Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lib Dem activists don't like their negativity!

An internal Liberal Democrat report into the London Mayoral election has leaked. And the findings are damning for the Liberal Democrat method of campaigning. (Evening Standard: Paddick was a turn-off for voters, say Lib-Dems) Highlights of the coverage include:
...activists were so upset with "negative campaigning" that they refused to deliver lealfets...
And the report itself says:
The present system often appears to incentivise candidates to promote themselves above all else... Many candidates have too often come across almost as if they were independents...
It's not just referring to Brian Paddick but to Liberal Democrat candidates in general. One of the most devious campaign tactics some have adopted is to basically run against their own Liberal Democrat run council where necessary.

If Nick Clegg, or whoever's the Lib Dem leader next week, really does believe in "a new type of politics", "an end to tribalism" and all the other stuff they usually spout then they could do no worse that actually clamping down on their local campaign organisers who are addicted to negativity. Every Conservative and Labour activist has a stock of stories of negative Lib Dem campaigning to trade and despises the Lib Dems precisely because of this two-facedness. If Clegg wants to make any impact as all as leader he could do no worse than make this a priority.

A future UK Senate?

Over on ConservativeHome: CentreRight, Daniel Hamilton has posted How would you reform the House of Lords?. This issue has rather gone off the boil for the time being, but cannot evade resolution forever. And I think it's about time the Conservative Party took a lead in constitutional reform, rather than adopting a "no change at all" position at the time and then having no ability to influence the outcome, then being unable to do anything more than complain at the result (see for instance Scottish devolution).

Last year I wrote a series of posts on second chambers looking at some of the upper houses in other parliamentary democracies to see if there is anything in them that could be copied. Some good ideas stand out, but what is also clear is that different countries use the second chamber for different things, which comes to the nub of the problem.

Fundamentally there are three questions about reform of the House of the Lords that need to be answered in order. They are:

1). What role in the system should the second chamber play?
2). What powers should it have?
3). How should it be composed?

Unfortunately nearly everyone dives on the third question and then spends forever debating such minutiae as the ratio of elected to appointed members, voting systems and constituencies rather than grappling with the first two.

But it is in answering the first two that will lead to the answer for the third. Now many upper houses around the world are part of federal systems, with the upper house designed as a states's rights chamber, to mirror the lower house reflecting the people. This is true of the Senate of Australia and the Bundesrat of Germany, and for that matter also of the Senate of Canada and the Rajya Sabha of India. Now this takes us into the difficult point that in the UK power is not evenly devolved and none of the four parts has the same level of power. This is not a federal country and so does not need a federal upper house.

Similarly it is often suggested that the upper house should be composed of representatives from local government (indeed Daniel suggests this in his own post). But does local government, primarily an administrative matter, really need such a direct link to the legislature?

The House of Lords may once have been a house to represent a key political interest group (the great landowners) but it has evolved into a chamber that primarily scrutinises and amends legislation, occasionally acting as a check on the powers of the lower house. This should remain the role post reform, answering the first question.

So what powers should it have? The first, and easiest to address, are those over supply (or the Budget). For a parliamentary democracy to function effectively there must be a single body that decides the government, including the crucial power of access to revenue. Anyone familiar with the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis will be aware of the mess that arose because both houses had power over the budget, resulting in a direct clash with the constitutional principle that governments live and die in the lower house. (One could, I suppose, give the power to a joint sitting of the two houses but it would have to be immediate.) It's notable that most upper houses founded in Westminster system democracies since 1911 have tended to have the supply powers restricted in precisely this way.

I would also have an assumption built in that if the two houses conflict then ultimately at the end of any dispute resolution procedure then either the overwhelming will of the Commons should prevail over the upper or the electorate should settle the matter. This will take more than a mere one year delay as presently in the Parliament Act. The starting point should be that if a bill can't get through the upper house it either dies or a special mechanism must be invoked that requires a more substantial threshold than a normal majority in the lower house to override it. Perhaps the Commons should have a 2/3 majority to override a bill failing in the upper house, or there should be a joint sitting (with the numbers in the upper house always deliberately smaller than the Commons) or perhaps each house can have the power to refer a bill directly to the people if the other house will not pass it. (After all if we're allowing the Commons the chance to get its way over the upper house, why not the reverse?) We may also give the upper house extra powers in particular areas. Currently it has an absolute veto over postponing general elections. What about giving it an absolute veto over all matters affecting the Commons, including voting systems, raising MPs's salaries and so forth? I admit this section is not as fully thought through as it could be, but there are several clear possibilities.

Finally we come to the composition. Again there's an easy starting point followed by a quick descent into murk. But it's notable that many upper houses around the world have staggered elections, so that the entire chamber is not elected in one go. This is a useful check against a sudden convulsion in the Commons and allows for the upper house to take a longer term view. Beyond this it gets murky.

As I said above, I don't think the upper house should be converted into a states's rights or local councils's chamber, so filling it with nominees from elsewhere in the system isn't in line with this. And since it wouldn't be aiming to represent a particular element I don't think a deliberate malapportionment such as an equal number of members per county (where London and the Isle of Wight would have parity!) would work. But what about an elected chamber that transcended the limitations of geographic representation?

It is here that I must acknowledge inspiration from the two Irish Seanads - the Irish Free State Seanad and the present Seanad Éireann. The former had a country wide election that resulted in some Senators being elected who represented particular groups in society who would not normally have been well represented in a constituency based system. The latter has both members elected by university graduates and members representing "Vocational Panels" that seek to represent the key strands in Irish society (Administration, Agriculture, Culture & Education, Labour and Industry & Commerce). Now the Vocational Panels have come in for criticism as being elected by party politicians and producing party politicians, but the university seats routinely elect independents and show a willingness amongst voters to not let the upper house be a total partisan walk-over.

Now a UK wide election for even eighty upper house members could get very messy if using a single constituency. But what if for the upper house voters could register as a member of one of a series of groupings, with each grouping electing a number of upper house members by postal vote using the Single Transferable Vote? (The concept of separate electoral rolls with choice as to which one is one is common - perhaps the best known example in the Anglosphere are the Māori seats in the Parliament of New Zealand.) A mechanism could be established to monitor the individual rolls and allow for the addition and removal of groupings as deemed necessary. Voters could vote by post to elect a proportion - say a third at a time - of the upper house. The nature of the upper house seats could encourage candidacies and voting on a different scale from the Commons, breaking the partisan deadlock and encouraging independent candidates with suitable backgrounds. And UK wide elections could help represent groups in society who frequently find they are too scattered and divided to be listened to in the Commons.

This would be a radical change for the upper house (we couldn't really carry on calling it "the Lords" so I guess "Senate" is as good a working title as any) but one that has very few elements that have not been tried and tested before. Maybe this could be the way forward...

The airbrushing out of Margaret Thatcher

Amongst the delights in the newly released government papers from thirty years ago is the revelation that Labour tried to marginalise Margaret Thatcher from celebrations of the anniversary of female suffrage. (BBC News: Thatcher sidelined over suffrage) Even then it seems that Labour were determined to rewrite history when it comes to women and the Conservative Party by ignoring the existence of the most prominent female politician this country has yet had (they may also try to forget that the first woman to take her seat in the Commons was a Conservative). Why? Because some of them have absorbed this idea that they can make particular voters come running to them merely by tarring other parties as discriminatory and ignore the facts. (See also Harriet Harman's rubbish memory)

It was the Conservative Party who had the first women Prime Minister, the first ethnic minority Prime Minister, the first Prime Minister born outside the United Kingdom and more gay Prime Ministers than any other party. Where Labour have just talked the talk, the Conservatives have walked the walk.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A year of Nick Clegg

Apparently Nick Clegg has been leader of the Liberal Democrats for exactly one year today. (Hattip to Iain Dale's Diary: Nick Clegg: A Year of Progress or A Year of Disappointment? as I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.) So what has happened in his year as leader?

Well to be honest not much. The Liberal Democrats have stabilised, have managed to have a year without a leadership election (the first since 2004) but generally have been rather obscure. Their biggest news story was the massive splits when Clegg decided to oppose calls for a referendum on the EU Constitution "Treaty", when they are the party that has called for referendums on such treaties before. (Liberals continue ditching democracy and And so continues the Lib Dem Muppet Show) So that's one strike against democracy. (However I'm not sure that Clegg himself is responsible for the party's youth wing ditching students and democracy - see Young Liberals abandon students and democracy.) Otherwise the party has continued to be all over the place when it comes to tax cuts and that's about it really.

