Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Prime Minister's Prerogative Powers - AS Students

There is an old article by Nick Cohen in the New Statesman which sought to explain why Tony Blair, as Prime minister, was able to behave virtually like a monarch unchecked. Cohen examined Blair's governing style, including his notoriously offhand attitude to the Cabinet, and looked at how the prerogative powers of the monarch contributed to the Prime Minister's dictatorial authority. Although the article, from 2002, clearly relates to the Blairite premiership, it is still a useful reference for AS students. The Blair precedent remains relevant in exams, and the issue of monarchical prerogative powers wielded by the PM has hardly gone away.

Cohen's article is here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

AS Unit 2 Help

Essay Tips, with specific reference to the topic of prime ministerial power (includes sample essay) can be found on the tutor2u website here. This piece is by Mike McCartney, author of the tutor2u revision guide.

Also, recent mark schemes and examiners' reports are collectively here, or click on the individual links below - they are well worth reading thoroughly:

AS Unit 2 Links

With a half term looming before the second of the AS level politics exams, there is some space to read a few extra articles in order to gain that all important specific information which enhances exam answers so much. I have listed some suggestions below:

1. The Institute for Government blog is worth keeping an eye on anyway, but specifically have a look at this article by former Times commentator Peter Riddell about the effectiveness of ministers, and how long they should really be in place. Particularly cogent given that David Cameron has signalled his intention to try and keep ministers in their positions for a longer than normal period of time. Hence his reluctance to sack erring ministers like Caroline Spelman or even Ken Clarke. The downside of any plan to retain stability in ministerial office, of course, is that it generates frustration in the MP ranks below, all of whom want to experience office for themselves.

2. If you have a bit of time, you could read through the Institute for Government's "One Year On" report, a review of the Coalition Government after one year, with the emphasis on how well it has governed. There will be lots of useful examples to use in any exam, although I should also emphasise that it should not negate the need to use a wider range of examples from previous governments too, such as are found in the tutor2u revision guide. Nevertheless, the report is an illuminating one, to be read for profit. There is a brief summary on the linked page as well.

3. For those intending to cover the judiciary, there is an excellent recent article on the work of the Supreme Court in Prospect Magazine.

4. An assessment of David Cameron's premiership from a right-wing point of view by former Tory MP Paul Goodman is here, while an analysis of the Prime Minister's tendency to U-turn is here. Both very good in preparing for PM questions in the Executive topic (but do remember that such questions can equally focus on the role of the Cabinet).

These articles are all about extending your ability to understand and make arguments about how government works in this country, and provide you with some excellent contemporary material to put alongside other recent developments.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Is An Apology Not An Apology

When it's in the Daily Mail apparently. I'm very late to this story about the Daily Mail from the indispensable Tabloid Watch blog, but it's an instructive case nonetheless. Having accused a senior medical consultant of saying that babies born at 23 weeks should be left to die, the Daily Mail then did some research and found out they'd got it wrong (always a danger when the research bit follows the writing bit). So they apologised. Somewhere deep in the US section of the paper, just where you'd an expect an apology on a health related story to be!

Tabloid Watch reports that the apology was eventually moved, and thank loads of people for tweeting the error, which may have had an impact on the Mail decision.

But if you think the Mail's bad, have a look down the TW stories for some great Express misnomers. I'm not sure anyone who reads the Express for serious news reasons actually has much of a brain to speak of, and they certainly shouldn't qualify for the vote, but they will definitely have been taken in by the front page headline that the EU are to ban shopping bags. Turns out that by 'ban' what they meant to say was 'hold a consultative exercise with no determined conclusion yet'. I guess that simply doesn't read as well in the headline.

