Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A thought...

Mark Oaten on Today this morning, expounding the virtues of ‘tough liberalism’, which will involve community panels sentencing offenders to clean up graffiti and put vandalism right. He was asked how it was all going to be paid for. His response? Flog off the prisons in the cities and build new ones out of town.

Can you see it now? Planning applications for prisons in North Dingly Dell-under-Lyme with irate protestors and NIMBY-types refusing to have a bunch of criminal types placed down the road.

Haven’t we learned anything from the asylum seeker protests a few years ago? At this rate once we’ve sold out the inner city prisons, Mark will find himself having to float the idea – quite literally – of putting them all out on ships or an island off the mainland, a la Oliver Letwin…

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Blogging from afar

Last month James Crabtree, an old university chum, sent around an email suggesting Labour and Lib Dem conferences be blogged. It followed on from his last post on Voxpolitics.

Well I’m not at conference this year (small matter of finishing up work here in London, starting a postgraduate course and getting the electricians into my rapidly crumbling flat), but that doesn’t mean I can’t make observations from afar. In fact this is the first time in four years that I’ve not been at conference, so I’m getting a different perspective from the media. Conference is like a cocoon, a bubble where what the grassroots talk about rarely gets represented. I admit to making the same grumbles as anyone else, but it’s also easy to get led into thinking that what we’re debating is of extreme importance.

Um… well it might be – but only to us. Conference three years ago was overshadowed by events in New York and the possibility of action against Afghanistan; two years ago the talk was of the Iraq dossier.

At conference I would read the papers, but rarely got to a TV or the radio; hence why this year listening to the Today programme and watching the 6pm bulletins (the ones most likely to get seen by the voters) has been so interesting.

For example I thought Vince Cable’s comments about the party’s spending plans were measured and reasonable on Today this morning, including admitting that some would pay more under the proposed local income tax which would replace council tax. But 20 minutes later, during the 8am bulletin the radio presenter noted that the Lib Dems would be debating environmental incentives. One of these would be reductions in council tax for certain eco-friendly measures undertaken in the home.

Which got me thinking: since council tax will be scrapped by the local income tax, would the incentive still apply? And if so, would it help reduce the burden on those who would see their burden go up as a result of the tax change?
Villainy of the stereotypical kind

Last night settled down to catch the second half of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. Not that I was actively seeking to watch it. It was just on.

It does seem that Gibson has a – ahem – slight grudge towards the English? We’ve had Gallipoli (idealistic, wide-eyed Australian soldiers mistreated by callous British generals), Braveheart (Scotland v England) and The Patriot (quiet American family man roused to anger and fighting for his country against the British).

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to his next project which will see him as a member of Saddam’s Republican Guard taking on the British army. Admittedly, it could be a tough sell in Hollywood, but a story that I'm sure Gibson can sell to producers in his own indomitable style...

Monday, September 20, 2004

Unlikely to say the least

Contrary to expectations, I'm not in Bournemouth for the annual Lib Dem jamboree. Things to finish up at work this week before starting here next Monday.

But I couldn't let the Lib Dems go without some mention. So apart from my astonishment that we could even countenance forming a coalition with Labour in the event of a hung Parliament (is it really only one-and-a-half years since we voted against them on the defining issue of this Parliament, against war in Iraq?), I popped into the Waterstones near Senate House to see about this Orange Book that's been creating such a stink.

Not that I plan to buy it, mind. I just wanted to see who had contributed. Although they had three in stock the assistant wasn't able to find it. "Maybe they've been stolen or moved to another part of the shop," she said.

Who in their right mind would steal not one or two, but three copies of a series of dry Lib Dem policies?

Well? I'm waiting.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

A clever move?

Is Lula going to form an alliance with the Liberal Front Party (PFL) in Brazil? I know there are tensions between some of the PFL leadership, with some in favour and others wanting to stay in opposition. But the PFL is like a lot of right-wing parties: they like power; opposition doesn’t suit them.

