Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tory Boy? Thanks, But No Thanks

I am sure it was done with the best of intentions ... but a reader has just emailed me details of an Ebay auction for a number plate, which, with a bit of squinting reads TORY BOY. Sort of. He seemed to think I might be interested in buying it for my Audi.

I may come from Essex but I do possess a modicum of taste. I am also 48 years old, rather past the stage of being called 'boy', although having said that, my Dad calls everyone 'boy' even if they are older than him. And he's 80.

Perhaps, though, I might buy it for Shane Greer's Christmas present. Not that I pay him enough to afford a car, of course... or even the driving lessons.
Anyway, should you have less taste than me and wish to bid, click HERE.

When You've Got a Moment, Ed...

I'm not sure Ed Miliband will look forward to going home tonight for fear of incurring the wrath of his girlfriend and mother of his child, Justine Thornton.

Why? Well in an interview today he said he intends to marry her but hadn't "got around to it".

That must make her feel like a million dollars! A big bunch of flowers is called for, I think!

In his persistent efforts to tack left, he's also been making some very anti grammar school comments today. His whole campaign seems to be trying to alienate the middle classes, the very people who have Blair and New Labour three stonking election victories.

Top 50 Welsh Blogs

Today Total Politics announces the top 50 Welsh blogs. Here is the Top Ten. Click HERE to see the list of the full Top 50.

Here's the full list:

1 (3) Blog Menai
2 (10) Plaid Wrecsam
3 (6) Syniadau
4 (14) Hen Rech Flin
5 (7) Vaughan Roderick
6 (12) Miserable Old Fart
7 (11) Cardiff Blogger
8 (26) Betsan Powys
9 (16) Peter Black AM
10 Everyone's Favourite Comrade

If your blog is one of the ones featured above, please feel free to put the following button in your sidebar and link it through to this post:

This list is the result of more than 2,200 people who voted in the Total Politics Annual Blog Poll during the second half of July.
Click on the blog to visit it.

All these lists, together with articles from leading blog commentators, will be published in the TOTAL POLITICS GUIDE TO POLITICAL BLOGGING, in association with APCO Worldwide. It will be published in October at £14.99. You can preorder your copy HERE.

COMING NEXT: Top 50 Scottish Blogs

Dale for Miliband

These are my results in the Votematch survey to find which Labour leadership candidate I most agree with. Well that should scupper David Miliband's chances!
If you want to find which candidate you match, click HERE.

Is There Life in the Political Memoir?

I make no bones about it. I love political memoirs and biographies. OK, I may read the occasional football biog, but political autobiographies and biographies are what I read most. I’m in the middle of Peter Mandelson at the moment. Hmmm. Perhaps I should rephrase that. However, the genre of political biography has been on the decline for some time. This is because the major publishers have caught massive financial colds in publishing them. A few years ago Bloomsbury paid a huge amount of money for David Blunkett’s diaries. They clearly thought he would be the next Alan Clark. Boy were they wrong. Blunkett rather cannily held onto serialisation rights, which fetched a six figure sum. He was rumoured to have made £400,000 from the book, and the publisher? They paid a quarter of a million pounds and sold, er, 4,000 copies in hardback. I don’t think it ever made it into paperback. Other publishers duly took note.

There was a time when every two bit backbencher would be able to get their memoirs published. No longer. I reckon there will be very few takers for the memoirs of most ex Labour cabinet ministers like Geoff Hoon, Jacqui Smith or John Denham. I may be wrong, but I doubt it. Even smaller publishers would blanche at taking them on. This is a shame because no matter what you think, they all have an interesting story to tell. But none of them would sell more than a couple of thousand copies. Is it worth the bother?

I can see the day when such politicians might well get their memoirs published but only as an e-book. The biggest cost of any book is the print cost. This is usually well over 50% of the cost – sometimes up to 80%. If that cost can be taken out of the equation then suddenly a book may become viable. What no publisher has yet worked out is how to price e-books. I suspect there is a £10 price barrier, although it could be as low as £5. Biteback is about to make its entire catalogue available as e-books. But even now, we’re not sure how to price them. But if publishers can get the pricing right for e-books it could mean that the political biography and memoir genre gets a new lease of life. Let’s hope so.

Top 20 Northern Irish Blogs

Today Total Politics announces the top 20 Northern Irish blogs.

Here's the full list:

1 (1) Slugger O'Toole
2 Splintered Sunrise
3 (3) A Pint of Unionist Lite
4 (2) Three Thousand Versts
5 (5) A Tangled Web
6 Open Unionism
7 (14) Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland
8 (10) 1690 & All Thon
9 (7) Bobballs
10 (6) Ulster's Doomed
11 Ultonia
12 Bavarian Orange Order
13 (8) Devenport Diaries
14 Alan in Belfast
15 Hand of History
16 (18) O'Conall Street
17 Jeff Peel's Diary
18 Burke's Corner
19 (20) The Dissenter
20 East Belfast Diary

If your blog is one of the ones featured above please feel free to put the following button in your sidebar and link it through to this post:

This list is the result of more than 2,200 people who voted in the Total Politics Annual Blog Poll during the second half of July.

All these lists, together with articles from leading blog commentators, will be published in the TOTAL POLITICS GUIDE TO POLITICAL BLOGGING, in association with APCO Worldwide. It will be published in October at £14.99. You can preorder your copy HERE.

COMING NEXT: Top 50 Welsh Blogs

Cash in the Attic

There is a big new Policy Exchange report, Making Housing Affordable, out today. For me, there were three main points that stood out about it and one big issue that it raised. Firstly, the report’s argument is that reforms in housing can both improve the current situation in housing and save taxpayers a whopping £20 billion a year – with savings kicking in from day one. That is a pretty huge sum.

The second thing was the potential political gain of one of the key recommendations - to allow every working council tenant to purchase their home at their existing rent under a new revamped Right to Buy. This could create swathes of Conservative voters in urban working class areas – the very areas that they often failed to capture last time.

The third point that stood out is the report’s argument that a better planning system in the UK would allow us to built more and better quality homes which in turn should stabilise house prices. This would both increase home ownership and cut pressures on government spending - for example, if more people could buy their home this cuts social housing waiting lists, which under Labour almost doubled.

Now, I am not saying that the report’s analysis or recommendations are necessarily correct. But the big issue that occurred to me was that as the government makes unprecedented cuts in spending then it must continue to be serious about looking beyond Whitehall for ideas on how to save money. As Ministers sharpen the axe then they could do worse than study reports like this.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Two Emotional Interviews

This morning I had the huge honour of interviewing Dickie Bird on LBC. I thought he would be a good person to talk to about this terrible betting scandal that has hit the headlines over the last two days. I wasn't wrong. His voice cracked with emotion. Dickie is a real national treasure and you can hear him taking the whole thing very personally. As I said at the end, it was a real honour to speak to him. The interview lasts nine minutes.

Click HERE to listen.

Another emotional interview I did took place yesterday, when I was covering for Andrew Pierce. I spoke to a 97 year old veteran from the Battle of Britain, Flight Lieutenant William Walker. Seventy years ago last Friday he was shot down over the English Channel and then on Saturday he joined 13 other former Spitfire pilots on a charter flight over the channel, which was joined in formation by a Spitfire and a Hurricane. I don't mind letting on that my eyes were moist as I was interviewing him. The interview lasts 6 minutes.

Click HERE to listen.

And if you missed the hour long Oona King v Ken Livingstone debate a couple of weeks ago, click HERE to listen.

On the Show This Morning

On my LBC show this morning...

10-10.30 Should local people be given precedence on housing waiting lists? Guests: Mark Thomas (Shelter), Deborah Mattinson (pollster) & Edward Lister (Wandsworth Council)

10.30-11 The cricket scandal: Guests: Ian Payne & Dickie Bird

11-12 An hour with Chris Mullin, talking about his new diaries

12-12.30 Should the catholic church ordain women?

1230-1 What to wear for a job interview

If you want to take part in the show phone 0845 60 60 973, text 84850 or email iain@lbc.co.uk or tweet @iaindale

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Podcast: 7 Days Show: Episode 38

The latest edition of the Seven Days Show is now online.

In the show this week we talk about Crispin Blunt coming out and whether the sexuality of your Member of Parliament should matter; the non news story that political parties fund raise at party conferences; whether it’s the right decision to replace NHS direct; the fact that no tax cuts before 2015 should come as no surprise; why Jonathan believes prison still works and Iain doesn’t (sort of); why the fact that Chris Kelly MP has recommended his sister for a job in Parliament is again just not a story; what appearing on the latest episode of Any Questions was like; and finally whether betting has now called into question the integrity of many sports.

