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Posts Tagged ‘Liberal Democrats’

Less Tax, Less Spend

In Economy, Home Affairs on March 21, 2012 at 9:55 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox –@polar_ii

Today is Budget Day. All Westminster is on tenterhooks, looking forward to a relatively dry state from George Osborne about the state of the nation’s finances and his plans for the next few years. Anyone who’s been vaguely following the political news, whether in newspapers, in blogs or on TV will know the key issues in this Budget. Should Osborne cut the 50% upper rate of income tax (more specifically, can Osborne survive the political backlash by pointing to more revenues)? Should we introduce a new sort of wealth tax, either directly on wealth or on property? Should the income tax threshold be raised, and by how much?

I’m going to leave most of the economic arguments to one side and look at three political shifts since the last Budget.

1) The Liberal Democrats no longer have much influence at the Treasury

This year, the Liberal Democrats decided to make their positions on the Budget public. Essentially, they conducted Budget negotiations in full view. This has turned out to be a poor move. By tabling proposals for a mansion tax before anyone else had proposed anything, they had plenty of time to be savaged. The wisdom was once that the Lib Dems would not permit Osborne to remove the 50% tax rate without a huge concession like a mansion tax. Now, all it looks like Osborne will do is promise to close some tax loopholes on first homes (something he has promised to do before). Although Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander make up half the ‘Quad’ that negotiates the Budget, they have been comprehensively out-manoeuvred by Osborne and Cameron. The Conservatives are much closer to owning the idea of income tax threshold rises. They’ve avoided a mansion or property tax. The ‘Green Agenda’ has almost vanished from view. Unless Osborne surprises us today, there will be very little the Lib Dems can claim as their handiwork in the Budget.

2) VAT is off the table

Remember the heady days of 2010? The UK had its first Coalition government, Clegg and Cameron were making happy love in Downing Street’s Rose Garden, and George Osborne presented his emergency budget. In it, of course, he raised VAT to 20%, much to the consternation of the Labour party. Labour still want to reverse it, but only temporarily (at least, this is what they’re five-point plan says). Given that VAT is a regressive tax (the poor pay a greater share of their income in VAT than the rich) and it’s a tax on consumption (i.e. buying things), you would have thought that there would be widespread consensus against it becoming higher with a stagnant economy. However, someone has clearly won the argument for it – whether it’s the extra revenue it brings in for comparatively little impact on people’s pockets or the need to rebalance the economy away from consumption and towards production – and now Labour backs, in the long term, the 20% rate. It’s a U-turn they have managed with considerable deftness. But no-one is seriously suggesting cuts in VAT. Osborne’s won the major tax policy battle of the 2010 Budget with comparative ease. Perhaps this has emboldened him with the 50% tax rate?

3) No-one wants to talk about the cuts

As we know, this government is cutting. There are arguments about whether it is cutting too much or not enough, too fast or not fast enough, whether its cutting in the wrong place etc. George Osborne enjoyed a surplus of about £5bn since his last budget, meaning he has cash to throw around. And everyone seems to want him to throw it at tax cuts of one sort or another. Admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, £5bn is not a huge amount of money. It’s 1% of government expenditure, worth about somewhere between a half and a third of the international aid budget or maybe 1 in every 40 pounds spent on welfare. But there are certainly things Osborne could do with it. He could reverse the planned 20% cut to the non-means-tested disability benefit DLA (a cut which, incidentally, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest is desirable or sustainable) – this is planned to save just under £2.2bn. Admittedly, Osborne cannot do much with regard to reversing his cuts. But he could use the option to do something totemic but relatively inexpensive. Such as preserving the DLA budget as benefits for disabled people are reformed. But again, no-one is making the case for public spending cuts to be reversed over tax cuts. Maybe this is because people enjoy the idea of a tax cut more than they enjoy the idea of disabled people having enough money to live on, but this is perhaps too cynical a view. More likely is that everyone sees Osborne’s mandate is now so closely tied to the cuts set out in 2010’s Comprehensive Spending Review that going back on one element, no matter how good the arguments for going back, will fatally undermine his credibility.

