Monday, May 25, 2015

Votes for 16 in EU Referendum?

Huh.  What do I know?  Having been dismissive of the idea that votes for 16 year olds is on the agenda at the moment (see post below), I caught this story in the Guardian.  Apparently Labour and the SNP may make common cause to at least secure the reduced voting age for the EU referendum.  In this instance such a move, if successful, could be a boost for the Yes camp, although generalising about the capricious young is always a bad idea.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Young Voters make a difference

There continues to be debate amongst politics students, political scientists and crowd-pleasing politicians at student conferences over the voting age.  Should it be reduced to 16?

Unlikely though it is to happen, it becomes a prescient question in the light of two recent referendums.  The 2014 Scottish referendum allowed 16 and 17 year olds to join the vote, and saw a huge proportion of that age group give momentum to the Yes vote, for full devolution.  Then came yesterday's vote on gay marriage in Ireland.  Passing by a 62% vote, few doubt that young Irish voters felt particularly mobilised to join the referendum, even travelling from hideouts abroad to do so.  Now the youth vote alone did not give Ireland a constitutional amendment which introduced gay marriage equality.  In Scotland, the reduction in the vote to 16 did not ultimately produce devolution either.  But in both cases, a radical change to the status quo was given momentum, and the possibility of popular consent, by the presence of a motivated youth vote.

Votes for 16 may not be on the agenda, but an enfranchised and mobilised youth vote would change the political landscape in future landscapes, almost certainly away from the traditional party structures.  Perhaps that's one reason for them to steer clear.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

UKIP and the politics of Mao

My A-level students are sitting their exam on twentieth century Chinese history this afternoon.  It is an extraordinary topic, dominated by the figure of Mao Zedong.  Mao may have started with great ambition and ideals for his country, but most remember him now as the power-crazed lunatic who led China into the Great Leap Forward (deaths 40 million, though many estimate higher) and the Cultural Revolution (deaths around 1 million, and a devastated Chinese educational and cultural landscape).

One of the incidents I hope my students will recall is Mao's reaction to some criticism levelled against him by an old and trusted colleague. When Peng Dehuai, then the defence minister and head of the army, dared to broach some criticisms of Mao's plans for what proved to be the disastrous Great Leap Forward, he was greeted by a storm of abuse.  Mao took him to task in front of the Communist elite, gathered at a conference in Lushan, blasted him for his temerity in launching such obviously unjustified and personal attacks, and had him removed from all his party jobs and sent into internal exile.  But then, Mao had become the Commmunist Party's only big cheese by this time and was tempted to see any criticism of him or his policies as a bid for power.  Although he had stood down from the presidency, he decided the party needed him to stay on as leader.  Paranoia would later drive him to creating the bizarre and costly Cultural Revolution.  But at least he stayed in office as Communist leader until his death.

On a separate issue, I'm hoping my politics students are noting the shenanigans within UKIP.  Nigel Farage has shown that a determined leader can really hold on to power, although it's a shame that two of his most senior allies, who broached some criticism last week, have now 'resigned' their posts. Farage reigns triumphant it seems.

Don't know why those two unrelated issues crept into my mind.  Must be the exam season effect.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Skinner 1, SNP 0

Perhaps Scottish Labour could requisition the services of Dennis Skinner, the "Beast of Bolsover".  The parliamentary veteran and plain speaker has defeated them in their first attempt to remove him from the seat he's been occupying for 45 years or so.  These SNP types, for all of their bread and chip suppers on the terrace and their take-over of Labour's favourite bar, are wimps after all.

Of course this is all rather arcane and of no significance to the average voter whatsoever.  But the increasing issue of the 56 SNP MPs is this.  What will all these MPs actually do, given that most of the issues affecting their constituents are dealt with now by the MSPs of the Scottish Parliament?  What is the British taxpayer awarding them £67,000 for?

Time to move on with devolution and save at least £3,752,000 a year straight off.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Those who can, organise; those who can't, commentate

Lynton Crosby is certainly entitled to a bit of triumphalism.  Getting Boris to London City Hall is one thing, but getting David Cameron back to Downing Street with a majority against all the odds certainly ranks as one of the great Lazarus tricks of modern politics.  So well done Mr. Crosby.  If you weren't already in the super-league of international political consultants, I guess you must be not only in it but near the top of it now.

He's left us with a bit of a gift too.  Not a big speaker to the press (no good campaign manager wants to be the story during a campaign, as Alastair Campbell should have realised) he has now given a departing interview to the Daily Telegraph.  Amongst all the post-election ink flow, this one provides some of the more interesting and controversial analyses, coming as it does from the man who won.

As I read his interview, I warmed to the man, far more than I might have expected.  It was two points in particular that produced that feeling of positivity towards an undoubted political rottweiler of the right.  First, apropos of a more significant point, he quoted that well worn canard that "Those who can do, those who can't teach".  I sighed internally for a brief instinctive moment as I read that one.  No teacher in this country has gone through their lives without having that one quoted incessantly at them by hilarious friends heading off to their long lunches in the city, or gobby students who have just been told off for yet another tedious infraction.  But my sigh quickly turned to a gasp of surprise.  Crosby was quoting this to do it down.  His wife, it turns out, was a teacher and "I don't really agree with that" he said.   Well, well.  Here was a human side I hadn't realised before.  And a possible explanation for one of his earliest influences on the Conservatives' election campaign - the removal of toxic Michael Gove from the Department of Education to the hidden (until the fiasco of the attempt to unseat the Speaker) realms of Chief Whip.

But the second reason for warming to Mr. Crosby was his second, more significant point.  He claims that it is not only pollsters who should be hanging their heads for failing to misread the nation.  He has a very vigorous, and heartfelt it seems, pop at the world of the political commentariat.  He adapts his teacher comment for the world of politics to read "Those who can do, those who can't commentate."  It was a feeling I'd had myself.  Not, I hastily add, the insight that the commentators had it all wrong.  That was a Crosbian intuition based on extensive internal polling.  My feeling was an increasing level of irritation at the apparently all knowingness of commentators who hadn't stepped out of the metropolitan bubble.  I blogged about it here, getting particularly irate at the desire of the commentators to keep knocking the campaign for its dullness instead of perhaps trying to enagage a little more deeply with the actual issues.  Andrew Marr was an annoying example of one who praised the wonderful brilliance of the commentariat but thought the actual campaign being waged by, you know, actual politicians on the ground, was just "tooth-grindingly awful".

