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djm4: (Default)
Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 12:21 pm
There's a room.
Cut, because I suspect it's triggering for depression and the like. )
[Note: this is distilled, concentrated, and almost certainly sounds worse than it it. And I feel a lot better for writing it. I really just wanted to share, because I'm interested if it rings any bells for anyone else.]
djm4: (Default)
Friday, May 7th, 2010 01:08 pm
Disclaimer: this is a complex subject, in which the outcome depends on a huge number of factors. I know a little about some of those factors, but that's about it, and people's stated positions on this are changing almost hourly. Therefore, what I write here shouldn't be taken with any confidence at all, nor thought of as a prediction. At best, it's a vague mapping out of a few of the potholes on the road ahead. At worst, most of it will turn out to be wrong or irrelevant, and will be contradicted by events, quite possibly before I've even had a chance to hit 'Post'.

Observation one: fifty-something MPs is a very small number from which to demand far-reaching concessions with long-term consequences. So no coalition with the Lib Dems is going to deliver full-blown electoral reform. The very best we can hope for is the promise of a referendum, but with much of the press and both the major parties backing FPTP, while that would be fun, it would also be expensive and pointless. I can see (and would approve of) us doing much sabre-rattling about Proportional Representation while quietly obtaining concessions on civil liberties, banking reform, the £10,000 tax threshold and education. These are all shorter term things that our coalition partners can overturn as soon as they get a majority. Note that 'as soon as they get a majority' pretty much relies on not bringing in a proportional voting system which is why, I say again, I don't think PR will happen. Tory and Labour MPs alike will not support a system that means they're never likely to have a majority again.

Observation two: we may not be talking about a coalition, but a minority government. A minority government has worked well in Scotland for the past three years. Note, though, that there the party in power is the SNP, which has no particular aversion to the idea of a hung or balanced parliament. Whichever of Labour or the Tories forms a minority government in the UK, it will be a party used to having a majority government, and with a vested interest in making a hung parliament look very, very bad indeed.

Expect a couple of years of every last painful decision to be blamed on a hung parliament (the Tories have already laid the groundwork for this in their infamous Hung Parliament Party broadcast). Expect announcements of the form: 'and we'll to shut a third of all hospitals; we were hoping not to have to do this, but the UK's economic recovery has been worse than forecast because of the hung parliament', and 'yes, soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan for a mission that no-one's properly defined yet, it's because of the paralysis caused by the hung parliament'.

After a couple of years of this, expect that party nominally in charge to hold an election and ask the voters to deliver a real mandate to govern by giving them a majority. If they time it really well, they'll be able to get a majority just as the economy is starting to recover as a natural part of the cycle, and be able to point to hung parliaments as a sign of economic disaster for a generation to come. (Actually, that holds just as well for a coalition as for a hung parliament).

Observation three: as that party with both the largest number of votes and the largest number of seats, the momentum is with the Tory party. When Nick Clegg said: "If a party with no majority has the strongest mandate, we accept the principle that that party has the right to govern either on its own or to reach out to others," he didn't spell out what he meant by a mandate. However, I can't see any reading that doesn't currently have the Tories as the single party with the strongest mandate. So by his own reasoning, Nick Clegg should accept the Tories' right to be the first party to try to form a government. That doesn't mean a Tory/Lib coalition is at all inevitable, though, nor does it rule out a Lib/Lab one if the Tories don't turn out to be able or willing to govern on their own. And bear in mind that I still think a minority government rather than a formal coalition is likely.

Observation four: it's a bloody good thing that their historical antipathy makes it almost impossible that the Tories and Labour should form a coalition. In many of their actual policies, they're a lot closer to each other than they are to the Lib Dems, even if the political zeitgeist hasn't quite caught up to this yet and still thinks of the Lib Dems as mid-way between them on everything. Fortunately, I think such a coalition would be literally unthinkable to most people in both parties.
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Sunday, May 2nd, 2010 05:36 pm
'If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and one, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind' – John Stuart Mill On Liberty

One important test of a political party is how well it stands up for its principles, even when those principles may cost it votes. I'd be the first to admit the the the Liberal Democrats do not have a 100% record on this, particularly in some local councils and election literature. But we also have some notable successes, and I feel that it's worth celebrating them.

I've already mentioned that we, both as a party and as individual activists, were deeply concerned with 'green' issues way before they hit the wider consciousness. The same goes for gay rights, as part of a wider commitment to equality, and it's easy to forget how far we've come in the last ten years, let alone the last twenty. In our 1992 manifesto, we included the following commitment: 'Guarantee equal rights for gay men and lesbians through changes to criminal law, anti-discrimination legislation and police practices. We will repeal Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. We will create a common age of consent regardless of gender or sexual orientation.' Yes, there's a missing 'b' word there, but for 1992 this was remarkable, and Jeremy Paxman indeed mocked Paddy Ashdown for including such an obviously unpalatable clause in the manifesto.

But we stayed firm on that. Here, in 1999, is the vote to ban workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Even just over ten years ago, this was considered a sufficiently tricky subject for the government to block it, but the Lib Dems were solid in their support for it. Here is Dr Evan Harris, almost ten years ago, being awesome on the subject of gay, lesbian and bisexual students being bullied as a result of the continued existence of Section 28. Even today, there are still battles to be fought, and here Nick Clegg is still fighting them (although, yes, I'd prefer it if he included 'bisexual' and talked in terms of 'same-sex' rather than 'gay' marriage).

Nick Clegg's support for the Gurkha cause is now well known, but Lib Dems have been campaigning for justice for the Gurkhas for over five years now, led initially by Peter Carroll, a Lib Dem activist in Maidstone. Again, it may be hard to see this as an unpopular cause now, but it was only just over a year ago when we were being warned of the supposed dangers of 100,000 Gurkhas and their dependents flooding into this country. Most of the credit for the victory belongs to Joanna Lumley and the many Gurkhas who tirelessly camapigned for justice, and I would never want this to be seen as mainly a Lib Dem victory, but it was a victory in which we gave strong, principled support.

Just over a year ago, there was a large protest planned in the City of London against the G-20 summit. Worried about the possibilities of police violence – based on the policing of similar protests earlier – the Lib Dems sent along several independent parliamentary observers, with the specific remit of monitoring the behaviour of the police, not the protesters. This was not a particularly popular move – this article by Daniel Finkelstein in The Times accurately reflected the view among much of white middle-class England that the protesters were a bunch of dangerous anarchists out looking for a fight, and that the the police were justified in using whatever tactics they needed to in order to stop them doing damage to valuable property. This view is still depressingly common even a year on, although I'm pleased to see that Daniel Finkelstein no longer shares it.

I have no idea to what extent Shirley Williams, David Howarth, Tom Brake et al shared the views of the protesters; I suspect that they were sympathetic to many of the concerns, but would probably disagree about how to address them, but I may be wrong. There was, in any case, no single message coming from the protesters. But as Liberal Democrats, they all had a genuine commitment to the rights of the protesters to protest.

As it turned out, it's a good thing they were there. Tom Brake's report from within the kettle was one of the key ones highlighting the problems with the police tactics, all the more powerful by coming from an MP. His convincingly-argued claim that the crowd was infiltrated by police agent provocateurs trying to goad the protesters into attacking the police has never, as far as I can tell, been satisfactorally addressed.

But it could have been very different. When the Liberal Democrats decided to monitor the protests, they had no idea how the day was going to go. The publicity for us, if we had been seen to be supporting violent protesters against a police presence trying to contain them, could have been very bad indeed. In fact, that's how the protests were reported for about 24 hours afterwards, until it emerged that no, the protesters hadn't been bombarding police trying to help Ian Tomlinson, and that the mysterious absence of any CCTV footage didn't stop there being plenty recorded on the ground on camcorders and mobile phones. However, our observers weren't there to get good publicity. They were there to defend the rights of the protesters against the police, and they'd be there again whatever the outcome.

We also, as I've mentioned before, have a manifesto commitment to scrap control orders and reduce pre-charge detention to a maximum of 14 days. In this, we are standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects, not a well liked section of society (and, therefore, a section with the greatest need of protection).

The principle of evidence-based policy making scored a recent victory in the Science and Technology Committee's recent recommendation that the MHRA should stop licensing homoeopathic remedies and that the NHS should stop funding them. Dr Evan Harris's contribution to this debate has been so widely recognised that it's often missed that the Committee's chair, Phil Willis, is another Liberal Democrat MP who was instrumental in asking searching questions of those giving evidence in favour of homeopathy. Phil is retiring at this election, and will be sadly missed. Evidence-based policy making may not seem like an unpopular cause to many people reading this, but in the wider community, threatening to stop funding homoeopathy did not go down well.

