John Hemming – Hero Or Villain?

This seems to have been the question that has been asked since the Member for Birmingham Yardley took the decision to name Ryan Giggs as the subject  of the much discussed  High Court injunction, in the Commons on Monday. Surely the real answer is ‘neither’?

Hemmings was simply doing his job;  reflecting public opinion in the face of an already farcical situation, growing more and more ridiculous by the hour.

I have no interest in what Ryan Giggs may or may not get up to in his spare time. Equally, I have little sympathy for him, aside from the vast amount of money he has spent on what must qualify as some of the worst legal advice in history.

This case simply represents the wider issue.  Giggs is a populist story which has captured the public imagination in a way that something like Trafigura didn’t. A sad indictment perhaps, but that’s really neither here nor there. I certainly don’t for one minute think that The Sun are being selfless in any way here, but it has put the issue in the public consciousness.

The nature of these injunctions (and it’s worth pointing out that this is simply an anonymised injunction, not a ‘supeinjunction’) is certainly troubling. I am not a proponent of unlimited free speech; there has to be limits, and it certainly must be balanced against the right to privacy. The current balance certainly isn’t right.

In the Giggs ruling, Mr Justice Eady’s judgement contains details of what he considered to be blackmail, and cites this as a key reason for the granting of the injunction. That makes the issue a criminal one and should be treated as such. Yet, thanks to this injunction, we have a situation where Imogen Thomas is unable to defend herself against those allegations, either in court, or in public. This hardly seems fair. Allegations of blackmail are considerably more serious than allegations of infidelity, yet where is her protection?

We also have the situation involving Giles Coren. It looks like nothing will come of the weekend stories that Coren was potentially facing action for revealing the subject of a different injunction. However this gives us another potential conflict between injunctions and what we expect from our legal system. In the case of someone facing a contempt charge for breaking an injunction, how would the terms of that injunction be varied for the purpose of that trial? If not, how could the defendant expect a fair trial without full disclosure of the facts contained in the injunction?

In the case of a superinjunction – where the existence of the injunction cannot even be revealed – the potential is even more chilling. The logic would dictate that someone inadvertantly breaking one of these injunctions would have to be tried and sentenced in complete secrecy, for the injunction to be maintained. The actions of a totalitarian state.

Now, of course I accept that the above scenarios are sensationalist. However, such extremes, even if unlikely, do not mean that the degrees leading up to them are much more palatable. The extremes simply go to demonstrate how in conflict such injunctions are with what we expect of our legal system and with our rights as individuals in a liberal society. Superinjunctions effectively  hides the judiciary themselves from public scrutiny. This cannot be good.

I don’t know exactly what Hemming’s motives were for specifically naming Giggs, other than what he has since said on his own blog. Whether he was right or wrong to do so, if his actions help lead to a serious look at privacy and freedom of speech at the highest levels, then perhaps it is a case where the potential ends do justify the means.


Lords Reform – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Nick Clegg announced details of the proposed reforms for the House Of Lords yesterday (so I suppose this post, like the Lords, is a bit behind the times). It’s an interesting mix of proposals, some good, some bad, which has given me food for thought about my views on reform of the upper chamber.

The obvious positive is proportional representation, with elections using the Single Transferable Vote. Clearly a coup, given our continued support for such a system. You would hope that it would also be a big stepping stone for getting electoral reform for the Commons back on the agenda.

On the other hand, i’m surprised to find myself considering the 80%-elected, 20% appointed (Bishops, aside) composition as a not particularly bad proposal. I do like the concept of having people appointed for their expertise, which, all things being equal, should allow for more informed revision.

Of course the key part of that is; who makes the appointments. The ‘expertise’ argument is already used to the current Lords. However it seems at times that the main expertise that is abundant in there is that of simply being a politician and/or having money. An independent body to make such appointments seems like a good idea, but how such a thing would work in practice is a whole other debate.

And the bad? The proposed 15 year non-renewable terms doesn’t particularly appeal, although I recognise this is really a case of realpolitik of what we can get past the Tories and Labour. It certainly doesn’t give an air of democratic accountability, although that of course has to be measured against what we currently have. Though electing in thirds does go some way in mitigation, 15 years is a long time in politics, and there will be a significant lag in the public opinion of the time, compared to that of when they were originally elected.

However the biggest issue for me is that there doesn’t seem to have been any consideration of specific powers for each chamber, under the new dynamic. The proposal seems to be that the status quo, with the Lords remaining as a revising chamber, will continue. For me, this represents a form of democratic deficit.

There is certainly an argument to be made that an upper chamber elected (even if not 100%) through proportional representation has as much, if not more, legitimacy, than the lower chamber elected under FPTP. Under those circumstances, is the status quo sustainable? I’m perfectly happy to accept the primacy of the Commons, but I would argue that wider legislative powers should be granted to a reformed Lords.

