Monthly Archives: January 2008

Spock.com: highly illogical

I’ve been playing around with spock.com, the “people” search engine (a sort of meta-social network). Bit miffed to discover that I’m listed 211th of all the James Graham’s in all the world that have ever existed (Google is much gentler on the old ego).

Type in Liberal Democrat and you get a very interesting set of results. Barack Obama is the first result (if only), with Chris Huhne, Charles Kennedy, Ming Campbell, Lynne Featherstone and Nancy Pelosi in places 2-6. Stephen Tall is in seventh place, but in the photo he appears to have turned into Jock Coats. Richard Allan, 8th, appears to have turned into two different people I don’t recognise at all.

Meanwhile, I suspect that Saj Karim, Nadine Dorries, Kerron Cross, Alex Salmond, Rudi Vis and Stephan Shakespeare will appreciate being listed 11th, 12th, 14th, 16th, 18th and 19th respectively.

Meg Review: 267

Megazine 267Quote of the month: “So we’re going to be best friends. At at journey’s end, you’re going to give your best friend Tempest fourteen billion creds. And if you don’t give your best friend Tempest fourteen billions creds… your best friend Tempest is going to tie you down and hammer nails in your skull until you die screaming in hideous agony. Because that’s what friends are for.” Tempest bonding with Johnny in Tempest.

Cover: Jon Davis-Hunt draws Tempest in a dramatic pose.

Strips: Judge Dredd, Armitage, Tempest, Bob the Galactic Bum (reprint)

Features: Two Interrogations (interview with Alan Grant part 2 and Al Ewing), New Comics (Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill’s The League of Extradordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier), New Movies, Dreddlines (letters)

Spoilers… Continue reading Meg Review: 267

Martyrdom is over-rated

Terry Sanderson has an excellent article over on Comment is Free about the BA “Christian Martyr” case:

In order to be fair to everybody, BA used a union-approved ballot system to ensure that those who worked on Christmas Day were fairly and objectively chosen. If their name came up, they were at liberty to negotiate with their colleagues to change shifts and days on a like-for-like basis. But not Nadia. She insisted that, because she was a Christian, she must not be required to work on Christmas Day – or Sunday, come to that.

The tribunal commented:

“[Eweida’s] insistence on privilege for Christmas Day is perhaps the most striking example in the case of her insensitivity towards colleagues, her lack of empathy for those without religious focus in their lives, and her incomprehension of the conflicting demands which professional management seeks to address and resolve on a near-daily basis.”

Is Brown’s “incompetence” remark a honey trap for Cameron?

You have to wonder sometimes if there might be some guile behind Gordon Brown’s apparent ineptitude.

Take last night’s remark about Peter Hain’s incompetence. A spectacular gaffe? Or, given that we have PMQs tomorrow and the strong likelihood that Cameron will not be able to resist the temptation to make something of it, is it a ploy to make his opponent look stupid.

Because as Lib Dem Voice has pointed out, Cameron has recently demonstrated a bit of “incompetence” himself. Handled correctly, and assuming Cameron falls for it, Brown could use this to devastating effect.

On the other hand, knowing Brown’s past form, he is more likely to fall flat on his face. But we’ll know in an hour.

Tooth Review: 1567 & 1568

Prog 1567One of the many things I’ve struggled to get around too after the New Year break is my weekly Tooth Review. A double helping here, and I think I may continue doing them in clumps as I’ve found I tend to repeat myself a lot.

Quote of the fortnight: “Great steamin’ arse’oles!” Stickleback in Stickleback.

Contents: Both issues feature a Judge Dredd one-off and the continuation of Shakara, Kingdom, Stickleback and Strontium Dog from Prog 2008.

Prog 1058Covers: 1567 – Cliff Robinson draws a dramatic Johnny Alpha fron Strontium Dog, being lowered into prison to set Billy Glum free. 1568 – Nick Percival (is he still alive?) draws Shakara. Of the two, I prefer the Nick Percival, mainly because it is something different and I love the EC-style lettering. Still not convinced by the new “double” logo which now fills a fifth of the whole page; we’ve gone down this road before and each time the logo has been scrapped because the editor found it too limiting.

