Sunday, September 23, 2007

My first political memories

Thank you to Lynne Featherstone and Nich Starling for tagging me regarding my earliest political memory.

At first I believed that I had, with spooky coincidence, already blogged about what I thought was my first political memory the previous day when I reminisced about seeing John Pardoe speak when I was ten. However, Lynne's recollection about the Cuban missile crisis has made me recall earlier memories.

The Cuban missile crisis made me think "Kennedy" and I remembered being told that Robert Kennedy had been shot on June 5th 1968. I was too young to remember J.F.K being shot.

Then I had a think and recalled an even earlier event. I remember Sir Winston's Churchill's Funeral on 30th January 1965. I remember looking at the television and seeing the cranes in London 's docklands which were lowered to salute Churchill as his coffin was taken by on a boat. A few minutes later I went up to our local bakery and bought some hot, freshly baked bread (funny how these things stick in your mind!).

Later, the Biafran war (1967-70), Harold Wilson with his pipe and a perilous balance of payments situation stand out as items I remember from the TV news. I also remember the day that Princess Marina died (27th August 1968) and when Eisenhower died (28th March 1969).

I will now tag Ed Trelinski (a US blogger with a close interest in UK affairs), Alex Foster (who I met at the Blogger of year awards - still haven't worked out why his blog is called "Niles' Blog"), Millennium Dome, Elephant and James Graham.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Will Gordon join George in the footnotes of history?

It's a fair bet that George Canning (left) has occasionally occupied the thoughts of Gordon Brown recently. Mr Canning was, by all accounts, a fine public speaker, a brilliant military strategist and a practical joker. His long record of public service isn't what he is remembered for, however.

Political anoraks with the highest tog rating remember old George because he holds the record as the British prime minister who served for the shortest period - 119 days. He is a footnote in British political history.

The reason why I say it is a fair bet that Gordon Brown has been thinking about George Canning recently is because if Gordon gets wrong his big decision about the election date, then Gordon will join George in the footnotes. If Gordon Brown calls an election for October 25th, and loses, he will have been premier for 120 days - a day longer than George.

But unlike George, who was removed from office by the grim reaper via pneumonia, Gordon will forever be remembered as the shortest serving Prime Minister removed from office by himself.

"Gordon Brown" will join "Eddie the Eagle" as by-words for farcical incompetence in the English language lexicon. ("Did you do any good in the snooker last night, Dave?" "No, mate, I Gordon Browned it, I'm afraid".)

And Gordon won't want that.

So the memory of George Canning, as well as that of Jim Callaghan (British history's "shorty" Labour prime minister) will have been weighing heavily on Gordon's mind. It's all very well talking about one brilliant ICM poll, but general election campaigns can take on a life of their own. Another banking crisis, more continued foot and mouth outbreaks (there was another affected farm announced today), one or two "events, dear boy" and a lucky break for the opposition parties could all sweep Labour from power on October 25th. Or, at least, hobble them with a wafer-thin majority.

Douglas Alexander says Labour have the "cash and organisation" to go the polls in October. That's interesting. A few weeks ago, when I last bothered to check, Labour had a debt of £20 million. The last general election cost them £20 million. So if you assume that a campaign of about half the duration of the last one will cost them about half the amount, that's £10 million needed for an October campaign. Lord Sainsbury has recently given them £2 million and they say that they've had lots of other donations recently. Let's be optimistic for them and assume they have recently slashed their debt to, say, £15 million. So an October poll would leave them back where they were a few months ago - with a debt of £25 million. Their bank managers or loaners seemed just about ready to live with that sort of debt at that time, so one can assume that they will live with a level of £25 million debt again.

So, Labour can just about finance a quick election. (The Tories, however, will probably have more money at their disposal.) But I wouldn't like to be their bank manager. £25 million is quite a debt. But, then again, they will have four years in which to pay it (or a good chunk of it) back before the next election, hopefully (for them).

They're in the realms of knife-edge finances, though. (But then again, I will stop there on the finances subject, before someone shouts "Michael Brown!" at me).

There is another risk with going to the country in October. The great British public, roused from its comfy armchair to walk down to the polling station on a blustery, cold autumnal day might actually come up with this collective thought: "We went down to the polls just two and a half years ago. Why on earth is that Scots-porridge oat Brown forcing us out into the cold, down to the polls so soon?"

It's a good question. There's a good answer. Because Brown is a new prime minister and would like a nice new shiny mandate from you, oh great British voter, thank you very much.

But then the great British voter might just reply: "Yes, but we didn't force Blair to leave office - you did, you collossal numpty", before putting their cross against a candidate from any party except Labour. After all, when you go down to your local pub these days, is your entry impeded as you are pushed back by an almighty gust of wind caused by the assembled populace angrily shouting "Brown must go to the polls now!" ? Of course, not - normal people hardly mention the subject.

Even if Brown wins an October election we will still be left with a lingering question. Why did we use up all that time and money and run all that risk (money markets, temporarily paralysed civil service etc) of an election on October 25th 2007 when, according to our constitution, such as it is, we didn't need to have one until May 5th 2010?

Look at it that way and you find yourself sleep-walking inexorably towards a huge neon sign flashing the words "FIXED TERMS" on it. Local councils have them. The Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly have fixed terms. A few old biddies sitting round in a lounge in Philidelphia 220 years ago agreed on fixed terms for those governing our cousins across the pond.

So why the Sam Hill do we still have this refrain of "guess the election date" playing on as an almost constant leitmotif to British politics? It's insane.

One consideration which may be kicking it's way back and forwards through the brain space of our dear Prime Minister may be this. Will the traditional Labour vote hold? Well he might ponder over this. As Ming Campbell called it, "Blue Labour" is lucky to have any of its traditional supporters still voting for it.

Is the Labour party coming together now in Bournemouth one that would be recognised by Keir Hardie, or Harold Wilson or Clement Atlee if they, by some divine happenstance, alighted there? Well, if they bumped into Dennis Skinner or Bob Crowe they would feel at home.

If they bumped into Labour minister Digby, Lord Jones or Labour MP Quentin Davies they might immediately give their excuses and leave, assuming they had mistakenly stumbled in on the Conservative conference.

It's not just the personalities. The conference itself is changing. This will be the last time that the conference will be able to debate and vote on "contemporary motions". There are other changes also in the offing. Gordon Brown enthusiastically advocates those changes in an article in today's Guardian (which is helpfully succeeded with the note "Gordon Brown is the prime minister").

In fact, the gist of Brown's argument is sound. Hand the power to decide policy to all the party members - not just the conference representatives. Very laudable. I am not sure the way he intends to do it is consistent with this aim, however: "A one-member, one-vote ballot every four years on the party programme".

Indeed, if you read Tony Benn's interpretation of the internal party constitutional proposals, it seems Brown is as usual, perhaps, being devious. He is, cynics would suggest, smuggling through a move to silence the conference so that it can't mess up a Blue Labour government by injecting any pink or red into it:

If the new proposals - now endorsed by the NEC and apparently some major trade unions - are accepted, delegates will only be allowed to identify issues they want looked at by the policy forums, and the manifesto that emerges will be put to a referendum of party members to accept or reject in full, with no possibility of amendment. This would complete the New Labour project under which the conference becomes a platform for ministers and a few handpicked delegates - and, of course, a big trade fair. There would be no point in joining the party locally or affiliating as a union in the hope of discussing policy.

But that's Brown's "new politics" for you. Just like Gordon's "Big Tent", where he involves people from other parties just as long as they are the ones likely to wind up their respective parties, Gordon's "Big conversation" will involve any debate as long as Gordon ends up winning it.

