Sunday, 31 May 2009

Calm down, dears

It's just an opinion poll.

A lot of the Lib Dem blogosphere is cock-a-hoop at the Lib Dems being ahead of Labour in an opinion poll for the first time in years.

I'm going to inject a note of caution and say that it looks like a rogue to me. Also, other polls have been all over the place in the last few weeks - some showing us fourth behind UKIP - so I wonder to what extent any poll can really be trusted in the current climate.

But if this poll is confirmed by others in weeks to come, it's a welcome boost and is a just reward for the way Nick Clegg has led the party in recent weeks.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Good stuff from Shirley Williams

There's an excellent article in The Independent today from Shirley Williams, arguing against an early election and putting forward a very good case for further constitutional reform. You can read it here.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Praise where it's due

It's not often that I praise Tory MPs on this blog, but I think Harwich and Clacton MP Douglas Carswell has played a blinder over the past few days on the whole issue of the Speaker.

It took significant courage to be the first MP to raise his head above the parapet and demand that Michael Martin should go.

And what's important is that he hasn't called on the Speaker to go because of a personal vendetta against him - far from it. Contrary to what some of the Speaker's supporters have been saying, the issue is not about Michael Martin's background, but about his ability to do the job.

If you read Carswell's blog, you'll see that he views the removal of the Speaker as the first, necessary, step in a wider programme of political reform and constitutional change designed to make Parliament more transparent, more accountable and more important. Hell, he even favours switching to the single transferable vote for elections to the House of Commons, to give voters a choice between candidates from the same party and to avoid having too many safe seats.

Although I'm a political geek, I have to say that Douglas Carswell had barely registered on my radar until now. But I am impressed with what I've heard from him over the past week or so.

If he keeps this up, I'll be sending him a Lib Dem membership form.

Tell Michael Martin his time's up

The following is the text of an email I have just sent to Michael Martin, urging him to stand down as Speaker of the House of Commons.

If anyone wishes to do likewise, his email address is martinm@parliament.uk

Dear Mr Martin,

I have never before written to a public official urging them to step down from their post and it is with great reluctance that I do so now.

I believe you have proven that you're simply not up to the job of being the Speaker of the House of Commons.

You have sought to block the publication of MPs' expenses and have generally acted as an obstacle to sensible reforms to the system.

I also believe your failure even to seek a warrant when police wished to search the office of Damian Green MP was an appalling error of judgement on your part.

And I believe your personal attacks last week on Kate Hoey and Norman Baker on the subject of MPs expenses mean that you have forfeited the impartiality which is the foundation of a Speaker's authority. You compounded this with your dismissive reaction to David Winnick's point of order the following day.

I therefore urge you, in the interests of both Parliament and the country, to resign your position as Speaker of the House of Commons with immediate effect.

Yours sincerely,
Bernard Salmon

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Who should be the next Speaker?

With Nick Clegg and my local MP Danny Alexander joining in the chorus of calls for Speaker Michael Martin to quit, his days must be numbered.

So who should take over when he either quits or is forced out? One possibility would obviously be one of the current Deputy Speakers - Sir Alan Haselhurst, Sylvia Heal or Sir Michael Lord. Unfortunately, Sir Alan is one of those who have been named by the Daily Telegraph as being involved in the expenses scandal. Sir Michael, meanwhile, is 70. Although I don't think he's yet announced his retirement, the chances are that he'll be standing down at the next election.

That leaves just Sylvia Heal as the only Deputy Speaker who might realistically be in a position to take over. However, it's questionable to what extent just appointing one of the deputies would represent the sort of change that Parliament needs if it's to regain public confidence.

Another more telling reason why Sylvia Heal might not get it is that she would then be the third Speaker in a row to come from the Labour benches and I'm not sure that would be a great idea. Unfortunately, that is an argument that can be made against other possible candidates for the Speakership, such as Frank Field or Kate Hoey, both of whom would have the reforming credentials needed to take over as Speaker at this point.

