Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Asteroids and Segways for London?

Lembit Öpik hasn't gone away you know. Now he thinks he's the man to be Mayor of London.

Just one moment while I finish my shock.

This one has been floated before - see Is London doomed? - but Öpik declared "The only issue is my constituency is 205 miles away", a potential killer. Now that the voters of Montgomeryshire have relieved themselves of Öpik he is of course free of that drawback.

Opinion on Liberal Democrat Voice is heavily negative - see Should Lembit Opik be the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor?, especially for comments like "He can stand for the Official Monster Raving Loony Party" - from a peer of the realm. But who knows if Liberal Democrat Voice commenters speak for the London membership?

So far the Liberal Democrats have run for Mayor the Invisible Woman, Simon "Straight Choice" Hughes and the Cannabis Commander. In that line-up is an Öpik candidature really that out of the ordinary?

His policies will no doubt be as follows:
  1. Install an anti-asteroid shield for London.
  2. Make conditions much better for Segway users.
  3. Erm...
  4. That's it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Female Prime Ministers

Early today a sudden change occurred in Australia. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was facing a collapse in support within his own Labor Party so called a leadership election. But the power brokers within Labor turned against him and by the time it came for the vote his support was so weak he opted to not even stand. And so Australia now has a new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.
(Rudd will no doubt be upset at being dumped by his party so early. In fact only one previous Australian Prime Minister has suffered a comparable fate. But that was Robert Menzies who bounced back to retake the leadership of his party and went on to be Australia's longest ever Prime Minister. The second longest, John Howard, also had an earlier period of leadership, albeit in opposition. So will Rudd return?)

But for now the moment is with Gillard. Around the world many Australians are proudly pointing out that they now have their first female Prime Minister.

Around the world many New Zealanders are loudly pointing out that they had their first one thirteen years ago. (Remember Jenny Shipley?)

And here in the UK we had ours thirty-one years ago, but some left-wing feminists are keen to downplay that, as though they want airbrush Margaret Thatcher out of the history books. Perhaps it's because she doesn't conform to the socialist-feminist perspective on what a female leader should be like. Perhaps it's because she, like so many women, was not concerned with implementing the more radical feminist agenda and called the bluff of those who claim all women have the same outlook. Maybe some feminists just don't like women who conform to their viewpoint - frankly a highly sexist attitude.

(The UK was actually beaten by an interesting mix of countries including Sri Lanka with Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960, India with Indira Gandhi in 1966, Israel with Golda Meir in 1969 and the Central African Republic with Elisabeth Domitien in 1975.)

But whilst the UK may have achieved this back in 1979 it's hard to pretend that since then women have been at the forefront of politics. Looking just at the leadership elections of the big three, since 1979 there have been sixteen different people on the ballot papers for the Conservative Party leadership, of whom Thatcher (in both 1989 & 1990) is the only woman. Labour have had nineteen different candidates, of whom Margaret Beckett (in 1994) and Diane Abbott (in 2010) are the only women. The Liberal Democrats (including predecessor parties) have had thirteen candidates including just one woman, Jackie Ballard (in 1999). There have been various other candidates who have launched bids for the leadership but abandoned them before appearing on the ballot paper - Stephen Dorrell, Don Foster, Alan Duncan, Malcolm Rifkind and John McDonell all spring to mind but no women.

I find it hard to believe that a male to female ratio of 11 to 1 remotely reflects the ratio of political talent in this country, no matter how many people may proclaim the absence of any formal barriers. There are a mixture of problems including time commitments, the fact that politics puts off disproportionately more women than men, and some attitudes. When women rise high in politics and fail they are often denounced as over promoted because of their gender. The same comments aren't made about failed men.

(Sure there are some women who have been over promoted because of this. I think it is perfectly valid to criticise Harriet Harman as over promoted because of her gender when even she made it her central pitch for the Labour deputy leadership, so it's hard to deny that she has got where she is because she is a woman. Theresa May has also danced around the edges of this - remember how when she was appointed Conservative Party chair her gender was stressed heavily? But the likes of Caroline Spelman and Yvette Cooper have not ridden the waves. If and when they fail big time it will be no different if they had been men.)

There isn't an obvious solution. Requiring X number of candidates/MPs/Cabinet members to be women risks over promoting mediocrities whose failure will merely set back the prospects of a level playing field. And the aim must be a level playing field not statistical exactitude. Helping talented women acquire the necessary skills and experience that they might not otherwise obtain so they can come forward and overcome the entry barriers is a much better way. Hopefully when David Cameron retires in a decade or so there will be women who come forward as candidates not as a mere token but as strong competitive contenders on equal terms.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Election Night - an undramatic, excessive expense?

