Tag Archives: parliament

Nick Clegg: well hung?

I meant to report back from the “Tribes or Causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” session at the Fabian conference last week but, as you may have noticed, I’m not exactly blog-heavy at the moment and time has moved on.

It left me in two minds. On the one hand, a clear consensus for political reform emerged on the platform. All four speakers (which in addition to Evan Harris included David Babbs from 38 Degrees, Will Straw from Left Foot Forward and Jessica Asato from Progress) seemed to agree on the need for a more proportional voting system (note: not AV), the Wright Commission proposals and the importance of internal party democracy. On the other hand, it is fairly safe to say that this is not only not a consensus position within Labour itself, but in all three cases is a position that is being actively opposed by the Labour Party at the most senior level at the moment (in the case of the Wright Commission proposals, if I hear Harriet Harman coming up with yet another weasily formulation for why she can’t simply say if she supports them or not, I may have to start causing somebody grevious bodily harm).

And this, in a nutshell, is why Labour supporters can’t and won’t get the Lib Dems to come out and announce their intention to support Labour in the event of a hung parliament*. The fact that Nick Clegg won’t say this causes a lot of Labourites much consternation. James Macintyre, who asked Evan a particularly sappy question about equidistance at the Fabian conference, has written about this in the New Statesman this week, suggesting there is something of a split amongst senior Lib Dem figures on the topic. Over at Tribune, Ian Hernon prefers to simply heap ordure on Clegg.

The simplistic analysis, as advanced by Darrell Goodliffe (who has recently defected from the Lib Dems to Labour), is that Clegg secretly wants to sidle the Lib Dems up to David Cameron and negotiate a deal to form a Lib-Con coalition government. Exhibit A in this case is Clegg’s repeated statement that, in the case of a hung parliament, he would acknowledge that whichever party had the biggest mandate would have “the first right to seek to govern”.

Yet, while this is bandied about as a veritable smoking gun on a proverbial grassy knoll, and while I am not exactly known to be Clegg’s most uncritical of friends, I just don’t see it. James MacIntyre is simply talking balls to suggest that the by adopting this stance, Clegg is pretending the Lib Dems do not have more in common with Labour than the Tories. Clegg himself could not have been clearer in his Demos pamphlet last year when he stated that Labour were rivals whilst the Tories were the traditional foe. The Lib Dems haven’t had a policy of “equidistance” since the mid-nineties. And note that Clegg has very carefully stated that the party with the biggest mandate only has dibs on the right to seek to govern. That is a very qualified statement. It doesn’t commit the Lib Dems to doing anything other than to try to advance its agenda as much as possible. Far from being unprincipled, as Ian Hernon suggests, this is about advancing the Lib Dems principles as much as possible. While I would be the first to acknowledge that Nick Clegg has nursed some curious delusions over the last couple of years, there is simple no way it has escaped his attention that majority of his parliamentary party would simply not accept a coalition with the Tories unless they made some pretty phenomenal concessions. And finally, there is the simple observation that Clegg’s dislike for Cameron is visceral and personal. Partly that is because so many lazy commentators have drawn lazy comparisions between the two, which he has understandably sought to rebut. But a lot of his criticisms of Cameron hold water: it is the case that while Thatcher was at her height, Clegg was working for people like Christopher Hitchens while Cameron was sliding into a government job. Clegg has defined himself as an internationalist in terms of both his career path, his background and even his family life; Cameron is a little Englander to the core.

So, bearing all that in mind, why doesn’t Clegg just do the decent thing and admit that the only likely partner in the case of a hung parliament is Labour? I would have thought that to Labour supporters, steeped as they are in trade unionism (ha ha), that would be obvious: you don’t begin negotiations by giving up your bargaining position. If the Lib Dems were to start openly ruling out a deal with the Tories, all pressure on Brown to begin conceding ground to the more liberal wing of his party would be lost and the Tory accusation that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour would have far greater force. In essence, the Lib Dems would become pawns in a bipartisan bunfight and all hope of carving out a distinctive agenda would be lost.

But it would ignore certain other political realities. Speaking personally, it will surprise no-one to know that I would really like to see a Lib-Lab coalition and see this as a positive way of moving forward after years of drift and in the face of a Tory party which is nothing like as reconstituted as it claims to be. But I fear that my own price would be too high for the Labour Party to be prepared to pay. It would involve them shifting so much ground in terms of civil liberties and democratic reform that I can’t see it happening for the foreseeable future. And even then, I can’t see how the Lib Dems could practically enter a government lead by Gordon Brown, the most incompetent leader this country has had in my lifetime by a comfortable margin. If I feel that way, you can bet it is a problem for Nick Clegg even more.