Tabloid Watch, and the equally excellent Media Blog, should be must-reads every morning, before we dare embark on the evidence-less rumour-mongering that masqurades as news in our daily papers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sharing the Heartbreak

Good to see that the former SGS luminary who runs the Media Blog is as sympathetic as ever -

yfrog Photo : http://yfrog.com/h0oftbkj Shared by The_MediaBlog

The Not So Special Relationship

Cameron and Obama serving burgers: on Twitpic
[photo tweeted by the Spectator's Pete Hoskin]

It’s all very friendly. David and Barack have been partnering each other in a table tennis game at a south London school; they’ve been serving up burgers in the No.10 garden; they’ve both been reveling in the pomp of a Buckingham Palace banquet; and they penned a joint article for the ‘Times’ suggesting that their two countries don’t just enjoy a ‘Special’ relationship but an ‘Essential’ one.

Oh dear. Another prime minister bites the dust as he succumbs to the seductive charms of the power and glory of the American presidency. It doesn’t really matter who the president is – although it can’t hinder matters that it is currently the coolest man on the planet, and a man more determined to get his guy than the Terminator. At some point in their premiership career the men, and one woman, at No. 10 quickly fall victim to the belief that Britain enjoys a Special Relationship with the United States. That there is precious little evidence to suggest that the Americans believe the same is clearly neither here nor there. A quick canter through the history of the Special Relationship That Never Was might help a little.

Roosevelt and Churchill.
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?

Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.

Truman and Attlee
Well, Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.

One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. The Russians weren’t a threat you see.

Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.

Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn't tell her that it had already begun." Special Relationship indeed.

Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.

And now it’s the turn of David Cameron. He admittedly started out with a semblance of independence. He is withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan far more quickly than the Americans would like, and he was clearly speaking with a different voice when he led the calls for action over Libya. If the American President’s state visit is merely an occasion for a good bit of mutual publicity, and some shared thoughts in a common language, then David Cameron may have escaped lightly. If he really starts to believe in a Special Relationship, though, he is as doomed as all of his predecessors. Because, not unsurprisingly, the only Special Relationship America has is with herself.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Republican Field Narrows Again

The race amongst putative Republican candidates for the US presidency seems to be one to announce that you're not running, rather than entering what is at the moment a pretty narrow field. And it just got narrower, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels cited family concerns for not joining the race in 2012.

An American friend of mine, a strong Obama supporter now residing in the UK, was almost in despair as she considered the one Republican who might be able to unseat the current occupant of the White House. It was, she said, Mitch Daniels, a man who combined rare qualities of empathy and commonsense with a core Republican appeal given his past history as speechwriter to Reagan and Budget Director to Bush I. I seem to remember a speaker - a former Congressman - at a conference at the British Museum last September making a similar point - if the Republicans wanted a winner, they should look to the Governor of Indiana.

Well, Daniels has pulled that rug from under the Republicans - perhaps reluctantly - and the current Republican field remains a distinctly uninspiring one, comprising Gingrich, Pawlenty and Romney. Now I guess we're just waiting to hear from Michelle Bachmann to really liven things up. I think we can guess what the team in the White House are hoping for.

There is, incidentally, another angle to the Daniels decision that is worth examination. He has said he cannot run because of his family. We may guess that they are firmly against. And who could blame them, for in the intensely observed goldfish bowl of American politics, why would any sane individual, concerned for their stability and, yes, their privacy, want to subject themselves and their families to the relentless, hysterical and often hypocritical scrutiny of the presidential process. If they're not careful, the Americans may one day find that the only people willing to run for the presidency are the same sort of people who apply to be contestants on reality television. So perhaps Sarah Palin may be in with a chance one day after all.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

New AS Links

The Revision Presentation for Unit 1 and a copy of the Examiners' Report for the January 2011 paper which relates to the questions in the presentation, are here - check the left-hand column of AS material, and you should see they are the first two links.

From Today's AS Revision - Pressure Groups, Cameron U-Turns and Direct Democracy

Pressure Groups:

This article from the Guardian details a rally organised by the pressure group Save Lakeland Forests as part of the ultimately successful campaign to get the government to overturn its decision to sell off Forestry Commission land.