I should probably mention the Real Women campaign, launched by Jo Swinson at our Autumn conference last year. This has been the subject of some derision – the positive body image aspect of it was mocked by Anthony Jay's Yes Minister segment on the Lib Dem manifesto on Newsnight – but is something we're campaigning on because we feel that it's vitally important for the welfare of women in our society. The issue that's got most attention is that of labelling adverts that use airbrushed images – and note that it is labelling not banning, as many critics of the campaign would have you believe – but the paper has also contributed policy on name blanking on job applications to the manifesto. Whether or not you feel that the Real Women campaign is an unpopular cause will probably depend on your familiarity with the issues, but it is a grass-roots campaign that arises out of principle and attempts to persuade others that it's right, rather than being an obvious vote winner.

I like being in a party where I have at least some hope that if our principles are unpopular, we'll stick to our principles and try to change public opinion.
djm4: (Default)
Saturday, May 1st, 2010 10:20 pm
Sorry, life has caught up with me and I haven't had time to finish it. I'll try to get at least a couple more out between now and the election, but they are taking up a good part of the day when I write them, and it's just possible that I should be doing something a bit less self-indulgent like going out and actually delivering some leaflets. ;-)
djm4: (Default)
Friday, April 30th, 2010 09:48 pm
[Note - I've been running all of these past [personal profile] sashajwolf before posting them, and she's been doing fantastic work in picking up on typos, misspellings and areas where I'm not clear. But this post in particular is much improved on my first draft as a result of her input, and I thank her greatly for it.]

'Frankly, I think the odds are slightly in your favour at hand fighting.'
'It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. I don't even exercise.' - Westley and Fezzik, The Princess Bride

This wasn't the post I was expecting to make. However, when I wrote my first post on the subject of the Freedom Bill, I wrote a long section on the slipperiness of the word 'fair' (contrasting it with the supposedly hard-to-explain 'free'). In the end, I decided that it broke up the flow of the piece and stuck it in a footnote. Then I decided that even the footnote was superfluous.

And yet … fairness is a word we use a lot in our manifesto. So possibly I should consider what it means. To do that, I need to set out some of what's meant by 'fair'. It may seem intuitively obvious what fairness means, but intuition can trip us up on this one.

A 6-sided die is fair. A pack of cards is also fair, but they're both fair in very different ways. (I'm ignoring, for the sake of argument, trick cards and a loaded die.)

Initially, they're similar. If you roll a die once, you have an equal 1/6 chance of any particular number showing. If you deal a single card, you have an equal 1/52 chance of any particular card turning up. Aside from the numbers, that's the same. If that's hard to see because of the numbers, let's consider a much-reduced pack of cards where you only have Ace to 6 of hearts. Now when you deal, you have an equal 1/6 chance of any given card showing, just as with the die.

It's what happens next that's interesting. When you roll the die again, you still have a 1/6 equal chance of any particular number showing. But with the cards (assuming your first card is still on the table and hasn't been shuffled back into the pack), you only have five remaining cards, so you only have a 1/5 chance of any given card showing.

Let's say you've done this five times. And let's say that with the die, you've (by chance) thrown every number but a five. What are the chances of throwing a five on the next throw? 1/6, just as they always will be. But with the cards, if you've so far laid down every card except the five of hearts, the next card is certain to be the five.

So they're both fair, but they're a different sort of fair. A die is fair in the sense that every time you roll it, you've got an even chance of throwing the number you want. A pack of cards is 'fair' in the sense that the card you want will always come up at some point if you deal for long enough, and that it will come up exactly as many times as any other card (i.e. once) for each deal of the pack.

This may be trivially obvious if you're a gamer – in fact the most recent rules I saw for Settlers of Catan included a suggestion to use cards rather than dice to get round just this problem – in which case I apologise. But I have found that many people don't find the difference intuitively obvious. I realise that someone who insists that they are 'due' a six when rolling a die may be perfectly aware that a die has no memory, but I think many people have trouble with more complex scenarios in the real world.

The real world, as a whole, is very 'fair-like-dice'. Generally speaking, if you're having a run of bad luck in your life, you are not due some good luck soon as a result. But that's not what the stories tell us, with their happy endings, and their just deserts, and their tying up of loose ends in a satisfying manner. It's not what the notion of karma would have us believe. In fact, in life, 'fair-like-dice' often looks the very opposite of fair: 'why do bad things happen to good people? It's so unfair!' we cry. Well, bad things happen to good people because bad things have a (roughly) equal chance of happening to everyone. That's fair, in its way, but it's unpalatable.

Actually, and I thank [personal profile] sashajwolf for pointing this out, it's a good deal worse than that. The overall processes of the world may be 'fair-like-dice' in principle, but at the level of human society, the rich, powerful and privileged generally play with dice that history has already loaded strongly in their favour. Most of the stories, and karma, suggest that this loading of the dice will inevitable have a penalty later. It won't, by itself. Brecht, for one, knew this, and his stories tend to turn out very differently as a result.

When Liberal Democrats talk about making things fairer, then, we are frequently talking about redressing the inequalities of life. We are basically talking about (temporarily) loading a few specific dice ourselves to create a fairer outcome, or at least giving the dice a memory and a conscience. I should point out that I have no problem at all with 'fair' being used in this way; it's a perfectly legitimate use of the word 'fair'. I just feel that it's important to keep straight what sort of 'fair' we mean.

As often as not, we think we mean 'fair' as synonymous with 'equal', although as I point out in the next paragraph, that may be a mistake. Not everyone equates the two. To some people, equality is unfair, because it may mean giving up advantages that people feel that they've 'earned'. 'Privilege' is usually unearned, but that doesn't stop privileged people from squealing if you try to redress the inequality that privilege confers and remove the privilege.

Part of the problem is that even a concept as apparently simple as 'equality' can be complex. How do you achieve equality, in a world where inequality indelibly stains the fabric of our society? Is it enough just to provide a 'level playing field'? Sometimes, yes, but you also have to consider the teams that will play on that field. If only one team is composed of players who can afford the best equipment, who have been trained to play the game by the best coaches, who have spent their entire lives watching people of their race, gender, class, accent or body shape excel at the very game they're about to play, then the levelness of the playing field becomes an irrelevance.

This is why fairness is as crucial to liberalism as freedom is. Without fairness – a pro-active, interventionist fairness – freedom tends simply to increase existing inequalities. Without fairness, freedom of speech gives a voice only to those who can shout loudest. Of course, without freedom, fairness becomes imposed conformity. A liberal society needs both.

Take schools, and our policy of giving every child a fair start in life. Of course we don't mean 'fair' in the sense of 'stuck with whatever chances they were given when they were born'. We mean 'fair' in the sense of 'as equal a chance as possible with their fellow children'. It's not enough to supposedly level the playing field by making sure every child enters a nominally similar school at the same age, although that's a good aim in its own right. We also have to help those children who have already fallen behind; to take those who have thrown ones and twos all their life, and throw them a couple of sixes. And yes, those children who've had a string of sixes so far may well have to accept some ones and twos for a while to redress the balance. All people are not created equal with respect to opportunity in the real world, and I believe it's one of the key roles of government to redress that inequality in a fair way.

Liberals should be mistrustful of any call for the government to intervene in this way. We should set high standards for agreeing to it, and constantly review whether it's still needed. But to try to build a fair society without any intervention at all seems to me impossible (although I have the greatest respect for my anarchist friends who feel differently). And we should remember that the people in power will probably be poor judges of whether it's needed, so we shouldn't dismiss the call for intervention simply because we can't immediately see a need for it.

When we talk of fair votes, the situation's a little more complex. One person: one vote sounds the very essence of fairness, but the devil's in the details. In this case, as my blog entry of a couple of days ago points out, it's easy for 'one person: one vote' to produce an intuitively very unfair result, and not even necessarily obvious what a completely 'fair' result would look like. All voting systems have edge cases where the result is clearly unfair; the aim must be to have in place a system that gives reasonably fair results given the conditions. Given current voting patterns, First Past The Post is blatantly not fair.

Society – particularly looked at in terms of 'fairness' - is a dynamic system. I studied dynamic systems when doing control systems engineering for my degree, and one of the key features of them is that they're very hard to control or stabilise simply from taking a snapshot in time of the system. You need to consider the known past states of the system and the predicted future states, and you will almost certainly need to adjust your strategy constantly over time to respond to the change in state of the system.

So if (for example) we're trying to address gender inequality, then we may need to take actions that redress disadvantages for women. Seen in a snapshot of time, they may look as though they give women an advantage, but looked at in a longer-term context, they're (often barely) addressing an underlying inequality. Take the Campaign for Gender Balance within the Lib Dems – an organisation which among other things offers training, support and mentoring for women candidates. If everything else were equal, the lack of an equivalent organisation for men would seem unfair, but everything else is very far indeed from equal. The equivalent organisation for men is 'the party in general', both historically and currently.

No liberal should be comfortable with policies like that as an indefinite solution, nor would we want to keep them in a (hypothetical and possibly unattainable) world where gender inequality has disappeared, but if we don't use them in our current state, things will tend to the status quo. It's not simply that gender equality will not improve, it may well get worse, as (for example) higher-paid jobs appeal less and less to women, who don't think of them as the sort of jobs women do. Over time, positive feedback restores the system to an equilibrium, and we need to constantly push to stop that happening.

