Monday, 30 April 2012

Anything to Declare?

This evening I have been having fun with the Register of Members' Financial Interests.

I can tell what you're thinking - that man knows how to live... Well, you may think that, but it really is quite interesting. Honest. So; what have the great and the good been claiming?

Well, here are a few examples, taken from the 2010-2012 register, as at the 16 April 2012 update. I'd like to say they have been taken at random, but in reality it's more a selection of prominent and topical figures, starting with the three party leaders.

David Cameron declares an honorary life membership - worth £1,150 p.a. - of the Carlton Club, gifted by  the Ellesborough Golf Club to him as leader of the Conservative Party. 

He also declares discounted Personal Training rates to a value of £4,475 from Celebrity Fitness Trainer Matt Roberts (or, at least, his company). It appears that this was offset by a personal donation to a charity of his trainer's choice. The question is, though, if the discount is £145 per session, what's the full cost?!

Finally, Cameron declares income from Residential Property in London.

Next up, Nick Clegg. Short and sweet, he declares an honorary life membership  of the National Liberal Club - worth £560 p.a. plus £280 joining fee - gifted by the club itself to him as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Ed Miliband (or Edward, as he is listed in the register) declares a number of contributions to his office - some of which relate to his leadership campaign. Briefly, though, these are:

£15,190.08 from Unite
£5,000 from Lord Evans of Wakefield
£34,712 staffing costs for May to December 2011 (plus a computer) from Lord Sugar of Clapton (yes, that Lord Sugar)
£1,889.40 towards office costs from Eddie Izzard
£8,950.80 as a donation in kind for employment costs of a member of staff for 20 days(!) of work
£50,305 staffing costs for January to December 2012 from Lord Sugar of Clapton

Harrods Christmas Hamper valued at over £660 from the Sultan of Brunei (I do wonder how many Greggs Pasties that contained...)

Vince Cable has a contract with Atlantic Books for book on state of economy (£15,001 - £20,000)

My MP, Dawn Primarolo, has a nil-return.

Jeremy Hunt received £1,000 per month for 2 hours a week's work "of an advisory nature" for Hotcourses Ltd through 2009. His constituency party also received gifts (reportable to the Electoral Commission and, under new rules, no longer required to be declared on the Members' Register as well) totalling £12,550 in 2011.

In addition, he received support for his office costs from Hotcourses Ltd and a Mr John Lewis (no, not that John Lewis). He also declares rental income from half-shares of a holiday house in Italy and an office building in Hammersmith.

Danny Alexander received two BAFTA tickets (worth £750 each) from Pinewood Studios.

As I said, a not-too-random but intriguing sample - why not have a go yourself!



Saturday, 28 April 2012

K25 Part 4 - Cherry Bomb

It's the end of the month, which can only mean one thing - it's time for another treat from Kylie as she celebrates 25 years in pop. This time out it's a video from the Anti-Tour of B-Sides, Demos and Rarities and is of her singing Cherry Bomb - a B-Side from the single releases of "Wow" and "In My Arms".

Here she is:


The Daily Mail and Labour are Wrong

...but you probably knew that.

The Daily Mail carried the following front page headline today:

You can read the story online here. In it, they report that Labour has thrown its weight behind the Mail's campaign to "Block Online Porn". They suggest that the Government's proposed "Opt Out" system - in which Internet Service Providers will have to ask people if they want access to porn - is due to Cameron's relationship with Google and a consequent reticence to take stronger action to block content. They further report than an all party group of MPs is also in favour of an "Opt In" system.

When I saw the headline, and read at the first couple of paragraphs of the story, my first thought was that the just that I thoroughly disapproved of the idea. My second thought was - I'll blog about that later. So here is that post... it turns out, the blog is going to go in a different direction from the one I first envisaged. I'm not going to rant about how if children are accessing porn, the responsibility lies with the parents. I'm not going to argue that the Mail's proposal is an attack on civil liberties and Labour's support for it is symptomatic of their authoritarian tendencies - although it is and it is. And I'm not going to say that if I want to access porn, I don't want to have to inform my ISP - although I don't.

I'm not saying I don't think action is inappropriate - but the government is absolutely right to focus on an opting out basis, rather than an opting in. I think the proposals need additional work but the foundation is there. Responsibility has to lie with parents to manage their children's internet access and teach them how to be safe online - not the state. Something, I'd have thought the Mail would be in favour of; after all, they're normally against the Nanny State...

Anyway, as I said, I've decided not to blog on the substance of the story. What I do want to do is make some observations on the way this story is presented. 

Whilst I hadn't heard of either Shadow Media Minister Helen Goodman and Shadow Justice Minister Jenny Chapman have - and so question the idea that "Labour have thrown their weight behind" the campaign, it transpires that this is in Ms Goodman's portfolio. I would point out, though, that both these MPs are members of the Christian Socialist Movement, and this may have something to do with them being vocal on this issue.

