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Posts Tagged ‘David Cameron’

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.

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Two resignations. Two bad decisions?

In Events, Party politics, The Media on February 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

David Weber

Before I begin, I would like to welcome our newest writer, James Bartholomeusz. I enjoyed reading his analysis of Labour’s past and future, and look forward to future articles.

On the face of it, Ed Miliband’s recent decision to grant the shadow chancellorship to Ed Balls following Alan Johnson’s resignation looks like bad judgement. It is the most potent way he could have gone back on his decision to sideline the Brown treasury team back in September, when he appointed Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper to shadow Home and Foreign portfolios respectively. Not only this, but there would have been a strong logic in offering the shadow Chancellorship to Cooper instead, given that she came first in the shadow cabinet elections and has taken a less vocal line over the economy. Given that Cooper is married to Balls, this would have been a less than meaningful decision, but it might have looked ever so slightly better.

The truth, however, may be more nuanced. We do not know that Miliband had any real choice in who to appoint to the position. Cooper and Balls, sensing weakness and a lack of alternatives, may have threatened to consider their positions if the outcome was not to their liking. Both have a significant number of supporters within the party, and Miliband must be keen to avoid the kind of infighting that characterised Labour’s last spell in opposition. Without knowing the internal politics of the shadow cabinet, which has arguably not been infiltrated by the media to the same extent as the government, or the previous government, it is hard to evaluate Ed Miliband’s judgement.

What it is possible to say is that events are increasingly conspiring against him. Ed Balls repudiates the nuanced and flexible position laid out by Alistair Darling prior to the last election. He stood for the leadership on a platform laying out his opposition to the need to cut spending at all. This article will not speculate whether or not he was right to do so, but merely note that the public disagreement between Johnson and Miliband over tuition fees will pale in comparison should Balls choose to disagree over deficit reduction. An agreed economic policy is essential.

It is all very well for the political freedom of ideas brought by coalition, but I suspect that this is more workable in government, where the need to make tough decisions is at least recognised by the public, than in opposition. And it is perhaps an irony of coalition politics that people may become more accepting of disagreements between parties, rather than inside them. The opposition’s task in the short-term is to bring a simple, well-defined and credible alternative to the table. Only then can it worry about the niceties of pluralism and diversity of opinion.

Incidentally, I do not agree with those who argue that appointing Johnson in the first place was a mistake. There are two lines of argument: one which points to Johnson’s mistakes since being appointed, which is obviously opportunistic, and another which points to his lack of economic experience or qualification prior to being appointed. The latter holds more weight, but fails to credit his experience in government, which is greater than most of the current government, and surely counts for much more than a degree in PPE from Oxford. The argument also has no evidential strength to back it up so far. If George Osborne, who has been criticised too for a lack of economic credentials, single-handedly wrecks the economy before long, it will be strong evidence that Alan Johnson’s appointment was not a good decision. But unless that happens, we will not know whether economic qualifications are needed to take the role of chancellor.

So much for Reddening Ed. What of David Cameron, whose judgement is now called into question with the resignation of Andy Coulson? For many commentators, the ongoing fallout from the News of the World hacking scandal shows David Cameron’s judgement to be highly flawed in allowing Coulson to continue, and actively supporting him, for so long. I will not pass comment one way or another on the case, however. I know too little about it. I will rather look at a tangent that stems from it.

I believe this is further evidence to suggest the tenuous theory that Cameron is a far more relaxed Prime Minister than either of his predecessors. Although Brown’s government was famed for dithering over certain matters; when it came to the continued existence of liabilities, it tended to be more because of the party political context than because of any evidence of the Prime Minister being particularly relaxed. And Blair’s behaviour earlier on in his tenure bordered on paranoid at times, so determined was he not to lose momentum through scandal. A particular example was the first Mandelson resignation, which was back-dated in an attempt to make it look as if he had resigned the previous day, to avoid the opposition taking credit.

Cameron, in contrast, has shown little evidence of paranoia or dithering. He has wisely kept himself further from the forefront of the coalition in the media than Nick Clegg, investing his efforts (as far as one can tell) in its smooth running behind the scenes. This has worked well for his political momentum, as it leaves those out of the know more confused about his political positions, leaving him more room for manoeuvre and minimising accusations of dithering and U-turns. It also avoids the impression that he seeks to control every area of government, which ironically ended up costing Blair so much control.

