Friday, November 30, 2012


Nick Clegg’s Garden Cities – Thinking Big, But Are There Any Foundations?

Last weekend’s Letter from the Leader was Nick Clegg’s boldest email missive for some time: headed “We need to think big,” it turned his speech on Housing last week into a rallying cry to Liberal Democrats. Starting with new Coalition plans to add an extra 50,000 homes, he outlined a vision of new “Garden Cities” adding up to a million in a decade. Nick’s inspired me not just to examine his new big idea, but to come up with hard-headed tests for any major policy proposal – not least ‘Can we get it done?’ and ‘Will we get any credit?’

The text of this Letter from the Leader is not yet available to read on Nick Clegg’s website (though you can sign up there to receive future ones), nor the Lib Dem website, though Lib Dem Voice have helpfully reprinted it on theirs. You can, however, read his speech to National House-building Council on the Deputy Prime Minister’s official website.

The Housing Crisis

Housing has been an increasing problem in Britain for decades, but there’s no doubt that in the last few years the problems have boomed exactly as new houses haven’t. The population is rising; the number of smaller households is rising at a faster rate than the rest of the population; populations are not rising evenly across the UK, but in particular areas, notably the South East; and so house prices and rents are rising way ahead of general inflation, which both denies access to the housing ladder to many and through housing benefit massively distorts the benefits system (as I wrote earlier this year when proposing pilot studies for one part-solution that might be better than the alternatives – assuming no massive new miracle building programme that would drive down house prices and better manage the overcrowding of the South-East, as Nick’s might in a perfect world).

No government in my lifetime has done anything much about housing, save for the Tories’ 1980s plan of selling off social housing – which increased home ownership at the time, but which without replacement stock has long since come to a natural halt as a policy with broad appeal or effect. For whatever reason – ideological, financial, fear of confrontation – no level of government has made housing a priority for a long time, while for a different variety of reasons the private sector has simply not kept up with demand (and not been popular for “sprawl” where it’s tried bit by bit).

Nick Clegg last week made a speech in which he called for a bold turnaround – not just setting out some of the Coalition’s piecemeal policies to help building get off the ground in areas where it’s teetering on happening, but the sort of massive new, planned building programme I simply skipped over when I last wrote about housing because no-one was going to do it. And yet, when our national deficit is still in crisis and reducing ongoing borrowing, Nick proposes all this – surely a far better solution to soaring benefits rates than simply cutting them and hoping people can still find housing, but, as Sir Humphrey would say, bold. Having read Nick’s speech and seen some of the reaction since, I think it could be marvellous if it happened, but were I a betting man I could make more than a property speculator in wagering it’s not going to.

Nick’s vision is of a Britain (though, in effect, mostly the South-East) blooming with dozens of new garden cities – described by commentators who like the idea as new Letchworths, and by those who don’t as an outbreak of Milton Keynes. It’s a clever pitch; you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between what a “garden city” is and what an “eco-town” is, save that one is couched in language of an older era that sounds traditional and reassuring and for which you can go to poster-towns like Letchworth to show how nice they are, while the other was a despised New Labour eyesore of political correctness and bossy government, so it’s no wonder they didn’t get going. But imagine either actually built and a visit to each, and I can’t imagine they’d look any different. So when the biggest barrier to these new towns other than the immense cost is all the many shades of NIMBYism, it helps that for those suspicious of new ways more than of falling house prices Nick can ‘speak Tory’.

“We Need To Think Big On Housing”

I agree with Nick’s ambition – and sometimes it’s good to take a risk. He does, right from the heading in that email to Lib Dem members that “We need to think big” and the introduction “I want to focus on an issue that wasn’t so high on the radar screen, but matters enormously to me: housing”.
“As a country, we have built too few homes for far too long – and the economic and social consequences are massive. Prices out of reach of too many young families. Our economy vulnerable to boom and bust in the housing market. The housing benefit bill spiralling. Homelessness and overcrowding.
“All these problems are solvable but only if we think big.”
Nick outlines the budgetary and regulatory changes the Coalition’s made to boost housing, and new funding he’s announced to develop nearly 50,000 new homes on top of over 100,000 this year – but he’s clear “it’s nowhere near enough,” with the population growing “by about 270,000 households” (unspecified, but he means per year). Now, I can do the maths, too: the boost he announced this week adds up to slightly less than 5% of the million new homes he’s calling for in the next ten years, and even a million homes in a decade is little more than a third of the number he implies will be needed. Perhaps Nick decided that “a million” was the biggest number he could mention before the fear factor became overwhelming.
“No wonder prices are out of reach for so many families. The average first time buyer is now 35, and home ownership is falling for the first time in a generation.”
“The only way out of this crisis is to build our way out.”
“I want us to go back to some of Britain’s proud heritage of urban development and build a new generation of “garden cities” – places that will grow, thrive and become part of the fabric of the nation.”
Again, Nick marshals a good case here, and it helps, again, that he speaks fluent Tory: he may have sensed a tipping point in ‘Middle England’. It’s no longer just people raising their skirts and drawbridges in horror at the thought of more houses spoiling their view and, worse, lowering their property prices, but that their grown-up children have nowhere to live – and couched in terms of tradition, not scary modernity. And it’s at that point that Nick pivots to anticipating problems:
“Of course development is always controversial. It’s right to protect our precious rural landscape and not let England be concreted over. But the point I’ve been making in government (and there have been some lively debates) is that planning big new settlements is the best way to protect our countryside because the alternative is endless urban sprawl.”
This, I think, is the key passage, which more than undersells one problem – the NIMBYs – and only hints at the other: will the Tories for a moment commit to this? Because the point at which I worry that this grand ambition becomes a house of cards is when it comes to putting the money in. Is this just a message from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats about positioning our aspirations, being on the side of young, growing families (which, to be fair to Nick’s consistency, is pretty much his whole message, whether taking about early education, social mobility or parental leave)? Or is it one from the Deputy Prime Minister that heralds a massive commitment by the LiberaTory Coalition Government? Because I’d expect a bit more of a fanfare if the latter, rather than merely a self-deprecating aside about arguments with the Tories.
“We can’t do this overnight. Scale and ambition take time. But I believe if we put aside partisan politics and think collectively about the housing needs of the next generation, we could set Britain on track for a major wave of new development, new jobs, and new hope.”
So, Nick, does that mean that not just the Tories but the Labour Party – which greeted your words with the mix of shrieking abuse and wanking into the wind with which they greet all your words – would have to be on side before any of this gets done? It seems the bigger the problem, the bigger the vision, the smaller the chance that any of it might ever happen.

