Sunday, December 16, 2007

Neighbourhood E-Forums: how would you use them?

I have a question for you, gentle readers. We -- or, rather, an estimable local resident with the support of (among others) her local councillors and under the auspices of the City Council -- have recently set up an e-forum for our ward and the neighbouring area. It's got c. 80 members having been on-line and public for only a day, and a whole range of issues are already being aired. Hoorah, I say, and then I ask: what next?

I've got some ideas about what I think the forum could achieve and how it could really be e-democratic. But I want your views and your advice. What do you think would be a suitable lower percentage of the local population to have involved? How would you judge its success? And with what would you compare it?

I look forward to your comments. And, by the way, if you happen to be associated with Oxford's elevated elder sister of Headington, or live nearby in Marston, Barton, Risinghurst or Wood Farm, do join us at: http://forums.e-democracy.org/groups/oxford-hm/

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Huhne and Cry

It was all going so well. A leadership election which I, for one, feared could enter the Olympics in the long-distance tedium category was actually proving a credit to our party. We were seeing two true Liberals reminding us of the core beliefs which we share; they were ably showing the world how different we are from what Ming, in one of his last good acts as leader, dubbed the cosy consensus. And I was still honestly undecided about whom I would support. All that ended today.

I doubt any of us are so na├»ve as to imagine that either camp in this election is above a spot of off-the-record briefing and less-than-flattering commentary on their opponent. In fact, if either camp wasn’t capable of it, I wouldn’t want them on the ballot paper: sending a guileless leader into a room with the other parties would be like asking the lamb to sit down with lions who’ve forgotten the Bible’s punch line and are feeling a bit peckish around teatime. All along, it has seemed that Huhne’s campaign has been less adept at this skill than Clegg’s – since his launch, his coded comments have been the more noticeable. That, indeed, might be forgivable from the man the media sees as ‘the other candidate’, the one who has to play catch-up. But there is a line somewhere, faintly drawn but definitely present, and it’s been crossed.

So, the Huhne team produced a briefing document on Clegg’s apparent flaws and gave it a florid title. I don’t have a problem with that, if they are competent enough to keep it to themselves. But either they showed it to the press or they couldn’t stop it getting to them. Either way, if Hogwarts ran a course in the dark arts of politics, Huhne clearly would be enrolled – and would prove to be no Hermione. On The World this Weekend – where, incidentally, Steve Goddard, future MP for Oxford East, gave an excellent interview – Chris Huhne just made it worse: he apologised for the title of the document, but not for its substance. If you are going to play bare-knuckle, you don’t say ‘sorry’ as you do it. If, on the other hand, you want to be Mr Nice, you’d play contrite. Encore: nul points.

Of course, there’s another level of irony. The implication of Huhne’s own version of a dodgy dossier is that a politician can’t change his mind or develop in his views. One wonders where that would leave the contributors of The Orange Book who later wanted to distance themselves from its ‘economic liberal’ extremes. If you are going to accuse your opponent of ‘flip-flops’, you better make pretty sure you aren’t open to the same allegation.

I had suspected that this election would be more about presentation and personality than about fighting for the policy heart of the party. In debates like that on Question Time, that has been the case. On that programme, when the final question came about ‘what is your opponent’s best quality?’, I was hoping that one of them would have the humour and the chutzpah to begin their answer: ‘he’s a good loser – and, if you don’t believe me, test it.’ Sadly, that clearly can’t be said of one of the candidates. Mr Huhne is proving himself a bad loser even before the votes are cast.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Shorten the timetable!

My friend, the geo-mutualist, makes a good argument for something more awe-inspiring than a two horse race for the leadership of our great party, and he calls on Cowley St to extend the timetable. Of course, what we want is an opportunity to showcase the talent and the intellectual vitality within the LibDems while the camera falls, briefly, on us. But if it does turn out that what we have on our hands is single combat between two former MEPs of, shall we say, similar pedigree, can't we just shorten the timetable for the whole thing and get it out of the way?

OK, I realise it's not possible. Constitution and all that. But there is a danger that a head-to-head for the leadership won't look as much like a titanic struggle as arm-wrestling on the Titanic. In all honesty, won't some of those who've counted themselves out think again? Let's have a debate worthy of our party.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

If it goes on like this...

So, all credit to the silver-haired lethargo for having an organised campaign. Chris Huhne declared this afternoon and is already sending me an e-mail. Impressive, considering he couldn't have known this eventuality would arise before Monday.

And it's not even as if it was a foregone conclusion that he'd stand: after all, as he tells me (and every other LibDem whose address is available), he talked about it with 'family and friends'. Groan. First misjudged cliche' of the e-mail.

And what's this? 'It's disgusting that we live in a country where a child born into poverty has a life sentence.' That's a new take on ASBOs. But 'disgusting'? Sounds like he's eaten something highly unsavoury. He could have tried: 'we should hang our heads in shame that we live etc etc' And 'has a life sentence'? It may come as a surprise but being poor doesn't necessarily mean you're a natural born killer. We know what you mean, Chris, just about -- but it's unlikely most people would untwine your opaque phrasing.

It sounds to me as if he needs to get some good speechwriters around him. He's quick of the mark, but has he tied his shoelaces?

Friday, September 28, 2007

How desperate are the Tories?

So, prudent Gordon Brown is about to go to the polls, little more than 28 months after the last General Election. And the Tories claim that they are champing at the bit -- but enough of their boudoir activities.

The Witney Wonder is all wound up and ready to go for the autumn poll, we're assured. But, if they are so confident, why -- really, why -- do they scratch around with yesterday's local by-election results as their main press release for the day. I realise all hacks act like train-spotters when it comes to the weekly results, and that they are susceptible to intelligent analysis, as shown over at LibDem Voice. But, God, the Tories really must be worried if winning one council seat off Labour at a swing of 3.7% is the best news they can think of promoting three days before the General Election is called. The only aspect more surprising than the Tories pushing this line is that the BBC were happy to run with it. But, perhaps it's their left-wing bias showing again -- after all, it's a story which can only make the Cameroonians look like muppets.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Dark Arts: second in an occasional series

I said before that I might blog again on tricks I haven't learn. I realised I should when I recalled just the other day a story I had heard about an act of legerdemain in the Labour party, long before Mandelson or Alistair Campbell were on the scene.

The way I heard it is this: the local party was having one of its constituency meetings at which a member called to see the constitution. It wasn't available. At the next meeting, also, it still wasn't available. At first, the comrades imagined their secretary was simply forgetful - he was not regarded highly, I hear, for his intellect; after a few occasions, they imagined he was being truculent. Which meant the demands for a copy of the constitution were all the more insistent.

Eventually, victory. The red-letter day came, or rather red-constitution day: the secretary came to the executive with copies of the notorious constitution, printed on paper of the party's (then) hue. He warned members sternly that the constitution should not be circulated more widely. Which meant that more than one rushed away to photocopy the sheets -- only to find that black type on red paper doesn't show up on a photocopy. The simple secretary had outwitted them.

