Arise, geeks

In the darkest hour of the night, around 4am when Evan Harris lost his seat, someone reminded me of this Woody Allen quote:

People get the government they deserve. Unfortunately, I get the government they deserve too.

Oxford West and Abingdon was the only moment last night that I was actually scared. Not just grumblingly disappointed with the whole thing on a partisan Lib Dem level (I’m on record as saying I’d have been happy with 25% and that remains my position – I would have been). Really scared. What sort of world is it where Evan Harris can lose his seat to a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship? I stress I know nothing about the woman herself, but the background to his defenestration – hate mail from pro-life and animal cruelty groups, frenzied character assassinations from the ghastly Cristina Odone, and an unspeakably unpleasant piece of twit-gloating from the even ghastlier Nadine Dorries soon afterwards – is inescapable.

Evan lost his seat because an ungodly alliance of the Daily Mail mob, the woo mob and the Christian fundie mob went after him with pitchforks and burning torches. It worked. They’re probably dancing round a flaming pyre somewhere right now, celebrating, before they sober up with a spot of demon exorcism.

It scares me, the thought of these people imposing their morality on others. That’s why I’m a liberal. I don’t want these puritans trying to influence my life and my rights, reducing the abortion limit on moral grounds, building their narrow beliefs about familial organisation into my tax system and turning out baseless judgemental guff under the banner of “social research”.

Why, then, am I getting them? Partly, lets face it, because Christian Conservatives tend to be good at attracting money, and money wins  political campaigns as we saw in Richmond. But also partly because their mindset lends itself to collective activity in a way that mine, frankly, doesn’t. It took me twenty-eight years to stop seeing politics as some dirty little squabble far beneath my lofty uber-rational notice. What, you mean I might have to commit to things I might not 100% agree with? Do things I couldn’t see the point of? I might have to – gulp – surrender some of my autonomy to a group identity?

Look again at that moment, 4am this morning, right there. Yes, I do have to. If I want people  like Evan to stop being beaten and people like Nadine to start being beaten, I’ve got to be prepared to give a little autonomy, do all the usual grunt work, put in what I can,  be prepared to be (in some sense) part of an organisation. Do things, say things and support things I wouldn’t necessarily choose to if it were entirely up to me.

And so do you. If I’ve specifically asked you to read this post (and you are, for which, thank you) it’s because I think you’re, in some sense, a great and mighty nerd, and I think it’s time we started to put things on a more formal footing if we want to (a) get Evan back into parliament and (b) stop the same battles being lost elsewhere. I don’t suggest for one moment that joining the Liberal Democrats is necessarily the thing you need to do. There are more specific ways you can help Evan regain the seat, and in any case staying out of membership means you could also help, say, a independent candidate in the same way. But sooner or later, this endarkenment thing is really going to start to close in upon us, and we are each going to have to be prepared to be a cog in the engine of reason that resists. And that might mean you – you precious little rational autonomous snowflake, you – doing things that are a bit poe-litical.

Because make no mistake – our opponents, the purveyors of unreason, the doctors of woo and the anti-secularist Christians, have no compunction whatsoever about conforming and stifling independent impulses to achieve their goals. They revel in it. It’s the sort of people they are. If you’ve not read this account of the Christianisation of Tory party policy by the excellent Chris Cook at the FT, you should do so. We don’t have to turn into those sorts of people. But we do have to be able to challenge them effectively, and that means organising, mobilising and all those others words that individualistic skeptics instinctively flinch at. It means getting off the internet too.

I do not yet have a clear idea in my mind of what such organisation would look like. I can imagine it might be based on such existing social structures as the skeptics meet-ups, with a fair bit of overlaps with various campaigns such as Sense about Science, PEN, No2ID, Unlock Democracy and so on. But it would be distinct from all these – a sceptics movement which sought a public voice, and leant its numbers to particular political causes. All this is  the roughest of rough outlines my addled brain can produce right now. I’ll return to the thought, and I dearly hope others will too (Christ, I’ve never actually caught myself longing for people to read my blog before.)

We got a horrible, horrible warning last night. If we don’t heed it, we’ve let the slide towards the triumph of unreason begin. I need to leave you with this excessively long  quote from the stupendous Less Wrong blog (and the post is honestly worth reading in full):

I’ll write more later (tomorrow?) on how I think rationalists might be able to coordinate better.  But today I want to focus on what you might call the culture of disagreement, or even, the culture of objections, which is one of the two major forces preventing the atheist/libertarian/technophile crowd from coordinating.

Imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  Afterward, people line up at the microphones for questions.  The first questioner objects to the graph used in slide 14 using a logarithmic scale; he quotes Tufte on The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  The second questioner disputes a claim made in slide 3.  The third questioner suggests an alternative hypothesis that seems to explain the same data…

Perfectly normal, right?  Now imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  People line up at the microphone.

The first person says, “I agree with everything you said in your talk, and I think you’re brilliant.”  Then steps aside.

The second person says, “Slide 14 was beautiful, I learned a lot from it.  You’re awesome.”  Steps aside.

The third person -

Well, you’ll never know what the third person at the microphone had to say, because by this time, you’ve fled screaming out of the room, propelled by a bone-deep terror as if Cthulhu had erupted from the podium, the fear of the impossibly unnatural phenomenon that has invaded your conference.

Yes, a group which can’t tolerate disagreement is not rational.  But if you tolerate only disagreement – if you tolerate disagreement but not agreement – then you also are not rational.  You’re only willing to hear some honest thoughts, but not others.  You are a dangerous half-a-rationalist.

We are as uncomfortable together as flying-saucer cult members are uncomfortable apart.  That can’t be right either.  Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.


With apologies to the Daily Mash.

Here are some of the headlines you can expect to see tomorrow (or if you’re surgically attached to the internet, tonight):




Others have written on these matters (ok, the first two) far more effectively than I could.

