Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Paradigm Breaking; Outside-the-Box Thinking

It's a novel way of trying to level the playing field with a team that can outspend you on any player they choose.

Try and get them banned from the transfer market.

SportBlog Delay

Sorry for any of you checking in here today for the SportBlog roundup. I'm tired and my lack of organisation means I've compiled insufficient links so far. It will be here as soon as possible tomorrow, though.

Quick Thoughts on England's Rugby Team

I have to say, Andy Robinson seems determined to blow away what's left of the goodwill in his tenure as England manager. It is traditional for non-English rugby fans to criticise England for playing boring rugby, although most of the time that happens because they are bitter at losing. (As for those who say that England don't score enough tries - well, if your teams stopped cheating, then there would be fewer penalties for us to kick. Stay on the right side of the ball and then the game flows better). And in any case, rugby wasn't intended to be a spectator sport. A good result is when your team wins.

Nevertheless, criticisms of boring rugby are bound to be made - and deserved - when you pick Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon in the centres. Tindall must surely be one of the most one-dimensional players going forward that England have ever picked. He's like Scott Quinnell, only with a better knack of not running away from support. Noon isn't much better. The two combined may be very strong in defence, but what it loses for England in attacking ingenuity is costing them matches, especially when you consider how frequently Hodgson makes bad decisions at number 10.

When England were unquestionably the best side in the world (I'm talking here just before the World Cup) part of their strength was that they got the ball through the backs a number of times. Josh Lewsey was talking in the Times yesterday about the long passes that Catt used to bring the back three into the game; swift distribution in the backs was key. The centres might not have been used to swashbuckling effect, but they used their passing ability to use the pace of the wings and full-back. That hasn't happened under Robinson, and it's not for a want of players better than Tindall. Why Stuart Abbott or Olly Barkley haven't been given a chance at 12 is beyond me (well, why Barkley doesn't get picked at 10 is beyond me too, but that's a different matter).

Of course, England's success at the World Cup in 2003 was in no small part due to the fact that they had three men who would have been automatic, no-brain choices in any team at the time, with no questions asked. Martin Johnson and Richard Hill solidified the pack, and Jonny Wilkinson was a far, far better player than was appreciated by many rugby writers. Not only did the 20 yards he put on each kick mean that England were defending a large field most of the time, but his decision-making was usually excellent (although it still aided him to have a second fly-half playing at 12). And hoping for a team to play at that level when they pretty much lost each of those key players at once is somewhat optimistic, to say the least.

That doesn't hide the fact that England have been losing games they should have won. Partly that is down to Choker Charlie Hodgson and his inability to kick the ball between the uprights. Had he possessed any kicking ability worth speaking of, England's 4-game losing streak last year would have been the continuation of a winning streak and no-one would be talking of a crisis. But, the lack of inventiveness in midfield isn't helping us at all. The pack isn't as good as it was, and that is meaning that slow ball is the norm. That makes it harder to launch an attack, granted, but when the ball-carrier keeps ploughing into the tackle the problem is compounded. In Lewsey we have one of the world's best full-backs; in Cueto we have a winger who continuously runs excellent angles. Why the hell aren't we using them?

I hope that eventually someone in the England set-up gets fed up with being called a purveyor of boring rugby. Because that way, the gripes will continue even further. England will start winning again.

Monday, January 30, 2006

I've Been Tagged (Again)

The Pub Philosopher has asked me to continue a chain in support of Denmark. In his own words:

This involves buying Danish goods and e-mailing messages of support to the Arla Foods website and to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen

For those of you wondering why I should be supporting Denmark, it is all to do with the Cartoon Wars. Denmark, and to a lesser extent Norway, have both made themselves targets in the Arab world for having printed cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

Quite rightly, in my opinion, the Danish government has refused to take any action against the newspapers that have printed the cartoons; whilst they may be offensive to some, they have held to the line that freedom of expression is a right and one that they hold sufficiently dear to defend. Certain Middle Eastern countries, as a result, have launched boycotts against Danish goods, and some countries have recalled their ambassadors.

Thus, buying more Danish goods is a show of solidarity and to show belief in freedom of expression. I'm all for it, and not just because it gives me a good excuse to consume more bacon.

In the tagging tradition, I think I'm supposed to pass this on, but really I just hope more people see this and become aware of the issues involved. I think Ed and Gavin might have a particular interest, though.

I've Been Tagged

Tim Worstall's tagged me with the meme. The attention's nice, so here goes...:

Seven things to do before I die.
1) Write a book
2) Lose weight
3) Travel up the West Coast of America
4) Score a fifty, or better still a century
5) Live in another country
6) Learn three languages fluently
7) Watch the Olympics in person

Seven things I cannot do.
1) Roll my tongue
2) Watch an England rugby match without nearly having a heart attack
3) Agree with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
4) Ride a motorbike
5) Change a lightbulb
6) Remember how to use a microcard reader
7) Assemble a fan

Seven things that attract me to... a city
1) Good architecture
2) Friendly people
3) An interesting history
4) A nice park near the centre
5) An easily definable centre
6) A good museum or two
7) Funky food

Seven things I say.
1) A pint of orange squash, please
2) Can we have the number six onside, ref?
3) Well, it's funny, because if you compare that to what happened in the American Revolution...
4) Give that man a loaf of bread
5) It's quite interesting...
6) You'll regret that
7) The Ken is mightier than the sword

Seven books that I love.
1) Beyond a Boundary by CLR James
2) East of Eden by John Steinbeck
3) Ajax: The Dutch, The War by Simon Kuper
4) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
5) Moneyball by Michael Lewis
6) Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
7) The American Revolution by Ed Countryman

Seven movies that I’ve loved.

This one's tough - I can barely think of seven movies I've seen...
1) Downfall
2) Stand By Me
3) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
4) Goodnight Mister Tom
5) The Bishop's Wife
6) It's A Wonderful Life
7) Zulu

Seven people to tag.

No-one in particular. If anyone wants to do this, though, let me know that you've done it from me and I can add a link.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bits of Blogrolling

I've put a few new links up on the blogroll in the sidebar; I thought I'd take the opportunity just to comment on a few blogs that I've come across recently that are well worth a look:

Firstly, the NHS Blog Doctor, who gives an excellent insight into the life of a GP and well-thought-out opinions on how to improve the NHS (even if I don't agree with all).

Next, the Liberal Review, which I've mentioned before but deserves a second mention.

Then Joe Otten's new blog is well worth a look - he started off by having an in-depth look at the Orange Book and whether it deserved much of the vitriol that had been thrown its way.

Finally, for now, I've added Iain Dale, and James Graham's Quaequam blog.

Making Us Less Ridiculous

Given the protesting of some quarters since the proposed abandoning of the UK Theme, this news from the Independent will probably have blue-rinsers up and down the country spitting their tea out. However, as far as I'm concerned, it's about time that some of the more ridiculous 'traditions' of the House of Lords were done away with.

Wearing special gowns on special occasions I can deal with, but having the man in charge of keeping order in the Lords wearing a wig and stockings is, quite frankly, ridiculous. The old guard may say that it is traditional for him to wear such garb, but what purpose does that tradition serve? Tradition is the last refuge of the defeated; if there is a purpose to maintaining a tradition, it's normally for a good reason other than precedent.

And for heaven's sake, he'll still be sitting on the Woolsack! I personally find it quite embarrassing that we have to stick to such arcane practices in a chamber that ultimately decides on the law of the land. So welcome, new Lord Speaker, whoever you may be. The sooner we get away with the daft traditions of our Houses of Parliament, the more respected politicians might become.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Sir Ian Blair

Yes, his comments were ill-advised. But I can't help but feel that to a certain extent, they were also accurate. There are many kidnappings, abductions, and missing people every year, and each one of them is a tragedy. Yet only a fraction make the news, and fewer still get round-the-clock coverage with entire newsrooms decamping to the location of the site. And, of course, to get that attention the abductee(s) are usually young girls. No-one says the media is institutionally sexist in its reporting, though.

Now, I can understand why the Soham murders received the amount of press coverage that they did. There is an emotional pull to a story like that, and it occurred in the middle of summer when there was little else that was newsworthy. Moreover, once one company is devoting much of its time and resources to covering it, there is a fear among others that not doing the same will make them miss out. It's game theory, media-style - we can only lose by not covering the story, so lets make sure we lavish our attention on it.

What about Blair's comments that the media is institutionally racist in its reporting of murders? Well, I think his remarks need qualifying at best. The media are interested in the murders of black people, but only when their killers are white. That said, if his remarks will cause a rethink in the media regarding which murders are newsworthy and which aren't, then it's probably a good thing. My guess is that when you think of murders like that of Thomas Rhys Price, the media is actually institutionally elitist. Murders of rich people in rich areas are much more frightening.