In this case, equilibrium - despite lexical similarity - does not mean equality for all. If anything, it means an inequality that will continue to re-assert itself without effort.

Another approach, of course, is to encourage people to see their identity differently, so that a woman can look at a well-paid man and think 'that person is like me; I could see myself in that job', where 'like me' is based not on gender (nor for that matter on race, religion, age or any other marker) but solely on being someone who is fulfilled by doing the job in question. That, too, is an extremely liberal goal, to try to free people from the constraints of conformity, and we can enthusiastically work towards it alongside other approaches. But I expect it's a very long-term solution, and may well take generations to achieve.

This is my concept of fairness, and I find it resonates well with how fairness is understood in the Liberal Democrats, and expressed in our manifesto. I'll return to the theme in at least a couple of my upcoming blog entries, but felt that the concept itself deserved its own entry.
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Thursday, April 29th, 2010 11:36 pm
'The very corner-stone of an education intended to form great minds, must be the recognition of the principle, that the object is to call forth the greatest possible quantity of intellectual power, and to inspire the intensest love of truth:' – John Stuart Mill, Civilisation

As I've made clear in other posts, I grew up a Liberal supporter. I'm a Liberal Democrat member now, too, and I've always voted for them, but it's only a few years ago that I rejoined the party. What caused me to leave?

I fell out with the Liberal Democrats – or Social and Liberal Democrats as they were then – while I was at university, and the the issue I fell out with them over was funding of Higher Education. Both students and Liberal Democrats had unsuccessfully fought the abolition of the student grant, and there was then a substantial faction within the Student Liberal Democrats in favour of a Graduate Tax. The reasoning was that, while we didn't approve of loans, it was unreasonable to expect society itself to pay for Higher Education when it didn't get the benefit, so students themselves should pay. It was the mechanism of payment that was the issue; we weren't in favour of saddling all students with a loan up front, but instead wanted graduates to pay for their education by having their earnings taxed at a higher rate.

I remember well the meeting of the Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats where this was discussed (actually, one of my first). Several people made what seemed to me a very convincing case for a Graduate Tax, and we were just starting to congratulate ourselves on how clever we were when Chris Lowe (our SU deputy-president from the previous year) stood up and told us why we were all wrong. And he was totally right.

The issue is complex, and I'll never do it full justice here. But in essence, the point is that having a well-educated population benefits society as a whole. The view that says that only the graduate benefits from university education is a narrow one. Even in financial terms, an employer who pays a higher salary to a graduate is doing so because they believe that the organisation as a whole will benefit from that graduate's skills. The less quantifiable (but IMO very real) benefit to society is ignored completely by the higher earnings for graduates argument, and there are many low-paid jobs that still benefit greatly from being filled by a graduate.

By the way, I treat with extreme caution studies that may show that graduates tend to be greener, less racist and homophobic, happier and healthier; I'm not at all sure that it can be shown to be caused by the university education, rather than university just being more appealing to people with those traits anyway. University was certainly a time for me when I was thrown into contact with a far greater multitude of views and cultures than I had preciously encountered. It makes sense on a handwaving level that this would make me at least potentially more tolerant, and that someone with a liberal viewpoint would thrive in such an environment. But I don't think I can prove it. In any case, given what I write later about recognising that university is not for everyone, my priority would be to allow people who didn't go to university to have an equivalent experience.

The benefit to the individual is more questionable, certainly in financial terms – yes, they might be able to get into higher-paid jobs eventually, but they have spent three years off the earnings ladder as a student. At the time (around 1990), many of the highest-paid jobs didn't even go to university graduates; this is less true now with so many jobs spuriously requiring degree-level qualifications as a bare minimum, but that brings its own problems.

Education is one of the key enablers of social mobility if made accessible to all, and allowing the poorest members of our society free university education was highly progressive. We need to get closer to that model again if we are to address some of the greater inequalities in our society. I didn't storm out of the party in a huff over the Graduate Tax, but that discussion did mark the start of my realisation that I was unhappy with the middle ground we appeared to be occupying on this and other issues.

We've got better since (and in truth I'm not sure the views of the Cambridge students were reflected in the larger party at the time). I'm still more hard-line on this issue than my party, as I still support (means-tested) grants rather than loans. But overall our Higher Education policy is good, and addresses many of the things that are very wrong with the system. We are proposing to phase out tuition fees over six years; yes, this is a retreat from a policy of scrapping them immediately, but with the economy in that state it's in, that's not surprising. Phasing out tuition fees will be expensive.

We're also supporting a national bursary scheme, which will allow universities to award bursaries to assist students who otherwise wouldn't be able to study. We propose that these bursaries be awarded partly on the basis of financial hardship, which I'm fully behind. I don't, however, agree with our plans to award them partly on the basis of strategic subjects (such as sciences and mathematics) as this smacks too much of trying to engineer the 'right' sort of graduate. I am both opposed to that in principle, and because I suspect that in practice it simply won't work. That said, I won't throw the whole thing out on the basis solely of that objection.

We're also going to scrap the target of having 50% of young people in University, in favour of a more diverse range of options including vocational training and apprenticeships. The 50% target for young people in university sounds reasonable at first, but coupled with an attitude that a university degree is simply a necessary hurdle to getting a job, it turns universities into just one more stage in the production line creating identikit graduates for jobs that don't actually need their skills. This drags down the standard for everyone; it's demoralising to teach people who don't want to learn, but are only interested in the rubber stamp at the end. Students who are genuinely there to learn don't get the attention and support they should.

But it's no good simply dropping the 50% commitment and restricting university places without doing anything else. That will just make universities more elitist. Instead, we need to genuinely value the non-university options, and that means putting more resources into the those options so that they can compete on a more equal footing. The Liberal Democrats don't want someone to become an apprentice because they couldn't get into university and that was all that was left, but because an apprenticeship is actually the best option for them. And, incidentally, for society; having a workforce with a diverse set of skills is a good thing.

It's no good just tackling inequality at the university level, though. It's far too late by then. To quote from our manifesto, and from just about every speech Nick Clegg's made in the past two years: 'a typical child from a poor family will fall behind a richer classmate by the age of seven and never catch up. ' Money invested in addressing that inequality before the child gets to seven is money well spent. This is what the so-called 'Pupil Premium' is for; it's a £2.5 billion cash injection aimed at schools who take on the most disadvantaged pupils from the poorest sections of society. It will be given to schools rather than parents, and be available to schools and FE colleges right from ages 5 to 19.

The schools can choose to spend the money in a number of different ways. Reducing class size was the headline-grabber when we announced the policy, but that's not always going to be the best approach. Except where you're starting from a very large class size (larger than most UK primary schools now have) or targeting a very small one (smaller than even the Pupil Premium will allow most schools to achieve), there's conflicting evidence about whether it even works. It's one of those 'intuitively obvious' solutions that doesn't actually have much data behind it and what studies have been done are mostly US-based so may not even apply here. Although, looked at another way, it suggests that UK schools should at least be given the chance to experiment.

Other approaches would be to use the money to attract better teachers, or teachers with a specialist background teaching disadvantaged kids, or to provide extra classes for children who speak little or no English, or to provide one-to-one tuition. There is no one solution that works in all cases, and schools should be free to use the money to provide whatever solution they feel will work best for their pupils. This flexibility will be further increased by scaling back the Year 6 SATs and abolishing the Early Years Foundation Stage and National Curriculum, replacing them with a much smaller Minimum Curriculum Entitlement.
In general, we are trusting teachers to do their jobs well. And since we're doing that, we'll be putting resources into training them better; training will be available over the course of their careers to ensure that they're up to date with best practices. Training on bullying prevention will be a part of this, we seek to counter bullying, including homophobic bullying, in all schools.

But now I'm in danger of simply listing the policies from our manifesto verbatim, which is something I'm trying very hard not to do in this series. You can, after all, read it perfectly well for yourself if you like.

I opened with a quote from Mill. I note, wryly, that Mill was not a great fan of state education, calling it 'a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another'. I think that our education policy goes to some lengths to counter that effect, providing a diverse range of educated citizens and going as far as possible to allow them to follow their varied chosen paths in life.
djm4: (Default)
Thursday, April 29th, 2010 08:31 am
Is it racist - or bigoted - to want to talk about immigration?

That's not an easy question to answer. Almost any discussion about immigration frames the debate in terms of 'us' and 'them', and once you've done that, bigotry or racism in some form almost inevitably follows. And yet, few people regard the subject of immigration itself as taboo, or are in favour of removing all restrictions (for the record, and with some reservations, I'm in favour of totally free migration, but I recognise that's not the general view).

What is undeniable is that many people raise the subject of immigration in a racist or bigoted way. Gillian Duffy did so yesterday, by asking 'You can't say anything about the immigrants. All these eastern Europeans what are coming in - where are they flocking from?' It was a bigoted question, and Gordon Brown was correct to label it as such.