(But this much, I can tell you: in a country with a large deficit, a generally overspending government, and a desperate need for stimuli to work and to enterprise, widdling away billions on inheritance tax cuts and marriage tax breaks is high up the list of things you probably shouldn’t do. No-one should be in any doubt about the fact that supporting the Tories for their economic competence is largely a matter of faith.)

Yup, we’re going to get a lie sandwich in the face, which we absolutely do not deserve. So don’t forget – establishment figures like those ordering the articles and those calling their tune are only scared because we, the Lib Dems, represent a threat to their “arrangements”. And believe me, I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds – when a mainstream political party led by a decent chap constitutes a fundamental threat to the status quo in media, politics and public life, something has gone badly wrong with the system. And so it has.

But on one subject, and one only, they are right to be afraid. Because on political reform, the Liberal Democrats are the real thing, the bona fide radicals, and political reform would spell the end of all the current hegemonies across public discourse. No matter what happens tomorrow, political reform is now the main event, and will be until some sort of reaction occurs at the very top of politics (I hear rumours of a mass rally in London this Saturday, regardless of who wins or doesn’t on Thursday). This is why they’re so afraid – and we did this. Little yellow us.* So keep calm, wear a quiet smile, and fucking carry on. You’re doing great.

*With a little help from the Telegraph. I do wonder if they really understood what they were starting with the expenses scandal. It’s a nice coincidence that the editor who oversaw that has been pushed out  of the group tonight isn’t it.

This is how we know we’re right

Let’s be clear: I am trying very hard not to romanticise. I am trying to do what Lib Dems keep exhorting each other to do, which is keep your feet on the ground, and also keep calm and carry on. Which is tricky. (There’s a lot of things to keep in there.)

I’m definitely trying to not entirely buy into the idea that there is an Establishment, an actual one with a capital E, and it favours the Duopoly, with a capital D, and we, the Lib Dems, are shut out of it because we would mean its destruction, both by reform to the political system, but also just by existing where they think we shouldn’t exist. I am trying not to think all that.

I’m trying not to say things like, “This is how we know we’re getting somewhere.”

But boy. Getting difficult, isn’t it.

First we were given advance warning by David Yelland, former editor of Sun:

Over the years the relationships between the media elite and the two main political parties have become closer and closer to the point where, now, one is indistinguishable from the other. Indeed, it is difficult not to think that the lunatics have stopped writing about the asylum and have actually taken it over.

We now live in an era when very serious men and women stay out of politics because our national discourse is conducted by populists with no interest in politics whatsoever. What we have in the UK is a coming together of the political elite and the media in a way that makes people outside London or outside those elites feel disenfranchised and powerless. But all that would go to pot if Clegg were able to somehow pull off his miracle. For he is untainted by it.

We were constantly assured with much waggling of eyebrows that there’d be “a lot more scrutiny” now. A couple of half-hearted News of the World stories were, I think, the opening salvo on Friday.

Then this from the Mail:

There can be only one credible explanation for the utterly irrational outpouring of support for the Liberal Democrats after a mere 90 minutes of X Factor-style TV politics: the public, disgusted by the near moral bankruptcy of the last Parliament, is looking for revenge.

The electorate are being totally irrational in not voting the way we say! Re-educate them immediately! Sieg heil! The commenters don’t seem too impressed.

A slew of sloppy stories surrounded this central core, attempting to spread misinformation about Clegg’s expenses. The Mail claimed that Lib Dems were “among the worst” expenses offenders, which is demonstrably not true. There was even an attempt to imply that Clegg’s mortgage on his own house in London was paid for on expenses. So far as I know, his second home is in Sheffield and that’s what he claims for – anyone know any different? If not, he is basically being accused of spending his own money on his own house.

And this is what the front pages look like this morning. Open it in another tab. Keep it there in case you need to have another look.

I suspect the Mail need detain us no longer, since it appears to have fallen screaming into a boiling vat of self-parody (Clegg does carry off that pink dress well, though, it must be said). But even the Telegraph, so far as I can tell, is pushing the bounds of credibility. It’s reporting that Clegg received donations from registered donors into his own account, notified them to the Register of Members’ Interests, and paid them out as half a salary for one of his researchers. Which was the purpose for which they’d been intended.

Unless there is something more to this that the Telegraph are keeping back, I am struggling to see what point they are trying to make. I am forced to conclude that they are playing on general ignorance about tax arrangements. An MP, so far as I know, is a sole trader, and employs their own staff. I’m a sole trader myself and I do everything through my private bank account. Of course, many sole traders set up separate accounts for their business, especially if they have lots of income and outgoings (builders, for example).  It’s not clear whether Clegg has done this or not, because the Torygraph doesn’t want  to tell us. Certainly the bank statements also show mortgage payments on his second home, so it may well be the case that this is a bank account opened specifically for expenses purposes. But even if it wasn’t, there’s no obligation whatever on a sole trader to run items through a separate bank account – it’s not like being a company. A separate expenses account would still be an ordinary current account in his own name  anyway (which is precisely why we can’t tell whether that’s what this is or not).

I’m told ITV news were highly unimpressed last night, and this morning they don’t even seem to be running it on their home page, Krishnan Guru-Murthy didn’t think it was a “killer blow” especially given the opacity of Tory office funding, Iain Dale thinks it’s a terrible indictment of the British press which will backfire. Even Nick Robinson reports the view that it’s a smear (22.26pm) and seems to think (see bottom of this story) that Clegg has been badly treated.

Yes, looking at the assemblage of the right-wing papers today, it’s hard not to start romanticising what’s going on here. If we’re upsetting them this much, these press barons and billionaires and opponents of reform, these ghastly, leathery old pooh-bahs of the status quo, we must be doing something right. Look again at those ludicrous front pages – that is how much they don’t want us to succeed. What is it that’s making them this afraid of us, if it isn’t the prospect of getting it in their own corrupt necks?