This is the point at which I turned to Nick’s full speech to see if it offered anything more concrete (no, not nasty concrete, anything more flowery and trellised). It starts with a decent statement of purpose, on the money, at least:
“I came into this Coalition Government to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, so that everyone can get on in life.
“That has meant immediate action to pay down the deficit and pave the way for growth – of course. But it also means looking further ahead, too: 10, 15, 20 years down the line. And that’s where Britain’s house builders could not matter more.
“Think about where lasting prosperity is going to come from. We need to create an economy that doesn’t rely so heavily on our big banks, where growth is driven by a much more diverse private sector filled with entrepreneurs and small and medium sized firms, spread across the country.
“An economy where people with good ideas have a real chance of starting a business. Where firms seeking to grow can find the staff. Where young men and women can fulfil their potential.
“But, bluntly, no matter what we do, Britain will not finish this journey unless we build enough houses. That’s the absolute basics.
“Our communities will only sustain strong local economies if they can attract and house the employers, high-skilled workers and consumers they need.”
All that is entirely right. But implicit in it is that this is a policy to supply the parts of Britain – the parts of South-East England – that are already expanding. He doesn’t say in so many words that new towns are to follow the money and become handy commuting bases, but that’s the essential message – so the missing figures aren’t to do with not much over 10% of the country being built on now and only needing a couple more per cent with houses sitting on it to solve the problem, but what share of the landscape will need to become town in the areas people want to live to get the jobs. And I suspect those figures will be very much scarier.

Nick goes on to say, too, that:
“now is the moment for politicians of all stripes to get behind a major housing push.
“This will need to span more than one parliament. We need to work together, and we need to be ambitious in our approach.

“Departments aren’t used to thinking beyond the next Spending Review, or beyond the next Parliament – but we need to shift our sights to the horizon.”
Hmm. Good luck with that. On a more practical, deliverable note:
“I want us to make the best offers to the most ambitious proposals. So not just 5,000 new homes, but 15,000, 25,000.
“And what will be crucial in all of this is that while central government provides support, incentives and encouragement, that process will be locally-led.
“I lead a party that is localist to its core. We now have a chance to show that localism can deliver in a big way.
“I want us to prove that, when it comes to major development, we don’t need to revert to central planning, we can embrace a new era of community planning instead.”
That’s the nearest to a specific proposal in the speech, and the first half sounds hopeful – while the second sounds more of a hope than hopeful. I’d love it to be practical, but is it more an attempt to square the circle rhetorically between a localist party and planning running into local opposition than a practical plan to get things done?

I know it seems like I’m knocking the whole idea. But I’m trying to work out what Nick was actually trying to build up: houses, or hopes? Nick is right to come up with big ideas, and to sell them to the Party in the way he did at the weekend. The LiberaTory Coalition needs to inspire Liberal Democrats, let alone inspire voters, with positive prizes, not just restraining Tories. But I worry that this fanfare will only lead to disappointment and greater disillusionment among Party members if action doesn’t follow the call – and I can’t help but notice that this wasn’t a government plan, seemingly, but Nick’s. The government cash was only for 5% of it. Rather than just asking piecemeal, sprawling questions about elements of a speech or email, then, I’d like to propose my own strategic vision of big questions with which to test the big ideas.