After reporting the shadow minister's attack on Cameron's "cronies" and suggesting this is what is stopping the Government from going further, the article proceeds to report than an "all party group of MPs" had produced a report on the subject. For the average reader, I imagine that this puts them in mind of the Select Committee structure. A broadly representative committee of backbench MPs conducting enquiries, taking evidence and producing reports on specific areas of government policy or concern. 

In fact, this was a self-selecting cross-party group of parliamentarians, largely consisting of Conservatives, although there were some Labour members (including Helen Goodman) and two Liberal Democrats (Annette Brooke and Jo Swinson) on the enquiry panel. Whilst it is billed as an Independent Report, the document was sponsored by Premier Christian Media whose home page promotes their "Safety Net" campaign on this very issue.

There is an attempt to conflate the issues of pornography and grooming for sexual abuse. This is a spurious argument and similar to the justification for proposals to store details of internet-based communications. Their is also a one line denial that the an opting in system would be an attack on Civil Liberties without any explanation as to how (or, rather, how not) this is the case. Interestingly, neither of these issues rates much of a mention in the report referred to above.

This conflating of children accessing porn (which it turns out is more prevalent in Middle Class homes where it appears the parents are happy to sub-contract childcare to the laptop in the kid's bedroom) with grooming and abuse is further attempted by the positioning of a tragic story of a girl being groomed on Facebook before being raped and murdered right underneath this article online.

Tragic as that story is, it isn't a justification for large scale censorship unless you're opted in - and even the Mail's proposals wouldn't tackle the problem of grooming.

Anyway, although the story was front page in the paper copy of the Mail, this article on Kim Kardashian (no, no idea either) had a much higher billing on the online site. Ironic, as it's about alleged nude pictures of her and is illustrated with a shot of her in swimwear - as well as having a link to said nude pic. Perhaps ISPs should start offering an opt-in service for those that want to  access the Mail Online...


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

NOW! That's What I Call a Tune! 29

This week's entry features the Senegalese musician and would be politician, Youssou N'Dour. 

I'm not overly acquainted with his work but have always loved this track which reached number 3 in the UK -  probably on the strength of it featuring Neneh Cherry. Sadly, it was N'Dour's only hit. Of course, such a statement betrays a Anglo/European/Western view of the world which forgets that there are huge tracts of the world where Chris Brown and Madonna (atop the singles and album charts at the time of writing) are less well known than local/national/regional/continental stars such as N'Dour.

Here is Youssou N'Dour feat. Neneh Cherry with 7 Seconds:


Homecoming: A Video

Earlier this year I posted this on the campaign for equal marriage and earlier this month I posted this picture of the cover of attitude posing the question "Have you heard the one about the Iraq Veteran who can fight for his country but not get married?"

Now, a video has been produced in support of the campaign for equal marriage, which takes up the theme of being able to serve one's country but not to marry one's partner. It's called "Homecoming" and you can find more about on the Pink News, here. More seriously, you can find the government's consultation on the subject here.

Just one warning for the emotionally disposed, I fear this is supposed to be quite sentimental. If you're that way inclined, keep a Kleenex handy:


Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Bert Weedon's Guitar Boogle Shuffle

One of the many podcasts I listen to is Radio 4's Last Word which features a diverse range of obituaries on various people who have died in the week prior to broadcast. It is always an interesting and eye-opening listen - and often brings to my attention the life and work of fascinating people just a little too late.

One such this week - whose death was reported on the main news as well as Last Word - was Bert Weedon, the man who wrote "Play In A Day" and is credited with teaching Eric Clapton, Brian May and Sir Paul McCartney the guitar.

He learnt guitar at the age of 12 and developed his Play In A Day concept in 1957 at the age of 37. In 1959 he was the first British act to have a guitar single - but he very almost didn't get credited for it... He had come by the track (written in America) and wanted to record it but the studio he was signed too (Top Rank Records) weren't interest. Weedon arranged to record it elsewhere and for it to be put out under a pseudonym. When he went back to Top Rank, they conceded defeat and the track was released on their label, properly credited.

Here it is, in a version from around 1982, Bert Weedon's Guitar Boogie Shuffle:


Tuesday Titter 20: Doctors Orders: A Cup of Tea

The latest in the sporadic series of Tuesday Titters comes from Doc Brown, comedy rapper. I came across this clip whilst browsing You Tube, although I was aware of him - I once heard him do a rap aimed at making The Archers cool!

In this piece, taken from Russell Howard's Good News Extra, he takes on that long-standing British obsession: the perfect cup of tea...



Monday, 23 April 2012

What Books Do When You're Not Looking

It's World Book Night tonight and, for the second year running, I didn't get my act together to volunteer to give out any of this year's free books - something I blogged about doing last year. Still, there's always next year...

Anyway, earlier on blogger, I saw this, as tweeted by Jasper Conran's studios. It's an animation made in a bookshop in Toronto - and provides an insight into the nocturnal life of books...


Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Voice UK Judges - 4 - Jessie J

The final judge on The Voice UK - at least in the order I've chosen to feature them - is Jessie J. Although still in the infancy of her recording career, not many artists can say that a song they've written has been Number 2 in the US Billboard Hot 100 (Miley Cyrus' Party in the U.S.A.).

