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?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

PMQs: Does Brown Have A Point?

Watching PMQs today, you would have had to be almost comatose not to have picked up on Gordon Brown's main point of rebuttal against the Tories: that they weren't talking about the issues. Of course, it's a convenient way for him not to answer awkward questions about his own leadership, but it has to be said, the man has a point. PMQs today had what seemed like more than its fair share of throughly pathetic, Westminster-village questions.

The Tory questions today included (and I paraphrase, here, but you get the idea):
  • Cameron: You're shit, and you know you are.
  • Bullying in the Workplace! Arf!
  • Look, an online petition for you to resign!
  • How are you doing on the whole setting out your vision thing?
  • Will Hazel Blears's article be dealt with in "the usual way"? Titter.
But it certainly wasn't all coming from the Tories. Labour MPs are often to be found offering fuckwittedly craven softballs to the leader, on the glorious achievements of Her Majesty's Government. Today's included:
  • Rother Valley's unemployment is not yet as bad as it was in 1997. So no worries, keep up the good work!
  • Tell me all about your plans to exclude tips from the minimum wage.
  • Let me tell you about my local football team, Brighton & Hove. They wunned at the weekend, you know...
  • Swindon borough council is run by evil Tories. Would you like to join me in denouncing them?
  • Please can you confirm that the £300m available for higher education building projects might include the plan in Blackpool to build, well, a higher education building? Just to clarify.
  • Please will you give a meaningless, open ended commitment to do whatever you can to save jobs at General Motors factories?
  • Please agree with me when I say that the government is brilliant, and creating 1000 jobs in Gloucester docks.
  • Would you care to join me in attacking the Tories, who might cut police in Greater Manchester. ps. We're building some new stuff in Bury, wooo!
There were, to be fair, some non-pathetic questions from the two biggest parties. From the Tories, we had:
  • Will the Gurkhas vote be binding?
  • Compensating the fund for Christie hospital for losses in Icelandic banks.
And Labour MPs offered:
  • Will you secure a report to the house on the government's actions to tackle child trafficking?
  • Will you meet with me to discuss illegal gangmasters in the construction industry?
  • What's going on with the trouble at Stafford hospital?
And then we have today's Lib Dem questions. Nick Clegg tackled Gordon on his big speech about children and education, in a similar manner to Cameron, only Nick had a point about an actual thing. Here's the run-down of our questions:
  • Clegg: Education and young people.
  • Low returns on savings offered by bailed out banks.
That was it for us. Today also saw the DUP doing some special pleading for Northern Ireland, and Plaid Cymru asking about Trident.

So after all that, what conclusions can we draw? Which parties have made a good use of the opportunities that PMQs present? Here's a little summary:
Labour: 11 questions, ~3 of them with much substance to them.
Conservatives: 12 questions (6 from Cameron), 2 of them with much substance to them.
Lib Dem: 3 questions (2 from Clegg), 3 of them with much substance to them.
That's a success rate of
Lab: 27%
Con: 17%
Lib: 100%
I know the Lib Dems have an easy time under this kind of metric, because we don't really have the number of questions to piss some of them away taking the piss. But really, can we not expect any better than that from the other parties? If Gordon Brown is serious about wanting better questions from the Tories, he could start by planting some slightly less pathetic questions for himself from his own side.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Good Day for Democracy: Government Loses Gurkha Vote

Today's big political news has just broken - that the government has been defeated in the vote for the first of two Lib Dem motions, which make up our opposition day debate. The motion called for an equal right of residence to be offered to all Gurkhas, rather than the unfair cut-off for those whose service ended pre-1997 which the government was doing all it could to preserve. I should firstly say a big congratulations to Chris Huhne, who opened the debate powerfully, and fended off a number of pathetically twatty interventions from the Labour benches with ease.

What is amazing about this is not the vote itself, so much as the fact that the government allowed itself to lose. Governments really don't like to lose votes. Even on harmless things like David Heath's Private Members' Bill on Fuel Poverty, they would rather defeat good ideas, and then implement them later, perhaps in watered down form, as part of a wider piece of legislation. It completely undermines the way parliament and our democracy is supposed to work, but there you are.

So it was that before the debate, on the Daily Politics PMQs coverage, Nick Robinson sagely told us that it wasn't a government defeat we should be watching for, but how much the government had to give away in order to keep its backbenchers on side. Look out, he advised us, for little slips of paper being passed to the minister towards the end of the debate if the whips don't think they can win the vote as things stand, thus prompting further concessions.

As it happens, though, the Labour party is in such a state of complete incompetence/powerlessness that its whips clearly weren't able to guage support sufficiently accurately. Perhaps they simply don't have enough leverage over backbenchers who all expect to be out of a job soon anyway. In any case, the government, in not announcing a U-turn or something, has allowed itself to be humiliated. Not only that, but on an issue that has attracted an awful lot of public anger; Andrew Neil and Anita Anand said on today's Daily Politics that they'd never seen such a large and unanimous email response on a subject before.

The other notable thing about this is the photo opportunity that it produced outside the House of Commons, where protesters were making their own opinions on the subject clear this afternoon. There, sandwiching Joanna Lumley, admittedly, were Nick Clegg and David Cameron, side by side. Some will inevitably read a lot, probably too much, into the body language of the two, and whether they looked to be getting on well. Personally, I think they were both genuinely happy to see the typical workings of parliament, where the government simply stifles the ability of MPs to act as the voice of the nation on such straightforward issues as this, subverted for once.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How To Really Screw Up A Child

Today's Guardian reports that...
The plans to make personal, social and health education (PSHE) compulsory from the age of five, published yesterday, include a clause allowing schools to apply their "values" to the lessons and another allowing parents to opt their children out on religious grounds.

It means that all state secondaries in England - including faith schools - will for the first time have to teach a core curriculum about sex and contraception in the context of teenagers' relationships, but teachers in religious schools will also be free to tell them that sex outside marriage, homosexuality or using contraception are wrong. Sexual health campaigners warned that such an approach could confuse teenagers, but Catholic schools welcomed the move.
Let's think about this for a second. At the kind of age we're talking about here (secondary school), some may be starting to feel a bit confused about their own sexuality, and questioning whether they might be gay (or, indeed, already feeling pretty certain about it). I don't know about you, but I can't think of many things that you can more easily do to them at that point to really fuck them up, potentially for years into the future, than to tell them, as part of the lesson that is supposed to be telling them how to deal with these developments in a mature way, that there is something wrong with them, that to act on their thoughts and feelings would be "sinful".

