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

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!

Great scenes of celebration.


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.

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.

Ohio called for Obama - this election is over.

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

Nate Silver at 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.

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

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

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

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

Dems win Virginia Senate seat and Reps win South Carolina Senate seat.

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.

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.

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

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?

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.

I'll be paying attention in particular to MSNBC (which has supplied the results widget on this blog page), CNN, the BBC,, 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:

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