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

David Laws and the Unkindness of (some) Gays

The reaction to David Laws’s sad downfall this weekend has, as Stephen Tall noted, been pretty depressing, for all sorts of reasons.

That Laws did something which in retrospect was a bad idea is not in question. He infringed the rules, by not changing his arrangements when the rules changed. He has treated himself in a somewhat heavy-handed way, but it’s his choice, and what’s done is done. I hope this is an end to the matter, and that he awaits the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner’s verdict before taking any rash decisions. He would be sorely missed if he lets this finish his political career.

How we react to it, however, is what interests me. It’s not that surprising to me that, in general, the reaction amongst the partisan blogosphere and twitterverse has split down party lines. Reaction, after all, is heavily swung by how charitable one feels towards him. Labourites have spent the week setting him up in their minds as The Enemy. For the coalition parties, he was a rising star. It takes a willingness to look beyond the immediate facts of the case to see reasons to be kind to Laws, but I would urge people to do so. The reasons we might do so have been adequately rehearsed elsewhere, so I will not repeat them here.

The thing about this whole thing that really gets to me, though, is the attitude of many gay people which I have seen expressed. Several people who ought to know better have been snarky and unsupportive of Laws, on the basis, so far as I can tell, that if they managed to come out surely everyone else ought to have managed it. The worst example, to my mind, was Ben Bradshaw, about whom I was unnaccountably rude on Twitter last night, but there are several more, including one or two within our own party. Ben Summerskill has denounced Laws, in an article (and rolling news appearances) which seems to betray rather more irritation at Laws for not coming out before than genuine outrage at his expenses claims.

Matthew Parris has written more eloquently than I can about the reasons many people like Laws have not come out, so I will simply quote him:

But wouldn’t it have been more sensible to come clean from the start? Of course it would. Mr Laws knows that. Hundreds of thousands of closeted, middle-aged gay men in Britain know it about themselves.

How they wish they had, half a lifetime ago. But they feel trapped in an account of themselves constructed when they were young.

You start by declaring nothing — and friends and family assume there’s nothing to declare. You find yourself, by your silence, playing along with a lie you never meant to tell.

Imperceptibly, but in the end fatally, the outer self diverges from the inner. And whenever you grit your teeth and resolve to blurt it out, there’s always a mother who might be heartbroken, a dad who’d be devastated, a boss who’d be contemptuous, mates whose trust you might lose, or a frail grandma for whom this might just prove the final blow. The years go by, the gap widens and calcifies.

Parris’s generosity of spirit has been sadly lacking in much of the rest of the media, but even he seems to give the impression that it’s all different these days, that nobody, say, my age could possibly have any trouble in coming out if they were gay or bisexual. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is true. Society at large is largely (though not universally) accepting of homosexuality nowadays, it is true, but it’s not society at large’s reaction which someone coming out worries about. Like David Laws, if your parents have potentially strong views about homosexuality, that is naturally going to be the first thing on your mind. Even if they don’t, Parris’s line

“You start by declaring nothing — and friends and family assume there’s nothing to declare. You find yourself, by your silence, playing along with a lie you never meant to tell.”

rings as true now as it was for the now middle-aged people Parris is describing.

We also have to ask why our society demands that people “come out” at all. Straight people are not expected to announce their chosen orientation to their friends and family, they are just the “default setting”, and therefore under no obligation to tell their friends and family anything about their sex lives.

Disappointingly, people like Summerskill and Bradshaw clearly find it easier, since they and their campaigns have an interest in gay people maximising their visibility to the wider world, to berate gay and bisexual people who have not seen fit to proclaim their sexuality to the world at large. It is, after all, easier to leave Laws to the pitchfork-bearing mob screaming “thief!”, than to point out that hundreds of married, straight MPs are given money, perfectly legitimately, towards joint mortgages. It’s easier not to bother to ask why the rules are the way they are. After all, if a married couple with a mortgage get the money, and an MP living with a friend (but not a partner) would appear to be allowed to claim for money, why does this rule make any sense? If a couple are paying rent on a property, why shouldn’t an MP claim for their share of the rent? For David Laws himself, the rules are the rules, but for other commentators, surely these questions bear examination?