What we can see then is this: Osborne’s Budget 2010 has shaped today’s political landscape. The direction he took in that Budget meant that any discussion about any other Budget before the 2015 election would be about tax and not spending. The Conservatives, as a low-tax party, will always enjoy the advantage over Labour and the Liberal Democrats when it comes to cutting taxes; just as Labour, a high-spend party, will always have the advantage when talking about spending. Perhaps this is why Miliband and Balls feel so out-of-place this year, with the Shadow Treasury Team reportedly having no comeback to Osborne despite practically knowing  his Budget in advance: Osborne has simply moved the debate onto territory with which they are completely unfamiliar and profoundly uncomfortable, and they cannot wrest the narrative away from tax cuts to spending cuts. 

In the long term, of course, Osborne’s reputation is tied to whether Budget 2010 works in the long term. But there are so many factors beyond his control in that consideration that there will be plenty of wiggle room if it doesn’t work. The strategic victory Osborne has brought about is actually to move the debate away from where New Labour had it (i.e. on what do we spend more money) and towards where the Conservatives want it (i.e. what taxes do we cut). If the tax cuts in Budget 2012 are well-chosen, Osborne can entrench this attitude. And that entrenched attitude will be the greatest asset for the Conservative party come election time in 2015.

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 »

This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.

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.

UKIP Waiting In The Wings…

In Europe, Home Affairs, Party politics on April 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

For sure the most interesting element of upcoming local elections will be to what extent (or not) the Liberal Democrats are wiped off the electoral map. But that’s not what the Tory bloggers and Conservative strategists are worried about. In the (very) unlikely event that Labour takes every single Liberal Democrat local council seat, the Conservatives will still be the largest party in local government. And the Tories might even be hopeful of picking up a load of Liberal seats in the South-West, where Labour, for the most part, doesn’t really offer effective opposition.

It is not the Liberal Democrats that are vexing the Tories, but UKIP. Since the Conservative party’s formation in the 1830s, it has had exclusive or strong claim from the centre (Social and Economic or Classical Liberalism) through the centre-right (Red, Wet or One-Nation Conservatism) to the right (Thatcherite, Dry or Social Conservatism) of British politics, which has always ensured it is in the running for government. It has taken left parties, notably in Labour’s case, Blair, to move to the right in order to inhabit the centre. Cameron is the first Tory leader for a long while to bring his party to the left in order to win an election – no other leader since WW2 readily comes to mind. But now this seemingly natural position, encapsulating the right-leaning centre and the out-and-out right (NB not the far-right, which is fascistic, and rarely has ‘right-wing’ economic policies) is under threat from UKIP.

UKIP was initially founded as an anti-EU movement. However, Nigel Farage, who has entered and left and entered again through the revolving door of his party’s leadership, has sought to broaden the party beyond Euroscepticism; UKIP submitted a full manifesto at the previous general election. Stuart Wheeler, who, it is calculated, gave £5 million to the Conservatives, jumped ship to UKIP in 2009. UKIP came second in the European elections, taking 12 seats in the EU Parliament. At the last general election, it took more votes than the Green party, polling at 3.1%.

However, the popularity that these European results suggest is not mirrored elsewhere: it has far fewer local government representatives than the Greens. It has previously enjoyed the backing of one Tory defector in the commons and a few more in the Lords, but it has never won a Westminster seat through the ballot box. At the general election, the eloquent Farage failed to beat the Speaker and an independent, coming third. The party has struggled to shake off allegations of racism and has fallen foul of normal rules of decency in the European Parliament.

Why then are Conservative party supporters worried about UKIP? On a general level, UKIP takes a position to the right of the Conservative party. While the strains of coalition are being widely felt and reported in the Liberal Party, the right of the Tory Party is not terribly happy cuddling up to a party that wants to abolish nuclear weapons, pervert the voting system, make the Lords elected, introduce copious quantities of business regulation, raise taxes, become European, and generally be lefties. While the Conservative party is remarkably solid despite its breadth, its electorate needn’t be – and UKIP is an attractive proposition, with promises to charge a flat rate of income tax, abolish National Insurance, hugely deregulate, and invest heavily in defence, aside from the flagship policy of leaving the expensive and invasive EU.

