Thursday, August 31, 2006

On the proposed ban on violent pornography

Jonathan Calder and The Whiskey Priest both highlight the government's proposed ban on violent pornography, which has been enthusiastically welcomed by the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman Sandra Gidley MP according to this BBC report.

Where to start? Given the horrible circumstances of her daughter's death it is quite understandable that Liz Longhurst would campaign for such a ban and that many politicians would want to support her. Even the most entrenched opponent of censorship must feel at least a twinge of sympathy and recognise that they would be batting on a sticky wicket in opposing this. For the Liberal Democrats to do so would risk making us appear simply cranky rather than principled defenders of free speech.

My problem is that when issues like this arise our party spokespersons act as uncritical cheerleaders for banning things rather than as questioning and sceptical voices. Such a ban is not going to end violent crime and probably won't stop the really determined from accessing banned material. Questions are already being raised about whether it will be possible to enforce the ban effectively (see BBC report cited above). Liberals, surely, should at the very least be the least gung ho! of the parties for a measure like this.

It's another example of the problem I have repeatedly highlight both here and elsewhere - the gap between our professed principles as expressed in the abstract and the stance we take in practice when confronted with hard issues.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Thish ish all about personalities – It's the ishoos that matter

… As Tony Benn might say.

I find it hard to get interested in let alone excited about this instant biography of Charles Kennedy by a hack I’ve never heard of.

And much of the talk about whether Lib Dem MPs were too cruel or too kind to Charles or whether they ‘covered up’ his drink problem is nonsense too.

I don’t claim any great medical expertise, but whereas it’s pretty obvious if someone has a cold or has broken their leg, drink problems are harder to be certain about:

A likes a drink. B gets drunk at parties. C is a heavy drinker, D has a drink problem, E is an alcoholic, F is a recovering alcoholic. All the above categories may segue into one another and to the untrained eye it is hard to tell exactly which stage someone is at. I once had a work colleague who was more or less permanently drunk, but quite lucid, by no means incapacitated and perfectly capable of doing his job. Other people might occasionally have a couple of pints at lunchtime and be knocked out for the afternoon.

It was quite understandable that journalists and Lib Dem MPs alike did not rush to publicise whatever they may have known about Charles’s difficulties with alcohol. Charles should have gone quietly once he had lost colleagues’ confidence and dealt with his problem quietly and discreetly away from the limelight.

The new biography will end up on the remainder shelves soon enough. Charles as an outgoing leader who brought the party some success is entitled to a speech at conference. One trusts that conference will be stage managed enough to ensure that Charles does not upstage Ming.

Being a new third party leader is a tough job anyway – Thorpe, Steel and Ashdown all saw a drop in the party’s number of seats in their first election as leader. So it’s no surprise that things are tough for Ming now, but there is plenty of time for him to establish himself before the next election.

All in all, a storm in a tea cup – or even a whisky glass.

Let’s talk about the ishoos!

Socialism and a liberal dilemma

I’ll never quite cut the mustard as a polemicist. Each time I post something controversial on this blog I then worry that I’ve been rather horrid to the person I have criticised.

So, pondering my last post on obesity, I should point out, in fairness to Sandra Gidley, that she is doing no more than reflecting a strategic dilemma that the Liberal Democrats face at the moment.

Here’s what I mean. Most Lib Dems would agree that they want the party to be liberal. But they also want it to be ‘on the left’. Unfortunately, for the past century left–right discourse has not been about liberalism versus illiberalism but about socialism versus capitalism. As a result, many liberals worry about being too anti-socialist in case that puts us on the right.

If left means socialist then the correct left response to any social problem is to say that it can and should be ameliorated, or even solved, by increased government action (and spending). When confronted with the Department of Health report on obesity, a Lib Dem spokesperson may consider the ways of responding.

