» Politics ¦ What You Can Get Away With

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

In no particular order:

The real winners last night were Jeremy Paxman and Channel 4. Given the chance to do what he does best and forensically interview leading politicians, Paxman was at his best. Both times, it felt a shame that the interview had to come to an end when it did: Cameron’s because he was on the defensive and clearly wanted it over, Miliband’s because he’d come to life and was clearly ready for more.

Kay Burley was as terrible as you’d expect. Fawning over Cameron, then continually interjecting and interrupting when Miliband was on, she was poor as a moderator, and helped the sections with the audience feel very much like filler sections in between the two Paxman interviews.

No one won, but Miliband didn’t need to. The Tory message has been that Ed Miliband is barely capable of tying his own shoelaces while David Cameron is the strong and capable leader capable of negotiating our relationship with the EU. Neither of those look like good arguments after last night, and the danger of setting such low expectations for Miliband is that it’s very easy for him to overcome them.

‘Cameron scared of debates’ is still a story. One of the messages being repeated in a lot of the morning reporting is people asking why they couldn’t have a head to head debate, or wouldn’t it be good to see them having a head to head debate. Agreeing to some debates means people are still asking why he didn’t agree to the full set of them.

We need more in depth interviews in the campaign. The Paxman sections were the most interesting part of last night, and needed to be longer, and some of the more interesting political moments of the last few years have come in proper interviews – James O’Brien and Nigel Farage, Eddie Mair and Boris Johnson, for instance – and the campaign would benefit from a lot more of these and a lot less photo ops and press conferences. A tough, forensic interview of a senior politician, going on for half an hour or more, is a pretty rare event nowadays, and last night showed it could be much more effective than another Q&A with an audience.

Will the story of the election now be Cameron vs Miliband? Last night framed the election as two-way fight between them, and the post-debate coverage is barely mentioning the other parties. Will this framing persist and keep portraying the election as between the two big parties – and will this effect the polls? – or will the start of the campaign and next week’s seven-way debate open it all up again?

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bercowlookIf you haven’t yet heard, the Government’s hastily introduced motion to change the way the Speaker is re-elected was defeated in the Commons by 228 votes to 202 after a debate of around an hour.It was quite an extraordinary debate to watch as one watched William Hague floundering to explain why the Government had suddenly decided that this matter had to be discussed at short notice while a range of MPs from all parties stood up to query the process. When Hague looks back on his Parliamentary career, he may be tempted to pretend that it finished on Wednesday 25th March rather than today, as it really wasn’t a good note to leave on.

The most impressive speech, however, was one that was delivered with typical Parliamentary bombast or bluster and showed that great oratory can be delivered quietly to devastating effect. Charles Walker, chair of the Commons’ procedure committee, whose recommendations Hague was ostensibly proposing to the House, showed just what skullduggery had been played out behind the scenes, with people who knew what they were about to do telling him nothing of the way they were about to use him:

It does suggest that some people in Parliament have been watching too much House of Cards and decided playing silly games is more important than getting on with governing. This is likely the last Parliamentary day of Michael Gove as Chief Whip too, after managing to end the Parliamentary session by getting the Government defeated on a vote they didn’t need to force while angering many of the more influential backbenchers with the manner in which they attempted it.

What did this mean for the Liberal Democrats? Well, Tom Brake sat alongside Hague throughout the debate playing the loyal deputy (and was mentioned as one of Walker’s ‘clever men’) but the only Lib Dem MPs to speak in the debate – Duncan Hames and David Heath – were both clearly going to vote against, and another MP told me privately that the announcement of this vote came as a surprise to them, but they were allowed a free vote, as MPs usually are on procedural matters of the House. How individuals voted we’ll have to wait and see for a few hours until the results of the vote are published on Hansard.

However, one thought did occur to me – was allowing this motion to be brought today the price exacted by the Tories for allowing the ‘Yellow Budget‘ to be presented in the House last week? There were some suggestions floating around earlier that Bercow’s complaints about using the House for a purely party political announcement had angered the party leadership enough to make them want to get rid of him. Sadly, it’s all too plausible that both party leaderships would be so enamoured of their respective clever wheezes that they neglected to think how they would look to their own backbenchers, let alone the public, and so we got the mess we had today. It’s a fitting capstone to stick on the end of this Parliament.

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Yes, John Bercow and I have studied in the same department.

Yes, John Bercow and I have studied in the same department.

Like the last day of school, the last day of a Parliament is usually quite a relaxed place with plenty of time given over for retiring members to give valedictory speeches, while the last bits of business are cleared up. Given that we now have a fixed term Parliament and everyone has known for a long time when it would be prorogued, there isn’t even much of a rush to get legislation through as the Prime Minister heads to the Palace.

Which is what makes last night’s news that MPs would suddenly be asked to vote on a change to the procedures for re-electing a Speaker all the more odd. It’s quite clear that this is a surprise move and has been brought in an attempt to catch the Opposition on the hop and slip through a change without any proper consultation, discussion or debate. I can’t imagine that William Hague imagined he would end his Parliamentary career in this way, but this will be the last thing he gets to do as Leader of the House before heading into retirement.

