Monthly Archives: September 2007

Squaxxweek on the BBC (UPDATED)

This week is Squaxxweek on the BBC.

Tomorrow, Phil Jupitus will be exploring 2000AD‘s origins and history on Radio 4. Then on Monday, Armando Iannucci does the same thing on BBC 4, albeit with a bit of Viz thrown in.

It’s got to be more interesting than boring Labour conference, no?

UPDATE: Just listened to the Phil Jupitus programme. Good nostalgic fun. In particular it was good to hear Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill. If you missed it, it should be on Radio Four’s Listen Again soon.

My intimate chat with Matthew Parris about fisking

Matthew Parris interviewed me on his Times podcast at Lib Dem conference. On the one hand I struggle a bit when explaining the term fisking; on the other hand they spared my blushes by not including the bit I totally fluffed talking about Ming. Not sure I should have said that the conference felt like a funeral at the start either.

Oh God, I’m starting to worry about my media. How establishment! 🙁

Craig Murray and Tim Ireland: in solidarity

At the risk of not having anything particularly new or interesting to say, I thought I’d better add my voice to the growing throng condemning Alisher Usmanov’s successful bid to shut down Craig Murray and Tim Ireland. It illustrates the vulnerability the blogosphere has to punitive libel laws such as the ones we have in this country; similar action against a newspaper would be much more difficult (although legal action against a newspaper’s distributor has been attempted in the past). Many of us are hosted by small companies who are incredibly vulnerable to the merest threat of legal action. Does such a thing exist? I can only find a single reference to one Out There – and that is to a call for a US version.

UPDATE: The BBC have reported Usmanov buying a blocking stake in Arsenal, but have not covered this angle. Curious, no?

Ming Campbell outed as Georgist secularist human being!

Odd last day of conference for me as I got to bookend Ming’s speech. I was in the fundraising video they showed at the start, having agreed to be a prop for Greg Stone to talk about the value of online advertising. In retrospect, it looked rather like a Children in Need appeal with a celebrity asking for money to support special needs kids. Not the most glorious start to my new sideline in whoring out my “celebrity” status for the good of the party (which I suspect has already come to an end).

At the other end of the speech, I was interviewed on News 24 for a quick reaction. My reaction then, as now, was one of faintly surprised praise. Ming was good in a number of different ways and his speech was the most rousing I’ve heard a Lib Dem leader give since 1999.

Kennedy certainly had his moments, but always struggled to fill a whole 45 minutes without sagging. Worse, I don’t think he was ever blessed with particularly awe-inspiring speeches – something which he cannot absolve himself of the blame for. This speech was more consistent than Kennedy at his best and while the delivery was little more than competent, the content was much stronger.

Two passages in particular leapt out for me. First of all, Ming declared himself a secularist:

Discrimination and intimidation have no place in a liberal society.

And on the matter of faith, let’s be clear.

A truly liberal society guarantees the freedom of all religions, but it accepts the tyranny of none.

People must be free to live without threat or fear.

To say the things, write the words and live the lives they choose.

Does that offend some people?

Yes, of course.

But the price of freedom is the risk of offence –

And, for me, that price is always worth paying.

I like to think even Laurence Boyce would be pleased to hear a Lib Dem party leader say that. He didn’t need to tackle this issue here; he chose to. That suggests a leader with strong liberal instincts. Can you imagine the Conservative or Labour leader saying the same over the next fortnight?

Secondly, he dealt with the interesting area of environmental rights:

And at the foundation of it all a Bill of Rights –

A Bill of Rights to reclaim the civil liberties stolen from us by this Labour government.

A Bill of Rights to anchor freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of association within our law.

And I am prepared to go further still.

Climate change is the greatest challenge facing the world today.

So I want a Bill of Rights that puts the protection of the environment at the very heart of Britain’s constitution:

We should guarantee the right of every citizen to clean water, pure air and unpolluted land.

