Straight talking. Honest politics. Terrible negotiation skills.

Let’s assume that you’re looking to buy a car. You go to a car dealer who has a variety of cars available, some of which have the features you want, some of which don’t, some of which are in your price range, some of which aren’t. So, you’re negotiating with the dealer, trying to get the best package at the best price and then you blurt out ‘of course, I have to buy a car today, and you’re the only dealer open’. Now, do you think the dealer is going to offer you a better deal before or after you tell them that piece of information?

That scenario comes to mind when reading about John McDonnell’s pledge that “Labour will not seek to block or delay” Article 50 in Parliament. Labour are effectively walking into this process having told the Government that they don’t need to prepare any concessions to the Opposition in order to get Article 50 invoked, and have also let the Government know that they don’t even need to listen to their own rebels because there’s no way that Labour will be giving them any support in votes.

Leaving aside the issues of whether Labour should be for or against Brexit, this is just a bad tactical move from the party that’s supposed to be forming the official Opposition. They’re facing a Givernment party that’s got quite noticeable splits, but are throwing away the chance to make those splits mean anything. Proper Opposition (like Labour managed under Blair in the 90s) would capitalise on this to make the Government fight for every vote, esoecially on the most important issue facing the nation. This pre-capitulation just lets the Government off the hook. In the same way that Clegg weakened the Lib Dem negotiating position in the Coalition by refusing to countenance ending it or IDS made Blair’s Parliamentary life easy by backing him over Iraq, this is an Opposition willingly throwing away its chance of influence and power.

Oddly, just as those on the left who backed leaving the EU are realising that they were sold a lemon, McDonnell and Corbyn seem to be leaping onto the rapidly emptying Lexit bandwagon, talking of a ‘People’s Brexit’ and how staying in the EU supports ‘big business’. It might be the position they’ve had all along, but it feels like the worst possible time to be announcing it.

Let’s make satirising Parliament legal

Nothing amusing has ever happened here.
Nothing amusing has ever happened here.
Until 1771, people weren’t allowed to publish detailed reports of what went on in Parliament. Only Hansard, the official record, was allowed to give verbatim coverage of what had been said by representatives. This restriction was lifted, and over time we’ve been given more and more access to the inner workings of the supposed centrepiece of our democratic system culminating in both radio and television eventually getting the right to broadcast the proceedings of Parliament.

Well, most radio and television. You see, there’s a provision in the rules on broadcasting Parliament in the UK that “no extracts from Parliamentary proceedings may be used in comedy shows or other light entertainment such as political satire.” You may have wondered that while American shows such as The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight often use speeches from Congress as part of their reporting, we never get to see Parliament in Have I Got News For You, Screenwipe or The Last Leg and that rule is why.

Unsurprisingly, it seems that the Government has no desire to change this state of affairs, but there is now a power for us to get them to do something about it. Parliament’s petitions site means that if we can get 10,000 people to sign a petition on a subject, the Government has to make a statement on it, and if we can get 100,000 signatures, Parliament will debate the issue.

Wouldn’t it be good to get Parliament to debate whether it should be like everything else in our society and be open to comedy and satire? That’s why I tried to set up a petition on the Parliamentary petitions site to get it overturned. Unfortunately, my petition was rejected, but only because someone else had had the idea first and set one up before me. So click here to go and sign it, then share it around. Let’s see our MPs try and justify why they shouldn’t be open to satire.

The House of Lords needs to go, but it still has a job to do while it’s here

eyelordsThat image is from the latest Private Eye, but it’s echoing something that’s been all over the right wing of the internet in the last few days, as a harrumph of commentators and keyboard warriors have declared themselves to be shocked beyond all measure that members of the House of Lords have voted against the Government. Suddenly, people who not so long ago were defending the hereditary principle in Lords appointments are now solemnly proclaiming that members of the Lords daring to have opinions is the gravest of constitutional crises. Peak silliness comes in this article by William Hague in which he presents himself as some great scholar of the British constitution while completely forgetting that he was Tory leader at the time Lord Strathclyde declared convention dead and claimed the right for the Lords to vote down statutory instruments.

