Monday, December 28, 2009

Dear Dave, thanks for your helpful message

It has been amusing to see some of the pithy repsonses from various Lib Dems to CallMeDave's seasonal message.

Personally I'm delighted that he has taken the time to help write some of my leaflets for me.

In constituencies like the one I live in, where we have a popular Lib Dem MP, it will be very useful to use CallMeDave's words to reassure wavering Tory voters.

There are a lot of people in seats ike this one who might be tempted to vote Tory this time because they beleive they need to to 'get Brown out'.

In response we will be working hard to persuade them to vote on the basis that their sitting MP is hard working and doing an effective job.

It will be helpful to be able to back up this message with CallMeDave's reassuring words that there is much common ground between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. They therefore have nothing to fear about voting Lib Dem this time.

Similarly in seats where we are head to head with Labour and trying to squeeze the Tory vote, like in my home town of Redcar, we can use CallMeDave's word's to strengthen our squeeze message.

Thanks Dave!

Monday, November 30, 2009

File under: 'You couldn't make it up'

Go on, guess who:

"Whatever faith people had in the political process is now in tatters. I’ve seen that directly, on the doorstep, where people are rightly enraged. We can reverse the decline, but it requires genuine reform, not tinkering. You can’t legislate for decency, and in any case, if there’s a will to abuse power, there will always be a way. The only solution is a combination of openness and real local democracy."

Yes, this very evening, at St James' Church, Piccadilly, you can here all about the major challenges facing us, in particular the key question: "We face huge pressures and must make big decisions. How do we spend our collective wealth?"

So who is delivering this talk?

Yup, irony of ironies, non-dom Tory boy Zac Goldsmith, in the papers today over his tax status - is due to speak about these key issues this very evening.

hattip - a post on PoliticalBetting.com

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Sun should be ashamed

I'm sure there will be a lot of comment about the phone call between Gordon Brown and Mrs Janes which has been published today.

Having listened to the call, an uncomfortable experience, I actually think Gordon Brown handled the call about as well as could be expected in the circumstances.

He apologised, took a lot of flak from a very distraught Mrs Janes, but remained calm throughout.

Whether the Sun should have published a private phone call is open to debate. I can see arguments both ways.

However they should be thoroughly ashamed that they deem it appropriate to precede the recording with an ad for a Family Guy DVD which includes a joke about horse sperm and follow it with an ad for the Bruno DVD.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Theme Park Auschwitz - Or Children's Views Misrepresented?

An interesting survey reported in The Telegraph suggests that one in six 9-15 year olds think that Auschwitz is a WWII theme park and that Adolf Hitler was a German football coach.

Now on first sight, and to anyone of my generation who will have studied WWII in school history lessons, this looks dreadful.

But hang on a minute - dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that our children's views have been at best badly reported and at worst misrepresented.

The full results of the survey are here - and what is obvious is that children were offered multiple choice questions.

This suggests to me that quite a lot of the children simply guessed at answers they didn't know and a proportion of them guessed wrongly.

That DOES NOT MEAN that one in six 9-15 year olds believe Auschwitz is a WWII Theme Park - but that 30% didn't know the right answer and randomly picked the wrong answer.

And given that Auschwitz is now set up as a Visitor Centre where thousands of people, including parties of UK school children, find out about WWII, is it such a bad guess anyway?

I knew about WWII from a young age because it had been a major event in my Grandparents' lives and in my Dad's formative years. I spent a lot of my younger years in the company of my Gran who talked at length about the war, and in my younger years still had an air raid shelter at the bottom of her garden. I then learnt more about the war at secondary school in history lessons.

However the average nine or ten year old nowadays will not necessarily have any living relatives who remember WWII, and even if they do it isn't talked about nearly as often as it was thirty years ago.

A large proportion of those 9-15 year olds surveyed probably haven't got to that part of their history course yet. My 11 year old happens to have just read a book about Hitler as part of his half term homework for a book review, but he has not studied WWII as part of the curriculum yet.

So it is perhaps not surprising that a proportion of 9-15 year olds don't know much detail about a conflict that ended 50-55 years before they were born.

In fact many of the answers are surprisingly good.

For example more than half the children surveyed knew the start and end years of the First World War which started 89-95 years before they were born. This is the equivalent of me knowing the dates of the Boer Wars, the Tauranga Campaign or the Bhutan War, which I didn't until I looked them up on Google for the purposes of this blog!

A massive 90% got the years of WWII right, 60% correctly identified Harry Patch as the oldest veteran of the trenches, 80% knew that the poppy is the symbol of Remembrance Day and 86% that the Blitz was the bombing of London.

For a group of children, many of whom won't have studied the subject in History yet, I don't think this is bad at all.

That is not to say that there is anything wrong about people doing more to educate children about WWII, Remembrance Day or more recent and more relevant conflicts.

But a survey like this should not be used as yet another criticism of children's knowledge or of 'modern teaching standards', particularly when the survey has been deliberately structured to produce whacky answers.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The hypocrisy of the tabloids

Excellent post over at The Enemies of Reason about the utter twaddle being spouted by the right wing tabloids about the BBC's decision to allow Griffin on Question Time.

Hat Tip: Mark Reckons

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chris cleared

Delighted to hear that Lord Rennard, or Chris, as I know him, has been cleared by the Parliamentary authorities over his expenses.

I didn't blog about the allegations much at the time because, as a friend, I knew I was biased.

I did know, however, that he had moved his home base down to Eastbourne, and am delighted that the evidence backing this up has been properly taken into account.

It was good to see Chris looking so well at conference, and to hear the rousing reception he got at the rally.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fancy a pint of freedom this evening?

