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A Change of Programme

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on July 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

Today the government faces the threat of defeat on a high-profile piece of legislation: Lords Reform. Specifically, the government are looking vulnerable on one particular programme motion. Ed Miliband says he supports the principle of Lords reform, but that the government should not limit discussion on the bill to 23 days, which is what the programme motion would do. Mark Ferguson at Labour List, in this article, correctly to my mind, reads this not as an opportunity to beat the government at the somewhat tedious game of Commons divisions, but to stick to principles. He exhorts Miliband to reverse his decision, stick to his principles and vote for the programme motion.

Now, the issue is only salient because 100 or so Conservative MPs are threatening to break their party whip on the programme motion. This means that the government might well lose the vote on the programme motion; and the last time a Lords Reform Bill had its accompanying programme motion defeated, the whole Bill had to be scrapped entirely. Hence Ferguson’s exhortation to vote for the programme motion – while Miliband can inflict a momentary defeat on the Coalition have a tremendous laugh about it, such an action would risk undermining Labour’s commitment to an elected Lords. Ferguson thus invokes the supremacy of principle over short-term political gain to advocate a change of course.

However, this is to ignore the arguments against the programme motion. They centre around the fact that the Lords Reform Bill is a constitutional motion; moreover, it is a constitutional motion of some importance. Previously, bills that made significant changes to the constitution have not been time limited, to allow full discussion on the floor of the Commons, rather than limiting it to a bill committee with a limited timeframe.

This is particularly important considering the range of issues that haven’t been fully discussed. Are there sufficient safeguards for the primacy of the Commons? Ought there to be a referendum on such a substantial change, as Labour have argued? Will the new composition of the Lords secure the same representation for minority groups as the current composition (see, e.g. this piece on ConHome that argues that disabled people will be less well represented)? If new Senators are elected to 15-year non-renewable terms, how does the electorate hold them to account?

These are clearly not specious questions, though they may be deployed speciously against the programme motion. The 100 or so Tory rebels are 100 or so Tories who do not want to see the Lords become elected. Miliband is undoubtedly leading his 250 odd Labour MPs against the programme motion to allow these 100 or so Tories to spend hours upon hours arguing against their government on every conceivable point, creating an impression of disunity in the Coalition and frustrating the remainder of its legislative programme. These 100 or so Tory rebels would dearly like to make life hard for Nick Clegg, who, by abstaining on a confidence motion, made life hard for Jeremy Hunt.

So what really niggles me is that these procedural arguments – though they may be tedious, they are exceptionally important – are taking second fiddle to the realpolitik of the situation. It’s easy to see why. But we simply assume that there are 100 Tory MPs voting against the government solely to spite the Lib Dems, that Labour MPs are voting against the motion simply to spite the Coalition, and no-one is actually thinking about the content of the programme motion itself. There are definitely MPs on both sides who want this bill to pass with proper scrutiny, and they arrived at this conclusion without the influence of realpolitik. It’s doing a disservice to our MPs to assume that all they are interested in is getting one up on one another; Miliband may actually have an embarrassment of good reasons to be opposed to the programme motion while supporting the second reading of the Bill.

David Cameron used the argument in the Commons today that we have talking about Lords Reform for 100 years, so now’s not the time to have yet more debate. We have also been debating the disestablishment of the Church of England, a European Community of Nations, the Monarchy, Ulster, Scotland and many other important constitutional questions for 100 years. That the issues have proved complex and intricate, contentious and important for a substantial period of time is no argument for curtailing debate on the questions: if anything it demonstrates that more and more careful thought is required. Especially when a government committee as promised in the Coalition agreement could not find anything approaching a consensus, and the current bill has been shot down by a Join Committee of both houses.

The instinct – to shut down the issue within 23 days and move on – betrays a government that is eager to get many things done, but also one that does not welcome the scrutiny that should be brought to such an important question. I would speculate that this is because, in our age of 24-hour news, politicians have lost the knack of carefully considering and reworking proposals; after all, if there was a news vacuum, a small change in an important bill might look like weakness.

I happen to be against this particular Bill for reforming the House of Lords. Perhaps that’s why I have time for the procedural points on the programme motion. But I would like to think, if there was a major constitutional change I did support, I would at least have the time to appreciate the importance of the matter and the patience to listen and take on board objections, and not guillotine debate. Debate on the Lords Reform Bill should not be guillotined; constitutional matters are too important to be rushed. That, Mark Ferguson, is a point of principle also.

House of Cards (and Liberals)

In Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on July 30, 2011 at 12:13 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

With silly season on the horizon,will David Cameron and Nick Clegg take, like the Daily Soapbox, a new layout?

KEY: Name, Position, Party, Likely Movement: Comment

David Cameron, PM, Con, No Change: The only chance of movement here is personal tragedy or palace coup. Neither seems likely; having led the Conservatives back to government, and seeing their vote hold up in the polls, and being rated highest of the three party leaders, any dissidents in the party will likely be quelled. Read the rest of this entry »

Cameron Should Have Been in the Commons Today

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, The Media on July 11, 2011 at 10:46 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Most days, the Prime Minister doesn’t turn up to the House of Commons. Most days, he doesn’t have to. Most government policy-making and implementing occurs outside the House. Not today, however. The business today was Education Questions, the Public Service Reform White Paper, Jeremy Hunt’s Statement on Phone Hacking and the last stages of the Europe Bill – as well as a debate on crime victims in the EU and an adjournment debate, both scheduled so late (crime started at 21:00) to make any movement supremely unlikely. Cameron had reason to attend all the important business of the day.

Education questions [WATCH] were the least important to attend, but the Conservatives have by far the most comprehensive policy on education. Michael Gove has made some strong announcements on school discipline of late, and Cameron would only benefit from being associated with those. Michael Gove is also an amusing performer, and it would have done Cameron no harm to laugh at some of the more witty jokes.

Cameron pre-empted the public service bill [READ] at a press conference in Wapping, of all places (where, famously, News International is based). Oliver Letwin then got up in the House [WATCH] and did it better. While Cameron should not have led on the paper (after all, he didn’t write it), it is an important plank of the Big Society agenda. Since this is the least understood part of the Tory position, Cameron should have attended the presentation of the paper that builds on his signature themes: people power, choice, decentralisation. While his press conference brought the move some initial publicity, it was buried in the live feed of Hunt’s statement.

And he should really have been present for that one. Ed Miliband was planning to turn up, as was half the house. To be seen during Hunt’s statement [WATCH – SHORT] [WATCH – LONG] – or even giving a statement additional to Hunt’s – would have made him appear strong. He would have been vulnerable on points about Andy Coulson, and may even have had to say that Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, did not communicate concerns about him, or else face total embarrassment. But, as it was, Alan Johnson was able to make a wise crack about the monkey being present and not the organ grinder, and Hunt was unable to provide answers on points about the Prime Minister’s staff. Hunt, for his part, performed well, despite the rather pathetic set of cards he had to play, and even made some purchase against Ed Miliband’s rather shrill attack by saying that the matter transcended party politics. This tactic would have played even better if the Tory backbench had got the hint and not taken to asking partisan questions. Cameron’s additional gravitas would have helped the backbench get the message, and would have enabled him to at least put a brave face on the matter and face down Labour’s criticisms, even if he only provided a politician’s answer.

The Europe Bill (Lords Amendments) [READ] is a more extended piece, and Cameron need only have stayed for the first few speeches. Europe is an issue on which the Coalition may fracture, and is an important issue for those on the right of the party that he has, as yet, been unable to carry with him. His presence would have given the impression that he remained concerned about Europe, like many backbenchers and party members.

