Thursday, 28 February 2013

Amateur detection

Now that whatever two penn'orth I throw into the blogosphere can no longer be construed as prejudicial to the Eastleigh by-election, here are a few of my reactions to the allegations aired by Channel 4 News and taken up so avidly by the BBC.

I first learned of allegations against Chris Rennard in early 2009 when they were aired by Guido Fawkes*. In those fevered pre-election times when dirt was being flung on all sides, I mentally placed them in the same trough as rumours of William Hague's homosexuality (which he was eventually forced strenuously to deny). In neither case were any specific names mentioned, which tended to discredit them. With Lord Rennard's elevation the rumours subsided, only to resurface in harder form on Channel 4 this month.

It seems that Nick Clegg was also unaware of the identity of the complainants in 2008. He and Danny Alexander were, however, persuaded that there was substance to the complaints, as Alexander's official statement indicates. In the face of strong denials (which he maintains) by Chris Rennard and the then reluctance of complainants to be publicly identified, it is hard to see what other action the new leader and his chief of staff could have taken at that time, other than to ensure that Chris was no longer in a position where he could be thought to be taking advantage of vulnerable people.

It is surely this reluctance on the part of the women concerned to put their heads above the parapet which  prevented the matter being resolved to their satisfaction five years ago. On the face of it, it also seems surprising. A senior LibDem parliamentarian said after the Channel 4 broadcast that he knew the leader's assistant to be a strong character and would have expected her to respond immediately with a slap on the face if she had been propositioned or fondled. It is remarkable that until this month that Nick was unaware that she had been one of the aggrieved. Another young woman, who I have always thought to be strong beyond her years, has reluctantly made herself known publicly, but only to forestall the now inevitable revelation by journalists.  These women appear to have confided at the time of the incidents only in other women.

We men in the party clearly overestimate the self-confidence of seemingly strong women. The fact that so many of them were prospective parliamentary candidates must also have been a factor, as Alison Smith's contribution last night to BBC's persistent coverage makes clear.

If they had had recourse to the Public Concern At Work charity, whose good offices the Liberal Democrat party is now promoting, it might have been a different story. Setting up both an inquiry into the specific cases and that continuing mechanism for concerns to be raised safely is right. The measures are clearly overdue, but at least it they are being done. One wonders what arrangements other political parties have made.

As to the timing of the 2013 revelations, Channel 4 say that their programme had been in preparation for some time before the by-election was called. One might respond that the possibility of Chris Huhne being  forced to resign his seat had been known for two years. One of the people behind the programme is a Conservative who briefly defected to the Liberal Democrats before returning to the Conservatives. This is not to say that the programme should not have been aired. It was clearly a matter of public concern and the sooner it was shown, the better. However, there is testimony from telephone canvassers on the eve of the poll that former LibDem voters in Eastleigh were wavering. The only new factor was the publicity given to the Rennard accusations.

The affair has brought to the fore the whole subject of casual sexism by men in positions of power, at all levels. I am sure everyone who has been in local government can tell of councillors in the ruling group taking advantage of staff, usually no more than an uninvited pat or a risqué comment, but sometimes more. It is true of Labour councillors down here; I have no doubt it is also true of Conservatives in Blue country. A swift glance at Webfetch reveals such writers as Grace Dent, Cathy Newman and Jane Martinson pronouncing on the subject, remarkably consistently given their different political backgrounds. In their articles, they have admirably moved on from the particular to the general. Is it a forlorn hope that it will stay on the agenda this time?

* I find Paul Staines' references to Lord "Sexperv" somewhat hypocritical given the 77 pages of "totty watch" on his blog. is typical.

John Pugh's ten-minute rule bill

While waiting for the result from Eastleigh, parliamentary anoraks should enjoy John Leech's witty speech from mid-day yesterday introducing his Ten-Minute Rule Bill drawing attention to the fraught relationship between local and central Government (, Column 316).

