Read my blog at Huffington Post

I also blog at Huffington Post's new UK site; please click here to read my posts there.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

BT and the festive season

If there's anyone at BT reading this...I am generally one of your happier customers. But I am not overly amused, upon attempting to call your Customer Service department, to be put through to a recorded message that says that you are closed "for the public holiday". Today isn't a public holiday. I don't begrudge anyone some annual leave over the festive period, but - today is not a public holiday. So it doesn't sound very impressive for BT to be closed with "the public holiday" as the reason.

Letter about antisemitism in The Independent

I have a letter in today's Independent about the ongoing debate about an Independent article by Christina Patterson that might (or might not) have been antisemitic (Christina Patterson's own latest contribution to this debate is here). Incidentally, this is not a debate about free speech: I'm not disputing Ms Patterson's right to write what she wrote, I'm disagreeing with what she wrote - there's a difference. I cannot help reflecting upon the fact that when, during the General Election campaign, I wrote something that gave people a mistaken impression of my views on gay adoption, I didn't winge about how hurtful it was to be misinterpreted, or complain that I had been "smeared as a homophobe" - I simply clarified my words to better express my meaning, removing any appearance that I was a homophobe (since I'm not), and the problem went away. Is that perhaps food for thought for Christina Patterson? My letter reads:
I do not understand David Pollard's argument that it has clearly not been "a vintage year for the Wiesenthal anti-Semitic slur awards, if an obscure Lithuanian Holocaust denier and a moan from Christina Patterson ... have both made it into the Top 10 Slurs of the year" (letter, 27 December).

The Holocaust denier in question is an adviser to the Lithuanian Interior Ministry and wrote his offending words in Veidas, one of his country's most popular weeklies. By what measure is he "obscure"? Christina Patterson, meanwhile, wrote her "moan" not in some fringe publication, but in a newspaper so very mainstream as The Independent itself, which is precisely why it merits consideration for a Top 10 placing.

An anti-Semite is someone who has a generalised dislike of Jews. Ms Patterson denies being such a person; in which case, why did she write an article that gave the impression that she dislikes Judaism, Islam and the people who practice them?

As for her assertion ("How I was smeared as an anti-Semite", 23 December), by way of Hannah Arendt, that one can only hate individual "persons", and not "any people or collective" – if wishing made it so. Events in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur surely prove that human beings are eminently capable of hating (and killing) each other not only as individuals, but also in the mass.

Ms Patterson wrote an article giving the (possibly mistaken) impression that she dislikes Jews and Muslims, and then blamed those who were offended for having taken offence. She reminds me of a saloon bar bore who drones on about immigration and then is surprised to be accused of racism.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Simplistic arguments about supermarkets

The BBC is trying hard to publicise a Panorama special about supermarkets. This is one of those issues on which politicians love throwing around half-baked opinions without regard to the statistical evidence. There is a mass of complicated, conflicting evidence about the impact of supermarkets on smaller retailers. I have always thought that when you go to a decaying high street in one of the grottier parts of London, what are the three things that you cannot find? One is a free cashpoint. A second is a shop that will sell you a newspaper. And a third is a supermarket. So poorer people, living in those areas, have to pay to withdraw cash from machines in little shops that charge them more for basic goods - without having a supermarket to shop at more cheaply. Could this be why the Competition Commission has previously called for the planning regulations to be relaxed to enable more (yes, more) supermarkets to open?

I used to work in Pimlico and the Standard was up in arms when Tesco propoosed to open a convenience store there - I wasn't. I was delighted that there might finally be somewhere in which I could use my debit card without being charged, buy a sandwich at lunchtime, get a newspaper - and all without being ripped off. A Tesco would in no way have been a threat to the delicatessens and restaurants in the area, but would have provided some much needed competition to some of the area's existing convenience stores. Of course, supermarkets are open to criticism, but this is a subject on which a lot of nonsense is talked.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Rocket injures schoolgirl near a kindergarten

The BBC reports accurately "Israeli air strike on Gaza as tensions rise". It says that it was last updated at 07:44; it also says that: "The rockets fired by Palestinian militant groups into Israel rarely cause injury or damage, but they do cause widespread fear." Presumably it will be updated soon to reflect the fact that one such rocket has today injured a schoolgirl after exploding near a kindergarten. It's only Tuesday, and thirteen of these rockets have been fired this week alone, ten of them arriving on Monday. What would be happening to British public opinion if these rockets were being fired at people living over here? How would you feel if you lived in a place that had been hit by thirteen rockets since yesterday? With each rocket containing 7-8kg of explosives - more than the 5-7kg carried by each of the London bombers on 7/7, when they killed 52 people. I've been to Sderot and seen a house that had been torn apart by one of these rockets; rather like the one shown here on the BBC website.

To those of you who will say: "Given the suffering of the people of Gaza, what else can they do but fire rockets?", I would point out that, after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, the people there (or at any rate their leaders) had a choice - they could have chosen to work with the West Bank Palestinians, develop Gaza's economy (aided by the World Bank and many other donors) and talk peace with Israel. Instead of making that choice, Gaza instead became the launch pad for thousands of rockets fired at Israel. And now the UN reports that some of the facilities that the people of Gaza do have are being suppressed by the Hamas regime. Which, let's remember, came to power not in an election, but in a coup d'etat.

I'm not going to pretend to have all the answers; I'm merely asking you to reflect for a moment at the firing of rockets at civilians and kindergartens, and how you would feel if this was happening in the place where you lived. When it comes to the wider questions raised by this conflict, I cannot put it any better than my party's leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, when he said recently:
Liberal Democrats have always supported a two-state solution that would bring peace, justice and security to Israelis and Palestinians alike. The quest for international justice is close to the heart of all Liberal Democrats. This sense of justice has led many Liberal Democrats, myself included, to campaign hard for the rights of the Palestinian victims of the Israeli/Arab conflict.

That campaigning for justice for the Palestinian people has been heard loud and clear from the Liberal Democrats. It should always have been accompanied, equally loudly and equally clearly, by an awareness of the security challenges faced by Israel and of the right of Israel to defend itself against the threats that it continually faces.

However, I’m not certain that we Liberal Democrats have always made ourselves clearly heard on this, so let me say it again now: Israel’s right to thrive in peace and security is non-negotiable for Liberal Democrats. No other country so continually has its right to exist called into question as does Israel, and that is intolerable. There can be no solution to the problems of the Middle East that does not include a full and proper recognition of Israel by all the parties to the conflict.

On behalf of the UK Government, I wish the latest Israeli/Palestinian talks well, but I go further – whatever the UK can do, working with its international partners in the EU and the UN, to support the Americans in furthering the peace process – whatever we can do, not only must be done, but will be done.

I particularly believe the EU, as an economic superpower neighbouring Israel and Palestine, has a huge role to play to persuade both sides to take steps towards peace. The EU both can and should use its economic clout to put pressure on both sides; to encourage Israel to restrict its settlement building program and to push all Palestinians into recognising Israel’s right to exist.

Everybody knows what a peaceful settlement to the conflict would look like. We have come so close to achieving it before. Should it come within our grasp again, it must not be allowed to slip. Generations of Israeli, Palestinian and Arab children demand and deserve nothing less.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Latest news on unofficial Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts

As a British Liberal Democrat, I'm never certain which party I'd be a member of if I was an Israeli. Anyway, I was pleased to read this piece from one of Israel's best-selling newspapers about a bunch of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists meeting in Ramallah. These Israelis strike me as being Israel's answer to the Lib Dems. Sure, they are not about to achieve their goals overnight, but at least they are trying - which has to be better than the alternative.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Lib Dem achievements in government

Tony Blair once said words to the following effect: if you're Prime Minister, whatever you do, you will be unfairly accused either of dominance or of weakness - you can't avoid being labelled one of those two things, he said. In the same way, I would suggest that if you're a grassroots Lib Dem blogger, you run the risk of appearing to be either a swivel-eyed loyalist or a rebel without applause. So I know that when I blog supportively about the actions of Her Majesty's Government, some of you have buckets of manure at the ready. However, I do it because I sincerely believe in it - I strongly believe that the Coalition Government is a great improvement on its Labour predecessor and is an exciting opportunity to finally implement some Liberal Democrat policies at a national level. In that spirit, I was delighted to receive this list of Lib Dem achievements in government - it's only been a few months, but we have already implemented a great many of our manifesto commitments, with more to come. I urge everyone to read the document and consider what has been achieved.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Two great Lib Dem ministerial announcements

Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne have made two important announcements on behalf of the Coalition Government. Seven months in, the novelty of having Liberal Democrat Cabinet Ministers has not worn off for me. For years, we've banged on in opposition about the things that we would like to do in government, now we are finally doing some of them - at last!