Brown says the new conference process will end "resolutions without solutions".

Well, you only need to look at this year's conference agenda, at what is on it, and, more tellingly, what is not on it, to see what Gordon Brown wants to avoid. The Unison union has proposed a "contemporary" motion saying that the equal pay law has not redressed the inequality of women in low paid jobs. It also attacks Hazel Blears' green paper which calls for councils to become "enabling authorities", no longer providing public services themselves. The GMB union criticises the management of state-owned Remploy for creating a "sense of insecurity and trauma, and...the cruellest harassment of already very vulnerable workers".

And look what "contemporary motions" were dropped like hot potatoes from the conference agenda this year: several highly critical of the government's stewardship of the NHS, one criticising British military aid to Columbia, oh, and one slating the government for allowing the US to use the Menwith Hill base in Yorkshire for a new missile system. (What was it Ming said about sneaking "out a short statement on the last day of Parliament signing us up to host America’s Son of Star Wars on British soil?")

So it is quite clear that Brown is attempting to muzzle the Labour party conference. This means more Blue Labour and more injustices and Tory-lite policies like the ones which Ming listed in his speech last Thursday. I can't see traditional Labour voters standing for this for much longer. Many have already stopped voting Labour. I expect more to do so.

So, Gordon Brown cannot completely rest on his laurels. He cannot be entirely confident that, if he goes to the polls on October 25th, he will escape the company of George Canning in the altogether chilly environs of the footnotes of British political history.

Oh, and, by the way, George Canning was a Tory. Very appropriate company for Gordon.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ming is "it"

As I foresaw, one of the advantages of having a media conference narrative of "leader on last legs", is that when the leader gives a half-way decent speech at the end, the media narrative then, with typical hysteria, turns turtle and majors on "leader rises from dead".

But the media coverage is not all glowing and Ming's speech far exceeded the description "half-way decent".

I always look forward to immersing myself in wall-to-wall media coverage of the LibDems. I was not disappointed as I sat down to the teatime news programmes yesterday. ITV started their coverage of Ming's speech with a huge caption reading: "Ming finds his Zing" (James Gurling seems to have been ahead of them with that one). That gold standard of UK political commentary, Nick Robinson said the speech should "stop the mutterings - for now".

And there's the rub. We had all this after last year's autumn conference speech and after the Ealing/Southall and Sedgefield by-elections. A few weeks of calm, and then it all kicks off again. "Ming too old", "Young Turks vie for position" etc etc.

So why should this time be any different? Why, as the Michael White said this morning, have "tectonic plates shifted"?

For me, it's different because of the sheer comprehensiveness, passion and heart-stopping liberalism of his speech yesterday.

My earliest experience of live politics, as opposed to my grandfather swearing at Harold Wilson or Nasser whenever they came onto the telly, was when I was ten. During the 1970 general election campaign I was able to wonder a few hundred yards down from our house and stand and observe what, in those days, was an endangered species, a genuine Liberal MP. John Pardoe was his name. A big bear of a man with real charisma and passion. He used to stand on top of his landrover with his microphone and bellow out a stump speech. I can't remember what he said. If you asked me a few minutes after he had spoken what he had said, I probably wouldn't have been able to tell you much of what he said. But I knew one thing for sure. This man was "it". He was speaking the truth, he knew what needed to be done in the country, and he expressed it with such down-to-earth and gripping passion that I knew I was a Liberal like him.

Listening to Ming's speech yesterday was a similar experience. Ming is "it".

You just have to take his opening paragraph:

Let me start by asking some questions:
What kind of country is it where the government responds to the threat of climate change by allowing green taxes to fall as carbon emissions rise?
What kind of country is it where the richest in the land pay a lower rate of tax than the people who have to clean their offices?
What kind of country is it where the government halts a criminal investigation into corrupt arms sales to placate commercial interests?
What kind of country is it where the government colludes with the Tories to exempt MPs from freedom of information?
What kind of country is it where the government sneaks out a short statement on the last day of Parliament signing us up to host America’s Son of Star Wars on British soil?
And what kind of country is it where the government leads us into an illegal and disastrous war and then stops people from protesting against it?
Well, I’ll tell you what sort of country it’s not:
It’s not a liberal country.

Well, that's fired me up just on its own. What an awesome list of the wrongs of the past few years of Labour government! It is to the credit of the speechwriters that they stacked the speech with the full set of these sorts of points in a highly organised way. That opening is all the more arresting for the fact that all those six points are the type of thing that is all too easily forgotten in day-to-day media coverage. It demonstrates cutting-edge liberalism that Ming and his team collated that list, and the other points later in the speech.

Ming's scathing critiques of the other two leaders were brilliant. First on Cameron he was stunningly accurate as well as funny:

This year, David Cameron is going back to basics.
Last year the Conservative conference was about health, happiness and the sunshine glinting through the trees.
This year it will be flag, fear – and foreigners.
But why the right-turn?
I’ll tell you why.
Because he’s under pressure.
And without convictions of his own, the Tory leader is buffeted by the beliefs of others.
He’s done a u-turn on grammar schools.
An about turn on identity cards.
And a wrong-turn on human rights.
Margaret Thatcher would have to concede:
He turns if you want him to.
The laddie’s all for turning.
But we’re not for turning – we know exactly what we stand for.

But he was even more skillful in shooting that old fox, Gordon Brown:

Mr Brown is working hard to convince us that there has been real change in Number 10:
That his arrival has somehow wiped the slate clean.
That the last ten years of waste, failure and disappointment are to be forgiven and forgotten
Well, not so fast Gordon.
You spent a decade blaming everything on the previous Conservative government.
But as Chancellor over the last ten years you had unparalleled influence over government.
You could have raised green taxes to tackle climate change.
You could have stopped the ineffective, expensive and unnecessary identity card scheme.
And you could have prevented Tony Blair from embarking on the catastrophe of the Iraq war.
But you didn’t.
This is your legacy, Mr Brown:
The environment degraded.
Civil liberties eroded.
Iraq invaded.
Not to mention the record for which you - and you alone - were responsible as Chancellor.
A smash and grab raid on private pensions.
A steady, disturbing rise in the number of home repossessions.
And a national economic backdrop of £1.3 trillion in personal debt.
With a record like that it’s no wonder that the Prime Minister wants to start afresh.
But it’s a record for which we will ensure that he takes responsibility:
In spite of your claims of change, Mr Brown, not much really has changed.
New Labour remains blue Labour.
And you’re still wrong.
Wrong on nuclear energy.
Wrong on council tax.
Wrong on student fees.
And you are wrong, wrong, wrong on detention without charge.
We don’t need a change of tone in this country:
We need a change of policies.
And you, Gordon Brown, have not delivered.

I think we should all re-read that about once a week. To me, that is a main plank of a general election campaign.

There was one tricky patch in the speech, it should be said. When Ming mentioned the EU referendum he only got subdued applause. When he said: "We would ask the British people the real question – whether they wish to remain in the European Union or not. I will proudly lead the Liberal Democrats at the forefront of that debate." he received no applause at all, even though it sounded as though he wanted some, from the way he said it. Maybe conference were a bit miffed at being told 'he will lead' us in a referendum campaign on EU membership when it has not yet considered what that referendum should consist of, if it is to be any different (some might say) from our manifesto commitment.

But, apart from that, the speech went on as it began. A crie de coeur of liberalism. "A classic liberal speech", as Paddy called it. "Ming Emperor rallies his weary troops" as the Telegraph put it.

So Ming has put the party to bed - for now. He has sounded a "clarion call" (Nick Clegg) in advance of a potential election. But that's not enough.

