Friday, 22 May 2015

Parliamentary Diversity Report

  The UK Parliament has faced, over the years, frequent criticisms along the lines of: 'the people sitting there are supposed to represent us, but they are nothing like us'. This, in short, is a fair cop. Parliament is representative in terms of its intended political function, but nobody could argue that it is representative in the sense of reflecting the diversity found in the general population.

  The phrase 'male, pale and stale' is a loathsome one, but it is made all the more repulsive by the fact it is also quite apt. The House of Commons, to take the one part of Parliament we (as in, the people) actually have any control over, has long been dominated by white, middle class men. However, the election of May 2015 has seen some progress made in this regard.

  The first and most obvious change is the increase in the number of women. In 2010, the proportion of female MPs stood at 22.8%; it has now risen to 29.4%. Clearly, this is some way from the ideal - women make up 50.8% of the population, and the balance of MPs in the House of Commons ought to reflect this, but it is a marked improvement nevertheless.

  The greater representation of women stems partly from Labour's use of all-women shortlists to select candidates in 50 of its key seats, and partly from the huge increase in SNP representation (20 of their 53 MPs are women, including Mhairi Black, the youngest MP since 1667). One area of regress has been the Liberal Democrat delegation, however; always lacking in female MPs (famously having had as many knights as women as of June 2013), the party now has none due to all 7 being caught up in its catastrophic wipeout.

  Parliament has also improved its ethnic balance, with 43 MPs (or 6.6%) being from black or ethnic minority backgrounds. Most of these are Labour (27), with 15 Tories and one SNP, though the Conservatives actually had more BME candidates than the other major parties. The figure for the wider population is nearly twice this, at 12.8%, signifying that there is still some way to go, but 6.6% still represents an increase of nearly 50% on the last election. As with gender balance, ethnic balance is improving.

  On LGB representation, the story is looking even better. We now have 32 openly lesbian, gay or bisexual MPs - 4.9%, the highest proportion in the world and close to the UK government estimate of 6% (census data, which allows for avoiding the question, notwithstanding). The shame here is that none of the four transgender candidates won their seats, meaning the 'T' has to be left off for now, but the fact that one, Labour candidate Emily Brothers, stood for a major party for the first time inspires hope that this may soon change.

  Unfortunately, the story is not looking so positive for people with disabilities. The retirement of former Home Secretary David Blunkett and fellow Labour MP Anne McGuire means there are now only two MPs in the Commons who self-describe as disabled, or 0.3%. Since the most recent statistics suggest that around 5.7% of working-age adults are disabled, this is a disturbingly low figure and the direction of travel is not good. 

  Finally, it is important to take a look at the class makeup of Parliament. This is clearly a much harder thing to measure than the other categories mentioned, but the falling number of working-class MPs over the last few decades is a real concern, especially since the shortfall has been taken up by a huge increase in career politicians. At the 2010 election, only 4% of MPs had worked in manual occupations, down from 16% in 1979. Though statistics for the new Parliament do not yet exist, analysis of the candidates suggests that this proportion has fallen to just 2%. Again, there is a regressive direction of travel which is highly concerning.

  Overall, we have reason to be optimistic. There has been a notable increase in female, BME and LGB MPs, bringing numbers more into line with the general population, though with significant room for improvement, p. However, we should be concerned by falling representation of people with disabilities and the continuing low level of working-class people in Parliament. The House of Commons looks more like the country it rules that it did a month ago, but there is much work left to be done if we want to live in a country where legislators reflect the people they serve. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

The SNP Victory in Scotland was a Victory for Hope, not Division

Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper declared in the Mirror article in which she announced her candidacy that the SNP, along with the Tories and UKIP, exploited 'anger, fear and division' to win the general election in Scotland. She is, flatly, wrong.

She further suggested that Labour needed to advance a message of 'hope', 'optimism' and 'confidence'. I could not agree more with this second point. However, the implication is that Labour have the opportunity to grab the reins of hope, optimism and confidence because the SNP have failed to do so. This is a fundamental misreading of the election campaign in Scotland, and the crushing defeat the centre-left nationalists inflicted on the Labour Party.

The day Scottish politics changed for good was the 18th of September 2014; the day of the independence referendum. On that day, the people of Scotland rejected the SNP's offer of independent statehood by 55.3% to 44.7%. That, the unionist parties thought, would be the end of it for at least, as Alex Salmond said, a generation. They could not have been more wrong.

The aftermath of the referendum saw the SNP explode in popularity. It rocketed to 115,000 members by April, making it the third-largest party in the country despite Scotland having less than a tenth of the UK's population, and the polls clearly predicted a landslide win for months before the election itself. The spectacular success of winning 56 seats on the 7th of May, all but three in the country and an increase of 50 over their 2010 total, only confirmed what most people had known for a long time: the SNP, despite their failure to secure independence, are to be the dominant force in Scottish politics for some time to come.

The SNP have claimed the political heart of the Scottish nation not by exploiting anger and fostering division, but rather by offering the very hope that Labour has summarily failed to provide. The supposedly left-wing party failed throughout the last parliament to offer a convincing counter-narrative to the Coalition's 'Austerity Britain' and UKIP's 'Little England', allowing the former party to dominate the economic conversation and the latter to set the debate on immigration. 

The SNP, on the other hand, has pushed against the prevailing ideology of swingeing cuts and a slammed drawbridge to Europe. Nicola Sturgeon called for an end to austerity, and made the effort to reach out to other parties who wanted similar things; her calls for a 'Progressive Alliance' went unheeded by Labour. The SNP also argued, along with Plaid Cymru and the Greens, for a rational immigration policy that does not limit the desperately-needed flow of talent and labour into the country, and instead deals directly with the infrastructure and public service issues which are people's real concerns. Labour, again, were silent.

