Month: September 2006

Should Top Gear change gear?

Following Richard Hammond’s appalling accident, a whole chorus of commentators has called for Top Gear to be axed. This joins the existing campaign waged against the programme’s lack of environmental credentials, mainly led by Lib Dem MPs Norman Baker and Tom Brake. However this is one campaign I will not be joining.

Top Gear is a programme about motoring, it is not about different modes of transport. It is entertainment pure and simple. Personally, I do not like Jeremy Clarkson’s style of presenting and I disagree with some of his views, but there are many other television presenters who I could say the same about. That does not mean that I would want their programme to be axed.

So does the existence of Top Gear glorify speeding and encourage people to be environmentally damaging? Of course not. If you choose to watch Top Gear you are probably already interested in cars, and cars per se are not objectionable, it is the way they are used, designed or fuelled that is the issue. I cannot see someone out there thinking that as Jeremy Clarkson drives well over the speed limit in a high performance car, that they should also go out and buy one and then break the speed limit. Maybe we should also ban coverage of the Tour de France as it encourages cyclists to cycle down the middle of the road at excessive speeds. I do not know whether Richard Hammond had the experience to drive a dragster at 300mph, but there is little doubt that he was a highly skilled driver, and I think most viewers know that rather than realise that they can copy what happens on the programme.

What I find embarassing is that some Liberal Democrats have been taken in by all the stunts on Top Gear. By campaigning against the programme and Jeremy Clarkson specifically, they are giving it an influence that it doesn’t deserve. All that we are doing is making the Lib Dems a laughing stock for those who watch Top Gear without actually helping to change any views or really making a difference. Quite rightly, campaign for greater awareness of the benefits of cycling or public transport and against excessively polluting vehicles, but please don’t get sucked in to a row with someone who is actually quite a well regarded television presenter who presents the most popular programme on BBC2.

BBC NEWS: Top Gear’s chequered past
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: Lib Dems deliver Christmas gift for Jeremy Clarkson


Delays at the Leadmill, SheffieldLast night I saw the final night of the Delays’ tour at the Leadmill in Sheffield. For someone who listens to a lot of music it’s amazing that it’s the first time, if you exclude pub bands, that I’ve been to see a band play live. It was also significant I was going to see them a couple of years ago in Southampton when I lived down there, but unfortunately job pressures stopped me from being able to go.

It was a brilliant night and included the best songs from their current album “You See Colours” and their first one “Faded Seaside Glamour”, which included my personal favourite tracks You and Me, This Town’s Religion, Waste of Space, Long Time Coming and Wanderlust.

I fell in love with Delays when I heard their single Nearer Than Heaven on the radio, and after listening to the other tracks on the single I went out and got their album. The Delays manage to combine what to me is the best of both indy and pop, and they stand out with Greg Gilbert’s unusual voice. I would probably now consider them my favourite band. On a different level, the images used on Faded Seaside Glamour and the background to the band witht them being inspired by living under the flight path to Southampton Airport which grabbed me as I was living in that area when I discovered them. What amazes me is how they haven’t been more commercially successful despite having two songs used as backing music on TV and Aaron Gilbert made a competent appearance on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.


The Leadmill

Liberal Democrat conference ends

Today was Ming’s big moment. Did he pull it off? Yes, I think he did. The word I would use is solid. It had the right messages, and there were some particularly good lines. It could perhaps have been delivered more strongly, but then the majority of people will only hear clips on the news rather than whole thing. To me the worst thing was the way that the lighting in the hall reflecting off his glasses created an odd look on the big screens, but I notice that wasn’t the case on television. It did the trick, and with most people agreeing that Charles’ speech went on too long, he had the desired effect. Ming got longer applause and standing ovation than Charles. But the Lib Dems are a community, and so with the press gunning for him, no one in the hall was going to let Ming not get more applause.

This conference has gone well for the party. It has a radical new tax policy, which is as redistributive as the old one but clearly sets out the party’s credentials on the environment. Basically, the party has grown up. It is curious though that the new tax plans were pilloried by some of the party as being far too right-wing, and then you read the Telegraph which claims that it is a lurch to the left. Perhaps that means that the balance is just right. One thing you cannot do though is blame (or credit) Ming for the new policy. It was Charles that set in motion the plans for the new policy, Ming picked it up later and made it a bigger deal.

This was a very big conference. There were more Liberal Democrats at this conference than ever before, and yet despite this those of us who worked on registration were quite chuffed that the number of people in the queue for badges was never in double figures. There is a pretty good stewarding team which is made up almost entirely of volunteers, but the one place where there were some problems – queueing for the bag check – was actually in the hands of an external contractor. My gripe with the conference will always be the same though. Most stewards are great, but some get really officious and are really quite rude when they ask you to turn your badge over or when you are asking them a question. Still, I do enjoy stewarding, and particularly enjoy registration as you see a real cross-section of the party.

One regret of conference is never taking advantage of my stay in the Hilton Brighton Metropole to have breakfast or go for a swim. Most nights at conference are spent talking and drinking until very late in the hotel bar. Which means that when the alarm goes off I roll over and have a bit longer in bed rather than going and eating or swimming.

