Tories Disrespect Vince By Repeating What He Said Last Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.” – http://bit.ly/8Rdovl).

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.

George Monbiot vs. Agas

Some time ago now, George Monbiot wrote a piece in the Guardian refuting the cosy back-slapping sense of Aga owners that their cooker was an efficient, even ethical, choice of appliance. Yesterday, an interview with Aga’s chief executive, William McGrath appeared in the paper, exploring this argument. They’ve put the transcript up on the website here. The comments thread quickly descended into (amongst other things) people accusing George of deliberately making McGrath look bad by reproducing all the hesitation and repetition of conversational speech in writing, leading George to pop up in the comments thread with the following comment:

The audio tape was given to an independent transcriber. She transcribed it. The Guardian put it online. How’s that for a conspiracy? Pretty devious, I’d say.

The other bizarre comments were mostly to the effect that George was in some way “bullying” the chief executive of a large company by expecting him to have a clear idea what he was talking about, where what he was talking about was his own company’s products and the claims made about said products.

In any case, I’d say if he wanted to show up McGrath’s woolly thinking, he missed a trick. I spent an hour or so going through the transcript trying to put together a coherent string of proper sentences out of the raw materials provided, the better to reveal the clash of ideas at the heart of the conversation (which is indeed rather obfuscated by the literal-mindedness of the transcript).

The results I reproduce below. What I would say they show, every bit as much as his hesitant manner might have done, is the completely confused argument on McGrath’s side. In assembling it, I attempted to be as sympathetic as possible to the person whose words I was interpreting, articulating fully any argument that made sense that their words hinted towards. Nevertheless, there were swathes of McGrath’s contributions where I really couldn’t, with the best will in the world, see what he was trying to say. If you feel like comparing the one on the Graun website with mine, then you’ll see what I mean (and you have too much time on your hands). Most of what he says is just a hastily strung together collection of marketing speak.

Anyway, here’s my modified transcript:

MONBIOT: I’m George Monbiot and I’m talking to William McGrath who’s the chief executive of Aga Rangemaster who’s kindly come in to talk about Aga’s environmental performance. And we’ve had a bit of a spat about this in the paper where I wrote a paragraph or two expressing my displeasure with Aga’s environmental performance and William wrote a response column to put me right. And now we finally meet and we can discuss this in person. So thanks very much indeed for coming in to talk about this.

MCGRATH: It’s a pleasure.

MONBIOT: Now I’ve read the claims that Aga makes about its green credentials. And one of the things you keep emphasizing is that Agas are green because they last indefinitely. That’s a disaster for an energy using device isn’t it?

MCGRATH: Well I think the fact that Agas do last a life time, do last for many, many years is just one of the features of the Aga. The fact that actually cast iron is a product which does last for generations and then can be recycled I think is actually a really positive feature of the product. And when you’ve put that together with some of the other characteristics of the Aga, that make it so loved in the UK today and in many places around the world, I think we feel that the cast iron story, which goes right back to 1709, continues to be relevant today. And the technology that goes with cast iron, that product which does last such a long time, is something that will meet the agenda for the next generations as well as generations that have gone by.

MONBIOT: You say that the Aga lasts a life time. More efficient appliances come onto the market every year. Your Agas might be problematic in 2009. In 2059 they’re going to be massively outdated and extremely inefficient by comparison to everything else available then, aren’t they?

MCGRATH: Well I think you’ve got to look at the very nature of the Aga and what it is as a heat storage product. And I would argue that the way the market is developing, when we’re looking at, say, a 13-amp Aga product which uses over night electricity, I think that is going to be a very relevant product over the years ahead, as people look to have level loading of production. And I think linking the Aga, the electric Aga that we’ve now developed in recent years, into micro generation, those are very much coming components. What is needed in the domestic market is to have more products which can absorb electricity to act as a battery in the home. And I think both micro and indeed larger producers of electricity that are looking to level load will be very interested in a domestic product which can use electricity in that way. And our new products aren’t just about electricity. We’re talking about bio fuels and that sort of thing, products where the industry itself is looking at new ideas, new products which they can bring to the market and the Aga is ready and waiting for those new products as they come to market.

MONBIOT: Okay well we’ll deal with those point by point as we go along. But I’m not sure you’ve completely grasped what I’m driving at here because my point is that even if the Aga is perfectly suited for conditions today or 2015, even if it were the most efficient appliance on the market today, the fact that it lasts a lifetime means that it necessarily becomes outdated by comparison to what else will be available towards the end of that life time.

MCGRATH: Well George, if you look back over the life time of many people’s Agas today they’ve actually modified themselves over the years. So what started life maybe as solid fuel Agas may now be oil Agas. And indeed one of the things we’re looking at right now is to upgrade those Agas to the latest technology, where you can actually take your oil and transform it into an electric Aga. Yeah, we’re alive to all these new technologies and ideas coming on board and yes, clearly new things are coming to market all the time. We for example are one of the largest companies selling, through Rangemaster today, induction hobs and selling induction range cookers. We’re always alive. As a company we’ve put many years and a lot of money into looking at all the technologies that are available. What that has told us is yes, for some of the products we should be making things like induction mainstream in the UK. I think we’ve played a big part in that. But all this is also telling us that cast iron cooking remains not only very attractive to people as being at the heart of the home, a great way of cooking – radiated heat cooking is a fantastic way to cook – but it is not off the pace at all. It’s exactly on the pace in terms of new technology that’s coming through.

MONBIOT: But your customers are still lumbered with this very large piece of cast iron which might or might not be adaptable to those future constraints.

MCGRATH: I think lumbered’s really not quite the right word. I think basically having a heat storage product in the home, a very efficient radiator when it’s giving useful heat into the kitchen, is much more efficient than a standard water based system. An electric Aga is extremely efficient, well over ninety per cent efficient. You can look at some of the Rayburn products which are condensing boiler versions, well over ninety per cent efficient. You’re talking about something that on the boiler side of our business, is right up there with the best in the market. So I don’t think we need to feel that we’re in any way off the pace against where the market, the industry has got at the moment. Indeed as a British company we feel that we’re in a position to be taking some of these technologies into other countries. We don’t feel there are lessons that we haven’t learned from Germany or Italy. We think as a British company taking products overseas that actually we’ve got a lot to say.

MONBIOT: How much carbon dioxide is produced in manufacturing an Aga?

MCGRATH: I think the basic smelting iron-ore, and then we clearly produce the – in relation to the total life time, the amount of carbon dioxide is actually quite modest. The bigger figure to look at, which is the fair comment-

MONBIOT: So how much is it?

MCGRATH: I think, in terms of carbon dioxide production per unit, it’s probably something around, I should think, fifteen tons [Correction: McGrath has since said that he meant 1.5 tons, not fifteen] of carbon I should ..

MONBIOT: Fifteen tons?

MCGRATH: Yeah so ..

MONBIOT: .. the cement required to build an average British home produces five tons of carbon dioxide. We’re talking about roughly the total amount of CO2 required to construct a home, fifteen tons of carbon dioxide. That’s a staggering amount.

MCGRATH: You’re a great user of the word “staggering”. Where I think the numbers are much more relevant is on the ongoing use of carbon dioxide in the home where as we all know – and this is a figure unfortunately you got so wrong in your original article, for the average home was using one and a half tons when actually as you know it’s actually six or seven and a half.

MONBIOT: Yes. I’d just like to point out that I, I was the one who requested the correction having found that the Parliamentary Select Committee document that I was using for the average home emissions had actually got it wrong.

MCGRATH: That’s fine. But as we well know that the answer is six tons, seven and a half tons for a four bedroom, four person home. The Aga, the carbon dioxide emission from an Aga, depends on which version you’re using but it’d be something like three and a half tons.