(Incidentally, the claim that you can't say anything about immigrants is an odd one, since it's been brought up in both Prime Ministerial debates and was the very first question of all asked in the first one. I'd be amazed if it didn't come up tonight, either.)

Furthermore (and this isn't in many of the transcripts - The Telegraph has the best one I've found) Gordon Brown did try to answer the question. His reply: 'A million people come from Europe but a million have gone into Europe. You do know that there’s a lot of British people staying in Europe as well,' is a perfectly respectable answer to that question; it engages with the the question and makes some attempt to diffuse the fear behind it.

It's never comfortable to engage with bigoted arguments. Whenever I do it, there's a little voice in my head that says 'you do realise that by even discussing this, you're legitimising it?' But the problem is that if the only people who will engage with bigots are other bigots, the bigotry becomes self-reinforcing and gets worse. I have seen bigots become non-bigots. In my lifetime, I have seen vast swathes of British society move from being largely homophobic to largely accepting, and from being racist to being ... well, 'non-racist' seems too strong a claim, so I'll go for 'a lot less racist'. There have been many reasons for this, and several conflicting tactics have scored their own successes, but time after time what has happened is that the bigots have been engaged with, often by the people they are bigoted against, and come to realise that their bigotry is wrong.

I have, occasionally, seen someone have success by saying: 'you're being a bigot, and I'm not going to talk to you until you stop being bigoted'. But, crucially, I have only seen this work when used by someone the bigot respected, usually a close friend or family member. Very few people want to think they're bigoted, so unless they trust the person who's telling them this, they're unlikely to give the accusation much credence. From a stranger - including a Prime Minister on walkabout - it only reinforces the sense that this is a taboo subject that the other person doesn't want to talk about because they don't have any answers. It is something that may need to be said anyway; if we never say 'you are being bigoted' to bigots, then the target of the bigotry may reasonably come to feel that we share the bigotry. The target of the bigotry deserves our support far more than the bigot does, and we need to be clear where our solidarity lies.

So while I feel that it's a good idea to engage with bigots and try to make them less bigoted, I hope that it can be done without making the victims of their bigotry feel less isolated, and without looking as though we agree with the bigots. I realise that's a big ask, and in many senses unfair, and I also realise that a white, straight, middle-class, able-bodied male is precisely the wrong person to be making this case. The goal, though, is a less bigoted, more understanding society, so I hope the argument is sound anyway - I will listen closely to any dissenting views, though.

But that's a longer-term argument. Persuading bigots is a slow process. My fear for this election is that Gordon Brown's comments will have felt like an dismissal of a large section of the electorate who share Gillian Duffy's concerns; in this, it's even more tragic that what's being reported is his (nominally private) dismissal of her as 'bigoted' rather than his actual answer on immigration. This may push people to vote Tory, but is more likely to push them towards UKIP or the BNP - those are both parties that tend to see a surge in support whenever a Westminster politician of any party is thought not to be listening to the views of the public. That's why Gillian Duffy's apparently simple question was such a hand grenade; she perfectly expresses thoughts that vast numbers of British people agree with, but don't recognise as bigotry.

What all three of the leaders in the debate tonight need to say is something like this: 'yes, it was a bigoted question, (and here's why ...). But accepting that, let's - for the third time in as many weeks - address the issue of immigration (and here are our policies...)'. Doing the first without the second will alienate people and look like dodging a question that genuinely deserves an answer - even if the answer is 'your premise is wrong'. Doing the second without the first is tacitly condoning bigotry.

I'm not sure I can bear to watch.
djm4: (Default)
Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 03:11 pm
'Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.' – Jane Howard, Families

In my introduction to these blog entries, I wrote that they would be about why I'm a Liberal Democrat, and specifically not try to say why anyone else should be. That's true of the policy discussions that I've written about so far, but it's even more true about my subject for today, which is fellow Liberal Democrats I admire.

Most of them will be people you don't know, and even if you do, there's no reason why you yourself should particularly care. However, they are a very big part of why I'm a Liberal Democrat, so indulge me while I tell you about them. I'll be back to policy tomorrow.

My parents, obviously, are a huge influence on me. My mother was the first Liberal activist of the two (although she herself was the daughter of staunch Tories). My father got bitten by the activist bug when he took over from my mother - who was ill with chicken pox - during one of the 1974 General Elections (I don't recall which). I was roped in to help with leafletting from then on. In the heady days of the Liberal/SDP Alliance, I regularly accompanied my parents to by-elections across the country.

Several Liberal characters stand out from those days. Our local celebrity MP was Clement Freud, a character for whom the expression 'larger than life' was surely coined. Truro MP David Penhaligon was a regular face on the by-election trail; I met him several times and was devastated by his death in a car accident in 1986. Shirley Williams came and stood in Cambridge City; I was impressed with her passion and drive then, and have remained so ever since. At the time, as Liberal I was somewhat suspicious of her as one of those dangerous right-wingers from the SDP I'd been warned about; gradually I came to realise what a misguided and simplistic view that was. Shirley, then, helped me to stop thinking of politics in the straightforward left/right way it was always portrayed in the press at the time.

Former party president Des Wilson stands out from those days too, and I'm sad he's no longer around in the party (though very much alive, well and writing about poker). Des founded Shelter and ran Friends of the Earth; he was anti-establishment, and I remember being impressed watching him give speech after speech that affirmed to me that there was a place for radical, principled liberals in UK politics, even if that place wasn't in government.

One face from those days is still around and I regularly see him at party conference: Viv Bingham. Viv is an institution. He's never been an MP, but was party president from 1981-1982, and is a tireless campaigner. At the most recent Lib Dem conference, he delivered an impassioned speech in favour of co-operatives and customer/employee ownership of businesses. His amendment to the motion having been accepted, Viv went on in the evening to lead us all in a rendition of We Shall Overcome at Glee Club, as he does every conference. Viv is a lifelong unilateralist; the year we finally scrapped a commitment to like-for-like replacement of Trident he sang the verse 'We shall ban the bomb' with particular feeling. Yes, Viv, deep in my heart I do believe, too.

Another Lib Dem conference regular – well, he would be, he chairs the Conference Committee – is Duncan Brack. Duncan is someone I admire greatly, a liberal of integrity, dedication and seemingly boundless energy. Iain Dale places him firmly in the 'beard and sandals' wing of the party; that's the wing I'm in, and I'd be proud to share it with Duncan. It usually falls to Duncan to introduce the geekier and more technical constitutional amendments at conference, but this is because Duncan has a genuine talent for explaining the details of such things so that (a) you understand them and (b) you care. What's more, you know that he cares about your views, even if he doesn't share them; he is a committed liberal to the core. My chairing of the Decision-Making Plenary at BiCon in the past couple of years has been somewhat influenced by him. On the occasions when he makes speeches in policy debates, he is always clear, to the point, and unafraid to challenge the party hierarchy – actually, I'm noting that willingness to question the party line as a common thread among people I admire most in the party. He's also an acknowledged expert on the history of the party, and has written or edited several books on the subject, including, I note, one called Why I am a Liberal Democrat. What are the odds?

Many of the people I know currently in the Lib Dems, I know online. In fact, all three of the following are people whose blogs I read for months before meeting them.

Jennie Rigg (also historically The Yorksher Gob on LJ) is a writer whose work I read for some time before realising that she was a party member. I'm not quite sure how, because she's liberal to the core and hardly shy about letting people know her affiliation. But the things I noticed in her blog were the keen insights into feminism, her rants about RTD-era Doctor Who, her strong atheism, and the swearing - she swears like the Yorkshirewoman she is. Her guide for how not to annoy bar staff  is required reading for anyone who's ever been in a pub, she opposes the smoking ban on liberal grounds, and she's not afraid to tell anyone what she thinks of their policies. She also trawls the blogshere for interesting links and serves them up for your edification; if it's worth reading, she'll usually have linked to it somewhere.

Alex Wilcock is another Liberal Doctor Who fan. I first met him in person at the Leyton and Wanstead PPC selection meeting a couple of years ago, and was a somewhat embarrassingly effusive fanboy at him. His post on how Doctor Who made him a Liberal is justly famous and has been published in both the Liberal and Doctor Who presses. It exemplifies what it best about Alex's writing; it is beautifully crafted with a great eye for the flow of argument, highly detailed, and, well, very long. Long-term illness prevents Alex from being as active in the Liberal Democrats as he'd like, which is our major loss. In 1997, as a member of Federal Policy Committee he ensured that we had a manifesto commitment to criminalise incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. This was in the days when Sir Ian McKellen being invited to No 10 was big news; people with that principled a commitment to unpopular causes are rare and should be treasured.

I'm not completely sure whether I've met Alix Mortimer off-line. I've certainly been in the same room as her at party conference, but I don't think we've spoken. I could sit and read her blog for hours, though; she is witty, erudite and incisive. This post in which she eviscerates Micheal Grove's views on history teaching by channelling Joyce Grenfell is a classic of the genre, but then just as you've got her pegged as a brilliant satirist she throws a post like this one into the mix; serious, beautifully argued and above all, self-aware about not having all the answers.