A few weeks ago I bought a batch of beer from our local farm shop, one of which was a bottle of William Wilberforce Freedom Ale from those nice people at the Westerham Brewery in Kent.

On reading the label I discovered that the beer had been brewed to commemorate the 200 anniversary of the abolition of slavery, and that profits from the beer were being given to the Stop The Traffik campaign.

Now this sparked my interest because I had just been talking to our new Lib Dem MEP for the South East, Catherine Bearder, about this very issue.

Following a chat with her staff we then arranged for Catherine to visit the brewery, which she did on Friday with Lib Dem blogger Antony Hook.

This evening we will be meeting at the Royal Blenheim pub in Oxford to drink a few pints of Freedom Ale (and quite possibly some of the excellent White Horse beers they have on tap there) in support of the European Union's Anti-Trafficking Day.

Do feel free to join us.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Good beer round here

Today's Independent features a guide to the top 50 beers.

Oxfordshire breweries have done rather well with four of the fifty being brewed in the county.

Hook Norton Brewery does particularly well with both their bitter, Old Hooky, and their Double Stout both featured.

Brakspear Triple, which is nowadays brewed by the Wychwood Brewery, and Ridgeway IPA, from the brewery set up by Brakspears former head brewer, also feature.

This is great news for local brewers and the top 50 as a whole, which is mainly made up of UK beers, demonstrates the strength of the growing UK small brewery sector.

The list also featured several other of my favourite tipples including Badger Golden Champion from Hall and Woodhouse in Dorset (for any Westminster based readers you can enjoy it at St Stephens Tavern next to Westminster tube station), St Austell Brewery's Admiral Ale and Hop Back Brewery's Summer Lightning.

Unfortunately Wychwood's cult brew, Hobgoblin, didn't feature.

There are several other excellent small breweries in this area including the Appleford Brewery based at Brightwell-cum-Sotwell near Wallingford, Best Mates Brewery, based at Ardington near Wantage and the White Horse Brewery based at Stanford-in-the-Vale.

See my next post for more about beer.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Well done Dave!

A brilliant result for my good friend Dave Hodgson in the Bedford Mayoral election.

Dave is a great guy and has worked solidly hard over the years both for his Bedford constituents and the party.

He joins another good friend of mine, and very fine Mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill, in that very exclusice club of Lib Dem Mayors.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ming gets it wrong, wrong, wrong

I've been watching through some of the coverage of Party Conference on the bbc iplayer* and have just happened upon an argument between Ming Campbell and Evan Harris on Tuesday's Daily Politics. (It' about 30 minutes in, after Nick Parsons).

Ming is talking complete rubbish.

It is clearly true that sometimes Leaders have to react to events.

But is equally clear that Nick Clegg's comments about whether or not the abolition Tuition Fees will be in the manifesto is not something that has just cropped up - it was fully discussed just a few weeks ago in Federal Policy Committee and the Fresh Start paper reflects the settled view of that committee.

Ming's attitude in this interview highlights why he lost support so rapidly when he was our leader and demonstrates an unfortunate tendency of some of our leaders - that they expect loyalty from the party without realising that loyalty runs both ways.

I hope that Nick Clegg will come to realise that what can, I'm sure, sometimes feel like a frustrating democratic process within our party, is, in fact, a great strength.

I also hope he won't be listening too much to former leaders like Ming.

*(although not my speech in the Fresh Start debate as that seems to have been lost)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

That's more like it

Yesterday, in the Fresh Start for Britain debate, I argued that we need to avoid being too doom and gloom and that we need to spell out clear, simple and principled reasons to vote Lib Dem.

Continuing my conference media blitz I gave a brief comment to the World at One this afternoon (about 15 mins in) and also agree with the comments Steve Webb and Malcolm Bruce made too.

Nick's speech this afternoon has done exactly that.

The message that should have been coming out all week: Rebuilding a sustainable economy, making Britain fairer and fixing our broken politics, came across loudly and clearly.

I hope he keeps this tone up.

Media tarting

My speech during the Fresh Start debate yesterday attracted a bit of coverage. (And it is probably on Iplayer somewhere)

There was clip on PM yesterday evening and I'm told I was quoted in the Guardian, although I can't find it.

I've also been interviewed for the World at One which should be on around now.

Sincere thanks to everyone who has made a point of saying that they enjoyed the speech.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Sunday Conference round-up

A slightly more relaxed day on Sunday after a busy Saturday. Much time spent wandering about and catching up with folk, including people I haven't seen for a while from my days campaigning in Leicester and my time in youth and student politics.

It has been a lovely few days weather wise and it has been nice to sit and chat.

Much of the talk is about the big tax and spend decisins the party is facing and particularly about tuition fees.

I did get along to the ALDC members' reception where we heard from both Vince and Nick. I also attended a very useful briefing for party trainers with Hilary Stephenson and Shaun Roberts. It is good to see that a lot of thought is going in to how we widen the reach of party training.

Finally it was off to the Blog Awards, hosted by those nice people at Lib Dem Voice.

It was very nice to put names to faces, including award winner Mark Thompson.

An attempted early night didn't go quite to plan as I bumped into party Chief Exec Chris Fox and Yorkshire & Humber Campaigns Officer Dave McCobb. Dave has been doing a lot of work with the Lib Dem team in my home town of Redcar and I had a very positive chat about their recent progress.

I'm still finding it a bit odd having all this time to chat to people but it's very enjoyable.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Campaigning after Rennard

My co-panellist at last night's fringe, James Graham, has a report of the meeting over at Comment is Free.

Nick's bonfire of the bureaucrats

Nick has this morning set out a clear plan to slash the cost of Government and is 100% right to do so.

Westminster, Whitehall and the numerous unproductive layers of regional red tape, quangos and agencies are bloated and major savings can and shuld be found.