Cameron U-Turns:

I thought there had been 9 U-turns already from the former PR man turned Prime Minister, but this New Statesman list suggests ten in fact! Meanwhile a thoughtful assessment of why Mr. Cameron U-turns so much, and why it could be seen as part of a good old fashioned pragmatic and responsive Toryism, is here in the Guardian.

Direct Democracy:

And here is Douglas Carswell's latest brief comment on his Direct Democracy campaign, although for more detailed material on what he is aiming for go here to his and Dan Hannan's Direct Democracy blog.

No Such Thing As Society!

What did Mrs. Thatcher mean with her most famous quote that "there is no such thing as society"? Robert Low unfolds the ideas behind the misleading quote in a short article for Standpoint magazine.

Blue Labour?!

We'll be hearing more of this, but Ed Miliband's search for a distinctive Labour identity is finding some illumination in this new defining of a Labour identity. So-called as a response to Philip Blond's 'Red Toryism', Blue Labour seeks to re-engage Labour's heartlands with the party.

The Conservative Home website carried a lengthy article analysing the new ideas here.

Amongst other things they comment that "Blue Labour is fundamentally against the economic neo-liberal and socially liberal approach of Blairism. "

Labour MP and former education minister David Lammy, who is sympathetic, explains the idea here.

How does this fit in to likely AS questions? Really as an indication of where Ed Miliband is trying to take the Labour Party at the moment. Like David Cameron in 2005, he is confronted with the need to develop a fresh identity for an old party (Mao's delight in blank sheets of paper, which you could write completely new things on, comes to mind!) and 'Blue Labour' represents some of the current thinking in the party leadership. Of course it is untested on a wider public canvas as yet, and some Labourites are clearly hostile. But Miliband, the Brownite New Labour man elected leader with the votes of the trade unions, needs to do something to show where the post-Blairite party might be heading.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Chinese Internet Censor Gets Pelted With Eggs

Great story from the Telegraph today - they report the pelting of the Chinese academic who created the so-called Great Firewall of China, the internet wall designed to keep out western social networking and search sites.

For a Chinese youth not easily able to blog or tweet their unhappiness with the authoritarian political set-up of their country, it seems the resort to a more old-fashioned, tried and tested method of political protest has now been enacted. It may not be the Cultural Revolution, but I guess the eggs that hit might have made a modest impact on Fan Binzing. Apparently the Chinese government was scrambling to remove any internet traces of the incident...something of a Canutian policy I'd have thought!

The Sun and David Cameron

Did the Sun really precipitate a shadow cabinet reshuffle when David Cameron was in opposition? This is the truly alarming scenario posited by the Spectator's James Forsyth on the Spectator blog. He writes that after Dominic Grieve went to News International and ripped apart their lamentably bigoted and one-sided reporting of crime issues, the word came back (via Andy Coulson) that they wanted Cameron to replace him as shadow Home Secretary. Cameron did, bringing in Chris Grayling.

Forsyth uses the story to point out the danger to Ken Clarke in the wake of yesterday's typically evidence-based and elegantly argued Sun editorial that Ken Must Go. But the real alarm bells ring not for Clarke, but for the government as a whole if it really is in hoc to such ridiculous decision making parameters. Many of the commenters on the Spectator site seemed to take a similarly dim view of proceedings, such as this eloquently expressed point:

Let's hope for all our sakes that it [ the govt] feels it necessary to stand up to the mediaevalism of thought-process that permeates the Sun and its red-top rivals. Let's hope that it is untiring in promoting the message that humanity must do better than allow itself to be dictated to by lamebrains - for otherwise there's little hope for us.

Perhaps, though, with Coulson gone and Cameron now in government, there might be a change of heart about how closely he should follow the dictates of the Sun. He might do well to remember the immortal words of one of his Conservative predecessors. Stanley Baldwin, referring to the Beaverbrook press, said of the press that:

"It carries power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages"

Mind you, one of Baldwin's more cynical supporters muttered that it was unfortunate they had now lost the harlot vote. Can't have everything I suppose!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ken Clarke Rehabilitates Himself In Wormwood Scrubs

There was much discussion on the BBC Question Time programme tonight about the purpose of prisons in rehabilitating prisoners, but there can be little doubt that one man certainly used his prison opportunity to good effect, and that was the Justice Secretary himself, Ken Clarke.