Well, Crosby has launched his mighty artillery at them, and is firing a shot in defence of those who have bothered to participate.  The street pounders, canvassers, representatives and their agents, all seeking to do something a bit more than carp from the sidelines.

We need good commentators.  At their best they provide a much needed guide to the often treacherous paths of political discourse.  Divorced from the need to please an electorate they can bring some objective perceptions that illuminate the world that should so fascinate all of us.  But Crosby rightly condemns those who seem to see politics more as entertainment.  Better paid than many of the ordinaries whose vote is the warp and weft of the active politicians' work and voice, they have become too comfortable in their carping sanctimony.  I don't agree with his picking out of Tim Montgomerie necessarily, who has after all been engaged with the political world of both policy and voters rather more directly than many writers, but I do laud his broader principle.

We get the politics we deserve, but very often it is the media not the politicians themselves who too often frame our polity.  Yes, they should start taking some responsibility for that.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Chuka's withdrawal

Chuka Umunna was never considered to lack ambition, and had long been talked of as a future leader.  His unexpected withdrawal from the leadership race raises questions that reflect poorly on the current state of our political and media relations.

Mr. Umunna states that he thought he was ready for the pressure that being a leadership candidate would bring but had under-estimated the level of coverage and intrusion that it actually brought.  This does not appear to be a candidate running away from a potential scandal.  This seems to be a man who has looked over the parapet and decided he wants to have a life rather than run into the no man's land of leadership coverage.  In this, he follows another Labour MP who looked like a good bet for a party seeking able and empathetic figures to lead it, Dan Jarvis.  Mr. Jarvis decided not to enter the race because of the potential impact on his young family.

Chuka Umunna has done his soul-searching and reached a pretty rapid conclusion.  But I wonder if his withdrawal shouldn't precipitate soul-searching on the part of those who report on such things.  If overly intrusive and hurtful media coverage really does form part of the reason for his decision not to go any further, then we need to reflect on whether our hugely judgmental and often savage coverage of politicians needs better restraint.

Alan Johnson, another able and potentially effective quondam leadership candidate, once decided he wanted nothing to do with the top job.  Chuka has followed suit.  Are we really happy that we have created a media circus which actively turns able people away, and rewards only the monumentally egoistic and exhibitionist?

The hell keeps on coming for Labour

There was an outpouring of Blairite angst over the Miliband election campaign last week, but the hell isn't over yet for the "Hell, yeah" leader.  Today's "Times" sees political columnist Philip Collins provide one of the most seering condemnations of the Miliband experiment that I've read.  It makes Peter Mandelson sound like Bagpuss.

Collins' first targets are the "cavalry of denial" who are lining up to contest the Labour leadership, so Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham.  Noting that Labour's electoral problem was as significant in England as in the much reported Scotland, he describes Yvette Cooper's recent article for the "Mirror" as "a platitudinous, intern-drafted press release for the Pontefract and Castleford Express", taking her to task for the blithe belief that the average voter really liked a lot of what Labour was saying.  Er, no they didn't, notes Collins.

On to Andy Burnham, whom he beautifully stilletos for being "close to tears about how much he loves the NHS" during the election campaign, and goes on to lambast for his belief that millions of people need to have an "emotional connection" with the Labour Party.  Responds Collins, "Normal people, in the normal world, have emotional attachments to their families not the Labour Party".  On Burnham's leadership bid, the columnist says that "I don't mind that Mr Burnham is Len McCluskey's candidate but it really worries me that he might be George Osborne's". (There is, by the way, a fantastically vituperative several lines aimed at McCluskey's wretched impact on the Labour Party concluding "belt up and leave the politics to people who know what they're doing.")

But it is Ed Miliband for whom Philip Collins reserves his most scathing ire.  Noting that Mr. Miliband shows little sign of acknowledging that his whole election strategy might have been wrong, based as it was on a misguided belief that the country had somehow moved, or could be persuaded to move, sharp left, Collins takes the former leader to task for his vain and misguided campiagn.  Suggesting that the Miliband strategy was to speak only to the 2% of the rich and 8% of the poor, but not to the unsqueezed middle in between, he writes:

"The Labour party in 2015 became the victim of a ghastly atavistic dispute, the lab rat for Mr Miliband's experiment in proving that his father, who insisted there was no parliamentary road to socialism, was right all along."

It is a tour de force of an article, well worth the price of today's "Times" (it is behind a paywall online, but cough up for a copy; if we don't pay for our journalism we'll end up with only having uninformed free stuff and that's no future for comment or reportage).  Andy Burnham is overdue for a bit of well placed lambasting.  A ghastly, over-emotional head in the sand denier of even his own previous record as Health Secretary, he must indeed be the preferred choice of the Tory Party for next Labour leader.  He's good for another few constituency defections in five years time if anybody is.  But Miliband too, in his absolute conviction that he was the right leader for Labour, a conviction that took him to fratricide and then to five years of sheer bloody torture for his party as they tried to convince themselves that he would come good in the end, is overdue for a bit of effective dousing.

Collins suggests that there could be optimism for the Labour party if they bother to heed the lines of the re-awakened Blairites and go for a next generation leader like Umunna, Kendall or Hunt.  He's almost certainly right.  If the Tories are worried that the next five years will watch them slowly unravel and expose their fractious tensions to the electorate, they will be praying that Len McCluskey remains the most influential player in the choice of the next Labour leader.  

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A One Nation PM and his Thatcherite Cabinet

David Cameron gave a dignified and well considered speech on hearing of his final victory in the election. Able to lead with a Conservative majority, he described himself as a "One Nation" prime minister, making a clear pitch to position himself in the centre of British politics.  He at least, it seemed, was not taking the erroneous lesson from the election that Britain is a naturally right-wing country.  Instead, he was making a valiant attempt to reclaim the most potent Tory brand in electoral politics.  His cabinet appointments, however, have rather belied his own personal branding, for David Cameron has, on the surface of it, appointed one of the most right-wing Conservative Cabinets ever.  Not even Margaret Thatcher could boast such a Thatcherite cabinet.

