Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Simon Hughes is a Lib Dem party stalwart and 'Treasure'. He won one of the most contentious by-elections of the modern period, one in which no party covered itself in glory, despite what the preening Labour Party might wish to declare. He has worked Southwark and Bermondsey - a difficult seat with many local issues just a few of which would tax politicians of lesser mettle - for decades now. He remains an important conscience for the party and a persuasive force for what might in less enlightened times have been referred to as the 'left'. Great guy.

The trouble is that he says things like the Lib Dems need a veto in the coalition government and that we could work with Labour. Well, yes, sort of but actually no, Simon.

Don't get me wrong, I am very uncomfortable with the coalition and I still dislike the Tories with a majority of my being (99% of my soul) but I accept that Nick Clegg has delivered us real power and influence for the first time in decades and that a large dollop of the Lib Dem agenda is actually being delivered in government which, if you are sensible about your politics, you will accept is worth paying the price of adopting a fixed grin for when faced with Michael Gove across a table or sitting with Michael Howard in Parliament. (No, Michael, I'm not thinking what you're thinking but I'll bite my tongue for now.)

To ask for a veto in a coalition is to ask for the self-destruct button to be put in the middle of the table during disarmament talks. Some blithering idiot will eventually leap up and press it in the name of 'common sense', the interests of their party or some overweening principle. The simple fact is that in the coalition - in any coalition - everyone knows they can take this course but you don't want to encourage them to do so. You need compromise, you need general agreement, you need to hold your proverbial noses. Holding out the prospect of a 'veto' does not encourage the necessary collegiate thinking. The Lib Dems do not need a veto, we simply need to engage fully with the coalition - as we have done so far - and make sure our voice is heard loud and clear - as we have done.

Now, just like a good Lib Dem, let me immediately defend Simon Hughes by stating that he does not appear to have ever used the term 'veto' but this is how it is being reported in the meejah so this is the charge which must be answered, rightly or wrongly.

On the second point, Simon has commented that a coalition deal with Labour may be possible in the future. Er, just hold on, Simon. The Labour Party has driven this country into the ground in recent years [dissenters please note: PFI, Iraq, outlandish spending pledges in 2010, Tony Blair and our devastated international reputation] and it is now embarked upon an extended period of what will inevitably be vicious infighting as memoirs come out and their leadership race chunters on. Add to that the fact that if the thoroughly duplicitous Ed Balls wins that leadership battle through some mysterious alchemy (a stitch up) I doubt that many Lib Dems would consider any kind of accommodation. I have choked on a deal with the Tories but accepted it as the right thing to do. I would have to seriously consider reaching for the party card and scissors if a deal with Balls were proposed.

There is no doubt that we could make a deal in the future with a much reformed Labour Party which had an entirely new leadership and a much revised set of policies but at the moment that is very far from happening so our Deputy Leader might best consider avoiding comment on it at the moment. Labour has far to go and I don't want my party tarnished by any association with them while they are on this difficult and potentially destructive journey.

What I have always sought from the Lib Dem upper echelons is a clear, unequivocal desire to win elections, not just to carp from the sidelines or seek accommodations with others. Nick and the team are doing great things in Parliament - and getting no thanks for doing so at the moment. In 2015 I'd like to be a candidate again and I'd like to fight for power, not just with Labour or the Tories but on our own terms.

And there is the trouble with Simon in a nutshell, because he did just that the other day when he said that we would fight every seat without making any accommodation with the Tories. Well bingo, I couldn't agree more! The two thirds of voters in Henley who didn't vote for their Tory MP this year need a choice and I want to give them that choice in 2015. Shout, Simon, for all of us but choose your target better.

Thursday, 12 August 2010


Thanks to Oxfordshire County Council cuts we now no longer have any speed cameras in the county and, according to their own statistics and national news coverage, a lot more cars are speeding as a result. The Tory County Council will of course blame the government for these cuts but this was a local decision.