Now that attention is turning to the need for spending cuts great and small, I'd like to take the chance to pounce on one area of expenditure that is admittedly small in itself but which got the blogosphere so worked up earlier this year - Election Night.

We were told that it was a horror that "penny pinching councils" were considering - SHOCK! - counting the votes the next day. It was ghastly that they were prepared to not spend extra on staff and room hire to count the votes in the middle of the night so that we could get a result in the small hours of the morning. It might even have led to the end of democracy in this country and the collapse of civilisation because a formal change of government might not happen by lunchtime. And we might not get the fun of a "Portillo moment" for most of the country to rejoice about.

Well the actual result meant it took five days for a change of government, but from where I'm sitting civilisation hasn't collapsed and we're still a democracy. And as for "Portillo moments", most of the country were not rejoicing when Michael Portillo lost his seat in 1997. Most of the country were in bed.

And let's be honest - the 2010 election contained very few results that could be considered a "Portillo Moment" and even when the outcome fits that, the declaration wasn't remotely as dramatic. For instance here's the Belfast East result where Peter Robinson lost his seat:
It's hardly the most dramatic declaration going is it?

Was the extra money spent on overnight counts really necessary to give political junkies some excitement? I frankly don't think it was. There are other areas of the election where frankly more money was needed - more staff, better venues for polling places and a better communications system would probably have dealt with the horrendous queues and allowed more people to actually cast their vote. (See "More money for electoral administration!" or "Fewer elections at the same time!"?) That would have been worthy extra spending for democracy. Overnight counts were not.

It was also galling, though not surprising, that in the run-up to the general election Parliament passed legislation to force local councils into holding overnight counts in all but the most mitigating circumstances. This legislation was passed by and cheered by many people who claim to believe in "localism". Often it seems that "localism" does not extend to local councils.

For 2015 let's go the other way. Remove the legal requirements on councils to focus everything on having an overnight count and encourage (not force) them to count on Friday daytime. The priority in election spending should be in getting efficiency, not wasting public money for a few people's excitement. If "Election Night" has to be replaced by "Results Day", so be it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Apparently there's a Royal Wedding today

I have just heard that there is a Royal Wedding today. It had completely escaped my attention and I've seen nothing about it in the media. I suppose the saturation of World Cup coverage has some benefits.

Perhaps the reason why it's gone unnoticed is because the bride is Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden. (The groom is Daniel Westling.) She may be the future Queen Victoria but she barely registers on the radar here. Perhaps that's why the most senior British Royal attending is not the Queen, not Prince Charles, not Prince William etc... but the Earl of Wessex. No further comment is necessary.

There was once a time when even the British media would have been swarming all over the wedding, telling us how important it is and having a dry run for an expected British wedding (with big hints of "Come on William!"). But not any more.

Excuse me while I return to my state of apathy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

So what does "progressive" actually mean?

Over the past few weeks a lot of people have huffed and puffed about the United Kingdom supposedly have a "progressive majority". This is seemingly on the basis that Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (and maybe also Sinn Féin) and various micro parties are part of some grand "progressive family" of parties who would be expected to naturally come together against other parties, and that voters have voted for this combination.

Anyone who has heard Labour activists talking about the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Nationalists can only find such a viewpoint surprising to say the least. And it goes higher - the election leaders' debates didn't just see Gordon Brown declare "I agree with Nick", but also "Get real Nick". It may also come as a surprise to voters who receive anti-Labour literature from the Liberal Democrats. And many other combinations.

The basic problem with this idea is that it assumes that voters share the same perspective on politics as party activists and commentators. I'm not sure this is the case. I think the Green Party predominantly takes its votes from voters concerned about environmentalism who don't particularly align themselves on the political spectrum, regardless of the fact that the Greens' other policies are highly socialist, together with a chunk of the "anti-big parties" protest vote. Similarly I think UKIP mainly takes votes that are first and foremost concerned about the European Union, together with protest votes, with only a tiny number of their voters, mainly ex-Conservative members, thinking they are part of some "conservative family" and merely marking exactly where they are in that family.

And how many voters actually have a clear idea of what "progressive" actually means? "Progess" means little more than "go forwards" or "advance", but that doesn't in itself carry an automatic political meaning. After all what party sells itself as "go backwards"? Every party talks about taking the country forwards in one way or another.

