Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Success for Gurkha justice campaign

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

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

Monday, 29 September 2008

The losers from the bail-out vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Honours even in first debate

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 September 2008

Ready, aim at foot, fire!

Or how to torpedo your own campaign in one easy lesson.

John McCain is doing his best to avoid looking presidential in the debate over the Wall Street bailout plan. He's getting blamed for putting a spanner in the works of the proposed deal on the subject.

I particularly liked this quote, comparing McCain to Dubya:
"Bush is no diplomat," said a Democratic staffer, "but he's Cardinal freaking Richelieu compared to McCain. McCain couldn't negotiate an agreement on dinner among a family of four without making a big drama with himself at the heroic center of it. And then they'd all just leave to make themselves a sandwich."

And McCain's still getting pelters from David Letterman after his decision to cancel his appearance on the show to supposedly work on the bailout plan. Don't think it was a terribly good idea for McCain to annoy one of the most influential talk show hosts in the country.

UPDATE: If you want to see just how badly John McCain's contribution to the bailout debate is going down, just look at this from the relatively impartial ABC.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Gnats keep undermining local democracy

I highlighted a few months ago how the Gnat government in Edinburgh seemed hellbent on undermining local democracy after they called in plans for a new Asda supermarket in Inverness. I commented at the time that I couldn't see any conceivable national interest in whether Inverness had another supermarket or not.

Well, they've done it again, this time for a proposed Sainsbury's store in Nairn. Why, for crying out loud? What the hell's it got to do with any other part of the country whether there's a new superstore there?

Alex Salmond is playing a very dangerous game. If he keeps interfering in matters which are best determined locally, he'll soon find that the Scottish Government is snowed under with decisions which shouldn't really be made in Edinburgh. And he'll also find that people quite like having the chance to influence decisions, which they can't do if an arrogant politician decides that he's better placed to take the decision than elected local representatives.

The Gnats should learn to just butt out.

More bad news for McCain

Since I posted about John McCain's woes yesterday, things are continuing to look bad for him in the opinion polls.

According to Electoral Vote, Obama has strengthened his position slightly, now on 286 to 252 for McCain. New Hampshire, which was listed as marginally for McCain yesterday, is now listed as leaning towards Obama.

Obama's lead is especially encouraging given the situation for Kerry against Bush in 2004 at this stage of the race.

There's also good news for Obama from some of the individual polls (although all single polls must obviously be taken with a health warning). He's apparently 10 points ahead in Michigan and six points in front in Wisconsin, both of which were previously on a knife-edge. That Wisconsin poll also indicates that Obama is doing pretty well among women voters, in contrast to the expectations from some in the Republican camp that women voters would swing behind Sarah Palin.

More interesting is this poll in North Carolina showing Obama edging ahead. It may be a rogue, but it does indicate that some states you might not expect are actually in play, with Indiana, Nevada and West Virginia all falling into this category. Florida is also still very tight.

The good news for Obama is backed up by this poll of key states, which I saw courtesy of Justin Webb. If Obama does have a good debate (assuming McCain turns up), then he'll be a big favourite to win.

Your chance to interview Tavish Scott

The new leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, Tavish Scott MSP, has agreed to take part in a bloggers' interview.

This will take place at the Scottish Lib Dem conference in Edinburgh on Saturday October 11 between 3.25pm and 4pm.

The interview is open to any Lib Dem blogger. All that is required is that you write up the interview on your blog. If you don't have a blog of your own, you could write it up on Lib Dem Voice or another site of your choice.

Anyone interested in taking part should contact me by email at bernardsalmon[at]cix[dot]co[dot]uk

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

What's McCain scared of?

So, it seems that John McCain wants to postpone the first presidential debate so that he and Barack Obama can return to Washington to work on a bipartisan plan to solve the current economic crisis.

It hardly needs saying, but this is utter nonsense. There's no reason why the debate can't happen and the Senate decide on the Wall Street bail-out at the same time. People expect a President to be able to handle more than issue at once, rather than dealing with them one at a time.

Can you imagine McCain in the White House, dealing with another Russian incursion into Georgia? "I'm sorry, Mr Medvedev, but I can't deal with that right now. At the moment I'm dealing with the American economy, then next week it's climate change. Can we schedule this crisis for a week next Tuesday?" Utterly bizarre.