It's all very well making me happy. It's all very well making most of the "troops" happy and fired up. 'Classic liberal speeches' fire us all up. But they don't necessarily fire the country up. I do believe that we have policies, such as the 16p basic rate of tax, which will sell themselves very well to the electorate. If every voter had a copy of Ming's speech and read it, then we'd be home and dry. Unfortunately that isn't going to happen, of course.

So we have the media issue - how do we get our message across (apart from the obvious Penhaligonesque method of putting it on a bit of paper and sticking it through a letter box)? Unlike David Nikel I am not angry at the likes of Nick Assinder, who wrote a typically petty piece on the conference on BBC Online. Like all journalists, Nick has to write something, and normally gets asked by his superior to write in a certain vein. It's no good getting angry with journalists. They have to put bread on the table at home. We are not going to change the media (except perhaps in a very small, incremental way). And they do us some favours - as we can see today's and yesterday's coverage of Ming's speech.

We have to work with the media rather than constantly belittling them.

Yes, it is a pain in the neck to have this constant "who will succeed Ming?" stuff. But look on the bright side. At least we have some obvious successors to Ming. Where are the obvious successors to David Cameron? There aren't any. Strangely enough, it is a credit to Ming that he has successors waiting. It is the job of any manager to ensure that there is a succession plan for him/herself. Ming has ensured that and has gone out of his way to foster his team of "young turks".

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Great speech from Ming

Quick reaction on the speech. Great. He pressed all the right buttons. A real liberal speech - outlined a real, distinctive position and made clear Brown/Cameron's appalling failings. There was a tricky patch when he mentioned the EU referendum. I think he was particularly strong with his devastating critique of Brown.

Ming's speech really could be offered as a summary to answer the question "what is a liberal?" as well as "what are the LibDems for?"

It was a brilliantly written , comprehensive speech. He showed real passion. I am not just saying that. He was shouting almost at some points and he looked really confident and energetic.

The full text of the speech is here.

Ming's speech - Live blog

11.52 Tim Clement-Jones is "shaking the tin" bless him.

Ming's speech - Live blog

11.52 Tim Clement-Jones is "shaking the tin", bless him.

11.59 Dead Liberals are in the spotlight. Chris Rennard announces that John Stuart Mill has been voted the greatest Liberal in history. When you think about it, a bit of a no brainer. (But then again a no brainer surely needs no thinking about....I hate this waiting) Well done to the Millster.

12.06 Chris Rennard looks forward to his 50th LibDem/Liberal conference/assembly in his home city of Liverpool next March.

12.07 The Party Conference broadcast video is being played while the mass ranks move onto the stage to be the backdrop.

12.09 Warm applause for Ming's goal in the video.

12.10 Ming walks into the hall. Elspeth is wearing a plain white suit/coat. Very subdued for her.

12.12 Ming starts with some questions. Climate change response of Labour - green taxes fall. Richest pay lower tax rate than their office cleaners. Criminal investigation into arms sales stopped. Tories trying to exempt MPs from FOI. What kind of country? Government sneaks out "son of Star Wars" announcement on last day of parliament. Illegal disastrous war - stopping protests. What kind of country? Very passionate. It's not a liberal country. That's why LibDems have never been more necessary.

Brilliant start.

12.14 LibDems leading fight against climate change. Examples: Wales, Scotland. Recent green organisations audit where we came top. Policies: green taxes - vision for zero carbon Britain.

12.15 Media critics. Obsessed with Young Turks. (Married one!) I answer to you and not the media. Big applause.

12.16 Thank goodness we can confront difficult issues. Say controversial things. That's real leadership. That's my leadership. We're on the cutting edge of critical issues. "I won't have it any other way".

12.17 Hard choices. Labour. Gordon gets into power and the first thing he does is praises Maggie Thatcher. Maggie, Gordon, Tony, Dave, Ian, Michael....confused? You must be. But I don't want to be like any of them. Big cheer/applause.

12.18 Conservatives. Right turn. No convictions. Cameron buffeted. Grammar schools etc. Wrong turn on human rights.

12.20 He turns if you want him to. The lad is all for turning. Nice one. We're not for turning. Fit for purpose - radical, responsible, Liberal.

12.21 We'll be ready for election. Fight for every vote. To rattle cages.

12.22 Ealing Southall/Sedgefield - hard work -principal challengers to government. Tories pushed into third place. Applause. Mayor of London - three great candidates on shortlist. Sustained applause.

12.23 Boris Johnson. the blondest suicide note in history.

12.24 Age. I will make it an issue. Experience. Judgment. War decisions.

12.25 Tragic folly of Iran war. Ability to trust LibDems if Iran military action proposals from the US come.

12.26 Brown doesn't get off hook - he could have prevented Iraq war, ID cards, lack of green taxes - chancellor for 10 years

12.28 Brown's legacy - we see now. Personal debt. We will ensure he takes responsibility. New Labour remains Blue Labour. Wrong wrong wrong.

12.29 Don't just need change of tone - need change of policy and Brown hasn't delivered. Farmers. Must get farmers back in business asap. Collapse of trust in leading banks. Queues. Underlying of excessive debt/reckless lending has not been addressed - responsibility with Brown.

12.30 Conservatives not fit for purpose. No environment commitments. Agreed with war. Bucketful of policy proposals. Advice from the Vulcan - straight from the bridge of SS Free Enterprise - policies Dave, but not as we know them.

12.32 Tories still don't know what their policies would be. Suffering from identity crisis. Don't know whether to hug or hang hoodies.

12.33 Environment, taxes, Iraq etc - cosy consensus Labour Tory - we alone can break

12.34 That doesn't rule out co-operation. Steel, Ashdown and Kennedy were all proved right when they stood up to Labour/Tories.

12.35 When they try to shout me down - I would not be silenced. The LibDems will never be silenced (rendition, Guantanemo etc). That includes Europe. We must make case. Cameron wants to restrict us to narrow referendum - let's have an honest debate with a real choice. Applause (3 on clapometer). Tricky moment.

12.42 Freedom is indivisible. Racial/sexual/sexual orientation - I stand with those prejudiced against and so too do LibDems - strong applause - tricky moment over.

12.43 You can't be a part time liberal. Faith. Guarantee all religions accept tyranny of none.
Good phrase.

12.44 Listing people he has met. Homeless. Injured soldier. Powerful piece about price of war that should never have been.

12.44 too many forgotten people. Social exclusion. I'm angry. I'm deeply angry. Things have got to change if we want to be one truly united Britain. Big applause. Government must stand for interests of all but vested interests of none.

12.45 Change governance once and for all - throw open the doors of government and let the people in. No more secret arms deals full stop. Fair votes. End of lottery of FPSTP system. Real Freedom of information. Wholly elected house of Lords. Bill of rights. Put the protection of the environment at the heart of constitution - guarantee rights to clean water, air etc

12.46 Our challenge is to extend freedom to everyone. London. Deprivation. Gap between rich and poor is wider than when Labour came to office. Who'd have thought it? Big applause. Social mobility in decline - UK at bottom of UNICEF league table for child well being.

12.48 That's the record of Brown/Labour. Social housing queue. Pensioners struggling. People whose background change their prospects. Education. Proposal for extra money for children who are struggling. Where opportunity is denied, freedom is denied also.

12.50 William Beveridge. Challenges still there. Five giants. We should lead fight for five freedoms.

12.51 Confidence in the law and crime prevention at all time low. Brown increased taxes for less well off. We will close tax loopholes. Cut rate of income tax to lowest for century. Shift tax from income to pollution. Cuts for average families.

