Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 30 May 2011

Not confident about "Confidence and Supply"

On Saturday, Andrew Grice wrote in The Independent that sources have told him the idea of a "confidence and supply" arrangement between the Conservatives and Lib Dems is now back on the cards. It was mooted in the aftermath of the election result last year before the coalition was formed and would allow the Lib Dems to oppose certain pieces of legislation but allow through others that it supported. However it would mean losing the government positions and what we would effectively end up with would be a Conservative minority government with an arrangement for important legislation such as the budget to be supported by the Lib Dems in return for some influence.

Apparently there are suggestions that such an arrangement could be put into place a year or 18 months before the next general election as part of a "decoupling phase" for the two governing parties.

I posted a blog on this subject last year where I suggested the following:

The problem with this approach is that I am not convinced that all of the public will make the distinction between C&S and a full coalition. Some will just be vaguely aware that we "propped up the Tories". I expect this will be drummed into them by Labour candidates in every LD/Labour seat.

We should think very carefully before entering into something like this. I am far from convinced that this is the right way forward. It would be better to either walk away altogether or go for a full blooded coalition.

I think a halfway house could leave us with very little influence but considerable political exposure on the downside.

I am afraid I stand by this analysis. Except now it would be even worse. Because the Lib Dems would be strongly criticised for not have the staying power, guts, call it what you will to see the government through to the end of its term. Instead they will be perceived as having "cut and run" in order to try and distance itself from its own record in government. Whatever the downsides of a confidence and supply arrangement may have been initially, at least the party would have had a consistent story to tell about what it had decided to do. Were they to initiate any sort of "decoupling" like this I think the party would be reduced to a laughing stock.

But even worse, lots of people would not fully realise what had happened. They would still see the government in place taking decisions and the Lib Dems (largely) supporting it. So effectively a good chunk of the electorate would still perceive the Lib Dems as being part of or at least complicit in the decisions of the government. Except for the people who do realise and who deride them for bottling it!

As tempting as it might be for Lib Dems in parliament to try and find a way to extricate themselves from this government, the only realistic choice now is to stay the course and do their best to show the difference they have made in government.

Anything else will be seen as weakness and dithering which we know from previous experience in politics is usually fatal.

Monday, 23 May 2011

John Hemming MP abuses parliamentary privilege

So it's finally out in the open. Today in parliament, the Lib Dem MP John Hemming outed Ryan Giggs as the footballer at the centre of the Imogen Thomas affair superinjunction. You can watch him doing it, and the Speaker's robust* (and in my opinion correct) admonishment of him here:

It had become pretty much common knowledge for anyone with a Twitter account, or Scottish newsagent that Giggs was the culprit. So it could be argued that all Hemming was doing was bringing an unsustainable situation to a head.

I think this is wrong. Parliamentary privilege exists in order to make sure that parliament can freely speak on issues without fear of its MPs being prosecuted. There are situations where this is vital for our democracy and it should be a cherished and carefully used privilege. It should not be used to out philandering footballers who have allegedly been sleeping with former reality TV contestants.

There are various arguments about superinjunctions going on at the moment and I have some reservations about how they are currently being used. But it is not the place for a member of parliament to unilaterally decide to flout a court order under protection of this ancient parliamentary right on such a trivial matter.

Not least because the more this right is abused, the more likely it is in future to start to be eroded. I can certainly imagine if this sort of thing continues that eventually the argument will be put forward that there are certain things currently covered that need to be excluded from parliamentary privilege. I for one would not want to see that happening. It is telling that most MPs of all parties are reportedly very annoyed with Hemming. I suspect they are concerned about this too.

MPs need to make sure this debate never gets started, because who knows where it could lead. Nowhere good for our democracy I am sure.

*Incidentally, I am wondering if Bercow could have asked for Hemming's contribution of specifically naming Giggs to have been redacted from the parliamentary record and edited out of Hansard? Does anyone know if this is an option that was open to him or whether even if it was it would have opened its own can of worms?

How No2AV poisoned the coalition well

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

When the coalition first formed last May, I found myself in an odd position. Having been a member of and involved in campaigning for the Lib Dems and of course against the Conservatives, I now found myself as a member of a party that had 57 MPs, 5 cabinet ministers and a Deputy Prime Minister that were part of a government with the Conservatives and led by David Cameron.

Over the next few weeks and months I did start to find my perceptions of Cameron changing a little. I had previously seen him as a bit of a political chancer and had witnessed first hand his dissembling and obfuscation on the subject of drugs policy when I had questioned him at a "Cameron Direct" event. Various other things he had said and done, not least during the leader debates had only firmed up this view.