Not one we in our party could emulate, of course. But what I can say is that I know that 'simple secretary' has proven a longer player in politics than the people who opposed him.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Thoughts on Reinventing the State

I have written for the first time on LibDem Voice. 'Commissioned', indeed, to write 500 words on the new Liberal book, Reinventing the State. I'll wait for the cheque. As the book's nearing 400 pages, that means I had to write the equivalent of no more than 1.25 words per page. And, of course, I had far too much to say. In fact, I found it stimulating to the extent that I came up with various different reviews, plus my own reflections on some of the ideas in the book. What I post here are not the 'out-takes', but my own personal view on the ideological issues the book raises. Here's what I typed:

Perhaps the most effective virtue for a liberal is inconsistency. We do not believe that the state is always the right solution, or that the market invariably has the answer. We know it depends on circumstance. And – this is the crucial point – circumstances change. There are times when the state needs to intervene, and there are periods when its power needs to be constrained. If we ask when intervention is necessary, the simple response is when our society is in crisis – when inequality is so stark that local or charitable solutions can not be sufficient. The contention of Reinventing the State is that we are at one of those moments of crisis. And, what is more, we have to battle not only with the old enemies of poverty, lack of opportunity, unequal life expectancy but also with a new foe: climate change and the destruction of our planet. To my mind, this challenge is also the impetus to a new perspective on our ideology.

Liberals have in their mind a concept of the individual, the essential, irreducible unit of society. When we think of individuals, we do not imagine each of them to be isolated. In each person clusters various communities, of which they are member by birth (gender, race, for instance), by circumstance (physical inhabitance, career) and by inclination (sexual orientation, political persuasion). So many communities that the individual naturally has to choose which of those to privilege in their own self-definition. Those choices and some of the communities themselves will change over a person’s lifetime. This is a liberalism with which we might be familiar. But it is not enough, as the challenge of the environment should remind us. That is a challenge which we have to tackle for our own generation but all the more for future ones – not just for today’s children, but for theirs in turn. In other words, the individual of whom the liberal conceives is a member of the various communities already mentioned, and of a community which includes the not-yet-living.

Does this matter? I think it does, for two reasons. First, because it has relevance beyond that of the environment, providing a longer-term perspective on some of the other issues that we face. Previous generations of liberals, including the New Liberal thinkers of the early twentieth century, had confidence in a concept of progress. In that mindset, future generations could be expected to enjoy an ever better existence which, perhaps, meant that their welfare did not have to be of concern now. Progress is the god that died; we think beyond our own graves with a sense of anxiety, not confidence. But in protecting the heritage we leave, we face another problem and that is the second reason why this matters. We have to ask ourselves how far the ‘not-yet-living’ can be used as a trump card? How do we ensure that our stewardship for future generations does not create unacceptable brakes on our freedom in our own lifetimes?

I don’t pretend I have the answers to those questions yet. But we should be asking the questions.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Housing for Oxford: Mr Smith fails again

There is a scene of the ancien regime court depicted in the film Ridicule when the hero is thrown out of a dinner party on the basis that he is not witty enough to share at table with the other diners. ‘But’, he says as he retreats, ‘one can not judge a person by the company they keep. After all, Judas Iscariot had the best of companions.’

Andrew Smith is man with friends who, if not the best, are at least the highest-placed. He’s a man with the Prime Minister’s private number in his mobile; he’s someone who has sat at the table with the Cabinet. But Oxford gains precious little from his connexions.

It was Mr Smith who failed to persuade his former colleagues that our city should be considered for unitary status. And now the same Mr Smith claims the latest announcement on housing for Oxford is an unqualified success. If he genuinely believes that, he either deserves to be ridiculed or should admit he’s betrayed the people he’s supposed to represent. The latest news is nowhere near what our city needs.

The recommendations on the South East Plan now say that there should be 4,000 homes south of Grenoble Road. ‘Good news’ says Smith, rather than saying, ‘what, only 4,000?’ When you consider the planning process, it is likely that this will equate to, at best, 2,000 units of social housing in the area. Let’s be frank: that’s not going to solve Oxford’s housing crisis.

If there is to be any decisive act to improve the housing shortage in our city it is going to take much more than that sort of number. And we must remember that the social housing shortage is only one part of the problem: the lack of affordable housing affects a much wider section of our community.

So, for Andrew Smith to pop open the champagne at this announcement is not just misguided, it sells his city short. What makes it worse, is that he effectively endorses another bad decision about the South East Plan. The recommendations call for a review of the Green Belt just around Grenoble Road – what a missed opportunity.

Supporters of the Green Belt might imagine that this announcement is in their favour, but they would be wrong. If we are going to have a no-development zone which will last and, at the same time, help the county’s capital overcome its acute problems, we need to review the whole Green Belt, not just part of it. Overwhelmingly, that review would surely endorse the Belt that exists – and so make it a stronger defence against the onslaught which is bound to come in future years. At the same time, it is only through a complete review that we can take into account all the options for Oxford’s development. Beyond Blackbird Leys might be part of the solution, but it can not be – especially with Smith’s measly growth – the whole answer.

So, Mr Smith, if you want to stand up for your city, speak the truth: the compromise you’ve endorsed is no solution. Are you man enough to admit that?

Friday, August 31, 2007

I've signed the pledge: have you?

It's time we called a stop to it, it's time we called time at the bar. I talk, of course, of our fossil-fuel consumption and that's why I've been quick to sign the pledge.

Good liberals all, you'll have in your diaries 22nd September: 'Streets for People Day'. Previously, it was called 'Car-free Day', but that was too catchy or too contentious (what do you mean, how can I be free without my 4x4?). So, last year, it was 'In Town without my car Day' -- nobody could have accused that of being catchy.

But now we have a name which is clear and an event which is worth supporting. It's nationwide; in Oxford, it's in Broad Street and in Headington (and I'm sure elsewhere). But one day is not enough...

That's why the City Council has launched it's Streets for People Pledge. For many of us urban-dwellers, it shouldn't be so much of a challenge: I walk or bus to work every day; I have a car which gets into first gear once a fortnight. All the same, sign up to it -- and encourage others who might indulge in their car beyond the limit to do the same. Cheers!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

You must read this blog: it's official

I learn today in the press that this blog is a 'must-read'. That's according to a shady character known only as The Insider, the political gossip columnist of The Oxford Mail. I'll take approbation from anywhere.

What particularly caught the eye of The Insider -- who, by the way, I imagine to be a debonair and suave femme fatale (you can tell just from prose style) -- was my poll. But more of that another time.

Considering it's been over a fortnight since I've found a moment to scribble here, I'd say the message is less a 'must-read' to everyone else, but a 'must-write' to myself.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Dark Arts: a tutorial

I'm a novice at the game of politics, I really am. Over the years, I've tried to appreciate the subtle techniques deployed by seasoned maestri (of all parties), but I still couldn't pass Grade One. I realise there are ruses and legerdemains which help your path of action, or hinder your opponent's. But I'll be damned if I can remember them...

This comes to mind because there is a local issue creating some heat at the moment. I won't give details, for the sake of the cosmopolitan audience of this blog. But let's just say that a course of action, envisaged in this year's budget and supported, at that stage, by all parties on the Council, has now become contentious. I might have been given verbal assurances of support, but they don't count when a local member eyes a chance at re-election.

And so, I and the local member (more wizened than wise) sit in a public meeting to discuss the issue. At one point, he says something like: 'I asked for this information a month ago and still haven't got it. I think it's shocking that I and local people haven't been given the information.' The officer next to me muttered that he had only asked last week; I pointed out that last week was actually last month. As it happens, checking the e-mail trail, the first I knew about his request for information was when I saw his message of 1st August (when the relevant officers were on leave), but let's assume he'd meant to send it the day before. So he uses 'a month ago' in the sense of 'last month' (which could, of course, be last week). What a neat line that is: to create a sense of ages waiting, when the request had only gone in as the wheels of the band-wagon began to roll.

