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Mark Pack

Online snooping, an interview disaster, Cabinet plotting…

Monday 30 April 2012

Dear Friend

Welcome to the latest edition of my monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

Please do also let me know what you thought of this newsletter, or discuss its contents, by hopping over to its Facebook page.

Thanks for reading,


We need more than just more bank lending

British firms don’t just need more lending from the banks, they need access to a wider range of finance. That was the message in a speech to the Institute of Directors by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

It follows a review carried out by Tim Breedon, CEO of Legal & General, which found that there are significant non-bank sources of financing which could be expanded. This would help close the gap between what firms say they need and what banks are willing to lend.

Three in particular got mentions:

  • Peer-to-peer lending – where services introduce investors or lenders to firms needing cash: like “dating agencies that match people with money to entrepreneurs”.
  • Supply chain finance – where a third-party lends money specifically to fill the time-gap between a firm supplying parts to another and that other firm actually handing over the money for the parts.
  • Mezzanine financing – loans with an in-built holiday, providing a breathing space for a new idea to start to bring in revenue.

The government is putting £100m into these schemes to encourage their spread and to help firms. Another £400m is available if the initial schemes are a success.

Online snooping: does the Home Office know what it wants to do?

A succession of people working for the big players in the UK’s internet industry, from social network and service providers through to ISPs, have met with Home Office officials to talk about its proposals to extend online monitoring. They have all come away saying the same thing: ‘we still don’t know what problem the Home Office wants to fix’.

The bafflement is baffling, because knowing what problem you want to fix is not exactly an esoteric part of policy-making. It is absolutely central to it. Yet when, for example, big American firms ask for examples of specific scenarios where the government feels it must have access to data and currently can’t get it, they draw a blank.

Skype phone calls has been commonly quoted as an example in the media of how technological change means government monitoring powers need to change. Yet this example does not stand up to close examination. Skype calls made by someone can be monitored if you place a piece of Trojan software on the person’s computing device. Given how powerful (and relatively cheap) such software is when purchased from the sort of security firms who exhibit in London trade shows, it is hard to believe that GCHQ and colleagues do not have such abilities and more. Moreover, those in law enforcement also have the advantage that they can apply for legal permission to secretly enter someone’s premises to place bugging and surveillance equipment and software. They do not have to rely on remote access to someone’s systems.

Moreover, although Skype is often talked as being an encrypted peer-to-peer program, it makes use of super nodes and login servers, both of which provide points of remote access for monitoring. Security experts I have spoken to are convinced that the security services can access super nodes.

So what is actually the problem with Skype calls? Is it that what can currently be done on a small scale by GCHQ and colleagues, the Home Office wants to have available on a large scale to the police? But if that is the case, then this is not about monitoring terrorists, large scale criminal gangs or serious international crime of the sort the Home Office has been talking in public about.

If what Theresa May really wants is powers for mass monitoring of the public, not targeted monitoring of suspects the most serious cases, she should say so.

In the meantime, Liberal Democrat opposition to the proposals has been hardening into a demand that not only is mass monitoring blocked but that existing controls as tightened up. The Interception of Communications Commissioner is particularly under fire. I recently talked to one of the senior Liberal Democrat advisers in this area and their comment was simple. They’ve yet to come across anyone who has a good word to say about the Commissioner and how he regulates the system. You can read more about the Commissioner’s failures in my Six reasons the Interception of Communications Commissioner has failed.

Now, about that sneaky transport method so many terrorists use, namely walking

The public’s verdict: good for country that Lib Dems in coalition with Conservatives, but not good for Lib Dems

y 40%-36% the public agrees it is better for the country that the Conservatives are having to work in coalition with the Liberal Democrats rather than having won an overall majority on their own according to the latest ComRes poll.

Yet by 58%-22% the public say that the Liberal Democrats have sacrificed too many principles since joining the Coalition, and by 49%-35% they agree that the Lib Dems seem to have almost no influence on the government’s policies. (That 35% disagreeing rises to 62% amongst Conservative supporters however!).

Meanwhile, a YouGov poll based on the proposed new boundaries and conducted in both Lib Dem held seats and the most winnable seats for the party, found Lib Dem support down sharply compared to the last general election, even when prompting people to think specifically about the situation in their area.

SHARE THIS: Lib Dem achievements in government

The best message to win Liberal Democrat votes varies from contest to contest around the country as the issues at the top of voters’ minds in one place are not all the same as in another, especially when it comes to local council elections. But with the Liberal Democrats in government, national issues cannot be ignored and there are many powerful messages to get over about what the party is achieving in government, from fairer taxes to banking reform, and from green investment to civil liberties improvements.

You can help get that message out by sharing with people you know the infographic I published earlier this year.

(Note: not all the points are applicable across all of the UK.)

You can also get a full-colour wall poster version of the infographic.

Are we really in recession?

Writing in the Independent, Hamish McRae questions whether the economy has really taken a double-dip. Instead, he says, the record of economic statistical corrections suggests something else:

In the UK and to a lesser extent in Europe, the initial estimates of growth greatly understate the final outcome… Between 1999 and 2009 … in Europe the numbers were under-estimated by 0.3 per cent, in the UK by 0.5 per cent, while in the US they were overestimated by 0.4 per cent.

You see my point. If the Office for National Statistics has made the same error of judgement as it has on average for the decade to 2009, there was no second dip to the recession at all. But we won’t know for another two or three years.

New report and polling both back Lords reform

Conservative MP mutterings over House of Lords reform may have caught the news headlines, but the report from the Joint Committee of MPs and Peers backed the substantive points of the government’s reform plans: a mostly elected upper house using STV.

