Monday, May 31, 2010

Becoming Laws Unto Themselves

And then the inevitable happened. When the coalition was formed, as a blogosphere we all wondered how we would react when the first scandal came; lo and behold, when it did it came with a big dollop of core liberal issues attached.

Then again, I guess the response to Friday night and Saturday morning, up to and including David's resignation, was just as inevitable given the collective political response to expenses from day one. Looking back, the occasional Margaret Moran joke notwithstanding, I never blogged on the topic. Normally that might be explained by my general attitude to any sort of topicality, but in this case it stemmed from my being just utterly sick of the immaturity and hypocrisy of it all.

What we got was the very worst kind of moral equivalence. Neither the Torygraph nor any of the politicians really tried to understand what had gone on; instead, the Torygraph intimated that all the politicians were evil and the politicians acquiesced on the grounds that at least their politicians were just as evil as the other side's. Making it all about the individuals, however, doesn't do anything to address either what did happen or what should happen.

In reality, the expenses scandals were many and several. The duck houses were amusing, yes, but the sense of moral outrage at them was entirely misplaced. Fundamentally, even if the voters are the interview panel and the employers of MPs, they can't be their HR or payroll department, hence there must be a Fees Office. Clearly there was a failing there in scrutiny terms (which the FOI requests went to the heart of) but any such failing is by definition systemic and can only be solved by changing the system, which hopefully we have.

The thing that's missing from that scenario, from the point of view of a law student at any rate, is culpability. Plenty of bloggers and commenters have screamed about how David Laws is meant to have defrauded the public, but the question they must answer is simple; how? Claiming for money you never spent is fraud (see the various examples that are currently sub judice.) Flipping is fraud (as you are by definition lying to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, which tends to be a bad idea. And before you start, even the Torygraph admit that Danny Alexander did nothing illegal and nothing any member of the public could have done...)

But what is it exactly that David Laws did? Even if we ignore the fact that the rule in the Green Book is lorry-drivingly vague (and seriously, the phrase "treat each other as spouses" is the sort of thing that earns QCs serious hourly rates down on the Strand) we have to ask what that rule was there to prevent. If David had taken money for somewhere he hadn't lived (like, say, Baroness Uddin) there would be a clear fraud. If David's claimed rent had been excessive for the property, that would have been fraud. As it is, while it may generally be advisable not to be in the situation David was, it is difficult to see how it constitutes any sort of fraud.

At the same time, what it does show is how abysmally the Torygraph-led knee-jerk reaction has actually served the taxpayer's interest. Then again, the one thing the Torygraph was never smart enough to understand was what the taxpayer's interest was, or that it was two-fold; to get value for money, yes, but also to ensure the effectiveness of their MP. On the value side, it would appear that David's rent claim was positively modest. And as for effectiveness, if anyone imagines he would have been a more effective MP if forced to move out of the home he shared with his partner...

I think we can all understand and sympathise with why David chose to resign. But we should be clear as a party that he didn't have to. Instead, the last forty-eight hours taught us three things; that we have still done nothing like enough to ensure that everyone can live in our country without fear of discrimination, that we need to do far more to restore not only the integrity of representative democracy but the idea itself, and that despite managing to prevent a Tory majority we have not even started to reduce the power of unaccountable press barons whose interests are entirely hostile to those of the electorate.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Unite v Simpson And Woodley

As my exams draw to a close, I find myself pondering at least one court case. And I find myself wondering why, if you wanted a reason why the Labour coalition never happened, you would look any further than last week in the High Court.

Political parties have to have a fundamental idea around which they can coalesce. This would normally, of course, be an ideology, but it doesn't have to be; ideologies are generally better producers of narratives, but as UKIP have shown it is possible under the right circumstances to achieve a narrative without one.

Where this gets incredibly messy is that the idea has very little basis in fact. It is more than anything an article of faith; what matters is that you believe that your idea fits your party. The gravitational effects on the idea are of course considerable; the effects of time and personal loyalty pull peoples ideas around and together, while the occasional political earthquake highlights the differences in ideas in the same party and drives them apart.

The effect of time is most clearly seen in the Tories, who now have a real divide between their young, vaguely libertarian urbanites and an older, suburban, palaeoconservative core. To some extent this works because the younger group will grow into the older one, in others it functions because the ideology itself, while strong, continues to reassess itself.