When conference starts it feels as though it will go on for ages and that there’s plenty of time in which to do things. Then suddenly, you reach the last day and that is it. Staying up late in the bar is great because you can catch up with friends, but by the end of the week you realise that time has run out and there are some people you still didn’t get a chane to catch up with. Some conference representatives think that conference drags on, but I love it and could stay for longer. That is sad, but alas it is now over and it is back to normal life.

Conference to me is partly about catching up with people, and working on registration again has made me realise quite how many people I know, but the big thing about it is that it recharges you and re-enthuses you. It makes you remember exactly what it’s all about and quite how many brilliant Lib Dems there are (although it does remind you how many nutters there are as well) and how much people are achieving or want to achieve. That’s it until March, and I can’t wait for our next conference in Harrogate.

Liberal Democrat conference

My first posting from conference, but as I’m working on registration you just don’t get the time to do as much as you want.

As I write, the party’s tax policy is under discussion. I don’t know what the outcome looks like yet, but it does seem a gamble to put the treasury team and party leader on the stage for it. It might push people in to voting for it, but Lib Dems are a notoriously undeferential lot and may throw it out just because the leadership supports it.

The big surprise at this conference is that I’m staying in the main headquarters hotel – the Hilton Brighton Metropole. Despite it sounding grand, my room is thoroughly underwhelming with a wonderful view over some high rise flats and a roof that’s covered in pigeon poo. Still, it’s unusual for me to stay in an upmarket hotel at no cost, and it’s great being near to everything.

This has been a busy conference. There are more people here than usual and a lot of new people just coming for the day. Particularly today, with people pouring in to hear Charles Kennedy this afternoon. Charles will go down well and there is the risk it could upstage Ming. But the feeling that I get is that Greg Hurst’s book has actually made party members realise that it was right for him to resign as leader when he did. The book bolstered Ming’s position as it made them realise that he didn’t really have a role in his departure and that people had tried to get Charles to confront his problems for years. Charles is still popular and there is huge sympathy for him, but he did have to go. Even if people feel bad for saying it.

I suspect the media will say that Ming is being judged at this conference. I suppose he is, but then the leader always is. But I don’t detect any feeling that people are unhappy with him. They want him to sharpen up a bit, but not in a way that will make him look false and the recipient of an obvious makeover. People are quite upbeat and not fearful of the next election, but there is a little unease as no one really knows how the party will fare next time. Although there is plenty of potential for both gains and losses, no one really seems to know where exactly they will be.

People are talking about who the next leader could be, but not because they want Ming to go, but because there are so many articulate and competent younger MPs on the front bench now. A lot of them have spoken at this conference, and I have heard nothing but praise for Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday. A relief for people like me who work with him.

Finally, a quick thank you to Iain Dale who unexpectedly put this blog at 21st in his list of the 100 best Lib Dem blogs. As it hasn’t been around long and is not particularly widely read it was quite flattering. I feel I have something to live up to now.

I will try and write again at this conference, but this is at least a start.

Equality and diversity

If the comments on other websites and blogs is anything to go by, next week’s debate on equality and diversity at Lib Dem conference looks set to be a bit of a row. Up to this point I had expected the row to be the debate on taxation, but as the party in its wisdom decided that I shouldn’t receive a copy of the agenda despite being an elected conference representative that had registered to go, I missed this particular motion. Presumably as I only registered as a steward and therefore haven’t paid to go I don’t deserve to be kept informed of what is on the agenda. Despite having been told initially that this was the case, I now understand that agendas were posted out but many people didn’t receive them thanks to problems with Royal Mail.

I usually judge how good a motion is by the fairly simple criteria of whether I read it and decide that I disagree with parts of it and/or read it and think “now there’s a good idea”. Instead I read all of this motion and I can’t find either anything to disagree with or anything that seems like a good novel suggestion.

First, the big flaw. This motion is put forward by the Federal Executive with federal applicability. Yet, the whole process for approving and selecting candidates is run by the state parties, i.e. England, Scotland and Wales, and within England the job of ensuring that seats have candidates is largely done by the individual regions. So FE can say what it likes, but it can’t actually do much about it except monitor what is happening. Perhaps that is why the motion is so fluffy and yet vague. This certainly isn’t the first time that something like this has happened. Countless statements are made by the party, often by Simon Hughes, on how candidates should be selected and yet no one has even seen fit to talk to the English party’s candidates chair or the English party executive, even though they run the process in England. The motion says:

Conference calls on the FE to continue to consult regularly with the Women’s Liberal Democrats and the Gender Balance Task Force, Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and the Ethnic Minority Election Task Force, the Liberal Democrat Disability Association and DELGA and all successor organisations, as well as with appropriate national organisations outside the Party

But what it doesn’t say is that it will also consult those people who actually have to put any of this in to practice.

