Wednesday, November 18, 2015

New Zealand's flag

Dear New Zealand,

You're about to embark upon a referendum to decide if you're going to change your flag or not. It's totally your decision but what it says to the outside world has come up and some Kiwis have asked what we think about it. So here's a Brit on two key issues.

Firstly, yes we do get confused. That said we're more likely to think this:

is the flag of Australia than this:

is the flag of New Zealand. We're sorry about this. In our defence you're not alone. Flags on the European continent are very confusing as well because so many use the same basic design and many of the same colours. There was only a token effort in my school days and since then a good number of countries have changed their flags or even separated out, rendering those lessons even less effective. And we're far from the only ones to make the mistake - even Australian monarchists have used your flag by mistake.

So yes, I can see why you might want to change it to look less like Australia. But didn't your flag come first? Isn't Australia the thief?

But secondly we're told that the currently apparently means New Zealand is controlled by the UK. This is news to us. We don't really control our own country let alone anyone else's. You're a free and independent country and have been for some considerable time. Nobody here looks at your flag and thinks the presence of the Union Jack means you're a colony or overseas territory (or that Australia is!).

However don't worry that we'll feel offended if you change it. We'll still like you, just as we still like Canada. It's entirely your decision.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Is Trick or Treat really that widespread?

I'm posting this deliberately late to make it hard for anyone to break the cycle by knocking on my door today with horrific stuff. (Oh hello West Ham Labour!)

Is it me or is trick or treating much rarer in this country than many seem to think? Oh we get the endless round of people bemoaning that Halloween is now a much bigger thing than in their childhood and how it's all an American import and so forth.

But here's the thing - it's been nearly thirty years since anyone knocked on my frontdoor in the hope of treats. And even then it was only the one time.

Now it's possible that sometimes I've been living behind a door that isn't the easiest to access or perhaps I've been out that evening but many a Halloween has been spent at home in blissful evasion. And still they haven't come.

Is this just an experience peculiar to me or is perhaps trick or treating much rarer than we think?

Or have I just subconsciously scared off all the kids before they knock on my door?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Al Murray on democracy

Here's a less well known moment from the South Thanet declaration - Al Murray's speech.

It's good to see a comedian with a lot more sense than the breach of the Trade Descriptions Act that is Russell Brand. Nice pwning him!

The Farage moment

Here is a reminder of one of the best moments from the general election results.

Al Murray's reaction is priceless.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

When the Liberal Democrats had a strong leader

Apparently the Lib Dems had a party conference this week. Not that it got much notice. The Lib Dems remain in a rut.

But there was a time when they made an impact under a tough leader and were actually very good at coming third. Here's a classic Rory Bremner sketch from those days:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

When did Labour last depose a leader?

Today the Labour leadership result will be announced. And it's already clear a lot of people won't be happy with the outcome, whichever way it goes. But what can they do about it?

I'm not overly familiar with the current Labour Party Rule Book so I don't know the formal procedure for challenging a sitting leader. But I suspect many in the Labour Party don't know it off by heart either and some may be rapidly researching it.

But the problem is not how easy it is constitutionally to depose a leader but rather whether Labour has the culture and the will to do it. And past form suggests not.

When I've asked fellow politicos the question "Who was the last Labour leader to be formally deposed?" there have been three answers:
  • Ramsay MacDonald
  • George Lansbury
  • Pass
Neither of these men is the correct answer. Ramsay MacDonald abdicated rather than was deposed. When in August 1931 his second government was facing collapse over budget cuts he concluded that he could not credibly oppose the expected Conservative or Conservative-Liberal replacement government in implementing a policy he had pursued and so decided to relinquish the leadership. As it happened, he wound up as the head of a National Government that drew members from all three parties and implemented the policy himself but broke with Labour in the process. But that was walking away, not a deposal.