I doubt I could ever be so skilled. Then again, I doubt I would ever want to be.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Pseuds' Corner on-line

Saturday saw me off to Stratford for the new productions of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2. This is no place for a review (go to enjoy the second half of 2 HIV, and prepare to be disappointed by the rest, especially by a Falstaff [David Warner] overladen with ennui). But if you don't, and don't therefore see the programme, you'll miss this gem of lovieness, written by Richard Cordery, who was excellent as Humfrey in last year's Henry VI and moves sedately into the role ofanother figure of order, the Chief Justice in 2 HIV. He is not concerned to reflect on his roles but on the delight of being part of an ensemble. The last paragraph begins:

The great Alan Howard once told me that on an opening night an actor produces enough adrenalin to kill an ordinary man.

Alan Howard 'great'? He played a great Jewish gynacaeologist in Cook, Thief, Wife, I admit. But, that aside, I'm glad I don't get much excitement, being an ordinary man.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Translation: what I would have said

At our Full Council meeting, I was down to make a statement as a portfolio holder on the subject of ‘translations’. Unfortunately, a previous meeting over-ran and so I did not get chance to regale the chamber with my prose. In case there is anyone feeling deprived as a result, here is what I would have said:

I stand now to make a statement which I can confidently predict will not receive unanimous support around this chamber. But, all the same, this administration feels it is necessary to mark out where we stand. On 10th June, the present Secretary of State for Communities had a Margaret Hodge moment. Ruth Kelly declared that the number of translations available from local authorities should be cut and, instead of providing translation, those needing them should be directed to English lessons.

We, on this side of the chamber, consider that not only hypocritical but also wrong in principle. Hypocritical because it is this government which has cut funding to ESOL service of English lessons. If Ms Kelly’s policy was to be followed, ESOL funding would need massively to be increased – a point recognised by the Commission on Integration – but there seems no appetite for practical support for English lessons from the government.

It is wrong in principle because, while we should be providing English lessons wherever possible, it should be obvious that that will not do away with the need for translation as well. I was recently talking to members of the committee of our excellent Asian Cultural Association and they pointed out a key issue: speaking a language, reading it and writing it are three different skills. There are first-generation immigrants who can speak English but that does not mean they are fluent in reading it. In that situation, translation still has its place. More widely, we should be facilitating not prescribing: we should be providing as many ways as possible to learn about our services, not telling people to learn English if they want to know about them.

This Council has a policy of translating on demand. The availability of translations is flagged up in our leaflets. We in this administration believe that is right. And as long as we are in administration it will remain the case, whatever Ms Kelly tries to dictate.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The end of the Greens?

After their failure to make any impression in the elections, the Greens are debating whether they should dissolve themselves. In France.

Who's out of the Cabinet?

After all the brouhaha over Mr Brown's attempts to create a government of all the talents (just some talent would be a bonus), it's surely time to turn to the key question: who is out as Gordon comes in? Which politicians are going to be clearing their pencils from their desk and bidding a final farwell to the ministry concierge? And who, it might be added, may even now be sitting by their phone, biting their fingernails away in expectation of that call which never comes?

Presumably Pope Benedict will lose his place as a photo on a ministerial desk as -- according to all sources -- his greatest fan and, indeed, Mr Blair's future co-religionist, Ms Ruth Kelly is shown the door. Few tears will be shed. Meanwhile, in the lower reaches of the government, junior ministers don't come more controversial than Lord Adonis, father of tuition fees (and, in the dim and distant past, an Oxford councillor -- for us). Some newspapers are predicting that he will stay around after Wednesday but that might come as news to him. At a function on Friday, Adonis was exuding all the insouciance of a man about to escape from the clutches of responsibility, ready to ride off into the sunset to meet his destiny -- writing a biography as weighty as its subject, Roy Jenkins.

What is equally interesting is who is not being tipped for office. From my Oxford perspective, there is one man who is notably absent from all reports -- a former Cabinet minister, a close ally of the next Prime Minister: Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East. At the time of his appointment to the long table in No. 10, there were some cruel journalists who described him as the man who rose without trace. His only skilful act was his departure, resigning before he was pushed, to spend more time in his constituency in the run-up to the last election. And there he of course achieved the feat of becoming the MP with the amazingly shrinking majority. The limits of his influence on Downing Street were clear only a few months ago when he failed to ensure Oxford was on the list of possible unitary authorities. He was one of those who had been a contender. He was an insider who'd become an outsider -- and there, it seems, he will stay.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The definition of a local authority

I am trying to finish a book but writing has taken on the life of a half-life: the further I get, the more elusive the end seems to be. Perhaps this is a fear of heights: the further I get, the deeper I want to go. In wanting to delve beneath my own text, I just dig myself into a hole.

The present distraction, the excuse I have this week for not letting go, is Michel de Certeau. I have described him in conservation as a Catholic riposte to Foucault – where the latter, who lost God and found sado-masochism, saw all in terms of repression by the order – Certeau, the Jesuit, discovered human resilience, ways of living that the order can not order or control.

But enough of that. I wished to tell you of Certeau’s definition of a local authority. Here is what he says: ‘a local authority is a crack in the system.’ And: ‘a local authority reduces places so that is impossible to breathe in them.’ He goes on: ‘it is a symptomatic tendency of functionalist totalitarianism that it seeks precisely to eliminate these local authorities.’

OK, so Certeau isn’t providing a disquisition on district councils. Nothing could be further from his mind. He’s got nothing to say on local government. It’s just an accident of phrasing (or of translation). But I still like the idea of a council as a crack in the system (he meant it positively) – and we know that it’s not just totalitarians who go down the route towards crushing local authorities as we know them.

What Certeau actually meant by ‘local authority’ was a ‘discourse’ of identity within and in some ways undermining the order of a city. In other words, a method for the little man to make space for himself within the overwhelming structure of the modern metropolis. I mention this because it has set me asking a question to which we should return another time: is ‘place-shaping’ illiberal?

Monday, June 11, 2007

What sort of Liberal are you? A simple test

Committed as this blog is to encouraging the intellectual wanderlust of the discerning liberal, we present to you today a simple test. It comprises one question only and it's purpose is for you to consider how you would define yourself among the embarras de richesse which is the welter of liberal traditions.

We are what we inwardly digest; we are what read. So, imagine that on your enforced sojourn marooned on a desert island, you have been allowed the company of only one political tract. You would choose, naturally, a work which reflected your own political make-up, even though in the sweltering heat and arid landscape, there is no chance of constructing a liberal society. Which book would it be? The poll to the right lists the main possibilities -- click away.

If there are alternatives that you think should be included, do begin a write-in campaign. Or, if there are works there are worthy only to kindle fire, tell me which one was not even worthy of this desert-island jaunt. Results next week.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Things can only get worse

So, the early signs are that Monsieur Sarkozy -- apologies, M. le President -- has swept the board. It's a remarkable achievement for the combative character who has turned from being a divisive, uncompromising candidate to the leader with a cross-party cabinet and with approval ratings which have left this orbit. How long can this last?

If you detect in that question a certain lust for Schadenfreude -- you'd be right. Whatever my learned colleague may say, Sarkozy is not one of us. When he talks of being liberal, the image he has in mind is Mrs T not Beveridge. He has the dubious honour of being able to claim personal responsibility for some of the unrest in Paris and elsewhere last year. And through his presidential campaign he did not budge from his rhetoric aimed at winning Le Pen votes. But for all my suspicion, I have to admit there is a buzz in the air around him.

There does seem to be among some usually left-leaning French people a sense that Sarkozy is the man for the moment and the moment spells change. They might not agree with their President on what shape the change should take, but that appears to be secondary for the moment. Give the man a chance. But could this honeymoon turn as frosty as the presidential marriage is said to be? There are danger signs for Sarko.

