Sunday, 14 December 2008

Wales beats Scotland hands down

Further to what I was saying last night, can anyone explain to me why the Welsh Lib Dems seem to be making rather better use of the internet than we are in Scotland?

On the Welsh Lib Dem site, every single elected parliamentarian has a website listed. And there are now sufficient numbers of bloggers for it to be worthwhile for them to have their own Welsh Lib Dem blog aggregator.

This has 14 bloggers listed on it, including one from a parliamentarian, Peter Black AM, as well as new Welsh leader Kirsty Williams' leadership campaign blog. I hope now she's started, she'll continue now that the leadership campaign is over.

In contrast, there are just five of us bloggers in the Scottish Lib Dems listed on Lib Dem blogs - myself, Caron, Stephen, 'our' Iain Dale, and Fraser MacPherson. (Ming Campbell does have a blog listed on Lib Dem Blogs, but I'd regard that as more of an official website than a personal blog.) There are also one or two others such as Andrew Reeves and Debra Storr, who for some reason don't use Lib Dem Blogs.

Even so, it's a miserable total when compared with our Welsh colleagues. If we had proportionately the same amount of blogs compared to population as the Welsh Lib Dems do, there'd be more than 30 of us. And it's worth noting that, Ming Campbell's site aside, not one of the blogs is by a parliamentarian.

Come on, Scotland! We can't let Wales outshine us like this. Let's make sure that every parliamentarian at least has a regularly updated website and let's have far more of us blogging.

Every white, middle class male one's a winner

I've promised not to reveal who the Lib Dems in Ross, Skye and Inverness West have selected as their new standard bearer at the next Holyrood election to replace retiring MSP John Farquhar Munro until the party announces it officially tomorrow.

But I can reveal that the winner is a white, middle class male. But that's not exactly giving away a lot, given that all five of the people on the shortlist were white and broadly middle class and four out of five were male.

And that continues a tradition for the Scottish Lib Dems in seats where a sitting MSP is standing down, with white middle class male Jeremy Purvis replacing white middle class male Ian Jenkins in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale in 2003, and white middle class male Liam MacArthur replacing white middle class male Jim Wallace in Orkney in 2007.

The figures for the Lib Dems are rather shocking. In the Scottish Parliament, we've only ever had two women at a time in our contingent - Margaret Smith and Nora Radcliffe until 2007, with Alison McInnes coming in as MSP for North-East Scotland as a result of Radcliffe's defeat in Gordon last year. In Westminster it's even worse, with Jo Swinson our only MP from a Scottish seat who's not male. And I don't think we've ever even had a candidate in a winnable seat who's been non-white, probably because in the Scottish Lib Dems we have only a handful of members from ethnic minorities.

Now, I'm not someone who thinks that women can only be represented by women or that ethnic minorities can only be represented by ethnic minorities. I think that what matters is the values a candidate has, rather than their gender or ethnic origin. If you're a pro-choice woman on abortion, for instance, someone like David Steel or Evan Harris would be infinitely preferable to Nadine Dorries or Anne Widdecombe.

In selections, I would always vote for the person I considered to be the best qualified as the candidate, regardless of gender or ethnic origin. And that will mean that sometimes the best candidate will be someone who is non-white or female or from a working class background.

But the evidence is that white middle class males seem to have an overwhelming advantage when it comes to parliamentary selections. And in case anyone thinks this is solely a Lib Dem issue, consider this: every single one of the parliamentarians elected by first past the post in the Highlands and Islands region - regardless of party - is a white middle class male. Indeed, the only person who has not fitted that mould since the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 has been the SNP's Margaret Ewing in Moray. The only female parliamentarians we have are regional list MSPs Mary Scanlon (Con) and Rhoda Grant (Lab).

Now, I don't necessarily think there's any conscious discrimination going on here and nor do I think gimmicks such as all-women shortlists are the answer - the issues surrounding diversity are too complex to be solved by such measures. But I think we in the Lib Dems, and people in other parties too, do need to consider whether there are any invisible barriers we need to remove.

For instance, is what we expect from candidates something which makes it more attractive to men? Is the time involved in becoming a parliamentary candidate something which disadvantages those with caring responsibilities, who are still overwhelmingly women? Do we do enough to attract people from ethnic minorities into our party, and to develop them as potential candidates? How do we attract a woman who's holding down two jobs as a cleaner and ensure she has the opportunity to stand for parliament if she wants? There aren't any easy answers to any of these questions, but we do need to be thinking about them.

I long for the day when a largely white rural seat such as Ross, Skye and Inverness West can be represented by a working class, mixed-race, disabled, lesbian Sikh. But I long even more for the day when all of those factors - class, race, disability, gender, sexuality or religion - are seen as being non-issues in terms of a candidate's ability. But I think we're a long way from that.

Tavish Scott: Let's be part of the YouTube generation

Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott has an interview in today's Sunday Herald.

On the whole it's fairly unremarkable stuff and I wouldn't normally have bothered blogging about it. However, one phrase he used is worthy of comment, when he said that we needed to be "part of the YouTube generation".

I agree with the sentiment, but we really need to match words with action. I blogged during the leadership election about the poor way in which all three candidates were using the internet. And I don't think much has changed since then.

Tavish's own website is still as dull as it was during the leadership election, and apparently he hasn't done anything newsworthy since November 28. And nor are there any YouTube videos to be seen.

But at least he does have a website listed on the Scottish Lib Dem site, unlike four Lib Dem MSPs: Mike Rumbles, Hugh O'Donnell, Jim Hume and, surprisingly, former party leader Nicol Stephen. That's 25% of the parliamentary party without a website listed on the main party site. Things are slightly better among our Westminster contingent, although Alan Reid and Bob Smith don't have websites listed, while Charles Kennedy's doesn't seem to have been updated since 2004.

Things aren't all bleak on the internet front for us. The Scottish Lib Dem website has had a redesign recently and I think now looks pretty good. And as Stephen Glenn noted earlier this week, Tavish does now have a presence on Facebook.

But I think we as a party have a long way to go before we really can claim to be part of the YouTube generation. And Tavish, how about showing an example by becoming the first Scottish political leader to have your own blog?

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Titian appeal nearly there

A few months ago, I blogged about the proposal for the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery in London to acquire Titian's exquisite painting of Diana and Actaeon from the Duke of Sutherland for the bargain price of £50m.

I said at the time that I might well contribute to such an appeal, and indeed I did. And I'm glad to say that I'm not the only one who did. The good news this week, according to The Scotsman, is that the galleries have almost reached their target, requiring only another £2m before the end of the year.

If you like art and want to play your part in acquiring the Titian painting, you can contribute to the appeal here. Even if it's just a tenner, every little bit helps.

Monday, 8 December 2008

The return of Dr Death

I returned home this evening to find the latest constituency newspaper from the Lib Dems on my doormat.

And on the back page there was a photo of a familiar figure. In what must be his first appearance in any Lib Dem propaganda for the best part of a couple of decades, there was Dr Death himself, David Owen.

In fairness, the picture was from 1984 and it featured in a tribute to the late Lord Russell-Johnston. But it was an interesting blast from the past nonetheless.

Plane Stupid - what's the point?

This morning's protest by Plane Stupid at Stansted Airport - can anyone tell me exactly what it is meant to achieve?

Yes, they've managed to disrupt one day's flights from one airport and in doing so presumably cost the airlines millions of pounds, but what's the point?

They're not going to 'stop climate change' by such actions - although air travel is the fastest growing source of carbon emissions, it's still a relatively tiny amount of the whole. And stopping the planes at just one airport for one day ain't gonna make the slightest bit of difference.

And nor are such protests likely to stop airport expansion - and nor should they. Although I don't think there should be another runway at Heathrow or at Stansted and the focus of government transport policy should be on developing high-speed rail links across the country, I think it's daft to think that such protests are likely to change government policy.

Although I support the right of people to protest about such matters if they want, including breaking the law if absolutely necessary - I intend to break the law on ID cards, for instance - the best way for policy to change is to get people in place in both government and business who are committed to change.

That means working within the system, getting people elected and promoting different policies. Instead, the protestors seem to show disdain for the boring legwork of politics and just complain that "the government aren't listening, so we have to protest". Well, if that's the case, then vote for another political party who will listen. Or if you feel none of them are, stand for election yourself and persuade people of the merits of your case. If enough people support you, you'll get yourself in a position to stop airport expansion.

But of course, standing for election and achieving real change through the ballot box isn't as exciting or glamorous as chaining yourself to a fence at Stansted. And it also has the problem that you'd have to deal with balancing the question of the economic benefits of air travel against the environmental down side, which doesn't seem to be a high priority for the protestors.

