Tag Archives: david-cameron

Is an honest debate on electoral reform possible?

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?

My name… is Victor*

Reading the latest issue of Tripwire this weekend, I spotted this little morsel in an interview with Paul “Human Nature” Cornell about his comic book series Captain Britain and MI-13:

Tripwire: Placing it in that context lead to a cameo appearance from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. I heard that there was also going to be a cameo from Opposition leader David Cameron, but my understanding is that this isn’t happening now.

Paul Cornell: My plan was to portray him in a favourable light. Basically, he was going to be meeting with Dracula on the Moon and Dracula was going to say, ‘If you do this tiny thing for me, then I will use my influence in Britain to get you elected.’ And we’d have Cameron saying, ‘Yes, yes, I will think about your proposal. That sounds great.’ And then going home and immediately calling MI-13. But the lawyers said that even for a couple of pages the slightest possible hint that a real figure might be doing something bad wasn’t allowable. The only way that we could have Gordon Brown in there [in an early issue] was tyhat he was being thoroughly heroic. That applies to the use of all real figures in Marvel really.

All well and good, but I also picked up a copy of Captain Britain and MI-13 issue 10 today. In it, Count Dracula talks with another character about plotting to bring down the UK government. On the moon (this is clearly where all top level business meetings take place). And that character? The Fantastic Four’s arch nemesis Doctor Victor Von Doom.

Clearly Marvel Comics seem to think that Cameron and Doctor Doom are essentially interchangeable characters. The question is: what do they know that we don’t?

* And yes, I am deeply sad for quoting an obscure Prince (or rather, squiggle) album.

When is a wunch not a wunch?

Courtesy of David Cameron this week, we now know there are two types of city financier.

The first, epitomised by Sir James Crosby, is the sort of shyster that only a Prime Minister with a serious lack of judgement would dream of putting in a senior role.

The second, epitomised by Sir David Freud, is “a hugely impressive figure” worthy of an insta-peerage (this is the new type of peerage introduced in 2006 where party leaders get to magically give people a lifetime seat in the legislature for doing something Important – such as accepting a job or defecting. If you struggle to recall when the public debate for this new type of appointment took place, forget it, it didn’t happen).

Of course, this is the same Sir David Freud who brags about the misselling of Eurotunnel shares as “successfully [selling] the market a pup.” Who went on to do it all over again over Railtrack.

Anyone else struggling to tell the difference?

Cutting tax is not a zero sum game

I’m cautiously optimistic about the rumoured plan of a 2.5% drop in VAT. It sounds like a good move to me, for several reasons.

One thing a VAT cut won’t do is lead automatically to a reduction in prices. Most food isn’t VAT-rated and it is hard to believe that a CD priced £9.99 this week will be priced £9.78 next week. However, taken together those 11ps start to add up. At the top end of the scale, being able to shave a bit more off the asking price for that plasma screen might just make the difference between whether it sells or not. If spending on the high street is down a couple of percentage points, dropping VAT by about the same amount could save real jobs. That means more people paying NI and income tax (and VAT) and fewer people claiming JSA. Looking it in that way, we have to ask ourselves the question: would it cost the Treasury more or less to keep VAT at 17.5%?

Gideon Osborne is not this blog’s favourite Shadow Chancellor, but I will give him credit for one thing: he has managed to get the media to completley buy into his claim that tax cuts now – any tax cuts – will automatically lead to paying a greater price in the longer term. The truth is much more complicated than that. VAT is a deadweight cost – a tax on commerce which is generally seen as a good thing. In my personal utopia, we wouldn’t have it in the first place. Dropping it at the start of a downturn has a real chance of softening the landing. It isn’t a magic feather, and there is certainly a point where the cost of dropping it outweighs the benefit, but it is a practical measure.

Vince Cable has broadly welcomed it, while emphasising the Lib Dem’s own policy for a tax switch (both policies are compatible). Cameron and Osborne have rubbished it. That should surprise no-one because VAT is the tax of choice for the Conservatives. It was Mrs T’s favourite tax. Raising it still further was one of Norman Lamont’s first acts as Chancellor. Ken Clarke, keen not to be outdone, expanded it to gas and electricity (Clarke has now come out as a VAT-cutter, suggesting his common sense now outweighs his dogma). Tory ginger group Direct Democracy – the closest the Conservatives get to genuine localists – envisage a world where council tax will be replaced by, you guessed it, a sales tax.

Once you remember that the Conservatives are not a pro-business party but a pro-entitlement party, it is easy to see why: piling the VAT on the proles means that you don’t have to pay for things by taxing unearned wealth. So for future Baronet Gideon Osborne to recoil at the merest suggestion is no surprise. The only tax cuts he will consider are on things like inheritence tax for millionaires.

