Sunday, 29 June 2008

Choose our future

Discussion in Lib Dem circles over the last couple of days has centred on whether our campaigning tactics are up to scratch and whether people are clear about what we stand for, as a consequence of our somewhat disappointing result in the Henley by-election. I don't propose to discuss the former now, but I think the latter is worth addressing.

We in the Lib Dems do have a very good set of values, as expressed in the preamble to the party's constitution. And, on the whole, we also have some very good policies. What we haven't managed to do successfully is to link those values with our policies, still less our campaigning approach. In other words, we lack a narrative, to use the currently fashionable political jargon.

I think a narrative is a way of looking at the world which draws together various policies and values into a coherent whole. It's not expressed in the rather philosophical language of a statement of values, nor in the 'shopping list' of a political manifesto, but instead by stating what we think the main problems are facing society and our general approach in tackling them, possibly expressed in a theme or slogan.

For me, one of the biggest problems facing society is that individual and human-centred values are under threat. If unchecked, both big business and the state have a tendency to take decisions which reduce the power of individuals to choose their own futures in a meaningful way, due to the fact that they can make hugely significant decisions for people and communities from a remote distance and often have little idea of their effects on people. Often this is done from good motives, whether in reducing business costs or to promote greater security from threats such as terrorism, but the effects may be to reduce the power of individuals to choose how to live their life.

This lack of lack of power to make meaningful choices about how to live is expressed in many ways: people having to work ever longer hours to make ends meet; people being forced to turn to using cars because of a lack of alternatives; people being left hanging on with an under-staffed call centre for ages because a company has centralised all problem-solving and has forgotten the value of having a friendly and knowledgeable face people can actually talk to; people forced to travel further for an operation because their local hospital has closed down; people missing out on human contact because their local post office or pub has closed; people forced to do their shopping in an out-of-town supermarket because their High Street has become yet another clone town with no butcher, baker or greengrocer; people afraid to go out of their homes at night because of the fear of violence; young girls forced into teenage motherhood because they don't have the educational or social skills to avoid that situation; people not voting because they feel politicians don't care about the issues which affect them. I could go on, but you get the picture.

For me, these problems can only be addressed by a liberal approach which stresses empowerment and responsibility. In the economic sphere, which is what most people are concerned about, that would mean encouraging enterprise and innovation, supporting small businesses and recognising that successful companies and economies are those where everyone is encouraged to make a contribution and it is recognised that everyone is in it together - in other words, a teamwork and partnership approach. However, liberals also need to recognise that the things which make life worthwhile for many people - culture, family, environment, safe communities, friendship, justice, religion, sexuality - are at best only tangentially related to economic success. Liberals should not be afraid to say that markets are very good if you're concerned about wealth creation - and for that reason should be supported where possible - but must be seen as secondary or complementary to our wider social purposes.

We should be stressing that only liberals (and by implication the Lib Dems) embody these values and that our opponents can't or won't. Labour has managed the unusual trick of becoming the prisoner of both big business and a bureaucratic state simultaneously. In so far as the Tories now stand for anything, they are still the party of big business. The Greens don't really believe in individual freedom. Nationalists of various hues think that a change in the composition of the state or in the people who make up the state is sufficient. And libertarians stress individual freedom above all else, leading to a situation where everyone is only out for themselves and don't have any concern for others.

And for me, because liberals tend to be optimistic and believe that people can make meaningful choices about the way we live, this narrative can be expressed in the theme/slogan "Choose our future" (it could be "Choose your future", but I think the "our" makes it more clear we're all in ths together). Just think of the campaigning possibilities. Choose our future: tax pollution not people. Choose our future: save our post office/pub/hospital etc. Choose our future: support local shops. Choose our future: invest in young people. Choose our future: take power from Whitehall/Gordon Brown/the council. Choose our future: cut crime.

I should finish by noting that none of this is particularly new, as people like David Boyle and Neil Stockley have been banging on about these sort of themes for some time. This is just my contribution to the debate.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

And it's goodbye from her

Wendy Alexander's resignation as Scottish Labour party leader comes as no surprise. I blogged a couple of weeks ago when news leaked out that she was likely to face an adverse judgement from the Standards Commissioner over the donations row that it could prove to be the last straw for her.

And so it has proved. But let's be clear about this: it wasn't the donations row that did for her, it was her own lacklustre performance as Scottish Labour leader. Had she been an effective leader, she would easily have weathered the storm over the donations row. But Wendy was anything but effective, and managed to make even her predecessor but one, Henry McLeish, look like a political giant in comparison.

