Category Archives: Voting reform

Ed Milliband: Schoolboy Politics

Labour supporters will be non-plussed by the performance of its leader. Any objective appraisal will come to some daunting conclusions. There are several policy and leadership issues where he has been found sadly wanting.

1. Libya. Labour’s policy support for the Libyan adventure is driven by emotion: the ‘we can’t stand aside while thousands are slaughtered’  argument. Maybe there would have been many deaths in Benghazi and maybe not. We shall never know. One thing is certain: by supporting the weaker side in a civil war  the conflict has been drawn out and will lead to many more deaths than not intervening. But the bigger objection is that Labour is buying into an Anglo-French strategy to use NATO to extend their influence in Africa and the Middle East. This is essentially a neo-colonial strategy that will lead to other interventions and a complex of economic and financial sanctions that will be injurious to everyone involved. The alternative is to patiently relate to the various situations as a friend and to allow the various civilian revolutions to work themselves out. The Anglo-French ambitions will divide NATO and lead to splits betwee northern and ‘Mediterranean’ states. The Libyan mis-adventure will work out badly for Britain and not to Labour’s advantage.

2. The AV Referendum and Constitutional  Changes. The electorate have rarely had any appetite for electoral and constitutional reform. Of course, the electorate distrust their MPs and Parliament itself. This is a healthy distrust and people have no wish to be deprived of it. Here Milliband had a judgement call. He got it wrong and labelled himself a loser. In practice he would have had no difficulty in finding a good reason not to seek to commit Labour to the preservation of Nick Clegg. And now Labour must be ruthless and sink Clegg’s constitutional proposals in the Lords. The time ‘to do’ constitutional reform is when you control the agenda.

3. Scotland

Labour got the issues badly wrong. Scots electors turned to the SNP as the best option to protect them from Coalition cuts. They were right in their judgement. This time the issue was not the menace of self rule as Labour supposed but which party can best be trusted most at this time to defend their interests. As with England, Labour has no convincing alternative narrative.

4 The NHS Reform Bill

Labour is getting this wrong. Today they should divide the House to defeat the NHS Bill. I believe that Cameron is willing to ditch the Bill in order to maintain the Coalition. There is no need for a Bill. The worthwhile reforms can be accomplished without one. If it is ditched the Lib Dems will be given the credit for it. Again this is a judgement call. Can Ed Milliband deliver on the NHS? I doubt it now.

5 And lastly a more basic point. Where is the evidence that Labour is working as a team and is the ‘team’ up to it. Precious ittle and ‘No’ are my answers and more to the ppint it may be the judgement of the country as a whole.


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Cameron: Angel of Hope

David Cameron is in Cairo to instruct the Egyptians in democracy. As an impulsive gesture, his visit  comes as a surprise. There was hardly time to brief him. William Hague was in Europe carefully coordinating policy with our European allies; President Obama was keeping his head down#; but our Dave was winging his way into the maelstrom. It reminds me of Rudolf Hess, Deputy to Adolf Hitler, who confronted with the German invasion of the Soviet Union flew to Scotland to negotiate peace with Britain. He was promptly put in prison. I have often wondered what Hitler said about it when he first knew.

I have news for the readers of this post. He was briefed before leaving. In the true meaning of the word it did not take long to read the notes. Hague wrote: ‘Don’t do it.’  The Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office expressed himself as forceably. ‘Remember, he said, the long and troubled colonial background to our relationship with Egypt and our traditional support of Egyptian dictators. Don’t go on about teaching them democracy, they won’t appreciate it. In particular don’t mention the Suez Canal and the unreliability of army generals. George Osborne, as befits a friend in the modern era,  tweeted him. ‘Dave, please, please don’t go on about the need for austerity, wage restraint and the imperative need to cut the deficit. Wrong time, wrong place’ . Several Cabinet members, in hope of promotion, urged him to introduce the idea of the Big Society to the Army Council and the attractions of small government. With patience and skill, he would be able to show them that it was a time to look away from the benificence of the state and the advantages of encouraging voluntary action. After all that is what these common Egyptian Jonnies  have been practicing in the streets.