Continue reading Tooth Review: 1567 & 1568

The Orange Book Delusion

The enduring irritation about the Orange Book is not its content, which was broadly uncontentious, but the mythical book which everyone who never read it imagines exists.

So once again my heart sinks when I read Nick Assinder claim:

In his first major speech since winning the job, Mr Clegg has pretty much adopted the agenda set out in the controversial Orange Book, authored by party frontbencher David Laws and others (including Mr Clegg himself) in 2004.

On one level, that is correct; as correct as it is banal. Most of the chapters in the Orange Book do little other than recite existing party policy, with a perhaps a slight difference in emphasis. Very few Lib Dems disagree with the notion that social and economic liberalism both have important roles to play, neither the economic liberals behind the Orange Book nor the social liberals behind Reinventing the State. In that respect, the Orange Book failed to move us forward. You might just as well argue that both Kennedy and Campbell “adopted” the Orange Book agenda.

The real issue is to what extent Clegg has moved in a David Laws direction. The answer to that is, he most certainly has. But adopted the agenda set out in David Laws’ chapter on health? Nope. Adopted Laws’ pugnacious stance in his chapter on liberalism? Quite the opposite. Given that the speech was about public services and philosophy and Laws’ chapters were the main ones on both, these facts matter quite a lot.

This isn’t a debate about a book, it is a debate about a general direction. And if that debate is to be at all meaningful, it should focus more on practicalities than principles: this isn’t an Oxford Union debate. As it stands, I broadly welcome the stance laid out by Nick Clegg on Saturday; I remain deeply sceptical about health insurance. So does that make me an Orange Booker or not?

Perhaps one day someone will publish the definitive book on social liberalism. The Orange Book was not it. I do wish people would stop waving it in my face and actually read it.

Localism: the first big test?

The battlelines over localism are being formed in Scotland. What happens there directly affects the debate over decentralisation in England.

I haven’t been following this closely but my understanding is this: the SNP, which over time plan to replace council tax with a system of local income tax, have worked out a deal with local government whereby local authorities agree to freeze council tax in exchange for a very significant reduction in ringfencing by the Scottish executive. Labour are now hopping up and down making scary predictions about how this will hurt vulnerable people.

In a sense, they both have a point. Local government in Scotland as well as England has very few revenue raising powers and any squeeze will necessitates cuts being made somewhere, and it would not be surprising if the quietest voices had their funding cut the most. But Labour’s solution to this problem is simply to clobber local government with red tape, not to give it more freedom.

There’s another factor that needs to be considered as well: electoral reform in local government last year and the huge numbers of balanced councils it has produced will mean that this year’s budgets will be under more intense scrutiny than ever before. If Labour wishes to defend the vulnerable, by and large they will have their chance, but in the council chamber not Holyrood.

On balance then, I side with the SNP here. Sadly, if Labour are like this in opposition, it doesn’t bode well for getting localism out of them in government either.

Which of these two characters would you most trust with the economy?

Donkey and Waldorf

One is an annoying talking donkey who came to prominence by getting in the face of a grumpy ogre (who goes by the name of Gordon Brown). The other is the shorter half of a former double act of curmudgeons with an interest in variety performance. And the answer to this question matters a lot: it directly affects the electoral chances of the two main UK opposition parties.

For the past few days, the Tories have gone on the offensive on economics. Following a lead given by his Shadow Chancellor, David Cameron said on the Andrew Marr Show this morning that nationalising Northern Rock would be “the most complete humiliation and failure for the government”. Meanwhile, Vince Cable has spent the last couple of months insisting that nationalisation is the only viable short term option for the company.