Anyone thinking that Lula’s left-wing government would be a break with the past must be stunned. I hear jaws hitting the floor among our dinosaur left observers here in the UK.

However, it could be that Lula’s playing a canny game. The consequence of courting the PFL is encouraging splits within the party (today's edition), as shown by the proceedings now taking place to expel one of the grand old names of the PFL, Antonio Carlos Magalhaes. Even if it doesn’t actually happen, it may well divide the party to such an extent that Lula need never worry about a concerted and united opposition again.

We’ll see.
Up or down?

Sometimes I wonder about my former employers in Parliament.

Just look at today’s Independent:

Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, who was in the chamber,
said: “This incident must give encouragement to the average terrorist.”

What could we expect from a below-average terrorist? Where would yesterday’s performance sit in a terrorist league table?
Order! Order!

Why should I bother posting on something that everyone has probably already done to death.

Good question.

But what’s a blog if it isn’t an opportunity for me to vent my spleen.

So here’s my contribution (for what it’s worth and if you’re still interested):

1. Trust the media for focusing on what the officers in Parliament were wearing when they rugby-tackled the protestors on the floor of the Commons: buckle shoes, stockings and socks. So what do they say? Get the police to look after the place. Um, hello? Who are these officers? Ex-army. Damn sight more useful than a copper, methinks. And perhaps they’ll finally shelve their stupid plans to create glass screens and actually grabble with providing basic security rather than grandiose schemes.

2. Finally the right (go on, most of those supporters are all Tory voters) have finally got a lesson in police brutality. All those times they said that the left brought it onto themselves (poll tax riots, Stop the War, anti-globalisation demos, miners’ strike), now they know what it’s like. And as for claiming it was a small minority that caused the violence… Yes, it’s the same at the lefty ones as well. Maybe we’ll now get a little more understanding in future?

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Power to the people... and companies?

My latest article is now up at Brazzil. It’s about a visit a few of us made to Caetano Veloso’s and Gilberto Gil’s old house here in London.

That was last Sunday. But I want to write here about something else later that day. In the evening I met up with a friend to watch the ICA event in Trafalgar Square: Battleship Potemkin with a Pet Shop Boys-written score. Surprisingly it seemed to work as well, although more in the build up and tension of particular scenes, including the celebrations by the local people and the ship speeding its way towards the squadron.

The only drawback was that our feet hurt. Still, we managed to stay to the end – which meant that we got a better view as scores of people headed for an early train home.

It threatened to pour down all evening, but didn’t. And even if it had I’m sure the same thing would have befallen everyone who put up an umbrella: hecklers behind us would shout at them to put it away.

Most inspiring moment? When the guards refuse to fire on their fellow sailors – you could even hear a small cheer from the crowd towards the front (how long had they been standing there?).

The only thing which left a sour taste in the mouth (and it was washed away by the start of the film proper) was some chap who sounded suspiciously like an SWP stooge, who began the evening by talking about Trafalgar Square’s association with popular protest and rebellion, drawing in the poll tax riot, Stop the War marches, Aldermaston and so on. It rather seemed to escape him and the socialists in the crowd of the corporate sponsors on the screen before the start…

Friday, September 10, 2004

Diplomatic maneuverings

Tuesday I made the trip down to the Brazilian Embassy for the Independence Day reception. Completely full it was too. Must have been a pain for the ambassador, his wife and the various attaches, standing their shaking hands with all and sundry.

As I passed Bustani, his eyes looked glazed and his grin fixed. But his wife wasn't taking it as well. Then inside for an orange juice, Coke or - and remember this was midday - a glass of whiskey to go along with the nibbles.

Service was carried out by white-coated Brazilians, moving noiselessly through the wooden rooms into the covered garden. With the sun as warm as it's been all summer, you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were in the tropics and not off a road near Hyde Park.