The Tories have decided they are back in 1992, and have relaunched their “tax bombshell” posters. Labour should follow suit. Anyone remember VATman?

Is George Osborne Cameron’s Mandy?

How much longer can George Osborne hold on as Shadow Chancellor? Now is not the time for a flyweight to be in charge of the Tory’s economic policy, not least one who thinks that the best way to stop a “house burning down” is to “fix the roof.”

Today’s revelation by Nathaniel Rothschild that Osborne not only attended the legendary dinner with Peter Mandelson and Oleg Deripaska but that he solicited a donation from the man, could just be the final nail in the coffin. At the same time it smacks of poetic justice – it was Osborne who began this whole cycle of events by making indiscreet comments about a private dinner he had had with Mandelson in the first place.

Osborne has form with this sort of thing as well. Pretty much every time he opens his mouth he attempts to lower political debate to the level of the school playground, whether he is whinging about Gordon Brown snubbing him or making snide remarks about Gordon Brown being autistic. This sort of thing gets him headlines but I don’t think earns him much respect. That is probably at least partially why journalists have been so happy to leak him as the Mandelson “source” in the first place.

Osborne deserves a lot of credit for helping to detoxify the Tory brand with Cameron. As a marketing strategy, their’s has been near flawless. The problem has always been with the substance (and I’m not talking about the Class A Cameron may or may not have put up his nose before becoming an MP). The deliberate strategy to be policy-lite has broadly worked, but the wunch crunch changes all that. The Tories need a heavyweight leading their Treasury team, a Letwin or a Willetts, or their current wobble in the polls may start to become a southbound trend.

Let’s not forget about Caroline Spelman either by the way. The Parliamentary investigation about her nanny is still ongoing, and while I was one of the first to defend her, but things seem to have got much murkier since then. If this comes to the surface once again while the Osborne stink is still lingering, the Tories could have a full scale crisis on their hands. The received wisdom seems to be to replace her as quickly as possible with Eric Pickles. If that happens it will be interesting, as Pickles has a big mouth which could cause him all sorts of problems.

And then there is Cameron himself. As this blog has repeatedly noted, he has a tendency to capitulate rather than confront. Blair was a thousand times more ruthless and even he balked at sacking Mandelson. Both times. What all this seems to add up to is the makings of a political storm. That assumption that the next election is already in the bag may yet prove to be premature.

Eee, those slippery Tories.

I’m still seething after Cameron’s speech on Friday. Coming in late, I won’t rant on redundantly except to add a couple of points:

1) Sometimes soundbites can bite you on the bum. Gideon Osborne on the Today programme on Friday managed to claim that a) it was time to question how the “house caught fire” and b) that Labour “didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining.” Now, I may not know much about housing, but I am unaware of how a lack of roof could cause a house to catch fire. This may sound a rather pedantic point, but it does seem that during a time of crisis all we are getting from the Tory front bench is pat phrases.

2) The Tories have chosen this moment because they judge the immediate crisis to be over. In the City maybe, but the rest of the country has barely begun to feel the after effects. It speaks volumes that politicians, and the Tories in particular, only judge it necessary to put on a show of unity for the City and not the rest of the country. It shows who they consider their true masters to be.

3) Crude is now cheaper than it was 12 months ago, and half what it was in July. Back then, when the market cost was high, the Tories were offering to “share the pain” and cut fuel duty. The quid pro quo was that when the price of crude was low, they would raise taxes. So why aren’t they calling for increases now? Doesn’t this show the vacuousness of their policy in the first place?

Is groupthink really the correct response to financial meltdown?

David Cameron has announced his party will work with the government to tackle the continuing financial turbulence, whatever that means. Nick Clegg has apparently said much the same.

But is this really the correct response? There are certain instances – for example when the country is physically under threat at a time of war – when suspending party politics may be a good idea. But outside of such extreme cases, when has cross-party co-operation ever lead to good policy?

In the immediate aftermath of 7/7 and 9/11, opposition parties agreed to “work with the government” – the result has been a massive curtailment of civil liberties which continues unabated. Even though the opposition parties quickly regained their senses and resumed scrutiny of legislation relatively quickly, the agenda of detention without charge, identity cards and even internment was set. 2005’s “compromise” of setting detention without charge at 28 days was in many ways a tactical defeat on the part of civil libertarians.

Rolling further back, we have legislation such as the Dangerous Dogs Act – initiated due to a nation-wide panic. This is widely cited as a brilliant example of how badly Parliament can get things wrong, yet isn’t the ground being laid for similar poor groupthink?

