I’m happy to announce here the results of my latest in-depth research into a troubled group within our population. It’s been a long and detailed investigation, taking me all of several minutes to carry out, but it’s shown that this group have terrible problems with an addiction that they just can’t control. It seems that for this group the addiction is almost impossible to control, let alone kick. Every time they see something troublesome it triggers an automatic response to plunge back into an addictive response to an extent it’s almost instinctive rather than conscious, and my research shows that this addiction is widespread, possible even endemic within the studied population.

Tragically, a large percentage of our politicians are addicted to knee-jerk reactions. For some it may have started as a simple pleasure, perhaps even a small fetish, carried out in the privacy of their own home, or occasionally shared with friends over a drink. I’m not going to judge them for this addiction – who among us hasn’t succumbed to that occasional temptation to demand that Something Must Be Done, usually with its accompanying belief that the Something we’ve just thought of is the thing that Must Be Done? But most people keep that to themselves, or just share it amongst friends, we don’t go on to display our full knee-jerking tendencies to the entire nation.

I want to tell you the story of Sajid. Like many politicians, Sajid is an occasional knee-jerker, but he normally keeps himself under control and doesn’t blurt out too many policy proposals. He’s very good at his job, and has recently been given an important promotion (with many predicting even more in his future) in which he’s responsible for dealing with the internet. Unfortunately, Sajid’s addiction to knee-jerking makes him forget everything he knows about the internet as he hastily comes up with a policy in response to a press release. The thrill of that momentary rush he gets from a jerking knee and the instant policy buzz it provides overwhelms all his common sense and basic knowledge. Everything – even basic questions like ‘how can the UK Government impose regulations on sites based overseas without widespread filtering and regulation of UK ISPs and users?’ – is ignored, in favour of experiencing another brief patellic spasm of muscular pleasure.

To propose a solution to knee-jerk addiction here would be a foolish task, and merely surrendering to my own desires to have an opinion on anything. We must instead take our time and consider every option and every angle to this problem before tentatively proposing a solution that will likely still require some amendment and will not solve the problem instantly. Until then, all we can do is watch our politicians carefully for whenever they show the signs of public knee-jerking, and respond to them with mockery, which experience has shown is the best way to counter the symptoms of the addiction, if not the root causes.

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Celebrity candidates

Scenes like this will not be seen in the House of Commons.

Scenes like this will not be seen in the House of Commons.

The news that Frank Lampard has apparently turned down the chance to be Conservative candidate for Kensington is perhaps unsurprising given that I’ve never heard of him expressing a political view before, and City Football Group will pay him much more to not play for somebody than he’ll ever earn as an MP. (One does wonder if he was only mentioned because he has so much in common with the seat, as both have cut all ties with Chelsea)

Those who still wish to see Parliament filled with sportsmen who’ve never expressed political views before could still be in luck as Andrew Strauss, James Cracknell and Sol Campbell have all been linked with the seat. I wonder just what it is that attracts the Tories to wealthy celebrities?

It’s curious, though, that it’s these sporting celebrities who are linked with careers in politics, not those who’ve spent much of their sporting careers campaigning, and are now retired, so would likely have the time if someone approached them. The two I’m thinking of were known throughout their careers for speaking up even in the face of ostracism, and have led global campaigns for equality in sport. They managed this while training hard with little financial support and winning World and Olympic titles, one of them even managing to complete a PhD during their career, showing the sort of dedication, campaigning experience and wide range of knowledge one would want in a politician.

So, has anyone ever approached Nicole Cooke or Emma Pooley about the prospect of using all their skills in a political career?

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An opportunity for everyone to use the same slogan

We should be glad that having decided to emphasise something other than ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’, the Liberal Democrat message of ‘opportunity for everyone’ is something clear and distinct that no other leader would ever use…
blairopportunity

John-Major-GQ-17Feb15_pa_b_813x494

(Blair headline here, Major picture from here)

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Two snippets of Tory silliness

A couple of things that caught my eye yesterday.

First, apparently Prime Minister’s Questions was yet again dominated by grown men flinging insults at each other, rather than actually discussing any issues. (I’ve long thought that the most transgressive thing you could do there is to ask an actual question) It was capped by David Cameron making a huge deal out of Ed Balls forgetting someone’s surname, because no other human being in history has ever had a minor memory failure in a public situation.

After all, it’s not like the Prime Minister once managed to forget the existence of his own daughter, is it?

Meanwhile on Twitter, everyone’s favourite answer to ‘who’ll be the next Tory to join UKIP?’ was marking a little bit of history:


Except that, a cursory glance at the document, or indeed a basic knowledge of British political history would have told him that anniversary wasn’t actually until next week. Yesterday was merely the anniversary of the first round of that election, not the second round in which she was actually elected.

