September 2010

Blair and bloggers

So, Tony Blair doesn't like bloggers. He quite contemptuously dismissed people who write blogs as non-representative of the views of the population as a whole. Instead, he claimed he had a direct link with the people and knew exactly what they thought. He was equally dismissive of journalists.

Andrew Marr had to remind him that intermediaries - the media, in all its professional and amateur forms - necessarily stood between the PM and the people.

This exemplifies a problem that is a real one for everyone in public life. Politicians inevitably come under attack, and in order to maintain their mental equilibrium they do have to distance themselves from much of it. There are several strategies they can use - they can dismiss all opposition as worthless or unrepresentative, or they can simply not listen at all. They protect themselves with a wall of support, which becomes more and more solid as time goes on.

This is the real corruption of politics; the loss of perspective, and the self-perpetuating belief in their own innate rightness. (And I write that as someone who has experienced a little bit of the pressures and has had to consciously work to avoid listening only to those who agree with me.)

Tony Blair really didn't get the mood of the people, either just before or since the invasion of Iraq, but has convinced himself that he still does have the sympathetic support of most of the country.

This, of course, should have been his legacy:


(Just to prove that I was at Stormont at the weekend!)

The Good Friday Agreement was the highspot of his term as Prime Minister. I had nothing but praise for him and Mo Mowlem when they pulled it off.

Instead, his name will forever be linked with the illegal decision to invade Iraq and for the disastrous handling of the aftermath.

And that's before we consider the attacks on civil liberties at home - ID cards, 28 day detention, imprisonment of asylum seekers' children, RIP Act. He took New Labour so far away from its roots that it has become virtually unrecognisable as a socialist movement.

During the day a number of my Facebook friends have been reporting that they have taken the Votematch Labour Leadership quiz. You are given a series of policy statements to which you agree or disagree, and at the end you are told which of the five candidates you are closest to. The surprise has been that all my Lib Dem friends seem to match with Diane Abbott. So I tried the quiz myself, and, yes, I found that I agreed 86% with her policies.

What is going on here? Diane Abbott is, after all, the most leftwing and progressive of the candidates. It just seems to confirm the widely held view that the Labour Party has moved so far to the right that its leftmost members sit alongside the social liberal wing of the Lib Dems.

Diane - you are welcome to join us when your party, as redefined by Tony Blair, rejects you, as it inevitably will.

Kingston Carnival 2010

Labour and Conservatives don't seem to understand fairness

Fair votes always have my vote. But the bill on having a referendum on the Alternative Vote system on May 5th is having a slightly rocky ride through the Commons.

The first stage was passed yesterday evening by a substantial majority. And indeed a commitment to this bill was part of the coalition deal, so the Conservatives and Lib Dems will eventually all vote in favour. But there are rumblings from both the Conservatives and Labour MPs about it.

The problem arises because the legislation has two elements, tied together as a package - one is for the referendum on AV, and the other is for a change in the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies (which will not be part of the referendum).

I wrote about Alternative Votes some weeks ago, so I want to look at the boundary changes today.

As populations move, so the number of electors in constituencies fluctuate. It makes sense to adjust the boundaries every so often so that they are all the same size. At the same time, there is some demand for a leaner House of Commons. So the bill proposes reducing the number of MPs by 50 and equalising the number of voters per constituency (to around 76,000).

I'm not an expert on the details of the boundary issue, but I know a man who is - Mark Pack has the British Academy review of its impact on his blog.

Conservatives are in favour of the boundary changes but against AV (although they will allow the referendum to go ahead, they will vote No next May). Labour is in favour of AV but against the boundary changes. And guess why? Well, because each is judging the issue from the perspective of their own party interests, rather than in the interests of fairness. Labour will generally lose seats from boundary changes, and the Tories will gain.

What is unpalatable for me is the attempts by both parties to justify and manipulate the system in a ways that are clearly unfair. Labour knows only too well that smaller inner city constituencies work in their favour, so are opposed to them being enlarged to an average size, which would reduce the number of safe Labour seats. The Conservatives on their part have set the reduction of seats at 50 at a specific level that gives them a distinct advantage.

Liberal Democrats believe both AV and boundary changes are fair in principle, but are unhappy at the way the Conservatives have rigged the boundary issue to favour themselves.

Big Society honeytrap

No, I'm not really talking about David Cameron's concept of the Big Society, which is essentially about empowering local communities and within that, encouragement for the voluntary sector. Its official website is at www.bigsociety.org.

Instead, I am highly suspicious of a website also called The Big Society, to be found at www.the-big-society.co.uk

Now whenever I find a new website I always check its credentials. The Contact Us, or About Us pages should tell us who is behind it. But no-one reveals themself as the owner or creator of this hyphenated site. That immediately made me suspect a trap - the political equivalent of credit card phishing. I do not believe for one moment that it is connected with the Government project.

