Via Jennie, Michael Crick on how many new peers need to be appointed to make the House of Lords representative of the votes cast at the last election.

It’s an absurd number, but then it’s part of an absurd system where people get appointed to jobs for life on the whim of the Prime Minister of the day to serve in half of the legislature of a country that’s ostensibly democratic.

One thing from it stood out for me though, from David Cameron’s interview in the House Magazine:

I think it’s important to keep refreshing the talent in the House of Lords

I can think of a system that would allow the upper house of Parliament to actually be refreshed on a regular basis. It would ensure that anyone who’s been in their for a long period could be replaced, or if they wanted to stay on, they’d have to prove that they could still do the job to a large number of independent people. The number of members of the house could be fixed, and over a period of time, the whole place could be refreshed without having to resort to the anti-democratic absurdity of needing to appoint people.

But then if he really did believe in refreshing the Lords, he wouldn’t have allowed the reforms to create a democratic Lords to disappear. Yet again, Cameron’s actions show his real priorities, not his words.

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In light of the crisis in Algeria, David Cameron has opted to postpone giving his much-trailed speech on Britain’s place in Europe, which he was planning to deliver today. Of course, this leaves lots of holes in media schedules from people who’d expected to be writing pieces on it, based on what they were expecting to be in it, given what they’d been told was going to be in the speech from all the pre-briefings and carefully scheduled leaks beforehand.

Which makes me wonder: why does he actually have to give a speech to get his ideas out there? (And if he does, why does he have to travel to Amsterdam to do it?)

Politicians like to give speeches, and the media like to cover them, but over the years the perceived importance of ‘the big speech’ has become ridiculously over-inflated. One reason why speeches used to be important was that no one knew what someone was going to say before they stood up and said it. Now, the contents of the speech are so heavily briefed and trailed beforehand that the actual delivery of it seems more like a quaint and formal requirement, rather than a necessity.

The big speeches of political history are remembered because they were live events where no one knew what was going to happen. Cameron’s speech – and others like it, including conference leaders’ speeches – is only live in the sense that he might make an error in reading out his heavily pre-prepared script. Speeches like that are merely political theatre, surrounding the leader with the props of potential drama, but containing no real threat, drama or surprise.

We all know how David Cameron sounds when he delivers a speech, and while he’s not bad as a public speaker, he’s not a Ciceronian master of oratory, so it’s not as if the way in which he delivers his speech will have any effect on how the content of it is received. So why not just send it out, say ‘here’s the speech I was going to make, and rather than waste money and time setting it all up again, why not just read it for yourselves?’ Or, if you’ve got the urge to make a speech, then don’t spend the weeks beforehand telling everyone what’s going to be in it – let people pay attention to what you’re saying as you’re saying it, instead of just throwing something else into the spin cycle and making us bored of it before it’s even happened.

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Another week, another big idea from David Cameron to boost the economy. Well, I say another big idea, but it’s just a reiteration of an old one. Yet again, just about the only thing standing in the way of unbridled and unrivalled economic growth for Britain is government regulation. After two and a half years in power, though, he has managed to narrow it down to a smaller target than just generic ‘red tape’, at least. Yes, the specific problem is the annoying fact that the Government takes the time to consult on proposals and try and assess what impact something might have before doing it. From his speech this morning:

Next, government consultations. When we came to power there had to be a three month consultation on everything and I mean everything, no matter how big or small. So we are saying to Ministers: here’s a revolutionary idea – you decide how long a consultation period this actually needs. If you can get it done properly in a fortnight – great, indeed the Department for Education has already had a consultation done and dusted in two weeks. And we are going further, saying: if there is no need for a consultation, then don’t have one.

in government we have taken the letter of this law and gone way beyond it, with Equality Impact Assessments for every decision we make. Let me be very clear. I care about making sure that government policy never marginalises or discriminates. I care about making sure we treat people equally. But let’s have the courage to say it – caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense. We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy. We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff. So I can tell you today we are calling time on Equality Impact Assessments. You no longer have to do them if these issues have been properly considered. That way policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money.

Ironically, David Cameron is arguing for a reduction in Government legislation on the grounds that it’s not needed because the Government knows best. What he completely misses is the point of a lot of regulation – no matter how much the Tories like to pretend, it’s not to slow things down just for the hell of it, it’s there to help ensure that the Government is doing the right thing and to look for unintended consequences. It’s very easy for a minister to say ‘right, we’re doing X’ but surely a proper governing process requires the ability for someone to say ‘hold on, that won’t work’?

Cameron invoked the idea of the country being in the ‘economic equivalent of war’ as though that trumped everything. Leaving aside the issue that the response to war is often a heavily centrally-directed economy, not laissez-faire, this is a particularly fatuous argument, even by Cameron’s standards. As the last Government used ‘the war on terror’ as a supposed trump card in civil liberties arguments, the state of the economy is being used to block all counter-arguments here.

Consultation and impact assessments are part of having policy that’s evidence-based. The point of them is to take a proposal, put it out there and see what problems people can see with it, then change it accordingly. To borrow a war metaphor, what Cameron’s proposing would have seen Eisenhower decide on the plans for D-Day on June 5th and expect them to be implemented without anyone else getting a chance to point out the flaws in them.