What about Clegg himself? Well he hasn't really made a great political impact and he's best known for the admission of sleeping with thirty women. It confirms that there are times when the public have the right not to know but has otherwise made him into a figure of fun. (However Jeremy Vine came off even worse - see Never again!) Then there was the revelation and attempted cover-up about the fact that Clegg was a member of the Conservatives at Cambridge. (Clegg's murky past) But beyond that Clegg hasn't made any real impact.

Still he can take some consolation when compared to the Liberal Democrats's counterparts in other countries. In the last twelve months their Canadian counterparts have suffered their worst election results since federation and seen their attempts to pervert democracy backfire big time with the leader deposed (When was this put to the electorate?), Has Canadian democracy triumphed?, "Forest Gump as a Prime Minister will not go over well in Quebec" and Harper 1, Dion Nil), their Australian counterparts have disappeared from parliament and their Irish counterparts have voted to dissolve themselves (The end of the Progressive Democrats).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Flashback: The rise of William Hague

I have just received the latest edition of the Conservative History Journal from the Conservative History Group. There are quite a few articles which caught my eye, including one on the historical reputation of Neville Chamberlain (who, I am glad to see, is starting to at least slowly rise in the estimation of historians as shown by the most recent poll) and another brief peace on one of the traditions of Conservative foreign policy, a tradition of non-intervention, of scepticism of the benefits of playing the world policeman and a reluctance to pay huge taxes for ideological crusades. This strand is not dead by any means and can be found most recently amongst Conservative opponents of the Iraq War.

But the article that caught my eye the most is "No More than another Major?: How William Hague became Leader of the Conservative Party" by Timothy Heppell. It takes me, and no doubt many others, back to the gloomy days of the summer of 1997 when the party first sought to find the way forward after the general election. Heppell's account ignores some of the wider issues, such as the demands by the party membership for the franchise to be widened, and instead focuses upon the way in which the contest kept altering from expectations, with the original expected final match between Michaels Heseltine and Portillo being prevented by health and election defeat. Then the Michael Howard-Kenneth Clarke showdown was derailed by both William Hague backing out of an agreed ticket with Howard and Ann Widdecombe relighting old controversies. Amidst all this the right of the party saw its first ballot vote shredded across Howard, Peter Lilley and John Redwood, with none being able to unify it. Consequently William Hague emerged as the "Anyone But Clarke" candidate, and was elected albeit reluctantly by a parliamentary party that rejected the candidate with the most experience, the candidate most popular with the wider party, the candidate most popular with the voters and the candidate whom Labour feared the most. Margaret Thatcher endorsed him in the final stages, but with many doubts, and Hague lacked a strong position from the start.

In recent years it has become fashionable amongst some younger Conservatives to praise the Hague era as a time when the party was at least internally doing well and only suffering continued electoral unpopularity because of a hangover effect from the last Conservative government. In my experience most of these Conservatives either were not members at the time or tend to be at the non-realistic end of things. Hague himself was a reluctant leader who stood only after his first choice (Portillo) was unavailable and his second choice (Howard) appeared unwinnable. In his biography of William Pitt the Younger, Hague speculates that a major reason for Pitt's accepting the premiership at the age of just twenty-four and in the extremely unpromising circumstances of December 1783 was because it was an offer that was unlikely to come again for many years and even if he proved to be brief in office, he would have enhanced prestige in the long run and a potential return would be easier. It is not too hard to see a similar argument for Hague's own move in 1997.

And supposing for a moment that Hague had stuck to his original agreement to support Howard's leadership bid, with the deputy leadership and party chairmanship to come? The party chairmanship has at times proved to be a poisoned chalice, but a Howard-Hague ticket would have been in a much stronger position to first defeat Lilley and Redwood in the battle on the right in the first ballot, (then accumulate enough support to knock out Stephen Dorrell on the second ballot if his candidacy had continued) and finally face off Clarke in the showdown. Of all the ABC candidates, Howard came closest to matching Clarke in terms of experience and making Labour scared. The intervention by Ann Widdecombe could well have been seen off by a stronger campaign team. But would Howard have been able to beat Clarke on a final ballot? Heppell isn't sure, pointing to the weakening effects of poor polling and ambivalent support from key backers who were would-be Portillo supporters. I am more inclined to think it would have happened. Most of the weaknesses suffered by Howard also applied to Hague and they did not stop him. Howard would also have brought a sense of gravitas to the leadership.

But in reality the result was that the party spent over six years limping around, with internal feuds that no-one can really remember the supposed policy reasons for now (just what was the dissent between Widdecombe and Portillo's followers about?), with little sense of direction and with leaders who, for all their strong characteristics (and Iain Duncan Smith's championing of social reform remains to this day one of the most radical moves by a Conservative leader in recent times) were unable to take the party anywhere. And then in 2003 the parliamentary party went and elected Michael Howard as leader. He served largely as a caretaker whilst rebuilding the party and finally taking it forward at his only general election. One can only help but wonder what might have happened if he'd had four years instead of eighteen months and got the party to that position in 2001...

What's better? 3% or 2%?

Amidst all the other current economic woes, the pound has been falling and the high street commercial rate is now below parity. I must check to see if I have any Euro notes lying around...

And the old debate about whether or not to join the Euro is slowly coming to the forefront, although the levels of political ferocity seen in the past haven't yet materialised. But one point I haven't seen much of is the debate over which interest rate is better for this country - the Bank of England's 2% or the European Central Bank's 3%?

A single percentage point doesn't look that much different, does it? Yet such a difference has very real consequences for borrowers and savers, for mortgage levels, for taxation - one cold go on endlessly. Not for nothing does the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee decisions get heavily analysed, even when the rate is shifted only 0.25%.

So is anyone calling for the UK to have the ECB interest rate? Because that is what entering the Euro will involve. The British economy has long followed a different path from that of many other European countries and frequently the two interest rates have moved in opposite directions because of this. Joining the Euro is not going to change all this. Nor is it going to be a magical solution to current economic problems.

Friday, December 12, 2008

More thoughts on interest rates

Further to my post Very long term interest rates I've been giving the subject some more thought, not for the sake of time travellers but as a possible means by which a pension fund might be created.

Now just imagine that if when a person is born, a long-term saver account were set up that could not have a withdrawal for 65 years. Imagine that £1000 were deposited in it. How much would there be for the person when they retire?

If we take the 5% interest rate then we get £23,839.90. Hmm... it's not really that high an amount for several years is it? What about 8%? £148,779.85. How about 10%? Admittedly it's a high rate but we are talking about extremely low liquidity. We get £490,370.73 - now this is more like it. But we have the curse of inflation still.

What about an alternative model of keeping the rate at 5% but adding £100 to the account each year? We get £69,519.70. On 8% we get £333,504.65. 10% produces £979,741.45 (but once again waiting just one extra year brings the ~illionaire status).

And if we take a 5% interest rate but tie the additional deposit to rise at an inflation rate of 2%? We get £92,578.98. On an 8% rate we get £395,547.30.

So is there anything in this model that could be a workable solution for pensions? The biggest problems are still relying on the interest rate being high enough (even if it's the average of a variable rate) - and on the adding model it really needs to at least 7% for the resulting amount to be even vaguely reasonable at today's prices - and inflation. If we follow historians of the 1930s who use multiplying by 30 as their method of giving very rough modern day equivalents, then on an 8% rate with a yearly additional £100 inflated by 2% per annum we find a 65 year fund yields the rather low equivalent lump sum of £13,184.91.

(For those still thinking about the Monk's 200 year plan from the last post, we might try a 100* method. On an 8% rate with no additions he'd get the equivalent of £48,389,495.85.)

A 12.5% rate seems somewhat high, even so for such a non-liquid account, but would yield the equivalent of £138,741.61. If you could then maintain that interest rate for a simple interest payout, you'd then get an annual pension equivalent to £17,342.70. But there's a huge amount of "if"s in there and viability can't be ensured. This doesn't seem like a long-term solution to pensions.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Very long term interest rates

All the recent interest rate cuts have got me thinking about a few situations in various science fiction series where characters can take advantage of (or suffer from) very long term compound interest. Some of these are worth a little thought as to whether such a situation could truly work.

The first one is the Doctor Who story The Time Meddler in which it's revealed, amongst other things, that one of the Monk's previous schemes involved depositing £200 into a London bank in 1968 then nipping forward in time 200 years and collecting a fortune in compound interest. Just how possible might this scheme be? (For the moment we'll ignore the fact that in the Doctor Who universe 2168 is around the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth which might have caused some disruption to the banking system.)

