Friday, June 27, 2008

The Tories: the dirtiest trick of all

The other main parties really don't like us. What, in particular, they don't like is the image of the LibDems as the 'nice party', a party of which there is no need to be frightened.

Both Tories and Labour in the past have attempted to dent that, but it's been half-hearted compared with the Conservative campaign which is now on show.

The Witney Wonder, delighted to have John Howell as his newest MP, made a point of saying that the LibDems had been nasty during the by-election. Our campaign had pointed out that this self-proclaimed saviour of the Green Belt could have taught lessons to Judas in taking money from the other side -- though they put it in much more temperate language. Personally, I would have liked us to go further and alert people to how this developers' friend seems to imagine there is no housing crisis in Oxfordshire. Be that as it may, apparently Tory high command felt hard-done-by that anyone should imagine Mr Howell's employment to be relevant to his bid to be in Westminster. It was, they cried, a 'dirty trick.'

In the local elections, in my own ward, the Tories similarly ran a campaign on not liking the LibDems. In our leaflets, we always put the bar-chart of the last General Election, to remind people how close it was between Labour and ourselves. In Headington, where the Conservatives are in second place, the Tories pointed to that bar-chart to claim we were lying, since they surely were in a chance. Well, they missed their best shot (with all credit to their candidate, who was far better than such a mean-spirited party deserved). The irony, of course, is that it was in our interest for people to know that the Tories were in second place and fighting hard: it can only help us, in a ward where the vast majority are liberal-minded. I remember the campaign when I got elected, in which the Conservatives stood on an anti-immigration stance ('Oxford is full') -- an attitude which does not go down well with the enlightened people of Headington.

I mention these two instances because they are not disjointed incidents, but surely a mark of a larger campaign, intended not to help our democracy but simply to add to the cynicism which is already there. It's a simple, but sadly effective, technique: lie by calling others liars. It's the most corrosive dirty trick.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dante: shall we sign him up?

According to Peter Popham in The Independent, Dante, author of the Divine Comedy and father of literary Italian, is one of us.

The occasion for the article is the revocation of the 700 year ban on Dante from his home city of Florence (a bit late now some would say). It's caused little interest in Italy. But it's stirred up a British media bored by worries over the economy or military deaths.

Popham writes:
'The White Guelphs, among whom Dante counted himself, were the Liberal Democrats of their time. They strove to sit on the fence. They were for the pope, but not very much for him. They thought he should have power, but not too much power.'

That's bad history as well as being bad politics (if you want a sitting-on-the-fence party, look at the Tories over civil liberties, half-for, half-against, epitomised by their former MP, David Davis, with his previously inscrutable smile. As another David, Prof. Starkey, is fond of saying: 'why does the Englishman sit on the fence? Because he enjoys the sensation').

But, the question for us is: would we want the author of the Commedia, the Convivio and -- most worryingly -- De Monarchia? In that last text, you'll remember, he was a Guelf who was a Ghibelline. In the first of them, he honoured Julius Caesar and damned his killers, a judgement itself condemned by Florence's later republicans in the Renaissance.

I'm not convinced he's on our side. But I wait to hear from you the counter-arguments.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What was the worst invention of the twentieth century?

Amazing what you get in your councillor post: here comes a leaflet from the Department of Transport on Changing the Way We Learn to Drive.

Those who have had the privilege to be driven by me often believe it to be an unrepeatable experience. I hope the two-wheeled turn in 2002 was nothing to do with the then passenger, my future ward colleague, standing down six years later.

So, perhaps I'm not qualified to judge other people's driving. And, frankly, if I was asked the old chestnut of Civil Service interviews -- what's the worst invention of the twentieth century -- it would be a toss-up between the car and the television.

But here's an idea that's been suggested to me to change the way we learn to drive: make driving licences time-limited in a meaningful sense. That is, not to a specific age, but for a specific period, say, ten years. Get everyone to be re-tested after a set period -- and give those who choose not to keep their licence a bonus. I pass the idea on, in the spirit of free debate: what do you think?

Friday, June 13, 2008

42 days: too good for Davis

Remember Monty Python's right-wing prisoner who was jealous of Brian for being spat in the eye by the gaoler? 'Gaoler's little blue-eyed boy...' He'd probably have voted against 42 days detention without trial: '42 days? Oh, what I'd give to be detained without charge for 42 days. But it's too good for them. String 'em up, string 'em up long before then.'

Somehow that thought came to mind following the news of Mr Davis' latest bid for attention, which John Humphries seems to want to depict as his Hampstead Heath experience -- the 'moment of madness' of Davis without an 'e'.

Mr Davis didn't make a bad fist of the interview. But the headlines aren't good for him. Then again, the news is not much better for the LibDem principled stand of not opposing him because we support him on 42 days.

