Monday, 26 December 2011

The traditional Boxing Day hunting debate

It looks as if the Boxing Day hunting debate is becoming as traditional as the Boxing Day hunt. We have conservative minister Jim Paice taking care to go on record and say the act is unworkable and needs to be repealed. From my point of view it's only unworkable because hunters insist on breaking it. (I look forward to Paice saying the drugs laws are unworkable and need to be repealed, but I'm not holding my breath.)

Meanwhile the Telegraph reports that David Cameron is pushing back the point at which there will be Parliamentary time for the debate that pro-hunters want. The headline is inflammatory "David Cameron to ditch foxhunting U-turn", but we're used to that from the Telegraph now; they've been driving standards down for some time. Cameron still hopes to detoxify the Tory party, despite the active endeavours of some of his backbenchers to retoxify it, and he knows that it will be seen as the Tory party in favour of the toffs again. Say what you like about Cameron, and I often do, he is a skilful politician. He knows what he wants, and has been very skilful and in my view surprisingly successful at heading off pressure from the, shall we say, less socially liberal members of his party. (He doesn't always get it right; walking away from the EU negotiating table was his first big right wing inspired mistake. I hope there won't be any more.) More interesting is the Telegraph's reporting that Parliamentary mathematics are against the pro-hunting lobby winning the vote, with quite a few of the new intake of MPs being anti. Good for them. They're in tune with the public on this issue, though the Telegraph has an odd way of putting it: "A poll today suggested just nearly half of people believe a vote to repeal the Hunting Act should not be a top animal welfare priority for the coalition Government". It's the other way around (I think - if I've got their complicated negatives right): retaining the ban *is* a top animal welfare priority.

For what it's worth, let us rehearse the arguments for and against hunting animals with hounds. There are three questions that need to be answered, in my view:
1. Is there a question of civil liberties?
2. Is there a question of animal welfare?
3. If the answer to the first two questions is yes, which should outweigh the other?

For question 1 the answer is clearly yes. People should be able to do what they want, even if that is distasteful to other people. if that were all there is to it, then hunting would fall for me into the same category as Morris dancing. It's not for me, but if you want to dress up in silly clothes and prance around the countryside making fools of yourselves, then I will defend to the hilt your right to do so. I will even celebrate it.

For question 2 the answer is less easy to arrive at. There is conflicting evidence about how and how much pain and fear animals feel. But one of the reasons there is so much doubt is that the hunting lobby over the years has been vociferous in supporting and parading any evidence for their point of view. They have also been economical with the truth about their own behaviour while out doing their thing. In my view the weight of the evidence falls on the side that animals do indeed suffer both pain and fear. Hunting with hounds is not designed to be cruel, but is designed with complete carelessness as to how much pain and fear are inflicted. Proponents of hunting say that other methods e.g. shooting, sometimes leave the animal wounded and in pain. Yes that's true. But here it's a question of intention. A marksman intends to kill the fox and to do so as quickly and humanely as possible. Hunters with hounds intend to pursue the fox for as long as possible,  because they want to enjoy it, and they don't give a stuff about what the fox suffers meanwhile.

So in my view the answer to both question 1 and 2 is yes. In that case which should outweigh the other? It is philosophically possible to say that human liberty should outweigh animal suffering. In some ways anyone who is not a vegetarian must hold that position to some degree. And I do accept a minimum of animal suffering in order to have meat to eat. But I insist that there are clear and unequivocal rules about the amount of suffering that can be inflicted. Most of that is done for me by the law, but, for instance, I don't eat chicken if it is not free range. So for me eating meat is a fact of life (though I appreciate that that viewpoint is arguable), and a minimum of suffering is allowable to achieve that. Similarly a minimum of suffering of vermin is allowable to protect stocks and flocks. But hunting with hounds does not go for the minimum - if anything it goes for the maximum. And we do curb civil liberties for animal welfare. People like cock fighting, people like dog fighting, people like bear baiting, people like bull fighting. But we don't let them do it. In the same way the welfare of animals outweighs the civil liberties of those who wish to hunt them with hounds. If they want to dress in red and ride around the countryside, their liberty is only very minimally affected if they don't have a fox to chase while doing it.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Liberal Democrats and boardroom pay

This started out as a comment on somebody else's post, but it grew and grew. Nick Clegg has signalled the possibility of government action on high pay, and Charlotte over at DigitalPolitico says he's being “worryingly illiberal”. I don't see that. I think we need to be clear about what the issue is and about what a liberal response to it would be. Then in terms of a strategy there are two questions to answer. The first is does government have a right to interfere; the second is will it be effective.

As for what Nick Clegg has actually done, this is what the BBC website says: “The government is to publish new proposals to curb "unjustified and irresponsible" pay rewards in the private sector, Nick Clegg has said. The deputy prime minister said ministers would announce plans to "get tough" on excessive boardroom pay in January and may legislate if necessary.”

And this is what Robert Peston says: “... it is highly likely that companies will be forced to publish the numerical relationship between senior directors and other staff pay.

“But I would be staggered if any Tory prime minister and chancellor - even those who have repeatedly said that "we're all in this together" - would legislate a legal maximum for bosses pay.

“As for the other two proposals, on giving investors the formal power to block pay awards and on forcing the remuneration committee to have a workforce rep as a voting member, goodness only knows whether they will be enacted or squished.”

What problem is this action answering? It is not just high boardroom pay and a growing divide between top and bottom pay levels. If it were just that, I would be with Charlotte – there is no need to interfere and no rationale for interfering. (Just tax the rich buggers more and the poor buggers less.) It is more that boardroom pay, and traders pay in the financial sector, has become divorced from performance. People are paying themselves and their friends large sums of money which they have not earned. I have no objection (and I doubt very much if Nick Clegg or Vince Cable does either) to people earning very large sums of money. What I do object to is them being paid sums that they have not earned.

Should a Liberal interfere in such a case. Well, if it were just that I find it objectionable, the answer is no. People are free to do what they want provided it doesn't harm other people – the usual liberal principle. But this activity does harm other people. It puts money in directors' pockets at the expense of employees, shareholders and customers. Logically, employees, shareholders and customers should do something about that if they really care, but the history of this recession demonstrates, if it needed demonstrating, that they are not able to (and those that are able to, namely the representatives of large investors like pension funds, have been unwilling to, probably because those representatives benefit from the same gravy train).

It goes wider than that as well. This is not just a matter of distribution of spoils between a few people directly concerned with specific companies. These practices led to, or at the very least contributed to, the recession from which the majority of us are now suffering. This is actually a market failure, and it has become a prolonged and persistent one. In an efficient market, people get paid what they're worth. If people are paid more than their worth, their business loses competitiveness. The company loses market position, or those people lose their jobs and more effective managers come in. But this is not what is happening. People were being paid vast sums of money for poor performance before the crash – Fred Goodwin one of the most notable examples. (I would really enjoy being able to drive my company off a cliff and walk away with a pension pot the size of his.)

Generally speaking such a crash would be seen as a wake up call, the directors responsible for the bad decisions made that led to the various crashes around the world would lose their jobs, with little compensation, and new managers would come in and would manage better. But that is not what is happening. Directors are still getting paid very large sums, with little evidence that they have earned those sums. Directors pay in the UK went up 50% on average in the last year. The companies they work for are not performing 50% better than they were a year ago. You might argue that actually seeing 50% increase in profits is unreasonable in a recession, and what these directors have been doing is helping their companies ride out the storm better. I have not examined the figures in detail, but I will take a bet that if you compare companies that have given their directors large increases with those that have given their directors small increases, you will not find any difference in performance. No, they have not suddenly become 50% more valuable than they were last year, they have just waited for a decent interval before turning back to their old ways. The market has not worked in this case and is not working.

We often forget that markets actually rely on governments. Without government rule making, markets would not exist. Without the enforcement provided by national and international law, nobody would be able to trust that a contract would be honoured. Excessive rule making squeezes markets; effective rule making enables them. When markets fail, governments not only have a right to intervene, they actually have a duty to intervene, to enable the market to work again. The rules by which directors pay are set have become ineffective and unsustainable – they are very sustainable for directors, but not for the rest of us. And they need to change, so that the people to whom the money belongs, primarily shareholders, get the primary say in who is paid what.

So Nick and Vince are proposing changes to the rules. They are not proposing legal caps on directors' pay, which would be illiberal and ineffective. But they are proposing to change the balance of power by three possible measures. This summary comes from Robert Peston's blog quoted above.

to make shareholder votes on remuneration packages for directors binding, rather than advisory (as is the case now);
 to force big companies to include an employee representative on the committee that sets directors' pay (the remuneration committee);
 to force companies to publish the ratio of senior directors' pay to the typical or median pay in the company, and even (perhaps) to prohibit pay rises that bust a mandated threshold for that ratio.