Given where we are in the parliamentary timetable, one would have to be wholly ignorant or severely optimistic to assume that the Bill I propose stands any chance whatever of becoming law—this year. Although as a Lib Dem I am equipped by necessity with boundless reserves of cheery optimism, I have no expectation of seeing the Bill mature into legislation. So confident am I of seeing it strangled at birth that I did think of calling it the “Local Government and Futile Measures Bill”, only to realise that the additional phrase probably applied to much of the legislation in this place. I am far from disheartened, however, because such events, apart from seeming a piece of typically British, eccentric constitutional indulgence, or useful occupational therapy for Back Benchers, can have an effect, by putting, or keeping, on the agenda important key themes. My last foray in this role was an attempt to introduce a Bill to enhance, or provide, democratic accountability for NHS services. The Government have now actually done that, although I would like to think that my proposals, which involved the creation of no new institutions or structures, offered a more elegant, less expensive and less complex solution than that contrived by the Government in the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

Parliament, Brussels notwithstanding, has unfettered power, or what Lord Hailsham referred to as elective dictatorship. Local government also has powers, but they can be increased, decreased, removed or added to, fettered or unfettered, by us in Parliament. Governments often promise—I have heard them do so—to liberate or empower local government, but the liberation of local government by central Government often resembles Stalin’s post-war liberation of eastern Europe, as it simply allows discretion to decide on how to implement unpopular policies, thereby sharing or deflecting the blame.

Largely, and insistently, central Government retain all their rights to interfere in any area, at will, with little or no notice. I am not making a party political point; it is not in the DNA of central Government, irrespective of who is in power, to give away power that matters, and one can understand why. Local government deals with huge areas of national importance—education, social care, transport, the environment, the economic vitality of communities—and Ministers simply cannot be uninterested in what local government does or how it does it, so they keep in reserve, understandably, a range of powers, regulations and incentives to influence how local government performs. Parliament will not have its will crossed—it is, as they say, an elective dictatorship. The Bill aspires not to change any of that, but strives more modestly to stop elective dictatorship becoming or turning into elective tyranny.
The distinction is rather helpfully illustrated by the exemplary behaviour of our current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [Eric Pickles]. Only someone as gifted as him in the art of irony could possibly have introduced a Localism Bill—with over 100 new powers ascribed to himself. Only someone with a feel for the truly comic could wring £250 million out of the Chancellor in hard-pressed times in order that statesmen can interfere with the nation’s bins and council collection times, or could instructively chastise and threaten councils that have set their council tax exactly within the limits he himself laid down. As he himself has said, he takes liberties, but presumably only to demonstrate through a process of reductio ad absurdum how little power local government really has and how it can be removed, changed or denatured by the whim of Whitehall.
It seems to me that having to make clear Whitehall’s interest in interfering, as it does, with council’s planning policies, housing targets and borrowing arrangements, which are all contentious areas, and having to make a case and then abide by it, could hopefully throw up a plethora of anomalies and unjustifiable restraints and perhaps expose the dead-weight influence of state bureaucracy accrued over a fair period, which cannot be a bad thing. It might, in the process, rid me of an abiding and disturbing image of the Secretary of State as a languid eastern potentate or sultan governing by mood or arbitrary decree, and it would hopefully put the fraught relationship between local and central Government on a business-like footing. This issue, which has been raised in various parts of the House and in a number of different places, will not go away, unlike my Bill, which I commend to the House.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Confirmation of a liberal conspiracy

Professor Keith Clayton CBE, who died on 12th February, was a Liberal Democrat councillor on Broadland District Council for four years after his retirement from academia. But of course he is deservedly better known as the man who helped set up the pioneering Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Fellow-professor Tim O'Riordan is quoted in The Independent: "The science of maintaining the planet largely began here in Norwich with Keith. More people than we realise owe a great debt to him, and I certainly was one of those. He set a trend which dozens of campuses are only now seeking to emulate. He broke the mould of single subject science and opened up an era of coordinated and communicative science which embraced all manner of people throughout the world."

