May 2010 Archives

cleggchop.jpgAt the selection meetings I've been to, the questions are usually asked: are you bankrupt or otherwise disbarred from being a candidate? And is there anything in your private life which could embarrass the party if disclosed?

Leaving the first one aside - bankers who retire at 28 to get into politics are probably not bankrupt - I assume the Lib Dems asked David Laws this question at his first selection.

The same question also needs to be re-asked with even more urgency on entering government. The press are after all much more interested in the financial (and sexual) affairs of Ministers than of humble opposition spokespeople.

I can't imagine Nick Clegg didn't have this conversation with David Laws and every other soon-to-be Lib Dem Minister in early May. It would have been staggeringly remiss not to have done so, and Clegg's a shrewd enough politician to know what's required.

It's a fairly safe assumption that Nick Clegg already knew about Laws' boyfriend at the start of this month, and that he (rightly) concluded that Laws not being frank about his sexuality would put him at risk of being outed, but that such a story would be a one-day wonder only of interest to the homophobic right.

Presumably, though, Laws cannot have told Clegg about the financial arrangement, and his idea that it wasn't against the rules because he and his partner didn't share a social life or a bank account. 

It's not even very bright for someone supposedly so clever. If you're using expenses to pay your partner's mortgage in an explicit breach of the rules, you might have expected to get away with it even five years ago. But Laws knew the Telegraph had everything it needed to take him down, and presumably still didn't think he should be honest with his boss.

If my speculation's right about roughly what questions were asked and what answers were given, Clegg would have had every right to be furious over this weekend just passed.

Three random anecdotes.

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These come entirely unsubstantiated and should be taken with an enormous pinch of salt. However, all three were told to me by at least semi-plausible sources.

1. Maggie's Rump Steak. In the 1980s a friend of mine worked in the Edinburgh restaurant favoured by the then PM when she was up visiting the northern colonies. She always ordered the same thing, the rare steak, just as one might have expected. Each time she ate there the meat received a little extra attention: a marinade in the chef's underwear until cooking time. Of such things was the resistance made.

2. Michael "Joseph" Portillo and Diane "Mary" Abbott. I hadn't realised how far back they went, but the former This Week duo were contemporaries at the paired Harrow County Boys and Girls schools, and both were keen on drama. The rumour I heard was that they did a nativity play together, playing the central couple. This is the one I'm most sceptical about.

3. Who's your favourite Miliband? At a Labour conference a few years ago, badges were available for people to go public with their Miliband preferences. I'm advised that Ed turned up and claimed a David badge, then David turned up and claimed a David badge too.

Please feel free to disprove (or prove) any of these for me. 

The old politics.

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Back in the good old days, all were agreed - the Liberals or their successors were the dirtiest campaigners out there. Whether Tory or Green, whether Nat, Labour or Socialist, this was part of the shared understanding of politics.

Although the Conservatives have now made this Faustian pact, in 1990 that sleazy old fascist Alan Clark summed up the old politics thus.

"The trouble is, once the Libs get stuck in, really stuck in, they are devilish hard to dislodge. Their trick is to degrade the whole standard of political debate. The nation, wide political issues, the sweep of history, forget it. They can't even manage to discuss broad economic questions, as they don't understand the problems - never mind the answers.

"The Liberal technique is to force people to lower their sights, teeny little provincial problems about bus timetables, and street lighting, and the grant for a new community hall. They compensate by giving the electorate uplift with constant plugging of an identity concept - no matter how miniscule - to which they try to attach a confrontational flavour: 'Newton Ferrers Mums outface Whitehall' and a really bouncy commonplace little turd as candidate, and they're in."

And brought forth a mouse.

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As spring moves into summer, so election season moves into leadership race season: this time, almost inevitably, Labour. First, the candidates, with the best prices from Oddschecker, newly minus Jon Cruddas, then my outsider's view on what Labour need from a leader.

1. David Miliband, 4/6. The man who covered up the torture of a British citizen does not deserve to be Labour leader. Next.

2. Ed Miliband, 11/4. His supporters say he speaks human, but if so, even I'm not wonkish enough for humanity. Also, with the new coalition talking up their environmental credentials, is the right Labour leader someone so bought into carbon capture and storage? Ignore the Guardian spin: just read the quote: "There is no alternative to CCS if we are serious about fighting climate change."

3. Ed Balls, 13/1. He has his fans, but I find it hard to believe anyone thinks he's up to this task. His bedside manner is that of a doctor angry that the patient has refused to get well, and determined to prescribe the exact same medicine over and over until they do.

4. Andy Burnham, 16/1. An even more Blairite choice, and one of the first to come out during negotiations last week and to help condemn us all to a Cameron-led government. I got a little money on him at a better price than this, but only because I think Labour are incapable of doing what's necessary and I therefore thought it was a value bet.

