What You Can Get Away With » Tories

There’s been much joking recently about how part of the wake of the presidential election would be a wave of ‘why the US election means we must support my politics’ columns and blog posts. Lo and behold, you can probably find one on most comment sites in the country, but I wasn’t expecting David Cameron to jump on the bandwagon.

He made clear that the Tory right, which is putting pressure on him to campaign on more traditional Conservative themes, should take note of Obama’s success. “I believe that elections are won in the common ground – the centre ground,” Cameron said. “That is where you need to be, arguing about the things that matter to most people – that is making sure they can find a good job, they can build a good life for themselves, that if people work hard and try to get on you are behind them and helping them. That is the message loud and clear from this election as it is from all elections. You win elections in the mainstream.”

The hard right in the US and the UK share a common theme. Namely, that all electoral failure by right-wing candidates has one common cause – not being right-wing enough – and therefore, one common solution – being more right-wing. (The basic principle seems to have been taken from the hard left sometime in the 1980s) Although it manifests itself differently because of the differing media cultures in the two countries – there’s no Fox News or conservative talk radio in the UK, no Telegraph, Mail or Conservative Home in the US – the principle is the same: a right-wing echo chamber proclaiming that success comes only through ideological purity.

The problem is that the promise is false. In the US, right wing talk radio (as exemplified by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the like) began its rise from around 1989-90 after the Fairness Doctrine was revoked by the FCC. Since then, the Republicans have won the national popular vote in just one presidential election – 2004. In comparison, the advent of the British right began after the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Since then, Tory leaders have been regularly informed that the path to success lies in going further and farther to the right than Thatcher ever did, and they’ve had a similar sort of electoral success – one majority election victory in 1992, and one plurality of seats and votes in 2010. After William ‘save the Pound’ Hague and Michael ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Howard, the Tories only got some measure of success when Cameron started shifting them towards the centre.

One interesting dilemma that this does pose is that the call of the hard right can deliver some electoral success, though not in major elections. In the US, they have often delivered electoral successes in the midterms (1994 and 2010 are probably the best elections) and over here, UKIP have been successful in European elections. However, the link there is that these are low-turnout elections, and while the right may be good at getting their people out to vote for these, any effect they have is swamped when moderate voters come out to vote in the major elections.

That’s why, just this once, I agree with David Cameron. Salvation for the Tories doesn’t lie in them flying headlong to the siren call of the Tea Party. Their influence comes from the fact that they’re more organised and better funded than the moderates, not from their electoral sway.

, , , ,

Two bits of news about the business of Government that have caught my attention over the last few days.

The quad has become the sextet – As we’ve come to see over the past couple of years, a lot of the real decisions about the direction of the Government are being taken by the ‘quad': David Cameron, George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. That’s now expanded include David Laws and Oliver Letwin.
Philip Hammond is pushing on with Trident replacement contracts – The ‘main gate’ decision isn’t meant to be taken until 2016, but work is still being undertaken as though that’s already been decided. Institutional inertia, anyone?

I’ve linked these stories because they both highlight something important about this government that I don’t see being talked about much, possibly because we’ve all internalized the belief that no one wants to talk about process stories. I’m usually inclined to agree, but the problem can be to assume that process and policy aren’t strongly linkes. Sure, in Government they can’t exist without each other, but we must not forget that the way the process is structured can effect the policy as it works through the system. (I had a whole lot of analogies here, none of which worked)

Nick Harvey’s removal from the MoD without a Liberal Democrat replacement coming in for him has already sparked off lots of discussion about the Trident review and replacement and today’s announcement is just a small part of that. The key point here, though, is that there’s now no longer someone like Nick Harvey fighting that corner in the MoD day to day. Clegg and Alexander are supposedly overseeing the issue, but that’s different from actually having a minister in there – overseers tend to only get to see what the process spits out at the end, when what’s needed here is someone to influence it a long time before final reports are made.

This is why I think the recent reshuffle is going to cause lots of issues further down the line as the implications of it are felt. As well as Liberal Democrats leaving certain areas behind, it also saw the Tories shift rightwards, and the additions to the quad make it look unlikely that it’s going to provide any brake to that tendency. The quad determines what does and doesn’t get done in government, what each party is willing to trade off with the other and for what. The Liberal Democrat members of it have an important job to do in not just keeping government running smoothly, but in understanding and representing what the party will and will not accept. Unfortunately, adding David Laws to it doesn’t instil much confidence in me that the party’s full range of views are going to be reflected. Adding in another member of the party ‘right’, someone ideologically closer to the Tories than many others in the party, seems to me to be a strategic error.

