Monthly Archives: May 2008

Tony Blair “lead from the front” in by-elections? In WHAT universe Mr Cameron?

Having a pop at Gordon Brown for failing to show his face in Crewe and Nantwich is all fair and good, but why does David Cameron have to go and spoil everything by talking unmitigated bullshit like this?

Mr Cameron taunted him by saying his predecessor as PM, Tony Blair, “led from the front” at by-elections.

During the Blair years it was a standing joke, as it is now, that the Prime Minister never attended by-elections. Indeed, in the last general election, using a picture of Tony Blair (almost always with George Bush) on your literature was one of the easiest ways to pick up votes (assuming you aren’t the Labour Party of course). Blair was ballot box poison, at least after 2003.

David Cameron, having as he does a bit of a schoolboy crush on Tony Blair, may like to think different, but that’s the way it goes.

A case of Tory over-regulation?

I’ve already said broadly what I have to say about the Tory’s dog whistle politics regarding the embryology bill (although apparently last night’s Dispatches put a particularly sinister spin on things). My favourite example of this now has to be the fact that, in order to stave off accusations that his amendment is homophobic, Iain Duncan Smith has changed the wording of his amendment so that in addition to IVF children needing a “father” they would need a “mother” as well.

I don’t know how far he thinks the technology for test tube babies has advanced, but last time I looked we didn’t need an actual law to ensure that pretty much happened by itself.

Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament: your help needed!

I’m attempting to get a motion on the agenda of the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth this autumn. The motion itself speaks for itself (see below).

If you support it, and are a voting representative for conference this autumn, please can you email me (to semajmaharg[at]gmail[dot]com) the following details:

  • Your name
  • Your address
  • Your membership number
  • The local party you are a voting representative of (or LDYS as appropriate)

I need everyone’s details as soon as possible as the deadline for submissions is 12 noon on Wednesday 21 May.

Many thanks!

Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament

Conference notes:
a. In the government’s 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper, it proposed to “improve direct democracy” yet has failed to produce substantive proposals on how it plans to do this in over a year.
b. Liberal Democrat-run councils such as Kingston have lead the way in developing more participatory forms of decision making. The party outlined a number of proposals for rolling out best practice nationwide in its September 2007 policy paper The Power to Be Different.

Conference believes that giving the public a greater say in policy making and a right to petition elected representatives at all levels of government could enhance representative democracy by providing accountability and clearer lines of communication between elected representatives and their constituents.

Conference therefore calls for:
1. A Petitioning System Fit for the 21st Century: the system for petitioning Parliament should be simplified and it should be possible to submit petitions online. Parliament should develop a system to formally consider all petitions submitted to it and take action where appropriate. Any resident or expatriate of the UK or a British Overseas Territory would have a right to petition Parliament in this way, including children.
2. People’s Bills: whereby the six legislative proposals that received the most petition signatures from registered voters in any given year would be guaranteed a second reading debate in the House of Commons.
3. A People’s Veto: all Acts of Parliament would be subject to a rule whereby, if one million registered voters petitioned against it within 60 days of the law being passed, a referendum would have to be held on whether or not to repeal it.
4. A Responsive Electoral System: elect both Houses of Parliament using single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (STV). Unlike other electoral systems, STV gives the voter choice between candidates from a particular party, as well as choice between parties. No other system is as good at taking politics out of the backrooms and into the daylight.
5. A Citizen’s Convention: an independent convention to review how to improve the governance of the UK. At least 51% of the Convention’s membership would be made up of randomly selected members of the public. The government would be required by law to co-operate with the Convention in implementing its findings and hold consultative referendums where necessary.

Due to the clear need for security when implementing such measures, Conference reiterates its call for individual voter registration. Submitting petitions in support of People’s Bills and to veto legislation should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as nominating candidates for election.

UPDATE: Motion duly submitted this morning. Thanks to everyone who sponsored it!

Tamsin Dunwoody: Iron Lady or Freak?

Do you want a Tory con man or a Dunwoody? Tamsin Dunwoody - one of us.Labour’s campaign in Crewe and Nantwich appears to go from low to new low (James Schneider). It is the most unjustifiably bad behaviour I have seen since Birmingham Hodge Hill in 2004 (and there’s been some steep competition, believe me).

I’m fascinated that they are using “con man” on their literature. I’ve always understood this to be a definite no-no on election literature (even when using against a CONservative) as it creeps beyond the garden of mockery and legitimate criticism and into the realm of defamation. But then, I suppose there isn’t much point in suing a political party that is bankrupt.

The use of the “one of us” slogan is interesting. Is Dunwoody comparing herself to Margaret Thatcher here? Or is it intended to evoke memories of this iconic scene from Tod Browning’s Freaks:

No Solid Crewe

The most amazing thing about the Crewe and Nantwich by-election is the sheer amount of column inches it has generated in the national press. As a by-election veteran (I confess, I haven’t gone to this one), I’m used to fighting the great fight in eminently winnable seats (which of course, we went on to win) and yet have the media completely oblivious to the fact right up until the day before polling day when they finally get around to sending a monkey up to see what is going on.

Not that I’m complaining, mind. The more they ignore a by-election in the run up, the bigger the splash on the front pages when we win. The fact that the Tories are being presented as a near-certainty will dampen the impact if they win and make them look silly if they lose. The fact that Labour’s dirty by-election tricks are finally getting a good airing is also gratifying, although it is a shame it is being presented as a one-off when they play this game every single fucking time.

What is bizarre is the way journalists keep calling it a “safe Labour seat.” Dunwoody only had a 7,000 majority and when you’ve been an MP as long as she has, most of that will be down to a personal vote. I don’t know the area’s political history but the Tories have completely eclipsed Labour in local government.

If the Tories had had as good a prospect as this to fight during their doldrums in 1998, it would still have been amazing if they had gone on to lose.

Make no mistake: this by-election is for the Tories to lose. If they can’t win this, they will be back to where they were last summer. I’m not making any predictions either way here, but let’s not kid ourselves about them having a massive job ahead of them, eh?

David Howarth’s Fixed Term Parliaments Bill

I’ve been highlighting this as part of my day job but haven’t said anything about it here. Anyway, David Howarth’s Fixed Term Parliaments Bill is being debated in the Commons tomorrow and you need to do something about it. Write to your MP about it and ask them to sign EDM 1528 – Fixed Term Parliaments. More details here and here. Meanwhile, here is David talking to that nice Mr Dale:

Can Cameron Lead the Conservatives (part 587)?

Stephen Tall has pointed me to this piece by John Rentoul on the Independent Blog:

David Cameron voted against the majority of Conservative MPs who took part in the division yesterday on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. He was one of 37 Tories voting in favour; 49 voted against. The rest found something better to do.

This sounds awfully familiar. Indeed, the Embryology Bill is a fascinating case study of Cameron Non-Leadership in action.

First of all, there is the “they aren’t defying me if I make it a free vote” tactic. He did this earlier in the year when he allowed his MPs to back the Bill Cash amendment on the Lisbon Treaty. Of course, the argument against that is that the Embryology Bill comes under that catch-all of a “conscience issue”. He can probably get away with this as, aside from the apparent admission that political philosophy is completely useless when it comes to fundamental issues of principle such as the rights and wrongs of abortion, it is a view shared by politicians from across the political spectrum (while insisting that J.S. Mill & co DO have something instructive to say on, for example, the practicalities of recycling). It is hard to see how the Lisbon Treaty came under this category though. Or House of Lords Reform.

What is interesting with this Bill however, is that while Cameron supported the Bill overall, he has adopted a quite a reactionary view when it comes to the detail. Backing Mad Nad’s (I’d call her Dorries Karlof but that one’s taken) 20 Weeks amendment is particularly peculiar given the fact that her case has been pretty comprehensively quashed by the scientific evidence. 20 week fever appears to have gripped the Conservative Party. Alan Duncan was raving about it on Any Questions despite seeming unclear about what the current limit actually is (which rather suggests he hasn’t done the slightest bit of research into the subject). It has been dressed up as the safe, reasonable, responsible thing for right-minded Conservatives to do when in fact it is a blatant wedge strategy (apparently funded by the religious right, it emerges).

But the more tricksy one is this proposed amendment to the Bill regarding IVF to single women and lesbian couples. Andrew Lansley is proposing to reword the Bill’s requirement for “supportive parenting” thus: “the need for supportive parenting and a father or a male role model.”

On the surface this seems innocuous enough. Certainly a “male role model” is up there on my list of “desirable” things for a child to grow up with. Lansley was insistent that this wasn’t about excluding lesbian couples. It is certainly something worth exploring in committee. Would sticking a poster of David Beckham up on the side of the crib suffice, for instance?

And yet. And yet. While I think there is something in the argument that the current problems we face with youth gangs and violence on the streets is rooted in the lack of supportive parenting, what I’m not clear about is that it is somehow rooted in lesbians getting IVF treatment. Getting IVF is a much more stringent process than having a fumble in the back of a car, and no-one is proposing to change that. A tiny minority of women get IVF treatment. Of them, a minority of them are lesbians. Of them, a tiny minority of them are likely to end up in a gang. Just what are the Conservatives preventing here? Maybe one thug per decade being grown in a test tube?

Once again, this appears to be a “reasonable” amendment being supported by the Tory front bench which you only need to take a sideways glance at the attack dogs yapping at their sides to see the real agenda. Can you say “dog whistle”?

It all seems so tactical. I don’t know if Cameron is the liberal he claims to be or not and to an extent that is irrelevant. What I’m concerned about is how a Cameron government would behave in the face of a reactionary Conservative backbench of the kind we are likely to continue to see for decades to come. His approach since becoming leader has been to avoid confrontation where possible, and capitulate where not. In this respect he is very different from Tony Blair circa 1995. Blair loved to face down his detractors in the party; that’s why the “demon eyes” approach was so unconvincing. With Cameron, we really do seem to be getting a Tory wolf in woolly liberal’s clothing.

Triangulation and the Treasury

Credit where it’s due, at least Alastair Darling’s statement today has the virtue of being a simple change, rather than the convoluted nonsense he was talking about a couple of weeks ago.

I find the psychology of Labour ministers throughout this debacle fascinating. At each and every turn their response has been to sell off their critics rather than sort out the problem at root. At first, they simply couldn’t understand why a change that benefited the majority of people was proving so unpopular. In interview after interview they blathered on about most people being better off and “hard working families” as if the inherent unfairness of it all didn’t matter. When that didn’t work, both three weeks ago and now, their response has been to buy off not just the people least effected by the change but a large number of other voters as well.

Three weeks ago, it was a massive bribe aimed at the over-60s while offering almost nothing to young workers. Today it is an even bigger bribe aimed at most of the workforce (at least this time it isn’t something that people paying the higher rate of tax will be benefiting from), the only catch being that the worse off you are, the more you will remain out of pocket. It remains a cynical exercise in squeezing the least “attractive” element of the working poor – single, young, un-unionised (for “attractive” read “deserving” in NuLabSpeak) in order to bribe the fattened masses; the bribe has just ended up being a little bigger, that’s all. That should tell you all you need to know about Labour’s commitment to social justice.

What will be fascinating is how they manage to dig themselves out of the hole they’ve effectively dug for next year’s budget. They’re options appear to be limited. Do they not increase personal allowance by inflation next year? That will effectively mean that their plan is to claw back all of this tax over the next few years. Do they cut spending by £3bn? Another stealth tax? Or do they bite the bullet and whack it on higher wage earners?

Of course all these numbers are a bit fictional; Darling could still be saved by the Laffer Curve and a spot of wage inflation. With the precarious state of the economy though, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Daniel Kawczynski: a whinger and a wanker

Neil Kinnock famously (and anecdotally; he hotly denies it) described Charter 88 as a bunch of “whingers and wankers.” It’s good to see that the shoe is now on the other foot, as demonstrated by this whine by Daniel Kawczinyski.

What is amusing about this article is that it is wrong in almost every single important respect. To start with, he deplores closed lists. But he then goes on to exhort first past the post which is, erm, a closed list system. If he wants accountability, then why not advocate a system which encourages it, i.e. STV?

Secondly, he claims that voters in London were confused. Well maybe, but the vast majority of them managed to vote okay. Indeed, compare the number of rejected votes for the Mayoral election (1.67%) and the London-wide list (1.69%) with the first past the post constituency election (1.95%). It would appear that the system that caused voters the greatest confusion was the one Kawczynski is advocating!

He refers to Scotland’s elections debacle last year, yet fails to mention that the lessons of that incident have already been learnt – hence the low ballot spoilage. He claims that “the overwhelming will of the people of London was to get rid of Ken Livingstone and elect a Conservative mayor”. If that is the case, why didn’t they vote that way? Boris Johnson got 43% of the vote in first preferences – a plurality to be sure but well short of a majority. He fails to explain how the preferential system got in the way; all it did was illustrate that of the voters who preferred a candidate other than Livingstone or Johnson, more of them (not not that many more of them) preferred the former over the latter. And he claims that is in some way undemocratic. Inconvenient for an ideologue like him maybe, but undemocratic?

He then drops this clanger:

“The fact that Brian Paddick, Sian Berry and Ken Livingstone did well on second preferences only goes to show the bias which is built into the system in favour of left wing parties, parties which, in the case of the Lib Dems and the Greens were not well supported by people’s first choice.”

Uh? How does this show the system is biased? Paddick and Berry could have carved up the second preference votes between them and it still wouldn’t have got either of them elected as Mayor. The system doesn’t care if you count the number of second preference votes for candidates who failed to come first or second or not. The system only considered those cast for Livingstone and Johnson.

In fact, this demonstrates almost the exact opposite: generally the public are left-inclined but the system made no allowance for that.

Not all of Kawczynskis are completely invalid, but his prescription certainly is. To claim that first past the post is a tool for engagement, when in fact it guarantees that come election time the parties will ignore that vast majority of voters is simply ridiculous. He knows this. He knows how it leads to a fixation on swing voters.

It is ironic that he bemoans that PR systems don’t allow for by-elections while FPTP not only does but allows for greater accountability. Bob Neill didn’t stand down and make way for a by-election for his Assembly seat in 2006, and yet in Bromley and Bexley the Tories had an increased majority. I’m sure that numerous Tories might like to think that was solely down to James Cleverley’s hard work, but we all know it had more to do with the Mayoral election. Where is this magical accountability that Kawczynski has been telling us about?

We certainly could make things more democratic. If we had open lists or, better yet, STV which would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than purely on party lines, then accountability would increase. In doing so we could also cut down the numbers of ballot papers to two. We could hold the Assembly elections on a different day, possibly on the same day as the London council elections so that they aren’t completely overshadowed by the Mayoral election.

Yet somehow I suspect that accountability is the last thing that Kawczynski wants. He just wants the system that he feels suits his brand of rightwingery, knowing that under any system of fair votes the majority would make his life much more difficult.

At least not all rightwing ideologues believe that the only recourse is to steal elections rather than compete in them. Douglas Carswell, no wet he, has been advocating multi-member constituencies for a while now. It seems that the days of the Kawczynski Tory sense of entitlement may be numbered.

Why is the UK so lousy at cinema?

Amid all the gloom of the past few weeks, a nugget to warm my cockles: it turns out that the film Three and Out has been a massive flop.

For the past month, Londoners have had this film rammed down their throats via a mammoth advertising campaign and a faux controversy over Aslef condemning the film for promoting the idea of suicide by underground train. I can only wonder what Aslef got out of the deal as this gave the film a huge amount of free advertisng. The promoters responded by making the controversy a central part of their marketing, publishing ever increasingly bizarre adverts in the London press attempting to summarise the “debate” and screaming censorship every 30 seconds.

But as film promoters go, Aslef have nothing on the Catholic church and the film remained in the doldrums. Speaking personally, I was lost as soon as I saw my first poster, with an image that managed to evoke the twin horrors of Britpop-travesty Shooting Fish (with Gemma Arterton standing in for Kate Beckinsale before she discovered leather basques) and Sex Lives of the Potato Men.

But it does beg the question why the UK is so bad at making decent films. Our TV is of variable quality, but there is enough good stuff on the small screen to suggest we are not lacking in film-making talent. There appears to be a particular problem with lottery-funded projects, which all consistently have the same anonymous transatlantic quality – superficially British and “edgy” but played for safety and ease of access for US audiences. It has made celebrities out of no-marks like Guy Ritchie (even his one “good” film wasn’t actually very good) while ruining the careers of numerous talented individuals.

It does seem to me that whether you approve of subsidies or not, when they fail to lead to anything of either critical or public acclaim they should be reconsidered. Maybe we should try it the other way around, offering million pound prizes to the teams responsible for the most successful British film of the year? You might baulk at throwing public money at people who have already found success but how is using it to prop up a pile of hideous shite any better?