Now let's start by assuming that either the interest rate remains approximately the same or the Monk was able to get a fixed rate long term account, though that's a big if. Otherwise the scheme could have been derailed by the bank rapidly passing on cuts in interest rates to savers, but not passing on rises so hurriedly. Let's also assume the Monk chose a bank that he knew would be in operation in 200 years time. Whilst there are protection mechanisms for savers if the bank goes under, it's better to use one with the least fuss.

So assuming a fixed rate of 5% (historically the usual interest rate) across the entire period, then exactly 200 years would yield £3,458,516.16 If the interest rate was higher, say 8%, then the outcome rockets to £967,789,916.98 (though if he waited another year he'd be a billionaire). And if he could find a bank insane enough to offer him a fixed interest rate as high as 18% then he'd get £47,580,769,007,364,000.00 Not bad eh?

But there are two fairly major problems. The first is that the Monk would have to somehow be able to claim the account after 200 years' dormancy. He could, I suppose, pose as the descendant of the original depositor, but might run into problems with inheritance tax. Or he could open in the account by posing as a father wishing to create a nest egg for a newly born son, then nip forward in stages and by posing as each successive generation he could transfer the account down. Or he could claim he was an eccentric who wished to help his descendants and make an arrangement for the account to only become active upon the rightful heir claiming it. He could, of course, use an overseas bank in a country that will never have the inheritance tax. The other problem also relates to the tax on interest, though again the Monk could use an overseas bank. A time traveller could be expected to know what they were up to.

And one final problem is inflation. Any major hyperinflation would wipe out the value of the savings. Even normal inflation will reduce it, but so long as the interest rate could keep ahead of that it wouldn't be so much of a problem.

A more interesting case comes in the Red Dwarf episode "Me²". In one scene Holly tells Lister the following:
"It seems when you left Earth three million years ago... you left seventeen pounds, fifty pence in a bank account. Thanks to compound interest you now own ninety-eight percent of all the world's wealth, but since you've hoarded it for three million years nobody's got any money except for you and NorWEB."
Now this scene is a wind-up in a comedy series, but the basic principles are still present. This time round we would have to assume that a person who is frozen in stasis (basically suspended animation) for a very long time can resume their financial affairs upon being released, which makes sense, although three million years is stretching it. If we can accept that the human civilisation (or its successor) still exists after three million years and a person's bank account can remain active then what does this yield?

Given that Lister is hardly the most organised of people, I'm going to assume his bank account is just a current account with an anaemic rate of interest - let's say 0.1%. (And I'm also going to assume that the bank calculates the exact interest rather than rounding it to the nearest whole, which is significant for the first few milleniums.) So even after 300 years Lister would have only £23.62 on deposit. After 3000 years it is £350.97. But after 30,000 years it has risen to £184,230,880,712,550.00. And after 3,000,000 years it has risen to £2.9886565148476356806364059915386 x 10 to the power of 1303. That's a very big number.

And this is where the whole thing would get messy. Interest doesn't grow like a tree, it is made by banks taking their depositors' money and investing it, then giving them a return. And current accounts have terms and conditions that allow the depositor to withdraw the lot instantly, so a bank would be vulnerable to a run if it didn't have reasonable funds available. At some point there just wouldn't be any more money that a bank could make and the interest payments would grind to a halt. The anaemic interest rate would, however, mean that the bank wouldn't have that much to make proportionally, but it would still be tricky. They could, I suppose, offer to buy Lister out of the account with a fixed amount and get a court order or special legislation to impose it upon him if he can't be reached, but that might have side effects on consumer confidence. Equally they could, I suppose, take a risk on Lister not returning and use his money to run the economy, but it would be a big risk. But then the entire scene is a joke being played on someone not au fait with all this.

Another jokey one is in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where we learn about how to pay for a meal at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, located at the end of time which is 576,000,003,579 years away, as counted by Marvin. This is an underestimate according to Wikipedia: Future of an expanding universe will be about 10 to the power of 10 the power of 76 years in the future. My computer's calculator cannot even process that number. For the meal you just deposit one penny into your bank account and then by the end of the universe compound interest will pay for the bill. The computer still can't calculate even 576,000,003,579 years' worth of interest at 0.1% so we'll just have to assume it's a big amount. Again we have to wonder how the banks can manage it, but the whole thing is impossible, but then so is the entire basis of the Restaurant.

Sadly time travel and stasis are not yet available and so we're all mortals on a rather shorter scale. And current interest rates are so low that if you can find a long term account with a fixed rate good enough to grow a fortune for your great, great, great grandchildren then you're very lucky and they will be luckier still.

One Member One Vote - One Good Idea?

As Lembit brings forward his plans to travel to Canada to sink another Liberal (see No end of Liberal leadership elections!) I've seen an interesting opinion piece about the merits of a One Member, One Vote system for selecting aprty leaders at Globe and Mail: Andrew Steele: One member, one vote - one bad idea.

Now it's coming from the starting point that the main parties in Canada use either delegates to a convention or a remote voting system that either way is malapportioned to give each constituency (they use the term "riding") equal voting power regardless of members. That's different from the British system, where One Member One Vote came after elections by only MPs.
Giving up this process would have huge consequences for each party, and for Canadian democracy.

First of all, if all members across the country have equal weight, parties tend to get bigger where they are already big, while getting smaller where they are weak.

If the Conservatives went to OMOV, the huge membership rolls in Alberta and rural B.C. would control the leadership selection process, choosing leaders to the right of the party. These leaders would be popular in these areas of strength, but likely have little attraction where the party is weak: francophone Quebec and urban Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Memberships would drop in these areas, while growing in the base.

If the Liberals went to OMOV, the large membership numbers in Toronto – and to a lesser extent Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and other urban centres – would dominate the party. Rural Quebec and rural Western Canada would become deserts to the Liberals as leaders became more and more urban in focus to appeal to the members who controlled the party.

To go to OMOV is to abandon the commitment to 308 ridings, a commitment that is the first step in party renewal.

For the Liberals, OMOV would mean the death of riding associations in rural Quebec and rural Alberta.

For the Conservatives, OMOV would mean the end of their Progressive Conservative faction.

For the NDP, OMOV would mean sparks of growth in Quebec would never flare into flame.

OMOV does not renew a party; it speeds its withering away into a regional rump.
Looking at the British parties, is it true that One Member, One Vote has resulted in leaders who only appeal to large memberships in the heartlands? Would we do better with a system based on constituency parties (leaving aside all the problems of members who joined centrally), whereby I would get significantly more voting power than many others, and where in some parties in some constituencies an entire block of votes could be wielded from the back of one taxi-cab?

Bad leaders have been chosen by all systems, but so have good ones. And none have had to face issues about not being the "popular vote" winner the way in the process. Every member has had equal voting power and there hasn't been a drive by members to transfer their membership to weak branches to enhance their say. Nor has it led to a decline in membership in weak areas.

There were attempts to get rid of it in the Conservative Party in 2005, but who would seriously suggest abandoning OMOV now?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Harper 1, Dion Nil

The first time I mentioned Stéphane Dion here (in Liberal woes) it was when I'd seen the following on Kerron Cross: Liberal Party Finished:
He is finished, as is the Liberal Party. Many Liberals are considering quitting the party because of the incompetent leader they have.

Time to face some facts:

+ He will never be prime minister
+ He is not a leader
+ He will never connect with local people
+ He will never connect with the rest of the country

Liberals will now have to force a new leadership contest if they want to have even the slightest chance of being the official opposition over the next years.
At the time the comparison was with Sir Menzies Campbell, but the words still ring true. After his shabby last ditch attempt to get himself installed as Prime Minister, Dion has today succumbed to Liberal Party pressure to bring forward his resignation. (Globe and Mail: Liberal battle lines drawn) So after a dramatic week in Canadian politics, one that has had many around the globe deeply following the saga (and its implications for the Westminster system of government), the immediate outcome is that Stephen Harper is still Prime Minister and Stéphane Dion has been sent packing by his own party. The coalition deal has backfired on the Liberals before it's even delivered anything and it gets more doubtful that the attempt will be renewed in January.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Forest Gump as a Prime Minister will not go over well in Quebec"

Perhaps the funniest comment on events in Canada that I've heard comes from André Arthur, an independent MP from Quebec:

I wonder who Arthur's equivalent in the UK would be?

Has Canadian democracy triumphed?