If we’re really seeking to act as a handbrake on the Tories, why is the centre of political gravity on the quad so far to the right? The quad might just be a process within government, but the decisions it makes – explicitly or implicitly – have an ideological effect on what policies get pushed through the system. Yet again, too much is being conceded to the Tories before proper discussions even start, and we know where that’s led us before.

, ,

You can tell that Tories are in Government – suddenly, everything has a price and nothing has a value. After last week’s discussions over the ‘trade your employment rights away for a handful of magic beans shares’ proposal, we now have reports that Nick Clegg has been offered a deal over state funding of political parties in exchange for letting the boundary review go through.

What would be interesting to find out about this policy is who leaked it, because the very act of reporting it has made the likelihood of it happening drop down to effectively zero. It’s clear that certain Tories are desperate to resurrect the boundary review – though not so desperate as to allow Lords reform to take place, which tells you all you need to know about their actual commitment to democracy – but I don’t think there’s anything they could offer Clegg that would make the Liberal Democrats change their mind over it. Now that any change in that position – which was a slim chance anyway – would be linked to what looks like nothing more than a bribe, there’s no likelihood of that change occurring.

, ,

One of the distinguishing traits of a senior politician is to be in possession of a circle of loquacious friends, always ready to talk to the press about things they don’t feel ready to talk about personally in public. Michael Gove’s friends have been talkative this weekend, telling the Daily Mail all about his views on the European Union.

It’s pretty much just Gove throwing a bone to the Tory Right, of course, saying he’d vote for the UK to leave to the EU, coupled with complaints about how those horrible human rights laws stop him from doing exactly what he wants. This helps us to show us how Gove suffers from two of the problems that befall many of the anti-EU brigade: first, the inability to understand the difference between the European Union, the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European court; and second, the odd way in which conservatives who talk about limiting state power have an aversion to human rights conventions that protect the power of the citizen against an over-mighty state.

This is just Gove trying to shift the Overton window a few more inches to the right, rather than some major shift in Tory policy – after all, if he was serious about this he’d have said it himself at the Tory conference last week rather than leaving it to some anonymous friends to talk to the Daily Mail. However, the question we should ask if it’s all right for senior Tories to talk about ending our membership of the European Union, why is it so wrong for senior Liberal Democrats to talk about the possibility of ending the coalition?

As I talked about a few weeks ago, the party’s negotiating position in any internal Government discussions is weakened by the insistence that the Coalition must not be allowed to end early:

By saying – explicitly or implicitly – that nothing short of Cameron falling under the proverbial bus or it’s equivalent will make the Liberal Democrats walk away from the negotiating table, the party is drastically weakening its hand in any discussion. It emboldens the Tories to push further to the right, as there’s no counterforce to draw them to the centre if the Liberal Democrats have hidden their most powerful weapon in negotiations. Leaving aside my position that it should end now, I’m not saying that Clegg and Alexander should be threatening to walk out over everything, but if their counterparts don’t believe it’s possible that they will, then they’re dangerously weakened in negotiations.

In the same way that Gove doesn’t state his anti-EU views publicly, we don’t need Clegg giving regular speeches about bringing the coalition down. However, the response to something like Gove’s comments should be senior party figures (other than Lord Oakeshott) pointing out that the natural response to any Tory moves to quit the EU would be the Liberal Democrats quitting the coalition. Both domestically and internationally, the Tories are willing to do their negotiations in public, and Liberal Democrats need to be willing to do that.

If Clegg won’t do it himself, then others need to be given a licence to do so. It’s the role Vince Cable’s carried out at some times, and Chris Huhne did too, but too many other party figures seem to be too tightly wedded to the policy of not rocking the boat. As we’re seeing now over policies like rights for shares, that polite acquiescence is letting dangerous and illiberal policies head towards the statute book, and the party should be willing to fight fire with fire and match the Tory strategy. Otherwise, all the public associates us with is meekly rolling over for whatever the Tories want, unable to walk at any no matter what. The public need to know what the red lines are, and Liberal Democrat silence on them gives the impression they don’t exist.

There’s little else to learn from Michael Gove, but sometimes he’s a useful example.

, , ,

Just some ragged thoughts, some on the specifics, some general ones on political speeches.

