Friday, 30 May 2008

Kick the 6-5 plan into touch

Fifa's decision to back a proposal from Sepp Blatter to limit the number of foreign players in each football team to no more than 5 is a retrograde step.

As the EU has pointed out, such a proposal is incompatible with the right for European nationals to practise their trade anywhere in the EU. As such, it is a non-starter in terms of legality.

But supposing the proposal did go through, who would be the people most affected? Probably not the European players, who would still be able to go to just about any club they wanted, due to those freedom of movement rules. The ones who would be most affected would be African and Asian players, who would struggle to break into teams already stuffed full with the top European talent. The likes of Didier Drogba or Emanuel Adebayor would thus be denied a platform for their talents.

Although there is an issue about all the best African players now playing in Europe, which means that the game in Africa possibly hasn't developed as it should, the solution is not to slam the door shut on them.

Rather than trying to block the free movement of players, Fifa should instead be trying to tackle the extremes in wealth among football clubs directly, although we should recognise that successful clubs are always going to get more money than unsuccessful ones. I wonder if there is a case for Fifa introducing some sort of payroll levy on all top-flight professional clubs, at say 10% of the total wage bill. The money could be used to help grassroots development and to support clubs in lower divisions, many of whom struggle financially.

But trying to tackle the disparities in wealth among clubs by limiting the number of foreign players they can play is a bad idea and should be booted out.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Clueless Brown, part 42,369

So our esteemed Prime Minister thinks that one solution to the current spiralling fuel prices is to go for more nuclear power, does he?

Well, I look forward to the announcement that the entire fleet of government cars will be converted so that they can all run on nuclear power.

Actually, I shouldn't joke about such things. Given this government's record for wasting money on stupid projects, they're probably even now commissioning a feasibility study from expensive consultants, spending several million on it and then in a few years time quietly abandoning the idea when they finally realise what everyone's told them from the start, that it's a stupid and unworkable idea.

But on a serious note, nuclear is not the answer to our energy needs, either now or in the future. It's an expensive way of generating electricity (even before the costs of decommissioning are taken into account), there's the problem of radioactive waste lasting for thousands of years, and it doesn't actually do a whole lot to reduce carbon emissions (as Greenpeace points out in the article, even 10 new reactors would only cut emissions by a miserly 4% after 2025).

There's also the problem that the government has said that it will not put any public money into new nuclear power stations. Given that there isn't a single nuclear power station anywhere in the world which has been built without some form of public support, how does the government think that any new capacity is going to be built?

And the opportunity cost of investing in new nuclear power stations is that there would be less investment in renewable forms of energy. Which is most likely to reduce carbon emissions and get us away from our dependence on fossil fuels: investing a few billion in a new nuclear power station or investing the same amount in tidal, solar, geothermal, offshore wind power and energy conservation, as well as new technology to help cars run on cleaner fuel.

Brown's obsession with going nuclear is another demonstration of just how clueless he is.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

A highly professional but soulless campaign

I'm only just back from Crewe and Nantwich, having been to see some relatives in Cumbria in the interim.

My impression of the Lib Dem by-election campaign was that it was very well organised. The by-election HQ was terrific and there was a great team of people in charge. The only minor quibbles I have on this front are the usual ones you get at by-elections, about some delivery routes not being sorted into walk order correctly or about the size of delivery rounds being given to one person.

But I wasn't impressed with the content of the campaign. It seemed to me to lack focus and any coherent idea of why people should vote Lib Dem in Crewe and Nantwich. There was the usual concentration on just a few key issues, but I don't see that there was any real attempt to draw them together or to show how they related to our core liberal beliefs.

OK, we were coming from a more or less standing start and the Tories were seen as the clear challengers from the off, which in the end enabled them to romp home to an impressive victory. But we could have done far more to give people a positive reason to vote for us. In the end, although we weren't squeezed too badly, we got the result we deserved with our share of the vote going down.

