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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.