December 2010

The 'Yes to Fairer Votes' campaign wants to chat with you!

It's no secret that I'm supporting the 'Yes to Fairer Votes' campaign.

This is a non-partisan grassroots campaign managed by a collective of organisations and led by the Electoral Reform Society. It seems 140,000 people have already signed up, not just to support but to actively volunteer their time to help.

Today they are launching an extremely ambitious phone operation, with 50 phone banks across the country, all manned by volunteers.

Then in the New Year they will be adding a virtual phone bank, which means any volunteer will be able to work from their own home.

The campaign is aiming to speak with more voters than all the political parties combined managed to do during the General Election - I said it was ambitious! The referendum on the Alternative Vote system will be on May 5th next year, so they've got exactly five months to achieve that.

If you'd like to put in an hour or two contacting voters about the Yes campaign then you can sign up here, and someone will contact you.

Do social networking sites support democracy and the Open Society?

I've written a piece for Liberal Democrat Voice on this topic. Do pop over and read it.

It is an edited version of the talk I gave last week at the Future Democracy 10 conference.

Tuition fees debate today

Today is crunch day for tuition fees. I was up at Parliament last night and saw all the crush barriers in readiness for the demonstrations.

I have no problem with students taking to the streets to make points about issues that are dear to them; it takes me back to my own student days. However, violence is completely unnecessary, and pretty counterproductive when you want to be taken seriously.

In Kingston, students ran a petition against the rise in tuition fees, which was signed by the Leader of the Council, and many other Liberal Democrat councillors and supporters (including me). On Tuesday evening the Leader held a debate on the petition at Full Council. You can read a report Council motion vote “supports students” on the Kingston Liberal Democrats website.

As for the Lib Dem MPs, all the Ministers have agreed, or had their arms twisted, to vote for the proposals, and it appears that most other MPs will abstain, with a smaller number voting against.

This means that our local MP, Edward Davey, has little choice, especially as he works for Vince Cable who is presenting the case for the rise in tuition fees. (The package is much more complex than that, of course, and is quite a good deal overall, though not entirely to my liking). I would not want Edward to resign as a Minister, because he is doing a splendid job with post offices and the Royal Mail.

Locally, students have been staging protests at Edward Davey's office and around the borough at his advice sessions. They turned out at Hook Centre where he held one last weekend.

As I've said, they have every right to express their opinions peacefully, which is what they did. But perhaps they should have thought more carefully about the impact of their protests on the people who were attending the MP's advice sessions. I have assisted Edward at a number of these in the past, and I am aware that some people turn up with heartwrenching stories, and are greatly in need of a sympathetic ear and time to explain their problem. Being beset by a student demonstration does not help.

16,000 hours and £6.4 million

I was ushering at the Rose Theatre last night and found myself looking after a party of 140 children from one school who were enjoying the action in the Three Musketeers. Icecream sales in the interval were fast and furious!

Before my evening stint, all the volunteers had been invited to a pre-Christmas get-together when, amongst other things, we learnt that during 2010 over 200 volunteers had, between them, contributed 16,000 hours to the theatre. That's a huge amount of commitment from the community.

There was a rather strange, and inaccurate, article on the front page of the Comet last week about the Rose. In fact, by Saturday morning the story had been changed substantially, and most of the errors corrected, so I can only point you to the corrected version, and you'll wonder what the fuss is about, as there is nothing new to report.

Of course, not everyone values the cultural impact of the theatre - amazing as that may be. Indeed, one of the prime reasons the Council had for encouraging the development of a high quality theatre on the council-owned site was for its potential economic effect on the town as a whole.

Some years ago, before the theatre was opened, the Arts Council produced a calculator that worked out the impact of theatres on their local economies. When the figures for Kingston were plugged in it reckoned that a new theatre would bring £11.5 million to the town - that is in addition to any revenue going into the theatre itself.