These measures seem to me to be eminently sensible and liberal. I hope all three get enacted. I hope they will be enough to bring boardroom pay under control, and to see that directors earn what they are being paid. Boards, though, have been so careless and intransigent throughout the recession that I fear they will need their heads knocked together before their behaviour will change.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The carelessness of government

I have broadly supported this coalition through all its vicissitudes so far. As a Liberal Democrat I have had to swallow hard over some issues – student fees, the NHS, the enthusiasm for cuts, particularly to services for the vulnerable, the continued velvet glove treatment of those responsible for the economic crash. But I have regarded all of these as a necessary price for providing the stability of government that the country desperately needed to get out of the hole that the bankers and Labour between them put us in. Particularly on cuts to benefits, I do not like them, I do not regard them as necessary, but I recognise that there is a limit to what we, as the minority party in government, are capable of enforcing.

But there is one issue that has given me cause to hesitate, and finally to decide that LibDems in government have not served well themselves, their party, their country, or one particular individual. That is the case of Gary McKinnon.

Let us be as clear as we can about the facts. Gary McKinnon has Asperger's Syndrome. This was only diagnosed in 2008. He is an expert in computing. He also believes that the US government is holding data on UFOs that he thought should be made public. In 2002 he began tracking down computers in the US military system, and discovered that many had very poor password and firewall protection. So he found his way in (it's hard to call it hacking when it involves getting into a Windows computer with inadequate protection). He found his way into dozens of computers and networks. He was eventually identified and arrested by the British authorities. That, I remind you, was in 2002, nearly ten years ago. The US authorities soon demanded his extradition to face trial there, despite the fact that he carried out all his activities on British soil, using British equipment and British connections. He faces a penalty of up to 60 years in prison in the USA. The USA may count as one of our more civilised allies, but when it is prepared to do what it has done to Bradley Manning, one can only be cynical about the prison conditions that Gary McKinnon might face. In addition, as a sufferer from Aspergers, Gary would be so disturbed by life in prison that suicide would be a real possibility. (Simon Baron-Cohen’s Report.)

There is a lopsided extradition agreement between the UK and the US. The tests are for the US authorities they only have to say what the alleged crime was, what the punishment can be, and who they suspect. They have to provide no evidence. But for the British authorities to extradite an American citizen from the US they have to demonstrate that they have good reason to believe that the suspect is the guilty party. They have to show evidence. The Baker report released this week states that there is no unfairness in the actual implementation of the agreement between us and the USA. There's something very unjoined up going on in our public processes at the moment if Baker felt it was necessary to consult the Americans over what to put in his report. And he may be historically accurate in so far as British citizens have not so far been unjustly treated, but the tests remain lopsided, and it is possible that British citizens may be unjustly treated in the future.

Perhaps this government was delaying on its response to the McKinnon case in the hope that Baker would get it off the hook. But Baker is actually irrelevant to the treatment of Gary McKinnon. The political noise coming from the other side of the Atlantic is that, in his case, our decision will be respected, and will not cause a problem between our governments. (I leave aside the issue that if I were the US government I would, far from wishing to prosecute McKinnon, be very grateful that he had shown up how pathetically inept US military security was, and enabled me to knock heads together to get it improved.)

The various legal issues about the treatment of vulnerable people are outlined very well here, and I need not go into further detail. The tools are in the hands of our government to take the decision and draw to an end the ten year – I repeat that, the ten year – limbo of a sick man. And yet we still delay.

So far, McKinnon has been treated as an object of a bureaucratic machine. Bureaucracies do not care for individuals. Bureaucracies are not designed to respond to the desperate needs of a lone person. Instead bureaucracies slowly and efficiently over long periods of time squeeze that individual round peg into a square hole. They have no humanity. That is not a criticism of bureaucracies. They do what they are designed to do - administer efficiently. But it is a criticism of governments, which represent the people, if they do not rescue individuals from the slow torture of bureaucracy.

It is over issues like this that governments lose their soul. It is not in the big policy decisions and announcements, crafted for party conferences, or news conferences, that the temper of a government is truly discovered. It is not in the well practised, monotonous cut and thrust of Commons debate, or the pas de deux of Newsnight or Sky TV interviews. Still less, Heaven forfend, in the cloyingly ritualised tangos of Question Time. It is in the effect that governments have on the treatment of individuals by an administration that is not built to care for individuals. At the moment the temper of this government is wanting.

Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron spoke about McKinnon's case when they were in opposition. They are quoted here.

David Cameron - “It should still mean something to be a British citizen – with the full protection of the British Parliament, rather than a British Government trying to send you off to a foreign court”….(July 2009)

Nick Clegg - “If he boards the plane to the U.S., it is almost certain he will never set foot on British soil again, doomed to pass out the rest of his days in shackles on a foreign shore. This is nothing short of a disgrace” ….(August 2009)

And yet they still do nothing.

Nick Clegg in August this year, now in government, compared Britain to Libya. Libya has in fact shown us the way. The Transitional National Council has made it clear that al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, will stay in Libya. There is no question of him being returned to the UK. They do this because he is a Libyan citizen, and they stand for all Libyan citizens. Yet we still do nothing for McKinnon.

In the same article Nick Clegg says: “those who need to make use of human rights laws to challenge the decisions of the authorities are nearly always people who are in the care of the state: children's homes, mental hospitals, immigration detention, residential care. They are often vulnerable, powerless, or outsiders, and are sometimes people for whom the public feels little sympathy. But they are human beings, and our common humanity dictates that we treat them as such.” Gary McKinnon has not been in the care of the state, but he has been under its thumb for nearly ten years. He is vulnerable and powerless. With every day that passes without Gary McKinnon being told he will stay in the UK, the government that Nick Clegg represents loses another piece of its soul.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

One rule for people on benefits....

... and another rule for everybody else.

In one corner, the government plans to remove benefit from claimants with a spare room. They will lose up to £11 a week in housing benefit.

In the other corner, there is a proposal to give tax breaks to older people to downsize their housing. The government's response is given by housing minister Grant Shapps: "Whilst this report makes interesting reading, we do not agree that people should be taxed or bullied out of their homes." Perhaps he should talk to Lord Freud, who is pushing through the housing benefit plan.

I'd also be really interested to know what on earth his next sentence actually means: "Instead we will work with families to ensure that housing becomes more affordable over time." As far as I can see, his only plans are to take over the green belt and / or to trash the economy enough to cause a crash in house prices.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Is there a liberal case for not raising the speed limit?

When Philip Hammond announced that he was in favour of raising the motorway speed limit to 80 mph, my instinctive reaction was “That's stupid”. The immediate reaction was based on his reasons for doing it, the most prominently quoted of which, at the beginning at least, was that so many drivers on motorways exceed the limit anyway, that we may as well raise it. On that basis I look forward to him repealing the law on using mobile phones in cars and also voting for the legalisation of cannabis. No? No, I didn't think so.

His other key reason makes marginally more sense in that both cars and roads have become safer since the limit was set. Both fatalities and serious accidents have reduced significantly and steadily over a long period, and so it makes sense to look at whether the limit is still appropriate. So I thought I should, rather than nurturing my own prejudices, look at what the liberal arguments are for and against raising the speed limit.

One of the issues I think is that the argument for raising the speed limit is quite simple, whereas the argument against has to be put in a more complex way. The argument for is that people should not be prevented from doing what they want to do unless it harms someone else. If it does harm someone else then in order to come to a decision on what to do, you have to consider the relative harms of restricting the rights of person A, the doer, or person B, the done to. The main issues you have to deal with are that people get killed and that there is a cost to the environment. The figure for last year, 2010, is that, with our modern safer cars and roads we managed to kill 118 people on our motorways. Even if you accept the argument that speed kills (lots of people don't – but more of that later) presumably those 118 were killed by a probable maximum of 113 perpetrators (there were 113 accidents). These figures are from the DfT. One might say that the other millions of motorists should not be prevented from doing what they want because of the consequences caused by a very small number of people. On the environmental issue, you either ignore it or you try to come up with an argument that says the gains in time saved etc are worth the environmental costs. I don't plan to spend much time on the environmental argument, because I'd like to concentrate on the human angle and the rights angle.

To look at the other side – the case for not raising the speed limit, I think there are two key issues. First of all the principle of freedom is clear – if I want to restrict other people's freedom I need a good reason. Secondly, the reasons should be based on evidence rather than doctrine. Problems arise of course when the evidence is equivocal. Then the skills of weighing it and interpreting it come to the fore.