Take the early appointments.  Michael Gove at Justice, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Defence's Michael Fallon - all have articulated routinely Thatcherite positions.  Hammond, who favours leaving the EU, is probably the most euro-sceptic of modern Tory foreign secretaries.  Gove is a Thatcherite radical par excellence, delighting in challenging and doing battle with public sector institutions and relishing confrontation over emollience.  Michael Fallon cut his teeth as a Thatcherite junior minister in earlier administrations.  Iain Duncan Smith has been a radical and right-wing reformer of welfare for the past five years, and won the Conservative leadership as a definably Thatcherite candidate who had led backbench rebellions over Europe.

Then we have Chris Grayling.  He may not be running a department any more, but his post as Leader of the Commons owes much to his right-wing credentials and the belief that he is well placed to act as a conduit between the all important right-wing and activist backbench MPs and the government.

Theresa May was once the party chairman who described the Tories as "the nasty party" (or at any rate accurately saw that that was the widely held perception), but she has also been a vigorous Home Secretary taking on the vested interests of the police and pursuing an approach that would have set well in Thatcher's governments - better than the late PMs own largely centrist Home Secretaries.

And then consider the newcomers.  John Whittingdale, whose only previous government role has been as private secretary to Mrs Thatcher herself, and who can be counted the most "BBC sceptic" Culture Secretary to hold the post.  Right-wingers who believe in the virtues of free market foreign ownership - especially Rupert Murdoch's - over home-funded media will be delighting in Mr. Whittingdale's appointment.  Sajid Javid at Business and Priti Patel, who attends cabinet, are also among the more Thatcherite of the Tory Party's MPs, hence their frequent trumpeting by conservative commentators.  (And able as they are, I do wish we could stop hearing about their parents' struggles as if somehow they were the experience of the children).

In contrast, there are no cheerleaders for One Nation Conservatism in the cabinet.  Moderate ministers such as Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd mark a more emollient conservatism than most of their cabinet colleagues, but that in itself hardly stands as a vigorous and articulate proposition for One Nation Conservatism.

Finally, where stands the most important member of the cabinet after Cameron himself?  George Osborne is a strategist of skill, and has been a largely canny Chancellor in his pursuit of austerity, but just enough.  His actual political view is difficult to define.  He's no One Nationer, but he is also no clearly fixed Thatcherite either.  Like his friend the Prime Minister, he is an arch pragmatist, seeking office for a party which prides competence over ideology - a very traditional Conservative approach.

So how seriously should we take Mr. Cameron's One Nation protestations?  To some extent, his Thatcherite cabinet has a degree of inevitability about it.  His new appointments have been made with competence and effectiveness as much in mind as any desire to appeal to a noisy right-wing backbench dominance.  Javid and Patel not only represent a welcome diversity, but more importantly have reached their posts on the basis of their obvious ability and - particularly in Ms Patel's case - appeal as people who can speak human.  Whittingdale has more experience of dealing with and inspecting issues relating to culture, media and sport than any other MP.  To bring his experience into cabinet was a fine move.  Fallon and Hammond are intelligent men who have only been in their offices for a year or so and have been making clear marks in running them - keeping them in place was redolent of Cameron's praise-worthy desire for government to have continuity of ability and experience.

Mr. Cameron's Thatcherite cabinet thus reflects the reality of modern Tory politics.  The Lady's legacy was a whole generation of activists who shared her ideology and who have now matured into the upper ranks of government.  It's not so much that David Cameron wouldn't want to appoint One Nation ministers.  It's just that Ken Clarke's departure marked the end of that particular beast.  If the Prime Minister really is a One Nation Conservative, then we will see the consequences of that in another decade or two.  Just as Thatcher governed with plenty of Tory lefties but still imposed her signature on it, so Mr. Cameron may be able to do so in reverse, whilst still utilising the abilities of a pretty first-rank cabinet.  The Tories, though they don't know it yet, may be in for another gradual transition.









Thursday, May 07, 2015

Was it a bad campaign, or are we bad voters?

It's the anniversary of the defeat of Germany in 1945 today.  Many have said that the western countries were fighting to preserve liberty and democracy.  At least in part.  So it might be worth considering the state of the democracy that today's anniversary kept in being.

As commentators use up the last of their "what sort of coalition are we likely to have" scenarios, they've turned to the "what a dreadful campaign it's been" ones.  This has been most eloquently - and perhaps lengthily - illustrated by Michael Deacon's piece in today's Telegraph, but he is not alone.

It's a moot point as to how seriously we should take the journalistic moaning of stagnant campaigns.  Politicians are where they are, and do what they do, largely as a consequence of the way our brave journo have covered previous campaigns, and cover politicians generally.  Douglas Murray has identified this aspect of the state of our democracy most clearly in this piece for the Spectator.

He notes, first, that:

Of course the result is aggravating, in part because we keep trying to enjoy contradictory things. For instance at some point in recent years it was decided that any statement outside a vague centre-left orthodoxy constituted a ‘gaffe’. Such ‘gaffes’ get highlighted by the media who then seek denunciations of the ‘gaffe’ from any member of the public. The result is that politicians now treat words like landmines and try to speak only in the bland language of political orthodoxy. We are obviously not entirely happy with this arrangement because at the same time as having created this type of politics we complain that our politicians are all similar, dull identikit figures.
Or take the striking reluctance of the major party leaders to meet any ordinary voters. There was a time, not long ago, when even a Prime Minister could get up on a stage at election time, address an audience and take the risk that the audience might include doubters, hecklers and even political opponents. But then the cameras began to flock to anyone who challenged the politicians and presented them not as one person with an opinion, but as the authentic voice of the people and a possible game-changer in an election. After several rounds of this, the parties clearly recognised that the negatives associated with meeting the general public vastly outweighed any positives. This isn’t so much the case for the small parties, who have less to lose, but for the main parties, meeting just one angry member of the public can now derail a whole campaign.
And he goes on:

Whose fault is this? Well it is the media’s of course. But it is also the fault of us, the public, for pushing politicians away even as we complain that they are ignoring us. In the same way that it is our fault for wishing for impossible things from our leaders while giving them a pass for failing at possible things.