But no. The painful outing of a man by a newspaper (and lets be completely straightforward here, the Telegraph’s claim never to have intended to out Laws is complete bollocks; they would have known that the explanation they would force from Laws would involve his outing himself at a time he did not choose) seems not to bother them, because they prefer to join everyone else sitting in judgement of another MP “on the fiddle”, regardless of the more nuanced facts of the case. It suits them to minimise the issues which many gay and bisexual people still face in coming out.

If they think they’re helping the people they claim to speak for (oh-so-legitimately, being such paragons of out-and-proud-ness), they are sadly mistaken. What people struggling to find the right time to come out need is understanding and support, not a mirror image of the homophobic bigotry they fear which correspondingly tells them that their failure to come out represents self loathing, dishonesty, or any other fault on their part.

Nick Casts His Fairness Net Wider

In the first few days of the campaign, debate has centred around reducing the deficit and the Tories’ woolly pledge to partly reverse the NI rise. However, it’s become increasingly obvious that this argument is going to run and run, and in all likelihood isn’t going to reach any conclusions any time soon. Meanwhile, many voters are already said to be bored with the campaign.

So well done to Nick Clegg for moving on to some fresh ground. Today, I hear, we will be mostly talking about unfair bank charges.

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg will today [Friday] launch the party’s manifesto for consumers.
The manifesto includes measures to ensure banks can’t charge customers unfairly for going over their limit or bouncing a cheque.

Sometimes it’s nice to talk about subjects a bit more off the beaten electioneers’ track. With all the hammering away at the four key pledges, I’d just about forgotten this was party policy. It’s a nice little surprise to be reunited with it!

And if my experience is anything to go by, this is one message that should really resonate with anyone who’s ever been slapped with a ludicrous charge for going £5 overdrawn because one payment has left your account before another enters it. When money is tight, often the banks end up making life more stressful than it should be, by whacking you about the head for every slip up. Not much fun, and certainly not fair.

BBC Respond on Women’s Hour Complaint

This morning I received a response to my complaint to the BBC about Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. To recap: the other day, during a piece on young people engaging in politics, presenter Jane Garvey asserted that the Lib Dems “appear to have quite a clear line on trying to abolish tuition fees. Er, it’s not actually in their manifesto though”. To hear this, go here and scroll to 13:40 in the programme.

I complained on the grounds that she cannot possibly know what is in our manifesto, which has yet to be published, and she seems to be suggesting that we are being in some way disingenuous, when in fact the party confirmed recently, after very transparently considering whether or not the policy was still affordable, that we remain committed to abolishing tuition fees.

So, how did the BBC respond?

“This was a discussion about how the political parties can engage the iPod generation in politics. As with other discussions that Woman’s Hour have been running in the pre election period, we have not used politicians in the debates. In this one we cast the item by talking to a group of students from Sheffield Hallam University and then following that with a studio discussion with a young labour supporter, a conservative supporter and someone who was undecided.

We can assure you that it was not Jane Garvey’s intention to ‘snottily’ tell us that the Lib Dem idea of abolishing tuition fees was not included in their manifesto which obviously has not yet been published. She raised the question in the discussion because this concept had already been mentioned by the students from Sheffield Hallam.

Overall, we are very much aware of the need to represent the parties fairly and proportionally in the run up to the election so we can also assure the you that this is being monitored and that to date, the Lib Dems have received fair, proportional participation in our discussions.”

Nevertheless, I fully appreciate that you feel strongly about this matter. Therefore I would like to assure you that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us with your views.

For those of us who have ever written in to complain about the woeful under-representation of Lib Dems on Question Time recently, for instance, it is at least nice to receive something which has been written specifically in response to my message. Nonetheless, I find the response a bit underwhelming. They seem to think that it was primarily the “snotti[ness]” of Garvey’s assertion which I objected to, rather than the sheer untruth which it carried. They also seem to be suggesting that Garvey wasn’t really saying anything much, simply reflecting the comments from the students in Nick Clegg’s home turf of Sheffield Hallam. That’s all very well, but personally, I think the wording is pretty clear that she thought she was calling the party out on dumping a policy but continuing to use it to leverage young people’s support. I’m sure she can’t be the only journalist out there who is under this impression. After all, it’s quite a faff to actually follow the ins and outs of a democratic policy making process; so much easier to adopt the standard issue “whatever the party leadership spin operation says is instantly policy” which they are used to using with the two establishment parties.

