» Politics ¦ What You Can Get Away With

David Cameron’s stomping around the North today, yet again trying to persuade people that having elected mayors is a good idea.

I’ve set out before why I don’t like the current system of mayors (and their related ‘democratic’ position, Police and Crime Commissioners). In short, by concentrating power in one person and then severely restricting the ability of others to have any checks on that power, they’re effectively anti-democratic. There are good arguments for separating executive and legislative power at all levels, but democracy is about more than just voting. Most of these proposals just seem to assume that having a named individual responsible for some area of government magically makes it more accountable, without paying any attention to how that accountability takes place. As we saw with the farce over Shaun Wright, Police and Crime Commissioners are so unaccountable in practice, there was no body with the power to remove him from office.

When David Cameron and others do their pitches for elected mayors – despite the public rejecting them twice as often as they accept them – there’s a simple way to test how much they actually believe the arguments about improved accountability and democracy. Simply ask him this – should the position of Prime Minister be directly elected?

Sure, the position covers a while country rather than just a local government unit, but the principle is the same. The PM has an important role to lead and represent the country, but the people have no direct say in who gets to fill that role, so is it truly accountable and democratic? If our cities and towns will flourish more because they can directly elect their leaders, who can say how much the country would flourish if its leader was directly elected?

I’m not convinced elected mayors are some magical panacea for the problems of local government, and I strongly doubt that directly electing the Prime Minister would solve even one-tenth of the problems that it would cause. However, those that advocate directly electing more and more posts in the name of more democracy and accountability are heading towards this, even if they won’t admit it.

As I said a few weeks ago, I think there is a strong argument for looking at how we can better separate Government and Parliament, especially the question of whether ministers need to hold a seat in Parliament to do their jobs. I don’t think a directly elected Prime Minister is the answer, but then I’m not the one arguing that electing a post suddenly makes everything better.

, , , ,

vincedannySo, despite months of people consistently saying it’s a bad idea, the Liberal Democrat leadership has confirmed today that Danny Alexander will be the party’s main spokesperson on Treasury issues for the election campaign, while Vince Cable will be restricted to commenting purely on BIS matters. Some people are claiming that this is no big deal, as those are related to their Cabinet positions, while others are not very happy.

The point here is that this isn’t a case of two people doing the same jobs they’ve been doing for the last few years. This is the announcement of the party’s key election team, the ones who’ll be dragged out to do the morning press conferences and the rounds of the TV and radio studios, as well as the ones who’ll have to debate their counterparts from other parties. These are key election campaigning roles, not ministerial government ones.

Mario Cuomo’s recent death has reminded me of his old phrase about the difference between the two: ‘you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.’ You may have to make compromises if and when you get into government, but in the campaign you don’t. You show the best of yourself, put forward all your best policies and argue for them as strongly as you can.

The economy is going to be a central issue of this election, and the treasury spokespeople are likely going to be the most called-on for press appearances of all of them. The Liberal Democrats need someone in there who’s good at those sort of media appearances, not someone whose previous appearances in the media have been more reminiscent of Ben Swain from The Thick Of It than a polished and confident media performer. The job of being a party’s spokesperson – and implied candidate for that position afterwards – in an election campaign is not the same as being a minister. (If it is, those arguing for Danny Alexander should explain why Tim Farron is the chief voice on foreign affairs, another high profile role, despite having little Parliamentary experience in the area)

Regardless of the issue of how much distance and independence on economic policy the man who’s sat alongside George Osborne for almost five years can claim, an election campaign needs the party’s best given the most high=profile jobs so they can communicate the party’s policy to the media. To not give the most high-profile and frontline role on the economy to the party’s best-known and most respected voice on economics is foolish and hampers the party’s ability to campaign.

(UPDATE: I changed the title of the post, because the original one was far too long)

, ,

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.

The disciples of Tony Blair exist in a strange situation, uncommon to previous followers of former British Prime Ministers. Unlike his predecessors, Blair left office while he was still relatively young and has hovered around the edges of British politics, with his followers still clearly hoping for his glorious return. For all the fervent belief of the Thatcherites, they never seriously expected her to make a comeback, but Blair’s still younger than several 20th century Prime Ministers were when they began the job. One can envisage him and the remaining true Blairite believers awaiting that time when a nation turns its eyes back to him and begs him to return at our hour of need.

Part of this process is the occasional hagiography of the Blair era from political commentators you’d expect to know better. Andrew Rawnsley’s today’s example, yet somehow managing to omit the word ‘moral’ before ‘vacuum’ in a description of Blair’s legacy to British politics. However, it’s the usual contention that Blair had a unique ability to get people’s support that no one currently has, and was thus solely responsible for Labour’s post-97 successes.

846_bigThere’s a myth put about by the Blairites that without him, Labour would never have won the 1997 election. While he may have had some influence on the size of the majority they won, to claim Labour couldn’t have won without him is, to use the technical term, utter bollocks. Claims like this forget just how toxic the Tories had become before Blair became leader and the general sense of national mourning that followed the death of John Smith. The Private Eye cover here is just an example of that – a sense that the country had lost the inevitable next Prime Minister. The job of any Labour leader post-92 was to hold their nerve, avoid any big errors and walk into Downing Street at the end of the process. Those that claim Blair delivered this victory need to explain how any other potential Labour leader wouldn’t have managed it, rather than pointing to his good fortune at being in the right place at the right time to benefit from it.