Let me illustrate my concerns with quotes from some of the Lib Dem literature from the last few days of the campaign, which is all that I saw.

From a 'Focus on Nantwich', the main story was headlined: "Lib Dems fight to protect green spaces". The first sentence of this read: "Local Lib Dem Elizabeth Shenton is leading the campaign to save the green spaces of Nantwich." Now, ignoring the "Local Lib Dem" bit - which I'll turn to later - my first thought was OK, what's she or the local party actually done about it? The answer seems to be not a lot. But nor is there any attempt to explain why we think those green spaces are important, or why in this case they are more important than ensuring an adequate supply of housing in the area. And why not actually use the issue to promote the liberal belief that the taxation system should be changed to encourage development on brownfield sites?

From the same leaflet, there was a piece attacking local police cuts. But where was the mention of the fact that we wish to scrap ID cards in order to spend more money on policing?

From a 'Crewe and Nantwich News Extra' tabloid, the main story was headlined "New 10p tax con". This was good knocking stuff, but why not actually mention that we want to take anyone earning the minimum wage out of income tax altogether? Or that we want to shift taxation away from income and on to pollution?

The PS on the 'blue letter' read: "PS: With your support, I will take the battle against rising parking charges at Leighton Hospital to Parliament." Really? What's Parliament going to do about it then? Pass legislation to stop health authorities from charging for parking at hospitals? Or increase the budget for the local health authority so that they don't need to raise such charges? Surely one of the things about being a liberal is that we don't believe that Parliament can or should sort out such matters. Perhaps we should have linked the issue with our policy for directly elected local health boards, so that we'd be saying something like: "Vote Lib Dem and YOU get to decide whether parking charges at Leighton Hospital should be increased."

Another difficulty with the campaign is that by and large we were banging on about the same things as the Tories, such as the 10p tax rate and post offices. We therefore weren't giving people a distinctive reason to vote Lib Dem. Also, although our literature was best in terms of both quantity and quality, the Tories in particular have closed the gap - they're also now doing 'blue letters', for instance - so that we get less bang for our buck.

And there was also the laughable obsession with just how local the candidates were. We were attacking Edward Timpson for living a whole 17 miles away from the constituency, despite the fact that our candidate was a councillor from Staffordshire! OK, Elizabeth Shenton lived closer to the constituency than him, but that obsession was bizarre. NOBODY gave a damn about where the Tory candidate lived or worked, and nor should they. Even worse was in the aforementioned 'Focus on Nantwich' when we included one of our vox pops which included a statement from one person that: "Elizabeth Shenton is the only candidate of the main parties to have a proven record as a local councillor here." No, not here: Newcastle-under-Lyme. That was just a straightforward lie.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that by-election campaigns should be akin to a seminar on political philosophy. But there is a difference between having a simple message and having a simplistic one and I think in Crewe and Nantwich we erred too much towards the latter. It was also incoherent, as there was no attempt to relate the various issues to a vision of the sort of society we wish to create.

I hope that Crewe and Nantwich marks the end of a strategy of raising a few issues seemingly at random and flogging them for all they're worth. Campaigning must be related to a liberal vision or it is largely worthless. Lessons must be learnt for Henley, as we can't afford to have too many more utterly soulless campaigns.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Why I'm heading down to Crewe and Nantwich

Later this morning, I will get in my car and begin the long journey down to Cheshire to help out the Lib Dem effort in the last few days of the by-election campaign in Crewe and Nantwich.

Some may say this is a definition of madness; travelling hundreds of miles for the dubious pleasure of working my socks off shoving leaflets through people's doors, all utterly unpaid.

And that accusation of lunacy might well be reinforced by the fact that I've never actually met our candidate Elizabeth Shenton and know very little about her other than what I've been able to pick up during this by-election campaign.