Hard-headed Tests For Any Major Policy Proposal

If a speech in which “Nick Clegg calls for…” something is to have a more immediate impact than a Lib Dem motion where “Conference Calls For…”, we need to ask if it’s an aspiration, or if there’s real government drive – and money – behind it. And, for Lib Dems, we should ask something more. On the basis that if an idea’s good enough you should shamelessly nick it – something Lib Dems have long known to our cost – I’d like to focus Lib Dem minds with a message from Conservative Party part-owner Lord Ashcroft:
“Everything the Conservatives do between now and the next election must pass at least one of the following four tests, and it must not fail any of them.
  • “First, does it show we are sticking to the right priorities for the country?
  • “Secondly, does it show strong leadership?
  • “Thirdly, does it show we are on the side of the right people (and, if necessary, make the right enemies?)
  • “Fourthly, does it offer some reassurance about the Conservative Party’s character and motives?”
I don’t think this is a bad set of questions for us to ask, either – though Ashcroft’s questions show a confidence (or arrogance) that the Tories are leading the Government, can deliver, and will then get the credit (or blame) for any decisions. The last two and a half years have shown us that that isn’t really true – but that goes far more for the Liberal Democrats.

In effect, the only question the Lib Dems appear to have been asking in the first couple of years of the Coalition has been Ashcroft’s first – Is it the right thing to do? Which has led to some good government, some good policies, and many good kickings from voters who don’t see anything specific to give us credit for. Important as doing the right thing may be, if we selflessly serve the country while setting ourselves up for annihilation, we won’t be in a position to do the right thing for very long.

I think there are two key questions Liberal Democrats need to ask on top of Ashcroft’s tests.

Our reframing of “does it show strong leadership?” might simply be ‘Can we get it done?’ And at what price – in political capital, and in actual capital? Is it worth spending so much of either? Considering, too, “does it make the right enemies?” I might add that making the right enemies is all very well, but ‘Are we actually going to be able to beat them?’ Never mind local opposition; not only do we have to reach agreement with the Tory Leadership on the Government delivering anything not in the Coalition Agreement (and, increasingly, all over again on anything that is), but it’s obvious that thanks to Cameron’s “strong leadership” he’s increasingly unable to get his MPs to vote for anything he says. That’s the irony – Nick is seen as a weak Leader, but Lib Dem MPs are exceptionally united in voting for agreed proposals; it’s simply that there aren’t enough of them, and it’s the weak Tory Leadership that lets agreed Lib Dem priorities slide and makes us look a weak part of Government (and, conversely, the strong Lib Dem Leadership that often saves Cameron’s votes from his own rabble).

So, then, our first new question should be: ‘Can we get it done?’

Our second new question should be: ‘Will we get any credit?’

The cynical answer is ‘No’. Note that my questions, or something like them, must have been asked within the Party Leadership. The Lib Dems have clearly been thinking about specific, measurable claims that we might get credit for recently, rather than just ‘doing the right thing’ platitudes: the party slogan changing from “In government, on your side” of early in the Coalition to the much less inspiring but demonstrably true “Fairer tax in tough times”. And even then, with the massive rise in the personal allowance for most income-taxpayers the single policy the Lib Dems most banged on about at the last election and since, at the top of the list of four priorities on the cover of our 2010 Manifesto… Opinion polls show that only about 20% of people give us credit for it. So how wildly distinctive and how loudly and perpetually repeated does any policy have to be before anyone thinks of it as Lib Dem?

To aid any possibility of getting credit, then, there’s more to consider. The party has given precious little thought for many years to communicating our philosophy or core values, but to the extent that people have a sense of them or even vaguely ‘What the Lib Dems are about’, does a proposal arise naturally out of that? Would people think ‘That’s the sort of thing the Lib Dems like’? Is it something that we’ve consistently gone on about? If we adopt this policy and get the Coalition to act on it, will ministers be likely to keep going on about it, and will activists be inspired to keep campaigning on it? If the answer to many (or even any) of these questions is ‘No’, then the chances of it making an impact for the Lib Dems – as opposed to for the country – are practically non-existent.

There are two more big problems with my two more big questions. Firstly, the Lib Dems’ overriding focus on ‘Is it the right thing to do?’ both in Opposition and now in Government means that we’ve been much more willing than the other two parties to consider policies for the long term. The more ruthless ‘Can we get it done?’ and ‘Will we get any credit?’ are enemies of long-term thinking. A long-term plan is much more likely to cost money, and be changed or cancelled by changes in government; a long-term plan that succeeds is much less likely to be noticed in its early stages, or only be noticed for its downsides or not yet delivering, while the eventual credit is, again, something more likely to go to changes in government. I’ve always criticised governments for their short-termism; ironically, I’m now setting political tests that might encourage it.

Secondly, ‘Can we get it done?’ and ‘Will we get any credit?’ also clash with each other. Here’s the paradox of wanting both: the more distinctive a proposal, the less likely it is to be delivered through the Coalition; the more popular and consensual, the more likely it is that the Tories will claim the credit (and get it, thanks to all their friends in the media).

As it happens, I’m working on a Liberal Big Idea, too. Hopefully, I’ll be ready to come out with it in the next week or two. It does comes right out of our philosophy, it’s very distinctive, and it’d save a lot of money – so it sounds like it’d be good for all those tests. But in terms of making the right enemies, it’s a doozy – so the chances of it getting through any Coalition consensus aren’t high…

Nick’s New Big Idea: Will It Get Done, and Will He Get the Credit?