12.52 Clean environment. We will fight for the five freedoms. I will lead party into GE with energy, passion...liberalism has never been needed than it is today.

12.55 We alone can break cosy consensus. We only can make people free from fear, climate change. Only we will fight for free, fair and green society. We're not the real alternative - we're the ONLY alternative. Sustained applause.

12.56 Not two against one. But one against two. I joined to change country - that is what we can achieve together.

Lots of applause.

Ming: 'It's not two on one now, it's one on two'

That was a phrase that Ming repeated several times at the interview last Sunday with the LibDem Blogger of year shortlisters.

It's not two on one, now. It's one on two.

What he means is that instead of the two non-governmental parties opposing the government, we now have just one of the non-governmental parties, the LibDems, opposing both Labour and the Conservatives - what he is calling the "cosy consensus", in his speech this morning.

It is a powerful point. Rather than list off those policies on which Labour and the Tories have agreed on in the last ten years (there are too many), it is easier to list the policies on which they have disagreed.

In the early days, they disagreed on the Minimum Wage. The preponderance of each party's MPs, in a free vote, have disagreed on Hunting with hounds. There have been differences of tone on Europe and immigration - but nothing substantive. On most issues, both parties have fallen in with the other in a game of "Anything you can do, we can do better". A sort of Daily Mail reader bidding war.

So Ming's "It's one on two" and "cosy consensus" phrases are actually a clever distillation of the UK political picture which highlights the injustice of a system which is erring more and more towards what used to be, and perhaps still is, called the "right wing". That's a situation brought sharply into focus with Gordon Brown's cosying up to Margaret Thatcher and subsequent comparisons to George Orwell's Animal Farm:

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig...but already it was too late to say which was which.

As an aside, Ming developed his "one on two" leitmotif in the Sunday interview, saying that "it's one against one - LibDem against Labour in the North and one against one - LibDem against Conservative in the South". He then attempted a further bit of juggling with basic maths but stumbled a bit and got a bit tangled up. He reminded me of a slightly discombobulated Ted Rodgers on the telly programme 3-2-1 (below) when he used to do a little trick with his hand to put up three, then two, then one finger in a very fast sequence. Most of the audience of 3-2-1 were left utterly baffled by the programme, but I have high hopes that this "cosy consensus" and "one against two" theme will be better understood by the public. It might even pass as a rallying call for the LibDems, if we are allowed rallying calls. I suspect we'll have to receive a couple of shots of mogodon to calm us down.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What more does Ming have to do? Streak?

We had a Party Conference Broadcast this evening. The title was "Environment Action Now". It had a straight-forward narrative involving the floods in July. Ming appeared against that backdrop. He was in "animated mode". I know, the electrodes had been applied. Ha Ha. But I did find his words and body language reasonably arresting. What more does he have to do? Streak?

It was a nice touch to see Ming playing football with his gandsons at the end. You can watch the broadcast below this post.

Later on the Six O'Clock News, Nick Robinson put viewers' questions to Ming.

Nick started by reading an email question: "Ming Campbell's clearly a smart chap, can he not see that the country will not back a leader they feel sorry for?"

Ming appeared very assured and answered robustly that he had an agenda to take on Climate change, implement a fair tax policy, and improve citizens' rights, which have been whittled away by this government.

Nick said that a party colleague had described him (Ming) as a victim of "barely disguised ageism".

Ming replied that people are concerned about performance, judgement, fairness and experience.

Nick said "You used word "fair" - is it fair to increase the taxes of people earning a combined household income of £67,000?"

Ming answered that the UK average income is £24-25,000 so that people earning £70,000 are on 2.5 times average - "shouldn't they be asked to pay a little more? - If you are going to benefit 90% of the people you can't do it with smoke and mirrors"

Nick ended by asking if Ming faced a big challenge tomorrow.

Ming said that he intended to send LibDems home with a spring in their step and that he offered policies to change the face of Britain.

There's more here.

163 families would not now be grieving if there had been more people like Ming in the Cabinet

I did a quick cut and paste last night about the ICM poll showing Cameron behind Ming and Brown in the popularity stakes. Yes! Ming is more popular than Cameron. So stick that in your pipe, oh detractors, and smoke it!

James quite rightly says that it is the Tories who should now be tearing themselves apart.

Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian concludes that Cameron has not stayed the course of "modernisation" as Blair did for years:

...if Cameron thinks he's done enough modernising so that he can now soothe the Tory heartlands with the old songs on Europe and immigration, he's wrong. To win, he has to be able to hold a line long after the political classes, and especially his own party, have become bored rigid by it.

I have moved on from being bored rigid by the continual "Ming faltering line". The media are just pathetic. First, we got the Guardian blowing a quip totally out of proportion. Then this morning Radio Four majored on "Nick Clegg ready to takeover" or some such of nonsense. It turns out Nick Clegg had a woolly suggestion that he might stand for the leadership if and when there is a vacancy (couched around support for Ming and an attack on his detractors) reluctantly squeezed out of him (I think he had a soft part of his anatomy placed roughly between two bricks) at a fringe meeting which was not even recorded.


So boredom is now being replaced by mild anger, on my part. Anger at the ridiculous, pathetic media pack mentality. I live in hope that Ming will be described as 'Lazarus rising from the dead' after his speech tomorrow. It would be par for the course.

And I have to admit I am still working up to being livid at the smug idiots who make sneering remarks about Ming's age. Humour I can handle. But not the unhumourous, sneering remarks.

Ming is fitter than many men, indeed journalists, half his age. He is mentally agile. He is a life-long liberal. He is wise and authoratitive and he was given the job by an overwhelming majority of the party membership.

To constantly snipe at his age is utterly disgraceful. It is pure, bigotted prejudice. As Ming quite rightly says, if there had been more people his age in Blair's cabinet, we would not have gone to war in Iraq and 163 British families would not now be mourning the loss of a son or daughter. (Imagine 163 crying families sat in front of you.)

Of course, to the smug self-satisfied people who sneer about Ming's age, that is a secondary consideration to making lazy jibes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mr Balloon bursts

David Cameron is Britain's least popular party leader among voters, according to a new poll.

The survey found that voters' satisfaction with the Conservative leader's performance was lower than for either Prime Minister Gordon Brown or the Liberal Democrats' Sir Menzies Campbell.

The ICM poll also showed Labour re-establishing an eight-point lead over the Tories following a sequence of surveys at the start of this month which put the parties virtually neck-and-neck.

Labour's advantage is the largest recorded by ICM since Mr Cameron became Tory leader in 2005.

Ming goes down the pan

Ming's position on the EU referendum is not the party's position

That was the main nugget I took from the meeting with Ming on Sunday, when the shortlisters for the "LibDem blogger of the year" award interviewed him.

Alex Wilcock, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of the party's labyrinthine policy procedures, pointed out that the party, as we spoke, was having a consultative session on Europe including:

13. In either case, would a referendum as part of the ratification process (of the constiutional treaty) be (a)appropriate or (b) unnecessary?

Why, Alex asked (and I paraphrase) has Ming been pontificating on this subject before the party has deliberated on it?

Ming robustly answered that if you are leader of the party and you are asked a question by Paxo, the Humpster or Naughtie-boy you can't just say "I don't know - I am waiting to be told what to say by the Consultative whatsit of the party" (again I am paraphrasing).

Fair point (but as Fluffy has pointed out, it is a good idea to make sure this is clearly pointed out in these situations).

Ming then repeated the argument against a referendum on the current EU treaty under discussion, and for a plebiscite on the whole issue of the UK's membership of the EU. He finished by saying with great aplomb:

That is my own position.

