Thursday, December 20, 2007


The Bloggers and Nick: Decision, Diversity, Doughnuts

It’s not every day that you’re both anointed and kicked up the arse, then have to go round looking happy to talk to the world and her wife about it, but it definitely suited Nick Clegg. In his second bloggers’ interview, he was transformed: from candidate to Leader; from wary to incisive; from contemplative to energised. He’d been impressive the first time, but, perhaps aided by a strict time limit between media interviews, or perhaps just galvanised by getting the top job and the shock of so very nearly not getting it, his answers were shorter, sharper and more driven. And not only did he speak more succinctly, but more quickly, as I had to write a lot faster than last time and so may not have caught all of it. But it’s inspired me to write it all up a lot more swiftly, too (but also to get to the finish all in one slow go, unlike the hares)!

There was a slightly smaller bunch of us this time round, at shorter notice than before and slightly more nervous: we were, after all, seeing Nick just hours after he was elected our third Leader in two years or our third in eight, depending on whether you want to be a spin doctor and count from the last day of one Leader and the first day of the next or more honestly compare like with like instead and measure from day one to day one. Come on, come on – remember 1999, when Paddy Ashdown announced he would retire gracefully to hand directly over to the new Leader, without an ‘Acting Leader’ in between? Did we hear hysterical reports of ‘The Liberal Democrats’ second Leader in two minutes!’? And who knows? Our third Leader in forty-two years, if Nick’s a runaway success and stands down at last to tearful crowds thronging the streets at the age of eighty. No, don’t worry; I wish Nick and long and successful reign, but I don’t think he’s planning to pretend to drag himself from the throne in his dotage to wails and sobs. Tony Blair planned that, after all, and look what happened to him.

We arrived rather earlier than Nick did, unsurprisingly; this was a bit of a busy day, with us snatching twenty minutes between a Newsnight hard fight – Clegg over Paxman by three rounds to one, with no submission – and an ITN bout. Equally unsurprisingly, I was the last of the bloggers to reach Cowley Street. Uncannily, I’d been very early for the other interviews, but this time my timing was back to my usual form. In my defence, I’d made a doughnut-related detour…

The Deadly Doughnut

Now, once Nick arrived, there were two bits of business before getting down to the questions. First was the photo-op, with Alex Folkes on hand to snap a few shots of the six-ish of us with Nick and other shots of Nick with the lovely Brian Paddick, who I was delighted to see again. And then there were the doughnuts. Gordon Brown, incidentally, served mince pies at his press conference yesterday morning, and boasted that he paid for them from his own pocket. Well, I’m on about a twentieth of his salary and I bought the doughnuts on Tuesday because Richard was busy (much nicer than mince pies, too), while otherwise Richard gets them every time. Confectionery is for any day people fancy it, not just for Christmas, you grumpy old miser!

Where was I?

Oh yes. Well, Alix has already given a splendid account of Nick And The Doughnut, but to add my take, he asked “Is this a tradition?” – of course it is, but like all traditions it’s one that was invented at some point, and that point was more recent than some – and then first expressed delight at the succulent jamminess of his choice, then after a few bites found it a bit too much. And also started to worry that it was going to ooze all over his shirt and trousers, so apologetically disposed of the end of it. Pictures sailed through my mind of the ITN interviewer eyeing up a sticky Nick and asking, ‘So, Mr Clegg… Despite being the frontrunner, you were widely held to have fought the weaker campaign and just slipped in by a whisker. Aren’t you a jammy sod?’

Before you think this was some sort of devious trap to embarrass our glorious new Leader, you should be aware that most of the doughnuts did not contain jam, and Nick was given first pick (I held my breath in case he went for the most chocolatey one before I could pounce). It was even clear from the outside of the doughnut – to anyone with the merest acquaintance with doughnuts, at least – that this doughnut was going to have jam in it.

It did, though, mean, that throughout the rest of his answers I kept looking not into Nick’s eyes but at the icing sugar generously coating his lower lip. Sadly, being still in Central London when Nick got to his ITN interview (and presuming it was part of the 6.30 programme), I didn’t get to see if the icing sugar was still there for that. Did anyone notice?

How Quickly Do You Need To Act?

Our young elephant Millennium Dome, with a little assistance from Richard, was first in with a question. And has even made a major headline in the Guardian as a result. Sort of. Anyway, “People are talking about what you have to do in your first hundred days,” he lobbed – “Aren’t the next thousand days until the General Election more important?” Well, Nick didn’t fall for it, and was determined that his early momentum will be crucial (as everyone and Vince in particular has advised). While none of the press are on our side, there’s a narrow window of opportunity where he’ll be given both more attention and more of the benefit of the doubt – or at least not constant attack. He even said he was looking forward to Prime Minister’s Questions, as well as that he wants to “get beyond the infantile assumption” that all life is down to half an hour of playground pettiness in the House of Commons each week. He’ll make mistakes, he knew, but he’s in for the long haul, and that means there’ll be ups and downs.

Do You Like and Are You Like David Cameron?

Alix Mortimer asked about the accusations of a possible coalition with the Conservatives, and of Nick being just a “Cameron-lite” (imagine! He’d have to wear lead boots to stay on the ground). Could Nick supply three things to say to shoot those accusations down, she wondered? And before I give Nick’s answer, you really should read Alix’s account of this, because her comparison of Chris Huhne’s elbows to Ava Gardner’s legs made me hoot.

On Mr Cameron and his party, Nick bluntly argued that we shouldn’t take seriously this sudden “progressive consensus” line they’re peddling. It’s just a cynical manoeuvre – they’ve got no idea how to deliver any of it, whether it’s social justice or the environment, and on immigration Mr Cameron is just the same as the Tories have always been, just with nicer verbs. They claim to be internationalist now, but at the same time want to pull up the drawbridge over Europe. They talk about decentralisation, but still try to control all the money from the centre, making decentralisation meaningless. Most of all,
“The Conservative Party is not a progressive party.”
Tip: if they’re still saying it in a month, I’ll be very surprised. The Tories will hate being called “progressive” so much that it’s got to be just a stunt to try and steal a headline from our new Leader, in much the same sort of childish spin that Tony Blair used to try. After all, no-one in the history of the world has ever joined a Conservative Party to be progressive; “conservative” is literally the direct opposite of “progressive,” so something’s a bit whiffy there, don’t you think?

On himself and Mr Cameron personally, Nick said that the differences were more instructive than the similarities: though the two of them were roughly the same age, growing up under Mrs Thatcher, Nick was propelled into politics to fight against the divisive, unpleasant politics of Thatcherism. Mr Cameron, on the other hand, chose to become one of Mrs Thatcher’s footsoldiers. So whatever their ages, their choices were completely different.

And on coalitions, Nick said again that he’s not in the business of leading an annex to the Conservatives or Labour. He’ll set out, instead, why we are the most in tune with the core liberal instincts of people, and on the side of them and not of Westminster politics. The Tories still support the system as it is – they don’t put their money where their mouth is on decentralisation.

Pressed by Alix on challenging Mr Cameron directly, Nick promised there’d be some core challenges on substance coming up to tackle Mr Cameron’s vagueness, whether that attack comes from him or from someone else. But not today – “it’s my day,” Nick pointed out, beaming.

Why Is Our Support Among Gay and Ethnic Minority Voters Slipping?

Just for once, I managed to mangle my own question (which led to a question back from Nick), so I’ll have to be more critical of me than my interviewee this time. Whoops. Anyway, the basis of my question was that at the previous two General Elections, we’d done particularly well among lesbian, gay and bisexual voters, and among ethnic minority voters. Now, with most (though not all) of the legal discrimination on sexual orientation changed, and with the effect of the Iraq War fading somewhat, there’s polling evidence that we’re slipping back. So how would he find a new appeal to those voters?

How I got tangled was in trying to relate the question to issues he’d raised. In his speech that afternoon he talked about “families,” which is sometimes a loaded term (though I was nervous about going too far down that road, as I’d been told James was considering a question on that topic but I didn’t know what it would be); and in his campaign he’d talked about having an “academy” to boost our women and ethnic minority candidates, and while I agreed with that, we’d previously not had good representation yet we attracted votes, so it’s a terrible mistake to think it’s all about who the people are rather than what they say.

What I was trying to get at was that we’d previously done very well with the right message even though we didn’t have the right messengers (we’ve never gone into a General Election with an out gay MP, though we finally gained one last time, and we went into the last General Election with just one visible ethnic minority MP, who sadly lost his seat). The party now keeps agonising about how to get wider representation, but though we should, that’s actually looking inwards at ourselves rather than reaching outward to communicate with other people. In making it all about seeing the right messengers, the Liberal Democrats have lost sight of what the message should be, and that for me is more important. But though I’m not quite sure what I said, it was definitely less clear than that!

Anyway, whatever my question was, Nick’s answer was that he doesn’t think particular groups vote for us just because of a particular issue, or campaign, or law, or even a particular military conflict, but because we represent their values.
“The core of my Liberalism,” he said, “is tolerance, pluralism, diversity.”