Cameron missed a trick by not making a statement directly following Hunt’s. He will take questions from the Commons on Wednesday, and unless Greece or Italy defaults on their debts or Birmingham falls into a black hole, Coulson will dominate. If he had answered questions today, he would have fulfilled his duty to the House to answer questions, and be able to present Labour, as Hunt tried to do today, as excessively partisan. Labour MPs brought half a dozen points of order saying that Cameron should come to the House for a statement – while the Speaker does not have the power to compel the Prime Minister to come to the House, it is bemusing that journos now regularly get in ahead of MPs, and on different days, doubling the amount of negative headlines for Cameron.

In short, Cameron today gave Labour an open goal, and missed several opportunities to bolster his brand, and, while he was at it, the House of Commons and the political class. Jeremy Hunt appeared weak and isolated, with senior cabinet members, such as Osborne and Hague, also conspicuously absent. This undermined Hunt and the government. It would have been worse risking embarrassment, even if he had turned round, said that he got that one completely wrong, and would not make that mistake again. Honesty is, usually, the best policy. Hiding behind other news stories just delays the inevitable bollocking.

Soapbox debates: The Alternative Vote

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Soapbox Debates on May 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Stephan Wan, polarii, David Weber, James Langford, Jack Blankley, Ronald Collinson

With the referendum on 5th May rapidly approaching, The Daily Soapbox has decided to help any remaining floating voters make up their minds about AV (the Alternative Vote), by using it for the first of our written debates, in which 6 of us give our views about AV, along with how we intend to vote in the referendum.

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead’? Yes or no?

Stephan Wan: YES

This is not a perfect question. There is no doubt that in an ideal world, we would not be seeing just a choice between Alternative Vote (AV) and First Past The Post (FPTP), but also with other voting systems. However, this is not an ideal world, and ultimately we are faced with a simple choice. Is the AV system better than FPTP? The answer is yes. The AV system is both a more legitimate and more effective voting system, that has both fairer process and fairer outcomes.

Firstly, in what sense does AV involve fairer process? A good electoral system must seek to accommodate and realise the preferences of the electorate – the more a system takes into account the wishes of the voters, the better a system it is. AV allows exactly this – the system gives every voter the right to rank the candidates from the one they want the most, to the one they want the least. In comparison, FPTP allows no such choice – it does not reflect what views you have on other candidates, or your preference relations between them. This problem leads to the phenomena of tactical voting; currently, the voter may vote for a candidate other than the one they most support, in order to prevent another candidate from winning who they least support. AV eliminates tactical voting, by allowing these preferences to be shown on the ballot paper. AV is a better system for reflecting voter preferences.

AV graph

Secondly, in what sense does AV involve fairer outcomes? A good electoral system must also seek to result in the election of candidates who have the support of the majority of the electorate. The greater the correlation between the outcome of the election, and the preference of the electorate, the better the electoral system it is. FPTP has a poor record of correlation between outcome and preference – constituencies can have MPs elected on as little as 30% of the vote. AV will in theory work in a far better way – candidates must gain over 50% of the vote to win, either outright through gaining 50% of first preference votes, or through the reallocation of second and subsequent preferences. AV thus ensures that over 50% of the voters will have in some way chosen the winning candidate over all other candidates. This is more legitimate than FPTP – AV is a better system for fairer outcomes.

polarii: NO

Before laying out my case against AV on the issues of practicality – Ronnie and James will have much more to add in other respects – I shall briefly rebut some of Stephen’s points. He argues that tactical voting is a problem; why then, does he advocate a system that encourages it? In FPTP, when a ballot paper is marked, some electors do indeed consider the wider ramifications of voting, rather than just what they want. In AV, voters also consider the wider ramifications, but simply mark a second preference to indicate their ‘tactical’ choice. Instead of removing the problem, it legitimises it.

Furthermore, where preferences are not filled to the bottom of the ballot, there will be a significant number of ballots will be blank, which will be counted as ‘spoiled’ after round 1. So it is not necessarily true that MPs elected under AV will have 50% of votes cast.

AV is used in Australian, Fijian, and Papua New Guinean Parliamentary elections, and Irish and Indian Presidential elections. In Ireland, a major party is always returned to the presidency, and half the elections have been uncontested since 1980; the Congress Party has won every Indian election since its formation. Though both have had fewer hung parliaments than the UK, Australia and Fiji have only two main parties; PNG has only one. The ‘third party’ in Australia, the Greens, took 11% of the vote, yet received 1 seat of 150.In Fiji, only 4 MPs do not hail from the major parties; and unrepresented parties receive over 10% of the vote. However, in the UK, the highest party not to receive representation was UKIP at 3%. These statistics do not suggest that AV is more representative – in fact, it may even be less so.

In Australia, the parties distribute leaflets showing people how they should use all their preferences for the maximum advantage of their preferred party.

Moreover, there is significant disengagement with the system. Turnout in Ireland is 47%. In Australia, 7% prefer a fine to voting; 5% spoil their ballots and 55% admit to following a party-issued card that says how to rank the candidates. This is indicative of serious problem; people are not really convinced in these countries that their vote will matter, or are very unsure about how to use their system. The system does nothing to solve any democratic deficit created by FPTP. In fact, it may even make it worse.

And who actually wants AV? Certainly not David Cameron, who is campaigning for FPTP. Certainly not Nick Clegg, who describes it as ‘miserable’. Maybe Ed Miliband, but he hasn’t said much about it. MPs report a complete absence of pleas from constituents advocating AV. Yet, it seems that if voting trends are the same, the Liberals will gain about 20 more seats – though it is not clear that UKIP will get one, for instance. This is the reason the Liberals are so eager to have it. And the people who run elections don’t want it either; elections will cost more, take longer, and be much harder to check.

In short, no benefit will come of AV. No-one will be satisfied by having it. And likely, fewer people will engage in democracy once we have it. FPTP is clear, popular and simple. There is no choice. FPTP receives not just my preference, but my vote.

David Weber: YES

What separates the Alternative Vote, in a bad way, from First Past the Post? This is the standard of proof those who oppose AV have to meet. It is no use complaining about the cost of the referendum, because it will happen anyway: our MPs have decreed it. So the ‘No’ campaign needs to demonstrate why we should reject AV in favour of the current system. It needs to demonstrate that AV is comparatively worse.

This is what polarii, in the previous speech, failed to do. His argument that AV is unrepresentative (backed up by an impressive array of statistics) is irrelevant. Both systems are unrepresentative, and for the same reason. In both, MPs represent a single constituency, including those who did not vote for them. This is what makes them unrepresentative, and neither can be criticised above the other because of it.

polarii also claims that AV ‘may even be less’ representative. Does he explain how? Does he corroborate it? The ubiquitous statistics are strangely silent on this point! In order to demonstrate this, he has to show that AV has additional problems, which he has failed to do. I invite you to re-read the previous speech if you wish, in case you don’t believe me.

A (hypothetical) AV ballot paper

A highly complex ballot paper

Nor do I think AV would increase disengagement with the system. It’s hard not to be derisive here; I find the idea that voters will be put off by having to number preferences both hilarious and outrageous. The slogan “it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3…” is possibly the only accurate campaign slogan in history. It really is as easy as 1, 2, 3. People are put off from voting for real reasons, not because they have to count in single digits.

