Thursday, 30 December 2010

Westminster should follow Scottish petitions model

In the news this week has been a curious story about the Downing Street online petitions system and how parliament should respond to it.

That change is necessary is patently obvious. The e-petition system was established by the Labour government, but few if any of the petitions had any impact - largely because there existed no framework through which they could be considered by parliament. It is marginally preferable to the previous system which allowed only for MPs to present petitions to number 10, thus allowing countless media savvy elected representatives the opportunity to publicly identify themselves with any populist cause, furthering their profiles in the process.

There is little purpose in a petitions system which makes no provision for eventual consideration of issues raised. It is also hardly progressive that the current system is so narrowly centred around the Prime Minister. The government, recognising this, have proposed introducing a new online system whereby the most popular petitions - probably those with more than 10,000 signatures - will be guaranteed political debate.

I have strong concerns about this. Labour are not too far off the mark in claiming this would result in "crazy ideas" being discussed. The proposals, as they stand, are a positive step in the right direction but would represent a triumph for populism rather than a genuine opportunity for people to connect with politics and influence debate. I have no doubt that petitions in support of foxhunting, "Sarah's law" or of withdrawal from the EU - or, for that matter, calling on David Cameron to resign - would attract more signatures than those supporting prison reform, advocating progressive changes to mental health provision or those concerned with constitutional change. A recent petition calling for Jeremy Clarkson to become Prime Minister attracted 50,000 signatures: it is possible that people may well be tempted to vote for the more "crazy" petitions simply for the novelty of seeing such ideas being debated. This would hardly enhance our democratic model.

Labour Newport West MP Paul Flynn has dismissed the plans as a "foolish gimmick". This assessment is grossly unfair. For all the deficiencies of the government's petitions proposal - which has the usual "back of an envelope" hallmarks - here at least is an attempt to make a potentially useful idea fit-for-purpose. It is absolutely right that petitions should have a more integral role in the democratic process. Any endeavour to actively engage the public within the legislative process is overdue and welcome. Rather than represent a "gimmick" or a waste of time, a well-considered and practical e-petitions system would help bring a dimension of UK politics into line with the interactive era and help stimulate both debate and public interest.

I have two concerns. The first is that of a guaranteed consideration of only the most popular petitions rather than those with most merit. This is an irresponsible way to build an accountable petitioning system and could open the system up to the most cynical of manipulations. In focusing on the most popular, some of the more useful ideas and less publicised issues that urgently require parliamentary attention could be overlooked. This isn't democracy. The legislative process would be hijacked by those who are most adept at advertising their particular petition or cause.

The second concern is a presumption that petitions in some way represent a purer expression of the public will than representative democracy. We should not be providing further ammunition to the anti-politics brigade. A strong, cohesive and democratic e-petitions system would provide an additional layer of accountability rather than undermine the existing system of accountable government.

Fortunately, there is a tried, tested and working model of an e-petitions system which is both democratic and efficient by nature. It is the one used here by the Scottish Parliament. All petitions, irrespective of the number of signatures, are considered on their respective merits by a parliamentary committee. Petitioners are invited to provide additional evidence in support of their arguments and occasionally may be called to address the committee to put their case. The committee then investigates the matters at stake, taking advice from various agencies and sometimes referring the issue to either the Scottish government or the full parliament.

Most petitions are not debated in full parliament - because they generally don't need to be. Some may be dismissed immediately, often because they relate to non-devolved issues. A few are discussed by parliament. But, in over 60 per cent of cases, the committee is able to address the issues itself or refer them to an organisation that can.

The advantage of the Scottish system is that the merits of the petitioner's arguments that are considered over the relative popularity of the petition itself. "Crazy" petitions are usually discarded reasonably early in the process while the more sensible and well-considered can go on to influence legislation. The key thing to recommend the Scottish system is not, however, the democratic nature of the consideration process. It is this: it allows not only the public to engage with the political system but affords politicians the opportunity to engage with, and listen to, the concerns of the public. Even rejected petitions often have a strong influence on political thinking, especially if they are able to capture the public mood.

If David Cameron has a real interest in creating a workable and accountable e-petitions system rather than simply throwing a sop to populism he should look no further than the example set in Holyrood. Not for the first time, our own devolved parliament has led the way in shaping a fit-for-purpose, modern system of accountability that should be replicated on a wider level.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas to you all!

I would like to wish all my friends and fellow political campaigners a very happy Christmas and a successful New Year.

In particular, I hope all my friends in Inverclyde enjoy the festive season to the full! I'd also like to offer our campaign team in Oldham East and Saddleworth every best wish; I'd love to be out campaigning with you but I'm afraid I'm spending Christmas with my wife. Occasionally there are more important things in life than politics!

Cable's role diminished after "War with Murdoch" gaffe

On Tuesday morning it emerged that a number of senior Liberal Democrats had expressed concern about some of the government's plans - and their own roles within it. The revelations indicated that a number of ministers had misgivings about the "fairness" of certain policies including increasing tuition fees and withdrawing child benefit from higher earning families.