Of course, it couldn't be that McCain is afraid of debating with Obama, could it? He wouldn't be desperate to avoid being shown up for his lack of economic knowledge, would he? And it's utterly not the case that this is a desperate move in response to worsening situation for him in the polls, is it?

The reasons why McCain is indulging in such a stunt can only be guessed at, but Nico Pitney on the Huffington Post outlines why he's so desperate. As Electoral Vote highlights, Obama is leading and the economic crisis certainly seems to have boosted his support.

The economic crisis has highlighted the failure of Republican economic policies in the USA. And McCain's call to postpone the debates shows just why he would be so unsuitable in dealing with such an economic crisis. This election is now Obama's to lose.

Spending more time with the family

Ruth Kelly's decision to resign as Transport Secretary to spend more time with her family has attracted derision in some quarters, with much of the media believing there has to be more to it than that.

Now, I don't know Kelly's motivation for deciding to quit, and it's certainly plausible that disillusionment with Gordon Brown's leadership played its part in her decision. But I think that wanting to spend more time with her family is genuinely a large part of why she's resigned, and credit to her for that.

She's not the first politician this year to cite family reasons for wanting to leave political office, as Nicol Stephen did exactly the same thing when he stepped down from the leadership of the Scottish Lib Dems.

Kelly's and Stephen's decisions serve to highlight the very real burden placed on politicians in terms of family life. The amount of time that politicians spend on the job, combined with spending much of the week away from home for many of them, make it very difficult for people with young families. The demands of family life are certainly one reason why the Lib Dems have a problem in terms of attracting women to stand as candidates, and hence why our parliamentary parties are so male-dominated.

But I would question just why it is that politicians do have such a burden on them. I would say that at least part of the reason is that at national level, both UK and Scotland, we expect politicians to do far too much.

The UK is one of the most centralised democratic countries in the world. It's absurd that politicians in London are taking decisions on health or education for Cornwall or Northumberland. They can't possibly know what the local circumstances are in those places. Having something like 90% of all government spending being channelled through central government is just daft.

And lest anyone think this is just a problem for England, I think it equally absurd that politicians in Edinburgh should be deciding health or education policy for Shetland, the Western Isles or Galloway.

We need a radical programme of decentralisation, to enable decisions about local priorities to be taken locally. I look forward to the day when Westminster is a truly federal parliament, dealing with defence, foreign affairs, broad macroeconomic management and not a lot else. Decisions about health, education, transport and most other areas of government should be taken a lot closer to the people they affect.

Not only would this be good in itself, with more scope for local experimentation and innovation, but it would also reduce some of the burdens we place on our politicians. Having locally accountable politicians in Kent or Yorkshire or in the Highlands taking decisions means people would be far more able to combine political life with family life.

Spending more time with the family is an admirable aim for politicians. But having to choose between a political career and being a parent is not a choice people should have to make. But it's one that our centralised system too often forces upon politicians.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Gnats in bed with some other complete bankers

Like my colleague Stephen Glenn, I too found Alex Neil's comments about seeking an alternative to the Lloyds-TSB deal for HBOS to be extraordinary.

Stephen's comments are well made and I would only add that yet again the Gnats are more concerned with largely symbolic issues rather than the realities of financial regulation and ownership. Let's face it: as a publicly-quoted company, HBOS's ownership hasn't been in exclusively Scottish hands for some time. Why should a collection of the Scottish banking great and good necessarily be a better option to run HBOS than Lloyds-TSB? There's no particular reason to think it would be, especially as HBOS's chairman says that the Lloyds deal is the only one in town.

If I were being uncharitable, I could point out a marked contrast between the Gnats' attitudes towards an English-based firm wanting to take over a Scottish institution and their rolling over in the face of Donald Trump's blandishments. The difference wouldn't be anything to do with anti-English prejudice, would it?

And we also need to be clear about why the Lloyds-TSB takeover makes sense. HBOS got itself into the position it did as a result of irresponsible lending, which made it more vulnerable when things turned bad. In contrast, L-TSB had far less involvement in the credit mania, making it an ideal partner to ride to the rescue of HBOS.

But the whole issue does raise wider questions than just the future of one particular bank. In particular, would Scotland be in a position to carry out effective financial regulation if it ever became independent, as favoured by Alex Neil and Alex Salmond?

I suspect not. For a start, an independent Scotland would need to set up its own central bank, its own FSA, its own Competition Commission, its own Stock Exchange and so on, all of which would come at a cost.

