Monday, September 21, 2009

Thank you, and goodbye

Conspiracy? Blackmail? The Curse of the BOTYs? Or just changing personal circumstances?

I'm tempted, in the style of Derren Brown's lottery shenanigans, to write a massively long blog post explaining in great detail a possible conspiracy involving everyone from Vince Cable to Irfan Ahmed, Iain Dale to Mark Pack; before mentioning in the last sentence that, alternatively, I might just be too busy.

For, having been placed third in the Total Politics poll of Lib Dem blogs and then winning Lib Dem Blog of the Year 2009, the Cafe is closing after just a year in business. I've swept the floor and put the chairs on the tables for the last time. It only remains to turn off the lights, lock the door and walk away.

I could have decided to keep the Cafe as a going concern and open it up for special occasions, as previous BOTY winners James Graham and Alix Mortimer have done with their blogs. Not a bad idea, and it certainly worked for James who was deserving winner of the Lib Dem Blog Post of the Year award in Bournemouth.

But then it'll be sitting there, glaring at me, whispering write something now; and I'll feel all bad and guilty about it. I've lots of things to feel bad and guilty about already - I'll live without another.

Is Mr Quist dead? No, but he'll be getting a lot more sleep. Lib Dem Voice has been kind enough to publish a couple of my articles over the last few months, so maybe they will again.

If, by the way, you have a blog or other publication and might like to publish an occasional article of mine about politics, health, science or the media, drop me a line at (If you'd like to commission paid work, definitely drop me a line).

Thanks to everyone who's visited over the last year. It's been great fun and very educational (for me, at least). I've met lots of nice people online and, in a few cases, in real life. Hopefully you've enjoyed it as well. If so, keep an eye out for occasional pearls of Quisty wisdom popping up elsewhere, and don't forget to read the other great blogs out there too.

Thank you, and goodbye.

Costigan Quist

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Interview with a Leader (part 2)

Who knew the Lib Dem blogosphere was so dangerous? Yesterday I said I'd reveal the person who admitted to internet piracy during the bloggers' interview with that nice Mr Clegg. Since then, pressure has been applied. Spill the beans and I could be forced to undertake a number of dubious activities for Lib Dem Voice or face the consequences.

I will say that the self-confessed criminal admitted to illegally watching videos featuring sweaty men in very tight lycra. It wasn't possible to obtain these videos legally in the UK; something the person in question was none too happy about.

But let us leave that unpleasant episode to one side and move on.

The topic of volunteering was raised by two non-bloggers who attended the interview (their write-up will appear on Lib Dem Voice). Are volunteers looked down on by employers when they go for jobs? Is volunteering seen as a second-class activity on a CV compared to earning real money?

For what it's worth, on the occasions when I've been involved in recruiting I've looked for skills and experience. How someone got them didn't really matter. If they could show me they'd got the skills and experience I was looking for, they'd a good chance.

Having said that, when an employer's faced with tens or even hundreds of CVs for one job, not every one's going to be read in detail and all your good work will be for nothing if yours doesn't catch the eye of the secretary spending his or her afternoon doing that first cull.

You didn't come here for employment advice though, did you? No, thought not. You came here for a deep and detailed discussion on political philosophy, and that's what you're going to get. No! Wait! Don't go!

How about if I drop the discussion and just say a little about Nick's reasons for writing a 92 page pamphlet on Lib Dem history, philosophy and policy.

Much to my surprise, Nick claimed that annoying me wasn't one of the reasons behind it - even though it did (it came out three days before the interview and, like several other bloggers in the room, I felt obliged to at least have a stab at reading it).

Nor does Nick see the Lib Dems being swept to power on the back of stories about J.S. Mill in the Daily Mail and articles on the liberal philosophical tradition in Focus leaflets up and down the land - something for which we should all be profoundly grateful.

Instead, so he claims, the pamphlet is an attempt to show how the party's policies connect with its core values and philosophy, not so much for public consumption but to keep it real. It does that pretty well. Don't take it as an academic work or a campaign guide, but if you're of a philosophical bent and want to remind yourself why you're in the party, you could do worse.