Far from being defensive in the face of baying from vested interests in the States that global warming is a liberal conspiracy, we should proclaim the fact that sound science and progressive policies to implement it come together in this party.

Twenty-five years a Liberal

- or rather for a fortnight a Liberal and twenty-four years and fifty weeks a Liberal Democrat. I joined the Liberal Party as a result of participating in the general election of 1987 and, before that, the Gower by-election of 1982. Why my membership started so late is probably not so much delay in the Liberal HQ but the extra push I needed from working with John Newbury and Jim Kelleher again in the Newton by-election of 1988. (The winner here, Sue Waller, later retired from active politics on the death of her husband.)

Of the two components of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, I felt most comfortable with the Liberals, but that became academic with the formation of the Social and Liberal Democrats, immediately nicknamed the "Salads" by the press. This title did not last long, thank goodness.

On the 21st anniversary, an editorial in Liberal Democrat News began: "On 3rd March 1988 this party came into being. Twenty-one years ago the political landscape was totally different - consisting of a massively unpopular Conservative Party and a Labour Party that was in the process of reinventing itself".

Plus ca change.

Deirdre Razzall's editorial concluded: "In the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution it says: 'We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity.' It is in the DNA of the Liberal Democrats" Our task as a party is to ensure this unique character is maintained through the difficult political waters of the next two years.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Lessons from the Premier League

Ed Balls fetched the chancellor of the exchequer back to the House of Commons yesterday to make a statement on the economic situation. The excuse was that one of the credit rating agencies, Moody, had downgraded the UK by one notch from its top rating. Since all sides seemed to agree that this was not very significant and the markets had taken the decision in their stride, the whole occasion seemed rather synthetic. However, it was enlivened (if one could use such a word in connection with the lugubrious Mr Davies) by the following exchange:

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): May I congratulate Swansea City on its triple A rating after winning the league cup? At the same time, the Chancellor is fouling up the economy and has caused a penalty that has lost us the triple A rating. He should be focusing on a growth strategy and should not be cutting the poorest hardest, given that they spend the most.

Mr Osborne: Of course, I congratulate Swansea on its victory in the Capital One cup.
We have to take difficult decisions on things like welfare, but we are helping people have incentives to be in work, helping people who are in work and supporting people by, for example, increasing the personal allowance and taking the lowest-paid out of tax altogether. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that.

If Mr Osborne had been more clued up on Premier League football, he could have pointed out the parallels with a once-proud organisation which had crashed following an unsustainable spending binge and been restored by sound financial governance. As the Indy reported in its sport section yesterday:

Not a penny of debt, a wage bill of £34 million and a new stadium built in a journey back from the brink of oblivion that began almost exactly 11 years ago. Added to the balance sheet at Wembley yesterday was the first major honour of Swansea City's 101-year history – and you simply cannot put a figure on that.

If their Capital One Cup victory over Bradford City was every bit the stroll that you might expect for a Premier League side playing a team 70 places and three divisions below them, then best to consider just how far Swansea have travelled to reach this point. 

They are, quite simply, a shining example of how to run a British club in the 21st century.

But perhaps a Tory politician could not be expected to endorse a co-operative effort.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Command and control

A report on the Eastleigh by-election in the Independent earlier this week spoke of hundreds of Liberal Democrat workers being "drafted in". Anyone who is familiar with the party would know that you can't make a LibDem do anything. (A former chief whip likened his task to "herding cats".) The fact is that there was an enormous upsurge of volunteering as soon as it was known that vacancy had occurred in Eastleigh. It reminded me of the spontaneous mass desire to get back at the party's critics after Charles Kennedy was deposed. The vehicle then was a by-election in Dunfermline and West Fife, which saw the current leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, returned. It should be remembered that the psephological sage of Strathclyde predicted a win there for the SNP with us vying with the Unionists for fourth place.

