Thursday 18 October 2007

Interview with Joe Otten

I have long wanted to do some interviews for this blog, one of the people always on my list to talk to was fellow blogger Joe Otten. I have known him since university and was originally interested in asking him about his change from being a local activist for the Greens to The Lib Dems. The recent developments in their leadership with a Sheffield MP throwing his hat into the ring seamed like an ideal opportunity to move forward although with a different slant to the piece. The interview was conducted over email yesterday and today (this is most obvious in the question about the leadership election. My questions are in bold, with the follow questions nested beneath the original. I could have gone on with the questions for ages, but decided that I should just get on and publish it. I expect that my tip off that Joe honourably refuses to confirm or deny about the location of Nick Clegg's campaign launch press conference tomorrow is now old news with the "real media" but the BBC news website is still just saying "Mr Clegg is expected officially to launch his campaign on Friday" but without confirmation, I don't feel confident in publishing.
  1. What drew you to the Liberal Democrats?
    First, I was driven away from the Green Party by their dogmatism. They are hostile to science, when it is science that enables us to understand environmental problems. They are hostile to business and trade when these are vital to improving the human condition. Their attitudes to trade in particular fly in the face of all the evidence. The party seemed capable of turning people who joined it out of a concern for the survival of humanity into people who thought that the extinction of humanity would be a good thing.
    So I was looking for a less dogmatic and more rational party. One with its values in the right place: supporting freedom and opportunity for all, caring for the environment without the irrationality and thinly-veiled misanthropy that sometimes brings.
    The conservatives were never an option - they are too attractive to a different kind of misanthrope. While it wasn't very clear what Labour stood for any more, it clearly knew its leader thought his self-delusions cause enough for war, and wasn't going to do anything about it. Labour, it seems to me is crippled by its own dogmatic baggage. It knows socialism didn't work, but is trying to work out how to hang on to the values, whilst supping with the devil. But this is a mistake on both counts: socialism had the wrong values, and the private sector is not the devil. Historically, liberalism was the movement which fought for the liberation of the masses against the unaccountable power and unearned privilege of the elites - but not by opposing business and trade which can themselves bring opportunities to many. Socialism did little but put the cause back 100 years.
    And with liberalism under attack from all sides - the greens, the Home Office, would-be theocrats around the world, it seemed to me that the Liberal Democrats is the best place to stand and fight.
    1. So as much as you are positively attracted to the Lib Dems you are put off by the Conservatives as they have the Wrong people and the Labour Party as it has the wrong policies, is that a fair assessment?
      Not really. I see the Conservatives as fighting the same class war as "Old Labour", but on the other side. I grew up in inner city Manchester, and the contempt for people in my situation from the Tories was palpable. The Tory party is attractive to the wrong people because it has the wrong values and policies.
      While Labour has, rightly, abandoned this class war, (much of it at least), it has not abandoned the mentality of seeking scapegoats for society's ills, and fighting them. Thus teachers, doctors etc are not trusted to make professional judgments and are subject to a box ticking target culture. Every problem seems to demand more exercise of power by the state, and less by individuals who clearly cannot be trusted to be on the right side. A government like this will never recognise that it is the biggest problem.
      Many Labour people have the best of intentions, but so do many Tories. Lenin might have had good intentions, but killed millions. Labour perhaps has a different kind of wrong person - one who is insufficiently realist about the dangers of the power of the state, and so too eager to use the state, as Lenin did, in pursuit of what they believe are good outcomes.
  2. Why are you supporting Nick Clegg for the leadership of the party?
    Nick is a great communicator, clearly passionate about liberalism. He commands the respect and enthusiasm of the party. He is not afraid to cut through the comfort blanket of waffle and fudge and present issues with a hard edge.
    There is no question that Nick frightens the other parties the most, and for good reasons. Tory Iain Dale, for example, is desperately trying to talk up a Kennedy comeback.
    I would say that I expect Chris Huhne and Steve Webb both to stand, and probably another. Chris and Steve are also both excellent candidates. But for me Chris is not so presentable or engaging as Nick, and is too inclined to play it safe with policy. Steve seems to tend to the left on economic policy and the right on social policy, which is the wrong way round.
    1. So with Steve Webb having ruled himself out, you see Chris Huhne as the other big contender, or have any of the other names now in the hat fill Steve Webb's slot as the "third viable candidate"
      It is unlikely now, I'd guess. Steve was the obvious "left" candidate. Chesterfield MP Paul Holmes has been mentioned, but I think this is unlikely. I don't see the differences between Nick and Chris as left/right, which may disappoint some who see things in those terms. But perhaps left/right differences will emerge during the campaign.
    2. Do you see any possibility of Champaign Charlie standing?
      Nope. There is no sign I am aware of that his problems have been solved. I think Tory blogger Iain Dale was talking this up in desperate hope that we would choose an ineffective leader.
    3. Who is the more important kingmaker, Charles Kennedy, Vince Cable or Simon Hughes?
      I don't think any of those three are important as kingmakers. Of the three Simon, as the previous "left" candidate may have more influence on that wing. But then Steve Webb has already declared for Nick Clegg, which may be more significant.
