Labour should forget ‘Saint’ David Miliband – he fluffed his chance – A very good assessment by Steven Fielding of just why David Miliband wasn’t and isn’t the solution to all Labour’s problems.
Should we aim for budget surpluses? – Simon Wren-Lewis looks at the evidence and suggest “it is hard to justify aiming for budget surpluses within the next five years.”
What if the UK paid off all its government debt? – Probably not what you’d expect, if you’re still the sort of person who thinks Government debt is anything like personal debt.
A pound here, a pound there – David Runciman on the history of legalised gambling in the UK (from last year, so a couple of out of date references, but still interesting).
Thoughts on whipping and collective responsibility – An interesting take on the issue of whipping in political groups from former Brighton Green leader Jason Kitcat.

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liblablieIt will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been at a Liberal Democrat Glee Club or said the words ‘Liberal Democrats’ to anyone in the Labour Party over the past few years that the general reaction to Jamie Reed’s proposal that Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge has been a resounding ‘no’ from both sides. It’s the sort of idea that people should dismiss as a non-starter, but because it was apparently seriously considered by both Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in the 90s, it’s acquired a veneer of respectability and possibility that it doesn’t really deserve. It’s a bad idea that only looks vaguely plausible because of the distorting lens of the British electoral system – because two parties separately don’t get the representation in Parliament that’s commensurate with their separate shares of the vote, the assumption becomes that they must become one, and somehow combine their vote shares into something greater. That people vote for those parties based on their separate identities, and would not necessarily vote for a combined mush of the two, is assumed away.

There’s a reason that splits of political parties are much, much more common than mergers of them: it’s a lot more common and easier for people – especially politicians – to believe that they’re right and need their own organisation to prove it than it is for people from different groups to decide that they’d both be better off if they come together permanently. The merger that created the Liberal Democrats was the last major one in British politics, and that not only nearly killed the new party but also created two disgruntled splinter parties. That was with the benefit of two parties that had worked under an electoral part for two elections and where Roy Jenkins had initially considered joining the Liberal Party rather than establishing the SDP. Other mergers involving major parties (the Tories swallowing the Liberal Unionists and then the National Liberals) only happened after many years of the two parties involved having worked closely together.

However, it’s perfectly possible for parties to work together and co-ordinate electorally without merging. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that happens regularly in other countries. It’s a lot easier to do that in a proportional voting system, of course, where parties within a grouping are free to compete with each other, knowing that moving votes from one party to another within that bloc won’t affect the overall electoral prospects of that bloc. For instance, assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. In the same way, C and D’s prime focus would be on trying to shift voters from the AB bloc to theirs. In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

In the latter situation, it might seem that the logical solution is to get A and B to merge, as they’ll get 55% of the vote – but only if all their existing voters will back the newly merged party. However, unless the two parties wer already nearly identical in their policy positions, that’s very unlikely to happen, as the newly merged party will have to try and find common ground between the two parties’ positions that will likely alienate former voters.

Before I detour completely into dissertation-land and regale you with more Downs and Mair theory on party positioning, I’ll try and get to a point – and for once on this issue, I find myself in general agreement with Paddy Ashdown.From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, there was electoral co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and it proved to be one of the most electorally successful periods ever for both parties. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the majority of Liberal Democrat seats have been won from the Tories, or had the Tories in second place, and a lot of those were won thanks to co-operation with Labour – sure, it wasn’t official co-operation but there’s no doubt that there were plenty of seats in 1997 where one of the two parties put in very little effort which made it easier for the other to persuade voters to switch and back them as the best anti-Tory choice. (Incidentally, the bulk of the seats with Lib Dems in second place are now Tory-held)

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories hands – the evidence suggests that they’re the ones who benefit the most when Labour and Liberals are too busy turning their noses up at each other to understand we share a common enemy. Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

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unconferenceIf I didn’t have enough already, Tim Farron gave me another reason for supporting him for party leader today, with his proposal that the Liberal Democrats should introduce a regular ‘festival of ideas’:

The festival will take place over a day and will be open, inclusive and egalitarian. It will consistent of a series of, say, twenty simultaneous sessions, each lasting no more than an hour, maybe in excess of hundred different sessions throughout the day.

And here’s the trick: the topics and format of the sessions will be set not centrally by the party or its leaders but by the participants themselves.

The Liberal Democrat Festival of Ideas will be open to all to attend. And once registered, any paid up member of the party will be free to propose a session in fifty words of less. It might take the form of a lecture, a panel debate or a facilitated discussion.

It will then be up to the participants which sessions they wish to attend, drawn by the topic, the speakers or the organiser. Some sessions will no doubt attract hundreds, others perhaps not more than half a dozen, but that’s not the point: everyone will have the opportunity to contribute on an equal basis, from the party leader to the newest member.