On the child benefit issue, Steve Webb is reported as saying that "the details aren't right", Ed Davey claimed to be "gobsmacked" by the decision and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore insisted that it "was blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do". Moore has also hit out against the tuition fees hike, claiming that the move was "deeply damaging" to the Liberal Democrats and that it amounted to "the biggest, ugliest, most horrific thing in all of this...a car crash, a train wreck...I've done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly."

On top of this, business secretary Vince Cable was talking up a "nuclear option" - that of being personally able to bring down the government by resigning from it. It wasn't sensible and it wasn't particularly dignified. It seemed tactically naive, although Clegg and Cameron were happy to brush it to one side. Like party activists, the two leaders understood that there are internal battles being fought and that it is natural for ministers to haggle and argue over policy compromises.

Regrettably, it is the public expression of unhappiness on the part of senior Lib Dems that is cause for concern. On one level Lib Dem activists can be now assured that, in spite of previously defending policy in public, many ministers share our concerns about the coalition's policy direction. I for one could identify with the positions of Moore, Webb and Davey and I imagine there are many who are relieved at what the revelations reveal about relationships inside the cabinet. It is no bad thing that differences of opinion lie at the heart of government. However, on another level it is disconcerting that private tensions should spill over into the public domain and have such potentially damaging effects on the unity of the coalition and on our own scope for effectiveness within it. Politically experienced ministers should be sufficiently adept at concealing their broader feelings from journalists, however subtle their cover.

Of course, these remarks were nothing to what came later. Almost immediately after the press conference in which Clegg and Cameron dealt with questions relating to Cable's "nuclear option", new revelations emerged which demonstrated even more reckless behaviour on the part of the business secretary. It emerged that, in a conversation with two Daily Telegraph reporters posing as party activists, Dr Cable had claimed that "I am picking my fights...I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win...His whole empire is now under attack...so there are things like that we do in government that we can't do [in opposition]".

Immediately, Downing Street criticised the comments as "totally unacceptable and inappropriate". Dr Cable met separately with Nick Clegg and the Prime Minister and - after further emergency meetings which included chancellor George Osborne - he was stripped of his responsibilities for media policy although was allowed to continue to serve as business secretary largely because Cameron feared the effect of losing another senior Lib Dem from the cabinet on coalition unity. There is little doubt that if a Tory minister had made such a grave error of judgement he would have paid the ultimate price; ironically, and in a stunning role-reversal, Cable is now the beneficiary of his party's political standing. His survival owes nothing to his own abilities but to the awkwardness of replacing him. As Tory MP John Whittingdale said, it was "almost certainly [true] that Mr Cable would have been dismissed if he had been a Conservative. I'm not happy, but nevertheless I accept that in coalition we have to do things to keep our partners content...it's quite plain that Vince Cable is the second most important [Lib Dem] member of the coalition. we have already lost one leading Lib Dem minster and the feeling was we cannot afford to lose another."

As tensions in the Tory ranks increased, Labour leader Ed Miliband was unable to resist the temptation to indulge in some ill-judged gloating: "Liberal Democrats are now just passengers in a Tory-led government - not in the front seat, not even back seat, but locked in the boot."

It is difficult to understand Cable's motivations. As The Guardian pointed out, during the last few months Dr Cable has been transformed "from St. Vince to Mr Bean". There will be some who will point to naivete, and view him as the unfortunate victim of media manipulations. This would be too simplistic an interpretation; Cable's naivete is one of believing it to be politically expedient to say different things to different groups of people. There is so much more at play here, not least Cable's arrogance and self-indulgence which have now backfired spectacularly.

Significantly, this episode does far more than reveal Cable as arrogant. It shows his attitude towards the coalition - and in particular, how he views the success of Liberal Democrats within it. Many Lib Dem members and activists such as myself view it in terms of not only policy success (in which we act as a sobering influence on Conservative excesses and implement some of our own ideas) but - vitally - in terms of coalition survival. Liberal Democrats have a vested interest in ensuring that the coalition works and, as much as is possible, becomes a vehicle for a progressive new direction in policy. Cable, it seems, sees Lib Dem success in terms of taking on the Tories in individual battles and using these to express Lib Dem distinctiveness. The inevitable consequences of such an approach are strained relations within the coalition and an emphasis on internal conflict rather than unity of purpose and collaboration.

Cable's greatest asset was that he represented so much of what was and is distinctive about the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, his incendiary remarks and unhelpful talk of bringing down a government of which he is a key member threaten to further weaken the influence of the Lib Dems in government. Whatever Cable believed he was doing when speaking to reporters posing as constituents, he was not acting in the interests of either the coalition or his party.

The end result is that, while being allowed to continue to serve as business secretary, Cable has been stripped of any power to act an arbiter in the BSkyB case. Instead, the remit will go to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary. It was not only Dr Cable, but the majority of Liberal Democrats who were concerned about News Corp's expansion. Cable faced demands from inside his own party - at all levels - to legally prevent News Corp buying the 61% of BSkyB it does not currently own. Hunt, whatever his personal views on the matter, is under no such pressure from Conservatives.

