That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Insincere Encounters of the Dopey Kind: the Ed Miliband Loop

In case Ottawa’s summer recess is leaving you with a shortage of inane, lobotomised robots parroting meaningless spin through your television, here’s a treat I think you’ll like. Britain’s Labour Leader Ed Miliband demonstrating exactly how to do media manipulation in the worst possible way.

ITV’s Damon Green asks Miliband a series of questions regarding last week’s public sector strikes. The questions are different, but the answers are positively identical. Recited, insincere non-responses, memorised in advance, and bleated out regardless of the nature of the question.

It’s part hilarious, and part extraordinarily depressing. Much like life, I guess.

It’s caused a very welcome fuss over here in Angleterre, about the nature of plastic politics and how much dopey insincerity the public should be expected to swallow.

Read Charlie Brooker’s fantastic take on the Miliband Loop, which pretty much says everything I would have said here, so I’ll save myself the typing time, and just direct you to Mr. Brooker. Also, read interviewer Damon Green reflecting on his experience of confronting an unimaginative robot with zero media engagement skills, save for the unashamed willingness to try on a speak-and-spell soundbite mantra in place of a conversation.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , , ,

Democratic experts in the house!

The House of Lords, that is.

I know, technically it’s an unelected chamber of dough-bellied pseudo-noblemen, prominent party donors, erstwhile celebrities, landowners, retired CEOs, corrupt media barons, and other millionaire chieftains of ill-gotten gains.

I know, yes, it resembles the Canadian Senate, if only the Canadian Senate were swollen four times the size and was packed with hereditary peers as well as legions of power-addled cronies of the political elite. And wearing wigs.

But, they know what democracy is all about. They’ve just defeated the government in the arena of electoral reform, pushing through a new requirement on May’s referendum on the Alternative Vote. Now, any potential “yes” vote will only be binding if 40% of the public take part.

Where did 40% come from? 40 might be a meaningful number in the Bible, but there’s nothing especially elegant or natural about how it relates to elections.

No, what we have here is an arbitrary obstacle thrust up to further discourage the prospect of real democratic reform, proposed in a somewhat cowardly fashion by Lord Rooker, who styles himself as an “Independent Labour” peer. So, this new spanner in the works of democratic reform isn’t officially coming from Labour’s high command – it’s just an independent! A free-spiriting Lord!

Perhaps it’s too much to wish Labour were genuinely enthusiastic and progressive on electoral reform, but at the very least, I wish they could be honest about where they stand, instead of smuggling their secret dedication to first-past-the-post into the debate via a nominally independent, unelected, silly-wigged Lord.

Turnout thresholds may appear to legitimise referendum results, but the appearance is false. Demanding a turnout threshold essentially means counting fictional votes non-cast by the non-voting. Anyone who doesn’t vote in May’s referendum is assumed to be a silent defender of the status quo, and are counted as such. Sure, it’s entirely likely many non-voters are content with the status quo. But, unless they’ve gone to the ballot box to explicitly say so, a democratic system shouldn’t move to assume what they think. As I’ve said before, non-votes are not votes. Nothings are not somethings.

If we had the same 40% turnout threshold on general elections, it would be quite a sight should an election fail to bring 40% of us to the ballot box – not an unlikely occurrence at some point in our lifetimes. Would it mean the election results would be annulled, and we would keep the previous government in place for a further five years? Or, how about 10?

In fact – what’s wrong with forty?

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , ,

Labour’s wobbles and grumbles

The Labour Party riven by factions? Say it ain’t so. But new eruptions simmer, and it does not bode well. It bodes badly, actually.

The self-styled Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, is, unsurprisingly, at the heart of some of this. He clearly isn’t coping brilliantly with life outside the cut-and-thrust of cabinet level politics. His unhelpful, gossipy moaning about the problems with Labour leader Ed Miliband today is probably one part bitterness that Ed pipped his brother to the post, and two parts a longing to just get in front of cameras again.

As I sit and realise that I actually sympathise with Peter Mandelson, I begin to worry that my heart must have finally been replaced with a cindered hunk of lunar rock. I agree that Ed’s been remarkably swift to lead Labour into total drift, and would be totally despondent if they fought an election with him still leading.

