Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Worth having a look at

(1) Anthony Wells has a stab at explaining What happens in a hung Parliament. Note that the Queen doesn't have to grant a dissolution and a second election if she is advised that somebody else (who need not be a party leader) might be able to form a government.

(2) Who will lead the opposition? by Martin Kettle raises a so far neglected question. Suppose the LibDems come second in votes but third in seats, Nick Clegg has a moral claim on the post of official leader of the opposition. Kettle explains why this is important and how it could turn nasty.

(3) Stephen Tall explains Why gay voters are deserting the Tories for the LibDems. It's become rather clear that real commitment to gay equality in the Conservative Party is largely confined to the small modernising clique around Cameron, and a lot of their backwoodsmen turn out to be (as also on several other issues) not on message. Quelle surprise! Incidentally, now that Alan Duncan has been sacked from the front bench, as far as I know we have only Nick Herbert to hold the fort as a guarantee against future Tory backsliding on gay questions.

(4) Neil Harding points out that coalitions are not necessarily indecisive. "The 12 best countries for controlling the deficit and maintaining decent public services are all run by coalitions", he says.

(5) My old Campaign for the North chum Austin Mitchell MP explains why all this talk of "efficiency savings" is just hot air. He also writes, and I am inclined to agree: "Sadly no party is saying the one thing people want to hear. Bring the troops back from Afghanistan. What's the point of a war we can't win?" Actually I think the BNP and the Greens are saying that: strange bedfellows.

(6) In British political landscape could change for ever, Neil Clark reminds us that the existing parties are themselves rather artificial coalitions, only held together by the first-past-the-post voting system. Under a proportional system, the whole party structure could change over time, giving everyone clearer choices. He's right if we have a list system but I don't think the argument works so well if we have STV in multi-member constituencies, since that system gives voters the power to choose themselves between different strands of the same party.

(7) Dave Cole argues against David Cameron's suggestion of recall elections for bad MPs. This seems to be one of those "good ideas" that becomes less and less good the more you look into it.

(8) David Aaronovitch in Radicals or conservatives? How can we tell? speaks for many of us when he expresses utter confusion about where today's Conservative Party really stands. "The Conservatives are excellent on defence and internationalism, but useless and deceptive on Europe. They say good words about the poor, but suggest that their policy emphasis will be on reducing taxes for the middle classes and — amazingly — the very wealthy. Their key word is change, but much of time they seem to promise the past as much as the future. It's a promise that cannot be kept."

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The election: Let's not get too carried away

I think some people are getting a bit ahead of themselves with all this talk of who might coalesce with whom and under what leader. Anything could happen, but it seems clear the most likely outcome at present is still that the Tories don't get an overall majority but do come first in seats and first in votes.

It remains entirely possible, and is I think quite likely, that David Cameron could form a minority government and brazen it out for many months if not years. The opposition parties may be in no position to mount a challenge for a long time -- especially since Labour after its defeat could well implode in recriminations and backstabbing. Also, nobody will want another election any time soon because the parties are all broke.

Naturally, I hope this is not what happens, but we need to keep our feet on the ground. People are forgetting that, historically, minority governments are not especially weird or unimaginable. We had one for nearly all the period 1974 to 1979.

Just saying.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Why progressives should vote LibDem even if they hate the LibDems

Amid the great swirl of endless speculation currently going on about the general election, it's clear that nobody really has a clue what is going to happen. Has there ever been an election when everything is so much up in the air so near to polling day?

Naturally, the extraordinary LibDem surge and the possibility of a major constitutional upset is very exciting. But as Steve Richards notes yesterday in Talk of revolution is still premature, we should try not to get too carried away because "it is still quite possible that the mould will not be broken".

Mind you, both Steve Richards and I have already been proved completely wrong on one point: last July he wrote The last thing we need is a televised election debate and at the time I found his arguments persuasive. He now says "Originally, I was worried they would be dull, too constrained by rules, and would put viewers off politics. I am thrilled that I was wrong. They have energised the election."

Polly Toynbee yesterday issued her customary instruction to hold our noses and vote tactically to try to keep the Tories out, in Your heart might say Clegg. But vote with your head.

This stance -- opposing the Tories, more than positively embracing any one of their opponents -- has also been my pretty constant political position for the last 50 years. She says, "I have never much minded what the best anti-Tory party is called, I just want the left of centre to win. I will always back whichever group combines being furthest left with winnability."

But her view that Labour, while not ideal, is left-wing enough to be going on with, is no longer one I fully share. It seems to me to rely far too much on a simplistic single-dimensional left-right spectrum as a way of viewing politics. It leaves out of account the fact that, on quite a lot of issues (Heathrow third runway, habeas corpus, the database society, individual freedom in various contexts), Labour is actually WORSE than the Tories, or anyway worse than what the Tory leadership currently claims to believe. The Labour government has been for some years been alarmingly illiberal and authoritarian, as well as alarmingly un-green. Ms Toynbee is probably still at heart a top-down nanny-state Fabian social democrat, and although she does happen to take the correct view on most of these individual issues (she has been excellent on Heathrow and on secularism, for instance), when push comes to shove, these things clearly matter less to her than they do to me.

Anyway, I now live in one of those odd inner-city Lib/Lab marginals in which the Tories are nowhere, so all this no longer applies to me. For what it's worth, I am voting for the sitting LibDem MP (Simon Hughes), not that there is anything especially wrong with his Labour opponent here, as far as I know.