Plane Stupid seem to want an end to all short-haul air travel. Well, I challenge them to listen to my 12-hour monologue on the benefits of air travel during a train trip from Inverness down to see my family in Kent. If after that they still insist that there are no benefits to air travel - even if only to get away from a bore like me - then they're more than welcome to chain themselves to airport fences all over the country, as long as they don't do it when I'm travelling.

The truth is that any sane aviation policy will have to balance those economic benefits against the environmental impact that flying undoubtedly has. An end to all short-haul plane travel is not a sensible option. For instance, unfortunate chats with the party leader aside, my local MP Danny Alexander would not be able to do his job properly if he weren't able to fly between Inverness and London, and there are many others with similar issues. That's not to say that a significant amount of air travel can't be cut - Radio Five Live interviewed one group of women this morning who had been planning to have a 'girly day out' in Bremen. Would they have been doing anything there that they couldn't have done on a trip to York or Norwich or London by train?

If the Plane Stupid protestors really want to make a difference to aviation policy, they will be campaigning for candidates at the next election who want to stop a third runway at Heathrow, introduce high-speed train networks across the UK and create an international system of taxation of airplane fuel. Funnily enough, those are all Lib Dem policies, but I doubt that the Plane Stupid people realise that. They're too busy chaining themselves to fences to bother with boring things like policy or democracy.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Careless talk costs lives

There's a basic rule in politics: when you're talking about things in public, you never know who might be listening.

And Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has proved that once again, by having a conversation with my local MP Danny Alexander on a flight up to Inverness in which he discussed the merits of various members of the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet. Unfortunately, a Sunday Mirror journalist was sitting in the seat in front.

Now, all politicians gossip about their colleagues from time to time, but such conversations are usually held in private. I'm surprised and disappointed that Clegg was discussing such things in a public place, and also that Danny didn't realise the dangers of such a conversation.

And I have to say that I think their assessments of their colleagues are somewhat strange. Steve Webb has been a very effective spokesman on energy and climate change and if he is to be moved from that role, it ought to be to a more senior one. Clegg's views of him as a person shouldn't come into things, and nor should his position within the party. Indeed, the fact that Steve Webb is seen as being on the left in party terms should be a bonus, as we should be seeking to build a broadly based movement, not one skewed towards the right in party terms.

Similarly with Chris Huhne: he has been a heavy hitter as home affairs spokesman - as he was previously at environment - and I think it would be utter folly to move him at this stage. I'm also surprised at the disdain shown towards Julia Goldsworthy, whom I regard as one of the party's rising stars.

I'm also intrigued at the suggestion there may be a slot to fill as foreign affairs spokesman - Ed Davey only took the role when Clegg became leader and, although he hasn't really set the heather on fire there, he has been a significant improvement on the previous holder of that role, Michael Moore. But if there is to be a new foreign affairs spokesman, the obvious choice for that would be former leader Ming Campbell.

But I hope that when discussing these matters in future, Clegg does so in private. It does no-one any good for these sort of stories to appear in the press. Clegg needs to wise up a bit and remember the old wartime poster: "Careless talk costs lives".

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Recessions can be good for us

So says Tory shadow cabinet member Andrew Lansley, according to this quote in the Evening Standard.

All politicians say stupid things from time to time, but this is particularly unhelpful for Lansley's party, which is trying to shake off the charges that it would 'do nothing' about the recession. I don't think those charges are strictly true, but they are a potentially potent weapon against them.

It's particularly dim to say one benefit of a recession is that 'people stay at home with their families' more. I suppose that's one way of describing unemployment, or being so broke you can't afford to go out.

Monday, 24 November 2008

UK debt: it's worse than you think

With occasions like the pre-budget report, it's always worthwhile looking at some of the detail which don't get lots of publicity.

A lot of attention has been focused on the mammoth amount the Government is going to be borrowing next year, which is predicted to reach £118bn. The Conservatives have also been trumpeting the total amount of national debt, which is predicted to be over £1 trillion.

But that headline figure is somewhat misleading, as the total has actually increased every single year since the war. It's far more relevant to look at the figure for national debt compared to GDP.

Labour claims the reason it's able to borrow so much is because it reduced the national debt from the level it inherited from the Conservatives in 1997. Indeed it did - the level of national debt was 42.9% in 1997 and that dropped to 31.4% in 2002. But since then it has been creeping back up again - to 36.3% in 2007-08. It's estimated to be 41.2% this year.

And that's not good, because if you look at the full series of stats since 1975, the first year they were collected, the figure has tended to rise during times of economic downturn - as you would expect when the Government needs to borrow more - and fall during economic upturns. But under Labour over the last few years, it's actually been rising during an economic upturn. Labour is not nearly so well placed as it likes to pretend.

And things get worse if you look at where we're heading. The national debt is predicted to rise to a whopping 57.4% in 2013-14 (table 2.2) - significantly higher than the previous record figure of 53.8% in 1976, a year when the UK had to arrange a loan from the IMF to cope with its wretched public finances.

All this assumes that the recession is relatively short, and that this fiscal package works in stimulating the economy. But if the VAT cuts don't work, as I believe they won't due to the massive levels of private debt, then things will be a whole lot worse.

If the Government's forecasts are, as usual, unduly optimistic, then taxes are going to rise by much more than it expects or spending is going to have to be significantly curtailed. But somehow or other, more than one pound in every two of everything we produce in this country is going to have to be spent on servicing our sky-high levels of debt. And that's not good.

Alix and Caron, is there something you want to tell us?

OK, everyone else is doing it, so I thought I'd also try the Gender Analyzer and the result I got was 90% male.

So I decided I'd also try two of my favourite female bloggers, Alix Mortimer and Caron Lindsay - Alix's blog is 71% male, while Caron's is 83% male.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Somewhat disappointed by Survivors

The Beeb's put a lot of effort in to promoting its new post-apocalyptic Sunday night drama Survivors, so it was with some anticipation that I settled down to watch it tonight.

The original series has a cult following, but I can't see this new version having the same sort of appeal. There were just too many holes in the script of this first episode.

The problems started early on. Apparently a major disease outbreak is only the responsibility of the junior minister of health. The government also allows the media to operate as normal, rather than taking direct control. And journalists are able to get to press conferences when everyone else is subject to gridlock. And that gridlock apparently doesn't affect London, where traffic is shown flowing normally over a bridge during a long shot.

There are power cuts, but they don't affect wealthy people living in penthouses. And even after they are affected, they can still get out of electrically operated garages. And apparently such people don't get food from shops, but can just rely on the champagne and caviar they happen to have in the fridge, which is still working after days without power.

The disease apparently also prompts Muslims to gather together and pray to Allah, but other religions don't bother with anything like that. The idea that a disease outbreak like this might be the subject of millennial religious panic among other religions or cults is not one that seems to have occurred to the writers.

And don't get me started on the roads. Even though earlier on we're told that the panic has caused gridlock and fuel shortages, apparently everyone got to their destination safely, so the roads are miraculously empty for the few survivors. That's despite the fact that we saw one conveniently dead person in her car, but she was the only one who didn't make it home. Also, how many motorways do you know which have a junction controlled by a stop sign rather than a slip road?

And there were all sorts of other problems. The virus has caused doors to be conveniently unlocked and car alarms to be disabled. It also allows people to be unhurt even when standing right by an explosion and to be able to jump straight into their car. Apparently you can also drive straight through plate glass windows without a scratch on the windscreen. Oh, and dead bodies don't actually seem to decompose.

This was a real disappointment, as Survivors could have been an excellent drama. The acting was pretty good, so it was a shame that the script was so woeful. I don't think I'll bother to switch over from the Champions League football for the next episode on Tuesday.

Cutting VAT won't work

Reports today suggest that the Government is considering cutting VAT as the main element of its fiscal stimulus plan.

If the Government does go down that route, it would illustrate how out of touch they are with the real problems people face in this country. Both Norfolk Blogger and Mark Gray have highlighted some of the problems of this approach and their concerns are valid.

In addition to that, the proposal doesn't really make sense economically. We had a boom fuelled by unsustainable levels of personal debt, but now that things have turned down, that level of debt means people are now worried about their jobs and staying in their homes. On the whole, they are certainly not thinking about going out to spend money on luxury or non-essential items, which is what VAT on the whole is levied on. People are not going to rush out and start spending just because goods are 2.5% cheaper, even if all the VAT cut is passed on and is not offset by the falling pound making imports dearer.