Thanks to ConservativeInternational for highlighting this one: Macleans.ca: Notes on a crisis: The End. Events in Canada have moved rapidly since my last post (When was this put to the electorate?). Prime Minister Stephen Harper has advised the Governor General to prorogue Parliament until the end of January, allowing time for sober reflection and preventing the never-put-to-the-electorate Liberal-NDP coalition from snatching power. And the opinion polls have shown a decisive shift in favour of the Conservatives and against the coalition parties. Meanwhile the realisation of what their deal involves has sunk in with the Liberals, as has the awfulness of their outgoing leader, Stéphane Dion. To call Dion Canada's answer to Sir Menzies Campbell would frankly be an insult to Campbell.
With Parliament prorogued, the coalition is dead. The only way they were going to make this thing stick, even temporarily, was by way of a speedy assumption of power, the glue that mends all breaks. But having lunged and missed, they will be very much on their back feet. I repeat: The coalition is over. I'll be surprised if it lasts the week.

But don't take my word for it. Two polls out today show that the coalition has backfired on its two main participants — hugely. Ekos has the Tories ahead by twenty points, 44-24, while Ipsos Reid puts the margin at an astounding 46-23. This is after the Tories had supposedly disgraced themselves by the "provocation" of cutting the political parties off the public teat, and by failing to provide adequate "stimulus."

Ipsos numbers show, further, that 60% of the public opposes the coalition, 62% are "angry" with it for trying to take power, while 68% support the Governor General's decision. The Grits can read the numbers as well as I can. There is no way they will return to this well.

Indeed, the caucus, after a three hour meeting this afternoon, seems to have other priorities in mind — namely forcing Dion from the leadership ASAP, rather than wait until the May convention. That's easier said than done, and is tangled up in the race to succeed him. For it only makes sense, if he is to be replaced quickly, to replace him with a permanent leader, and if the decision were made today it would almost certainly be Michael Ignatieff, and as Bob Rae can't abide that, he will be doing everything in his power to see to it that Dion stays in place.
(By the way "cutting the political parties off the public teat" refers to Conservative proposals to end the system whereby political parties get to dip their hands into taxpayers' wallets and get $1.95 for every single vote they poll. Would anyone seriously contemplate a £1 a vote system here?)

And so the Canadian tradition of governments decided in the ballot box, not in shabby deals amongst parties who said they wouldn't work together, is upheld. The biggest loser in the whole affair is Stéphane Dion. He'd already announced his resignation as leader in October (see No end of Liberal leadership elections!) but the leadership convention wasn't scheduled to take place until May. Now he is facing calls to go sooner than that.

Part of the collapse of support for Dion came in the very different broadcasts to the country by Harper and Dion. Harper's can be seen at ConservativeInternational: Canadian Conservatives launch 'hearts and minds' campaign to stay in power, Dion's at YouTube: Stephane Dion responds to Harper (and no, that out of focus is not a YouTube fault)). Yes someone in Dion's staff should have seen the PR disaster coming a mile off, but Dion himself should also have realised the failings of his chosen webcam format.

And so the winners of the last Canadian election continue to govern. Stephen Harper has triumphed, as has the principle that Canadian governments are decided at the ballot box.

See also: ConservativeInternational: Opinion polls set to kill opposition parties' attempt to oust Stephen Harper.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

So who are the Conservative sister parties?

Over on ConservativeHome, Charles Tannock MEP has contributed the piece Conservative MEPs - what are the options for alliances? in the latest stage of the ongoing discussion about where Conservative MEPs should sit in the European Parliament.

I've blogged before that I don't entirely care about this specific issue (Who cares where someone sits on the wrong train?) but it does raise some key wider questions about where the Conservative Party stands internationally.

It's now often forgotten that when the Conservatives originally joined the European People's Party back in the early 1990s it was the EPP who were the most reluctant about the arrangement, questioning whether Conservatism really does sit easily with Christian Democracy, the dominant strand of centre-right opinion in much of Europe (although the Czech Civic Democratic Party is an exception, drawing its inspiration from the Conservatives). Conservatism and Christian Democracy are not entirely compatible and to a large extent it is the differences that have resulted in very different attitudes to the European Union.

It's also worth considering the preferences of Conservative party members, particularly as the EPP issue has been driven from the grassroots. Fourteen months ago ConservativeHome included in their regular survey the question "who is your favourite right-of-centre/ conservative (and elected) leader in the world today?" The options were George W. Bush, Stephen Harper, John Howard, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. The result was a landslide for John Howard (sadly not repeated in the Australian election the following month). Only 27% of respondents chose the Europeans Merkel and Sarkozy. I don't think that was just because of their relative merits.

(Of course how would such a poll gonow? In a couple of months it seems the options will be just Merkel, Sarkozy and John Key, with the last evincing the "who he?" reaction that Harper got last time, and even Sarkozy may drop off for his leftward drift.)

The Conservative Party is notable as one of the few parties that are members of the European Democrat Union that is not also affiliated to the European Peopl's Party, making the connection in the European Parliament even more strained. Whilst strong connections have been made with centre-right parties in the Anglosphere (in the case of some of the US Republicans the connections are too strong), where are the equivalent strong links with parties in Europe?

When was this put to the electorate?

Two months ago the people of Canada went to the polls (Canadian federal election, 2008) and the Conservative government increased its number of seats, whilst the Liberals got their worst result since federations. And not offered to the people at all was the prospect of a Liberal-New Democratic Party coalition.

Since then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion has announced his resignation (No end of Liberal leadership elections!) but it takes months to replace a Canadian political leader. The Conservative government has been getting on with the key task of running the country, whilst other politicians have been making deals in smoke filled rooms to produce a cynical deal to produce a Liberal-NDP coalition, with support from the separatist Bloc Québécois. The whole affair is already provoking a constitutional crisis in Canada that will test several straining points of the Westminster system. (2008 Canadian political dispute)

It is this kind of deal making and contempt for the voters that demonstrates why coalitions are government at their worse. The Liberals and New Democratic (sic) Party are playing the numbers game, claiming a majority of voters supported them at the last election. But nobody supported this proposed coalition - it wasn't put to the electorate! Voters, not political leaders, should decide who governs them.

No doubt there will be lots of Liberal Democrats (another sic) popping up to defend the situation. But I hope the UK never ends up in the same situation. Who governs this country after the next election should be decided by the voters, not by Nick Clegg's ambitions.

Monday, December 01, 2008

"People who matter"?!?!?!?!?!

I see that once again José Manuel Barroso has gone an shown the utter contempt for democracy that is at the heart of the European Union. He has gone about declaring that the current economic crisis has made it more likely that the United Kingdom will join the Euro, which is a fair enough comment (though the degree of "never" makes it splitting hairs) but what really sticks is this:
I know that the majority in Britain are still opposed, but there is a period of consideration under way and the people who matter in Britain are currently thinking about it,
(BBC News: UK 'closer' to adopting the euro)
"People who matter"?!?! As any decision to join will be taken by a referendum, it is the "majority in Britain" who matter!

It is another example the typical contempt for democracy that is so prevalent in Europe and which Barroso regularly expresses. You may remember him intervening in the domestic debate about whether or not the people should have a say on the EU Constitution "Treaty of Lisbon" to again pour scorn on the very idea of democracy.

Of course since Barroso was never elected President of the European Commission in any meaningful sense it's no wonder he spouts this rubbish. And for someone who said when he was appointed that he wanted to tackle Euroscepticism, he's doing a pretty lousy job!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai or Bombay?

The tragic news from India has had the side effect of bringing to light the question of the city's name - Mumbai or Bombay? And it's one that has left media organisations scratching their heads.

Invariably a lot of people are going to jump out and assert that the city's "official English name" is "Bombay", perhaps with something about us not calling the Italian capital "Roma" and maybe claims that language can't be changed. But a language is a dynamic thing, with usage prone to changing. And can't an entity change its name if it wishes? When Reginald Kenneth Dwight choose to change his name, didn't he become Elton Hercules John immediately? Or did some vague entity who makes "official" statements about the English language (there isn't one) have to declare the name had changed before the new one could be used?

So for all the controversial background to it, the name "Mumbai" is now used in English for this city. And also in my experience the city is not normally talked about much at all in the UK. So it's harder to make assertions about what regular usage is, although in my personal experience virtually every relevant conversation I've had in recent years has used "Mumbai".

"But we say 'Bombay duck' and 'Bollywood'" I hear people cry. This is true, but then the use of "Beijing" has not wiped out "Peking duck" has it? At the end of the day usage can change and change can be encouraged. And in this case the drive to us "Mumbai" has largely succeeded.