Part of Wendy's problem was that she was elected unopposed to the leadership, just like Gordon Brown at Westminster. She therefore didn't have to outline her vision for what Scottish Labour is about, nor did she face the pressure that an election campaign brings. I'm therefore not entirely clear what it was that the money she raised for her leadership election campaign - which eventually proved her undoing - was actually spent on.

The fact that Wendy had a coronation rather than an election meant she lacked real legitimacy when things started to go wrong, leaving her exposed. And go wrong things did. In the debate over the Scottish budget earlier this year, Labour ended up voting against an amendment it had proposed for fear of accidentally defeating Alex Salmond's SNP government and triggering an unwanted new election which would probably only have strengthened the Gnats' position.

Wendy also utterly failed to lay a glove on Salmond at Holyrood, particularly at First Minister's Questions, unlike Scottish Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen who has won widespread praise for his performances at FMQs.

But worst of all for Wendy was her bizarre bravado over the question of a referendum on Scottish independence and the rift this opened up with Gordon Brown. Given that the main reason Wendy got the Scottish leadership was her closeness to Brown, this fatally undermined her authority.

But Wendy's decision to quit is ultimately good news for Scottish politics, although perhaps not for the Gnats who were desperate for her to stay in office. Scotland needs an effective opposition and under Wendy, that just wasn't happening. Electing either Andy Kerr or Cathy Jamieson to succeed Wendy will probably help that to happen.

So, it's farewell to Wendy Alexander, but she won't be missed.

Friday, 27 June 2008

That thudding noise you can hear...

...is the sound of Gordon Brown beating his head repeatedly against the walls of No 10. You could almost forgive the guy deciding that it's not worth the candle and giving up, going away to do good things at the World Bank.

Coming fifth in the Henley by-election is just the latest in a series of disasters for Brown and the Labour Party. It's utterly unprecedented for any governing party to slip as low as fifth in any parliamentary by-election in Great Britain (the Tories apparently came fifth in North Down in the 1980s, but the special circumstances of Northern Ireland explain that one). We now have the situation where Labour is barely four times as popular as the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Henley was also an exceptional result for the Tories and a mediocre one for my own party. This was a by-election caused by a popular Tory MP going off to do something else, which is usually difficult to defend. The Tories selected a candidate who had some baggage as a result of being part of the ruling group on Oxfordshire County Council. The Lib Dems had, by all accounts, a very strong candidate and the by-election machine cranked into full gear. Yet the Tories managed to increase their share of the vote and the Lib Dems only just went up. This indicates what a strong wave the Tories are running at the moment.

But good though the result was for the Tories, the fact that they held a safe seat is not going to be remembered as long as yet another humiliation for Gordon Brown. There must be dozens of Labour MPs who will be getting very, very nervous.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Meanwhile, while we're all watching Zimbabwe...

Antony Hook had a good posting the other day in which he sets the problems in Zimbabwe in historical and political context in terms of human rights abuses and comes up with some good suggestions, but he rightly notes that other human rights abuses have dropped down the agenda.

In the interest of redressing the balance, here are some other human rights stories that you might have missed:

Human Rights Watch condemns Russia's policies in violence-plagued Ingushetia

Israeli doctors complicit in torture: rights group

Rights groups reject extended detention period

Uzbekistan: EU Maintains Strategy, Despite Worsening Rights Situation

China must improve rights record: Council of Europe

Tunisia Violates Rights in Terror Fight, Amnesty Says

The best and worst of New Labour

The unveiling today of the Equalities Bill is a microcosm of the whole New Labour approach to politics, showcasing both the best and worst of the way it does things.

On the positive side, there is no doubt it is trying to tackle a serious social issue and its heart is generally in the right place. Much of the bill is worthy and therefore relatively uncontroversial.

But on the down side, it illustrates this government's tendencies to try and solve problems through legislation, interfering in every area, engaging in pointless symbolic gestures which have no effect on the problems it's trying to address, loading additional burdens onto business with little idea how they're going to pay for them, and leaking most of its proposals in advance (what happened to Gordon Brown promising to make major announcements to Parliament first?).

Much of the comment has focused on the proposal to allow firms to choose women or people from ethnic minorities ahead of white males when recruiting. There are two ways of looking at this. Either it is introducing positive discrimination, which is both pernicious and wrong. People should always, always, always be chosen for jobs solely on the basis of merit.

But my interpretation is somewhat different: it's the kind of pointless gesture politics so beloved of this government. Let's look at the wording closely. The measure only applies to candidates who are deemed to be equally suitable for the job. For a start, it's very rare to have two candidates who are absolutely equally suitable for a post. Employers will more often be weighing up whether someone's experience is better or worse than someone else's qualifications, which can be a difficult balancing act to judge.