George Lansbury is the other popular answer but he also wasn't deposed. In 1935 Labour was torn over the issue of how to respond to European militarism in the wake of Italy's invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) with Lansbury opposing even sanctions. Other frontbenchers who held this position resigned, including both Sir Stafford Cripps, widely seen as Lansbury's political heir, and Lord Ponsonby, Labour's leader in the Lords, leaving Lansbury increasingly isolated. The party conference of that year was a turbulent affair with Lansbury opposing a pro sanctions resolution on pacifist grounds and then being shredded in a speech by the Transport & General Workers' Union leader Ernest Bevin.

But neither Bevin nor the conference toppled Lansbury. At the time, the power to elect and remove the Labour leader lay in the hands of the Parliamentary Labour Party alone. Lansbury tended his resignation but it refused by 38 votes to 7. This was no Nigel Farage style evasion of a promise but a genuine offer rejected, partially out of continued affection for Lansbury but also a fear that the next leader would be Arthur Greenwood, widely seen as Bevin's puppet. (Nowadays a trade union leader's mouthpiece is the heavy favourite for the deputy leadership.) However, Lansbury felt his position was untenable and insisted on stepping down. The MPs turned to the deputy leader Clement Attlee, expecting him to be a stop gap until the looming general election returned a wider choice but instead he proved to be the party's longest serving leader.

So just who is the last leader to have been deposed? It was the now little remember John Robert Clynes in 1922.

It may surprise people today but the concept of a "leader of a political party" didn't really emerge until many years after parties were established. There had long been leaders of parties in one of the Houses of Parliament but even then their authority didn't stretch over members in the other House unless they happened to be the current or ex Prime Minister. They had no position over the party in the country. Only slowly did parties come to create formal posts of a leader. (In other countries the "leader" is often still divided - e.g. in Germany three different people may be the chair of a party, the leader in the Bundestag and the candidate for Chancellor. And don't even try working out who is the "leader" of the US Republicans.) In the early years what we would now identify as the Labour leader was split across the chair of the parliamentary party, the chair of the party on the National Executive Committee and the party Secretary. The post of leader was created in 1922.

Clynes had been Minister of Food Control in the Lloyd George Coalition before Labour pulled out and then served as chair of the parliamentary party since 1921 in a Parliament where Labour was lacking many of its biggest names after the 1918 election. He led the party through the 1922 election at which it became undisputedly the leading Opposition party for the first time but then faced a challenge for the leadership from former parliamentary leader Ramsay MacDonald, who had returned to the Commons after a four year absence. In a close vote MacDonald defeated Clynes by 61 to 56. Clynes became MacDonald's deputy and served as Lord Privy Seal and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons in the first Labour government (as was then standard the Prime Minister was the Leader of the House but in practice MacDonald was busy, serving as his own Foreign Secretary) and then as Home Secretary in the second Labour government.

This was not the last time a big name was absent from Parliament when a leader was initially chosen. After the 1935 general election Herbert Morrison was one of the challengers to Clement Attlee but unsuccessful. (Attlee's 20 year long leadership was in part prolonged by a desire to age Morrison out of hope.) Tony Benn lost his seat in the 1983 general election and so missed the chance to stand to succeed Michael Foot; he returned in a 1984 by-election and eventually challenged Neil Kinnock in 1988 but was unsuccessful. David Miliband is currently out of Parliament but that hasn't stopped speculation about his returning to replace Jeremy Corbyn if the latter is elected. We can expect some similar speculation about an Ed Balls return at some stage in the next five years, no matter how silly it may seem or how much he denies it.

But for now Clynes remains the last Labour leader to have been deposed and that was 97 years ago. Labour do not have a culture of toppling leaders and that will make it hard to muster the effort to topple this one.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A vote for X, Y *or* Z is a vote for Z? or Why Corbynistas don't care about "electibility"

It's one of the oldest cries in electoral history. Politicians will declare that a vote for one of their rivals is a vote for another. But they don't always mean it the same way.