To listen to the podcast click HERE, or you can also subscribe to the show in the Tory Radio section in the podcast area of Itunes.

The Phone Call Theresa May Must Make

I haven't had a strong view on the European Arrest Warrant up to now. Until today. I could see its value in bringing trans-border criminals to justice more speedily, even if my gut instinct was to feel that it was yet another chink in the armour of sovereign British justice.

Today's Sunday Telegraph story about an apparently innocent British man being arrested under this warrant and now being held in a Greek jail has changed all that. The story was first covered HERE by Andrew Gilligan in last week's Sunday Telegraph. This week Andrew has been to Greece to visit Andrew Symeou in his Greek jail. Unfortunately the story is not online so I can't link to it, so let me give you an extract from last week's.

Andrew's family say he has never been in trouble before. But now he faces a
trial for murder on grounds which look painfully thin. Campaigners say his is
one of the most worrying examples of how the controversial "no-evidence-needed"
European Arrest Warrant can place British citizens at the mercy of unfair
foreign courts.

It all started on the Greek holiday island of Zakynthos, or Zante, at 1.30 on the morning of 20 July 2007. In a nightclub called Rescue, a young Welsh roller hockey player, Jonathan Hiles, remonstrated with someone for urinating on the floor. That person then punched him and he fell, suffering a fatal brain injury. Five of Jonathan's friends, with him in the club that night, gave initial statements to police saying the assailant was clean-shaven, with a blue shirt.

Andrew's parents say he was not in Rescue when the incident happened, and had no idea it had even taken place. He had a beard at the time, and was wearing a yellow shirt that night.

On July 22 and 23, the victim's five friends, in separate interviews, gave new statements to the police identifying Andrew, from a photo, as the killer. But there was something odd about the statements. Although supposedly taken at different times on different days, they all used precisely the same, rather stilted, words.

Mr Symeou also says that the photo shown to the five witnesses, of a group of people, had Andrew circled with the word "perpetrator" written on it in Greek.

On July 24, armed with the new statements, the police hauled in Charlie Klitou and Chris Kyriacou, two friends Andrew had been with on the night of the killing (Andrew himself had flown home at the end of his holiday by then).

They, too, signed statements implicating Andrew. But as soon as they emerged from police custody, they retracted them, saying the testimony had been dictated to, and beaten out of them.

The two boys told Andrew's British extradition hearing that they had been threatened, punched and slapped. Charlie Klitou said: "I told [the Greek police officer] that I didn't see Andrew Symeou get no one and he was saying 'Really?' three times, and then I said no again. I got hit by the big guy with a fist quite hard. The big guy left the room and came back with a black police bat and was tapping it in his hand. I couldn't think, I was just sitting there waiting to be hit."

Georgina Clay, a Club 18-30 holiday rep on Zante, testified to the same hearing that she had seen the two afterwards. One had a swollen face, she said, and they were
clearly terrified.

In statements to the Welsh inquest into Jonathan's death, the five original witnesses against Andrew also changed their stories. Four of them said they had not seen the punch being thrown at all, only the urination. And the descriptions all gave still did not match Andrew Symeou.

As Andrew's MP, Joan Ryan, put it: "Of the seven witness statements that
allegedly implicate him, two have since been withdrawn, four are contradicted by
statements made in the UK and the only witness statement in which a perpetrator
is actually identified describes an attacker who bears no resemblance to Andrew."

None of this, unfortunately, had any effect whatever on the extradition. The judge said what he had heard might seem "uncomfortable", and the fast-track process "may be a matter for legitimate debate and concern". But he could not intervene: "The abuse jurisdiction of [Britain] does not extend to considering misconduct or bad faith by the police of [Greece]."

The process was predicated on the assumption that the Greek system "must be regarded as capable of providing sufficient minimum safeguards for a fair trial in a
civilised country".

I really would urge you to read the full article HERE. Andrew Gilligan has written more widely about the European Arrest Warrant today HERE.

Theresa May has recently extended the powers of the EAW by signing up to the European Investigation Order. I hope she understood what she was doing.

I kick myself dor not instinctively recognising the dangers of the European Arrest Warrant. Andrew Gilligan has (not for the first time) done us all a public service by highlighting the case of Andrew Symeou.

And if Theresa May is the woman I think she is, she will pick up the phone to her Greek counterpart tomorrow morning and ask him to put right this apparent massive injustice.

Go on Theresa. You know you want to.

UPDATE: As Tim Worstall says in the comments, this case has been taken up by UKIP MEP Gerard Batten, and has also been reported elsewhere. I feel rather guilty that this is the first time it has come across my radar, but I suspect I am not alone.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dial 111 to Replace NHS Direct

Mr Civil Libertarian just left this comment on my Facebook page...

"You know, the 111 number was a part of Labour's manifesto. See HERE.

This isn't a new idea from the coalition. It's Labour's idea. So why are they campaigning against it? Ah, of course, because it's not them actually doing

I hate party politics so damn much."

It's a fair point. The way some people (i.e. John Prescott) have been carrying in, you'd think the coalition intended to axe NHS Direct and replace it with sweet F A. That's not the case at all. But nothing like a good old anti Tory scare story on the NHS for Labour to pursue, is there?

I'll be putting these points to Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham on LBC tomorrow at 10am.

Game, Set & Match to Dizzy

Dizzy is on form as he takes the odious Sunny Hundal and the normally more sensible Will Straw to task for a good old fashioned bit of lefty hypocrisy. Click HERE to read how he bangs them to rights.

Geraldine Dreadful MP Writes ... to Samantha Cameron

Dear Samantha Cameron,

As is traditional at this time, I would like to congratulate you on the birth of your new daughter. However, my colleagues within the Labour Party's Progressive Rationalist Institute Coalition for Solidarity have mandated me to apply classical Social Democratic analysis to your new predicament in order to educate you.

First of all, I hope you won't laugh too hard when I point out, that giving Caesarian birth, you are just one more victim of Tory Cuts!

You, like the majority of the hated upper-class elite have taken the easy option, rather than going through the heroic working class agony of labour and birth. But I suppose the chances of you going into Labour were always pretty slim. (Ed Balls wants credit for that last gag, by the way. When I heard him say it to the Hammer East Wimmins Collective, I swear there wasn't a dry seat in the room)

It is no secret within the Hammer East Working Men's Guacamole Circle that you only had this baby to win the election. By submitting to the stifling patrimony of your husband (a male!!) and becoming pregnant, you allowed him to show his aggressive Tory masculinity and his control over you. This was both a blow to the sisterhood and a galling rejection of the woman's right to choose.

The Sickle and Hammer East CLP point out, too, that your decision to have the baby this week ensured that it would overshadow the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies' report on your husband's disastrous economic plans to take us back to the horrors of the 1980s. It is clear that you have, in planning so carefully for the birth to take place on the day it did, taken the role of Imelda Marcos, doing the bidding of your hated elite toff Bullingdon Eton tall husband, just like she did, but with fewer pairs of shoes (probably). By offering yourself up as the gorgeous, fertile, loving, happy wife, you do the rest of us a disservice.

Finally, please consider the workers when taking decisions on how to bring up and care for your baby. If you decide to breastfeed, not only do you expose the ideal of the perfect balanced marriage as a sham by taking that responsibility on yourself while your husband runs the country, but you may be condemning the workers at Sickle's baby milk factory to unemployment and the ravages of Tory Cuts.

Anyway, to show there are no hard feelings, and in a gesture of solidarity as one working mother to another, I herewith send you a nice stainless Sheffield Steel photo frame, which may not be as gaudy as the sterling silver type you sell in your hated elite toff royally-endorsed stationery store, but which bears the blood, sweat and tears of the workers so cruelly treated by your husband's predecessors.

Sisterly Yours,

Geraldine Dreadful MP

* With grateful thanks to Ben Archibald of Nabidana.com

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Any Questions Experience (2)

Well I'm in the BBC car driving the 300 miles back to Kent (no, there are no trains at this time of night since you ask) reflecting on my second experience of Any Questions. And seeing as I won't get back to Tunbridge Wells until 3am I thought I'd write a little missive about appearing on Any Questions.

I suppose that given our hosts in Newcastle were the Workers Education Association I shouldn't have been surprised to get a hostile audience, but it comes to something when you're booed before you even sit down! And frankly, they didn't get any friendlier. By the end I reckoned I could have told the funniest joke in the history of joketelling and not got a laugh.