There are, however, more contingent factors. In a recent by-election in Barnsley, UKIP came second, polling more votes than both coalition parties combined. There should be a caveat – this was a by-election in a safe Labour seat; the Tories had never done well, and the tuition fees u-turn was still fresh in Liberal minds. But it made people think, and the UKIP people began to chatter about making a proper emergence onto the political scene. In addition, a large number of EU issues have come up during this Parliament – the UK having to contribute to bail out debt-laden Eurozone economies, the European Court on Human Rights handing down verdicts on allowing prisoners to vote, and not allowing people to be permanently kept on a sex offenders register. Cameron may rightly claim that has no legal wriggle-room – and the reality is he probably doesn’t have political wriggle-room either, since he depends on the Liberal Democrats – but there will be an impression in the body politic that the Conservatives are failing to defend British sovereignty from the encroaching EU. Resentment also lingers about Cameron’s decision not to offer a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon (and those of you going ‘how could he offer one once it had passed?’ will not be heard by a significant section of grassroots Tories).

However, several factors mitigate against a sudden UKIP surge. Firstly, most people can’t name three UKIP politicians; Farage is the only one with any profile of note. Secondly, there is still the perception that UKIP is a single-issue party about the EU. Thirdly, UKIP has not attracted any important defections from the Conservative party – the loss of a donor, admittedly a generous one, did not really matter to Cameron, and nor did the defection of Bob Spink MP. Who he? Exactly. He was thrown out by his electorate at the next opportunity, and most Tory MPs will not be keen to follow his example. Fourthly, most UKIP voters would rather like a Conservative government; and they may be reluctant to vote after UKIP after their previous leader told them to back Eurosceptic Tories in 2010’s general election, and the swing to UKIP seems to have cost Cameron an outright majority. A similar potential UKIP nadir arose in 2004, but was blown out of the water by the singularity that was Robert Kilroy-Silk. While Farage seems more level-headed, it is important that UKIP has failed to convert from this position before.

And Cameron can kill UKIP’s electoral prospects at any point he wants. All he has to do is wait until UKIP claims a major victory (say, is the first party at the European elections) and say he is listening to the will of the people, and will give them a referendum on EU membership. He will have the Liberal Democrats over a barrel, seeing as they supported an in-out referendum when the Treaty of Lisbon was being ratified. There should also be enough Labour Eurosceptics to ease it through should Clegg take exception – after all, every time Miliband gets up to oppose it, Cameron will just say ‘Lisbon’ and he’ll retire in shame and embarrassment that the cabinet of which he was a part truckled so readily to the Eurocrats.

So don’t pay too much attention to the comment strings on Conservative Home blogs, or to the ramblings of UKIP members. A nadir of right-wing politics may be on the horizon for the UK, but UKIP will not be how it comes about; more likely, it seems, to come from Murdoch’s favourite Daniel Hannan, or a dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservative like Michael Gove. Cameron has nothing to fear from UKIP. Yet.

Nuclear Reaction

In Events, Foreign Affairs on April 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Japan is in crisis. Not only because of one the most devastating earthquakes in history. Not just because of the tsunami that followed. But because these events have damaged one of the Fukushima nuclear plants, threatening to spread nuclear radiation over Japan, including the capital city of Tokyo. International experts have  been flown in, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been monitoring the situation. Meanwhile, Germany has suspended its plans to build new nuclear reactions and prolong the life of its existing plants, the UK government is launching a review into the safety of nuclear power and protesters against nuclear power have suddenly materialised across Europe.