Nick's plan will save £1.82 billion - a substantial amount and well worth having as a contribution to the savings we need to achieve.

Equally importantly the plan will reduce the army of civil servants and bureaucrats whose main role is to stifle innovation, interfere in local decision making and waste significant amounts of time of those trying to deliver public services around the UK.

These proposals also give the lie to Mr Cameron's rather half-hearted proposals which seemed to amount to making MPs pay a little more for their beer and sandwiches.

Vince right and wrong

The big issue facing the party is how we deal with the crisis in the public sector finances and balance the undoubted need to cut the structural deficit with our commitment to a fairer and greener society.

Vince Cable MP last week published a pamphlet setting out his thinking on the issue.

As one would expect Dr Cable takes the issue seriously and argues that we should too. He believes that we may need to reduce Government spend by as much as 8% of GDP over five years and that we need to set out very specific plans about how we will do this.

This would inevitably mean massive cuts in Government spending which would have a major impact on the country.

He rightly argues that Labour's plans undersetimate the scale of the problem, that they rely too much on reducing capital spending rather than current spending, and that they are over optimistic about likely growth levels.

So far, so good.

He then moves on to argue
The emphasis for fiscal consolidation must fall on controlling public spending, not higher taxes: to commit to additional tax revenue raising from the outset undermines any commitment to setting priorities in spending.


This doesn't make sense to me. Reducing the deficit can be done by reducing spending, increasing taxes, or a combination of the two.

In no way does a decision that some taxes might have to be raised 'undermine' equally clear decisions to cut areas of spending.

Dr Cable then goes on to argue that 'salami-slicing' public spending will not work, and that we have to go back to square one and examine all publci spending.

In this I also agree with him. The only way we will find the savings we need to balance the budget is by going through the entirity of Government spend and check that it is well-directed expenditure. Effectively we need to be absolutely clear about what our priorities are and be willing to stop spending money on things that are low priority or ineffective.

Most of his suggestions in this regard (and they are only suggestions) make sense.

A lot of money can be saved by doing Government differently and by decentralising power. Money spent locally tends to provide better value, encourage innovation and garner higher public support. There is massive Government expenditure on advertising, agencies, quangos, unaccountable regional government etc. etc. We should take a slash and burn approach to the lot.

Similarly we know that much of the increased expenditure on several big services such as the NHS and education has not produced the improvements it should have. This surely means there will be savings to be found.

I am a little less happy at the lack of detail about some of the suggestions. I don't think it is helpful to suggest that there are major savings to be had from freezing the overall pay bill or in public sector pensions without a clear idea of how we acheive it without hitting the lower paid staff who our tax policies are, with the other hand, meant to help.

But at this stage I go back to the question of tax.

We have to look at savings, and prioritise what we think Government should do, but at some point some of the potential cuts may be worse than increasing some taxes. What we should do is balance the two. We should identify areas where some taxes could rise and compare the pros and cons with some of the cuts we might have to make.

Doing this does not in any way reduce the seriousness of our approach to pruning spending.

Areas we should look at include strengtheing green taxes, taxing very high incomes (a popular policy during the last two elections when the financial position was much sounder) taxing the bonuses that bankers continue to pay themselves despite everything etc.

We should also look at whether there are any specific taxes that might be used to fund some key spending commitments that might otherwise be dropped. (Graduate Tax anyone?).

In terms of how this plays with the public, well I think we will be given credit if we have a clear plan that adds up. I think the public knows that the Labour Government have got us into a VERY DEEP HOLE and will expect to see parties responding in a serious way that adds up.

However I do not think that there is any future for the Lib Dems if we present ourselves as being determined to slash public spending without even considering raising taxes to protect some services as part of the package.

Nick Clegg's rhetoric is rightly starting to mirror Obama in arguing that, despite the hole we are in, we can still be optimistic and still build a fairer, greener and freer society. This is key to our message. We have to have figures that stack up, but we have to do it for a purpose and we have to provide our potential supporters with hope for the future.

A busy first day at Conference

I'm finding this conference an odd experience. It's my 23rd Autumn Conference (Well the first was technically an Assembly, but you know what I mean) and the first since 1993 that I haven't been working for the party.

For the last few years my conference diary consisted of numerous training sessions, meetings with seats and the occasional fringe on behalf of the Campaigns Department. There was at least one where I never actually made it into the Conference Centre at all.

This one's different.

My conference diary has lots of gaps in it and I've got time to be sitting here in the hotel bar (Like Ms Rigg we have free wi-fi in my hotel but the signal is only strong enough in the bar and lobby - so I am writing this while litsening to dreadful piped music that even the older guests (of whom there are many) must find a tad slow).

Yesterday was the busy day diary wise. It started with a training session which I was co-training with the formidable Jeanette Sunderland from Bradford. We were training a small but high quality group of activists about 'Capacity and team building' which I enjoyed, particularly as Jeanette did most of the work.

I was left with an abiding feeling that I really wouldn't want to be the Labour MP on the end of the campaign Jeanette is planning for Bradford East.

I then attended a meeting between my former colleagues in the Campaigns Department and Regional Party Officers which was led by our excellent leader of campaigns Hilary Stephenson and then the other leader turned up and talked to us about the big policy issues facing the party. He seemed relaxed and on good form and answered questions clearly.

I then headed for the conference centre and into the hall. As a member of the Federal Policy Committee I thought I ought to be there to hear our report to conference, which was so exciting that it attracted not a single question.

Then the debate on the Real Women policy paper (which has been exciting the 'bloggosphere' a lot) was underway.

I sat, slightly nervously,, as I had earlier put in a card to speak against the amendment proposed by Bernard Salmon.

