(First, a disclaimer: this is not a prediction of anything that might happen at the general election. I’ve got no idea what will happen in Sheffield Hallam or any other seat in May, and I’m not making any predictions about what might happen in the election, nationally or locally.)
As ever, when actually asked to explain how the systems of British politics works, and not just repeat some juicy gossip, Britain’s political columnists have come up short. They can read the constituency polls that say Nick Clegg might lost his seat at the election, but when asked to think what that might mean, they have no idea. Sometimes, it feels that having knowledge of how things work is rapidly disappearing from our media, because it’s all too complicated to have to remember facts.
What’s most frustrating about a lot of the ‘nobody knows what might happen’ is that the Liberal Democrats have twice found themselves unexpectedly leaderless in the past decade, though both of those were because of sudden resignations rather than the actions of the electorate. The procedure established by the party in these circumstances is quite clear, even if it’s not in the party’s Constitution: the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party becomes acting leader until such time as a new leader is elected by the party’s regular processes.
So, that’s perfectly clear, except for one small problem. The current deputy leader of the parliamentary party is Sir Malcolm Bruce, who’s not standing at the election, but appears to be holding on to his position until then, which means it will be vacant at the start of the next Parliament. It is important to note that while this role is often referred to as the party’s deputy leader, it is technically only deputy leader of the party in Parliament and as such is only elected by the party’s MPs.
So, if Clegg was to lose his seat in May, there’d be no one to replace him, and there’d clearly be chaos, right? Well, yes and no. Despite the party being full of many people who love nothing more than arguing over a constitutional clause for hours on end (and if you’re that sort of person, you too could become a member of English Council and do it to your heart’s content) I think all but the most stubborn would recognise that this is a case where force majeure applies.
It’s established that the Deputy Leader becomes acting leader when there’s an unexpected vacancy, and that the deputy leader is elected by the party’s MPs. While there may be an established procedure for electing a deputy leader, I can’t see anyone reasonably objecting to the remianing MPs following a very truncated process as soon as they’re able to meet, with their decision then further authorised by the party’s Federal Executive as soon as it meets. In that situation, I would expect the parliamentary party to meet as soon as possible on the Friday (the deciding factor on meeting time may be the timetable for flights from Orkney to London) and the FE to meet on Saturday morning. How urgent the process needs to be would likely be determined by the rest of the result – very rushed if it looks like the party will be taking part in coalition negotiations, somewhat more leisurely if a party has got an overall majority in the Commons.
Who might that interim leader be? I have no idea – I’m not making those sort of predictions, remember? All I know is that there is a simple way for the party to choose an interim leader if the current leader isn’t returned to Parliament, and it’d likely be a herald of some interesting political times if it had to be used.
During my time as both politician and internet pontificator, I have thought hard on the subject of elections and how to win them and thought it was time I shared my experience with the world. In the spirit of openness, I do not direct this at any leader in particular, but hope all will see it, follow it and we’ll have a better politics as a result. I have boiled down my mountains of wisdom into just five points that cover everything.
1) Promise things that I want: Your party has lots of policies. Lots and lots and lots of policies. You need to focus your appeal onto a specific area, and I suggest that should be based around things that I want. I know this might sound selfish, but my long experience of sounding off about things on the internet has told me that what I want is also wanted by the vast majority of people out there, so you won’t go wrong adopting that as your policy.
2) Campaign in ways that I approve of: I find organised Twitter hashtags, Thunderclaps and whatever else annoying. The same goes for repeated oversharing of messages on Facebook. You might have lots of evidence that suggests these things work, but I find them annoying, which means that the vast majority of people also find them annoying, so stop doing them.
3) Sack that guy: You know that person you have in an important job that I don’t like? Sack him and keep him as far away from the campaign as possible. I could give you a full detailed set of reasons as to why he’s dangerous to your electoral hopes, but it comes down to me having a visceral and irrational hatred of him and everything he stands for (as I don’t like him, I’ve decided that we must disagree on everything). Sack him, and watch your election campaign soar.