They argue that nuclear power is dangerous. They cite the Three Islands disaster, the Chernobyl explosion, and now point to the Fukushima crisis as evidence that nuclear power is not worth the risk. They point out that nuclear power is not a renewable energy, and that the world would be much better if we abandoned nuclear power and used renewable power. They complain that nuclear waste can remain dangerous for thousands of years. They say that nuclear power plants are a huge security risk; a terrorist might attack it and spread radiation all over the country.

All these are true. But there are counter-arguments. The specification for the Three Islands was much more crude than modern designs. The Russians were experimenting at Chernobyl without appropriate security measures. Nuclear power is not renewable, but there’s enough uranium in the world to last for a few thousand years, leaving plenty of time for renewable technology to become sufficiently efficient; and there are no carbon emissions to boot. Although nuclear waste is dangerous, there are ways of dealing with the problem: the Finns recently completed a waste bunker that will contain nuclear waste for 100,000 years. And nuclear power plants in the UK have been closed to the public since 2001. In addition, the material used to encase nuclear reactors and nuclear waste is incredibly secure. In the 1990s, the government thought it would be fun to drive a train into such a container. The train was by far the worse off; you can still see the container at Oldbury nuclear power station near Bristol. As for its safety, seven people have died in the last ten years generating nuclear power. This compares with over 20 with wind power. Given that wind power generates much less electricity than nuclear, nuclear is several hundred times safer per kilowatt-hour than wind power.

These arguments panned out before the Fukushima disaster, and the balance of opinion, in the UK, was in favour of using nuclear power. Does the Fukushima crisis change this? Not really. First, we should note the obvious that Fukushima was built on a tectonically sensitive zones. A DEFRA report concluded that there was a statistically trivial chance of an earthquake occurring in the UK; but they needn’t have wasted the money – the last tsunami to hit England was in the 17th century. Furthermore, the Fukushima plant was built to a much older, and less safe, specification than many European power plants. And safety does not seem to have been taken as seriously as could be desired; there were major resignations in 2002 over cover-ups in nuclear safety.

Even with all the panic concerning meltdown at Fukushima, the IAEA’s monitoring suggests that radiation remains low, lower indeed than the level of radiation one might exposed to in a CAT scan, for example. Despite scares about water contamination, food contamination, cancer and all sorts of other things, the danger from nuclear radiation, saving the complete collapse of the reactors (currently looking unlikely), is minimal.

Why then, are some European governments getting cold feet on nuclear power. In Germany, the answer is simple; Angela Merkel is facing re-election, and she needs to appease some voters who are opposed to her plans to expand nuclear power. Hence she suspends the plans, saying the anti-nuclear lobby that she doesn’t want the power, yet to the pro-nuclear lobby she says that the plans will go ahead. Meanwhile, in the UK, Chris Huhne has to balance the Liberal Democrats’ traditional suspicion of nuclear power with the realities of coalition, hence he has established a review to slow down the establishment of nuclear power in the UK. This review is unlikely to find any systematic safety failures, simply because British procedures and schematics are much safer than Japan’s. Whereas in France and Eastern Europe, where nuclear power is essential or very much desired, there has been no concern about safety, no plans to stop construction, no attempts to prevent the prolonging of the life of nuclear power plants.

Ultimately, individual views of nuclear power will determine whether the reader believes those who are not reviewing their attitude to nuclear power are sensible or foolish. But we have seen that the Fukushima crisis has many contingent factors that are not at work in Europe, and that those governments that are expressing concerns with nuclear power have political motives so to do. They, and certain anti-nuclear protesters, are trying to create a nuclear reaction against nuclear power. However, if common sense returns to government, it will fizzle out. This nuclear reaction will be about as dangerous as nuclear power.

Ed, show us the alternative

In BBC Question Time, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on April 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Audience responses on the BBC’s Question Time usually range from the mildly interesting to the banal, providing little more than an identification of which panel member the viewer most aligns with. However, once in a while, someone says something so original and yet so obvious that it merits serious consideration. Such a thing was said on last Thursday’s episode: a woman, chosen by David Dimbleby to speak, asked why Labour, if it’s so committed to the alternative, doesn’t pen a Shadow Budget to lay out their alternative deficit reduction plan.