This spectacular own goal will have predictable ramifications for our party. Our influence over economic policy will be diminished and Cable, now weakened, will have more limited scope to provide much needed grit and a distinctive voice. In this respect, it may have been better - for the party if not the coalition - if Dr Cable had been replaced as business secretary rather than have a large chunk of his remit transferred elsewhere. Finally, it adds further ammunition to those who see the Liberal Democrats as either unfit for government or unable to adjust to the realities of "grown-up politics".

I have little doubt that this will change the nature of coalition dynamics and that the influence of our party will be very much the weaker for it.

It is also difficult to comprehend the motivations of the Daily Telegraph, which presumably would have a fair amount to lose if Murdoch's media empire is allowed to continue its expansionist agenda unchecked. Mr Murdoch, who now openly supports the Tories, will undoubtedly be delighted at the turn of events.

I would finally like to ask the question that doesn't yet appear to have been asked: why was Dr Cable unable to recognise the two journalists? Lest we forget, one of them was Holly Watt, the award-winning Young Journalist of the Year whose role in reporting (and creating) the MPs' expenses scandal should have made her instantly recognisable in Westminster. Even I know who she is and what she looks like, so is Dr Cable simply ignorant of developments and people within the media (a dangerous thing for a minister) or was he so keen to play up his independence and role to impress some constituents that he failed to consider the potential ramifications of the conversation being leaked (an even more dangerous thing)?

Sheridan convicted of perjury

So at last the circus that passed for a trial is over and - surprise, surprise - Tommy Sheridan has been found guilty of perjury.

This "news" has provided an early Christmas present for many journalists who have feigned shock at the outcome and have, for some unknown reason, been keen to play up the political significance of the verdict.

It's time for some sober judgement. The only person who actually believes Tommy Sheridan to be an important figure in Scottish politics is Tommy Sheridan. This is a man who led a small Socialist Party to its destruction and then, following its implosion, turned on colleagues he now brands "former socialists" and created his own, even smaller and less politically credible party - Solidarity - which lacks any serious ideology and is merely a fan club for its leader. The only big thing about Tommy is his ego. One fellow Lib Dem quipped that he's a bit like David Owen on account of their shared egomania and self-destructive qualities, but that's an unfair comparison. Owen, for all his faults, had gravitas and a strong intellectual grasp of political reality. Sheridan has neither.

I have intentionally refrained from commenting on the "drama" of the Sheridan trial, largely because I considered it to be of peripheral interest at best. Other than to watchers of Big Brother (and there can't be too many who would admit to that) Sheridan - and his party - have been entirely irrelevant during the last few years. Tommy retains his incredible gift for self-publicity but he lacks the ability to put it to effective use and he's become a more detached figure, appearing every now and then to rant about personal injustices and to portray himself and the underdog fighting against the excesses of capitalist empires.

Even after the verdict was announced, Sheridan couldn't resist a dig at Rupert Murdoch and his media empire: "I make no apologies for taking on the might of...Murdoch. Is it not time that [significant] resources were spent investigating the News of the World?" Perhaps he should have known, following Vince Cable's unwise comments, that it isn't particularly clever to declare war on Murdoch. Especially when all it does it to make himself look bitter and shallow.

The Great Tommy would like us to believe that this has been a battle between the working man and a powerful media magnate. He has consistently, and wrongly, portrayed this is a struggle between a fair, ethical and honest socialism and the oppressive nature of international capitalism. His splinter group, Solidarity, issued a statement in which it declared that "Sheridan's only crime has been to speak truth to power...he is a working class fighter who has waged war on poverty and injustice wherever he has found it."

Not only do Sheridan and Solidarity delude themselves as to the nature of socialism, they are clearly mistaken in their analysis of the outcome. Sheridan's crimes are many and even from the point of view of Scottish socialism I would imagine his legacy has been a negative one. While he might argue this trial has been about standing up to the likes of Murdoch - and his detractors would claim this has been about achieving overdue justice - in reality this has been about Tommy Sheridan - his leadership, his charisma, his delusion, his dishonesty, his hubris...

Throughout the trial, Sheridan sought to claim that he was a victim of a vendetta - or, more accurately, a series of vendettas. Conducting his own defence in the style we've all come to expect of him, he looked to undermine, discredit and paint as unreliable several of his former allies and colleagues. Ultimately, the case came down to whether Sheridan or his ex-friends and the police were more plausible. That he actually believed his own spin and self-deceit is one further reason why this man should never again be given opportunities by the electorate to resurrect a political career.

The Scottish Socialist Party, unusually accurate in its interpretation of the events and Sheridan's complex character, asserted that "the verdict would now define him...by his actions over six years, Sheridan has disgraced himself and negated his political contribution to the socialist cause. History will record that he did more harm to [socialism] in Scotland than any good he ever did it."

The most telling analysis, however, comes from today's Herald: "As for Sheridan himself, this case is reminiscent of those against Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, who both ended up serving jail terms for perjury following defamation cases against newspapers. Here are three able men whose charisma was ultimately their undoing. Self-delusion and a sense of being untouchable proved their Achilles heel. But nobody is above the law. This case was not in the end a contest between a colourful socialist and a powerful newspaper group. It was a matter of lies versus the truth and the jury decided the liar in this case was the man in the dock."