Of course, you could simply argue that the Commons could simply say to a reformed Lords that things are the way they are, and they can like it or lump it. Perfectly valid, constitutionally. Logically, I disagree. We want to attract valuable people to a reformed Lords, but with little real power, the kind of people we are going to attract will be similar to what we have now; a retirement home for MPs and the party faithful. Which leads to the argument of: what’s the point?

Please don’t get me wrong – this is not any kind of a defence against the situation we have now. In a 21st century democracy, even allowing for their successes like striking down 90-day detention, for an unelected chamber to have control over the people is an anachronism. However there surely needs to be more discussion about the new dynamic as this bill progresses through Parliament.

Oh, and the ugly? The growing seeds of opposition are already beginning to raise their heads, the usual suspects from the AV campaign, muttering about cost (it was disappointing, however, to hear David Steele making this point in an interview on 5Live yesterday). And, naturally, Labour have got something to say.

Their opposition is apparently down to them supporting a 100% elected chamber. If only, at any time in recent memory, they had been in government with a large majority for more than a decade, then maybe they could have enacted their ideas…

The Curious Case of Chris Huhne

The Energy Secretary is looking like he is in it deep, as the allegations over his avoidance of a speeding fine and points have reached a crescendo in this morning’s press. The Conservative press clearly have the knives out for him after his comments over the AV referendum, and the appearence of a secret tape which apparently has him trying to engineer the cover-up recently is the latest revelation in this morning’s papers.

Whilst on first glance he would appear to be bang to rights, there are certain elements in this morning’s stories which really do seem strange.

The original allegations are widely thought to have originated from Huhne’s ex-wife Vicky. Her motives are unclear, though I think you could hazard a solid guess that she is far from happy over the circumstances surrounding their break-up and subsequent divorce.

The emergence of this tape, which has Huhne talking to the person who took the penalty points on his behalf in 2003, certainly complicates matters for him. According to the reports (and I should stress – we do not have full transcripts) he spends much of the conversation discussing how to stop the story from coming out, including the line ‘There is no evidence for this story unless you give it some legs by saying something”.

However he later states; “There’s no question of it coming out, because it’s simply not true, that’s it”, which causes the person on the other end of the line to react with surprise at his comment.

What is particularly interesting is that the person on the other end of the phone is not identified in these reports. Whoever it is obviously set this up in order to be able to produce this recording to give to the press, and you’d imagine they have a motive that involves bringing Huhne down, rather than simply money.

The speculation now seems to be growing that the person on the call, and therefore the one who helped Huhne allegedly evade punishment, is in fact his ex-wife Vicky.

If (and I stress the ‘if’) the reported allegations turn out to be true, then it is difficult to see how he can hang on as a Minister. However if is is indeed his ex-wife who is also involved in this, then any slim chance he may have will be gone. In the court of public opinion, even if you imagine that he could be forgiven for the offence itself, that trying to get his ex-wife to continue to cover this up following the circumstances of their break-up less than a year ago, would simply be too much.

The reason this case is so interesting is that there still seems to be a significant amount of doubt about the full story, despite the revelation of this tape, which in many cases would be considered the smoking gun. Some sources, such as the BBC seem to have been tentative in discussing the matter today, which seems to be a suggestion that the situation is not as black and white as it first appears.

This whole saga is a shame for the man himself, and for the party. In recent weeks, he has certainly been the main figure in helping us assert our independence as a party, in the eyes of a public who are treating us as little more than an extension of Dave’s sphere of power.

It has also overshadowed last night’s announcement that his work on climate change has finally led to a Cabinet agreement on new carbon emission reduction measures, which is the culmination of the significant part of the work Huhne has been doing in his first year in government.

However, if he is unable to refute these allegations, his political career may end in ignominy. Whilst the legacy of fighting climate-change he would leave will be felt for decades to come, it is a shame that such an obviously-able politician will have brought himself down, much like David Laws.

Most importantly, if he is unable to refute these allegations, then it is important that his resignation is quick, for his own sake, and for that of the party. A damaging drawn-out process would do nothing for himself, or us.

Bored Of The Lords

It is hard not to laugh at the notion of an entirely unelected body telling a wholly elected body that they do not have the mandate to effect constitutional change. Yet that is exactly what we have heard from the House Of Lords this morning, as they attempt to water down the bill to enact fixed-term parliaments.

The Lords last night backed an amendment to the Fixed Terms Bill which would mean that any parliament after the current one would not be bound by the law to have a fixed-term.  Such an amendment essentially means that the bill is reduced to nothing more than a complete waste of time and paper.

