Recently in Westminster Category

nuclearcake.jpgEvery time you think the Lib Dems can't sink any lower, they manage it, on cuts, on electoral reform, on privatisation. Today it's energy. Here's Chris Huhne from 2007:

"Ministers must stop the side-show of new nuclear power stations now. Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology and the Government must stop putting time, effort and subsidies into reviving this outdated industry.

"The nuclear industry's key skill over the past half-century has not been generating electricity, but extracting lashings of taxpayers' money."

Since then, of course, he and his colleagues have gotten into bed with the Tories (pictured), and we know the Lib Dems accepted nuclear as an area they'd lose out on. As the responsible Minister, it would be perfectly reasonable for him to say:

"Everyone knows our party's position on this issue, but it's a coalition, a compromise, and the Government's policy is supportive of nuclear power."

I wouldn't do it - opposition to another generation of nuclear plants was our only red line issue for any coalition talks after the 2007 election - but it would be understandable.

Instead the BBC quote him indirectly as follows:

Mr Huhne, seen as anti-nuclear power in the past, said his previous position had been misunderstood and he had merely pointed out there had been no private investment since the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979.

Disgraceful and dishonest.

Update: Jeff and I are on the same page, it seems.
Double update: Justin found an even better Huhne quote from the vaults.
clegghat.jpgFounded as a centrist party in the late 1970s to "keep the bastards honest", the Aussie Democrats' last Parliamentary representative quit in October last year. 

During the 1980s and 1990s they regularly held the balance of power, but their handling of one issue effectively killed them off: the Goods and Services Tax, an Aussie version of our old friend VAT.

Having campaigned against the introduction of a GST during the 1998 election, the Aussie Democrats then quickly swallowed their principles, worked with the rabidly right-wing John Howard to introduce it, and duly split. 

Their decline mirrors the rise of our friends and colleagues in Australia, now up in the mid-teens in the polls and with a real prospect of winning seats under AV. Labour's decision to throw out Kevin Rudd (who needs to change his Twitter handle) won't help us in the short term, but the trends are all in the right direction.

So, a centrist party, founded relatively recently by merger, seeking the balance of power, does an unpopular compromise over a regressive sales tax rise they had committed to oppose, and ends up in the wilderness, superceded by Greens. An inspiring story.

Living in la-la land.

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Tory Budget a direct assault on the needy and the vulnerable says Vince Cable

Tue, 22 Jun 2010

"This is exactly the slash-and-burn Tory budget we warned about during the election campaign, with tax cuts for George Osborne's corporate friends and a direct assault on the most needy and vulnerable, especially those looking for work or with young families," the Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor said.

Commenting on today's budget, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable said:

"Today's budget demonstrates only too clearly the dire consequences of the Tories having won a narrow overall majority in last month's election. They've moved immediately to support their chums in the City with a cut in corporation tax, and they're leaving the rest of us to pick up the tab. 

Liberal Democrats had warned throughout the campaign that George Osborne had a £13.4bn VAT bombshell lurking in his back pocket, but we were accused of scare-mongering. It's now clear how right we were, and what the truly regressive price of an outright Tory victory would be for Britain.

And the worst is yet to come. Every single department faces early 25% cuts, pure fiscal illiteracy at a point where the economy is still so fragile. Again, we argued that cutting too soon would strangle change, and that's now what we face as George Osborne and his Chief Secretary sharpen their axes.

This ideological savagery will not be forgotten by the British people. When the last Tory government was run out of office they stayed there for more than a decade. This Budget is more brutal even than those put forward by Margaret Thatcher's Chancellors in the 1980s. In 2015, if not before, this government will not just be removed, it'll be shredded."

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.

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 régime 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?

Our best election video ever.

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Thanks to the English and Welsh party for their help with this. 

Tackling the scandal of low pay.

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Apparently there's an election on, and this has rather got in the way of blogging. But today we got the best editorial I can remember, and it was in the News of the World.

