Sunday, 30 March 2008

Measles or vaccination - the Egyptian view of islamist politics

Have had fascinating talks with a colleague from Egypt this afternoon. It was one of those lunchtime discussions which just ran on and on until we suddenly looked at our watches and saw it was 5pm.

In essence, he likens the threat posed in his country by radical islamist parties (and how to deal with them) as being like a choice between measles and vaccination.

In deciding how to handle the threat posed, he says that the dilemma for the mainstream parties - and he includes the Government and main opposition - is whether to engage with the islamists or not. He argues very forcefully for engagement and he holds regular public debates with the islamists.

His view is that to engage with them is the vaccination approach. You try to counter the disease so that, although there may be isolated cases, the widespread outbreak of the virus never happens. The alternative is not to engage and risk a pandemic which will take many generations to get over. You might be lucky of course and it may never happen, but the chances are that it will and you will have done nothing to stop it.

He goes further with his comparisons, describing the 'ROMification' of the young islamists. He says that many of them have been so brainwashed that they have lost the power of reasonable thought. They can only store ideas and parrot them back - like a computer with ROM memory. For rational thought a human needs the equivalent of RAM memory - the ability to process new data. His fear is that a whole generation has been lost and it may be a long while before a new set of young people can be debated with.

So why engage at all if these people are lost. There is particularly the danger that the liberals will be lumped into the same basket as people like Bush. His view is that this is a problem. But to refuse to debate risks the islamists starting a debate for themselves with people who are even more extreme - in Egypt they are the jihadis. A debate between violent and non-violent islamists will result in victory for the the more reasonable sounding group. But you still end up with islamists.

As for the George Bush problem, the argument is that George Bush effectively started a debate (ok, not a debate, a war) with the jihadis. By engaging with them on their terms (armed conflict) he gave them credence they do not deserve.

The additional dilemma comes with the problem of what to do if the islamists win an election. What is to stop them changing the constitution so fundamentally as to talibanise the country? His argument is that they would seek to persuade the islamists to sign up to an agreement with the fundamentals of elections and the rule of law. Even if you cannot get that, he says, by their very engagement in debate and through their participation in elections they have, de facto, agreed to the concept of elections and the constitution that goes along with them.

I'm not sure that I go along with the argument entirely, but it made for an interesting discussion. If you do accept it then it has some parallels for the UK. Should we in the UK debate with those who argue for sharia law or with the BNP.

On another note, he points to the crucial nature of Egypt in world politics and suggests that the islamist movement in the country is one which the world should be taking seriously. He points out that 1953 and the Suez crisis led to the effective end of empires; that 1972 saw the beginning of the end of Soviet control way before the fall of the Berlin Wall and that 1978 was the turning point for the recognition by Arab countries of the state of Israel. His characterization is the Egypt in world affairs is the same s the Middle East in the game of Risk. In order to win the game, a player needs to take and hold that territory.

As I say, a very interesting lunch. Arguments welcome!

In Beirut

I'm in Beirut for a meeting of the nascent Liberal Arab Network. There are people here from Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria and Lebanon. As with my work in Africa, these parties vary in their levels of electoral strength and experience, but there is a wonderful determination.

Arrived last night wondering what sort of place I was flying in to. Turns out to be a wonderfully modern airport which is the gateway to a very modern city. Ok, so I've only been to the city centre so far, but it all looks typically mediterranean. Lots of coffee bars and ice cream parlours and, being a Saturday night, huge numbers of people on the streets having a good time. The bars and clubs (and coffee shops and casinos) get truly busy after midnight.

The taxi driver who brought me from the airport talked about the political situation here and described the country's three neighbours - Israel, Syria and the sea. He says most Lebanese believe that only the sea is friendly!

We had a dinner tonight as guests of our host party at a very busy and popular local restaurant. Feasted on mezze, grills, very sweet puddings and lots of fruit. I was sat with representatives from three different Egyptian parties. The fact that they compete with each other electorally doesn't seem to worry them here!