(In fact, my god, maybe this is how much they don’t want us to succeed. Murdoch’s people can’t really be trying to bully other newspapers into following their line. Can they? Can they?)

And we all know why they’ve had to resort to this. Because “scrutiny” didn’t work. Scrutiny of our policies was supposed to be the moment at which everything Clegg did in the first debate evaporated in a puff of smoke. Scrutiny was supposed to reveal that our policies were ill-thought-out and badly costed, that we weren’t to be taken seriously. Scrutiny was supposed to show, not just that we have policies that some people don’t like (which we do, like all parties, and we’ll take it on the chin), but that none of our policies were worth a damn at all.

That was the plan. It went wrong. During the first debate, Cameron blithely assumed that we had no costings at all set up for the £10,000 personal allowance – and handed Nick a chance to explain them. Afterwards, Cameron admitted he hadn’t read the manifesto, and it was then that it dawned on me – christ, maybe none of them have. Seriously. Maybe they assume it’s just like theirs, and doesn’t have any actual numbers in it. Can the two big parties really have got so comfortable with the idea that the Lib Dems are “useless” and not a threat that they’ve started believing their own hype?

Make no mistake. (See? I’m doing it again. I’m saying things like “Make no mistake.” Any minute now it’ll be “Mark my words.”) These people have come up against the cold truth that all sprawling, inefficient businesses must eventually come across. There’s a leaner, fitter competitor out there who wants your customers, and because they haven’t got an existing custom base, they have to work twice as hard to be viable. Their offering has to be, as Clegg put it of the manifesto, “stress-tested to destruction”. Because that’s the reality of life for a third party in a duopoly system. The big parties spent three days trying to land blows on policy, and only succeeded when they lied about them (there are now people in Britain who honestly believe that it is Lib Dem policy to give the vote to paedophiles).

Hence the wild expenses stories, the ludicrous front page spreads, the incredible spectacle of the Mail incandescent and spinning with fury because the good little peoplebots aren’t doing their masters’ bidding.

The Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun and the Express absolutely do not want you to vote Liberal Democrat. They don’t want to see the first sign that their time has come, that oligarchical politics controlled by billionaires might not be what people want any more. Even after the election, however it goes, we’ll be on their radar. We’ll get an occasional warning shot across the bows if we look like getting important again, while the rest of the time they’ll redouble their efforts to return British politics to stage two of Ghandi’s maxim:

First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you win

We probably won’t succeed this time, maybe not even next time. But everyone knows that the plucky little underdog eventually wins, and no-one knows this better than the national press of Great Britain. That’s why they’re so scared.

The resources controlled by these people are enormous. With odds like this stacked against us, as Terry Pratchett might say, how can we possibly lose? It’s a million-to-one chance, but it might just work.

(Hey, count yourself lucky I didn’t finish up with “We cannot falter. We dare not fail.”)

Goodbye, big society

Running behind on literally everything, even drinking, but I must just share with you the new Tory election poster, courtesy of Tory Bear:

Brilliant, ain’t it? I think he’s actually just punched a benefit claimant and is haranguing them as they lie spreadeagled just out of shot.

Fuck the big society, fuck liberal conservatism, fuck red Toryism, Dave’s got his shirtsleeves rolled up and he’s heading back to Nastyland, ohhhhh yes…

Mind you, my absolute favourite bit of ToryBear’s post is where Will Straw pops up at the end to say “Bizarre. This is existing government policy.”

The Labservative stroll to victory continues!

Something weird is happening…

In the words of Will Bailey from the West Wing, “Something weird is happening. We’re winning.”

Polls schmolls. It’s a volatile period; the most you can say with any certainty is that the race has closed up a bit. If we stick at 25% on the day, I’ll be very happy. No, I’m talking about this. It’s a Facebook group.

So what! I hear you cry. Were you not always opposed to Facebook political campaigning as lacklustre, overdone and counterproductively irritating? Why yes, I was, and am. Official political campaigning on Facebook is almost uniformly awful, tedious, uninspiring drivel. I can’t cope with my Facebook profile any more because I’ve given in to too many of those bloody “Lib Dems For Smaller Bankers Bonuses and Larger Coffee Tables for All!”-type invitations. The only function official Facebook groups can perform well is to make contacting people easier. In terms of winning hearts and minds and whipping up popular sentiment, they’re about as effective as Arnold Rimmer in smarm mode.

This group however, is not official. Yes, if you look through the membership now you’ll find all the usual suspects, but when I joined about a week ago, the group had about 13,000 members. And I was at first shocked, and then beside myself with joy, to realise I didn’t recognise a single bloody one of them. Lest you suppose from this that I have some kind of scary person recognition database built into my brain, let me assure you that I have. I know everybody in the online Lib Dem world – or at least their names and gravatars. Every councillor, every activist, every half-affiliated sympathiser who has ever commented on Lib Dem Voice. Not because of clever networking, I hasten to add (my idea of clever networking is to return phone calls within the same week), just by hanging about in the yellow bit of the internet so much. Tragic would be my middle name if it wasn’t Emily. There’s very little goes on online to do with the Lib Dems that I don’t know about. And I didn’t know about this.

And I love this one:

And to think a couple of months ago we were impressed with people playing around with This group is heading for 100,000 members. They range from committed supporters who have looked up the policies and liked them, through those mainly motivated by electoral reform, to some people who just know they like the sound of the Lib Dems and feel they’re being hoodwinked by the current state of affairs.