That prompted me to ask (sneakily - as Mark Webster was trying to wind things up):

You say that's "your own position" - so it's not the party's position then?

"The party have yet to vote on the matter" (meaning - no it's not the party's position) was Ming's response before repeating that, as leader, he has the right, indeed sometimes it is beholden on him, to express his own view.

So that's it then. All this referendum stuff is Ming's view - not the party's view. Anyone got any sellotape to reform the odd membership card?

However, I am curious as to how long this issue will meander on before there is a proper vote by the party. The consultative process on Europe is targeted to produce a document for the autumn conference next year. I would have thought the next spring conference is the only time we could take a vote on this issue. But it would have to be some sort of shoe-horned-in item on the agenda, I would have thought. One for the conference committee.

One other small point about the interview (apart from the fact that my brownie point reservoir at home is now on "full" due to my nearest and dearests witnessing the Mingster interview with great excitement) is that Ming swore - if "bloody" is a swear word, that is.

He spoke about the grammar schools issue which, for the Conservatives he said, was the "keystone in the bridge", adding:

Pull that out and the whole bloody thing falls apart

Ming: We speak for the hard-up

Great news: Our leader fluently explained out tax policies on live radio at 7.50am!

It can be done. It is worth listening to the interview with Carolyn Quinn on Radio Four's Today if you missed it. If you go to their web page, just click on "7.50" under "Today's Top Stories" and you can listen to it.

I thought Ming responded particularly well to pressure from Carolyn Quinn about the impact of our policies on those earning over £68,000 (the top 10%), by retorting:

"What about those on lower incomes, those struggling to make ends meet, who speaks for them? We speak for them".

Well done Ming! - have an extra bacon rasher as a reward.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Guardian wet themselves

The Lib Dem chief was centre stage doing a question-and-answer session with comedian Sandi Toksvig when the topic turned to prime minister's question time.

Sir Menzies protested that everyone gets nervous before such events. Sandi disagreed.

"Well, I must be a failure then," Sir Menzies retorted.

This has caused the Guardian and other organs to require a clean set of underwear, they are so excited.

Ahem. Any decent actor will tell you that the day you don't get nervous before going on stage is the day that you die on stage.

Of course, Sandi Toksvig doesn't get nervous before she goes "live". She is a daily broadcaster and basically opens a microphone and chirrups. "Rolling rowlocks" is the nautical expression to describe such broadcasting.

I realise that all the journos are looking for a noose to hang Ming with, but this isn't it.

PS. The Times has a different report of the conversation saying that Tosvig agreed that people get nervous before performances but added that Ming didn't make her feel nervous to which Ming replied "Well of course - I am a failure". Surely if the papers are going to have communual hysteria about a remark they ought to agree on what was actually said should they not?

UPDATE: It appeares The Times version was more accurate than the Guardian version quoted. I apologise to Ms Toksvig as it seems she does get nervous after all, as any pro does. I withdraw my "rolling rowlocks" allegation.

Ming v Bloggers - photos

Here are some photos from yesterday's interview of Ming by the five bloggers short-listed for "LibDem blog of the year".

Ming meets Lib Dem Blogger of year, James Graham.

From left: Ming, Jonathan Calder (back of), Mark Webster (moderator - obscured), James Graham.

The back of Alex Wilcock's head is an addition to the previous photo.

Church allows "one of the (financial) killings of the century"

The Times reports:

An historic collection of religious books whose sale for £36,000 was approved last year by a Church of England diocese has been sold on by a book dealer for more than £500,000.

The Diocese of Truro sanctioned a deal in September 2006 to sell hundreds of old Bibles and manuscripts from its library to John Thornton in a move to clear shelf space.

The decision to sell at such a low price has astounded antiquarian booksellers, who have described it as “one of the killings of the century”.

The fascinating bit of this story is this:

In 2004 the Truro diocesan board of finance approved plans by the trustees of the library to sell all the pre1800 volumes to a dealer. They failed to call in a recognised auction house to make a valuation. Instead, they invited a number of dealers to make offers.

..."failed to call in an auction house"...."invited dealers".....


How many times has one heard the story of the little old lady living alone who gets a call from a nice dealer in a lovely trilby hat and smart suit who takes a flattering interest in her antique bits and bobs and is most kind enough to offer her a very large sum of money in crisp £50 notes, there and then, for her wares?

This story is usually used to warn people not to let their precious antiques go to dealers but to do it through a recognised auction house.

Such a story is needed to warn unsuspecting members of the public.

One does not expect the Church of England to fall foul in such a situation. They are, after all, a professional organisation with full time staff paid to manage their assets.

....mutter...mutter...beggars belief...must have been born yesterday......

Legal action is being considered by the diocese involved, apparently.

Oh dear. I won't hold my breath. Caveat emptor works both ways.

The joys of conference kleptomania!

Accompanied by the the leading lights of West Berkshire Kleptomaniacs Anonymous, I toured the exhibition stands at the conference yesterday.

The TUC wins the prize for best freebies. It is so good that my recovering kleptomaniac friends returned to the stand several times. If you ask them (those lovely TUC bods) nicely (and by the way, one of my friends is a fully paid-up member of Unison, so she had an excuse) they give you a most fantastic piece of kit which is a bit like Dr Who's Sonic screwdriver:

-It's a pen
-It's an eraser
-It's a torch
-It's an infra-red thingamejig for pointing at presentation slides
-It's a stick for your PDA

In the interests of product performance checking, I tried out the infra-red pointy thing during Sarah Teather's main hall session on adult learning. From my seat at the back of the hall I managed to get the little red spot to appear on the back of someone standing mid-way between the front seats and the speech card desk. An impressive range, I think you'll agree. It works better on people with white or light shirts on than on people with dark shirts on.

The TUC also have a devilish device which is a combined sellotape dispenser/stapler and label maker. There are also a range of memory sticks etc.

So, well done TUC, you receive the seal of approval from Kleptomaniacs Anonymous.

The award for "Best fun stall the heck does this have to do with your campaign?" goes to ATL, the education union, with their superb Wii virtual skittle alley. Terrific fun. I think I can just about see the connection to learning skills. Well done for giving us some great entertainment ATL!

Revealed: The inner workings of the British banking system

When the music stops...

Jonny leaves no dry eyes

Jonny Wright makes his acceptance speech
after receiving the "Newcomer of the year"
award at last night's LibDem Blog awards

Many congratulations to Quaequam Blog (pronounced "James Graham") for winning the LibDem "Blogger of the Year" award. James has been consistently fair but incisive with his commentary. His posts have been perfectly written and argued, and based on an awesome knowledge and command of political theory and practice, so his award is very well deserved.

It was a special delight to see Mary Reid accepting a couple of awards last night, not least the "Phew! Thank the Lord that we can now prove that the LibDem Blogosphere is not a Blokesphere - well not completely" Award.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rifkind attacks Maggie Thatcher

Malcolm Rifkind seems to have been designated as the Tory attack dog. I never thought I would hear a Tory grandee, such as Rifkind, attacking Maggie Thatcher and accusing her of, among other things, being "brazen".

Talk of LibDem target seats

According to the Independent, the LibDems are pouring money into North Wiltshire, as a top possibility for a seat gain at the next election (the Tory MP there had an affair while his wife had cancer.)

The internal paper quoted also mentions these seats as needing to be prioritised: St Albans, Wells, Mid Sussex and Broadland.

Ed Davey also tells Ming and the front bench that "hyperactivity is needed".