The only downside is the fact that everybody smokes. Not just after dinner, but as they eat. And the waiters come round with shishas which people smoke as they eat. One of my colleagues juggled a cigarette, a shisha and his fork.

Pictures of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri everywhere and Hariri medals are sold by the airline on the plane.

More studied analysis to come. And maybe some pictures.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Tesco Direct ads - genius

Just seen the new ad for Tesco Direct (aka internet supermarket shopping) starring Martin Clunes. Absolutely brilliant.

Nick in Birmingham in Pictures

Nick Clegg was in Birmingham today to visit the Heartlands hospital in the middle of Hodge Hill constituency with PPC and local councillor Tariq Khan.

Heartlands is a Foundation NHS Trust. Lib Dems were sceptical about the benefits of FT status but Heartlands is one which has grasped the opportunity FT status affords very eagerly. As well as recruiting more than 70,000 people to their electorate (the patients and local residents who can vote in Trust elections), they have also undertaken innovative development work to improve their IT systems. Whilst every major Government IT project seems to be late and over budget, Heartlands have developed a form of electronic patients notes system which is portable and allows medical staff better access to matient records at the bedside.

At the moment, the system works on a portable desktop computer, known affectionately as a COW (computer on wheels). But they hope to have the tablet format up and running very shortly.

Nick met with nurse Medel Toletino and patient Henry Seabourne to look at the new system in action.

Afterwards, Nick met with patients' representatives Marguerite and Gerry at the hospital's patient information unit.

Pics: Nick looks at the COW system with nurse Medel Toletino and patient Henry Seabourne; Nick talking to patients' reps Marguerite and Gerry; Nick in Birmingham with Tariq Khan.

Paw stroking - a new art

By all accounts, M. Sarkozy has wowed the UK establishment in a way not seen since the French toffs all came here to escape the Revolution (I take my history from Blackadder, but some of it might be true-ish).

It comes to something when the top bod in France starts describing the UK as leading the way and expressing such outright gratitude for all the UK has doen for them. Never again will we be able to describe them as ungrateful so-and-so's. There go a million pub diatribes.

All was described to me earlier today as being the art of paw stroking.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

PR - Who has said what

Since the Government allowed the idea of constitutional and electoral reform to be floated over the weekend, there has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere on the subject. Three interesting strands have emerged:

- There have been a lot of Lib Dems saying that AV is the right thing to do. Ok, many of them have said it is right only as a first step on the way to proper reform. Or, like me, have said that if Brown wants to make the change then we shouldn't oppose him, but we should still make STV a first condition in the event we ever have any bargaining power. But there are still Lib Dems for whom AV is the right amount of change. I don't know whether this is because they simply look at the maths (which is, I believe, speculative guesswork), or because they actually believe that AV is the right change (as do people like Lembit and, to a certain extent, Simon Hughes). Whatever the case, I think that there will be a battle within the Lib Dems over this one should it ever come to pass.

- Conservatives have argued that what is needed is not electoral reform but for voting to actually mean something again (see Dan Hannan for a well written example). I agree with them completely on the need for changes to make people believe that voting is worthwhile again. I don't necessarily agree on the precise measures that are sometimes proposed, but I do think that we cannot expect people to want to participate in our democracy so long as they have no respect for politicians. But, for all the talk from Dave Cameron about ending the 'politics as usual' stuff, just watch him in PMQs. It'll be the same punch and judy, the same cheap debating points and the same ridiculous arguments as before.

- From the Government itself, nothing. The floated proposals on electoral reform have been stifled. Jack Straw, who it appears is a convert to AV having been vehemently opposed to any reform previously, said nothing on the subject yesterday.

I suspect that, yet again, this was a Labour Government flag flying exercise. They like to raise the prospect every so often to see what reaction they get - particularly from their own backbenchers. Brown 'let it be known' that he favoured change after the last election. But of course we would have to wait for him to become PM before anything would happen. And remember that they did so after the Power Report. Then nothing.