So both resignations are at present very open to interpretation. Both risk accusations of bad judgement, slow decision-making and lack of control. Yet as we have briefly discussed, there is in reality very little difference to the way previous resignations have played out, other than in spin. Both were of figures who their employers were less than willing to lose; Johnson because of the political significance of his appointment, and Coulson because of the importance of his job. Both Miliband and Cameron may have been wise to play a relaxed game, letting events unfold leisurely rather than spin out of control as a result of frantic behaviour.

True, the wind may be blowing more in Cameron’s favour than Miliband’s; after all, when have more parties been united in government than opposition? When has the collected opposition lacked not just a majority of seats but also of votes? The other conclusion, which I was uncharitably tempted to disguise, is that this is a key lesson in the limits of pluralistic politics, such a key feature of my reasoning in recent articles. Oppositions, as I pointed out earlier, have traditionally had to put up an artificially united front in order to be seen as credible. This is a problem which needs addressing, but which it is difficult to see a solution to.

Hardie’s legacy and Labour’s civil society future

In Ideology, Party politics on January 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

At the risk of over-simplifying my first assertion, the history of post-1970s British politics can be seen as a binary conflict between the following spheres: state vs. market, Labour vs. Conservative, working class vs. middle class, wealth redistribution vs. wealth creation, equality vs. liberty. By the 2010 general election, a torrent of factors – national sovereignty being challenged by supranational unions (e.g. the Lisbon Treaty), economic autonomy being undermined by globalisation (the increasing power of the IMF and WTO), the 2008 financial crisis (ending the neo-liberal consensus) – have finally rendered this binary a deadlock. We are now drifting through an immaterial void, the new national order which will dominate the early 21st Century still forming in primordial soup. Cameron, in opposition, had the first opportunity to act, performing a volte face with the Conservative party and laying claim to civil society. The coalition has, so far successfully, painted Labour as the party of the out-of-touch managerial state and top-down reform. However, as I hope to show, the older and alternative thread within the Labour Party is of civil society activism and bottom-up reform, and that Labour’s recognition and revival of this thread is the key to its critique of the Big Society and re-forging progressive politics for a new generation.

The Big Society is a multi-form concept; a regeneration of British communities, a redemption for painful deficit reduction, a way out of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite cul-de-sac. Whilst Thatcher famously declared at her zenith that “There is, as we now know, no such thing as society”, Cameron’s loudest mantra has so far been “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” Cameron’s aspiration for Britain is one in which the public sector is scaled back as much as possible, and power is devolved to local communities; schools placed in the hands of teachers and parents, hospitals in those of GPs, public services with business and the voluntary sector. This fits neatly with the constantly laboured necessity of dismantling Labour’s juggernaut-sized state in order to reign in the country’s spending deficit. Cameron believes that, with the state scaled back, people will be freer to run their own communities and lives.

As laudable and potentially inspirational as this rhetoric is, there are gaping rends in the ‘progressive conservative’ Big Society philosophy. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not the same as the state, but it’s not the same as the market either. Retracting the state does not miraculously make people free; in a huge number of communities, the state, however distant and bureaucratic, is the only force preventing the market from privatising all. Taking the example of education reform, Michael Gove wants to shift power from local authorities to create independent ‘free’ academies, and is doing so against the will of the vast majority of teaching staff who he claims he wants to empower. Aside from the concerns many have about the creation of a two-tier system, the overbearing workload for staff, the temptation for schools to opt-in in exchange for a short-term cash boost, and the likelihood of affluent ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle-class parents hijacking the process to best help their own children, these academies would be democratically unaccountable to children and parents. If an academy goes bankrupt, where does it turn? Why, to the line of businesses ravenous to rake in profits from running chains of them, of course. Companies such as Tribal, Edison Learning and Serco have already expressed an interest in buying academies, and Gove has publically stated he has “no ideological objection” to this. I know I’m not the only one who finds the commodification of education a repugnant idea.