There is a great deal more in his article, one of the must-reads for anyone wondering how we have got where we are today.  But today of all days, when we get to exercise our right to freely choose the men and women who will represent us and form our government, in a process that we've kept not least because of sacrifices made in a war which concluded 70 years ago, we might like to ask whether there are any, rather smaller, sacrifices we ourselves could make to ensure its health.








Friday, May 01, 2015

Sparing a thought for the poor bloody politicians

I know we shouldn't be too sympathetic towards our would-be leaders.  They're grasping, lying, slippery, power-hungry egoists out for themselves and likely to ruin us all in the process.  Aren't they?

It's not a popular thought, I own, but I do have more than a sneaking sympathy for the plight of our putative representatives, and especially their leaders.  Pounding the streets day after day, meeting inordinate numbers of punters who are all experts in everything, having to be nice to even the most moronic questioner....it's not exactly an idyllic existence.  One of my friends, soon to be elected if the runes are right, is about to depart a well paid job with some decent off-time, for a relentless, looking-glass existence which will require far more hours of his time and yield a far smaller income.  And yet he's pretty cheerful about it, because at last he's got a chance to engage in public service of the highest level.

They're all expected to take bucket-loads of abuse from we armchair commentators and electors, as we relish our chance to exercise our own power at the ballot box.  Take last night's Question Time.  Nearly all of the commentaries and social media wisdom has claimed that the real winner were the audience.  That great, gritty, hard-hitting and unimpressed audience.  Yes, they offered some good questions occasionally, although none of them showed startling insight or illumination.  And none of them, of course, offered any positive alternatives.  They were there to challenge the leaders, not come up with ideas for the future.  They had the easy bit.  Have a go at the leaders whose job is to take it, and don't take any responsibility for coming up with workable policies.

And not all of the questions were that good.  The guy who asked Nick Clegg - again - about tuition fees.  Seriously?  After five years of hearing nothing but this issue being debated that's still a good question?  But Nick Clegg had to take it and answer politely, as if he'd been gifted some unique and brilliant political insight.  A pity, really, that he couldn't just pull a withering look of contempt, ask the guy where he'd been for the past five years, and then deliver a robust lecture on how our political system actually works.  If the British public's over-riding concern had been the abolition of tuition fees they should have voted Liberal, right?  But they didn't.  So we keep a version - a better one as it turned out - of tuition fees.

That's just one example.  The audience played to type, asked the questions that have been hovering round the politosphere for ages, and sat back to watch their victims smile inanely, tell them that was a great question, and try to come up with something that wouldn't alienate everyone.  They weren't a great audience, they were a standard one, and they were more involved in politics - taking a couple of hours to sit in a television studio - than the average voter.

Commentators are even worse.  Andrew Marr, the doyen of the political commentariat, who gets to pontificate on politics from his well paid perch at the BBC every week, recently wrote in the Spectator, that "We have the most extraordinary array of digital, paper and broadcasting media at our fingertips — excellent political columnists, shrewd and experienced number-crunchers, vivid bloggers and dedicated fact-checkers." Quite.  Let's praise the brilliant commentators and analysts and number-crunchers.  All people who have opted out of the significantly more difficult task of actually representing and governing, to simply talk about it.  If they're all so brilliant and worthy of our respect, why don't they bother standing?  Too much like hard work perhaps?  Not as well paid maybe?  Not nearly as much fun as carping...sorry, commentating brilliantly from the sidelines. 

Marr then when on to bemoan the political parties for not giving enough detail and providing us with a "tooth-grindingly awful election".

He should know that politicians give evasive answers because every time they give the truth they can expect huge amounts of ordure from the very commentariat that Marr represents.  We want to give our politicians a hard time, and we want them to square all of our political circles, and like Mr. Marr we don't want to be bothered with the tooth-grindingly difficult task of coming up with answers ourselves.

So spare a thought for our wannabe politicos.  They are at least the ones who have put their heads above the parapet and offered themselves for service - and a good deal of pain - in the interests of their country.  We'll hate what they do, criticise their attempts to offer us insights, encourage their evasiveness and then blame them for dishonesty.  It's called democracy, and we get the politicians we deserve.  Especially when we abjure the tough job of standing ourselves.



Thursday, April 30, 2015

An Unusual Election - three defining characteristics

Three things mark this election as unusual. 

One is the remarkable paucity of actual policy debate.  Yes, there’s been some to and fro on housing, a modicum of difference on tax generation, but outside of the narrow-cast debate on the economy very little of substance has been thriving. 

Defence?  Michael Fallon wants us to fear the SNP’s bid to get rid of Trident, but offers little in the form of positive defence policy for himself.  Foreign Affairs?  Ed Miliband briefly attended to an area that has never been an interest of his to accuse David Cameron of responsibility for migrant deaths.  But foreign affairs spokesmen have been so low-key as to be rendered unpersons, barely able to stop the traffic in their own constituencies, never mind the rest of the globe around which they potter so un-noticed.    Education?  Once hugely controversial, with Michael Gove’s disappearance from the issue it has sunk into the backwaters of little regarded speeches and rarely referenced manifesto promises that vary imperceptibly.  What about Health?  Well, yes, it’s a big issue, and that one has received coverage, but only in the “we all want more health care but aren’t sure how to pay for it” sense.  Welfare has just hit the headlines because Danny Alexander wants to fire the smoking gun of Tory plans to cut it drastically.  Otherwise, everyone has been keen to keep their plans under wraps.

There has been some notion that this has been a much more localised election instead, although such localisation often extends little further than objections to new housing plans and a desire for more health provision (as was the case in a true blue constituency I was recently canvassing in).