No, the most meaningful thing that has happened in the area of electoral reform recently was that the chief cheerleader for AV in the Government - Peter Hain - is no longer there.

The other key point to remember is that the Labour reformers (and there are quite a few) tend not to like preferential voting. Instead, they look to the AMS system that exists in Scotland, Wales and for the London Assembly. It is a proper form of PR but relies on a mix of individual constituencies and top-up lists. Lib Dems tend not to like it as it combines the worst of both worlds - First-Past-the-Post in constituencies with all the problems that brings in terms of lack of proper representation, tactical voting etc - and top-up lists with no geographical link and all the dangers of party patronage.

Roy Jenkins tried to find the happy medium when he recommended the Alternative Vote Top Up (AV+) to Tony Blair. He proposed preferential voting in constituencies and top up lists to make the whole thing (slightly more) proportional. Despite my admiration for the great man, I thought the whole thing a complete dog's breakfast. If you think STV is complex to explain the just try convincing Joe Public about AV+. Thankfully, I don't think anyone is seriously proposing that we bring that one back again.

Cameron's questions - you bet!

Ladbrokes have opened a new market on the topic of Dave Cameron's first question at PMQs.

Surely some room for insider trading?

For the record, although I think that he will use some of his questions on MPs expenses and the Speaker's ludicrous decision to go to the High Court to try to block publication (just how much does he have to hide?), which are listed under Constitutional/Parliamentary issues at 12/1 - in from 33/1 since this morning - I don't think that will be the subject of his first question which is how the market is settled.

I suspect that banking and the state of the economy is how he will go. But backing the fave is a bit boring. So I think he'll realise he missed out last week when Nick Clegg talked about Iraq and he didn't. So, despite losing the vote last night, he might well rehash the subject.

Hat-tip - Political Betting

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Brown's latest flirtation with PR

Sir Michael White has looked at the current flirtation by the Government with electoral reform. He at least has the title of his piece right (so it was probably written by a sub).

Actually that's a little unfair. For the first time in a while, we have a columnist who accepts that the Alternative Vote (AV) system is not a proportional one. It should be fairly obvious that any system by which only one person is elected per area cannot be proportional unless there is soem kind of jobshare.

So what is AV and what would it mean?

Well. First off. It's not the same as the Supplementary (SV) system used to elected the London Mayor (and other mayors). That allows only two votes - using a cross in each case - and so only works if there are three or fewer candidates. Where it fails, it does so most spectacularly. Take the first London election. There were (we can argue here) four serious candidates - Lib Dem, Conservative, Labour and Ken. In order to make sure your vote counts, you need to cast at least on of your two preferences for a candidate who makes it through to the final two. This means both guesswork and a degree of tactical voting. It is billed as being your first and then second choice. But if you favoured Susan Kramer followed by the Green candidate then your vote would be wasted. Why did we have this ludicrous system? Well it was foisted on us by John Prescott after lots of lobbying by academic Pat Dunleavey. Has it worked? I would say no. As well as the disastrous first use, in 2004 we had almost 15% wasted votes. This time we may only have three candidates likely to gain more than 5% of the vote, but there will still be lots of confusion.

Back to AV. Can I promise it would be better? Well no, nothing is certain. Any new system requires voter education, clear ballot papers and sensible campaigning by the parties. Many people will take some time to get used to the new system and that will be very difficult if there are a myriad of other systems still in use for different elections. So I would suggest that introducing AV for Westminster necessitates bringing in STV for any multi-member elections (including councils with multi-member wards).

The parties will no doubt say 'Vote for us number one' and will then either fail to suggest a second preference or tell voters not to cast a second preference at all. After all, to suggest that other parties might be anything short of baby-eaters is inherently weak, isn't it?