If their parents have sent them to a faith school, then they might not be likely to find much sympathy at home. What they are taught and what their friends think about these issues is enormously important. In that situation, what these plans are likely to produce is a whole load of unhappy and repressed young people.

Of course, we all know this; society has increasingly recognised the importance of being supportive of people finding their true sexuality, and the damage that some parents can do by rejecting their children in this situation.

But of course, religion is special. Belief in the sky-fairy entitles you to abuse your children without reproach; indeed, the government will go out of its way to allow you to fucking well INSTITUTIONALISE this abuse. (Am I succesfully expressing how angry this makes me?...)

Amazingly enough, as Costigan remarked this morning, the Daily Mail has managed to take precisely the opposite tack. This is what passes for an argument on the other side of this debate:

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said that 'pressing the virtues of homosexuality' could lead to more experimentation, which could be 'harmful' to children.

He said: 'What we don't want to see is vulnerable young people being exploited by outside groups which want to normalise homosexuality.

'If this guidance purports to force faith schools to teach things which go against their faith then it is profoundly illiberal and must be resisted at all costs.'
It reminds me of Al Franken's line about the US religious right's argument that gay marriage "undermines" traditional marriage, as if he was going to be walking down the street one day, see a gay couple who'd just got married, and think "Well, gee, that does look pretty good, I shall leave my wife immediately."

I mean, come on, "pressing the virtues of homosexuality"? As in, "not telling people that being gay means they're sinners"? How many of our "vulnerable young people" are these "outside groups" (read: filthy homos seeking more recruits) really going to turn gay by simply not filling their heads with bigotry handed down by the sky-fairy?

Oh, and a pre-emptive warning to any nice religious types who want me to make more effort to separate them from "the Christian Institute": go and give Simon Calvert a fucking great slap from me, and I'll consider it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Charlie Brooker on G20 Protests and the Media

Charlie Brooker's Newswipe has been a bit up and down so far, but Charlie excelled himself last night with his review of the G20 summit. You can see it on the iPlayer here. In particular, his review of the TV news coverage of the protests, which begins at 14 mins 36 secs, is fantastic, and provides a nice overview of the relationship between the protests, the media, and the possibility (and later actuality) of violence occuring at the protests.

An honourable mention also to Ben Goldacre's piece on the MMR non-story, which begins at 11:34.

In fact, just watch the whole thing, it's ace.

NB. Probably not work-safe, thanks to Mr. Goldacre's dirty mouth, and Ant and Dec's senseless killing of a dog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It's Not About Ian Tomlinson

Lib Dem Voice has picked up a Q&A with Chris Huhne in the Indy, in which he answers the following question (in bold) with the following response:

The police officer who assaulted Ian Tomlinson didn't do anything worse than many other police officers filmed that day. Shouldn't they be investigated too?

The officer who lashed out at Ian Tomlinson is not typical. But any constable who betrays the public's trust to use force responsibly should be disciplined and, if appropriate, charged. It is lamentably unfair to the vast majority of self-controlled officers if a thug tars the whole force.

Commenters on LDV have expressed dismay at this, and I have to agree. Whilst the death of Ian Tomlinson is tragic, and should be properly investigated, the police should not be allowed to get away with a diversionary "bad apple" manouvre here. There was a lot of rather over-zealous policing going on for the G20 protests on April 1st, and questions should be asked not simply of officers caught overstepping the mark when tensions ran high, but also of the senior officers who determined that kettling anyone who turned up was a sensible or productive tactic.

Since April 1st, discussion of police methods has been steadily displaced by discussion of Ian Tomlinson. His death is significant, but it should not be allowed to become a proxy for the wider issues. Whether Tomlinson was or was not a protestor, or being antagonistic to the police, or drunk, are pertinent questions to the investigation into his death, but they have absolutely no bearing on the wider questions of whether the climate camp should have been charged in the way it was to clear it, or whether kettling should be the default tactic used on people exercising their right to protest.

The New Atheism - The Next Step

Julian Baggini has writted a quite interesting article on this subject over on CiF. I mostly agree with it, but it has a bit of a problem. Here's a quick quote from it:
What it revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature. You can't publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.

This can't be dismissed as "mere perception". Appearances count, which is why those able to present a more agreeable face have come to dominate the moderate middle ground, even if their arguments are often vapid and shallow.

The problem is this: Baggini has two messages, which aren't really compatible. They are as follows:

1. The New Atheists are perceived as being too forthright and certain. Look at me, in contrast. See how I open my article with the words "When I threw off my Christianity, I did not throw out my Bible, I just learned to read it properly. Intelligent atheism rejects what is false in religion, but should retain an interest in what is true about it." Lets all get better at presenting a "more agreeable", less "contemptuous" face to the world, like moderate religious people and agnostics do.

2. The New Atheists have been too narrow in selecting their targets. They have drawn attention to some fundamentalists with nasty views, but there are still people wandering around with views that are equally bonkers, wouldn't stand up to five minutes solid questioning, and need to be challenged, because they're currently getting away with holding views that are frankly even more ill-thought-through than the religious loonies. The "fluffy brigade" are "flattering the woolly-minded by telling them vagueness is a virtue, not a vice."

The first message urges us to stop pissing people off by seeming so sure of ourselves. The second one basically assumes that we're right, and that it's not just the fundies who need arguing with, but the woolly minded ones who think "God is love" is a terribly profound statement, not a load of fatuous guff. I'd agree with the second one, but I don't see how we're going to change anything of the perception of New Atheism by extending criticism to the people in the middle who are currently busy slapping themselves heartily on the back for being so chuffing moderate.

Of course, Baggini calls it a "conversation", not criticism or an argument, but presumably the aim of the exercise is to cure people of their "woolly minded"ness, so I don't quite know how that's going to work. Presumably, these people are all so thick that during these "conversations" they won't notice that we think we're right if we just talk to them very, very softly.