Around about the time I first joined the Liberal Party aged fifteen in 1986, our leader, David Steel, told the annual Assembly: "I am not interested in power without principles. But equally, I am only faintly attracted to principles without power. Without power all our resolutions, all our idealism, and all our passion will remain mere intention, mere hope, mere dream. We have so much to do, so much to change, such great tasks to achieve. But we will do nothing, change nothing, achieve nothing unless we can first gain power and then use it wisely."

So what are those two announcements? Firstly, as the grandson of asylum seekers, I am delighted by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's announcement that this country is ending the detention of children of failed asylum seekers, which is a Lib Dem manifesto commitment. As Martin Narey, Chief Executive of Barnardo's, says: "Locking away children who haven't done anything wrong at all - and some of these are very, very young children indeed - putting them in essentially a prison environment with barbed wire, bars and locks is not something we should do."

Secondly, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne is delivering on the Lib Dem commitment to boost investment in low-carbon forms of electricity generation - crucial to the fight against climate change. I agree with Friends of the Earth that Mr Huhne's announcement is a once-in-a-generation chance to set energy policy for the next twenty years, as "it's crucial the government makes the right decisions to ensure renewable power thrives instead of locking us into a dangerous high-carbon world."


And Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers are only able to deliver these things because our party is in a Coalition Government with the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister David Cameron (whose speech this week to Conservative Friends of Israel I naturally welcome). So, yes, there are things on which we (and the Conservatives) have had to compromise - but look what we are achieving as Liberal Democrats in government, exemplified by these two announcements by Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne.

As a liberal, I was also fascinated to read about the success of Sports Direct's staff bonus scheme. This is what we have long been saying: give employees a sense of ownership of the businesses that they work for, and you'll be amazed what can be achieved as a result. That's industrial democracy in action. David Steel put it so well in 1985 that there's no better way to argue this point than he did then:
The key to industrial recovery in Britain does not lie in the vaults of City banks but in the capable hands of the managers and employees of our companies. There is a wealth of energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness waiting to be unlocked.
How do we turn the key? By transforming each employee from a wage-slave into a partner in his or her enterprise. As John Stuart Mill put it, ‘by accustoming them to the comprehension of joint interests, the management of joint concerns - uniting them instead of isolating them from one another.’
Partnership is an idea whose time has came, and only our partnership of the Alliance can introduce it because it threatens the whole basis of Conservative and Socialist ideology. They want a struggle between the two sides of industry. We want a successful joint concern, a share economy.
The Conservative government remains firmly opposed to legislation for employee involvement. They thought they could get away with a vague requirement for companies to report on their employee involvement policies each year.
However, a recent study of 100 company reports by the Institute of Directors has demonstrated convincingly that even this limited approach is not working. The survey found that only 9% of the companies provided any information.

I cannot help wondering why the Government is dragging its heels.

Employee involvement not only improves business efficiency, but also improves employee responsibility and job satisfaction. But we want to go further. I’ve spent some time in the last year visiting companies who’ve been a bit bolder in this field.

At Jaguar in Coventry I was impressed by the remarkable recovery the company has achieved in the last few years. The introduction of an incentive scheme, an employee share ownership scheme and improved communication, were central to their recovery plan.

At the National Freight Consortium, an organisation which spans the country, more than 82% of all shares are owned by the workforce - and two thirds of the employees now have some stake in their company. Trading profit has more than doubled since the buy-out in 1981.

The Baxi Heating Company near Preston - one of whose works council meetings I attended last month - is even more remarkable. They have long believed in employee participation. They operate a cash profit sharing scheme and in 1983 the old family company was converted into a partnership, making Baxi the largest manufacturing group in Britain to be wholly owned by its employees. The entire workforce from top management to the shop floor have become owners. Supervision is kept to a minimum. Jobs are rotated on a regular basis. Everyone eats in the same canteen.

Independent researchers have been consistently surprised by the strength of the commitment and morale within the company. Labour-management relations are good, job satisfaction is high and the company is successful financially.

Firms like these should be an example to us all. Employees should everywhere be treated as full partners, their contribution valued and respected and this way the trench between labour and management can be finally bridged. The CBI this morning has warned that pay rises in the private sector should be held to about 4% and they are probably right, but what about profits? They say employees are ‘showing an increased understanding of the need for profits.’ Wouldn’t the employees show even more understanding, if on top of the 4%, a share of those profits was going into their pockets?

For the nation’s economy profit sharing could reduce our susceptibility to wage-push inflation. Our Alliance government will insist on it as part of our comprehensive incomes strategy and so help to create jobs.





Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Washington Post on Nick Clegg and social mobility

An arresting op-ed column in today's Washington Post includes the following:
During the initial stage of Republican House control, the focus will be on steep budget cuts. But a successful Republican presidential candidate in 2012 will need to speak of opportunity, not just austerity, to a dispirited nation.
Obama has that chance right now - as well as a progressive model to follow. The leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, recently addressed the meaning of economic fairness. "Social mobility is what characterizes a fair society," he said, "rather than a particular level of income equality. Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation. That's when societies become closed, stratified and divided. For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is."
Come January, an effective State of the Union address will have less Bernie Sanders and more Nick Clegg.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Lib Dems and the grown-ups

I was talking the other day to a friend about how the current political situation could spark an increase in Lib Dem support in the coming months and years (after all, our membership is rising, I'm told). He asked, not unreasonably, where he could read such a view expressed in the mainstream media? Right on cue comes this piece in The Independent by Mary Ann Sieghart, which I heartily recommend. What do people think of her arguments?

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Peace talks and the settlement freeze

It has been widely reported that Israel's refusal to sign up to another freeze on settlement building has frozen not the settlements, but the latest round of US-sponsored direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). I support the peace talks and I would be more than happy if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed Israel up to another settlement freeze. Israeli Opposition Leader Tsipi Livni is right to say that Israel "can't rally the world by constantly saying no. We need to say 'Yes' from time to time too". But here are a few observations. One is that there was a settlement freeze for several months until recently, but PA President Abbas still refused direct talks for most of that period. If an Israeli settlement freeze is the President's main pre-condition for talks, then why, when that pre-condition was in place, did he refuse talks for so long?

It's worth noting also that Mr Netanyahu, for all his faults, has offered to extend the settlement freeze and has been rebuffed by President Abbas. Also, most Israeli/Palestinian peace proposals envisage 80% of the settlers staying put in settlement blocs on or near Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank. In return for these settlement blocs becoming part of Israel, the Israelis would cede other territory from 'Israel proper' to the Palestinians, leaving the new Palestinian state with 97% of the West Bank. So, much of the settlement building is happening in places which, under a peace deal, would be included in Israel anyway - so is it really so terrible for new homes to be built and extended in those places? It's not as if new settlements are currently being constructed; what's being talked about is construction work in existing homes in settlements that will eventually be assigned to Israel anyway.

As to President Abbas's demand that the settlement freeze be extended to include not only the West Bank, but also East Jerusalem - well, the most recent freeze did not include East Jerusalem, but Mr Abbas did not allow that to stop him from talking to Israel. Why should that change now? Is the President really saying that another West Bank settlement freeze (excluding East Jerusalem, as the last one did) would not be enough to persuade him back to the negotiating table for direct talks?

Don't get me wrong - I think that President Abbas should talk to the Israelis without first insisting on a settlement freeze; he has, after all, undertaken such talks many times before and has come tantalisingly close to achieving a deal. One has to hope that the tone of the recent meeting of the Revolutionary Council of President Abbas' own Fatah movement is not indicative of the President's thinking with regard to the peace process, amid worrying signs regarding the current state of Palestinian public opinion.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Matthew Offord and tuition fees

Post-script on Friday 10 December 2010: Matthew Offord did indeed vote with the Coalition Government on tuition fees yesterday. Whether there was ever any truth to Newsnight's speculation otherwise, we shall never know...

