Monthly Archives: May 2011

Is thwarting the will of the Lords really “unconstitutional”?

The Times poll today showing that the majority of peers are not only opposed to Lords reform but feel it would be “unconstitutional” to proceed without their blessing begs an important question: in a country without a codified constitution, what on earth is “constitutional” anyway?

Where the peers may have a point is that when the courts looked at the Parliament Act’s applicability with regard to the Hunting Act in 2005, there was a suggestion by some Law Lords that judges might be able to strike down attempts to use the Parliament Act to affect constitutional changes. Of course, this has not been tested, but it is at least contestable and it is just conceivable that the Law Lords might come down hard on any attempt to use the Parliament Act to force through an elected second chamber.

Yet while the use of the Parliament Act may be considered illegal, it could equally be argued that for the Lords to block reform, and thus make the use of the Parliament Act necessary, could only be done by steamrollering over the conventions which have allowed the House of Lords to stay its execution for the past 60 years. The Salisbury Convention was introduced specifically to prevent the unelected Lords thwarting the will of an elected Commons. Its precise formulation has come under strain with the advent of governments being formed with just 36% of the vote – and let’s not get started on how it should work with a coalition government. Despite this, nobody has contested the basic underlying principle at its core: public will, as expressed through the ballot box via the party system and the House of Commons, should always win out.

It is with this in mind that I feel the need to point out that all three major parties fought the last election with a specific manifesto commitment to reform the Lords. It would be an absolute scandal for the Lords to presume to exercise a veto, akin to the worst examples of clericocracy that we are all too ready to condemn when it happens in Iran. By all means let’s see the Lords doing their job and scrutinising the legislation with a fine tooth comb, but blocking it outright should be considered out of bounds.

All three party leaders should come down on this, and hard. Anyone else wondering why they haven’t done so already?

UPDATE: I’ve written a piece on Comment is Free, building on this.

You might also be interested in Mark Pack’s article about dissolution honours on Left Foot Forward.

And finally, I should have urged everyone to sign Unlock Democracy’s petition on reforming the House of Lords.

Government brainwashing works – and it’s for your own good

Earlier today, a tweet by Ellie Sharman about a two year old Liberal Vision article almost prompted by to write about its wrongheadedness before I realised that I had already done so. That was that, I thought, until I read this article about how the beleaguered Health Minister had been forced to restore his cuts to the public health campaign budget after evidence emerged that the cuts had actually lead to an increase in flu deaths, as well as a decline in things like people joining programmes to give up smoking.

What does this have to do with airbrushing? Well, for me it highlights a pretty fundamental point: advertising works. Andrew Lansley has at least given us a bit of evidence we can now draw on in future to ensure that the mistake is not repeated.

It is the fact that advertising works that sums up why I am not a libertarian or classical liberal. Brains can be manipulated and even fooled; we aren’t rational beings. The libertarian assertion that if you just took state action out of the equation, people would act rationally simply isn’t backed up by any credible evidence. And of course they end up tying themselves up in knots attempting to prove it.

So it was that in his Liberal Vision article two years ago, Tom Papworth found himself implying that “airbrushing” doesn’t manipulate young women and that to assert that it did so was to suggest that it does is to brand them as “stupid”. The idea that people can be manipulated on a psychological level and not be cretinous does not sit well with libertarians. Yet the simple fact is that if psychology did not have a large part to play in advertising, it would not have evolved in the dramatic way that it did over the course of the 20th century, and people would not now be lamenting the delay of Season 5 of Mad Men.

When the government produces an advert designed to encourage you to give up smoking, it is explicitly attempting to manipulate you. That doesn’t sit terribly well with classical liberals, yet why is it such a dreadful thing for a democratically elected and ultimately accountable government to be doing it but not a commercial company which is only accountable to its shareholders?

Psychology and neuroscience represent massive challenges for liberalism which it can’t afford to ignore. It isn’t that the principles at the heart of liberalism are flawed, just that their real world application are inadequate. This is what the new liberals realised at the start of the 20th century and it is something we must be continually alive to. Yet there remains a strand which defiantly refuses to acknowledge this and wraps itself in the easy slogans and notions about rationality of the Victorian Age.

As a result of the government spending millions of pounds encouraging people to live healthier lifestyles, people’s lives – and thus liberty – are improved in a tangible, measurable way. It is right that governments continue to do so, notwithstanding the fact that there is a real debate to be had over how far it should go. It is equally right that politicians such as Jo Swinson raise issues about advertising and body image with initiatives such as the Campaign for Body Confidence; again notwithstanding the fact that some of the conclusions they draw are liable to be problematic. To suggest that there is some simple, magic liberal litmus test which we can apply to difficult areas such as this is the ultimate act of illiberalism.

Confused debate over superinjunctions

I can’t help but smell a rat over the current media furore over superinjunctions.

It started out perfectly honourably, with a genuine freedom of speech issue surrounding Trafigura. Clearly a company which had been caught dumping toxic waste should not be able to hide behind a legal nicety reserved solely for the wealthy. But what was clearly a debate about the right to report issues which are clearly in the public interest has descended into a terribly English furore about where footballers stick their winkies.

Is an important principle of law really being defended right now, or is this little more than a distraction. After all, it can’t be a coincidence that this story has arisen as the scandal surrounding the News of the World phone-hacking scandal appears to get worse and worse. We are being invited to consider the death of privacy – and that such an occurrence is no bad thing – precisely at a time when one of the world’s top media corporations is under pressure for steamrollering over people’s personal rights.

Of course new technology presents us with new challenges in defending privacy, and of course we need to defend freedom of speech. Refusing to have a privacy law helps us to achieve neither. It isn’t that I think Judges are fools or terrible people; I just think the basic principles should be established in as democratic a manner as possible. It is surely pure laziness to claim that any attempt to legislate will inexorably lead to a French system in which sex pests are free to aspire to the highest positions of power, knowing that they can avoid even the slightest whiff of scandal (so long as they stay within France’s borders – should have thought of that Dominique).

However imperfect our Parliament is, I would still trust it above and beyond the lone instincts of Justice Eady. Let’s by all means tear up superinjunctions, but in the process let’s not create such a free-for-all that everyone is left at the mercy of the Daily Mail.

Yellow Peril

Being a comic geek, “Yellow Bastard” makes me think of Frank Miller and the eponymous paedophile and child-murderer of one of his Sin City stories. I never cared much for it. Still, there are worse things to be called I suppose. Labour members call Lib Dems Yellow Tories.

Still, the noises off within cabinet have inadvertently given us something to aspire to at last. It is a generally good rule of thumb that if Tim Montgomerie doesn’t approve of you, you must be doing something right, and so Conservative Home’s decision to launch a Yellow Bastards League Table suggests that the Lib Dems are finally starting to have an impact in government.

All in all, it suggests that the party has finally woken up to the fact that some of us have been shouting about for over a year: by occupying the centre ground in Parliament, the Lib Dems needn’t negotiate with their coalition partners as a junior party in government with just 57 MPs. Rather, in a great many policy areas, our true negotiating position is as the vanguard of the ragtag anti-conservative consensus which, on most days, can defeat any proposal David Cameron tries to bring forward. The Tories are the minority in this Parliament, yet for most of the past twelve months we’ve behaved as if they are in the ascendant.

Of course, it isn’t enough to simply know there are a lot of Labour MPs out there who don’t like the Tories; it is incumbent on Nick Clegg to build bridges. That’s why his inept talk about “new” versus “old” progressives and of never being able to resist and opportunity to take a potshot at Labour is so unhelpful. David Hall-Matthews outlined a more sophisticated way of dealing with Labour a couple of months ago on Left Foot Forward, but his advice seems to have gone largely unheeded. Clegg’s failure to even resist taking swipes at Labour in his speeches on AV during the referendum campaign period suggested that he was beyond rational thinking on the subject.

Clegg’s new doctrine of a more “muscular liberalism” at least shows that he has finally got the message about the need to show more distinctiveness, but if it is to amount to more than the Deputy Prime Minister flexing his biceps in a yellow posing pouch, he needs to start reaching out across the House of Commons. After all, we’ve seen with the referendum quite how willing many Labour MPs are to side with the Tories if they think it will help further destroy the Lib Dems. However futile and counter-productive their thinking is, many Labour politicians see the return of two-party politics as a strategic aim worth any number of Tory policies being introduced.

Perhaps, instead of replacing one futile attempt of toughness with another, he ought to try a bit of soft power for a change?

Yes to Fairer Votes: the briefing has started

This is an interesting quote:

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.

“We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.”

I have a pretty good idea who this senior source is and it is nice to see that he (or, I suppose, her) is getting his (yeah, theoretically possible it may be a her) excuses in first, and it is certainly the case that Clegg was not helpful. But a couple of points:

1) The biggest poll dip was the weekend the No campaign freepost leaflet hit doormats. That certainly had Clegg on it, but by that stage Clegg himself was keeping a low profile.

2) Clegg was no less damaging than the continued string of high profile Labour politicians campaigning for a No vote. Why was Ed Miliband incapable of stemming that, thereby denting his own local government recovery in the process (by ensuring that the Tories received almost no scrutiny in the media for six weeks).

3) Yes, the idea of taking a “big butt” around the country was really stupid, but no-one ever seriously considered it. Instead of blaming our defeat on bad decisions which senior staff didn’t make, is it not possible that it was the decisions they did make that had a lot to be desired?

4) The admission that the individual concerned thought the campaign was unwinnable as long ago as before last year is shocking. If the individual concerned believed that then he (or she) should have resigned. If they are as senior as they claim to be, they were certainly coining it. Essentially, they’ve just admitted that they’ve spent the last six months coasting on a gravy train.

It would be so easy to blame it all on Clegg, but it won’t help us win next time.

Crawling from the wreckage

Hello? Is this thing still working? Can anyone still hear me?

Testing… testing…

Ahem.

Hi. I’m back. It’s been a long time. How are you?

Me? Well, for the past nine months I’ve been working for Yes to Fairer Votes and, by mutual consent, it was agreed that it might be better if I suspended my gobshite-related activities for the duration of the campaign.

Needless to say, those restrictions no longer apply and so I’m free to resume my blogging activities. I have to admit that it feels good to be able to express myself again, although I’m still finding my feet again.

I can’t really get away with resuming this blog without reflecting on the campaign that has dominated my life for a whole year (and it is a whole year – one year ago, I was busy working on the final preparations for the Take Back Parliament demo that took place the following day. At the time we had absolutely no idea what a success those demonstrations would be).

As you may be away, we lost, and we lost badly. Why is that? Well, yes, the No campaign was an absolute shocker. They lied and they lied and they lied. Unlike many however, I am struggling to be that angry with them. You need only look at the people behind the campaign to realise that that is simply in their nature; it’s what they do. If a mad dog mauls your child, that is of course terrible; but the real question is what you did to protect her.

I don’t want to dwell too much on what the official Yes campaign did right or wrong here; I’m still feeling bruised and I have a tremendous amount of respect for most of the people who worked so hard on the campaign – both paid and unpaid. I don’t think it would be fair to them for me to wash my dirty laundry in public this weekend. Suffice to say that I am pretty confident that I’m not the only staffer who feels that that wasn’t the campaign we signed up for. There are some serious and hard lessons to be learned and I hope we face up to them in a constructive, honest and ultimately conciliatory manner.

But the fact is that we’d have struggled to win a Yes vote even if we had run the best campaign we could. There are at least three factors which seriously hindered us:

Firstly, let’s face it, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem brand more generally hung around our necks like the proverbial albatross. We anticipated this as long ago as June last year, but the party’s Gerald Ratner moment over tuition fees took even the most cynical among us back.

It can’t however all be pinned on Clegg. The simple fact is if Labour had a stronger leader we would have been in a much stronger position. I like Ed Miliband personally and sincerely hope he can turn it around. But it is clear that he commands very little authority or respect within both his parliamentary party and the Labour Party at large.

There is no escaping the fact that if David Miliband had won in September, the Labour No campaign would have been a rump compared to what it ended up being and that if David Cameron had wanted to find a convenient Labour figleaf to share a platform with, he’d have had to settle for a no-mark like Tom Harris rather than Lord Reid.

(Why this is, to a certain extent, mystifies me. Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership fair and square by winning the union vote. How Labour members can be both precious about their “historic Labour-union links” and so disparaging when the union members do something they don’t like is beyond me.)

Labour really needs to learn the lessons of this week. A lot of Labour politicians are hellbent on a strategy that is about destroying the Lib Dems, even if it means effectively letting Cameron off the hook. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Lib Dems are now seriously weakened, but what has that gained Labour? There is no sign of us returning to a two-party system; look at Scotland. Labour let the Tories win the popular vote in England, which is an absolutely extraordinary failure. Even at the Lib Dems’ nadir, one in four people just voted for a third-party candidate. And there are signs that it is other third parties that are filling the vacuum, with the Greens now the largest party in Brighton. The combined failure of Labour and the Lib Dems to ensure that the cold light of scrutiny falls on the Conservatives is nothing short of tragic.

But finally, the process leading to the referendum itself was highly problematic. If there is one thing the No campaign argued that has merit, it is that it was a political stitch up.

Unlike some, I am not of the view that AV was the wrong system to fight the referendum on; it may well have been our best option. The fact is that the British don’t like radical change and AV was a quintessentially modest reform. With the country unused to coalition government, it is entirely plausible to believe that the public would have turned against any system which would have all but guaranteed future hung parliaments.

But that said, the way in which AV became the preferred system was not ideal. Making a specific voting system a precondition of a coalition agreement is problematic because it will inevitably look as if the only reason that particular system is being pushed is that it suits one of the coalition parties. That’s why it was so hard to separate the Lib Dems from AV itself, even though it isn’t even our preferred system.

What should have happened? Well, holding out for PR would have been a pipedream and we would have found Labour formally backing the No campaign. In my view what we should have done was to establish a Citizen’s Assembly and guarantee that any system agreed by that body would be subject to a referendum. Would the Tories have agreed to an independent process which could potentially have lead to a PR system being proposed? It is for better informed coalition watchers than I to decide that question.

Where now for electoral and political reform? Well, there is no question that we have our work cut out, but I’m feeling oddly optimistic. A lot of people around the country have worked hard on this campaign but the rout and infighting that I had feared does not appear to have emerged. By contrast, what I’m seeing is a lot of people steeling themselves, learning from the experience, and determined to move onto the next fight (after perhaps a bit of a breather), as soon as possible.

If history tells us anything it is that the road to political reform is littered with failed campaigns which indirectly helped lead to reform within just a few years. This experience has galvanised a whole generation of campaigners. Because the No campaign felt they could only win by talking complete horseshit, there is little sense that the matter has been settled (even if it does look exceedingly unlikely that AV itself will ever be presented as a compromise option). If I were a reactionary supporter of the status quo, I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of people to bounce back and learn from this experience.