Thursday, May 31, 2007

Website Updated

I have added some AS powerpoints to the website. The website main page is here, or you can go straight to the presentations here.

AS History students can access their powerpoint presentations here, or of course via the History blog.

A2 Politics students will find updated powerpoint links here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Half Term Revision

The AS Politics Revision Day is Tuesday. We will cover the three units in three 1 and a half hour sessions. You are welcome to attend for just one session, or all, or none, as you see fit! The timetable will be as follows:

9.30 - 11.00: Unit 1 (Democracy, Elections, Pressure Groups, Parties)

11.00 - 11.30: Break

11.30 - 1.00: Unit 2 (Executive, Parliament, Consitution - we will not be covering the judiciary).

1.00 - 2.00: Lunch

2.00 - 3.30: Unit 3 (Consitutional Reform, incl. Parliament, and Electoral Reform)

3.30 - 4.00: If anyone wishes to go through Devolution or EU from Unit 3, we can do so here.

Each session will require some input from attendees, including some sample timed answers!

[History Details on History blog]

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Gordon Brown's Game of Ministerial Chairs


Gordon Brown's own future promotion to Prime Minister may no longer be in doubt, but there can't be many of the current Cabinet who feel particularly secure, and they do seem to be going out of their way to help him make the sacking decisions at any rate. John Reid, at least, has already said he's going, but as if to reinforce his good sense in taking this decision, today's story about three 'control order' escapees will have underscored the need for Brown to have a clean sweep at what remains of the Home Office. Rarely can a minister have arrived so pugnaciously ('not fit for purpose' and all that) only to leave so ignominiously.


Another minister ready for the chop will be Patricia Hewitt, who survived a no confidence vote in the Commons yesterday, but largely because most MPs will have felt there was little point depriving Gordon of the decision in a few weeks time. Her Tory shadow, Andrew Lansley, descriebd her 'serial incompetence and inability to listen', which hardly makes her stand out from the crowd in this cabinet!

Devolution Politics


There was a brief moment yesterday when I thought that Wales was going to give us another, even more glorious example of the impact of PR in the devolution elections. There was talk of a 'rainbow coalition' to replace Labour, comprising the Welsh Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, and, yes, the Welsh Tories. Rumour had it that whilst Welsh Tory leader Nick Bourne was keen on the idea - scenting power is a somewhat heady smell for Tories these days - his London boss, Mr. Cameron, was distinctly unkeen. Anyway, it looks today as if the Welsh Lib Dems are the ones who are going to pull out first, and prevent this fascinating political project from taking off. So no new conclusions for AS students after all.

I'm not entirely surprised by the LD decision though - they have had their fingers burned by being part of an unpopular coalition in Scotland with Labour, and by associating so clsoely with Labour in Wales. Time they took a break from coalition building really.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

AS REVISION

There is no revision session on Wednesday. I'm away, learning new things!

The Great Grammar School Divide

David Cameron has been desperate to find a 'clause 4' cause, and he seems to have decided that grammar schools are it! It is an unusual situation for a public school educated leader to be in, but it is understandable in the context of the political strategy of 'triangulation'. Cameron's assumption will be that in order to make the Tories more electable, he needs to ditch some of the more obvious right-wing policies and rhetoric once employed by them. This is basically the policy followed by Clinton in America and Blair here - that public perception has to be challenged as radically as possible, which may mean sharp shifts away from previous perceived positions.

The real question for Cameron is whether he is right in assuming that grammar schools were an alienating part of previous Tory policy. It seems unlikely. In non-grammar school areas, voters are not likely to give it much thought, other than perhaps to reflect on how it wouldn't be a bad idea! In grammar school areas there is, of course, a huge level of support for the remaining state system that still produces good results. What Cameron has done, of course, is to generate massive dissent within his own party, which he may consider to be good of itself, since it allows him to show that he does represent a radical change from previous Tory leaders who were too identified with their grassroots' attitudes and ideas. The downside for him, surely, is that too much dissent might cause a wavering in the commitment of the activists to go and and support him and his candidates; and at the moment it risks bringing adverse publicity to the Tory Party in terms of stories about 'division' - something Cameron had until now been extremely effective in dispelling.

The long-term benefits of his political move remain to be seen. What is not in doubt is that the policy itself is bankrupt and flawed; it is an unusual approach that says the existing grammar schools are doing a good job and can stay, but no-one else can benefit from them. It is even more unusual to effectively become the cheerleaders for one of the government's own, and less obviously successful policies!