Nor, though it may shock the coalition leadership to hear it, can the government through sleight of hand exchange the state for voluntary sector in public service provision. Before the election, Cameron expressed hope that charities and faith groups would perform the job of the public sector in alleviating poverty and providing welfare utility. In light of Eric Pickles’ confirmation that voluntary groups would not receive additional funding for this work, the last week of December saw David Robinson of Community Links and the Bishop of Leister joining the growing number of voluntary sector figures concerned about the workability of the Big Society in the face of a massive welfare scale-back. The latter commented that “This can’t be the throwing of a switch and saying the state walks out and the church walks in. It is completely irresponsible to say these people will be cared for by amateurs.” If Labour has sometimes been guilty of undervaluing the role of civil society, then the Conservatives are optimistic to fantastical levels about its ability to do the job of the state unaided whilst at the same time fending off the vultures of the free market.

So how can Labour respond to the Big Society, and ensure that the post-crisis order is one dominated by progressives? The largest hurdle it must overcome is, I believe, not its association with Gordon Brown’s economic mismanagement – that is only part of the bigger picture. The real problem is the legacy of Labour’s top-down managerialism, and the fact that the party compromised its values and vision to be elected under a neo-liberal consensus. The new shadow cabinet proclaims its progressive credentials from the opposition benches – public sector investment, equality legislation, the largest ever redistribution from rich to poor – but none of this, as the rolling coalition reforms show, is set to outlast the government which instigated it. Miliband cannot criticise Cameron’s privatisation, because, far from providing a counterpoint to Thatcher-Major privatisations, New Labour joined the fun by part-privatising schools and the London Underground. He cannot criticise the meagreness of the new banking levy or minimalist regulation, because New Labour was happy to let the financial sector steer Britain into the economic abyss. And he cannot criticise the government’s removal of ring-fencing and centralisation of funding, because Labour, New and Old, saw it as a virtue to keep the reigns of power firmly in Westminster’s grasp. Labour’s job is hard because, in many ways, Cameron is only pursuing policies from the Blair-Brown platform.

In fact, Labour has an often overlooked rich tradition of civil society movements. It was created in 1900 out of the efforts of trade unions, which represented a sizable chunk of the poor population disregarded by the Conservative and Liberal state apparatus. Its founder and first MP, Keir Hardie, is regarded as one of the greatest activists in our history – his sense of democracy extended beyond the market and parliamentary state to local communities, faith groups, feminists, trade unionists and anti-imperialists. Labour’s historic values, as Maurice Glasman has pointed out, are not only abstracts like equality and liberty – they are also solidarity set against liberal individualism, activism set against conservative servility, and mutualism and reciprocity against capitalist self-aggrandisement. In many ways, the post-war Old Labour of Atlee, Wilson and Callaghan is as guilty of equating progressivism and socialism with statism as its New counterpart. After Labour’s experience of wartime governance and the 1945 landslide, the idea that the only route to change was the seizure and steering of the central state became hegemonic within the party. By contrast, early Labour in the tradition of Hardie, Lansbury and Tawney was a true grassroots mass movement, the like of which we have never seen since.

The voices on the Left which have represented this bottom-up rather than top-down tradition since Blair’s rise – Jon Cruddas, Will Hutton and Neal Lawson prominent among them – are finally being listened to. And neither is this renewed commitment to mutualism, localism and active citizenship rather than passive consumerism purely intellectual. The Conservative government’s spending cuts have kindled a new wave of civil society activism rarely seen in the last 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony, but this is not Cameron’s ostensibly citizen-empowering Big Society, which is showing itself to instead empower unaccountable big business and quangos. This is a wave of new grassroots organisations created to battle against the slicing up of the public sector – there are now dozens of regional anti-cuts groups, national anti-privatisation groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, and others for single-issues such as the anti-tax avoidance UK Uncut. The Labour Party itself has gained 32,000 new members since May, 10,000 of them disillusioned Lib Dems. Seven months into this parliament, it seems that the only community Cameron has succeeded in building is one against his own government.

If Miliband is tactful, he will ride the wave of public outrage (only set to grow as the cuts begin to strike the poor and middle) and in the process shear off its violent fringe. In doing so, he will attain a democratic mandate at least as great as a government which was formed from a series of enigmatic backroom deals. This will lay the foundations of the civil society-centred platform Labour must fight the next election on.

