My Response to the current review of Lib Dem Governance

As I did the other day with my response to the Lib Dem policy process review, I am publishing here my response to the party’s Governance review (pdf).

1. Are these still our values?

The preamble seems generally right to me. The only bit that jumps out at me is the final sentence: “The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men…”. This excludes people of other genders; a number of people in the party do not identify as male or female. I’m not sure why we need to specify the genders of the people involved at all (so I would probably favour simply “The Liberal Democrats consist of people…”), but if we do, a more inclusive phrasing should be found.

The other thing which occurs to me is that there isn’t much about civil liberties, which seems a bit odd given the universal acceptance of the importance of this agenda within the party. It might be worth beefing this up, and explicitly committing the party to protecting digital rights.

Also, stylistically, the preamble is a bit mean on paragraphs in places!

2. Are these values embedded into our party structures at all levels, members, volunteers, elected office holders and paid staff?

The structures are hard to ciriticise for not living up to these values, though occasionally the office holders within them do clearly fail, and the party needs better accountability mechanisms to help members keep the actions and policies of the party in line with its values.

The only area where I would suggest that the party structures themselves are questionable is in the case of the English Party. Given the existence under the English party of the regional parties, the need to take decisions at the “most local level which is viable” is fulfilled. It is not clear to me what further purpose the English Party serves, and there is clearly a significant strand of opinion within the party (and, unlike the case of other committees, it includes a number of people who have served on it!) in favour of the abolition of the English Party, or at least of English Council.

3. What does the party do well to live its values?

Conference is a good expression of our values, I feel. The best of our campaigning also embodies the values set out in the preamble.

4. What does it need to improve?

The transparency and accountability of its structures.

5. What should the party stop doing or do less of?

6. What should the party start doing or do more of?

Fundraising. The party has come a long way in the last few years on this front, but without a concerted effort to maintain this forward momentum now, the party will not be able to do any of the other things it needs to continue to do.

7. If we believe in power being exercised at the lowest level possible, how do we make sure that decisions are made as close to members as possible?

We believe in devolving power to the nations and regions where “feasible”, and decisions and delivery at the “most local level which is viable”. Yes, local decision making is a good thing, all other things being equal. But there are obviously a number of areas where all other things are not equal.

For instance, there clearly needs to be a high level of central co-ordination and decision making in a general election campaign. The crucial thing is not to try to devolve things which clearly need to have a national dimension, but to ensure that just because something is centralised, it does not become remote and unresponsive to members.

Making decisions “as close to members as possible” is not just about creating ever more layers of hierarchical bureaucracy in the name of localism; it is more importantly about transparency and accountability, so that members feel involved in, or at least aware of, those decisions.

8. What should our strategic priorities be in determining the party’s structure?

Simplicity, transparency, accountability.

9. What powers or decision making within the party could be placed at a more local level than at present?

Abolish English Council, with a presumption in favour of moving its responsibilities down to the regions, unless there is a good case not to, in which case up to the Federal Party.

10. How can we ensure that there is, in our governance, greater: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty?

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Far too much in our party is currently hidden behind a wall of foot-dragging excuses like
“commercial sensitivity”, “political sensitivity” and “oh, we don’t really take votes, it’s all very consensual really”. Many decisions taken by Conference are very consensual, but it doesn’t mean we dispense with the formality of taking a vote. That our committees apparently do dispense with it seems awfully convenient.

It is utterly useless to me as a member to be able to vote for the members of FE, FPC and FCC unless I have some way to know whether someone is worth re-electing, or whether I would rather they were replaced by someone else. That means I need some information about their record in that post. Ideally, that information should be objective. Ideally, that would mean both a voting record and some kind of standardised measure of how much actual work that person did as a member of that committee (attendance at meetings is a good start on this, but I would imagine this does not capture the full range of activity involved in being a member of these committees).

Without such information, I don’t feel that the way I cast my votes for these committees is very “objective”, and so we as ordinary members are failing on one of the Nolan Principles!

11. Are there any other principles that should underpin our governance?

Respectful treatment of all members of the party, and all staff.

12. How do we balance the ideal of transparency against the need to prevent information useful to our opponents reaching them?

As a very basic standard, decisions about what information is too “sensitive” should not be in the hands of the person/people who stands to benefit from the reduced accountability that such a decision might afford them. If an Information Commissioner is necessary to uphold the principles of Freedom of Information, we should not expect our own organisation to be any different. What is so frustrating about the thin information we get back from our internal bodies at the moment is that we are simply told to accept their word about what is or is not senstive.

It surely should not be beyond the imagination of people reporting the work of party decision makers to report that, for instance, “targetting decisions for the upcoming general election were taken, based on the criteria of doorstep contacts made, member and helper recruitment, fundraising, etc. As a result of these decisions 5 seats were de-targeted.” without then setting out what decisions those criteria led to?

I also think we should credit our political opponents with some sense. They will quickly infer what decisions we have made by observing their ground-level consequences. Of course we want to retain an edge, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that it makes all that much difference if our opponents occasionally find things out a little sooner.

Lastly, the political sensitivity of information will usually be short-lived. Surely we could have retrospective reporting of the work
of our decision making bodies once the immediate usefulness to our opponents of those decisions has passed?

13. Which levels of the party should have public-facing activities and which should not? What are these activities?

This seems like a backward question. Surely the right approach is to define the public-facing activities of the party, and decide what level of the party makes the most appropriate home for them?

14. Should the party consider having more direct public (i.e. non-member) input into the organisation, and if so what form would this take?

No, but the party could consider lowering the barriers to entry (i.e. costs) for new members, as part of encouraging input from interested members of the public, at particular times (the obvious ones being high profile selections).

15. Are there some basic principles we should use when amending our governance structure?

All committees should have a duty to report their work to members, including details of votes taken, and if they are currently not taking votes on key decisions, they should be. Exceptions for sensitive information should not be solely in the hands of the committee concerned.

16. Do you want to see minutes of every meeting on the party website, reports on Lib Dem Voice and other blogs of party meetings? How should the party manage this openness of information with the few matters that are genuinely confidential?

Reports should be available only to members, to at least partly protect the information from our opponents. Genuinely confidential matters do, of course, need to remain confidential, but there should be a presumption in favour of at least reporting such matters in an anonymised and/or generalised manner, rather than simply omitting them completely.

17. Should the party devolve more resources to ensure effective capacity-building and campaigning skills in states and regions?

The party should take decisions with the aim of ensuring effective capacity-building and campaigning skills in states and regions. If it is felt that devolving resources can achieve this, then naturally that may be something we wish to do. However, ensuring that we place enough emphasis on these things will not happen automatically as a result of devolution. We need, instead, to shift the culture of the party.

18. Will activists return to a more active role in local parties and regions, and how do we ensure that they have the right skills?

It is worth noting that in many areas without the resources to employ organisers, activists have continued to have these active roles. It is only in our held seats that the hollowing-out of the party’s machinery in favour of paid staff has really occurred.

19. How do we best maximise the wide range of diverse skills which members have?

Encourage local parties to identify for themselves skills which they lack, and to get training where necessary. We also need to be better at actually *asking* our members when we have identified a gap; it may well be the case that there are actually people with relevant skills to be found.

20. Should we look at a clear career pathway and progression for staff, giving them an opportunity to work in a range of areas and fostering transferrable skills?

Yes.

21. The party has members with a range of skills and experience. How can the party encourage the sharing of knowledge and skills among and between volunteers and staff to ensure that the party and both its paid and volunteer workforce benefit?

For a start, we need to be better at auditing and making use of the skills within the party. A number of other members have already highlighted the need to make use of the results of the survey which took place before the election. I would echo these sentiments. As a London-based sound engineer, it frustrates me to see poorly sound-engineered video material coming from HQ (or indeed at Conference – the London International Gospel Choir would have every right to feel hard done by after the recent rally!). I don’t intend this as a criticism of the staff who have put them together, but this sort of thing does make members feel that HQ does not place a high opinion on the skills which members have self-reported – perhaps with some justification in many cases! We need therefore a better way for HQ to know who genuinely does have the right skills to help them.

22. What do members and the party need to do to increase the level of skills of activists?

Stop being so cringingly apologetic to people who don’t want to engage with the party’s generally pretty good online resources, and stop humouring Connect refuseniks in particular! The fact is that the party does not have the resources to do everything it might like on this front, and it wastes a lot of time on people who seem mostly to want to give its trainers a hard time.

23. What more do we need to do to embed a new culture within the party?

Start placing a higher value on respectful interactions. In the same way that banks which are “too big to fail” are a problem in and of themselves, people who are “too useful” to be called out on disrespectful behaviour, or too well loved by the old guard of the party, are also a problem which should not be swept under the carpet and ignored.

There is also probably a case to be made for training about respect for personal boundaries and avoiding behaviour which can be read as harrassment for people in influential positions.

24. Should we change the way our discipline structures work to streamline and simplify them?

Probably, but the key needs to be in ensuring that their enforcement is consistent and firm.

25. How do we make sure that systems of accountability are properly in place at a local, regional, state and federal level, so that reporting and monitoring procedures work for members?

To some extent, the members need to be empowered to enforce this themselves – the party does not have the resources to do so itself. To that end, decision making bodies should not be too many steps away from direct accountability to the membership.

26. What do members want from the complaints and disciplinary processes? Should there be a stronger focus on early mediation and speedier resolution of problems?

I want a robust and responsive process, which takes complaints seriously and does not disregard consistent complaints from multiple independent complainants even when they are hard to prove. Early mediation and resolution of problems is obviously desirable, but since things only tend to get reported when they have reached a crisis, may be hard to pursue.

27. What can members and the party do to embed our values about diversity into the party?

Local parties whose membership does not reflect the demographics of their local area could be incentivised to improve this.

On a personal note: staff working for the party in the stress of an election can perhaps be forgiven for “banter” amongst themselves which is ill-chosen, but it does not create a welcoming atmosphere to newcomers who do not quite know what to make of it.

28. What more should the party do to support and help those from groups with protected characteristics and those underrepresented in parliament?

The party needs to develop a bit less of a culture of “the world is run by the people who turn up”, and recognise the role that various forms of privilege play in determining who turns up, and who feels confident enough to speak up, or apply for positions. Active attempts to mitigate this are necessary.

29. What should the party do to make this happen?

Take seriously the recommendations of diversity experts, even when they do not feel instinctively “right” to a liberal sensibility.

30. Should the party look at specific arrangements to ensure that party bodies, candidates and the leadership of the party are more diverse?

Yes, but it needs to be careful that in doing so it does not create “diversity ghettos”. For instance, the recent conference debate on the proposed rule changes to create a national “Deputy Leader” were problematic, to my mind. The *only* reasons given for the creation of such a position were so that it could widen the diversity of the leadership. Alongside the complete lack of any explanation of a separate job and skillset which this position would entail, therefore, it represented simply the creation of a token diversity opportunity, and was rightly defeated. Had it gone forward, I suspect it would have led to a situation where our leader was always a cisgender white middle-class man, and our deputy leader was then allowed to be, at the very least, female. This is not my idea of diversity at the top of the party, especially when no particular powers and responsibilities were
being handed to the Deputy post.

Another area which was picked up at conference was the question of BAME candidates in areas with larger BAME populations. I agree with the comments made at conference on this: BAME candidates need to be selected in winnable seats, not just seats where they might best be representative of the local population, if we are to actually improve levels of BAME representation in our elected representatives.

Zipping for list elections seems to have worked well for the party, so I see no reason not to return to it.

31. Should the party ensure diversity in the senior leadership roles of Leader, President and Deputy Leader?

For the most part it is hard to see how this could be done without excessive intrusion into the democracy of the party. However, I think there is a good case to be made for Leader and Deputy Leader to be a joint ticket, both because it would allow the creation of a more diverse ticket, but also because it would help to avoid the scenario where a Deputy Leader had widely differing views from the Leader. Where there is a need for a differing view from the Leader to be voiced, particularly if it represents a majority of the membership, then the President already exists, and is already understood to have a role which would allow this.

32. If yes, should this just reflect gender diversity, or other under-represented characteristics as well?

It is hard to see how joint tickets could be mandated to address all characteristics, without creating a scenario where people were being selected largely on the basis of their characteristics, and not their suitability for the job. I think the best course of action would simply be to let the formation of joint tickets be done without restrictions (except perhaps to mandate the inclusion of at least one woman), and allow the membership to judge whether they feel that the ticket brings a good range of positions, skills and representativeness to the table.

33. Should a deputy leader be elected by the members or appointed by the Party Leader?

Elected on a joint ticket.

34. If the Deputy Leader is elected, should the election for Leader and Deputy Leader be on a joint-ticket basis where possible?

Yes.

35. Should remuneration and expenses be made available to the President and/or Deputy Leader?

Yes, ideally to both, but certainly to the Deputy Leader, to enable at least one position at the top of the party to be realistically open to someone who is not a parliamentarian.

36. Are party committees organised in such a way that all members who want to are able to take part? Can we use technology to help (as with telephone conferencing or Skype)?

Since there a number of people in the party who say they would like to but cannot, clearly the answer is no.

Committees need to be able to conduct their business effectively, so it may well be that there is a trade-off with the imperative to widen participation. That said, we need to become much less inclined to find reasons why not, and a bit more determined to find solutions to obstacles. Discussions of greater use of email, video conferencing, etc. have been long-running within the party; the problem is not lack of consideration given, it is with a lack of will to make it work on the part of the current incumbent elite. The right solution will probably always include at least some face-to-face meetings, but these could be minimised using email and Skype.

37. Should we highlight the areas of responsibility for certain committees more clearly, and encourage members standing for committees to highlight their expertise in those areas, rather than the tendency to focus on campaigning experience?

Yes. Not least because a better understanding of what it actually is that our committees do would be a good thing in itself, but also for the reason given.

38. Should we actively encourage progression in party roles, especially for those from underrepresented groups?

Not sure, what sort of “progression” is meant here?

39. If you have never stood for a committee, please tell us why.

Since I work predominantly in theatre, I work hours which I suspect would be incompatible with the majority of other members of a committee, and would not be able to commit to being available for a full term length (I might at some point be offered a tour, for instance, and therefore be away for an extended period).

40. Should we consider reducing the tiers of structures to simplify accountability? Should members be more than two steps away from voting for representatives? … Without going in to proposals for cutting specific committees, what should the basic principles be?

Yes, we should reduce tiers as far as possible. Equivalent units within the party should represent similar sized components; the
populations covered by the Welsh and Scottish parties make the English party a bizarre anomaly, which I suspect has a lot to do with the resentment felt towards English Council, and the apparent need for regional parties within the English party.

41. Should terms of office be streamlined, so that they are consistent within the party? If yes, what should the term be?

I suppose so, but it has never struck me before as a pressing concern. I do think that staggered elections (like the US Senate) for party committees might be an interesting idea to look at, though.

42. Should all elected officers and committee members have a time limit before they have to stand down for a period before putting themselves up for election again, or be time limited?

Not at levels of the party where finding good, committed office-holders is often a struggle, but towards the top of the party, there is a good case for this (and indeed, this is often already the case).

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My Response the current review of the Lib Dem Policy Process

I have just emailed in to respond to the consultation paper of the aforementioned Review (pdf).  I at least partly based my responses on comments made at the recent consultative session at Bournemouth Conference, so they may make more sense to readers who also attended that, but they shouldn’t be incomprehensible to those who didn’t.

1. How can we involve a much larger proportion, and a much more diverse range, of our members, in policy discussion within the party?

