Friday, 29 March 2013

Richard Griffiths

There are many obituaries of a much-loved actor to be found around the Web, but my first reaction to the news that he had died of complications resulting from heart surgery was that he needn't have gone so soon. The strain on his heart, and other afflictions through his life, must have resulted from his obesity which in turn was caused by an unnecessary medical procedure.

As Timothy Noah recounts:

his obesity came about as a result of an ill-considered radiation treatment when he was 8 years old—for being too skinny, of all things

And there is an IT connection.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Basil d'Oliveira

I've just finished reading Peter Oborne's powerful biography of the great South African-born cricketer who went on to represent England. The climax of the book is the furore over d'Oliveira's selection for the MCC 1968/9 tour of South Africa, but it is particularly good on d'Oliveira's early life and career. The author rather loses interest in his subject after the latter's retirement from playing and I don't think Oborne gives enough space to those South African test players, like Dr Aaron (Ali) Bacher, who worked to undermine the separatist ethos of their homeland. However, these are minor quibbles, especially as the d'Oliveira affair is increasingly seen as a turning-point in the history of South Africa.

Oborne is scrupulous in quoting at length the evidence linking the white supremacist president of South Africa to the official South African Cricket Association and the collusion between the latter and key administrators in the MCC. The citations are almost too frequent, but clearly he felt it essential that there should be no doubt about the history of the cancelled tour as he tells it. Briefly, d'Oliveira had seemed to cement his place in the party with a score of 158 in the Oval test match against Australia. There was widespread dismay in Britain and jubilation in South African government circles when he was omitted. However, a vacancy arose when Tom Cartwright failed a fitness test and was replaced by d'Oliveira. South Africa declared that a MCC party including "a certain gentleman of colour" was unacceptable and MCC called the tour off.

Cartwright, who became an influential bowling coach for Glamorgan and Welsh schools and lived in Caewern, Neath until his death in 2010, never spoke about the deterioration of his shoulder injury which caused him to pull out of the tour, allowing d'Oliveira to take his place. John Arlott (who had eased the way for d'Oliveira into Lancashire club cricket, which gave him his start over here) once recounted the sympathy that county professionals in general had for the anti-apartheid movement, unlike the dinosaurs at Lord's, and one assumes that Cartwright's heart was not in a tour which excluded d'Oliveira.

Oborne's thoroughness extends to the statistics of d'Oliveira's career, both in England and in South Africa. His performances on native soil are remarkable. The figures underline the impression that we did not see him at the peak of his abilities and that apartheid held him back. More interesting, and significant for the person that he was to  become, is Oborne's description of d'Oliveira's upbringing and his youthful surroundings.

Twenty-five pages cover the post-1968 career of Basil d'Oliveira and of that Oborne concentrates on the trips home, culminating in the rapprochement with post-apartheid South Africa. The final chapter ends with the new president inviting d'Oliveira to lunch.

The two old men talked over many things. At the end Mandela rose from his chair and hugged D'Oliveira.  'Thanks for coming, Basil,' he said. 'You must go home now. You've done your bit. Tell your family to look after you. They must look after you now.'

The news from South Africa today about Mandela's health lends poignancy to that closing paragraph. D'Oliveira himself died in 2011.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013


Was it a coincidence that the Beeching Report was published on the anniversary of Sir Henry Royce?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Immigration again

No apologies for returning to this subject, because there has been a long and thoughtful post about Nick Clegg's speech on the Liberator blog.

Here is the 2007 motion moved by Nick that Simon Titley refers to:

Conference believes that:
i) Migration is a worldwide phenomenon that has always been part of human history, and immigration to Britain has been of enormous benefit to the economy and to society.
ii) The benefits of a liberal immigration policy can only be secured if the effort is made to plan for the impact and consequences of that policy.
iii) A practical liberal approach to immigration should therefore focus on:
     a) Creating a system that works: efficient, fair and effective.
     b) Planning for the effects of managed inward migration.
     c) Promoting integration as well as immigration.
iv) Asylum policy is based on UK obligations under international conventions, and should be considered separately from policy on immigration.
Conference notes:
A) The dramatic increase in global migration over the last 20 years, with 191 million people now living in a country other than the one in which they were born.
B) That 7.5% of the British population were born abroad, and that net immigration has been rising since the mid-1990s to reach 185,000 in 2005, the equivalent of 500 more people a day.
C) That over 600,000 workers from the European Union accession states have travelled to the UK for work, and many have stayed.
D) That 5.5 million British nationals live overseas permanently, equivalent to 9.2 per cent of the UK’s population.
E) That 32.3 million overseas visitors came to Britain in the year to April 2007, twice as many as 20 years ago, and that there are around 300,000 international students at UK institutions who contribute around £3.6bn to the economy.
F) The population of illegal workers is growing across the EU, creating a new underclass of people who lack any employment rights, citizen rights, or access to public or mainstream private services including healthcare and banking – the Home Office estimates there are between 310,000 and 570,000 irregular migrants in the UK.
G) The establishment of the Border and Immigration Agency, and the signing by the UK of the Council of Europe convention on human trafficking after Liberal Democrat pressure.
Conference calls for:
1. A National Border Force, bringing together the present border control functions of HM Revenue & Customs, the Immigration & Nationality Directorate and police guarding ports and airports.
2. The reintroduction of exit checks at all ports.
3. The Government to work closely with the European Union on immigration, especially in tackling people-trafficking and immigration crime, and shared asylum policy.
4. The Foreign Office to prioritise the improvement of visa services at UK consulates around the world, introduce a full complaints procedure and review the restrictions on rights of appeal for visa nationals.
5. The development of an earned route to citizenship, beginning with a two-year work permit, for irregular migrants who have been in the UK for 10 years, subject to:
     a) A public interest test.
     b) A long-term commitment to the UK.
     c) A clean criminal record.
     d) The payment of a charge, waived for those who have completed a set number of hours of service in the community or volunteering.
     e) An English language and civics test, or proof that the applicant is undergoing a course of education in these subjects.
6. A full review of social housing allocations policies to establish best practice, so that those who have waited a long time for a home or home transfer are treated fairly, and a major programme of building social housing to tackle housing shortages for all those in need.
7. Increased fees to businesses for work permits, charged as a percentage of starting salary for those receiving the permit, with additional revenue used to fund skills training for the domestic workforce in shortage areas.
8. Extension of language lessons especially for asylum seekers, refugees and recent migrants, with out-reach programmes in some communities to identify those who would benefit.
9. Reform of the Life in the UK test to empower new arrivals to engage fully in society at every level, with a less detailed version of the test for those applying for long-term visas, and for Indefinite Leave to Remain, and ‘welcome packs’ with information about life, and culture, in the UK, for all long-stay arrivals.
10. Twinning arrangements between schools with different ethnic or social mixes of pupils, so children can mix across ethnic and religious boundaries in some classes.
11. Full ratification of the Council of Europe convention on people trafficking.
12. Transfer of responsibility for migration statistics to the Office for National Statistics, which will itself be reformed under current legislation to make it more independent of government.

Only a part of this has been implemented, either in the last few years of Labour or under the coalition. We have the UK Border Agency, but it is under-staffed and seems to lack the expertise necessary to cope with a wide range of nationals. The result is that people determined to exploit the UK get away with it and genuine cases are caused grief. We still do not have exit checks, or the other reforms listed in the motion which would mitigate what must already be the toughest and most arbitrary immigration laws in western Europe.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Vaz accuses Clegg of race to the bottom

I was all prepared to polish my off-centre analysis of the budget when I was hit by this news item: which obviously takes precedence. It is worrying when the leader of the Liberal Democrats is praised by the Express over immigration. The reaction of Keith Vaz (Labour chair of the home affairs select committee) was to warn against an arms race over immigration. It is seriously worrying when a senior Labour figure implies a racist motive on the part of a senior LibDem.

The proposal for a £1,000 visa deposit can only be a "dog-whistle" appeal to racist voters, because it would be ineffective. It will not deter economic migrants, who will either be able to save that amount over the period for which the visa is valid. Moreover, it will deter genuine visitors, such as relatives on a possibly once-in-a-lifetime attendance at a christening, wedding or funeral.

In Nick's favour, it should be said that this is a coalition policy, not an attempt to make LibDem policy on the hoof. But one wonders why he was made the front man for it. Is it the price paid for bringing forward the rise to £10,000 in the personal allowance?

Caron Lindsay has more.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Belated comments on legal legs

Under the proposed Royal Charter (22 page pdf) on press regulation, I and countless other bloggers are "relevant publishers", being:

 a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a 
newspaper or magazine)

It seems that if I had not joined a regulator approved under the Charter I would be liable to exemplary damages* if I transgressed the regulator's code of conduct. Since the cost of joining could be in excess of £400,000 (an estimate by a Fleet Street editor, based on membership of the current Press Complaints Council), I shall take my chance and remain outside, bearing in mind that I haven't been sued under the current rĂ©gime and do not intend to defame anybody in the future.