These are some of my fellow Liberal Democrats, and I'm proud to share a party with them.
djm4: (Default)
Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 10:16 pm
'It’s called “democracy”, and I kind of like it.' – Nick Clegg, party conference March 2010

Electoral reform is surely a idea whose time has come, and Liberal Democrats are no longer lonely voices in the wilderness calling for it. The surge in Liberal Democrat support over the past fortnight has left the very real prospect of Labour getting fewer votes but more seats than the Lib Dems. The inequality had been apparent for some time before that, of course, but it seems as though as long as the parties came in in the right order, no one much minded.

The voting system isn't the only thing that needs changing, though. The British public is highly disenchanted with its MPs, mostly as a result of the expenses scandal. I admit that I think the disenchantment is out of proportion to the offence; certainly there were some egregious examples of abuse coupled with some ‘dog ate my homework’ levels of excuses, but the majority of MPs did little or nothing to criticise, and our government is not vastly more corrupt than others in Europe. That said, there are still severe problems inherent in the system, and we the electorate are right to be angry about the abuses that did happen and sense of entitlement that prevailed. Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson was the first to spot that the likelihood of expenses abuse correlated well with the safety of the MP’s seat. Correlation is not causation, of course, but in this case it makes sense to me that the safer an MP's seat, the less that MP feels themselves under the scrutiny of the electorate.

The Liberal Democrats' proposal to instigate a recall scheme for MPs will help with this. But far better is to reduce the number of safe seats in the first place. And we'd do that by getting rid of the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system and replacing it with a proportional one.

Of the non-FPTP systems, my preferred choice is Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies of between four and six MPs. In STV, you number all the candidates on your ballot paper in order of preference continuing until you no longer care. If your most preferred candidate isn't elected, your vote is redistributed to your second choice, and so on. This makes it more likely that one of the candidates you've expressed a preference for is likely to get elected, and means that even if you mark your first preference for someone who doesn't get elected, you haven't 'wasted' your vote.

(An STV count is actually a bit more complicated than this makes it sound, usually involving fractional votes being passed around; I can elaborate in comments if asked.)

The other key point of this system is the 'multi-member' aspect, which is the one that delivers some semblance of proportionality. STV in single-member constituencies is known as 'Alternative Vote' or 'Instant Runoff', and tends to provide poor proportionality (as, obviously, does FPTP). If you only elect one MP per constituency, then the electoral 'view' of that constituency will be of a single party, no matter how the votes split. With five MPs, there's more scope for reflecting the diverse voting intentions of the voters across the constituency. A solidly Labour constituency may still return a block of five Labour MPs, but one in a more diverse area might return three Labour, one Lib Dem and one Conservative.

From the point of view of proportionality, an ideal at one extreme would be to treat the UK as a single massive constituency with 650 members, but this has disadvantages depending on how you do it. If you just make it a vote for parties rather than candidates, then your ballot paper is a lot shorter, but that means that party MPs are chosen from a list that the public doesn't get to vote on. This encourages candidates to curry favour with the party hierarchy rather than the voters. And if you make it a vote for candidates themselves (note that nobody would seriously propose doing this UK-wide), the ballot paper gets unmanageably long, and voters are likely to recognise only a fraction of the candidates on the list.

I prefer the compromise (and it is a compromise) of the multi-member seat approach. This allows voters to vote for individual candidates rather than parties, but keeps ballot paper length down to a manageable size. A constituency of between four and six MPs seems about right to me; the constituencies would be proportionately larger, so we're not talking about suddenly quadrupling the number of MPs here. (As it happens, we want to reduce the number of MPs overall by 150 as part of this process, so the constituencies would be slightly larger still.) Furthermore, this keeps at least some semblance of a regional link between MPs and their voters, with the advantage that most voters are now likely to be represented by at least one MP with views that reflect theirs.

A further advantage of multi-member constituencies is that parties can – and usually do – put up more than one candidate. This means that the electorate can choose to vote out an unpopular MP from a party even if they support the party in general. I don't want to over-sell this, mind you. Parties still have strong control over who gets to stand as a candidate, and it's unusual for a party to field many more candidates than the seats they're expecting to win. However, choosing between candidates in the same party is still more possible with multi-member constituencies than with single-member ones, which makes 'safe' seats a lot less safe. Yes, you may be standing as a Tory in a seat that's elected a Tory since Victoria was on the throne, but you're probably standing against three or four fellow Tories. At least some of whom may not have used public money to renovate their gatehouse. As a bonus, this system also makes it more possible for well-liked independent candidates to stand and be elected.

If STV proves to hard to sell to a hypothetical hung parliament, we may end up with 'Alternative Vote Plus' (AV+) as a system. This is the system recommended by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 and appears to be the one currently favoured by Labour. In this system, the bulk of the MPs are elected by AV in single-member constituencies, but they are 'topped up' by a set of candidates elected in regional blocks to make the final result more proportional. The system under consideration doesn't guarantee proportionality (there are too few extra MPs for that), but their notional order on the party lists will at least also be chosen by the voters rather than the public. I strongly dislike AV+; I feel that it's overcomplicated and does nothing well that STV doesn't do better. However, it is a viable alternative with a lot of support, and I have a instinct that it may be easier to sell to the public. Still, STV is my favoured system, and that of the party, too.

One consequence of a more proportional voting system is that locally popular candidates from smaller parties will find it easier to get elected, and yes, that includes the BNP. It's not a happy thought, but I firmly believe that if a large enough number of voters turn out to vote to elect a BNP MP, then the solution is not to disenfranchise them, but to offer them a better alternative. By that, I don't mean 'another racist party that's a bit fluffier', but 'a non-racist alternative that addresses their concerns'. The vast majority of BNP voters - as opposed to activists - vote BNP as a form of protest vote; Lib Dems in Burnley have had great success fighting them on this basis. (Historically, we haven't always done this well; the Liberals in Tower Hamlets would be a poor example to follow, for example.)

Voting reform is a long-standing pillar of Liberal policy, but it's by no means the be-all and end-all. We're also proposing fixed-term parliaments, lowering the voting age to 16, and replacing the House of Lords with a smaller, fully-elected upper chamber. We're also in favour of capping donations to political parties, limiting the ability of any one individual or organisation to buy influence at the party level.

We would also seek to introduce a written constitution and, in a bold if impeccably democratic move, we wouldn't impose this from above. The constitution would be drawn up in a citizens' convention with a majority of people drawn from all across the UK and all walks of life, and once agreed the constitution would be subject to a national referendum. Democracy; I like it.
djm4: (Default)
Monday, April 26th, 2010 10:27 pm
'Clegg unveils green energy vision' – headline on the BBC news web site in August 2008, and spoofed here

For as long as I can remember, I have been concerned with our levels of energy use. I'm old enough to remember the tail end of 1973, when petrol rationing was introduced, and petrol coupons issued to my parents. In the event, rationing was informal (but effective), and the ration books unused, but the psychological impact of realising that something like petrol could be limited stayed with me. The power cuts didn't shore up my faith in the stability of the energy supply, either.

Another formative memory in the 1970s is that of recycling newspaper. Actual recycling was, at the time, a minority pursuit. If there was a tendency to cut down on waste at the time, it was very much driven by a collective memory of the austerity of the war and the post-war years, causing everything that could possibly be repurposed to be saved from the waste bin. For example, what packaging there was would not be thrown away, but re-used where possible. Blue Peter showed us weekly how to make endless flimsy structures out of old egg-boxes, toothpaste tube lids and toilet-roll inserts. My marbles and coin collection (and dad's collection of drill bits) were stored in my grandfather's seemingly endless supply of tobacco tins.

At the time, recycling was unusual, and was arranged by individual people in a system reminiscent of a revolutionary cell. We would individually collect the newspapers from everyone on our estate, bundle them up and then, every month or so, drive them to a friend in a nearby village. Her garage would slowly fill up with the loads brought by us, and people like us, until she in turn had enough papers to pass on to a national paper recycling firm. It was very much a cottage industry, quite possibly consumed more resources than it saved – even then, it was acknowledged that most individual efforts to be environmentally responsible were more symbolic than everything - and it was almost exclusively run by the local Liberals.

I don't mean it was run by the Liberals officially. Green politics was still a good ten years away. But the people who cared enough to organise it were almost exclusively the sort of left-wing rural hippy who found a natural home in the Liberals at that time. As my parents were also Liberal members, I came to associate the two, and that association has never gone away.

This also means that I view the current obsession with carbon dioxide[1] as a relatively new fad. Don't get me wrong, I fully believe that global warming is being caused by man-made overproduction of CO2, and that we should be doing everything we can to reverse it. It's just that it's only a small part of my commitment to what are now known as 'green' issues.