I think it is highly doubtful that, in the event of a hung parliament, any coalition government will be forthcoming. Neither Labour nor the Tories have shown any real interest in hinting what they would be prepared to compromise on; understandably so. Labour’s dithering and navel gazing over whether or not to support the Alternative Voting system shows them up to be appalling potential partners. Currently, it looks as if it will amount to little more than a manifesto commitment to a referendum, and we know how much Labour manifesto commitments for referendums are worth (not much). Even if they did legislate for it, it doesn’t particularly get us anywhere. While it is possible that the Lib Dems will settle for AV (indeed, several Lib Dem parliamentarians would prefer it if we did), it is more likely it will be up for negotiation. In that sense, the Labour MPs who fear that AV is the thin end of the PR-wedge are correct.

The current political system in Westminster is not designed for coalition government; indeed many elements are specifically designed to prevent them. I suspect that the most likely scenario is that, after much negotiating, either Labour or the Tories formed a minority government and a fresh election was called within two years. What is more interesting is what would happen then. If a single winner emerges then clearly it will be business as usual. But if the public votes for another hung parliament then the stakes would be considerably higher and the chances of a formal coalition will significantly increase.

There is of course the argument that a long period of political instability would panic the markets (as if they need any help). But in such a scenario, it becomes no more incumbant on the Lib Dems to be part of a coalition as it would be for Labour and the Tories to come together, as Martin Kettle has pointed out. Both Tory and Labour supporters scoff at this idea, yet no one seems capable of explaining why the Lib Dems should be more prepared to sacrifice principle in the name of pragmatism than any other party. Either a hung parliament is the sort of apocalyptic scenario foretold by people such as Ken Clarke, or it isn’t.

In short, if we do end up in a hung parliament situation, all bets are off. It is ludicrious to try framing the debate in terms of whether the Lib Dems would do a deal with Labour and/or the Tories; any number of alternative scenarios might arise. Expecting the Lib Dems to painstakingly spell out their terms in advance of an election is therefore mere cant, especially when it comes (as it usually does) from people who aren’t prepared to do so themselves and do not criticise Brown and Cameron equally for not doing likewise. But it looks set to continue with the launch of Charter 2010, a new website which is dedicated to making the prospect of a hung parliament the number one election issue. Can you think of anything worse? Endless chin scratching speculation about something that has a good chance of not happening, lead by David Owen – the man who wrote the book (both figuratively and literally) on political egomania – it would redefine voter apathy.

I would politely suggest that speculation on this topic should be suspended until after the election and to instead focus on what the various parties do and don’t stand for. I know it is futile of me to do so, but I can try. But if you do insist on playing this game, then please start by telling me what you think your side should be bringing to the table instead of demanding that my party does all the heavy lifting for you. Cheers.

* I appreciate that “hung parliament” is a pejorative term and that “parliament with no single party with a workable majority” is more neutral, but it is useful shorthand.

Debut Boo on the most important thing you’ve never heard of that Parliament is debating this week

My nice shiny new iPod has inspired me to give podcasting a go. My first “boo” is on Local Spending Reports – the most important thing you’ve never heard of that Parliament will be debating this week.

Listen!

It is very rough and ready (you don’t need to listen to the last 30 seconds – there’s nothing there apart from a cough) but I guess you’ve got to start somewhere.

Incidently, you can check to see if your MP is currently supporting LSRs by going here: http://edmi.parliament.uk/EDMi/EDMDetails.aspx?EDMID=38168 – if they aren’t then phone/email them on Wednesday and demand that they do so!

MPs just “don’t get” the minimum wage

David Wilshire has been hilariously telling any journalist who will listen that his £65,000 annual salary is “dangerously close to the minimum wage” – which means that he must be working a 30 hours a day, 7 days a week (or 24 hours a day, 9 days a week – take your pick). But he isn’t the only MP who doesn’t seem to know at what level the minimum wage is set at.

Throughout the week there have been noises off about Sir Thomas Legg’s retrospective limit of £2,000 a year to claim on cleaning, with MPs and trade unionists claiming that it would mean MPs being forced to pay their cleaners less than “a decent living wage.” As is the nature of such things, this “well known fact” has started to get parroted in passing uncritically.

