Friday, October 02, 2009

This blog is moving

If you link to my blog, or you have it in a feedreader or a bookmark or anything else, please note, Wouldn't It Be Scarier? is moving to the greener grass of the following address:

I also promise that I will start writing some more stuff, so that it's worth you bothering to take note of this.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Conference Timetable

Well now, inspired by Jennie, I thought I'd post my (insanely ambitious, probably to be completely abandoned when I get there) conference schedule for all your delectation.

Hopefully you can see my Google Calendar above this line. You'll (obviously) need to look at the dates of conference to see what I'm on about.

Anyway, see any of you who are at any of those there.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Look! My name on a scientific paper. Woop!

That is all.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Telephone Fundraising and Sally Morgan

The Western Morning News reports that Sally Morgan, PPC for Central Devon, sent off an angry email to Cowley Street after she received a fundraising call from the party. She is quoted as writing "Please do not employ apparatchiks to telephone me at home to tell me how well the party did in the local elections only days after I and many of my colleagues lost our seats."

She has, incidentally, since described this as "me blowing off steam to somebody in the party", adding "I am still a parliamentary candidate. I have no argument with the party", so it's probably not worth blowing this out of proportion, although it does raise the question of who passed the email to the local press if she didn't.

What I do think it's worth commenting on is phone fundraising more generally, since I worked for a time recently for a company who do precisely this kind of work for charities (and, occasionally, the Labour party, although I was never faced with the problem of being asked to work on any campaigns for them). NB: I have never fundraised for the Lib Dems, and to the best of my knowledge, the company I worked for never has done.

In my time, I called on campaigns for several well known charities, often on upgrade campaigns. Frequently, as you might expect, I met the kind of irritable response which Sally Morgan has given here. "Why don't you call people who don't already give their time and effort", "Why are you spending my money pestering me for more", threats to cancel altogether, etc. Of course, these are all pretty good reasons to refuse, and very rarely could people be talked round.

So why do organisations bother?

Basically, because it's still a pretty cost effective way of fundraising. I'm sure any members of the party (or of anything funded by its members, for that matter) will be familiar with mailings asking for donations, and with the ease of throwing them in the recycling with barely a second thought. Even cold calling, the returns on are pretty lean pickings. If you carefully select the numbers you call according to any data you might have to suggest that people will be better disposed to you than average people, then you might expect to get about 6% of them to say yes, if you work really pretty hard at it, and don't take no for an answer. If you call your existing supporters, about 40% of them will say yes. It's still hard work, and yes, half the people you talk to will give you a hard time for calling them, but at least the other 50% are nice.

Most charities and other fundraising organisations have rules forbidding them to spend money on strategies that they expect to give them a return of less than ~£3 or £4 for every £1 spent (otherwise, their donors would probably rather they spent the money on the stated aims of the organisation). Bumping up subscriptions from people they already have on board is a crucial part of this, especially since their projections of whether it's worth spending the money to get new donors on board is often based on an assumption that they may well be able to get the person in question to increase after a couple of years. The reasons most charities set a minimum level for Direct Debits of £2 a month is that much less than that and it's barely worth the admin cost of processing it in the first place.

Now, Sally complains that she has been called up and told that the Lib Dems are well placed for the next election, when she personally has just lost her council seat. Leaving the disentangling of the national fortunes of the Lib Dems from Sally's own position as an exercise for the reader, how would she rather the party fundraised? Call people up and tell them "We're going down the shitter, it's all going to buggery, could we have more money?" Of course the party is going to be upbeat in its attempts to fundraise, because that's what works.

And yes, sometimes campaign messages jar with people's own individual experiences. I came across plenty of that. It's easy, when you've got a script in front of you, or have been trained to get people talking about their involvement in the organisation you're calling for, to find yourself stumbling into all sorts of areas that, in retrospect, you'd probably rather you hadn't brought up. Try it with a few donors to cancer charities, for instance, and you'll see what I mean. The problem is, it's important to the chances of people donating (more) to be positive about what their money can achieve, even if their own personal experience hasn't borne that out (and statistically, there will always be such people).

