Wednesday, March 26, 2008


President Sarkozy Makes Sense

The Today Programme’s prestigious (and often preposterous) ten past eight slot this morning was unusual in two ways: I thought the interviewee made a lot of sense; and I was agreeing with Nicolas Sarkozy. I don’t know which way I’d have voted in last year’s French Presidential run-off – the Socialist seemed a fluffy but ineffectual voice for the status quo, while Monsieur Sarkozy made more economic sense but on issues like immigration was a grotesquely illiberal git. Still, at least it was a more palatable (if less easy) choice than the previous election’s alternatives of the crook or the fascist. Some might say this morning’s interview was unusual in that the interviewee was speaking French, too, but as we largely heard his translator talking over him instead, the main vocal style of note was the amusing way in which Mr Naughtie’s usual terrier-like style gave way to fawning over a head of state.

The BBC news site’s coverage of the interview focuses on President Sarkozy’s warm words about a new Franco-British entente amicale and proposed closer co-operation in advance of his address to both Houses of Parliament – oddly enough, it’s on issues like nuclear energy that I’m more wary of him – but it was his words about the European Union that I found more stirring. In essence, he said that a Europe without Britain was unimaginable, but Britain needs others, too, explaining so many of the issues in the world that we can only really affect by working together. And Britain can only build a different Europe by getting involved – if we don’t have “both feet in Europe,” we’ll never be able to change it.
“Now, we’re not asking you to join Europe by giving up what you hold dear, but by bringing in everything that you have achieved. And that is a lot.”
Both more practical and more passionate than any interview on Europe that Today’s broadcast for a long while, it’s well worth a ‘Listen Again’ (later today, I imagine the interview will be part of their daily ‘Best of Today’ podcast assortment, too).

On the other hand, grumpy old Mr Brown may be less delighted by President Sarkozy, not only because he’s threatening to boycott the country illegally invading, occupying and oppressing Tibet for the last half-century – whose murderous dictator Mr Brown has been expending so much effort in sucking up to – but also because in his Today interview Nicolas Sarkozy talked about how impressed he was by the UK’s exciting young leaders. To paraphrase him in the style of Sideshow Bob: ‘The following UK leaders are youthful and vibrant: Monsieur Blair (once); Monsieur Cameron; Monsieur Clegg; that is all.’

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Friday, March 07, 2008


The Lisbon Treaty, Murphy’s Law and Why Policy Matters

Many Lib Dems will today be on their way to Conference looking rather glum, and many more will be wondering why everything that could go wrong did seem to go wrong this week. Well, I’m not saying I never get crabby with other Lib Dems (whoops), but I reckon it’s more helpful to work out what to do next time than argue over the blame, still less for either ‘side’ to accuse the other of being liars and having no principles. Perhaps I’m just not Euro-nerdy enough to assume other Lib Dems are evil without trying to see their point.

Conferences and the Lib Dems’ Silliest ‘Split’

Next week I’ll have a think about whipping, but as I get ready for Conference it seems natural to think about what role Conference could or should have in all this. And it strikes me that, while there would have been arguments whatever happened – Europe does that more than any other issue, despite (ironically) us being more united than the other two parties on it – one of the main reasons this has exploded into such bad feeling in the party is that (again ironically, as it concerns a referendum) the party hasn’t had a say. And I think the party cares about that sort of thing.

The silliest ‘split’ inside the Liberal Democrats has always been the one people talk about between ‘campaigners’ and ‘policy wonks’. I’ve never been able to see how that makes sense. I joined the party twenty years ago because of the political ideas it stood for; I started campaigning with it because I wanted to see those political ideas put into practice. I was out delivering Focus when we were at 5% in the polls, long before I ever wrote an article or went to a Conference and found out that I was ‘supposed’ just to choose one or the other; the period of my life when the largest number of policy motions I’d written got through Conference was the period when out of about two dozen Parliamentary by-elections in a row, there were just two I didn’t manage to get to and help in, though in the last few years ill health has prevented me getting out so much. If I just wanted to do well in elections and be a policy vacuum, I’d join Labour or the Tories. If I just wanted to perfect my own individual policy rather than working with other people to do something with it, I’d join a debating society. Anyone who thinks the Liberal Democrats should be entirely about just one or the other is one Focus short of a delivery route.

Now, at Conferences is where you often see the ‘division’ between those two ‘types’ most at work; the caricature is that one set’s off at training sessions or comparing the length of each others’ leaflets, the other sitting through a load of tedious speeches in the main hall. Well, when things go wrong over ‘policy’ and we look rubbish all over the headlines, it’s no use for ‘campaigners’ to blame the ‘policy wonks’; they should have got stuck in. When Lib Dem leaflets say something dodgy that contradicts what we stand for and that looks rubbish all over the headlines, it’s no use for ‘policy wonks’ to blame the ‘campaigners’; they should have got stuck in. In our party, members make the policies and write the leaflets; neither are dictated from on high, and that’s what makes us us.

