Where will it all end? Will “An Independent Clean Hands Movement” overturn the mainstream Parties?

There was the start of an interesting discussion on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning about celebrity independent candidates standing at the next General Election. I say “the start” because it did not really pursue the issue to its logical conclusion.  There is no question that public anger with politicians of all Parties is now at unprecedented levels following the expenses revelations in recent weeks. 

Two backbench MPs (one Labour, one Conservative – neither of whom have been named in any of the national newspaper articles so far) I was with a week ago were already traumatised by the reactions that they had faced in their constituencies.  Some MPs are said to be suicidal.

There are the stories that Esther Rantzen is prepared to offer her services to the nation (whether the nation will accept her offer remains to be seen).  Joanna Lumley is on her way to political sainthood.  Jeremy Clarkson has already been touted as a possible Prime Minister.

Where will it all end?

All the mainstream political parties have to face up to the fact that so far the public do not think they have done enough to clean up politics.  If a well-financed campaign (will the Barclay brothers be prepared to follow through what their newspaper has started?) centred round a popular and plausible figurehead, started now with a stated mission to purify the political system, it could by the time a General Election is called later this year or in the spring of 2010 have built up enough momentum to overturn the current orthodoxy.

Some may say that would be a good thing (Guido for example?).  However, the danger is that such a popular ‘revolution’ may throw up untested (maybe unknown) individuals that turn out to be far more venal than any of the MPs who have been named and shamed (UKIP’s track record on expenses in the European Parliament is hardly exemplary).  More significantly, the existing established political parties each have their own guiding philosophy and history and, whilst many would say that this is blurred these days (Is Cameron the heir to Thatcher or Blair?  What do the LibDems really believe?  Is Gordon New Labour?  Is New Labour Labour etc?), what would any new “Clean Hands” Party stand for apart from the overturning of the existing order?  What is more would what it stands for be subjected to any scrutiny at all in an election focussing on the alleged venalities of the existing Parliament and the mainstream political Parties?

Some people – and the newspapers – should be careful what they wish for.

Outbreak of sanity after fifteen days of debate

I have posted before about the interminable discussion on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill – we are now on the fifteenth day of detailed consideration (a day at Second Reading, eleven days in Committee and this is now the third day on Report).

I am promised by the Whips that tonight the discussions will stop by 7.30pm.

Why?  Because everything that could conceivably be said – by everyone who conceivably might want to say it – has been said?  NO.  Because common sense has broken out and the LibDems now recognise that this is a good and sensible Bill bringing useful improvements to the legislation governing the protection of the coast-line? NO.

The real reason?  It is Lord Philip Hunt’s birthday today (he is 60, since you ask).  As the Minister he has had to answer the debates on all the myriad of points that have been raised over the last fifteen days of discussion and, I am told, he has said “Enough is Enough”, and that at half past seven he is taking his family to dinner.  At last, a breath of sanity …..

How many Earls does it take to change ……………… the mind of the Department for Transport

I have just introduced a short debate in the Moses Room (Grand Committees in the House of Lords take place in a room known as the Moses Room as there is a large fresco called ‘Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law from Mount Sinai’ there) on the possible use of the Segway Personal Transporter in the UK.  My interest in this was fired by seeing a demonstration of a Segway in use and hearing of the use of  them made by some 1000 police and law enforcement agencies around the world.

The police experience elsewhere has found a series of benefits: they can easily be integrated into patrolling, they cut down response times, they provide a better line of sight for officers (because the officer is on a platform 40-50cm above the ground), and they improve engagement between the police and the public (compared with officers in a car).

They are also of use for other specialised purposes.  For example, BAA deploy them at Heathrow and find that they speed up response times in the event of an incident or equipment breakdown and provide an efficient way of patrolling and doing routine maintenance tests.  A number of UK local authorities are also interested in deploying them in parks, city centre precincts, routine maintenance patrols and even for parking enforcement.

Finally, if made available for general use, there is evidence from a major study in Canada that a high proportion (62%) of car users would be keen to give up their cars for many short journeys – with a considerable saving in carbon emissions and congestion.

