Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How to become a Liberal Democrat MP

As it appears that there is quite a lot of interest, I thought that it would be helpful to explain how you can become a Liberal Democrat MP. Feel free to pass this on…
  1. Join the Party. It doesn’t cost much, and we do insist that you are a member before you can do anything else.
  2. Wait for a year, as we like to know that you are sincere before we allow you to be a candidate. In the meantime, get involved in campaigns in your area. Deliver leaflets, knock on doors, get an idea of what Liberal Democrats are like. If you have any particularly useful skills, like web design or leaflet layout, let your local campaigners know, they’ll be grateful to you.
  3. Apply for approval as a potential Liberal Democrat candidate. Details can be found on the Party’s website. There is a brief form to fill in – don’t worry, we don’t mark your answers, and the form isn’t scary. Remember, you don’t have to be a white man in a grey suit, some of our best candidates are anything but.
  4. Attend an assessment day. Once you’ve submitted an application form, you will be invited for assessment. We focus on applicable skills – can you deliver a speech, can you organise and lead a campaign team, are you resilient under pressure, can you make the case for Liberal Democrat policy?
  5. Once you've passed, apply for selection. Each constituency selects its candidate independently of the centre. They will establish they type of candidate they need, advertise that they are looking for a candidate, and anyone on the approved list van apply.
  6. Convince the members that it should be you. If you make it to the final shortlist, you will need to convince the local members to select you. There will be leaflets, you can visit members or telephone them, you can even use e-media.
  7. Convince the voters to support you. Congratulations, you are a candidate, officially representing the Liberal Democrats. If you are lucky enough to be the candidate in a seat where we have a chance of winning, you can expect to have a team of councillors, activists and deliverers to convey your message to the public. You will build relationships with the local newspapers, radio stations and regional television, you will attend training sessions, receive policy briefings, anything to make you a better candidate, anything that increases your chance of winning. You will persuade, cajole, inspire in equal measure until polling day and then, if you’re lucky and the voters are convinced…
  8. You will be elected as a Liberal Democrat MP. The work won’t stop though. You’ll have casework, meetings to attend, speeches to make, press releases to issue. You will have staff to help you with this, and you will have the pleasure of serving your community. Hopefully, you will make enough of a difference to justify your re-election.
Easy, really… But don’t worry, there be plenty of friendly people wanting to help you on your way…

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I was only twenty-four minutes from Rushden...

In the car and off across the country once again, this time to Northampton North.

The sun is shining and all is well, and before long we are in the East Midlands. Suddenly, realisation dawns. I am near Rushden, where Rushden and Diamonds are at home to my beloved Luton Town in the last regular fixture of the Blue Square Premiership. The result doesn't matter too much, in that both sides are guaranteed a play-off slot, but it might be nice to look in. Liberal Democrats or Luton Town... what to do?

But my loyalty to the Party kicks in, and besides, Ros is driving, so I'd be a bit stranded if I took in some football. And so both of us arrive in Northampton, where we are greeted by our candidate, Andrew Simpson. Ros is in work mode, and there is a journalist who wants to talk to her, so I drink tea and talk campaign stuff before we head off to do some canvassing.

One voter tells me that he has always voted Conservative in the past, but can't bring himself to vote for any of the three main parties this time. Immigration is his issue, and he'll probably vote UKIP or BNP. Usually, that would be a sign to beat a hasty exit, but he's very polite, so we talk a little more. I touch on our immigration policy, but he takes the view that whilst there are people without jobs here, we should stop inward migration. Indeed, he thinks that we should force the unemployed to take jobs, whether they fancy them or not. And yet, he thanks me for taking the trouble to call upon him, and says that he likes us, that we're a nice bunch, but he can't vote for us. I did try...

We reach the park, where Andrew and Ros will meet and talk to voters enjoying the sunshine, whilst other supporters hand out Liberal Democrat balloons. The kids playing in the park see their opportunity, and the balloons are soon heading off in different directions. Two of them, however, are taken by two young black guys, who don't look like the type to drag balloons with them. They wander off though, and we see them a little later, still holding their balloons, demonstrating that you should never presume anything. Any similarity to a David Cameron anecdote is unintended - my story is accurate!

We are then driven to an Indian restaurant for a snack and coffee with Northamptonshire Liberal Youth, who are the crack troops of the campaign, before retiring for a quiet evening. The next three days will be very busy, and we'll need our wits about us...

Thoughts from the Train: If the BNP want me to leave, where would they suggest that I go?

Funny really, I mused, on hearing that the BNP are quite relaxed about me staying in this country if they form a government - do I get my citizen's assault rifle? - given my non-standard ethnic origins. However, I presume that I fall into the category of 'people who would be offered incentives to go home'.

Ah yes, home. Home is a complex subject for me. You see, for me home is the family base in Mumbai, from whence the Valladares family spring. No matter where we are in the world, Auckland or Toronto, Boston or London, my generation have an invisible thread that ties us to Mahim. We don't get there very often, but it is the one place that brings us all together. But home is also Kingsbury, in North London, where (for the most part) I was raised and where my parents, who are so much a part of who and what I am, still live, thirty years on. When I visit them (not often enough, I fear), I think of it as going home, to a house that, despite its changes, still evokes memories. And finally, home is our cottage in Creeting St Peter where, possibly for the first time in my life, I have experienced a sense of community, of, ironically, heimat. I tidy the village noticeboard from time to time, I'm a Parish Councillor, I fret about litter, about how to clean a road sign.

So, if the BNP are to decide one day to turn up at my door, and suggest, no matter how politely, that I should accept their generous offer to incentivise me to go home, I'm afraid that they'll need to tell me where they think home is, because it isn't clear to me where that is. I suspect that they'll have a good idea where I should be though.

It is, I suppose, a question of definition. I think of myself as an Englishman, I like Elgar, cricket and real ale. And yet, I am proud of my Indian Catholic heritage, of the hint of Scots (my mother was born in northern Scotland). I like the fact that my surname confuses people - hispanic in origin, yet having no connection to a Spanish-speaking country. I am, for want of a better phrase, difficult to pigeonhole.

Perhaps that is why I take an interest in issues of equality. Looking at me, most people are clueless as to my background. I occasionally liken myself to Zelig, that famous Woody Allen character who could fit in anywhere. I like the idea that people should be treated on their merits, not on the basis of what they look or sound like.

I'm sure that if any member of the BNP reads this, they will have an answer, whether I like it or not. But then, I compicate their simplistic black and white view of the world...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tory smear campaign - might they live to regret it?

The Conservative strategy, in public at least, of insisting that only a strong government with a clear majority can solve our nation's problems is not unexpected. After all, any political party would prefer a free hand rather than having to compromise. However, in the event that the British people don't give them it, is there a Plan B?