Over the summer it appears the site sent out an email to all Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs and asked them what voluntary activity they had done over and above their work as MP.

The email contained this threat: "A lack of response will, in the first instance, be considered a negative response, and your entry on the database will be flagged as “No Voluntary Work Undertaken”.

Now the first question to ask is why they have only contacted Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs. The reason given is that the Big Society is a Coalition policy, so they are trying to find out the level of support for the voluntary sector on the government benches. But it seems clear to me that this is a cynical attempt to build up a case for accusations of hypocrisy against the government.

The majority of MPs will be as suspicious as I am of the motives behind the email, and will not reply. They will then be labelled as undertaking no voluntary work, whether that is true or not.

But my concern about this dubious project goes deeper than that.

Each of us undertakes our life's work in the community, and this will be a combination of paid work, official voluntary work plus all the unofficial things we do to maintain our homes, families, friendships and other relationships. The proportions of each will vary at different times in our life, and depend on all sorts of personal circumstances. Work in the formal voluntary sector is only one of a range of things that we can do for the good of the community.

All the MPs I know work incredibly long hours for their communities. On top of that most have to cope with the difficulties of a weekly commute from their constituencies to Westminster. Weekends, and recess, provide opportunities to connect with their constituents, and in particular to encourage and support volunteers and voluntary organisations in their constituencies. They also need to find some time to spend with their family and friends.

I would not expect my MP, or indeed any other, to do any substantial voluntary work on top of all that. In fact, I would wonder whether they were doing their job as an MP properly if they did.

The basic, and pernicious, premise of this website appears to be that everyone, even overstretched MPs, should do voluntary work at all stages in their life. That is clearly unattainable and unrealistic, and is certainly not in tune with the aims of the 'real' Big Society project.

So I'd like the instigators of this site to come clean. What exactly is their agenda?

Oliver Letwin meets the elephant

The evening began with some embarrassment, though nothing to do with the elephant.

I was looking for the Conference fringe meeting where Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander were due to speak, but I got the room number wrong. So that was how I found myself being warmly welcomed by Lord Dholakia and being introduced to the Indian High Commissioner. There was no way I could extricate myself without explaining that I really wanted to be elsewhere.

I guessed that the Indian reception would have been much more fun - and better food, no doubt. But I had decided that it would be sensible to hear Letwin speak before interviewing him, and I didn't really regret it, especially when he described himself as a 'soggy liberal'.

He was, of course, one of the Conservative Coalition negotiators, and was actually full of praise for the Lib Dem side, and indeed on their approach in all the policy discussions since. He praised Danny, and others, for their intellectual prowess, and for their air of detachment and analysis.

And he touched on the two unifying themes for this Government - a 'shift of control' out from the centre and a 'shift of horizon' from short-term to long-term.

Later I was pleased to be one of five bloggers who were given the opportunity to meet him and ask questions. I've interviewed a number of Lib Dem leading lights but this was the first time with a Conservative. Oliver Letwin is Minister of State in the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for Policy.

Away from a large audience, he was relaxed and thoughtful. He must have been wondering what we might throw at him, as he said that it was a new experience - Tory bloggers, it seems, don't get such opportunities. But he laughed a lot with us and was happy to explore some of our themes as well.

Alex Wilcock kicked off by asking the two basic questions: 'What does the Tory party stand for?' and 'Why should someone vote for you?' Oliver Letwin repeated the 'shift of control' and 'shift of horizon' mantras (perhaps not aware that some of us had been in the fringe meeting) and then said that people should vote Conservative because they went into the Coalition in the national interest.

I was intrigued by this response. Whenever we have asked senior Lib Dems similar questions in the past they have always started from the fundamental principles of liberalism, often quoting John Stuart Mill or the preamble to the constitution (which every good Lib Dem knows off by heart). In comparison, Letwin focussed on the message on the doorstep.

Later he admitted that he is a Gladstonian Liberal and a constitutionalist. Helen Duffett asked why he wasn't in our party, and he didn't seem entirely sure! He certainly seems to have shifted his position towards the centre since he first appeared on the political scene. However, he is a deep believer in the nation state and less of an internationalist than the Lib Dems.

I was keen to hear his views on localism, having spoken myself in the debate that morning. He claimed that there was huge common ground between the parties - and included Labour in this, specifically mentioning Lord Adonis. Vast centralised bureaucracies must be dismantled, but the Big Society should not simply be characterised as a negative commitment to removing control, but as an optimistic vision of a responsive society building social capital.

