The Cabinet Manual and important stuff about how government works

What follows is a rather geeky post about constitutions and the processes of government. No, please keep reading. This is important stuff.

Last week the government published a draft “Cabinet Manual”. This rather dry document, designed to be a “guide to laws, conventions, and rules on the operation of government”, generated some rather overblown headlines. It was claimed to be a “major step towards written constitution” by the Telegraph and one Guardian columnist described it as “a manual for British dictatorship“. Those of us with a better sense of perspective on these things should see it as a positive, if limited, step forward towards a more open and rational government.

It probably tells us something rather unflattering about our democracy that this document written as guidance, in some places it has the feel of a political studies text book, to answer the question “how does government work?” should generate such a fuss. So we should understand the limits of such a document.

First, it is clearly written from the perspective of the executive. It is the civil service setting out the rules by which government should work. It is not about parliamentary reform, democracy, or party politics. It is about the constitutional framework for government.

It is also about establishing how things work now. Except in a few limited areas which I will come to in a minute, it is not seeking to change things. It is codifying existing arrangements. So it is by definition a deeply conventional document. Things such as the role of the monarch and the concept of parliamentary sovereignty feature significantly. If you dislike the picture it paints then you have a problem with our current constitutional settlement not with the document.

Those limits accepted, I think it is a very welcome initiative. I find it remarkable that this is the first time the government has produced such a document. So the fact that they have gathered all the existing laws and conventions together, written them down in one place, and made that available to the public online has got to be a good thing. I also think it works. Anyone one who wishes to understand how British government works should read it. It will give you a very clear overview of how things are done. Although I already sort of knew much of what it talks about, it did give me a clearer picture of how things fit together. I also found some new things in some of the details.

Having said that the document is an attempt to write down things as they are, there are limited number of areas where I think it does have something of agenda.

First, there is unsurprisingly some emphasis on how the process of government needs to be adapted within the constitutional framework in order to make coalition government work. For example, frequent references to the role of the Deputy Prime Minister would not be there if we had a majority government.

Second, after the years of Blair’s “sofa government” and the chaos of Brown’s premiership I detect an understandable attempt to reassert the role of cabinet government and the adherence to proper process. Significantly, given the controversies of the Blair government, the manual explicitly includes “any decision to take military action” as one of “the kind of issues that would normally be considered by Cabinet”.

Third, there is some learning from the recent experience of the formation of the coalition. In particular, it is made clear that an outgoing prime minister should not offer his or her resignation to the Queen before a new government has been formed. This must be a direct response to Gordon Brown’s, what I consider to be disgraceful, decision to resign before the Tory and Lib Dem negotiating teams had reached an agreement on the nature of the coalition government in May.

You can download the document from the Cabinet Office website at:

What Focus leaflets owe to Florence Nightingale

If you wanted to find a historical model for the best kind of political activist and campaigner you couldn’t do much better than to look at the career of Florence Nightingale.

If you go beyond the “lady with the lamp” myth making you will find the story of a highly determined and principled woman who used her fame, her connections, her research skills, her understanding of statistics, and the forcefulness of her personality to shape public opinion and change government policy. In fact she used skills and techniques that would be very familiar to any modern lobbyist or public affairs professional. As a result she not only transformed the British Army, but founded the modern profession of nursing and as a result is responsible for saving thousands, if not millions, of lives.

I was reminded of this by a brilliant programme in the BBC documentary series “The Beauty of Diagrams”.

The programme is still available to watch on iPlayer and I would recommend anyone interested in political and other forms of campaigning to watch it.

This tells the story of how Florence Nightingale was a pioneer in the visual presentation of information and the use of graphics as tools in political campaigning. The programme is centered around her famous rose diagram that she designed to dramatically demonstrate how significant disease was as the cause of death amongst British soldiers in the Crimean War as opposed to other factors, and so persuade the government that lives could be saved with better sanitation in hospitals. No one before her had used this kind of diagram, a kind of pie chart that you can see below, in such a way.

The use of a diagram to make a political argument in this way was highly unusual at the time. Just one of the ways that Nightingale was innovative. But it is something that we, well Liberal Democrat activists at least, are much more familiar with today.

If you have ever included a bar chart on a Focus leaflet in an attempt to make clear and visual the concept that “so and so can’t win here”, although you probably didn’t know it, you have been directly following in Florence Nightingale’s footsteps.

Pleased with the London list

One thing I meant to blog about last week was the announcement by the Liberal Democrats of their team of candidates for the London Assembly top-up list in 2012. The detailed figures for the results can be found here. I am delighted with the outcome for two reasons. Not only do we now have very strong team of candidates but the top three are all people I know, like and respect.