MONBIOT: Not according to your figures. Using the figures off your web site your thirteen amp electric Aga is producing 6.1 tons of carbon dioxide a year. That’s slightly above the average carbon dioxide emissions for an ordinary home.

MCGRATH: If you take into account the modern versions now which are using the latest version which use the AIMS(?) product ..

MONBIOT: No this is the modern version.

MCGRATH: .. our calculation for that comes out at 3.5 to 4. The natural gas version comes in at 4 to 4.5. So, if you multiply using standard stats through the numbers that you’ve got there, we calculate the numbers to be from 3.5 to 4.5 tons which against the 6 to 7.5 tons demonstrates that actually the Aga home doesn’t use more energy than an alternative home. Now clearly lots of people have different ways of managing their home to which they’re obviously perfectly entitled. We feel that the Aga, by the time you take into account all the roles it plays in the home, not only as a cooker but also as a radiator and providing so many appliances that the Aga home can have a better energy performance than comparable homes.

MONBIOT: Are you seriously trying to tell me that the average Aga produces less carbon dioxide for the services it delivers than comparable products producing the same services?

MCGRATH: Yes.

MONBIOT: Okay. So now according again to the figures on your web site, using the kilowatt hours figure that you produced for your Agas, you could boil a kettle for two people, two cups of tea, ninety nine times a day for the same amount of electricity that your Aga is using.

MCGRATH: The point is, where I think you’re being unfair, you’re not looking at the role that the Aga or the Rayburn is playing in people’s homes and can continue to play in the future. The factor you’ve got to look at which is more relevant than purely picking on a multiplication of kettles is to actually look at the useful heat in the kitchen. And clearly one of the major attractions that people see in the Aga in the home is the warmth in the kitchen and that can indeed percolate into a number of rooms in the house. So you have to see it as a combination, absolutely direct in the case of the Rayburn, of a cooker, which is its primary function, and also the overall role it plays in warmth in the home. And that’s where I think we’re differing a little bit is to see that having a heat-sump in the home which can play this broader role is actually a jolly attractive way, not only because it is so much the heart of the home for so many people, but also in energy and environmental efficiency, it is actually a jolly useful way of running the home. And over the last five years what we’ve been doing at Aga is really to have a five point plan of things that we felt we should be doing to address the environmental agenda. So the fact that you raise the points now was actually, from our point of view, quite good news because we would like to communicate more widely the sort of things we have been doing. And that really comes back to flexibility of the product. That’s why we’re making it into a product which is not always on. You can turn it off more readily, modulating use. We’ve looked at all our products and raising efficiency. That’s why if you look at HETAS or any of the industry bodies, our products are right up there at the top in efficiency. The work we’ve done on Rayburn for example is tremendous, the things we’ve done with the condensing boilers are really well ahead of the market. One of the things which I think is interesting as well, we’re looking at case emissions which is about how much of that useful heat is sent into the home. People do use that energy. We do though have ways of actually having less heat coming into the room or linking that heat maybe back into heat pumps.

MONBIOT: Okay. Well for all these grand claims you make about Aga ..

MCGRATH: They’re not grand claims though.

MONBIOT: .. we are still talking about a single device which uses, according to my figures, the entire carbon dioxide emissions of the average home. According to your figures three quarters of the carbon dioxide emissions of the average home. We are talking about a device which doesn’t run the lights, which doesn’t run the TV, which doesn’t run the central heating system, which performs only a few of those functions.

MCGRATH: No, a large number of those functions such that when you work it all through we think that the Aga home does not necessarily need to use more energy than alternative homes.

MONBIOT: But it can’t possibly add up can it? Because if the Aga is producing between three quarters and one hundred per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions of the average home and yet it only fulfils a part of those functions, maximum about fifty per cent, then there’s no way that it could be an environmentally friendly device.

MCGRATH: Clearly we will not always agree on all those figures. In terms of an environmentally friendly device I think you’ve then got to say where is it going next. And I think that’s where you look at some of the work we’re doing on linking it into micro generation. And I think that is fascinating, if you’re looking for the domestic market – and I think we should all be looking at this sort of area, which lends itself to micro generation. The electric Aga does lend itself to that. We’re being approached by a whole series of micro generation producers. Why? Because they need a domestic product which can absorb energy that is produced sporadically during the day. So clearly that may be coming from solar, that maybe coming from wind, it may be coming from heat pumps which I think may be really quite attractive.

MONBIOT: You’re going to power an Aga off heat pumps?

MCGRATH: It’s a linking in to the total generation you can have from ..

MONBIOT: Sorry, can I just pin this down? You intend to power an Aga off heat pumps? Is that correct?

MCGRATH: We are currently talking to one of the producers, about how they can produce energy that comes from various sources, including heat pumps, or linking back energy from the Aga into a heat pump, or into a Stirling engine.

MONBIOT: Yeah. Can I just pin you down on this because I’m quite struck by this notion. Your idea is that you would use a heat pump to power an Aga. Is that correct?

MCGRATH: It would add – if you’re producing electricity for the home in a domestic context then clearly we have a product which can take a small amount of electricity being produced over a long period of time and you have to have a heat-sump of some sort which can absorb that energy.

MONBIOT: So you see the heat pump as one of these electricity producing devices do you?

MCGRATH: Electricity devices which can link into the Aga. The other end of the spectrum which I ..

MONBIOT: But the heat pump is not an electricity producing device, it’s an electricity using device.

MCGRATH: In terms of the linking it back round, you’re actually using the energy being produced by the Aga, rather than going into the room, can go back into the heat pump system.

MONBIOT: Yeah but you’ve just told me it’s an electricity producing device which would be used to power the Aga and it’s actually quite the opposite.

MCGRATH: What I’m saying is link it with micro generating producers, different formats, different forms, a Stirling engine and some of the other powers, it’s fair comment that they need to see the Aga as part of that overall package.

MONBIOT: Okay let’s just talk about this micro generation because all the recent figures that I’ve seen suggest that micro wind and micro solar PV in this country is a complete waste of time and money.

MCGRATH: I think we’ve done a lot of work, again, over recent years to examine all those potential sources. We’ve been right at the forefront talking to people about what is the right way of doing things. We believe that one of the really attractive packages we have come up with, which I think now is going to become commercially viable, is linking solar collectors, which are a readily available technology, with a wood burning Aga stove – another carbon neutral energy source – and putting that together with a Rayburn which is one of our key products. That package put together with an intelligent management device actually reproduces a package which meets all the current building regulations for new build.

MONBIOT: You’re talking about solar PV are you?

MCGRATH: We’re talking about solar collectors, so that they’ll simply heat the water through a tube – and I sent you some of the data on that.

MONBIOT: Oh so you’re talking about solar thermal?

MCGRATH: Yes exactly.

MONBIOT: Right.

MCGRATH: So putting that together with an Aga stove, that is really a very attractive and viable package. So when you dismiss this..

MONBIOT: Well it’s not going to help people who’ve just bought an electricity using Aga is it?

MCGRATH: I think you’re being obtuse.

MONBIOT: No, no, no, you’ve just completely changed the terms of – I asked you specifically about using solar or wind production of electricity to power an Aga which is what you’ve just been talking about.

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: And now you’ve started talking about using solar thermal with wood powered Rayburns.

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: That’s not the question that I was asking about. So let’s just finish off that issue about wind and solar photovoltaic electricity used to power an Aga. This is part of your vision?