So, first of all, let us visit the evidence. The debate is about freedom versus life and limb (leaving the environment aside for the moment). My right to travel at what speed I like against other people's right to remain alive and unharmed. So the evidence must show how many people are killed and injured, how many of those accidents are preventable, and whose fault they are.

In terms of deaths and injuries on our roads, the trend has been firmly downwards for many years. To take a sample year pretty much at random, in 1990 5217 people were killed and 60,000 injured seriously on our roads. In 2010 the corresponding figures were 1850 and 20803. (Note: 1850 is a revision in the latest version of the 2010 figures released by the DfT.) The collection of these figures has been challenged in that a study in 2006 found discrepancies in police reporting and hospital admissions, suggesting that the method of police reporting, on which the official figures are based, was reducing the actual number. This is now acknowledged in the DfT's annual summary. But the reporting effect is minimal. So, yes, our roads are a lot safer than they were. Does that mean they are safe enough? In the announcement something was made of the fact that our roads are among the safest in Europe. That claim has been examined by and shown to be broadly correct, if a little disingenuous. Now, that is not an evidential claim. It's a comparative claim, and it is open to us to say “So what?” I'm not that impressed by the fact that our roads are safer than Romania's. I'd rather they were safer still. The fact that our roads are safer than other people's means nothing when we still managed to kill nearly 2000 people on them last year. So I'm discounting that comparison for the purpose of deciding what a liberal response should be.

Part of the context of this is that motorway driving is considerably safer than driving on other roads. Motorways make up less than 1% of our road network, yet take 19% of the traffic. Even so, 5% of last year's fatalities happened on motorways. So by comparison with other roads, they are very safe. But that still does not necessarily mean that they are safe enough. The next thing to check is whether speed is a contributory factor in deaths and injuries on the motorways. The evidence here needs to be divided into two parts. Does speed contribute to accidents happening? And does speed contribute to the severity of the consequences if an accident does happen? The evidence for the first question is that it makes a limited difference. There is a problem here in that the safety of cars has increased in such a way that people get the impression that they're perfectly safe to drive at high speeds because the car will protect them. Road, tyre and braking technology have also increased to the point where it is much more rare for a driver to lose control of a car at high speed. But that does not mean that it does not happen. A significant number of deaths are in single vehicle collisions – in other words, a vehicle colliding with a tree or failing to negotiate a bend. I have no data for the proportion of such accidents on motorways as opposed to other roads. It is almost certainly a lot less, but equally certainly it does happen. The safety of new cars and roads is only relative. The higher the speed, the longer the reaction distance needs to be to allow for safe braking even with new technology. And driving at least two seconds apart is an activity that seems to have escaped a lot of British drivers. (I will come back to driving habits later.) Overall the WHO estimate that 1 km/h decrease in travelling speed would lead to a 2–3% reduction in road crashes.

Looking at the consequences of accidents the evidence is much stronger. Many studies demonstrate that increases in speed cause great increases in severity of impact. The WHO paper referred to above estimates “For car occupants in a crash with an impact speed of 80 km/h, the likelihood of death is 20 times what it would have been at an impact speed of 30 km/h.”

It seems clear from this evidence then that raising the speed limit from 70 to 80 would cause a small increase in accidents and a significant increase in the proportion of fatalities and serious injuries resulting from such accidents. This is admitted by the DfT, whose initial analysis indicates a 1% increase in deaths, according to the Guardian.

This still leaves open the question of what we should do. Millions of motorists used our motorways in 2010. Only 113 of them, at most, killed somebody, and only 668 caused serious injuries (injuring 798 people). Does a few people getting it wrong give us reason to restrict everybody's liberty? I think that there is an argument for that. Here we leave evidence behind and move into the realm of consequence, principle and practice.

A lot of people assume that those who cause fatal and serious accidents are different. They are idiots, bad drivers, unlike the rest of us who are good drivers. But there is little indication that those who cause such accidents really are different – they are not boy racers, they are not serial offenders, they are not all travelling at egregious speeds that nobody sensible would ever consider. They are ordinary drivers, just like most of the rest of us, but their luck ran out. We might more legitimately think that some are a bit sillier than most of us, but even if we assume that, can we assume that the way we behave has no effect on them? We have in this country a culture of driving badly. We do not recognise it as such, but if you consider the common driving behaviour, it is difficult to escape that conclusion. Most people do not think of speeding as a crime, far from it. Large numbers of people think that they have a right to break the speed limit. This applies to people who regard themselves as law abiding in every other way. I once said to a room full of pensioners that we are all law breakers. There was instant disapproval. I asked for a show of hands of people who had never broken the speed limit. “Oh, that's not the same thing”, they said. I have one eye on Question Time as I'm writing this. The usual audience – the kind of solid upstanding citizens who are actually interested in politics. Good people, who think through and about issues. If I asked in that studio right now how many drivers could, hand on heart, say they had never broken the speed limit, I doubt that any would be able to do so. It has become routine; it is part of our driving culture. We assume that speeding is OK, which is one reason why Philip Hammond is raising the issue – he assumes it too. In his case, I think he has an idea that, given that people are travelling at 80 now, if you raise the speed limit to 80, they will continue to travel at that speed. I think their perception is not that they are travelling at 80, but that they are travelling at speed limit plus 10%. If the limit is raised, then the limit plus 10% will be raised commensurately.

Another indication of the kind of driving culture we have in this country is the way use our car horns. The meaning of sounding a horn, in the Highway Code, is “I am here”. The meaning of the horn, as used by most of us, is “I am angry with you”. The overall culture is one of a general selfishness, and a great carelessness. We work on the basis that we can get into our cars and then not pay attention till we get to our destination. We do not value awareness of what is going on around us. This is why so many of us think it's OK to use a mobile while we drive. “1/5 of UK motorists admit accessing social networking sites on their mobile phone while driving.” and many more will phone or text with. Many of us will travel at the fastest speed we can, or for the law abiding, at the stated speed limit pretty much regardless of the weather, road or traffic conditions. Varying our speed to suit the conditions does not come naturally to many of us. The culture will not change because the speed limit is raised. All it will do is assimilate the new limit into its way of thinking. (Work carried out in the United States confirms this.)

My general point here is that the driving culture is made by all of us. When people get killed on the roads most of us can quite rightly say we did not kill anyone. But it is wrong to draw from that the conclusion that we can escape responsibility for the cumulative effect of the things that we do. We determine and preserve the culture that enables the few who drive so carelessly and at such speeds that they do kill people. The speed limit as such isn't the problem: it's the way we drive that results in so many deaths and so many serious injuries. But the speed limit is a factor, because it is part of the equation people use to determine the speed at which they will drive. I doubt that the way we drive is going to change (I would like it to, very much, but I am not optimistic) so any decision made about speed limits has to take that into account.

In summary, my argument is:
- evidence shows that increasing speed causes small increases in the likelihood of accidents happening, and significant increases in the consequences of accidents, in terms of deaths and serious injuries.
- life has value, although we drive as if it does not - although the bulk of motorists are not directly responsible for deaths or injuries, the majority of us maintain a culture in which people are encouraged to drive selfishly and carelessly
- it can therefore be justified, on a liberal basis, to restrict everybody's freedom to drive at speed, in order to allow as many people as possible the freedom to live.

A more positive liberal approach would be to work on educating people about good habits of responsible driving, awareness, and the need to protect the environment. An even more liberal approach would be to get them out of their cars and onto more frequent and more reasonably priced trains and buses. But I only meant to discuss the speed limit.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Tottenham, the stadium, a letter to Daniel Levy

Dear Mr Levy

We have not met, so let me first establish my credentials as a fan. I am a lifelong Tottenham supporter since around 1960, though I have never lived locally to Tottenham. As I was becoming aware of football, the Nicholson era was in full swing. For me there has never been any other club and never will be. Over the last couple of years I have been a reluctant agnostic on the issue of the stadium. While much preferring my club to remain in Tottenham, I could see that there might be a business case for a relocation. I must say I was pleased when the decision on the Olympic Stadium went to West Ham, and disappointed when Tottenham continued to pursue it.

