Question: what is the closest to a election that a party has released its manifesto? Because I’m pretty sure that outside of snap elections called at breakneck pace, the SNP choosing today to launch theirs must be one of the latest. Indeed, judging from some of the comments I’ve sen, it may be a real first in a party delivering its manifesto after votes had started being cast – some places had their postal ballots arrive at the weekend. That’s something that could raise an interesting discussion – what if you cast a postal vote for a party and then they surprised you by putting something in their manifesto that you fundamentally disagreed with? Is the answer that you should’ve waited, that they should’ve published earlier, or some combination of both?

With it being the SNP’s day in the spotlight, it’s a chance for London-based journalists to start revealing just how little they know, and Bill Turnbull got off to a fine start on BBC Breakfast this morning. Turnbull was interviewing a somewhat bemused Stewart Hosie (SNP Deputy Leader) about Trident, and seemed to be labouring under the impression that if there was a minority Labour government, the SNP would have some magical power of veto over them. It does sadly show how much Tory propaganda has sunk in that it didn’t occur to someone with years of journalistic experience that if Trident renewal was up for debate in the Commons, there’d have to be quite an odd situation going on for the SNP to be voting with the Tories to get rid of it.

It’s not just Turbull, though. All across the spectrum, political journalists and commentators – the elite experts who are meant to be explaining these things to us – are falling over themselves to tell us it’ll all be far too complex. Just as we saw in the run up to the last election, when the idea of a coalition and a hung Parliament was getting closer, it’s becoming clear just how hard it is for some of our media class to think outside the box. But then, this is a country where the comments of someone who may or may not be running for US President next year were ranked above any mention that Finland had an election yesterday, and even when Germany or France have elections, there’s no danger of Dimbleby being brought out to anchor all-night coverage of it, or armies of reporters travelling all over them to tell us what the race looks like from Dusseldorf or Lyons. Too much of our coverage is based on the idea that elections have to have winners and losers, and can’t be expressions of opinion. Maybe we’ll get a result this time that shakes that consensus a little more.

On a related note, I’ve noticed a similar consensus in reports looking ahead to the post-election period that seem to be assuming that Liberal Democrat MPs can be easily added to the Tory pile when considering the potential deals. Andrew George’s comments on this aren’t outside the party mainstream, and I know very few people – online or off – who’d be enthusiastic about a second coalition with the Tories. I’m sure there are some in the leadership who’d prefer it, but they’re going to have to convince the party to go along with it, which is going to be a significant issue at all the stages of agreement the leadership would need (Parliamentary party, Federal Executive and Conference). A lot depends on the final outcome of the election and how the coalition maths end up, but there are significant swathes of opinion in the party who’d prefer no coalition or one with Labour to carrying on with the Tories.

A very interesting discovery on Election Leaflets today, of a letter from Michael Fallon, flagging him up as Secretary of State for Defence to voters in Barrow and Furness playing up the threat of a Labour government ‘propped up by the SNP’ not renewing Trident. This is real ‘all politics is local’ territory as Barrow is where Vickers/BAE carry out the maintenance of Trident submarines (if you ever go to Barrow, that’s what the giant buildings looming over the town are for) and the only time it’s not been held by Labour since WW2 was in the 80s, when Labour were either either in favour of disarmament or seen as weak on keeping it. Labour have a decent majority there (over 5,000 in 2010), but worries about losing jobs at Vickers drove those losses in the 80s and could be just as strong today. Might be worth adding Barrow to the list of seats to keep an eye on for interesting results on election night.

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Judging from some of the things I’ve been seeing on social media, this appears to be the point where the stress of campaigning is getting a bit much for some people, and levels of tetchiness are reaching dangerously high points. This is accompanied by its traditional cry of ‘I’ll report this to the returning officer!’ when confronted by anything from their opponents that seems even slightly dodgy, as though they have any power to intervene.

Something most people don’t understand about British elections is that the powers of the Returning Officer are pretty much constrained to organising the running of the election itself, not regulating any behaviour of candidates. While election law is a distinct field, it’s not separate from the criminal law and breaches of it are dealt with by the police, not the returning officer. There is not, as far as I know, a separate electoral crimes division within any of Britain’s police forces so any investigations are handled by regular officers. In the quest for TV novelty, someone may one day hit on the idea of an officer specialising in the field of electoral crimes, but no one seems quite that desperate yet.

Two firsts for this election for me today. First I went out and did some deliveries for a friend, then then this afternoon had something that hasn’t happened for several years and actually had a canvasser knocking on my door. It was an interesting, but somewhat awkward experience as it turned out they didn’t quite know the area they were in and their canvass cards didn’t have basic information on them like ‘by the way, one of the people at this address is a local councillor’. Of course, if it happens again, I might not be so forward about my status, just to find out what they’re saying about me.