After a torrid day yesterday, when his perhaps too casual words in a radio interview caused a mini media flurry, and even the demand from Ed Miliband that he should be sacked, Clarke showed this evening why he is still one of the government's great performers.

First off, his response to a harshly worded question about whether he was "clumsy, wrong or misconstrued" in his remarks was "probably a bit of each", followed by what appeared to be a heartfelt bit of contrition that was heard in silence by the audience, and then applauded. He was helped by an articulate and supportive Shami Shakrabati, and even Jack Straw was reluctant to endorse his own leader's call for Clarke's sacking. But the fact remained, a day after traipsing from studio to studio in a ridiculous media fest that would have worn lesser men out, Clarke re-appeared today on the jungle of Question Time, a programme that frequently spits politicians out, and quickly won his audience round. Not because they necessarily agreed with him on prison sentencing - many clearly didn't - but because he argued his case effectively, non-patronisingly and with, for Clarke, a surprising degree of humility!

With the rape question over - having been fully and intelligently discussed by one of the best recent Question Time audiences - Clarke and Shakrabarti then appeared to be in an unusual alliance of the humane and liberal-minded against the authoritarians Jack Straw and Melanie Phillips. Clarke remained effective throughout the programme, but at no point more so than when he responded to Melanie Phillips' crude call to shut down the Department for International Development, that much maligned purveyor of aid to the world's poor. His defence of overseas aid was one which should be heard more widely, and gave eloquent voice to the natural international corollary of One Nation politics.

Clarke maintained a strong position throughout the programme, and the audience - not in fact made up of prisoners and prison warders, but largely the usual cross-section of society as noted by Nick Robinson - was generally sympathetic and responsive to him.

There aren't many members of David Cameron's cabinet with wide public appeal; an appeal that can usefully cross party boundaries and suspend the toxic waft that often accompanies Tory spokesmen. Clarke, however, remains one of them, and the suggestion that he's 'lost it', should have been firmly laid to rest by tonight's performance. As for the absent Ed Miliband, if he isn't now regretting his ill-judged call for Clarke's sacking, he lacks even the limited political nous his detractors credit him with.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When Is A Rape Not A Rape?

Well, never, according to received wisdom. But it really is all about the language you use, and whatever the merits or demerits of Ken Clarke's case today, he should perhaps have been savvy enough to know that no-one was ever going to listen to the argument - the issue of rape is simply too emotional for that. But then, that's Ken Clarke all over - determinedly unspun.

Nevertheless, just to see how our media and political system works, it's worth examining the Justice Secretary's remarks and how they have developed into a row.

This morning, he went on Radio 5 Live to discuss proposals to allow people who plead guilty to offences straight away to have their sentences halved. These included people who have committed rape.

Challenged by presenter Victoria Derbyshire on the prospect that this would mean rapists going free after 15 months, he then suggested she had based her proposition on an erroneous figure of five years as the average sentence for rape. Rape, he said, drew far longer sentences.

The 5 year figure is reached by including a range of cases under the general charge of rape - Clarke said this included, for example, consensual sex between an older and younger teenager, where the younger teenager was under the age of consent (although he unfortunately got the age wrong).

The presenter, Derbyshire, interjected with "Rape is rape".

Clarke's response was to say that it wasn't. His clear intention being to suggest that there are a full range of cases, not all of them of equal weight, which come under the rape heading.

Since sentencing guidelines do indeed have a sliding tariff of sentences for judges to use when assessing rape cases, this might seem to be a legally correct point to make. Since it is also clear that rape incidences do differ from case to case, it might also seem to be a fair point to make from a layman's perspective too.

