Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Lightmare

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.