Last night's events in Tottenham have changed the game. There could not be a better time than now for Tottenham Hotspur to commit itself to Tottenham. It is possible that last night's events were just a flash in the pan and do not speak to some deeper malaise in the area, but the scale of violence and destruction suggests a level of deprivation and disengagement that needs to be dealt with. The police say that relations have been good since the 1985 riots, but that really only hides deeper issues. Guns are still easy to obtain, gang culture is rife. Tottenham Hotspur has a part to play. By committing to rebuilding the stadium at White Hart Lane the club will be saying – we will bring regeneration, we will bring jobs, we will bring infrastructure, we will bring new opportunities, we will bring back respect, we will play our part in bringing the streets back to ordinary people to help them live their lives without fear.

I appreciate that a football club is a business, and that decisions must be made on a sensible businesslike level. But perhaps last night has changed the business environment. If you play your cards right, you now have Haringey and the national government over a barrel. Times are tight, there are cuts everywhere. Indeed, some are already saying that Haringey's 75% cuts in youth services have contributed to the disaffection that is now on display, as young people have nowhere to go but the street. But we can apparently afford £30 billion for a high speed rail link. We should be able to afford a few million for infrastructure round White Hart Lane. It seems distasteful to suggest profiting from a riot, but you have been given a card, Mr Levy. You should play it.

Finally, a football club is indeed a business, but also more than a business. A football club has a soul. If you lose the soul, the business will suffer, possibly not immediately, but inevitably as the years pass the soul will wither, the passion of the fans, rooted in their identity, will diminish. Tottenham Hotspur's soul is in Tottenham. Please don't desert it.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


Following the post in which I confessed to bearing joint responsibility for the financial ills of the NHS, I have taken up Buteyko.
Buteyko was a Russian physiologist, trained in scientific method, which was the first thing that made his ideas more attractive to me than some of the less scientifically based ways of doing things. In the course of his work he noticed that people with a variety of chronic conditions all had low levels of CO2 in their bodies. He devised a breathing method which he hoped would help people elevate their CO2, and he discovered that when it worked properly, people's conditions either disappeared or at least ameliorated. So it's now a method taught by practitioners in various places around the world. The Wikipedia article on Buteyko is quite high quality.

Like all these things they have a long list of conditions that they claim to have success with. Among them were high blood pressure and cholesterol, so I thought what the heck let's give it a go.

The treatment involves five two hour sessions spaced over five days, and then a month of follow up by telephone. The follow up is genuine - I know other people who have done it and who have had hours of conversation on the phone to sort out what they are doing. A one off price covers all that and a reunion meeting after the month is up, and participants can do the course again free of charge. Again, that sounded like a very fair deal, unlike some who will charge by the hour for an unlimited number of sessions, and leave you with the feeling that it's your fault if it didn't work.

An interesting feature of the course is that it is run by a woman who lives locally, Martha Roe, but backed up by a man who lives in Thailand, Christopher Drake. He joins the sessions via Skype video, and will also do telephone calls to people with more complex problems than Martha feels able to deal with. Hooray for new technology. They share a website, and Martha has her own as well.

The method involves breathing less. It sounds, shall we say, counter intuitive, but there is a logic to it. We use only a proportion of the oxygen we breathe in, so if we breathe in less, we don't starve of oxygen, we just use more of what is in each breath. We breathe in air with approximately 21% oxygen in it. We breathe out approximately 17% - 19%. If we didn't, mouth to mouth resuscitation wouldn't work (that's my excuse anyway). And if we breathe less, we lose less carbon dioxide. It's all connected to the brain's respiratory centre, which is what controls the feelings we get when we need to breathe according to the level of CO2 it perceives, and the idea is to retrain it to trigger the breathing response only at higher levels of CO2.

To do that we learn what are called pauses, and very shallow breathing (VSB, there had to be a TLA in there somewhere). The pauses can be quite unpleasant, and you look a right tit when doing them. A pause is holding your breath for a specific length of time, and as the length gets longer you do distractions - these are bodily movements which have the function of distracting the mind from the need to breathe. Sounds stupid but it works - I can add up to 20 seconds to the length of the pause by jerking up and down. Not something to be done in public. I got a very quizzical stare from the cat last night after a particularly flamboyant set of distractions.

Does it work? it can take a long time, but I did my course last week, and I've been doing the method for ten days now. I have seen two things happen. From the first day I did it, I have been sleeping better. I've been unwell for the last four months, and for the whole of that time my sleeping pattern hasn't changed, but I've been waking up feeling completely unrested, having great difficulty forcing my body out of bed, and taking at least an hour after getting up to get my brain in gear. But since day 1 of Buteyko, I have woken up feeling as if I've had a night's sleep. That alone was worth the price.

Has it had an effect on my blood pressure? I bought my own monitor a few days before starting Buteyko and so far I have detected a very slight downward trend since starting the course. It's difficult to tell at the moment, partly because I have been using the monitor experimentally - after coffee (adds 10 points), during indigestion (adds 20 points), after exercise (ye gods), and so on, and I haven't tracked it under stable conditions. But there is a hint of downward movement, which I hope will continue. Maybe I'll be less of a burden to the NHS in a while than I am at the moment.

Among other things we've been told that Buteyko can change the way you breathe when you sing, and can change the way you use your voice. So we are considering a Buteyko choir, Buteyko ventriloquism, and of course, the Buteyko dance, which would be a kind of punk / Goth rendition of the distractions. I can see it being a big hit at the Brighton fringe next year.

And, on a more serious note, evidence based medicine should be taking a good look at Buteyko. The evidence is that it works. It doesn't work for everybody, but neither do pills. A properly conducted scientifically based study should show that many people can avoid long term costs and long term invasion of their bodies by drugs and other techniques. Maybe the NHS will come to embrace Buteyko. On my limited experience so far, that would be a good thing.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The routinisation of corruption

The worst aspect of corruption is its routinisation. It can become so normal, so taken for granted that those who practise it no longer have any idea that they are doing anything wrong. Rebekah Brooks, in charge of NotW when the Milly Dowler hacking took place, and now chief executive of News International, says she knew nothing of the newspaper's illegal and immoral activities while she was in charge. She further says that she therefore has no reason to resign. In my view she has every reason to resign, although she won't.

We don't know, and quite possibly never will know, the truth of who knew what at NotW. But not knowing does not always absolve managers of responsibility. Two things are clear. Firstly that people at and around the NotW had completely lost their humanity to the extent that they took no account of the pain and suffering they might cause to a family in the mist of incalculable distress, and secondly that they were able to interfere with a police investigation into a murder (or, as it was then, a potential murder) with no thought that they might have been doing anything wrong, or might have prevented a killer from being caught. That level of corruption is not benign, not forgiveable, not ignorable. It eats the soul and taints everything it comes into contact with.

Secondly, that kind of behaviour had become so routinised that it had come to be regarded as normal. Possibly one of the most shocking indicators of the state of affairs at the time was the admission by Surrey police that they knew something was going on, but there was so much corruption and interference happening that investigating this one example seemed pointless. It had become routinised, accepted as normal behaviour, even by those who are supposed to guard us against it.

Whether or not Rebekah Brooks knew anything specific is beside the point. Even if she (incredibly) did not know the facts, the air at NotW must have been foetid. The fact that she could breathe it, let alone not notice the stench, indicates that she is unfit for any office which requires a moral compass. Apparently Rupert Murdoch, in his own corrupt judgement, intends to keep her. That is his privilege. But I hope that our government now has the balls to say that his empire should not be allowed to extend its tentacles any further into ownership of either print or broadcast media. It would not be in the public interest to let an organisation capable of such cavalier corruption to expand. It's quite painful to have to say that that is the best I can hope for.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The hamster in the NHS waiting room

Some of my friends, with whom I have been debating the rationale for the coalition have referred to the NHS as the elephant in the room. I think it is that, but not in the sense they mean.

What they mean is, I think, this:

- both parties had policies for the NHS in their manifestos. The LibDem manifesto contained proposals for greater democratisation and accountability, and the Conservatives' for more efficiency, with a hint of privatisation. At the same time David Cameron was very clear in his promise that there would be no top down reorganisation. I read a blogpost which very helpfully set out the contents of the manifestos, but I can't find it now; I'll link later if I can find it.
- then Andrew Lansley came up with a radical set of “reforms” which suggested wholesale privatisation that went beyond either party's manifesto.
- the narrative is that the LibDems were bounced by this in a typical piece of right wing privatising Tory skullduggery. To an extent I think that is right, but he also bounced a lot in his own party. He bounced everybody in fact, not just the LibDems. The LibDem hierarchy was perhaps slow to respond in full measure, though in my view they've made up for lost ground since.
- although retrenchment is promised after the “listening” exercise, there is still a perception that further ambushes may be lurking round the corner.
- and there is a fear that the LibDems will get the kicking for this as we did on student fees, and will come out of it worse off.