Some people occasionally argue that more should be decided from the centre, and that the MPs should be in charge. It doesn’t fit our bottom-up principles – but, more importantly, it’s a recipe for political catastrophe. The policy on European referendums was one of the very few that had no bottom-up involvement, and just look how well the MPs did on it. We’ve never had a chance to vote on it. Conference has sometimes made daft decisions, but this was all down to the MPs, so it’s no wonder several of them decided to go their own way last week. Campaigners don’t know which line to take or feel angry being told to put out a line they don’t agree with; policy wonks all want to have their own say. Both need to take responsibility, and to have the chance to. Either way, when an issue blows up in our faces like this, it’s the whole party that looks bad, not just one bit.

How did this happen? Well, it’s partly a mistaken attempt at top-down decision-making, but it’s mainly cock-up rather than conspiracy. Throughout much of last year, the party quite reasonably said it would wait to see if a referendum was necessary on the Lisbon Treaty until we could actually read the thing; the Tories followed their prejudices and announced they wanted to defeat it in the country before it was written, while Labour followed their fears and announced there’d be no choice for the people whatever it ended up saying. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats published a policy consultation paper and scheduled consultation sessions all about our Europe policy; bottom-up, evidence-led decision-making.

Then two things happened. The timescale got too short for the consultation to work properly, and Ming Campbell suddenly announced there’d be no referendum. Naturally, there was a hailstorm of criticism. Then he announced he backed a referendum on the whole issue of the European Union instead, to widespread praise. And when did all this happen? Just before our last Conference in September. Forgive me if ‘Leader in ruckus over top-down Europe decision that spoils the mood going into Conference’ gives me a sense of déjà vu.

If Ming had waited a few days, and said that there wasn’t time for a full debate over the policy but he’d listened to the consultation session and based his announcement on what he’d heard, even that would have defused the issue a bit. As it was, he announced the policy a couple of days before the consultation, and the only chance we had to express our views on it in the full Conference was choosing whether or not to applaud his speech (which was mostly a very good one).

Nick had more reason to claim support for the policy: he stood on it, and several of us criticised him for it, when he ran for Leader. So anyone calling for his head on a spike now rather than the moment he was elected is simply an opportunist; we knew what we were getting. Unfortunately, not only is Leadership far more than a referendum on any one policy, but the other candidate backed exactly the same policy – though even if Chris had taken the opposite view (and I challenged him on it in person), I doubt more than a few Euro-nerds would have changed their vote either way.

We’re sometimes willing to take a Leader on trust, of course, but we prefer to make up our own minds than defer to ‘authority’ or ‘seniority’. In the Liberal Democrats, whether you win a policy debate isn’t down to a badge boasting how many streets you’ve tramped or how many speeches you’ve given, but whether people think you’re right on that issue. And that’s as it should be.

The biggest problem with this is not anyone’s judgement, though, but that the timing simply meant we didn’t have the chance to have a say. I think Nick should have announced he was bringing this major policy shift to our Spring Conference for us to decide. But if he had, the Labour Government would still have had the vote this week, and the MPs would still have ended up deciding. So one lesson is that Leaders shouldn’t make policy on the hoof, and that if you want the party to stand up for a policy it has to be involved. If that had happened, I don’t believe for a moment we’d have had such a dramatic split among the MPs or the wider party. But the other lesson is that, in real life, sometimes that’s not possible and you have to grit your teeth and hope the Leader gets it right, and hold him or her to account when they don’t, and that sometimes with the best will in the world the party’s just going to have really bad luck. We did.

The Split Among the MPs

Liberals are full of paradoxes. We’re free-thinkers, but we’re also usually united, because we generally believe in much the same things rather than being just a loose alliances of warring tribes. And of course it’s because we’re united, and historically have been the only people united on Europe, that our ‘rebellion’ on Europe got masses of press coverage while the Tory MPs’ big rebellion against Mr Cameron’s position got none. Of course it’s unfair, but if I’d been a news editor I’d have made the same call: the Tories have been at war over Europe for decades; a Lib Dem split over Europe is a ‘man bites dog’ story. On the other hand, if I’d been a news editor I’d have paid a lot more attention to an obvious Tory front organisation caught out in an obvious deceit by targeting David Heath when he, er, agrees with their demands. And of course many of our problems are down to Labour and the Tories ganging up to oppose a referendum on the whole of the European Union, which is what most people are much more interested in and a vote on which would show us both united and popular; but, hey, who ever thought they wished us well? And for what it’s worth, I think last week’s walkout was very good judgement.

I’ve read diatribes against David Heath and spleen against Nick Clegg; I prefer to think both were doing what they believed in and thought was right, and I don’t think ‘the one I agree with is good so the other must be evil’ is a sufficiently thought-through justification for calling for the head of either of them. Who does that help? I’m not sure what I’d have done in either of their places. I think both made misjudgements, I think Nick made rather more – but then, on this issue, I agree with David’s policy rather than Nick’s, so perhaps I would say that. Yet in ‘ordinary’ circumstances, I’ve been impressed by Nick for years, and I’ve never been a fan of David. So I don’t feel the urge to clobber either ‘side’ (just wince). Besides, I might be a bit full of myself on occasion but I don’t have the truly Herculean ego required to claim that I’m the only person with any principles.