And of course now that a lot of media outlets are calling it "Mumbai", that's the term dominating search engines. So news websites still using "Bombay" are finding they're losing potential traffic.

See also meditations71: Bombay or Mumbai?, The English Blog: Words in the News: Bombay or Mumbai, Matt's Geography Blog: Mumbai Was Bombay and The Guardian: Bombay or Mumbai? How UK media outlets are finally moving with the times for other takes on this issue.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A nice big seat

I've just seen the piece BBC News: MP with... the biggest constituency about Andrew Turner, MP for the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight is the constituency with the single largest number of electors of any in the United Kingdom and as such it frequently features in the numerous online discussions about constituency sizes that have appeared over the year. I've seen so many people make wild claims that the reason the Isle doesn't have two MPs is because of an inherent anti-Conservative bias amongst the Boundary Commission. So let's have a brief look at the facts.

When the Boundary Commission decides on the approximate number of constituencies in a review area (usually a county, unitary authority or London borough) it does so on the basis of a "quota" - the average number of voters per the current number of seats. It then either rounds the number to the nearest whole or combines two areas to avoid excessive disparity.

In the latest review the Isle qualified for 1.48 quotas. Rounded to the nearest whole that comes out as one seat not two. Now if this was a mainland area the solution would be to combine it with a neighbouring authority and have one seat straddling the two. But there's a big obstacle to this - the Solent. So the result is that the Isle problem must be solved entirely on the Isle.

Note Turner's comments about the possibility of giving the Isle two seats:
With so many people living there, the Isle of Wight is, he says, only a few hundred voters short of being big enough to divide into two constituencies.

It is something he vehemently opposes.

"You need to have one MP for the island. It is important. Maybe they should reduce the overall number of MPs at Westminster instead.

"That would increase the number of constituents in each seat, and then it won't be a problem."
To my knowledge neither the current nor the last boundary review saw a Conservative counter-proposal for two seats. In the mid 1990s the Liberal Democrats did make one very late in the day but apart from the timings (they were motivated by a realisation that the Isle could fall into their hands) there is no obvious way to divide the Isle naturally and equally. And it would divide the Isle's voice - something that is strongly valued as evidenced by Turner's comments. This time there was just one objection lodged to a single seat, and it wasn't by a party.

And so the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight is left with the single largest electorate to represent. But Andrew Turner doesn't mind. Numeric exactitude would be damaging to the British way of doing things. British constituencies are based on natural ties and recognisable areas, not the random clusters of favourable voters with little roads used to link them that one finds in the US Congress.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The arrest of Damian Green

Like many others I'm absolutely stunned by the news of the arrest of Damian Green. (BBC News: Senior Tory [sic] arrested over leaks) So he's had information leaked to him that is sensitive of a political nature not a security one.

Many have flooded the blogosphere and airwaves to point out that the leaking of information by civil servants and its use by politicians is routine - Churchill's contacts in the 1930s are amongst the most famous. I don't want to get into the hyperbole - this is not Zimbabwe and Gordon Brown is not Robert Mugabe (or Stalin), no matter how hysterical the accusations are made in the heat of the moment.

But what is worrying is the way government ministers are denying they had any foreknowledge of a politically sensitive move, especially as it the Mayor of London (or technically in his role the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority) was informed. As we have recently seen the political control of the Metropolitan Police is multiple but I cannot believe the Home Secretary knew nothing about this.

We must await further information but this whole thing strikes me as a cock-up of enormous proportions.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bye bye Woolworths

Last month the Woolworths Local in Forest Gate was closed. Now the entire company is to follow. (BBC News: Woolworths enters administration)

Like so many others, I have memories of shopping at Woolies, but looking back it seems the store primarily filled in the gaps rather than offered anything distinctive. As a child it was the main toy shop in Epsom (and effectively the only one when John Menzies phased out their small section). It was also the only place in town with pick 'n mix. Later it was one of the main places to get videos/DVDs (and, in Forest Gate, the only one), especially as the music chains like Our Price and HMV were usually a bit more expensive. It's also been handy for general stationery requirements over the years.

But none of these are a distinctive section of the market. Woolworths always seemed a bit all over the place in terms of what it sold - for example when I was young I don't remember it stocking the magazines it does now (well did). It did a few books but I don't remember it getting anywhere near a supermarket best-seller section. And its video/DVD stock wasn't exactly awash with the longer shelf-life titles but nor did it feel like a current hot titles stock. One could go on.

Will we ever see a store like it? All business & marketing logic says not, but stranger things have happened...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conservatives and Ulster Unionists

The formal join-up of the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists was announced yesterday (ConservativeHome: David Cameron hails Ulster Unionist alliance with the Conservatives as a "new political force") and so far most of the reaction has been good.

I'll repeat my comments from four months ago (A Conservative-Ulster Unionist merger?):

But it's also a good move for not only both parties but the whole of the United Kingdom. For too long Northern Irish politics has been an isolated microcosm, with only half hearted efforts at organising by a handful of parties from both Britain and the Republic of Ireland, give or take a few small parties, and the result has been alienation and sometimes hatred, most recently when the DUP provided the majority of 42 days' detention or Iris Robinson MP's horrific comments about homosexuality.

A party that is a strong and credible contender at all levels of Northern Irish and UK politics, that can allow for full engagement with national and international politics, can only help to move political debate forward in the province. It also helps to anchor the Conservative Party in all nations of the United Kingdom, a contrast to Labour who've had to be dragged into allowing even membership by the courts and is determined to remain a Brits only party.

Will this lead to a sudden landslide in Northern Ireland at the next election, with seats turning blue all over? Well let's not get carried away - there's a lot still to do and hundreds of thousands of voters to engage with. But it's a good start with promising signs to come.
I think this still stands true and there's little on the basics that I haven't already said, other than to wonder if Labour have anything to say on this.

But as there's already been the invariable attack from the Democratic Unionist Party. (News Letter: DUP attacks 'political marriage') Assembly Member Michelle McIlveen brings out the old chestnut of whether all eighteen Westminster seats will be contested at the next general election, claiming it could lead to Nationalists winning again in Belfast South and Fermanagh & South Tyrone.

I don't remember the DUP expressing this concern when they were, in their own words, "running candidates in every seat in Northern Ireland, even if it means losing Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast to anti-unionist parties". At the end of the day any party has the right to stand wherever it likes (and can get nominated) and equally has the right to not stand. Seats belong to one, and only one, group of people - the voters of those seats. By all means parties can choose where to deploy candidates, but a party that aspires to offer all voters the chance to vote for it should not step aside, especially for a party that is elsewhere trying to exterminate it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Liberal Democrat Run Tower Hamlets Borough Council - never ever again?!

Liberal Democrats not winning hereYesterday there was a by-election in the Mile End East ward in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The result was as follows:

Rachael Mary Alice SAUNDERS (Labour) 1208 47.3354232% (+15.11246805)
Motiur RAHMAN (Conservatives) 630 24.68652038% (+12.46136646)
Hafiz CHOUDHURY ("RESPECT") 604 23.6677116% (-3.794909334)
Jainal CHOWDHURY (Liberal Democrats) 110 4.310344828% (-17.94119431)
TOTAL 2552

(A word of caution. There are several different ways to calculate party percentages in multi-member wards, each with their own advantages and drawbacks, and I've used the method that assumes all voters used all their votes in 2006 - see Croydon Official Monster Raving Loony Party: Croydon 2006 for a summary of methods, mine is "Method B". At the last regular election not only did Mile End East have a huge amount of ticket splitting by normal standards but also Hafiz Choudhury ran as an independent, getting 5.837730871% of the vote. One could in theory add that to the "RESPECT" share, but it's not standard practice.)

It has been a good by-election to campaign in - our candidate, Motiur Rahman, is one of those people who can inspire activists to stay out far longer than they planned. The Conservative result is the best in living memory in the ward in both absolute and % terms (see Wikipedia: Tower Hamlets local elections and also Tower Hamlets Borough Council Election Results for earlier results - Mile End East takes in most of the old Limehouse ward with some of the old Bromley ward).

Now there's a lot that can be said about the various candidates and parties (and I was semi-surprised to see Rachael Saunders, a familiar name from Labour Students from years past in the NUS) but whilst the "RESPECT" vote has continued to fall (a decline even sharper when you consider the votes Choudhury got as an independent in 2006) as flash parties invariably do, perhaps the most significant long term sign is that Liberal Democrats in the borough are crashing and burning, after a long history here.