If I'm sounding very positive about this way of fundraising, then I probably ought to mention that after a few weeks working for this company, I was so depressed one Monday morning by the prospect of another week ahead of me that I quit my job that day. This is an enormously draining job to do, and the centre in London which I worked in was typical in having what my employers called "a high caller attrition rate", with weekly training sessions for the next batch of replacements. In the end (and quite quickly, actually), the consolation of totting up how much money I had raised for the charity that day stopped being enough.

I don't especially like this way of fundraising, I particularly don't like the emotional blackmail that is often a part of it, and I wish it didn't work. But at the same time, I would like to congratulate Sally Morgan for doing the right thing here, and blowing off her steam by putting her objections in writing and sending them to the person in charge, not by verbally beating up on the person at the other end of the phone (or at least, I hope she didn't). Quite often, people would deliver the sort of tirade Sally writes in her letter to me personally, for the offense of calling a number I had been supplied by someone else.

So next time you receive a call from a fundraiser and the answer is "no" (and do always give serious consideration to your answer), politely tell them "no" (if you have the time, brighten up their day by having a nice chat to them, and tell them "no" three times, which is how many times they have been told to ask you unless you hang up or tell them your mother died yesterday), and ask for your number to be taken off the database if you don't want to be called ever again. Be nice, wish them luck, and then, if you object to the call, write a really stinking letter to the head of fundraising for that organisation. It will do considerably more good than having a rant at the person on the phone, who, if they bothered to report your irritation to their superiors, would only be replaced by someone else.

Hat tip to Lobbydog, via Guido.

ps. I was amused by the following worldly-wise comment of one "Rob's Uncle" on Lobbydog's blog:
It is a well recognised weakness of the Lib Dem phone fund raising effort that the phoners know nothing about the activism, etc,. of those whom they ring.
Frankly, it's hardly unusual not to know much about the people you are calling on telephone fundraising calls, even for upgrade campaigns. I considered myself pretty lucky if I had any information at all about the person I was calling in front of me; occasionally there was a date when they started donating. Yes, this is something the party could improve, but it's hardly proof of their great deficiency in this regard. Often, the person calling you will not be directly from the organisation in question, but working for a company who specialise in this kind of work, like I was. Even when I was supplied with data, it could often be a few months since the database was sent to my employers, and the information was therefore not completely reliable. The caller who called Sally Morgan, even if they had information about her in front of them, almost certainly didn't know she had lost her seat.

Of course, you could argue that the people who call councillors maybe ought to be Cowley Street apparatchiks, but the problem then is, they aren't as experienced and well trained at phone fundraising as someone who specialises in it. Most of the callers I worked with who had been doing their job for more than a few months were bloody good at it. What tended to make them good at it was being able to hold two contradictory stances at the same time: caring deeply enough about what they were doing to put that across on the phone, and being indifferent enough not to let it get to you that many people you spoke to were just unpleasant in return.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What is the Party Line on AV?

I've just watched Danny Alexander on BBC News, clearly stonewalling because he didn't have a clear yes or no to give to the question of whether we would be in favour of AV (in the absence of STV, obviously). If any more of our representatives are on news programmes tonight, can the party please provide them with a yes or a no on this question? I really almost don't care what the answer is, but we look absolutely pathetic if we don't know what we are thinking on one of our hobby horse subjects.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

How Shropshire Voted... And What It Got

Well, as I sit here awaiting the trickle of Euro election results, I've been doing a spot of number crunching for my local council in Shropshire, a newly created unitary. You can see the results in the chart below. In light of the reputation of Lib Dem bar charts, I thought I'd go with a pie chart. On the outside, you can see the votes cast, and on the inside, you can see the makeup of the council that those votes produced.