But his "open" offer of cooperation to the Lib Dems on the morning after the elections, combined with the fairly graceful way in which he seemed to be willing to share power and allow a decent chunk of the Lib Dem manifesto to be included in the government programme started a slight thawing of my view of him. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't about to send my application form for membership off to CCHQ or anything but things like the way he handled the Bloody Sunday inquiry announcement for example without trying to wriggle and the way he seemed to fit the role of PM pretty well was somewhat impressive.

I suspect that some other Lib Dems shared this rather odd feeling. After all, it's only natural when you see the leaders of your party day in, day out being nice and polite about the leaders and senior politicians of another party that at the very least you become a bit more willing to listen to their arguments and to an extent give them the benefit of the doubt. Of course there were aspects of the government programme I did not agree with but I generally had an optimistic and positive outlook about how the two parties in government were working and could work together in the future.

This all changed for me however in the last few weeks of the AV campaign.

If I had to pinpoint a moment, it was when the No2AV campaign released literature saying that AV would lead to broken promises and cited things like tuition fees etc. that they said were examples of Nick Clegg's broken promises.

I'm not arguing here about the rights and wrongs of the tuition fee decision. That has been debated endlessly elsewhere. What I am arguing is that for the Conservative led and funded No campaign to use the argument that their coalition partners had gone back on promises, when it was precisely because both parties were supposed to be coming together in the national interest, as Cameron had claimed he wanted on that Friday morning last May that those compromises had needed to be made was an utter betrayal. And I do not accept the argument that the No campaign was separate from the Conservatives. If Cameron had wanted to he could have stopped this line. He clearly wanted to win the campaign more than he wanted to preserve coalition cohesion and unity.

I suspect plenty will say I was naive to have expected anything else and they are probably right. Maybe I did get a little bit carried away with the idea that the two parties could genuinely do something new and work together without the usual politicking. But the result now is that any residual goodwill I had for Cameron and the Conservative leadership has been flushed down the toilet. I now have very little trust for them. And I suspect any other Lib Dems who may have had similar views to those I had last year will also have been given pause for thought.

If others across the party, including in parliament share my view, then in the long term this will be damaging for Cameron. With the Lib Dems both inside and outside the government now much more suspicious of his motives he will inevitably find it harder to get agreement. We are already seeing Nick Clegg standing firm on various aspects of the NHS reforms. The Tories can complain about what they perceive as "grandstanding" on this as much as they like but they have brought it on themselves. Clegg having a recent undisguised dig at Cameron on the NHS was only responding to the new ground rules laid down by Cameron during the AV campaign. Cameron is now a legitimate target for this sort of thing and it is his own fault. If he is going to allow attacks on the Lib Dems for "betraying their principles" then he is going to have to expect the party to damn well stand up more strongly for its principles.

Cameron probably felt he had no choice but to pull out all the stops to win the AV campaign and he may have been right. Had he lost it, defenestration may not have been far behind. But the way he went about it has poisoned the well of the coalition, certainly as far as I am concerned.

And he is going to have to get used to the Lib Dems now publicly as well as privately speaking their minds on all sorts of issues. After all, that's what his No2AV campaign demanded should happen didn't it, rather than "behind the scenes stitch ups"?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

What's wrong with our politics in a single paragraph

On the Spectator Coffee House blog today, in a piece ostensibly about Ken Clarke's current woes, James Forsyth mentions the following in the opening paragraph:

Dominic Grieve’s fate as shadow Home Secretary was sealed by a lunch at News International headquarters in Wapping. Grieve went to lunch with various Sun executives and rather than talking tough on crime he laid into the paper for how it covered the issue, claiming that it stoked fear of crime. The word then came back to Tory high command, via Andy Coulson, that the paper would not endorse the Tories as long as Grieve remained in that job. He was duly replaced by Chris Grayling in the 'pub-ready reshuffle' of January 2009 after less than a year in the job.

Doesn't that just sum up a big part of what is wrong with our politics in a single paragraph?

It shouldn't be for executives of national newspapers to decide who is or is not appointed to cabinet and shadow cabinet positions. Sadly it is all too easy to believe what the extremely well connected Forsyth states above.

This is why subjects like drugs policy, crime and the like can never be debated rationally as part of political discourse because politicians are terrified of what newspapers might say and therefore how discussing controversial subjects may well terminate their political career. So they generally steer clear. When they don't they are crucified as Ken Clarke is finding out today.