They reported our plans to bring a vote to Holyrood on Thursday calling for a living wage of £7 an hour, up from the current £5.80. The national level is set at Westminster, but Scottish Ministers can start right now with the public sector here, where 20% of staff still get less than this living wage.

I will leave the analysis to the News of the World.

Greens north and south of the border are making the case that in a Parliament without a majority, even a few Green voices can make more of a difference than another Labour, Tory, Lib Dem or Nat member. 

This is the sort of issue we mean - just close your eyes and try to imagine Nick Clegg or David Cameron arguing for a pay rise for the lowest paid in society.

You having a giraffe?

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At first I thought His Daleness had fallen through some kind of April Fool wormhole, but no, it really looks like Labour think that comparing "Dave" to Gene Hunt is a good idea.

Bear in mind I've only seen Life on Mars series one, but I understand it's the same character. I'm a tofu-eating former roads protester, and this is not a damaging comparison. I liked 1970s bad apple Gene Hunt a lot more than his do-good time-travelling colleague.

Second, it's a working class role, or it was. It's undermining all those "can't trust a posh boy" pseudo-class war messages Labour are trying to run in the background. 

I may have missed the point, and there may be nothing whatsoever left to like about Gene Hunt by the time we get to Ashes to Ashes. But this looks like some kind of weird dummy, like Labour have designed a notionally people-led campaign to go wrong simply so Cameron's face can be everywhere for four days. 

I can see no other explanation. If they wanted to tie Dave into the dark days of Thatcherism and remind us of how dark they really were, they'd surely have used a version of this image instead:


.. and checked how the parties matched up to their views, we'd be doing rather well. The gorgeously-coded Vote For Policies has been running a week or so now, and more than 25,000 people have picked blind from six parties' policy positions - Labour, Tory, LibDem, Green, BNP & UKIP.

Despite the caveat that this is a self-selected group who've visited the website, the headline position is inspiring enough at the top end:

Green: 29.2%
LibDem: 17.9%
Labour: 16.7%
Tory: 15.6%
UKIP: 11%
BNP: 9.5%

And it's not just the Green membership voting - Twitter is full of people who've taken the questionnaire and are surprised about how Green-minded they are (examples 1, 2, 3)

During the week the founders then added breakdowns for the nine policy areas chosen, where obviously there's a lot of Green going on. In fact, we come top on seven out of nine areas, including areas where one might not expect us to: crime, immigration, health & education, for instance. Labour are currently squeaking past us on Europe policy, and the Lib Dems put us into second on the economy.

Last place in each policy area is always the BNP or UKIP (bear in mind it's just policy text people see, so theoretically stripping away preconceptions). On immigration, pleasingly, the BNP have the least popular position, followed by UKIP and the Lib Dems: it transpires these people actually want Britain to welcome immigrants and asylum seekers! 

On democracy (really reform, I suppose), there's another interesting split. There's three generally popular positions: ours, then the LibDems', then Labour's, scoring just over 30% down to just below 25% in that order. Then there are three notably less popular position: the BNP's, the Tories' and UKIP's, from just over 7% to just under 6%. No wonder the public haven't been trusted with a PR referendum yet.

Those positionings in full..

Green. 1st = 7, 2nd = 2
Labour. 1st = 1, 2nd = 2, 3rd = 3, 4th = 2, 5th = 1. 
LibDem. 1st = 1, 2nd = 2, 3rd = 3, 4th = 1, 5th = 2.
Tory. 2nd = 3, 3rd = 1, 4th = 1, 5th = 4.
UKIP. 3rd = 1, 4th = 3, 5th = 2, 6th = 3.
BNP. 3rd = 1, 4th = 2, 6th = 6

Tory strategists will probably like this least - it's pretty clear that, at least as far as respondents to this questionnaire go, their actual policies aren't very attractive. On crime, education and health, though, I'm sure they'll be pleased to be ahead of Labour and the Lib Dems, even if behind us on all three issues.

Leaving aside the partisan pleasures these numbers afford, it reinforces one obvious thing: people clearly don't vote on policies, otherwise we'd have won already. It's a mix of other factors like personality, narrative and visibility. We need to work harder on visibility in particular, and we need to avoid the temptation of publishing leaflets which are just laundry-lists of these policies to woo people. That's not the lesson of this exercise.