To most voters, "progressive" is just another fluffy word that doesn't convey a great deal and certainly doesn't leap out as a family of political parties where a vote for one of them is automatically a vote for the overall family. Political scientists and commentators may identity a tendency called "Progressivism", but it's not one that you normally hear politicians talk about much here. "Progressive" is just a nice word like "modern", "dynamic", "fair", "reform" or "change", used to make a policy or programme sound good but ultimately not really saying much more.

But aren't there parties that have used the "Progressive" name, I hear someone ask. Well yes there have been many, but they don't actually make it much clearer. Just glancing at "Progressive Party" on Wikipedia shows a huge variety of parties that use or have used the label either here or abroad, but they are literally all over the spectrum.

United Kingdom

  • The Progressive Party in London, basically the Liberal Party in local government elections from the 1880s onwards. It competed with the Municipal Reform Party, basically the Conservatives, and Labour, basically themselves
  • The Progressive Parties in Scottish local government basically the Unionists, Liberals and various independents in anti-socialist alliances, though some of these groups took on a life of their own. They grew in the 1920s but died out in the 1970s.
  • The Ulster Progressive Unionist Association, a brief-lived Northern Irish party in the 1930s and 1940s that urged more radical social and economic policies. Their leader sat at Westminster as a Conservative MP.
  • The Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party, a hard-line loyalist Unionist party of the 1970s with not-very-covert links to paramilitary groups.
  • The Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force. It has a left-wing Unionist perspective.
  • The Progressive Unionist Party, the name initially adopted by James Kilfedder for his own micro party in 1980. Upon learning the name was also used by the UVF's political wing (then not very high profile), Kilfedder took a leaf out of The Life of Brian and renamed it the "Ulster Popular Unionist Party".

It gets even more confusing internationally:


  • The Progressive Party, based in New South Wales in the Edwardian era this was basically the state equivalent of the Protectionist Party, a liberal-conservative anti-Free Trade, anti-Labor party.
  • The second Progressive Party, again in New South Wales in the 1920s. A conservative and agrarian party it soon shed its urban wing and the rural rump became part of the conservative Country Party (now the Nationals).


  • The Progressive Party, a radical breakaway from the Liberals in the late nineteenth century.


  • The Progressive Party, a centre right conservative, liberal-conservative & populist party


  • The Progressive Party of Canada in the 1920s and 1930. It combined a farmers' party with an initial appeal to western alienation, though soon became a national force (much like the New Democratic Party and Reform Party did so in later generations). Federally the party was never terribly coherent and its remnants wound up in either the Liberals, the forerunners of the (social democratic) New Democratic Party or the Social Credit Party. So it comes as no surprise that the main federal legacy of the Progressives was in the name of the Progressive Conservatives. At the provincial level several Progressive or United Farmers parties (or in Newfoundland, then not yet part of Canada, the Fishermen's Protective Union) had more success but ultimately proved to be mere flash parties.
  • The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Founded in 1867 it used many different names throughout its history ("Conservative Party", "Unionist Party", "National Liberal and Conservative Party", "Liberal-Conservative Party", "National Conservative Party" and "National Government", some of these names reflecting recruits from the Liberals). In 1942 the party recruited John Bracken, the Progressive premier of Manitoba, as its federal leader. Bracken agreed on the proviso that the party add "Progressive" to the title, though this was not a formal merger. The party lasted until 2003 when it merged with the Canadian Alliance to "reunite the right" and form the present Conservative Party.
  • The Progressive Party of Manitoba, a breakaway group from the New Democratic Party. It took a socialist line but opposed special support for interest groups such as the trade unions, feminists or minority groups. It soon dwindled to obscurity.


  • The Progressive Party founded in 1913. It advocated a clear constitutional state with strong central government, individual liberty and a peaceful foreign policy. It split in 1916.

  • The Progressive Party, historically an agrarian party of farmers & fishermen, it has increasingly adopted a liberal line.

  • The Donegal Progressive Party, a tiny southern neo-Unionist party, now defunct, that predominantly drew its votes from the Protestant community.
  • The Progressive Democrats, a slightly larger party, now defunct, that took an economic liberal and conservative liberal approach, combined with a hard-line Minister for Justice. It was a member of the European and international Liberal family, but by UK standards it very much Orange Book liberalism. Unsurprisingly just about every UK Conservative I knew who had a preference amongst Irish parties opted for the PDs.


  • The Progressive Party, a liberal party of the 1950s. In 1961 it merged with another party to form the Liberal Party, which eventually formed part of Likud.

New Zealand


  • The Progressive Party, a go-slow party in the pre-independence era that appears to have been a conservative party.

