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.


Digital democracy debate: MPs demand hoverboards for all by 2020

digitaldemocracyThey had the Digital Democracy debate in Parliament this morning. This link should take you to a transcript for the rest of today, but I’ll need to go to Hansard in the morning to get a permanent link to it. (UPDATE: Here it – hopefully permanently – is) That does show just one of the problems we have with the concept of ‘digital democracy’ and as I said before, I think a lot of the Commission’s proposals, especially around education and participation, are very good and the next Government needs to work to introduce them.

However, all those good ideas flee the room the moment online voting gets discussed. What we get at that point is the MPs doing the equivalent of demanding that everyone gets their own hoverboard by 2020, regardless of what the laws of physics might say about that possibility. If the House of Commons wants to ignore the laws of physics, it damn well should be able to!

Eppur si muove, as they say, and if I had better Latin, or any Latin at all I’d add ‘and yet it’s still not secure’ to all their beliefs that everything will be fine with online voting if we just wish for it hard enough. Robert Halfon gave a speech that was a masterpiece of Parliamentary because-I-wish-it-so nonsense, that in a true online and digital democracy would have been littered with ‘[citation needed]’ markers as he spoke. For instance, in one short paragraph of his speech:

People want new options[citation needed], and it is up to us to provide them with some[dubious claim – why can’t the people generate their own?]. We must not fool ourselves: the decline in voter participation is strongly linked[citation needed] to the fact that new generations interact in different ways[citation needed] and therefore require different ways of appealing to them[citation needed].

He then later goes on to discuss Estonia’s online voting as though no one had pointed out the many many security holes in that system but then, it seems that anyone who wrote to him about voting security was apparently ‘abusive’ and using a ‘farcical argument’ because our current voting system is not perfectly secure. By the same logic, the next time Mr Halfon needs to replace a bucket with a hole in it, I shall recommend he buys a sieve.

Robert Halfon is not alone in suddenly shedding any demands for reasonable evidence in order to embrace the bright shiny precious of online voting. Tom Brake manages it too, telling how a survey on Facebook reached a whole eleven people of which seven were in favour of it, and someone called Andy thinks it can be made secure. There’s your slogan: Online voting – Andy says your vote is safe.

There is a point here, and it’s that MPs need to be sceptical about claims of the proposed benefits of online voting because there are far too many people out there who’ll happily ignore all the flaws in the hope of making large sums of money from it. For an example, see this blog post from Electoral Reform Services (the commercial arm of the Electoral Reform Society) which asserts that online voting, and particularly their version of it that they want to sell to you, is perfectly safe.

It may be that we’re just days away from a breakthrough in security that will make online voting safe, just like physicists might now be putting the final working touches to the gravity-nullifying devices that will make hoverboards a reality. Then again, it might never come, and rushing ahead as though it will definitely come is asking for disaster. When we get tweets like this from MPs:

I wonder what else they would like to legislate will happen before 2020? If Parliament wants to put serious investment into electronic security (particularly to educating people to keep the computers they’d be voting on free from viruses and malware) then maybe we might get somewhere, or at least the spinoff benefits of improved security systems would benefit us all. If they just want to rush ahead regardless, we’re all in trouble.

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A ‘digital democracy’ can’t ignore security

digitaldemocracyThis morning, there’ll be a Parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.

Overall, it’s a good report which you can see here. It proposes some interesting and useful new ideas for opening up Parliament and giving people new channels to get involved and be informed, while generally not running away with itself and succumbing to the techno-evangelism that has people proclaiming that the internet will solve all our problems.

However – you knew there’d be a however, didn’t you? – it drops the ball when it comes to online voting. Not quite as badly as the ‘Viral Voting’ report last week did, but it has a very worrying approach to security in its conclusions. Yet again, there’s an expectation that security problems don’t have to be bad if we want to pretend that they’re not bad, rather than facing them head on.

The section in question is here. The Commissioners deserve credit for speaking to the Open Rights Group and including their comments in the report which sums up the problems very well:

“Voting is a uniquely difficult question for computer science: the system must verify your eligibility to vote; know whether you have already voted; and allow for audits and recounts. Yet it must always preserve your anonymity and privacy. Currently, there are no practical solutions to this highly complex problem and existing systems are unacceptably flawed.”

Unfortunately, when faced with the fact that “there are no practical solutions to this highly complex problem”, the Commissioners don’t then adopt the sensible position that efforts need to be made to try and solve that problem before any real deployment of online voting can begin. Instead, they talk about how ‘the concerns about security must be overcome’. Not the issues or the fundamental problems, just the concerns. They then go on to recommend that ‘in the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.’ And they can all be given a jetpack or a hoverboard as a reward for voting, I expect.

Yet again, the cart is being placed several miles ahead of the horse. Trying to push for implementation of an idea by a certain date in the hope that fundamental problems can be solved by then is asking for trouble, and for a system to be rolled out (probably alongside a massive PR campaign to assure that it’s perfectly safe) that’s riddled with security issues. I understand the appeal of online voting, and I understand the appeal it has for politicians who want to be seen to be engaging with technology, but engaging with technology means understanding it, and understanding it means accepting that security is a fundamental issue not a peripheral concern.

If you really want secure online voting to happen, then you’ll need to spend a lot of money and time developing a secure system, in the same way our current voting system evolved over time in response to security challenges. Rushing something through to meet an arbitrarily imposed deadline is always going to see security being compromised, and that’s an attitude we shouldn’t accept when our entire democracy is at stake.

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What would it take to have a Tory-Labour coalition government?

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.