So that’s why there’s no reason to reject AV in favour of the current system. Equally, why support AV over it? The answer, when it boils down to it, is actually very, very simple. If MPs do represent an entire constituency (including, as I pointed out earlier, people who did not vote for them) then they should have the support of as many of their constituents as possible.

The current system allows an MP to be elected even if a majority of the electorate vehemently opposes them. This is ludicrous. Representing people is not the same as winning a 100 metre sprint. It should not mean collecting supporters. It should mean seeking the support of as many you seek to represent as possible.

This is why no political party worth its salt uses FPTP. Labour uses AV to elect its leader. The Liberal Democrats also use it. The Conservatives use an almost identical system. It appears that there is consensus among all three parties in favour of AV for them — but not for us. I wonder why this is?

James Langford: NO


Firstly I would like to add my support to Mr Bagg for his excellent contribution into this debate. There are many strands of argument which I could hope to explore in this article but firstly I want to make some refutations to the proposition focusing in particular on comments made by Mr Weber. On a point of technicality Labour or the Conservatives do not fully use AV to elect their leaders – they have both invented their own electoral systems which incorporate procedure similar to that of AV. Moreover – he asks us why FPTP? Simply – it creates strong and accountable governments, gives us coalition at times of national uncertainty, works simply and efficiently during election periods with easily interpretable results, the list goes on…

Returning to my own argument I would firstly like to explore the background to this referendum. This referendum is a waste of money; it’s the voting system that no one really wants – people who want us to change our voting system, such as the Lib Dems, want fairer representation and representation for the smaller parties, but by switching to another majoritarian voting system neither of these aims can be realized. This is the wasted compromise. Those people need PR or STV – and if either of these voting systems had a solid base of national support or could mobilize such a base we would be having a referendum for one of those.

Now I want to bring us back to reality – the democratic idealists are proclaiming that ranking candidates is better but in this voting system safe seats will ignore rankings and tactical ranking will be widespread. Moreover in the marginal constituencies we will still see some MPs elected without 50% of the vote. In a voting system where two of the main principles of that system are not enshrined the average voter will be left confused. I’m not talking about the political nuts like ourselves but the ordinary people of this country, who may only ever engage with politics by voting once every five years. I’d also like to infer that given the increased complexity of this voting system and the lack of understanding behind the procedure, some will become disillusioned and give up voting altogether. In the pursuit of democracy we may damage our democracy.

Jack Blankley: YES

May I first say well done to all the contributions so far, they have been very interesting and this has been a very intelligent debate on a hotly contested issue.

First things first, I am not a supporter of the AV voting system. I believe it is a system which will not fully represent the British public and lead to only a slight improvement on the current system, which I believe is outdated and lacks sufficient representation of the population.

My main argument for supporting the change in the voting system is not so much about the empirical arguments against FPTP, which I believe are not fundamentally changed with the introduction of the AV system, but about wider politics in general. Over the past couple of years, are politicians have been riddled with scandals ranging from expenses claims to affairs, with the tabloid press coming up with imaginative names for our politicians, such as “2jag Prescott” and “Paddy Pantsdown”. A change in the way politics works in this country might help to bring people back into politics, which nowadays is seen as an elitist subject. This is the one thing politicians should be trying to avoid!

Even Mervin King, the governor of the Bank of England, says he’s surprised with the public reaction to the banking meltdown, saying people should be angrier. I believe nowadays people believe there is nothing they can do due to the British political system, and these views of “they’re only in it for themselves”, “greedy” and “out of touch” are comments regularly used in the tabloid press describing all 3 main parties. I know this arguement is hard to understand and even harder to try and write down! But this small change may be a way to reconnect with some lost voters showing that politicians are willing to change a system which the British people think is inherently flawed!

Finally the argument that the referendum is a waste of money is one I disagree with. A referendum is the fairest way to change constitutional practises and to suggest it a waste of money is to suggest that MPs decide how they are elected (which leads to a democratic deficit). The public should be directly involved in deciding on the voting system.

Ronald Collinson: NO

Mr Blankley’s post rounded off what has been a stimulating debate. Several of the supposed arguments in favour of AV have already been dealt with: against Mr Wan, Polarii and Mr Langford noted that it is simply untrue to say that candidates would require the assent of 50% of voters to be elected; against Mr Weber, Mr Langford noted that no major political party in fact uses AV to elect its leaders. Polarii also demonstrated the several respects in which AV may be less representative than FPTP.

It might be added that tactical voting remains possible under AV: the important question is which parties you want to make it into the final round; the order of elimination matters. It is therefore possible to model scenarios in which candidates might in fact be benefited if some of their supporters had given them second rather than first preferences, a clear violation of the principle that expressing second preferences should not harm first preferences. Of course, to exploit this system requires substantial local and national political knowledge – so tactical voting would not be eliminated, but made the preserve of precisely the political obsessives Mr Blankley railed against.

Mr Weber and Mr Blankley both claimed that changing the voting system would revitalise British politics. If that is so, the British people don’t seem to be aware of it: while the 2002 march in favour of the minority pursuit of fox hunting attracted more than 400,000 people, the electoral reform ‘rally’ in May attracted only 1,000; while even the deplorable Facebook group in support of police-killer Raoul Moat attracted over 38,000 members, the Electoral Reform Society has not even achieved 9,000. There is no evidence whatever to suggest that public malaise has anything to do with the electoral system.

Indeed, the aftermath of the expenses scandal was, if anything, a vindication of FPTP. Several MPs in supposedly ‘safe’ seats, like David Heathcoat-Amory and the ludicrous Lembit Opik, were duly unseated. There is substantial academic debate about how AV would change the distribution of safe seats, but there is clear consensus that it would not eliminate such seats. But the evidence of last May is that such seats are not in fact ‘safe’ against the force of local anger.

AV does not, then, reliably make electoral battles more competitive; it restricts tactical voting to the voting to the elite; it violates its own preferential principles; it does not require victors to have the support of a majority of voters. It is, additionally, a much more complex system, lacking the easy transparency of FPTP in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

On this question of ‘the most votes’, Mr Weber ambitiously attempted to draw a distinction between ‘collecting supporters’ and ‘seeking… support’, claiming that under FPTP a candidate can win against an ‘opposing majority.’ But what is the significance of an ‘opposing’ majority if its representative is contingent entirely on the order in which other candidates are eliminated? National politics isn’t like a student union election: there is no option to ‘re-open nominations’. Voters must align themselves by one programme for government or another – simply voting on the basis of ‘not you’, which is surely the ruling logic of the alternative vote, can hardly be considered satisfactory.

________________________________

This marks the end of our first written debate. If you are interested in participating in future debates we choose to hold, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

Libya: Winners and Losers

In America, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Government Spotlight, Parliamentary Spotlight on March 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

The no-fly zone is up-and-running after a tense few weeks of events in Libya and tough diplomacy. The events that have led up to UN Resolution 1973/2011 have been complicated, and they have had political impacts on both individuals and nations. This isn’t as complete or detailed as it could be, but it includes some of the major movers, particularly in the UK. This was written shortly after the no fly zone was implemented, and the flow of events may have altered some of the analysis here.

Col. Moammar Gaddafi: Has fared badly in international eyes, most recently breaking a promise of ceasefire, but generally sounding rather detached from events, and indeed reality. However, in Libya, the picture is split; he’s managed to maintain popular support in the capital, and defections from his cause have not damaged his capacity to deploy aircraft and heavy weaponry. He still retains some loyalty, or some visage of terror, or both among the Libyan people. Anti-Imperialist rhetoric may play well to the people of Libya, but in rebel-controlled areas, there seems no evidence of this. He may take some pleasure from the fact that no-one in the English world knows quite how to spell his name.

