Friday, July 08, 2011

Call Me Dave and the Melchett Molestation

Not that all politics is basically the same or anything, but I was writing this very piece about an entirely different news story. Funny how all your chickens come home to roost when inevitably they do...

There's a wonderful scene towards the end of The West Wing's final season in which President-elect Santos meets with the favourite to be the new Speaker Of The House. Santos outlines his first legislative priority; reform of the lobbying industry to free Congress from the corrosive effects of special interests. The soon-to-be Speaker's response is simple; "We have a majority and thus the edge in fundraising for the first time in years, I won't just give that away!"

If ever there was proof that psychology is far more important to understanding modern politics than philosophy or political science, it is in this attitude. It's only natural that politicians of all stripes will have their complaints about the nature of the game; everyone feels that way about some aspect of their chosen profession. And yet, when they win the game and have the chance to change it, even the most radical amongst them refuse to challenge the game as it stands, even in the face of their own overwhelming self-interest.

This effect was crucial in the death of the Labour Party; once it had convinced itself that Labour government was good and all other possibilities were fundamentally evil, the important quality for a Labour politician became, not their ideological soundness, but their ability to play the game. That such an attitude resulted in Blair, whose ideological emptiness was crucial to his development as perhaps the ultimate political player of the last half century, should not be too surprising.

The same was very much in evidence during the AV referendum and is an important factor to remember in any future electoral reform campaign. Much of the opposition to AV was based, not on a rational analysis of what Parliament should be and how it should best be composed to achieve that goal, but on the simple premise that first-past-the-post was democracy incarnate. For so many, the fact that the game was what it was meant that the game had to be that way, an attitude that will have to be tackled when the issue comes back round.

And then there is the ghastly ménage à trois that is Cameron, Murdoch and Brooks. The Dirty Digger's skills as a political seducer shouldn't be underestimated, but somehow, a succession of political leaders have failed to realise that his real power is not seduction, but blackmail; any advantage he grants to you comes through destroying your opponent and that power will be unleashed on you just as soon as you cease to be flavour of the month.

How much damage will accrue to each of the protagonists remains to be seen; Dave himself may well be saved by "politicians are all the same" deflecting the attention from his particular case of overindulging in the arslikhan. Still, it can only be good for the country and the coalition if this whole disgraceful affair teaches him the lesson that Lieutenant George got from Captain Blackadder; there's nothing wrong with dancing with the devil if he's the only one who'll bring you, but it is vitally important that you don't let him shag you on the veranda once you're there...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lawyering Up

And so, after the commotion, come the lawyers. Today's coverage of the unfolding saga regarding John Dixon and Aled Roberts and their present disqualification from the Assembly has latched onto the first legal opinion offered, by former counsel general Winston Roddick, and (with some exceptions) taken it as gospel.

Unsurprisingly, as your favourite (read: only) Lib Dem blogger-cum-law student, I've taken a look at the matter. So as that fine constitutional scholar, Toby Ziegler, might have had it, let us turn our attention to the Government of Wales Act 2006, for it is the owner's manual and we should read what it has to say.

Section 16 of GOWA outlines the grounds for which a person may be disqualified from being an Assembly member, and in Section 16(1)(b) includes as a disqualification the holding of any office, "for the time being designated by Order in Council as offices disqualifying persons from being Assembly members". It is this section that gives effect to the National Assembly For Wales (Disqualification) Order 2010, which lists the offices for which John and Aled are currently disqualified.

The effect of being disqualified is laid out in Section 18 of GOWA, and in this case Section 18(1) applies when it states that, "if a person who is disqualified from being an Assembly member is returned as an Assembly member, the person's return is void and the person's seat is vacant". It is this section that the former counsel general is presumably referring to when he says the law is clear that the election is invalid.

But, und zis is a big but, Section 18(1) must be read together with Section 18(4), which says that Sections 18(1)-(3), "have effect subject to any resolution of the Assembly under Section 17(3)".