This is not to say that the organisation of major by-election campaigns is amateurish in style or relies on inspiration and enthusiasm alone. Although we cannot afford the paid help that the Conservatives are able to put in the field, we now have enough seasoned campaigners (many of them helpfully in Hampshire towns and cities!) to run an efficient by-election machine.

Nor are the conservative media writing us off these days. In fact, there are several stories that the Tories have tacitly given up this fight, which immediately makes me suspicious. In spite of the good showing of the UKIP candidate, potentially taking Tory votes, the result looks likely to be close and any complacency fatal*.

Steve Richards in the Indy yesterday drew attention to the propensity of the current crop of Conservatives, including their Eastleigh candidate, to speak their mind, A-list or not:

An illuminating comparison can be made between Labour’s 1997 intake of MPs and the Conservatives elected for the first time in 2010. The response of most Labour MPs in 1997 was to be genuinely loyal to the leadership and for that enthusiasm to be combined with intense ambition to become ministers. There was much talk about “control freakery” at the top, but most of them were happy to be controlled. Parts of the 2010 Tory intake are markedly more independent – almost as a matter of principle.

It is a great pity that the 1997 intake was so obedient to the party machine. The state of the modern Conservative party is surely healthier, even though it gives more headaches to whips - and to coalition partners! - than New Labour was.

*Update 11:45: since writing the above, colleagues on the ground have confirmed that the usual efficient Conservative telephone canvassing operation continues at full pelt. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent lack of activity by Conservative campaigners on the ground, as I was when I was first drawn into a local by-election campaign. The eventual size of the Conservative vote was a surprise to me, but not to the experienced people running our campaign.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Herbert Samuel

Earlier this month there occurred the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Herbert Samuel. I wish I had done more than glance at the ODNB email on the actual anniversary, because Samuel was part of the great reforming Liberal government of the Edwardian era which I have referred to earlier (here for instance).

The ODNB biographer writes: "When the Liberals took office in December 1905, Samuel was appointed under-secretary at the Home Office. He was given wide latitude by the home secretary, Herbert Gladstone [son of William Ewart Gladstone, the 19th century Liberal prime minister], and succeeded in securing passage of several measures of social reform. His most significant achievement was the Children Act of 1908 (the 'Children's Charter'), which extended state responsibility to all children, ended child imprisonment, restricted corporal punishment, and instituted the first countrywide system of juvenile courts. A related measure in the same year established the 'Borstal' system of reformatory schools for juvenile offenders - Samuel claimed paternity of the neologism (so called after the first such institution at Borstal, in Kent). He was also responsible for the 1907 Probation of Offenders Act which, for the first time, created a national system of probation."

He later became postmaster-general in the Liberal government, during which he achieved one world first: an experimental air mail service - which however was judged a failure.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

As we were saying

Not only did Cameron not fulfil his pre-election promise to make one-third of his ministers women, he actually reduced the influence of women in his first major reshuffle.

Meanwhile, women in business are just getting on with it. I see that Byron, the leader in its field in Britain, is not only run by a woman but that she took over from another woman.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Devolution release 2.2

Just as Carwyn Jones and Labour have come around to the view that Wales ought to have the responsibility for police and prisons incorporated in the devolution settlement that Welsh Liberal Democrats called for from the outset, some of our supporters are looking at the way that police and crime commissioners are working and having second thoughts.

Meanwhile, on "Sunday Supplement" this week, Laura McAllister called for the Welsh general election voting system to revert to its original rules, whereby candidates may stand both in a constituency and on a regional list, as is the case in Scotland. Her reasoning was that Wales can ill afford to lose AMs of quality through forcing candidates to gamble which method to plump for. She may have been thinking of the losses of Helen Mary Jones of Plaid and Nick Bourne, the former Conservative leader in the Assembly in the last election.