I was speaking to someone who told me that they’re sick of unsourced anecdotes being used to make points. Cameron’s infamous for this, of course – ‘I met a black man’ – but it seems everyone has always recently met someone who’ll back up the point they want to make. In some cases, it’s not even someone they claim to have met, just an unsourced straw-man view of what ‘they’ think.

[citation needed] Following on from that, how hard would it be for a clued-up party to actually release or point to the information that backed up a speech as it was being made. That would have been a useful way to deploy David Cameron’s new twitter account – as he made a point on stage, his account would post links to back up the points he was making, getting in before the fact checkers can. For instance, Cameron’s example of a company deciding to build a factory abroad because of council bureaucracy somewhere near Liverpool – who was this company? How long were the delays? Was it actually bureaucracy, or perhaps valid planning reasons that needed to be clarified before building could commence? We don’t know because there’s no data, and the anecdote will be presented as justification for all sorts of things that the facts behind it might not support.

We’re all in this together…unless you can afford to move to Geneva. As is common with Tory leaders, Cameron made an appeal to British patriotic values and nationalism. The Olympics showed what we could do if we work together as a country and other themes like that were part of his message. However, that message was completely undercut by him announcing that you can’t raise taxes on the wealthy because they’ll head off to live in Geneva and pay less tax if you do. So what’s the message here? Are we all in this together, or does that only apply to those of us who can’t leave the country and go somewhere else when things get tough? And yet again, how many people have left the country directly because of high taxation? I’m old enough to remember a whole line of Tory-supporting celebrities in the 90s promising to leave the country if Labour were elected, but none of them ever delivered on that promise, no matter how many voters they drove to Labour.

But who cares about leader’s speeches anyway? We all like to watch them and tweet about them, but how many leader’s speeches are remembered months, let alone years, after they’re made? Those that make a long term impact are pretty rare – Thatcher’s ‘the lady’s not for turning’ line and Kinnock’s assault on Militant in the 80s come to mind, but since then, what has there been? Ironically, Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘quiet man’ speech from 2003 might be the most memorable leader’s speech in years because it heralded his downfall rather than any of the ones that were seen as pivotal to someone’s leadership.

,

It’s a well-documented phenomenon in British politics that the Conservative Party Conference is where some of the oddest ideas in British politics go to get an airing. As Political Scrapbook points out, there are many made ideas getting out into the open this week, but I wanted to highlight a couple.

First up, we have Tony Baldry MP, who has clearly discovered the history of the National Liberals and seems to think it would be a good idea to resurrect them. And just as the National Liberals were eventually subsumed into the Tories, so would their new version – in exchange for Tory candidates standing down, they’d have to agree to support the Conservatives in Parliament. In other words, they’d be Tories under another banner, but this is a good idea for Baldry because he believes “The country has been trying to manage three Parties, in a House of Commons and an electoral system essentially designed for two.”

It’s nice that a Tory MP admits that our electoral system doesn’t work well when there are multiple parties competing, but his solution to that problem is somewhat odd. In effect, if the people have the temerity to have a wide range of views that need a wide range of parties to represent them, they should learn better and only expect to have two parties. If they dare to vote for multiple parties, well, those extraneous ones will have to be removed to stop people like Tony Baldry being confused. After all, how can you have an orderly Parliament when there are people there who don’t automatically vote with the Conservatives or Labour?

In other news, Ipswich MP Ben Gummer has been complaining about councillors, saying that they’re ‘mediocre people’. The fact that Ipswich was run by a Conservative-led coalition that lost seats and power to Labour may have something to do with his comments, but I wouldn’t want to ascribe all of his comments to that. No, when he starts advocating the return of the business vote and talking about the Corporation of London as a model for other local government, it’s clear that he’s motivated by other factors too, such as a contempt for democracy.

However, while it’s a silly comment being made a fringe meeting, I’ve seen other comments by Conservatives nationally decrying councils as somehow blocking prosperity – much of the thinking behind the National Planning Policy Framework is based on the principle, and Nick Boles was playing the mood music for it a couple of years ago. While the coalition has said there’ll be no local government rearrangement in this Parliament, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some form of local government reform being promised in the next Tory manifesto (probably alongside promises that it would ‘unleash growth’ and ‘promote efficiency’) with the intention being to gerrymander as much as possible into large shire county unitaries where the urban votes are drowned out by the rural ones. And if that doesn’t work, start giving people who are likely to vote Tory multiple votes and eliminate any of those pesky small parties who might confuse the issue.

