Thursday, 31 July 2008

Black is right

Having blogged the other day about how the Scottish Lib Dem leadership candidates are not making the best use of the internet in their campaigns, it's good to see that at least one Lib Dem politician does have a good understanding of how the internet is affecting political life. Peter Black's article on the subject is well worth reading.

Ross Finnie answers my questions

This is the response I've now had from Ross Finnie in response to the questions I submitted to all three leadership candidates a few weeks ago:

Hi Bernard

Thank you for your email with your 10 Leadership election questions which I have answered in the order in which you set them.

Vision

First, Scots must believe that their individual freedoms are being protected, and those freedoms embrace not only human rights and civil liberties but also educational opportunity, a healthier society and freedom from poverty and deprivation. I believe these to be fundamental values in a Liberal Democratic society.

Second, individual citizens must become aware that it is essential they are part of sustainable communities where economic development provides sufficient job opportunities whilst at the same time we are protecting the environment for future generations.

Third, a Liberal society is a fairer society, where Government bears down on intolerance, discrimination, health inequalities, deprivation, a fear of crime and manifest injustice.

Campaigning

I want fundamentally to change the way in which we project the Party. This will have a clear impact on campaigning. In this regard, I believe, our fundamental weakness has been the failure to develop a political narrative which would bring cohesion to the way in which we project Liberal Democracy. Prior to this election I was engaged in developing a narrative and if elected I would, as a matter of urgency, convene a group to develop our narrative. From the narrative, we would then develop our key themes and having got buy-in fro the Party it would be vital that we stuck to the narrative, stuck to the core message and in every communication convey to a wider electorate the relevance of Liberal democrat values and policies to their lives.

Technology

I am clear that we are not using new technology effectively and again as a matter of urgency I would wish to draw on the talents within the Party to completely revamp how we embrace new technology for campaigning.

Relationships

I believe it imperative that we improve our relationships with outside bodies and in addition to the Leader having a more structured programme of engagement. If I was leader I would want to make clear to every spokesperson that part of their remit was to engage with those in business, in the voluntary sector and the mutual / co-operative movements amongst others. The task of that engagement would be to deploy the relevant part of the narrative again to persuade them of the relevance of liberal democracy to their particular concerns – but also to draw on the wealth of ideas and experience to be found in Scotland’s civic sector.

The Federal Party

Relations with the Federal party have always to be improved, but we have to recognise that this is a two way street. For example, I have always made it my business to attend the Federal conference in the Autumn as a way of trying to engage with a wider range of people in the Federal Party. If elected leader I would want to extend that process and, on the basis of better relationships on a personal level, form the basis of a better relationship between the two parties.

Scottish Parliament

I am keen to see the outcome of the Calman Commission, but on the basis of the Steel Commission’s report I am clear that the major area for an increase in powers is over taxation. I totally support fiscal federalism (although I wish we could find a better phrase) because I think this would give the Parliament more responsibility in financial terms and greater flexibility in how it used the taxation instruments for the benefit of the Scottish economy, people and environment.

Council Tax

I am not opposed to local councils having access to a wider range of tax raising powers and believe it would be helpful if they raised a higher proportion of their finance. That would have to be balanced, however, against any impression of over-taxation and would have to be seen in the context of our tax proposals at both Federal and a Scottish level.

Disengagement

I believe that individuals will engage if they think the political leader and the political party can be trusted - and that our policies are relevant to their needs. It follows, therefore, that if elected, a key task would be to project myself and the Party in a way which earned trust and to engage with the Party in developing and defining its policies to make them relevant to the needs of the people of Scotland.

Party Engagement

I would want to be the Leader of the Scottish Party as a whole. The Party will not advance unless all of the elements - the individual members, the local parties, the youth organisations, the local councillors, the Westminster and Holyrood parliamentarians and the MEP - all have participated in the scheme and genuinely believe that they are part of a team, campaigning with people full of enthusiasm to drive the Party forward.

Binge Drinking
I believe the key elements in addressing binge drinking to be the following:

a) an improvement in the education delivered in schools on the impact of alcohol and the management of drinking alcohol;
b) as the recent examples of pursuing test purchasing have shown, the current law against those who sell alcohol to under age persons must be more rigorously enforced;
c) the law must also be more effectively employed to prevent cheap offers which induce young people to break the law; and
d) the specific measures have to be allied to the general trust of providing support to those at an early age who become addicted to alcohol, and a change in the law on drink-driving to lower the level at which a prosecution can be secured.


