Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dinner for One

As a special treat for my readers in Germany, and a revelation for many in the UK, here is the cult English language (apart from the short intro) sketch Dinner for One that the Germans repeatedly enjoy every year as part of the New Year's Eve celebrations, yet which is virtually unknown here in the UK:

And they say the Germans know nothing about humour!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The rudest scripted speech?

What is the rudest scripted thing you've ever heard a politician say? Not a sudden outburst, but a carefully planned line?

Here's a starter: Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (introduced by later PM Paul Martin) responds to a breach of confidence by would-be biographer Peter Newman:
I cannot imagine Thatcher or any other contemporary of Mulroney doing something similar!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

More election debates from around the world

With the announcement Brown to face three televised election debates (BBC News), here's a further glimpse at how other countries do their debates as a sequel to Election debates from around the world.

To start with, here's a debate from the 2007 Polish election featuring Donald Tusk (Civic Platform) and Jarosław Kaczyński (Law and Justice):
Next we have one from the 2008 Spanish election featuring José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Socialist Workers' Party) and Mariano Rajoy (People's Party):
Finally we have a debate from the 2009 German election, featuring Angela Merkel (Christian Democratic Union) and Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party):
I wonder which of these debates the first British one will most resemble?

Parliamentary comedy

In the season of goodwill, here's a hilarious exchange from Questions to Ministers in the New Zealand Parliament:

Now can anyone find a clip from the UK Parliament that's in such high spirits?

Hat-tip to Iain Dale: Questions to the Minister, Kiwi Style.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Gordon Brown and his old cheques

I missed the story earlier this week that when Gordon Brown was a student his rent cheque once bounced. (Daily Telegraph: Gordon Brown's £3 rent cheque bounced at university halls of residence) Frankly this sort of thing has happened to many of us, particularly if (as in the case of Brown) you have more than one account and get muddled between them. I've had a few problems over the years when I've had direct debits and standing orders going out of the wrong account, taking them into the red or even bouncing.

Quite a few commentators are trying to seize on this as saying something about Brown's handling of the economy - e.g. the Telegraph byline "Gordon Brown has repeatedly declared that he is the man to lead Britain out of its financial crisis" or this blogpost Tory Outcast: Gordon Brown's financial incompetence spans 4 decades. But they're missing a key point in a hope to get a cheap dig. A lot of Chancellors and Prime Ministers have not treated their own finances with the most rigorous care. Amongst the more famous cases, Pitt the Younger left huge debts when he died whilst Norman Lamont was embarrassed by revelations about his credit card bill. Winston Churchill engaged in some highly creative personal accounting (as set out by Roy Jenkins) and Asquith was also careless. And this was all when they were in office. Compared to all this, a student once drawing a cheque on the wrong account is meaningless and no proof whatsoever of any incompetence on Brown's part.

(And there's plenty of real proof anyway.)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The future of the monarchy

My final thoughts on last week's events in Australia relates to the issue down under that usually generates the most interest here - the republic debate. The new Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, is a firm monarchist, in contrast to his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, who is a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement. So people will be wondering whether this makes the monarchy any safer in Australia, and in turn whether this will have any knock-on effects in the other Commonwealth Realms including the UK.

Personally I think the current revolving door on the Liberal Party leadership is not going to have the slightest impact one way or the other. That's because I don't think a decisive move is going to happen any time soon for three reasons:
  1. It's only ten years since the Australian public rejected a republic at a referendum and many have a "been there, done that" attitude to the question.
  2. The present Queen is personally very popular and many Australian republicans have openly stated they don't believe the issue can be won in her lifetime.
  3. Republicans are split over what form of republic they want because of a realisation of the potential consequences.
It's the third that's the main problem, whether in Australia or elsewhere (although the problem is even worse in Australia than in the UK).

The problem is that under the system of government in both countries, the monarch (or their representative the Governor General) has HUGE powers but by convention they are almost never exercised except on the formal advice of the government of the day or in exceptional political crises where the monarch/Governor General has to step in to force a resolution. The main ones I'll focus on are:
  • The ability to dissolve Parliament.
  • The ability to appoint and dismiss ministers and whole governments.
  • The ability to withhold assent to legislation.
They don't seem much but that's because the monarchy has acted with restraint, precisely because of the fear that acting wrongly will bring down the institution.

But to simply replace the monarch with a President with no other changes to the system will mean that suddenly the powers are wielded by a person with a mandate. And depending on what mandate that is - a directly elected President could claim their very election to the post as a mandate; even a parliamentary appointed President could argue they have the same legitimacy as the government of the day - there is a real danger that the powers could be used.

Imagine, for an instance, that the government of the day is going through a period of midterm unpopularity of the type early all suffer, and the opposition wish that an election could happen right now as they would win a thumping victory. Now supposing the President was from the opposition party and exercised their powers to force a snap election - would that be right? But what is to stop them? The answer isn't convention. The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis saw several conventions broken for the sake of political expediency, with only lip service given to higher reasons for breaking such conventions, culminating in the opposition using their control of the Senate to force an early election. (Whether Australia had a monarch, Governor General or President in the role of umpire probably wouldn't have made any difference. One might argue a President would have to face the electorate for their decision, but then the opposition did and they gained/retained control of both houses.)

Or what is to stop a President intervening to sack individual ministers under fire? Or to veto legislation? The answer would be absolutely nothing.

There are two possible ways round this, but both have their pains. The first is to rigidly define the President's powers and either reallocate some of them or remove the problem altogether - for instance the power to appoint other ministers could be transferred completely to the Prime Minister. The second is to build in a mechanism that can in the first instance allow for political or popular overriding of the President's decision and in the second remove the President from office before the expiry of their term.