And what does Section 17(3) say? "The Assembly may resolve that the disqualification of any person who was, or is alleged to have been, disqualified from being an Assembly member on a ground within section 16(1) or (4) is to be disregarded if it appears to the Assembly (a) that the ground has been removed, and (b) that it is proper so to resolve."

On the question of whether the Assembly has the power to reinstate, therefore, the Government of Wales Act is indeed clear; it does.

Inevitably there will be much politicking over the next few days as to whether it is proper to resolve, as that is a judgement left to the Assembly and not defined in law. But just by having Section 17(3) in place, the intent of the legislation must be obvious, that it seeks only to disqualify those who continue to be disqualified, and not to invalidate elections altogether or to keep disqualified those who aren't.

One of the few comforting features of British politics is that, once the sides have extracted their pound of flesh, calmer heads normally prevail. Armed with a clear power to do so, we can but hope that they do.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Votes From The Elbonian Jury

So what, then, to make of the AV referendum campaign? Like much in British politics in the , I suspect it's a question that only the historians will be able to answer. After all, whatever result emerges at teatime on Friday, will we be able to say with any sort of confidence why it happened?

I certainly don't feel like the campaign has had much to do with the result. Much as the Yes campaign clearly won the intellectual argument, doing so by default because the No campaign didn't have one made that victory rather hollow. Beyond that, the primary effect of the campaigning seems to have been to further convince the electorate that they're all just as bad as each other, which in a referendum always likely to be touched by voter apathy was never going to be helpful.

Either way, it is that lack of an intellectual argument that will, more even than the result, affect our politics in the years to come. The defining moments of the campaign were when David Cameron, the Oxford PPE graduate and student of Vernon Bogdanor, not only said that he didn't understand AV, but then proved it in front of John Humphrys. At another time, it might have been funny, but with the issue front and centre and coming from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I have to say it was terrifying.

In the month or so of a formal campaign, it was understandably impossible for the Yes campaign to cover all of the many ways in which our world has changed and our political system hasn't. But for the No campaign to do what it has, to stick its fingers in its ears and its head somewhere else, and try to claim that the world hasn't changed and that our political system is what it is, what it will be and what it was, is unconscionable.

The result of one referendum on one small part of a political system that involves every single person in the country will not alter the fundamental fact that people rightly expect and demand more involvement in decision making and more choices and that it will require wholesale reform of every branch of government at every level to deliver that. Petty tribalism on all sides, including my own, cannot justify the disenfranchisement of so many.

So as you cast your ballot today, of all the myriad statistics that have been thrown at you, consider these two that maybe haven't. In the 2010 UK general election, just under 58% of people didn't vote Labour or Conservative, because a third of people didn't vote at all. Indeed, five million more people didn't vote than voted Conservative. How many of those didn't vote because their choice would be ignored or wasn't available under the current system? AV is not about Lib Dems, or Conservatives, or Labourites, it is about all of us and it is a road we must embark on, starting today.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Deeper Meaning Of No

It seems as if a lot always happens when I head off to my law school exams. Last year, I started two days before the General Election, a period in which a few little things came to pass. This year's exams began in earnest in the last week of January, just as North Africa discovered the delights of democratic revolution.

I guess it's easy to get nostalgic about it all, particularly for me as someone whose earliest political memories are of 1989. Indeed, as events unfolded in Libya I found myself wondering whether Gaddafi would be the Arab Ceauşescu, the literal sacrifice on the altar of the cult of personality. But now the metaphor has run out and we are faced with something we may not have seen before; an African civil war without the organisation, without the warlords.

Two questions jump out at me here. The first is reasonably straightforward; why do we care so much about the geography? Libya is no further away than the Balkans were, nor is civil war there any less of an issue for Europe than conflict in the former Yugoslavia was. Nevertheless, taking action there, even with NATO alone, seems to involve a psychological leap that it shouldn't.