But hey, don’t take my word for it, go listen to the programme on iPlayer (in the next couple of days, anyway) and make your own decision.

Evan Harris Being Awesome

Linkblogging Extra! On 13th Jan, the three main parties’ science spokesmen (all men, alas), invited by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, debated science and stuff. I’m only halfway through the video at this point, but so far, Evan’s comments have been the only ones to attract any applause at all from the audience of, presumably, scientists and engineers. He must be doing something right…

The Wave In Pictures (including Simon Hughes’s Skisuit)

Yesterday I went, along with quite a few other Lib Dems from all over the place, on “The Wave“, the march to put pressure on the government in the run-up to Copenhagen. I took a few pictures of how the day looked from where I stood. Here are a few of the less crappily taken ones:

I have to say, as serious an issue as climate change is, I also had a great time at the Wave. Without wanting to make overly party political points, I think it really is worth noting that not a single Tory was spotted by me or anyone I spoke to on this march. I suspect that has as much to do with protests just not being something Tories do as it does their non-existent commitment to the issue.

Anyway, our party was out in force, from an impressive Liberal Youth showing to many OAPs, from rank-and-file to MPs (spotted: David Howarth, Susan Kramer, Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes (hard to miss!), Baron Roberts, and I’m sure there were others who I’ve missed). I got the same feeling of “political family” I get from going to conference, but coupled with the sense that this was what our party does best: face outwards to the world, not inwards to ourselves.

Now lets hope that the Wave helped to put that little bit of extra pressure that makes the difference on the UK’s representatives in Copenhagen.

The BBC Respond To My Quentin Tw*t Complaint

The other night, Quentin Letts, the Daily Fail’s sketchwriter and all round eejit, was doing This Week‘s “Take of the Week” segment. In it, he covered Alan Johnson’s Nutt Sack, and stated in it that “the other parties were broadly supportive” of Johnson’s position. This, as I’m sure my good Lib Dem readers will be aware, is what is known in the trade as “horseshit”. The Tories supported him, the Lib Dems didn’t. This irritated me, so I took the liberty of complaining to the BBC about it. I wrote:

I have just watched Quentin Letts, presenting a piece on This Week, say that “the other parties were broadly supportive” of Alan Johnson over the sacking of Prof. David Nutt. This is simply not true. The Tories were broadly supportive of this decision, but the Lib Dems were quite clearly not: Chris Huhne, their shadow of Johnson, criticised him in no uncertain terms. I cannot imagine that viewers will take the phrase “the other parties” to refer to anything other than these two parties.

The BBC have got round to responding to this today, with the following, which is the full text of what they have sent me:

Thanks for your e-mail regarding ‘This Week’ broadcast on 5 November.

I understand you feel the programme broadcast a report by Quentin Letts which incorrectly sated that the opposition parties were in favour of Alan Johnson’s decision to sack Prof David Nutt, when in fact the Liberal Democrats didn’t agree with the decision.

I’ve reviewed the programme and I can confirm that Mr Letts did state that the other parties supported the Government’s decision. The article was his own take on the key political moments of the week, and as such he was expressing his own opinions and not those of the BBC.

We’re aware the Liberal Democrats opposed the decision to replace Prof Nutt and their position has been prominently featured on news broadcasts, politic programme such as ‘Daily Politics’ and on our news website. You may find the following link of interest in which Chris Huhne expresses his opinion on the decision:

Nevertheless I’d like to take this opportunity to assure you that I’ve recorded your comments onto our audience log. This is an internal daily report of audience feedback which is circulated to many BBC staff including senior management, producers and channel controllers.

The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.

Thanks again for contacting us.


Ciaran McConnell
BBC Complaints

So far as I can tell, then,the BBC are not bothered about this, on the grounds that:

1. Quentin Twat is free to flatly contradict reality (a reality which the BBC is fully aware of, having “prominently featured” it), because it’s “his own take” on reality, and therefore he is under no obligation to actually get basic facts right.

2. It’s OK if they put out content that is complete bollocks, because, look! over there!, some reporting that wasn’t full of bollocks.