Both of these can be done, but most current republics have been republics since at least the adoption of their current constitution and have developed solutions at the outset. They haven't had to radically alter their constitution when everything else is functioning normally, or have to face the political fallout. And they haven't had to answer other questions - e.g. if the Parliament can immediately override a Presidential veto, why does it take so much longer for the lower house to override a veto in the upper house and shouldn't that also be changed?

(Australia has the yet further problem that constitutional amendments must pass at referendums with the double requirement of a majority of those voting plus a majority in each of at least four states. Only 8 of the 44 referendums have passed. In the UK whilst we would probably have a referendum on the basics of the monarchy vs the general sort of republic proposed, the detail would be thrashed out in Parliament.)

That's not to say this is impossible, but for a republic to come about it will need far more than just dislike of the royals - all the remarks of the Duke of Edinburgh or the foolishness of certain younger royals or silliness from hangers on like Princess Michael of Kent are not going to bring this about. It will require much discussion and agreement on the detail and real solutions found to the potential for abuse of power. The 1999 Australian referendum saw a divide between those republicans who supported the proposed parliamentary-appointed model and those who favoured direct election and so voted against the proposal on the table - one of the details attacked the most was the proposal for the Prime Minister to be able to sack the President.

Of course once such a model is found that can work within the political traditions and culture of the country then it could well be only a matter of time before change comes. And given the links between the various Commonwealth republican movements (see Common Cause) it is probable that the basic model that works for Australia will work for other Commonwealth countries and spread there. But it will take time. A lot of time.

Mohammad Asghar AM joins the Conservatives

Mohammad Asghar, Welsh Assembly Member for South Wales East, has today left Plaid Cymru and joined the Conservatives. (WalesOnline: Plaid Cymru AM joins the Conservatives) I'll leave it to others to do the inevitable round of cheers and boos whenever people switch parties.

Asghar was first elected in 2007 when Plaid narrowly gained a list seat from the Conservatives, ejecting Laura Anne Jones. (By a lot of accounts from Wales, this was actually a Conservative gain.) Can Asghar hold his seat in his new party colours?

This is a somewhat complicated question to answer because of the Additional Member System, where the list seats are very much the by-product of a party's results in the constituencies and thus hard to predict. We also have no real idea of how much a personal vote he has that might follow him to the Conservatives or, crucially, whether it will make a difference at constituency level. However as South Wales East is one of the more politically stable regions it's possible to make a few guesses.

The short answer is it's possible but if the Conservatives do too well then he will be unsuccessful. The long answer...

South Wales East has eight constituencies, which each return one member. These are:
  • Blaenau Gwent - Independent
  • Caerphilly - Labour
  • Islwyn - Labour
  • Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney - Labour
  • Monmouth - Conservative
  • Newport East - Labour
  • Newport West - Labour
  • Torfaen - Labour
Two of the seats have low majorities and could possibly change hands without a political earthquake at the next Assembly election:
  • Newport East - Labour are defending a majority of 875 over the Liberal Democrats.
  • Newport West - Labour are defending a majority of 1401 over the Conservatives.
(Trish Law's majority in Blaenau Gwent suggests she will hold on. In most calculations this makes no difference.)

The region has four list members and in 2007 the total list entitlement was as follows:
  • Labour: 6
  • Conservatives: 3
  • Plaid Cymru: 2
  • Liberal Democrats: 1
  • Trish Law: 0
  • Others: 0
Trish Law's constituency victory created an overhang, although if Labour won that seat they would also have it, meaning there were five claimants for only four top-up seats. Plaid narrowly pipped the Conservatives to take the final seat - there were less than 400 votes (after division) in it. (The full list allocation was two Plaid, one Conservative, one Liberal Democrat.)

Assuming little change in 2011 then it's possible that any personal vote Asghar has (I have no idea if he has any or not) could tip that final list seat back to the Conservatives. If William Graham is restanding then he will probably get the number one Conservative slot and Asghar would likely be number two and scrape in.

On the other hand his political base is in Newport where he was a councillor and Plaid's Newport East candidate in both the 2003 Assembly and 2005 general elections. Whether any personal vote he may have will transfer to his constituency running mates (dual candidacies are banned in Wales) is unclear as is how much there is. It could help tip West into the Conservative column and make Newport East a three way photo finish (the Conservatives are only 1000 behind the Lib Dems).

If the Conservatives gain Newport West then the Conservatives would still win one top-up seat, though it would be the fourth one allocated and Asghar will go down to defeat.

If the Conservatives don't gain Newport West and the Liberal Democrats gain Newport East then the Conservatives and Plaid will each take two list members and Asghar will be re-elected.

If the Conservatives gain Newport West and the Liberal Democrats gain Newport East then the list members will be two Plaid, one Labour and only one Conservative, with Asghar defeated.

Such are the uncertainties for anyone standing as a list member of the Assembly. Of course if there is a significant shift in the votes cast in 2011 then all predictions are off.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It's even grimmer down under

I've just seen the news that the Liberal Party of Australia have elected as their new leader Tony Abbott. (ABC News: Shock win for Abbott in leadership vote)

This is the equivalent of if the UK Conservative Party in its darkest years had ever elected John Redwood as leader.

So anyone who ever thought that either the William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith years were so horrible and there was no lower that the Conservatives could have sunk, think again. There truly was a lower point possible.

And to Australian conservatives, I'm afraid this looks even worse than the Downer Months. You have my deepest sympathies.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Commonwealth grows

Flag of RwandaJust a quick post to welcome the newest member of the Commonwealth of Nations, Rwanda. (ABC News: Rwanda joins Commonwealth) Yes I know what you're thinking, Rwanda was never a British colony (it was German then Belgian) but then neither is Mozambique (ex Portuguese). Nor are they the only non-ex-British colonies interested in joining - Algeria and Madagascar (both ex French) have both applied.