My fellow panellists were Deborah Mattinson (Brown's pollster), Matthew Taylor (Blair's head of policy) and Adrian Fawcett (CEO of the General Healthcare group).

The warm up question was asked by a lady who wanted to know if the coalition would still be in place by the time the Cameron baby starts nursery school. We all gave slightly formulaic answers and all agreed the coalition was probably there for the long term. At the end the questioner came up to and thanked me for my eye contact. She didn't like the fact that none of the others looked at her.

And at 8.02 Eddie Mair welcomed the Radio 4 audience and off we went. The first question (I think) was predictably about the IFS report. I made a lightly nervous start and I seem to remember being booed a couple of times when I defended the coalition's economic approach. But in the end I think the sparring got me into my stride.

Next came a question on health and how the system should be financed and structured. I thought this was probably my best answer and I seemed to make the audience think a little judging from their faces. I talked about how the NHS could never meet all the demands made on it and we had to get away from the 'public good, private bad' prevailing attitudes. I said it wasn't structures that were important, it was outcomes. I also questioned a system which spends £4 billion on gastric bands but can't provide muich needed cancer drugs. As I hadn't had a boo yet, I then suggested some people who wanted gastric bands ought to eat less. Cue the boos!

We then had a question about the cat woman and who or what we'd like to put in a wheelie boin. Deborah Mattinson stole my answer. She said she would put Mrs Bale in it. Bugger, I thought, what do I say now? I said that I'd put Mrs Bale in the Big Cat enclosure at Whipsnade Zoo for 15 hours as I am a believer in restorative justice. Not a titter. OK, not that great but any other audience might have at least pretended to laugh. Not this one.

There then followed three questions which none of us could have predicted - on paternity leave, adult education and library cuts. I don't think any of us gave particularly insightful answers, although I did have a brief spat with La Mattinson when she professed to be deeply suspicious of the Big Society, implying that volunteering was bad if it meant taking over the functions of the State. Matthew Taylor talked a great deal of sense on this and deprecated the left's knee jerk response to the Big Society.

We finished with a question about Twitter from someone who turned out to be one of my blogreaders. Bless you, sir!

So all on all, I'd call the whole thing a bit of a score draw, with the audience possibly winning on points for the level of booing. I certainly didn't enjoy it as much I did on my first appearance a year ago in Ottery St Mary, and I suspect the audience didn't either. Far too much agreement!

If you didn't hear it, the programme is repeated at 1.10pm on Saturday and is then available on iPlayer.

There, only four hours to go now. Time for the iPod and a zzzzz I think.

Crispin Blunt Comes Out

Well, I hadn't seen this one coming.

"Crispin Blunt wishes to make it known that he has separated from his wife
Victoria. He decided to come to terms with his homosexuality and explained the
position to his family. The consequence is this separation. There is no third
party involvement, but this is difficult for his immediate and wider family and
he hopes for understanding and support for them.

The family do not wish to make any further public comment and hope that their privacy will be respected as they deal with these difficult private issues."

When David Laws came out, I wrote this in a column in the Mail on Sunday...

... It’s healthy to be open and completely transparent, and I am sure that
now David Laws has taken that massive step to ‘out’ himself, he will wonder why
he didn’t do it years ago. But we need to understand why he didn’t before we
rush to judge him. Intensely private people - and yes, some politicians are just
that – recoil from talking about their sexual proclivities. There are some
things you just don’t do. We’re not Americans. We don’t like baring our souls.
And most of all we don’t like hurting our families. I know. I have been there.

I have wanted to be an MP all my adult life. But the thing that stopped
me going for it was my own homosexuality. I grew up in a small village, among a
community with very conservative views. Despite attending a left wing university
in the early 1980s, I did nothing to act on my ‘inner gay’. I went through most
of my twenties not acknowledging my own sexuality to anyone but myself, let
alone my own family.

In the mid 1990s I started a relationship with my now civil partner, John.
He would often visit my parents’ home and they all got on like a house on fire.
To my family he was my ‘friend’. Nothing more. But when I reached the age of 40
and decided I wanted a political career I knew I would have to be open. I
certainly didn’t want anyone to ‘have’ anything on me. Everyone told me that my
parents would already know. But they didn’t. It proved to be one of the most
difficult conversations of my life. I then told several long standing friends,
all of whom I felt I had let down by not having said anything before. No one who
hasn’t been through that experience can comprehend the trauma I went through
through. The same trauma David Laws is going through this weekend.

So I understand David Laws wish to remain private and not have to tell his
family. But in this age of transparency, openness, blogs and Twitter it is
simply not possible to maintain that veil of secrecy over such an intensely
personal part of your life.

It’s all very well for people to assert that times have changed and there
is a greater acceptance of different lifestyles in society. Of course that is
true, but it doesn’t make it any easier for family members with devout religious
beliefs to accept a lifestyle they have been taught is both wrong and will
result in eternal damnation. And that’s the same whether you’re a gay
politician, gay welder or a gay chairman of a FTSE 500 company. Just saying that
‘time have changed’ is over simplistic and ignores personal realities.

All of that and more applies to Crispin Blunt today. I'd love to think that this will not be a big story in the media, but I suspect my hopes are whistling in the wind. Quite understandably, many people will be thinking of Crispin's family, and the undoubted trauma they are going through. There will be a profound sense of shock.

But I hope people will also be able to understand and empathise with Crispin. Yes, there will be those who condemn him for doing this. They will ask why, if he has managed to suppress his feelings for all these years, why has he felt the need to 'come out' now? The answer is simple. Because he at last decided to be true to himself and face up to the man he is. For anyone to do that at the age of 50 is a very big deal. I did it at 40, and I can tell you that it was the most traumatic thing I have ever done - and I wasn't married with children.

There will be those who ask why, in this day and age, didn't he do it before. They forget that it's really only in the last decade that homosexuality has become almost totally accepted in this country. For those who have had a rural upbringing, or in Crispin's case come from an army family, it is just not the same as for those who have lived all their lives in metropolitan centres.

As the years pass, it becomes easier for everyone, but for those who are no longer teenagers, or even in their twenties, the longer time goes on, the more difficult it gets. You know you're living a lie, you know in your heart (but not always your head) who and what you are. You aren't ashamed of it, but none of your friends know. You feel you have lived a lie, and the longer that lie goes on, the more difficult it gets to do anything about it. You think if you suddenly announce it, you'll lose some really good friends. You don't, of course. Real friends stand by you and help you through it. If Crispin Blunt doesn't know this already, he will find out very soon.

Today will be the most difficult day of his life. For his wife, it will be the second worst day of her life. The worst will have been the day Crispin told her. I hope that the media will treat this story with a huge shrug and move on. But I wouldn't bet my mortgage on it.

Any Questions for 'Any Questions'?

Tonight I am appearing on Radio 4's Any Questions. Eddie Mair will be presenting. It's the second time I will have been on the programme (I wrote about the debut experience HERE) but I am no less nervous than the first time. The other panellists are Deborah Mattinson (Gordon Brown's pollster), Matthew Taylor (Tony Blair's head of policy) and Adrian Fawcett (CEO, General Healthcare).

I doubt I will be blogging anymore today as I need to prepare as I travel down to Newcastle on the train from Edinburgh. If you'd like to help my preparation you could leave a comment tipping which questions you think are likely to come up tonight.

Anyway, do have a listen from 8pm on Radio 4. The repeat is tomorrow at 1.10pm. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Top 30 Libertarian Blogs

The Total Politics Blogpoll results will be coming out every day over the next two weeks. The first list is the Top 30 Libertarian Blogs, which you can see HERE. The top 10 are...

1 (1) Guido Fawkes
2 (3) Old Holborn
3 (2) Devil's Knife
4 (4) Obnoxio the Clown
5 Charlotte Gore
6 (13) Anna Raccoon
7 (5) Underdogs Bite Upwards
8 (6) Tim Worstall
9 (9) Dick Puddlecote
10 (7) Samizdata

If your blog is one of the ones featured above please feel free to put the following button in your sidebar and link it through to this post:

This list is the result of more than 2,200 people who voted in the Total Politics Annual Blog Poll during the second half of July.

All these lists, together with articles from leading blog commentators, will be published in the TOTAL POLITICS GUIDE TO POLITICAL BLOGGING, which will be published in October at £14.99. You can preorder your copy HERE.