Most other countries permit their use.  In the UK, however, the Deparment for Transport is adamant that existing legislation does not permit their use on roads, on cycle routes or on pavements.  Moreover, there are – it is claimed – no powers that would even permit a trial to take place. (I am not convinced of this.  As a non-lawyer, Section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 seems to permit the appropriate exemptions to be made.)

Andrew Adonis, the Lords Transport Minister, stonewalled elegantly on behalf of the Department.  However, he did agree to try one out himself (although he insisted that I do so as well) and offered me a meeting with his Departmental colleague, Jim Fitzpatrick MP.

What was noticeable was the make-up of the discussion.  As Andrew pointed out, he and I, “as the representatives of the Proletarian Party were the only mere Life Barons present”.  The other speakers were the Earls Attlee (grandson of Clement, but now speaking on behalf of the Conservative front-bench), Liverpool (also a Conservative and descendent of another former Prime Minister – a Tory this time) and Erroll (a cross-bencher who is also the hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland), and Viscount Falkland (speaking for the Liberal Democrats).  The Earl of Glasgow (another Liberal Democrat, who had originally wanted to speak as well) also sat in for most of the debate.  When Earl Attlee expressed his sympathy to Viscount Falkland that he was only a Viscount, Lord Falkland hastened to point out that he was, in fact, also an Earl, but as it was a Jacobite creation it didn’t count.  All in all, five of the ninety-two remaining hereditary peers still sitting in the Lords were present.  I am not sure what it means, but it certainly felt strange.

Twelve days of detailed consideration and then the LibDems go to sleep ….

The House of Lords is now on the first day of the Report Stage of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.  This exciting piece of legislation sets up a new Marine Management Organisation under which many of the existing, diverse areas of marine regulation would be centralised, streamlines the existing marine licensing system and provides powers to create a joined-up marine planning policy, introduces new measures to reform fisheries management, provides a framework for establishing marine conservation zones and enables the creation of a walkable route around the English coast.

The Bill has received eleven full days of detailed debate during the Committee stage.  For those not directly involved the discussion has been – shall we say – less than riveting.  The LibDems – in particular, Lord Greaves – have spoken often and at length.

A little earlier the first division of the day was called.  The procedure is that three minutes after the division starts, the question is again put to the House and, if at that stage those moving the amendment do not shout “Content”, the amendment automatically falls.  This is what happened: it was a LibDem amendment and they failed to repeat their shout of “Content” after three minutes. 

A chastened Lord Greaves was subsequently seen wandering round the House – allegedly – telling all and sundry that he must have dozed off at the critical moment.

Given the soporific nature of most of his previous contributions on the Bill, this was regarded as poetic justice.

The McBride smears were not only wrong but would have been deeply counter-productive

I have been out of the country for a few days (France, since you ask) and following the McBride “smear-gate” story from internet news reports and bloggers’ comments.  With the benefit of that small degree of distance, there seem to be some very simple conclusions to draw.

First, the whole idea was deeply and irredeemably wrong.  It is not acceptable to spread defamatory lies about people – whether you dislike their politics or not.  The Prime Minister and the Labour Party should make it quite clear that the pursuit of such tactics by anyone purporting to act on their behalf or ostensibly in their interests will always be unacceptable and the individuals concerned will be treated as having brought the Party into disrepute.  I trust other Parties (no names, no pack drill) will do the same.

Second, the concept would almost certainly have been utterly counter-productive.  I am not convinced that the electorate think it matters what individuals might have done in their student days nearly twenty years ago and they are unlikely to think it relevant to their current suitability for public office.  Nor are the past (or even current) sexual peccadilloes of public figures that relevant to their ability to be Government ministers.  That doesn’t mean that people won’t take a prurient interest, but I am not convinced it makes much (if any) electoral difference.  (Indeed, I remember talking to one politician who had recently had some particularly lurid stories printed about his sexual habits.  He admitted that he had been worried about how his constituents might react.  In fact, he said that, although he had had to endure some ribald comments, most of the reaction seemed tinged with – if anything – admiration.)