Anyway, for what they're worth, here are my comments on some the views expressed in the Commons emergency debate following the late-night discussions on Leveson last Monday.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with me—and, I think, with most people in the House—that the terrible practice of phone hacking is already a criminal offence, and that no further legislation is needed, not even a tiny bit, to deal with the problem?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Lord Justice Leveson looked at this matter extensively and said that, in addition to taking action when the criminal law had been broken, further reassurance was needed to ensure that innocent people had recourse to justice when they were being intimidated or bullied in an unjustified way.
This is the point. Although it was the hacking of Millie Dowler's mobile phone which probably tipped the scales in favour of a public inquiry, the major benefit of Leveson is that ordinary people who cannot afford to take civil action** and who have been traduced by the press will at last be guaranteed some redress. One thinks of Chris Jefferies or Colin Stagg, both convicted of murder in the eyes of the press, though both were completely innocent, or of Carmen Proetta, whose reputation was trashed by the Murdoch press because her testimony contradicted the Thatcher government's line on an extra-judicial execution in Gibraltar. (One assumes that as the citizen of a British territory, Mrs Proetta would have been covered by the proposed Charter, but perhaps this needs spelling out.) As Sir Roger Gale said later in the debate:
It was when my right hon. Friend Lord Wakeham was chairman of the Press Complaints Commission that I first raised with him my concerns about the manner in which only the super-rich could obtain redress through libel action, while ordinary people nursing ordinary grievances had nowhere to run to, because at that time the PCC was the creature of the press. It was paid for by the press, it was run by the press and it was self-serving. It was a sadness that even the black arts of my right hon. Friend, learnt in the Whips Office over many years, failed to address the machinations of newspaper proprietors and newspaper editors.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): Is not the prize here the fact that a free press will still be able to expose wrongdoing, but not at the expense of trashing people’s lives? 
Simon Hughes: That is a very good summary.
Nothing in the charter nor the amendments agreed to on Monday allow the government to dictate to or to censor the press.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Some years ago, my profession, the legal profession, went through a similar process, and we now have an overarching body, the Legal Services Board, which recognises independent regulation. There was a worry that that would interfere with the independence of the Bar and solicitors, but the truth is that solicitors and barristers go about their daily work without having to look over their shoulder at a recognising body. In fact, that body is enshrined in statute and has a wider remit that anything I have read about in this royal charter. For those reasons, we can confidently support the agreement that has been reached between all parties in this House and look forward to a time when the victims of wrongdoing will receive a fairer deal.
Indeed. Why should the press be the only profession in Britain not to have a code of conduct underpinned by law?

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): We have to read up to schedule 4 of the charter before it sets out to whom it applies. It states that a “‘relevant publisher’ means a person…who publishes in the United Kingdom…a newspaper or magazine…or…a website containing news-related material”. That is why it is so unrealistic, because websites can be set up anywhere in the world.
This is rather like arguing that because guns and pharmaceuticals can be bought over the Internet, it is not realistic to regulate their sale over the counter in this country. [Mark Steel mode off] In practice, the print media with their associated web sites should benefit from the standing that membership of a chartered regulator will give them. An unregulated blog, whether hosted in the UK or abroad, has as much credibility as the Sunday Sport.

Dr Wollaston: There is a risk that we will abandon the printed press for the online news media, and what will happen then to our particularly vulnerable regional and local press? Who will be there to report from the courts?
Dr Wollaston is fortunate if her local paper gives comprehensive court reports these days. Another MP has suggested that the political independence of the local press would be compromised by the proposed Charter, to which I would reply that unless he is in one of those increasingly rare areas which is served by more than one journal, his local paper is already compromised by being owned by a conglomerate which has an overt allegiance to either the Conservative or the Labour Party.

Another view which is often expressed is that newspapers exist to hold government and powerful people to account. Not so; newspapers are commercial entities, vehicles for the sale of news, entertainment and opinion. Even the owners of loss-making newspapers carry on in the hope that they will make money. We are fortunate that there are journalists who see their duty as reporting all the news, including that which others try to suppress, but (sadly) the Great British Press could survive without them.

The Charter, and the clauses which permit the levying of damages, will not cure two of the evils which Leveson exposed, namely the unhealthy relationship between media proprietors, leading politicians and the police, and the reluctance of the authorities to prosecute when newspapers are involved. But they will go a long way to protect ordinary members of the public and there is just a hint that Parliament will look into the question of media ownership.

*An honourable member pointed out in Monday's debate that the concept of exemplary damages does not exist in Scotland, so the government has a problem to solve in respect of publishers north of the Border.
**Legal aid is not available for actions for slander or libel

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

ALDC entering the mainstream

After many years, the office of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC, formerly ALC) is moving from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. It's an area I associate with non-conformity and imaginative local ventures. Indeed, the community spirit is very strong as that web-site shows.