Consider a case from fifteen years ago in the US when Al Gore and his supporters declared "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush!" Ralph Nader responded with "A vote for Gore is a vote for Bush!" Presumably George W. Bush declared "A vote for Bush is a vote for Bush!" just in case anyone misunderelucidated.

Gore was making the classic attack on smaller parties and independents, arguing they would split the vote and let the rival in. But Nader clearly wasn't - nobody seriously believed Nader could win. Instead Nader argued that Gore was so similar to Bush that the country would get much the same, whichever one was elected. Now hindsight may suggest something differently and at the time supporters of Gore (and for that matter Bush) could doubtlessly rattle off a huge list of differences between the two candidates & their manifestos but it had no effect. Because Nader's voters either doubted the sincerity of the differences or felt that on the fundamentals both candidates were as bad as each other. A Nader vote at least allowed them to side step actually having to chose between the two and being somehow responsible.

And this isn't confined to the US. Over here in the old days the Liberal Democrats often portrayed both major parties as much the same. However at the same time at the local level the party would position itself as the only credible opposition to one of the big two in the hope of getting tactical votes from supporters of the other. Come 2015 it found this contradiction tearing its vote to shred as Labour & other left-minded voters decided that "yellow Tory" was no different from "blue Tory" and they weren't going to compromise vote for one over the other.

This is part of the reason why the Jeremy Corbyn bandwagon has proven immune to every single appeal to consider what will make the Labour Party an election winner again. The hard left of the Labour Party was never enamoured with Blair and New Labour but largely kept their heads down at the time. But looking back many despise those years and feel all they got was a conservative government in a red rosette. They don't want to make those compromises again. If the country is to have a conservative government it won't be by their votes or through their party.

This attitude exists on the right as well - there's a lot of voters who do believe the "LibLabCon" [sic] is all the same and aren't going to rush to vote one over the other and instead stick with Ukip.

What's the solution? It's old fashioned positive differentiation to show how a party is offering something different and better.

Now does the Corbynistas' attitude seem so strange?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ten reasons why Jeremy Corbyn should be the next Labour leader