I suspect that, given the renaissance ideas of community and civil society are enjoying at the moment, Labour’s policy review will yield such answers. There are already prominent examples of such policies in action; for instance, Lambeth Council is in the process of becoming Britain’s first cooperative local authority. Some service provision has already been mutualised with promising results; Community Freshview to revitalise derelict land, cooperative housing for poorer people to own whilst avoiding loan sharking, and peer mentoring to rehabilitate potential young offenders. Another case can be seen in Citizens UK’s campaign for the living wage, which Ed Miliband has backed, and has enriched low-paid workers by over £40 million since 2000. Unlike the Big Society, this is not to diminish the important role of the welfare state, but to localise it and make it work alongside communities and people, rather than managing them like employees of a gigantic corporation.

Labour must jettison the narrow liberalism not only of the Blair-Brown years, but the top-down, managerialism, centralising thread of its ideology which goes back to the post-war nationalisations. It must also reenergise its concept of socialism past Antony Crosland’s now canonical assertion of economic equality as the party’s sole creed. Perhaps most importantly, it must re-stake its claim to the Big Society which Cameron has hijacked for the Tories – mutualism, localism and solidarity must become core tenets of its vision once more, coupled with an unambiguous commitment to the environmental cause. The direction emerging from our national void-drifting is increasingly away from central state and towards the literal meaning of democracy: the empowerment of the people. For the sake of the majority at the mercy of unrestrained capitalism, Labour cannot allow itself to be left behind.

Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.

Election night — my predictions and preferences

In Uncategorized on May 7, 2010 at 12:35 am

David Weber

Election 2010

Ok, so maybe the Liberal Democrats aren’t going to do so well after all. I’m cheating somewhat, blogging this after the exit polls came out. Unlike Stephen, who was principled and made a genuine prediction, this will be odds-on, I reckon. That said, I suspect the Exit polls might not be as good as they were back in 2005, as this election is closer.

It’s a pity, as it suggests that many people who declared support for the Lib Dems in the polls prior to the election were jumping on a popularity bandwagon. Still, there’s always the chance that the Lib Dems will lose seats whilst increasing their vote, which would support their views on the voting system.

My preferences? I disagree strongly with Stephen that a coalition with the nationalists would be a good idea, particularly one which kept the Labour party in power. I see no reason why the SNP would become more moderate through having a greater voice in UK government, particularly considering their behaviour the last time this happened. They are also more anti-Labour than that time around. I also dislike the idea of Labour gaining a fourth term in government after their actions in the third one, particularly their assault on civil liberties, and their callous disregard for voters not important to them — often the poor.

This said, I voted for the Liberal Democrats, and if Labour did gain a greater share of the votes and seats than the Conservatives I would be happy to see them form a government with the support of this party. I don’t think this is likely, however, but furthermore, I don’t think it is desirable.

Therefore there are only two further options. The first is a Tory-Liberal coalition. I think this is unlikely; firstly, the Tories are unlikely to give way over electoral reform, secondly, they have pitched their campaign too far from the Liberal Democrats’, making compromise very difficult to find. The second is a minority Tory government with Liberal scrutiny. This is not the nightmare scenario many imagine; it could be remarkably similar to the way the SNP have governed in Scotland for the last few years. Furthermore, it would be simpler, with less accusations of back-room deals, and with a Liberal Democrat party able to veto the more ridiculous parts of the Tory programme (such as the Inheritance tax cut).

I am also reluctant to see the Liberal Democrats in government, mainly because of the outside chance that they might get education. This would, ironically, be the most serious threat to religious liberty that the election could provide. Their policies on the curriculum are a big blind-spot, which mistake prescription of views for liberalism, and are about teaching people what to think rather than how to think. Therefore my preference would be, incredibly reluctantly, for a Tory minority government held rigorously to account by a Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition.

The Liberal Democrats deserve electoral reform. Even AV, which would retain the two-party grip, would be fairer to them, and even make it marginally possible for them to overtake Labour in seats as well as the vote. Their policies in many areas, such as civil liberties, Education funding, Local government and parliamentary reform are the best of any party’s. But the party, though very much improved and responsible, is still a big risk in certain areas, and does not deserve to be trusted with single-party power. Therefore my incredibly reluctant, not to mention marginally decided preference would be for a minority Conservative government, which has made it very difficult to decide who to vote for. However, with an eye on the polls, and on the safeness of my seat (which the MP is in some ways taking for granted), I gave my support to the Liberal Democrats. If by an outside chance they still end up in government, it won’t be disastrous for the country. It could even be the best result. I’m not dogmatic about this (I hope!)