This being British journalism, no journo I have come across has yet had the wherewithall to sit down with a calculator for five minutes to determine the veracity of that fact but it isn’t exactly difficult. First of all, what is a living wage? Well, the London Living Wage, as supported by trade unions, is £7.60 an hour. In my unforgiveably middle class household, we pay our cleaner £9.50. From my straw poll of people I know, rates paid have varied significantly. The most I’ve been heard about is £15, which is apparently the going rate in Kensington.

Let’s assume £15 an hour, which is roughly double the living wage and which amounts to more than I earnt when I started my current job even taking into account national insurance (in fact it’s more than I currently earn, but then I’m down to a four day week these days). Let’s also assume that MPs second home is, at most, a two bedroom flat (that’s a reasonable assumption isn’t it? Second homes are meant to be boltholes, not luxurious family homes. Luxurious family homes are first homes, unless you’re on the fiddle).

It takes five hours to fully clean our four bedroom home here; no-one I know with a flat pays their cleaner for more than two hours to clean it. So, even assuming the £15 hourly rate, that would cost MPs £30 a week, or £1,560. And that’s assuming they use a cleaner 52 weeks of the year – despite the fact that for much of the year they will presumably not be using their London-based flat as Parliament will be in recess.

So, after all that, can anyone explain to me how trade unions of all people have managed to establish that £2,000 is too low a limit to spend on cleaning? The problem, I suspect, is that the people at the top of trade unions these days are about as in touch with the reality of peoples’ daily lives as, well, David Wilshire. Unlike the average MP, they don’t even hold weekly surgeries. The rot in the political class is not limited to Parliament.

Revolution! MPs to question ministers shocker!!!!

I’m sure all the people involved are well meaning but there is something soul destryoing about this story on the front page of the Guardian today:

Lord Mandelson is set to make history by becoming the first cabinet minister from the House of Lords in modern times to answer questions in the Commons.

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, is planning to use his mandate as a moderniser to break centuries of tradition which have kept the Commons and Lords apart in an attempt to make ministers who sit in the upper house accountable to MPs.

Nicholas Watt goes on to describe, in miniscule detail, how the convention that MPs never talk to ministers sitting in “the other place” might be allowed to address the House of Commons (note how he writes all this down, seemingly irony free, yet can’t even grasp a basic fact such as whether the Alternative Vote system is proportional or not – it isn’t just MPs who are the problem here). As long as they don’t cross the bar, they’re safe. One can only speculate what might happen if the big toe of an ennobled minister were to inadvertantly slip over the line. Chaos! Apocalypse! Revolution!

For some reason I am reminded of Egon Spengler’s grave warning in Ghostbusters not to “cross the streamers” – of course at the end of the film it becomes necessary to do that to prevent the end of the world. Somehow I suspect Peter Mandelson setting foot in the House of Commons won’t be anything like as spectacular. Or involve quite as much marshmallow (I could be wrong about that last bit, I will concede).

The normally sensible (he has a blind spot when it comes to the House of Lords, it must be said) Vernon Bogdanor doesn’t exactly help, describing this move as “radical.”

I have to admit that I’m in two minds about this myself. On the one hand, clearly the House of Commons should be free to scrutinise any minister of state, in the House of Commons, without having to worry about bars or go off to the much smaller Westminster Hall. On the other hand, I don’t think there should be ANY ministers in the House of Lords full stop.

This convention about having to ennoble any non-MP who is to serve as a minister is total nonsense. It leads to people like Digby Jones getting a peerage simply for doing five months in the Department of Business, Enterprice and Regulatory Reform (a department which itself existed for twelve months before Gordon Brown insisted on reprinting all the stationary yet again). The argument for it is that ministers must be accountable to Parliament – but they aren’t. They get to answer questions in Parliament – however lamentably – but they are only actually accountable to the Prime Minister.

If we want ministers to be accountable to Parliament then we should have confirmation hearings. Parliament should have the authority to throw out any nominee that it believes to be weak or incompetent. The quid pro quo of that would be that anyone in principle should be able to serve – and not be a parliamentarian. A side benefit, I suspect, is that reshuffles would be less frequent (as they would be become more bureaucratic) and thus ministers would be given the space to do a job rather than spend six months getting up to speed before the Prime Minister moves them somewhere else to cover up for his own failings.

Better ministers with more of an opportunity to do their job? I’m sure the reactionaries in Westminster would be outraged. It might just lead to better government for the rest of us though.

In defence of “parliamentary graffiti”

A new pernicious and – surprise, surprise – anonymous campaign blog in support of scrapping early day motions has been established. Up until now, calls to scrap this system has been restricted to (usually Tory) MPs. Why an ordinary member of the public would want them scrapped is another matter.