As you can see, the wonders of FPTP have struck again. Thank goodness FPTP produces strong, decisive governments. I would hate to think of a party who attracted under 50% of the vote being rewarded with anything other than a stranglehold over the council.

I will console myself with the knowledge that in Shrewsbury & Atcham, we comfortably pushed Labour into third place, with Labour seeing their share of the vote going down by over 14%. In 2005, the county council elections saw Labour in second place, so this could well be an important development for Shrewsbury. In the rest of Shropshire, the Lib Dem vote is more than three times the Labour vote.

Hopefully, this means that, in four years time, if the Tory administration is unpopular, we will be the natural anti-incumbent vote in much of the county.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Worst Canvassing Experience Meme

Stephen Tall has tagged me in this week's LDV Weekend Meme, about canvassing experiences. Here goes:

Most Angry

I think that probably has to go to the woman I delivered a leaflet to in Thame, as part of the Henley by-election precipitated by Boris Johnson's quitting as an MP. It doesn't technically count as canvassing, but it's easily the angriest reaction I've had: Scarcely had I withdrawn my hand from the letterbox on the front door, when I heard an incensed, and nigh on incomprehensible, scream to the effect that they did not appreciate my being in their vicinity, swiftly followed by something about the size and weight of a boot being flung at the door from inside. I flinched slightly, and looked around for any clue as to what I might have done to upset this person, but answer came there none. I moved swiftly on, slightly comforted by the sympathetic look from the next door neighbour.

Most Bemusing

The ones who say, in the wake of the expenses scandal, that they aren't voting, seeming to think this is going to do something to clean up Westminster. I could ask them to talk me through how not bothering to distinguish between good and bad politicians is going to make any of the good ones try harder to clean up the system. I could ask them how they think a crisis of politicians being out of touch with the voters is helped by said voters not even trying to be heard. I could ask them whether they think the people who fought in the civil war, or were part of the suffragette movement, sat around whingeing that they didn't feel "engaged" and declaring that they were simply going to sit at home and sulk until such time as they got what they wanted. But of course, it's not really worth it, and I have to be civil and polite to them. Ultimately, I usually just come away feeling that I am simply on a different planet to these people.

Most Depressing

A tie. The obvious answer would be the guy we spoke to a week or two ago, who sounded for all the world like a talking BNP leaflet. I was faintly amused when, mid rant about bending over backwards for Islam / it's a Christian country / etc, my colleague asked said gent whether in fact he went to Church. The answer, you will all be shocked to discover, was no, but he had "Christian views". No, I don't know what that means, either.

But I think probably, I have found the most depressing thing to be those who don't vote; who say, without a hint of embarrasment or apology, that they "aren't interested in politics", who seem to see nothing wrong with abdicating their responsibility as citizens to take even the vaguest interest, as Mark points out, for a couple of hours every couple of years. The imperative to be generally polite to people has been most tested, I would say, in the face of such feckless eejits. I really would rather they told me they were voting Tory, or whatever.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Take Back Power

Nick Clegg has today launched a rather exciting campaign, Take Back Power. I really do hope it takes off; it frankly pisses all over David Cameron's pledge to "give serious consideration to" a few half-measures. Nick's plan includes:

1. Commitment to accept Kelly expenses reform in full
2. Recall power for MPs suspended for misconduct
3. House of Lords reform
4. Party funding reform
5. Fixed term Parliaments
6. Enabling legislation for a referendum on AV+
7. Changes to House of Commons procedure to reduce executive power

You can sign the petition to support the campaign here.

OK, so I have my reservations about point 6, but compared to the other two party plans, this is by far and away the best chance to clean up our discredited system. Forget trying to use your vote in the european elections to register your anger with Westminster. Get involved with a campaign directly about the issue at hand. It might not be as immediately satisfying, but it'll get more done.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tory Smears On PR

...or, Why We Have To Talk Specifics.