Miliband’s bizarre shadow cabinet, defying prediction with Alan Johnson as the chancellor’s opposite number, smelled to me like Ed was trying a bit too hard to appear “his own man,” mixing it up on his own terms, and furthermore, confident enough to appoint a “Davidist” to just about the biggest role in his caucus. O.K., maybe a kind of cackhanded move to foster new unity, but itself not a bad idea. In its execution, however, it’s contributed to a shadow cabinet that is mostly incoherent. Ed and Alan disagree on the most fundamental approaches to economic governance.

Miliband’s showing in PMQs is not very authoritative either, by his own admission:

“Look, you’ve got to be who you are. If I think of what I’ve done – I’ve done a reshuffle to put a team around me that I think is a very good team and I have taken on Cameron in prime minister’s questions in a way in which I am reasonably content. You don’t win every round of it but all of those things are important for a leader of the opposition.”

Reasonably content? I would have thought humourless and withering, unfortunately. It seems unfair, but there remains this huge gulf between his stated aspirations to instigate all kinds of profound change, and the meek, splashless way in which he goes about his arguments. The power to convince is just absent.

So, there’s my agreement with Mandelson. The problem with any recent intervention from Mr. Darkness, though, is of course his position and his motivation. As a party elder, he shouldn’t be so clearly thrilled to wave dirty laundry around whenever he feels he isn’t being listened to, either by the party or by the papers. I don’t know if he can even tell which he’d prefer to influence anymore.

It’s the job of the media (including stupid blogs) to play this kind of game, criticising parties and leaders if they’re asking for it. But it’s not the job of one of Labour’s senior statesmen to do it, whether in documentaries or memoirs or random cold calls to the Telegraph. Labour’s got to fix itself, and Mandelson could have a helpful hand in it if so inclined. But please, leave the kvetching to the rest of us.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , ,

Cowering before the real-life Sauron

It’s nice that New Zealand’s done so well out of these Lord of the Rings films. It’s a very pretty country full of nice people and they deserve some good attention. Just like hobbits themselves.

But listen – somewhere, in the South Pacific, a labour activist’s stomach just turned. Can you hear it? You got to listen like me.*

With Warner Bros. having threatened to move production of the Hobbit elsewhere (“O Canada….”), the Kiwi government has crumbled faster than Saruman’s orc minions. The Kiwi PM himself led negotiations with the American studio, and his government has actually legislated new labour terms to keep Hobbit production in country. Diluted labour conventions which have bypassed normal parliamentary procedure – this bill won’t go to committee, and has essentially been written on the fly to satisfy the rumblings of a corporate investor.

The sulphuric stench of Mordor indeed hangs over the Shire-folk.

Included in the deal was an offer of $25 million (£11.8m), $15 million of that in tax breaks, and the law changes, which were pushed through without the normal process of referral to a parliamentary committee and public submissions.

“What is the government going to do next – give in to any multinational that asks for a labour standard to be diluted in return for some form of investment?” said an opposition MP, Charles Chauvel.

“This is a government which, in the words of the Financial Times today, has reduced New Zealand to client status of an American film studio.”

And it’s true. There’s a touchy-feely aspect to New Zealand keeping the Hobbit, but had this been a story of (to get extreme in our examples here) Coca-Cola pressuring a Guatemalan government to dilute its labour laws, frustrate its citizens’ rights to collective bargaining, and circumvent its own congressional conventions to retain the prospect of steady investment, it would be an outrage. If it were Gap, Nike, or any manufacturer offering a small country the promise of investment in return for easy conditions (and indeed political influence), there would be accusations of corporate irresponsibility and a failure of transparency in the country itself.

What makes this all the more troubling is New Zealand’s stellar record on transparency and accountability. Transparency International has them tied in first place as the world’s least corrupt country. Yet, introduce them to a film studio that promises some investment, some pride, and some free tourism publicity, and we see extraordinary legislation pushed through without due process.

NZ’s government may have thought it was a populist no-brainer to do whatever was necessary to retain the Middle Earth brand. But if the principle of capitulation to corporate pressure were applied across all types of foreign investment, New Zealand would soon come to resemble South-East Asia much more than the bucolic Shire.