5. Harriet Harman, 28/1. You have to get a long way down the bookies' odds to find your first female candidate, and I think the first one you come to is the wrong one. Fair or not, Harman feels too ancien rĂ©gime for the job, and even when she's right she appears almost delighted to put backs up.

6. Yvette Cooper, 33/1. For my money (and again, yes, I did put a little down on her) Cooper is the only sensible choice Labour have in front of them. She actually does come across as normal, despite being married to the egregious Balls. It's intensely irritating to watch her be asked about his prospects, given what a far superior choice she would be. It'd be like throwing away a sweetie and putting the paper in your mouth. She is a thoroughly New Labour candidate at the point where that's really not what they need, and also sullied by expenses, but from this field I reckon she'd be best placed to start to turn it around.

The remainder really aren't worth considering, with the possible exception of Darling. Anyone who thinks John McDonnell stands a chance does not know the modern Labour party. Peter Mandelson to lead from the Lords is an amusing prospect, but I agree with the bookies that it's about as likely as Blair himself coming back (I note you can get 100/1 on TB if you really want to throw your money away). 

But if Labour could design a perfect candidate what would this person look like? They'd have been against the war from the start, and not in hock to the bankers. Someone in touch with the principles that motivated Labour, back when they had principles. A person with a decent chunk of experience, too, but certainly not sullied by having served as a Minister. 

Someone who knows their way around the TV studios from the off, someone without the need to fake the necessary authenticity. In short, it's Caroline Lucas MP. And no, they can't have her.

p.s. sorry I didn't have any good mice pics. I know those are hamsters, thanks.

55%: a quick constitutional.

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55.jpgFixed term parliaments are a good thing. Let's get that out of the way. Obviously it's depressing when you're looking ahead to a long and guaranteed stretch with a rabidly free-market government, but it's just the price the country pays for voting Lib Dem the levelling of the playing field and the removal of this curious power of the Prime Minister to pick the day that suits him best. 

Just imagine if George Bush had been able to hang on longer, and let McCain fight an election once the economic crisis had reached a more favourable point. No, just as at Holyrood, let Westminster please have fixed terms.

Having said that, there are some serious problems. First, it is too long, and longer than most (see UCL's Constitution Unit on this). I'm in favour of more democracy, more chances for the people to kick the bums out, and even the old five year maximum felt less like a trap than a fixed five year session.

Next, and more seriously, the point when it's scheduled to end is simply wrong. The Tories might not have realised that the first Thursday in May 2015 is also a Holyrood election day, but the Lib Dems with their Scottish contingent surely did. A five year "first Thursday in May" would clash with Holyrood every 20 years. Even if you had to have five year terms, why that one day? 

It's been put to me that this is an "oh shit" moment for the Lib Dems in retrospect, but I don't buy that. Their chief negotiator and now occupant of the role the SNP used to call Governor General, Danny Alexander, knows only one thing - politics. Even as an MP rather than an MSP, the next Holyrood election dates are presumably the first things he scratches into the long-term planner at the front of his diary each year, precisely because they are already fixed.

The proposed simultaneous elections would cause serious difficulties in Scotland. As Sev Carrell points out, there will be potentially many different votes that same day, including those for smaller first past the post constituencies for Holyrood and larger Alternative Vote constituencies for Westminster. 

There are other problems, too, ones we already know about. In 2007 we had a Holyrood election with a rigged ballot paper on the same day as local elections carried out under Single Transferrable Vote for the first time, and the country paid another price. 

Contrary to predictions, the spoilt papers weren't for the locals, and the public appeared to adjust very quickly to expressing more complex preferences - after all, most folk know what their second preference is, and who should be put last. The ballot caused problems for Holyrood, but that's not the issue here either. 

The problem was the campaign. Local issues got no airing at all. They were completely buried under Holyrood coverage. No-one cared enough to discuss who would run our Councils. The media were all fascinated by the can-he, can't-he story of Salmond's return. But it matters - we have been left with some disastrous local government across Scotland, notably those rudderless SNP/Lib Dem coalitions.

The same would apply in spades in 2015 if this plan goes ahead, and Holyrood would just be an afterthought. Even the Scottish media would be obsessed with the judgement to be passed on the Cameron-Clegg coalition, should it actually survive that long. This neglect of devolved issues simply cannot be allowed to happen.

Which leads us to the next issue, the 55% rule. As originally billed on Twitter, it was a 55% threshold for votes of no confidence, which would clearly be wrong. Then we heard it was 55% for both confidence votes and dissolution. Now it's definitely for dissolution but probably not for confidence votes.