Having approval ratings around 70% in itself creates an obvious chance to stumble. But what is more striking is the abstention rate in the elections today: the turn-out was nearly British in its meagre percentage, at 61%. Is this because the Socialists, still smarting, stayed at home, leaving the field free for Sarkozy's UMP? That is surely part of the explanation. But it is probably not just that. Another likely element is that there are many who are still not sure about Sarkozy -- they expected his party to win, but they didn't want to give him a helping hand again. In other words, they might like Sarkozy, but they don't trust him. That should give the President pause to worry, but somehow I doubt it does.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Headington Matters -- it really does

This short post is unashamedly, unabashedly, unrepentantly about my ward, the great community of Headington in north east Oxford. Actually, historically, Oxford is more of an add-on to Headington rather than vice versa, but we're not going to harp on about that.

The attentive among you will notice that there is a new list just started on the right hand side of this blog. It's for Headington issues and, in particular, for petitions and other useful information. Much of it will come (I say ashamedly, abashedly, but not really repentantly) from my ward colleague's website, where more information can be found.

The first petition up there is Save our Subway. The Headington underpass is under attack: as part of the 'improvements' to London Road, the intention is to block in the underpass to widen the road. It is supposed to help buses -- but this idea (as I said in the local press) would simply make pedestrians suffer. So, if you are local to Headington or if you have ever used the underpass with its colourful murals locals painted five years ago, go on, sign the petition, you know it makes sense.

One final thought on Headington: it stands to the city down the hill as Arezzo does to Florence. The Aretines, you will remember, were the fathers of Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni, Giorgio Vasari and other 'greats' of the Italian Renaissance -- in short, it was the genius-factory for the city which ruled it. Without Arezzo, Florence would have been much lesser -- and so would Oxford without Headington.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Great blogs I've never written

I have to admit it: I’m an idle blogger. I wake up in the night with the text of a well-crafted posting half there in my mind. I have good intentions actually to sit and type it in the morning. But then there are e-mails to answer, there’s that report which has to be read before 9am or – heaven forfend – there’s actually some work to be done. And so, the posting is posted to the back of mind and becomes just one more which could have been a contender.

I can still remember some of them. There’s the one entitled ‘Is it RIP for the BBC?’ where I was going, for once, to agree with my ward colleague on a financial matter: he, you will remember, affects to imagine being an economic ‘liberal’ is compatible with being a true social liberal -- or is it that I affect to imagine the opposite? I can't quite recall. My humble submission on the larger issues of what it is to be a liberal was going to be the subject of further postings, in which I was to discourse on the nature of liberalism in the twenty-first century. And then there was the one that I actually began writing at 6:30 this morning asking ‘Where are the liberal Catholics?’ – a question to which many will think they have the answer but which was going to allow me to muse aloud on the conservative revanche to the feminist challenge to the liberal tradition of emphasising the private sphere, beyond the public gaze (got that?).

But they all remain in the capacious recycling bin that’s somewhere in my mind – and that gets emptied much less often than once a fortnight. But, somehow, I don’t imagine the blogosphere is lesser without them.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Cribbing no more

Following on from my posting of yesterday, there seems to have been a crisis-summit at Tory HQ. No longer in their news section do they have the plagiarised article I mentioned. Which leaves them with nothing to say about the defections or the Witney Wonder's bold visit into enemy territory, that is, Oxford. What have they got to hide?

Two final thoughts. First, it's encouraging to know that my blog can appeal beyond the happy band of brothers and sisters who are true Liberal Democrats and is apparently monitored by the Tories. Second, I wonder whether the royalties cheque is winging its way even now from the Conservative party to the journalist they cribbed.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cribbing is the sincerest form of flattery

Whatever else you say about the Tories, you've got to give them this: they have a redoubtable ability to put a smile on our faces. I'm not thinking now about Cameron announcing he's the heir of Blair, just at the time when most of the nation are counting down the days until the PM finally shuffles off his super-mortal coil. What's amusing me is the Tories' apparent embarrassment about having drawn to their ample bosom two city councillors formerly stranded on the Independent bench.

What with the Witney Wonder himself taking the unusual step of setting foot into Oxford to find out what the two were like, you would have thought that they might have wanted to blow their trumpet. But they're obviously lost for words. And when, finally, something was posted on their website, it somehow didn't feel quite right. It was not only that the Tory party was here revealing that one of the councillors had left the Liberal Democrats because his then-colleagues had judged that he was not up to being on Oxford City Council's Executive Board. It was that all the words seemed somehow familiar -- and, indeed, they are identical to the words of the Oxford Mail originally reporting the defections.

Now, we knew the Conservatives were desperate but this takes it into a different league. What I wonder is whether Giles Sheldrick, the journalist who is been unwittingly writing the Tories' press release, is getting his royalties. Or will he demand that they remove his well-hewn prose from their website? It's hard to imagine that the Mail's Chief Reporter feels flattered by their act of piracy.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I was robbed

It's rare enough that I write a blog that gains much attention. Then, even when I do, its popularity remains unacknowledged. Through a 'technical hitch', I don't make it to the Golden Dozen on LibDem Voice.

I don't know whether it makes it better or worse that the Dozen was, on this occasion, not compiled by ward colleague. Instead, it was drawn up instead by an Oxford councillor from a completely different ward. I'm not the suspicious type.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tories in Oxford: remember, you read it here first

So the story of the mass defections from Oxford's Independent Group to the Tories has broken. As attentive readers of this blog could have read about this back at the start of last month, this can hardly count as new news. Except for that fact that the predictions were for at least three Tory councillors -- but they've only mustered two.

Clearly, the silver-tongued smooching of the latest Camerooney failed to persuade those other councillors who were the objects of his attention. Amazingly, those other councillors decided that the idea of moving from a small group to an even smaller one lacked something in the enticement stakes.

It does leave the acrid scent of desperation hanging in the air. It's just a question of who is more desperate: Oxfordshire's Conservatives, who in the Witney Wonder's own backyard can't get anyone with a blue rosette near to winning an election in the county's capital. Or the formerly Independent-minded councillors, counting the days to the next election campaign and deciding that being in any party whatsoever is better than none.

It's a curious political journey for the individuals involved, one of whom has discussed joining at least two other parties before, while the other is a regular attendee at 'Save the NHS' marches. I suppose that will now be out and in will come support for charging for residents parking permits, anti-European rhetoric and backing for the Iraq war. We should wish them luck for their last few months on Oxford City Council.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Civil partnerships: why we are lucky

Have I mentioned I was in Italy a couple of months ago? I might have alluded now and again to the fact that work forced me to visit a country I thoroughly enjoy. There is so much that I relish there – but, recently, there has been one issue that has made me thank the Lord that I am British.

Civil partnerships: the Labour party has a patchy record on such issues, understandably so for an organisation which does not see civil liberties as at its core. But, while they are still reprobates on matters like ID cards, we should at least give credit for the fact that, at last, civil partnerships have been legalised here.

Not so in Italy, where a bill called ‘Dico’ is the patata calda. Remember: many commentators have said that this bill legalising civil partnerships, rather than an American airbase near Verona or the number of troops in Afghanistan, is the real reason why some venerable senators brought down the first Prodi government. The second government has not yet dropped the bill but the pressure is on them. British experience would lead us to expect demonstrations in favour of such a bill – I bumped into one in Rome when I was there – but what we don’t expect are mass demonstrations against such a commonsensical, liberal measure. But that is what exactly happened this weekend, on ‘Family Day’ – not, you understand, a cross-generational celebration of Doris Day, but a mass protest, with an American title, in support of ‘family values’.