UN: Despite questions whether a UN resolution was needed to impose a no-fly zone, all the countries involved chose to go through the UN. This will raise its damaged status as a body, and also encourage further interventions to be cleared through it. Resolution 1973 has been called a watershed for what the UN could hope to achieve in further crisis, as and when they arise in the Middle East and around the world. There are, however, questions as to what actions the UN will be forced to take in other countries this year, such as Bahrain.

USA: Has remained aloof and silent for much of the crisis, but eventually fell on the side of those calling for a no-fly zone, which added much weight to the case for intervention. The rebel faction in Libya seems well pleased with the decision to intervene, and some of this goodwill will rub off on America. The surreptitious transport of weapons across the Egyptian border to the rebels, quite probably at US instigation, will also have improved America’s image. However, in the broader international community, the country’s slow and cautious action will contrast with its previous history of reckless and large-scale intervention, and this has vastly improved its standing.

Barack Obama: Has taken a cautious approach, and has seen little change in his standing. Many in America would have wanted action more quickly; however, he secured a UN mandate and eventually delivered action. Prolonged silence had previously risked undermining the influence and leadership the President of the USA is expected to wield, but the silence and the risk was ended by his forthright support of UN Resolution 1973.

John McCain and John Kerry: Both these former American presidential candidates were vocal and early advocates of a no-fly zone, and now that it has come about, their gravitas has been augmented as they have been seen to give the right policy advice to the White House, which was eventually taken. Although this represents a coalition of opinion between a leading Republican and a leading Democrat, their influence is unlikely to secure a more consensual Congress for the rest of the Presidential term.

UK: Negative reports were abound concerning the previous government’s close relationship with Libya and the poor contingencies put in place to evacuate British nationals. These were compounded by what seems to be one of the worst special operations missions in recent history. However, international leadership on the no-fly zone will have regained some of the nation’s democratic capability. A broader debate regarding whether the UK has the requisite military capacity to sustain a lead role in the no-fly zone has died down, but will weigh heavily on the minds of MoD staff.

David Cameron: Despite all the above, he has risen to the challenge of mobilising many reluctant countries to support a no-fly zone, and many in his own party and country. His campaign has been high-profile and high-minded, avoiding some of the dissent said to be at work in his cabinet. The no-fly zone will reflect well upon him.

William Hague: Blunder has followed blunder, from ill-advised comments that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela to poor management of aircraft and special forces. Although many from his party gave him plaudits for his work with UN delegates, his position is more precarious than it was, his aura of competence rather tarnished.

Douglas Alexander: Hague’s shadow sensed opportunity in his blunders and attacked him at every turn. However, if Hague now has egg on his face, Alexander now has boiled eggs on his face; his opposition to a no fly zone has led to an embarrassing and high-profile U-turn; though the damage to Labour does not seem to be too great, Alexander’s almost impeccable reputation is now bathing in the mud.

Michael Gove, George Osborne and Liam Fox: The most vocal advocates of intervention, along with William Hague, have won over the government and the Commons. Their standing in Cabinet will be increased at the expense of those opposed to intervention. In particular, Liam Fox is well placed to argue for fewer cuts in his budget, and since Osborne is on his side, it would not surprise me to see more money channelled towards defence at the budget after next, particularly if there is a windfall.

Bob Stewart: This mostly unknown Conservative MP (Beckenham) has become increasingly prominent due to his experience as a military commander in Bosnia, where a previous no-fly zone has been implemented. His expertise in this area has undoubtedly swayed government and international opinion, and he is likely to receive a ministerial portfolio before long, especially if he continues to sound so authoritative during interviews.

France: The Republic suffered embarrassing revelations about its foreign minister in the Tunisia crisis, but a quick sacking, a trial of a former President, and a well-managed evacuation managed to submerge most of the opprobrium. Meanwhile, vocal support for a no-fly zone will have won it kudos in diplomatic circles, however, undermining the EU’s nascent diplomatic efforts may in turn undermine attempts to centralise defence and foreign policy at the EU level.

Nicholas Sarkozy: Has had a good crisis, being seen to lead the world, and actually leading it. French fighter jets were the first to enforce 1973, and this show of strength will strengthen his upcoming election campaign. His name is, according to reports, being chanted on the streets of Benghazi, and the Guardian suggests that his handling of the crisis has saved him from electoral ruin.

EU: Has had quite possibly its worst crisis since the former Yugoslavia broke up. Two of its three major members have argued with the third, and it has been unable to build consensus among a Europe strongly divided on the issue. Its failure to secure the support of Malta and Cyprus for intervention will cost the coalition enforcing 1973 dearly. Any diplomatic efforts it made were largely or completely ignored, which will underline an impression of disunity and impotence; the UK and France will pursue their foreign policy almost without heed to the opinion of the EU.

Angela Merkel: Has had to balance the German public’s desire not to get involved in any foreign war with EU and US alliances. Due to an impending election, she has favoured the people’s view, and Germany abstained at the UN. Whether this will gain her many votes (coupled with withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, she may convince the German people that she is indeed a pacifist) is yet to be seen. A good call – no permanent damage seems to have been done to bilateral relations, though any chances of diplomacy through the EU seem to be wrecked.

Lebanon: Tabled resolution 1973 at the UN, and had it carried by the necessary number of votes. A potentially clever move as it re-entrenches European (especially French) support for the embattled democracy. And the Lebanese public do not seem to mind their country inviting the US to bomb fellow Arabs.

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi: Previously the hope of reform in Libya for the West, he has shown a ruthless streak, both handling the media with some guile and promising destruction to Libya’s enemies. Nonetheless, his political capital in the West has decreased. With his assets now frozen in most countries, he will struggle to find a way in life if the West does not make an accord with Gaddafi. His standing in Libya itself has also been harmed, as he is one of the few Gaddafi males not to be in command of a military unit, and his vision of a Libya reconciled with the West seems to have collapsed completely.

The London School of Economics: Was badly damaged when it was found that it had accepted large donations from the Gaddafi clan. Previously an institution with a reputation of spreading enlightenment throughout the developing world, it has pledged to return all the donation it can to the Libyan people, and made grovelling apologies to the government. There has already been one resignation, and another could shortly come from Shami Chakrabati, director of Liberty UK, who sat on its governing board. Harrowed appearances suggest that the folks at Liberty do not take kindly to her approving donations from sponsors of terrorism, though she denies the connection.

The Scottish National Party and the Labour Party: Both these parties curried favourable relationships with Libya during their terms in office at Holyrood and Westminster respectively. However, despite some cheap shots from some ministers, both seem to have emerged relatively unscathed from such a potentially toxic friendship. That said, Scottish voters have yet to have the opportunity to punish the Holyrood government at the polls, although it is unlikely that foreign policy will be a major factor at the elections in May.

Overall, the no-fly zone has been well-received in the international community. The first military Arab League involvement will shortly come through Qatari air jets; meanwhile, the normally pacifist Norway has also committed jets. The no-fly zone doesn’t seem to have stopped the civil war from either rebel or Gaddafi’s side, but it seems to have the desired effect of reducing the damage to civilians, particularly from Gaddafi’s aircraft and heavy armour. The issues that seem to be arising next are whether Resolution 1973 allows UN-affiliated forces to target Gaddafi himself, and, more broadly, what the exit strategy might be. Polling suggests strong division among the British public regarding whether this intervention is the right policy, and this may create political problems further down the line. The situation is still in flux, and the political consequences are still not settled.