As for the storm Ian Blair kicked up for himself, well, for a man in his position he was very stupid. But I can't help but feel that on this occasion, he's actually raised some valid points that are worth considering. If you want to hate Ian Blair, there are far better reasons for doing it than for what he said on Thursday - his handling of the Stockwell shooting; his campaign to allow 90-day internment. Both of those are far more worrying than a few comments about the way policing is handled by the media.

Friday, January 27, 2006

SportBlog Reminder

On Tuesday, there'll be another SportBlog roundup right here on Militant Moderate.

All submissions to sportblog at googlemail dot com

Why I Instinctively Like Chris Huhne

Chris Huhne visited Oxford last night, and I went along to the talk. The first impressions were good - he comes across as a genuine, honest, nice man. Of course, 'niceness' is one of my major criticisms of the Lib Dems. They may be very personable people, but as soon as that translates to policy, it results in a pro-kittens, pro-apple pie line. That sounds wonderful (the apple pie, not the kittens), but isn't exactly going to inspire my confidence in a government.

So what about the talk? There was much I agreed with; there was much I disagreed with. His ideas about reform of government in the country deserve a wider audience, even if they need to be fleshed out a little longer. Talking about a radical decentralisation of politics is an excellent idea, one that should be used to frame national debate, and one that would certainly mark the Lib Dems as distinct from the two main parties. My worry with what was said last night was that he seemed to advocate transferring more money to councils, which he admitted could be woefully incompetent. Now, that's a disease that strikes all politicians - but simply using the existing structure of government and transferring more money downwards isn't good enough. We need to think about where we want governmental comptences to be accountable, and that might mean creating an extra layer. Still, the discussion is important and it is excellent to hear someone with a real commitment to decentralisation.

I was also pleased by his line on civil liberties. On some cases, I thought he went a little too far (I'm not convinced a jury trial is right for some serious fraud offences, for example). But I'd certainly prefer someone to be too liberal than too authoritarian.

Then again, his environmental arguments still don't wash. He flatly rejected any more use of nuclear power - if you're trying to cut down on emissions, then reduction of use can only go so far, and renewable sources of energy are at presently insufficiently efficient and insufficiently plentiful to be able to rely on them as a serious alternative. His argument was that no private sector company had built a nuclear reactor without government subsidy for a long time. Although I'm no expert, I would contend that is because private companies know that governments have to provide power. Just like they need a railway service, and just like they need air-traffic control. So they can put the squeeze on the government and force more money out of them by necessity. In any case, I don't like to hear people talk about saving the environment whilst at the same time being unwilling to think about nuclear power.

I was also worried regarding tax. Implicit within his environmental liberalism arguments is the idea that the current tax take is about right (in any case, he doesn't seem to talk about tax cuts except to offset money raised by green levies). I'm not convinced that's at all right, quite apart from the fact that I think green levies should be invested in green projects to, for example, make renewable sources of energy more efficient and more plentiful.

But then again, I could probably nit-pick all day on policy. There's a lot more to being a leader than simply what someone's policies are. That's why I wanted David Davis to win the Tory leadership race, that's why ultimately, I think that Chris Huhne would be an excellent choice for the Lib Dems.

Firstly, he passes the Davis test - he doesn't just say what he stands for, he says what he means. Sure, he will wax lyrical about liberals of the past (and have that annoying habit of trying to claim all Liberal traditions as his own), but ultimately when he says things, you broadly understand what that would mean in policy terms.

Secondly, he is genuinely passionate, both about his politics and about his party. Whereas I get the feeling Cameron is motivated more by power than policy, Huhne genuinely wants to make a difference; he sounds as if he has the courage of his convictions, and he will provide leadership on key matters of policy where Charles Kennedy was all too often absent.

Thirdly, he struck me as an honest man. For all that I have criticised details above - at least I know those details. That's a lot harder if you're looking at the Campbell or Hughes campaigns. Just as it was in the Tory race - Davis was giving real detail, Cameron was flirting with policies because his "rebranding" attempt was of paramount importance.

Huhne fans probably won't be delighted I'm making comparisons with David Davis. But there are reasons why that approach would work for the Lib Dems, and may well have broader appeal beyond political nerds like me. That's because the Lib Dem credibility gap isn't about being the "nice party", it's on policy. They are seen as intellectually lightweight (and given past front benches, that is definitely not unfair), and unwilling to commit themselves on policy. If the party does hold together as firmly as Richard tells me it does, then it needs to take firmer lines and watch the whole party back them. Huhne is a man with the courage to do that. That's why I'd be happy to see him as Lib Dem leader.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Ain't Nobody's Doggone Business But My Own

A recipe: two words every politician should know

Sod off (strengthen first word as required).

That's what Simon Hughes should have said to Alice Thomson and to the Independent journalist who asked him whether he was gay or not. It's irrelevant. The sexual preferences of our politicians should be of absolutely no interest to us whatsoever. Indeed, the private life of any politician is only of concern to the public at large when it affects his capabilities to carry out his public duties. Thus, Charles Kennedy's alcoholism was of valid concern - it was manifestly affecting his ability to carry out his job. But who Simon Hughes does or doesn't sleep with is of no concern.

Not that I'm about to let Hughes off the hook here, either. It's difficult to trust a man who, when asked a question he doesn't want to answer, however irrelevant it may be, lies. It's far better to refuse to answer than to deny. The cover-up is far greater than the supposed 'sin'. If he's prepared to lie on that subject, only to come clean when the press start digging, then on what other topics is he prepared to lie? His obfuscation has called his integrity into question.

There's also the matter of that Bermondsey by-election in 1983, too - Hughes being "the straight choice" there. When the Oaten and Kennedy stories broke, the LibDems denied comparisons to the Tory years of sleaze because they had never called for a 'back to basics' campaign. Well, Hughes had brought sexuality into his political equation, and its only right that he faces the fall-out now.

No-one comes out of this smelling of roses, however. Malcolm Bruce, a supporter of Ming Campbell, would only say that Hughes's private life was private to "some extent". No, his sexuality is his own business and his own business entirely. Anyone who objects to what consenting adults get up to in their own time is nothing but a bigot. It discredits politics in general when rather than attacking journalists for sinking into the gutter, all we get is mealy-mouthed half apologies.

It's the attitude of people like Bruce that make the hacks at the Sun think they can get away with what they do. Why did Hughes come out now? Sure, there had been rumours circling that something was about to break regarding Hughes, but the Sun claimed that they had provided Hughes with pretty incontrovertible evidence he had been phoning a gay chat line. Again, who cares? Why is the Sun snooping around like that? Unless he was phoning a gay chat line from the House of Commons or a constituency office, it's nothing to do with us. And if he was, then the matter at hand is misuse of public money, not the fact that it's a gay chat line.

It's about time politicians started fighting back, and telling the journalists to stop their intrusion. News is only in the public interest if it is information that prevents politicians from doing their job properly. Rather than playing the hacks with a straight bat (no pun intended), they should go and hit them for six.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Out Of Touch?

The BBC has run a tongue-in-cheek article about what George Galloway has missed whilst locked safe in the Big Brother house.

It contains this gem:

In the past three weeks, backbenchers have - among other things - tabled Early Day Motions... congratulating Leicester Football Club on its victory over Arsenal.

As any self-respecting person should know, it was Tottenham, not Arsenal. Never let it be said politicians are in touch with the 'street'...

Google Whacked By China

This is a very sad story. Google have agreed to censor their own search engine in order to get Chinese government cooperation.

I'm really dissapointed in Google. It's their own call, as a private international corporation, what they do with regards to China, but at a time when they're taking on the US government over privacy I'd have liked to see their plucky liberal instincts refusing to make things easier for the Communist Party.

The presence of market liberalisation is increasingly allowing China to be portrayed as a moderate, Westernising state. Until, however, we see delivery of the civil liberties that necessarily accompany economic freedom, we should not cow to an evil regime, with scores of human rights abuses on its conscience.

First Blood

My heart is warmed by The Times' perceptive piece on how Chris Huhne's campaign is now raring forward at a great pace. We're now at 3-1 odds, and I'd still encourage a flutter, even if the return isn't as good as last week! :-)

Less, exciting is a piece in The Independent. I'm not entirely sold on this as a shocking revelation; unsuccessful parliamentary candidates and councillors flit between parties quite frequently. This chap left the Lib Dems before Christmas, so I don't see how he reflects recent events.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Home or Away? - England's Next Coach

So Sven is about to make his excuses and leave, after the World Cup at least. Not before time; it's just a shame that the most talented England team in years will be led by Eriksson at the World Cup. To win tournaments at the highest level, teams need a level of tactical ingenuity and the ability to take calculated risks - both of which Eriksson does not possess. You cannot beat teams at the top level playing defensively once you've taken a lead.