It was that reinvention that sustained liberalism and thus the Lib Dems, albeit at the cost of its illegitimate offspring, libertarianism. Mind you, it has been the Lib Dems who have been most exposed to the earthquakes; social democracy in the 80's, the civil liberties agenda in the 00's...

But one of the standard pearls of political wisdom is that it's easier to oppose and it's here that the current political earthquake will damage us, if at all; for those for whom not-Tory, not-New Labour was their idea, the coalition may pose questions. But to define oneself as only against Blair is to misunderstand the other idea, or to fail to ask the pertinent question; what is the Labour Party's idea?

As a law student, I'd say that contractually the Labour Party is whatever the unions want it to be. Then again, in 1900 when those contracts were formed, there was a fairly clear ideological basis to the broader labour movement. But as socialism failed across the world, whether in its communist implementations abroad or its democratic ones at home, that ideological basis faded, eventually dying in the flames of Thatcherism and the rubble of the Berlin Wall.

If the idea was dead, however, what was to replace it? At the very least you needed something to blame that didn't involve the ideology having failed; admitting that is like saying Santa Claus isn't real, it shatters the illusion. In the end, five factors held the Labour Party together in its darkest hour. The cautionary tale of the SDP and the entrenchment of the two-party system in an old media world contributed, but I suppose the truth of the matter is that everything was overtaken by events.

After all, never has a government gone from victory to defeat quicker than John Major's. From the moment David Cameron walked out of the Treasury ten steps behind Norman Lamont, the Conservatives were doomed, though that didn't stop them piling on the self-inflicted wounds. Either way, you have to conclude that John Smith would have won in 1997.

But then, that's the great political what if, perhaps of all time. The questions are endless; how many seats would he have won? Would we now be calling it a Portillo moment? The variables are endless, and in any case it's difficult to see how radically different the policy would have been; Brown would still have been Chancellor, Blair would have been a key source of ideas in the Cabinet, Clause Four would have survived but it's not as if they'd have done anything about it...

Nevertheless, at that moment in the summer of 1994, the Labour Party was given a choice unlike that any party had perhaps ever faced; with victory assured, all it had to worry about was its idea and how best to express it. And what was the idea they chose?

Anything's better than the Tories.

It's instinctive to try and look for an ideological basis for New Labour, and God knows Blair tried with the Third Way. But by 1994, the unions (as the contractual partners in all this) were sufficiently shellshocked by the success of Thatcher's vitriol toward them and the failure of their reciprocal fury that it must have seemed almost trivial to say that anything was better than the Tories.

And so New Labour came to pass. For a foolhardy few it may have been a Munchausenian fantasy, a passionate belief in a non-existent ideology. But for most, whether jumped at with the fervour of a drowning man or begrudgingly accepted as necessary but irrelevant to one's own socialism, the only purpose it served was to beat the Tories.

It might not have mattered; just because the Labour Party was rallying around not-Tory didn't mean they had to express that idea in practice. But in a wonderfully synergistic confluence, the Labour Party got exactly what it deserved; the boy king Blair and his Somerset, Mandelson.

I've written before about how New Labour turned to quantum government, using spin (that quantumest of concepts) to justify not doing socialist things by showing how, by the political equivalent of the sum over histories, the things they did inched them towards a socialist ideal; that picture on the cover of the Labour manifesto was only inaccurate in that they put it at the start and not at the end.

In accepting that idea, however, New Labour, perhaps inadvertently, accepted its corollary; once you've established that anything's better than the Tories, it doesn't particularly matter how much better it is. That's not to say they needed to put so much effort into proving just how similar to the Tories they could be, of course...

Nevertheless, it is in that psychology that the impossibility of a Lib-Lab coalition was founded. Perhaps some part of the Labour hindbrain understood that the Lib Dems were the only practical non-Tory option in town, but it was overcome. On the one hand, by basing themselves on non-Toryness, Labour set themselves up as arbiters of what a non-Tory world looked like; presented with alternative ideas for such a world, they could not process them.

On the other hand, despite their belief in Blair's theory of a century of the left thwarted by the Lab/Lib divide, when the time came to forge that progressive alliance Labour had spent so long not needing to be progressive that they had entirely ceased to be so; never was a truer word spoken than Alex Wilcock's "58 MPs is not enough for a progressive alliance" speech at special conference...