Two is the impending indecisiveness of the final result.  If this election produces the second hung parliament in a row, it will have dealt a decisive blow to the idea that our favoured First Past the Post system of voting essentially secures single-party governments (misleadingly also often seen as “strong”).  Since this has long been one of the main reasons for continuing to uphold a manifestly disproportionate electoral system, it may be reasonable to question what the other virtues of FPTP might be, especially if the other consequence of it materialises – the forming of a government by the second placed party in terms of vote share and possibly seats.   Like the Scottish referendum, the AV one may also be up for re-issue sooner than we could have imagined.

Mention of Scotland brings us, of course, to the third characteristic of this election.   The role of the Scottish National Party, and the future of Scotland itself, has played  a larger part than ever before.  For the first time in over a century, a block of MPs from one part of the United Kingdom have the opportunity to significantly influence the agenda of the rest of the UK in their favour.  Like the Irish Nationalist politicians before them, no-one doubts that, whatever Nicola Sturgeon may be saying for election purposes, the aim of the SNP block in the House of Commons will be to ultimately secure independence for Scotland.  It is true that the party’s extraordinary success this time round has arisen in part from the failure of the three UK-wide parties to maintain the engagement of the Scots in the mundane routine of legislation.  It is also true that the once dominant Labour Party has neglected its fiefdom too much and finally sent it revolting – the failing of one-party systems the world over.  But it is the issue of devolution which has really spurred the SNP rise, keeping the issue of Union firmly on the Scottish agenda despite the rejection of independence last year.

Nonetheless, the eventual impact of the SNP has been exaggerated.  They may become the third largest party in the Commons, but their actual ability to sway the agenda there is far more limited than the campaign paranoia has suggested.  George Eaton makes the point well in the New Statesman.  Nicola Sturgeon’s absolute refusal to countenance a Conservative government has in reality limited her room for manoeuvre with respect to a Labour one.  She cannot act against a Labour government without incurring the significant wrath of those of her supporters who take her anti-Tory commitments at face value.  Ed Miliband has actually got a pretty free space for action without SNP interference.

For all the Scottish noise and fury though, it is still England which is at the heart and centre of the election, and it is English issues – some institutional and long-term – which have moulded its course. England remains an ultra-centralised country which does not have its own dedicated government.  It is a country where localism fails to engender any local support, but scepticism towards the centre also remains endemic.  To have a good understanding of England today requires a strong sense of the country’s history and evolution.  Robert Tombs, the author of the sort of brilliant, sympathetic and perceptive study that England is not often fortunate enough to have, has produced a wonderful distillation of some of the key aspects of England’s past that shed light on our current election.  It is an article that bears further comment, but for now I urge you to read it at the New Statesman’s site.


How the three characteristics above play out after May 7th is part of the fascination of the present contest.  We may know the allocation of seats on May 8th., but I suspect we will still be some way off knowing which party, and which leader, is going to be able to take us through the next few, constitutionally turbulent, years. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Union Under Threat?

The devolution referendum proved a hollow victory in the end for unionists.  Losing the campaign for hearts and minds, the southern party leaders came up with an extraordinary pledge that stretched the idea of union to breaking point.  It also added something into the referendum mix that wasn't actually on the ballot at all.  No-one can say whether or not the final result really was a vote for the Union, or in actuality a vote for the devo-max that English leaders were offering by the end.  Then, as soon as the vote was passed, David Cameron, the quintessentially English leader with the very Scottish name, sought immediate political advantage by demanding English Votes for English Laws.  He has also been happy to put himself forward in this election campaign as an English, rather than British, leader.

Well, the SNP advance in Scotland continues apace it seems, such that polls today suggest they could sweep the board and take all of Scotland's 59 MPs.  What has so signally failed with the Union, we should be asking here in England, that the Scots have turned so wholly towards its nationalist party.  And this despite the distinctly chequered record of that same party in the Scottish government.

Is the Union under threat?  It would certainly be foolish to imagine that it is safe and cosy.  The Spectator's Scottish editor, Alex Massie, has been writing regularly and forcefully about English and Conservative indifference to Scotland, and his piece today strikes an even harder note.  It is quite probable that while the election comes up with an ambivalent result in England and Wales, it produces a very clear result in Scotland.  A result that says the Union as we know it is over.



Election Notes 2 - Brand, Legitimacy and a Defence Fail

Brand meets Miliband....or Vice Versa

Difficult to know who was the most important of the two in yesterday's Miliband versus Brand meeting, but it's certainly caused waves and who knows, that might be what Ed Miliband really wanted.  after all, he was never going to get an intelligible political debate from Russell Brand.

Miliband has been making more, and more interesting, waves this election than David Cameron, and that should worry the Tories.  He has taken them - and his own party - by surprise with a pretty good campaign so far, and while some of his moments have been awful ("Hell, yes" springs to mind), on the whole he's trumped expectations pretty niftily.  That should at any rate be a warning to the Tories who keep insisting on employing negative campaigner Lynton Crosby - do someone down too much and you'll find they merely have to walk unaided to appear triumphant.

Inevitably, the two camps on the Brand interview are the right-wing one, broadly following David Cameron's effective line that Brand may be funny, but the election is not a joke (some might dispute the first part of that statement), and the liberal "Brand has something to say" camp, praising Miliband for reaching to young voters via the Brand network.  Interestingly, the ever wordy Hugo Rifkind of the Spectator is in the latter camp here, while the other newspaper views can be seen here.



Legitimacy

The question of whether a prime minister is legitimate if his party is only second is dealt with effectively by prominent politics academic Philip Cowley here.  He reiterates the nature of our system - its the numbers, and that means seats - in a column that should be read by anyone remotely interested in a quick road-check of how our constitution actually works when it comes to passing laws in parliament.


Defence Fail

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has had a pretty awful election, coming up with fear stories about Trident and the SNP effect.  It didn't get any better for him last night with his Daily Politics debate, as the Spectator's Isabel Hardman comments, although she does try and suggest he is simply following someone else's line on this (Lynton Crosby, are you there?)

The Tories used to be pretty solidly the party of defence.  This election they're keeping quiet about it for the most part, knowing that they can't and won't guarantee the 2% of GDP they want other NATO countries to spend on it, and virtually conceding defence as an issue to anyone else who will take it.   It's a shambolic position, entirely in line with what has been an increasingly patched up foreign policy approach all round that is beginning to leave Britain marginalsied.  Voting Conservative for Britain's strong place in the world is not a line anyone could take without a smirk these days.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Tories' constitutional malice

The Conservative party used to be one of rectitude and respect for the constitution.  No longer, if its tactics in this election are anything to go by.  Take its approach to Scotland and the issue of parliamentary legitimacy.