I thought the debate was very good, with most of the speeches being of a very high quality and covering a wide range of issues. Jo Swinson introduced the paper with a very strong contribution and I particularly enjoyed Laura Willoughby's speech about women's sport and suspect she is right about the reasons why the boys were keen for her to stop playing rugby ;-)

Just as the debate was heading for the end (and I had assumed I wasn't going to be called after all) the Chair, Sarah Boad, asked me to stand by.

Whenever I am about to speak I get butterflies in my tummy although I have learnt from experience how to handle them. This is partly because I've not actually spoken to the full conference hall very often, although I have done lots of training, speaking at fringe meetings etc.. This was only my fourth speech in a debate.

I never write full speeches as I tend to end up concentrating too much on the paper rather than the audience if I do. I prefer to write down bullet points and then make it up as I go along from them. I find this makes it easier to react to the audience (who, on this occasion, were very kind). I'm not a great speechwriter in a technical sense although I did chuck in the 'list of three' at the end whch worked well and led to a level of applause that took me a little by surprise.

More importantly I did have what I felt was a strong case to make and I was delighted when the vote was so strongly in favour of the motion but against Amendment 2.

After a bite of lunch I then met with Katy Riddle who is about to leave Winchester to become our Campaigns Officer in South Central Region. This means she will be supporting me in my role working for Oxford West & Abingdon and Wantage constituencies in the run up to the General Election.

It was then off to the Premier Inn (Everything's Premier but the price, and , on this occasion, the wheelchair lift) for the fringe meeting 'Campaigning After Rennard' organised by those nice people at Lib Dem Voice.

I was on the panel along with Lynne Featherstone and James Graham with Mark Pack in the Chair.

We each gave our thoughts, with a fair amount of common ground, and then there were a large batch of pertinent questions.

Then it was time for dinner and we headed a few doors down to the Indian for a lovely curry with Alex, Helen, Andrew and Costigan.

After that I headed back to the hotel (via dropping in on a few former Campaigns colleagues for a brief chat).

A busy day, but a fun one.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Goat + Tricycle = Happiness

True happiness is finding out that the distance from Liberal Drinks at Conference to my Hotel is 'staggerable' :-)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is this Nick's Moment?

I've just had a quick skim through A Liberal Moment - Nick Clegg's pamphlet for Demos which sets out a pretty robust argument for a liberal approach to the current economic, political, social and environmental crises.

The pamphlet sets out a convincing case for the Lib Dems being the holders of the progressive flame.

The first part is a reflection on what happened to british politics at the start of the last century and looks at what lesson might be drawn.

Much of the material is familiar - at least to anyone who ever takes any notice of what Nick says - but it is good to see Nick's developing themes set out together in and easy to read package.

All in all a well timed contribution setting out a strong case for the party.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bloggers talk balls about by-elections

Rarely is so much rubbish written by Lib Dem bloggers than after an entirely normal by-election result.

'Rennardism is dead', 'leafets don't work', 'we should do it by email', 'the Lib Dem by-election machine doesn't work any more', 'we should deliver a pamphlet setting out our principles and detailed policies to each voter and trust them to come to the right decision' (OK, I made that last one up, but you get my drift).

I do accept that there some other points of view that have a case. It IS reasonable to question whether the impact of parliamentary by-elections is enough to warrent the resources we spend on them, for example (see end).

But when the debate is about how to win by-elections, then a lot of the commentary is sadly lacking in any basis in fact.

It would be helpful if people first look at the actual history of the party's performance in parliamentary by-elections. The extremly inteligent and insightful Mr Quist helpfully set this out here.

There was no 'golden age'

The reality is that there never was a 'golden age' for the party in by-elections. We have only ever won a minority of by-elections, and generally the victories have been in seats where we started with a reasonable base of credibility and had long enough to build up some momentum.

For every one we have won there have been five or six we have lost, and I'm sure that after every one of those losses there was a group of people claiming that our by-election strategy was a 'busted flush'.

You don't understand 'Rennardism'

Many bloggers have talked about 'Rennardism'. Or at least, what they apparently believe 'Rennardism. to be - simply delivering more leaflets.

Well if that was all Chris Rennard's approach to parliamentary by-elections consisted of we would probably never have won a single by-election.

And again, before commenting on 'Rennardism' why not actually read some of the campaign manuals Chris has written about campaigning rather than criticising from a base of ignorance.

The simple fact is that no party wins a by-election without delivering a lot of leaflets. In order to stand a chance of winning you have to establish that you are in the fight, get your message through to people, turn your vote out and persuade supporters of other parties to switch to you.

And you simply can't do that without a lot of literature.

THAT IS NOT THE SAME AS SAYING THAT ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS DELIVER LOTS OF LEAFLETS!

The real difference comes with other factors. Do the Local Party select a good candidate? Are there any big issues affecting the constituency or the country that give us a hook to base our campaign on? Do the circumstances give us a good line of attack? How much effort is each of the other parties putting in?

A large part of winning a by-election (and this IS what 'Rennardism' is, if it is anything) is developing a convincing messge that deals with the primary issues of concern to the voters.

Email and other new media

Several people have commented that we should not be doing leaflets, we should be using email and other new media to win the campaign.

Well yes, we should make as much use of email and other new media that we can, and in fact that is exactly what recent by-elections have done.

But there is a fatal flaw in the idea that email and the like could replace leaflets.

We KNOW where every letterbox in a constituency is.

We DO NOT KNOW very many people's email addresses.