Colourful egomaniacs with scant grasp of political realities can not be the future of Scottish politics; in fact, the media should not have allowed this disgraced relic of pseudo-socialism to dominate political matters from the courtroom. I personally care nothing for Sheridan or his reputation. His claims to be principled were always questionable from the moment in 1999 when the enemy of the tabloid press entered into the pay of the Daily Record, writing a regular column. He remains typically defiant, but either refuses or can not recognise his culpability in his own downfall. Sadly, his lack of insight into his own personality has proved a tragic flaw.

Sheridan's phoney world has finally collapsed and he now looks like a lonely figure, supported only by his wife and the few Solidarity activists who share his regressive and simplistic worldview. I have no doubt that Scottish politics will move on - and move forward - while Sheridan will become more embittered and deluded still.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Miliband appeals for help on policy

It seems that Ed Miliband's party is so short on policy ideas that it is now appealing to the Liberal Democrats for help.

Ed yesterday offered the Lib Dems the opportunity to participate in Labour's policy review. He claimed that "the kaleidoscope of British politics has been shaken and I don't think the pieces have properly settled...[we want to] draw up areas where our policy reviews can be informed by submissions and ideas of Liberal Democrats who want to contribute." Ed highlighted areas that are obviously important to many Lib Dem members, including social mobility, the economy and what he termed "the way we do politics".

He's trying hard to be taken seriously as a non-tribalist, keen on helping to forge the "new politics". But his motives were laid bare when, moving away from the premise of mutual collaboration, he claimed that many Lib Dem members were "ashamed" of the coalition and that the Lib Dems were split between centre and left. No-one could be left in any doubt about Ed's intentions when he issued an invite to "work with us against the direction in which this government is taking Britain."

The first thing to say is that, from a tactical point of view, it's likely to be more effective than his leadership election approach of bashing the Lib Dems at every opportunity. People want to see co-operative politics and, to be honest, there are many Lib Dems who are more broadly in tune with Labour's thinking than the Conservatives'. Opportunities for collaboration should not be flippantly dismissed - unless of course they're simply part of a party political game aimed at undermining the coalition.

Of course Ed will present any unwillingness to co-operate with him as evidence of our party drifting rightwards and away from the "new politics". He would also present any signs of willing collaboration as evidence of divisions within both the Liberal Democrats and the coalition.

If Ed Miliband genuinely wishes to be taken seriously as someone who buys into the "new politics" of cross-party co-operation, he would be well advised to avoid these grand gestures (sorry, cheap publicity stunts) which appear shallow and cynical. I think he's on the right lines tactically in softening his approach towards our own party - especially with the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2011 - but he needs to find alternative means of reaching out to Lib Dems than simply making scathing statements about a government in which Lib Dems are ministers. He needs to develop understandings based on experience and progressive ideas rather than merely attempting to cynically undermine the coalition with such overtly partisan gameplaying.

Senior Lib Dems Simon Hughes and Tim Farron were quick to respond to Ed Miliband's appeal. Simon Hughes, presumably interpreting Ed's statement as an overture to disaffected members and activists, urged Lib Dems to "stay with us because progressives are needed more now than ever in the history of the party." Party President-elect Tim Farron helpfully argued that Lib Dems "continuing the work...[of] fixing Labour's economic mess, taking millions of people out of income tax and reforming British politics...is far more attractive to Liberal Democrats than helping Ed Miliband's increasingly desperate attempts to work out what he actually stands for."

Unhelpfully however, Tim also added a stab at Labour who he accused of "sucking up to Rupert Murdoch and George Bush - why would any progressive even give them a second glance?"

I don't really understand why someone as capable as Tim Farron has to resort to the tactics of Tommy Sheridan, someone else who was keen to identify Labour with Murdoch to score cheap points. It also invites counter accusations that as a party we've been keen to "suck up" to a Tory Party which is connected to a host of other individuals many liberals would find unsavoury. And, put simply, it's not very sensible for the Party President to indulge in such divisive rhetoric when the opinion pools suggest that, after the forthcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections, Liberal Democrats may very well be "giving Labour a second glance" and working out a progressive plan for government.

This situation highlights how Westminster-centric both Ed Miliband and Tim Farron can be. They are so focused on the coalition in London (one defending it, one attempting to undermine it) that the broader realities of UK politics have passed them by. If Ed wants to genuinely develop a more collaborative politics and forge a new government whose policies can throw down a challenge to the direction of the Cameron-led administration, he should look no further than Holyrood and be looking to cultivate positive relationships between his own party and ours in Scotland. Similarly, if Tim Farron wants to increase Lib Dem influence he should recognise that the best way to do this is to ensure we are in a strong position to enter government in Holyrood and have developed the necessary understandings with the likely largest party ahead of the election. Unnecessary hostility will simply provide unwelcome obstacles that will have to be negotiated at a later stage.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Will this be our "Iraq moment"?

I'm asking the question the media have been asking all week: will the tuition fees vote prove to be the Liberal Democrats' "Iraq moment"?

Creating tension and fuelling misunderstanding is often the preserve of the popular press, but I would have expected something different from the BBC. Something less inflammatory, perhaps?