Furthermore, Crewe and Nantwich isn't exactly the most promising territory for the Lib Dems. Although we got a respectable 19% of the vote at the last General Election - about the same as we had in Dunfermline and West Fife before winning that by-election - it would be a major surprise if we did manage to pull off a victory there.

But I do have a number of reasons for wanting to go down, some political and some personal. Let's start with the political reasons. The most basic one is that I'm a Lib Dem and I want my party to do well. And I know that there's no chance that my party would do well without people like me all over the country making the effort to get out there and do the work.

And I'm also an optimist. By-elections can be funny things and you never quite know what's going to happen. I think the Tories are probably favourites at this stage to pull off their first by-election gain from Labour in 30 years, and it would be a major blow for David Cameron if his party didn't manage to do it. But with Labour support in freefall thanks to the 10p tax fiasco, it's not easy to know exactly where their supporters will turn. I don't think it's beyond the bounds of possibility that there could be a fairly tight split between all three major parties, especially if Labour voters just stay at home rather than turning out for one of their opponents.

There are personal reasons as well. By-elections are often a chance to catch up with old friends and acquaintances. And there is often quite a cameraderie among people involved in a by-election campaign.

But for me, the biggest reason for travelling down to this by-election is the fact I was born in Nantwich. I moved away when I was just three and haven't really been back since, so the only memories I have of the place are just tiny fragments. So this is a chance for me to have a look round and explore a place with real meaning for me. My mother will be accompanying me, so this is also a chance for her to revisit some of her old haunts and to visit her father's grave in Crewe.

But I hope that even those without this personal connection will make the effort to go to Crewe and Nantwich. As I've said, you never quite know what will happen. And, apart from anything else, by-elections can actually be quite good fun.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Cicero talks sense

This excellent posting from Cicero on Scottish politics is well worth reading.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Tax changes: bad economics and bad politics

Can this government get anything right?

The reason I ask is that Alistair Darling's announcement today about raising the income tax personal allowance is, on the face of it, a clever way out of the hole Labour had dug itself into with the abolition of the 10p tax rate. The trouble is, it's precisely what he shouldn't have been doing. It's bad both politically and economically, and Vince Cable was absolutely right to say that it's a short-term gimmick.

I'll deal with the economic arguments first. The timing of the announcement was lousy, as it came on the same day that even on the government's preferred measure (ie the one it thinks makes it look best), inflation jumped to 3% from 2.5%. With public borrowing already at more than £40 billion this year, adding an extra £2.7 billion to the tab this year is a step in exactly the wrong direction. Borrowing should be reined in, not expanded to get the government through a spot of difficulty with its backbenchers.

Indeed, I could ask what's happened to Labour's so-called Golden Rule, in which they promised to borrow solely for the purposes of investment. Borrowing to give people a tax break seems to fall foul of that. (And yes, I know that the full promise is to do that "over the economic cycle", but that in itself is a meaningless New Labour term, as Labour have demonstrated by redefining what the economic cycle is and when it is measured from to suit their own purposes.)

The tax change is also bad politically. Although it seemingly lances the boil of the argument over the 10p tax rate, it does so at the expense of confirming Labour's reputation for short-termism, a party concerned solely with chasing headlines. Does anyone seriously imagine that Darling would have made his statement today if there hadn't been a by-election next week in Crewe and Nantwich in which Labour faces the prospect of losing a safe seat?

I can imagine Labour people protesting their innocence. "A by-election? Nah, weren't thinking about that in the slightest, hadn't even realised it was happening. The thought of any connection hadn't even begun to consider crossing our minds, guv, honest. Would we lie to you?" Of course, if Labour had showed proper decency and not called the Crewe and Nantwich by-election before Gwyneth Dunwoody had been laid to rest, people like me might well have been a bit less cynical.

One of the problems is that Labour has form in this area. Last autumn's pre-budget statement, for instance, included changes to inheritance tax which had clearly been under consideration for a long, long time and in no way were a panicky reaction to the Tories' seemingly popular move at their party conference to support raising the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million.