They had and have one thing in common, though. All of them – perhaps especially the last group – are absolutely incensed by the fact that they keep being told not to vote Lib Dem, either because it’s a “wasted vote” or because it will let one of the other two in. They’re incredulous about this. Why would anyone take such an instruction seriously? The relief in the wall posts from people who’ve just joined is palpable. Why should I listen to this self-serving bullshit? Why would I believe any newspaper anyway? And thank god there are lots of other people out there who feel the same as me. They mention the self-interest of the old parties, the lazy misinformation of the media, the innate daftness of not voting Lib Dem because they won’t get enough votes to win. They get it. To coin a phrase, they really are thinking what we’re thinking.

But if I’m giving the impression that it’s an entirely negative group with fuck-you-system overtones, I should correct it. They exhort each other to make sure they’re registered to vote, they quote bits of the manifesto at each other, they positively demand to know how they can help campaign. Very early on, I remember someone suggesting that the group should try to get an official sponsor on board, a Lib Dem MP maybe? Get them on board? My god. There isn’t an MP in Britain who wouldn’t beg to be a part of what you’re doing. They’re joining your group anyway. This is what they – the good ones, at least – dream of happening. A genuine grassroots movement that reassures them they’re on the right track, and that they can tap for volunteers. In fact, every so often someone pops up from a local party and asks for help. I’m told one of the parties who did that got six replies within a couple of hours.

And if you think that group and its outputs are impressive, consider this:

So far as I know, someone made that, for no money, without official say-so, because they wanted to. All this is only telling us what we instinctively know –  that command-and-control political campaigning must evolve to survive, and that bottom-up can look as good as or better than top-down because it has superior resources.  No-one is paying these people to do these extraordinary things.   Ashcroft himself couldn’t buy it – there are too many people involved.

How much did the Tories spend on their derisory poster campaigns anyway? Whose idea was it to put Dave’s face on the side of whacking great buildings like a pompous mekon giving advance notice of his invasion? And a six-foot gravestone, for god’s sake? Did anyone actually think about how that was going to look in meatspace, as opposed to on a monitor screen? How, given free choice from a wealth of pictures of Gordon Brown looking like a gargoyle with unnatural  appetites, have the Tories managed to pick a relatively inoffensive picture of him for their latest efforts? Whatever happened to #cashgordon, after we’d all stopped laughing at its spectacular fail? Whatever happened to the idea – freely promoted by dead tree media without question – that the Tories were doing the most advanced online campaigning?

It always sounded like total bullshit, and it was. A spectre conjured by briefing a sympathetic media with the message, “This is what is happening on the internet.” As if seeing it in a newspaper might make it true (this is quite a revealing glimpse at the Labservative mindset, actually). I’m still waiting for the Tories’ brilliant online campaign to make an appearance and it still hasn’t.

None of this means, of course, that the grassroots Lib Dem campaign taking shape is going to have a huge impact on this election. Online campaigning still only reaches a small section of the population, and the bulk of that section is young – some of them are too young to vote.  But the reach can only grow, and the effects of online campaigning leech out into newspapers and into media consciousness anyway. It already looks like it’s given us a lasting slogan in “I agree with Nick”, admittedly with a little help from the Prime Minister.

Rob has started to collect examples and is twittering when the blog is updated, so if you see anything you think should be added, go and let him know. Regardless of what happens in the election itself, this stuff needs to be recorded so that it can form the raw material for half a chapter in someone’s definitive monologue on how internet politics changed in 2010.

Who was the revelation of the first leaders’ debate?

I was entirely unsurprised by Nick Clegg’s performance last night. He came across like he usually does in bloggers’ interviews – passionate, quite eloquent at times and for want of a better word, genuine. He did all the things you’re supposed to do – replied directly to the questioner, remembered people’s names, visibly tried to work out answers to the actual questions rather than defaulting immediately to manifesto-speak. Had good posture, looked relaxed, came across like a human being. Derided the old way of doing things, suggested that we could do something different.  Blah blah. Seen him do that schtick a dozen times. None of it is rocket science.

He did have the advantage of a reasonably coherent policy programme to talk from, but the real explanation, which I’ve not seen any journalist mention, is the town hall meetings. It was one of the first things Clegg said on becoming leader in December 2007, that he was going to get out of Westminster every couple of weeks, and stand in a town hall or community centre or a school taking questions and flak from an unscreened, unplanted audience. He’s done that all round the country, unnoticed by the London media establishment, probably about a hundred times in the last two years. It’s not surprising that he’s quite good at it, it’s just practice.

One moment where I felt the practice really showed was the question from a boy about his schooling, and why it involved such a frenetic pace and so many exams. Both Brown and Cameron talked in general terms about schooling, standards and funding, but it was only when Cameron started on the horrors of unruly pupils that it dawned on me -these two have only ever talked about this to adults. Parents, teachers, whoever. Their stock lines on education are absolutely not prepared for answering a question from a pupil.  Clegg got it – “you mean creativity, don’t you” – and answered the question that had been put to him, with the situation of the questioner in mind.

He also displayed familiar faults, chiefly getting carried away with exploring one point when a sharply rattled-off list is what’s required.  I noticed this habit when he was running for the leadership. It was really noticeable when Cameron asked him – rhetorically – how raising the personal allowance to £10,000 was going to be paid for, and Alistair Stewart quickly stepped in to make the rhetorical actual. This was an on-a-plate opportunity for Clegg to put the lid on the question and rattle off  the list of measures which will pay for the raise – they’re in the manifesto – and he only got to the end of one of them because he got so enthusiastic about why it was a good idea. Brown rattles off lists all the time and sounds awful, but there is a happy medium and I don’t think Clegg has quite got there yet. He needs to sharpen this up.

Still, all in all, an unsurprisingly decent performance.

No, the revelation of the night, for me, was David Cameron. Anxious, sweaty, somehow indefinably lumpy (and something else…piscine?),  many of his answers were delivered in the sort of rambling bark that works so well on the floor of the House of Commons and was clearly never, ever going to work on camera and to a studio audience.  After he saw Clegg do it, he got the hang of the fact that in an audience debate you go back to the questioner – but he needed to be shown, apparently.