Lords Pannick, Butler and Boothroyd have all been keen to tell us that they are somehow trying to protect the freedom of parliament, whilst apparently completely ignoring the fact that their amendment simply helps to solidify the strength of the executive, which has grown significantly under recent administrations.

I would prefer to see four-year fixed terms, and I supported the amendment put forward in the Commons by Jonathan Edwards last year, which was defeated by the government. That vote could certainly be said to have been made by the government for political expediency; under the current circumstances it is not difficult to see why they would want this term to run five years.

However, for the Lords to use the same argument of ‘political convenience’ to block a permanent change is completely disingenuous. The ridiculous filibustering tactics, over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill were bad enough. I watched part of that ‘debate’, and I thought I was watching and episode of The West Wing for a while. It is simply not acceptable in this day and age for the Lords to continually attempt to negate attempts at modernisation of our political system.

After the AV debacle, it is time for David Cameron to show us he is serious about constitutional reform. Ensuring strong support from the Tory benches that this amendment is stripped out when it returns to the Commons, and if necessary, forcing this bill through the Lords if they decide to play hardball would be a good start.

After all, if he can’t be trusted to do this, then what hope do we have when it comes to the real battle over House Of Lords reform?

Notes On An Election

There must be something about crushing defeat which has inspired me to blog again. A weekend has passed since the disastrous (if not totally unexpected) results of Thursday night, and it’s probably as good a time as any to reflect.

In case you just can’t get enough of those numbers, here they are again;

Councils          Councillors

CON          157 (+19)        5109 (+86)
LAB            57 (+27)         2459 (+857)
LD               10 (-9)             1098 (-748)
OTH          55 (-21)              793 (-209)

Nothing good at all to say about us. Pretty positive for the Conservatives to pick up seats, given that they’ve already been making gains in local elections essentially since Brown took over. It’s difficult to argue that it wasn’t positive for Labour, and indeed they’ll be delighted at the way they’ve decimated us, particularly in the cities. However, coupled with their performance in Scotland, there will be a certain amount of disappointment in Labour circles that they didn’t pick up more seats than they did, after a year of telling the country that everything this government has done is wrong.

So, the real question is: ‘is there anything we could have done that would have given us a different result on Thursday?’

For me, the answer is ‘no’. Of course, some would say the answer is ‘not gone into coalition with the Conservatives’ but lets discount that one. We are where we are.

At my count on Thursday night, there was surprise at just how badly we were faring as the phone calls, texts and tweets came through from friends in other areas. Yet, there was also a sense of inevitability about it.

Of course there will have been some of our councillors who deserved to lose their seats – in every party there are some councillors who don’t pull their weight and do the job they were elected to do. However, in the main, a lot of committed and hard-working councillors lost their seats through no fault of their own. Nowhere is this more true than in the City of Manchester.

Labour ran an especially negative campaign (and the less said about the behaviour of some of their activists on polling day, the better) throughout Manchester. Very little discussion of what they’ve done locally, or what they would do, just cuts cuts cuts. In contrast we fought a local campaign. I fully believe this was the right way to go, not least because we’d have had even less chance if we’d have fought a campaign about national issues.

Councillors like Simon Ashley, the former group leader in Manchester, have worked tirelessly for their local area over many years, and deserve better than to have been thrown out of office thanks to the kind of campaign  we saw from Labour.

However politics, like life, isn’t fair and the electorate have spoken. The question for us now is what do we do next.  Nick Clegg wouldn’t want to admit it, but the likelihood is that we are going to take a hit again this time next year. Labour will continue to run with the cuts offensive, and it is going to hurt us for a while longer.

Things will turn though. After Thursday, in Manchester, all that has happened is that Labour have further tightened their already vice-like grip on the city council (75 of 96 seats, up from 62).   All of their new councillors have stood pretty much exclusively on an anti-cuts platform, with vague promises of ‘protecting local services’.

Our job now is to hold them to these pledges. We must put the pressure on them to justify exactly how they’re going to do what they claim. The message must be “Ok, you’ve taken our seats – now show us what you’re going to do with them”. At a local level, I believe the answer to that is going to be “very little”.

One thing that was clear on the doorstep last week was that people respected the record of local action of many of our councillors. In areas where we are fighting Labour, the terrain is not yet right for us to be able to win a debate on national issues. We won’t be able to turn the debate overnight, but we must hold Labour to account over local issues. The electorate may be pleased that they’ve given us a kicking as punishment for the coalition for now, but if/when (and in many cases, I truly believe it will be a case of when) their new councillors fail to live up to the standards of their Lib Dem predecesors, we should be there at every opportunity to remind them that we really are the party who will fight for local residents.

We’ll be back. It might not be next year, but we’ll be back.