Monday, February 09, 2015

The best laid plans....

I normally yield to no-one in my defence of MPs and their workload; the sense of public spirit that has led them into parliament; the fact that they are significantly under appreciated etc.  But tonight, such warm, positive feelings evaporated. They are a bunch of workshy charlatans who wouldn't know a hard day's work if it came and danced in the aisles of their under used committee rooms.

The reason for my onset of annoyed angst has nothing to do, of course, with a misplaced attempt to bring my students to the heart of the mother of parliaments to watch a twilight session of the Houses in operation.  Having checked the daily schedule s of both Houses it looked as if there might be enough to keep them going until the noted adjournment times of 10.30 pm.  Admittedly the last Commons debate, on the vexed topic of nut allergies on flights could, it might be argued, have yielded fewer lengthy considerations than some other important elements of the body politic, but with counter-terrorism and the HSBC scandal on the agenda of the Lords,  7.30 didn't thus seem to be a particularly risky time to arrive for at least one chamber to still be operating; surely our hard working representatives would be bringing their fine minds to bear on the important details of their country's legislative agenda for a little while yet? After all, it was only Monday.  Half days in public service normally don't crop up until at least Thursday do they?

Not a bit of it.  Our evening journey to Westminster had been in vain.  The pleasant officials on duty at the gate broke the news to us gently but firmly that there were no sittings still going on.  Business was done. Democracy was on hold.

Getting a bunch of teenagers to agree to extend their working day is never easy.  When it's proved to be in vain it is well nigh a disaster.  There was no explaining away this one.  My earlier  exhortations that they were in for some high level political debate looked as hollow as an Easter egg.  A lame group photo later, and our trip was done. 

MPs workloads? As mythical as Stephen Fry's God.

Lesson Resources

The first of the powerpoints (from the lessons) for AS students are now up and published here (Link also opposite for easy access).  I will keep adding to the resources on the "SGS Politics Extra" blog, including relevant resources to complement AS Unit 2 and A2 resources for Global Politics (3D) and the US (4C). 

Electoral Domesday - could the next government be the second and fourth placed parties?

It was conventional wisdom that the AV referendum in 2011 had effectively 'parked' the issue of electoral reform for a generation or so.  Just, of course, as it was conventional wisdom that the Scottish referendum would also 'park' the issue of Scottish independence.  Neither of these wisdoms look very secure now.  In the case of Scotland, the problem was that the referendum was never allowed to run its proper course as with a week to go David Cameron and his fellow English party leaders changed the issue to something that wasn't on the ballot paper - gerrymandering of a high order.  In the case of electoral reform, Professor John Curtice's interesting figures look as if they too could bring the issue of reform firmly back into the main stream - and, since they were published by the Electoral Reform society that's probably what they were intended to do.

Professor Curtice notes that the key factor for success in the First Past the Post system is the geographic concentration of votes, and he further adds that this is effectively undermining the national claim of the system to be a "winner takes all" one.  His findings (full report here; Electoral Reform summary here) suggest the possibility of a Labour Party which comes second in votes securing the highest number of seats, and being shoehorned into government by an SNP which may well have come only sixth in terms of UK-wide votes, but have enough seats to secure Labour a majority in a coalition.

Curtice looks at the relative prospects of the smaller parties, on whom much of the election outcome will depend, and finds that the SNPs geographic concentration of votes could well propel them into winning significantly higher numbers of seats than the more geographically spread UKIP, even if UKIP scores significantly more votes.  To add to the possible post-election chaos is, of course, the fact that not only will SNP MPs only hail from one part of the UK, but - since the notorious devolution 'vow' - it is part with barely any domestic issues actually decided at Westminster.

Curtice discussed his report on the 'Today' programme (scroll in to around 45.55 minutes) and it makes fascinating listening.  No longer is the issue of whether FPTP throws up another coalition the only point of discussion.  Just as crucial, given the SNP surge in support (largely at Labour's expense in Scotland) is the question of who the coalition might actually comprise.  Thus, to the disproportionality of FPTP is added the unresolved headache of an incomplete devolution settlement.

If this looks like an issue of unfairness to the main parties - and I suspect it is the Tories who would make the most ground on this - then they might like to reflect that their own leaders have led them to this potential impasse.  All three leaders were guilty of panicking att he sight of the Scottish referendum polling figures, and unforgivably altered the basis of the referendum with no thought to the consequences.  In addition, only Clegg campaigned for reform of the Westminster system when he argued for the AV option in the referendum, although his acceptance of a hopelessly skewed referendum question (which only posited AV as an alternative, rather than the principle of proportionality) showed, at best, considerable political naivety.  David Cameron and the rest of the Conservative Party, meanwhile, have consistently failed to consider the inequities of the FPTP system, and then fell foul of their coalition partners in the tit-for-tat of blocking Lords reform (the Conservatives) and constituency boundary changes (the Lib Dems).