It's worth a try, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Just Been to the Bank of England Protest

I'm not in work today, so I thought I'd go and have a look at what's going on down at the Bank of England today. Arriving at Liverpool Street slightly late, we caught up with the march shortly before it reached Threadneedle Street. Generally, the march is comprised of the usual suspects, people carrying banners saying things like "CONSUMERS SUCK" and "Climate Change is Bad", seemingly with no sense of irony whatsoever. I don't know if the climate change branch of the march was particularly full of eejits - when we went round the other side, there were some rather more sensible banners around.

I don't know exactly how many of the other people there were there to protest themselves, and how many just to have a look at the action. Probably for quite a few it's a bit of both. But in any case, I don't think this counts as the Summer of Rage that has been predicted. Not just yet, anyway. It's not exactly a million people marching against the Iraq war, is it?

The other thing I might as well comment on is the police presence. It's massive. The streets leading into the protest are all crammed with police vans, many of them full of reserves of police awaiting the command to come piling in. Generally, whilst we were there the policing was pretty restrained, which has been borne out by what I've seen on the TV since I got back. What I would say, though, is that I'm not sure the police strategy of almost walling us in was a good idea. I think what they may well have achieved is to make a lot of people present feel a whole lot more involved and polarised than they intended to. Hanging around at the back of the crowd, so I could slip away if things got unpleasant, it was a bit unnerving to see a wall of police behind us.

There was a certain sense of "well, you've come down here, don't complain to us if we treat you like the troublemakers at the front". I realise it's difficult to know how to police this kind of event, where the people in attendance are by no means homogenous, but I can't help but feel that there must be a better way than this. Ultimately, lines are confrontational. If you start forming great big lines before you've even had a confrontation, it kind of sends a signal.

I'm now watching a small group of protesters smashing up the windows of a branch of RBS, and the reporter there commenting that the police aren't really moving in, because doing so might involve turning a larger group of people angry, although how many of them might actually engage the police is unpredictable. Exactly. The risk you run in treating a crowd as a single entity is to reduce everyone to the lowest level of behaviour present.

Monday, March 30, 2009

EHRC Catching Up on Paternity Leave

Today we hear that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is recommending that paternity leave entitlement is extended to achieve a more equal right to spend time with newborn children. It's only, what, a couple of weeks now since Lib Dem Spring Conference suggested similar (but more far-reaching, looking at the detail) proposals.

Good to see the Lib Dem tradition of being in the vanguard of policy making continuing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Daniel Hannan, Guido and the American Right

Guido is terribly proud that Daniel Hannan's speech, straight out of the Guido playbook of diagnosing Gordon Brown's "pathologies" and wrapping himself in libertarian bollocks, has become something of an internet sensation. Noting that the clip has attracted the attention of such illustrious organs as the Drudge Report, he declares:
Cometh the hour, cometh the man - we are all ditto-heads now; Rushies and the Co-Conspirators.
He slightly surprises me with his eagerness to take up the mantle of "dittohead", but it fits like a charm. After all, doesn't Guido's blog have exactly the same right-wing echo chamber effect as Rush and Fox News do for the US? Isn't his comments thread full of the same brand of half-sentient hate-spewing twats that call Rush? Guido seems to be embracing the comparison before any of his regular critics really articulated it properly, just to block off that particular line of attack.

Anyway, on to the clip itself. Since it was released on Tuesday, it has become remarkably well exposed; yesterday it was the most watched clip on YouTube. So is it all that remarkable? Well, to be fair, it's well crafted, to the point, snappy, and clearly expresses Hannan's position. What's more surprising is that it achieved this without much exposure at all from the MSM in the UK. Interestingly, Hannan has become something of a hero to the US right, with Rush Limbaugh (de facto leader of the Republicans) endorsing his words, Fox News cheerleader for the markets Neil Cavuto interviewing him, and well known crazy person Glen Beck inviting him on his show too.

Why, then, are the UK Conservatives not more proud of him? Hannan seems to be viewed by his own party as a slightly loose cannon, being one of the more headbanging eurosceptics in the party, a cheerleader for joining the loony fringe of Europe, and in fact he's already been expelled from the EPP himself.

In many ways, the interviews with the US media are rather more revealing than the speech itself. In the Cavuto interview, he pretty much takes ownership of being the"do nothing" party (look at about 3 mins in), and answers "yes" in response to the question "in the same situation [of the US banking crisis], would you have said "Let 'em rip"?".

I have to say, watching those videos is quite entertaining in at least one respect: the right wings of both our countries are currently maintaining that their particular screamingly socialist government is taking their country to much lower depths than are to be found anywhere else in the world. The result, when you bring the two together, is a pissing contest. Witness much claiming to have it worst from both sides of the pond.

The most amusing bit, though, is this big stompy red quote from Guido: "It is the speech that many Republicans wish they had someone to deliver to Obama". Um, no. The Republicans have plenty of populist ranters who could deliver a little mini-speech like this. Trouble is, none of them could say it with a straight face, because unlike Gordon Brown, Barack Obama hasn't been in the driving seat for the last ten years. He's been there for three months. If the Republicans tried to pull this, they would rightly be derided, because it was George Bush who turned a surplus inherited from Clinton into a deficit.

Daniel Hannan is said to be somewhat perplexed at the traction he has achieved in the US. Let me help you out, Daniel: It's a distraction. Like so much that the Republican noise machine does, it's a talking point to try to prove a point from a country with different circumstances to those of the US, and then import the "take home message" to the US, without people noticing the bait and switch they've just been offered whereby something that reflects badly on the Republicans becomes the fault of "socialists" over there in Yerp. There's a reason they'd rather talk about the backstory in someone else's country: it's because they've only been the opposition for three months, and most of that backstory in the US is their backstory.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sheer Poetry, Dear Boy

Sometimes things happen that you just couldn't have arranged better.

In the wake of the McNulty dodgy allowance business, a couple of things happened.

1. Sarah Teather (Lib Dem MP for Brent East) made some hay for the Lib Dems out of the situation, tabling a Commons motion to scrap the allowance for London MPs.

2. Dawn Butler (Labour MP for Brent South) found herself in the spotlight next, on the same subject. Turns out she claims the second home allowance in order to maintain her ownership of two houses, despite her constituency house being roughly as close to parliament as her other house. The BBC illustrate the point here.