And that's why cutting personal taxation is a better route for stimulating the economy than cutting VAT. People would be able to decide for themselves where to put their money. Some would decide to put the money towards their mortgage or towards buying food, rather than buying goods that may not be strictly essential. And targeting those tax cuts on people on low and middle incomes makes sense - they are more likely to spend as a result of having more money in their pockets, thereby providing a greater boost to the economy than provided for by cutting VAT.

And rather than letting public borrowing rip, which is the Government's preferred means of paying for this stimulus, it would make sense for these tax cuts to be paid for by increasing taxation on the wealthiest and on pollution in the medium to long term (doing so immediately is probably not wise given the economic situation, but it should certainly be the priority when the economy recovers). The Government should also seek to cut some of its wasteful spending (eg ID cards).

But cutting VAT would be yet another symbol that Brown and Darling really don't have a clue what to do about the economy.

The Aberdeenshire implosion continues

The SNP spokesperson quoted in this article is correct - at the moment, the Lib Dems in Aberdeenshire do seem more interested in fighting among themselves than in representing the people who voted for them.

Martin Ford's decision not to have anything more to do with the council group is understandable, but very disappointing. And it highlights once again the appalling way in which the council group leadership is operating.

For loyal Lib Dems such as Martin and Debra Storr to be driven out of the council group, it has to take some really shameful behaviour on the part of certain individuals. Having heard some more of the background to the problems over the last few days, it is clear to me that some individuals within the council group leadership are operating in a way which is bringing the party into disrepute, an offence which is punishable by expulsion from the party.

And I am sufficiently concerned by what has happened that, if asked by people affected, I would be prepared to submit a formal complaint to the party on that basis. That is how seriously I view the actions of the council group leadership.

But whatever happens in future, the Lib Dems in Aberdeenshire really need to get themselves sorted out, otherwise the implications could be severe - and not just locally.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

More trouble in Aberdeenshire

Oh dear - it seems that the lingering bitterness caused by the aftermath of the Trump affair is continuing to cause ructions.

I really don't like criticising Lib Dem colleagues in public, but this whole sorry affair is causing damage to the party. And that damage could cost us seats, in Aberdeenshire itself at the next council elections, and possibly parliamentary seats as well.

Now, I'm looking at things from the outside and I don't know all the ins and outs of what's been going on in Aberdeenshire. But I do know that Debra Storr and the other Lib Dems who found themselves in the minority on the Trump issue are people I respect both as liberals and as campaigners. In contrast, the majority of the Lib Dem group are giving the impression to outsiders like me that they are more concerned with their positions in the council's ruling administration than anything else. So if Debra Storr says that she feels she's been the victim of a witch-hunt, I believe her.

Of course, it may be that the council group were right to take the action they did against Debra Storr. I invite them to respond to this posting and put their side of the case across. However, I would point out that they also need to give more consideration to how they put that across, as they haven't yet managed to present a convincing case for their actions, either within the party or through the media.

I also think it's a bit rich for the Lib Dem group to give party loyalty as its reason for taking action against Cllr Storr. This, remember, was the council group in which a majority of members failed to back Martin Ford when he was the subject of a successful no confidence vote following his casting vote against the Trump golf and housing development, even though he'd done absolutely nothing wrong.

I appeal to my colleagues in Aberdeenshire to put an end to this stupid infighting. It's doing us as a party no good. And unless it stops soon, we will surely suffer at the ballot box.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Banning cheap drink won't stop yobs

I have a confession to make. On Saturday night, I went into a pub and bought some cheap booze.

Given all the fuss there's been on the subject, including today's report from a House of Commons committee recommending an end to discount retailing of alcohol, you might imagine that I then went out and beat up a couple of pensioners, vandalised every car I could find and set light to a few houses.

The truth is somewhat more prosaic. I was in my local Wetherspoon, which was having a real ale festival which featured pints being sold for £1.39. I had a couple of pints there, then went somewhere else for another half a pint and then went home. No trouble, no drink-fuelled violence, no yobbish behaviour.

And that indicates the problem with the House of Commons report. Regardless of the price of booze, most people do drink responsibly and don't end up causing trouble. Making booze more expensive will at best make only a marginal difference to drink-related problems and at worst will just penalise poorer people without making the slightest bit of difference to yobbish behaviour.

Let's be clear about this: the reason so many people are prone to getting completely off their heads on booze is not because of the price but because of lack of knowledge of the effects of alcohol, cultural issues, peer pressure and enforcement problems of existing laws.

To be fair, the House of Commons report does have some merit. There are some drinks promotions which are clearly irresponsible - the BBC's News at Ten highlighted one nightclub which was offering an 'all you can drink for £5' offer - and getting rid of these is not a problem.

But in general, using the price mechanism to tackle binge drinking and its consequences misses the point. What is needed instead is better education on the effects of booze, more alternatives for young people in the evenings than just a night in the pub, better policing and better enforcement of existing laws (eg withdrawal of licences either temporarily or permanently for people found guilty of serving people who are under-age or clearly intoxicated).

All of these are more likely to make a difference to the problems of binge drinking than getting rid of cheap booze in supermarkets. They would also have the advantage of not penalising the majority for the actions of a small minority.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Congratulations President Scott

Wow! I wasn't expecting it to be that overwhelming. Ros Scott has been elected as Lib Dem President with a highly impressive 72% of the vote, with Lembit Opik getting just 22% and Chandila Fernando 6%.

Full figures are:
Ros Scott: 20,736 votes (72%)
Lembit Opik: 6247 votes (22%)
Chandila Fernando 1799 votes (6%).

This is a stunning result for Ros and is thoroughly deserved following an excellent and positive campaign. Like President-elect Obama, Ros had a very impressive grassroots campaign and I think people really warmed to her over the past year or so.

It was thought that the result would be quite close due to Lembit's high name recognition among armchair members, but that's clearly not been the case.

So, congratulations to Ros Scott - I'm sure she'll make an excellent President and I was delighted to support her.

UPDATE: If you want to know why Ros won, her website was updated with the result more or less instantly. Lembit's hasn't been - sums up the difference between the candidates.

Obama wins again

OK, it's not quite as epic a victory as his election as President, but he topped my poll to find out people's views of the best US Presidential election campaign.

And in many ways it's a deserved victory. In fundraising, organisation and grassroots involvement, Obama's campaign was head and shoulders above anything else in recent US history.

I'm slightly surprised that nobody voted for JFK in 1960, as he seems to have created the same sort of excitement that Obama has this year. He also had to battle prejudice as well, with many people not wanting to vote for him due to his Catholic faith. I think it says a lot about how things have progressed on that front that Joe Biden is a Catholic but I don't recall that ever being mentioned during the campaign. I hope it will be a similar situation in 40 years time with ethnic minority candidates.

Lyndon Johnson's campaign in 1964 was certainly very impressive, and although you can only win in the circumstances you're in, he undoubtedly benefited from the wave of sympathy following JFK's assassination. For that reason, I don't think his campaign can really be seen as the best ever.

I was pleased that Jimmy Carter got one vote in my poll, as we sometimes forget just how impressive his campaign was. A complete Washington outsider from a smallish Southern state, he took on the Democratic Party establishment and won. And his campaign certainly inspired a lot of people to believe that things could change - a lesson there for Obama that the euphoria of a campaign doesn't always translate into an effective presidency. And, good though it was, was it really the best campaign? No, not quite.

Clinton's campaign in 1992 was another terrific one and I note Caron's reasons for arguing for it as the best ever. Indeed, I remember watching Clinton's acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention with a friend and saying to him at its conclusion that the Democrats looked like a party whose time had come. Nevertheless, I think we should recognise that Clinton benefited tremendously from a significant third-party intervention and wouldn't have won without that. For that reason, I don't see it as the best ever.

So, that brings us down to Obama and Reagan. I have to say that I don't think there's much between them, but in the end my own vote went to Reagan in 1984. I think the 'Morning in America' theme was close to being genius (and there were echoes of it in Obama's campaign, particularly in his infomercial). It captured a mood in the country which less than a decade before had been embroiled in Watergate, Vietnam and economic turmoil. Furthermore, unlike all the other campaigns, this was Reagan's second. It's fairly easy to portray yourself as a fresh, inspirational figure in your first run for President, but far more difficult when you have a record to defend. And, unlike Obama and Clinton, Reagan wasn't really running against a poor campaign from the opposition - Mondale's campaign was at least competent if not very inspirational.