Tower Hamlets has a long Liberal/Liberal Democrat tradition - before Simon Straight Choice Hughes's victory it was the last part of Inner London to elect a Liberal MP when Sir Percy Harris held the Bethnal Green South West seat in the 1935 general election and although he lost the seat after the war he successfully returned to the London County Council, with Bethnal Green sending the only Liberals. Harris's campaign methods were in many ways the forerunner of "community politics" used in the borough. Even in the 1950s Bethnal Green had a respectable Liberal share.

More recently the Liberals/Liberal Democrats grew electorally in the borough, controlling it for eight years and producing one of the most notorious administrations in recent local government history, including being served notice by the Commission for Racial Equality. The tensions stirred up saw the first ever British National Party electoral victory in the borough. Fortunately both the BNP councillor and the Liberal Democrat administration were thrown out in the 1994 elections. But "Liberal Democrat Run Tower Hamlets Borough Council" still remains a dirty term.

The Liberal Democrats briefly reversed their decline in 2002, but then crashed again in 2006, losing nearly 2/3 of their seats to Labour (the one shift in the borough the media failed to spot) and now have just four councillors. They are the smallest party on the council and look to be in terminal decline. Does anyone believe they will one day again ru(i)n the borough?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

British Obamas? Yes we've had a few

Peter Cuthbertson has contributed an interesting post CentreRight: After Obama, could it happen here? Yes, in 1868 noting that the UK had a Prime Minister from an ethnic minority 140 years ago. But many people now no longer list Jews amongst ethnic minorities and so forget Benjamin Disraeli.

I also remember a moment of the Question Time US election special when someone in the audience said that the United States is the only place where someone raised by a single mother could become leader. Again the UK has been there long ago, when in 1924 Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister.

So how long will it be before we see a non-white Prime Minister? It's hard to say because leaders rarely suddenly emerge in British politics but rather spend some time in the Commons first, and to describe someone as "going to be Britain's first [something] Prime Minister" is a kiss of death to a career. But I think after the next election we will be seeing several potentials on the front benches. This country is used to being led by non-white Britons - look at sport! All we're awaiting is the right candidate in politics.

(P.S. I've been told that by the US definition of these things we've already had a black Doctor Who. Can you guess who? And no, it's not Lenny Henry.)

The return of the bendy banana

After years of fruit being wasted and prices pushed up for the sake of petty Brussels bureaucratic regulations, it seems a reprieve is finally coming. (BBC News: EU to cut out wonky fruit rules) In these troublesome economic times anything that will help reduce prices can only be a step forward.

But why did the European Union ever adopt such absurd proposals in the first place? They do nothing to benefit the consumer. Were the bureaucrats just looking for things to do?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The end of the Progressive Democrats

The Irish Progressive Democrats have voted by 201-161 at their conference to dissolve after all their remaining parliamentarians and the party's founder agreed the party had no viable future. (RTÉ News: PDs vote to wind up political party) The PDs have had an interesting history as one of the most influential small parties in Ireland but also one of the most hated. Maybe it was because they were willing to criticise sacred cows. Or because they got things done. Or because of their tone. Or their mistakes. Historians will no doubt debate it endlessly.

But one point of curiosity struck me. The PDs are dissolving when they are still in government, in a sort-of Jamaica coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Greens. It is very rare for parties in national government to self-dissolve. Sometimes a coalition leads to a fusion of parties, but the formal mergers have generally taken place in opposition as part of a structural reorganisation. But I can think of only three other parties that have dissolved in government, ironically all called National Labour. The British National Labour Party dissolved at the end of the Second World War, but as it was part of an all-party coalition of national unity and I'm not sure if any members of the party still held ministerial office by 1945. The situation for the Irish National Labour Party is another exceptional case as it had broken away from the regular Labour Party in 1944 over accusations of communist infiltration but reunified in 1950 when both parties were part of a grand anti-Fianna Fáil coalition and the National Labour leader James Everett was a Cabinet minister. The Australian National Labor Party never really existed as more than a breakaway group in Parliament due to splits during the First World War who after three months merged with the Commonwealth Liberal Party. Although the product was the Nationalist Party of Australia I'd discount the CLP as the right in Australia has a long history of mergers and absorptions and the result is usually more a takeover by whatever name than an actual merger. (National Labor did, however, have a longer life and organisation at the state level in Western Australia until it two was subsumed into the Nationalists after defeat in 1924.)

None of these are completely comparable to the PDs. The Australian party was really just a vehicle of motion for a political realignment, the Irish party ended by undoing the split and the British party had politically really been defeated in 1940 when the National Government was replaced by an all-party coalition and so was in the unique situation of political opposition but in government.

Are there any other examples I'm unaware of?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Victory for the Right

The right won a national election this week. Not that the media seem to have noticed - the BBC story is buried on their website and I can't remember seeing anything about it in other media, in sharp contrast to the endless deluge about certain other elections. But in New Zealand the conservative National Party has swept to power (BBC News: New Zealand opposition wins vote) and John Key will join a worryingly short list of conservative national leaders. Meanwhile Helen Clark has announced her resignation as leader of the Labour Party.

So does this, and Stephen Harper's recent advance in Canada, mean that the real conservative right (as opposed to the Bush Republicans) are now on the advance? There does seem to be something in the air. And how long will it be before they are joined at the world table by David Cameron?

And the new President is...

The votes have been now been counted. The results are in and the next President is:

Ros Scott.

Yes she's the next President of the Liberal Democrats.

What you thought I was late in with the news about some other election?

Don't be silly, the Americans take forever to count the vote. That doesn't stop them somehow declaring a winner beforehand!

Oh and here are the results:

Ros Scott 20,736 votes (72%)
Lembit Öpik 6,247 votes (22%)
Chandila Fernando 1,799 votes (6%)

Spoil ballots 49
Turnout: 47.8% (+0.4% on last time)

Not the winnerYes, the Cheeky Boy isn't very popular with his party.

Lembit Democrats Losing Here.

So where will the Curse of Lembit strike next? There's an interesting thread (well as interesting as any Lib Dem thread) at Liberal Democrat Voice: What next for Lembit? Lembit Öpik doesn't seem to know if he's rising star, would-be elder statesman, celebrity politician in the Charles Kennedy mould or the "character" of the party. The result is he gets treated as alternatively the Clown Prince of the party or a privately hated figure.

Does this lack of enthusiasm for him have any bearing on how well his campaign to hold his parliamentary seat will go?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

It's almost over

As much a politics junkie as I am, I have been getting ever more sick to death of the US Presidential election. Compare it to the Canadian election that was called and fought in about six weeks! (And shame on the media for barely giving a mention to one of the most successful Conservatives in the Anglosphere. Stephen Harper is practically unknown in this country, even amongst Conservatives.)

Soon it will be over. I have a suspicion it's going to turn out closer than expected. And if we do get another case of the popular vote going one way and the electoral college another I hope the US will actually make a decision about whether they want such a silly system. Or if it's the Democrats losing again they can stop whining and remember that it was the college not the popular vote that gave John F. Kennedy the White House. (Or that Barack Obama did not win the popular vote in the Democrat primaries...)

Teen pregnancy - is it the media's fault?

The search for a scapegoat for the number of teen pregnancies seems endless. We blame too little sex education then too much. We blame celebrities then we come to our senses. We blame parents yet at the same time we seek to lock them out of decisions about how to raise children, most recently with the suggestion that parents will have no right to opt their young children out of sex education classes.

Now the latest suggestion is television. (BBC News: TV shows link to teen pregnancies) And I think this one may be closer to the mark. Television has long played a key role in shaping cultural attitudes and is it any surprise that it can have more influence than institutionalised attempts to instil values?

For the last few decades society has never really decided what its attitude to unmarried sex is. We forget that not only is marriage less common than it used to be but also people get married much older these days. A new series of attitudes have only partially developed, with the result that the interlock effect isn't present. Young people are given very different impressions about whether it's a good thing, a bad thing, something to admit to, something to hide and so forth. That's a very mixed set of messages and is it any wonder that teenagers don't always understand contraception or seek advice, or for that matter admit to having taken risks. Often the result is that the media pushes in one direction and there's little pushing in the other.

There is no one solution to the issue of teenage pregnancy and its foolish to suggest there is a single source to blame, or a single magic wand to wave to solve the problems. But it must be addressed from the starting point of the wider society we live in, not focus on individual elements. We also have to stop assuming that all problems in society ("citizenship" and "Britishness" are others) can be solved just by amending the school curriculum. That is just passing the buck.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Vincent Cable you're no Lembit Öpik!