Yesterday I learnt just how accurate that prediction was. A survey has shown that theatre-goers spent £6.4 million in Kingston during the first five months of 2010, in addition to what they spent at the Rose itself. That's exactly why Jamie Oliver opened his restaurant across the road. Any investment in the theatre produces huge benefits for the Borough.

The other recent good news was that the Rose was given the award for 'Best Commitment to the Community' in the Kingston Business Awards, chosen from over 500 businesses. Apparently, some of the local business leaders were heard to say that it was a no-brainer to award it to the theatre.

The Rose Plus leaflet lists all the community activities that are run by the Rose (quite apart from all the use of the theatre by community groups, Kingston Library etc). It mentions the youth theatre groups, Play/Act and Stage 2, the community play, free events in the Culture Cafe (jazz, Sunday swing dance, children's Rhyme Time, lunchtime music, philosophy group etc), Versophiles, International Youth Arts Festival, Spoken Word workshops for children, education packs, plus all the free tickets for school children and under 26's. In fact, to meet its commitment to provide tickets for every child in the Borough, it has increased the number of performances of marvellous children's shows like 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' (coming up in January).

But for many of us, the sheer excitement of the work produced at the Rose eclipses the economic and social benefits. I see that today Judi Dench has been voted by The Stage as the greatest stage actor of all time - and we got her for six weeks this year!

Her performance as Titania in Midsummer's Night's Dream has been shortlisted for the What's On Stage award for the Theatre Event of the Year. If you were as entranced by her as I was, then go to the website and cast your vote (you have to scroll right down to the bottom of the page)

ID cards - and that sting

There was a surprising amount of political news over the Christmas period, but, of course, much of it was overshadowed by the seasonal human interest stories.

Three cheers for the end of ID cards! They were finally scrapped in the Identity Documents Bill on 21st December.

I've written about ID cards before - the problem is not with the small credit card sized cards themselves. After all, we all carry photo ID with us when necessary, such as driving licences, passports and even Freedom passes. No, the problem lies with the national database behind it, and the many thousands of people who would have legitimate access to extensive personal data about each one of us.

Once an ID database is in place it would be difficult to dismantle it, and even more difficult to protect citizens from a future corrupt or tyrannical government.

And the ID card trial in Manchester was a shambles according to the Manchester Evening News. It reveals that

  • Senior Whitehall officials were urged to email friends and relatives encouraging them to buy cards because of fears about the level of demand
  • UK and overseas border guards refused to recognise the cards – with one traveller chased through an Italian airport after trying to use one as ID
  • The Home Office discovered the cards could stop some credit cards from working properly

People have told me that no-one with a clear conscience should have anything to worry about, but that assumes that data is only being seen by a handful of professionals with whom we would be happy to share private information. Under an ID scheme we would have no individual control over who could see our data, and we would not be able to protect ourselves from insider criminal activity, such as identity theft. Or unscrupulous investigative journalists.

Which brings me to the Ed Davey sting. Now I take my hat off to journalists who probe into corruption, tax evasion, people trafficking and other criminal activities.But as we have seen with the News of the World, illegal techniques are being used routinely to stalk celebrities. And now, it seems, they are being used purely for political purposes - not to uncover corrupt behaviour but simply to expose differences of opinion.

I have helped out with our MP's advice surgeries many times. Each person who comes along is first asked to complete a form with their name and address. The reporters who turned up at Ed's surgery must have fabricated both. They then made up a story about access to benefits and used this to probe his views on a number of decisions of the coalition, in a supposed context of complete confidentiality.

You can hear the full interview - and make up your own mind about what he said. I have to say that I agree with him 100%. The Coalition is not a merger, and there are bound to be disagreements between the parties. Grown-up government is all about finding compromises where possible and agreeing to differ at other times, for the good of the nation.

We all know that the Daily Telegraph is determined to undermine the Coalition, and the Liberal Democrats in particular. After all, it needs to protect its interests, and those of its owners, from investigations by this government into its own tax position.

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