Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

On Corbyn: What if the rules have changed?

Like many seasoned Westminster watchers I have been somewhat amused by the recent travails of the Labour Party.

There were three candidates of the centre/centre left (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall) all of whom managed to get the requisite number of nominations from MPs (35) to stand in the contest. But there was also a figure that many people had never even heard of who wanted to enter the race. The very left-wing MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn.

Enough MPs "lent" Corbyn their nominations in the interests of having a wide debate and hence he also entered the contest.

Since then to say he's been a disrupter to the contest would be a gross understatement. Polls have indicated that he could actually win and the other candidates have been scrabbling around desperately trying to work out how to respond to the rise of the red tide.

Also like many seasoned Westminster watchers I have been assuming that Corbyn has very little chance of winning (despite what the polls say - remember the general election?!) and that if he was to somehow manage to win he'd have absolutely no chance of becoming Prime Minister.

But what if we're all wrong?

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008 I have been wondering when things will change politically. I don't mean in terms of the Tories getting in and implementing austerity or even the coalition (that was bound to happen eventually when the dice fell that way). I mean something much more fundamental. The crisis demonstrated that the way we have our economy (and politics) structured is woefully wrong. The banks took reckless risks with everyone else's money and then when they were standing on the brink the taxpayer stepped in and bailed them out to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds, making a mockery of the term "Moral Hazard".

So far there has been remarkably little actual change in response to this complete and utter failure of our structures, despite the fact that we have all paid the price both literally and figuratively. Growth has been much forestalled, the economy is much weaker than it was before 2008 and many millions of us have had to readjust our longer term plans. But the banks and the institutions that prop them up haven't really changed very much at all.

This is what I mean when I ask if all of us old hands are wrong.

The received wisdom which has seemed to be true ever since Thatcher came to power is that parties, whether of the left or right have to run on the centre ground and also tack towards the direction of the party in power when in opposition (cf Blair in the mid-90s and Cameron in the late 00s). But what if the rules have changed and we just haven't realised it yet? Given how devastating the financial crisis has been, a realignment of politics and a recasting of the rules is actually now overdue. Could it be coming in the form of a 66 year old socialist who can easily be mocked up to look like Obi Wan Kenobie?

However the 2015 general election would appear superficially to contradict this thesis. Didn't the result prove that Labour should have run a more centrist campaign? That's what most of the commentators (including me) have been saying since 7th May.

The truth is the result of the election is a very, very mixed bag and there is a lot of noise which makes it difficult to correctly read any signal that may be contained within it. Firstly there was the UKIP surge which led to them getting 13% of the vote and thus distorting what would have been the results in dozen of constituencies. This affected both Tories and Labour but seemingly more so Labour. There was also the (lesser but still very real) similar effect of the Greens again mostly affecting Labour. Then there was the collapse of the Lib Dem vote which allowed the Tories to capture many more seats than they would otherwise have done. Indeed the Tories increased their vote by 0.8% but managed to get 25 more seats than in 2010 due to these disparate effects. There was also the huge effect of the SNP in Scotland who actually ran on an anti-austerity ticket and almost swept the entire board there.

That still doesn't fully answer what happened with Labour though. They increased their vote by over 1% but actually lost a couple of dozen seats. But by wide consent Ed Miliband was a bad leader. He was uncharismatic, unfocused, chopped and changed during the parliament allowing his shadow ministers to oppose almost all the cuts and then latterly trying to claim Labour could be "trusted" on the economy when he had allowed the Tories to paint them as profligate and set the agenda. On all of these scores Corbyn would be more consistent than Miliband. He is charismatic, very focused and would clearly stick to his line of opposing austerity. He is also a breath of fresh air as Evan Davis pointed out last night on Newsnight after interviewing Andy Burnham (who was typically evasive on various questions as most modern politicians are) Corbyn simply answers the questions. He doesn't faff about trying to triangulate or refusing to accept the premise of the question. Sure, this could eventually trip him up but from what I have seen so far it merely makes him look like he believes what he says and his word can be trusted, unlike so many of his Labour colleagues.

It is also worth noting that in many of the policy positions Corbyn took in the 80s and 90s he has subsequently been vindicated. For example he was in favour of equal marriage and against section 28 when it was not fashionable to be so, he talked to Sinn Fein when the official government line was to claim they were beyond the pale (and dub their voices over with actors on TV) while at the very same time secretly talking to them which ultimately led to the peace process. He is also in favour of policies such as renationalisation of the railways and the energy companies which have high levels of public support. What the political classes try to paint as extreme are actually often fairly popular positions. It is very difficult to read how a leader and a party that fully backed these policies would now fare as it simply hasn't been tried for several decades.

I could be reading this all wrong. In many ways it would be more comforting for me if this analysis is wrong because if it is right then lots of what I think I know about politics and how to follow it is also wrong. Ever since I have been interested in it (and even before that) the rules have been set in stone and those deviating from them have paid a high price.