If a non-Labour Speaker is to be appointed, some people in the past have suggested that Ming Campbell might be an appropriate choice. However, his involvement in the expenses row and the fact that he is a former party leader I think count against him. I would suggest the only likely Lib Dem candidate would be Sir Alan Beith - a man who is well respected throughout the House of Commons.

I have to say that I struggled to think of a Tory MP of sufficient seniority who hasn't been implicated in the expenses scandal, but then a name suddenly came to me: Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Again, he is well thought of throughout the House and would, I am sure, do the job very well. He has also indicated that he is standing for re-election next time.

But all this assumes that the House of Commons does what is necessary and removes Speaker Michael Martin as soon as possible. Any statement from the Speaker that he intends to stay in the job until the next election will be unacceptable. He must go now.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

A snap poll now is not the answer

In a typically elegant argument, Paul Walter sums up the current demand for a snap general election to sort out the current mess over MPs' expenses. It's a thoughtful and passionate piece, but I'm going to argue it's dead wrong.

Firstly, I don't see how a general election now would actually solve the problem, namely the lax system for MPs expenses. Would it not be better to get a new system in place and then allow the electorate to have their say? A poll now would run the risk of having a botched reform rushed into place simply for the sake of having something to put before the voters in order to claim that the problem had been 'solved'. That's no way to make policy on an issue as sensitive as MPs' expenses. It's better to take time to get the system right.

Even if reform to the system is delayed beyond such a poll, there is then the danger that with at least four years before the next election, reform could be shelved as the anger among the electorate dissipates.

And, although I understand the anger that many people feel, is the issue of MPs' expenses really one which merits a whole general election dedicated solely to it? In my adult lifetime, the two issues I've been most angry about have been the poll tax and the decision to invade Iraq, even though millions of people marched against it. I don't recall a general election being held on either of those issues, despite the public anger involved.

There's also the question about whether a general election should be dedicated to just one issue. At a time of such economic crisis, I want to hear what the various parties propose to do to sort out that mess. There is a very real danger that those issues could be completely drowned out by an electorate wanting to express their anger over the expenses scandal.

In addition, is a general election really the most appropriate way to ensure that those guilty in the expenses row are punished? Doesn't natural justice demand that parties or Parliament should be able to take appropriate disciplinary action against those who have abused the rules, including deselection and forced resignations to cause by-elections in the most serious cases?

A general election now would almost certainly result in a move to 'throw the bums out'. Unfortunately, such an anti-incumbency mood might well sweep up many people who've done nothing wrong and who may even have been advocates of reform.

I would ask people like Paul Walters who is more likely to lose their seats in a 'throw the bums out election' - proponents of reform like Sarah Teather and Adrian Sanders, with majorities of around 2,000, or someone like Hazel Blears, sitting on a majority of 8,000 in Salford or Elliot Morley who has a 9,000 majority in Scunthorpe? Maybe the electorate will be able to distinguish all the rogues from the honest MPs and vote accordingly, but I'm not confident that would necessarily be the case.

Indeed, as Mark Reckons points out that there does seem to be some sort of correlation between the safeness of an MP's seat and the likelihood of them being involved in the expenses scandal, it may be that the rogues would be more likely to be rewarded with an extra four years in Parliament which might be thoroughly undeserved in some cases.

No, in this case, revenge is definitely a dish best served cold. Give local parties a chance to deselect MPs where they think that appropriate and allow campaigns to be built up against MPs who have abused the system but who haven't been forced out by their parties. A general election now won't allow that to happen and would be completely wrong.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Morley's 'defence' doesn't stand up

The BBC News website reports that Elliot Morley says the reason he was claiming money for his mortgage even though he'd paid it off was that he did his accounting in 'yearly bundles'.

Yet, somehow, he managed to claim the cash for 18 months. To be fair to him, if he's sufficiently bad at maths not to realise that 18 months is longer than a year, it's no wonder he got into such a muddle over his mortgage claims.