One, distinctively liberal, response might be to say that while obesity is a real problem, in the end it’s a matter of personal lifestyle choice and something the government can’t easily solve, even if it has a duty to make sure people have access to the right information. But to many people this smacks of complacent, uncaring Toryism. In short, it sounds like a right-wing response. (I should say here that I don’t think its right wing, because I believe progressive politics should be about setting people free to make their own choices, not about bossy, authoritarian government. But let that pass.)

A second option would be to agree that obesity is indeed a serious issue and welcome the fact that the government has recognised this and is doing something to tackle it. This would reconcile the liberal versus left dilemma, but is a rather uncritical position for an opposition party to take.

That then leaves the third response, which is the one Sandra Gidley has chosen, namely to say that it’s a terrible problem, a ‘time-bomb’ even, that the government isn’t doing nearly enough to tackle it and ought to be doing far more. This is no more than the standard response of many Lib Dem spokesman to any number of social issues concerning public health, safety child care etc.

Unfortunately, the end result is that on these domestic issues we have little to set us apart from the other parties beyond saying that we always want a bit extra public spending, state intervention and government bossiness than they do.

In my view the collapse of socialism in the last decade of the twentieth century was a chance to redefine progressive politics along liberal lines. Unfortunately, too many Liberal Democrats cling to the comfort blanket of the (essentially socialist) nostrum that to be on the left must always mean supporting more government.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Fatuous about flab

Some while ago I signed up to receive something called the Daily Bulletin from the Liberal Democrat campaigns department. It is a sort of briefing sheet for campaigners, giving the party line on the issues of the day. In practice I rarely manage to read it, partly from lack of time and partly because I am so often annoyed and exasperated by the pronouncements of our parliamentarians, that it’s best for blood pressure if I refrain.

For some reason, however, I opened Friday’s edition and read the following from Sandra Gidley MP on the Department of Health survey which predicts there will be 13 million obese people in Britain by 201O:

These figures are shocking, but hardly surprising. The extent of the obesity epidemic has been known for some time. This week’s rebranding of Caroline Flint as fitness minister was a gimmick intended to shift attention away from the Government’s failure to tackle the time bomb of obesity in this country. Obesity is one of the issues which she should already be dealing with as the Minister for public health.

This sort of thing is just so fatuous that it makes me footstampingly cross. To avoid the rest of this post coming across as a childish tantrum, I better find something to help me calm down. Perhaps I’ll go downstairs and have a piece of that tasty-looking lemon cheesecake that my dear wife bought from Marks and Spencers.

Mmmmmm! Delicious. Now, back to Sandra Gidley. The first problem here is the assumption that obesity is entirely the responsibility of the government. Not a thought here of the Liberal notions of individual choice and responsibility. In fact, obesity is the result of too many like me people eating cheesecake and spending time on their computers instead of going out for an invigorating run. No one, not even the New Labour government, forces us to do this. If obesity rates are to be reduced it will be because individuals decide to change their lifestyles.

Secondly, Sandra Gidley assumes that the problem of obesity can be easily solved by additional (although unspecified) government action and that therefore the Labour government is culpable for failing to take said action. But it is far from obvious that this is the case. Other government campaigns on health/lifestyle issues have met with mixed results. Anti-smoking campaigns have surely left nobody in any doubt that smoking is bad for you. But it took quite a long time to get adult smoking rates down from over 50% to around 30%. And they have obstinately refused to fall further.

Endless information campaigns about the dangers of alcohol abuse have left us with a prolonged moral panic about binge drinking. Not to mention the continued failure of the ‘war on drugs’!

Thirdly, this survey is a forecast, which may or may not prove accurate, about what might happen in the future. Yet Sandra Gidley attacks the government as if it already a reality. It is disingenuous and wrong to attack the government for ‘failure to tackle’ a hypothetical situation which has not yet arisen and possibly won’t ever do so. One might add that these studies are not infallible and should be treated by liberals with a modicum of scepticism not uncritical acceptance.