So, although Obama won my poll, I think Reagan wuz robbed.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Relive the magic of US election night

This video from Keith Olberman on MSNBC offers a chance to see again the highlights of US election night. The moment the election is called still sends a tingle of delight down my spine.

Could McCain have won it?

I'll say straight off that the economic situation, the unpopularity of the Bush administration and the superb campaign run by Barack Obama all made this a very difficult year to be the Republican standard-bearer.

But John McCain certainly didn't help his cause by running one of the worst campaigns in modern presidential election history, rivalling even Mike Dukakis's dire efforts in 1988. His campaign was unfocused, even confusing, and lurched from message to message without ever making anything stick. It was also overly negative and centred on trivia.

How could he have run things differently to make thing at least a bit closer or even pull off an unlikely victory?

For a start, he needed to put more distance between himself and Bush. Obama was able to paint him as being a continuation of the Bush years and McCain was never able to counter that successfully.

And one obvious way he could have done that would have been to oppose the continuation of the Bush tax cuts, which he had initially opposed. He could have positioned himself as a fiscal conservative, worried about the record public deficit in the USA which would only be made worse by irresponsible tax cuts. This would have tied in well with his opposition to 'pork barrel' spending. As it was, that emphasis on earmarks was always unconvincing and Obama was right to point out that earmarks account for only a tiny proportion of public spending.

Indeed, although McCain was in favour of a freeze on public spending, he specifically exempted spending on defence and veterans' affairs, which indicates to me he wasn't prepared to take on some of the special interests in order to achieve his stated goals. Moreover, it's difficult to present a convincing case for freezing spending if you support a $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

And this brings me to his antics during the debate on the bailout. By supposedly suspending his campaign to make sure the bailout package went through, McCain then had to deliver. As I've highlighted before, he didn't. If you're claiming credit for bringing House Republicans on board at the same time as a majority of them are voting against the package, people are entitled to ask some very hard questions about your judgement and leadership ability.

This came on top of his now infamous comment about the fundamentals of the economy being sound. With a record public deficit, people losing their homes and financial institutions already having gone under, this was a truly daft thing to say and raised questions about how in touch McCain was with ordinary people. Given that McCain had already said that he wasn't fully up to speed on economic matters, it made it almost impossible to picture him as someone suited to lead the country during difficult economic times.

And on top of all this, there's McCain's spectacularly ill-judged pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Had he wanted to run as a fiscal conservative, Mitt Romney would have been a good choice. Or, if he'd wanted to reach out to moderates and independent voters, he could have picked his good friend Joe Lieberman, who is believed to have been his first choice. Had he done so, he would have burnished his reputation as a maverick and sent a clear signal that the radical right-wing of the party was no longer in charge.

Instead, he pandered to the religious right and picked Palin. He chose to fire up the base of his own party in an election which was only ever going to won by appealing to moderates. And in doing so, he managed to pick someone who made former Vice-President Dan Quayle look like a Nobel Prize winning genius.

Much has been said about Palin's unsuitability to be Vice-President - her latest idiocy is that she apparently believed Africa was a country, not a continent - but in picking her, McCain undermined his own strongest card, his claim to be an experienced leader. You can't claim that when you pick someone so inexperienced as your running mate. And in doing so, he also managed to draw attention to his age and health.

Finally, the last few weeks of his campaign were a disgrace. All that stuff about Ayers and ACORN only managed to make McCain look mean and focused on utter trivia. When you've lost your home or job, you're not going to give two hoots about a tenuous connection between your opponent and a washed-up 1960s terrorist, especially when (a) it's a connection shared with several Republicans and (b) the terrorism itself took place when Obama was eight years old. It was just absurd, as was the whole Joe the Plumber nonsense.

In short, although this was always going to be Obama's election to lose, McCain did himself no favours with the quality of his campaign. To win, McCain needed to portray Obama as the risky, inexperienced choice. But while Obama was always a picture of cool, McCain's own campaign made the Arizona Senator a much bigger gamble. And he got the result he deserved.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

US election results live blog

05.18/00.18
A terrific victory speech from President-elect Obama. And, boy, does it feel good to be able to write that.
And on that note, it's time to say good night and head for my bed. What a night!

04.06/23.01
Great scenes of celebration.

04.01/11.01
YEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSS! He's done it!

03.45/22.45
Fox has just called Virginia for Obama. I suspect we only have to wait a quarter of an hour until Obama's over the top, as California and Washington should be called immediately they close.

03.05/22.05
With Iowa having been called for Obama, the only question that's left is the scale of his victory. He's currently ahead in Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada and Florida, so this is looking like a major blowout.
And that means my prediction of 310-228 is absolute pants.

02.25/21.25
Ohio called for Obama - this election is over.

02.17/21.17
Fox have called New Mexico for Obama. Remember, that, Colorado and Iowa would be enough for Obama regardless of what happens elsewhere.

01.50/08.50
Nate Silver at 538.com says Obama outperforming Kerry by 12-15 points in eastern half of Virginia, while about the same in western half and expects it will be very close overall.

01.11/20.11
CNN puts Obama 54-45 ahead in early tallies from Florida.

01.03/20.03
McCain is toast. With Pennsylvania being called very quickly for Obama, MSNBC is saying McCain's victory strategy has crashed.

00.55/19.55
McCain picks up SC and WV, neither of which is a surprise. But 538.com and Daily Kos both saying Indiana looking pretty good for Obama.

00.32/19.32
West Virginia, South Carolina and Ohio all closed but too early too call.

00.17/19.17
Dems win Virginia Senate seat and Reps win South Carolina Senate seat.

00.01/19.01
First official results - McCain in Kentucky, Obama in Vermont, no surprises there. But I'm surprised they've called KY already given that the early tallies seem quite close.

23.28/18.28
I really hope that the Beeb have learned a lesson from the fiasco of their local election results coverage in May. Certainly Jeremy Vine seems rather more restrained.

23.21/18.21
Continuing my election night tradition of opening a decent bottle of Chianti - good stuff.

23.13/18.13
MSNBC exit poll highlighting that the economy is unsurprisingly the most important electoral issue, with 93% saying the economy's in bad shape. Who are the 7% who think it isn't?

23.05/18.05
First polls closed a few minutes ago in parts of Indiana and Kentucky.
Over on MSNBC, they're talking about how excited people seem to be about this election, as reflected in the turnout and the enthusiasm people are showing.

22.56/17.56
I'll be paying attention in particular to MSNBC (which has supplied the results widget on this blog page), CNN, the BBC, fivethirtyeight.com, Daily Kos, the Huffington Post and Lib Dem Voice, so I hope I'll be able to bring you a good variety of comment and analysis of the results.

22.50/17.50 ET

Good evening all and welcome to my liveblog of the US election results. Not long to go now. I'll be commenting on the results as they come in. And anyone who wants to have their say can do so via the comments, where I've turned off the comments moderation facility for the occasion.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Didn't see that one coming

No, surely not! That can't be true, can it? John Swinney's approved Donald Trump's golf and housing development? Never!

Yup, the world's least surprising political decision has been made, with the SNP government giving the go-ahead for the controversial development in Aberdeenshire.

This decision was pretty much inevitable from the moment the Gnats decided to call it in after the planning committee on Aberdeenshire Council had voted, on the chairman's casting vote, to reject the application on the grounds of the potential environmental damage it would cause, especially to the sand dunes on the Menie Estate.

Anyone who's heard then planning committee chairman Martin Ford explain his decision to vote against the application will be aware that nobody had any complaints about the procedure prior to the Trump plan being rejected. It was therefore clear that by calling in the application in the wake of it being rejected, the Gnats were doing so because the 'wrong' decision had been made. Obviously, a public inquiry was held, but does anyone think the inquiry was in any way likely to recommend refusal of the plan?

Today's decision is therefore the inevitable culmination of that process. And it means that any big developer waving the cash about can feel pretty confident that the Gnats will roll over and approve a development, regardless of any adverse impacts it might have. And that is worrying for the integrity of Scotland's planning process.

Oh no! Obama's doomed!

Lembit Opik's expressed his support.

Join me on American election night

I'm intending to liveblog the American election results on Tuesday night, so if anyone fancies joining me for a virtual election night party, you're more than welcome.

I'll be turning off comment moderation for the occasion so anyone who wants to have their say as Obama cruises to victory (Complacency? What complacency?) can do so.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Why is McCain going to Tennessee?

CNN lists John McCain's stops tomorrow, the final day of the campaign before the election.

Although most of the states are the ones you would expect, the key battleground states, one sprang out at me: Tennessee.