This surprised me, because I thought that, however much I might disagree with him, he was a player. This is Dave the great communicator, right? Elected leader because he was supposed to be good at putting across what the Tories stand for. Regularly wipes the floor with Brown at PMQs and stares earnestly into TV cameras when being interviewed by journalists.  We all expect Brown to sound like a dalek – “I  say to the nation” – but I was very surprised at how often Cameron came across as thoroughly ill-at-ease.

He  was confident on the traditional Tory stamping grounds of crime and immigration, mind, and that slightly bombastic hectoring style he has is what right-wing people like to hear when those topics are discussed. So that worked well, and will have shored up his core vote without necessarily persuading anybody new. But his style has basically been evolved to browbeat Brown across the despatch boxes, and he seemed torn between going for business as usual and the (correct) realisation that it would  make him look like a boor in this context. He had no alternative style to call upon, it seemed.

But above all, I was surprised by his failure to put across a positive vision for government. I have never been one of these people whose default assumption is that he represents the “same old Tories”. I thought they were supposed to be all about self-reliance, big society, mutualism, localism, a smaller state, volunteering etc. That was what the manifesto was all about. And yet last night, Cameron didn’t mention it until his closing speech, as if he’d suddenly found a shoe horn.

I suppose what this underlines is how poorly the Tory narrative actually hangs together. The common soundbite policies – the NI package, inheritance and marriage tax breaks, longer prison sentences,  immigration cap, being nice to the NHS – are all either traditional and predictable, or have been made on the hoof in response to attack. None of them have much to do with all the localism/DIY stuff. The exception is probably free schools, but then Gove and Cameron shaft any DIY overtones in that one every time they start ranting in enormous detail about how Key Stage Whatever History should be taught.

This debate was always Cameron’s to lose (Labour and Conservatives will tell you that it was Clegg’s to win, but the odds said different. It  was his to not fuck up, yes, but to win he had to win). But this is not just about expectations – opportunities were clearly missed by Cameron. Brown was offering the audience fear, Cameron could have been the man of the hour if he’d offered them hope. He not only failed to do that, he failed on some surprisingly basic presentational stuff as well. I’m not sure what they’ve been doing up to now, but I suspect there’ll be some very different practising going on in CCHQ over the next week or so.

Vote tactically for usssssss

When Lord Adonis wrote in the Independent this morning, urging Lib Dems to vote Labour tactically to keep the Tories out, I was no worse than amused. “Oho,” I thought, “Ha” and other noises. There’s very little any Lib Dem can do about the increasingly desperate scrabbling of fingernails on the vertical deck of the Bad Ship Labour except close their eyes and wince.

Then around about lunchtime the Prime Minister (in what may yet prove to be a monumental error) told Labour supporters they should vote tactically for Lib Dems where necessary. “Hrrrm,” I thought, “Fnnnuurgh.” Stop telling people how to vote, you cynical bastards.

And so it was that I was mildly irritated, but still, on the whole,  a bit amused. The reason it may be a monumental error is that it can only push people wavering between Lib Dems and Tories towards the latter. That’s the exact opposite of what Labour want. If Brown is trying to build a Great Big Liberal Left Alliance to Oppose Teh Evul Toriez, a la Liberal Conspiracy, he’s going about it in as ham-fisted a manner as we’ve come to expect of a man who regularly tells audiences of hardened political hacks how much he wuvs his wife. He has actually just made a Tory majority ever so slightly more likely. Of course, it’ll be at our expense, but what we lose on the swings we’ll gain on the roundabouts. If I were wavering between Labour and the Lib Dems, I can’t imagine being that impressed with these cynical messages. I think I’d probably think, “Well, sod you then.” The only net losers in this desperate manoeuvring are likely to be Labour.

All good clean fun. But now, like a sudden cat turd in the herb bed, comes this.

Gordon Brown today accused the Tories of turning their backs on their traditional stance of being tough on crime by refusing to support Labour plans for the DNA database.

Conservative proposals to remove all innocent people from the database – apart from those accused of the most violent crimes – would mean more criminals escaping punishment if they win the election, he said.

…Brown told a meeting of Labour activists at a community centre in Stevenage: “This is a big issue and a big dividing line at this election.

“I’m sorry to say that the Conservative party has turned its back on their tradition and said they will destroy that [DNA] data.”

He was joined by Linda Bowman, the mother of Sally Anne Bowman who was brutally murdered and her body raped on the driveway of her home in 2005. Her killer Mark Dixie was convicted in 2008 on the basis of DNA evidence which also cleared her boyfriend, who had just dropped her off, of the crime. Dixie’s DNA profile had been added to the database after he was arrested for a violent assault.

She said: “If it wasn’t for the DNA found on Sally Anne her boyfriend would be serving a sentence for a murder he didn’t commit.”

Bowman has previously suggested that the DNA database should include profiles of everyone in the country in a bid to solve crimes.

The home secretary, Alan Johnson, who was accompanying Brown today, said: “Linda Bowman is a remarkable and brave woman who has suffered the most unspeakable tragedy yet still manages to be a compassionate campaigner for good.

“As Mrs Bowman says, the use of DNA helps the police put the most dangerous criminals behind bars but can also exonerate the innocent.”

Did you see what just happened to you? Or rather, what would have just happened to you if you weren’t so smart and well-informed? (And just generally a pretty cool and all-round fabulous frood with great taste in blogs, actually. Fantastic jacket, is that new?)

On a casual reading, and if you were a casual reader, you would have come away with the very distinct impression that Sally Ann Bowman’s killer was caught and an innocent man saved as a result of the DNA database and that this  would not have happened under the Conservative p0licy of removing innocent people from that database. (Needless to say, this is also the Lib Dem policy).

