Month: March 2009

Currently listening to…

I haven’t done one of my music posts for ages.  Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but recently I just haven’t listened to much new music and certainly none it has been downloaded.  The only new music that’s been downloaded recently has been Keane’s album Perfect Symmetry which includes a number of excellent tracks.  I’ve been a fan of Keane since they first appeared and although this latest album is completely different in style it is style a great album with some strong tunes that are really memorable.  The best songs on the album are two of the singles – The Lovers are Losing and Spiralling.

The other song I am listening to a lot at the moment is an old track – Yes by McAlmont and Butler.  Recently I have been going through my cassettes and gradually throwing them out (largely because I no longer have a cassette player) whilst keeping a note of the songs that I like and want to download.  One song that I stumbled on the other day was Yes and ever since then I’ve been listening to it over and over again.  A brilliant track, written by an excellent songwriter (Butler) and sung by an amazing performer (McAlmont).  It’s just a shame that neither have had the recognition they deserve.

Mark Pack moves on

Liberal Democrat Voice brings news that Mark Pack is moving on to a new job outside of the Liberal Democrats.  I was surprised when I read in Lib Dem Voice that Mark has only worked for the party for eight years as he has felt like an important fixture of party headquarters for far longer.

Hilary’s comment about downloading Mark’s brain sums it all up.  Only the other week I was given a briefing by Mark on election law and then two days ago I had to consult him on one particular question.  He is the obvious person to go to for these sorts of questions.  So how we will manage without him working for the party is difficult to imagine.  Not only that, but he has done some whizzy things that has put the party at the forefront of politics on the internet, despite a considerably smaller budget than the other parties something which I am proud of (even though – as I am sure he is aware – I still remain a little sceptical about the importance of some internet innovations).  Finally, I also remember members in Horney & Wood Green getting pretty excited when Mark moved to the constituency and I know that he then played a key role in Lynne Featherstone’s victory there and Lynne is now also seen seen as being a good example of how to harness the internet to communicate effectively with your constituents.

Mark moving on will be a loss to party headquarters, but I suspect it won’t be the last we see of him.  Good luck Mark.

The simple solution to MPs’ second home allowances

Another week, another scandal about MPs allowances.   It’s obviously about time they were sorted out.  After all, most MPs don’t fiddle their allowances and most of the allowances are used to pay for the things they need to do their job (such as computer, staff, postage, train travel etc) rather than it going in to their own pockets.  But this is all the more reason to sort it out once and for all to make sure the honest MPs are not unfairly tarnished by the dishonest ones or the ones who play the system.

What I don’t understand is how some of these MPs can be so stupid about their expenses.  In the case of Dawn Butler (Labour MP for Brent South) you can actually make an interesting contrast with Sarah Teather (Lib Dem MP for Brent East).  Dawn Butler has claimed £37,245 to run her home in Wembley when she already has a home in Stratford – two places that are roughly equidistant from Westminster.  Sarah Teather however claims nothing as she only has the one home and doesn’t see the need for two when she lives in Willesden Green in her constituency just nine stops from Westminster along the Jubilee Line.  The justification from most MPs for claiming the allowance is that they are entitled to it.  That may be true, but as an MP it is important you have due regard to the most appropriate way of spending tax payers money.  Using it to pay for a second home is far from a good use when you don’t actually need it.

This post isn’t intended just a Dawn Butler bashing exercise though, but it is interesting that none of the Lib Dem MPs in London claim their second home allowance (most Labour and Conservative MPs do).  It’s also worth noting that Sarah Teather was campaigning on this issue a long time before the recent controversies over Dawn Butler and Harrow East MP Tony McNulty.

I don’t doubt the need for a second homes allowance in the majority of circumstances (see the end of the post for why) but I would have thought there is a simple solution to it all – turn the allowance in to a loan.  Instead of taxpayers funding an MPs second home, they could instead be given an interest-free (or low interest) loan that would instead help them buy a house outright or help pay for their mortgage payments.  The condition would then be that the MP pays the money back after they stop being an MP (or earlier if they wish to) as presumably they then wouldn’t need the house anymore and selling it would allow them to reimburse the state.  They should also lose the right to claim an allowance for improvements to the house or buying extra furniture etc.  Obviously if they spend money on the house that results in it increasing in value then they would be allowed to keep that money, but at least then the state wouldn’t end up paying for it and would be no worse off as a result, even if an MP decided to buy an extra home when they didn’t need one.

Where I accept this idea may not stack up is if an MP decides to rent rather than buy.  In these circumstances, Parliament would still need to pay the rent and would obviously not receive any money back at the end.  However, the MP would also not receive any financial benefit from doing this as they would purely be reimbursed for the money they spent and they would of course have to provide Parliament with a copy of their rental agreement to ensure they weren’t overcharging.  I suppose this could allow them to rent from a friend who then gives them the money back, but if these rental agreements were made public documents, the press would soon name and shame those MPs who were trying to make money out of the system.