The change would come into effect in a new Parliament, when the question of re-electing a sitting Speaker has traditionally been a simple one of asking if there are any objections and then a regular division of the House. This would replace that procedure with a secret ballot. Now, there may be arguments in favour of that change though we’re unlikely to hear them explored and scrutinised in depth during the one hour allocated for debate, but I can’t help but notice that it gives an incoming Government the power to remove a potentially troublesome Speaker with none of the ministers being seen to be voting in public for it. We know that David Cameron and other members of this Government don’t like the way the Speaker feels they should be regularly summoned before the Commons to face Urgent Questions, and now if Cameron is still Prime Minister after the election he has a way to remove John Bercow without having to cast a public vote to do so.

So, it’s a grubby move being brought in in a pretty underhand way, which is the sort of thing we’d expect from the Tories, who obviously haven’t exercised their pantomime villain muscles enough during this Parliament and felt the need to remind people at the end of it of how nasty they could be. What I don’t understand is why the Liberal Democrats are allowing this to happen – all the stories I’ve seen suggest this is a Government move with support from both parties, and no one from the Liberal Democrats has as yet popped up to distance the party from this move. Over the last few years, there have been several things the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party have voted for that you wouldn’t expect them to, so this isn’t a first but it doesn’t come with the usual excuses as to what they’re doing it. No one’s yet been wheeled out to talk about concessions achieved elsewhere in the Bill, how this is part of the Coalition Agreement if you squint hard enough or how it’s a necessary part of having a stronger economy and a fairer society. Instead, the Parliamentary Party appears to have meekly agreed to this stitch up and is hoping their acquiescence won’t be noticed.

What I can’t understand is why – what gain is there from dropping this poison pill right at the end of a Parliament? The anti-Bercow movement appears to consist solely of Tory MPs and ministers who’ve been out to get him since he became Speaker in 2009, and I’ve never heard any significant grumbling about him from Liberal Democrats. A party that believes in accountability and democracy shouldn’t be supporting underhand moves to change the rules without any notice, and a party that might be looking for friends across the House of Commons after the election shouldn’t be angering a large chunk of it right now.

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2015_predicted_winnerSToday’s shock political news is that a member of a political party has said that party will vote against the Queen’s Speech of a party it generally disagrees with should it be in a position to do so. This should be something so routine it doesn’t even need to be mentioned, but apparently because the party talking about it is the SNP, this becomes a grand constitutional matter, not an issue of regular politics in the House of Commons.

Indeed, according to the Tories, this would be “trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people” which is a bit rich coming from a party that feels it has a divine right to unfettered rule of the country despite not having received even forty percent of the vote at a general election for over two decades. That the same British people would, in these circumstances, not have given any party a majority in the Commons while returning sufficient SNP MPs to give them this power, would be completely irrelevant. For the Tories, the democratic will is only relevant if it gives them power through the random workings of our broken electoral system, and is to be ignored at all other times. We should be prepared for lots of people telling us what the democratic will of the people is over the next few months, most of which will likely not fit with what the people actually said in the election.

Of course, this is only a story because the SNP are involved as it seems that them doing almost anything that any other political party would do – including getting elected – is somehow an affront to the established order. Part of this is due to the belief that the No vote in the referendum should have reset the system back to the old status quo, and so they’re not following the script and disappearing back into obscurity, and so the SNP are seen as somehow illegitimate representatives, their MPs different to the others. The message appears to be that the establishment is very glad that Scotland decided to stay as part of the UK, but that they’re not allowed to use that membership to elect a party that will explicitly push for their interests, no matter how good its proved to be at doing that.

In this context, it appears that the “democratic will of the British people” only includes those British people who don’t vote for the SNP. The people of Scotland have chosen to remain as part of Britain, and they have just as much right to have their say as everyone else in the UK. Everyone’s democratic will gets to be expressed in the election and the Commons afterwards, not just the people who’ve voted the right way.

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Tim-Farron-007Good news everyone! Party HQ have dropped the ‘shut up and deliver leaflets’ instruction to anyone wanting to do something other than election campaigning and allowed a special dispensation. Yes, you’re now allowed to drop your laser-like focus on the election campaign and discuss a whole other topic. Unfortunately, the topic HQ appear to have chosen as the only other one suitable for discussion is ‘why Tim Farron should never be party leader’.

Or, to put it another way, Farron-hunting season is officially open, and now Vince Cable’s decided to bring a blunderbuss to it. The first salvo of attacks obviously didn’t have the desired effect of making us mere members spontaneously denounce the Farronite tendency and resolve to redouble our efforts to promote maximum loyalty to the leadership, so Vince has now scattered buckshot across the sky in an effort to bring down the dangerously popular Farron.

Ignoring his own advice that using negative tactics against someone who’s popular tends to be counter-productive and that there’s no need to talk about leadership elections because we already have a leader, he told Buzzfeed that Farron wouldn’t be ‘credible’ as leader because he’s “never been in government and has never had to make difficult decisions” which means that every Lib Dem leader before 2010 wasn’t credible, and neither were most of the members of the Cabinet Vince joined in 2010 (including himself). If ‘being in Government’ is a barrier to becoming a credible party leader, it also makes the leadership a bit of a self-perpetuating oligarchy, able to veto any new entrants by not bringing them into the Government, then claiming they don’t have the experience necessary because they’ve not been in Government.