It is clear that the heart of the grassroots Labour Party lies to the left; it is also clear, through the results of numerous polls and surveys, that there is considerable appetite among many voters for an alternative to the neoliberal orthodoxy that dominates modern British politics. Labour failed to benefit from this because they were unable to make people believe that they could deliver that alternative. In Scotland, the SNP showed that they could, and that is why Scots voted for them in their droves.

If the SNP victory is due to anger, it is anger at Labour's failure to challenge the Tories effectively; if it is due to fear, it is fear of what might happen to Scotland if the Tories remain unchallenged; and if there is division, it is division between the Scots who have realised there is an alternative to Lib-Lab-Con neoliberalism and the English, Welsh and Northern Irish who, sadly, have yet to reach that conclusion. In short, the SNP won because they, not Labour, offered Scotland hope. 

I hope that Yvette Cooper and other like her within the Labour Party come to understand that, and help return the party to its left-wing roots. Otherwise, it is doomed to irrelevance.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Election 2015: A Little Post-Match Analysis

  Well, I did not see that coming.

  The fact that nobody else did either is little consolation: the Conservative Party has won a majority of 6, and David Cameron will return to No.10 Downing Street as Prime Minister. Whilst most people anticipated that the Tories might well win largest party, no-one thought that they would manage to win outright. The pre-election polling has never been so drastically wrong, even in the 1992 debacle.

  So, is it time for everyone to the left of the Tory neoliberals to curl up in a corner and cry? Well, no. The temptation may be great, but I feel it is one that we should resist; for now, at least. All is not quite lost just yet. Here is a quick rundown of the major events of election night, and exactly what they mean for the future of this country.

The Conservatives won a majority of twelve. Clearly, a Tory government is not the result I or many others on the left wanted. The failures of the Conservatives over the last five years are stark: Real wages have entered their longest period of sustained decline in at least 50 years, the UK's GDP per capita is still lower than its pre-recession peak, the deep cuts to welfare have resulted in dozens of deaths and left hundreds of thousands of people destitute, the top-down reorganisation of the NHS has wasted millions and allowed creeping privatisation to continue... I could go on, but I'd only bore you. Suffice it to say, the Tories have had a terrible effect on this country.

However, all is not entirely lost. The Conservatives may have won a majority, but it is a small one; a much reduced majority, in fact, from that the Coalition has enjoyed since 2010. This means that Cameron will find it increasingly difficult to govern as backbench rebels - of which there will be many, you may be sure - hold his party to ransom. The corollary of that, of course, is that he may have to step up the anti-Europe and socially conservative rhetoric to appease the Tory old guard. So, the effects of this small majority may be good or bad, but the new government is certainly going to be far from stable.

The leaders of the three main opposition parties have resigned. Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage have all resigned as leaders of their respective parties. In Miliband's case, this is reasonable; under his leadership, the party lost seats and suffered electoral wipeout in Scotland, due at least in part to his personal inability to connect with the electorate. He represents the metropolitan champagne socialist branch of Labour, and this was obviously not something the people of the UK could believe in. 

Clegg's departure is also fair enough. The Liberal Democrats have been reduced to just 8 seats in the Commons, putting them in joint-fourth place with the DUP. From their impressive performances at the 2005 and 2010 elections, this is a long way to fall, and Nick Clegg's decision to take the party into coalition is certainly responsible.

The resignation of Nigel Farage (having failed to win South Thanet) is, quite frankly, the best news I've had all day, but it is also worrying. Farage has been the figurehead of UKIP for so long that his departure (however temporary I suspect it may be) could cause UKIP to collapse (a very good thing), or it could allow the far-right elements within the party to take over. Make no mistake, Nigel is by no means the worst of the bunch, and a UKIP pulled even further to the right is a scary prospect.

Scotland went SNP in spectacular fashion. The SNP swept to victory in Scotland, claiming all but three of the country's 59 seats. The huge bloc of nationalist MPs that Nicola Sturgeon will be sending to Westminster (led pretty soon, I suspect, by our old friend Alex Salmond) will be a thorn in David Cameron's side. He know's that his small majority means that a few rebels could rob him of the ability to govern, and the SNP will hammer home any advantage they get. However, their principled tradition of not voting on matters which do not affect Scotland will limit considerably their effectiveness. This may leave David Cameron with carte blanche to do as he wishes in England, a worrying prospect.

Turnout remained low, though it increased slightly to 66.1%. The continued refusal of a third of the country to cast their vote is a problem. Those who do not vote as a point of principle are unfortunately indistinguishable from those who simply can't be bothered; those who are frankly unable to find any political party they are capable of giving their support to count just the same in the minds of our political masters as those who just don't care. The fact that turnout is traditionally lowest among those groups (young people, ethnic minorities, the unemployed) who the Tory government will be targeting over the next five years makes this an even bigger issue. 

The number of big names who lost their seats is shockingly high. They call it a Portillo Moment when a political heavyweight falls at the ballot box, but there have been so many this time around that they might have to change the name. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, Scottish Labour Leader Jim Murphy, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Business Secretary Vince Cable, Energy Secretary Ed Davey, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander... the list is huge. Most are from the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties, and many fell to the SNP in Scotland, but the decimation of the upper ranks of the main political parties - together with the planned departures of old leading lights such as William Hague, Jack Straw, Malcom Rifkind and Gordon Brown - means that the new House of Commons will have a very different dynamic.