I have been rather concerned about the differences between us and the Conservatives over local government. Lib Dems believe in the importance of strong local government and want to devolve more powers down to local councils. I was worried that the Big Society might mean a growth of publicly funded community groups who were not accountable in any meaningful sense.

Letwin eased my fears to a certain extent, by claiming that local government was going to be very surprised when they realised just how much they would be able to do in the future. Legislation next year on the general power of competence would allow councils to do whatever they think is right for the benefit of their communities. Alongside that, funding would no longer be ringfenced. This would be far better than central government micro-managing local government.

Millennium Elephant (Lib Dem Blogger of the Year 2010 - congratulations!) aka Richard Flowers wondered why the Big Society was only introduced into the Conservative election campaign quite late, and without real explanation. It seems the idea had been around for a couple of years, and the media only picked it up late in the day. Not exactly a PR success, then.

I was intrigued to know what he made of the Lib Dem way of doing policy - by members and in public - so was pleased when Alex posed it as a question. He was very open to the cultural differences between the parties: The Liberal Democrats had formalised their internal democratic processes, whereas the Tories practiced 'authoritarianism tempered by regicide'. (Great phrase)

Perhaps one of the most interesting comments was made in response to a question from Prateek Buch about evidence-based policy making. Letwin said that there was a need for ongoing analysis of the outcomes from policy decisions, and that we should be looking at progressive development in the light of evaluation rather than basing policy simply on ideological positions.

To illustrate this, he mentioned the payment by results strategies that have been floated for drug rehabilitation and for getting ex-prisoners into work. Various groups will try different approaches, but will only be paid if they succeed. Evidence will emerge of what works, as well as evidence that different solutions work in different contexts.

So here we all are. Oliver Letwin was a good sport and didn't ask, as Lembit Opik had done, whether the elephant would make him look stupid.

From left: Richard Flowers, Alex Wilcock, Helen Duffett, OIiver Letwin (with Millennium Elephant), me, Prateek Buch

A new narrative for community democracy?

I spoke in the debate on Localism at Conference. Here's what I said:

Have you noticed the hierarchical language that is often used by public service providers?

Local authorities, and others, are required to ‘engage’ with residents.

‘Citizen empowerment’ is offered as a gift by government.

Even those of us involved in politics fall into the trap and sometimes talk as though it is government that drives society; we talk as though it is government that is the main source of welfare for citizens and we talk as though it is government that creates successful communities.

We need to turn this on its head.

We need to talk instead of government dependent on, and subservient to, the dynamic communities they represent and serve.

As Liberal Democrats we are proud of our practice of community politics. We now need a new narrative of community democracy.

In our personal lives we all know that the things that have the greatest impact on us happen quite independently of local or national government.

What matters to us most are our relationships with others, and our interactions with the localities where we live and work.

We must return to a concept of community that has, at its heart, individuals who are free to make and break relationships with each other, individuals who are free to develop roots, as deep or as shallow as they wish, in their local area, and individuals who are free to form local networks based on common interest and common interests.

Community democracy grows organically from the natural relationships and networks that already exist in localities.

So what is the role of government in all this?

In a social club, members provide services to each other, and use social sanctions to regulate behaviour.

But the self-regulation of a social club cannot be scaled up to work in even the smallest town, and many services are best provided collectively. So some form of representation becomes essential.

The importance of elected representatives in community democracy cannot be overstated. They alone should be accountable to their communities for the regulations and laws introduced. They alone should be accountable for the services provided to their electors by government.

Indeed, there is a real danger that, in the absence of strong elected representatives, the loudest voices will simply dominate.

I would suggest that we need to place a new duty on local councillors, to represent those whose voices are silent. We should oblige them to actively seek out the views and needs of all sectors in their communities, so that they do not simply listen to the most persistent and articulate citizens. Councillors, like all elected representatives, should be the servants of their communities, not their rulers.

Let us never forget that the power lies with the people, and it is only lent, conditionally, to those whom they elect.

That is true local democracy.

Only 8% of constituency Labour parties preferred Ed Miliband

On the Labour website you can read a complete breakdown of the first preference votes by Constituency Labour Parties.

It shows that Ed Miliband beat his brother for first preference votes in only 54 out of the 650 constituencies.

Now these are the votes cast in the party members section of the electoral college. Their votes only counted for one third of the total, with the MP/MEP and affilated organisations sections each being weighted at one third as well.

In fact, 44% of all the first preferences of Labour party members were given to David Miliband, and only 30% to Ed Miliband. The breakdown by constituencies shows that the preference was pretty consistent right across the country on first preferences, though I did note that many of the constituencies that supported Ed were in Scotland.

He's going to have a tough time winning the loyalty of the key party activists.

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