Monday, December 31, 2007

All For Want Of A Bigger Cultural Metaphor

Jock's important point about football pitches reminds me of one of my own regular metaphorical frustrations.

Every so often (read: when it's raining) it is necessary for me to make my way through Cardiff's St. David's Centre, currently something of a building site as the imaginatively names St. David's 2 takes shape next door. As ever with such projects, the ugly bits of the construction process are covered with hoardings proclaiming the amazingness of the new facilities, amongst which is the proud claim that the new centre will cover an area of however many football pitches.

Which is fine, Jock's point notwithstanding, except that Cardiff happens to be the capital of a country called Wales (it's possible the owners may have heard of it) where the national sport and cultural icon happens to be Rugby Union. As a man of Gloucester, one of those bits of England where football doesn't really exist, can I please have a culturally appropriate metaphor?

And in case you were thinking the difference is irrelevant, note that while an average football pitch is of variable size with a median around 1.75 acres, a rugby union pitch is specifically 144x70 metres, or 2.67 acres, giving a pretty accurate conversion of 3 football pitches = 2 rugby pitches.

Of course, if that wasn't enough, one might argue that the real standard should be the nanoWales, but even I'll recognise that might constitute pushing it...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Spin From The Back Seat

In our twenty-four hour, multimedia, wi-fi, world, there can be few places where one doesn’t expect to find political propaganda. On the bus to work is, however, one place you might feel reasonably safe.

My bus this morning proved otherwise, however. At some point in its life, it had been done up to signify some anniversary of the company, and in amongst the posters going on about trolley-buses and such like was the almost throwaway comment about the 1980’s;

“Legislative controls were also reduced, thus allowing private bus operators to respond better to their customers.”

I believe the correct response in this situation is along these lines; do you want a piece of me, Mr Bus Company?

Just take my example; my morning bus is regularly up to 15 minutes late reaching my stop (always appreciated at a stop without a shelter), meaning that I arrive in the centre of Cardiff anything up to 30 minutes late. The bus itself will generally be old, loud and equipped with suspension from the 50’s; not the 1950’s, not the 1850’s, but the 50’s. I swear I’m developing vibration white buttock…

More generally, there are few areas of public policy where the contrast is starker. In London, where bus regulation was retained, passenger numbers have soared. Everywhere else, they have crashed and burned. In the few places where deregulation has led to any sort of competition, companies are more interested in sticking it to the enemy than anything so quaint as a safe, reliable service. Deregulation has manifestly failed to produce the bus network we need, either environmentally or economically.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Barbecue Ignition The Napalm Way

Is it just me, or did Ruth Kelly on Newsnight just suggest that the lesson we should take from Datagate I, Datagate II, Datagate III, Datagate IV, Datagate V and Datagate Balboa is that our current databases aren't sophisticated enough and that we should embrace the ID card system to make data transfers easier?

So she wouldn't say, for example, that the root cause of most of these scandals was people asking for data they weren't entitled to being given it by people who were too stupid to notice they weren't entitled to it and too stupid to send it securely? And she wouldn't say that if the end users can't notice that data shouldn't be transferred, the programmers of the ID card database have no chance of ensuring that the system won't transfer it, thus opening all our data up to whomsoever in HMG who wants it?

If Ms Kelly, or indeed anyone in the Government believes that they can spin their complete and utter stupidity into a case for ID cards, well, let's just say that none of the things I would suggest they can do with themselves are family viewing...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dirk Gently's American Lawmaking

The Register brings promising news from New Jersey, where the Democrat-controlled State Assembly voted yesterday to abolish the death penalty, the first state to do so since Gregg v. Georgia reintroduced the penalty in 1976.

For those of us who believe in the interconnectedness of all things, it's worth noting that one of the eight death row inmates spared as a result will be Jesse Timmendequas, the man whose actions eventually led to the establishment of Megan's Law. Terrible though his actions were, the death penalty is never justifiable and we can but hope that New Jersey's decision will help drive a more mature debate on both topics in election year.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Infected Salmond

The moral, technical and political arguments over Trump-not-quite-a-gate (and despite the efforts of some bloggers, I’m in agreement with Josh Lyman that there’s no way this qualifies as a gate) have been thoroughly covered by our Scottish colleagues. What strikes me about the whole affair however is how nice it is, particularly from a Welsh perspective, to see that nationalists in power are affected by the same diseases as any other shade of politician would be; Megaprojectitis.

Because you just know that at some stage this thought went through Alex Salmond’s head;

There is this weird price range, between £500 million and £2.5 billion, where politicians will do anything to get something built, no matter how stupid the thing is or how stupid the building is. I’d hazard that it was the price tag more than anything that persuaded Blair to plough on with the Dome; some part of him knew it was insane to do so, but that was shouted down by the incessant cry of SEVEN HUNDRED MILLION POUNDS!

I suspect it also explains why the original Olympic budget was exactly the size it was; anything above £2.5 billion and the primary thought changes from “Man, that would be great for the economy!” to “Man, that would be unpopular with taxpayers!”

Either way, it will be interesting to see how Plaid deal with the disease, although on the evidence of the Wylfa row, Wales Millennium Centre and Ieuan Air, the omens are not good…

Monday, November 26, 2007

Liberal In "BBC Liberal Bias" Shock

Okay, the title may be pushing it a bit (on both counts!) but I would like to register my protest at one piece of shameless BBC disparagement from today.

Not that I have any objection to the story itself; indeed, I quite agree with the members of Belford Piegeon Racing Club that they should be eligible for relief from rates on their premises as other sports are. What I object to is the sidebar listing a variety of activities that are eligible for the rate relief because they are registered with UK Sport.

It would be bad enough if that list only contained a bunch of merely non-sports, things requring the athletic ability of an arthritic ant. But it manages to not only lay into honourable British Isles sports such as shinty and hurling, it takes a pop at Korfball.

For those who have not encountered Korfball, it is an eight-a-side game reminiscent of Netball, but with significantly greater skill and physical requirements. It is also the world's only mixed team sport. It may not be especially common in Britain, but there's a thriving club and international scene and it just so happens to be my participation sport of choice.

So next time, Mr BBC, don't try and suggest that anyone who participates in any sporting activity with vigour and commitment is less worthy than any other; the only person it embarrasses is you.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Shuffling The Deckchairs On The S.S. Conservative

I’ve said before that as a blogger I actively strive not to be topical. Of course, there will always be things that you do want to comment on immediately, but I generally find that the hecticness (or in my case, the strange form of anti-hecticness I cultivate) of life will intervenes if you want it to.

Nevertheless I’m quite glad that the appearance of Liberal Conspiracy has brought the future of the left into the blogosphere. It’s a subject that had been playing on my mind in any case, inspired by Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank’s appearance on News 24’s Straight Talk. But through it all, I found myself asking one simple question;

Why on Earth would a lefty be most concerned about the realignment of the left?