Whatever can be said about tomorrow's vote on increasing tuition fees and its potential ramifications (and a great deal has) comparing it to Iraq is hardly responsible journalism. As far as I am aware no Liberal Democrat MP is advocating a barely legal war, constantly changing his arguments for the basis for invading a foreign state, misleading parliament with "dodgy" evidence or putting at risk the lives of our troops and world security in order to further our friendship with the US President. So - no - this will not be an "Iraq moment".

If anyone wishes to draw comparisons with the Labour government, this could be our "Lisbon Treaty" moment. Remember when Labour promised in their manifesto a referendum on the EU constitution, and then failed to deliver what the public apparently wanted when Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty. I can understand that similar criticisms could be levelled at some MPs within our party who go back on the pledges they made just a few months ago. There will inevitably be anger if, as expected, the government wins the vote tomorrow. But to suggest this is likely to be an "Iraq moment" is overstating it more than slightly.

I remain diametrically opposed to increasing HE tuition fees. I will not change my mind, unless I see irrefutable evidence that increasing fees will actually lead to a more inclusive education system. However, I am convinced that signing the pledge was unnecessary and tactically naive. It was not "grown-up politics" but cynical populism. What the pledge actually did was to undermine any future Lib Dem position in which we would be able to continue to assert our political opposition to fees on principle while moderating Tory policy in government. Unfortunately, it's not a credible thing for us to say "Look, we don't like fees, but they're here and we have to work with the Browne Review. We still want to eradicate fees in the long-term but in the short term we're using our position in government to make this Tory policy as fair as possible." Our election strategy means that we will not be held accountable by the public for how well we moderate the excesses of Conservative policy, but for whether our MPs honour their election pledges.

There are student groups who are urging protesters to "send a message to Clegg". Perhaps while they're at it, they'll send a message to party strategists not to make irresponsible pledges which will inevitably cause difficulties for MPs further down the line.

I see that three Tories, including David Davis, have also indicated they will vote against the rise in tuition fees tomorrow. Strangely, there haven't been the same pressures on them to conform to the wishes of their party leadership, or to respect collective responsibility. They haven't been grilled by a BBC correspondant anxious to confirm the existence of a crisis within their party. Neither has Cameron felt the need to hold an urgent meeting of his parliamentary party, or call a press conference to confirm his ministers are united. Just a thought, but what does this say about the difference in media attitudes towards the respective coalition partners, or about the leaderships of the respective parties?

Monday, 6 December 2010

The unreality of TV shows

I'm not a fan of "reality TV", which has about as much basis in reality as a David Cameron original idea.

I really dislike these so-called talent shows, like The X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. Britain's Got Talent is marginally better as it at least allows for some degree of originality on the part of its contestants.

I don't mind the actual talent on display. I used to perform in competition myself (in a former life!) as a young Gaelic singer. It's no bad thing when capable people choose to use their gifts to entertain others.

It's what The X-Factor represents that I struggle with. It isn't a talent show. If I'm being polite I would describe it, more accurately, as a media circus. If I'm being more uncharitable, I might suggest it is little more than a cynically manipulative franchise of Simon Cowell's extensive business empire.

The best thing that can be said is that this is glorified, glamourised karaoke. That itself wouldn't be so intolerable if the performers could actually...you know...well, sing. In the last few years, however, The X-Factor has made celebrities of such untalented acts as Wagner Carrilho and the unspeakable Jedward.

What message does this send out? I'm not going to moralise too much, but my incredibly talented teenage niece, who once had aspirations of studying medicine, now simply wants to be "famous". Famous for what? "Oh, I don't know. Just famous." She's predictably addicted The X-Factor and its shallow glamour to the point that it has (temporarily, hopefully) distracted her from focusing her energies on more constructive interests. The X-Factor propagates the sub-Thatcherite philosophy that success is about finding a quick route to fame and riches. At least in Thatcher's era it was only the money that mattered.

Even the national media are obsessed with it. Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole attract more column inches than Barack Obama and Alex Salmond. The news no longer reports on things that actually affect people's lives but prefers to reinforce the shallow culture of celebrity worship by reporting the meaningless adventures of wannabes and "celebs". A celebrity class has emerged, fooling people into believing in a sham meritocracy where the problems of social immobility can be overcome by the power of the TV camera. In this context, The X-Factor is merely one more chapter in the national soap opera.

The X-Factor promises so much for so little. It promises glamour, fame, fortune and success to those who "have what it takes", not to mention millions for Simon Cowell. It's a British corruption of that phoney American Dream. So many are willing to buy into the myth, in spite of the obvious exploitation of vulnerable young people. Others simply find it a form of escapism, as Marx's maxim proves true: The X-Factor has replaced religion as a focal point for hope - it is "the opium of the masses; the heart of a heartless society."

You might wish to argue with that interpretation. What I think is beyond doubt is that this year we have witnessed some particularly mean-spiritedness from X-Factor organisers. Firstly, we had the controversy surrounding Gamu Nhengu whose absence from the final twelve appeared to owe more to political issues than Gamu's singing (unless the judges really were that stupid they couldn't recognise her obvious talent). Then there was Cheryl Cole's inexplicably judgemental and unprofessional outburst on live TV, when she confronted Wagner on things he had supposedly said to the tabloids, which only served to make her look petty and highlighted her own personal insecurities. There have been more allegations of "fixing", capped off by the show slapping a ban on Gamu's Christmas charity single - recorded to raise funds for Scottish children's charity Aberlour Child Care Trust - being publicised due to the terms of her X-Factor contract. Wonderful show of "Christmas spirit" there, Simon!