Firstly, we need to stop wringing our hands about the potential downsides of new ideas, whilst pretending that the status quo does not have problems of its own. Indeed, in some cases, the problems cited about new ideas are *the same* problems that the status quo already has, as Paul Walter’s contribution to the consultation session ably demonstrated; I completely agree with Paul that people not listening to debates but turning up to vote is already an issue with the way our conference operates, and should not be taken as a reason why we couldn’t possibly extend conference online, etc.

Secondly, as a general principle, it should be clear to members how their decision to spend their time engaging with the policy process in some way or other actually leads to an outcome. I will return to this principle in some of my answers below, but to condense it into a rule of thumb: if any proposals come back from this review which talk about members or local parties nebulously “feeding in” their comments, without specifying precisely how this happens (and can be seen to have happened), I will be very disappointed! Where at all possible, pyramid-like structures involving “feeding in” to the next level up need to be flattened.

2. How can we best encourage informal policy discussion to be much more widespread in local parties?

I would like to take issue with some comments made at the consultation session. Several remarks were made to the effect that we (ie. members of political parties) all enjoy talking about policy, and that opportunities to do this were a good thing in and of themselves. I do not see it that way. Personally, I can’t say I enjoy talking about policy; I am a member of a political party because I want to actually see things *change*, which is not achieved simply by talking, though of course discussion is a vital part of policy formation.

Local party policy discussions may be a laudable aim, but we should be clear what they are for. My past experience of local party policy discussion has not encouraged me to do it more often. For one thing, there is not the level of expertise and therefore quality of discussion to be had in a local party as there is in, say, a conference debate.

Another issue is this: having given up some of my spare time to attend, I might make some suggestion at a policy discussion which I think is rather good. At this discussion, there may be someone designated to “feed in” our comments. *IF* that person agrees with me that it was good, they might include my remark in any synthesis of the “outcome” of the meeting which they write. Presumably they then send their writings to a designated recipient of such “feedings in” from all over the country. This person, *IF* they are similarly taken with my idea, might actually take it up and use it in their policy working group discussions. So that’s at least two hurdles before anything I say at a local party discussion would have any impact whatsoever on the wider policy process.

Crucially, *I have no way of knowing* if my idea has succesfully cleared these hurdles! Unless and until something that looks like my idea comes out the other end of the policy sausage machine, I have no idea whether it was worth my time and effort attending the discussion. On the other hand, I can write directly to a working group, or I can just put motions to conference (or sign other people’s motions), and go to conference and vote. These are concrete actions with a predictable, observable and quantifiable impact on the wider process. For that reason, I am much more interested in spending my time doing them.

A number of mentions of the “Calderdale model” were made at the consultation session. As someone who is not a Calderdale member, what I like about the Calderdale model is that it is reasonably apparent what comes of it: Calderdale local party’s name is often all over the conference agenda, in a way that allows us all to see in precisely what direction they are collectively pushing.

3. Is it as easy as it should be, for a new member wanting to participate in policy discussion, to do so? If not, what we can best to do make it so?

It will always be intimidating for a new member to participate in almost anything the party does. We should, of course, do what we can to minimise this, but I’m not sure it can ever be eliminated. I think personally, I would have found ways to participate in policy development online to be helpful.

My experience of being a new member is of being a young person in an area where the local party was relatively old, and fairly unknown to me (I joined for national reasons, not because anyone local asked me to), so opportunities to hang out with my local party were not all that attractive to me (especially when they came in the form of coffee mornings and not pub meets!). Conversely, there were a number of Lib Dem bloggers around at the time who seemed a lot more on my wavelength. What made me feel at home in the party was being a part of that online community, not being a part of my local party.

We, as a party, need to build our party in such a way as to allow this kind of member, without telling them that they are wrong and they are just going to have to learn to love their local party. Any solutions which this review arrives at which are dependent on local parties will almost certainly fail to engage this type of new member.

4. What practical ways can we use to make some policy discussion, especially working groups, much less South East-centric?

I would like to echo comments made at the consultation session. David Grace’s point about a travel pool for meeting attendance was good, but does still require that people have enough free time to travel to participate. I think, inferior in some ways as it may be, that online discussion, either by email or by Skype etc., needs to become a larger part of the working of a working group, so that face-to-face meetings are less frequent.

5. What are the best practical ways to make use of modern technology to engage many more party members, and more frequently?

There exist today good mechanisms for the online crowdsourcing of ideas and the harnessing of the “wisdom of crowds”. A policy suggestion and discussion site which allows nested discussions (so that people can respond to and follow particular lines of argument) could lead to good, detailed discussions which are simply not possible in the constrained timescale of a general discussion or consultation at conference.

I would suggest that such a forum incorporate the ability to up/down vote particular comments, and I would especially cite the way that comments work on Slashdot as an example of good practice: comments can be scored by other readers, and then the viewer can decide how much they wish to dig into the lower-rated comments. As was discussed in the consultation session, such a forum would need to be heavily moderated to ensure that it remained a civil and respectful space for discussion, but I would question whether this absolutely *had* to mean paid staff to perform this function. A volunteer team might be able to fulfil this function, provided that it was managed appropriately: rota-ed slots for being “on duty”, so that it could be ensured that someone was on duty at all times (and if there was not, then the site could be closed to comments until a mod was back on duty, which might serve as a good incentive to others to volunteer for moderating duties!).

In this way, working groups would be able to draw on much more well-developed suggestions from members. Perhaps there could even be a mechanism for the submission of motions to conference via a wiki-like group editing process? Even if this was not a formal mechanism, if the site worked well it would almost certainly lead to the submission of motions arising from discussion on the site.

6. Do we need to make formal party policy-making procedures more visible to members? If so, what are the best ways of doing that?

Perhaps some discussions of policy working groups could be made public – video them and stick it on YouTube, or elsewhere if you want to keep it “members only”, so that the rest of us have a better idea what the formal policy process entails.

In addition, the general response of the party’s internal committees to Mark Pack and others’ push for better reporting of their workings has been foot-dragging and stonewalling. In particular, the response that “often committees work by consensus, there are fewer formal votes than people might imagine” seems awfully convenient to me. Perhaps there *should* be more votes than members of these committees might imagine, if only to actually give the electorate which put them there a handle on whether they want to re-elect them. If parliament operated in the way that our internal committees do (very cursory summaries of their discussions, and an insistence that they needn’t report any votes because it’s actually mostly consensual), it would be considered a democratic outrage. Either these committees make decisions that are controversial enough to require democratic oversight, or they don’t, in which case why elect them at all?

7. How can we make engaging in policy discussion, in whatever forum, more attractive to members?

I have addressed this already, so I will simply repeat: Concrete and transparent ways for members to be able to see that their participation is actually having a meaningful impact on the wider process.

8. Should finding ways for all party members to be able to vote remotely, following live-streamed debates at conference, be a priority?

I would like to see it happen, but I’m not sure it’s “a priority” if that means that other areas of the process are left in the long grass. A number of things would also need to be worked out about conference. For instance, once there were online members voting alongside members in the conference hall, it would probably become necessary to count every vote. This would become impractically time consuming without a form of electronic voting in the hall, registered to the particular party member (otherwise there would be no way to ensure that people were not voting twice: once in the hall, and once online using a tablet or similar). Meanwhile, if votes still took place immediately after a debate concluded, then conference would not have been widened to the greatest possible participation. Yes, it would include some members who could not afford to travel and accommodate themselves to come to conference physically, but it would still exclude those members who simply could not secure time off work to attend conference even electronically.

For that reason, if we are to widen conference with an online dimension, I think we need to break the assumption that a vote takes place immediately after a conference debate has taken place. Instead, voting could be opened immediately following the debate, but be open for a given window of time. How long this window would be is obviously a matter for discussion, but I would suggest that it should be at least 24 hours, to enable members who work to participate, whatever
pattern of work they have.

9. Should the fundamental principles of conference making policy, supported by a policy committee, be changed? If so, how?

Conference’s sovereignty should not be changed, but I do think the “Standing Panels” idea might be a worthwhile alteration to the working of Policy Committee.

10. How can we best ensure ongoing effective co-ordination between the party’s formal policy-making structures, and MPs, Peers, MSPs, AMs and MEPs?

It occurs to me (and I surely can’t be the only one?!) that section 4.1 (Standing Panels) and 4.3 (Parliamentary Party Committees) of the consultation document cover overlapping territories, and should probably be merged into a single proposal. If MPs, Peers, etc., were ex-officio members of the Standing Panels relevant to their allocated policy areas (and allowed access to others), this would be a good way for them to be connected to the party’s structures.

13. What else about our policy process is it important that we improve?

Some conventions of the way that conference operates, particularly the “2 year rule”, are sensible in opposition, but came to be used to stifle conference’s ability to contribute to the debate on government policy as it developed whilst we were in government. Perhaps we should draw on the experience of the last five years to develop a different set of conventions for the operation of the party’s structures in government, whilst retaining conventions more like our existing ones for times when we are in opposition.

Unsolicited advice: What @timfarron should have said to Cathy Newman

Since I haven’t blogged about Tim at all yet, I should probably begin (just to be clear where I’m coming from) by saying that I voted for Tim, and I was thrilled that he won the leadership contest. I think Tim will be a fantastic asset to the party during his tenure as leader.

Anyhoo, last night he gave an interview to Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman (reported here under the bizarrely self-referential headline “Tim Farron asked three times if gay sex is a sin”) which has caused some uproar amongst some within the party, not least those with doubts about Tim’s ability to separate his faith from his role as an MP legislating for people of all faiths and none.

Norman Lamb’s leadership campaign (ultimately unsuccessful, but nevertheless quite effective, having narrowed the expected margin between the two contenders substantially) played quite heavily on these doubts, and certainly made misgivings about Tim’s faith more of a live issue within the party. In my own case, feeling like I know reasonably well who Tim is, and, as a bisexual man, feeling like I am quite capable of evaluating his record on LGBT rights for myself, the Lamb campaign’s dog whistling proved counter-productive, making me if anything more inclined to support Tim. Given the reactions last night of a number of friends, acquaintances, and fellow LGBT+ folk who I’ve not yet met, I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

As ever, the news media like to tug at anything they perceive as a loose thread, to see what might unravel. I don’t think it’s entirely fair, though, to blame Norman’s campaign for this line of questioning. As many people who had doubts about Tim argued, it’s not just that he’s a Christian, it’s that his voting record in some areas is sufficiently out of line with the majority of the party, and in ways which, superficially, fit into a standard “traditional Christian” frame. As such, the question of whether his faith determines his actions as a politician is a legitimate one, and one of which we probably haven’t heard the last. It’s for that reason that I’m writing about this, rather than just ignoring it and hoping we all move onto something more interesting, much as I’d like to.

The general objection to last night’s interview was that Tim sounded shifty and evasive, and I’ve seen a number of comments about last night’s interview along the lines of “Tim needs to have a better, sharper answer to questions like this”, but not many suggestions as to what that answer should be. After all, the consensus seems to be that a straight “yes” or “no” answer wouldn’t help either, leading inevitably to more questions; to return to the “loose thread” metaphor, once they start pulling on it, where does it stop? So I thought I’d have a go at figuring out what the problem with Tim’s answers actually is, and what the right answer might look like. Firstly, here’s what actually was said in the interview:

CN: You’ve abstained during votes on Same Sex Marriage in the past. You’ve said recently that, politically, you regret that. Personally, though, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: Well I think that, first of all, I mean, somebody who is a Christian does not then go enforcing their views on other people. And it’s not our issues, our views on personal morality that matter, what matters is do we go out there and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they wish to be –

CN: OK, I take your point –

TF: That’s what makes a liberal.

CN: OK, but I’m asking for your personal view, do you personally, as a Christian, believe that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: To understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners, and perhaps the Bible phrase that I use most with my kids, but actually on myself, is that you don’t pick out the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, when there is a plank in your own. The reality is, to understand the Bible, and if perhaps another time you want a long theological discussion, the – my understanding is – well, my firm belief is that we are all sinners.

CN: OK, but when the Bible says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination” you don’t have any problem with that?

TF: Well look, I mean, so – fundamentally, my faith is based upon my belief that Jesus Christ is who he said he is. But, again, Cathy, you know, this is a very interesting discussion, it’s important to me, but I’ve not just been –

CN: But it’s important to your party as well, because these are values that I appreciate are your personal values, but they’re not very liberal values, are they?

TF: I mean, come off it, we’ve just been led, or at least we were for seven years during, you know, the early part of this last decade, by a Roman Catholic for seven years; Charles Kennedy who led us so passionately against the appalling Blair/Bush Iraq war, and who built us up to our strongest point in our recent history. We were led, admittedly a century and a bit ago, by Gladstone, arguably our most successful leader ever. This is the party that is based upon religious tolerance, and indeed the tolerance of people who are not religious at all, and defending the rights of every individual, whether they be a member of a minority or not. It’s a peculiar thing to say that somebody who happens to belong to a religious group, who’s a Christian, can’t be a liberal. It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter. My rights are your rights, whatever you believe, whatever I believe.

What strikes me immediately about those answers is that, much as Tim has felt it unfair that he is asked such faith-based questions, his instinct is always to answer them “as a Christian” first, and “as a Liberal” second. Each time Newman asks him whether he thinks “homosexual sex is a sin”, the first substantive things he says are, respectively:

“somebody who is a Christian does not…”

“To understand Christianity…”

“fundamentally, my faith is based upon…”

The first and last time, he does manage to work his way around to how that fits into the picture of his liberalism:

“…That’s what makes a liberal.”

“… It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter.”

It is precisely because Tim offers answers to such questions which do explore his views on faith that he will keep getting asked them. I assume that this is not accidental, that Tim has consciously decided that it is important to him not to hide his faith, and indeed to take opportunities to affirm publicly his “belief that Jesus Christ is who he said he is”, etc. It’s not a view I share (I’m an atheist), but I can empathise with it, given the basic parameters of a Christian faith. I’d love to figure out a response to Newman’s questions which is compatible with that urge and doesn’t open a can of worms, but I have to admit I’m a bit stumped.

Nonetheless, the honesty which is at the heart of Tim’s apparent shiftiness here (he refuses to say something which he doesn’t really feel, even if it might be a more expedient answer) is an asset, not a liability. The willingness to actually engage with a question which Tim shows here is laudable, it’s just that he needs to remember what his priorities are when being interviewed as leader of the Liberal Democrats, not as “Tim Farron, Christian”. Whilst being mindful of the need to “let Bartlet be Bartlet“, then, my conclusion is that the best way for Tim to conduct himself as leader of the party is to train himself to make sure that the first words out of his mouth in response to such questions are always “Liberal-first”. What might that look like? I’d love to hear other suggestions, but here’s my stab at it:

CN: You’ve abstained during votes on Same Sex Marriage in the past. You’ve said recently that, politically, you regret that. Personally, though, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: First of all, Cathy, I voted in favour of Same Sex Marriage at Second Reading, the kind of “broad principle” stage of the legislative process. I abstained at Third Reading, the “nitty-gritty details” stage of the process, because I did feel there were areas of the bill which were insufficiently liberal. One of those areas was on conscience protections for registrars, which is about freedom of religion, a key liberal principle. Another area was on the spousal veto, an area of the bill which was (and still is) of great concern to many trans people. What I regret is that people have read that abstention as me being opposed to Same Sex Marriage, which I am not. What matters here is not my own personal faith, what matters is how I do my job as a liberal.