But let's assume that two candidates are absolutely equal in ability, experience and qualifcations. What then? Well, the bill only says that employers are allowed to choose a woman or ethnic minority candidate ahead of a white male, not that they have to do so. In other words, the exact situation we have at the moment. As far as I'm aware, there's no legislation requiring employers to hire white males, so this is yet another example of Labour choosing to use legislation to address a problem which doesn't exist and in doing so annoying a lot of people for no good reason. 42 days anyone?

Although much of the bill is OK, it also has other flaws. The proposals regarding greater openness for pay structures within a company are a good idea in principle, but business leaders have complained that they will impose additional costs on some firms, so the Government does need to address those concerns.

But the bill overall has the problem that much of what it is trying to address is the product of social attitudes and practices, which aren't easily legislated away. Take the issue of the pay gap between men and women, for instance. Yes, there are certainly still instances of women being paid less than men for doing the same job, but the situation is a bit more complex than simple discrimination.

One reason why women overall earn less over a lifetime is that they are more likely to be in low-paid jobs such as cleaning, while men are still more likely than women to be company directors or High Court judges, for example. There is also the issue for women regarding pregnancy and childcare. If a woman takes a career break to have a baby, even if she comes back into the same job, with the same hours and same pay - which certainly doesn't always happen, I admit - then she's likely to find that her male counterparts have advanced their careers while she's been away, so she's now playing catch-up.

These aren't really issues which can be solved through legislation, but through changes in social attitudes. Until we escape from the attitude that some jobs such as cleaning are "women's work"; until childcare and family responsibilities are shared much more equally than they are now; until women's experience is valued as much as men's (managing a family should be seen as involving many of the same skills as managing a small business, for instance), then legislation will at best only tinker at the edges.

But when that legislation creates pointless rows over gestures surrounding positive discrimination, it's certainly arguable that it could do more harm than good to the cause of equality.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Coalition falls apart

The Independent/SNP administration which has been running Highland Council since May last year has collapsed.

The 34 Independents had joined forces with the 17-strong SNP group following last year's STV elections which resulted in no overall control for the first time ever on the council. There are 21 Lib Dem councillors, 7 Labour and no Tories.

However, the Indies and the Nats have had a series of disagreements over the past year, so it's not a great surprise that the administration has fallen apart.

I suspect the most likely scenario is for an all-party administration to take over.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Time for a quick one

Having blogged yesterday about the Scottish Government's boozy gimmicks, I wish to commend this article by Rowenna Davis in The Guardian. Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph is also worth reading on the subject.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Hazel Blears: available for weddings, funerals and bar-mitzvahs

I mustn't laugh, I mustn't laugh, I mustn't...

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system. The news today that Hazel Blears has had a laptop stolen which contains sensitive government information which she shouldn't have had stored on it is priceless.

This is a woman who has been lecturing us for years about the need for increased security. Indeed, as a former minister for counter-terrorism, Blears would have been well aware of the need to ensure that sensitive government information is stored securely. Also, in that role she wrote a preface to an executive summary on Cyber Trust and Crime Prevention, so she is certainly aware of the issues surrounding computer security.

So what does she do? Load some sensitive info onto a personal computer which she had no right to do and then be careless enough to leave it somewhere where it was able to be stolen. The woman is a comic genius. Book her now. Available for weddings, funerals and bar-mitzvahs.

The question is what happens to her now. The Cabinet Office employee who left secret documents on a train was immediately suspended pending a disciplinary enquiry, so is there any reason whatsoever why the same should not hapen to Hazel Blears? If she isn't at least suspended, the Government will be open to the accusation that it doesn't believe it's subject to the same rules as everyone else.

Better still, she should be interned for 42 days while we try and find out just why she's so bloody stupid. Unfortunately, I suspect that would take rather longer than 42 days.

Steve Richards on Davis and Lisbon

An interesting article in today's Independent from Steve Richards, linking David Davis's decision to fight the by-election on 42 days detention with the Irish No vote on the Lisbon Treaty and arguing that both endanger democracy.

Another Davis opponent bites the dust

Well, so much for the suggestion that Glasgow Airport hero John Smeaton could be drafted in to oppose David Davis on 42 days.

Monday, 16 June 2008

More Gnat gimmicks on booze

I have blogged before about the Gnats' tendency to come up with eye-catching but ineffective gimmicks to tackle the problems of binge drinking in Scotland. And they're at it again.

This latest idea is particularly nonsensical, as I'm not even sure that the Scottish Government has the power to set a minimum price for alcohol. Would it not be illegal under European law for government to set a minimum price for any product?