She is surely right, but she does not go far enough. The AM pool is not large enough to service all the work that needs to be done in Cardiff Bay, let alone provide the quality necessary for ministers, without case-work suffering. An expansion to 80 members all elected under the same fair voting system, as proposed by Richards, is needed.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The idea was not to asset-strip Royal Mail

Four years ago, Liberal Democrat policy was to reinvigorate our postal services by selling 49% of the Royal Mail, ensuring overall control is retained by the Government and the staff, and to use some of the proceeds to invest in a modernised Post Office. Further, we would have put at least one-quarter of the Royal Mail into an employee-owned trust so Royal Mail workers become employee owners. Giving staff a stake in their employment beyond the pay-packet has been shown to improve business performance from co-operatives in this country to industrial enterprises in Germany.

I had thought that, with Vince Cable and Ed Davey in charge of business under the coalition, reorganisation was proceeding along Liberal Democrat lines, albeit rather more slowly than one would have liked. Since Ed has moved on to DEFRA and been replaced by a Conservative minister, there have been leaks that Tory thinking, that Royal Mail should be sold in a way that will raise as much cash as possible, has prevailed. The latest is in today's Independent, implying that no more than a ten per cent share handout is being considered as a sop to "the posties". The stage is set for finagling on the lines of that which enabled asset-stripping of well-known brands leaving only losses to be borne by the taxpayer.

Instead of USB as advisers, the Royal Mail should be employing John Lewis.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Australia win world one-day cricket championship

Perhaps England, the deposed champions, would have given the Aussie women a better fight in the final, but lost out in the Super Six stage. Perhaps if one or two batters had played up to their normal form, things might have been different. Certainly the bowlers, especially the remarkable Anya Shrubsole, did not let the team down. In an interview before the New Zealand play-off match, captain Charlotte Edwards was philosophical. Disappointed at her team's losses, she nevertheless saw the results as a gratifying sign of the improvement in standard of women's cricket world-wide.

Then there is of course the chance of revenge over Australia in the traditional form of the game in Buckinghamshire in August this year.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Green screen pioneer dies

In the 1970s, I remember my then father-in-law, a professional photographer, saying about a stunning (for its time) Kodak TV commercial which we were watching, manipulating moving images within moving images, that he had seen it being produced but that he had been enjoined not to reveal the trade secrets behind it. It dawned on me later that this must have been an early escape from the big film studios of what has become known as Chroma key. It was the invention of Petro Vlahos who has just died. He saw the possibility of replacing the complicated physical matte shot, which often necessitated skilled scenery painters, with something more reliable and capable of producing more spectacular effects. The use of blue screen and green screen was developed by his company and aided by the exponential growth in power and memory density of computers. Now the basic technique is available to anyone with a digital camera and a PC with a graphics processor, but we should not forget the original intellectual breakthrough from the days of celluloid.

Friday, 15 February 2013

MEP questions Cardiff Airport nationalisation

Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in the National Assembly have queried the announcement by Carwyn Jones that Rhoose Airport would be purchased for the nation, but it is left to a South-West English MEP to raise the question of its legality under EU rules about state aid.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

John Morgan

Four years ago, I posted about John Morgan, one of the best journalists and TV presenters to have come out of Wales. (I did get his birthplace wrong: it was Treboeth, not Morriston, as this short reminiscence makes clear. My only excuse is a radio recollection by Morgan of a pub in Morriston which he used to frequent, as I was to several years later.) Since then, his reputation has become even more ephemeral. He does not appear in the Encyclopaedia of Wales, nor in lists on the Web of Welsh journalists and broadcasters. The crowning indignity came in the listing of today's "Wilson night" on BBC-Parliament, where his well-crafted profile of Wilson contrasted with Alec Douglas-Home was attributed to Richard Dimbleby.

Labour bus cuts hypocrisy

Eluned Parrott points out that while the Labour government in Cardiff Bay is about to cut support for transport by bus by one-quarter, Labour's transport spokesman in Westminster is criticising the coalition for taking one-fifth (five percentage points less) off the subsidy in England.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Petty discrimination by Dubai

The Evening Post confirms (apologies for Northcliffe Media's autoplayed audio advert) that Swansea City striker Itay Shechter was prevented by Dubai's immigration officers from joining his team-mates in a warm-weather training camp. This decision would be understandable, if still objectionable, if Dubai had a consistent policy on the subject of Israeli citizenship, but as this web page demonstrates her rulings on entry are arbitrary.