Top of the list is Caroline Pidgeon, the current leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the London Assembly, who through her hard work and professionalism has consolidated her position as a leading figure within the party and within London politics. The huge number of first preferences Caroline got demonstrates just how well liked she is in the party.

Second on the list is Stephen Knight. Not only is Stephen one of the nicest chaps you could meet but is someone I have always found to be willing to give wise counsel. He has a deep knowledge of London politics and practical local government experience, both in control and in opposition, at Richmond upon Thames council where he is leader of the opposition. He’s also not a bad campaigner as his strong showing of first preferences would indicate.

Third on the list is Bridget Fox. I’d like to claim that it was her website wot won it, but the truth is Bridget is a highly talented and accomplished politician, a hugely experienced campaigner, and someone liked and respected widely within the party. She thoroughly deserves to be high on our list of candidates and I am particularly delighted for her.

So congratulations to Caroline, Stephen and Bridget; and best of luck for 2012.

Jamie Cullum and ‘Tiny Dancer’

This blog has been somewhat serious of late, so I thought I’d cheer things up with some music for a Monday morning.

For a while now I’ve been thinking wouldn’t it be cool if Jamie Cullum did a cover of Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’. It is such a beautiful song and would fit so well with Cullum’s style.

Well by pure accident on Saturday I caught the end of his performance of that very song at the Royal Variety Show. At the same time I thought wow they’ve done it and damn I’ve missed it. But through the wonders of YouTube I’ve managed to catch up with the whole performance. And here it is:

Also here is a bonus version of the song in rehearsal.

Personal views on Luton and extremism

Following up on yesterday’s post about Luton and extremism, I thought I would link to a few articles giving personal views on the issue from people who live or grew up in the town.

The first is from BBC News communities reporter Niki Cardwell who asks “Is Luton a breeding ground for terrorists?“;

“I love Luton. There, I’ve said it and I’m not ashamed. I’m a Luton girl through and through…….The sad thing is that I don’t recognise the town that has once again hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.”

Second is writer and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor who focuses on what he sees as the problems faced by the town and as a result gives a somewhat negative view, “Luton has come to embody the failures of multiculturalism“;

“So what has gone wrong in my home town? There are no simple answers but I would cite three main factors: education, economics and representation.”

Finally, I am including the letter published in yesterday’s Guardian that was written in response to Sarfraz’s article by my colleague and leader of the Liberal Democrats on Luton Borough Council, David Franks, “Positive messages from Luton“;

“We have our fair share of extremists of all persuasions, and where I agree with Manzoor is in his final paragraph: “There is another side to Luton and after this week there has never been a more urgent time for its voice to be heard.”

He does not, however, explain why its voice is not being heard. It’s certainly not because the imams and other leading Muslims are not speaking out against the small numbers of religious extremists. They are doing so – but they are not heard outside Luton because their message does not fit the image of Luton many in the media want to portray.”

A giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity

One of things I am hoping for more from the coalition government on is reform of our banking system. For a reminder why here is a fantastic animation from the New Economics Foundation:

Pastor Jones: too extreme for the EDL

Following up on my last post on Luton and extremism I thought I ought to add the is some good news about the controversial US pastor Terry Jones. The one who hit the headlines earlier this year for threatening to burn the Koran.

He was to attend the rally in Luton organised by the English Defence League planned for the 5 February but that invitation was withdrawn. Apparently the EDL didn’t like his views on racism and homosexuality.

More from the BBC: “EDL blocks Koran protest pastor Terry Jones from event

Luton and extremism

There has been another issue that has made it tempting for me to stay hidden under the duvet over the last few days. That would have been an attempt to avoid the “Luton and extremism” headlines that have been all across the media since the discovery that the suicide bomber who died in the attack in Stockholm in Sweden on Saturday had spent the last ten years living in the town. (BBC news report here.)

From the reports it seems there is little doubt that the bomber, Taimour Al Abdally, who was born in Iraq, grew up in Sweden, and moved to Luton to study at our local university in 2001, was radicalised during the time he spent living in the town. How directly connected with that radicalisation Luton was remains to be seen. However, coming on top of the news that the controversial American pastor, Terry Jones, who this year threatened to burn copies of the Koran, was planning to attend a rally in Luton organised by the English Defence League in February, it meant that yet again Luton was associated in the public mind with extremism.

This is all very frustrating as this not a picture of the town that most Luton residents recognise. Generally speaking people in the town do get on well with each other. We do not have a deeply divided and polarised community. The voluntary sector, the council, and others work really hard to bring people together, often with great success. For example, it was only a couple of weeks ago I was attending a community event in my ward where a large group of residents had come together to make decision about their local area. This group included elderly white working class people, some young Asian Muslim women, police and community support officers, volunteers from one of our Afro-Caribbean youth groups, and council workers all pitching in and working together.