* props to Jimmy McMillan

Filed under: International, Politics, , , , , ,

Well, crap

Despite my previous entry, Labour hasn’t sufficiently listened. What are blogs for, anyway?

Instead, Ed Miliband has won Labour’s leadership race. Britain’s Stephane moment has arrived.

After hearing the news, I suddenly had visions of the future – of Prime Minister David Cameron with grey hair and a wizened face free of baby-fat and rich in the wrinkles of power, three terms into his PM career and gunning for a fourth, with a generation of Britons who never knew a Labour government unsure whether abandoning Cameronism would be too risky, too much of a venture into unknown territory. And Labour still looking for a leader with the panache to deliver the message for change to the masses effectively.

I don’t much pity David his tragedy – he famously turned down a post as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs last year, precisely because he had Labour’s leadership in his sights. Yet now, his high-octane Prime Ministerial ambition has run aground all the same. But he could have won this contest with a touch more sincerity, a touch more apology, and a touch less arrogance.

Whatever David’s shortcomings in this campaign, he lost by less than 2%, and he is an effective Tory-eating machine. Ed, however, the comfort-food-candidate of vanguard socialists and union bosses, is the reverse – an endless resource for Tories to feast upon, to draw Labour as the political wing of militant unionism.

So, “Leader Ed” – here’s hoping thou dost not squander. He may not have expected to win this contest, but win he did, and despire it all, he’ll need lessons from his loser brother regarding how to win in future.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , ,

Britain’s Stéphane moment?

After the resignation of Paul Martin, when a dozen Liberals clamoured for the mantle of Party Leader, I will confess that I hoped the whole time that Stéphane Dion would win, and barring that, Bob Rae. I was gunning for Dion because I thought he was genuine, committed, progressive, and precisely because he was the “anti-Macchiavellian” – almost a non-politician.

Of course, I learned, as the Liberal Party did en masse, that apparently you need a Macchiavellian after all. Warm ideas, leftist compassion, complex but workable policy solutions, do not go far at all if not backed (or even supplanted) by ferocity, charisma, and a bit of populism and populist understanding.

I’m applying this lesson to the UK’s Labour leadership race (as I am wont to do) with its results announced tomorrow. OMG.

For the same reasons I once hoped for Dion, a good part of me now hopes for Ed Miliband. Ed is the one of warm ideas, of leftist compassion, of complex but workable policy solutions. He is not ferocious, he is not especially charismatic, and he looks to me as though he’d prefer to leave the room if a heated argument began to consume it. So, I like him.

But he’s too much like Stéphane Dion.

David can swing a political punch, and plays off a more carefully studied understanding of populist mood. He seems almost cold for his obvious lack of ideological fervour in him, but warms up on television with a better charisma and a ruthless passion to win the argument. What he might lack in sincerity, he overcompensates for in tactics. And, at the end of the day, the idealist wing of Labour will continue to have impact on the leadership, and will continue to guide the direction of the party.

So, rather than see a relatively weak character at the helm, I am doing away with an unalloyed fondness for Ed Miliband, and wishing that, for Labour to win, they will need to be tough. Canada’s Liberals are still looking for toughness, and I wouldn’t want to see Labour endure the Liberals’ recent history. In addition to that – whoever wins, David or Ed, let there please be no vindictive bitterness between them. Canada’s Liberals and the UK’s Labour both suffered from bipolar ganglandism, and to succeed, must unite – ideally with someone who can deliver a pep talk, draw a crowd, and mobilise mobilise mobilise.

So, with a bit of a heavy heart – Go David Go!

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , ,

The Mili-battle goes haywire

Diane Abbott suggested recently that Labour shouldn’t simply “anoint its next leader,” and it seems as though her message might be getting through. Not in the way that she perhaps intended, but in terms of affecting Labour party supporters’ perspective on the Mili-Battle.

Brother Ed is for the first time seen to be leading Brother David in the race to lead the Labour Party. Abbott’s calls for blue-sky thinking does play a role in this turn, I think, as she is someone to whom the media flocks for opinion in the leadership race, if not for seriousness regarding her own competitiveness.