Two generations have passed since Israel became a state in its own right, recognised by the United Nations. It is high time that states within the region established diplomatic relations with Israel, as predominantly Muslim nations Egypt, Jordan and Turkey have already done. This would not signal endorsement of Israel's acquisition of land outside its agreed borders, nor prevent those states continuing to criticise Israel's illegal exercise of her military power. It would, however, enable bridges to be built with ordinary Israelis through tourism and sporting links.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Nothing became his tenure like the leaving of it

There will be time enough to debate the record of Pope Benedict XVI and, indeed, the position of the Roman Catholic church in society. However, the Pope's decision to retire while he was still in good mental and physical health for a man of his age is not only a bold move (the first time that a Pope has resigned since 1415) but also a progressive one. Before the improvements in medicine and in public health of the last century, it could be expected that the grim reaper would take off most people while they were still compos mentis. Nowadays, dementia is looming larger as a scourge of old age. It is said that the late John Paul II had lost his mental grip in his latter years and that the then Cardinal Ratzinger was one of those who advised him to retire. Now Benedict has himself set the precedent, making it easier for his successors to step down in dignity when and if they find that the office becomes too much for them.

Children's services in Neath Port Talbot

Failures in the county borough's children's services are now coming out into the open, even in the Labour-leaning Evening Post. This report highlights the failure to recruit staff, leading to employment of agency staff. Unless things have changed in the year since I was on the council, there is also a higher than average turnover of social workers. Both resulted, in my opinion, from poor human management skills on the part of senior officers. Thus the financial troubles were a symptom, not a cause.

The poor climate of relationships within the department is probably the reason for the continuing failure to recruit. The management was belatedly changed by the Labour cabinet in 2011 but reputations linger.

The financial implications for the council tax payer are bad enough. More importantly, children's lives are put at risk. Misjudgements are made in the other direction, so that more children are made the subject of orders than need to be.

The Labour Welsh Government has protected the Labour council in Neath Port Talbot for long enough. They need to intervene as they did in Swansea four years ago, where Liberal Democrats were in charge of the council and struggling to recover from years of Labour control.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

County roadshow hits Ynystawe

An email from The Balconiers informs us that the Glamorgan county cricket roadshow will be at Ynystawe CC next Wednesday 13th February at 18:30. It will be an opportunity to hear about the county's plans and to quiz key people, both players and coaches.

More details at

Friday, 8 February 2013

Private rents: what are the true figures?

"Private Eye" this week cites a Shelter report that rents have risen 2.8% in the last year. The report is said to be based on a government agency's statistics. Yet Inside Housing magazine reported last month that there are doubts about the adequacy of those statistics. Another interpretation of the figures is that 85% of private rents have risen by less than the Consumer Prices Index*.

As housing benefit is about to be shaved, and made subject to local authority judgments, it is essential that relevant and reliable data should inform the increasing debates.

* CPI itself looks like jumping in January as the rise in world cereal prices has now shown itself on the supermarket shelves.

Civil servants and government

The vexed question of the permanent civil servant's relationship with the elected government has been raised again with Conservative attempts to make permanent secretaries easier to sack. In an interesting short House of Lords debate on the subject (Accountability of Civil Servants: Constitution Committee Report) yesterday, I was particularly struck by the contribution of  Lord Armstrong, who as Sir Robert Armstrong was probably the most conflicted head of the civil service. His tenure coincided with the first nine years of the Thatcher government.

In his closing remarks, Sir Robert was "reminded of the charge that Queen Elizabeth I gave to Sir William Cecil in November 1558, when she appointed him to be her principal Secretary of State - in effect, her Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service. She said: 'This judgment I have of you, that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift; and that you will be faithful to the State; and that, without respect of my private will, you will give me that counsel you think best; and if you shall know anything ... to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only'."