Blaming central government might be a good retort if it wasn't for the fact that, for example, we still have an array of utterly pointless electronic road signs - all emblazoned with the county council badge - which were installed last year to give me such vital information as 'Think! Bike' and that if going to Oxford I should use the Park and Ride. Couldn't both these entirely valid messages have been displayed via the medium of a poster or even a sturdy metal sign, since both remain important whatever the day? These signs are a gimmick and to remove them would be to admit an error in installing them in the first place. Step forward, hubris.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of politically expedient buck-passing over cuts and some of this will be valid but shouldn't the county council have considered more obvious and sensible savings to the roads budgets before endangering road users.

Speaking of the Park and Ride, I use it a few times a year yet I subsidise its more regular use by others as the County Council decided, in an election year, that the car parks should be free to use. I wonder if some savings could be found here by charging the people who use this service. I only ask...

The buck stops at County Hall and any politician worth their salt would look again at the decision to shut down the speed cameras, which is demonstrably - by their own evidence - an error with significant risks.

Should they insist that all is fine and dandy with their road safety policy, I wonder if they might respond to the outcry from residents over the appalling state of our roads following the freeze of last winter - not helped by the abject failure of the county council to grit more than about 10% of roads. Surely roads without huge holes in them are safer?

Until common sense breaks out at County Hall, roads such as the busy A44 in Woodstock will witness the return of Wacky Races through this popular tourist destination while pedestrians flee as more cars, lorries and buses race through, particularly down a rather steep hill which has a well used zebra crossing at the bottom.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


According to the newspapers the LDs' poll rating is slipping as more people say they do not know what we stand for any more. Well, if you've been an activist for a few years you'll know that this is a standard refrain and its not really anything to worry about.

Well, we're part of a government which is making bigger cuts to the public sector that any since the 1930s. We're in bed with our one time mortal enemies (some of us are still keeping a revolver under the pillow...) and we seem to be jettisoning our principles. Its therefore hardly surprising that we're not exactly racing in the polls.

There is no question that the coalition has been a shock for our traditional supporters - including me - but there is also no doubt that by signing up to this agreement the Lib Dems are actually achieving stuff, like a referendum on voting reform, which we have been going on about for decades. We have a commitment to fixed term parliaments, a promised reform of party funding, a commitment to reduce the number of MPs in Parliament and a long delayed - by Labour - reform of the House of Lords. We campaigned on all these issues at the election and they are now being introduced. Tell me, where's the beef?

We have got the tax threshold raised, as we promised at the election. We have a commitment to restore the link between pensions and earnings, which the Labour Party failed to do for 13 years. We have a commitment to greater freedoms for teachers and health workers to do their jobs, fair compensation for Equitable Life pensioners.

We have Vince Cable as Business Secretary, Chris Huhne as Energy Secretary, Norman Baker responsible for Transport. People who know what they are doing - LD people - are in the right jobs. We must give them time to effect real change.

The 'but' is that they are part of a coalition, which requires compromise. I don't suppose that Chris Huhne ever imagined that he would be declaring his support for nuclear power in Parliament but he is a pragmatist and he knows that if he wants to deliver LD changes to our energy policy he must compromise. That's the real world of politics which we must get used to.

The key for us is that in five years' time, assuming that the date for the next election is honoured, we will be able to enter an election telling voters that Lib Dems have been in government, we have demonstrated our ability to work with other parties, we have demonstrated that we can actually get things done and that for the first time in almost a century a Lib Dem vote can be clearly, unequivocally demonstrated to be anything but a wasted vote.

Courage, mes braves. Its a long road, a rocky one but the destination might just be worth it.

Monday, 9 August 2010


Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has announced that new, privately owned nuclear power stations will be up and running by 2018 and that they will receive no government subsidy. This, I assume, is the same Chris Huhne who bemoaned the abject situation in his new department when he took over in May this year. At the time, he complained bitterly about the fact that almost all of his budget for the foreseeable future would need to be spent on nuclear decommissioning, giving him virtually nothing to spend on renewables, which of course have the advantage of being, well, renewable.