A few people, eg. Costigan Quist, Mark Thomson and Neil Stockley, have been arguing for a consensual, compromising stance, most likely involving accepting the Jenkins Commission suggestion of AV+ instead of our preferred solution of STV. Jennie Rigg and Alex Foster offer a more divisive approach, and I would like to add my voice to theirs. Let me tell you why.

It has become obvious why being vague about what we are supporting will not work over the last week. The Tories, opposed as they are to the principle that every person's vote should count for something, have been lining up to smear the movement that has been picking up momentum over the last week. There are three specific lines that I would like to respond to.
1. PR takes power away from people and vests it in party hierarchies.

A lie.

This is an accusation which is quite justly levelled at a certain subset of PR systems: closed party list systems, such as the one that is used for the Euro elections in the UK. The parties choose the order of the list, and the top candidate is virtually guaranteed to be elected, as long as they're standing for a vaguely well supported party. Or, to put it another way, a safe seat! One that is even more in the gift of party patronage than safe seats at the moment! Similarly, since AV+ requires there to be top-up lists, the same problem applies to Alan Johnson's favoured solution. Not only that, but AV+ doesn't even get rid of safe seats on a constituency level. As Jennie quite rightly points out, safe seats are a pretty key feature of what we want to get rid of. It is the link from the immediate crisis to this specific reform, made off the back of Mark's excellent analysis (with a little help from yours truly).

STV, on the other hand, puts as much power into the hands of the people as possible. In effect, it rolls the Tories' proposed open primaries and the general election into one, and throws in proportionality as a bit of a bonus. David Cameron is being straight-forwardly deceptive in making the argument he made today. He knows he is, he knows what we favour (or at least, he ought to), and, as Millennium argues, if this electoral reform thing gets rolling, then he would be an absolute hypocrite not to get on board with any Lib Dem efforts to favour STV, not AV+.

2. The Lib Dems just want PR because they want to always be in government.

A ridiculous line, and one which pre-supposes a parliament which looks more or less like the one we have now after a reform designed specifically to ensure that it does not. In making this claim, the Tories (or anyone else) are assuming that under the new system, the Lib Dems are still the only other main party in the Commons after the Tories and Labour. Why? It seems to me pretty likely that we could see, at the very least, UKIP and Green MPs under most systems of PR, certainly including the ones that we favour. Assuming Scotland remained part of the UK, you'd also likely have a sizeable nationalist contingent. Plenty of people to form a coalition with, even if the few BNP members elected were (rightly) so toxic that nobody wanted to form a coalition of any sort with them.

Ironically, the one system likely to produce the outcome being suggested by this talking point is the one supported by Alan Johnson, AV+. As Lewis Baston noted in a report on AV (pdf) for the Electoral Reform Society, under AV is fairly comfortable for Liberal Democrats. All their incumbent MPs are likely to find their seats safer than under FPTP, and change to proportionality would destabilise this comfortable position. AV also suits Lib Dem campaigning techniques quite well, and the party could reasonably look forward to faster electoral progress than under FPTP in its target constituencies because acquiring second preferences is easier than acquiring tactical votes.
It's easy enough to see how this works: for the most part, it's reasonable to assume that both Tory and Labour voters would put the Lib Dems preferentially higher than Labour or the Tories, respectively. In even vaguely close seats, this would give us a real advantage. It also favours centre parties, and does very little to represent smaller, more niche parties like the Greens or UKIP. If AV (or even AV+) was the system we were advocating, then there would be a lot of truth in the criticism that the Lib Dems just wanted to be in power all the time. As Baston remarked,
It would be understandable if the party settled for AV for a – perhaps lengthy – ‘transitional period’ or ‘national conversation’ rather than move quickly into a more thoroughgoing electoral reform.
It would indeed, and it is to the party's credit that it has continued to favour STV and not AV, when, as Jennie mentioned,
thanks to Chris Rennard, our party is actually best geared up to fighting FPTP elections, and would likely LOSE seats if STV came in.
To see this point, just imagine how many of our campaigning techniques (eg. bar charts) would translate to a proper proportional system like STV. But anyway, the main point is, we should not be the only significant presence after the main two parties under STV (and that's assuming that none of the existing main parties undergo splits or rapid transformations under the new system, which is a game for another time..).