And that brings me to the end - of what I'm willing to write anyway. The great facial hair debate and the crutch-decorating advice clinic, among others, will simply have to remain unreported.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Interview with a Leader (part 1)

After yesterday's hot gossip (a sweaty, scantily clad senior MP burst into the Marriott bar, closely followed by a similarly attired young man - all entirely innocent, I'm assured), I was looking for some dirt to dish at the bloggers' interview with Nick Clegg.

Into the room swept a deft politician; youthful, vigorous, smart, sexy. But enough about me. We swiftly dispensed with the news of a fellow blogger's cleavage control problem (apparently it keeps leaping unbidden into people's faces, though not mine, yet - there's still time).

Then the man himself, the Cleggmeister, entered the room.

After a brief fortieth birthday party for yet another blogger (the cake was very tasty, thank you Richard), we got down to work.

A question on MPs' expenses gave Nick the opportunity to push the Lib Dem line: that none of our MPs were found flipping property or playing games with Capital Gains Tax to pocket thousands at the taxpayers' expense. Nick also mentioned that those with more marginal seats are less likely to take the piss: a point many of us have made over the last year or so and Mark Thompson famously backed up with real live research.

On the Lib Dems grasping the media agenda more effectively, Nick was a little less forthright and, I thought, weaker. He acknowledged there's no easy answer and essentially said we have to work our way up, get bigger and so get more media attention.

He has a point, but it all seemed a little defeatist. Parties do manage to punch above their weight when they capture the imagination of journalists or are seen as having something relevant and distinctive to say. UKIP regularly manage it and, though not a political party, the Taxpayers' Alliance, are successful at pushing their stories.

Clearly the Lib Dems' failure to be either right-wing or mad could be a disadvantage; but even so we could be doing better.

I asked Nick about the "savage cuts" business (and, yes, he did use the phrase himself). My question was whether we needed cuts at all, when Britain has, over the last couple of centuries, frequently operated with a higher national debt (as a percentage of GDP) than we have now and done very well thank you. Might it be that the talk of cuts is jumping on the bandwagon and not what the country really needs?

To his credit, I thought Nick answered it pretty well. He pointed out that there are significant differences between the situation today and that of the past. The pound is no longer a reserve currency and the integrated global financial markets make it much quicker and easier for staggeringly large sums of money to be moved about the world at the click of a button.

That, he argued, puts us in a far more precarious position than in the 19th century and makes it far more dangerous to keep a large deficit.

So we do need those savage cuts.

Nick claimed the Lib Dems were well ahead of the other parties both in coming up with concrete proposals for where cuts could be made and clearly saying what would be protected. Here he has a point. Vince's paper earlier in the week may not have garnered much media attention, but it did set out a clear way to save £14 billion. Even better, it didn't just rely on "efficiency savings": a standard political ploy and always easier to talk about in theory than achieve in practice.

I was a little unclear about one aspect, though. Vince has said that the £14 billion is a start and in total we need to find £80 billion (which could be from cutting spending or increasing taxation). And yet Nick was at pains to point out that there are no secret raft of unannounced spending cuts.

Some of that £66 billion gap will come from tax changes, I suspect, and another chunk will remain unfilled; but are there really no more public spending cut proposals to emerge? We shall see.

On the positive side, Nick wanted to make clear that education was a protected area (like all good politicians, Nick thinks of the children). He's keen to see class sizes cut, especially for young ones.

Nick also made clear that he still favours scrapping tuition fees - the policy isn't abandoned; just on hold until the public finances permit it. He promised that the Lib Dems would go into the next General Election with the best deal for students, aiming to get debt down.

Finally, for today, the news that every cloud has a silver lining. Following in the footsteps of marxists everywhere, Nick saw the economic problems as an opportunity for radical change. He didn't advocate overthrowing th bourgeosie (though do keep an eye out for next week's policy annoucements). But he did want the crisis to be a spur for us to examine our basic values as a society and the structure of our economy, such as the balance between financial services and manufacturing, between the north and south and environmental issues.