Dave's SNP Card

David Cameron's attempt to corral votes by raising the spectre of SNP power at Westminster is a pretty negative tactic, and of course will do nothing to endear Scottish voters to the Tory party in Scotland one suspects, but it may be paying dividends.  Albeit on the margins.  A poll in the Independent reports that the prospect of a Labour-SNP deal is indeed off-putting to a number of voters - one in four is the number cited. This has not yet, of course, translated into actual votes, or even definite determinations to vote Tory.  The main polls still suggest the Tories are struggling to keep much of a lead, although yesterday's Ashcroft poll showed a 6-point lead for them, the largest yet.

The problem with Cameron's SNP tactic is that it threatens the very Union he believes in, by suggesting it is wrong for Scottish voters to have an impact on Westminster decision making.  It also seeks to exploit English nationalism, a dangerous approach which will be difficult, or impossible, to reverse.

It might have been more effective to try and undermine the SNP on the basis of their policies and their own rule in Scotland.  When Eddie Mair interviewed SNP MP Angus Robertson on PM last week, he had him blustering when challenging him on the failure of the SNP government to reduce A and E waiting times.

There is also a peculiarity in the steamroller impact that the SNP is having in Scotland.  This avowedly independence oriented party is winning all before it in a nation which voted against independence by a margin of 10%.  It is surprising, to say the least, that unionism has not yet managed to find a ready challenge, perhaps via tactical voting.  This is a graphic sign of the failure of the major parties in Scotland, especially the once dominant Labour party.  If the election result forces all of them to review their strategy in Scotland it will be one worthwhile result.

Legitimacy?

The issue of whether it would be legitimate for Ed Miliband to take office as PM even if he comes second in vote share or seats is still haunting the election.  Theresa May - unworthily - raised it, and a Newsnight ComRes poll suggested that it was something that voters increasingly feel is a post-election issue.  It isn't, and the poll exhibits a general non-understanding of the British constitution amongst voters, but when senior politicians are willing to play around with such nonsense it is hardly surprising that it might gain traction.

The Tories are not, in sum, doing themselves much justice when it comes to constitutional issues.  David Cameron uses scare tactics to gain English support at the expense of the Scottish support his party has recently found it so difficult to pursue.  His Home Secretary produces wilfully wrong-headed and malicious interpretations of basic constitutional assumptions.  If they do return to government, it will be as a severely reduced party in terms of its constitutional integrity, and that serves no-one well.

Belated Boris Comment!

When students in Year 10 (14 and 15 years old, for those unfamiliar with our education staging system) ask you whether you've seen the Boris interview, you know that this politician is still a cut above the others.  There aren't many who could draw the interest of teenagers, but Boris is still there, making waves.  The Tories' famous politician "who reaches the parts others can't reach", yadda, yadda, yadda.

But this most recent interview was something of a disaster for him, and a success for the relaxed and humorous Labour leader Ed Miliband.  Who'd have thought - Ed just needed to sit on a sofa with Boris in order to look good.



The virtue of Boris is that he does indeed have a wide appeal as an individual, though not one that necessarily lifts his party.  He has also suggested that his politics might actually be a little broader, One Nation based even, than the average Tory politico.  The problem of Boris is that he doesn't really do detail, or precision, or seriousness.  All of this was in evidence in the Marr interview.  Imagine if this had been a meeting of two party leaders.  There's Ed Miliband, confident of his policy detail, relaxed enough to have a few pops at Boris about his and the Tory party's strategy chief Lynton Crosby.  And there's Boris Johnson, still using bluster to get his way through an interview, looking bemused when challenged on policy detail.

Not all of the critics of Boris' interview are as clearly opposed to his politics as this pretty fair-minded piece by politics.co.uk's Adam Bienkov.  But if sympathetic critics think that Sunday's Marr interview was a bit of  a car crash, they should remember that it wasn't the first.  Boris' integrity was well and truly skewered by Eddie Mair when he stood in for Marr once.  Mair was unimpressed by Boris' joker status - something Marr consistently tries to play to - and as a result produced one of the most lethal interviews the London Mayor has done.  There's a long way to go yet before he becomes Tory leader.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Two election round-ups worthy of your attention

Even the most avid political aficionado won't have time for all of the election news and round-ups careering around the news media in all its forms, so here are just two that will give you a comprehensive daily account, coupled with a dash of wit and insight to keep you sane.

Politics Home's editor Paul Waugh offers us the "Waugh Room" memo.

The Economist gives us its daily election campaign briefing.  (Both links are to today's news - Waugh offers a preview, the Economist a round-up).

Read one, read both and feel up to date!

Cameron - not as good a phony as Blair?

David Cameron has discovered passion, ten days before the election.  It does, admittedly, come a day after a couple of big-time Tory donors criticised the Prime Minister for being lacklustre and uninspired.  As such, Mr. Cameron's passion has been treated rather cynically by the hacks, as this run-down of tweets indicates.  One of the Tory donors in question has now rather degradingly withdrawn all of his criticism and described himself as a "nobody" but Cameron's attempt to inject passion still seems redolent of what Spectator columnist Isabel Hardman calls his "essay crisis" style of leadership.

The problem is that Mr. Cameron is no great actor, and his pumped-up performance, containing such gems as the revelation that he feels "bloody lively" about the election, really doesn't convince.  He has managed to enter Ed Miliband's equally cringe-worthy "Hell, yes" territory and in straying away from his actual persona he risks the same level of ridicule.  Perhaps in such a close election, with no-one being able to identify the election grail, we should be a little forgiving of politicians under pressure, and that would include Mr. Cameron's football "brain fade" as well.