But there is an entirely different set of issues which are really at stake, and nobody is actually talking about them. I want to deal with those and then deal with what I consider to be, in the scheme of things, a little local and temporary difficulty about this particular attempt at reorganising the NHS.

There are three key features to healthcare in this country at the moment. The first is that it is very expensive; the second is that the amount we are prepared to spend on it is limited; the third is that we are prepared to do very little about it. Neither of these is limited to the UK.

Western medicine is in the most expensive phase it has ever been in, and probably the most expensive it ever will be. We have much to be proud about. We are very good at major trauma and very good at keeping people alive. But our record on actually curing things is patchy to say the least. We cannot cure even things as simple as the common cold; what we do is deal with the symptoms until it goes away. We cannot cure AIDS, we cannot cure Parkinsons, we cannot cure Alzheimers, we cannot cure malaria, we cannot cure MS. I know, at bitter personal cost, that we don't have a clue about ME/CFS. We cannot even cure cancer – we can cure some cancers some of the time. The list goes on and on. What we do is keep people alive, often very expensively, often for decades, in greater or lesser degrees of comfort. Now, I expect and hope that as medical and biological knowledge advance, particularly at the quantum level, we will find ways of curing many of these conditions, or better ways of preventing them, and then we will all be leading better lives, and the average cost of care over each person's lifetime will go down. But for now we have to bear the cost. There's not much else we can do.

The second issue is what I regard as the actual elephant in the room – something nobody, least of all politicians, is allowed to talk about. We could undoubtedly keep more people alive, and keep them in less misery or greater comfort if we spent more money. I have no doubt that every hospital administrator in the country would efficiently and effectively spend an extra million doing good for a lot of people. But that million would come out of people's taxes, and the fact is that we – the public, you and I – are unwilling to see our taxes rise. So in the end it is you and I – not politicians – who decide who lives and who dies. But of course politicians are not allowed to say that; it would be taken as the worst faux pas imaginable if Andrew Lansley were to say “Actually people are living in misery, or dying, because you won't spend more money on their care”. But that is the truth of the matter. All the reorganisations in the world will not undo that truth.

There's another, although much smaller elephant, which is what we do about our own health. This is dealt with much more in public, although with not nearly enough effect yet. I speak as one of the villains here. I have just started taking blood pressure pills – yet to find the right combination or dosage. I am no doubt going to cost the NHS a fair bit over the rest of my life. This is largely due to the last ten years. I was fairly fit till around 2000, but since then I have sat too much, exercised too little, eaten and drunk too much and not the right kinds of food. My condition was avoidable, as are many of the conditions we are paying the NHS to treat. The difference that makes to the overall cost is staggering, but, despite great efforts by government and healthcare professionals, we are slow to get the message. In 2009 we topped a million alcohol related hospital admissions. That figure itself is staggering – I'll just say it again – over one million hospital admissions in 2009 were alcohol related. All but a few of those admissions were avoidable. I have not found any studies of what better personal health care might do for the NHS bill (if anyone has, let me know), but just let me put some very broad figures into the frame. The NHS costs approximately £2000 per person per year. (I'm using that as a very round figure for ease of use here.) That means that a village like this one, around 5000 people, is going to cost, or pay, whichever way you look at it, around a hundred million pounds over ten years. The effect of reorganisation on that (I'll talk more about reorganisation in a minute; this figure is for comparison) would be minimal, to be honest. If we were very lucky, we might save 10%, though I doubt if we'd ever see those savings materialise – see more below. But consider the possible differences if we lived “properly”. Our share of those million a year alcohol related hospital admissions would be avoided. My blood pressure pills – and those of most of the other other people in the village with blood pressure problems would be avoided – and I intend to live for a good thirty years more. I'm plucking a figure out of the air here, but I would not be surprised if the cost of treating us were halved by us living properly. Fifty million pounds over ten years, five million a year saved easily. And that's just one village. But we don't do it.

That sort of figure puts reorganisations into context. I think organisation is a very good thing. We need to make sure that the services we get are organised as effectively as possible, and, as conditions change, so the means of effectiveness change and reorganisation is a part of the process of ensuring that. But the NHS is over-reorganised. It has had major reorganisations in 1974, 1982, 1990, 1994, 1997, 2002 and 2007. Now they want to give it another one. Part of the rationale is that we won't be able to afford it without the intended reorganisation. I doubt that very much. I also think that the theme of not being able to afford it is, for some people, an excellent rationalisation for a doctrinaire determination to marketise the NHS. But I also think that politicians get sucked into using this language because they're not allowed to use it about the elephants in the room discussed above. If we don't change our lifestyles, and if we don't accept that we are actually ourselves daily making life and death decisions about the facilities available to other people, then indeed we will not be able to afford the healthcare we need. But they're not allowed to talk about our spending at all, and not allowed to talk about our lifestyle enough, so the theme gets exported onto the issue of efficiency. Now it may be that whatever set of reforms eventually goes through will make the NHS marginally more efficient. I doubt that, because reorganisation is itself a costly process, a very large sunk expense, and usually results in a great deal of changing the position of the furniture without actually effecting any radical change in effectiveness or efficiency. But we shall see.

I note that there were three reorganisations under Labour. I also note that Labour is being castigated for having thrown so much money at the NHS. Some of that money was wasted and some of it was used to boost salaries rather than add to service. But do please think back to the state of the NHS in 1997. We now have a guaranteed maximum waiting time of 18 weeks. That would have been inconceivable in 1997, and in my view the road from there to here was paved partly with reorganisation but largely with money.

Bringing some kind of market disciplines to bear is one thing. There is a trick to doing that without making the NHS market led, a very difficult trick, but nonetheless an achievable one, I think. Ruling the NHS by market forces is a very different thing, and in my view is pernicious. I call the USA as my witness – a market led system, in which they spend nearly twice as much of GDP as we do, for outcomes that are only marginally different. The NHS is founded on the idea of equality and markets thrive only where there is inequality; to subject the NHS to market forces would be to build in inequality. Some will say we already have inequality; it is just masked by the current system. That is indeed true, but I suspect that inequality rises as market penetration into the system increases.

Anyway this reorganisation will make some sort of difference, I am sure, but not much. It is much more important to politicians than it is to the NHS. It will be a big political football over the coming months and years. It will make the careers of some politicians, maybe, and it will ruin the careers of others, most likely. It will be a massive political issue, but its effect on the outcomes of healthcare in this country will be minimal. That is why I regard this, big though it is for Tories, LibDems and Labour, as a little local and temporary difficulty in the NHS. It is a hamster in the waiting room by comparison with the two elephants discussed above. At last we've arrived at the title of this piece. Compared to our willingness to pay and our willingness to look after ourselves, it really is hamster sized. And that is why I am content to talk about it as a strategic and tactical issue for the LibDems, rather than something of genuine importance to the nation.

As for the strategy, I think it is quite simple. It's much easier for us than tuition fees. It is evident that this is a Tory thing, not a LibDem thing. We will be excoriated by some just for being in the coalition that is proposing this (they always will, regardless of how illogical it is), but for most people in the country, it is identifiable as a Tory issue. It is noticeable that the overall perception of the Tories as not safe for the NHS is still strong, despite David Cameron's best attempts to decontaminate. PoliticsHome's poll on this issue makes interesting if complex reading. Their conclusion is that the public still don't trust the Tories, despite apparently liking some of the ideas. They conclude that there is still more danger in it for Clegg than for Cameron; there is some truth in that. It may be perverse, but that's the way voters are, and it illustrates the need for LibDem strategy to illustrate that our power is limited, but that this is not in itself a condemnation of coalition, that we are different from the Tories in terms of our strategy for the NHS, that we have been instrumental in mitigating the Tories' worst ideas,and, above all, that coalition actually works. Tactically this calls for subtlety in handling, demonstrating the difference and the benefits of having LibDems in government, while not making relations so difficult as to prevent us doing the job we're there to do. Our leadership is capable of that.

The tools we use to implement those tactics are up for grabs, but just as a last note, it might enable us to resurrect Mark Pack's lost idea “community politics”. While I can appreciate our government's wish to foreground the big society idea, I think we can do ourselves some good by keeping the theme going, indeed emphasising it, that there are differences – notably that we've been on the ground of community politics for a long time, unlike Dave's relationship with his new Big Society idea. And we can also emphasise that what we want for the NHS is absolutely in keeping with the principles of community politics – giving genuine power to the people rather than trying to hand over responsibility without power.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Short reasons to be cheerful

One of my readers said he read my post “Reasons to be cheerful” right through to the end, but “the reality of modern politics is that very few will get to the end, so having summed up your thoughts very nicely, how about summing them up in a pithy slogan? “ I wasn't sure about that, to be honest. I don't know about blog reading habits in general, but certainly, in terms of my own habits, I read my way through some hefty posts if they grab my attention. And I have many of the characteristics of the butterfly when it comes to concentrating. But I took his remark as a challenge. So here is a short version.