I suspect that, as we have found in PPC selections, the parties that punch above their weight will be those who embrace the new system and campaign in favour of second preferences (where they cannot get firsts).

What AV will do in terms of proportionality is difficult to assess. As noted above, it is not a proportional system. Or even a semi-proportional system. It is a majoritarian system which will reflect the mood of the country slightly more accurately. At most times it will tend to smooth out voting preferences, with the overall outcome being slightly more proportional. But there will be times when the mood of the country is vehemently opposed to a particular point of view. This is where AV ensures a greater majority against the unpopular opinion. Think back to 1997 - unless you were a died in the wool Tory you probably wanted anything but the return of the Major Government. So on that occasion we would have seen AV mitigate against proportionality. The Tories would have secured even fewer seats and both Lib Dems and Labour more.

Will AV help the smaller parties such as the greens and BNP? Well no. It is perfectly possible for a smaller party to come from third (or even lower) to win via the transfer of preferences. But to gain such preferences, these parties have to be adept at securing transfers. I cannot see the BNP or UKIP getting too many transfers. Nor, for that matter, can I see the Greens doing so. These smaller parties will only have a hope of winning seats under a truly proportional system such as party lists or AMS using large regions. (For the record, the Lib Dem ideal of STV would not see the BNP elected under current circumstances and it is unlikely we would see the Greens or UKIP win, although they could take a seat or two).

So if it doesn't help the smaller parties, who would it help. Well clearly Brown believes it will help him. Turkeys, Christmas and all that. Labour still believes that there is an anti-Tory preponderance in the UK as there was in 1997. I have to say I have my doubts. There might not (yet) be the anti-Labour mass but I cannot see an automatic Lib Dem choice as being in favour of propping up a losing Labour Government. Whenever I talked to progressive Labour types they seem convinced that we would end up in coalition with them. I think they are simply wrong.

We have seen the Lib Dems choosing not to enter a coalition Government in both Scotland and Wales when they had the chance and they could take the same course at Westminster too.

Or Nick Clegg could talk to Dave Cameron.

And finally, should Nick Clegg embrace Brown's flirtation with AV? Well, we wouldn't vote against progressive reform, but, as I argued earlier, our goal is STV. Proper electoral reform where votes actually influence the result and allow electors the real choice of voting for the candidates and party they want. We would no doubt put forward an amendment to that effect and see it voted down. We would have to bide our time until there was a minority government and we could demand STV as part of a comprehensive reform package. It's not the be all and end all, but it remains a key part of the Lib Dem ideology.

PS - Weekend voting is expensive (you have to vote both days else the religious groups have valid objections). Compulsory voting is just plain wrong. Frog marching people to the polling stations is not exactly going to make people feel love for politicians is it? Any party that opposes ID cards on civil liberties ground should also be opposing compulsory voting.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Nick's view on the hung parliament debate

At last night's public meeting in Morpeth, one member of the audience asked Nick about the importance of PR to the Lib Dems if we are in a position of negotiating with other parties in a hung Parliament after the next election.

It's a question which is being discussed by a large number of fellow bloggers and by some of the political hacks. Here's a rough paraphrase of what he said:
The Lib Dems believe that we have the change politics fundamentally if we are to restore trust in politics and politicians. Such changes should not be limited to changing the voting system. It involves far more. Politicians are always expected to have easy answers to every problem but this might be one of those occasions where there is no easy solution. But being more open and accountable is a step in the right direction.

If PR was the only change that was needed then I would be Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society. But as a politician, I need to look more widely.

As Nick said in Liverpool, so he repeated last night. There is no way he would take the Lib Dem sinto a position as simply an adjunct to another Party - either of them. But if another party really wanted to change the political system then we would be interested in talking to them. But the onus is on the Leader of the largest party to make the first move, not the Leader of the Lib Dems (unless they are one and the same person of course!)
So, that's what he said. What is the interpretation:

Well, he hasn't delighted those who are passionate about STV by setting out that STV is the absolute prerequisite for any discussions. But he has said that root and branch reform of the political structure is needed for us to be interested in talking. So I guess that we won't trade our position just for a few ministerial Prius's, but we can't be absolutely sure that it would be full STV that we would get.