They added in some sensible new detailed ideas, such as a minimum required attendance rate in the Lords with those who fall below it losing their seats. The Joint Committee’s report gives the government the green light to include legislation in the Queen’s Speech to implement the proposals.

Some Conservatives have been looking for loopholes in the wording of the Coalition Agreement or their own 2010 manifesto to give political cover for opposing the Bill. What they seem – so far – to be missing is that Lords reform is to Liberal Democrats what Europe is to many Conservatives.

Given the Conservative promise to work towards a consensus on Lords reform (and simply saying ‘no reform’ is clearly not doing that!), and given David Cameron’s own repeated commitments on the issue, if the Conservative Party walks away from the issue now there will be precious few, if any, Liberal Democrats willing to trust the Conservative Party over any deals in future hung Parliaments.

Meanwhile, the public strongly backs Lords reform:

A YouGov poll commissioned by Unlock Democracy found that 69% of voters support a reformed House of Lords. The poll found that just 5% of voters favour the status quo – a fully appointed second chamber.

The highest number of voters (33%) said they favoured a fully elected second chamber – the official position of the Liberal Democrats and Labour in their 2010 election manifestos.

A fifth of voters favour a chamber with equal numbers of appointed and elected members. A slightly smaller number of voters (16%) favour a mostly elected chamber with a small number of appointed members – the position adopted by the Tories in their 2010 general election manifesto.

A small number of voters (5%) favour a mostly appointed chamber with a small number of elected members. The same number of voters support the status quo – a fully appointed chamber.

Steve Webb pushes for new pension plans

Liberal Democrat MP and Minister for Pensions Steve Webb has revealed that the government is looking at a new “defined ambition” style of pensions, which would offer a better balance of risk between employer and employee.

Currently, money purchase schemes put the risk on the employee (poor investment returns or a market crash means they get a lower pension) and final salary schemes, quickly going out of fashion, put the risk on the employer (poor investment returns or a market crash means they have to put more money in).

Instead, Webb is talking of a new type of scheme where the size of the cash pot on retirement is guaranteed, but the size of pension that it then purchases is not, so splitting the risks:

Firms would like to offer their employees some sort of certainty but without all the costs and burden they already face.

Elsewhere from me…


  • Political news in one place: Have you tried out my political news and blogs aggregator, which brings together the best news headlines and political blog posts from across the ideological spectrum, all on one convenient page?
  • My other email lists: aside from this monthly newsletter, you can also sign up to other lists such as more frequent blog post digests.


Local Liberal Heroes: Duwayne Brooks

Lewisham councillor Duwayne Brooks is the latest person to feature in my Local Liberal Heroes series:

For many people Duwayne Brooks is best known as the friend of Stephen Lawrence, the man whose murder triggered a major investigation into racism in the Met Police and a long-running series of legal actions that finally, at least in part, saw justice done.

Duwayne has however since carved out an impressive political career, being elected as a councillor in Lewisham, becoming one of Brian Paddick’s nominees for Deputy Mayor posts, occasionally talked about as a London Mayor candidate himself and being a very likely future Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of Lewisham.

He is also at the forefront of a new generation of urban Liberal Democrats from ethnic minority communities, alongside colleagues such as Jennifer Blake in Peckham and Pauline Pearce in Hackney. All have achieved much outside politics, battled difficult personal circumstances and brought a richer understanding of the issues at the heart of their communities to the Liberal Democrats.

You can read the full profile of Duwayne Brooks here and you can see all the profiles in the Local Liberal Heroes series here.

I don’t want you to read this book

ALDC has just published a new collection I’ve edited. It’s called Top Tips for Local Campaigners and is packed with 160 tips. Here is how my introduction starts:

Top Tips For Local Campaigners: book coverI don’t want you to read this book.

That may seem an odd request for an editor to make at the start of a book. But if you just sit down, read it, think a quick thought afterwards about what you made of it and then leave it at that, the book will have been a failure.

This is not a book to sit and read like a novel or history.

It is a practical manual – to be picked up, used, put to one side, leafed through again, left alone for a bit, urgently hunted for at a moment of crisis, remembered, filed away and brought back into use.

Put at least some of the tips to practical use and the book will have been a success even if you never read all of the words. (The words are all worth reading by the way, just in case you were wondering.)

ALDC members have all been sent a copy for free. If you are not an ALDC member, or if you want to even out the literary balance at home and have one copy for each room, then you can buy further copies for £4 (£3.20 to ALDC members) from ALDC.

Campaign Corner: How not to handle an interview

No commentary needed:

You can read all the former Campaign Corners here.

And in other news…

  • Registration for the party’s autumn conference has been delayed as talks continue to resolve the dispute over the security checks on party members the police are requesting. This issue caused a heated debate at the party’s autumn conference. (You can read my response to the consultation here.)
  • UKIP MEPs are repaying £37,000 after an investigation found they had been abusing their allowances.
  • In an interview with the New Statesman, Tim Farron revealed why housing is so important to him, why he likes reading Polly Toynbee and which his favourite Lib Dem blogs are.
  • Writing for The Guardian, Nick Clegg and Ed Davey have said it is crucial that Europe implements a 30% cut in carbon emissions by 2020.
  • Dick Newby is the new Lib Dem Chief Whip in the House of Lords.
  • Richard Reeves is moving with his family to the US and therefore stepping down as Nick Clegg’s director of strategy. He is likely to be replaced by Julian Astle, currently a temporary SpAd covering another’s maternity leave.
  • Pauline Pearce, dubbed the Hackney Heroine after a film of her confronting rioters became a YouTube hit last summer, is standing for the Liberal Democrats in a Hackney Council by-election on Thursday.

Is this Cabinet plotting against the Prime Minister?

For some lighter relief, enjoy this classic clip from Yes, Prime Minster:

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