What You Can Get Away With » Politics

This is more of a placeholder host as what happens next is very much dependent on how Scotland votes in the independence referendum on the 18th. However, I just wanted to set out some of the things I’ve been thinking in an attempt to clarify them and maybe start some discussion.

What’s clear is that whatever the result of the vote next week, there will be a change in the constitutional balance between Westminster and Edinburgh – either Scotland will be independent, or more powers will be transferred there, which all the parties campaigning for a No vote have promised. However, there’s only been a small discussion about how that will affect the rest (or the remainder, depending on the result) of the UK. What discussion there has been has normally taken the form of a few mutterings, then someone saying ‘it’s all about the West Lothian Question, isn’t it?’ and everyone nodding sagely before moving onto other things.

Whatever the status of the UK is after the 18th, England will remain the one part of the country without any significantly devolved powers and with no obvious solution in prospect. Regional assemblies were rejected, and I’m not sure that a English Parliament or any other all-England solution is going to achieve much, as it assumes that everywhere from Carlisle to Dover and Penzance to Berwick needs the same solution.

However, I think there is a demand for more powers from some areas – Cornwall, Yorkshire and the big cities have all called for them recently – and perhaps what England needs isn’t a preoccupation with finding a one-size-fits-all solution but a solution that’s based on a real localism, with areas getting the powers they want, not the powers that Whitehall decrees they should have. It also needs a willingness to look beyond existing boundaries to see where new powers would be effectively applied not where it was thought to be in the 1880s or 1974 when most of the current local government boundaries were set.

In short, what we’re probably going to need is some form of constitutional convention, but one that’s not concerned solely with how the country as a whole is run but how we can keep as much power as possible at the lower levels of the system throughout the country. I have no idea what form that would take – with or without Scotland involved in it, but that’s why I’m sending this half-formed thought out there, in the hope it might get some discussion going. So what do you think?

, , ,

David Cameron could face a leadership challenge from his own backbenches if Scotland votes in favour of independence, as Tory rebels blame him for presiding over the break-up of the Union.

The Independent understands that discussions have already taken place among Tory MPs considering standing a candidate against the Prime Minister if the Yes campaign is triumphant on 18 September.

The idea of a ‘stalking horse’ triggering a leadership challenge is widespread in British political commentary. It’s easy to see why: the idea of the brave challenger following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher or Michael Heseltine to challenge an unpopular leader, forcing a leadership election that would be a clash of the big political beasts is catnip to political commentators, enabling them to completely forget any kind of discussion about policy and talk entirely about personality and the election as a big game.

The problem with this vision is that it’s not actually possible in any party. The ‘stalking horse’ was a foible of the Conservative Party’s leadership election rules that disappeared when William Hague reformed the system after his election, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats never had a system that allowed it. The quirk in the Tory rules was that they didn’t require all potential candidates in a leadership election to be in the race from the start, but allowed them to enter at later rounds of the contest. As such, a stalking horse candidate could challenge the leader, and if they received sufficient support, other candidates could enter the race.

This was something that purely belonged to the Conservative leadership rules, and was in place because the decision was only made amongst MPs. Once parties put the leadership question to the wider membership, When an election’s a simple ballot in Westminster, it’s easy to have multiple rounds with different names, but if you’re balloting the entire membership, a set process and single ballot is a lot easier to administer.

The other reason for stalking horses disappearing is that they’re not a very good way of running leadership elections. There are two parts to the process of removing an incumbent leader: first, deciding whether you want the current leader to continue or be replaced; second, if they’re replaced, deciding who should replace them. The old Tory system conflated those two parts of the process, so that anyone wanting to remove the current leader had to vote for the stalking horse, but that vote could then make the stalking horse the leader, who the voter might like less than the current leader.Effectively, every vote has to be cast tactically, which might make for good drama but doesn’t mean they’re making the best decision on who’s going to be leader.

All the main parties now have systems that separate these two parts of the process, and none of them have a system that allows for stalking horses. So, if you hear or read a supposed political expert talking about stalking horses and leadership challenges, they’re letting on that they don’t understand the processes they’re commentating on. Someone can challenge a leader all they want but the rules now (especially for the Tories) mean they can only get them removed, not face them head to head.

(A couple of interesting books on leadership elections and structures, if you want to know more: Stark’s Choosing a Leader and Quinn’s Electing and Ejecting Party Leaders in Britain)

,

A couple of tweets I’ve seen recently on my Twitter timeline:


That’s just the most recent two, but ‘the rest of the UK should have a say about Scottish independence’ is something I’ve seen in many forms over the past few years, and will probably get said a lot more times over the next eleven days.