3. PR results in chaos and deals made in smoke-filled rooms.

OK, this one is a bit more difficult, because basically it's true, coalitions must be formed under PR systems, more or less whatever you do. You can still give a government a solid mandate, by having an election for the Prime Minister separately, and tasking them with forming a government, but yes, there will either be a search for coalition partners, or a minority government will have to reach across the aisle for support on individual planks of its programme.

But look at it this way. Politics, the art of the possible, is about coalitions of interests. Always has been, always will be. New Labour is not a natural, cohesive grouping of people; died in the wool trade unionists would rather not be in a party with Peter Mandelson if they could help it. Nor, for that matter, would some of the more foaming eurosceptic types in the Tory party want to be in a party with Ken Clarke. Sometimes, the economic/social liberal distinction rears its head in our own fair party. The point is, FPTP doesn't eliminate coalitions, not really; it just makes people form coalitions before running for election, not after. The political parties are the coalitions, and often the wheelings and dealings are much more murky than they might be under PR. The oft-quoted example is the scrap between Blairites and Brownites which characterised much of the current Labour government's term. How open and transparent was the process which led to most of the policy ennacted over the last ten years?

Under PR, the negotiations are much more open, in that at least we know what each party wants, the news can report on the negotiations (most of the information would likely be leaked from somewhere), and we can see what comes out the other end and draw our own conclusions about what went on. If we don't like the result, crucially, we can vote next time to change the balance of power within that coalition, without kicking that coalition out of power. Under the coalition that was New Labour, we had no such option. STV, uniquely, even lets you do this within parties, by favouring, say, proper Old Labour types over Blue Labour candidates. Under FPTP, change in parties often takes a very long time, and its direction is completely uncontrollable by the electorate.
So, three lazy lines against PR, and three responses. But what do we notice about each of the responses? Crucially, in order to defend the principle of electoral reform from the self-interested, complacent opposition of the Tories, we are going to have to be specific about which system we are talking about. And if we don't speak up for STV now, we are going to be lumbered with a system which is much more open to criticism from those who oppose any form of PR.

It's all very well saying the Tories have nothing to do with it, but at some point, if we want this to go forward, we are going to have to make an argument to the people and win a referendum on the matter. The Labour grassroots don't much care for electoral reform, so campaigning on the ground for reform is going to fall largely to us. It is perfectly reasonable to throw everything we can at making sure we can fight on our own terms, for the system we actually believe in.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The New Mood For Change

Alix wants us all to have a mass debate about reform.

Oh, go on then. Here's my starter for ten.

As the Guardian noted recently, Rahm Emmanuel's view that one shouldn't waste a good crisis is every bit as applicable to our current political crisis as it was to the credit crunch. But even for a crisis as big as the one in which we find ourselves, there is too much possible reform being touted to sensibly address it all. It is going to be necessary to pick and choose our immediate priorities.

My thinking on this subject starts with this thought: I wonder whether this might be a "bottoming out" of cynicism in politics. Let's not kid ourselves, this isn't a storm that has blown in from nowhere, wrecking once-sound edifices in one fell swoop. The public has been fed up with politics for some time now, and in particular, the growing sense that politicians are "all the same" has been increasingly poisonous to people's will to engage. It needn't be its current incarnation, "all the same, just in it for the money", it has also been "all the same, hardly a policy difference between them", "all the same, promise everything, deliver nothing" and "all the same, it's all spin and lies". This crisis, I suspect, has been so quickly seized upon as the time to clean up politics more widely because it happened at about the right time. The downward trajectory of public faith in politics has been on such a prolonged downward trend that, had it continued much further, the system would have become completely untenable. People sense that - and by that, I mean political people who think about these things.