There is, I think, an implied slap down to Paddy in the rejection of becoming a mere adjunct of another party. That is what most people assumed that Paddy wanted to create through his talks with Blair up until (and just after) the 97 election.

In demanding that Brown or Cameron should make the first move, it is clear that Nick is not about to let anyone know what our bargaining position is in advance. On PR, if Nick responded to the 'AV - is it good enough?' then it would take the pressure off Brown to act now. Let's face it, Brown won't be doing anything in response to a Nick 'demand' until after an election (at the earliest).

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Nick in the North East

Nick Clegg visited Newcastle and Northumberland today meeting people at a project helping people who have had drug and alcohol dependency to learn new skills, visiting a cottage hospital whose services have been saved by people power and then holding another of his public access meetings.

First stop was a project run by Cyrenians, a charitable organisation which helps people who have had drug and alcohol problems by training them in skills such as carpentry, bricklaying and plastering. Nick met management and tutors and service users and had a go at plastering for himself. Ok, I'm hardly an expert, but he looked like he could wield a plasterer's trowel - at least, he avoided spraying all of the rest of us in plaster! We met some great people there including Malcolm, the tutor and Sean, one of the service users. I'm really not sure about the overalls though (pic).

Then it was on to Morpeth Cottage Hospital. This is one of the many cottage hospitals that is being closed as the health authority deems it too expensive to continue to deliver its services in such a small unit. But politicians from all parties and local people have baded together and come up with a solution that will save almost all of the services and see them continue to be delivered locally. While he was there, Nick met a number of patients including Lillian (pic).

Finally, we went to another of Nick's public meetings held at Morpeth Town Hall. It really was standing room only as more than 150 people packed the venue. These meetings are a return to what Nick calls old fashioned politics. Everyone is welcome and he'll answer any question that is put. Quite naturally there are quite a few Lib Dems who want to come and hear the Leader speak. But well over half the audience is always simply local people - often even members of other parties - who want to come and hear him. He doesn't give a big long speech, usually only a minute or two, and then it is into questions. Not everybody will agree with everything he says (of course) but it is a return to unspun face to face meetings where people have a real chance to interact with a senior political figure.

It was this sort of meeting that Nick was referring to when he said at conference that he wanted Gordon Brown to come and discuss the NHS with him.

Outside after the event, I heard one teenager saying that this was the first political event he had ever been to but he really enjoyed it and wants to go to more. Quite clearly 'old fashioned politics' is not simply for the old!

Pics: Nick tries his hand at plastering under the watchful eye of tutor Malcolm (left) and service user Sean (middle); Sean then points out where he could do better!; Nick meets Lillian, a patient at Morpeth Cottage Hospital; Nick speaks to the packed meeting at Morpeth Town Hall

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Brian Paddick launches his autobiography

Just back from the launch of Brian Paddick's autobiography at a bookshop in Marylebone. A fun event with quite a few people and a smattering of journos.

Obviously I didn't get much time while there to do any more than just flick through it but it is a fascinating trawl through Brian's haircuts through the ages. The 80's style is fantastic and there were a number of people demanding that he return to it!

Pics: Brian with his book; Chris Rennard (Chief Exec of the Lib Dems), Newspaper columnist Rosie Boycott and Brian at the launch.

Gurkhas - bloomin' hundreds of them

There was a big protest outside the Houses of Parliament by ex-gurkhas who are demanding the right to carry on living in the UK at the end of their service. The current rules are that any gurkha who left service before 1997 has no right to live in the UK.