People vote for us because they like the ethos of the Party: “contemporary, tolerance, lack of moral prescription about how they lead their lives.”
And, most of all, he said that “I’m a man of my generation. It’s simply not an issue. And the effortless respect that I have, that we have, for difference will attract people across a range and feel rather than just issues would.” He also noted (my having failed to point it out) that at the last election we gained our first out gay MP, Stephen Williams, though interestingly he didn’t mention a fairly impressive “beacon”: the chap he was having his photo taken with when we came in.

That, for me, was a good and a bad answer rolled into one. I agree that if the Liberal Democrats exemplify celebrating diversity, and if he exemplifies that for the lot of us, it’s a strong start. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near enough. I don’t think he’s really thought about it; what he said boils down to ‘We’re nice, and people will recognise it,’ and that’s pretty much been our selling point for the last half-century. It’s an approach that Nick displays impatience with on other issues, and I don’t think it’s up to scratch for these voters, either.

The votes that previously came to us, from groups that traditionally gave heavy support to the Labour Party, seem to me to have things in common. Both felt badly let down by the experience of Labour in power; and the Liberal Democrats really stuck our necks out on controversial issues on which each felt strongly. My worry is that the first reason is receding, and the second has largely stopped happening. On the other hand, James Graham makes an excellent point in his own write-up that “the fact that gay voters are becoming increasingly hard to pigeonhole is in many ways a positive sign,” and that “there is strength in mainstreaming this issue and moving beyond identity politics”. There’s certainly strength in moving society in a more Liberal direction, and making ‘minority issues’ less divisive. I’m as happy to see religious bigots shoved to the extremes where they belong as anyone, for example, but there are still plenty of issues on which we’re nowhere near that yet and bigotry is still pretty ‘mainstream’ (just look at the salience of immigration). Either way, we have a lot more work to do.

How Do We Increase Diversity In Our Representatives?

Linda Jack’s question was linked but with a very different emphasis, asking about increasing diversity in our MPs, and the planned Academy. Nick answered as he had before that our lack of diversity at a Parliamentary level is out of step with what we stand for, and that
“We have to make significant progress by the election after next or I will re-open the issue of short, sharp positive discrimination. The clock is ticking.”
He accepts that he can’t do much for the next election, with most candidates already selected, but he can for the one after. He also plans to use such limited powers of appointment as he has to promote role models and “beacons,” as well as bringing in people “not familiarly associated with the Liberal Democrats”.

Where Do You Look For a Family?

James Graham built on similar themes, confirming just how hot diversity issues are in the party. Having listened to Nick’s acceptance speech a few hours earlier, James seized on the plan to build a network of families to advise him. How would Nick do this, wondered James, and how did he define a “family”?

Nick jumped to settle the definition issue first, pointing to his speech to the IPPR in November (I’ve not had a chance to listen to it yet, but you can download it and a question-and-answer session here), slightly apologetically – clearly not comfortable with ‘I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave earlier’ – but summarising his view as “not a tight definition at all,” with families “of all shapes and sizes,” “elastic, married or not, extended…” He took a swipe at Mr Cameron’s “absurd £20 bribe to stay married,” continuing his theme that politicians have to talk to people where they are, and not where politicians would like them to be. It helps that we’re not prescriptive about how people live their lives, too.

Rather than explaining the mechanics of how he might assemble a network, then, Nick more interestingly went back to where the idea had come from. Not just in the Leadership campaign, but throughout his time racing around the place as a Liberal Democrat MEP and then MP, he’d always been meeting people with strong, fresh, radical views, and became determined to bring them into a politics that currently doesn’t connect with them at all. So just how it’ll work isn’t all fixed yet; he’s not started with the process, but with the aim, that he wants a way to find a number of families that he can keep in constant touch with to find out about what bugs them. It won’t be as easy to set up as a focus group managed by a PR agency, but that’s the point – these families will have a long, ongoing relationship with Nick, and that’ll be much more demanding but much more raw, rather than managed.

And at that point, having miraculously managed to answer all five of us and several subsidiary questions in under twenty minutes, Nick was whisked off to the ITN studios round the corner, to continue his hectic schedule of interviews. And none of us had asked him about his close result (brilliantly answered by Gavin Whenman yesterday), nor his lacklustre campaign, nor combined the two by asking if the traditional Lib Dem cry of ‘It’s too close to call’ might have been more successful in getting his vote out than ‘It’s fine, we’re miles ahead’… And that was, I think, because the campaign’s over now, and while we all wanted to ask probing questions, we wanted to ask ones that mattered – about how he would lead – and not just try and trip him up for the sake of it. And I think we’re looking forward to chasing all those issues up with him in a few months’ time, too, now that we’re all even more excited by just how well he’s hit the ground running. In the meantime: well done, Nick, and the very best of luck.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007


The N-Word Versus the F-Word

There’s been a lot of fuss about Radio One’s banning and un-banning of Fairytale of New York. Which, of course, they didn’t ban. They bleeped. Now, censorship is usually a bad idea and frequently a silly one, and it’s difficult to get more ridiculous than bleeping a word in a pop song. But I’ve got one question. Why is everyone chortling over “faggot,” a word derived from the religious practice of burning gay men alive (something, call me old-fashioned, that I find rather offensive), while no-one would ever say on the airwaves the word “N*****,” which is derived from “black”?

I don’t like the word “faggot,” and I sometimes mumble something when someone says it. But I’ve always thought Fairytale of New York was a catchy song, and I only wince a bit at that word (actually, it makes me wince much more coming from Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo, and I think that’s a fantastic film). Let’s face it, if I took major umbrage every time I heard a homophobic word, I’d never simmer down, and even complaining that you find something offensive – an exercise of your free speech – is a far cry from calling for it to be banned, which is a denial of someone else’s free speech. As long as the general direction of society’s getting more Liberal and less tolerant of homophobia, this sort of thing’s not worth a fuss, either. Add to that, even if I was one of those peculiarly intolerant people disposed towards censorship, the fact remains that gay people have always been much more likely to be on the receiving end of that, too. I’m even old enough to remember being at school and knowing how stupid the BBC looked for banning Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax because it was about shagging (and that was before I knew I was gay, so I’m happy to say I had some youthful Liberal instincts, or at least anti-establishment ones). So I’m caught between rejoicing at censorship being shown up for being ridiculous, and sadness that yet another hate word’s been given an extra-special boost to use against gay kids in the playground.

But I’d never say or type the word “N*****,” because it’s become such an offensive term. And, I don’t particularly want traffic from the sort of loathsome gits who’d Google-search for the word. Why is it that a word that, looked at objectively, is so much less brutal than one that intrinsically means ‘You should be killed horribly’, is actually seen as so much worse? Well, in part it’s because you can’t look at hate objectively, and you can’t separate the N-Word from its uses and its history, too. Lynching isn’t implicit in the N-Word as burning is to the F-Word itself, but it’s part and parcel of the cultural use of it, which is why it’s so calculatedly shocking when it’s reclaimed by acts like NWA (which, again, of course I wouldn’t censor). But that still doesn’t explain why, rather than being seen as morally equivalent, the N-Word is social death and the F-Word is evidently to most commentators just an excuse to smile.

The answer, I think, is that it simply reflects where ‘opinion-formers’ have got to. And so racism is for most people and certainly for the media establishment – just look at even the Sun and the Daily Hate Mail shrieking at Jade Goody early this year – something that you can’t support in public. But homophobia… Well, we’re a few decades behind, so it’s all right for that still to be a bit of a laugh.

And, if you tune in to Doctor Who’s Voyage of the Damned on Christmas evening, by the way, you’ll find that the people behind it must be quite fond of Fairytale of New York, too. The new song in it, The Stowaway, is a dead ringer for that tune…

Embarrassed Update: my argument about taking offence being fine but censorship being not stands, but researches by the learned Jonathan Calder suggest that I’m wrong on the etymology of “faggot”. Oh well. If he’s right, quite a lot of people I know are wrong… But with Jonathan, you learn something new every day, and this one wasn’t even about Shropshire!

I’m still fairly sure, however, that the derivation of “bugger” is from “Bulgar,” as Bulgarians, heretics and gay people were suddenly the Church’s big new enemies in the Twelfth or Thirteenth Centuries. Yes, if you want traditional Christianity, they only invented homophobia two-thirds of the way into the Church’s history: new-fangled rubbish ;-)

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Well Done, Nick!

And there were only 511 votes in it! I was thinking that the Liberal Democrat electorate was about the size of a Parliamentary constituency, and there we go and make the result a marginal. Well done, too, to Chris, for coming so close – something that shows how impressive both candidates were, and how important both will be to heading our success. But most of all, well done and good luck to Nick Clegg, and it was great to see him reach out with such an energetic, optimistic, Liberal speech, setting out his ambition to change politics and the country.

Blimus, that was close. But didn’t he sound good?

First, a witty and insightful little speech from Vince, clearly enjoying his encore as Acting Leader; then, a gracious and generous little speech from Chris to congratulate Nick, predicting he’ll be a great Leader; and then in effect two speeches from Nick, one to the hall and one to the country, one self-effacing and light-hearted, immediately congratulating and, I hope, signalling a major role for his former rival (“As of now we are colleagues once again, and I am really looking forward to working with you for the sake of Liberalism in Britain”), then the main event powerful, passionately Liberal and showing him at his best.