COMING NEXT: Top 25 Northern Irish Blogs

Getting Rid of Street Clutter

I didn't think it possible for Eric Pickles to rise even higher in my esteem, but he's managed it. One of my pet bugbears is street clutter, by which I mean superflouous road signs. I've written about this before. I once counted more than 200 different road signs on a two miles stretch of road going into London Ridiculous. At least half of them were a statement of the bleedin' obvious.

Anyway, Comrade Pickles seems to agree and has ordered councils to remove as much clutter as possible. He is also encouraging the public to report examples of street clutter. Another examples of this government using the 'wisdom of the crowds'.

Mr Pickles has accused what he calls over-zealous councils of wasting taxpayers'
money on signs that blight the local environment. He and Transport
Secretary Philip Hammond have written to council leaders calling on them to
remove the clutter.

The government is urging the public to get involved by carrying out street audits and lobbying their councils. The Department for Transport is reviewing the policy on traffic signs and will issue new advice on how to cut down on the clutter later this year.

In one example of the issue, the department said there were 63 bollards in a car park for 53 cars in Salisbury.

Mr Pickles said: "Our streets are losing their English character. We are being overrun by scruffy signs, bossy bollards, patchwork paving and railed off roads, wasting taxpayers' money that could be better spent on fixing potholes or keeping council tax down. We need to 'cut the clutter'. Too many overly-cautious town hall officials are citing safety regulations as the reason for cluttering up our streets with an obstacle course when the truth is very little is dictated by law. Common sense tells us uncluttered streets have a fresher, freer authentic feel, which are safer and
easier to maintain."

All power to his not inconsiderable elbow.

Are You a Speechwriter or Speechmaker?

I've been asked to give a mention to the UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference 2010, and as it is sponsored by Total Politics, how could I refuse? It’s taking place on Friday 17 September in Bournemouth’s £5.5m new conference facility, just a short walk from the station.

There are still some places left.

John Shosky is giving the keynote (he’ll be signing copies of Speaking to Lead, too), plus two leading speechwriter/making bloggers, Charles Crawford and Max Atkinson. We also have Edward Mortimer, former speechwriter to Kofi Annan and Phil Collins, Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, who will be speaking at the Gala Dinner. The day also includes breakout training sessions in small groups.

It’s pan-European and cross-party, aimed at anyone who wants to sharpen their writing skills, and hear stories from the experts. Unlike the Party Political conferences, delegates go to hear the speeches, as well as for the networking and gossip. Training usually costs £700 a day in London, at this conference, you get to hear half-a-dozen experts for just over £200.

For more details click HERE.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Top 25 Green Blogs

The Total Politics Blogpoll results will be coming out every day over the next two weeks. The first list is the Top 25 Green Party Blogs, which you can see HERE. The top 10 are...

1 (1) The Daily (Maybe)
2 Bright Green Scotland
3 (2) Two Doctors
4 (5) Barkingside 21
5 (4) Another Green World
6 Gaian Economics
7 (21) George Monbiot
8 (8) Rupert's Read
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COMING NEXT: Top 30 Libertarian Blogs

Meeting Baby Cameron in, er, Edinburgh

HERE's an interview I did earlier today here in Edinburgh with the Scottish Deadline Press Agency, ostensibly about me speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival. They have hilariously headlined the interview with my views on how the Camerons will name their baby. As if they matter to anyone! The highlight of the interview was when the journalist asked me this question...

Have you met the Camerons' baby yet?

I thought I must have misheard her, so I asked her to repeat the question. No, I hadn't misheard. I was tempted ask her if she thought I had been the stork!

I had a great time speaking along with bestselling novelist M J Hyland at lunchtime. We had an audience of a couple of hundred people, which was quite good going, I thought. Our task was to discuss how the issue of 'Story' has changed in the modern political and media world. To be honest I was rather dreading it as I thought it might be a load of intellectual old claptrap, but far from it. I've had quite a bit of feedback via Twitter and people seemed to enjoy the conversation, which was very well chaired by childrens' author, Charlie Fletcher.

Anyway, having spent the afternoon working in my rather dingy hotel room (a window the size of a postage stamp) I am now off out to see two shows - I am a German And I Should Not Be Here and Matt Green - Bleeding Funny.

Ed Balls Found in Wheelie Bin

Nabidana has the story HERE.

It's All In The Name

My company, Biteback Publishing, has encountered something of a quandary. We’re soon to begin distributing our books in the US but there’s a problem. Apparently Biteback in the US is synonymous with a notoriously militant animal rights organization, so our friendly distributors across the pond have suggested we use a new customer facing name there.

My colleague, Katy Scholes, decided to do a little snooping to see whether Bite Back US were really all that militant or if we could get away with keeping the name. She found the Bite Back website and was greeted on the front page by a picture of three hooded youths in balaclavas hugging basset hounds and a ferret looking nothing short of p***ed off next to a burnt out car.

Hello. Pleased to meet you.

Dialogue, call us Dialogue (in the States that is).

I wonder what Bite Back would have made of the cat in a bin incident yesterday...

Guardian Reports Old News Shock!

Loving the way The Guardian thinks it has a real scoop this morning on this IFS report commissioned by a Child Poverty Pressure Group. "IFS says Budget is Regressive" trills its front page. So you assume this something the IFS hasn't said before, don't you? Well you'd be wrong.

In June, Total Politics carried THIS on its blog...

"The Lib Dems did campaign against a VAT increase but economic support is in the
coalition's favour. James Brown from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)
tells Total Politics that these claims are inaccurate, VAT will hit the richest
worst. According to Brown, the Budget is regressive overall, in that it will hit the poorest the hardest, yet, its VAT increase is actually progressive. As poorer people tend to spend more money on 0-rated necessities [products without VAT], they will be largely unaffected by the VAT increase: It is the richest,
with the higher expenditure, who will actually be feeding the government's
coffers with a VAT increase."

How interesting the Guardian didn't mention the IFS view on the VAT rise. It clearly didn't suit their agenda.

UPDATE 10.45am: LibDem Voice has an excellent post by Iain Roberts on this.

Why Languages Matter

If I had become an MP, I had decided one of the causes I would take up in Parliament would be the teaching of languages in schools. Figures released today illustrate why I was right to be concerned.

The numbers taking French as a GCSE have halved over the last eight years, with German showing a simnilar decline. The last government removed the compulsion for 14-16 year olds to take a language several years ago and we are now seeing the long term effects. Many schools discourage kids from studying languages as they are considered "difficult" subjects in which pupils are less likely to attain 'A' grades.

We have never been great linguists in this country, and many take the attitude that we don't need to learn a language because everyone abroad speaks English. That's an incredibly 'Little Englanderish" attitude and one which hampers people who do business abroad. The ability to converse with people in their own language can open many doors.

Perhaps, however, we are also guilty of being too conservative in our teaching of languages. Maybe instead of sticking to trusty old French and German we should be encouraging schools to offer more courses in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and Russian.

I studied German at university because I had intended to become a German teacher. With such a declining demand for German teachers, I'm beginning to think it's lucky my career took a rather different turn!

Proud of My Niece

Yesterday, my niece Issy got 9 A* and two As in her GCSEs. Rather better than her uncle, who 32 years ago, got 4 Bs, 2 Cs, a D and an Ungraded in Physics.

I'm very proud of her.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Some Would Call It Corruption

Mark Pack has an excellent story on LibDem Voice. Here's the gist...

Labour-run Knowsley Council is continuing to pump money in to the Labour Party’s
coffers by exhibiting at the party’s conference. The council pays to appear only
at the Labour Party’s conferences, ignoring other parties, and is continuing to
do so even now that Labour is no longer in government.

Back in January 2007 Liberal Democrat Voice revealed Knowsley Council had spent £47,000 on exhibiting at the Labour conference over the previous four years. At the time the council said that, “Knowsley does not attend any other party political
conference, it attends the Labour Party Annual Conference as the party in power.”

However, the council is exhibiting at this autumn’s Labour conference even though the party is not in power. Moreover, it is not exhibiting at either the Conservative or Liberal Democrat conferences. Even if the conference presence had been booked well in advance (despite the knowledge that there would be a general election this year), there is still time to cancel plans as shown by the order that has gone out this month to other parts of the public sector not to spend money on stalls at the autumn conference.

I'd happily ban all councils - including Tory ones (yes, I'm talking about you, Westminster) -from exhibiting at party conferences. There is absolutely no conceivable benefit to council tax payers. All they do it for is to use it as a back door route of making a party donation. Some would call it corrupt.