In short public concern about obesity levels is a fairly recent phenomenon. It is not clear that there are easy solutions that the government can implement with a guarantee of success, because in the end people have to become convinced to change their eating and exercise habits and it may take a while to persuade them to do so. We tubbies may thwart the best intentions of the health fascists – sorry, enthusiasts. The answers are not straightforward and for Liberal Democrats to pretend otherwise is unworthy of a serious political party and merely cheapens the tone of the debate.

I am sure I could say more about this, but blogging makes me hungry and if I don’t stop soon, I’ll end up having a second piece of cheesecake.

PS: Have just spotted the full report of Sandra Gidley’s comments here. The bit about school playing fields I agree with, but in general my comments stand.

Comment is liberated

My technological ineptitute has got the better of me.

Some while ago, some SPAM posts appeared on the blog – you know the kind of thing – 'Very nice, make some easy money by selling your soul to the Devil' etc. I decided to try and work out how to get rid of them, couldn't, gave it up as a bad job and left them there.

Since the blog has been largely inactive for a few months I thought no more about it. But I did wonder why the occasional posts I did make provoked no response at all. I don't expect mass readership and a heated debate. But I was surprised to be so anodyne and dull as to get no replies whatever.

Now I have realised that I had switched comment moderation on without realising it, but wasn't moderating and publishing the comments. So nothing ever appeared. My Watford Green Party adversary, Lobster Blogster, even accused me of censorship.

I have now corrected this and posted all the genuine comments and some of the SPAM ones from the last six months – some of them several times over. I may also have inadvertently deleted some. I don't know for certain. Thanks to all those who have posted.

My next task is to work out how to switch comment moderation off. This may happen straight away or it might take me several months. Watch this space!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Mass defections in Derby – Labour to Lib Dems

Jonathan Wallace reports the news of 37 Labour members defecting to the Lib Dems in Margaret Beckett’s Derby South constituency. This seems to be based on a press release from the national party.

I have reservations about this sort of thing and fear that the short-term publicity boost is not worth the longer-term problems. We have a little experience of this in Watford.

In the first place, single-issue defections are a worry of themselves. How deep is someone’s philosophical commitment to the Liberal Democrats if their reason for defecting is not being converted to a Liberal worldview from a Labour one, but anger over an issue which, although very important, is hardly central to British party politics. The concept of a mass defection, 37 people suddenly finding they have simultaneously decided to switch parties, makes me feel uneasy, too.

Lastly, I would be worried if views on the Middle East became a dividing line in British party politics. Traditionally all three main parties have included both Israeli and Palestinian sympathisers in their ranks. All three have maintained relatively bi-partisan views on the Israel/Palestine question, albeit with differences of emphasis in precisely how this was expressed. In so far as Britain can hope to do any good when in intervenes in issues in the Middle East it helps that this degree of bipartisanship exists regardless of which party is in government.

It would be an unwelcome development if Labour and Conservative Parties were strongly identified with support for Israel and the Liberal Democrats with support for Palestine and with British Jews and Muslims choosing their party allegiances accordingly.

I would advise the Lib Dem hierarchy to tread cautiously if there are more offers of mass defections on single issues.

Some day all this will be yours!

I have been mulling over the issue of inheritance tax, following Stephen Byers’ recent call to scrap it. Although his comments have been dismissed by a lot of people on the left as right-wing nonsence, I have a certain sympathy with his criticisms of inheritance tax.

Death duties are administratively neat, taking money at the point where it is passed to the legatees. The latter don’t miss what they’ve never had and have done nothing to earn. So far, so good! But one of the motivations for people to work hard and succeed in their chosen careers is to provide for their families and enable their children to have a better life. The ‘one day all of this will be yours’ sentiment seems to me a generous and noble one. The money and assets people have acquired during their lives has already been subject to tax, so there is no obvious reason why it should be taxed again.