MCGRATH: Yeah. What I was saying is we have – and this is where I think we deserve more credit than you’re giving – looked at all these technologies. Which technology comes through and proves to be economic as you say remains to be seen. But we as a company have, for example, our own wind turbine to examine how effective that can be, and I think we agree that only in certain areas of the country will that actually prove to be effective. Our wind turbine happens to be in Telford which is not the windiest part of the country and it does generate, it is linked up to our Aga in our R and D centre. Yes it does work. Does it generate enough power consistently to be economically viable for the consumer at this point? Probably not. If more money is spent on that technology? Possibly yes. Solar clearly is another area which is developing fast. I was giving you an example of where I’m quite excited that work we’re doing in our R and D team, looking at solar, has found a package which is economically viable and is not a waste of time as you dismiss. So what we’re saying, as a business we need to look at all these different opportunities, which one works best for our customer base remains to be seen. But the important point for us as a business is to be absolutely joining in the debate and at the forefront. If I turn it onto a subject which I know is dear to your heart, which is the future of nuclear, one of the issues I think that is going to be very interesting is what actually happens as the energy needs of this country increase, where are they going to come from? There’s obviously a big lobby at the moment for more nuclear power stations. One of the things that you could definitely not do with a nuclear power station is turn it down or turn it off. So in my view, you need more products which level load. So I think there should be a real effort to have more products in the home which use overnight electricity, avoiding those peaks that send energy being used to pump water uphill in mountains in Wales (which would seem a curious thing to be doing). If there were more products in the home which actually used energy overnight so we had more level loading, that seems to be quite an interesting idea. We’ve had a product which uses overnight electricity for twenty five years, when we find out EDF – very interesting – and more of the producers are intent on looking at split tariffs, I think that is part of a drive for greater level loading. And really quite an attractive feature of what we should be looking at in terms of our energy management in the home is having more products which can absorb energy, which brings us back to where we started with the cast iron, I think absolutely a relevant product, not an irrelevant product. We’re not claiming we’ve got all the answers yet but we’re right in there. And I think that product which absorbs energy and other products comparable to Aga, that actually can take energy over night and release it during the day into the home is actually a very attractive product. So the debate is not as simple as it started, with you highlighting a technology that clearly – coal Agas we haven’t made for ten years..

MONBIOT: Still make coal Rayburns don’t you?

MCGRATH: We have solid fuel products.

MONBIOT: Solid fuel meaning coal?

MCGRATH: Solid but, primarily, those products now clearly do work on multi fuel, but most of those products that are actually doing very nicely now are really driven around wood burning which is ..

MONBIOT: You’re selling more wood burning Rayburns than multi fuel Rayburns?

MCGRATH: The largest growth now is wood burning Rayburns.

MONBIOT: That’s not the question I asked. Are you selling more wood burning Rayburns than multi fuel?

MCGRATH: We’re selling more wood burning Rayburns today than any other type of product.

MONBIOT: So purely wood burning Rayburns are out-selling the multi fuel Rayburns?

MCGRATH: Yes.

MONBIOT: And by what sort of figure?

MCGRATH: What’s happened in the last couple of years, since wood has become a readily available product, we’ve introduced new lines in wood burning products which are the fastest growth areas. And that is overtaking what was the largest element of the products for Rayburns which was actually split pretty much down the middle between gas and oil. So it’s a really interesting area, again, that the technology linking with wood has taken off so rapidly. And again we have, with the stoves and with the Rayburns in particular, and hopefully maybe in due course with wood burning products as well – it’s another technology we’re very enthusiastic for – we’re absolutely looking for practical technologies to apply with these products. And so the imagery that you would possibly use that suggests it’s a retro product is just not fair. It’s just not right actually.

MONBIOT: Right. And surely the point with wood and pellets and any other form of bio mass is that the supply’s always going to be constrained isn’t it? There are limited places in which it can be grown if we’re not going to eat into arable land or we’re not going to cause unsustainable rates of deforestation. And this means that they have to be used as efficiently as possible. So it seems crazy to be using them to fire devices which are on twenty four hours a day.

MCGRATH: Well the Rayburn products we’re talking are not, in the first place, necessarily on all day.

MONBIOT: Not necessarily.

MCGRATH: No, not necessarily. They can be. It depends on people’s actual desires and needs. People will have to warm their home. The Rayburn is a multifunctional product. Remember it does oven, it does the cooking, it does the central heating, it does the hot water.

MONBIOT: Does the central heating?

MCGRATH: Yes.

MONBIOT: All of the central heating?

MCGRATH: Yes you clearly have a little bit of homework to be done here. The Rayburn and our Stanley products in Ireland, the nature of those products is the majority of those products, overwhelming majority of those, do all those functions. That’s why we’re ..

MONBIOT: Not all of them do though do they?

MCGRATH: Some don’t. You can have products that don’t do the central heating and the hot water. But Rayburn and Stanley products, they are very much a workhorse product where they do the central heating, the hot water and the cooking.

MONBIOT: But they are still a woefully inefficient use of that wood fuel by comparison to say a modern batch boiler.

MCGRATH: No.

MONBIOT: Yes.

MCGRATH: No.

MONBIOT: Yes.

MCGRATH: No. No.

MONBIOT: Yes.

MCGRATH: The Rayburn products are right up there. If you look in all the HETAS listings, our products are eighty, ninety per cent efficient, so ..

MONBIOT: What percentage of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: Rayburn products are directly programmable so ..

MONBIOT: What percentage of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: In terms of which proportion keep them on all the time, I think the same as they can now with Aga. I think most people would do as they would with a boiler system. If you’re looking at a Rayburn you’re talking about a boiler system.

MONBIOT: What proportion of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: I should think very few keep them on all the time.

MONBIOT: You don’t have any figures?

MCGRATH: We don’t have…

MONBIOT: Wouldn’t that be one of the first things you’d want to find out if you’re trying to go green?

MCGRATH: I think basically the people who’ve got a Rayburn system would be running it in the same way that they would be running a central heating system cos that’s what it is providing. It’s providing a boiler, a central heating system.

MONBIOT: It seems strange to me that you don’t have figures.

MCGRATH: In terms of how people run their homes we’re not actually going round asking, telling people exactly what they should do.

MONBIOT: No it’s not a question of telling them what to do it’s a question of asking what they are doing.

MCGRATH: I think that most people would be running a Rayburn in a similar way to any other central heating system. The variety of ways in which people run that system is tremendous. Some people will run it all the time, certainly during the winter. Some people have it off at night. That’s what we worked on for the Aga system, why we introduced our AIMS system to make sure those products are as flexible as the Rayburn systems.

MONBIOT: Now your AIMS system, Intelligent Management System, this puts the Aga into slumber mode, doesn’t it, for much of the time. But even during slumber mode which is what you encourage people to use when they go on holiday, it’s still putting out as much heat as an average radiator according to your web site.

MCGRATH: I think if you’re away they have the ability now to have it turned off so it’ll programme itself to come on again when they get back over night.

MONBIOT: But the advice you give them is that you keep it on slumber mode when you go on holiday.

MCGRATH: When you’re out you can keep it on slumber mode or you can turn it off. So it’s going to go to a much lower temperature level. So it …

MONBIOT: Yes but it’s still using heat when they’re on holiday and it’s still using heat when people are asleep. It’s still making use of fuel which is being completely wasted.

MCGRATH: It’s not being completely wasted.

MONBIOT: Well of course if they’re on holiday it is being completely wasted.

MCGRATH: In which case we would expect them to have the option of turning it off and it will turn itself back on when they come back. The whole point with the Intelligent Management System was that it will calculate when to..

MONBIOT: Okay, can I just quote your site to you then?

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: “The system can also be set to holiday mode which will keep the Aga on either the lowest energy setting or off during the selected dates”. Why would you encourage people to keep it on the lowest energy setting when they’re away on holiday?

MCGRATH: I think it depends how long they’re away for. In the middle, many people for ..

MONBIOT: I don’t keep my central heating on when I’m away on holiday.