Jessie J went to the BRIT School, which also produced (or rather honed) other talents such as Adele, Katie Melua, and (in part) The Feeling. An early recording contract fell through when the label went under and her subsequent songwriting contract came before a new attempt at recording led to Do It Like a Dude... The rest, as they say, is history...

The song I've chosen is Who You Are which is quite often played in the gym I attend - but not this acoustic version, though! Enjoy a pared back, raw performance:


The Voice UK Judges - 3 - Danny O'Donoghue

So, last night was the first of the two Battle shows on The Voice UK - and the second is tonight. Before that, though, there are two more judges to feature on these pages. First, Danny O'Donoghue of Irish band The Script.

The band boasts two Irish and UK Number 1 albums, with the second also getting to No.3 in U.S. They are one of those bands who have, slightly passed me by, but I think it's fair to say that their best known song (and certainly their biggest hit in the UK), remains The Man Who Can't Be Moved. So here it is, enjoy:


Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Voice UK Judges - 2 -

Second in my features on The Voice UK's judges is the rather improbably named Star of the Black Eyed Peas and producer of everyone from Carlos Santana to Britany Spears, Rihanna to Mary J Blige, Ricky Martin to Mariah Carey, Kelis and Usher to, well, you get the idea.

But which of his own tracks to choose? I was tempted to go back to 2003 and Where Is The Love? from the Black Eyed Peas - I hadn't listened to it for some years but it still stands up as a great track. Instead, though, I've chosen the much more recent T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever) feat. Mick Jagger and Jennifer Lopez as far more representative of what is about: it's the sound, the drawing influences from all over the place and the message. You can go hard or you can go home:


The Voice UK Judges - 1 - Tom Jones

Earlier I blogged about The Voice UK and promised a series of 4 posts (two today, two tomorrow) showcasing each of the judges. I'm starting, as one should, with Sir Tom Jones - a man who needs little or no introduction. Suffice to say, every time name drops about working with Michael Jackson, Tom Jones can mention Elvis or Aretha Franklin...

(If you do need an introduction to a man who has been in the recording industry for over 5 decades, I'd recommend you listen to his Desert Island Discs appearance.)

So, what to choose? Well, I was going to choose this, but then I found the following video and it gave me goosebumps. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Sir Tom Jones with "If I Give My Soul":


Lib Dem Conference, Police Accreditation: My Response

My Letter to the Federal Conference Committee, in response to the consultation on accreditation for Brighton: 

Dear Andrew and Members of the Federal Conference Committee, 
I imagine you have had a lot of responses to your consultation on the Sussex Police's request that all members wanting to attend Autumn Conference in Brighton, over and above the many comments made on the Lib Dem Voice article seeking views and those on the Lib Dem Blogosphere - including my own here - so I shall therefore keep this brief.
I am intending to attend conference for the first time. As a White, Middle Class, Cisgendered Male whose limited contact with the police has been as a crime victim or witness, I have nothing to fear from an accreditation process. But White, Middle Class Cisgendered Males (and Females) are two-a-penny in this party and dominate our benches in parliament: presenting us as such to the public, 51 weeks a year. Conferance is an opportunity to present the broader party to the public. 
Last year's experience of accreditation has shown that it deters attendance by those who do not trust the police to handle their details sensitively. Given the statistics (and the evidence of Police abuse of stop-and-search powers) this is much more likely deter the non-white, non-middle class and non-cisgendered amongst our party. Ironic in a party whose constitution is about fairness for all. Accreditation is an issue that particularly affects those who are transgendered but could also include those with previous police history no matter where or when the circumstances. I know that our Northern Irish colleagues are also particularly concerned over this. 
There are many other arguments against accreditation - mainly that there is no evidence as to how it is effective in its stated aim not to mention the examples quoted are complete red herrings - but, fundamentally, I don't believe the state should dictate who can and can't attend conference, nor should procedures be put in place which result in conference being less than representative of the party as a whole.
Yours Sincerely,
Andrew Brown

The Voice UK

People who know me (or follow my Twitter stream) will be aware that I get sucked into watching various talent shows. Last year, despite my protestations that I really didn't want to commit to 3 months worth of The X Factor, I ended up following it all the way through - and was a particular champion of Misha B.

But The X Factor is a circus with a variety of acts, some of which are designed merely to amuse, some of which are cruelly taunted. For every Misha B, there's a Jedward or Ceri Reeves*. As TV singing contests go, though, it has limited competition.

A couple of years ago, Sky had a go with Must Be The Music (won by Emma's Imagination). This was a different type of show: open to singer-songwriters and bands in all genres and judged by credible musicians (a route The X Factor has subsequently gone down to some extent). Unfortunately, Sky axed it after just one series.

Now, the Beeb has got in on the act with The Voice UK and I'm hooked. The format is simple but effective: The initial audition stages are blind with the Judges' chairs turned away from the performers. Over the course of the auditions, each judge builds up a team of 10 singers - choosing whether they want to work with an act based on what they hear. Should more than one judge turn round, the act has the choice over who to work with.