And even if the cost issue weren't there, would an independent Scotland really have the clout to act if, at some point in the future, the Royal Bank of Scotland wanted to take over the Clydesdale Bank, for instance? I doubt it.

The current crisis does show the need for effective regulation of the financial sector, but I think it shows why that regulation should be international in nature. Independence would not only be ineffective in dealing with the issue, it would also be potentially damaging.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Can liberals get a fair deal from the media?

As so often, Alix Mortimer talks a lot of sense on this issue. Her posting makes a lot of good points about the bias in much of the media against liberal ideas, and the two-party mindset that afflicts so many journalists.

But I think we have to recognise that the failure of much of the media to discuss our liberal ideals is as much down to us as it is to any bias on the media's part.

First of all, I should defend my fellow journalists. It's entirely possible for a reporter to come up with a well-written carefully crafted examination of some aspect of liberalism, only for one of the Evil Sub-Editors to tear it to pieces because it's too long for the space available in the paper or the slot on TV (and I speak as a member of the Evil Sub-Editor fraternity).

I also don't blame journalists for trying to report things in relatively simple terms, focusing on matters related to personalities rather than issues, as that is a way of getting people interested in a subject which detailed examination of an issue might not achieve.

Of course, quite often some media take things too far and focus on the utterly trivial. You know the sort of thing: "In a dramatic day at Westminster, Gordon Brown raised his left eyebrow by a whole half centimetre, indicating he's about to sack David Milliband/considering resigning by the end of the week/ is actually a Stalinist commie who's been in the pay of the North Korean government for the past 30 years."

But although the media quite often focus on trivia, and there is undoubtedly some bias against liberal ideas in some sections of the media, one of the big problems we've had is that over the last few years, we haven't really had a narrative explaining liberal ideas in simple, easy to understand terms.

That's now changing, and Make It Happen is one of the best statements of our values we've had for a long time, written in a clear and simple style. It's not perfect (eg the constant references to 'hard-working families') but it's a very good start. I'm not sure about Make It Happen as a slogan - we perhaps need something a bit more clearly liberal, and I still think my suggestion of 'Choose Our Future' was the sort of thing we should look at.

But what we need to do now is communicate the narrative behind Make It Happen in everything we say. Almost no matter what the question is for the next 18 months, it needs the answer "Lib Dems will cut taxes for low and middle income people." If Nick Clegg gets asked what he had for breakfast, his answer should be: "I had corn flakes, and the fact that they've gone up 25% over the past year shows why we need tax cuts for low and middle income people."

And beyond that, we need to be a lot less reactive when it comes to dealing with the media. All too often, party press releases are utterly dull and worthy and entirely lacking in newsworthiness or vision. 'Commenting on the House of Commons Environment Select Committee's species protection working group report on saving the purple-nosed tree frog in Leicestershire, Lib Dem MP Ernest Serious said: "This is an utterly boring and vacuous quote. Please feel free to ignore everything I say."' I exaggerate, but not by a lot.

We need to be far more creative in coming up with ways to make the media pay attention to us. The walk-out from the House of Commons earlier this year on the Lisbon Treaty was the sort of thing we should be doing more of - not all the time, as that would lose its impact. But we certainly should be thinking creatively about stunts we can use to get our message across - as long as the message doesn't get lost. For instance, at one session of Prime Minister's Question Time, why not get all 63 Lib Dem MPs to turn up in T-shirts saying: "Cut taxes now!"

And now I'm going to do a rare thing in Lib Dem circles: I'm going to praise Lembit Opik. Lembit does understand the need for occasional stunts to help get a message across. It's just a pity that he does it for essentially trivial matters like dicking about on Segways, rather than things related to the party's core message.

So, ultimately the responsibility for ensuring that we do get a fair deal from the media comes down to us. Rather than waiting for the media to pay attention to us, we need to make it happen ourselves (I knew that phrase would come in useful somewhere!).

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Nick Clegg: what a terrific speech

Well, despite my flippancy earlier on, Nick certainly didn't let us down with his speech. It was absolutely stunning.

He talked passionately about how both Labour and the Tories had let the country down, saying that Labour was now a 'zombie government', while attacking the Tories for assuming they could just inherit power without saying what they stand for.

He had excellent sections on individual liberty, greening our society and transforming our political system. I particularly liked his insistence on having 'people-sized' public services.