In a historical context, his victories weren’t as impressive as the encomiums like to portray them as either. It’s always worth remembering that the largest number of votes received by a party in a UK general election was by John Major’s Conservatives in 1992 and that Blair’s landslides were symptoms of a flawed electoral system that couldn’t cope with multi-party politics rather than any ringing endorsement of him. (For example, Labour received fewer votes in 2001 than they did in 1992) His supposedly great triumphs were the result of Labour being able to take best advantage of having a plurality of an electorate whose old allegiances were breaking down, not the ringing endorsement of the masses some would have you believe.

At his peak, Blair and New Labour were more popular than any leaders and parties are now, but that’s not exactly a difficult achievement. The trend in British general elections since the 70s has been a slow decline in the vote going to the big two parties, masked by an electoral system that protects them. Tony Blair’s just another point of data on that long downhill trend, where Labour’s decline was hidden by the absolute collapse of the Conservatives. To act as those resurrecting him would bring those times back is to ignore longer-term trends in favour of some Great Man theory of history, ignoring the luck of good timing and claiming it was skill instead.

, ,

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.

, , ,

When I wrote yesterday that UKIP’s future looks to feature a big fight between its various factions, I hadn’t expected it to start in earnest until after the election. Even with a lot of underlying tensions visible in the current battles over candidate selection, I had assumed that the prospect of electoral success would paper over the cracks in the short term but Douglas Carswell appears to have decided not to wait. (That’s a Daily Mail link, just so you’re warned)

Carswell’s going over some old ground here, as it’s close to the message of his victory speech after the Clacton by-election. It’s pretty much the credo of the libertarian wing of the party (the second wave of Alex Harrowell’s three UKIPs) and it’s interesting that Carswell feels that now is the time to restate that. Amidst all the speculation about who might be UKIP#s candidate in which seat, and which seats they might win, Carswell holding Clacton appears to be something everyone is assuming. Given that relative security, is he taking the opportunity to play a longer game?

The problem for Carswell is that libertarianism is still about as popular now as it was when the first wave of libertarians started trying to ally themselves with UKIP, and I think we can safely assume – given what we’ve seen of them – that their latest wave of recruits aren’t teeming with libertarians. However, there are a number of people who want a libertarian UKIP amongst wealthy donors and the right-wing commentariat. Yet again, we’re back to the interesting effects of the UKIP leadership electoral system. To make Carswell leader, they don’t need 50% of the party to support him, just one vote more than the rest of them get. By building up his profile now and trying to drag a few more libertarians into the fold (and I think we can assume Carswell’s leadership campaign, when it happens, will be pretty well funded), he becomes a much more credible candidate. He can afford to take the time now to raise his profile, and hope it pays off when the time comes.

,

This post from Alex Harrowell on the travails of UKIP candidate selection and this post on Conservative Home about the five different types of UKIPper (itself a variation on Alex’s ‘Three UKIPs’ idea) got me thinking before Christmas, and for once those thoughts remain coherent after it.

Whether you think there are three, five, seven or ninety-five of them, it’s clear that UKIP does now have a set of factions within it, even if none of them are formally organised. That’s not unusual for a party of its size and is perhaps inevitable for a party with rapid growth and an image that’s defined more by what it’s against than what it’s for. Being anti-EU or anti-immigration doesn’t come with a coherent set of other policy preferences and so people joining UKIP are quite likely to have other opinions that spread across the political spectrum.

This isn’t something that’s unique to UKIP, of course. Most growing and developing parties, especially those resting on issues outside of the normal left-right divide, have to go through a process of determining ‘but what are we for?’ at some point within their existence. One prominent example is the debate between the ‘Realo’ and ‘Fundi’ wings of the German Greens after their first electoral breakthroughs, which was mirrored in the debate over the Green 2000 proposals in the British Greens.

At some point, UKIP is going to have to go through their version of that fight. There’s signs that it might have kicked off in a small way already with the current fights going on in the party over candidate selection for the General Election, but the party has an advantage in that it has a leader who isn’t strongly tied to any faction. In terms of party organisation, Farage’s ability to say what his audience wants to hear and to not commit too strongly to any positive policy means that all the factions, however nascent they may be, think he’s one of them.

There’s an idea put forward in the academic literature on party leadership (see Stark or Quinn, for instance) that’s relevant here – the first thing a potential party leader must be able to do to win the leadership is to be able to unify the party. While others might seem more acceptable in policy terms or electability, the key to becoming a leader is to be able to appeal to (and lead) all the sections of the party, not one.

The big question for UKIP is what happens if and when Farage decides (again) that he doesn’t want to be leader any more? Two interesting factors come into play: first, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the party who can unify them in the way Farage does, and second, the way the party elects its leaders doesn’t do anything to encourage a unifier. Where most parties use some form of preference voting in their leadership elections (even the Tories have an exhaustive ballot of MPs) to ensure the winner has to be able to get majority support, UKIP’s leadership elections are first past the post, where the winner merely needs a plurality of support. What that means is that to become UKIP leader when there’s a vacancy, you don’t need to appeal to the majority of the party. Instead, you just need to get the support of the largest minority in the party and hope that the rest of the factions remain divided. In a party where no one’s quite sure of the relative sizes and strengths of the factions, what we could see is a very vicious battle for dominance.

It actually puts Farage into a strong position, as he can use the ‘apres moi, la deluge’ argument to see off any challenges and threats to his leadership, but if he chooses to go, we may well find that UKIP can keep entertaining us in new ways.

, , ,