(On an aside, it’s interesting how rarely countries that actually have written constitutions tend to have constitutional crises, compared to how often they’re threatened in Britain…)

The other common theme in this week’s torrent of bloviation – and features in both Private Eye and Hague’s column – is the implication that there’s something especially illegitimate about Liberal Democrat lords daring to have opinions counter to the government’s. (For all the resistance some people have to electing the Lords, the zeal they occasionally show for the representatives in there to reflect the results of an election is odd) What gets neglected in this – and in the Eye’s quote especially – is any mention of what happened in 2012. There’s a reason Farron’s quote comes from then: it’s because that’s when the Liberal Democrats in government were trying to reform the House of Lords to make it elected. However, thanks to the mutual ambivalence of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the House of Lords Reform Bill died in the Commons. If Cameron and the Conservatives had shown the same desire for Lords reform then as they do now, we probably wouldn’t be facing the situation we’re in now.

To be frank, I think there are too many Liberal Democrat Lords in Parliament. There are also too many Tory, Labour, UKIP, Green, Plaid Cymru, UUP, DUP and crossbench Lords as well because in my view, any number of unelected Lords sitting in Parliament greater than zero is wrong. That’s why I don’t want to reform the Lords, I want to abolish it and replace it with a much better upper house/Senate. As far as I’m aware, that view – or variations on it to similar ends – is held by most members of the Liberal Democrats.

So yes, Liberal Democrats want to see the House of Lords reformed or replaced, and will happily work with others to make that happen if they want it. However, we’ve been waiting a hundred years or more to see that elected upper house come about and while abstentionism may work as a tactic for some, most conventional political parties seek to work within the systems as they are currently constituted, with most people understanding that working within a system doesn’t mean that you can’t also seek to change that system. All governments need to be challenged and scrutinised, and while the House of Lords might not be the best way of achieving that, it’s what exists within the system at present.

At the moment, the Conservative complaints are sounding very much like ‘we were promised an elective dictatorship, how dare you try and stop us!’ and the Strathclyde review (with irony not yet being dead, the man who declared the convention on statutory instruments dead is the natural choice to lead it) appears to be designed to try and strip away some more of what few brakes on executive authority there are in the current system. I want to see a system where we have two elected chambers in Parliament that are both capable of holding the Government to account in different ways, but until such time as we get to that point, there’s no nobility in refusing to act because the current system isn’t perfect.

“Independent-minded” Will Quince watch: Tampon Tax

Another week in Parliament which means another week where our “independent-minded” MP has steadfastly agreed with whatever the whips tell him to do. This included Monday’s vote on the “Tampon Tax” (removing VAT from women’s sanitary products), but he’s provided a detailed explanation as to why he didn’t vote for it (original Facebook post here).

It’s a long post that meanders around making digs at the EU, claims that the content of the motion wasn’t deliverable and praise for the minister involved, and it all sounds like a reasoned and well-meaning way to explain his vote, until you look at the actual motion he voted against. It reads:

“(1) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a statement on his strategy to negotiate with the European Union institutions an exemption from value added tax for women’s sanitary protection products.

(2) A Minister of the Crown must lay before Parliament a report on progress at achieving an exemption from value added tax for women’s sanitary protection products within European Union law by 1 April 2016.”

That’s it (you can see it here). It doesn’t mandate any actual change in Britain’s laws, but merely asks that the Chancellor explain his strategy for negotiating an exemption and for a minister to make a statement on it sometime in the next six months. So, when Quince writes:

However, this amendment was not deliverable. Parliament cannot make the change on its own. We need all EU states to agree to this change. Why vote for something that is non-deliverable? I think it diminishes respect for Parliamentary votes.

He’s either misunderstood or is misrepresenting the content of the motion he voted against. The motion doesn’t ask Parliament to make the change, it merely requests that the Chancellor include the issue in his negotiations with the EU and report back to Parliament on how that negotiation is progressing. He then tells us:

In responding to the amendment, the Finance Minister (David Gauke MP) made it clear to the House of Commons that he would be taking this issue to the European Commission and other member states to make the case for zero rating. When we have the same goal, why tie the hands of our Ministers and restrict their ability to achieve what we are all aiming for?