I have a confession to make. I have always rather liked Matthew Offord, Hendon's Conservative MP, on a personal level. I don't know him all that well, but I've known him in passing for many years, and, during the General Election campaign, he showed me, his Liberal Democrat opponent, nothing but courtesy and good humour. Anyway, I was intrigued, watching last night's Newsnight, to see Matthew's name listed by Michael Crick as one of the Tory MPs who might rebel on tuition fees. Is Mr Crick right? Google provides me with no sign of Matthew having campaigned on this, and the Hendon Times has this report of what he said at a recent meeting:
that the change would be “fairer” for more students and claimed more people would value the course they were studying. He said: “Over a lifetime students who go to University will earn a substantial amount more money than those who don't, and will be paying the money back. They are likely to be in a better position before they reach the £21,000 threshold. If we don't do this we will have a brain drain.”
I broadly agree with him and I hope he'll be in the Government lobby later today voting for the Coalition's proposals. I think that most people who voted Conservative in Hendon at the General Election would agree with the Government's proposals on university funding and would want Matthew to vote for them. But it's obviously his decision.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Hooray for Shirley Williams on tuition fees and party democracy

I wish that Shirley Williams had stood for the Lib Dems' Federal Policy Committee this year. I believe that she would have been elected by acclamation (in contrast to my own failure to get on to the Federal Conference Committee in the same set of elections, but that's another story). Here she is to great effect on today's World At One (about 18 minutes, 55 seconds in - well worth a listen) talking about tuition fees and the Coalition Government. I agree with every word that she says and strongly urge everyone in my party to heed her wise words.

I have never properly met Shirley Williams, but she is among my political heroes, along with Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers (and I suppose David Owen) for standing so strongly by her principles in the period leading up to the birth of the SDP in 1981. When I read stories such as this one in The Guardian, I am reminded of that early 80s period. If anyone in my party imagines that the broad membership will support constitutional changes to give a committee of Lib Dem activists control over Government ministers' decision-making, then they have very vivid imaginations indeed. The same goes for anyone who thinks that it should be made easier for MPs to be de-selected as candidates by activists who don't like an MP's political convictions. 

I have always supported the Liberal Democrats' current constitutional framework, which is based strongly on that of the SDP. The members elect the Conference Reps and the Conference Reps elect party committees - representative democracy in action. But no system is perfect and this piece in The Independent by Mary Ann Sieghart certainly gave me pause for thought.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Peter Oborne on the Coalition

Peter Oborne's Telegraph column made painful reading, and I think that the outlook is somewhat brighter than he suggests, but this is well worth a look. In particular:
The whole point about a coalition is that it is like a marriage. Neither party can get all their own way. They have to make sacrifices. That is exactly what happened during the hectic five days that followed the general election last May. It is true that the Lib Dems made certain concessions, of which the most important were their agreement to move faster on deficit reduction and to accept a different settlement on university funding.

But, in return, they secured a large number of hugely significant victories, of which the most important were: an increase in tax allowance to £10,000; much softer policies on short-term prison sentences; the pupil premium; a massive switch of policies on civil liberties; an end to George Osborne’s inheritance tax proposals; and a referendum on the Alternative Vote.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Wikileaks and Hugo Chavez

It astonishes me that people like Ken Livingstone continue to lionise Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. Wikileaks's latest revelations sadly come as little surprise to anyone who has read articles such as this.

Nick Clegg's Chanucah message

Nick Clegg has recorded this greeting to the Jewish community for Chanucah. Happy Chanucah to everyone who is celebrating.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Jeffrey Archer is right

"Jeffrey Archer is right" - not words that are likely to endear me to many Liberal Democrats. He spoke on today's Daily Politics about the petition presented by 100 failed Lib Dem candidates about tuition fees. I am one of around 600 failed Lib Dem candidates from the General Election, around 100 of whom (or a mere one in six) have signed this petition, and I most certainly did not sign. What Lord Archer says, among other things, is that the Liberal Democrats have got a leader who is trying his best to make the coalition work and these candidates should be supporting that leader instead of "making a lot of noise" - hear, hear! He also says that the important words are "failed to get elected" and he's right - these candidates, and I, could, instead of petitioning each other, get together and write a book called How to Lose Elections for all we know about how to succeed in politics. The Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams, who was our Higher Education Spokesperson before the General Election, was really interesting on this on The World At One today (about seventeen minutes, forty seconds in). Of course, I received an email asking me to sign this petition; here, from 4 November, is my reply:
Thanks. I fully appreciate the strong feelings that colleagues have on this. I am very angry about Labour’s having introduced tuition fees and I fully supported our manifesto commitment to abolish fees over time; I did sign the pledge to vote against a rise in fees if elected (I obviously wasn’t elected!). However, I will not be signing this peition, as I am a loyal supporter of our party’s elected leadership and of the Coalition; implicit in the Coalition is the need for both parties to compromise on things that they would dearly like to do, including tuition fees. As a party, the process by which we entered into the coalition was a democratic one, with overwhelming votes in favour of going in. The Coalition Agreement guarantees that our MPs do not have to vote in favour of a rise in tuition fees, but are instead allowed to abstain – sounds reasonable to me. This situation is politically difficult for our party. I ask: does this petition make it easier, or harder, for our party to manage that difficult situation? If the latter, then why would any Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate wish to get involved? We have ample ways of discussing these matters internally, without publicly petitioning our MPs, etc. If everyone objects publicly every time the Coalition does something that we do not like, then how will the Coalition be sustained? And we need the Coalition for the good of the country, at a time of economic crisis. They used to say that loyalty was the Tories’ secret weapon – perhaps we Lib Dems should borrow that weapon from them? If I thought that this petition, or any other public campaigning, was actually likely to lead to a change in Government policy on tuition fees, I might support it, but since it definitely won’t achieve such a change, I believe that it will do nothing other than generate damaging headlines for our party.

I would add that the rise to tuition fees is only one part of a package of Coalition measures being proposed in response to the Browne Report. The Report is being published today and I have not read it yet. Has anybody? Surely a rise in fees, however regrettable, is only one element. What if the salary threshold at which loans become re-payable rises from £15,000 to £21,000? What if the pool of people who qualify not to pay fees in the first place is expanded, so that more people are again eligible for free tuition? What if more is done, as part of this package, to encourage universities to take more students from poorer households? Would such measures as those not mean that, overall, the situation for students has improved under the Coalition compared to the situation under Labour, despite a rise in tuition fees? And to the argument that we have betrayed our voters – well, a lot of voters in my constituency were motivated by a desire for a change of government from Labour (they’ve got that), a proper effort to cut government debt so that we can have a lasting economic recovery (they’ve certainly got that) and a Government that finally included Lib Dem Ministers, influencing what the Government does (and they’ve certainly got that). So I am proud that our party is in government, delivering on so many of its pledges (even if tuition fees have to rise). I keep meeting members of the general public who are so impressed by what we are doing in government – their impression of our party has become more favourable, not less, as a result of the Coalition. Perhaps things are different in student circles, but in the wider community, our party’s stock has arguably risen, not fallen – because, after so many decades in the wilderness, we are now finally participating in government again, and a lot of people like what they see of Vince Cable, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and our other highly impressive ministers. That is certainly the case in my part of London, which is as much “the real world” as anywhere else in Britain.

Letter in The Independent about kosher/halal slaughter

I've just discovered that I had a letter in last Tuesday's Independent about kosher/halal meat production, responding to this absurd exercise in sixth-form debating by Johann Hari. My letter as published reads:
I support the right of Jews and Muslims to practise kosher and halal slaughter. I also oppose the "frightening rise in real bigotry against Muslims and Jews". According to Johann Hari, I am being inconsistent, as "the only consistent position is to oppose viciousness against these minorities, and to oppose viciousness by these minorities".
Mr Hari is thus equating kosher- and halal-meat production with the actions of a thug who beats up Jews or burns down mosques. So law-abiding communities of British people, slaughtering animals under the supervision of the same welfare authorities that supervise secular meat production, are to be considered on a par with violent extremists who hate Jews and Muslims? This is as grotesque as to equate someone who eats a factory-farmed Christmas turkey with someone who mugs old ladies. 

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Michael Moore's speech to Board of Deputies

The Board of Deputies of British Jews is celebrating its 250th anniversary as the representative body of the Anglo-Jewish community. Amongst the celebrations was a special meeting on Sunday 21 November, with a speaker from each of the three main parties. The Liberal Democrats were represented by one of our Cabinet Ministers, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, who gave the following well-received speech:

Mr President, distinguished guests, it is a great pleasure to be here today on behalf of the Liberal Democrats on this very happy occasion.

Before I talk about this momentous anniversary, I want to mention another reason why today is special.

As many of you will know, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, AJEX, is today conducting its 76th annual ceremony and parade at the Cenotaph on Whitehall. I saw the preparations myself as I walked past earlier this morning.

That event is an opportunity to remember the service of thousands of Jewish men and women in the British forces, including those who fell in battle.

Were it not for their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of so many other British service personnel, we would not be free to celebrate here today. They must never be forgotten.

250 years – a quarter of a millennium – is a landmark anniversary for any organisation. I congratulate you.

The Board is a shining example of how a faith group can represent itself. Your history is a very distinguished one, mirroring that of Britain’s Jewish community over the equivalent period.

It’s fascinating to look back to 1760 and to consider the great battles for Jewish emancipation which still lay ahead. I wonder how many people beyond this hall know about the struggle for Jewish civil rights in this country?