Can Nick deliver on this?

Improbably, the most hopeful straw in the wind in the last week has come from another Nick – Planning Minister and Tory MP Nick Boles. He spoke to Newsnight in a major piece on Wednesday night, complete with a smaller write-up on the BBC website. It was worth a look, and in the main he agreed with Nick – in almost as much as he could without ever once mentioning his speech or indeed his name. Bigging up his own constituency, not exactly a new town, I wondered if “It was not, you know, some grand prince’s design for a new town…” was not a swipe at Mr Clegg’s big vision, though his defence of new building against an array of the usual suspects in the studio sounded more in tune, and as the BBC trotted him off to existing garden city Letchworth to sing its praises the voiceover described such places as “The government’s answer”. So perhaps the Tories might move after all. Of course, I didn’t agree with everything Tory Nick said – the lovely Andy Hinton’s Tweets from the night summarise why succinctly:
“Impressive performance from Nick Boles on #newsnight, except for the pointlessly inflammatory insertion of immigration commentary.”

“Little house with a garden in the suburbs not for everyone. I like my large urban centre with good transport and a vibrant cultural life.”
I like cities, too, and from a party that keeps wanting to do away with the very idea of “human rights”, it was entertaining for Nick Boles to suggest a new human right to a garden – presumably making him so subsumed into the mindset of the typical Tory voter that he thinks everyone wants a nice little duckhouse near no loud noises and reacts with instinctual horror at the very idea of big cities (which no doubt has something to do with the fact that it’s decades since they last won seats in any of them). And I winced as he whistled up immigration, equally by Tory instinct. But on the whole, I saw in his attitude something we could (forgive me) build on, and hopefully the Planning Minister wouldn’t have just gone off on his own without at least some support from the Tory Leadership. Even with that sign of hope, though, watch the studio debate as people line up to attack new housing even when they’re really in agreement (hang your head, Wayne Hemingway) because they assume that it won’t be exactly what they want and so must be opposed until perfection is offered on a plate. Oh, and Paxman’s sneering faux-outrage at someone sounding momentarily more of a snob than he is was beneath contempt, but who didn’t expect that?

Will the Lib Dems get any credit if these new cities happen?

Well, the ‘garden’ part, and Nick taking a lead, might help – I may have characterised his reassuring framing of new towns as tradition as his ‘speaking Tory’, but it’s also true that the environment is among the few sorts of issue that polls suggest people associate us with. So if these massive building projects end up being real ‘garden cities’, that might chime. Unfortunately, along the way, they’re… Massive building projects. As I found above, Nick’s speech itself enabled me to put this grand vision into the context of what he, rather than the Lib Dems in general, has been banging on about for years – though it’s a slight worry that I had to do the contextualising myself, rather than the speech (still less the email) joining the dots.

And never mind the theme: what about who else takes it up? Look at the article on Nick Boles: no mention of “garden cities” from him. Listen to what he had to say on Newsnight: no mention of “garden cities” by him there either, though the framing at least implied something like them, and the voiceover that, hopefully, mentioned them as “The government’s answer”. Within just days of this being Nick Clegg’s next big thing, though, the number of times ‘our’ Nick was mentioned by either Tory Nick (predictably) or by the BBC (also predictably) was… Zero.

Remember, too, that “Of course development is always controversial.” If it’s done by private enterprise, people won’t think of it as a government initiative – unless it’s for someone to blame. And if it’s to be built over ten years, then who’ll remember who started it? Is it something that comes obviously from our philosophy, or that we’ve always been banging on about, then? Basically, no. We’ve not had any big ideas on housing until last week – neither has anyone else (not since the Tories came up with the idea of selling it). Look at the “What we stand for” section on the Lib Dem website: as well as an embarrassing lack of any statement of values or philosophy, merely a set of policy headings, there’s not even any heading for ‘Housing’. So will we refashion ourselves as ‘the party of housing?’ That’ll take an awful lot of doing.

I hope Nick – with help from Nick – does manage to get building. But I’d watch carefully for just how hard and how long he pushes for it, and whether any non-Nicks in Government join the clamour… And until then, I’d hesitate before making it a headline promise on your next FOCUS.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Saturday, November 24, 2012


Doctor Who 50 – Coming Soon…

Doctor Who was first broadcast forty-nine years ago yesterday. We’ve been celebrating. And that means that this is the first minute of the greatest series ever’s fiftieth year.

So, coming soon… On every Saturday until November 23rd, 2013, I’ll be counting down through fifty great scenes from the show. One a week, starting in a couple of weeks. So how better to whet your appetite for a year of celebration than with a selection of the most fabulous Doctor Who trailers? From BBC1, from the DVDs and from the Internet, from William Hartnell to Matt Smith, here come the teasers…

The greatest trailer – best title sequence ever made. What’s coming next this time?

Doctor Who 50 – Eleven Great Trailers

“The Trip Of A Lifetime!”

2005 – the great return… And Christopher Eccleston invites us into time and space. Still the most thrilling summons to adventure I’ve ever seen.

