Friday, December 30, 2005

Trivial political pursuits

I managed to catch David Blunkett’s stint as guest editor of the Today programme. I can’t help having a bit of a soft spot for Blunkett, perhaps because he has the courage of his convictions and argues his case, unlike Blair who gives the impression that he thinks we should all agree with him because of his own transparent goodness.

David Blunkett’s role reversal interview with John Humphrys was interesting. Blunkett’s theme was that the media stifle and trivialise political debate by pouncing on single words or phrases and endlessly speculating on their meaning, so that it becomes imposssible for politicians to make jokes in public or think aloud. This is a line of argument that is most closely associated with the journalist John Lloyd, most recently put forward in an article in the New Statesmen, written jointly with government minister Douglas Alexander.

I would have a bit more sympathy with this line of argument, if political parties were not equally guilty of the sins they attribute to the media. To take examples from recent by-elections. When the Labour victor of the 2004 Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election was interviewed on television, he repeated almost as a mantra that the reason for his success was that Labour were on the side of the victims of crime whereas Liberal Democrats were on the side of the perpetrators. Similar tactics were used in the subsequent Hartlepool by-election. Labour made much of a jocular remark made by the Lib Dem candidate’s about an evening’s canvassing, spinning this as an insult to the people of Hartlepool.

This is not to make a partisan point – I am more than aware that our opponents would have rather severe comments to make about Lib Dem campaigning methods. All I am saying is that if a political party can reduce the complexities of criminal justice policy to a claim that their party is against crime whereas their opponents are in favour of it, then politicians can hardly then blame the media for trivialising political debate.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Lounge lizard

Among my favourite Christmas presents this year is a CD called Lounge Against the Machine, a set of cover versions of punk, new wave and indie classics performed in a Las Vegas style. It is credited to Richard Cheese, who is in fact a comedian named Mark Jonathan Davis.

Although the idea of performing songs in a different style/genre from the original versions is hardly new, this is particularly well done. The best track is a jaunty version of Radiohead's angst-ridden 'Creep'. Radiohead are of course no strangers to ironic covers, having recorded interesting versions of 'Rhinestone Cowboy' and 'Video Killed the Radio Star'.

I see that LATM was released five years ago, so this is hardly topical. Although it is a single-joke concept it is fun nonetheless. It is not to be confused with the group Nouvelle Vague, who take a different set of punk standards and perform them in the French (rather than Las Vegas) lounge style.

Consumer guide to life coaches

Consumer guide to life coaches

Radio 4’s You and Yours yesterday had a piece by Frank Furedi setting out his critique of the use of ‘life coaches’ and other such gurus who, he argues, are undermining people’s ability to make decisions for themselves and turning adults back into children.

Furedi was not part of the subsequent studio discussion, in which, first, Cherie Blair’s pal Carol Caplin was interviewed, followed by a panel discussion with Caplin, another life coach and an academic who took an ‘one-the-one-hand – on-the-other’ sort of line.

They interviewed one woman who sang the praises of her life coach. He had helped her to realise that as she approached the age of 60 she did not have a stark choice between working or retirement but could be more flexible in how she worked – or something like that. Anyway, it appeared that she had paid good money to get advice that she could equally have got by speaking to any moderately well-informed friend, colleague or acquaintance.

It was interesting to hear how gently ‘You and Yours’ treated the whole issue. Apart from Furedi’s contribution, the advocates of life coaching were given a pretty easy ride. As a consumer programme ‘You and Yours’ takes a tough line with private companies that it considers to be in some way ripping people off, even where the consumers concerned have been culpably credulous in their own behaviour.

I suspect, though, that because life coaching had some hippyish, new age overtones, it doesn’t get the same close scrutiny that might be given if such services were offered by multinational corporations.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Reflections on the Lib Dem attempted putsch

There was a good article by Martin Kettle in the Guardian 17 December on the dilemmas facing the Lib Dems. I don't always agree with Kettle but he is generally worth reading, because he refuses to indulge in leftist wishful-thinking. He pointed out that the Lib Dems now have to decide whether they want to be'an aggregation of individual constituency MPs' or 'a party with pretensions to a role in government'. If the latter, then we must have some goals that we wish to achieve in government.

I am often struck by the contrast between the bold and innovative approach that Liberal Democrats have taken in local government towards reform of public services, and the caution and old-fashioned sentimentalism that party conference shows towards the sacred cows of the welfare state.

Where the Liberal Democrats have replaced tired Labour town hall administrations, as they have done in Liverpool, Islington, Southwark etc., they have been notably robust in cutting out waste, reducing unnecessary spending and tackling public sector vested interests. They have been been pragmatic on 'outsourcing' of service delivery. Indeed Liverpool Liberal Democrats made the continued use of private contractors to collect refuse one of the key elements of their election campaign when they took control of the council. This approach – caring about services, caring about costs, to revive an old slogan seems popular with the electorate. It has worked for us in Watford.

Yet whenever there is a hint that national policy on public services might deviate from a mantra of demanding higher spending or might include partnership with the private sector there is an outcry from certain sections of the party who regard this as an attempted Thatcherite coup.

Even those who are involved in local government seem unwilling to draw any lessons for national policy from their local experiences. It was noticeable at conference that in each of the controversial debates - on capping EU spending and the future of the post office - senior Liverpool councillors spoke passionately against the motions.

Through its more successful local government administrations, the Liberal Democrats have developed an approach to reform of public services that is both distinctive and effective. It involves, among other things, commitment to effective service delivery, willingness to be flexible about who delivers the service, recognition that high costs don't automatically equal high quality and willingness to listen to the views of the users of public services.

While the Liberal Democrats seem quite comfortable with this as a recipe for effective local government, there is no appetite for applying its lessons more widely.

Good intentions

Here is my second go at blogging. The first disintegrated in the excitement of general election campaigning last year. It doesn't help that I'm not very good at getting into a routine of writing every day. I've never kept a diary or journal and when I do write it tends to be in bursts when deadlines loom large.

But I enjoy reading blogs, with the occasional thought that I could do this too – so here goes. I hope to deal with some of my interests from Lib Dem politics to music, rugby and my campaign to abolish the apostrophe. Let's see how this one goes.

A word about the title – 'Eaten by missionaries'. I imagine most who find their way to this blog will be familiar with the quotation from Rev. Spooner. Although not quite a conventional Spoonerism, it is perhaps the funniest of his entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

It also captures unintentionally a greater truth about the way sometimes the most terrible acts are committed by people who have only the best of intentions – something that Liberals such as myself do well to remember!