So, let’s pose a couple of thought experiments. In 1991, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia held referendums on whether they should declare independence and leave the USSR. All delivered clear majorities for independence, yet I suspect if the rest of the USSR had been able to vote (especially the Russian Federation) they would have said ‘let’s stay together’. Who was in the right there?

Alternatively, let’s imagine that there is a referendum in 2017 on British membership of the EU. Should that be just Britain’s decision or should the rest of the EU get to decide on if they want their Union to be broken up?

There’s plenty of discussion to be had about the role of the British government in the referendum, especially the way ‘Devo Max’ was kept off the ballot, but to start insisting that others have the power to veto someone else’s vote if they don’t like the way it’s going is to stroll down a dangerous path, and perhaps to help others prove their arguments.

,

After giving the matter no consideration and not talking it over with anyone, I’ve decided to stand for Liberal Democrat Party President.

My key priorities will be to reduce the party membership, not listen to any of those members who do remain and to do all I can to ensure that we lose as many elections as possible.

I’m proud to say that I’m definitely in favour of bad things. I’m committed to regressive values and promoting injustice wherever I can, I want fewer good things for everyone in the party and will be working hard to ensure that people lose whatever good things they have.

Actually, I lie when I say I’ll be working hard. As President, I’ll be doing as little as possible and whenever I do bother to go out and visit somewhere, I’ll make it my aim to demotivate them, stop them raising any money and help them lose whatever elections they’re fighting. I’ll be able to do this because I’ve got no experience in campaigning, have never met anyone else in the party and yet somehow know nothing of the world outside politics either.

My approach can be summed up as complete conservation, seeking to keep us doing everything exactly as it’s been done in the past with no changes whatsoever.

So, vote for me for a commitment to making no commitments, stronger fairs, economic societies and a President who really doesn’t want the job and probably wouldn’t be very good at it anyway.

Read the rest of this entry

, ,

By not simply crossing the floor at Westminster to join UKIP, but resigning and calling a by-election to do it, has he now set a precedent for any other Tory MPs who want to do the same? The last MP to do that for a defection was Bruce Douglas-Mann switching from Labour to the SDP in 1982 (and he lost), and MPs who’ve done it since then haven’t followed his example.

However, if there are any other Tories thinking of doing the same (and there probably are), they’ll be watching what happens in Clacton very intently as they know that if they want to switch, they’ll face lots of questions about why they’re not calling a by-election too. Indeed, a cynic might suggest that Carswell has found a way to establish himself as UKIP’s only MP (with the resulting media profile) should he win and if no one else wants to take the same risk.

, ,

police_electionsWe often use the phrase ‘elective dictatorship‘ to describe the British system of government, reflecting that the nature of our system means that a Government with a majority in Parliament can do pretty much as it wants until the next election. Unlike most actual dictatorships, there are constraints to that power and a Prime Minister or Government can be removed from power if enough of their party decide they want to get rid of them.

Despite ‘elective dictatorship’ not normally being regarded as a positive description, recent years have seen it being rolled out across other forms of government. Believing that ‘strong leaders’ could wield miraculous powers, the Blair government brought in elected mayors for local authorities, concentrating most executive powers for an area in an individual, and even if a council didn’t want a mayor, most of them were forced to shift to the cabinet model – and later to the ‘strong leader’ model, where council leaders would be given effectively the same powers as a mayor, whether they wanted them or not.

This was presented as making local government more ‘democratic’ and ‘accountable’, because one of the persistent myths of British politics – and part of the ‘elective dictatorship’ – is that democracy and accountability are things that only need to happen at the ballot box every few years. Democracy is seen as an act rather than a process with accountability normally being framed as requirements to consult and consider rather than any real controls on the exercise of power. In most cases, any checks on executive power are to potentially block it after it’s announced rather than amend it beforehand.

Which brings us to Police and Crime Commissioners, another classic British case of someone coming up with a solution and then looking for – or creating – a problem that they can fix. In this case, it was the supposed non-accountability of Police Authorities, where accountability had been defined as ‘being known by the public’. Members of police authorities could be removed from their position if they weren’t doing it well, because many of them were appointed directly by councils within that police force’s area. By contrast, although PCCs were elected, no one was given the power to remove them from their office, short of them committing a crime. Police and Crime Panels are required to be consulted and can occasionally block an action by a PCC, but if the PCC’s incompetence isn’t criminal, they can do nothing to remove them from power. The person whose job is supposedly to make the police accountable is so unaccountable themselves, they can’t be removed from their office (unlike just about every other executive office in British politics). That’s why we’ve got the situation we currently have in South Yorkshire, where no one can remove Shaun Wright from office, despite even his own party thinking he should go.