How many outside this gathering know that Jewish MPs were elected, but then forbidden to take their seats because they were not Christians? Or that Benjamin Disraeli, as a Jew, could only become Prime Minister because he had converted to Christianity?

Actually, when I look at this history, I am pleased at how much my party figures in it.

Those first Jewish MPs, who won the battle to take their seats in the 1850s, David Salomon and Lionel de Rothschild, were elected as Liberals. The first openly Jewish Cabinet Minister was another Liberal, Herbert Samuel, later our party leader in the 1930s.

On a more contemporary note, I am delighted by the announcement that Monroe Palmer will be joining me and my colleagues in Parliament. His election to the peerage is proper recognition of his years of service to the Jewish community and the wider community he represents in Barnet.

I am very proud of this Jewish Liberal history. And as Scottish Secretary, I am proud for other reasons.

When Edward I shamefully expelled the Jews in 1290, they were forced out of England – but not from Scotland.
Edward’s cruel hand did not extend north of the border. Indeed, we Scots showed what we thought of Edward I at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.
So Jews were never expelled from Scotland.

Sadly, there are not many other European countries that can make such a claim.

Of course, there have been instances of anti-Semitism in Scotland down the centuries and regrettably it still happens today. I am not at all complacent and I condemn all acts of anti-Semitism, wherever they occur.

Having taken a moment to reflect on Scottish Jewish history, which is a proud chapter in the history of the wider British Jewish community, I am grateful for your indulgence.

Across the UK, since 1760, the Board has been present – sometimes as a witness, sometimes as a participant – through all the great events that have affected Jewish people in Britain and worldwide.

Amidst them all – from the Napoleonic Wars to the creation of the State of Israel, from the Industrial Revolution to the development of the Internet – one tragedy stands out, and that is the Holocaust.

Nobody can consider Jewish history without recalling the genocide of so many millions of Jews and others. Even on such a happy occasion as this 250th anniversary, the Holocaust still casts a shadow.

It is right that we remember, and I applaud the work of groups like the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Board itself for the ongoing work in Holocaust remembrance.

Mercifully, Britain, with the tragic exception of the Channel Islands, was spared the horrors of Nazi occupation.

The Board played a pivotal role in the two world wars and the tumultuous events surrounding Britain’s Palestine Mandate.

The story makes compelling reading – the sacrifice of Jewish servicemen in the British forces, the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, the creation of the State of Israel.

But there’s something else to be remembered in the British Jewish history of the last 250 years.

It’s the smaller, human story of a community living its life – going about its daily business, recorded in ledgers of births, marriages and deaths. The reality of a healthy community - bringing up families, worshipping in synagogues, building schools.

In a way, perhaps, that’s the main story of the British Jewish community. With the Board ever-present in a leadership role, helping the community to practise its faith in peace, freedom and security.

And the history of British Jews is all the more remarkable when one considers the history of Jewish immigration.

From the Cromwellian re-admission in 1656, to the arrival of many Eastern European Jews in the late 19th century, the British Jewish story is one of successful integration of migrant communities.

The bustling Jewish East End which, I am told, gave Britain its first fish and chip shops; the pioneering efforts of children of immigrants in the arts, in business, in the sciences and in sport. This is one of the great success stories of British immigration.

Jewish people remaining proudly, openly, distinctively Jewish, while also being entirely British. Another achievement of which the community and the Board can be deeply proud.
But there has been a darker side to the community’s history.
One must not exaggerate the importance of anti-Semitism in the British Jewish experience – but one must not downplay its significance, either.

Anti-Semitism is an ugly prejudice, aptly called “the longest hatred”. There is no acceptable level of such prejudice, especially when it leads to violent hate crimes. It is intolerable. It must always be opposed.

The Liberal Democrats and the Coalition Government are committed to working with the Board and the Community Security Trust to fight anti-Semitism here and abroad.

When it comes to the ongoing debate about Israel and the Palestinians, feelings frequently run high.

Israel has every right to defend itself against the threats that it constantly faces.

As the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, recently said: “Israel’s right to thrive in peace and security is non-negotiable for Liberal Democrats”.
Whatever reasonable criticisms some people may have of Israeli Government actions – such criticisms can never justify hostility towards British Jews.

There can be no justification for the sheer hatred expressed towards Jews by some of Israel’s more extreme critics.

Across the globe, Jewish communities have been the target of terrorist attacks. This remains a concern in the UK.

I hope you will be assured that the Government understands this threat and the fears it raises, as do the counter-terrorism authorities.
But neither anti-Semitism nor the terror threat defines the lives of Jews in Britain today.

It is self-evident to say the British Jewish community is thriving, vibrant and deeply integrated into this country’s life.

An array of schools, voluntary organisations, synagogues and a charitable sector that contributes so very much to our national life, are testimony to this.

Alongside this, the Board continues to exercise the leadership role that has defined its purpose for 250 years.

It’s a democratic, representative body, speaking for a broad spread of our highly diverse Jewish communities.

As a Minister in the Government of the United Kingdom, I not only congratulate the Board, but also thank you. Thank you for all that you do to represent the British Jewish community to government.

The Board is an organisation of which British Jews should be very proud.
I wish you a very happy 250th birthday.

I hope that you shall continue to play such a valuable and constructive role for many more years to come.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A new voice for Barnet in Parliament

I always knew, when canvassing for Monroe Palmer as the Liberal candidate for Hendon South in 1987, that it would eventually, as our stickers said, be "Palmer for Parliament", and I was right - as Monroe is on the list of new life peers announced today. I congratulate Monroe, his wife Susette and the whole family, as I could not be more pleased that Monroe is now going to the Lib Dem benches in the House of Lords. He will make an excellent Parliamentarian, as will the other Liberal Democrats named as peers today. Monroe is a seasoned Barnet councillor, so he will be a strong voice for our borough in Parliament.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Simon Jenkins on political reality

I commend this excellent piece by Simon Jenkins in today's Guardian. I don't agree with what he says about the Liberal Democrats' prospects at the next General Election, but I strongly agree with the advice that he offers to the vocal minority of Lib Dem activists who are critical of the Coalition. His points are bluntly put and none the worse for that! Definitely worth reading.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Video: Nick Clegg's speech to Friends of Israel lunch

Here is a video of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's excellent speech to a lunch organised by Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel on Wednesday. For more on this speech, here is the Jewish Chronicle's report on it.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Student fees - seven key facts

Under the Coalition Government's proposals:

1. All students will repay less per month under this Government’s policy than they currently pay.

2. The lowest-earning 25% of graduates will repay less under this Government’s policy than they do now.

3. The top-earning 30% of graduates will pay back more than they borrow and are likely to pay more than double the bottom 20% of earners.

4. Over half a million students will be eligible for more non-repayable grants for living costs than they get now.

5. Almost one million students will be eligible for more overall maintenance support than they get now.

6. Part-time students will no longer have to pay up-front fees, benefiting up to 200,000 per year.

7. There will be an extra £150m for a new National Scholarship Programme for students from poorer backgrounds and we will introduce tough new sanctions for universities who fail to improve their access to students from such backgrounds.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Government response to my Downing Street petition

The Government has published a response to my 2009 Downing Street Petition against Gordon Brown's cuts to Territorial Army (TA) training. The petition, which thousands of you signed, was part of a successful campaign against the cuts, on which the Labour Government eventually backed down. I welcome the Government's response, which says: "Territorial Army routine training was reviewed and savings were identified as part of an in-year savings package during the last financial year. All routine training has now been reinstated and training programmes have resumed. The Strategic Defence and Security review, published on 19 October, announced a 6-month review of the future structure and role of the Reserve Forces, to be led by General Sir Nick Houghton. That work will ensure that we make the most efficient use of their skills, experience and outstanding capabilities." I shall continue to monitor developments regarding the future of the TA.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Daily Mail on Lib Dem achievements in the CSR

The Daily Mail's website has listed lots of Lib Dem achievements in the CSR, in a column by Edward Heathcoat Amory. Who am I to argue with the Daily Mail? According to Mr Heathcoat Amory, we can thank the Lib Dems for the following CSR measures:
  • International Aid: A massive increase in funding for the Department for International Development, up from £7.9 billion to £11.4 billion over four years, an increase of 44 per cent in cash terms
  • Green Investment Bank: £1 billion in cash plus the proceeds of future asset sales to fund investment in offshore wind farms and other projects
  • Carbon Capture Storage: A £1 billion investment in a ‘carbon capture’ scheme, to take the carbon emissions from a power station and store them deep underground
  • Child Tax Credits: Available to families earning under £41,329 from April and under £23,275 from 2012, will go up by £30 in 2011 and £50 in 2012, at a cost of £560million a year by 2014
  • Sure Start: The Coalition has chosen to protect its budget in cash terms
  • Regional Growth Fund: A taxpayer-funded pot of cash, worth £1.4 billion over three years, with the aim of pumping money into areas of the country especially hard-hit by cutbacks in the size of the state
  • Childcare for two-year-olds: From 2013, disadvantaged two-year-olds will be entitled to 15 hours or more of childcare paid for by the taxpayer a week
  • National Scholarship Fund: Worth £150million a year by 2014, this will help pay for higher education for poorer children
  • Museum Charges: The Government is still funding free entry to museums in Britain.
This is a terrific list, demonstrating the influence exerted by Liberal Democrats within the Coalition Government. Would these things have happened if the Conservatives were governing without the Lib Dems? I have my doubts.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Could nobody be bothered to vote in Tower Hamlets?