There are importantly differences with The X Factor - firstly, all the acts can actually sing. The format simply wouldn't work with novelty acts so contestants have been pre-screened/scouted to provide a certain level of talent/interest. This means that the tone of the judges feedback is more constructive & positive and less crtitical or abusive than some of the unfortunates on The X Factor are subjected to.

Secondly, the line up of judges can, fairly, be described as stellar - Sir Tom Jones (no description necessary!), Jessie J (singer-songwriter, Brit School Alumni and very "current"), (Songwriter, Producer and star of Black Eyed Peas) and Danny O'Donoghue (singer-songwriter and lead singer in Irish band The Script). The X Factor may have been able to boast a line up of artists (plus Louis Walsh) last year, but this was a first for them.

Thirdly, the judges all genuinely seem to get on. There may be occasional skirmishes (and possibly more as the show moves towards its latter stages) but in the audition rounds, they were encouraging each other to turn round to see acts - either once they had turned round themselves or if they thought an act better suited to another judge's skills or team.

Fourth, the dynamics between the judges changed over the course of the audition shows as they gradually filled up their teams of ten and became more focused on finding acts that differed from the ones they already had. A typical exchange would be: "Turn round!" "I can't, I've already got two that are similar to him - you should, though"

Finally, although the audition shows were more chronologically linear than those on The X Factor, the judges all wore the same for each show - meaning you weren't distracted by changing hairstyles and outfits and (subconsciously?) reinforcing the impression that this was about the acts not the judges.

Tonight the show moves to its next stage - Battles. Each judge will have their acts reduced from 10 to 5 through a series of Vocal Duets. It's another innovation and looks intriguing.

It's fair to say I'm a fan of the show and it's format. Even with Reggie Yates and Holly Willoughby, neither of whom I'm a particular fan of. (So far, their on screen presence has been minimal and their voiceovers haven't been too excitable).

For all its novelty, The Voice is a back to basics Talent show. By which I mean it's actually about Talent, as well as Show.


I had intended this post as the first of four today featuring each of the judges - I seem to have wittered on, so two more posts will follow later, with two tomorrow!

*This link is to The Sun

Friday, 20 April 2012

When Sport and Politics Collide

Time and events have prevented me from blogging about this over the past couple of days and, to be honest, I've not got much to add to what Caron has said over at Caron's Musings.

I too don't believe that the Bahrain Grand Prix should be going ahead at a time when dissent in Bahrain is being ruthlessly put down. I don't believe it's right from the point of view of the safety of the drivers and the dozens of support crew (including, of course, many many Brits) but neither do I believe it's right from a moral and political standpoint.

Formula 1's presence in Bahrain will both ferment protests and cause them to be brutally stamped upon. The safety of the teams cannot be guaranteed in such circumstances - something that was illustrated only too well yesterday when the Force India team found itself at risk

Whilst the authorities will do what they can to ensure that the event passes off without incident (and to keep any signs of protest away from the World's TV cameras). In this context "what they can" carries a much deeper and darker meaning than it would in the U.K. as we know only too well.  

Bernie Ecclestone claims that "It's another race on the calendar, it's scheduled." - a statement seems to imply that it's just another race when it so clearly has become something else. He is further reported as claiming that the only body with the power to cancel the race is the National Sporting Authority - as if he, the Commercial Rights Holder, was impotent in the matter.

He then proceeds to say: "We shouldn't be getting involved with other people's politics. We enter a country in the normal way. We don't deal with the religion or the politics. It's not our business running the country."

This is fine to a point; sport and politics are, for the most part, best kept separate. But there comes a time when even sportspeople need to take a stand. Jesse Owens did it by competing in the Munich Olympics. Many sports - including Formula 1 - did it by boycotting South Africa over Apartheid. In the real world, sport and politics very much do mix.

Want more proof? This is from the website of the Bahraini International Circuit:

It is clear that the Bahrainis themselves are seeking to make F1's presence in the country into a political gesture. F1 should return the favour.


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

NOW! That's What I Call a Tune! 28

This week's act is, I think, the first time an artist has featured twice in this series. Indeed, I have specifically sought to avoid featuring an artist more than once in this series as well as featuring songs previously featured elsewhere on this blog.

In the face of strong competition, though, I have put my reticence to one side in order to feature the beautiful and gifted Ms. Marcella Detroit for a second time after a previous outing as part of Shakespear's Sister. Here she is with her solo hit, I Believe, which I had on cassette single, back in the day!



Monday, 16 April 2012

Dreams of a LIBERAL Democratic conference

I've never been to a party conference before. The closest I've come is watching proceedings on TV and local party's AGM. The first lacks the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the hustle and bustle, the immediacy and the nights at the bar and the second, well it's a different sort of event altogether!