The Catholic church stayed away, but then they didn’t need to be there: the Vatican diktat had already gone out that any MP who called themselves a Catholic had to vote against the bill. Silvio Berlusconi, now the leader of the opposition, did turn up. He claimed it was because of a scurrilous cartoon (which goes something like: woman to man ‘oh no, there are going to be so many clerics on the march’, man to woman ‘what, would you prefer to leave them at home with the kids?’). The cartoonist said the Catholic church should give him 200 years plenary indulgence for encouraging Berlusconi to attend. Silvio was joined by a million others.

The intervention of religion so forcefully in public life, the inability to divide the ethical from political: in some ways, it seems, the Italians are more American than their Anglo-Saxon European partners. We can’t be complacent, we shouldn’t be proud – but how I wish my favourite nation would lighten up a little.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

What I miss about not being a councillor

It’s that time of year when, as the cheers subside and the hangover finally relents, hundreds of men and women across the country wake up to realise just what they have let themselves in for over the next four years. If you are a new councillor reading this, you might want to stop. You might prefer to continue to believe the claims you heard that it would not take up much of your time, hold on to the dream that it would take up, oh, only about five, at most ten, hours of your week. It can change the way you live, the way you work. I remember those carefree days when I was a mere ‘Mr’, not ‘Cllr’. And in the hitlist of things I miss from those days I would certainly include:

  • having evenings when you can decide to go to the cinema on a whim
  • not having to read the local newspapers every day (though, of course, our journalists are the most insightful, balanced and entertaining in the world)
  • being able to have dinner before 9:30 each evening
  • being able to write with a sense of irony
  • not being recognised by strangers as you go about your everyday life
The most bizarre occasion when I was recognised was a couple of years back during a summer walk in the Oxfordshire countryside. The two of us turned onto a path to see a woman running towards us, pursued by a herd of cows. ‘The cows are coming’, she not unreasonably noted but added, ‘they’re going to kill us.’ And then, she stopped, the panic subsided for a moment and she asked with curiosity in her voice: ‘are you David Rundle?’. Before I could answer, she noticed the cattle again and said ‘what are we going to do?’ which was patently a rhetorical question as she demonstrated her running-very-fast escape technique. I like to think that she realised from my gait that I was the author of nuanced studies on Renaissance intellectual history, but I suspect it was not my life as an academic that had brought me to her attention. None of us were killed by the marauding bovine menace, by the way.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

LibDems lack ambition -- shock

I love my party, I really do, but when I see a poll on an esteemed website, to which my ward colleague is a contributor, of such parochial pusillanimity, I weep...

I refer, of course, to the 'favourite federal conference venue' vote. Lugubrious settings from Blackpool to Torquay are in the running - but why should we, a European party, tie ourselves to such tired conventions and convention-centres? Why don't we storm the Parisian barricades, or roam in Rome? If we must avoid air travel, why, Paris is still on the map, or we could amuse ourselves in Bruges (no scent of Thatcher there)...

After all, I thought we were the party that can show them how to party!

Wiping Cameron's smile off his face

So, we’re told the Tories are back on the map. Last Thursday was their good-news day, we hear. Well done to them – but should they really look so smug?

The Conservatives in the past have had this problem: premature concentration. They – and their voters – have focussed too early on areas where they do well, rather than working to spread support efficiently across the constituencies they want to win. Have they learnt to master their unfortunate condition? The evidence from one patch doesn’t bode so well for them.

The Tories in Oxfordshire could celebrate this past weekend because they got a whopping increase in councillors in parts of the county – except, it was concentrated in the seats where they are established kings. In the Vale of White Horse, most of which is in their LibDem-held target seat of Oxford West and Abingdon, they managed, against all expectations, not even to hold their own. They lost out hugely to the LibDems, leaving Abingdon without any Tories at district or parish level.

In other words, in Oxfordshire, the Witney Wonder is winning votes – but not where it matters. They’re piling up their votes in their heartlands, but sliding back elsewhere – and they are still without any councillor whatsoever in the county’s capital.

The strange case of Oxford and the Conservatives is one I’ve mentioned long ago. The rumours persist that at least one City Councillor wants to put a smile on a Tory face. Whether there are enough of is another matter: the Colossus of the County, Kaiser Keith, is too shrewd an operator to accept just one or two city councillors changing allegiance. After all, on his own Council, two may be company, but nothing less than three is a group. And nothing less than four would look respectable if the Tories wanted to claim they were making a real break-through. But finding four humans in Oxford – let alone that sub-species, councillors – who would stand up for Cameron’s right-wing agenda, well, if the ‘new’ Conservatives believe they can do that, frankly, they’re out of their newly-drawn tree.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Will Oxford get Tory Councillors by the back door?

As anyone at all conversant with the politics of Oxford can tell you, this city is one of Britain’s many Tory-free zones. The Conservative party repeatedly poll fourth across Oxford. This leaves us with a County Council which is run by a party which has no representation at any level in the capital of the shire it claims to represent. But might that be about to change?

Of course, I’m not imagining that the Conservatives are going to storm to victory in the good clean fight of an election. We don’t have elections here this May. And recent by-elections haven’t shown any improvement in the Tories’ performance – quite the opposite: all the more effort they put in, the lower their vote goes. This is much to the chagrin of the Leader of the County, the councillor known as Kaiser Keith. He’s an intelligent, amiable but incorrigibly unreconstructed Tory: the sort of person who thinks that Jeremy Clarkson is a real man, and who imagines wearing a pound sign in his lapel will be some sort of talisman against progress.

Kaiser Keith is acutely aware of the perceived injustice of rural Conservatives lording it over a Tory-free city. And if he can’t change the electors, perhaps he’ll have more luck with those who’ve been elected. For there are rumours flying that there may be at least one city councillor willing to defect to Mr Cameron’s party.

Since last May, there has been one Independent councillor, a former LibDem. It is apparently an open secret that he has been in talks with Kaiser K. The rumours seem to be even more persistent than those of a few years ago which had it that the same councillor was about to defect to either Labour or the Greens. Those predictions came to nothing then and perhaps the same is the case now. After all, the Leader of the County might shrewdly have calculated that getting a lone councillor on the City is not much of a coup.

But, that one Independent is now a group: he has been joined by a councillor I genuinely like and respect. And, within weeks (and just before I left the country last month), the two Independents have been photographed giving the Leader and Deputy of the County a tour of part of the city-centre. Personally, I’m surprised that Keith needed the introduction and I wonder how long it will be before he asks to get to know the other 95% of the city. But, let’s not be churlish: it’s brave of him even to hint at such a political romance in public. The question now is: will this apparent flirtation actually be consummated? Will Oxford’s smallest political group rush to offer up the cherished cherry of their Independence? Or, considering the Tories’ poor reputation, will they not don the blue rosette until after the next elections that they have to fight?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fears for Two Tiers -- Part II

I said yesterday that Labour councillors were feeling sore. But their aches would seem to have nothing on those of Oxford East’s present MP, Andrew Smith.

This is the only way to explain his outburst in yesterday’s local rag. Under the banner ‘Unitary bid was wrong’, Mr Smith opines that Oxford should have put in a totally different bid from that which was submitted.

Hold on – this is the bid which had cross-party support in Oxford, was signed by the Leader of the Labour Group and was described as ‘excellent’ by at least one leading Labour councillor. It is also the bid which Mr Smith claimed to be promoting in the corridors of Whitehall.

There was no sign in the past months that Smith was out of step with his local Labour party, no hint that he would have advised the Council to have acted differently.

On the contrary, he was telling his comrades that his chats with his former Cabinet colleagues were winning the day and that he’d been assured Oxford would be on the shortlist. So, Mr Smith must now look at himself in the mirror and feel he’s got a face like an omlette.