What makes this particularly amusing, you ask? (Well, you probably don't - if you're reading Lib Dem Blogs, you probably know.) Well, it turns out that, due to boundary changes, at the next election Dawn and Sarah are fighting it out for the newly created seat of Brent Central.

It was almost enough to make me feel sorry for Dawn Butler.

Almost. Then I remembered this.


ps. Dawn's staff have been displaying their spelling skills again today, posting a response to the revelations on her website.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

George Monbiot vs. Agas

Some time ago now, George Monbiot wrote a piece in the Guardian refuting the cosy back-slapping sense of Aga owners that their cooker was an efficient, even ethical, choice of appliance. Yesterday, an interview with Aga's chief executive, William McGrath appeared in the paper, exploring this argument. They've put the transcript up on the website here. The comments thread quickly descended into (amongst other things) people accusing George of deliberately making McGrath look bad by reproducing all the hesitation and repetition of conversational speech in writing, leading George to pop up in the comments thread with the following comment:
The audio tape was given to an independent transcriber. She transcribed it. The Guardian put it online. How's that for a conspiracy? Pretty devious, I'd say.
The other bizarre comments were mostly to the effect that George was in some way "bullying" the chief executive of a large company by expecting him to have a clear idea what he was talking about, where what he was talking about was his own company's products and the claims made about said products.

In any case, I'd say if he wanted to show up McGrath's woolly thinking, he missed a trick. I spent an hour or so going through the transcript trying to put together a coherent string of proper sentences out of the raw materials provided, the better to reveal the clash of ideas at the heart of the conversation (which is indeed rather obfuscated by the literal-mindedness of the transcript).

The results I reproduce below. What I would say they show, every bit as much as his hesitant manner might have done, is the completely confused argument on McGrath's side. In assembling it, I attempted to be as sympathetic as possible to the person whose words I was interpreting, articulating fully any argument that made sense that their words hinted towards. Nevertheless, there were swathes of McGrath's contributions where I really couldn't, with the best will in the world, see what he was trying to say. If you feel like comparing the one on the Graun website with mine, then you'll see what I mean (and you have too much time on your hands). Most of what he says is just a hastily strung together collection of marketing speak.

Anyway, here's my modified transcript:
MONBIOT: I'm George Monbiot and I'm talking to William McGrath who's the chief executive of Aga Rangemaster who's kindly come in to talk about Aga's environmental performance. And we've had a bit of a spat about this in the paper where I wrote a paragraph or two expressing my displeasure with Aga's environmental performance and William wrote a response column to put me right. And now we finally meet and we can discuss this in person. So thanks very much indeed for coming in to talk about this.

MCGRATH: It's a pleasure.

MONBIOT: Now I've read the claims that Aga makes about its green credentials. And one of the things you keep emphasizing is that Agas are green because they last indefinitely. That's a disaster for an energy using device isn't it?

MCGRATH: Well I think the fact that Agas do last a life time, do last for many, many years is just one of the features of the Aga. The fact that actually cast iron is a product which does last for generations and then can be recycled I think is actually a really positive feature of the product. And when you've put that together with some of the other characteristics of the Aga, that make it so loved in the UK today and in many places around the world, I think we feel that the cast iron story, which goes right back to 1709, continues to be relevant today. And the technology that goes with cast iron, that product which does last such a long time, is something that will meet the agenda for the next generations as well as generations that have gone by.

MONBIOT: You say that the Aga lasts a life time. More efficient appliances come onto the market every year. Your Agas might be problematic in 2009. In 2059 they're going to be massively outdated and extremely inefficient by comparison to everything else available then, aren't they?

MCGRATH: Well I think you've got to look at the very nature of the Aga and what it is as a heat storage product. And I would argue that the way the market is developing, when we're looking at, say, a 13-amp Aga product which uses over night electricity, I think that is going to be a very relevant product over the years ahead, as people look to have level loading of production. And I think linking the Aga, the electric Aga that we've now developed in recent years, into micro generation, those are very much coming components. What is needed in the domestic market is to have more products which can absorb electricity to act as a battery in the home. And I think both micro and indeed larger producers of electricity that are looking to level load will be very interested in a domestic product which can use electricity in that way. And our new products aren't just about electricity. We're talking about bio fuels and that sort of thing, products where the industry itself is looking at new ideas, new products which they can bring to the market and the Aga is ready and waiting for those new products as they come to market.

MONBIOT: Okay well we'll deal with those point by point as we go along. But I'm not sure you've completely grasped what I'm driving at here because my point is that even if the Aga is perfectly suited for conditions today or 2015, even if it were the most efficient appliance on the market today, the fact that it lasts a lifetime means that it necessarily becomes outdated by comparison to what else will be available towards the end of that life time.

MCGRATH: Well George, if you look back over the life time of many people's Agas today they've actually modified themselves over the years. So what started life maybe as solid fuel Agas may now be oil Agas. And indeed one of the things we're looking at right now is to upgrade those Agas to the latest technology, where you can actually take your oil and transform it into an electric Aga. Yeah, we're alive to all these new technologies and ideas coming on board and yes, clearly new things are coming to market all the time. We for example are one of the largest companies selling, through Rangemaster today, induction hobs and selling induction range cookers. We're always alive. As a company we've put many years and a lot of money into looking at all the technologies that are available. What that has told us is yes, for some of the products we should be making things like induction mainstream in the UK. I think we've played a big part in that. But all this is also telling us that cast iron cooking remains not only very attractive to people as being at the heart of the home, a great way of cooking – radiated heat cooking is a fantastic way to cook – but it is not off the pace at all. It's exactly on the pace in terms of new technology that's coming through.

MONBIOT: But your customers are still lumbered with this very large piece of cast iron which might or might not be adaptable to those future constraints.

MCGRATH: I think lumbered's really not quite the right word. I think basically having a heat storage product in the home, a very efficient radiator when it's giving useful heat into the kitchen, is much more efficient than a standard water based system. An electric Aga is extremely efficient, well over ninety per cent efficient. You can look at some of the Rayburn products which are condensing boiler versions, well over ninety per cent efficient. You're talking about something that on the boiler side of our business, is right up there with the best in the market. So I don't think we need to feel that we're in any way off the pace against where the market, the industry has got at the moment. Indeed as a British company we feel that we're in a position to be taking some of these technologies into other countries. We don't feel there are lessons that we haven't learned from Germany or Italy. We think as a British company taking products overseas that actually we've got a lot to say.