South Africa

South Korea


United States
  • The Theodore Roosevelt Progressive Party of 1912. A somewhat populist vehicle for Roosevelt's bid for the White House when he failed to capture the Republican nomination, it was broadly against big business having too much influence over politics and for regulating the economy to protect the middle and working classes. The party's reliance on Roosevelt was shown when it faded away after he declined nomination in 1916.
  • The Robert La Follette Progressive Party of 1924. A similar breakaway from the Republicans, this time under Robert La Follette, Sr., it again largely served as a single election party with its big names drifting back into the Republicans federally, although La Follette's son created the Wisconsin Progressive Party in the 1930s but disbanded it in 1946 and returned to the Republicans.
  • The Henry Wallace Progressive Party of 1948. This time a breakaway from the Democrats centred on Henry Wallace, it supported universal health insurance, the end of segregation and the end of the Cold War. After defeat it soon faded away.
  • The Progressive Labor Party, a revolutionary Communist Party founded in the 1960s.
  • The Vermont Progressive Party, a state based social democratic & populist party.
  • The "Progressive Party" label has been used in a few other places, such as a vehicle to support Eugene McCarthy's bid for the Presidency in 1968, or the present day name for the Missouri state Green Party.

Oh and the European Parliament once had a grouping called the European Progressive Democrats. This combined the French Gaullists, the Irish Fianna Fáil, the Scottish National Party and a random Dane. Like its successor bodies, this was basically a vaguely national conservative alliance of convenience mainly created by the home countries having multiple parties on the right. (The SNP's membership pre-dated their move to the left.)

In this list I've ignored a few "Progressive" parties where the articles either say nothing about their ideology or just called them "reformist" as "reform" is a process not a destination and on its own not a very meaningful term.

This list contains both left-wing and right-wing parties, as well as parties that sit outside the spectrum. This incredibly unscientific look shows us is that the "Progressive" label has been in practice used all over the place to mean all manner of things. But it also shows the label is now rarely used in many English speaking countries, especially those with a similar party system to the UK - it's disappeared in the Conservative merger in Canada, it's now used only by a one-man band in New Zealand (and said band may soon disappear altogether), it's long disappeared in Australia and so forth. Even where the party system is different it's disappeared recently in Ireland with the PDs in Ireland and long ago in the US (except in the odd state).

So if "progressive" has no real clear resonance, where precisely are the voters who self-align to the so-called "progressive majority"?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Do we need a Flag Day?

I have just learnt that today is Flag Day in the United States. (Hattip Walaa Idris: Happy Flag Day!) I have to admit to not being aware of this before but then Flag Day probably has about as much trans-Atlantic awareness as the Queen's Official Birthday.

I'm surprised that the US needs a special day for the flag as they seem to have it on display all the time. By contrast it's much rarer to see the Union Jack * flown here, even though most government departments can now fly it all year round, expect perhaps during international football matches.

In recent years some politicians have suggested that we need to wave the flag a bit more as though it will solve the problems of integration in British society. (Well okay some of them also talk about tinkering with the school history curriculum as a magic wand solution.) That rather misses one of the key factors of the British national character - we tend to be reserved and not shout about these things. A special day to commemorate the flag is about as British as the White House.

(* Before some pedant starts writing in the comments; it's not 100% clear that "It's only called the Union Jack when at sea" is accurate. And regardless of regulations it's the familiar name for the flag.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

This is not a carpet warehouse

...and other observations

Thanks to Google Analytic, I can see what search terms have brought people to this blog, but occasionally these terms do surprise.

One of the very popular terms that I could never understand is end of the roll pickering. Upon inspection it turns out that this is for the Pickering branch of End of the Roll, a discount carpet and flooring chain in Canada. So if you've come across this blog whilst searching for them, I'm sorry but this is a wrong URL.

Another search that seems to be at least semi-commercial is for dog proof letter boxes. All I can say on this is that there are some ways to do this, both by designing the wall in the first place or by putting some kind of cage inside, but I don't know of any. And the real problem is for people putting stuff into the boxes, not for those receiving. Maybe it's time to campaign for this one again?

There are some other surprises on the list, but it's difficult to fine tune it to get a popularity listing because some very similar search terms rak separately on the charts. So ben duncan big brother, "ben duncan" big brother and big brother ben duncan all rank separately, alongside several other combinations seeking much the same information. However it is possible to spot at a glance when one particular search term is especially popular with ashes to ashes topping the table by some distance, whilst variants such as end of ashes to ashes or ashes to ashes dixon of dock green also making appearances.

Of course both of those searches were influenced by television and over time the number of people making them will inevitably decline. I wonder what the next big search will be for...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Do we need the Department of Culture, Media and Sport?