I haven't thought of a pithy slogan yet: "LibDems in grown up government action shocker" is the best I've come up with.*

I've also thought of "Still LibDem, still working for all the people, still sensible, now with long term vision".

But here is a summary:

- going into the coalition was a viable action politically
- going into the coalition was also morally right; the country needed stable government and no other option offered the possibility of such stable government
that disconcerted a certain proportion of LibDem voters, many of whom were actually “none of the others” voters
- but it left us with the opportunity to appeal long term to sensible, liberal minded voters
- the party leadership's strategy is a sensible long term plan to demonstrate that we can govern and that coalition works
- we are getting some new experiences – being kicked because we are in government is one of them
- we still get some familiar experiences – the media still heap s*** on us; they always did
- the left and the right, particularly the hard right, will continue to heap bile upon us; they always did
- we have a joint programme with the Conservatives to rescue the economy which will take time to work
- but we are different from the Tories and we claim success in moderating some of their destructive tendencies
- we will eventually get the credit for all of that
so, although now is squeaky bum time, we have to hold our nerve, and...
- to keep working, because where we work we win

Those who have short attention spans can stop here.

A couple of additional points. I know we've been stuffed by a couple of setbacks that may or may not have been our fault – student fees and the NHS cock up. We make mistakes. All parties do. Maybe student fees was one. I say “maybe” - it is becoming received wisdom that it was a big mistake for our MPs to sign that pledge. I'm not so sure – it is difficult to see what else we could have done, given our official policy. If all our MPs had refused to sign, great play would have been made of that by Labour and Tories, and we might have been distracted from the main task. I also think we didn't manage the fall out as well as we could. It's been stencilled into the public perception as a broken promise. It was not. You break a promise if you are in a position to keep it and decide not to. We were not in that position – never were. We might have worked more effectively to mould that perception.

Some things will go against us – the point I made in my first post, that we have one sixth of the seats the Conservatives have is a very important one. They bounced us, as well as the rest of the country, with their ill thought out and doctrinaire plans for the NHS, which were not in their manifesto, and in fact run contrary to David Cameron's pledge that there would be no further top down reorganisations of the NHS. Maybe we need to be more tactically astute over the NHS than we were over student fees, and make sure that if anybody gets blamed it is the Tories, whose idea it is, and not us.

*Daily Mail version "LibDems governing sensibly shock; cause cancer".

Monday, 6 June 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

I've had a couple of conversations with local LibDem colleagues lately who have been looking rather down in the mouth – poor results on May 5th (despite good results here), doubts about the coalition, doubts about the future. I found myself saying to them that I feel strangely cheerful, and then had to enumerate the reasons why. They are a combination of ethical and political issues.

The first reason is the fact that we're in the coalition in the first place. I think more and more firmly that the party leadership made the right decision – not just the right decision for the party but for the country. The country needed (and still needs) a stable government to get us through this economic crisis. That government is being provided by the LibDems in concert with the Conservatives. It felt unlikely when it was first mooted, but it has happened as it has by and large governed well. The fact that we are able to argue about things like voting reform and the precise nature of changes in the NHS shows that we have done the hard things reasonably well. We need to think in terms of long cycles as well as short ones. Nick Clegg's strategy was to position us to take the credit as much as the conservatives if we are in a good position in a few years time. We are still on course to do exactly that. It's a different experience being in government. When you're in government, people kick you because you're in government. That's a different experience from being kicked because we're Libdems, which we're used to, and it works on a different logic. People often register short term resentment at polls between elections, but give the party credit, albeit grudgingly, at election time. If we hold our nerve, that prize still awaits us. I was very pleased to see Tim Farron say much the same soon after the elections: "Enough doom and gloom, we have the greatest opportunity in the history of our party".

We were even more under pressure a couple of weeks ago with the sharks doing their best to circulate around Chris Huhne. But a week is a long time in politics, and a fortnight even longer. Chris may not be quite out of the woods yet, but he is last fortnight's news – last week's news was Andrew Lansley. And we've even moved on from him – modern politics moves fast.

The sniping will go on. We are viable targets for the media – not just LibDems, but Libdems IN GOVERNMENT, shock horror. Those who loved to hate us still do. The level of bile against us on ConservativeHome remains just the same. Go there and see the comments on... well, on pretty much any post. That's politics. They were spitting just as much bile at us before last year's election and it didn't stop us getting our message across – it won't next time either. And we will get it from the media as well. Last week's Observer's cheaply hostile editorial about the NHS rehashed the old meme “It's all Nick Clegg's fault”. It was mostly about Cameron and the NHS, and it followed a standard, for all papers, editorial line, of declaring that Mr Cameron now has a dilemma between softening the bill and displeasing his right wing or driving it through and thereby displeasing everybody else, thereby attempting to sound weighty and statesmanlike without having to come up with a solution. The LibDems are reduced to an opportunistic bit part, changing our tack because we are concerned all of a sudden for our survival. What do you expect after the setback we've just had? Sail on merrily towards the iceberg? “To change course would be unprincipled”? No, we steer round the iceberg and them resume our intended course when we are able to.

But what I like most of all is that, despite all the pettiness and meanness directed at us, we are showing how grown up politicians can be. And not just politicians in general, but Liberal Democrat politicians. The old excuse that a vote for the LibDems is a wasted vote because they'll never get in to power is shown up for what it is – nonsensical. Being grown up has its downsides of course, not least missing the Short money that gave us a budget with which to oppose. It is perverse that there is no similar budget to allow us to govern, but that is the case, and we must make do – and by and large we are making do. There was another report this week which examined the role the LibDems are playing in government, and was spun by the media to say we're not doing it well. The idea of putting a minister in every department spreads us thin. If we'd chosen a smaller number of ministries to go into we could have concentrated our power and had more of an effect in those departments. No shit, Sherlock? What annoys me most about post-coalition debate is the assumption that, because we haven't got everything we wanted, we have therefore failed. It's a peculiarly British assumption to do with the nature of power. We tend to think that power is a zero sum game and people either have it or don't have it. The concept of shared power seems to be alien to British thinking. Maybe that's why the idea of coalition is so difficult for some people to accept. The assumption behind much media reporting is that because we don't get everything we want, we must have failed. No, we haven't failed. We have one-sixth the number of seats the conservatives have.* On that basis we should get one-sixth of the results, and on the whole we've done better than that. The Guardian's headline, by the way, reads: "Deputy PM's office ineffective, report on coalition government finds. Document says most decisions reached through informal channels rather than formal coalition machinery". In the Guardian's view it's clearly a bad thing, if you read the rest of the article. But I find myself wondering in what way that constitutes a bad thing. I know it's a problem to journalists who can only think in binaries, but governments work on the basis of informal relations as well as formal relations. Nick and Dave get on well, so they're using that. Why should they not? In what way is that somehow unconstitutional or ineffective?

We continue to have to put up with misreporting by media who are perhaps not biassed against us, but just need conflict for a good headline. Vince Cable comes in for more than most. He was headlined as "Cable attacks 'ruthless' Tories" when he called them "ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal". In the interview, which you can listen to on that last link, he said it in a perfectly affable tone of voice, and he went on to say, immediately, in the same sentence, "but that doesn't mean we can't work with them". They're at it again today: "Vince Cable warns GMB against co-ordinated strikes". He is getting a simplistic knee jerk reaction from the GMB, who clearly don't understand coalition politics either.Fortunately, cooler heads area round to give a truer picture. Paul Waugh on PoliticsHome, Why Cable's no Tebbit, points out that Cable is giving the unions the political reality. Cable has no wish to crack down on unions, but there is a very strong body of opinion within the Conservative party that does. A wave of strikes would give them motive and opportunity. Cable counsels wisdom, not quiescence. The media are not helpful to us, but then they never were. We just have to continue to work.