Oldham East and Saddleworth

In Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on January 9, 2011 at 6:45 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Right everyone! We’re back into the cut and thrust of real politics, and our first UK election since that momentous general election in May last year. Unfortunately, Oldham East and Saddleworth can’t be fitted into an upbeat opening in any conventional way, so I shan’t try. But the prospect of the first election of the ‘New Politics’ is exciting.

All the major parties are contesting the election, as well as a plethora of minor parties (see end of article for full list of candidates). And all the three major parties are in the running. The nearest in fourth is the BNP, which has consistently polled around 2000 votes in the last few elections (roughly 5%). The seat was narrowly held by Labour minister Phil Woolas in May, edging ahead of the Liberal Democrats; but the Conservative vote increased by over 8%. Woolas was subsequently convicted of making false accusations regarding the Liberal candidate, and was stripped of his seat. Hence a by-election.

National polls place the Liberal Democrats at around 9%, with one showing as low as 7%, and Labour and the Tories roughly equal, with Labour nudging ahead. However, polling targeted directly at the seat indicates that Labour enjoys 45% against the Liberal 28% – a massive swing from the Liberals. Considering that the Liberal figure is also bolstered by tactical support from Conservative voters, this is doubly worrying for the Lib Dems. One activist has extrapolated the national figures onto local elections, which would lead to the Liberals losing six of the seven local wards they currently hold (of a total nine), bringing Labour six, and leaving one for an independent and Tory each.

But I think there is limited ground for pessimism. The seat is in Greater Manchester, a Labour stronghold; it has gone red at every election since it was founded. The Liberals were riding off the back of an extremely successful election campaign in May; now they are tied up with the serious business of governance. They have just had to renege on some of their most high-profile election promises. The Labour party has an uninspiring new leader. In many places, they enjoy strong local support without it converting into Parliamentary seats – St Albans being the often-cited example. Frankly, that they are still capable of polling anything near their General Election value (in this constituency) is a cause to be optimistic.

And I think we can deliver a yet better outlook for the Liberals. This will be a tough year; the VAT rise and certain cuts are biting hard, the government should expect to take some hits in by-elections. Governments often lose by-elections, as people view them not so much as a choice between alternatives, but as a judgement on the government. Consequently, Labour could well poll higher than the result will be, as happened in the General Election, when the roles were inversed. People in the street may well express dissatisfaction with ‘the current lot’ and say Labour just to get the pollster off their back. And the likelihood is that they won’t vote anyway – turnout is normally less than 50% in such elections.

And this is where it could get interesting. There are good reasons to vote neither for Labour nor the Liberals. The former Labour candidate was clearly guilty of immoral practice, and the new leader is distinctly lacklustre. And the Liberal party has gone back on so much, and, in the public perception at least, sold out on so many of its values. In fact, if the Tories play their hand right, they could be in for a coup.

So here’s the scenario: everyone who votes on the basis of government policy votes either Labour or Tory, depending on whether they agree with it or not. Many of the tribal Liberals stay at home because of tuition fees, the tribal Labour don’t come out in droves for their dismal leader, and because of a corrupt former candidate, but the tribal Conservatives come out as for any election. Those who vote on the basis of who is the most upright vote Conservative, to avoid the illegal Labour and the unfaithful Liberals. Suddenly, we see a Tory majority being distinctly possible.

However, while we can get excited at the possibility of a major upset, it is also possible that disaffected Liberals simply vote Labour, and the Labour core vote gives Ed Miliband a chance, and they carry the seat. Tribal Conservatives, smarting at the low tone of the campaign and being angry with the coalition, may stay at home; other Tories will likely vote Liberal, drastically weakening the analysis previously offered. In such a close race, fourth party slip-ups from UKIP or the BNP could also carry quite a lot of influence; or, in general malaise with the state of the nation and its politics, a fourth party, most probably the BNP, could create an even greater upset.

This is part of the fun of the New Politics – we’re not sure if the tribal divide between Liberal and Tory, previously so strong in some areas, will have dissolved, with each party backing the most likely ‘coalition candidate’, or whether they still exist at root. And whether the electorate wish to delineate between the two coalition parties, or just consider them to be ‘the government’. This election is wide open, and the difficulty in calling it is further illustrated by trying to call second place as well. These things are clear: if Labour doesn’t win, Ed Miliband is severely weakened. If the Liberals win, the coalition is gently bolstered, and Lib Dem fears of being wiped off the map are almost completely confounded. Though it’s not so disastrous to either if they lose, unless they only poll around 10% of the vote. And Cameron is fine unless he is beaten by the BNP. And the whole nation needs a good pinch in the morning if someone else wins.

So, my prediction: Labour to win, the Liberals in second, and the Tories not far behind, possibly even clinching second. The BNP to poll around 1000-1200 votes. And turnout to be about 40%.

Stop (Word)Press: BBC Radio 4, on the eve of the election, was reporting that some Conservative party members were going to tactically vote for Labour to prevent a Liberal victory. An interesting gobbit: not only do the Tories still hate the Liberals, but they think they have a genuine chance of winning. With traditional votes split any number of ways, this election really is too close to call.

The full list of candidates standing in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election: Debbie Abrahams (Labour Party), Derek Adams (British National Party), Kashif Ali (Conservative Party), David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis Party), Nick ‘The Flying Brick’ Delves (Monster Raving Loony Party), Loz Kaye (Pirate Party), Stephen Morris (English Democrats), Paul Nuttall (United Kingdom Independence Party), Elwyn Watkins (Liberal Democrat).

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of State and Society was, of course, Tony Benn. Thanks to all those who voted, and congratulations to those who got it right!

Concerning Devolution, and Democracy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 6, 2011 at 12:49 am

David Weber

Warning: long article approaching

For a while I’ve been wanting to write something equivalent, or at least in response to polarii’s analyses of democracy, not just to outline differences in opinion but also to cover issues which, I feel, were not discussed. The cut and thrust of this article, and possible future ones, will mainly focus (through the prism of a leading issue) of on the general untidiness of democracy; in attempting to define it, assessing its qualities, and outlining solutions. We will start by looking at Devolution.

Devolution has been in the news recently, and for once it isn’t the arguments about a Scottish independence referendum. The new powers proposed by the Calman commission are (partially) being unveiled by the new government, which seeks to deliver a certain amount of tax-raising power to Scotland, presumably not least with the intention of forcing it onto a more equal fiscal footing with England. That Scottish Government ministers are protesting that it will make Scotland worse off in cash terms seems to be evidence in support of this.

I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the Scottish government here, not least because the level of Scottish spending seems unnecessarily disproportionate to England. Obviously, Scotland being in general poorer than England, a degree of higher spending is needed, but for that to extend to free University tuition seems ridiculous, when there is no evidence that English students are particularly disadvantaged by the system which applies to them. Clearly, in this place, if in no other, there is some fat which could be trimmed.

But while the Commission’s terms of reference were the fiscal imbalances in Scottish devolution, I will be looking at democratic imbalances of devolution in general. According to some schools of thought, these are so grave as to override any merits the policy may have, and make abolition of the devolved assemblies the only solution. I am not so sure. I will begin, however, by outlining the case against Devolution.