The key elements in forming any coalition are; sufficient agreement on policy, trust in your partner and, if possible, a set of personal relationships that are modestly cordial. Ask any council group that has been part of a ruling coalition, and they'll tell you that, once the trust has gone in particular, a coalition is doomed.

So, the news that Team Cameron is actively attempting to co-ordinate a campaign to smear both Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats looks like an attempt either to force the latter into the arms of the Labour Party, allowing them to claim that only they can rid the country of Gordon Brown, or a very inept attempt to intimidate us into joining them to make the pain go away.

This seems to me to be a dreadful misinterpretation of the reality. Conservatives do seem to assume that, in the event of a hung Parliament, Liberal Democrats would prefer a deal with Labour. I find myself wondering whether the visceral hatred of us as espoused by the more right-wing zealots of the Tory blogosphere, has blinded them to the fact that, in a number of places, we are in coalition with them.

My experience is perhaps a useful illustration. When I returned to active politics after a lengthy period on the sidelines, I became Chair of my Local Party in Dulwich & West Norwood, a constituency that straddles the London Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. In Lambeth, we were in formal coalition with the Conservatives, working to retrieve the appalling financial mess that years of Labour incompetence had created. In Southwark, we had a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives, allowing a minority Liberal Democrat administration to significantly reduce Council Tax in real terms whilst protecting key services. Both arrangements worked well, and we were able to find large areas of agreement.

In 2006, we were unable to resist a Labour onslaught in Lambeth, but in Southwark, the change in the balance of the parties meant that we had to form a formal coalition with the Conservatives. As a Local Party Chair, my opinion was sought, and I voted for a coalition because it was a far better option than allowing Labour to undo the good work that had been done.

In 2007, I moved to Brent, where we are, you guessed it, in coalition with the Conservatives. Again, from all reports it works pretty well. There, years of wild swings between the hard left and fairly unpleasant right had created a desire for something more consensual, and bringing together 27 Liberal Democrats with 15 Conservatives worked.

It is clear that, under Nick Clegg's leadership, we won't be intimidated, so in the extremely unlikely event that Conservative Central Office think that a smear campaign will help them in any coalition discussions that might follow, it represents an epic fail. But by demonstrating that they can't be trusted, they may be making a formal coalition extremely difficult.

The Tory-supporting press aren't helping either, with their accusations of 'Nazi slurs' and personal abuse. If there were to be talks after an inconclusive election, presumably they would support any move to remove Labour from government. How would they reconcile their call for a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition with their evident contempt for a man who would hold a central role in any such arrangement?

I'm still firmly behind the policy of campaigning for as many Liberal Democrat MPs as possible, and then seeing what happens in the event that no party has a clear mandate. Perhaps, in the back of their minds, the Conservatives, and their media friends, need to bear that in mind.

Ben Brogan calls it scrutiny, I call it a disgrace...

Call me old fashioned, but I dimly recall that we have a democracy in this country. The idea is that political parties lay out a platform for government, it gets picked apart by the media, by opposition political parties, by members of the public. Then, the electorate go out to vote, and may the best party win. Easy, isn't it?

It does seem that there has been some interference here though. Ben Brogan describes yesterday's Telegraph front page as scrutiny. No Ben, scrutiny is when you receive information, test it out, ask some questions to verify it or not, then publish if there is something worth reporting. Making an outrageous accusation without checking the facts first is an attempt to distort and corrupt public opinion.

I could hear an appalling rumour about Ben Brogan, find five enemies of his who are happy to vouch for its accuracy and publish it on the basis that this is what people are saying. Strangely, that doesn't make it true, and it certainly doesn't make it acceptable.

However, the big story here is the allegation by Nick Robinson that Conservative HQ invited in, one by one, the Tory-backing press to feed them 'juicy titbits' about the leader of another political party...

I now learn that political reporters from the Tory-backing papers were called in one by one to discuss how Team Cameron would deal with "Cleggmania" and to be offered Tory HQ's favourite titbits about the Lib Dems - much of which appears in today's papers.

So, the Conservative smear machine goes into overdrive again, led by newspapers owned by people who love this country so much that they are tax resident elsewhere for the most part;
  • Daily Telegraph - owned by David and Frederick Barclay, Le Montaigne, 7 Avenue de Grande Bretagne (such a perfect irony!), 98000 Monaco;
  • The Sun - owned by News International, proprietor Rupert Murdoch, a naturalised citizen of the United States, and;
  • Daily Mail - the holding company of which is chaired by Viscount Rothermere, non-domiciled for tax purposes.
Now don't get me wrong, I have no objection to their tax status and have no reason to believe that they are evading their rightful tax liabilities in this country. However, one must wonder whether or not these people genuinely have this country's best interests at heart, or are just interested in doing whatever it takes to protect their own interests.

If the latter is the case, do Conservatives think that our democracy is better off as a result? More importantly, do we the people think that this is the case? As David Cameron himself said at the time of the Damian McBride scandal just twelve months ago;

"I do not know what Gordon Brown knew and when he knew it but what I do know is that he hired these people, he sets the culture, he is the leader and we need change in order to change the culture and stop this sort of nonsense."

That would be the sort of change that only affects other people, right David?...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An afternoon in the sun in Potter Heigham

My unexpected presence in the United Kingdom due to volcano-related travel disruption has allowed me to do a little more campaigning than had been originally planned, and so, yesterday afternoon, it was time to visit North Norfolk which, last time, saw Norman Lamb increase his majority from perilously small to really rather large.

Without much on the itinerary, we took the pretty route via the Reedham Ferry, pictured here, and stopped at the Ferry Inn for lunch. The ferry is a chain ferry and is the only crossing of the River Yare between Great Yarmouth and Norwich, so it potentially saves a lot of miles if you're travelling in the area.

Having been to Mundesley last year, and discovered how well liked Norman was then, I was expecting a fairly warm reception on the doorstep. Today, it was no different. The sun shone, as residents heard the magic words 'Norman Lamb' and smiled, told us that we could count on their support and, in many cases, were happy to take a poster for the window or a stakeboard for the garden.

I was extremely impressed by the number of those I spoke to who had written to Norman about some matter of concern or other and had been pleased by the response they had gotten - something that any aspirant politician could learn from. The team of canvassers, eight of us in total, made steady progress through the village, with Norman talking personally to as many people as he could.

It would be rash of me to suggest that Norman will get in easily, as that's for the voters to decide. However, Ladbrokes are suggesting that he's a 33/1 on favourite, so nobody will get rich backing him...

So, you've got some new, keen volunteers. What do you do with them?

Jennie has made the quite reasonable point that we shouldn't discourage new activists from working in their own area. So, perhaps I should respond...

There is no doubt that many of our activists prefer to work in their own patch. They have, after all, a direct interest in campaigning to make it a better place, to change their community. Any new volunteers will be the same, a bit more idealistic perhaps - I know that I was when I started, and I like to think that I remain so to some extent - so they'll want to change what's around them.