I don't understand why McCain is campaigning there in the last 48 hours. According to Electoral Vote, McCain is 14 points ahead there and Obama has never even been close. Given that Tennessee is a neighbouring state to Georgia (McCain ahead by four points) and Missouri (McCain ahead by one point), this seems a bizarre choice. It's not even as if it's a close contest in the Senate election, with Republican Lamar Alexander up by 61-36 against his Democratic opponent.

Can anyone think of a convincing reason as to why McCain is bothering with Tennessee at this late stage in the campaign?

UPDATE: I saw this just after I posted the above and apparently McCain's trying to get media coverage in south-west Virginia. But the article does highlight just how desperate McCain is in the closing stages of the campaign.

Palin: we're at war with Iran

OK, anyone can make an occasional gaffe, but Sarah Palin seems to be making a nasty habit of it. Her latest is to state that the USA is at war in Iran, as this video from a Fox News interview makes clear:

Thursday, 30 October 2008

POLL: Who's run the greatest postwar US Presidential campaign?

As you might be able to tell, I've been very impressed by Barack Obama's Presidential election campaign. I think he's barely put a foot wrong and has certainly inspired a lot of people.

But is his campaign the best in recent US history? I thought I'd turn it over to you to decide, using the poll on the left hand side of this page.

In it, I've listed several of the campaigns which I think deserve to be considered among the best from the last 60 years. Please select the one you think is best overall.

And note, this poll is not about the policies of the candidates or on their record in office, just about the campaign they ran.

Please use the comments to give reasons for your choice if you want, and also to make the case for any campaign not listed in the poll.

The Barack Obama Show

Barack Obama's 30-minute infomercial was an effective piece of political advertising. Apart from the ritual denunciation right at the start of eight years of failed policies, it was almost entirely positive, focusing on what Obama would do as President rather than attacking his opponent.

It was a good blend of ordinary Americans telling their stories, interspersed with Obama talking about policies to address their issues, as well as a few biographical snippets. Nobody who has been following the American election campaign will have seen anything particularly new in this, but I suspect it will have won over quite a few wavering voters.

If you haven't seen the infomercial, here it is:

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Jumping on the Brandwagon

I must say I think the amount of fuss there's been over the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross obscene calls affair to be bizarre.

We've got a global economy which is tanking, we're on the verge of an American Presidential election which is likely to see the first African-American elected to the office, and there are continuing problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and yet the top story on all the news channels is that a couple of performers, who are known for being a bit risque and alternative, did something a bit risque and alternative?

Although I do listen to Radio 2, I rarely listen to either Ross or Brand - their style of broadcasting isn't my cup of tea. I therefore have no idea how bad the obscene calls to Andrew Sachs were. And nor do I greatly care. Yes, I suspect it probably did breach BBC guidelines on taste and decency, but I'm astounded that 10,000 people considered it a good use of their time to phone in and complain. Do all of them actually listen to Russell Brand's programme? If so, then surely they know what it's like. Or are they just Daily Mail readers responding to that rag's hatred of the Beeb? It seems nothing much has changed since the mid-1980s when the sight of bare buttocks in The Singing Detective prompted the Mail's fury and a campaign against the Beeb by right-wing Tory MPs.

But this episode has served one useful purpose, which is to remind us just how shallow and opportunistic both Gordon Brown and David Cameron are. Both of them have weighed into the row, even though I suspect neither actually heard the programme. But neither can let a bandwagon - or in this case a Brandwagon - pass by without jumping on the back of it. It's a good job that neither's got anything important to do like, ooh, managing an economy which is heading into recession or providing a clear alternative to the Government's policies.*

I've got a great idea. I'm going to phone up Brown and Cameron and call them both complete tossers and then get Radio 2 to broadcast it. Yes, it would probably get the BBC into more hot water, but at least it has the virtue of being absolutely true.

* At least, that's what Cameron should be doing as Leader of the Opposition, even though he hasn't managed it yet.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Obama on inspirational form

I know there's some people out there who are yet to be convinced about how inspirational Barack Obama can be. But I challenge them to watch this video of the concluding part of a campaign speech Obama made today and see if they can understand why so many people are inspired by him.



Yes, campaign speeches don't necessarily mean someone's going to be a good President - let's face it, JFK's record as President was probably less impressive than some of his rhetoric - but I don't think people should under-estimate the power of words to make a difference in politics.



If Obama governs as well as he's campaigned, both in terms of inspiring people and in terms of organisation, then he has the potential to be a very good President indeed.

Palin pallin' around with convicted felons

Alaska Republican US Senator Ted Stevens has been convicted of seven charges of making false statements about free gifts from contractors.
This means the Democrats now stand a very good chance of taking his Senate seat next week.
As this video shows, Stevens is a close associate of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin:



In other news, American authorities have apparently uncovered an assassination plot against Barack Obama.

Even McCain's staffers are voting Obama!

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I didn't realise that Republicans were in such short supply that McCain needed to hire Obama supporters to do his campaigning.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Obama within margin of error in Arizona

Following one poll which puts John McCain only four points ahead in his home state of Arizona comes another showing the gap at just two points.

Now, it would be a major surprise if McCain couldn't win his home state, and I fully expect him to do take it. But the fact that it's even competitive tells you a lot about how badly McCain is doing.

With today's polls showing decent leads for Obama in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Virginia, and Ohio, I think it's going to be almost impossible for McCain to turn things around at this late stage.

Playing the blame game

Even with more than a week to go before the American presidential election, it looks like the McCain campaign is already trying to lay the blame for their expected defeat.

Apparently vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has lost confidence in her advisers and is starting to 'go rogue'. And McCain's advisers are preparing to lay the blame at her door for their defeat.

I have to say, such a reaction would be utterly unfair. Yes, she is utterly unfit to be President, yes she's been found guilty of acting unethically over 'Troopergate' and yes, her $150k clothing and $22k for make-up have damaged the campaign.

But who is responsible for her being on the ticket? The only person who should accept any sort of blame for the disaster that is Sarah Palin is John McCain. It was his decision to appoint her as his vice-presidential nominee, without properly vetting her. Her appointment undermined his arguments about experience and raised questions over his judgement. The fact it has proven such a disaster is nobody else's fault but his own.

This election can't come quickly enough for the McCain campaign. It will at last put them out of their misery and will leave them free to indulge in a bout of blood-letting.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Today is D-Day

I steered the car into a parking space, stopped, put on the handbrake and turned off the engine. The examiner looked at his clipboard and said: "I'm pleased to tell you that you have passed your test."

That was exactly one year ago today, D-Day, the day I at last passed my driving test. I'm not going to tell you how many attempts I took, as it dozen matter anymore.

I can't tell you just what a relief it was to pass. Until a few years ago, I had been quite happy to rely on public transport. But then the local bus company decided to change the timetable and made it impossible for me to get in from the village I live in to work on time. I looked at various options but in the end the only practical one was to start taking driving lessons.

But learning to drive wasn't as straightforward as I thought it would be. My instructor kept telling me that she thought I was a good driver, but I was a bundle of nerves when it came to the tests. As a result, I kept finding new and inventive ways to fail.

But I kept going and I'm really glad I did. Having my own wheels has made a real difference to my life. I feel much freer, able to go where I like when I like, without having to worry about timetables.

To take a couple of examples, earlier on this year there was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon which I decided was too good to waste at home. So I got into my car and headed out toward the west coast, eventually ending up at Ullapool. This was just stunning, with the sun shining on the boats in the bay. I had a delightful meal sitting outside looking out over the harbour, and the whole trip was just perfect. And it's not one I'd have been able to do had I had to rely on public transport.

Another trip I was able to take was a holiday to Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Yorkshire Dales, Shropshire and north Wales. I clocked up a total of 1642 miles over the fortnight, and it was an excellent trip, apart from the weather. Again, I wouldn't have been able to do it - or it would have been a great hassle - if I'd been relying on trains or buses.

But the greater freedom has also resulted in greater responsibility. I think my alcohol consumption has dropped significantly. I've also discovered the delights of low or non-alcoholic beers. I'm also far less likely to go out to a pub, as previously if I missed my bus home, I would normally just head to a pub. Now after work I just jump into my car and head home.

And over the past year, I've also discovered just how badly some people drive. Now, I'm by no means a perfect driver and I occasionally make mistakes, just like everyone else. But I do know enough to recognise that when I'm driving at 60 or 70mph, it's a good idea to leave a safe gap between myself and the vehicle in front. But not all drivers think the same way. The amount of drivers who think it's a good idea to sit right on someone else's tail is frightening.