Even if that problem can be avoided, I would also question whether the Scottish Government has the power under the Scotland Act to carry out such a policy. Both taxation of alcohol and business regulation are powers reserved to Westminster under the devolution settlement, and surely setting a minimum price for booze would fall under one or other of those categories.

And even if the Scottish Government did have the power, it would still be a bad idea. It's not going to stop people getting hold of booze, except maybe at the margins at best. The cost of enforcement would be fairly significant. It would have an impact on small retailers. And it does nothing to tackle the educational and cultural issues of Scotland's love affair with booze.

The other idea which has been floated today, that of raising the legal age for off-licence sales from 18 to 21, is also dumb. Are the Gnats saying it's OK for youngsters to get drunk in pubs aged 18 but not to do so at home? Utterly bizarre. Raising the age for off sales will do nothing to stop younger people getting their hands on booze, given the very real problems there are already with under-age drink sales. What we need is better enforcement of existing laws, not new ones which won't work.

As I've said before, the Gnats should forget about the irrelevant gimmicks and new laws when tackling Scotland's booze culture. They need to realise that it's a long-term issue, which can only be tackled by better education about booze and a cultural shift in the country's attitude towards drink. Anything else is just pissing in the wind.

The Beeb tell me to get stuffed

OK, not in so many words but the following is the reply I received from the BBC in response to my complaint about its election night results coverage in May:

Dear Mr Salmon Thank you for your e-mail regarding 'Election Night 2008'. Please accept our apologies for the delay in our response, we do hope that you were not too inconvenienced. I appreciate that you were bitterly disappointed with the graphics which accompanied our coverage. Our election coverage has always been about providing viewers with the latest information as it happens in an informative but also entertaining and engaging way. Election Night 2008 was no exception with expert analysis and debate provided by a range of voices and devices. Having said this, it is clear that you were left completely dissatisfied with the graphics used and I can assure you that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC. Thank you once again for taking the trouble to share your views with us. Regards Richard Carey BBC Complaints

In response, I've fired back the following email:

Dear Mr Carey, The election night coverage was not done in an entertaining and engaging way. It was done in a dumbed down way which treated the viewers as idiots. It seems to me that you're just brushing this point under the carpet in your response. And I know that I'm not the only person to have complained to the BBC about its coverage. What is the BBC going to do differently next time to avoid such a shambles? Yours sincerely, Bernard Salmon

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Bye bye Wendy?

OK, back to less introspective and existential matters. Could this be the last straw for Wendy Alexander's leadership of the Scottish Labour Party?

Am I wasting my time?

After watching Country File on BBC1 today, I turned over to avoid the normally dreadful Politics Show. Instead, I switched to BBC Parliament where every Sunday lunchtime they have three hours of programmes on American politics, courtesy of C-Span.

This week was a bit different from normal. Rather than having speeches or campaign events from the presidential candidates, it featured a discussion - sponsored by Google, YouTube and the National Review - on how blogs and new media generally are transforming election campaigns in the States. This featured three people with varying involvement in new media, plus people who had worked on the Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns.

The discussion was quite interesting. The panel were all in agreement that spreading political messages has become both more complex but also more immediate and accessible, as candidates can now put their message more directly without necessarily having it interpreted by a media outlet. However, there were concerns that the new media boom has led to even more of a focus on political trivia, to an additional shrillness in political debate, to candidates having to deal with internet-spread rumours and gossip.

All of these are valid points to make about new media's impact on politics. Certainly blogs and services such as YouTube can help to spread political messages more easily and more directly. But I don't think that people like me should be under any illusions as to the power we wield.

For a start, let's look at some of the campaigns where new media has been important. There was Howard Dean's presidential bid in 2004, Ned Lamont's attempt to unseat Joe Lieberman from his Connecticut senate seat in 2006 and Fred Thompson's campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination this time round, which was apparently based mainly around new media rather than traditional political campaigning. Another Republican hopeful, the libertarian Ron Paul, also attracted fairly widespread support in the blogosphere.

You'll notice something about all of these campaigns: they were all ultimately failures. Howard Dean crashed and burned in 2004, Lamont won the Democratic primary thanks in large part to mobilising support among bloggers but lost to Lieberman in the actual election, while Thompson made precisely zero impact on the Republican race this time, mainly because he didn't put in the actual legwork required. And Ron Paul didn't have the same support in actual elections that he managed to attract in cyberspace.

It's therefore entirely fair to argue that candidates who may have fairly widespread support in blogs and the like don't actually have the same appeal to the vast majority of the electorate who may not be quite so wired. There are reasons for that, as us political bloggers tend to be partisan and there is often a fair amount of hyping of our favoured candidates or parties.

