Some people have said that the Liberal Democrats must avoid becoming part of ‘the Establishment’ just because we are in Government. I couldn’t agree more.
However, you will imagine my surprise and delight on discovering that part of the Establishment appears anyway to have joined the Liberal Democrats. The Facilities Department of the House of Commons – which manages accommodation, catering and the like – is publishing a newsletter called Focus.
Its namesake is that of Liberal Democrat leaflets up and down the country, informing residents of new campaigns and of the work of our councillors and MPs.
The concept was devised by my friend and campaigning expert, Lord Rennard, who delivered the first Focus in Liverpool. Closer to my own political roots, the late and much missed David Penhaligon (Liberal MP for Truro) summed it up as, “if you believe in something, write it on a piece of paper, stick it through a letterbox and persuade people to vote for it.” Many did just that.
Mind you, now I wonder if – while Focus will always have its place – David (who was himself technically far in advance of other campaigners) would certainly have wondered whether paper was still the best form of communication. I am amazed at the extent to which both Houses of Parliament, and especially Peers, still believe that if something is really to ‘exist’ it must be printed up on millions of bits of paper.
I’m reminded that it’s more than six years since the Hansard Society’s Puttnam Commission published ‘Members Only? – Parliament in the Public Eye’. Lord (David) Puttnam persuaded us that Parliament needed to lead in terms of new forms of communication, since he himself was a pioneer in this field. I wonder whether all our recommendations will ever bear fruit.
There’s been one important development. The superiority of online publication is admirably demonstrated by Hansard. If I say something in the House at 11am, it is usually online by 2pm. Those who insist on printed copy must wait until 8am the next morning. So putting everything on paper may no longer be the answer.