I am deeply disappointed that Lutfur Rahman has been elected as the Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Sure, people can elect who they like, but only 25% of people bothered to vote at all, despite the huge publicity for this mayoral race, particularly in the local area itself. Well, to the 75% who could not be bothered to vote - don't now bother complaining about the outcome. If your new Mayor does things that are not to your liking, then - since you all chose not to vote, in such overwhelming numbers - you will only have yourselves to blame. What more, precisely, did Mr Rahman have to do to inspire people to go out and vote for any candidate who was not Mr Rahman? Churchill said that people get the politicians they deserve. To the apathetic burghers of Tower Hamlets, then, I say: "Congratulations. You've got Mr Rahman. And if you didn't bother to vote, then maybe you deserve him."

Newsnight report on Barnet Council

One of my favourite journalists, Michael Crick, went to speak to the Leader of Barnet Council for Newsnight (the bit on Barnet's about 30 minutes in). Having said that she would speak to Mr Crick, the Leader (and every other Conservative councillor) then refused to speak to him after all, leaving him stood waiting outside Hendon Town Hall. He wanted to speak to her because she had written a letter to a Conservative minister attacking the Coalition Government's Housing Benefit reforms. Having written this letter, I am surprised that she was then unwilling to defend it on Newsnight. If this is easybarnet, I'd hate to see difficultbarnet.

So Mr Crick then went to Barnet Council's Hendon Residents' Forum in search of a Conservative councillor, and he found one: John Hart, chairing the Forum in his best Terry-Thomas style. Actually, that's unfair - Terry-Thomas was funny. You may recall that I've previously described these meetings as being very badly run and this was no exception. A crowd of people shouting down the Chairman, including, as Mr Crick noted, some obvious Labour activists - among them my defeated Labour opponent, Hendon's former MP, Andrew Dismore. OK, so I personally didn't defeat Andrew Dismore, he was defeated by the Conservative Matthew Offord - who was not visibly present at the Forum, incidentally. Neither was I, but then I'm not Hendon's Member of Parliament, and he is.

I don't really blame Matthew if he had better things to do, in the Commons or in the constituency, then to attend a Hendon Residents' Forum, given how badly these Forums are run by the Conservative-controlled council. If you think the shouting was just for the TV cameras, then think again - it's always like this at these meetings. I have to ask Andrew Dismore, sat there grinning on Newsnight while shouting Labour activists bring the meeting to a standstill: do you really condone your colleagues' behaviour? Is this a constructive way for people to behave at a public meeting? When I last attended a Forum, two bright young consultant types (paid for with my Council Tax) came up and asked me if I had any good ideas for improving how they are run. Has anything come of their research? Beyond this bit of fluff, has anybody actually done anything?

Actually, I wish that I had been there - then there would have been someone from Barnet who was prepared to defend Coalition Government policy on Newsnight, given local Conservatives' unwillingness to do so. Conservative voters in Barnet vote Conservative, I think, because they want low Council Tax, less red tape and prioritisation of front-line services. There might be some Conservatives who would deliver such things, but, sadly, it appears that few, if any, of them have been elected to Barnet Council. Barnet's Conservative Administration is deeply unConservative, as evidenced by the Leader's attacks on the policies of the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition Government.

Yet more nonsense talked about banks

Thursday's Question Time was full of people saying that it is outrageous that the Government's proposed bank levy will "only" raise £2.5 billion. Now, I support the bank levy, and £2.5 billion strikes me as being quite a lot of money, really. As President Reagan put it, "a billion here, a billion there - sooner or later it all adds up to real money". Actually, Reagan made that joke about millions, not billions, but that's inflation for you. OK, as a supporter of the Coalition and its debt-reduction efforts, I want the banks to pay their fair share. So, how about, not £2.5 billion, but £26 billion? Yes, £26 billion - that being the amount that the banking industry paid in tax in this country last year. So, please, can people stop suggesting that the £2.5 billion bank levy is somehow the only tax paid by banks? But, people say (cue applause on Question Time): "We must tax the bonuses." But bonuses are already taxable. People (be they bankers or anyone else) pay the same tax on their bonuses as they pay on all of their other income. I have sometimes been paid an annual bonus (not by a bank, as I've never worked for one) of a few hundred pounds and it counted towards my taxable income, just like my normal salary did. So when people say that bankers will be paid £7 billion in bonuses, that money will be taxed and so will bring in some revenue for the Government. And yes, we need to crack down on banks' tax avoidance - so it's good that the Government is compelling the banks to sign up to the Banking Code by the end of next month.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

It's all a question of priorities

I was just discussing the Spending Review with some Lib Dem friends, and one thing that came up is local government. It has to be said: there are many things that local councils do that are nice to do, but don't need to be done - and those are the things that can be cut now. To be frank, some of those things were things that the public never necessarily wanted done in the first place - not that they were ever really asked, in some cases, although they were paying for it all with their Council Tax, one of the least progressive taxes imaginable.

One Labour council organised a Sustainability Day on a Saturday morning, with a lavish buffet lunch afterwards - perish the thought that people might have left the event at lunchtime and made their own arrangements for lunch. It turns out that there is such a thing as a free lunch after all. I attended the event as I was then working for Thames Water, and I was more than happy to be there, but - nobody else was really there, apart from a few, well-off, well-educated, older people from the better-off bit of the borough. There was a video message from the borough's Labour MP (no mention of the borough's other MP, of course, because she's not Labour). The main guest speaker was a well-established broadcaster, whose fee to attend may well have been thousands - at the expense of local Council Taxpayers.

And what was achieved? Very little. Just a desultory discussion about sustainability, mostly focused on issues that the Council has no control over anyway, followed by that very nice free lunch. Sorry, but this was a waste of time and money - I don't resent going, for work, but I do resent a council having a whole department to do things like this at local people's expense, and then claiming that it does not have enough money to pay for crucial frontline services! It's all a question of what you choose to spend the money on. So, although the impact of the CSR on local government will be tough, I can think of lots of things, at lots of councils, that could be stopped tomorrow - because they are nice to have, but don't really add value in this time of national debt reduction.


Meanwhile, Danny Alexander, the (Lib Dem) Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has emailed Lib Dem supporters about the CSR and I thought people might find this interesting, so here is what he wrote:

When we came into office, we inherited an economy that was on the brink. With the largest budget deficit in Europe and no plan for tackling it, Britain faced huge economic risks. These could only be dealt with by a clear plan to deal rapidly with the worst financial position this country has faced for generations.

On Wednesday, we set out that plan. And while the scale and pace of the action we need to take is unavoidable, we can choose how we do it. The Spending Review sets out those choices: to spread the burden fairly, to promote economic growth, and to invest in the life chances of our children. These are hard choices that affect millions of people, but they are the right choices to set our country back on the road to prosperity.

We have spread the burden fairly by protecting the key services that the most vulnerable in our society rely on. Social Care has been given a funding boost worth £2bn, the NHS and schools have been protected and our plans for social housing will deliver up to 150,000 new affordable homes.

We have promoted future fairness through a £7 billion ‘fairness premium’ that will support improving the life chances of our poorest children from their first pair of shoes to their first pay packet.

We have promoted future growth by giving the go ahead to key transport projects that will unlock economic potential in every part of the country. We have also delivered on a Green Investment Bank that will kick start green investment and generate jobs.

And we are pushing forward with radical reform. Our decentralisation agenda will reduce the number of central government grants from 90 to fewer than 10. With the exception of schools and public health, ring-fences on council spending will disappear, giving local authorities much greater flexibility. We will deliver welfare reforms that simplify the system and make work pay. And our criminal justice reforms will roll out the community justice programmes that were pioneered by Liberal Democrats in local government.

