Daily Archives: 16 October 2009

On the importance of by-elections (Bedford Mayor)

My initial response of Dave Hodgson’s fantastic win in Bedford today was this:

I have to say I’m surprised by the lack of media interest in this. Surely a Mayoral by-election is as newsworthy as a Parliamentary by-election?

To which ‘ollie’s’ response was:

Don’t be ridiculous.

As Nick Barlow went on to say, more people voted in the Bedford Mayoral by-election than in Norwich North earlier this year and indeed Bedford is larger than a parliamentary constituency. So even if we were just playing a numbers game, it affects more people. As Stephen Tall went on to say, elected mayors have actual executive power, something that Chloe Smith is unlikely to wield even after the next general election.

But it is also a test of the Tories’ so-called “open primary” selection process (that is to say, open caucus selection process, but who cares about small things such as terminological accuracy?) and according to some of the local Conservatives it appears to have been found wanting.

That is incredibly significant because with a significant number of candidates selected in this way, if the Tories have miscalculated it may dent their election prospects. We can’t of course read to much into it, but with the media “narrative” being that Cameron is unstoppable, at the very least it makes a significant footnote.

I also question this argument:

“Oh, as for Bedford- it’s a mayoral. Having worked on campaigns where we’ve been soundly beaten by a rogue cop, a monkey and a tory (Not unusual, except the previous Tory had been arrested for child abuse), and then won all the subsepquent parliamentary elections in those seats I’m pretty confident there isn’t much of a correlation between mayoral election and general election results.”

Hopi is right – mayoral elections are generally won by colourful independents. That why, on paper, the Tories’ decision to go for a more open candidate selection process was sound. The fact that this didn’t work – and that the two independents didn’t do better than they did – is significant. Lib Dems have not done terribly well in mayoral elections, outside of Watford anyway.

Lest I be accused of reading too much into this, I assure you that I’m not. A by-election is just a by-election and local factors are at least as significant if not more so as national factors. But perhaps I should have phrased it differently. The question is not really why mayoral by-elections don’t elicit as much interest as parliamentary by-elections but why parliamentary by-elections don’t elicit as little interest as mayoral ones? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read over the past couple of years that the Lib Dems have lost their ability to win by-elections – ignoring the fact that we rarely do well where we aren’t in a clear second place and or are forced to fight a short campaign. Both bloggers and the commentariat have predicted a Lib Dem wipeout at the next election on this basis.

The reason the Lib Dems have historically invested as much as they have in by-elections is for precisely this reason: the media love to extract grand narratives out of tiny victories because it gives them something to write about. The grand victories are as bogus as the grand defeats, but we play the game because on balance it does us more good than harm. My message to those who argue that this mayoral by-election signifies very little is that you may be right, but don’t pretend that parliamentary by-elections somehow mean any more.

ADDENDUM: I should add that I remember campaigning in the first election for Bedford Mayor and what a thankless task it seemed. Just goes to show.

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.