“I’m a Liberal – by temperament, by instinct, by upbringing.” A great opening line for the ‘outward’ section of Nick’s speech. I wonder if he knows it’s almost word-for-word from John Steed? But he went on to personalise his beliefs, to tie them to his family, his party and his country, with a strong evocation of what Liberalism is and why it’s in tune with Britain:
“My own family was marked, scattered, reunited by the tragic conflicts of the last century. I was taught from an early age that Britain was a place of tolerance and pluralism, with a history steeped in democracy and the Rule of Law. I believe that Liberalism is the thread that holds together everything that this country stands for…

“We’re a people with a strong sense of fair play and social justice. An instinct to protect the environment for future generations. We’re suspicious of arbitrary power, wary of government interference. We want to play an active, enlightened role in the wider world. And we have always put our faith in the ability of ordinary men and women to change things for the better.”
Then, of course, the optimism was tempered by realism, facing up to the problem that this is still not the Liberal Britain we want it to be, with “our civil liberties casually cast aside,” “gigantic, faceless, and incompetent government bureaucracies” – never a truer word spoken – and families struggling to meet each month’s bills, to balance the demands of work and the time for a real family life. Politics, he said, was broken, out of touch with people and the modern world. His one simple ambition: “To change Britain. To make it the Liberal country I believe the British people want it to be.” Well, not that simple, Nick. Go on? That would be a country where people can take charge of their lives, where words on the environment turn into real action, “where no-one is condemned by the circumstances of their birth”.
“Why have we stopped imagining a better society? Look at what we’ve got. Labour and the Conservatives have governed in exactly the same way – top-down, centralising. I simply refuse to believe that the only alternative to a clapped-out Labour Government is a Conservative Party that has no answers to the big issues. Environmentalism without substance. Social justice without money. Internationalism without Europe. So the challenge for my party is to define a Liberal alternative to the discredited politics of big government.”
And that means opening up the Liberal Democrats, Westminster and politics – holding regular public meetings, give people who support the Lib Dems but aren’t members a say (sounds inviting, but what’s the meat? We didn’t see it in his campaign, and he doesn’t have a blank cheque) and spend one day a week campaigning outside Westminster, again and positively learning a trick from Paddy. He’ll also be setting up a network of families – however defined? – to tell him his priorities. Which should be interesting.
“If you once voted for us, but you think we’ve spent too much time focusing on ourselves…
“If you once voted for the Conservative Party, but have no idea what they stand for any more…
“If you once voted for the Labour Party, but feel let down by ten years of disappointment…
“If you’ve given up voting altogether, but still care about the world we live in…
“Then a newly united, energetic and optimistic Liberal Democrat party is the party for you.”
And, again, the party will need to change. “More professional, more united, more ambitious.” Good for you, sir, and the same to you.
“Liberalism is the creed of our times. The politics of ‘left’ and ‘right’ has broken down. Labour and the Conservatives are mutating into each other, united in defence of a system that has let the people down. Instead, we must start where people are, not where we think they should be. In short, I want the Liberal Democrats to be the future of politics. Because Liberal Democrats have the courage to imagine a better society. To break the stifling grip of the two-party system for good, to bring in a new politics, of politicians who listen to people – not themselves – no more business as usual, no more government knows best. I want today to mark the beginning of a real change in Britain. The beginning of Britain’s Liberal future.”
A solid, passionate, persuasive speech, then, and either daring or introspective to use the word “Liberal” so much. I hope he gets to reclaim it; more than that, I hope he gets it to resonate with people as he clearly hopes it does. That means I hope he’ll set out in people’s minds a much firmer sense of what being “Liberal” actually means so that people will really identify with the idea, and his speech today made a good start on that; Liberal, strongly delivered, outward-looking …Just a shame to have that line about “a people’s politics”. Dear, dear, that sounds like Tony Blair a decade ago or Eastern European states two or more decades ago. But when a Liberal Democrat Leader makes a speech that has a curmudgeon like me beaming for most of it and just giving one little wince, that’s a definite win!

Update: back from a quick but invigorating bloggers’ interview with Nick (of which more tomorrow, fingers crossed), and rather than just the bits I typed in you can now read his whole acceptance speech online. Which means I’ve spotted the “values” line I was sure I’d heard first time out but couldn’t find when scanning back through the speech to select bits in the following half-hour or so while typing those selections. Of course, it’s because I was looking in the second part of the speech, and it was the bit he started with. One of the things I like about Nick’s ideas is that he wants to communicate our values rather than just our policies, as he did in his evocation of Britain’s Liberalism above. Well, so even I can’t miss it, his promise to do that is up on the much-improved (for one day only, apparently) front of the official Lib Dem website:
“With renewed ambition, we will reach out to the millions of people who share our values but have not yet voted for us.”

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Lost in the Post: Why Postal Services May Prove Fatal For Gordon Brown

It’s almost Christmas, and most people in Britain are thinking the same thing: ‘Is that blasted Internet gift shopping going to turn up before I have to go to the in-laws with nothing but a weak smile and some chocolates from the garage?’ Even once posted, who knows; my Mum wasn’t impressed when my birthday present took a month to arrive (awwhh). So spare a thought at this stressful time for the unhappiest person in Britain where the postal service is concerned, whose entire career has been lost in the post (alongside so much of our personal data): Gordon Brown.

Yet Another Fiasco From the Culture of Carelessness

If you’ve managed to look up from biting your nails over the forthcoming Lib Dem Leadership declaration, you’ll have noticed that yesterday the Labour Government got round to admitting a disastrous loss of personal data, again, some months after it was first discovered, again, with nobody having a clue, again. You might have missed it, because this careless was on a smaller scale than the last big one a month ago. This time it’s a mere one-twentieth of the population, rather than half of us. Doesn’t sound so much, does it? Yet three million lives and livelihoods at risk of identity theft is still, as Susan Kramer said, “mind-bending”. Unlike the Labour Minister, she had a practical answer, too:
“Perhaps the answer is we should be holding less data on people or it should automatically be destroyed.
“This constant attempt to gather data, to get more data, to know more about you, to link it more together, all of that it seems to me is what comes into question.”
Don’t worry, though, fraudsters – those three million people are the pick of the bunch. People applying for driving licences, which if you can get hold of them instead are perfectly genuine fake ID! And mostly young adults, which might mean they don’t yet have credit cards, so you can take out their first for them! Well, it’s nice that under Gordon Brown it’s Christmas for someone. Just a pity it’s for the ID thieves. But, say Labour ministers, there’s no need to panic – these ones weren’t lost in the UK, but in America. And we can all be reassured that there’s no organised crime out there.

The newspapers, of course, can’t resist festooning their front pages today with L-plates for the Labour Government. It’s an almost irresistible gag, but it misses the point. This Government are not learners at all. They’ve not learnt anything at all in the decade they’ve had absolute control, in which case they’re never going to learn how to run the country competently. Worse, they’ve got complacent and careless and stopped looking where they’re going because they think they’ve got it sussed. They are not ‘learners’. This is not a new government. It’s one that needs a re-test.

This is a deeply rooted and repeated problem of a careless, arrogant Labour administration that believe they know everything and the public know nothing. They simply don’t care what happens to the public, as long as they can carry on in power. Again and again, they inflict pointless new laws on us that just waste police time, then break their own laws because – well, it can only be because they don’t think the rules apply to them. Laws are just to control the little people, not to constrain big bullies like the Labour Government and the rich friends who slip them dodgy cash. Again and again, they prove they don’t care about individual privacy; the Labour Government must know every detail of our lives, and if that means tossing half the population’s bank details out into the street, Labour thinks it’s a price worth paying. After all, they’re not paying it. But when it comes to their cock-ups, they do whatever they can to make sure we don’t find out. No wonder political culture has become so debased. When the Labour Government is so smug and so reckless at the same time with all of our most personal details, it gives everyone a reason to despise politicians. As Vince Cable said yesterday about enquiries into all these disasters:
“If data and valuable information is consistently lost or stolen or abused, the public completely lose confidence in government in general at all levels.”
The Worst Data Disaster in the History of the World

You’ll remember the appalling disaster that the Labour Government admitted to four weeks ago today – over a month after it happened, though less than a week after they bothered calling in the police and the banks to shut the stable door. It’s worth going over again, because the same Labour Government like to pretend that it was a one-off, that procedures shouldn’t have permitted, and that in any case new procedures make impossible. The trouble is, not only does every subsequent almighty cock-up prove that’s a lie, or at best self-delusional – but so do all the previous failures. The Liberal Democrats, experts, pressure groups and even Parliamentary reports have been warning for years that such disasters were coming, and yet the Labour Government still act as if no-one could possibly have foreseen them.

Could the Labour Government not have predicted that there might be another data disaster, after the confidential details of junior doctors were published on the Internet in April? No, the Labour Government claimed, because such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again.

Could the Labour Government not have predicted that there might be another data disaster, after a CD containing the personal details of fifteen thousand Standard Life customers was lost by HM Revenue and Customs in September? No, the Labour Government claimed, because such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again.

Could the Labour Government not have predicted that there might be another data disaster, after a laptop full of ISA account details was stolen from an HMRC car in October? No, the Labour Government claimed, because such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again.

And the same went for the forty-one other HMRC laptops stolen in the previous twelve months, which you can if you like emphasise through your own cutting and pasting for dramatic effect.