Question of the day: after planning to sell houses off at less than the market price, Tories now want to sell Lloyds shares off at a discount too. For the party that keeps telling us that they know business, it’s a bit weird that they keep selling things off for less than they’re worth, as that’s not what successful businesses do.

A couple of articles that may be of interest. May 2015 look at post-election coalition scenarios and how things seem to stack up a lot better for a Miliband government than a Cameron one. I think their scenarios tend to overplay how keen the Liberal Democrat membership would be to agree a second coalition – the leadership might be, but the decision’s not in their hands. Meanwhile, and fitting with my earlier talk of door-knocking, the Economist looks at campaigning on the ground, and how Labour’s better organisation is giving them a distinct edge there. In close races, having a better ground team – especially on election day – can make a big difference.

Moving down the party list, we find a regionalist party that’s probably not going to swing this election but could represent interesting trends in years to come: Yorkshire First. They’re not tied to many specific policies but rather to their ‘Yorkshire Pledge‘, calling for Yorkshire to have decision making powers of its own. It’s something that could be of interest in the next Parliament as devolution – particularly city regions – seem set to go ahead whoever is in power, and the debate over the geography of devolution, not just the powers, could be an interesting one to follow. Will Yorkshire be treated as a whole, or broken into city regions?

Nothing too interesting on the leaflet watch for today, but there is a UKIP candidate who seems to have misunderstood ‘sea change’ as ‘sea of change’ and run with that motif for his leaflets.. As he’s standing in Battersea, I’m not sure people there would welcome the prospect of the sea rushing in, as it would mean the Thames Barrier had failed.

Eighteen days to go, and if you want to do something positive before the election starts you can sign Save The Children’s Restart The Rescue petition to get EU action to save lives in the Mediterranean.

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People who were born after this poster was used are eligible to vote in this election

People who were born after this poster was used are eligible to vote in this election

When Margaret Thatcher went back on to the campaign trail in 2001, they managed to link it to The Mummy Returns, which was in cinemas at the time. Unfortunately for Tony Blair – but fortunately for us – no one’s yet come out with a series of Daddy movies, and none of the movies currently in cinemas really work for him. I very much doubt he’d want to be linked with a film called Insurgent, for a start.

His intervention may be something that affects the campaign, but I’m starting to get the feeling that we’re in a campaign where most people would like something to happen that would excite people. It’s all feeling a bit like 2001, where despite all the bluster from all sides (‘thirty days to save the pound!’), very little changed at the end of it. It’s the sort of campaign that feels of vital importance to everyone inside it, but it’s not reaching anyone outside. Then again, maybe someone’s taken one of my earlier Twitter ideas to heart and hacked the computers of the various polling companies to show no real change in the results when in reality they’re churning up and down. I think you could call it a psychological experiment to see what happens to academics and pundits over an extended period with no real change in their data. (The first symptom appears to be starting #constituencysongs on Twitter)

Of course, a lot of the campaign time at the moment is going to be taken up with people getting nomination papers filled in and returned. This can take up a lot of candidate and campaigner time, especially if there’s a council election going on and you’re having to chase round to get papers filled in, find out where your candidates have taken them off to , or just try and decipher the names they’ve got and work out if they’re on the electoral roll. Those are all things I’ve done in the past in an attempt to make sure everything’s done in time for the deadline. (And if you’re suddenly possessed by the desire to stand, you have until 10am 4pm (apologies for the earlier error) on Thursday to get a nomination form filled in and returned)

David Cameron visited the Game of Thrones set today, and claimed he’s a big fan, but I can’t see what attraction there’d be for him in a series about a bunch of feuding aristocrats whose feuds lead to terrible times for the (barely noticed) ordinary people. After all, a Lannistory always gets someone else to pay his debts.

I’ve noticed something about the Tories’ ‘coalition of chaos’ leaflet (which is going out a lot earlier in the campaign than the ‘Danger! Hung Parliament!’ ones did last time). Obviously, there’s the fact they use Salmond instead of Sturgeon to represent the SNP, which both dates it and reveals their sexism, but they also stick Farage alongside Miliband, Clegg and Salmond on the ‘chaos’ side. The problem with that is that all those parties have ruled out the possibility of a coalition with UKIP, while the one leader who hasn’t is David Cameron…

No odd candidates to feature today, but when the nomination lists come out, I’m sure we’ll find some good examples. However, the contest for ‘silliest line written in an ostensible serious article’ has a frontrunner who may not be caught for the rest of the campaign: “Ed Miliband, surely as left-wing a leader as you’ll find outside Central America”. That comes from this article, which seems to stem from a bizarre idea of right-wing commentators that it’s surprising that contemporary Scots don’t share the same beliefs as the 18th century Scottish intellectual elite. Maybe they’ll suddenly swing to that belief in the campaign, but articles saying they’ve all gone mad are unlikely to be a catalyst for that happening.