CN: OK, I take your point, but I’m asking for your personal view, do you personally, as a Christian, believe that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: Look, I’m not going to answer that directly, Cathy, and let me explain why. As a Liberal, I believe in the separation of Church and State, and my role, the reason I’m on your programme tonight, is that I lead a political party – I am very much on the “State” side of that separation. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful in a secular democracy for our politicians to start pontificating about their own personal views on faith, so I’m not going to do it now, no matter how many times you ask me. The question is not what I might think is a sin or not, the question is where the law should stand, and what rights and protections people should have. As a Liberal, my instinct on that question is to protect individuals rights and freedoms, whether that is the freedom to love who you love, or the freedom to believe what you believe.

CN: OK, but when the Bible says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination” you don’t have any problem with that?

TF: Well look, I am not here to lead a theological discussion about individual verses in the Bible. As important as that is to me, it isn’t my job as leader of the Liberal Democrats. If you want a range of considered views on that question I suggest you take it up with the clergy.

CN: But it’s important to your party as well, because these are values that I appreciate are your personal values, but they’re not very liberal values, are they?

TF: I think that’s a fundamental misreading of what liberalism is. This is the party that is based upon religious tolerance, and indeed the tolerance of people who are not religious at all, and defending the rights of every individual, whether they be a member of a minority or not. “Liberal values” are not about what positions people may or may not hold as a matter of personal faith, “liberal values” are about tolerating others who you don’t agree with, and protecting each others’ rights to live our lives as we choose to, so long as we aren’t harming anyone else. It’s a peculiar thing to say that somebody who happens to belong to a religious group, who’s a Christian, can’t be a liberal. It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter. My rights are your rights, whatever you believe, whatever I believe.

Anyone got a better idea?

Lib Dem Year Zero?

I suspect that the current flurry of posts about where the party goes from here are as much about helping their authors get their own thoughts straight as they are about joining an internal party debate, and if so then what follows shares that characteristic. I mention that at the start by way of an apology to anyone who feels I’m simply regurgitating something they have already said; I have read some other views on this already, and agree with a good deal of them. I include at the end of this post some links to posts with which I (at least partly) agree.

So.

Moving Forward

The first thing is to say that the party needs, quite quickly, to establish that it can build from here and ensure that the media doesn’t simply erase us from the picture, leading to a loss of momentum and steady slide into irrelevance. Of course, frustrating experience as a party member has shown us all that trying to ensure that the media do anything is easier said than done, but we need to take every opportunity to stake out liberal territory and make the running on particular issues. I suspect that there will be opportunities, particularly in areas where we, and not Labour, have traditionally been the more consistent opponents of a particular Tory policy, such as the Snooper’s Charter and repeal of the Human Rights Act. This is especially true whilst the frame of “things the Tories can now do because the Lib Dems can’t stop them” is relevant and fresh in people’s minds. As the years of government roll on, this frame will be supplanted by a more general “things the government want to do, and the opposition say are bad”, and the default voices of opposition will be Labour ones.

Whilst the party doesn’t have a new leader, it will be all too tempting for Nick Clegg to be the voice which makes such arguments from opposition, but I think we need to resist this temptation. Nick’s brand over the last five years was clearly not a popular one, and I think one of the key errors we made as a party was to stubbornly present to the public a face who they had made very clear they were at best unenthusiastic about. That’s a mistake that I think Labour equally made, but I digress…

For that reason, I can understand Greg Mulholland’s impatience to have a new leader in place, but actually I do think a leadership contest is the key context in which a genuine post-mortem of the last five years can take place. Once a new leader is in place, whoever that is, any internal review will be bounded and steered somewhat by them. Therefore, I fall more on Mark Pack’s side the argument, and I’m happy that the FE’s timetable for the election of a new leader does leave the time for a certain amount of internal debate to take place, albeit not extensive.

Leadership

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Greg’s assertion that the party would do best to move on and heal the sense of betrayal over tuition fees by electing a leader who did keep his pledge. I also agree with Jennie that we need to “get rid of the stupid managerial centrism and go back to being actual liberals and democrats now“, and David Boyle’s view that “the trauma of coalition moulded the party into a deeply pragmatic force, provided them with the dullest manifesto in political history“.

Whilst I can’t especially prove it right now, I think one of the core reasons for the softness of our vote on Thursday was that we weren’t presenting, at least nationally, much of a concrete sense of who we were or why people should vote for us. Tactical calculations about how best to influence the makeup of a government evidently weren’t what the public were looking for in a decision on how to vote – especially from a leader who had demonstrated that he was prepared to compromise on almost anything in the pursuit of the more grown up, consensual politics that he believed in.

Before the 2010 election, what people liked about Clegg was that he was a good communicator, and he had a spiky Liberal instinct that led to him promise, for instance, that he would rather go to jail than carry an ID card. I still think those qualities are valuable, but I suspect Clegg’s spiky liberalism was in reality an extension of his communication skills – a calculated position which suited him at the time. We later saw that, faced with the first draft of the Snooper’s Charter, Clegg and his circle in government initially didn’t see much wrong with the proposals, only hardening their line in response to the immediate reaction it provoked in the wider party.

So in this leadership election, I will be looking for a leader who abandons the definition of our party in reference to the positions of the other two, and focuses on giving the voting public a clear understanding of their brand of liberalism. I will be looking for a leader who gives the impression of having a political philosophy of his own, not a series of negotiating positions. And I will be looking for a leader whose instinct is to listen to the party, not to manage them.

In short, I’m not saying that I’m definitely voting for Farron, but I am saying that any other candidate is going to have an uphill struggle to convince me that they are a better fit for the criteria above.

Unity-Shmunity

I am usually instinctively suspicious of calls for unity. That it became one of our campaign slogans in the last couple of weeks now seems to be almost universally agreed as a mis-step, and yet some people have still been calling for unity and being terribly nice to each other in the wake of the result. I think I hold a middle ground here, but I must say my sympathies are more on the Alix Mortimer side of this one. Obviously a circular firing squad is counter-productive, but in the wake of a result like Thursday’s, I think we do need to be painfully honest with ourselves as a party. As ever, the secret lies in criticising actions taken and decisions made, but trying not to impugn the motivations and character of the people involved, I suppose.

Hitting the Reset Switch

Of course, for a working political party, there is never any such thing as down-time. We still have 8 MPs, 5 AMs, 5 MSPs, 1 MEP, 2257 Councillors, and so on. For the reasons I set out at the start of this post, it is vital that we don’t simply shut down for a few months of navel gazing.

BUT!

The party’s current situation does call for some kind of reboot, and this is the closest thing to a suitable time to remake the party as we are likely to ever have, so we might as well grasp the opportunity for a genuine root-and-branch remodelling of the party. Not so much of its policies, as its internal structures. One of the less controversial statements to make about the federal Lib Dem party in recent years is that its interal structures are over-complicated and secretive. The Morrisey Report into the party’s processes and structures highlighted this:

An organogram of the Lib Dems internal organisation.

An organogram of the Lib Dems internal organisation.

The arguments over whether all of these bodies are really necessary are complex, and in many cases, if we were to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start from the first principles of democracy, accountability and efficiency, we might well end up reinventing some of the above. But the point is, some of it we wouldn’t. Now is a great time to undertake that exercise. For that reason, I completely agree with Jennie’s call for a constitutional convention at Autumn Conference (and see the comments to that post for some interesting discussion as to how to go about it).

Campaigning

Of course, the party’s internal structures aren’t the only thing which need a review. There will inevitably be lessons to be learned from the campaigns of the last few years, particularly the general election. Now that we have freed ourselves from the need to keep our heads down and keep going whilst we were in government, we can be really honest with ourselves about the questions that need answering. A few years ago, in the thick of the coalition, Tim Farron gave a conference speech which has resonated for longer than most. For one thing, it was The Cockroach Speech (and by the way, go buy one of Sarah Brown’s fab t-shirts). But actually, more of it deserves to be remembered. In the speech, Tim called for “a renewal of the theory and practice of community politics”.

It was the right prescription, but perhaps the wrong timing. While we were on the treadmill of government, the party only had the mental space to take this on board superficially. Now, we need to renew our whole campaigning style. Not necessarily because what we have right now is wrong, but because it is associated with the Liberal Democrats of the last five years. Jennie’s post calls for a “rebrand”, which is a word which can provoke suspicion in some. The best rebrands flow on from genuine renewal of the underlying product. I suspect that renaming the party isn’t the answer, but rather rebuilding our modus operandi. The theory and practice of community politics is still very relevant, as Tim pointed out, and of course there is baby to be retained as we seek to indentify the bathwater.

But as The Theory and Practice of Community Politics itself argued, “[campaign] techniques are a means to an end. If they become an end in themselves, the ideas they were designed to promote will have been lost.” We don’t cease to be Liberal Democrats if we re-examine our campaign methods. If we were designing our campaigns from scratch today, what would they look like? Focus leaflets and fakey newspapers? Well, maybe, but let’s ask the questions. In particular, we need to actually properly embed the advances that technology has ennabled us to make.

Connect is a wonderful tool, but currently we spend a lot of time trying to make it fit around our established ways of doing things, rather than renewing our established ways of doing things to take full advantage of the opportunities it offers. Too many of our canvassers are unaware of its underlying mechanics and therefore fill in canvass cards as though the data was destined for EARS still. Having spent the last few months doing quite a bit of data entry in a target seat, I could count the number of tags I applied to people in Connect that might have actually been useful to Operation Manatee (at least in the way that its operation has been described) on the fingers of one hand. In part, that’s also because there are pretty limited ways of recording the nature of conversations which have been had on doorsteps. MiniVAN has also been depressingly under-exploited so far.

I’ve just seen Anders’s post, which shares some ground with the above, but I hadn’t seen it when I wrote this, honest! I’ve actually just deleted a section about updating our understanding of “communities” as more than just geographical, because Anders seems to have been thinking along much the same lines as me, and expressed it rather better than I had! I’d also like to add that whilst I sympathise with his trying to defend the party’s structures as being less complex than the diagram I quoted above would suggest, I still think it is revealing that someone who presumably sat down to try to make a clear and simple representation of how the party works apparently couldn’t do better than that diagram!

Conference

Lastly, I think it’s worth saying that the sovereignty of conference as a policy-setting body needs to be re-embedded as part of the consitutional renewal mentioned above. The best of the party’s achievements over the last five years have come off the back of policy which came from conference, and the party’s uniquely ground-up policy structure. We are happy to celebrate the wisdom of conference when it suits the leadership. When conference reps clearly wished to use conference to kick the leadership (on the Health and Social Care Act, Bedroom Tax, etc.), they were generally also right with hindsight, and the leadership wrong. And yet, too often during the last five years, it has felt like attempts by party members to use conference to sound the alarm on impending disasters were being, if not suppressed, then managed. Avoiding embarassment for the leader at conference, or respecting “the two year rule” should not be more important than ennabling the expression of the concerns of a good many people.

Conclusion

As Liberals, we all love a bit of navel-gazing and agonising about process, and many of us have learned to try to control that urge. But sometimes, that kind of renewal is exactly what is needed. It’s notable that there appears to be a good deal of consensus around some of this in the posts which I’ll be linking below, which is encouraging. I’ll be reading further posts with interest, and hoping to hear some engagement with this discussion from the leadership candidates.

Links:

Jennie Rigg’s Where Do We Go From Here?

Alix Mortimer’s Five things the Lib Dems should do now that nobody else has suggested

David Howarth’s Thoughts on the Way Forward

Greg Mulholland’s Tweets, particularly this one

Mark Pack’s The Liberal Democrats need a leadership contest, not a coronation

David Boyle’s My traumatised Liberal Democrat party must rediscover its radical heart

Anders Hanson’s Where We Go From Here

Nick Barlow’s Thoughts on the Lib Dems: Past, present and (hopefully) future

What My Vote Achieved

…in the Lib Dem internal elections (of course!).
I won’t bore you with a full rundown of where all my prefs went, but my first prefs were allocated as follows:
Fed. Executive: Caron Lindsay

Fed. Policy Comm.: Richard Flowers

Fed. Conference Comm.: Zoe O’Connell

International Relations Comm.: Nasser Butt

ELDR Delegation: Aliss Moss

 

And here is what my votes ended up supporting:

 

Fed. Executive: Caron Lindsay elected

Fed. Policy Comm.: Gareth Epps elected

Fed. Conference Comm.: Justine McGuinness elected

International Relations Comm.: Gordon Lishman elected

ELDR Delegation: Aliss Moss elected

 

So, not quite what I most wanted, but thanks to STV I can point to someone on each of the committees, and say “I helped put them there.”

Which is pretty nifty.

Conference Accreditation: What do FE Candidates Think?

Jennie Rigg has been doing some great work recently, posing questions to candidates for FPC and FCC in the upcoming Lib Dem internal elections. In an effort to compliment her efforts, I wanted to plug one of the gaps which this has left, however. In the light of Jon Ball’s response to Jennie’s question on police accreditation for conference-goers, it seems that it might well be very relevant to know what candidates for FE think about the subject, as well as candidates for FCC.

I have therefore emailed (or failing that, tweeted) as many of the candidates as I could find contact details for, either from within their statements for the election to FE, or via a quick Google. I did not include those who have already been asked to give their views as part of their responses to Jennie, as a couple of people who are also standing for FCC have been. You can see the responses which I received below.

For the sake of transparency, here is the specific email they were responding to (except for the ones who replied to a tweet, which was necessarily shorter!):

Dear all,

I realise you possibly weren’t expecting to field many questions on this subject in the course of standing for FE, but since Federal Appeals Panel has (apparently) ruled that police accreditation for federal conference is an FE matter, not FCC, I’m afraid I’d like to ask you about it! Apologies if I’ve missed a previous pronouncement of yours on the subject.

Could you tell me what your position on accreditation is?

Many thanks,
Andy Hinton
(Voting Rep)

Robert Adamson:
-Has responded to Jennie here.

Qassim Afzal:
-Not emailed, since he will already have had the opportunity to respond to Jennie.

Elaine Bagshaw:
Tweeted back:

It needs to be evidence-based and to date I haven’t seen any that’s justified the policy.

Prue Bray:

In an ideal world accreditation would not be necessary. However, we don’t have an ideal world, so it is necessary. It is not realistic to suppose we could have a conference without it, because we wouldn’t get insurance and the venues wouldn’t take us. If someone could prove that is not true it would be great. But I think if they could prove it, they would have done so already, given the amount of upset accreditation has caused.

There are some issues for people who for whatever reason have not always had the same identity (or indeed, to a lesser extent, for people who have lives which don’t fit having passports or national insurance numbers or stable addresses) At the moment, this is being dealt with by a fudge involving a couple of people reviewing applications on a case by case basis. It relies on individuals knowing that the fudge exists, and trusting it. That is not brilliant. If you have a better idea, I’d be prepared to listen.

I don’t like accreditation, but you can’t always have what you want. Any ideas for improving it?

Kristin Castle:
-No reply at this time.

Daisy Cooper:

In short, I’m opposed to conference accreditation. There is no evidence that accreditation makes people any safer. It is possible to enter Parliament, and major international events (such as the Olympics) and venues, with nothing more than an airport style security check at the door – something which we already have at conference.

Moreover, I think that the way the debate has been framed is unhelpful. There is a suggestion that insurance is not possible without accreditation, so no accreditation means no insurance.

I simply don’t believe this. If there are additional security concerns now that our party is in government, then there is a case for additional security measures, but these need not infringe upon our civil liberties. The insurance company could request additional scanners, increasing the distance between the scanners and the venue, and/or request additional security sweeps of the venue(s) in the preceding days of and during the conference itself. These kinds of measures would probably be more effective anyway!

Sean Davey:
-No reply at this time.

Jonathan Davies:

I have been a member of FFAC for the last four years, and so participated in FFAC’s decision to agree accreditation, which was then also agreed by FE.