But among people I spoke to today, there was utter incomprehension that anyone could miss something as significant as finally paying off a mortgage.

I also find it rather odd that he alerted Labour's chief whip to the problem a few weeks ago - but according to the Beeb he didn't provide full details. This whole thing stinks.

Even Betty Boothroyd slams Speaker

I see both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph are calling on Speaker Michael Martin to quit.

And even Michael Martin's predecessor, Betty Boothroyd, has expressed her disapproval over his conduct. The Daily Mail quotes an MP friend of hers as saying:

"I have spoken to Betty and she is just appalled at the way Michael Martin has behaved. She sees it as a failure of leadership. If Betty had been in charge she would have called the three party leaders in and banged their heads together like little boys until they agreed to reform the system.
'She would instantly have seen how damaging it is to Parliament to have this issue festering. Michael Martin has done none of that."

It comes to something when even a former Speaker is so appalled at the way her successor is doing the job that she makes her views known in public.

If Michael Martin had a shred of dignity, he would go now. Unfortunately, it looks as though he'll have to be dragged kicking and screaming from the Speaker's chair.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Churchill, Europe and the idiots of UKIP

Got home this afternoon to find the first election communications on my doormat from parties ahead of the forthcoming European elections.

One of them was from UKIP (United Kingdom Idiots Party) and contained a big headline saying: "Say NO to European Union", illustrated with a picture of Winston Churchill giving a V for victory sign.

That'll be the same Winston Churchill who famously said: "We must build a kind of United States of Europe," will it?

Indeed, it's worth quoting several passages from Churchill's speech in Zurich in 1946 to show how wrong it is that UKIP are trying to associate him with an anti-European stance:

If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and the glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy...

It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living...

And why should there not be a European group which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this turbulent and mighty continent? And why should it not take its rightful place with other great groupings and help to shape the onward destinies of men?...

The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honor by their contribution to the common cause..

If we are to form the United States of Europe, or whatever name it may take, we must begin now...

...we must re-create the European Family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe...

Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America and I trust Soviet Russia-for then indeed all would be well-must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine. Therefore I say to you, let Europe arise!

Great bit of ad placing

I was amused by this story on The Scotsman website about the pressure on Michael Martin to quit as Speaker - not so much by the story itself, but the ingenious placing of an ad directly above it about Shipwrecks of Scotland!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

And the nominations for Worst Speaker Of All Time are...

... Michael Martin, for his obvious bias towards his former Labour colleagues during his time in office.

... Michael Martin, for unnecessarily spending money to seek a second opinion from lawyers when seeking to block details of MPs' travel expenses from being published under the Freedom of Information Act.

... Michael Martin, for his own extravagance in foreign trips and expenses.

... Michael Martin, for failing to seek a warrant from police wishing to search the office of Tory MP Damian Green.

.... Michael Martin, for his utterly unjustified attack yesterday on two MPs (Kate Hoey and Norman Baker) who have been long-time campaigners for reform of the MPs' expenses system.

And the winner is... well, surprise, surprise, it's Michael Martin, for becoming the first Speaker in over 300 years to be facing the prospect of a motion of no confidence, showing the lack of faith many of his Parliamentary colleague have in his ability to do the job.

And yet, despite this thoroughly deserved award, Gordon Brown still thinks that Speaker Martin is doing 'a good job'.

Yet another Gnat manifesto pledge bites the dust

The Press and Journal reports today that yet another SNP manifesto promise is unlikely to be fulfilled.

The Gnats promised in their 2007 Holyrood election manifesto to double the number of school nurses. However, the P&J says that the number has gone up by just 17 overall, from 312 to 329.

As Lib Dem health spokesman Ross Finnie notes, that's just a 5% increase, meaning it's highly unlikely the Gnats will manage to meet their pledge in the remaining two years before the next Holyrood election.