The result is that he’s tying himself up in all sorts of verbal contortions. He’s now singing the praise of the ‘excellent’ County Council – I wonder if he’ll join the campaign launched in the same issue of the Oxford Mail by a long-term Labour County Councillor to get the Leader of the County a knighthood (Arise, Sir Kaiser K).

He’s also saying that the city should have gone it alone in its unitary bid, without talking to the other districts or having the vision to look beyond its own boundaries. What a recipe for constructive joint working and sound financing of improved services that would have proven! Probably best that you keep your thoughts to yourself, Andrew.

It seems to be a case of ‘blame anyone but me’. Andrew Smith isn’t doing himself any favours. It would be much better if he were man enough to shoulder responsibility and admit he’d failed. Indeed, if he had any good grace, he would apologise to the city that he’s let down, but I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Fears for Two Tiers

So, I’ve been away for a few weeks and return to find there are not many happy Labour faces round the Town Hall. They’ve been let down by their own government, again.

What was at stake? Some would say nothing other than the future of Oxford. The City Council had put in a bid for Oxford to become a unitary authority. The hope of breaking free of County Hall shimmered like a glimpse of the Promised Land. But, last week, the hope lost its gloss as Ms Kelly announced that we had not made the shortlist of contenders for unitary status.

Others have already had their say on the decision itself. I want to concentrate on its political fallout. For there are, indeed, good reasons for Labour to be glum.

The most obvious reason is one that we all can share: if the big chiefs of New Labour continue to be bent on wrecking the two tier system of local government, then further down the line might we end up with a unitary Oxfordshire County Council? Shudder at the thought: County Hall is so out of touch with the needs and desires of the county’s capital, their march on the city would be less welcome than the arrival of the Greeks at the gates of Troy.

But councillors of the New Labour persuasion aren’t worried just about that. The disappointment of the decision is more bitter for them because they were so convinced that their friends in high places would be able to win the day for our bid. They must feel let down not just by their own government but even by their own MP. Ex-cabinet minister Andrew Smith had, it is clear, offered to act the Fairy God-Mother, promised they could all go to the ball, waved his wand – and failed to work any magic. Looked at objectively, a failure of persuasive skills on Smith’s part is hardly revelation of a previously unnoticed character flaw, but Labour locally seemed to have unbending faith in him right up to the last minute.

But it wasn’t just idealism that led them to share our support for the bid. I hope they won’t mind me mentioning that they saw it as part of their political gameplan. They anticipate a general election in 2008 and hoped for all-out elections for the new unitary on the same day as the parliamentary vote. They have reached a conclusion which recent electoral history makes unavoidable: to achieve an outright majority in Oxford’s council demands all seats being up at one time. The political map of Oxford is too complex to hold out much hope of Labour being able to sweep the board when only half the seats on the council are contested. To jump from 18 to at least 25 councillors in one election of 24 seats would demand that all the other parties had a very bad day. On the other hand, if all seats were up at the same time, with the increased turn-out of a general election, then maybe, just maybe (Labour thought) they may be able to return to their unfettered majority of 2002.

So, if you pass a Labour councillor and see a tear in their eye, don’t be perplexed: Mr Smith’s failure and Ms Kelly’s decision have, on Labour’s calculations, condemned Oxford to a future of hung councils. It’s brought them down to earth with a bump as painful as the heaviest drunken slip on the stairs.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Speaking out about Speakout

'It is time to devolve power to the local level, restoring the civic pride that once made the town and city halls of Britain the source of public loyalty and affection.'

Hear, hear. Though it might be quibbled that affective emotions were probably never in play with any level of English government. But an excellent sentiment, recognising as it does that the great untold story of twentieth-century British politics is the shift away from strong local government to overpowering central diktat.

My heart would usually leap to read that (an excitable organ, my heart). It would have especial reason to do so, considering the statement arrived among the items of post that land on my doorstep and encourage me to attend various local government conferences (at exorbitant prices) or rally to the barricades to fight some cause which is usually either already lost or fundamentally misunderstood.

But it comes from Speakout, a 'non-party political, people's movement.' The failure to punctuate as English requires is notable, if the least of this group's failings. I'm afraid that I was agin 'em from the moment I opened their envelope. The first sheet I read had pictures of the three party leaders -- at, it must be said, their least photogenic -- underneath a banner: 'a migrant a minute is entering Britain.'

They might have been better representing each party by, say, Austin Mitchell, Michael Howard and Lembit Opik. That might have made their point even better. Migrants, you see, to Speakout, are apparently a Bad Thing. They say 'our elected MPs have handed control of our borders to the European Union, allowing unlimited migration into Britain.'

So, what's their alternative? In effect, let's have a poll to send the Poles back, let's leave the Hungarians hungry. And, while we're at it, who likes ice cream and pizza anyway? Out with those olive-oiled Mediterraneans and keep Britain for the British. Whoever they are. Speakout are the sort of people who would have complained about Golders Green going to the doghouse a century ago.

Speakout wants to know what 'every elected UK politician' thinks about having a referendum on immigration, the EU and probably the Radio Four medley. I'm all in favour of referendums: as it is, we live in a democracy which is not just indirect but also incomplete. So anything to improve citizens' engagement with decision-making. (And, no that doesn't mean inviting 0.000001% of my electorate into my front parlour).

But this is not an organisation keen to improve democracy in a non-partisan way. It is as 'political' as a party (as their failed punctuation reveals), and it is funded by ex-Tory millionaires like Paul Sykes, who bemoan the leftward swing of the Conservatives, even if it is not discernible to anyone else. So, if they want to know my view, here it is: let's devolve power to our cities, where their ethnic mix and their multicultural nature is their strength not their weakness. Let's celebrate what immigration brings to our communities. Let's put up a sign: all newcomers welcome. After all, their qualities might come to outweigh the unBritish intolerance fluanted by some who are 'proud' to call themselves British.

Monday, February 26, 2007

I stand accused

I'm under attack. Or, at least, I would be if they hadn't fluffed their lines. What my opposite number in the Labour group, Ed Turner -- a hard-working councillor, by the way, and an asset to the Town Hall -- intended to say in Council today was something like: see that man sitting there ouzing insouciance when we can make him tremble with the revelation that tergiversation would most aptly be his nom-de-guerre.

Perhaps I haven't quite caught Ed's tone, but you get what he meant. I stand accused of changing my mind. What is more, they say they have the evidence to prove it, brandishing a copy of a Focus leaflet from last spring.

Let's pause for a moment to reflect: what benighted soul was set on duty going through the back-catalogue of Stephen Tall's website to unearth this gem? Have they outsourced it to some god-forsaken corner of the country where there is nothing to do in the evenings except to surf virtually, presumably in the hope of finding soft porn and having to be satisfied with Headington residents' surveys instead? And do they really think that if we post something on-line, we don't want people ever to see it?

That aside, I should also say that, in principle, I'm in favour of changing my mind. It's good gymnastics for the intellect; it's evidence of being at least slightly more alive than brain-dead; it's something we should all, everyone of us, try now and again. The problem for Labour is that, in this case, no about- turn, no volte-face has occurred.

The detail, it will not surprise the more avid reader(s), relates to recycling. In the leaflet, I am quoted as saying:
We do not believe wheelie bins will be suitable in all parts of the city –
especially in areas like New Headington with a lot of terraced
housing opening out straight onto the street. Every household
should have a choice between a wheelie bin and sacks.
According to my accusers, those sentences can not accord with the policy the LibDem Council is now implementing. To which I respond: I stand by what I said and I stand by what we're doing. It's only someone who really hasn't been listening -- or only listens to their own voice -- who could imagine there's any conflict.

