Friday, May 29, 2009

Why do the Italians keep on re-electing Berlusconi?

In amidst all the Daily Telegraph revelations I've not yet heard of any ministers who are using Parliament to pass laws just to give them immunity from prosecution. But there are countries with a level of corruption in politics that makes the UK's, even at this moment, look completely amateurish.

In Italy Silvio Berlusconi has taken corruption to new levels, so far successfully evading prosecution. I have never quite understood why he is the Prime Minister's residence instead of jail, but then maybe they have a different attitude over there and he's delivering pork to his voters. However thanks to the EU he is one of many leaders who has influence over us.

But the latest Berlusconi story about him denying "a spicy or more than spicy" relationship with a minor is beyond belief, even for him. (BBC News: Berlusconi denies 'spicy' affair) And you don't need to have seen Yes Minister to know what an "official denial" is in politics, especially when his wife is divorcing him. There is something just sickening about this - the man is old enough to be her great grandfather! (Even if he has had a hair transplant.)

Why does this man do so well in Italy? Is it just his huge control of the media, is it a supportive attitude to sleaze or is he just forgiven for other things he has done?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Nicholas and Ann Winterton to stand down

I've just seen the news at ConservativeHome: Nicholas and Ann Winteron to stand down at next election.

All I have to say is: Good riddance to bad rubbish.

The Boundary Commission tyranny of numbers

As a follow-up to my previous post Malapportionment in the UK? I've noticed that the current boundary review for the Scottish Parliament is proving extremely controversial in the Highlands. Creating seats of equal size is sometimes not as easy as it looks.

The Boundary Commission's specific task there is to create three seats within the Highland council area with approximately equal sizes. "Oh that's simple!" I hear some people cry. But the proposals the Boundary Commission have come up with are proving incredibly controversial, with the latest outrage being proposals to remove Dingwall, the county town of Ross-shire, and the Black Isle and put them not in a Caithness, Sutherland and Ross seat but in a Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch seat. Ross-shire Journal: Electoral carve-up of Ross slammed as 'ludicrous' has more details.

Geography and natural ties are often the opponents of numeric exactitude in boundary reviews. One has to give for the other to be achieved. If the country is to have "equal sized seats" overriding everything else then some very arbitrary lines will have to be drawn, totally stamping all over concerns about local ties.

So who wants to volunteer to create three equal sized seats (even the current proposals have a variation of nearly 5000), nominate a set of boundaries and tell the Highlanders what has been imposed on them from afar?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Blog round up

Some interesting posts from the rest of the blogosphere:

Coleview, Covingham & Nythe Conservatives have noted how the Minister of Democracy and his family's electoral registration is in breach of the rules about second homes in Minister of Democracy's family ineligible to vote in Swindon elections

Dizzy Thinks has a sense of proportion about the way some MPs have made totally reasonable claims for their particular constituencies and are still being pilloried form them in This is the problem......

Iain Dale discusses the way criticism of the Telegraph's motives has been silenced in Telegraph Takes Down Nadine's Blog.

Paul Burgin (Mars Hill) discusses the forthcoming reshuffle in What Needs To Be Done With The Cabinet.

Tom Harris (And another thing) warns against kneejerk constitutional changes that have nothing to do with MPs' expenses The worst possible time to consider wider reform.

And since there's more than just MPs' expenses:

Kerron Cross wonders what the departure of the main generator of Liberal Democrat nastiness means in The End Of The Bar Chart Party?

Nábídá takes a look at some scientific developments at two rival universities in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil students bid to outdo each other in political science.

Tory Bear in A small victory notes how LGBT Labour are losing both the T-shirt war and the plot.

Glyn Davies (A View from Rural Wales) is Declaring war on Bambi.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Does the Speaker need to be an MP?

As the election for Speaker of the House of Commons gets underway, complete with the Daily Telegraph checking each and every candidate's own expenses claims, one has to wonder if in the current environment there is any sitting MP who could command sufficient public confidence in the role to make the necessary changes. But does the new Speaker have to be an MP at all?

Now it's quite possible that there are various laws, standing orders and conventions that currently require the Speaker to be an MP. But then there are various laws, standing orders and conventions about MPs' expenses and look where those got us! And since no Parliament can bind its successor these could be changed.

So would it be worth a thought to looking outside the present House of Commons for a candidate to be Speaker? Is there be somebody who has not been part of the current mess who has a track record on fighting corruption and who commands public respect? And if so, why not change the present way of doing things to allow them to be brought in? Does anyone know of a reason why we can't?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

When a Speaker is under attack

Another clip from a Commonwealth Parliament, this time from Australia in 1995. John Howard was moving a motion of censure against the-then Prime Minister Paul Keating, but look at the exchanges involving the-then Speaker Stephen Martin in the first 1:20 and again from about 5:15 onwards:
It's of a level that not even our House of Commons reached on Monday.

A Speaker who can take a lead

Whoever is the next Speaker of the House of Commons has a tremendous task is restoring respect and dignity to the post. But will they ever be in a position where they potentially have to step in to save the entire political system?