And it's not even as if this short-term political fix will work. For a start, I fully expect Labour to lose Crewe and Nantwich next week, as people in the constituency interviewed for BBC News didn't seem that impressed with Darling's pre-election bribe. Indeed, I don't think it's entirely implausible to visualise Labour finishing third in the seat.

But what Darling and Gordon Brown haven't grasped is that the whole 10p tax rate row is symbolic of their complete lack of vision. Many people thought that at least a Labour government could be trusted to stand up for those on low incomes and give them a helping hand. Instead, they've ended up with the grotesque chaos of a Labour government - a Labour government - scuttling round in ministerial limos handing out higher tax bills to its poorest citizens. Such people have had their faith in Labour badly shaken and they are not going to return to the fold any time soon.

Thursday, 8 May 2008


Yes! My ticket to see Leonard Cohen at Edinburgh Castle in July arrived in the post today. This should be a great occasion and probably a once in a lifetime experience for me, as I doubt LC will be having too many tours after this one.

It was also my first time buying something on eBay and it was good to have a wholly positive experience for my debut purchase.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Brown is unbelievable

I hate to say this, but David Cameron is right.

Judging by today's exchanges at Prime Minister's Question, Gordon Brown has indeed lost touch with reality.

For Brown to deny that Wendy Alexander had called for an early referendum on Scottish independence is simply unbelievable. Which bit of "Bring it on!" does he not understand? I know he's probably still in shock over the local election results, but this just raises questions over his sanity.

UPDATE: I see that Nick Robinson is highlighting an exchange on last night's Newsnight Scotland in which Wendy Alexander specifically says that she's discussed it with Gordon Brown and he endorses the referendum call. What a shambles.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The conversaton, the commission and the problem with a referendum

Wendy Alexander's U-turn over the weekend on the question of a referendum on Scottish independence has come as a surprise to many people.

As Alex Wilcock rightly points out, Wendy's move was a panic reaction to the Labour slaughter in the local government elections in England and Wales. But there is also an element of political calculation in it, as it's highly unlikely that a referendum would result in a majority for independence at this stage. Wendy doubtless fears that the SNP would be able to build momentum towards a referendum the longer it is delayed. In itself, this is a sign of Wendy's lack of confidence, as it doesn't seem she's got the belief she could make the case against separation if a referendum was held as late as 2010 or 2011.

Wendy's call also pre-empts the work of the Calman Commission, set up to examine options for the future of Scottish devolution. I have to say I don't see the point of agreeing to the Lib Dem idea of a constitutional commission one week, and then undermining it the next by supporting a referendum on independence. Also, if as expected the Calman Commission does propose significant new powers for the Scottish Parliament, particularly with regard to finance, is it Wendy's position that we should have one referendum now in independence and then another in a couple of years time on the Calman proposals? That is a nonsense.

The work of the Calman Commission will continue, despite Wendy's sabotaging of it. I hope that the commission will make a real effort to involve ordinary Scots in the process, so that there is widespread understanding of the issues facing Scotland's future. And it will be interesting to see what recommendations it eventually comes up with, as those are by no means pre-determined.

That is in contrast to the other so-called debate on Scotland's future, the SNP's National Conversation. Is there any doubt that this will result in anything other than Alex Salmond saying that he thinks independence is a jolly good thing? Surely not.

What it won't do is come up with a workable proposal for independence, one which gives the people of Scotland a clear idea of what the costs and benefits of separation would be. That would be in stark contrast to the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the run-up to the devolution referendum in 1997. That produced a workable plan for devolution and people were in no doubt what they were voting on when the vote was held.

