Tuesday, 27 May 2008

And while I'm ranting...

Just how do any MPs think that they are going to make the public respect them more when they propose to institutionalise expenses fiddles.

Rather than MPs having to justify what they spend on second homes and so on, the proposal is to give every single one of them a tax free £23,000 lump sum every year and do away with the need for receipts.

So the very rich and those who have been MPs such a long time that they have bought their second home outright will just pocket the cash (it's like a £40,000 pay rise). The rest will be freed from the burden of having to justify what the cash went on (and the embarrassment of being found to have paid a lot to your window cleaner).

It's quite obvious that the public think that all MPs are on the fiddle. I know most aren't, so why confirm the public's view by abandoning all the paperwork.

MPs fully deserve a decent salary and enough expenses to enable them to do the job well. I have never understood why the Commons forces each MP to duplicate much of the same expense - such as IT support - which inevitably causes more paperwork and more expense. But if they are spending public money then they should do so carefully and be forced to justify it.

The biggest gripe comes over second homes. Perhaps the idea of a central London accommodation block which all MPs are given a flat in - rent free - is the best solution after all. Any other system seems open to abuse.

When in hole, stop digging. Transparency and prudent spending is the way out of the mess, not more obfuscation.

Personal Carbon Credits are wrong

For all their overt attraction, personal carbon credits are almost as intrusive as ID cards and they would fail for many of the same reasons. Lib Dems should be opposing them.

Of course many people would say that we should be backing a scheme which seeks to encourage personal responsibility for our carbon output with the likely consequence of securing an environmentally friendly cut. And indeed such personal responsibility is a good thing.

But the bureaucracy needed to manage a personal credit trading scheme would be immense and the likelihood of massive loopholes equally certain. For these reasons the Government scheme looks doomed to failure.

Any why should my personal habits (at least, those which produce carbon) be known to and logged by the Government. It is all very well having a carbon tax at the petrol pump - because once I've paid, what I do with the fuel is my own business - but I don't want the big brother state noting my every action and billing me at the end of the month as a consequence.

Any carbon allowances scheme is also bound to make victims of some sections of society. Even Brown's 10p tax rate cut was beneficial to most people, but the UK public will stick up for the oppressed and you can bet there would be quite a few with carbon trading.

I am in total agreement with the Lib Dem idoology that taxes are a necessary evil - they should be as low as possible to enable the state to function and provide services and the money should, where possible, be raised from bad things such as pollution rather than good things such as earnings. But any scheme which needs such detailed levels of personal information is probably going to cost billions in administration costs alone.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

24 hours with Nick Clegg - part 2

Amazingly it was still sunny when we started the second day of Nick Clegg's tour around Cornwall with a visit to the Community Land Trust project in Blisland, near Bodmin. There we met local MP Dan Rogerson and councillor Sandra Amy.

There are lots of villages in Cornwall where local people simply cannot afford to buy homes and houses very rarely come to the market in any case. This leads to a downward spiral as people move out and into the (slightly) more affordable towns. The houses that do come up for sale tend to be bought by retiring couples and second homers and so fewer people are using the local services. In Blisland's case this means the multi-award winning Blisland Inn and the wonderful local shop / post office. If these go then the village will die.

To give you an example, in Blisland and the surrounding area, the median average wages are about £16,000 per year. Houses that come up for sale cost on average £360,000. In Rock the situation is far worse with bare building plots costing a million plus.

So the Community Land Trust has stepped in with the support of the parish, district and county councils to build a second phase of 13 new homes, two of which will be flats. Of these, six will be for social rent and seven for affordable sale in the £120,000 range. Through planning controls and working with the local housing associations, the CLT will try to ensure that the homes stay within the affordable market.

However, things could be so much easier. The Government recently rejected an amendment (supported by both Lib Dems and Tories) to give legal definition to a CLT. This would have made it easier for the trust to build and to retain homes within the affodable sector. As things stand there are some loopholes and so these houses could leak on to the open market fairly quickly.

The homes themselves use geothermal pipes to provide heating. Simple boreholes and a compressor use the natural heat in the ground to provide very cheap (and environmentally friendly) home heating.