The first, and most obvious attack, is the “West Lothian Question”. This actually originates from a theoretical question asked by the eponymous MP for West Lothian, Tom Dalyell, in 1977, long before the 1998 Scotland Act came into force:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

The word “decisive” is crucial, as some might hope this question away as an eternally theoretical one, with majorities never slim enough for it to truly make a difference. This is wishful thinking. Labour governments often rely on Scotland for a lot of their support, and indeed the Labour government in 1979 was brought down by the votes of Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs. More recently, in 2006, the vote on — you guessed it — University top-up fees was won based on the support of Scottish MPs; had they abstained, it would likely have been defeated. Democratic Unionist Party MPs voted in favour of raising detention without trial to 42 days in 2008, which passed by a majority of exactly the same number as the 9 DUP MPs, although that particular bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

Not only this, but there is also a more fundamental undemocratic charge against Devolution. It provides some people more representation than others, creating a two-tier or even a multi-tier system, where geography determines strength of political representation. Thus in Scotland, voters elect not only sovereign Westminster MPs, with theoretical responsibility for everything, but near-as-sovereign Holyrood MPs, with very real responsibilities for Health, Education, Justice etc. into the bargain. The voter therefore has two calls for help if something goes wrong, and, in theory, twice as much leverage in their everyday battles. In contrast, a voter in Herefordshire elects a sovereign Westminster MP and a couple of rather dusty councillors, if they even know that a local election is on. Voters in Wales have something of a half-way house between English anonymity and Scottish power. Voters in Northern Ireland — well, I’ll not get into that minefield (until later).

As suggested by the preceding paragraph, devolution is also unequal between regions. The Welsh Assembly does not (yet) have the extensive powers of the Scottish Parliament. London has the Greater London Assembly which, although weaker still, is far more powerful than most local government in England. So in summary, the picture painted by devolution is a very uneven and untidy one, resembling the sort of painting which attaches a lot of importance to the leaves of a tree but somehow fails to convey the basic structure of the trunk with balance and accuracy.

Such is the case against devolution. And before I go into any further, and consider the counter-argument, it is worth considering the fact that nothing argues for the current system quite so well as the inability of its opponents to outline sensible solutions.

One such solution is “English Votes on English Laws”: barring Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation. This has a certain long-enduring popularity, and it is often assumed, most often by Conservatives, that this would solve the Question in a blow.

Now, if there is any one phrase I have grown to hate, normally because it is nearly always misapplied, it is “constitutionally illiterate”. Yet I am tempted to apply it here. Devolution, as some opponents evidently fail to grasp ten years after its implementation, is not the same thing as Federalism. The official power of the UK Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament is absolute. Parliament is sovereign. It’s political power is, of course, limited severely by devolution. But this is not to say that it will never overrule the devolved assemblies.

And whereas the ability of regional MPs to overrule the will of English MPs is limited, due to their small number, the scope for English MPs to overrule the will of the devolved assemblies, should they wish to, is far greater. Therefore the only way “English Votes on English Laws” would be constitutionally balanced would be to similarly ban English MPs from voting to overrule the devolved assemblies. Which would mean that for each of the four countries, there would be matters where the UK Parliament had no say. Far from strengthening the Union, English Votes on English Laws would go some way towards dividing it permanently.

There are also more practical objections. There is the fact that it probably wouldn’t lead to equality of representation in the first place, because it doesn’t address the “different quality of representation depending on region” criticism of devolution that I outlined earlier. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters would still have far stronger local democracy than England, although I acknowledge that the situation is almost impossibly complex to assess when it comes to Northern Ireland. But the gravest objection is that it would throw up the possibility of two different majorities being available in the House of Commons, one for English legislation and another for UK legislation.

Such a possibility would not result in, say, a Conservative English legislative agenda put forward by a Labour UK government, because a Labour government would never allow it. The result would be stagnation, or at best, coalition between the two parties on English legislation.

Here is the fundamental problem. People seem to think, against all political observation, that the devolved legislatures are the only important part of devolution. The fact is, however, that without devolved government, devolution is at most a panacea. So quite apart from the constitutional issues, changing the rules governing English legislation would at best only be a half-way step towards the full-blooded localism which has transformed Scottish and Welsh politics.

It is, of course, possible to engineer a more low-key, slimmed down version of English Votes on English Laws. The Democracy Taskforce, set up by David Cameron in 2006 and chaired by Ken Clarke, recommended changing Parliamentary practice to make it convention for regional MPs not to be involved in English legislation during committee and report stages only, without banning them from doing so; thus avoiding the constitutional objections. and limiting the potential for deadlock (as all MPs would vote during first and second reading, thus the whole house would initiate English legislation). In seeking to be so reasonable, the Taskforce created an opposite problem: the solution would be far too limited to address the extent of the problems. Not only this, but the potential for deadlock and odd results would still be very real: a bill could be re-written or sabotaged in committee and report stage, creating a legislative mess and confusion about where accountability lies.

So what other solutions? English devolution holds some attraction and almost certainly far more merit, but would run up against some much stronger political roadblocks. The amount of power it would be necessary to give away even to grant it the same stature as the Welsh devolution would entirely transform the way UK government works, and might alarm even the most ‘radical’ of reforming governments, who rarely give away power with no thought to the consequences, which would be unknown in such a big step. More problematic would be the size of England: with approximately 80% of the people in the whole Union, an English system of government would operate very similarly to the UK one. Such an idea also ignores the political motivations behind devolution to begin with, which I will come to shortly.

So were, or are, the opponents of devolution right? Is it impossible for the system to work democratically, or ‘neatly’? Is it crucial for the future of the Union that the devolved assemblies be abolished? Should we offer the regions (and perhaps Cornwall) an “all-in/all-out” referendum? It is at this point where I realise that I am vaguely puzzled, because no opponent of devolution ever makes the case that before devolution, the UK was a model of democratic perfection. This is because it wasn’t.

In fact, the democratic imbalances inherent in UK government before devolution far eclipse any created by devolution since. In 1979, Scotland went from one extreme of propping the Labour government up to being positively ignored for the following 18 years. Wales was in a similar position during the mid-80s, with Plaid Cymru at one point selling “Tory-free” mugs in celebration of Wales’ utter lack of connection to the UK government. In contrast, in 1997 virtually all of Scottish and Welsh representatives supported the incoming government.

In fact, what opponents of devolution really fail to grasp is that the UK system of government has never been particularly democratic when it comes to a matter of detail. If you wanted completely democratic government, then all elected representatives would govern in coalition. Elections as we know them are about winning. Winning is incompatible with everyone being listened to. In a competition, there are winners and losers, which leaves some people with power and some people without it.

In fact, the only system which comes close to being democratic is the devolved Northern Irish assembly, where the two biggest parties must by law be in coalition, which ironically is as a consequence of their historic inability to co-operate with each other. Winning is only proportionate to a public mandate, and the voice of the loser is granted equal respect as the voice of the winner. The lessons learnt from Northern Ireland’s history should, I hope, actually go some way in helping people to appreciate the importance of taking note of everyone’s voice, no matter whether they conform to a majority, plurality, minority, or just form one person’s opinion.