I'll have a think about the answers from all three candidates and decide who I'll be voting for in the next few days.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

I don't wish to sound critical...

but Ross Finnie, do you really think that having a long and rambling interview in the leadership election section of your MSP website is the best way to convince people that you have the vision and the skills needed to put the Scottish Lib Dem case across clearly and concisely?

Don't get me wrong, much of what you're saying in it is quite sensible, but I doubt very much that too many people will read right the way through to the end of it.

I suppose I shouldn't really be critical of Ross on this, as at least he has a website listed on the Scottish Lib Dem site, unlike fellow leadership contender Mike Rumbles. And you only discover that Mike does actually have a website if you do a Google search and go as far as the third page of results.

Incidentally, when I did a Google search a few weeks ago on all three candidates, I didn't find anything for either Ross or Mike, and I didn't see Ross's site listed on the Scottish Lib Dem website, so I don't know how long they've actually been in existence (in Mike's case it seems only in the last few weeks, while Ross's has stories dating back to last year.)

In contrast, Tavish Scott has at least had a website for a while, even if it is filled mainly with biographical information and the links are almost wholly Shetland-based (not even a link to the Scottish Lib Dem website, Tavish? Tut, tut).

But a rather more surprising omission is that his site doesn't yet link to his new leadership campaign website. This is important, as Tavish's own site is listed on the Scottish Lib Dem site and comes up as number one if you do a Google search on his name. But the leadership campaign site doesn't yet feature anywhere on the first 100 Google results, so people looking for info about him as a candidate aren't going to find it unless they already know where to look (I only knew the leadership site existed because I got a leaflet on behalf of Tavish's campaign today).

However, I would say that both his personal site and the leadership campaign site are dull both in look and content, a criticism I would also level at Mike Rumbles.

I must say that I find all this rather disappointing so far. This is a perfect opportunity for all three leadership candidates to demonstrate that they understand the importance of web campaigning, but so far their efforts are rather dismal. Where are the Youtube videos, the campaign buttons, the candidate's personal blogs? Why is there such a poor level of web design, which I hope wouldn't be tolerated if it appeared on a Focus leaflet? Where is there any sign so far that any of the candidates really has any idea about how to use the web to advance their campaigns?

Come on guys, I'm sure you can all do much better than this.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Brown isn't the new John Major

I've just watched Newsnight and its analysis of Gordon Brown's leadership woes. Michael Crick's piece focused on four potential candidates who might stand should Brown quit or be forced from office - David Miliband, Alan Johnson, Jack Straw or James Purnell. They also had Polly Toynbee saying that Brown should go now, while Steve Richards was saying that although Brown's been a rather poor Prime Minister, now wasn't the time to get rid of him.

However, all this assumes that Brown will either willingly give up the job he's craved all his life or that he can be forced to step down. I think both are highly unlikely.

Let's look at the latter first. What would it take to force him out? Well, under Labour Party rules, a leadership election when the party is in government can only take place if the party conference votes to hold an election. I really can't see the Labour Party being sufficiently panicked to go down that route.

Failing that, it is possible that Brown could be forced out if enough backbench MPs put their heads above the parapet, or if there was a mass resignation from the Cabinet. But that sort of bloodbath doesn't strike me as being a good basis for any new leader to take over and lead the party to recovery, or at least to a respectable showing at the subsequent general election.

So, could Brown be persuaded to stand down of his own accord? I doubt it. There are many similarities between Brown's government and John Major's administration - the lack of vision, the widespread feeling that the Prime Minister is out of his depth, the economic problems, the belief that the party has been in power too long, the sense that there's another political calamity always waiting around the corner, the loss of safe seats at by-elections, the feeling that no matter what happens the governing party is doomed to defeat.

But there is an important respect in which Brown differs from Major. In 1995, Major at least had the courage to put his own leadership on the line when he launched his 'put up or shut up' leadership election. Does anyone think Brown has the bottle to do anything like that? I thought not. This is the man who, only a year ago, engineered his way to an unopposed coronation to succeed Tony Blair, ensuring that even the token left-wing challenge to him was blocked. He's not a man who's particularly comfortable facing a challenge.