Kenya has dropped out of the international news ever since the announcement of the "National Accord" power-sharing agreement, but it's not been all plain sailing. Recently a crisis loomed when the two main parties in the government clashed over which party would hold the post of Leader of Government Business (equivalent to Leader of the House of Commons) and chair the National Assembly's House Business Committee that sets the parliamentary agenda. An impasse loomed which threatened to prevent many key unity & reconciliation measures being undertaken and to break up the unity coalition government. (See Afrique en ligne: Kenya Speaker steps in to save Coalition Govt for more details.)

It thus fell to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Kenneth Marende, to rule on the matter and he did so not only in a way that resolved the impasse for now but also preserved the neutrality and dignity of the chair:

But before any asks, I don't think Kenya can currently spare Marende to come and take the role in the Commons!

A new Speaker

And so comes the news that Speaker Michael Martin is to stand down today. (STV: Michael Martin will stand down today, STV news has learned for those who haven't yet seen it.) It is necessary that this has had to happen, but sad for the man himself.

Unfortunately for Michael Martin there is still a Commons vote on him to come. By convention, in order to keep the Speaker's position neutral from the government it is always the Commons who passes a resolution directly petitioning the monarch to confer a peerage upon the retiring Speaker, instead of the Prime Minister of the day making a patronage recommendation. I hope that when the vote comes MPs will take into account Martin's whole service and record, not merely his actions in the last few weeks.

This leaves the question of who will be the new Speaker. Now the traditional convention here is frequently misquoted and is difficult to summarise succinctly. It is not that the Speakership alternates between parties. Rather traditionally the initial candidate nominated for the Speakership is a government MP. In modern times only in 1992 has the government nominee been rejected, but that was primarily about the individual in question (who had literally just stepped down from the Cabinet), not MPs deciding to establish an alternative convention of rotation.

However much of this is now academic because of the new voting system. Instead of a motion to seat a named member, with amendments to replace their name with another, the new rules require a series of secret ballots in which candidates are eliminated until one has the support of more than 50% of those voting, who is then formally nominated. This means that all the traditions about "preferred candidates" and the like no longer apply.

However it shouldn't be taken for granted that the new rules will automatically deliver a centrist candidate acceptable to all (Alan Beith seems to be the man most touted for this role). Whilst the multiple ballots will allow MPs to change their mind in successive rounds, it is still possible for a polarised House to end up with a final choice of two figures who both have their detractors but both also have sufficient support to displace another candidate who could otherwise command much broader support. No voting system is perfect.

One thing that is clear is that there is no automatic Conservative right to the Speakership and claims to the contrary have no basis whatsoever.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Words to say to Speaker Martin

There are two quotations from parliamentary history that should not be used lightly but the present circumstances demand it. First the words of another Speaker on his role and speaking from the chair:
I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.
(William Lenthall to Charles I in 1642.)

And the great words said twice when the nation needed leadership:
You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!
(Originally said by Oliver Cromwell to the Rump Parliament when dissolving it; then said by Leo Amery during the Norway Debate of 1940.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"RESPECT - The Disunity Coalition"

I have just heard the news that Newham councillors Asif Karim and Hanif Abdulmuhit have both quit "RESPECT". (Newham Recorder: Councillors quit party) It is just the latest stage in the disintegration of "RESPECT" as a political force in Newham.

In the past few years they've lost Lindsey German, their West Ham parliamentary candidate in 2005, and now two thirds of their councillors. And that's before we even start searching for what's happened to all their other one time names. Furthermore in the European elections next month "RESPECT" will not be on the ballot paper.

The two councillors in question were deselected because they were "not delivering services", nor were they attending Town Hall meetings or surgeries. It is the same old story of "RESPECT" - they get elected with a load of fanfare and then proceed to wallow in the same old extreme left infighting.

At least Asif Karim and Hanif Abdulmuhit didn't follow their Tower Hamlets counterparts in trying to create a new group on the council that also claimed the "RESPECT" name. Over there "RESPECT" split with the new group called, with not a trace of irony, "RESPECT - The Unity Coalition"!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The end of Speaker Martin

Parliament is full of many conventions that appear strange to those outside it. Often it seems as though these conventions are held in higher regard than the need to get things done.

One of the most astounding features of the current expenses debacle has been the reaction of the Speaker, Michael Martin. He seems far more concerned about the breach in Commons security that a leak was made, despite it being in the public interest, than that public confidence in the political system is fast evaporating.

This is not a party matter, it is a parliamentary matter. And to resolve it needs strong leadership and good judgement that commands respect and confidence. The present Speaker of the House of Commons has demonstrated that he lacks the respect, confidence and judgement needed to undertake it.

For too long Speaker Martin has been protected by a convention that MPs do not publicly criticise the Speaker. But like other parliamentary conventions this one cannot be allowed to stand in the way of essential reform of the system.

Douglas Carswell MP has become the first MP to stand up in public and say the Speaker must go, tabling a Motion of no confidence in the Speaker. Already other MPs are coming out and agreeing.