Now, I actually don't especially care who is the next Prime Minister or what are the manifesto commitments of the parties. Whoever becomes the government will probably break their promises anyway; they usually do. It is all hugely irrelevant compared with my overarching desire, which is to get a change in the utterly bonkers voting system. To this end, I think people should vote for the LibDems in any constituency where they have any reasonable chance of winning, however little enthusiasm they might feel for LibDem policies or however much they do not warm to Nick Clegg, or wish Vince Cable was their leader, or would really prefer to vote Green, etc. etc.

I for example wish the LibDems were being a lot more radical on Trident and Afghanistan, but, as I say, none of this is to the point. Achieving proportional representation is the ONLY thing that matters this time. Once we've got it, we can argue all we like about parties and policies.

Ms Toynbee also wants electoral reform, but for her it is only one of two equally important aims, the other of which is to keep the Tories out. Her assumption is that if the Tories get into government, even if it is a minority government, there is no chance of PR. This may be true, but I'm not sure.

Michael Portillo made an interesting little outburst on Andrew Neil's This Week on Thursday: Diane Abbott was saying "The Tories will never offer the LibDems PR", and Portillo jumped in to say "Oh yes they will!", adding that Tory high command will be so desperate for power that they could well outbid Labour on conceding a referendum if it is the price they have to pay. (This whole 10-minute section of the programme, a most interesting discussion also involving Andrew Rawnsley and Charles Kennedy, is well worth watching and you have a few days left in which to view it here.)

"Other senior colleagues of Mr Cameron privately concede that offering a referendum on electoral reform to the Lib Dems could be a price worth paying to ensure he becomes prime minister", adds George Parker in yesterday's FT.

I am perfectly happy to see a Cameron government for a while if it is a way of getting voting reform. A Tory government will do damage, but it will be temporary; whereas changing the voting system permanently alters everything.

Meanwhile, Matthew Parris yesterday claimed that Nick Clegg cannot stand Gordon Brown and will do nothing to prop up Labour (something Clegg himself more or less confirmed this morning in his very impressive interview on the Andrew Marr show). Parris concedes that Cameron would be "intensely reluctant" to concede electoral reform, but sets out a scenario in which Clegg might be able to insist on it, especially since "first-past-the-post might be looking pretty discredited by May 7".

Of course, this is all terribly speculative, and in reality, almost anything could yet happen. My main hope is that the LibDems (and, if necessary, smaller parties which also want PR) are fully rehearsed for getting the most out of any eventuality and will not allow themselves to be bought off with, I dunno, a cabinet post for Vince Cable, or a mere Speaker's Conference on PR (we have been there before), or some other titbit which does not embrace voting reform or at least a referendum thereon.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Pointless helicopters

Am I alone in getting irritated by the broadcasters' use of helicopters? The Prime Minister goes to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen for a dissolution, and his motorcade through central London is covered live on TV via a helicopter. I suppose at least you could say that is a way of visualising a constitutional ritual. But then he sets off to St Pancras to get on a train, and we have to watch that journey from a helicopter as well. It is of no conceivable interest, except perhaps to notice in passing how many one-way streets the PM is allowed to go the wrong way down. It is wasteful of BBC licence-payers' money, exceedingly un-green in fuel terms, and damned noisy to boot, if you happen to be in the streets concerned.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Shadow Home Secretary and the Shadow Attorney-General

Chris Grayling. (I only fairly recently realised he is not the same person as A.C. Grayling.) He seems a bit accident-prone -- only a few months ago he put his foot in it about some announcement or other.

The fuss about gay couples at Bed and breakfasts (see e.g. Peter Tatchell here) seems a little bit manufactured to me, and I write as a former gay rights campaigner myself. He made an unwise passing remark in private, which doesn't mean that in office he would try to change the law back to allow the kind of discrimination being talked about.

In practice, who would actually want to stay at a B&B run by a proprietor who was hostile? I detect a certain lack of commonsense floating around in all this.

By and large, Grayling is a clever and mostly reasonable fellow. When he was shadow transport secretary he seemed unusually well-informed.

This storm in a teacup has been given a lot of publicity, while something that to me is more important is being ignored, if we are going to start analysing the suitability or otherwise of Cameron's would-be ministers. I speak of Edward Garnier. No, me neither, but he is the Shadow Attorney-General. According to the latest Private Eye, he is also a libel lawyer and he has come to the defence of his chum, the disgraceful Mr Justice Eady, the judge who keeps upholding scandalous "libel tourism" claims, and who I am delighted to see has been overturned by the Court of Appeal in the Simon Singh case. This is a case that was crucial for freedom of speech in Britain.

The Eye also reports that Garnier was hand in glove with Carter-Ruck over the even more scandalous Trafigura affair, in which Carter-Ruck, unbelievably, were trying in all seriousness to put an injunction on the reporting of Parliament.

Edward Garnier is reported to have vigorously defended the status quo as regards the libel law, and he added that he has earned his living and paid his mortgage thanks to it, as if that were some kind of justification.

Are we to have an Attorney-General who believes that freedom of speech should be compromised by monstrously unreasonable libel actions? This seems to be a matter of much greater significance than bigoted bed-and-breakfast proprietors, yet none of the mainstream press has reported a word about it yet.