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Huhne: We're hiding out light under a bushel

Mr Huhne is very busy at the moment. In the Sunday Telegraph he says:

As a party we need to be more ambitious. We are every bit as capable of running an effective government as the Tories or Labour. We should not be hiding our light under a bushel. We should be going out there to say we are ready and want to put Liberal principles into practice.

Conference challenge for Ming

Conference is a bit of a tough challenge for Ming. We've got Lord Rodgers (remember him? - nice old cove) talking about "lack of energy and absence of direction"

The BBC say:

One poll of 130 Liberal Democrat constituency association chairmen found that nearly a third were not convinced Sir Menzies was doing well.

However, when you look at the detail it is not exactly a "slam dunk" finding. 9 chairs out of 90 contacted said they did not support Ming. So 90% were either satisfied, unsure or didn't answer. Mind you, five refused to answer. So you could say they didn't support him, so that's 14 out of 90. Not exactly convincing.

Of the 90 who responded to BBC Radio 4's World This Weekend, 61 said they were satisfied he was leading them in the right direction, 15 were unsure and nine did not support him. The remainder refused to answer.

Gordon Brown, the great policy nicker, is at it again

On September 4th I mused:

It could be that Brown has a cunning plan. Speculate about an October election. Get Cameron firing off all his salvoes in the form of his various policy initiatives. Then don't call an autumn election and pick and choose the best of Cameron's initiatives and implement them as government policy before the actual election next spring, or whenever.

Clever that.

No sooner said that done. Brown has nicked a policy idea straight out of the Conservatives' Quality of Life report, only a few days after it was published:

The Chancellor is planning to introduce a "purchase tax" of up to £2,000 on the most polluting vehicles, it has been claimed.

The idea is set out in a leaked Treasury paper ahead of Alistair Darling's forthcoming Pre-Budget Report.

According to the paper, obtained by The Sunday Times, there will be the one-off charge and the so-called gas guzzlers will also be subject to higher road tax.

More fuel-efficient cars would be eligible for a £2,000 rebate, under the proposals.

Officials apparently acknowledge in the leaked document that the measures would be "presentationally difficult" but argue that they would also "strengthen the environmental signal".

The proposals bear a remarkable similarity to those contained in the Tories' Quality Of Life policy report, which was unveiled by David Cameron this week.

The danger of meningitis

Meninigtis Awareness Week starts on Monday.

The Meningitis Research Foundation have launched a "B Aware campaign" for the week:

Last year in the UK there were more than 3,000 cases of meningitis and septicaemia. Tragically this resulted in the deaths of some 230 babies, children and adults and left many more with after effects, some as serious as brain damage, deafness and amputations. Most of these cases were caused by Group B disease.

My son died of meningitis aged 16 months old. One of the things me and my wife have tried to do, since then, is to help to spread awareness of the symptoms of meningitis. We are currently going through a spasm of media tartletting, to that end.

Babies and toddlers are particularly vulnerable - because their immune systems haven't yet kicked in. But adults are also at risk. A particular "at risk" group are late teenagers. In particular, it seems to affect young people going away to college (they perhaps encounter micro-variants of the germs, which their systems have never encountered before in their previous local environment).

Because meningitis is a group name for a series of diseases which affect the meninges, the lining of the brain, there is no easy, sure-fire symptom to look out for. You need to know the list of symptoms and refer to them. Some or all of the symptoms may occur in varying degrees of obviousness.

If in any doubt, call 080 8800 3344, the Meningitis Research Foundation 24x7 hotline and they will help you. They can also send out a free "B Aware" symptoms pack.

There's a list of the symptoms here on the Meningitis Research Foundation web site.

50,000 visitors to this blog - thank you

Over the weekend the 50,000th visit will be made to this blog. I once promised not to do this sort of thing (stats boasting), but there is an exception to every rule.

I thought long and hard before I started this blog in May 2006, as I didn't want to bite off more than I could chew. In the event I have enjoyed it immensely and I really want to sincerely thank all those who have clicked in and commented.

I'd particularly like to single out Tristan Mills, who has been my most prolific and consistent commenter. He acts like a conscience, sitting on my shoulder, picking me up whenever I lapse into even a suggestion of illiberalism. Thank you Tristan.

I have been fortunate enough to have had quite a bit of time to devote to this blog. It's become a sort of "stream of consciousness". I wouldn't have done it if it didn't fit in quite well with my family life. I can sit at my perch in my study next to the kitchen, with the door open, tapping away without totally cutting myself off from my nearest and dearest (plural).

Teach yourself English in a split second

My weekly guide to "Wot tickled me in the Saturday Guardian"

  • A Czech speedway racer, previously barely able to speak a word of English, spoke perfect "Newsreader" English after being hit on the head during a race.
  • How many "sics" can you have? Tim Dowling, reporting an item from North Korea in "This Week" uses an unusual full set of sics:
As the Democratic (sic) People's (sic) Republic (sic) celebrates its 59th birthday...

  • Simon Hoggart nicely sums up the Thatcher/Brown photo-op:
Gordon Brown realise the huge symbolic power of the pictures showing him with Margaret Thatcher outside No 10, just before inviting her in for tea and little sandwiches? Margaret Thatcher, the epitome of the forces his supporters most detested and wanted overthrown! Together, swapping notes and reminiscences! I'm sure I'm not the only person to think of the end of Animal Farm, when the pigs, now walking on two legs, have moved in with the humans. The other animals gaze through the windows at their masters: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig...but already it was too late to say which was which." Or as the Who put it, even more succinctly, "Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss."

Chris Huhne attacks Williams, Lester, Neuberger and Taylor

An interesting turn of events in today's Times.

Chris Huhne risks opening divisions in the Liberal Democrats today by attacking colleagues who accepted jobs advising Gordon Brown.

The former leadership contender and environment spokesman dismisses the four Lib Dems who have agreed to work with Mr Brown as “no longer at the cutting edge”.

Speaking on the eve of the party’s annual conference, Mr Huhne urges them to reconsider their roles and suggests that their efforts will no longer be taken seriously by Mr Brown.

I thought that had all been quietly buried. I tend to agree with Huhne but it seems a strange time to dig all this up again. There may be a smidgen of positioning going on here!

Cameron and the Hefferlump - Now it's serious!

There is an absolute gem in this fortnight's Private Eye, reproduced on their website:

Simon Heffer’s constant criticism of David Cameron in the Telegraph is beginning to goad poor Dave beyond endurance. During his holiday in Brittany last month, the Tory leader was lunching one day with Tory treasurer Lord Marland, who has a holiday apartment out there – and who mentioned that Hefferlump sometimes rents a particular house in Dinard for his summer hols.

‘Right!’ Dave roared, rising from the table. ‘Let’s go over there and settle this Heffer business now!’ Cameron was ready for battle. Marland had to drive him to Dinard and lead him to the front door of the house.

Alas! What terrible vengeance he planned will never be known: the villa turned out to be occupied by a blameless and wholly unHefferish family.

Cameron stomped off red-faced with rage and embarrassment – while, far away, Simon Heffer continued his sedate motoring holiday in the Bavarian Alps. Poop poop!

Led Zeppelin: "Stairlift to heaven"

'Letter of the week' has to be this from Simon Charterton in the Guardian:

As it would be easier for Led Zeppelin to take a stairlift to heaven these days, will the reunion (Report, September 13) be sponsored by Stannah?
Simon Charterton

Conservative's green policy shambles

On balance, I agree with the Friends of the Earth verdict on the Tory "Quality of Life" proposals:

This is an enormously important report with many innovative and significant proposals that we wholeheartedly support.The challenge now is to turn this blueprint for a greener future into official party policy.

