Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April, 2011

Bob Worcester on the Royal Wedding and Yes2AV

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th April, 2011

Over the past four decades Sir Robert Worcester has established himself as the doyen of opinion pollsters in the United Kingdom. Though Kansas-born he took on British citizenship and lives happily in Kent, of whose University he is Chancellor. This lunchtime he was the guest speaker at the Kettner’s Lunch at the National Liberal Club, regaling us with the latest poll findings around the royal wedding. Only just over half of the UK population said they were very interested or fairly interested in the subject, yet fewer than 20 percent would like to see an end to the monarchy. Of much more concern to the NLC audience, however, was Bob’s take on the AV referendum. He strongly criticised the weak literature put out by the Yes campaign and said that current polls point to a victory for the No2AV. However, there is still a week to go and much may depend on the turnout in areas such as London and Scotland, where there seems to be more support for Yes2AV. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, he believes that there will be an almighty battle ahead when the government tries to reform the House of Lords, not only introducing STV as an election method but also slashing the total number of peers to around 300, who would be eligible for a single 15-year-term only. In the meantime, Bob has another book coming out shortly, co-authored with Roger Mortimore, Paul Baines and Mark Gill called Explaining Cameron’s Coalition — an analysis of the May 2010 general election and how the Lib-Con Coalition came about. The volume will be published by Biteback on 11 May — the first anniversary of the Coalition’s formation.

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AV Debate Is Healthy for the Coalition

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd April, 2011

There are Macbethian witches who have been incanting that the arguments for and against dropping Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system in favour of the Alternative Vote (AV) could ‘destroy’ the Lib-Con Coalition, but I think it is actually very healthy that there is such a debate within the government and believe that the Coalition will emerge stronger for it. The vote itself, on 5 May, comes exactly one year after the General Election whose inconclusive outcome led to the Coalition’s being formed. Many of us were astonished just how quickly the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came to agreement — considering how long these things often take on the Continent — but David Cameron and Nick Clegg seemed to make a good match. Inevitably, the Labour opposition, like a rejected suitor, is furious at the LibDems for having ‘sold out’ to the Tories — even though careful scrutiny shows that is not the case; a substantial proportion of the LibDem manifesto is in the Coalition Agreement and has largely been delivered. But Clegg’s potrayal as Cameron’s puppet (wickedly lampooned in Guardian cartoons) is impossible to validate now the two are at the head of diametrically opposed campaigns over possible electoral reform. I think this is healthy and will force progressive Labourites to work with LibDems (and the small but noble pro-Yes Conservatives). Opinion polls suggest the outcome could be very close. Of course, I hope that Yes2AV will win. But whatever the outcome, I trust the campaign has made clear to the public that the nature of British politics has changed. Alliances are not set in stone; people can coalesce around issues on which they agree.

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Two Cheers for Wills and Kate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd April, 2011

This evening I did my first live TV debate about next week’s Royal Wedding, on the Iranian channel PressTV, along with former foreign and royal affairs correspondent Yvonne Ridley, who was in a studio in Cairo. She rather took me aback by declaring that the almost military straight lines of Union flags currently hanging over Regent Street were reminiscent of swastika banners in Nazi Germany. Both she and the TV anchor in Tehran seemed to think the wedding preparations are a huge waste of money at a time when many Brits are having to tighten their belts. I don’t get any sense of public anger about that, however. But I don’t yet get any sense of great public enthusiasm either, despite the best efforts of the more populist media and Prime Minister David Cameron encouraging people to organise street parties. Rather, I sense a lot of indifference, which I confess I share. Nonetheless, providing everything goes well — especially if the unseasonably warm and fine weather keeps up — the wedding should generate a certain feel-good factor in the UK. Many people, I suspect, will simply be pleased at having an extra bank holiday. I don’t think Kate Middleton looks like becoming another Princess Diana, but she does seem admirably sensible and self-confident. Tourists, of course, have arrived in force in London, as have thousands of journalists and TV crews from around the world. I will probably be doing another interview on the Wedding for a Czech team this weekend. So billions of people will watch the pageant next Friday, perhaps half suspecting that this might be the last time we see anything quite like it. It will be interesting to see who among foreign royalty and Commnwealth leaders turn up. If either the Saudi or Bahraini King appears, he can expect some demonstrations and negative press coverage.