But really, it wasn't much use as a networking event. I wasn't sure who was there and I've never been the type to small talk. So an opportunity to sell the Sao Paulo blog was lost.

Oh well.

But good news elsewhere. Rodney of Brazzil magazine seems enthusiastic about the project and has made me a columnist. We've now got an arrangement whereby what we write for the blog gets some coverage in Brazzil as well. And that appears to be helping the hit rate.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Asking for a halt

Is it just me or is the political blogging scene here in the UK getting incredibly self-referential? When I started – just six months ago – it still didn’t seem to have that many advocates. Trail blazers were few on the ground and the debate seemed informed.

How though it all seems to have gone over the top. While I supported Bloggerheads’ call to arms to encourage our elected representatives to take blogging up, it now seems to have spawned out of control.

‘Stalking’ an MP by setting up a blog in their name was a good idea, if only to emphasise to the individual in question that there was a space out there with their name on it – literally. And in some cases they provide a service by informing logged-on people what their MP is up to.

But what about when an MP or prospective MP takes up the challenge? Should they be left to get on with it? Take the blog of Lib Dem candidate Jody Dunn in Hartlepool. She’s doing one while there is another which claims to shadow what’s she’s doing but is clearly against what she stands for. Similarly there are the campaigning blogs like Labour Watch and Lib Dem Watch who are scrutinising the parties, from a biased starting point.

The Hartlepool by-election has seen a proliferation of blogs over the last month, many of which no longer seem to be interested in engaging with the campaign or (except in a few honourable cases, like Guacamoleville) reporting upon it. In fact some seem more interested in making the news – or what they think passes for it – including the idea that Jody Dunn shouldn’t be elected for having a web domain based in Germany. As the satirists at Comical Tommy point out, how can you parody something when the reporting is beyond a joke?

I’m beginning to get concerned that whereas before blogging offered a welcome addition to the political stew and could perhaps reach parts not yet reached, in a large part it’s gone off in its own directionless tangent. Anyone trying to follow the Hartlepool by-election solely by blog would find it to be almost utterly different to that being thought in the conventional press or in the street.

I wonder what others think…
Why we're doing it

My latest article is up at Brazzil about the Sao Paulo mayoral election blog which is taking up most of my blogging time at the moment.

Come on, let's get the hit rate up!

Friday, September 03, 2004

No fat lady in sight

Ever since one of the Cheney daughters appeared on Newsnight at the Republican Convention this week I've been unable to think how myopic these people's grasp of history has been.

Defending WOT ('war on terror' to you and me), Ms Cheney argued that Clinton had tried to deal with al-Qaeda and terrorism as if it were a policing matter, treating them liken criminals. And that didn't work. So now we have the military option and the grandiose claim of fighting this 'war on terror'.

They really don't get it, do they? They can never beat it in the way they're doing. And if they don't believe me, then they should go back to their classrooms and remember how the US won its independence. Instead of meeting the enemy head on, they resorted to hit-and-run guerilla tactics. They relied on the help of their knowledge of the local terrain and supporters. George Washington wasn't that great a commander. I vaguely recall reading he lost more battles than he won. But he also knew that as long as he kept the Continental Army in existence the British could never win. And sure enough, they conceded.

Substitute terrorists for Washington's lot and you'll see why Dubya won't ever win.
Before passing judgment...

Yes. Much comment in the goldfish bowl that is Lib Dem politics has been uttered on this Orange Book. And I've made my views on this and the associated strategy known before.

But I'm going to make a change. Rather than blow hot or cold, I think I'll pick up my own copy (preferably for nothing) and review it. Speaking of which, I still have this and this to write up following my visit to Canada last month.
Up goes the drawbridge

I'm not quite sure what Donnachadh McCarthy thinks he's going to achieve with this. It's not as if the Parliamentary Ombudsman has any authority over internal Lib Dem party processes.