Of course this doesn’t matter, because Hannan’s not in a role where his basic job relies on him being able to understand what official documents say before commenting on them. You or I might think that’s exactly a member of a Parliament might be for, but Hannah’s clearly transcended that.

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What would it take to have a Tory-Labour coalition government?

It seems that the prospect of some kind of grand coalition is the bad idea that will not die of the moment, probably given an extra burst of unlife by the election campaign having started yesterday despite no one wanting it to. There’s more of a link than just that coincidence, too, as both are pretty much just obsessions of the Westminster bubble right now, with no real relevance to anyone outside it.

As I said in my post at the weekend, I don’t think a Tory-Labour government is likely after the next election, or indeed any election unless there’s some crisis driving it. (This, of course, is assuming we have the same electoral and party system as we do now – when that’s changed, as it has in Scotland, it’s much more likely to happen)

The sort of crisis it would take wouldn’t be just a single election that doesn’t deliver a clear majority or an obvious coalition of one big party and one small party. In that circumstance, I believe we would end up with a minority government that would attempt to survive by numerous deals with other parties. It probably wouldn’t last too long (though never underestimate the power of party discipline) but would be much more preferable to Labour or the Tories than a coalition with their ancient enemy.

What there’d also be in the run-up to the following election (be it six months or a year away) would be massive pressure from the media to the public on the lines of ‘you’ve had your fun, now make a proper decision this time’. The hope would be to end any incipient crisis (or at least kick it a few years down the road) by getting a majority government (or at least a workable coalition) from a second election. However, if that didn’t happen, we’d be into a political crisis, and I could imagine that you would then get a grand coalition of some sort. It might not last a full term, but I suspect it would come in to try and deliver some changes to the system to deliver stable government in future. (In other words, electoral reform that benefits large parties, not small ones)

The other option would be if there was some international crisis (economic and/or geopolitical) that prompted the need for some form of national unity government. That’s what prompted national governments in the UK in the past, but there don’t seem to be any of sufficient scale on the horizon to justify a national government. There’s my hostage to fortune, so come May when we’re facing Putin’s invasion or the complete collapse of the European economy triggered by a Syriza-led government in Greece, feel free to mock me for it.

There have been occasions since WW2 when circumstances could have led to Britain having another national government but luck and electoral timing appear to have spared us from it. For instance, if the second election of 1974 hadn’t delivered a majority and certain allegations about Jeremy Thorpe had come out, a national government might have been the only solution. (And there have always been dark rumours about things happening behind the scenes to make this happen)

Another more recent potential might have been if Gordon Brown had gone for an election in late 2007, and then found himself facing the full blast of the global financial crisis with little or no Parliamentary majority. Pressure to at least find some way to bring the Opposition closer to Government could have been immense, and who knows where we might have ended up?

The British system has been very good for years at dodging full-on crises, and it most likely will again, but it takes a major crisis to provoke a response that’s wildly beyond the norm and I don’t think one inconclusive election will be enough to make it happen.

Having realised that the long weekend after New Year is a very boring time for much of its target audience, the Guardian has decided to liven things up. All news websites now use clickbait headlines and articles to drag in readers looking to be offended by something wilfully controversial, and the Guardian is no different. Sure, it likes to pretend to be above that, and it doesn’t employ any of the Jan Moirs, Richard Littlejohns or Jeremy Clarksons who are masters of the clickbait article, but this piece by Ian Birrell is clearly intended as pure clickbait. (And from the number of people I’ve seen linking to it, very successful clickbait it is too)

Like all clickbait it begins with a catchy headline that will already be getting many of its readers angry at the implications – proposing a Tory-Labour grand coalition is a sure way of angering members of both parties – and then spends a few hundred words trying to justify the headline, hopefully stoking the flames of outrage. People then discuss their outrage on social media – complete with links to the article to help others get outraged – and the website editors sit back and smile as they watch the clicks roll in.

And like so much clickbait, the ideas it’s putting forward don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Unity governments of the sort Birrell proposes aren’t just rare in British politics, they’re rare in almost all countries. Yes, Germany has had two recently, but Germany’s a special case where not only the electoral mathematics and party positions forced it, but there’s also a strong aversion to minority governments (from what I can tell, they’re incredibly uncommon even at the state level) and Angela Merkel remains strikingly popular.

In Britain, by contrast, there isn’t a prescription against minority government – one of the arguments for the coalition within the Liberal Democrats was the alternative was a Conservative minority government – and national governments have only arisen in response to crises, not election results. There’s no Merkel-esque figure in British politics for a national government to form around, and the costs to the parties of agreeing it would be immense.

