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?