And political blogs and YouTube videos are still very much a minority pursuit. I suspect a seven-second soundbite on mainstream media outlets is probably worth at least a thousand blog posts. Any candidate or party worth their salt is still going to put most of their effort into traditional media rather than new media. That is slowly changing, but I can't think of any examples where support among blogs has been the difference between success or failure in an election campaign.

In my own case, although I don't bother monitoring stats about my site (life's too short), there are a couple of things I can say with confidence: (a) this blog is a fairly low traffic site and (b) most of the people who come here are my fellow Lib Dems courtesy of the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator.

Does that mean I'm wasting my time and I'm just preaching to the converted? Well, maybe, but the reason I blog is not because I think I'm going to have a major impact, but because I enjoy it. I have things that I want to say and if people happen to read them and it has an impact on them, so much the better. OK, I don't have anything like the influence of Iain Dale, let alone Nick Robinson, but I hope in my own small way I'm contributing to better understanding of political life and to building a more liberal society. Those aims are sufficient for me to keep on blogging.

And finally, a word of advice to people thinking of starting a political blog: try to have very few posts as long as this one. If you've made it all the way through to the end, many congratulations.

Friday, 13 June 2008

What was he thinking?

The scene: the House of Commons voting lobbies. David Davis and Nick Clegg are walking through to vote against 42 days detention.

David Davis: "If we lose this vote, I'm thinking about standing down to force a by-election on the 42 days issue, but I'll only do so if you agree not to stand against me. I get to look like a hero, a principled politician who puts his career at risk to stand up against an over-mighty state. I also give the impression that civil liberties are associated with the Tory Party. As you won't be standing, you save lots of money which would be spent on the campaign, but you also get to avoid the hassle of actually being able to make a liberal case to the electorate in Haltemprice and Howden, giving them the inconvenience of having a Lib Dem candidate to vote for. You didn't actually want to take the seat, did you? Also, why don't you announce that you won't be standing a candidate five seconds after I announce I'm stepping down, to give the impression that this is a backroom deal and that you're bouncing the party into not standing? Yes, you might annoy some of your more vocal activists and give them the impression that you don't know what you're doing, but who cares about them anyway? What do you say?

Nick Clegg: "Er, OK."

Seriously, can anyone give me an explanation as to what Clegg was actually thinking when he agreed to this? If Clegg had said that we'd be standing, Davis probably wouldn't have stood down, but that wouldn't exactly have been a disaster, would it?

Of course, it maybe that Clegg didn't agree in advance not to stand. But that would just mean that he reacted to the news like a headless chicken and instantly decided to bounce the party into not standing, which I'm not sure does him any more favours.

As you might be able to tell, I'm not too impressed with Clegg on this issue.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Lib Dems should fight Haltemprice and Howden

I don't often say this about a Conservative politician, but David Davis is to be applauded for his bold move in triggering a by-election on the 42 days detention issue. For a politician to put their own career on the line for a cause they believe in is admirable.

But I'm puzzled and annoyed by the announcement that the Lib Dems won't be fighting the by-election. OK, maybe Davis wouldn't have resigned if he'd thought we would be fighting the by-election, and I'm sure he'd have checked this in advance.

But despite his excellent record of opposing 42-day (and before that 90-day) detention without charge and also his opposition to the government's wretched ID cards scheme, Davis is no liberal. According to They Work For You, he has consistently voted against equal rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. He voted forthe Iraq war. And, according to his Wikipedia listing, he expressed support for the death penalty as recently as 2003. I would therefore have great difficulty in bringing myself to vote for Davis if I were in the seat.

Rather than not fighting the seat, the Lib Dems should be in there putting their case. We should be pointing out that with us, not only do we oppose the 42-day measure, but you get lots of other good things besides, such as lifting the poorest people out of taxation, shifting to greener taxation, investment in key public services, and a radical commitment to decentralising power.

Instead of being in there putting our case, Nick Clegg has made a strategic blunder by indicating we won't fight the seat. But if anyone does fancy fighting the seat as an independent Lib Dem, I will make a pledge to come down and work for that candidate. It is utterly unacceptable that the liberal case would not be made at any by-election.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Freedom for sale

Today's vote in the House of Commons on the 42-day detention proposal showed Parliament at its worst.

Having decided to go down the route of sacrificing civil liberties in an absurd test of strength to try and prove they were being tough on terrorism, the Labour government then set about winning the vote by buying off potential rebels with what can best be described as a series of bribes and inducements.

According to Nick Robinson's report on the BBC's 10 O'clock News, one Labour MP was offered more support for a miners' welfare scheme, while another was promised that economic sanctions against Cuba would be eased. And, of course, we wait to see what price was extracted by the nine Democratic Unionist MPs for saving the government from defeat.