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The Dangerous Trade of Journalism

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th April, 2011

The death of the Liverpool-born photo-journalist Tim Hetherington (who worked for Vanity Fair inter alia) in a mortar attack in the beseiged city of Misurata, Libya, underlines the perils and bravery of those who go out to report on wars and conflict situations. Though few ever deliberately put themselves in the line of fire, inevitably there are casualties. If reporters and photographers stayed in the background, well away from the fighting, viewers, listeners and readers would not get an accurate picture of what is going on — something essential in a confused situation such as Libya. Having myself covered wars and conflicts in Vietnam, Central America, southern Africa and the Middle East, I know that there are a few colleagues who get a ‘buzz’ from being close to the action. But the vast majority are professionals who just want to get the story or picture out — to let people know what is going on. Far from glorifying war, most of us who have covered it hate war as such, but believe we must show what is happening. I had that conviction as a schoolboy, watching the TV footage coming out of Biafra in the late 1960s. Of course, some things have changed. I don’t ever remember wearing body-armour in Vietnam or El Salvador — the two most dangerous locations I reported from — though I was once offered a gun (sternly refused!). These days, BBC reporters and others wear a statutory bullet proof vest, at least. But there is another change, which is deeply worrying. Until a few years ago, all sides in conflicts usually welcomed journalists, because they wanted their side of the story shown. But increasingly journalists are themselves deliberately targetted in attacks, or else kidnapped, or murdered, as both government and opposition groups try to suppress the free flow of information.

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Democrats and Liberal Democrats Abroad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 15th April, 2011

One thing that goes in Barack Obama’s favour as he heads into the 2012 US presidential election race is that Americans have usually granted a second term to an incumbent seeking re-election, with the notable exception of Jimmy Carter in 1980. Bill Barnard, International Treasurer of Democrats Abroad (and immediate past Chairman of the organisation’s UK chapter) told the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) at Europe House today that another advantage Obama has is that as yet no substantial Republican challenger has been identified. Sarah Palin’s star is in the wane, he believes, even if she still has high name recognition. I pointed out that many people in Britain are horrified by suggestions that this might be the first ‘billion dollar election campaign’, but Bill says there is little chance of UK-style spending limitations being adopted State-side. Being able to contribute as much as one wants to a campaign is seen as an extension of the right to free speech, he commented. That means that branches of Democrats abroad are expected to raise large sums of money for US elections. At a dinner in London for Al Gore, for example, tables were filled with US expats prepared to pay $10,000 a plate. I can’t see many British expats being ready to stump up such sums, nonetheless the Liberal Democras are now building up a network of chapters abroad. Brussels and Luxembourg, not surprisingly, has had one for some time; many pro-Europeans are naturally attracted to the LibDems. Recently a second branch was launched in Hong Kong. Other should follow soon, including, one hopes, in the United States.

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Vince Is Vince

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 14th April, 2011

Business Secretary Vince Cable hit the headlines this afternoon by criticising Prime Minister David Cameron’s new line on immigration. Though Mr Cameron was trying to make the distinction between ‘good’ (limited) immigration and ‘mass’ immigration, Vince is right that this Tory rhetoric can be misconstrued and be seen to be pandering to the far right. Undoubtedly the Conservatives are keen to stop a swing from them to UKIP, even more than they are worried about losing votes to the BNP (who often seem to do better from disenchanted Labour voters). But Cameron is treading on thin ice. Besides, Vince makes an important point: that immigrants from beyond the EU have made and will continue to make a vital contribution to Britain’s economy and potential growth. Of course that doesn’t mean we should have a completely Open Door policy, but it should not be as restrictive as the Prime Minister was implying either. In the meantime, Vince Cable has once again shown himself to be the strong voice of Liberal reason — and he has become just about as close as we have to a political national treasure. Some of his LibDem Cabinet colleagues may wish to excuse some of his comments to their Tory colleagues on the grounds that ‘Vince is Vince’, and therefore something of a law to himself. But he is not just a maverick or even a maverick at all. He is someone who has won great respect and who is listened to, including by many people who normally have little interest in politics. Moreover, at a time when the LibDems as a party and party leader Nick Clegg are (usually unfairly) being treated as whipping-boys by Labour and the media, it is important to have someone like Vince who shows the public (and the House of Commons) that there is a vibrant Liberal Democrat presence within government and one which is not afraid to speak out when the larger partner in the Coalition says or promotes illiberal or unwise things.