And let's also nail the whinging that criticism of the Speaker is because of his working-class origins, or his being Scottish, or his being a Catholic. Frankly these complaints are pathetic attempts to evade criticism for real lapses in performance and judgement. There is too much playing of the "minority card" and pretending that every criticism of a person is based on prejudice. Such attempts shame and devalue real debate and merely reinforce prejudice.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Now is NOT the time to dissolve Parliament

It seems every day brings fresh revelations about MPs' expenses and understandably respect for politicians is sinking to new lows. In many parts of the internet I have seen people calling for a dissolution of Parliament and a general election, as though this is what is needed to restore confidence and trust in the system. But has anyone given this much thought?

The basic problem is the entire system of MPs' expenses is flawed and based on premises that have not proved acceptable in the court of public opinion. Few MPs have broken the letter of the rules (although the spirit is another matter) - it is the rules themselves that are broken.

What will an immediate dissolution of Parliament and general election bring? It will merely see groups of politicians going to the country asking voters to put them back in a position to claim more. It will mean local parties will not have time to decide if they still wish to nominate their sitting MP. It will mean there will be no time to reform the system and there will be the danger that the MPs who do get returned - and after all there will be MPs returned no matter what - will take their election as a sign to carry on as normal.

It is a cliché to say, but this is not a party political matter. All too often MPs' expenses are a matter in which all parties' front benches are on one side and the back benches on the other. An election cannot be easily fought on this matter. And voters will have no immediate way to judge between candidates, especially those who are not sitting MPs and cannot be tested in practice, not matter what they claim.

An election will solve nothing. It will merely change some faces. It is a kneejerk reaction not a solution.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The end of a generation

Ernest Millington who was the last survivor of the House of Commons from before the 1945 general election, has died. (BBC News, Daily Telegraph obituary) He was originally elected in a by-election in April 1945 for the Common Wealth Party, and was the only Common Wealth MP to hold his seat in the 1945 general election, but he joined the Labour Party in 1946.

In 2006 he succeeded John Profumo as what we might term the "Grandfather of the House", the surviving former MP who had entered the House of Commons the earliest. I am not sure who now holds the distinction - Michael Foot and John Freeman, both first elected in the 1945 general election, are both still alive, but I am not sure who took the oath first.

With Millington's death comes the passing of an entire political era's generation of MPs.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Thirty years ago today... was the 1979 general election and Margaret Thatcher came to power. Half the blogosphere's celebrating fiercely whilst the other half is whingeing and moaning that democracy exists in this country or some such.

One interesting piece that has caught my eye is ConservativeHome's Platform: David Torrance: Debunking the myths about Margaret Thatcher and Scotland. In it he addresses head on the main myths thrown about - that Thatcher hated Scotland, that she sought to destroy Scottish industry, that the Poll Tax was a test in Scotland, that she attacked the Church of Scotland, and that she destroyed the Scottish Conservative Party.

Much of the Conservative Party has a strange relationship with its modern history. In certain quarters the Thatcher era, or rather the misremembering of the Thatcher era, is almost worshipped. At the same time the pre Thatcher era (or rather the Macmillan/Heath years) is demonised (okay in the case of the Heath years that's not without due cause). And at times people try to pretend the Major years just didn't happen, rather than considering the achievements. All too often it seems people want to run away embarrassed from the more controversial stuff.

The result is that with individual exceptions rarely is an attempt made to take on the many myths made about past Conservative governments and oppositions. Look at the stories of the creation of the NHS - no acknowledgement that it was a Conservative Minister of Health (Henry Willink) who introduced the original White Paper "A National Health Service" or that if the Conservatives had won the 1945 election they would also have introduced a fully comprehensive, universal healthcare system, free of charge and available to all citizens irrespective of means. The Conservatives voted against the specific Bevan proposals not out of opposition to the general principle of free healthcare but because the British Medical Association had concerns about the level of control of doctors. But all too often Labour members tell or repeat lies about this one.

There are others that have been debunked as and when - indeed I've at times done so myself in the limited environment of blog comments. But more will need to be done, especially when the next general election comes as Labour can be expected to wheel out all manner of myth and scare stories about previous times when the Conservatives were in power.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Are we on course for another 1931?

The headline in the Daily Telegraph today says "Brown's lost it, say ministers - Prime Minister is heading for poll defeat on scale of John Major's, warn senior Cabinet figures". Some seem to fear an even bigger defeat.

Could we be on course for a landslide election like that of 1931? In that election the results were: National Government 556, Labour 52, Independent Liberals 4, Irish Nationalists 2, Independent 1. Or to put it in a bar chart:

I think it's a little fanciful that things could get this bad, but for much of the current Parliament I've been sceptical about all the polls, being scared they're too good to be true.

Still things could be even worse for Labour. In the 1993 Canadian election the governing party went from having a majority to winning a mere two constituencies.

And if that doesn't frighten Labour enough, the two surviving MPs comprised one new member and the party's deputy leader. Are Labour members prepared to cry "Hail Harman! Leader of all you survey; nothing!"?


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