FFAC did not call in this matter or seek to impose a decision on the Conference Committee. FFAC was told that whilst FCC considered that accreditation was unacceptable, FCC recognised given the potential issues for the party and the FFAC’s responsibility for financial issues, it was not a decision that FCC could take. A buck seemed to be being passed.

The Party has a duty to take reasonable care for the Health and Safety of its staff and the staff of many other organisations who attend conference. Faced with strong advice from the police that accreditation was a necessary precaution, I felt it would be very difficult, and in breach of the Party’s health and safety duties, not to accept that advice. Given the threat level to the high profile autumn conference, there’s an obvious strong security benefit in knowing the identity of everyone coming within the security cordon.

Ramesh Dewan:

All my Liberal values make me come out against accreditation, particularly because I am not aware of any evidence that tells me that accreditation makes us safer.

Sue Doughty:

My answer below is in a personal capacity.

The matter was referred to the Federal Finance and Administration Committee which is a sub committee of FE. Accordingly when they had reviewed the situation it then went to FE for acceptance.

I am already familiar with the requirements for visitors to government offices and indeed for meetings there now you need to be pre booked. This is based on an agreed security risk and I believe that as members of the government we have found ourselves in a position of accepting joint responsibility for our foreign policy even if it may not be our Lib Dem policy. I have also, in a professional capacity, visited the Labour party conference when they were in office and had to go through facial recognition. Given that I was representing an organisation campaigning on environmental issues my responsibility was to attend specific meetings in order to make the case with senior party members.

In Guildford I have strongly campaigned against the unnecessary collection of personal information, in particular children’s thumb prints used to authorise payments for school meals and library withdrawals.

I do believe that the party has a corporate responsibility to assess all risk to members attending conference – not only on a security basis, but the more usual risks – fire, health and safety etc and to ensure that we meet reasonable recommendations.

Regarding accreditation I am satisfied that although the police have access to the names of applicants for conference registration where a question has arisen about a particular individual, this has been referred to the party president and then enquiries are made locally to identify whether there is any supporting evidence which might be of concern. The final decision lies with the party and not with the police. In practice this is more likely to result in additional information being provided which supports the application going forward. Of course there are sometimes queries about change of name (for example an individual in a witness protection programme or escaping a violent past) or even gender which could be inconsistent with past information. The party has put in place separate procedures so that information provided is not held post registration.

I have not been able to ascertain how many, if any, people have been prevented from attending conference due to the accreditation process and of course would like to hear of any such cases from either people who have had their applications refused on the basis of security recommendations or who have had sufficient concerns that they have chosen not to apply for registration at conference. I am not aware of any.

In closing, I recognise that provision of such information is of deep concern to Liberal Democrats but as a member of the Federal Executive I also share a corporate responsibility for the safety and security of all members, staff and visitors. I feel that the arrangements at present are strong in terms of security, but the right balance has been made in leaving the final decision about individual registrations with the party and not with the police.

Neville Farmer:

In principle, I hate any “big brother” intrusion on the party but I’m also aware of the police concerns and think we must be realistic about finding a working compromise. I also believe that if we are to suffer this intrusion, it could be handled with more respect and less bureaucracy.

I accept the need for a level of accreditation but this should certainly not contravene our own Liberal Democrat principles as it clearly did there.It was clear at the Birmingham conference last year, that the police had gone far too far in its demands and the party had acquiesced too easily. Since then, things seem to have improved but I was very unhappy with the party’s responses to complaints at the time and I would seek to change that culture if elected.

There are a few lines in the sand that should not be crossed…

It is absolutely unacceptable for the police to hold onto data beyond the conference.

Gender change or name change should never be a cause of denial of access.

The parameters the police use to recommend denial of access should be seriously re-considered if they have not been already.

These parameters should be made clear to the membership, so they can decide whether they wish to be put through it or not.

Jock Gallagher:

I was a BBC journalist covering the Tory’s 1984 conference in Brighton.
I’m afraid, therefore, I have little hesitation in accepting the need for additional checks on all
those attending our conference.
My liberal instincts are, in this instance, over-taken by a concern for all those attending the conference.

Sarah Green:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for Sarah please let me know.

James Gurling:

I wasn’t aware of an FAP ruling on this issue – which is odd as I am also the FE rep on FCC. Perhaps Monday evening’s FE will shed some light on this matter – it is also a shame as I am a great supporter of the notion that FCC has responsibility for conference matters.

Whatever the case FE’s involvement in this matter came as a consequence of the profound financial risk that not having a conference, or being open to challenge after the fact, would have on the Party as a whole. In that regard the FE was certainly right to note the decision of the FFAC.

In true Lib Dem tradition, the very acceptable compromise arrived at by the Party President made sure the accreditation system as applied to both Tory and Labour conference goers was amended. This compromise ensured that there is review by Party appointees and made possible the exemption of certain categories of Lib Dem Party members from the accreditation process.

I voted for accreditation (with the caveats) in order to ensure conference registrations could start for Party members (commercial ones etc had already started) to minimise financial risk, with regard to police advice, safety of both guests and staff etc.

David Hall-Matthews:

On principle I believe that:
1) No-one outside the party should decide who comes to conference.
2) Those within the party who make decisions should be fully transparent about the decisions they make.
3) No-one should be obliged to reveal personal information unless it can be shown that there are security concerns.

Frank Hindle:

I don’t like the police accreditation requirement, but it is always difficult to ignore or go against police advice. I’m not currently on FE so haven’t seen the detailed reports that FE (presumably!) had before agreeing to police accreditation, but the explanation that the financial risks of not going along with accreditation are too great strikes me as plausible – for example, I don’t know exactly what the implications would be with the party’s insurance policies for conference, but I would think that our insurer’s would be very unhappy and at the very least hike up the premiums, and maybe refuse to insure. So, with regret, I think we are stuck with some sort of accreditation for now.

However, back in May when the FE agreed to accreditation for Brighton, I understand that there was a commitment to work with LGBT+ and others with particular concerns about accreditation. I don’t know how far this progressed and whether any exemption or alternative arrangements were implemented but I do think there should be some way of providing an alternative process for those with concerns about police accreditation. When looking at the impact of accreditation it is not enough to simply consider the number of conference reps where the police raised a concern, we also need to remember that the use of a police accreditation process may itself deter some members from even considering going to conference.

Not related to accreditation, but very relevant to party democracy, is the cost of going to conference, and I think more needs to be done to reduce this, and to enable a greater range of members to be involved in the party’s decision making.”

Antony Hook:
-No reply at this time.

Keith House:
-No reply at this time.

Susan Juned:
-No reply at this time.

Bill Le Breton:

Totally unnecessary and an illiberal intrusion on the workings of the Liberal Democrat ‘family’.

Happy to field any question you have.

I recall that Paddy always refused unnecessary security.

Caron Lindsay:

Briefly, I am totally opposed to accreditation which I think is both illiberal and unconstitutional.

There is no evidence accreditation would make anyone any safer & I believe that we would be able to obtain insurance.

As a member of the Federal Finance & Administration Committee (as Scottish party treasurer), I was the only person to vote against accreditation.

I could go on about this all day as I feel very strongly about it. However, I’ll give you the choice about whether you read more. This is a link to a blog post I wrote on the subject in April.

http://carons-musings.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/conference-accreditation-rears-its.html

You may be interested to know that our Scottish conference has as many Cabinet ministers as the Federal event with no accreditation.

Please feel free to come back to me if you have any further questions.

Gordon Lishman:

The FAP ruling and the FE discussion both seem to have passed me by, which is odd given that I haven’t missed a meeting.

I think there is a reasonable case, in terms of security  and insurance cover, for enabling a check.  I think that the Party botched the process, including safeguards and overall control.

I try not to make pronouncements, but I’m happy to comment.

Lembit Opik:
Tweeted back.

Joe Otten:

I believe the accreditation system is over the top for the party’s security requirements. It has been a significant obstacle for a number of people who are perfectly safe and entitled to attend. However I am not clear that this is a battle we can win.

There is a broader question here, that the police are used to being in the position that they can give ‘advice’ and the practical consequence of this is that the recipient of the advice has no choice. This is due to a combination of factors including insurance, and the policies of partner organisations – “we always follow police advice”.

This is more about people covering their backsides than getting the right security system for our conference.

Candy Piercy:

My position is that I voted in favour of accreditation because of the advice received by the FE accreditation was necessary in order to make sure conference could go ahead.

I was very much in favour of adopting additional safeguards that some individuals needed.

I believe the fundamental issue is that we have to make sure our conferences can go ahead successfully and safely.

I think it is now a good time to find out more about the background issues around conference accreditation and change/adjust this process depending on properly established facts.

If accreditation does prove necessary then we need to look again at how we can make sure that this is a fair process. If members are facing problems as a result of the accreditation process then we need to adapt it. Naturally LGBT (and any other relevant bodies) should be properly consulted about what needs to be done to safeguard individuals who may be put at risk by the process.

David Rendel:
-No reply at this time.

Jo Shaw:

My position, which I have had throughout, is that I want Conference to go ahead. The advice we have had from the police is that accreditation is needed for the autumn conference and we have also been told that if we refuse to comply with the police recommendations that might invalidate our insurance or mean that venues would refuse to host us. The police also require security checks to be made of all staff at conference venues, and all attendees who are not party members. It would seem deeply unfair if party members could claim special treatment (ie avoid accreditation) because of being members.

Of course this is deeply unsatisfactory, particularly because of the issues for some trans members who object to accreditation on grounds of personal safety. The measures that have been put in place for some trans members have not been enough and we need to do more to make sure members’ safety is not jeopardised through the accreditation process. However I am clear that I am not prepared to countenance Conference not going ahead, or exposing the party to levels of financial risk, and therefore I have accepted accreditation in the past.

The difficulty we face is the illogical arguments (unchanged) put forward by the police. Why is it we need accreditation for autumn, but not for spring, for example? As yet there does not seem to be any answer to this question from the police.

Adrian Smith:

Not having been on FCC or FE before, my experience of this has largely been from a distance.

You can correct me if I am wrong, but the situation as I understand it is that Autumn conference is subject to full Police accreditation whereas Spring is not, and the reason appears to be because the Home Office will meet the cost of doing so for Autumn but not spring.

The problem with full accreditation is that some delegates find it deeply invasive with regard to their sexuality and gender, and many others simply find it incompatible with liberal values.

In addition, GMP were not exactly a model of efficiency the first time round, though I gather it was better this time.

Have I got that right?

I’m not sure there is an easy solution, because I can understand the arguments for both sides – what I think is absolutely ludicrous is having one set of rules for one conference and one for another, and that I think needs to be addressed first – it arguably endangers Spring conference goers as it is.

Beyond that I would need to acquaint myself more fully with the facts of the problem, though I would always advocate taking a very tough line with the police and home office.

John Smithson:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for John please let me know.

Tom Stubbs:
-No reply at this time.

Martin Tod:

I haven’t been heavily involved in this issue, but one of the things that has surprised me about the whole discussion on accreditation is how anecdotal the evidence appears to be in support of the restrictions.

I can’t believe it would be that hard to:

Get the Police request in writing – and any rules, guidance or policy used to justify it
Get the specific reaction of the venue and/or the specific terms of booking – again – in writing
Get the specific reaction of our insurers (and possibly the venue’s insurers) – also in writing

Of course, it is vital that Conference goes ahead – we wouldn’t want to jeopardise it to prove a point – but creating extra bureaucracy and intruding on people’s privacy should not be done unless there is a really clear evidence base to show that such steps are necessary and proportionate. I’ve not seen such evidence to date.

Peter Tyzack:

I have seen things about ‘accreditation’, and have yet to really understand what this issue, in particular, is. It would be nice to be able to turn up at the conference doors, show your membership card and walk in, or even have the conference open to the public, but then reality has to kick in.  As the security guy said ‘the terrorist only has to get lucky once in order to wreak havoc, we have to remain vigilant at all times to stop them getting lucky’.

So my answer in relation to generic security, is that it must be realistic and proportionate, reasonable and workable.  It should be no more than the minimum that is needed to protect us from the perceived risk.
In amongst that are personal and individual sensitivities, which need to be accommodated.  But where those individuals form a small part of the whole their concerns should be dealt with on a personal case basis.

Whilst I know that concerns have been raised, perhaps I have been less bothered about understanding, simply because I have not had any problem myself, and have not been involved in having to make any decision about the matter.  We elected a committee to run the Conference and as Reps we should have faith in their ability to do so.  Yes, the FE take responsibility over FCC, and I would assume that they asked the relevant questions to satisfy themselves that security matters had been adequately dealt with.  But, as an ordinary Rep coming and going I have accepted the security regime, as it has evolved, as being what those, in a better position to know than me, felt to be appropriate.

Having been a PPC, and having been at events with Nick when his close protection team were in evidence, I have been quietly impressed by their discreet and coordinated efficiency.  The big expense of that provision is not for fun, nor to make Nick feel important.  The point is, that we are in Govt, and whilst our Leader and his fellow ministers are known to us as normal people, with whom we are able to work and have contact with, they are now public figures who can attract the wrong sort of attention, if not from terrorists or political extremists, from the lunatic who just wants his moment of infamy, or whatever he just wants.

The big difference comes, if you decide to elect me to the FE, what I do then.  In that event, I first want to know what my powers duty and remit are as a member of the FE(and, as an aside, to get the role more clearly defined than the woolly remit FE currently has!).  But when coming to make a decision about or to scrutinise the work being done by others on our behalf, I shall undertake to gain a full understanding of the issues and any opposing points of view before forming a judgement.

I give you that statement as a solemn undertaking, as that is how I act when taking on a new role… determine exactly what the job is, and then do it to the best of my ability.  ‘Wherever a decision is to be taken it must be taken objectively, on the basis of facts; where the facts are inadequate, go out for more information or consultation; where a choice is to be made, do so democratically; and throughout, remember on who’s behalf you serve.’

Thanks for your question, and for making me think it through.  If I am elected, please come back to me.

Gerald Vernon-Jackson:
-No reply at this time.

Erlend Watson:

I have a feeling that my answer will not win votes but I ought to reply.

Initially the FCC mishandled the accreditation issue most specifically over identity issues ( I note transgender and spouse battering as the main ones).

I believe those to be satisfactorily settled now even if trust remains weak.

On the issue of who has the final say it remains with the party.

So I think the current position more or less OK.

I do for the record think it is stupid for the FAP to have passed this to the FE. Any issue including policy could have financial implications. But the constitution says the FCC decides about conference so responsibility belongs there.

Chris White:

I believe it is a necessary step with more than adequate safeguards built in to protect those who might be discriminated against. We have a duty to those who are not party members at conference and the idea that a conference could take place without it does not bear even distant scrutiny.

I have spoken on this matter at conference.

Sir David Williams:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for Sir David please let me know.

Snooping Proposals

It’s not often that I feel actively obliged to blog about something nowadays. I turn up to conference and vote in the ways I think best, but for the most part, I don’t claim to know how best to navigate the challenges of coalition and apart from a few headline issues like the NHS I’ve been content to leave our ministers to get on with it. It’s not that I’ve been ardently in support of everything the government has done, but on the basis of “if you haven’t got anything nice to say…” I’ve mostly let them get on with it. After all, these are people who I was happy to campaign for before the election, and when they ask me to believe that behind closed doors they are still campaigning for the things our party believes in, I feel I owe them at least some benefit of the doubt.

But.

You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?

But I am a liberal first and a Liberal second, and I don’t believe that benefit of the doubt is the same thing as blind faith. If it stops looking to me like our ministers and our leadership deserve the benefit of the doubt, I’m not just going to soldier on.