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Brian Paddick, Thai Style

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th April, 2011

Being in Coalition with the Conservatives is not always proving easy for Liberal Democrats — and many of them would doubtless say the same about the partnership with us. But as Brian Paddick told the inaugural Haringey Liberal Democrats Supper Club at a Thai restaurant in Hornsey this evening, things would be worse if the Tories were governing on their own. Brian has been doing the round of TV and radio studios over the past few weeks, talking mainly about the phone hacking scandal relating to News International titles, notably the News of the World. He was a victim himself. But he suspects many other news organisations have been guilty of underhand surveillance techniques as well, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Guardian. Brian saved much of his fire for the subject of policing reforms, however. He is concerned at the idea that in London the Metropolitan Police would be accountable to one single elected person, the Mayor — or, if Boris or any successor decided this was not something he wished to do, an unelected person whom he could appoint. This does not sound at all desirable. But there are many other things that Brian would also like to see tweeked in policing, now he he is no longer a senior officer himself — though I can’t imagine his proposal that senior officers should give up their cars and drviers would be greeted with much enthusiasm within the Force.


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A Sunny Sunday for Fairer Votes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th April, 2011

I spent much of yesterday out in the sun campaigning for a Yes vote in the 5 May referendum, first leafleting in Brick Lane in my home borough of Tower Hamlets and later in Paul Burstow’s constituency of Sutton and Cheam. With no local elections taking place in London next month — unlike almost the whole of the rest of the country — actually getting people to turn out to vote is going to be a challenge, which makes it all the more important to sign people up for postal votes in London. The turnout of postal voters is considerably higher than the average, especially in a referendum like this. But it is dismaying that there has been such little coverage of the referendum in the national media so far, as this is one of the most significant potential constitutional changes for a generation. The ‘No’ campaign has been coming up with some pretty spurious arguments, including the insulting claim that AV is too complicated for voters in England to understand. The truth is that it is as simple as 1, 2, 3… and it should help end the phenomonenon of complacent MPs and parliamentary seats for life.


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London Liberal Democrat Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th April, 2011

The regional conference that took place in the East Wintergarden in Canary Wharf today was confirmation that London Liberal Democrats have made a big step change — now a party in government, more professional, still signing up new members and bullish in the run-up to the Fairer Votes referendum in May. There was a stellar line-up of speakers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who strssed that the 5 May vote is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change our anachronistic electoral system and that the result in London (where there are no simultaneous local elections, unlike in most of the rest of the UK) could make the difference. The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, admitted it isn’t always easy being in government, but for all the difficulties, it was far less frustrating than being in the permanent comfort zone of opposition. Vince had for so long been the lone voice warning the trouble Britain under Labour was sailing into with its over-spending and over-light regulation of the banks. I suspect he is rather rubbing his hands in glee at Rupert Murdoch’s News International’s woes at the moment, though he was careful not to say so overtly. Lynne Featherstone, Equalities Minister at the Home Office, was able to reel off a whole list of Liberal Democrat ‘wins’ within her area of responsibility, including equal marriage and civil partnership rights. And Simon Hughes, Deputy Leader of the party, struck out a clear LibDem line on a number of issues, from nuclear energy to targetted assistance for pupils and students from poorer backgrounds. All in all, a great morale-booster for the approximately 200 delegates present.

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Syria’s Protests Intensify

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th April, 2011

Syria saw its biggest pro-democracy demonstrations yet today, with the most bloody clashes with security forces happening in the southern town of Deraa, where unrest first broke out. According to Al Jazeera, up to 27 people were shot dead there today and many of the injured are too afraid to go to hospitals for treatment in case they are searched out by security forces. The government insists that unidentified masked gunmen were responsible for the killings, a claim rejected by protestors. The demonstrators want not only a lifting of the decades-long state of emergency — which was vaguely promised by the government last month — but also much greater political freedom. Though President Bashar Al-Assad is widely seen as less hardline than his late father, there has been widespread disappointment both in Syria and abroad that he has not ushered in more profound reforms, despite recent disturbances. There have been some counter-demonstrations in his favour; I witnessed young people gathering for one in the city of Tartus last week. But ever larger numbers are coming out on the streets to express anger at the government, perhaps inspired by similar uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. However, yet again there seems to be a leader in a state of denial, like some of his counterparts in other Arab states blaming foreigners for the unrest. But the Arab awakening has definitely spread to Syria and the question now is who will blink first: the security forces or the protestors.

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