Monday, May 31, 2010

A look at my readers

Time for a quick look at who's reading this blog to say thank you to you all.

Last year Tracksy gave up the ghost so I'm now using Google Analytics to keep up with who's reading this blog and what the most popular posts are. Currently I only have data for the period since mid last November, but a few trends are emerging.

First the three most popular days on this blog have been:
  1. May 30th
  2. May 22nd
  3. February 19th
Unsurprisingly the three most popular posts correspond to these days:
  1. The end of Ashes to Ashes
  2. Do we need Conservative Future?
  3. The battle for the Speaker's constituency
And the top search term that brought people here is ashes to ashes.

My readers are spread around the world but with a distinct bias to the Anglosphere. The top ten countries for readers are:
  1. United Kingdom
  2. United States
  3. Canada
  4. Australia
  5. Ireland
  6. Germany
  7. France
  8. India
  9. Belgium
  10. New Zealand
On the more technical side visitors use the following browsers:
  1. Firefox 38.43%
  2. Internet Explorer 38.39%
  3. Chrome 9.67%
  4. Safari 9.16%
  5. Mozilla 1.08%
...with a load of others each using less than 1%. Surprisingly one visitor is still using Netscape.

A big thank you to everyone who has been visiting and reading the blog, no matter where you're from or how you're reading this.

The many deaths of the Hound of the Baskervilles

As a break from the usual, here's an interesting little compilation from YouTube. The Hound of the Baskervilles has been one of my favourite books since childhood and it's been brought to the screen more times than almost any other book. Here is a nice mix from many of the most famous versions as Holmes confronts and dispatches the beast:
Personally my favourite screen version is the Ian Richardson one that everyone seems to forget (it also has Brian Blessed in it).

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Do we need Conservative Future?

I have recently seen a post on Liberal Democrat Voice entitled Opinion: Why do we need Liberal Youth?, inspired by the fact that the LYers are currently engaged in their annual elections. I've heard enough about past Liberal Youth elections to know when to leave private grief well alone.

But another youth & students wing is soon to have its own elections - Conservative Future. (Already a number of blogs such as Tory Bear are running opinion polls. If anyone wants to vote for me as a write-in candidate feel free to.) So it's time to raise a few questions, perhaps playing Devil's Advocate a little. Now I've been around the block a while and jokingly refer to myself as something of a Methuselah of CF, so maybe this is just the rumblings of a grumpy young man. And yes I'm approaching the upper age limit for CF so perhaps this is someone else's business now. But maybe this means I can speak more freely than others about the problems.

And I've also for a long time seen an organisation that at times has never really known what it's there for, which occasionally finds an answer only to ditch it soon after (usually after a change of leadership) and which seems clearer about what it isn't than what it is.

Now this doesn't apply everywhere. At the local level Conservative Future provides a useful way to recruit and engage younger members of the party (although historically retention has been poor) and the national brand provides both a uniform identity and quality materials that can't be duplicated elsewhere. (Of course at the university level this creates some problems because many of the university branches are much older than CF and are very reluctant to change their names. But the smaller bubble of university means that it's usually easier to advertise anyway and overcome this.)

At the area and regional level CF's record has been mixed with some successes when strong local branches have banded together and some failures when the organisation nationally has tried to direct things. The real problem here has long been a very weak structure between the branches and national level - the old system of just electing an area chair for each of 43(?) pre-defined areas did not in itself guarantee much overall success, though there have been many area chairs who have worked wonders in spite of the limited resources and support available.

At the national level CF has successively de facto decided (without, it has to be said, any real formal choice) that:
  • It doesn't want to be a platform for expressing policy opinions that would encourage ideological faction fighting
  • It doesn't want to be a super branch for London
  • It doesn't want to just be an advertising service for local events
  • It might want to get involved in the National Union of Students but then again it might not depending on the background and prejudices of whoever happens to have the portfolio
  • It doesn't want to repeat the infamy of the Federation of Conservative Students
  • It wants to avoid the Tory Boy stereotype of the last years of the Young Conservatives
  • It doesn't want to repeat the previous CF leadership's mistakes
Yes this is negative, but there are some things CF has decided for:
  • It wants to create an environment to encourage people to get and stay involved
  • It wants to campaign for the party at all levels
  • It wants to encourage talented younger members to rise fast in the party, particularly standing as candidates at all levels (and sometimes takes credit even when said candidate has had minimal involvement with, or support from, CF)
  • It wants people to enjoy themselves
And a lot of this has taken place against a background of umpteen rounds of personality based infighting, with (let's be honest) many people putting themselves forward because they want to help and make a difference and instead merely finding themselves the subject of bullying and malicious gossip. It should not surprise anyone that there have been quite a number of resignations over the years by people who no longer want to put up with all the crap, especially when they seem unable to get much done. What does surprise is that few want to openly admit this, let alone take firm action to stamp it out.

This post has been quite negative. But the starting point for all improvement is to identify not just what is wrong but why it is wrong. Problems with both individuals and general culture can't be solved simply by changing the rules in the hope that whenever some last week's problem repeats itself exactly it will be solved differently. Whilst having a clear complaints process is essential, they also need to be solved by a proactive people based approach. More generally the organisation needs to find not just a direction, but also a destination, and one that there can be much greater continuity for.

So as the Conservative Future elections begin, I issue a challenge to everyone thinking of standing in them to answer these questions:
  1. What is Conservative Future for?
  2. What is the ultimate aim of CF?
  3. How will you tackle the culture of nastiness that has driven away so many?
It's how people answer these questions, and nothing else, that will determine who I give my support to.

Very brief Cabinet Ministers

David Laws's resignation after only 17 days in the Cabinet has prompted quite a few people on Twitter to ask if he was the shortest ever Cabinet Minister. And this is the sort of challenge I can't refuse, especially as some have specifically asked me... My instinctive response is "No" but I've had to look this up a bit. A few examples follow:

My first instinct was the "Short Lived Ministry" begun on February 10th 1746 by the Earl of Bath. This ministry usually doesn't appear in the history books and some make the case that it doesn't even count. What happened was that the existing "Prime Minister" (the title wasn't official in those days) Henry Pelham and George II fell out and so the King turned to Bath to see if he could form an alternative ministry. Bath gave up after two days, after only he and Lord Carteret had "kissed hands" and taken seals as First Lord of the Treasury and Secretary of State for both the Northern & Southern Departments respectively. But quite apart from whether or not this ministry actually counts at all, both had held Cabinet posts before.

One I thought might be the briefest of all turns out to have not officially sat in Cabinet, not that it would have made a difference. Lord Frederick Cavendish was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland in May 1882. He formally took the oath on May 6th at Dublin Castle. That afternoon he was murdered along with Thomas Henry Burke, the Permanent Under Secretary at the Irish Office, in Phoenix Park. But he was not a Cabinet Minister.

So after all this my best bet is the Earl Temple who served for only four days as both Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. Temple was appointed on December 19th 1783 when William Pitt the Younger formed his first ministry, but resigned two days later with his successors appointed after another couple of days. Historians disagree as to the reasons for his resignation - William Hague, in his biography of Pitt, suggests that it was for a multitude of reasons stemming from the entire political situation in which George III had dismissed the Fox-North Coalition after its flagship proposed legislation, the East India Bill, had failed in the Lords because the King himself had informed the Lords he would regard any peer who voted for the legislation as his enemy. The message was delivered by Temple.