I can’t honestly say this surprises me, coming from Quentin Twat; writers for the Daily Fail aren’t exactly familiar with concepts like “the truth”, after all. But surely the BBC hasn’t gone sufficiently bonkers to have lost sight of the dividing line between fact and opinion? I like to hear opposing viewpoints on programmes like This Week as much as the next person, but surely people can be free to present their opinions, even be selective with the facts, without the freedom to simply make statements that are flat untrue.

If the This Week team think of themselves as journalists, they ought to correct this statement on this week’s programme.

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.

Conference Timetable

Well now, inspired by Jennie, I thought I’d post my (insanely ambitious, probably to be completely abandoned when I get there) conference schedule for all your delectation.

Hopefully you can see my Google Calendar above this line. You’ll (obviously) need to look at the dates of conference to see what I’m on about.

Anyway, see any of you who are at any of those there.

Telephone Fundraising and Sally Morgan

The Western Morning News reports that Sally Morgan, PPC for Central Devon, sent off an angry email to Cowley Street after she received a fundraising call from the party. She is quoted as writing “Please do not employ apparatchiks to telephone me at home to tell me how well the party did in the local elections only days after I and many of my colleagues lost our seats.

She has, incidentally, since described this as “me blowing off steam to somebody in the party”, adding “I am still a parliamentary candidate. I have no argument with the party”, so it’s probably not worth blowing this out of proportion, although it does raise the question of who passed the email to the local press if she didn’t.

What I do think it’s worth commenting on is phone fundraising more generally, since I worked for a time recently for a company who do precisely this kind of work for charities (and, occasionally, the Labour party, although I was never faced with the problem of being asked to work on any campaigns for them). NB: I have never fundraised for the Lib Dems, and to the best of my knowledge, the company I worked for never has done.

In my time, I called on campaigns for several well known charities, often on upgrade campaigns. Frequently, as you might expect, I met the kind of irritable response which Sally Morgan has given here. “Why don’t you call people who don’t already give their time and effort”, “Why are you spending my money pestering me for more”, threats to cancel altogether, etc. Of course, these are all pretty good reasons to refuse, and very rarely could people be talked round.

So why do organisations bother?

Basically, because it’s still a pretty cost effective way of fundraising. I’m sure any members of the party (or of anything funded by its members, for that matter) will be familiar with mailings asking for donations, and with the ease of throwing them in the recycling with barely a second thought. Even cold calling, the returns on are pretty lean pickings. If you carefully select the numbers you call according to any data you might have to suggest that people will be better disposed to you than average people, then you might expect to get about 6% of them to say yes, if you work really pretty hard at it, and don’t take no for an answer. If you call your existing supporters, about 40% of them will say yes. It’s still hard work, and yes, half the people you talk to will give you a hard time for calling them, but at least the other 50% are nice.

Most charities and other fundraising organisations have rules forbidding them to spend money on strategies that they expect to give them a return of less than ~£3 or £4 for every £1 spent (otherwise, their donors would probably rather they spent the money on the stated aims of the organisation). Bumping up subscriptions from people they already have on board is a crucial part of this, especially since their projections of whether it’s worth spending the money to get new donors on board is often based on an assumption that they may well be able to get the person in question to increase after a couple of years. The reasons most charities set a minimum level for Direct Debits of £2 a month is that much less than that and it’s barely worth the admin cost of processing it in the first place.

Now, Sally complains that she has been called up and told that the Lib Dems are well placed for the next election, when she personally has just lost her council seat. Leaving the disentangling of the national fortunes of the Lib Dems from Sally’s own position as an exercise for the reader, how would she rather the party fundraised? Call people up and tell them “We’re going down the shitter, it’s all going to buggery, could we have more money?” Of course the party is going to be upbeat in its attempts to fundraise, because that’s what works.

And yes, sometimes campaign messages jar with people’s own individual experiences. I came across plenty of that. It’s easy, when you’ve got a script in front of you, or have been trained to get people talking about their involvement in the organisation you’re calling for, to find yourself stumbling into all sorts of areas that, in retrospect, you’d probably rather you hadn’t brought up. Try it with a few donors to cancer charities, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. The problem is, it’s important to the chances of people donating (more) to be positive about what their money can achieve, even if their own personal experience hasn’t borne that out (and statistically, there will always be such people).