The number of women MPs increased by a third. A piece of uncomplicated good news, for a change, and pretty self-explanatory. Before the election 23% of MPs were women; now it is 29%. That is, of course, still 21% short of the ideal, but it is a marked improvement and one we should be very pleased about. One of these new female MPs, the SNP's Mhairi Black, is also the youngest MP elected since 1667, a huge achievement only made more impressive when you consider she took the seat from Douglas Alexander.

The UK's electoral system is STILL very, very broken. I will end with perhaps the most important point: the discrepancy between vote share and seats in the House of Commons continues to be a huge issue. The SNP won 56 seats with just 4.7% of the vote; meanwhile the Lib Dems won 7.9% but only 8 seats. UKIP won a single seat with 12.6% of the vote, the Greens one with 3.8%. The Tories and Labour are separated by 99 seats but only 6.5% in the vote. You get the idea - there is little real connection between vote share and seat share, and this is disenfranchising madness. You can read my article on PR for a solution to the problem, but the short answer is this: we desperately need as electoral system which ensures that Parliament represents the wishes of the people. It's called 'democracy' - you may have heard of it.

  These are just some of the most important results of May the 7th - much more will become apparent over the coming weeks. In the meantime, it is important that the progressives among us redouble our efforts to convince the public that the Tory message of cuts and rampant neoliberalism is not the only way, and far from the best way. May 2020 awaits.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Miliband's Refusal to Work with the SNP is a Huge Mistake for Labour and the UK

  Ed Miliband has dodged the question over whether he would be willing to work with the SNP since the fallout from the Scottish independence referendum catapulted the nationalists to UK-wide prominence. Now, a week before the general election, he has made a seemingly definite promise that he will not.

  This, in short, is ridiculous. Miliband is either lying or a fool.

  For context, the SNP is set to win a significant majority of the Scottish seats in the House of Commons. There are 59 seats in Scotland; the various election forecasts predict they will take anywhere between 49 and 56 of them. An Ipsos-MORI poll a few days ago even predicted a complete wipeout for the other parties, with the SNP holding all 59, though this seems unlikely. However, a seat total of around 50 seems eminently doable.

  This will make Nicola Sturgeon's party the third-largest in the House of Commons almost without doubt; the Liberal Democrats would have to hold almost all of their 57 seats to maintain third place, something which no poll almost since the last election has suggested they will do. The SNP will, therefore, be in a pivotal position of power.

  Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that the party will not support a Conservative government under any situation. With the Tories and Labour neck-and-neck in the polls, this was Ed Miliband's lifeline. The loss of Labour's Scottish fiefdom to the SNP surge mattered little in Parliamentary terms as long as the option of a deal with Sturgeon's party was on the table. Labour could afford to come a few seats behind Cameron's Tories, because they would be able to call on a healthy 50 or so SNP MPs to support their Queen's Speech.

  Now, however, he has a serious problem. His statement to the Question Time audience last night ruled out not only a coalition, which hasn't really been on the cards for months, but also any 'deal' with the Scottish Nationals. His argument centred around not wanting concede things like scrapping Trident or holding a second independence referendum to Sturgeon's party, but it leaves Labour without their largest possible ally in Parliament. 

  Before last night, Miliband could have struck an agreement with the SNP to support the Labour Party on confidence and supply bills - i.e. budgets and votes of confidence in the government. In doing so, he would have had to concede some things to the nationalists, of course, but Sturgeon had made it quite clear that neither scrapping Trident or holding another referendum were red lines. On most other policy areas, the SNP aren't so far removed from Labour that making some compromises would really have been an issue.

  But Miliband, presumably running scared from the rhetoric of the Tory press that a Labour-SNP deal would threaten the very future of the country, has now ruled this out, with the result that any Labour minority government will now be completely ineffective, not to mention far less likely. 

  Now, the Labour party will have to beat the Tories in terms of seats, and win support from the Liberal Democrats if - as seems likely - the margin of victory is narrower than the 25-30 MPs the Lib Dems are likely to hold. And that is just to be able to form the government.

  Once Miliband is inside No. 10, he will find it almost impossible to govern effectively. The SNP would support a Labour Queen's Speech to stop the Tories getting back in, but once Ed is installed in Downing Street the Scottish Nationals will hold him to ransom over every single vote. The pressure they will exert in such a situation will be far greater than if Miliband had formed a pre-determined deal, and will result in an unstable government which will struggle to pass laws.

  The only saving grace is that the Conservatives will find it even more impossible to govern should they have the edge on May 7th, meaning a Cameron-led government will be prevented from implementing the harsh further cuts to public spending and draconian welfare reforms which have been promised. The SNP will simply vote down any Conservative bills they disagree with, and since there is far less Tory-SNP common ground than Labour-SNP, they will block far more Tory legislation than Labour. Silver linings, and all that.

  That, however, would have happened even if Ed Miliband had not made this monumental error of judgement. The SNP would never have worked with the Tories. Now it looks as if they will be prevented from working with Labour as well. This is one of the few occasions where I actually hope a politician was lying. Otherwise, Mr. Miliband has been very, very foolish indeed.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Manifesto Focus: Labour

  The election is now less than three weeks away, and the campaign is beginning to hot up. Over the last few days, the political parties have been releasing their election manifestos - the documents which contain their proposals for government should they find themselves in power after May 7th.

  One thing to bear in mind is that - the way the polls are going - parliament will almost certainly be hung, meaning no one political party will hold a majority of the seats. This means that either another coalition or some kind of vote-by-vote deal between parties is highly likely. In these circumstances, the party manifestos should be treated with caution - there will have to be compromises.