I'm going to go with Temple as the shortest I can find. Whether he should be counted as a two or four day minister, he was certainly in the Cabinet and as far as I am aware he never otherwise served in the Cabinet (he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1782-1783 and 1787-1789 but according to the relevant volume of the Oxford History of England he does not appear to have been in the Cabinet at either time).

Any advances?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The complexity of "living together"

As a quick coda to my last post, here's a link to ConservativeHome's Platform: Martin Sewell: David Laws and the Question of 'Partnership'. Sewell is a Family Solicitor and explains how complicated and confusing the situation is.

The rise and fall of David Laws

It's been quite a week for David Laws. It began with his meteoric rise as he took a star role in the Commons in implementing cuts and standing up to Labour, leaving many Conservatives wishing he was one of us and tipping him as a future leader of the party. And that's not just if the Coalition has the same result as so many of its predecessors - in the early days of the Cameron leadership Laws was highly tipped as one of the Liberal Democrat MPs most likely to switch parties.

And then came the revelations in today's papers.

I have some sympathy of Laws's position - his expenses situation is the same today as it was twelve months ago. I also have sympathy that it has been difficult for many MPs to be openly gay - he was not the only member of the current Cabinet who was in the closet when appointed this month - and that society has not advanced all at the same time. There are still parts of the country where homophobia is widespread.

And it seems this is a case of someone starting a relationship with their pre-existing live-in landlord so at what point Laws started breaking the rules is unclear, especially as even he seems to have thought his landlord was not his "partner". I would suggest that when Laws and the landlord moved homes in 2007 would have been a clear point when he should have come to a different conclusion about whether or not he was breaking at least the spirit of the rules if not his understanding of the letter of them.

Politics is a harsh environment and there's nothing the media enjoy more than seeing an Icarus. But let's have an end to this trial by media. It should be the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, not the editor of the Daily Telegraph, who decides the extent to which Laws has done wrong. Until then he should not be sacked just to appease a baying mob.

If Laws goes then someone will have to be appointed to replace him. I hope that the appointment is made on the basis of who has the best ability, not the right party label. The following words were written nearly eighty years ago but still apply today:
I am sure it would be resented in the country and indeed it would not be right to put a man into the Cabinet whose only qualification was that his inclusion would maintain the balance of the parties in the Cabinet. I am confident that the country demands at this juncture the help of its very best men regardless of party.
They were written by David Margesson to Neville Chamberlain in 1932 when the death of a Liberal Cabinet minister created a vacancy. But they apply as much now.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Arise Baron Thumper

John Prescott is to be made a Lord in the Dissolution Honours List. So in honour of this, here's one of his most famous moments:
Bizarrely years before this moment he was nicknamed "Thumper".

The General Election is finally over

Thirsk & Malton polled yesterday, three weeks after the rest of the country. Anne McIntosh has been returned, but I know I'm not alone in being uncomfortable about the way elections can be postponed this way. As Tom Harris highlights at And another thing...: No need for a delayed verdict, there is a real danger of problems if a party leader or Speaker found their own poll delayed; especially if fanatics were to try and exploit this rule for malign ends. But also it's unfair on the voters to not be able to give their verdict at the same time as the rest of the country. And what if this one result were to determine which party was the largest?

In other countries the procedure is that if a candidate dies the poll goes ahead but their party/agent can nominate a replacement up to the production of ballot papers; otherwise the dead candidate still stands and if elected there is a by-election. I think a constituency could handle that more easily and let's be honest - how many people are going to not vote for a party simply because they will be guaranteed the circus of by-elections if that party wins? It's a much simpler solution and frankly fairer all round.

So fancy proposing a bill to amend the law Tom?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Another Liberal Democrat (deputy) leadership election

Thanks to Vincent Cable, the political world gets to enjoy yet another Liberal Democrat (deputy) leadership election. The wider world is, I'm sure, equally fascinated - remember John Prescott's comments last time?
First, let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to his role as acting deputy leader. We all know that the election will take place after today, and I wish him well. The matter is riveting the nation's attention—in fact, on my visit to Hull last weekend they talked of nothing else in the pubs.

Cable has said he's standing down from the post purely because of the time commitments, but it's also notable that as the position is elected by the MPs it is the nearest to an equivalent of the Conservative Chair of the 1922 Committee or the Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party and thus the best way Liberal Democrat MPs can represent their views to the leadership. And it's hard to do that when the post is held by a Cabinet Minister. So could the new deputy be someone outside the government - maybe this is finally the moment for Simon Hughes? Alternatively the post might offer the chance for a big name to make a comeback - would it be beneath Charles Kennedy or Sir Menzies Campbell to stand?

The election will take place on June 9th so for the moment it could be the most interesting show in town. Anyone care to predict the dark horse candidate?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Diane Abbott and polls

One of the first opinion polls on the Labour leadership election has been topped by Diane Abbott prompting Silver Surfer Today (amongst others) to ask Could Diane Abbott be next Labour leader?

It's an interesting idea but it overlooks two key factors. The first is that the opinion poll is of the electorate as a whole, whereas the Labour leader will be elected by a combination of Labour Party and trade union members. Of course they may be swayed by the findings of such opinion polls but I doubt by ones at this stage. For the second key factor is that this leadership election has barely begun and the candidates have got little exposure. So the opinion polls are finding nothing more than name recognition. (See for instance UK Polling Report: New ComRes and ICM polls and, for the equivalent for the Conservatives in 2005, 2005 Tory Leadership.) And it has to be said that Abbott has quite a high level of name recognition, especially compared to the likes of Andy Burnham, who seems to be the Chris Whone of the Labour Party.

The key question about Diane Abbott at the moment is not whether she can win the leadership election but whether or not she can even get successfully nominated. So far according to Labour Party: Candidates Abbott has yet to receive a single formal nomination. Meanwhile both Milibands have crossed the threshold and, like Gordon Brown, are in the process of getting more than they need, presumably so they can try and carve other candidates out of the race altogether. The presence of John McDonnell also seeking nominations from the far left of the party isn't helping Abbott either.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How might the Royals vote?

The Queen is doing her bit today and opening Parliament. One sometimes wonders what she actually thinks of the speech she's given to recite but her views are often a guarded secret.

But what if the Royals went out and voted? That's not as strange as it sounds - people have reported seeing a lot of Royals (although not the Queen herself) on the electoral register. So if they were voting, here's a few guesses:
  • Prince Philip: Well with his well known gaffes he'd have to be "Public Safety Democratic Monarchist White Resident" (remember Bill Boaks)
  • Prince Charles: Could it be anything other than Green?
  • Princess Anne: She's a bit of a traditionalist so Conservative
  • Prince Andrew: He seems a bit wishy washy so Liberal Democrat
  • Prince Edward: What else but Official Monster Raving Loony Party
  • Prince Michael of Kent: Given his interests and appearance, maybe Russian monarchists (if they have such a party)
  • Fergie: Labour - she clearly likes running up huge debts and shamelessly trying to raise funds
I have no idea about the other Royals, although it's a little-known fact that Princess Alexandra was once nominated (without her consent) for an Aldermanic election in Richmond in 1975. She was the nominee of a left-wing Labour councillor - I never had her down as a Bennite. But her brief candidacy was outdone by a nomination for Charlie Chaplain!