As it happens, I don’t agree that the Lisbon treaty is the same as the draft constitution. I think anyone who argues that a constitution replacing a whole half-a-century’s worth of treaties is exactly the same as an amending treaty that makes far fewer changes than Maastricht or the Single European Act has been blinded by Euro-nerdery… But I still thought a referendum on Lisbon was a good idea, because the changes may not have been huge but they were still significant, and I generally presume in favour of people having a say, even if the issues are as arcane, nerdy and tedious as arguments over taking a motion in parts at a Lib Dem Conference. As well as the principle, I’d have backed a Lisbon referendum in part for political reasons: I don’t think most people in the country care about all this, though those who do care go crazy ape-bonkers over it, but people are fed up with not having a say on anything, so it’s no wonder that they’ll grab any referendum to hand if asked. I think Nick made the wrong call, but I can appreciate how his principles came down on the side they did. I don’t question his integrity, and I don’t see why any party member has cause to. On this particular issue the politics wasn’t up to much, though; the party made a complete mess of communicating its point here. The issue for next time we have a potentially splitting issue isn’t that Nick shouldn’t trust his principles, but that he needs to have his explanation ready in a nutshell, both for the public and the party. I think most of us are happy to have our Leader make the case to us, but get shirty when taken for granted.

Three Choice Blog Posts

I’ve got a bit of a headache this morning, having cleverly gashed my scalp on a cupboard door last night. I’d just like to assure any readers who might notice any crusted blood in my hair this weekend that it was an accident due to my usual astounding lack of physical co-ordination rather than through anyone trying to murder me, or though banging my head against the wall. If there are any Lib Dem frontbenchers (or ex-frontbenchers) spotted with bruised foreheads, though…

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Monday, March 03, 2008


Did the Tories Win Because of Howards’ Way?

Not the offputting Michael Howard, of course, but glossy ’80s supersoap Howards’ Way, featured last week in BBC4’s series on hit Sunday night shows. If you’ve read Neil Stockley’s blog analysing successful politicians in terms of how they tell a good story about themselves, you might have an idea of what was going through my head about the narrative of Howards’ Way… While both the BBC and ITV produced great drama in the ’80s, different series often matched politics of the time in seemingly speaking to completely different nations. And the Howards’ Way nation looked like it had more fun. Yes, this is what comes of watching TV and realising that the Liberal Democrats are twenty years old today, born out of the ferment of the ’80s.

So, did you see that episode of Howards’ Way last Sunday, and BBC4’s rather good The Cult of… programme about it? These mini-documentaries have all been well worth seeing, though after several weeks of them you can now predict each cast will talk about the churches closing early, being recognised in the supermarket and unglamorous BBC budgets. Of all of them, though, Howards’ Way was the one so far that’s sent shivers down my spine. A stirring, keening nautical theme tune as catchy as last night’s The Onedin Line (a dim memory from primary school years) kicked off a drama with a heady whiff of the ’80s, reminding me as it unfolded of just what was good and what was off-putting about that decade.

With the ’80s packed full of political drama, I may be unusual in that none of those seemed at the time like they spurred me into politics (even Edge of Darkness, which had me glued). I still reckon the show that had the biggest impact on my philosophy was Doctor Who when I was a much smaller boy back in the ’70s, while the series that directly got me interested in politics was Weekending – the wittier radio equivalent of Spitting Image, which made me laugh so much I wanted to find out who the people involved were. Watching Howards’ Way, though, made me realise how much other series had an impact on me as part of the political narrative of the time. Around the age of fifteen, 1986-87ish, I realised both that I wanted to change the world (working out I was gay had a bit to do with that too) and that I really didn’t like the nasty, polarised class warfare on offer from Labour and the Tories.

Watch Howards’ Way today, and it feels like a poster campaign for Thatcherism – culturally, rather than politically. We often watched it, though my parents tended to disapprove of the people in it: the greed, the flashiness, the ‘bed-hopping’. Despite that, it painted a far more palatable picture than Mrs Thatcher and her hard-faced hordes, or than the brash, triumphalist yuppies shown waving braces, bungs and brick-sized mobiles at each other in the opening minutes of The Cult of Howards’ Way. Yes, some of the characters in Howards’ Way were greedy, oily and filthy rich, from the smoothly manipulative Charles Frere to the archetypally Thatcherite ambition of Ken Masters (known to my mother-in-law as “the slug”), but a lot of the show was the softer, less objectionable side of Thatcherism. As well as very much the British attempt at Dynasty.