Now the ALDC HQ is to be in Manchester, a city with a great Liberal tradition. It may not have completely abandoned its roots in community politics by moving to London, but ALDC is now much closer to the new home of the BBC. Expect more frequent telly appearances by Tim Pickstone after May this year.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The Lady Vanishes

This was not a remake of the Hitchcock film, but a return to the source material, as this feature about last night's dramatisation makes clear.The production looked expensive - co-production money must have helped - but what impressed me more was what the writer and director left out. There were no gratuitous sex scenes and, apart from a distant view of what might have been field-grey uniforms, there were no heavy-handed scenes of goose-stepping Nazis or Jewish discrimination, These have been de rigueur in virtually all modern TV plays set in the inter-war period, even when irrelevant to the story. It was also interesting that the heroine, a Paris Hilton of her time, was granted no redeeming features by the script until given a purpose in life by the quest to find the vanishing lady.

Oh, and it was gripping, too.

Possible changes to next year's election timetable

The European Union's press office has issued the following statement:

Electoral period for next European Parliament to be advanced 

The Permanent Representatives Committee today endorsed a draft Council decision 
bringing forward the period of the next European Parliament's elections from 5-8 June to 
22-25 May 2014. The draft decision's main objective is to ensure optimal conditions for the
elections and hereby to strengthen the European Parliament's legitimacy. It also responds 
to a request by the European Parliament. In 2005 the Parliament asked to bring forward the 
date of the election to May so that it can better organise itself to expedite the election of the 
new Commission President and avoid the beginning of the summer vacation in several 
member states. 

The draft decision still needs to be formally adopted by the Council by unanimity after 
having consulted the European Parliament. 

It is likely that the Westminster government will move to put back English local elections (including those in Greater London) to 22nd May also.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The cost of loyalty

This was one of the subjects on last week's Radio 4 Money Box programme (a podcast of this is still available - see the programme page here). Too many insurance companies and mortgage organisations are offering preferential terms and services to newcomers denied to older customers. Worse, many loyal customers are left on poor financial schemes without being informed of better options.

It was therefore refreshing to receive a letter from the Ecology Building Society this morning including the  following paragraph:

From now onwards, new Ecology members will receive a special pack welcoming them to the Society and offering them a range of exciting benefits with other ethical and sustainable organisations. Because we value our existing members just as much as newcomers, we want to make sure you can also take advantage of these partnerships, so we have enclosed a copy of our new welcome leaflet. When you use the services of our partners Ecology will also benefit - meaning we can continue to grow our work to support sustainable properties and projects.

Ecology BS also has a Facebook page:

Secret courts

David Howarth (Dr Julian Huppert's predecessor as MP for Cambridge) explains why Part II of the Crime and Justice Bill is so wrong:

In the aftermath of the 2010 general election result, when I assumed that there was going to be a minority Conservative government, I wrote: "one would expect Cameron to make good his promises about civil liberties". This was partially correct. For white non-Muslim citizens, the coalition has swept away Labour's moves towards an intrusive state. For others, it seems that the coalition is as in thrall to the security services as Labour was. What is worse, it seems to have taken the rest of the parliamentary Liberal Democrats along with it.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Is Rosie Wallace our answer to Adam Price?

In January, I suggested that English TV would not be able to produce a satisfactory equivalent to Borgen, the Danish drama series set in their prime minister's office. Part of the reason is that we are too familiar with real-life Westminster drama through news and current affairs programmes. The Danish system is just different enough to make it interesting. However, the Scottish Parliament is unknown to most of us. It transpires that Scottish Liberal Democrats have a published author in their midst whose second novel has been described "Holyrood's Borgen". I look forward to Scottish Television's adaptation for the small screen. It would make a change from the endless retreads of Taggart.

The Adam Price in the heading is not the former Plaid Cymru politician, of course.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Bravo IMDb!

It began around a quarter of a century ago as a hobbyist project in Bristol. It is now, under the ambit of Amazon, an international resource. The Internet Movie Database is celebrated in this week's Film Programme on Radio 4.

Fifty years ago

An item on the Today programme recently reminded me that it is just over fifty years ago since the south-east of England was hit by a crippling snowfall. I have this vague memory of being at the birthday celebration of my flat-mate's girl-friend, in the old Dive Bar underneath the Hop Exchange in Southwark, sometime in February of 1963. When we left to walk to London Bridge station, we noticed that snow had fallen. What we were not to know was that it would continue to snow and that even after it stopped it would hang around for weeks because the temperature didn't rise enough for it to thaw. I can't pin down the start date in my old diary - clearly I didn't need a written reminder of that party - but a Pears Cyclopaedia record of Events of 1963 confirms that March 5th-6th was the first frost-free night of that season since December 22nd 1962.