How to rig an opinion poll

Another classic clip from Yes Prime Minister; this time where Sir Humphrey explains how to produce the opinion poll result one wants:

Monday, May 24, 2010

BME Conservative MPs - the pioneers

This general election was the first to see a sizeable number of Conservative MPs elected from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. In addition to the re-election of Adam Afriyie (Windsor) and Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire), it saw the first election of Rehman Chishti (Gillingham & Rainham), Helen Grant (Maidstone & The Weald), Sam Gymimah (East Surrey), Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove), Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne), Priti Patel (Witham), Alok Sharma (Reading West), Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West - yes Enoch Powell's old seat) and Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon). The number is actually lower than many hoped for, with several prominent candidates like Shaun Bailey being unsuccessful, but it represents over 78% of all the BME Conservative MPs ever. I hope the list grows at future elections.

It seems an appropriate time to take a look at the handful of past BME Conservative MPs. There are some surprising entries on the list and it also starts much earlier than many might expect.

The first ever BME MP was a Liberal, Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi, who was elected for Finsbury Central in 1892. In 1895 he was defeated in what was a terrible year for the Liberals in London. However the same election saw the victory of the first Conservative BME MP.

Had he lived a century or so later, Mancherjee Bhownagree, another Parsi, would probably have been a nightmare for party organisers, being perhaps a little too hardline for many. He would surely have been one of the Maastricht rebels and a staunch supporter of Better Off Out (of the European Union), to the point that UKIP would probably not have stood against him. In his day the equivalent issues were Irish Home Rule (he was staunchly opposed), British Imperialism (he was a staunch supporter of the Empire) and the maintenance of the Established Church (again a supporter). He also opposed Home Rule for India. (Next Left: Cameron Conservativism, 1895-style comments that "Bhownagree's strong support of the British Empire may just make him a little too right-wing to be a modernising Tory icon. In many ways, his views might place him closer to the Heffer-Dacre school of thought.") However he did pursue some surprising causes including the conditions of Indian workers in the Transvaal.

Bhownagree was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1851 and worked as a journalist before becoming to the UK as a lawyer. Amongst his other accomplishments he produced a Gujarati edition of Queen Victoria's Highland Journals. Clearly she was amused as in 1897 Bhownagree was made a Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire. Critics, however, dubbed him "Sir Bow and Agree".

The idea of an "A-List" of star candidates did not exist in the 19th century, but Bhownagree was something of a symbolic candidate in his day. He persuaded the party that by running an Indian candidate on a pro Empire ticket the party could challenge the perception that Indians were Liberals and reformists. Bethnal Green North East was not an obvious target constituency to stand in (indeed in the 125 years since Bethnal Green first had constituencies of its own, Bhownagree is one of only three Conservatives to have been elected, all in either landslide general elections or special circumstances by-elections). But he gave it his best shot and amidst a Conservative landslide in both London and the country Bhownagree unseated George Howell, a trade unionist and the sitting "Lib-Lab" MP of the last ten years. Bhownagree retained the seat in the 1900 election (a very Imperialist election), before being swept away in the Liberal avalanche of 1906. He retired from politics after that.

Not all Conservatives are happy about appearing on such lists - some have a strong desire to be considered "MPs without prefixes". And this has often led to confusion about whether or not someone was or wasn't a BME MP. Such is the case with Jonathan Sayeed, who has mixed Anglo-Indian ancestry but always declined to be listed in such. In many ways Sayeed was a Conservative equivalent of Stephen Twigg. For Sayeed was first elected to parliament in 1983 when he defeated Tony Benn, the Labour MP Conservatives hated most and a prospective future leader. (Like Michael Portillo, Tony Benn has undergone something of a shift in popularity and perception since his defeat. In 1983 Benn didn't have the image of the staunch man of principle/cuddly grandfather figure but as a staunch socialist who was trying to take both the Labour Party and the country decisively to the left.) Additionally Sayeed was the first Conservative to ever actually be elected for the constituency (Malcolm St Clair was returned for the-then Bristol South East constituency in a 1961 by-election but only after Benn was ruled disqualified as a hereditary peer by an Election Court). His later parliamentary career has more parallels with Twigg - holding onto the seat at the next election but being defeated at the subsequent one, then returning to parliament at the following election when the party was defeated. However Sayeed (MP for Mid Bedfordshire from 1997-2005) took longer than Twigg to climb the greasy poll, only joining the front bench in 1991 when he became a Parliamentary Private Secretary. He did not become a spokesperson until 2001 when he became a junior shadow minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Sayeed was generally an economic conservative, a social liberal and a Eurosceptic, though with some variation within all of these. In 2003 he resigned from the front bench in order to oppose the Iraq War. Sayeed's downfall came over revelations about his business dealings and use of Commons facilities in a successful attempt to resist deselection. Although he survived that vote the central party withdrew the whip, making it unlikely he would be eligible to restand as a Conservative candidate, and he announced his retirement on grounds of ill-health in March 2005.

Sayeed sometimes does and sometimes doesn't appear on lists of BME MPs, in part because of his own views on the matter. It is a sign of the unease a number of Conservatives have with what they perceive as grouping and ghettoisation and other examples can be found - for instance there are a number of Conservative MPs and recent candidates who are openly Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Trans but dislike the idea of being listed as "LGBT Conservatives". And one of the unsuccessful Conservative candidates at the last election was Mark Clarke (former Conservative Future chair) in Tooting, who sometimes has and sometimes hasn't appeared on these lists. His own comments on the subject have been "Personally, I don't ever complete questions about ethnicity on forms. I'm not interested in the being put in a box based on the colour of my skin." Oh and here are some other comments from him on the matter: "I am surprised that you can write an article about race and CF without mentioning the fact CF has this year elected its first ever ethnic minority to be National Chairman."

There has never been any doubt about Nirj Deva. Born in Sri Lanka he came to the UK and worked in business, as well as holding a number of public posts including chairing the Committee on the Deregulation of European Air Transport, which resulted in the growth of budget airlines. In 1985 he became Deputy Lord Lieutenant for Greater London. He was elected for Brentford & Isleworth in 1992. In 1997 he shared Bhownagree's fate of being swept away in an avalanche. In the interim he shared Sayeed's achievement of serving as a PPS, albeit at the Scottish Office. After 1997 he restored his political career when in 1999 he became the first Asian Conservative Member of the European Parliament, and has represented the South East ever since.