But the bulk of the speech was about how we can cope with the current economic difficulties and he set out a terrific case for the overall tax cuts we agreed earlier on this week in Bournemouth. Let no-one be in any doubt: those tax cuts are not an alternative to social justice, they are a vital part of it.

If Chris Huhne's speech yesterday was a 10 out of 10, then I think Nick's today was a 12.

Nick Clegg conference speech bingo

Here is your handy cut out and keep guide to points or phrases which Nick Clegg is likely to use during his leader's speech to conference today.

The first person to shout out 'Bingo' as Nick reaches his peroration wins an all-expenses paid trip to Siberia in the company of Evan Harris (return flights not included).

Here are the points or phrases to look out for:

Make It Happen

Hard-working families

Struggling families

"A child born in the poorest parts of Sheffield will on average die 14 years before a child born in the richest parts"

A comparison of the relative economic stature/experience of Vince Cable and George Osborne

The Bullingdon Club

A joke which features Alistair Darling's surname

"Go back to your constituencies and prepare for..."

A reference to David Cameron cycling to work, followed in a car by his shoes

Shopping at Sainsbury's

A joke about the '30 lovers'

A reference to the number of people voting in The X Factor/Big Brother

The election that never was

Mention of a pop group which has been in the charts over the last few months, to show how in touch he is (my money's on Noah and the Whale)

A joke about the Lib Dems causing global chaos by holding a conference

An outdated comedy reference

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Can we cut taxes? And if so, how?

Over on Lib Dem Voice, yesterday's debate on Make It Happen has led to some discussion about the desirability of cutting taxes and how this should be done.

Much of the discussion has centred around just how any tax cuts should be carried out. Some people have assumed that the party would want to cut income tax rates even further than we already are, ie we'd want to cut the rate from 20p to 15p rather than the 16p basic rate we're currently proposing. Others have suggested that raising the personal allowance would be the way forward.

Well, in a question and answer session on the economy just now, Vince Cable was asked directly about whether in terms of helping poorer people the party would want to cut the basic rate of income tax even further, raise the personal allowance or reintroduce the 10p rate of tax which Gordon Brown abolished. Vince acknowledged that there was a debate to be had about the best means of achieving our goals, but both he and fellow Treasury spokesman Jeremy Browne said that the simplest and most direct way of helping poorer people would be to raise the personal allowance. I would expect that would be the direction that Vince and the wider party would be most likely to want to go.

But there is a wider question about whether cutting spending and taxation overall is achievable in the current economic climate, an issue I highlighted myself yesterday. Vince was also asked about this in the Q&A session. He noted firstly that public borrowing is expected to spiral even higher when the Government introduces its pre-Budget statement in a few weeks time. He also recalled the experience of Ramsay MacDonald's coalition government in the 1930s, which raised taxes and cut spending during a downturn, and only served to make the recession worse.

That indicates to me that Vince is not going to be hellbent on cutting spending, and will only do so if it is economically wise. But that might in turn mean that cutting spending and therefore taxes overall might not be achievable for a while until the economic mess that Gordon Brown's pathetic excuse for a government is floundering in is actually sorted out.

Can we cut taxes? Maybe, but it could be a long process.

Chris Huhne on top form

Chris Huhne's speech to the Lib Dem federal conference this morning was a cracker and got him a deserved standing ovation.

Much of the speech was outlining the Lib Dem approach to cutting crime. He attacked the Tories and Labour for their willingness to go for gimmicks which are either ineffective or counter-productive, and instead called for solutions based on evidence of what really works in cutting crime.

He also highlighted what he called the 'punishment posturing' which both Tories and Labour indulge in, in which they compete with each other to come up with ever greater punishments for crime. Instead, Chris said that the key things which matter in terms of cutting crime are improving detection and catching criminals, rather than the sentences handed out at the end of the process. He also pointed out how ineffective prison can be in terms of cutting re-offending.

The speech wasn't just about crime, though. He also attacked the other parties for their record on things such as social justice and green issues.

The delivery was also impressive. Chris was roaming about the stage and speaking with real passion, something which he was sometimes accused of lacking during the leadership election campaign last year.

All in all, 10 out of 10 for this speech. I just hope that Nick Clegg will be equally impressive when he gives his keynote speech tomorrow.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Lib Dems against open justice

Having said that conference took the right decision on Make It Happen, I think it took the wrong decision just before that when it voted overwhelmingly against allowing the broadcasting of court proceedings.