A Level Playing Field is Essential

In The Media on March 31, 2010 at 9:45 am

David Weber

A lot has been made about the TV debates this election, that one would almost think that it is a new thing in British politics to have leaders debates. But it is not. A leaders panel debate occurred in 2005.

This was called “Question Time”, and it was an election special. Now, I have a lot of respect for Question Time, despite sniffy comments that often come from the left-wing blogosphere. It represents a quintessentially true representation of the Parliamentary system, where parties field different representatives each week (or rather the BBC invite different representatives each week), thus countering the increasing presidentialism of the party system.

It is for this reason that I am concerned about the “leaders debates” events. I think it’s a nonsense in a Parliamentary system: encouraging the idea that leaders are competing with each other for election. Nothing could be further from the truth: their competitors will be inside the party, or inside the constituency. At most, leaders should participate in a panel debate: the nature of Question Time is that the audience dictate the agenda, quite unlike an organised debate on policy in which each candidate is not allowed to address the other personally.

I’m all for seeing the QT model extended, with other channels doing similar things. But trying to copy presidential debates is a corruption and perversion of a system which is fraught enough as it is. However, the debates seem to be getting one thing right, in giving Nick Clegg equal exposure. Alarmingly, the is at the same time that Question Time is getting this question badly wrong, and dropping the Liberal Democrats with regularity.

Other people have tackled the disastrous timing of these LD-free panels, so I’m going to skip that question. Suffice it to say that to ignore the Lib Dems’ most famous policy stand was never going to be a good decision. No, my point is more fundamental. The BBC claims that the Liberal Democrat, as the third party, do not qualify for as much representation in media. This is a catastrophic failure to understand the role of media in democratic choice.

A level playing field is essential for a good democratic fight. It is, in fact, analogous to the market, and problems of over-large companies. If one company gets too big a share in the market, it is counter-productive to the interests of choice and competition.

The parties do not, in fact, have a huge share of the democratic market, which makes things worse. They are over-represented in Parliament: whether this is a problem is a whole bigger debate. But the parties, in terms of a proportion of the votes cast, all round far closer than election results would have us believe.

This is how a question time panel is divided, whether by accident or design: One representative for the three parties, and two representatives outside of this sphere. The latter represent 40% of the panel; by accident or design this is the percentage of the electorate which does not vote in general elections at the moment. Occasionally minority parties are given a voice, such as the SNP in Scotland, and UKIP in England. Given this, the main parties’ representation can be weighed by the proportion of real votes they get: Labour being roughly 60% of 38% at the moment (<24%), Conservatives being a little under, probably around 20%, and the Liberal Democrats being around 13-14%. As such, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the “big two” is far less than commonly imagined.

But this is immaterial, anyway. The simple fact is that for the electorate to be presented a serious choice, the main parties must be treated as equals. In an ideal world, this would benefit more than just three parties, but given the politics we have, it is patently clear that the main three parties, which are in most elections far ahead of the others, should be given equal exposure. Otherwise not only does the electoral system conspire against underdog, but the media does as well.

A lot has been made about the TV debates this election, that one would almost think that it is a new thing in British politics to have leaders debates. But it is not. A leaders panel debate occurred in 2005.This was called “Question Time”, and it was an election special. Now, I have a lot of respect for Question Time, despite sniffy comments that often come from the left-wing blogosphere. It represents a quintessentially true representation of the Parliamentary system, where parties field different representatives each week (or rather the BBC invite different representatives each week), thus countering the increasing presidentialism of the party system.

It is for this reason that I am concerned about the “leaders debates” events. I think it’s a nonsense in a Parliamentary system: encouraging the idea that leaders are competing with each other for election. Nothing could be further from the truth: their competitors will be inside the party, or inside the constituency. At most, leaders should participate in a panel debate: the nature of Question Time is that the audience dictate the agenda, quite unlike an organised debate on policy in which each candidate is not allowed to address the other personally.