The working title of Howards’ Way was The Boat-Builders, evoking ’60s industrial drama The Plane-Makers but then dropping that for putting a family rather than an industry in the centre of the story. At the heart of it was charismatic Maurice Colbourne as Tom Howard, made redundant as an aircraft designer and throwing his savings into his dream of boat-building, and go-ahead wife Jan (Jan Harvey), unimpressed by him throwing it all away and wanting to strike out on her own. And those two, as much as the money and the sexual freedom, made the series’ outlook persuasive. A man made redundant and deciding to take a chance, do something better and make something great instead; a woman who decides she’s not just going to be a housewife and wants to make her own decisions and fulfil her own potential – both following their dream in a heady cocktail of ‘you can be what you want to be’. Like the sexual freedom, this was the sort of thing that Thatcherite rhetoric seemed to encourage, even when the Conservative Party’s political programme went down a much narrower road. Mrs Thatcher’s government was in many ways sexually regressive – difficult to work out you were gay the year before Section 28 and not notice that – but their narrative meant they were as often washed along with the times as channelling them.

However, when a commentator on the documentary claimed that
“If every cultural artefact of the ’80s was lost or incinerated apart from tapes of Howards’ Way…”
…then viewers would still know what the decade was all about, something clicked into place in my head. Because that’s just not true, is it? For every glossy, aspirational drama or soap like Howards’ Way, there was a grim, bleak drama – usually regarded as a better drama, too – which told the story of another side of the ’80s. Put Howards’ Way and Boys From the Blackstuff, say, side by side, and very little would tell you they’re from the same decade, with each telling the story of a different nation.

One of the earlier series featured in BBC4’s Sunday night season was The Brothers, a ’70s industrial drama devised by the same producer who created Howards’ Way. They’re recognisably the same idea on paper – they even both brought in Kate O’Mara to eat the men and the scenery – but the ethos couldn’t be more different. In the ’70s, the BBC drama thought that the men were important and the women were adjuncts, that realism was important and that ‘both sides’ of industry should be represented. In the ’80s, women characters were powerful in themselves, but drama no longer suggested there was one society that had to work together. Howards’ Way didn’t have to confront the disastrous social consequences of Thatcherism; you watched a different series to see those.

Compare and contrast the different styles of drama the ’80s had to offer: aspirational versus laments for how it was; success versus failure; go-ahead women versus grim matriarchs; rich versus poor; North versus South. And while you might watch them and admire the tragic stories as more heartfelt drama, wondering perhaps if socialist playwrights were putting their soul into their work while Thatcherite scriptwriters were just in it for the money, the powerful cultural pull of each tradition sums up both what I disliked most about the ’80s and why the Tories won. The ‘Labour’ dramas were more powerful when you watched them, more moving, better-written… But while you might watch and appreciate the romance of suffering, who wanted to buy into it? The ‘Tory’ dramas were less emotionally gripping, but had a much more powerful idea: rather than wallowing in their tribe, they were recruiting people, and they had characters from poor backgrounds who’d got in the money and told viewers they could do the same. If politics and drama were both telling you that was the choice, no wonder people preferred the Tories.

That narrative for me crystallises the ’80s. The Tories were rich and powerful but nasty, with some of the nastiness filed off and made to look more alluring on screen; Labour were, literally, hopeless. And the divisions in the country were magnified in the dramas – not focusing on how most people lived, but on the extremes of the upper middle class doing glamorously well for themselves and the working class out of work and miserable. With socialist writers contributing so eloquently to the narrative of defeat, it’s no wonder Labour kept being defeated – and, as The Cult of Howards’ Way noted, it’s remarkably appropriate that that series came to an end just three days after Mrs Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister.

And me? I didn’t identify with either narrative. Culture, drama and the Conservative Government and Labour Opposition all seemed to glory in the idea that there were two rigidly divided sides and you had to choose one. I chose something different (and perhaps it was that yawning division that encouraged more people than at any other time in the last ninety years to vote for our lot). So the question at the end of it for me is… Other than Doctor Who, what sort of drama would have a persuasive Liberal Democrat narrative? And do you know an influential drama producer to whom you can pitch it?

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That Cowardly Norfolk Blogger Tantrum In Full

Last night, Nich Starling threw a drama-queeny strop breathtaking both in its bitterly negative attacks against Liberal Democrats he’s never met and has never bothered getting in touch with and – as readers of Lib Dem Voice will know – in getting almost all of its facts wrong. I know that several comments have gone unpublished by his censorship (presumably he’ll let them through much later, so he can claim to permit dissent while keeping it all locked up until everyone’s stopped reading) while, rather than apologising, he’s re-edited what he said to make himself look better. Here is the unexpurgated version. In my opinion, it is not suitable for children, or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition.

I drew attention in comments on Lib Dem Voice – which aren’t subject to Mr Starling’s censorship – to the fact that I’d saved it, and have had several requests to see what he said in full flow of vitriol. So rather than repeatedly e-mail it, I thought I’d republish the whole thing. Compare and contrast with his current version (now, as far as I can tell, the third different edit, even with a different title, though I may have missed several of his changes for all I know). The bloggers’ interviews are a marvellous example of bottom-up, do-it-yourself Liberal Democracy in action, organised by someone who isn’t staff or some grandee, constantly and openly looking to improve how they’re done. Well, that’s my view. Here’s Mr Starling’s positive and informed contribution to the debate:
When does one get to enter the "inner sanctum" of Lib Dem bloggers ?