Two factors that make a real big difference

In my experience of by-elections there are two very big factors that have a huge impact on our chances of winning:

1 Length of campaign. The longer we have to establish our candidate and messages, to identify key local issues and campaign on them, and to deliver leaflets and knock on doors, the more chance we have of winning. (Brent East is the best recent example of this - I still remember lots of people arguing that we couldn't possibly win it and challenging the resources that were being given to it. We won because we had time to dig in and build credibility and momentum.)

2 Local credibility. The more credibility we have locally at the start of the campaign, the better we will eventually do. (This was certainly the big differnce between Leicester South on the one hand and Hartlepool or Hodge Hill on the other - in Leicester we had a strong local base and record of campaigning in most wards in the constituency)

We shouldn't run a 'full' campaign every time

We don't!

Only people who really don't know what they are talking about would believe that we do.

Fighting by-elections hard doesn't stop us doing other things right

There are also those who argue that we shouldn't busy ourselves fighting by-elections, we should be concentrating on getting the message (or 'narrative' even)right, or doing longer term development.

Well yes, we do need to be doing those things. But fighting by-elections as they come along doesn't stop us doing those things as well.

There clearly will be some opportunity cost as far as the money is concerned (although a lot of the figures bandied about are nonsense, and we do get donations in for by-elections) but we actually need to sort out our message, do long term development AND fight by-elections.

In conclusion

I am not arguing that everything we have evr done in every by-election is right. In fact I have had strong disagreements with some of the tactics and some of the messaging in several of the ones I've worked on.

But frankly a LOT of the comments about how we should or should not run by-elections appear to be based on complete and utter ignorance of how the party actually runs by-elections campaigns, and/or on a completely unrealistic expectation that we should some how be winning every time.

As to the sensible question of whether by-elections are worth the resources I would make two points:

1 If you look at our current parliamentary party about a fifth of the seats we hold were first won in by-elections, or were held in by-elections, or had had by-elections that built a base to win from later.

2 Even though we didn't win in Norwich this time, the group of relatively inexperienced party organisers who made up the bulk of the campaign team will be heading back to their constituencies this weekend far better prepared than they would be by months of theoretical trainign about what running a serious campaign involves.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Winning in Redcar again, and again, and again

I grew up in the north eastern and largely working class town of Redcar. (Known by racing enthusiasts for the Racecourse and by Geography students of the 70s and 80s for its steel industry).

I did my first campaigning there during the 1987 General Election - canvassing in Chris Abbott's ward and was signed up to the Liberal Party by his then ward colleague Stan Wilson.

In those days Redcar was not a hotbed of Liberalism although both the Liberals and the SDP had a few seats locally.

More recently however the Lib Dems have really been gaining ground. The part of town where I grew up was Tory held when I was there, but we have held it for years now. We have now established ourselves as the main opposition to Labour and came a creditable, if still some distance behind, second place last time.

More recently we have been winning local by-elections and last night completed our hattrick with Eric Howden's sensational victory in Dormanstown.

Eric took 52% of the vote with a 22.9% swing from Labour.

So what, you might think, particularly as you probably haven't the first clue where Redcar is, let alone Dormanstown.

Well Dormanstown is about as Labour as it gets.

Anywhere.

It is real vote for a donkey with a red rosette territory.

If Labour are losing places like Dormanstown they really are up a brown smelly creek without a handily shaped wooden implement.

So well done Eric, Ian, Chris and team.

Have a virtual pint on me, and keep up the good work.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Fresh Start for Britain

The party has published a key paper which is to be debated at party Conference in September.

A Fresh Start for Britain sets out our priorities in the run up to the General Election and how we intend to go through the process of prioritising our spending ambitions in the light of the mess the economy is in.

The document set out on the website is, in effect, the introductory section setting out the main themes we want to concentrate on: Creating a sustainable economy, Building a fairer society and Cleaning up politics.

I an confident that it does a pretty good job of setting out a platform that the party can unite around, draws on previous policy development but is at the same tme honest about the reality of the financial situation.

The full document which will go to conference will also include a lot more detail summarising our key policies across the whole range.

Alex Wilcock has written a lot more about it than I will (in fact I think his blog piece may well be longer than the document!) but makes some very good points.

He is right that 'freedom' is not as prominent as it might have been, but readers will be reassured to know that that is not because there are any plans to drop or change our policies on the issue.

He is also right that the real debate will be about prioritisiation. In a tight financial situation, which spending commitments will be included in the actual manifesto? Let the debate begin ...

Will it be April this July?

The Norwich North by-election is the first in the south eastern part of England that I haven't been involved with for more than 15 years. Had I still been Deputy Director of Campaigns I would have spent much of the last few weeks in Norwich.

It feels a little odd to know that as I write this our excellent by-election team, ably supported by my successor Victoria Marsom, will now be into the feverish last 24 hours or so of campaigning.

I'm not in a position to know exactly how we are doing, but I do know that April Pond is a doughty candidate and that the Lib Dem team behind her campaign are highly experienced and skilled campaigners.

The literature I have seen certainly suggests that we have hit on some good issues and that April is on the right side of them.

I'm not surprised to hear that the Labour campaign has been weak. There is little in general to motivate Labour activists at present, and the particular circumstances that led to Dr Gibsons' resignation probably killed any residual local activity stone dead anyway.

I am surprised that the Greens do not appear to have done more. That's not to say they won't necessarily get a solid vote, there is still a strong 'anti-main parties' vote out there, but I can't understand why they didn't treat this as a serious opportunity to win thir first MP.

Some people have wrongly characterised the Lib Dem approach to by-elections as being just about delivering more leaflets than your opponents. Well we DO have to deliver a lot of leaflets but we also need a clear message that resonates and all the other elements of a well organised campaign too.

From what I have seen and heard our small team in Norwich have achieved a lot of this on a short timescale and with limited resources. Well done to them.