I also suspect that we're just not going to succeed with CO2. The industrialised nations just aren't going to be badly enough affected by global warming to take it seriously until it's too late, and in any case will have the best resources to deal with the problems that do occur. It may very well cause widespread famine in Africa and kill off entire countries, but the environmental damage already being done to the Third World by our industrialised lifestyles doesn't currently stop us living them. That said, Liberal Democrat policy firmly believes that we can cut CO2 emissions, and I'm very pleased that it does; I would dearly love to be proved wrong on this. We have policy to support the 10:10 initiative, and our councils across Britain are signed up and committed to cutting CO2 emissions by 10% in 2010.

What certainly will hurt energy-hungry countries like Britain is the lack of a sustainable solution for generating power. I've reviewed David J C MacKay's book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air previously, but if you haven't encountered it, it's a sobering read. Realistically, we can generate less than a quarter of our current energy needs renewably in the UK; the rest will need to come from some combination of nuclear power, importing energy from abroad (possibly from solar panels covering the Sahara), and 'clean' coal. Plus, obviously, reducing our consumption. Chris Huhne has been talking in terms of decreasing our energy consumption since 2006. It's not what people want to hear, but it surely is a vital part of long-term energy sustainabilty. We must be less profligate with our energy consumption, and even where energy use is necessary, use it as efficiently as possible. Heat better insulated buildings with heat pumps, make the bulk of transport electrically-powered and, in many cases, sacrifice convenience for economy.

Liberal Democrat policy on this is good, although it doesn't go nearly far enough for my liking. One heartening thing is that environmental issues aren't an adjunct to our other policies, but inform them at every level. Our manifesto is full of them in nearly every section, and they are complete energy-saving and waste-reducing measures; many will reduce CO2, but they don't focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. For example, we also recognise the greenhouse effect contributions of HFCs, which have replaced ozone-destroying CFCs in refrigerators, but which are still a significant greenhouse gas.

Being environmentally friendly will hurt. One of the goals of our policy is to spread that hurt around in a fair way. For example, we support road pricing, but only as a revenue-neutral switch away from road tax (otherwise rural communities who more-or-less have to use cars get clobbered). On a global level, we have an entire page in our manifesto devoted to ensuring that the developing world continues to be able to develop, even as it becomes badly affected by climate change that is not of its making.

But the most exciting part for me is the so-called 'green stimulus plan', which aims to make sure that as we build a new economy coming out of the recession, it has sustainability at its heart. This isn't just a matter of not damaging the environment further, but of investing in creating jobs in the 'green' sector where we desperately need them. The North of England and Scotland have shipyards lying idle and skilled workers who could staff them, so we will turn the shipyards over to making offshore wind turbines and other marine renewable energy equipment. We will loan schools money to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings; a loan which they will pay back out of the energy savings they make and which will then go into a rolling fund to improve the energy efficiency of every public building. We will encourage the renovation of the 250,000 empty homes across the UK by offering a grant or a cheap loan and, crucially, it will be a grant if the home is to be used for social housing, which we need desperately. This is a plausible way to rebuild the economy, while at the same time making it more sustainable.

I risk quoting the bulk of our manifesto at you when you can read it elsewhere if you wish. So I'll close with the observation that one of the reasons our 'green' policies are well thought out and integrated with the rest of our manifesto is that we've been doing this for a while, both at an individual level and in Liberal Democrat-run councils across the UK.

[1] Don't get me started on the unscientific shorthand of talking about 'carbon' footprints. The Liberal Democrats' (otherwise excellent) 'Zero Carbon Britain' document is a gross offender in this respect. You can create and destroy CO2, but not carbon itself (that's not completely true, but it is in the context of UK energy generation).
djm4: (Default)
Sunday, April 25th, 2010 11:02 pm
'The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.' - Herbert Spencer

It has of late become fashionable to de-canonise St Vince Cable. This is understandable, and probably something that he, as a level-headed Yorkshireman would approve of. In fact, he’s complicit in it; he’s freely admitted that he didn’t see every aspect of the credit crunch coming, especially the US angle. The myth of ‘soothsayer Vince’ needs challenging, not least because it misses the point. Vince gets things right not because of some magical power of economic second sight, but because he’s clever, knowledgeable, patient and observant.

And he does get a lot of things right. As far back as the mid-1990s Vince was warning of the dangers of the demutualisation of the building societies. I’m unable to find a direct quote for this, (perhaps because at the time Vince was a chief economist for Shell rather than a politician) but Evan Davis says so and that’s good enough for me. He is on record (in Hansard, among other places) as warning about the continued levels of personal debt since 2003, warnings that were dismissed as scaremongering right up to the point when they suddenly and terribly came true.

It’s worth remembering, too, that he was calling for the nationalisation of Northern Rock from the moment it became clear how much trouble the bank was in. Nationalising a bank was a surprising proposal for even a Liberal Democrat to make at the time, but it turned out to be the right one, and would have worked considerably better if done to Vince's timetable.

All of which is to say that Vince may not be omniscient, but he is a pretty shrewd cookie, able to see some of the long-term consequences and not afraid to talk about them. Clearly he wouldn’t have been able to stop the credit crunch had he been Chancellor for the past five years - it was too big and too international for that - but he might well have lessened its effect on Britain. And he'd have known it was coming.

It’s interesting, in retrospect, to remember what the Lib Dems were doing while the credit crunch was closing in unseen around us. In September 2008, at the Liberal Democrat’s Autumn conference, party members were debating the Make It Happen policy. Make It Happen was an ambitious programme of policies, including paying for people who couldn’t get timely NHS treatment to go private, investing heavily in renewable energy and public transport, and paying for nursery education for all children. And it was fairly well costed, paid for by savings made elsewhere in things like scrapping child trust funds, and taxing polluters. There was much debate about possible tax cuts.

And then the whole thing - expensive policies and tax cuts alike - was overtaken a few weeks later by events. Well, not so much overtaken as crushed into the tarmac and left as roadkill. I’m not so keen on the tax cuts, but I hope some of the policies we lost can be resurrected when the economy’s in a better shape. But that won’t be for some time now. It’s unclear quite how bad a state we’re in - we’re running a £167 billion hole in the public finances, but how easily we can deal with that depends, crucially, on the speed of economic recovery. What seems certain is that servicing that debt will leave whichever party gets in very little room to do anything new.

We do, of course, have plans to reduce that deficit, which are well set out in our manifesto. Some of those I'll address in later posts. But we also have policies to reduce the need to bail out the banks again in the future, and the one of these that most excites me is the plan to break up the banks. In particular, it's the way we're planning to break up the banks; splitting them into low-risk retail banks and high-risk investment banks.

The normal business of the old-style High Street banks and building societies is well-understood and as safe as banking gets. We know how to do it without running a significant risk of going bankrupt. It doesn't make huge profits either, but that's OK; it needs to be stable, reliable and, well, boring. This low-risk retail banking is genuinely vital to the everyday running of our economy, not just for lending money for individuals to buy houses and for businesses to develop, but for less-known operations like letters of credit that allow global trade to continue.

This sort of business was not what caused the credit crunch; it was caused by them doing altogether riskier things, some of which were known to be risky (with that risk well-quantified and accepted), and others of which dressed up guesswork and optimism as a 'new paradigm', with predictable results when that guesswork turned out to be wrong.

It's not inherently wrong for investment banks to be doing the riskier business. It allows companies and individuals to innovate and be entrepreneurial, to raise funding for activities that are riskier or more speculative in nature, and there is much money to be made from it. But there's no need for the government to offer a safety net for it, and considerable moral hazard in it's doing so. If a financial institution knows that it is going to be bailed out if it gets into trouble, the incentive to stay out of trouble by making wise choices is reduced. Human nature and greed will reduce said incentive to zero, in many cases.

Furthermore, it means that banks and other institutions that do make wise, safe choices can be out-competed by those that don't; making wise, safe choices usually has significant overheads, and stops you going for the most potentially lucrative (but riskiest) deals.

So the solution is to tell banks that they have a choice. They can do the high-risk investment banking, but if they fail, they fail. No bailouts, no public money invested to help them. The failure of a large investment bank won't be painless for the economy, of course, any more than the failure of any major company. We won't be completely safe from an investment bank becoming 'too big to fail', but we should be safe from its failure putting people's houses at risk.

Alternatively, the bank can choose to do relatively safe retail banking. Retail banks will have their activities prescribed, and will not be allowed to partake in the riskier investment banking activities. I confess that I have a romantic notion of this meaning a return to the days of High Street banks where the manager knew all their customers by name. I know this to be unlikely (and a somewhat rose-tinted view of history anyway), but I suspect that it will lead to smaller, more approachable institutions. Coupled with our proposals for Local Enterprise Funds and Regional Stock Exchanges, it may also make our financial economy far less centralised and dependent on the City.

This will hugely change the banking sector, and almost certainly be unpopular with the investment banks. They will lose two safety nets at the same time; the safety net of having the relatively reliable retail banking to underpin their business, and the safety net of knowing that, in the end, the government can't allow them to go to the wall. There will be less money in banking in the UK; we may lose jobs and skills in that sector, and money currently invested in it may go elsewhere.