This year, though, that's all set to change. In September, I'll be packing my bags and heading off to Brighton. I'm really looking forward to it - to meeting new people, many of whom I interact with online. To the big speeches from Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, our various ministers and grandees. To the debates on everything from party bureaucracy to major policy positions. To fringe events where one can feed the mind (and the body). To the conference exhibition and even perhaps Glee Club. OK, maybe not Glee Club but you get the gist... Maybe that night I can explore Brighton as I've never been before - and free time is likely to be extremely limited.

Most of all, I'm looking forward to being part of a conference which will stand up for Liberal values in the U. K. A conference which last year, for example, passed a motion in favour of both Equal Marriage and Equal Civil Partnerships. A conference which democratically makes party policy and isn't afraid to disagree with the leadership, even whilst in coalition government. A conference where any party member can attend, and where any attendee can be a voting rep if selected by their local party. All you need is one of these:

But this is where the dream becomes less real... This year, as last, the Police wish to carry out pre-conference accreditation of attendees. This is said to be essential for security at a time when the party is part of the government. This is said to be necessary over and above physical security checks and scans at the conference venue.

It is also said to be necessary given the chance of an attack like the Brighton bomb of 1984 or the attacks in Norway last year. Quite how a process of accreditation would have stopped either of these acts is not explained - mainly because it wouldn't have. The Brighton bomb attacked a hotel rather than a conference venue and Anders Breivik gained access to Ut√łya by impersonating a member of the Police.

The article on Lib Dem Voice seeking views on the implementation of accreditation this year also contains this bizarre line:
"Anyone can join the party for as little as £12 and can then attend conference as a party member."
I'm not quite sure what this is driving at - are we selling ourselves too cheaply? Perhaps we should be offering Premier League memberships of £250,000 or more... The fact that the party has membership rates from £6 (for those on benefits, students and the under-26) is something to be proud of. This is a party which believes in providing access to all. It is not a reason to insist on draconian "security" measures.

Only a handful of weeks ago, the Lib Dem blogosphere was united in standing up against plans to extend the amount of information routinely collected and stored by Internet Service Providers so that it could be accessed by the Police and Security Services. One defence of this proposal I heard was that it "should be done, because it can be done". 

It is this mindset which seems to be present in the desire of the Police to put in place accreditation. Evidence of the security benefits of accreditation is slight. Evidence that it can be invasive and discriminatory is rather thicker on the ground.

In a free and fair society, security concerns have to be balanced with individual freedoms. Freedom of assembly is fundamental - as is freedom of expression. We should not be subcontracting decisions about who should attend our party conferences to the state.

The Liberal Democrat constitution begins and ends with these words:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full.

These are the conditions of liberty and social justice which it is the responsibility of each citizen and the duty of the state to protect and enlarge. The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men working together for the achievement of these aims.
The Federal Conference Committee would do well to remember this, as well as last years motion - which was critical of the process - when they next meet with Sussex Police.

I'm not alone in blogging about this and suspect this is far from over. There are many in the Lib Dem blog and twitter-spheres that are on my list of people I'm looking forward to meeting at conference, including Caron Lindsay, Stephen Glenn and Sarah Brown. I sincerely hope that accreditation doesn't go ahead and that I get to meet all three of them.


Sunday, 15 April 2012

Sunday Sounds 42

Yesterday I featured Tim Minchin and his Three Minute Song. In another version of that song, he name-checks Victor Borge who becomes the subject of this week's Sunday Sound with a version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1. performed with The Muppet Orchestra...


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Tim Minchin - Three Minute Song

I don't tend to watch the Royal Variety Show and so I've only just discovered this absolute gem from last years show from the ever-fabulous Tim Minchin

There are not many superlatives I can't throw at this - it is, quite simply, one of the best things I have EVER seen. That's not hyperbole - I defy you to watch this and not be in awe of his lyrical and musical dexterity and the precision with which he executes his "Three Minute Song":



Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Liberal Democrat Fightback: Communication and Action

Since the turn of the year (or, more accurately, since Cameron's Euro non-veto) there has been an increasingly clear Liberal Democratic voice emerging from within Government. The mechanics of a coalition budget have also helped the yellow side of the government in being able to lay out its stall. Differentiating us, our policies and our priorities from our Conservative partners. Not least, of course, our commitment to raising the Income Tax Personal Allowance to £10,000 (and beyond?) by the end of this parliament.

Whilst the economic imperative for coalition government remains, there seems to be more willingness to put through our distinctive point of view. This can only be a good thing as the parties put together a programme for the remainder of this parliament and prepare to fight the 2015 election.

This increasing communication from within the Government and Parliament has been mirrored by a concerted and sustained attempt to increase the quality and quantity of information given to members. As far as I can tell, this is being orchestrated by new Chief Executive Tim Gordon and Internal Communications Manager Helen Duffett

Weekly e-mail briefings, more frequent and focused missives from ministers, webinars and tele-conferences are all being used to increase communication between the members and headquarters. Danny Alexander held an online question and answer session on the day after then budget and this week, Jo Swinson has e-mailed with the Local Election Broadcast while Nick Clegg has e-mailed today on the green economy, of which more later.