Here in the UK the Commonwealth is often dismissed as an irrelevance but throughout the world it offers strong political and cultural ties between nations. It is a sign of its significance that even countries who lack a shared history with the UK wish to join. Let's hope that Rwanda's membership brings strong benefits to both Rwanda itself and the Commonwealth as a whole.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

It's grim down under...

Once upon a time Australia had a successful conservative party called the Liberal Party, for reasons of Australian history. It governed Australia for 42 of the last 60 years. Sure it had its ups and downs but it persevered and gave conservatives around the world hope and inspiration. Not for nothing were Robert Menzies and John Howard so admired by the British right.

Sadly that was then and this is now. In the last two years the Liberal Party lost a federal election and has imploded. First it elected as leader its very own version of Iain Duncan Smith, Brendan Nelson. Then it deposed him after only nine months. Next it elected Malcolm Turnbull who has lasted until now despite rubbish poll ratings and endless speculation.

But in the last week the party has descended into chaos over proposed climate change legislation. A large number of front benchers have resigned and at a meeting of the parliamentary party a motion to hold a leadership election was defeated by only 48:35, despite the only challenger coming forward being unelectable even by current Liberal standards. (ABC News: Defiant Turnbull takes on climate rebels & Conservativeinternational: Six frontbenchers quit Liberal frontbench in protest at Malcolm Turnbull's climate change deal with Kevin Rudd) One of them, Tony Abbott, is likely to be the credible challenger for the leadership that Turnbull has so far not yet faced.

What makes this even more ridiculous is that it's highly likely the Australia's Labor government will get climate change legislation passed one one way or another - either moderate proposals now with Liberal backing in the Senate or radical proposals after a potential "double dissolution" election that will give the Green Party the balance of power in the Senate. But common sense and pragmatism seems lacking in all this.

Here in the UK the Conservatives went through a horrible six years of naval gazing, infighting and umpteen leadership elections before we even began to get our spirit back. Now it seems that affliction has spread to the Australian Liberals and will harm them for a long time to come.

Oh and yes the Liberals have had leadership problems in the past. They once had an eight month leadership by Alexander Downer that few remember with praise - see YouTube: The Downer Months. But the party then had ideas and alternative talent, and soon found a viable new leader who swept them to election. Today it seems to have none of these.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Sun is not 40 tomorrow

Shocka as The Sun gets it wrong!

Tomorrow The Sun is celebrating its fortieth birthday. (The Sun: We are 40 tomorrow) Invariably this is leading to much self-congratulation.

But The Sun has made a very basic error - the first edition did not "burst on to news stands on Monday, November 17, 1969". Depending on your preference (or whichever is the nearer excuse for self-congratulation) The Sun began either on September 15th, 1964 (see for instance the five year old BBC News: Forty years of The Sun) or on April 15th, 1912.

The latter date was when a newspaper called the Daily Herald was launched. It lasted under that title for over four decades, during most of which it served as the official newspaper of the Labour Movement (so its later "desertion" of the "family" is a key reason why many in Labour hate it). However by 1964 sales were heavily in decline and so it underwent a relaunch and a title change as The Sun, which was initially a high-minded broadsheet (publishers IPC already had a tabloid, the Daily Mirror). But after five years it was doing even worse than the Herald and so IPC sold it to Rupert Murdoch who relaunched it as the tabloid it is today on November 17th, 1969. But I guess "40 years of Rupert Murdoch" is not so good for publicity.

I can't remember if The Sun itself was celebrating 40 years in 2004 but the BBC News story suggests it was. And I won't be surprised if in 2012 The Sun celebrates its 100th birthday, then its 50th in 2014 and again in 2019. It seems The Sun has more birthdays than the Queen.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Julie Kirkbride - No, No, NO!

It is often claimed that in some constituencies a pig could get elected if it wears the right coloured rosette. From the news today it looks like one MP is so determined to keep her snout in the trough that she wants to put that claim to the test. (ConservativeHome: Julie Kirkbride tells Bromsgrove Conservatives she wishes to be their candidate at the general election)

My response to this is: No, No, NO!

Kirkbride was rightly forced to announce her retirement back in the summer and the only thing that has changed since then is that she's dropped out of the headlines for a while. But that does not mean it is right that she can try and just retract her announcement and hope to sneak back into Parliament as though everything is now all right.

We don't yet know for sure what her association will say but nigel hastilow: It works for Julie makes the interesting point:
Still, I don't suppose for one minute all this local support has anything to do with the fact that the association's chairman's wife and his daughter both work for her.
Grassroots Conservatives nationwide played a role in forcing her original announcement and can do so again. Whether it is persuading the local association to stick her application in the cess pit where it belongs or getting the national party to exercise its powers and Howard Flight her, it can be done and it must be done. She is completely unacceptable as a candidate.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Is Europe important to the electorate?

With dozens of commenters and hundreds of pseudonyms roaming the internet to express fake moral outrage about the Conservatives' policy on the European Union, invariably many are claiming that a huge portion of the electorate are concerned with this. But does the evidence stack up?

Late last month Ipsos MORI conducted their "issues index" opinion poll and the results are available online. This opinion poll asks two questions:
  1. What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?
  2. What do you see as other important issues facing Britain today?
One of the entries is for "Common Market/EU/Europe/EURO" (the multiple labels allow for ease of tracking over time). So how what percentage identified this as the most important issue facing Britain today?