4) Make one weirdly specific promise: What you need to do to win is to promise that if you’re elected, you’ll definitely do X as the first priority when you’re in office. I know it sounds a bit weird, but I know for a fact that there are millions of people out there who want to see it happen and would definitely vote for you if your promised it. Yes, X is something I’ve gone on about repeatedly for years, but that’s only because it’s really important to so many people. Look at the dozens of people who’ve read my writing about the subject.
5) Me. Me me me me me me me. The leader who can release the power of me will win the election without a doubt. If in doubt, ask yourself what I would want and do that. Waste no time with polls or focus groups, and understand that I am the only person you need to appeal to. Follow my advice without question and you will win, because there’s no way someone on the internet’s advice can be wrong.
In short, party strategists hate me, because I can help you win this election if you follow this one weird trick.
I’ve been thinking some more about devolution recently, particularly the ‘city region’/combined authority model that seems to be all the rage at the moment. I’ve outlined before why I think this isn’t a good way of going about devolution – not least because the people have been kept as far away from any discussions about it as possible – but I want to look in a bit more detail at the implications of part of that.
One of the mantras readily uttered by proponents of this method of devolution is that ‘people don’t want more politicians’, and so there are no major democratic institutions being set up to oversee these combined authorities. However, just because there aren’t new politicians doesn’t mean that there isn’t any new bureaucracy and like the LEPs before them, combined authorities seem to be a perfect way to create a whole new level of bureaucracy without any sort of democratic oversight. It’s a clever trick, in a way. If a combined authority did come with a new layer of politicians, there might be pressure to abolish something else to make up for that, but by using the distraction of ‘no more politicians’, a lot of bureaucrats can be sneakily created.
The important thing we are told about devolution is that it will hand lots of power to these new combined authorities, so there’ll be a lot of work for people to do, lots of reports to be written, circulated, consulted on, discussed some more and then perhaps approved. The bureaucracy of the combined authority will get to interact with all the existing bureaucracies – remember, nothing’s being abolished or even rolled up into the new authority – but democratic oversight of this process is going to be weak. Control is going to be in the hand of leaders of the local authorities that make up the combined authority, all of whom are going to be quite busy running their own authorities and not scrutinising the work of the combined authority in any detail.
So, we have a situation where there are more layers of bureaucracy than ever before, but fewer ways to keep check on them. What this gives is the possibility to develop what’s effectively a local deep state – a permanent bureaucracy that effectively sets the parameters of what is and isn’t possible within the political sphere and keeps everything within that consensus. An important part of this is having multiple bureaucracies that can feed off each other and give a seemingly democratic imprimatur to anything that emerges from their processes, despite the people having been kept as far away from it as possible.
The important part of having multiple overlapping bureaucracies is that you can give a policy document the impression of having had lots of involvement in it without it having strayed outside the bureaucracy. If there’s one organisation, it’s obvious that a document has just toured the departments, but once a whole host of different organisations are seemingly involved things take on a different complexion. Suddenly, a policy takes on a life of its own, with no clear origin, but lots of people trying to push it through on multiple fronts.
The important thing to note is that there isn’t any active conspiracy here, just people doing what comes naturally when bureaucracy is left unchecked. Their job is to make policy, and in a vacuum of any real political direction, they’ll go ahead and do what seems right to them, which will normally be whatever is the current political mainstream consensus. Even if an idea starts outside the boundaries of the currently acceptable, by the time its been bounced around several different layers of bureaucracy it will have become the requisite shade of grey.
Devolution should be about giving areas the chance to claim power for themselves and do things differently, but the current proposals don’t achieve that. All they’ll do is create a series of new local bureaucracies that are tied into the same way of doing things as everyone else, with no democratic oversight or control that would be able to control the bureaucracy. Instead, we’re likely to get a bureaucratically-dominated system where any democratic involvement is going to involve little more than rubber-stamping decisions that have already emerged from the deep bureaucratic consensus.