Whatever mess emerges after the next election, it is an irony that the men responsible for its genesis will also be the ones charged with resolving it.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

So could Clegg be PM after the election?

Well yes, for a few days, is the broad theme of a Huffington Post "exclusive" today.  The piece is an interview with former Lib Dem Defence minister Nick Harvey, who speculates that if David Cameron decided to resign as Conservative leader following a poor showing in the election, a hung parliament could result in coalition negotiations taking place with Nick Clegg holding the fort as interim Prime Minister.  Far-fetched?  Absolutely.  And we still have three months or so of wild speculation making headlines as news 'fact'.

The problem for Clegg, anyway, seems to lie closer to home.  I've always maintained that if disillusioned Lib Dem voters voted Labour, as a protest against the Lib Dems' willingness to be in coalition with the Conservatives, then many of their seats would actually fall not to Labour but to the Conservatives, from whom the incumbent MPs took the setas in the first place.  Clegg's Sheffield Hallam seat is one example - once a Tory stronghold, he seized it from them in 2005.  However, a Survation poll of the seat, reported on Labourlist, puts Labour ahead of Clegg in that seat.  If there is a momentum towards the Labour candidate there, then it certainly seems likely that the anti-coalition vote might be able to coalesce around him to the extent that it takes the seat and deprives Clegg of any further involvement in negotiating new coalitions.  Nevertheless, it is still worth remembering that the seat is a prosperous, and actually quite rural one; certainly not natural Labour territory under a left-wing leader.  I wouldn't write off either Clegg or the Tories just yet.

CORRECTION: I have said in the post above that Nick Clegg won the Hallam seat in 2005 from the Tories.  In fact, he succeeded Liberal Democrat MP Richard Allan, who won it off the Tories in the meltdown of 1997.

Nick Clegg has also now gone on record to ridicule the Survation poll findings.


Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Could Italian politics be moving in a new direction?

Short post this, really to highlight an interesting piece by Catherine Gegout on the Nottingham Uni politics blog about the new Italian president Sergio Mattarella.

For all those who thought Italian politics had no chance of ever not being mired in corruption - Gegout notes that Italy is the most corrupt state in the EU - the choice of Mattarella seems to mark a turning point.  His election as president by parliament also represents another piece of anti-Berlusconi manouevring by current prime minister, Matteo Renzi.  Well worth heading over to the article and getting a bit of quick immersement in Italian politics.   

Commons comedy, courtesy of the Speccie's sketchwriter

There is a long history - dating all the way back to the 1970s in its modern form - of Commons sketch writing, which is to say reporting the proceedings of the House of Commons and our noble representatives as they sit debating our best interests within it, and doing so in a humorous fashion.  Andrew Alexander possibly started it in the modern newspapers, Frank Johnson and Edward Pearce have been masters of the art, and Quentin Letts keeps the satirical bile flowing today, amongst others.  It's almost as if these collected writers believe that either the Commons isn't funny enough on its own merits, or that the ludicrous pomposity of the inhabitants we have sent there needs exposing on a regular basis.

There is no better forum for such scathing wit than the weekly Prime Minister's Questions.  I'm not sure whether this regular bun fight has ever provided much illumination, but it has certainly been operating several stages below the average playground brawl in the hands of the current incumbent and his opposite number.  And Cameron was the man who once piously announced he would do away with "Punch and Judy" politics.  Honestly.  Politicians and their promises.

Anyway, I mention all this, in a rather long-winded way, to flag up the Spectator's brilliant Lloyd Evans, whose report of today's seemingly dire PMQs is, frankly, a masterpiece of richly comic observation.

His description of Cameron as a man who is "slipperier than a jellyfish emerging from an oil-slick" has an almost Wodehousian quality to it, while he describes one Labour backbencher as "a floppy haired Scouser who looks like an angry Beatle".  His greatest description today, though, is of the SNP's Angus Robertson, of whom he says "the stars that twinkled at his birth allotted him a superhuman store of charmlessness".   There's every chance we come away from chortling over Evans' sketch rather more wise in the ways of PMQs than if we'd simply watched it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Tories remain in their laager, despite not shifting in the polls

Business leaders like Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer have been leaping in to the political arena to attack Labour's policy proposals, but it doesn't look as if this is doing much to shift the Tory position.  It has been flat-lining at around 32% for a year now.  Admittedly, Labour too has failed to shift things, remaining a mere 1% ahead of the Conservatives in the first month of this year, despite the high-energy campaigning.