I just wish politicians, including those right at the top would grow some backbone and stand up to the vested interests in these newspapers. I guess though whilst they have the circulation and the implicit power that gives, this pattern will continue.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The big winner from last Thursday is George Osborne

There has been a lot of talk about how (apart from Alex Salmond of course) the biggest winner from last Thursday's election and referendum results was David Cameron. Indeed Cameron is certainly in a strengthened position now having incredibly increased his share of council seats despite being a year into a government that has made big public spending cuts and increased taxation. And the fact that the AV referendum failed by such a large margin shows that Cameron can be a winner when he puts his mind to it (albeit slightly late in the day in this case).

But I think the biggest winner from last week is Chancellor George Osborne. It is widely known that Osborne was the one who stiffened Cameron's spine and got him to focus on the consequences of a Yes vote for the party. In this excellent comprehensive account of the No campaign by Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home at the weekend he explains how it was only when Osborne starkly relayed this message to Cameron that he properly got it.

And once the brakes were off I have been told that Osborne then put a bit of stick about (to coin an Urquhartism) within the No campaign making it clear that they had to pull out all the stops to win. His interventions during the latter part of the campaign will doubtless have been music to the ears of many Tory activists too.

Allied to this is the fact that he is a Chancellor that is responsible for the biggest spending cuts this country seen in modern times and yet the public does not seem to want to blame him for them. Some deft political footwork (and a bit of luck - always important for a putative leader) has led to the Lib Dems getting the lion's share of the blame. Witness how it is Danny Alexander who ends up going onto the media regularly to defend Treasury decisions, not Osborne.

When you weigh up the fact that the Tory base are very happy with his performance, coupled with his behind the scenes successes during the last few weeks of campaigning it becomes more and more clear that at the moment at least there is no serious alternative challenger for the Tory leadership. Hague does not seem to want it and there are no other obvious contenders. Were Cameron to fall under the proverbial bus tomorrow I suspect Osborne would walk it.

But longer term Osborne is in a great position too. It is often assumed that the retention of FPTP and the boundary changes will benefit Cameron. And indeed they will to an extent, but they will equally benefit his successor, perhaps more so. I think it is quite likely that Cameron will step down during the next parliament. As I recall he has hinted that may well happen. The Tories are likely to still be in government after the next general election if the economy comes good before 2015. And of course if the economy comes good it will be Osborne who will get the lion's share of the credit, you can bet on it.

Had AV passed, a Tory majority (or even coalition or minority) government would have been a fair bit less likely after 2015. No wonder Osborne felt the need to get involved!

A lot can happen over the next four years and none of what I have said above is guaranteed. But Osborne's star is rising rapidly. If events pan out for him we could well find our next Prime Minister is another Chancellor who used careful behind the scenes manoeuvring to win the ultimate crown.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The AV campaign was a disgrace from both sides

I am writing this just before 9am the morning after the AV referendum ballot. As of yet the result has not been announced. Polls just before the start of voting showed a very strong lead for the No camp. It is still possible Yes could win, after all we don't often have referenda in this country and polling is not an exact science. However on balance it is looking quite likely that No will win the day.

I expect that as a strong Yes supporter I will be accused by some regarding what I am about to write of sour grapes. However I hope most will take it in the spirit in which it is intended which is an attempt to look at the consequences of the way this referendum campaign was run for future referenda. And I am afraid it is not looking good.

Politicians often bend the truth during election campaigns. It is in the nature of the game. However it is very unusual for them to outright lie about things. Partly because there is always the chance that something like what happened to Phil Woolas last year can happen if they can be shown to have knowingly lied about an opponent. There is an ultimate body to answer to. Partly because most politicians know they will be facing the electorate again in a few years time and if they have lied there is always the chance they will be called on this and exposed which could damage their credibility and chance of re-election.

Neither of those sanctions exist for referendum campaigns in this country. The Advertising Standards Agency do not police referendum campaign advertising. And the Electoral Commission do not rule on referendum campaigns either. This was made clear during the campaign. That effectively means that as far as I can tell, both sides in a referendum campaign can pretty much say what they like and it is up to the other side to rebut these claims.

That is what we have seen happen in the last few months. Neither side has covered itself in glory. I am very, very disappointed with the Yes campaign. I have largely kept my powder dry during the campaign as I did not see the point in saying anything publicly when we were still trying to win but it has struck me as unfocused and completely failing in what should have been its primary function which was to educate people about how the AV system works and what it would mean for people's votes. Instead they have been distracted by adverts making out all MPs to be venal and endless "petitions" to the BBC about semantics, the No campaign about its donors etc. which nobody outside of the campaigns would have been interested in at all. Masses of wasted time and energy. The Yes campaign is also guilty of bending the truth in a number of respects and also not being clear enough in its messaging. The message about MPs getting "50% of the vote" should have been clarified from the start. Something like a rider saying "of those preferences remaining in the final round" would have stopped the No camp from being able to portray this as untrue. Basic, basic stuff surely? There are other things about the Yes camp too which I will likely blog about in the aftermath.