It says a lot about this government that not only can it contemplate such an unnecessary assault on our civil liberties, but it also seems to think it entirely acceptable to do so by the worst sort of 'pork barrel' politics. And what does it say about those Labour and DUP MPs that they think nothing of bartering away hard-won freedoms for a few extra quid for the miners or the Communist regime in Cuba, or an as yet unspecified boost for Northern Ireland?

It might be instructive to see exactly how people voted this time and compare it with how they voted on the proposal for 90-day detention in November 2005, to work out just who has been bought off.

Most Labour MPs who rebelled then also refused to support the government on 42 days today. However, according to Public Whip, the following Labour MPs voted against 90-day detention, but aren't listed by the BBC as having voted against the government today: John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead), Michael Clapham (Barnsley West and Penistone), Ann Cryer (Keighley), David Hamilton (Midlothian), Doug Henderson (Newcastle-upon-Tyne North), Sian James (Swansea East), Sadiq Khan (Tooting), Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith), Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central), Andrew Love (Edmonton), Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley), George Mudie (Leeds East), Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich), Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South), David Taylor (NW Leicestershire) and Jon Trickett (Hemsworth).

Intriguingly, there were also a few MPs who didn't vote against the government last time who did on this occasion. They are: Andrew Dismore (Hendon), David Drew (Stroud), Paul Farrelly (Newcastle under Lyme), Andrew MacKinley (Thurrock) and Douglas Naysmith (Bristol NW). Conservative Sir Peter Tapsell voted with the government last time but didn't do so on this occasion, whereas Anne Widdecombe was the exact opposite. Robert Wareing and Clare Short were both still Labour MPs last time and Gwyneth Dunwoody has since died. Oh, and the nine DUP MPs all voted against 90-day detention.

There's one or two surprising names on that list, such as Sadiq Khan. And also a few MPs from mining seats, who must be prime candidates for having sold out civil liberties for more dosh for the miners.

Overall, today was a dispiriting day for anyone who believes that civil liberties are important. It's sad that we're now having to rely on the House of Lords proving itself more willing to stand up for freedom than the Commons.

Monday, 9 June 2008

More on the 'Your High' controversy

I wasn't intending to return to the controversy over the Your High protest in Wallington, but I see Jayne McCoy responded to the posting over on Chris Black's blog. I've responded to that there, but I thought it might be instructive to post Jayne's views here, and my response to her.

Jayne's reply:
I am not sure that Mr Salmon is displaying any of the liberal values of tolerance and understanding by condemning my action without first informing himself of the background to the issue. I agree that de criminalising some drugs would enable greater control over their supply including places like this, which under regulation probably wouldn't be permitted so close to two schools. I have been using the issue to gently open up the idea with my residents. However, as Chris Black is obviously aware there is often a conflict as a councillor between representing your residents, and your own personal/party views. Trying to explain the nuances of this issue when I have an aggressive Tory leaning local press more than happy to portray me as 'soft on drugs' for not taking up the issue would probably lead to me losing my seat. Being a local councillor isn't just about party politics.

My response:
Jayne, that really isn't good enough. You say I'm not showing the values of tolerance. I'm not the one who's trying to close down a perfectly legal business. You also say I didn't bother to inform myself about the situation. Wrong - I checked out various websites, including Your High's own site and came to the conclusion this business wasn't doing any particular harm, which is surely what the test any liberal should be applying in a situation like this. You say you're just representing your constituents. Would you be protesting if the shop in question had become a gay bookshop and parents were up in arms about that? If not, what's the difference? And you certainly haven't expressed any personal reservations about the protest - quite the contrary. I certainly wouldn't have any problem with you giving advice and information to your constituents on how to protest, but you're endorsing their protest, which is quite a different matter. I could also ask to what extent you're representing those constituents who might support the shop.You say that you would lose your seat because of the aggressive Tory press labelling you soft on drugs. Well, you could always try explaining your stance in leaflets you produce yourself. You could maybe call the leaflets something like 'Focus'.And finally, you say that being a local councillor isn't just about party politics. I agree. It's about standing up for values you believe in, not just acting as a megaphone for whichever group can shout loudest. I'm not convinced by what you've said that that standing up for liberal values is something that is terribly important to you.

What are Fathers for Justice for?

In the inevitable round of media interviews which has followed Fathers for Justice's rooftop protest on Harriet Harman's home, F4J founder Matt O'Connor was asked to name one piece of legislation which his group wished to repeal. Rather than point to anything specific, he instead called for a parents' bill of rights.