The protest was organised by the former Lib Dem candidate for Folkestone (where many gurkhas are based) Peter Carroll. The centrepiece was the handover by many gurkhas of their long service and distinguished conduct medals to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

Nick believes that anybody who has fought for this country and risked their life for this country should have the right to live in this country. More on his views here.

Nick went on to raise the matter at Prime Minister's Questions, holding up one of the medals that had been handed to him. Gordon Brown blustered about the changes that have been made to increase gurkha pensions (which are still lower than other UK forces troops) and the right for soldiers who left service after 1997 to live here.

But the fact remains that there are many gurkhas who left before 1997 who are being deported. That is shameful on the part of the Government. These are some of the bravest and least complaining servicemen in our armed forces who volunteer to serve a foreign army and yet we treat them terribly.

The Tories also oppose automatic residency rights saying the situation is 'complicated'. Not from where I sit.

Pics: Nick Clegg with ex-gurkhas handing back their medals outside the Houses of Parliament; Protest organiser Peter Carroll with Nick Clegg sopeaking tot he hundreds of gurkhas present; One ex-gurkha with his medals shortly before handing them back.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Anthony Minghella dies

Very sad to hear the news that film director Anthony Minghella has died.

I met Anthony once - he came from the Isle of Wight where I was the agent in '97 and his parents were active party members then.

He previewed the Oscar winning film the English Patient on the Island in '96 and Mr Ripley is one of my favourite films.

Princes Trust with my pals Gwynny and Kev

This afternoon I was taking photos for the Princes Trust at their glitzy annual awards. The venue was the Odeon, Leicester Square and the place was rammed. There were 1500 guests including 'ambassadors' Gwyneth Paltrow (pic), Kevin Spacey (pic), and various other actors and celebs.

The event was a storm. The audience loved it. The whole thing was well produced and decked out and the place was thronging with press. I did feel sorry for Toby Anstis who had to do red carpet duty while the rest of us stayed inside.

Prince Charles was, of course, the main guest. He was great to photograph and shared a joke with almost everybody. He particularly cracked up when Kevin Spacey swept the hostess off her feet after she claim her male co-host was getting all the kiss action.

Afterwards there was a party at 1 Leicester Square with the winners and loads more celebs - some of whom I recognised and som I had to be pointed at. Must read Heat more often.

Entertainment was provided by 'Joseph' star Lee Mead (pic), who came with his mum. Bless

SMF propose compulsory unemployment insurance

This lunchtime I was taking photos at a seminar at the Social Market Foundation - usually referred to as a Blairite think tank. The meeting was to launch a new policy paper which looks at the possibility of introducing a system of compulsory unemployment insurance.

The thinking is that many people are not financially covered if they lose their jobs and would face significant money problems. Whilst the poorest are catered for by the welfare state, the SMF reckon that the middle classes - defined by them as people earning over £27,000 - would be in trouble. So they propose a system whereby employees would automatically see a form of state backed insurance deducted from their pay checks. They could opt out, but it is felt most would not. Apparently it works well in Denmark.

The guest speaker was Work and Pensions Minister Stephen Timms (photo) who described it as an interesting idea without committing the Government to it.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Darling's budget - a cheap shirt, a small bit of foam and a big bloke bumping into you

What does today's budget mean?

- Darling announced a £25 million 'green homes initiative. As Steve Webb points out, this is the equivalent of about £1 per home in the UK. For which I can buy about 0.6 square metres of loft insulation material which you will have to fit yourself. As you can see from the photo on the right, that's not a lot! (we're being very generous about what you can get for that amount of money).

- £60 million over three years for equipping people to return to the workplace. Well, there are about 1.6 million people who are unemployed and a further 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit - a total of about 4.2 million people, all of whom, presumably, would like to return to the workforce in some form or another. So £4.76 per person per year to help them return to work. This is enough for them to be able to almost buy a shirt and tie set from Asda. But not enough for a person in Launceston to be able to go by bus to the nearest big city (Plymouth) for, say, a job interview.