However, if the campaign around them is a bit lacklustre, or there is little chance of immediate change, an occasional visit to a more organised, more winnable campaign can inspire, encourage and educate newcomers in the ways that campaigns are run and won. Taking a carload to a target seat helps them to win and, when they do, the impact will be positive for the surrounding seats - "look, we won in constituency X, we can win here". It's also nice to have contributed to a win (hint - it's always nice to thank people who have helped, which is why we ask people to sign in at campaign HQ).

So, there is no demand that people go to target seats, more a courteous request for the good of the wider campaign. It encourages the spread of good practice, it builds confidence to campaign with people who are more experienced, and it puts a spring in the step.

For example, take 'Liberal Bureaucracy'. For years, I campaigned in hopeless seats, when I campaigned at all. Now, following Ros around, I visit a wide selection of seats, some good, some not so good. I do a lot of canvassing, like I did today in Potter Heigham, a village of about 800 souls in North Norfolk. Our MP there, Norman Lamb, is widely respected, having done a lot of casework, campaigned hard, built a team. As a result, our canvass was extremely positive, with superb name recognition, lots of people willing to take posters or stakeboards.

All in all, it was a great day, and I feel energised for the campaign ahead. North Norfolk benefit from my effort and, when I'm on the next campaign visit, I'll be in a good mood to meet voters there and tell them why I think they should vote Liberal Democrat.

So, Jennie, encourage your volunteers, channel their enthusiasm by all means. But think about the future too. We're a family, and visiting your relatives from time to time isn't such a bad idea...

What a difference a week makes... something is happening in Norwich South...

When this election campaign started, Norwich South was considered to be a challenging contest. With a popular enough, rather rebellious MP in Charles Clarke, an ambitious Green campaign (their second target seat nationally) and a significant, if not decisive, residual Conservative vote, this falls into the category of potential four-way marginal, with the big question, can anyone gain credence as the best placed candidate to defeat Labour?

Simon Wright, our candidate, has been working incredibly hard for some time now, having been selected early in the election cycle, and has been the focus of a serious campaign effort. However, the poll released indicating that support was split in the ratio 2:1:1:1 (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green) was a bit of a blow, regardless of whether or not it reflected reality.

That poll, commissioned by, of all people, the University of East Anglia Students Union (who paid for that, ladies and gentlemen?), was condemned by the Greens, who clearly thought that it understated their support. It may well have been inaccurate, but we'll never know.

Since then of course, there's been the much-reported surge in Liberal Democrat support. And so it was with much curiosity that I turned up in New Costessey (leave out the 'ste' if you're trying to pronounce it) to do some canvassing with Simon. New Costessey is thought of as being a good area of support for Liberal Democrats, but I was pleasantly surprised by the response, with people stopping us in the street to ask for a poster or to declare support.

So, all bets are off in Norwich South, and Charles Clarke can feel the breathe of the Liberal Democrats on his neck. If you're in the area, and can lend a hand for a few hours, get in touch - they'll be glad to see you. Here's an invitation for you to watch...

Of course, David, there is another way of getting a strong government...

Yet again, the astonishing arrogance of our Conservative friends astounds me, as first David Cameron, and then Ken Clarke, try to terrify the British people into voting for Nurse.

First, Dave. Dave would like voters to believe that Britain needs a strong government. No, what Britain needs is good government - and he isn't offering that, just more of the same, the only big difference being that the guys in the ministerial limousines will be wearing blue ties and not red ones. Of course, if one party dominance is required, people could always opt to vote Liberal Democrat and, if enough people do so, Team Yellow get to form a government. If, for example, the result was Liberal Democrats 40%, Conservatives 28%, Labour 24%, there would be a Liberal Democrat administration (just).

Alright, it perhaps isn't very likely. Then again, there weren't a lot of people betting on Liberal Democrats reaching 30% in the polls two weeks ago. But it could happen, just as a whole range of other outcomes might. So, Dave is pretty silly to make the claims he does. Indeed, by seeming so determined to insult Liberal Democrats and to ridicule our platform, one might suggest that he isn't interested in a coalition if circumstances demanded it.

Ken Clarke, on the other hand, appears to have lost the plot altogether. The notion that the mere existence of a hung Parliament would lead to a hasty visit from the International Monetary Fund indicates that he's given up on the apparently fine products of British American Tobacco, and started smoking something rather more redolent of marigolds.

The IMF steps in if your economy is in trouble, Mr Clarke, not because you have an election result that doesn't result in a majority for one political party or another. This is quite a good thing, as I suspect that the IMF might be loathe to rush to Germany or the Netherlands after every election. A stable government, acting in an economically sensible way, will only attract the IMF's attention if something beyond its control goes wrong.

What you're implying, Ken, is that you would oppose a Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition on the grounds that it would be bad for the country's economy. You may be right, if George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer...

An excuse to celebrate our wedding anniversary in the proper style?

It is slightly amazing to realise that Ros and I are two today. Yes, it's our wedding anniversary and, as I understand it, the appropriate gift is paper. Luckily, there's a lot of paper around at the moment, so I might give my wife a Focus leaflet to mark the occasion...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Immigration - what will the Conservatives actually do about it?

This is what the Conservatives have to say on the subject...

Britain can benefit from immigration, but not uncontrolled immigration. Look at any aspect of life today and you will see the contribution that migrants have brought, and not just to the economy. We want to continue to attract the brightest and the best people to the UK, but with control on the overall numbers coming here.

A Conservative government will reduce net immigration to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, instead of the hundreds of thousands a year under Labour.

Our immigration policy is based on four strands:

We will introduce an annual limit on the numbers of non-EU economic migrants allowed to work here, taking into consideration the effects a rising population has on our public services and local communities. The limit would change each year to take into account the wider effects of immigration on society;

70% of those migrating to this country come from the European Union, so this proposal will do absolutely nothing to stop them.

We will work to prevent illegal migration with a dedicated Border Police Force to crack down on illegal immigration and people trafficking;

A policy shared with the Liberal Democrats...

We will introduce important new rules to tighten up the student visa system, which at the moment is the biggest hole in our border controls; and

risk further damage to our university sector, which now so relies on income from foreign students...

We will promote integration into British society. There will be an English language test for anyone coming here to get married.

Regardless of where they come from? Can you impose that on those from other EU member nations? Of course you can't?

A Conservative government would also apply transitional controls as a matter of course for all future EU entrants.

What is most interesting is what the Conservatives don't talk about in their manifesto. Whilst they have been highly critical about our proposal to allow those who have been here for ten years or more to potentially earn citizenship if they have no criminal record, speak English and want to live here long-term, there are no comments at all in the manifesto to suggest what the Conservatives would do instead to deal with the unknown number of such people in this country.