Cameron recently implied he was a West Ham fan (perhaps a little influenced by the fact that his small business ambassador and letter-writing supporter, Karren Brady, is currently vice-chairman of the club).  This is at odds with his earlier stated support for Aston Villa, which itself was at odds with his one-time expression of utter disinterest in football at all.  The fact is, rather like his "bloody lively" attitude, Cameron's football fan pitch doesn't really convince.  In this, as in much else, he appears to be following the lead of that other public-school educated fan of the working man's game, Tony Blair.  Blair, though, was a far more accomplished phony, as this illuminating and rather contemptuous article from the Economist suggests.

Perhaps we should be pleased that Cameron is not a very good phony, but it would be even better if he just felt comfortable showing us the real him.  He's not too difficult to discover, and his interview in this week's Economist gets rather closer to understanding his essentially pragmatic approach to governing than his pumped-up stump speech.

Election Notes 1

Ten days to go, and it seems time to update this blog accordingly.  It's not that I've been disinterested in this election - on the contrary, it is fascinating, especially given the uncertain outcome - but time doesn't so far seem to have permitted.

Polls, Polls

There have been more polls than ever before in this election, and for all the slim differences between them they are all pointing to no overall majority for either main party.  Hence, of course, all the chatter about whom might deal with whom on May 8th onwards.  You can take your pick of the various conglomerate polls being issued on a daily basis.  The UK Polling Report comes from a Yougov expert; May2015, the special election site set up by the New Statesman, provides exhaustive polling commentary; and three university academics update their election forecast regularly too.  But the BBC and pretty well all of the press feature regular poll tracking.  In the end, this is a parlour game for observers like us, and once May 8th comes around all of the polls that have been keeping us entertained and fascinated in the election period are reduced to utter irrelevance.

The Forecast - Who Will be PM?

So we can probably guess either Cameron or Miliband, barring a sudden change in party leader to facilitate better coalition deals, but which one of them eventually governs from No 10 is virtually impossible to predict, and may still be a mystery several days beyond the election.  Given the likely outlay of votes for their own parties, the next PM will have to be the one who is most likely to garner a workable coalition, and it has to be said that Ed Miliband does look a more likely bet than David Cameron.  The problem for Cameron is that there is only one party he can realistically do a deal with, and that will be the much reduced Lib Dems.  Even that opiton is hardly a certainty.  For all the success of the Coalition, a large group of Tory MPs have been consistently chafing against it and might be expected to try and torpedo any future arrangement.  From the Lib Dem side, many of their activists have been similarly put off any more coalitions, especially given the look of their own reduced circumstances in parliament as a result.  Add to this the uncertainty of Nick Clegg's return to the Commons, or that of the only other feasible Lib Dem leader who would favour coalition with the Tories, Danny Alexander, and even the Lib Dem option doesn't look particularly good for Cameron. A Tim Farron leadership, for example, would be much more susceptible to Labour's wooing.  Cameron's best chance of governing is obviously to achieve a majority, but present polling evidence suggests this is well nigh impossible.

Ed Miliband, conversely, has a number of options to consider.  As well as the Lib Dems, he can rely on some acquiescence from the SNP, however much he may try and puncture the idea pre-election.  Any Green or Plaid Cymru MPs might similarly be inclined to give a Miliband government a working chance, as would Northern Ireland's SDLP MPs.  The May 2015 site considers the options in a detailed look at likely seat outcomes here.  Dan Hodges in the Telegraph takes issue with their reasoning here.

A Question of Legitimacy

British prime ministers have rarely encountered problems of legitimacy, but the tightness of this race, and the prospect of a second placed Ed Miliband taking office has certainly produced some debate about whether a leader who is placed second in both votes and seats would be legitimate.  The New Statesman's George Eaton considers the dilemma here, while the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland seeks to challenge the narrative of legitimacy here.  On the BBC site, meanwhile, James Landale offers up several scenarios on legitimacy.  The most conicse, and most robust, response, however, is probably that stated by Dan Hodges.  He says simply (and accurately):

The rules of our political system are clear. We were offered a chance to change them in 2011, and we politely declined. All that matters is the parliamentary arithmetic. If Ed Miliband has enough votes to win a confidence motion, and David Cameron does not, Ed Miliband is prime minister. No caveats. No debates. No “battles over legitimacy”. If Miliband wins, he wins.





Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Toryism moves right....

Lynton Crosby's general campaign advice for the right-wing politicians he expensively manages generally seems to be to tack right, and then right again, until you've out-manouevred anyone else who might be coming from that direction.  It seemed to work in Australia for John Howard.  It didn't work for Michael Howard in Britain in 2005.  And the jury is obviously out on its impact on David Cameron's campaign in 2015.

Mind you, there used to be a time when the Conservative Party didn't see tacking right as a useful or honourable tactic.  This was a party that held a variety of centre-right views together - including, yes, some of the 'ultras' - but believed firmly in its national position as a "One Nation" party, needing to look beyond its own borders for support and affirmation.  It was a party that understood the welfare state, tapped in to the aspirations of lower income earners whilst maintaining their safety net, and vigorously challenged any onset of incipient racism that might come up, especially under the guise of "immigration reform". To his credit, one of Michael Howard's finest blasts came in his searing attack on the BNP.  It was always a great shame that this fundamentally decent man allowed his campaign to be defined by posters of the inflammatory nature as the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" kind.  If you want an inkling of what this Tory Party used to sound like, give Michael Heseltine's piece in today's Mail a read.  It is a full and wholesome put-down of Nigel Farage's race-meddling and brooks no thought of dealing with such a man, likening him to a less intelligent version of Enoch Powell, another politician at ease with the far right.

The vigour of the Heseltine attack on Mr Farage is all the more satisfying for the weak-minded, feeble appraoch shown by the Conservative Party's actual leader, David Cameron.  He seems to have embraced the Crosby mantra of not annoying UKIP supporters, and as such has successfully conveyed - yet again - an image of flaccid, unprincipled, short-termist leadership.

If you want a sharp and unforgiving assessment of the Cameron mode of leadership, read Nick Cohen in the Observer.  I know Cohen is no conservative, but he is a clear-headed commentator on politics who gives no quarter in his honest assessments of both right and left.  His condemnations of Cameron are given greater force because they ring so true.  He compares his approach to that of Angela Merkel, who denounced the anti-Muslim protestors in Dresden in no uncertain terms as having "prejudice, hatred and coldness in their hearts".  Try listening for anything even remotely similar from Cameron about UKIP and you'll end up getting your ears tested.