To me, the nearest this motion gets to making any sort of statement on which it can be held to account is where it says that selecting a candidate from any under-represented group should “be considered when assigning target status to UK parliamentary constituencies”. As someone who has always opposed all-women shortlists, this is something that I have previously advocated as a fairer way of achieving a similar result. Instead of forcing constituencies to pick a candidate that they don’t want just because they are from the right under-represented group, we should instead elect more MPs from under-represented groups by letting people pick who they want and then give extra support to ensure that those people stand a better chance of getting elected. Whilst the motion does not say how this will be achieved, we can at least come back in the future and ask what specific actions have been taken to support specific candidates. My primary concern however is that some people already seem to have a belief that the only way they can be a target seat is to pick a female candidate. Whilst this may inadvertently encourage people to give greater consideration to female candidates, it is not the way it should be happening. When people ask which are the Lib Dem target seats the simple answer has always been to tell them to look at the previous election results and the ones with the smallest swing for the Lib Dems to win next time are the target seats. That is the right approach, but I think there is a case for adding to the list of target seats, those places that are still credible seats to target but with a candidate from an under-represented group. The big proviso to all of this is that none of these seats should be allowed to remain target seats if they fail to run a good campaign.

It is ironic that two weeks before conference starts, Liberal Democrat News is full of letters complaining about how lengthy the candidate selection process is. Indeed, one suggestion has been that constituencies should be able to re-select their previous candidate by just holding an EGM. Whilst this may well speed up the process, it is the best way of just selecting favoured sons. Party members will only be exposed to good potential candidates if there is an open selection. It has not always been the case that PPCs are re-selected, but perhaps they would have been if the members were not presented with a better option. The way the party selects candidates quicker is to have more trained returning officers and to ensure that there are more people around who can train selection committees. The English party has been addressing this, and there are already far more returning officers out there. The selection rules may seem complex, but they have gone that way to cover all potential selection problems and we’ve had plenty of those. A good returning officer will understand the selection rules to an extent where the process should not be complex for the local party.

Of the comments I have seen on other websites on this motion, the most astute come from James Graham. He rightly points out where the real problem lies:

In my view, the party’s fundamental problem is not in finding strong candidates from under-represented groups or in local parties discriminating against them. The main problem is we don’t have enough of them. The approach of both the Campaign for Gender Balance and the Ethnic Minority Election Task Force was to provide a mechanism for proactively going out and finding candidates in significant numbers.

Instead the party puts forward a fluffy but vague motion and created a ‘diversity tsar’ in the form of Steve Hitchins. As much as I think Steve Hitchins is good and to be fair, he has a good track record in this area, the approach we need is a lot more simple. We do need headhunting, but not in an exclusive tokenistic way. Instead the party, and that means all party members and not just “the powers that be” should be encouraging those who are good to stand for us, no matter who they are. Those good candidates can present themselves to local parties for selection, and if they are good, that will show through.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: Conference Agenda Motion “Diversity and Equality”

ALEX WILCOCK: Sex and the President

JAMES GRAHAM: Reflecting Britain Update

PETER ON THE APOLLO PROJECT: Rough and ready rhetoric

The beauty of industry

Killingholme Power StationAs today was a day off and with nothing planned, I did what all normal people do, and went off to Lincolnshire to look at an oil refinery.

I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with industrial architecture. The more obvious examples are some of the great mill buildings that you get across the north of England that these days seem to be used more for posh apartments than for making anything. But I also find some of the less attractive and still active industrial architecture fascinating.

I’ve posted before about how much I like the coast of Lincolnshire, and so with a whole day free I decided that it would be a good trip out. But for some unexplained reason I decided to drive around the Killingholme and Immingham area to look at some of the oil refineries and power stations that are there. I’ve uploaded one photo that I took, but I will upload the rest to Flikr when they’ve resolved the technical problems that they’ve got today. (12th Sept update – all photos now uploaded)

After driving around that area I decided to visit Cleethorpes as it is somewhere I haven’t been before and it gave me the opportunity to walk along the sea. It was low tide when I arrived and so I saw very little sea, but it is still quite dramatic to see the ships in the Humber Estuary from a distance and nice just to get a change of scenery and some sea air. Although I don’t really do the traditional British seaside holiday, there is something about seaside towns that I really like.

Anders Hanson on Flikr

Our place to talk

Yesterday saw the launch of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Lib Dem equivalent of Conservative Home, although it’s a bit unfair to describe it as such.

I’ve only just found the site, but it appears to be something that is long overdue – a replacement for cix. Many people who regularly use cix will not like the suggestion that cix could be replaced, but for the thousands of party activists out there who would join in a (private) debate with other Lib Dems but don’t want to spend the money on getting a cix account, there has to be something else.

For two years working in Eastleigh I had access to cix and I loved it. I don’t deny that there is a lot of rubbish there and it can be frustrating, but now I don’t have it I miss it. It is a great chance to debate with other Liberal Democrats in a private forum and I now feel quite out of what is going on in the party. The other great thing about cix was the ability to put out a plea for help or information on campaigning and get information back quite quickly. I hope Liberal Democrat Voice will be able to do the same in its forum, but it needs to reach a critical mass of people going there regularly for it to work. The problem is that there are so many websites, blogs, discussion groups and so one that you don’t have time to visit them all, but this one looks as though it could be different.

For the record, there is also CentreForum’s FreeThink, which I helped trial, but that is largely policy based discussion and tends to be as a result of someone starting a debate through an essay.