, ,

Today’s seen George Osborne give his speech to the Conservative Party Conference. As you might expect, there are many things in it that concern me, but I want to highlight two of them.

First we have the heavily trailed announcement that he wants to cut another £10bn off welfare costs by introducing more cuts and restrictions on who can claim various benefits. This, of course, is before we’ve even seen the impact the first wave of cuts in Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit will have, but then when did sense ever apply to an Osborne proposal?

This proposal has obviously caused some consternation, but there has been a firm line from the Liberal Democrats against this proposal. Sure, it started with ‘party sources’ saying it was bad, but now I’ve seen quotes directly attributed to Nick Clegg saying that nothing of the sort has been agreed, and Tim Farron making a clear statement of the same point.

However, there’s been another Osborne proposal that hasn’t been shot down and I’m actually worried that this has already been agreed to by the leadership without members even being consulted. It’s the ‘rights for shares’ proposal in which you would surrender various rights (unfair dismissal, redundancy payments etc) in exchange for being given shares in the company you work for. So, if the company goes belly-up you’re left with no redundancy and a bunch of worthless shares. Or if you’re unfairly dismissed, you can’t get compensation, but you can try and find someone interested in buying shares that will give them no control over a privately traded company. You won’t get a choice in this, either – employers will be free to offer contracts based on this with no alternative, so forget the idea that your employment rights in any way belong to you and that you have a choice whether to exercise them.

Some have attempted to claim that it’s a John Lewis-style model of employee ownership, ignoring the fact that staff at John Lewis keep their rights while being the sole owners of the company. This is much more Fifty Shades Of Grey – you might have a contract, but you’re still getting screwed.

It’s illiberal nonsense, and the sort of thing the Liberal Democrats should be shooting down before it’s even left the auditorium, but I’m worried that we’re allowing it to happen. As well as the announcement at the Tory Conference, it’s on the Treasury website, alongside the logo for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (where Vince Cable is Secretary of State). That, and the mention at the bottom of the press release that the Government will be consulting on this, makes me fear that this is already well on its way to the statute book.

Have the party leadership allowed this to happen? And will they let us know, or have they traded our rights away for a few magic beans?

, ,

Earlier this week, I linked to James Graham’s piece on Clegg and the coalition, in which he mentioned my post on ending the coalition. This isn’t just incestuous blogging back-patting – James made some points about my post which I promised to think over and respond to. He wrote:

But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.

The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.

If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.

The proposition being put forward here – and James isn’t the only one to have put it forward – is that there’s a duty on the Liberal Democrats to prove that coalition government can work at a national level in the UK. If we break – or are perceived as breaking – the coalition, then we (and possibly all other small parties) will be damned for all time (or at least a few electoral cycles) by the electorate.

It’s a strong argument, and the public can have curiously long memories. Bringing down the coalition now would be a major step, and there is a strong possibility that it would poison the well for many years and that ‘coalitions don’t work in the UK’ could become part of the conventional wisdom. So, I don’t think this is a step to be taken lightly.

However, I don’t think it’s right to completely rule out ending the coalition in all but the most extreme circumstances. From my perspective – and I do have some local experience of working within one – one of the features of a coalition is an ongoing negotiation between the parties. (In the current Government, this is represented by the meetings of the Quad) The problem with the ‘we have to show that coalitions work’ argument is that it only applies to one side in the negotiations. The Tories aren’t working under that condition, which gives them an advantage in negotiations beyond the inbuilt one of being the largest party.

By saying – explicitly or implicitly – that nothing short of Cameron falling under the proverbial bus or it’s equivalent will make the Liberal Democrats walk away from the negotiating table, the party is drastically weakening its hand in any discussion. It emboldens the Tories to push further to the right, as there’s no counterforce to draw them to the centre if the Liberal Democrats have hidden their most powerful weapon in negotiations. Leaving aside my position that it should end now, I’m not saying that Clegg and Alexander should be threatening to walk out over everything, but if their counterparts don’t believe it’s possible that they will, then they’re dangerously weakened in negotiations.

Yes, there’s a significant risk of long-term damage in bringing the coalition down now, however that has to be weighed against the potential benefits that would be brought about by it ending. There is a strong argument that the Liberal Democrats need to prove a national-level coalition can work, but there’s also the counter that to make coalition work, there needs to be some desire to do so on both sides. It’s entirely right to leave a negotiation if one side is acting in bad faith – the problem then would be to explain the reasons why to the public afterwards.