It's not been entirely straightforward - the recent debacle over proposed extension of police surveillance powers is a case in point. But it's also an example of the new communications strategy being implemented as a two-way street. Bloggers and various prominent/vocal/tech-savvy members had a teleconference with some of Nick Clegg's advisers. I wasn't on that call but I think it's fair to say they were left in no doubt of the views of the grassroots membership. The cause has since been taken up by both Tim Farron, who responded brilliantly to a letter signed by 150+ party members and Jullian Huppert, to whom Nick Clegg has suggested he is happy to defer on these matters.

On that matter, we will have to wait and see what transpires, but there does seem to be signs of a change from the approach taken over tuition fees and the NHS reforms - although neither of those quite united the party in the way Civil Liberties can.

Standing for Liberties and against an extension of the powers given to the Police and Secret Services is one of the key areas in which Lib Dems can differentiate themselves from the more authoritarian parts of the Tory party - and can do so within the terms of the Coalition Agreement. Standing for Liberties within Government could be one of the things that sets us apart from both Labour and Conservative at the next election. I believe if we can point to categorical success in this area there are voters to be gained.

Indeed, thoughts must be turning to that election and what the Liberal Democrat manifesto will be. But for the first time, the party will be getting judged on its record. Not just on one or two issues but on 5 years as a party of government.

Coming back to today's e-mail from Nick Clegg, which was sent on the back of Nick Clegg's speech about the continued importance of environmentalism in straited times - as well as his announcement that fuel companies will be obliged to adviser clients annually of the tariffs which would be cheapest for them - I saw the germs of a narrative which could be exploited over the coming years.

In it, he speaks of the importance of living not just within our economic means but within our environmental means. "That the economic and environmental mantras are the same - waste not, want not." Later, he says:
"We have to stop treating the environment like an afterthought. Instead we will show that consumer interests, business interests and green interests are the same. That is why the environment will be at the heart of everything Liberal Democrats do in government,  why I will be making more speeches on further green issues in coming months and why we will fight to make this the greenest government ever."
I don't think it can be an accident that things highlighted - the importance of economic discipline aligned with business and green interests - are things over which three of the four Lib Dem Secretaries (excluding Nick himself) have responsibility: Danny Alexander as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Vince Cable at Business, Innovation and Skills and Ed Davey, Chris Huhne's successor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Whilst there are lots of Lib Dem policies being implemented elsewhere - the pupil premium and equal marriage for example - being able to point to Liberal Democrat Secretaries implementing Liberal Democratic policies could be an important part of our strategy. Of course, it would be great to have a Secretary in one of the big spending departments but we must work with the hand we currently hold... least until any cabinet reshuffle.

It may have taken a couple of years but it finally seems as if the party hierarchy is finally developing a distinctive narrative and working to communicate this to members and beyond. For two years, we've been the butt of many a bitter left-wing comics joke, and suffered a backlash in opinion polls (although not always in actual polls). It's time we started to turn the tide, it's time we started to point to positive successes by identifiable ministers. It's time to lay the groundwork for a positive pitch in 2015 as a real party of government.

 Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

NOW! That's What I Call a Tune! 27

This week's tune had competition from Brian Cox in this D:Ream days, M People, Phil Collins, Tori Amos, The Beautiful South and Primal Scream...

...but the selected act are Ireland's finest band named after a type of fruit, The Cranberries. Here they are with Linger:


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A Question of Tax Reliefs

So George Osborne is shocked that some of the highest earners in our country organise their tax affairs to minimise the amount of income tax they pay in order, presumably, to live off capital and, perhaps, dividends. To be fair to the chancellor, it is the scale of the issue which has shocked him. Nonetheless, Twitter has been awash with witty rejoinders, my favourite of which was:

Much has been made of the various reliefs and schemes which are being used (and abused) to achieve very low rates of tax for the best paid. The government is absolutely right to target those that use schemes which are designed for the good of society to minimise what they contribute to the state.

And the government should go further and target those companies which package products - within, say, the EIS and VCT rules - but which major on the benefits to the investor and invest in relatively safe sectors. EIS relief, for example, on the basis that such investment is risky, hard for companies to raise elsewhere and essential for the economy. Should we really be granting relief to those investing through structures where the risk is spread and the capital is reasonably secure?

But a lot has also been made of tax reliefs on gifts to Charity and this is the point at which I fear we may be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Providing tax relief on charitable giving is a genuine social good, a real example of the Big Society. It also provides donors large and small with the reassurance that the state appreciates that there are some things it's not appropriate to fund from taxed income. The Charities Aid Foundation has responded robustly along these lines.

There was a suggestion from a No.10 spokesman that some of the gifting in question is "to charities and those charities don't, in all cases, do a great deal of charitable work." If this is the case, then such organisations need to be referred to the Charity Commission (or equivalent in Northern Ireland and Scotland).