If you are in a position to get over and help this evening or tomorrow, please do so!

Bread and Jam

A day off today, and a chance to do some bread-making with Emma.

We make bread every so often, she enjoys it, and it is surprisingly easy (as Liz Williams regularly describes on her blog).

We use flour grown locally (the farms are listed on the back of the packet) and milled at the Wessex Mill in Wantage bought at Added Ingredients in Abingdon.

Today we used 'Six Seed Flour' which has produced lovely brown bread and rolls full of flavour and texture.

We're sitting here eating it with some lovely Raspberry and Kiwi jam from Local Roots, another newish Abingdon shop that sources all its stock from within a few miles of the town.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tap into Wembley

After waiting for nearly 25 years I finally got to see one of my favourite rock bands last night - the mighty Spinal Tap (Simply 'Tap' to their fans).

Despite their early success (initially as The Thamesmen) they never hit the bigtime in the UK as much as they did in the US and Japan, and tours have been few and far between.

Tap now join Rush, ZZ Top and The Police on the list of bands I thought I might not get to see live but finally have.

Having made the brave (it's a fine line between clever and stupid) decision to do a 'One Night Only' World Tour at Wembley Stadium, just a few miles from their origins in Squatney in London's East End, there was a real sense of anticipation as the metal hordes gathered for the gig. (They did get to do a short warm up set at a smallscale Somerset festival at the weekend).

Tap have made two previous visits to Wembley, to play Live Earth and the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, and both in the bigger venue of Wembley Stadium. On these occasions they played to 80,000 people live with countless millions more watching at home. Their performances at both events were considered 'extraordinary'.

Support last night was from The Folksmen, the traditional US folk three-piece whose return to fame was documented in the recent documentary, or, if you will, folkumentray, A Mighty Wind.

They played a short but accomplished set featuring several classics from their past including their big hit 'Old Joe's Place', the very moving 'Blood on the Coals' (most US folk songs are about either mining disasters or train crashes, this song covers both eventualities) and an enjoyable cover of the Stones' 'Start Me Up'.



Unfortunately Marty Shrubb was just introducing their last song, an epic about the Spanish Civil War, when a roadie came onstage and told them they had run out of time.

They were warmly received despite the level of anticipation for Tap.

The stage was cleared ready for Tap's set and after a while the call went out over the PA for Tap to come to the stage. For some reason there was a bit of a delay and the backstage cameras made it clear why - the Tap were still busy playing video games and apparantly hadn't heard the call.

We were then entertained by the video of 'Majesty of Rock' and, after a further unexplained delay, the band appeared on stage to a raptuous welcome.

A wide ranging set followed including the well known tracks that featured in the 'This Is Spinal Tap' documentary, or, if you will, rockumentary: 'Rock N Rocll Creation', 'Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You' and 'Hell Hole'.

They also went back to their routes to perform the old Thamesmen tracks (a pre-Tap name of the band) 'Listen To the Flower People', 'Cups and Cakes' and 'Gimme Some Money' as well as David and Nigel's first ever song, 'All The Way Home'.

They played a 'funked up' version of 'Sex Farm' which, if you closed your eyes, could have the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

A real treat was their first ever performance of 'Saucy Jack', the first (and so far only) track from their musical tribute to Jack The Ripper.

The response from the audience was ecstatic throughout, but went to a whole new level when the opening chords of 'Stonehenge' rang out. the bands performance was spot on, but they were once again let down by poor stage management. The sight of two dwarves and a roadie trying to help erect an inflatable 12 foot high Stonehenge was, frankly, laughable, and the only real bad point of the night. David St Hubbins was visibly irritated by this incident, but it didn't put him off his stride.



The Tap core of St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls was as tight as ever, and their current keyboad play and drummer are top notch.

Tap have influenced many a musician in recent years and there was a huge cheer when the legendary Keith Emerson joined the band onstage for an excellent rendition of 'Short & Sweet'. He was clearly delighted to get to play with some of his heroes.

They then finished with their all time classic 'Big Bottom' with guests (all on bass) Justin Hawkins (The Darkness/Hot Leg), Andy Scott (The Sweet) and Freddie Washington (Steely Dan et al) which led to much singing along.

After such a fantastic and lively set it was no surprise that they were called back for encores.

The first saw Keith Emerson return to the stage for 'Heavy Duty' and for the second encore we were treated with the rarely played title track of their 1992 (and 15th!) album 'Break Like the Wind'.

All in all it was a great gig and the crowd loved it. Shame they don't tour more often.

Monday, June 08, 2009

I lost (boo), Catherine won (hurrah) and a very funny you tube clip

Well after the disappointment of my own result on Thursday (missed out again, this time by under 100 votes due to protest votes going Green) I am delighted to see that my long time friend and colleague Catherine Bearder has finally achieved her ambition of becoming an MEP.



To celebrate, here is the funniest thing I've seen on YouTube recently:

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bang on the money

I've been rather busy of late so not much time to blog, but I am breaking my silence to say a massive WELL DONE to Vince Cable and Nick Clegg for their announcement on tax.

Raising the threshold to £10K - giving every low and middle earner 700 quid back into their pockets - is exactly the right way to rebalance our monumentally unfair tax system.

It gives spending power to those for whom it will make a real difference and reduces disincentives to work at lower income levels.

And it is paid for not by punitive tax increases at the top end but by common sense reforms that make the overall system fairer.

AND it gives us a simple, easy to sell message for our leaflets and on the doorstep.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

MPs expenses

I'll start by saying that I think it is quite reasonable for MPs who represent constituencies away from London to be able to claim sufficient allowances to enable them to stay in reasonable accomodation in London during the week.

There are issues with how they do that, but some allowance for it is reasonable.