While I appreciate the concerns of some that broadcasting trials and tribunals might result in legal proceedings being seen as entertainment, I think those fears are misplaced. To say that in this day and age that the main means by which people access information is not welcome in our courtooms is an immensely retrograde step.

The motion which was voted down did include safeguards to protect vulnerable witnesses, and to avoid coverage of trials involving sexual matters, children or national security.

Broadcasting of courts would help increase public understanding of our legal system and would open up judges and lawyers to greater scrutiny to ensure that they are doing an effective job.

The arguments used against broadcasting courts were very reminiscent to me of the arguments against televising Parliament. That battle was won 20 years ago, but now we need to do the same for the legal system.

Make It Happen: the right result, but...

I found myself in an unusual position a little while ago - I actually voted with the leadership of the Lib Dems in the debate on the Make It Happen values and vision paper.

Going into the conference hall, I thought it was quite likely that I would be supporting the motion, against the amendment which sought to say that tax cuts are a lesser priority than efforts to reduce inequality, invest in renewable energy and support public services. However, I wasn't completely certain and made up my mind during the debate.

It was an immensely high-quality debate - the sort you never get nowadays at either the Tory or Labour conferences. There were some excellent points made by people supporting the amendment, with Roger Roberts, Duncan Brack and Evan Harris all making terrific contributions.

However, I was convinced to vote against the amendment by speeches from Jo Swinson, Chris Huhne and my old mate Tim Farron. Tim's speech was probably the best of the whole debate, and in the end his point saying that it was a false choice between overall tax cuts and efforts to reduce inequality was what finally made up my mind. I also agreed with him that it felt a little awkward not to be part of the awkward squad.

I have to say that I think the differences between the two sides were actually fairly small. The supporters of the amendment were saying that overall tax cuts were a lesser priority than some other things. But what the main motion was saying was that we will try and identify areas for savings, which we will then direct towards our other priorities. If there is then anything left over after that, then we will seek to reduce taxes overall. I don't think there is a huge gulf between those positions.

But one point we do need to bear in mind is that with government borrowing levels the way they are, I think we will find it immensely difficult to find spare cash to reduce taxes. Yes, by all means make the effort to do so, but with our spending commitments (eg investment in renewable energy) and the budget deficit, overall tax cuts will be easier said than done.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Nick Clegg has the answers

Lib Dem federal party leader Nick Clegg gave an assured performance in the question and answer session at conference with Steve Richards of The Independent.

In the preliminary questions from Richards, Clegg spoke about how the job of party leader differed from his expectations, saying it was a more physically demanding task than he'd expected. He was then asked whether frustration with lack of media coverage had led to him taking too many risks in his first few months, to which Clegg replied firstly that while he was frustrated at the lack of national coverage of a party which got 6 million votes at the last election, he was concentrating on getting our message across through other channels and through regional media.

The first question from party members came from Linda Jack, who asked whether Clegg was in danger of being seen as Cameron-lite, particularly on taxes. Clegg's reply was to say there was a gulf in thought between him and Cameron, attacking him for what he called his 'juvenile approach' to foreign policy, as highlighted by his photo op in Tbilisi during the Georgian conflict. On tax, he pointed out that the Lib Dems were offering the most redistributive tax package of any major party, while noting that Cameron's only tax policy was on inheritance tax, which would only benefit wealthier people. He attacked the Tories 'trickle-down' approach, saying that he didn't think ordinary people should be trickled on.

The next question came from Bill Winlow, who asked whether environmental issues were still as important to the Lib Dems with the country facing recession. Clegg's response was to point out that in many cases taking action on the environment will actually help people to save money and that environmental concerns remained just as much a priority as before. He also highlighted that he believed the European elections offered an additional opportunity to shocase the party's concern for the environment. Pressed by Richards on whether economic issues were becoming more important than the environment, Clegg responded by attacking the 'over-leveraged' economic model in which there had been an explosion of credit, often lent by banks to people who could never afford to pay the money back, and said that the banks had lost their moral compass. Strong stuff, but very well put.

The next question was whether Lib Dem support for the Euro had faded. Clegg outlined that he believed Britain should still join the Euro at some stage, but said the matter was not on the political agenda right now, and also refused to say when it might come back on the agenda. In response to a follow-up question from Richards about the Lisbon Trety, Clegg acknowledged that it had been a difficult episode, but believed the party had handled it well. He repeated his support for an 'in-out' referendum on Europe, and gave his best line of the session when he said that David Cameron was intent on withdrawing from the main right-wing party in the European Parliament 'to go into bed with a bunch of nutters'. Excellent line.