- There will be £200m extra for schools to raise GCSE results. The equivalent of an extra NQT (that's newly qualified teacher) per secondary school.

- Anti plastic bag legislation is promised if the supermarkets don't do something to cut down on the amount they produce. I know that plastic bags are supposedly the bane of modern life, but we actually use ours as bin bags for the kitchen and around the house. It's fair enough to encourage us to use jute or whatever for our shopping, but if we didn't have a small number of shopping bags coming into the house on a regular basis then we would have to buy bin liners at greater cost and (arguably) greater environmental damage.

So how will this be paid for? Well one of the targets is alcohol. The additional beer tax is the equivalent of the Chancellor employing some big bloke to knock into you everytime you buy a pint.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Caption Competition

In a blatant bid to boost my aggregator ratings, here is the first ever Lanson Boy caption competition.

So, what is Nick doing or saying in this photo.

Answers in the comments please by close of play Friday. As the BBC say, this is just a bit of fun and there are no prizes on offer except the admiration of your peers.

Photos of the weekend - the best bits

Ok, I'm biased. My work at the weekend mainly revolved around the Leader and so there are lots of pictures of him in this little collection. I thought that both his main speech and the one at the rally were excellent and enthusiastic. The main speech has lots of different audiences - that party members in the hall, the media and the viewers who may catch a snippet on the news. It's incredibly difficult to balance all three. A way back when I worked for him in 1988, Paddy Ashdown told his speechwriting team to come up with a way of telling the party to stop the internal bitchfest that was the merger and get on with campaigning to and on behalf of the public at large. Obviously he couldn't say that quite so brazenly because the cameras were there. So the linethat we eventually came up with was 'we need to stop sounding like the Tower of Babel and start building a tower of strength'. Compared to that (and some of the other lines used back then), Nick's 'sclerotic' comment is positively Sun-speak.

But overall I thought that Nick managed the task well. He reminded the party how important May 1st is while contrasting us with the other parties and outlining to the media what our key differences are. The line about not joining another party's government but being prepared to work with others on a new form of government might need further explanation, but it answered the media's one and only question ('will you join Labour or Tories if there is a hung parliament'). We are back to a policy of equidistance and will need to be convinced before we go into coalition with anyone. Of course there were some echoes of Obama in there. Nick is talking about the poor reputation of the current political system and the need to radically overhaul it if the public is to regain trust in politicians. This does sound a bit like what Obama is saying in the states. But the Lib Dems have been saying this sort of thing for decades. Certainly far longer than the band-wagon jumping Dave.

Of the other highlights, there is, of course, Vince Cable. In the one-man-band party it is good that we now have a team of people who can command public recognition (although there is, of course, a long eway still to go, particularly with regards to getting a woman or two in the frame). The media may regret that Vince didn't go for the leadership but I don't. I have to say I don't think he would have won it and I think he would have been attacked far more than he is now if had were in charge. As it is, he has a reputation both for sound pronouncements and terrific one-liners. His speech was rightly applauded and gained great coverage.

Unfortunately, the man who wasn't there was Ming Campbell. I think that's a shame. His tenure might have been brief and his exit unseemly, but there are many in the party who want to thank him for what he did. He should have been there to take the plaudits.

That we were in Liverpool was never in question and former Council Leader Mike Storey was a regular performer at the top occasions. I thought that his appearance at the Education Q&A session with David Laws made that event memorable. We still have lots of divisions within our party on public services, particularly on the issue of choice and the argument between the two of them on the subject of academies was great viewing.

Photos of the weekend - the amusing bits

In amongst the serious business over the weekend were a load of light-hearted moments. The newspapers reckoned that Sarah Teather had the best joke with her 'three line whip to abstain on the booze' crack at the Rally. My favourite was actually Tim Farron's job swap with Fidel Castro now that they have both just resigned ('I'm going over there to teach them how to be properly left-wing and he's coming over here to learn about party discipline').