It is more than probable that despite the attention being focused on the election - still over three months away - in the Westminster village, few ordinary voters are taking much notice. The biggest electoral trend has been the increase of the SNP's position in Scotland, which is likely to act to the detriment of Labour, but could cause a significant problem for all of the English parties when it comes to getting English legislation through parliament (a difficulty highlighted today by William Hague's inability to unite the parliamentary party behind his English laws proposal).

The Conservatives can draw little comfort from Labour's position in Scotland.  They remain under threat from UKIP, but more importantly have failed to move their opinion poll position despite concerted efforts to do so and the running of a narrative that seeks to confer on Cameron the benefits of incumbency whilst targeting Miliband as unfit to be Prime Minister.

Adam Bienkov has a piece on today analysing the polling situation, and he has this cutting but on the nail comment about the Tory party:

After a year of strong economic recovery and declining trust in Labour and Miliband, any other governing party would expect to be sweeping up support by now. The fact that voters would still rather plump for almost any other party instead, suggests that the Tories have fundamental problems they are simply refusing to face up to.
There are occasionally signs of realisation. The party's continuing low support among the young, ethnic minorities, working class voters and indeed anyone outside the South East of England, have been repeatedly raised by some figures on the fringes of the party. Occasionally these concerns are listened to. Usually they are ignored.
In fact rather than face up to these problems they have instead retreated back to the same electoral comfort zone that has failed to win them a majority for over twenty years. Endlessly banging on about immigration, Europe and welfare have failed to win dividends for the party for decades and yet they continue to do it anyway.
They say madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. Well the Tories have been doing the same thing for almost a quarter of a century now and yet still they stand back in amazement when the opinion polls refuse to budge.

This absolutely encapsulates the Tory problem, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post.  Their failure to reach out to a wider electorate remains their Achilles heel, and yet they persistently look to the wrong answer - the belief that they just need to be more right-wing.  How many election defeats will it take for the moderate right to re-group and form a genuinely popular centre-right party?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Miliband not a weirdo shock, and a replacement for Merlin

My earlier post suggested that the Labour party had had a pretty dire week last week, so by way of balance here's some good news for the would-be Labour supporter.

First off is the report on Labourlist that the party has increased its membership.  Once you acknowledge Labourlist as a cheerleader for the party, it is nonetheless the case that they have produced figures that would give some cheer to Ed Miliband as he looks at a membership rise that appears to be beating the Tories (at 194,000 Labour members to just under 150,000 for the Tories).  Mind you, the Tories' Grant Shapps also claims a number of 224,000 if you include non-paying 'supporters', which seems like a very dubious calculation.  None of those figures, by the way, is particularly cheering for the parties, representing as they do somewhere around 1% of the electorate.

If that isn't enough to cheer the Labour leader, he might also want to gloat a little at the results of a Lord Ashcroft focus group poll, reported by Guido, that has most voters likening David Cameron to Dick Dastardly when asked to compare party leaders to cartoon characters.  Not that Miliband's cartoon alter ego - Elmer Fudd - is much more encouraging.

Miliband has also been doing a Q and A with younger voters, and while his answer about his life experience outside politics might have been wanting (he noted he had been a Treasury adviser and a lecturer at Harvard - lecturing about politics!), the Spectator's Isabel Hardman reports that he generally came across well.  All the more effective for being so regularly lampooned as a sub-human weirdo.

And then there are the people who "really, really, really" like Ed Miliband, which is good news for students like my school's mock election Labour candidate, who maintain that Ed Miliband is in reality a visionary and articulate leader who will wipe the floor with Cameron.  Well, it turns out Tom is not alone, as the Spectator's 'Steerpike' discovers the tweets that rave about Miliband's amazing quotes.

Finally, it seemed that Conservative Home had ventured into popular culture when I noticed the sub-heading "A replacement for Merlin - at last".  Could this be a reference to the BBC's tortuous road to finding another popular family fantasy programme, after the cancellation of "Atlantis" in only its second series?  Alas no - the Merlin in this story was a rather prosaic voter contact database, now being replaced by the less ambitiously named "Votesource".  The BBC's search presumably continues.