If I’m sounding very positive about this way of fundraising, then I probably ought to mention that after a few weeks working for this company, I was so depressed one Monday morning by the prospect of another week ahead of me that I quit my job that day. This is an enormously draining job to do, and the centre in London which I worked in was typical in having what my employers called “a high caller attrition rate”, with weekly training sessions for the next batch of replacements. In the end (and quite quickly, actually), the consolation of totting up how much money I had raised for the charity that day stopped being enough.

I don’t especially like this way of fundraising, I particularly don’t like the emotional blackmail that is often a part of it, and I wish it didn’t work. But at the same time, I would like to congratulate Sally Morgan for doing the right thing here, and blowing off her steam by putting her objections in writing and sending them to the person in charge, not by verbally beating up on the person at the other end of the phone (or at least, I hope she didn’t). Quite often, people would deliver the sort of tirade Sally writes in her letter to me personally, for the offense of calling a number I had been supplied by someone else.

So next time you receive a call from a fundraiser and the answer is “no” (and do always give serious consideration to your answer), politely tell them “no” (if you have the time, brighten up their day by having a nice chat to them, and tell them “no” three times, which is how many times they have been told to ask you unless you hang up or tell them your mother died yesterday), and ask for your number to be taken off the database if you don’t want to be called ever again. Be nice, wish them luck, and then, if you object to the call, write a really stinking letter to the head of fundraising for that organisation. It will do considerably more good than having a rant at the person on the phone, who, if they bothered to report your irritation to their superiors, would only be replaced by someone else.

Hat tip to Lobbydog, via Guido.

ps. I was amused by the following worldly-wise comment of one “Rob’s Uncle” on Lobbydog’s blog:

It is a well recognised weakness of the Lib Dem phone fund raising effort that the phoners know nothing about the activism, etc,. of those whom they ring.

Frankly, it’s hardly unusual not to know much about the people you are calling on telephone fundraising calls, even for upgrade campaigns. I considered myself pretty lucky if I had any information at all about the person I was calling in front of me; occasionally there was a date when they started donating. Yes, this is something the party could improve, but it’s hardly proof of their great deficiency in this regard. Often, the person calling you will not be directly from the organisation in question, but working for a company who specialise in this kind of work, like I was. Even when I was supplied with data, it could often be a few months since the database was sent to my employers, and the information was therefore not completely reliable. The caller who called Sally Morgan, even if they had information about her in front of them, almost certainly didn’t know she had lost her seat.

Of course, you could argue that the people who call councillors maybe ought to be Cowley Street apparatchiks, but the problem then is, they aren’t as experienced and well trained at phone fundraising as someone who specialises in it. Most of the callers I worked with who had been doing their job for more than a few months were bloody good at it. What tended to make them good at it was being able to hold two contradictory stances at the same time: caring deeply enough about what they were doing to put that across on the phone, and being indifferent enough not to let it get to you that many people you spoke to were just unpleasant in return.

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.

Worst Canvassing Experience Meme

Stephen Tall has tagged me in this week’s LDV Weekend Meme, about canvassing experiences. Here goes:

Most Angry

I think that probably has to go to the woman I delivered a leaflet to in Thame, as part of the Henley by-election precipitated by Boris Johnson’s quitting as an MP. It doesn’t technically count as canvassing, but it’s easily the angriest reaction I’ve had: Scarcely had I withdrawn my hand from the letterbox on the front door, when I heard an incensed, and nigh on incomprehensible, scream to the effect that they did not appreciate my being in their vicinity, swiftly followed by something about the size and weight of a boot being flung at the door from inside. I flinched slightly, and looked around for any clue as to what I might have done to upset this person, but answer came there none. I moved swiftly on, slightly comforted by the sympathetic look from the next door neighbour.

Most Bemusing

The ones who say, in the wake of the expenses scandal, that they aren’t voting, seeming to think this is going to do something to clean up Westminster. I could ask them to talk me through how not bothering to distinguish between good and bad politicians is going to make any of the good ones try harder to clean up the system. I could ask them how they think a crisis of politicians being out of touch with the voters is helped by said voters not even trying to be heard. I could ask them whether they think the people who fought in the civil war, or were part of the suffragette movement, sat around whingeing that they didn’t feel “engaged” and declaring that they were simply going to sit at home and sulk until such time as they got what they wanted. But of course, it’s not really worth it, and I have to be civil and polite to them. Ultimately, I usually just come away feeling that I am simply on a different planet to these people.