If you go and have a peek at the EDM database, you could be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much to defend. But you would be wrong. EDMs are currently one of the few ways in which backbench MPs can raise issues in Parliament – which means they are one of the few ways in which their constituents can raise issues in Parliament.

As a campaign tool, for both parliamentarians and pressure groups, they are invaluable. On an almost monthly basis you read news reports assessing the likelihood of a backbench rebellion succeeding or failing as a result of how many members have signed the accompanying EDM. They are a key tool for backbenchers to arm themselves against the whips, a way of forming strength in numbers. In order to get private members bill legislation through parliament they are absolutely crucial. The Sustainable Communities Act* would never have become law if 338 MPs – a clear majority – had not signed the accompanying EDM.

Could the system be improved? Of course. For one thing, the current paper-based system is a total waste of money. Parliament could – and should – move towards an electronic system. There is also merit in considering some kind of guillotine rule for EDMs which fail to get enough signatories within a week (for example). The biggest abusers of EDMs are MPs themselves who just can’t resist tabling EDMs about their local football or rugby teams, etc. Yet I have never seen a critic of the system call for it to be reformed, merely scrapped.

Who would benefit from scrapping the system? Party whips whose job would suddenly become much easier. MPs more generally – particularly those dinosaurs who have been taken to task over the past couple of months – whose views would be less open to public scrutiny. Multi-client lobbying companies, who would be able to assert a greater monopoly on who has access to Parliament (currently, voluntary sector organisation facing up against a lobbying firm can at least rely on the public record as a way of monitoring progress of their campaigns and ensuring MPs’ opinions’ can’t waver; without EDMs, the lobbying companies would be the only ones with the resources to monitor this).

So we should be wary of this peevish campaign and question why they are hiding behind the veil of anonymity. Come out come out, wherever you are!

* Interest: I work for Unlock Democracy which was – and remains – one of the main backers of the SCA.

Bercow and burying bad news

It is quite telling that on Monday the Tories opted to a) announce the membership of their new Euro grouping and b) announce the resignation of Ian Clements. Burying bad news? I should coco! At least James Cleverly has the decency to admit it, however obliquely.

There isn’t much more I can say about the Euro grouping that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. Suffice to say, the fact that they could only muster two other parties with more than one MEP to join is all too telling.

I know the Tories like to bang on about how the other European Parties have their fair share of oddballs (I’ve never had the names of the guilty ALDES parties mentioned but no doubt someone can point me to them), but this is a grouping of ALL oddballs. Forming a grouping like this is to make a statement and the statement I hear from this is that the Tories do not consider environmental issues or gay rights anything close to a priority.

The Ian Clements incident is gobsmacking. Boris hasn’t been any better than Ken in terms of appointing his own cronies. The difference is, Ken’s ones tended to be more honest – or somewhat smarter at least.

Meanwhile, the Tory reaction to Bercow’s election is one of the least gracious spectacles I’ve seen in a long time. This, let us not forget, is from people who were complaining at how Michael Martin had politicised the role.

The objection to John Bercow from the Tories is not that he is a swivel-eyed racist, but that he isn’t one any more. An odd statement to broadcast to the nation. Dan Finkelstein rightly gives his team a good ticking off. Praise is also due to Douglas Carswell who was one of the first voices of calm this morning. Not only that, but he admitted to voting for Bercow himself (thereby scotching Nadine Dorries’ theory that only two other Tories voted for JB), and voted for my own first choice Richard Shepherd (you see, I love Tories really).

As for the result itself, personally I would have been happy with either Bercow or Young. I’m delighted the speculation surrounding Margaret Beckett’s shoo-in proved to be utter nonsense. I suspect that the hostility shown towards Bercow has been whipped up by a bunch of headbangers in the party and will dissipate fairly quickly. It is certainly the case that nothing like all of the Labour Party voted for Bercow – given that it seems most Lib Dems did a sizeable chunk of Labour MPs must have shored up Young’s vote.

I do wonder however if the electoral system they have used is the best one for letting a “consensus” candidate emerge. The downside of an exhaustive ballot/AV procedure is that it doesn’t always help build consensus. In this case, with one candidate clearly despised by a minority (how large that minority is remains an unknown quantity), it just looks like majoritarianism.

How different would it have been if they had used Modified Borda Count, where lower preferences would have been counted, or Majority Judgement? With both these systems, being despised by the minority would have counted against Bercow (this assumes that most Bercow voters would have minded Young winning less than the other way around). Enough to affect the outcome? I couldn’t say, but it certainly would have narrowed it.