He doesn’t bother to explain how the motion would have tied the hands of any ministers, unless he believes that the basic level of accountability involved in telling Parliament how things are going is a hugely onerous burden. Indeed, if the Minister really is sincere in saying that he’ll be making the case, why were the Government whipping their MPs to vote against this motion which merely asks them to do what they’re already doing?

Where's Will this week?
Where’s Will this week?
It seems our MP has yet again forgotten that being “independent-minded” doesn’t mean anything unless you’re prepared to act on it, not do as you’re told then try to explain you way out of it when you’re called on it. But he got to be on TV behind David Cameron again this week, so I’m sure he’s happy.

Replacing the Lords with an elected Senate – how I’d do it

House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneAs madcap, back-of-an-envelope schemes to reform the Lords are all the rage right now, I thought I’d use the opportunity to set out how I’d reform it. I may have done that before on this blog, but why not set it out once more just because I can.

Quite simply, I’d get rid of it and replace it with a Senate. This new Senate would have around 300 members, each elected to a single 12-year term and then barred from seeking re-election to it. 100 members would be elected every four years, giving us a chamber that’s constantly being renewed but still possesses experience. Elections would be conducted by STV in constituencies based on nations, regions or counties that would elect at least three members at each election. STV and constituencies that size would hopefully encourage a wider range of representation and people being elected as individuals, rather than from a party list.

(There’d be 100 new senators elected at the first election, with 200 of the existing Lords making up the balance of the chamber, with 100 of them stepping down after the second wave of Senate elections and the final 100 being replaced after the third completed the first Senate election cycle. How those remaining Lords are selected is something parties and Lords can agree amongst themselves – existing Lords would also be eligible to stand for election to the Senate.)

The Senate itself would keep the current Lords role of scrutinising the Government and revising legislation, but I’d also like to see it take up the role of long-term reviews of different subjects, structured to take the four years between elections. Subjects for reviews would be chosen when the new senators arrive, with detailed reports and conclusions given at the end of a proper process of investigation, review and deliberation.

One complaint about moving to an all-elected upper house is the supposed loss of expertise caused by removing the crossbench peers. I have some sympathy for this view, but I also don’t think there’s such a thing as a general purpose expert. We have far too many examples of people who are experts in one field making a fool of themselves when they venture into others (we could call it the Dawkins Effect, perhaps) to think that appointing someone to have a view on everything because they’re experts at one thing is a good idea.

That said, I do think there is a role for bringing in experts on specific subjects to improve the quality of debate and scrutiny. I would propose that every committee and long-term review of the Senate would have the power to co-opt a number of expert members. These would be full members of the committees or reviews of which they’re part, with the same rights as any other member within that committee but they would not be full members of the Senate itself. I would suggest that they have the full rights to speak and participate in the debates of the main chamber but without any voting rights there. I’d suggest that they would be appointed to four-year terms, with consideration needing to be given as to whether they could be reappointed after that, and if they’d then be eligible to stand for election to the Senate as a full member if they wish.

The way I see it, we do need a second chamber in Parliament but that chamber needs to have a defined role, be clearly a secondary chamber but also have the legitimacy of being elected. I think this proposal achieves that, which means the likelihood of it ever coming to pass is slim.

Will Quince: Is our MP at all “independent-minded”?

Back during the General Election our then Conservative candidate said this to the local paper:

Which of your parties specific policies do you LEAST agree with?
Will Quince (CONSERVATIVE): “I PLEDGE to be an independent-minded MP and will always put my constituents first. If that means voting against my party, then so be it. There will always be difficult decisions to take but I will never forget that the people of Colchester are my boss.”

As I noted at the time, this was a prime example of not actually answering the question. Rather than actually mentioning Tory policies he disagrees with (of which I’m not convinced there are any), there’s instead a pledge without substance to be ‘independent-minded’.