We shouldn't forget in all of this the malign hand of Mandelson, but equally he isn't relevant to the longer term, it being so rare for British politics to throw up such a political sociopath. Nevertheless, as one of the few people in the Labour Party clever enough to understand all of this, it is instructive to note that he's done nothing to provide an alternative to the current Labour line, that everything is evidence of us not being progressive and that the coalition will crush us and restore Labour to its "rightful" place. But then, maybe he also understands the greater problem for Labour's immediate future.

All defeated governing parties struggle to understand why they've lost; most, indeed, believe they've done nothing wrong. When you have an ideology, eventually you can see how you deviated from it and how it deviated from what the country needed. But what do Labour have? How can you learn that you didn't do enough to not be the Tories when you've told yourself that anything is better than them?

The one thing that could save Labour is that contractual relationship with the unions, but as I said at the outset, all you need to know about where they've got to could be found at the Royal Courts of Justice last week. There they will have found the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls deliberating over the provisions of s231 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of both Unite's cause and BA's legal strategy against it, what this case proves is that thirteen years of bankrolling New Labour did sweet fanny adams for the trades unions. If they'd blown that money on crack and whores it would have been one thing, but far from pissing the money away, Unite and their colleagues golden showered it on the Labour Party and still got nothing for their troubles.

With that sort of record of incompetence, it seems unlikely that the unions will be staging an eleventh-hour rescue of their political brethren. Indeed, unless Unite's members take my titular advice and sue Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley for their clearly negligent use of their union's funds, the future for the Labour Party looks pretty bleak...

Sunday, May 09, 2010

In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen

In a strange way, I rather feel like this is the end of my first season on The West Wing; 2005 was my first General Election as an activist and this blog started (much as The West Wing itself) eighteen months later. I suppose I feel that way because I've very much watched this election from afar; indeed, I spent polling day in a property law exam! And as the alternative is revising for a public law exam with questions on reform of the electoral system and the powers of the Prime Minister, I figure I should add my twopenn'orth on what happened and where we're go from here.

I should start, I guess, by saying that in Cardiff we did reasonably well. Jenny Willott was of course re-elected in Cardiff Central with Labour making no real progress against us. In Cardiff North, John Dixon's vote held up despite the two-party squeeze in what a shockingly close contest (a three-figure majority that should have been five!) Dominic Hannigan continued to make progress in Cardiff South and Penarth, adding 2.4% to the Lib Dem vote despite adverse boundary changes and a hand-picked Cameron candidate.

As for my neck of the woods, despite their optimism about what from my letterbox was a fairly ropey and derivative campaign, the Tories only achieved slightly more than the national swing. And again, despite the pressure of the squeeze and similarly adverse boundary changes, Rachael Hitchinson matched our 2005 vote share (a 0.5% rise on the notional figures) and secured a thousand more votes than the Lib Dems had ever polled in Cardiff West.

Still, there's no denying the local and national disappointment and I won't rehash the numbers, they've been on our screens in Technicolor for days. What happened? Clearly the Labour terror campaign in the last week had an effect, both on the policy front (I've certainly heard anecdotally that Labour pounded the marginals on immigration) and on the "Vote Clegg, Get Cameron" front. I jokingly posted on Facebook that Peter Hain's idea of tactical voting was people voting Labour in Lab-Lib marginals and that looks like what happened; I'm stunned that there's been no media mention of the fact that, despite the comparable 2006 elections not having General Election turnout, Labour gained over 400 council seats...

I also wonder what effect our sudden acquisition of an air war had on our normal strength on the ground. Again, the anecdotal evidence is of high levels on candidatitis which won't have helped, but equally I wonder if Cleggmania changed people's attitudes to the flood of leaflets from "I'm surprised by how much the Lib Dems have done for such a small party" to "Oh, the Lib Dems, they're a big party, no shock there". As a local party chair for a non-target seat, I was certainly surprised by the number of "I'm surprised I haven't seen anything from the Lib Dems" inquiries I was fielding.

But as Paddy said, the people have spoken, but we do not yet know what they have said. Mind you, given the number of factors they had to consider under the disgrace of an electoral system we continue to use, it wasn't so much speaking they had to do, more sending smoke signals in a cyclone. The pundits, meanwhile, haven't shut up, which is a shame because most of what they've spewed has been, to quote that other great sage Stephen Fry, arse-gravy of the highest order.