Next Time – An Unearthly Child

A fan trailer for the very first Doctor Who story. Of many I’ve seen for it, this is one of the better-made and the one that tickles me the most for its spin on modern Who’s “Next Times…”

Daleks vs Mechons

Remember the third Dalek movie from the ’60s? Course you do! Inspired, gorgeous and hilarious in equal measure.

Coming Soon To DVD – Planet of Evil

Well into the Doctor Who DVD releases, in 2007 each release started to feature a trailer for the next. At first, these were rather basic, with the occasional streak of creative fun like that for The Key To Time… But it was on The Key To Time Box Set that the first trailer appeared that felt like it was selling Doctor Who as a great big film epic. It’s a thrilling story to start with, but it had never looked or sounded like this before. And from then on, the DVD trailers were worth watching as works in their own right.

Coming Soon To DVD – The Deadly Assassin

The Coming Soon trailer for the greatest Doctor Who story of them all (or, if you prefer your trailers home-made, here’s Chris Batt’s The Deadly Assassin Trailer: Creepy Version from online).

Doctor Who – Season 26 Trailer

The Internet boasts several fine fan trailers for 1989’s final Twentieth Century TV season of the series – this one’s rather stylish, and the retro BBC logo’s appealing.

The Parting of the Ways Countdown

2005’s astonishing season finished with the first of many massive season finales… And yet almost the most exciting thing about it was this countdown. After teaser trailers counting down each day, this full version aired only once, immediately before the episode. Not to bring people to the screen – everyone watching had already tuned in anyway. No, just for the sheer joy of it.

Doctor Who 2008 – The Doctor’s Legend

The Doctor had addressed us to camera before; that year, BBC One came up with something different, a tale of the Doctor told round the campfire by a woman watching for him. All to the glorious piece of music we’ll always think of as ‘Dance of the Macra’.

Previously On Doctor Who

Anticipating many of my forthcoming Doctor Who 50 choices, a rather marvellous (if dazzlingly swiftly intercut) compilation of every Doctor Who TV story in just five minutes. I did something like that once: mine took more than fifty. Funny, that.

Doctor Who: Every Story 1963 to Now – A Babelcolour Tribute

Why stop at one? A slightly longer, slightly more comprehensive compilation that ends with a frankly magnificent delivery of a speech by a different Doctor to the one you might be expecting…

Doctor Who – The Snowmen Trailer

And where else to finish but the future? This trailer for the forthcoming Christmas special aired last week on Children in Need. The fourth Victorian Christmas in seven years? Who’d have thought. While some people say Matt Smith’s Doctor is most like Peter Davison’s, for his portrayal of an old man in a young man’s body, I don’t usually see it – he was inspired by Patrick Troughton, and I find a lot of Sylvester McCoy – but this time I can’t help thinking of Davison’s detective Campion. Isn’t Commander Strax a dead ringer for Brian Glover’s Magersfontein Lugg?

Trailers aren’t everything. So I can’t resist two of the finest other multi-story assemblies online: if you enjoyed the above, why not try Flight of the Darned, which is frankly awesome, or something else which is… Good?

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012


My Best Posts 2011-2012 – and A Pledge To Help Revive the Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards

What to do on not blogging much for a few months? Follow the practice of so many worn-out artists and put together a ‘greatest hits’ package! So, below, you can find links to my best six (ish) articles of the last year on politics, Doctor Who and several other subjects. You can scroll straight down to that – but if you’re interested in Liberal Democrat blogs, I’ve also followed Jonathan Calder in developing a few ideas on how to revive the Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards after this year’s moribund turn. I’ve even, perhaps unwisely, made a pledge…

Brighton and the BOTYs 2012

Cast your mind back, if you were there, to Lib Dem Conference in Brighton this September; if you weren’t, imagine a fluffy Liberal habitat suddenly turned into a big scary security theatre with all the unintended consequences of giving in to police accreditation. No, not all the civil liberties implications or the threat to trans people – we’d all expected those – but exactly what happened to the happy-go-lucky relaxed atmosphere and boosts to the town. Like drunken late-night walkers trying to go their usual way home encountering a wall of steel and machine-gun-wielding police officers barking at them to cross the road, pronto. Or the way that, as the main Conference Hotel was within the secure zone alongside the Conference Centre, suddenly none of the Lib Dem or media bigwigs could bring in their usual outside shags move to insert and renumber by building community relations and stimulating the local economy. For me, I found myself having to hold my tongue as Twitter joke trial-style comments ran through my head on seeing a Famous Media Git being held by armed police ahead of me. Then my shoes – with orthotic soles to help my malfunctioning feet – setting off the alarms and trying not to squeak, ‘I’m not Rosa Klebb!’

But there remained at least one little oasis of fluffitude. Bloggers and blog-readers were to be found attending this year’s Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year Awards, always a highlight of Conference. Well-deserved (if delayed) congratulations to Liberal Youth’s The Libertine and their Bears for Belarus campaign, to Lanson Boy Alex Folkes and to Mark Thompson (and commiserations, particularly, to Caron Lindsay). And a good evening was had by all that were there… It’s just that, in other aspects, this year’s evening felt rather diminished.