Next time...find out which blogger confessed to internet piracy (the rest of us lied), why we need to take volunteers more seriously and why Nick released a 92 page pamphlet on history and political philosophy a few days before the conference.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

92 pages, you say? Sure, I'll read it this morning

I'm always pretty dubious of political histories written by one side or another - just one reason why I wouldn't attempt to write one myself.

Nick Clegg's new pamphlet, The Liberal Moment, certainly suffers on this score. It pushes a certain view of the Labour and Conservative philosophies and histories which, whilst not wrong, is clearly biased.

To be fair to Nick (and I must be that), he does make clear that he accepts the broad church nature of the main British political parties, and that the boundaries between parties, not to mention competing philosophies, are far from being distinct.

But I can certainly imagine many a Labour and Conservative supporter reading Nick's words and thinking "yes, but that's not how I think, nor how most people I know in my party do".

So as Nick takes us through political change from the 19th century from today, pointing to parallels between the Liberal Party's implosion in the 1920s and Labour today, we have to read it with that in mind. This is political history with a clear, if understandable, bias.

Who are the outsiders?

Clegg refers to the increase in support for parties other than the big two, rightly pointing out that in 1951 98% of of votes went to the big two, compared to just over 60% at the 2009 local elections. He rightly identifies the increased willingness of voters to support minor parties as a big shift in British politics.

But Clegg ducks a big question when he refers to
"Outsider parties like the Liberal Democrats".
One of the challenges facing the Lib Dems is the party's loss of outsider status. No longer can the party rely on being a repository for protest votes. It runs councils up and down the country, has been in government in both Scotland and Wales and holds more than one in ten parliamentary seats.

Look at the size of my policies

A big chunk of the pamphlet is set aside for a welcome restatement of the Lib Dem approach on the environment, economy, social issues, reform of the system and crime. I don't think there's anything especially new, but it's always good to have these things updated and put into context.

Slightly confusingly, the pamphlet is labelled as not being party policy, even though a lot of content in these sections clearly are party policy. I guess the interested reader just has to take a punt on which bits are policy and which aren't (or spend a lot of time with dusty old conference motions to figure it out).

Vote for us 'cos we're fab and groovy

The final result is a political pamphlet few Lib Dem activists should have issue with. A trip down memory lane (for those with very long memories), a re-statement and updating of the party's approach on the big issues of the day and a final plea for progressives everywhere to flock to the Lib Dem banner.

I'm impressed that 54 supporting notes have been included. Even if it makes the work appear slightly more academic than it probably deserves, it's a welcome addition.

Now I ought to read what everyone else has written about the paper and find out just how daft my comments sound in comparison.

Clegg admits to Lib-Lab pact

Interesting to see Nick publically admitting to a Lib-Lab pact of sorts in the 1997 General Election:
"in 1997 we even agreed an informal pact not to campaign hard in areas where the other was more likely to defeat the Conservative candidate"
(Page 31 of The Liberal Moment, in case anyone's interested).

Nick does make it very clear that such a pact is not on the cards now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lib Dems can't afford to miss the news boat

Yesterday I had a moan that, on Radio 4's PM programme, a Labour/Tory spat about spending and cuts was followed by something really limp and wishy-washy from the Lib Dems attacking them for pre-election positioning, as if that's so terrible months out from a General Election.

It came across as if the Lib Dems simply had nothing to say on the major issue of the day, but the sad thing is that the party has rather a lot to say on it. As Lib Dem Voice explains in more detail, the Sainted Vince has a plan. I haven't read it yet, but if past experience is anything to go by, there's a fair chance it's a pretty good one.

As the third party, your chances to set the news agenda are few and far between. The Lib Dems launching a plan will get a few words on the BBC and maybe a mention in the quality press.

The party really can't afford to let opportunities like yesterday's go. Labour and the Tories are having a big spat. If you want to be seen as a serious player, you've got to be in the ring throwing punches. Instead, the party was standing in the lobby and bitching to the few people who'd listen how unsporting it all was.

Maybe the party wasn't ready to launch the new plan.