But there is a real element, as well, of Brother David starting to display some very negative characteristics. Arrogance, Blairism, Condescension. It’s a simple ABC recipe for alienation.

These two Polly Toynbee interviews (15 minutes long each, but worth it: here’s David’s interview, and here’s Ed’s) are telling, with each brother highlighting some differences between them – in vision, but perhaps most crucially, in character. David is aggressive, frequently interrupting, not a little self-idolising. Ed is more responsive, thoughtful, and in many ways seems more committed to Labour ideals, if not perhaps to the principle of the party’s electability.

I see Labour’s dilemma as this: “should we be a party of principled opposition (Eddism), or a party of compromised government (Davidism)?” I suspect many Labour supporters are torn in this way – there are loads of Eddists who nevertheless consider seriously voting for David, calculating that he is the more likely victor in a 2015 slug-fest against the Tory war machine. The Tories apparently fear the same, though I find this “leak” somewhat suspect meddling from the Prime Minister….

While Eddists are convinced that Ed’s the good guy, the heartfelt intellectual with a moderated modernist vision for Labour, they’ve not yet been convinced he has the mega-watt charisma and the power to rally others to his cause. Thing is, if Eddists view David as a bit of a prick, they may now be wondering whether the whole of the country would draw the same conclusion at election time – if that suspicion snowballs, they may decide “it would be better that Labour lose for being too lefty, rather than for being too smarmy.”

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , ,

Stirring the hot pot

Labour has several reasons to be furious these days. But, it has to be said, they’re being clever with that fury, and they’re doing it through dividing the Coalition Government anytime they can – now, by appearing to ally with Thatcherite Tory backbenchers.

Part of Labour’s fury comes from the proposition, to be put to the Commons in the Autumn, to combine the Commons vote on adopting a referendum on AV with the proposition to realign the electoral district boundaries. Such realignment will largely dissolve what is (let’s face it) a northern urban Labour bias, and create districts with greater population equity – but at the expense of lots of Labour safe seats. So, it’s understandable from Labour’s perspective that boundary realignment is a bad thing. But, in arguing that they want to disentangle the Commons vote on boundary reform from a Commons vote on the date of the electoral reform referendum, what exactly do they want to accomplish?

Separating the motion into two, and introducing a separate motion on electoral boundary reform, wouldn’t itself make a positive difference to Labour. An electoral boundary reform bill, alone, would (we think) pass in the Commons, no? The Lib Dems and Tories both express commitment to it. So is Labour’s motive to create obstacles for the 5 May referendum on voting reform?

I think yes – but their motives seem indirect here. There are Tories who don’t want the public to vote on AV at all, let alone on the 5th of May when turnout is likely to be high, due to the coincidence of local elections that day. Labour’s motives here are more murky. They are half-ambivalent and half-supportive of voting reform, and Labour no longer maintains any predetermined opposition to AV. David Miliband would apparently welcome it, if he were leader, which he is supposed to be soon.

So if it isn’t AV itself that Labour wants to scupper (though they might not mind if it is scuppered), what they really want to scupper is the Coalition itself. It’s just a brutal, wedge-driving, pot-stirring strategy: to generate early rifts in the Coalition, and to disenfranchise and disenlighten the Lib Dems over their solitary Big Win in this Coalition deal, which is the referendum itself.

If the referendum date were to be changed away from the local elections date, and referendum turnout was thus rather low, provoking people like Bernard Jenkin to then advocate that the result isn’t conclusive enough, then Clegg might be provoked to abandon the Coalition.

That would delight Labour, really. They must feel confident that they could precipitate an early election in 2011ish, if they pot-stir successfully enough between now and then. By next Spring, Labour will have a new leader, they’ll have the polling bounce that inevitably comes with that, and if the Lib Dems look disorientated and failed in not getting the AV vote on a day of their choosing, their wider support will be highly vulnerable. Labour is already hoovering up LD support, and it’s only July 2010.