Efforts to find them and deport them have proved notably unsuccessful, so they lurk in the black economy, not paying tax, earning below minimum wage in many cases because they are hugely vulnerable to exploitation by the unscrupulous. Bringing them into the regular economy would increase the tax take, make little impact on the job market, because most of them are doing something to keep body and soul together, and reduce crime.

So, if offering them a route to citizenship is such a soft option, what is the Conservative proposal for dealing with the issue?

Keep calm and carry on!

It's been a little chaotic on Planet Bureaucrat over the past few days, what with arranging and rearranging flights to Cyprus for a wedding - don't ask, just don't... However, I do find myself fretting slightly about the opinion polls.

The problem with them is that they have tremendous allure, allure sufficient to distract us from our gameplan, i.e. the existing targeting strategy. Yes, if things stay where they are, we might win some unexpected victories, but they are most likely to be based on places where we have established campaigns, and where a national swing can overcome a weak or lazy defence.

However, if we retreat, we risk a rerun of 1983, where we come second in lots of seats, and don't win anywhere near as many as we might have done because the target seats are abandoned as being 'in the bag'.

So, please, find time for your nearest target seat if you can. And if you've got more time to help, then go somewhere where you can really make a difference...

More adventures in fantasy policy from the Tories

The Conservative blogosphere is awash with assertions that Liberal Democrat policy is as riddled with holes as a Swiss cheese, anything to reassure them that the unexpected surge in our support will go away if they wish it long enough. Perhaps they ought to read their manifesto first...

We have said we need to freeze public sector pay (as Labour have said also) to help reduce the huge budget deficit that is threatening our recovery. We also need to cap public sector pensions at £50,000 a year. We all have to pull together to bring the deficit down.

But we have also been clear that the pay freeze will not apply to lower earners: we will not freeze the salaries of the million public sector workers earning less than £18,000. The pay freeze for higher grades will produce savings equivalent to the cost of 100,000 jobs.

Alright, for most public sector workers, the pension bit won't effect us. However, for those of us earning over £18,000, with the consumer price index up 3% in February, the price freeze will hurt. And, interestingly, the proposal isn't mentioned in the Executive Summary, buried instead on page 12, at the end of a section headed 'Deliver Fairer Pay'.

They do say that they will stop the rise in National Insurance Contributions, saving me £150 per year, but a pay freeze will leave me about £900 per year worse off in real terms. However, they are promising to offer an incentive to work harder and better, saying that management will be able to pay me more for that good performance. But what with? If that means providing more money to pay for those incentives, and they've already promised £6 billion in efficiency savings to pay for that freezing of National Insurance Contributions, where does it come from? Perhaps they could make more efficiency savings to pay for it...  

So, here's a question or two for any Conservatives watching;
  1. How much money will be dedicated towards rewarding performance in the public sector? Do you think that this would provide you with sufficient incentive?
  2. Is that money part of the £6 billion in efficiency savings planned and, if not, where will if come from?
  3. What will be the cost to Government of obliging civil servants to do 'civic service' in the community, and employing staff to make it possible?
Moving right along, a pay freeze reduces the long-term value of my pension, which helps the Government but makes me more likely to be reliant on Government support as I get to retirement age, so it's a mixed blessing in the long term.

Oh and yes, my pension. It's apparently expensive to pay for my pension, a pension I am entitled to receive at the age of 60, thanks to the Thatcher government of the late-1980's. Yes, it was they who reduced the Civil Service retirement age to 60 from 65 in a desperate attempt to reduce staff numbers, exposing future administrations to an extra five years of pension payments.

Sadly, if the Conservatives think that such a package is going to attract civil servants, they've got another thing coming...

HM Revenue & Customs as a co-operative? A radically stupid idea from the Conservatives...

A Conservative government will establish a Public Sector Co-op Service, which will have a full-time staff with the resources and expertise needed to provide guidance to every public sector body about becoming a co-op.

This is a direct quote from 'An Invitation to Public Sector Workers', the Conservative Public Sector manifesto, which they published on Saturday. No, really, I kid you not.

I find myself wondering if this has been terribly well thought through. You see, as a junior tax official, I work for an organisation that raises money, albeit not that much these days, but nevertheless, you get my drift.

Co-operatives will be contracted by government to deliver services, and as long as they meet agreed national standards, they will be completely free from government control. They can decide on management structures, service delivery, and can reinvest any financial surpluses they make as a result of making improvements and efficiencies into the service or share them with staff;

Hmmm... does this mean that if my team raises more money than it is targeted to, we can share the excess as a staff bonus? Or does it simply means that if we cut costs, the balance of our assigned running costs for the years can be distributed, thus wiping out your efficiency savings.

Now I am particularly keen on the former. After all, it would offer me a genuine incentive to carry out more compliance work, launch more investigations, ask more questions, all in the hope of unearthing tax evasion, increasing our profit and thus increasing my income. Of course, this would add to the compliance burden on small and medium sized enterprises, but why would I care under such circumstances?

And all the evidence is that there is an enormous tax gap that might be filled by a newly enthused HMRC. How popular would any government be with the business sector if there was a rather more active campaign to raise revenue and scrutinise books and records? 

Of course, it is possible that they don't intend us to be included, in which case they've mislead 70,000 voters, but given that David Cameron has told the Chinese Government that we need Trident to point it at them, how could offending a few tens of thousands of civil servants between friends do any more harm?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Envelope stuffing - a reprise in Newport East

Apparently, there are those in Newport East who are surprised by the volume of leaflets emanating from the Liberal Democrats. They will no doubt be interested to hear that there will be more to come. Some of that will come in the form of letters, a few hundred of which were stuffed by me on Monday morning. Yes, there was more clerical work to be done, as Ros's efforts to rally the troops moved on to Gwent.

We were met by Mike German, former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Welsh Assembly, and now focusing his vast experience on helping to get Ed Townsend elected. With Veronica running the office, and the full support of our councillors, all the stops have been pulled out.

Again, the tea was excellent, and the venison pie, strongly recommended by Mike, was extremely welcome. Ros spoke, and fielded questions on the national picture, whilst I quietly got on with my work...

Filling the tax gap and attacking evasion/avoidance - not as difficult as it sounds

There have been suggestions that finding £5 billion from more effective compliance measures is a 'pie in the sky' figure. So here's another organisation who claim that it can be done. Here's what they have to say...

Our objective is to reduce tax losses by an additional £4 billion in 2010-11 and tax credit losses by £1 billion by 31 March 2011.

What we are going to do.

1. Improve support for those who are willing and able to pay the tax due and claim what they are entitled to

2. Improve support for those who are willing but need help

3. Improve prevention of fraud

4. Improve our relationship-managed service for our largest customers

5. Tackle deliberate non-compliance

6. Improve our approach to dealing with avoidance cases

7. Improve our management of debt while helping those in temporary difficulties

You might be getting the idea of where this is leading to. Yes, it's a direct quote from the 2010-11 Business Plan of HM Revenue and Customs, a quite fascinating document for those of a bureaucratic disposition.