So go do the survey if you haven't. You may be surprised: I wasn't.
Thanks again to Tom Harris for agreeing to swap blogposts on this issue: he's posted both here. I've added mine below as well.

THE TRULY tragic case of the three asylum seekers who committed suicide by throwing themselves from the high-rise block of flats in Glasgow has resurrected the debate on our asylum system.

We still don't know enough about this specific case to be able to make a judgment as to what actually occurred and why. The media have, at various points, described the deceased as Russian and Kosovan. 

One report suggested at least one of them was suffering from severe mental illness. They may or may not have successfully claimed asylum in Canada before arriving in the UK.

The fact is we don't know how much, or if any, of this is true. And it would be irresponsible in the extreme, in the meantime, to make hysterical accusations based on rumours and speculation.

Which is why, presumably, Robina Qureshi has been all over the Scottish media doing just that.

Robina, with whom I've crossed swords before, is the director of a branch of Solidarity housing "charity", Positive Action in Housing, who provide support to failed asylum seekers in Glasgow. Yesterday, in the immediate aftermath of the terrible news breaking, she told The Times that "if the suicides had anything to do with the Border Agency telling the victims that they could not stay in the country, then the agency was culpable".

But despite her qualifying her own conclusions with that "if", she organised a demonstration outside the Border Agency office in Glasgow today, telling Radio Clyde and anyone else who would listen that what happened in Springburn was a direct result of official threats to return the asylum seekers home. She's also called for a public inquiry, although since she's already decided what the facts are, I'm not sure why she needs one. If Robina had her way, every claim for asylum should be awarded and public servants who enforce the law are barbarians.

She also said:

We believe there should be a public inquiry into these deaths, and the impact of the UK Border Agency and its terror campaign - disguised as asylum policy - on the lives of asylum seekers who have lived here for years.

Yes, many of them have lived here for years - illegally and after being told repeatedly thattheir asylum claim had been rejected because there was no threat to their safety in their home country. And by describing asylum policy as a "terror campaign", Robina is demonstrating why no-one other than a few gullible hacks take her seriously.

Even the normally sensible James Mackenzie, who works for Holyrood's two Green MSPs, accused me of a lack of compassion in the comments I made to The Times. Fair enough. I've been dealing with this  issue too long to expect people to approach it objectively and without  recourse to emotive language (see his guest post above).

Even if it emerges that the deceased threatened officials with suicide if they attempted to remove them, surely that threat could not be allowed to be a veto over legal process?

When phoned by The Times yesterday, I knew I couldn't talk about this specific case - apart from the fact that we didn't really know what had happened, the deaths didn't happen in my constituency - but agreed to talk about general asylum policy.

But until the facts, rather than speculation and rumour, hold sway, it would be most unwise to make subjective judgments about this case, however tempting it would be for some to try to make political capital on the back of such a human tragedy.

As for asylum policy in general, my view, having dealt with hundreds of cases since 2001, is very clear: an asylum policy differentiates between those who have a genuine reason to fear persecution in their home country, and those who simply want to live in the UK in order to attain a better quality of life. Those who fall into the latter category must apply through the immigration route. To award refugee status to everyone who claims it would catastrophically undermine its very notion. It would result in an "open-door" immigration policy, and no-one seriously wants that.


Labour pandering to dog-whistle politics on asylum

Nothing tells you more about a government than how it treats the vulnerable, especially those who cannot vote. Labour's most striking domestic failure of this sort has been their approach to people fleeing persecution and torture: successive Home Secretaries since 1997 have sought ever more uncompromising ways to make their lives harder once they get here.

Very few of us will have experienced the kind of mistreatment which is commonplace amongst those seeking asylum. I'm not in danger of being arrested for being in the wrong political party, like my Green colleagues in Rwanda and China are. My family don't come from a marginalised group being subject to ethnic cleansing. I don't know anyone who's seen family members executed for attending peaceful anti-government protests. 