Have I Got News For You this week was fun with Tom Baker hosting and he was as mad as ever. He was, however, a little more presentable than the one time I saw him in the flesh - one day about eight years ago I was at Charing Cross station and saw him walking across the concourse in a macintosh looking like a flasher on the prowl!

About as exciting as everBut also of note was one of the guests - none other than the Liberal Democrats' very own Mr Excitement, Vincent Cable.

Now Cable has been in vogue in the last year, first stunning the world with a joke (although given his reputation as rather dull it was stunning in itself that he could deliver one) and talking a lot about the economy at a crucial time. But he hasn't got the self-mocking likeable chap style that other politicians who've been on Have I Got News For You have and it showed with him being way too serious at times. He certainly doesn't have the certain something that Charles Kennedy has, and that wasn't just developed through a billion appearances on C-list celebrity shows.

The main entertainmentAnd of course there's another Liberal Democrat who's been media whoring and it's one of the few things he does well. Lembit Öpik may be a political joke, and a cheeky one at that, but when it comes to comedy appearances he more than has what it takes.

Mr Cable I watched Lembit Öpik. I laughed at Lembit Öpik. Lembit Öpik was a favourite of mine. Mr Cable you're no Lembit Öpik.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Regeneration ahoy

So David Tennant has announced he'll be leaving Doctor Who after next year's specials. (BBC News: David Tennant quits as Doctor Who) Well it had to happen at some point and by the time we reach the last one he will have been playing the role longer than seven of his predecessors (give or take but I'll leave the debate about how long Sylvester McCoy was in the role to other Who fans).

Doctor Who has always been about more than any individual actor and so has survived such changes before and I have no doubt it will do so again. The idea that the series is so fragile that one wrong move and it will be "Ruined FOREVER" is more laughable today than it has ever been. The series has come a long way, outlasted so much and even converted its greatest enemy. (See Michael Grade admits he was wrong) It has become a modern myth, reinventing itself for each successive generation, and I have no doubt that we will see many further adventures of the Doctor in years, decades and centuries to come.

As for David Tennant himself, he's had a good innings and some of his adventures have been astounding. But as Disraeli once said, it is better to leave people wondering why you did not go on for longer than leave wondering why you did.

Here's to the next Doctor, whoever he or she may be.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The end for elected Mayors?

I've just seen the news that voters in Stoke-on-Trent have voted to end having a directly elected Mayor. (BBC News: City's mayor to go following vote)

Now I don't know much about the politics of Stoke-on-Trent and it seems that they have a unique set-up for running the authority, so this may just be a local matter. But the actual question is interesting:

Are you in favour of the proposal for Stoke-on-Trent City Council to be run in a new way, which includes a councillor, who will be elected by the councillors of Stoke-on-Trent to lead the Council and the community which it serves?
Whatever the details this question is effectively describing a standard councillor led system. I wonder what the results would be if Newham held a fresh referendum on whether or not to keep its elected Mayor?

Of other note the turnout was just 19.23%. One has to wonder if there shouldn't be a threshold for referendums that carry major changes.

No end of Liberal leadership elections!

Someone for me to back!It's happened. The Liberal leader has accepted that he will never be Prime Minister and thrown in the towel. Now there's another leadership election on. Already you can hear Lembit Öpik rushing to destroy a candidate by giving them his endorsement.

But Lembit will have to cross an ocean this time. For the resigner is Stéphane Dion, outgoing leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. (Remember my last post Liberal woes?) And the election won't take place until May - and we thought the US left us asking How long do elections last?!

There's more information on that one at Liberal Party of Canada leadership convention, 2009.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Economics, schnomics?

Far too many years ago I took Economics at A-Level. I can't pretend to remember too much from it now, other than the details of the Hogg Cycle, reasons why we should never adopt the Euro, a vague outline of the Keynesian and Monetarist theories and a sense that all economic theories were considered bust and that "muddling along" was about as good a method of economic management as any other. (Oh and that Keynes is pronounced "canes" not "keens", but that was only really useful at the University of Kent where the name one of the colleges is frequently mispronounced.) Ah the 1990s was such an innocent era.

Flash forward many years and we're almost now at the point where arguments about what economic theory of management should be followed are about to become a live political issue again. Alastair Darling, the Minister for Invisibility who is apparently also Chancellor of the Exchequer, has recently praised John Maynard Keynes. So too has the Daily Mail. (ConservativeHome: CentreRight: Daily Mail now calling for Keynesian borrowing-funded tax cuts) And it's even been suggested that "The debate is now between two forms of Keynesianism" so we even see the debate skipped altogether!

It's partially because my business knowledge has rusted that I haven't commented much on the current economic troubles. At times some of the figures quoted have seemed fantastic, whilst the markets all appear to be yo-yoing, changing direction with every government announcement. The main role for government has to be to create the conditions for the markets to strengthen and protect the ordinary public from problems beyond their control. If we had back into too much control and planning in the economy then long term prospects for growth will be stifled, to the detriment of us all.

Debates on economic theory will often go over the heads of many - I still have problems understanding what the US Presidential election of 1896 was about with a battle over the Republicans advocating Gold vs the Democrats advocating Silver (now there's an interesting thought about how to change political colours in the US!) - but can ultimately determine whether there are jobs, whether one can get an essential loan, if one is able to invest and so forth. I hope that the next such debate will come in terms people can understand.

Friday, October 17, 2008

God - a law unto Himself

I've never seen the film The Man Who Sued God but it would seem that former US state senator Ernie Chambers has and has decided to bring a real life case against God 'to prevent the "death, destruction and terrorisation" caused by God'. However the case has been thrown out because God does not have an address and cannot be served noticed of the case. (BBC News: Legal case against God dismissed) Well He is aware of everything, but doesn't exactly interact the way other defendants in lawsuits do. So a judge has ruled that God cannot be sued, and He remains above the law and above us all. Attempts to force Him to conform to mortal procedures and bureaucracy will always fail and rightly so.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The latest attempt to update the links

I'm going to have another bash at clearing up the links on this blog, removing all blogs that haven't been updated in six months, changing to new sites where appropriate and rearranging the sub-headers.

If anyone's blog is currently under the wrong header please leave a comment on this thread and I'll adjust it as I go.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Yet another Liberal Democrat leadership election

Hordes of MuppetsFor those who just can't get enough of these, another one has started. This time it's for the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats (and, if I understand rule changes correctly, they will automatically be leader in the Welsh Assembly). (Liberal Democrat Voice: Race officially starts for Welsh Lib Dem leadership and Peter Black AM: Mike German stands down as leader) The candidates declared are Kirsty Williams and Jenny Randerson. Whoever wins will succeed Mike German and become the latest in a list of leaders that includes none other than Lembit Öpik.

The next President?!Speaking of Lembit, he's aiming for another position - President of the Liberal Democrats. And despite being the only well known name in the race (the others are Baroness Scott and Chandila Fernando) it's telling that very few people seem willing to support him - see for instance the comments at Peter Black AM: In which I declare my support for Ros Scott - and some are even conspiring to block him, as I previously noted in President Lembit?. Yes the latter plot has been officially denied but remember the Yes Minister adage about that...

So can anyone tell me if any Liberal Democrats have ever stood for anything other than election?

Bye bye forty-two days(?)

I haven't blogged for a while as various other concerns have been occupying my time, but back to the fore with the vote last night in the House of Lords overwhelmingly rejecting the proposals for forty-two days' detention and the subsequent government announcement that they are not going to try to force things through with the Parliament Act. The top politics story on the BBC News website is Davis 'vindicated' over 42 days and indeed he is.

However the reports that the government will not abandon the plan completely but instead keep a one page bill in reserve for emergencies are a little worrying, especially the suggestion that at the time they will declare they could have had the measure in place sooner "but for the unelected Lords". (BBC News: A tactical retreat on 42 days) This is posturing for the sake of it. And the government has been in power for eleven years - it's had all the time it could have wanted to change the composition of the Lords. But on the only actual public test of opinion Labour declined to defend its position (though others stepped forward to the task) and the public overwhelmingly rejected it. On this the Lords have shown themselves more in tune with public opinion than the Commons.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Gordon and Peter - what aren't we being told?