That's OK. The booms may be smaller in the future, but so will the busts.
djm4: (Default)
Saturday, April 24th, 2010 11:06 pm
'The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.' - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

To begin at the beginning.

I'm a lifelong Liberal because I believe in liberty. I believe, like Mill, that a person's freedom should only be curtailed if it will harm others. The Wiccan Rede sums this up nicely; whenever I'm asked to list my top ten beliefs, I quote it: 'An it harm none, do what ye will'.

The Liberal Democrats do fall short of this ideal on occasion. We support an evidence-based drugs policy, but not legalisation, which I personally feel to be the liberal ideal. But a commitment to freedom still informs pretty much everything we do.

You might not notice this, though, listening to our publicity over the past year. Our press releases, our speeches and our manifesto have been full of a different 'f' word; 'fairness'. A few years ago, our slogan was 'freer, fairer, greener'. We lost 'greener' from the slogan quite recently, but 'freer' went a while ago, ostensibly because it was 'difficult to explain' to the electorate [1]. (Aside: both freer and greener still feature heavily in our policies – we haven't dropped them from anything but the slogan.)

I struggle to see why freedom is seen as difficult to explain as a concept. The main confusion I can see there is people thinking we mean 'free' as in 'costs nothing', but it must surely be within the wit of our spokespeople to explain that one. Otherwise, I think the principle of 'freedom to go about one's business without interference' is fairly well understood as a general idea. Of course, the main source of interference is often, ultimately, the government. As time goes on, the government tends to do more and more of it – all ostensibly for our own good, naturally, but taking away our freedom to go off-piste, to be eccentric, and to fail to get a permission slip from the government for every last thing we do. In fact, interfering in our business sometimes seems like the sole purpose of the government, and it would be a surprise to find it wanting to do less of it.

We Liberal Democrats are a contrary lot, though. Doing less interfering is precisely what we propose. The Freedom Bill (full text here) was launched over a year ago in February 2009 and generally restores to people the freedoms and rights they have lost over the past few decades. Mostly it deletes legislation, sometimes it amends and occasionally it adds some to strengthen those freedoms and rights.

I'm tempted just to quote the bill verbatim, because every clause in it has me wanting to punch the air and shout 'hell, yes!' I actually did that when I first read it last February; I was in bed with a broken wrist at the time, but it still felt good. Anyhow, here are some of the highlights:

* The Freedom Bill restores the right to protest in the vicinity of Parliament
* It reduces from 28 to 14 days the length of time a terrorist suspect can be held without charge
* It establishes a Royal Commission to regulate use of CCTV
* It scraps ID cards, and the National Identity Register
* It repeals provisions which allow bailiffs to use force
* It strengthens the Freedom of Information act, and reduces the government's ability to block requests
* It restores the right to silence
* It restores the public interest defence for whistleblowers

Incidentally, it's not that we don't imagine that anyone would protest Lib Dem policies within a mile of Parliament, nor that we don't think our government will ever be whistleblown, nor that we'll never have any Freedom of Information requests that are awkward for us. It's that we think people should be free to protest, or whistleblow, or make an Freedom of Information request without the government being able to stop them.

This is the sort of thing governments should be doing. I'd like to think that the reason we're not pushing this more is that it's just so self-evidently right that it sells itself, and that may indeed be the case. I suspect it will need selling to people who believe that the measures this bill would delete are necessary armaments in the infamous 'War on Terror', and that anyone opposing them must have something nefarious to hide. But to Liberals, opposing the measures is as obvious as saying 'don't poison the water supply', and we forget they may need a better sales pitch.

The last time any Home Secretary did anything like this, it was Roy Jenkins back in the mid-sixties; on his watch abortion was legalised, homosexuality decriminalised, theatre censorship stopped, capital punishment (effectively) abolished and divorce laws relaxed. For Chris Huhne to have – as he does – the Freedom Bill at the centre of his policies is a joy to see; nothing like it's been attempted in my lifetime. Of course, it doesn't go nearly far enough for me; 14 days is still too long for a liberal society to hold someone without charge. But to call it 'just a start' would be churlish; it's a huge, seven-league boot step in the right direction.

Our manifesto lists other commitments to freedom not directly covered by the Freedom Bill. It promises a robust responsible journalism defence in libel cases and puts the onus on corporations to show damage and prove malice or recklessness. No longer will London be the so-called libel capital of the world. It ends plans to store e-mail and internet records without good cause, and it scraps the ContactPoint database – a national database of children's records that's already proved both leaky and inaccurate.

One of my heroes is Harry Willcock. In 1950, he became the last person in the UK to be prosecuted for refusing to produce an ID card, which were still in force after the war. When asked by the police to produce one, he said simply: 'I am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing'. Well, I too am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing, and I can't wait to see the Freedom Bill implemented.

[1] Actually, of the two words, I think 'fairness' is the slippery concept, and the one people misunderstand most. But that's a whole other post.
djm4: (Default)
Saturday, April 24th, 2010 11:00 pm
I'm about to attempt a series of twelve blog posts, one per day, between now and the election. They'll be on the subject of why I'm a Liberal Democrat and why I support the party. I'm making them because I've left a number of comments in various journals over the past few days that touch on this, and I felt the need to set out my stall a little.

What this isn't is an exhortation to vote Lib Dem. Everyone reading this will have different priorities from me, different backgrounds and different political cultures. There's no reason at all why you should vote Lib Dem (or vote at all) just because I'm going to. Of course, in the abstract, I want the Lib Dems to get a lot of votes, get into power, and implement some of the policies I'm going to be so enthusiastic about. But on an individual level, you're all independent, intelligent people who can do your own research, make up your own minds, and I wouldn't presume to tell you otherwise.

I'm quite serious about that, by the way, and I feel the need to emphasise it because I know it's not how a lot of other people feel.

Managing expectations a little: I'm not sure I'll actually have time to write anything like twelve of these, and I'm also unlikely to have much time to reply to comments, particularly if the reply is likely to take me some time to write. I'll try, though.
djm4: (Default)
Friday, April 9th, 2010 09:35 pm
No, Gordon Brown, Labour supporters should not vote Lib Dem.

If you're still a Labour supporter at this point, you're going to find precious little to like in the Lib Dems. If you still support a party that abolished the 10% Income Tax band, you're not going to find a welcome in the party that wants to raise the lower tax threshold to £10,000. If you still support the party that brought in 28-day detention without charge - and tried to bring in 90-days - banned demos near Parliament, and brought in a host of anti-terror legislation that has curbed our freedoms left, right, and centre, you won't be happy with our Freedom Bill, nor with our MPs' monitoring of the police brutality at the G20 protests. If you support the party that's trying to build a third runway at Heathrow, you won't like our transport policy. If you support the party that has institutionalised immigration detention, including child detention, then ... well, frankly, I'm not sure which strand of the human race has a welcome for you; the Lib Dems certainly don't.

And let's not even mention the war because, let's face it, if you were a Labour supporter back in 2005, you already reconciled yourself to Labour's behaviour over Iraq. But suffice it to say that you'll find no succour for war criminals and their supporters in the Lib Dems.

You're supporting a party that's had thirteen years to reform our voting system, and didn't. You're supporting a party that tried until the very last minute to exempt MPs' expenses from the Freedom of Information bill. Liberal Democrats pushed to make expenses public - yes, even those that would embarrass us - and we have electoral reform as a core policy. And don't get me started on the Digital Economy Bill....

I could go on, but that's surely enough?

Labour supporters should not vote Lib Dem. We're not the party you're looking for, and do not share your values. Although, on many of the issues I mention, you'll find a sympathetic ear over at Tory HQ.
djm4: (Default)
Friday, March 26th, 2010 08:04 pm
I have an apology to make to the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party in general, and to David Heath in particular. I'm sorry I wrote what I did this morning about the supposed poor response to the Digital Economy Bill. I pulled together a lot of links for that post; in fact, one of my main motivations was pulling together a set of links that showed what state the Bill was at, because I hadn't found anyone else who'd done that in the way I wanted.

It turns out I missed a couple of important ones. For which I'm kicking myself - I mean, really, how hard would it have been for me to Google '"David Heath" "Digital Economy" Hansard'?

Here is David Heath on 18 March, asking about the Digital Economy Bill and doing exactly what I criticised him for not doing yesterday. Perhaps more impressively, here he is doing the same thing on 11 March, while we were still putting the finishing touches to our Emergency Motion to Conference.

I realise neither of those is a stinging criticism of the Bill, but such criticism would have been out-of-place in the largely procedural Business of the House session. I am reassured (by this and *stop press* the letter Bridget Fox discusses here) that Lib Dem opposition to the disconnection clauses in the Bill is anything but token and very much alive.