MCGRATH: No many people who go away over night, may well leave the central heating turned down when they’re away. So that gives an alternative to doing that.

MONBIOT: But that’s not going on holiday. Going away over night is not the same as going on holiday is it?

MCGRATH: Okay. But now I think you’re into semantics. I think it gives you that flexibility.

MONBIOT: Well it’s pretty clear what that means isn’t it?

MCGRATH: Okay.

MONBIOT: And when I go on holiday and when ordinary people with central heating systems go on holiday they do not leave the central heating on when they’re on holiday do they?

MCGRATH: No. So basically they have the option with this product to turn it off. If you would like to ..

MONBIOT: But they have the encouragement ..

MCGRATH: .. clarify the wording between nights away and a holiday, whether a weekend away qualifies as a holiday or whatever I think is probably something we should move beyond.

MONBIOT: Well no, perhaps we shouldn’t do that. And perhaps you should also create a bit of clarification with the rest of the way in which you encourage people to use it because again according to your web site it says it’s supplied preset, this system with two active periods each day. “In this mode your Aga will be at normal temperature ready to cook breakfast in the morning, drop down to a lower temperature during the day and then return to normal temperature ready to prepare dinner in the evening”.

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: Summer or winter.

MCGRATH: I think it depends, that’s the whole thing. What we’re saying is we’ve added a great deal of flexibility into the product. How people use it in the home is entirely up to them. I think what you’ve seen from the kind of responses we’ve had from people all round the country, people have their own lifestyles, the way in which they wish to use it. We’ve tried to make it easier for them to have more options which is why the AIMS system, now available in electricity, is going to be available later in the year on gas as well and with oil products as well. We are making tremendous progress in all these areas. And the extra feature, which I think is very important, is going to come through this year. The other area that we’ve been looking at, apart from the micro generation, is looking at the existing store base.

MONBIOT: Okay. Let me just finish off on this AIMS business, this Aga Intelligent Management System business because you are encouraging people, even with this most modern, most up to date system that you have you are still encouraging people to keep their machine on all day during the summer.

MCGRATH: Many people will turn the Aga off during the summer.

MONBIOT: Turn it off all together? Turn it off all together?

MCGRATH: Many people would turn it off during the summer.

MONBIOT: And use their cooker? They would use a separate hob?

MCGRATH: They would use maybe a separate – we actually provide, as I’m sure if you’ve looked on the web site you will see. Many people have an Aga in combination with what we call a companion which does give you the option if the Aga’s off, part of the overall Aga includes a standard hob and an oven as part of our package. So you again have that built in flexibility.

MONBIOT: But the great majority of houses that I’ve been in which have an Aga also have a cooker. And they might use the cooker sometimes and use the Aga sometimes. So far from reducing the turnover of appliances you’re actually increasing the number of appliances aren’t you?

MCGRATH: They, basically ..

MONBIOT: Well are you not?

MCGRATH: No basic..

MONBIOT: You’re adding an appliance on top of the appliances they already have.

MCGRATH: No you have a sing..

MONBIOT: They have a central heating system. They have a cooker. And they have an Aga.

MCGRATH: They have an Aga which can incorporate a conventional cooker as part of that package. When you’re looking at de-cluttering your home and the number of appliances one of the questions that you really should also add is looking at, as the government is keen that we should do, energy management holistically in the home. Look at the de-cluttering effect of some of the things that you don’t need that people can choose not to have that many people in responding to this debate have actually recognised, things like the tumble dryer, things like the kettle, things like the toaster, all of which have to be produced, all of which have very short lifetimes so ..

MONBIOT: And people still have kettles to put on their Agas don’t they?

MCGRATH: They have kettles which last a lot longer than the products to which you refer. We think that over the life time of the Aga, which you surprisingly didn’t think was a good idea to have a long life, the number of appliances that other people may have got through will be a lot longer.

MONBIOT: But they’re still getting through their cookers aren’t they? Because they’re buying their cookers along side their Agas. That’s certainly the case in every house I’ve ever been in which has an Aga.

MCGRATH: Well perhaps you haven’t been in too many houses with this product ..

MONBIOT: Okay well give me the figures. Give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Basically you’re selling, in terms of people who’ve got Agas now, many of them will not have an additional …

MONBIOT: You say “many”. Give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Many of those cookers may have been out there for a long time …

MONBIOT: No, no, give me the figures.

MCGRATH: George, of the products we sell ..

MONBIOT: You’re making these statements. You’re saying that my impression is wrong. Now it might be wrong but I want to hear from you that it is wrong because you’re going to give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Well I would ..

MONBIOT: You don’t seem to have surveyed your customers very much.

MCGRATH: No we have tremendous feedback from lots of the customers. That’s why ..

MONBIOT: But not on these critical issues that I’m asking you about.

MCGRATH: .. on how many people have and use an additional cooker. I think probably most people who are buying an Aga now, probably about half of them would have an inbuilt companion. I’m sure many people would have an additional cooker. But remember where the Aga comes from. Many people who’ve had an Aga for a very long time, very much linking back into the farming community as a working product, would, in many cases, not have another additional product. And if they do, maybe for the summer months, it would largely now come from the product we do incorporate, the companion. So, all we’re saying is when you come back to the product, all the different things we’ve got on offer, what we’re saying, as a British company that is employing, is, we think that we are right at the forefront of range cooking. Range cooking is a very legitimate and exciting way of doing things that has appealed to many people over many years. We have, within our Aga and with our Rangemaster business, we have about fifty people working in R and D. So we’re working right at the forefront, in all the different technologies that are coming. We want to make sure that we can offer the best available products that incorporate all new technologies, as we can see it relevant to our customer base. All we’re saying, that I think you’re being possibly unfair in not recognising, is just what a good idea cast iron is as a cooker, and as a way of having a centrepiece to your home. And I come back to linking in with micro generation and other kinds of generation, bio fuels as well. We are there for all that debate. And simply to provide knocking copy seems a little unfair.

MONBIOT: Okay. Well let’s talk about bio fuels. You raised this as another of the selling points that Agas can be converted to use liquid bio fuels.

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: Are you aware that most liquid bio fuels produce more greenhouse gases than petroleum as well as contributing to global food shortages?

MCGRATH: I think – going back to the point I’m saying – we have been keen to look at all those different ways of doing things, including bio fuels. Of course we’re aware that the development of that hasn’t been easy, and given all these different pressures on the kind of bio fuels that come through, it is not commercially readily available. What we’re saying is we have burner technology, that is available now which, when the market for bio fuels, in whatever form it takes, arises, will be compatible with that. Now does it, does x, y or z particular product prove to be appropriate, environmentally appropriate, we’re not really in a position to say.

MONBIOT: Okay.

MCGRATH: We have a product which again is at that cutting edge and ready for that sort of development.

MONBIOT: Okay. So you’re selling Agas as a green alternative on the grounds that they might or might not one day be compatible with micro generation which might or might not be economically viable ..

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: That they might or might not one day be compatible with bio fuels which might or might not be the ethical way to go. There’s a whole series of ifs and buts and possibilities here ..

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: .. and you’re using those to try to persuade us that your sales of Agas today which are an incredibly energy intensive, energy consuming product, are thereby validated.