Similarly, I think it would be a good idea for all cars to be fitted with flashing yellow lights which drivers could use to indicate when they're turning or changing lanes. You could even call them 'indicators'. The amount of drivers who never indicate when they're changing lanes or turning off is quite impressive. Why?? It's one of the few things in life you get to do for free, so what's the problem with actually using indicators?

And as for those who think it's a good idea to use their mobile phones when driving: Grrrrrr!

Obviously, becoming a driver has not been cost free, especially with fuel being at such a high price over the past year. And being a car owner also resulted in me becoming a victim of crime when a local ned decided it would be a good idea to smash my taillight. I also had the slightly frightening but ultimately rewarding experience of suffering a puncture when I didn't have any credit on my phone, but ultimately being rescued by a couple of good people who changed the tyre for me.

But overall, being a driver has been a positive experience for me and I now could hardly imagine living my life any other way.

That's dedication for you

If anyone's in any doubt about the enthusiasm which Barack Obama's candidacy is creating, check out this story.

My task made easier

I was going to blog about Jeremy Purvis's article in The Scotsman about the Gnats' target setting culture, but I find that Stephen Glenn has beaten me to it and said pretty much everything I was going to say.

I was then going to blog about SNP Highland councillor John Finnie's email to party supporters in Inverness, but I find that Caron has already made the points I was going to.

This blogging lark is so much easier when other people make the arguments for you.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Mind the Gap!

While Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has blown $150k on a fashion spree since her nomination, the Obama family's fashion tastes appear rather more modest, as this video from July makes clear:



And if you want a further contrast between the campaigns, check out Obama's shoes.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

McCain staffers: we can't win Colorado

If this is true, it's virtually an admission of defeat by the McCain campaign. With Iowa and New Mexico looking like virtually certain gains for Obama, Colorado would be enough to put him over the top at 273 electoral votes, regardless of what happens in Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Florida and North Carolina.

If McCain really does think he could turn Pennsylvania around, I think he's out of touch with reality. Electoral Vote has Obama 52-40 ahead there, so I don't see McCain having a hope there.

The only Kerry state which could potentially turn (but almost certainly won't) is New Hampshire, where the gap is listed as seven points, 50-43. The trouble is, New Hampshire's four electoral votes would not be enough for McCain if Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado all go. That would leave the electoral college vote tied at 269-269, putting the decision to the House of Representatives. With the Democrats likely to hold a majority of state delegations, Obama would therefore win.

If John McCain is to win this election, he has to win Colorado. Period. If his campaign is admitting they won't, they might as well give up now.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Obama's lead is tightening but he's pulling away

Thanks to the excellent Political Wire, it seems apparent that Barack Obama's lead in the national polls is probably slipping.

It quotes a new CNN poll which puts Obama's lead at 51-46, down from eight points a couple of weeks ago. It also says the latest Diageo/Hotline survey shows Obama ahead 47-42, its smallest lead for two weeks. However, contrary to that, the latest Gallup poll shows the national margin widening to 11 points, 52-41, although this is based on registered voters and its two models of likely voters show 5 and 9 point gaps respectively.

Yet, even if Obama's national lead is being cut, the state polls seem to be showing a different story. In Virginia, Rasmussen has Obama up by 10 points, 54-44, an increase from a three-point lead. Survey USA puts the gap in the state at six points, down from its previous 10-point gap, admittedly, but still a healthy advantage for Obama. At the same time, the latest poll in Ohio gives Obama a whopping nine-point lead. And according to PPP, Obama has a seven-point lead in North Carolina.

Let's just repeat those figures for a moment. Obama is possibly as much as 10 points ahead in Virginia, nine points in Ohio and seven in North Carolina.

So what on earth is going on? I think the best explanation is that Republicans who previously had some doubts about McCain are now coming round to him, showing an apparent rise in his national polling numbers. But those voters are most likely to be in already strong Republican areas, or in Democratic states where Obama knows he's going to win anyway and is not putting in the same amount of effort - eg New York or California. But where the fight is fiercest, in the battleground states, people seem to be responding to Obama's message - not to mention his significant advantage in TV ad spending and field campaigning - which means he may be pulling away in some of the key states.

All this means that even if John McCain can even things up on a national level, he still faces a big uphill struggle to make much headway in terms of the electoral college. And that is very good news for those of us hoping for an Obama victory.

Lembit Opik, blogging and Ros Scott

Earlier today, some of you will have seen a blog entry from Irfan Ahmed in which he welcomed Lembit Opik's commitment to start blogging should he get elected as Lib Dem president. He then mistakenly claimed that Ros Scott had not revealed any plans to start blogging, apparently unaware that Ros has been blogging since January. Irfan has since apologised for his error and updated his posting.

Now, I'm not criticising Irfan for his error - everyone makes mistakes from time to time when blogging. But to me this sums up the differences between the presidential candidates and makes me glad I've cast my vote for Ros. Lembit, for all his talk about changing the way the party campaigns, merely gives a commitment to do something should he get elected. Ros has already been doing it for months.

This comes on top of Lembit having an election address which included lots of tightly-packed text which would be difficult for many members to read. In contrast, Ros's looked good and gave a clear message of what she wants to achieve.

I'd have to say, if there is one candidate in this election that's campaigning in primary colours, it's Ros and not Lembit.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Powell's endorsement of Obama

General Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama is well worth watching. In it, although he makes plain his respect for both sides, he accuses McCain of adopting a different approach every day to the economic crisis and says that his selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate raises question over his judgement. In contrast, he says that Obama is ready to lead from day one, has been cool and steady under pressure and is more able to bring the country together.

Powell is also very scornful of McCain's campaign tactics, particularly over the Bill Ayers (non-)issue. He also lambasts those in the Republican party who have been whispering that Obama is a Muslim, saying not only is it not true, but that it shouldn't matter. He also points out that Muslims do play a significant role in American life, including in the American military.

You can watch the full video here.

American elections: my predictions

OK, I think we're close enough to November 4 to start making predictions about what will happen in the American elections.

Barack Obama will win the presidential election. He will win all the states which Kerry won in 2004, plus Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio, Nevada and Virginia, giving him a 310-228 win in the electoral college. McCain will just hold on in Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, West Virginia, Indiana and North Dakota. Obama will win the popular vote by six percentage points, 52-46, with 2 per cent for others.

In the Senate, the Democrats will have a 58-42 advantage (or 57-43 when Lieberman is expelled from the Democratic caucus). They will win all the seats in which they are currently ahead in the Electoral Vote predictor, with the exception of Minnesota where Al Franken will be beaten by less than two percentage points.

In the House, the Democrats will have a 245-190 advantage.

Please feel free to use the comments to make your own predictions.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The American Future - not perfect but worth watching

I've just watched the second episode of Simon Schama's history of the USA, The American Future.

This is probably a must-watch series for anyone interested in America and its history. It helps set in context some of the contemporary debates about America's future as it gears up for another election.

Schama has been taking a thematic approach to the subject. Following on from last week's look at 'American Plenty', which looked at the economy and resource use, this week he was focusing on America's war record.

By taking a thematic approach, of necessity some things are going to feature more heavily than others. The American Civil War was a key element, and mention was also made of World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and the Spanish-American War. However, this focus did inevitably mean some other things lost out and it's possibly a bit surprising that there was no mention of World War I, Korea or Afghanistan. Nor was there anything about America's isolationist tradition, or for that matter the 'War on Terror'.

But it was still a worthwhile insight into a key aspect of American history. I think Schama was right to examine the potential tensions between citizenship and military power and his conclusion that America still retains its tradition of civilian control of the military is still valid, although he probably needed to talk more about the relationship to the military-industrial complex.

Overall, this TV history does have its flaws, but it's still a fascinating series to watch for anyone with an interest in America.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Clean sweep for Obama

I haven't yet had a chance to see it, but the instant polls conducted after last night's final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain indicate a pretty decisive victory for Obama.

Coming on top of victories in the previous two debates and also a win for Joe Biden in the vice-presidential debate against Sarah Palin, that makes it a clean sweep for the Obama ticket in the debates.

This was probably John McCain's last chance to swing the terms of the election his way. Having failed to do so, it's difficult to see what he can do to turn the situation around in the last two and a half weeks of campaigning. Short of Obama walking into a branch of McDonald's wearing a belt of explosives, I can't see anything stopping the Illinois Senator from coasting to victory.

Electoral Vote shows just how tough the prospect is for McCain. The headline figure on the project electoral college count is 352-171 in Obama's favour with 15 (North Carolina) down as tied. With Iowa and New Mexico looking like certain Democratic pick-ups, McCain could not afford to lose any of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Missouri or Colorado if he wants to win. In all of those states, Obama is currently ahead.