More on this later I suspect. Meanwhile, for a sense of grassroots Tory anger, go to the Conservative Home site, and check the message threads.

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Challenge from the Left?

It does look as if backbench Labour MP John McDonnell will challenge Gordon Brown in the leadership election. Michael Meacher has stood aside, as the left-wing candidate with fewer backers, and the hope of the left now is that they will have enough MP's willing to support at least one left-wing challenger. If not, so the rumour goes, Gordon Brown will order some of his supporters to help nominate McDonnell, as he believes an unopposed 'coronation' is a far worse option than a contest against an easily beatable candidate.

It is certainly the case that Brown is more likely to thrive than not on a contest. Given the chance to debate his ideas and his vision for Britain, he will be able to project himself in a far more effective way in the media than would happen without a challenge. Brown came across well in the Fabian Society debate last night, and the sight of him defending his views rather than simply announcing them can only be helpful. I remain less than confident than many members of the Conservative party currently are about Brown's electoral potency. A Conservative Home survey suggests that a substantial majority of Tory members see Brown as much easier to beat than Blair. Really? Brown will not carry the stench of Iraq in the way that Blair does; he is a seasoned, clued in and supremely ruthless political operator; he can lay claim to credit for the economic story that is one of Labour's perceived successes since 1997; and he is so different in terms of his image and character from his predecessor that it can only work to his advantage. If we are tired of a spin-based, image-conscious, hammy, insincere PM, then Brown, rather than Cameron, may prove the better antidote.

McDonnell's challenge will be welcomed by the Brown team; it wil help to season them for their bigger fight against a more lethal opponent in the form of David Cameron. It's going to be a fascinating two years.

Taking Liberties since 1997


And while Wheatcroft attacks Blair from the elegiac heights of a disillusioned Tory, a new film is about to be launched - June 8th actually - which takes on his civil liberties record, in the manner of a Michael Moore docu-trashing of President Bush (not entirely surprisingly as it has the same producer). The trailer for the film is here, on the film's website, where there is also a revealing filmmaker's blog and several other relevant links.

A Record to be Proud of....


Would a Labour leader be a success if, over three elections, he had seen his party's vote decline steadily from 13.5 million to 10.7 million to 9.6 million?

What about the fact that this is less than the 14 million won by John Major in 1992, or the 13.9 million won by Clement Attlee in 1951 (when the electorate was 7 million fewer)? Or the fact that his second election saw a popular vote that was less than that gained by the 'unelectable' Neil Kinnock in 1992?

That is indeed Tony Blair's success. He has won a huge parliamentary majority on two occasions with less than a third of the votes of the whole electorate; his most recent victory saw him win just over a fifth of the whole electorate's votes. And they say there's no case for electoral reform?

These ineluctable points and many others are put forward by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in a searing assessment of the Blair premiership, entitled 'Yo, Blair', after President Bush's infamous off the record greeting. This short book is a polemic of unremitting force, and Blair admirers will probably choke on the copious evidence of their hero's duplicity, while his detractors will cheer on Wheatcroft and suffer high blood pressure from bursting indignation at the same time. Though an old fashioned Tory, Wheatcroft is no unthinking admirer of the Conservatives either, as his previous book, 'The Strange Death of Conservative England', makes clear. It may be that there is a good defence of Blair to be made. It's just that I haven't seen it yet.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Michael Howard and Alastair Campbell

Michael Howard, on Thursday's Newsnight, commented that Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's first and most significant spin doctor, bears much of the responsibility for the dirtying of the Blair years, especially in terms of what is often seen as its ambiguous communications policy. Here is the relevant extract, with Paxman at the end coming in to try and defend Campbell. Campbell, by the way, looked coldly furious throughout the exchange, and continued to snipe about it for the rest of the discussion. Bill Jones has a useful piece incorporating this exchange on his blog here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

AS Revision Lessons

No formal lessons next week, but there will be a 'drop-in' session Tuesday, May 15th., periods 1 and 2.

NEW UPDATE: The Wednesday session has had to be cancelled. Thursday's will happen as noted below.

Week Beginning Monday 21st. May:
Tuesday 22nd. - period3 - Democracy and Elections from Unit1
Wednesday 23rd. - periods 4 and 5 - Parties from Unit 1; Unit 3 overview - Cancelled.
Thursday 24th. - periods 2 and 3 - The Executive and PArliament, from Unit 2

Half Term session for L6 Politics will be on the Tuesday (May 29th.), in the Sixth Form Centre, 9.30 - 4. Timetable to be published towards the end of next week.