And who set that target? Might it be the Government, the Labour Government? Gosh, I think that it might be...

Where a clerical team is fuelled by Bara Brith

It would be fair to say that,as a bureaucrat, my natural environment is a clerical one. Envelope stuffing, leaflet batching, these are the tasks that this bureaucrat was designed to carry out.

And so I was pleased to discover on arrival at the headquarters of the Cardiff Liberal Democrat campaign, that there was clerical work to be done. I was reunited with my jacket, wallet, Oyster card and the Party mini camcorder in a touching ceremony, before throwing myself into a flurry of envelope stuffing on behalf of Dominic Hannigan, our candidate for Cardiff South and Penarth. There was plenty of banter and good humour as the pile of envelopes shrank, fuelled by some excellent tea and Bara Brith.

Campaigns require candidates, agents, canvassers and leaflet deliverers, the public face of a political party, if you like. However, there are some even more unsung characters, those who do the clerical work. They're often older members, who have experienced the vagaries of politics over decades, but who are less able to get about.

It helps if the tea is good, and I have to say that the two Jenny's, Willott MP and Randerson AM, make very good tea. It seems like a very long time since Jenny W was approved as a Parliamentary candidate (I was on that panel), but she's clearly aging better than I am. It was nice to meet Jenny R again. We got to know each other on last year's Liberal Democrat Friends of India delegation, and she's always good company.

Sadly, it was soon time to leave Cardiff, and head for the last stop of the weekend's tour, Newport...

Multitasking in Hereford...

The advantage of visiting a campaign is that, at a pinch, you can fulfil just about any role for a little while and, on arrival in Hereford, it turned out that there was a bit of leafletting to be done. Now whilst I may not be the fastest across the ground, I'm persistent, and so I was happy to get out into the afternoon sun and do a little to help Sarah Carr defend Hereford and South Herefordshire for the ravening hordes of Conservatives.

I was accompanied by Steph, whose husband, Chris, is a fellow member of the East of England Regional Executive. We're both old hands in campaigning terms, so we were able to get the job done with minimum fuss. I delivered one leaflet and, just as I was walking away, a man came out with the leaflet screwed up, telling me that he didn't want anything to do with the Tories. I pointed out quite politely that I wasn't an evil f**king Tory (his words, not mine), but a Liberal Democrat, which seemed to meet with approval. So much so indeed that he accepted a replacement leaflet (I had a spare).

Otherwise, it was a fairly easy delivery, and we were finished in time to get to the evening's focal point, the adoption meeting. With speeches from Paul Keetch, our outgoing MP, Ros and Chris Green, our former candidate on a number of occasions and now President of the Local Party, Sarah was in good company. And, as it turned out, good heart too, as she gave a powerful speech, rallying the troops for the campaign ahead. There was beer from the Wye Valley Brewery, which I thought I had earned, and so I stood at the back, pint in hand.

My journeying wasn't over though, as I needed to do something about the missing jacket...

Was that just a hint of cowardice, Mr Mounsey?

It appears that, on occasion, there are risks in treating people in a vile manner. Yesterday, the leader of the Libertarian Party and angry blogger, Chris Mounsey aka Devil's Kitchen, met with a terrible fate, when his past unpleasantness caught up with him. In a brief interview with Andrew Neil, he was admittedly ambushed with a quote from one of his more angry postings, in which he expressed the wish that a union leader he disagrees with should "bleed to death".

As someone who believes for the most part in playing the ball rather than the man, you might reasonably expect me to disapprove of young Mr Mounsey. Indeed, I do disapprove of his style. However, as long as he doesn't break the law, he should be free to express himself as he wishes, a basic tenet of libertarianism, I should have thought.

However, what surprised me was that, as a supposedly stout defender of freedom, when challenged, he caved in and accepted that he should apologise to the union leader concerned (and did), and with equal alacrity accepted that his behaviour was unacceptable in a Parliamentary candidate - even though he isn't one.

It seems that treating your fellow humans in a vile way is easy if done in a quasi-anonymous fashion, but as soon as he was called on it where everyone knew that it was him, he squirmed in a rather craven manner. Indeed, subsequently, he has decided that his job is rather more important than his integrity.

Fair enough. He enjoys his job, and he'd quite like to keep it. However, he has made a series of extremely provocative statements over time, and seems unwilling to defend them. If they are wrong now, they were wrong then, and he should buy a few reams of paper and a couple of hundred stamps for the letters of apology. If they were right then, they are right now, and he should have stood by them.

Perhaps he has learnt a valuable lesson though, that with certain types of behaviours come consequences. And if you can't handle those consequences, perhaps you should stay out of the kitchen?...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What's the difference between David Cameron and this?

It appears that David Cameron doesn't fancy having to deal with any difficult questions, and is giving Jeremy Paxman the swerve.

Given that I thought that Nick did really well despite Paxman being his usual sneering self, one might almost get the impression that DC didn't think that he could do as well. Actually, now I think about it, he probably couldn't...


Big Bird is usually only too happy to answer questions though... and he's certainly more credible... and he isn't a chicken...

Across Offa's Dyke again...

Sunday morning was another of those rather lovely spring days when the idea of being outside seems pretty attractive, so I was pleased to be off to Malvern to do a spot of canvassing.

West Worcestershire is a seat where we've been knocking on the door for a while now, and Richard Burt was in confident mood when we arrived. Stopping only to grab a cup of tea, we were off, accompanied by one of our most recent recruits, Edward Macmillan-Scott, an MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, who left the Conservative Party last year. The only catch with having good weather is that everyone else wants to be out too, but we did meet some supporters and it was certainly a worthwhile exercise.

I took the opportunity to talk to Edward about the way in which his former Party selected its European candidates - there was considerable disquiet amongst Conservative activists last time - and he was very interesting on the subject.

But all too soon, it was time to head off again...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Adopting Roger Williams - such a good idea, they did it twice!

In some parts of the country, there is a tradition of holding formal adoption meetings. It doesn't happen everywhere, but it offers the opportunity to press release the launch of the campaign, but also to rally the troops. In Brecon and Radnorshire, with two old Welsh counties within its boundaries, there is a natural, if friendly, rivalry, so this year, the Local Party decided to have two, one in Brecon for Brecknockshire, and one in Llandrindod Wells for Radnorshire.

This meant retracing our steps somewhat, and we made our way to the Castle Hotel in Brecon for the first instalment of 'Roger Williams, our Local Voice'. I bounced out of the car and reached for my jacket... which wasn't there... There was a dawning memory of putting it on the back of a chair in Merthyr, and an equivalent realisation that I was,kt going to get back to collect it, my wallet or the mini camcorder leant to me by the Party. Not good... However, I rang Kevin who, coincidentally, was heading down to Cardiff to stuff some envelopes. He was kind enough to agree to convey my things to the Cardiff campaign HQ for later recovery...