The left wing don't like us, because we're not left wing. Those who used us as a convenient protest vote don't like us because we've grown up. The right wing loathe us because, well, because we're human. We are definitely doing something right. But we need to connect that again to what voters want. Politics is a tough business and it will go on being tough. The rules have changed because we are now in government, but the nature of the game hasn't. It's still true that where we work we win. Besides working we need to hold our nerve, something we have not had to practise so much in the past, and we need a narrative, aversion of events that holds true for us and that we can sell on the doorstep. that narrative is taking some time to emerge, but the bones are there in place:
- coalition does work (and we are proving that)
- we do do a lot of good for the less well off (which again we can prove)
- we have moderated a lot of Conservative policies into sensible ways forward (and we have blunted the glaringly socially authoritarian wing of the Conservative party (something I am delighted about, and so should everybody be who is not a glaringly socially authoritarian Tory. For a glimpse of why see here. I suspect, by the way, that Dave is monumentally pleased that he has the LibDems to lean on and not his own right wing.)

So, to sum up:
- we are still Liberals. That's absolutely clear from the policies we are putting in place and the policies we have prevented from being enacted.
- the media are not helpful to us, but they are no less helpful than they have ever been.
- we need to find, and will find, a new constituency of voters. Those who voted "none of the others" don't have that easy option any more, but there are plenty who will vote for a liberal and capable government in the UK.
- and this time we have a time scale, a long one. It won't matter if we're still unpopular in a year's time, as long as we are building, in policy achievement and in campaigning, towards a sustainable recovery for the country by 2015, because I am as near certain as I can be that that will mean a sustainable recovery for the LibDems. It will be hard work. It always was hard work being a LibDem. But we mustn't lose our nerve.

*Despite having two thirds of their votes. (FPTP is *such* a fair system.)**

**For those unable to detect irony, that was ironic.

Do right wing Christians actually need to lie?

A question I've been pondering for a day or two. I heard Nadine Dorries on Any Questions. She's really bad for my blood pressure. Among other gems was the statement that skunk cannabis as sold on the streets today is 50 times more powerful than traditional cannabis. I know of no scientific basis for that statement. I'm not an expert - there might be one, but I doubt very much if I'll ever get the reference from Nadine. If anybody does have a reference to a scientifically valid demonstration, please let me know. That of itself is just a minor issue, a fantasist trying to portray the world how she wants it to be rather than how it is. But what struck me most about it is the ease and facility with which she lies. I've no idea whether she actually believes what she's saying, but she admits to lying quite readily - her blog, she said, is 70% fiction, designed to paint a picture for her constituents, presumably with the aim of getting them to vote for her again. But why, as a Christian, does she feel that that is appropriate behaviour? A trawl through the pages of the bible would rapidly suggest that lying is not seen as a Christian activity.

And then today I was reminded by a tweet from Andrew Page of the existence of Conservapedia. It was about their page on atheism. I'm not going to link to it, because it's down there with the Daily Mail in terms of gutter, vitriol, and sheer blatant untruth. It would be hilarious if they didn't mean it. If you want to, google it and go and read. Marvel at the section on the three way link between atheism, lesbianism and obesity. I am staggered again at the volume of complete falsehood. And presumably they know what they are doing. So what is it about these Christians that lubricates such consistent telling of untruths.

Please note I'm not being "anti-Christian" here. I am a Christian. I'm trying to figure out how someone who in name shares the same principles that I do can feel that such wholesale lying is justified.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


I've been bothered by new style "HID" headlights ever since they were introduced. I've always thought they were brighter than necessary, and I find being on the other end of them a real trial. It's worse being in front of them than behind them. They wobble about like anything and they have a way of flashing up and down that delivers a laser like burst to all three mirrors at once, blinding you to anything ahead of you. They are horrible. I didn't realise how many other people felt the same way until reading "Campaign launched over 'dazzling' HID car headlamps" on the Beeb this morning.

I thought the most provocative bit in the report was the po faced response from the industry rep. "High intensity lighting [headlamps] have been solely developed to improve road safety - they are part of what is a quite sophisticated lighting system." No hint of acknowledgement that they might cause a problem to other road users. He's clearly never driven in front of one.

Apparently drivers who have them like them because they can see more. Maybe so, but they have to take some responsibility for their effect on other road users. Trouble is we don't do that sort of thing in this country - actually taking account of other road users. We don't like slowing down either, so I dare say any suggestion that people who need really strong headlights in the dark could try driving a little more slowly will be met with unnecessary derision.

If you feel like me, do go and sign the petition.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Not shedding tears for AV

I'm really not too sad about losing the referendum on AV. Nick was right – AV is a miserable little compromise, better than FPTP but not hugely so. I am more sad about losing the opportunity to get a proper debate a vote on voting reform that really works.

I am also very sad about the losses of councillors we suffered yesterday. My own district council, having been LibDem run for some time, and well run, is now Tory. Oh boy. But we live in the real world, and I think Tim Farron got it right yesterday – this is our first experience of being in government, and now it's our first experience of being in an unpopular government. It's downright unpleasant, but it's what happens. The reaction from some is also what happens – Nick Clegg is finished, the party is finished, we've been outfought, outfoxed, etc, etc. In the Independent yesterday. Mary Dejevsky called our some of voters “na├»ve and disgracefully fickle”. She's right. But again that's reality. We have to work to reacquire those voters and to show that we can govern. Right now, I still feel that we have done the right thing all the way through the last year. Maybe some decisions and some tactics could have been marginally better, but I don't think anybody could have put us in a better position than Nick and the party leadership have done. OK. We've had a kicking. Live with it.

I think it remains worth remembering, and reminding people how we got here.

We went into the last election facing a massive public sector deficit and a world in recession. The recession was not Labour's fault, but their continuing to spend when the money was no longer there, and their insistence on maintaining light regulation of the baking sector were the cause of it being deeper and more painful in this country than it would otherwise have been. Dealing with the deficit was going to be the major problem for any new government. All three parties had different strategies for dealing with it, but there would have been pain under any of them.

After the election all three parties had choices. Ours was to go into coalition with the Conservatives, go into coalition with Labour or sit on our hands. The Conservatives' was to go into coalition with us, or to try to govern as a minority party. Labour's was coalition or nothing. We and the Conservatives found we had things to talk about which enabled both us and them to make coalition government a reality. Labour were clearly not serious about negotiating (whatever they say now) and in any case, coalition with Labour was not nearly as palatable as coalition with the Conservatives looked at the time, and has turned out to be since. And, yes, I know what I just said.

Coalition with Labour. Leaving aside the practicalities of governing a rainbow coalition, we'd still have Gordon Brown, that great clunking fist dominating everything. And ID cards; would Labour have given those up; I doubt it, with the control freaks in charge.

We chose coalition with the Tories and they chose coalition with us. We got a lot of our manifesto in to the coalition agreement. There were some things we were never going to get – free university tuition was one of them. It's only actually a broken promise if you are capable of doing something and don't. Given the electoral maths, we were not capable of delivering free tuition under the coalition agreement. I do not regard that as a broken promise. I know other people do, and that is a political reality. But maybe we could work harder to change the way people see that decision. I also think – if we're going to talk about broken promises – I think about all the students who said they were going to vote for us and then broke their promise. We know that fewer students actually voted than any other demographic in the UK. Just consider what the position might be if they had voted: we might have a lot more seats than we have now, the Conservatives fewer, as well as Labour. The dealing around that negotiation table would have been very different. So I accept it's a reality, but I do find it a bit hard when people talk about being betrayed.

What “do” we have? 75% of our manifesto being delivered. That's not bad. I am so glad to be rid of ID cards and all that database state paraphernalia that went with it. And we actually agreed with the Tories on that, and disagreed heartily with Labour – something that ought to give any tribal leftwinger in the party pause for thought. What else have we got?

A crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion; equalising capital gains and income tax rates, a substantial hike in personal tax allowances, with plans to head for £10,000, restoring the link between pensions and earnings, got a fair deal for Equitable Life pensioners, we have a commission looking at breaking up the big banks, we've got the banks agreeing to lend more, we have delayed the decision on replacing Trident, we are reducing red tape with a one in one out rule, we're supporting superfast broadband, we are expanding the market for green products and technologies, we have extended flexible working, we've introduced the pupil premium, we're improving SEN educational provision, we're reviewing the National Curriculum to make it slimmer and more flexible, we are strengthening guidance to head teachers on combating bullying, including homophobic bullying, work is being done on integrating health and social care, we have increased the priority of research into dementia, we have increased funding for counselling, we have introduced controls on low price alcohol sales, we are maintaining free entry to museums and art galleries, and we are making putting on live music easier for small venues, we are increasing spending on early years education, and on respite care, we are ending the compulsory retirement age, we have created an entire new Green Deal, including energy company obligations, created a Renewable Heat Incentive, we are investing more in plants to build wind turbines, we are working with others to establish a system for reducing emissions from deforestation, we have been influential in the EU wide ban on the import of illegally sourced timber and timber products, we are reviewing the restrictive terms and conditions of employment for police officers, we have a new strategy for hate crimes, we are moving towards prisoners contributing to financial reparation for victims.