The last move from Simon Cowell might prove to be a huge PR mistake, and will surely make Gamu more likely to win the race for Christmas number one with Where Will You Sleep This Christmas? Already there has been widespread criticism of The X-Factor's stance, not least from our own Jo Swinson MP who has put down an EDM in parliament calling for fellow politicians to give publicity to the record.

At a time when footballers are often criticised for not living up to their status as "role models", what can be said about Simon Cowell and the example his greed, pettiness and egotism sets for X-Factor's young fans?

And I didn't even get onto his shameful determination to select the Christmas number one for the next 30 years.

Then there's Strictly Come Dancing. OK, so Strictly represents something completely different to The X-Factor. The judges actually know their stuff for starters. But it would be disingenuous to call this a talent show. Like I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here! (surely to be renamed I Used To Be A Celebrity - Get Me Back On TV!), Strictly provides yet another opportunity for the escapist public to honour the cult of celebrity.

Probably the worst thing that can be said about Strictly is its ability to rehabilitate the reputation of Ann Widdecombe, whose understanding of dancing is about as thorough as Tommy Sheridan's appreciation of co-operative politics. As one judge put it, she danced like "a dalek in drag". And yet the public liked her, voting for her in spite of her comical moves until she finally left in the quarter-finals.

"Widdy" went from retired right-wing MP, known for holding deeply intolerant and repugnant views, to national treasure in just a few short weeks. Quite a turnaround. So her bigoted attitudes towards gay people are forgotten, as are her irresponsibly divisive plans to deal with anti-social behaviour - and instead the public will remember her as a hopeless dancer on a popular TV show.

Perhaps, following her example, if Nick Clegg or Vince Cable seriously wants to improve their standing with the voting public, a few appearances on the upcoming Britain's Got Talent wouldn't go amiss. It would be a great publicity opportunity and - here's the best bit - they wouldn't even have to be any good!

Mulholland calls for tuition fees vote delay

I've just watched Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland argue on BBC News 24 that Thursday's vote on Higher Education tuition fees should be postponed. Citing the lack of debate - only three hours will be given to the issue on the floor of the Commons - Greg indicated that he would have to vote "no" on Thursday as what is actually being debated is not some of the more progressive aspects of the government's proposals but merely an increase in tuition fees. Voting simply for an increase, asserts Greg, is something that "many" Liberal Democrat MPs have trouble with.

"I don't want to vote 'no' ", he explained. "There is one way out - postpone the vote and look at this again in 2011".

This approach is more reasonable than it at first might appear. It is pretty clear that divisions seem to be deepening within the party. It is also clear that the leadership has been unconvincing in its efforts to contain this division. Many party members are concerned, understandably, that coalition unity is being placed before party unity. Perhaps some more time to think seriously about the vote and its potential ramifications would help heal rifts and allow for the development of a new understanding within the parliamentary party.

Perhaps.

I'm not convinced. There has been plenty of time for the party's MPs to consider their stance - both as individuals and collectively. Understandably two distinct approaches have emerged: "we're bound by collective responsibility and therefore must vote with the government" and "we owe it to our constituents to honour our pledges". These are both simplistic attitudes, and are hardly indicative of the "grown-up politics" we are supposed to be championing.

The first perspective illiberally reduces MPs to unthinking, robotic and unquestioning lobby fodder, whose only purpose is to see through government policy, irrespective of individual conscience. While I recognise the need for "collective responsibility", clearly that term means a multitude of things to different people. My own interpretation of "collective responsibility" does not attack individuality as dangerous and is more than merely a means to impose conformity.

The second approach perhaps gives insufficient consideration to the needs to keep the coalition united. That does not mean that coalition interests supercede those of the party. But our party's interests are inescapably linked to the success of the coalition. There is little purpose in pursuing goals that will untimately compromise broader opportunities for the Liberal Democrats.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread - and I think mistaken - belief that a sizeable "rebellion" would be bad for the coalition. It wouldn't; it would be unlikely to affect the outcome and would hardly cause David Cameron headaches. Neither would Lib Dem MPs voting three ways necessarily damage the party. As Paddy Ashdown (also speaking on BBC News 24) said "the process is as important as the outcome to hold the party together." And public disagreement on policy and principle, however regrettable, is infinitely better to the personality centred divisions we witnessed within the Labour Party in the final months of the Brown administration.

And it's this "process" I have concerns about. Lord Ashdown might contend that "the process...[allows MPs] to respect each other's views without rancour...[the party has been united] in listening to all the voices...agreeing maybe to disagree ...people will take different views." While the unity he promotes - that of honest discussion and mutual respect, irrespective of agreement on principle - is a more genuine unity than one that is enforced and dictated, there is no escaping the unfortunate reality that the "process" has ultimately failed. The party appears divided and chaotic, while the strict terms of the coalition - allowing only for abstention - undermine any unity based on "the agreement to disagree".

