A liberal voice is needed

Oh dear.  The leak that the Queen’s Speech will contain legislation on the interception of communication appears to be correct.

I know many Liberal Democrats are fighting and fighting hard to stop it, but the silence on this issue is just what we don’t need. Someone very senior, preferably Nick Clegg, needs to stand up and articulate a liberal criticism of the proposals and tell us that if they don’t follow party policy they will not happen.

The alleged briefing note, which is very believable in style and tone, is simply pathetic. It is the sort of document that Liberal Democrat parliamentarians would rip to shred with ridicule if it was from a party of government. A quick skim of the document has thrown up several problems. Better analysis will no doubt follow from others.

Key omissions include

  • the key failure to demonstrate need. 
  • the failure to talk about what would be being recorded concerning web access.
  • the failure to engage with the scale of what is being proposed and the technical issues, beyond a simple “no central database”
  • the failure to explain how people who operate outside the law would be stopped

Moving on to the contradictions:

Where there is no business case for Communication Service Providers to gather this data, the government will provide financial and technical assistance to allow it to be collected on companies’ local systems.

Compare with the Conference condition d a few paragraphs lower:

ensuring that service providers are not mandated by law to collect third-party communications data for non-business purposes by any method;

Sarcasm on: So thats clearly being followed. Sarcasm off.

This is another avoidable problem and it already has the hallmarks of the previous ones. Lack of clear communication on the key issues, lack of regard for Conference mandated policy, lack of clear support in Coalition Agreement, allowing others to take the lead on criticising the issue, us defending Tory (or establishment) policy. The difference is that this one is a civil liberty fight. We’re meant to be on our own territory with those.

At the moment the BBC website has our leader defending these proposals against attacks from the Tories.

The discontent in my circle is huge. There is already a movement to look into an emergency conference if this isn’t sorted.

What is going wrong?


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A fun game for Arsenal fans…

As I watch Arsenal losing to Sunderland (still only 1-0, so not yet beyond hope) I’ve started to play a game. It is entertaining me, and it is simple.

It is which players would get into the Arsenal team of 10 years ago?

Easy ones first Robin van Persie would make the squad and get games. Ox would still be on the edges rather than central. Vermaelen would make the squad but not be a first pick.

That’s it from those on display.

Not good.

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Penguins playing rugby?

The current exhibition at the Scott Polar museum on Lensfield Road in Cambridge is of documents relating to Scott’s final expedition to the South Pole. Very moving, but it also has some flashes of humour: clearly polar exploration had its dull moments! This picture of Penguins playing rugby illustrates that need for entertainment.


A better pic is available from the BBC a while ago.

The Scott Polar Museum is well worth a visit if you are in Cambridge, and the Terra Nova exhibition is on until the start of May.

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Prayers in council, an atheist writes

The recent court decision to outlaw prayers from the start of all local authorities has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth. (corrected following comment; thanks.)

As an ex-councillor, an atheist and someone who believed in the move towards a secular state I ought to be celebrating, but I’m left with mixed feelings. This is mainly as the poor reporting and explanation has left people upset, and this damages all people in public life who would like to advance secularism.

The prayers provide a moment of reflection before the main business of the meeting. Even as an atheist I quite enjoyed a couple of the chaplains, fiund a third moderately interesting, but found one sanctimonious. They often (but not always) focused the mind and created a reflective and positive atmosphere. However this reflective mood didn’t last long, and prayers can have negative impacts.

Many people are shocked to learn Councils ever had prayers.

Before deciding on your view of the matter I would urge you to consider the following:

  • Councillors are summoned to attend meetings. They, in legal theory, have no right to miss the meeting or part thereof. Thus if part of the meeting is offensive some people are put off standing. Consider whether you’d be happy attending a lecture by Richard Dawkins in enforced respectful silence before you serve the people who elected you!
  • on that point be aware the legal ruling says prayers can continue provided they aren’t part of the legal summons.
  • prayers don’t have to be Christian. Not even in broadest sense: I have see a year of Buddhist prayers. The prayers don’t need to reflect the Christian culture of the UK.
  • Different authorities have different approaches already. I am told a neighbouring authority has a moment of reflection (or private prayer) at the start. It isn’t clear what the legal status of that would be now.
  • Procedure matters: at my authority we had a laid back approach to people coming and going. Some authorities only allow councillors to vote if they have attended the entire meeting since the last break: attending prayers could be a means of exclusion of a democratically elected member.
  • This isn’t just about atheists: a Muslim member might feel unable to attend Christian prayers (and I have spoken to one such councillor, and another who happily attends prayers). There is also a possible political side: Consider whether you’d be happy with a Wee Free chaplain if you were a Catholic councillor or vice versa.

None of this bothers Eric Pickles, the representative of the Daily Mail in government. His success (or not) in defending the right of people to create land fill having passed he has decided to foam at the mouth and present new law. I hope that LibDems in government delay this to allow reasonable reflection.

Perhaps we could ask Mr Pickles for a moment of silent contemplation before he speaks in public?

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The unions aim at the Eds

It has been a bad year for Ed Milliband and Ed Balls, and it isn’t even 17 days old yet.