In my experience the majority of Luton’s muslims are decent, moderate and sensible people. As are the majority of people of other faiths and no faith. It was noticeable how all the news report did mention how Al Abdally was actively confronted about his extreme views by people at the Luton mosque he attended.

I rather liked the comment made by Sarah Allen, one of Luton Council’s officers, in today’s article in The Economist that “Apparently we’re sitting at the epicentre of the world clash of civilisations. I don’t see that.” I don’t see it either.

Yet I worry about falling into the trap of denying a difficult reality. I want to take the view that the actions of one individual shouldn’t tar the town with an extremist brush. The claim that Luton is a “hotbed of terrorism” as the Daily Mail, who else, put it, is a nonsense. Yet, as well as seeing examples of good community cohesion, I have myself seen the evidence that extremism isn’t confined to a few isolated individuals. We have a large, and young, Muslim population and a proportion of them hold extreme views. They are a minority. But how large is that minority? How big is the problem and are we tackling it appropriately?

The answers to these questions is something that I feel I need to think more about. Although, I do know that it is a very real tragedy that since Saturday two Luton children are without a father.

More on this story:

This tuition fees thing won’t go away that easily

I have been metaphorically, and at times literally, hiding under the duvet to avoid the whole tuition fees shambles last week. It seems to have been painful for all concerned and rather painful to watch. It certainly won’t go down in history as the Liberal Democrats finest hour.

I should say from the outset that I am not an expert in student finance and I haven’t chosen to take the time to make myself one. When you get beyond the easy campaign statements of ‘F*ck Fees’ and similar, the arguments for and against the government’s proposals seem to get increasingly complex. It does seem the case that a vast number of those marching and protesting against this policy neither have read or understood what they are demonstrating against.

I’ve not read the proposals in detail either, but I do know that they are not Liberal Democrat party policy and are not what a Liberal Democrat government would have introduced. They are an attempt by a coalition government to get a workable approach to the funding of universities in a time of great financial difficulty. The Liberal Democrats have fought hard to make the approach a fair one and as a result the proposals are a lot fairer than would have been introduced by a Conservative government on it’s own. While there is a case for exploring alternatives, those alternative approaches are neither easy or straightforward.

Also, the abolition of tuition fees remains Liberal Democrat party policy.

This is something that seems to have been overlooked in all the fuss. The policy of the Liberal Democrats towards tuition fees remains what it has always been. That is different from the government’s policy which is the one that is being voted through parliament. Yes, that government does include Liberal Democrats as ministers, but it includes Tories too. It is a coalition! Nobody, as far as I can see, has said that the government’s current policy has to be the final word on the issue. Nothing is preventing the Liberal Democrats from keeping the abolition of tuition fees as a long term goal.

It was inevitable when the coalition was formed that there would need to be some kind of compromise. Indeed, the need for that compromise was specifically written into the coalition agreement. Those Liberal Democrats who have been resigning from the Party in the last few days because of some “betrayal” by our MPs are really several months late. The logical time for such gestures would have been when the coalition agreement was signed, or perhaps after the special conference voted to support it, not now.

I don’t have a huge problem with the tuition fees policy itself. What coalition government has come up with is probably not something that I would have come up with myself. I think we need to take a more fundamental look at the role of higher and further education. But my impression of the government’s policy is that it is a reasonable one given the current circumstances and has been made fairer by Liberal Democrat pressure. Yes we can, and should, do better. But for the moment, it will do. Two articles I have found useful on this issue is this argument for the merits of the policy by Millennium and this one from the “money saving expert” Martin Lewis.

Yet, I am angry and frustrated. Not because of the policy itself, but because we have got the politics of this so badly wrong.

This was a difficult situation. It was always going to hurt and involve a bit of a row. So it needed handling with care, sensitivity, and a bit of low cunning. While the compromise on tuition fees was never going to be an achievement that we could shout about, more an awkward tactical retreat, if done right we could have emerged with some, deserved, political credit. Something along the lines of facing up to a difficult choice and forcing concessions from the Tories. Something which is very close to the reality.

Yet it seems there was no strategy at all.

The management of this issue within the party and within the coalition by the leadership has been appalling. While a lot of effort seems to have gone into getting the detail of the policy right, I can see no evidence that there was any attempt to manage the political consequences.

The communication of the policy has been dreadful to non-existent. When we needed to appear humble and apologetic we’ve been arrogant, when we needed to be proud and confident of our decisions we’ve been defensive, and the rest of the time we’ve just looked confused.