The bottom line is that while we have a system which tends to ensure that a single party has a majority in the Commons, it is that majority that will get to pick the speaker. The convention of picking an opposition party speaker went out of the window in 2000. A system that at least softens the harder effects of that brute fact is at least worth considering.

Will Labour “split” in speaker ballot?

The answer to that question is: no.

Why? Because after the last debacle, in which Martin rose to power, the Commons decided to move into the 20th century (the 21st being too much of a leap) and adopt an exhaustive ballot system. That means that unless a candidate gets elected in the first round with 50% of the vote, there will be a series of ballots until one does.

It’s a bit like the Alternative Vote system except, this being the House of Commons, they have to turn it into the procedural equivalent of the Hokey Cokey and do it by physically walking in and out of the division lobby instead of simply writing their preferences down on a simple ballot paper.

So at the same time as dismissing electoral reform for the rest of us, the Commons is not above a bit of electoral reform itself. I might not like AV for electing Parliament, but for electing a single post like this it is a no-brainer.

What all this means is that the speculation in pieces like this one in the Times is frankly bogus. Even if the Labour vote does split enough to put Sir George Young in first place in the first round, the Labour bloc is likely to have its own way in the longer run.

Personally speaking, I am a bit torn. I’ve always liked and respected Richard Shepherd’s quiet crusade for parliamentary reform and I can see the attractions of John Bercow. Alan Beith would be perfectly respectable. Sir George Young, in parliamentary terms, is a radical reformer. But he is also too much of an insider for my liking and I haven’t liked his stance on the expenses issue. Beckett, in my view, would be an utter disaster – no coincidence then that the Labour whips are hard at work to get her installed.

If Labour continues to be dominated by a bunch of self-serving venal toadies who have learned nothing over the past couple of months then Beckett is a shoe-in. Is it cynical of me therefore to be tempted to put a fiver on her?

So where do we go from here?

The most fascinating aspect of the expenses scandal is how quickly the debate has moved onto a debate about meaningful democratic and constitutional reform. I have to admit, I didn’t quite see it coming, and while there have been rumbles within what you might call the “democratic reform community” about making a big push in the run up to the general election, it seemed to be more driven by the need to be seen to be doing something rather than a belief that it would actually happen.

Yet things have moved on very quickly. I’ve been amazed at the number of Labour politicians who have come out of the woodwork in recent weeks and professed support for, not merely electoral reform, but actual proportional representation. It is fair to say this has been rumbling on for a while now. Compass, and with it Jon Cruddas MP, came of the fence a couple of months ago. Today we see Alan Johnson out himself as well.

Just six months ago, the orthodoxy amongst electoral reformers in the Labour Party was to bang on about Alternative Vote as being the only option – a ludicrous notion since it would cost almost as much pain to achieve but with almost none of the benefits of full electoral reform. Johnson and others are still talking about the Jenkins proposals – a failed and rather complex fudge designed to keep Tony Blair happy which I am sure Roy Jenkins himself would have disowned by now had he lived long enough. But either way we are a long way from having to decide precisely what system should be used; the call at this stage is for a referendum to be held on the same day as the general election to establish the principle.

The important thing that needs to be emphasised is that mere proportional representation is not enough. Peter Kellner (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/politics-the-only-way-is-up-1690137.html) is half right when he says PR has “nothing to do with probity.” Mark Thompson has done a splendid job demonstrating how the first-past-the-post system and expenses abuse are inextricably linked (this is a brilliant example about how a single blog post can influence a national debate, given the number of times I’ve read or heard it referred to by people in the mainstream media over the past week).

Most PR systems in fact do increase probity, but it isn’t the proportionality that does this but the way they allow voters to choose between candidates within a single party. The list system used for the European Elections does not allow for this and we ought to rule it out for Westminster elections straight away. The Additional Member System used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly is an improvement but is still limiting (the Welsh Assembly rule against ‘dual candidacy’ gives voters even less choice).

While my personal preference would be single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, I would be content with any open list system that allows voters to select from candidates rather than parties. The size of the constituency matters too. As we saw in the Scottish local elections in 2007, three member constituencies don’t really allow for much competition within parties at all.

For many people, including some Liberal Democrats, talk of PR is intolerable because it threatens the “constituency link.” The “constituency link” is in fact one of the most pernicious aspects of modern politics. Of course MPs should have a sense of place, but the idea that they should all be responsible for their own relatively small parishes is ludicrous. As Simon Jenkins has cogently argued, as MPs have transformed themselves into caseworkers over the past few decades, they have conspired to strip local government of its authority. And as Andrew Rawnsley puts it, the Liberal Democrats bear a large amount of responsibility for this. Our use of “pavement politics” (which isn’t the same thing as community politics, but rather a perversion of it) as a tool for gaining MPs has made a lot of sense in terms of narrow party interest but has actually hurt the causes for both decentralisation and electoral reform. With the political system in flux and Chris Rennard no longer in the captain’s chair, we have a real opportunity to rethink this.