History revision sessions are on the history blog.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Brown Era Begins

An interesting item on the Spectator's blog about how the Brown camp deals with press enquiries that it doesn't like. Read it and weep.

Blair to Stand Down Shock!


He has always been able to put on a decent show, to manipulate the waiting media masses and, through them, the public, so it should perhaps be no surprise that this most predictable of announcements has been able to collar so much publicity.

Sadly for the country, Blair's words have always soared higher than his deeds, and today's initial valedictory (there are seven weeks of these left!) was no exception. There were excellent lines about how lucky he is compared to the unfortunates he has met, and a peroration, perhaps influenced by Shakespeare's John of Gaunt, about how blessed this nation is, which was brilliant. And his words about power, at the beginning, if only they had been sincerely meant, were humbling and made us want to believe that he meant it. Ten years of experience with this man, however, has disillusioned us, and means that what we see is not the great orator, possessed of fine ideals, but a tawdry ham, consumed by his own humbug and still believing in his own delusions.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What are the New Ideas in the UK Today?

Nick Robinson has an interesting post on his blog here, in which he discusses the forthcoming speech by Oliver Letwin, seeking to answer the charge about whether David Cameron really has any new ideas? Letwin seeks to distinguish between the Brownite philosophy of government and the Cameron philosophy. Quite a useful short post for A2 students in particular. Letwin's actual speech is reported on the BBC here.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

HISTORY NOTICE

The sgs history blog is up and running and will be the place for any History AS revision notices, material etc.

Unhappy Labourites


The chairman of the left-wing Compass group, Neal Lawson, has issued the following assessment of last Thursday, under the heading 'Results mark death knell for New Labour'. I'm trying to work out whether that is intended as an opitmistic headline for them or not. Read and see:

It’s been a bad and bruising encounter for Labour. 27 per cent of the votes cast is a miserable tally. Just one per cent up on Labour’s worst result ever. This is not an opinion poll. These are real votes cast by real people. The Tories have consolidated above the 40% barrier and are inexorably shifting from hung parliament territory to potential out right winners at the next election. This can and must be reversed. But it demands the party changes.

Natural Labour supporters have been put off voting for their party because of a toxic combination of Blair, Iraq, sleaze and what’s happening to public services. All of this was avoidable. We said after the 2005 election victory that Blair should go and that if he insisted on prolonging his premiership he would damage the party and the country. The hard work of thousands of councillors and party activists around the country has been undone by a Prime Minister who out stayed his welcome. Where now are the people who said Blair should stay for a full term?

These elections signal the death knell for the politics of Blairism. We have lost five million votes since 1997 - mostly from our traditional base, who no longer feel able to turn out for us and stay at home or protest through the Greens, Liberal Democrats or others. Now Cameron threatens to drain away middle class support - creating a pincer movement that could be devastating for Labour MPs at the next election.

The Party cannot go on run as a tight clique, commercialising public services and playing the nodding dog to George Bush. It is not just Compass that demands a change of direction but the country. Let’s be clear – unless there is a break with Blairism Labour will lose the next election. That means the modernisation of hospitals and schools based the ethos of public services; it means less flexible labour markets; a shift towards Europe; a reconnection with the people of the country through democratic reform and with party members by starting to listen to them. We forgot that we are the servants. On new issues like the environment, well-being and quality of life we have got to get ahead of the Tories and stop lagging behind. All of this can be done and a forth victory secured – but not just through a change of leader – only though a change of direction.

The loss of hundreds of councillors and members will be a hammer blow to local parties. In Labour’s depleted party ranks, councillors tended to be the people who have kept the campaigns and the canvassing going. They are the ones linked into local communities, supporting Labour MPs and keeping the party alive. They are the fabric of the party. The Tory party had lost its councillor base by the early 1990s and the national party crumbled soon after.
Jon Cruddas is the only candidate on the ballot paper for the new leadership who understands the depth of the hole we are in and has the commitment and the plan for the renewal of the Labour party. Others, who have been in the Cabinet and the leadership team, have allowed the party to whither. Now we must chose change.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Coalition Politics


Scotland is continuing to show us what a PR system can deliver, and what British national politics might be like if we had one. Alex Salmond has failed to win over the Lib Dems who are refusing to join him in coalition, committed as they are to the Union. This leaves him without the necessary numbers to govern in a majority. The SNP have 49 seats, but need 65, and talking to the Greens may deliver two but it's hardly a giant step towards majority government.