After Blisland, we headed off to Liskeard and a mixed use farm with local MP Colin Breed and the new PPC for South East Cornwall Karen Gillard.

Whlst on the farm we discussed a range of topics including the rocketing price of 'red' diesel. This is the fuel that farmers can buy to power their agricultural machinery and it is markedly cheaper than that which you buy at the pumps. The theory is that keeping red diesel cheap helps to keep food prices down. Except that the price of it has risen by about 60% in the last year and this has had a massive impact on farmers' incomes and on food prices.

We also discussed the remarkable recent rise in the price of lamb and, to a lesser extent, beef. A combination of rising fuel prices, blue tongue virus, more meat eating in developing asia and problems in New Zealand have combined to see the rise and kept a number of stuggling farmers afloat.

One issue particularly concerning farmers in the county is bovine TB. The Government's own report was muddled and inconclusive and there is a desparate need for some clear scientific thinking on the matter. Most of the farmers here have a clear view that badgers are the cause of TB spreading, but all would be happy at least with the proposed trial if only the Government would allow it.

Finally, it was off to Saltash for another of Nick's town hall meetings. I remember in the 1992 election when Paddy arrived for a visit to Saltash and declared how wonderful it was to be back in Devon again. Nick manage to avoid that particular foul up and answered questions on nuclear power, rights of way, engaging young people in politics, farming and many more.

Then it was off to Plymouth to catch the train.

Many thanks to Nick for coming for so long. I hope he learned a lot from it. He certainly provided a huge boost for local members, councillors and the PPCs.

Pics: Nick with Dan Rogerson MP at the Community Land Trust Project in Blisland; Nick with Karen Gillard and Colin Breed MP on the farm near Liskeard; Talking Cattle; Nick addresses the town hall meeting in Saltash.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

24 hours with Nick Clegg (part 1)

Nick Clegg is in Cornwall for a two day visit (well - 24 hours split over today and tomorrow). As well as arranging the tour, I've been following him around taking pictures of the visits.

Safe to say, it's been both fun and lots of hard work. It's got to be the same for Cameron and Brown as well, but my goodness these guys work hard. Nick has been in Afghanistan for three days and in Crewe before coming here, but he has been full of vigour throughout the trip.

We started off in St Austell to see the massive regeneration project there with local MP Matthew Taylor and PPC Stephen Gilbert. As well as seeing the models of what is planned, we went on a tour of the site. It must be about the biggest hole in the ground going with construction work all ove the site and some projects nearing completion already. The new cinema will be finished in time for the Bond movie in October apparently.

Then it was off to Playing Place to join local PPC Terrye Teverson campaigning to save the village post office. We were even joined by a couple of Tory councillors who are backing the campaign. Many thanks guys. We met some of the post office customers who use motorised scooters and who will have a lot of trouble making it to the next village if their post office is proposed for closure in July.

After that, we went to the Cornwall University campus at Tremough where we saw the sustainable energy projects and the media centre before a Q&A with students. This really is a fantastic facility which couldn't have been achieved without a lot of support from many organisations, not least the Lib Dem district and County councils. In order to keep young graduates in the county we needed the university and the jobs that have sprung up with firms relocating as a result.

Then it was off to the beach at Gwithian to meet the RNLI lifeguards who have taken responsibility for the area. There are six stretches of beach, each with a different owner and lifeguard provision was patchy to say the least before. Now the RNLI have taken over there is a superb 7 day a week service and we saw some of their rescue techniques. Oh, and it was fabulous weather. Just the place to be on such a day.

Next we went to Penzance to join Andrew George MP and the local civic society who want more say over the decision to force the local district council to build 10,000 more homes in the Penwith area. How come these new homes, mostly much needed, can be forced on an area with almost no consultation.

Unfortunately the Conservatives and their yob wing - UKIP - decided to come and shout at Nick. It really was quite unpleasant and not at all in keeping with David Cameron's new politics to have someone screaming 'Smash the EU' at Nick from a distance of about 3 feet.

Finally we were off to Porthtowan - my favourite place in Cornwall - for dinner with 100 local members. We had brilliant music from the Cornwall Youth Orchestra beforehand and then a great meal.

And we've still got another four visits tomorrow.