 To knowing chuckles from fellow cross-benchers who could see where this was going, Sir Robert said that it was also worth remembering "the advice that Sir William Cecil gave to his son and successor about what happened when he and the Queen disagreed: 'As long as I may be allowed to give advice, I will not change my opinion by affirming the contrary, for that were to offend God, to whom I am sworn first; but as a servant I will obey Her Majesty's commandment, and no wise contrary the same, presuming that she being God's ... minister here, it shall be God's will to have her commandments obeyed'.

"I might not have put it quite like that; I might have referred not only to her divine mandate, but to her democratic mandate too. However, I recognised instantly that that was how I felt in my dealings with Mrs Thatcher when she was Prime Minister and I was her Cabinet Secretary. The two quotations taken together seem to quite neatly and pithily encapsulate the duties of civil servants to Ministers."


Thursday, 7 February 2013


Further to yesterday's post, the powers that be in the Liberal Democrat Party have indicated how keen they are to open the debate on the differences between Tory and LibDem philosophies by moving the writ as soon as practical. The by-election will take place on 28th February.

Applications for LibDem candidate selection closed yesterday evening. No doubt the short-list will be made public shortly. It will be interesting to see whether Eastleigh Liberal Democrats, one of the strongest and most successful parties in England, choose a local candidate or take the opportunity to return one of our national heavy-hitters to parliament.

Assisted suicide

Sound evidence is necessary as a basis for any policy change. Proponents of assisted dying and euthanasia should take note of Alex Carlile's dissection of some of their arguments.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Eastleigh: the most significant by-election yet

As I wrote nearly two years ago: "if Chris Huhne is guilty of perverting the course of justice, then he has to leave ministerial office. It is not good enough to say, as several scribes have, that 'everybody does it'." He has now admitted his guilt and taken the further correct step of resigning as a member of parliament. If the party is consistent in its treatment of representatives who have committed imprisonable offences, it will also consider his membership.

If the cause of the by-election had been different, I would say that the result would be a clear Liberal Democrat hold. Besides the fact that Eastleigh Borough Council has an overwhelming Liberal Democrat majority, LibDems have been increasingly gaining seats from Conservatives in council by-elections throughout England. There is also the intriguing possibility that UKIP will mount a stronger challenge than in 2010, taking votes and helpers away from the Conservatives. The recent "gay marriage" controversy will not help.

The figures suggest that what might be described as the "social vote" will be crucial. If these people stay at home, or vote Labour, it may allow a Conservative challenger in.  Will people understand what Liberal Democrats have been able to achieve in government and allow the fight for fairness to continue? I am sure that Eastleigh LibDems will make sure the message gets through.

2010 result

Chris Huhne                   LDm        24966
Maria Hutchings             Con          21102
Leo Barraclough             Lab            5153
Ray Finch                      UKIP          1933
Tony Stephen Pewsey    EngDems      249
Dave Stone                   Ind                 154
Keith Low                      NatDem          93

Update 2013-02-05 16:20: BBC News Channel reports that \Nigel Farage has ruled out standing in Eastleigh but will instead concentrate on organising UKIP's local council election campaign

Sunday, 3 February 2013

RSPB: the Welsh connection

The spring issue of Birds, the magazine of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, reports that, though TV presenter Kate Humble is standing down early as president because of increasing professional and personal commitments, she and her husband have established a rural project in Monmouthshire. They have embarked on the preservation of a farm and use its buildings as a centre to teach rural skills and animal husbandry. Birds says that Kate will continue to support the RSPB and, of course, the couple will be in the right place to support campaigns for the Gwent Levels.

The new chairman of RSPB's governing body is Cardiff University's Steve Ormerod. He is Professor of Ecology in the university's School of Biosciences and has chaired the RSPB's Advisory Committee for Wales, as well as being Past President of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management.

Manganese Bronze: what would my father say?