The legions of the Decent Left are on manoeuvres again. Armchair Generals Denis MacShane and Nick Cohen have both been criticising the Government for its lack of
moral fibre foreign policy involvement. It’s pretty much Decent Left boilerplate bloviating, all assuming that what the world really needs is Britain throwing its weight around and the only people who can truly understand and advocate for this great cause are members of the Eustonite media-political complex.
What is interesting in these columns is the complete inability of both MacShane and Cohen to understand why a British government of any colour might be understandably reticent at telling the world ‘no, this is how you do foreign policy’. There’s a case sometimes for obfuscating about the effects of your previous advice, but this is simply ignoring it and pretending that the Blair years and their foreign policy never happened. (There’s no mention of ‘Iraq’ in either column, probably unsurprisingly) If you’re purporting to give advice, it’s usually best to begin by addressing the world you’re in, not the world you wish you were in. Foreign policy doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and Britain’s previous actions have an effect on its diplomatic strength.
But then, this complete ignorance of the past appears to have struck MacShane to such an effect he can’t remember important events in his own life and career, let alone military and diplomatic history. How else can you explain him writing the following with a (presumably) straight face?
Despite the UK’s excellent think-tanks on foreign policy from the venerable Chatham House to the newer European Council on Foreign Relations and Centre for European Reform fewer and fewer MPs of any party show an interest and very rarely attend foreign policy seminars and conferences.
Surely MacShane can recall very good reasons from his career why MPs might be somewhat reticent about going to foreign policy seminars and conferences? Yet again, that mistakes might have been made in the past are completely ignored, which leads to a bizarre vision of the present unhitched from any context or consequence.
So, the media offensive has been attempted, but by refusing to recognise the circumstances it’s taking place in, it’s not likely to have much chance of achieving its aims. Which, fittingly, is pretty much the same as the wars Cohen, MacShane et al advocated turned out too.
As three of my fellow Liberal Democrat bloggers (Mark Valladares, Alex Marsh and Jonathan Calder) have tackled this subject without using the most obvious of headlines for it, I decided to wait no longer and throw my tuppence of opinion in before someone else realised it was available.
Despite the headline, I think a lot of the decline in political blogging isn’t just limited to the Liberal Democrats. Sure, there’s now a smaller pool to draw from, and previously high-profile names like James Graham aren’t Liberal Democrats anymore, but to me, there don’t seem to be as many political bloggers as there used to be, or if there are they’re now much more congregated into sites with multiple authors rather than individual blogs.
There also doesn’t feel to me that there’s the same level of networking being political bloggers that there used to be. Again, this is personal perception, but I rarely see (or write) posts like this one, where they’re written as a response to something another blogger posted. Back in the Good Old Days of blogging, many posts seemed to be ‘in response to X, who was enraged by Y’s post about Z’s statement’ but now that kind of post is rare, and the self-contained post more common.
I think there are two main reasons for this change. First, there’s been a decline in blog aggregators and readers, the most notable of which to disappear was Google Reader, though I still lament the disappearance of the UK Political Blog Feeds page most of all. It feels to me that what tools of this sort that do exist generally tend to favour aggregating content from a single site or platform. WordPress will aggregate content from WordPress blogs, Blogger from its users and Tumblr from its, but people are less likely to range across platforms than they were. (For those of you who miss Google Reader, I do recommend The Old Reader, though) It’s much harder for a new blog to get noticed and find readers than it used to be, especially if you don’t have access to large number of social media contacts to promote yourself to. (One thing I have just realised – Lib Dem Voice doesn’t appear to have done a ‘welcome to the new bloggers’ post in a while)
Perhaps more importantly, though, the rise of social media has changed the way people use the web and stolen a lot of the niches that were previously only filled by blogs. Short points, sharing links and conversations are much better done on Twitter than blogs, and it’s much easier for a councillor to keep in touch with residents through a Facebook page than a blog – primarily because much more of the population use Facebook regularly than read blogs. It used to be that the answer to a lot of ‘how do I do X online?’ questions was ‘set up a blog’, but now it’s the answer to a much smaller set of questions. Even if you just want to expound your opinion on things, there are enough group blogs looking for content that you don’t need to set your own up and post regularly.