And this is what devolution to Scotland and Wales also set out to do, to end the ludicrous situation where UK politics regularly left regions polarised and often marginalised. Opponents of devolution rather remind me of people stood with a magnifying glass in front of a work of art, moaning about a hairline crack in the middle of the darkest shade, while utterly failing to appreciate the beauty of the picture as a whole. In fact, in my dedication to creating a fair and exhaustive summary of the flaws of devolution, I have been rather complicit in this myself. No doubt there is still much room for improvement. England lacks the local voice that, in time, it may find it needs. Westminster could do much more to prevent regional MPs from acting undemocratically. And Scottish politics is still alarmingly close to polarisation, with a separatist party viewed as the official alternative to Labour. But Scotland has found itself open to far more political plurality than it ever understood before, with the Liberal Democrats finding a voice in its previous government, with the SNP winning Westminster seats which would previously have been considered solid Labour territory, and with a proportional legislature which has quite failed to self-destruct and has quietly governed on a cross-party basis. Far from being a thorn in its side, devolution could teach the Union quite a few lessons for its future.

Tuition fees round-up, part 2

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

David Weber

Part 2 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part one.

The next thing I want to focus on is the practicalities of this issue. If one assumes that fiscal austerity made Higher Education cuts inevitable (which I do), how justifiable has the Coalition’s response been? Were they wrong, as Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students, contends, to rule out a graduate tax as a viable alternative? How thorough have they been on matters of detail in ensuring fairness?

The first issue to look at is a graduate tax, as this is the basis of most constructive disagreements over the policy, such as the NUS’. It is worth noting as we start that despite quite a lot of strong arguments against it, not all criticism of the graduate tax has been worthy. Quite a number of criticisms have had something of a weasel nature, criticising the worst possible form of the policy without addressing any of the stronger proposals on the table. It would be all very well if these were merely the typical emanations of those who do not know better, but when they crop up in the Browne report itself, it is indicative of a more serious ideological agenda.

Arguments such as: “poorer graduates would have to pay back more”; “it would take time for the money to accumulate”; and even “you could avoid the tax by moving abroad” are simply not credible in the manner they are flung about by most opponents. Arguing that poorer graduates would have to pay back more under a graduate tax is simply childish. It assumes that a government would levy the tax directly on top of the basic rate of income tax, which it would be under no obligation to do. As for the money taking time to accumulate, given that student loans are paid back as a deferred graduate tax, this will already hold true. No new money will come in from the new fees until roughly three years after they come in. It is true that the government loans money upfront to the student by which they pay fees immediately, but the government could just as easily loan money to the University and wait for greater future returns from a graduate tax to pay it off. There is little difference. As for moving abroad, although graduates do now have to make repayment arrangements with the Treasury on moving abroad, this will prove difficult and the Treasury allegedly receives little money from graduates living abroad. If that wasn’t enough, there are also political difficulties. No government of a democratic and liberal nature will want to be seen to use student debt to force graduates to stay within the country, therefore proving that a graduate is not paying their fair share will be very difficult.

That said, I think that there are strengths to the fees system. The first is that it relieves government of the political control it has of University funding, at least to a degree (no pun intended). Any system with a cap on fees is of course going to incur a certain amount of co-funding by government, to prevent public Universities from losing out to private ones (although private Universities currently number only two in Britain). The fees system means that Universities are therefore less often under the danger of political tinkering or sudden funding cuts than they would be if they were funded by taxation.

It can also be argued that government control of the system of funding is more likely to lead to inefficiencies and wasted money than student control. I am somewhat more sceptical of this view than I used to be, however, mainly through my own experience of university and the knowledge that students are, in general, poor consumers. We do not know what the experience of a course will be, in full, until at least a year in, by which point a lot of money is spent. We do not know a great deal about educational methods ourselves, and are not likely to be able to assess university quality in our current positions. Add into the equation the distorting effects of a fee cap, and it is likely that some Universities over-charge by quite a degree for their own courses, confident in the knowledge that the cap makes it unlikely that students will disregard higher quality courses for a cheaper alternative. And just to cement this argument, evidence from America, which has the highest University fees in the world, shows that it is unlikely that an uncapped system would keep prices down.

But there are other flaws with a graduate tax system. There would be no incentive for Universities to invest in the future of their graduates — unless the student paid their taxes directly to their University, which would incur its own problems: high paying degrees would immediately become the market winners, distorting it beyond any level that a market in fees would. Arts and certain humanities courses would only survive by being subsidised by ‘winners’, which would be the death warrant for specialised colleges such as conservatoires and arts colleges.

With a fees system, funding follows the student in a rational way, where higher paid graduates merely pay back their contributions quicker than the lower paid — in the long term, there is little difference between the two. Admittedly, the new system is more skewed, interest means that many will pay back more than what they were loaned, whereas many will have their loans written off partially unpaid. But by taking on all or part of the risk, the government can tame this problem. And passing on a little of the risk to Universities would mean that they had a small incentive to offer high quality courses, without spelling the death warrant for Arts and Humanities.

So is the bill that has just passed in the Commons a perfect solution? By no means. The main criticisms I have, in fact, are a matter of far smaller detail than I have yet discussed, and therefore represent not so much an ideological difference of opinion (unlike many critics) than a practical one. I find myself uneasy about the impact of passing on the higher fees all at once. What private good on the market will suddenly increase in price by 200%? Indeed, if it is fiscally possible, the government would be well advised to accept a proposed amendment in the House of Lords, which would stagger the increases.

I am also concerned by the introduction of interest. Despite the fact that I can see good intentions behind this decision — a growing rate of interest will mean that the higher paid the graduate, the more they pay off — and an upfront penalty for early repayment will prevent the very richest from escaping their fair share. But interest is a clumsy way to ensure fairness, and already the possibility of stricter Muslims refusing the loans has arisen. Though I by no means believe the government should be accommodating of every religious value, this is a clear case where it should accommodate.

The fact that the government is fighting a losing battle in communicating the universalism of this system — the fact that everyone will be able to afford university — is also depressing. Here I am not just critical of the government, which only has so much influence with the public, but also the NUS, the media, and the countless people who believe that their own free University education was the only affordable way to go. No doubt such people would be perfectly happy to pay higher taxes to afford that opportunity to today’s generation of students.

In conclusion, then, there are a number of unpleasant factors behind the recent vote to reform university funding, and increase tuition fees. Not only that, but on some points the policy is wrong, and potentially damaging. Despite this, it remains for the most part a necessary, if unpleasant, reform.

Part one

Tuition fees round-up, part 1

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:13 pm

David Weber

Part 1 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part two.

You’ll probably be pleased to know that I intend these articles to be my last on Tuition fees for a while. On the other hand, my record for sticking to pledges made in The Daily Soapbox is worse than the Liberal Democrat’s record of sticking to pledges made at election time. At least they’ve only broken one.

After a somewhat excessive and unfair rant about priorities of students marching in the recent protests, I intend to take a step back and analyse not just the overall picture behind last week’s vote, and whether it was necessary or not, but the cracks and flaws within the art-work as well. I generally think that despite last week’s vote being necessary as a policy in a time of public spending cuts, there are some less than palatable aspects to the whole debacle and one or two individual elements of the policy with which I disagree. When the government will clearly struggle to achieve the fiscal timetable it intends to and is already cutting deeper in some areas than I would like, it was the right decision to pass on some of the costs of universities to future graduates. But it is a pity that it had to approach it from such an unfortunate backdrop, and it has not got the question right on every level.

The first thing to note is the fact that a perverse situation exists where most of the protesters have the moral highground, despite the necessity of reform. There can be no question about this. Despite the fact that Nick Clegg was clearly more sensible about the issue before the election than most of his party, he not only emphasised a manifesto policy he knew not to be sound, but went to the ultimate extreme of signing a separate pledge in public, surrounded by students.

