As you might know by now, I am standing for election to the Party's Federal Policy Committee, but this isn't just about me, it's also about what you want from your FPC and your Party policy generally.
Standing for election should be about answering a lot of your questions about me and what I would do on the FPC. So I'm very pleased to say that Jennie Rigg has put together a list of decent challenging questions for every candidate to answer that will hopefully give you more idea of what we stand for and what we all might do.
You can read the replies of other candidates who are standing over at Jennie's blog, here. Meanwhile, here are the questions and the answers that I gave:
1. Which of the following activities do you consider the most dangerous and why?
- taking a single ecstasy tablet
- taking an advanced motorcycle riding test
- giving birth
This is a question about banning things, and I'd say that while I consider all these activities to be dangerous the Government should be in the business of informing people of the dangers and helping them minimise the risks rather than banning any of them.
But I realise that that is doing the politician thing of telling you what your question ought to be, so here is the thing politicians don't do which is trying to answer the question as put.
My gut reaction says this is a "trick" question (no offence) and that the "surprise" answer will be that giving birth turns out to be the most dangerous whereas the only one we legislate against, taking ecstasy, is the least dangerous.
But policy shouldn't be decided based on gut reactions or trick questions, so I would need to look the evidence.
A very brief search with Google reveals that the UK has an average maternal fatality rate of 8.6 per 100,000, which would be approximate 62 deaths based on 2011 birth statistics of 723,000.
That would compare with reported ecstasy-related deaths of 40-70. Except, as this useful piece from Mark Easton explains, mentioning ecstasy in relation to a death is not the same as saying ecstasy caused that death.
Both of which are tiny compared to the approximately five thousand motorcyclists killed or seriously injured on the roads each year. (I haven't found specific figures relating to taking the advanced motorcycling test).
Of course "dangerous" is much more broadly defined than merely the risk of fatality, so the risks of other effects would need to be identified and some way of comparing them decided (how, for example, do you compare possible brain damage against the economic impact of raising a child, say?).
Also, is it even a fair comparison? Childbirth is the conclusion to a (usually) nine-month pregnancy (with all its own associated risks), whereas taking a single tablet should be no more than an evening's duration, and a motorcycle test shouldn't take more than a couple of hours. A more fair comparison might take into account different patterns of ecstasy use – the single tablet, the occasional party-goers, the regular weekend user and so on.
I'd also want to know how to factor in the benefit versus the risks of the activity: for example, taking the advanced motorcycle test may be a risk in itself, but the rate of motorcycle accidents tends to be lower among people who have passed the advanced test. The risk of not taking the test may actually be greater than the risk of taking it.
This of course is also important in considering drug usage, for example the pain relief available from marijuana or opiates may very well be a greater benefit than the risk of harm from the drug. The long-term effects of MDMA (ecstasy) remain unknown, though some studies show possible medical use in alleviating mild psychiatric disorders and also some pain relief.
2. What four pledges would you put on the front of the next Lib Dem manifesto?
In fact I put five suggestions on my FPC manifesto:
Freedom from Poverty – a citizens' income that would help those in work and out.
Freedom from Ignorance – develop a "Pupil Premium II" perhaps with the money from charitable status of Public Schools.
Freedom from Conformity – addressing the Court system that can't seem to take a joke.
Freedom for Growth – breaking up RBS and Lloyds to make community-scale lenders for small business and jobs.
Freedom for the Future – investing in green renewables to achieve energy independence by 2050.
I don't think it would be entirely fair to make that statement in the manifesto and then make a different one to you, so I'll stick with my five if that's okay.
3. A genie appears and tells you that you can remove one law and make one law; what would you remove from the statute book and what would you add to the statute book?
I can only remove one law?
It would have to be RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act), Labour's snooper's charter which gave the power to jobsworths up and down the country to spy on citizens. In practical terms, without RIPA we wouldn't be having the present difficulty over communications monitoring and interception. But morally, RIPA is the architecture of a system for Governments to control citizens. NO Liberal Government should tolerate it remaining on the statute.
As for what law I would add, well if I knew what one law would make it possible for Stephen Gough, (the Naked Rambler) to be released from prison without getting immediately re-arrested then it would be that, because the fact that this man is basically in perpetual imprisonment without having broken any law at all, merely for having a different attitude to nudity, is a running sore on any claim that this county has to be civilised.
Since I don't know what that law would be, though, I suppose I will settle instead for a law that if you sell someone software (whether that's a book or a video or a computer program) then they have the right to control how they use that software – the main aims being that if someone wants to read a Kindle ebook on a Kobo reader, they can; if someone wants to watch a DVD without having intrusive and insulting copyright warnings forced on them first, they can; and if they want to use software they've bought without having to agree to an "end user agreement" (imposed after you've handed over the money), then they can.
4. What balance should the committee give to the views of the leadership, the parliamentary panels and the membership in setting policy priorities?