It has been far worse than it needed to be.

What I think the party leadership has failed to understand is the symbolic importance of the tuition fees policy.

While there are some within the Liberal Democrats who care passionately about the issue of university funding itself, far more members on one level or another supported the commitment to abolish tuition fees because of what it said about the kind of party the Liberal Democrats are. It was a symbol of our belief in the liberating power of education, our commitment to a fairer and more equal society, our support for the proper role of an active state, and a demonstration that we were on the side of the young and disadvantaged. It was also, because of the nature of the policy, a symbol that the party is a grassroots campaigning organisation with a clear and radical message. Myself I have consistently voted at conferences to keep our policy to scrap fees and thought it was important to do so. But not because I have ever felt that one particular form of higher eduction funding is worth dying in a ditch over.

Ultimately, the tuition fees thing is an issue of identity.

And then there is that pledge.

Part of the Liberal Democrats’ identity for many members is that we are different from the other parties. We are about reforming politics and doing politics in a better way. What many of our opponents see as our “holier than thou” attitude comes from the genuine belief of many members that the Liberal Democrats are about a more open and honest form of politics. Making a clear promise to the electorate to do one thing before an election and then doing the opposite a matter of months later, is clearly incompatible with that identity. A promise is a promise.

I will make no criticism of individual Liberal Democrat MPs for the way they voted last week. I know that, whether they decided to keep the pledge or not, that decision was an extremely difficult one. What I will criticise is the failure by the leadership to understand what an excruciatingly difficult position the parliamentary party would be in given what had been negotiated in the coalition agreement and therefore to properly prepare to handle it. I will also criticise the failure by the leadership to understand just how contrary a decision to break that pledge would be to the story that the party tells about itself. In short they should have understood that a matter of policy is one thing – a matter of honour is another.

In these two ways the tuition fees issue has challenged and damaged the identity of the Liberal Democrats. Some of that may have been inevitable, much of it is self inflicted, a lot of it is unjustified, but damaged our identity it has. This is very troubling because entering the coalition itself has challenged the party’s identity. Members are nervous and uncertain. Meanwhile the public is looking at us with fresh eyes. Developing a new clear identity for the Liberal Democrats that accommodates and builds on our role in the coalition is the essential task for the party over the  next few years. It is a task we can achieve successfully. But not if we go about things the way we have handled tuition fees.

I am clear that my support for my party is undiminished. There is no chance of me resigning!

I continue to believe that entering the coalition was the right thing to do. I believe that Nick Clegg and the other Liberal Democrat ministers are doing a good job, that they are making a success of government, and achieving good things for the people of the UK. I also believe that participation in the coalition has the potential to lead to greater success for the Liberal Democrats in the future (although I also am aware that it also has the potential to lead to disaster).

But I am extremely concerned that it doesn’t appear that Nick, Vince and the others in government have got a grip on the politics of the new situation. I am reminded too much of those Liberal Democrat council groups who, on winning control of their council for the first time, get sucked into the Town Hall and forget to keep delivering Focus, only this is happening on a national scale. We can, and we must do better than this.

Not long after the commons tuition fees vote I got an email from Nick Clegg. Since the coalition has formed I, like a lot of other Liberal Democrat members, have been getting regular emails from Nick. This is obviously one of the methods, although at times it seems the only method, of keeping members and activists engaged and informed. I have to say that often I have found the tone of these emails midly irritating.

The latest email explained Nick’s view of the tuition fees vote and then asked me to go an help in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by election, the “next big challenge for us as a party”. I believe the by election is very important but the implicit message in this latest email was that although the tuition fees issue has been very difficult for the party, now the vote has taken place we can forget about it and move on to the next thing. While many may wish that could be the case in reality it simply won’t wash.

We can’t carry on as if nothing has gone wrong and there aren’t problems to be solved.

If the tuition fees thing is about the struggle to define our identity, then this tuition fees thing won’t go away that easily.

Report published into the care and treatment of the man who murdered Luton PC

The second Luton related story I wanted to write about is a less happy one. Last month the independent report commissioned by NHS East of England into the care received by Tennyson Obih, the man who murdered Bedfordshire PC Jon Henry in Luton town centre in 2007, was published.

The report found that the death of the police officer could have been prevented if Obih’s mental illness had been treated properly. A series of “management and clinical failings” in the mental health services that covered Luton meant that Obih, who had paranoid schizophrenia, was untreated and unmonitored at the time he committed the murder.