Most Depressing

A tie. The obvious answer would be the guy we spoke to a week or two ago, who sounded for all the world like a talking BNP leaflet. I was faintly amused when, mid rant about bending over backwards for Islam / it’s a Christian country / etc, my colleague asked said gent whether in fact he went to Church. The answer, you will all be shocked to discover, was no, but he had “Christian views”. No, I don’t know what that means, either.

But I think probably, I have found the most depressing thing to be those who don’t vote; who say, without a hint of embarrasment or apology, that they “aren’t interested in politics”, who seem to see nothing wrong with abdicating their responsibility as citizens to take even the vaguest interest, as Mark points out, for a couple of hours every couple of years. The imperative to be generally polite to people has been most tested, I would say, in the face of such feckless eejits. I really would rather they told me they were voting Tory, or whatever.

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Tory Smears On PR

…or, Why We Have To Talk Specifics.

A few people, eg. Costigan Quist, Mark Thomson and Neil Stockley, have been arguing for a consensual, compromising stance, most likely involving accepting the Jenkins Commission suggestion of AV+ instead of our preferred solution of STV. Jennie Rigg and Alex Foster offer a more divisive approach, and I would like to add my voice to theirs. Let me tell you why.

It has become obvious why being vague about what we are supporting will not work over the last week. The Tories, opposed as they are to the principle that every person’s vote should count for something, have been lining up to smear the movement that has been picking up momentum over the last week. There are three specific lines that I would like to respond to.

1. PR takes power away from people and vests it in party hierarchies.

A lie.

This is an accusation which is quite justly levelled at a certain subset of PR systems: closed party list systems, such as the one that is used for the Euro elections in the UK. The parties choose the order of the list, and the top candidate is virtually guaranteed to be elected, as long as they’re standing for a vaguely well supported party. Or, to put it another way, a safe seat! One that is even more in the gift of party patronage than safe seats at the moment! Similarly, since AV+ requires there to be top-up lists, the same problem applies to Alan Johnson’s favoured solution. Not only that, but AV+ doesn’t even get rid of safe seats on a constituency level. As Jennie quite rightly points out, safe seats are a pretty key feature of what we want to get rid of. It is the link from the immediate crisis to this specific reform, made off the back of Mark’s excellent analysis (with a little help from yours truly).

STV, on the other hand, puts as much power into the hands of the people as possible. In effect, it rolls the Tories’ proposed open primaries and the general election into one, and throws in proportionality as a bit of a bonus. David Cameron is being straight-forwardly deceptive in making the argument he made today. He knows he is, he knows what we favour (or at least, he ought to), and, as Millennium argues, if this electoral reform thing gets rolling, then he would be an absolute hypocrite not to get on board with any Lib Dem efforts to favour STV, not AV+.

2. The Lib Dems just want PR because they want to always be in government.

A ridiculous line, and one which pre-supposes a parliament which looks more or less like the one we have now after a reform designed specifically to ensure that it does not. In making this claim, the Tories (or anyone else) are assuming that under the new system, the Lib Dems are still the only other main party in the Commons after the Tories and Labour. Why? It seems to me pretty likely that we could see, at the very least, UKIP and Green MPs under most systems of PR, certainly including the ones that we favour. Assuming Scotland remained part of the UK, you’d also likely have a sizeable nationalist contingent. Plenty of people to form a coalition with, even if the few BNP members elected were (rightly) so toxic that nobody wanted to form a coalition of any sort with them.

Ironically, the one system likely to produce the outcome being suggested by this talking point is the one supported by Alan Johnson, AV+. As Lewis Baston noted in a report on AV (pdf) for the Electoral Reform Society,

…life under AV is fairly comfortable for Liberal Democrats. All their incumbent MPs are likely to find their seats safer than under FPTP, and change to proportionality would destabilise this comfortable position. AV also suits Lib Dem campaigning techniques quite well, and the party could reasonably look forward to faster electoral progress than under FPTP in its target constituencies because acquiring second preferences is easier than acquiring tactical votes.