(I know that’s just one part of a bigger issue, and what’s happened in Rotherham is bloody appalling but I really have very little to add to that discussion beyond ‘this is terrible’ as I don’t know how to improve child protection)

The police need to be more accountable to the public they serve (especially when senior police officers think they should be demanding fundamental changes in the law) but PCCs were an ill-thought out way to try and achieve that end. Proper democracy and accountability is an ongoing process of interacting institutions, not an occasional event that grants power to someone and the ability to use it without repercussions. If we want proper accountability it takes work to enable people to hold all power accountable, not and that’s something that can’t be delivered by a gimmick.

,

Boris points out the first guilty man

Boris points out the first person to be presumed guilty

In addition to his occasional duties as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson finds the time to do a wide range of other things, including earning £250,000 a year as a columnist for the Telegraph. With all those things to do and so little time to do them in, it’s hardly surprising that Boris can’t devote his full attention to everything he does, and this time it’s the column that suffers. For it’s here that he’s not been paying proper attention to what he’s writing, and has let the affable, humorous Boris the buffoon mask slip to reveal the scary reality of the true Boris underneath.

Boris has declared, like so many other columnists and professional bloviators, that Something Must Be Done to stop terrorists and the Islamic State. Despite this situation having directly emerged from the Something That Was Done when the same people were calling for action against terrorism and Saddam Hussein a decade or so ago, we’re assured that this time, Doing Something is the only option, as long as it’s the Something that columnist has decreed is the right thing.

What does Boris want done? Oh, nothing much really, just a minor change in the law. It’d only be a tiny thing…

it is hard to press charges without evidence. The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a “rebuttable presumption” that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose.

Yes, it’s just a minor change in the law to declare that a certain class of people (that no one will accidentally be included within, of course) will from now on be treated as guilty of a crime until they can prove that they didn’t do it. Having been branded as a terrorist, and thus subject to the control orders that Boris also wants to bring back, it’ll no doubt be a simple task for them t prove their innocence, especially when many things will be kept from them in the name of ‘national security’. Of course, we’ve now got secret courts, and it’ll only take a further minor change in the law to ensure that all those we’ve declared terrorists have to go to one to prove their innocence.

And so it turns out, if there was any doubt, that Boris is just another politician ready to fall into the politician’s fallacy of something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done. Like so many politicians of the last decade or so, it turns out that the Something which Boris thinks Must Be Done to protect us against the terrorists is to give yet more powers to the state and the security services and take more powers away from the rest of us. As ever, these powers are only to be used against Bad People, but once the state has acquired the convenience of being able to declare people guilty until proven innocent of a certain crime, what do you think is more likely? That those powers would remain restricted to just one crime and one group of people (or even be allowed to wither away unused and be removed from the statute book) or gradually be applied to a wider group of alleged crimes and people, just because they’re such useful powers? How long until someone seriously proposes David Allen Green’s Something Must Be Done Bill because we can’t be too careful and Something Must Be Done?

Welcome to the future, where we’re all guilty of something and someone we’ve never met will be given the chance to prove our innocence behind closed doors. It’s OK, though, because Boris is Prime Minister and he’s got funny hair. Laugh at the funny man with his funny hair, and pay no attention to the jackboots behind the smile.

, , ,

Doctor Who returns to BBC One tonight with the first full appearance of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. It’s been noted many times that Liberal Democrats tend to be bigger fans of Doctor Whoand SF in general – than members of other parties, though to the best of my knowledge Nick Clegg hasn’t yet talked in public about his own views on the show. With that in mind, I’ve come up with five things that I think the new Doctor and his career could teach Nick Clegg:

1) What it’s like to be a professional actor

Clegg used to act at school and appears to have enjoyed the experience, but didn’t carry on this interest when he got older. Capaldi has had a thirty year career as an actor, and he could probably explain to Clegg just what it’s like, perhaps sating Clegg’s curiosity if he’s ever wondered what things would be like for him if he’d carried on acting.

2) What it’s like to win an Oscar

As someone not involved in film-making, Clegg hasn’t even been to the Academy Awards, let alone won one. Capaldi has won one for his short film Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and if Clegg hasn’t already seen or read one of the interviews with Capaldi where he talks about the experience, Capaldi could tell him what it was like.

3) How to operate the TARDIS

There are no TARDIS console props in Whitehall or Liberal Democrat HQ in Great George Street. I’m also reliably informed that Clegg doesn’t have one in his home or his constituency office in Sheffield. Capaldi, of course, has been a long time fan of the show and now he’s playing the Doctor, he’s likely to be much more knowledgeable about its operation than Clegg.