Yes it's clearly an issue a huge chunk of the electorate prioritises above all else. Greater percentages selected each of the following:

Economy/economic situation, Crime/law & order/violence/vandalism/ASB, Race relations/immigration/immigrants, Unemployment/Factory Closure/Lack of Industry, National Health Service/Hospitals/Health care, Defence/foreign affairs/international terrorism, Education/Schools, Inflation/prices, Morality/individual behaviour/lifestyle, Pollution/environment, Poverty/inequality and Other

Ah but what about the second question, about other important issues? Well yes this did increase the total. The combined responses to questions 1 & 2 for Europe were:


Still an issue of huge concern to a vast chunk of the electorate! As well as all of the above, this time it was also beaten by: Pensions/social security/benefits, Housing, Drug abuse, Low pay/minimum wage/fair wages

Still the Euro-obsessives can take comfort that Europe scored equally to Local government/council tax and higher than: Public services in general, Taxation, Petrol prices/fuel, Nationalisation/Government control of institutions, Bird flu/Pandemic Flu/Swine Flu, Transport/public transport, Pound/exchange rate/value of pound, Nuclear weapons/nuclear war/disarmament, Countryside/rural life, Trade Unions/Strikes, Scottish/Welsh Assembly/Devolution/Const. reform, Privatisation, Animal welfare, AIDS, GM/GM (Genetically Modified) foods, Northern Ireland (this poll is Great Britain only) and Foot and mouth outbreak/farming crisis.

But I expect people to still make the same old unsubstantiated claim.

Oh look it's another resignation

And another MEP has resigned from the front bench over the new Conservative policy. (BBC News: MEP resigns in referendum dispute) Wow things must be really serious.

Oh it's Roger Helmer. This is the equivalent of Dennis Skinner resigning the Labour whip. It's just the same old difficult names causing trouble again.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Daniel Hannan has resigned

Two months ago the seemingly impossible happened. Daniel Hannan finally started to actually do something in the European Parliament when he became the Conservatives' front bench legal affairs spokesperson.

It could never last. Hannan has spent all his political career as a shouter not a doer, rabble rousing rather than negotiating. (If ever one wanted an argument for restricting leadership elections to parliamentarians, the fact that Hannan would win an activists' ballot for leader of the MEPs despite being utterly unsuited to the task is one.) And today the inevitable happened and Hannan has resigned. (Evening Standard - Paul Waugh: Cam's "EU-turn" backed by 1922..but not ConHome)

I'll post my thoughts on the new Conservative policy later, but for now I'll just say that Hannan will not be missed from the front bench. And I doubt he will have much influence on party policy either, after the mess he dragged the party into in the European Parliament. He will just have to rant in the wilderness.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Lisbon Treaty has been ratified

The deed is done. Václav Klaus has signed the Lisbon Treaty and thus it becomes enacted. (BBC News: Czech leader signs Lisbon Treaty) Now it is no longer a question of "if" but "now what?"

Inevitably attention is now going to turn to the UK Conservatives as to what policy they will follow if the next election puts them in government. The wilder ends of the blogosphere are already demanding a retroactive referendum be held early in the new parliament in the hope of undoing things. But let's be clear - such a referendum that votes "No" can have no legal force. The changes can't be unenacted.

(A slight diversion here as I expect someone is already about to post a reply on the lines of "Yes it can be undone! Parliamentary sovereignty means anything can!" Parliamentary sovereignty is all well and fine on matters within the full jurisdiction of Parliament. But it doesn't apply to areas beyond the scope of the jurisdiction or where jurisdiction has been withdrawn. For example Parliament could repeal the Canada Act 1982, but try enforcing that withdrawal in Canada! Similarly Parliament cannot undo an action transforming the EU, anymore than a person can unscramble an egg and put it back in its shell.)

All a post-ratification referendum would do is consume a lot of time and taxpayer money for no discernible difference. At the end of it the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union would remain the same no matter what.

There are only two real ways forward. One is to grin and put up with the situation we have. The other is for a new government to undertake a renegotiation of the terms of membership of the European Union and then put those terms to the people in a referendum, much like the 1970s Labour government did, and if a satisfactory arrangement cannot be found then to withdraw.

However too many on the Eurosceptic wing of the party are rarely realistic on these matters. They have just spent the last four years focusing all their energy on the rather trivial matter of which grouping we sit with in the European Parliament after all!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The BNP and polling

In the aftermath of Nick Griffin's Question Time appearance the BNP have soared ahead in the opinion polls. Or have they?

A poll done yesterday found they have 3% support, up a grand total of 1%. But 3% is what they got at the end of September. (UK Polling Report: YouGov verdict on BNP's Question Time) And 2-3% is how they've been generally doing in polls anyway. So despite all the outrage about the polls (see BBC News: BNP support in poll sparks anger) have we got nothing more than a standard statistical fluctuation?

Small parties are rarely the focus of opinion polls so there isn't a great deal of data to compare this one to. And the way a poll is asked can have a greater effect on a small party's result than on the larger ones - people are more likely to say they're voting BNP, UKIP or Green if the party is named in the initial list available than a generic "others" that leads to a further list. A specific poll focusing on a small party will bring similar name recognition.

The other results in the YouGov poll include a headline "22% of people questioned would "seriously consider" voting BNP". Actually it's 7% "definitely or probably" and 15% who said it's "possible". And the latter probably includes some "never say never" respondents. There is a poll from 2006 that lacked the "possible" option and found 20% would consider voting for the BNP.

There was also a question about positive/negative attitudes to the BNP, which can be compared to one taken after the Euro elections. Then it was 11% with a positive attitude compared to 72% negative. Now those figures are 9% and 71% - another statistical fluctuation.

Is there a "shy BNP factor" that makes people reluctant to admit to voting for the party? Probably - but one would expect it to be present in previous polls. And YouGov's online polling has frequently managed to penetrate the wall of embarrassment on other questions in ways that face-to-face and phone polling hasn't.

So what does any of this show? Well the overnight reaction is that despite a few headline claims there hasn't been any significant effect either way from Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time. So far it doesn't appear to have been a major boost for the party, but neither has it delivered a knock-out blow.