I’m all for seeing the QT model extended, with other channels doing similar things. But trying to copy presidential debates is a corruption and perversion of a system which is fraught enough as it is. However, the debates seem to be getting one thing right, in giving Nick Clegg equal exposure. Alarmingly, the is at the same time that Question Time is getting this question badly wrong, and dropping the Liberal Democrats with regularity.

Other people have tackled the disastrous timing of these LD-free panels, so I’m going to skip that question. Suffice it to say that to ignore the Lib Dems’ most famous policy stand was never going to be a good decision. No, my point is more fundamental. The BBC claims that the Liberal Democrat, as the third party, do not qualify for as much representation in media. This is a catastrophic failure to understand the role of media in democratic choice.

A level playing field is essential for a good democratic fight. It is, in fact, analogous to the market, and problems of over-large companies. If one company gets too big a share in the market, it is counter-productive to the interests of choice and competition.

The parties do not, in fact, have a huge share of the democratic market, which makes things worse. They are over-represented: whether this is a problem is a whole bigger debate. But the parties, in terms of a proportion of the votes cast, all round together.

This is how a question time panel is divided, whether by accident or design: One representative for the three parties, and two representatives outside of this sphere. The latter represent 40% of the panel, the percentage of the electorate which does not vote, but sometimes minority parties are given a voice, such as the SNP in Scotland, and UKIP in England. Given this, the former can be weighed by the proportion of real votes they get: Labour being roughly 60% of 38% at the moment (<24%), Conservatives being a little under, probably around 20%, and the Liberal Democrats being around 13-14%. As such, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the “big two” is far less than commonly imagined.

But this is immaterial, anyway. The simple fact is that for the electorate to be presented a serious choice, the main parties must be treated as equals. In an ideal world, this would benefit more than just three parties, but given the politics we have, it is patently clear that the main three parties, which are in most elections far ahead of the others, should be given equal exposure. Otherwise not only does the electoral system conspire against underdog, but the media does as well.

Cameron must not be afraid to fight Brown and his government

In Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, The Media on September 19, 2009 at 9:50 pm

TOM KENNEDY

Daniel Hannan’s loose tongue has provided somewhat of a dilemma for David Cameron, but the Tory leader must challenge Labour’s incompetence over the NHS and other vital issues.

SUGGESTING health care reform and attacking the poor decisions that Labour have made does not make you a right wing militant, joining a crusade against a socialist ideal.  As many have rightly claimed, the NHS is an institution that Britons should be proud of. It is a fundamental part of our society, one that we must cherish and protect. However, it has major faults. The problem is, the mere suggestion of reform from the Conservatives leaves many reactionary left wingers screaming for Tory blood, convinced that the pompous and capitalist right wingers are back with a mission to privatise the health care system, to finish what even Thatcher couldn’t achieve.

This is simply not going to happen. Even those who dislike the Conservatives know that they would never privatise the NHS. Yes, there is a section of the Tory party that would love privatisation to happen, and have a deep dislike of the system. However, whilst Cameron is leader they will be ignored, and rightly so. The way to solve the problems inside the NHS is most defiantly not to sell it off, and the majority of Tories are well aware of that.

The fact is that there are huge problems within the NHS. It was reported in the press recently that prisoners now receive better food than those who are ill in hospital, with food needlessly transported up and down the country. GP’s have managed to secure a bizarre deal whereby they work less, but receive more money. Since 2003, the salary of a GP has increased 58%. On average, a GP now works 35.6 hours a week, and receives £114,000 a year. It has also emerged that 45,000 NHS staff claim in sick every day, double the rate for the private sector. Astonishingly, many are paid overtime, due to a deal struck with the unions. This costs the general public £2 million a year.

However, despite what many say, I don’t think the problem is NHS staff. The majority of those who work for our health service deserve our upmost respect, as they are in an extremely worthy and noble profession that is helping the health and well being of our country and her people. There are bad employees, but the same could be said of any occupation across the land. Although some of their salaries may be too high, the predicament does not lie with the staff.