But against this, the No campaign is the worst and most deceitful campaign it has ever been my misfortune to witness at close quarters. There are two of the main planks of the No campaign that are by any yardstick I can think of, out and out lies.

The first is the claim that AV would cost £250 million. This was made up (literally) of the £80 million already spent on the referendum which would be spent whichever way people voted, £130 million for electronic counting machines that simply will not be needed and the rest on voter education and other expenses. The whys and wherefores of these figures have been debated endlessly and I for one am sick to the back teeth of even talking about them any more. Fact check after fact check from various sources (including HM Treasury) have made it clear that there is absolutely no need for counting machines. The vote counting process is relatively straightforward and even for several rounds of redistribution will only take a few more hours of manual counting. The only cost that moving to AV would incur is some voter education (a few million at most) and a little bit more overtime for counting staff in some polling stations. Perhaps £20 million at absolute most. So I repeat, the £250 million figure is a lie. And yesterday, David Blunkett, one of the leading lights of the No campaign admitted as much in a unguarded moment. He stated that it was made up and seemed to try and excuse this by dint of the fact that this was a campaign. Alas his candour was likely much too late to make a difference to many people's votes despite attempts by Yes supporters to virally promote his admission on Twitter and other social networks.

The other main element of the No campaign that is untrue is the claim that voters get multiple votes if they choose candidates that drop out. Of all the claims, this is the one I am most sick of arguing with people. So I will just say it once here. In every round, everyone who has expressed a preference that is still attached to a remaining candidate will still have their ballot counted. Everyone. Including those who vote for the eventual winning and runner-up candidate. This claim seems to rely on the fact that it takes maybe 30 seconds or a minute to explain how the counting process works and as long as they shout "KEEP ONE PERSON ONE VOTE" loudly enough, people will believe that some voters get more than one vote. Sadly, it looks like as a tactic it has worked.

But there is no point now in complaining about the behaviour of the No and Yes camps. They ceased to exist as of 10pm yesterday.

And that is my broader point. There is no accountability for what either side did. Some have suggested to me that the result will count as the verdict on the campaign but can that really be true when such distortions and downright lies have been bandied about from the Prime Minister and Chancellor down? How can we be confident that they way people have voted is based on a fair and balanced assessment of the merits or otherwise of sticking with FPTP vs switching to AV?

The truth is we cannot. This is why I am now questioning whether referenda in the UK has any future. What we saw happen during the AV campaign is all the worst elements of our political system (spin, distortions, soundbites as substitute for actual debate) writ large with no accountability.

There are some very important questions that may need to be decided in the UK in the next few years. Scotland may be asked if it wants to be independent from the UK. We may want to decide whether to join the Euro or more likely leave the EU. After the only referendum campaign in my political lifetime has been executed in such a dreadful manner, irrespective of the result, I cannot see how we can go through this sort of thing over and over again on such important questions and consider any result to have real legitimacy.

I don't know what the answer is. I can see there are big problems in trying to make sure referendum campaigns are regulated but surely to God we have to do something to make sure we don't go through another campaign like the one we have just had to endure?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The main reason to vote Yes to the Alternative Vote today #Yes2AV

There have been lots of arguments bandied back and forth about the Alternative Vote versus First Past the Post in the last few months, some of which are good and sadly many of which have been pretty poor.

However there is one argument that for me at least is the overriding reason why I will be voting Yes later on today.

It allows people to vote for who they actually want to vote for.

I know there are some who will claim the current system allows you to do that but there are far too many cases where that is not true, at least not if you want to be able to make a difference to the final outcome. In far too many seats a vote for a candidate that has little chance at the moment of winning is effectively wasted. And worse than that is the fact that under those circumstances a voter can easily end up with an MP that they and many of their fellow constituents actively strongly dislike and disagree with but because all they have been able to do is put an X next to one candidate, they have not been able to express this view.

So in lots of cases, what people do under FPTP is to vote "tactically". In other words they vote for a candidate that is not really their first choice but has a good chance of winning in order to keep out a strongly disliked candidate elsewhere on the slate. FPTP already forces many who want to make a difference to the outcome to do an AV type ranking in their heads but then further complicates it by requiring the voter to then work out who of their most preferred candidates is most likely to win. At least with AV this will become unnecessary. Because a voter could then rank their candidates in order of preference they will no longer have to choose between voting with their heart and voting with their head. They can choose their most preferred candidate as their number 1 but still select other candidates in positions 2 and 3 in order that if their 1 drops out they still have a say. To my mind that is much more democratic than the current system.

There are other good reasons to vote Yes too today but the one above is the main reason I will be doing so.