  However, the manifestos still offer the best guide to what you can expect from the politicians in the aftermath of the general election, and they will form the basis of any negotiations. So, let's take a look at the damage, starting with the Labour Party:

Financial Policy

  • Labour's key financial pledge is to reduce the deficit every year, with the aim of running a surplus by the end of this parliament. The OBR projects this will be achieved by 2018-19
  • Income Tax will see significant reform, with the top rate (payable on income over £150,000) rising to its pre-2010 level of 50%. There will also be a new lower rate of 10% for people on very low incomes
  • VAT and National Insurance will not change
  • The non-domiciled tax status and the Conservatives' Marriage Tax Allowance will both be scrapped, bringing in between £1.5 and £4 billion
  • The party has also pledged to tackle the problem of tax avoidance - but then, everybody always does
Employment and Business

  • The minimum wage will be increased to £8 an hour by October 2019. The party will also encourage the payment of the living wage (currently £7.85) by offering tax rebates to companies which do
  • Labour's Compulsory Jobs Guarantee means that anyone out of work for over two years (one year if you're under 25) will be offered a job which they have to take, or lose their unemployment benefit
  • Labour have tried to portray themselves as the party of small business by pledging to cut and freeze business rates on over 1.5 million small business properties. They will be keeping corporation tax at its present rate, however, which does not reflect as it used to the difference between small and large companies
  • The Coalition's system of employment tribunal fees will be scrapped

Social Security

  • Labour will retain the  per-household benefits cap (£500 a week for couples or single parents, £350 for everyone else) and supports the 'principle' behind Iain Duncan Smith's Universal Credit scheme, though they have said they will pause the roll-out of this controversial policy and review it
  • Child benefit rises will also be capped for two years
  • Pensioners will retain the protection of the 'triple-lock' (which means pensions increase in line with prices, wages or 2.5%, whichever is higher) but the richest 5% will lose their Winter Fuel Allowance


  • The key Labour health policy is the repeal of the Health and Social Care Act, which has proven unpopular with NHS staff
  • The party has also pledged to reorganise physical and mental healthcare, as well as social care, into a single coherent system 'focusing on the individual'. This is a common theme of all the major parties' plans
  • Labour is also planning on a recruitment drive, and a big one: 8,000 new GPs, 20,000 nurses, 3,000 midwives and 5,000 home care workers
  • Everyone will be able to see their GP in under 48 hours, with a target of less than 24 for those who need it
  • They also plan to set up a Cancer Treatment Fund, to get waiting times for tests down below a week and provide drugs more cheaply
  • The party has pledged to cut university tuition fees to £6,000 in an attempt to snag the student vote that the Liberal Democrats abandoned with the breaking of their own promise on fees
  • Labour has also put a welcome focus on technical education, with guaranteed apprenticeships and the introduction of new Technical Degrees, identified as a priority for future university funding. They will have to do more than just increase supply to improve the UK's failing technical education system, however
  • The free schools programme is to be ended (though, to be clear, free schools already in the pipeline will still be built) but no change on academies has been mentioned
  • English and maths is to be taught to all students up until the age of 18, in a somewhat surprising move which ignores the fact that deficiencies in these subjects are rooted in very early education
  • Labour will match the Tories is preventing immigrants from accessing benefits until they have worked in the UK for two years
  • They will also ensure that all frontline staff in public services speak English
  • Illegal immigration will be tackled by hiring an extra 1,000 border staff and introducing exit checks to count people in and out of the country
Crime and Justice
  • The main Labour pledge on crime is to tackle domestic and sexual violence towards women and children. Other than a new Child Protection Unit, however, they don't really have any detail on how they will achieve this
  • They have promised to scrap the Tories' Police and Crime Commissioners - not that anyone really paid much attention to them in the first place
  • They have also said they will 'strengthen the law on disability, homophobic and transphobic hate crime' - but again, detail is lacking
  • There is a pledge to ban the sale of legal highs as well, but this will be difficult since new ones are being invented all the time
  • The key promise here is to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020 - although be careful; that means they could build no homes at all each year from now until 2019, then 200,000 in 2020 and claim they met the target. Watch the numbers
  • Labour will legislate to ensure a minimum three-year security of tenure for private tenants and to prevent letting agencies from charging tenants fees (as they already charge them to landlords, this is essentially double-profiteering)
  • Under Labour plans, Local Authorities will also have the power to forcibly purchase land if developers do not build on it quickly enough (the timeframe here is unclear)
Constitutional Reform
  • The main devolution pledge is to fulfill the Smith Commission suggestions for Scotland and to give Wales parity with Scottish powers
  • The party also plans to call a 'Constitutional Convention' to discuss replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate, among other things. Expect this to take a LONG time to report
  • The other main promise is to repeal the Lobbying Act, the so-called 'gagging law' which restricts the ability of charities to campaign against government policies
Foreign Policy and Defence
  • The keystone of Labour foreign policy is to retain Britain's nuclear deterrent and remain part of the EU  - i.e. no change
  • The party supports the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but there is little sense of how best they would approach such an aim in government
  • They will also create special envoys for Religious Freedom and LGBT Rights
Energy, Transport and the Environment
  • The party has promised to continue with the HS2 project, but continues to prevaricate over how to deal with London's pressing need for extra airport capacity
  • The old promise of a two-year freeze to energy bills has stayed with us; Labour also plan to forcibly separate the generation and supply arms of the 'Big Six' energy companies
  • Under Labour plans, public operators would be able to bid for rail franchises, but there is no hint of wholesale renationalisation
  • The UK's electricity supply is to be carbon-free by 2030 - an ambitious target
                                               (read the entire manifesto here)

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Leaders Debate Brings Hope For Progressive Politics

  The leaders' debate on Thursday was a vital opportunity for those with progressive politics to gain some traction in the mainstream of political discourse. With the three establishment parties and UKIP joined by the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, those of us on the left had something remarkably close to parity with the right. This is something which does not occur very often.