The recent news reports about potential new extensions of the (already pretty illiberal) RIPA surveillance powers were worrying, and I didn’t entirely share Simon McGrath’s apparent faith in the coalition government, but I took his point and waited to hear a response from the party, or some more details about what was actually proposed.

Today, as the party leadership’s own take on things emerges, I feel I have enough information to go on.

As many other very sensible and considerably more prestigious bloggers than myself have already made clear, this is not an issue like the NHS, where it might have been argued that our 2010 manifesto supported something a bit like the reforms being introduced if you squinted a bit. This is not an issue like tuition fees, where we had conceded before we even began by signing the coalition agreement. This is an issue which is at the core of our party’s beliefs, purports to be at the core of the coalition’s beliefs, and which has so far attracted a pretty unanimous response from all over the customary spectrum of opinion within the party.

I would like to put on record that I join them in condemning the proposals. The technical sleight-of-hand involved in claiming that the government is only interested in communications data, not content, with these proposals, has been covered well elsewhere (although I can’t remember where I read it right now, so no link, sorry – any links in the comments gratefully received). The idea that we weren’t all that keen on RIPA when it came in, but now apparently think it’s fine to want to extend the same system to other media, is absurd. The fact that the party is already lining up a carefully crafted “rebellion”, followed no doubt by suitable “safeguards”, to make a carefully drawn (but nonetheless phoney) distinction between content and communication data so that we can wheel out the “yes this is a bit evil, but not as evil as what Evil Labour tried to do” line is depressing.

This is surely a Red Line issue for the party. It certainly is for me. And let me make this absolutely clear: I have no intention of leaving this party any time soon. But if its parliamentarians and leaders look to me like they’ve forgotten what they went into politics for, I will have no hesitation in calling for them to leave it.

Please, folks. Show me you still deserve the benefit of the doubt.

#ldconf, the NHS Bill, and Where The Leadership Stands Now

This weekend has certainly been interesting. For the record, I’m relatively pleased with the outcome of the votes at conference on the NHS bill this weekend. It is one of a whole range of possibilities about what might have happened, and we don’t fully know what the fallout will be yet. No, technically, we have not given any particularly clear instruction to our parliamentarians on how to vote. And yes, technically, the amended form of “The Shirley Williams Motion” (ahem) says almost nothing of any consequence. But since conference has never been in the business of telling our parliamentarians how to vote, that’s probably OK. The act of deleting the clause which asked our parliamentarians to vote for the bill at 3rd reading seems to have sent the right message to the media.

Did Conference Achieve the Right Outcome?

In any case, what the best outcome for conference would have been is a rather complex question. It’s complex because there are a number of objectives which in an ideal world would all be achieved:

1. Kill the Health and Social Care (HSC) Bill.

2. …but leave open the possibility of implementing some of the uncontroversial elements of the plans, like joining up the delivery of health care, social care and public health.

3. Preserve the coalition government, and the goodwill of our coalition partners within it (tricky to reconcile with point 1!).

4. Preserve the sovereignty, democracy and credibility of conference as a policy-making body.

How best to achieve a balance between these objectives, and which ones are more important, is not a straightforward question. For instance, had we passed the motion calling for the withdrawal of the bill, only to find that it made not the slightest difference to the progress of the bill, conference (and by extension the party) would have been utterly emasculated. Had we passed the withdrawal motion and subsequently seen the withdrawal of the bill, I’d be pretty happy, but I would be concerned that the Tories would be on the lookout for some piece of Lib Dem-favoured policy which they could hole below the waterline in retaliation. As it is, we’ve stopped short of passing a (possibly unenforceable) motion calling on our peers and MPs to vote against the bill, but made it fairly clear, in the balance of speeches this morning and in the result of the vote, that we are really not comfortable with this bill and would rather it died. If the bill subsequently does die, the Tories can’t lay the blame squarely at our feet, but we have nevertheless contributed to the momentum of the anti-bill forces. Somehow I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this row yet. So, whilst I was willing to support the Withdrawal motion in the Emergency Motions Ballot, I don’t think it is by any means straightforwardly obvious that what happened today will not have better outcomes than that would have had.

The above may sound rather slippery, or seem to display a warped sense of priorities. How can I put the party and the stability of the government alongside protecting the NHS? I must be some kind of traitor, no? Well, if I believed much of the hyperbole about the effects of this bill, then yes, I’d agree, the reasoning I’ve laid out above would be disgraceful. But I have to say that although I don’t support the HSC Bill and want it dropped, I really don’t buy the idea that it’s going to lead to the end of a comprehensive, free NHS in the way that some of the anti-bill folks have been suggesting. Whilst good impartial information on this issue is scarce, from what I’ve been able to make out this is not a reasonable expectation to have of the effects of the bill. Nor do I think it will result in the wholesale privatisation of the NHS. I just don’t happen to think it’s a good enough revision of the model for running the NHS to justify the disruption which the re-organisation will cause.

 

What Is Actually Wrong With The HSC Bill?

I believe the use of private providers within the NHS can be destabilising to the viablity of NHS services, and that it has led to an ever more fragmented service for the last 10 years or more. I do not like the one-size-fits-all way that the “choice” – or competition, as it is more honestly known – agenda has been clumsily grafted onto the NHS, but we should not pretend that this bill introduces that agenda, or that without this bill that agenda would not continue to drive much of the way the NHS is run. What this bill does do, so far as I can see, is transfer who is doing the commissioning from PCTs to CCGs, and remove some brakes on Foundation Trusts’ involvement in the private sector. I’m not saying that isn’t problematic*, but at root the stuff I most dislike about the Lansley vision for the NHS is not actually new. Marketisation and competition has been the dominant idea behind NHS reform throughout Labour’s time in office. If those of us who are deeply uncomfortable with it don’t like it, we need a coherent vision of our own. Meanwhile, I am satisfied that my party’s representatives in the Lords have secured some valuable safeguards, such that in some ways this might be an improvement on the 2006 Act which Labour left us.

So what is the problem? The problem is, in other ways, it’s worse than the 2006 act, and in any case the reorganisation of the NHS is simply massively unhelpful at a time when the NHS is already under budgetary pressure. The problem is that the apparent safeguards about conflicts of interest for CCGs (and any private companies which they might look to enlist in support of their commissioning work) over the services they commission have barely scratched the surface. The problem is that setting tariffs which reflect the “clinical complexity” of work does not prevent “cherry-picking”, it merely quantifies it. The problem is that there are simply too many doubts about this bill, and too many people in the medical professions themselves who oppose it. It is not a very good idea, and it will not improve the NHS, in my estimation. There are just too many pitfalls.

But let’s be honest. It is not going to result in everyone having to get private medical insurance. It is not going to mean that the NHS is privatised. It is not a “US style” health system. And the people who are shrieking hysterically that it is all of these things are doing their case no favours. And since I don’t buy the apocalyptic visions of what will happen if the bill passes, I am prepared to entertain the possibility that it will pass, and I don’t think that every single other one of the objectives I listed above is worth sacrificing because we might – might – be able to stop it.

*”Problematic” might be the understatement of the year if it turns out that this shift does, in fact, lay the commissioning process open to all sorts of legal challenge by the private sector when they don’t like the outcome of a tendering process. This is one area in which I genuinely have no idea who is right, both because I have read contradictory advice from different respectable sources, but also because the HSC Bill is such a moving target, with many ammendments still only existing in potentia as undertakings by the government.

The State of the Party and of the Leadership

So, what of the way that the leadership behaved in this whole matter? Well, I think it’s pretty undeniable that the tactics of using Shirley Williams in the way they did displayed some serious desperation. The stony silences during the Q&A session with Cleggy during the questions about the NHS were telling, as was the fact that during his speech today he didn’t feel confident in trying to make us clap anything about the HSC bill stronger than thanking Shirley for her work on it. It is unfortunate that at a time when the shine was always going to be coming off Nick, as the party started to grow tired of the more unpalatable elements of coalition, he is having to use up extra capital with members (and make no mistake, that’s what he’s doing, burning through it at quite a rate at the moment) to sell something to us which wasn’t even in the coalition agreement, and which actually directly contradicts it (“no top-down reorganisations…” may be over-familiar by now, but it’s still worth remembering: this is a direct breach of the coalition agreement).

To see Clegg at conference nowadays, it’s pretty clear that he’s an increasingly remote figure in the party. That’s not to say he can’t recover, but I’m sure someone with the emotional intelligence that Nick has cannot have failed to notice that he is not trading from a position of strength at conference these days.

So what can the leadership do about the growing gulf with the wider membership of the party? Well, in the immediate terms of the HSC Bill, not much, other than hope that the Tories find the guts to kill a bill that many of them are clearly uneasy about, and which has been an unmitigated disaster for them in terms of re-toxifying their brand on the NHS. But in terms of preventing this from happening again, I think it’s worth considering how they can bring the party along with them on issues which fall outside of the coalition agreement. Let’s ignore for a moment that the HSC Bill contradicts the agreement, what if it was just a “matter arising” which is not adressed by the agreement? Currently the procedure, we are told, is that it goes to the “Coalition Committee”. For some issues, that’s fine. But I would argue that on an issue as large as reforming the NHS, they really should have moved to get conference on side before pressing ahead with the reforms, in the same way they did with the coalition agreement itself. This would, of course, have strengthened their hand in rejecting excessive Tory demands, on the grounds that they couldn’t get them past conference.

One could argue that the leadership tried to do just this with the original Burstow motion at conference last spring. However, that doesn’t quite hold water. Burstow’s motion being selected instead of the anti-bill motion it was competing with made it virtually impossible for conference to reject the bill outright. Since we’re not allowed to move wrecking ammendments at conference, as soon as Burstow’s motion was on the agenda we could do nothing stronger than reject his motion outright. That’s fine, but it wouldn’t have stopped anything, since doing so doesn’t say anything definitive – defeating a motion is the absence of a policy, not a decisive policy against. The likely outcome would have been that the government plowed on regardless. In the event, the people who were concerned about the bill went for a more constructive approach, moving an ammendment which listed the things they disliked about the HSC Bill (then White Paper). This attempt to be constructive has since been thrown back in their face; the fact that they didn’t delete the first sentence of Burstow’s motion (“conference welcomes much of [the white paper]”) has since been used to suggest that they were actually endorsing the Lansley plan, with a few quibbles. Yes, seriously.

Meanwhile, since conference doesn’t, by convention, discuss the same issue twice in two consecutive conferences, the fact that a motion had been discussed at the spring conference about the white paper meant that conference could not react to the bill as it became draft legislation by moving any motion at all at autumn conference – the attempt to suspend standing orders didn’t get the two thirds majority it needed. By the time this year’s spring conference rolled around it was almost too late to stop the bill, but nonetheless the leadership still clearly feared the embarassment of the withdrawal motion passing enough to go to the desperate lengths of wheeling out Shirley’s name, as I’ve already mentioned. In this light, the leadership’s (and FCC’s) behaviour at successive conferences looks less like an attempt to seek conference’s blessing for the bill in any meaningful way, and more like an attempt to prevent conference from making any decisive and timely call for the bill to be dropped.

The sad thing about this whole process is that it seems to have forgotten what we know about the strengths of our democratic structures. Repeatedly in David Laws’s book about the formation of the coalition, it is mentioned explicitly that the threat of having to get something past the membership strengthened our negotiating position. A strong, independent minded conference is one of the key buffers we have against Tory domination of the coalition. And yet for whatever reason, the leadership of this party seems to have been willing to actively frustrate members’ attempts to intervene in the case of the NHS bill. Ultimately, the result is that a bill which is now an albatross around the government’s neck has been allowed to progress past the point when it could have been quietly sidelined.

What could the leadership do about it? They could stop playing the kind of pathetic procedural games at conference which would make a student union trot blush.

Predictions for 2012

Not that they’re likely to display any dazzling powers of prediction, but…

1. The coalition will survive in tact, despite a few unhelpful interventions from prominent figures in the Lib Dem parliamentary party, and continued howls of frustration from the Tory right.

2. Chris Huhne will survive the fallout from the allegations about speeding in 2003, without having to resign, but will be substantially weakened.

3. Vince Cable will still be a member of the cabinet by the end of the year.

4. Ed Miliband will find that the disloyal mutterings from some of his frontbench colleagues become a serious problem. Ed Balls will not be unconnected to this!

5. Ken Clarke will be retired from the cabinet in a reshuffle that will see David Laws return to government.

6. Barack Obama will beat Ron Paul in the US Presidential Race, in a much closer result than many analysts predict when Paul is nominated.

7. The Euro will finish the year in a much stronger position than it started it.

8. UK economic growth will continue to be sluggish, but will not fall back into recession.

9. A major UK newspaper will close or merge with a rival.

10. The Higgs Boson will officially be declared to be discovered, and, rather boringly, the details will utterly fail to significantly challenge the Standard Model.

See you back here this time next year for the results!

11 for 2011: How Did I Do?

Well, another year has been and gone (any amazing late-breaking developments notwithstanding), so it’s time to look back at my success (or more likely otherwise) in predicting anything that was going to happen this year.

Here, then, are the predictions I made:

The coalition will survive through the year.

Correct. 1 point.

The “Yes” campaign will win the AV referendum.

Incorrect. Nul points.

Whilst the year will start with Michael Gove looking increasingly insecure in his position, it will ultimately be Andrew Lansley whose position is threatened most, after his ambitious and rapid set of NHS reforms inevitably come a cropper somewhere along the line.

Well, ultimately Lansley is still in post, but I think it’s fair to say that the general gist of this is right – at one point during the year, there was quite serious speculation about whether Lansley was secure in his job, because the NHS reforms had somewhat blown up in his face (with a little help from us, naturally). 1 point.

David Laws will return to government.

Not yet, alas, but there’s nothing blocking it any longer, after the Standards and Privileges committee made its ruling back in May, and Laws was given a week’s suspension from the house as a (somewhat heavy handed relative to those of many other less forgiveable expenses abusers) punishment. 0 points.

The decision on Murdoch’s attempt to take complete control of BSkyB will ultimately be to deny him his wish, having first undergone several months more investigation.

An awkward one, this. Ultimately Murdoch was more or less forced to withdraw the bid as a result of the phone hacking scandal, rather than as a result of deliberations about media plurality directly. Having said that, it seems that campaigners for media plurality have indeed had their hand strengthened by the results of this process. Half a point.

Lib Dem autumn conference will see attacks on the leadership, with councillors who lost their seats in May out for blood.

Well, not so much as you’d notice, really. Despite some none-too-subtle positioning by Mr. Farron, actual slagging off of the leadership was fairly muted at conference, much to the frustration of the media present. In part, this could be credited to Federal Conference Committee, who did much to selflessly draw the anger of conference-goers in their own direction. 0 points.

The economy will not suffer a double dip, although it will start the year sluggishly, and by the end of the year things will be looking up.

Well, the first half of this is certainly true of 2011, though whether the optimistic second half of the prediction could be said to be true is a bit more of a stretch, what with the eurozone crisis still very much unresolved as we head into 2012. Half a point.

Lib Dem leadership will contribute to progress on a legal vehicle at COP 17.

Well, whether the term “legal vehicle” could be said to be equivalent to an “agreed outcome with legal force”, I will leave to better legal minds than me, but I think it’s fair to say that European leadership, and within that Lib Dem leadership in the UK, has contributed to a positive (though sadly not positive enough, yet) outcome at COP 17. 1 point.

Alan Johnson will not be Shadow Chancellor by the end of the year.

True. Not 20 days into 2011, this not-too-surprising prediction came off nicely. 1 point.

The Independent will not be being published in its current form by the end of the year.

Not happened, unless you count a redesign with a spanky new masthead (which I don’t). 0 points.