But the idea that an MP representing Brent, a few stops up the Jubilee Line from Westminster, can claim for a second home while also owning a family home in Stratford, beggars belief.

And as my old mate Hywel Morgan has found out, the comparison between different MPs who all represent constituencies near each other in my old stamping ground of North London makes very interesting reading.

One of the issues here is that if they are using the allowance to pay off a mortgage the taxpayer is effectively buying a second home for them which they will be able to either rent out or sell off.

Whether or not this is technically within the rules, it certainly isn't right.

[Declaring my interest: I work for an MP outside London for 25% of my working week]

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's Mark v. Mike (and they've both got a point)

It's psephological handbags at dawn over at Lib Dem Voice where one of my friends, Mark Pack, has taken another, PoliticalBetting's Mike Smithson, to task ove his criticism of David Laws.

Mike's general point is that too many pundits compare current polls with those in the mid-nineties without taking account of the changes in methodology that have happened since then.

He is quite right in this. Many of the polls in the run up to the '97 election gave Labour a massive lead, way ahead of the actual result. Several pollsters changes their methodolgy as a result.

However in his criticism of David Laws he overeggs the pudding a little.

He said: "It also does the Lib Dems no good to be undermining, in however a roundabout way, ICM polls. This is the firm that yesterday had Clegg’s party on 20% compared with just 14% that a MORI poll taken at the same time recorded. It’s all down to the methodology and the former has the track record with LD shares. "

The table in his own article shows that ICM got it right one month before the '97 election (the main parties were each within 1% of ICM's figures) with a Labour lead over the Tories of 14%.

The most recent ICM poll has the Tories' lead over Labour at 12%, and looking back at recent polls and those in the run up to '97 it is clear that the Tories' leads now tend to be lower than Labour leads were in the run up to '97.

This chimes with the general mood that I am picking up.

In the run up to '97 there was a strong national mood that it was time for the Tories to go. The only question was when and by how much. they were hated, and there was a genuine enthusiasm for Blair. (In fact I remember wondering what it was I was missing about Blair, so taken in were so many people I knew).

Now it is a bit different. I do think there is a general mood that Labour should go, but it is not as visceral as it was in '96/'97. And as far as I can tell there is nothing like the positive vibe about Cameron that there was about Blair, possibly because there is a suspiscion that he is not that different from him.

I still think there is a lot to play for, particularly for us.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Harrogate gets my vote

I'm very fond of Harrogate.

My first conference was there - the last full Liberal Assembly in September 1987 that agreed to go ahead with merger.

It is a lovely town, it is in Yorkshire and the Conference Centre is ideal for our Spring Conference.

Overall I found the experince slightly odd, as it is the first conference for sixteen years that I have attended as an ordinary representative rather than having a packed diary of training and meetings. This did mean I had plenty of time to simply sit around and chat to folk.

Children & Education

And it was good conference. The policy theme was children and education, a theme that unites the party on all but some detail.

We agreed a coherent set of policies that will lead to investment at every level with a clear focus on providing better opportunities to those who start with the least life chances.

Importantly we also reaffirmed our clear opposition to Tuition Fees without a murmur of dissent and with several emphatic speechedin favour of the policy. Even better we have widened the policy to include part-time students and adult returners to FE.

Governor Dean

The highlight of the conference for me was watching Governor Howard Dean speak to an enthusiastic welcome and then to discuss his campaign strategy at a smaller meeting.

Having followed Governor Dean's campaign for the nomination last time, and his work as Chair of DNC, I was really excited to see him in the flesh and delighted to be able to ask him a question in the later meeting.

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from him (although we have to understand that not everything that worked for him and then Obama will necessarily transfer straight across)

The key points for me were:

  • The internet is only a tool, it won't do any good if you haven't got something to say
  • It is important to invest in a basic organisation across the board, but to still target extra resources into winnable races once you have identified them
  • The internet community is a community and we have engage with it and treat it with respect
  • We need to ask everyone to vote for us and to discuss issues with them based on where there is common ground, even if they are not traditional supporters or likely to support us initially
  • There are thousands of good ideas out there amongt our supporters and we have to be willing to take some risks in order to allow the good ideas to surface

Happy Birthday Oadby & Wigston and Vale of White Horse

The Lib Dem LGA group organised a 'Birthday Party' to celebrate our 18 years control of Oadby & Wigston and our 14 years control of the Vale.

I was delighted to attend this event as I had helped a lot during the 1991 campaign in Oadby, specifically organising the student campaign in the Leicester Uni Halls of Residence in Oadby and writing and prnting leaflets) and ran the campaign in the Vale in 1995.

My old friend and now Lib Dem LGA chief staffer Ed Fordham was organising the vent and I was as chuffed as cheese when he asked me if I would say a few words about my memories of the two campaigns.

It was also lovely to catch up with the Oadby & Wigston crowd that I hadn't seen for years.

Well done Reading

My good friends in Reading Lib Dems picked up a prize for top growth in membership. This is well deserved by Gareth Epps and his team and it is particularly good to see that the student branch there is doing so well too.

There were a lot of young people and students at the conference and it is good to see that there seems to be something of a growth in the number of active student branches. Our decision on Tuition Fees can only help that growth continue.

It was also good to hear that Liberal Youth are planning to reinitiate Activate weekends (the first of which was run by Hywel Morgan and myself too many years ago to remember and featured the excellent Jo Swinson as one of its participants) and an Executive Training weekend.

And finally ...

I got a sense that there is a renewed confidence in the party.

This is partly due to Vince's credibility, partly due to Nick steadily finding his feet, partly because we went with our instincts on education and fees, and partly because, whatever the polls say, we have more people fighting stronger campaigns in more places than ever before.