It looks likely, then, that Salmond will be elected as First Minister (the Scottish Parliament has to elect him, and if they fail to choose a First Minister in 28 days, a new election is called...hmmm, 28 Days Later, definitely a film possibility there). However, he will have to rule as head of a minority government, gaining support for each measure as it comes up, which could lead to a strong level of consensus politics. Hardly what he had in mind, I guess. The fact is, PR in this instance has preserved Scotland from the radical measure of a referendum for leaving the Union with only minority support. In an election where only 51% of voters turned out, Salmond received a mere 32% of the votes - hardly a loud or ringing acclaim for his cherished independence project. * Just 0.7% separates him from Labour's vote, and given that the other parties are all unionist, one can justly claim that unionism is still the majority voice in Scotland. In addition, much of Salmond's vote came from those looking for an effective way to kick the Scottish Labour administration in the face.

PR's opponents will point to the horse-trading that's going on between parties as evidence that PR is an inadequate system that doesn't deliver strong government. But it does, perhaps, deliver a greater realisation of electoral mortality than the huge majorities ratcheted up by FPTP.

* The BBC's election stats are here.

Reid's Clever Departure

You have to hand it to John Reid. He knows when to get out. He has never hung around long enough in any of his ministerial offices to deal with the consequences of his decisions. Now, as the outgoing Home Secretary, he is once again leaving someone else to clear up his mess. Having organised the complete restructuring of his department and its splitting into two, a nightmare task if ever there was one, he can happily watch a successor come a cropper over the details while he picks up his directorships and makes money on the speaking circuit. His departure is being seen as heralding a Blairite exodus, but did anyone really think that Gordon Brown was somehow not going to wield a pretty hefty axe in the direction of his cabinet opponents (i.e. anyone who has not salvishly followed G. Brown)? For all the personnel changes likely to accrue from a change of premiership, we await in anticipation any indication that there will be actual political changes as well.

In France, meanwhile, they have swapped one right-wing president for another, but they look as if they really will experience dynamic political change. He may be a divisive figure in his own country, but as the new French president goes for a rest to determine his future government, he carries with him a lustre of dynamism and change that is missing from his future British counterpart.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Reid Will Go


Not that I think he would have had much choice as a long-term foe of Gordon Brown, but John Reid has announced that he will leave the ninth government post he has held when Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister. Reid has been the odd job man of Blairite governments, illustrating better than anyone the generalist nature of Cabinet work (unless you're Gordon Brown, of course). He is likely to head a fairly lengthy list of cabinet Ministers who could start to prepare their memoirs on Brown's accession. As well as Reid, Lord Falconer and John Prescott have already said they will go, while Hilary Armstrong, Baroness Amos, John Hutton, Tessa Jowell and Margaret Beckett may all be asked to make way for younger blood. Few of them will be missed.

Election Thoughts


So, one or two brief thoughts about the impact of the elections, and in particular how you might use these results in the Unit 1 or Unit 3 electoral systems question.

It is a favourite question of examiners to ask about how the 'other' electoral systems used in the UK might impact upon the Westminster Parliament. The Scottish and Welsh elections in particular give us an idea of what PR might mean for national elections, but only a partial one, given the importance of the nationalist element. Before Thursday, Scotland's parliament had a significant number of MSP's who were independents or representatives of small parties (for example Tommy sheridan, of the Solidarity Party, formerly a Scottish Socialist). This certainly suggested the ability of even a hybrid system like the Additional Member system to increase the diversity of representation (and note that this is also the case with the European Elections, which return Greens and UKIP members to the European Parliament). On Thursday, however, only 2 Green MSP's and one Independent (Margot MacDonald) were returned, leaving representation predominantly in the hands of the Big Four - SNP, Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems.

Although they are the fourth party by one seat, the Lib Dems could hold the key to office. The system as it stands makes it difficult for any party to achieve a majority in the parliament - perhaps something that the Westminster planners were keen on, in order to deny the SNP a chance of a majority government. So, having kept the Labour Party in office since devolution's inception, the Lib Dems now face the awkward task of deciding who to deal with now. As intimated in my previous post, they could opt to keep Labour in. After all, they are unionists who oppose the SNP proposals for a referendum on independence, and Campbell and Brown get on well at national level. On the other hand, such a decision will tar them as favouring a government that has been rejected by the electorate, and may make it more difficult to come back from the poor position they attained in these elections. So the SNP is not without hope of gaining Lib Dem support themselves.