Yes, it’s going to be tough, and everyone will make a contribution, but those with the broadest shoulders will bear the biggest burden. That’s why we’ve reduced taxes for the low paid, and increased them for the richest. It’s why we introduced a banking levy – and we’ve made it our aim to extract the maximum sustainable tax revenues from the banks that got us into this mess.

The worst thing to do would be to burden future generations with the debts that Labour left us. We have made the tougher choice, no doubt, but we should be proud of the way we have taken responsibility and we have done the right thing.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

A Spending Review shot through with Lib Dem values

I just watched the Chancellor deliver the Comprehensive Spending Review (yes, I watched the whole thing, as well as the Shadow Chancellor's response - I recommend everyone to hear or read all of George Osborne's statement, if they want to have a full understanding of it). I must say that I strongly endorse the approach that he has taken. Why would I not support a Spending Review that includes, among other good things:
  • Structural deficit to be eliminated by 2015
  • NHS budget protected; £2bn extra for social care
  • Schools budget to rise every year until 2015
  • £30bn capital spending on transport
  • Permanent bank levy

Apocalypse not now?

As a non-economist, I found this piece by Stephanie Flanders very useful indeed. I heartly recommend it - read it and then keep it at the back of your mind as discussion rages about the impact of today's Comprehensive Spending Review, which the Chancellor will be delivering within the hour.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Finkler Question

I do appreciate that the Booker Prize is not an election. It is not a contest in which one takes sides, cheering the winner and deprecating the losers. My delight at The Finkler Question's winning is not based only on its being a superb book, although it is that. No, what astonishes me is not only that the British Left's contemporary debate on Israel/Palestine can form the backbone of a truly great literary novel, but also that the novel in question could then win the Booker. The Finkler Question is a deeply significant view of life in this country today, as well as being both very funny and deeply moving. That the Booker judges 'get it' is enormously encouraging.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Lord Fowler's wise words on Murdoch's Sky bid

The senior Conservative peer Lord Fowler has written this commendable article in today's Guardian, about News Corp's bid for full control of BSkyB. This bid really matters, which is why I am pleased that it will cross the desk of a Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, Vince Cable. It's only because of the Coalition Agreement that a Liberal Democrat like Vince Cable is the Cabinet Minister handling matters such as this, and that's another reason for my supporting the coalition. The coalition is not just about long-term policy; it's also about ministers' decisions on the papers that they find in their Red Box each day. It is in making those decisions, large and small, that Liberal Democrat ministers will make much of their impact in the coming months and years. For more on the Sky bid, I was interested to read this piece in The Observer by Will Hutton.

PS on Wednesday 22 December 2010: This matter appears to have crossed Vince Cable's desk with greater rapidity than might have been anticipated. It has now landed on the desk of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. I hope that Mr Hunt will refer the bid to the relevant competition authorities; his decision whether or not to do that will be made on the basis of much legal and technical advice to which I will clearly not be privy - the decision is his, to be made impartially.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Nick Clegg's speech to Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel fringe meeting

Here is a video of a speech by Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Leader and UK Deputy Prime Minister, to the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel's standing-room-only party conference fringe meeting on Monday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A37wHgqCKeo

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

A moment of hope for Israelis and Palestinians

With direct Israeli/Palestinian talks set to begin in Washington, I was pleased to read this cautiously optimistic article by Martin Indyk in the New York Times. I heard Martin Indyk speak at last year's conference of J Street, an organisation which has much to commend itself to all Lib Dems with an interest in Israel/Palestine. It can be difficult to summon up much optimism for the Israel/Palestine peace process, especially in light of yesterday's tragic news from Hebron - and anyone whose politics prevents them from seeing this incident as tragic needs to examine their consciences. There is no valid alternative to reaching a peaceful settlement between all players in the region.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Disappearing Iran

Looking at the newly published Lib Dem Conference Fringe Directory, I see a lot of fringe meetings about Israel/Palestine. And, since I'm involved in organising one of those meetings, I can hardly complain about that. So, yes, clearly, there's lots to say about that aspect of the Middle East, so on we go. But when you search the directory for "Iran", not a single reference comes up. Lots of meetings about Israel, not one about Iran. Now, I know that the Coalition Government, including the Lib Dem Ministers, absolutely gets the importance of Iran as an issue and I applaud that wholeheartedly. But Iran's non-appearance in the directory suggests that a lot of grassroots party members simply do not realise that the challenge posed by Iran's regional ambitions is one of the biggest policy issues facing the international community in the Middle East. And that is really quite shocking. This typically astringent piece by Christopher Hitchens sets out the reasons why Iran should not be ignored by anyone debating foreign policy at present.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Fear and loathing in The Independent

If you have five minutes, I strongly urge you to read this article by Miriam Shaviv. I entirely agree with her and I think the points she makes are extremely valid

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Following the election...

Thanks very much to everyone who voted for me as the Lib Dem candidate for Hendon in the General Election of 6 May 2010. I got 5,734 votes, which is roughly the same as the Lib Dem candidate got in 2005, despite strong attempts to "squeeze" the Lib Dem vote in what was seen as a Labour/Tory marginal. I am disappointed not to have got more votes, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience of standing for Parliament for the first time, which was a great honour. I do think that a lot of voters were tightly undecided between the Lib Dems and another party before finally deciding to vote Tory or Labour (partly for tactical reasons), and I respect that entirely - I am just delighted to have been able to stand. I have congratulated the Conservative Matthew Offord on being elected as Hendon's next MP, and my commiserations go to Andrew Dismore, the outgoing Labour MP. I greatly enjoyed debating with Andrew and Matthew at the hustings meetings to which we were all invited.

Nationally, the British people have elected a Parliament in which no one party has an overall majority. In light of this, I strongly endorse the approach being taken by Nick Clegg, as outlined in the statement below yesterday morning:
"Last night was a disappointment for the Liberal Democrats. Even though more people voted for us than ever before, even though we had a higher proportion of the vote than ever before, it is of course a source of great regret to me that we have lost some really valued friends and colleagues and we have returned to Parliament with fewer MPs than before.

"Many, many people during the election campaign were excited about the prospect of doing something different, but it seems that when they came to vote, many of them, in the end, decided to stick with what they knew best. And at a time of great economic uncertainty, I totally understand those feelings. But that’s not going to stop me from redoubling my efforts and our efforts to show that real change is the best reassurance that things can get better for people and their families, that it shouldn’t be something which unsettles people.

"Now we’re in a very fluid political situation with no party enjoying an absolute majority. As I’ve said before, it seems to me in a situation like this, it’s vital that all political parties, all political leaders, act in the national interest, and not out of narrow party political advantage. I’ve also said that whichever party gets the most votes and the most seats, if not an absolute majority, has the first right to seek to govern, either on its own or by reaching out to other parties, and I stick to that view. It seems this morning that it’s the Conservative party that has more votes and more seats, though not an absolute majority, and that is why I think it is now for the Conservative party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest. At the same time, this election campaign has made it abundantly clear that our electoral system is broken, it simply doesn’t reflect the hopes and aspirations of the British people, so I repeat again my assurance, that whatever happens in the coming hours and days and weeks, I will continue to argue not only for the greater fairness in British society, not only the greater responsibility in economic policy making, but also for the extensive, real reforms that we need to fix our broken political system. Thank you very much."

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Polling day: It's over to you

I have just written a letter to electors on my blog on the website of the Hendon Times; I do hope that you might read it. Well, here we are on the eve of polling day. With the Hendon Times reporting signs that the Lib Dems could do well here, I'll leave you to make up your own mind what to do in the polling booth on Thursday. As you ponder your decision, I would invite you to consider:
  1. I am a community campaigner, as shown by my having held First Capital Connect to account over Thameslink. I will do much more of that if you elect me as Hendon's next MP.
  2. No longer can anyone say that the Lib Dems "can't win" - the polls show that we can win, and we will win if you choose to vote for us.
  3. If Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have inspired you with the wish to see Lib Dems in power, then why not vote for us?
So now it's over to you! And that's democracy.

Monday, 3 May 2010

The situation in Sri Lanka

It has been suggested that I expand upon what I previously wrote here about the situation in Sri Lanka. As well as being deeply aware of the suffering of the Tamil people, I am very much aware that the Tamil Tigers have been a brutal terrorist organisation, responsible for killing many people. The Sri Lankan government is well within its rights to fight terrorism. However, I question some of the methods used by the government over the years, and I am critical of many aspects of how the post-conflict situation has been handled since 2009. When I call for alleged war crimes to be investigated, I include within that not only the actions of Sri Lanka’s government, but also the actions of the Tamil Tigers. On 29 April 2009, the Liberal Democrats devoted an Opposition Day debate in Parliament to the situation in Sri Lanka. During that debate, our Shadow Foreign Secretary, Ed Davey, said:
"no one in the House is taking sides... I believe that we are united in opposition to human rights abuses and violence whoever perpetrates them."
May I echo that approach and say that I look forward (especially if elected as Hendon’s next MP) to continuing to learn more about Sri Lanka and listening to all points of view, be they Sinhalese or be they Tamil.