Nevertheless, he's leaving this summer, and the speculation is now on who will replace him. The BBC has this list of possible candidates. The one problem, however, is that it seems unnecessarily biased towards English candidates. It might be fashionable in the media to talk about a home manager, but that would be disastrous. As things stand, there isn't a sufficiently capable candidate. Sam Allardyce may be forward-thinking in his approach, but he hasn't got any (major) experience of coaching or management at a level beyond English club level. That's not good enough, in all honesty - the English game is just too different to the rest of Europe, and so styles at international level have to be able to adapt accordingly. Similar arguments apply against Alan Curbishley.

Steve McClaren does have the experience, from being at Manchester United, but is an appalling man-manager by all accounts. And holding a team of fragile egos together requires that almost more than anything - there's a need to get a team spirit engendered in short order. McLaren isn't the man for that.

Of course, the idea that England will play better under an English manager is utter claptrap anyway. None of our top clubs have an English manager; just about all our best players play at those top clubs. Nor is there an 'English' style of football in formation that has been played for years and years and years. If you were saying the German national team needed a German manager, I would have some sympathy: they play a particular formation in a particular style and players are often groomed specifically for those particular roles. The same just doesn't apply for England. If there isn't an English manager sufficiently qualified (and there isn't), then we should look abroad.

The leading candidates for a foreign coach seem to be Martin O'Neill, Guus Hiddink and Ottmar Hitzfeld. Hitzfeld, though, surely couldn't take the job. The sad fact of the matter is that the tabloids will not accept a German in charge of our national team; he will be hounded out of his job at the first hint of a mistake. If foreigners think the British press is strange for its treatment of Eriksson, it would be magnified at least three times for Hitzfeld.

O'Neill is currently on sabbatical to care for his ill wife, and many question whether he would want to step into such a high profile job on his return. I'd be surprised, personally, if he didn't return to a high-profile job, because the competitive instinct in him is so high. What we don't know, of course, is whether he wants to return to football so soon. If he did, though, his record seems to be second-to-none. He's been successful wherever he's gone, and has coped admirably with the pressure of the Celtic job. He'd be my first choice if he wants it, although he may have problems getting on with the FA.

Failing that, Guus Hiddink would be an excellent second choice - again, what he has done both at club level and international level is exceptional. To get South Korea to the semi-finals of a World Cup, even with the help of some dodgy refereeing, is no mean feat, and to follow that up by getting Australia to qualify is a nice postscript. Then you look at what he did with PSV, and you'd certainly mark him as a man who can bring the best out of a side. Either O'Neill or Hiddink and I'd be optimistic for the future. But if the temptation to go for home is too strong, then I fear England will not have a chance at a major trophy for a long time yet.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Stop This Tittle-Tattle

The Times this morning reports that Ruth Kelly's grandfather was an IRA officer. So what? Who cares? What on earth is the relevance of this story to anything? There will be many, many other people who have IRA officers lurking in their ancestry, and they don't make the papers. That one of these people happens to be the Education Secretary can only be considered news if "news" amounts to nothing other than gossip.

It's no wonder we have the political apathy we do today. The political media seem to be interested more in spreading gossip than actually engaging with the issues that really do affect people. Did it really help political discourse to disclose last week Tony Blair's grandmother was a Communist graffiti artist? For that matter, what on earth was the use of the hatchet job on Oaten over the weekend? Selling newspapers, maybe. Helping the country become a better place? Certainly not.

As we all know, there are important issues surrounding the Education Department as things stand. There are important school reforms to be discussed - reforms I happen to disagree with, but that aren't without merit and deserve our full and frank attention. There are questions about the direction of university policy - how do we get our top universities funded to a world-class standard? There are questions about the threat of closing down grammar schools in Northern Ireland. There are questions about whether the extra money funnelled into education is propping up a failing system.

That's not what we get from the Times though, is it? No, we get an unimportant story about her family origins that sheds sod all light on nothing in particular. No wonder no-one can be bothered taking an interest in party politics.

The Demise of Mark Oaten (bumped)

Wow. The resignation of Mark Oaten over rent-boy allegations has stunned me, and a quick look at Lib Dem Blogs suggests it has surprised most, too. I'm not sure there's an awful lot to add on what's already been said about the story. Why on earth did he run if this was in the background? Alan Beddow has the best analysis of why this came out now. I must say, though, that it is always a pity when it is private, not political reasons which force the end of someone's career.

One thing for certain is that this is really bad news for the LibDems as a party. At a time when they should be gaining probably a larger share of the headlines than they are already getting, the attention is now going to be on the muddled personal life of a failed leadership contender. But that's not just bad for the Lib Dems, that's bad for the political process overall.

A strong third party is of great value to political debate; it often stops any particular issue being cleaved into two sides, as much as the media might like to simplify matters. It allows new ideas to be floated that the major parties originally may not touch with a bargepole, but are in fact taken up later. It means where the two main parties decide to hold a consensual love-in, policies can still be held to account.

Now, at a time when the third party should be having a serious debate about the future course it wants to choose, its stock, and its headline-gaining ability, will be damaged by the allegations it faces. The glee that some in both Labour and Tory parties will undoubtedly feel will ultimately show off their overly partisan nature. I wouldn't have made Oaten's personal choices myself, but to a certain extent I don't particularly care about them either. What I do care about is having a serious, reasoned debate about where we want our country to go. Stories like Oaten's make that much harder.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sports and Media Ownership

One of the stranger aspects of US sports is the propensity for many of their teams to be owned by media companies (although given Silvio Berlusconi's interest in AC Milan, maybe it isn't that unusual). This article at Slate focuses on recent media developments with the Washington Redskins, but deals more broadly with the issue of sports teams and their dealings with the media. In this sense, a desire to control strongly every single aspect of the team that gets reported on is hardly new at all - just look at Sam Allardyce's refusal to allow access to Five Live reporters, or Alex Ferguson's repeated spats with the media.

The crucial part of the Slate article is this:

But on the continuum from pure entertainment to hard news, where does sports journalism reside? Where should it reside? Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, and other pro games are nothing if not entertainment. While it's possible to mine hard news from the entertainment industry, most sports coverage is entertainment about entertainment. Pro football and baseball don't receive more ink than pro soccer and hockey because they're more newsworthy or more "important" in any cosmic sense, but because they're more popular. More entertaining.

To a certain extent, that's true. If sports weren't popular, they couldn't justify the acres of newsprint they take up throughout the week. The fact that the Sven tapes could get such a wide reporting is testament to this, too. And there is something joyous about reading a particularly good piece of writing about sports - try looking at Gideon Haigh's diaries of the Ashes summer for proof of that. Yet sports journalism, as with any journalism, requires objectivity if it is to appeal to anything other than the partisan fan.

So control of the local media probably isn't too much of a problem anyway. Unless you have a local reporter with a significant grudge, local sports reporting tends to reflect the biases of the supporting population - cheerleading when the team is good, quick to stick the knife in when times are less good.

Controlling more national media is, however, more problematic. Sports may be entertaining, but there is nothing particularly interesting about a former player simply pontificating about how great his team is - like when Ian Rush and Phil Thompson are employed by Sky as Liverpool analysts. The best sports commentators are good because they aren't afraid to say what they think, and because they pick up things that others miss - Michael Johnson on the BBC athletics coverage, for example, is a breath of fresh air, because he's prepared to criticise British athletes rather than praise them for mediocre performances. John MacEnroe on tennis, too; his analysis is strong and will give constructive criticism rather than buy into the popular story of the week. You don't hear much love for Ian Wright as an analyst, for good reason.

The worrying thing about official coverage of sports teams being increasingly carried out by biased parties is that you get sycophancy, not analysis. Of course, if that becomes the norm, then sports will hoist themselves by their own petard. If the official line being parroted clearly does not correlate with what is being offered on the field, the fans will be less willing to hand over fistfuls of cash in return for all sorts of crappy merchandise. To a certain extent, given the amount of money that many coaches and players get paid, they should be held to account if their performances on the pitch are not up to scratch, not given soft-ball questions by journalists keen to cosy up to the management in the hope of a big splash (that, of course, raises questions about journalism in general, but that's a matter for another day).

There is, though, a chance for the rest of the country being saved from the often insipid nature of sports journalism. That comes in the form of the Internet, in the form of bloggers, in the form of podcasts. Eric at Off-Wing Opinion produces a weekly 'radio' show in podcast form; it's self-stated aim is to do sports coverage as they feel it should be - sober analysis, judgement as rational as is possible in what is an emotional business, and a depth to discussions that is sacrificed all too often in mainstream media because of the desire to maximise revenue and appeal to a lowest common denominator.

That's the beauty of freedom of speech - if we don't like what is being provided to us, we have the right to fight back. By not validating the purveyors of the comment we dislike. By putting forward our arguments against them. By doing our best to try analysis the way we want it to be. And with the Internet, we're given the chance to do that.

Speakers Corner

Today saw an attempt to create a "Speakers' Corner" in Oxford - I happened to be passing at the time and had a look in. At first, I guess it looked a bit comical; the guy who was on the soapbox wasn't particularly tall, and the crowd gathered around was somewhat sparse. And most of the crowd seemed to be finding their way in heckling, too; most of the ideas originally articulated seemed to be quite poorly thought-out. But it certainly picked up as it went along.