What will change with new, private nuclear power stations? Will energy companies who seek to build these new stations be required to pay into a fund to cover future decommissioning costs? I think I can answer that with a resounding 'no' because as soon as any such costs - even taken at today's prices, which will doubtless rocket in future decades - are taken into account the cost of new nuclear power capacity would become hopelessly uneconomic. The clear, obvious outcome of new nuclear power generation to even the most short-sighted of politicians, which Chris Huhne certainly is not, will be huge, unknown costs for a future government when whichever private company decides to build these facilities either ceases to exist or simply walks away, leaving taxpayers with the bill for the mess.

Don't kid us - or yourself - Chris: there will be a taxpayer subsidy for new nuclear power capacity, just not immediately - and when it does arise the cost will be vast.

For the record, I'm not a woolly lefty who is against nuclear power for the sake of it. I simply believe that it is a failed technology. Nuclear power creates by-products which are among the most dangerous we know about and which cannot be made safe for hundreds of thousands of years. How many governments, countries or even civilisations do you know of which have lasted for 500,000 years. There weren't even human beings on the planet 500,000 years ago so who on earth can tell us with any confidence that this problem can be dealt with.

And yes, I am aware that we rely on nuclear power at the moment for a sizeable proportion of our energy usage. Well, we used to burn witches and bait bears but then we decided that we should move on.

We will end up paying and we will be saddled with an intractable problem. That's just not good business or good government. Why can't money be invested in renewables, cleaner existing technology and nuclear fusion, which has the potential to work and to be safe, instead of wasted on what are certain to be financial black holes in the future? Anyone who says it can't be done, consider the difference between a Ford Capri, using technology from 40 years ago, and a low emission, smaller engine, higher torque modern diesel car, of which there is a range to choose from. Similarly, remember a world without the internet? That was less than 20 years ago. I read just this week of a new invention, a bottle with an ultra-violet light powered by a wind up mechanism which can sterilise water in 90 seconds. Brilliant, simple and with the potential to revolutionise the way millions of people live.

I know he reads my blog (!) so here's a plea to Chris Huhne: remember you're a Lib Dem first and climb out of the box, where the thinking is easier. We have innovated our way out of problems before and the impetus can be given by government to do it again, not just to latch onto old technology for a short term fix with a very long term cost. Isn't that the role of a dynamic ministry?

However, if you choose to go down the path of backing nuclear fission, make sure the companies who build these new stations pay upfront into a discrete, invested fund to deal with the consequences of their actions for generations to come - and make the cost realistic, such as 10% of the current annual cost to the taxpayer of decommissioning existing nuclear power stations. Don't do as British governments have done for decades and simply fail to deal with this problem now before it arises. Plan now for all our futures.

Finally, a note: no new nuclear power station has been built for decades. One is being built in Finland which is about 4 years behind schedule and 50% over budget. The model doesn't work, countless safety issues have been found with the design and it is still under construction. I wonder if the Secretary of State would care to comment on this.

Friday, 6 August 2010


Okay its only small beer alongside the VAT rises and changes to the NHS but the announcement today by Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, that local authorities will from the end of this month be able to sell green electricity to the National Grid is sensible and should act as an incentive to councils to start investing in local energy. The Independent mentions coastal councils investing in wind power (where is the long-promised wave power...?) as one example but simply given the number of publicly owned roofs across the country it is clear that the potential for development in this area is immense.

Remember that a great deal of the impetus for water supplies, street lighting, roads, public transport and public parks in the 19th century came from new local authorities and in large part made the country we live in. I am biased because I used to work for a Lib Dem council which actually did stuff but which is now faced with swingeing cuts as the result of Council Tax, central diktat and interference, but it seems to me that by imposing central targets and ludicrous taxation rules on local authorities central government has for years tied the hands of what are potential innovators and wealth creators across the country.

My current job involves working with authorities which are trying very hard to deliver good services with declining budgets and at the same time innovating to improve those services. Many councils are doing their best, so it is heartening to see the government easing up on one of many pointless restrictions. Who knows, maybe local government will once be just that - government which is local.