As I have written recently, the policy we have is to encourage as many people as possible to take a wheelie bin as the safest and best receptacle for waste but, at the same time, the Council is being flexible. We know that there are some houses where it might be difficult -- like the terraces facing straight onto the street that the leaflet mentions. Some residents living in those houses have actually chosen to take a bin to sit out the back; others have elected to take sacks. There is an element of choice -- something which was lacking when Labour first proposed the new scheme and when this leaflet appeared.

It must be said that local Labour's godfather across the water has insisted that they changed their mind from their early policy of imposition. If so, that's all to the good -- there's very little from what they're saying and what we're doing. The only difference is that I, for one, never envisaged the 'aesthetics' of a bin being a reasonable basis on which to want to refuse to join the recycling revolution. That's the banner under which Labour are now fighting. The defence of sensitive aesthetes is fast becoming the workers' party's clarion call, Labour's only USP on this issue.

In the end, Labour must be desperate if they dig out old Focuses and try to point up a contradiction when there is none. I suppose at least they are showing an aptitude at some sort of recycling. Let's hope this mastery of recycling proves a transferable skill and they actually start helping the real thing. Then they might actually prove that their support for the scheme is not just fine words belied by their actions -- and I could gladly change my mind about them.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Is this the way to oppose recycling?

Oxford is a battleground. There’s a war on waste but there’s also a war about the war. While recycling sounds like a cause akin to loving Mandela and wanting world peace – a progressive’s no-brainer – it has become in this city a cause for the barricades. Yes, in Oxford, which prides itself on its intellectual and liberal credentials, even here there’s a backlash against raising the city’s appallingly low rate of recycling by the tried-and-tested method of wheelie bins and alternate weekly collections. For anybody who’s interested in how a political dog-fight can threaten to derail even the most uncontentious of causes, it’s a salutary tale.

A couple of things need to be made clear at the outset. First, there has long been a significant majority in this city for the introduction of recycling. It’s been advocated for years by both LibDems and Greens and, last municipal year, Labour came on board. But – and this is the second point – there are a few Labour councillors who have become champions for the claim that they are in favour of ‘choice’ instead of ‘forcing’ people to recycle.

Some background is necessary. It is simply not the case that Oxford’s recycling scheme forces everyone to have a wheelie bin: if a house can’t cope with a bin, then the council’s staff will arrange for the inhabitants to have waste collected in sacks; if a resident can’t cope with moving their bin, then fortnightly assistance will be arranged. It is a flexible policy, more so than in many cities. But that’s not enough for some councillors. A recent Council motion, proposed by a Labour councillor, asked the administration not to ‘force’ people to have a wheelie bin. The Greens presented a helpful amendment outlining what is present policy: that if there are ‘access, storage or safety concerns’ at a property, then alternatives to a wheelie bin are available. As the LibDems supported this phrasing, it seemed as if there might be a consensus. But the dealbreaker came from the proposer of the motion: he would only accept the amendment if it also envisaged residents rejecting a bin on ‘aesthetic’ grounds. It’s on this that the debate about ‘choice’ revolves: whether you can stand in the way of recycling if you can’t stand the colour green.

The mantra of ‘choice’, so beloved of New Labour and fresh-faced Tory policy wonks, is a smokescreen: waft it aside and what you find is a threat to recycling itself. I am not saying that’s the intention of the Labour councillors, but there’s no doubt that would be the impact. The system works, of course, on the change of habits which comes with alternate weekly collections, encouraging all of us to reconsider how we deal with different elements of our waste. In turn, alternate weekly collections only work if residual waste can be safely stored and that is possible in wheelie bins: the more sacks you have, the more you have a danger of a public health risk – and, as we already know, Oxford is like any other city in sharing its space with a population of rats. As we are running a flexible policy, the percentage of sacks is already high. If you added to that a wrecker’s charter, allowing anyone to reject on a whim a wheelie bin, then you would undermine the practability of the system. The ‘aesthetes’ would consider landfill taxes and pollution preferable to a green bin in their own garden.

As I said, I’m not convinced this is what those clamouring for fewer wheelie bins actually want, if they stopped to think about it. And this is where it gets interesting, for the politicians are not in control of the issue, instead the momentum has taken hold of them. There are two councillors who are pushing this cause. They are ward colleagues and are doing so because their patch includes streets where there do seem to have been more difficulties than elsewhere. Some of us would think the answer is not a change of policy but everyone – including local councillors – working together to alleviate problems and to reassure residents, rather than stoke their concerns. Of those two, one has been heard to say it is a pity to have introduced recycling now when it could have waited a couple of years. But, while neither is the most ardent advocate of the environment, the stance of both of them seems to me to be formed by assumptions, however mistaken, about what is best for their small patch.

What’s made this larger than a ward issue is that the Labour leadership have jumped on it as if were political gold-dust. They have their reasons to do so: it trumpets their New Labour credentials with the catchword ‘choice’, at the same time painting the LibDems against type as they would describe us as usually preaching individual freedom at the expense (they would say) of collective responsibility. It also might not be a coincidence that the tempo has quickened in the days following the budget session where Labour felt that had lost out in the negotiations. (They are wrong on that, as I’ve said before, but that’s by the bye).

And then there’s the matter of the Greens. On this I differ from my learned friend, the other councillor for Headington. I hear that elsewhere, in Reading, the Greens have decided to oppose alternate weekly collections, but I don’t sense the same inclination here in Oxford. If anything, they find themselves in a quandary, in principle in favour of the scheme, but worried about its impact in what passes for their heartland, where there are many students and terraced houses. It’s an understandable dilemma, but my money would be on principle winning out this time.

To return to Labour: what fascinates me is what a gamble their stance is. Promoted by a couple of backbenchers and adopted as a group line, it has a real disadvantage for them. Labour’s environmental credentials have never been strong but this is liable to weaken them further. Already the press are painting their position as a route to madness and lower recycling. The longer they allow the issue to run – and they show no desire to end it – the more likely it is that the public will rumble their rhetoric and write them off as anti-recycling. There are few votes in that, let alone any good sense. If that’s the battle they want to have, we’re up for it. But I’d much prefer it didn’t have to be a battle. I, for one, hope saner counsel prevails amongst their ranks.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bringing out the best and worst in people

Hello, silence, my old friend. It's been some time since I've dropped in on my own blog. I must say I'm glad to see that more accomplished bloggers than myself are feeling drained of inspiration at this time of year. I wonder whether that's despite or because it's been an eventful time in Oxford politics -- we have what can only loosely be called the delights of budget-setting.

Those of youwho are aficionados of council meetings will need no telling that setting the budget provides the biggest bun-fight of them all. It's long, it's febrile and, by God, it's depressing. This year's meeting was no exception in length -- it started at four, teatime, and finished at quarter to midnight, after the restaurants are closed (I am no more grumpy than when I am starved. And sober). And it had it's own form of drama, with adjournments being called, political groups rushing in and out of the chamber huddling into their cabals. But, at the same time, there were elements of this year's process which were, for once, actually positive.

The budget which was finally set was certainly a compromise -- each of the three political groups on the council got something, no-one got everything. What was impressive was that a large part of the budget was agreed by tripartite discussions in the days before the meeting and on the day itself. It was actually proof that we could all be mature and work constructively with each other.

But, as if the parties felt we shouldn't let anybody know that we can be constructive behind closed doors, the last part of the budget debate really did sink into the mudbath, with metaphorically brown-caked figures rising to lob insults in one direction or another at top volume. We can all do it -- perhaps none of us can resist the allure of the kindergarten -- but it struck me on this occasion more than ever that it does us little credit. Especially when the figures actually at stake were a minute part of the overall budget; when there was no audience to watch us preening ourselves, and when, in the end, there was probably little difference across the chamber on the principles supposedly at issue.