It is a sign of the respect earned by Roger that his adoption meeting was hosted by Kirsty Williams and addressed by the Party President, both of whom spoke with passion about Roger's qualities and of how dreadful it would be to lose the seat, and the election, to the Conservatives. Kirsty, who lives in, and represents the constituency, spoke of how she didn't want to wake up on 7 May having a Conservative MP to represent her.

The adoption itself was proposed by Richard Livsey, the much-loved and hugely respected former MP for the constituency, and now Lord Livsey of Talgarth. I have a very high regard for Richard, and took the opportunity to compliment him for his speech in the Lords on the pig industry.

Roger spoke of the 1909 meeting at the Albert Hall in Llandrindod Wells, where 1200 people crammed in to debate the 'People's Budget', the largest meeting of its type anywhere in the country, with 200 more unable to gain entrance. Conservatives and Liberals battled to win the day for their side, and a song was published in the local newspaper, proclaiming the virtues of the proposals. Yes, Liberals, and in particular, Lloyd George, were campaigning for fairer taxes even then...

Onwards to Llandrindod Wells, where a repeat performance was given in the old Spa Rooms, before we adjourned for an excellent dinner at the Hotel Metropole. Ros was worth it...

A Merthyr mystery adventure in the Valleys

Lembit sent us on our way with a gift, a faggot each. "Don't look at them, just eat them, they taste much better than they look!", he advised. We certainly needed the sustenance for the next leg of the journey.

Anyone who knows mid-Wales will be familiar with two roads, the A470 and the A483, which link North Wales with Cardiff and Swansea respectively. They wind their way around the hills, occasionally joining together, passing through some incredibly pretty scenery. Quick, they aren't, but they have their compensations.

Through Llandrindod Wells and Builth Wells we passed, and onwards to Brecon, where we stopped for a quick bite of lunch. As we drove away, back the way we had come, I noticed three LibDem stakeboards, encouraging me to vote for Roger Williams. "They weren't there half an hour ago, were they?", I mused. "No,", replied Ros, "but there's a fourth in the hedge!". Yes, the Brecon and Radnorshire LibDem stakeboard team were hard at work...

We arrived in Merthyr Tydfil on time, and met Amy and Kevin. Amy Kitcher is our gallant candidate in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, the public face of a campaign organised by Kevin, her husband. The team is small but enthusiastic, and they are determinedly taking the fight to Labour in one of its most traditional strongholds. If places like Montgomeryshire and Ceredigion are places where liberalism has been strongest, Merthyr is a contender for similar status for Labour. The difference is that Labour take places like this for granted, barely bothering to campaign.

On the doorstep, I found the reception to be polite, and in some cases even warm. There is much grumbling about the uselessness of the sitting MP, and a sense of pleasant surprise that someone cares enough to knock on their door. Amy is great on the doorstep, and a number of people took posters to display.

Returning to the campaign HQ, there was a crisis. The supply of teabags had run out, so I volunteered to make good the shortage, hung my jacket over the back of the chair, and enjoyed a nice cup of tea. All too soon though, it was time to go. Our next event was only and hour or so away...

Lembit and Ros go for a gentle stroll in Newtown

The sun shone, and in the fields, lambs frolicked, as we made our way back into Montgomeryshire. Indeed, for miles and miles, there was little else to be seen but green grass, rolling hills and a vast number of white, fuzzy bundles of generalised cuteness/potentially great meals (delete as appropriate). However, having driven for twenty-seven miles, the car reached Newtown, and it was time to experience campaigning Lembit Opik-style.

The plan was that there would be some canvassing, but it became apparent that, in order to get to the chosen location, we would have to walk through the centre of town. This was made somewhat more of a challenge by the fact that everybody appears to know Lembit. Indeed, so much so that car drivers stop and wave, little old ladies smile at him, and there is always someone who wants to chat.

It feels like a throwback to old-fashioned political campaigns, where the MP doesn't campaign, but simply does his or her job and, in doing so, secures the support of the electors. It is high profile, high energy and tremendously entertaining. Lembit will suddenly dart into a shop to talk to the manager, or buy something, or press a sticker onto the doll of a small child, making the idea of steering him in a particular direction an impossibility. Indeed, if you're not careful, he can disappear, which means that you have to go back and gently extricate him from whoever it is he's talking to.

I don't think that I have ever seen someone enjoy their campaigning as much as Lembit appears to. Everywhere we went, Lembit introduced Ros, explaining who she was with some pride, and the two of them talked to people going about their business, finding out what was worrying them, not reciting policy but just listening sympathetically and responding with ideas.

At one point, our party descended on the local branch of Corals, in an attempt to find out what odds you can get on Lembit retaining his seat and, whilst we were in there, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to place a bet on the Grand National. I'll draw a veil over the performances of Dream Alliance and Character Building but, if you're interested in making some easy money, Lembit is 11/4 on to retain Montgomeryshire.

And let me tell you, those look like very generous odds...

In which I discover that spelling Aberystwyth is far less difficult than one might think...

Until Friday, I had been to Aberystwyth only twice, once on a family holiday more than thirty years ago, once to report back on the Welsh Young Social Democrat merger ballot. Neither occasion had been entirely successful. And so, it was with a little trepidation that I accompanied Ros to the jewel of the Cambrian Coast for the first stop of our second tour.

The train journey to Wolverhampton passed uneventfully, the hire car collected and we were off. Leaving Shrewsbury, we soon crossed the border into Montgomeryshire, bypassing Welshpool and heading off into the hills of Powys. The road passed through fields filled with young lambs and, as the miles passed, it became apparent just how big Montgomeryshire really is, and just how sparsely populated.

All of a sudden, we were in Ceredigion though, and the roadside was festooned with green and gold stakeboards, green for Plaid Cymru. gold for Mark Williams. And there really are a lot of them, as the seat's status as the only Plaid/LibDem marginal implies. Plaid really want the seat back, having lost by just 219 votes last time, but Mark is doing what he can to keep it in the LibDem column.


Having been greeted by Mark, his family and a group of local activists, we were whisked off to do some canvassing. Finding such low levels of Conservative or Labour support is unusual and it was reassuring that supporters from 2005 appear to have remained loyal. One resident told me that he had voted for Roderic Bowen, and for Geraint Howells, and that I could be confident that Mark could count on his vote. For this is a place where liberalism is a philosophy with deep roots. Non-conformist, independent people, who need to be persuaded one at a time, and who have a strong sense of community that, as a long-time city dweller, I have had to live without.

The bookies will tell you that this one is going to be close, and they may well be proved right. But if Mark loses, and I dearly hope that he doesn't, he will have done everything possible. And Aberystwyth on a sunny afternoon is really quite beguiling...