Pics: Looking at the models for the St Austell regeneration; on site; At Playing Place meeting Post Office customers; At the University looking at a mine safety robot; Answering students' questions; On the beach at Gwithian with lifeguards; With the Cornwall Youth Orchestra

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Nick Clegg meets the Dalai Lama - pictures

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in Westminster today to meet with Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg and Lib Dem colleagues.

There was a big turnout of MPs, peers and staff to greet the exiled Tibetan Leader.

Two days in Henley

I went up to Henley at the start of the week to help out and take some pics of our excellent candidate Stephen Kearney.

Stephen is a really nice bloke who has run a development charity with his partner Julia. They work on community development projects in the UK and in Africa.

Stephen's is a keen narrowboater - he used to live on one - and has a great affection for Britain's waterways (there are plenty of those in Henley). During the day we met lots of boaters and Stephen seems to be gaining lots of votes there, as well as from other residents.

Cornwall triumph to reach County Final

Cornwall beat Eastern Counties (who they?) 43-0 on Saturday and now will play in the County Shield Final (sort of the B division) at Twickenham on June 1st.

As the previous week, All Black players led the way with Matt Jess and Sam Hocking scoring tries and Mark Scrivenor slotting five conversions and a penalty.

Regrettably I won't be at the final (which takes place at 10am on a Sunday morning!) but I know that quite a few thousand Cornishmen true will be there.

And Cornwall will play in the top competition next year.

Pics: Matt Jess scores the first try; Sam Hocking dives over for the second; Josh Lord leads out the side; Mark Scrivenor kicks a conversion; Matt Jess on a run.

Sorry, been offline for a while...

dog sitting for my mother whose broadband had stopped working (cheers, Talk Talk). Back on now and expect a few updates.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Not the approved canvassing technique

Ever noticed how houses with doorbells that play tunes (rather than just go ding-dong) have a much higher tendency to be Liberal Democrats.

Just a thought

Utterly brilliant

Just for the record, I shall be nominating this as the best single posting in this year's Lib Dem Blogs awards.

Until a better one comes along...

Monday, 12 May 2008

Have Labour just blown the gaff on ID cards?

One of the lines on the silly class war Labour leaflet in Crewe (see pic) says:
Do you oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?
Now I thought Labour's whole argument was that ID cards, even when they become compulsory, are only compulsory to own and produce when trying to access certain services, not to have to carry around with you.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Lebanon - a shock to my system

It seems very strange to me that just six weeks ago I was in Beirut and would have mocked anyone who said that the city (indeed, country) was about to descend into what appears to be civil war.

I'm not going to pretend that I saw it coming or anything like that. When I was there (admittedly, only in a tiny patch of the city) I felt free to walk around anywhere I wanted to with no risk. The local economy seemed pretty good and the restaurants, casinos and nightclubs were full.

We walked along the Corniche and came across plenty of soldiers, but I don't think people seriously considered that there might be any need for them.

We were able to have wonderfully interesting discussions about the Arab way of doing things and I learned a heck of a lot. If Lebanon falls back into civil war then I fear that many more countries than this will slip away from liberalism (and, indeed, and form of constitutional politics).

Before I went, the Lib Dem's International Office were anxiously giving me plenty of chances to pull out if I no longer felt able to go. We got special travel insurance that covers civil war and terrorism which I regarded as a bit of a joke. Even more so when I got there.

During the time I was there we went to restaurants, walked the streets and felt completely safe. There were posters of Rafik Hariri (the assassinated President) everywhere and taxi drivers genuinely seemed to love his memory.

Today, according to the BBC, armed shia militants were marching down the street outside the hotel I stayed in and 11 people are reported to have been killed in fighting.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

The duplicity of South West Water

Here in Cornwall we have the delights of being 'served' by South West Water. This is the company that managed to poison the people of Camelford by dumping poisonous chemicals into the drinking water supply.

To be fair, they are trying to cope with an area that has 30% of the country's coastline and only 3% of the population. That's why our water bills can reach £1000 per year without breaking sweat.

Being a tourist area, one of our key requests is that the company does more than what is known as 'primary treatment'. I won't go into too many details, but primary treatment leads to fairly recognisable 'stuff' being dumped out to sea. In many cases it just washes its way back to shore with all the delightful impact that has on holiday makers sitting on the beaches, as well as watersports participants. That's what led, many moons ago, to the establishment of the pressure group Surfers Against Sewage.