MCGRATH: What I’m saying is that the Aga today is validated against current ways of running your home. And it’s moved on a long way in recent years cos we’ve addressed these topics by a lot of investment, by the production of electricity into the total model mix. So yes, we think it’s absolutely valid. It’s what people see as an appropriate way of managing their home, having their busy family life. People do see it as the centrepiece, not only having great food but also lending itself to so much of the relevant themes of the day. Yes of course it’s valid today and I don’t see why you’re so determinedly knocking a British company that has a valid product today, is employing lots of people, producing world leading products today and is absolutely joining in on the debate on where we should go next and how things could be made better in the future. You’re dismissing it. That is really rather disappointing, that actually you cannot see that all the work we’re doing in the different formats, linking in with all these different opportunities that are out there, predicated on the fact that actually we think that the cast iron cooker with radiating heat into the home is actually a cracking way of approaching things. And actually when you do look at the different energy sources that are out there yes you should be looking to see more of these products produced internationally by a world class British company. I enjoin you to say yes it’s a positive for the British economy. It’s a positive way forward, very much attuned to the overall green agenda. And I think you’re somebody that we would like to see actually coming on board. Because we think we are the kind of company that people like yourself should be rooting for, not attacking.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

What Planet Are The BBC On?

Newsnight has declared us to be “treading water”. The BBC’s website offers this astonishing piece of “analysis”:

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has won himself some breathing space. His campaign strategists did an excellent job in lowering expectations.

The mixed bag of some losses, but modest gains, allowed Mr Clegg to declare he had confounded expectations. His party at least seems to have exhausted the habit of ditching its leader when the going gets tough.

This kind of snide commentary when we have just succesfully seen off a two party squeeze (and not just by pushing into Labour heartlands, but by holding our own in historically Tory areas, too) does the BBC’s reputation for impartiality no good at all, surely?

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , . 2 Comments »

Election Night Reactions

So Dimbleby has disappeared from my screen (meh), as have Vine (hurrah!) and Alix (bah!). Things I have learned tonight:

1. I contributed today to the re-election of Sian Reid by quite some margin. So hooray. Not that I’m surprised – the only other party who bothered to deliver leaflets to me and my friends were the Tories. The best claim “In Touch” could make for representing students was “supporting” CUSU’s Access campaign. Pfft. Don’t get complacent, now, Sian.

2. The Lib Dems apparently exist in some kind of parallel universe whereby we compete in an electoral vacuum. This seems to me to be the only possible explanation of the BBC’s logic. In 2004, when these seats were last contested, we were riding the wave of anti-Iraq war protest votes, the Tories were steadily recovering but not exactly looking great, and Labour were deeply unpopular. This was, in short, prime Lib Dem electoral territory.

4 years later, the Tories are having a resurgence, and the Iraq war has died down. Apparently, therefore, a drop of 4% in our vote is a reason to berate us. This, despite the fact that we’ve just MADE NET GAINS IN COUNCILLORS, AND MAINTAINED OUR LEAD OVER LABOUR IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT, PUSHING THEM INTO 3RD PLACE FOR ONLY THE SECOND TIME IN MODERN POLITICAL HISTORY.

Yes, you heard me: We, the supposed third party of British politics, have just beaten Labour, the supposed party of government of British politics, into third place on projected national share of the vote. We’re doing pretty bloody well. And yet, in the BBC’s logic, we are to be berated because we’re not doing as well as a time when we did even better.

3. The Lib Dems got rid of Ming Campbell because we got 26% in the 2007 local elections. Which is funny, because I could have sworn I remembered something about poll numbers in October at around 13%, a terminal slump, and a media determined to sideline Ming, plus a bottled snap elecction. Must have been an idle daydream. You live and learn.

4. The BBC’s “projected national share of the vote”, when fed into their magic general election machine, gives Labour about 159 MPs and Lib Dems about 56 (if I remember correctly). This, lest you forget, off the back of Labour 24% of the vote, Lib Dems 25%. As fucking ludicrous as our electoral system is, even I have to conclude that the BBC’s election predicting machine has some pretty robust assumptions built into it.

Thank goodness for Alix, or I might have felt like I was going a bit bonkers.

Unassailable

Why is it that whenver someone says on GMTV that the party is not doing well enough, it is interpreted not as the statement of the obvious that it is, but as a comment on the leadership? And yes, I know that Ashley asked specifically about the leadership, but presumably as a response to Vince making this (crushingly banal to anyone with a smidge of perspective) observation that the party is not doing well enough.

Any self-respecting political party should want to be in power, or what is it there for? If the polls suggest that this is not about to happen, then the party is not doing well enough. The further the polls are from showing that, the less well they are doing, ultimately. Of course, direction of travel is also important, but that’s another matter. The way these statements are interpreted by the media (in their wider sense) is bizarre, until you realise that for them, the Lib Dems’ purpose is not to be in power, because they don’t see us as a normal party. They couldn’t give a shit about the policies; as far as they’re concerned, the Lib Dems are there as the protest vote, the kingmakers in hung parliaments, and not much else. Oh, yes, and they are mostly to be represented in the form of their leader, whose position is to be continually reassessed when they get bored of discussing anything else. In this light, it makes sense. Problem is, it’s not true. That’s not why I, or any Lib Dem I’ve ever met, joined the party.

Oh, and as for The Sunday Programme, I don’t know why any of our MPs bother to talk to them. It only gets seen by the Westminster villagers who remember to set the video and insomniacs, since this week it will be on at 6am on Sunday. The program only survives by trying to extract some piece of intrigue from a given interview, safe in the knowledge that the spin they are putting on it will not be made to look silly because nobody is actually going to watch the complete interview.

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Sides of the Argument

An interesting interview from John Harris with Nick Clegg in today’s Guardian. I say interesting, but only because Nick’s answers are genuinely illuminating and honest compared to the kind of soundbite he tries to offer on TV. But, as usual, the interview suffers from some silly assumptions from the interviewer. I don’t think I can sum it up any better than Harris’s final comment:

a new kind of Lib Dem, but a leader still in thrall to their old habit of taking contributions from both sides of the argument. You might like to think of it as the political equivalent of going Dutch.

Harris is completely unable to escape from the idea that there are two “sides”, and that saying things that superficially align, in certain places, with both “sides” means you are suspicious.

While I’m here, a “B-, must do better” to dear old Kettle for this week’s piece of transparently silly shit-stirring.

Paddick’s Message Twisted Shock

The Guardian has embarked on a curious little two-part project in the last couple of days. First, an article picking up Brian Paddick‘s policy of putting a guard on a carriage of every tube train after 9pm. To the Guardian’s ears, this means “women friendly tube carriages”:

Women-friendly train carriages with guards on duty after 9pm would be introduced across London’s underground network as part of a radical raft of transport measures to be unveiled today.

Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat’s mayoral candidate, says every tube running at night should have a clearly marked carriage with a uniformed guard in direct contact with the police.

At the launch of his transport manifesto at Vauxhall bus station in south London the former police commander will also announce plans to put teams of police guards on the late-night buses that have the worst record for violence and antisocial behaviour.

It wasn’t an explicitly sex related policy, but to be fair, Brian is quoted as saying:

“Some people are put up off travelling by public transport at night because they don’t feel safe,” Paddick told the Guardian last night.

“Many women have told me they would feel reassured if there was a uniformed presence on tubes and buses after the evening rush hour.

“Talking to many women, they have told me that they do not feel safe on public transport at night but can’t afford taxis, so are being forced to stay at home, which is simply unacceptable.”

So part one: Make a policy (designed to put a guard on tube trains so people who feel unsafe have somewhere to go) into a policy for “women friendly” carriages, and raise the issue of women-only carriages by illustrating the story with a picture of a women-only carriage on the Tokyo tube.

Part two: Seemingly rabid feminist Bidisha writes an absolutely barking opinion piece on CiF, where she elides Paddick’s policy with all-women carriages without a care in the world. Under the headline

In praise of ladies’ trains

Brian Paddick’s idea is laudable, but segregation won’t solve the problem of men behaving badly

she wrote that

“The Liberal Democrat’s London mayoral candidate yesterday proposed “women-friendly” carriages across the capital’s underground network, policed by guards after 9pm, an idea similar to the women-only train carriage scheme that operates in Japan.”

