Want to know what the Lib Dems are for? You'll find out tomorrow.

How lovely it is that we've started setting the agenda.

In the Autumn Statement, a Tory Chancellor will announce a set of Liberal Democrat policy initiatives, and, all things considered, be congratulated on his foresight and wisdom by his Labour Shadow.

I'll let you all chew that over for a moment. OK? Right then, onward...

Up until May 2010, the easiest way to poke a Lib Dem into fury was to announce, "I often ask myself, what is the point of the Lib Dems?". I seem to recall Anne Leslie was especially good at putting a lot of vitriol into it. I've no idea what was said next, as I was too busy shouting at the TV by then.

Since the last general election, everyone has found it rather too easy to answer that question.

If you're on the left, then the Lib Dems are a bunch of never to be trusted pseudo Conservatives determined to shove a right wing regressive agenda on an unsuspecting public.

If you're a Tory, then we're a crowd of yellow livered wets stopping them thrust a fiscally driven tidal wave of horrid tasting medicine down the throats of Britain.

In truth we are neither of these things. But we did leave a bit of a vacuum -- so we've no one to blame but ourselves.

For 12 months, pursuing a line of "not a cigarette paper between us" did indeed make us look like we were interested in pursuing nothing but a Tory agenda. This was not true and the grassroots hated it. But a narrative was set.

Fortunately, since the nadir of May 2011 -- and our own dose of electoral medicine -- we've started pointing out the opposite is true. Now we get credit all over the place for stopping the Conservatives doing all they want - from the Conservatives. Here for example, is the delightful Nadine Dorries

Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Democrats make up 7 per cent of this parliament, and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health -- many issues -- immigration and abortion. Does the prime minister think it's about time he told the deputy prime minister who is the boss?

Hmmm...

Anyway, while we've delighted in playing the role of Tory handbrake, going forward it does beg the old question of what we're "for" once again. Because we can't just be seen to be playing defensive to the Tory bouncers. We need to get on the front foot -- and remind people what we're actually about.

So how lovely it is that we've started setting the agenda.

Last week, Martin Bright (once of this Parish) wrote a good summation of the Youth Contract entitled "So this is what the Lib Dems are for".

And now we'll see George Osborne announcing a whole heap of other initiatives -- infrastructure investment, raising the bank levy, extra school places, cheaper borrowing for businesses -- that have Lib Dem stamped all the way through them. And which Ed Balls, to his credit, has welcomed as the right things to do.

No doubt there will be a ton of measures announced by George Osborne tomorrow that grassroots Lib Dems will find difficult -- any freeze on tax credits, for example, will be especially hard to swallow.

But at least there is clear yellow water between plan A and Plan A+, with A+ combining fiscal accountability with social responsibility.

Which is what the Lib Dems are for, by the way.

 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.