So while Labour have direct political reasons to oppose boundary reform, perhaps they have only indirect political reasons to oppose the timing of an AV referendum. Their tactics of late appear to be designed only to frustrate the Lib Dems, to kick them while their base is trembling and weak, to drive wedges in the Happy Marriage, and to set up a future election scenario that’s a highly comfortable and traditional bipartisan race.

I’m hoping Clegg can pull this out of the fire… he’s already argued that a referendum on 5 May, coupled with local elections, would save the country £17 million. Which is more than will be saved by abolishing the UK Film Council, so it’s (in this new Age of Austerity) no mean sum. He may want to impress that upon Cameron, and get him (with some urgency) to ensure his backbenchers don’t indulge in Labour’s proposition to wreck the Coalition through wrecking the referendum.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , ,

Of Liberals and Labour

Canada and the UK share quite a bit – a Queen, a language, and an unhealthy love of chips. But they also share a common soap opera – that of their long-ruling, defeated, and now struggling, centre-left big-tent political parties.

Since its all-defining double-helix leadership was vanquished in May this year, the UK’s Labour Party appears to be at real risk of tearing itself apart with self-doubt, identity crises, and factional malice. Kiss-and-tell autobiographies by party elders betray an utter lack of concern for the party’s respectability, and add fuel to the disorienting fire of a come-one-come-all leadership contest. What’s the party about? A hard question.

The parallel saga of Canada’s Liberal Party can be instructive to Britain’s Labourites. Indeed, the two sagas appear to be differentiated mainly by a time delay of about four years. So, for any Labourites looking for an oracle as to what the mid-term future may bring them, and what post-defeat missteps to avoid, it may be helpful to take a gander across the big salty pond.

A quick review of the two stories: Tony Blair’s Labour did in 1997 what Jean Chrétien’s Liberals did four years earlier, in 1993 – unseat a dreadfully unpopular Conservative government and render it practically unelectable. The Liberals did rather a better job of it – smashing Canada’s Tories to a laughable two seats in Parliament (helped, of course, by the fact that the Tories also splintered apart into factional and regional parties: the populist, right-wing, western Reform Party, and the anti-federalist, socially liberal Bloc Québécois).

After these landslide successes, Liberal and Labour fortunes would come to resemble each other in character – both ended up more fiscally conservative than supporters had idealised, and both enjoyed success through a powerful political fusion of internal party factions. Canada had Chrétien and his finance minister Paul Martin, and the UK had Blair and his finance minister Gordon Brown. In each case, the budget men brought their wing of the party into a unified fold, both men were (rightly or wrongly) regarded as economic geniuses, but both men also coveted the job of Prime Minister – a ruinous, volcanic desire that would ultimately destroy the factional unity that was so necessary in a big-tent centrist party such as each of these.

The Liberals, with their four-year headstart on Labour, suffered from this earlier as well. By 2000, the Chrétien/Martin rivalry had become a soap operatic nightmare, and the defining feature of the party itself. That, coupled with the perceived unelectability of the hated Tories, contributed to Liberal policy drift. If you barely need to try anymore, where are the ideas coming from? Competition, that fount of political creativity, was not directed against other, apparently moribund parties – it was directed within.

This of course also described the Blair/Brown rivalry in its own time. When Chrétien won his third term, he promised to serve it in full, but was soon ousted by a frothing and impatient Martin wing. Blair equally promised to fulfil the whole of his third term, but was just as unceremoniously rent from his position by a frothing and impatient Brown. Neither Martin nor Brown acceded to the job of PM through a scrutinising leadership contest, but, in essence, by coronation.

Financial scandal had beset both parties (though the Liberals more so) – the sponsorship scandal for the Liberals, and cash-for-peerages which affected Labour. But the electoral challenges were bigger than these scandals. Neither Martin nor Brown had a watt of the ruthless charisma of their vanquished heroes, and though both lusted for the absolute power of the top job, neither seemed able to know what to do with it once they got it. Such tour-de-forces in cabinet, Martin ended up nicknamed “Mr. Dithers,” and Brown went from “Stalin to Mr. Bean.” Mean epithets both, but ones that stuck.