From that list I also see that March 8th was the date of the military coup which brought Assad sr. to power in Syria, and in a fortnight's time we shall see the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Beeching Report, the consequences of which on the railway system we are still living with.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Something has to be done about the Lords

The current Westminster parliamentary session ends on 26th March. Any Bills which have not completed all their parliamentary stages by then will in theory be lost, but in practice there is often agreement to carry Bills over to the next session. There are currently around 150 Bills before Parliament which have not received Royal Assent (there is a list here). I understand that the two House of Lords reform measures - the government Bill which the opposition, assisted by Tory rebels, refused to allocate time to, and Lord Steel's useful measure which would at least address some of the faults of the existing House of Lords - will be allowed by the government to fall. An opportunity at least to reduce the numbers of an overcrowded upper chamber would thereby be lost.

There are around 830 members of the House of Lords at present and the number is continuing to grow. It is interesting to compare the size now and the size before the Blair reforms. In 1970, for instance, there were 754 members (excluding minors, those who had not taken their seats, those on long-term leave of absence and royals, but including the law lords and 158 life peers).

(For the greater benefits of Lords Reform, read Paul Tyler's summing-up.)

It is tempting to see the failure of the three main party leaders to pursue any sort of reform as conspiracy. After all, elections to the upper house would remove powers of patronage. Think of all those superannuated Labour MPs bribed with a barony to give up their safe seats or the Tory donors rewarded with ermine. Even the Liberal Democrat leadership has not taken all its nominations from the people voted for by members.  I have been told, however, that is more likely the result of pure mismanagement.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

That mansion tax motion

Today's Opposition motion in the House of Commons read: "That this House believes that a mansion tax on properties worth over £2 million, to fund a tax cut for millions of people on middle and low incomes, should be part of a fair tax system; and calls on the Government to bring forward proposals for such a tax at the earliest opportunity."

Note the tie to funding a tax cut. This is what caused Liberal Democrat MPs to refrain from supporting the motion. If Labour had omitted that clause, they might have been able to peel more of the rank-and-file away. LibDems in government were never going to support a tax policy which was not included in the coalition agreement, but back-benchers might have been tempted to support an unadulterated statement of LibDem policy.

There is some justification for directing the revenue to reducing the effects of inflation on benefits, for extra funding for public works - which Vince Cable appears to favour - or simply to reduce the public sector debt. Labour speakers indicated that they wanted to reintroduce the failed 10p starter rate of tax, which the IFS describes as "too complex". The coalition has already factored in a big increase in the personal income tax allowance and a 10p rate is not likely to feature in a future LibDem manifesto.


Earlier in the day, during questions to the Treasury team, this interchange took place:

Mr Hepburn [Stephen Hepburn, Jarrow (Labour)]:
Bankers’ bonuses are up £15 billion, executive boardroom pay is up by 27%, and the richest 1,000 people in this country have increased their wealth by £155 billion, yet there is still a tax cut on the way for the richest 1%. When is the Chancellor going to do something for the other 99% who are paying the bill to subsidise the lifestyle of his privileged chums?
Mr Osborne:
We are increasing the personal allowance for 24 million people. Bankers’ bonuses were £15 billion a year when the shadow Chancellor was City Minister, but they have come down to just over £1 billion—a dramatic reduction as we now have a more responsible financial sector.

This confirms my impression that Liam Byrne was talking through his posterior last week when he spoke of raising £1.3bn from a bankers' bonus tax. Only the most fervent socialist in the House would seriously consider a tax of more than 100%.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Perhaps the Beeb really is part of a LibDem conspiracy

I speculated yesterday that the corporation was deliberately not covering the political (as opposed to the personal) debates in Brighton to avoid embarrassing the leadership. As I type this, I have just watched a BBC relay of a lengthy speech by Theresa (note the "h") May at a Conservative Party Strategy Conference. It was a foretaste of the line to be taken by the Tories at the next general election. However, it will be taken as a leadership bid by Ms May, and its "dry" tone be seen as evidence of a reaction to David Cameron's avowed determination that the party will not lurch to the right.

It was not totally illiberal. However, the clear implication of her attack on the European Convention of Human Rights (not just the Human Rights Act) suggests that protection by the justice system will be limited to a favoured few. I was reminded of Meryl Streep's character in Rendition (2007), when defending the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the US authorities:

Corrine Whitman: Honey, this is nasty business. There are upwards of 7,000 people in central London alive tonight, because of information that we elicited just this way. So maybe you can put your head on your pillow and feel proud for saving one man while 7,000 perish, but I got grandkids in London, so I'm glad I'm doing this job... and you're not. 