MONBIOT: How much carbon dioxide is produced in manufacturing an Aga?

MCGRATH: I think the basic smelting iron-ore, and then we clearly produce the – in relation to the total life time, the amount of carbon dioxide is actually quite modest. The bigger figure to look at, which is the fair comment-

MONBIOT: So how much is it?

MCGRATH: I think, in terms of carbon dioxide production per unit, it's probably something around, I should think, fifteen tons [Correction: McGrath has since said that he meant 1.5 tons, not fifteen] of carbon I should ..

MONBIOT: Fifteen tons?

MCGRATH: Yeah so ..

MONBIOT: .. the cement required to build an average British home produces five tons of carbon dioxide. We're talking about roughly the total amount of CO2 required to construct a home, fifteen tons of carbon dioxide. That's a staggering amount.

MCGRATH: You're a great user of the word "staggering". Where I think the numbers are much more relevant is on the ongoing use of carbon dioxide in the home where as we all know – and this is a figure unfortunately you got so wrong in your original article, for the average home was using one and a half tons when actually as you know it's actually six or seven and a half.

MONBIOT: Yes. I'd just like to point out that I, I was the one who requested the correction having found that the Parliamentary Select Committee document that I was using for the average home emissions had actually got it wrong.

MCGRATH: That's fine. But as we well know that the answer is six tons, seven and a half tons for a four bedroom, four person home. The Aga, the carbon dioxide emission from an Aga, depends on which version you're using but it'd be something like three and a half tons.

MONBIOT: Not according to your figures. Using the figures off your web site your thirteen amp electric Aga is producing 6.1 tons of carbon dioxide a year. That's slightly above the average carbon dioxide emissions for an ordinary home.

MCGRATH: If you take into account the modern versions now which are using the latest version which use the AIMS(?) product ..

MONBIOT: No this is the modern version.

MCGRATH: .. our calculation for that comes out at 3.5 to 4. The natural gas version comes in at 4 to 4.5. So, if you multiply using standard stats through the numbers that you've got there, we calculate the numbers to be from 3.5 to 4.5 tons which against the 6 to 7.5 tons demonstrates that actually the Aga home doesn't use more energy than an alternative home. Now clearly lots of people have different ways of managing their home to which they're obviously perfectly entitled. We feel that the Aga, by the time you take into account all the roles it plays in the home, not only as a cooker but also as a radiator and providing so many appliances that the Aga home can have a better energy performance than comparable homes.

MONBIOT: Are you seriously trying to tell me that the average Aga produces less carbon dioxide for the services it delivers than comparable products producing the same services?


MONBIOT: Okay. So now according again to the figures on your web site, using the kilowatt hours figure that you produced for your Agas, you could boil a kettle for two people, two cups of tea, ninety nine times a day for the same amount of electricity that your Aga is using.

MCGRATH: The point is, where I think you're being unfair, you're not looking at the role that the Aga or the Rayburn is playing in people's homes and can continue to play in the future. The factor you've got to look at which is more relevant than purely picking on a multiplication of kettles is to actually look at the useful heat in the kitchen. And clearly one of the major attractions that people see in the Aga in the home is the warmth in the kitchen and that can indeed percolate into a number of rooms in the house. So you have to see it as a combination, absolutely direct in the case of the Rayburn, of a cooker, which is its primary function, and also the overall role it plays in warmth in the home. And that's where I think we're differing a little bit is to see that having a heat-sump in the home which can play this broader role is actually a jolly attractive way, not only because it is so much the heart of the home for so many people, but also in energy and environmental efficiency, it is actually a jolly useful way of running the home. And over the last five years what we've been doing at Aga is really to have a five point plan of things that we felt we should be doing to address the environmental agenda. So the fact that you raise the points now was actually, from our point of view, quite good news because we would like to communicate more widely the sort of things we have been doing. And that really comes back to flexibility of the product. That's why we're making it into a product which is not always on. You can turn it off more readily, modulating use. We've looked at all our products and raising efficiency. That's why if you look at HETAS or any of the industry bodies, our products are right up there at the top in efficiency. The work we've done on Rayburn for example is tremendous, the things we've done with the condensing boilers are really well ahead of the market. One of the things which I think is interesting as well, we're looking at case emissions which is about how much of that useful heat is sent into the home. People do use that energy. We do though have ways of actually having less heat coming into the room or linking that heat maybe back into heat pumps.

MONBIOT: Okay. Well for all these grand claims you make about Aga ..

MCGRATH: They're not grand claims though.

MONBIOT: .. we are still talking about a single device which uses, according to my figures, the entire carbon dioxide emissions of the average home. According to your figures three quarters of the carbon dioxide emissions of the average home. We are talking about a device which doesn't run the lights, which doesn't run the TV, which doesn't run the central heating system, which performs only a few of those functions.

MCGRATH: No, a large number of those functions such that when you work it all through we think that the Aga home does not necessarily need to use more energy than alternative homes.

MONBIOT: But it can't possibly add up can it? Because if the Aga is producing between three quarters and one hundred per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions of the average home and yet it only fulfils a part of those functions, maximum about fifty per cent, then there's no way that it could be an environmentally friendly device.

MCGRATH: Clearly we will not always agree on all those figures. In terms of an environmentally friendly device I think you've then got to say where is it going next. And I think that's where you look at some of the work we're doing on linking it into micro generation. And I think that is fascinating, if you're looking for the domestic market – and I think we should all be looking at this sort of area, which lends itself to micro generation. The electric Aga does lend itself to that. We're being approached by a whole series of micro generation producers. Why? Because they need a domestic product which can absorb energy that is produced sporadically during the day. So clearly that may be coming from solar, that maybe coming from wind, it may be coming from heat pumps which I think may be really quite attractive.

MONBIOT: You're going to power an Aga off heat pumps?

MCGRATH: It's a linking in to the total generation you can have from ..

MONBIOT: Sorry, can I just pin this down? You intend to power an Aga off heat pumps? Is that correct?