In Conversation With Matthew Parris Interview (Uncut Version)

A few weeks ago I spent a very enjoyable 90 minutes interviewing Times columnist Mattthew Parris, while sitting on the balcony of his Limehouse apartment. This is the full version of the interview, which is 50% longer than the one which appears in the September edition of Total Politics. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed asking the questions.

Iain: How has turning 60 affected you, if it all?
Matthew: I’ve got a bit of a limp which comes from literally tens of thousands of miles training for marathons. I did my last London marathon in 1985 when I was 35 and achieved a very good time. I’ve given up long distance running since then. I think running is bad for you.

I definitely agree with that. Did you get reflective about where you’re going now?
There does come a point, and I guess in my case it has comes about now, when you think you probably aren’t going to do anything else big career-wise. I am now definitely not going to be Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary or a minister, or write a great book.

You’ve written several great books.
Well they’ve been fun to do. My agent Ed Victor, tactfully not associating it with me, his client, said that there was a kind of writer who happily accepted that God had given him a minor talent and wasn’t expecting anything more and at the age of 60, I see that God has given me a minor talent and that’s all really.

In terms of writing, do you prefer the 1000/1500 word article to actually writing something really substantially lengthy?
I don’t think it’s a matter of prefer. It’s a matter of habit and I think anybody, any columnist would tell you this, that when you’ve spent your life writing things in 1000 word chunks, a little bell begins to ring in your brain automatically when you’ve reached 1000 words – you just know you have. After that you find you haven’t anything else to say because your brain has ordered things into something that lasts 1000 words and it’s hard to get out of the habit. But as I have a funny butterfly mind, I’ve probably chosen the right career.

Have you got a big project in mind you never got round to starting?
No. Were I serious historian, I’d like to have done a history of the road and the path, a history of the tracks and trails that human beings make to transport themselves terrestrially. I don’t think any world history has ever been written and I’d like to do that. I’ve never had any ambition to write a novel, ever since I read George Elliot’s Middlemarch; I never saw the point of trying to compete in that market. The political stuff I have done has been minor but I’m quite happy with it. So no, no big project. I am at the moment, for this autumn, putting together a book which I’m having a lot of fun with, called Parting Shots. I did a radio series, collecting ambassadors’ valedictory dispatches, the final sort of parting shot, a polite and gentle version of the office leaving do where they say everything they’ve always wanted to. Some of these dispatches you can get out of the Freedom of Information are fantastic and we are getting a book out of them. I may do a few more things like that.

Is it writing that gives you the most pleasure?
The two things I like are writing and radio. I love radio, I love writing. I really don’t like television very much. It’s partly that I don’t approve of television very much because I think it is an inherently stupid medium.

Because if you must accompany every thought and piece of information with a picture, you enormously slow down and shallow-ify what you can communicate. So much can be communicated in words that can’t be communicated in pictures which is why human beings, unlike other animals, speak. It’s partly because I’m not very good at it. I enjoy reading my own stuff and some of it is quite alright. I like listening to myself, I sound like a sort of cross between Little Noddy and a pussycat. I don’t mind the sound of my own voice but I don’t like looking at myself. I’m a huge disappointment to myself visually. They talk about people being comfortable in their own skin. The minute I’m in vision, I feel a little uncomfortable. I can’t walk for television, I begin to mince. I can’t do natural movements for television, they begin to look stagey.

You have to do exaggerated movements, don’t you? They look natural on screen but don’t feel natural when you do them.
Yes. There are people who do this second-nature and I don’t. The other lovely thing about radio is that it’s communicator led rather than technician led. It’s the presenter and, to a degree, the producer. At the very most a two person team and quite often a one person team who are making the programme as they go along. Television has so many people involved and usually technical people telling you what you can and can’t do and “would you please do that again”. Something gets lost.

How do you feel your writing has changed since you first started writing for The Times?
Hardly at all. There’s hardly been any development in my writing. I read some of the early stuff I wrote. I got more practised at it. I can’t say I see any sort of enlargement in my style or deepening in my talents. I think that people have got used to my voice as a writer and so think I’ve got better as a writer. I haven’t actually. I started writing sketches and very much 13 years later I stopped writing sketches. I developed a bit of a judgement that most columnists develop about how to set about tricky or sensitive tasks.

The thing with your columns is you develop an argument better than anyone else. When I was writing a column for the Telegraph, every time I pressed the send button I thought they’d send it back saying “this is crap, start again”. Have you ever had that feeling?
Yes I do have it but I can usually see what is wrong and I do start again. John Birt is quite out of fashion now but Birtism at the BBC, for all its slightly caricaturable side, had one big central truth. John Birt always used to say when he was at LWT and I was presenting Weekend World, “but what is your argument?” If you just keep, as a columnist, putting that to yourself, you’ll be OK. Were I a great observer of human behaviour, were I an evocative re-creator of landscapes or situations, or had I any talent to reproduce conversation, then I might be a different kind of writer but with me it’s “what’s your argument?” It is always the first question and if you hold onto that like you hold onto the mast of a ship in a storm, you’ll always get through as long as you have an argument.

You mention Weekend World there. You’re quite critical of yourself in your autobiography on that. Was it something that you felt instantly uncomfortable with?
Yeah. I felt instantly uncomfortable with it when I started. I thought, and I suppose everyone does, that after a while you’d get better at it but I found after two years I still wasn’t getting better at it and our ratings were dropping. I don’t think I was a flop. What I failed to be was the new Brian Walden. The programme itself was probably out of date. The concept was arthritic and old-fashioned. I think a really sensational presenter could have given it a new life and I just wasn’t doing that. I just wasn’t sensational.

Don’t you think nowadays there ought to be something like that on television? There is no longer any inquisitive interview that lasts longer than 10 minutes.
But would anybody watch it? If you want a presentation about something that develops an argument carefully and thoughtfully, is television the best medium in which to do it? No, I think people watch things like Weekend World because there wasn’t anything else to watch. They learned to appreciate its strengths and they developed the patience you need, but modern viewers don’t have that patience and why should they?

What frustrates you about the way the modern media behaves, if anything?
I like the modern media. I thoroughly approve of it. I think a good deal of it is absolute nonsense but that doesn’t matter. A lot of people want to read and see absolute nonsense. Most of it is dross but most of any age’s media and art will be dross. Amidst all the dross, there is as much more good stuff now than there has ever been.

But isn’t it quite shallow? Look at the 24 hour news channels, you and I go on and give our views, but what can you say in 2 minutes on Sky News that’s of any benefit?
Ask Adam Boulton. I think Adam Boulton, as a commentator, or Nick Robinson on the BBC, are as good as any equivalent that you could name from 30, 50, 150 years ago. Plainly there wasn’t rolling television then but were the commentators in the 18th and 19th century better? I get the impression when you listen to Nick and Adam that you have two people who do really understand it, they sum it up beautifully; they lead your thoughts in the right direction. I have no problem about it. I think rolling news may be a bit old fashioned because you can go quickly and unerringly towards the report that you want to hear about – you don’t have to sit and wait until something rolls around.

What do you think it says about politicians and politics in general that the likes of you and I are invited to give our views? We’re not elected to anything and yet 20 or 30 years ago, the newspaper would have gone to a backbench MP about something rather than an independent pundit.
Well, they get a better comment from us than they would have from a backbench MP 20 or 30 years ago.
Correct answer. (Both laugh) I always remember when the Hutton enquiry was going on, I did half an hour straight off on Sky News live on College Green when nobody else was about. I thought “why am I doing this? It should be someone from the security committee”.
No, but then you look at the membership of the security committee and you see very well why you’re doing it and not them.

Do you think there’s any hope for backbench MPs now in a new political environment? Is there going to be change? Are they going to break the shackles?
Yes, I do I feel a little bit hopeful about the new parliament. I think backbenchers could do a lot better than they have done over the last 20 or 30 years. Looking at the backbenchers we have now, I think there’ll be all kinds of ideas and movements and campaigns that are going to add a lot to national life.

You seem quite comfortable about the coalition. In one of your columns you wrote “Lib Dems bring to government a distinct and healthy slant on politics. There is a reactionary component in the Tory make-up; I often share it, but it must always be kept in check”. That almost seems to buy the LibDem line that it’s their main job in the coalition to keep the Tories in check...
Yes, but not just as a brake. You do need a brake on some of the hot-headed reactionary instincts you find in the Conservative Party, but as an accelerator too for ideas of their own. Michael Gove’s education policy is not at all unlike David Laws’ education policy was or indeed Tony Blair’s theoretical education policy was. In all parties you have people who are dynamic. What I like about the LibDems is they do combine creativity and dynamism with a belief in the individual, and you don’t get that in the Labour Party. That is what I hate about the Labour Party and is the reason I could never have joined the Labour Party. The Labour Party in the end and in its very core is distrustful about the individual.