I like blogging because unlike so many things in politics and life, I have the right to state my opinions openly and people can judge what I say by their own values and beliefs. Some might agree with me, some other might disagree, but in essence my views are as valid as any other blogger's opinion. Be the blogger Iain Dale or someone who started their blog only yesterday, it shouldn't matter. All our blogs should be of equal merit, even if clearly some blogs get more readers than others.

Now being a Lib Dem, I thought the party too would want to be seen as being even handed, fair and not too eager to bestow special title or honour on bloggers, but that appears not to be the case.

There is, you see, an inner sanctum, a select few, whose blogs re significant and more important than other Lib Dem bloggers. These bloggers, generally London based, general with "friends" in the right places, get very "special" treatment. Of course, it could be easily argued that Lib Dems based in London will always be able to attend these special meetings by nature of the geography of the country. But just who does get invited ?

I have never been invited to such a meeting and obviously, being based in Norwich makes it impossible for me to attend. But how many other London Lib Dem bloggers get asked ? Who decides who gets on the list and what are you expected to do in return ?

The danger is for those who attend these meetings that they are seen to lose their objectivity. They will be seen by readers to be following the party line or going easy on people because they want to keep their place at the table in the inner sanctum.

There is also a real danger that regional bloggers are seen as being outside the loop, not on message and therefore not worthy of special access to the top people. This is actually rather dangerous as it pushes the premise again that only London matters. As a party committed to devolving power, this seems at odds with the Lib Dems core beliefs.

If I were London based I would probably want to be able to attend, but equally, I would want these meetings to be more open to new bloggers, more open to all those people in the party who might disagree with Lib Dem policy, in general, more in keeping with the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution which states ;

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

The key words for me are "fair, free, open and equality". It seems some specially selected people in the Lib Dem community are, are more free and equal than others.
Posted by NB at 21:09 0 comments
Now, wasn’t that charming?

Let Me Count the Ways In Which That Was B******s

I responded at length on one of Millennium’s open invites to the interviews on Lib Dem Voice – the ones that Mr Starling would have known about if he ever listened to anyone but himself (or Iain Dale), so I’ll republish that, too. First, I was positive and factual:
And another bump for the opportunity to interview top Lib Dems either for your own blog, or to write it up here!

To recap Millennium, above: the people short-listed for the Liberal Democrat Blogger of the Year Award were invited to interview Ming last September; my beloved Richard, at Millennium’s behest, then did all the work of organising interviews with the two Leadership candidates (more time and effort than you might think!); then the first bunch of us decided to open it up first to the prize-winners from the other categories, then – as Richard’s been organising more of them – Millennium’s post above was the next attempt to open up the interview panel, followed by the invite to join in for Ed Davey (when the first two people to volunteer on LDV and one who got in touch directly got to turn up alongside some of the original crew – and so could you!).

As this is the most-read Lib Dem blogging site, it seemed the best place to put the invites, rather than just the ego-and-stats-boosting option of us just mentioning it on our own blogs. So keep your eyes peeled for when the next one comes up.
And then I mounted my critique of Mr Starling, republished here complete with original mistakes, some of them apologised for:

OK, now, I don’t like having a go at another Lib Dem, particularly one I’ve not met and who may be very nice in real life, but there are two things I dislike more: someone having a go at the man I love (well, everyone’s protective of their loved ones); and cowardly attacks without naming people but when everyone knows who the attack’s on, which offends my sense of natural justice. If I set out to criticise someone, I do it in my own name and name them outright so they can reply, rather than spreading bile like a gutless worm. And I admit I made a little sideswipe earlier, so here’s something open, honest and attributable.

So, let’s be clear: do not be put off applying here by the self-aggrandising innuendo of Norfolk Blogger Nich Starling, who thinks he’s not good enough [obviously I meant to say “too good”] for a general invitation and had to have a special personal one. Because the only possible alternative explanation is that there’s a secret cabal of people offered special favours to suck up to the establishment and expressly martyr Mr Starling (rolls eyes).

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re involved in politics. And, look, you know things don’t happen by magic, don’t you? Someone has to get their finger out and do it, and hard work gets results where sitting and whingeing doesn’t. Why, then, do these interviews take place?

Because Richard had the idea and took it upon himself to do all the work: everything from chasing MPs’ diary secretaries to buying the doughnuts. And other people than the six who were short-listed come along because Richard did the work of getting out invites on here for everyone to read, after starting this discussion about how to invite people.

Why doesn’t Mr Starling interview top Lib Dems?

There are two possible explanations.