The following question from Jeremy Ambash was on what Nick would want as his three best achievements by the time he steps down as Lib Dem leader. Clegg answered that he'd like to see Britain a fairer place, that he wanted to transform the political system and wanted to reconcile Britain to its European destiny.

And the final question was about whether Nick intended to take paternity leave when his wife gives birth to their third child next year, and more generally about making politics more family-friendly. Nick said that he would be taking paternity leave and added that although politics could never be entirely family-friendly, there was a lot more that could be done. He added that in the evenings he was fairly anti-social at Westminster, claiming that he would rather be at home reading a story to his kids than drinking with fellow MPs in Westminster.

Altogether, I thought this was a confident and assured performance from Nick, and he is clearly growing into the role of being leader.

A decent debut from Tavish

The new Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott made his first speech since getting elected to the federal party's conference in Bournemouth just now. It was a fairly impresive speech and certainly seemed to go down well in the conference hall.

He started off with tributes to Ray Michie and Russell Johnston, two stalwarts of the Scottish Liberal Party and Lib Dems.

And then he moved on to a good attack on the cosying up between the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives, noting how they'd attacked each other before the Scottish elections last year but had been working quite closely together since then. He compared them to beams fired from a particle accelerator which collide with each other, but rather than producing a real energetic spectacle, he said they were lumped together more like chewing gum than than a nuclear particle.

And he also reminded conference of Alex Salmond's recent comments, in which he said that while Scotland had been averse to Margaret Thatcher's social policies, he felt that the economic policies were less of a problem. Tavish rightly reminded us that Mrs Thatcher's policies had caused great hardship in places such as Glenrothes and pledged that we would not forgive or forget the damage done.

And he also had harsh words to say about Labour, saying that under Gordon Brown they had elevated dithering to an art form, if that didn't give a misleading sense of urgency.

Much of the speech was devoted to trying to express that the Lib Dems understand the concerns of people at the moment, and the struggles they face. To this end, the most headline-grabbing part of the speech was his pledge to use the Scottish Parliament's tax-varying powers to offer a 2p cut in income tax in Scotland.

Now, I don't have any problem with this idea in principle, but Tavish does need to spell out what areas of Scottish Government spending he would actually cut back on in order to fulfil such a pledge. He also needs to explain why such a tax cut is more important economically than, for instance, investing that sum in improving transport in Scotland.

There were also some things Tavish didn't touch on. I'm slightly surprised that he didn't mention Iain Gray's election as Scottish Labour leader yesterday, maybe offering congratulations but at the same time warning that his election changed very little for Labour. There was also nothing in the speech about the Calman Commission or the party's stance on an independence referendum.

More surprising, perhaps, was that Tavish didn't say anything about the biggest issue in Scottish politics at the moment, local income tax. Not only did he not say how his stance on cutting tax nationally squared with this, but he also didn't give any indication how the party in Scotland intends to ensure that the SNP's plans for a nationally-set income tax can be converted into a genuinely local tax. From conversations I've had at conference with people south of the border who take an interest in Scottish politics, there's a widespread feeling that the Scottish party must not compromise on the key issue of local accountability in setting tax. As one representative said to me the other day, the Scottish party has to prove it has the cojones to take on Salmond on this issue.

Overall, then, an encouraging start from Tavish. But he does need to do more to spell out his vision of where he wants to take Scotland, as well as fleshing out the details of his tax-cutting pledge. And as part of this, I hope he engages with the party in Scotland and really tries to persuade us of the merits of his tax cut plans. He should remember that ultimately we are responsible for making party policy. Making new policies is something that shouldn't really be done in leader's speeches, but by debate and discussion within the party.

Scottish Labour goes Gray

I see that the Scottish Labour Party has a new leader, Iain Gray. From a Lib Dem point of view, I'm quite happy about this, as I think both Andy Kerr and Cathy Jamieson would have been more formidable opponents and more likely to provide the new thinking which Labour in Scotland desperately needs.

Gray is to be congratulated on his victory, but he faces one of the toughest jobs in Scottish politics - taking on Alex Salmond and attempting to make Labour a credible party of government again, following the Wendy Alexander debacle.