Admittedly, I got to play my favoured role as wind-up merchant, which always pleases me. But it was nice to see a crowd of people who, I assume, didn't really know that many others there, trying to have some sort of debate. My guess is that if the same people turn up every week, then the standard of debate will get better, and possibly a bit more spirited (there seemed to be a fair amount of nervousness). Although hopefully it will keep its civilised nature.

You'll probably be able to see me on the soapbox at some point in the near future; the chance for a captive audience can't be turned down! The speaker I heard today was talking about how politicians wanted to make policy discussions as close to each other as possible. Now, I disagree (there's clear water in stated policies between all three parties, the question lies more over political will), but if people are willing to get together and have sensible discussions, no matter what the topic, then there's some chance things might actually change.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

NHS Charging

The NHS Blog Doctor writes an excellent blog, charting his daily experiences as a GP in the NHS. It is witty, well written, and does an excellent job of showing the dangers of a target-based approach to healthcare. Some of his conclusions, however, I just can't agree with. This is particularly the case when he comes to the subject of NHS charging.

People have to understand the cost of healthcare and they have to contribute to it directly as well as by taxation.There needs to be a front end charge. A charge at the point of entry. Furthermore, there needs to be a charge towards the cost once inside the system.

In the last couple of days, I have had to go to the doctors a couple of times - routine administrative matters rather than specific instances of ill health. Both times, I have had lengthy waits once inside the surgery. I don't particularly begrudge these, because I'm well aware one of the problems of "waiting lists" is the fact that before you see a patient, for whatever purpose, you have no idea how long you will need to see them for. Sometimes you can be sent on your way pretty quickly; other times the problem is far more complicated. A 10-minute appointment will rarely take ten minutes. If my appointed slot overruns, then as long as I am confident I am getting good treatment, I do not begrudge it.

If, however, as Dr Crippen suggests, I would be charged £25 for the doctor's appointment (and, presumably, something similar for my follow-up appointment for blood tests the next day), then I would begrudge the wait. If I'm paying a not insignificant amount of money, I expect to be seen when I've booked the appointment. This, of course, would be terrible for healthcare. Either there will be a lot of angry patients, with the health service falling in the eyes of the public, or there will be fewer appointments granted so that people will actually be seen on time. Which will have a knock-on effect on the availability of health care, and, most likely the standard given out.

I agree with Dr Crippen that changes need to be made to the NHS; unfortunately, I'm not sufficiently wonkish to know in detail where systems can be changed. Although trusting doctors more, and giving more power to local districts seems to be a logical idea (not too local, though!). One thing I am loathe to cede in the NHS, though, is a system of charging, because that will damage the nation's health. If you have to pay for a GP appointment, you only go to a doctor when you are badly ill - and probably you will cost a lot more to deal with because of that. (I must admit to having been fortunate enough to have had a doctor when I was growing up who urged us to get an appointment whenever we felt ill, so on the one time it was serious we could be treated swiftly).

Economising on doctors appointments as a conscious choice of policy is something that sits uneasy with me. For all the faults of the NHS, the principle of free universal healthcare is not a bad one. With the rising cost of medical treatments, making decisions on the priority of different treatments must be made, of course. Taking a course of action that will most likely lead to poorer upfront healthcare is something that may well increase costs of healthcare, however. There aren't easy solutions to tackling the problems of the NHS, and I suspect Dr Crippen's solutions are really an expensive placebo.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Rank Hypocrisy

Labour councillors are desperately trying to get their name in the press, it seems:

Former Oxford Mayor and county councillor John Power, 67, was the Labour Party candidate for the Oxford West and Abingdon in 1987.
He said: "I was a moderate but Huhne kept trying to depict me as a dangerous extremist and this was the guy trying to break into the Indian Institute. These are the people peddling moderate liberalism and this is their background -- and he wants to lead the party."

Maybe Mr Power should drop some of his rank hypocrisy. Lets look at some of the prominent figures in the Labour party, and see their backgrounds:

Alan Milburn used to run a Marxist bookshop.

Peter Mandelson is a former member of the Young Communist League.

John Reid was an ex-Communist.

That's not all, of course - Stephen Byers is another who was famously an ex-Marxist. I'd say that was far more dangerous than ill-advised behaviour on a student protest over thirty years ago. It's pathetic when this is what gets dredged up; just as it was pathetic when people tried to discredit David Cameron over what he did at university (even if I still think he was misleading the public with his answers). I must say I'm far more worried about Marxists than I am about campaigners for a student union.

Freedom Of Speech and Animal Rights

Ben Macintyre's article in the Times today is superb; I think I agree with just about every word. (Although, of course, Richard has pointed out some of the hypocrisies of Germanic countries and their supposedly liberal nature).

TODAY DAVID IRVING, the infamous and discredited British historian, languishes in an Austrian jail. Just writing that sentence makes me feel happy. The next sentence is much harder to write. He should be released.

Macintyre makes the argument that keeping him in prison is an abuse of free speech: the right to freedom of speech includes the right to be demonstrably, hopelessly wrong. I agree, and have written to that effect before. If we disagree with someone, we should combat them by arguments, not by gagging them.

Where, then, does that leave me when considering the animal rights protestors in Oxford? Every time I go to my library, I have to walk past some of the demonstrators who seem determined to keep up a permanent vigil outside of the proposed laboratory. The entire area is permanently teeming with police officers. And, I despise the animals rights protestors and what they stand for. Not just because of their violent tactics, but because I think their arguments are morally corrupt too. Without animal testing, there's a pretty strong chance I wouldn't be sitting at my computer typing this today.

Does that mean I should want them to be arrested when they make their demonstration? To a certain extent, I do. Why? Because their tactics are those of harassment and intimidation, and on other occasions clear incitements to violence. Walking out of my library yesterday, I saw a group of people shouting at every single employee who left the building, chanting "shame! shame! shame on you!" I haven't been there at that time every day this week, but I'd be willing to bet that they do similar things every single day. They certainly use a megaphone to shout at passers-by constantly. That, as far as I am concerned, is harassment. It wouldn't be tolerated if that happened at other places, and I am at a loss to understand why it is allowed there.

What I don't decry, however, is their right to make their argument - despite it being hopelessly wrong. There are ways of making that argument, however, that do not involve intimidation and the threat of violence. You argue with logic and rhetoric, not with baseball bats. There are plenty of other groups that spend time in Oxford city centre with whom I disagree; however, I do not have for them the visceral dislike that I have for animal rights protestors. That is because they are willing to engage in debate, and even accept when you have a valid point. Rather than costing taxpayers' money and police time, I would like to see the animal rights protestors spend a little more time trying to make their argument, rather than shutting down a city centre and relying on threats of violence and harassment.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Who Do I Vote For?

Canada is having a federal election on Monday. Two of my Canadian friends have voted in advance, and have recently posted about how they chose to vote. Both are members of the Liberal Party; both dithered about which way to cast their ballot - and in the end, one voted Conservative, the other Liberal. In the course of their posts, both make interesting points about the nature of an election.

Firstly, Ian:

I've discovered that I don't think I would be a very good partisan. Someday I'd like to run for public office, likely under the Liberal banner, but I don't think I'm very good at sticking to party dogma at all costs...

Why, some of you are asking, in God's name are you voting for the man if you disagree with him on these policy issues? Well, in all honesty, there's plenty I disagree with policy-wise from each of the leaders, so it's difficult to plant myself firmly in one camp in that regard. For me, it came down to more long-term questions.

Secondly, Tyler:

I had reconsidered. On my way to the polling station I began to reconsider my support for the Liberal Party. All of the media coverage began to sank in. There had been corruption, there had been mistakes, there had been major cockups, Mike Klander was an idiot (but having been a riding association executive member, I knew that already) - maybe it really was time to send the Liberals back to the opposition benches for a while...

I simply cannot bring myself to vote "against" someone. For me, when you mark that "x" (or in my case, fill in the name), you are endorsing a candidate, their policies, and their vision for the country - not simultaneously condemning all of the candidates you did not vote for.

I had a similar dilemma when thinking about who I wanted to vote for in Britain's general election this summer - and blogged about it here. In the end, I voted for the Liberal Democrats. Yet I disagreed with them on their tax policy, I disagree with much of their public service policy (it sounds nice, but is hopelessly naive), and most of all, I disagree with an awful lot of what they say over Iraq, and despise the populist aspects of it. Was I wrong to vote that way?

Well, like Ian in Canada, I found myself disagreeing with every single party on some fairly important issue. Yet, I believe it is wrong not to vote; ultimately, it is the major chance that we have to make any sort of decision in the way we are run. At least once I have voted, I can explain the reasons why I have done and hold my representatives to account on that basis - a privilege denied to those who choose to exercise their right not to vote.