This is only in the slightest bit true if there was any intention in Paddick’s policy of creating segregated carriages. Which there wasn’t, as far as I know. She continues:

It’s good that Paddick has raised this as an issue because it shows his recognition that groping and verbal harassment are sex crimes, not simply a part of the merry pageant of life in which one encounters all sorts of quirkily eccentric characters to write home about. But is policed or segregated night-time transport really the answer?

So having told us this is designed to be a solution to sexism (which it isn’t), we are now to be treated to a whole piece on why it isn’t a good solution to this problem (well duh).

For all his good intentions, Paddick hasn’t understood the nature or extent of harassment. Does he think that all sex criminals do Sudoku puzzles during the day then come out on the dot of nine, taking up their posts in dark corners and train stations? Most of the harassment I have experienced, witnessed and heard about occurred in daylight hours …

Aagh!

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Political Balance

Reaction to my bit of number crunching earlier today has been interesting. Benedict G commented that “From that graph it looks like we’re overrepresented on Question Time.”

A valid viewpoint, I can see where it comes from. But it also doesn’t ring true to me (surprise surprise!). Here’s why.

Any conception of a “balance” in guest booking must be based in some conception of what that balance looks like. How does one go about doing this? One idea might be that the guests over the course of a series should reflect the balance of public opinion. It looks as if that’s what the producers have indeed been doing. At the 2005 election, the polling went 37/33/22/8. When you multiply that proportion by turnout (61.3%), that means that of the total electorate, the proportions who put their vote to the use of a particular party were 23/20/14/5. Question Time, meanwhile, has, since 2005, booked guests such that its proportions go 21/21/15/5.

So no, I don’t think we’re over or under represented, if you accept that this is what balance means. Certainly no more than the Tories are. And arguments addressing the idea that the proportion should follow our seats in parliament is ludicrous, since it accepts a fundamental tenet of FPTP which we, as Lib Dems, do not accept.

The problem comes in the presence of the wildcards who make up the other guests on each panel. Because so many of them are columnists, or journalists, from the national press, we end up with an awful lot of people expressing opinions which march in much closer step with the Conservatives than the guests who might be more sympathetic to Labour or Lib Dems do with their respective parties.

So here are my suggestions, if we’re accepting that model:

No more programmes where you have effectively two tories or two labourites. That seems silly no matter what arguments about balance one puts. And it wouldn’t affect the balance much anyway.

Greatly reduced presence of Littlejohn.

That is all.

But I’m not convinced that that is the model of balance that we should be accepting.

There is such a thing as a “main party”, at least, that seems to be what the BBC believes – they use the phrase often enough. Surely, then, it is the role of the BBC, in its public service remit (and I feel certain that they claim Question Time as part of their public service time), to provide equal platforms to the “main parties”. They seem to broadly agree with this, they have more or less a guaranteed place on the programmes for a Tory and a Labour person each week – even though simply the idea of “balance” doesn’t require that this be the case (you could have weeks where nobody from the government was present, for instance, and more weeks when there were two; at least then the sense that the other two parties are in some way “entitled” to these places, but we aren’t, would be removed).

The BBC simply doesn’t accept that the Lib Dems are a main party. If it did, I feel sure it would be allowing us on each programme.

UPDATED: The BBC Write Me An Email

Well now. Last week’s question time didn’t have a lovely Lib Dem on it. It did have two dreadful Tories on it (Ken Clarke, Amanda Platell), and two people from the world of the stage (Bonnie Greer, John Sessions). I thought this odd, especially since it’s not the first Question Time in the last couple of weeks to give the Tories effectively two representatives on the panel. So, taking Steven Tall’s advice, I wrote them an email. This one, in fact:

Tonight’s question time featured Ken Clarke (a Conservative) and Amanda Platell (a former Conservative spin doctor, writer for the Daily Mail, and general right winger). It did not feature any representative of the Liberal Democrats.

This is not the only recent programme to allow a second Conservative on the panel: the 17-01-08 edition featured both Liam Fox and Louise Bagshawe (who, much as she might have been justified by her status as a writer, is a Tory PPC, and turned out to do little more than repeat the party line).

I do not remember having ever seen two Lib Dems (nor would I expect to), but why do they suffer this unfair treatment routinely by the programme’s producers? I find it hard to believe that a Lib Dem MP could not be found to appear on the programme, in London of all places.

Thrillingly, they have sent me this lovely form letter in response:

Dear Mr Hinton

Thank you for your e-mail regarding ‘Question Time’ broadcast on 31 January.

I understand that you were annoyed that there was no representative from the Liberal Democrats on the programme.

If I can explain, ‘Question Time’ aims to represent a broad range of views but it cannot always do this while ensuring strict political balance each week. The panel usually consists of MPs from the main political parties, together with representatives from various organisations and newspaper columnists or editors. The programmes try to achieve balance over a reasonable period and certainly have a firm commitment to political balance over their series as a whole.

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.

Thank you once again for contacting us.

Regards

Richard Carey,
BBC Complaints

Note how he has completely ignored the other half of my original concern, which was not simply “there was no Lib Dem on tonight”, but also “aargh, watching too many Tories makes me sad”.

UPDATE: James Graham suggests in the comments that we could demand their numbers. I had another idea: Since the website records the guests on the programme going back to November ’06, I thought I’d just compile my own. I categorised each MP, Lord or PPC as Lab/Tory/LD, as well as the same divisions for journalists and other personalities. Where there is no obvious affiliation, I left them uncategorized. If you want to see the spreadsheet and edit it for yourself, go here. Anyway, the results look like this:

Funny sort of balance.

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GMTV Sunday

What the hell is the point of a programme that goes out at 6.10am on a Sunday? Who exactly can watch this? And why is there no facility to watch it again on the internet (certainly not one I can find after 5 minutes of Googling)?

I really don’t see why politicians would want to go on it. Almost nobody sees the interviews, the only things which ever make the news are the bits the press decides are newsworthy. And since nobody (to a first approximation) really saw the original interview, they are free to take it as out of context as they want.

This must be the most influential programme for insomniacs ever made.

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Sun’s editor talks to HoL Communications Committee

As Baronness Scott mentions on her new blog, Rebekkah Wade, editor of the Sun, recently talked to the House of Lords select committee on communications, which asked a few interesting questions about the political stance of the Sun and who sets it. There is not yet a written transcript of their exchange, but here is a video of it, which the committee’s homepage has made available:

She states that her views are well known to Murdoch, and that they are very much involved in why she was appointed:

Wade: I’ve worked for Mr. Murdoch since I was.. um, well, for 18 years, and 12 of those years, I’ve either been an editor or a deputy editor, so I think it would be fair to say that before any appointment, you know, he knew me pretty well – any senior appointment. Erm… In that way he would be aware of my views, both social views, cultural views and political views.

What stood out for me, though, was just how much she visibly virulently dislikes the Lib Dems. Twice in the following exchange she goes out of her way to make digs at the Lib Dems, and she makes it quite clear by omission that in the 2005 election she had no intention of giving fair coverage to the Lib Dems:

Chair: When it comes to an election, who decides who you’ll support, is it Mr. Murdoch or is it you?