But this is only so far. For a long time the BNP have benefited from the way opposition to them has been divided on several points, mainly over whether to challenge them directly or pretend that No Platform policies work in this day and age. (And although more minor, the way that some on the mainstream right seem to spend more time demanding the BNP be described as a left-wing party than anything else is really not doing any good at all.) Even now people are still arguing over whether it was right to have the BNP on Question Time and I fear the confront or marginalise debate will continue, to the BNP's advantage.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

BNP vs protesters

I'm currently watching BBC News 24 showing the images outside BBC Television Centre as Nick Griffin arrives for tonight's Question Time complete with huge protests against this. And how does this look on television?

Well to be blunt Nick Griffin comes out better. He looks calm and reasonable, seeking to state his opinions and has accused the protesters of being organised by the Labour Party. The protesters look like a mob, with reports of a few arrests already.

Inviting Nick Griffin to be Question Time was always going to be a tricky matter. But the outrage, the protests and the huge publicity are just playing into the British National Party's hands. A large part of their message is that they are a party with "the truth" and "the answers" that "the mainstream political classes" don't want the people to hear. The reaction from both the protesters and some leading politicians only reinforces this.

But will we actually get a decent debate that exposes the BNP's woeful lack of policies? For instance will we hear their proposals on schools and hospitals? And will the other panelists be pulling them apart? Or will we get bogged down with just immigration and multi-culturalism whilst part of the audience tries to howl down Griffin, allowing him to evade being exposed whilst continuing to pose as a persecuted speaker of "the truth"?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

John Ramsden 1947-2009

Earlier this week I received the shocking news that my PhD supervisor, John Ramsden, has passed away.

Peter Hennessy has written a wonderful piece at The Guardian: John Ramsden obituary and I don't feel I can improve on it. All I can add is that John was a fantastic and very supportive supervisor, providing much useful help and advice. He will be deeply missed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The end of a-ha

I've just seen the news A-ha to break up after 25 years (BBC News). A pity - amongst many other things they did what is, in my humble opinion, the best ever opening song for a James Bond movie.

So in tribute, here they are performing it live earlier this decade:

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Election debates from around the world

I have just seen BBC News: New pressure for TV leader debate which reports that the prospect of the next election featuring a debate between the party leaders is getting stronger because Sky News is willing to go ahead with one even if any one leader refuses to take part.

Such debates are most familiar from US Presidential elections, but they take place in many countries around the world, including countries that have a similar parliamentary system to the UK where leaders regularly go head to head in parliament. Here are a few examples courtesy of YouTube:

First we have the start of the leaders' debate from the 2007 Australia election, featuring John Howard (Liberal/National Coalition) and Kevin Rudd (Labor):
Next we have the start of the leaders' English speaking debate from the 2008 Canadian election featuring Stéphane Dion (Liberal), Gilles Duceppe (Bloc Québécois), Stephen Harper (Conservative), Jack Layton (New Democratic Party) and Elizabeth May (Green):

UPDATE: This clip is no longer available on YouTube but can be seen on the CBC website. Many thanks to forumer Severian for this link.

And thirdly we have the start of the leaders' debate from the 2008 New Zealand election featuring Helen Clark (Labour) and John Key (National):
Quite a mixture of formats but all show that the basics can work and offer a broader scope than parliamentary questions. (And the Canadian line-up including Duceppe suggests it would be possible to include the Scottish Nationalists & Plaid Cymru, although I'm not sure if the Northern Ireland parties could be so easily incorporated.)

So will we have a leader' debate at the next election? We shall see...

Monday, August 17, 2009


I've not been posting a great deal lately, largely because various other things are occupying my time and the summer is often a quiet time in the news anyway (and some of the silly season stories bore me). But don't worry, I haven't stopped blogging altogether and will post more frequently soon.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Primaries to stay in the UK?

Today saw the result of the first ever mass ballot to select a parliamentary candidate when voters in Totnes selected Sarah Wollaston in a postal ballot of all registered voters. (BBC News: GP wins Tory 'open primary' race) It marks the first time any part of the UK has had anything approaching US-style primary elections.

(A word of clarity. For a few years now some Conservative parliamentary candidates have been selected by open meetings of local voters billed as "primaries" but which are really closer to "caucuses", requiring active attendance at the meeting.)

The full result is at ConservativeHome: Dr Sarah Wollaston selected after 25% turnout in Totnes Open Primary, but the figure that interests me the most is the turnout. 16,644 ballot papers were returned, representing approximately 25% of the electorate. Whatever expectations were spun in advance, the raw figure means that the fears people had that such primaries would lead to rival parties trying to vote pack the results have been proved baseless. This experiment can be considered a success and primaries should be rolled out on a wider basis.

There is, however, one problem still to be resolved. The postal ballot was not cheap, costing some £40,000 and few local parties have that kind of money to hand. (Yes I know the slogan "there shouldn't be a price on democracy" but it's easy to say that when you're not the one paying that price.) Taking the process online is a possibility in the medium term, but at present there's no obvious simple way for all voters to verify themselves so as to ensure against voter fraud. But if that could be overcome - and I believe it already has been in other countries - then this could radically open up candidate selection across the board.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Top 50 Political Myths

Total Politics has published a list of fifty of the most common myths in British politics. Some have been busted in recent years, others are a real surprise. I pick just three highlights:
33. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a killer rabbit

Fishing near his hometown of Plains, Georgia in 1979, the then President realised a large swamp rabbit was swimming towards his boat. A flustered Carter had to flail at it with his oars. The story leaked out, and it became known as the Killer Rabbit Incident after a Washington Post cartoon.
Life nearly imitated art as this was a few years after Monty Python and the Holy Grail gave us the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog,
25. David Mellor wore a Chelsea kit while making love