,

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, but today’s announcement of the Government reshuffle has finally tipped me off the fence and into writing it. Back in June, I wrote a post questioning whether it was in the national interest for the Liberal Democrats to remain as part of the coalition government, and given what has happened since then, I’m now convinced that it’s not.

As I’ve said before, I voted for the coalition at the Special Conference in 2010 and given the circumstances at the time, it was the least worst option available to the Liberal Democrats. However, what we’re seeing now is not the coalition we were promised then, and errors made by the leaderships of both parties has contributed to the situation we’re in now.

The principal reason for the coalition coming into existence was because we were – and still are – facing a global economic crisis, and the national interest required a stable government that could take steps to deal with the economic situation. On that count – the prime mover behind the creation of the coalition – the government has failed. The British economy is at best stagnating and at worst going through the opening pangs of an overlong multiple-dip recession. The government’s plan for dealing with the problems has failed and there’s no agreement between the coalition parties over what we should do instead. Indeed, I don’t think there’s even consensus within the parties as to what to do next, and that’s not a recipe for a stable government in the national interest but for petty squabbling as the economy shrinks around them.

The reshuffle was a chance for a new direction to be put forward, for Osborne and/or Alexander to be replaced by someone with a different idea of how to get the economy moving forward that wasn’t just doubling down on the rhetoric of austerity. Instead, we’re going to get more of the same, and there’s clearly no situation in which George Osborne will be removed as Chancellor, no matter how badly the economy performs.

What’s also clear is that the Conservative Party we’re now in government with is not the same party we were promised in 2010. Remember David Cameron talking of the ‘greenest government ever’ and describing himself as a ‘liberal conservative’? Events have proven those to be in same category as Tony Blair being a pretty straight kind of guy. Now we have a coalition partner that’s talking about how the green agenda is holding the economy back and how what little that’s not been built on in the south east should become more airports for London, while the Home Office proposes taking more powers to snoop on people’s internet usage, an almost-liberal Justice Secretary is replaced by a homophobe and equalities pass from someone who worked for equal marriage to someone who’s consistently voted against equality. This is a Conservative Party that doesn’t even want to wear a figleaf of being green or liberal, and so the question has to be whether the Liberal Democrats want to spend nearly three years watering down increasingly right-wing proposals from them.

The coalition’s no longer about trying to come up with a joint policy programme, but about horse-trading and threats, and the problem is that there’s a lot more Tories in the Government than there are Liberal Democrats and they’re setting the agenda. It’s not about trying to get even vaguely liberal policies through – as the Lords reform debacle showed, the insanity of the Tory right and the shamelessness of Labour mean that won’t happen – it’s going to be about taking on Tory policies and trying to give them a veneer of normality before bending over backwards to get them through the Commons.

This is not the Coalition we signed up for, and it’s not a coalition that’s good for the country. If we’re going to work in the national interest, we have to accept that it’s time to withdraw from it and find a better way of moving forward. That may be attempting a different coalition with other parties, it may be using power over a Conservative minority government, it may be a whole new General Election to let the people have their say. As it is, this government is harming the country, and it’s time to drastically change the plan.

,

A couple of weeks ago I linked to this piece by Desmond Swayne MP, explaining a Christian perspective in favour of equal marriage.

Swayne’s back in the news today, but this time not doing anything worth praising. Instead, he’s been revealed as the chief orchestrator of idiots within Parliament. Yes, it turns out that Tory MPs are so useless, they need someone else to tell them who they should be barracking and howling at like crazed howler monkeys, otherwise they might just end up sitting quietly in the Commons and expecting people to engage in debate like adults.

But no, luckily we’ve got Swayne to give us this wondrous contribution to the history of the Mother of Parliaments:

Given the ‘shivers’ of Christine Lagarde I hope you will agree with me that it will be appropriate for Ed Milliband to be greeted when he rises for the first time (there are no tributes to-day) with vociferous demands for an apology.

“There are no tributes today” Never has a minor bit of information felt so appropriate and relevant. No tributes at all to our gallant Parliamentarians, last seen desperately racking their brains for clues as to why the public might despise them so, then forgetting that quest for answers in favour of indulging in a bit more playground banter and abuse.

Swayne, of course, proclaims himself a Christian. I wonder if he can point to any verses in the Bible that justify his emails. I can only imagine how much the Sermon on the Mount might have been improved if it had been trying to fight for people’s attention above a vast chorus of insults being traded between Romans and Christians.

,