At a time when the government is asking the country to rethink the very basics of what government does and where we can find savings, my thoughts turn to the size of government. We have more ministers today than when we ran a huge Empire, and there are proposals to cut the number of MPs, so perhaps we should also axe some government departments and ministers?

By far the most obvious department to break up is the Department of Culture, Media & Sport. There are some tasks where there's a clear role for government, particularly the Olympics but also encouraging sport in general (not just for health reasons but also as a means of cohesion). But why do we need a government department for culture?

The department didn't exist before 1992, when it was created as "National Heritage" and was renamed and expanded to its current role in 1997. Isn't it time to now look at abolishing it, scrapping its unnecessary functions and transferring the useful ones to existing government departments? Less government, fewer ministers, gains for the many (if not the few, sorry Jeremy Hunt!).

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Ben Duncan on Big Brother

Normally I steer well clear of Big Brother but this year I've had a few enquiries already about one of the contestants and whether or not they are a contemporary from my undergraduate days.

A few years ago I wrote a post about The Tory Monday Club that was set up at the University of Kent a decade ago. Yes the chair and founder of that group was Ben Duncan.

Student politics can get ridiculously over the top and bitter at times and there are things a lot of people said, shouted and did that they later come to regret. This was true at the time of many of us, including myself (I gave my apologies to those involved for the worst of it).

I knew Ben in the 1999 to 2002 period but I can't honestly remember a single conversation about Big Brother with him, although his general attitude suggests to me that if he was even aware of the show back then he would have absolutely disapproved of it existing.

Maybe I'll find myself watching some of Big Brother after all...

Could Abbott become Prime Minister?

I have just seen news I never thought I would see. It seems there has been a major shift amongst political betters, with more than 90% of recent bets backing Abbott for Prime Minister. Opinion polls are also starting to shift. It seems that many people, including myself, who thought that an Abbott premiership was electorally impossible may well have to soon eat our words.

So could this soon be a Prime Ministerial portrait?
Yes, this is Tony Abbott, the man who gamblers think will be the next Prime Minister of Australia.

What, did you think I was talking about someone else?

The Age: Punters back Abbott for PM has more details.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

So where have the Conservatives failed to recover?

With the dust of the general election now settled, attention is turning in so many quarters to analysing where each party succeeded and failed. Invariably there has been a lot of different interpretations and arguments, with some based on false assumptions about the actual breakdown of the party's vote base. But there are some studies out there if people know where to look.

Over on LabourList Declan Gaffney has written Immigration and the leadership debate: Time for a reality check which addresses the question of how strong the Labour vote has been amongst the various social groups over recent elections, using figures from Mori. It is rare to find insight on Conservative electoral problems on a Labour blog, but the following caught my eye:
The main reason Labour didn't do even worse in terms of the popular vote in May 2010 is that the Conservatives failed yet again to make a breakthrough among more affluent demographics. It is worth reminding ourselves of how catastrophic 1997 was for the Tories' relationship with what had previously been the bedrock of their support. In 1992, they held 54% of votes in the ABC1 demographics; in 1997 this was down to 39%, which is also the share they won in 2010. The Conservatives have never recovered from their loss of better-off voters in 1997. But they have regained the share of low income voters they held in 1992.
There has been an ongoing mini-realignment away from the traditional class based voting over the past few decades which has seen the middle classes slowly swing leftwards whilst other social groups swing to the right - it's often forgotten that in the 1980s Thatcherism was repelling chunks of the traditional Conservative vote base (some, but not all, public sector professionals) even as it was attracting in others.

The main historic data set can be found at Ipso Mori: How Britain Voted Since October 1974 and the 2010 data is at How Britain Voted in 2010.

Looking at this data shows some interesting conclusions about the three main categories used and how each is voting.

Amongst "Semi/unskilled working class (DE)", the Conservatives polled 31%, the same share as in 1992 and higher than anything since. That share crashed to 21% in 1997 but rose to 24% in 2001 and then 25% in 2005. Under Thatcher the Conservatives had polled 34%, 33% and 30% successively. Labour still led amongst the DEs in 2010 with 40%, the lowest share in at least 36 years (and probably a lot longer). The Liberal Democrats polled 17%, slightly down on the 18% in 2005. Historically they've bobbed between 13% and 24% over the period.

Amongst "Skilled working class (C2)", the Conservatives polled 37%, the highest since 1992, whilst Labour polled 29%, the lowest in the 36 year period. The Lib Dems polled 22%, the same as in 1987, and only polled higher in 1983. Looking over the past elections the Conservatives made a major advance here in 1979, drawing level with Labour and then leading or levelling for the next three elections. There was a crash in 1997 with the Labour lead jumping to 23%, but the Conservatives have steadily advanced since from 27% to 29% to 33% to 37%, whilst Labour declined from 50% to 49% to 40% to 29%, and on this occasion the Conservatives took the lead. But it is a lead that has built up over time.