I just wonder though if we need to prepare ourselves for a shock. At the moment Corbyn is set to win the internal contest. And if he does, perhaps, just perhaps his chances of becoming PM are a fair bit higher than received wisdom would suggest.

Friday, 17 July 2015

House of Comments - Episode 128 - The Living Wage Budget

The latest House of Comments podcast is now out.

This week the podcast is back for a one off special during the current podcast hiatus. I am joined by the Guardian political columnist Rafael Behr to discuss George Osborne's "Living Wage" budget and its political consequences.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:



Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.


PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from Incompetech.com for our theme music.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

MPs should keep their pay rise

I've written about this before when it was first mooted but today IPSA have confirmed that MPs will get their 10% pay rise. Their pay will now rise to around £74,000 per year and will henceforth be linked to pay rises in the public sector.

As far as I am concerned MPs should not feel pressured to hand money back or give it to charity. An independent body has determined that is what the role should be paid. After the expenses scandal in 2009 there was a huge outcry and MPs' ability to set their own expenses regime and salaries was (rightly) taken out of their hands. But now that the independent body has looked long and hard at this and made its decision it is simply not fair to treat this situation as if "MPs have awarded themselves a massive pay rise" (as plenty of people today seem to think). That is simply not true and as electors we cannot have it both ways. There was strong agreement in 2009 across the country that an independent body should decide and it's hypocritical of us to ignore that fact now.

It's worth bearing in mind that MPs are still paid less than plenty of headteachers, almost all GPs (pro-rata) and many other professions. And bearing in mind they are representing tens of thousands of constituents, holding the government to account and voting on laws that affect us all I want them to be well remunerated for that.

There is a risk that if we keep on like this and MPs feel pressured to reject the rise and/or give it away to charity, and perhaps abolish IPSA so they can properly turn down future rises that in time the salary will slip further and further behind other vocations until it becomes very difficult for anyone except the independently wealthy to seek to become MPs. I definitely never want to see that happen.

And to cap it all the new regime is actually not costing the public purse a single extra penny. The pay rise comes about from modifications to the expenses regime and MPs' pensions. If they want to juggle this about to include 10% more up-front salary then it's not really making any difference to any of the rest of us.

So frankly all those crying out how disgraceful this situation is should back off. I don't think most of us would want the sort of parliament that would be eventual end-game of MPs caving in to this sort of pressure.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The SNP tail wags the Tory dog




During the election campaign, David Cameron and the Tories made great play of how Ed Miliband would be in the pocket of the SNP if he became Prime Minister.

How the tables have now turned.

We are only 2 months into the new Tory (majority let us not forget) government and already there are two occasions when the SNP have forced the government into an embarrassing climb down.

First it was on the subject of the Human Rights Act and how they were supposedly going to repeal it. The SNP raised (perfectly valid) objections about how the plan would strike at the heart of the Scottish devolution settlement. The Tories under pressure from the SNP (and also some of its own more enlightened backbenchers) withdrew their proposals and they did not feature at all in the recent Queen's Speech.

Fast-forward to today and we see another embarrassing withdrawal of a piece of legislation by the government this time on fox-hunting. This time there is absolutely no doubt as to who has forced the withdrawal. It is Nicola Sturgeon who, admittedly opportunistically and brazenly has stated that her 56 MPs will vote against any repeal of the hunting ban. And at a stroke the government had no choice but to stop a vote they now knew they would lose from happening at all.

The truth is that any minority or wafer thin majority government was always going to be at risk of having to tailor or withdraw legislation in the face of a block vote of 56 well disciplined nationalist Scottish MPs determined to make their mark at Westminster. Ed Miliband's protestations that he would not do any deals with the SNP rang hollow because it was obvious he would at the very least have to take their views into account in order to get legislation through. Cameron promised that the solution to this was to give him a majority. But that was a hopelessly naive reading of the situation (which deep down he must have known) and would only have worked with a much larger majority which was never going to be feasible.

All it takes is a handful of Tories to rebel on any government measure (and MPs are now more rebellious than they have ever been) and we will continue to see the SNP tail wagging the Tory dog.

I'm not sure how Cameron goes about explaining this away after all his unrealistic pre-election promises.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Tory 2015 ground campaign shows how we need a new electoral system

There's a must-read piece today on Conservative Home from Mark Wallace where he goes through the Tory ground campaign operation in painstaking detail from its inception in the aftermath of the 2012 Omnishambles Budget through to election day,

It's a brilliantly researched post and I am sure many in politics across the parties will be reading and absorbing it to see what lessons can be learned for future campaigns.

I however, as is my wont have absorbed a slightly different lesson. And that is just how utterly broken our electoral system is.