Is it because, as he claims, there is a secret (widely publicised on Lib Dem Voice) cabal of people who have (unnamed and so handily unprovable) friends in high places and are hand-picked from people who are slavish apologists for the establishment (no, no, don’t titter, madam, you might even believe it if you’ve never, ever read any of the blogs in question, though it’s ironic that the only one Mr Starling links to is James Graham’s tearing Ed Davey into pieces – gosh, James, what are you like when you say what you really think?), all of them part of a London-only elite (like Jonathan from Market Harborough, Linda from Bedfordshire, Jonny from Oxford and Manchester, etc, etc…)?

Or is it because he didn’t bother asking to come along when Millennium asked for volunteers, has never, ever dropped Millennium a line, and can’t be bothered to organise any interviews of his own, believing it more productive to pour poisonous and ludicrous accusations on the people who actually bothered to do something positive and, by implication, particularly the person who does all the work?

Only you, dear reader, can unpick this impossible conundrum to discover the truth.

But seriously, please, if you want a fair, free and open Liberal Democrats, don’t be put off. If you, too, have stayed up too late at night reading The Da Vinci Code, you’re of course free to believe there’s some shadowy conspiracy, but it’s one to which everyone has been invited, and will continue to be.

I decided to reply to this open invitation to make the point, and to make it where it’s likely to be read by the largest number of Lib Dems. And, I’ll be frank, because I raised an eyebrow at replying on Mr Starling’s blog, which is subject to his censorship and which would be a reply to a post he’s already put weasel words into since his initial outburst in an effort to make what he said look less daft. It’s no less nasty, though (as I write, at least!): no apology; no constructive suggestions; just changing some of the facts to cover his a**e while still having a go at other people for no reason.

Now, I’ve never met Mr Starling. Most of what he writes isn’t much to my taste, though I’ve quoted him approvingly a few times on my blog when he’s written stuff I thought was good (for example). I’ve got no axe to grind, no chip on my shoulder, and he’s never run over my dog. But I might read him more often if there was less self-righteous paranoia; sometimes he writes like anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that he, personally, is the greatest thing since sliced bread must be part of a global conspiracy against him. What other reason could there be? Well… Some people just have different tastes. That’s the point of blogging, surely?

So, Mr Starling, if you’re reading – chill! Not everyone has to conform to the view that you’re the greatest blogger on Earth, but that doesn’t mean they have anything against you. And it takes poverty of imagination to assume that if you don’t get a special personal invite, there’s some inner cabal that lives only to get at you. But what really gets my goat is you trying to enforce your ignorance on other people by telling everyone that only some secret group gets to interview the top Lib Dems. And just why was your first response to accuse other Lib Dems of everything under the sun rather than, you know, ask someone for the facts? Play nice. If you can get to London the day the next interview takes place and you volunteer early, you’ll be coming along. If for some reason you can never leave Norfolk, why not organise interviews of your own with Lib Dems there? Or do an interview live online? But if you’re just too grand to read Lib Dem Voice like all the rest of us and too lazy to do any work yourself, don’t [go] into yet another drama queeny strop.

Reader, if you have a Lib Dem blog or are a Lib Dem willing to write up your interview for Lib Dem Voice, seize your chance to interview people through the interviews Richard organises. And if you aren’t first to volunteer and don’t get a place, try again, or – here’s a thought – why not pick a Lib Dem MP and interview them yourself rather than expecting it all to be handed to you on a silver platter? That’s what Richard does, after all.
The issue of regional meetings has been discussed by people who’ve done some of the interviews, and who’ve posted to the Lib Dem Voice thread that Mr Starling still pretends doesn’t exist, by the way. Richard tried to organise an interview with Nick Clegg in Liverpool (he was too busy, understandably), but I notice Mr Starling makes no positive suggestions, merely whingeing and mud-slinging. But as every MP is based in London, and as Richard lives in London and does all the work (NB and is neither a Lib Dem bigwig nor staff), there are logistical problems, and no-one else – least of all Mr Starling – has offered a solution.

Following that, I posted a comment in reply to what was then the current remix of his article, in which he took out some of the more ludicrously over-the-top foaming and added some pretend concern that people without blogs couldn’t come to a bloggers’ interview (the clue’s in the question):
Oh dear.

Your latest re-edit of your work is “equally, if I were not a blogger, why shouldn't I be able to attend such meetings ? Should bloggers be getting special treatment ?”

If that new moving of the goalposts is meant to be populist, it’s a shame you’ve still not had the courtesy to read the invite here on Lib Dem Voice, which you’ve now had several people post links to. Which makes it clear that if you don’t have a blog, you can come along as long as you’re willing to write the interview up for Lib Dem Voice.

And just what prevents anyone else in the party, or indeed the world, from setting up interviews of their own? Why don’t you do it? Why don’t party organisations? Why don’t groups of interested members? The only reason these interviews happen is that Richard does all the work. Did you think they happened by magic?

Feel free to continue the debate on Lib Dem Voice, where everyone is more likely to read it, where you’ll show you’ve bothered to make some vague acquaintance with the facts rather than making up some nasty conspiracy theory, and where people posting comments don’t have to wait for your censorship to allow them.
Incidentally, I meant to apply the link to the words “here on Lib Dem Voice,” but forgot and left it at the bottom of my comment, so that’s why the phrasing looks a little odd.

