Tag Archives: government

Norman Baker performing Piccadilly Circus

Norman Baker, political journalism and hinterlands

It’s an odd evening to defend the MP for Lewes, given that his constituents are currently behaving like a bunch of spoiled children blacking up and attempting to set fire to “politically incorrect” effigies. Nonetheless, I share a lot of the views expressed elsewhere that he performed an excellent service in his role as Home Office minister and can well understand his reasons for resigning.

This blog post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of his resignation though. Rather, it’s a simple observation. Most of the media coverage was transfixed by the idea that Norman Baker was in a band, that it isn’t a wildly good one, and that these facts alone are wildly hilarious. Every TV and newspaper report I came across seemed to fit in a quip about it somewhere

I suspect that it doesn’t especially matter that his interests are in music. In fact, the Reform Club’s middle of the road style from what I can make out is pretty inoffensive to anyone. What seemed to provoke the lobby was that he was doing something – anything – that was slightly out of the ordinary.

When that slightly out of the ordinary thing is practicing music skills on a regular basis, you’ve got to wonder how they’d treat any MP who has personal interests that are really unusual.

Several years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a games club playing a game of Puerto Rico with a Labour MP, at the time a Parliamentary Private Secretary. After the game, we looked over our shoulders to see another group having a raucous game of Cash’n’Guns. He observed “I have to be really cautious about what games I can play in public” at which point I pointed out, to his horror, that he’d just spent the last couple of hours playing a game about the slave trade.

I mention this because he’s right: playing a game in which you wave foam guns in each other’s faces would potentially be career suicide for an aspiring politician, no matter how silly a game it is (which is certainly the case of Cash’n’Guns). But the reason isn’t because doing so would be wrong or wicked in any way, but because it would be seen as weird. And being weird, as Ed Miliband has learned to his cost, is an almost unforgivable crime in modern politics.

The result is, paradoxically, that all our politicians are deeply weird. It’s been almost 40 years since Denis Healey scathingly noted that Margaret Thatcher lacked a hinterland. These days almost none of them have one. William Hague is allowed to write books, albeit on political history. Beer and football are permitted interests, as is primetime television (in moderation). But anything else is treated as shameful and hidden from view, a bit like being gay in the 1950s.

But the weirdest thing about all this is that at the same time, being “wacky” is increasingly the norm for how political journalism is conducted. The model established by Andrew Neil on This Week and the Daily Politics, has now become ubiquitous. Politics is now typically presented on television by people who can’t wait to dress up in silly costumes or wear outrageous hats to make some leaden point or other. Newspaper journalists all seem to consider themselves to be side-splittingly hilarious comedians if my twitter feed is anything to go by. Norman Baker’s crime seems to have been to be sincere in his interests. If he’d done an appallingly awful duet with the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of mention.

We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.

Reporting back from the Fabians: What not to spend

The Fabian Society kindly gave me a media registration for their new year conference and I spent last Saturday at Imperial College mingling with the Labour Party faithful. I sadly missed Gordon Brown’s morning address but sat in on two discussions: “What not to spend” – a discussion on what public spending cuts the government should make; and “Tribes or causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” Both featured Lib Dem speakers, and I attended the former to keep an eye on Vince Cable and the latter to support Evan Harris (or should that be the other way around?).

What not to spend was, of the two sessions, the most frustrating. This was partially because there was no Labour Minister there to give us their perspective, partially because the Nigel Stanley and Janet Daley failed spectacularly to stay on topic and partially because Vince himself was being incredibly cautious. My hope that Vince might give us a tantalising glimpse of what he thought needed cutting, beyond that which the party has announced and reannounced over the past few months ended up dashed (despite his tantalising flash of leg in Parliament the preceeding week). And because the Cult of Vince seems to have extended as far as both the audience and the other speakers (I don’t think anyone breathed a word of criticism of him during the entire 90 minutes), he wasn’t even pressed on the kite flying list of spending cuts he flagged up in his Reform pamphlet last September. A man suggests means-testing child benefit and doesn’t elicit even a single squeak from a Fabian audience; what is going on? Indeed, the one area there did seem to be some tentative agreement on was the rolling back of middle class welfare.

Instead of talking about the current economic situation, Stanley and Daley preferred to continue a traditional left-right ding-dong which you might have heard in any political meeting at any point over the last twenty years. Both, I have to say, were much more nuanced and less dogmatic than they might have been, but neither seemed interested in really addressing what savings government needed to make. To be fair on Stanley, as a TUC staffer, it wasn’t really his job on the panel to do that, but I did expect to hear something substantial from Daley. She made a dig at the start about “not defending David Cameron’s economic policy because I don’t know what it is” yet pretty much the alpha and omega of her own economic policy seemed to consist of one word: “vouchers”.

“Vouchers” – whether they are vouchers for education, healthcare or whatever – have been a real rallying cry for the right in recent years. The aforementioned Reform think tank was for a while obsessed with them. Speaking personally, I’ve always felt it is a bit of a cop out of an argument. We’re constantly invited to believe that the key to the success of the Swedish education system lies in the voucher system, not in the amount of cash each of those vouchers represents, and to believe that, somehow, a voucher based on UK spending levels would have the same effect. I don’t buy it. I can see how they could be made to work in, say, an inner city area where the population density is sufficiently high enough to create a genuine market, but how it would work in a rural area is something I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to.

Furthermore, while they might be a suitable topic for discussion in a debate about getting value for money from public services, I just can’t see how introducing them during an economic period where we are having to make cuts makes much sense at all. It won’t address any problems in the short term, and indeed the cost and bureaucracy that would be involved to establish the system would make it harder to introduce cuts.

The other area that troubled me was the aforementioned apparent consensus around the idea of scaling back the “middle class welfare state”. Some of this, I have very little trouble with. Creating a shorter taper for tax credits so that people earning £50,000 aren’t entitled to some tiny amount which is eclipsed by its own administration costs makes perfect sense. But that is the trouble with means-tested benefits. By contrast, there is a real danger in means-testing what few universal benefits we have left in the name of cutting costs. Partially, this is because you end up having to establish a whole new bureaucracy to administer the scheme, partially because it means that those most in need often end up failing to claim for it precisely because of that bureacracy, but also because it helps create a sense of solidarity between the comfortably off and the poor. As Sunder Katwala himself said at the Lib Dem conference last September “services for the poor will always be poor services“.

I hope that my concern about the comfort with this rhetoric proves to be unfounded and that things like child tax benefit won’t be regarded as low hanging fruit after the general election. But the way this idea seemed to be supported in the generality at the session did cause me some discomfort. It was the elephant in the room.

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.