I don’t think blogging – even Liberal Democrat blogging – is dying, just evolving as the web and political ecosystems it sits within change. I would like to see more blogs and bloggers, especially from people who like discussing ideas in depth, but who knows how things might change after May?
It’s still only February, but we may have a winner in the Silliest Idea Proposed In A 2015 Political Column contest. Step forward Australian Herald-Sun columnist Tom Elliott with this:
There is a solution. Let’s agree on a set of truly important problems — mounting debt, population growth, lack of jobs, rising health care expenditure, inefficient welfare and an inadequate defence force — and appoint a committee of eminent and competent Australians to sort it out.
A benign dictatorship if you will.
This committee would consist of experts in their fields without political axes to grind. It’d need at least five years to complete its tasks during which time elected governments could administrate, but take no major decisions.
There is of course a giant paradox in the middle of this proposal in which he fails to actually consider by what sort of process people might come to agree what the ‘truly important problems’ are, or how they might go about appointing the ‘committee of eminent and competent Australians’ who’ll do something about these problems. One might suggest that this could be done by a process in which those who want the job of running the country set out their idea of what they think the problems are, how they’d solved them and then the public – perhaps through some kind of voting process – could choose between them.
(He also appears to believe that Britain suspended elections several years before WW2 began, but we’ll let that slide)
The thing of interest here isn’t that someone who imagines he wants a dictatorship can only express that in democratic forms, but rather the discontent with the notion of democracy itself. It’s the sort of thing that flares up occasionally, usually in late night talk and often couched in democratic terms like this. The thought is usually expressed not in needing a coup or anything as vulgar like that but as a desire for a strong leader who’ll cut through the crap and get things done (the same sort of arguments that are often used to advocate for elected Mayors in Britain). It’s the typical frustration at ‘the system’ that somehow blocks problems getting solved, coupled with a belief that all problems are easily solved by putting the right person in place to do it.
In short, and perhaps fitting more with the times, what’s proposed isn’t so much a coup as the installation of a new model of management. It’s perhaps a legacy of the cult of management that pervades so much of our modern experience, that the assumption isn’t regarded as completely laughable. We hear so much about how a change in management will supposedly rescue an organisation, that it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the same rules must surely apply to how the country is run – bring in some ‘experts’, and they’ll magically find the answers that no one else has been able to. (I think I’m obliged by blogging law to link to Chris Dillow at this point)
However, while this is a silly column, it doesn’t mean that it’s not revealing something interesting about the state of political discourse. It shows that we’ve reached a point in the cycle where it’s acceptable to muse on whether there may be more efficient ways to run things than democracy, which is something that often follows big economic crises (see the 1970s and 1930s for more). Just as we’ve seen European governments replaced by technocrats and overseen by troikas, the notion is that the forms of democracy can stay, but the actual distribution of power will be changed completely – or, in some views, the true distribution of power will be revealed as the deep state rises and exercises its power overtly. Just as Colin Crouch argues with his idea of ‘post-democracy’, we’re not likely to see any sudden, dramatic or violent end to democracy, more a gradual whittling away as the technocrats and the managerialists take more responsibilities away from the democrats for safe keeping. We’ll still get to vote for whoever gets to tell us the bad news, but the real decisions will be made far away from us.
Does it have to be like that? No, but I’m getting the feeling that we’re going to need to begin to properly fight that vision of the future if we’re going to prevent it coming about.