And let’s be honest, both Osborne and Cable have had a good few months recently. Agree with it or not, it has to be said that Osborne’s proposal to raise the IHT threshold did him a lot of favours, while Vince Cable’s tenure as Acting Lib Dem Leader won plaudits from across the political spectrum.

All things being equal however, a cursory look at the men’s CVs rather suggests that Cable is the safer pair of hands to run the economy than Osborne. A doctorate, policy advisor to the Kenyan government, lecturer, civil servant, former Chief Economist at Shell, advisor on the Brundtland Commission… Cable broadcasts experience and it comes across. Gideon Osborne on the other hand is a history graduate with some journalistic experience and lots more experience as a political adviser on both sides of the benches. The brutal reason why Cable got all the airtime over Northern Rock in October-November was that it was clear that he reeked of authenticity while Osborne rarely made it further than the partisan soundbites.

Cameron and Osborne’s latest assault is an attempt to regain the agenda on the economy; a tacit acknowledgement that since their IHT coup, both the government and Cable have outmaneuvred them. But once again, does it add up to much more than a bit of partisanship? Their argument is that the government put off a decision because of the prospect of an October election and they cite an offer by Lloyds TSB as one that should have been more seriously considered.

But does this charge stack up? Look at it this way; if Darling had gone for a quick sale (which according to Mervyn King would have involved a whopping loan to Lloyds TSB), would we now be in a remarkably similar situation with Cameron denouncing the government for rushing into a decision because they were planning an early election? Indeed, isn’t that rather similar to the scenario we had in 2005 with Michael Howard attacking Brown for bailing out Rover (only several times larger by order of magnitude)?

My own instincts tell me that regardless of the rights and wrongs of the whole credit crunch debacle in general and Northern Rock in particular, rushing into a quick sale would have been a remarkably irresponsible thing to do when it directly affected billions of pounds of taxpayers money and thousands of jobs. And that’s even assuming the shareholders would have let them (my grandmother is getting bombarded with letters from SRM at the moment). I appreciate I’m biased but the Tories’ line here doesn’t merely strike me as easy partisan point scoring, but bad policy too.

For a long time I’ve felt that Osborne is one of the Tories’ weakest links. A good marketing man, true, but not one with a particular feel for economics, and one with a whiny tone of voice that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. He is certainly in the wrong job. Cable on the other hand has always been one of the Lib Dems biggest secret weapons. Well, he’s not so secret any more and that could spell trouble for the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems manage to eat into the Tories’ commanding lead as the party most trusted on the economy, then things really could start to get interesting as it is the Tories’ greatest asset and one of the Lib Dems’ greatest perceived weaknesses. Yet could Cameron even contemplate cutting Osborne loose, his closest ally?

Of course, I’m not the only one thinking the unthinkable here: Tim Montgomerie was arguing for him to be made Party Chairman/Tsar back in October. Tim wasn’t attacking Osborne for being weak on the economy, but to argue this at a time when Osborne was still basking in his IHT glory said it for him.

Either way, Clegg should not be shy about keeping Cable in the limelight over the next few months; notwithstanding the importance of giving the public a chance to get to know Clegg himself, Cable should now be considered a central part of the party’s appeal and should be seriously exploited, particularly when the Tories use Osborne.

MPs: incumbancy and miscommunication

I got not one but four annual reports in the post today by my MP Andrew Dismore, with the promise of a basketful of others if I can claim to be jewish, chinese, tamil, cypriot and a bunch of other ethnic communities (Labour corporatism is alive and well).

In fairness to him, his reports are quite comprehensive and, as he is not shy in emphasising (not that I can see any of his constituents caring), he has eschewed the glossy-photo-zero-content approach that MPs of all parties frequently adopt. But it does raise the issue of the MPs’ Communications Allowance, introduced last year, and whether it is a good use of taxpayers money.

There have been two other examples of this allowance being spent which have got me thinking. The first is the Emily Thornberry debacle which I highlighted yesterday. The second is Peter Hain’s website which Mark Pack was having some fun with on Lib Dem Voice. All three of these examples are Labour, but I’m really not making a party political point here.