No government can or should survive if a majority of the Parliament has no confidence in it. But the frantic Lib Dem bloggers have a point too: in a Parliament of minorities, there's no absolute need for an immediate election just because a government falls. 

Imagine Dave Cameron himself is caught fiddling the books but won't step down. The Lib Dems might find themselves voting down his government but backing one led by, say, William Hague. 

Or if Labour had won a few more seats there would have been nothing unconstitutional about the junior partner deciding to switch to them mid-term. That unstable rainbow could again be attempted. But the rainbow couldn't trigger an election at the point of maximum Tory weakness. This is the kind of scenario considered so admirably by Love & Garbage today. The buttons really help.

Plus, as many have observed, Holyrood has a similar rule, with a higher threshold of two thirds. 86 MSPs are required to vote for an early election here. So the 55% is even more democratic, right, and more stable too?


First, as Lib Dem MP Andrew Stunnell admits, the level is set at 55% based on the results last week. As the non-Tories hold 52.8% of the seats (including Sinn Fein), this level was designed for, and is fit only for, the current breakdown of the Commons. Next Left have gone to town on this, and they're right. Some of the Lib Dem defences of it are truly absurd (see this from perhaps their most petty blogger).

Holyrood's two thirds super-majority was agreed before anyone knew what the results were, and not built for any one party's (or two parties') interests. Should we really make quasi-constitutional law based on the outcome last week?

Moving neatly on again, that brings me to the crux. There remains no codified constitution for Westminster, which is why this can't work. Imagine only 52.8% of MPs think a dissolution should happen. They can just pass a law overturning the 55% rule by simple majority, and it's game over for Dave. 

Then it'd need to get through the Lords. What Lords are those? The current Lords, the interim proposed Lords stuffed full of Tories and Lib Dems, or the post-reform Lords perhaps elected by proportional representation?

Even if any House of Lords, however constituted, opposes the Immediate Election Bill, this 55% threshold wasn't in anyone's manifesto, so there's no constitutional reason why the Parliament Act couldn't be used by the rebellious but slim majority to force it through. The Acts talk about the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, not the government and the Lords. Result: election, albeit messily delivered.

And here's another difference with Holyrood. No number of MSPs can change the Scotland Act. Not even all 129 of them all acting together. It's effectively our constitution, and it can unfortunately only be changed at Westminster.

Whereas Westminster has no proper constitution (as the anoraks know, we do have one, it's just uncodified). If it had one, with terms and conditions for amending it like any grown-up democracy, a rule of this sort could and should be introduced. But the level wouldn't be set at 55% and it certainly wouldn't be done in isolation from any reforms to the voting system, to party funding, or to the second Chamber (as an aside: please let this not be called the Senate in the end).

In short, we need a proper British constitution, only for amendment by the people, and set up through a Constitutional Convention. Without that, this move is empty and cynical tinkering and it will not work.

Look back in anger.

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libtoryleaflet.jpgThere's a lot of media love for our new masters, especially seeing how comfortable they looked at their civil partnership yesterday. 

Even the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland doesn't seem to have any buyer's remorse, though Seamus Milne never bought in.

It would also be churlish not to point out that there are matters where this administration are better than Labour. On ID cards, the third runway, perhaps even PR for the House of Lords, this is an improvement. 

The nuclear stance is also marginally better than Labour's: the Tory line that they will support unsubsidised civilian nuclear remains, which if honestly implemented would mean no new nuclear power stations.

For now, the National Liberals (or Libservatives if you prefer) are more united than Labour were all by themselves. It occurred to me that during the one day of Lib Dem talks with both other parties they were actually testing the ability of the others' backbenchers to be responsible. The day's events demonstrated to the Lib Dem left that the practicalities of working with the Neanderthal wing of Labour would have been too dire.

But the fact remains that the Lib Dems have delivered government to the Tories. We're being urged to forget about the 1980s as awfully unfair. I beg to differ, and I hope Gary Younge will forgive me for quoting him at length:

"I don't have a phobia about Tories. That would suggest an irrational response. I hate them for a reason. For lots of reasons, actually. For the miners, apartheid, Bobby Sands, Greenham Common, selling council houses, Section 28, lining the pockets of the rich and hammering the poor - to name but a few. I hate them because they hate people I care about. As a young man Cameron looked out on the social carnage of pit closures and mass unemployment, looked at Margaret Thatcher's government and thought, these are my people. When all the debating is done, that is really all I need to know."

Then in turn Nick Clegg looked at David Cameron and thought "these are people I can do business with". I understand they were in a difficult position, having got the hung Parliament they always wanted, but locking us into 5 years of Tory rule cannot be the answer.