If we are to make appropriate use of the reform momentum, any reforms must not stifle the appetite for further reforms. They should be things that have an obvious benefit, and are perceptible to the public in as short a time as possible. If people sense that all that is happening is technocratic faffing, it will not have the desired effect of nurturing any green shoots of optimism that might have appeared.

For a start, what the public wants, anecdotally and from polling data, is for more heads to roll. Every party should be quite trigger happy with the deselection process before the next election, and appropriate investigations should take place into those cases which look to have been fraudulent. If other reforms feel like a substitute for these actions, they will only make people more cynical. As has been noted elsewhere, it's quite difficult for the Lib Dems to lead on this, because none of our MPs have done anything heinous enough to warrant the kind of synthetic fury with which David Cameron has greeted revelations of moat cleaning and duck islands. Nonetheless, some movement has been welcome; Lord Rennard's announcement today is timely, and it'd probably help if a few MPs stood down at the next election.

But assuming we manage to get past this first, most important, most basic (and lets face it, least interesting) first step, what next? The sense that things are not simply going to carry on as normal will only be challenged by something that people care about. Secondary legislation, for instance, is all very well, but if the reform is to something you have to explain what it is first, it's not going to get anyone all that excited.

Of course, the obvious thing to reform is the interface between the political system and the public: voting. It might not surprise anyone to hear a Lib Dem call for electoral reform, but it really is the most obvious reform here. We have been banging on about this for so long, precisely because it is one of the most effective things we can do to hand power back to people, which is exactly what they want. The Lib Dem preferred solution is STV in multi-member constituencies, for well rehearsed reasons that I won't go over in tedious detail here.

(Incidentally, while we're at it: we should under no circumstances change to any kind of messy, bodge job like the Jenkins Report-recommended AV+ system. It would only give reform a bad name, and stop any recovery in participation in the democratic process in its tracks.)

The Conservatives, so far, have advanced open primaries as a way to re-invigorate democracy. Well, OK, I can see how someone could have watched the US elections and decided that some primaries would make life exciting, but can we really see it being quite as interesting when it's the contest for Labour candidate for Colchester? Having said that, if a move to STV is as effective as I hope it would be in getting people more involved, then I might just imagine open primaries attracting enough attention to be worth doing for constituencies that are rather bigger than those we have at the moment. That, though, would be a secondary reform. STV would remove safe seats (so long as parties cannot deliberately limit the number of people who can stand for them in a given constituency), and with it the sense that a vote can be "wasted".

The other thing which would force the political class to engage with the public more is reform of political party funding. Personally, I'm in favour of state funding of political parties, for the simple reason that it removes the issue of people with more money to spare having more influence. I'm not dogmatic about that, and other solutions might help. Limits on donations would be a start.

An elected House of Lords is, of course, right, but somehow it doesn't seem like the biggest priority right now. Yes, there've been scandals about peers taking cash for ammendments, but there already are rules against that, and they've suffered the consequences. The Lords is, frankly, not the biggest problem we have with our legislature at the moment.

Which brings me to the last thing: the divide between parliament and the executive. Personally, I'd quite like an executive who aren't necessarily drawn from the legislature (like the USA), but in the absence of that, could we just have an STV election for Prime Minister, with the leader of each party standing? That would remove some of the downside to PR systems that people always bang on about - the PM would have a strong mandate to lead, but they wouldn't necessarily have an overall majority in parliament.

As I believe Simon Jenkins observed some time ago now, one of the biggest problems we have in the UK is that we get very worked up when we're arguing about PR vs FPTP, because some people want a proportional legislature, and some people want a strong, decisive executive. Essentially, we're talking at cross purposes. A single party executive and a proportional legislature would allow for both, albeit that the executive would have to build sufficient support for its legislation (no bad thing).