That sound you can hear is the fat lady tuning up.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

My vote's in the post

I filled in my ballot paper for the Lib Dem presidential election today, adding one more to Ros Scott's tally. She will be an effective President, who will really try and reflect the views of grassroots members to the leadership. She will also be a real asset to our campaigning.

I hope as many as possible of my fellow Lib Dem members will vote - party democracy doesn't cost you anything and it's your chance to shape the future strategy and organisation of the party.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Tavish: Let's learn from Obama

I see both Caron and Stephen have begun to write up their pieces from the interview we did with Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott at the weekend, so I suppose I'd better get myself in gear and do likewise.

Although I didn't vote for Tavish as leader, I think he's made a confident start to the role. And that was apparent in our session on Saturday, where he coped very well with everything we threw at him.

One thing I was impressed by was when I asked him what we could learn from Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Tavish spoke of the ways in which Obama had built a real grassroots effort which had helped create a sense of excitement about the message he wanted to put across. He noted that Obama had used the internet very effectively, building on the foundations Howard Dean had laid during his presidential bid four years ago, not only as a fundraising tool but also to help inspire a whole new generation to get involved in politics. I must say, I hadn't really thought Tavish would be quite so clued up about American politics, so this was an unexpectedly thorough answer.

But it's on domestic issues that Tavish's reputation as a leader will be made and he was equally good on those. On local government, for instance, Tavish welcomed the fact that ring-fenced funding had been reduced, but was concerned that the SNP government's approach was too rigid and top-down. Similarly, on local taxes, Tavish indicated he was open to the idea that local authorities should be free to raise revenue from a range of taxes, rather than solely looking at local income tax as a replacement for the unfair council tax. He said that any tax system had to conform to certain principles such as fairness and collectability and added that the Calman Commission would be looking at public financing in Scotland as a whole - including both personal and corporate taxation.

On another tax issue, Tavish clarified that his idea to get the Scottish Parliament to use its tax varying powers to cut 2p from the basic rate of income tax in Scotland was independent of the UK-wide Lib Dem proposals to cut taxes. He pointed out that his plan was to find savings from the £30 billion Scottish block grant for an immediate tax cut in Scotland to help people who are struggling now, whereas any UK-wide tax cut would probably have to wait until at least after the next General Election in 2010.

He also said in response to a question from Caron about the feasibility of tax cuts in the current economic climate that he was certain that Vince Cable and his Treasury team would be able to find the savings required to reduce government spending overall, although he admitted that the financial crisis did make things tougher. However, he said there was no point in us putting forward detailed proposals just yet, as any good ideas would only be stolen by either the Tories or Labour.

It's clear that Tavish is settling in for the long haul and is relishing the political challenges ahead. When asked about the popularity of First Minister Alex Salmond, he pointed out that both Blair and Brown had also enjoyed honeymoon periods, but that the responsibility of having to take decisions in government usually means this doesn't last.

Tavish is also keen to ensure that the Scottish Lib Dems become a forceful grassroots campaigning party again, saying that he doesn't want to spend all his time playing political games in Holyrood, but instead getting out around the country spreading the Lib Dem message as much as possible. And he's also keen to make sure that the party does become far more representative of society as a whole, although he noted that the party had consistently opposed some measures such as all-women shortlists which other parties had adopted. However, he didn't really come up with any proposals as to how this could be addressed.

Finally, Tavish was asked who he would be supporting in the upcoming Lib Dem presidential election. As party leader in Scotland, I thought he might have been non-committal, but his answer was clear: "I hope Ros [Scott] wins. I don't think Lembit's the right person for the job." Remember folks, you heard it here first.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Thoughts on the presidential election

For once, this isn't about Obama v McCain, but instead the contest to become the next President of the Liberal Democrats.

This is not something I've talked about publicly before, mainly because it seemed quite a long way off. But now it's getting towards decision time.

I'm going to look at the three candidates in turn. First up, Chandila Fernando. Chandila is not someone I know much about and I suspect most people in the same party are in the same boat. All I know about him is that apparently he's the director of Liberal Vision, a group which seeks to get the Lib Dems to adopt an extreme libertarian position. His politics are probably anathema to the vast majority of party members. And if you look at his website, all you'll see is contact details and a big picture of him. If you try to click on the enter site button, nothing happens. Frankly, not only is his political stance questionable, but if he's unable to get a proper website up and running which gives some indication of what he would do as president, he's really not worth voting for.

So, what about Lembit Opik MP? Now, I have to say that I quite like Lembit. He can be funny and charming and he is a natural liberal. I think he does have a fairly good political brain and a good understanding of the world. I also remember one time, before he became an MP, when he came to visit my university Lib Dem group to give a talk about the situation in Estonia, which was then in the throes of takings its first steps as an independent nation again. He is also someone who does work very hard for the party, often doing things which aren't immediately visible to many people.

Unfortunately, Lembit does have his down side. Although he is undoubtedly one of the best known Lib Dem MPs, what he is best known for is being Lembit. The celebrity girlfriends, the Hello spreads, the appearances on TV entertainment shows featuring men doing strange things with their manhood, the asteroids, the paragliding and the Segways. It all gives the impression of an ego-driven desire for attention, rather than someone who is serious about getting across a Lib Dem political narrative.

Which brings us to Ros Scott. I must say, I had hardly heard of her this time last year. But then she launched her candidacy for the presidency at last year's party conference and since then I think it's fair to say that she's become one of the best-known figures in the party. I've been impressed by the dedication she's put into her campaign, by the hard graft she's put in travelling all around the country. I happened to go to a couple of fringe meetings at Lib Dem conference at which she spoke, and she is a good speaker. She gives the impression of being approachable and of listening to what the members say. Unlike Lembit, she has the advantage of being able to devote herself full time to being President in a way that a constituency MP can't. Her website also looks good, in contrast to Lembit's rather staid affair, and she also has her own blog.

So what it comes down to is this. Lembit, I'll do you a deal. Knuckle down and prove you want to be a serious politician rather than just a C-list celebrity and in 2 or 4 years time I might consider voting for you as party president. But this time, I'm 4 Ros.

Reminder: Tavish Scott bloggers' interview

Just a quick reminder that Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott has agreed to take part in a bloggers' interview this Saturday. It will take place at the Scottish Lib Dem conference in Edinburgh at 3.25pm.

The interview is open to any Lib Dem blogger, so if you're planning on being in or near Edinburgh (perhaps on your way to Glenrothes?) this Saturday, why not come along.

The only requirement is that you write up the interview on your blog. If you don't have a blog of your own, you could write it up for a site such as Lib Dem Voice.

Anyone wishing to take part should email me at bernardsalmon[at]cix[dot]co[dot]uk

Monday, 6 October 2008

Let me see if I've got this straight

Not only is Barack Obama a cheese-eating surrender monkey, he's also a Commie-loving terrorist.

Oh, and he's a Muslim, so he'll be crashing Air Force One into the middle of Disneyland first chance he gets.

Coming up next, Barack HUSSEIN Osama Obama's recipe for sauteed baby in barbecue sauce.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Veep debate: it wasn't even close

I finally got round to watching the Vice-Presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin, courtesy of More 4.

The comments I'd seen about the debate earlier on today (checks clock on computer, realises it's yesterday now) had led me to expect that while Biden had done better, Palin had at least performed creditably.

But that wasn't how I saw it. If that was a decent performance by Palin, I'd hate to see her on a bad day. Actually, that's wrong, I'd love to see her on a bad day. It would be the ultimate car crash TV.

Palin very rarely gave an answer to the question put to her, whether on healthcare, deregulation, nuclear weapons or the role of the vice-presidency. She relied almost totally on pre-prepared statements, which were sometimes only tangentially related to what was being discussed. And she didn't even read them well. If any actor read lines that badly, they'd soon find themselves doing far more waiting on tables than waiting to go on stage.

On just about every measure I can think of, Biden was better. To illustrate, I'm going to answer some fairly standard polling questions.

Who has the greater knowledge of the issues facing America? Biden.
Who has a greater understanding of the issues facing ordinary American families? Biden.
Who has the greatest experience needed to be Vice-President? Biden.
Who has the greatest experience to take over as President if necessary? Biden.
Which of the two candidates for Vice-President did a better job of setting out a vision for the future of the country? Biden.
Who has the greatest understanding of the economy? Biden.
Who has the greatest understanding of foreign policy? Biden.
Which of the two would you be most comfortable with as Commander-in-Chief? Biden.
Which of them did a better job of answering the questions in the debate? Biden.
Which of them did a better job of thinking on his/her feet during the debate? Biden.
Which of them did a better job of attacking the opposing Presidential candidate? Biden.