The LibDems tend to be quite a ‘big state’ party...
Some of them are. Some may not in the end feel that they are natural members of the coalition like this. I can see the coalition not splitting, not fragmenting but being shaved at the edges, at the right and the left, of people who don’t feel it’s for them. I find it hard to reconcile some of the things Tim Farron says with what the coalition stands for. Simon Hughes, it’s sometimes hard to know what he thinks and he may feel uncomfortable too. I can think of plenty of people on the Tory right who are really not for this sort of thing at all. The coalition may lose a few at each end but I think the centre is strong.

Do you think the media coverage of the coalition is slightly behind the curve with everybody trying to find evidence of a split here, a crack there, without actually thinking of the bigger picture that in coalitions there are inevitably going to be differences and it doesn’t mean that in a year’s time there aren’t going to be differences?
Yes but that is the media’s job. When two parties that have been part of the warring tribes in Westminster for as long as anyone can remember suddenly join to form a government, it’s right for the media to push and probe and ask how far they really are apart. The media will notice, the newspapers will notice and are noticing, that the public quite like this thing. It’s for the coalition to prove that the centre is strong and the ideas are real. I think it is for the media to probe, I don’t think David Cameron or Nick Clegg would expect anything else.

If you were a coalition MP, what would be your biggest difficulty?
It sounds slavishly adoring but I’m completely on board the whole idea and for what they’re trying to do. I as a Conservative think we should make the positive case of cuts rather than just wringing our hands and saying “I hate it, but I do it and it’s hurting us more than it hurts you” because it’s not hurting me. Some will hurt me but the idea of reducing the size of the state seems to be an idea that will stand on its own – should stand on its own, and it is simply convenient that the impending bankruptcy is forcing the idea in the country. I want it anyway but I can see why from the point of view of the coalition, that case can’t be made.

Has a part of you ever thought “I’d quite like to be an MP again in this government”?
No, because I really wasn’t very good at that either. Certainly not a backbencher. No. I’d still like to be Secretary of State for Transport but I’m not going to be.

Really? Because I’ve always wanted to be Transport Secretary too!.
I’m sorry Iain, but I’m older than, you so it’s my turn first.

I’ve always said that if any ministerial job was to come my way, Transport Minister would be it.You actually do things as Transport minister.
Of course you can! Where is there a better case for big government in providing roads and railways, it’s just obvious. I really disapprove of the way the Conservative Party has never thought that transport mattered.

Have you ever, since you left Parliament in 1986, thought “actually I shouldn’t have done that”.
Not for a moment. But that was only because I wasn’t going anywhere. There have been times when prime ministers have been appointing junior ministers when I thought “if only I had been doing well as a backbencher, I might now be being made that appointment”... John Major told me he would have made me a junior minister if only I had had a bit more patience, and that he was fairly confident I would have made a hash of it.

That’s a very nice thing to say.
He said he’d give me a try.

Rail privatisation! That would have been you!
Absolutely! Or I would have said something like Edwina Currie that a good winter cuts through the bed blockers in the elderly population like a knife through butter. John Major said he would have defended me on my first gaffe but perhaps when it came to the second he would have let me go, and I think he’s spot on.

How did your political views form originally? You don’t sit in any particular Conservative camp.
Two things form my political views. One is being brought up in Southern Africa and my mother being involved in the fight against white supremacy in what was then Southern Rhodesia. So I then became very interested in human rights, although I don’t really believe in human rights. But I became very interested in equalities between people and opposing discrimination, that’s the liberal side. At university, when I began to follow British politics, I became seized with a conviction that collectivism as seen through the prism of a labour government would be the downfall of Britain and the state and the gradual extension of the state was slowly taking us to destruction. So I didn’t join the Conservative Party out of any enthusiasm for the Conservative Party but out of a feeling that socialism, even the weak milk and water variety of socialism that we got from Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, had to be stopped. When it came to Margaret Thatcher, she did seem a person who would do that. I had already become a Conservative, but then I became enthusiastic about it.

How did you get to work for her?
I was sent over by Chris Patten. I was working for the Conservative Research Department. Chris sent me over to what was considered in the CRD, who were a bit sniffy about Mrs Thatcher in the early days, a very unpleasant job which was answering her letters from the general public. I was her correspondence clerk for her last two years in opposition, which I also cocked up.

There’s a theme developing...
Yes, it makes a good after dinner speech, I can tell you. Her image is so different from that which anyone who has ever worked with her would tell you. Loyal to her staff, but not always to her colleagues. I think she was a very tricky person to work with. Certainly loyal to her staff. There are bits of Mrs Thatcher’s public image that are right and bits that are wrong, the bits that are wrong you’re right - she was loyal to her staff and it’s also true that she was much better at compromising. Although she raged against contrary advice, she often took it. There was, is, a sort of coldness about her. I never felt that she especially loved human beings. She had great faith in the qualities of the human animal but a love and a warmth towards particular human beings, apart from Denis, didn’t, I think, characterise her. She treated people well, I think, because she had been brought up to treat her staff well. But not because in her heart she really cared.

Do you think politics is very much a young person’s game now in this country?
I was the chairman of a number of selection meetings, constituency associations, Tory ones, choosing their candidates. The last that I did was for Stratford on Avon which Nadhim Zahawi won. One of the people who didn’t win was a woman called Georgina Butler, who had been an ambassador in her career, just recently retired from the Foreign Office. I thought what a good person she would have been, on the backbenches or as a junior minister, and I felt sorry that there is this prejudice now. I think these things go in cycles. There’ll be a fashion for youth, then we’ll find out what youth lacks, then there’ll be a fashion for grey hair and then we’ll find out what grey hair lacks. It is just swings and roundabouts.

Is it healthy for politics when you have all the leaders look, to the public, the same?
No they’re not the same, even though they may look the same. They are all about the same age. The similarities between Cameron and Clegg are quite striking although the differences are quite striking too. Certainly in backgrounds, the similarities of the two Eds and David Miliband, but in outlook they are very different, very different indeed. I think it is just something of a coincidence there that they are all the same age. In the selection panels I chaired, there is quite an appetite now for candidates who have done something else in their life – like Dr Sarah Wollaston in Totnes, I chaired that one. It definitely was the fact that she was a doctor that helped her and the fact that she had only relatively recently didn’t join the Conservative Party didn’t help her at all – so again these things swing backwards and forwards.

Do you think some of the new MPs might become disillusioned with their existence fairly quickly? You talk to some of them and they are not happy people.
Disillusion is not quite the right word with IPSA. It’s just a sort of rage. I don’t think they’re disillusioned with the House of Commons, they’re not disillusioned so far with their roles and their constituents and that side of things. But IPSA is just a disgrace, and I’m completely on the side of Members of Parliament here and I don’t know what we do except wait for the wave of public indignation to die down and the just double all their salaries. I don’t think increasing all their allowances again in a slightly surreptitious way is the right way to do it. I’d double all their salaries and then abolish their allowances. But now is not quite the right time to double MPs salaries. I’m not sure the individuals who staff IPSA the problem, it was the circumstances in which it was born and the expectations placed on it and the rules it has to implement. I don’t think the Daily Telegraph played an entirely glorious role in all of this. They were probably right to publish once they had the disks. I think it could have been done in a more balanced way. They have done quite a lot to discredit the whole profession of politics. MPs themselves have done something, but so has the Daily Telegraph.

Do you recognise that you have become a bit of a role model for younger gay men in politics, or more generally?
I do hope not. I'm a completely crap gay.

But you've been completely open for years at a time that many weren’t... when I wasn’t. I think you underestimate that.
Yes, but I judge these things as everybody does, there were years until which I wasn’t open because I judged I would never get into politics and I wouldn’t have and I wouldn’t have been selected.

I wasn’t!
I wish now that I had come out when I was a Conservative MP. I think I could have got away with it in retrospect, but I think it would have been a close run thing. I had the nicest constituency and the nicest association and it would have given them an awful shock. A lot of them, I’m sure, had their doubts already and I think I could have ridden the storm. I so much admire Chris Smith for taking the risk.