What has happened next is, alas, the sign of our maturity as a political society. Clarke's attempt to actually show that rape sentences were far more severe than his interviewer was suggesting has degenerated into a morass of emotivity and spin. Ed Miliband even managed to keep a straight face when sombrely suggesting that the Justice Secretary should be out of his job by the end of the day. Of course, Clarke's inability to recognise how his response about an issue as sensitive as rape could be viewed bespeaks a lack of instant judgement. But I guess he wasn't expecting his remarks to be divorced so quickly from the context of his conversation.

We live in an age where the uniformity of political dialogue, and its bland, uninformative contribution is regularly condemned. Apparently we want politicians to break away from their careful scripts and occasionally tell us what they really think, to give us the truth. Yet if today's manufactured furore is anything to go by, we are not actually capable of hearing politicians speak more freely, and perhaps with layered responses. We can only cope with predictable and unexciting sound-bites. The idea of a debate, with sometimes difficult views being expressed, has finally been expunged from our society. And it isn't actually the politicians who have done it. It's a media machine which, even with 24 hours to report and respond thoughtfully, is unable to do more than reduce news and comments to their most trivial common denominator.

Ken Clarke's real error is still not to have realised that.

How Do We Deal With The Aspiration Gap?

The Prince’s Trust has just highlighted the problem of a ‘youth underclass’. A new report from the organization identifies a number of areas where there is a clear ‘aspiration gap’ between the UK’s richest and poorest young people. Amongst other figures, 16 per cent (more than 1 in 6) say their families and friends make fun of them when they talk about finding a good job; more than a quarter (29%) had few or no books in their home; more than a third (36%) did not have anywhere quiet at home to do their schoolwork. The net effect of such conditions has been to drastically reduce the aspirations of young people from the poorest areas. They believe they will never have a decent job and that their future is likely to be a dead-end one, probably on benefits.

The report, produced in association with RBS, also suggests a decline in aspirations amongst poorer young people, who see their hopes slide as they get older. Prince’s Trust chief executive Martina Milburn said “Our research suggests that all young people start off with similarly high aspirations. However, those from poorer homes are significantly more likely to lose confidence in their own abilities and ambitions as they approach adulthood.”

As David Cameron and the Coalition Government look beyond taming the deficit to the business of policies that improve people’s lives, they could do worse than consider the challenges posed by the Prince’s Trust Report to both their own Big Society vision, and to the more substantive area of education policy.

The Prince’s Trust itself is a classic example of effective Big Society engagement, albeit with impressive personal and financial backing. They aim to help 50,000 “vulnerable young people” find jobs and start to have confidence in their future this year. They have, over the years, notched up an impressive record of engagement in some of the country’s most deprived areas, moving in to fill the vacuum of state aid and support. And it is arguable that, as a charity, freed from the shackles that seems to inhabit so much state sponsored support, they have been able to act with greater freedom and dynamism. But not every charity working amongst the urban poor can boast the backing and clout of an heir to the throne, and even the Trust only seems at times to be scratching the surface of the poverty problem. Smaller charities and community based initiatives are likely to be far more stretched, and could just benefit from a dose of state aid to keep them and their works going. If the Big Society is more than just a call for volunteerism to step in and make good the state’s deficit, it would be good to see a more defined way being articulated from Number 10 about just how the state and charities can work together to alleviate urban and rural deprivation, lack of aspiration and a host of other problems associated with poverty. A dynamic fusion between state and charities could accomplish much, and would begin to make the Big Society look a lot more substantial.

Beyond the need for good, well supported charity involvement however, lies the need for more impressive state action in the area of education. There is no mystery to the fact that education catalyses and inspires aspiration, and that one of the biggest failings in the state system’s education provision to its poorest citizens lies in the very figures produced by the Prince’s Trust. What is lacking in the home, in terms of books and an ethos of achievement, could be provided by a school.