House of Lords reform will not be scuppered by the House of Lords itself, and by the end of the year it will be fairly certain that elections for the House of Lords will take place within the next 10 years.

Well, the atmosphere of doom around this has somewhat subsided, and it certainly hasn’t been scuppered yet. Having said that, I don’t think I can really give this one – more work still to do! 0 points.

 

So, overall, I make that 5 points out of a possible 11.

Still about as accurate as flipping a coin then!

On The Conference Accreditation Motion #ldconf

Yes, yes, long time no blog. Sorry, no time to dwell on that.

So having sat through the debate this morning and watched with horror over 100 people put their hands up to vote for ammendment 1 (for all papers relating to this post, so you can read the motions and ammendments, go here; the motion is F9 on page 20 of the agenda, and the ammendments are on page 23 of conference extra, both available as pdfs at the above link), I thought I might as well write the speech that I should have put a speakers’ card in to make earlier today.

Basically, my problems with this come under three headings:

1. How is it making us safer?

Let’s assume for the moment that I’m a maniac and I’m looking for opportunities to do something nasty to people inside conference. On my way into conference, four different people check my pass to make sure I match my photo, my bag has been X-rayed and if necessary searched, and I have passed through a metal detector and if necessary frisked. I don’t object to this, I can see the use of it, and I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate FCC on significantly speeding up this process at this conference.

But I’m sorry, I just don’t get how, in addition to these basic physical checks, the fact that the police think that I’m the right sort of chap to be attending conference makes us any safer. Short of strangling someone with my bare hands, I don’t see what damage I could inflict on people inside the barriers even if I wanted to.

2. The argument that “it is still ultimately conference who decide” is flawed.

Andrew Wiseman (who, to his credit, has done more than he could have done to engage with the discontent over this, and is taking a disproportionate amount of flak for a decision that, with the honourable exception of Justine McGuinness, all of FCC should be held accountable for) told us yesterday that two people have been flagged by the police as recommended for being turned away from conference. Of these, one was over-ruled by the “three wise men” who apparently now speak for the party on these matters, and one wasn’t. Andrew told us that he couldn’t give us details, for confidentiality reasons, other than to say that the one who was turned away was a recently joined member, who the police had significant concerns about.

Now, since I don’t have the information, I’m going to have to speculate and make generalisations. But it seems to me that on this limited evidence, we can draw a couple of conclusions: Firstly, if the police try to bar you, you have a pretty good chance of being turned away, compared to if they don’t. And secondly, it seems likely that the most likely people to be turned away are new members, younger people or other new recruits, who don’t happen to have a friend in high places to put in a good word for them.

It seems likely that the people whose flagging will be over-ruled will be people of whom the three wise men can say “oh, that’s just Bill, he’s been coming for donkeys’ years, he’s harmless”. Which is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is, what happens to new members who are flagged. Nobody will vouch for them, since nobody knows them yet. We will create a closed shop, where the only people who can come to conference are longstanding Lib Dems, and nice folk with no questionable things in their records. As was eloquently argued this morning, conference will be all the poorer for the loss of those voices.

3. Some of the arguments being made in favour of accreditation are pretty weak.

Since we know that the same bind on FCC to follow police advice in order to secure their insurance was presumably in place during Sheffield (where, incidentally, the crowds outside the security zone were a damn sight more rowdy than they are in Brum), it is reasonable to assume that in Sheffield, the police didn’t insist on accreditation, even if they might have thought it was a good idea. So there are, presumably, conference venues where we could go where we wouldn’t be subject to this “requirement” from the police. To suggest, therefore, that critics of accreditation would rather have no conference at all is a contemptible piece of sophistry.

So was the argument I heard from one member of FCC today that the nature of some of the people outside the security barriers should be seen as a reason to want accreditation. Either this is supposed to imply that soon everyone who comes within a mile of conference should have to be vetted, or this is merely highlighting the limitations on the effectiveness of this kind of measure anyway. The saddest part of this is that some of the people arguing the FCC line didn’t even look much like they were convincing themselves.

Ultimately, then, I find it hard to conclude that the vetting system is anything other than a piece of security theatre, and a damaging one at that.

And don’t even get me started on the patronising bollocks from a couple of people today who denied the very existence of anyone who had stayed away from conference because they didn’t want to submit to the process. Those people deserved all the angry heckles they got today.

Thoughts from Lib Dem Conference #ldconf

This year’s Lib Dem spring conference was an interesting affair. Here’s a few thoughts about it:

1. The narrative of the party leadership.

The tone of much of what the party’s coalition frontbench is saying is not massively changed, but there has been an evolution if not a revolution. As was widely called for and predicted 6 months ago, the penny seems to be starting to drop about the need to start to “badge” (to borrow Tim Farron’s phrase) more of our policy achievements in government as Lib Dem wins, whilst avoiding the potential pitfalls of exposing the push and pull at the heart of the government too much. In particular, the approach of Nick’s leader’s speech was subtly shifting in this direction, and where previously it was notable that he barely said anything disapproving about the Conservative party 6 months ago, today we saw him, if not laying into the Tory party, at least feeling able to start to express explicit differences.

The main shift by the party leadership, though, was in tone rather than content. More than once, we were urged to “keep your heads up”, not to apologise for being in government. I think this must be right, at least to some extent. 90% of communication is nothing to do with the actual content of what we say, after all. Rather, it is to do with the way we say it. Too often, “we didn’t win the election”, “it was the best we could do in the circumstances” etc. sound like cringing apologies for our part in government. They may be factually correct, but if it sounds like we’re trying to convince ourselves because we’re a bit down about the difficulties of government, it’s not likely to win many people over. What was noticeable about this change of tone is that it was ubiquitous across the spectrum of the party’s leading lights, not just from the cabinet ministers.

2. The battle for the ongoing identity of the party – a rise in social / economic liberal factionalism?

One consequence of coalition, it seems, is going to be the dredging up of old dividing lines within the party, as people try to win the battle for the “direction” of the party in the future. The drive for this seems to spring from suspicion of the party leadership, which I suspect is inevitable in the circumstances of a coalition. Much of our faith in Nick at the moment rests on what we as members believe he is doing within government behind closed doors. People don’t know what to make of Nick’s attempts to find intellectual common ground with the Tories. Some worry that in fact, Nick wants to shift the party to the economic liberal end of the spectrum, and he secretly agrees with some of the Tory policies we would like him to oppose. Others, meanwhile, accept that Nick respects the existing balance of opinion within the party, and is not trying to move us anywhere, merely to paint the party for the moment in a light which makes sense of the coalition.

I had, in the past, generally accepted the argument that the line between social liberals and economic liberals in the party was overplayed. Sure, there is a spectrum of thought in the party on some issues, but liberalism isn’t primarily about the left/right divide, it defines itself against authoritarianism – it lies on a different axis. I still believe this, but as the party tries to reassert its identity it is perhaps inevitable that it is going to end up pulling away from the centre of gravity of the coalition government.

Thus, we have seen a resurrection of the struggle between liberalism and social democracy within the party, with many within the party, consciously or not, playing up to these terms. The Social Liberal Forum, for instance, and many other members of the party, spent the weekend trying to reassert the values of what they insist (probably correctly) are the mainstream of party opinion. Speeches were heard in the debate on the strategy paper bemoaning the lack of reference to social democratic traditions from the leadership of the party. As if to underline their point, Nick then spoke in his speech of the great intellectual history of the Liberal party, but not so much of the social democratic tradition.

Partly, though, this is because Nick’s mission in his speech was to set out a coherent narrative of who the party is for and what it believes, whilst at the same time maintaining the intellectual coherence of the coalition’s joint programme. The language of the party’s liberal inheritance makes this easier; I personally don’t think Nick is deliberately shunning the other side of the party’s roots – indeed, quoting Shirley Williams in this context rather masterfully downplayed the significance of the divide.

Lastly on this point, it’s probably worth pointing out that, had we been in a parallel universe where we now found ourselves in coalition with Labour, I very much suspect that the economic liberals in the party would very similarly be decrying an over-emphasis on social democracy at about this point in time. I think this kind of ideological rebound is likely to be an inevitable feature of coalition for our party, and I don’t know that there’s much Nick or anyone else can do about it.

3. The NHS amendments and the risks of “going native”.

One problem for our ministers, it seems, is the risk that they may be perceived to be “going native” in their departments. In particular, many of the people with concerns about the Lansley reforms have been getting the impression that Paul Burstow pretty much approves of the policies in the proposed NHS reforms, rather than regretting that they are not in line with many aspects of Lib Dem policy. I rather get the impression that he is much keener on the reforms than Nick Clegg ever was. But of course, I have no idea what Burstow might have privately been saying to Andrew Lansley and his other Tory colleagues in the Department of Health. This, really, is the problem our frontbenchers have. We simply have to take it on trust that they don’t really believe everything they have to say as coalition ministers.

That NHS motion in full #ldconf

Just for the record, I thought I’d post the motion on the NHS which conference actually passed (as amended and with lines rejected in a separate vote removed), since I’m not really sure where it is that one finds this information online. I’ll be writing a proper post about this motion and several other things besides later, once I’ve got my thoughts in order a bit more.

F5 Updating the NHS: Personal and Local

Conference believes that the NHS is an integral part of a liberal society, reflecting the social solidarity of shared access to collective healthcare, and a shared responsibility to use resources effectively to deliver better health.

Conference welcomes our Coalition Government’s commitment to the founding principles of the NHS: available to all, free at the point of use, and based on need, not the ability to pay.

Conference welcomes much of the vision for the NHS set out in the Government’s White Paper, Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS, which commits the Government to an NHS that:

i) Is genuinely centred on patients and carers.

ii) Achieves quality and outcomes that are among the best in the world.

iii) Refuses to tolerate unsafe and substandard care.

iv) Puts clinicians in the driving seat and sets hospitals and providers free to innovate, with stronger incentives to adopt best practice.

v) Is more transparent, with clearer accountabilities for quality and results.

vi) Is more efficient and dynamic, with a radically smaller national, regional and local bureaucracy.

vii) Gives citizens a greater say in how the NHS is run.

Conference particularly welcomes the proposals to introduce real democratic legitimacy and local accountability into the NHS for the first time in almost forty years by:

a) Extending the powers of local authorities to enable effective scrutiny of any provider of any taxpayer-funded health services.

b) Giving local authorities the role of leading on improving the strategic coordination of commissioning across the NHS, social care, and related childrens’ and public health services through councillor-led Health and Wellbeing Boards.

c) Creating Health Watch to act as a local consumer champion for patients and to ensure that local patients are heard on a national level.

d) Returning public health duty to local government by ensuring that the majority of public health services will now be commissioned by local authorities from their ring-fenced public health budget.

Conference recognises however that all of the above policies and aspirations can be achieved without adopting the damaging and unjustified market-based approach that is proposed.

Conference regrets that some of the proposed reforms have never been Liberal Democrat policy, did not feature in our manifesto or in the agreed Coalition Programme, which instead called for an end to large-scale top-down reorganisations.

Conference therefore calls on Liberal Democrats in Parliament to amend the Health Bill to provide for:

I) More democratically accountable commissioning.

II) A much greater degree of co-terminosity between local authorities and commissioning areas.

III) No decision about the spending of NHS funds to be made in private and without proper consultation, as can take place by the proposed GP consortia.

IV) The complete ruling out of any competition based on price to prevent loss-leading corporate providers under-cutting NHS tariffs, and to ensure that healthcare providers ‘compete’ on quality of care.

V) New private providers to be allowed only where there is no risk of ‘cherry-picking’ which would destabilise or undermine the existing NHS service relied upon for emergencies and complex cases, and where the needs of equity, research and training are met.

VI) NHS commissioning being retained as a public function in full compliance with the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information laws, using the skills and experience of existing NHS staff rather than the sub-contracting of commissioning to private companies.

VII) The continued separation of the commissioning and provision of services to prevent conflicts of interests.

VIII) An NHS, responsive to patients’ needs, based on co-operation rather than competition, and which promotes quality and equity not the market.

Conferences calls on:

1. The Government to uphold the NHS Constitution and publish an audit of how well organisations are living by its letter and spirit.

2. Liberal Democrats in local government to establish local Health and Wellbeing Boards and make progress developing the new collaborative ways of working necessary to provide joined-up services that are personalised and local.

3. The government to seize fully the opportunity to reverse the scandalous lack of accountability of publicly-funded local health services which has grown up under decades of Conservative and Labour governments, by:

a) Ensuring full scrutiny, including the power to require attendance, by elected local authorities of all organisations in the local health economy funded by public money, including Foundation Trusts and any external support for commissioning consortia; ensuring that all such organisations are subject to Freedom of Information requirements.

b) Ensuring Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) are a strong voice for accountable local people in setting the strategic direction for and co-ordinating provision of health and social care services locally by containing substantial representation from elected local councillors; and by requiring GP Commissioning Boards to construct their Annual Plans in conjunction with the HWBs; to monitor their implementation at meetings with the HWBs not less than once each quarter; and to review the implementation of the Annual Plan with the HWBs at the end of the year prior to the construction of the Annual Plan for the forthcoming year.

c) Ensuring commissioning of health services has some degree of accountability by requiring about half of the members of the board of commissioning consortia, alongside GPs, to be local councillors appointed as non-executive directors.

d) Offering additional freedoms only to Foundation Trusts that successfully engage substantial proportions of their local populations as active members.

Why Can’t Britain Do The Daily Show?

I wasn’t in to see 10 O’Clock Live on Thursday, so I’m a bit late in reacting to it, and it’s probably not fair to judge it on the very first episode. But when has that ever stopped anyone?

Well it certainly wasn’t terrible, I guess. I should probably preface this review by saying that I would dearly love the UK to have an answer to The Daily Show in the US, which I think is brilliant. I would be quite happy to see some brave network simply import the format wholesale, so long as they did it right. I accept that not everyone wants to spend their career simply trying to make a carbon copy of someone else’s success, though, so I’m not going to insist that 10 O’Clock Live be that show. It clearly is trying to be something a bit like it, though, and for that I have both a lot of goodwill towards it, and a lot of points where I really wanted it to be better. I will identify some of the areas I think it needs to work on to take on the best aspects of the Daily Show.

Some people, like Mark Lawson, thought it was an issue that the programme had a pretty consistent liberal leaning to it, but I’m not sure that’s such a problem. For one thing, I actually thought David Willetts did pretty well on the tuition fees interview, in what could have been a very hostile environment (how many politicians would relish being interviewed in front of a rowdy studio audience by a well-liked comic?).

In any case, Conservative-leaning satire has always been rather unloveable, largely because it tends to revolve around mocking the weak and the vulnerable. As many people pointed out, the Daily Show has a similarly liberal slant to it, and the Colbert Report, ostensibly a kind of Republican balance to the Daily Show’s leftish sensibility, doesn’t really balance the situation out because it revolves around a bloviating Glenn Beck-alike character as a presenter, which is clearly intended to be appreciated on an ironic level. But I digress.

Most of the British attempts to Do Something A Bit Like The Daily Show have run into a couple of depressingly familiar stumbling blocks. And by the way, there have now been a number of attempts to get a topical, satirical, spoof-news ‘n’ interviews format like this going – see also the laudable The Late Edition (a BBC4 Marcus Brigstocke-led effort), and Channel 4’s previous effort, the abysmal Tonightly and its successor The TNT Show.

Problem 1: They have tended to talk down to the audience. Much has been made of the fact that in the US, viewers of the Daily Show and Colbert Report have been found to be better informed about current affairs than people who primarily get their news from more conventional sources, like the mainstream network news channels. Of course, correlation is not causation, and it might be because the Daily Show has a high student audience, for instance.