This idea may have some fatal flaw, (if you spot one please post it in the comments), but it would at least get a rid of any accusations that MPs were on the make, and it would ensure that no MPs were being subsidised by the state as Parliament would either get the money back on the retirement of the MP or the money wouldn’t go in to the pockets of the MP in the first place.

Some of the other ideas I have spotted in the press or in website comments for scrapping the second home allowance completely (and why I don’t agree)

  • “MPs earn so much money they don’t need to have a home provided by the taxpayer.”  There’s no denying that MPs earn a good salary but it isn’t actually that much money if you consider that they need to pay for two homes out of it.  Most people who are in a job that requires two places to live are either paid substantially more than an MP gets or they do get some financial support from their employer.  It’s also important to bear in mind that not all MPs enter Parliament with a lot of money in the bank and they many may not have the savings to be able to pay for a second house at the drop of a hat – even with a mortgage.
  • “MPs should just commute to Westminster like many people do”.  That may be perfectly reasonable if you represent a seat in or near London, but not so if you live further out, and it’s impossible if you represent Orkney and Shetland.  Also, Parliament often sits in to the night and after a certain time it’s impossible to get transport out of London home.
  • “MPs could just live in some sort of barracks or dormitory in London”.  Would you want to spend four days of the week every week living in close proximity to your work colleagues?  MPs work incredibly long hours and we have to let them escape the Westminster bubble by going to their own home or they would go mad.
  • “There should be a house allocated to the MP in each constituency”.  Most MPs already live in or near their constituency before being elected and so do we really want to uproot them from a home they like and may have had for many years just because they have become an MP?  Also, many MPs have different personal circumstances.  If you are married with five children you need a very different sort of house to an MP who is single.
  • “MPs could use the internet to vote and peform many of their parliamentary duties thereby getting a rid of the need to travel to parliament at all.”  I admit this plays to one of my bugbears that everything can now be done by teleconferencing and on the internet.  They are both ideal solutions for some meetings, but I also believe that there’s nothing as good as actually meeting people face to face and talking.  You can pick up a lot more and have much more productive meetings if people actually get to know each other rather than just being a voice at the end of a phone or writing an email.  You would end up with poorer decisions if this was the way parliament met.

The Apprentice

I admit it.  The Apprentice is one of my favourite programmes on television and so I have been looking forward to the new series for weeks (I know that it always annoyingly clashes with election campaigns and so it must have been due).

I accept it doesn’t exactly give you a realistic view of the world of business and in every series the contestants seem to be more and more full of their own self importance.  But I suppose I’ve always been intrigued as to how the world of business and management works and the later tasks do give you a bit of an insight.  Plus as the series moves on the people you see at the start with their heads firmly up their own arse become real people with all too obvious flaws.  It is also reassuring that Alan Sugar does eventually weed out those people who are clearly backstabbers and generally nasty pieces of work.

I have to say though that last night’s first programme was a bit of a disappointment.  The task was dull and whilst neither team was very good at it, neither was a complete disaster either.  It wasn’t particularly obvious who should go and in the end Anita Shah just seemed to be one of a fairly mediocre bunch.

My favourite person in the programme remains Margaret Mountford.  A woman who can kill with just a dry oneliner and who has this amazing ability to say exactly what the rest of us are thinking with just one facial expression.  For the benefit of those Lib Dems who read this, she also reminds me quite a bit of the party’s Director of Campaigns Hilary Stephenson they are both quite unassuming with a good sense of humour whilst also being professional and with a distinctly ruthless streak.

On top of all of this there is then also The Apprentice: You’re Fired! programme which makes you finally understand the contestants better, brings together an interesting collection of guests and also includes one of my favourite television presenters – Adrian Chiles.  A programme which last night managed to stop Anita Shah always looking so miserable.

Google Street View

Since Google Street View was launched last week it has proved addictive.  So at least if the Information Commissioner is successful at shutting it down, then it will at improve my productivity and mean I can get on and do other things.  However it would also be a huge shame that a really interesting and useful tool was forced offline because of a few initial problems.

I expect if I was one of the people who had been caught in a compromising postition and then spotted by work colleagues I might feel differently.  But it is not that different from me taking a photo in the street and then posting it online.  In fact with the advent of websites like Flickr and Picasa that’s exactly what thousands of people do including myself.  It’s just that not as many people will be viewing them and so there is less chance of identifying someone they know.