I hope Ming appreciates the implications of what he has said here, because some of us will hold him to it. This passage effectively outs Ming as a Georgist. If everyone has an equal right to nature, then the privatisation of economic rent would be illegal. The BBC are missing the point when they suggest that it means that people would have a “right” to block new roads or airports. It could never be made to work that way (although environmental rights would of course have to be a consideration); what it would do is entitle people to a fair share of the wealth such projects create.

Frankly, this is radical stuff. We Georgists have contented ourselves to fighting for LVT in taxation policy working groups while the party leader effectively calls for the collection of economic rent to be hardwired into our constitution! Plaudits, Ming, plaudits. I look forward to these ideas being developed.

Finally, he finally realised that politics is personal:

Over the past few months I have travelled throughout this country.

I have had the privilege to meet – in private visits – some of the most extraordinary and courageous people:

People from all walks of life.

I met Jamal – a young musician who wants to go to university but is frustrated and angry at the prospect of being deep in debt.

I learned from him and his friends of the terrible waste of talent and the alienation of so many young people.

I met Anne, a 20 year old woman in prison for drug offences.

She’s had little formal education.

Yet she’s studying to take GCSEs and wants to enrol with the Open University.

I learned from her that if prisoners get proper education and training it will help them to find work on their release.

That’s the way to cut reoffending.

I met Jane – a 26 year old former addict, in a shelter for the homeless.

She has beaten her addiction.

She now hopes to get custody of her four young children.

I learned from her how important it is for the homeless to regain their self-respect and to feel that they are in control of their own lives.

I met Michael, a 29 year old British soldier who had suffered terrible injuries in a mortar attack in Iraq.

He was determined to get fit again and rejoin his unit.

I learned from him at first hand what our young men and women are going through in Iraq.

He told me he was lucky – two days before he was hit, one of his best friends had been killed by a single small piece of shrapnel.

That’s the price being paid for a war that should never have been.

These are inspiring people:

People with the spirit and determination to beat the odds.

But for every success there are too many stories of shattered dreams and frustrated ambitions.

There are too many forgotten people in Brown’s Britain.

What was interesting about this section in the speech is that it is here that Ming’s oratory came alive. Let’s be honest – he isn’t great at calling up great emotional swoops on demand. But in this section he came across as honest, sincere and respectful of these individuals’ dignity. The thing is, Ming is actually a good narrator. He tells stories well; he pitches policy poorly. Too many of his speeches and his predecessors’ have all been about relating official Rennard Approved(TM) policy bites. Not one of them has been as effective as these three simple human stories.

In my News 24 interview I said that Ming was the turtle to Cameron’s hare: he plods along but gets results while Dave falls apart before reaching the finishing line. Friends have since commented that they think this is a terrible analogy as it makes Ming look undynamic: personally I think it is time we started to concentrate on selling what he is rather than trying to pretend he’s something different. What was effective about this speech is that, broadly speaking, this is precisely what was done.

Next: let’s start selling the party on what it is rather than going around pretending it’s something different. One step at a time, I know.

Bernard Manning: an apology

Earlier today I compared Gareth Young in unfavourable terms to Bernard Manning. In light of Gareth’s subsequent comments, I now accept this was entirely unfair. Bernard Manning was at least honest with himself about what he believed in and never took himself too seriously. It is clear that no-one could ever accuse Gareth of either.

My favourite line is this:

James’ idea that all decisions that affect England are best handled at a UK or local level are a mechanical, almost fascist (sic), idea of democracy; it’s not about what form of government the people would want, but rather what form of government we think is best.

Seriously: support for local government and self-determination is fascist? I’ve never disputed that if the English want an English Parliament, they are welcome to one. My argument is that if someone is offered steak (real self-determination and genuine decentralisation), why would you settle for meatloaf (a centralised English Parliament)? I’ve never said anything different. The fact that this challenges and threatens the English nats’ sense of security so much is a constant source of amusement for me.

