April 2011

Launch of 'Yes to Fairer Votes' with Eddie Izzard

I was invited to this but couldn't attend - sorry I missed it.

You can sign up to say yes at http://www.yestofairervotes.org/final-push

Lib Dems demand changes to the Health and Social Care Bill

If you are a LIb Dem party member and, like me, were alarmed at the Government's proposals to re-organise the NHS, then now is the moment to do something about it.

These proposals were not in our manifesto and they were not in the Coalition Agreement, so I would argue that Lib Dem MPs are not duty-bound to support the relevant clauses in the Health and Social Care Bill. Instead, they should be lobbying for substantial amendments.

Spring Conference passed a motion that opposed these changes - and we are a party where it is the members, through their delegates at Conference, who determine party policy.

So, if you agree with me, can you please - urgently - sign to show that you support the statement here: http://socialliberal.net/sign-the-statement/

Hundreds have already signed it this morning - we need to show that a large proportion of party members agree with its stance.

Call me Nick

It isn't generally known just how deeply embedded the principles of equality and democracy are within the organisation of the Liberal Democrats. We do try to practice what we preach.

The recent issues around the Health and Social Care Bill have highlighted the fact that we are the only main party in which policy is decided by the party members at Conference, not by the Leader. Last month at our Spring Conference, members overwhelmingly supported an amended policy motion that called on the Government to rethink the reorganisation of the NHS. Nick Clegg had no choice but to take our views back to Cabinet. This has had further support this week from a statement outlining potential changes to the Bill which has been signed by over 1200 councillors and other party members.

The fall-out from this is clear to see. This week Lansley announced a 'pause' in the progress of the Bill. And today the MP Norman Lamb, Clegg's political advisor, publicly expressed his misgivings about the Bill. None of this would have happened without a grassroots movement within the party, and a democratic policy-making process.

There is another structural element to the LIberal Democrats which is not widely understood. There is no such thing as the 'Liberal Democrat Party'. Instead we are organised as local parties based on boroughs or constituencies. The Liberal Democrats (as we are properly known) is a federation of local parties. Our whole structure is esentially bottom-up and driven by our local parties.

But it's not just the formal processes and structures within the Liberal Democrats that reflect our fundamental principles - it is inherent in our basic culture.

Yesterday I attended the Lib Dem London Regional Conference. Nick Clegg gave a speech about the referendum on AV. Afterwards he answered questions on a wide range of subjects. One student member started his question by addressing the Leader as 'Deputy Prime Minister', and this immediately triggered the response in my headline. Nick wasn't being overly chummy; it is genuinely the case that first names are used throughout the party. Of course, terms like 'Councillor', 'Lord' and 'Minister' are used descriptively, but not when addressing someone directly.

Some time ago I was chatting with a friend who is a senior Tory councillor in another part of the country. He was astonished at the number of MPs, Ministers and Members of the House of Lords that I know and the ease with which I could contact any of them. I emphasised that I am no different from any other member of the party, and that it is especially easy to meet and chat with people at party conferences.

At yesterday's conference it was possible for anyone to chat over coffee not only with Nick Clegg, but also with a Secretary of State and two other Ministers, several other MPs, an MEP, London Assembly members, some members of the Lords as well as numerous councillors and party activists. It's not just that elected representatives are accountable to party members as well as to their electors, but because we all, together, share a vision of a society in which everyone is valued. Using first names is a powerful expression of a non-hierarchical community in which people are judged by what they do, not just by who they are.

Are you going to watch the Royal Wedding?

My answer is 'yes', on TV - not least because a family member will be playing in the orchestra at the Abbey.

But unlike some of my anti-monarchist friends, I would have been watching even without the personal connection. You see, I have to admit to enjoying these great spectacles. The British still do ceremonial events so well, especially those that show off our beautiful city.