I've been away - time to catch up...

It's been pretty busy over the past four days, so forgive me if I take a little while to catch up. I hope that you think it's worth the wait...

Friday, April 09, 2010

Public sector efficiency savings - is there no-one in the Conservative Party paying attention?

Listening to David Cameron this morning on the Today Programme, it suddenly dawned on me why he keeps George Osborne as his Shadow Chancellor. It's because he knows less about finance than even George does. His bumbling efforts to justify how he was going to find £6 billion made the back of the envelope job that George uses to justify the NIC non-rise (it isn't a cut, might I make it clear) look like an IMF report.

So, for the benefit of Conservatives everywhere, and for any journalists keen to actually probe Conservative fiscal policy, here are a few points to be borne in mind;
  1. Most of the Civil Service is now covered by multi-year pay deals. Most of them aren't exactly generous, with some Departments already having a pay freeze in place.
  2. Most of the paybill increases go towards those junior staff whose salaries are further down the pay scale, i.e. they're being paid less than their colleagues for doing the same job.
  3. Many departments have severely curtailed recruitment in recent years, for example, HM Revenue & Customs is in the middle of cutting 25,000 jobs over six years whilst avoiding compulsory redundancies - until now, that is.
  4. If you lose staff through natural wastage, they may very well not be the people you want to lose - after all, it's the ambitious and the more highly-skilled who attract most offers of alternative employment.
  5. Rates of natural wastage are lowest during a recession and in the period shortly thereafter - government jobs are seen as more secure.
  6. Any alteration to NIC rates would impact upon a whole year's income, whereas the impact of natural wastage disproportionately falls in the later part of the fiscal year.
But I come back to a point that I've made in the past, the most effective way to deal with the size of government is to decide what you want it to do, then staff it accordingly. Making changes on the hoof stretches out the inefficiencies caused by process changes, demoralises staff - making them less efficient and less motivated - and tends to create waste as the level of monitoring increases to justify the changes made.

There is another point too. The Conservatives have made it clear that they will protect some areas of government activity at the expense of others. What that means is that they will have to recruit new staff in some areas, or transfer staff from one Department to another. The former is a breach of their declared policy, the latter is expensive, with excess fares, grants for house moves, and all the rest of it.

Significant savings are to be found from the Government estates, by transferring them to the private sector, from retrenchment. Interestingly, the fact that there might be leasehold agreements appears to have been overlooked. And given that this was the week in which the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published its report into the impact of the transfer of the Inland Revenue estate to Mapeley, an off-shore tax avoidance device (was that embarassing or what?). What that demonstrated was that public sector organisations aren't great at managing such contracts, and that ability isn't going to develop overnight.

All in all, the notion that there are efficiency savings to be had isn't a nonsensical one. The problem is, in the rush for 'quick wins', much that will be done will be negative in the medium and long term. Over an economic cycle, the rewards for getting it right are potentially huge. In the short term, that might mean upfront investment, and there are no signs that the Conservatives understand that...

Rail franchises - good, indifferent and...

Ros has brought home something shiny yesterday and I was duly mesmerised. It has trains, statistics and another opportunity to moan about my local Train Operating Company. What more could an irritable bureaucrat ask for then but a copy of the Autumn 2009 National Passenger Survey, produced by Passenger Focus?

I have been quite harsh in my criticism of National Express East Anglia over the past year, but had I been unrealistic in my expectations? It appears not.

In every category relating to train facilities, satisfaction ratings for NXEA passengers is below average except one, 'how well train company deals with delays', where they are average. Punctuality, cleanliness, value for money, toilet facilities, in every other category, they perform badly compared to other franchises. In other words, you can expect a worse experience on NXEA than you can with virtually any other franchise.

The only consolation is that First Capital Connect are even worse...

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Former tax exile supports Tories, having already threatened to leave the country over tax

To be honest, I've always had my doubts about celebrity endorsements, especially given the possibility that even the most seemingly squeaky clean ones have something in their background that may return to haunt them. And today's launch of Conservative proposals for a 'National Citizens Service' had one of those touches that indicates why one should be wary.

Sir Michael Caine was called upon to wax lyrical about the plans. Nice. On the other hand, having been a tax exile for the best part of two decades, I might need to be convinced that his interests are those of the country at large. Indeed, the fact that he publicly announced last year that, if tax rates increased further, he'd be leaving the country, might indicate that far from "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country", Conservatives are supported by those whose allegiance is to the country with the lowest tax rates.

I'm assuming that his call for a second chance for the Government won't be appearing on a poster near you anytime soon...

House of Lords debates you might have missed - Agriculture: British Pig Industry

There is a delicious irony that the last question for short debate in the Lords before the General Election was related to all things porcine. Lord Palmer was keen to debate the difficulties faced by the British pig industry, a subject dear to my own heart, as I live in a county with significant numbers of pig farms, a number of which can be seen from the A14, where pigs roam free, wallowing in the mud, before becoming pork (I'm rather fond of pork).

Lord Palmer, who had called for the debate, noted that 70% of the pigmeat imported into this country would be illegal if it had been produced here, and that only 29% of bacon consumed here is produced in the United Kingdom.

For the Liberal Democrats, Lord Livsey of Talgarth, our former MP for Brecon & Radnor, spoke of his experiences managing a farm in Perthshire where there were 70 sows producing 600 bacon pigs. His concerns were linked to the behaviour of supermarket chains, who have 80% of the retail market, and he called upon the Government to fully install the supermarket retail ombudsman.

Apparently, whilst all of this was going on, someone was seeking the dissolution of Parliament and launching an election campaign. Given that members of the House of Lords don't get a vote anyway, there are undoubtedly those who hadn't noticed...

Health: Labour promise more targets, more verbosity

It seems unfair that I should point out some of the weaknesses and contradictions in Conservative health policy, and leave the red team out. So, I've had a look at the Labour website to see what they've got in store for us...

A lot of platitudes, is the first thing that hits me;

We will ensure that the NHS is always clinically driven, patient centred and responsive to local communities, and based on need not ability to pay.

I do find myself wondering whether any political party would call for an NHS which was anything but clinically driven, etc, etc. However, there are signs that their control freakery has by no means reached its limits.

we are turning waiting time targets into legally enforceable guarantees for all patients: a maximum two-week guarantee on cancer referrals, and a maximum 18-week guarantee for hospital treatment, as well as rights to free health checks and to evening and weekend access to GPs

Legally enforceable? Does that mean that, if I don't get my cancer referral in two weeks, I can go to court to get it? Given that such legal action could take years to go through the courts, what is the point? And who pays? If a healthcare provider fails due to the ill health of a consultant, what happens?