In effect, Tim’s proposing a Liberal Democrat Unconference, and unconferences are something I’ve been interested in since attending one in 2013. This proposal gets to the heart of something I’ve been thinking about and writing about for a while – we shouldn’t be content to just look at tweaking the way the party works based on structures created to smooth over post-merger squabbles, we should be pretty much starting again from scratch and building structures that suit a political movement in 2015. It’s why I think the whole ‘one member, one vote’ debate remains a huge distraction as it still limits involvement to those with the time, money and ability to actually get to Conference, and still keeps a very formalised policy-making process in place.

A ‘festival of ideas’, conducted in the way Tim proposes, would be something different, and a much more interesting way of getting members involved in talking about ideas and policies, as well as showing that we’re serious about being a party run by our members and open to contributions from everyone. The current political party conference model is looking very stale across all parties, and we shouldn’t be afraid to try some radical alternatives to it. Indeed, I’d go further than Tim’s proposal and suggest that the party ought to be a holding a series of regular festivals of ideas all around the country, and also providing support and training for regional and local parties to hold their own. Running a local unconference open to all with the aim of coming up with ideas to improve your area, town, county or whatever would be a great way of reinvigorating our commitment to community politics and finding new ways to involve people in improving their communities.

A festival of ideas shouldn’t be just a one-off event – and I suspect Tim doesn’t expect it to be – but something we can make a fundamental part of the way the party works: fully involving people at all leels in developing their ideas for the future. It’s not just about saying people have the power to determine policy – it’s enabling them to use that power.

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I’m pleased to announce the formation of my new group, People Who Agree Nick Is Right About Everything. This group has been formed to campaign for the principle that I am right about everything, and as that’s the mainstream view, you won’t be surprised to learn that it has millions and millions of members. Of course, you can’t see the mailing list and only I and a select few people (none of whom are me in disguise) will speak to the media about PWANIRAE and its aims, but rest assured that if you choose to sign up, you will be part of a rapidly growing movement. Indeed, I firmly expect that between now and the moment you join, membership of PWANIRAE will double.

Naturally, such a large movement needs to be covered by the press, and so I expect I will be busy appearing on all the big political talk shows and several people who definitely aren’t me working under a pseudonym will be writing comment pieces for newspapers and websites. Luckily, the naturally trusting nature of the British press means that I don’t need to prove the number of supporters I have behind me, they’ll take it on trust.

I know I don’t have to provide any proof of numbers behind me because I’ve been watching how the media have covered the launch of Conservatives For Britain, the nascent form of the Tory No campaign for the EU referendum. When it was launched last week, we were told it had 50 MPs signed up to it, and now they claim the support of 110 MPs, 12 MEPs and 13 members of the Lords for their cause. The problem is that despite all the gushing press coverage they’re getting from their friends on the right, there’s no way to verify this level of support, as there’s very little officially published by the group. There’s a Twitter feed and a Facebook page for the group, but no website, and definitely no published list of supporters.

It seems quite odd to me that when one of the frequent Eurosceptic complaints is that the EU is secretive, unaccountable and cannot be properly scrutinised, that a group campaigning against it is being even more secretive. Let’s remember that this isn’t a group of private citizens but a large group of legislators, most of whom were democratically elected, trying to exert influence on the Government’s foreign policy. Surely we have a right to know who these people are, not just a few of their chosen spokesmen while the vast majority of their membership lurks in the shadows? They’re elected by us, they’re accountable to us, and they should have the courage to announce their principles in public and tell us whether they’re a member of Conservatives for Britain or not. Until they do go properly public, the media should treat them with the scepticism they would treat any other group with unverified claims of vast support, though I won’t hold my breath expecting it.

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So, this all started when Chris Brooke decided he wanted to know which side of the ‘cat person/dog person’ the Labour leader candidates fell on:


He then tweeted all five Labour candidates to find out their position on this, but is yet to get an answer.

Deciding that this was an issue that had importance across parties, I decided to ask our candidates their stance on this:


And answers came back very quickly:


(Sympathy to Norman, as I know how sad it is when a cat dies)

But there we have it – very quick answers from our candidates, while Chris is still waiting for the Labour ones to respond. Speculation about hastily convened focus groups attempting to work out which pet is more aspirational is probably not misplaced.

However, the last word should go to YouGov, whose profiler (thanks to Matt Sanders for the link) tells us that people who like Norman Lamb are more likely to be cat people, while those who like Tim Farron are more likely to have a dog. For once, it seems polling may have accurately captured public opinion.

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British politics has a lot of odd traditions and one of the more recent of them was begun by Michael Foot. He was the first major party leader to resign immediately after an election defeat, something that hadn’t happened before but is now de rigeur for defeated party leaders.