Anyway, so much for history. Today we learn that a campaign by local residents in Tintagel against SWW's plans for primary treatment only for their area has been successful. The County Council (ahem, Lib Dem led) has agreed that the water company must submit new plans taking the treatment to at least secondary level. It's not perfect, but it does mean that you are less likely to be swimming against the turds.

What did SWW say when it heard the news? Chris Mills, SWW commmunications director, said:

"Our goal all along has been to provide residents and visitors with a modern sewage treatment system that represents the best value for money for our customers."

Forgive me for not actually giving him much credence. He appears to have caught the disease that is currently affecting members of Reading Labour Party.

Hat tip Jonathan Wallace

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Don't forget to enter the competition

You have until Friday to enter the 'How many times will Iain Dale write a blatantly partisan blog about Crewe between now and polling day' competition.

Iain himself is pledging to write more than 2 per day!

Email me or answers in comments

Nice today isn't it?

Don't you wish that, instead of sitting behind your desk, you were on a beach with the waves breaking in the distance and the sand between your toes.

(This post has been brought to you by VisitCornwall....)

Monday, 5 May 2008

Crewe Labour running scared of Gordon?

The Telegraph's blog has an amusing story pointing to a pic of their candidate with the PM in happier times back in 2006 when he was still popular (although she had just been booted off the Welsh Assembly).

Trouble is that the pic appears to have been pulled from the website being pointed at.

Could Labour be worried that the Tories or Lib Dems would cache it and use it on their literature? Are Labour already running scared of their own leader?

(Sorry if this sounds like an Iain Dale type story.)

Shhh - Nobody tell Lembit

See here

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Puzzling Tory tactics (2)

However Iain does provide something of interest - although I think it will come back to bite the Tories.

Crewe Conservative candidate Tim 'nice but dim' has written a snide letter to the new Labour candidate asking her to say what she thinks about a few current issues. His aim is to either force her to say she opposes Brown or to go against the perceived wishes of the people.

All very well, but it is a bit rich of the Tories to be seeking to criticise others on policies.

So I reckon Lib Dem candidate Elizabeth Shenton should join in the fun, writing to Tim NbD and asking him to justify his position on a few key issues. Let's show up the Tories for the policy vacuum that they are. After all, Tim NbD can't refuse to play a game that he started, can he?

UPDATE - In the comments, Iain has pointed out that as I have never met Edward Timpson I can't possibly know that he is nasty. I'm happy to take this on board and have re-phrased the original post accordingly as it doesn't affect the point I was making.

Announcing the Iain Dale Crewe sweepstakes

The Tory cheer-meister has started his usual by-election tactic of running rubbishing stories about the Conservatives' main opponents. You can read it here - if you must.

Readers will remember just how much he followed the party line during the Ealing by-election (only to get egg all over his face when the Tories came a humiliating third).

So I thought I would hold a little competition. Between now and polling day (22nd May, for anyone who doesn't know) just how many times will Iain run stories on the Crewe by-election which are blatantly pro-Tory or anti-Labour (or both). To qualify, the story must mention the Crewe by-election or one of its candidates and it must be overtly partisan. Double points are awarded for copying central office press releases word for word or for spreading a rumour which is just not true.

So there you go. For the fun of it. How many such stories will Iain run? Closing date for entries is a week today.

Have you really got it Mr Cameron?

It's going to be tough for the Tories from here on. I know they've just had a riotously successful election night and I know that the media are busy crucifying the PM, but seriously, Cameron et al are now going to come under so much pressure they won't know what hit them.

Take London. They got Boris elected in an incredibly tough fight. This appears to have been managed by paying Lynton Crosby £140k to sit on Boris for three solid months, making sure he never said anything. But now what. Boris will launch the 'first 100 days plan' that Crosby has written for him, but who will be there to make sure he doesn't revert to being, well, Boris.