High profile candidacies in target seats did not begin with the A-List. As early as 2001 the party was heavily promoting Shailesh Vara, but he narrowly failed to take Northampton South. Four years later he was elected for North West Cambridgeshire and has held the seat since. Vara was born in Uganda to Indian parents and came to the UK in 1964 at the age of 4. He worked as a solicitor and business consultant, and also held a number of positions in the Conservative Party including as a Vice-Chair of the party under Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. In parliament he had a fast assent, being appointed Deputy Shadow Leader of the House of Commons in 2006. He held the post for the next four years (reshuffles have been limited under David Cameron's leadership), and now serves in the Whip's Office. At the same time he has championed a number of causes in the Commons including breast cancer, however the private member's bill he introduced on the subject was talked out. It remains to be seen where his career will take him.

In the run-up to 2005 Adam Afriyie was also given more prominence than the average candidate selected in a held seat. Born in Wimbledon, he worked in business, especially IT. In 2005 he was elected for Windsor (I wonder, did he get the Duke of Edinburgh's vote?). Two years later he was appointed a shadow minister for Innovation, Universities & Skills, focusing especially on science, and kept the post for three years despite the government department going through a number of changes. However he is one of a number of shadow ministers who have not been included in the new government because the Coalition limits the number of places available to Conservatives. I hope that he will be considered for inclusion in the first reshuffle.

None of these five MPs have reached the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet, although the peer Sayeeda Warsi was appointed in 2007 and now sits in the Cabinet as chair of the Conservative Party. The current Coalition means that there are fewer places for Conservatives on the frontbench so the current eleven may not advance as quickly as they would have in a single party government. But I strongly suspect the first BME Conservative MP to reach the Cabinet is currently sitting in the Commons. Don't ask me which one though.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Who reads which newspaper?

One of the most famous scenes in Yes Prime Minister is when Jim Hacker explains to Sir Humphrey about the readership of the main newspapers. It's often quoted but here's the chance to see it online:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Another classic series ending

Whilst scanning YouTube I came across the famous ending of another television series - Blake's 7. The series was unusual in having two final ever episodes - the story goes that the fourth season was unexpectedly greenlighted during transmission of the climax of the third! The third season ended with the ship Liberator destroyed, the villain Servalan seemingly dead, missing hero Blake reported as dead and the remains of the seven trapped on a hostile planet. It was't the most spectacular of finishes and I doubt it would be remembered beyond fans of the show itself. But the fourth season turned everything on its head, delivering a climax that is very hard to beat:

Of course there have been attempts to continue the story, including the rather dull novel Afterlife, as well as endless development hell for a "further adventures of Avon" special mini-series. But the above stands as the memorable ending to all memorable endings.

The end of Ashes to Ashes

(No spoilers)

I've now had the chance to see the final ever episode of Ashes to Ashes. Quite simply it didn't disappoint.

All the main questions raised over the course of both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes have been answered, but with a sufficient degree of ambiguity that everyone can take their own interpretation on the final details with them. And the acting was strong - while Philip Glenister and Keeley Hawes have received much praise over the course of the whole show, the final episode was somewhat stolen by Daniel Mays who fully embraced the true nature of his character, Jim Keats. (Already I've seen people calling for him to be in Doctor Who as the next incarnation of the Master.) The environment they were all in made total sense.

Was everything subtle intended? Perhaps not. Take that shot of Dixon of Dock Green at the end. George Dixon was the classic example of the upright policeman from the 1950s and the clip was chosen just to represent Gene Hunt's original time. (SFX: Ashes Exclusive interview with co-creator Matthew Graham) But Dixon was also the first policeman to die in his first appearance (the film The Blue Lamp) and have a series after that - so was Dixon of Dock Green also set in the same place? And then there was also the 1980s TV movie The Black and Blue Lamp in which the villain and policeman from the earlier film travelled forward to a 1980s gritty cop show, to contrast the values of two separate eras...

All in all it's been a wonderful few years with the two series, but eventually all good things must come to an end. And this most definitely was the end - there may be an obvious way to create another spin-off but without the mystery it just wouldn't be the same.

Friday, May 21, 2010

More Labour leader photos they'd rather forget

David Miliband and Ed Balls must be thanking their lucky stars that in this country we don't choose politicians on the basis of who manages to evade awkward photos. Otherwise the leading contenders for the Labour leadership would, on the basis of a quick Google search, be Ed Miliband and Diane Abbott.

In the interests of balance, I did some further searches to see how the other leadership contenders have fared. And some have done much better than others. Unfortunately for Ed Balls he's the worst by a long distance.

Andy Burnham clearly did something to provoke this look on David Dimbleby's face but what was it? Whatever it was, it doesn't help his tough guy image. (Thanks to Daily Mail: Who's a pretty boy then? Labour minister Andy Burnham glams up for Question Time)

Burnham may have been seeking a joint ticket with Ed Balls. Or he may have been just getting down with the kids. Either way this is one photo they won't want next to analysis of their policies on law & order. (Thanks to Daily Mail: 25% of 10-year-olds are never allowed to play on their own... so Ed Balls swings into action)

John McDonnell has fared a lot better, generally avoiding the worst of stage photocalls. But last year he tried to do a Michael Heseltine moment in a furious moment in the Commons. (Thanks to Daily Mail: MP John McDonnell is suspended to the cheers of an admiring kingdom)

My thanks to an anonymous commenter for tipping me off to this one. Ed Balls really is photo accident prone isn't he? (Thanks to The Canadian Sentinel: Moonbat Spotlight: British Politician Ed Balls)

David Miliband has had his photo moments and not just that time with the banana. But compared to some of his rivals he hasn't come off the worst. (Thanks to Reuters Global News Journal: Ice cream and football on the road to Damascus)

As I said, I haven't yet found any photos of Diane Abbott or Ed Miliband that are on the same level. Maybe there simply aren't any, or maybe they've been better at keeping them out of the public eye. Either way they're currently winning this particular part of the leadership election.

Ashes to Ashes: The final ever episode

Tonight is the final ever episode of Ashes to Ashes. All three seasons have been brilliant. I know it's bad form to repeat old material but once again is the fantastic scene from the climax of the first season:
We may be losing one Gene Hunt, but thanks to a Labour Party poster from the election we discovered we have another. So let's fire up the Quattro!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Diane Abbott candidacy

Just over a decade ago my sister spent the placement year of her degree working in Diane Abbott's office. By all accounts they got on well, but whether this had any bearing on Abbott subsequently sending her son to my old school (City of London School) I don't know at all.

Abbott has now thrown her hat into the ring for the Labour leadership, and thus effectively the Labour nomination for the premiership, and it's fair to see very few people saw this coming. (Simon Woolley has been tipping her on the Operation Black Vote blog and in The Guardian but he's been very much the exception.) Now I've said before that I don't think Abbott is completely electable (Further thoughts on another "British Obama") and I still think that. It has nothing to do with her race or gender - I also think Jeremy Corbyn is completely unelectable; in fact he's even more so because he lacks Abbott's media profile.

(Abbott may have a cult following from This Week and her other media appearances, but it's not remotely enough to overcome her hard left disadvantage. And a cult media profile isn't something really necessary - this is the Labour leadership election 2010, not the Liberal Democrats leadership election 1999 after all.)