It’s easy enough to see how this works: for the most part, it’s reasonable to assume that both Tory and Labour voters would put the Lib Dems preferentially higher than Labour or the Tories, respectively. In even vaguely close seats, this would give us a real advantage. It also favours centre parties, and does very little to represent smaller, more niche parties like the Greens or UKIP. If AV (or even AV+) was the system we were advocating, then there would be a lot of truth in the criticism that the Lib Dems just wanted to be in power all the time. As Baston remarked,

It would be understandable if the party settled for AV for a – perhaps lengthy – ‘transitional period’ or ‘national conversation’ rather than move quickly into a more thoroughgoing electoral reform.

It would indeed, and it is to the party’s credit that it has continued to favour STV and not AV, when, as Jennie mentioned,

thanks to Chris Rennard, our party is actually best geared up to fighting FPTP elections, and would likely LOSE seats if STV came in.

To see this point, just imagine how many of our campaigning techniques (eg. bar charts) would translate to a proper proportional system like STV. But anyway, the main point is, we should not be the only significant presence after the main two parties under STV (and that’s assuming that none of the existing main parties undergo splits or rapid transformations under the new system, which is a game for another time..).

3. PR results in chaos and deals made in smoke-filled rooms.

OK, this one is a bit more difficult, because basically it’s true, coalitions must be formed under PR systems, more or less whatever you do. You can still give a government a solid mandate, by having an election for the Prime Minister separately, and tasking them with forming a government, but yes, there will either be a search for coalition partners, or a minority government will have to reach across the aisle for support on individual planks of its programme.

But look at it this way. Politics, the art of the possible, is about coalitions of interests. Always has been, always will be. New Labour is not a natural, cohesive grouping of people; died in the wool trade unionists would rather not be in a party with Peter Mandelson if they could help it. Nor, for that matter, would some of the more foaming eurosceptic types in the Tory party want to be in a party with Ken Clarke. Sometimes, the economic/social liberal distinction rears its head in our own fair party. The point is, FPTP doesn’t eliminate coalitions, not really; it just makes people form coalitions before running for election, not after. The political parties are the coalitions, and often the wheelings and dealings are much more murky than they might be under PR. The oft-quoted example is the scrap between Blairites and Brownites which characterised much of the current Labour government’s term. How open and transparent was the process which led to most of the policy ennacted over the last ten years?

Under PR, the negotiations are much more open, in that at least we know what each party wants, the news can report on the negotiations (most of the information would likely be leaked from somewhere), and we can see what comes out the other end and draw our own conclusions about what went on. If we don’t like the result, crucially, we can vote next time to change the balance of power within that coalition, without kicking that coalition out of power. Under the coalition that was New Labour, we had no such option. STV, uniquely, even lets you do this within parties, by favouring, say, proper Old Labour types over Blue Labour candidates. Under FPTP, change in parties often takes a very long time, and its direction is completely uncontrollable by the electorate.

So, three lazy lines against PR, and three responses. But what do we notice about each of the responses? Crucially, in order to defend the principle of electoral reform from the self-interested, complacent opposition of the Tories, we are going to have to be specific about which system we are talking about. And if we don’t speak up for STV now, we are going to be lumbered with a system which is much more open to criticism from those who oppose any form of PR.

It’s all very well saying the Tories have nothing to do with it, but at some point, if we want this to go forward, we are going to have to make an argument to the people and win a referendum on the matter. The Labour grassroots don’t much care for electoral reform, so campaigning on the ground for reform is going to fall largely to us. It is perfectly reasonable to throw everything we can at making sure we can fight on our own terms, for the system we actually believe in.

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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EHRC Catching Up on Paternity Leave

Today we hear that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is recommending that paternity leave entitlement is extended to achieve a more equal right to spend time with newborn children. It’s only, what, a couple of weeks now since Lib Dem Spring Conference suggested similar (but more far-reaching, looking at the detail) proposals.

Good to see the Lib Dem tradition of being in the vanguard of policy making continuing.

Why Are You A Liberal Democrat?

The party has released a video asking the question “Why are you a Liberal Democrat?” of a whole load of our MPs and Lords. (Hat-tip to Politics Home for drawing my attention to it)

It’s interesting, and characteristically liberal, I suppose, that for every person asked, a different answer is forthcoming, and yet at the same time, a good picture of what the party is about is built up. I particularly like the typically understated final word from Paddy.