But even if Brown could be magically prised away from the leadership, would that make much difference to the Labour Party? Probably not. In 1995, Major faced a clear alternative in the shape of John Redwood and his aggressively Thatcherite Euro-sceptic programme. But none of the potential contenders to succeeed Brown offer much difference. Although Brown is a bit more unpopular than his party, what's remarkable about the Labour Party is that on the whole there aren't any great ideological divisions there, but nor are there any ideas about what the party could do differently. Sticking a new label on the tin ain't gonna make people buy it if there's a nasty smell coming from within. And the only smell coming from the Labour tin is one of decay.

Farewell to Russell Johnston

I met Russell Johnston only on a few occasions - I arrived in Inverness just a year before he retired as MP for the area. However, he is someone I had a great deal of respect for and his passing yesterday leaves the Lib Dems, the Highlands and the wider world much poorer.

I suspect almost anyone who ever met him would describe Russell as a true gentleman. He was also a Liberal to his core and a passionate pro-European and internationalist, as shown by his work in later years for the Council of Europe.

I recall hearing him speak only once, at the adoption meeting for his successor as the Lib Dem candidate in Inverness, Stephen Gallacher. However, I have read a collection of his speeches and, although that can only give a flavour of what a speech must be like to hear, it was clear that Russell was always an eloquent and insightful speaker and a real champion of liberal values.

Like anyone, he wasn't without his faults, and in political terms the local party organisation certainly withered on his watch to such an extent that by the time he stepped down in 1997, it would have been almost impossible for any Lib Dem candidate to have successfully defended the seat.

But Russell deserves to be remembered as someone who gave a great deal to his constituents and was successful in pressing for a wide range of improvements to the Highlands. He will be much missed by a lot of people.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Tavish Scott answers my questions

In response to the list of questions which I sent to each of the three leadership contenders for the Scottish Lib Dems, I've now had a reply from Tavish Scott. This is what he has to say:

1) What is your vision for a liberal Scotland?

It is hard to better the vision set out in the preamble to the party’s constitution with its call for a fair, free and open society.

I want to see a Scotland where power is devolved to the lowest practicable level, where nobody lives in poverty, and where the rich diversity of people who make up Scotland’s 21st century population are able to work together to harness their great potential to build stronger communities at local and national levels.

I also want to see Scotland continuing to punch above its weight as a centre of innovation, with better use being made of the ideas created in Scotland to create prosperity for all. For that to happen, we need to give a high priority to education and we need to support and encourage new industries as they develop. I particularly want Scotland to face up to the massive environmental challenges the world faces and see them not just as challenges, but as opportunities for long term sustainable development where Scotland can lead the World.

2) In what ways do we need to improve our campaigning, in particular for regional list and Scotland-wide elections?

We need to campaign harder at every level, but particularly with the media. Local campaigning is an area of strength. We have built up the party from local power bases, building support from the service our Councillors, MSPs and MPs provide for their local communities. But the Scotland wide media has been more difficult. I am determined we do that. Our national media profile must be higher.

3) Are we making enough use of new technology in our campaigning and how can this be improved?

We must make more use of the new technologies and keep up-to-date with many in our party who are experts.

4) How can we develop our relationships with business people, people in the voluntary sector and people involved in the mutual/co-operative movement?

Nothing beats Councillors, MSPs, MPs and MEPs getting out there and meeting people and building personal relationships with them.

5) Are there any improvements we need to make to the relationship between the Scottish Lib Dems and the federal party?

The relationship in a federal party is stronger when people participate. We learn much about for example new campaigning from the experience of others across the UK. And the party in London learned about how the Scottish party handled government both at local and national levels. It’s a two way street but we all have to walk down it and debate the issues that confront us whether we are in Inverness or Islington.

6) In the Lib Dems, we often talk about ensuring the Scottish Parliament has more powers. What additional powers would you like to see the Scottish Parliament having?

The most important change I want to see made is the transfer from Westminster to Holyrood of the majority of tax raising powers, so that Holyrood is made more accountable to the electorate, raising what it spends.

The Steel Commission, which I sit on, looked at a wide range of other powers which could be devolved. I start from the standpoint that powers should be devolved unless there is a very good reason not to devolve them, as is the case, for example with defence and the bulk of foreign affairs. Areas where I see particularly strong grounds for further devolution include energy policy, marine policy right out to the UK’s territorial limits, broadcasting, the civil service and, of course, control over the Scottish Parliament and how MSPs are elected.