But do the thought exercise: what if that had happened? If Scotland had become as brutal and lawless as the Democratic Republic of Congo, if state-sponsored "disappearances" or a round of ethnic cleansing had begun here, I'd want to know I could seek sanctuary in India or Ireland or Indonesia and have my case taken seriously.

And in those circumstances, I wouldn't want to be spat at in the street or forced to present stigmatising vouchers in supermarket queues to buy the basics. If the Scottish expat community was in Delhi, I wouldn't want to be forcibly settled in Varanasi. It would mystify me to be told I couldn't work and contribute, then read Government Ministers complaining that I'm somehow scrounging off the hard-working locals

If I had kids, it'd fill me with despair to see them locked up in adult detention centres and subjected to levels of brutality that would inevitably remind me of what we'd all been though in the first place. If I'd had Kafkaesque bureaucracies ranged against me at home, a life of endless forms and interviews in a foreign language without proper legal support would seriously jeopardise my mental health: imagine if an irritating call-centre also had the power to deport you back into danger, or if they sang racist songs at you mocking your plight

Yet all of this is the reality of Labour's asylum policy, the legacy of their thirteen years in government. No Daily Mail headline has gone un-pandered to, no dog-whistle to racist voters has gone un-blown - and waiting in the wings is a Tory administration that backed every last clampdown. It's not a casual or frivolous decision to leave your home country and come here to face racist abuse, to become a stock figure of hate for tabloid editors and the politicians who love them, but there is no softer target to demonise, not even those "feral children" we are also encouraged to fear and hate.

Yes, we need a system which checks individuals' claims, not one which accepts everyone who just says the magic word. But the priority with this system should be to ensure no-one gets sent back to face torture. The price of someone without a decent claim being accepted by mistake is low if unfortunate, but the price of a false rejection could be someone's life. The system should move quickly to a fair decision, but we should bend over backwards and help those who apply to make their case. 

We Scots fancy ourselves (especially in our Tartan Army incarnation) as responsible visitors to other countries, and like to think of this as a welcoming country. In many ways it is, but without an end to Labour/Tory domination of asylum policy this will never be the whole truth.

Bending guillemots.

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birdspoons.jpgA star comes to North Berwick this weekend, and I'm sorry I won't be there. Uri Geller, best man to the late Michael Jackson, cutlery-influencer extraordinaire and regular litigant, is in town to talk utter nonsense about his psychic powers. 

Just over a year ago he bought The Lamb, a wee island in the Forth off the East Lothian coast. He reckons it's "one of the Great Pyramids of Scotland". Mmm.

Now he's coming to the Seabird Centre to give a talk and also, according to the Courier, staying on the Lamb, presumably in a tent. If he actually manages to land, which seems unlikely, I advise any actual seabirds he encounters to hide their cutlery. If anyone's going to the public Q&A perhaps they could also ask him why he claims to have ensured Scotland's exit from Euro 96

No chance.

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It's understandable for party campaigners to project confidence, but sometimes it's simply dishonest. Take the Lib Dems in Edinburgh North and Leith. 

On Twitter this morning, Andrew Reeves, their Director of Campaigns, claimed in a comment to Tom Allan, the Guardian's new microblogger, that (update: formerprofessional airport apologist Kevin Lang was "set to win the seat".

I disagree. I am confident that the Liberals will win just one Edinburgh seat - Edinburgh West. I'm not sure it's legal to make private bets, but, if it is, I'd be happy take all bets from them to the contrary on any of the other Edinburgh seats. My guess is that the money wouldn't go where the mouth is.
Michael Foot, whose death is being reported today, lived an extraordinary life, with his reputation unfairly weakened by Labour's 1983 election loss under his leadership. It's almost implausible to consider how far back his influence stretches, but I was struck by the note from George Orwell's diary from more than 70 years ago. 

It cites the defeat of a Socialist candidate in the July 1939 Monmouth by-election, and notes that Mr Foot had fought the same seat in the 1935 General Election. The Telegraph's snippet on it is below.