It's not very new politics, but I refuse to forgive and forget. The cabinet is now stuffed full of privatisers (both Tory and Orange Book versions) and homophobes (just Tories, as far as I know), people who liked what they saw when Maggie was in power. Beneath the libertarian veneer both parties' leaderships are driven by policies that suit the elites they represent, and the straight line runs from Thatcher through Blair to these two.

My inability to forgive is not restricted to the Tories, though. Labour have left a legacy so authoritarian that they have allowed this new coalition to look progressive on civil liberties. They have pushed politics so far to the right that this new arrangement looks almost centrist. They abandoned the poor to rising inequality, and any new Labour leader will be jeered for criticising the coalition's actions or inactions in this area. War is now totally mainstream, and only the Greens and the Nats provide Parliamentary opposition to nuclear weapons.

Which is why it mystifies me that Labour has seen any recruits from the Lib Dems. Sure, many people voted yellow to keep the blues out, but have they really already forgotten Labour's 13 years of betrayal, lightly seasoned as it was with first-term positives like devolution and the minimum wage?

Hence our year's free membership offer to those leaving Labour and the Lib Dems - extended to SNP members by request. Sign up here.
churchillcommons.jpgIt's almost too fast-paced out there to blog about it, or at least that's my excuse. With Gordon's decision to fall on a timebomb yesterday, there are two main options being considered.

These are formal stable Con-Lib coalition (which seems to have been upgraded yesterday from a confidence and supply arrangement), or some form of Lab-Lib agglomeration, with or without other parties. But is that it?

It's more complicated than it looks, though, and here are three alternative options to throw into the speculation pot, each with a completely made-up percentage score for probability. 

1. Grand coalition. Labour and the Tories can get together, agree to do nothing on PR, agree some cuts but not Trident, and in the full knowledge that either party can trigger an election or realignment at any time. It worked better for Merkel, I understand, than her current deal with the right-wing liberal FDP. Falls down because Westminster is way more tribal than the Bundesdag. 8%

2. Labour minority. This would have required Gordon to stay on and bring a Queen's Speech which it would have been difficult for the Libs, the Nats & Caroline to vote down, including probably AV+ as a minimum. As it is, Brown can't do it, and there won't be a new (as opposed to New) Labour leader to deliver it in time either. 2%

3. Lib Dem split. This is the one which I now think is the most likely out of all the dark horse options. Dave will have 307 seats once Thirsk and Malton goes to the polls later in the month, and he needs just 323 for a bare majority given Sinn Fein's abstentionism. If you were him wouldn't you try to get through to some of the Orange Bookers and offer them some enticing options? Finding 16 of them would be hard, but a tacit or explicit deal with the DUP would mean the Tories would just need eight Liberals SDPers to switch. Invite Vince Cable, David Laws, Steve Webb and Ed Davey into Government and you're halfway there. They could call themselves the National Liberals and history would start to rhyme again, with a Grand Quasi-Libertarian Repeal Bill as the first item of business, followed by savage cuts. 10%

Going back to the most obvious options and sticking my finger in the air, I see a full Con-Lib coalition as about 20% likely, Lab-Lib working together with just the SDLP and the Alliance at about 15%, with some broader rainbow at about 10%. Within those options, Clegg as interim PM is unlikely but should not be completely discounted. A Tory minority is still at 10% despite Osborne apparently ruling it out.

A near-immediate second general election at 20% - this is the nuclear option which has to alarm all but the Tories, unless they can somehow be blamed for it. The remaining 5% is a figure, no doubt too low, for some option I've not considered.

As we found during coalition talks in 2007, if faced with no obvious options which work for you, look for something else. Change the question, change the game. Labour did their best on that front yesterday, leaving the Tories looking flatfooted and like yesterday's news. 

You have to hand it to Alastair Campbell: as he will no doubt have advised Brown, there was never a more important news cycle to seize, and no better way to do so than the PM's 5pm move yesterday. 

The Lib Dems are indeed in a horrible position, having got what they've long wanted. My advice to them, for what it's worth, is to use your imagination. A time-limited deal with a second election built in and Clegg as interim PM? Something that includes radical reform for a strengthened House of Lords? Who knows, but to every problem, even one as thorny as this, there is a best answer. 
Thumbnail image for NickCleggduck.jpgThe Lib Dems' post-debate bounce (or post-manifesto bounce if you believe the spin) appears to have faded away. The 10% boost they got is, to my mind, from people who didn't really watch politics, who knew they didn't like Brown but also never felt Cameron was on their side.

But it looks, as suspected, that these were not regular voters, and they haven't come out this time either. Too early to say, but have these game-changing debates actually changed heehaw?

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from May 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

April 2010 is the previous archive.

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