Greg Mulholland's proposal to postpone the vote, however laudable his reasons, would only serve to further confuse the situation and would in all likelihood have the opposite effect to the one he intends. The Lib Dem leadership would be made to look particularly weak and incapable of maintaining party discipline. Suspicion about the depth of supposed divisions would be heightened and probably exaggerated. We would be ridiculed as a party in turmoil.

Tensions have already been raised today with Norman Baker indicating he "is unsure" of how he will vote and that he may be willing to resign.

Nick Clegg's job is probably the most difficult in British politics. Deferring the vote would make it more difficult still.

What I really struggle with is why "grown-up politics" should be so averse to the possibilities of allowing MPs a free vote on this issue. Surely, as Paddy Ashdown says, "the process is as important as the outcome" in respect also to coalition unity? If our MPs vote three different ways and yet can retain respect for each other, and if our party can remain united and committed to pursuing a fairer society irrespective of our disagreements on this single issue, that will be a greater achievement than enforcing a superficial, undemocratic and artificially created "coherent position" at the vote on Thursday. Even if the government wins the vote (which it will surely do), it will be a hollow victory if it has been gained at the cost of losing the trust of the public, creating resentment among Lib Dem MPs and undermining the Lib Dem leadership.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

A Martian speaks out (again)



Hi! Zut-Zut here again.

It's been a while since Andrew last asked me to post. I've been back home to Mars for a flying visit but, you know, I missed Scotland so much I returned earlier than expected. Timed it perfectly - I got back just as the heavy snow had fallen! It's not the weather I don't like; you should see the storms we get on Mars! No, it's the way that everything here stops for a bit of white stuff! Honestly!

I've been trying to follow political developments, which has been pretty difficult really as we've had some power cuts around here. Still, I've had a good chuckle at the mess Alec the Salmon has found himself in. In the last few weeks we've seen that this man who claims to lead a government has not noticed that key powers have lapsed, has approved a confused budget and has come under fire for keeping secret a £180,000 loan. The Salmon has gone from seemingly invincible visionary leader to a confused, rambling object of ridicule in the space of a few months. Strangely, with the reputation of both himself and the SNP suffering and Labour light years ahead in all the polls, he still believes he can win the 2011 elections. Och well, at least he has a good motivational coach.

I did see the debate in Holyrood on the "secret loan" issue. To simplify the whole affair: an earthling festival called The Gathering was to be cancelled because the company running it was on the brink of insolvency. In true socialist interventionist style, the Salmon loaned £180,000 to ensure the showpiece went ahead - then had to write the loan off when the company predictably collapsed. And he has the nerve to criticise the UK government's financial dealings? Even by earthling standards, this is pretty stupid.

Strangely, the debate seemed to centre about what was meant by "secret loan". Lib Dem Nicol Stephen noted: "is it not a fact that the loan was kept secret from the partners in the event – they did not know about this loan?” To which the culture minister replied that, no, the loan wasn't secret, the government just didn't feel it was their responsibility to tell anyone about it.

Onto more serious things, and I've also found Vince Cable's succession of announcements amusing. "I'm opposed to tuition fees"..."I believe in a progressive graduate tax"..."I support the government's position to increase tuition fees"..."I think I might actually abstain in the vote"..."er, I'm going to vote with the government after all". For Foch's sake! It's also been interesting to see other Lib Dem MPs struggling to decide how to vote, which is perfectly understandable and something that really should have been foreseen. Perhaps it is no bad thing for the Lib Dems if - on this vote - the party is split three ways, so long as efforts are made to contain potential future divisions. Imposing a rigid party discipline in the run up to the vote would be counter-productive.

We have an excellent system on Mars, and you earthlings should take note. We have a range of funding options and allow students and their families to choose the best one for their particular circumstances. We also recognise that the rewards of education are felt by all, so "repayment" can be made in terms of time worked in particular areas of service. I know it's hard to grasp in societies like yours where a "one cap fits all" approach is the norm, but maybe it's by time you developed a more sensible approach to education than either "it should be free" or "you should pay for it". But it's good to see politicians squirm!

The Scottish Tories are in disarray. Oh, that's not news. No, but can you believe they spent one million of your pounds in Scotland during the election? And returned just one MP? That just shows what happens when you give a large sum of money to such a luminary as David McLetchie! Also, the lovely Annabel will have to stand for election next year if she wants to be the Leader of the Scottish Tories, rather than just the Leader of the Scottish Tories in Holyrood. Imagine if she doesn't win? What a joke!

I noticed that Labour seem to be making progress due to the unpopularity of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in Westminster. That wouldn't be a bad thing, but they don't seem to know what they stand for. "Er...we don't want independence for Scotland". OK. Anything else? "We don't like the Tories, and the only thing that's worse than the Tories are the bloody Lib Dems". Hardly much of a policy statement.