We must look at the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, as one of the main culprits. Brown arrogantly tells the British Public that Labour know what is best for the public, and how to spend our money. Better than the Conservatives, and certainly better than us. Our Prime Ministers assumption is up for question, especially when we see that Labour has spent an excessive £110 billion a year on health. Despite this, for many the NHS remains simply a postcode lottery.

The irony of all this is that there are still people out there who believe that in Mr Brown we have a safe pair of hands, someone with admirable financial prudency that can see us through the recession. Nothing could be further from the truth. Labour often moans about the lack of genuine policies from the Tories, and their cloudiness and failure to deal in fact. Here are some facts.

When Gordon Brown became Chancellor of the Exchequer, the economical fundamentals were in place for a strong economy. Unemployment was already falling from 3 million to around 1.6 million, and the country was thriving from privatisation of businesses. Brown’s supporters claim that the financial state we are in is merely bad luck on Brown’s behalf, but using that logic, surely his successes was then just good luck as well?

Between 1998-2005, public sectors swelled by 11%, creating nearly 600,000 more public employees. The state also now employs 3,250 press officers. Which leads to the questions, what were all these people doing?  The benefit system has lost 2.3 billion through various errors. 9 resignations from the health service have cost the country three billion pounds. When a fifth of the Royal Navy Fleet had to be cut in order to save money, the go ahead was given for a 2.3 billion HQ for the ministry of defence.  Brown also introduced 66 new types of tax, and used complex language to disguise what was really just a waste of public money, which played a huge part in getting us into the financial mess the country is in.

In another regretful move, Brown decided to sell a great deal of our gold supply, believing that at the time it was selling at a good price. Since then gold has rocketed in value. The treasury’s electricity bill has tripled since 2000, and spending on stationary has risen so fast it represents the cost of 10 million ball point pens! Worryingly, The Centre For Economic and Business Research found that £58.4 million is squandered across the public sector.

Brown loves to boast of the generosity Labour have show in public spending, and it is true they have increased the amount of money that goes towards education and health significantly. However, the problem is that the government seem to think that throwing money at something makes it better. It doesn’t. Has education really improved as a result? Results suggest not. Does the NHS offer a better service? Many would argue that it doesn’t.

In fairness to Brown, he has not been solely responsible for all of our financial difficulties. Nor has he been behind one major individual problem. However, all of these needless acts of extravagance have undoubtedly contributed to our financial crisis. Does Scotland Yard really need to spend £12.5 million a year flying it’s officers first class around the world? Despite all of this, Brown has convinced himself he is a hawk eyed defendant of our money. The trouble is other people are accepting his delusion. They really believe that the Tories are going to come and turn the country into a right wing state and cut all public spending.  These people should look more towards Labour. Can you imagine if The Conservatives had attempted to push through the detention bill that Brown himself was so fond of? They would be labelled as a cluster of legalistic right wingers, denying human rights. However Brown somehow survived that absurdity.

This leads me on that what I feel has been a serious mistake on part of The Conservatives. This is a real chance for David Cameron to prove his worth as a top class politician. He should forget about the ramblings of attention seekers such as Dan Hannan and focus on Brown. The facts are there and Labour is there for the taking. But so far Cameron has restrained from launching a full scale attack on the government shambolic misuse of finances. I fear that Cameron is worried about his party receiving the tag of being ‘anti-public health care’.

There is no denying that New Labour has had many positive moments, some of which have been genuinely good for Britain. In 1997 the time was right for change, and the Conservatives were not fit to lead the country. Even now, whether their policies are up to standard is a separate debate altogether, and will come under much scrutiny before the general election. David Cameron will have to prove to the electorate that he is genuinely concerned about those less fortunate than himself, and he can understand and support them. Many people simply don’t think he can. The public’s frustration with mainstream politics is completely understandable; as is the fact the people don’t want the Conservatives in power. However, that many of those same people would consider voting for a further term for the Labour government beggars’ belief. It is easy to respect what Labour used to stand for, and many are clinging on to that ideal of the party, even though it is long gone.

