyers and political careerists. It would have a broader range of men. Let’s not forget that the woman whose achievement 90 years ago we are marking today, was a countess. John Harris has criticised the new Speaker’s Conference on a more representative parliament for ignoring class and he is absolutely correct.

Emily Benn may have very little chance of getting elected as the next MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, but if she chooses to stick with it, she is all but a shoo-in for the general election after next, largely thanks to the family name and the other advantages being a member of a family which has provided her with a stable family life and a good education. I hope that, as she grows older, she will gain an insight into that advantage instead of using the platform that advantage affords her to belittle the cause for women’s rights.

As I’ve written before, the BBC does not have a “liberal” bias per se, it has a middle class bias. Their coverage of this anniversary is an excellent case in point.

In the name of all that is decent – don’t let X-Factor steal the Christmas Number One!

Just watched Alexandra Burke’s massacre of Hallelujah on YouTube. What a travesty of a debacle. Is it too much to ask to have just a handful of songs not rendered into lowest common denominator soul pop pap? Why does everything have to be Mariah Careyised? Good gracious. This is how it should be done:

If there is any justice in the world, Burke will be denied the Christmas number one. Now, I’ve looked into this, and apparently you don’t rig the singles chart these days by charting an expedition down to Woolies any more (good thing too, all things considered); you do it through use of teh wireless interwebs. And at 79p a time, its like rummaging through the remaindered singles in Woolies but with a reasonable expectation that you can get something rather better than Doop.

The only question is, which record? Personally I will be limiting myself to two, taking part in the predictable Rickroll (go with the Zeitgeist) and helping to support the effort to get Jeff Buckley in the top spot. I figure it can’t hurt to back a couple of horses – getting X-Factor down to number three would be soooo sweet.

You have your instructions – hop to it!

Whatever happened to dignity in politics?

No, this isn’t an attack on Lembit Opik’s decision to resume his column for the Daily Sport.

Screenshot from Tory email.Screenshot from Myxer.comInstead it is to draw your attention to an email I’ve just been sent by the Conservatives. They are still jumping with joy about the fact that the pro-Euro, economically leftwing Peer Steinbruck made some critical comments about Brown’s economic policy, stretching the idea of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” to breaking point. And as an added bonus, they are offering people free ringtones of Gordon Brown’s “saving the world” gaffe. I followed that link. It took me to a website called myxer.com. It suggests that the sort of person who would like this ringtone would also like “yous a hoe” (I assume this isn’t a reference to the correct application of garden tools) and “N.I.G.G.E.R..”

It this really what passes for Tory opposition these days? Uncritically praising any criticism of the government, regardless of the source, and peddling ringtones? Credit must go to Jeremy Hunt – a week into the job as the new Tory online campaign chief, he has taken a clear aim for the gutter and hit the ballseye.

Am I being oversensitive? I don’t have much love for Gordon Brown, a man who never fails to disappoint me, but I have to admit to feeling a certain amount of kinship for him. There is something about the braying mob on the Tory benches that I detest, just as there is something about Brown that gives them an allergic reaction. But just as I have to admit to seeing a certain amount of myself in Brown when he stumbles as he did this week in PMQs, could it be that the ra-ra Tories see a bit of themselves in him as well? Could it be that while the liberal response is to empathise, the reactionary response is to goad, to bray, to bully? I know of at least one Tory member whose response to the gaffe was not that Brown had cocked up, but that he was “telling lies.” When it gets that irrational, you know there is something deeply psychological at play.

We all like a joke, but most of us know where the joke ends and continuing to go on about it just starts looking embarrassing and undignified. You would have thought that CCHQ would have learned the lessons of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, but clearly not.

Social bookmarking-a-go-go

You’ll have noticed that I’ve got rather carried away with social bookmarking “vote” buttons (to the right if you are reading the blog at source). Why? Well, LibDig has been a small success but I’m keen to explore how to what extent I can use these things to widen my blogs’ reach. I started experimenting with Politigg and I’ve brought that back. But I’ve also added buttons for Wikio and Digg.