As I’ve said before with reference to grammar schools, most questions can be considered from exactly the opposite directions. For all the stress on the left about the disunity of the left through the twentieth century, is it not more remarkable that the right stayed united during that period? That there was no response to the Conservative acceptance of the Attlee settlement in the 1950’s? That Thatcherism did not cause a more fundamental rift with the One Nationers in the 1980’s? That neither Goldsmith nor Farage have persuaded the Eurosceptics to jump ship in the Major/Hague/Duncan Smith/Howard/Cameron era?

In reality, few ideas have been more persistent in British politics than that of the Conservative Party as a natural home for people who can plug away diligently if boringly and eventually get made MPs when they reach a certain weight; a quick glance at the Tory back-benches during PMQ’s provides all the evidence one could need of the mass of mediocrity that approach has proudly produced for many years.

What both the liberals and, particularly, the “socialists” must now recognise is that we cannot wait around in the hope that the Tories will go ballistic and have a Lloyd George/Asquith style split. We have already had the Cuban Missile Crisis in that respect and, when given his moment of destiny, Michael Heseltine spectacularly failed to deliver the knockout blow to Thatcher over Westland.

So our answer to Liberal Conspiracy is a simple one; if you really want to realign British politics for the better, you are going to have to come over here and start listening on PR. We are different from you and we are different from them and you aren’t going to get anywhere until you stop fighting it and start embracing it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Manifest(o) Lack Of Surprise

I suppose that by this stage I shouldn't be surprised by Labour ditching a manifesto commitment. Even so, you have to tip your hat to a party with the gumption to abandon something after a trial in which a third of residents used the service with 90% user satisfaction...

Nevertheless, as trailed by Peter Black and Martin Tod earlier, the Home Office are abandoning the rollout of the 101 service and withdrawing funding from the trial areas (Cardiff, East Leicestershire and Rutland, Hampshire and Isle of Wight, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear, Sheffield) in March.

Here in Cardiff the Liberal Democrats have been fighting for continued funding for the service for a while now, and you can support those campaigns through our Facebook group and our petition. I would urge everyone to show their support for a service that is making a real difference to the communities already trialling it and could work wonders across the country.

Friday, November 02, 2007

I Don't Fear Real Terrorists, Just Smart Ones

With its finger ever on the pulse of European news, the BBC Ten tonight reported the arrest in September(!) of a German convert to Islam on terror charges. But this was no ordinary arrest in the psyche of the War On Terror, because Fritz Gelowicz was the quarterback for the Ulm Barracudas. Between the home-grown element and the embracing of that quintessentially American sport, everyone appears to be thoroughly shocked.

I wish I was.

As a student with some peripheral involvement in student politics, I knew many people who spent their weekends trotting off to Fairford, Faslane or Fylingdales to chain themselves to a man in a plastic whale costume. This struck me as an awful lot of effort to get onto an American base, because I had a way into one anyway.

The Menwith Hill Patriots are one of the most successful baseball teams in Britain, which is perhaps unsurprising given that they are made up of American servicemen at the listening station there and thus might be considered to have an advantage. More importantly, their home field is ever so slightly at RAF Menwith Hill itself;

So I'm not in the least shocked that Islamist militants might be trying to get into American sports. If anything, I'm surprised it's taken them so long...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A University Challenge (For Nick And Chris)

Of course, amidst this week's flurry of blog posts (this is now my fourth day in a row, I'm not sure which of the seals I've opened, but it's definitely one of them!) I have unaccountably failed to explain the disappearance of certain information from my profile.

I can therefore confirm that I have resigned from LDYS Executive and LDYS Policy Committee. I'm not going to go into detail at this stage, mid-leadership election and all; suffice it to say, my resignation was on a point of principle relating to LDYS' future direction.

In that vein, I offer a challenge to our leadership contenders. The numbers are stark; there are 22 held or target seats in which the student vote alone could decide the seat. And yet, LDYS is the single most neglected part of our campaign arsenal, with the Federal Party taking notice only when it wants its picture taken in front of good things and when it wants bad things hushed up. My challenge, therefore, is this; tell us how you are going to ensure that LDYS is supported, not only by our words, but by our actions.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Causal Relationship Will Be Between This Stick And Your Head

As a recovering scientist, one of my public policy bugbears is the flagrant misuse of statistics. What is worse is when that misuse comes from the academics themselves...

The Independent on Sunday reports the findings of a study in the journal Environmental Research claiming that the fall in violent crime in the US in the 1990's was the result of banning leaded petrol. Researchers report a "very strong association" over a period of fifty years between childhood exposure to lead and crime rates in adulthood. Similar trends are reported to have been seen in individual US cities and in other nations around the world.

This is by no means the first study to suggest a left-field cause for this particular drop in the crime rate, as at least one blog this week (though which one I've shamefully forgotten) pointed out when referring to The Impact Of Legalized Abortion On Crime, co-authored by Freakonomics' Steven Levitt.

Now let's face it, you don't have to be a recovering scientist to realise that the flaw in these studies is the failure to recognise that even the strongest correlation is not necessarily causal (although if you do need help with this concept, Wikipedia offers some delightful examples...)

What all this brings home to me, however, is the scale of the task we face as liberals on crime and the importance of making an impact. Pretty much everything Labour and the Conservatives (and, for that matter, the SNP and Plaid) say and do on crime is predicated on the idea that crime is perpetrated by bad people and that if there were only less bad people things would be all right.

That there are serious social scientists eager to support that assumption is of real concern. That there are serious politicians who would use those assumptions to ignore the deprivation that is the real cause of crime is just shameful.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Nick And Me (Michael Moore(s) Not Included)

I've just got back home from Nick Clegg's Welsh campaign launch in Swansea, and in between being impressed by his pronunciation of Cymru Fydd, I've really been reminded why I'm voting for Nick.

To explain, I first met Nick in December 2005 at a proto-Pizza And Politics event organised by Sheffield University Lib Dems. He'd drawn quite a crowd, with Brummies and Londoners joining those of us who'd crossed the
Pennines, and to kick off we went round the group describing our formative political experiences. As we went round, the story was pretty consistent; Iraq showed me I was a liberal, politics at college showed me I was a liberal, I always knew I was a liberal...

I got to go last, and of course I didn't consider myself a liberal; I was very clear that I was a centre-left progressive with a particular interest in electoral reform whose attraction to the party was the democrat part of the title. Never one to shy away from my politics, however, I openly and honestly declared where I was coming from.

I'd met MPs before, of course, but Nick was the first Orange Booker I'd encountered. I was therefore somewhat wary, expecting perhaps to be disappointed by a doctrinaire right-winger. And make no bones about it, Nick is an economic liberal with serious intellectual credentials.

But Nick did something that I'd never seen an economic liberal do before; he explained how his economics achieved his social goals. Where many saw economic liberalism as something we had to embrace because we were liberals and it was in the name, Nick put it to use.