These sentiments are perhaps coloured by my love of stately homes and the sense of historical continuity through generations that they give – even if the aristocracy are mostly a load of horrid old Tories. Recently I visited Dalmeny, just outside Edinburgh, the home of the earls of Rosebery. Dalmeny survives in the family’s ownership and is open to the public. But Mentmore , the another, and perhaps the greatest, of the Rosebery family homes has not been so fortunate. The house was reputedly one one of Britain’s great historic treasures with a collection of art and furniture unrivalled anywhere in Europe. On the death of the sixth earl in the 1970s the family gave the government the opportunity to acquire the house in lieu of death duties. This was rejected by the appalling Callaghan government and the house was sold, its contents auctioned off and dispersed.

The battle to save Mentmore for the nation was one of the great cause celebres of the heritage movement. It was one of the greatest losses to the national heritage of the post-war era. The house was acquired by the followers of the Maharashi Yogi and became the headquarters of the Natural Law party. It has now been sold again and is set to become a luxury hotel.

There is some irony in the fact that the prime minister who presided over the introduction of graduated death duties in 1894 was none other than the fifth Earl of Rosebery, who was primarily responsible for accumulating the treasures of Mentmore. Rosebery was only a reluctant supporter of the new tax, however. The real enthusiast, his chancellor Sir William Harcourt also became a victim of his own policy when in the last year of his life he inherited family estates at Nuneham, Oxfordshire.

Another by-election gain from the Tories

A couple of posts ago, I said that if the Liberal Democrats are to be the party of localism, we have to do more than just win the odd local by-election.

However, winning council by-elections is nice too, so congratulations to all responsible for the victory in
Harrow Weald yesterday by a 200-vote margin, thus regaining a seat lost in the May elections. Harrow Lib Dems have had a torrid time of it over the last few years, from losing control of the council in 1998 to the nominations fiasco and disappointing election results this year.

Let’s hope this victory is the spur to a sustained fightback since on the face of it Harrow should be good Lib Dem territory. Given Harrow Weald’s proximity to us, it’s no surprise that Watford Lib Dems did their bit to help, even if my own role was confined to delivering the Good Morning leaflet in the rain yesterday. Others did rather more, most notably Stephen Giles-Medhurst whose former stamping ground Harrow is.

Anyway, the Tories appear to have been making quite a mess of things in Harrow since taking control in May, and have received an early bloody nose.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Scottish smoking ban – I knew I was right

The Scottish Licensed Traders Association has said that its members report a 10 per cent reduction in alcohol sales north of the border since the smoking ban came into force. The story is reported here on the BBC website. It has been amended since this morning and in its earlier version mentioned that smaller pubs were suffering more than the large chains.

This makes my comments on this blog back in January seem remarkably prescient :
...the problem will be of accelerating the decline of rural village pubs and urban backstreet locals. The large vertical-drinking emporia will cope with a smoking ban and the young people who visit them will feel little embarrassment about standing around outside having a fag.

Of course no amount of squealing from ‘the trade’, nor clear evidence of loss of business would lead to a re-think of the smoking ban. In the article mentioned above, Scottish Health Minister Andy Kerr, rebutted the claims of the SLTA by saying that he hasn’t met a single person who wants the ban rescinded.

This isn’t quite the point. The non-smoking majority won’t demand smoky pubs and most smokers will realise the cause is lost. Of course some of the more puritanical advocates of a ban will probably think it no bad thing if pubs go out of business too, thus reducing alcohol abuse. There will also be those who supported the ban, but who will complain about the loss of a vital community resource if more local village pubs go out of business. They will never for a minute pause to think the latter unwelcome development is the unintended result of their own handiwork.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Have the Lib Dems lost the plot on localism?

The idea of localism is back in vogue. Members of the Labour government and Conservative opposition alike are repenting past addiction to centralised control of local services and promising more autonomy for local government. It would be nice to think that the Liberal Democrats, as the party most committed to devolution of power, has been making the running on this as a national issue. Sadly, this is not so.