What’s interesting with the other two is that although I’ve been aware of both for some time, I’ve never used them in the same way that I take LibDig for granted. The reason is that they seem like too big a pool to dip into. Unless you are already established, you sink in them like a stone (this is more true of Digg, but then Digg appears to get used far more). My question is, can a good rating on one website lead to popularity on another? It remains to be seen.

Another thing I’ve done is to automatically not include Politigg and LibDig buttons for my non-political posts, which is why neither appear to the side of this post!

It’s interesting how there appears to be a Digg divide, incidentally. I can’t find a single post by either Iain Dale or Guido Fawkes on the site, despite their popularity in the UK political blogosphere and despite the former, at least, having Digg buttons on his posts. How does one break into it, I wonder?

Lord Jacobs becomes rightwingers’ new poster child

The Times reports that Lord Jacobs has quit the party to sit as a crossbencher on the grounds that the party’s position on tax does not include tax cuts for the rich, paid for (if Lord Rennard is to be believed) by a 6p hike in NIC. Despite Sam Coates’ best attempts to dress this story up into another typical Times piece of donor porn (I was half-expecting the piece to start going on about the quality of the soft-furnishings in his central London home and to coo erotically over the prospect of him owning a yacht), it hardly looks damaging for the party. Old man in a hurry throws toys out of pram. Shrug.

What is rather more interesting has been the reaction on Lib Dem Voice. The general reaction has been one of bemusement, but Tim Leunig leapt to Jacob’s defence:

It is easy to rush to attack someone who is leaving, but I think this is a bit churlish. Lord Jacobs has worked very hard for the party over the past twenty years, in financial and other ways. He is not someone who turned up, donated £100k one day and became a Lord the next without understanding or supporting our principles. When someone that committed leaves the sensible thing is to sit them down and talk to them. Because who knows, they may be representative of a chunk of the party.

Except that, um, no-one was attacking him. Later still, Oranjepan quipped:

“…Jacobs his obviously flounced off in a huff…”

Oh dear, I don’t think anyone could seriously believe that (I mean seriously!).

For someone who has been around our party (and forebears) for so long he is clearly aware of our role in the process and pragmatic enough not to have walked away during more contentious times.

Jacobs clearly sees some other merit in these actions as he is still overtly supportive, so I think it will be interesting to see whether he continues to be a donor to the party… wheels with wheels…

My feeling is that he has deliberately isolated himself in order to open up a debate on this issues. If the Fabians and others are coming out in favour of Clegg’s leadership then these manoeuvers demonstrate clear political dexterity and a full awareness of how opinion is formed.

At age 77 such a principled gambit should be applauded and it shows he has both the nous and the cojones to make one more throw of the dice.

I genuinely don’t understand this. Cutting personal taxes by raising employer NIC is not a tax cut at all. To use Osborne-esque rhetoric, it is a tax con. It would massively increase the cost of employing people. Those who weren’t made redundant as a result of the hike would find their wages suppressed over the medium term and find themselves no better off over the longer term. And what is this to pay for? A tax cut for the pensions of the wealthy.

I can understand why an old school Tory would be attracted to such an idea – as I said before they aren’t the free marketeers they are often portrayed as – but why would an economic liberal be attracted to it?

It does seem, superficially at least, that they got drawn in by the Times (and Jacobs’ own) spin about tax cuts and thought they would portray him as some kind of martyr of the right. The enemies’ enemy is my friend, and all that. It is quite curious and generally surprising. I look forward to seeing if this is the start of a discernable pattern with interest.

Why the green movement fails [ADDENDUM]

I went on the National Climate March yesterday, as those who read my tweets will be painfully aware. The march itself was the usual festive fun, although not well attended (the organisers say 10,000 people attended, the police say 5,000 – by my own estimate it was somewhere between the two):

(credit: Helen Duffett @ LibDemVoice)

I don’t usually stick around for the rallies of these things – I feel I’ve done my bit by marching – but as Cleggy was speaking I decided to hang about. I’m afraid that the speeches that followed highlighted for me everything that is wrong with the green movement.