Firstly, La Thornberry has been forced to repay the Serjeant-at-Arms for the cost of the stationery (sic) she used. But those funds could come straight out of the Communications Allowance. That is certainly inconvenient, but it is hardly a major punishment for abusing the system and getting caught. Learning this, most MPs will learn the lesson that they might as well try it on. Even if they only get away with it 50% of the time it will still be worth it so long as they manage their Communications Allowance carefully.

Secondly, Hain. Back when Jack Straw was making the case for the Allowance, he argued that it would be necessary in order to enable MPs to better communicate with their constituents online. That seemed bogus at the time, and Hain’s website demonstrates what nonsense it was. It has much less functionality than the average Blogger account, and yet he boasted that “I have tried to make it possible for you to add your own views” – a feature which amounted to a facility allowing visitors to send him an email. Some web designer has been paid what one guesses must be a tidy sum for coming up with this fairly useless website at taxpayers, all in the name of “improving communications”. If Hain had been forced to use MySpace, for free, he’d have ended up communicating with more constituents (a point which Adrian Sanders proves every day).

Thirdly, back to Dismore. While his report is fine per se, it does epitomise everything that we always feared the Communications Allowance would be used for. It is incumbency protection, pure and simple. It enables the MP to issue a report to constituents completely on their terms and unfiltered by the media. You can be sure that if Dismore felt the glossy-photo-zero-content approach would have been better for votes, he’d have adopted it unapologetically.

Whenever you mention this fact, MPs, especially Labour MPs, start screaming “Michael Ashcroft! Michael Ashcroft!” I would personally be happy to cap all major donors like this – and limit trade union funding as well – but I have no problem in principle with political parties using donations from individuals for campaigning. I also accept that there is nothing wrong in principle with MPs having regular ways to communicate with their constituents. But just as we don’t allow a government minister to make a statement to the Commons without the opposition having a right to reply, shouldn’t we allow political rivals in constituencies to reply when MPs issue their reports?

Here’s my proposed solution. Scrap the Communications Allowance completely. Instead, twice a year the local Elections Officer will preside over the sending out of an MP’s report. Not dissimilar to the information packs that get sent out for mayoral elections, the MP would have, say 4 pages in this report completely under his/her control in which to make his report, followed by another 4 pages that the party which came second could use to respond (and yes, that would probably involve promoting their candidate!), followed by 2 pages each for the parties that came 3rd and 4th respectively. Parties would of course be free to include things like membership forms and links to their websites for more information. The Elections Officer could use the pack to include other things such as the recent election results and the electoral registration canvass (which they have to send out anyway).

There would be several advantages to this. Firstly, if the MP just produced a content free puff piece, his rivals would be able to make that point in no uncertain terms. Secondly, coming second, third and fourth in an election would matter, which would (marginally I admit) encourage more competition. Thirdly, it would be relatively cheap, especially if it could be incorporated with existing commitments such as the canvass. Fourthly, the money wouldn’t go to parties directly and the cost would thus be equitable on a per-capita basis – one of the big problems with other systems of party funding, particularly the money-per-vote system recommended by Hayden Phillips, is that parties can target that money and thus use it to exaggerate the already considerable biases in the system.

What do you think?

Right royal sexism

Lynne Featherstone has launched a campaign against the institutional sexism of the British monarchy, referring Prince Edward’s demotion of his daughter Louise in line to the throne in favour of her newborn brother (see the New Statesmanperson for more details).

It’s an excellent idea; the equalities post is a worthy one but one that rarely makes it to the column inches. This is a brilliant way of vicariously having a debate about prevailing sexist attitudes in society.

The only slight flaw I can see in the argument however is that since age discrimination has now been outlawed as well, why should her little brother be put at any disadvantage. Shouldn’t they be forced to toss for it, or do a job share?

And if they are being discriminated against, then what about the rest of us…?