It may shock some but I think there are some good reasons why I think Jeremy Corbyn should be elected Labour leader:
  1. Age. If elected Corbyn will become leader at the age of 66, the oldest person to become a leader of a major UK wide party since Michael Foot at 67 for Labour and Neville Chamberlain at 68 for the Conservatives & Unionists (and he was almost the last senior figure for whom the full name was critical). A Corbyn leadership would be a marvellous antidote to the obsession with youth in certain quarters of politics and broaden the field for consideration in other parties.
  2. The beard. Beards have been out of fashion in politics in recent decades with New Labour especially practising a virulent degree of pogonophobia. To find a significant leader with a beard (well on their face) you have to go back to the Edwardian era when Lord Salisbury and Keir Hardie were the last leaders of their respective parties to sport them. By making Corbyn their leader, Labour would help bring beards back into the mainstream.
  3. The cap. Headgear is often absent in politics with only George Galloway's distinctive fedora (which now seems to have been surgically attached) and Paddy Ashdown's meals getting much comment lately. But Corbyn has a wonderfully distinct cap - I believe it's called a Breton Cap - that's a gift for the cartoonists. It's time to expand the range of caps and hats in politics.
  4. Clothes. Corbyn is a functional practical dresser. A tale is told of how burglars broke into his house and actually turned down his red blazer. Not for him the ridiculously expensive tailored suits worn by some Labour politicians. If he were leader the image consultants would have a nightmare - and that's no bad thing.
  5. Cycling. Boris Johnson's term as Mayor is coming to an end in less than a year and he'll either drop into a lower profile or end up in a more security conscious ministerial post of the kind that discourages such open access. There'll be an opening for the position of most prominent cyclist in politics. As Leader of the Opposition Corbyn would be perfectly placed to fill it.
  6. The polls. It can't be much fun being an opinion pollster at the moment. Everyone keeps bringing up the general election and won't listen to explanations about the difference between opinion polls and exit polls. Even away from politics "What would you know?" is a constant response and there's not much opportunity to rebuild reputations before the elections next year. A Corbyn victory would allow opinion polls a chance to get something right this year.
  7. Bookies. It's a sign of just how much the Corbyn bid has surged that initially he odds as low as 100 to 1 or even 200 to 1. If he becomes leader a lot of bookmakers are going to have to pay out rather more on this contest than they were expecting.
  8. Parliament. There is a long history of hardline socialist MPs having a greater impact outside Parliament rather than within it. They tend to go round the country making the most memorable speeches at rallies and protests instead of within the Commons. It's high time to change that and have the case for socialism made in the Commons, and from the despatch box to boot, where the immediate audience will be more diverse and where the arguments can be responded to directly.
  9. Islington. This borough has a reputation for metropolitan liberal chattering class politics practised by those sitting around at trendy dinner parties and looking down with undisguised contempt on the hard working classes. This reputation has not been helped by a number of political developments, including the borough's other MP being Emily Thornberry, and has even led to Newsnight investigations as to why the country is so out of touch with Islington (erm shouldn't that be the other way round?). But whatever else you can say about Corbyn his brand of socialism is not the chattering class dinner party champagne socialist style and his leadership would allow the borough to show it's more diverse than that.
  10. Taking leadership elections seriously. Corbyn was nominated because a bunch of Labour MPs felt it was important to have a debate with the hard left of the party and give it a ritualistic slaughter. They expect Corbyn to do about as well as Diane Abbott in 2010. (They also forgot that Abbott's candidacy attracted members to vote who would otherwise have not bothered and it was their transfers that ultimately gave Ed Miliband the edge.) They never expected a great surge to the point there are now groups organising around a simple Anyone-But-Corbyn line. Nobody expected the supporter option to attract all those #ToriesForCorbyn or #TrotsForCorbyn (and there are even Conservatives trying to sign up Trots for Corbyn). To a Conservative this looks bizarre - when we have our next leadership election nobody is going to think the process is somehow incomplete without the presence of an Edward Leigh, Philip Davies or Nadine Dories on the ballot paper. A Corbyn victory will be a wake-up call to take things seriously and only nominate candidates you actually want to see as leader.
So go on Labour, make him your next leader!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Lib Dems - Lambs to the slaughter or just Pointless?

The Liberal Democrat leadership election hasn't really taken the country by storm. There hasn't been a particularly bizarre candidate nominated solely in the hope that a thrashing by the members will shut them and their followers up. There hasn't been an unresignation by Nick Clegg. There doesn't seem to have been much debate about actual policy or attempting to determine what is the Liberal Democrat answer to the questions of the day.

In fact all I've really noticed are:
  • Norman Lamb has drifted into being the classic candidate for whom nearly every speech could be summed up as "Noun, verb, [Single subject]". Yes mental health is important and yes he was an outstanding minister at the Department of Health, but one almost wants to ask "So Norman, apart from mental health...". Is he just playing one bit of his record or something else? It reminds me a bit of Chris Huhne's leadership bid in 2006 when at times it seemed he was really seeking the Environment portolio (in the days before Climate Change was split off) at least until scandals and performance doubts engulfed all his rivals. But if Lamb wants to be the party's Health spokesperson then surely the post would be his for the asking?
  • Tim Farron seems to have spent the campaign alternating between an over-enthusiastic self-righteous type (well he is seeking a post first held by Paddy Ashdown) and going all defensive about his faith and voting record. There are people of faith in all parties but the Lib Dems have a particularly strong secularist tendency that is unforgiving of voting records on certain issues. But also Farron seems to be wriggling on technicalities when his voting record was being brought up as early as 2010 when he first stood for the deputy leadership and then the party presidency.
  • For the most part Lamb is backed by ex-ministers and party grandees whilst Farron is mainly backed by MPs who were on the backbenches in the Coalition (including all the ones still in the Commons) and various left-leaning liberals although there are some exceptions in both camps.
  • And there was an incident with some Lamb supporters employing "push polling" techniques to spread attacks on Farron to members. Lamb had no awareness of this but as a key criteria for a leader is the ability to keep control of one's supporters it doesn't reflect well on him.
And that's mainly it. But there are some potential jokes for whichever is elected leader. Lamb has already made one about his wife Mary and their children - "Mary had a little Lamb". If he's elected leader then we'll get lots of lamb jokes.