Nevertheless Abbott's candidacy will, assuming she gets enough nominations to stand (and I think she will - there are enough Labour MPs who would realise the disadvantage to the party if her candidacy is "blocked" to formally nominate her), allow her to take issues into the leadership debates and broaden the scope. I am particularly envious of the Labour leadership rules that allow all candidates to go before the full membership and rely on nominations rather than elimination rounds to demonstrate support amongst MPs. The Conservative Party would do well to adopt both of these.

Is Abbott's candidacy necessary to pave the ground for a winnable BME candidate's chances in a future leadership election? To be honest I doubt it. This isn't the United States and potential leaders here gain credibility & exposure by rising through the ranks. It's the fact that so far only one BME MP has made it to the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet (Paul Boateng) and the timing of his rise and then decision to go to South Africa as High Commissioner has meant that there hasn't been a leadership election for him to be considered for. (I don't know if he would have run in any case, but it's hard not to envisage a what if scenario of him remaining in British politics in 2005 and emerging as a credible anti-Brown contender, even if only for the endless speculation of 2008 & 2009.)

Nevertheless Abbott's entry into the leadership election has made for an interesting contest and it remains to be seen how well she does or, perhaps more importantly, where her transfers go.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ed Balls's banana moment?!

Ed Balls has now entered the Labour leadership election but it appears that like David Miliband he also has had some unfortunate past photo-calls that he really would rather were forgotten. Just what was he doing to Ken Livingstone?!
Was this Balls's banana moment?

As far as I am aware Ed Miliband has so far evaded this problem - round one to him I think.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bercow survives

So John Bercow has survived an attempt by Nadine Dorries to depose him. (BBC News: MPs return to back John Bercow as Speaker) Frankly it was a rather silly challenge in the first place. Dorries seems to have a different reason for disliking Bercow - first it was because he's pro choice (hardliners on both sides of the abortion debate seem unable to realise that most other people do not structure everything around their own side blocking the other), then it was because his wife is a Labour Party activist, then it was his decision to eschew the traditional Speaker's robes in favour of a simple academic gown (*) now it's accusations of bias and next week it will probably be something like him not bowing down and licking her shoes clean. Enough already!

(* Is Bercow actually entitled to the gown he wears? Is it the correct gown for a Bachelor of the University of Essex? If not, no doubt Dorries will make it a reason for one of her future attempts.)

There may be legitimate criticisms of Bercow (although it's often forgotten that nearly every newish Speaker of modern times has faced the accusation of being biased against their own side) but when the attacks are led by Nadine Dorries and Nigel Farage it completely undermines the criticisms.

I know I am not alone amongst Conservatives in wishing Dorries would just pipe down. She is fast taking on some of the worst aspects of Lembit Öpik.

"More money for electoral administration!" or "Fewer elections at the same time!"?

The Election Law Channel: It’s administrative blunders, not fraud, which should worry us most is right - no-one ever campaigns for the council on the first slogan above (well not successfully anyway). And I agree you have to have some sympathy with election officials at various levels who are asked to do a difficult job without adequate resources.

One of the big news stories about the election was the number of people who didn't get to vote despite queueing for a very long time, hours in some cases. Why this happened in some places and not others hasn't received so much attention but it seems clear to me this was a failing at the local level. Calling for the head of the chair of the Electoral Commission will achieve nothing here.

The basic problem seems to be rooted at the level of the polling stations, with failure to cope with higher than anticipated demand. But was it simply more voters than predicted or were the voters taking longer than expected?

Looking at the various lists of places where there were problems I wondered if it was connected to having local elections on the same day and whether or not this was the first time in a while. Taking The Election Law Channel's list of places, we find the following:
  • Birmingham - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Chester - No
  • Hackney - Yes, first ever, also elected Mayor
  • Islington - Yes, first ever
  • Leeds - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Lewisham - Yes, first ever, also elected Mayor
  • Liverpool - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Manchester - Yes, first since 1979
  • Newcastle - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Sheffield - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Weybridge - Yes (local authority Elmbridge), first general/district since 1979(?)
Now okay Weybridge/Elmbridge had combined general and county elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 whilst Chester is an anomaly. But in every other problem area it was the first time for at least thirty years that the general election took place on the same day as local elections. And I think this is what overwhelmed the stations.

A lot of voters will have arrived at the polling stations to be given two or even three ballot papers that included elections they’d heard very little about with voting instructions that can be different on each paper. In my home borough of Newham we have a directly elected Mayor and three members to elect in each council ward, the same set-up as in Hackney and Lewisham (both of which appear on the list above). A voter in any of these boroughs had to express a single choice on one paper, up to three simultaneous choices on a second, and two sequential preferences in different columns on a third.

Whilst Newham hasn’t appeared in reports it was clear from the counts that a huge number of voters got the voting systems muddled up with many people "over-voting" on the parliamentary election by using two or three crosses. Conversely in the council elections a lot of people used only one or two crosses (although these are still valid votes). It was also noticeable that voters were taking a good while at polling stations at times when there weren’t queues. Both of these point to a high level of voter confusion leading to many taking significantly longer than normal to cast their votes. To Newham's credit there was a campaign to emphasise the three different systems.

(As well as asking for help with understanding the ballot paper instructions, voters in some places might also have found themselves asking why they couldn’t vote for particular parties who didn’t have any candidates in some wards or boroughs. But I've not seen the indepth line-up in the areas effected.)

I suspect a lot of areas simply failed to take into account the increased requirements that stem from having multiple elections at once and this may go beyond returning officers to budgets. It’s not a case of simply shoving the usual general & local allocations together, subtracting one set of costs for polling station staff and facilities/equipment hire and adding a little to cover a) extra local ballot papers being printed to cope with the expected general turnout; and b) a bit more time for counting staff to cover separation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that kind of back of beermat budgeting had been made.

The whole problem will need to be investigated in-depth and solutions found. Maybe more money and resources are needed for polling stations. Maybe there shouldn't be combined general and local elections, even if that would depress the latter's turnout. (Other countries do have them combined so the investigation should look at how they handle the problems this brings.) Maybe we shouldn't have so many different voting systems in operation at the same time (something that may get even worse if we change the system for the Commons). Or perhaps we should have a combined ballot paper and introduce a method that allows people to vote for all of a party's candidates at once if they wish. There are many possible ways to solve this but at least one is needed in time for the next elections.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Conservatives in coalitions

I previously looked at how the Liberals have fared in past coalitions, but what of the Conservatives? Well the answer is that the Conservatives didn't suffer any long term damaging splits, but did find themselves in governments that not everyone was terribly happy with particularly the right (or "die-hard") wing of the party.

The first major coalition was that of the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists, a group of Liberals who broke away over Gladstone's proposals for Home Rule for Ireland. Although the first appointment of a Liberal Unionist as a minister was at the start of 1887, it was not until 1895 that a ministry fully combining the two was formed. The Unionists governed for ten years and increasingly became a single entity. When they split over proposals for tariff reform there were Conservatives and Liberal Unionists on both sides of the divide. Eventually in 1912 the parties formally merged, long after they had practically done so already.