MCGRATH: We are currently talking to one of the producers, about how they can produce energy that comes from various sources, including heat pumps, or linking back energy from the Aga into a heat pump, or into a Stirling engine.

MONBIOT: Yeah. Can I just pin you down on this because I'm quite struck by this notion. Your idea is that you would use a heat pump to power an Aga. Is that correct?

MCGRATH: It would add – if you're producing electricity for the home in a domestic context then clearly we have a product which can take a small amount of electricity being produced over a long period of time and you have to have a heat-sump of some sort which can absorb that energy.

MONBIOT: So you see the heat pump as one of these electricity producing devices do you?

MCGRATH: Electricity devices which can link into the Aga. The other end of the spectrum which I ..

MONBIOT: But the heat pump is not an electricity producing device, it's an electricity using device.

MCGRATH: In terms of the linking it back round, you're actually using the energy being produced by the Aga, rather than going into the room, can go back into the heat pump system.

MONBIOT: Yeah but you've just told me it's an electricity producing device which would be used to power the Aga and it's actually quite the opposite.

MCGRATH: What I'm saying is link it with micro generating producers, different formats, different forms, a Stirling engine and some of the other powers, it's fair comment that they need to see the Aga as part of that overall package.

MONBIOT: Okay let's just talk about this micro generation because all the recent figures that I've seen suggest that micro wind and micro solar PV in this country is a complete waste of time and money.

MCGRATH: I think we've done a lot of work, again, over recent years to examine all those potential sources. We've been right at the forefront talking to people about what is the right way of doing things. We believe that one of the really attractive packages we have come up with, which I think now is going to become commercially viable, is linking solar collectors, which are a readily available technology, with a wood burning Aga stove - another carbon neutral energy source - and putting that together with a Rayburn which is one of our key products. That package put together with an intelligent management device actually reproduces a package which meets all the current building regulations for new build.

MONBIOT: You're talking about solar PV are you?

MCGRATH: We're talking about solar collectors, so that they'll simply heat the water through a tube – and I sent you some of the data on that.

MONBIOT: Oh so you're talking about solar thermal?

MCGRATH: Yes exactly.


MCGRATH: So putting that together with an Aga stove, that is really a very attractive and viable package. So when you dismiss this..

MONBIOT: Well it's not going to help people who've just bought an electricity using Aga is it?

MCGRATH: I think you're being obtuse.

MONBIOT: No, no, no, you've just completely changed the terms of – I asked you specifically about using solar or wind production of electricity to power an Aga which is what you've just been talking about.


MONBIOT: And now you've started talking about using solar thermal with wood powered Rayburns.


MONBIOT: That's not the question that I was asking about. So let's just finish off that issue about wind and solar photovoltaic electricity used to power an Aga. This is part of your vision?

MCGRATH: Yeah. What I was saying is we have – and this is where I think we deserve more credit than you're giving – looked at all these technologies. Which technology comes through and proves to be economic as you say remains to be seen. But we as a company have, for example, our own wind turbine to examine how effective that can be, and I think we agree that only in certain areas of the country will that actually prove to be effective. Our wind turbine happens to be in Telford which is not the windiest part of the country and it does generate, it is linked up to our Aga in our R and D centre. Yes it does work. Does it generate enough power consistently to be economically viable for the consumer at this point? Probably not. If more money is spent on that technology? Possibly yes. Solar clearly is another area which is developing fast. I was giving you an example of where I'm quite excited that work we're doing in our R and D team, looking at solar, has found a package which is economically viable and is not a waste of time as you dismiss. So what we're saying, as a business we need to look at all these different opportunities, which one works best for our customer base remains to be seen. But the important point for us as a business is to be absolutely joining in the debate and at the forefront. If I turn it onto a subject which I know is dear to your heart, which is the future of nuclear, one of the issues I think that is going to be very interesting is what actually happens as the energy needs of this country increase, where are they going to come from? There's obviously a big lobby at the moment for more nuclear power stations. One of the things that you could definitely not do with a nuclear power station is turn it down or turn it off. So in my view, you need more products which level load. So I think there should be a real effort to have more products in the home which use overnight electricity, avoiding those peaks that send energy being used to pump water uphill in mountains in Wales (which would seem a curious thing to be doing). If there were more products in the home which actually used energy overnight so we had more level loading, that seems to be quite an interesting idea. We've had a product which uses overnight electricity for twenty five years, when we find out EDF – very interesting – and more of the producers are intent on looking at split tariffs, I think that is part of a drive for greater level loading. And really quite an attractive feature of what we should be looking at in terms of our energy management in the home is having more products which can absorb energy, which brings us back to where we started with the cast iron, I think absolutely a relevant product, not an irrelevant product. We're not claiming we've got all the answers yet but we're right in there. And I think that product which absorbs energy and other products comparable to Aga, that actually can take energy over night and release it during the day into the home is actually a very attractive product. So the debate is not as simple as it started, with you highlighting a technology that clearly – coal Agas we haven't made for ten years..

MONBIOT: Still make coal Rayburns don't you?

MCGRATH: We have solid fuel products.

MONBIOT: Solid fuel meaning coal?

MCGRATH: Solid but, primarily, those products now clearly do work on multi fuel, but most of those products that are actually doing very nicely now are really driven around wood burning which is ..

MONBIOT: You're selling more wood burning Rayburns than multi fuel Rayburns?

MCGRATH: The largest growth now is wood burning Rayburns.

MONBIOT: That's not the question I asked. Are you selling more wood burning Rayburns than multi fuel?

MCGRATH: We're selling more wood burning Rayburns today than any other type of product.

MONBIOT: So purely wood burning Rayburns are out-selling the multi fuel Rayburns?


MONBIOT: And by what sort of figure?

MCGRATH: What's happened in the last couple of years, since wood has become a readily available product, we've introduced new lines in wood burning products which are the fastest growth areas. And that is overtaking what was the largest element of the products for Rayburns which was actually split pretty much down the middle between gas and oil. So it's a really interesting area, again, that the technology linking with wood has taken off so rapidly. And again we have, with the stoves and with the Rayburns in particular, and hopefully maybe in due course with wood burning products as well – it's another technology we're very enthusiastic for – we're absolutely looking for practical technologies to apply with these products. And so the imagery that you would possibly use that suggests it's a retro product is just not fair. It's just not right actually.