The party leaders on stage in Salford
  Although the polls conducted in the aftermath of the debate show a mixed picture, what is clear from the two-hour clash is that the three women put forward a remarkably distinct vision of Britain's future from the austere narrative of three Westminster parties and the UKIP-driven, isolationist dream of a UK cut off from the rest of the world.

  All three attacked the Lib-Lab-Con austerity programme, pointing out that Ed Miliband talks 'the language of anti-austerity' but in fact has supported many of the measures that the Coalition have implemented which have cut into the economy and our public services. Sturgeon in particular was impressive - something which I did not expect to find myself saying - laying out plans to increase spending over the next few years, which would reduce the deficit at a slower rate but which would help to stimulate demand in the economy, rather than the devastation of massive further cuts.

  Bennett, too, made a hugely important point when she put forward the case for long-term investment. Just because a project cuts a little into the balance sheet now, does not make it not worth doing if it will bring huge benefits for the future - something which many of today's politicians and journalists seem to have forgotten.

  Leanne Wood - despite her slightly, ah, wooden performance - should be applauded for facing down the anti-immigration vitriol of Nigel Farage and defending immigration as something which brings a boost to our economy and immeasurable benefits to our country in terms of cultural diversity. That the leaders of the establishment parties have bought in to Farage's fearmongering on immigration is deplorable, and the Plaid leader was right to speak out.

  Most importantly, though, the leaders of these three left-of-centre parties have injected an intangible but vastly important concept back into political discourse: that politics should be about making life better for people, not just about money and power. If GDP growth slows a little or the deficit takes a year or two longer to pay off, but public services are more easily available and the standard of living for ordinary people goes up, that that is a trade-off worth making. The obsession with unsustainable profiteering which has infected mainstream politics has finally been challenged, in front of a 7.7 million-strong audience.

  Even if the results of Thursday's debate are not felt in time for May the 7th, it is my hope that this will be a watershed moment in British politics. As we move into an era of multi-party elections and co-operative politics, hopefully the rampant individualism of the last thirty-five years will start to fade.   

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Speaker John Bercow Survives Cowardly Tory Plot to Unseat Him

  The Tories' cowardly attempt to bring down Speaker John Bercow has failed. The last-minute vote in the House of Commons today saw the government defeated by 2228 votes to 202 on a motion to make the process of voting in the Speaker of the House a secret ballot. This, despite being an apparent blow for democracy, is actually a very good thing.

Speaker John Bercow
  The election of the Speaker takes place at the beginning of each Parliament. Usually, if the sitting Speaker does not choose to step down and holds their Commons seat (which they always do, as they traditionally run unopposed by any major party) then they are re-elected as a matter of form. It is theoretically possible, however, that they could be voted out of office.

  Bercow, a former Conservative MP, has been one of the most progressive voices in terms of the conduct of Parliament, eschewing the traditional robes of his office in favour of a simple gown and frequently taking MPs to task for poor behaviour in the House. He has introduced a creche to Parliament to take the pressure off of those MPs who are parents - particularly mothers; he helped drive the creation of the Backbench Business Committee in 2010; and he has called for reform to the undignified, often appalling spectacle of PMQs - only to be blocked by the Tory backbenches. He is also a determined promoter of political participation to young people, appearing at numerous events. 

  The Conservative Party, however, don't like him - they look upon him as a traitor, who has abandoned his early right-wing views for a more socially liberal stance. They claim he is biased against the government, and would like to see him brought down. However, many are unwilling to vote against him in the division chambers, for fear of reprisals if they fail.

  I am instinctively torn on this issue. My instinct is that Parliament should move towards using secret ballots - not only would this allow the system to be made electronic, and thus save huge amounts of parliamentary time, it would also break the power of the whips and stop party leaderships from bullying their MPs into voting through legislation against their consciences. But to introduce it specifically for Speaker elections, and for no other votes, is both ludicrous and clearly politically motivated.

Charles Walker MP
  Moreover, the way this entire affair has been conducted is shambolic. Charles Walker MP, who chairs the Parliament's Procedure Committee, gave a speech declaring that he had been 'played like a fool' - the law had been based on a report he had given in the last Parliament, but had been ignored until today. He and many other senior parliamentarians had only been informed of the vote's imminence at the last minute. Michael Gove, the government Chief Whip, faced calls from the press gallery to resign after the debacle, having ordered a whipped party meeting before the vote.

  Speaker John Bercow has been fantastic for Parliament, and the cowardly attempt to unseat him reflects poorly on William Hague - who brought the bill - Gove and the entire Tory Party. Another disgrace to add to the list.

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Debates Debate

  The leaders' debates were an innovative feature of the 2010 General Election, giving the people of the UK the chance to see the principal contenders for their electoral affection go toe-to-toe over the major issues of the day. So far in 2015, however, they have proved an innovative way for the Conservative Party to waste everyone's time.

The History of TV Debates

  The original three debates, featuring Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, took place over a three-week period in the run-up to the election on the 6th of May. The televised verbal duel between the main contenders have been a feature of US Presidential elections for years, but - despite the efforts of previous party leaders to get them introduced since 1964 - they have not been historically used in Britain.

  The main objection to this head-to-head style of pre-election politicking is that it was suited only to a Presidential style of political leadership, which is not the way we do things in Britain. At a General Election, after all, we vote for individual MPs, not for a political party and certainly not for a party leader. In theory.
  The reality, of course, is that UK politics has become ever more Presidential over time, with the election and ten-year premiership of Tony Blair - the most President-like leader Britain has ever had in peacetime - sealing its fate. We vote, at election time, in most cases for the party we most identify with rather than the individual candidate that we best like. 