The headline of thelondonpaper tonight reads "Brown: I need you today, oh Mandy". FT.com - Westminster Blog: The hatred between Brown and Mandelson reports:
Tom Bower's biography of Gordon Brown (yes it is somewhat sensationalist) described difficult relations between the chancellor and Mr Mandelson: "Their conversations were fraught... Their conversations ranged repeatedly over the same ground: loyalty, dependability and trust. 'I love you, but I can destroy you,' Mandelson frequently screamed, threatening to marshal his black arts against Brown."
It's a story repeated in The Guardian: How the feud between Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson thawed and The Daily Telegraph: Peter Mandelson's rift with Gordon Brown: In quotes.

Now there could be nothing in this. Nor in the past rumours about Brown's sexuality. Nor in the rumours from fifteen years ago about two leading Labour figures being caught in the showers together in the Commons. Nor in much more. It could just be an odd choice of headline. Couldn't it?

There must always be a voice in government singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau

The latest piece of news about the reshuffle that I've heard is that the proposal to merge the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into a single "Secretary of State for the Nations" (so those three are and England isn't?!) has been put on hold for the time being. And here's hoping that it stays on hold forever.

Devolution may have reduced some of the workload for the posts, but there is one key role that each holds. They are the voice of the respective nations in government, lobbying for funds, projects and so forth. They are a voice for each at the Cabinet table, ensuring that no part of the United Kingdom is pushed aside to the margins. Under devolution the posts become more, not less, important than before.

A single "Secretary of State for the Nations" would diminish this. It would diminish the voices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in government and set them against each other. The individual appointed would inevitably face accusations of being biased towards their own patch. None would be well served by this arrangement.

The retention of the three separate posts (and, if necessary, their restoration) must be essential in future reshuffles and changes of government.

Devolved power - or half power?

The news of Sir Ian Blair's departure has provoked a political row over who can "hire and fire" the head of the Metropolitan Police. I don't want to rehash the arguments both ways about Blair himself but there are some wider problems.

The biggest problem is that a lot of political power has been devolved (and yes, the Greater London Authority is a form of devolved power even though it is a metropolitan wide authority and not a "regional assembly" of the type devised as a sop to the English question) in a bad manner, with the result that in many areas power is now wielded by a hydra of national and devolved politicians. It's also a poorly kept secret that when the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Authority were set up the widespread expectation was that they would almost permanently be controlled by Labour politicians and that Westminster-devolved conflicts would be between non-Labour Westminster governments and Labour devolved ones, not the other way round. The result is that the executives have quite significant powers in their own right and are not so vulnerable to the problems of minorities in the assemblies or even an opposition majority as on the London Assembly.

But they are also probe to following a different path from Westminster. Now this is a natural consequence of devolving power and localism (although I wish the UK media would more accurately report the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly rather than just focusing on the supposed benefits of spending, stoking English jealousy). However when there are both local and national concerns - and the Metropolitan Police is not exclusively a police force for London but has various national duties as well. So it's not terribly easy to carve up accountability between the Mayor of London and the Home Secretary. It can work if they're cut from the same political cloth, but when they're not (and this applied as much to Ken Livingstone as to Boris Johnson) then clashes and divided confidence are inevitable. It's not a terribly workable arrangement in the long run.

Is there an obvious solution? It's a lot harder to separate out overlap services than is often thought (a problem that also comes up with Welsh devolution because of large numbers in the borders) or to arrange things so that the same party always controls all the relevant posts (and, as Ken Livingstone demonstrated and Boris Johnson will soon do as well, just being from the same party as the Westminster government does not guarantee unity), especially when so many elections are contested as a chance to make a mid-term protest against the Westminster government. It is often forgotten that the 2004 Mayoral election was the only time a London authority election was won by the party in power at Westminster since 1949. And even that was down to Livingstone returning to Labour rather than running again as an Independent. Whether this pattern will change remains to be seen, but it is not an encouraging precedent. So what is the solution?

All these new names

So far in the reshuffle news I've heard of returns to Cabinet for Peter Mandelson, Nick Brown and Margaret Beckett. So where's the new blood?

So when's the next resignation?

I have just heard the news of Peter Mandelson potentially returning to the Cabinet. (Evening Standard: Mandelson is poised for amazing Cabinet return) Of all the moves that Gordon Brown could have made this is one I don't think anyone could have predicted. Who would have thought he'd want to get back together with him?

Does this mean Gordon Brown is hoping to complete Tony Blair's project and make the Labour Party "learn to love Peter Mandelson"? I am somewhat sceptical of success, though the Prince of Darkness will not be as close to the Prime Minister this time as in the past.

Of course this will mean Peter Mandelson has to resign for the third time in a decade, although for once for political reasons rather than sleaze, but he proved one of the most resignation prone of Blair's ministers. How long will he last this time round?

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Munich Agreement - 70 years on

Whenever I attempt to explain to people what my thesis is about, I invariably make reference to Neville Chamberlain, not least because it makes it easy for non-historians to identify the period. And Chamberlain is, unfortunately in my opinion, best remembered for one single event in his entire political career - the signing of the Munich Agreement seventy years ago tonight.

(Strictly speaking the Agreement was signed in the early hours of the 30th September 1938, but was dated to the previous day.)

Now this is not the place to delve into the rest of Chamberlain's career; suffice it to say that an overall assessment cannot but come to a very different conclusion from the populist image of Chamberlain as just a weak man who did nothing but fly to Munich during his three years in Downing Street.

However the Munich Agreement itself has long been misrepresented. It is often forgotten just how incredibly popular it was in the UK. This wasn't just "high opinion poll approval", this was one of the moments where much of the nation poured out its gratitude. In my research I've seen, amongst other things, footage of Chamberlain's car journey from the airport to Downing Street after signing the agreement. On a rainy day people lined the streets in droves. Bar the weather the scene is very reminiscent of the last journey of Diana, Princess of Wales. I've also seen many letters of gratitude sent to Chamberlain, reports of football matches pausing to pay tribute to him and so much more. This was an agreement that the British public embraced.

And it was one that in many ways the British public had made inevitable. The harsh fact, often now forgotten, is that in 1938 there weren't many options available. For a long time the British public (and, I believe, the French public as well but let's stick to the British for now) had given numerous indications that they were reluctant to go to war. Especially not for the Treaty of Versailles, a settlement that had been emotionally rejected by numerous people, whether conservative, liberal or socialist. As the Iraq War has shown, it can be terribly difficult to take a country to war when a large proportion of the population is opposed. It is impossible to contemplate a total war in such circumstances. For all the criticism of the "piece of paper" that Chamberlain and Hitler signed, it mean that there was now something for Hitler to violate which would provoke a desire to go to war amongst the wider public in the way that a violation of the Treaty of Versailles did not.

Also often forgotten is that the British Empire was severely overstretched in the late 1930s and divided. Many troops were stationed in the Far East, where the rise of Japan was worrying. Military resources were weak and overstretched. A war on multiple fronts without allies was a war that could not be won. There was the further problem that the Dominions (aka the Commonwealth countries) would not enter the war. As it was in 1939 Ireland stayed neutral and South Africa only joined after serious political turmoil in both government and parliament. A war in 1938 would have seen even more of the Dominions declining to enter, potentially fragmenting the British Empire as a political force at a crucial time.

The French were seeking to escape their military alliance with Czechoslovakia and could not be counted on. Nor could the "Czechoslovakians" as there were very few such people. As the post war history of that country showed the state was a mix of minorities and it took first the expulsion of the German speaking minority and then the Velvet Divorce to create permanently viable states. People often talk of the people of Czechoslovakia who were prepared to defend themselves as "the Czechs". They are probably even more accurate than they may think - would the Slovakians have fought and died to prevent "millions of Germans from being German" any more than the French or British?

(And how many people remember that after the Munich Agreement "Czechoslovakia" was renamed "Czecho-Slovakia"? The latter form both reflected Slovak desires for equality in the name and is a derivation of the name in Slovak, whereas the unhyphenated is a derivation of the name in Czech. The later Hyphen War reflected a long standing issue.)

So what was the alternative? To take a divided country and Empire into a war for the cause of preventing millions of Germans from being German? To go to war for Vietnam-style domino arguments? To take a country to war when it was not prepared either militarily or domestically? A convincing show of force in 1938 was not as easy as the Agreement's detractors made out.

Indeed today there are parallels. After the Iraq War there are many in this country who are opposed to further military engagements, regardless of the level or genuineness of the threat. Military action would be deeply divisive and if public support for the action is essential it is doubtful that such action could take place. It is easy to scream "Appeasement" and "Munich" against any attempt at a peaceful settlement of any problem in the world, but is military action really a viable alternative?


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