For me, above everything, above all the intellectual arguments about liberalism, conservatism, authoritarianism, etc. this leadership election must be about communication. We have a body of policy and we know that it is massively superior to the drivel that Brown and Cameron will trot out in the next two years. What we must fight off now is the concept the electorate has of our policy, namely, "oh, but you'll never be in power so you don't have to worry about what you say, it's all just pipe dreams".

In reality, we have never had a stronger case against both parties, that years of their ideas have not worked and that our ideas, tried and tested around the world, can make a real difference. I have no doubt that Nick is the candidate best equipped to make that case and take us forward, and I would urge everyone to lend him their support.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

What Happens On Facebook Stays On Facebook

Charlotte Gore raises an important point about Facebook's political categories and the debate going forward (although missing the reason why those categories are the way they are, namely that Facebook is American and wouldn't know a socialist if Bernie Sanders hit it with one.) Charlotte has perhaps also missed one of the wonders of Facebook, in that the numbers to inform the answer are but a mouse-click away...

For those who have missed it, Facebook's UK Politics application is essentially a mass opinion poll on the question, "who are you planning on voting for in the next General Election". It's been incredibly popular, and now has around 4500 responses logged. It may not be particularly accurate (it is, after all, self-selecting) but it does have the advantage that it can compare an individual's responses to all their other profile data.

Right now (18:55 as I type), the overall poll is as follows;
  • Conservative - 34.9%
  • Labour - 33.3%
  • Liberal Democrat - 18.6%
  • Green (UK Total) - 4.1%
  • Others - 9.1%
But then consider some of these breakdowns. For "Very Liberal";
  • Liberal Democrat - 44%
  • Labour - 38.8%
  • Green - 7.3%
For "Liberal";
  • Liberal Democrat - 50.3%
  • Labour - 37.5%
  • Conservative - 4.1%
Those two are perhaps less surprising, and neither is the fact that the Conservatives take over 90% of the "Conservative" and "Very Conservative" votes. The remaining categories are a touch more interesting. In "Libertarian";
  • Conservative - 56.3%
  • Liberal Democrat - 14.4%
  • Labour - 11.3%
In "Moderate";
  • Labour - 56.8%
  • Conservative - 24.8%
  • Liberal Democrat - 8%
And in "Other";
  • Labour - 54.7%
  • Conservative - 9.6%
  • Green - 8.3%
  • Respect - 6.6%
  • Liberal Democrat - 5.8%
To me, those numbers suggest two problems in addition to the one Charlotte correctly identified. Firstly, in the Facebook world at any rate, the Lib Dems and Conservatives know what they are and identify accordingly, while the Labourites still think they're socialists. Second, the libertarians clearly believe they must stand in the Tory camp at this stage (and I suspect they're correct in that analysis). The question is, can we attract these two groups, both of whom should be with us to a greater extent than they are, without pissing everyone else off?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

If Newsnight Doesn't Understand, How Can Anyone Else?

So let me get this right; according to the combination of Newsnight and BBC Ten O'Clock News, Simon Hughes is the representative of the social democratic wing of the party, Nick Clegg is represents both the economic liberal wing and the right wing, and Steve Webb and Chris Huhne represent the left wing. If the telly was mine I'd be throwing things at it...

Whoever our new leader may be (and let me state plainly here and now, much as I associate myself more with Steve Webb, it has to be the Clegg) they really must tackle the fundamental mental block we now have as a party, namely an unwillingness to define ourselves on the left-right spectrum. Now I have all the Facebook political compass-type applications going and I understand all the reasons why two axes are superior, but I am left nevertheless with one simple conclusion;

"If no-one in the media is never going to give a rat's nether regions about two axes, we should stop blathering on about them!"

All the analysis now is going to be that we are suffering from being squeezed out of the centre ground. That is the terminology of the day, so it's that terminology we must challenge. The irony is, with "cozy consensus" we're halfway there, but cozy consensus doesn't work as a message if the perception that we're in the middle of it goes unchallenged. Failure to challenge it will just see us repeating history yet again.

Either way, I hope we will reflect on and appreciate the contribution that Ming has made to the party, even in his parting. It was a courageous decision, a decision that showed real commitment to the party and its ideals over individual power. The sooner he is back taking David/Ed/Glenn/Steve Miliband to task over the failings of New Labour's excuse for a foreign policy, the better.

PS A special award to blogger for having an outage just as I was about to post this last night...

Friday, October 05, 2007

Thank YouTube It's Friday

YouTube has finally come up with the goods and I can present my favourite video of all time (four versions thereof, no less!)

If the Public Information Film man didn't do it for you, surely Tomorrow's World's very own Maggie Philbin is authoritative enough?

And in the interests of balance, here are the news reports of the day's events, proof positive that some things never change...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ten Years And Five Pledges Later

Rarely has something come along that so confirms my beliefs as the discovery of the Labour Party's Facebook application, iSupport. The idea is actually reasonably clever as a soft vote attractor; the application has a list of Labour's achievements and allows users to endorse those achievements and see how many other people have also endorsed them.

The only trouble is, the list of achievements is as follows;
  • Labour banned fox hunting
  • Labour has more than doubled overseas aid
  • Labour introduced the Minimum Wage
  • Labour made pubs and clubs smoke-free
  • Labour will help first-time buyers by building 3 million new homes by 2020
Or, as I would describe it;
  • Labour banned fox hunting and didn't police it so it's made nark all difference
  • Labour left overseas aid well below UN and EU targets while increasing the need for aid by bombing the living s**t out of Iraq
  • Labour introduced the Minimum Wage and failed to increase it while using it to actively discriminating against young people
  • Labour was forced to make pubs and clubs smoke-free in England because the Scottish and Welsh beat them to it
  • Labour will talk as long and loud as possible about building new homes because it's not a construction company, has no ideas for actually achieving that target and hopes that by 2020 the Tories will be in so they can be blamed
If anything fuels my hatred of New Labour, it is the insistence on banging on about the minor achievements while failing to notice the elephant in the room. Still, if Labour want to run their next election on the basis of a facile pledge card like that, bring them on...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

And On The Fifth Day...


No, not Ming's speech (though I'll come to that in a bit!) No, I refer to the fact that BBC News Online have finally given us a plug for Lib Dem Top Trumps, LDYS' big fundraiser at Conference. I'd be more impressed, mind you, if they hadn't plugged another organisation's free Top Trumps on carbon reduction two days ago and if the plug wasn't just under a story saying that the "Homophobia Is Gay" badges are kicking up a fuss (which I'm sure they did when we introduced them a whole year ago!)

Mind you, they did miss the bigger angle, which is that because of the way Top Trumps works there is essentially a statistical ranking of all the cards, which also means that there is a best card. Heck, a really eager journo might have tried to find the person who put together the statistics for the cards to find out which card was best, but I haven't had any calls yet...