But you’d be wrong as the murderer, Mark Dixie, was caught because he committed a violent offence and had his DNA taken, not because he was an innocent man already on the database. He was caught because he was caught, and that  is all there is to it. It has never to my knowledge been Lib Dem or Conservative policy that people charged with violent offences shouldn’t have DNA taken and checks run.

(And as it happens, Dixie already had a violent criminal record when he committed the murder, but his known crimes are so long ago (pre-1993) as to predate the database. There is just no criterion whatever on which his case is a justification for retaining the DNA data of innocent people.)

The boyfriend, meanwhile, has even less to do with the database. It appears from the article that he was simply cleared when his DNA was taken, compared with the DNA at the scene and found not to match. No need for a database to do that. The irony is that the poor sap is probably still on it.

And yet this hopelessly unconnected and unconvincing case is being  slyly presented by association as supporting evidence for Labour’s microchip-the-population project.  It’s so full of holes it’s just one great big bloody hole. It doesn’t stand up to even the slightest thoughtful scrutiny (though I suppose at this point we should remind ourselves that the audience were Labour activists).

This is just sick. Ghastly, gurning Gordon Brown is standing up there, side-by-side with the mother of a horribly murdered young woman, stroking his precious database and telling us utter lies. And these are the people who, only this morning, were picking their way delicately through the wreckage of Iraq, ID cards, reforms abandoned and promises broken, to suggest that we – the Lib Dems – had some sort of symbiosis with them. We’re all nice, sweet, lefty people really, aren’t we, they wheedled. Progresssssssive, they hissed.

I feel grubby. Get away from me, you loathsome, tragically corrupt little shits, and  get your clammy, undead hands off of people’s votes. Don’t insult people by asking them to vote for you in the morning, and then driving your great big state juggernaut over some of their dearest values in the afternoon and assuming they won’t notice your cack-handed deception. And stop pooing in my herb bed, I bet that’s you and all.

Digital Economy Bill: vote breakdown

I might write something longer (oh no! stop her!) on the Digital Economy Bill debate later. (Highlights: losing clauses 18  and* 43, Tom Watson, John Grogan, John Hemming. Surprise of the night: Don Foster getting his shit together. Random interloper from the Planet Twat: Denis MacShane. Best moment: old Tory MP whose name I didn’t catch telling the House of his shocking discovery that IP addresses weren’t unique and constant. Worst moment: all of the ones where Stephen Timms tried to talk about technology,  keeping clauses 11-16, the vote itself.)

But I want to say something quickly about the scores on the doors.

As I write, the voting breakdown for the third reading is still available here but it will be replaced with the Official Version at some point in the morning. I’ll try to update it when it does, and if you think my numbers are groggy let me know, because I’ve totted this up very quickly. I have copied the list though, if anyone wants me to check their MP.

Of the 189 Aye votes, I make it 185 Labour and 4  Conservatives. Plus the two tellers were Labour.

Of the 47 Noe votes, I make it 23 Labour rebels, 16 Lib Dems, 5  Conservatives and 3 others (DUP, PC, Ind). Plus the two tellers were Lib Dem.

We’ll get to the shock bit in a minute. The main pattern is very much the usual story (if much more thinly attended than usual), and the crumb of comfort here is that, for once, people saw this happening. I was watching the #debill Twitter stream last night as well as BBC Parliament, and the understandable conclusion of many was that the bill was getting the pwning it so richly deserved. And yes, on the floor of the House, it certainly was.

But when push came to shove, as Mr Head of State put it, it was the numbers, stupid. There were about 20 Labour MPs, mostly rebels, in the chamber for the debate itself, and then 170 more turned up to vote the bill through anyway. Because this is what they do. They sit in the bar and await instructions from the government. This is what they’ve done on everything since 1997. Did you hear Denis MacShane, urging loyalty to the Labour government as a socialist (and as a socialist, obviously he had to stand up for the great unwashed masses of broadsheet journalists)? Did you think he was kidding? This is how these  hopeless dweebs really think. I’m told it was like Passchendaele in the Lords wash-up yesterday, with everything the Lib Dems sent over the top getting machine-gunned down by the 5:1 Labservative majority.

This is what it’s like to have a government with a big majority. This is what “strong governnment” means. So, given that our electoral system is set up to deliver vast majorities to traditional blocs, you won’t be surprised when this carries on happening, right?

Now for the shock (and I stress it was a shock to me, but please provide a link if this was preannounced and I missed it). Wow. What happened to the Tories, and whatever it was, why didn’t we do anything about it? Nine votes! Out of 193 MPs. And John Redwood, who was getting so much Twitter fan mail yesterday, abstained.

My understanding was that the Tories were going to turn out and support the government. Clearly at some point they got cold feet – which would explain why Labour were whipped. The Tories staying away in those numbers – and the fact that Redwood was clearly interested in the bill but didn’t vote – can only suggest a direction of some sort from the top. Individual Tories, largely the old-skool crew, were obviously very unhappy with the civil liberties implications (I see David Davis was in the Noe lobby with the Lib Dems and Labour rebels).

Now, that suggests that more of them were ripe for turning. It strikes me that a trick may have been missed here.

* Just realised I really shouldn’t be calling losing clause 18 a highlight.  It was replaced by a government amendment, the only one that got through. If anything, it’s slightly worse than the original, and far, far worse than the Lib Dems’ amended version of clause 18.

UPDATE: Just noticed this suitably angry post from Lynne Featherstone.

Inside the mind of Chris Grayling

Ok, could we all stop being fabulously dumb now? Please? Since the Guardian shock-horror announcement that Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling wanted to “ban teh gayz” (or, in fact, allow B&B owners to turn away gay people from their businesses), I’ve seen even more misinformation than usual fly round the internet.