And it's not just the Mayor who could make life tough for Cameron. Look at who they have on the Assembly. Brian Coleman, as James Graham points out, is going to be in his element. The man can be amusing in the same way that Boris can be (ie he says silly things that make his opponents laugh and thankful he isn't one of them). But he also opposes most of the platform on which Boris stood and he says and does some truly offensive things. I cannot see Coleman shutting up for two years. Nor can I see him being bought off with a job - however much he loves chains of office.

More widely, the Tories did just what they had to in order to win on Thursday. They were policy lite, but who cared - they weren't Labour and that was pretty much all that mattered. But you cannot win a general election without policies because the media will demand that an incoming Government explains what it is going to do. So Cameron is going to need to drag his party along with some policies that will appeal to voters. And it'll be tough. We are still talking about the party of Tebbit and Ken Clarke, both of whom like speaking out on the issues that matter to them.

And then there is the media. While they have been focussing their attention on Brown and his woes (and fair enough to them for that), they have, nevertheless, been keeping a weather eye on Cameron. They are waiting for him to show any signs of weakness, at which point they will jump. The media, much like political opponents, don't like a smart arse. And Cameron is currently the smartest of arses.

The challenges for Cameron are pretty much similar to those from Brown - the 42 days vote (he needs not only to have a 100% loyal turnout for his own MPs but he needs to ally himself with Labour rebels so as to win the vote); Crewe and Nantwich (Dave has to win); Henley (the Tories have to hold it convincingly to prove that they won't be leaking vote to the Lib Dems) but also the development of those new policies and a convincing manifesto.

Over to you Mr Cameron. Have you really got it?

Saturday, 3 May 2008

London - more than a little deflating

There's no doubt about it, the London results took the gloss off what had been a pretty good set of results until then.

It's not just the mayoral result, but the GLA too where the Party completely failed to live up to expectations.

At least with the Mayor it is possible to understand what went wrong more easily. Some contests just get personal and this was one of those. But, for some reason, when it gets personal in that way, the public just can't seem to cope with more than two candidates in the mix and so everyone else gets squeezed. And that's what happened to Brian Paddick. In the hectic mix of Ken vs Boris, there was very little room for Brian. Both of the leading two were such polarising figures that most voters were desparate to vote against the one they hated most (and I think far more people voted against than for either of them). In an effort to see off their personal nemesis, electors ignored the claims of an outsider because they feared he could not win.

There will be some debate about whether Brian was the right candidate. Ignoring the fact that he was chosen by the membership, I think that he was. We know that we were likely to be up against a Ken vs Boris contest and so we needed something special to come through the middle. With the possible exception of Lembit, I don't think we have anyone in our party who could compete purely on the basis of personality with those two. We could have put up another politician - Lynne Featherstone has been mentioned - and I think she would probably have done well - perhaps better than Brian did. But, perversely, I think a political outsider such as Brian was our only hope of winning. OK, it didn't work but it was our only hope.

So much for the Mayor, what about the Assembly. Clearly there is much trickle down from the mayoral ballot. If people are drawn to either Ken or Boris then they may stick with either Lab or Con on the Assembly ballot. Yet the Greens managed to avoid this failing. They held their two Assembly seats. Was this because of the deal they struck with Ken over mayoral second preferences? Quite possibly. Should we have done so - clearly a matter for debate.

Choosing some of our GLA candidates so late in the day didn't help but then neither does the lack of understanding about what GLA members actually do. The Lib Dems always do really badly in elections such as this where the public cannot directly relate to the post being elected. So they tend to mirror their mayoral vote on the Assembly ballot.

Whatever the case, I hope that the Party has a proper inquest into the London campaign and opens this up to members across the capital. This is not a demand for bloodletting, but there needs to be a decision that this cannot be allowed to happen again.

Clegg on tour - pictures

Here are a few pics from Nick's tour around the country yesterday.

From top:
Nick in St Albans with PPC Sandy Walkington and new Council Leader Robert Donald (in his 1974 era rosette); Thumbs up from the St Albans winning team; Nick congratulates Carl Minns and his team in Hull; Nick chats to the troops in Hull; Nick with Paul Scriven, new Leader of the Council in Sheffield; the six new councillors in Sheffield, with Paul; Nick and two of the Sheffield team.