And that highlights the problem with an independence referendum at this stage. Wendy's U-turn has prompted some in my own party, such as Stephen Glenn and Iain Dale (the Lib Dem one) to renew their calls for the Scottish Lib Dems to do likewise. I think they are wrong. An independence referendum should only be held when there is a fully-worked out proposal on the table. That is not the case at the moment, so people would have no idea what they'd be voting on. There are plenty of people who would say "yes, but not at any price" or "no, but if the terms of separation are good enough..." At the moment, we'd be buying a pig in a poke.

But I also have to disagree with the offical Scottish Lib Dem position. Nicol Stephen was quoted on Reporting Scotland this evening as saying that an independence referendum would harm investment in Scotland, which seems absurdly over the top to me.

There is a case for a referendum, but only when there are clearly worked out proposals, for both independence and an enhanced devolution settlement, as provided by the Calman Commission. And any referendum must be a multi-option one, not the "yes/no" suggested by Wendy. That means a referendum at this stage would be premature.

Watch Taking Liberties tonight

Anyone with any interest whatsoever in civil liberties would do well to watch Taking Liberties on More4 this evening at 10pm. I watched it on DVD and it is a shocking indictment of the way our civil liberties have been eroded over the last few years.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

The Beeb: it's not just a Scottish problem

In today's Sunday Herald, Iain Macwhirter has a pop at BBC Scotland for providing a second-rate service compared to England.

But I think Macwhirter's got it wrong. The Beeb is failing to provide a proper service throughout the UK, not just in Scotland.

Its coverage of political matters is frequently shallow, biased towards metropolitan areas, lacking in depth, lacking proper balance of opposing views, stuck in a two-party mindset, sensationalised, focused more on splits and processes than proper coverage of issues, and at the mercy of political spin merchants from all parties.

And, as we saw on Thursday with its election coverage, when it gets it wrong, it can get it spectacularly wrong.

Keeping it in the family

Labour's just had its worst electoral drubbing in decades, so what's the first thing the party does to try and restore public trust?

Of course, it's to select Gwyneth Dunwoody's daughter to fight the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, in a desperate attempt to keep hold of the undoubted personal vote which Gwyneth enjoyed in the seat.

I suspect the voters in Crewe and Nantwich won't be too happy to be considered as mere bit parts in a dynastic fix which proves that nepotism is alive and well in the Labour Party.

UPDATE: I see that Tamsin Dunwoody was a member of the Welsh Assembly for Preseli Pembrokeshire until being defeated by the Tories in May 2007. A failed politician for a failed party?

Saturday, 3 May 2008

The next Lib Dem London Mayoral candidate

The Lib Dems need to start thinking as soon as possible about who we get to stand as our candidate for London Mayor next time round.

In my view, the candidate needs to be someone with impeccable London connections; with good name recognition across the capital; who can handle the media spotlight; is utterly cool under pressure; is intelligent, cultured and has an internationalist outlook; is not a conventional politician; has a good track record of success; knows the importance of getting a good team around him and knows how to spend millions of pounds wisely.

Where would we find such a person? Well, step forward Mr Arsene Wenger.

OK, there would be a few drawbacks with having him as the candidate. We wouldn't get many votes in Tottenham, Chelsea or West Ham, but we don't get much support there anyway, so that wouldn't be a problem. With him at the helm, our campaign would completely grind to a halt in April. And if he became Mayor, assaults would probably rise under his watch, as if people started kicking each other, he just wouldn't be able to see it unless the people doing it come from Liverpool or Manchester.

But we would have a couple of ready-made slogans available:
Put a cross in the box for Arsene.
Arsene: he talks balls far less than Boris.

Friday, 2 May 2008

I think the poor dears are a bit shell-shocked

Apparently, the only story about election night is that Labour have gained seats in Liverpool and St Helens.

Come on guys, get a grip. It's not as if you've just suffered the biggest electoral drubbing your party's experienced for 40 years now, is it? Or that you've lost the biggest directly elected post in British politics to a complete buffoon?

He he he he he.

Sack Dimblebore, sack Vine, sack the whole bloody graphics department

I can't say I wasn't warned.