However, that Cameron regards consultations and the like as a waste of time does tell us something about his approach – he doesn’t like to be told he’s wrong, and doesn’t change plans if he is. This is a common complaint about government consultations at every level – that they are merely a box-ticking exercise, when they should be an important part of policy making. What he’s revealing is that he doesn’t think consultations should be listened to anyway, and if that’s your initial position, why bother having them?

Cameron is proposing that the Government abandons sensible policy-making and replacing it with panicked lurches from one pet theory to the next, never testing them to see how they might work or what the long term effects might be. One would hope that Liberal Democrats in government might stand up against this – given how it goes against principles of liberal and democratic governance – but bitter experience has taught me not to expect that.

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There’s been much joking recently about how part of the wake of the presidential election would be a wave of ‘why the US election means we must support my politics’ columns and blog posts. Lo and behold, you can probably find one on most comment sites in the country, but I wasn’t expecting David Cameron to jump on the bandwagon.

He made clear that the Tory right, which is putting pressure on him to campaign on more traditional Conservative themes, should take note of Obama’s success. “I believe that elections are won in the common ground – the centre ground,” Cameron said. “That is where you need to be, arguing about the things that matter to most people – that is making sure they can find a good job, they can build a good life for themselves, that if people work hard and try to get on you are behind them and helping them. That is the message loud and clear from this election as it is from all elections. You win elections in the mainstream.”

The hard right in the US and the UK share a common theme. Namely, that all electoral failure by right-wing candidates has one common cause – not being right-wing enough – and therefore, one common solution – being more right-wing. (The basic principle seems to have been taken from the hard left sometime in the 1980s) Although it manifests itself differently because of the differing media cultures in the two countries – there’s no Fox News or conservative talk radio in the UK, no Telegraph, Mail or Conservative Home in the US – the principle is the same: a right-wing echo chamber proclaiming that success comes only through ideological purity.

The problem is that the promise is false. In the US, right wing talk radio (as exemplified by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the like) began its rise from around 1989-90 after the Fairness Doctrine was revoked by the FCC. Since then, the Republicans have won the national popular vote in just one presidential election – 2004. In comparison, the advent of the British right began after the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Since then, Tory leaders have been regularly informed that the path to success lies in going further and farther to the right than Thatcher ever did, and they’ve had a similar sort of electoral success – one majority election victory in 1992, and one plurality of seats and votes in 2010. After William ‘save the Pound’ Hague and Michael ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Howard, the Tories only got some measure of success when Cameron started shifting them towards the centre.

One interesting dilemma that this does pose is that the call of the hard right can deliver some electoral success, though not in major elections. In the US, they have often delivered electoral successes in the midterms (1994 and 2010 are probably the best elections) and over here, UKIP have been successful in European elections. However, the link there is that these are low-turnout elections, and while the right may be good at getting their people out to vote for these, any effect they have is swamped when moderate voters come out to vote in the major elections.

That’s why, just this once, I agree with David Cameron. Salvation for the Tories doesn’t lie in them flying headlong to the siren call of the Tea Party. Their influence comes from the fact that they’re more organised and better funded than the moderates, not from their electoral sway.

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Just some ragged thoughts, some on the specifics, some general ones on political speeches.

I was speaking to someone who told me that they’re sick of unsourced anecdotes being used to make points. Cameron’s infamous for this, of course – ‘I met a black man’ – but it seems everyone has always recently met someone who’ll back up the point they want to make. In some cases, it’s not even someone they claim to have met, just an unsourced straw-man view of what ‘they’ think.

[citation needed] Following on from that, how hard would it be for a clued-up party to actually release or point to the information that backed up a speech as it was being made. That would have been a useful way to deploy David Cameron’s new twitter account – as he made a point on stage, his account would post links to back up the points he was making, getting in before the fact checkers can. For instance, Cameron’s example of a company deciding to build a factory abroad because of council bureaucracy somewhere near Liverpool – who was this company? How long were the delays? Was it actually bureaucracy, or perhaps valid planning reasons that needed to be clarified before building could commence? We don’t know because there’s no data, and the anecdote will be presented as justification for all sorts of things that the facts behind it might not support.

We’re all in this together…unless you can afford to move to Geneva. As is common with Tory leaders, Cameron made an appeal to British patriotic values and nationalism. The Olympics showed what we could do if we work together as a country and other themes like that were part of his message. However, that message was completely undercut by him announcing that you can’t raise taxes on the wealthy because they’ll head off to live in Geneva and pay less tax if you do. So what’s the message here? Are we all in this together, or does that only apply to those of us who can’t leave the country and go somewhere else when things get tough? And yet again, how many people have left the country directly because of high taxation? I’m old enough to remember a whole line of Tory-supporting celebrities in the 90s promising to leave the country if Labour were elected, but none of them ever delivered on that promise, no matter how many voters they drove to Labour.