The biggest irony is that the MP-constituency link is at its closest in the Republic of Ireland, where they have STV. Indeed, Conservative peer David Trimble spends his retirement in the House of Lords railing against it for precisely the opposite reasons that his leader opposes it. To be fair, he has a point, but while Ireland has an average of 26,000 people per elector, in the UK it is closer to 90,000. Irish politics is dominated by two parties divided by history rather than ideology – a state of affairs which is gradually breaking down over time. In the UK, the main thing that causes parties to fight on similar ideological ground is FPTP. In other words, while STV would inevitably lead to more accountability in the UK, we have no reason to expect that the parochialism of Irish politics will come along with it.

Electoral reform is the sine qua non; the one thing that seperates the genuine reformers from the people simply attempting to profit from the debacle – no wonder the Telegraph is in such a flap about it (electoral reform? Fuck! No! More Tories! That’s the answer! Honest!). But won’t be sufficient in my view and will be subject to a full onslaught by the Tory press. For that reason, reformers need to arm themselves with a number of other reforms too. The question is, what?

I don’t think the time has come for a full written constitution to sort everything out, although I do think we’ll have one within 20 years due to a number of factors (if you want to know why precisely, you’ll need to read Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88 and in particular its concluding chapter). Short of that, there have been a lot of suggestions doing the rounds, some of which are better than others.

I’m all for reducing the number of MPs (something which the Tories are demanding, despite the fact it would weaken their precious constituency link), but one of the practical problems the Lib Dems’ Better Governance Working Group came across when we considered this in 2007 was the impact it would have in increasing the dominance of the payroll vote in the House of Commons. Ultimately, I think David Starkey is right: we need to seperate the legislature and the executive entirely. In the short term however, we could simply get rid of the convention that ministers must also be parliamentarians. It is a nonsense in any case which has lead to the Lords being stuffed with placemen despite the fact that their Commons shadows can’t actually ask them any questions. Worried about democratic accountability? Then let them address the Commons regardless of their membership and subject appointments to parliamentary scrutiny.

I’m all for lowering the barriers to get involved in politics and introducing primaries, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will lead to any great increase in participation. If the low level of participation in US primaries (other than major contests such as the presidential nomination) doesn’t convince you, then what about the tiny level number of voters who took part in Jury Team? Opening up the selection of party leaders would be a positive step forward but for parliamentary candidates it would be little more than a figleaf. In any case, the effect of electoral reform would be to introduce a system which in effect combines the functions of both a primary and election.

Recall is problematic. Without electoral reform it would be pernicious, making MPs in marginal constituencies even more vulnerable while leaving MPs in safe seats relatively untroubled. Nick Clegg’s proposal of only allowing recall if the MP in question has been caught breaking the rules is equally problematic: who decides if they broke rules and wouldn’t a vote be little more than a formality if they were censured in such a way? Why not just go straight for a by-election.

With electoral reform however, on reflection (you’ll notice I’ve changed my mind here), I can see it working, if the recall petitions are for recalling all the MPs representing the constituency in question rather than just one of them. That way, it can’t be used simply to force out minority parties.

Finally, there is the question of party funding. There are, in my view, strong arguments for incentive-based funding systems (e.g. small donations up to £50 get matched by state support on a pound-for-pound basis, thereby encouraging parties to collect comparatively small donations from a wide base), but I am under no illusions that now is not the time to win that argument. What most certainly does need to be introduced is a cap on donations so that rich people and union chiefs can’t simply buy the system. Both Labour and the Conservatives have at various times over the past few years claimed to support this in principle but both are totally compromised by a dependency on, respectively, the unions and Lord Ashcroft’s cronies.

The Lib Dems have a window of opportunity to force this issue. As I wrote last month, the party should unilaterally impose a cap of its own. The Michael Brown story rumbles on and Clegg’s defence looks pretty thin. It is time we did something to signal that we have learned from our mistakes (and they are mistakes – I don’t care how many checks you make, you should never take millions of pounds from someone who you’ve only known a couple of months).