That's not the only reason why I am not totally republican. It is true that if we were starting a democracy from scratch then we would not invent a monarchy. Our own monarchy reflects a decidedly non-democratic period of our history. But at the same time it reminds us of the long, and largely peaceful, struggle of the people in this country to take power from the wealthy aristocracy. A constitutional monarchy, with minimal political power, is, at the least, a benign institution.

And I'm not convinced that there is any better alternative. Much as I admire Obama, I would not be happy with a US-style President, because that would place far to much power in the hands of one person. I am opposed to elected Mayors for the same reason, on a local scale. Our Government has to work as a collective, which is much healthier than the lonely role of a constitutional president.

However, we do need a Head of State to represent the country to the world, and I would prefer that to be a role above politics. Indeed, it is rather like the ceremonial role of Mayor - as in Kingston, not London.

If we were to replace the monarchy, I'm not quite sure which of our statesmen/women would ever be persuaded to step back from politics to take on such a role, although it does happen in Commonwealth countries that have a Governor. In the circumstances, you might as well make use of a family who have been brought up in the peculiar world of public service and celebrity.

Prince Charles seems to be a decent enough man, even if I do profoundly disagree with his views on architecture, and William seems to be scrubbing up nicely. We could do much worse.

"mydata" - Lib Dems give consumers more power than ever before

Behind all the topline issues, Lib Dem ministers are quietly making real changes that benefit citizens. I say 'quietly', because sadly the press just won't pick up stories that are non-controversial.

Ed Davey, with his hat on as Minister for Consumer Affairs, has just launched a project called "mydata". This is one strand in his Consumer Empowerment Strategy called "Better Choices: Better Deals" which you can read in full here.

In the introduction to the paper he says:

Many of the changes set out in Better Choices: Better Deals would have been impossible a decade ago.The internet, smart phones and new data management methods have increased the information available to consumers.This has created new opportunities for consumers, which we want to support.

These technological changes have also given businesses more information about their customers’ shopping habits. In some areas, businesses know more about customers’ spending habits than they do themselves – with detailed knowledge of how they use their phone, or how likely they are to go over their overdraft limit.

Better Choices: Better Deals is about putting customers in charge: in charge of their own personal data which can be used to inform their purchasing decisions and lifestyle choices.

So how will this work?

The idea is to promote strategies which will allow all of us to access the information that organisations have about us. It's not just about our rights under the Data Protection Act; it's about being able to use the information that others hold about our spending patterns. For this to happen, data has to be presented by companies in a standard format that can then be scraped and analysed by online applications and phone apps.

So far some pretty big players are signed up to "mydata" including Barclaycard, Mastercard, HSBC, RBS Group, Lloyds TSB, John Lewis Partnership, Groupe Aeroplan (Nectar) Home Retail Group, Centrica, Southern and Scottish Energy, Everything Everywhere (T-Mobile/Orange) and Google.

Six programmes are underway already. They are (to quote):

  • Introducing Annual Credit Card Statements, containing information about fees and how to switch, which we expect credit card companies to start issuing in December 2011.
  • Working with energy suppliers to provide, by the end of the summer, clearer information about the lowest available energy tariff.
  • Reforming Energy Performance Certificates so they include clear information about the costs of heating a home.
  • Working with the Food Standards Agency, trialling new ways to help consumers understand food hygiene ratings of restaurants.
  • Reforming car labelling by supporting work to give consumers clearer information about the costs of running different cars.
  • Facilitating the launch of a new programme of work to examine product information in relation to health and the environment.

All very useful stuff and I look forward to seeing what comes of it.

Digital local government

There's an article of mine over on Lib Dem Voice "Digital local government".

A quick quote:

Liberal Democrats believe in community politics; we believe that the best decisions are made when citizens are empowered and work with their elected representatives to find solutions to problems. We now need to translate these beliefs into rights and entitlements that make sense in our digital world.

Read the whole article.

Published by Mary Reid, 126 Clayton Road, Hook Chessington KT9 1NJ
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