If you want to keep something secret…

…have David Heath state it quite clearly and explicitly, on the record, in the House of Commons.

Tonight, the BBC website is displaying the headline “Clegg says dissolution plans must avoid ‘limbo‘”, bringing us the extraordinary revelation that the Beeb’s (generally very good) Laura Kuenssberg detected earlier in the afternoon, that Nick Clegg might be retreating on the 55% rule by “fudging” a time-limit clause into it to prevent a “zombie government”.

Except it’s not really news at all.

A fortnight ago, David Heath stated, quite clearly and explicitly, on the record, in the House of Commons, that:

The legislation will be framed in such a way that, if no Government are formed within a particular time, Parliament stands dissolved.

He then went on to expand on this, saying:

Returning to where a vote of no confidence has taken place, it is extraordinary to suggest that there would be circumstances in which this House would refuse to vote for a Dissolution when it was clear that a Dissolution and a new general election were the only way forward. However, even given that, we are putting forward the automatic Dissolution proposal, as a safeguard that we will make part of the legislation, if no new Prime Minister can be appointed within a certain number of days. It seems to me that that is appropriate.

I know that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has said that we cannot make any read-across to the Scottish legislation, but I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with him. One thing in the Scottish legislation is that although a two-thirds majority is required for an early Dissolution, there is a fall-back position, with which he will be familiar, which provides for automatic Dissolution if the First Minister resigns and the successor is not appointed within 28 days. That seems an entirely proper constitutional safeguard, and I am very happy to propose something of that kind for our legislation.

If you don’t believe me, you can see a complete video record of this, here. The latter quote can be found at timecode 1.09:20.

David Heath said these things on 25th May, the day of the Queen’s Speech, responding on behalf of the government to an adjournment debate specifically about the 55% proposal. And yet, half the media don’t seem to have noticed it. Until Nick Clegg says it at a convenient time of day, it hasn’t happened, as far as the media are concerned. And, it would seem, many in the Labour parliamentary party, who continued to pretend not to understand the proposal properly today in their interventions on Clegg’s speech. Quite rightly, Clegg called them out on grasping for “synthetic” reasons to disagree with fixed term parliaments. It is only when you pay attention to the ongoing debates on this topic, and see Labour MPs and others making the same crappy debating points again and again without ever seeming to listen to the answers, that it becomes obvious this is what they are doing.

Jenni Russell argued recently in a piece packed full of win, that:

This public and media culture isn’t inevitable. It’s just the one that we have developed, where raucous, capricious news machines justify any coverage, no matter how skewed, by pretending that it can all be defined as scrutiny. Too often … denunciation is preferred to understanding.

Sadly, this is the modus operandi of all coverage of political debate these days. “Scrutiny” seems to amount to the general principle that parties should be subjected to a general sort of “stress test” of having a set of stock criticisms flung at them. If they come out the other side still standing, they have been successfully “scrutinised”. If not, they have been found wanting. Nowhere in this process does any concept of objective truth seem to exist; the media long since gave up trying to find such a thing, in favour of maintaining a strict “balance” between government and opposition. The opposition could argue that black is white, and the media would still faithfully put this point to the government, five times a day on radio, TV and in print. They take their cue from MPs, so, even when Labour are being transparently opportunist and partisan, this will be the line of questioning which government ministers face.

Ultimately, we end up with an impoverished national conversation, because the media no longer bother to actually pay attention to what is going on and ask questions of their own. They are so used to being spoon-fed it all by the media operatives of the political parties or by leaks from MPs manoeuvring within their parties, it seems to completely pass them by when something is just said, openly, on the floor of the house. We in the Lib Dems have seen this before, incidentally, in coverage of party conference which seems to owe more to the briefings being given to journalists than to actual reporting of the proceedings of the conference.

I am increasingly struggling to shake off the sense that something has gone seriously wrong with coverage of politics in the UK.


Mandelson: Make life harder for MI6 and Police

Peter Mandelson has hit the news today, his deliberations over internet piracy coming down firmly in the headline-grabbing authoritarian camp, with which Labour is as familiar as ever. “Three strikes and you’re out!” he cries.

Curiously, one thing that seems to have disappeared down the memory hole (or at least been soft-pedalled somewhat)  in today’s reporting of Mandelson’s decision is that it comes after several law-enforcement and intelligence organisations let it be known that they opposed the plans, on the grounds that the inevitable sharp increase in encrypted traffic on the internet would make their jobs more difficult. The Times tell us that…

Law enforcement groups, which include the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) and the Metropolitan Police’s e-crime unit, believe that more encryption will increase the costs and workload for those attempting to monitor internet traffic. One official said: “It will make prosecution harder because it increases the workload significantly.”

A source involved in drafting the Bill said that the intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, had also voiced concerns about disconnection. “The spooks hate it,” the source said. “They think it is only going to make monitoring more difficult.”