There's the rub. My head is still spinning on this. I am still not quite sure what the Tories are proposing, particularly after Zak Goldsmith "backpedalled" on some of the main proposals on Conservative Home as highlighted by Chris K. Maybe they aren't proposing anything - it's all just a way of getting on the telly. I don't know. It's a mystery.

This whole thing (I hesitate to use the word "announcement" as it has been more a series of briefings, leaks, press releases and lots of "backpedalling") has been almost impossible to follow. The Tory policy making process, if it can be called that, is an utter shambles.

But anyway, there are some contradictions which are glaring. On Newsnight, only last month, Cameron said he was in favour of airport expansion but now this report proposes to "institute a significant moratorium on new road and airport building." No doubt, Cameron will indicate that it hangs on the interpretation of the the word "significant", but he can't have it both ways.

On the one hand, David Cameron is saying that the money taken on "green taxes" will 'go into a ring-fenced fund to reduce family taxes', and on the other the report itself ( says the proposed green taxes will be "fiscally neutral":

Our policy proposals are fiscally neutral. For example, whilst we recommend levying a high Purchase Tax for the most polluting cars in a class, we argue that all the money received should be returned to tax payers either in the form of a ‘feebate’ to the greenest cars or in other tax reductions.

So which is it to be?

With only a month to go before a possible election, this is a policy mess I would not like to have in our party!

It was entertaining to see John Gummer presenting this report on the telly. My goodness how I missed him! I always feel that he should be doing the voices at a "Punch and Judy" show. As far I am concerned the Tories can give us 24 hour rolling Gummer and Redwood. Most entertaining but unlikely to win them any votes.

Maggie and Gordon

Yesterday at my cousin's funeral I spoke to someone I haven't seen for about thirty five years. At the time, he was the only person I knew, or had known, who read the Guardian. He was/is also a very fair-minded chap who spent, and still spends, much of his time campaigning for political causes. I have ended up reading the Guardian, and being allergic to other papers (even the Indie) and he started me on it, all those years ago.

My friend left the Labour party 11 years. He expressed his astonishment at the pictures of Maggie on the steps of Number Ten with Gordie. "That says it all".

Iain Dale sums up the event as "...another example of (Brown) knowing just which button to press to get under the skin of the Tory Party".

Indeed, it is. Our Gordon is a very clever man. But it doesn't change the fact that, as my re-met old friend said, it won't stop us being ruled by a Conservative government.

Any questions for Ming?

With the other shortlisted "LibDem bloggers of the year", I have been invited to "interview" Ming tomorrow morning as my "prize" for being on the shortlist.

I am somewhat nervous about being in such a cloistered occasion - I would prefer an "online" open questions forum to be held with Ming. Presumably there will be an open "Q and A" with Ming at the conference. I hope so.

And having five people questioning Ming for only half an hour is hardly likely to be a challenging format - as we saw with Newsnight's questioning of Cameron by five journalists. Mind you, given the likes of James, Jonathan, Alex and Richard, I can imagine they will manage to make it challenging and I can just sit back and enjoy it!

But anyway, the attractive high spot of "Daddy" (yes, I get called that as well) sitting in the same room as Ming has enticed my family to come along for a bit of a family away day in Brighton tomorrow.

I suspect that the questioning on Ming will major on the referendum matter and I intended to ask at least one (I suspect I'll only get one) question on domestic matters.

Any ideas for questions?

I was wrong

I'll confess.

My first instinct is to defend Ming and be loyal to him. It's terrible I know, and goodness knows what I am doing in the blogging community with that instinct. I should be writing his press releases, I know. (No - correct that - Stephen Tall should be writing his press releases).

I have just come back from a family funeral. It was for my Godmother, who was a beautiful lady - inside and out. It is marvellous how funerals throw things into proportion.

Having reflected and read the comments of the Norfolk Blogger on a couple of my posts about Ming and the EU Treaty, I now realise that I was overly kind to Ming on Wednesday. On reflection I tend towards the Stephen Tall camp. Ming made a pig's ear of the original announcement on Wednesday.

I still contend that the Treaty itself doesn't need a referendum if taken in isolation from our 2005 manifesto commitment. I just think Ming handled the original thing so badly that he left the whole party's reputation hanging on the rather fragile, and fiendishly difficult to argue, contention that the "constitution" we promised a referendum on in our 2005 manifesto was completely different from the "treaty" now on offer.

So it is a relief to read the Friday clarification from Ming. I think we can move on now - just.

It is ludicrous to have a referendum with the question purely on a revising treaty. It would be a proxy question, used by UKIP/Cameron to ask people if they want to withdraw from the EU. The formal answer to the referendum would be a stonking "no - we don't want the treaty" and this would be interpreted as meaning "we want to withdraw from Europe". So the only honest referendum is the one Ming is proposing on the whole EU constitution. I do not agree with Jonathan Calder that this would be a re-run of the 1975 referendum, because of the all the intervening treaties. The 1975 referendum was on membership of the "Common Market", not the "European Union".

And I do think a referendum is necessary given all the succeeding treaties.

Again, on reflection, I am very concerned about the way this has been done and I hope Ming has learnt his lesson. I am not sure what "soundings" he took before his Wednesday declaration, but whatever they were, they weren't very good. A decision of that magnitude should be taken without some sort of vote of the the party, whether it be the parliamentary party or the full conference or the Fedex or whatever. But then again, we elect leaders to lead and at least he was showing some leadership, but it did it in a disastrous way.

I still think Ming needs to repeat his explanation of the difference between his current position and our 2005 manifesto commitment.

Lest we forget, even Paddy was wont to have the odd "I lead you follow" moment which infuriated the party. I remember when I was Newbury constituency party president or chair (forget which) when I had to almost use water cannon to quell the indignation of the local LibDem troops at some "getting into bed with Tony Blair" moment which Paddy had towards the end of his leadership.

By the way, Andy has written very well of the advantageous political tactical side to this, which I alluded to in one of my posts.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Where's the quack?

James Graham writes of the EU Treaty and quotes the old phrase: “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”

Look, I am just muddling through here. I am quite prepared to stand up and say I am wrong. So please tell me which provisions of the proposed EU Treaty result in transfers of sovereignty from the UK to the EU significant enough to warrant a national referendum and to justify the title "constitution". Please list those provisions.

I am not a political scientist. I didn't study any form of politics at school or university, aside from history. I have, however, taken the trouble to read the US Constitution and, peculiarly, found myself enjoying it. Yes, of course, it doesn't have a flag mentioned in it, though its provisions do form the basis of the flag in the sense of the membership of the states in a greater union (the stars on the flag representing the current number of states, the stripes representing the original states). What the US Constitution does have are some fairly hefty items: Senate, House, President, Supreme Court.

What does the EU Treaty in question have?

Er....extend the term of the President from six months to 2.5 years...have a EU High Commissioner for foreign affairs...extend from 6 to 8 weeks the period in which country parliaments can consider a law....

It's a revising treaty! It's not a constitution. If you want a referendum on the EU constiution (as James, I think, implies he accepts with his point about the EU constiution being the series of treaties since Rome) you would have to have a referendum on all the treaties since Rome - i.e a wider referendum on EU membership as Ming has suggested.

I certainly don't accept, indeed violently reject, the point made by non-referendumers like Andrew Duff, that the treaty is too complex for the public to understand. Could someone kindly sit on Mr Duff?!

The public is excellent at processing complexity in the right way. "Trust the people"...etc

The point is not that the Treaty is too complex. It is that it is too inconsequential to be put before the public and would lead to a dangerously misleading decision if it was, because it would follow a "proxy" debate.

