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.

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Clegg Is Playing A Very Risky Game. Well.

Lets look back over the events of today:

– Talks with the Conservatives were going along OK, but some of their backbenchers were grumbling, and our party was evidently very iffy about signing up to anything which achieved no advance on electoral reform. There had been reports of some meetings going on between ourselves and the Labour party.

– Our own meeting of the parliamentary party made it clear to the negotiating team that they weren’t very happy with the offers on the table so far.

-David Laws gave a rather odd statement, in which he seemed not to say a whole lot.

-The BBC reported that there was some suggestion 10 Downing Street might be making a statement, and it was, somewhat bizarrely, suggested that whether they did or not depended on a careful analysis of what David Laws said.

-A statement was indeed forthcoming, with Gordon Brown announcing an opening of negotiations with Nick Clegg. Curiously enough, it was timed just before David Cameron was known to be meeting with his shadow cabinet and then later his backbenchers.

-Nick Clegg makes a statement, quite soon afterwards, confirming this.

-What had looked like a tricky meeting for David Cameron comes out with a result that he will concede a referendum on PR, which, presumably, a few hours ago was not even part of what he was going to try to sell to his MPs.

So, the conspiracy-theorist in me suspects that Labour and Clegg have managed to time an announcement at about the right time to focus the minds of the Conservatives when they were meeting, and screw a bit more out of them.

Good. It might seem cynical of us, but since we have such a crappy deal under an electoral system which is stacked against us, I think we can be forgiven for levering absolutely anything we can from a hung parliament when one comes along. We do, however, have to think about the perceptions of this. As Jennie points out, people will now assume we’re ditching talks with the Tories unless something comes forward pretty soon.

The game Clegg has been playing is striking a fine balance between screwing as much out of Cameron as he possibly can, and being seen to act in his own interest and not that of the country. I think he has strung this out about as long as he can afford to if he doesn’t want to consign the party to such unpopularity it might well not recover from it. I don’t intend that as a criticism, by the way; a hung parliament is such an unusual opportunity for us that he would have been wrong not to give the negotiations all he can.

The question is, has he now got something on the table that’s worth the headache? Lets assume, as most of the political world does, that a Lab-Lib deal is not really a viable option, for the simple reason that the seats don’t stack up. What this leaves us with is the conclusion that Clegg has to go with the Conservatives sooner or later. In today’s announcement from Brown, he has managed to flush out a better deal than was on the table before. He has to take this or leave it now, and if he leaves it, we remain out of power, with no referendum on AV, and minimal influence over Conservative policy.

But he hasn’t got PR, so has he got enough?

It’s a hard question, but I think, at the end of the day, that if he continues to play games with this tomorrow, we will go past the point where that balance between getting a good deal and being seen to pursue self-interest flips, and he starts to do massive damage to the party. I’m sure Nick knows this. So, if he carries on doing as well as I think he’s done so far, I predict that tomorrow will see the sealing of a deal for the only viable coalition on the table, the newly upgraded Con-LabLib coalition deal. If so, I would support it. Of course I want STV, but having got this far in the hung parliament talks we would be set back at the next general election, with little to show for it, if we don’t take it.

Nick Casts His Fairness Net Wider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandelson: Make life harder for MI6 and Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t Slashdot

Take Back Power

Nick Clegg has today launched a rather exciting campaign, Take Back Power. I really do hope it takes off; it frankly pisses all over David Cameron’s pledge to “give serious consideration to” a few half-measures. Nick’s plan includes:

1. Commitment to accept Kelly expenses reform in full
2. Recall power for MPs suspended for misconduct
3. House of Lords reform
4. Party funding reform
5. Fixed term Parliaments
6. Enabling legislation for a referendum on AV+
7. Changes to House of Commons procedure to reduce executive power

You can sign the petition to support the campaign here.

OK, so I have my reservations about point 6, but compared to the other two party plans, this is by far and away the best chance to clean up our discredited system. Forget trying to use your vote in the european elections to register your anger with Westminster. Get involved with a campaign directly about the issue at hand. It might not be as immediately satisfying, but it’ll get more done.

Explaining Michael Martin’s Exit

Nick Clegg can feel today that he has played an important part in a real move forward for the House of Commons, with the departure of Michael Martin now forthcoming. However, listening to comments from the public on today’s Daily Politics and yesterday’s Five Live Drive, it’s also clear to me that the public doesn’t share the view of many in the commons that this is an important step.

To those who follow politics, the case against Michael Martin requires no explanation. But I suspect that in their rush to do something to clean up the system, many of our politicians have allowed themselves to forget that most members of the public don’t really know what Martin has done, and if nobody makes the case to them, it would be very easy for them to conclude that Martin is a scapegoat, as his apologists have been claiming.

The sense that the Speaker is a figurehead, and therefore ultimately responsible, is the most immediately obvious reason for his removal, but it’s the wrong one. It’s not a general principle that has led to his downfall, it is a very specific record of opposition to opening up the Commons to scrutiny. No, Michael Martin doesn’t bare complete responsibility for this, we in the Lib Dems ought to ask questions of our own representative on the Members Estimate Committee, and those MPs from the Labour and Tory parties who voted down reforms should reflect on their own role in all of this.

But that doesn’t mean the Speaker hasn’t shown himself, in the stances he has taken protecting MPs from too much scrutiny, and being primarily concerned with maintaining their privacy rather than in opening up Parliament, to be, as Nick Clegg put it at the weekend, a “dogged defender of the status quo”. Just ask any of those MPs who have been trying to get more of these details out in the open, like Norman Baker, how helpful Michael Martin has been. The Speaker made his attitudes clear in his outburst to Kate Hoey and Norman Baker a few days ago. Anyone with much political sense who watched that should be in no doubt that the Speaker is no scapegoat.

What needs to happen now, though, if the tide is not to turn against Nick Clegg, is that firstly we must continue to make and defend the case against Michael Martin, and not give way to the temptation to leave him alone now he’s going. Those who want to paint us as political opportunists won’t stop pushing their scapegoat line, so we shouldn’t either. Secondly, we need to be visibly moving forward in cleaning up other aspects of this problem, perhaps deselecting Ming Campbell and Richard Younger Ross (that’s up to their local parties, of course). I wonder what the outcome of the Federal Exec meeting was, after the mutterings about Chris Rennard….