Just a month to go until election day. We can survive this if we support each other, I’m sure of it…

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We could’ve been anything we wanted to be
But don’t it make your heart glad
That we decided, a fact we take pride in
We became the best at being bad

If you don’t know it, it’s from Bugsy Malone, but for me it sums up a lot of my feelings about the coalition. I know it seems hopelessly naive now, but there was optimism back in May 2010, and a feeling that this was a government that might do things differently. Instead, that optimism has been methodically dismantled, piece by piece, as the government’s revealed itself to be even more cynical and mean-spirited than its predecessors, and the Liberal Democrat leadership has collaborated in this rush to the bottom, eager to prove that it can be just as horrendous in Government as the Conservatives and Labour.

Clegg’s immigration speech on Friday was just the latest humiliation in this series. I’d say it shows him reaching the abject depths of political cynicism and triangulation, but there are so many times he’s gone and drawn deep and deeper from that well that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him going deeper on something else. LIke the immigration speech, it’ll no doubt start with a few paragraphs of boilerplate liberalism, then veer wildly into appeasing tabloid sensibilities and saying we must support invading Iran and introducing ID cards while removing all benefits from anyone Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t like the look of.

The one flash of a silver lining is that the mood in the party feels much more mutinous than it has done at any point in the last few years. The leadership have dumped so many petty humiliations on the membership in recent times, from secret courts to Clegg’s speech, that a lot of people seem to have finally felt the straw that broke their back. (For instance, see Stephen Tall’s post on LDV and the comments below it) Any residual goodwill from Eastleigh and the party conference has been dissipated, and perhaps the only thing preventing a full on howl of rage is that most activists have one eye on the fast-approaching local elections.

What we have to decide as Liberal Democrats is not just whether we as a party can take two more years of this, but whether the country can survive two more years of it. As I’ve stated before, we came into this government because we thought it was in the national interest to do so, but it’s now clear to me that we’re merely supporting a narrowly ideological administration that’s on the verge of condemning the country to years of economic stagnation while dismantling the social framework. I think it’s time to end the coalition, but I also think we’re now beyond the point where those in the party who want to continue it can just trot out the ‘we have to show coalitions work, that’s why we can’t leave before 2015′ line. You have to show what will actually be achieved in the next two years beyond getting to sit round the cabinet table and showing we can make ‘tough decisions’.

It’s also time to question whether we need to replace Nick Clegg as leader. He’s shown a complete disregard for the party and its opinions, and when his statements get reported as being party policy, despite them being the complete opposite, it drags us all down with him. The question we need to answer is whether we want a leader who’s at war with his party, and seems to want to replace it with another, more pliant, membership or one who wants to actually lead a liberal party and make the case for liberalism, instead of capitulating and triangulating in the face of any criticism.

To got back to the start, what kind of party do we want to be? A liberal party, making the liberal case or a party that ranks power over principle?

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Back in September, I explained my reasons for wanting to see an end to the coalition, and nothing I’ve seen politically in the last three months has caused me to change my mind on that issue.

One of the reasons I gave for wanting to see it end was that “the coalition’s no longer about trying to come up with a joint policy programme, but about horse-trading and threats”. I think this trend is perfectly exemplified in this story, where the Tories in government were supposedly negotiating with Liberal Democrats while also raising funds from donors to stop it from happening.

While this is just one incident, it’s a symptom of how this coalition is failing. For a coalition to work, there has to be mutual trust between the parties involved. No matter how closely the parties want to show they are in public, there will always be disagreements in private that have to be resolved in some way. However, you can’t expect disputes to be resolved if one party is not coming to the table in good faith and pretending to negotiate over something they’ve got no intention of conceding on and, indeed, are actively working against.

However, as I also wrote about in September, this is a trap the Liberal Democrats fall into when we commit to the ‘we have to show that coalition works‘ line. If one party is resolutely wedded to not leaving the negotiating table in any circumstances, then it encourages the other to not play fair – there’s no need for them to build a relationship of trust with their partner, as breaking that trust doesn’t lead to any penalties.