Tim Farron may be either praising or cursing an edition of Pointless from a couple of years ago. One of the rounds was on Lib Dem MPs elected in 2010 and 100 members of the public had one minute to name as many as possible. This unscientific process found that even Vince Cable was named by less than one in five. But many MPs fared worse (I don't know how Lamb did) with Tim Farron being named by nobody at all. Yes Tim Farron was Pointless.

(Being unknown during the Coalition may be an advantage or not. On the one hand they would be a fresh face. On the other hand having rebelled on something unpopular the party did is more useful when people noticed you doing it at the time.)

Soon we'll find out who the new leader is and where they'll try to go.

The problems of the Lib Dems

With the Liberal Democrats declaring their new leader today, it's time to take a look at the mess they're in.

Five years ago, I asked "Nick Clegg - Sir John Simon or Sir Herbert Samuel?" It is now possible to provide an answer. And it is neither, though more Samuel than Simon.

In one regard, Nick Clegg has succeeded incredibly by holding his party together. There were a total of 58 MPs in the last Parliament - 57 elected in 2010 and a replacement in a by-election. At this past general election just one of those MPs stood as a non-Lib Dem - Mike Hancock who was expelled in a scandal and whose re-election bid was unrelated to a coalition split. A scandal also accounted for the only Lib Dem MP to resign mid-Parliament, Chris Huhne. Ten MPs stood down at the election, mostly long standing and/or elderly members, though Sarah Teather's retirement on political grounds was a sign that all was not well.

This is an impressive achievement compared to previous coalitions that saw the Liberals shed MPs either through defections to non-government parties (this happened even during the Churchill coalition in the Second World War) or due the party's departure failing to take all its members with them. There was no grand split with MPs forming an anti-coalition faction around someone like Simon Hughes, Tim Farron or Charles Kennedy. In this regard, Nick Clegg succeeded better than all his predecessors.

However, in nearly every other regard Clegg has taken the Lib Dems to a catastrophic failure.

(In one though, that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Lib Dems. He had an ambition to make the Lib Dems like the German Free Democrats. The FDP have since been wiped out of the Bundestag.)

Many explanations have been put forward but the fundamental problem is simple - the Liberal Democrats do not have a clearly identified distinctive raison d'être and a core vote based on that. I know someone will start posting the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution, but such position statements are fairly generic and in any case the preamble is not exactly widely known.

Over the years the Lib Dems have been all over the place, ranging from asserting a centrist position on the political spectrum to being to the left of Labour to radical free marketers. At a local level the situation is even worse with the party's trumpeted "localism" manifesting as a "whatever gets your vote gov" approach that has meant the party has become even more incoherent, with Lib Dems varying wildly across the country and sometimes even in the same district. Tristram Hunt is clearly biased but his piece from six years ago The Lib Dem power failure reflects how many from other parties look on in utter bewilderment as to what the Liberal Democrat vision in local government is.

And then there are two tactics that yes they are used by all parties but which the Lib Dems have turned into a fine art form. There's the demonisation of rival candidates for being insufficiently local, even when the Lib Dem candidate's own local credentials are questionable (e.g. a councillor from the far end of the borough from the constituency claiming to be more local than the sitting London Assembly Member). And there's the resort to tactical pleas with the whole "can't win here" that have squeezed rival parties. Both may deliver in the short term but neither have really converted the voters into long term Lib Dem supporters.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in the long term (and many in other parties hope they don't) they need to articulate a clear vision of what their party stands for to the public at large and grow a core vote around this vision. Their new leader has to start somewhere...


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