Monthly Archives: 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.

You can’t be a half-iconoclast

If there’s a problem with the Unspoken Constitution its that it barely qualifies as satire. The shenanigans surrounding MPs’ expenses, Carter-Ruck’s single handed attempt to rewrite the UK constitution to favour their client Trafigura and this torrid little paper sneaked out by the Ministry of Justice today (which patiently explains why Royal Prerogative powers are, in fact, all wonderful and the only thing that stands between us and authoritarianism), all amply illustrate that Stuart Weir and co’s attempt to write the famously unwritten constitution is more a reflection of reality than an exaggeration of it. A Modest Proposal is satire. Yes, Minister and The Thick of It are satires. The Unspoken Constitution is merely frank.

I have to admit to finding this week somewhat depressing in that it is clear that a great many MPs have returned from recess determined to shut down any further discussion about reform and that, to an extent, they are succeeding. The media itself has been very helpful in this respect, detailing the process almost moment-to-moment but almost entirely lacking in analysis. Let us not forget that the people who are now complaining about the unfairness of Sir Thomas Legg applying new rules to them retrospectively are for the most part the same people who attempted to keep this little scam of theirs shrouded in secrecy – in defiance of the law – for years. All the indications are that for the most part, they still haven’t learned why that was an utterly stupid and damaging thing to do.

The media, frankly, loves the status quo because it means it can write about politics on its terms. Everything can be about story; the notion that politics is about a battle of ideas takes a back seat. There has, if truth be told, always been a tension between the two, but the latter took a distinct turn for the worse 20 years ago and has never recovered.

The paucity of vision in politics today was on display at the Vote for a Change/All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Continuation of First Past the Post debate on Tuesday. I won’t attempt to sum up the debate because there wasn’t one to speak of; as Oona King pointed out very early on, almost everyone in the room had made up their mind already so what was the point? But I was struck by the number of MPs who stood up and waxed lyrical about how they regard their main role being to represent their constituents and their constituency, above all else.

Historically, that is quite a new notion and I know it is a notion that has a lot of support within the Lib Dems. But it is a dreadful one nonetheless. MPs’ primary role is to scrutinise – both the executive and legislation. Their first duty should be to the national interest, surely?

I’m not suggesting, incidently, that a sense of place for MPs is unimportant or that local issues should play no part. My beef is with the notion that this should be the priority. What’s worse is that it is a fiction to suggest that they do. Most MPs put party loyalty above parochial concerns most of the time. Local campaigns can force them to abstain or even defy their whips, but only if a lot of pressure is created. True, MPs are generally more likely to defy the whips than at any point in the recent past, but this is still the exception rather than the norm.

Either way, the notion of the MP as an independently minded individual who cares passionately about working within the system to bring forth their vision of the good society is extremely unfashionable. This is true whether we are talking about party politics or even this current vogue for indpendents; in fact, when it comes to the Martin Bells, Richard Taylors and Jury Teams of this world, ideas appear to have gone out of the window entirely – at least political parties have manifestos still. What I found on Tuesday was that the supporters of FPTP were united in arguing for this idea of parliamentary politics.

It’s a real problem for supporters of proportional representation because it is an argument that holds real resonance amongst the public. Who wouldn’t want an MP who is committed to doing whatever you tell them to do (leaving aside the fact that there will be 70,000 other constituents with competing interests for one second)? This idea of the ultra-local politician has taken a firm grip in the popular psyche; people even imagine that it was ever thus.

The problem for electoral reformers is that thus far we have failed to take on this argument. Worse, a great many electoral reformers actually agree with it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people tell me that they are a) pro-proportional representation and b) in favour of retaining the constituency link. It is one of the main arguments that people who support the Jenkins system assert.

I don’t believe we can ever win the argument for proportional representation until reformers can agree that what we need is a radically different kind of politics. Each time someone argues for essentially the status quo with a few tweaks to neutralise the worst aspects of it, they concede almost all the ground to the other side. It becomes, essentially, a narrow and technocratic argument about systems and practicalities. The moral force behind the argument for PR is entirely lost. We might as well not bother.

Ultimately this argument applies to the reform debate more widely and brings me back to The Unspoken Constitution. Our current system has become so toxic that the time for incrementalist change is now past. We need a fundamental shift, not an attempt to meet the status quo halfway. Tim Garton Ash is correct when he says that the Lib Dems aren’t arguing for this any more and that it is a crying shame. What’s odder is that Nick Clegg’s language nine months ago – before the MPs’ expenses scandal erupted – was significantly more radical. Even Cameron comes across as more forthright on this area now, even if he is hopeless when it comes to specifics.

Maybe it doesn’t poll well, but I’m not convinced that sounding like everyone else does either. Either way, the lack of a clear iconoclastic liberal voice in this debate at the moment is lamentable.

Poverty, marginal tax rates and the big state

Are Conservatives serious when they bang on about the high marginal tax rate of people at the bottom end of the income scale and its symbolism as a failure of the “big state”, as David Cameron referred to on Thursday and William Hague repeated on Any Questions?

I ask this because this “tax rate” – which I don’t dispute – is mainly due to our complex benefits and tax credits system. Simply put, there are two ways to reduce this marginal rate: increase the tail off by cutting means testing or at least extending the income levels at which people still receive benefits, or reducing benefits altogether. The latter option would of course lead to more people living in poverty.

The former option however would increase the size of the state, which we are to understand is a total no-no. This is one of those areas, in short, where you have a very simple choice: reduce poverty or reduce the size of the state. You simply can’t have it both ways and in this respect the Tory conference this week has begged more questions than it has answered.

That isn’t true of all areas of public policy – there are plenty of areas where the small state option is the more pro-social one. But it does highlight how the poverty in aspiring for a “smaller state” as an end in itself. It seems to me that the Tories are obsessed with these second order indices and lukewarm when it comes to the fundamentals.