Obviously a lot of lefties have been crowing about the “same old Tories”, as you’d expect, and imagining that this so-called “secret recording” shows up Grayling as an evil homophobe as opposed to a completely clueless twat, which is what he is. In response to the lefty crowing, a lot of Tories and libertarians who really should know their facts better than this have been trying to defend Grayling’s point. Honestly, this lackwit is not worth your time, people!

First, let’s deal with those squawking that B&B owners are running their business on “private property” and that this constitutes some critical difference between a B&B and a hotel. Well, for a start, what in the name of blue buggery do you think a hotel is? “Public” property? Every single hotel in the land is private property. Who did you think owned all the hotels? The King of the Potato People? The Labour Party?

What these squawkers are really getting at is that as well as being a business, a B&B is usually somebody’s home, whereas a hotel is solely a business premises. Iain Dale has knocked that one on the head very nicely – if someone opens the doors of their house to the public as a business (and there is a perfectly well-established “badges of trade” test to determine whether they’re conducting a business or not) then they have already accepted that at least part of it is no longer just a home. If they’re conducting a trade, they’re subject to the same laws as any other trade.

To add weight to Iain’s point, the distinction between business and home in the same property is recognised with great exactness in tax law, where utility bills can be claimed as a business expense provided they are proportioned according to how many rooms of a house are used in the business. Plus, I shouldn’t think there’s a B&B in the land where the owners don’t reserve a portion of the house for their own completely private use, probably behind a lockable door. So they clearly know the difference between the home part and the business part. The distinction is perfectly real in both a legal and a physical sense, so why should it suddenly vanish in the case of anti-discrimination law?

The other point I think the squawkers are confusedly flapping around without actually expressing is the difference between a company and a sole trader. We all instinctively know that a lot of hotels (though not all) will be run as incorporated businesses, and a lot of B&Bs (though not all) will be run as sole trades. I suspect this is contributing to people’s sense that the two cases are somehow fundamentally different. Well, sorry. They’re both providing goods and services. Both are therefore subject to discrimination laws. We don’t let caterers off food hygiene regulations just because they’re practising as sole traders rather than companies.

Third point, some people are suggesting that B&B discrimination against gay people or black people is no different to B&B discrimination against groups, hen/stag parties, or people with dogs. Well, yes it is. Because there’s a law against discrimination against gay people or black people, isn’t there. If you’re arguing with the law’s very existence, that’s a different matter, but as the law stands, these objections are meaningless. Because there are no laws against discrimination against people in groups. That would be a very confusing law. Ok?

Now, there is a perfectly legitimate libertarian argument to be had about whether or not anti-discrimination law should exist at all. In a perfect world, we might say, it wouldn’t need to. Its existence represents a curtailment of some people’s liberty (in this case, Christian B&B owners) to protect the liberty of some other people (in this case, gay people). At the time the law was made, it was obviously felt that the liberty of the former group was being exercised in such a way as to cause considerable harm to the liberty of the latter group – enough harm to legislate. This is the kind of trade-off law makes all the time. We could have a very interesting discussion about whether the background has changed, whether the liberties of the two groups are quite so unevenly matched nowadays – whether, in short, the law itself is really necessary any more. If all anti-discrimination law were removed, would we really see a flood of “Sorry, no blacks or homosexual couples” notices in little window panes in the suburbs of Bournemouth and Blackpool? Enough to constitute a harm worth legislating against? Maybe not.

That is all very well. But what we cannot do is invent some legally and physically nonsensical distinction between B&Bs and hotels in order to bend the rules for a certain group of people. This is the absolute antithesis of good law, and of the principles of liberalism. Either Chris Grayling was effectively calling for a review of the entire purpose of anti-discrimination law, or he is a numpty of zero understanding. There is no middle ground (and the answer, by the way, is (b), because Grayling actually voted in favour of the current position, and there’s just no way a Conservative government is going to try to get elected on a platform of repealing the anti-discrimination laws).

And, for goodness’ sake, we knew these laws existed before, right? Why is everyone reacting as if we’ve just uncovered the most heinous, oppressive instrument of state control yet devised by man? Why all the shrieking about “slavery” and suchlike? I’ll tell you what, I’m all in favour of restoring our civil liberties, and I’m also in favour of easing regulation on small businesses, but my impression is that there are one  or two slightly more pertinent places to start those processes?  You know, just possibly?

So, what I’m saying is, it would be lovely if we stopped taking our intellectual cues from a man whose thinking on this and many other matters has all the gravityas* and subtlety of a piano on the head, thank you all so very much, and good day to you.

* Gravitas. Obviously a piano on the head has quite a lot of gravity.

What did Evan Harris actually say?

Jock’s blog has concluded, not without cause, that I am a spambot, so rather than waiting for release I thought I’d reproduce my comment here, because it has several wider implications.

Jock is wondering (as he does with increasing frequency, I think) whether or not to leave the party which, to him, is a travesty to the name of liberal. The incident that has sparked this is as follows:

On Tuesday I noticed that at least three “Liberal Democrat” MPs, for the moment at least, Evan Harris, Chris Huhne and Greg Mulholland, bobbed up off those green benches to kiss the arse that is Alan Johnson via his Home Office junior minister as he answered questions on drugs classification relating to the recent moral panic on Mephedrone and related substances.  Well, to be fair, it was not all love and congratulations.  All three also wanted to criticise the Home Secretary and his predecessor Jacqui Smith for their handling of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, with all three complaining that if the crisis of confidence in that body had not been stoked by the government this ban could have been implemented long before now!

Before I go on, let the record show that I have been known to talk Jock down off the ledge before, but that was when the sparking incident was a handful of hate-filled commenters on Lib Dem Voice telling him he “didn’t belong” in the Liberal Democrats. I thought that the unquantifiable hatred of a bunch of pixels, most of them writing anonymously and under Cthulhu knows what imperative, was a silly and sad reason for anyone to leave any political party. And indeed, Jock quickly agreed when he reflected that the people at his most recent pizza and politics evening were all perfectly happy with him in the party, and they alone outnumbered the pixels.