The next was formed during the First World War when Herbert Asquith formed a multi-party administration in response to criticism of the conduct of the war. The Conservatives did rather badly out of the distribution of offices - there were Liberals as Prime Minister, Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Minister of Munitions and more. The Conservative leader was given the Colonial Office and his leading lieutenant the India Office. The one significant office held by a Conservative was the Admiralty. It was not exactly the best share of offices (and not just for the Conservatives - the Labour leader got Education!) and it contributed to the unhappiness that lingered throughout the remainder of Asquith's premiership.

Eighteen months later Asquith's failure to vigorously prosecute the war led to his being forced out by a high level rebellion, and David Lloyd George took his place. Lloyd George's government had a very different spread of ministers and this time round the Conservatives received most of the top posts. The government led the UK to victory and many Conservatives were willing to continue the coalition after the war, riding the coattails of Lloyd George's popularity.

However the peacetime coalition found itself riven with infighting, both between its separate parties and within them. The cartoonist David Low famously represented the coalition as an ass with two separate heads, often at odds with one another. It was a caricature not far off the truth but perhaps the legs should have been given an independence of their own. The government struggled with the problems of post war reconstruction, and did have some successes such as over Irish independence (to the ire of hardline Conservatives), but found it difficult to balance demands for action with demands to scale back public expenditure, especially with huge "anti-waste" campaigns waged both in the media and at by-elections. The right of the Conservative Party agitated more and more for an end to the coalition. Eventually at a famous meeting at the Carlton Club in October 1922 Conservative MPs voted to leave the coalition, even though it meant repudiating their own leader, Austen Chamberlain. Former leader Andrew Bonar Law was persuaded to return to the leadership and become Prime Minister of an independent Conservative government even though he was not in the best of health. Chamberlain and most of the other leading coalition Conservatives were temporarily cast into the political wilderness, but within a couple of years the party was reunified under Law's successor, Stanley Baldwin. There was no substantial breakaway alternative Conservative party that competed at the polls.

Stanley BaldwinBaldwin claimed to dislike coalitions, but the events of 1931 propelled him into another. Perhaps the situation was eased by Lloyd George being ill at the time and thus unable to take part. But what began as an emergency National Government to balance the budget and restore confidence in the currency soon became a permanent entity, holding power until the Second World War. Curiously the government was led for the first four years by Ramsay MacDonald despite his National Labour party having only 13 MPs compared to the Conservatives' 473. But then such an arrangement suited Baldwin. More significantly the National Government proved very willing to take on the die-hard wing of the Conservatives over Indian Home Rule. Over four years the government passed the Government of India Act 1935 despite fierce opposition from the likes of Winston Churchill. The National Government allowed first Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlain to govern more from a more moderately position than a single party Conservative government would have done so. The right of the Conservative party found its influence limited but it had little alternative option than to acquiesce.

The National Government eventually fell in 1940 in the circumstances described in my previous post The Norway Debate. Churchill formed an all party coalition which fought the war until breaking up after the defeat of Germany. For the most part this was the end of coalitionism until this month. But there were two possible additions.

The first was the "caretaker" government Churchill formed in May 1945, combining the Conservatives, Liberal Nationals and various non-party ministers who had been recruited during the war. This government lasted only two months but had the notable success of introducing child allowances. Being composed of nominally multiple parties it was still a coalition, even if the Conservatives and Liberal Nationals would start a formal amalgamation in opposition in 1948. As with the Unionist coalition of an earlier generation the National Government coalition proved the means by which the Conservatives ultimately absorbed a large chunk of the Liberal party.

The other was Churchill's 1951-1955 government. Whilst supported exclusively by the Conservative party it was broader than a single party administration. A number of the wartime "non-party" ministers was once more appointed and there was even an offer to Clement Davies, the leader of the Liberal Party. It may have been a coalition, it may have been a personalist government but it was certainly not a party government.

The Conservative record from coalitions is thus mixed. On the one hand they have been the means by which the party has absorbed recruits from the left and broadened its political base. They have also suffered no significant electoral breakaways or disasters simply from being in a coalition. On the other hand the governments produced have usually been significantly different from the single party Conservative orthodoxy of the relevant generation and key sections of the party have found themselves isolated. Is the pattern being repeated now?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

And who is Augustus Stryver?

As a coda to my last post, I have just been reminded of a little satire about the Liberal Nationals.

The Right Honourable Gentleman: A Satire was a book written in 1945 by Roger Fulford. It tells the story of Augustus Stryver, a young politician who is elected to parliament as a Liberal in 1929 but rapidly ditches his staunchly expressed views, especially on free trade, in favour of political advancement. In the events of 1931 he deviously repositions himself and secures his seat, then subsequently when the Samuelites left Stryver enters the government in the all important post of Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Waterways and Bridges. The height of his career comes when his Minister dies and Stryver is chosen to succeed him, becoming The Right Honourable Gentleman. And then within a few months he is forced to resign after having an affair with his married secretary.

The novel is little remembered today, but The Word Cloud: best sellers of the past. 1946 suggests it was one of the better selling books of the year. It is biting but this is unsurprising. Fulford was no casual observer but a Liberal Party activist, standing several times for Parliament and later serving as Party President. Attacking the Liberal Nationals as unprincipled opportunists was a standard part of the Liberal attacks by this stage.

Stryver was in part based on Edgar Granville, MP for Eye from 1929 until 1951. (For confirmation see The Independent: Obituary: Lord Granville of Eye.) Interestingly the latter part of Granville's career followed a very different trajectory from Stryver's - he returned to the Liberals in 1942 and became one of the party's more left-wing MPs. He lost his seat in 1951 and joined the Labour Party, unsuccessfully standing for his seat again and later becoming a life peer.

Will this coalition produce such satires? Perhaps not because there are far fewer political satire novels written and read these days. But could there be an Augustus Stryver lurking on the government benches, preparing to discredit both parties involved?

Nick Clegg - Sir John Simon or Sir Herbert Samuel?

What happened the last time there was a peacetime coalition in the UK? The Liberal Party enthusiastically entered it but badly split between two dominant personalities, dividing the party for generations.

Sir John Simon had served successively as Solicitor General, Attorney General and Home Secretary under Asquith and then had emerged in the 1920s as the main heir to the Asquith wing of the party in the clashes with Lloyd George. He was also appointed as the chair of the "Simon Commission" to study constitutional reform in India.

Sir Herbert Samuel had also held high office under Asquith, including as Home Secretary, but then spent most of the 1920s out of Parliament and instead served as the first High Commissioner for Palestine for five years, then returning to the United Kingdom and heading the "Samuel Commission" that investigated the coal industry and sought to solve its problems before the General Strike. He returned to active Liberal politics and was re-elected to Parliament in 1929.

The 1929-1931 Parliament saw the Liberals hold the balance of power between Labour and the Conservatives and like today the party found itself divided over what course of action to follow and which party to back, complicated further by the harsh economic climate. A minority Labour government was formed which tried to govern and made some concessions to the Liberals, including introducing a Bill to change the voting system to the Alternative Vote, but the Liberals still badly divided with Simon and Lloyd George at the head of rival factions. Eventually in the summer, Simon and some followers resigned the Liberal whip.