The mathematics might make a Tory-Labour coalition possible (as they did in 2010) but that’s about the only thing that does. For it to come about, it would have to be the least worst of all the options available to both parties after the election and short of some unforeseen international crisis erupting before then, I don’t see the circumstances in which that could happen. If various combinations of nationalist parties hold enough seats to make a coalition with the Liberal Democrats unworkable for either party, I’m still sure that whichever is the larger would find running a minority government much more appealing than a grand coalition. Why collaborate with the enemy when you have a realistic prospect of working without them?

It also forgets the level of animosity that exists between Labour and the Conservatives. As far as I’m aware, there’s only been one case recently of the two forming a coalition in local government (in Stockton-on-Tees a few years ago) and that was in some rather odd circumstances. Birrell might believe that replacing Miliband with Chuka Umunna would solve all those problems, but I’m not aware that Umunna was educated at Hogwarts to have the magical powers needed to make the majority of the Labour Party think it’s OK. Similarly, the idea that the Tory Party are so desperate to remain in power that this wouldn’t be Nigel Farage’s greatest ever recruitment tool requires forgetting decades of political history.

I’m expecting the next election to create a very interesting result, and for there to be some interesting times after it, but in the absence of a major crisis, a Tory-Labour coalition will not be part of those interesting times.

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A Tory win in Rochester and Strood could be a Pyrrhic victory

The Tories have clearly decided that they have to win the Rochester and Strood by-election, and are willing to throw everything they have at ensuring they get their victory. As happened with Newark, they’ve told all MPs they have to pay a number of visits to the constituency, and David Cameron may well go there for five campaign trips. (Another sign of my advancing age is that I can remember when Tony Blair’s one visit to the 1997 Uxbridge by-election was regarded as a major change in protocol for a Prime Minister)

Throwing the kitchen sink at trying to hold a seat in a by-election from UKIP isn’t a rare event any more, but some of the news that’s coming out is making me wonder if the Tories are so focused on the short-term gain of holding the seat, they’re not seeing the potential damage they’re doing in the long run.

First up, there are already rumours floating around that someone is doing push-polling that’s attacking Tory MP turned UKIP candidate Mark Reckless. (‘Push-polling’ is a practice common in US elections where negative messages about a candidate are spread by means of purported phone polling) Whether this is happening or not, the idea that it is has caught traction amongst UKIP supporters, as I discovered when I mentioned it on Twitter on Sunday. Now, there may well be nothing in these rumours, but they fit in with the mindset and narrative of UKIP supporters that they’ve got ‘the establishment’ frightened, and the only way it can stop them is to fight dirty.

As part of the Tory campaign to hold Rochester and turn back UKIP, they’ve used an open primary to select their candidate, giving everyone in the constituency a postal vote to choose between the final two contenders on the Tory shortlist. As you might expect, mailing every voter in a constituency (and paying for their freepost return envelopes) costs a lot of money. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, as Tories tend to have (or be able to get) a lot of money and election spending limits don’t usually apply to candidate selection. However, that might not be the case in Rochester. As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reports here, the Tories are working under advice from the Electoral Commission that this spending doesn’t count towards the £100,000 spending limit for the by-election, but other lawyers aren’t so sure that’s the case. As Crick points out, this raises the prospect of the Tories winning the by-election, but then having that victory invalidated in an election court. Given the time it would take for a complaint to be filed and an election court to sit, it’s unlikely there’d have to be a second by-election before the General Election, but I don’t think that’s the important point.

The key about the push-polling story isn’t whether or not it’s happening, it’s that it feeds into the existing UKIP narrative. We’ve all seen the way they rant about ‘the LibLabCon’ and complain about how they’re excluded by the metropolitan elite consensus. Now, I’m quite sure that the regular media commentators would probably dismiss a challenge in an election court as just some arcane quibbling over the rules, but imagine how that story would play out amongst UKIP members and supporters? Cries of ‘they had to break the law to beat us!’ and ‘we played by the rules, they didn’t!’ would be rife amongst them and what’s more, it would feed into the narrative they give to their voters. We’re proper hard-working people who believe in doing the right thing and playing by the rules, but those politicians up in Westminster don’t think the laws should apply to them. They broke the law to stop us winning in Rochester, what makes you think they’re going to listen to you? and so on. As with Matthew Parris’s comments on Clacton, media commentators dismissing any legal challenge would be portrayed as out of touch and ignoring the concerns of the ‘real people’. It’s the perfect way for UKIP to show that they’re the victims of an Establishment stitch-up. It might not appear that way amongst the commentariat, but it would play well on the social media grapevine.

For their sake, I hope the Tories aren’t just relying on the Electoral Commission’s advice that their spending on the primary doesn’t count towards the by-election, and have taken some other legal advice. If they win in Rochester and Strood, they need to do it fairly and be above challenge, otherwise the short-term anti-UKIP firewall it creates could be buried beneath the greater costs they’ll pay for winning it.

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