For starters, the 36.1% of voters who voted for a Conservative candidate did not by any means endorse the whole Conservative Party and everything it stands for. Strictly speaking, they only decided that the Conservative Party candidate in their constituency was preferable to all the other candidates standing there. Add in the fact that the Tory manifesto does not reflect the thoughts of the whole Conservative Party (as the number of them coming out of the woodwork to say that the reason they didn't win an overall majority was that the manifesto wasn't fascist enough tends to indicate) and you have a very muddled picture on the policy front. What's more, as this applies to all the parties equally, any statement beyond "these are the people who were elected and they should talk" appears highly speculative at best.

On the more general electoral reform question, the punditry has increasingly shown the credibility gap for a status quo for which there is simply no intellectual justification. No matter which direction you look from, the numbers are simply awful. For example, Tories may protest that they won a majority of seats in England, but look at how the regionalisation works the other way; in the South East, on 49.9% of the vote the Tories won 89.2% of the seats, and in the East, on 47.1% of the vote they won 89.6% of the seats! So in at least one respect, the Home Counties are positively Communist...

All we have left for FPTP, then, is the constituency link, which is itself thoroughly discredited. If it really let you boot out bad MPs, how do we explain the fact that the only place in the East of England with Labour MPs is Luton? And if the link between one MP and one constituency is so important, please show me an example of a vote in the House of Commons where any MP should have voted a particular way because it was manifestly and unambiguously in the interest of their constituents to do so...

It's fine for the Tory MPs themselves to ignorantly bang on about the status quo out of naked, corrupt self-interest (and by the way, not only is the Tory idea of electoral reform blatant gerrymandering, but what on Earth do they think it'll do to the MP-constituency link if I end up living, not in Cardiff West, but in the South Glamorgan 3rd District?) But for the pundits to be so ignorant of the intellectual case that any GCSE Politics student can understand is unconscionable.

Still, righteous or not, its the Tory MPs we have to work with. In that respect, Nick's handling of the situation has been exemplary and I've been hugely disappointed by the level of the outcry at the mere thought of working with the Tories. Right now, the constitution is what the constitution is and the maths is what the maths is. My sense is that our negotiating team is first class (Laws, Huhne, Alexander and Stunell IIRC) and that we should trust them to get on with it and judge their efforts on the document that emerges.

As for PR, yes, I want it; it's the reason I first became a Lib Dem. And as Paddy pointed out this morning, Cameron's initial offer of basically what Heath offered Thorpe is almost offensively low-balled. Still, the argument that coalitions must be shown to work before PR is introduced is not unreasonable and the possibility of a fully-proportional, strengthened second chamber is not inconsiderable either. On the one hand, I'd like to reiterate the point I made on Lib Dem Voice; even if the voters punish us for pushing too hard for PR (something which doesn't feel especially credible anyway) if we get it, that punishment can hardly be any worse than 9% of the seats on 23% of the vote!

Either way, there are things short of STV I think we should be able to accept, and the consequences of not accepting whatever ends up on the table are so complex as to be almost impossible to strategise. We should above all see what appears on that table before denouncing it.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Listen Very Carefully, I Shall Say This Only Twice

Right, if we're going to speculate about what's going to happen, let's do it properly!

As I largely outlined last week, when Parliament reconvenes there will likely be 644 MPs; the Speaker and the (at this stage 4) Sinn Fein members don't count and Thirsk and Malton won't have polled (which will have an effect for a brief period!) so a majority will be 323. On the current projections, we probably have the following groupings;

Conservative - 306
DUP - 8
Independent Unionist - 1
RIGHT = 315

Labour - 259
SDLP - 3
LEFT = 262

Liberal Democrats - 55
Alliance - 1

SNP - 6
Plaid Cymru - 3
NATS = 9

Caroline Lucas = 1
Sylvia Hermon = 1

So the viable majority scenarios are RIGHT + CENTRE = 371, RIGHT + NATS = 324 and LEFT + CENTRE + NATS = 327 and the RIGHT group can only form a minority government with Lib Dem support (as LEFT + CENTRE = 318 ) So yes, despite my earlier protestations the nationalists do end up with much of the balance of power.

Can we upgrade the metaphor from balanced to knife edge?