One big difference between the sagas emerges in the third term: Martin did call an election relatively early in his tenure, whereas Brown famously bottled it after the party convention. Had Brown gone ahead with a general election in November 2008, many analysts foresaw a slim victory or hung parliament as the result. That’s indeed the result that Martin got, and he led a minority government for scarcely two years before its collapse. In the end, though, both Martin and Brown had brief Prime Ministerial careers, distinguished by policy drift and nervous surprise at their own communication and decision-making incompetencies – both the Liberals and Labour fell from office leaderless, directionless, shocked and discouraged.

That is the Labour Party of 2010, and it was the Liberal Party of 2006. So what happened afterwards in Canada?

The Chrétien/Martin duopoly had totally defined what power and party identity were. Everyone was either a Chrétienite or a Martinite. They may have hated each other in the end, but neither side genuinely foresaw any scenario in which neither force would hold sway. And then suddenly – they were both gone.

The leadership contest which followed was filled with recrimination against the party’s own recent past. Every candidate (all twelve of them!) promised big change. No one took the party’s record as a trophy and championed it. All were determined to define themselves as something wholly other.

Uncertainty in Liberal ranks was inevitable. The leadership contest featured lots of philosophy surrounding the merits of rewarding old guards vs. the merits of rewarding new blood. It also featured, as is natural in any big-tent party, big questions about whether to carve a distinct identity on the left/centre-left, or to fight the resurgent Tories in the centre/centre-right. In this, there were leadership favourites: would it be the left’s Bob Rae, the right’s Michael Ignatieff, or the uncertain charms of Gerard Kennedy?

Labour, watch out: neither left, nor right, nor charming won out in the intricate latticework of compromise that emerged from the convention. Unheralded, well-meaning, but unelectable Stéphane Dion took the cake. Dion, who might be said to have had Andy Burnham’s chances, but coupled with Alastair Darling’s personality. And now he was leader.

The party was still angry with losing power, and still directionless without its goliaths at the helm. For all Dion’s clever ideas, he had no capacity to forge new unity in this vast, wounded party – indeed, disunity became worse than ever. Compromise, shame, and uncertainty in the party was, unfortunately, perfectly reflected in its leader.

Though Dion is now gone and Ignatieff has led the Liberals for a year and a half, their fortunes are barely any better. Canadian pundits have blamed Martin, Dion, and now Ignatieff in succession, for poor leadership and diffidence. Not unfair claims, entirely – but they’re symptoms, not causes, of identity anguish that plagues the party from root to tip. That is one of the sad legacies of the old power duopoly – it consumed the identity of the party, and then evaporated, leaving too much disorientation and angst. It’s still unclear what it means to be a Liberal in Canada today.

While Labour’s Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, and soon Tony Blair himself, all offer their post-mortems in best-selling hardcovers, this old guard disrespects contemporary Labour as much as contemporary Labour disrespects them. This struggle to disassociate denies an opportunity to trumpet some of the real progressive successes the party achieved over the years. It creates a political vacuum – where once the centre-left was the self-assured and natural occupant of the electoral mainstream, now cunning and well-financed Conservative forces can stake their claim as the safe option – the one where voters know what they’re getting, the one that quickly comes to appear more mature and prepared for all the trials and tribulations of government.

Make no mistake – Canada’s Tories are anything but “mature.” They are an anti-democratic, anti-parliamentarian force, swathed in deceit, secrecy, and thoroughly right-wing ideas masked in Bush-Junior style “common sense.” The fact that the Canadian centre-left still can’t mount an effective challenge against such easy targets gives testament to the severity of gangland rivalries and relative anarchy within the partisan centre-left itself.

The cases are obviously not really perfectly parallel. Labour’s leadership vote is a month-long ballot involving union, lay members, and the Parliamentary party, unlike the long, single night of horse-trading and automatic run-off balloteering that the Liberals’ used. Canada’s Tories are a genuine neanderthal party, whereas the UK’s Tories have a small, relatively liberal wing in the very person of David Cameron. The standard of debate is different, the media culture is different, and the way in which the public engages with politics is different. The agenda is just not set in the same way.

