Richmond Park: Don’t write off working with other parties

The AlternativeOne thing I wanted to write about after being at Lib Dem Conference in September were the fringe meetings about working with other parties. One was Caroline Lucas, Lisa Nandy and Chris Bowers, talking about their book The Alternative, while the other featured Lucas, Norman Lamb and Peter Kyle talking about similar issues as part of a Social Liberal Forum fringe.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the fringes didn’t result in a spontaneous desire to co-operate between the three parties, but I think they gave everyone there a decent amount of food for thought, and having read The Alternative since, it’s clear that people aren’t just thinking that shouting ‘progressive alliance!’ enough times will overcome all obstacles.

One line that’s stuck with me from the first meeting was something Lisa Nandy said: ‘we’ve all won fought and won lots of battles against each other, and while we were busy doing that, the Tories were winning the war.’ That’s what makes it especially interesting to see that she’s one of the Labour MPs who’ve called for the party to consider not standing a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election. Part of that comes from the rather odd situation of a by-election caused by an MP resigning to protest against Government policy only for the governing party to not stand a candidate against him. With the Tories having already left the field, it’s perhaps easier for Labour MPs to suggest their party does the same. (And according to this Guardian article, there’s a similar discussion going on in the Greens)

It’s an interesting idea, and perhaps a reflection of the interesting and febrile political times we’re living in that these suggestions have been made. It’s perhaps also a reflection that some people haven’t recognised this in the reaction I’ve seen from several Lib Dems online. There’s too much ‘we shouldn’t work with other parties’ and ‘those quotes will look good on the squeeze leaflets’ and not enough reflection on the possibilities that are opening up. Yes, if this was to happen, it might lead to the party having to make difficult decisions in the future, but if you want to change things you’re going to have to make difficult decisions and find ways to compromise with others. You can try glorious isolation in your idyllic world of never compromising, and maybe you can spend some time there mocking the Corbynistas for being naive about how to change things (it’ll stop both of you from looking in a mirror and making any discoveries about yourselves, anyway).

I stand by what I wrote back in July about similar reactions to the launch of MoreUnited:

We can sit around and wait for everyone to agree with us like we’ve done for most of the last century (a strategy of, at best, occasional and partial success) or we can get out there and try and find common ground we can build on. If we’re so convinced that that liberal arguments are correct, then why fear working with others when we should be able to persuade them to our way of thinking? Sure, it can be fun to sit around in a small group indulging in the narcissism of small differences, but maybe we’d be better off engaging with those we seek to dismiss and trying to persuade them to work with us and perhaps even getting them to agree with us? If we’re so convinced that they might be wrong on something, why not try and persuade them of that, instead of declaring them beyond the pale?

Let’s be prepared to reach out and play a role in building the common ground, instead of standing on the sidelines and complaining that we weren’t included when someone else builds it without us.

It’s fun to fight battles against each other, I admit that. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to win the war once in a while too, though?

The Oldham West and Royton result in (Labour) context

The most disturbing part of the result? How young MPs are looking these days...
The most disturbing part of the result? How young MPs are looking these days…
Just to provide some comparable insight into the result in the Oldham West and Royton by-election last night, here’s how Labour did in held seat by-elections during the last Parliament. I’m looking at their vote in isolation to give us a picture of how they did across the Parliament regardless of the situation in different seats. You can get more details on all the by-elections during the last Parliament here.

Oldham East and Saddleworth: Vote share up 10.2%, actual vote +532 (+3.8%)
Barnsley Central: Vote share up 13.5%, actual vote -2763 (-15.8%)
Leicester South: Vote share up 12.2%, actual vote -1708 (-8%)
Inverclyde: Vote share down 2.2%, actual vote -5785 (-27.6%)
Feltham and Heston: Vote share up 10.8%, actual vote -8535 (-40.3%)
Bradford West: Vote share down 20.3%, actual vote -10,200 (-55.4%)
Cardiff South and Penarth: Vote share up 8.4%, actual vote -8069 (-46.7%)
Croydon North: Vote share up 8.7%, actual vote -13,055 (-45.1%)
Manchester Central: Vote share up 16.4%, actual vote -9552 (-45.4%)
Middlesbrough: Vote share up 14.6%, actual vote -5150 (-33.5%)
Rotherham: Vote share up 1.8%, actual vote -6775 (-40.5%)
South Shields: Vote share down 1.6%, actual vote -6502 (-34.2%)
Wythenshawe and Sale East: Vote share up 11.2%, actual vote -6726 (-37.4%)
Heywood and Middleton: Vote share up 0.8%, actual vote -6866 (-37.1%)

Labour’s average performance at by-elections in held seats during the last Parliament was a 5.9% increase in the share of the vote, and a drop of 6,511 or 33.1% in the actual vote.