News came on Friday that the Geely company of China has bought Manganese Bronze, the manufacturer of taxi cabs, out of administration. Geely had owned 20% of MB when it was a quoted company. It will be interesting to see whether Geely keep the name of their new acquisition. They have retained the "Volvo" brand after acquiring the Swedish car-maker, but there is less reason to keep "Manganese Bronze" which, after all, does not appear on the cabs. So it could be the end of a nearly one hundred year old trade name - see Wikipedia and Grace's Guide.

The latter entry explains the origin of the company name. Manganese Bronze was an alloy used for the manufacture of ships' propellers. I would query the date that Grace's gives for the move to Merseyside, though; I once had a photograph (before it was stolen among some other personal possessions) of my father and a fellow-apprentice standing under a massive propeller in the Birkenhead works. This must have been taken shortly before the outbreak of the second world war, when he joined up in the fight against Hitler's Germany.

One wonders why the established firm of Villiers decided to assume the Manganese Bronze name when it took over the company in the 1960s, rather than use its own well-known brand. Anyway, the metal-working basis of the business seems to have withered away during the early part of that decade.

Reading the Wikipedia entry threw up another personal connection I was unaware of. Villiers/Manganese Bronze also went on to buy Associated Motor Cycles, whose AJS and Matchless factory was next door to the junior school in Burrage Grove, London SE18 which I attended for a year or so. (Army families were even more mobile in those days than they are now!)

After the end of the war in Europe, my father's tour of duty took him to Hong Kong, whence he brought back such memorable goodies as candied peel. I have the impression that he formed some admiration for the Chinese he observed there. I imagine, though, that he would have been saddened by the loss of yet another British manufacturer to an Asian conglomerate.

Saturday, 2 February 2013


It was good to hear John Leech on "The Week in Westminster" this morning, giving a straight account of coalition relationships. The contrast with his counterpart Graham Stringer, a fellow Manchester MP, regurgitating the Labour Party line, was striking.

In another segment, Julian Huppert explained LibDem MPs approach to social policy, reiterating that we should not be balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.

However, what struck me as much was David Davis's earlier misrepresentation of Liberal Democrats' position on the Alternative Vote. He is not alone. In an intervention in a Commons debate last week (sadly not recorded by Hansard), Peter Bone explained that in a 1922 Committee meeting before the establishment of the coalition, Conservative back-benchers had been told that, provided we achieved a referendum on AV, we would accept all their party's desired changes to constitutional arrangements. This is clearly the line that is going to be taken by Tories in future parliamentary election campaigns, that the Liberals have gone back on their word. 

In fact, the big betrayal has been by Labour. AV is not a Liberal Democrat policy; the idea came from the Labour side of coalition discussions. (Peter Hain is a long-term advocate - see his section on electoral reform in "Ayes to the Left".) Why Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander picked up the idea and ran with it in the negotiations with the Conservatives is a mystery which may be elucidated only when their memoirs are written. AV is not a fair electoral system. The reasons why I will leave to electoral anoraks to explain, but I would cite the survival until 2007 of John Howard's conservative governments in Australia when Labor had the majority of the popular vote.

Having helped set up the cross-party Yes2AV campaign, Labour then proceeded to use the referendum as a judgement on Nick Clegg personally. 

Friday, 1 February 2013

Gleision mine charges

Proceedings will resume at Swansea Crown Court on February 11th. More details here.

BBC not reporting the good news

Labour said that Vince Cable's efforts in reducing the impact of increased tuition fees would not work and that applicants from disadvantaged areas would be deterred. The opposite has proved to be true. 

David Heath has made clear that "the public forest estate will stay in public ownership. The previous decision to sell off 15% of the estate is rescinded, and I’ve been able to restore the budget that was cut as a result, and put a little more money in to ensure we take forward our proposals."

All these good news items formed or were part of official media releases within the past few days. The last was included in the BBC News web-site environment pages, but otherwise BBC has given hardly any coverage to them.