He came out when you were an MP, didn’t he?
No, it was some years later. Nobody did in that parliament. I think it was in the next parliament. It’s true he was a Labour MP in a metropolitan constituency. I can rehearse and believe me in my mind a million times I have rehearsed all the reasons why he could do it and I couldn’t have. But I still wish I had.

Did Mrs Thatcher know you were gay?
Yes because I went to see her.

She was always quite tolerant of things out in the ordinary...
I think she quite liked gossip. I think she thought that the things human beings do are really very strange and unknowable. I told her I was gay when I went to say goodbye to her and she put an arm on my wrist and said “Matthew that must have been very difficult for you to say”. She meant it kindly.

Do you think in this country we are a little bit obsessed with anybody who might be gay? The David Laws issue wouldn’t have been such a big story had there not been a gay element to it.
What gay men who are not really out need to beware of, and Peter Mandelson notwithstanding, this is a warning not a threat, is the status of being a little bit gay and kind of suspected of being gay but not having admitted that you are gay, because it really whets the media’s appetite. Either you stay right in the closet, or if you’ve edged a little way out, for God’s sake come all the way out quickly. There is no status, although Peter Mandelson hoped there would be, in your homosexuality, as Peter puts it, being “private but not secret”. It’s public or its nothing.

Has he forgiven you for outing him on Newsnight?
He may have forgiven me, he’s perfectly kind about me in his autobiography and I’ve nearly forgiven him. I do think he made the most tremendous hoo-ha about it and I don’t think the BBC would have been so silly unless they thought Peter wanted them to.

Just to put it on the record, you thought genuinely that he was out in the open?
He was. He may not have thought he was out in the open, but as he says in his book you’ll see that he points out, as I pointed out endlessly at the time without anybody being remotely interested in hearing it, that he had been comprehensively outed by the News of the World 10 years before. I read that and I had read the other articles in the Evening Standard which had described him as gay. It was the media who decided to use the rather high profile glancing reference as their peg. Peter got quite unnecessarily cross, the BBC took huge fright, I was sacked as a columnist from the Sun. I don’t suppose Peter spoke to Elizabeth Murdoch or anyone else. Plainly somebody did what they thought he would think was appropriate, so I’ve nearly forgiven him. After his memoirs which were quite kind, I’ve almost completely forgiven him.

Do you think politics is sleazier now than 20 or 30 years ago?
It’s definitely not sleazier now. It probably was sleazier 20 or 30 years ago. It has been getting steadily less sleazy for about two centuries. The next big sleaze story is lobbying. They don’t call themselves lobbying companies now; they call themselves public relations and all that sort of stuff. Strategic consultants. It has wrapped its tentacles around the American political system in the most throttling way; it is just beginning to do that here. We could well do with a new wave of sleaze busting whose target is not the politicians but the commercial interests who attach themselves limpet-like to the political process. If I was advising a young man or woman thinking of going into political communications, I’d say ‘watch out’ as the industry could be the next big car-crash.

Back in 1990, I turned down a job with Ian Greer.
So did I. He wanted me to be a director of his company. What were you going to be?

I don’t know but when a poodle walked into the office during my third interview I decided it wasn’t the job for me. I also turned down a job to manage Shirley Porter’s re-election campaign. I regard those as two of my better decisions in life.
Ian Greer got a rather raw deal because he was a bit extravagant and colourful in the way he went about the schmoozing. He became the lightning rod for the whole industry and the media decided that it was just Ian Greer Associates. All Ian Greer did was in a more flamboyant way the things that a lot of other companies were doing and that crash has still to come. It’s not enough to send Ian Greer off into exile as some kind of scapegoat. He was in many ways a nice and generous man.

Lobbying is a perfectly legitimate activity, if you want legal advice you go to a lawyer, why shouldn’t a company go to a professional firm of political consultants for advice on how to get their message across?
Because if you want legal advice, you need to understand the law. If you haven’t followed the law and learnt the law, you won’t understand it so you have to ask somebody who does. A democracy, if it is to work, has to be something that anybody with an argument to make or evidence to give can feel they can go directly to the people whom they’ve represented. They shouldn’t need intermediaries. Once you begin to establish intermediaries, the intermediaries begin to establish a convenient working relationship with the politicians and begin to exclude the public from coming to them or interest groups from coming to them in any other way than via the intermediaries – and it’s a very malign process.

You’re very rude about Gordon Brown in a few of your columns
Yes, I’m proud to be.

Do you think he was bonkers?
I think he was unhinged. That’s the same word Tony Blair used of Margaret Thatcher. I think Tony Blair was a bit unhinged too. I think Margaret Thatcher had her unhinged moments. I think there was something very odd about Gordon Brown. It wasn’t an oddness that made him unfit for any useful role in public life but it certainly made him unfit for any central role as a communicator or explainer but more than that as a listener. He wasn’t a good listener, he wasn’t good at being honest about what the problems were. He seemed to have a difficulty with bad news that was more than the difficulty Tony Blair had, which was he didn’t want people to know it. Gordon didn’t seem to want to hear it himself.

Have you read Alastair Campbell’s diaries?
Yes, now! I hadn’t read them when Alastair Campbell put me as a quote on the back cover saying “these diaries are brilliant and future historians will read them gasp and come to rely on them”.

How did he come to do that?
I wrote that about something else. Other diaries that he wrote that I had read, but not the latest.

Didn’t you feel having read the Campbell book “how on earth did the rest of the Cabinet allow this man [Gordon Brown] to become prime minister”? The whole book is a catalogue of incidents that show him to be demonic in some ways and totally irrational.
When you’ve finished Peter Mandelson’s diaries, you’ll feel that three times over. From Peter Mandelson’s diaries, an even more weird character emerges. It isn’t just the demonic nature of Gordon Brown. It isn’t just the fact that he was impossible to deal with, the rages and the refusals to listen to the truth and accept bad news and all the rest. Some very great men and women have had those traits. It was that in the end had nothing to say. There was no treasure trove of new political ideas. The cupboard of his philosophical mind was completely bare and anyone who had followed him as I had, and the things he had said and written and listened to him answering questions would have realised that from the start. I have a real problem with his senior colleagues who knew what he was like and did nothing. I also have a bit of a problem with the media and the lobby who decided that he was a great man because he told them he was a great man and started writing he was a great man, when it became apparent that he wasn’t emerging as a great man, started writing that he was a great man but his greatness had not yet emerged, which was really by way of an explanation of why they had said he was a great man in the first place. The truth was he was never a great man, he wasn’t’ a great man, there were never any hidden depths and none of us should have been conned into thinking there were.

In one of your more generous moments to Gordon Brown, what would you advise him to do now?
Quit the House of Commons as there is no way he could creep back as a backbencher. I think he will quit the House of Commons before the end of this year and write, and perhaps teach. I think he could be an interesting lecturer to an audience that knew what he was talking about. I don’t think he’s a good explainer to the uninitiated, I could see him at an American university. I could see him writing about the subjects that he knows a lot about. I don’t think his memoirs would be very interesting unless he suddenly discovers an element of self examination in his character which has not yet been displayed. I know people say he should go to the IMF or the World Bank or all that but I’m not sure.

Since you’ve been active in politics, who are the three most impressive figures you’ve encountered?
Keith Joseph, who really drew me into politics not long after I left university because he seemed to say the things that I was thinking that no one else dared to say and the Conservative Party wasn’t then daring to say. Nick Ridley, who was Secretary of State for Transport when I was still hopeful of becoming a junior transport minister. I loved his honesty; I loved his uncompromising right wing views. I loved his liberalism in the economic sense. Who I would choose as a third person whom I admire? I’m afraid it would be David Cameron who has seen what the Conservative Party needs to do and needs to be and has had enough steel to bend the party to his will and I believe is going to be a great prime minister.

I think in party terms he is the most powerful Conservative leader since, Churchill. I’m not even sure Churchill had complete control over his party. Margaret Thatcher certainly didn’t but I think he does.
Yeah which is partly judgement, partly luck. The coalition and this is something that never occurred to me, didn’t really occur to many commentators before the election, the coalition has left us with a stronger government, not a weaker one. I never wrote a more mistaken column than the one in which I say that England doesn’t like coalitions and if we have a coalition government, it’ll just stumble onto another election in a year. Looking back as I did on looking back at so many great discoveries, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me.

You had your three most impressive, what about three people that you’ve just thought why have they bothered?
If someone was completely unimpressive, one wouldn’t want to knock them. I think there are a few people who have really significantly increased the amount of evil there is in the world. Alastair Campbell is one of them. I believe he has made a personal contribution to lowering the terms of politics and the media in Britain. I think Tony Blair has actually done more evil, much more evil than Gordon Brown, who is simply incompetent. Tony Blair was a confidence trickster of the worst kind. I’m not going to cast around for a third person!