It wasn’t those excellent winners, nor the other excellent shortlistees, that gave me pause for thought. The element of disappointment was largely created in advance, and as a result turnout was very low by comparison to other years – not terrible, and worth having, sure, but it looked like less than half the size of previous crowds. The BOTYs have almost always been packed out before, and often in rather larger rooms, while this year the room was more empty than full. There were surely many reasons, but high among them must be the air of ill-preparedness: the late opening of nominations; the near-non-publication of shortlists; the speakers giving the awards giving the impression that they were being asked in the room itself. From the organisers out into the blogosphere and the wider Lib Dems, it was as if everyone was tired of the awards and had simply lost interest. This just isn’t sustainable. Fortunately, there are ways to get them going again.

Jonathan Calder’s Plan For Fresher BOTYs

Lib Dem blogfather Jonathan Calder, of course, beat me to writing about the problem with the BOTYs by a long stretch with his call Time to freshen up the Blog of the Year awards, although he was with the crowd in not being one of the very small crowd at this year’s BOTYs. I don’t agree with every single word – I’m not quite so worried by the declining number of active blogs as a metric, as it’s by a rather smaller share than the party’s membership – but his main thrust is persuasive.

Jonathan argues that there should be awards for Facebook and Twitter use, to reflect changing online activity. Perhaps perversely, I’m not on Facebook (being notoriously rubbish at keeping up with writing or messages, and finding my existing social networking quite enough to fall behind with) but strongly agree with him on a regular Lib Dem Facebook award category, whereas I am on Twitter (short flurries of high activity, long weeks of occasional glances) but suspect that’s not a good idea. Or, rather, that it’s a good idea but a bad practicality. In concept, Twitter use should be recognised, but in practice I don’t see how it could work, even if BOTY judges were involved for a much longer and more active period than they ever have been before.

For me, though, Jonathan’s crucial point is on the “Best Posting of the Year” Award, and what its absence this year meant for entrants. With most categories limited to particular types of blogger, as Jonathan pointed out, “then the Blog of the Year award itself is your only hope”. Like Jonathan, I’ve been nominated for that award a few times but never won it; like Jonathan, I much preferred the award for the best individual post (which I was also nominated for several times, and won last year). As far as I’m concerned, a blog should have to be bloody good to win the Blog of the Year, and it would be daunting to put yourself forward for it. In my own case, the only time I thought my blog worthy of a nomination I wasn’t shortlisted (and on one occasion that I was, I was simply embarrassed, having felt I’d had a weaker year and that much better blogs had been overlooked). But while my blog is inconsistent and often largely inactive for a month or two, I do feel proud of the odd post, and am very happy to put some of them up for consideration. And Jonathan is right that a lot of people feel the same way – not ‘Help! I have to have produced twelve months of reliable production and brilliance!’ but, ‘Phew, I may not always have kept it up, but this one was really good’. This isn’t just an award for ‘lazy’ bloggers – it’s the one everyone could have a shot at (or that critics might argue that’s most obviously about quality rather than ‘my mate’).

And it’s bizarre that, in the week that the Government announced the scrapping of GCSEs and putting every pupil’s eggs in one basket with single exams alone, the BOTYs shifted to nothing but continuous assessment with no room for one-offs. If nothing else, isn’t it easier for judges to read single nominated posts than to study a full year’s output?

I’ve also written this piece because Jonathan names and shames me:
“…the award for the best posting of the year has disappeared. This was, in many ways, this was the best category of all – in particular because every blogger had some hope of winning it. And also because, until a couple of years ago (which appears to be a developing theme in this post), Alex Wilcock encouraged members of an email [list] to which most prominent Lib Dem bloggers were subscribed to nominate their best posts of the year.

“I urge the Lib Dem Voice editors to bring this category back and use their site to encourage all of our bloggers to nominate their favourite posts. This would allow even the newest bloggers to have some involvement with the awards and make it closer to what it should be – a carnival of Liberal Democrat blogging.”
Jonathan does indeed have me bang to rights. I will, however, accept my share of the blame on condition that I can protest that some of the blame lies in the organisation. The Blog of the Year Awards are held in mid-September; in previous years, the shortlists were opened in mid-July. That’s crept later and later, until this summer the awards were thrown open on August 29th. That’s simply too late – and, for me, the biggest single reason why this year’s BOTYs were a comparative flop. Very little time for discussion amid the wider blogosphere; very short deadlines, and very little time for the judges to confer; and then no time at all for the shortlistees to have their moment in the sun.

In previous years, nominations closed at the end of August and shortlists were published in early September, giving weeks for many different blogs to get attention and celebration and, as the BOTYs are intended, to give “a fun way to celebrate the talent in the Lib Dem blogosphere, whilst introducing you to some blogs you might not have read before”. This year the shortlists were published on September 22nd – just two hours before the awards were given out. They may as well have skipped straight to the winners, for all the attention the shortlistees could get. No wonder so few people turned up. Then, after the awards, though this surely isn’t down to LDV, in previous years all the shortlistees for the main award – not just one “Blogger of the Year” – got to interview the Leader. Nick might be happier with a one-to-one, but that’s not the point; that was to engage more people, more styles, more perspectives.