I could go on, but I won't. Biden was a clear winner of the debate and it wasn't even close.

It's just a shame that the Veep debates rarely if ever affect the outcome of the presidential race. But maybe this time it will be a bit different, given that Sarah Palin is so obviously unsuitable to be anywhere near the presidency, let alone a heartbeat away.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Obama and the Bradley effect

Jock Coats, in a comment on my posting yesterday about Barack Obama's lead in the polls, raised the issue of racist voters saying to pollsters that they'll be supporting Obama but then voting against him in the privacy of the polling booths, the so-called Bradley effect.

Happily, this posting indicates that might not be such a problem.

Brown's reshuffle statement in full

We face a new era and new challenges, different from those we faced in 1997, which is why I've decided to bring back into government a bunch of has-beens who faced those other challenges in 1997.

We need serious people for serious times, plus Peter Mandelson.

We need to reinvent government in these serious times, which is why I'm going to create several new quangos and committees, to give people the impression I've got a Scooby how to get us out of the economic mess I helped create, which of course I don't. None of these new bodies will actually have any power, but hey, it makes it look like I'm actually doing something.

We need to change the way we govern in these serious times, but don't expect me to do anything silly like introducing fair votes or revitalising local democracy. What do you think I am, a Liberal Democrat?Exercising total power on just 36% of the vote is the way we do things in this country.

Although Peter Mandelson and I have had our ups and downs in the past - which as you know is code for 'we hate each other's guts but I can't admit it in public' - I am delighted to have him back in government in these serious times. He has been a brilliant European trade commissioner, despite not actually achieving a deal in the Doha trade negotiations.

Did I mention that we face serious times and that I'm a serious person - unlike Cameron or David Miliband?

I'm Mandy, why me?

Last year Gordon Brown promised an end to spin. This year he brings Peter Mandelson back into government. That is all you need to know about the bankruptcy of Brown's government.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

He who lives by the sword...

Sir Ian Blair's resignation as Metropolitan Police Commissioner had an air of inevitability about it.

I have long thought that Ian Blair was the wrong person to lead the Met Police. The aftermath of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes indicated that either he was prepared to make statements to the press that he knew not to be true or his senior officers failed to keep him informed of the true situation. Neither inspired confidence in his leadership.

What is slightly surprising about his departure is that what did for him in the end was not the shooting of de Menezes, the various racial discrimination cases or the allegations that contracts were awarded inappropriately: it was politics.

And this is a highly appropriate reason for him to go, as Blair himself was one of the most politicised police figures I can remember. His interventions on the debates on detention without charge for 90 or 42 days were highly inappropriate for a serving senior policeman. Blair allowed himself to become very closely identified with the New Labour establishment, which made his position rather fragile when Tory Boris Johnson was elected as Mayor of London.

That said, the manner of his departure is highly questionable. As Lib Dem mayoral candidate Brian Paddick said when interviewed about Blair's resignation on Radio Five Live this afternoon, this looks like an arbitrary decision by Johnson. Paddick pointed out that the correct procedure if Johnson had concerns about Blair would have been to have organised a vote of no confidence in him on the Metropolitan Police Authority. It is utterly wrong that Johnson has now given the impression that the police should be subject to political diktats.

The job of Met Police Commissioner is a tough one. I just hope that the next Commissioner realises that his or her job is to concentrate on policing rather than politics. And I hope that the politicians allow that person to do their job without interfering at every step.

Is it turning into a landslide?

Barack Obama's lead in the polls and in the battleground states appears to be increasing, and it's looking ever more like he's on for a substantial victory next month.

Real Clear Politics has Obama ahead in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Nevada, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa and New Mexico, all states won by Bush four years ago. McCain is also only just a whisker ahead in Missouri and Indiana - the latter a state which Bush won by more than 20 points in 2004.

Electoral Vote has similar figures, although they have North Carolina listed as a tie. Their electoral college count shows Obama currently on 338 and McCain on 185, with the 17 votes for North Carolina down as a tie.

Those figures are backed up by the latest national polls. CBS/New York Times has Obama leading McCain 50-41 while AP/GfK has it 47-41. It looks like Obama has benefitted both from the financial chaos (and McCain's bizarre antics in response to it) and from his performance in the opening debate.

Things look even worse for the Republicans if you look at the situation in the Senate races. Republican incumbents are currently behind in Alaska, Oregon, North Carolina and New Hampshire, while open Republican seats in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia look like almost certain gains for the Democrats. Republican candidates in Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota (where comedian Al Franken is the Democratic candidate) are also in very tight races.

It looks like Republicans are in for a real pasting on November 4. And, short of a disastrous performance by Obama in one of the final two debates or possibly a major terrorist attack in America, it's difficult to see what they can do to turn things round.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Success for Gurkha justice campaign

In amongst all the bad economic news, there was at least one thing to celebrate today - the fact that the Gurkhas have won their court case to win the right to live in this country.

I have blogged before about the Gurkha justice campaign, so I am delighted to see them win their case. Congratulations to all involved.

Monday, 29 September 2008

The losers from the bail-out vote

Not many people have come out of today's vote against the Wall Street bail-out plan in the USA with their reputations enhanced, but some have come out in a worse state than others.

There are some fairly obvious losers. Firstly, and most importantly, is the whole financial system in the USA, and the world as a whole. Banks and shares are likely to continue to tumble over the next few days and weeks, putting more financial institutions at risk.

And that's having a knock-on effect across the whole economy. Although the debate on the bail-out plan has often been characterised as one of Wall Street v Main Street, the reality is that businesses on Main Street are finding it difficult get loans to help their businesses expand, while even getting a loan to buy a car or a new fridge is tough. The problems on Wall Street are having a direct impact on Main Street.

But on a political level, there are also several losers. President Bush, for instance, is discovering the true meaning of 'lame duck'. I can think of no comparable instance in recent times of a President putting a package before the House of Representatives which he deemed vital for the economic future of the United States and seeing it shot down in flames. Similarly, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose plan it was, has had his reputation battered.

Questions also have to be asked about the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives. Did they possibly over-estimate the support among their own party for the bail-out package?

But the biggest loser of this whole affair has to be John McCain. If you're a presidential candidate who suspends his campaign to get a financial bail-out package through Congress, then the least you can do is ensure that your own party is onside. Indeed, when your supporters are saying that you've been instrumental in getting the Republicans in the House of Representative on board, you'd better make damn sure they are.

This quote from The Guardian says it all:
After last week's drama , which saw the deal unravelling with McCain's arrival in Washington on Thursday, the Republican has been on the defensive against charges that he tried to exploit the crisis for political gain. He has also been trying to distance himself from his record in the Senate as a supporter of deregulation of the financial industry.
His camp pushed back hard against those charges yesterday, with Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, telling Fox TV that McCain had been crucial in engaging House Republicans on the bail-out. "I think it was decisive in regards to the house getting involved," said Graham.


So what was the result? MORE THAN TWO-THIRDS of McCain's own party in the House of Representatives refused to back the bail-out plan today. Well done, John. Great leadership. Why should anyone vote for you when you can't even persuade 2 out of 3 of your own party's legislators to back your position?

That leaves Barack Obama as the only real winner of this whole fiasco. In truth, he hasn't been doing a great deal on the financial bail-out and has left most of the negotiations to others. But when your main rival has had such a disastrous impact on the whole process and has failed utterly to have any positive impact on events, you can just sit back and bask in the sunshine.

The past week has demonstrated McCain's utter unsuitability to do the top job. And I only hope for America's sake, and the world's, that enough people in the USA recognise that fact between now and November 4.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Honours even in first debate

I didn't think there was a clear winner in the first of the three presidential election debates between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Neither made any noticeable gaffes, but nor were there any killer lines which might have swung the debate one way or another. Nor was there much in the way of humour from either side.

I felt Obama was perhaps slightly more persuasive on the questions on the economy and Afghanistan, while McCain probably edged it on the Iran question. The rest were all pretty evenly matched.

I suspect that those who were leaning towards Obama beforehand will probably stick with him, and those leaning towards McCain won't have been swung away from him. In short, I don't see this debate changing the overall picture much.

That's probably good news for Obama, as he's in lead and has the momentum, and it's John McCain who needs to do something to change the course of the election. But last night's debate wasn't it.

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