Keep at it folks!

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Scottish Executive should think carefully

One of the most consistent principles that has marked out the Liberal Democrats is our belief in natural justice.

That means treating people fairly, defending the rights of the individual against those who hold institutional power, basing judgements on all the evidence and allowing people who have had accusations made against them to know what those accusations are and what the evidence against them is.

It is for that reason that I have become increasingly concerned about the Scottish Party's approach to the problems in Aberdeenshire.

For a very useful background to the history of the situation see Bernard Salmon's blog here.

Several other bloggers have also commented and I would like to associate myself with their views here, here and here.

For an insight into the thinking of the Scottish Executive when they discussed the proposal to suspend the three see ruaraidhdobson's blog here. If I had any doubts about the situation his account of the meeting - particularly his comments about the original planning decision - confirmed my view that the Scottish Executive have got this badly wrong.

By deciding to suspend three party members who are quite clearly on one side of a very complex situation, whilst refusing to investigate complaints made by those members, the Scottish Executive have acted inconsistently.

By deciding to look at the recent behaviour of the three, but not properly investigate all the issues that led to that recent behaviour, they are acting unjustly.

If they have any sense of justice at all the Scottish Executive will put the expulsion process on hold and instigate a full investigation into the history of events that have led to the current situation.

Once that has been done the Scottish Executive should then look at the various options which may include disciplinary action against one or more members, recomendations about how the Aberdeenshire group should be run and a mediation and/or reconciliation process.

If the Scottish Executive continue on their current course they not only risk losing four of the most experienced and committed campaigners in the party, but also diverting many other active Lib Dems into an ongoing campaign to win justice.

I hope the members of the Scottish executive will think again.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Freedom of Speech

Geert Wilders holds extremly unpleasant views with which I disagree fundamentally and which many people will find very offensive.

He has produced a film which links various verses of the Qur'an with various terrorist outrages in an attempt to unfairly tarnish the Muslim faith as a whole with a belief in terrorism.

Unfortunately the Government appears to believe that because they find his views unacceptable and/or offensive, or they fear that some people may find it so, they have stopped him from entering the UK.

Strangely though they have not banned the film itself.

In my view freedom of speech is only worth having if one supports it for people one most strongly disagrees with.

The line we should draw, in my view, is when it comes to actual incitement to violence. If a film actually incites violence, or someone speaking at the showing of a film actually incites violence, then they should feel the full weight of the law.

However, offensive as it is, the film does not incite violence at all.

You can see it here and judge for yourself.

Please do let me know, if after watching the film, you have been incited to violence.

There was a very good debate on newsnight about this last night which you can see here. Maajid Nawas of the moderate Muslim Quillam Foundation argues the liberal case very effectively alongside Christian writer Rev Jay Smith.

As Maajid argues, I want to be able to hear arguments I disagree with, have the opportunity to argue against them, and have enough confidence in my arguments that they will prevail.

I do not want or need Government Ministers to decide what arguments I am capable of judging sensibly. I can decide that for myself, thanks very much.

(Oh - and Keith Vaz is an idiot.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What planet are they on?

According to this mornings papers, Ministers are 'trying to negotiate' a cap on RBS bonuses of £25,000.

This is 'a bid to silence the public outcry over the City's culture of huge rewards and dangerous risk-taking'.

What planet are the Government on?

We OWN 68% of RBS. Ministers shouldn't be negotiating, they should be telling RBS to take a running jump, preferably from a very high floor.

The fact that RBS are even suggesting bonuses in the current situation shows that they still have not got the first clue about their culpability for the financial crisis nor any idea of how they are seen by the rest of the population who have had to bail them out.

The fact that a Labour Government thinks a cap on bonuses, set at a level higher than most people earn in a year, is in any way acceptable, shows how comepletely out of touch they are with reality too.

And is it really too much to ask that there might be at least a hint that the Government's motives might have something to do with what is right, rather than what is expedient?

Bankers should not be getting any bonuses at all, for several years if ever again.

Senior Executives, whose massive salaries were justified on the basis that high salaries were needed to attract 'the best people' have blown that theory right out of the water. They trousered millions in the good times, and they should be taking salary cuts now.

And we, or at least anyone who is still feeding the profits of these numpties, because we share the blame for letting them get away with it, should move our accounts to the nearest mutual building society.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Democrats have just about won another one

Despite Obama's victory feeling like old news, November's US elections are still not quite finished.

The recount in Minnesota has now been certified unanimously by the state canvassing board and this puts Democrat Al Franken ahead by a handful of votes.

But he is not home and dry. Republican Norm Coleman has issued a legal challnge (having previously opposed such tactics when he was ahead!) which means that Franken cannot be officially declared the winner just yet.

hat tip: MyDD

For me, it's about investing in people's potential

I was delighted to be amongst those supporting the retention of our position on tuition fees at last night's FPC meeting.

For me this issue is not about the detail, but about sending a clear message that the Liberal Democrats believe that it is the role of the state to help each individual fulfil their own potential.

Large levels of student debt, attached to the individual, make it hard for people to make a free choice about their own development.

Rather than saying that education is about personal fulfilment, individual debt makes it about repayment.

By taking a clear position on tuition fees, we make it clear that we are on the side of investing in people's potential, and that individuals should be able to make choices about their higher education based on their ambitions, not their bank balance.

It is also important for me that we should treat adults as adults, rather than base their entitlement on the income of their parents.

Our message on tuition fees at the last two elections, and on the penny on income tax for education before that, struck a real chord with people because it clearly identified the Lib Dems as the party that believed in investing in education and in opportunities for all.

I'm now confident that the raft of policies that are being developed from early years through to Higher education will do just that.