It’s nice that they’re already rehearsing their lines for the leadership election that they’re sure isn’t going to happen, but maybe they could refrain from speaking them in public for a few weeks? Perhaps they should listen to the wisdom of a former Party President:

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And she still hasn't got her new maternity unit, either.

And she still hasn’t got her new maternity unit, either.

The two major referendums we’ve had during this Parliament – 2011’s on AV and 2014’s on Scottish independence – were both very different, but I think the after effect of both of them has been quite similar. In both cases, it was expected by many that the rejection of change would be the end of the issue for a long time, and things would go back the way they’d use to been. The issues that had led to the referendum being called would slowly fade away, and there’d be no need to consider any further change.

The result of the AV referendum was not just presented as a disaster for the Lib Dems, but also an indication that we would return to an age of two-party politics. After all, at that time Labour and the Tories were both up around 40% in the polls, and the growth in support for other parties hadn’t begun. The people had spoken, it was thought, and would now get over the idea that we could have multi-party politics in this country.

Unfortunately for that view, things haven’t proceeded in that way. The factors that led to the breakdown of old party loyalties which led to the 2010 election result that gave us the circumstances behind the AV referendum were all still in place, and a single referendum was never going to end that. The social factors that supported the old two-party system – the class-based cleavages – have been losing their power for years and that wasn’t changed by the AV campaign. Instead, what we’ve seen is a continued unravelling of party loyalties and the situation we’ve got now where reaching 35% in the polls regularly would seem like a commanding lead.

In retrospect, the most important electoral event of May 2011 is clearly the Scottish Parliament election where we had the supreme irony of a proportional electoral system delivering the single-party majority that our existing national system now seems unable to. That of course laid the ground for last year’s Scottish referendum which again was meant to settle a question for a generation or more.

Yet again, in the aftermath of the vote, the assumption was made that the issue was over and that the SNP would fade away again. That’s most clear in David Cameron’s speech the morning after, where he clearly thought the Unionist position was a lot stronger than it turned out to be. Again, the assumption was that after a referendum, the people would have spoken and the issue would be somehow resolved by this, yet the underlying issues that had led to the referendum happening hadn’t been resolved by it. If anything, the referendum result clarified them even more, and that’s led to the SNP’s rise in the national polls.

This is why referendums aren’t good ways of making decisions because they imagine that a result will ‘resolve the issue’ regardless of which way it goes. What referendum proponents neglect to understand is that they an only tackle surface factors, and because they’re concentrated on just one piece of an issue, they can never address the wider factors. Those advocating that we should have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU ‘because we’d win it, and that’d end the argument’ should be aware that recent evidence suggests it would do anything but, and could well create even more issues in its wake.

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A rare shot of the Lords, featuring no one who acquired their seat in a dodgy way.

A rare shot of the Lords, featuring no one who acquired their seat in a dodgy way.

Thanks to some fine academic work by Andrew Mell, Simon Radford and Seth Alexander Thevoz, we now have what comes as close as possible to proof that there’s a link between donating large amounts of money to political parties and finding yourself with a seat in the House of Lords. I know that this is unsurprising news to many of you, on a par with a study into the Pope’s religious habits or bear’s defecatory practices, but it’s important evidence in making the case for a better democracy.

This is one of the rare areas of politics where I find myself in total agreement with Nick Cohen, especially in just how hard it is to explain the concept of the House of Lords to someone with no knowledge of British politics, let alone the practice of it.

“You want to know why they’re there? Let me see – there are still hereditary peers in Parliament for the unimpeachable reason that a long-dead ancestor slept with Charles II. We’ve Anglican bishops with nothing better to do, party loyalists appointed by leaders who expect them to remain loyal, and plutocrats who have given hard cash to a party and ended up – with the help of a process no one is anxious to explain – sitting on their haunches in the legislature of a democracy.”

Remember that one of the outcomes of the recent revelations about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind was that they likely wouldn’t get their expected seats in the Lords when they left the Commons. Just imagine the future: an ennobled Jack Straw giving you the benefit of his opinions and making your laws forever, regardless of what we might wish. Now remember that the Lords is already littered with people like that who’ve bene utterly discredited, even sent to prison, and by letting it remain, we’re allowing our democracy to be thoroughly corrupted. Half of our Parliament is made up of legislators who have seats for life, can’t be removed by the people and gain their positions there through an opaque process where appointments are in the hands of a small group of people. It’s a perfect recipe for corruption and that corruption rots the rest of the system along with it.

There’s a lot more wrong with the British system than just the Lords, but we’re now past 100 years of trying to reform it and ending up with that traditional British fudge of a tiny symbolic reform that leaves the underlying problems in place and turns out to add even more problems as time goes by. Reform of the Lords isn’t working – the whole chamber needs to be removed and we should start again from scratch. Cut out the whole corruption and then work on sorting out the rest of the system.

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