Unlike Tyler, of course, I voted to reject one party specifically - the Tories. Their manifesto was either insipid, uninspiring, and managerialism writ large, or (in other areas), it was pandering to base prejudice in a manner inimical to creating proper debate. All things considered, if I was voting for a government, I would not have wanted Charles Kennedy's 2005 LibDems to have formed it. Yet I would have wanted Michael Howard or Tony Blair to form it even less.

What, then, should be the principles one uses when one comes to vote? On the face of it, it would be nice if Tyler's principles could be used all the time: that when you vote you are endorsing the vision that the candidate represents. But ultimately, on many occasions the choice faced by voters will be unappealing to them. There isn't a single "average voter"; there isn't any way the whole of a policy platform can be expected to be compatible with a personal vision.

As much as you are endorsing a party vision then, you are simultaneously condemning the other visions. The extent will depend on the exact nature of the choice facing you at an election. At the risk of saying nothing, the vital thing is that all party visions are considered before you enter the room. But, especially in a system like Britain's, or like Canada's, where the vote is divided up into ridings which give disproportionate weight to certain voters in certain ridings, sometimes sending a signal by appealing to overall votes is going to be the way to go. And that will mean making a vote for negative, rather than positive choices.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Death of the Olympics

Chris Young, at JABS, has drawn attention to this unhappy article.

Most of the top candidates to carry Canada's flag in the opening ceremonies at the 2006 Turin Olympics — including cross-country skier Beckie Scott and speed skaters Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen — declined to be nominated for the honour so they can focus on their events.

If this attitude becomes widespread, it will see the end of the Olympics as a major event. Don't get me wrong, I think this would be a terrible thing. It is one of the joys of sport to see so many athletes from across the globe come together in such a vibrant, colourful, multifaceted celebration. Yet most of the reason that it has such a powerful emotional pull is because people compete as representatives of their nation. For all the spirit of togetherness that the Olympics is supposed to embody, if you remove the nation-state from the equation, it becomes just another jamboree.

I don't know whether the "flag-carrying duties" are particularly onerous - somehow, I doubt it immensely. As Chris Young says, this should be a singular honour in an athlete's career. If they refuse to recognise that being chosen as the representative of your country to the wider world is an honour, then they are turning the Olympics into an ordinary meet. Sure, they would be using the allure of the Olympics to try and improve their own personal prestige, but in the long term they will be hoist by their own petard. The prestige of the Olympics is such because the whole theory is that each nation sends their finest athletic specimens to compete before the world. If I was in charge of the committee to decide the flag-bearer, and I had athletes ask not to carry the flag, I'd accede to their request. I'd stick the flag somewhere else entirely.

Sub-fusc Really Sucks

One of the first pieces I wrote here was a nice little rant about sub-fusc, the academic dress insisted on by Oxford when its students take exams. The Times is now reporting that University officials are prepared to consider dropping it. About bloody time (not that anything happens quickly in the university administration).

There are arguments from a purely practical viewpoint - at exam time, it seems logical that students should feel as comfortable as possible. After all, there's little else done in the Oxford system to make exams a particularly pleasurable experience.

The key one, though, is that of the university's image. Oxford is portrayed by the Labour government as elitist and out-of-touch. This may be for the self-seeking purposes of the likes of Charles Clarke and Gordon Brown, but the problem is that mud sticks. And it sticks all the more when every single article about Oxford is accompanied by a photo of students in an archaic uniform. Never mind that they wear it rarely throughout their period of study.

So students who are thinking about applying to Oxford, but are worried by criticisms, automatically think that it's old-fashioned, out of date, not for people like them. A great way of advertising the university.

The only worry is that the Student Union manage to fudge 'consultation' up in a big way. A task that is by no means beyond them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Clear Air In LibDem Contest

The Independent reports that the issue of a smoking ban is, ironically, showing some clear air between Lib Dem leadership contenders:

But Mr Oaten retorted: "I can't support an outright ban. I'm a Liberal ... if you are going to be a Liberal, Ming, you can't pick and mix which subject you are going to be Liberal on."

As I've said before, it is not illiberal to argue for a ban on smoking. The right to fill the room with noxious fumes may be a grey area, but it certainly conflicts with someone's right to breathe clean air. Which of these you take as a priority is a judgement call, and one I am happy to debate. But if we are using the harm principle as a guide, it is perfectly acceptable to call oneself liberal and support a ban on smoking. It's not a question of pick and mix; it's a question of using liberal principles and a belief in freedom to decide on what side of the line that decision lies.

SportBlog Roundup, #6

We interrupt this transmission to bring you the sixth edition of the SportBlog roundup. As ever, the aim is to bring you, the dear reader, the best posts on the topic of sports from right around the world. It's only as good as you and I can make it though; all submissions are gratefully received - show me the pieces I'm missing!

sportblog at googlemail dot com is the address.

First up this week is this effort from BlogTO. He's beginning to lose his faith in sports thanks to Vince Carter - it's an excellent essay on the capacity sports have to make us feel numb. A further testament to the travails of fandom can be found at Balloon Juice.

Next is the Sports Economist, who writes about one company's efforts to trade on fan loyalty by offering options markets on tickets for big games. If you're still hoping Burton Albion make the FA Cup final, but fear you won't be able to procure a ticket, this could be your solution!

The Yorkshire Ranter points out that talk of Portsmouth's imminent climb up the Premiership table may be highly exaggerated.

Will at the Corridor of Uncertainty has his tale of how he fell in love with the game of cricket; the comments section looks like it's shaping up to be interesting, too.

The Golf Blog talks up Michelle Wie, pointing out that on her day she is more than able to hold her own with the big boys.

The Detriot Tiger Weblog, meanwhile, shows that even in the dead of winter, memories of the season gone by can keep you warm and contented.

Matt Fenwick analyses the view in the NHL that more penalties (and thus more powerplays) means more scoring; Tom Benjamin provides some follow-up. This is one of the things blogging should be used for - starting a debate and refining the ideas as thoroughly as possible.

Indian cricket has some statistical analysis by way of previewing the current series between India and Pakistan. The First Test, though, was a complete nonentity - the pitch was far too flat and from the moment India started their innings it was clear there wasn't going to be a result. Tarun pretty much agrees with me.

England's seen quite a bit of controversy this weekend over the Fake Sheikh's Sven Sting; quite why it surprises anyone given his past record is beyond me. Earley Edition and Mackem Steve both have their take on it, but the best comment on the matter comes from the outsider's perspective of the United Irelander (who also wins this week's award for best pun).

Cheryl has her take on pretty much the entire slate of this weekend's European Cup rugby matches.

Balls, Sticks and Stuff has an acerbic take on Bruce Sutter's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame; meanwhile, A Large Regular has had it with the election process. And from what I can gather, rightly so.

Matt investigates the likelihood of match-fixing having taken place in the BBC Darts World Championship last weel.

Finally, you'd think that Pittsburgh knocking the highly-touted Indianapolis Colts out of the playoffs would be enough to make your fans cheer - not for this fan though. That's a whole lotta hate!

That's all for this fortnight - please keep your submissions coming, all are welcome. See you shortly!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Debate Verdict

I didn't manage to find a Sky television to watch the debate on, but bloggers have been offering their summaries.

The headline is that nobody had a knockout punch or suicidal gaffe.

Will Howells confirms this:

There was no clear winner in the debate, and subtle policy differences only between the candidates. Campbell held his ground, although dodged a question on private involvement in the NHS. Given that Huhne should, by conventional wisdom, have been miles behind the other three and gave a strong performance, he was the candidate with whom I was most impressed.

The liberati warmed my heart by seeing a victory for Huhne:

1st, Chris: good interventions, best on policy. Absolutely creamed Oaten on his attempts to claim the Liberal crown. Delighted to hear him critical of road user charging (preferring higher fuel duties) and his general candidness about environmental policy. Also, by far the strongest on public sector reform.

James Thompson was also really impressed by Huhne, but hasn't been convinced to vote for him ahead of Hughes and Oaten:

Whilst it re-affirmed my backing for Simon Hughes, it did leave me unsure as to where my second preference vote will go to. I was extremely impressed with all 4 candidates. Whoever wins the contest, I will be happy for them to lead my party.

Chris Huhne impressed me, I had never heard him speak before. But, I do think at the moment my second preference will be Mark Oaten.

Rob Fenwick caused trouble for Menzies Campbell, by submitting this question, which was used in the debate:

SKY: Let’s talk about the environment, an important issue that Lib Dems certainly put at the centre of the ground. This question from Rob Fenwick: “Both Ming Campbell and Chris Huhne claim that the environment is of paramount importance. Chris Huhne owns a hybrid electric car, a Toyota Prius. Is it correct that Ming Campbell owns not one but TWO Jaguars? And if so, how does that square with a supposed commitment to the environment?.” A gas guzzler, Sir Mingis?