But who cares about leader’s speeches anyway? We all like to watch them and tweet about them, but how many leader’s speeches are remembered months, let alone years, after they’re made? Those that make a long term impact are pretty rare – Thatcher’s ‘the lady’s not for turning’ line and Kinnock’s assault on Militant in the 80s come to mind, but since then, what has there been? Ironically, Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘quiet man’ speech from 2003 might be the most memorable leader’s speech in years because it heralded his downfall rather than any of the ones that were seen as pivotal to someone’s leadership.

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Let us be glad that Hansard, which has recorded great debates in Parliament for years, was still around to capture this piece of high-level intellectual debate:

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Prime Minister jests about what words are allowed and not allowed in this Chamber; on the Opposition Benches, we would quite like to hear one word more often from his lips: “growth”.

Further to the question from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the problem of corruption in Russia is manifest. On 7 March, this House unanimously agreed a resolution, supported by the Government, calling on them to introduce legislative proposals to make sure that those involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the corruption that he unveiled were banned from this country. When will those legislative proposals be introduced?

The Prime Minister: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the word I am waiting for from him, because he introduced a point of order claiming that I had misled the House, is “sorry”. To be fair to him, he has said sorry to everybody else—you, Mr Speaker, I think, and to the House in general—but the person he accused of doing something wrong he has yet to say “sorry” to. So, until I get that apology, I think I will leave off the answers.

Yes, that’s the Prime Minister of this country refusing to answer questions in Parliament because someone hasn’t apologised to him properly. That’s the sort of behaviour that would shame a playground, so why do we accept it from him?

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One of those little things that’s crept into our internet usage over the last few years is the customer satisfaction query. There’s probably another name for it, but what I’m referring to is the little question you often get asked when you’ve queried an FAQ, a support database or help system. Did this answer your query? they’ll ask at the end of your reading, checking to see if they’ve understood what you were asking and have provided the answers you require.

Why I’m thinking about this is because I was watching David Cameron’s appearance in the House of Commons yesterday. And what I was thinking is ‘how much would it change the way Parliament works if the Speaker could ask that to MPs when they’ve asked questions?’ Of course, part of that would be the fun of seeing John Bercow regularly popping up to ask ‘did that answer the Honourable Member’s question? Yes/No/Partially’ but more fundamentally, it would be interesting if an MP could have some reaction, however minimal, to the non-answer that’s been prevalent in the Commons for years. Just a chance to say ‘I’m sorry, but that wasn’t even an attempt an answer’ might make people wonder just what they’re supposed to be doing there other than braying like idiots.

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Not all phone-hacking, all the time:

Paper, scissors, stone – Heresy Corner collects George Michael’s tweets on his relationship with the News Of The World, and notices that they point towards some very dodgy-sounding behaviour from the Metropolitan Police. (via)
Don’t pity Gordon – he supped from the devil’s hands – “At its core, it is an issue of the abuse of political power not by Murdoch, but by Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, David Cameron and every other elected quisling who supped with the devil not with a long spoon but from the devil’s own satanic hands.”
Dominic Grieve is a bigger scandal than Andy Coulson – How The Sun vetoed David Cameron’s choice of Shadow Home Secretary.
Test Your Vocab – Interesting test to see how many different words people are aware of, and by taking part in it, you’re helping out with some research. (36,100 for me, if you’re interested) (via)
An Eye-Opening Adventure in Socialized Medicine – An American visitor discovers the NHS (via)

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One of these is obviously a day late. Can you guess which?

One genre to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them – There’s been some interesting discussion recently about the claims of literary fiction, and how this one genre dominates media coverage of books and reading. Here’s an interesting take on it all. (via)
Meat Lover! The Scariest (True) NYC Sublet Story You’ve Ever Heard – Does exactly what it says on the headline. Probably not to be read if you’re squeamish, easily offended or are about to eat Chinese food.
One cold may morning in June – Phil Edwards on the difference between Adams and Pratchett.
Ireland and Doctor Who – For St Patrick’s Day, Nicholas Whyte chronicles the connections. “There is occasional confusion about whether Gallifrey might be located in Ireland.”
If Cameron can’t explain AV, his education was wasted – “So for Cameron to blithely claim he is not able to explain AV suggests one of two things to me. Either he is not being honest, or his extremely privileged education was wasted on him.”

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Yes, we still have links, even if we don’t have much other content:

The Battle for the No Campaign and a Prime Minister in Peril – Interesting WSJ piece on the AV referendum. I’d question some of the assumptions in it, but worth reading nonetheless.
Tuition Fees: Did The Coalition Get Its Sums Wrong? – Just in case you thought the whole tuition fees issue wasn’t a big enough debacle, here’s another complication.
The Beasts in the Arena – A free short story in the Romanitas universe from Sophia McDougall. Works as a good introduction to the series if you’ve not read them.
NUS President will not stand again – What I find most interesting about Free Radical’s thoughts on the NUS is that I heard most of them twenty years ago when I was involved in student politics. I’m not sure that NUS has ever been properly representative, or has ever had a strong idea of what it’s for. (via)
David Cameron: Gun Slut – Justin McKeating on what David Cameron’s doing after talking up democracy in Cairo: selling weapons to dictatorships.

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