7) We are committed to replacing the council tax with a local income tax. Should we be thinking about whether we should give local authorities the right to raise revenue from a range of locally-set taxes?

Yes, we should consider building on our settled party policy of a local income tax. The proposal to allow businesses to come together in an area, propose a tax to be levied on business for specific service improvements, and then test its acceptability in a local yes/no vote again of those businesses is good. I am interested in these kinds of ideas.

8) A lot of people are disengaged from the political process, as evidenced by the rather paltry turnouts for elections. How do we reach out to those people and convince them that politics matters to their lives?

First and foremost by our elected members making a difference to people’s lives, as our MSPs did when working in government in the first two Scottish Parliaments, as our Councillors do when working in Council administrations and as individual elected members do when serving their local communities. We need to get better at blowing our own trumpets so that disengaged people see that politics matters and affects their lives. But we also need to refresh and update our policies to make sure they remain relevant.

9) If elected leader, how will you involve the party's members and supporters in our policy-making and campaigning?

The party conference remains the place where the party as a whole debates policy, and I would want to encourage as many members as possible to take part in it. But the Policy Committee is where the hard detailed work is done on policy development and I would want to encourage party members and local parties to feed their ideas to the Committee, and so help their work. I would also want policy forums across Scotland and above all feedback to members – something we are not good at! There’s lots of expertise out there - in health, education or transport – let’s use it.

10) We have quite rightly attacked the SNP government for the authoritarian nature of their proposals to tackle binge drinking. How do you think the Lib Dems ought to tackle the issue?
Better education of the dangers of the misuse of alcohol has to be a priority, not just in schools but also in the wider community. And we have to make sure that the current licensing laws are better enforced. But draconian rules which the SNP propose, which would stop a 20 year old student buying a bottle of wine in an off-licence, are wrong and won’t work. The lesson of prohibition in the US is that unjust draconian measures don’t work.


Now, over to you Mr Finnie.

Monday, 21 July 2008

The madness of Ming Campbell

I am grateful to Stephen Tall over at Lib Dem Voice for alerting me to Ming Campbell's views on an independence referendum for Scotland.

Now, there is no doubt that Ming's position is the correct constitutional one. If it came down to it, a party conference vote would not be binding on the MSPs, who could choose to ignore the expressed wishes of their own party and vote against a referendum if that's what their consciences demanded.

But as a recipe for political success, it strikes me as utter folly and madness. I really don't see that creating a feeling of resentment among your own party activists by demonstrating utter contempt for their views has much to commend it as a strategy. People work hard to help get MSPs elected and I doubt too many party members would be willing to bust a gut for people who just ignore their views when it comes to the crunch.

And if the MSPs did decide to vote against a referendum after the party had endorsed it, they would be seen as being doubly undemocratic. They would be seen as going against their party on an issue where they would also be seen as denying the people of Scotland a say on their future. That would be an act of political lunacy.

I predict that if the MSPs did adopt such a line, in the next Scottish Parliament it wouldn't be 16 of them making a decision - it would be less than half that number.

Ming's intervention on this subject has been cack-handed in the extreme and won't have done his side of the argument any favours. And I say that as someone who is not convinced that there needs to be an immediate referendum, but thinks that it should wait until there are concrete proposals on the table for both independence and an enhanced devolution settlement. Ming has actually made it more likely, not less, that the Scottish Lib Dem conference will vote to support a referendum.

Mike Rumbles answers my questions

Mike Rumbles wins the award for being quick off the mark in response to the questions I sent to the leadership candidates yesterday. Here's the reply I had from him:

Dear Bernard,
Thanks for your e-mail. If I can start to tackle the questions you raise in reverse order:
1. The answer to the real problems we face over alcohol is to enforce the laws we already have properly. Not one person has been prosecuted for selling alcohol to someone already under the influence of drink. There have been only 70 prosecutions for selling alcohol to under 18's. We need to enforce our laws but also to address the issues of boredom and inactivity which many of our young people face through better support of youth workers and others in the voluntary sector.
2. This is a major issue for me. Our party members at Conference are supposed to make Party policy - the leadership should lead the way in it's implementation as best it can. Our party conferences have turned into rally's and we have unanimous votes on motherhood and apple pie. I want to engage with our members and ensure that it really means something to be a member of our party. Major and controversial decisions should once again be made by our members at conference.
3. We need to reach out to people to show that they can and do influence the decisions that are being made on their behalf. We can start this process by engaging in meaningful changes to the way in which we engage with the members of our own party - see my previous comments.
4. I think we will have a major task in scrapping the Council Tax and replacing it with a LOCAL income tax (Not the national tax of the SNP). I see no reason why in the future we cannot go further down this route but I would say that we need to tackle this issue first.
5. I am different to the other candidates in as much as I would like to see Scotland in control of the economic levers of power. We need to be in charge of our own economic affairs. A Scotland running it's own affairs within the Union.
6. There are huge improvements which are needed in our relationship with the Federal Party. I am not at all convinced that we are truly a 'Federal Party' - it seems to me that we have a Scottish Party, a Welsh Party and an English Party - pretending to be the Federal Party. This must change.
7. We need to spend a great deal of time on this issue. We do not operate and mustn't try to operate in a vacuum. We need to engage with organisations in every sector including those which you mention if we are to be effective.
8. We are only starting to make use of technology effectively. Much more needs to be done. Even within our own party membership, only 50% or so of our members have an e-mail address which we can access.
9. We have always 'specialised' in targeting first past the post seats. While we cannot abandon this we do need to campaign at a national level across the country. The best way of doing this is actually to have a worthwhile message for people to vote for us. People across Scotland must see us as relevant and they will vote for us. My own heart sank last year on the day before polling when the BBC message to the nation from us was that we wanted to see an extra days physical activity for children. Never again must this be allowed to happen. We are the only party which can offer what most Scots want. Control over our own affairs within the Union. We should get this message across!
10. My vision for a liberal Scotland is highlighted by my 6 point programme which will be in my election address going out to members with the ballot paper on the 31st July. I will also be sending out an e-mail at around this time with much greater detail of my programme attached.
I hope my response has been helpful to you. Mike

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Read all about it!

Hooray! The People's Republic is back! My fears that there'd been some sort of bloody coup there are unfounded.

To celebrate, I'm going to take up Alix's book meme. If you want to do it as well, just copy the list of books, bold those you have read and italicize those you intend to read. In my case, because I can't work out how to do underlines or strikethrough in Blogger, I'm going to put the books I love in red and the books I have no intention of ever reading in green. There aren't any books I really hated on the list.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 The Harry Potter Series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible*
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare *
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

* I can't claim to have read the whole of The Bible or The Complete Works of Shakespeare, but I think I have read enough of both for them to qualify.

Questions on the leadership election

I have not yet blogged much about the Scottish Lib Dem leadership, mainly becauseI'm yet to make up my mind who to vote for.

To help me decide, I've emailed the three candidates with a list of questions and told them that I intend to post their answers here.

The questions I've asked them are:
1) What is your vision for a liberal Scotland?
2) In what ways do we need to improve our campaigning, in particular for regional list and Scotland-wide elections?
3) Are we making enough use of new technology in our campaigning and how can this be improved?
4) How can we develop our relationships with business people, people in the voluntary sector and people involved in the mutual/co-operative movement?
5) Are there any improvements we need to make to the relationship between the Scottish Lib Dems and the federal party?
6) In the Lib Dems, we often talk about ensuring the Scottish Parliament has more powers. What additional powers would you like to see the Scottish Parliament having?
7) We are committed to replacing the council tax with a local income tax. Should we be thinking about whether we should give local authorities the right to raise revenue from a range of locally-set taxes?
8) A lot of people are disengaged from the political process, as evidenced by the rather paltry turnouts for elections. How do we reach out to those people and convince them that politics matters to their lives?
9) If elected leader, how will you involve the party's members and supporters in our policy-making and campaigning?
10) We have quite rightly attacked the SNP government for the authoritarian nature of their proposals to tackle binge drinking. How do you think the Lib Dems ought to tackle the issue?

I'll keep you posted with what answers I get.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Reducing the tax burden - can Clegg make it happen?

Yesterday saw the launch of the Lib Dem 'values and vision' paper Make It Happen. Much of this is very good stuff and is the sort of thing I was wanting to see when I said that the Lib Dems needed to develop a narrative. It's a good first step, but we need to integrate it into our whole campaigning approach if it's to make any impact.

A couple of minor quibbles first. Like Jonathan Calder, I'm not a big fan of the name - it doesn't convey a distinctive liberal approach to me. I also agree with him that the tax proposals may have got things backwards. And I was also slightly startled that the first sentence of the document is: "Families are over-stretched." Are single people not feeling the pinch?