I could go on. And on and on. But I think I've made my point – after only a year, we have record we can be really proud, and even if we do go into oblivion – which I don't think we will – we have done things we can look back on with pride.

We have also had a valid and valuable effect in keeping Tory headbanger policy off the agenda. We have been instrumental in forcing the “pause” on Lansley's ill judged NHS reforms, with the prospect of genuine changes in what is being proposed. We have kept the loonier rightwing ideas about benefits and Europe off the agenda. That is something to be quietly pleased about even while we nurse the wounds of May 2011.

The realities of political life on the street are different. The public has chosen to give us a kicking. That's what happens. We need to keep working, keep our nerve, keep an eye to eye with the ruthless, calculating and tribal Conservatives, and keep communicating with people who we know we can serve better than the Conservative or Labour parties can. In that regard I think Nick Clegg is doing well; this is what happens when you're in government. I hope he carries on doing well. If the economy comes right, which is looking a decent prospect at the moment, we will also prosper.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Metropolitan Police, G20 and Ian Tomlinson: the culture of policing

So Ian Tomlinson was unlawfully killed. From what I have seen of the evidence, that was the right decision to come to. The officer who struck him changed his version of events during the inquest, and accepted under examination that what he saw on video of himself and Tomlinson was not as he had recounted it himself. He may or may not be telling the truth, he may or may not be deluding himself. His case is now under consideration by the CPS, as it should be. He is also to be subject to a gross misconduct hearing, which will be held in public. Whatever conclusion either the CPS or the IPCC come to, it would not be sufficient for the matter to end there.

While PC Harwood is responsible for his actions, it would not be right for him to take the blame for events individually and outside a deep examination of the culture of the Metropolitan Police that allowed things to get to this point. The whole attitude of the Metropolitan Police towards the citizens of London, particularly those exercising their lawful right to demonstrate peacefully, really needs to be examined and put right.

In a nutshell, it appears from the evidence we have that PC Harwood became over excited and liable to over-react precisely when he needed to exercise great self restraint. Although he was at some points isolated, he was also with his colleagues at other times, and it appears that their influence on him did not restraint him either. That is a cause for great concern, not just in terms of one man's reaction, but the tenor of the overall police presence.

A particular example is the hiding of badge numbers, for instance, was a common practice up to that point. Since then the Commissioner has issued an instruction that badges must be visible, but that is not enough. It was the case beforehand that they were supposed to be visible. An instruction does not necessarily change the behaviour of individual officers while on duty. It ought to be a matter of pride to every police officer that their badge is visible at all times. It clearly wasn't, and as far as I can see, still isn't. That's not about instructions, that's about culture, and it's been drifting for far too long.

The Metropolitan Police have been re-examining their tactics in the wake of criticism about their handling of the G20 demonstrations, and other events like the G20 Climate Camp and the anti cuts demonstrations. The report “Adapting To Protest” contains many significant recommendations, but in my view, they do not go far enough. They appear to be discussing how to make their tactics work better, rather than examining the culture behind the tactics, one which assumes an opposition between police and demonstrators that gives an aggressive officer free rein to lose his temper. That needs to be brought to a full stop, a shuddering one if necessary, if the police are not to imperil the consent which gives them their mandate to control the streets.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Nil nil

The best 0-0 draw in Spurs' history without a doubt. I wish I'd been there; the crowd were awesome, and Tottenham's maturity as a football team was evident for all to see. It's very nice to see today how matches like that bring out the best in commentators. Prose that is a pleasure just to read, almost lyrical in places.

From the Guardian, 10th March 2011.

Phil McNulty on the BBC: "The demolition of holders Inter Milan on a thunderous night was a demonstration of Tottenham's threat but Redknapp may take even more satisfaction from the way Inter's neighbours were sent out of the tournament.... Who would have thought erecting a defensive wall of defiance would deliver such pleasure and provoke such scenes of jubilation?

"So it proved as Spurs survived a Milan performance that carried much of the pace and intensity absent from the first leg. As time ran out and Milan became even more desperate, the obstacles in front of keeper Heurelho Gomes grew bigger in stature and number by the minute....

"Life was lived on the nerves from first minute to last, with Redknapp standing sentry in his technical area almost permanently and joined on a regular basis by trusted lieutenants Joe Jordan and Kevin Bond. It was not a night, nor an atmosphere, for sitting serenely in the dug-out."

Steven Howard in the Sun: "FIRST, the agony. And then the ecstasy. It was another one of those rollercoaster nights for Tottenham fans. The agony of enduring 90 minutes where it seemed that at any moment the dream of attempting to match the historic exploits of the Glory, Glory boys of the 60s could go up in smoke...

"...the greatest sound of all was the final whistle. After four straight home wins and 14 goals, finally a goalless draw. And it tasted just as sweet. Spurs were through. Arsenal were out. And Spurs supporters were still in one piece. Just."

Jason Burt in the Telegraph: "There are still moments in the storm. There are moments when the release of tension simply results in a desire to stand motionless. Henry James Redknapp was a study in such behaviour on Wednesday....

"“Life is a roller-coaster,” Redknapp said when asked about how he would celebrate. “I’ve had my ups and downs”. And sometimes the ups lead to a more sober response than the downs - it’s a mark of many leading managers, including Carlo Ancelotti - and he followed that mould last night. In a quieter moment hopefully he also afforded himself a smile for he has transformed the fortunes of a club that was bottom of the Premier League table when he arrived three years ago. He deserves the praise....

"Spurs didn’t play particularly well, they weren’t allowed to, and maybe that is what caused Redknapp’s irritation. If so, it smacks of a professionalism also. Everyone is talking about the need to avoid Barcelona. But those left in this competition will also be privately whispering another team they would be keen not to face. No-one wants Spurs. No-one wants to face Redknapp."

Shaun Custis, in the Sun again: "Spurs' job has traditionally been to entertain and lose gloriously while Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United get on with the serious stuff. The times they are a changing. Redknapp claimed Spurs were not built to defend but he is conning us all. They have learned how to do it and they do it very well."

Richard Williams in the Guardian: "For Harry Redknapp there have been many big occasions in football but none, for a real football man, bigger than this night. Milan, seven times winners of the European Cup, under the floodlights at history-soaked White Hart Lane, confronted by the white shirts of the descendants of Blanchflower, Smith and Jones. A match with Brazilian artists, Dutch magicians, a Croatian wizard, stalwart Englishmen....

"Redknapp paced the technical area with his usual preoccupied air as a more purposeful Milan made the best chances of the half, drawing sprawling saves from Heurelho Gomes, watchful leadership from Michael Dawson and a clearance off the line from William Gallas. Against this barrage in a game of ceaseless movement and clattering energy, Spurs could point to little more than Rafael van der Vaart's bar‑skimming 30-yard free-kick.

"Milan huffed and puffed but by the end they were, in the words of the original Harry Hotspur, no more than dust and food for worms. Hotspur was dying at the time. Redknapp's Spurs could not be more full of life."

Prose to fit a sumptuous occasion.

Poppy burning

I can't say I agree with David Cameron on this. A member of Muslims Against Crusades burned two plastic poppies during last November's Armistice Day ceremony. Yesterday he was fined £50. In my view he should not have been. The act was outrageous to some; indeed it was intended to be. But outrage at such acts is the price we pay for freedom of expression, which is still one of the key characteristics that distinguishes this society from many others. In this particular instance we actually lag behind the United States where flag burning, despite Americans' veneration for their flag, is a constitutional right. You can't say that about many things where genuine freedom is concerned.

While we are right to pay homage to those who have fallen fighting for our freedoms, we also have to acknowledge that some of those who fell, particularly in recent years, have given their lives in much less morally certain ventures, and while their bravery should be saluted, the cause in which they fell should not. Opinion is genuinely and deeply divided on the merits of some of our recent wars. Outrage may be genuine, but, if outrageous acts are stifled through the use of the law, it only serves to block moral debate and make equally outrageous ventures more likely in future. We are currently considering whether and how to use force against Gaddafi's regime. A week ago Cameron was all too eager to commit our forces again in a gesture which would have made them risk death, being burned, maimed or humiliated and most likely given Gaddafi a perfect foil for uniting his people on his side. Reminders of the moral ambiguity of such ventures, as well as the possible human cost, serve to prevent them happening unnecessarily. I hate what Emdadur Choudary did, but he should never have been taken to court, let alone fined.