No problem. Weigh in with "Vince Cable has come up with a plan to save £14 billion (or whatever it is) which we'll be announcing tomorrow and debating at our party conference next week".

The point is that the Lib Dems need to have something to say when the media want it said - the party isn't normally in a position to dictate the timing. It seems to me that the party was caught out this time - putting effort into making sure it doesn't happen too often in future would be a worthwhile investment.

Will you find me under Charlotte at conference?

Here's how it goes.

Wikio rankings measure which blogs link to yours. In the last few months, Mark Thompson and Charlotte Gore have dashed ahead of the Lib Dem blogging pack - I'm one of several bloggers fighting it out in the second tier.

The Total Politics awards saw 1500 blog readers vote for their favourites. On that measure, Ms Gore, crushing the yellow opposition mercilessly underfoot, came out at the top of the Lib Dem tree, 23rd overall (the Cafe was the third Lib Dem blog, behind Lib Dem Voice, and 37th overall).

Now, promising all the glitz and glamour a Lib Dem function with a budget of very nearly nine pounds can manage, we have the Lib Dem Blog of the Year awards. Untold riches and instant celebrity status awaits the winners.

The full listings are on Lib Dem Voice for your reading pleasure.

On "Best new Lib Dem Blog" I find myself up against not only Charlotte and Mark but also the leek-loving team at Freedom Central and the soon-to-be-a-foreigner if Alex Salmond has his way Alexander Ryland at Lamp of Liberty.

Am I in for a roasting? Will I find Charlotte above me again?

Or maybe I'll be victorious on the big prize of the (Sunday) night: Lib Dem Blogger of the Year.

It's a tough contest, though. a Scottish Formula One fan, a small elephant and a significantly larger 2000AD fan all stand in my way, not to mention a certain Yorkshire-dwelling libertarian who's getting far too many mentions here. All in all, much stronger competition than I'd have liked to be facing.

It would help if they'd all try writing a few crap posts, just to boost my chances, but there doesn't seem much chance of that happening. James, Caron and Charlotte are all blogging exceptionally strongly and I've a suspicion Millenium and his Daddies might sneak up and take me from behind on the night.

Finally, if all else fails, I could still win the blog posting of the year, though it wouldn't surprise me if you found me behind James, Charlotte and Mark on that one.

I've done what I can. My conference tickets are booked, the judges have been bribed and flattered to the best of my ability and the ten-page, closely argued begging letter asking Nick Clegg to use his influence on my behalf is in the post. Now I can only wait.

Monday, September 14, 2009

And here is the Lib Dem problem

Radio Four's PM programme this evening.

Mandelson for Labour is talking about spending wisely, not throwing money at problems. Ken Clarke for the Tories is saying whichever party wins the next election they'll need to make cuts and Labour are being dishonest.

Both resonable positions; both sensible forays into the cut-and-thrust of political debate.

So what is the Lib Dem position reported as? Apparently, the Lib Dems attacked both parties for "pre-election positioning"?

What did we expect them to do?

I don't know if the report of the Lib Dem line is accurate or not, but it came across as the party having no opinion on the public spending debate at all and trying to complain that the other parties do.

Not good enough. We can't sit here months before a general election and complain about the other parties saying things. We must be putting forward our solutions, saying why the others are wrong and we're right, presenting our positive solutions.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Charlotte's wrong on child protection

Curse those evil politicians wanting to protect our children and vulnerable adults! Comments in some quarters come close to equating the new Independent Safeguarding Authority to the East German Stasi.

For example, Charlotte Gore's post on the ISA was originally titled "Britain is turning into a totalitarian state" (see the URL) and interprets the ISA's guidance as a snooper's and snitcher's charter where rumour, innuendo and the most minor of infractions could see you branded a sex-offender in the eyes of the local community.

Charlotte makes some excellent points, but her attack goes way over the top.

Those who are interested in what will really happen under this new scheme would do well to look at some of the previous controversial legislation we on the civil liberties side of the fence were worried about. Without exception, three things turned out to be true with all those laws.