Extraordinary rant from Fiyaz Mughal

Fiyaz Mughal posted this extraordinary rant at 2.15am on Wednesday morning:

Come on! Don’t get taken in by ‘Big’ Names, Look at the Experience in Front of You

2.15.00am BST (GMT +0100) Wed 19th Sep 2007

Tomorrow is the first hustings of the mayoral candidacy for the Party and the past few days have shown me that British politics is being corroded by a desire to see ‘big names,’ rather than individuals who have experience and Party know how as basic skills. Ken and Boris need to be ‘matched’ in name value, yet I hear very little about having the skills and political capital to do so being part of the equation here at conference!

The strategy of the Party is to mark and carve out a niche that is different and anti-establishment. Enter into that strategy someone the Party believes fits into that role. The basic wisdom is that someone who knows the Party structures, the culture of it and the policies should through their experience, be the natural candidate. It is not only the storm clouds brewing in Brighton, I am afraid that the dark arts of supporting a candidate in subtle ways is taking place for the sake of the ‘anti-establishment’ figurehead.

Let’s hope that figurehead manages to traverse the many icebergs out there and there are many! The largest of this will be Ken, an ardent politico who has managed to develop 110 lives within his political career. “Icebergs ahead captain,” for I am steering a course that is true to the people of London and valid to the vast majority who want safety and security, better life chances and the ease to travel within the Capital.

I’ll leave to one side this stuff about icebergs (why is it that Lib Dems keep alluding to the Titanic at the moment? Is it because they’re looking forward to the Doctor Who Christmas Special? Yes, that’s the reason!). The Lib Dems should indeed choose a candidate with experience over and above a ‘name’ – that’s why, all things being equal, a former Deputy Metropolitan Police Commissioner would appear to have an advantage. And what’s this about the natural choice being someone “who knows the Party structures, the culture of it and the policies should through their experience”? That makes me the IDEAL candidate. It is normally a safe bet that if I’m the answer, you are asking the wrong question (unless the question is “who is blogger of the year?” of course. Hem hem).

What about someone with decades of experience working in London, across London, and in the service of London? Doesn’t that count for anything? Brian Paddick isn’t some career politician or dilettante who achieve celebrity status through appearing on Have I Got News For You? and thought he might give it a go. He’s someone with a serious level of credibility. Attacking him because his seniority in the police force granted him a certain level of fame is simply ridiculous.

This sort of petulant rant does nothing to help Mughal’s cause. In the past I’ve criticised the office of London Mayor on the basis that the lack of a London-wide demos leads parties to approach celebrity figures to be their candidate. Brian Paddick is one of just a handful of people in the city who manages to straddle both fame and authority. The fact that the party has attracted someone like Brian should be a cause of celebration. I’m sorry if that thwarts Mughal’s ambitions, but that’s life. If he was that serious he would surely have published a manifesto on his website at least before laying into the competition.

Cameron less popular than Campbell (UPDATE)

To paraphrase old Rudyard, we should treat our triumphs with the same contempt that we reserve for our disasters, but it is nonetheless glorious to see Cameron slipping in the opinion polls behind Ming Campbell (credit: Paul Walter. More here). What’s more, this can’t be called a conference bounce since most of the polling was done before conference started.

Ming makes the perfectly valid point that if you compare Ashdown and Kennedy’s standings at the same point during their leaderships, they had pretty much the same ratings that he has now, and Newsnight’s decision on Tuesday to misrepresent Ming by comparing his current ratings to Kennedy’s in 2004 was an utter disgrace. It’s clear that we still have a long way to go, but Cameron and the Tories seem to be stuck in self-destruct mode.

The most striking thing about this poll is how relatively unpopular Cameron is amongst his party faithful compared to Campbell. Having a net rating of only +25 among your own supporters is cause for alarm.

My challenge to all you Tories out there reading this is, given how much you’ve crowed in the past about Campbell failing to make an impact, what possible justification do you have now to support your own leader? Isn’t it time you called for him to resign? I await your comments with enthusiasm!

UPDATE: I’m still waiting for a single Tory to explain why Cameron should continue given his unpopularity.