Cohen also - rightly - mocks the Tory choice of candidate to challenge Nigel Farage in South Thanet as an attempt to simply provide Faragism without Farage.  Might as well have thrown in their lot with Farage from the word go.

If the modern Tory Party really can't attack a man who openly plays with racist ideas, no matter how cunningly phrased, then it does need to start asking why it is even in business.  Time used to be that we knew what broad-mindedness differentiated the Tory Party from fringe right-wing groups.  It looks as if that time is no more, and the UK is the loser.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Michael Gove and the destruction of school history

There’s an odd little article in the Spectator this week.  Written by Emily Hill, and titled “MichaelGove’s secret fan club”, it purports to show how teachers across the nation secretly mourn the passing of the late Education Secretary and have finally been released to teach vigorously and properly as a result of his reforms.  All heart-warming stuff, no doubt, although I counted only three teachers whose views were actually used to propel this lovely tale of education re-booted – one an  anonymous friend (always useful for journalists), one the author’s mother, and one a bona fide teacher seemingly unrelated to the author. 

I did feel a little sorry for Ms. Hill’s mother.  She was apparently nervous at being ‘outed’ as a secret Gove supporter in the totalitarian world we know as British Education, and only felt able to teach demanding lessons to her students once Mr. Gove had finally given her the say-so.  The anonymous friend, meanwhile, teaches Ancient Greek at a London state school, apparently unaware – according to Ms. Hill – that ordinary kids were never allowed near such a subject in the Dark Ages of the pre-Gove era.  Mind you, the fact that Ms. Hill then notes that the only person she ever knew who learnt Ancient Greek at school went to Eton with Prince William probably tells us more about her social circle than the wider cause of education.

My favourite quote from what seems to be a rather mis-conceived article is this one from an apparently very left-wing teacher who boasts huge success with his debating teams.  He comments to our intrepid reporter that “Under the last government we were being utterly micromanaged in how we taught our lessons.  Gove trusted teachers to a greater extent….”.  Seriously?  Gove “trusts” teachers?  And this isn’t satire, right?

In many ways, I should be one of that little fan club of Gove supporters in education.  I disliked the AS level system and am rather pleased his reforms encompassed getting rid of it, returning us to a better, more thought-through two-year A-level.  I could see grade inflation taking the lustre off top grades that were being hard won by earnest students.  My school benefitted financially from becoming an Academy (although yes, there was the lurking thought that for so many of us academy status was simply a financial bribe which dried up after a year or so).  But I happen to be a history teacher, and there are few history teachers who have much of a kind word to say about Mr. Gove (I haven’t yet turned up one on meetings with a fair range of such teachers over the years).

If you want an example of disastrous, mendacious micro-management, then look no further than the disaster that was Gove’s attempt to re-mould the school history curriculum in his own image.  His efforts were underpinned by lamentable research leading to unwarranted attacks on practitioners.  The most egregious of these remains his singling out an innovative lesson idea on a popular website for peculiar invective in one of his rabble rousing speeches (the response of the teacher who developed this is worth reading in full here).  The inability of either Gove or his advisors to either read the offending material properly, or understand its context, should have ruled them out of making any comment on history teaching ever after, but this is Michael Gove we’re talking about.  Learning isn’t one of his skill sets.

As he drove his bulldozer through decades of carefully constructed history schemes for students, Gove also turned his wrath on one of the respected academics he had once praised, perhaps because the good professor had had the temerity to challenge Govian historical thinking – if ‘thinking’ isn’t too strong a term.   In a diatribe about right thinking towards World War One, Mr. Gove had this time singled out Blackadder as his Goldstein target, perhaps unaware that it was satire and not actual, you know, history. (The academic in question, Sir Richard Evans, continued to harbour doubts about the veracity of Mr. Gove’s historical thinking, for example here.)

Now, as his parting gift to history teachers, we are about to embark on the utter mess he’s managed to cause in GCSE history.  I do wish, if Nicky Morgan had indeed been given instructions to weed out the worst aspects of Govianism from the education system, that this had included his pernicious undermining of school history, but alas her echoing silence on the subject suggests it didn’t. 

For years, secondary schools have followed carefully thought-out GCSE history syllabuses.  Many of them, having given strong and often exclusive coverage to British history in Years 7 to 9 (something Gove was never willing to acknowledge) sought to teach a Modern World course to their students.  It proved popular, and provided an admirable grounding in recent world history, the better from which to be able to form judgements about the world they live in today.

Michael Gove, the man who apparently “trusts teachers”, demolished all of this and insisted instead on an incoherent mess of historical periods and subjects instead.  Amongst his demands were that students should cover at least three distinct periods of history – medieval, early modern and modern; that 40% should be British history (i.e. repetition of the previous three years); and that there should be a thematic study over a period of some 1,000 years.  All this in two years and across a mere three hours a week.  That the history establishment accepted this nonsense is another matter, but let us at least put paid to the idea that Michael Gove didn’t seek to micro-manage teachers, or that he somehow trusts them enough to let them inspire students. 

Michael Gove had no professional experience in education, and no academic expertise as an historian even at undergraduate level.  This is no bar to bringing interesting thinking to teaching or challenging teachers, but it should have provoked caution before dumping, wholesale, a history teaching plan of credibility, authority and coherence. 

Gove’s relentless attack on history teaching turned me from an initial cautious ally into a confirmed opponent.  Knowing the carelessness and ineptitude with which he formulated his own ideas on history teaching has made me forever wary of anything the man comes up with.  Looking at the way in which he sought to bullishly impose his own – and his alone – ideas on history teaching across a national profession has forced me to treat any attempts to portray him as a man who believes in loosening the dead hand of the state with extreme caution, if not outright incredulity.  If three people make up a fan club, then I suppose Ms. Hill is right to suggest that Michael Gove has one in teaching; but I’ll wager it doesn’t extend far, and for good reason.  The man was  a state-power-wielding menace, and no-one yet has offered to clear up the mess.