Anything else? Lords reform would be nice, but must take a lower priority until the Commons is sorted out first in my view (12 months ago, when the prospect of Commons reform was a distant possibility, the calculation was different). I’d still like to see us move towards agenda initiative and veto. Without a written constitution however, a full system of citizens initiative and referendum would be highly problematic. It would be mistaken though to think we can fit every reform anyone has ever wanted into this narrow window of opportunity. The good news is that if we can fix the Commons, the prospect of more democracy further down the line can only be increased.

Jo Swinson and The Telegraph: complaints, complaints, complaints

Thanks a lot to everyone for all the positive feedback I’ve had about my article this morning. By happenstance, Alix Mortimer has just asked:

Fucking disgusting. Can we get them on article 1 (accuracy) of the PCC code?

The answer, at least in my view, is yes, which is why I’ve just spent the last couple of hours writing letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the Guardian and the BBC. And I would ask you to do the same.

First off, the Telegraph. You can contact them via this page (under “What does your enquiry relate to?” select “Editorial”). My letter reads as follows:

Dear Mr Lewis,

With regards to your article “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” (page 6 of Daily Telegraph #47,888, Thursday 21 May 2009):

First of all, I would like to remind you of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice – of which the Daily Telegraph professes to follow:

“Accuracy

“i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

“ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.”

The aforementioned article contains a number of misleading statements. A superficial reading of the article would lead the casual reader to assume that the record of Jo Swinson MP’s expenses claims demonstrate that she had claimed for makeup and dusters. However, a more careful reading reveals the following information:

1 – that although receipts containing those items had been submitted, there is no actual evidence that these specific items had been claimed for. Indeed, this claim is explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself and no evidence has been brought forward to give us cause to doubt this whatsoever.

2 – furthermore, that in at least one case the items which had been claimed for were clearly marked by an asterisk. In the case of the eyeliner and dusters this was not the case.

3 – the claim that Jo Swinson is “known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance” is entirely unsubstantiated and innuendo-laden. There is nothing remarkable about a Member of Parliament not wishing to look unkempt; indeed they would be open to criticism if they did so.

4 – the headline epithet “makeover queen” is equally unsubstantiated. No-one appears to have called Jo Swinson this apart from the article’s author, Rosa Prince, herself.

5 – the page design is clearly intended to convey the idea that Jo Swinson has had numerous “makeovers” – yet the photographs provided are merely pictures of her looking slightly different over a period of eight years.

The article, ostensibly about MPs’ expenses, is clearly intended to convey the impression that Jo Swinson has been buying makeup and charging taxpayers. Given that the article itself contains no evidence whatsover to indicate that this might be the case, the article is certainly misleading. Including a denial by Jo Swinson does not go anywhere near to correcting this as it works on the “no smoke without fire principle.” Furthermore, nowhere in the article do you state Jo Swinson’s impeccable record in calling for MPs’ expenses to be published and for the system to be reformed.

The ultimate effect of this article is to smear an MP with a strong track record of reform with the same brush as some of the worst offenders. This is a complete distortion.

I must ask you to publish a retraction of the article, making it clear that there is no evidence that Jo Swinson MP has claimed the cost of her makeup on expenses. If I do not receive a response from you within seven days I will take the matter further with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

The BBC’s contact page is slightly harder to find, but can be accessed here. I wrote them the following:

jo090520bbcI am writing with regard to your section on MPs expenses, and specifically your coverage of Jo Swinson MP’s alleged claims (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8047390.stm#swinson_jo).

I have already written to the Telegraph about this story (see below). Your article goes significantly further than the Telegraph article. The Telegraph at all times are careful not to actually claim that Jo Swinson MP claimed cosmetics on expenses, merely that cosmetics had appeared on receipts that had been submitted to the Fees Office (nonetheless, I would still contest that this is highly misleading – and almost certainly mislead you).

By contrast, the BBC article baldly asserts – without any substantiation whatsoever – “The Dumbartonshire [sic] East MP, the youngest in the Commons, put a series of small claims on expenses, including eyeliner, a £19.10 “tooth flosser” and 29p dusters.”

It is wholly unacceptable of the BBC to republish – and indeed embellish – claims made by a commercial newspaper without seeking to substantiate them first. This isn’t journalism, this is engaging in a game of Chinese whispers. I would therefore ask that you publish a retraction to this story, together with an apology to Jo Swinson.

If I do not hear from you within seven days, I will take this matter further with the BBC Trust.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

PS As an aside, I should point out that Jo Swinson’s constituency is called East Dunbartonshire and that photograph you are illustrating this story with is of Alan Beith and Diane Maddock.