(Excluding Bradford West – the only seat Labour lost in a by-election during the last Parliament – those figures are a 7.9% increase, and a 6,227 or 31.4% drop in the actual vote)

The figures for last night’s by-election in Oldham? An increase of 7.3% in the share of the vote, and a decrease of 6,421 (27.2%) in the actual vote, all of which are slightly better than Labour’s overall average for the last Parliament, and about the same as they did if you exclude Bradford West. It’s an interesting comparison especially as most of the by-elections in the previous Parliament occurred when Labour had a lead or were close to the Tories in the opinion polls, not lagging far behind as they are now.

Douglas Carswell, ministerial by-elections and things that were obvious in retrospect

While looking around for some background information on the previous post, I found this blog post by Douglas Carswell from 2012 talking about the 1919 Re-Election of Ministers Act, which mostly ended the practice of ministerial by-elections. (They were completely ended by an amendment to it in 1926)

He was using it to argue for open primaries and recalls, but there’s one line in there that shows where his thinking was going a couple of years before he switched to UKIP:

If an MP was invited to become a minister, they were seen to be changing sides – and had to seek a fresh mandate from the people to be their representative.

So, his choosing to fight a by-election when he changed sides from Tory to UKIP shouldn’t have been a surprise, though the interesting question is going to be if he’s now established a new precedent and Parliamentary tradition. Mark Reckless followed the same course, but will any other MPs, especially the next time someone defects to a party other than UKIP?

Separating Government and Parliament

Reading this article about how MPs who want to climb the greasy ladder to the Ministerial Jaguar have to toe the line continually in Parliament reminded me of one idea I’d like to see tried to try and free Members of Parliament.

We currently have a situation where to be a Minister within the UK Government, you have to be a Member of Parliament – either Commons or Lords. Unlike other countries – the US is probably the best and most well-known example – we don’t formally separate the executive and legislative parts of the government and so David Cameron serves both as Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for Witney. (And if the Tories got a majority but he lost his seat, he wouldn’t be able to continue as PM)

There are many advantages to this system, and for once, it’s not one that Britain is alone in using (Angela Merkel, for instance, represents the constituency of Vorpommern-Rügen – Vorpommern-Greifswald I in the Bundestag). Leaders and ministers need to have that local mandate to be able to serve, and it ensures that ministers are accountable to Parliament. On the down side, however, there are the issues mentioned in the article of MPs having to do as they’re told if they want to get into Ministerial office, and constituencies represented by a senior Minister not getting the same sort of representation in Parliament as those represented by backbenchers.

Now, one way to change this would be to follow the American example and completely separate the two, but that would be a pretty radical change to the system and I’m not completely sure the country is ready for the idea of a directly-elected Prime Minister and executive. However, the French system does suggest a way in which the two can be separated a bit more, and fits in with British tradition too.

Until the First World War, MPs who took a post as a minister had to resign and be re-elected in a by-election if they became a Minister because their circumstances had changed. The French still have a system whereby if a member of the National Assembly is appointed to the Government (and some other constitutional posts) they cease to be a member of the Assembly. However, they circumvent the need for a by-election by using the principle of a substitute. By this process, a person who may become a minister names a substitute at the time of their election – as in Britain, having the individual electoral mandate is seen as important – and if they do take up a role in the government, their place in it is taken by the substitute. That way ministers still need to be elected, but in day-to-day business, there’s a greater separation between Parliament and the Executive.

It’s not the be-all and end-all of constitutional reform, and would need some more thinking through about the wider ramifications, but it’s an idea that might bring some improvements and one I’d be interested to see tried.