Stephen Glenn finds consensus in the outcome of the candidates' answers:

All in all I think the four will actually face far tougher questions at hustings with party members as these are the people who will be really looking for differences between the candidates and who will know which buttons to press. All in all apart for the occasional difference in opinion and rhetoric it was clear that we are a party largely facing in the same direction.

More Environmental Liberalism

Chris Huhne wrote the Thunderer column in the Times today, where he turned once again to the topic of environmental liberalism. I know that the format of the column is weak to begin with; it is far too short to develop sustained argument on the level that we should expect from politicians. Nevertheless, it seemed to me to get the principles the wrong way round, and contained a number of things that worried me.

His basic point is that taxes will need to be increased to help save the environment. That may well be true (I don't know); but he certainly won't win the unconvinced over with some of the arguments that he is using.

They work by forcing up prices so that the more trivial uses of fossil fuels stop first; if an activity is essential it continues, but with a higher price tag. People choose whether they are willing to make that car journey or not.

That is all well and good - if there are viable alternatives to the car journey being made. I would like to see some of the politicians who talk about increasing fuel duty come to the North East and try and get about by public transport there. The system is, quite simply appalling - in many areas, there is no alternative except to use the car. Raising fuel taxes will, for example, increase the running costs of businesses, possibly making them unprofitable, and almost certainly making them uncompetitive with areas where the public transport provision is acceptable.

If there was genuine investment to provide efficient and cheap buses, trains, trams and so on, then the system would work (and indeed may well prove popular). However, the only solution proposed here is tax. Hike the prices, with no visible benefit in return. That is a sure way of allowing a populist party advocating lower fuel taxes, 'freedom for the motorist', to get into power.

Then we get the other problem with the plan:

Fuel is a disproportionately large part of the household budget of the poor, so the extra revenue should be recycled back as tax cuts and help for those on the lowest incomes.

If there is going to be an emphasis on the environment, then environmental taxes should be used for environmental projects - giving tax breaks or subsidies to help people make their house more energy efficient. If not, the credibility of talking about environmental taxation will go - it happened in Germany when it became clear the Ökosteuer was used for helping solve German pension problems rather than being used for environmental projects. If there is a need for redistributive taxation on a greater scale, it is only fair to be upfront about it - and not try and use a smokescreen that may be considered easier to sell.

In any case, if the Lib Dems were to believe that such a policy was a vote-winner, I think they would almost certainly be mistaken. People will only accept higher taxes on fuel if they are given cheaper, more efficient, cleaner public transport. Likewise, they will need to be convinced that "environment taxes" are taxes that are being used to save the environment. If not, there will always be room for parties offering considerably lower taxes that will remain far more appealing.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Who Decides?

Judging the dynamics of the Lib Dem leadership election is a rather difficult affair. The 70,000 members are rather hard to poll, as only the central party has definitive membership records, so it is hard for the pollsters to reach us. Even YouGov relies on what their voluntary sample claim, meaning that many alleged Lib Dem members they quiz may not be-- indeed, UKIP are known in the past to have instructed their members to sign up in order to schew the surveys. That's not to say, they aren't the best way of judging momentum, but they're probably more important for creating momentum than they are for accurately sampling current feeling.

So what will actually inform Lib Dem members? Lots will read newspapers, so obviously their judgements will matter. While there's a bias towards the Guardian and Independent, I've been told more Lib Dem voters (at least) actually read the Telegraph. (It's a separate, and fascinating question, to wonder why the Telegraph is often much kinder to us than other papers).

What about the most efficient methods though? Like Lib Dem campaigns in public elections, grassroots work will be decisive. The best way of persuading someone to vote in a particular way is for a genuine friend to say they are. So, the campaign which best organises its supporters in the country will have an edge.

What publications can act in that way, as trusted sources for members? Lib Dem News, the party newspaper, will remain studiously neutral, so that's not going to influence much. The infamous Liberal magazine of Ben Ramm, young wannabe-Brutus of the Kennedy assassination, is almost certainly unknown outside of Cambridge and people who have had freebie copies sent to them. Ramm apparently supports Simon Hughes, and even if anyone read his magazine, that endorsement is probably going to be as damaging to Hughes as the backing of Migration Watch or the Adam Smith Institute.

No, there's actually one publication that the journos don't know about, that will be more influential than any other: Liberator. It's an institution within the party, which holds almost universal respect from the grassroots members for its irreverent and honest tone. As unlikely as its editors (amongst them Jonathan Calder and Simon Titley) may consider the proposition, it's the only media equivalent of the "best friend's recommendation", which I noted above was the key. Anyone who wants to see how the wind is blowing should see what happens in its next issue...

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Meeting The Challenge

Just got back from the Meeting The Challenge conference in London (aside from a disastrous post-journey curry in Oxford. I just won't describe the service... well, actually I will, in my restaurant column next week!).

Anyway, the conference had originally been intended as part of a consultative process on the future direction of the party. it actually retained that purpose rather well, with overt leadership contesting happening in the hust first thing. Overall, I enjoyed the event, although I think it could have done without the breakout groups. They were a good idea, but given the fact that few floor contributors ever kept anywhere close to the topic of the session, they dragged at times.

But the main thing you're interested in is the hust, of course. My Oxford Lib Dem colleague Stephen Tall (despite having a blog that doesn't display properly in Firefox) has already rated the speeches. As a declared Huhne supporter, there's not much point me doing the same, so I'll share some brief observations, made in as dispassionate mood as possible:

Menzies Campbell: The second half saved Menzies, because he started out very poorly, probably because of the sound problems with his mike, which appeared to throw him. Some great soundbites, but the whole thing was a bit so-so. He played to his strengths, and it was certainly solid by the time he wrapped up. Probably confirms his status as the candidate nobody dislikes, but nobody is fired up about.

Simon Hughes
: Without a doubt, the most stylish performance... but he is already established as the slick and charming candidate. What we didn't see was any evidence of heavy-weight policy. A great showman, who will be in the final two, I am sure, but could, on this performance, once again be pipped to the post.

Chris Huhne: A very solid performance that took control of an original issue and offered distinctive ideas. Huhne is clearly now sketched as the most substantive, issues-based candidate, with gravitas to equal Menizes. What he'll want to do is show his witty and friendly side more in future speeches, as his biggest asset is surely his likeable, human nature-- the same quality that served Charles Kennedy so well.

Mark Oaten: In fairness, Mark was faced with the situation, today, of being a goldfish in a shark tank. The grassroots activists I know are unanimous in their suspision of him, mostly because of a reported comment, about which Stephen Tall has already blogged. Even so, Oaten came over as a little unnatural and staged, especially with his stunt of speaking without notes for the first four minutes--- and then returning to them for the rest!

After this, the media left us in peace to the rest of the day. It kicked off with a talk on Lib Dem electoral breakthrough from an Essex psephology professor, and then returned to policy issues when Steve Webb, Vince Cable and David Howarth locked horns on economic policy. Except, actually, they didn't lock horns, as they all seemed to agree completely. Noting this, David Howarth showed that he was first among (some really pretty intellectual) equals, by instead talking about the philosophical assumptions behind tax and economics policy.

Once lunch had been consumed (a very important thing for Lib Dems), the afternoon saw breakout groups on various topics, followed by a concluding discussion on what the narrative of the party should be. I thought that session worked rather well, despite a few digressions, and provides some good material. Lord Rennard summarised, accurately, the point of the session, when he observed that our "We Propose, We Oppose" list of policies at the last election felt like a shopping list, but without any instructions on what the dish they constituted would be. Hence, the need for a coherent and clear explanation of what we're about; a narrative.

Overall, it was an optimistic day. As always at Lib Dem conferences, you're struck by how friendly and dedicated the activists are, and find yourself chatting to people about their last election result, or the council in their area, or the qualities of Chris Huhne, very easily. The leadership contest actually focused, rather than distracted, the serious deliberations on honing the party's distinctive message during the coming parliament; a good thing.

More History Blogging

The Federalist Papers are probably the most famous newspaper articles ever printed. Written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with some contributions by John Jay), they made the case for the adoption of the US Constitution. They are rightly venerated - indeed, I believe the best essays are still relevant in explaining today's politics.

One thing that is overlooked, however, is the corpus of Anti-Federalist writing. While there were many difficulties for the Anti-Federalists to overcome - not least that there was no real central mechanism through which national opposition to the constitution could be organised - the several states produced a large number of writings against the constitution (some of which reached much further afield).

The essays of Philadelphiensis (not his real name) raised concerns with the freedom of the press - namely, that the editor of the Massachusetts Gazette was refusing to publish articles if the writer would not leave his real name with the printer, so that it could be given to anyone interested. Whilst signing articles now might seem a common practice, at a time when writing a controversial piece could see you set upon by an angry mob, using a pseudonym seems pretty understandable. As Philadelphiensis argued, it should be the merits of the argument, not the reputation of the author, which is used to inform your opinion.