But then I suppose that's not the point. Donnachadh has been quite upset about the matter for some time and finally resigned from the party's federal executive earlier this year. His letter explaining the reasons are in May's Liberator (page 21).

While I sympathise wit his view that the leadership should be held to account by the party through conference, I fear this complaint isn't going to go anywhere. Part of the problem is Donnachadh himself. While I like him and agree with many of his views (although I'm not sure he realises it), he does have a confrontational approach with jars with many in the party.

My own experience with him was a few years ago, when we were working on the rural affairs policy working group. He was adamant we rule out GM completely from the document. But as far as I could see, anything less would be seen as a concession to the biotech companies in his eyes.

What he didn't realise was there was concern about GM around the table and that many of us were far closer to him than he probably saw. But because I was working with the Parliamentarians I must have appeared to represent everything he was against. And the resulting confrontation not only lost him support but also encouraged individuals to draw ranks against him.

If he could be a bit less spiky and perhaps encourage others to act on his and others' behalf, then maybe we could weaken the barriers ahead. I just fear that this submission to the Ombudsman will just harden attitudes against him and his concerns.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Old is the new young

I've got my LDYS e-bulletin today. I've said on this site before that I thought I was too old to be getting this stuff. But one of the bits of news made me reconsider:

NEW COUNCILLOR IN YOUR FIRST TERM? Then we have the event for you. The National Young Councillor Forum was a Lib Dem Initiative and is now gaining strength and developing ways to support councillors under 35.

Looks like I've got another seven years of yoof-fulness ahead of me...
Clash of the titans?

So was it any surprise really? With a comprehensive 71% of the returned ballots, Simon Hughes is the new president of the Lib Dems. Was Lembit anywhere near?

I think I can admit to having voted for Simon. But I was almost torn. I really was.

In almost all circumstances I would have voted for Simon - he was the first to give me a job in Parliament (alright, it was slave labour, doing the filing and in any case it was his then chief of staff, the great tell-it-like-it-is Graeme Salt who really invited me in) and I helped him during his 1997 election campaign in Southwark. He was one of the few MPs to remember me and take time out to talk. And when I became a GLA candidate he was enthusiastic and spent a lot of time with us in East London which was hardly obvious target territory, it must be said).

And I don't hold with some of the murmurs that Simon ran a weak campaign in June, that he didn't pull his weight, that his failure to beat Norris showed up deficiencies in his leadership.

He was doing what he's always has done, campaigning on the doorstep, talking to people in the street.

But having said that, Lembit almost seduced me away.

His was the fancier, glitzier campaign. He seemed to really want the president's post; some of the answers he gave to different internal Lib Dem groups suggested he had thought about what the president could do. By contrast Simon's comments and responses seemed a little tired, a bit too woolly and unfocused.

But one thing held me back from marking Lembit: his ambition. It was the last edition of Liberator which did it. Both candidates were asked whether they were using the position of president as a platform to party leader. And although he didn't admit it, it seemed obvious (to me at any rate!) that Lembit saw it as just that. More dialogue with non-traditional media was his proposal to reach out to the wider electorate.

Now where have I heard that before? Oh yes, our Dear Leader, CK (to give him his current nom-de-fragrance) who was once party president before beating Hughesy to the leader's post five years ago.

And suddenly I woke up and berated myself. How could I have almost fallen for Lembit? No, it won't happen again.

Of course that's not to say Simon isn't without ambition. I'm sure he wants the ultimate prize (insofar as being Lib Dem leader is that) one day. But I got taken in by a media luvvie once before (no, I'm not going to say who), and I lived to regret it.

But that doesn't mean Simon's going to get a free run from me. By no means. I hope he will take some of the concerns and ideas from Lembit's bid and run with them - not least how to engage with our grass roots and councillor base. I voted for him although I wasn't sure his ideas were the freshest. But I'm giving him another chance. And I hope he'll make a success of it.