Democracy and deckchairs

As David Heath alluded to, the media are studiously ignoring any discussion of democracy at this conference, so it’s incumbent on those of us who happen to think it is important to report what has been decided. Much as I agree with the motion on packaging, the fact that it has been prioritised (by whom? the media? the press office?) over and above proposals to fundamentally change our constitution is appalling.

I’m pleased that For the People, By the People was passed overwhelmingly and unamended. And while I only got to make a one-minute intervention, I’m pleased that there were two speakers who explicitly rejected the idea of an English Parliament to only one who spoke for (using the usual tired threats about “sleeping giants” – even Don Liberali would baulk at the disgraceful tone of English Nationalists – “nice country you’ve got there – it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it”).

Debates about democratic renewal are always an opportunity for certain people to make bonkers speeches, and we were not disappointed. Sandy Walkington did the rhetorical equivalent of a dad deciding to dance at the school disco by informing us that apparently there’s these things called the internet and text messaging that young people use a lot, and that because the paper wasn’t all about the internet and text messaging, it missed the point and that the members of the working group were thus all face slapping morons fit only to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

It all sounded remarkably similar to the sort of speech New Labour ministers would make in the early noughties. Never mind all this bollocks about having a constitution; if we want to engage young people we need to embrace text messaging! Despite Sandy’s exhortation, I don’t think Twitter is about to take the political world by storm just yet. He failed to appreciate two fundamental aspects about MoveOn. Firstly, in the broad scheme of things, despite huge numbers of supporters it hasn’t actually been terribly effective. Since its creation, every single presidential and mid-term election apart from the last one has gone Republican not Democrat. The Democrats’ victory in 2006 was more due to Bush’s incompetence than net activism; indeed the net’s most high profile intervention in 2006 – the attempt to oust Lieberman – was a crushing failure. That isn’t to say net activism hasn’t had an impact in softer, more subtle ways, but it hasn’t changed anything fundamental about American democracy.

Secondly, the model has not exported well in the UK. OurWorldOurSay failed to fly. Avaaz is going well, but that’s because it is a global movement, not just a UK one. The model hasn’t worked here mainly because we have neither the political culture associated with aggressive political advertising on TV, nor the philanthropic culture of giving to political causes. The tectonic plates may well be shifting, but there is no evidence to suggest we are sitting on the political equivalent of the San Andreas fault.

Fundamentally though, these developments only make the case for an entrenched constitution and Bill of Rights even more pressing. I’m all for an initiative and referendum system for example, but without a written constitution I fully accept we would need to be extraordinarily careful to prevent it being abused. Without these safeguards, the changes in culture that Walkington alludes to could lead to chaos. Far from rearranging the deckchairs, the working group has made a strong case for the need for the Titanic to change course.

And then there was the ironically named Paul Baron, who managed to combine a Marxist view of capitalism with a paean to the hereditary principle. His argument was that hereditary peers would be less corruptable than elected politicians – you could audibly hear the spirit of David Lloyd George groaning as he spoke. Presumably the argument goes along the lines that if you are already utterly corrupt, your price will be much higher. I could go on, but it is cruel to mock the afflicted.

So. We’ve renewed our policy on democratic renewal. In manifesto terms, the main points in it are the commitment to STV and the establishment of a constitutional convention. I have no doubt that both of these will appear in the manifesto, but have less confidence they will end up listed as a top priority. This will be a missed opportunity: the Lib Dems’ critique of the political system is one of our USPs. If we run away from it instead of building it into our overall narrative, we will simply end up with another 10 disparate bullet points that only appeal to people’s basest self-interest. That may make sense for fighting target seats where the swing voters are the only people who matter, but it fails to sell us as a party of government to either the public or the media.

If the Lib Dems are about anything, it is bringing power to the powerless. That applies whether we are talking about health, education, poverty, local government or democratic renewal. That connects with the widespread sense of alienation within the public. That challenges the other two parties who are nakedly only concerned with feathering their own nests. It is high time we started to shout about it.