I was reminded of this when I read Chris Ayres' piece in the Times this morning about the "fake memoirs" scandal that is breaking in America. Books claiming to be based on the real-life experiences of the authors have been demonstrated to be little more than glorified works of fiction - most amusingly, in one case, the (supposedly) male author was revealed as a female. The two books mentioned in the piece have one thing in common. They are both memoirs of turning your life around; gaining strength from adversity. But why does it matter whether these stories are 'real-life' or not?

If people have enjoyed the stories because of their writing, then their truth or otherwise is irrelveant. If people feel that the books have changed their attitudes towards "emotional truth", or have been inspirational, or revealed new depths to humanity, then I would contend their real-life accuracy is equally irrelevant. Indeed, I would say that it is a considerable feat of writing to be able to write convincingly on such topics without personal experience. The identity or experience of the author is surely inconsequential to the insights their gifts for writing can give?

Yes, it is regrettable that both authors should have chosen to deliberately misrepresent their identity to give the impression it was their own personal experience. But is the story really that different from a fictional book written with a first-person narrative? Without having read the books, I can't be sure, but I doubt it. Especially if it is someone who the reader has never met, and for whom the ordinary details of his/her life are totally meaningless except in the context of the book. The deceit may have been wrong, but it does not devalue the writing.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Huhne's Launch

Just got back this afternoon from Chris Huhne's launch event. He made a brilliant speech, hitting all the key notes. Assuming the media give him fair coverage tomorrow, we're set for a massive shake-up in the leadership race.

A full list of Chris's backers shows a rising groundswell of momentum, including Lord Rodgers (formerly Bill Rodgers), one of the SDP's Gang of Four.

Environmental Liberalism

Chris Huhne has been described as the "dark green horse" to enter the Lib Dem race. Certainly his credentials as someone with intellectual weight seem to be undoubted, although judgements on political skill are perhaps a little harder to make. One thing that would make it harder for me to support him, however, is his 'environmental liberalism'.

I discussed this at length with Richard in the pub the other night, where he put forward the one environmentalist argument that could genuinely convince me of the need to place environmental policies at the forefront of the manifesto - because the goals were clear and limited. They also avoided the paranoia which discredits a lot of environmental activists in my opinion. (It's one of the reasons I think the Anti-Federalists lost the argument over the ratification of the American constitution - because they were only able to make sweeping, and largely unconvincing conjecture about what might, not what would happen).

However, one thing I would find very difficult to accept in any environmental policy is a threat to cheap air flights to the continent. I know that these are currently the major targets of the environmentalists, and given the Tory change in tune, I think they are almost certainly on the way out. And yet I think that the societal value of cheap flights is enormous.

Travel is one of the few things I do not think I could feasibly do without. The cliches about it broadening the mind and all that jazz are undoubtedly true. Even flying out to resorts that are designed to be Britain with beaches and more sun is a positive thing - at some point, people will be touched by the kindness of strangers. Stereotypes dissolve in the face of human contact, and travel is something that we should be encouraging, as a societal good. We certainly shouldn't tax it to death.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is...

I mentioned yesterday that I'd got 10/1 odds from William Hill at lunchtime... by the evening 8/1 were the best odds anyone would offer, putting him in third place ahead of Mark Oaten. At the time of writing, Simon Hughes has taken a lead, but the story of the day is Chris Huhne's massive progress from 300/1 to 8/1 in 24 hours. While nobody would seriously say that betting odds could be taken on their own, they have certainly been a good indicator of other elections. PoliticalBetting.com writes:

In one of the most staggering political betting moves ever the price on the former Guardian and Indy journalist, Chris Huhne, becoming Lib Dem leader has, as the chart shows, tightened from 300/1 to just 16/1 in the course of 24 hours.

My advice? Put a tenner on Huhne while he's still 8-1! You won't get such good odds again. :-)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

SportBlog Roundup

Hi everyone, just a quick reminder about the SportBlog roundup. Next Tuesday I hope to be able to publish a collection of links to the best pieces of sportsblogging from right around the world.

I need your help, however.

Please email any good pieces you see to sportblog at googlemail dot com

If there's one thing about a leadership race...

It does at least get the party's blood flowing!

Even if the national campaign is still in its infancy, bloggers are producing some really thoughtful posts. Vivienne Raiper's latest is meant to be the third in her series of reasons to vote for Menzies Campbell. Personally, taken with her following post, I think she should be supporting Chris Huhne. But then I guess that doesn't surprise anyone, does it? :-)

As a side note, I'm not sure who came up with their name first, but Vivienne's "
Forceful and Moderate
" seems remarkably close to our "Militant Moderate". Clearly, great minds think alike.

Huhne's Record

I've begun a series of occasional posts, over at my personal blog, linking to Chris Huhne's record on a number of key issues. I do hope, after all the enthusiasm I'm currently harbouring, he actually runs...

So far, one on his strong civil liberties stance, and one with his widely-praised response to David Cameron.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Why Chris Huhne Should Run For Lib Dem Leader

Today's Daily Telegraph reports that Chris Huhne has five MPs willing to nominate him as leader. This is excellent news, and my immediate instinct is that Huhne would be an excellent candidate, whose campaign would highlight areas that other leaders would neglect. In particular, he would be a brilliant candidate to highlight environmental issues and establish a new green Liberalism.

If there's one issue that has turned voters off the Lib Dems, besides law and order, it must be economic policy. That's why Chris Huhne, a ruthlessly realistic economist of international standing, is so well-equipped to lead the party. Huhne will make sure that we can honestly prove how wewill pay for policy proposals, and show that 'prudence' and economic success have a new home.

On environmental issues, Huhne will be offering a distinctive focus. We desperately need a candidate to highlight this area of policy, and show how we need to make ourselves more vocal and distinctive in this area. Crucially, we must show that we're not just dipping into a corpus of "green methods", as a watered-down Green party, but actually developing green Liberalism, which uses liberal solutions to factor environmental externalities into individual decisions, rather than holding our noses for "Green" authoritarian and protectionist measures.

Most importantly, he seems the man who most closely meets me expectations of a leader who can end the left-right nonsense and find consistent, compassionate but fundamentally liberal policies. His work on Lib Dem public service policy- the Huhne report -is a case in point. There, he defended full public healthcare, but argued for a radical decentralisation of the NHS, so that local areas could respond free from Whitehall interference and with democratic management rather than quangos. That's an example of the proper compromise that liberals must naturally find between various competing freedoms.

Liberalism is naturally about balancing different freedoms and discerning which balance actually creates the greatest personal choice for individuals. A real liberal leader has to have that judgement, rather than pander to the extremes of social freedoms (which can create statist producerist services) or economic liberalism (which can create massive inequality of opportunity and ignore the need to create life chances). Chris Huhne has proved himself such a figure. While the other contenders would also do a good job, I would thoroughly welcome his entry in the race.

He would not be the bookie's favourite, but if he runs and falls, the debate within this party would be immeasurably better for it. And I wouldn't rule him out just yet. Huhne could well be the real deal.

Liberal Review

A quick plug here for the Liberal Review. It's well worth a look, both for coverage of news of the Lib Dems in the mainstream media, and for its daily blog roundups of posts on liberal themes. The editor's blog is well worth a look too.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note the number of blogs explicitly mentioning 'liberal-inclined' among their target audience or subject matter. That sort of understanding is vital if the Liberal Democrats really are to push for the large liberal vote that exists.)

On Taxation

Occasionally, whilst researching, I come up with some things that I believe are of a wider interested. This afternoon brought one of those moments. It's a section of the 1776 Pennsylvania constitution, which gives instructions to the legislature on the principles it should use when deciding to levy new taxes:

SECT. 41. NO public tax, custom or contribution shall be imposed upon, or paid by the people of this state, except by a law for that purpose: And before any law be made for raising it, the purpose for which any tax is to be raised ought to appear clearly to the legislature to be of more service to the community than the money would be, if not collected; which being well observed, taxes can never be burthens.

No tax should be levied unless the cause to which it is put will be more useful to the community than the money would be if left in the hands of its earners. Now, there's a debate over where that distinction lies - but at least if that is the defined limit of the debate, then we can make progress. As far as I can see, half the problem of bloated taxation is that the Treasury tries to work out where it can maximise its revenues rather than really thinking about the utility of the money raised. If that principle can get established in public debate, debates over public spending might actually have some utility themselves, rather than being an exercise in who can issue the most slurs. Although that's probably a folorn hope.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I Blame The Scapegoats

So Tony has unveiled how exactly he proposes to enforce his "respect agenda". Quite apart from the fact that there doesn't seem to be a particularly coherent vision behind this agenda (unless you're talking about the prevention of anti-social behaviour, which sounds less like an agenda and more like an aspiration any reasonable person would agree with), the details of the plan are highly worrying.