My BOTYs Pledge: Start Early and I’ll Help

I’m not pointing my finger at anyone bar myself for any one particular failure this year. The whole thing looks more like a classic example of organisational inertia, probably coupled with individual exhaustion, in that I’m certain it wasn’t the fault of any one person – though some share of fault may lie with some of the LDV team leaving it to just one busy person to organise everything. Please, all of you at Lib Dem Voice, do a better, wider, earlier job next year. If none of you are going to be able to spare the time, don’t leave it ’til the last minute and produce another disappointment. What’s the point? If you need to, publish an appeal in June for people to help with the organisation and be allocated tasks come July (reader, please make a note in your diary and volunteer).

Another change I’d recommend to Lib Dem Voice is to use your extra time and extra organisers to make much better use of your BOTY judges. In his article, Jonathan explains that, having been a judge, in his year the judges were given no idea how the shortlisting process worked, agreed no criteria and, indeed, had no contact with each other, let alone discussion. Other former judges have told me that their contribution consisted only of firing numbers into the ether by way of voting, which seems to have been an uninvolving and unsatisfying experience. Surely there can be a happy medium between that and having to meet up for a banquet with wigs. If nominations go back to opening earlier, they can close earlier and give the judges at least, say, a week to have a few email exchanges on what they think of different nominations. Perhaps the Lib Dem Voice editors might each month also ask Ryan of Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated to give them a list of the latest people added to the Bloggregator so that a list of eligible “new blogs” can be published when nominations are opened, as that’s the award for which it’s most difficult to spot the potential nominees (and how about giving that category a thirteen-month span each year, from August to August, as people who start their blog while nominations are open tend to get missed out).

I’m notoriously disorganised and unable to meet deadlines, so you might think I’m calling for volunteers in the sure and certain hope that I shouldn’t be one of them. But I will make one pledge by way of help.

If Lib Dem Voice gets its act together and opens nominations at least a week before the end of July, and if they reinstate the award for the best individual post, then I will write a piece for them publicising it in the first week of August. I will pick at least a dozen articles from at least a dozen different blogs from across the year that I think are among the best and plug them in the style that I pick my own below. I will include an appeal for everyone else to come up with their own suggestions, both in the comments and by email to me. And a week before nominations are due to close, I will write another article for LDV, this time rounding up everyone else’s suggestions. Though obviously it would mean I’d be less likely to be shortlisted – gasp – it would be one way to celebrate the talent in the Lib Dem blogosphere and introduce people to more blogs.

In the last month so far, though several posts have stuck with me, the one that I’ll definitely put up for an award is, ironically, one that I’d recommend not in the best individual post category but The Andrew Reeves Award for Best use of social media/campaigning by a Liberal Democrat: Jennie Rigg’s outstanding effort in putting questions to over a hundred candidates for this year’s Liberal Democrat Federal elections. Even if LDV ignores everything I’ve written, I will be nominating Jennie.

Now on to my own choices for my own best posts from September 2011 to September 2012 – which the eagle-eyed reader will realise are all ineligible for next year’s BOTYs even if they take my advice and bring back the individual post award, so read them for fun, or for thought, but not for any awards…

Six of the Best 2011-12: Politics

Happy Birthday to the Libera-Tory Coalition?

Last week we hit the half-way point of this Parliament (fixing that was at least one piece of constitutional reform); back in May, I looked back at the first two years of the LiberaTory Coalition, and how even at its founding we expected to have a terrible time of it. I called it “the worst possible time to take power”; Vince said “It’s going to be bloody awful.” So it’s not been fun, but it’s not been a surprise.

“I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing” – Time To Remember What We Stand For

Rising up against Labour-style cyber-snooping powers from the Coalition – otherwise, what’s the point? There’s a big difference between having to choose painful cuts because Labour destroyed the economy, and choosing authoritarianism (which is more expensive, too). With some necessary reminders of our Liberal history.

Government Porn Filter Collapses In Security Nightmare

Few things make me more likely to despair of the Coalition than when they come up with authoritarian bollocks like Labour never lost. This summer they proved why they shouldn’t be trusted with controlling the internet: even the consultation was a disaster.

A New Purpose for Politics? Is It Bollocks

A revolt against Lib Dems who think our big idea should be Blairite micro-managing people’s lives for their own good. No, no, and no.

Never Mention “STV” Again

After the disaster of the AV referendum, to prepare for the fight on the real thing, why not champion “British Proportional Representation” and make a broad appeal beyond Lib Dem wonks?