The big problem is that the pro-referendum movement, or more correctly, movements, are creating a "proxy debate" in two ways (and counting). From the Cameron/UKIP angle this is not a debate about the EU treaty, it is a debate about EU membership per se. From the TUC angle, this is not a debate about the EU Treaty (an opt-out for the Charter of Fundamental Rights means that the UK can also opt-in if it likes - you don't need a referendum on something where the UK government can exercise its own choice), it's a complaint against their own Labour government, who they pay for through their weekly pay packets, for not behaving like a Labour government and implementing working standards conventions which other countries are taking for granted.

As for tactics. Ming's decision is actually a clever move tactically, just as Brown's decision not to go for a referendum is actually deviously clever, as you would expect from the BCF (Big Clunking Fist).

Brown is boxing Cameron into the same corner as Hague got boxed into. At the next election, a major plank of the Camster's manifesto will be "we need a referendum on a EU Treaty". Just as Hague's "we want to keep the pound" campaign failed in a general election, so will Cameron's "Referendum for a EU Treaty" campaign. So Ming is very clever, tactically, to help increase the danger of this happening for Cameron.

Jeremy Hargreaves has written brilliantly on this subject. He strongly makes the same points as me, but with the added advantage of clearly knowing what he is talking about!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The depressing homogenisation of ITV

The proposals announced by Michael Grade today to reduce ITV's regional newsrooms, from 17 to nine, is yet another step in the steady ratcheting of the homogenisation of ITV.

In the 1960s and 70s, each ITV region was run by an individual, independent private company. They had their own logos, on-screen continuity "personality" announcers, news programmes, magazine programmes, start-up films, closedown films, advert "bumpers" (quick bits between the ads), idents, local personalities, regional puppets for kids' birthday dedications, individually painted boards for feature films etc etc There was even the additional bonus of local cock-ups.

Now what do they have that is particular to each region? Er.............

Well, all the regional stations are owned by one public company, they all have the same ITV logo, the same advert "bumpers", no on-screen announcers, unseen announcers from some bunker 200 miles away covering several regions, no regional idents and precious little regional magazine programmes. When you watch ITV in, say, Manchester and then compare it to ITV in, say, Penzance, it is almost exactly the same, with one exception, at 6pm you get local news. (Scotland is a bit of an exception in that you occasionally hear the odd Scots accent on the continuity announcements).

Grade's proposal is extremely depressing in that it is just one more step in completely erasing any regional identity for ITV's programmes. The sheer colour and variety, the charm and quaintness of the original ITV network was enrapturing and fostered a strong feeling of regional identity in viewers.

The Westward galleon, the Anglia knight, the Thames river scape, the Southern all might have been a bit kitsch and cheap but it was all part of a regional fabric with a personality.

But the reduction in service of the plans is the most disturbing aspect.

Grade will be knocking the stuffing out of most of the regional news programmes, with a resultant diminution in the community life of this country.

It would be alright if we had a thriving community/town television system to take up the slack, but we certainly do not.

Imagine. Under the plans someone in Penzance will watch regional news hosted in Bristol (probably) which will include news from Gloucester. Someone in Newbury will be watching news from Kent. In half an hour, you really can't bring in sufficient places from the region to make people spread over it feel they are watching something local.

Trust me. I've watched BBC South for years. It's based in Southampton and I live in Newbury. They keep on banging on about places in Sussex. I haven't a clue what it's like there. Apart from Brighton, I have never been to most of the places they mention. They might as well be going on about Outer Mongolia, for all the relevance it has to me.

As is often said, people are either interested in what's happening at national/world level or what is happening in their town. They are not interested in what is happening in some provincial town 100 or 150 miles away from them.

This is actually a chance for Ofcom to show their mettle. I cannot believe they are going to approve this proposal. When you think of the days of ITA and Lady Plowden, who ruled with a rod of iron and ferociously enforced regional standards, it is just unthinkable that there should be such a retrograde step.

Shortly before he died, I interviewed Kenneth MacLeod for a website I used to run about Westward Television. Ken was a real ITV regional pioneer. He worked for Associated Redifusion and then for Westward. He was a real anchor man. Physically, in the nicest possible way, he looked as though he could anchor a medium size boat. He had talked his way, live on air, through so many machine breakdowns that he was a dab hand at the ad lib.

He explained to me that once there was a breakdown and he resorted to his old standby: He got out the contents of his poockets - bus tickets, cheques etc - and started talking about them: "I need to pay that bill tomorrow" etc etc. Once, he had to talk his way through a whole half-hour programme because the telecine machine didn't work at all.

So he was well immersed in the ITV regional system. He told me a few home truths. First of all, he said he was convinced that, if the ITV regional system hadn't come along, the BBC wouldn't have bothered with their regional programmes. That makes me fear that the BBC will follow ITV in diluting their regional television news programmes. Secondly, he was convinced that ITV would eventually have no regional identities at all.

His second prediction seems to be well on its way to fruition. Michael Grade's plans will make it a step nearer.

Why Ming is right on the EU treaty

LibDem Voice reports that Ming Campbell has said that a referendum is not necessary on the EU Treaty.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that I agree 100% with Ming.

If you look at the items in the treaty, the idea of having a meaningful referendum debate on them is absolutely absurd:

-Double majority voting needing 55% of member states representing 65% of the population from 2014, extended to 40-50 new areas
-National veto will be maintained in the fields of foreign affairs, defence, fiscal matters, and social security and culture.
-EU President will have 2.5 year term
-EU High representative for Foreign affairs, who will be Vice-President, controlling aid budget
-Countries can still have their own foreign policy
-Reduced commission size, with rotation representation on five year basis
-Legal status for EU as a "person" but can't act beyond "competancies conferred by member states"
-Parliaments have eight weeks to examine legal proposals, instead of six
-Countries can demand re-examination of laws they feel take away their rights
-EU solidarity in the event of energy shortages
-New entrants will need to commit to promote EU values
-Right to revise treaties

Then look at what's not in the treaty which was originally envisaged for the preceding ill-fated "constitution":

-The treaty sits alongside other EU treaties rather than replacing them
-The treaty talks about "regulations" or "directives" rather than "laws"
-No flags, anthems or mottos
-UK is not part of Charter of Fundamental Rights

Come off it! The treaty is all anorak stuff. The fact that William Hague is bleating on about this speaks volumes. The treaty is detailed bureaucratic fiddling and revising.

To have a referendum on the treaty is completely nuts! Wake up!

But Ming has introduced a very sound point. A "yes" / "no" referendum on UK membership of the EU is a good idea. That would be a proper referendum. I am glad Ming has introduced that comparison in order to demonstrate why the treaty is not fundamental enough to require a referendum.

But a referendum on the treaty would be a false referendum. It would actually be turned into a referendum on EU membership but without having the correct degree of consequences if people vote "no" to membership. The result would therefore be dangerously misleading.

The reason such a referendum would be turned into something else, is because, simply, you cannot have a referendum debate with the British people on things like "Do you want the time the UK parliament considers laws to be increased from six to eight weeks?" It's far too nit-picky for a proper public debate.

People's eyes would glaze over when they see the detail in the treaty. A referendum on the treaty would be a waste of money.

Well done Ming for having the sense to reject David Cameron's ridiculous red herring of a referendum on the treaty. It is quite clear to me that the provisions of the treaty are quite obviously not fundamental enough to be called a "constitution" and therefore not fundamental enough to need, or indeed be relevant to, a referendum.

I believe Ming has been statesmanlike and mature in making this decision, in contrast to David Cameron who, in campaigning for a referendum on this bag of bureaucratic tiddly-winks, is being opportunist, ill-judged and unwise.