What would your answer to this question be?

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1. I now have access to the electric internet again; my usual inconsistent pace of posting will return shortly.

2. I interviewed Vince Cable today, along with several other bloggers (see below).

3. I met several lovely fellow bloggers who I’ve not met before, including the regal Lady Mark, the owner of an excellent bag Jennie, the I’m-trying-desperately-to-resist-the-temptation-to-call-her Jo Crispy-Strips, the distinguished Mary Reid, the brilliant Alix, the lovely Helen Duffett, and of course the fluffy Millennium with his daddy Richard.

4. An evening in the pub’s always quite nice, innit?

Isn’t Tory Conference Tuneful?

Sat in front of BBC Parliament this morning, this thought crossed my mind: “Why don’t we get to play music at Lib Dem conference, to show off our edgy, liberal tastes in music, in contrast to these bland, painfully “hip and modern” choices the Tories make?”

Then I remembered: it’s because we don’t need to cover up for a lack of anything actually happening at our conferences.

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Make It Happen: A Note of Caution

The Lib Dem blogosphere is buzzing with excitement about Make It Happen (pdf), which has indeed attracted some press reaction to it, as Stephen discusses. To this I just want to add my own paranoia. Here goes…

Lib Dem bashers frequently claim that we try to out-Tory the Tories in Tory seats, and that we try to out-Labour Labour in Labour seats (thus giving away their own belief in the natural order of things, and the specific tenet that there are only such things as Tory Voters and Labour Voters, “really, you know, deep down…”). Which is one of those analyses that’s so half arsed, it’s a good job nobody spends too much time thinking about it, or it’d fall apart. Because a moment’s thought reveals that the way to take a seat from a Tory is to bleed them of a few voters (if they happen to actually have more than 50% of the vote), and then persuade Labour voters, Green voters, etc. that to get rid of the Tory, they could do worse than vote for you. Now, I hate that idea, to be honest, but needs must as the Devil’s Very Own Voting System drives.

FPTP requires that you build a coalition. Every government which has gotten itself elected successfully has understood this. Every now and then, you can build a groundswell around a genuine point of ideology (eg. Thatcher?), but mostly you win by being moderate and sounding competent. The question for Nick Clegg here is, is this a time when a genuine feeling in favour of low tax is going to be big enough to drive voters his way. And, two years out from an election, there’s no point in me or anyone else making predictions about that.

But the point for Dave Cameron on this is that he long ago committed himself to the de-toxifying of the Tory brand, and he knows he couldn’t say what Nick has anyway, for exactly that reason. So if I was a Tory who subscribes to the idea that the Tories will win the next election on moderate-ness, not on hard Toryness – like, say, Iain Dale – then what would I try and do right now? I might start shouting long and hard about how Nick Clegg is leading his party into “a radical tax-cutting platform [that] has left the other two parties gasping”. I would say that it “marks the triumph of the so-called “Orange Booker” tendency”, and I might write something like:

He hasn’t just pledged a reduction in taxes; he has promised a cut in public spending, too. Admittedly, it is only £20 billion, a mere three per cent of total government spending, but it’s a start. And it’s a damn sight more than any other politician has had the guts to do.

The bonus point of selling the idea that the Lib Dems have now become the party of the government spending cut enthusiast (which Iain tries to do whilst not quite sounding like he’s actually saying he’s agreeing with us), is that part two of that narrative is to be used in debates:

“The Lib Dems now want to cut taxes, before they wanted to raise them. YOU CAN’T TRUST THEM!”

The amateurs are trying to jump to this step before they’ve done the groundwork of establishing that we are now a party of rabid taxcutters. But the professionals are letting this sink in for now, and just chipping in with their usual chippy bollocks about “yes, well, the Lib Dems can say what they like, etc….”

Can we not run headlong towards the idea that we’re now the party of a radical tax-cutting agenda unless we really are? Because as far as I’m aware, conference hasn’t passed anything other than the policy of cutting income tax at the low end so we can introduce LIT and implement the Great Green Tax Shift.

I hate to be a buzzkill and that, and I understand the imperative to get media coverage, I’m sure it’ll be good for the poll numbers and thereby for Nick’s narrative, and I’m not knocking that, really I’m not. But let’s not get carried away with all the media and start letting people put words in our mouths.

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