I would hope that, after ten days to reflect on this, all parties would feel that they had actually achieved something in the process and that the final budget set was better for not being the work of a single party. But, there again, the budget has proved only an interlude in the battle over recycling, on which my colleague, Stephen Tall, has written recently. Now, if you want depressing, that's the debate to follow. Come to think of it, it deserves a posting of its own here. Perhaps I have re-found the urge to blog.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Rats and Recycling

Those of you who visit this blog from outside Oxford may well have recycling schemes including the alternate weekly collections that go with them. In our city, we have been behind the times. The recycling revolution is only now beginning. A third of the city is on the new scheme and already the recycling rate has jumped from 19% to 27%. Many people in my own ward have welcomed the new scheme but, quite understandably, some have had real worries about what feels like a leap into the unknown. And there is one fear that journalists have thought particularly newsworthy and which is worth sharing with you. It’s about a visceral phobia, about what happens in Room 101: it’s all about rats.

One lady in our city has recently had the very unpleasant experience of having rats in her house. I know how disturbing this can be because other Oxford residents I know had a similar experience a few years ago. For the lady in question, the arrival of rats coincided with the new recycling scheme. She herself has said that she doesn’t imagine that the scheme has created a rat problem in the city; her point, as I remember her saying, is that as the city is known to have rats, she argues the recycling scheme should not have been introduced.

The first thing to do is to put our hands up and admit: we in Oxford are no different from any other urban area – everywhere is living with rats. Not just rats but other vermin like foxes as well. They are here and have been here, in large numbers, for years. The situation hasn’t been helped in the past by the previous Council’s plans to save money by cutting pest control, but the main reasons for the national increase seem to lie elsewhere. The National Pest Technicians Association cites six reasons, top of the list being the privatised water companies failure to clear vermin from the sewers. As, in my experience, Thames Water sometimes doesn’t know where their drains are or what state they’re in, that sadly comes as no surprise.

The issue is not whether there are rats but whether their presence should stop us humans introducing a recycling scheme. And this is where I have a different take on matters. I want it both ways: I want us both to deal with the vermin and to get on with recycling. We know how important it is that we improve our recycling rate. It’s not just about the government fining all of us if we don’t decrease the amount we send to landfill. Much more positively, it’s about promoting more sustainable living, about all of us thinking about our habits and our lifestyles. It would be a counsel of despair to say ‘there are rats, so we can’t improve recycling.’ Not just that: it wouldn’t send the rats packing. Even if we had remained with the bad old system of waste collection, with bin-bags everywhere rather than wheelie bins where we can, there would still be people having to call out Pest Control officers to deal with vermin. Indeed, the figures suggest that there were even more incidents of vermin when the old scheme was in place. As the rats are here, we must deal with them. But that’s no reason to call a halt to other good deeds we have to do. Too often in local government, scarse resources mean we have to make impossible choices between competing good causes. In this case, I think we can be ambitious: we can – and must – deal with both issues side by side.

If any of the group of opponents of Oxford’s recycling revolution are reading this, I realise what I say will leave them with many more questions to ask. And, yes, there are many more issues about coping with recycling that deserve discussion. Bear with me and I’ll try to come to those in future postings. For those of you from outside Oxford, I wanted to share with you a tale that may well resonate with your own experience of introducing recycling.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

There's only one Stephen Tall

It must a humbling experience, really, for my ward colleague, Stephen Tall. He is well-known to all you denizens of Bloggoshire (a village community if ever there was one). He has even acheived a certain fame, with his appearances on various television channels, as well as being a guest star on a internet chat show filmed up some back-alley in London. What must have chuffed him most, though, was appearing on the back page of LibDem News last autumn, with a photo showing how terribly pleased he was to be standing next to the MP and indomitable blogger, Lynne Featherstone. And now he's done it again! He's there on the back page of the latest issue of LibDem News -- except ...

It would be nice if they'd got his name right. The editor, perhaps imagining that a forename resonant of Christianity's protomartyr was not politically correct, has rechristened him 'John Tall.' But it's him, all right, including a link to his blog. Perhaps LibDem News noted his middle initial was J and surmised he was an honest John. But, no, this blog can exclusively reveal, Stephen's middle name is Joseph. Of course, he's no ordinary Joe, even if he's apparently not as memorable to print journalists as he is in the frebrile blogosphere.

And what was the link that the News highlighted? His end-of-year poll on LibDems with a certain primeval animal attraction, an irresistible sexual charisma. Not only do they get his name wrong, but they choose out of all his intelligent disquistions on the minutiae of liberal values, that post. As I say, humbling.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The defect in defecting

So, while I was chumping away on the mince pies, a frisson has tango'ed through Tory spines, I hear. It might not have made any Christmas headlines but, apparently, in Smith Square (or is it 18, Doughty Street?) they can hardly keep their excitement under seemly wraps. Whisper it, if you dare: not one, not two but three former LibDems have, as they imagine it, swum with the tide and been marooned with the Cameroons.

Bless them. All political hacks, let's face it, muster some semblance of delight at a defection to their ranks. Every week there's some sort of Brownian motion of little political molecules moving in all directions to create something akin to equilibrium. They even happen here in Oxford -- not to the Tories, of course, since garlic and a sharpened stake has paid put to them. We LibDems have on occasion been the benificiaries. More recently, our council group saw two defections -- one to become a lone independent (which is rather like owning up to being billy-no-mates) and one to Labour. Their departures could provide the script for an episode of Twin Pique.

If we were honest, though, we'd admit that most defections make very little difference. Few people outside the oxygen-starved blogosphere take notice and they usually say more about an individual's changing outlook on life than any real shift between the parties.

So, certain bloggers of other persuasions, as reported by a worthy wordsmith, have crowed that the act of the Christmas trio of not-so-wise men is come-uppance for the LibDems, the truly nasty party, and heralds a revival of two-party politics. Their typing fingers clearly work quicker than their gray cells: on the one hand, they want the LibDems to be recognised as just as bad as the rest of the political world and, on the other, they want to deny the LibDems are part of that world as, they insist, there is only room for two to compare the size of their polls.

Some people can only think in binary. Anything more than a two-party state confuses them inordinately. And, it's true, the road to mature democracy with multiple parties is taking decades -- look how long it took for tactical voting to be recognised as an essential tool for voters in our cock-eyed electoral system. For those who can count only from 0 to 1, they must feel that they have found kindred spirits in their new converts. And here's the defect in their rhetoric: if politics were, by nature, two-party, defections into Labour or the Tories would be nothing more than the usual run of affairs. In a bipolar world, the only remarkable event would be the decision, week on week, for members of either of those parties to make the opposite decision, to move on and find their natural home in the Liberal Democrats.

I can't stop, however, without some comment on this idea of 'two parties.' If Britain was to be served by the two centre-right cohorts of New Labour and their imitators in the Witney wonder's Tories, God pray for democracy. In the LibDems, we pride ourselves on not being either 'right' not 'left' but there now is surely an urgency in trying to keep alive some remnants of the post-war consensus around the Welfare State which the 'big two' are bent on burying. That's a large topic for another time. I realise I might not win universal support for what I say within my own party: we hear there may be a few in our midst who imagine being economic liberal can come before being social liberal, and that they might fail to recognise that social liberalism puts brakes on economic liberalism. But, by the sounds of it, that minority has just got smaller. A good start to a good year.

New Year's Resolutions are so passe'

So I won't make any, except to say, in 2007, I'll only blog when I actually have something to say.

Which gives this posting the piquancy of suitably post-modern irony.

Happy New Year!