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?


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”.

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.

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.

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.

Woman’s Hour: Spreading Filthy Establishment Lies

ETA: You can find the BBC’s response to this complaint posted here.


I’ve just sent in the following complaint to the BBC:

I have just been listening to a commendable, if a bit two-main-parties obsessed, piece about young people engaging in the political process. However, I was intrigued to hear Jane Garvey somewhat snottily tell us that, although young people seem to have got the idea that the Lib Dems will abolish tuition fees, “it’s not actually in their manifesto, though”.

I am intrigued on two grounds. Firstly, I haven’t seen the Lib Dem manifesto yet, and I wouldn’t think Jane has either. Secondly, everything I have read about this policy has suggested it is indeed going to be in the manifesto. It was in the pre-manifesto, it was mentioned in Nick Clegg’s recent “key values” announcement (“The Liberal Democrats will also phase out tuition fees over the course of six years, so that, after school, everyone who gets the grades has the opportunity to go to university without fear of debt, no matter what their background.” –

So I would expect you will want to put out a correction to this lie.

Is it just me,or do presenters on all sorts of programmes feel they can speak with authority about the Lib Dems (and indeed other small parties) based more or less on whatever it is they think they’ve read in the papers, in a way they wouldn’t dare do with one of the two main parties?

Telegraph Expenses Story: Odd Priorities?

So, the Lib Dem day of reckoning is here, and nobody seems quite sure how to react. Jeremy Paxman has just delivered himself of the opinion that some of it is “pretty small beer”, Alix isn’t happy, Mark Littlewood thinks it’s all going to be OK, and we await Nick’s reaction.

What strikes me about the Telegraph story, though, is that they lead on Andrew George’s daughter using his flat, when they claim to have accusations to make against Nick Clegg, surely the highest profile target. Tucked a few paragraphs into the article is the following:

Nick Clegg, the party leader, claimed the maximum possible on his second home allowance and exceeded his budget by more than £100 at the same time as he was calling for the reform of the system. He has now promised to repay a phone bill that included calls to Colombia and Vietnam.

OK, that sounds embarrassing. So why wasn’t it the lead story? Something tells me that if the Telegraph had lead on this and therefore had to explain the details of these accusations in more detail, they wouldn’t quite add up to what they’re suggesting. I just don’t see why else they wouldn’t have lead with this.

I mean, come on, I’ve hardly even heard of Andrew George, and I’m a politics geek and party member. Why lead on this man’s expenses, unless you haven’t really found anything very exciting elsewhere?

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Charlie Brooker on G20 Protests and the Media

Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe has been a bit up and down so far, but Charlie excelled himself last night with his review of the G20 summit. You can see it on the iPlayer here. In particular, his review of the TV news coverage of the protests, which begins at 14 mins 36 secs, is fantastic, and provides a nice overview of the relationship between the protests, the media, and the possibility (and later actuality) of violence occuring at the protests.

An honourable mention also to Ben Goldacre‘s piece on the MMR non-story, which begins at 11:34.

In fact, just watch the whole thing, it’s ace.

NB. Probably not work-safe, thanks to Mr. Goldacre’s dirty mouth, and Ant and Dec’s senseless killing of a dog.