I'm sorry about the earlier post, and I'll try to research more thoroughly next time.
djm4: (Default)
Friday, March 26th, 2010 06:41 am
Update: I did David Heath a disservice, and I apologise - he did indeed raise the question of the Digital Economy Bill on 11 March which was even in advance of its being debated at Conference. I'm keeping the post below for historical reasons, but I'm pretty much mollified, and feeling somewhat foolish for not spotting his contribution. My only defence is that AFAICT, no-one else did, but it's a poor one given that I'm quite used to trawling Hansard.

So, once upon a time there was a Digital Economy Bill. Which, while it did many good things, also did this:

"...imposes obligations on internet service providers to reduce online copyright infringement, and allows the Secretary of State to amend copyright legislation to the same end."

There have been many good things written about why this is a bad idea - here's one of Cory Doctrow's. I won't rehash them here.

Now, fast forward to a month or so ago, when the Bill hit the Lords. Allegedly, two Lib Dem Peers tried to have the web blocking clause removed, but when they realised that they couldn't get cross-party support for just deleting it, they tabled a replacement amendment. It's only the fact that they tried to get it removed altogether that's in doubt, by the way; the amendment was real and is Amendment 120A here. For comparison, the amendment that the British Phonographic Industry wanted to table was leaked on the Open Rights Group web site.

It is perfectly in order for Liberal Democrat Peers to push the vested interests of the BPI, naturally, but I wish they'd be open about it. I like to know who's doing the policy writing for my party.

There was much discussion of this in Lib Dem circles - here's a reasonable sample, and for once I would encourage you to read the comments. Two of our PPCs, Bridget Fox and Julian Huppert - who are both awesome and if there's any justice will be MPs after the next election - led a movement to get an emergency motion discussed at the Lib Dem Conference a couple of weeks ago. The motion was discussed - I even made my maiden speech to Conference on it; that's an extract of the podcast of the full debate - and it was passed near unanimously.

It's now Lib Dem party policy. That's supposed to be how we write them in my party.

There was much rejoicing and optimism. There was even a UK Lib Dems Save the Net Facebook group (about which my tweet said it all), so people knew we were a serious campaign.

The next day, the Digital Economy Bill returned to the Lords. I have heard conflicting reports about what happened there - including that amendment 120A was dropped and the original clause 17 reinstated - but on looking at both the current Bill with the newly-renumbered clause 18 and the Hansard text of the Third Reading in the Lords, that appears not to be the case. Various amendments were proposed and withdrawn, but 120A, drafted by the BPI and introduced by the Lib Dems, remains.

Yesterday, Harriet Harman, Leader of the House of Commons, gave the Business of the House, including announcing the Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill on April 6. As you'll see from reading the link (it goes on for a couple of pages), Liberal Democrat David Heath spoke early in that debate. But not on the Digital Economy Bill. No, that discussion was left to Neil Gerrard, Tom Watson and John Grogan (Labour) - I saw reports of a Conservative MP also raising concerns but can't find them in Hansard.

The first point to make about this is that it is widely believed that Gordon Brown will seek to dissolve Parliament on April 6. This means that the Digital Economy Bill will go through on 'wash-up', a system by which bills which have passed through one part of Parliament can be nodded through by agreement between the whips of the main parties after Parliament has formally risen for the election. This procedure does not allow for debate of issues; the only changes that can be made to bills are deletions. It is certainly possible that the Lib Dem whips could at this point try to get Clause 18 of the bill (and possibly others) deleted. It's also possible that they'd succeed; apparently a lot of 'horse-trading' goes on during wash-up, and it's quite usual for entire sections of bills to get a line drawn through them.

It's also, of course, possible that they'll make a show of objecting and then let clause 18 through in order to get concessions elsewhere. The word at conference was that the whips' office was pleased with our emergency motion; I don't have to be too cynical to think that that might have been because they knew it would give them a bargaining chip during wash-up. "Supporting this won't play well with our party, so you'll have to give us something substantial in return." I guess we'll know soon enough which it is.

Not having any MPs speak against the Digital Economy Bill yesterday sent a signal, though, and not a good one. To me, it said the following:

It said that I can't rely on Liberal Democrat MPs to speak up for Liberal principles, even when they're party policy.

It said that as a party member I can do all the right things, jump through the hoops set for me to get my voice heard, and it won't make any difference.

It said that Nick Clegg's claims of about being anti-establishment, and of us being the party of real change, were empty rhetoric.

I'll still vote Lib Dem. I'll still campaign like mad over the next month, and I'll remain a member. I recognise that my reaction to this is partly one of pique, at something I've invested a lot in over the past month being ignored. But I think it's more than that. I think it's a worrying omen for how we'll behave as a party in the increasingly-likely event of a hung Parliament, and I think I, and others, will campaign with that bit less fire in our bellies as a result.
djm4: (Default)
Monday, October 12th, 2009 04:26 pm
I am heterosexual, and have never really needed to come out as that. It's the assumed, default position; that confers heaps of privilege on me, and means that I don't have to spend large chunks of my life explaining my sexuality in tedious detail to pruriently interested parties.

I'm also cisgender; not only have I never needed to come out as that, but I'm sure that the majority of my similarly cisgender work colleagues (and probably many of my friends) have never even heard of the term and would question the need for it if I tried to explain it.

I wish that my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender friends who have been today posting coming out posts could make similar posts to this. I hope that one day, future generations will be able to. Even if things were to change tomorrow, people who have already come out would still have those experiences in their past; and even the smoothest coming out story usually carries some anxiety in the lead-in.

(I'm also both kinky and poly, which are not the default assumptions, but that's another story.)
djm4: (Default)
Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 10:48 am
To make explicit what I wrote in my tweet about this excellent post by Nadine Dorries MP, here's the post put through the Colin Powell translator:

And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Gordon Brown is taking pills for depression/stress/random scary-sounding condition." Well, the correct answer is, he is not taking pills for any of those. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with taking medication for something in this country? Do we believe that, as three out of five people suffer with mental health problems/depression at some stage during their life, those people should be excluded from holding high office forever?
djm4: (Default)
Wednesday, July 1st, 2009 10:22 pm
Bisexuals want everyone to remember that they exist.

They'd like people to be accepting of their sexuality, and they'd like the myths and stereotypes associated with it to go away. But primarily, they want to people to say 'straight, gay, lesbian and bisexual', and recognise them all as things a person could be. They're not going to quibble with that list growing longer, with asexuals, pansexuals and sapiosexuals joining it, or even with it being referred to as the Whole Sort Of General Sexuality Mish Mash, as long as it's recognised that some people fancy both men and women, and this is OK.
This gets long, and isn't really apropos of anything except I've been wanting to write it for a while... )
djm4: (Default)
Thursday, June 18th, 2009 10:08 am
Like, I suspect, most Liberals, my heart sinks whenever I hear Lord Carlile on the subject of the Government's response to terrorism. On many other things - marriage rights for all couples, for example - he's superb, but on 42-day detention he's the most illiberal Liberal around. Shami Chakrabarti rightly called him (and us) out on this when she addressed the Lib Dem Conference in Brighton.

So I wasn't over the moon to read his comments regarding the quest for racial balance in stop-and-search. Before listing some of my problems with this, I should also link to his full report (warning, it's a 2M PDF), because reading that it's clear to me that the criticisms the Metro reports are part of a more general criticism of the way stop-and-search is being implemented, particularly in Greater London.


For a start, I think it's wrong to say that making stop-and-search racially neutral is a waste of money and resources. Granted, it may not directly stop more people who are about to commit acts of terrorism, but it does little enough of that anyway. But what also matters is not making ethnic minorities feel alienated be being singled out, because the greater the mistrust of the police and authorities in, say, the Muslim community, the less likely they are to co-operate when there is a genuine need. Also, the more the white population sees Muslims (and black youths, and Irish people, whoever's bad flavour of the month with the Met) stopped where they are not, the more the white population will come to mistrust that section of the community. Mutterings about 'no smoke without fire' will be heard, and mistrust will grow.

Perhaps Lord Carlile's greatest offence here is to foster that mistrust by perpetuating the idea that it's OK to stop a Muslim (and, for that matter easy to identify a Muslim by the fact that they're non-white), but not OK to stop a blond woman. He writes of cases where 'where the person stopped is so obviously far from any known terrorism profile that, realist­ically, there is not the slightest poss­ibility of him/her being a terrorist, and no other feature to justify the stop' - well, most Asians and black people are as far from any known terrorism as most blond women, so if anything, that's a killer blow to the idea of using 'profiling' based on the colour of a person's skin. I feel almost embarrassed having to explain this to an obviously intelligent Liberal peer. Possibly Brian Paddick should have a go; he's been talking sense on stop-and-search for a while now, and Lord Carlile might be more inclined to listen to someone with Brian's experience.

I'm also unconvinced by the assertion that we only face a terrorist threat from Islamist extremists. This recent story isn't about Islamist terrorists - it's about alleged white supremacists. Now, what are the chances that they'd use a blond woman for a terrorist attack?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Apparently, this made the Golden Dozen this week. I mention this in a spirit of getting you to go read the other eleven, which are well worth it.