But where do we find such schools? Could they be Michael Gove’s Free Schools? Hardly. As of May the Department for Education had received a mere 323 applications to set up such schools, of which 10 – 20 are expected to actually start in September. Bear in mind, too, that these are schools set up by already motivated individuals, catering to a relatively small potential clientele of similarly motivated families. So what about the Academies? They may have been part of the answer, when they were focused on re-vamping existing poor performing schools, but the current programme amounts to little more than offering a financial incentive to successful schools to opt out of local authority control. Not exactly a vision for aspirational attainment in the poorest areas of the UK.

In fact, of course, the answer lies in an idea far too radical for any party to apparently want to commit to. It lies in providing well funded and well supported schools in the most deprived boroughs of the country, which can cater directly to the pupils’ own education needs and work as mini-communities to quickly and collectively raise the aspirations of their students. It would involve placing young people of similar academic abilities together, thus allowing them to move at a faster pace through their curriculum, as well as playing off each other in their learning, and giving a sense of competition to their academic progress. With teachers able to direct their teaching more selectively, and students able to share a common ethos of attainment and aspiration, it would be the fastest method of promoting social mobilization and dealing with the aspiration gap that we could have. Unfortunately, the name of such a system is the grammar school system. And it’s enough to send every elitely educated member of the cabinet running for cover. Pity. Because it could just work – again.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rally Against Debt - A Study In Pressure Group Failure?

Yesterday was meant to see another big protest in London. The Rally Against Debt is a new protest group, supported by pressure group the Taxpayers' Alliance and UKIP, representing an interesting new fusion between parties and pressure groups. The aim of the enterprise was clear - to mobilise that vast reservoir of support that clearly exists for the government's proposed spending cuts. Except that, er, it apparently doesn't. Police estimates for the turnout were around 350. The admittedly biased New Statesman reporter Lisa Hamilton thought 200 was a 'generous' estimate for what was, in her view, really more of a long queue than an actual rally. Compare that with the protests against the cuts, organised by the trade unions and other groups on March 26th., and....well, they garnered something like a quarter of a million protestors, including the fragrant Fortnums sit-in organisers, UK Uncut.

So clearly a failure? Well, yes......AND no. The Rally Against Debt was not, for a start, actually pressuring anyone to change policy. They were there to support what is already government policy. Whether the presence of a few hundred apparently civilised citizens in Old Palace Yard is going to particularly stiffen the mettle of the government is hard to say. They are, after all, already committed to the cuts agenda so the actions of Rally Against Debt are not exactly transformative, however many people turn up. But of course, the aims of this particular day were not just to endorse government policy, but to mobilise opinion in favour of an even more drastic approach to cutting the debt. They wanted to be the beginning of a British Tea Party movement that successfully pressures for significantly reduced government and lower taxes. That after all is the aim of the main force behind the rally, the Taxpayers' Alliance. In that regard, the protest was indeed a complete failure. For all the interest on the right in the American Tea Party, the non-event of the Rally Against Debt appears to suggest that there will be no such successful project in Britain.

So what conclusions can we draw about the impact of pressure groups from the somewhat abortive Rally, and its hated polar opposite, the March For The Alternative of March 26th? First, while pressure groups who support government policy may be successful in getting some insider leverage in influencing the direction of policy, they are unlikely to get a huge number of people to join a public protest - after all, the government's already doing (largely) what they want, so most ordinary people (the necessary ingredient of mass protests) will question the value of going along. Conservative Home's Tim Montgomerie also suggested that right-wingers are simply less willing to protest than left-wingers - a rather dubious claim presumably designed to explain why a cause dear to his heart didn't attract much public support. Second, successful pressure groups need to chime in with a popular mood, and the popular mood remains on the side of public services. Cuts are accepted as, at best, a necessary evil, but they are not enthusiastically embraced.