Support him? Come off it. This is a man who declares he's going to make the taxpayer foot the bill of an ego-trip of a pointless by-election and does so, he says, in the name of civil liberties, when his own personal dream is to bring back hanging. If, during the dark night of the soul (yes, let's assume he has an inner being) following his defeat by the Witney Wonder, a flame was kindled in his breast which was marked 'civil liberty', well, he can start by repenting of his previous errors and apologise for his party's abysmal record. We don't support him or the Tories' attempt to paint themselves as liberal: it's about as convincing as the green face-paint they've taken to wearing.

He'd serve the country much better, if he resigned and stood aside for a candidate from a party which takes all civil liberties seriously, instead of treating them like the sweetie counter in Woolworth's where you can pick 'n' mix. But, instead, we have a prospect of Davis v McKenzie -- of right and righter. What a tedious by-election that would be. Pity the poor people of Haltemprice and Howden: if it's an elongated campaign, they could be suffering their own 42 days of hell.

Congratulations, Cllr Mark Mills

Oxford has a new councillor, and he's a LibDem. Yesterday saw a by-election in Holywell Ward, in the city centre, were 95% of the electorate are students. The university colleges will be represented by one of their own, as student Mark Mills has been elected, to represent the ward alongside fellow LD, Nathan Pyle, who was elected in May. The by-election followed the resignation of the ward's excellent councillor, Richard Huzzey, who is moving to the States for work (and, incidentally, just ahead of the presidential election).

In recent years, Holywell has been a fight between Greens and the LibDems. This year, in May, it was the Tory party who came a poor second -- how student voting habits change. The Conservatives repeated that this time, with what they must have thought was a stronger candidate, a former councillor who lost his seat in neighbouring Carfax just over a month ago.

The result in full:
Mark Mills 188 (40%)
Tory 112 (24%)
Lab 93 (20%)
Green 72 (15%)

Turnout, on the penultimate day of university term, was low at just under 12%.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Feudal Barons Fathers of the Labour Movement

The BBC report on Labour's latest assault on civil liberties -- one of the bedrocks, my friends, of social justice -- provided a notable juxtaposition of views.

A latterday outspoken rebel (they allow one amongst their ranks), the ubiquitous John McDonnell, is quoted as saying: "There will be widespread consternation among our supporters in the country seeing a Labour government prepared to use every tactic available in its determination to crush essential civil liberties, which have been won by the labour movement over generations."

In early versions of the story, it was immediately followed by a quotation from an outspoken rebel of a former era, Tony Benn, who said something along the lines that he didn't think he'd see the day that Magna Carta was repealed by a Labour government.

Taken together, they imply the Tolpuddle Martyrs were kindred spirits with the lords who loitered around King John at Runymede. It's a tasty mythology of Britain's radical tradition.

Let's face it: Labour have never been strong on civil liberties, and tonight is just another testimony to that. Their commitment to liberty is even weaker than that to social justice. And, of course, they wouldn't admit there's a link between the two.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Can they really be Labour's saviours?

Congratulations go to my friends in Oxford City Council's Labour ranks, Cllrs Turner, McManners, Bance and Baxter. They all gained national recognition yesterday in an ever-so-unbiased article in The Guardian, on the subject of Can Oxford save Labour?

Obviously, Oxford is a key battleground between Labour and LibDems, and this article attempts to set the parameters of the debate. Labour is presented here as the party of social justice -- yes, that's right, of social justice.

I don't eat cornflakes, so I didn't choke (sorry to disappoint you, Antonia & Ed). But here is the fault-line: I'm sure they joined Labour because they genuinely imagined it could be a party of social justice; I joined the LibDems precisely because I see it as the only party of social justice. How could one or other get it so wrong?

I'd bring to your attention evidence from the recent elections. Labour didn't like us fighting it on wanting a lower Council Tax -- when we did that precisely because that unfair tax hits some of the worst-off hardest. Perhaps Labour's response would be that anyone who can own a house doesn't deserve support, but that would be grossly to overestimate the wealth of some who have struggled to buy and stay in their own home, especially in an over-heated market like Oxford.

The blogs recently have also highlighted another blindspot in Labour's thinking. They attacked one of our candidates by quoting his blog in favour of reform of the drug laws, implicitly presenting themselves as in favour of the present drug regime. How can they imagine this sits with any assertion of support for social justice? I worry that they wouldn't even understand that question.

Labour in Oxford has also seen environmental concerns as somehow a distraction from social justice. True enough, one sets challenges for the other - but we should be finding ways to wed our actions on the environment with helping those worst-off. It's no good saving the planet, if the society left is not worth living in, but it's equally no use planning to build a New Jerusalem if the site is in the flood plain -- in other words, without a planet, there's no society.

These are only a few examples of the ways in which my friends on the opposite benches seem misguided in the claim that they belong to a progressive party. But, frankly, if they really want future elections in Oxford fought on grounds of social justice, rather than the mean-spirited campaign Labour recently run, my response is: bring it on. We will be more than happy to fight you on our home territory.