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.