Next week, there are due to be some more student protests. I really like this expression of British culture. You know, thousands marching, ensuing riots, inevitable police heavy-handedness, footage of sundry individuals wielding heavy objects for the benefit of news reporters who want "good TV". The NUS are hoping it's going to put some pressure on Tory and Lib Dem MPs. I can imagine many of the Tories are terrified...I can picture them now, sitting in Committee Room 3, saying how "ghastly" it all is while looking skywards and tutting...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Cable may "abstain" in tuition fees vote

Just as the tuition fees protests gather more pace, Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced that he may "abstain" in the key vote, to be held on 9th December.

This is not only surprising but downright absurd, and demonstrates the difficulties facing the Lib Dem leadership with a divided parliamentary party. I'm not entirely sure, but I would imagine it's unheard of for a minister to refuse to vote in support of legislation he is recommending to the House.

Labour have been quick to make political capital from this, claiming it shows Cable's indecision on the issue. They are wrong. While I find it hard to believe him entirely when he says "I am in agreement with the proposals" merely weeks after proposing an alternative graduate tax, there is little doubt that Vince has injected the findings of the Browne review with some key ideas of his own which he means to implement. Certainly, his efforts have resulted in the final proposal being significantly preferable to implementing the Browne findings in full.

His announcement, however bizarre and unexpected, instead stems from a desire to maintain party unity. In recent days a number of Lib Dem MPs have indicated they might vote against the Bill, and there is a very real risk that the parliamentary party could spilt three ways. While this would be unlikely to affect the outcome of the vote, it could be potentially disastrous for the party. A sizeable Lib Dem rebellion could also create some ill-feeling between the coalition partners, something that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are understandably anxious to avoid.

It would seem that what the leadership want is to adopt a "team approach" to abstain en masse, as permitted under the coalition agreement. Nick Clegg seems keen to keep his party together while adhering to the conditions of the CA. (Clegg admits Lib Dems may abstain in tuition fees vote, The Guardian, 26/11/10) On one level, this is utterly sensible. However, surely such a strategy should have been adopted earlier, before MPs went public with their opposition and before the controversy (predictably) deepened.

If Cable seriously believes he can persuade Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy to merely abstain, then I would suggest he is more than optimistic. He may have better luck with MPs such as Tim Farron and Simon Wright, but an agreed party position should have been determined well in advance of the key debate and any key objectors identified (and hopefully pacified). Desperately trying to keep your own MPs onside in the days leading up to a vote sends out a clear message - one which would have been best avoided. Perhaps the leadership's main failure has been its inability to keep its MPs united - if not in agreement - on this key issue.

Labour might look to exploit this apparent division, but that would be rich from a party that doesn't even have a policy on the matter. What is certain is that this issue now has the potential to damage our party's standing in the country in the same way that the Iraq War seriously damaged Labour.

If I was a Lib Dem MP, I would be asking two key questions. The first is how fair are the proposals, and are they consistent with not only Lib Dem policy but a Liberal Democrat philosophy? Already the IMF, Million+ and OBR have claimed the plans are not "progressive" and that they will have a negative impact on the social mobility Nick Clegg aims to make reality. I agree that Nick's emphasis on social mobility is the right one, but we need to adopt the right policies to achieve such an ambitious goal. If rejecting the plans at this stage and going back to the drawing board can result in a more progressive policy, taking into account the concerns of the IMF and others, then it is certainly worth considering voting against the proposals as they stand, whatever the rules on collective responsibility.

Secondly, I would be asking whether more damage might now be done by denying MPs the right to vote according to their conscience or the interests of their constituents. A united team approach may well have been the right one, but the opportunity to present a genuinely united front has long gone. Imposing a collective, rigid discipline will now be seen as top-down control freakery from people both within and outwith the party and could probably be even more damaging. On the other hand, a few rebel MPs might restore some public faith in a party that has allowed itself to become defined by an issue over which it actually has very little control.

As far as the party as a whole is concerned, we need to maintain our principled opposition to tuition fees (taking care to be realistic about the prospects of eradicating them) while not allowing it to be the defining principle of our political identity. This, admittedly, is a challenge but it is one that we need to rise to if we are to retain our credibility. Part of the problem is that for too long we have simply allowed ourselves to be seen as "the anti-fees" party and this has now created huge difficulties for Nick Clegg as he has to equate this position with the task of being a minority partner in a coalition government inheriting the unenviable task on acting on the findings of Lord Browne.

On the wider issue of Higher Education, it is vital that the debate does not become constricted around the narrow matter of tuition fees. Serious consideration has to be given to the more pertinent issue of long-term HE funding, and the value of the policy should not be defined merely by how strictly it conforms to our General Election manifesto but by how effectively it can contribute to creating social mobility and a farier, more liberal society. As far as I can see, the proposals on the table currently do not go far enough in this regard; however, the success of any new policy can only be properly judged in respect to how well it has provided for the needs of HE further down the line.

While I am proud of - and agree with - our party's historical position on tuition fees, it was a serious mistake on the part of party strategists to so closely identify itself with the issue, and a potentially catastrophic error to make such capital out of it given that in the (not unlikely) outcome of a hung parliament tuition fees could be the sticking point in coalition talks - talks in which we would almost certainly not be in a particularly strong position. It is this fatal misjudgement, not a principled rebellion, that is now conspiring to damage our party.