Of course I also picked up quite a few off beat pics. As previously discussed, I don't mean the ones that are unintentionally amusing purely because of a blink. But the ones which have a deliberate facial expression or action captured for posterity. So Mike Storey's 'ya-boo' to David Laws during their discussion about academies definitely makes it.

The last minute nature of the works to complete the conference centre inspired a lot of people to make comments over the fact that it did have a roof in time. Perhaps Nick and Brian weren't so sure. Why else would the Party Leader need an umbrella indoors?

Of course, even the best planning can sometimes not work out. As this sign indicates, last minute changes were needed.

Finally, that statue. Yes, it was unfortunately titled given the troubles Nick had faced the week before. And yes the 'anatomical correctness' did amuse the snappers. But no, no-one got a shot of the Leader with it. Sorry Iain.

Pics (top to bottom): Mike Storey says ya-boo to David Laws; Nick Clegg and Brian Paddick spot that the ACC does have a roof; room changes; that statue

Monday, 10 March 2008

New Lib Dem Party Political Broadcast featuring my pics

As seen before his speech to conference yesterday. All the stills are from various visits that Nick has done around the country that I've gone to.

Town mottos

I know a lot of people have commented on the inane nature of missions statements, mottos and the like, but two that I saw while I was in the North West amused me especially:

The time is Knowsley


Oldham - We're in it together

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Liverpool - why it was great...

I'm back in Cornwall and reflecting on the weekend. There were some obvious highs and lows:

- As everyone seems to agree, the Crowne Plaza was a great conference hotel. The staff were hugely helpful and friendly. I know they'll not read this, but Tom the concierge and Frank the doorman were especially brilliant so thank you to them.

- The hotel I stayed at in Bootle was also fab. Really cheap and chearful but friendly and clean. £25 a night well spent.

- Liverpool Lib Dems did a great job in organising their end of things.

- Unfortunately, I thought that the conference centre was still a work in progress. From the smell of paint everywhere to the tiny, badly lit and overcrowded fringe rooms, it just didn't work in my opinion. I know it's not finished yet and it will hopefully get better in time, but Ididn't like it.

- I also didn't like the long walk between the hotel and conference venue. This was caused by the new conference centre hotel not being built yet. When it is then the walk will be very short indeed. The downside being that we won't be using the wonderful Crowne Plaza.

- And as for the wind tunnel between the conference centre and building opposite - the architect ought to be shot.

The talk is now of an autumn conference there. So long as everything is finished then I would be up for that. But it would have to be on a weekend when Liverpool were not playing at home simply because there is a real accommodation crisis if there is a clash. The trouble is that I don't think such a guarantee could be made (the conference booking has to be made before the fixture list is known). This alone would, I think, put the kibosh on things.

Joke of the weekend

The joke of the weekend (told by almost everyone I talked to all weekend):

"Liverpool. A great city... When it's finished."

Nick Clegg's speech in pictures

Nick Clegg has just finished giving a fantastic speech. Others can do words on what they thought, but here are a few pictures from the event.

I'm off back to Cornwall now but will post further thoughts and photos later.

Saturday pictures

From top to bottom:
Vince Cable speaks to conference; and receives a standing ovation from the Leader; Nick Clegg joins the purple ribbon campaign to tackle gun violence following the murder of schoolboy Rhys Jones; Nick with local councillors and officers tours new social housing built by the Lib Dems in Norris Green; Nick joins a rugby session at Ellergreen Leisure Centre; Party President Simon Hughes addresses conference; Nick Clegg takes to the stage at the Glee Club.

Rally-tastic - in pictures

The first evening of conference traditionally sees a rally for party members. It's an occasion to, well, rally the troops. This conference was no exception with speeches from Carol Woods, PPC for the City of Durham, by-election winners Sarah Teather and Willie Rennie and from Party Leader Nick Clegg. The event was introduced by the ever genial Warren Bradley, Leader of Liverpool city council.