The problem is that many of the electorate are living in the past. They want to hate Cameron’s Conservatives. Why? Because they lived through the supposed dark days of Thatcher. Or perhaps their parents told them about ‘Iron Lady’ and how they considered her to be a wicked woman. What they fail to understand is that politics has moved on. It hurts them to admit that the previously left leaning government are now as conservative as the Tories. It is fairly clear that Tony Blair and Labour opposed hardly any of Thatcherism, and instead of abolishing many of her policies, they simply toned them down and made them more practical, with Blair providing a more friendly face than the  formidable Thatcher. The truth is that David Cameron is far more similar to Blair than Thatcher.

The truth is that the choice between Labour and The Conservatives is no longer between left and right. No longer do Labour represent socialist values, or stand for the working man. If anybody things that a government who declared war on Iraq and tried 42 day detention bill are verging on the left they are fooling only themselves. It is clear the parties have simply merged in the middle of the political spectrum.  Voters must decide who will make a better government, and put the best wishes of the country first.

The excitement and positive outlook of New Labour is dead. The Iraq War was the start, and other events have just been further nails in the Labour coffin. ‘New’ Labour is old hand, and is dying a slow and painful death. Let’s see if Cameron has it in him to finish them off.

Parliamentary Spotlight:

In Parliamentary Spotlight on August 27, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Prime Minister’s Questions

Prime Minister’s Questions officially began in 1961, set up by Harold Macmillan to be held twice weekly on a Tuesday and a Thursday. It stayed this way until 1997 when it became one of the first of Tony Blair’s parliamentary reforms. The idea of PMQ’s is so that the premier can be scrutinised by all members of the Commons. Which is all very well in theory.

But in practice it is a different story. Now once a week for half an hour, it is becoming extremely tiresome. Critics of Blair often put the reason for change down to Blair wanting to spend as little time in the Commons as he could get away with, but half an hour is much, much too long.

The whole drama of the event vanishes after the two leaders of the opposition have finished their questions. Between their 8 questions, they will normally have asked most of the serious matters on people’s minds, and if not, then these will be asked very shortly afterwards, leaving at least 15 minutes left. The rest is all filler, and not even interesting filler. For the most part it is desperately dull.

From the opposition, there is often either basic repetition of what has been said before, or just a basic question asking whether the Prime Minister has received a letter about one of their concerns and “will you have talks with me about it later?” Occasionally you will get an inflammatory question about some deficient act of government policy, and plenty of noise from both benches to accompany it. Occasionally.

But by far worse is the inevitably cringe-worthy spectacle of watching an MP on the government’s side ask a question. Normally a younger sycophantic backbencher, usually with aspirations to become a minister and told by the whips that this is a good way to get themselves noticed. This patsy question will normally go along the lines of “Congratulations to the Prime Minister on [insert drivel here], but will my right honourable friend do all he can to help the [insert group of people here] in my constituency, who…” As if the Prime Minister is going to turn around to them and say ‘No.’

The above has to be not only the worst part of the process, but it’s not even as clever as the backbenchers might think. Not so very long ago, perhaps two months or so, Gordon Brown was having one of his best PMQ sessions since becoming PM. It was refreshing to see him on top of things for a change. He knocked back all of David Cameron’s questions reasonably well, and thought on his feet well when other Conservatives tried to dig the knife in. He even said something to the tune of  ‘The opposition have no serious questions, they are all on style, and none on policy,’ and no-one laughed at him.

But then it happened. He had just answered an opposition MP’s question and one of his own backbenchers, possibly the notorious Margaret Moran, was called to speak. ‘Would the Prime Minister,’ she began, grinning inanely with all the smarmy qualities of somebody who really has no idea of the damage they are about to cause, ‘like to celebrate with me on Luton Football Club being moved up a division for the next season?’ The opposition had a field day. All of Brown’s accomplishments in that one session vanished and he limped on amongst immense jeering.

Sad as it is, performance at PMQ’s can really matter for the party leaders. Margaret Thatcher would have been thankful that it was not televised when she was in opposition, as she often only asked one question and was never really a match for Wilson or Callaghan. But nowadays, PMQ’s can be said to have contributed to the failed leadership of Iain Duncan Smith and Menzies Campbell.

It is hard to say what should happen to PMQ’s but perhaps it would at least be better reverted back to twice a week. Unfortunately, the new speaker John Bercow seems enthusiastic to take in as many backbenchers’ questions as possible. In reality, this I feel takes away from any sense of scrutiny by PMQ’s and instead merely turns it into a joke.