That leaves me none the wiser as to what the group is actually calling for. And looking at the group's website doesn't provide much of a clue either. Other than an ill-defined sense of grievance about the family courts system in this country, I couldn't see many specific proposals for change. They may be contained in the group's FAQs, but that's apparently available only to peole who join, which seems a bizarre way of operating.

In his interviews this morning, Mr O'Connor mentioned three areas he believed were wrong: the lack of access to their kids which many fathers experience as a result of decisions in the family courts, the operation of the CSA, and the recent debates over the role of fathers in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology legislation.

On the first of these, it is the case that some men (and, indeed, on occasion some women but they don't get mentioned very often by F4J) do get denied adequate access to their kids and feel a sense of injustice as a result. And there are certainly questions to be asked about the operation of the family courts system, as Lib Dem MP John Hemming has been highlighting in recent months. But issues relating to access and custody for children are notoriously complex and it is rather simplistic to suggest that it is just a case of the courts being biased against fathers.

Indeed, I would suggest that for every dad who feels aggrieved at not getting enough access to their kids, there are probably at least two who have either abandoned their children or are deservedly prevented from having access to them, for instance because of domestic abuse.

It's a similar story when you look at the CSA. Let's not forget that this was set up - with all-party support - to try and get fathers to contribute their fair share towards their kids. This was a noble aim, even if the actual operation of the CSA has been so disastrous that we'd actually be better off going back to more individualised support settlements through the courts. Most of the problems cited with the CSA are ones where fathers feel they've been asked to contribute too much towards their kids' upkeeps - perhaps because of new family responsibilities - which seems rather at odds with F4J's first area of grievance.

And as for Mr O'Connor claiming that the embryology bill outlawed the role of fathers, this is just nonsense. What the debates on the bill were actually about was ensuring that single women and lesbian couples were not discriminated against if they sought fertility treatment. That is completely different from tosh about 'outlawing fathers'.

Mr O'Connor also said that the lack of fathers as role models was having a devastating effect on society, a view which many people will have some sympathy with. But there are some problems with this. Firstly, as noted above, there are many fathers who abandon their children, either because they get a new family or simply because of fecklessness. As I've never heard F4J talk about responsible parenting and the problem of fathers choosing not to be around, I think this tends to undermine some of their other complaints.

And F4J also gives the impression that it believes mothers denying access to fathers is a reason for the increase in crime. Now, for a start, it may be that one reason there is difficulty over access is that the mother may have a new partner and thus there is still a father figure around. But even where there isn't, it's far too simplistic just to blame single parents for an increase in crime. Some single parents cope admirably well, others don't. Single parenthood is just one factor among many - with others including poverty, education, poor housing and substance abuse - which have an impact on whether a child turns to crime.

It seems to me that Fathers for Justice is an organisation motivated mainly by a sense of grievance among men, rather than by any specific policies it wishes to see implemented. I also think there's a streak of misogyny among many F4J activists. And I think its protests manage to alienate more people than it attracts to support the cause. I believe the organisation should have a long hard think about what it is actually for.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

An excellent candidate in Henley

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's just emailed me, letting me know that he thinks that our candidate in the Henley by-election, Stephen Kearney, is "excellent".

Come to think of it, Elizabeth Shenton was also described as "an excellent candidate" in Crewe and Nantwich. As was Ben Abbotts in Bromley. Oh, and Willie Rennie in Dunfermline and West Fife. I seem to recall that Parmjit Singh Gill in Leicester South, Jody Dunn in Hartlepool, Nicola Davies in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Sarah Teather in Brent East were all also excellent candidates.

In fact, the Lib Dems seem to have had a very long run of having only excellent candidates fight by-elections. We must be incredibly fortunate to have had such a good run. Not once has the party ever said: "OK, our candidate's a bit mediocre, but we want you to come and work for him/her anyway."

But for me this just raises the question of what an excellent candidate actually is. I have my own ideas about this, but I'd be interested to see what other people have to say, so please comment and let me know what you think makes an excellent election candidate.

Zimbabwe: what will it take for Africa to intervene?

Today's news that British and American diplomats have been attacked by Robert Mugabe's thugs and yesterday's that opposition leader Morgan Tsangvirai was detained indicates just how desperate the mad tyrant is to maintain his hold on power in Zimbabwe.

This is a man who has run his country into the ground, is starving his own people, kills, tortures and beats political opponents and now attacks foreign diplomats.

It is a shame that the Bush/Blair misadventure in Iraq has given such a bad name to the idea of liberal intervention (the idea that humanitarian abuses can justify the use of military force to topple a tyrant). It seems to me that Zimbabwe ought to be a prime candidate for such intervention.