The rally began with music by Seize the Day, a terribly earnest group of folk singers. Not content with singing songs, the lead singer (pace Bono), decided to try his hand at proselytising. I really do wish he’d kept his mouth shut. Leaving aside his rather confused attempt at sarcasm about being glad people hadn’t taken direct action against Tesco for selling patio heaters (I couldn’t work out if he was implying he was disappointed at the crowd’s failure to storm the nearby Tesco Metro), he ranted about how disgraceful it was that politicians had constantly failed to take action on climate change and called for people to “occupy” Parliament next year. At one point, I swear he said we needed to “tear down Parliament” to ensure that we have “proper laws.” Think about that for a second.

A bit later one of the other speakers denounced the fact that, as awareness of climate change has grown, the very same companies who grew rich from carbon fuels are now being allowed to diversify into environmentally friendly industries. Finally, speaker after speaker announced that the only way to make progress on the environment was to have more direct action. I’m afraid to say that, with the exception of Nick Clegg and to a certain extent Caroline Lucas (I’ll let her off for denouncing “that place behind me” – i.e. Westminster Abbey – for failing to take action on climate change; even the most fervant believer of the Da Vinci Code would probably assume she meant the place on her right), the nonsense on show at the rally was of such a high quotient that it qualified as organic, sustainably-sourced fertiliser itself.

First of all, politicians. In the 13 years I’ve been involved in party politics, I can honestly say that – regardless of political party – the average MP is ahead of the curve when it comes to the environment than the average person in the street. It isn’t that MPs “don’t listen,” it’s that they listen only too well. They talk to people on the doorsteps and in their surgeries, they read the opinion polls, and they are made painfully aware, day after day, that the vast majority of the public do not consider real action to minimise climate change to be a serious option. Far from being undemocratic, MPs are only too willing to bend to public opinion when it comes to this issue.

Now, it’s true that the political system could be more responsive than it is, although constitutional reform wasn’t on the CACC’s list of demands, but that responsiveness works both ways. If we had an electoral system which meant the Green Party was proportionally represented in Westminster, we’d also pave the way for UKIP, and even more denier-oriented parties to get representation.

Where the political class has arguably failed is to provide decent leadership on this issue. Even though there were two party leaders speaking at the rally yesterday, neither of the two main parties have taken a stand and held firm even as public opinion oscillates between environmentalism and consumerism. Dave Cameron was notable by his absense yesterday. But the green movement itself is hardly guiltless in this regard. Interest in the environment has increased substantially in recent years, largely thanks to Al Gore, but it barely hit the mainstream before being dumped in favour of economic concerns. If the green movement can’t inspire the public, it can hardly blame the political class for failing to do its job for it.

Regarding big business, here is an inconvenient truth the environmentalists themselves need to recognise: if we are to achieve a global shift towards green technology, Big Oil are going to end up being a large part of the solution not the problem. They have the spending power, the infrastructure and the global reach. Tear them down and nothing will replace them for decades.

Complaining about them for moving into the biofuels business, and implying this is all part of some vast, anti-green conspiracy, is just stupid. Cast your mind back five years ago and you will find that the biggest champions for biofuels (CACC insist on calling them agrofuels – presumably because it sounds a bit like “aggro” – but it should be agrifuels, surely?), was the green movement. Just 18 months ago I had a very loud and vocal argument with a friend, who fancies himself to be both an environmentalist and a scientist, who denied there was any evidence at all to suggest that biofuels could be environmentally harmful. Despite the West Wing being ahead of the curve on this one, awareness of how self-defeating the switch to biofuels could be has come extremely late. To hector corporates in the unforgiving tones that were on display yesterday is extremely misplaced.

On the merits of direct action, I would certainly agree that it has its place and if environmentalists want to try occupying the Houses of Parliament then good luck to them. But was the vote for women won by the Suffragette, as Caroline Lucas suggests? Only partly. It was the suffragists who did all the spadework; the Suffragette’s switch to direct action in reaction to Asquith’s betrayal may have kept the issue in the public eye, but it was the economic necessity of the post-War period that lead to women getting the vote. Maybe what we need to get action on the environment is a bloody great war? Any takers? No?