So when, completely unpredicted by the Labour Government, they were responsible for the worst data disaster in the history of the world in losing the records of nearly half the UK population, and they claimed that such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again, the excuse was wearing a little thin. After all the warnings, after all the evidence, and even after all their previous bungles, it happened again, and in the most disastrous way possible.

For twenty-five million people – including more than fifteen million children - their names, dates of birth, addresses and National Insurance Numbers are up for grabs. None of those details can be changed easily, and most not at all. Then there are all child benefit numbers, and even bank and building society details. A windfall to any crooks who get hold of them now, and the bonus that they can easily wait up to eighteen years to sting some of their potential victims. As Vince Cable pointed out, with a single set of such useful identity details going for £60 a piece, this has a street value of £1.5 billion – with its potential value for fraud massively more.

And all this was because a junior official at a regional office was careless. How many officials? How many offices? And how do we even know that other such packages haven’t previously been lost, or intercepted and passed on? The answer is that the system is wide open, and there is simply know way of knowing. Even the Government didn’t hear about this disaster for three weeks after it happened (and it took them another week to warn the banks and then the police), so what if something were to go missing from a less conscientious office than the one that admitted it? And the data wasn’t even encrypted.

Perhaps we should just remove the title “Secretary” from all Labour Ministers until they can be trusted with it.

I’d say ‘You can’t imagine them being that careless with twenty-five million pounds, rather than twenty-five million people,’ but that was the week when recklessness came in twenty-fives for the Labour Government – twenty-five million people’s data recklessly endangered, and twenty-five billion pounds poured into Northern Rock, with no guarantee of the taxpayer ever getting that back either (and, of course, it’s a lot more by now). It looks like the CDs stand far less chance of recovery even than those billions. But so what if they do turn up again? After two months out and about, it’s impossible to believe they’d not have been copied.

It’s a cliché to say that ‘everyone knows someone who’s been touched by this’ over some disaster, but when half the population is involved, that’s a simple fact. Our sisters, sister-in-law, nephews and nieces are all at risk. A Labour Government that’s spent a decade whipping up fear of what might happen to children has at one stroke endangered every single one of them. It’s the most appalling proof possible that their rhetoric about “Hard-working families” was simple, cynical spin when they’ve so carelessly put at risk the lives and livelihoods of so many families. People are already terrified for their children, and then this happened. It may turn out to be the moment when Labour lost the next General Election.

Charlotte Gore explained how the Labour Government was once again breaking their own law, the Data Protection Act. Liberal Democrat Voice and Andy Mayer pointed out that no-one can possibly now be hoodwinked by the Labour Government’s grandiose claims for ID cards. It was such a disaster that even David Cameron couldn’t help but get it right, saying that Mr Brown wants to control everything, but can’t run anything. And then there was Nich Starling, so horrified at what this may have done to his young son that he identified it as “A reason to never ever vote Labour”:
“Today's admission by the government that personal data for 25 million people (and 7.5 million families) has been lost is not just going to cause problem in the short term for millions of people. It potentially causes problems for a whole generation of people for the rest of their lives.

“My details were on those disks. My national insurance number, my bank account, all my other personal details were there too. For me, it means that I am now very exposed to identity theft, card fraud, you name it, just about any sort of financial fraud is now, for me, a major problem… But what about my son. No, he is not safe too. His full name, his date of birth, both vital pieces of information, have also been given away. Who is to say that this information will not be of use too to a fraudster in 18 years time?

“The truth of it is that Labour have poisoned a generation of families and their children with the danger of ID fraud, and this will remain with us for the rest of out lives. This is something that Labour cannot and should not be forgiven for.”
And yet the Labour Government just don’t get it. They still claimed that such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again. The tone was set that night (Tuesday 20th November) by Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jane Kennedy stepping out of her fantasy world to appear on Newsnight. “If HMRC had followed their own procedures and followed their own rules, we would not be having this debate this evening,” she smugged, completely failing to understand that putting all your money on perfection would be no reassurance for a government with a perfect record, and that claiming every bureaucrat will always follow the rules to the letter when even the Labour Government persistently breaks its own rules is likely to be met less with incredulity from families these days and more with their wish to do her lot actual harm.

The point is that no system can guarantee to follow all the rules, all the time. The answer is not more power and more rules, but to limit the power of government and open them to scrutiny by us, not let them scrutinise us as their whim demands. The evidence for that was vividly expounded that Newsnight by Professor Ross Anderson of the University of Cambridge, who recounted multiple and specific examples of how the Labour Government simply brushed aside multiple reports on the growing dangers in the Government’s data collection, from Cambridge, other experts and even from Parliament. “I don’t accept the charge that we brushed report after report aside at all,” said Jane Kennedy, brushing the lot aside without answering any of the points. The killer punch came in Professor Anderson’s reply to Jeremy Paxman’s final question:
“Is there anything that could be done to change the procedures that could make them safe?”

“No. Because the fundamental problem is this. If, for example, your medical records are available to the ten staff in your general practice, together with the reords of ten thousand other people, there might occasionally be a compromise, a careless receptionist, but it’s something that historically that has been manageable. However, if you take fifty million medical records and make them available to three hundred thousand people, there’s no way that you can create procedures that will protect that. There’s too valuable an asset, to which too many people have access.”
The Madness of Identity Cards

The moral of all this, then, is that when the Labour Government still claim that ID Cards and a National Identity Register are the answer to identity theft, the solution to immigration, the way to tackle terrorism and a foolproof cure for baldness, they’re not just lying but actively delusional. These will cost around twenty billion pounds, and around a hundred quid personally for each of us to possess the things under Labour’s orders, but the expense has never bothered them. They’ll allow the Labour Government and a million minions to poke and pry into every area of our lives at the touch of a button, but that’s always been the big appeal to them. But the other big appeal ID Cards and a National Identity Register have always had to the Labour Party is that all this made them sound ‘tough on crime’. As with any really big lie, it’s easy to buy into: something so expensive, so bossy, really must be useful (no wonder that opinion polls based on Labour rhetoric rather than experience used to show twice as many people supported them as opposed them). But now everyone knows what an astounding opportunity to fraudsters they are, with some opinion polls showing now that twice as many people oppose them as support them, and with the public finances going down the drain, why on Earth do Labour still stick to the idea? It’s proved not to be practical, with the evidence that it’s actively dangerous, and now that everyone knows that, it isn’t even populist any more. Now it can only be some weird psychological obsession by the Labour Government.

Just look at what happened with all those data disasters in HM Revenue and Customs, and the Department of Health, and now the Department of Transport. And they expect us to trust ID Cards and a National Identity Register to… The Home Office. The most accident-prone disaster zone of all government departments. What planet are they on?

When up to a million people will have access to this massive system, all it will take is one disgruntled, corrupt or simply incompetent employee to go one better than half the population and throw the whole nation’s identity details to the winds. The Labour Government are utterly reckless with all our private lives. They grab as much information as they can, and when they’re caught, start thinking half-heartedly about how to safeguard it. They tell us they have to have all our data to protect us against identity theft - and then do this!

The Labour Government pretend that ‘biometrics’ are a magic word to protect us, when in fact physical tests, too, can easily be faked. Even ministers admit computer face recognition software isn’t reliable, so we’ll all probably just be fingerprinted on a daily basis. As Dr Ben Goldacre testifies, in the same article where he tells you how to make a fake fingerprint as easily as a fruit chew: “every time you touch something, if your security systems rely on biometric ID, then you’re essentially leaving your pin number on a post-it note.” Or, of course, you could have a laser beam fired into your eye every time you want to go to the shops or the doctor’s. Just try selling that one as reassuring people, Mr Darling.

Still, if the Labour Government really do believe that the ID Card and National Identity Register system would be 100% perfect, why not put them to the test. Gordon Brown claims he has complete faith in the security of his expensive, intrusive, bullying data collection plans. So why not write and ask him to reassure you, by promising to resign if there’s ever a security cock-up with ID cards, the national identity register or central medical records, given that he claims another monumental failure is so impossible? After all, Mr Brown could hardly take his own livelihood less seriously than the tens of millions of people he’s recklessly endangered, could he? Or ask all those Labour MPs who vote through laws that fine us all thousands of pounds for not disclosing our personal details to the Labour Government. Fair enough, Ms or Mr Labour MP, you could tell them: that law stinging us for thousands of pounds’-worth of fines can stay, if you just balance it. If you’re so sure about the safety of the data we’ll be fined thousands for if we don’t give it to you, then let’s put it into law that each time the data’s lost or disclosed to someone it shouldn’t be, every MP who voted for the Labour Government’s data monstrosities should be personally fined the same thousands-of-pounds fee. Per individual affected. That might concentrate their minds, mightn’t it?

Or we could just save a lot of money and a lot more disasters by simply saying ‘No’ to ID Cards and the National Identity Register.

And What About the Election That Never Was?

One last thing. You might well be thinking, ‘With all these appalling cock-ups in the last couple of months, I bet Gordon Brown’s wishing he’d not chickened out of having the General Election, back when everything seemed to be going so well.’ Well, provided they could still have kept their data disasters under wraps as long as they did, he probably does wish that, yes. After all, talking up an impending election brilliantly managed to unite the Tories at just the moment they were falling apart, and then backing down from an election brilliantly managed to damage Mr Brown just as he was looking unbeatable. So the Labour Government’s stunning cock-ups clearly aren’t limited to data-handling, though I somehow feel less sorry for Mr Brown than for the twenty-five million people in fear of identity theft because of his government’s carelessness.