Much of the reaction to the paper has centred on the aspiration to lower the overall tax burden. Now, I certainly don't have a problem with this in an ideological sense; indeed, the emphasis on reducing taxation for lower and middle income people has a long liberal tradition behind it, as does the emphasis on shifting taxation onto wealth and pollution. Lloyd George, for instance, had proposals for land taxation, an area I think the party could certainly look at again.

My concern is whether Nick Clegg can actually achieve that aim of lowering the overall burden of taxation. Firstly, there is the difficulty that the Lib Dems believe in a radical decentralisation of power, to give people the chance to decide for themselves how their areas should be run. If that's to mean anything at all, it has to be the case that communities should be able to decide for themselves whether to spend more on schools, hospitals and transport. Although I think that such decentralisation is likely to mean services will be run better and more efficiently, the possibility remains that the overall tax burden could go up as a result - and there wouldn't be anything that Nick Clegg or any other Prime Minister could do about it.

Secondly, there's also the issue of whether the current economic situation would allow for a reduction in the tax burden, at least in the short to medium term. With public borrowing reaching record highs and even the government admitting that the deficit is expected to reach a whopping £43 billion this year (a figure I expect will be revised upwards in the autumn pre-budget statement), even if Clegg can find £20 billion in savings and waste, that would still leave a big hole to fill. And given that the economy is continuing to slow down, the situation is likely to get worse. And all that's before you consider that every single opposition party always pledges to cut down on waste and bureaucracy, but finds it rather more difficult to do in government.

Indeed, let us not forget that even Mrs Thatcher, for all her rhetoric about rolling back the state, actually increased the tax burden. In 1978, the last full year before the Tories took office, the tax burden was estimated at 37.37% of GDP. It rose to 44.08%in 1984, before dropping back slightly to 43% in 1989, Thatcher's last full year in office. Even by the time the Tories left office in 1997, the tax burden was estimated to be 37.9% - higher than it had been in 1978! Under Blair and Brown, the overall tax burden has actually risen only slightly, to 38.1% of GDP in 2007-08, according to the CBI. That indicates to me that promises to reduce the overall tax burden are far easier to make than to deliver.

I would also ask whether the pledge to reduce overall taxation is a sensible political strategy. While it might well appeal to some wavering Tories, I wonder whether it is likely to have the same appeal to former Labour supporters, who are possibly more likely to come over to us as a result of the chaos of the current government. I'm not convinced that targeting previously Tory voters will have much effect when the Tories are riding so high.

Overall, while reducingthe overall burden of taxation is an admirable aim in itself, Nick Clegg has a lot of convincing to do if he is to make it happen.

The world's greatest living Canadian

The queue snaked all the way down below Edinburgh Castle, right the way along to Princes Street. I had come down from Inverness and some people next to me in the queue had come up from Leeds. There were some people who must have been in their 70s, as well as a few who might have been yet to reach double figures. There were men in suits, and I also saw a guy with a pink mohican.

The reason for such a diverse crowd? The world's greatest living Canadian, Mr Leonard Cohen.

His gig at Edinburgh Castle on Wednesday was really fantastic. Although Cohen is now in his 70s, he's lost none of his ability to wrench meaning from every word he sings.

The concert got under way with Dance Me To The End Of Love, which I think is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. He followed that with his bleak vision of The Future, a song written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall which has proven to be unfortunately prophetic ("I've seen the future, brother, it is murder"). Then came his powerful Everybody Knows. Other highlights of the first half included an excellently understated Bird On The Wire and concluded with his superb song Anthem.

And the second half was just as good - Suzanne, Democracy and First We Take Manhattan were all brilliant. His reference to his "Golden Voice" on Tower Of Song brought a cheer from the crowd, and there were even a few wolf whistles for him on I'm Your Man, not bad for a 73-year-old!

Cohen showed just how powerful and yet delicate his voice can be with his signature song Hallelujah and proceedings eventually came to an appropriate end with the lively Closing Time.

With a lifetime of songs to choose from, there were always going to be some notable absentees, and none of Coming Back To You, Chelsea Hotel, Light As The Breeze (surely the best song ever written about cunnilingus?) or The Story Of Isaac made it in.