However, it's highly unlikely that such intervention will take place. Firstly, it would have to be done under the auspices of the UN and there is no sign that it is willing to get involved in such a way. Secondly, if such military action did take place, it could not be led by western powers such as Britain or the USA, otherwise there would be an uproar from African nations, with justifiable accusations of colonialism.

Any action would have to be led by African nations themselves, following the example of Tanzania's removal of Idi Amin from power in Uganda. African countries should realise that regimes like Mugabe's reinforce the (inaccurate) image of Africa as a whole as a 'basket case'. It is in their interest to remove Mugabe from power as soon as possible. However, many other African countries still bizarrely see Mugabe as a hero, for his role in ending British colonial rue in his country.

Now, maybe the run-off election later this month will succeed in removing Mugabe. Maybe, but I'm not confident, given the brutality his regime has shown in suppressing opposition to him. But if Mugabe is not removed by peaceful means, the question then arises: what will it actually take for other African countries to take action?

A disgrace to a liberal party

When I saw Jayne McCoy's blog entry earlier on today, my initial reaction was exactly the same as Liberal Provocateur's.

I thought I'd check out Your High's website before commenting and it seems to sell "the finest array of herbal highs,bongs, pipes, smoking paraphernalia and other alternative lifestyle accessories."

It seems therefore that the shop is not selling anything illegal. If they were, that would be a matter for the police to enforce, not for political campaigners to poke their noses into.

So why the hell are Cllr McCoy and Tom Brake MP campaigning against the shop? Presumably they are doing so because they believe the people running the shop are promoting the use of cannabis.

There's only one problem with this, though: it is actually Lib Dem policy to support the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Tom Brake and Cllr McCoy are therefore campaigning against a perfectly legal business, selling things associated with a trade which we would also want to see legalised. There's no mention of any particular harm done by the shop in Cllr McCoy's blog, so it seems her opposition is based solely on the 'yuck' factor.

This seems to me to be exceptionally small-minded, populist, illiberal nonsense. Tom Brake and Cllr McCoy are a disgrace to a liberal party and should be ashamed of themselves.

UPDATE: In the light of Chris Black's misunderstanding of my post, I should point out that I believe that Brake and McCoy do have the right to protest about the shop. I just think the subject of their protest is illiberal rubbish.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Start lobbing those grenades!

Hmmm, I see I've made it into this week's Lib Dem Voice Golden Dozen for my posting on the Crewe and Nantwich by-election campaign, a post which was critical of my own party.

The only previous time I (sort of) featured, it was also for a posting critical of my own party.

The moral of this is clear: if you want to get your blog noticed, just start lobbing a few grenades against your own side. The buggers will soon start paying attention!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Why Hillary won't be the Veep

The final curtain is about to come down on Hillary Clinton's doomed bid for the White House, with South Dakota and Montana the somewhat unlikely venues to switch out the lights.

And it seems that Hillary may be angling for the number two spot on the ballot, saying she's "open" to the prospect of being Obama's vice-presidential running mate. On the face of it, that seems a good idea, uniting the two combatants and pooling their undoubted talents against John McCain.

Unfortunately for her, I don't think there's a great likelihood of that happening. For a start, timing matters in politics and in this case Hillary's is lousy. Had she made these noises a month ago, when Barack seemed destined to get the nomination but it wasn't yet totally certain, she might well have got the V-P slot. But with it coming now, with Hillary's defeat all but confirmed, her bargaining power is zilch.

Also, Hillary doesn't really bring anything to the table in electoral terms. As a Senator for New York and someone who grew up in Obama's home state of Illinois - both already strongly Democratic states - she wouldn't bring any key swing states with her. OK, having the Clinton name on the ballot paper might be enough to swing Arkansas back into the Democratic column, but that hardly counts as a key state.

Nor would she be a key factor in attracting votes from women, for the simple reason that women are already more inclined to vote Democrat. In every single presidential election since 1980, women have been more likely to support the Democratic candidate than men. And in an Obama v McCain contest, I don't see that women have any particular reason to switch to the Republicans this time. And the other key element of Hillary's Democratic coalition, white working class voters, are unlikely to go Republican in large numbers, except maybe if racial politics rears its ugly head.

There's also the problem that the sole job of the Vice-Presidential nominee is to make the Presidential candidate look good. Given that Hillary is still a formidable politician, Obama might well have a nagging fear that Hillary could outshine him on the campaign trail.

No, Hillary is a busted flush as far as as the vice-presidency is concerned. I suspect Obama is far more likely to go for someone like Senator Jim Webb from Virginia, who represents a key battleground state.

But there is a job that Hillary could do in an Obama administration. Throughout her doomed campaign, she's been boasting about her experience, particularly in relation to foreign policy. So, what about Hillary Rodham Clinton as the next US Secretary of State?

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