But why did Mr Brown call off that election, when everything was looking so good for him and the speculation had taken on such momentum that backing down was bound to hurt him? Well, in part he must simply have taken fright of gambling for political advantage with the power to call an election years before he should have done. But there’s another reason, and one that in all the words written to jeer at him, I’ve not seen anyone else mention. Back in October, when all this reached fever pitch, we were in the middle of a postal strike that looked set to be long and bitter – and went on in areas like my own for weeks after it was theoretically suspended. The Labour Government has put huge store by postal votes, and they would have been completely at the mercy of the post unions. And could anything be a worse backdrop to an election campaign than the Labour Government, now back to being as reliant as ever on money from the big trades unions, being helpless in the face of a strike that hits everyone in the country? What a glorious opportunity for the other Conservatives that would have been.

Poor Mr Brown, then. The disastrous blunder of his losing those vital discs in the post may have sealed his fate when he eventually does dare to call the General Election. But the Curse of the Post may have struck earlier and still more fatally when it made it impossible to call a General Election at the time he could have won.

Update: you know how the Labour Government had thrown £25 billion into propping up Northern Rock by this time last month – you know, about the same money we spend on defence and twice that we spend on primary schools – and all with no guarantee the taxpayer will get a penny of it back? Well, it’s grown a bit. By this evening, the Labour Government has now handed out £57 billion. Crikey. The BBC reports that’s £2,000 for every person in Britain, with – still – no guarantee of getting a penny of it back. How stupid is Gordon Brown? As Vince Cable points out:
“The government now seems to have got the worst of all possible worlds. It’s effectively nationalised the liabilities of the bank, while at the same time it doesn’t control it, it doesn’t own it, and if it is sold then all of the upside, all of the capital gains will accrue to speculative investors and not to the taxpayers.”

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Sunday, December 16, 2007


Ghost Stories for Christmas and Other Festive Television

Press the red button on your digital TV right now, and you’ll see a thrilling Doctor Who preview trailer continuously advertising this Christmas Day’s big telly event – Voyage of the Damned, complete with more spooky angels, disaster movie style and added Kylie. And there’s plenty more to look forward to if you enjoy stories of the uncanny or fantastic, particularly with another season of Christmas ghost stories running this week on BBC4. A fine old Yuletide tradition and mostly taken from the works of M.R. James, tune in to know more about, well, things we’re not meant to know.

M.R. James and Other Christmas Spine-Chillers

The BBC made most of their Christmas ghost stories as annual events in the 1970s, but over the past few years BBC4 has been doing its best to exhume the tradition, showing selections from the past and even making a couple of new adaptations in the last couple of years. Tonight’s offering is one of them, starting at 10.40 and first shown in just 2005. A View From a Hill is one of the less gruesome adaptations, but centres on one of the more eerie ideas – a ruined abbey that can still be seen in its prime if viewed (almost literally) through dead men’s eyes. A young academic turns up to catalogue an Edwardian Squire’s collection but is led astray by the local sights, even if they’re no longer there; you’re probably with me in guessing that he shouldn’t go wandering about on Gallows Hill… It’s quite an effective little piece, beautifully filmed and with an excellent cast, including daunting ex-Watson David Burke as the brooding old butler and Pip Torrens as Squire Richards, a similarly stiff but less dutiful Edwardian role to his fine headmaster in this year’s outstanding Doctor Who (which, in turn, you can see again across tonight and Tuesday on BBC3).

A View From a Hill has many of the typical M.R. James elements: in these stories, you’ll more likely than not find a repressed academic obsessed with making a discovery coming to an old and probably rural setting where he discovers some ancient horror that doesn’t take kindly to his enquiry. With Mr James a former top man at Cambridge and Eton, I can’t help thinking that the attitude that ‘there are things we’re not meant to know’ and that sternly punishes asking questions may be better-suited to a writer of ghost stories than an academic. Fortunately, this season is telling us nothing of his professorial duties, sticking instead to putting chills up the spine. Oddly, the two of this week’s treats that I find least involving are the first-made and the most recent: 1968’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You (much-lauded, but with an uneven tone from the meanderings of Michael Hordern); and last year’s Number 13, in which an ecclesiastical researcher stays in an hotel almost as unfortunate as the one I was in during the Summer. Though he has other things than a hen party with an unlocked connecting door to worry about in the next room.

Amongst many splendid character actors who’ve appeared in my favourite series and in the Christmas tales, incidentally, one guest star who featured in two of the M.R. James ghost stories – the same guest star, and apparently the same character, though as the tales are many years apart there must be something rather rum and uncanny in his apparently reassuring appearance – who’ll be turning up in Christmas Day’s Doctor Who. I’ll leave you to spot who, though to narrow it down he’s been in a terribly good Doctor Who before now, and isn’t Kylie.

One of the more entertaining for someone brought up steeped in as much religion as I was is the tale of ambition, murder and madness in the Church of England – though at least there’s no homophobia, so they had it easy – in The Stalls of Barchester, showing tomorrow, Monday the 17th, at 11.40pm. Robert Hardy’s great fun, as is Young Mr Grace, though it’s slightly weakened by a framing device that means you relax at the end. There’s no such comforting final moment in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (10pm, Wednesday the 19th), which has a definite Gothic feel and in which the bad old world quite definitely wins. This has for my money the nastiest of the ghosts or monsters on offer, and a nicely ambiguous role for young Paul Lavers that might just be involved in sealing the fate of the protagonist.

They don’t appear to be showing perhaps the best of these tales this time, the Norfolk legend with the title that sums up so much of M.R. James – A Warning to the Curious – which is a particular shame, as BBC4 had previously shown it with a new introduction by Ruth Rendell where she was almost as forbidding as the story. I wonder, however, if they’ll be repeating some of their other introductions recorded a year or three ago; if so, will we finally get to see the introduction to Lost Hearts (10pm, Thursday the 20th), or will they stick on an intro for a completely different story, as they managed last time? It’s worth a look, whoever prefaces it, though it has a very different tone from most of M.R. James’ work, perhaps the most disturbing to modern eyes, with the academic a particularly nasty villain and the ‘innocent’ role found quite elsewhere (and, as ever, losing a little of their innocence).

Finally, there’s The Signalman (11.05, Thursday the 20th), from a story by Charles Dickens and one of the first television adaptations by Andrew Davies. It pits a rational man against a haunted man, played by Denholm Elliott, who’s breaking under the strain of a repeated ghostly warning on the railway line on which he works. It’s a compelling adaptation of the Doctor’s favourite ghost story (as he gushed to Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, another splendid little ghost story for Christmas albeit shown in April), and one which appropriately might be said to involve an element of time travel…

The Martians and Us and Mentioning the War

While most of the ghost stories were first shown on the BBC’s terrestrial channels and have found a new home on BBC4, The Martians and Us was a short documentary series for BBC4 last year that’s now coming to BBC2. Many readers may find themselves sitting slumped on the sofa at 11.20pm on Tuesday the 18th after Newsnight’s no doubt inadequate coverage of the exciting new Liberal Democrat Leader, but the programme following Newsnight is worth staying awake for – and worth tuning in again for at the same time on the next two nights. It’s a short history of science fiction, with an emphasis on British sci-fi and grouping stories by three overarching themes rather than sticking to a strict chronology. This means that stories are often shoehorned into artificial categories, but it’s entertaining enough and provides some interesting sketches from H.G. Wells to Doctor Who. The first part, From Apes To Aliens, deals with evolution and ‘biological’ sci-fi, then Trouble In Paradise focuses on utopia and dystopia, with a rather good definition of the two from Margaret Atwood (whose dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale was on BBC7 just the other week), and finally apocalyptic visions in The End of the World As We Know It. The last is probably the weakest of the three, feeling the most forced in its categories and, peculiarly, being the only one without any clips from Doctor Who – despite about a quarter of the old series and half of the new being driven by apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic storylines.

Meanwhile, two rather different styles of television based on the Second World War are to be found on weekday afternoons on BBC1 and at 10am and 5pm on UKTV History; despite it eclipsing King Arthur as our national myth, both these views of the War deal with occupied Europe and Britain’s part is more peripheral. The series consigned to a backwater digital channel is Secret Army, one of the finest dramas the BBC have ever produced, and gripping from its opening titles on. At present, UKTV History is repeating Secret Army’s second series, which has more of a continuing story than the first and particularly shows more of the human side to ruthless Gestapo officer Kessler, though it’s less white-knuckle tense in its individual episodes than the show’s first year. If you saw the episode Weekend, shown last week, even if you’d never seen Secret Army before you may have found the works of art pursued both by the Gestapo and the underground Lifeline run from a restaurant strangely familiar. Yes, this is the series that inspired ’Allo ’Allo, and while Weekend did not specifically feature a “fallen Madonna with big boobies,” you get the general idea. ’Allo ’Allo is, of course, the show that’s getting the ‘mainstream’ repeats, and though it’s intermittently amusing, I’d go for the drama any day.