As for Ming, can't disagree with the general opinion on the blogosphere, good speech. But I do wish he'd stop doing the arm-wavy thing at the end...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Having A Teletubby Moment

One of the other joys of the new technology is that, if you've missed the morning's business, they repeat it again for you at lunchtime! Mind you, quite why I'd want to be subjected to even more of Theo Butt Philip than I already volunteer for is beyond me... (only kidding, and Theo, hear hear!)

I'm glad at any rate that my own view on the matter of LVT was aired in the hall (yes we should have it, but it should be national, not local). But then, given the way LVT has been treated by the party generally, buried away in ALTER and forced to fight from there, we shouldn't be surprised that they decide to fight for the headline policy rather than burrowing into the less-storied overall policy.

Nevertheless, the way LVT is campaigned for does turn me off, even though I generally agree with the idea. Above all, I hate the insistence that it must be an either/or decision, the insistence that income tax is something that is uniformly bad. The aim of this tax paper was the shifting of the marginal tax rates towards the rich and I fail to see how you do that if the only tool you have to work only affects a proportion of someone's economic activity and not all of it.

We need both taxes in a system that deals holistically (that word again!) with the needs and aims of local and national government. Vince's speech hit the nail right on the head and I'm delighted that we've once again demonstrated that we are the party with considered and fair tax proposals.

Meanwhile, I fear I will miss the live debate on the Poverty paper, so if anyone at Conference is reading, all I'll say is, vote to value young people's work, vote Option B!

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Limits Of Sadness?

I promised myself that, having missed the live coverage of today's business by the remarkable feat of having something better to do, I wouldn't watch the repeats because that might constitute overdoing it. My resistance became even more fierce when I found that I was turning on to the nuclear power section of the environmental debate, which one might imagine would lead me into realms of unimaginable fury. And yet, here I am, still watching (at least until University Challenge comes and rescues me at 8!)

For fear of getting personal, I must start by saying that Deborah Newton-Cook is an idiot. I'm left with little other option after her delightfully ignorant statement that Chernobyl could happen in Britain. As someone whose undergraduate dissertation was on that very subject, I can assure her that the Chernobyl accident could only occur in that specific design of reactor and that design was only ever built in the former Soviet Union.

On the other hand, I fear that I'm starting to want to have Chris Davies' babies. This is a strange idea in two ways, namely that I'm one of the straight ones in the party and that I've actually met Chris Davies' children. But his speech was exactly the right note; our numbers have never added up, we have always believed the wildest claims of the developers of new technology (who are actually evil capitalists themselves, even if their products are nice and fluffy) and we have never considered electricity generation holistically.

At least the science wasn't totally absent; I'm delighted to see there were some interventions questioning the overall logic of biofuels, it would have been really depressing if we had taken that piece of the creed without thinking about the whole package too...

In other news, nice to see that the journalists have found LDYS in some respect (LDYS England Convenor Rachel Hamburger having just appeared with James Landale on News 24). This should of course prompt another reminder for all of you who are there to go to the LDYS stall and get conference's must-have item!

Anyhow, I'm signing off as it's approaching 8 and Exeter vs. Jesus, Cambridge is a far superior attraction!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday From The Sofa

There’s something strangely comforting about watching Liberal Democrats dealing with procedural matters, so it’s apt that the opening item in today’s coverage is the FCC report. It’s also somewhat nostalgic for me, since Sunday was the only day of Conference I could watch last year and so most of what I saw was the reports. Of course, it’s also a little weird watching speeches on reports you can’t see, particularly in the case of FPC where, as the LDYS observer I was (occasionally!) in the room at the time.

One trend that hasn’t changed is the appalling quality of the captioning of speakers. Already we’ve had Jeremy Hargreaves as “Vice Chair, Federal Conference Committee” and a reference to “Golder’s Green”. I fear things can only get worse, particularly if anyone from Wales gets up…

In anticipation of another trend, can speakers kindly stop invoking the Preamble To The Federal Constitution? On the one hand it’s thoroughly dull hearing it, because we all have it written on our membership cards (heck, I just got my Welsh party variant card, so I have it written down twice!) But more than that, it is used to suggest that something should be done because it is “naturally” Lib Dem and really, we should have better reasons for doing things than “because”.

It was interesting to hear Mark Hunter suggest that “…we would no sooner blame Manchester University for the government’s decision to go to war in Iraq”. Clearly he hasn’t met the University of Manchester Students Union

The Beeb aren’t doing well on the broadcast mechanics so far, we’ve had picture interruptions throughout (filled with generic shots of Brighton) and we’re now seeing a video presentation to the conference hall by the high-tech solution that is zooming the camera in on the screen in the hall…

Extra: Most redundant question of Conference - "James, would you like to ask a supplemental?"

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hiding From The New Technology

As it is the weekend's contractual obligation in the blogosphere, let me say now that I am not presently packing for conference because I'm not going to conference. What's more, I have still yet to manage to go at all (though this year's absence is somewhat more frustrating, as it is financial and not, as previously, due to conference always being held on Freshers Week at the University of Manchester).

Not that that will stop me from fulfilling that other contractual obligation of the conference blogosphere, namely the constant updating with every available piece of conference news. I'll be here with my aunt's 43" plasma screen watching everything on BBC Parliament and letting you know how it looks from the armchair (so if you're going to be appearing on the podium, be sure to scrub up for the cameras!)

Mind you, the new technology does have one disadvantage, in that it offers many more ways for people to forget that you're not going. This week alone, I've had umpteen Facebook invites to fringes, texts and instant messages from friends asking to meet up and an LDYS rota that expected me to do four hours stall duty (that last being a particular pain since the LDYS stall will have the must-have item of the whole conference and everyone should go and get it!)

Monday, September 03, 2007

Nocturnal Observations

A couple of things that have struck me this evening;
  1. Is it not slightly odd that, of all the Lib Dems he could have chosen to join a government policy review, Gordon has taken one who is standing down at the next election? Heck, a person of suspicious mind might think that yon scunner Broon was planning to call a snap election and thus quietly invalidate the appointment...
  2. Can people please stop using the phrase "Back Me" with reference to political campaigns? As David Baddiel would have put it, fifty years ago, "Back Me" meant "support me in this campaign", with just a slight undertone of "take me roughly from behind". Today, on the other hand...

Ask, And Shall Ye Receive?

Going back through the year of this blog’s life, it does appear that I draw a little too much inspiration from otherwise throwaway comments. Indeed, Sir Humphrey’s description of something “running around Whitehall like a grenade with the pin taken out” seems apt at times. Nevertheless, I have indeed been set off once again by one of the women in my life (and no, I most definitely do not mean that in the Randy Newman sense…) The lady in question is my aunt, who admonished me recently that, “you can’t tell people what to think”.