The events of August 1931 (see Coalition forming for more details) totally changed the situation. The Labour government fell over proposals to cut public spending and a special "National Government" that drew together politicians from all three parties was formed. Lloyd George was ill so Samuel was acting leader of the party and entered the Cabinet as Home Secretary once more. Although the Liberal ministers were all drawn from the loyalist wing of the party, unity broke out in support of the government. But it couldn't last.

The Conservatives in the National Government proposed to seek an electoral mandate to introduce protectionist tariffs to help British industry and the Liberals split three ways over this. Lloyd George and a few followers (mainly his family) completely withdrew their support from the National Government and sought an informal alliance with the Labour Party over free trade. Meanwhile the bulk of the Liberals split in two. One group under Samuel were opposed to tariffs but wished to fight the battle within government. The other group under Simon were prepared to accept tariffs. The "Samuelites" retained control of the official party apparatus and a formal faction called the "Liberal Nationals" emerged under Simon. The government won an enormous majority in the November 1931 election and in the following government reshuffle, Simon became Foreign Secretary, with both factions of Liberals now represented.

The split continued over the next two years as the Samuelites tried to resist being part of the implementation of tariffs. First the government suspended the principle of collective responsibility to allow Liberal ministers to openly oppose government policy (something we might see again in the coming years), then the Liberal ministers resigned their posts whilst still sitting on the government benches in the Commons, and then finally in November 1933 they moved to the opposition benches. In the course of these events the Samuelites and Simonites became ever more divided with the result that the Liberal Nationals had become a separate party from the Liberals.

There were attempts to reunite the various strands of the Liberal family over the next few years but apart from Lloyd George's followers rejoining the Samuelites (now the "Sinclairites" after Samuel lost his seat and was succeeded as leader by Sir Archibald Sinclair) it was not to be. The Samuelites became established as The Liberal Party and served in the wartime coalition, then went through a long history in the wilderness, eventually merging with the Social Democrats to form the Liberal Democrats. The Simonite Liberal Nationals remained strong allies of the Conservatives, formalising their alliance in 1947 before finally merging completely into the Conservatives in 1968.

The fate of the Liberal Nationals has haunted the Liberals for decades and made them wary of too closely allying with one party or another without changing the voting system. Now they’ve entered another coalition but already there are signs that some senior Liberal Democrats are not entirely happy with the new arrangements (e.g. BBC News: Charles Kennedy refused to back Lib Dem-Tory pact). Could we see the Liberal Democrats once more permanently divide over a coalition? And which side of the divide will Nick Clegg be on?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Alternative Vote: The Australian experience

Antony Green is Australia's answer to Tony King, Peter Snow and more all rolled into one, a permanent part of the ABC's coverage of Australia elections. Antony Green's Election Blog is a wonderful source of psephological detail and analysis, particularly shedding light on the different voting systems in use down under. This week Green has produced an updated version of his article "Preferential Voting in Australia", specifically because of the renewed interest in the Alternative Vote (known as "Preferential Voting" down under) coming from the UK.

What is particularly surprising from a British perspective is that AV was introduced in Australia by a conservative government and for a long time it proved to be the glue that maintained the conservative "Coalition" of the Liberal and National Parties (and their predecessors) by allowing the two parties to simultaneously compete with each other and fight Labor. The article is worth a read as it shows how often preferences have played a role in the outcome of elections and how the parties benefiting have changed over time:
There is a remarkable conclusion to the article. In the high period of the DLP [Democratic Labor Party] between 1955 and 1972, the Coalition won a total of 34 seats at seven elections after trailing Labor on the first preference vote. In the same period, Labor came from behind to win in just one seat.

Since 1980, the operation of preferential voting has had the reverse political impact. At the 11 elections since 1980, the Coalition has won only five seats where the combined Coalition vote trailed Labor on the first preference count. In the same period, Labor has won a total of 61 seats having trailed the combined Coalition vote on first preferences.
Given this record, it is a wonder that hard-heads in the Coalition haven't realised they are being beaten by compulsory preferential voting, and perhaps optional preferential voting might be worth a try.
The 2007 election joins 1990, 1961 and 1969, as examples of preferential voting electing a government that could have fallen short of a majority under simple majority voting.
How much we can conclude about introducing AV in the UK is hard to say, because it would almost certainly be optional preferencing and it's not clear how many votes would be "lost" to the main parties at the first preference stage and fail to return. Still it's good fodder for the discussion here.

Bye bye bendy 25

I have just seen the following posted on another forum I frequent:
I imagine some here may be interested to know that the new contract [for the number 25 bus] has been awarded to First London East with new double deckers. Vehicle requirements increases from 43 bendies to 59 deckers. The new contract starts on 25/6/11 so plenty of time for the construction of the buses and mobilisation of the depot space and new drivers. Interesting that the 25 swings between East London (and its predecessors) and First London East.
The Number 25 bus, which runs from Oxford Street to Ilford and links my home and workplace, is one of the most awful in London, with bendification having made it even more packed, not least because the official capacity of a bendy bus is about 50% more than can actually fit on-board (and drivers will do what they can to enforce the lower limit). There are few seats and passengers are repeatedly thrown all over the place. It is unsurprising to see many people opting instead for the double deckers that parallel part of the route, even where those double deckers stop short.

Bendy buses were originally designed for very short hop mass transit, such as at airports or fast inner city journeys like the trip from the main railway terminals to the City. It was simply ridiculous to put bendy buses on a route that runs from central London to the outer suburbs and their departure on this route cannot come soon enough so I'm glad to hear that they are going at the end of the contract:
I will not miss them. This was one of Boris Johnson's highest profile pledges in the last London Mayoral election and I am very glad to see implementation is finally reaching East London.

Stephen Timms

Yesterday I heard the shocking news that Stephen Timms, the MP for the next door constituency of East Ham, had been stabbed at a constituency surgery. (BBC News: MP Stephen Timms recovering after stab attack) It is a shocking reminder of the risks our politicians take in order to remain accessible to the public and I hope he makes a speedy recovery

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ken Clarke as you've never seen him before

Here is a picture of our new Lord Chancellor on his way to be invested:
Many thanks to René Kinzett.

I'm not sure if there are any photos out there of Clarke in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's traditional robe (I'm not even sure if it's ever worn at all these days) - has anyone seen one?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

David Miliband for Labour leader?

Whilst the new Coalition is finalising its ministers and getting down to business, the Labour Party is looking to elect a new leader. And already one front runner has emerged - David Miliband. In many ways he resembles Gordon Brown and that's not a good thing:
On several occasions so far Miliband came close to the Labour leadership but backed way from forcing his chances. In the game of musical chairs that was the Blarites' hunt to find a "stop Brown" candidate Miliband emerged as the last survivor, albeit more through the ineptitude of his rivals than any great moves by himself. But then he utterly failed to make a bid and challenge Brown when the leadership election came. He then compounded this error over the next few years by repeatedly laying the ground for a challenge but then never making it. As I've said before (Portilliband?), Miliband has failed to press home his chances time and again, instead awaiting his leader's fall and hoping to pick up the pierces afterwards. Very much like Gordon Brown.