Fans of our beloved Labour Party and their beloved President Bush may wish to shriek ‘Godwin’s Law!’ at me now for quoting the charming Sturmbannführer Kessler’s explanation of the need for balancing security over liberty, over dinner with his mistress last week:
“I’m concerned with the maintenance of law and order. When one is dealing with terrorists, one has to secure information by means of the most effective interrogation techniques available. These are men of violence, Mademoiselle, who will stop at nothing. They don’t use kid gloves, and nor can we. Information – that’s the most important weapon we have. Information. And my job is obtaining it, that’s all. Every government fighting terrorism faces this problem… And always will, I expect.”
And Back to Doctor Who

Do enjoy the Voyage of the Damned preview trailer; we were terribly glad to find it, having been disappointed not to see it when we went to the cinema last week. The other disappointment with our The Golden Compass experience was the film snapping in half during a scene with Derek Jacobi, and then depriving us of the beginning of the next one with Nicole Kidman. It was an outrage! You know we only went to see the villains, and we were particularly fond of The Pope of Evil with his sinister councillors (I must be the only person to cheer Edward de Souza, without him even getting a line) and a woman who appeared to have been fashioned entirely from gold. Speaking of which, you might notice a couple of Goldfinger touches about the new spooky angels, so we’re looking forward to finding out more about them on Christmas Day, and not before. No sooner does the Doctor clap eyes on another blonde, though, than he’s knocking years off his age again – it’s that Russell T Davies ‘straight agenda’ at work, you mark my words! That’s obviously why he was so adoring of Doctor Peter last month, too. No sign of the new song in it, either, ‘The Stowaway’ (aka ‘Fairytale of New New York’), but we have that on CD… If you miss the trailer, by the way, look out on the red button / Freeview Channel 301; I suspect it’ll be back later in the week. I can hardly believe there are fewer than ten days to go until Doctor Who!

Oh, yes, and Christmas.

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Friday, December 14, 2007


A Vote For Chris (featuring Chris’ answer to a nasty question you’ve probably seen elsewhere)

The ballot for the new Liberal Democrat Leader closes tomorrow: there’s still time to send your vote by special delivery or deliver it by hand if you’re in London. But if you’ve left it this late, then how to cast it? A vote for Chris Huhne is a vote for the Liberal Democrats to be noticed. My lovely Richard has said throughout this campaign that the candidates’ most often-used soundbites are the wrong way round. Nick calls for us to step outside our comfort zone; well, the Leader most likely to make us get up and get spiky is Chris. Nick is a nice man, and we’re a nice party; we’d be comfortable with him. I’m not at all sure Chris is a nice man, but he’ll drive the party into the headlines rather than keep us comfily passive.

Ambition, Detail and a Hungry Bastard

I came into this campaign undecided and have remained so until late, this week (as the deadline loomed) often switching from hour to hour, but, seeing how much Chris has improved since his Leadership bid last year and seeing how he’s made the running, I’ve no doubt he’s had the more impressive campaign. In both this year’s and last year’s Leadership contests, Chris has unerringly found the issues that get attention, and in politics you need the killer instinct. Last year, I hoped Ming might be as fearsome as Francis Urquhart; well, Chris is not a clever plotter who will stab you slyly in the back like that. He stabs you in the front and makes sure the cameras are there to see it. He may not be liked, but he gets noticed in a way that Nick’s campaign has been entirely hopeless at doing. Every Liberal Democrat in the land is surely sick of us never getting a word in edgeways – well, Chris looks like the answer to that wish (but be careful what you wish for). He’s said we need to set the agenda, to pass the ‘so what?’ test, and he’s done that in this contest with flying colours, not just on the territory of the Leadership fight but in making the news on other issues such as party funding.

Where Nick gives the sometimes endearing, sometimes vague impression of thinking out loud, Chris seems firmly to know his own mind. He’s put across a series of very clear messages, very effectively: a fairer society, a greener society, where power is handed back to the communities around Britain. He puts an emphasis on poverty and child poverty, on localism, saying that if you impose solutions you get “an amazing nation-wide balls-up,” and wants us to regain an anti-establishment “spikiness”. Then he argues that we must also establish ourselves as competent to run the economy (stepping outside our ‘comfort zone’, if you will), offering his real-world experience to take on Mr Brown. His answers show a mastery of detail, even if they sometimes go on a bit.

With all this, it’s tempting to say that Chris is “the finished article,” showing us his best while Nick’s potential has only been glimpsed. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, but I can’t be sure that Chris won’t get better, too; after all, though he made the running in last year’s Leadership contest too, since then he’s improved hugely (and consistently) as a speaker, and this year he’s muscled in on the media far more effectively. So who’s to say he’s not got more of his own learning curve to go before he reaches his peak? Wherever he is in terms of realising his own potential, where he is already is impressive: you know what his message is, even if you don’t agree with it; his “sharp elbows” make sure he gets that message across in places that wouldn’t automatically give him a hearing; and his performances have been consistently strong across the board. And he’s been able to withstand a host of negative attacks without crumbling. A new Leader will have to hit the ground running and make an impact. I’ve no doubt that Chris is capable of doing that.

He sounds like a very impressive candidate, and he is. But I do wonder if he can inspire the passion, loyalty and just plain liking that reaches the voters who don’t listen to the detail and sustains a Leader among the Party faithful when times get rough. The dilemma is that while Chris is more likely to be heard, when Nick is heard then Nick is more likely to be liked. What gives me pause for thought is that Chris’ greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: that he’s a hungry, ambitious bastard with a killer instinct for getting noticed at a higher cost than is strictly decent.

But Will He Be Liked?

So what does make Chris the candidate who’ll make us uncomfortable? It isn’t just that he’ll get heard on issues where we’ve not been comfortable fighting, but the way he does it. He’s made waves but sometimes giving the impression he doesn’t care how. Famously, he may have repudiated the ‘Calamity Clegg’ title, but he stuck to the attack lines inside the dossier with that on the front, having clearly been part of developing them in campaigning ‘wargaming’ though not publishing them under that particular name. There’s nothing wrong with putting your opponent under scrutiny, but three things made that the moment when Chris’ campaign hit its first rock. First, the crassness of the title, which came back to hit both of them even though Chris immediately repudiated it. Second, the accusations about Nick’s positions on public services were in several key ways more imagined than real – which implies a looser relationship with the truth than Liberal Democrats are happy with, though Nick’s weeks-long fumbling in settling the issue inspired no confidence either. And third, that when assertion turns into aggression and Chris just couldn’t resist putting the boot in when every onlooker was starting to get squeamish, people recoiled. Chris’ instinct for what the Party likes failed to inform him that we don’t like ‘nasty’, and that holing a fellow Liberal Democrat below the waterline does more harm than good.

Another drawback to Chris is his very attention to detail. It means there’s plenty to disagree with; it makes you wonder what he’ll be like if ‘crossed’ by the Party; and, ironically in view of his pursuing Nick on a lack of clarity, some of his positions mean something a little different to the soundbite when under close scrutiny. So, for example, I’m slightly wary that ‘freedom’ seems a little down in his priorities, and isn’t a word he usually chooses to talk about, or of opening up subjects for yet more debate that have already been gone into over and over, like Trident or local taxation. I’m slightly wary of the extent to which he might try and enforce his own views on the Party, or what will happen if our carefully considered policy process or a passionately argued Conference vote goes against him. And I’m wary of where some of his convictions lead, such as for example the line in his personal Manifesto that says “we must have the courage of our Liberal convictions” over drugs. This sounds like a liberalising instinct at play, but it turns out on close questioning that on drugs, and smoking, and on who knows what else, Chris’ instincts actually lean towards prohibition. Here, though Nick needed as much prodding to give a position and shows an endearingly obvious dislike of being prodded, Nick was both evidence-based and willing to follow that towards the Party’s existing much more Liberal policy, persistently ignored by the Leadership.

Will Chris be liked, then, to give him a cushion when times get rough? Is he willing to play a bit too foul? Are his instincts entirely to my taste? And, despite his ability to punch above our usual weight in the media, when all our enemies there decide to ‘get him’, will it derail his message that his constituency has such a small majority for him? While I’m certain he’ll keep his seat, there is the risk that his 500 majority ‘being at risk’ will become ‘the story’, which won’t stop Chris being re-elected but may stop people seeing us as winners elsewhere. Like ‘events’, sometimes inconvenient facts can clobber even the most media-savvy politician. On the other hand, of all the things that have come up so far in his media appearances during the campaign, that doesn’t seem to have been an issue…

Chris Vs Nick

Chris won Question Time, but by much more in the first half than the second. He was far better-able to deal with hostile questions, and it wasn’t that he flagged by the end; Chris was consistently good throughout, while Nick just rallied intermittently to hit higher but rarer peaks than Chris. And, yes, when Nick was good, he was very very good, but when he was bad, he was forgettable. Chris was impressive with his message, his detail and with his real-life experience – though his use of that terrible Ronald Reagan soundbite about age that, er, served Ming so well was his one serious howler (and though neither of them have ‘the Hung Parliament Question’ right yet, both are an improvement on Ming’s ‘La la la la la I have my fingers in my ears’ response). He’s developed considerably more passion and a sense of humour since last year. He can still look a bit stiff, though; it’s unfair to characterise him as a ‘machine politician’ to Nick’s ‘natural’, but there’s an element of truth in it, and for all Chris’ anti-establishment message, that’s not his manner. While Nick’s image seems often all over the place, Chris for better or worse comes across definitely as Chris, though as I’ve compared Nick to so many other politicians I will say that sometimes, when Chris is declaiming in a slightly pompous way, he does remind me of Paddy Ashdown in his bad moments, where Nick is reminiscent of what we used to love about Paddy instead.