Maybe I’m being harsh to him. Maybe he has actually been voting against the Tory whip in support of his constituents. After all, he does say they are his boss. So when 5,000 families in Colchester (a higher number than anywhere else in Essex) will be affected by George Osborne’s cut in tax credits, what did our ‘independent-minded’ MP do to support them? Obviously, he put his constituents first and…voted for them.

That was just the first vote on them, though. He had another chance yesterday to show how much this will affect his constituents by backing a vote to reverse that decision. Surely our ‘independent-minded’ MP would use this chance to stand up for the 9,100 children in Colchester families who’d be affected by these cuts? You’d think so…but he voted against the motion to reverse the cuts.

Maybe his fiercely independent mind has led him to believe that tax credit cuts are a good idea, no matter how much it will affect people in Colchester? Perhaps his voting record will show this was a rare outbreak of loyalty to the Government? Let’s check his voting record which shows that our ‘independent-minded’ MP has voted against the Governmnent a precise total of 0 times. The most commonly used word on that page is ‘loyal’ and ‘rebel’ is not to be seen at all.

quincecommonsIt’s even more obvious now than it was in April that calling himself ‘independent-minded’ while refusing to identify a single area in which he disagrees with his party was a piece of misdirection. Far from showing any independence, his voting record reveals that he’s just lobby fodder for the whips, doing as he’s told and nodding through whatever they want, regardless of what might be good or bad for his constituents. Still, he gets to sit behind David Cameron and nod enthusiastically sometimes, so what does he care?

Labour need to learn the Parliamentary lessons of the 90s

He looked totally in control once.
He looked totally in control once.
One defining feature of Parliament for the last eighteen years has been the size of the Government’s majority: the massive majorities of Tony Blair’s first two terms followed by the smaller, but still easily workable, majorities of Labour’s third term and the coalition.

This Government, by contrast, has a majority of just 12. In theory, that should make everything much more difficult for it. As Alex Harrowell has pointed out, getting anything through in that situation requires a much more different style of whipping than anything we’ve seen since 1997. When your majority is decently sized, you don’t have to worry too much about little groups of rebels or more mundanely if one of your MPs spends too long at a reception and doesn’t make a vote. Your majority can soak up hundreds of little blows like that, and it can even be good party management to allow people to blow off steam by rebelling.

With a majority that’s only just above single figures, you’re in a different game altogether. Half a dozen organised rebels can sink an entire bill and suddenly the whips’ office finds itself having to keep track of three hundred MPs, making sure that ministers don’t get sent too far from Parliament when a big vote is looming, while making sure that backbenchers are staying in the precincts of Westminster instead of getting home for an early night. One of the most important parts of the Major Government was the work his Chief Whips (Richard Ryder and Alastair Goodlad) and their teams had to do to keep everything going.

Even with a strong whipping operation that does get things through in close votes, the narrative changes. At the moment, the Tories are trying to present themselves as a hegemonic force in British politics, pushing through a series of controversial changes to not just change the law but to frame the discussion around them in their terms. They’re not acting like a party with just 37% of the vote and a slender majority in Parliament, and when Labour sit on their hands (like they did on last night’s welfare reform vote) that framing is allowed to go unchallenged. What should be a story of how the Government could only just get its proposals passed instead becomes one of Opposition disarray.

Given the general willingness of Tory MPs to be lobby fodder, the Government isn’t going to be damaged by a single close vote or even a defeat, but its ability to define the terms of political conversation can be progressively undermined by consistent Parliamentary opposition. John Major – who started with a larger majority than this – was made to look weak not by a single vote, but by a long series of narrow victories and constant stories of emboldened Tory rebels having to be bought off with concessions to get anything through Parliament. The story stopped being about ‘the Government is going to do X’ but instead became ‘what concessions will the Government have to give to get something vaguely resembling X through Parliament?’

