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'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.