Saturday, 8 January 2011

New blog

As promised, I have set up a new blog, where I'll be posting from now on. I also blog at Huffington Post.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Thank you and not goodbye

Since I started this blog in October 2009, more than 5,000 people have taken the trouble to visit it, with more than a thousand people visiting more than once - thank you. Whether these count as high readership figures, I don't know, but I've enjoyed it and found it a useful way to maintain a shop window as a Parliamentary candidate. I was selected to be the Liberal Democrat candidate for Hendon for the General Election just gone, which means that I remain the de facto candidate until tomorrow - when the calendar year ends. So I'm going to take this opportunity to re-design and re-name this blog, so that it's no longer about the period surrounding the 2010 General Election, but is instead about my views more generally.

I'll still be blogging from a Lib Dem perspective, but I'll be writing about whatever interests or amuses me, perhaps at greater length, rather than confining myself to party politics. I'll be changing the name of this existing blog, rather than starting a new one, so it should be easy to find me, plus I'll put a final post on the old blog once I've settled on a name for the new one, explaining what the new one is called. By the way, I also blog on the website of the Jewish Chronicle, where you'll see that my postings typically attract comments that encapsulate the high standard of Socratic debate that got blogs the high reputation that they enjoy today. I especially like the fact that my suggestion that these people should stop being so rude to each other attracted 98 somewhat bracing responses.

I stood in Hendon not only because I would, ultimately, have liked to have been elected (however arithmetically unlikely that prospect ever was), but also because I thought that I would find it both enjoyable and interesting. I certainly did, and I hope that even if I did not get as many votes as I would have liked, that I made a useful contribution to the debate - I certainly achieved what I wanted in terms of media coverage. I am very grateful to everyone who helped on the campaign.

I would like to single out three experiences of being a candidate, if I may. One is that London Underground (LU) has, I believe, massively reduced its programme of weekend closures on the Northern Line. They would not have done this without the pressure from politicians like myself, with the Lib Dem London Assembly Members at the forefront. My campaign on this got some local media coverage (adding to the pressure on LU) and I actually visited Tube Lines' depot to hear more about the Northern Line works, prompting other Lib Dem candidates to make similar visits. If any of this led a single person to experience less inconvenience from excessive weekend closures than would otherwise have been the case, then I am enormously gratified.

The second is persuading senior managers at First Capital Connect (FCC) to meet me to discuss problems with Thameslink, with FCC also informing me of their compensation for passengers after last year's problems - a campaign that made the front page of the Hendon Times. Lots of people were campaigning on this issue, but I am pleased to have done my bit and I hope that the service has continued to improve.

Lastly, among the many enjoyable meetings at which I was invited to speak, I was honoured to represent my party at an Extraordinary Meeting in support of Burma's National League for Democracy. At this meeting, I spoke to Radio Free Asia for broadcast in Burma. The interviewer asked me what it might mean for Burma if the Liberal Democrats entered government. I explained that we Lib Dems would take our long-standing commitment to human rights in Burma into government if given the chance to do so, and I was frankly proven right, as the Minister for Human Rights at the Foreign Office is now Jeremy Browne, a Liberal Democrat, who has taken a strong interest in this issue. Is it possible that anyone in Burma, listening to this radio service illegally, heard what I said and got something from it? I guess I'll never know, but I'm still pleased to have done what little I could for this most important cause.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

BT and the festive season

If there's anyone at BT reading this...I am generally one of your happier customers. But I am not overly amused, upon attempting to call your Customer Service department, to be put through to a recorded message that says that you are closed "for the public holiday". Today isn't a public holiday. I don't begrudge anyone some annual leave over the festive period, but - today is not a public holiday. So it doesn't sound very impressive for BT to be closed with "the public holiday" as the reason.

Letter about antisemitism in The Independent

I have a letter in today's Independent about the ongoing debate about an Independent article by Christina Patterson that might (or might not) have been antisemitic (Christina Patterson's own latest contribution to this debate is here). Incidentally, this is not a debate about free speech: I'm not disputing Ms Patterson's right to write what she wrote, I'm disagreeing with what she wrote - there's a difference. I cannot help reflecting upon the fact that when, during the General Election campaign, I wrote something that gave people a mistaken impression of my views on gay adoption, I didn't winge about how hurtful it was to be misinterpreted, or complain that I had been "smeared as a homophobe" - I simply clarified my words to better express my meaning, removing any appearance that I was a homophobe (since I'm not), and the problem went away. Is that perhaps food for thought for Christina Patterson? My letter reads:
I do not understand David Pollard's argument that it has clearly not been "a vintage year for the Wiesenthal anti-Semitic slur awards, if an obscure Lithuanian Holocaust denier and a moan from Christina Patterson ... have both made it into the Top 10 Slurs of the year" (letter, 27 December).

The Holocaust denier in question is an adviser to the Lithuanian Interior Ministry and wrote his offending words in Veidas, one of his country's most popular weeklies. By what measure is he "obscure"? Christina Patterson, meanwhile, wrote her "moan" not in some fringe publication, but in a newspaper so very mainstream as The Independent itself, which is precisely why it merits consideration for a Top 10 placing.

An anti-Semite is someone who has a generalised dislike of Jews. Ms Patterson denies being such a person; in which case, why did she write an article that gave the impression that she dislikes Judaism, Islam and the people who practice them?