  So, the debates were introduced - at the insistence, mainly, of opposition leaders David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Now, however, Cameron is trying to get out of them. Recognising that the old argument wasn't going to wash in light of his own support of the debates just five years ago, he has turned instead to a plethora of others.


  The original proposal for the 2015 pre-election debates - all the way back in October - was for a debate between Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband, a second debate also including Nick Clegg, and a third also including UKIP boss Nigel Farage. However, several smaller parties contested this decision - in particular the Green Party, who argued that they were performing on a level more or less equal to the Lib Dems in the polls.

  This began a long saga of political tussling over how exactly the debates should be held. The broadcasters initially rejected the Greens' demand for inclusion, prompting legal action. Cameron then declared he would not take part without the Greens. Miliband, Farage and Clegg wrote letters to the PM demanding he meet their challenge, but Cameron refused to budge.

  In January, the broadcasters announced revised plans: One head-to-head between Cameron and Miliband and two seven-way debates also including Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. These plans were then confirmed on the 23rd of February, with the first seven-way to take place on the 2nd of April, the second on the 16th, and the head-to-head on the 30th of April - just a week before the election.

Political Quibbling and David Cameron's Cowardice

  These plans weren't perfect. The DUP and SInn Fein - the two principal Northern Irish parties - both complained that if the SNP and Plaid were involved, they should be too. George Galloway, the single MP for the Respect Party, made a similar argument - if the Greens were to take part, with just one MP, then his party ought to have a chance to speak too. These points are both valid criticisms.

  To my mind, the correct solution would be to have a debate between the leaders of all the parties standing nationally (Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens) and then separate debates featuring the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish leaders of those parties along with the nationalists. The head-to-head between Cameron and Miliband, as the only two realistic candidates for Prime Minister, also should go ahead. But this is really a side issue.

  Whatever the form of the debates, the main thing is that they should happen. In a system where the policies of political parties, and increasingly the calibre of their leaders, is important to how people cast their votes, we need to be able to see the people clamouring for our support make clear unambiguous statements of their views and then defend them. As David Cameron said back in 2010, they are essential for our democracy. And yet, he has proven the greatest block on them occurring of all.

  His latest objection is that the debates ought not to take place too close to the election, and therefore there isn't time any longer to stage the three debates which have been planned. The fact that the main reason that there is no time left is his own refusal to agree to the broadcasters' plans is clearly not something which bothers him. Instead, he is now calling for a single debate to take place before the end of March, including the seven leaders who the broadcasters have identified. The other seven-way and the head-to-head are to be scrapped.

  Both Cameron and the broadcasters have dug in their heels, the latter threatening to empty-chair the PM if he doesn't turn up. The problem with that, though, is that they might run afoul of pre-election impartiality rules if they allow Miliband to speak for 90 minutes in the 'head-to-head' without Cameron present. So, it becomes a war of attrition - each side trying to batter the other with enough political smears to make them cave in.

  Frankly, the reason for all this is that David Cameron is running scared. His delaying tactics have all been a ruse to fill out the larger debates with as many leaders as possible, in essence to reduce the airtime of Nigel Farage, who he knows will cut percentage points into Tory support with every minute he gets to speak. 

  His objections to the head-to-head debate are less obvious, but he fears Miliband may prove more competent in debate than people will expect him to. Most people's opinion of the Labour leader is the media-fuelled caricature of him as a bumbling buffoon, and whilst he certainly isn't the most charismatic leader Labour have ever had, he is a far more skilled public speaker than is perhaps apparent.


  At this point, it looks increasingly unlikely that the debates will happen. If they do, they will most likely be reduced to Cameron's ultimatum of the single seven-way debate before the short campaign starts on March 30th. Since this will mean having them before the parties have even published their manifestos, this makes the entire process rather less meaningful.

  Through his constant prevarications and craven cowardice, David Cameron has all but scuppered what he himself claimed were debates 'essential to our democracy'. The Prime Minister's commitment to the ideals of 'democracy' have surely to be questioned, therefore. Once again, a leading politician has put politicking before principles and sacrificed the people's right to make an informed choice about their leaders on the altar of grabbing a possible head start in the political race for No. 10.

  It is a sickening display, and he should be fully ashamed of himself. But I doubt he cares.

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Curious Case of Douglas Carswell

  Douglas Carswell was first returned to Parliament in 2005 for the Essex constituency of Harwich. A Conservative Party member since 1990, he defected to UKIP in August 2014 and stood down as MP for Clacton, triggering a by-election which he won by a landslide.

  Since then, Carswell has been one of the principal figures in the UKIP surge and an outspoken member of the party leadership. He also, however, has been reported as clashing with UKIP leader Nigel Farage on a number of occasions - something he has, of course, denied.

  But it is clear that Carswell is something apart from the mass of Ukippers. Whilst he is in line with general 'UKIP-py' policies such as opposing equal marriage for same-sex couples and scepticism about anthropogenic climate change - as well as, of course, the core UKIP mission of getting the UK out of the EU - he is something of a radical when it comes to other areas.

  Particularly of interest is his dedication to electoral reform. The Daily Telegraph named him their Briton of the Year in 2009 for his commitment to shaking up what he calls 'that cosy little clique called Westminster'. In a speech at the UKIP conference on Saturday, he outlined his proposals for changes to the electoral system.

  First on his list is recall elections. The coalition has introduced a form of this in the Recall of MPs Bill, but this is a weak form of recall which only allows voters to replace their MPs if they are sentenced to more than a year in prison or the Commons Standards Committee bans them from the House for 21 days. Carswell believes that real reform means having a threshold at which a simple petition can trigger an election - in his proposal, 20%.