Just another one to add to local income tax, 1,000 additional police officers and the class sizes pledge, amongst others.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Gnat MSP's anti-gay bigotry

There's been a dispute in the Church of Scotland over the past few weeks about whether an openly gay minister, Scott Rennie, is allowed to take charge of a parish in Aberdeen.

Although Scott is a fellow Lib Dem, I can't say I know him. But you can read his thought-provoking insight into the dispute over his appointment here.

His appointment is to be the subject of a motion to the Church of Scotland General Assembly and this has been the subject of vigorous debate, including among MSPs.

Among the politicians commenting has been Nationalist MSP Dave Thompson. According to The Herald, he said: "I do believe, however, that once someone declares himself as a Christian that they should comply with the teaching of the Bible and that active homosexuality is incompatible with that teaching."

Well, if we're talking about textual purity, I'm interested to see how Mr Thompson squares his beliefs with the following passage from the SNP's Holyrood manifesto in 2007: "the SNP will not promote or support legislation or policies which discriminate on the grounds of race, disability, age, gender, faith or religion, social background or sexual orientation."

Some might say that once someone declares himself as a Nationalist MSP, he should comply with the provisions of the manifesto and that active bigotry is incompatible with that manifesto. Or is this yet another part of their manifesto that's not meant to be taken seriously?

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Keeping expenses row in proportion

Hysteria? Witch-hunt? Media feeding frenzy? Or all three? I think that just about sums up the current situation with regard to MPs' expenses.

As ever, earlier on today the sage Mr Quist had some wise words to say about the expenses row. Like him, my experience of MPs is that on the whole they are dedicated individuals who work hard for their constituents and are not all in it to make money. And I agree with him that we shouldn't expect MPs to be out of pocket or living in penury when doing their jobs.

Like it or not, if you don't pay MPs properly, you'll just expose them to all sorts of blandishments and inducements from private interests who, believe it or not, may not always have the wider public interest at the top of their priorities.

But I thought it worthwhile to do an international comparison to see whether our MPs are well remunerated or not. In the USA, for instance, the salary for rank and file members of Congress is currently $174,000. If I've done my maths correctly, at the current exchange rate of $1.52 to the pound, that works out at roughly £114,473 per year - which compares very favourably with the £64,766 our MPs get. In France, the figure is slightly lower at approximately £57,228, while Germany and Italy are £80,880 and £57,756 respectively, although the Italy figure is boosted by very generous expenses. (All figures courtesy of the BBC). In other words, the basic pay of our MPs is not that excessive by international standards.

But do our MPs have excessive expenses claims? Again, not really. As the BBC points out in the same article already referred to, MPs' average expenses claim is £135,600, which does sound a lot, until you realise that the most significant part of that is the salaries that MPs pay their staff. That means that the rough total we pay for our MPs (salary plus expenses times 646 MPs) is about £129.4m (note that I'm not including ministerial salaries in this figure).

Compare that to the USA, where, to take just a few examples at random, California Senator Diane Feinstein had a total staffing bill in 2008 of $4,066,020 to serve a population of about 36.75m, while in less populated Wyoming, Senator Michael Enzi spent $1.9m on staffing. For members of the House of Representatives, the cost of running their offices, including both staff and other expenses, is between $1.4 and $1.7m each. In 2008, the cost of running the US Senate was apparently $869.3m, while for the House of Repesentatives it was about $1.2 billion. Even if you take into account that the US Congress is serving a population of about 303m, while our Parliament serves just under 61m, I think our MPs are bloody good value.

And note that the above figures for the US Congress don't even include the regular trips and junkets which are on offer from a whole host of private organisations. A lot of these are doubtless all above board and worthwhile, such as the three trips by members of Congress to Afghanistan and the seven to Iraq in the last few years. However, that compares with 34 to Antigua and Barbuda, 35 to the Bahamas, and 48 to Jamaica. OK, these aren't paid for out of public funds, but the suspicion must surely be that some of these are pleasant trips to the sun in exchange for services rendered or future favours expected.