    4. Is the rumour that Nick's leadership bid will be launched in Sheffield true and will you be going to the press conference if it is.
      Sorry, I can't confirm or deny anything.
  3. What are your top issues, for local and national politics to address?
    Locally, transport is probably the top issue. Sheffield is being strangled by congestion. If you can't get around by either car or bus, it is time to stop trying to promote one mode at the expense of the other, and start making it easier to get around by any means.
    Also there are problems with Sheffield's approach to planning and inward investment. This should be easier to tackle than many issues, because the city isn't actually saving any money by its attitude.
    1. What are the Lib Dem's policy initatives in this area for Sheffield?
      I'm not an official spokesperson here, but as I understand it, the key points are to review the road network, for possible improvements, and to look into different kinds of relationship with the bus companies, that might give a better return for the subsidy that is spent.
      The junction between Hangingwater Rd and Nether Green Rd near me was redesigned recently, cutting its capacity and causing longer tailbacks up Hangingwater Rd. Often this sort of thing is driven by regulations, and might not be the council's fault, but it is madness to be cutting capacity like this.
      On planning and inward investment, there seems to be an attitude that some kinds of business are not welcome here, "posh frock shops" was one, which prompted a series of letters to the Telegraph. But it is not for the council to be deciding what sort of work, leisure or shopping people ought or ought not want. It should get out of the way and let people decide with their feet.
    Nationally, the top issue is global warming: our willingness to take steps rather than just set targets, and our support for technologies that will help convince the rest of the world that it will not be too painful to tackle global warming.
    We want a fairer and greener tax system - the proportion of tax revenue from green taxes has actually gone down since 1997. We would should have more green taxes balanced by tax cuts at the standard rate, and with a goal of increasing allowances to take minimum wage earners out of income tax altogether. It is a scandal that the other parties are only talking about tax cuts for the richest.
    1. How do you strike the ballance between green taxes and a fair tax burden for the poorest, who will be running any old car regardless of efficency and unable to afford to insulate thier homes and by triple A rated fridges for example?
      This is a fair point, that green taxes will hit the poor disproportionately. At the same time, we have people working full time for the minimum wage, and paying income tax on their earnings. This is wrong - the minimum wage is supposed to be supporting working people not the exchequer. So to balance the effect of green taxes, we should cut income taxes particularly for the low paid.
    And a new approach to public services that gets away from the tick box micromanagement culture and instead respects the commitment of professionals to their vocation. Rather than the Maoist constant revolution from Whitehall, we need more local accountability. It is madness that the first elected person you can complain to and have the leverage of being able to vote out, is a cabinet minister.
  4. If there was a hung parliament and you were a Lib Dem MP, what kind of coalition(s) would you support?
    I think it is very important not to rule anything in or out in advance because this limits your negotiating leverage. I think the other two parties have more in common with each other than they do with us, and that probably ought to be the coalition, like in Germany. However the tribal nature of politics means that they would find this very difficult.
    We would be expected - almost as if it were our purpose in politics - to prop up whichever party had the most seats, irrespective of our manifesto and theirs. (When Lib Dems in Scotland and Wales declined to do this, there was outrage in some quarters.) But if we do this, the image is reinforced.
    A coalition would have to be compatible with our values and deliver enough of our manifesto to make the traps and pitfalls of coalition worth risking. It is unlikely that any coalition with either party would be able to deliver this much. But of course, the civil war in the Tory party is still unresolved, and Brown hasn't made the change of direction he promised. So I hope you will forgive me for not knowing what either of the other parties will be standing for come the next election.
  5. Which bloggers do you rate as a "must read"?
  6. What do you think about electronic voting and counting?
    Ah well I have a slight conflict of interest here, having contributed software to an electronic counting system.
    Anyway, transparency matters. A system may be secure and working correctly, but if we have no way of knowing that, then how can an electoral administrator choose that system over one that routinely steals elections?Remote e-voting is a stolen election waiting to happen. E-voting in the polling station is less dangerous if there is a paper-audit trail that is used to verify disputed results and a few randomly-selected non-disputed results.
    Electronic counting of paper ballots is less problematic still, as there will be a paper audit trail. What is missing is provision in law for the paper ballots to be examined in the event of a close election. However there is still a cost to transparency which means that we are making it easier for fraudulent systems to slip under the radar. While we should be duly concerned by this, it is of a lesser order of magnitude to such problems as remote e-voting, paperless e-voting, and all-postal ballots.
    If you havn't already, will you read the Open Rights Group report on the use of electronic voting and counting in the last election?
    1. If you havn't already, will you read the Open Rights Group report on the use of electronic voting and counting in the last election?
      Read it, wrote about it here: And I went to the open rights group fringe meeting at Lib Dem conference in Brighton.

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