Third, it would appear that the execution of the proposed smear plot was incredibly inept – using an official and traceable email address, for example.

Finally, the net result of what has happened will further demean and degrade the reputation of politicians and – in turn – the democratic process.  If you believe, like I do, that democracy and politics matters, then this may turn out to be the most worrying consequence of the whole sorry business.

Has Mayor Boris Johnson discovered that working together is harder than it looks?

A report in Local Government Chronicle suggests that the much-vaunted “Charter” due to be signed between London Mayor Boris Johnson and London Councils representing the 32 Boroughs (and the Corporation of London) is running into difficulties. 

I remember when I chaired the Association of London Government (as London Councils was then called) in the five years preceding the creation of the London Mayoralty.  It was always clear that the arrival of the Greater London Authority would present challenges for the London Boroughs.  It was almost inevitable that any directly-elected Mayor would start to encroach on the Borough’s statutory and non-statutory responsibilities.  I remember speaking about this on a number of occasions – my theme was that any incoming Mayor would need to keep his or her tanks off the London Boroughs’ lawns.

During the period of Mayor Ken Livingstone, there were indeed tensions over such matters as – for example – his desire for street cleaning in London to be improved and his ambitions for education.

When Mayor Boris Johnson was elected he proclaimed that he was much more ready to work with the London Boroughs (many of which were by then Conservative controlled).  A new concordat or charter was promised, but now – nearly a year on – it looks as though the initiative may dissolve without any real substance into a bath of warm words.

If this happens, it will be unfortunate and I would urge both those in the Mayor’s team and those in London Councils who are trying to finalise the document to redouble their efforts to reach some form of meaningful statement. 

Although the London Mayor is always going to be more visible than London Borough councillors and, of course, is directly accountable to Londoners, he/she cannot run local services and it is the local councils that are accountable for them.  The Mayor of London cannot dictate to the Boroughs, even though he/she has a direct mandate from Londoners and may have a clear vision for the future of London (I am still waiting to be clear about the current Mayor’s vision, although I sense he his groping towards one). 

Working together is harder.  However, it is essential if progress to be made. 

The skill of any London Mayor will be whether or not he/she having articulated a view of how London is to develop can carry not only Londoners, but their elected representatives in the Boroughs (and indeed all the other elements of civil society), along with their vision and inspire them to work with him/her on delivering it.

LibDems want to replace the word “growth” with the words “development and regeneration”

Bismarck said if “You like laws or sausages, never watch either of  them being made.”  It is 8.45pm and Labour Peers have been told to hang on for a possible vote on an amendment to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.  

The amendment moved by the LibDems apparently raises an important point of principle.  Or at least that’s what the LibDems say.

So what is the amendment?  In Clause 67 of the Bill (which creates a requirement for there to be a regional economic strategy for each region) the LibDems want the Bill to say “The regional strategy for a region is to set out policies in relation to sustainable development and regeneration in the region” rather than “The regional strategy for a region is to set out policies in relation to sustainable growth in the region” .

Is someone taking the p*ss?

And after all that they didn’t press it to a vote!

Trying to get my local MP to campaign

I have just met my local MP (Lynne Featherstone) in the supermarket (Marks and Spencer). I tried to interest her in running a campaign (isn’t that what LibDem MPs do?) against the strange new lay-out of the store (vegetables in three separate sections, two separated deli areas etc). She said she agreed with me (isn’t that what LibDem MPs do?), but seemed reluctant to follow through with a campaign. Maybe she suspected my motives, but why would I want her to seem like a light-weight frivolous climber-on of point-less bandwagons? Isn’t that what ….

An extraordinary story about a LibDem councillor …..

I am grateful (sic) to Iain Dale for drawing attention to an article in the Daily Telegraph about a LibDem councillor in Cambridge who took it upon himself to use his bicycle to stop an ambulance going to the help of someone who had been taken ill because vehicles were not supposed to go on to a grassed area of common land.  It turns out I knew the said councillor – then a mere Liberal Party activist – over 35 years ago: it doesn’t sound as if he has changed much.