MONBIOT: Right. And surely the point with wood and pellets and any other form of bio mass is that the supply's always going to be constrained isn't it? There are limited places in which it can be grown if we're not going to eat into arable land or we're not going to cause unsustainable rates of deforestation. And this means that they have to be used as efficiently as possible. So it seems crazy to be using them to fire devices which are on twenty four hours a day.

MCGRATH: Well the Rayburn products we're talking are not, in the first place, necessarily on all day.

MONBIOT: Not necessarily.

MCGRATH: No, not necessarily. They can be. It depends on people's actual desires and needs. People will have to warm their home. The Rayburn is a multifunctional product. Remember it does oven, it does the cooking, it does the central heating, it does the hot water.

MONBIOT: Does the central heating?


MONBIOT: All of the central heating?

MCGRATH: Yes you clearly have a little bit of homework to be done here. The Rayburn and our Stanley products in Ireland, the nature of those products is the majority of those products, overwhelming majority of those, do all those functions. That's why we're ..

MONBIOT: Not all of them do though do they?

MCGRATH: Some don't. You can have products that don't do the central heating and the hot water. But Rayburn and Stanley products, they are very much a workhorse product where they do the central heating, the hot water and the cooking.

MONBIOT: But they are still a woefully inefficient use of that wood fuel by comparison to say a modern batch boiler.







MCGRATH: The Rayburn products are right up there. If you look in all the HETAS listings, our products are eighty, ninety per cent efficient, so ..

MONBIOT: What percentage of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: Rayburn products are directly programmable so ..

MONBIOT: What percentage of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: In terms of which proportion keep them on all the time, I think the same as they can now with Aga. I think most people would do as they would with a boiler system. If you're looking at a Rayburn you're talking about a boiler system.

MONBIOT: What proportion of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: I should think very few keep them on all the time.

MONBIOT: You don't have any figures?

MCGRATH: We don't have...

MONBIOT: Wouldn't that be one of the first things you'd want to find out if you're trying to go green?

MCGRATH: I think basically the people who've got a Rayburn system would be running it in the same way that they would be running a central heating system cos that's what it is providing. It's providing a boiler, a central heating system.

MONBIOT: It seems strange to me that you don't have figures.

MCGRATH: In terms of how people run their homes we're not actually going round asking, telling people exactly what they should do.

MONBIOT: No it's not a question of telling them what to do it's a question of asking what they are doing.

MCGRATH: I think that most people would be running a Rayburn in a similar way to any other central heating system. The variety of ways in which people run that system is tremendous. Some people will run it all the time, certainly during the winter. Some people have it off at night. That's what we worked on for the Aga system, why we introduced our AIMS system to make sure those products are as flexible as the Rayburn systems.

MONBIOT: Now your AIMS system, Intelligent Management System, this puts the Aga into slumber mode, doesn't it, for much of the time. But even during slumber mode which is what you encourage people to use when they go on holiday, it's still putting out as much heat as an average radiator according to your web site.

MCGRATH: I think if you're away they have the ability now to have it turned off so it'll programme itself to come on again when they get back over night.

MONBIOT: But the advice you give them is that you keep it on slumber mode when you go on holiday.

MCGRATH: When you're out you can keep it on slumber mode or you can turn it off. So it's going to go to a much lower temperature level. So it ...

MONBIOT: Yes but it's still using heat when they're on holiday and it's still using heat when people are asleep. It's still making use of fuel which is being completely wasted.

MCGRATH: It's not being completely wasted.

MONBIOT: Well of course if they're on holiday it is being completely wasted.

MCGRATH: In which case we would expect them to have the option of turning it off and it will turn itself back on when they come back. The whole point with the Intelligent Management System was that it will calculate when to..

MONBIOT: Okay, can I just quote your site to you then?


MONBIOT: "The system can also be set to holiday mode which will keep the Aga on either the lowest energy setting or off during the selected dates". Why would you encourage people to keep it on the lowest energy setting when they're away on holiday?

MCGRATH: I think it depends how long they're away for. In the middle, many people for ..

MONBIOT: I don't keep my central heating on when I'm away on holiday.

MCGRATH: No many people who go away over night, may well leave the central heating turned down when they're away. So that gives an alternative to doing that.

MONBIOT: But that's not going on holiday. Going away over night is not the same as going on holiday is it?

MCGRATH: Okay. But now I think you're into semantics. I think it gives you that flexibility.

MONBIOT: Well it's pretty clear what that means isn't it?


MONBIOT: And when I go on holiday and when ordinary people with central heating systems go on holiday they do not leave the central heating on when they're on holiday do they?

MCGRATH: No. So basically they have the option with this product to turn it off. If you would like to ..

MONBIOT: But they have the encouragement ..

MCGRATH: .. clarify the wording between nights away and a holiday, whether a weekend away qualifies as a holiday or whatever I think is probably something we should move beyond.

MONBIOT: Well no, perhaps we shouldn't do that. And perhaps you should also create a bit of clarification with the rest of the way in which you encourage people to use it because again according to your web site it says it's supplied preset, this system with two active periods each day. "In this mode your Aga will be at normal temperature ready to cook breakfast in the morning, drop down to a lower temperature during the day and then return to normal temperature ready to prepare dinner in the evening".


MONBIOT: Summer or winter.

MCGRATH: I think it depends, that's the whole thing. What we're saying is we've added a great deal of flexibility into the product. How people use it in the home is entirely up to them. I think what you've seen from the kind of responses we've had from people all round the country, people have their own lifestyles, the way in which they wish to use it. We've tried to make it easier for them to have more options which is why the AIMS system, now available in electricity, is going to be available later in the year on gas as well and with oil products as well. We are making tremendous progress in all these areas. And the extra feature, which I think is very important, is going to come through this year. The other area that we've been looking at, apart from the micro generation, is looking at the existing store base.

MONBIOT: Okay. Let me just finish off on this AIMS business, this Aga Intelligent Management System business because you are encouraging people, even with this most modern, most up to date system that you have you are still encouraging people to keep their machine on all day during the summer.

MCGRATH: Many people will turn the Aga off during the summer.