It's the second question, however, that's rather more concerning. If intervening in Libya really is that difficult, shouldn't we all be, well, terrified?

The concern, at least at the level of a no-fly zone, seems to be that NATO aircraft might face resistance from Libyan planes and ground defences. On its own, that merely begs the question of what all the money we've spent on Eurofighter has really got us if it can't dominate an air force made up mostly of Soviet and French jets from the 1970's.

More generally, however, you have to wonder why on Earth you'd establish a no-fly zone where the guiding principle is, essentially, come and have a go if you think you're hard enough. If your intention is to prevent someone from flying their aircraft over an area, the first thing you do is destroy their aircraft. It's a theory so simple, even Hermann Göring could understand it.

Moreover, Göring didn't wait for the planes to present themselves in full combat mode with pilot attached. And while he may have struggled to bomb the RAF into oblivion with his collection of Heinkels and Dorniers, NATO has positively designed itself to be good at blowing up immobile objects on the ground in the desert; this is the age, lest we forget, of stealth planes with laser-guided smart bombs and submarine-launched cruise missiles.

Worst of all, those advanced munitions are meant to be backed up with GPS, AWACS, Key Hole and, well, the CIA. Arguing that you can't strike at Iranian nuclear facilities because they're hidden away under hundreds of feet of solid rock is one thing, but at the very least, runways and hangars do tend to be on the surface where you can see them...

What's more, the same argument applies to almost everything else that Gaddafi might deploy. Helicopters? Again, if Eurofighter can't deal with those in a situation where fixed-wing air superiority has been achieved, that's pretty concerning. Tanks? Even the worst stand-up comic can make jokes about Britain's past successes combating tanks in Libya. Toyota Pickups? Top Gear is one thing, but they didn't have ground attack aircraft...

Maybe I'm simplifying matters a little, but equally, the last thirty-odd years of UK and US defence policy have been justified almost entirely on the idea that, through technology, more can be done with less. Libya could and should be an example of exactly that, a decisive intervention made without a single solider setting foot on Libyan soil. If we fail to deliver that, either through lack of political will or lack of capability, serious questions will need to be asked about what we've been doing for all this time.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mr Brightside's Opus

I'll admit that I've had some trouble picking the winner of the 2010 Scunner Broom Award for Stupidest Political Quote of the Year (the fact I'm only awarding it in 2011 has more to do with law school exams than anything else, mind you!) Not that there weren't copious gallons of air expelled or ink spilled in the cause of saying stupid things for the sake of politics; on the contrary, in the first General Election year with Twitter availability the sheer weight of idiocy hit record levels.

What was missing, however, was the magical mix of ingredients that goes to make a Scunner winner; the ostensible reasonableness, the fundamental absence of truth when subjected to scrutiny, the breathtaking gumption needed to stray so far from the facts...

In the end, I fear I've cheated slightly, in that my winner isn't so much the stupidest quote of last year as it will be the stupidest and most repeated of this year. Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for David Blunkett MP on BBC News in November;

"If there was something desperately wrong with our present system and if there was an alternative that provided all the answers that people want then by all means let's consider a change but we are not. We are talking about a system that does work being replaced by an unknown system that could distort completely the votes of those who have the temerity to actually vote from one of the two major parties."

The system works.

So much of the No campaign in the AV referendum will boil down to those three words and the idea that after a thousand years of history, everything's fine, nothing to see here guv, move along please. It's the old joke; if it isn't baroque, don't fix it. My response to that?

Baroque? It's ******* rococo!

I won't rehearse all the myriad reasons why first past the post doesn't work at all; the Yes campaign themselves do that far better than I can. What makes Blunkett's comment award-winning is the sheer hubris it takes to actually flat-out say that it might affect the two major parties, as if the two major parties have droit de seigneur over the voters and that majorness is somehow a natural state and not the corrosive result of a system designed more for the 12th Century than the 21st.

So David, for hubris above and beyond even your impressive resume, the Scunner Broon Award is yours.