Tragedy in the Congo

I am filled with anger at the latest news from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I know that no British government can wave a magic wand and solve every problem, but more can and must be done by the international community, including Britain. My party's Shadow Foreign Secretary, Ed Davey, put it well in his speech at the Lib Dem party conference. This is the sort of foreign policy I want to see for Britain, as outlined in the speech - why not read it and see if you agree with me? With the Lib Dems remaining ahead of Labour in most national opinion polls, this election is wide open, so YOU get to choose who you want to be Hendon's next MP. Perhaps that's why Betfair has slashed its odds on me winning from 100/1 to 16/1? I know that still makes me a long shot, but it's a big reduction in the odds, reflecting what local people have been saying to me about who they might vote for on Thursday. There is everything to play for in this election here in Hendon.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Liberal Democrats' local manifesto

Thursday is polling day not only in the General Election, but also in the local council elections. I very much hope that we Lib Dems win lots more councillors here in our borough of Barnet and here is our local manifesto, which I strongly endorse. Here's an interesting thing. Some people think that when you become the local MP for Hendon, you are somehow put in charge of delivering local services. The reality is different. I would be the local area's representative in the House of Commons, looking at national issues on local people's behalf, but I wouldn't have any control over services that are delivered locally.

So, if, as a Parliamentary candidate, I claimed to be able to deliver lots of local improvements, I would be being dishonest, and I don't want to do that. Our local area would benefit from the Liberal Democrats' national policies and I would strongly fight for those policies to be implemented nationwide including here, for the benefit of people living in Hendon. So my top three local priorities as MP for Hendon would be:
  1. As a community campaigner, I would hold deliverers of public services to account, as I have already done in my Thameslink campaign - cutting through bureaucracy on your behalf, so you don't have to
  2. I would fight hard for Hendon to get its fair share of national resources
  3. I would scrutinise legislation for things that might be bad for Hendon, so that they can be amended or removed.

All to play for here in Hendon - and a hustings meeting tonight

As another national opinion poll shows my party in the lead, I am really enjoying this campaign in Hendon - whatever the result turns out to be! With polls like this, I really do believe that the Lib Dems have a chance of an excellent result in Hendon, but that's up to the voters to decide. Talking of which, this evening (Sunday 2 May) at 7.30, there is another hustings meeting, this time at Mill Hill East Church on Salcombe Gardens. I will be speaking alongside the Conservative and Labour candidates, before we take questions from the audience - all are welcome, and it should be a lively event. If you're still considering who to vote for, why not come along and see if one of us can convince you?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

My party's agenda on gay rights

A local resident has asked me to expand on my views on gay rights. My party has an excellent record on this and I strongly agree with Nick Clegg's stance on these issues. We candidates get sent a lot of web surveys to fill in, and in my answer to one such survey, I ticked something that wrongly implied that I might have doubts about gay adoption. I have no such doubts and am strongly in favour of gay couples having the right to adopt and foster children. In an ideal world, every child would live with its mother and father, who would be together and able to happily bring up their children unaided - but we don't live in anything like an ideal world, hence the need for adoption and fostering. Adoption and fostering are almost always better for any child than is instutional care. I am filled with admiration and respect for anyone (whatever their sexuality) who is prepared to adopt or foster a child. I am a strong believer in gay people's right to adopt and foster children.

Proud to stand with local Gurkhas

I was recently contacted by some leaders of our local Nepalese community, most of whose households include a Gurkha who has served in the British Army. I was delighted to go and meet some of these Gurkhas to answer their questions about what I would do as Hendon's next MP and I got a very positive response, although everyone will make up their own mind how to vote in this election.

It was the Liberal Democrats who won the Parliamentary fight for justice for Gurkha veterans and it really is an honour to have met men who have served with such distinction in the British Army. I hope to serve them, and everyone else in the constituency, if elected as Hendon's Liberal Democrat MP.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Justice for the Tamils

The Tamil Guardian emailed me asking for my views on situation facing Tamils in Sri Lanka. I replied as follows: "In Sri Lanka, there must be an investigation into allegations of human rights violations and war crimes. The government in Colombo will be judged by the international community on its political and judicial reforms and by the way it treats the media. The Sri Lankan government must reach out and recognise its past mistakes."

Of course, the situation in Sri Lanka is a very complicated one and groups like the Tamil Tigers must be condemned for their attacks on civilians. My Lib Dem colleague Stephen Williams has written about it in detail and I very much agree with what he wrote. When I call for an investigation into allegations of human rights violations and war crimes, I include within that the activities of the Tamil Tigers as well as the Sri Lankan government. I do not dispute the Sri Lankan government's right to fight terrorism; I do dispute some of the methods used and the government's poor handling of the post-conflict situation.

Monday, 26 April 2010

So, what do I stand for?

As polling day draws nearer (and as postal voters are already voting, as their ballot papers continue to be delivered), many people have asked me what I actually stand for, what makes me tick - why I want to be the Liberal Democrat MP for Hendon. It's a good, fair question! To avoid repeating myself, here is a piece that I wrote for the 'blog' that the Hendon Times has kindly given me on its website. I very much hope that this gives you some more insight into where I am coming from.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Is it now a two-horse Clegg/Cameron race?

The Times reports today that:
"Gordon Brown is to gamble on a last-ditch revamp of Labour’s campaign as he fights to prevent the election becoming a two-horse race between David Cameron and Nick Clegg."
I don't often say this, but Gordon Brown is right - this is becoming a two-horse race between the Tories and the Lib Dems, with Labour third in lots of polls. This is starting to be reflected in what people are saying to me in Hendon. Lots of people say that they are undecided between my party and the Conservatives, lots say that they are planning to vote Lib Dem, and many say that they have given up on Labour. If the polls remain as they are, then I do not see how Labour can win a seat like Hendon. Some people are saying to me that they would normally vote Labour, but don't want the Conservatives to win, so are they are voting for me to make sure that the Lib Dems definitely beat the Tories in Hendon. It does feel as if the Tory candidate and I are now in what could be a tight race to the finish, although, obviously, that can change between now and polling day, so nothing can be taken for granted - least of all the voters!

I'm not standing to stop the Tories winning or to stop Labour winning - I'm fighting positively for the Lib Dems to win, so that I can be Hendon's next MP. What's good is that people now tell me that they feel that they have a choice - if they want to vote for the Liberal Democrats to win, they can, and the result is in their hands as voters. They don't have to vote Labour to stop the Tories, or Tory to stop Labour; instead, they can consider what all three parties have to offer, and then vote for the one they most believe in, because the Lib Dems have a real chance of winning this time.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Poll on Jewish News' website

I'm delighted to see that Jewish News are encouraging participation in this election by running an online poll. It asks people who they will vote for in the General Election; at time of writing, the Lib Dems are running second. Why not click here and vote yourself?

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Speaking at the Shree Swaminarayan Temple

I was pleased today to speak at the Shree Swaminarayan Temple in Golders Green, where many people from Hendon are worshippers. They had around 700 people there and I spoke alongside the Lib Dem councillors for Childs Hill. It was a really enjoyable and interesting event and I was pleased to have been invited.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

A positive day in the sunshine

It was great this morning to be out and about on Mill Hill Broadway talking to local people. Lots of people said that they now plan to vote Lib Dem. Of course, you can't please all of the people all of the time, and lots of people had questions about my party's policies - which is as it should be, since we are seeking to win an election and form a government. I enjoy answering such questions and really discussing the issues with people. I look forward to doing a lot more of that over the coming weeks.

Last weekend's Polish tragedy

The latest weekly bulletin from my colleague Sarah Ludford, Lib Dem MEP for London, has prompted me to think further about last weekend's tragic air crash in which so many distinguished Polish people died. In the hurly-burly of the election campaign, it is important to make time to also reflect on wider issues, as Sarah does in this piece here. I extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to all those affected by this latest Polish tragedy, including Polish and Anglo-Polish people living locally. Some of my previous thoughts on Polish politics on this site can be found here.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Following the debate...

Well, I enjoyed watching the the first TV Prime Ministerial Debate, and not just because Nick Clegg has been declared the winner in the polls. I actually thought it was good television and really enhanced the election campaign. Anyway, for those people who liked what Nick Clegg had to say tonight: that's why I'm a Liberal Democrat. For precisely the reasons that Nick Clegg articulated tonight.