4) The qualities needed for a successful event and travel organiser

Capaldi’s just come back from promoting his new series on the Doctor Who World Tour. Clegg’s currently recruiting for a Visits and Events Officer. Capaldi could no doubt inform him of some of the things he thinks are the qualities of a person organising a successful event and travel plans.

5) How an actor might approach playing the role of Clegg in a film

Channel 4 have announced that they’re making a film about Clegg and the formation of the coalition. In his career, Capaldi has played several real people on screen including Cardinal Richelieu, King Charles I and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. He could no doubt tell Clegg what it’s like to play a real person and how he prepares for the role, but with the caveat that the actor cast as Clegg may have an entirely different process.

That’s five things Clegg could learn from Capaldi, probably over a pleasant lunch somewhere.

,

secondhand-politics-booksAs many of you are probably aware by now, I’m in the middle of doing an MA course in Politics at the University of Essex‘s Department of Government. One of the reasons I wanted to do the course is that after years of being involved in practical politics, I wanted to go back and look at the academic side of it once more, not least because there’ve been some dramatic changes in it since I finished my first degree twenty years ago.

One thing that I have discovered since returning to studying is that there’s a huge difference in the way people talk and think about politics inside and outside academia. There’s a huge amount of information, concepts and theories being propagated and discussed within academic politics that barely permeates the world of conventional politics.

To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone involved in politics needs to be forced into a lecture theatre to have the full intricacies of it explained to them in gory detail, just in case someone on the doorstep wants to engage them in a debate about the differences between Burke and Mill. However, I do feel that there are plenty of people out there who like to discuss politics in more depth – whether they’re actively involved in it or not – but are missing out because there are interesting concepts within the field that aren’t widely known outside academia.

(I have a feeling that this may be something unique to politics as a field because there’s so little overlap between academics and media ‘experts’ in the field, though I could be wrong on that. This cartoon, however, is relevant to that debate.)

Of course, some of this is because a lot of the interesting academic work is locked away behind very expensive doors. For instance, in a post last week I talked about Katz and Mair’s theory of cartel parties, and if you want to read the paper that comes from you’ll have to subscribe to Party Politics. Or, I think discussions about voting in Britain would be much more informative if people had read books like Denver, Carman and Johns Elections and Voters in Britain but it’s £24 a copy and not commonly found in non-academic libraries. However, this same barrier applies in other fields too, but the information still gets out there because there are people who will report it, summarize it and popularize it.

Unfortunately in politics – and particularly British politics – that rarely happens. Occasionally a commentator will mention academic studies, but usually in the context of a quantitative study providing support for whatever their argument is that week but there’s rarely any deeper analysis going on. (Even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions, Peter Oborne is a rare exception) Our political commentary is rarely about deeper issues or helping people understand what’s going on and why, but more about short-term Westminster village gossip.

For instance, much political commentary is based on ideas from Downs’ Economic Theory Of Democracy (particularly that the only dimension of any importance is the left-right one) without acknowledging any of the debate, critiques, revisions and additions that theory has gone through over the years. There’s a whole field of ideas out there that’s not being included in the way politics is reported and talked about, which is perhaps another symptom of why it’s becoming closed off and of rapidly lessening interest to many people.

So, what I’m wondering is, in an attempt to counter this drought of information, would people be interested in an occasional (possibly very occasional, depending on the time it takes) series of posts on different areas of academic political studies and political science? I think it’d be interesting to bring some of these ideas out to try and broaden the political debate beyond who’s in and who’s out in any particular week, and it might inspire some interesting debate. If you would be interested, let me know, and also if there are any areas you want to know more about.

I’ve decided that from now on any policy I expose on this blog or elsewhere will have to have to have gone through a ‘people test’ first. This will determine what their effects will be on people, so we can be sure these policies won’t cause any harm to people. I’m not going to make any specific definition of who these people my test will apply to are, but rest assured that I am committed to supporting people despite not coming up with this gimmick vitally important test until now.

Yes, I’ve got the idea from David Cameron’s ‘family test’ that he’s promising to subject all new policy to, without actually specifying what definition of ‘family’ he’s using. I suspect he’s not applying Conrad Russell’s subjective definition – ‘those groups are families that believe that they are’ – but I also doubt he’d have the courage to stand up and say who he does and doesn’t include in his ‘family test’. It thus becomes more meaningless political twaddle, as he might as well be proposing a ‘people test’, given that he won’t (publicly, at least) exclude anyone from his definition of ‘family’. He’s blowing the dog whistle again, hoping people won’t notice that he wants some people to think he’s happy to screw over certain parts of the population if they don’t fit his definition of ‘family’.

The question is will anyone – a journalist today, an MP at PMQs when Parliament comes back from recess – be willing to put him on the spot and ask Cameron what he defines a family as, and who is not included in his ‘family test’?

,