There may, of course, be alternative approaches to this issue. Perhaps we should seek to encourage the wealthiest to share it through charitable giving from their accumulated capital, rather than income? I've given this a little thought and put together a modest list of proposals:

1. Open Gift Aid to everyone - including non-taxpayers. Rather than donors declaring that they are a UK Taxpayer who has paid tax at least equivalent to that reclaimed, a simple "I am a UK citizen and/or I am a UK Income Tax Payer. With the raising of the personal allowance and hundreds of thousands being moved out of paying tax - we should not be disincentivising those people from giving.

2. Limit Tax Relief on donations through the gift aid system to the level of threshold for Higher Rate Tax (£42,475 gross in 2012/13 - equivalent to a net gift of £33,980). This should provide incentives for sizable gifts from those on incomes in the hundred's of thousands of pounds whilst limiting the extent to which charitable giving can be used to minimise income tax.

3. Provide compensation for the limit of Income Tax relief by introducing the ability to offset capital gains made on gifts to charities against gains made elsewhere. This could be done through a scheme I've christened "Charitable Assignment".

It could work this way: A donor decides he wishes to donate invested assets to charity. Rather than encash their assets, make the gift and complete their tax return accordingly (paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the gain whilst claiming Income Tax Relief on the full gift) they complete a Charitable Assignment form. The provider then cashes the investment, pays the proceeds direct to the nominated charity and issues the HMRC and the Investor with a certificate detailing the gains made. The donor can then offset this against other gains and reduce their Capital Gains Tax bill.

Of course, I have no knowledge of the cost implications/revenue potential of these suggestions or of any legal implications - but I do think that in addressing the issue of abuse of income tax reliefs, we should seek to negate the effect of the rule of unintended consequences.


Monday, 9 April 2012

Book Review: Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction

This is the first book I've read from Oxford University Press' A Very Short Introduction series. Launched in 1995, there are now over 300 in the range covering topics as diverse as Advertising and Wittgenstein, Christianity and Witchcraft. Each volume is reassuringly thin which must make even the more daunting topics seem accessible even before one starts reading.

The book on Cosmology is written by Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff University, Peter Coles. His previous works include textbooks on the subject as well as popular science books on both Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

A Very Short Introduction to Cosmology is not the same as Cosmology Made Simple - a trick I imagine it would be impossible to pull off, even if this were the intention. Instead it takes a systematic approach to explaining the development of Cosmological thought through history and of Cosmology as a subject in its own right. It then moves on to explain the concepts that underpin our understanding of the universe (with understandable emphasis on Einstein) before explaining some of the problems presented to the current models in obtaining data (and, indeed, by some of the observed evidence) and some of the proposed solutions.

Central to the book is the Big Bang, which Coles is at pains to talk of as a Model, rather than a Theory. The difference being that theories should be self-contained whereas models can contain variables. Given that the normal laws of Physics seem to break down at the temperatures and high-energy states anticipated by the model, there are a great deal of variables and this seems a suitably cautious approach. Cosmologists cannot be dogmatic.

Indeed, Cosmological thought has a number of inherent uncertainties - not just those caused by the lack of visibility of the first moments of the universe but also those ingrained in Quantum Theory by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This is the principle that if you know the position of a particle, you cannot know its speed and vice-versa. The same can be said of the relationship between energy and time.

The book tackles the uncertainty principles - along with concepts such as wave-particle duality -  with aplomb in short straightforward paragraphs that help build the reader's understanding bit by bit. Care is taken in explaining the more abstract concepts so that, even if these remain opaque to the lay-man, the issues they raise are clear.

The last chapter seeks to sum up the current state of play as well as to examine the challenges which face Cosmologists. The hope is to achieve a unified theory that will explain the observed evidence and overcome some of the problems in our current understanding. In particular, this will involve uniting our understanding of Gravity with the other fundamental forces - the Electromagnetic and the Weak and Strong Nuclear forces.

Overall, this is a great primer on one of the more challenging areas of human understanding and thought. I felt I understood the concepts as the were presented (although I may have struggled with the retention of multiple concepts, as the book went on.) Having read Simon Singh's Big Bang and Hawking's Brief History of Time (as well as seeing the ubiquitous Brian Cox on telly), some of the material was familiar. Singh's book is, perhaps, an easier read but this is a more rigorous and expansive explanation of the topic. If you're at all interested in the origins of the universe, you could do worse than start with this book.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

A message to Little, Brown

Yesterday, my copy of Iain Banks' latest book, Stonemouth, arrived. Banks is one of my favourite authors but it's fair to say that his recent works haven't reached the heights of earlier favourites such as The Wasp Factory, The Bridge and The Crow Road. His last novel, Transition, did mark something of a return to form - possibly as it bordered on the SciFi he writes as Iain M Banks.

I'll be reviewing Stonemouth in due course, and have already made some notes on the first chapter, but this post is more of a mini-rant about the cover art of the book.

Once upon a time, Banks' novels had striking abstract black and white covers, often embossed. For the publication of Dead Air in 2002, the look was changed and previous books were re-issued to match with colour-washed stock photographs adorning them. After a hiatus of 5 years, 2007's The Steep Approach to Garbadale kept some elements of this new design but featured an illustration rather than a photograph.Transition in 2009 featured a maze-like design in black and lime green (which was reproduced in red and black  for the paperback.) 