As I’ve argued before, there’s plenty of evidence from across the UK and across the world to show that coalitions can work, so to claim that we have to stick in government regardless to prove they can isn’t strong leadership, it’s reflective of an unwillingness to make a wider argument. (Yet again, it’s the crippling belief that only what happens in Westminster is important in British politics) A single-party government can fail (see 1992-97 for an example), but that doesn’t mean that all single-party administrations are doomed to failure. In the same vein, the argument can be made that coalitions can work, but that the bad faith of the Tories has made this one unworkable. Just as one couple getting divorced doesn’t mean all marriages are doomed to fail, one coalition ending because one party to it is wedded to an unsuccessful economic dogma does not mean that all coalitions will end the same way.

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Two bits of news about the business of Government that have caught my attention over the last few days.

The quad has become the sextet – As we’ve come to see over the past couple of years, a lot of the real decisions about the direction of the Government are being taken by the ‘quad': David Cameron, George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. That’s now expanded include David Laws and Oliver Letwin.
Philip Hammond is pushing on with Trident replacement contracts – The ‘main gate’ decision isn’t meant to be taken until 2016, but work is still being undertaken as though that’s already been decided. Institutional inertia, anyone?

I’ve linked these stories because they both highlight something important about this government that I don’t see being talked about much, possibly because we’ve all internalized the belief that no one wants to talk about process stories. I’m usually inclined to agree, but the problem can be to assume that process and policy aren’t strongly linkes. Sure, in Government they can’t exist without each other, but we must not forget that the way the process is structured can effect the policy as it works through the system. (I had a whole lot of analogies here, none of which worked)

Nick Harvey’s removal from the MoD without a Liberal Democrat replacement coming in for him has already sparked off lots of discussion about the Trident review and replacement and today’s announcement is just a small part of that. The key point here, though, is that there’s now no longer someone like Nick Harvey fighting that corner in the MoD day to day. Clegg and Alexander are supposedly overseeing the issue, but that’s different from actually having a minister in there – overseers tend to only get to see what the process spits out at the end, when what’s needed here is someone to influence it a long time before final reports are made.

This is why I think the recent reshuffle is going to cause lots of issues further down the line as the implications of it are felt. As well as Liberal Democrats leaving certain areas behind, it also saw the Tories shift rightwards, and the additions to the quad make it look unlikely that it’s going to provide any brake to that tendency. The quad determines what does and doesn’t get done in government, what each party is willing to trade off with the other and for what. The Liberal Democrat members of it have an important job to do in not just keeping government running smoothly, but in understanding and representing what the party will and will not accept. Unfortunately, adding David Laws to it doesn’t instil much confidence in me that the party’s full range of views are going to be reflected. Adding in another member of the party ‘right’, someone ideologically closer to the Tories than many others in the party, seems to me to be a strategic error.

If we’re really seeking to act as a handbrake on the Tories, why is the centre of political gravity on the quad so far to the right? The quad might just be a process within government, but the decisions it makes – explicitly or implicitly – have an ideological effect on what policies get pushed through the system. Yet again, too much is being conceded to the Tories before proper discussions even start, and we know where that’s led us before.

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There’s a very good open letter to Nick Clegg on Lib Dem Voice today, and it covers many of the points I wanted to make on the ‘shares for rights’ proposals George Osborne put forward this week.

The plan itself is bit of political game-playing by Osborne, in my opinion. The Tories have failed to get any traction for any of the Beecroft proposals on employment rights, so they’ve now switched to a different tactic. Employee ownership of companies is a good thing, and something – as Nigel Quinton points out in that LDV article – that the Liberal Democrats have pushed for. So, Osborne’s using those as a Trojan horse to hide his real aims in. By allowing some Treasury support for a version of employee ownership, he can cover the real aim of the policy which is to start chipping away at employment rights. Then once the principle of employment rights being universal has been surrendered, they can come back and look at removing them from others – maybe if employers don’t want to give away shares, they can offer employees a bit more pay for less rights, for instance – until they’re all but gone for everyone.

That’s why it’s especially galling to read that the party leadership appears to have fallen for the con trick and allowed this to progress. The press release on the Treasury website, the talk of consultation, the start date of April 2013: all of this points to something that’s been agreed at a high level, with Osborne given approval to announce at Tory conference as a Government policy, not a Tory proposal. Until Tim Gordon mentioned it in the briefing email that Nigel Quinton mentions, there’d been not a word on this from anyone high up in the party, when they’ve been hurriedly rushing to the media to condemn other Tory Conference wheezes. Indeed, given that Tim Gordon’s email misrepresents the scheme, one has to question just what is going on, and who’s giving who bad information?

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