And although the rain began to come down in the last half hour or so, I'm sure that mattered not at all to everybody there. This was a superb gig and it was a truly memorable occasion. This is the only time I've ever managed to see Cohen live, so for me it was a unique privilege to be there.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Tom Brake, Dwain Chambers and drugs hypocrisy

I must say that, until alerted to it by my brother over the weekend, I had missed the fact that last week Lib Dem MP Tom Brake had introduced a 10-minute rule bill in the House of Commons to ban the sale of cannabis seeds. For some reason, it didn't exactly get much coverage up here.

Also over the weekend, convicted athletics drug user Dwain Chambers won the British Olympic 100m trial and, if his legal bid to overturn the British Olympic Association's lifetime ban on drugs cheats is successful this week, he will now be able to represent this country in next month's Beijing Olympics.

Two unconnected events? Well, not entirely. I think both show up the hypocrisy of much of society's attitude towards drugs.

Let's deal with Tom Brake first. I have blogged before about his protest against a shop in his constituency which sells all sorts of legal drugs paraphernalia, including cannabis seeds. This latest move is clearly a continuation of that illiberal nonsense.

Brake's majority over the Conservatives in his Carshalton and Wallington seat at the last General Elecion was 1068, down from 4,500 in 2001. His constituency must therefore be considered under threat. It seems to me that Brake is adopting a populist "Woo, drugs, scary" line in order to try and appeal to Conservative voters. The trouble with that is that he may alienate people in his constituency who take a more liberal line, as I'm sure many do.

Brake is therefore proposing to ban something solely so he can appear 'tough on drugs' to a small minority of his constituents who really care about this issue. Now, as a liberal, I have great suspicion of people who want to ban things and believe that there should be clear and direct evidence that something is causing significant harm before it is banned. I really don't think that such evidence exists in the case of cannabis seeds. I also think that any harm there might be is likely to be far less than with many perfectly legal drugs such as alcohol. I share Gavin Aubrey's concerns about Brake's stance, especially in the light of Lib Dem policy on drugs and the position that Brake holds within the parliamentary party. Also, although Brake's bill stands no chance of success, I suspect it would be completely unworkable anyway - a Google search on "cannabis seeds" gives more than 50,000 hits, for example.

So how does this relate to the Dwain Chambers situation? Well, again, the question needs to be asked what harm to others Chambers has done with his misuse of drugs. Yes, it might well have allowed him to gain a competitive advantage over fellow athletes who weren't taking such drugs.

But the whole regime regarding drugs testing in sport is an absolute mess. It's not uncommon for sports reports to mention that an athlete has had to have a painkilling injection such as cortisone before competing. Given that injured athletes probably wouldn't compete without such injections, why is cortisone not considered to be a performance-enhancing drug when substances like ephedrine and stanozolol are? And what's the difference between some drugs and the perfectly legal dietary supplements that many athletes take? And what do we actually mean when we say that a substance provides an 'unfair' advantage?

Now, I'm not suggesting that athletes should be able to take whatever substances they like, although that is a position that some people adopt. Nor am I suggesting that every single substance you can think of ought to be legalised - I don't think it would be a terribly good idea for people to be able to carry round polonium-210 with impunity, for instance. But I am saying that both drugs in society and drugs in sport should both be subject to clear evidential requirements that their use directly harms others.

I'm also not saying that Chambers should be able to go to the Olympics - as Stephen Glenn rightly says, he knew that he was breaking the rules as they now stand and I don't think that a lifetime ban from the Olympics is an unreasonable sanction.

However, both Brake and Chambers illustrate the need for a complete rethink on our policy towards drugs - based on a rational approach, not just knee-jerk reactions. Until we do so, our current arrangements will remain a mess.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Beer we go again

What is it about booze that causes so many otherwise rational people to lose their critical faculties completely?

I'm not talking about drinking the stuff, but people's reactions to news stories about booze, as I see that some people are getting themselves worked up about the introduction of what is claimed to be the UK's strongest ever beer.

For a start, at 12% ABV it's nowhere near the strongest beer ever launched in the UK. A quick Google search brought up this item about a beer launched a few years ago which was 23%. I also have memories of trying out a beer a few years ago which was 14%, so it's absolute nonsense to claim this is the strongest beer ever in the UK.

And the owners of BrewDog, the brewery which has produced this new beer, are absolutely right to say that it's not going to tempt binge drinkers. Why pay £4 for a bottle of beer when you can spend the same or less on a similar strength bottle of wine and get at least half as much liquid again as you'd get with the beer?