The panelists response to this was painfully predictable. Diane Abbott, as the Labour representative, spluttered something about it being nonsensical four years before an election, whilst Mark Serwotka, the head of the PCS union, repeated his tenuous claim that there is no necessity for any spending cuts whatsoever. And yet this idea of a Shadow Budget, levelled by someone so lowly as to not be a professional economist or politician, is one that, I think, should be adopted by the Labour Party without hesitation.

The current debate on the economy, both national and global, has lined up between the two foremost schools of economic thought: neo-classicalism and Keynesianism. The neo-classicalists, inspired primarily by the 19th Century economist David Ricardo, see budget deficits as dangerous and immoral: according the Ricardian equivalency, any national deficit between income and spending (the UK’s being approximately 10% of GDP) is just taxation deferred for future generations. By radically cutting public spending to balance the deficit (‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, or, in Cameron’s terminology, ”rolling back the boundaries of the state”) neo-classicalists believe that the private sector will be freed from taxation and competition with the public sector to drive the economy back to prosperity. Keynesian thought, meanwhile, led the original response to the financial crisis, bailing out the banks and implementing fiscal stimuli to drive the economy quickly out of the recession. Now out of the immediate danger zone, Keynesians, such as Robert Skidelsky and Joseph Stiglitz, do not dispute the need for eventual deficit reduction, but are concerned that a premature fiscal contraction underestimates how much the private sector relies on the public sector, and so will drop the UK economy back into recession. Instead, Keynesians argue for fiscal policy based on growth and investment to stably harbour the economy, whilst slowly but steadily cutting the deficit.

This is the debate which, since the initial crisis response, has been mapped on to British party politics. Last May, both the Labour manifesto was based on the Keynesian response, whilst the Conservative one was neo-classicalist, and the Lib Dems in between but Keynesian-leaning. At least partially on these grounds, the majority of commentators predicted, before the election, a Lib-Lab coalition in the event of a hung parliament. And a hung parliament we had, except that the Lib Dem high command, vested with the choice of how to form the next British government, elevated David Cameron’s Tories over Gordon Brown’s Labour. Now in government, Clegg and his allies have apparently been won over to the neo-classicalist, and by extension George Osborne’s, fiscal plan: to entirely eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament through a 73:27 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises.

All the evidence suggests that Osborne’s economic management so far has ranged from lacklustre to abysmal. The Office of Budget Responsibility, set up by the current government, has downgraded its growth forecasts from 3-3.5% to 2.6%. Unemployment is still rising, now at a 17-year high, with one-fifth of all young people unable to find a job. Inflation is at 4%, the highest in 20 years. The Consumer Confidence Index was last measured at -29, the biggest drop since 1994. Even the mainstream centre-Right newspapers, which had previously praised the Chancellor’s conviction, have now turned their attention more to the human costs of deficit reduction than the stability it will ostensibly bring. Osborne’s attempt to blame poor economic performance on heavy snowfall over December fooled no one: the US, German, French and even Spanish economies grew by over 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010, whilst ours shrunk by more than 0.5%. The problem is, what is the alternative?

Ed Miliband’s Labour, having dithered in the autumn months, has now settled on maintaining Alastair Darling’s plan of halving the deficit in a single parliament. With Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor, this position has now been confirmed. Labour has since busied itself with rebuking the Tory-led government on its choices for deficit reduction: the VAT rise to 20% (predicted to cost families with children £450 extra in 2011), the rise in higher education fees, and front-line cuts to public services have been particular targets of the Shadow Cabinet. But Labour has yet to commit to what it would cut, or which taxes it would rise, were it currently in government. Although exactly how much would have to be cut under Labour’s plan is unclear, Miliband and his colleagues have so far sidestepped the sticky issue of what their ‘alternative’ would actually entail. It is this, more than any other factor, which will cost them electoral support.