BBC Scotland did its usual trick of completely ignoring anything as trivial as elections from south of the border: it had an episode of Old Tricks on for the first hour while the rest of the country was getting coverage of the results. Therefore, for the first hour of the results coverage I was surfing around various political websites, rather than watching the telly.

And on them, there was universal condemnation of the way in which the Beeb was presenting the results. Particular scorn was being placed on Jeremy Vine and his use of overblown computer graphics to, erm, illustrate the results.

Surely, I thought, it really can't be as bad as all that. Although Jeremy can get a bit excitable, and isn't fit to tie Peter Snow's bootlaces, it can't have been as embarrassing as everybody was saying. Can it?

It was. In fact, they were all being rather kind. It was a train wreck. Jeremy and the Beeb had utterly lost the plot. What the hell was all that gunslinger stuff? And the Stalin to Mr Bean stuff? Utterly unbelievable.

The Beeb has to realise that if people are staying up all night to watch an election results programme, what they really want is, er, the results. A bit of anlysis of what those results mean is fine as well. What they don't want are to be treated as complete imbeciles and visually assaulted by computer graphics which any third-rate computer programmer would be utterly ashamed of.

This was dumbing down of the worst sort. The Beeb can't be allowed to get away with this. In future it has to treat elections as serious occasions, not as a showcase for daft ideas dreamt up by the graphics department while on a dodgy batch of LSD.

It also needs a new host of its election programmes, as Dimblebore is way past his prime and should be put out to pasture. The Beeb does have a number of people who would be far better than him at presenting their coverage. Off the top of my head, there's Paxo, Eddie Mair, Chris Eykyn, Kirsty Wark, Martha Kearney or even Evan Davis.

The Beeb needs to have a serious rethink about the way it covers elections. It can start by getting rid of everyone responsible for last night's embarrassment.

And if you wish to complain about the BBC's coverage, here's how.

A salute to unsung heroes

In any set of local election results, the councils gained and lost are always the ones which make the most headlines.

That means that the efforts of those in councils which have been held for some time can get overlooked, so to redress the balance, my congratulations to the Lib Dems in Three Rivers, Watford, Stockport, Cambridge and Eastleigh, who have all managed to maintain Lib Dem-run councils for lengthy periods of time. You are an inspiration for many of us in the party.

Well, I got that totally wrong

My prediction earlier this week was right in one respect. Labour has not lost 200 seats: it looks like it's going to do even worse than that.

Let's be clear about this. This is a complete meltdown in their support and I have to confess that I under-estimated the extent to which Labour voters were angry with the government. For a governing party to get as little as 24% of the vote in a set of local elections is an utter humiliation, one which not even John Major's government experienced (his lowest was 26%).

Indeed, when Harriet Harman appeared on Radio Five Live this morning, she was asked how it felt to do even worse in local elections than Michael Foot had done. She didn't have an answer.

Clearly it was a very good night for the Tories, and last night was the first time it crossed my mind that the Tories might, just might, be able to get an overall majority at the next Westminster General Election.

For the Lib Dems, we've done OK, but no more than that. When the dust settles, we've held Newcastle and Liverpool (just!), and taken overall control of Hull, Burnley, and St Albans. ConservativeHome is also reporting that we've taken Sheffield, which is a boost for Nick Clegg in his own back yard. Many Lib Dems were expecting modest overall losses, so to have modest overall gains is encouraging. And to beat Labour in the national share of the vote (again) is also good news. However, the fact that our vote share has fallen overall is a slight cause for concern, as is the possible threat from the Tories in many of our held seats.

But overall, it's been a very good set of results for the Tories (and that's even before Boris wins later today), an OK result for the Lib Dems and a truly disastrous one for Labour.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

And you thought we had problems with data protection?

Click here.

UPDATE: Oh, we do.

But I'm a complete heathen!

How the hell did I manage to get 97%?

You know the Bible 97%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

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