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.

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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.

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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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    What do the Lib Dems gain from stabbing Bercow in the back?

    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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    “The democratic will of the British people”

    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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    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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