  Another policy of his is to mandate that ministerial appointments are confirmed by the relevant House of Commons Committee. This procedure already occurs in the USA, and would prevent the Prime Minister from appointing favourites who do not command the confidence of the House as a whole.

  Of course, the jewel in the crown of these reforms is replacement of the archaic Single Member Plurality (or first-past-the-post) system with which we choose our MPs. Moving towards a more proportional system would, of course, benefit UKIP hugely - but it would also make Parliament far more democratic. My own article outlining the reasons for reform can be found here.

  All of this is rather sensible, and somewhat removed from the immigrant-bashing, Thatcherite-plus rhetoric of the majority of UKIP's leadership. Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage have seemed strange bedfellows since the beginning, but now with the election campaign beginning in earnest, the differences between the two may become more important.

  It is far too early to say whether the fault lines of some future split have emerged, but one thing is clear: Douglas Carswell is a UKIPper apart.

Friday, 6 February 2015

A 21st Century Crusade: The rise of the anti-Islam movement in Europe

The organisation Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida by the German acronym) has announced its first UK rally, due to take place on the 28th of February in Newcastle

In just four months, the group has racked up nearly 160,000 Facebook likes and has staged a number of protests in Germany, some attended by up to 25,000 people. Offshoots have sprung up in Denmark, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and - now - the United Kingdom.

Former Pegida leader
Lutz Bachmann
According to reports, the UK branch is expecting somewhere between 500 and 3,000 protesters to attend the rally. This is by no means, therefore, a major demonstration. Indeed, Pegida itself as a European movement has suffered serious setbacks since the height of their popularity following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. 

Founder Lutz Bachmann was forced to resign from the organisation after a photograph of him styled as Adolf Hitler went viral on the 21st of January. German politicians, including Angela Merkel, have criticised the organisation over its use of the Charlie Hebdo incident for political purposes, and counter-protests in Germany have reached the stage where they are drawing more participants than the protests themselves. 

This might seem to suggest that Pegida, less than four months after its foundation, is already on the way out. But we cannot afford to be so optimistic. Pegida itself is just one part of a wider campaign across Western Europe which is targeting Muslims as a group. The very concept of 'anti-Islamisation' is nonsensical - the Muslim population of the UK is just 4.6%; in Germany, it is 5.4%. There is no 'Islamisation'; the fastest-growing belief group across Western Europe is, in fact, atheists, not Muslims.

But the narrative has been picked up, not only by radical rightist groups like Pegida and Britain First, but by the media - and from there, it has filtered into general society. A report last October showed that anti-Muslim hate crime rose by 65% over the preceding twelve months; in France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, 24 violent incidents against mosques were logged in just six days. The last ten years have seen a seemingly inexorable upward trend in anti-Islamic sentiment across Europe, fuelling the rise of anti-immigration Parties like the French Front National and UKIP, as well as direct action groups.

There is a real danger that the actions of tiny extremist minorities on both sides will increase the polarisation of society around the issue of Islam. The stage is fast approaching where it is no longer possible to take a balanced view on the subject: one must either be an apologist for Islam in all its forms, or emphatically opposed to it. This is dangerous. Islam, like any religion, has inspired some people to do terrible things in its name, but the vast majority of its adherents are peaceable, friendly citizens of our countries. We must stand in solidarity with them.

The narrative of mutual warfare - crusaders vs. jihadists - is one which Islamist and far-right groups alike benefit from and seek to encourage. Those of us who are moderates - the vast majority - are easily capable of shrugging off the efforts of these bitter fringe elements. So let us not succumb to their poisonous rhetoric, but expound the virtues of tolerance and liberty and the right and ability of the human species to live in harmony despite our differences.

The 'crusaders' of the 21st century are no less brutal and self-serving than those of the 11th. We should treat them and their misguided 'anti-Islamisation' campaign with the contempt they deserve.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

A Royal Coup? – Queen Guitarist Brian May Considering Standing for Election

Brian May might not be of the House of Windsor, but the Queen guitarist is certainly rock royalty, and earlier today (4th February 2015) his agent announced that the 67-year-old is considering standing as an MP in the 2015 General Election. Coming on the heels of comedian Al Murray’s decision to stand against Nigel Farage in Thanet South (albeit in his guise as the Pub Landlord), it seems like 2015 may follow in Britain’s fine tradition of celebrity candidates.
However, whereas Murray’s campaign is – I’m sure the guv’nor himself would admit – a bit of a joke, May’s political credentials are a touch more serious. The CBE he was awarded in 2005 was a decoration both for his services to music and his charity work; for May, as well as penning hits such as ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘The Show Must Go On’ and attaining a Ph.D. in astrophysics, has also devoted much energy to campaigning, principally on behalf of wildlife.
He – along with actor and fellow Brian, Brian Blessed – led the Team Badger (with the unfortunate acronym TB) campaign against the proposed badger cull in 2013. May also heads the organisation ‘Save Me’, dedicated to protecting animal rights, particularly with regards to fox hunting and badger culling.
His campaigning, however, has since expanded from the sphere of animal welfare: the Common Decency initiative, founded by May just last month, focuses on reform to Parliament and our democratic system, intending to root out corruption from Parliament and establish a new system whereby MPs vote according to their conscience, not strict party discipline. It is under the banner of Common Decency that May’s proposed Parliamentary bid – if it materialises – will be fought.
Brian May’s announcement today is more, then, than just another celebrity poking their nose into politics for an extra five minutes in the limelight. The Common Decency initiative is aimed at one of the greatest problems with modern British democracy – that MPs simply do not represent the people, leaving us effectively powerless. The fact that May – a self-confessed habitual Tory voter – has decided to throw his weight behind this important issue shows just how far the traditional parties have failed the electorate.
If he does choose to stand at the General Election, there will no doubt be people lining up to vote for him. I, for one, hope that he does, and brings a little new life and new energy into our stifled political system. Long live the Queen!