The report itself can be found here: “An investigation into the care and treatment of Tennyson Obih”

Here is how the BBC reported the news: “Luton stab murder of Pc Jon Henry ‘preventable’

There is no doubt that the mental health services in Luton and Bedfordshire have been poorly performing in recent years. That is the reason why the Bedfordshire and Luton Mental Health and Social Care Partnership NHS Trust (BLPT) responsible for these services was taken over by the South Essex Partnership University Foundation Trust (SEPT) in April of this year. One hopes that management by SEPT will lead to improvement.

The report also should serve as a warning in these times of financial constraint and cuts to public services. The report finds that the root cause in the failings in Obih’s care was the closure of the early intervention service as a result of budget savings. The lesson is that, while public services will have to make cuts over the coming years to deal with the budget deficit, it is important that those responsible take considerable care to get this right. The consequences that could occur if they get it wrong can be very serious indeed.

Lord Qurban

There have been a number of Luton related stories over the last few weeks that I wanted to highlight. I should start with the delightful news that my friend and colleague Qurban Hussain was given a peerage by the Liberal Democrats in the recent honours list.

I think the award is a recognition of a long record of public service, his work on behalf of the people of Luton, and his campaigning on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Having worked alongside him in Luton politics over the last few years I know that he will be an asset to the party and the country in the Lords. In particular, I think that Qurban will bring a different and very valuable perspective to debates on foriegn policy issues.

Here’s how the local press reported the news.

I also liked this take on Qurban’s appointment from a Pakistan english language newspaper “The story of two Pakistani-origin Lords“.

There is some speculation within the Luton local party about what title Qurban will take, given that Lord McKenzie already has “of Luton”. I’ll pass on any news of this when Qurban makes a decision.

My belated congratulations to Qurban.

A WordPress theme for Liberal Democrat websites

Today I am making the WordPress theme that I have developed for Liberal Democrat websites available for download for free to party members.

I wrote the first version of this theme some time ago and have been using it without any real problems on the Luton Liberal Democrats website since before the General Election. One of the reasons blogging has been a bit light over the last few weeks has been that I have been revising and tidying up the code to make the theme ready to be released for other people to use.

For more information about the theme and to download all the theme’s files visit it’s home page:

I’ve called the theme “Lib Dem Aqua” as it aims to reflect the look and feel of the national party website and fit with the current Liberal Democrat branding by using an “aqua” colour palette.

Using an installation of WordPress, the Lib Dem Aqua theme, and selected plugins from the WordPress plugin directory; candidates, campaigners and local parties should have all they need to create and maintain an easy to use, flexible and professional looking online presence.

If you have a WordPress powered website why not download the theme, try it out, and let me know what you think?

Sympathy for Ed Miliband

I was initially quite impressed by Ed Miliband’s first moves as the new Labour leader. He was right to quickly to dispatch Nick Brown from the job of Chief Whip and his “I know thee not, New Labour” conference speech was mostly in the right direction. But since then it seems to have gone downhill for Ed.

The view that Ed has got time and so he shouldn’t be in a hurry has some merit. Opposition politics, particularly at this early stage in the parliament, is a marathon not a sprint. So calm reflection and careful consideration of the next steps is better than rushing about attempting to answer every demand from his opposition or the media. What Jackie Ashley has called his “Zen socialism“.

Yet it seems he has gone too far in this direction and has left a vacuum where his leadership should be.

I thought appointing Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor was a mistake and lacked courage. I would have gone for Yvette Cooper myself. It seems wrong to criticise a new father for taking paternity leave, but I don’t see why he couldn’t have taken an hour or so out of each day to squash those members of his party who were using his absence to fly kites. Plus, the lack of a clear direction on a number of issues gives the, possibly quite false, impression of dithering.

Prime Minister’s Questions this week will not have helped.

The general consensus was that David Cameron spanked Miliband at PMQs. Watching it back yesterday I had to agree that he was truly awful. But I also couldn’t help having some sympathy for a politician having an awful time.

The screencap above, that I took from BBC iPlayer, of Miliband is not from the exchanges with the PM. It is Ed’s reaction to a later question when Richard Fuller was rude about him.

Richard Fuller, who he? Well, exactly.

Fuller is the Conservative MP for Bedford and he had described Miliband as an “economic novice”. For the leader of the opposition to wear such a pained expression in response to a weak jibe from a relatively obscure Tory backbencher is I think a measure of just how bad a time he is having. He should have been able to just shrug it off.

The current rumblings about the future of Ed Miliband’s leadership are mostly just froth. It is not serious. Yet. But I am a member of the Liberal Democrats who lived through the period of Ming Campbell’s leadership and saw how the, mostly unfair, froth that was thrown at him gained such momentum that it ultimately did for his leadership. So Miliband does need to get a better grip.