First, the worst predictions of the effect of the laws and how Britain would become a police state proved very wide of the mark. Second, Government predictions of how terrorism or some other evil would be dealt a stunning blow also proved to be so much nonsense. Finally, the way the laws are actually used, by police forces and other public bodies with limited resources and their own agendas, has surprised pretty much everyone. RIPA and the legislation against extreme pornography are two good examples.

The new scheme run by the ISA is not an attempt by the Government to turn us all into sex offenders and snitches. It's a genuine, if misguided in a typically New Labour way, attempt to deal with a real problem that worries millions of parents around the country.

Child abuse may not be acceptable in the way it was a few decades ago, but it's still out there.

Charlotte highlights the wording of the rules giving the grounds for stopping someone working with children or vulnerable adults but, in doing so, she misses the real problem.

It's not the rules, it's the system.

As the ISA proudly says, this will be the largest system of its kind in the world. Over five years, 11 million of us will be brought onto it. With my permission, an employer or voluntary organisation will be able to check me out online.

You just need to do the maths. 11.3 million over five years works out as 9,000 people a day being put onto the system.

Nine thousand a day. Approximately one person every three seconds.

The idea that experts with gather data effectively and use their judgement to make the right decision on each person is completely laughable. The ISA won't have enough resources.

It will do what always happens in these situations. Corners will be cut, large chunks of data will be imported with little or no checking and decisions based on guesses, rules of thumb and arbitrary thresholds will be the order of the day.

As to the security of the system - I don't know the details, but I would seriously question whether it's possible to secure a database of that size that can be accessed online. Will it really be true that no-one can access my records unless I give them permission? How is that being implemented?

This is the real problem. Not a Stalinist Big Brother State branding us paedos for reading the wrong article in the Metro or being sarcastic; but a well-meaning Government yet again implementing a poorly-thought out system relying on yet another enormous database, with huge amounts of data flowing in and out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Facebook won't really matter at the Election

An interesting post yesterday from promising young Leeds-based blogger Chris Lovell.

Citing Mark Pack's pop-fact that there are now more Facebook users than voters needed to win a General Election, Chris discusses some of the issues.
"Technology will have a huge effect on the outcome of this election amongst certain groups in the electorate. Mainly the young. Although technology should never replace face-to-face campaigning (something, in my opinion, vital to holding politicians to account) it will no doubt play a large part in the 2010 general election campaign."
Chris is right...up to a point. Certainly technology will have a greater impact on the next General Election than any previous one; but not in the ways many people think.

It won't be Facebook or YouTube, MySpace or Twitter. They might have small effects.

Remember that under our wonderful voting system, elections are decided by a small number of floating voters in marginal constituencies. The most popular political blogs might reach 100,000 people in a month, but nearly all will be committed to one party, or if they are undecided most will live in constituencies where it doesn't matter - safe seats for one of the parties.

How many Facebook users in those marginal seats will, because of what they see on Facebook, change their support?

In truth, the parties are a long way from really harnessing Web 2.0 to win elections. They're dabbling and playing, still trying to work out what works. Their current efforts mostly reach out to relatively small numbers of existing supporters. That's OK - these things don't change overnight and you only get better by experimenting. But it's some way from anyone being swept to power on a wave of Internet-based excitement. (Remember the Libertarian Party's blog-based campaign for the Norwich North by-election? 36 votes).

So how will technology effect the next election?

More local campaigning will have a greater effect. Local blogs and emails are no substitute for leaflets through every door, but they'll reach more people because it's much easier to produce material that interests them.

But the real way techonology will effect the next General Election is behind the scenes. Election software like the Lib Dem's EARS gets ever more sophisticated (don't laugh, EARS users). Each year it becomes cheaper and easier to produce high quality literature and to target it effectively.

To give an example, a decade ago it would have been very expensive, complicated and time consuming to produce a leaflet to go out to thousands of people but customised either for each person or for different areas. Today it's fairly trivial and affordable.

The way the parties will track you, record information about you on their internal databases, and use that data to personalise their contacts with you, along with the ability to produce quality localised literature - these are the real ways technology will impact.