Monday, 26 January 2015

Victory for Syriza

  Syriza, the left-wing alliance, have won the Greek elections. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has been following the situation - all the pre-election polls pointed towards this result. Nevertheless, this is a pivotal moment in not just Greek but European politics: The first time since the financial crash that any Eurozone country has had a government opposed to ruthless austerity.

  The votes at the time of writing have not all been counted, but Syriza looks set to win 149 seats in the Greek parliament - just two short of an absolute majority. In order to form a majority government, therefore, they need a coalition partner willing to work with them against EU austerity. That partner is the right-wing Independent Greeks party, led by Panos Kamnenos, a splinter from the centre-right New Democracy. Both parties are fiercely opposed to austerity and to EU interference in Greece. 

  Independent Greeks have 13 seats in the new parliament, giving the coalition a majority of 11 - not ideal, but still a massive achievement for Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras. At the age of 40, he is the youngest Prime Minister Greece has had for 150 years, and he has transformed Syriza from a fringe party of the left into the largest in Greece. 

  Syriza's victory changes everything. Tsipras has stated that he does not intend to leave the Eurozone, but has made it perfectly clear that he is no Europhile either. Syriza's partnership with the Independent Greeks will also bring a more Eurosceptic bent to the new coalition government. The policy clash between the two partners on non-economic issues, such as immigration and the position of the Greek Orthodox Church, may also cause problems down the line. However, for now Greece appears to have a dynamic, anti-neoliberal government capable perhaps of overturning the austerity measures imposed by the Eurozone's central command.

  Make no mistake, the election of Syriza is not a panacea. Greece's Eurozone partners, particularly Germany, will be as determined to preserve the status quo as Syriza is to overturn it. Centre-left figures such as France's Francois Hollande and Italy's Matteo Renzi have failed to overturn the austerity consensus at the EU level, and Syriza will have to work with others across Europe if they intend to succeed. 

  But Syriza, unlike the previous New Democracy government, offer the Greeks hope. The economy of Greece buckled under austerity, contracting by 25% under the ministrations of the so-called 'troika' (the ECB, IMF and European Commission). Austerity has failed in Greece as it has across Europe. The Syriza victory will spur the anti-austerity movement across the continent. With general elections set to take place in the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Spain (where the left-wing Podemos is vying with the governing People's Party for first place), 2015 may well be the year in which the ideology of European austerity crumbles.

  We can but hope. And vote.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo: A Warmongers' Dream

  Unless you have been absent from the planet Earth for the last week or so, you will know that Islamist terrorists killed 17 people in Paris and the surrounding area over the three days from the 7th to the 9th of January 2015. This was the most deadly act of terror in France since 1961. 

  The attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) was carried out by Islamists apparently connected to al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch, while the gunman who struck the kosher supermarket Hypercasher near the Port de Vincennes self-declared his membership of ISIS.

  On the 11th of January, 3.7 million people marched in Paris and other cities throughout France to show their unity in the face of these terrorist networks' actions. The march was led by the families of the victims and more than 40 world leaders, including the French President, the British Prime Minister and German Chancellor. 

  These were the largest rallies in France since the liberation of Paris from Nazi German occupation in 1944. They were also a moving demonstration of the unity of not just the French people but also of the global community in the face of the despicable, murderous actions of Islamist extremists. The fact that the rally was attended by both the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of Palestine underscores just how important a show of unity this march was.

  And then, on the 12th of January, France announced it would deploy 10,000 soldiers and armed police onto its streets.

  The political necessity for such a show of strength, I understand. Hollande, France's embattled President, needs to salvage some credibility from the disaster that this attack has been. It may also be that there is a valid strategic and security reason for this massive mobilisation, which has already begun. But the deployment has been accompanied by such violent, warmongering rhetoric that I fear the consequences.

  In less than a week since the shootings, more than 50 anti-Muslim hate crime incidents have been registered across France. That is a worrying trend. The presence of ten thousand armed men on the streets will not calm this - it will fuel the fires. What is suspiciously close to a declaration of martial law is a move which will cause further polarisation, in France and across Europe.

  And that's what they want. The Porte de Vincennes gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, said in his ISIS propaganda video that his actions were in defence of the Palestinian people and in protest of the Coalition actions in Syria, Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq. Make no mistake, in his mind his murders were an act of war. Responding to rhetoric of war in kind will only worsen the situation. And the more Muslims in European countries suffer as a result of the backlash against these incidents, the easier it will be for Islamists to radicalise young Muslims in future.

  The ideology of these people - Salafi-Jihadism (ultraconservative Wahhabist Islam mixed with a quasi-fascistic personality cult and the willingness to undertake violent jihad) - is vile, make no mistake. It should be eradicated. But we must remember firstly that the ideology is our enemy first and foremost, and that the young men brainwashed by its demagogic leaders are victims of the virus. 

   That does not mean we should not defend ourselves against them. I am no pacifist. But we also cannot afford to become locked into an exchange of violent and ever-ratcheting rhetoric with the adherents of Salafi-Jihadism. That will only play into the hands of warmongers like Marine le Pen in France and Britain First here in Britain. And we especially must not allow our justified anger to spill over into attacks on moderate, law-abiding Muslims in our own countries or overseas.

  We may be Charlie. But we are all humans first.
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