It’s probably not just that, though. Often you will see more coverage of what is said in Congress on the Daily Show than you do on other news reports – admittedly cherry picked for stuff which is easily mocked, but still. Interviews with academics and people who have written interesting, and not at all mainstream, books, are also a regular fixture, although admittedly they vie for time against interviews with film stars about their latest movie. The jokes on the Daily Show don’t sound like someone is trying to make a dry subject palateable to an audience which is otherwise too lumpen and incurious to care; the best of the Daily Show assumes that you already do know and understand something about the issue it is addressing, even when discussing geopolitics with former presidents.

Compare and contrast this approach with both Jimmy Carr’s bit on Tunisia-as-holiday-destination, and Lauren Laverne’s sleb-news spoof about Sudan’s vote for independence. 10 O’Clock Live does not come out of this comparison at all well, given that we are a country which would like to imagine it is culturally more sophisticated. I mean, come on, 10 O’Clock Live even opened with a kind of mission statement that they were here to explain the complicated world to us poor, addled simpletons.

Of course, 10 O’Clock Live has a challenge, in that Britain has news programmes from the BBC and Channel 4, whereas the US… doesn’t. That shouldn’t stop them from aspiring to hold that same position, though. Programmes like this don’t really work when they try for a mass audience. They work best when they appeal directly to an audience who are educated, interested, and don’t want to feel like they are being edutained at a level which is one or two levels down from anything they might actually find in the least bit informative.

Problem 2: Often, British shows try to start off being weekly, which just doesn’t really work very well. I think to really establish itself, a network just has to have the balls to really commit, and go straight for a nightly show. Tonightly at least got this bit right – its problem was simply that it suffered horrendously from Problem 1. Anything which wants to be The British Daily Show just has to go big or go home. It needs a big, intelligent writing team, and it needs to churn out good content on a daily basis, like the Daily Show somehow manages to.

In addition to these common problems, 10 O’Clock Live seems to have given itself a bit of a problem of its own. Its mutli-star format seems like a bit of an encumberance, at least in the way they have construed it. If I was to cast a British Daily Show, I can’t think of many people better suited to be Jon Stewart than David Mitchell. Charlie Brooker would certainly feature as a regular correspondant. But I’m not so sure about Jimmy Carr, although he certainly wasn’t a disaster. Lauren Laverne isn’t known as a comic, and felt rather as though she’d been chucked in for gender balance (which is a fair point, but surely the answer is to use one of the many good female comics who’d do well on a show like this) and to play the straight-woman to the other three, which seems a rather thankless task.

I wasn’t sure about their semi-funny, semi-earnest discussions around the table, either. These seemed a bit… neither nowt nor summat.

But still, it’s early days. With a bit of luck some of these crinkles will be ironed out in time. And of course, much of the charm of the Daily Show is in the way it has established long-running characters and features, and found its voice over many years. It wouldn’t quite be fair to expect this of 10 O’Clock Live straight away, when they haven’t had time to establish themselves.

So, my prescription:

1. Nightly, not weekly.
2. Talk up to the audience.
3. Cut down on the number of “hosts”, and redeploy some of them as more confined contributors – Charlie Brooker, much as I love him, is much better scripted than off the cuff, IMO.
4. Bring in more contributors, too. Why not show off some of the great, intelligent comics Britain has? MacIntyre types have plenty of formats that serve them well, but what about the less observational, more thoughtful ones? I would have thought this would be right up any number of people’s streets.

11 For 2011

Well, since I did quite so .. lacklustre-ly .. last year, I might as well try again for 2011:

  1. The coalition will survive through the year.
  2. The “Yes” campaign will win the AV referendum.
  3. Whilst the year will start with Michael Gove looking increasingly insecure in his position, it will ultimately be Andrew Lansley whose position is threatened most, after his ambitious and rapid set of NHS reforms inevitably come a cropper somewhere along the line.
  4. David Laws will return to government.
  5. The decision on Murdoch’s attempt to take complete control of BSkyB will ultimately be to deny him his wish, having first undergone several months more investigation.
  6. Lib Dem autumn conference will see attacks on the leadership, with councillors who lost their seats in May out for blood.
  7. The economy will not suffer a double dip, although it will start the year sluggishly, and by the end of the year things will be looking up.
  8. Lib Dem leadership will contribute to progress on a legal vehicle at COP 17.
  9. Alan Johnson will not be Shadow Chancellor by the end of the year.
  10. The Independent will not be being published in its current form by the end of the year.
  11. House of Lords reform will not be scuppered by the House of Lords itself, and by the end of the year it will be fairly certain that elections for the House of Lords will take place within the next 10 years.

10 for 2010: How Did I Do?

If you were paying attention to my blog a year ago, I took part in the 10 for 2010 meme which was doing the rounds. So now it’s all over, how did my predictions fare? Not quite so well as I’d hoped, unfortunately:

My 10 Predictions:

  1. Barack Obama’s approval ratings will improve, but the Democrats will nonetheless have a disappointing set of mid-terms.
  2. Half right. The Democrats certainly had a disappointing set of mid-terms, but sadly it wasn’t even in the context of Obama’s approval ratings improving (see here, for instance). Instead, they drifted slightly downwards over the year, though you couldn’t really call it a precipitous drop; compared to the previous year it’s pretty much a flat line.

  3. . The Lib Dems will gain more seats at the general election than they lose.
  4. No, we gained 8 but lost 13, in a result which surprised many of us at the time.

  5. Any hung parliament which may arise from the general election will not produce a full coalition government, but instead the Lib Dems will offer confidence and supply to the party with most votes.
  6. No, it looked like that for a bit during the coalition negotiations, and had Clegg and Cameron not been so set on pulling a full coalition together it might have been, but in the end I was wrong on this one too.

  7. The Tories will suffer serious internal divisions over climate change.
  8. Not really, unfortunately.

  9. Steven Moffatt’s era of Doctor Who will be darker than RTDs, it will continue his obsession with the Doctor “dancing”, and Matt Smith will be better than David Tennant.
  10. Matt Smith is better than David Tennant. As for “darker”, well, visually it is, but whether you could really call the tone of it darker is less obvious. “Dancing” not as bad as it could have been, but certainly present. I’ll count this as largely correct, though.

  11. Lawrence Miles will not give up watching, or indeed commenting on, the series. He will, however, start an exciting new direction.
  12. Well he may have stopped watching it (properly, anyway), but he’s still commenting so far. As for new directions, well… does this count? Of course, he might well have started any number of exciting new directions of which I am, as yet, unaware.

  13. The financial position of the Labour party will bring its continued existence into serious question.
  14. Well, you certainly couldn’t say they’re in rude health, but the party isn’t quite dead yet, it seems.

  15. David Dimbleby will remain host of Question Time
  16. Yes.

  17. The Green party will do better than the BNP at the general election.
  18. Yes, it got an MP elected. No, the BNP won nearly twice as many votes. Which is more important? You decide.

  19. Marc Maron will successfully monetise WTF, and will still be making the podcast at the end of the year.
  20. Don’t know how successful he’s been in monetising it, but he seems to be doing OK, and still going strong.

So I make that about a 50% hit rate. Which suggests that my considered opinion on a given subject is about as accurate as flipping a coin. Ho hum.

I also made some resolutions:

  1. I must stop putting off getting myself organised.
  2. I must endeavour to get along to my first Spring Conference.
  3. I must rationalise my finances.
  4. I must blog more.
  5. I must make a dent in the stack of books which I’ve bought but not read yet.

Well, some of those are rather less quantifiable. I certainly did get to Spring Conference, but I probably didn’t really blog any more than before. I did read some of the books in question, but then again I acquired more to take their place in the yet to be read pile. The other two… well, nothing’s gone catastrophically wrong with my life yet, so I guess I’m doing OK at those.

The Hardest Day Of The Coalition

What a mess.

I’ve not been blogging much lately, but watching today’s events unfold, and the vitriol being expressed by some of the opponents of the government, I thought I might as well put some thoughts together, if only as an aid to my own thought process.

Where to start?

The Policy Itself

Personally, I have never felt entirely comfortable with the party’s stance on tuition fees. Yes, I would like a university education to be free, and I think that the increasing casting of the decision to go to university or not in terms of a cost-benefit anaylsis for the student is rather sad and will lead to the decline of people studying subjects in which they have no intention of pursuing a career – a trend for which our country will be all the poorer (and less liberal, as I understand the concept).

However, I have always thought that the criticism of tuition fees as a “crippling” debt was overblown, and would contribute more to any discouragement felt by prospective students than anything the policy itself might have done. Yes, there is a cost to graduates which was not incurred by previous generations, and there is therefore an issue of intergenerational equity here, but to call it a “debt” is disingenuous to my mind. This is not a debt in the sense that most people generally use the word. No bailiffs are going to turn up on your doorstep if you can’t pay it. Vince Cable, in his speech a few months back which was so widely trailed as advocating a graduate tax, made the point eloquently enough that

We currently have what is misleadingly called a system of ‘tuition fees’. Many people believe, wrongly that when students arrive at university they or their parents are required to get out their chequebooks, or wallets, and pay more than £3000 for a year’s tuition.

The idea that students are repelled from higher education by fees owes much to this erroneous belief.

In reality of course most students meet these costs by taking a student loan, payable direct from income after graduation when earning a reasonable salary. In this sense, we already have a form of graduate tax.

In this sense what students are being “saddled” with is not so much a debt as a future tax obligation, albeit quite a personalised and very specifically hypothecated tax. We shouldn’t pretend that that isn’t significant, and nor do I even dissent from the view that it is undesirable. What I do not accept is that there should be any differential in the proportions of prospective students who are put off by the policy who come from poorer or more affluent backgrounds. To suggest that there would be seems to me to require the corollary belief that students from poorer backgrounds are less able to rationally weigh up the benefits to their future of going to university.

Of course there are problems with the repayment system, and Vince has correctly identified these and sensibly addressed many of them. The bottom line, then, is that this is an undesirable policy, but not because it is an “attack on poorer students” or any of the other rather overheated rhetoric which we have seen from some of the more ideologically motivated opponents of the government today.

People like the NUS, who are now busy telling everyone, future students included, that students from poorer backgrounds will not be able to go to university in the future, could be helping to create exactly the chilling effect on social mobility they claim to fear. If anything is going to put people off going to university, it is the perception they might form from statements like these, and in this case it is indeed fair to suggest that the effect may well be greater for people who do not have immediate examples from their own lives of peers and members of their own families who were able to go to university and have not been ruined financially by it.

Where the Lib Dems went wrong

The problem with criticising such overheated rhetoric, of course, is that the Lib Dems bear much of the responsibility for feeding it in times gone by. When it suited us, we used exactly the same sort of language about tuition fees. Yes, we were right to oppose tuition fees, and we still are. When the economy is in better shape, I still hope, as difficult as it will be, that it will be possible to see some of the proceedsdecision is not in much danger of changing. of growth used to return to free university education. But we were never right to describe student debts as “crippling” or any other form of words which might have suggested to people thinking of going to university that they couldn’t afford it. They could. They still can. This isn’t about whether or not people can afford to do it. It’s about whether they will want to or not, and for what reasons.

So I’ve never thought that what the party was saying on fees was particularly sensible, though I do support the party policy of favouring a free university education. In many ways, much of the opprobrium we are reaping today we sewed ourselves when it was us attacking the Labour Party on the issue.

Of course, the other component of that opprobrium is the fact that we signed the NUS pledges. Yes, it is possible to argue, as Duncan Hames did today, that we have not reneged on this pledge because we have indeed “pressure[d] the government to introduce a fairer alternative” (the second half of the pledge, and curiously the bit that tends to be omitted when people quote it back to us now), but the point is academic and frankly will not butter many parsnips with most voters. Given the likelihood of a hung parliament, in retrospect it is astonishing that the party doesn’t seem to have been more wary of such an obvious hostage to fortune, particularly when many of the party’s front bench clearly had their doubts over the feasibility of moving away from fees in this parliament.

Having made that mis-step, however, is there an argument that the party should have gone through with it and stuck to its guns while the coalition agreement was being negotiated? To my mind, not really. To secure this, we would have had to use up much of our leverage, which we used instead to achieve the key priorities (“the four fairnesses”) which we had campaigned on. We would rightly have been derided as a middle class special interest group, consigning areas of government spending like apprenticeships to harsher cuts as a consequence. We might have been able to keep a promise, but if that meant abandoning some of the movement on the £10,000 personal allowance, a greener economy, political reform and the pupil premium, the accusations of “Yellow Toryism” would have been much more accurate. As a post-script, however, whoever thought that the permission to abstain was going to help anything had clearly not been getting much sleep. With the benefit of hindsight it has only served to cloud the defence that “this is a coalition, and we have had to compromise”.

Finally, having reached the point we did today, should more of our MPs have voted to defeat the government? No. I understand why many of them felt that they couldn’t go back on a promise they made their constituents, but even if doing so had not brought down the government, it would certainly have been a license for the Tory backbenches to defeat those areas of policy which they don’t like so much. Once you agree a coalition platform, you can’t pick and choose which bits to support.

Where do we go from here?

There is every reason to think that this decision should be by far the most toxic for us in the coalition. There may be further unpopular decisions, reversing manifesto commitments, coming down the pipe, but the argument that we didn’t win the election is quite legitimate. The Tories promised to jail anyone caught carrying a knife, which they have now abandoned, which was met with not-quite-comparable levels of criticism. The problem with the tuition fees vote was the separate pledge all our candidates signed as individuals. We haven’t, to my knowledge, made any such ill-advised promises on any other subjects, so any future issue, whilst it might be disappointing, should be by no means as damaging.

At least that’s the theory. The problem with that is that we have allowed a frame to be attached to the Lib Dems in the coalition, which says that we are simply liars who will say anything for a sniff of power. Superficially, it is convincing; we are in government, but much of what we said before the election isn’t happening. It requires a bit of calm, rational explanation to point out that a coalition requires compromise, we didn’t actually win the election, and so on. If every little thing from here onwards becomes another “betrayal”, we will be in trouble. So every compromise needs to be rationalised and explained. We must fight the betrayal narrative hard, before it sticks.

Can you see where this is going?

What this means is that the Clegg strategy of “owning” the coalition must end. We cannot simultaneously position ourselves as rational compromisers whilst simultaneously sounding overjoyed at everything the coalition does.

And finally…

I suppose I should conclude by saying that, although I can think of many days when I’ve felt more proud to be a member of this party, I’m not about to rip up my membership card or storm off in a huff. That might not be too surprising given that I’m not as upset about tuition fees as some in the party. Nonetheless, the deficiencies of our presentational strategy whilst in the coalition have meant that the thought has crossed my mind. I always immediately dismiss the idea, though. Why?  I can do no better than to repeat what Jae tweeted earlier: “Join the Labour party? I’d rather be waterboarded (which I’m sure they’d arrange gladly).”

My involvement in politics has always been based primarily on a belief in the importance of engaging rather than whining from the sidelines, and consequently on choosing whichever party I most agreed with and fighting for it, whilst also pushing within it for the things most important to me. Whilst that process leads me to the Lib Dems, I will remain a Lib Dem. Until the Green party becomes less obsessed with unelectably daft ideas and quite a lot of woo, or until the Labour party get a whole lot less authoritarian and tribal, or the Tories become much less of a special-interest group for the rich and for big business, that state of affairs is not in much danger of changing.