So, that's more or less my programme of reforms:

1. In the immediate term, some heads must roll after due process.
2. We should move to multi-member constituency STV after a referendum at the next election. Failing that, the Tories' open primaries plan wouldn't be a terrible idea.
3. Political party funding should be reformed.
4. The business of the first parliament elected under STV should include wider constitutional reform, including what becomes of the Lords, and thoughts about reforms to the relationship between parliament and the executive. While they're at it, they might as well write it all down, too.

Any questions?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Open Primaries: An Alternative Answer?

Looking at the Tory talking heads on the news this morning, it appears that, in an attempt to head off electoral reform at the pass, their response to the public wanting a way to chuck out their MP at the ballot box is.... open primaries, USA-style.

Well, it'd be a start. The difference between that and multi-member STV, of course, is that is retains the idea of a party safe seat, but it does indeed allow the public to chuck out one particular person. It's not, actually, as bad an idea as AV+, which I think would just give electoral reform in general a bad name. But it's not great. If this gained a bit of momentum, though, and turned into a wholesale debate, along party lines (Labour: AV+, Tory: Open Primaries, LibDems: Multi Member STV), then obviously we'd be in the right, but if it came down to it, we should probably support the Tories over Labour (assuming the policies I posit above, of course).

Explaining Michael Martin's Exit

Nick Clegg can feel today that he has played an important part in a real move forward for the House of Commons, with the departure of Michael Martin now forthcoming. However, listening to comments from the public on today's Daily Politics and yesterday's Five Live Drive, it's also clear to me that the public doesn't share the view of many in the commons that this is an important step.

To those who follow politics, the case against Michael Martin requires no explanation. But I suspect that in their rush to do something to clean up the system, many of our politicians have allowed themselves to forget that most members of the public don't really know what Martin has done, and if nobody makes the case to them, it would be very easy for them to conclude that Martin is a scapegoat, as his apologists have been claiming.

The sense that the Speaker is a figurehead, and therefore ultimately responsible, is the most immediately obvious reason for his removal, but it's the wrong one. It's not a general principle that has led to his downfall, it is a very specific record of opposition to opening up the Commons to scrutiny. No, Michael Martin doesn't bare complete responsibility for this, we in the Lib Dems ought to ask questions of our own representative on the Members Estimate Committee, and those MPs from the Labour and Tory parties who voted down reforms should reflect on their own role in all of this.

But that doesn't mean the Speaker hasn't shown himself, in the stances he has taken protecting MPs from too much scrutiny, and being primarily concerned with maintaining their privacy rather than in opening up Parliament, to be, as Nick Clegg put it at the weekend, a "dogged defender of the status quo". Just ask any of those MPs who have been trying to get more of these details out in the open, like Norman Baker, how helpful Michael Martin has been. The Speaker made his attitudes clear in his outburst to Kate Hoey and Norman Baker a few days ago. Anyone with much political sense who watched that should be in no doubt that the Speaker is no scapegoat.

What needs to happen now, though, if the tide is not to turn against Nick Clegg, is that firstly we must continue to make and defend the case against Michael Martin, and not give way to the temptation to leave him alone now he's going. Those who want to paint us as political opportunists won't stop pushing their scapegoat line, so we shouldn't either. Secondly, we need to be visibly moving forward in cleaning up other aspects of this problem, perhaps deselecting Ming Campbell and Richard Younger Ross (that's up to their local parties, of course). I wonder what the outcome of the Federal Exec meeting was, after the mutterings about Chris Rennard....

Beware Phantom Reformers

Polly Toynbee (no, wait, keep reading!) wrote a mostly-right article yesterday contributing to the effort to examine the link between the electoral system and the sense of entitlement and corruption that has been revealed at Westminster in the last two weeks. She quotes, towards the end of it, the evidence which Mark has noted of a relationship between an MP appearing in the Telegraph for their misdemeanors and their having a larger than average majority (ie. a safer seat). Incidentally, I have done some number crunching for Mark, which he writes up here.