The most tiring day is the day after the election

Just back in Cornwall after a totally exhausting 24 hours with Nick Clegg travelling the country to congratulate various victorious Lib Dem teams. Set off from Lanson at 3am Friday morning to drive to Cowley St and then made it to St Albans, Hull and Sheffield before coming home again.

Have to say, of all the great news stories (yes, I know we didn't do as well as the Tories, but...), the best was Sheffield. I've been there three times now in the past few months and they are a great bunch. And they managed to win everything they could have hoped for. The last Tory on the Council has finally been winkled out. And they picked up new wards by as many as 1100 vote majorities. Well done to Paul Scriven et al. Have to say that Nick was grinning from ear to ear when he heard that one.

Joke of the day was a comment from a Lib Dem staffer (who shall remain anonymous) who, on seeing the Eric Pickles, the corpulent Tory Local Govt spokesman, on TV asked if he was putting on a pound for every seat won.

When I got to Cowley St this morning, we stood at +12 councillors and one point ahead of Labour in the share of the vote. I thought that was pretty good. To be honest, there would be very little difference in reality if we had been a point down on Labour and -12 seats, but we were just on the right side of two close calls. And to actually increase our gains as the day went on was even better.

I have a message to those who think it was a bad day for the Party and particularly for Nick. Stick it. As noted above, of course we didn't do as well as the Tories - and well done to them - but we more than held our own. We gained seats and gained councils. We took seats off both other parties. Ok - not everything went well, but enough did to make it a very good firts election night for Nick.

Now, have I mentioned Sheffield?

PS - will post pics when alive

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Brown shafts himself

If I were Gordon Brown, praying that my party does not get wiped out in today's elections, the last thing I would want to do is remind voters about one of my Government's biggest cock-ups.

So why does he pick today to hold a meeting in Downing Street with General Petraeus. All it can do is put the issue of Iraq in the minds of those on their way to the ballot box.

Talk Talk raises the online voting myth

Another polling day, another chance for internet firms to push online elections.

According to Iain, a YouGov poll for TalkTalk claims that 50% of people would be more likely to vote if they could do so online.

As usual, this poll is complete bollocks*. Apart from the uber-geeks, no-one is going to vote purely because they can do so online. They will do so because they are inspired to vote for (or against) a particular candidate or party. All internet voting can do is to make voting a little bit simpler.

When I worked for the Electoral Reform Society, we used to get polls like this all of the time. I seem to recall one which claimed that the number more likely to vote online was 90% so at least the trend is in the right direction.

I have two fundamental concerns about this sort of statistic. First, it doesn't measure how likely they are to vote with or without online elections. Simply raising their tendency to vote from 'absolutely no way' to 'almost certainly not' doesn't get us very far, but they will fill the criteria that Talk Talk needs for their poll.

Second. It's just not borne out by the facts. There have been a few trials with online elections in the UK since 2000. Cities including Sheffield and Liverpool have tried it. Whilst the technology seemed to work ok, there was no magnificent rise in turnout. In fact, in those areas trialing e-voting (of various kinds) turnout actually rose by just 1.5% in 2004. Sounds like a bit of an improvement? Well not when you compare it with those areas where there were pilots of any kind where turnout rose by 2.5%. So you could claim that e-voting actually lowers relative turnout.

And what is more, e-voting is massively expensive. For an average local election, it costs about £2 per vote cast. For an e-election, that figure rises to about £102. Great value for money.

While the technology worked ok in the trials, that is not to say a more widespread use would not attract hackers of all descriptions - from those who want to rig the result to those who simply want to wreck the whole thing. No computer system is completely safe and a UK general election (for instance) would be a high profile target. And because it uses black box technology, elections are always going to be treated with suspicion by more than just the nutty conspriacy theorists.

*note to YouGov: I'm not criticising your polling abilities

Frit Tories back out of poll promise

According to the Times, Boris Johnson won't be standing down as MP for Henley if he wins the London Mayor contest today. This can only be because the Tories think that they might get beaten in any by-election.

This is David Cameron's new emboldened Conservative Party that is confidently predicting more than 200 seat gains and over 40% of the poll. And they're scared. Of the little old Liberal Democrats.

(Oh, yes. And announcing a massive backtrack on polling day when the broadcasters won't run any 'contest' stories is a very, very cheap trick)