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!


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