2003 all over again?

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2003MSPs.jpgThe poll in today's Scotland on Sunday has been discussed elsewhere, but not the Holyrood regional voting intention. It's the best bit, and Kenny F sent me out to the shops this morning especially for it.

Holyrood constituencies (2007 result in brackets)
Labour: 33% (32%)
SNP: 28% (33%)
Conservative: 16% (13%)
Liberal: 16% (14%)
Others: 6% (8%)

Holyrood regional
Labour: 31% (29%)
SNP: 26% (31%)
Conservative: 17% (14%)
Liberal: 14% (11%)
Green: 7% (4%)
Others: 6% (11%)

By Scotland on Sunday's calculations (and mine) that would put us up to seven Green MSPs again. The pic shows what that looked like last time. It's a crude summary, but if this were the actual vote shares in May next year, we'd get a result roughly like the 2003 election, except where the six former SSP MSPs were replaced by the SNP. The obvious post-election arrangement would be another Labour/Liberal coalition, too, although Labour have watched the SNP's minority administration enviously.

Cheering as this poll may be for Greens, it's even more A Bit Of Fun than usual. No Holyrood voting intention will be any kind of worthwhile prediction until the UK election results have bedded in. Will Cameron woo or alienate Scots? Could Gordon Brown even hang on? Might the Liberals get the hung Parliament they crave? Could an AV referendum become a true PR election? Might UKIP get beaten by the Monster Raving Loony Party?

The Holyrood polls will start to get properly gripping for anoraks from September, by my calculation. One last factor which might make a difference is Brighton Pavilion. I'm heading down on Friday to help Caroline Lucas get elected. It should be fun, as well as virtuous, and, if she wins, the extra profile for Greens nationally could help us out in 2011 too.
The rumours are true. My colleagues in East Lothian have selected me as their candidate for Westminster, and I persuaded Robin to come out on Monday to help me launch the campaign at the Seabird Centre. 

The local papers gave us some great coverage, with colour pics in both the East Lothian News and the East Lothian Courier (click below for larger images). It's now time to reveal the secret of our success over the last ten years, which is simply Robin's trademark scarf. Colour pictures are much more eye-catching, and you can't use a black'n'white shot of the scarf. Seriously, it's media magic.

The keen-eyed amongst you will notice I don't live in the constituency, but at least one other major party candidate stays further away than Edinburgh, so I'm hoping not to be in the firing line of too many League of Gentlemen type leaflets

And it is a fascinating part of the world: socially diverse, with ex-mining communities, surfers and wealthy commuters to Edinburgh. It's also home to an awful lot of infrastructure and industry, especially energy. Older members of the Scottish Green Party have bittersweet memories of the campaign against Torness, so it's a curious honour to be able to campaign against nuclear power in this constituency. Labour, of course, remain ultra-loyal to nukes, and I'd point you to an article I wrote in 2008 about the relationship Anne Moffat and Iain Gray have with the plant.

We have a small but very committed branch locally, who led our successful campaign to block ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Forth, something we finally secured through an agreement with the SNP in May 2007. A good wee campaign in the area should help drum up some more members and activists, and help us return a Green MSP for South in 2011 and local councillors in 2012.

Thanks also to Malc, Jeff and Stephen for their kind words, although, as Stephen says, "I obviously won't wish James too much luck". He put the 2005 result on his blog, and that was indeed the last time the seat was contested. 

However, a lot's happened since 2005 (including a change of Scottish Government and the SNP's subsequent difficulties, as well as Labour's loss of the plot nationally and locally). We also know how most of the seat voted in last year's Euros (although the Westminster seat includes Musselburgh too).

Another problem with the following graph is that it compares a non-PR election with a PR one, and we do better when elections are fairer. One might expect the Lib Dems to do so as well, though, but like Labour, their vote roughly halved between 2005 and 2009. Those caveats out of the way..

One thing I won't say, though, is this: only Greens can win here. But I'm certainly going to enjoy the contest.

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This page is a archive of recent entries in the Westminster category.

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