As for her assertion ("How I was smeared as an anti-Semite", 23 December), by way of Hannah Arendt, that one can only hate individual "persons", and not "any people or collective" – if wishing made it so. Events in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur surely prove that human beings are eminently capable of hating (and killing) each other not only as individuals, but also in the mass.

Ms Patterson wrote an article giving the (possibly mistaken) impression that she dislikes Jews and Muslims, and then blamed those who were offended for having taken offence. She reminds me of a saloon bar bore who drones on about immigration and then is surprised to be accused of racism.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Simplistic arguments about supermarkets

The BBC is trying hard to publicise a Panorama special about supermarkets. This is one of those issues on which politicians love throwing around half-baked opinions without regard to the statistical evidence. There is a mass of complicated, conflicting evidence about the impact of supermarkets on smaller retailers. I have always thought that when you go to a decaying high street in one of the grottier parts of London, what are the three things that you cannot find? One is a free cashpoint. A second is a shop that will sell you a newspaper. And a third is a supermarket. So poorer people, living in those areas, have to pay to withdraw cash from machines in little shops that charge them more for basic goods - without having a supermarket to shop at more cheaply. Could this be why the Competition Commission has previously called for the planning regulations to be relaxed to enable more (yes, more) supermarkets to open?

I used to work in Pimlico and the Standard was up in arms when Tesco propoosed to open a convenience store there - I wasn't. I was delighted that there might finally be somewhere in which I could use my debit card without being charged, buy a sandwich at lunchtime, get a newspaper - and all without being ripped off. A Tesco would in no way have been a threat to the delicatessens and restaurants in the area, but would have provided some much needed competition to some of the area's existing convenience stores. Of course, supermarkets are open to criticism, but this is a subject on which a lot of nonsense is talked.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Rocket injures schoolgirl near a kindergarten

The BBC reports accurately "Israeli air strike on Gaza as tensions rise". It says that it was last updated at 07:44; it also says that: "The rockets fired by Palestinian militant groups into Israel rarely cause injury or damage, but they do cause widespread fear." Presumably it will be updated soon to reflect the fact that one such rocket has today injured a schoolgirl after exploding near a kindergarten. It's only Tuesday, and thirteen of these rockets have been fired this week alone, ten of them arriving on Monday. What would be happening to British public opinion if these rockets were being fired at people living over here? How would you feel if you lived in a place that had been hit by thirteen rockets since yesterday? With each rocket containing 7-8kg of explosives - more than the 5-7kg carried by each of the London bombers on 7/7, when they killed 52 people. I've been to Sderot and seen a house that had been torn apart by one of these rockets; rather like the one shown here on the BBC website.

To those of you who will say: "Given the suffering of the people of Gaza, what else can they do but fire rockets?", I would point out that, after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, the people there (or at any rate their leaders) had a choice - they could have chosen to work with the West Bank Palestinians, develop Gaza's economy (aided by the World Bank and many other donors) and talk peace with Israel. Instead of making that choice, Gaza instead became the launch pad for thousands of rockets fired at Israel. And now the UN reports that some of the facilities that the people of Gaza do have are being suppressed by the Hamas regime. Which, let's remember, came to power not in an election, but in a coup d'etat.

I'm not going to pretend to have all the answers; I'm merely asking you to reflect for a moment at the firing of rockets at civilians and kindergartens, and how you would feel if this was happening in the place where you lived. When it comes to the wider questions raised by this conflict, I cannot put it any better than my party's leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, when he said recently:
Liberal Democrats have always supported a two-state solution that would bring peace, justice and security to Israelis and Palestinians alike. The quest for international justice is close to the heart of all Liberal Democrats. This sense of justice has led many Liberal Democrats, myself included, to campaign hard for the rights of the Palestinian victims of the Israeli/Arab conflict.

That campaigning for justice for the Palestinian people has been heard loud and clear from the Liberal Democrats. It should always have been accompanied, equally loudly and equally clearly, by an awareness of the security challenges faced by Israel and of the right of Israel to defend itself against the threats that it continually faces.

However, I’m not certain that we Liberal Democrats have always made ourselves clearly heard on this, so let me say it again now: Israel’s right to thrive in peace and security is non-negotiable for Liberal Democrats. No other country so continually has its right to exist called into question as does Israel, and that is intolerable. There can be no solution to the problems of the Middle East that does not include a full and proper recognition of Israel by all the parties to the conflict.

On behalf of the UK Government, I wish the latest Israeli/Palestinian talks well, but I go further – whatever the UK can do, working with its international partners in the EU and the UN, to support the Americans in furthering the peace process – whatever we can do, not only must be done, but will be done.

I particularly believe the EU, as an economic superpower neighbouring Israel and Palestine, has a huge role to play to persuade both sides to take steps towards peace. The EU both can and should use its economic clout to put pressure on both sides; to encourage Israel to restrict its settlement building program and to push all Palestinians into recognising Israel’s right to exist.

Everybody knows what a peaceful settlement to the conflict would look like. We have come so close to achieving it before. Should it come within our grasp again, it must not be allowed to slip. Generations of Israeli, Palestinian and Arab children demand and deserve nothing less.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Latest news on unofficial Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts

As a British Liberal Democrat, I'm never certain which party I'd be a member of if I was an Israeli. Anyway, I was pleased to read this piece from one of Israel's best-selling newspapers about a bunch of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists meeting in Ramallah. These Israelis strike me as being Israel's answer to the Lib Dems. Sure, they are not about to achieve their goals overnight, but at least they are trying - which has to be better than the alternative.