This beer is only going to tempt people like me who like sampling different beers and do so in a (more or less) responsible way. I look forward to trying Tokyo at some stage.

And you know what? Even if it proves to be the best beer in the world, given its price tag I doubt I'd have more than one in a single session. Associating Scotland's thriving microbrewing industry with binge drinking is just hysterical nonsense.

Lib Dems join coalition

Highland Council has a new ruling administration, following agreement between the Independents, the Lib Dems and the Labour party to form a new coalition.

I have to say I have some mixed feelings about this. I'm glad that the Lib Dems now have the opportunity to put their ideas into effect on the council and I'm delighted that we are at least making noises about decentralising the way the council operates. It was overly centralised when I was on the council and things have got far worse since then.

However, I do wonder about how exactly the coalition will work in progress. The problem about the Indies being a disorganised rabble, which was central to the difficulties the previous Ind/SNP administration experienced, is not going to go away. I'm also not sure about how having a separate convener and political leader of the council is going to operate - it seems a recipe for future confusion if you ask me.

There's also the role of the opposition SNP group to consider. I suspect they're quite relieved not to have to take some of the difficult budgetary decisions which will be coming up over the next few years, but that's not going to stop them stirring up trouble. And an SNP councillor of my acquaintance admitted to me recently that they're looking forward to spending most of their time campaigning against Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander over the next couple of years.

So, I wish my Lib Dem colleagues on the council well, but don't imagine that things are going to be easy.

Monday, 7 July 2008

The Beeb's news values

According to the BBC News website, and to Radio Five Live, the most important thing happening in the world at the moment is Gordon Brown telling people to stop wasting food.

More important, apparently, than a suicide bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul which has killed at least 28 people.

That whirring noise you can hear is the sound of Lord Reith spinning in his grave.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

What is the point of The Scotsman?

If you want to know why The Scotsman has lost so many readers over the last few years, just take a look at their coverage of Nicol Stephen's resignation.

The Scotsman used to be a paper which was largely supportive of a liberal standpoint. But not for a long time. Apparently the Scottish Lib Dems are "in disarray" and "in turmoil" because of Nicol's decision to quit. I was under the impression that this was a principled but difficult decision by a politician to put his family first, but you won't find any word of praise from The Scotsman for his actions.

I would also question their description of Mike Rumbles as an "independence-minded" MSP. Independently-minded perhaps, but to use the description they have done gives the impression that he supports separating Scotland from the rest of the UK, which as far as I'm aware he certainly doesn't.

As so often, The Herald covers things better with no less than three articles on the resignation, and I think provides a fairly balanced approach.

Note to The Scotsman: must do better.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Blimey! Nicol quits

Another day, another Scottish political leader resigns.

But unlike Wendy Alexander's departure at the weekend, Nicol Stephen is going for entirely honourable reasons. It is refreshing to have a political leader who recognises that the needs of his family come first. If doing the job of party leader was, as he says, putting a lot of strain on his family, then he has done entirely the right thing to put their needs first.

However, I do wonder whether he would have made the same decision had the Scottish Lib Dems still been in government. Being in opposition can be a real grind and doesn't have the compensation of being able to get things done in any substantial way.

I wish him well for the future and also thank him for the leadership he has shown over the past few years. Although the Scottish Lib Dems had a somewhat disappointing result in last year's Scottish parliamentary elections, I don't think that was down to Nicol. Indeed, I think people generally liked and respected Nicol as a person. And to keep Scottish Lib Dem losses down to just one seat last May at a time when the SNP was riding a wave of popularity was not too bad a result.

Thoughts now also turn to who should be Nicol's successor. I voted for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine MSP Mike Rumbles last time and would certainly consider doing so again if he puts his hat in the ring again.

However, I think there is another candidate who would potentially make a better leader. Tavish Scott, MSP for Shetland, is a talented politician who comes across well and can articulate the Lib Dem case very ably. Had he stood in the leadership election last time, I think I would probably have voted for him then. He is both intelligent and passionate, and doesn't take any nonsense from our political opponents.

But whoever becomes leader, I hope that person will be able to express a clear Lib Dem narrative. With the Gnats still riding high, and the prospect of a referendum on independence in a few years' time, it is vital that we're able to put across a clear liberal vision of Scotland's future. I will be voting for the candidate who is most able to do that.

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