Made up by Max Clifford, but this delightful image contributed to the John Major government being beset by sleaze and sex scandals in the early 1990s.
It also meant that at the time people believed there was at least one person in a Chelsea kit who could score so many times. Fortunately things have changed since then...
13. Margaret Thatcher was hugely popular as Prime Minister

Despite her undeniable obliteration of most political rivals - until her own party stabbed her in the back - Thatcher never won more than 43 per cent of the vote in her three general election victories.
Something I wish ardent Thatcherites would remember this when acting as political Sirens.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The last volunteer

During the First World War this country appealed for volunteers to join the armed forces. To many men it meant leaving their homes for a long time. It meant risking their lives. For many it meant taking a significant salary cut. But to say the response was overwhelming would be a huge understatement. If the country needed such manpower ever again I wonder if we'd see even a remotely similar response.

The men who volunteered fought in atrocious conditions but they gave it their all and more. Many made the ultimate sacrifice. This country owes so much to them.

Today the last of the volunteers, Henry Allingham, has died. With his passing the entire generation of volunteers have passed into history.

In his final years Allingham was determined that his comrades and their sacrifice were not forgotten. This final mission was a success.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

The news tonight has been shocking.

One of my favourite childhood memories is of a family trip to the cinema to see Moonwalker. The film begins with this:

Monday, June 22, 2009

And it's Bercow

So John Bercow has become the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons. I didn't think the Commons would elect a radical as Speaker but it's happened.

It was clear from the scenes of Bercow being led to the chair that there is still hostility to him in certain quarters in the Commons. I was expecting the formal motion to seat him to be challenged but instead it went through on the nod. Now I hope that MPs will accept the result and not act like sore losers. The Commons desperately needs to reform itself. Undermining a Speaker for petty personal reasons will not help that.

It's finally happened

I've just heard the news flash that our MEPs have succeeded in forming the "European Conservatives and Reformists" grouping in the European Parliament.

So I was wrong in my prediction that the new group wouldn't succeed. (How long before we're back in the European People's Party?) I've not yet seen the full list of parties we're caucusing with but I have no doubt that Labour and the Liberal Democrats will throw whatever mud they can and have incredibly selective amnesia about their own partner parties' records.

Meanwhile across the country literally dozens of anonymous commenters on ConservativeHome will be rejoicing. And everyone else in this country will get on with something more interesting.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Speaker election

Tomorrow sees the voting in the election for the Speaker of the House of Commons. Frankly so far I've found the whole thing about as riveting as a Liberal Democrat deputy leadership election.

Initially people hoped for a Speaker who could take a radical approach to shaking up the Commons' traditions. But how likely is that looking at the candidates?

* Margaret Beckett
* Sir Alan Beith
* John Bercow
* Sir Patrick Cormack
* Parmjit Dhanda
* Sir Alan Haselhurst
* Sir Michael Lord
* Richard Shepherd
* Ann Widdecombe
* Sir George Young

By my reckoning that's two Deputy Speakers (Haselhurst & Lord), a former Leader of the House (Beckett), a former Shadow Leader (Young), two grandees of their party (Beith & Cormack) and another ex nodding head minister (Dhanda). The parliamentary establishment is well represented in this election but I doubt any of these will be radical enough for what is needed. That leaves just three mavericks who are likely to really shake things up. And that includes one who is standing down from the Commons at the election (Widdecombe).

Only Bercow and Shepherd offer real bold change for the long term, but Bercow is facing a hate campaign rarely seen in politics. Just look at the vile in Nadine Dorries: Bercow as Speaker - a Forgone Conclusion?, even going so far as to attack Bercow's wife.

As disgusting as the attacks are, and as stupid as Dorries's reasoning is, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a Bercow Speakership would prove too divisive for reform to happen. Instead there would be too many attempts by the bitter to depose him.

This leaves only one candidate who offers a realistic prospect of overhaul and that is Richard Shepherd.

So I doubt he will win the election.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Sweet 2

I'll post my main comments on the Euro elections later, but for now here's a map showing every single region that has a Conservative MEP:

Yes for the first time ever one party has members representing every single part of the UK. And it is the Conservatives.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The threat to Brown Blunted?

Hands up those who remember when Crispin Blunt resigned from the Conservative frontbench.

Yes it wasn't exactly the most memorable event in recent political history. Blunt resigned literally when the local election polls closed and called for his party leader to go, expecting lots of MPs to sign letters. The political chatter assumed that his leader was doomed there and then. Instead the whole thing fizzled out, hardly anyone signed a letter there and then and things went on as normal for the time being.

The parallels with James Purnell's resignation are obvious. Over the past few days we were hearing about a round robin letter being anonymously circulated with loads of cloak 'n dagger stuff. Now I turn on the television to hear that the voices in the darkness are holding back on the letter and it may well never go ahead at all. After a few weeks I wonder if anyone will even remember this. The coup has been Blunted.

Of course Iain Duncan Smith did fall some months later after further events, including signs the party was going to crash into third place. If the parallels continue then Gordon Brown may well find a threat that's Betsygated...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

ZANU-PF - the new Nazis

There are few words available to describe the conditions in modern day Zimbabwe. But it seems that the situation is getting trivialised by the day.

There is a long standing tradition on the internet that the longer a discussion goes on, the more likely it is someone will make a comparison with Hitler and the Nazis, usually ridiculously overblown - see Godwin's Law for more information.

Now it seems that comparisons to Robert Mugabe and his party ZANU-PF are being made with the same level of casualness. Consider this comment on And another thing...: Your man at Westminster:
Zimbabwe UK! From Guido

UKIP are complaining that ballot papers are being handed out folded over and people don't realise their name is over the fold. Supporters are complaining to their party HQ that UKIP were not on the ballot paper...
Yes voters having to unfold the ballot paper (folded by a few helpful polling station officials because it's so long it's hard to get it in the box) is clearly comparable to the atrocities in Zimbabwe. Can anyone find more examples of these absurd over the top comparisons?