But again we return to the fact that the general public is largely disinterested and is resoundingly hostile to any meaningful action that might affect them. Direct action can raise awareness but ultimately, on this issue, it has thus far resoundingly failed to change hearts and minds in sufficient numbers. Direct action can’t affect a paradigm shift, it can only give voice to something that is already there.

The green movement has proven itself to be extremely good at winning battles, particularly battles that both the crusties and the nimbies can agree on, but it is losing the war. I wouldn’t bet on Heathrow’s third runway being built – the opposition has reached a real head of steam now – but when it comes to significant global action the picture is more mixed.

The environmental movement is overdue a rethink. It is for this reason that I very nearly decided to go to the march with these guys, Serious Change:

I didn’t in the end because, to be frank, I’m already in the “serious change” business. That is, I’ve joined a political party, work within that party to ensure it is as environmentally conscious as possible, and work to get that party elected (less so these days, but still). If every individual who marched yesterday joined one of the main parties and campaigned within it for change, I can guarantee that things would change pretty quickly. But just as the general public requires a paradigm shift to recognise how its behaviour and attitude is destroying the planet, so the green movement needs a paradigm shift to recognise that the boring old job of influencing the public and working with the dreaded “men in gray suits.” Party politics is often far too slow, and it needs outside influences, but the greenies allergy to engaging with it has become self-defeating. It is time to stop the anti-politics bollocks and recognise that if you are interested in anything more than the onanism of hairshirt puritanism, you have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

ADDENDUM: Yoink! I missed out a whole section of what I planned to write!

At the end of the march, one disappointed Lib Dem said to me that he felt we should have encouraged people to go on a by-election campaign instead. Well, leaving aside for one moment the fact that that wouldn’t have worked on me, I couldn’t disagree less. It shouldn’t be a prime concern of the party, but turning up to marches like this is crucial. If the change in mindset highlighted above is to happen, the Lib Dems will play a crucial role in bridging the chasm between mainstream politics and the green movement. Although my much ridiculed idea for a samba band has wider applications too, it would be a real boost in getting people at demos to, quite literally, dance to our tune.

But for it to be really worthwhile, much more work needs to go into promoting the event and getting people to come along. We did this for the 2003 Iraq march and it paid dividends. Looking at the free applications available online at our disposal these days, it can be done with far less effort now.

This really ought to be something Liberal Youth should be excelling in. Genuine question: what’s stopping you?

The Tories’ “totally non-relevant” TV slot

Lib Dem Voice point to a Liverpool Daily Post story about a Tory PPB.

A SOUTHPORT builder who was tagged the Tories’ version of “Joe the Plumber” was last night at the centre of a major political row.

Shane Prescott starred in the Conservative party broadcast on Thursday, claiming his business had struggled because of the recession.

But Companies House records show the 51-year-old father-of-four’s loft conversion firm actually went into liquidation at the height of the boom in 2006.

Prescott’s response:

“The Company went into Voluntary Liquidation two years ago, as it was trading from an insolvent position, this fact was disclosed prior to broadcast, and was felt to be totally non-relevant to the issues addressed within the interview.”

Totally non-relevant? The fact that the company had financial difficulties at the height of the building boom?

What is extraordinary is this attempt to recreate a “Joe the Plumber” UK despite the fact that it brought John McCain mixed success at best. But the finest example of Tory flummery for me was their boast that, as an alternative to the VAT reduction, they will allow businesses to defer their VAT payments for six months. Surely their whole argument against tax cuts has been that they aren’t real cuts but a payment deferral? Is something magic expected to happen over the next six months that will suddenly make the economy booming again? If Cameron and Osborne know something (perhaps they have a mole in the Treasury), they really should share; the stockmarket could do with knowing. It isn’t as if they aren’t quick to shout about the bad news.

You won’t find either Cameron or Shane Prescott utter a single word of criticism of the bankers that got us into this mess. Fortunately, Nick Clegg has somewhat better critical faculties: