I’ve always been a supporter of Remembrance Sunday and have never held much truck with this white poppy nonsense that has always seemed more like a pose than a genuinely ethical position. This is because, for me at least, the day has always represented a reflection on the awfulness of war and the sacrifice that everyone pays – be they soldier, conscientious objector or civilian – when it sweeps across the world. It’s a act of solidarity, and walking around with a white poppy has always seemed, intentional or not, like flicking a v-sign at anyone who wishes to participate in a collective national experience. But I didn’t wear a poppy this year (although I did stand for the two minute silence despite not thinking I would).
There are two main reasons for this. The first is my shock and disgust last month at learning that Sir John Kiszely, the then President of the Royal British Legion, had been caught on camera offering to lobby government ministers at “boring” remembrance events on behalf of one of his prospective clients as a lobbyist (in this case a fake company pretending to be attempting to sell the UK government military drone aircraft). He swiftly resigned and no one at any stage suggested that the Royal British Legion in any way condoned his actions, but what does it say about the organisation that such a man was free to rise to their most senior and prominent position? Either way, I don’t think this scandal received anything like the level of attention that it deserved.
The second is this discussion about marking the centenary of the First World War, which appears to be big on history, looking backwards and even producing a kind of theme park version of the war, complete with poppy fields and token football matches, all of which looks suspiciously like a celebration. After 2012, I’ve truly had enough of all this bread and circus business and am weary of the prospect of turning such an important occasion into yet another backslapping jamboree.
As we approach the centenary, the key question we need to ask is what the purpose of remembrance is once the generation that made that sacrifice are all dead? This is universally true in the case of the first world war and increasingly so in the case of the second. Walking through Kings Cross station yesterday, I was struck at how they’d got Barbara Windsor to be the “voice” of the poppy appeal – she was 8 at the end of WW2, and far more associated with the swinging sixties. However well intentioned, having someone like that simply lacks the resonance of, say, Thora Hird.
Over the course of my life, the TV coverage of Remembrance Sunday has shifted from pictures of a dwindling parade of war veterans to pictures of a bunch of politicians doing their best to look solemn. We seem to be sleepwalking on with an annual ceremony which no longer has the same meaning, and yet there is no attempt to take a comprehensive look at how we might make it matter for a new generation. What has happened instead is that an event that was supposed to mark a dreadful, world changing war, and which could conceivably be expanded to commemorate its depressing sequel 20 years later, has come to be used to mark the low and steady hum of military conflicts which the UK as periodically get itself embroiled in in the 65 years since.
We talk about “sacrifice” but that word has acquired a different meaning over the years. 90 years ago, people were talking about the self-sacrifice of a few for the benefit of the many. But the sacrifice that is being made now looks suspiciously more like a more Old Testament style sacrifice: a blood letting to appease the Gods and maintain the status quo.
The 20th century World Wars weren’t about fighting for the status quo, regardless of the hopes of those in power at the time. Their great cost lead to a social revolution, and rightly so. Are we really that comfortable about investing its legacy into the hands of a few politicians and professional tinpot generals (I originally wrote “professional soldier” but none of the people I’m referring to have seen the front line in decades)? What was meant to be a communal event has been privatised by stealth.
Remembrance Sunday’s meditation of the dreadfulness of war has been replaced by a focus on its inevitability and relentlessness. I find that a troubling shift and an effective takeover by an industry and professional class with an interest in its continuance.
Would I be endorsing all this if I wore a poppy? No, but it’s enough to make me want to abstain for at least one year. I only hope that over the next couple of years we can, as a nation, get our heads together and subvert David Cameron’s Theme Park Centenary with something more sombre – perhaps the cancellation of the Trident replacement? That, at least, would mean something.
Hello? Is this thing still working? Can anyone still hear me?
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.
Much has been made in the media this weekend of the Tories’ secret plan to increase VAT immediately after the election, if they win outright on Thursday. But it is becoming increasingly clear that they have another secret plan they aren’t telling anybody about: a plan to prevent future hung parliaments.
Right or wrong (and all the facts show they are dangerously wrong), one thing that the Tories have made perfectly clear in this election is that they are fundamentally opposed to having to share power with anyone. This of course makes a complete nonsense of the title of their manifesto (“an invitation to join the government of Britain” – have you noticed they are now emphasing not our place in government, but our status as mere contractors with government?), but that’s by the by.
Howver, there are two problems they have. The first one is the dirty little secret that WE ALREADY HAVE a hung parliament, and have had one for years. The House of Lords has been hung since the early noughties. Tory policy is now to “seek consensus” on creating a “substantially elected House of Lords” (presumably under their policy the appointed element will be to ensure the House has a single party majority but they are keeping conspicuously quiet about that) but since they are the only ones who disagree with the consensus that it should be elected using a proportional system, that won’t be achieved any time soon. It is well understood that if the Tories win an outright majority on Thursday, then Lords reform is dead as an issue for the next five years.
That leaves “Dave” with the power to appoint life peers on a whim, and the commitment to prevent hung parliaments. The current House of Lords has 704 members, 188 of whom are Tories. To form a majority and prevent a hung parliament, Cameron’s oft-repeated aim, he will need to appoint at least 300 Tories to the red leather benches.
Where will these 300 people come from? One can assume that a large tranche will be failed Commons candidates, meaning that even if you manage to vote down your local Tory candidate, they will be sitting in the legislature in a matter of weeks. We can also safely assume that they will come from the ranks of the businessmen and millionaires who have been bankrolling their campaign, including this delightful bunch of evangelical Christians.
This hasn’t come from nowhere. Back in October, the Times was openly speculating on the Tories appointing dozens of peers if they won the election before, presumably, such talk got stamped on by Andy Coulson and his close links with News International. But it is clear from the last few weeks that the Tories secret plan goes much, much further than even this.
But believe it or not, it actually gets worse. The biggest problem with the Tories’ war against hung parliaments is that with each election the chances of one forming increases as the country embraces multi-party politics. In 1951, 96.6% of voters supported one of the two main parties. In 2005, that figure was as low as 67.6%. The thing about FPTP is that if the vote share is evenly spread amongst 3 or 4 parties it ceases to return mostly single party majorities and starts becoming scarily random. Fundamentally, we remain stuck in hung parliament territory.
The Tories will be looking at Canada at the moment, which has had three hung parliaments in six years, and realising that even if that doesn’t happen here in 2010, we are heading in that direction. To prevent this, Cameron cannot rely on argument alone, he will have to change the system itself.
That means adopting a similar system to the ones they operate in those great bastions of economic and political stability Greece and Italy whereby the party which wins the largest share of the vote is given a bonus number of seats to ensure that it almost always wins an outright majority. Those bonus MPs would have no constituency and would be only answerable to the party itself. This is what is known as “strong government”.
Think this is fantasy? The Tory rhetoric over the past couple of weeks makes it clear that they will do everything in their power to prevent hung parliaments and having to share power with anyone. Therefore it is inevitable that they will have to adopt both these measures. While I am sure they will claim they have “no plans” to do either of these things, that is what they said about raising VAT.
Fundamentally, can you believe a word any of them say? We need to prevent all this by denying them a victory on Thursday. The polls this Sunday are quite consistent: while Lib Dem support is wavering slightly, we are still in a position to win the biggest share of the vote if the young people who have flocked to us over the last few days turn out rather than staying at home. They aren’t switching to either Labour or the Tories. So let’s get out there and enthuse them.
The Evening Standard and Liberal Vision have been patting Guido Fawkes on the back for observing the uncanny similarity between David Cameron’s latest airbrushed photo and Lt Cmdr Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Only one slight problem with this: Guido actually got the idea from me as I tweeted this observation over a week ago.
Back in the day, Guido used to run a regular feature on diarists who regularly ripped off bloggers. These days of course, Guido is feted by the mainstream media. Fascinating how times have changed.
It is also worth observing that the substance of Angela Harbutt’s blog post is that Jo Swinson is a hypocrite for criticising adverts with airbrushed images of women whilst not criticising Cameron for this blatant act of fakery. Wrong again, I’m afraid, as any twitter search will tell you.
UPDATE: Guido has issued a carefully worded non-denial denial and accused me of “bloggers narcisim” – possibly the most self unaware statement ever uttered on the internet. Just for the record, I don’t expect or demand an acknowledgement – I’m just putting the facts out there. People can draw their own conclusions.
David Cameron and his party have been bending over backwards to tell us how petty and spiteful it is to bring class into politics.
They have a point, up to a point. Certainly the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a dreadful miscalculation by Labour – who, let us not forget, were treating the constituency as an hereditary seat and the idea of someone with the privileged background of Ed Balls claiming to be some kind of latter-day class warrior is just stupid. But regardless of how weak Labour are on the issue, the fact remains that it is primarily the Conservatives who have been making an issue of class in politics in recent years
Where do I start? Clearly there is that single, emblematic tax cut they want to give to all those who stand to gain from hereditary wealth, and in the last week there has been the eye-watering way in which Zac Goldsmith has sought to belittle his own bit of local difficulty by shrugging off a tax saving of £10,000 as if it essentially the same thing as a tenner he might lose down the back of a sofa. This was a highly charged political statement. What he was saying was: “I’m safe and I feel confident enough that I can rub my wealth in your face. What are you going to do about it?” If that isn’t making class an issue, what is?
A few weeks ago, Cameron made the highly controversial statement that what mattered was not the widening gap between rich and poor but the gap between the poor and the “middle” – if that isn’t a statement charged with class consciousness, what is? Again, the fact that Peter Mandelson has been saying essentially the same thing for the past decade and a half, doesn’t exactly help Labour provide a counterpoint to this.
The fox hunting ban is not something I feel particularly strongly about – I view anyone who takes pleasure out of the killing of a wild animal with contempt but there are good reasons for keeping the rural fox population under control and it is an issue that would be better regulated at a local government level in my view. I also feel that the ban hasn’t really worked and that for a lot of the Labour MPs who pushed it through, it really was a class issue. Rather than responding in kind, the Tories tack is instead to emphasise that this is not a class issue but a civil liberties one, whilst simultaneously announcing an intention to limit the right to protest. It is hard to see how legislating on fox hunting could be a priority for any government over the next decade, yet Cameron is determined to do so whilst simultaneously trying to mask it as some kind of march towards freedom. If they weren’t preoccupied with class, it is hard to see why they would be so determined to scrap the ban or to pretend it is about something it blatantly isn’t.
And then there’s this obsession that the Tories have had over the past decade with the social class of John Prescott and Michael Martin. The latter has been particulary interesting. All the time the Tories have been chuckling about the ineptness of “Gorbals Mick” it has emerged that the real Speaker Martin has been bending over backwards to defend the entrenched privilege of MPs – especially the wealthy ones – to trouser hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money in the form of “expenses.” He’s been their most faithful servant, and yet they have bullied him and hurled the most appalling insults at him. It is hard to look at this and not see a resemblance to arrogant Eton schoolboys behaving not like elected politicians but like people who have been born to rule. The only people who turned the expenses issue into the class issue have, consistently, been the Tories and their supporters.
And now we see Eric Pickles entering into that bear pit which is the Conservative attitude to class. Whatever you might think about Pickles, he is a politician with a track record in his own right. Yet what has happened to Pickles under Cameron? Well, he’s reinvented himself as the Tories’ answer to John Prescott. In doing so, he has adopted an avulcular, parodic working class persona which seems to have been plucked wholesale from the Beano circa 1959. Let’s be under no illusions here – this performance has precisly nothing to do with attracting the working class vote. You won’t see him playing up to the camera and mugging about his “chums” on Question Time or the Today Programme. No, it is about giving the party faithful what they want to hear on his regular emails and “war room briefings” in his role as Party Chairman. As far as they are concerned, the acceptable face of the working class appears in charming Ealing Comedies, not on housing estates. The fact that Pickles feels he has to transform himself into some kind of clown in order to keep the party masses happy speaks volumes about the view of class within the Conservatives. Frankly, I await the day before Pickles starts one of his war room briefings with an establishing shot of him showing his prize pet ferret around CCHQ, with all the bright young things around him cooing and stroking the creature. It is only a matter of time, trust me on this.
In short, the one party still obsessed with class in this country are the Conservatives. Frankly, it would be nice if there were a bit more class consciousness within the other two main parties.
(On a personal note, it isn’t that I don’t want to live in a classless, divided society, I really do. It’s just that it is painfully obvious to me that I don’t live in one and that we need to be talking about this much more.)
My first observation was the eagerness that Cameron was to please his Guardianista audience. This is actually the second speech I’ve seen Cameron give in person and it was true when he delivered his speech to the Power Inquiry Conference back in 2006. Certainly he spent a significant amount of time couching what he had to say in fluffy, leftish language and he went down the usual list of name checks to keep everyone happy. That said, there was some meat in what he had to say which should trouble anyone of a left persuasion.
If the reaction to Cameron’s conference speech last month is anything to go by, there are almost certainly some out there saying that this was a speech that Clegg should have made. And in terms of some of the rhetoric, that is certainly true. Indeed, some of the rhetoric was actually borrowed from Clegg. Does this sound familiar to you?
Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life.
I’m not convinced it amounted to a convincing whole however, or that it was especially well thought out.
Two of the first names he was to check were Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and indeed he went on to summarise the whole Spirit Level thesis. For a second this sounded quite exciting – a Tory government committed to reducing income inequality would be something to see. But before we could get our hopes up too high, he went and threw it all away:
We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom.
Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.
Dowhatnow? This simple graph from the Office of National Statistics shows clearly quite how problematic a focus on comparing the poorest incomes with the middle is. As a proportion, the incomes of the middle earners have actually gone down as a proportion over the last thirty years. True the gap between the poorest and the middlest has widened, but only because the poorest have done even worse. You could of course reverse this trend by ensuring that the poorest’s share of the national wealth started declining more slowly than the share of the middle incomers – while the top 20 per cent continued to rake it home.
The other thing you’ll see from this graph is that the reduction in the bottom 60 per cent’s share of national wealth started in 1979. Funny how all these problems that Cameron has summed up with the phrase “Broken Britain” – marriage breakdown, anti-social behaviour, etc. – all seemed to start to exacerbate around then. I suppose it is just possible that the problem was that as the middle got poorer, the poorest got poorer still, but I think it probably has something more to do with the top quintile’s incomes shooting up at everyone else’s expense. That is certainly Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis. Isn’t it funny therefore that in summing up the history of the welfare state, Cameron develops a narrative that starts in the early 30s, progresses through to the War and the founding of the welfare state, reaches 1968… and then zooms forward to 1997. Move along, nothing to see here.
I think I know where this focus on the “middle” comes from. I suspect that Cameron has been reading the same research I have been this summer which suggests that everyone seems to think they earn an average amount. By developing a policy which effectively lets off the top 40% – most of whom assume they are earning only slightly more than average and who will be scared off by talk of actual redistribution – Cameron gets to wear progressive clothes without having to promise any of the pain to the wealthy that goes along with it. It is entirely about playing into the hands of people’s prejudices and salving their consciences. It is less clear what any of it has to do with reducing poverty of social problems.
The Big State
I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s equation of “big state” with “means testing”. Suffice to say, it is nonsense. If you want to get rid of means testing, you have two choices: spend more and create universal benefits or cut those benefits all together. If you do the former then you end up with a “bigger” state. If you do the latter then you shrink the safety net and make the poorest poorer – something which Cameron claims to oppose.
The tax credit system designed by Gordon Brown is a classic example of his doctrine of progressivism by stealth – and a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. The benefit to the poorest is reduced by creating an incredibly complex system and disincentives to work. From the chancellor’s point of view however it is great because it is relatively cheap.
Of course, aside from slamming these disincentives, Cameron has nothing to say about how they should be actually reformed. He wants to increase them for married couples – to bring them in line with single parents – yet surely this would just lead to more welfare dependency (and a larger state), not less? He wants to focus Sure Start on the poorest families – yet surely this suggests more means testing, not less? He wants a pupil premium, but unless he is proposing to pay for it by cutting investment in schools elsewhere, that too would suggest a bigger state. With the exception of making employment benefits and employment services dependent on payment by results, in almost every area Cameron seemed to be calling for both more means testing and more investment.
The Big Society
In the final section of his speech on the “Big Society”, the role of the state seemed to grow still further.
This section was the most intriguing. His argument was that the left want to grow the size of the state while the right want a larger and more vibrant civic society. Is that really the case though? It certainly seems to me that most of the civic republicans throughout history have been on the left, not the right. Even when Cameron talked wistfully about “the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another” he listed “the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” – most of which have their roots in the left and was careful not to mention rather more problematic forms of “mutual aid” such as the workhouses. Throughout the 80s and 90s the Tories were all too eager to see the co-operatives and building societies demutualised. He could also have mentioned trade unions – a system of mutual aid which the Tories have and continue to attack – and mass membership political parties – the club of which the Conservatives only joined in 1999.
In short, yet again, there is a whole narrative here that Cameron left out: that being the sustained attack of the “strong society” waged by the Tories between 1979 and 1997. Tories get terribly upset when you mention that famous quote by Margaret Thatcher, but her actions spoke louder than words. And Cameron’s failure to address this was deafening.
Cameron now recognises there is a role for the state in rebuilding that strong civic culture – and this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m not so sure about what he plans to do however.
His three pronged approach lies in “identifying and working directly with the social entrepreneurs”, “engaging with community activists” and developing “a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.” None of this seems especially well thought out and sounds remarkably similar to the sort of thing Blair was saying in the late 90s. Why should we assume that Cameron’s vagueness will go on to become any more concrete than Blair’s?
What’s more, two phrases set my alarm bells ringing. The first was his suggestion that the state should “franchise” proven social programmes. After EasyBarnet we have McSociety. Can you really reduce every civic minded venture down to a manual and a uniform? Surely, by definition, these initiatives defy mass production? Plenty of organisations have attempted to spread themselves out over the years – what will bad old government be able to do that the social entrepreneurs themselves can’t?
The franchise model seems entirely inappropriate to social enterprises. It suggests a by the numbers approach when what is needed is a careful application of fairly universal organising principles to specific local circumstances. And in what way will these franchises differ from quangoes, those bete noires of the modern Conservative Party? They sound pretty quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisational to me.
The other aspect of all this that made me uncomfortable was Cameron’s vision of social engineering. Of course he didn’t use that term as it is seen as perjorative, but how else do you sum up this “nudge” theory of establishing social norms? Much of what he had to say about developing a broader culture of social engagement seemed to be focused not on creating active citizens but on creating good ones.
It is hard to see what this three week long “National Citizens’ Service” will achieve other than telling “good” 16 year olds how to behave while trying to stop the “bad” kids from sneaking off. What good is three weeks? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting citizenship education right in schools, from 5-18?
Ultimately, can’t we think of a better summary of the sort of stronger society we want to create than the largely tautological “responsibility, mutuality and obligation”? What about interest? What about curiosity? And can any of this be achieved without, at the heart of it, a culture rooted in egalitarianism?
Overall then, what Cameron leaves out in this speech is as interesting as what he actually says. And at the heart of what he does have to say is a profound oxymoron: stronger societies tend to be egalitarian ones precisely because that sense of “them versus us” is diminished. Yet while Cameron recognises the need for a stronger society, he cannot bring himself to embrace equality. And having denied himself a pretty crucial tool to rebuild the “broken” society, the only thing he has left seems to be yet more state intervention.
Do you remember “grammar streaming“? That remarkable non-policy that Cameron came up with in 2007 designed to shut down the spiralling rows over grammar school policy that had been raging throughout the summer? Cameron’s announcement about European Policy today reminded me of that prime example of ridiculousness.
Like grammar streaming it is an attempt to square a circle which a large proportion of his backbenchers, frontbenchers and grassroots are obsessed with beyond all reason, despite the fact that a compromise in this case isn’t really possible. Part of the problem is that the Tory rhetoric about Lisbon for the past four years has been so over the top that lamely muttering “never again” doesn’t begin to rectify things. If the Lisbon Treaty was as bad as they have been claiming it is then the logical course of action is to call for the UK to leave the EU. That they are not tells you everything you need to know about what they really think about how pernicious this treaty really is.
European Treaties consist of rules that we have to live with from the moment they are ratified. They are not mere events. They aren’t a kick in the balls that you feel sore about for a while but which don’t fundamentally change anything. Yet this is how the Conservatives have consistently portrayed them. Maastricht was supposed to be the treaty to usher in the European Superstate. It didn’t happen. Then we were told that the secret plan was in Nice. Didn’t happen. And so we go on, treaty after treaty. Each time the Tories confess quietly that, yes, the last one wasn’t anything like as awful as they had been making out but THIS one on the other hand… it is laughable.
Cameron’s new cast iron guarantee appears to consist of two legislative steps: first, they will pass a law asserting Parliamentary sovereignty. Second, they will amend the European Communities Act 1972 to prohibit the further “transfer of power to the EU” without a referendum.
The first one is interesting because Bill Cash attempted to introduce precisely this rule into the Lisbon Treaty bill last year. Cameron – and most of the Conservative Party – abstained. So this is another EU-turn. But they had good reason to abstain – Cash’s amendment was meaningless. Parliamentary sovereignty has always been a mythological concept, as evidenced by the fact that the executive in this country wields enormous royal prerogative powers. The Tories may now want to shave off the worst excesses of the royal prerogative, but they have shown no sign of ending them. In particular they haven’t called for the government’s treaty-making powers to be invested in Parliament. Laws such as the Treaty of Lisbon Act are really just niceties – there is nothing to stop the government from ratifying treaties without Parliament. And indeed they do in the case of less controversial treaties.
One thing you can’t do is call for Parliamentary sovereignty with one hand and then demand popular referendums to ratify EU treaties with the next. Unless, it seems, you happen to be David Cameron (to be fair, most of the Conservative Party thinks the same thing). In any case, what does this pledge mean in practice? Under Lisbon, the European Council can make all sorts of changes without going as far as agreeing another treaty as long as all the member states agree. If Cameron agrees to one of these cosy little deals will he subject it to a referendum vote, or claim that it doesn’t count because it isn’t in a treaty? And what does “transfering power to the EU” mean anyway? We have done no such thing. We’ve pooled sovereignty which is a very different thing. Once again, that appears to give him a lot of wriggle room.
What is so special about European treaties anyway? If, heaven forbid, the Copenhagen talks result in a radical global commitment to reducing carbon emissions, it will have a profound effect on UK law. We will in effect be ceding our power to set energy and environmental policy for decades to come. It will be far more profound in practice than Lisbon. Will Cameron therefore be demanding a referendum on it (I right this as someone who thinks it might not actually be a bad idea as it would force the country as a whole to contemplate the crisis we face)? What about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, due for renegotiation in the next couple of years? Is there a more profound impact on our sovereignty than security issues?
The whole thing smacks of style over substance and an attempt to buy a handful of naturally very angry people off. What I don’t understand is why it all seems to have been written on the back of a fag packet. Cameron must have known he was going to have to come up with a Plan B this summer as the opinion polls made the Irish “yes” win look increasingly likely. Yet he carried on pretending that the Lisbon Treaty was dying. The decision to promote Dan Hannan was especially surprising given the whole NHS debacle. He knew Hannan was a loose cannon and one who was causing him grief at the time. He knew Hannan would rather garotte himself than accept a U-turn on Lisbon. Yet he appointed him anyway, with predictable results.
I think Cameron will be a disastrous Prime Minister if he gets the chance: another Tony Blair but without the steel. His photo in the Guardian yesterday summed it up perfectly, something which Alastair Campbell has been mercilessly taking the mickey out of. It really is the most excrutiating photo of Cameron since That Bullingdon group shot. Here is a man who clearly puts more thought into his image than into his policies. The result is that both end up pretty laughable.
And yet, and yet… Gordon Brown is so spectacularly awful and incompetent that none of this seems to matter much. Despite the fact that UKIP will be having a field day trying to extract as much support from Eurosceptic Tories as they can on polling day, it probably won’t be enough. As with grammar streaming, the loony wing seem to have been largely bought off with this vague assortment of half promises and purple rhetoric. It certainly looks at the moment as if a sizeable chunk (by no means a majority) of the British public have made their mind up that they want Cameron as the next Prime Minister. I’m pretty sure they will shortly repent, but there doesn’t seem to be any telling them.
Mr Klaus, the sole remaining leader in the European Union not to have signed the document, conceded that despite his personal opposition to the treaty, it was now too late to stop it.
He also dismisssed speculation that he would try to hold off formally signing the document after the forthcoming British general election next year. Such a move would pave the way for a future Conservative government to hold a referendum on the treaty, which could derail the entire plan if it delivered a “No” vote. But Mr Klaus said: “I will not and cannot wait for the British election. They would have to hold it in the coming days or weeks.”
I’ve been travelling back from my short break in North Yorkshire today but I have a headache. Tories have been blowing into dog whistles all day and the tinny noise has been reverberating from as far away as Whitby.
For years now, this blog has been reminding readers that the problem with Cameron is not Cameron per se but the fact that he doesn’t have any control of his party; indeed, the party has control of him. And that party is, to put it politely, out of control. As it stands, even when the CCHQ says one thing, there are enough hints and suggestions out there to make it clear that it simply isn’t going to pan out like that. I offer you two (and a half) bits of evidence from the past 48 hours:
Firstly, this John Bercow business. There is an interesting debate to be had about how the Lib Dems should respond*, but for the Tories their recourse should be obvious for four reasons. Firstly, Bercow is a Tory MP, for good or ill. They didn’t kick him out and he didn’t defect – in any respectable party that has to count for something. Secondly, as the party which has always positioned itself as the defender of Parliamentary convention, to oppose Bercow would be to politicise the role of the speaker to an intolerable level. Thirdly, allowing UKIP a foot in the door to the House of Commons will have consequences that the Conservative Party would be better off not having to live with. Broadly speaking, the Tories can afford to triangulate the anti-Europe right in General Elections for the simple reason that they have nowhere to go – just as Labour has successively triangulated the far left for two decades now. Once UKIP start getting MPs however, this all changes. Fourthly, as Farage himself happily acknowledges, he is the king of sleaze.
Yet this doesn’t appear to be happening. Jonathan Calder offers a good summary of the initial bloggers’ reaction to Farage’s decision to oppose Bercow yesterday. But the support seems to go much higher than just a bunch of rabid bloggers. Tim Montgomerie reported this morning that someone from CCHQ had effectively given a green light for Tories to support Farage, claiming that because Bercow wouldn’t be an official Tory candidate CCHQ would turn a blind eye. Eventually an official statement from the party contradicted this but it took them six whole hours to put it out.
Clearly the people that Eric Pickles likes to call the “boys and girls” at CCHQ have been feeling conflicted and decided to leave Bercow on the dangle for nearly two days before lending him his support. Conservative Home’s new poll suggesting that 64% of Tory members would prefer Farage over Bercow. If two-thirds of Labour members in 1997 had said they’d like a chance of electing, say, Arthur Scargill you can bet the Tories would have made something of it.
Secondly, we have Dan Hannan’s mysterious promotion. It is one thing for Cameron to try to disown Hannan as an eccentric on the fringe of the party, quite another if just weeks after causing him so many problems Hannan gets a fat reward. Hannan flexed his muscles this summer and it was Cameron who flinched, just as we saw back in 2007 when for a time the only thing resembling a Conservative Party policy on education was support for something called “grammar streaming.”
With all that said, if Malthouse and Johnson want to claim responsibility for the Met over the last year, then they are the ones we have to blame for the appalling behaviour of the police back in April. If this is the sort of policing we are to see under a Tory government then we have good reason to be fearful.
All in all, what we are looking at is a Conservative Party that is very different to the one being projected by David Cameron. This is very different to the situation in 1997 when we faced a New Labour government with a firm grip on the remaining Old Labour rump. The electorate might think it is voting for a warm, fluffy, “progressive” party but what it will get is a fairly ravenous beast. The clues are all there, the headbangers are telling anyone who will listen and the Tory leadership are frankly indulging them in a hope that they don’t get their heads bitten off. The problem is, Labour has done such a poor job over the past couple of years, and the Lib Dems have failed to spell out enough of an alternative, that to a large extent I suspect that enough of the electorate is in the mood to vote the Tories in now and repent at leisure.
* I’ve given this some thought today and while I think fielding a candidate is certainly not something I would automatically rule out, I’m not currently persuaded that it would be a good idea. We could never afford to target it to the extent that UKIP will be able to (we’ll have considerably more target seats) and a half-hearted campaign will only serve to make Farage more credible. Things might change – if Bercow really looked like a dead duck we might have to reconsider – and I certainly agree that any party which supports democratic reform shouldn’t be too deferential to existing Parliamentary conventions (the existing convention couldn’t operate under a PR system in any case), but at the moment there seem to be far more cons than pros.
David Cameron’s big speech about democratic reform is most notable for its chutzpah. Like Jack Straw, a man whom Cameron has seemingly impressed, he has managed to make a speech saying very little fool journalists into thinking he is being radical. It doesn’t say much for the state of modern journalists that they are impressed by proposals to send out text messages about legislation; it should have been laughed out of court for being the modern equivalent of John Major’s Cones Hotline.
To the surprise of precisely no-one, Cameron has drawn the line at electoral reform. In doing so however, he repeats a number of canards that I have to say I am sick of having to rebut every time these bozos repeat them:
The principle underlying all the political reforms a Conservative government would make is the progressive principle of redistributing power and control from the powerful to the powerless. PR would actually move us in the opposite direction, which is why I’m so surprised it’s still on the wish-list of progressive reformers. Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites. Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver transparency and trust?
This is utter nonsense from beginning to end. It does, to be fair, depend on the electoral system. If Cameron were to use this as a reason for ruling out the Additional Member System or Closed Lists, that would be fair enough. But of course, first past the post is a closed list system. In an FPTP election, electors are not given a choice of candidates. Primaries are all very well, expanding the level of engagement in candidate selection by, at maximum, a few more hundred people per constituency, but the candidates are still vetted by party headquarters.
Only electoral systems that offer voters a choice of candidates within a single political party give the voter greater control. And what are reformers calling for at the moment? AV+ and STV – both of which satisfy that criteria. So what is Cameron objecting to exactly?
He might be objecting to the way, where no single party has a majority in parliament, parties must negotiate to form a coalition or other working relationship. It doesn’t happen automatically – as the Scottish Parliament currently exemplifies – but coalitions are certainly more common under proportional voting systems.
But does that hand power to ‘elites’ or to the public? What is more open and transparent: the difficult and fraught negotiation process that happened in Cardiff Bay in 2007 or the behind-closed-doors Warwick Agreement thrashed out within the Labour Party before the 2005 general election? The process that lead to a Lab-Lib Scottish government in 1999 and 2003 or the ridiculous internal bunfight within the Conservative Party in 2006 that lead to Cameron’s laughable opposition to Grammar Schools but support for something called “grammar streaming” (three years on, and I still don’t understand what that meant).
The fact is, if you have politics dominated by hegemonic parties more decisions – not less – get made in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. With coalition talks, the media tends to cover the negotiations blow-by-blow, warts and all. That is openness. Private chats in the tearoom are the very opposite.
More to the point though, no-overall control is not a unique phenomenon to PR systems. In local government it is quite common. In Canada, which also uses FPTP, the last three general elections have resulted in a balanced Parliament. Worse for Cameron, as the level of support for the big two parties declines, the likelihood of balanced parliaments massively increases.
Academics talk about a thing called the “effective number of parties.” In the UK, we have an ENP in Parliament of 2.5 but an ENP in terms of vote share of 3.6. That is an alarmingly high missmatch and as the disparity increases the chances of no-overall control increases accordingly. If the ENP in terms of vote share reaches 4, according to Josep Colomer anyway, “maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent ruling party” – essentially they lose any real claim of having a mandate (see Helen Margetts’ chapter on Electoral Reform in Unlocking Democracy for more on this). If an election were held tomorrow, it would almost certainly push us over ENP 4. In 2010 it may well happen anyway.
In short, a lot of the objections Cameron and others have to PR apply to FPTP in a multi-party system anyway.
Another common canard was expressed by David Hughes in The Telegraph yesterday when he claimed that “The problem for the PR zealots is that there’s no public appetite for it.” Actually, that isn’t a problem for us. The public consistently support electoral reform in opinion polls, the last State of the Nation poll being a case in point. True, they aren’t manning the barricades for reform at the moment, but you would have to be blind, deaf and brain dead to be unaware of the fact that the public are fundamentally disatisfied with a political system that doesn’t listen to them. If that were the case though, why not go along with the call for a referendum? If the Tories are so confident that no-one wants electoral reform, what are they worried about?