MONBIOT: Turn it off all together? Turn it off all together?

MCGRATH: Many people would turn it off during the summer.

MONBIOT: And use their cooker? They would use a separate hob?

MCGRATH: They would use maybe a separate – we actually provide, as I'm sure if you've looked on the web site you will see. Many people have an Aga in combination with what we call a companion which does give you the option if the Aga's off, part of the overall Aga includes a standard hob and an oven as part of our package. So you again have that built in flexibility.

MONBIOT: But the great majority of houses that I've been in which have an Aga also have a cooker. And they might use the cooker sometimes and use the Aga sometimes. So far from reducing the turnover of appliances you're actually increasing the number of appliances aren't you?

MCGRATH: They, basically ..

MONBIOT: Well are you not?

MCGRATH: No basic..

MONBIOT: You're adding an appliance on top of the appliances they already have.

MCGRATH: No you have a sing..

MONBIOT: They have a central heating system. They have a cooker. And they have an Aga.

MCGRATH: They have an Aga which can incorporate a conventional cooker as part of that package. When you're looking at de-cluttering your home and the number of appliances one of the questions that you really should also add is looking at, as the government is keen that we should do, energy management holistically in the home. Look at the de-cluttering effect of some of the things that you don't need that people can choose not to have that many people in responding to this debate have actually recognised, things like the tumble dryer, things like the kettle, things like the toaster, all of which have to be produced, all of which have very short lifetimes so ..

MONBIOT: And people still have kettles to put on their Agas don't they?

MCGRATH: They have kettles which last a lot longer than the products to which you refer. We think that over the life time of the Aga, which you surprisingly didn't think was a good idea to have a long life, the number of appliances that other people may have got through will be a lot longer.

MONBIOT: But they're still getting through their cookers aren't they? Because they're buying their cookers along side their Agas. That's certainly the case in every house I've ever been in which has an Aga.

MCGRATH: Well perhaps you haven't been in too many houses with this product ..

MONBIOT: Okay well give me the figures. Give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Basically you're selling, in terms of people who've got Agas now, many of them will not have an additional ...

MONBIOT: You say "many". Give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Many of those cookers may have been out there for a long time ...

MONBIOT: No, no, give me the figures.

MCGRATH: George, of the products we sell ..

MONBIOT: You're making these statements. You're saying that my impression is wrong. Now it might be wrong but I want to hear from you that it is wrong because you're going to give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Well I would ..

MONBIOT: You don't seem to have surveyed your customers very much.

MCGRATH: No we have tremendous feedback from lots of the customers. That's why ..

MONBIOT: But not on these critical issues that I'm asking you about.

MCGRATH: .. on how many people have and use an additional cooker. I think probably most people who are buying an Aga now, probably about half of them would have an inbuilt companion. I'm sure many people would have an additional cooker. But remember where the Aga comes from. Many people who've had an Aga for a very long time, very much linking back into the farming community as a working product, would, in many cases, not have another additional product. And if they do, maybe for the summer months, it would largely now come from the product we do incorporate, the companion. So, all we're saying is when you come back to the product, all the different things we've got on offer, what we're saying, as a British company that is employing, is, we think that we are right at the forefront of range cooking. Range cooking is a very legitimate and exciting way of doing things that has appealed to many people over many years. We have, within our Aga and with our Rangemaster business, we have about fifty people working in R and D. So we're working right at the forefront, in all the different technologies that are coming. We want to make sure that we can offer the best available products that incorporate all new technologies, as we can see it relevant to our customer base. All we're saying, that I think you're being possibly unfair in not recognising, is just what a good idea cast iron is as a cooker, and as a way of having a centrepiece to your home. And I come back to linking in with micro generation and other kinds of generation, bio fuels as well. We are there for all that debate. And simply to provide knocking copy seems a little unfair.

MONBIOT: Okay. Well let's talk about bio fuels. You raised this as another of the selling points that Agas can be converted to use liquid bio fuels.


MONBIOT: Are you aware that most liquid bio fuels produce more greenhouse gases than petroleum as well as contributing to global food shortages?

MCGRATH: I think – going back to the point I'm saying – we have been keen to look at all those different ways of doing things, including bio fuels. Of course we're aware that the development of that hasn't been easy, and given all these different pressures on the kind of bio fuels that come through, it is not commercially readily available. What we're saying is we have burner technology, that is available now which, when the market for bio fuels, in whatever form it takes, arises, will be compatible with that. Now does it, does x, y or z particular product prove to be appropriate, environmentally appropriate, we're not really in a position to say.


MCGRATH: We have a product which again is at that cutting edge and ready for that sort of development.

MONBIOT: Okay. So you're selling Agas as a green alternative on the grounds that they might or might not one day be compatible with micro generation which might or might not be economically viable ..


MONBIOT: That they might or might not one day be compatible with bio fuels which might or might not be the ethical way to go. There's a whole series of ifs and buts and possibilities here ..


MONBIOT: .. and you're using those to try to persuade us that your sales of Agas today which are an incredibly energy intensive, energy consuming product, are thereby validated.

MCGRATH: What I'm saying is that the Aga today is validated against current ways of running your home. And it's moved on a long way in recent years cos we've addressed these topics by a lot of investment, by the production of electricity into the total model mix. So yes, we think it's absolutely valid. It's what people see as an appropriate way of managing their home, having their busy family life. People do see it as the centrepiece, not only having great food but also lending itself to so much of the relevant themes of the day. Yes of course it's valid today and I don't see why you're so determinedly knocking a British company that has a valid product today, is employing lots of people, producing world leading products today and is absolutely joining in on the debate on where we should go next and how things could be made better in the future. You're dismissing it. That is really rather disappointing, that actually you cannot see that all the work we're doing in the different formats, linking in with all these different opportunities that are out there, predicated on the fact that actually we think that the cast iron cooker with radiating heat into the home is actually a cracking way of approaching things. And actually when you do look at the different energy sources that are out there yes you should be looking to see more of these products produced internationally by a world class British company. I enjoin you to say yes it's a positive for the British economy. It's a positive way forward, very much attuned to the overall green agenda. And I think you're somebody that we would like to see actually coming on board. Because we think we are the kind of company that people like yourself should be rooting for, not attacking.