But ideological reasons are not silly at all, although they may be sad. Ideological reasons are perfectly valid, and sometimes I wonder if the only thing separating Jock and I are ten years of being let down. I’d not want to anyone think I was trying to sway anyone’s ideology, because I wouldn’t and anyway, you can’t, not really.

That caveat in place, let’s tear Jock a new one (comment begins, with minor edits):

You are misrepresenting Evan Harris here. This is what he said:

Dr. Harris: If the ACMD has advised that mephedrone and other cathinones be regulated as a class B drug, I support that recommendation, but does the Minister believe that he or his colleague the Home Secretary are compliant with the newly published principles for the treatment of independent scientific advice, which the Government published last week? They state that the Government must give adequate consideration time for published advice, but the ACMD report has not even been published and the Government have announced legislation. If the Home Secretary received a verbal report yesterday from the ACMD chair, why was it not available at the same time to the media, since the public have a right to know, and indeed to Members of this House? Further, why was there no statement or written ministerial statement today, and why did it take an urgent question to bring the Minister to the House to make this announcement?

May I ask whether, beyond classification, the report contains any other recommendations to which the Minister will respond, and when does he intend to respond to them? Given that it was the actions of the Home Secretary that led to the resignation of six of the scientific members of the council-undoubtedly delaying the work of the council and resulting in it not being legally constituted at the time that this advice was given-how can the Minister be certain that the regulations that he is now laying are in order, cannot be challenged and will deal with the problem that we both agree exists?


(1) He questions whether the recommendation of the ACMD is actually compliant with its own rules. His parliamentary tactic throughout has been to suggest that ACMD is not constituted such as to be able to legally pronounce. See here:

He added: “If it is necessary to act urgently to ban mephedrone then, in provoking this resignation by his refusal to respect the scientists who offer advice, the Home Secretary will now be forced to wait while the council is properly constituted.”

(2) He clearly does not complain that ” this ban could have been implemented long before now!” On the contrary, he queries how, given the state of the council (and leaving aside the legalities discussed at (1)), the Home Secretary can actually be sure the ban is the right decision at all and will “deal with the problem  that we both agree exists”.

I stress this last part because I reckon you’ve read the “agreement” bit as a sign of weakness – and if so, you’re just as prejudiced as the Daily Mail frothers. If you ask a medical doctor whether people ingesting plant fertiliser is a bad idea, he is going to say “yes”. The fact remains, he’s questioning how Johnson knows a ban is the best way to deal with it.

(3) He is on record elsewhere expressly pointing out the shortcomings of prohibition. I heard him doing so on the Jeremy Vine show a couple of weeks ago, and this is the Oxford Mail:

Dr Harris said: “Prohibition is a blunt instrument and can be counter-productive. It glamorises and gives exclusive trade rights to criminals.

“Therefore prohibition should only be used on scientific evidence, which the Government has previously rejected in respect of cannabis and ecstasy.

“Their history doesn’t fill me with much hope that this step will improve matters, since education about the dangers is the key thing.”

(4) If the only thing that will satisfy you is if he withdraws all support for the very idea of the ACMD and only ever stands up in parliament to lecture a Labour government with a 300+ majority on the dangers of prohibition and the essential wrongness of classification, you’re being very silly. He delivers the latter view in public quite happily. But he’s absolutely right not to bother trying to make that case to a government at parliamentary questions.

The only way declassification could ever succeed is if we establish the principle that government must act on impartial, scientific advice, which is why Harris spends so much time negotiating a code of conduct.  So when scientific advice is delivered to the government by an impartial body, he has to stand by it, while raising any legitimate questions about how competent (in the broadest sense) it actually is (which is what he’s done here). He can’t pick and choose what conclusions from the ACMD he supports, or he gives legitimacy to the government when they do it.

I mean, let’s just remind ourselves here that this government fucking ignores impartial advice based on conclusions reached by a scientific method. Some of these people he is dealing with are absolutely primitive, lawless, authoritarian morons. Getting them not to ignore science is currently the challenge. What I think you’re asking for is the equivalent of suggesting that two-year-olds would benefit from comparative philosophy training. In the long run, yes they might, but they’d derive more immediate benefit from being trained to stop shitting on the floor.

Throw what you like at Chris Huhne, and I’ve no idea what Greg Mulholland is like, but this is deeply unfair.

(comment ends)

I suppose I should have added that it’s deeply unfair not just because both content and context have been made free with, but because this is Evan Harris. He does have, you know, a bit of a good record in kind of this area. Argue with his parliamentary tactics if you like (and maybe we should), but you can’t argue with his record on science and evidence-based policy. Anyone who claims to be a rationalist but can contemplate with apparent equanimity the prospect of him losing his seat has gone badly awry in their priorities somewhere.

Anyway, all this has added impetus to an idea I had the other day, for a blog that simply pulls Liberal Democrat speeches from Hansard and either adds some commentary or at least puts them into a legislative context. How much of this could be automated, I’m not sure. I realise the speeches are there for us to read anyway, but I’m not always sure how much good that is if they can be misinterpreted and ellided as much as they sometimes are. What good is the principle of scrutiny if no-one actually does it?

This idea was partly prompted, as regular citizens may guess, by an affronted David Heath popping up here to point out that, in fact, he had asked the question in parliament that I was basically accusing him of not asking. The  internet’s response to the continuing trainwreck that is the Digital Economy Bill has been very instructive in this regard, underlining at a single stroke two hackneyed old sayings – that a lie will run round the world before the truth has got its boots on, and if you want something kept secret, announce it in the Houses of Parliament.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,217 other followers