I expect in the case of Street View the huge numbers of people using the website in the first few days will have found most of the bits that need a bit more blurring out and after that it will go quiet.  After all, to find someone you know it would have to be either a huge coincidence or you would have to know where they were at a particular time and place, and if anyone is getting up to something they shouldn’t be doing near a location where friends are likely to be looking then that seems particularly foolish in the first place.

streetviewI have however so far identified one person that I know – my parents’ next door neighbour.  But as he is gardening in front of his house (as he is most weeks of the year) and as I spent nearly all of my childhood living in the house next door it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I recognise him.  I was actually almost disappointed that I didn’t spot myself as I remember seeing the Google car going past my office, but I don’t appear on Street View and so they can’t have been filming at the time.  But despite all of this, the thing that proved strangest for me about Street View was recognising the street corner that BBC News had used on the front page of their website as the link to an article about the website.  From a small photo showing only a small bit of road and wall I recognised it as the corner of Botanical Road and Ecclesall Road in Sheffield which is a place I walk past regularly – why anyone at the BBC should pick that location of all of those across the country I have no idea.

Agadoo is back!

If you thought things couldn’t get any worse, then this weekend’s Observer brought the news that Agadoo – voted the worst pop song ever – is due to be re-released.

What made this news even worse was that reading the article then meant I had the song going round and round in my head for the rest of the day.  So perhaps for your own sanity you would do best not to click on the link above.  In fact you are probably best not reading this post either.

Oops, too late.

Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2009

Better late than never.  I promised I would post about Liberal Democrat Spring Conference last Monday, but it’s only now that I’ve got around to posting anything.  I know it will have been a difficult week for the one reader of this blog who was looking forward to it, but at least you’ve had the Liberal Youth election fight to entertain you instead.

This was a slightly odd conference for me.  I am still working for Sheffield Hallam Liberal Democrats, but spent much of conference with ALDC helping on their stand, seeing a bit more of their conference training and joining their briefing on the latest changes and planned changes to election law (things change all the time now, and a lot of these changes are last minute so it’s hardly surprising that people don’t keep on top of them).

There were however two downsides to this conference that I knew about as soon as I had arrived.  The week prior to conference was, as is often the case, a tiring week with some long working hours which mean that I was already tired when I arrived.  That isn’t so good when you know you will end up staying up late chatting to people in the bar (at least with a week-long conference you can go to bed early the first night and still have lots of social time).  But also I ended up having to stay in a bed and breakfast in Knaresborough.  It was a very nice B&B (if you’re in the town I recommend the Ebor Mount on York Place) but I just like to be near the conference centre so I can drop back in during the day, change clothes and not lug all my belongings around all the time.

The highlight of the weekend for me was meeting Howard Dean on Saturday morning.  As well as his big speech he also met some members of the Campaigns Department and ALDC to give us his take on the Liberal Democrats and our future (which reminds me, Karin Robinson has done a really good article on Lib Dem Voice that gives her take as a non party member on where the party is going well and where it could do better).  Both Howard and Karin seemed to have a similar view that the party isn’t living up to its potential and had a number of interesting thoughts on how to get there.  Whilst much of what they have to say I would agree with, there are still things that I would dispute or aren’t perhaps as simple as they might want.  American politics is also very different from British politics and so makes it harder for the Liberal Democrats to make the breakthrough we want, but just by saying that I am perhaps also endorsing a very clear message from them that our biggest issue is a lack of ambition.  Another post worth reading is Karin’s reponse to Mark Pack’s discussion on where Barack Obama went wrong.

Another highlight of conference for me was the usual – catching up with friends that I don’t see anywhere near often enough.  One particular mention should go to James a friend from Southampton who I recruited to the party about five years ago.  James was a friend of one of my non-Lib Dem friends and one night he asked me where I worked.  Now normally telling people my job produces either an alcohol-fuelled rant about the evils of politicians (despite the fact they are talking to one), a long discussion about their own personal political hobby horse or alternatively a sudden glazed look, a comment about how dull politics is and never speaking to me again.  In contrast James instead told me that he’d always been a Lib Dem and wanted to know how he could join in.  Since then James has become a keen party activist, leaflet deliverer, canvasser, council candidate and now a conference attendee.

He is someone who clearly really cares about people and the world generally and so I hope that at some point soon I will see him elected as a councillor – which would be a great result from one chance conversation in a pub.  This of course partly depends on Lib Dem fortunes in Southampton turning round, (last May wasn’t exactly the best election the party has ever had in the city), but from my knowledge of the place Southampton should hold huge potential for us, the last General Election results were very good and I suppose because I really like the place it’s also a crossing of fingers hope that it will get better.

I was particularly pleased by Nick Clegg’s leader’s speech on the Sunday.  Whilst it didn’t have any specific lines that really stood out that will be remembered forever, the reason it was good was the fact that it showed Nick as authoritative, principled and, dare I say it, statesmanlike.  It is also the first time in many years that I have heard people cheer a part of a leader’s speech.  This was the point at which Nick talked about banks that take risks shouldn’t be bailed out in the future, and we should only support the careful banks.  I know taking shots at bankers at the moment is a good way of getting applause, but I thought it was a very thoughtful and well considered speech, with only a few bits that could be accused of cheap shots.

Finally, I also managed to get through conference unscathed and, unlike the last Harrogate conference I attended, I didn’t fall down and break my arm.