Once upon a time, Britain had a governmental system called a representative democracy. In that system, people voted on a fairly regular basis for a talented individual to represent them and the place they lived in the Palace of Westminster where they deliberated over the great questions of state (yes, I know I’m glossing over a few million things, such as the fat Tory landowners who were made MPs when they reached a certain weight, but stick with me for a moment!)

And then two somewhat related developments changed things. In the first instance, the politicians started to demystify themselves through a remarkable tactic called “getting caught shagging prostitutes”. Yes, they’d always been doing it and yes, changes in the media climate played some part but either way, somewhere along the line we stopped thinking that politicians could be honest, dedicated, moral people. To compound the problem, we then stopped voting as if they should be those people.

That whole process was made easier by the second factor, namely the nationalisation of general elections between 1945 and 1970. Again, the development of media technology made that inevitable, but it distinctly changed the relationship between an individual candidate’s performance and their vote. Where once, a candidate could lose by being out-husted by a particularly talented opponent, suddenly there were at least 300 seats where one party’s candidate would have to be caught blowing goats to lose.

The whole thing became a vicious circle in the selection process. When the skills necessary to be a good parliamentarian and those necessary to be a good candidate coincided, there was at least a sense that the parties selected on that basis. As I am perhaps too fond of reminding people, when Alan Clark was selected in Plymouth Sutton in 1973, he had to beat Michael Howard and Norman Fowler to do it; no doubting the depth of the shortlist there.

But in the nationalised era, candidates only needed to be nice people who would toe the party line. The George Galloways of this world could still get through by force of personality, but that led to a house where the good parliamentarians were mavericks preaching to their own miniscule choir. As an actual debating chamber, the Commons collapsed.

How then could this Parliament Of None Of The Talents justify itself? Very quickly, the public started to ask what value the parliamentarians added to the system if none of the members were particularly bothered by the chamber itself. The answer they found is currently causing certain former parliamentarians to drill their way out of their graves.

For where Edmund Burke cautioned his fellows not to submit their judgement to that of their constituents, the new breed discovered that, having no judgement of their own, they had to submit to the judgement of their constituents. Suddenly, politics became about listening to the electorate, not to gauge their opinion, but to subsume it.

The result is a country whose political psychology is at odds with its political mechanisms. Exhibit A in that respect has to be the Iraq War protests in 2003. At the time, I discounted the repeated calls for respect towards democracy it as a combination of lefty naivety and internal guilt modulation. In reality, that response is only to be expected; having spent years being told that government was about listening to them, is it any surprise that people felt that when, on such a critical issue, the government didn’t listen to them, that this was a criminal act of betrayal?

Ultimately, I’m all for sensitivity to public opinion and I’m proud that we as Liberal Democrats comprehensively outshine the other parties on delivering it. We must be careful, however, that sensitivity does not become subservience. Representative democracy still works; it still allows us to do collectively things that we would not do individually. But if we continue to tell people that they have power when the mechanisms actually deny it from them, the result will be mutually assured destruction, for representative democracy cannot work when the electorate believe that any adverse outcome is an act of treason.

Or to put it in a way that responds to my aunt’s original question; I have no problem with not being able to tell people what to think, but why am I not allowed to ask them to consider changing their mind

PS I heartily recommend Unlock Democracy's recent pamphlet on citizen's initiatives for further reading on how we can include the electorate in a more formal way.

Monday, August 27, 2007

How The Silly Season Works, Apparently…

Loathe as I am to “work” on a bank holiday, I feel duty bound to respond to today’s Western Mail advert against nuclear power, as noted by Peter Black. I’m required to call it that, because on closer reading we discover that this “news story” is actually just a press release from the Welsh Anti-Nuclear Alliance that the Mail has printed essentially verbatim because it’s that time of year. Nevertheless, I have to give credit to WANA for filling the gap in the silly season market and for providing such a thorough example of where the anti-nuclear argument is at the moment.

The first strand of attack is the economic one, but as ever, nothing so gauche as an actual cost analysis is included. Now I can understand why this is the case; I mean, if you were advocating massive increases in wind power, you wouldn’t want to admit that actually, the infrastructure costs of connecting the whole Isle of Lewis to the National Grid are so massive that they make your final costs look hideous. Mentioning the actual numbers takes away from the gospel assertion that wind is cheap and nuclear isn’t, so we don’t do that.

Instead, a variety of water-muddying titbits are thrown in, in the hope that they will reaffirm popular misconceptions. So here we open with nuclear requiring higher proportional capital investment than fossil fuels; this is true, but only because nuclear uses so little fuel that its proportional costs are weighted to the fixed end. WANA want you to assume that, because the fixed costs are proportionally high, no company will be willing to make the investment, but they offer no sort of figures to prove that it is so.

As a sub-plot to that, the British Energy bail-out is brought up again. While it may be nice for the campaigners to think that this is certified proof of uneconomic performance by nuclear specifically, a look at the history is instructive. Essentially, when British Energy was privatised, the government should have made a cash contribution to the new company to reflect the liabilities incurred up to that point. This did not sit with the ideologues concept of privatisation leading to money flowing into the treasury, so the eventual contribution was insufficient. When the British wholesale electricity market collapsed in 2002, BE ended up being worst hit purely because they’d been short-changed on the asset/liability ratio ten years earlier, as a result of which the government was required to step in to make good on its earlier failure. WANA may wish to blame “the nuclear industry” for being big and bad, but in reality they should blame the Major government for being grossly incompetent (so no change there then…)

The second strand is the process story. Now that the government has announced its ideas for “streamlining” the planning process, everyone wants to make out that the intent is to screw the public over. Far be it from me to defend the government, but the “streamlining” is largely a response to the Sizewell B experience, wherein the local planning inquiry was turned into CEGB vs. Greenpeace, FoE et al. and the whole nuclear industry was put on trial for ten years. The local planning inquiry should be about local issues, about whether site x is suitable for thing y; national strategy should be decided elsewhere and hopefully the new processes will deliver that.

By contrast, WANA make the bizarre claim that construction over-runs in the AGR programme were caused by the lack of public inquiry, a classic case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. To add to the weirdness, in this case WANA do offer a number, claiming that the average over-run in the AGR programme was ten years. Given that I know full-well that the longest over-run was at Dungeness B, and that over-run, on one of the two reactors, was sixteen years, I am at a loss to see how they can compute that the average over-run across a fourteen reactor programme was as high as ten years.

Another angle the process story allows is the idea that new reactor designs are dangerously experimental and will not be properly scrutinised. For that argument, I’ll merely offer you links to the official sites of the AP1000, EPR and ESBWR (for details of the evolutionary nature of these designs) and note that reactors such as these are under construction in Finland and China and have received design certification in the USA. The man at WANA may think what he wants, but nations around the world are queuing up to disagree with him.