Some background about the Liberal Democrats’ political traditions is necessary to gain a nuanced understanding of this. The Liberal Democrats like to do things en masse. What better demonstrated this than the speculation that Vince Cable might actually abstain over his department’s legislation? This is somewhat ironic for a party wedded to the politics of compromise and coalition, of meeting people half-way — but we have seen ever since the coalition that there is a significant section of the party grassroots which prefers the purity of opposition politics to the practicality of government. And given the amount of time the Liberal Democrats, the Social Democrats and before it the Liberal party have spent in opposition, this is magnified to a far larger degree than in any party of government since 1931.

Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats’ volte face can only be seen, in a moral light, as betrayal. They have performed the opposite action to that which they promised their voters, many of whom only supported them because of this. This is more than a simple broken promise, it is one of the highest order in a democracy. However, it is yet another example of the fact that the British constitution works far better when it comes to government than when it comes to democracy.

And unfortunately for the beliefs of democrats, this is not an example in democracy’s favour. The pledge the Liberal Democrats signed was naive and unsustainable, but they entered into government at a time when the interests of sustainability and hard-nosed decisions demanded it. They were caught between a rock and a hard place. To abandon their pledge would have been immoral, but no less so than to stand impotently by and engineer an impotent government. Viewed in this light, in choosing to sacrifice the pledge and join government they picked the lesser of two evils.

Does this lessen the betrayal towards many students, and from many students’ point of view? Not at all. The simple fact is that the Liberal Democrats broke their manifesto promise, and as such they deserve to be punished at the next election. Whether or not they should be is another matter. The British system of democratic government does not often serve the interests of justice well, contrary to the regular claims of its supporters. The 2005 election, in an ideal world and an ideal system, would have seen Labour more comprehensively punished for the Iraq War, but other considerations proved weightier on polling day. The 1992 election would, in an ideal world, have seen the support attained by John Major garner comparative rewards, but instead his party suffered a humiliating reduction in the size of its majority. Elections are often determined by a rag-bag cocktail of issues, which are often quite trivial compared to the verdict they deliver.

So much, then, for the Liberal Democrats’ shocking betrayal. History may attach little importance to it when judging their record in government. Such is politics. The next important moral issue which requires attention is the conduct of the Conservative and Labour parties during the election. Though these fine parties made no rash promises to renege on afterwards, in certain ways their conduct was more insidious than that of the Liberal Democrats’ recent betrayal. It is a fact that for an opposition party, the Conservatives kept surprisingly quiet about the Browne review, and its likely recommendation of higher fees.

This isn’t to say the the Conservative party should have come out against higher fees. But it could have built support for them, rather than merely using the Browne review as an excuse not to talk about it (“we will … consider carefully the results of Lord Browne’s review into the future of higher education funding”). In “considering carefully”, it colluded with the Labour party, by accident or design, to limit discussion and decrease choice on the issue at the ballot box. Such a course of action was, if intentional, clearly self-interested. Labour’s actions fare worse. Despite setting up a review clearly loaded, as shown by polarii’s recent article, to recommend higher fees, it refused to engage in discussion of the issue — then miraculously came out against the Browne review after the election.

So like MPs expenses, in many ways this is a ‘plague on all your houses’ issue, in spite of the visibility of the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal.

Part Two

Blooming Stupid

In Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Calling anyone a Nazi is a serious allegation. When it is unfounded, it is also extremely offensive. Particularly when you are a German. Such thoughts did not perhaps pass through the mind of UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, when he made such a remark in the chamber of the European Parliament. Or maybe they did, and he meant to cause grave offense. In either case, he was forthwith ejected by a vote of members, and had to be escorted out. The incident raises strong questions of what people can and cannot say in a democracy which guarantees free speech.

I’ll just make my position absolutely clear – the comments Bloom made were completely wrong and inappropriate. But that’s tackling it from quite a staid dignified British view; as well as one that respects the targeted MEP, Martin Schultz (SPD). But that, to a certain extent, is beside the point. The question is whether Bloom has the right to say such things whether I approve or agree with such sayings or not.

We must first consider that Bloom is a UKIP MEP for Yorkshire – one of the regions that elected a BNP representative. Given that it has also elected a UKIP member and two Conservatives, we can infer that it’s a pretty Eurosceptic constituency. Moreover, those voters that voted UKIP want to see the EU brought down as soon as possible; consequently, if Bloom believed that making such comments as he did would accelerate that process, he might argue he had a democratic mandate to make them. However, I somehow doubt that most Yorkshiremen would even wish to hear those comments, much less associate themselves with them. While they might distrust the EU, and resent its level of control, that does not mean they see Europhiles as Nazis.

But on a broader level – Bloom has been elected by the people of Yorkshire to represent them how he deems best; and he is accountable through the ballot box whenever there is a European election. By having him barred from the chamber for a period of time, the EU Parliament implicitly denies the people of Yorkshire to receive their full representation for a time. The converse is that the people of Yorkshire should also have to accept the consequences for electing an offensive idiot, and the European community generally is condemning a most malicious attitude. In the multi-member constituencies of the EU, the people of Yorkshire also have other representatives, to whom they could turn should they be unable to wait the brief period of time until Bloom returns. But, if they were single-member constituencies, the problem would be exacerbated. And it may be that the people of Yorkshire have particularly strong views on an issue that comes up while Bloom is suspended, and their MEP is unable to cast his vote.

The balance here is between rights and duties, freedoms and consequences. Bloom has the right to speak howsoever he wishes – but, as an elected MEP, he has a duty to speak in accordance with acknowledged norms of the European Parliament. He has the freedom to be racist in the chamber, but he must also accept its consequence – suspension. Similarly the people of Yorkshire – they have the right to elect their representative, and the duty to choose him wisely. And even if they supported their representative to the hilt, the rest of the Parliament feels they have sufficient support in their constituencies to vote for his suspension.

But I think it is unreasonable to exclude him from voting; it is his speech that has earnt him this suspension, not his voting. To suspend people from debate is one thing; denying people the right to be democratically represented is another. If he could still vote, the Parliament could maintain its decorum, and the people of Yorkshire could maintain their voice in it, albeit in truncated form.

Some justify this course of events using the notion of a free market of ideas, and saying that this sort of speech doesn’t contribute new ideas, and merely tarnishes the ideas already in the market. While this has merits from a certain viewpoint, it nonetheless reduces someone’s inalienable right. It says that there is only value in free speech insofar as one uses it to contribute, rather than it simply being of immense value itself. This, for a while, muddled the issue in my thinking. Bloom has the right to say what he will, and he must accept the consequences of what he says. His ‘contribution to the free market of ideas’ is neither here or there. It may be of consequence to whatever debate was going on at the time, but, insofar as his right to speech is concerned, it is incidental.

One point that Nigel Farage made in the debate about whether to suspend Bloom is that several people in the European Parliament regularly label members of his group as Nazis with relative impunity. No-one bothered answering that point in the debate, and, to my knowledge, no-one has bothered since. If that is the case, there is an imbalance that Farage is right to complain about. But otherwise, the right thing seems to have been done.

One last thought – Bloom was twice offered the opportunity to apologise. If he had done this, he could have retained both his seat and whatever point he had happened to be making at the time. Instead, he lost both. While it takes guts for a politician to apologise, over such an unimportant thing, it surely here must have been the right thing to do. I don’t think there is any credit to be had anywhere on this issue. Better not to call people Nazis.