Sadly these views are shared by some MPs across the gangway from the government, and I don't mean just the Ulster unionists.

Friday, 8 March 2013

BBC is attacking LibDem ministers for the wrong reasons

I would like to be in Brighton this weekend, but I cannot afford the hotel bills. The pleasure of being with fellow party members from all over would in any case be marred by the sense that the Metropole and the BCC were being invested by the media, including the BBC. It would be like a returning exile being dropped into Leningrad during the Nazi siege (I know, I know, Godwin applies, but it was the first analogy I could come up with.) I really didn't fancy running the gauntlet of hacks asking me what I thought about Huhne, Pryce and Rennard.

There is a great danger in saying anything on these occasions. Tim Farron*, who has been an active president, has been caught out by an amusing, inspiring, article being quoted out of context. His words have been added to the ammunition of the conservatives (red and blue) attacking us from the media.

The latest wheeze is a "who knew what when?" argument about the Huhne speeding points, as if this mattered much. There are more subtle attacks: replacing Nick with Nigel Farage in the BBC-TV trail for BBC Parliament, for instance. (Remind me: how many MPs does UKIP have?)

There are plenty of serious matters over which the membership of the party may take issue with the parliamentary leadership: support for the Justice and Security Bill (which is heavy on the latter and rather light on the former), the working of DWP's Work Capability Assessment, the shambolic changes to the English NHS and the too-severe cuts in social security payments. My own grievance is the way that Nick gave in to Cameron and Miliband in burking the Lords Reform Bill, which, it should be remembered, was supported by the House of Commons, including a majority of Conservatives.

These are subjects which serious political correspondents should be concentrating on. But maybe this is part of a cunning plan by Danny Alexander? He is perhaps colluding with the BBC to give blanket coverage of personality-driven side-issues in order to distract the public from more serious matters, while garnering some sympathy for the party under such crude attack.

*I first saw Tim at an earlier Brighton conference, when he made a brilliant speech at a fringe meeting in favour of Local Works.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

After Chavez

Jessica Duchen's post about the implications of the death of the Venezuelan president-elect for the future of music's El Sistema may be symbolic of the immediate future of the Venezuelan state.

First, JD makes clear that El Sistema was devised before Chavez came to power. He was swift to associate his socialist regime with the internationally-recognised work of Abreu and Dudamel, but, says JD, "nobody is suggesting that that should mean the end of El Sistema. At least, I hope they're not. Art and politics become terribly intertwined, as you know, at all the wrong moments. Those opposed to 'socialist' policies and to state support for culture in general tend to turn guns on El Sistema for their own ends. We'd like to think that the worth of music goes beyond that. Besides, the fact is that El Sistema works. It's been proven to work."

Similarly, Chavez's "missions" or social programmes, including education and health services for all, showed what could be done. Not as efficient as El Sistema, and by most external accounts implemented rather haphazardly, nevertheless the citizens of Venezuela are not going to give these benefits up if they can help it. Chavez resisted one attempted coup and one would expect his successors to be able to do the same, while his socialist party would seem to be safe for at least the next round of polls. (Chavez may have been a dictator, but he was an elected one.)

What Venezuela needs to do now is to mend her fences with the USA, taking advantage of the Obama presidency which has already relaxed relations with Cuba. If that means recanting some of Chavez's more  extreme statements, so be it. The prize of increasing her oil revenues, and attracting back some of her middle classes which had been frightened abroad by Chavez's brand of Marxism, would be worth it.

I would expect Venezuela to move from socialism to social democracy over the decade. At least, I hope so. The trend in South America generally has been towards democracy, so the portents are good.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

What are the Liberal Democrats for?

Some commentators, mostly Labour supporters it has to be said, have taken to asking this question. The fact that it is easier to find out what the Liberal Democrats are for than it is to discern a purpose in the other two national parties is touched on by Peter Black but even more comprehensively answered by Julian Huppert I trust he will not object to my reproducing most of his article:

25 years ago, our party agreed its new constitution – and the preamble to that constitution, setting out our core values and vision.


What struck me when I read it, was both how much I agreed with it, and also how much it is still relevant. Sure, a couple of phrases are a bit clunky, and we’d probably say a bit more about climate change – but the importance of the environment is still mentioned. We talked about well-being before it was fashionable, and kept talking about workplace democracy when no one else did.

25 years on, it is still a well-written, clear, positive vision of what we stand for. A great tribute to the writers of the time!

It also sets us apart from the other parties, who quite pointedly don’t start with a statement of values, but of power and existence.