Things To Remember About Labour

I remember so many things to dislike about the last Labour Government that it comes as a surprise how many people imagine it as some noble fantasy. Ever eager to help, I wrote five mostly short pieces on Things To Remember About Labour. I might even return to the series at some point… After all, I’ve not even written about their destroying the economy yet. Or their obeying every order from Rupert Murdoch. Or Iraq.
Since then: while Lib Dems are in Coalition with the more moderate part of the Conservative Party, Labour went into coalition with the frothing far right of the Tories to be anti-Europe, just as they did over Maastricht twenty years ago, just as they did over Hong Kong, just as they did over Lords reform, and so on, and so on, shameless opportunist knee-jerk authoritarians that they are; John Kampfner, too, has noticed how Labour is to the far right of the Coalition; and Mark Pack has pointed out the biggest difference between the Coalition and the Labour Party – when the USA asked the UK’s help in arming up for a potential war on another Middle Eastern country, this government said no.

Six of the Best 2011-12: Doctor Who

DVD Detail – Doctor Who: UNIT Files Box Set

I’ve not written many DVD reviews in the last year, but this one’s a doozy. Taking on Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen in two very flawed but strangely moreish stories, complete with the deepest political analysis they’ve ever been subjected to and my own exclusive, ambitious (and absurd) photos at the original locations. KKLAK!

DVD Detail: Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet

Now that Colin Baker’s a TV star all over again, take another look at one of his finest performances as the Doctor. It may have seemed like a trial up against Michael Jayston, but it could have been worse – it could have been Nadine Dorries…

DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Paradise Towers

Traditional Doctor Who often includes fascistic guards, killer robots and ancient evil struggling to awaken, but the brilliance of this 1987 Sylvester McCoy tale was to combine these elements not on a shiny spaceship or in a stylised English village but within an insane sit-com run by Richard Briers, clashing youth gangs against Mary Whitehouse types and bureaucracy gone mad in a run-down tower block. Result!

DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Kamelion Tales

Peter Davison’s Doctor battles Anthony Ainley’s Master in this DVD box set of two Doctor Who stories set in the gorgeous locations of a medieval castle and the island of Lanzarote. Which of the Doctor’s companions will remove the most clothes? Which of them will announce that he’s not a naughty boy, but the messiah? And will Magna Carta die in vain?

Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons

Celebrating Doctor Who novelist supreme Terrance Dicks with one of his earliest and best-loved books, introducing the Master and bringing back the Autons. And deadly daffodils.

Doctor Who and the Dæmons and Barry Letts

More Master, more Pertwee better on the page, and this time looking at Terrance’s partner in crime, the late Barry Letts and his gorgeous novelisation of the Doctor versus the Devil (or is it?). Complete with an argument about science. No, religion. No, science!

Six of the Best 2011-12: Other Reviews

The Avengers – My Wildest Dream

Marking the passing of marvellous actor Philip Madoc and brilliant director Robert Fuest, I took a look at their work together in this outstanding Avengers episode of mind-bending murder for The Manchurian Capitalist (also featuring Peter Vaughan, Edward Fox and John Savident). Not the comic-strip, billion-dollar movie The Avengers, by the way, though my next two choices are – sort of – movie crossovers…

Judge Dredd – The Complete Case Files 01

Celebrating 2000AD’s thirty-fifth birthday by going back to the start with this chunky 300+ page reprint volume, taking in the whole first year of the grim future law officer who’s still their star, Judge Dredd. I thought the movie worked, too. If you feel like picking up one of these volumes, Judge Dredd The Complete Case Files 02 and 05 are probably the best, though biased towards ‘epic’ stories.

Wholly Unavailable On DVD Batman!

Batman going all fascist at the box office this year may be true to the character, but I prefer Adam West’s camp mid-’60s TV version. Shame you can’t get it on DVD, but I took a look at its high and low points in ITV4’s constant repeat rotation. Try it today!

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

On the publication of Boneland, Alan Garner’s return half a century later to his writing on Alderley Edge, I looked back at what his first book meant to me. Since then, I’ve been inspired to read many more books touching on the legend of King Arthur, and might even write about some of them…

Sherlock Holmes – Murder By Decree

Who couldn’t love a Sherlock Holmes–Jack the Ripper conspiracy theory mash-up? Well, that would be me. Going into just why this still critically acclaimed movie doesn’t do it for me (give me the schlockier A Study In Terror any day).

Why The Avengers Matters

Celebrating fifty years of the most Sixties show of the Sixties, not just because it was fun but because, unexpectedly, it mattered – from the day it introduced viewers to Honor Blackman as an intelligent, independent woman who flung men over her shoulders. And proving that not all the best ones are big ones.

I hope you enjoyed all of those (or at least some of them). I’d also like to thank Stephen Tall for doing a better job plugging my writing than I did. Not only did he label my Happy Birthday to the Libera-Tory Coalition? a “must-read” post, but he turned one of my comments on Lib Dem Voice into a post of his own:

The Alex Wilcock Realpolitik argument for Nick Clegg staying as Lib Dem Leader

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Richard also follows on with a plea for well–thought-out blogging in Don't Dumb Down Our BOTYs!

NB Blogger, frustratingly, converted my line breaks past a certain point into simple spaces. If the formatting looks a bit dodgy, I edited the html by hand several times and it wasn’t having it. Even splitting the post in two didn’t help. Pasting in break commands everywhere, and multiples between sections, eventually stopped the last third being one giant splat of text – and though the gaps don’t look regular, though they should, now I don’t dare touch it again.

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