As an aside, Gray extends the influence of Inverness on Scottish politics. Although born in Edinburgh, he was educated at Inverness Royal Academy. He follows on from Charles Kennedy and Tavish Scott, both of whom were born in Inverness, in becoming leader of a political party. Can anyone think of a similar sized town which has produced such a succession of political leaders in such a short space of time?

The People's Republic rules!

The People's Republic is on the march. Congratulations to Alix Mortimer, President for Life of the said republic, on her triple triumph in the Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards.

Alix picked up the awards for new Lib Dem blog, best posting on a Lib Dem blog and the big one, Lib Dem blog of the year.

I didn't actually nominate anyone for these awards, or for Iain Dale's political blogging shindig, but had I done so, I would certainly have put Alix number one for both. Her blog is consistently brilliant, being superbly well-written, funny and thought-provoking. The awards are thoroughly deserved.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The musical guessing meme

I don't often do memes, but I thought this one from MatGB was quite good. Basically, the idea is that you choose a band/singer/musician and then answer a series of questions using only song titles from that artiste.

This is my effort:

1) Are you male or female? I'm Your Man
2) Describe yourself. You Know Who I Am
3) What do people feel when they're around you? Light As The Breeze
4) How would you describe your previous relationship? Closing Time
5) Describe your current relationship? The Future
6) Where would you want to be now? First We Take Manhattan
7) How do you feel about love? Ain't No Cure For Love
8) What's your life like? Everybody Knows
9) What would you ask for if you only had one wish? Democracy
10) Say something wise. Tonight Will Be Fine

Friday, 5 September 2008

A terrible speech from McCain

Oh dear. The audience reaction said it all. In the cutaway shots from John McCain's speech to the Republican party convention, people were frowning, were looking all about them, their heads were slumped. One guy was even yawning.

That's how bad McCain's speech was. In front of the easiest crowd he'll ever have to deal with, he managed to bore his own supporters rigid. It's as though Jim Davidson had a crowd made up entirely of south London racists and died a death.

McCain's delivery was plodding and he stumbled over his words several times. At one point when he was talking about Sarah Palin, he said that she had "worked with her hands and nose". He paused. "And knows that..." Whoops.

He was so obviously reading it from the screens in front of him. He hasn't mastered the art of looking straight through the screens to give the impression of speaking off the cuff, which Obama has. Worst of all, he lacked any sort of passion and there wasn't a consistent theme or message running through his speech.

It wasn't wholly bad - the passage towards the end about his experiences as a PoW was quite effective, but even that went on a bit too long. The trouble is, that should have been at the start of his speech. It could have formed the basis of a speech in which he'd oversome adversity, and he could help America overcome adversity too.

To illustrate how bad it was, just imagine exactly the same speech in the hands of others. Had Barack Obama given the speech, it would have risen and fallen like a symphony. We would not just have been told about his PoW experiences: we would have been right there in the cell with him.

But even worse for McCain, just imagine George W Bush giving the speech. Although he lacks Obama's eloquence, I'm sure even he would have managed to give it a folksy charm which it lacked in McCain's hands.

As it was, McCain sounded just like your grandad telling you his war story for the 58th time. He knows that you've heard it before, but that you're too polite to shut him up. And because he knows you've heard it before, he's just going through the motions, without even trying to engage your interest.

I'll be amazed if McCain gets a post-convention bounce in the polls after this terrible effort.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Cathy Jamieson: brain literally the size of a pea

OK, maybe not literally, but I was amused by her comment today, in response to Alex Salmond's legislative plans, in which she said that the package would "literally cut the legs out from under local government." Really? That certainly conjures up an interesting image.

The acting Scottish Labour leader is not alone in her grammatical faux pas. I work as a sub-editor on local papers and it is literally stunning the number of people who use literally incorrectly.

There used to be one sports jounalist in Inverness who literally had the word literally on the brain. He literally sprinkled it throughout his copy.

One of the classics he came out with was: "The ball literally screamed into the net."

But rather more worrying was when he claimed that: "Their opponents were literally put to the sword."

Can Salmond stop the posturing?

The reason I ask is that big chunks of the legislative programme unveiled by Alex Salmond today will not happen unless the Gnats prove themselves willing to compromise.

The most obvious area where the minority Gnat government will have to compromise if it is serious about governing rather than posturing is on the abolition of council tax. Salmond knows there is no majority in the Scottish Parliament for a nationally-set 3p income tax to replace the council tax. The Scottish Lib Dems support abolishing the council tax and replacing it with a tax based on ability to pay, but for us it is unacceptable to remove all local accountability in setting that tax.