It has been rumoured, although I doubt the veracity of the reports, that a Labour Party faction in touch with Egyptian trade unions has urged them to practice a citizens arrest. They might consider that Dave would be a lasting asset to them. Someone with his historical knowledge and awareness of the difficulties of the man in the street would be invaluable on a lasting basis. Of course it would be a loss to British public life to lose our Dave for a prolonged period of time; but we are all social democrats now and we could make do without him.

What we don’t want is national embarassment. Perhaps when he gets there no one will want to meet him. After all not many Egyptian soldiers know anything about the Big Society. Come to think of it not many Britons know much either. If these Generals know anything about Coalition cuts to our armed forces they might exercise caution. Of course there is no harm in a furtive photograph or two. Back in Britain there would be national support for a Unison strike at our airports to keep out Dave. Not for ever of course but for a month or two. I’m sure a whip round to cover lost wages would attract widespread support.

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Magic Numbers

I have news for you. Somewhere in the murky world of government there lives and plots a numerologist. Yes, a practitioner in the black arts of the occult world of numbers in our very midst. I kid you not, I was put on the trail of this mysterious and unnamed person by a Member of the House of Lords. As you may know, the House is in the midst of a giant fillibuster in a vain attempt to stop the gerrymandering of our electoral system. This Lord – blessed be his name – pointed out the Government’s seeming obsession with prime numbers. Think of it. Why does the Government persist in the notion that the House of Commons limit itself to 600 members, far from the dizzy heights of the past, and flying in the face of a growing population all queuing for the time and attention of their local MP? And why 600? Would not 591 or 617 do as well? Why 5 year and not four year Parliaments? And what number shall we set for the membership of the House of Lords? Not, 861 surely not. Or 913? How about 900? The advantage of 600 and 900 is that they are both divisible by 5. I think there is something sinister, from the occult point of view, in suggestions to the Electoral Commissiion (sorry commands) that each constituency should represent, give or take, 75,000 electors. There used to be a time when the Commission was charged with taking all sorts of things into account : local communities, traditional links the feelings and aspirations of local electors. There is to be no more of this kind of thing. No the numerologist is to have the last  and final word.

I do not think this numerologist, whoever he or she is, has been elected. Speaking for myself I resent his/her influence. Here I must take some account of the counter attack. We shall be told that we all practice the black arts. What about lucky numbers? How do we choose our lottery numbers? How many of us refuse to go out on the 13th of any month falling on a Friday? You see what I mean. Gotcha.

Something serious is happening in the House of Lords. Proceedural laxity encourages independence of mind. Could it be that it is the Lords who are speaking for the people of Britain? I do not expect the Coalition will last long. While it has a majority in the Coomons and members are in thrall to the Whips , the Constitution can be fixed to preserve the will of two political parties. When the Coalition is gone we shall be stuck with a Constitution that is unfit for purpose. So much for a thousand years of Parliament.

There is a solution to the awful Constitutional mess that is being composited for us. The Labour Parliamentary party must appoint a numerologist of its own from the white-wing of the occult. Every black number must be fought by a white number. If it is said that there are three prime numbers in a Government proposal Labour must come up with an alternative which has five. In this way all these daft proposals can be beaten off and the Constitution preserved. If I had the right mathematical qualifications I would volunteer. But you might have them. Volunteer, please, without delay. Your country needs YOU!

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All that Glisters…

I do not like to be thought unfair. Here is a good word about the Coalition. I listened to the House of Commons debate on the referendum. I thought the Coalition got the better of the Labour Opposition and secured a comfortable Second Reading majority for the Bill. Labour had the stronger case but there was no doubt in my mind that the Coalition won the debate. It was obvious that many of the Tories had practiced the rhetorical arts in school and university debating societies. Their performances were impressive. The Tory benches were a sea of respectability and there was not a hairy oick in sight. Can Parliament survive this uniformity of representation? I thought not.

I was reminded of the advice my mother extended to my sisters on selecting male friends (assuming they are ever selected as such!). Look at their hands dear, she would say, you can tell what sort of man he is by the appearence of his hands and, in particular, his nails. If you don’t like the condition of his nails then dump him. This seemed wise advice to me at the time and it took time and a little experience before I concluded that she was deluded. Some of the worst murderers in English history were well-turned out respectable people with well-kept nails. You listen, Oh I was shocked. Such a nice man always neatly turned out – and polite. Always a cheery good morning. But with a black heart madam you are tempted to reply. All that glisters is not gold.

I applied my mother’s adage to Andy Coulson. We have many pictures and images of him in recent days. My mother would have approved. Such a nice looking boy, would you like to bring him home dear, might have been her question. I have never seen Andy’s nails at close quarters but my guess is that he has a haircut every three weeks and while there he has a manicure, I further suspect that he uses a colourless nail varnish. Of course this is only my guess. The public question is did this nice boy when  Editor of the News of the World reign over, tolerate and make use of information gathered illegally by phone tapping! For two years I was employed by a national newspaper group. In the trade ‘we’ might laugh and say that the Editors of all red-top newspapers are entirely willing to make use of information gathered by any method. Reporters struggling to break a compelling story understand the rules of the game. Look, Jones, we are told, get your finger out. I’m not telling you how to do this but break the story this week and get on with it. In tabloid journalism dog eats dog.

David Cameron admires Andy. He thought that he would make an ideal Director of Government Communications. From outside I think that our Dave was right. I admire the way the government is projecting itself. All very pleasant and meaningful. In my humble judgement Andy and Dave are tweedle dum and tweedle dee: ruthless, devious, well-organised, thoughtful and cunning, these are a few of the words that come immediately to mind. But what are they warming us up for? Such nice nails, and always immaculately turned out, with a smile for everyone. Well, dears, I say, all that glisters is not gold!

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Say No to the Referendum

Today the House of Commons debates the Referendum Bill which proposes a mix of hybrid measures including a Referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system. The Coalition Tories and the Lib Dems will vote for it while Labour and some backbench Tories will vote against. At the General Election the party positions were reversed Labour proposed a referendun and the Coalition parties opposed. It is reasonable to assume that this Bill is not about reform. It’s purpose is to sustain the Coalition in power. A referendum is about genuflecting in the direction of a reform that no one wants. 

The Coalition is obsessed with holding on to power. A referendum is part of a price paid by the Tories for Lib Dem support of Tory economic policies which they opposed in the General Election. The Lib Dems are willing to go through the motions of achieving an electoral reform which its members do not support as part of the fairy-tale that the price paid for their public office is a fair one.

The Bill contains measures to reduce the number of contituencies by the simple application of the guiding principle that there are too many MPs, despite a rising population, and that the  electorate should be roughly equal in every constituency. Two Lib Dem held seats in Scotland are seen as an exception to the rule but in reality there are many others. The Boundaries Commission considers much more than numbers. It looks for natural communites. Some of these are below an average size  and some have more electors. Now the Commision is to be harried into a process much quicker than it prefers and to conclusions it would nomally resist. It is common knowledge than many electors are not registered to vote and past actions to get all that are entitled onto electoral lists have been inadequate. A Constituency that seems to be on the small side would often reach a national average if potential voters were identified and encouraged to be on the list. A compulsory voting system, which I would prefer, could ensure that every adult was  on the list and did vote. This is not part of the Bill.

If there were a General Election now the opinion polls suggest that the Tories might win. Whenever the election is called there is little doubt that the Lib Dems will be heavily defeated. 

There is every reason for the Labour Party to oppose the Referendum. It is Labour’s duty to bring down the Coalition as soon as it can to prevent changes in British Society that will make it a less just and prosperous society. This is not a time for fine words and delicate consciences. It is a moment to sound the bugle and to oppose.

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Coalition Illegitimacy

The  Coalition wishes to make significant constitutional and social changes. The process will begin this autumn. It cannot be argued that many of these changes have the endorsement of the electorate for no one voted for the Coalition or the patchcock coalition agreement. It might be argued that the Coalition partners received the votes of sixty per cent of the votes cast in the General election and that some of these  changes were foreshadowed in the General Election compaigns of both the Tory and Lib Dem partners. Surely, that suffices to claim a mandate? Well no, it doesn’t. Pushing through these changes relies on the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament: the majority in the House of Commons can do what it wants.

In such a situation it might be thought that the Coalition government should not embark on far-reaching changes that do not necessarily command support among the electorate as a whole; changes that a new government will find  difficult to reverse. Not so the Coalition is pressing on with unflagging zeal (indecent haste) to impose on us  its vision for the future.

Those who object will find it difficult to make headway. It is true that Coalitions are popular with the electorate to the very point of their collapse. The history of  20th century coalitions tell us that they invariabley commanded more than fifty percent of any poll. Today, even accepting the dire circumstances, it is true that the Coalition commands the support of 50 per cent of more of the electorate. It is open to the Coalition to pre-run elections where the weaker of the two coalition partners stands down for the benefit of the other. In a General Election campaign such an arrangement, if tolerable to  grass root activists, would save many seats. If this were to be a nationwide tactic the Labour Party would need over 45 % of the vote to win. A little political gerrymandering along the lines already put forward by the Colation parties might require an even bigger Labour share of the vote. No political party in recent times has polled half the vote.

Is it all hopeless then? Can the the Coalition literally do anything it likes, claim a mandate and win an election even if it is called early? I think not. In practice parliamentary sovereigny is a chimera and cannot be relied upon. The key to change lies with Lib Dem backbench MPs. If they decide enough is enough they can call halt the Tory gallop[ to utopia. You do not need a majorityof the House of Commons to bring down a government; a large scale desertion short of a majority will do. Is this what will happen? Well it might you know. It is possible.

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Too Important for Politicians

Clemenceau, a French Prime Minister, is credited with the remark that war was too important a matter to be left to Generals. It invites comparisons. Is Parliamentary reform rightly a matter for politicians or should we the people have the upper hand in all this? And at this moment should we place our trust in Nick Clegg, the self-appointed Reform Czar, or  take matters into our own hands.

How have we done it, this reform business,  in the past? Isn’t it true that Magna Carta which started all this in our time, in 1215, was the result of a group of Barons determined not to pay for King John’s foreign wars by the surrender of their rights and property? Did King John take any notice? Yes, he moderated his ways, which is all that could be expected, and we the people, established the principles of of ‘public’ consultation and justice under the rule of law.

The seventeenth century, that established for ever the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament, experienced a bloody civil war and the beheading of a King; and the Bill of Rights in 1689 was the result of an invitation to a European monarch, William III, to protect us against the ambitions of an English one,  to re-write the script for the understanding between monarch and people,  and to limit  the powers of Parliament. And  it was also an assurance for us that we would be protected against foreign powers. The 1832 Reform Act was the  outcome of mass protests and demonstrations by the Chartists; and the enlargement of the franchise was  achieved with the sacrifices of the many, the imprisonment and forced feeding of suffragettes and the untangling of woment chained to railings.

 So what now is the driving force of our modern day reform demands? Well now, as it was then, it is  the self interest of ‘politicians’  and those of us on the inside. It worries me that in one amorphous ragbag initiative called the Constitutional Bill all the various matters said to concern electors are lumped together in an all or nothing endeavour to appease an angry electorate   and protect  political prime movers from the wrath of the electorate: the reform of the House of Lords; a change in the composition of the Commons, involving the pressurising of the Boundaries Commission;  electoral reform; fixed term Parliaments; and a brake on Parliament’s power to get rid of a Government and summon up a new General Election. And it is all to be done in less than two years. Any one of these measures would justify a separate Bill – there is no demand for quick fixes. What is needed is a Constitutional progamme over five years not two and  involving the public in mature discussion.

Even if it were not true, and it is, such an unseemly scramble gives the impression of two political parties, the Coalition partners, seeking to cement their hold on power against  what is feared to be a vengeful electorate. Hold on boys, it might be said, we the electorate, are sovereign. It is our rights you are tampering with, and you are not going to diminish them. We shall  get rid of you if we choose. Blood and grief mark the passage to our rights and we are not going to concede them  to you willingly. 

As a reformer and revisionist, I  recognise the need for reform. However, I am prepared to wait a little in order to obtain an all-party, non-partisan approach – assuming that such an approach is possible. There is a need now to oppose this partisan reform bill, to see off the Coalition, and then to start again. Let’s get it right!

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Rubbish Referendum

Readers, I am aware that referendums have been the principal tool of dictators over the ages. They can be manipulated in place and timing to produce a desired result. Nevertheless, they have their place in the scheme of things – my scheme of things! I have had an impressive  reply to my article  announcing proposals for a new National Volunteer Rubbish Clearance Scheme with many helpful comments on variations to our proposals (particularly, I admit, from Lib Dem strongholds along the south coast but from a number from other locations as well). We are able to divide the suggestions into three types of scheme which I shall describe and the thought is that  they could be tested in the National Referendum we propose to hold on 5 May 2011. As you know, this date was set aside for local elections in many areas but we have added a number of other subjects, covering such urgent matters as the gerrymandering of the voting system, CCTV cameras, legal rights for gay couples to be married in church, the future of the fishing industry off the coasts of Cornwall, Wales and Scotland and no doubt some other subjects. So why not the future of rubbish? These referenda will be great fun. The ballot papers are in different colours (we propose Green for rubbish), and a number of areas are planning the presence of brass bands at the polling stations. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but you cannot please everyone all of the time – of course, we can but that’s another story. Now here are the main choices:

1. A National Scheme. This might be dubbed the  expert approach. There are people who think it important to retain professionalism. Some people are very busy with their lives and say they do not have the time to collect rubbish. You might think this a selfish approach but it has some appeal. Their suggestion is that their should be a National Rubbish Officer with a small central staff and  a Rubbish Officer at every local area level. Former Council staff should be urged to volunteer their services to the community to make it all happen properly.

2. A Grass Roots Scheme. This suggestion might be summarised as a people friendly scheme. The task of coordination and the actual collection would be given to the new Free Schools and Academies who would be permitted to retain some of the profit. Free schools need a lot of money. (Michael Gove is keen on this). If need be spare land at these schools could be used for burying some of the rubbish. A number of Associations such as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Guides and the Territorial Army would join in to give muscle to collection.

3. A Special Needs Scheme. Some people have pointed out that there are practical difficulties with rubbish; collecting it from Tower blocks, frail elderly people,  and the disabled (there will still be some who cannot be forced out to work). You cannot expect children to cope with everything. These vulnerable people will need special consideration and in the Special Needs Scheme they will get it.

Well, isn’t it exciting! Who would have thought that we could get this far in organising the Big Society?

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I Am Mr Average

I am Mr Average but not the Man on the Clapham omnibus you understand. (laughter). Frankly, I do not think he ever existed, but the kind of guy you would recognise as someone who  might live in your street. Actually, I do your live in your street. (laughter). You wish to know, and I am pleased to tell you, how I am getting on in these troubled times. The short answer to this is fine. I’m OK. I have kept my job, you see. I work in the City for a reliable firm. I am reliable and, if I flatter myself, consciencious. No salary increase this year, but what the hell, we are all in this together aren’t we and I’m glad to keep my job? Every morning I drive to the nearest underground station. I have an arrangement to park in someone’s drive and then I go in by train. I read a book. Our library is closed now, more’s the pity, but I can change my book in town  on Saturday mornings when we go shopping.Things are tighter for our family because my wife, Sarah, lost her part time job, and we have had to make some changes. She is down in the dumps because this job gave her some independance, which is a good thing.  No Saturday maths tuition for Wayne, more’s the pity for he is a bit slow. I used to help him but I can’t  now. Some people think that education standards have slipped but, frankly, I can’t do the sums he has difficulty with. Are we worse off? I’ll tell you our secret. We have a variable rate mortgage and we are better off, we pay a lot less as a result of lower interest rates. I can’t tell you how helpful this is to us. Of course overall our standards have slipped but we are managing. I am a Tory voter and this is a Tory seat. Frankly, I like it this way. A better class of people, don’t you think? But as I am confessing here, I have voted Labour in the past and Labour did some good things. Don’t you agree? I don’t think I like this Coalition much. Of course, politicians working together is a good thing but you know the  jokes ‘what do you get if you cross a  sheep with a kangaroo? A woolly jumper!’ A good joke that. I often tell it. Looking ahead ? Things will get worse before they get better. They usually do. But if I were to lose my job, perish the thought, it wouldn’t, the future I mean. How will I vote next time? I don’t know. In our office none of us know. We put on a brave face and pray a little. Nothing wrong with that. What do I think of Cameron? He’s a bright fellow. Very energetic, hyper active they called it in Wayne’s class, smarms his hair down, going bald, but I don’t suppose you meant that, did you? No, I thought not. Well I’ll tell you a secret. I don’t like yahboo politics. Learnt that at Eton I expect (laughter). Cleggie? Well I think he looks an unhappy man. Not good for confidence in a politician. But then we all have our problems don’t we?

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Michael Gove’s Mandate

The doctrine of the electoral mandate is a  Constitutional convention of practical as well as theoretical significance. It is expected of serious national political parties that they set out their programmes for a full Parliamentary term in detail so that the electorate knows what it is voting for. Of course, no reasonable person expects the programme to be carried out exactly as described: circumstances may change and  governments may have second and better thoughts. But nevertheless, in general, it is expected that parties should be as good as their promises. No one voted for  the Coalition programme. It was cobbled together in a backroom after the event. The Coalition is in its honeymoon period. So what, it might be thought,   if  promises cannot be met, surely the Coalition  must do the best it can?

Well, yes, but  the public should be warned. The government is is in the hands of a group of people, mostly public schoolboys from wealthy backgrounds, who are  unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole. It is revolutionary in intent. It actually believes that society should be changed in its own image. Under the cover of the need to sort out the public finances the Coalition is  intent on dismantling the enabling state.

Among this group of people is Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education. Mr Gove is uniquely unqualified for this position in the government and indeed , I would maintain, any position. He is more than intellignt and generally sympathetic: he is an intellectual and a romantic. By this I mean that his actions are primarily governed by ideas and thus his grip on reality uncertain. Mr Gove, on behalf of the Conservative Party, made certain promises in the election campaign to maintain expenditure in state schools in which over ninety percent of all children are educated. He has no mandate to end the school building programme or to cut schools expenditure by fifteen to twenty percent over the Parliament. And he should not be dishonest. He has no mandate to finance so-called Free Schools out of the budgets of state schools and often against their best interests.

Mr Gove should resign if he cannot defend state education from the Treasury. And a warning to the Coalition. The electorate did not vote for revolutionary changes to their way of life, thank you for the thought. They voted for jobs, decent education for their children, for the welfare state and an NHS they could rely on. And they will vote again. On that you can be certain.

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