Third, in this instance at any rate, the size and organisational capability of the relevant pressure group is significant. The March for the Alternative was organised in large part by the trade union movement, with all that implies for funding, publicity and the ability to bus in your supporters. The Rally Against Debt relied principally on social media to heighten its profile - sympathetic blogs, facebook and twitter were all used, supported by a few Telegraph newspaper columnists. They gained more publicity after the event - maybe because of the novelty of it being so small - than before. The organiser of the event, Jacob Patch, gave his explanation for the low turn-out on their website, giving this comment:

There were many factors that worked against us. The main bulk of the media coverage was on the day and the week leading up to it. We had the Royal Wedding and especially the ‘No to AV’ and ‘Local elections’ that diverted many peoples attentions away from the event. For many by the time this was all over it was too late to book trains buses, get time off of work etc. Not to mention the exams coming up for many young people.

An earlier blog entry on the website from Mr. Patch is also interesting in terms of trying to explain how to make the rally as media-friendly as possible - he puts out a call for placards and interesting slogans, and details various prominent speakers who will be attending, all part and parcel of getting a pressure group event noticed.

Of course, it should also be noted that for all its size and profile, the March 26th. event made not a jot of difference to the government's cutting agenda, and was considered by some to have backfired in view of the violent tactics used by a small number of protestors. Large or small, public protests might be seen to be amongst the least effective means of getting governments to change their minds, even if they are a necessary part of obtaining a public profile.

The Taxpayers' Alliance will presumably continue its campaigning work, but it has suffered a bloody nose with its Rally. One of the counter-organisations meanwhile, UK Uncut, are using the notoriety they gained from their Fortnums sit-in to arrange another day of action soon. On 28th. May they are aiming to transform banks into hospitals all over the country, as a protest against NHS changes. Now on that topic, they may well be chiming in with the prevailing public mood. We'll see how they do.

Finally, here is the BBC London report on the rally, with an explanation for its small size from key backer, blogger Guido Fawkes.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Scalps Roll In Scotland

Since Alex Salmond's storming victory in the Scottish elections last Thursday, every other party leader has now announced their resignation. First off was the doomed Iain Gray of the Labour Party, followed by the Lib Dems' Scottish leader and today, the announcement by the Conservative leader in Scotland, Annabel Goldie, that she is standing down too. Salmond's managed a clean sweep.

As far as the Scottish results go, Labour ended up the most disappointed party. Once all powerful in Scotland, they have finally had to face up to their frailty in the face of well organised, fresh and determined opposition. The Lib Dems probably expected a pasting and weren't disappointed. As for the Tories, although Ms. Goldie says she was relatively happy with the Thursday vote, despite losing two MSPs, that happiness can only be from a base of what are consistently low expectations for the Tory performance in Scotland. The Scots' vote for the SNP certainly indicated a determination to be clear of English associations, but not necessarily to move towards greater independence. The Conservatives have, since the days of Margaret Thatcher, been toxic north of the border and a succession of Tory leaders in Scotland have failed to turn around the fortunes of a decidedly minority party when it comes to Scottish affairs. As with the Labour Party, ambitious Tories prefer to make their way at Westminster rather than the provincial backwater of Holyrood, but this tends to leave the main parties - especially one as small as the Conservatives - with a dearth of talent. It isn't just talented leadership that's missing, though. The Conservatives have yet to find a way of exorcising the Thatcherite demon that causes it so much pain in the north. Since the Scots can't all be genuine left-wingers - can they? - there must be room for a distinctively Scottish right-of-centre party, and if the Conservatives aren't careful, they may find one emerging that isn't them. Perhaps, indeed, the best thing they can do is to dissolve themselves and reform under a wholly different banner - a bit like the old Academy Schools used to do. Or will the Scottish electorate see through such a ruse?!

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Two articles post-election...

There's plenty of comment around about the aftermath of both the local and devolved elections and the AV referendum, but a starter might be this fairly concise, and on the ball summary of winners and losers by the Spectator's James Forsyth. AS students in particular might then find it useful to go on and read his article on why two-party politics is likely to be back with a vengeance in Westminster.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Tomorrow's Last Chance Referendum

Tomorrow by close of voting the British electorate – or those who can be bothered to turn out – will, in all probability, have decisively rejected the first opportunity in decades to reform their voting system. They will also, in so doing, have put the chance for further reform on the backburner for many years to come. This is not a cause for rejoicing, despite the increasingly hysterical note of the less than salubrious ‘No to AV’ campaign. If Britain had already been neatly equipped with an equitable and representative voting system, then there would be nothing to complain about in tomorrow’s likely result. But it is not. It has instead a demonstrably unrepresentative system whose strains have become ever more apparent in recent successive elections.