In a situation like this, the prime task of the Opposition – and this applies to all the parties within it, not just Labour – is to create that pressure on the Government so it has to fight to get every vote through. (And even if it does get through the Commons, the Lords offers another tough challenge given its current makeup) There are faultlines in the Tories on just about every issue they want to push through Parliament, and if their whips have to start looking at every bill knowing there are 300 votes against them on it, things start getting tough both for the whips and for the backbench MPs who find themselves continually listening out for the division bell knowing that missing just one vote will give them a big black mark on their record.

The Tories are nowhere near as dominant as they’re pretending to be. Concerted pressure from the Opposition parties working together can both show that and thwart Tory attempts to define the political narrative.

The Lib Dems should be radical in any appointments to the Lords

House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneMark Pack has news of a call for any Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords to be used to bring more diversity to the Upper House.

However, I’m reminded of a suggestion I made a couple of years ago, and want to develop that further. What we should do as a party is quite simple: announce that we’re only appointing women to be Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords until we have parity in our group there. Obviously, I’d like to see the Lords abolished and replaced, but until such time (at least five years, as things stand) as that happens we should be taking steps to make our representation within there as representative.

I’d also suggest something else: our selected representatives should be people who’ve never been in Parliament before. Too much of the House of Lords consists of what’s little more than a comfy retirement home for ex-MPs (including those rejected by the electorate) and we should be casting our net much wider if we want to create a radical and diverse group in the Lords. Just putting more former MPs in there doesn’t do anything to promote a wider range of voices in the Lords, and we should be taking what few opportunities we have to do things differently.

Solving the problems of the House of Lords and political party funding at the same time

For just £50, you too could sit on these benches.
For just £50, you too could sit on these benches.
So, the last time I wrote about the House of Lords, it didn’t spark a widespread movement to abolish it, and from the look of this year’s election manifestos, there’ll be no attempt to do so over the next few years.

Which means it’s time for me to come up with a new idea, and I think this is a good one because it provides us with a number of things:

  • A new way to appoint members of the Lords
  • A way to encourage more people to donate money to political parties
  • And, a way to make explicit what’s always been implicit in appointing Lords
  • My system is quite simple. Any donation over £50 would have to be made through a central bureau, which would record the donation and pass it on to the intended recipient. Donations could be made online, and arrangements could also be made for donations to be made through the post or at certain banks and post offices. Meanwhile, every year, a House of Lords Appointment Commission would determine how many vacancies there were for the Lords that year, given the number of members who had died, retired or been removed over the past twelve months. The Appointments Commission would also determine how many of the new peers needed to represent each party, based on its current strength in the Lords and the number of votes it had received at the last national election.

    Then, every person who had made an official donation to a party in that time would be given one entry into a Lords Lottery for every £50 they’d donated. Each party entitled to a number of appointees to the Lords would then have their nominees chosen at random from the people who had donated to it. Parties who did not make the threshold to be allocated direct seats in the draw would be placed into a draw for at least one peerage in each year, thus ensuring there was a motivation to donate to them.

    With this system we recognise the traditions of the House of Lords and ensure appointment is still linked to how much you can donate to a political party, but we add that element of chance to ensure that every donor has a chance of an appointment, and that even the smallest party could get someone appointed to Parliament to life to speak for them. Now you may say that a randomly chosendonor is not necessarily the best person to speak for a party in the Lords, because they might just have donated on a whim and may not understand that party’s ideology and beliefs. I say yes, that could be a problem, but it’s already a flaw with the current system, and why should only rich donors get a platform for their silly ideas?

    Just like the regular lottery, there could be Superdraws every few years, in which all donors are eligible and the winner gets a hereditary peerage. No longer do you need to have had the lucky break of being the descendent of a King’s mistrees to be the Earl or Countess of somewhere, now your family could get a title by pure blind chance.

    Just think how much money this could bring into politics, once everyone sees that their donation can not just only help the party they support, but it can help them too. Sure, we could have chosen the Lords by pure sortition but where’s the educational value in that? Let’s make it clear to everyone that yes, you do have a chance of getting to be in Parliament and having your views govern the nation, but it’s going to be an infinitesimally small one compared to the number of opportunities rich people get.

    The failure of the attempt to dump Bercow: some thoughts

    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.