The Politics Show, of course, was lost by both of them, but it was Chris’ badly calculated aggression that managed the mutually assured destruction. Chris was too aggressive and not fair to Nick, which was off-putting; though it exposed Nick as tetchy and unable to answer effectively, you got the feeling that the damage to Nick was rather like being caught in the blast radius of a hand grenade with which Chris had eagerly mortared his own foot. And that definitely damaged his campaign just as it was flying. Still, while that was the time Chris lost his cool, Nick seems to do it far more often but in a less disastrous way.

One after-effect of the Politics Show dust-up was that Chris lost the Newsnight debate a few days later, perhaps because he’d had had so much feedback of how badly he’d miscalculated and was uncharacteristically reticent, perhaps because Nick had raised his game. There was a more worrying element to Chris that night, though, and ironically in view of his main line of attack on Nick, this time it was a major policy issue on which Chris showed a lack of clarity and which could come back to haunt him. The issue was immigration, and while Nick said no, there hasn’t been too much immigration, but more attention needs to be given to the needs of communities whose resources are being overstretched, Chris refused to say whether there’d been too much immigration or not. In mid-waffle, he sounded terribly parochial, and even gave the impression he favoured protectionism. I suspect waffling around the subject of immigration and trying to appeal to both sides is morally superior to a naked play for the anti-immigrant vote, but Chris’ reply will have pleased neither side and wasn’t an edifying sight, though he did have the odd good point buried in there. Bizarrely, neither used the then-newsworthy argument of local councils that there should be more government support for areas where the census reports were screwy because of sudden increases in population.

But by last week and the Today Programme, Chris was back to walking all over Nick, in a thoroughly Liberal way, and doing it assertively rather than aggressively. He’s really very good at getting a word in.

At the London hustings I went to, Chris gave the best speech I’ve seen him give – polished, fluent, persuasive, funny. And yet Nick flew past him by miles. Chris can do passion, but Nick at his best is better for vision. Again, though, it was much closer on the questions, with Chris for me edging it by a smidgeon but both of them frankly bum-numbing in their wordiness. And he even declined the opportunity to put the boot in, being regretful and funny on Saj Karim rather than a hatchet man, so he’s learning. He was also very good throughout at remembering the names of the people he was replying to, which is a good psychological trick for making direct communication (and, Nick, really only needs a pen and paper!).

Odd thing about that hustings, by the way: the stickers. Last year we had one candidate with a reddish-orange, one using the safely prescribed Party Pantone, and the other with a yellowish-green, enabling undecided voters to display an exciting traffic light formation. This year, both colour tones were identical, so it was impossible to tell at a glance which candidate was which…

Vote For Chris

Both candidates are good Liberals (Nick’s instincts slightly more to my taste) and both are capable of communicating what we stand for (Chris slightly more effectively). If the ballot paper offered a vote for Nick as Leader to set out our vision alongside Chris as Deputy Leader with a roving brief to grab the agenda from our opponents and a licence to kill, I’d go for it like a shot. But there’s a crueller choice involved, and our Leader will have to shoulder both roles.

Chris has stood up to everything thrown at him in two Leadership contests without complaint, and has seized the agenda in both. We need that combination of toughness and the killer instinct. He’ll take us outside our comfort zone. Nick is capable of being a great Leader too, but his campaign has shown he’s not yet ready for it: with two Leaders destroyed, the party must be certain the next can stand up for himself. We can’t afford a feeble Leader reliant on a bigger ‘beast’ to ride shotgun for him – just look at how that approach turned out for John Major and Ken Clarke. Chris will be a Leader who will elbow his way onto the national stage and be ruthlessly effective. That’s why one of our votes goes to Chris Huhne.

And Finally… The Nasty Question

At the bloggers’ interviews with the Leadership candidates, on which I’ve been very slow to write, both candidates were very impressive, with both more charming, charismatic and animated than they’ve been on TV. Both were also more long-winded, with Nick just edging it for the one who went on the most (not that I’m one to complain). I’m also not one to complain about lateness, but you should know that Chris pounced on the opportunity to see bloggers and set a date that was within days of the first enquiry; Nick’s team needed a lot of prodding, eventually providing a date a fortnight later, in a typical example of his campaign’s ability to meet the 24-hour hour media cycle and set the agenda (though in Nick’s favour, he brought us teas and coffees, only one of which bore traces of strychnine). To test each of them – as I had with Ming before – I constructed a very leading narrative out of which I sprung a ‘nasty question’. With Chris, I asked the question at the time as a natural follow-up to James Graham’s on his ‘narrative’, and though the others have long since written up their own takes on his answer, here are my notes…

“Ming said he failed because he needed to be more popular. You say we need to revive our anti-establishment edge. Your ‘story’ is that you’re the rich guy, the journalist, the politician – all very popular professions – and of course the man from Brussels. If our Leader needs to be popular and anti-establishment, how is that you?”
Chris’ answer, given at the time and without a fortnight to ponder it, was along the lines that being anti-establishment is “a cast of mind” rather than personal circumstances – “rocking the boat, standing up for the underdog”. He gave as examples how as a journalist he had to ask the awkward questions, and how starting up and building a business is about fighting your way in. Slightly surprisingly, he lauded Microsoft as an example of an anti-establishment outfit coming out on top. He has “a fundamental belief that things should be changed” – politics as it is must be exposed as “the Emperor’s New Clothes”.

You can read my alternative “A Vote For Nick” here.

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A Vote For Nick (featuring Nick’s ‘EXCLUSIVE’ answer to a nasty question)

The ballot for the new Liberal Democrat Leader closes tomorrow: there’s still time to send your vote by special delivery or deliver it by hand if you’re in London. But if you’ve left it this late, then how to cast it? A vote for Nick Clegg is a vote for someone with deeply Liberal instincts he can put across with passion and appeal. My lovely Richard has said throughout this campaign that the candidates’ most often-used soundbites are the wrong way round. Chris calls for us to elect a Leader who’ll be a risk; well, the riskiest option is Nick. Chris has been consistent in his message and performance throughout this campaign, while Nick has often underperformed – but, at his best, Nick is the inspiring one. Let’s gamble that Leadership will bring out ‘inspiring Nick’ and put ‘ineffective Nick’ to rest.

Vision, Passion and a Nice Bloke

I came into this campaign undecided and have remained so until late, this week (as the deadline loomed) often switching from hour to hour, but, having vaguely known Nick to speak to for some years and with confidence in his Liberal instincts and his approachability, I started off leaning towards him. I was very impressed by him some years ago on the It’s About Freedom paper on the Party’s philosophy: I get the feeling I agree with his Liberal instincts more than I do with Chris. He’s pleasant, engaging, and very bright – he’s absolutely not a lightweight. When he’s caught fire, such as his sudden passion on what drives him in politics on the Leadership Question Time, I’ve also seen a real Leader in the making. His speech at the London hustings showed a capacity for intellectual depth about the coming issues, for a good turn of phrase (or the ability to spot someone who can write one) and a captivating delivery. Nick has great potential – I’d like to see him deliver on it.

Nick has natural advantages beyond the choices he’s made in his philosophy. He’s not only quite handsome, but – when he relaxes – looks natural and at ease on TV. He can speak directly and in a down-to-earth way; he can talk around a subject as if thinking aloud. Both styles come over as genuine, human, and even (rare for politics) thoughtful. I think he has the chance to connect with a lot of voters who might not give more processed-seeming politicians the time of day, and perhaps with some of the younger voters that we’ve worryingly lost to the Tories over the past couple of years – not through his instilling fear of how bad the Tories were when they were little kids, but through a message of optimism for the future that the Tories just can’t match. And it is thinking about the future where Nick excels, setting out his vision on subjects like powerlessness, social stagnation, globalisation, fear and the environment. I don’t always know what the specifics of Nick’s message are… But I’m comfortable with the direction, and his tone and ‘mood music’ seem right for the Party.

He sounds like a very impressive candidate, and he is. But I do wonder if he’s ready yet for the big step, and what worries me isn’t any negative campaigning from Chris or sneers from the media. What gives me pause for thought is that Nick and his campaign have failed so often not just to match expectations but even to seem up to the job.

But Is Nick Ready?

So what exactly is the risk with Nick? Well, Nick at his best is inspiring, but his campaign has had three consistent problems. The first is that it’s made little headway, despite the backing of most of the Party establishment and a favourable wind from most of the media that bothered – Chris has set all the agenda, leaving Nick on the back foot. If he can’t make the running in a Liberal Democrat contest, and with all that support backing him up, how will he manage it in a hostile media environment and starting from third?