Let’s take Labour – there was much debate around clause 4 and Blairism – but I think the key to understanding the Labour Party is seen in Clause 1, the very beginning of their constitution. Here it is:

— Clause1 – Name and Objects 1 This organisation shall be known as ‘The Labour Party’ (hereinafter referred to as ‘the party’). Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.

2 The party shall give effect, as far as may be practicable, to the principles from time to time approved by party conference. —

The purpose of the Labour party is … wait for it … for there to be a Labour party! Clause 1.2 then admits it should try at least a bit to have some principles, but that is clearly secondary to the main purposes of existence and power. I think this says quite a lot about New Labour and Blairism.

The Tory constitution is rather hard to find, and is also rather self-referential. It starts:

Part 1 – Name, Purpose, Objects and Values

1 This is the constitution of a political party which shall be known as ‘The Conservative and Unionist Party’ (referred to in this Constitution as ‘The Party’)

2 Its purpose is to sustain and promote within the Nation the objects and values of the Conservative Party.

I’m proud that we start with a statement of values, rather than a statement of existence. We went into politics to achieve things, to make things better, to help people – not for power or political might.

But to build the free, fair and open society of our ambitions, to safeguard it, and to free people from their tripartite enslavements, we have to be able to actually do something about it. Our preamble quite rightly doesn’t encourage us merely to argue our values – but to try to deliver them as best we can. Let’s hope we are in a position to do so more often in the next 25 years.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Secret Courts

Caron Lindsay and Jo Shaw have written about Liberal disquiet over the Justice and Security Bill which would, as it stands, prevent some classes of defendants seeing the evidence against them. The suggestion is particularly worrying that the Home Office has brought forward votes on the contentious clauses in order to render nugatory any discussion at the LibDem conference which starts on 8th.

It is worth listening to the edition of BBC R4 "Law in Action" from last year in which the arguments for and against are exercised. (There is also a discussion on the legality of drone strikes.)

In praise of "The Good Wife"

As Chris Bryant wrote recently in one of his Independent columns: "I realised that I’m suffering from Borgen withdrawal syndrome. I’m not alone, either in my family or in Parliament, as the series has caught the imagination of not just those that love Scandinavian noir but politics addicts who have been in mourning ever since The West Wing. [...] What I don’t understand, though, is why people haven’t transferred their allegiance to the CBS show The Good Wife, which has not one but three strong female characters and brings in a gubernatorial election campaign, a weekly courtroom drama, a sharp spin doctor and one of the most compelling characters in modern TV, the private investigator Kalinda Sharma. And for those of you who love seeing Birgitte Nyborg tell men what to do in Borgen, just try Diane Lockhart (played by Christine Baranski) metaphorically bitch slap a judge."

As one who tuned in to More4's relay of "The Good Wife" from day one, I have to agree. I was attracted not only by the storyline (mother of teenage children has to resume legal career to support the family as disgraced high-flier husband is imprisoned) but also the prospect of seeing again Baranski who was the best thing about the '90s sitcom "Cybill". Her ability to deliver a tart line as if she has just thought of it is undiminished and she has established a rapport with Matt Czuchry (Will Gardner) which makes them very convincing legal partners. In addition, the writers have allowed her character, a mature woman, to have a couple of casual affairs (Bryan Brown was the latest lucky actor). This is unheard of in Hollywood, and not that common in US TV land.

What Mr Bryant is unusually delicate in not mentioning is that there was a strong Sapphic motif from early on. Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) is ready to use sexual favours to obtain information, and it was gradually revealed that this included same-sex relations. Romantic engagement with a female FBI agent looked like being serious but is now being thrown in doubt again as there are work conflicts. In the new series, a successful career-woman (Maura Tierney) has appeared first to bankroll a Democratic campaign for governor and then to run herself. \Her interest in the Good Wife, Alicia Florrick, appears to be more than professional.

As against that, there is only one regular (regular, but not frequent) out gay character, Alicia's brother, who is written as a stock "friend of Dorothy". Florrick's mother, too, is straight out of symbolic casting: churchgoing and embodying all the traits we used to attribute to the blue-rinsed ladies occupying the front rows of Conservative Party conference. Given the shading of character of the other main protagonists, one wonders whether this is wilful, rather than lazy writing, just like the pastiche of Aaron Sorkin's style of dialogue which was slipped into a recent episode.

It is perhaps not earth-shattering that the court cases have featured contentious issues such as terrorism, torture, drone strikes and, in the latest episode shown on terrestrial TV, sexual misconduct against a woman who could be expected (she was an army captain) to be immune from that sort of thing. Other US TV series, from Lou Grant on, have tackled tricky issues. What is not so common is that Lockhart Gardner loses from time to time.