It is also worth noting that the 'regional list' aspect of the AM voting system in Wales and Scotland has helped the Tories in particular. In Scotland the Tories won only 4 constituencies outright, but gained 13 members off the list. It was closer in Wales, an admittedly smaller body, where they had 5 constituencies and 7 list members. There is no doubt that if a list system were in use for Westminster, the Tories would be in a much stronger position than they are now.

Wales returned only 1 Independent Assembly Member - Trish Law, widow of Peter Law who won Blaeneau Gwent in 2005 when he stood in protest against the official Labour candidate, who had been selected from an all-woman shortlist.

In England, the Tories are the dominant party, returning to a position tehy haven't enjoyed since 1978, just before Margaret Thatcher's first election victory. In England and Wales together, the Tories hold 44% of the seats, to Labour's 26%. The idea that this could not translate into a Conservative General election victory may seem astonishing (Labour suggested the Tories needed 47% of the vote to be assured of a Commons majority), even if it does reflect the disporportionate inadequacies of our current electoral system. However, on Thursday's vote, the Sunday Times * has predicted that Cameron would have a 54 seat majority, although any projection should be treated with care, as local factors explain some of the results in these, after all local, elections! The Liberal Democrats lost Bournemouth, for example, because they had instituted fortnightly rubbish collections that were universally loathed.

In summary:

- the devolved parliaments show us that a hybrid system including some PR is more likely to produce coalition governments;

- they can produce a greater diversity of representatives, as in Scotland before 2007, but not always, as shown in 2007.

- the Tories would benefit, in Scottish and Welsh seats, from a national AM system.

- the Tories look more like an English party than ever, making the West Lothian Question more urgent, especially in view of the likely arrival of a supporter of Scottish independence in power in Scotland.

- the Liberal Democrats may have performed badly, but can still hold the balance of power and take a role in government (a possibility in both Scotland and Wales). Their natural inlcination is to side with Labour.


* The study was carried out by Rallings and Thrasher of Plymouth University Elections Centre.

The Fall-Out From Thursday


Tony Blair was never actually very keen on the devolution process. He granted the devolved assemblies through gritted teeth because it had been a manifesto commitment. So he must now be savouring the irony that it is the maturing of devolution that is posing problems for his prickly successor, Gordon Brown. Labour did not, in fact, do as badly in Scotland as everyone had been predicting, although here we have been a little 'had' by New Labour spin, as they were the ones pumping out stories about how terribly Labour was performing, in the time-honoured tradition of lowering expectations so that the real events don't look so bad! In any event, Labour is one seat behind the Nationalists in Scotland, which is a reversal of sorts. They have received a similar setback in Wales, so their divine right to govern in the two non-English nations has been comprehensively challenged. As, of course, it has in England too. The Conservatives may not have nabbed the northern targets they would have liked, but they still manage to control more councils in the North-West than anyone else, and are far and away the largest party of local government in England as a whole. They also snatched 40% of the vote against Labour's 27%. As Michael Portillo points out in today's Sunday Times, only with a system as ludicrously distributive as ours would a 40 to 27 lead be seen as arguably not enough to guarantee victory at the next general election!


So have Labour stalled and is Cameron a shoo-in at the next general? Er, no and no. With up to three years still left of the parliamentary mandate, Brown has plenty of opportunity to pull surprises out of the bag. It is a remarkable - and not entirely positive - feature that, after ten years as virtual co-prime minister, we still know so little about Brown and what his premiership would be like, a point made in last week's Economist profile. What we do know is that it would be foolish to underestimate his political survivability. Cameron, meanwhile, has proved his own popularity, and the local elections may also suggest that his party as a whole is creeping back into people's affections. He still, however, faces the challenge of policy development, and there are any number of ways that his less politically savvy colleagues could upset the apple cart.

Scotland and Wales, too, are in something of an undetermined land. There is no guarantee that the nationalists in either country will enjoy power, although to deprive Alex Salmond of his expected job as First Minister might have interesting repercussions. The power of 'First Minister Maker' lies with Scotland's fourth party, the Lib Dems, and their national leader, Scotsman Menzies Campbell, is actually quite friendly with Labour's prospective new leader, Scotsman Gordon Brown. Devolution may have given Scotland its own government, but I'm not quite sure what it's left England!

Further observations about the devolution issue, and an assessment of the electoral process that has delivered such interesting results, to appear later!

Blair's Legacy...continued

Further to the comments made by Bill Jones on the previous post, his own blog carries a further assessment of Tony Blair's legacy, and links to the newspaper articles mentioned in his comment. You can go to his post on Blair here - A2 students will find this particularly helpful for Unit 6 (Socialism in the UK Today).