But Labour faces similar dangers to Canada’s Liberals, and must avoid them – while there’s time!
– Take solace in (and advantage of) a public that is still uncomfortable calling itself broadly “conservative,” and don’t present a shamed and apologetic face about the past. There have been triumphs that are as important today and tomorrow as they were during the campaign.
– Trumpet the economic and social advances made in the previous era, as the public has faith in these advances – what they’ve lost faith in is your ability to manage. Tribal infighting and self-destructive gossip don’t inspire new confidence.
– Pick a real potential winner as your leader right off the bat. And once you pick that winner, give them the party unity and the durable support that’s required to help shape a badly-needed identity before the next election – appearing unconvinced in your leader, shaky on their ideas, always ready for yet another putsch, will reinforce the public’s perception that “these guys couldn’t run a hot dog stand, let alone a country.”
– And don’t spend the next four years navel-gazing – be bold and committed, and fast, as it’s only going to get tougher.

CORRECTION: Apologies for the repeated paragraph earlier – this has been amended

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , , , , , , ,

Cloaks, daggers, vested interests

Tests are coming fastly and furiously for the Ruling Coalition.

When the Lib Dems joined government, not two months ago, much unease and anxiety followed in yellow ranks. Are we getting the right deal, or are we being used in some strange way we’ve never been used before?

Many think the latter. A former leader has gone public, and all manner of signals indicate that party puritans don’t care for the compromises that Clegg has had to make in order to secure the one holy grail, the one policy meant to ensure greater Liberal influence in parliament from here on in – the referendum on electoral reform.

Without that promise of a referendum, there would be no Lib-Con coalition. This was the deal-breaker. In exchange, Clegg could swallow anything. He could swallow a VAT rise: like a snake (not that I see him as such, mind), he could extend his jaws to swallow just about every Conservative policy going in exchange for a deal on proportional representation, or something vaguely resembling it.

But no sooner was the announcement of a referendum date for the automatic run-off system announced (5 May 2011, if you’re wondering), and signs emerge that both of the established parties (Labour and the Tories, if you’re wondering) are in to quash it from the get-go.

Remember the negotiations that led to this government? Spooked by Clegg’s apparent partisan flirtatiousness, William Hague announced that, contrary to expectation, the Tories would concede to a referendum on the Alternative Vote – after all, why not let the people settle this argument?

Which people are these? The people in the 1922 Committee?

It is very clichéd to campaign on a “change” ticket, as the Tories did this year, and the hollowness of such a campaign is exposed by the power of vested interests, in both the Labour and Conservative parties. But, with both the Tories and Labour trying to appear as change-makers, it’s going to be difficult for them to go whole-hog anti-referendum. They have to appear willing to tolerate the possibility of real electoral reform. Skullduggery and obfuscation of the reforms will be subtle, backbench-led, and indirect.

This opposition is all bigger than Cameron – I don’t think he’s especially principled one way or the other on electoral reform. His speciality is speaking out of various sides of his mouth – he’ll do the minimum necessary to appease Liberals at one moment, but will be constantly prompted by the Thatcherite hawks in his coterie to change course whenever it’s politically feasible.

Here’s how I fear Clegg’s been screwed.

Cameron says to himself: “electoral reform” sounds zeitgeisty at election time, and Clegg was insistent upon it, ok, alright, let’s cope with that for now. But by mid-term or so, the public will have lost interest in things like ‘how elections work’ – the people will just be glad there isn’t another one soon.

By mid-term, we’ll have implicated them in loads of our horrifically unpopular policies – policies that especially outrage their base, and less so ours. They’ll be bleeding support to Labour, and into the ether, and the last thing they’ll want to do is walk out of the coalition and force an election. Great stuff. We can run the AV referendum aground with unreasonably high turnout thresholds, implementation red tape, and other thorny obstacles. What precisely will they be able to do about, chum?

If that is indeed Cameron’s thinking, then the Liberal Democrats will want to create space between themselves and the Tories soon. We haven’t seen them publicly disagree with the Bullingdon Boys on much of substance yet. This marriage will need to mature into allowing public disagreement on non-confidence issues, otherwise Clegg could well end up with a disillusioned base, tanking support, and an empowered 1922 Group who’ll get the wink from Cameron to kick electoral reform into the long grasses.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , , , ,


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