Now, our MPs are certainly not immune from accepting hospitality from private interests - just think of George Osborne and Peter Mandelson on the billionaire's yacht in Crete last summer, for instance - but their junketing and hospitality pales into insignificance when compared to the American experience. In all last year, members of Congress and their staff accepted trips totalling just over $2.85m.

I'm certainly not saying that some UK MPs haven't been abusing or milking the system, but I don't think it's true to say that our MPs are all a bunch of cheats, rogues and thieves. By international standards, and particularly in comparison with the USA, I think on the whole we get very good value from them.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Mixed feelings abut Nick's conversations

I caught the Lib Dem election broadcast on TV earlier on this evening. I thought it was pretty good overall - Nick Clegg came across well as someone who tries to listen to the concerns and issues people have, and the film concluded with a simple focus on the party's tax message.

So, why the mixed feelings? Well, none of the issues mentioned by Nick - Iraq, civil liberties, tax - have much to do with either Europe or the English county council elections, supposedly the levels of government which are the focus of the coming elections.

Let's not forget that in 2004 we fought a European election campaign which barely mentioned Europe. And we came fourth, behind UKIP.

I recognise there are limits as to what can be included in a five-minute slot, but would it really have been that difficult at least to mention the role which the EU has in helping our economies recover, or the benefits we get from international co-operation?

And on a broader point, if the Lib Dems are not going to make the case that the UK benefits from playing its part in the EU, who is? Of course, we have to be critical of its failings and make sure we're calling for a reformed and more democratic union, but overall we do need to make the case for positive involvement within the EU. It'll go by default if we don't take the lead.

So, I hope in the next few weeks we will at least have some focus on a pro-European case. It doesn't need to be a major part of the campaign, but it does need to be there.

If you want to see the film for yourself, here it is:

Do Lib Dems lack ambition?

Don't worry, I haven't died of swine flu - been busy with all sorts of things over the last few weeks which didn't leave much time for blogging.

But I've been prompted to get back into the swing of things by a couple of articles on Lib Dem Voice in the past couple of days. First of all, Stephen Tall had a discussion about what the Lib Dems need to do to become the official opposition in place of Labour. And then today Steve Pitt followed that up with this piece about what the Lib Dems stand for.

I do agree with a lot of what the two Steves have to say. But the trouble is that both are based on the notion that what the Lib Dems really want to do is become the official opposition.

I have to say, as a pitch for votes, that's not the most inspiring one I've heard: vote for us, even though we intend losing the next three or four elections. Why should people get active for the party if the best we can dream of is having almost no influence for the next couple of decades or so?

Well, I don't know about the rest of the party, but that's not what I want. I want the Lib Dems to be a party of government, preferably by ourselves but with another party if we're able to get a significant amount of Lib Dem policies through, as we did in Scotland from 1999-2007.

And this isn't just dreaming: I've never known politics to be quite as fluid and volatile as it is at the moment. Labour is heading for a significant defeat next year and is then likely to indulge in a period of bloodletting as it tries to work out where it goes next.

I agree with Stephen Tall that this presents a significant opportunity for us and I agree with Steve Pitt that if we can be clear about what we stand for, we could benefit tremendously.

But let's add a fourth condition to Stephen Tall's article: a Tory government rapidly becoming unpopular as a result of having to take difficult decisions to sort out the mess left by Labour. In such a situation, is it really beyond the bounds of possibility to see the election after next resulting in something along the lines of LD 32%, Con 34% Lab 28%, Others 8%? In such a scenario, given the random nature of our electoral system, that could result in almost anything from a Tory majority through to Lib Dems being the largest party in a hung parliament, or possibly even scraping a majority depending on how the votes stack up in individual seats.

OK, I admit this is probably a tall order to achieve in practice. In reality, we probably face a long, hard struggle to make progress. But unless the Lib Dems start thinking big and showing some real ambition, we're never going to get anywhere near being either the official opposition or the government. And I can certainly think of better things I could be doing than busting a gut for a party which is not serious about being anything other than a minority interest.

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