The slightly more predictable bodies are also opposed to the plans, of course: ISPs, the Open Rights Group, the general public, etc. Just about nobody with any knowledge of this situation thinks this is a good idea.

It’s unpopular, it won’t work, and it will make it harder for various people to do their jobs. It’s a perfect Labour policy, in other words. I guess that’s why Mandelson seems determined to plow on regardless.

If you want to do something about this, the ORG have this excellent three point plan:

1) Please download a copy of our MP briefing here (PDF)
2) Contact your MP and ask to see him/her at his next surgery and ask them to back EDM 1997
3) Share any key points from the meeting via this form

There is probably a political space to be filled here. Nick Clegg has already given his opinion in this area, and it’s broadly on the sensible ground that most of the public inhabit on this issuue. Nick’s liberal instinct has left him well placed to make some of the running on this issue. Go for it, Nick!

h/t Slashdot

A List of Labour Hypocrites (and a few who aren’t)

Yesterday, Vince Cable used one of our Opposition Day debates in Parliament to table a motion on Equitable Life policy-holders who have lost their pensions, pushing for justice for them. The motion he tabled was almost identical to an Early Day Motion which many MPs from across the house had already signed, so we had some hopes that reason might win out over tribal idiocy on this occasion.


Here is a list of the Labour MPs who, whilst quite happy to sign an EDM on the matter, couldn’t bring themselves to actually embarrass their own party and vote for the (almost identical) Lib Dem motion when it might make a real difference:

Abbott, Diane
Ainger, Nick
Anderson, David
Anderson, Janet
Atkins, Charlotte
Bayley, Hugh
Begg, Anne
Berry, Roger
Borrow, David S
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Colin
Caborn, Richard
Cairns, David
Campbell, Ronnie
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Katy
Clarke, Tom
Connarty, Michael
Cook, Frank
Crausby, David
Cryer, Ann
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Jim
Dean, Janet
Dobbin, Jim
Dobson, Frank
Etherington, Bill
Fisher, Mark
Francis, Hywel
Gapes, Mike
Gerrard, Neil
Godsiff, Roger
Hamilton, David
Hamilton, Fabian
Harris, Tom
Henderson, Doug
Hepburn, Stephen
Hesford, Stephen
Heyes, David
Howarth, George
Howells, Kim
Humble, Joan
Illsley, Eric
Jenkins, Brian
Jones, Martyn
Kaufman, Gerald
Keeble, Sally
Kumar, Ashok
Laxton, Bob
Linton, Martin
Love, Andrew
McCafferty, Chris
McGovern, Jim
Miller, Andrew
Morley, Elliot
Murphy, Paul
Naysmith, Doug
Olner, Bill
Osborne, Sandra
Plaskitt, James
Pope, Greg
Prosser, Gwyn
Riordan, Linda
Robinson, Geoffrey
Ryan, Joan
Salter, Martin
Singh, Marsha
Slaughter, Andy
Smith, Angela C (Sheffield Hillsborough)
Smith, Geraldine
Soulsby, Peter
Stoate, Howard
Stringer, Graham
Taylor, Dari
Taylor, David
Turner, Desmond
Walley, Joan
Wyatt, Derek

I assume they’ll all have very good reasons for changing their minds?

I wish I didn’t have to make a point as partisan as this, but frankly, when you look at the voting on this motion, it’s hard not to.

A genuine well done, however, to the 18 Labour MPs who did manage to vote for the motion, not just sit on their hands and abstain (as a few of the EDM signatories would seem to have done):

Banks, Gordon
Cawsey, Ian
Corbyn, Jeremy
Farrelly, Paul
Field, Frank
Hall, Patrick
Hopkins, Kelvin
Jones, Lynne
Lazarowicz, Mark
McDonnell, John
McIsaac, Shona
Morgan, Julie
Owen, Albert
Simpson, Alan
Truswell, Paul
Wood, Mike
Wright, Tony

Thanks to The Public Whip for the data used to compile this post.

How Shropshire Voted… And What It Got

Well, as I sit here awaiting the trickle of Euro election results, I’ve been doing a spot of number crunching for my local council in Shropshire, a newly created unitary. You can see the results in the chart below. In light of the reputation of Lib Dem bar charts, I thought I’d go with a pie chart. On the outside, you can see the votes cast, and on the inside, you can see the makeup of the council that those votes produced.

As you can see, the wonders of FPTP have struck again. Thank goodness FPTP produces strong, decisive governments. I would hate to think of a party who attracted under 50% of the vote being rewarded with anything other than a stranglehold over the council.

I will console myself with the knowledge that in Shrewsbury & Atcham, we comfortably pushed Labour into third place, with Labour seeing their share of the vote going down by over 14%. In 2005, the county council elections saw Labour in second place, so this could well be an important development for Shrewsbury. In the rest of Shropshire, the Lib Dem vote is more than three times the Labour vote.