There is an impressive list of achievements at the end of the statement, you know the type, tractor production up 37.2%, that sort of thing. However, there has been a cost. In fiscal year 1997, the United Kingdom Government spent £41.6 billion on health care. By fiscal year 2010, spending is expected to be £118.7 billion. I make that about twice as much in real terms (if someone would like to check that, I'd be grateful, but it looks about right).

For that kind of investment, I'd expect a hell of a lot of improvement, but most voters are unlikely to sense that they've got it.

We can safely assume that the centralising, target-setting trend will continue:

We will give hospitals incentives to focus on quality as well as quantity through the introduction of powerful financial incentives which will link payment to quality, including patient satisfaction.

I do worry about the notion of allocating funds based on patient satisfaction, but incentives that require vast amounts of data gathering will merely cause more bureaucracy, contrary to the search for efficiency savings. Let us be blunt here, the public don't like bureaucrats, don't believe most of the statistics that come from government, and those that do don't for the most part, refer to them when making health care decisions.

What is missing is a big idea, and this looks very much like 'one more push'. It's harmless, and aspirational. I just don't think that it's affordable...

Twitter: I may be making an awful mistake here...

Never let it be said that, here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy', we shy away from technology and the new means of social intercourse. Not that we understand it, mind you, but one must apparently face the future of wireless telephony and little gadgets that allow you to play 'Word Mole' on the subterranean railway.

Accordingly, a new Twitter account has been opened - no, don't understand that either - and I give you...

@honladymark

We'll see how it goes...

An alternative campaign song for the next four weeks?

I don't know about you, but I quite like the Liberal Democrat campaign song written for this election. On the other hand, this Sheryl Crow song keeps coming into my head...

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

And on this basis, our great nation is governed...

Earlier this afternoon in the House of Lords...

The Earl of OnslowAs I have conceded several times in your Lordships’ House, I am the first to say that the reason I am allowed to boss you about is because one of my forebears got drunk with Pitt or Walpole—a form of “Thank you very much for that last bottle of port”—but that is not acceptable in a modern state.

Call me old-fashioned, but I find this curiously reassuring...

Meanwhile, back in the Lords - "It's time for a futile sacrifice, ladies and gentlemen"

Ah yes, the joys of a wash-up which has been stitched up by the Labservatives in advance. Today sees four bills go through the committee, report and third hearing stages, driven through the Lords one after the other by an unholy alliance of Labour and Conservative benches;

  • the Crime and Security Bill
  • the Energy Bill
  • the Children, Schools and Families Bill, and;
  • the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill
In the enabling debate that allowed this abortion of a democratic manoeuvre to go ahead, Paul Tyler moved an amendment to the enabling motion suspending Standing Orders. There was a debate, and the Liberal Democrats supported it in numbers, only to lose by a 4:1 margin to the forces of darkness.

It is expected that this will be the story of the evening, but 'Liberal Bureaucracy' will report further as the Liberal Democrat Peers launch a series of futile missions over the top into no man's land, only to be gunned down by the enemy...

Conservative health policy - can you spot the contradictions?


The recent announcement by the Conservatives that they will provide cutting edge cancer drugs to those that need them is, as usual, pretty good politics. Yet it is another spending commitment which indicates that, whilst flashy rhetoric is a strong point, financial management and an understanding of basic bureaucracy is still sadly lacking. I was, however, moved to see what else the Conservatives have to say on health...

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThere are some apparent contradictions between their stance on devolved decision making and their stance on access, for example;
  • they will 'devolve decision-making closer to patients'
  • they will 'create an independent NHS Board to allocate resources to different parts of the country and make access to the NHS more equal'
I think that most liberals would support the former, but if you're devolving power at one end, why give power over resource allocation to an independent body? Who sits on such a body? How is it accountable and to whom? Or is this just another quango, of the type the Conservatives have sworn to abolish?

Indeed, by allocating resources from the centre, and standardising access - because that's what 'making access more equal' means - how does that reflect devolution of decision-making? Surely, if your patients decide to allocate resources in a particular manner, unless they all make the same decision, access will not be equal.

Moving on though;
  • they will 'scrap all of the politically-motivated process targets'
  • they will 'measure their success against those countries with the most effective systems of healthcare'
Not all of the politically-motivated targets then, or at least, the introduction of a different set of politically-motivated targets. And, in any case, what does 'most effective' mean? Is that in terms of survival rates, is it in terms of cost? And that is an important question. If you're a cancer patient, the most effective treatment is the one that cures you. If you're controlling the budget, it's the one that saves most lives at the lowest cost. Both are the correct answer, and each is irresponsible when looked at through the eyes of the other.

The implications of a market in healthcare appear not to be understood either. The Conservatives will give everyone the power to choose any healthcare provider that meets NHS standards. Whilst that, once again, looks very attractive, it assumes the existence of spare capacity in the health system. That spare capacity costs, as spare beds need to be kept in good condition even if they're not being used. Also, if customers gravitate towards the best, you will need to find additional resources to allow those providers to extend their level of provision. That means additional expenditure, and with inflation in the health market consistently running above that in the economy as a whole, and the burden of geriatric care moving in one direction only, it is hard to see where the funds will come from.

Yes, the Conservatives offer to cut one-third off of the cost of NHS administration. Yet they promise an 'information revolution', making detailed date about the performance of trusts, hospitals, GPs, doctors and other staff available online. In principle, that's a great idea. However, you need an army of staff to gather that data, the very staff who are to be culled in vast numbers. Add the commitment to compare a performance with our neighbours, and you build into the system great swathes of bureaucracy, causing people to count things, and not actually delivering any healthcare. They will also link GP pay to the quality of the results they deliver. Again, more number crunching, more staff needed to do the monitoring.

There is a lack of consistency here that may well be exposed, and if the Conservatives don't show some fiscal discipline soon, the currency markets may well take the decision out of their hands.

The Digital Economy Bill - Conservatives speak with forked tongue... again...

I was intrigued to hear Jeremy Hunt, the rather telegenic Conservative frontbencher for Culture, Media and Sport, say in the Commons yesterday that the Conservatives would allow a poor Bill to pass, and would amend it after the next General Election.

This isn't the first time that the Conservatives have used this line, and it amazes me that they would accept the introduction of such a flawed piece of legislation. Effectively, they will try to find time to amend it after a General Election that they have won. Given the crisis that they allege this country is in, will a further Digital Economy Bill be a high priority for them? Probably not.

And yet, if they really opposed the legislation,the means to stop it in its tracks existed. Add together the forces of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, and you have a guaranteed majority (the crossbenchers rarely coalesce around a position one way or the other). Clearly, the stitch-up between Labservatives means that the Conservatives believe that they have a bargaining chip, otherwise we wouldn't have seen the axing of the cider duty, the phone tax and the change in the treatment of holiday lettings.

It's an interesting set of priorities, with furnished holiday lettings more important than the rights of individuals to access the internet. But then, issues of finance are so much more important than issues of freedom...