Things I Don’t Do Very Well, and Things Mr Starling Does Very Badly Indeed

Now, I’m aware of several of my blogging shortcomings. I don’t mean that I tend not to be brief, as in my eyes that’s an advantage rather than a shortcoming, but things like getting rather unsociable when I’m not well and often not blogging for a while. Even more often, I tend not to get round to replying to comments until it’s really too late. If I spot a typo in a piece, or a come up with a brilliant line six weeks later that should have been there, or just want to add a label at the bottom, I’ll do a niggling little re-edit of blog posts that probably irritates anyone who reads a feed and gets things several times.

In my defence, I’d rather post infrequently and spend a long time writing than post a load of stuff that simply isn’t very good. However, when I do post something that isn’t very good, or where I make a wrong prediction, or where I get my facts wrong – anything that I look back at and think, ‘Well, that was embarrassing’ – I leave it there. I’ll do fiddling little changes and the occasional clearly labelled update, but I won’t change great screeds to make myself look better. I’ve frequently added apologetic updates at the bottom when I’ve got something wrong, particularly if I’ve had a comment that’s pointed it out, but if I’ve made a prat of myself, fair dos, it stays there to warn me to do better next time. Similarly, if I don’t get enough people reading or liking what I write, I assume I should address that by writing something better rather than by inventing a vast global conspiracy that’s out to get me.

I find my respect for Mr Starling plunging now that I can see the way he manipulates his blog to cover himself – and I have no idea if he does it regularly, but his changing a cowardly attack to a cowardly attack modified in a cowardly way to cover up how utterly wrong he was leaves a nasty taste, particularly as that sort of dishonesty is calculated to make critical comments look like they’re over-reacting. I also have no sympathy whatever for someone who makes a cowardly attack and then sets his comment-moderation so that he can delay or reject any comebacks until he’s had the chance to change what he’s ‘said’ again, or just keep them waiting until he judges everyone’s stopped reading and he’ll look less of an idiot. Sometimes people have taken a piece of mine apart in the comments and I’ve never got round to rebutting them. Well, that’s my fault that I look foolish, then, isn’t it? But keeping control of comments like this so no-one can answer back and embarrass you – I just think that’s a cynical, cowardly and dishonest way to blog, and my opinion of Mr Starling has gone through the floor as a result. So much for the self-styled champion of telling it like it is and critic of the “Inner Party” – he’d fit right in at MiniTrue stuffing comments into memory holes and claiming he’s always been at war with Eastasia.

Now, obviously a tiny sliver of what Mr Starling said was an unattributed attack on me, because I’ve done several of the interviews, so I can’t entirely rule out a bit of ego in going ‘grrr’ back. But I think there are much more important reasons why he got on my wick yesterday and today:

Mr Starling, stop being so nasty and try to stop being so stupid. Stop being so lazily negative. Stop just making things up. Stop being such a delusional self-pitying whinger and come up with something positive instead. And stop being such a coward.

Update: if you read through the comments, you’ll now find me putting down the Angry Stick and being rather more conciliatory. Sorry to have been so OTT, readers!

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Happy Birthday, Liberal Democrats!

The Liberal Democrats are twenty years old today. Back then, I was an enthusiastic then-Alliance supporter, still at school, and I sent off an application to join the new party as soon as I found out where to send it. Since then there have been plenty of ups and downs, but whenever there’s a panic about the latest opinion poll I yawn and remember the party’s first couple of years: 4% in the polls; our shiny new Leader the fourth most popular; near-bankruptcy; at 6%, a very distant fourth in the Euro-elections; no-one knowing what our name was (including us)… So when we’re rising closer to 20% in the polls today and people grumble progress is too slow, of course I’d like us to be soaring – but I remember what collapse was like, and this ain’t it.

I’ll admit it’s a relief that – with one major exception – Nick’s had a hugely better start to his Leadership than Paddy did (at times it felt like every millimetre of progress was from Paddy dragging our rating up with his teeth). And it’s disturbing to realise I’ve now been a member for more than half my life, though it’s often felt like the Liberal Democrats have been more than half my life at any one time! Still, I’ve never regretted joining, I still believe we can change the world, and there’s only been one day in the last twenty years when I’ve felt like resigning.

Oh, and I’ve managed to get quite a few of the issues that got me motivated twenty years ago written into party policy and three separate General Election Manifestos, so that’s not bad, is it? Like many Liberal Democrats, I didn’t grow up in a family of members (though I did sign my Dad up and get him to take over my Focus round when I went off to uni), I didn’t grow up wealthy, and I grew up two hundred miles from London – but in our party, you don’t have to tick boxes to get along. You don’t need to be the ‘right’ class, you don’t need to know people, and you don’t need to toe the line.