I’ll mention but not dwell on the non-relaunch relaunch that didn’t really achieve much. The level of indifference provoked in the media was worthy of a LibDem press conference in the early 1990s.

Choosing an opposition day debate on fuel prices on the day when they came down was unlucky. Picking a fight on train fares was just plain daft.

The u-turn on economic policy was essential if Labour are to be a reasonable opposition, but despite the rather incoherent claims of Balls of “no change” they’ve veered too far. At the moment it appears they oppose everything and nothing. Surely a more subtle line is possible.

Government at all levels needs engaged and sensible opposition. The opposition need to remember they aren’t in government but they need, in the national interest, to critique and constructively engage with the ruling parties or party.

If they are fighting themselves then they aren’t doing this, and government suffers.

This evening the largest Labour donor complained about the Eds in the Grauniad. Apart from the interesting relationship with reality perspective on events shown by the union leaders it suggests Labour are a long way from being focussed on opposition.

That the two Eds realised that Labour lost the election due to it being unpopular and maybe making economic errors is welcome, even if they only partly acknowledge that in public, as they could then serve as an effective opposition. The reaction of the Labour left suggests this is still a way off.

If Ed M survives until the end of 2012 as Labour leader I’ll be amazed, but being honest I’m not totally sure they are leadable at the moment. If they elect a quasi-Blairite then the current reaction of the unions would seem tame, if they elect a union choice then the PLP will be in more or less open revolt. If a middle route is chosen then, well, ask Ed.

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What coalition mistakes might have cost…

First off I must say: I supported the coalition in 2010. I remain unconvinced that the arithmetic or politics of working with Labour in May 2010 would have worked. I still support the coalition, for positive (tax changes, actually looking at executive pay, pupil premium etc) but also I’m afraid for negative reasons: we’ve made mistakes as a party and the coalition government has made mistakes but Labour are still worse at the moment.

Anyway, having said that. I have just finished reading Kavanagh and Cowley’s The British General Election of 2010 (Palgrave Macmillan). A very interesting reading on various aspects of the campaign. One table that makes very interesting reading for a geek like me was tucked away in the final normal chapter on page 341, table 16.3.

This was a breakdown of voting by various different categories. A large poll by Ipsos-MORI was used to get an idea of how different age groups, social groups, genders etc voted.

As a LibDem supported I was surprise by some bits and profoundly unsurprised by other bits.

Shockingly we did worst in the two highest turning out groups: our national score of 24% across the board was above our 55-64 and 65+ scores (23 and 16 respectively). This fits a view that people tend to be more fixed in voting intentions as they get older (a natural idea I suppose) and so we are unlikely to convert people. In fact it was worse than that as 65+ was the only group in which are vote fell from similar figures for 2005. This was despite the triple lock for the state pension: now an excellent but costly Government policy.

The problem is that these two groups have turnouts of 73% and 76%, well above the national turnout of 65%.

The interesting figures were at the other end in the lowest turnout categories: 18-24 (44% turnout) and 25-34 (55%). Here a big sell was the tuition fees. This is the age range who are students, or recent students, or remember the betrayal of Labour reversing their tuition fees policy twice.

Here we did well. Very well.

The break down for 18-24 was 30% Tory, 30% LibDem, 31% Labour: within margins of error of each other one assumes; and for 25-34 35% Tory, 30% Labour, 29% LibDem. Whilst we’ve always done better with younger people than older, in 2005 we were a clear third in 18-24: Labour on 38%, Tories on 28% and us on 26% (despite Labour’s record on tuition fees and Iraq).

The question is whether the stay at homes were any different: if they got older and started voting, would they be Labour and Conservative voters? My memory of the polling during the campaign would suggest not, but I’ve not dug out anything on this so feel free to correct me.

If the poll is accurate then this means we were neck and neck with Labour in the people who will be voting for the next 40 years.

So my question is simple: will the mistakes we made in handling tuition fees be worse than a blip: Have we blown a chance of a real generational change in politics?

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House of Cards: the novel

Happy new year.

For Christmas amongst the books I received was a copy of House of Cards by Michael Dobbs. I had been half heartedly looking for a copy of this and was pleased to see it. Thanks to my sister-in-law there.

I had previously read a later Dobbs offering First Lady, which I found rather disappointing. My review of that book was positive but noted the rather clunking one pace style. This book was much better, and you can see why someone decided to adapt it.

One key thing to note is there are significant differences to the TV series. I think I prefer the TV version, but both stories are good, and the differences mean both are worth watching/reading. I won’t include too many spoilers, but the absence of the junior whip Stamper is one notable difference. The characters also have very different relationships than in the TV version.

One game I’m not quite able to play is to match the characters to the characters at the end of the Thatcher era. Woolton, Dobbs’ foreign secretary, is very different to Hurd and doesn’t seem to match anyone I can think of. Samuels could be partly based on Heseltine but isn’t a good fit. Can anyone give some better matches? The characters are much less the stereotypes of First Lady however.

Overall much better than First Lady, and clear why it became adapted for a bit of classic telly.

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