In more ways than one ZANU-PF are the new Nazis.

David Cameron's Election Day Message 2009

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

You pop out for a bit and this happens...

It seems to be a recurring theme. I go offline for an extended period (I went over to Hammersmith & Fulham for David Cameron's eve of poll rally) and a lot happens in the political world. It seems I'm not the only one - see Tom Harris's tweet.

I suppose I should go off on one about how Gordon Brown has lost all authority, how each resignation stacks up, how Labour have lost the plot when their local government minister resigns the day before local government elections, how this shows why everyone must turn out and vote Conservative tomorrow etc...

Nah. If you want to read that sort of regurgitated stuff, there are enough blogs by people who nod their heads on cue (and even more Labour ones if that's your thing). I'll post my own considered opinions on this all later when I've had time to relax and digest it all (plus whatever else news has come in by then).

Monday, June 01, 2009

Vote Conservative on the 4th of June

Here are two recent party political broadcasts:

The dangers of knee-jerk constitutional change

So far I think Tom Harris has made the best suggestion about how to respond to the expenses scandal - you can see his brilliant idea at And another thing...: The only possible response to the expenses scandal.

I'm afraid I can't come up with anything quite so spectacular but here's one that would change politics as we know it and that I know many people would be glad to see: Outlaw the Liberal Democrats. That will restore faith in democracy and end the scandal I'm sure!

More seriously there are numerous wild suggestions for constitutional change flying around, some of which seem to have been given no more thought than a brief contemplation in the pub. They are then advocated with an aggressive "any idiot can see this is a good idea" type of reasoning, often with pejorative terms like "reform" and "democracy" used as though they magically validate everything, with those who dare to question just how it will solve the problem at hand bluntly dismissed.

This is in no way a sensible approach to constitutional change. It needs to be carefully thought through, with the knock-on effects considered and with a more permanent basis of support than heat of the moment desires. There are many changes being advocated at the moment which are getting support in the opinion polls, but will people really be happy if they're implemented?

For example one proposal flying around is a standards board that would have the power to suspend or even sack MPs for misconduct. It sounds like a no-brainer doesn't it? Indeed a similar standards board exists for local government. But remember when that board suspended Ken Livingstone from office as Mayor of London? (It was overturned before the suspension took place.) The reaction was against the standards board for seemingly overriding the democratic choice of the people.

The idea of recall elections is taking off. Leaving aside the need to ensure that such a tool is not abused for mere partisan gain, has anyone advocating this ever actually knocked on voters' doors during a parliamentary by-election? I have and to put it mildly voters are not exactly happy that they've had yet another election land on them. Next time there's a by-election on, remember to ask the voters if they want more elections inflicted upon them!

Or there's the simultaneous demands for fixed term parliaments and a snap general election. But the whole point of fixed term parliaments is that you can't have a snap election!

(And fixed term parliaments don't exactly work well either. Germany supposedly has them but this hasn't stopped successive German Chancellors from manipulating the system to call an election whenever they want to. If people want to create the desired effect they need to change the political & popular culture to the point that a Prime Minister calling an early election for political advantage will risk displeasure being felt in the ballot box. But why bother trying to be effective when you can just pass tokenistic ineffective constitutional changes that make you feel good?)

I've also heard calls for more demands for referendums, including ones that the voters can initiate. Direct democracy - it sounds so wonderful doesn't it? But is it always the best thing? Referendums have been used to impose values upon people. In California the courts have just upheld that a referendum can take away basic rights, in this case the right of people to marry. Is direct democracy automatically the best thing if it can be used to deny people their rights?

Then on another level we have suggestions that the whole question of MPs' salaries and expenses should be handled by an independent review body. But one of the reasons why the expenses culture developed the way it did is because MPs did not wish to be seen to be accepting the full salary increases recommended by past reviews and instead an entire culture developed that allowances and expenses were meant to be generous to make up for the wages not being as high as they "should" have been.

And of course the usual suspects have once again pounced on every little thing to demand proportional representation. Apparently this will make it easier to get rid of MPs the public don't like.

So can someone tell me how the majority of voters of London can get rid of Richard Barnbrook from the London Assembly? He was elected by proportional representation after all. Or how are the majority of voters of South East England able to reject Daniel Hannan if they want to, when he is at the top of the list most likely to win the most votes in the proportional representation election on Thursday? Or, if we're taking the single transferable vote, how are the majority of voters of Northern Ireland to reject Bairbre de Brún if they wish? There's no alternative Sinn Féin candidate to choose instead. The harsh reality is that "safe seats" exist not because of magic but because a lot of people vote for political parties regardless of who the individual candidates are, and there's not much that can be done to change that.

Now a lot of this is critical and it's meant to be. I don't believe that there is a set of changes that will act as a magic wand to suddenly transform British politics and end all the expenses issues. Indeed one poll has found that two-thirds of voters agree that there is "nothing fundamentally wrong with Britain's constitution providing that MPs are honest and competent". (Daily Telegraph: MPs expenses: Six in ten voters want autumn general election)

But whilst "if it ain't broke don't fix it" suffices most of the time, it clearly doesn't at the moment. So here are some ideas, no more, no less, to throw into the discussion on ways forward:

* Initiate prosecutions against MPs who have committed criminal offences. If found guilty send them to jail and automatically vacate their seat.

* A standards board with the power to dismiss MPs. Yes this would be a trampling on democratic choice, but frankly there are times when the needs of the country as a whole should override the decision of one individual constituency. The principle has already been conceded at local government level, even if it took the Livingstone case to bring it up.