I'm not privy to how the Scottish Lib Dem MSPs intend to proceed when the bill is debated, but I would be surprised if they didn't vote for the bill on second reading and then abstain at subsequent stages if unsuccessful in getting the legislation changed to a genuinely local income tax. If that happens, there is no way the bill could go through, with Labour and the Tories implacably opposed. And if that did happen, it would be solely down to Salmond deciding to posture rather than compromise.

There are other areas where the Gnats need to show they are a serious governing party. Their ridiculous proposals on alcohol and tobacco, for instance, are stupid, ineffective, authoritarian, unnecessary and possibly illegal under European law. But if they came forward with sensible proposals for better enforcement of existing laws regarding booze sales and for better education about the effects of booze and tobacco, I'm sure other parties would work with them to tackle the binge drinking culture.

And there's also their confused attitude towards rural schools. While today's proposals to introduce a presumption against closure of rural schools are welcome, it doesn't square with the impact their budget has had on rural education. As I've noted before, the council tax freeze introduced by the Gnats has had an effect on education budgets across the country, which in places like Highland has been felt particularly in rural areas. Legislation to make it harder to close rural schools is all very well, but it's meaningless unless backed up with the finances to keep them open.

Of course, all this assumes that Salmond does actually want to govern rather than play politics. But on previous form, I'm not confident that's the case. Salmond is a master political tactician, and it may suit him to pretend that other parties are stopping him from doing things. But he's in government now and getting things done will mean making compromises. When you're just the largest minority, that is a vital skill.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Everyone's a hockey mum

Hardly the most surprising news in the world, I know, given their similar views on things like abortion, but Nadine Dorries has expressed her support for Sarah Palin as John McCain's vice-presidential running mate.

I wouldn't normally comment on our Nad's eccentric opinions, but a couple of things about this posting struck me.

Firstly, she accuses people criticising Palin of indulging in 'misogynistic bile'. Now, I don't know what websites she's been looking at, but in the reaction I've seen, I haven't seen anyone commenting that Palin would be unsuitable as the Veep because she's a woman. The questions I've seen are legitimate ones about whether she has the experience to be the Pres and about McCain's judgement in picking her.

She also assumes that having Palin on the ticket will help pull over former Hillary Clinton supporters over to McCain. As Paul Walter has already pointed out, the polling evidence so far suggests that is not the case.

But her most extraordinary statement is in her conclusion: "She is a reformer, a campaigner, a winner, experienced and just another hockey mom. Aren’t we all just another hockey mom? There of course, lies the answer."

Er, no. I have to say that I've never actually considered myself as a hockey mum. And I don't know of anyone else who thinks of themself that way either.

The price is wrong

You know it, I know it, hell, even Norman Lamont knows it: introducing a stamp duty holiday will not help the housing market to recover.

A stamp duty holiday was introduced by Lamont during the Tory recession of the early 1990s. He was quoted on Channel 4 News tonight as saying that it had precious little impact. Stumbling and Mumbling points out that if anything, it probably had a negative impact.

And as Nick Clegg pointed out today, the package is designed as a bribe to get people to enter the market when prices are falling. Why should anyone be tempted to buy a house by a 1% cut in stamp duty, when prices have apparently fallen by more than 10% over the past year and are still dropping? The fall is already at the higher end of Caroline Flint's unwitting prediction and it looks like continuing for the foreseeable future.

There are problems with the rest of today's package. The government's proposed free loans for five years of up to 30% of a property's value for shared equity schemes is, as Charlotte Gore points out, a potentially inflationary measure. There is also the issue of whether it is just repeating the mistakes of the last few years, by encouraging those without sufficient assets of their own to mortgage themselves to the hilt.

And the whole package has the flaw that in total it's only about £1 billion. As Ross Clark pointed out in today's Times, mortgage lending has fallen from £17.2 billion in July last year to just £4.3 billion in July this year. The package therefore will do nothing to address the central problem in the housing market, which is the availability of mortgages. But that £1 billion will add to the Government's already unsustainably high public borrowing.

The importance of house prices to the UK economy is shown by the fact that, according to the OECD, this country is alone amongst leading industrial nations in facing the prospect of recession this year. But the Government's rescue package amounts to just fiddling while the housing market burns.

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