Wade: Well, if I can.. I’ve been editor for a couple of elections, but if you take the 2005, where the Sun in the end backed Tony Blair, famously with the Vatican chimney on the top of Wapping and we announced that there’d be blue or red smoke – I can’t remember whether we had any yellow smoke even ready but anyway… sorry, apologies to the Lib Dems…

In the run-up to the election, I was very careful to give, um, the Labour party and the Conservative party equal opportunity to show their wares, so to speak, in the Sun, so Sun readers could make up their own mind, seeing, you know, very fair coverage of both sets of policies. In the end however… I would.. I talked to.. I did talk to Mr. Murdoch, of course; I mean, Mr. Murdoch is a lifelong newspaper man, he’s also lived through political change, both here and in America and Ausralia, his advice is always exemplary and… and good, but at the same time I also spent a lot of time talking to Trevor Kavanagh, who was the political editor at the time, and his deputy at the time George Pascoe-Watson, who has now taken that role, and Les Hinton, erm, our exectuive chairman. You know, I.. I.. the way I edit the paper, I do seek advice and I.. I think I’m actually very lucky to have a traditional proprietor like Mr. Murdoch, and.. and that was.. coupled with I’ve always had Les Hinton there as well, who as you know was a journalist. So.. yes I.. yes I do seek advice from them, and yes it is a.. um.. a consensus… issue, but… I… wanted to back Tony Blair, I voted for him, and, er… that’s what happened.

Chair: But when, I mean, when it comes to it, I mean cutting through all that, I mean when it comes to it, if Mr. Murdoch said, in your editorship, um, you will back Labour or you will back Conservatives, that’s actually what you’d do?

Wade: If Mr. Murdoch told me to back the Lib Dems I’d resign. Em.. I can’t imagine that he would.

Chair: I think we’re probably agreed on that.

Wade: Um.. sorry, Lib Dems… I’m going to be nice about the Lib Dems a bit more later on.

Well, I’m still making my way through the video, but I’m yet to find the promised bit of being nice to us. But what I find interesting about the bits quoted above is just how obvious in her body language and tone of voice her dislike of our party is. It clearly goes far beyond a simple intellectual disagreement. I wonder why?

I can’t really be arsed to type out any more of their exchanges, but it’s notable in the exchange above and in plenty of other answers she give that she is very conscious of exactly how she portrays her relationship with Murdoch. I have included in my transcript a lot of her hesitations and rephrasings, not because I want to make her seem stupid, but to emphasize those points where she is being especially careful about what she is saying. Uniformly, she is incredibly careful not to suggest areas of policy input from Murdoch, even when directly asked for an example of a disagreement she has had with Murdoch; on that occasion, she makes a very awkward and transparent attempt to make the whole thing into a joke about the relative seriousness of reality TV programmes.

Lib-Connery

Another day, another article in the Guardian. This time it’s Michael Cockerell, who has written that:

Tory electoral prospects could now be in the hands of the Lib Dem’s new Davealike leader.

Clearly the MSM have already chosen their preferred albatross to hang around our neck, and it is that our new leader is a clone of Dave Cameron. This, it seems, on the back of the following startling simmilarities:

1. Young
2. Not been MPs for very long (so… pretty much the “young” point again)
3. …… dark hair?

Well, never mind. We’ve had worse.

What amuses me more about this whole thing is the idea that David Cameron clearly thinks it’s such a great tactic to play this up, by making noises about a “progressive alliance”, as if this is going to really sabotage us but do him no harm at all. From where I’m sitting, the reverse is true: Dave Cameron’s strategy has, as Cockerell points out, been to try and move onto our ground.

The new Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has been widely characterised as a Cameron clone, but much less widely noticed is that Cameron’s strategy has been quite specifically to target Lib Dem voters.

In a speech just a fortnight after becoming leader, Cameron dubbed himself “a liberal Conservative”: his two core values, “trusting people and sharing responsibility”, were those of the Lib Dems. And he said that in most of the seats the Tories needed to win to topple Labour, the size of the Lib Dem vote was larger than the Labour majority. So the answer was staggeringly simple: “It is time for Liberal Democrat voters, councillors and MPs to come and join the Conservative party.”

The co-author of Cameron’s strategy is his reclusive media guru, Steve Hilton. An ex-Saatchi man, Hilton is an expert in political marketing, commercial rebranding and so-called consumer segmentation. And he has put his knowledge to work for Cameron.

One top Tory in a position to know explained the Hilton strategy: “Since our high point in 1992 we have lost over 5 million voters, as well as over 150 seats. Meanwhile the Lib Dems’ share of the vote has steadily risen and they have more than trebled their seats – almost all at our expense. Dave’s prime aim is win back those 5 million lost voters.”

And last weekend the Tory leader reinforced the message he had first sent to the Lib Dems two years ago, in a subtly different form. Instead of calling for Lib Dems to defect, he offered to join forces, to create “a new progressive alliance” to oust Gordon Brown.

So surely the response to overtures from Dave to the electorate to try and paint himself as “basically a pretty liberal kinda guy” is to turn round and ask why, if he thinks that what the country wants is basically a Lib Dem-alike party, should people vote for him and not us. That is, if people want someone who looks a bit like Cameron or Clegg and are attracted by how many times we can use the word “liberal”, then why should they choose the one dragging a half-unreconstructed Thatcherite party behind him? Instead of simply replying that the offer is mischievous and that Dave lives in “cloud-cuckoo land”, as Vince has, why can’t we instead respond with something like:

“If David Cameron wants to join a liberal, progressive movement for the future of this country, then why doesn’t he just join the party he has so flatteringly sought to emulate for the last two years? Of course, he would have to accept a few basic liberal principles…” Cue list of points on which we hold the undeniably progressive higher ground.

Of course, I hope Nick has his own ideas for dealing with Cameron, as has been suggested at his meeting with the assembled Lib Dem blogging royalty yesterday. As Alix reported it:

Don’t worry [dark expression]. He’ll be dealt with.

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Clegg Wins: Comment Roundup

Well now. I was sat in a cafe eating my lunch today, when I received a text message from Lord Rennard. Apparently, Nick Clegg won the leadership race (hurrah!). By 511 votes (gosh!).

I had to wait till later, when I got home, to discover that our beloved MSM has spun itself on a dime and is now peddling the line that we are a split party. Yes, the same people who until 2.30 today had been telling us that you couldn’t slip a cigarette paper between the two candidates and that consequently the race was boring, are now telling us that the two candidates coming in so close represents some kind of significant split down the middle of the party. The people who complained that the stifling of democracy in the Labour party represented by Gordon’s coronation are telling us that the fact that two very credible leaders had to compete to lead our party is a bad thing.

Meanwhile Paxman assaults Clegg with a collection of snidey comments that would sound ludicrous put to any other political leader (“Gordon Brown, tell us 10 interesting things about yourself, go on!”) and silly false dichotomies (you can be 100% passive or 100% didactic in talking to people about policy, there is not – contrary to the misapprehensions of many in politics – any middle ground where you debate and persuade people).

So has anything particularly interesting been said today? Here, since I can’t count on the MSM, are a few interesting things that have been said online:

Engaging

The lovely Alix has come up with one good theme of Nick Clegg’s that we can all pick up and run with today:

I am continually struck by the energy, the intelligence and the conviction with which we shoot down trolls on Lib Dem Voice. But at least visiting trolls are engaging with us (except for the stupid ones, obviously, but they can just bugger off). There are people out there, probably not terribly committed politically, who are getting away with far worse calumnies every day than anything any activist opponent would consider realistic … doesn’t it sicken you to your by-definition decent soul, the number of comment threads that turn into a stream of abuse against the Lib Dems for lack of anyone to put up the opposite case? We just haven’t got the numbers out there in the political online mainstream, and we need them. We need us. If you see what I mean. If ever there was a concrete example of what the Cleggster is talking about when he says we must put an end to introspection, this is it.

I for one would like to echo this call. If we want to use the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator to talk to the party, fine. But if people are doing this to talk to the great unhosed, then you are much better off taking on some of the incredibly sloppy but widely read arguments that you get put forward in places like CiF. Alix posted one example of a thread where we were being discussed (this one), but I suspect that since then, a possibly better example has arrived.