It is scandalous that a voting system which delivers strong majority government on a mere 36% of the vote (as First Past the Post did for Labour in 2005) continues to operate in a would-be liberal democracy. It is a national disgrace that thousands of votes in a significant proportion of constituencies amount to little more than window dressing, giving their owners no share whatsoever in the outcome of a general election. It is wholly unacceptable that a party scoring 23% of the vote should be delivered a mere 8% of the seats in the national legislature (the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and it matters not a jot that their share of the vote may, a year later, finally have come down so dramatically that it at last meets the share of seats they once won!). Yet all of these undemocratic features are the regular characteristics of the First Past the Post system that our two major parties are desperately seeking to maintain in tomorrow’s referendum. There are dictators in Africa who could probably claim more popular support than some recent British governments!

The one shred of respectability that could conceivably be attributed to FPTP is that it delivers strong governments. Quite apart from the extraordinary misnomer that ‘strong’, single party government should be regarded as a good thing in a pluralistic democracy (Putin, after all, delivers strong government in Russia, but I don’t notice British politicians leaping to praise his beautifully liberal leading of that nation), the 2010 election even managed to rip that last, vacuous defence from the mouths of its proponents.

So why is the tide running so strongly in favour of retaining this system that has seen the unrepresentative nature of British government increase, while the electoral turnout from voters who no longer believe their votes can affect which party governs has so markedly declined (from 78% in 1997 to 61% in 2005, and a very slight increase to 65% in 2010)? It is partly because of a brilliant, disreputable, manipulative and utterly unprincipled No to AV campaign, but it is also partly the consequence of placing FPTP against what is possibly the least attractive replacement system, the Alternative Vote. In engineering this referendum, the Coalition have betrayed the principles of electoral reform they sought (reluctantly, in the Conservative case) to pursue. The Liberal Democrats in particular, whose raison d’etre in recent years has been to campaign for a more equitable voting system, have allowed themselves to be so comprehensively outmanoeuvred that they barely deserve to remain a serious contender for national power. How a party whose leader so memorably dismissed AV as a ‘miserable little compromise’ could then have accepted it as the only alternative to FPTP beats most of the best brains in politics. Never mind student fees; when Nick Clegg held the dealer’s hand in the coalition negotiations with a Conservative leader desperate to form a new government, he baulked at the only prize his party would find worth receiving. He allowed AV on the electoral reform referendum.

AV is not, in fact, quite the dastardly system its opponents are portraying. It retains some of the strengths of FPTP – single member constituencies for example. Through the ability to vote for candidates in an order of preference, it offers the chance to see elected representatives who are not simply the choice of a minority of voters in their constituencies (in 2010 only a third of MPs actually achieved majority support). MPs even use AV to elect the Speaker and the chairmen of the Select Committees. AV is stringently opposed by a BNP which knows it will be further marginalised by a system which is more likely to reward consensual candidates. MPs wishing to hold their seats under AV, after all, need to appeal to undecided voters who traditionally occupy a centrist political position. The argument that AV will encourage MPs to work harder and reflect the needs of their average constituent rather than pander to often unrepresentative activists in their party committees is a credible one. Yet despite these virtues, the same people who so lamely allowed just one, readily attacked system to appear on the electoral reform ballot have also manifestly failed to argue the case for AV with anything like the strength it deserves.

I am a citizen of a well known democracy whose electoral victors represent the views of under 40% of her citizens. The last chance for at least a generation to change that comes tomorrow, and for all the flaws of the AV system on offer, it not only represents a better and more democratic system than the one we currently use, but it keeps open the chance for further, much needed reform. We reject that at our peril.