One thing bothers me about Polly's article, though. She writes:
Make Votes Count, the Electoral Reform Society, Compass, Unlock Democracy and an array of reformers of many kinds are now determined add a referendum to the next election. If not now, the Conservatives will ­certainly never offer one. Alan Johnson came out again yesterday for PR – ­reviving Roy Jenkins's electoral plan that Blair shelved. Other Labour voices are breaking out. This will be the real test of each MP's sincerity: will they clean up politics, or just brush the surface mud off the present system with a lick and a promise?
The Alan Johnson quote she refers to, by the way, comes from the Independent, where yesterday he said:
I believe that we need to overhaul the political system and that we should complete unfinished business by discussing again the Jenkins review and consulting the British people on proportional representation, which gives greater power to the electorate.
Now, lets just stop and think about this for a moment. If what Polly, Mark and I are suggesting is that, to quote Polly,
Seats where parties can run a donkey in a red or blue rosette breed complacency and tempt corruption. Nefarious practices thrive in any dark corners of politics unchecked by scrutiny or competition. Time for a constitutional revolution.
... then how does the Jenkins Report help us with this? The system it suggests, AV+, is, I would suggest, every bit as likely to produce safe seats. I'm not the only person to think so, either. It is widely thought to be one of the disadvantages of AV+ in comparison to STV; indeed, it seems likely that this is one of the reasons Jenkins suggested it in the first place - getting MPs to vote for STV would have been like getting turkeys to vote for Christmas.

So a wider movement towards electoral reform is a good thing, don't get me wrong, but can we keep a wary eye on anyone who suggests reviving the Jenkins report is a solution to this current crisis. It isn't. Safe seats must go, as Polly so rightly suggests. I hope, then, that she would argue against AV+ every bit as eloquently as she does against FPTP.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Question for Daniel Kawczynski MP

Daniel Kawczynski, my MP in Shrewsbury & Atcham, has posted this rather self-righteous video on the Telegraph's Right to Reply section.

Not for him the grubby business of the London property market, oh no. It's hotel stays all the way for Daniel. Not just any hotel stays, mind you, but specially negotiated-down hotel stays.

Except, here, elsewhere on the Telegraph's site, we read that fellow Tory backbencher Stephen Crabb flipped his home so that his primary residence was... half of a flat he shared with Daniel Kawczynski!
The MP then designated a room in another flat, rented by Daniel Kawczynski, a fellow Tory backbencher, as his main home.
How odd.

Daniel, why do the Telegraph think you had a flat until (at least) pretty recently, when we all know you're so keen on thrifty hotels?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Telegraph Expenses Story: Odd Priorities?

So, the Lib Dem day of reckoning is here, and nobody seems quite sure how to react. Jeremy Paxman has just delivered himself of the opinion that some of it is "pretty small beer", Alix isn't happy, Mark Littlewood thinks it's all going to be OK, and we await Nick's reaction.

What strikes me about the Telegraph story, though, is that they lead on Andrew George's daughter using his flat, when they claim to have accusations to make against Nick Clegg, surely the highest profile target. Tucked a few paragraphs into the article is the following:
Nick Clegg, the party leader, claimed the maximum possible on his second home allowance and exceeded his budget by more than £100 at the same time as he was calling for the reform of the system. He has now promised to repay a phone bill that included calls to Colombia and Vietnam.
OK, that sounds embarrassing. So why wasn't it the lead story? Something tells me that if the Telegraph had lead on this and therefore had to explain the details of these accusations in more detail, they wouldn't quite add up to what they're suggesting. I just don't see why else they wouldn't have lead with this.

I mean, come on, I've hardly even heard of Andrew George, and I'm a politics geek and party member. Why lead on this man's expenses, unless you haven't really found anything very exciting elsewhere?