By the way, did Gordon Brown really say that, next year, there will be NO under-performing schools? What, none at all?! This is precisely the sort of unrealistic attitude that we DON'T need from a British government. As if we'll ever see a situation in which there are precisely ZERO under-performing schools. There are many excellent schools, but everybody knows that some schools continue to under-perform.

On a more positive note, I was pleased to hear a mention of the campaign against Territorial Army cuts - I was part of the campaign against those cuts with my Downing Street Petition against them, and we won! Oh, and also on defence, Nick Clegg is absolutely right that the UK should not spend £100 billion on a like-for-like replacement for Trident. That doesn't mean having no nuclear weapons, though. We could replace Trident with a minimum nuclear deterrent, while entering with renewed vigour into multilateral disarmament talks. That is my favoured approach, which I would pursue if elected as Hendon's next MP.

And here is the Liberal Democrats' detailed policy on the Trident issue:

The policy in brief

Liberal Democrats will not renew Trident on a like-for-like basis. Wholesale renewal is unnecessary and unaffordable. The current Trident system is able to operate for another 20 years at least. We will therefore hold a Strategic Security and Defence Review to establish the best alternative for our security. Liberal Democrats will focus on relevant security challenges. Our armed forces cannot tackle the threats of today and tomorrow if they are kitted out for yesterday's wars.

Why it is Necessary

The Cold War is over. There is no longer a major nuclear threat to the United Kingdom. President Obama is leading a bold international push for a world free of nuclear weapons. Today's nuclear threat is not from a super-power stand-off but from rogue regimes and terrorist groups. The estimated lifetime cost for Trident replacement is around £100bn[i], with at least £15-20bn on submarines alone[ii]. Given the huge spending deficit, the MOD's own budget crisis and the Government’s failure to provide our troops with more relevant equipment, this price-tag is simply unacceptable.

Policy Detail
Government Plans for Trident Renewal

Labour has proposed a like-for-like replacement of Trident based on four Vanguard-class submarines. Labour and the Conservatives supported the plan. Only the Liberal Democrats voted against.[iii]

Liberal Democrat Proposals

We do not support like-for-like renewal of this expensive Cold War system. The current submarines have many years of service left to run and will not be decommissioned until the 2020s. A decision on a replacement system need not be taken until 2014 (later if the life of the system is further extended). The Government claims there are no credible alternatives to their plans. We believe there are. We will consider the best alternative as part of a defence and security review, and in the light of the outcome of major multilateral talks in May, the negotiations on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Options include:

1. Life Extension - Experts believe that the submarines could have their lives extended by up to15 years. This would allow decisions on a replacement system to be deferred for several years.
2. Ending Continuous at-Sea Patrols - Without the Cold War threat of an overwhelming pre-emptive attack the case for continuous patrols is no longer compelling. De-alerting the system could provide savings and further extend the life of current submarines.

3. Modified Submarine Platforms - Experts argue that the Astute-class submarine could be modified to carry a small number of Trident missiles, or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

4. Strategic Insurance Policy - Rather than building a new weapons platform, the UK would retain a certain amount of nuclear weapons know-how at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. This would provide a long-term hedge against any unforeseen threats.

5. Complete disarmament - Liberal Democrats believe that the UK should continue with a nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future. However, if talks made significant progress, the UK could consider disarmament. Trident should be on the table for negotiation.

Secret papers have revealed that Trident was designed to destroy major Soviet cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, killing half the inhabitants and leaving devastating levels of radiation for years to come. Yet Trident never even saw service in the Cold War. It was launched in 1994 and has never been targeted since. It would be irresponsible to renew Trident on the same basis.

Costs/savings

Over its lifetime Trident is expected to cost around £100bn. The replacement submarines will cost at least £15-20bn alone. However, the savings from this policy will not fall in the next Parliament and are contingent on the choice we make about alternatives. We have not therefore costed this policy into our deficit reduction and spending plan.

Key Statistics/Quotes

  • The lifetime cost of Trident renewal is estimated at around £100bn over its whole lifetime. (£97bn according to Greenpeace, and rising to 8.5% of the defence budget.)[i] Liberal Democrat research suggests it will be even more - as much as £100bn over just 25 years.
  • Former Head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt (now a Conservative adviser) on the nuclear deterrent: “On balance - on a very narrow points decision - that is probably right for now. It might not be right in five or 10 years' time.”[ii]
  •  Former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie: “Is there a cheaper way of maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent? Extending the life of the existing system or exploring alternative delivery systems might save us billions, without losing the value of deterrence against aggressive small states.”[iii]
  • Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach: “Rather than perpetuating Trident, the case is much stronger for funding our Armed Forces with what they need to meet the commitments actually laid upon them. In the present economic climate it may well prove impossible to afford both.”[iv]
The Case Against Like-for-Like Replacement of Trident

We accept there is now a case for a minimum nuclear deterrent. But we must prioritise future spending on the threats of today and tomorrow, not the last century. That means climate change, international crime and broken countries that foster terrorism. In today’s world it is irresponsible to spend billions of pounds on a Cold War weapons system designed to flatten Moscow at the touch of a button. If we spend billions of pounds replacing Cold War weaponry we will deprive our troops of equipment on the front-line and actually make the country less safe.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
[i] p.11 In the Firing Line, Greenpeace, September 2009 http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/files/pdfs/peace/ITFL_trident_report.pdf

[ii] “Dannatt questions nuclear deterrent” PA, 23, February, 2010 http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/feedarticle/8958583
[iii] “Where Britain should cut to defend the realm”, Financial Times, 29 July 2009, Charles Guthrie.

[iv] Letter, ‘UK does not need a nuclear deterrent’, Times, 16 January 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article5525682.ece

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

STORY BOX: ‘Top-secret document reveals Trident was set up to kill half of Moscow’s citizens’, Sunday Herald, http://www.sundayherald.com/news/heraldnews/display.var.2487768.0.topsecret_document_reveals_trident_was_set_up_to_kill_half_of_moscows_citizens.php

[i] p.11 In the Firing Line, Greenpeace, September 2009 http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/files/pdfs/peace/ITFL_trident_report.pdf

[ii] p. 7 Government White Paper The Future of the United Kingdon’s Nuclear Deterrent http://www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/AC00DD79-76D6-4FE3-91A1-6A56B03C092F/0/DefenceWhitePaper2006_Cm6994.pdf

[iii] Parliament voted in favour of the Government’s plans on 14 March 2007.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Getting out and meeting people

There's a report on the Hendon Times' website of my doorknocking activities in the constituency. Just to say that I've really been enjoying getting out and about and meeting people locally, and speaking to people on the phone. The internet is a great way to communicate, but there's nothing quite like actually talking to people for real, so that they can question me and tell me what they think. So I hope to speak to many more people as the campaign continues, and "thank you" to everyone who's made the time to speak to me so far.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Our manifesto: four steps to a fairer Britain

As reported in the Hendon Times, the Liberal Democrats have launched our manifesto. It centres on four key policies to bring back fairness:
  • Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket.  
  • A fair chance for every child.
  • A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener.
  • A fair deal for you from politicians.
The manifesto details what these policies mean in practice. So, what are the reviews of the manifesto so far in the national press? Well, The Times says: "They have done the best job of all the three main parties in providing a plan for cutting public spending and reducing the deficit...there is more detail than from the other parties." The Daily Telegraph says that the Lib Dems "dare to venture where both Labour and the Tories are too timid to tread. The Lib Dems set out, in detail, how they plan to start reducing the deficit..." And London's Evening Standard headlines its editorial "Refreshing honesty from the Lib Dems" and says the "manifesto launch today was refreshingly candid in its clear focus on the deficit and the recession, subjects largely fudged by Labour and the Tories in their manifestos". Remember, it's not ME saying all this, it's the newspapers!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Honoured to speak on Burma political crisis

On Sunday, I was privileged to speak at an Extraordinary Meeting in support of Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung Suing Suu Kyi. Coincidentally, the meeting took place in my constituency of Hendon, so I was invited to represent the Liberal Democrats - the NLD are members of Liberal International, a connection they take extremely seriously. I spoke to the meeting, including reading a statement from my party's Shadow Foreign Secretary, Ed Davey. This meeting was held in protest at recent events surrounding Burma's upcoming elections, which could spell the end of the NLD as a political party. While we campaign in the sunshine in Hendon, the people of Burma continue to suffer enormously under the illegal junta; there can be few more urgent foreign policy priorities than fighting for the rights of the Burmese people. It was immensely moving to speak to an audience that included many Burmese politicians in exile and other refugees. I was also interviewed for Radio Free Asia for broadcast in Burma. If elected as Hendon's next MP, I plan to take the fight for Burmese freedom into the House of Commons.