The policy committee should clearly serve the membership first. We are being elected to present certain views as representatives of the Party members.
That isn't to say that we should routinely pick fights with the Leadership. One of the strongest reasons I have for supporting the coalition, and one of the biggest disappointments with the behaviour of our Conservative Partners, is a belief in cooperation and compromise. I prefer arriving at a synthesis rather than loggerheads.
5. How would you change the party’s procedures on gathering and analysing evidence when formulating policy?
The Party sends a lot of internal communications explaining why we've just done something. It seems it would be more productive to try and be pre-emptive: send out communications about debates that are coming up before they happen and gather feedback from the Party membership in advance of decisions rather than trying to manage the response after the fact.
The Internet provides much wider opportunities to "crowd source" ideas and evidence than we have had before and we should consider online consultative sessions and working groups.
I support Richard Morris's ideas for widening involvement at Conference through online attendance and by making the Party more democratically responsive to the members.
6. Which is more important - freedom from ignorance, poverty or conformity?
For me, the most important is freedom from conformity. I would hate to live in a world where we all have to make the same choices, or where those choices are imposed upon us.
But at the same time I am aware that I am hugely privileged having benefited enormously from a generous education and now being in a well-paid job, my own freedom from ignorance and poverty has been (I hope) assured.
That's why it's right that the preamble mentions all three as a foundation for freedom and we should act where possible to support all of them. (And possibly more freedoms: freedom from pain, some might say, would be one you could add.)
7. Are you a member of any (S)AOs or other pressure groups which might give us an insight into your policy priorities?
I am (usually, when I remember) a member of LGBT+ and a sometime member of the Green Liberal Democrats.
I don't believe in factions, particularly not ones that accept the media narrative of a left/right axis that has never had very much to do with Liberal politics. If elected, I would want to scrutinise all policies independently and then make up my own mind, rather than voting with a "slate".
That said, I'm open to ideas from anyone – I'm just not going to be tribal about it. For example, I have a lot of sympathy with the Social Liberal Forum's pamphlet "Plan C" – particularly when it comes to trials and evidence based response to policy. On the other hand, I've also read the Orange Book.
8. Which external bodies would you like to see audit the manifesto to see if our policies are workable?
The economics of the manifesto should be audited by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as already happens.
I would like to see Liberty audit the Civil Liberties implications (and the actions of the Coalition).
I would like to see the Plain English Campaign audit the language to make sure we are saying what we mean in a simple and easily understood fashion.
If there was an external Green body that I trusted, then I'd like to see an environmental impact audit too (but I think the external Green bodies are all too politicised).
It might also be useful if an "end of term report" could be produced for our MPs in association with someone like They Work For You, provided that such a report could properly reflect the amount of constituency case work, and work on committees in addition to time in the chamber of the House.
9. What proposals do you have to improve the process of negotiating policy priorities for a coalition agreement in the event of another hung parliament?
I think that we need to make it very clear to the media (and the City) that one of the causes of weakness in the Coalition agreement was the pressure that all Parties were under to arrive at an agreement very quickly. If at all possible we should lay out a timetable that would see at least one and maybe two weeks set aside after the date of the general election for the business of forming a Government, should a second balanced Parliament be the will of the British People.
Having said that, I think that the procedure of the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 negotiations was pretty near exemplary. Certainly we made mistakes – the largest being that the negotiating team failed to reflect the strength with which the Party wanted to keep the tuition fee pledge.
However, far more of the Coalition's problems arise from the failure of the Conservatives to give their Party members and particularly their Parliamentary Party any ownership over the process, which has resulted in them largely feeling sold down the river by David Cameron and under no obligation to keep the promises that he made on their behalf.
Labour too have behaved in extremely bad faith both during and after the coalition process, repeatedly blaming us for failing to deliver policies which we could not have delivered from Opposition or even in coalition with Labour, and of course blocking policies which they purport to be in favour of in order to score political victories.
As a result, it might be necessary to make a condition of any future coalition agreement that the coalition partner conduct a vote of support for the agreement (at least of their Parliamentary Party).
10. If elected, how do you plan to engage with the wider party?
Where possible, at least within the Chatham House Rules, I want to blog about the policies considered using Millennium's diary. I'm happy to lay out my own position on issues that come up and I will try to represent other views fairly (if anonymously).
Also, through blogging and meeting other Party members, I've built up a wide circle of friends from across the Party, both geographically and politically. I would hope to reach out to them sharing what I think is going on in return for their ideas and feedback on how policy is shaped and in turn that they could talk to their own friends and contacts.
11. (was 29 on Jennie's list). Are you standing for any other committees, if so which ones, and if elected to more than one how do you plan to divide your time?
I'm only standing for FPC.
I don't believe that people should stand for more than one committee. The Party is full of good people who want to contribute, and I think that it's important that we maximise the number of people who are able to take part. One person, no matter how good they are, occupying two elected seats is stopping another good person from coming through.