But it's amongst "Middle class (ABC1)", that the figures tell a different story. The Conservatives polled 39% in 2010 - the same as in 1997. And the long term figures show a big change. The Conservatives went from getting consistently in the mid 50s from 1974 until 1992, then crashed to 39% in 1997. But the worst followed, dropping to 38% in 2001 and 37% in 2005. Meanwhile Labour may have got only 27% of ABC1 in 2010, but that's still a better score for them than anything from before the Blair era. Labour polled between 16% and 24% between 1974 and 1992, then jumped to 34% in 1997 and held the same in 2001. In 2005 it slipped to 30% and then dropped to 27% this time. The beneficiaries in all this have been the Liberal Democrats who got 26%, their joint highest since 1983. Back then they polled 28% but declined steadily to 26% to 21% to 20% by 1997, only to see a turn of fortunes with 22% in 2001 and 26% in 2005. This time round they may not have advanced but they didn't fall back.

The small growth in votes for "others" slightly distorts things but the overall figures show that amongst both the C2s and DEs the Conservatives have basically recovered to their 1992 position. For those who want a stunning but true quote try "David Cameron did better amongst the DEs than Margaret Thatcher in her final election."

It's the complete failure to recover the lost ground amongst the ABC1s that remains the Conservatives' biggest stumbling ground. Whilst there was some advance amidst Labour's fall, it was only a small amount. The best that can be said is that the bleeding has been stemmed and more ground has not been lost, which is an improvement on the outcome of the Hague and Howard strategies. Indeed these figures suggest that a hard-line campaign like those fought in 2001 & 2005 would have just continued the Conservative decline here. But there has been a realignment to the benefit of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives need to find ways of either overturning this effect or compensating for it with more advances amongst the C2s and DEs.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Hughes Plan

Tom Harris has the detailed gist of it. (And another thing...: Looking enviously at the opposition benches) Over on Liberal Democrat Voice a post lists Simon Hughes’ 10 proposals for Lib Dem MPs under Coalition . It looks suspiciously like a programme for organising a party in opposition, just one that happens to be sitting on the government benches. At a glance it seems Simon Hughes wants the Liberal Democrats to be neither one thing nor the other but somewhere in between. How very Liberal Democrat.

There's a vague historical precedence for this (there nearly is for everything!). In 1932-1933 the Liberals sat on the government benches for a year after they had resigned their ministerial posts over the introduction of Imperial Preference on tariffs. But that was stage three of a four stage process by which the Liberals extracted themselves from the National Government and settled into opposition in as intact a position as possible. (The other stages were - separate manifestos in the general election; formal agreement to suspend collective responsibility on an area where the governing parties simply did not agree; and finally moving to the opposition benches. The second stage isn't that different from some of the elements of the coalition agreement and of course the coalition being formed after the election rather than before removes the need for the first.)

I have no idea if Simon Hughes is even aware of that brief period in his party's history (even amongst Liberal historians it is one of the more neglected periods) or if he's consciously trying to mimic it. But it feels like he wants to create a position whereby the Liberal Democrats can evade responsibility for everything that the coalition does that's unpopular - and with the necessary tax cuts boy are there going to be unpopular things done - whilst Liberal Democrat ministers can cream off credit for popular successes. It's not exactly a party fully participating in government but rather a recipe for opportunistic mess. I give full credit to Nick Clegg for not (yet) having implemented an opposition within a government but if Hughes wins the deputy leadership election (as seems increasingly lightly), will Clegg bin or implement the Hughes Plan?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Labour's first BME MP

My previous post BME Conservative MPs - the pioneers has attracted some interest and I know that several people have been surprised to learn that the first non-white Conservative MP was elected as long ago as 1895.

But what is also surprising is that Labour's first BME MP has equally been forgotten in some quarters. This week Diane Abbott wrote a piece for The Times entitled Labour democracy is strangled by these unfair rules: There will not be a single woman on the ballot paper in which she stated "We elected our first ethnic minority MPs more than 20 years ago." My attention was drawn to this by Daniel Hannan's Daily Telegraph blog post "The case for Diane Abbott" in which he highlighted the comment (and countered with "We elected our first ethnic minority MP 115 years ago" but I'll leave it to others to go into bat alongside Hannan). Abbott has overlooked one of the more interesting characters from her party's history but this may be deliberate. However I'm often one to bust the odd myth in the media and so here goes.