The following sections leaped out at me:

The majority would be won by campaigns targeted directly at a relatively small number of groups, each composed of a relatively small number of people in a relatively small number of seats.

and:

During the last 28 weeks of the campaign, Team 2015 supplied 26,000 campaigning days in the target seats. While this effort was not a replacement for the wider party (or for the contribution of other supporting groups, such as the pro-hunting Vote-OK group, which contributed campaigners in around 25 seats, or the various Conservative “Friends of” groups), it was an undeniably valuable contribution. If just 901 people in the most marginal seats had voted Labour instead of Conservative, last month’s majority would never have been achieved: every one of those days spent campaigning was crucial.

Mark (no fan of electoral reform himself) is essentially admitting just how broken things are here. Almost all the focus of the Tory ground campaign was on a tiny, tiny sliver of swing voters in a very small number of constituencies.

The Tories were of course right to focus on them. That's how you win elections as we've just seen. Well, to be more accurate that's how you win elections under First Past the Post. If Labour want to win again in 2020 they'll have to focus on these same narrow tranche of voters too.

But what a dreadful, anti-democratic situation this is where such huge efforts by the main parties are put into wooing a few thousand voters out of tens of millions. And of course what then happens is that the policy offerings are tailored to suit these tiny number of people who are not representative of the country as a whole.

There is one other, slightly more subtle point I was want to make about the detail from this piece too. You'll recall that in 2011 there was a referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system for Westminster which the Tories vociferously campaigned against arguing that our current First Past the Post system is much better. They won of course but just bear with me.

One of the things about the Alternative Vote that is an improvement over First Past the Post is the amount of information that the counting system then has about the choices of each voter. Instead of just a simple X against a single party in a binary fashion there are rankings. So the counting system knows who the voter's second, third, fourth etc. choice is and that can then be processed by the counting system to ensure an outcome closer to that that the majority of the voters in the seat would want.

Now check this out:

The Survey. With 14 questions ... this was intended to be a swift but effective way of identifying voters. The strategists worked to move away from a binary model of identification – Tory or not, Labour or not – and to collect more subtle information, rating people’s enthusiasm for various parties on a scale of 1 to 10. 
Such data has a practical use: with the kind of hyper-targeted communications CCHQ was planning, it needed to know as much as possible about people’s interests and concerns in order to segment them accurately.

Does this sound familiar? Yes, the Tories were using a much more sophisticated approach in their canvassing to assess in a more nuanced way how strong or weak their support was. In a very similar way to how AV allows an electoral system to assess support for parties in a more nuanced way. Of course the Tories then used this information to bludgeon those it deemed likely to vote for them with squeeze messages to push them through the binary system to their eventual electoral advantage and success.

But it is very, very telling that even those stalwart opponents of reform recognise that a binary filter is such a poor way of assessing people's views that they have even abandoned it for their own canvassing.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

This is the speech that Liz Kendall could give that would make me join the Labour Party

If Liz Kendall* gave a speech similar to the following during her leadership campaign I would immediately join the Labour Party as a member and campaign internally for her to be the next leader. Then if she won the leadership I would remain a member and campaign for Labour during this parliament:


I would like to see the Labour Party achieve an overall majority at the next election. Of course I would. I have been a member of this party for over 20 years and passionately believe that it is the best vehicle we have in our country for social justice and to help people get on and get up.

However I think as a party we need to recognise the huge uphill battle that we face to do this. We are in a similar position to where we were in 1983 and we all know how long it took us to get from there to power again.

I don't know about you but I don't want to wait 14 years.

But there is something else lurking in the background following the general election. It is the growing feeling that great swathes of our country are left unrepresented in parliament. Some of this can be addressed by changing the House of Lords to be elected as we can and must do. But that will still leave the fact that a million people voted for the Green Party and they only got one MP. And UKIP got 3.9 million votes and also only one MP. To put that second one into perspective, if it had taken the same proportion of voters to elect a Labour MP we would only have 2 MPs. That is simply indefensible.

Now this is a difficult subject for us. The current electoral system has been in place for a long time and it has had some advantages for the country, but also if we're honest for our party too. For the country, the clear link between a constituency and their representative has been very important. And in the days when ourselves and the Conservative Party got well over 90% of the vote it usually picked the right winner. The fact it effectively gave a slight "winner's bonus" didn't matter so much when there were very few other parties and they were so much smaller.

But we don't live in the 1950s any more.

We have to face the fact that our electoral system simply cannot cope with a multi-party world. In this election just gone the Conservatives got 37% of the vote but over 50% of the seats. But we have to recognise that in for example 2005 we got 36% of the vote and even more seats than the Tories got this time. Neither of these results are fair in any conventional understanding of the word.

And that is important. Because we are the party of fairness. We want everyone in our wonderful country to benefit from great schools, hospitals and other public services. We want nobody left behind. We are the party of social justice.