And then, to add to the joy, right at the end WANA dip into an argument that I’m sure will develop over the next few years. I have always said that the greatest test of a new nuclear programme will come when the Daily Mail discover that the first new plant is being built by Electricit√© de France, and it’s nice to see WANA subconsciously adding fuel to the future xenophobia argument by mentioning the nationalities of the companies involved.

I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, our future energy policy must be holistic; leaving the debate to self-appointed experts and conducting it in a culture of unremitting hostility to anything said by the companies involved is no way to deal with the vast range of economic, environmental and security issues we face.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Judging Books By The Opposites Of Their Covers

It occurs to me that it is a little odd for a blog that is theoretically obsessed with semantics in modern politics to have failed to review the department changes that ushered in the nouveau regime. So here goes…

Looking at the changes as a whole, two trends are worthy of note, the first of which is the continued rise of the extended department name. In the early days we might have felt that the emergence of DEFRA and DETR were just local issues (specifically the historic inheritance of MAFF and the ongoing battle between the size of John Prescott’s belly and his ego) but now they are everywhere; indeed, with these changes, only Health, Transport, Justice and Defence have one word titles (and that represents an increase over recent years!)

Sir Humphrey teaches us that you should always get through the difficult issues in the title, and with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform there is certainly an element of that. The inclusion of regulatory reform is a particular masterstroke as it can be spun in two, almost mutually exclusive ways, namely “reform to make regulation better” and “reform to make regulation smaller”.

More importantly, Deeber* is an immensely symbolic name shift through the choice of words; after all, it was pretty strange having a department with responsibility for Industry in a country that didn’t have any anymore…

Still, at least Deeber has the words in some form of logical order based on relative important. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has the buzzword bit right up front, which rather begs the question of why that should be so. I suspect the logic goes something like this; we want an FE/HE department that has a strong business focus, but if we put “universities” first nobody will be interested in the rest of the name and if we put it last people will ask why, so whack “innovation” in there, let that get the message to the people we care about and no-one needs to ask questions about our relative priorities.

The trouble with all that is that I wouldn’t be averse to the idea of FE and HE policy being more focused on our economic needs if I felt the present government had a hope in hell of delivering such a thing. Instead we have unyielding adherence to the 50% HE entry target on the basis that it appeals to old Labour social mobility types and new Labour pseudo-socialist pseudo-intellectuals despite mounting evidence that it is actually damaging the earnings potential of many of those graduates and leaving us with a rapidly worsening skills gap.

Even so, Dius’ moniker is at least only inaccurate. The Department for Children, Schools and Families could be regarded as downright offensive; I may not be a family man yet myself, but Jed Bartlet would find that name immensely patronising and I have a policy of not disagreeing with him when he’s right. Then again, it could have been worse; someone might have decided to reinforce the starkly moralising tone of it all by putting Ruth Kelly in charge of it…

But I mentioned two trends to start us off, and two there indeed are. The smallest changes often have the biggest semantic effect and so it is here. To the untrained eye, replacing “of” with “for” in department names may not seem significant, but consider it in terms of the original example. The Department of Transport is actively involved in transporting things, it has trains and trucks and roads and rails; the Department for Transport thinks transport is a good idea and that somebody should look into increasing the amount of it that goes on.

That interpretation may not be a mortal lock, but it’s at times like this that I’m reminded of those wise words of Catbert; “Asok needs experience. But what he doesn’t realise is that cynicism is almost exactly the same as experience.”

* It occurs to me that the simplest way to put a stop to this nominative aggrandisation would be to treat all the names as acronyms to be pronounced as written, hence;

  • Business, Enterprise And Regulatory Reform - Deeber
  • Communities And Local Government – Ducklug
  • Culture, Media And Sport – Duckmuss
  • Children, Schools And Familes – Ducksuff
  • Innovation, Universities And Schools – Dius

Then again, maybe I’m just too fond of the idea of Jon Snow using the phrase, “…and here in the studio we have the Secretary of State for Ducklug, Ruth Kelly…”

Monday, August 06, 2007

Revenge Of The Soundbite

Certain things in politics are bound to leave you feeling slightly dirty. As it’s been in the blogosphere lately, I should go on the record at this point to say that Liberal Democrat practices at by-elections are not such a thing. The other parties should grow up a little and be clear that there is a difference between saying that the other candidate is an unqualified carpetbagger who doesn’t care about the area and saying, “He blows goats, I have proof”; one is a legitimate query about the suitability of a candidate for the job, the other is a baseless character assassination.

But I digress. The political thing leaving me feeling dirty at present is the creation of soundbites. Hopefully I should not need to explain to this readership the myriad of reasons why this is the case, but the problem remains that, very occasionally, soundbites have their uses.

The ongoing work of the Federal Working Group on Further and Higher Education has, unsurprisingly, brought the issue of fees to the fore in LDYS’ internal policy forums. At the moment, the intellectual right of the organisation are using the opportunity to score some points off the left, on the charge that the left’s opposition to fees logically results in us supporting subsidy of middle-class families.

Which is all very well, but it rather rests on the assumption that one should never spend any money on something purely because it is a matter of principle. What’s worse, at the moment that’s an easy assumption to defend because no-one has successfully established what the principle at stake is, exactly.

And so to the soundbite I’ve been struggling with, namely;

“higher education, meritocratic at the point of entry”

It’s an idea that often seems to be forgotten amongst all the debate about low socio-economic group access and internal markets, but I would hope that we as a party can at least agree that the mechanics of financing the higher education system should not obstruct the fundamental aim of that system, namely to identify and train the most able people in the country.

I’ll freely admit that this criterion doesn’t forbid fees, but it does place stringent conditions on how they can be assessed and charged and focuses on the requirement to consider fees holistically with maintenance requirements. This second point is vital to recognise; the current system does contravene the meritocracy criteria because, with the support loan limit as laughably inadequate as it is, many low-income students must rely on bursaries to meet their basic needs and as such bursaries are variable in the magnitude and availability, there is an additional market pressure on applicants choices.

So for now, let me just put the question out there; beyond the possible effects of a fees system on the social makeup of the university population, is there a deeper principle involved that requires us to get money out of the way of admission?

Never Trust A Funny Tory

Far be it from me to actually do something approaching real blogging, but you may like to check out this job advert posted yesterday by Anne Marie Morris, the theoretical challenger to Richard Younger-Ross in the constituency formerly known as Teignbridge. Of particular interest is this line;

"The post is voluntary, although expenses will be paid
... so long as you don't turn up in a private jet or something."

Normally I'd think this was a (very poor attempt at a) joke, but there are two important factors to consider;
  1. Having met a significant proportion of Conservative Future, I would imagine half the applicants wouldn't be seen dead in anything less than a private jet...
  2. Given that all train services into Newton Abbot are operated by either Stagecoach or First, using a private jet suddenly doesn't seem so ludicrous...
Still, it's nice to see that there's only one Tory who can really do comedy...