Of course, as I commented before, Miliband has emerged as "the Great Hope of the future despite not really having done anything or been properly tested", and that is very much the position of William Hague in 1997. And Miliband has already come to resemble Hague in another way - the disastrous moment in front of the cameras that will reappear for years to come:
Still one bad photo shouldn't kill his leadership hopes. But will people realise he could well be another Gordon Brown?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Time to celebrate

This is my 1000th blog post. And what a time to be making it!
This evening I went for dinner with grandmother, my cousin and her husband so other than a quick glance at the telly and the mobile I missed most of the drama of this evening. It's only slowly sinking in that once again we have a Conservative led government. Now both these men are Conservative Prime Ministers:
(There were nearly some interesting similarities between Harper and Cameron had a "rainbow coalition" been constructed. But we have been spared that.)

We have a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which I've already argued is the best available option for the country. We'll soon see the full make-up of the coalition but the one thing I strongly hope is that any future ministerial reshuffle will not be dictated purely by strict numbers between parties. Such an approach conflicts with the most suitable available person being appointed.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

To boldy go where Neil Hamilton has gone before?

Time to leave this stage but not all stagesI have now had a chance to catch up with last Friday's Have I Got News For You where one of the contestants was none other than Lembit Öpik, fresh from having lost his Montgomeryshire seat.

One of the cruelties of British politics is the way election results are declared, with the politicians there for all to see. On Election Night it was saddening to watch Jacqui Smith as her defeat was announced. I didn't catch Lembit's defeat but it can't have been great for him. But to go on Have I Got News For You and endure numerous taunts about his defeat is going beyond it all. Lembit looked uncomfortable at times but still took it well.

Lembit Öpik, new media superstar?It reminds me of a previous ex MP going on Have I Got News For You soon after their defeat. Neil Hamilton made a memorable appearance back in 1997 and came out with the wonderful soundbite "I've found it's much better making political jokes than being one." He finished the show by accepting his fee. Naturally it was paid in cash in a brown envelope. But from that show Neil, and his Christine who also appeared, have carved out new careers as media celebrities.

Lembit Öpik is, of course, no stranger to appearing all over the media - of his party only Charles Kennedy seems to have appeared more. But now that Lembit is out of parliament will he take his career in this direction? It could be quite lucrative for him and he is genuinely funny. It could bring years of reward for him and entertainment for the rest of us.

Unless of course we're suddenly all wiped out by an asteroid.

Still waiting

...but then this is not unusual in any form of negotiations. You can't produce a plan for government on the back of a beer mat and these things do take time. Unfortunately taking time is something alien to the UK's political culture where we've become used to instant results.

Glancing around the internet, particularly Twitter, I can see grassroots members in all parties advocating all outcomes, with a few threatening to leave their party if it doesn't take their advice. I'm not going to do the latter but I'll throw my preferred outcome on the pile - a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which holds a referendum on the Single Transferable Vote. I don't believe the outcome of such a referendum is at all certain (though I think it can be won for First Past The Post given then right campaign) but one way or another it would settle the election system debate for a generation.

A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would have a firm majority in parliament, able to implement necessary decisions. It would be able to implement many areas of common interest. It wouldn't be comfortable for many members in either political party, but often members of governing parties find the conditions of the day require their parties to do things they would ideally rather not do.

Such an arrangement would be inherently more stable than a minority Conservative government, even if the latter had the support of the Democratic Unionist Party. A minority government would always be at risk of the opposition parties all combining and voting it out. It could offer no medium term guarantees. It would not be the best option for the country. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition it must be.

Monday, May 10, 2010

70 years ago today: The end of Chamberlain, the coming of Churchill

May 10 1940 was a major day in the Second World War. It was the day when Germany began the western offensive, invading the low countries. But it was also a major day in the United Kingdom. It was on this day that Neville Chamberlain resigned, to be succeeded by Winston Churchill.

After the rebellion in the Norway Debate two days earlier, Neville Chamberlain had sought to respond to demands to widen his government to regain support. He had offered the Labour Party leaders, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, posts in the government but they felt unable to make an acceptance on their own. Instead they went to their party conference which happened to meeting in Bournemouth at the time, and put two questions to it:
  1. Would the Labour Party serve in a government under Neville Chamberlain?
  2. Would they serve in a government under someone else?
Contrary to popular myth "someone else" was not explicitly named. At the meeting on May 9 Chamberlain was flanked by Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) and Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary), giving a strong idea where "someone else" would be found, but they were not given the name. At an earlier private meeting of Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill and the Chief Whip, David Margesson, Halifax had declined to press his chances and it was agreed that if Chamberlain was unacceptable to Labour then Churchill would try to form a government.

The Labour National Executive Committee met on May 10 and considered the two questions. They decided "No" to the first and "Yes" to the second. The message was phoned through to London from a public telephone box - how subtle and unpretentious, much like Attlee himself. When Attlee and Greenwood returned to London they learned that Churchill had been appointed Prime Minister and he offered them seats in the War Cabinet.

Not entirely coincidentally, the Wikipedia article on Neville Chamberlain is today's "featured article". A few years ago I contributed quite a bit to it, providing the basic structure though it has since been expanded and enhanced greatly thanks to three recent biographies.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Coalition forming

No party wields a majority in the House of Commons. The incumbent Labour government is tired. Labour has offered to change the voting system to the Alternative Vote in order to stay in office. The Prime Minister has been rushing back to London from his home in Scotland. There is a major market crisis and the public spending deficit desperately needs to be cut. Political and financial speculation is strong. The leaders of the parties enter negotiations. And then...

Yes August 1931 was an interesting time in this country. What, did you think I was talking about something else?

What was different was the government that emerged. A special "National Government" that drew together politicians from all three parties was formed under Ramsay MacDonald with the Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin, and the acting Liberal leader, Herbert Samuel, both putting partisan considerations aside (including the bill for the Alternative Vote being allowed to quietly die) and serving under them. The politicians put country before party and the government slowly managed to turn the country round.

Time for a coalition?

I'll be honest - I have always been deeply sceptical about the viability of coalition government in the UK. I also don't think any coalition can claim to have been voted for by the people. People may say "52.0% voted for a 'progressive' coalition" or "59.1% voted for a libertarian coalition" or all manner of combinations, but the fact is that none of these coalitions were actually offered to the voters. It is false to conscript votes to one option or another.

That said I am also deeply worried about the news from the financial markets. It's a scary time and the country desperately needs a stable government that can take decisions. If getting that involves compromise then so be it. Governments have to compromise all the time with interests both at home and abroad.

I don't think the country's voting system should be simply changed for the sake of this. But that isn't actually what the Liberal Democrats want. They want a referendum on changing the voting system. But the outcome of such a referendum isn't a foregone conclusion. It could instead endorse the current system - British Columbia recently had two referendums on changing the provincial legislature's voting system from First Past The Post to Single Transferable Vote. The first had a majority but failed at the threshold, the second saw much greater information campaigns and rejected it outright. Don't take the opinion polls as indicative either way.

But right now the most important thing is the economy. All parties have to make the current situation work. And if we are to have a voting system that makes hung parliaments more regular outcomes then lets see the advocates of that voting system make those outcomes work.

If I hear that a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has been agreed, it won't be the end of the world. At the moment it's the best option available.


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