But it is simply not good enough to say we want fairness in our public services and in our economy whilst at the same time defending a political system that gives parties over half the seats in parliament on barely a third of the vote.

The time has come to stand up for what is right.

Now I won't pretend that there isn't a little bit of self-interest for our party in this. The near wipeout we have suffered in Scotland with the SNP having over 90% of the seats on 50% of the Scottish vote means that without a more proportional system we will struggle to get more than a handful of MPs there in future given how radically its politics has changed. And there are huge areas of the country in the South East and South West in particular where despite in some areas 20% of the vote or more we have very few MPs.

So reform of the system would help us in some ways.

But we should also recognise it would not help us in other ways. We got just over 30% of the vote at the recent election but we got over 36% of the seats. The system has protected us against what could have been an even worse result. There is also the chance that over the next election or two as our opponents become mired in the difficulties of government that the pendulum swings back towards us and we can end up the largest party or perhaps even a majority government in the next decade or so.

But frankly those are simply not good enough reasons for us to accept such a manifestly broken system.

We need a system that allows all voices, across the political spectrum to be heard. I genuinely believe that there is a progressive majority in this country and that when all the tactical and negative votes cast under first past the post are stripped out we will see that our party is still one of the largest and I would strive to make it the largest. But we will then be able to forge alliances with other parties of the left and centre and govern as a truly one nation government.

I fully recognise this will be a difficult decision for us as a party to take. But we have had other times in our history when we faced a choice between the easy option and the more difficult but worthwhile one.

The 1945 government of Clement Atlee founded the NHS and the modern welfare state despite opposition from the establishment. The 1997 Blair government introduced the minimum wage and devolved power to Scotland, Wales and London. All of these were hugely progressive steps not all of which benefitted our party but which benefitted the country immensely.

We are the party of progress and there is nothing more progressive than ensuring everybody's vote counts.


For me now there is nothing in politics more important than electoral reform. The last election shows just how desperately needed it is. But I now also recognise that it is only going to come about if the Labour Party, partly with an element of self-interest but also partly because they begin to see it is the right thing to do get behind it. Without that I expect I will see no change to the system within my lifetime, hence my willingness to put any other ideological issues to one side and join them if they were willing to campaign for such a change.


*I am singling out Liz Kendall here because of the three Labour leadership candidates she's the only one I can imagine ever giving a speech like this, and even then I recognise how unlikely it would be given the huge opposition within her party to change there would be. But I cannot forsee Burnham or Cooper ever doing anything like this at all. If they did however I would also join up and fight for them.

Monday, 25 May 2015

There is one thing Labour needs to do that is more important than who they choose as leader

So the Labour leadership campaign is off and running. It is of course important that they choose the right person to lead them through the next parliament and into the next election.

For what it is worth, from what I have seen so far I think Liz Kendall would be the best leader of the runners. I think she has the best chance of moving the party more onto the centre-ground where it needs to be and she is also not tainted by direct association with the Blair or Brown regimes unlike Burnham and Cooper. From a personal perspective she also seems to be more liberal than many in her party.

However there is something even more important than choosing their next leader that Labour needs to do. And I would suggest their window of opportunity for doing it is limited to the next few months before the next leader is chosen.

It is simply to make it easier to get rid of a sitting leader.

I have watched now, twice in succession Labour go into a general election with a leader who was not likely to win the election for them.

First Gordon Brown after "The Election That Never Was" in 2007 was damaged goods and was clearly not going to be able to win a majority or even be the largest party in a hung parliament. It was obvious that Cameron was going to beat him. But despite several attempts to unseat Brown (e.g. James Purnell resigning immediately after the Euro elections in 2009, the "Snow Plot" of early 2010 etc.) none came to fruition.

And more recently Ed Miliband. Although the polls seemed to indicate he had a chance against Cameron there were two indicators that militated strongly against him, i.e. his personal ratings against Cameron (who always led by a long way on this metric) and the party's economic ratings. There actually was not an attempt to unseat Miliband but given how difficult it is to unseat a Labour leader that is not surprising.

Labour just cannot afford to yet again find themselves sleepwalking into an electoral massacre with a leader who is not up to the job. So regardless of who wins the leadership the party needs to find a way to modify its constitution to enable an unsuitable leader to be removed from office as its leader much more easily than is currently the case. That way come 2017 or 2018 if it becomes clear that whoever they have chosen is not right they can get rid of them and try again.

The Conservatives got rid of IDS in 2003 when it became clear he was going to lead them into another disastrous defeat. And although they still lost in 2005 it was by a much narrower margin than they almost certainly would have done and hence paved the way for Cameron in 2010 to become PM. Labour need to take a leaf out of their book and create a structure that allows them to be more ruthless.

If they are serious about getting back into power in the next decade they absolutely have to do this,