PS Apologies to everyone who commented on my last post, I've been out of action (and, indeed, briefly in hospital) in the last week or so, but I will get back to your comments soon.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Syntax, Enemy Of The State

A while ago, a post on the LDYS forums prompted in my mind a soundbite that appealed to me perhaps more than it ought;

“You’re not just an economic liberal, you’re an economic liberal and a social liberal? So you’re not a Tory, you’re a Tory who happens not to be a racist homophobe? And I should care why exactly? If I need a Tory who happens not to be a racist homophobe, I’ll talk to Alan Duncan!”

But I’m not one to cut and run on a soundbite, and the more I looked at this one the more I found myself frustrated by it. Not because the sentiment is wrong, but because the words are. Simply put, it strikes me that, when I think of a theoretical, effectively stereotypical, “economic liberal”, what I am actually describing is a right-libertarian. And although the agreement is less pronounced, “social liberal” corresponds pretty well to left-libertarianism.

Now let’s be absolutely clear, there’s almost no mainstream political philosophy (and by mainstream, I do not include “socialism” as practised on university campuses) that I despise more than libertarianism, if only because it commits gross historical and sociological negligence.

Equally, that isn’t the point. I’m quite clear that, when I get PR and when I get the resulting realignment of British politics, the libertarians and I will be in quite separate organisations. Right now, however, I need the Liberal Democrats to be a strong enough force to secure that realignment, which means building a coalition. And while the right-libertarians do have a natural home in British politics (they’re called the Conservative Party, you may have heard of them…), recognise that the left-libertarians are best served by the Liberal Democrats for now.

The implication for our party is clear, however; while that is the coalition, it must be a coalition on those terms. As I have (hopefully) repeated more than sufficiently, the thing I most object to in the current state of the internal debate in our party is the sense that there is one group of Liberal Holy Warriors who are fighting to preserve the Gospel According To Saint Mill and that anyone disagreeing with that group is stupid and/or misguided and can therefore be ignored and patronised until they come to the “right” answer.

I want the input from that side of the debate, but I want it in the right spirit and in the right way; democratically and by demonstration, not fascistically and by faith alone. It’s worth noting in this respect that I agreed with pretty much everything in the Orange Book (even the health chapter!), but that was because it treated me as an adult and worked hard to demonstrate the positive nature of its effects. We have seen that it can be done; I would just like to see a heck of a lot more of it.

But for fear of being even more apocalyptic, there is actually a greater problem. David Cameron’s positioning on supposedly liberal ground can be combated, but ironically, not by us trying to reclaim the word for our own divine use. The problem with Cameron’s use is that it is correct in an academic sense but not in a practical one; the “liberals” he has are right-libertarians, who are liberal for reasons of greed, spite and complacency. Cameron wants his version of liberalism to appear to be fluffily progressive, and the only way to fight that academic fire is with academic fire in return.

At a time when a public clamouring for reform feels betrayed by a supposedly progressive government that has failed to deliver, with a primary opposition party whose only interest in reform is the desires of its narrow electorate, we cannot allow ourselves to get distracted by an intra-mural spitball contest over one word. We do need a consistent message, but it need only be this; we are the only party that can deliver change that is focused on people and on communities and their needs. That alone should suffice, and it must do so; anything else would be a disaster for the changes we all need to be delivered in the governance of Britain today.

PS While pondering all this on the train recently, I found myself passing that redoubtable locomotive, 60056 William Beveridge. Some people might think that someone was trying to tell them something…

Friday, June 29, 2007

This Is Not A Love Song (Or An Answer, Come To That...)

Having belatedly gotten hold of my copy of Private Eye, I feel it's only right to once again declare an early victor in my Quote Of The Year contest. Admittedly, taking the laurels in June is not a patch on Ed Balls' sterling effort last year in taking the crown in February, but hey...

2007's winner is our recently departed foreign secretary, giving evidence (at least nominally) to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee. Having frustrated the committee by refusing to admit to any possibility of bilateral negotiations ahead of the Brussels summit (and quite possibly lying in the process), Mrs Beckett was challenged by our own Richard Younger-Ross as to her use of the term "meaningful negotiations". Her response?

"If I did use the word 'meaningful' I did not mean it to carry any significance at all"

Or in other words, "The word 'meaningful' is entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to words past or present is entirely coincidental"... For sheer bloody-minded butchery of the English language, Margaret surely deserves our fulsome praise.

PS This may be just another excuse to sing "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead!" To be honest, even I'm not sure...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Contractual Obligation Blog Entry

My general strategy with this blog is to consciously not be topical, mainly because I think there are lots of people who are better at it than me but also in order to highlight things that are in greater need of attention. Nevertheless, it would probably be churlish of me not to offer some form of quasi-obituary of the Reverend Blair (or Father Blair, as he may soon be), not least because of my other blogging strategy.

It is important, I feel, that when we bandy around words like “good” and “great” that we have some semantic understanding of what they mean. This is particularly important given the number of deluded Labour members (as if there’s any other kind any more) who will undoubtedly try and pin “great” on him merely for winning three elections. Margaret Thatcher is a great Prime Minister, but not because she won three elections against the Winter of Discontent, The Longest Suicide Note In History and what can only be described as Neil Kinnock. Similarly, victory over Grey Peas Man, Tory Boy and the Vampire of Folkestone is not the stuff of greatness; being in the right place at the right time just isn’t enough.

Greatness, if such can be defined in Prime Ministerial terms, is surely a question of ideas; whether you changed what it meant to be British or to live in Britain. Goodness is more subjective; it might almost be summarised as leaving the place in a better state than you found it, combined with a sense of the mood of the piece. For example, it’s pretty much self-evident that Thatcher changed the very fabric of Britishness, so she is certainly great. Conversely, whatever your views on the necessity of what she did and the results in her time, there is a pervading sense with Thatcher that she did it with spite and with malice, something that is surely disqualifying from being a good Prime Minister.

The question, then, is simple; has Blair fundamentally changed life in Britain? My answer would have to be historical. Attlee was great, unquestionably, by my criteria. After him, there is the long rule of Butskellism, followed of course by Thatcher. In this chain, Blair’s contribution is largely to provide half of the name for the new Butskellism; Blameronism has a nice alliterative touch with its predecessor, at least.

But the real disqualifier from greatness is that Blair never faced the electoral math, never had to worry about losing an election. From 1997 to 2001 he did everything right, laid a foundation and guaranteed the landslide second term. Given what we know of that night at Granita, a great Blair would have opened up in 2001 with a second term on the scale of Thatcher’s, then jumped ship at the end and handed it to Gordon, avoided the lame duck years and made a real difference. As it is, he blew his political capital on Iraq (something for which I’m clear that 9/11 was only the excuse, not the cause) and resorted to hanging on for the supposed vindication of a third term.