An increase in on-the-spot fines is perhaps the worst thing; that's just introducing summary justice. Blair says that whilst spitting at an old lady in the street is a crime, the manpower needed to force a prosecution makes it unenforced. How will on-the-spot fines work any better? Only if the policeman happens to see the incident himself, and surely not even a yob is stupid enough to spit at an old lady whilst an officer is watching? Otherwise, will fines just be given on the basis of an accusation made by someone else? And given that the biggest problem with stopping petty crime is the absence of officers from the street, advocating greater powers for fines misses the point.

But then the government is also proposing powers to evict "anti-social" residents from their homes for up to three months. How, exactly, is this going to be defined? Once again, the example given doesn't say why powers should be extended: Charles Clarke talking about a constituent of his affected by the persistent playing of loud music from nearby students. Well, if the music was too loud, there are noise pollution issues through which people can already be dealt with. The draconian measure of eviction just doesn't fit the bill.

Of course, the choice of students tells you a lot about the 'respect agenda'. It's just picking on the scapegoats. Students are easy targets as far as the target audience is concerned. It's another one of the government's initiatives that looks far tougher than it is; designed to create an impression in the minds of the people when its reality is actually something much different - if indeed it is achievable at all. If Blair wants to overturn the principle someone is innocent until proven guilty, he will have to come up with a much greater justification.

Monday, January 09, 2006

My God

I hope they aren't expecting a profit...

On Coronations

There is much speculation in the press at the moment that, in a similar fashion to the Tories in 2003, the Lib Dems are about to rally behind Menzies Campbell as their leader in a "coronation", no-one being willing to damage their own personal standing by running against him. If that happens, then I think the reaction of the party members will be a very good indicator of what the Liberal Democrats are actually like as a party.

Party members will always be irritated if they are denied a chance to vote for their leader. That was seen in the Tory party's rejection of a change in the rules for election last year, but it was also seen in 2003. Many local activists were seething that they hadn't been given a chance to choose the leader, nor to be able to show their support or otherwise for Michael Howard by being given the chance to formally approve him.

Nevertheless, within a short time, it was shown that such anger was, by and large, a storm in a teacup. My belief is that this is because of the "Conservative mindset". This applies not just to party members, but to loyal voters who, in reality, would never seriously countenance voting for another party. That mindset is that you stick with the leader you have. In 2003, I'm not actually certain that a poll of the members would have removed IDS as leader, despite him being a laughing stock to the rest of the country. Why? Because IDS was a "good chap", and loyalty meant that you had to stick by him. Once he was removed, the facts changed; Howard became the man in charge and loyalty to the party demanded that everyone rally behind him too. Which, by and large, they did, to the extent of defending the nastier aspects of his manifesto.

Will the same thing happen with the Liberal Democrats? If there is a 'coronation' of Campbell, I think it will prove a testing ground for the nature of the party as a whole. Of course, Campbell is something of a compromise candidate: he allows the young pretenders to build their reputation safe in the knowledge that age will give an upper limit to the length of his leadership. This, however, I suspect is less of an issue for party members.

The Times has speculated today that whatever the outcome of the leadership election, the party is set for months of 'feuding'. That isn't a given, though: it should be perfectly possible for a thorough policy review to be carried out and decided democratically, reasonably and fairly through the means of the party conference. That will need strong leadership, granted, but it will also need the agreement of the grassroots members as a whole. They will need to be patient, because the Kennedy affair will be hugely damaging to the party, and if there isn't a decrease in the polls then it would surprise me. And this is what I mean about a coronation being the test of a party. If there aren't opponents to Campbell, the chances of a full and frank debate on direction, as happened in the Tory party race, will be slim or none. The debate over direction will still be necessary, however. How well the party handles that will be a measure of its future.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Responding to Rebuttal

Richard's comments in response to me all seem to be of the "you don't get it" variety. That may be true; I am not a member of the Lib Dems, I do not plan to be in the immediate future, and as such cannot know the true machinations.

However, if I "don't get it", then it is up to the Lib Dems to prove otherwise. The Lib Dems are continually chastised in many quarters (ie from both sides) for being woolly, inspecific, and often on two sides of the same issue at the same time. (I don't have the link, but there was an article in the Times recently which showed frontbench spokespeople saying different things on the same area on the same day). Now, if that isn't down to there being two distinct wings of the party, I would be highly surprised. It would also fly totally in the face of the judgement of the wisest political commentators who have, in my opinion rightly, emphasised that there is a dichotomy between universalist ex-SDPers and the side of the party that leans towards the Orange Book.

You may argue that the entire spectrum in between is represented in the party, but for me that doesn't wash - the policy-pushers are from one side or the other.

Now, if it's just me, political commentators and large portions of the wider public who "don't get it", then the Lib Dems need to get out there and make the argument. But this isn't a new perception - this is a perception that's been rumbling on for a long time. It may have been worsened since the election, but I would say that the very disappointing election results were down to the fact that people listened to Charles Kennedy when he claimed to be the real opposition and a major force.

And then they looked at the ideas and rejected them. Lib Dem results right across the southeast corridor were down right across the board, and the results were patchy even in the stronghold of the South West (some were up sharply, others down sharply). Where gains were made, except for Solihull, were in Labour strongholds. I doubt that disaffection with the Labour Party will last until 2009.

Can they change the perception? Yes, but only if they can make a much clearer economic case. I'm not sure where the consensus within the party is on that matter, however - the 50% tax rate seemed to me to be somewhat opportunistic, a catch-all solution to supposed Labour underfunding, and a response to the universalists in the party. Maybe Richard can enlighten me on this, but in discussions we have had, he has argued that you can be either for or against a 50% tax rate and still in favour of individual freedom. Whilst the party is bickering over the meaning of individual freedom, David Davis's comments will ring true. People at elections want to know what you mean, not what you stand for.

There are areas where the Lib Dems do seem to stand united. However, they are at risk of having Cameron steal their clothes - especially with his seeming turn towards environmentalism. If Cameron makes a properly articulated opposition to ID cards, too, the carpet will be pulled from under the Lib Dems. This goes even more as top-up fees and the Iraq war begin to fade from the political radar.

Other areas where the Lib Dems appear to say the same thing do not add up to much; talking about how "everyone wants a good school in their neighbourhood" sounds nice, but I haven't heard anything about how they hope to achieve it. Being nice is no longer a long-term strategy for continued success. If they were willing to run with some of the Orange Book ideas, I think they could seize the agenda - but at the same time, Richard seems to indicate a large amount of antipathy towards that wing of the party, and it would surely be highly controversial among the social democrats.

In any case, after the real and huge problems that the Kennedy fiasco has highlighted (has any other party leader had half the parliamentary party refuse to countenance serving on a frontbench team?) and the seeming warfare, the party needs to find some way of coalescing; not giving the leadership to one wing of the party which may cause even more strife and recrimination.

I may "not get" everything about the Liberal Democrats. But I would wager I am more interested and follow politics more closely than the average voter. And I haven't a clue what voting for the Liberal Democrats actually means. They seem to blow with the wind or take two positions at once. If the Liberal Democrats are to remain a strong force in politics, then they shouldn't be having high-faluting arguments over what sort of individual freedom they stand for. They need to tell the British public what they mean.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

A rebuttal of Ken

While part of Ken's attack on my previous post was concerned with Charles's leadership, large sections of it, and his subsequent speculation, were not. To be brief, I think he completely misunderstands the nature of the party. There are a number of people arguing that we need to put more emphasis on liberalism in economic fields, and remembering that often economic liberalism means acting in the interests of consumers rather than producers-- all good lessons to take on board. But fundamentally, there is a cohesion between all members of the party, centred on the principles of freedom and the goal of maximising individual choice. Anybody who wishes to hold an informed view on the Lib Dems' philosophy should read It's About Freedom, where the party sets out its stall. There will always be areas where members debate what the best way to maximise individual freedom is. All parties have such debates. But, actually, Lib Dems are far more divided than a Labour party split between Christian Democrats and Socialists, or a Tory party divided between Social Democrats and xenophobic bigots. The fundamental flaw in analyses which see a debate between "left and right" or "modernisers and traditionalists" or "SDP and Whig", is that there are no clearly-defined battlelines. Individual members do not exist in thise blocs, and neither do the MPs.

The exception to this is the crowd of Orange Book authors, who seem to be defined by their own self-definition more than anything else. As long as they seek to make themselves out to be alien to the party, they will not influence it. They actually have done themselves and the party great disservice by hitherto trying to emphasise their differences, when there are some very sound, proper liberal arguments at the heart of most of their ideas. Indeed, Mark Oaten's chapter of the Orange Book reflects current policy, almost exclusively, and is far more innovative in the way it tries to sell the policies than anything else.

Where I do agree with Ken, though, is that the party needs to give up its addiction to vagueness in some areas. Unlike Ken, I have no concerns that doing so would actually precipitate a split. On the contrary, I think it's important that we begin to get more and more focused on a wide range of issues and begin talking about liberalism more.