It strikes me there is a massive ideological debate to be having at the moment. Outside of Parliament, the Keynsians are having a resurgence. But with all three parties signed up to a monetarist agenda and the drawbridge being self-consciously drawn up, will they even be heard? Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this or that economic society, surely at a time of FAIL we should be encouraging debate in an open society not battening down the hatches? It’s also pretty meaningless with Labour holding a majority in the Commons. Sure, the other parties have some influence in the Lords but it is distinctly limited.

So I’m afraid to say I’m quite, quite wary of this latest development. It is time for a massive ideological punch up in the Houses of Parliament not a group hug. The fact that this is the automatic reaction to every reaction suggests that our political system itself is broken in a way that isn’t the case even in the US.

Come on Nick, this is your big chance: don’t throw it away because of a desire to be establishment!

Was Monday the beginning of the end of the Cameron bubble?

By rights, it should have been. The Tories are in a total mess over the economy. I have to admit, I held my peace on Sunday over this idea about having the Bank of England step in when banks get in trouble. It sounded pretty much identical to what the government is doing now, only with even less oversight, but I felt that I must have been missing something obvious. 36 hours of listening to the empty soundbites emanating from the mouths of Cameron and Osborne and I can safely say it is every bit as vacuous a policy as I thought it was.

Ditto this idea for an Office for Budget Responsibility. We live in an era where the government ignores its own watchdog regarding compensating the people caught up in the Equitable Life scandal; why should they worry about another quango wagging its finger at it?

This issue also threatens to divide the party. Hardliners are unlikely to take this lying down. At a stroke, Osborne has directly contradicted two of the main principles behind Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell’s much vaunted “plan” – specifically:

* Devolving power to the lowest practicable level
* Replacing the quango state with genuine democracy

Quangos are now the panacea for everything while localism has been completely abandoned. As Carswell and Hannan like to remind people, they speak for a growing number of Tories these days, Tories who thought all that stuff about Cameron representing a new kind of Conservativism actually meant something. All that has been trashed now.

I actually got it wrong yesterday. I assumed that the Tories would underwrite a council tax freeze if inflation was running at 4-5%. Inflation may well be at that point if the Tories seize power at the next election (I hope not, but a massive interest rate cut now looks likely), yet Osborne only committed himself to a 2.5% freeze and even that was contingent on local authorities making cuts in their own public spending. So he isn’t willing to commit to public spending cuts at a national level but he is willing to impose them on perhaps the most efficient arm of the state, local government. Clue, anyone?

But perhaps the greatest indictment of the Tories on Monday was the video below. Highly reminiscent of Spinal Tap (note the shots of people sleeping during the speech – approx 1 min into the video), Osborne and Cameron manage to come across as feckless amateurs who are treating the whole thing like a jolly lark:

Seriously. Does anyone watch that video and not think “novices”?

See also: Sara Bedford, Jackie Ashley.

Boris Johnson: taking the piff

What on Earth is happening in City Hall? If you want to know if a ship is seaworthy, look at which way the rats are running. It doesn’t look good.

Today’s latest debacle suggests that he is rapidly turning into the liability for David Cameron that some of us predicted he would be:

He wrote: “If you believe the politicians, we have a broken society, in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness.

“And if you look at what is happening at the Beijing Olympics, you can see what piffle that is.”

But there is only one politician out there at the moment claiming we have a “broken society” – David Cameron. To claim this is not a criticism of his party leader, as Johnson has insisted is simply ridiculous. Or, to use David Cameron’s own terminology: “It was a lie and it was treating people like fools.

Of course, in Boris Johnson’s case, “piffle” is quite literally his middle name (okay, almost – don’t spoil the gag!). Speaking about the Petronella Wyatt scandal, which ended up being true, he had this to say:

I have not had an affair with Petronella. It is complete balderdash. It is an inverted pyramid of piffle. It is all completely untrue and ludicrous conjecture. I am amazed people can write this drivel.

So it is perhaps not the best word he could have chosen to use to keep him out of trouble.

Nasty party after all…

I know I seem to be earning a reputation as a bit of a Clegg basher at the moment, but I am a bear of very little significance. Compare this with David Cameron’s latest jibe:

Asked for his favourite political joke: “[Lib Dem leader] Nick Clegg, at the moment.”

Classy. This is a quote from a book which, on the basis of the selected quotes the Beeb as listed and the write up on Amazon, seems to be drenched in hubris – something you would expect considering the author is a lifestyle journalist and editor of a glorified lads mag. I’m surprised he didn’t call it, without irony, “My Struggle.”

To be fair, at around this time in the run up to the 1997 General Election, similar books about Tony Blair began to dribble out and it didn’t do him any harm. But the effect of books such as The Blair Revolution was to make Blair look statesmanlike. I’m not sure that publishing a hagiography filled with invective and written by a regular on I <3 The 1980s will have the same effect.