Finally, the Guardian are the easiest to contact of all. The Reader’s Editor page is here. I wrote them the following:

Dear Ms Butterworth,

I am writing with regard to your table on page 6 of the Guardian dated 23 May 2009. On this you include a section “cheapest claims – claims that Britain mocked”. The first item you list is “Jo Swinson: Cosmetics included in her receipts. Because she’s worth it.”

In doing so, the Guardian repeats a misleading slur that was published in the Telegraph on Thursday 21 May. On careful reading, the Telegraph article does not accuse Jo Swinson MP of claiming cosmetics on expenses, provides no evidence whatsoever to indicate that she had and the fact that she might have done has been explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself (link). It is therefore a non-story and I have written to the editor of the Telegraph calling for him to retract it (see below).

I note that the Guardian has chosen its words in an equally selective manner, merely saying that the cosmetics were ‘included in her receipts’ not that they were actually claimed for. Unlike the Telegraph however, you do not even allow Jo Swinson a right to reply.

That the Guardian should choose to pilliory a female MP for the crime of purchasing cosmetics is particularly galling. I was under the impression that the Guardian regarded itself as a champion of feminist causes. It is certainly tempting to join in with the anti-politics throng at the moment, but that does not mean accepting every article published by the Telegraph is accurate or free of pursuing a regressive political agenda; it certainly does not mean you have to uncritically go along with explicit misogyny.

I am writing to request that you issue a retraction of this report and an apology to Jo Swinson. If I do not get a response within the next seven days, I will take this matter up with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

While I hope reprinting these letters here will be useful, if you complain please do so in your own words – it will be much more effective that way.

As an aside, the Telegraph appear to have completely lost the plot. Dizzy reports:

Nadine Dorries has seen the blog part of her website instantly taken down after she made allegations against the owners of the Telegraph Group, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay.

Lawyers acting for the Barclay brothers, Withers, instructed the takedown to Acidity via mail last night, citing the Acceptable User Policy. The takedown will be bolstered by the Godfrey vs Demon precendent, where an order can be made and it will be done instantly.

This is quite remarkable behaviour. It is one of the few things they could have done to make me feel even a twinge of sympathy for Nadine Dorries. Furthermore, this isn’t just a nasty bit of bullying by a precious publisher to a blogger, but to a high profile (some would argue over-exposed) MP. This is going to be big news tomorrow.

What an utterly stupid act of fuckwittery.

In defence of Eric Pickles

Longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my glowing record of defending Conservative politicians – especially Party Chairperkins. But I do think there is a danger in going overboard in criticism of Eric Pickles after his car crash performance on Thursday’s Question Time.

I do actually think that an MP with a constituency 37 miles away should be entitled to have a place to stay overnight in central London. MP’s do often work very long, very unsociable hours. Most companies that expect their staff to work in such a way do allow them to claim for overnight accomodation.

There is a danger that by concerning ourselves too much with Pickes’ lamentable performance that we end up with a more iniquitous system which would shrink the pool from which MPs are likely to be drawn. As I have written several times now, there is a very simple solution: allow MPs to buy second homes on their allowances as at present, but ensure the equity is owned by the taxpayer. That way, if they sell up the money (including any profit) goes back to us. It might give them a roof over their head but never again could it be claimed that they were simply doing it to fiddle the system. What’s more, it is already established practice for certain categories of public sector staff.

It is a very simple reform and I have yet to come across a serious argument against it. From the tax payer’s point of view it is actually better than forcing MPs to only rent property or this crazy dormitory idea that people talk about from time to time (just think of the additional cost of security). Indeed, I believe it was actually discussed by MPs themselves last year – and rejected.

This gets to the heart of the problem. The political class appears to have become incapable of reform, even if it is in their direct interest to do so – enlightened self interest has been trumped by immediate self-gratification. This is just one example, and it is linked to the cheapness with which they are prepared to sell our liberties. There is a word for that sort of thing – decadent – and throughout history we have seen what happens when a country’s elite becomes so chronically out of touch. The courts of Louis XVI and Nicholas II spring to mind.

Revolution is an idea that excites the puerile imaginations of socialists and anarchists – many of whom will be taking to the streets today and next Wednesday. The truth is though, they generally hurt the most vulnerable in society as much as the most powerful, and the insurgent political class is typically far worse than its predecessor. Fortunately, we aren’t at that point yet and there is still time to turn it around. A few more years of recession though and things might be very different.

But every time an MP puts in a preening, arrogant performance like Eric Pickles did this week, it enrages yet more people. This wasn’t so much a case of “let them eat cake” as “who ate all the cake?” If Cameron has any sense he should slap him down hard.