Recently, I have read two excellent publications that make the case for greater decentralisation of local powers from central to local government. The first is Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem, which charts the rise of Britain’s cities in the Victorian era and highlights the extent to which their success had been dependent on local rather than central initiative. The other is Big Bang Localism by Simon Jenkins, in which the former Times editor argues for a dramatic transfer of control of public services to local government from both the centre and unelected quangos. He believes that this would have the same revitalising effect on our democracy that the 1986 Big Bang had in reviving the City of London as a world financial centre.

As a Liberal Democrat, I can’t help noticing that neither of these authors is part of the Liberal family. Hunt is a former Labour party adviser and Jenkins an independent whose sympathies are most naturally with the Tories. It is hard to think of anyone associated with the Liberal Democrats who has established a reputation as a powerful advocate of localism. Centre Forum , the think tank linked to the Liberal Democrats, has produced no publications on this theme and doesn’t appear to have it as part of its work programme.

This point has been driven home to me by the almost simultaneous publication this summer of the cross-party Local Government Association’s document Closer to people and places and the Liberal Democrats’ own local government policy paper Your Community, Your Choice , which is due to be debated at Brighton in September. The former has all the shortcomings and compromises of a document that has had to be agreed by four political groups (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Independent). But it carries conviction in making the case for decentralisation of power. It tackles the problems caused by government targets. It calls for increased freedom for local government to go hand-in-hand with an agreed set of national targets to which local authorities will contribute. Local authorities would have to make their own arrangements for target-setting and in certain areas conform to minimum standards. Most importantly, the document exudes a confidence in local government’s ability to deliver improved services and to make itself more responsive and efficient.

By contrast Your Community, Your Choice is perfunctory and diffident, a gentle lollop around a familiar course. Even the party’s local government spokesman Andrew Stunell seemed embarrassed by its inadequacies when he spoke at the recent Local Government Association conference. Although it makes the right noises and gives some positive commitments – 75 per cent of local government spending to be raised through local taxes; primary care trusts to be placed under local democratic control – these proposals are no more radical than those put forward by senior local government figures in the Labour and Conservatives parties. The document is short, lacklustre and uninspiring. It has nothing to say about the target culture that central government has imposed on local councils since Labour took office, it doesn’t propose to restore strategic planning to county councils and most of all fails to make any connection between improved public service and greater local accountability.

Why is it that on a theme that ought to be dear to our hearts the Liberal Democrats have so little to say? I think it is at least in part because we confuse localism with obsessive interest in local elections. We have got better at winning elections under the first-past-the-post system and become embroiled in the day-to-day mechanics of local government. Victory in the battle of ideas has to be organised, but our organisation has outstripped our ideas. We campaign tactically to win votes and seats, but not strategically to win the intellectual argument. As a result some activists will see greater powers for local authorities not as a vital objective for a better society but as handing over control of, say, health commissioning to a mean-spirited Conservative county council. Such considerations blunt our commitment to localism.

Right now, both the other parties are making the right noises about decentralisation. Of course, we have been here before. It is easier for Ruth Kelly to pledge to a conference of councillors, as she did earlier this summer, that Labour have learned from the excessive centralisation of their first two terms than it is to deliver real new powers to local authorities. Likewise, experience suggests that the Conservatives’ pledges in opposition to free local government from central control will be forgotten if they return to power nationally. But there are two clear dangers here for the Liberal Democrats. The first is that our localist clothes will be stolen by the other two parties. The second is that if we fail to campaign hard on this issue now and in the years to come, it will be easier for the other two parties to backslide later.

We need to have intellectual courage to promote liberal solutions. If we believe that local control will lead to better public services and revitalisation of our democracy, we must say so loudly, clearly and consistently. We need to do more than just win the odd local by-election or control of a few more councils. Rather we must shift the centre of gravity of debate so that a ‘big bang’ devolution of power along the lines that Simon Jenkins advocates is seen as a credible answer to popular dissatisfaction with public services. More than that, it must be clearly associated with the Liberal Democrats. In the short term we could do worse than reject the policy paper that is about to be presented to conference and insist that the policy wonks come up with something better.