At the end of the day, the coalition has still yet to launch an illegal war leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Bloggers’ Interview: Susan Kramer

Yesterday, before Nick Clegg’s speech, Susan Kramer kindly agreed to let a few of us interview her, as part of a series of bloggers’ interviews of the three declared presidential candidates (Susan did in fact give us the highly exciting news that Jason Zadrozny was dropping from the race to support her, embargoed until 4pm that day. I’m fairly sure I’m OK to reveal this now, though!). Anxious not to get left at the back of an ever increasing line to see Nick’s speech, though, we decided to abandon the room Helen had kindly arranged for us, and instead find a patch of floor on the other side of the conference security.

I should, incidentally, declare an interest at this point, in the interests of transparency, in that I am supporting Jennie Rigg to be president. That said, I’m certainly not hostile to Susan’s candidacy, and might very well give her my second preference.

Anyway, Mary started out, perhaps unsurprisingly, by asking Susan about why she decided to run and what her aims would be as president. She seems to have been persuaded to stand (in part, at least) by several people she met at the recent Earl’s Court by-election urging her to stand, following the surprise announcement by Ros Scott that she was not standing for a second term as party president. Susan has been a great admirer of Ros’s presidency; she approved of some of the internal reform of the party which Ros contributed to, and says that she wants to pick up the baton of Ros’s “pastoral” approach to the role, travelling the country regularly and keeping in contact with the party’s grassroots around the country. She argues that trying to help build and maintain the party’s strength and unity will be increasingly essential in the years ahead, and the Westminster elements of the job correspondingly less so, and she suggests that the time she has to commit to the role now that she is not an MP would be a definite asset in these circumstances. When I invited her to suggest that the job is one that could not be done effectively by someone who is also working full time as an MP, she suggested that this is particularly true in the present circumstances – it seems that she would not want to criticise past presidents like Simon Hughes who have done the job whilst being MPs, but the definite implication is that she does not think an MP could do the job at the moment.

The elephant in the room of course is the coalition. Whilst the party president’s position is outside of government, the coalition has such implications for the party that none of the candidates can sensibly ignore it. Where Tim Farron has tried to pitch himself as wanting the job as a springboard from which to act as a kind of ideologically pure surrogate party leader (whilst Nick has to sully himself with collective responsibility), Susan sees the important thing as being more to do with making sure the party helps the activists on the ground. Campaigning in Earl’s Court, Susan and the other party activists understandably faced a number of questions about the coalition, and it occurred to her that the activists need better and more timely information from the federal party to help them on the doorsteps to sell the Lib Dems’ part in the coalition. Both improving the speed of some of the communications structures Ros set up, and also occasionally “just picking up the phone” at the crucial point where it might make the difference – in byelections, for instance – were cited as goals. She is clearly aware that as a campaigning machine, the Lib Dems have some way to go to regain their position ahead of the other two parties in campaigning terms, when we will never have the resources of the other parties.

She was also keen to make the point that, although not an MP any more, she does still have media contacts and would be a relatively safe bet for media appearances on Newsnight, Question Time, etc.

That said, Susan was keen to emphasise that all of the candidates for the presidency were “exceptional people”, and that any of them would be brilliant, but would bring different things and a different emphasis to the role.

Next up, Alex Wilcock, as channelled by Stephen Tall, asked a couple of questions via the miracle of email: When so many people say that politicians are “all the same” these days, what do you think the Lib Dems stand for, and why should people vote for us. Essentially, Susan’s answer boils down to the combination of freedom and social justice. She describes the previous Labour government’s surveillance state as “terrifying”, and says that the Conservatives would not have countered it without us. She also cites her experience of living in the USA in the past, which has given her reason to cherish the centrality of social justice and genuine opportunity to decision making here. She thinks people should vote for us because we are in tune with the Britain most people want to see, where people are “respected as individuals”, but also supported by communities, where children are central to our concerns, and we have a very British respect for freedom. Family members of hers fought in both world wars for those freedoms, she points out. The environment also figures in her run-down of why people should vote for us.

Next, I asked if Susan had any thoughts on combating the geographical and time/money-rich biases which affect participation in the party’s federal structures. Whilst she was aware of the issue, and agreed that anything that could be done about it should be, Susan was reluctant to suggest that there were any magic bullets, aware that much has already been tried – and that the other parties are even worse from that point of view. One suggestion was that regional and national parties be strengthened and embedded, which is particularly important now we face the Scottish and Welsh nationalists as well as the traditional two parties.

Another question from Alex followed, a particularly mean one at that: Why should the party presidency be a consolation prize for losing your seat? Unsurprisingly, Susan was keen to deny that she saw it as any such thing, arguing “I don’t need consolations, I’ve had a wonderful time with the party”, not only as an MP but also as a London mayoral candidate. The people she felt sorry for were the PPCs who had sacrificed so much to fight the election, but never made it into parliament. She says that she now feels this is something she can do, for the party and for the grass-roots who have campaigned for her as MP and for mayor of London over the years.

Lastly, asked how the coalition affects how we as a party proceed, she said simply that we keep our core values, develop new policy which is not the same thing as coalition policy, but remember that we do have to compromise. She was keen that the party should not simply be an echo of the coalition, but at the same time, the party’s unity would not be best served by allowing the coalition to be an area of conflict; the leadership, she was keen to remind people, do have responsibilities.

And with that, we grabbed a quick photo, and trooped into the hall to watch Nick’s speech from up in the gods at the back of the hall. Now that she isn’t an MP, she might have more time to devote to other things, but there was no seat with Susan’s name on it down the front of the hall this year.

Bloggers’ Interview: Chris Huhne

The other day, an elite group of bloggers* (and myself) met up with Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (and a Lib Dem to boot), for a nice chat. I will leave it to those terribly organised people who actually took an audio recording of the interview to relay in accurate quotes Chris’s exact words (or indeed to simply upload the audio), but here are my own impressions of the interview. Some of them might well now be familiar from Chris’s speech today.

Whilst we were getting sat down, we admired Chris’s shiny Susan Kramer for President badge – a decision he justified on the grounds that he believes that she will be much better able to devote the appropriate amount of time to the job from her position of not-being-an-MP.

That out of the way, we got down to business. One of the most exciting aspects of the coalition government is the opportunity it gives us to move the green agenda forward. With a coalition agreement full of good things for the environment, and a Lib Dem minister installed in the relevant ministry, as well as commitments from the Prime Minister himself that this will be the “greenest government ever”, there is good reason to expect great things of this government on these issues. It has been a bit of a disappointment that since the government was formed, the frantic pace of announcements from some government departments has not been matched by Huhne’s own corner of Whitehall.

It was heartening, therefore, that Chris was keen to tell us about the government’s “Green Deal”, the details of which he expects to be announcing some time around the second week of November. The programme will seek to massively improve the energy efficiency of Britain’s existing housing stock, a massive task which must be undertaken if we are to reach our international commitments on carbon emissions by 2050. By that time, the government hopes that our entire housing stock will be much more energy efficient, with proper insulation, double glazing, and so on.

It is an improvement which is desperately needed. The average house in Britain uses more energy to heat it than those in many Scandinavian countries, where (given the colder climate) we would expect them to use more than us. There is clearly, therefore, considerable scope to reduce our energy demands in this area.

Learning from similar programmes which have been set up in places like Australia already, with some problems associated, Chris hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls which such schemes have run into in the past. The programme should have pilot schemes running fairly soon, with the full on programme getting underway in 2012. Thousands of jobs will be supported by the scheme, which will be on a scale not seen in the rather timid programmes we have seen so far. This will therefore represent the beginning of the kind of green growth and green jobs which the party has long talked about.

The basis of the Green Deal will be that energy companies pay for the improvements people make to their homes, which will then be paid back by the consumer as part of their bills. The consumer’s energy requirements will decrease sufficiently, however, that even whilst they are contributing as part of their bills to the costs of the work undertaken, their costs will still be lower than they otherwise would be in most cases. Assuming it works, this sounds like a very sensible win-win for all concerned.

A couple of categories of house will not find themselves in this position, however: “hard to heat” homes (with no cavity walls, for instance) which will be more expensive to improve, and the homes of the fuel poor, who often currently run their homes at lower temperatures than they would ideally be able to. In the latter case, Chris would expect (and encourage) those people to run their homes at a decent temperature after the improvements have been made, which would of course mean that some of the saving in energy requirements is negated.

Moving on, we felt it wouldn’t be right to talk to Chris without raising the nuclear issue. Personally, I have never quite been in the same place as my party on this issue. Much as I would like to see Britain getting its electricity from mostly renewable sources in the future, there is nevertheless an approaching gap in our capacity (with so many old nuclear plants going offline in the next 10-20 years) that will probably have to be filled with one last generation of nuclear fission plants, in my opinion. So I do not share the anguish of some in the party that the coalition is going to allow new nuclear to go ahead, so long as it is not subsidised by the state.

Interestingly, Chris is technically entitled to abstain from votes in parliament on the legislation to enable this, since the coalition allows the Lib Dems to abstain on the issue. Perhaps sensibly, however, Chris recognises that it would look rather odd for the minister to abstain on their own legislation, so he is likely to vote for it. As he is keen to point out, opposition to nuclear power in the Lib Dem party is motivated by a variety of underpinnings, with some “theologically” opposed to them, and some simply finding it hard to believe that they are a cost effective option. Coming from the latter camp, it isn’t actually all that inconsistent for Chris to vote for new nuclear, since the government has made it quite clear that it will not be receiving subsidy.

What this does imply is that we were wrong as a party to suggest that it would not be possible for new nuclear to be built without subsidy. Chris is quite open about this, saying explicitly that he was wrong in assuming that was the case. More hearteningly, Chris is also all too aware that we are currently the third worst country in the EU in terms of installed renewable generation capacity. He is determined that by the end of this government we will be the fastest improving country on renewables.

Moving on, Joe asked Chris about the international dimension to his work. Was he expecting an agreement to come out of the forthcoming talks in Cancun, following the dashed hopes at last year’s talks. Unfortunately, Chris does not sound optimistic, since much of the progress that can be made hinges on the USA being able to deliver support for any agreement from the house of representatives and the senate. With President Obama struggling to deliver any such agreement currently, and a swing to the right expected from the forthcoming midterm elections, the outlook does not look overly optimistic. Nonetheless, Chris is pushing ahead with what he feels he can currently do, which is to draw together the countries of the EU to reinvigorate European unity and leadership on the issue. As individuals, the EU member states can only do so much, but as with so many other things, together the EU can wield much greater influence. Chris reminded us that Russia signed Kyoto mainly because of pressure from the EU, not because they actually believed in its importance.

Next up, Alex wanted to know about the future of the RHI and the CHP. Much as Chris wanted to reassure Alex, who has a personal interest in this, he wasn’t able to give any specific commitments at the moment, since the RHI is, like so many other things, a part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Nonetheless, it is “inconceivable” that heat would not be supported in some way by the government, for the simple reason that without a heat strategy we will simply not be able to reach our legal obligations on emissions.

Dragging the tone down from lofty environmentalism to low politics, I asked Chris what the balance was between thinking of himself as “the Lib Dem on the frontline” on the green agenda within the coalition, and how much he simply thinks of himself as “the minister”, getting on with an important government job. By the sounds of it (and I had already got this impression from much of what Chris said throughout the interview), he does not consider himself to be on the frontline of any battles for influence between the coalition parties, at least not in his role as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. This is such an important area that Chris’s preferred approach has been to seek ways forward which will command wide support, not just from the Tories but also from Labour, so that they need not be interrupted by any future changes of government. This may also explain the lack of hasty announcements of policy from Huhne’s department, in the way that some might suggest have been forthcoming from other departments.

Of course, Chris also has responsibilities as a member of various committees, and he hinted that his position on the committee which deals with European issues is perhaps what brings him most often to think in terms of pushing for the Lib Dem line.

Lastly, we covered the advance of multi-party politics. Chris tends to the view that the people who are struggling most to catch up with the new way things are done are the journalists. Nonetheless, the new politics will require a politeness and respect which has not been a common feature of our politics in the past.

With our time at an end, we grabbed a quick group photo, and Chris went on his way. Overall, I was very impressed with Chris’s willingness still to meet us lesser mortals, and to discuss his work in government so transparently.

*A full list of my marvellous and sexy blogger colleagues (with apologies to those who aren’t yet bloggers and I therefore can’t link to!):

Alex Foster

Millennium‘s Daddy Richard

Prateek Buch

Alex Folkes

Mary Reid

Joe Jordan

Helen Duffett

Tories Disrespect Vince By Repeating What He Said Last Week

So today, the BBC reports, in an astonishing piece of investigative journalism, that one of their shadowy “senior Conservative sources” has tipped them the wink that…

…there are plans to keep the payment link between students and individual universities.

As such a “pure graduate tax” is described as an “unlikely” option.

But… Vince Cable said the other day he wanted a graduate tax, didn’t he? So surely this is an affront to Lib Dem influence in the coalition! Quite appalling!

Well, hold on a moment. What did Vince actually say?

We currently have what is misleadingly called a system of ‘tuition fees’. Many people believe, wrongly that when students arrive at university they or their parents are required to get out their chequebooks, or wallets, and pay more than £3000 for a year’s tuition.

The idea that students are repelled from higher education by fees owes much to this erroneous belief.

In reality of course most students meet these costs by taking a student loan, payable direct from income after graduation when earning a reasonable salary. In this sense, we already have a form of graduate tax. The problem is that it is a fixed sum – a poll tax – regardless of the income of the graduate. It surely can’t be right that a teacher or care worker or research scientist is expected to pay the same graduate contribution as a top commercial lawyer or surgeon or City analyst whose graduate premium is so much bigger.

The current system has the further disadvantage that it reinforces the idea that students carry an additional fixed burden of debt into their working lives. Yet, most of us don’t think of our future tax obligations as ‘debt’.

I am interested in looking at the feasibility of changing the system of financing student tuition so that the repayment mechanism is variable graduate contributions tied to earnings. I have spoken to Lord Browne about this and he has assured me that he is looking at this issue as part of his review.

By looking at the periods of time over which contributions are made, the level of thresholds that trigger the contribution, the rate at which contributions are paid, and the other key variables, it may be possible to levy graduate contributions so that low graduate earners pay no more (or less) and high earners pay more.

He only uses the words “graduate tax” once, in the sentence “In this sense, we already have a form of graduate tax.”

Well OK, but the media discussion about this all said he was suggesting a “graduate tax”, and Vince didn’t do much to disabuse us of this illusion, did he?

Um…

Actually, yes he did. On the same day he made the speech, which in itself was quite carefully worded, he went on Newsnight to talk to that nice Gavin Esler about it all. At 28:40 (or thereabouts) into that night’s programme, the following exchange took place:

ESLER: Surely any graduate tax, which would be centrally distributed and centrally collected, is exactly anathema to what this government’s supposed to be about, which is devolving power, letting people compete, letting universities compete perhaps, which you can do with a tuition fee system but you can’t do with a graduate tax.

CABLE: That’s correct. No, I emphatically don’t want to see a centralised system. There are versions of the so-called graduate tax – and you know, we have to be careful about the –

ESLER (interrupting): Can you decentralise a graduate tax, though?

CABLE: Absolutely, I mean the present system is a form of graduate tax. You take a fee, you take out a loan, you repay it at 9p in the pound, that’s how the current system operates, except it’s not related to your earnings, and those fees come back to the university, and I want to maintain that element of the system. Certainly I do not want a centralised system, I do believe in universities’ independence. I want to see universities changing, actually, to be much more responsive to students, but they’ve got to change.

So… to sum up then: A “senior Conservative source” has today told the BBC something that… Vince Cable told the BBC on the SAME CHUFFING DAY AS HE MADE THE SPEECH, which is now nearly a week ago.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to assemble their own final sentence, which must include the words “political journalists”, “find”, “arse” and “both hands”.