As Mr Bryant writes, the plots are not totally credible when looked at closely, but one has to make allowances for a show in which a lot of loose ends have to be tied up in an hour every week. But, as he also says, the standard has been kept up well into the fourth series.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

We should not welcome a Conservative Party implosion

There was a cartoon in Punch after the death of Stalin. Mao had been piqued at not being recognised by the Russians as the natural successor as leader of world communism and there had been some sabre-rattling on their shared border. The cartoon (by Emmwood or Illingworth, I can't remember which) showed western leaders rolling with laughter in their seats or cheering while Mao and Khrushchev faced off in the aisle. Pointedly, each of the communist leaders was carrying a bomb and the scene was a passenger plane in mid-air.

Many LibDems have accompanied their joy at Mike Thornton winning in Eastleigh with glee at the effect the result has had on the Conservatives. Being pushed into third place by UKIP has led to calls from Tory commentators in the media - and some within the Conservative party - for Cameron to be deposed as leader. These articles have been reposted on Facebook and in some Liberal Democrat blogs. While it is understandable to revel in our political opponents' discomfiture and the probable benefits in Conservative-held constituencies where Liberal Democrats are challengers, I suggest that in the short term civil war among our coalition partners could lead to an economic plane crash.

Consider the outcome of a successful challenge to David Cameron (always assuming that party rules still allow this): it is probable that the successor will be a "dry", instinctively opposed to coalition with a more liberal party. At the least, he or she will seek to renegotiate the coalition agreement on terms which Liberal Democrat leaders would find unacceptable. More likely, they will outright repudiate the agreement. It is unlikely that there will be enough votes in the Commons to force a dissolution, so we would be stuck with a minority government, horse-trading from day to day to get its programme through.

The main raison d'etre for the coalition was the stability it would bring to the economy and the restoration of confidence in UK Ltd on the part of our creditors and trading partners. Those would be jeopardised by the premature end of the coalition.

The situation in late 2014 will, one trusts, be rather different. With UK borrowing beginning to plateau, normal political hostilities may resume.

Friday, 1 March 2013

The spare-room subsidy

Wednesday saw a full-scale debate in the House of Commons, on a Nationalist and Green motion, on the subject of the Housing Benefit under-occupancy penalty. Greg Mulholland and Simon Hughes raised concerns which have still not been addressed by the government, but minister Steve Webb, in a powerful response to Dr Eilidh Whiteford's impassioned opener, demolished two myths:

Convicts will not be exempt from the penalty. It is true that accused persons remanded in custody on even serious charges will not be subject to it, but as the minister pointed out, we are still innocent until proven guilty in this country - unless this is another civil liberty which Labour intends to remove should they get back into power.

Housing benefit will go up, not down, when service personnel leave to serve away from home. As the minister explained: "The young serviceman or women, who will be on a wage, is deemed to be making a substantial contribution towards the household rent—say £70 a week or so—but when they have been away for more than 13 weeks, that non-dependent deduction does not apply any more, so the housing benefit goes up substantially. There will be a charge for under-occupancy, which might be, say, £14 a week. Instead of paying £70 to the household housing costs, the young serviceman or woman will not have to pay anything, so if they value the room at £2 a day, they could still pay that £2 to mum and dad and be more than £50 a week better off. Rather than seeing mum and dad’s housing benefit fall, therefore, they will see it increase."

There are doubts as to whether the amount of cash the government has set aside for local authorities to provide for exemptions, like overnight provision for carers, is sufficient, but at least the minister has promised to keep the situation under continuous review.

Would Cameron have preferred AV now?

I wonder if anyone else had this thought after the Eastleigh result was announced? AV is not a proportional system, but in this constituency at this time it would surely have prevented the conservative vote being split.

LibDem 13342
Con 10559
UKIP 11571
Labour 4088

That was the first reaction, followed swiftly by a sense of relief that the Conservatives did not win and give support to the hard line on Europe and social security cuts which LibDems in coalition have been fighting against. It also meant that Channel 4 News, virtually the whole of the press and the BBC, failed in their attempt to decide who should lead the Liberal Democrats by means of the Rennard allegations.

It is a great result for Diane James and UKIP, in that order. From what little I saw of her on television it was clear that she was personable and media-friendly, and in my opinion more effective than her party leader, Nigel Farage, would have been.

For Labour, it is a sign that they need to keep channels open to other parties, especially the Liberal Democrats. The LibDems are clearly not going to be decimated or worse, as the opinion polls in the press suggest. It is more than likely that there will again be no clear winner at the next election.

Congratulations to Mike Thornton and to what must have been over a thousand LibDem volunteers who turned out for the Eastleigh campaign.