You spend a lot of time in Spain, what does Spain give you?
It’s family really. Wherever my family were, my father until he died recently, my mother and my five brothers and sisters, three of whom live in Spain, there I would be. We have this great house that my sister and her husband and I have been restoring in the Pyrenees. I love that project although it’s nearly complete now. I love mountains and where my families are is the Pyrenees but really if it were the Andes, if it were the Pyrenees, if it were the Drachensburg Mountains in South Africa, I love mountains.

Do you ever go back to Africa?
Yes. I haven’t been back to Zimbabwe because until recently I have thought I might be persona non grata because of the things I have written. I think I might now. I’ve been back to Swaziland where I was educated, back to South Africa. I go a lot to East Africa. I’ve got to like Ethiopia a great deal and I love Algeria.

Favourite food?
Bread and butter pudding.
Tell me something that few people know about you:
I have a rudimentary third testicle.
I wasn’t expecting that! What does rudimentary mean?
It never completely formed. Apparently it’s not uncommon!
Ok... pity we don’t have a cameraman here.
You’re blushing Iain!
What’s your favourite view? Don’t say ‘my third testicle’!
It’s the view of the City of London from Waterloo Bridge.
Favourite music?
Richard Strauss
Favourite holiday destination?
The Andes.
One thing you’d change about yourself?
I’d like to be astonishingly good looking.
What book are you currently reading?
I’m just finishing Peter Mandelson’s autobiography.
Favourite film?
Whistle Down the Wind.
One thing you wish you’d known at 16.
That if you pull the paper hand towel from the dispenser in the public lavatory before you wash your hands, it won’t come to bits in the way that if you try to pull it from the dispenser, it does when your hands are wet.
What makes you cry?
Other people’s misfortune.
Peter Wildblood. The journalist convicted in the Montagu, trials who wrote the first book about being gay that has ever been written in the English language.
Finally, villain?
(laughs) Tony Blair.
I thought you may say that.

The original, shorter version of this interview appeared in the September edition of Total Politics magazine.

Cat O' Nine Tails?

I don't know how many of you have seen the CCTV footage on Sky of a woman putting a cat in a wheelie bin, where it stayed for 15 hours until released by the owner of the wheelie bin.

I'm not normally in favour of capital punishment, but for her I'd make an exception.

I have never understood how anyone can be deliberately cruel to animals. I hope this woman is soon identified and that she is then subjected to the full force of the law. Or the tabloid newspaper treatment. Whichever is worse.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Twitter Followers: Who's Missing?

The 2010 edition of the Total Politics Guide to UK Political Blogging will be published in November. We've been putting together a list of Top Political Tweeters. It may not be a perfect guide, but the number of followers someone has is a good indication of popularity, if not necessarily influence. Here's a list of fifty or so twitterers, each of whom has in excess of 5,000 followers. Who are we missing?

Boris Johnson 92472
Nick Clegg 48961
Conservatives 41223
Alastair Campbell 40677
David Miliband 31219
John Prescott 30461
Laura Kuenssberg 28112
Krishnan Guru-Murthy 24873
BBC Politics 24742
LibDems 23799
UK Parliament 22631
Ed Miliband 21786
Tory Radio 21421
Tweetminster 21019
William Hague 20804
Nick Robinson 18372
BBC Newsnight 16019
Guido Fawkes 15165
Evan Davis 14744
Ed Balls MP 13795
New Statesman 13719
Iain Dale 13584
Grant Shapps 13197
Tom Watson MP 12479
Vince Cable 12405
George Galloway 12001
Caroline Lucas 11744
Andrew Rawnsley 9612
Harriet Harman 9599
Kevin Maguire 9228
Eric Pickles MP 9189
Sally Bercow 8879
Daily Politics 8856
EyeSpyMP 8378
Paul Waugh 8109
Tim Montgomerie 7707
Labour List 6654
Kerry McCarthy MP 6548
Ben Bradshaw MP 6497
Adam Boulton 6311
Matt Wardman 6071
Andy Burnham 6016
Charlie Whelan 5923
Daniel Finkelstein 5903
Cathy Newman 5831
Dr Evan Harris 5807
Fraser Nelson 5776
Jeremy Hunt 5751
Bevanite Ellie 5740
Sadiq Khan MP 5621
Ian Collins 5494
PoliticsHome 5437
Gaby Hinsliff 5345
David Lammy MP 5121
Tom Harris MP 5088
Michael White 5068
Tory Press HQ 5053

The Total Politics Party Lines Blog will shortly start listing some of the Top blog categories.

How Not To Get a Job

Remember I advertised for an Executive Assistant last week?

Instead of emailing me the application, as instructed, one applicant has sent in his CV by post. Except he didn't send it to my office. He sent it to Dods, the owners of the House Magazine.

I think it is safe to say that he won't be getting an interview...

The LibDems And AV

So this is how it's going to be, then - the LibDems wilfully misinterpreting every single argument put against AV. Various of them went off on one last night after my post BELOW, alleging that I couldn't tell the difference between AV and STV. Any fool reading the post could see that was clearly not the case. I'd have thought this sentence would have given even the thickest of LibDems a clue...

There's a reason only one other country in the world uses AV. It's a half way
house. It tries to be a PR equivalent of the First Past the Post system, but in
reality it is no more proportionate than straight out FPTP, and in some cases
can be less so.

They then picked on the fact that I had said only one other country uses AV. I meant, of course, Australia. Oh no, they cry, Fiji and Papua New Guinea use it too. Oh, well, that makes it better then. Apologies for missing out the word 'major' before country.

I raised STV was because we all know that's what the LibDems want. At the moment they're happy to replace one flawed electoral system with another one. An unproportionate system with an, er, a potentially even more unproportionate one.

If I had asked any LibDem a year ago whether they would campaign for AV, I doubt a single LibDem would have replied in the affirmative. Which is why I have no respect for their stance on AV. It's a system that they don't want, they don't like and think is wrong, and yet they're prepared to waste millions of pounds having a referendum on it. All because they regard it as a stepping stone to STV.

I am not ideologically opposed to electoral reform. Indeed, I favour PR for the House of Lords and local government elections. But I do not favour STV for Westminster elections for reasons I have already outlined below, and the arguments in favour of AV are just not conclusive enough to make a change.

AV may result in even less proportionate results than now. Landslide results would be even bigger for either of the two main parties, academics have suggested. But the one thing we do know from academics is that AV would invariably result in more seats for the LibDems.

Funny that.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Podcast: 7 Days Show: Episode 37

The latest edition of the Seven Days Show is now online.

In the Show this week we talk about Charles Kennedy and his rumoured defection; the recent A level results; Labour and how close it is to bankruptcy; party conference and the potential for a terror attack; local police commissioners; the No To AV campaign, and anal glands (who would have thought). Within 60 seconds of the start we are both corpsing as Gio barks his head off and I relate his current little medical problem...

To listen to the podcast click HERE, or you can also subscribe to the show in the Tory Radio section in the podcast area of Itunes.

The AV Campaign Starts Now

I'm delighted Matthew Elliott will be heading up the anti AV campaign. He knows all there is know about grassroots campaigning, having made the Taxpayers' Alliance such a success. However, the success of this campaign will in part be determined by the campaign's ability to garner support from across the political divides. Matthew is not a Conservative Party hack, but because the TPA is considered to be on the right, he will be painted as such.

I'd say the majority of Labour supporters I know are opposed to AV too. It would be good if Matthew appointed a leftish deputy.

There's a reason only one other country in the world uses AV. It's a half way house. It tries to be a PR equivalent of the First Past the Post system, but in reality it is no more proportionate than straight out FPTP, and in some cases can be less so.

First Past the Post isn't perfect, but then again no electoral system is. But I would fight to defend it against STV. I just do not buy the claim by supporters of STV that it too can protect the constituency link. It doesn't. Multimember constituencies dilute the constituency link. They have to be big enough to allow representation from different partes, and the bigger they get the less likely people are to either know who their representatives are or be able to relate to them. Just look at the system used for European elections. I realise this is not pure STV, but even so, the effect is the same. Even I would struggle to name the MEPs in my region, and I suspect most people reading this blogpost would too.

So I will be campaigning against the Alternative Vote. It doesn't do what it says on the tin, and there may be faults in our existing system, but AV won't fix it.