Shapurji Saklatvala managed the astounding feat of sitting in Parliament for no less than three parties simultaneously. Until the 1930s the Independent Labour Party was a "party within a party" within the Labour movement and it was not unusual for Labour MPs to also be members of the ILP. However Saklatvala was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, at a time when the Labour Party allowed dual membership. It was not until 1924 that the Labour Party introduced rules barring both dual membership and the endorsement of Communist candidates. In the meantime Saklatvala (who was born in Bombay in 1874 but came to the UK in 1905 to train as a barrister) was first elected for Battersea North in 1922 as a Communist endorsed by Labour. (Battersea was for a long time thought to have been the first place in the UK to have had a black Mayor, John Archer in 1913, but he is now known to have been preceded by Allan Glaisyer Minns in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1904.) He lost the seat in the 1923 election but won it back in 1924 without a Labour opponent. Finally in 1929 Labour fielded an opposing candidate and Saklatvala was beaten into third place; a final candidacy in 1931 produced much the same result. General histories tend only to mention Saklatvala's initial victory as one of the first Communist MPs but virtually nothing else of his Commons career - A.J.P. Taylor comments "he never made much mark" (English History 1914-1945 p.200) and otherwise mentions only that the atheist Communist rallied to the Protestant cause in the Prayer Book debate (p.259). Sunder Katwala's piece in Total Politics: A journey towards equal representation has little more to say beyond Saklatvala's "local popularity in the Independent Labour Party and trade union circles" that enabled his unusual candidacy in the first place. The Communist International's tribute upon his death in 1936, In Memoriam—Comrade Shapurji Saklatvala, offers a bit more, noting how Saklatvala was part of the Indian Nationalist movement and was denied entry to the US, Egypt and India, as well as being briefly jailed for activities during the General Strike. In addition he undertook many speaking tours. I am reminded of George Galloway and other hard left MPs over the years who have made a much greater impact outside the Commons than within it.

Given the complexity of his label, not to mention the Labour Party's desire to first cut all Communist links and then airbrush them from history, it is understandable that Saklatvala has slipped through the net of Labour history. He occupied an ambiguous border area in left wing politics, and when the borders were tightened up he was left outside it so it's understandable if people assume that was always the case.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Have I Got Prescott For You

I've now had a chance to catch up with this week's Have I Got News For You, chaired by none other than John Prescott. It was an interesting time.

As debuts go, Prescott was somewhere in the middle. He wasn't on relentless fire like BRIAN BLESSED (though can anyone match up to BRIAN BLESSED?) but equally he didn't fall totally flat like Neil Kinnock. There is no end of obvious jibes to make at Prescott's expense and yet he managed to come through them all well, even making a few of them himself, and also managed to take the fight back to Ian Hislop. A host who can generate so much material is always a delight and there has to be return performance. (Would he be the first actual member of the House of Lords to do so?)

But just one suggestion - to keep up the impression the show is spontaneous and recorded in order, don't have the glasses appearing and disappearing in different shots.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Prime Minister addressing the Coalition

Just a quick post to highlight a gem from the YouTube archives - Winston Churchill addressing Coalition ministers in 1941:

I wonder how many leaders today would give a standing speech at a Cabinet table?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

On guns

The news in Cumbria yesterday was absolutely shocking. I have relatives in that part of the world and have spent several holidays there. It is a lovely part of the world full of happy memories so the news has come as surreal.

What is sadly not surreal and instead truly predictable has been the reaction from people on both sides of the gun control "debate". I use that word in inverted commas because the truth is that there is normally very little debate about gun control in British politics. A few people on the fringes make noises and crass remarks (and it's because of that that I'm not allowing comments on this post; if readers want to post insensitive comments they can do so elsewhere) but that's about it. There are some people who take libertarianism far too far, including those who post about how they get off on the pleasure of going to a shooting range abroad and firing weapons. Such people are fortunately at the nutter end of British politics. Sadly they are more common in the United States and vocal on the internet. (Sometimes I wonder if the National Rifle Association is a deliberate self-parody. Then I realise they are serious.)

It's the reaction from such people that has really angered me. The claim being made is that this tragedy came about "because the UK has strict gun laws and people can't defend themselves". My immediate response is "bullshit".

I grew up in a family of shooters and have often used a gun myself (including, as it happens, in Cumbria when I've been out controlling pests with my father and uncle). I find it hard to believe that laxer gun controls would have made a difference for the better. It would, however, have made a difference for the worse.