Stonemouth's cover seems to complete this gradual descent from the excellent early covers to something which is, to me at least, pretty uninspiring. Indeed, it's not just me. When the cover was unveiled, there was a view on the Iain Banks forum boards that this could be some sort of temporary image while the actual artwork was finalised. Sadly, though, this was not the case...

They say you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover but when you're stood in a bookshop, that is exactly what you do. Without a knowledge of Banks' work, or any other info, I doubt I'd pick Stonemouth up. 

Ultimately this post is an appeal to Little, Brown and Abacus in the UK and Hachette in the US: Sort it out - it's not too late to improve things for the paperback edition.


Sunday Sounds 41

Last Sunday, during research for a future NOW! That's What I Call a Tune! post, one of the candidates was today's Sunday Sound. Although it was pipped on the finish line for the blogpost in question, it was too good a song to pass over altogether.

Here is Lisa Loeb (minus the Nine Stories) with an acoustic performance of Stay (I Missed You):


Friday, 6 April 2012

A Question for You...

Other than following occasional links to stories on the Pink Paper, I don't read the gay press. It must be about 5 years since I last bought a copy of Attitude and much longer since I got an issue of GT!

Purchasing a copy of the Radio Times in Sainsbury's Local earlier, however, I did happen to notice the cover of this month's issue:

I think the question posed says it all...


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

NOW! That's What I Call A Tune! 26

From 4 Non Blondes last week... to 2 Princes this week. Yep, it's the Spin Doctors with the biggest of their hits. Indeed, it if wasn't for the moderate success of earlier single "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" (which I probably prefer), they'd pretty much qualify as One Hit Wonders!


Monday, 2 April 2012

The Surveilance Cart and the Policing Horse

People who know me will know I'm reasonably relaxed about my personal info... I'm happy for all sorts of companies and organisations to have my details, and to keep information about me. I tend to be pretty trusting about the way such organisations will treat my data - relying, it must be said, on the proper implantation of the Data Protection Act. Like many people, I'll opt out of spam and "third party" offers but that's pretty much it.

Like many people, too, I live much of my life online. Facebook, Twitter, Google all have large amounts of information about me. You only need to Google my username to find my electronic fingerprints all over it!

I take, I think, sensible precautions when purchasing things on the Internet, seeking to deal with reputable sites and using secure payment methods but other than that, my approach is basically a pragmatic one.

Indeed, pragmatism and a desire to explore both sides of any given issue so often stymies my blogging on big topics. So often an issue arises about which I will chew the cud before getting to a point of even considering a blog - by which point the moment will have passed. Not so this time.

You may wonder where this is going. Am I about to declare myself in favour of the State being able to track email and social media usage? Do I believe that such a step is vital for the Nation's security? Does Theresa May really need to be able to see who I've been e-mailing?

No, No and, unsurprisingly, No.

Whilst I don't believe I have anything to hide or anyone to hide it from, that doesn't mean to say I don't want privacy... Whilst I want security and protection from terrorists and organised crime, I want security and protection for all in their everyday online lives.

This means that there needs to be checks and balances in place before this sort of information is obtained and accessed. Warrants should be sought - and granted - before Police or the Security Services can carry out such surveillance. If there is the routine availability of detailed information, Terrorists and Criminals will find ways to circumvent the system - if there isn't, they may trust to other means to avoid coming to the attention of the authorities. 

Detection should come first. Due process should then be followed. Surveillance should be subject to the authority of the courts. The routine obtaining and storage of detailed records on the off-chance they may be required - or, worse, mined for information - is putting the surveillance cart before the policing horse.

The issue, which has come to the fore today due to intended (but unpublished) legislation, has caused much furore amongst fellow Lib Dems. Rightly so, given that Civil Liberties are central to our ideology. Here are  a couple of excerpts from the Preamble:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community...
We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals...
Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government...
Lynne Featherstone sent an e-mail to party members today on the subject of the proposed legislation - and cited some of the Liberal achievements of this government:
We’ve scrapped ID cards, ended child detention for immigration purposes, stopped indefinite retention of innocent peoples’ DNA, restored the right to protest in Parliament Square, scrapped control orders and ended 28-day detention without charge – to name but a few!
Security is a big issue, and important. But in a democracy the wishes of those who seek to guarantee those securities must be tempered by the rights of the masses. Liberal Democrat MPs and Ministers must ensure that these measures do not turn the exceptional into the normal. An internal briefing document - widely leaked today - seeks to contrast this government with some of the measures promoted by the previous Labour government. It is right to do so, but care needs to be taken to avoid falling into the same traps.


Fellow Lib Dem bloggers, Alex and Caron, have also contributed on this topic - reinforcing the Liberal Democrat policy on the matter in a measured and calm approach to the topic. Lib Dem policy on the matter - made at Conference just a few weeks ago - can be found in section 5 of this document.