However, while there are some good reasons for a defeated leader to move on to other things ASAP, this creates a whole new set of problems for the party, especially given how our political system is now. This is shown most clearly by what’s happening with Labour right now where the party is attempting to find a new leader while also trying to work out what went wrong in 2015. The problem this brings is that the candidate who might have the best assessment of the situation now is by no means guaranteed to be the best choice to be leading the party into the next election but the way things are set up, that’s what they’ll get. (Ian Dunt makes a similar argument today)

The problem with the British system is that party leaders – particularly in opposition – are expected to combine multiple roles. On one hand, they’re the person responsible for directing and co-ordinating the work of the party in between elections, while on the other (particularly as a general election draws near) they’re the party’s lead candidate and potential Prime Minister. The assumption we make is that somehow, one person will be the best fit for both of those roles, despite the evidence showing that it’s much more likely to find someone who’d excel in one position and not the other. For instance, William Hague did some very important work in sorting out the organisation of the Conservative Party while he was leader but was absolutely terrible as a lead campaigner, while Charles Kennedy was a brilliant campaigner for the Liberal Democrats but none of the tributes to him from the last week have been about his organisational abilities.

The conflation of the two roles is a problem for all parties, but particularly pronounced for major parties whose leaders are expected to be Prime Ministerial candidates. This is a situation that doesn’t happen in other countries: German parties choose their ‘Chancellor candidate’ a few months before the election is scheduled and even in the ridiculously lengthy US election process, there’s a two-year gap before candidates for the next Presidential election declare themselves. Labour, by contrast, are hoping that the questions ‘who can best rebuild the party?’ and ‘who’ll be the best Labour candidate for Prime Minister in 2020?’ have the same answer, even though we have very little idea of what the political situation will be like in 2020. We don’t even know who’ll be leading the Tories then, and Labour will be handing them the advantage of being able to choose the best leader to combat their choice, rather than the other way round.

I’ve written before about interim leaders and how Labour need a John Smith right now rather than thinking they can magically summon a new Blair, but I think there’s a more fundamental question of ‘what is a party leader for?’ that’s not being addressed in the Labour contest. Liz Kendall’s suggestion of a 2018 ‘break clause’ for a new leader is perhaps the most sensible idea put forward in a contest that’s been particularly short of them and would give Labour the chance to properly divide up the roles of leader: choose someone now to get things on track, then decide in 2018 if they or someone else are the best person to put forward as Prime Minister.

Yesterday saw an expected yet still disappointing response from the Government to the various post-election electoral reform petitions. Expected, because we all know that there’s no way this Government is going to concede electoral reform, yet disappointing because it reveals that the minister for constitutional reform may have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

In response to petitions demanding a properly proportional electoral system, his response was that ‘we had a referendum on it in 2011′. The 2011 referendum was lost, and lost badly, but it was definitely not a referendum on adopting a proportional system. The question was, if you forget:

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

You’ll notice, of course, that there’s no mention there of any proportional electoral system, merely a question about whether one majoritarian system should be used in place of another. Also note that it doesn’t ask for any affirmation of the current system above all others: the question was not ‘do you agree that “first past the post” is great and should never ever be changed?’

There were other referendums during the last Parliament, of course, with several cities being told that they had to have votes on whether they wanted an elected Mayor to run their Council. Bristol and Salford voted yes but a whole host of England’s largest cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and others – voted No.

Despite this, the Government is pushing forward with plans to give these cities – and ‘city regions’ – their own mayors whether they want them or not. Manchester’s ‘interim Mayor’ has already been agreed and selected by ten people without any consultation with the electorate, and other areas are going to find that George Osborne will be imposing one upon them if they want to have any new powers, with ‘devolution’ being used as an excuse for even more centralisation. In this case, despite the people voting against it more recently than 2011, the Government’s going to go ahead and do what it wants.

‘But Nick!’ you cry, desperate to defend George Osborne. ‘These are different to the Mayors they rejected. These are Metro Mayors and regional Mayors, covering wider areas than those that voted in the referendums, so it’s a completely different thing!’ And you may well be right, but if you’re going to make that argument, you can’t also claim that any electoral reform is off the agenda because of the AV referendum as that was merely vote on a tweak to the current majoritarian system, not a change to a proportional one. I’m happy to concede that the referendum rejected AV, but had nothing to say about other electoral systems and if a future Parliament chooses to change the system it can do so – as long as it’s not to AV.

Unfortunately, we have a government where the minister for constitutional reform doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of what’s happened before, so we can expect lots more confusion over the Parliament. If that wasn’t a five year period in which some important constitutional questions are going to be discussed heavily, it’d almost be funny.

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