I suppose it all comes down to my abiding memory of the Blair years; that arrival at Downing Street on May 2nd. I know that I felt like the crowds I saw that day; yes, I know now that those crowds were merely the first products of the spin that was to follow, but I still know that that is how I and my whole family felt. Blair had a mandate like no Prime Minister since Attlee, and he blew it fiddling around the edges and playing “Onward, Christian Soldier” in Iraq. Far from greatness, that was a betrayal like few others in British political history. Until the grass roots of the Labour party realise that and come to terms with their abject complicity in it, that betrayal can only continue in the hands of the man from Kirkcaldy.

Friday, June 22, 2007

No, Not A Felgate, A Toll…

As one born-and-bred in Gloucester, I have limited experience of the tolls on the Severn Bridges (the A48 being a wondrous thing, after all). But today, returning to Cardiff from a trip to Somerset, I found the whole experience unavoidable. Or did I? While recovering from my rage at the fact that the cash machines at the last services before the bridge (Gordano, for the record) were going to charge me, it struck me that with the toll now at £5.10, the bridges might be pushing towards the point of non-economy. So let’s work it out; assuming everyone from the north uses M50/A449 or A48 to avoid them, the tolls are only payable on journeys from the East and South.

From the South, the diversion route is M5/A38/A48 (Avonmouth-Gloucester-Chepstow) for a total of 69 miles, as against a direct route of 12 miles. My car (a MkIV Golf 1.4, for the record) gets 40mpg with a following wind, so the extra fuel use is (69-12) / 40 = 1.4 gallons, or 6.48 litres. With the current average fuel price at around 96 pence per litre, that’s an additional fuel burn of £6.22; added to the additional journey time (at least an hour), that decision is a no-brainer.

From the East, however, the diversion route is A419/A417/A48 (Swindon-Gloucester-Chepstow) for a total of 75 miles, as against a direct route of 51 miles. Here the additional burn is only (75-51) / 40 = 0.6 gallons, or 2.73 litres, at a cost of £2.61; so the question is begged, is my half an hour (or the carbon cost) worth £2.49? Moreover, consider that, as anyone who has ever used the M49 will attest, almost none of the bridge traffic actually comes from the south…

The irony is that none of this should be an issue. The one-way toll is the result not of politics, but poor design; the space between the ends of the original bridge and the junctions meant that bi-directional toll collection would lead to queues on the bridge itself at peak periods. That isn’t an issue for the second crossing toll plaza and the reduction in traffic due to the second crossing should have eliminated the peak flow issue on the first bridge. Then you can halve the toll to £2.55 and beat the economics.

More fundamentally, if the government has its way all of this should become irrelevant as the toll can be collected bi-directionally and automatically using the road user pricing system. But have they realised that? More’s the point, have Midlands Expressway Limited (the PFI operators of the M6 Toll road, an astoundingly underpublicised disaster in traffic planning terms) realised it? Nothing like total loss of control of revenue collection to really scare the shareholders…

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Having My Geldof Moment

I offer the following tale by way of apology for my recent absence from the blogosphere (such as it is). Moreover, one of the policy areas that will be up for discussion at Brighton will be the Jobcentre network and how we can make it best serve its users and society as a whole. In anticipation of that debate, I thought it might be useful to share my ongoing experience with the benefits system, not least since we must be able to do something better than the absurdity I’ve had to endure.

To start us off, there is the mere feat of getting your application onto the system. For fear of sounding parochial, I find that the best way for me to convey a large amount of information to a corporate body for a particular purpose is for me to fill out a form. What’s more, if that corporate body is a government that can’t find it’s computerised butt with both hands, I’m very much in favour of that form being a piece of paper.

With that in mind, I headed to my local (well, I say local, it’s actually an eight mile trip into Cardiff, then two miles out in a different direction and away from the two city centre Jobcentres that would be easier for me to get to) Jobcentre. They insisted that I phone a call centre in Bridgend. Unbowed, I went the next day and tried again; they asked a different question, did give me a paper form, but it turned out to be the wrong form. On the third day, I got the phone number again, started losing the will to live and gave in.

The phone call that followed ranks amongst the more surreal of my life, largely because nine-tenths of the “form” is comprised of tick-box question to which my answer (as a single white male under the age of 25) is pretty much always no. So I’m standing there for forty minutes basically regurgitating the Cheese Shop Sketch. What’s more, the arrangement does lead to a real human voice having to ask you whether you’re receiving compensation payments for time spent as a prisoner of war, and much as that human might well assume that someone born in 1982 would not be receiving such payments, as cogs in the machine they must ask the question, no matter how much it insults both their intelligence and yours.

Having completed the “form”, an interview is arranged for presentation of documents, negotiation of jobseeker’s agreement, etc. Having made the phone call on a Thursday, the interview is booked, and then confirmed by letter, for 2pm the following Wednesday at Alexandra House (i.e. my Jobcentre in Cardiff West). So far, all well and good.

At this point, a lesson in Jobcentre design practice. With Jobcentre Plus, a standard interior design has been established, all open plan and pine and metal. At the front is a welcome “desk”, i.e. a podium-type arrangement with a sign hanging limply above it. This desk is manned, if you are lucky, by a member of Jobcentre staff, but more likely by the Group 4 Securicor employee on door guard duty.

So I arrive in good time for my interview and approach said Group 4 man, who takes a look at the hallowed list and finds my name to be missing. He retreats into the open plan area and confers with a member of staff and her computer and then returns with the news; I do have an interview booked, but it’s at 2:20pm at Caradog House (i.e. one of the Jobcentres in Cardiff Central). He then claims that I have plenty of time and moves on to the next customer.

Two trains later, I arrive at Caradog House at 2:40pm and am fortunate to get an actual member of staff. She informs me that the interview was misbooked, but that the other Jobcentre should have recognised that and fitted me in; if I’d had a member of staff, maybe, but I got Group 4 instead. Moreover, my actual interviewer has moved on to her next subject because I was late and she’s fully booked. They do at least head to the computer system to get me a new appointment, but it is for a week on Friday.

So I go to that interview, now some two-and-a-bit weeks removed from the forms, and all seems well enough. But then the vexed question of payment comes up and the response is;

“Well, you sign next Friday and the payment should reach you the following Wednesday.”

“What about the backlog caused by your mistakes?”

“You’ll get it backdated then.”

“And what am I meant to do in the meantime to, you know, survive?”

“Apply for a crisis loan.”

And lo, having had my crisis caused by them, I have to waste my time filling out another form over the phone (cue more references to Wensleydale) and then travel into Cardiff again (Bus fare £3.20) to pick up my giro which just about sustains me until I’m finally paid, a month after the original application.

Now for me, it’s not actually that great a problem; I’m young and single. But for people with families, having enforced cash flow crises like this must harm their chances of getting back to work early, something we know is vital to getting people back to work at all. Between Jobseekers and the scandal of tax credits, we must show that we can make things better (as I am sure we can) for the millions of people suffering from these problems.