So, here it is folks. The great leader has spoken of our need to speak to the unconverted. Hold your heads up high and go and convert them!

Listening

Charlotte Gore remarked on Clegg’s interesting sugestion of regular town hall meetings, which I hadn’t really picked up on until that point (I didn’t see the speeches at the time). I think it’s a great idea, but I would simply add that, should they play this right, there’s no reason why the MSM might not take an interest in this. After all, if they can make these meetings their own Question Time style question and answer discussions, and bring along not just Nick Clegg but a few other senior Lib Dem shadow cabinet stars, they could well be interesting. All the more so if they pick places most heavily affected by issues of the day, and take along the relevant shadow minister. It would make an interesting statement to the viewing public if the footage of Lib Dem soundbites they saw on the news was less often from the house of commons, and more often from public meetings. We don’t have to rely on the news media to turn up to these things; surely we can record them ourselves and supply them with interesting broadcast quality footage. Just a thought.

Paxman

Duncan Borrowman was just as annoyed as I was at the treatment Paxman gave us on Newsnight tonight.

Shit-Stirring

Coffee House blog has a post by James Forsyth daydreaming about the far future, and trying to paint Huhne as the kind of git who would split his party just to lead it. Weird.

… and that’s it, more or less. Today, much as people have rushed to comment on this result, we don’t know an awful lot. I will be more interested to see what happens over the next few days, and what Nick does to keep hold of the news agenda for a little longer. After all, as I pointed out when Ming resigned, when we do have a legitimate claim to the news agenda (ie. when the MSM’s bias against us would be painfully obvious even to the uninitiated if they let their usual standards apply), we do ourselves no favours by hurrying.

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Deciding On A False Choice

Various siren media voices are busy offering us advice on our future. Today, the Grauniad saw Jonathan Freedland making a typical stab:

For too long, there has been a benign fog where the Lib Dems’ ideological clarity should be. To the left of Labour in the north, Eurosceptic in the south-west, this muddle helped the Lib Dems bag seats. But it is surely not sustainable indefinitely.

There’s no shortage of possibilities. One scenario would present the Lib Dems as unabashedly liberal, socially and economically: they could promise low taxes and, say, the legalisation of all drugs, following the chief constable of north Wales. Such an approach would have tremendous intellectual coherence, but there are drawbacks. It could take the party into places comfortable for a thinktank, but awkward for a political party. What’s more, the rightwing postures it would entail would be too much for many activists to swallow.

Alternatively, the Lib Dems could fill the vast acres of space vacated by New Labour on the left. Taxes on the super-rich, an Iraq pullout, protection of civil liberties – it could be an appealing programme. But it would hardly play well in those southern marginals where the Lib Dems do battle with the Tories.

The risk is that Clegg or Huhne will be tempted simply to join Brown and Cameron in fighting for the evershrinking, hallowed terrain of the centre ground, saying nothing too daring on tax or equality or anything else (though Clegg deserves credit for proposing an amnesty for illegal immigrants). Such a huddle in the middle, leaving the rest of the ideological spectrum badly unrepresented in Westminster, would not just be uninspiring to Liberal Democrats. It would be depressing for British politics.

A similar way of thinking was put forward in the piece on Newsnight that preceded Paxman trying to manufacture a policy schism within the party where there isn’t really one. Currently, I can’t find a link to it. Anyway, in it, Paul Mason mocked up two “alternative” party political broadcasts to represent the two paths we apparently have to choose between, essentially highlighting those aspects of our policy which might be characterised as either “left” or “right”.

The only problem with both of these analyses (and I’m sure there are more like it around) is that at no point do they explain why the two are mutually exclusive. Why do these people find it so hard to understand that what we stand for is what Gladstone stood for, what Lloyd-George stood for, what Liberalism has always stood for: freedom, fairness and equality of opportunity. Why exactly can’t we be the party who stand against the monopolies and lump government subsidies required for nuclear power, at the same time as being the party who want to cut income tax to make way for green taxes? Why can’t we be both the party of skeptical pro-Europeanism and the party of legalising cannabis? Nobody has yet made a good argument as to why our current position is foggy, they have simply asserted that it is.

Now, I don’t deny that people just don’t understand liberalism, that they are confused because for so long the left-right axis, with its bizarre smushing together of all sorts of values and ideologies into completely incoherent “sides”, has dominated politics. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a wholly inadequate way to categorise us, and indeed, to categorise any of the other parties.

We must not be persuaded by these voices. The position we inhabit right now is mostly right, it holds together probably better ideologically than the other parties’ positions, and by and large it is one we believe in. Of course, in selling our manifesto to a Labour or Conservative voter, we are going to emphasize the elements that we think will appeal to them. We would be silly not to. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t all fighting on the same manifesto, just that we think different pages of it will appeal more to different people; because of course they will! It doesn’t stop those voters asking us about other policy areas, and when they do so, we will of course be equally happy to defend those policies.

And let’s not allow ourselves to be told that there is only “bigger” or “smaller” government, when we know full well that every bit as important as those ideas are “more local” and “more accountable” government.

We are not here to position ourselves in relation to the other parties. We are here to argue for what we think is right. We are liberals, we believe in all those things that it says on my membership card, and that’s where we’re staying. There is no choice to be made here, and no future in either of the false choices being presented. Either of those options would turn us into a genuine protest party, little more than a cobbled selection of whinges about government policy. What makes us more than that is precisely the fact that we are self-evidently not designed to woo a particular type of discontented voter.

The other day, James Graham was on CiF, arguing that

Our political opponents like to talk about how the Lib Dems say different things to people depending on what side of the street they’re on. I don’t accept that is true, at least no more true than the way I’ve seen other parties behave over the years. What is true, however, is that there is an inclination to try and be all things to all people: to have a sprinkling of Labour-ish policies here, a dash of Tory-ish policies there, all designed to appeal to the swing voter.

It’s worked, but it has its limits. There are only so many of this kind of voter. When, in 2005, we offered the middle-class “grey vote” pretty much everything they could ever dream of on a silver platter and with a cherry on top (small print: at the expense of everyone else), the stubborn old buggers refused to be bribed.

He was right, but I don’t accept that we have a massive problem here. He correctly identifies the push for the “grey vote” as a pretty cynical move, but other than that, I don’t really accept that our policy is Labourish or Toryish. He also wrote:

The real division in the party is between what the party recognises as long-term goals that are in the national interest, and short-term populism that’s in the party interest. We have a long-term commitment to shifting the burden of taxation off income and onto wealth and natural resources, but our short-term commitments are a muddle, taking 4p off income tax while introducing a 4p local income tax. We have a long-term commitment for a progressive form of property taxation based on land values, but in the short term, we propose to scrap council tax and its requisite infrastructure. We have a long-term goal of replacing inheritance tax with an acquisitions tax, making tax avoidance more difficult and ensuring that wealth is spread more thinly; in the short term, we are cheerleaders for raising the inheritance tax threshold as much as our Tory and Labour opponents. In the long run, we want increased access to higher education for people from poorer backgrounds to increase social mobility; in the short term, we are committed to spending our limited higher education budget on scrapping tuition fees, which will mainly benefit the middle classes.

Now, those are some pretty good examples. But I would argue that in none of those cases are our policies for the immediate future notably Labour or Tory, so much as they are just motivated by a desire to translate Lib Dem ideals into practical steps which the public could easily imagine happening. Say to most people that we support abolishing council tax in favour of LVT, or that we want to introduce an acquisitions tax in place of inheritance tax, and they will look blankly at you.

I think James is (unsurprisingly) much more right than the MSM commentators, though. For them, the problem is that we need to be more like one of two things. For him, it is that we are already trying to make ourselves look like those other things. In so far as we are doing so, we should stop.