I marched, carrying a Labour Party banner, alongside up to half-a-million others in London two weeks ago. And yet, will Labour’s reticence to commit to a specific deficit reduction plan, I am losing faith that there is a credible alternative to the government’s plan, however badly executed. A YouGov poll conducted on the same day found that the majority of the population, 52%, now supports the campaign against public sector spending cuts. But Labour should not fool itself that, just because it happens to be in opposition to an unpopular government, it will automatically gain the support of the electorate. This was the mistake made, in the last two decades, by both Kinnock and Cameron; 1992 resulting in a narrow Tory victory, and 2010 in a hung parliament. Labour should pen a Shadow Budget, laying out exactly which cuts and tax rises it would make. Ed Miliband has rightly sounded the death knell of New Labour and embarked on a holistic policy review, refusing to make manifesto commitments before the cuts have really started to affect the nation. But reconstructing its economic credibility needs to be the party’s top priority, and Miliband cannot afford to be haunted by the ghost of Gordon Brown any longer.

David Cameron Welcomes New Liberal Democat to No. 10

In Home Affairs, The Media on February 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm

By polarii
Occasional satirist, TheDailySoapbox.org.uk
________________________________

The story broke earlier today, after a Downing Street source ratted the information to the Times.

Said a Conservative Party spokesman: ‘We’re delighted to add a new member to the Downing Street family. The Prime Minister has lots of experience looking after cats; Nick Clegg is David Cameron’s pussy.’

Ed Miliband was unavailable for comment, leading to allegations from Sky News that the Labour leader had gone to the dogs.

Justice Minister Ken Clarke quipped, ‘the cat’s got my tongue on this one. I never knew Dave could be so feline.’

Simon Hughes, Chairman of the Liberal Democats, said that they ‘had made great progress in making Britain more fur. It is only right,’ he continued, ‘that the Liberal Democats should get another cabinet seat, if only because Michael Gove thinks we’re too cute to move off the chair and into a basket.’ It is unknown how many basket-cases there are at Lib Dem HQ.

In a related story, several Labour peers were seen taking cat-naps in the House of Lords, though the effect of pointless news was disputed by the Guild of Journalists.

‘Miaow’ was the only comment from Ed Fur Balls, Shadow Chancellor.

Pundits suggest the rat problem at No. 10 is an encouraging sign for the government. “Rats tend to leave a sinking ship,” explained a spokeswoman for the RSPCA.

It is unclear what sort of rat problems the Prime Minister is facing. Britain’s most common is the Torat, which frequents all areas of government. However, a rare Liberal Demorat was seen scurrying across from No. 10 to No. 11. Liberal Demorats were previously thought to  inhabit only the Isle of Lundy and the Inner Hebrides. They are listed as ‘under threat’ by the electorate.

Fears were expressed for No. 11’s ‘ginger rodent’, Danny Alexander. And whether what we see in Downing Street is actually a Liberal Demorat has been seriously queried by several academics of note. “Liberal Demorats tend to live in disorganised collectives,” said Professor Phil Space, of the University of Former-Polytechnic, “whereas these rats in Downing Street tend to behave for individual ends, and drink lots of port. And unlike most Liberal Demorats, they have made their offspring pay for their own education.” The average Liberal Demorat has an IQ of 16.

Baroness Neville-Jones, the government’s counter-terrorism advisor, said the measure was necessary to deter cat-burglars. Balls of string and bags of cat food were seen being brought into the back entrance of No. 10 for the bankers’ new pet, George Osborne.

However, the problem was felt worthy of further consideration by Dr Schroedinger, of the University of Schleswig-Baden. He said “So long as the cat is in No. 10, we cannot observe it, and so it must be both a Liberal Democat and a Conservatabby.”

Aleksandr Orlov, the Russian internet tycoon, remarked, “It mere cat. Why make such fuss about it?”

An Ipsos/Mori poll for the Sun today suggests that 8 out of 10 cats prefer the Conservatives. The Conservatabby was unavailable for comment.

IN OTHER NEWS: Mark Thompson defends BBC News budgets – denies relevance of news is decreasing

UNLIKELY NEWS STORIES: Democracy in the Middle East

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!

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.