Hopefully, this means that, in four years time, if the Tory administration is unpopular, we will be the natural anti-incumbent vote in much of the county.

Open Primaries: An Alternative Answer?

Looking at the Tory talking heads on the news this morning, it appears that, in an attempt to head off electoral reform at the pass, their response to the public wanting a way to chuck out their MP at the ballot box is…. open primaries, USA-style.

Well, it’d be a start. The difference between that and multi-member STV, of course, is that is retains the idea of a party safe seat, but it does indeed allow the public to chuck out one particular person. It’s not, actually, as bad an idea as AV+, which I think would just give electoral reform in general a bad name. But it’s not great. If this gained a bit of momentum, though, and turned into a wholesale debate, along party lines (Labour: AV+, Tory: Open Primaries, LibDems: Multi Member STV), then obviously we’d be in the right, but if it came down to it, we should probably support the Tories over Labour (assuming the policies I posit above, of course).

A Good Day for Democracy: Government Loses Gurkha Vote

Today’s big political news has just broken – that the government has been defeated in the vote for the first of two Lib Dem motions, which make up our opposition day debate. The motion called for an equal right of residence to be offered to all Gurkhas, rather than the unfair cut-off for those whose service ended pre-1997 which the government was doing all it could to preserve. I should firstly say a big congratulations to Chris Huhne, who opened the debate powerfully, and fended off a number of pathetically twatty interventions from the Labour benches with ease.

What is amazing about this is not the vote itself, so much as the fact that the government allowed itself to lose. Governments really don’t like to lose votes. Even on harmless things like David Heath’s Private Members’ Bill on Fuel Poverty, they would rather defeat good ideas, and then implement them later, perhaps in watered down form, as part of a wider piece of legislation. It completely undermines the way parliament and our democracy is supposed to work, but there you are.

So it was that before the debate, on the Daily Politics PMQs coverage, Nick Robinson sagely told us that it wasn’t a government defeat we should be watching for, but how much the government had to give away in order to keep its backbenchers on side. Look out, he advised us, for little slips of paper being passed to the minister towards the end of the debate if the whips don’t think they can win the vote as things stand, thus prompting further concessions.

As it happens, though, the Labour party is in such a state of complete incompetence/powerlessness that its whips clearly weren’t able to guage support sufficiently accurately. Perhaps they simply don’t have enough leverage over backbenchers who all expect to be out of a job soon anyway. In any case, the government, in not announcing a U-turn or something, has allowed itself to be humiliated. Not only that, but on an issue that has attracted an awful lot of public anger; Andrew Neil and Anita Anand said on today’s Daily Politics that they’d never seen such a large and unanimous email response on a subject before.

The other notable thing about this is the photo opportunity that it produced outside the House of Commons, where protesters were making their own opinions on the subject clear this afternoon. There, sandwiching Joanna Lumley, admittedly, were Nick Clegg and David Cameron, side by side. Some will inevitably read a lot, probably too much, into the body language of the two, and whether they looked to be getting on well. Personally, I think they were both genuinely happy to see the typical workings of parliament, where the government simply stifles the ability of MPs to act as the voice of the nation on such straightforward issues as this, subverted for once.

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"Green" Gas?

Reading this report on the BBC News site, I was struck by the following paragraph:

Today’s report will contribute to the growing debate about heat, which produces 47% of the UK’s CO2 emissions – much more than electricity or transport. The government will soon launch a consultation on a heat strategy.

Aaaaaaaaargh!!!! Why the hell hasn’t the government already started working out the most difficult part of achieving its 80% cut to emissions? For fuck’s sake, guys, hurry up, we don’t have long!

That goes doubly so because the problem is an exceedingly prickly one, as anyone who’s read, say, George Monbiot’s “Heat” should be aware. Gas is the most efficient producer of heat (as opposed to electricity), but burning it requires a separate infrastructure for its supply, and shifting to hydrogen and combined heat and power (one option) would likely* require a proper, serious commitment from the government to get around the old “no market until all the infrastructure’s in place / no incentive to install the infrastructure because there’s currently no market for it” problem, because the pipes required are different to the ones we currently use to supply natural gas. (* I say likely because I’m sure market fans would argue that companies should be able to see far enough into the future to see a way to make profit down the line, but I have to say, given how good the market has been at thinking long term so far, I’m skeptical.)

The other option is finding enough renewably sourced gas to replace most natural gas (unlikely, and relies on a wasteful economy just when we’re trying to move away from one), moving to things like woodchip burners (not great, a lot of woodchip to be transported about), electrical heating (inefficient, but, with a lot of renewable electricity, an option), or converting all our housing stock to passive houses (also not easy).

What becomes clear is that all the options involve some serious changes and a big, proper commitment from government to a particular strategy. Electrical generation is one thing, but heating our homes and workplaces is a very knotty problem with no simple answers. Anyone looking at this in even a cursory manner could have told you this years ago. So hurry up, government!

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