* That good old standby of an independent review body for MPs' salaries & expenses. However I would give it the power to actually set salaries not merely make recommendations that are politically difficult for MPs to vote in. That may not be popular in the short term but it would be better than the current mess. For oversight I would have the Lords as the chamber in control of the review body.

* For MPs who need a second home in London, instead of giving them the money to rent or buy one, perhaps the Commons should buy the home instead and the MPs only live there for the duration. This is an adaptation of the "hall of residence" idea often floated but repeatedly shot down on security concerns.

* Consider the constitution in a calmer state of affairs - that will produce better results than knee-jerk changes that just jump on the bandwagon.

A lot of this isn't sexy, it isn't dynamic and it isn't radical. But it's targeted at the problem itself, it isn't seeking to exploit the crisis for ends that have nothing to do with it and it isn't proposing the shake up the country. Calm reflection is always better than instant reaction.

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!"?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

New depths to the Master's villainy

One of my favourite Doctor Who stories is The Mind of Evil. For my reasons I can do no better than refer you to my review on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide. However this story has sadly only existed as a black & white film recording for over thirty years now.

But all is not lost. Recently a special process has been developed that extracts colour information from the black & white copy to restore it to colour - some of you may have seen the results when BBC2 transmitted a restored Dad's Army episode last December. Now the process has been applied to some Doctor Who episodes, including at least one episode of The Mind of Evil.

And being able to see things in colour will reveal many things. For example in one scene the Master disguises himself as a workman wearing a football scarf. Now, courtesy of a post by Steve Roberts of the Doctor Who Restoration Team at this post on Roobarb's Forum, we know which team he supports:
Yes the master of chaos is wearing a Newcastle United scarf. And he's doing so in a tent that wouldn't be too out of place at Sunderland AFC!

I hope that this is a teaser for a forthcoming full colour restoration of The Mind of Evil so that it can be enjoyed in all its original glory.

Monday, April 27, 2009

So what's the point of town twinning?

Today I saw the news that the Oxfordshire town of Wallingford is trying to break its twinning arrangement with the French town of Luxeuil-les-Bains because communications have long since ceased between the two. (BBC News: Town aims to disown French 'twin') This is in stark contrast to Wallingford's relations with its German twin, Bad Wurzach.

In the true spirit of local government international relations (surely a contradiction in term) it seems there is no mechanism for towns to break the twinning. I hope that anomaly gets rectified before a town finds its twin has become decidedly unacceptable.

But what exactly is the point of town twinning? How does it benefit the people of a town? There's some mention in the news of school exchange programmes but they're not especially noticeable. And what else is there? My home borough of Newham is apparently twinned with Kaiserslautern in Germany, but it hardly shouts about it beyond the occasional mention on the website (e.g. Mayor welcomes visitors from German twin town). How exactly has that brought benefit to the people?

Well I can think of some it has brought benefit to. Councillors who get to go on fraternal greetings trips. But councillor junkets are not a benefit to the wider community. The whole series of arrangements does not offer any obvious tangible benefits. If towns want to declare on their signs that they're twinned with some other town then let them, but at a time when the public finances are tight, and council tax is constantly rising, twinning junkets should be one of the first ports of call for councillors to cut waste to cut council tax.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Virginia Morris for West Ham

Two days ago I attended a parliamentary selection meeting for the first time ever. (In the past a combination of moving between home and university, sitting MPs and various timings has meant that the opportunity has not previously arisen.) But on Sunday the West Ham Conservative Association held its meeting to select its prospective parliamentary candidate and the full meeting heard from three impressive candidates before selecting. And I believe we have made an excellent choice.

The Association has selected Virginia Morris as its candidate. I can do no better to introduce her than repeat the words of ConservativeHome: Virginia Morris adopted for West Ham:
Virginia is married with a daughter and has been a Councillor for Richmond upon Thames since 2002, holding the portfolio of Shadow Cabinet Member for Civic Pride and Planning. Previously she stood for parliament for Oxford East in 2005. She holds a PhD in engineering becoming a partner and later a director of one of the leading consultancies specialising in environmental engineering, building design and consultancy services, winning the Queens Award for Enterprise in 2004. She changed careers after spending two years living in Lao PDR, the first working for the United Nations Development Programme and the second walking hundreds of miles in remote areas undertaking research. From this work she has written two books on the Vietnam War.

She said on her selection:

"I am proud to have been selected as the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for West Ham. The constituency and Newham Council have been run for too long by Labour and I am looking forward to working with the Conservatives here to oust them."
The next general election, whenever it comes, is going to heat up here in West Ham.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Recycling, political style

There are some politicians who seem remarkably adept at comebacks in different positions - on the international stage the many returns of Shimon Peres spring most readily to mind. But it's more unusual for a politician to enter the politics of a different country.

News has reached me of rumours in Brussels that the UK Conservative MEP Christopher Beazely is contemplating trying to continue his career by seeking election as an MEP from Poland. He has reportedly been offered a seat, presumably by the Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform), which would allow him to remain in the Parliament when he declined to seek renomination as a Conservative in the UK, but would also allow him to continue to sit as a member of the European People's Party.

Beazely has been so staunchly opposed to the Conservative proposals to leave the EPP-ED caucus that he recently formally transferred from the European Democrats section to the EPP part and announced his retirement in the UK because of his opposition to the departure. Now it seems he is determined to stay in the EPP at all costs, even travelling halfway across the continent to do so.

So rather than retiring quietly it seems Beazely is hoping to recycle himself in a new country. The last MEP I can think of who popped up in another country's politics was Sir James Goldsmith, French MEP and founder of the UK's Referendum Party. I never thought Beazely would turn out to have much in common with Goldsmith!


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