The first time I ever met Paddy Ashdown, I had an argument with him. And when I was first elected to the Federal Policy Committee, I was aged 21, and ten years younger than anyone else on there – and I’m pretty sure I’d never have been elected if I hadn’t been forthright about my views, rocked the boat and then said ‘Give me a chance to change things’ rather than sitting in the corner and whingeing. I’m also pretty sure that, back then, I had more determination than talent, but I think I’ve shown a bit of talent since. Either way, I’m still happy to be in a party where determination, talent and a desire to make a difference count more than an old boys’ network.

I’m still passionately interested in issues, but I find them more interesting to write about at length than writing about me. So rather than start my memoirs, I’ll finish with two important ways I’ve got involved. I’m middle-aged now, but in my late teens and twenties there was one bit of the party that was absolutely invaluable.

The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students

The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (which went through their own rather less traumatic merger while I was involved) were brilliant for me. Sometimes we were a great success, sometimes we cocked it up completely, but for me LDYS was an essential training ground, giving me the chance to learn how to campaign, meet lots of other young Liberals and argue with them, and enough opportunities to speak that I turned from a stammerer terrified of speechmaking to the gobby person you can’t shut up. They appear to be in the throes of yet another name change at the moment; good luck to them. And to fellow middle-aged Lib Dems – I know that LDYS has always been strapped for cash, and they are particularly today. So if you ever feel like making a donation, they really are one of the best places in the party for getting people off the ground, as well as for getting the rest of the party to be a bit less boring.

Blogging and the Bloggers’ Interviews

The other way to get involved that I’d encourage is, of course, blogging. It’s easy to start off, and, er, not all that difficult to keep going – though I’ve not always blogged every hour on the hour, this is my three hundredth post. And of course blogging is something else where talent and determination pay off: there’s no approved list of bloggers, and no secret cabal decides who reads you. If you want more people to read you, rather than whingeing you just have to get better (or make up more outrageous headlines!).

If you’re a Lib Dem with a blog, or if you’re willing to share your experiences with the readers of Lib Dem Voice, you also have the chance to interview some of the party’s leading MPs from time to time. Last year, the people short-listed for the Liberal Democrat Blogger of the Year Award were invited to interview Ming. I was one of them, and so was our elephant Millennium. Since then, at Millennium’s behest, my beloved Richard has done a huge amount of work organising more interviews (more time and effort than you might think!), and he and the rest of us also decided to get more people involved than the half a dozen of us the judges chose last year. So look out for invites like the one to interview Ed Davey last week; each time, there’ll be a mix of some of the original ‘panel’ so there’s some consistency, and new people – including YOU, if you get in fast enough – on a first-come, first-served basis from the Lib Dem Voice open appeals.

Obviously I think Richard’s fantastic anyway, but really, this is a fantastic example of bottom-up, do-it-yourself Liberal Democracy in action. He doesn’t hold any special posts in the Lib Dems, but is just an ordinary member who’s decided to do something, and it just wouldn’t happen without him organising it all and pestering MPs’ diary secretaries for dates. Though now there have been a few of these interviews, more of the MPs themselves are looking quite keen! And if you aren’t fast enough to volunteer for the ones Richard organises, why not organise an interview with a top Lib Dem yourself? Ask yourself – how many MPs turn down free publicity? Either way, I think they've worked really well so far, both in terms of giving our MPs the time to get their ideas across in more than just a soundbite and in pressing them harder when a soundbite would have let them off the hook (see, for example, an interview with Nick Clegg last year where he was generally very impressive but I didn’t think he was up to scratch on my question because there was little behind the soundbite).

And if you have a better idea of how to get these interviews working, go to Lib Dem Voice right now and make a positive contribution. You can see what was getting me rather combative last night and argue with me there, too.

The message of twenty years of the Liberal Democrats is that sitting with your arms folded and whingeing that somebody else should do something gets you nowhere, but that if you positively get involved, we can all achieve more.

Since I started writing this earlier this morning, that Chris Rennard’s put up a piece on Lib Dem Voice, too. He’s both an inspiration and a bit terrifying in terms of how the party can become your life, isn’t he?

Update: Hywel Morgan makes some particularly good points about the political as well as the strategic reasons for the party’s survival under Chris’ post. He also brings back memories when he mentions the “5% days”. I remember in the post-Newbury, pre-Mr Blair 1990s opinion poll high point of the party, when we were flush with optimism and with rising membership (at one point just topping 100,000), I’d just made a hardcore Liberalism speech of some sort at a Conference that many members thought was a bit too exciting… But a regional chair I liked came up to me, slapped me on the back and told me that next time we were in the doldrums and all those new members had gone off to another party, I’d still be with him in the “five-percenters”. I think he’d be right, but fortunately I can’t see us back at 5% any time soon.

I saw a Daily Torygraph front page the other day, incidentally, that made me wonder whether journalists are actually interested in communication at all. The lead story was about a poll, though I forget on what, something along the lines of “50% Say…” Except that it didn’t use “%”. It was “pc”. Let me get this straight… “%” means “percent”. While “pc” means personal computer, police constable, politically correct, postcard, Privy Councillor… What idiot decides that it would be more comprehensible to use two letters with a multitude of meanings than a symbol with one?

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