The second problem is how he’s dealt with negativity. I’m in little doubt that Chris’ campaign has been more willing to go for the jugular from the top than has Nick’s, though it’s not all been one way. Almost every time Nick’s opened his mouth, he’s slipped out his stiletto soundbite that he doesn’t sound like a “Westminster policy wonk” (translation: ‘I’m a human; Chris is a robot’; ironically, if you know what a “policy wonk” is, you’re almost certainly a politics wonk), and some of Nick’s supporters have been infinitely more vitriolic than Chris’. The reaction to attack, though, has been equanimity from Chris and constantly complaining that it’s unfair from Nick and his team. Some of it has been unfair, but goodness me, deal with it fast and move on rather than letting it linger for weeks and then running crying to a grown-up when it all gets too much. With the proven ability of the media to destroy our Leaders, I’m worried that Nick seems so easily rattled by relatively gentle assaults. Will he be floored with one punch in the real, nasty world? Nick may be more likeable, but he’s also more breakable.

The last and most risky element of his campaign is that it’s been so consistently inconsistent. It’s not that he started well and faded, or let Chris get off the starting blocks first and then caught up – throughout the campaign, watchers have never known whether they’d get Nick being at ease, on the ball and engaging, or looking nervous, stammering a bit and waffling round a question he doesn’t want to answer. Viewers of The West Wing will know the syndrome: will he be President Bartlet, or will he be just Uncle Fluffy? I’m confident Nick has it in him to be Leader. But is he there yet? If he wins and messes it up because his confidence and abilities aren’t yet honed, it’ll do neither him nor the Party any good. This is nothing to do with his age, nor his experience. It’s simply from watching his campaign and going, ‘Oh, I dunno… Why is he so ill-prepared?’ When his passion shows, it’s captivating, but it doesn’t show often enough. Will it?

Nick Vs Chris

You’ve probably seen and heard the programmes where the two candidates debated. You’ve probably made up your own mind. But as far as I’m concerned, it goes like this.

Nick lost Question Time, but by much more in the first half than the second. With both initially confronted by hostile questions, Nick was the one who couldn’t deal with them. Later in the programme, Nick found his feet a couple of times and showed some passion; his highs were higher than Chris’, but most of the time Nick just wasn’t reaching the highs. Chris was pretty consistent, but Nick was all over the place. In some ways, the most worrying aspect of Nick’s performance came with the questions where he was best, rather than the forgettable ones. Without exception, they were not the first answers given; either because Chris had gone first or because Nick jumped in for a second go. Each time, it seemed he needed time to think about it, and usually he needed a second answer to correct himself after fluffing his first go. On the question when he finally flew, talking about what motivated him in politics, it was his third go. First up on why he should be Leader, he flannelled. Chris came in with his real-life experience, much more effectively. Nick, clearly feeling ‘It’s not fair,’ chipped back in to boast about his modesty, which by definition is a bit of a no-no. And then, on his third attempt, he gave the answer everyone remembers [for posterity, I can’t find a clip of it online, but Nick finally got his passion going about children born into poverty and their shockingly different life chances just in different parts of Sheffield, and on his anger against illegal war, as MatGB records in his helpful summaries of the debate on this thread (and which Tom Papworth terms Nick’s “haymaker”). He was also good in contrasting himself and Mr Cameron, both the same age: Nick was appalled by Thatcherism when growing up; David Cameron became one of her footsoldiers. That’s a fundamentally different choice]. So the problem is not when he got it right and knocked spots off the other feller, but how many takes it took him to get there. How many media opportunities do the Liberal Democrats have to get one go to make an impact, let alone two or three to feel their way to one that’s any good?

One of the odd things watching Nick is that, though I’ve thought he was very effective, rounded and competent for years, on TV suddenly he seems much more formless. As other bloggers have said, sometimes he doesn’t seem like ‘the finished product’. So while, for better or worse, Chris comes across definitely as Chris, Nick’s protean state keeps firing off impressions of other people (though despite what’s ever written, never with the sliminess of David Cameron). In his less impressive moments on Question Time, I was getting a cruel whiff of Boris ‘Um um I don’t know how to answer the question but you like me’ Johnson, but mostly Nick reminds me of other Liberal Democrat Leaders. Is he Charles Kennedy, likeable, human, talking in approachable language but waffling a bit and often coming across as rather ineffectual and poor on detail? Often looks like it. Is he Ming Campbell, talked up by the Party establishment and raved about by the media, but with all of us hoping by this stage of a lacklustre Leadership campaign that he’s just been under-performing for a bit and it isn’t that he’s just not got it? Or is he Paddy Ashdown, with old-fashioned good looks and a stirring ability to wow us with the vision thing – and, yes, I’ve often got that Paddy feeling from Nick when his passion kicks in, too.

The Politics Show, of course, was lost by both of them. Chris was too aggressive and not fair to Nick, which was off-putting; Nick was tetchy and unable to answer effectively something that by his own testimony had been going on for ages. And then he went crying to the Chief Whip afterwards. Give me strength, or indeed, give it to Nick! A couple of days later, I’d say Nick won Newsnight, perhaps because Chris had had so much feedback of how badly he’d miscalculated and was uncharacteristically reticent. But by last week and the Today Programme Chris was back to walking all over him, assertively rather than aggressively. Nick really has to shape up at getting it right first time.

Given the chance to practice, Nick is very impressive. At the London hustings I went to, Chris gave the best speech I’ve seen him give – polished, fluent, persuasive, funny. And yet Nick flew past him by miles. Passionately Liberal (and social Liberal at that), internationalist and visionary, it wowed the audience despite the odd malapropism and having fewer applause-prompting soundbites crafted into it. On the questions, though, it was again much closer, with Chris for me edging it by a smidgeon but both of them frankly bum-numbing in their wordiness. I think Nick’s questions may have lost a point from me when he said that “Only in a Liberal Democrat meeting would you be asked to solve the Israel-Palestine question in thirty seconds”; a good five minutes of flannel later, the drooping audience was wishing he’d stuck to that time limit.

Odd thing about that hustings, by the way: the stickers. Last year we had one candidate with a reddish-orange, one using the safely prescribed Party Pantone, and the other with a yellowish-green, enabling undecided voters to display an exciting traffic light formation. This year, both colour tones were identical, so it was impossible to tell at a glance which candidate was which…

Vote For Nick

Both candidates are good Liberals (Nick’s instincts slightly more to my taste) and both are capable of communicating what we stand for (Chris slightly more effectively). If the ballot paper offered a vote for Nick as Leader to set out our vision alongside Chris as Deputy Leader with a roving brief to grab the agenda from our opponents and a licence to kill, I’d go for it like a shot. But there’s a crueller choice involved, and our Leader will have to shoulder both roles.

Nick has Liberal instincts and is capable of broad appeal, and our press operation will have to improve enormously to give him that chance. Nick is a risk that I hope will pay off – a choice in hope that he can consistently be as good as the best he’s been this campaign, rather than from fear that he won’t withstand the media whirlwind. Nick will be a Leader who will speak to people’s hearts and give a hopeful vision. That’s why one of our votes goes to Nick Clegg.

And Finally… The Nasty Question

At the bloggers’ interviews with the Leadership candidates, on which I’ve been very slow to write, both candidates were very impressive, with both more charming, charismatic and animated than they’ve been on TV. Both were also more long-winded, with Nick just edging it for the one who went on the most (not that I’m one to complain). I’m also not one to complain about lateness, but you should know that Chris pounced on the opportunity to see bloggers and set a date that was within days of the first enquiry; Nick’s team needed a lot of prodding, eventually providing a date a fortnight later, in a typical example of his campaign’s ability to meet the 24-hour hour media cycle and set the agenda (though in Nick’s favour, he brought us teas and coffees, only one of which bore traces of strychnine). To test each of them – as I had with Ming before – I constructed a very leading narrative out of which I sprung a ‘nasty question’. With Nick, there wasn’t time to ask it in person after all his other answers, but I e-mailed it on, and after a couple of weeks’ prodding to them and then a couple of weeks’ delay on my own part in publishing it, here it is…

“Just last year, your judgment was that you weren’t ready to be Leader, and that Ming was the best man for the job. Ming’s just stepped down because he didn’t think he could make a success of the job, and now all of a sudden you’re up to it. Was your judgement wrong then, or wrong now? And how do we judge?”

“Dear Alex

“Nearly two years ago, when Charles stood down, I was certain that only Ming, with his experience and standing in the party, could settle the nerves of the party and point us to the future.

“I still believe that judgement was right. People too readily forget what a fragile state the party was in at the time, and too readily overlook what Ming achieved in very difficult circumstances.

“I did not believe a ‘rookie’ MP, just arrived in the House of Commons, could have forged the unity in a somewhat fractious Parliamentary Party necessary to move the party forward. I stick to that view.

“Now the circumstances are quite different. Being a liberal Lib Dem Home Affairs Spokesman is widely regarded in Westminster to be one of the toughest jobs in one of the hardest policy areas. I’ve been up against three Labour Home Secretaries, leading debates on civil liberties, counter-terrorism, crime, anti-social behaviour, the prisons crisis, and immigration. And I’ve got the scars to show it! So I’m far better equipped for the job now than I was two years ago.

“I also believe that political success is not possible without unity. The fact that a large number of my Parliamentary colleagues now feel that I’ve proved myself enough to deserve their support in this leadership contest is important. Not because of some arbitrary headcount of supporters, but as an indication that the people who work most closely with me, day in day out, now think that I am capable of leading the party as a whole.

“All best wishes


You can read my alternative “A Vote For Chris” here.

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