Contrary to the impression television may give or even the effect one may get after a bit of target range shooting, guns are not easy things to use. It is especially hard to hit a moving or live target without training. It is even harder to deploy a gun at an instant's notice - no sensible person transports their gun loaded.

The implication of the gun nuts seems to be that if everyone was carrying a handgun they could have whipped it out and ended the matter. This completely overlooks the fact that Bird was driving around and blasting from the window, catching people unaware. Portable weapons are incredibly difficult to use accurately at any range - do people seriously think a random citizen bystander could have successfully whipped out a handgun, shot out Bird's tires and then neutralised him before he could let off a long range shot?

And that's even assuming the have-a-go heroes had accurate information. In a tense situation where information about a killer is only coming out slowly, there would invariably have been numerous false leads. Many innocent car drivers will have been reported and stopped by the police simply for driving vehicles that fitted the limited description available. How many of those might have been shot at by well meaning gun owners?

Then there are the bystanders. Just imagine how many misses and stray shots released by amateur gun owners would have been flying around, hitting innocent people. The potential casualty rate doesn't even bear thinking about.

Cumbria is quite a rural county and there were almost certainly a lot of people in the settlements attacked who had shotguns and rifles stored in their homes. It's telling that there are no reports of people getting their own guns out and trying to have a go because they know the risks and dangers of such actions. Those who own guns under the current controls are generally sensible, know the dangers of their weapons and treat them with respect. As a child, long before I was ever allowed to even carry my father's gun, I had drilled into me the mantra that a gun is not a toy, it's not a status symbol and it's certainly not something that makes you big. It is a tool for a purpose and it should not be deployed for unexpected purposes.

But an environment full of guns being carried by those without training or respect for the danger would be a very different matter indeed. Truly the phrase "gun nut" seems completely appropriate for those trying to use the tragedy to call for a relaxing of the laws.

(As I said above, I'm afraid I'm not allowing comments on this post because of the nature of the tragedy.)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Could there be more Liberal Democrats?

Many have predicted that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition could lead to realignments in the party system. But did they expect these realignments to start outside the country?

The Canadian Liberal Party has been going through another round of sluggish polls and an unpopular leader who doesn't seem to be taking them anywhere. Michael Ignatieff must be thankful that Canada lacks a tradition of ruthlessly deposing leaders (and if people think the UK is harsh, just take a look at Australia!). Nevertheless he's polling badly and senior Liberals are starting to openly think the once unthinkable - a merger of the left parties, mainly to unite the Liberals and New Democratic Party.

What is really embarrassing for Ignatieff is that opinion polls exploring this option show that a merger would do less well under his leadership than under either his Liberal leadership rival Bob Rae or the NDP leader Jack Layton. (See ThreeHundredEight.com: New AR Poll: 8-pt CPC Lead - and Mergers?) At the moment the merger is just an idea being kite-flown, albeit with some pretty senior kite-flyers, but it could run and run. We shall see...

And what would this new party be called? Well the traditional way to do it is "one word from your party and one word from my party" and I doubt the NDP are suckers enough to accept their word being "Party". There is an obvious name already in use elsewhere in the world, so am I the first the christen the prospective group "Liberal Democrats"?

Liberal Democrat deputy leadership - it's a straight choice

Nominations have closed for the Liberal Democrat deputy leadership election. I've not been to Hull lately but I doubt this is the sole topic of conversation in the pubs this time.

There are two candidates:
  • Tim Farron
  • Simon Hughes
So the election is a straight choice. But I wonder if either candidate or their teams will dare to put it in those terms.

(It also means the Liberal Democrats won't get the chance to demonstrate how the Alternative Vote works. I'm sure we'll all be missing out as a result.)

The result is due on June 9th. Can you stand the excitement?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

David Miliband's secret identity?

Maybe David Miliband is concealing something. Maybe that famous moment with the banana was telling the world more than we realised. Maybe he also answers to the name "Eric". (Does anyone have canvass returns for 29 Acacia Road?) As he seeks to become Labour leader, perhaps it's time we should be told.

In the meantime from the depths of YouTube I present one of the cartoons of my childhood, in which the hero takes on the nearest he has to a brother:
So if you're reading this David, the secret to defeating Ed is to scare him with a maggot!

Sometimes we have a right to be kept ignorant

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key is making headlines internationally again. When answering questions about budget cuts he admitted to making a cut of a very different nature. (New Zealand Herald: Prime Minister stuns press pack with cutting comment)

There is a very clear distinction between the public interest and the public being interested. And sometimes, frankly, the public has a right to be kept ignorant. This is surely one of those times.


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