Saturday, 14 May 2011

The personal is political - and David Laws should be an advocate

Can someone tell me how using the public purse to pay your partner rent is in any way justifiable?

Of course it isn't. Parliamentary rules have stated that payments to relations and partners have been prohibited since 2006. But Liberal Democrat MP David Laws got away with it until shortly after the Coalition government was formed last summer.

Privacy is once against a topic of heated debate, whether it's super-injunctions, secret recording or sado-masochistic sex orgies. And, while I have some sympathy with David Laws for his desire to keep his personal life separate from the giant magnifying glass of the media, I wouldn't be true to the strapline of my own blog if I didn't preach that 'the personal is political'. The saying is actually an old feminist mantra, but it cuts through public life whether we like it or not, and I would argue that those who go into politics supposedly to encourage a more equal and just society should live out those values.

Laws says that one of the reasons he didn't declare that he was paying rent to his partner James Lundie, was that he didn't want to disclose his homosexuality. While I'm not in favour of outing people against their will, an individual who goes into elective politics should have felt able to do so without feeling that they would somehow be treated unfairly by the expenses system for having a same-sex partner. Frankly, it's a bit cheap to expect privacy when you're fleecing the public purse to the tune of £40,000 for the weekday convenience of a smart central London property when your supposed 'main' home is in Yeovil, 135 miles away in rural Somerset.

Worse still, Laws ain't short of a few bob, with an estimated wealth of between £1-2 million thanks to a lucrative City career.

The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner has seen sense and has responded robustly to Laws' actions with a full report condemning his breaking of six rules related to the claiming of expenses. And Laws has rightly apologised for his actions, and in fairness has paid back £16,000 more than he needed to. With a seven-day ban from Parliament also imposed on him, he's paid the price in more ways than one.

I hope I'm the last person to criticise an MP for wanting to keep what's personal, private, but I'm no apologist for someone who sits in public office to expect the (admittedly flawed) systems around him to cater to his whims of financial convenience, just because he happens to be gay. It does no favours for the cause of equality. The last thing we want is the sort of Parliament where MPs feel they have to sneak under the radar of the expenses regime, hiding their sexual preferences as if they were some sort of dirty secret under the pretence of a “landlord-tenant relationship”, as James O'Brian put it on the BBC's Question Time. Parliament is in enough of a 1950s timewarp as it is.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Election reflections

So, it's all over, after a lot of shouting. Politics certainly gets rough and dirty sometimes, but the UK-wide referendum campaign certainly plummeted to new depths of scaremongering, insults, half-truths and just downright lies. And that was just the Prime Minister.

For the Liberal Democrats, both the local, Scottish and Welsh elections proved that you can't just go from being a party of protest to being a party of government overnight without there being any consequences. The impact will be certainly be felt because it begins to soften the buffer between Labour and the Tories. A weaker Lib Dem party could limit Labour's options for coalition or co-operation, come the next General Election. It is a challenge for the left of British politics because Thursday's elections were undoubtedly a victory for David Cameron. The Prime Minister's authority will become stronger – as it has begun to do so already in recent months – while undermining the junior partner in the Coalition further. Nick Clegg will hang on because there is still no real appetite for decapitating yet another leader – the risks of a bloodbath are just too high in government. And it's hardly in Cameron's interest either.

As for the referendum, it was disappointing that the public took against the Alternative Vote in such numbers. I live in Lambeth, one of only eight areas which voted yes – no surprises there given the support my own MP has given to the Yes campaign and the generally progressive nature of the politics around these parts. Others too have pointed out that Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh were all areas that voted for change – all reasonably affluent, liberal bastions of democracy where it's probably fair to say that a higher than average number of people understand and support the alternatives to our current voting system. The dilemma now will be whether to come back with another question as Chris Huhne has mooted, or whether it becomes part of Labour or Liberal Democrat manifestos in the future – maybe the closely related AV Plus, or the Single Transferable Vote. But while the public voting overwhelmingly against change, our political institutions are still tired and dysfunctional and the issues around plurality and accessibility to smaller parties in our democracy will only become more apparent.

Nick Clegg didn't help matters, of course, but it was fundamentally a matter of timing and utter naivety on the part of the Liberal Democrat leadership that we had this referendum when we did. The idea that the Tories – and more conservative Labour stalwarts - would just play nicely and allow the referendum to pass by as a harmless sideshow. Given a year or so, and the opportunity to heal significant wounds caused by the Lib Dem u-turn on tuition fees and the outcome may have been different. It may also have influenced the thinking behind the campaign itself, which seemed to rely on stoking up anti-political feeling and gushing support from liberal celebrities such as Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry and Helena Bonham-Carter. They're fine entertainers and personalities, but they don't do hard politics. Sometimes you need seasoned politicians to come out and fight a vigorous campaign, and not have to resort to the pathetic campaign tactics that the Yes campaign used at times. The failure of the Yes campaign made ample space for the likes of Labour big beasts John Prescott and John Reid at the No campaign, whose messages resonated with ordinary voters that were ultimately confused by the multitude of essentially academically derived arguments pushed by AV's 'supporters'. (And it might have helped if the Yes campaign had stopped saying 'it's not perfect and not what we really want, but...').

With people distracted by high unemployment, and the simultaneous destruction of public services, sticking with the status quo was just the simplest choice requiring less thinking at the ballot box. Any large-scale progressive campaign in future should remember that.

The fuss over AV might have also overshadowed the campaigns in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Suddenly, the political establishment has woken up to the reality of the Scottish National Party governing with a not insubstantial majority, and the clearest mandate yet for any party in the Scottish Parliament. Without anyone noticing, the break-up of the United Kingdom within 10-15 years has suddenly become more of a possibility. The political consequences of that can only begin to be imagined. Certainly, there is no reason to believe that Labour could ever make a comeback in Scotland without a serious reappraisal of what their role could be in a changed environment, and it's positive to hear that Ed Mililband has ordered a root-and-branch review of Scottish Labour.

On the whole, Labour didn't fare too badly but Ed Miliband was no runaway winner. The journey on the road to recovering the party's electoral fortunes has begun but negotiating the obstacles placed in front of it by the Coalition has added an extra dimension. Re-drawn boundaries, a deficit reduction plan that may or may not work and new thinking around public services will challenge Labour's strategists for months to come. Now these elections and the referendum are out of the way, it's time for some serious, credible and meaningful opposition from Ed.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Tom Harris and the case against the Alternative Vote

No more loathsome piece of flotsam has floated to the surface of Scottish New Labour than the lumpen piece of wood that is Tom Harris” said George Galloway. A little cruel you might think, but Galloway was never adored in Parliament. With some pride, the Member for Glasgow South, not known for being a meek about his politics, displays this quote on the noticeboard above his desk in a small office above the House of Commons.

You can't criticise Tom Harris for being distant or aloof either. The spur for our meeting was very much in the spirit of the age, arising from a 'robust conversation' on Twitter about the Alternative Vote. I arrive in his office on a warm April evening and he asks if I would mind being recorded. Not a question you expect a politician to ask a journalist. But Harris was once a journalist himself, and I'm from a generation of hacks who've grown up with Twitter and podcasting, so although we disagree on changing the voting system, we do have something in common.

Harris is adamant that the current voting system is something that's worth hanging on to. In his view, there's nothing unholy about campaigning alongside Conservatives. Yet although he favours the status quo, like the larger partner in the coalition, he is similarly dismissive of the 'new politics' that Nick Clegg has supposedly tried so hard to champion.

“Give me a break! If the new politics is all about a lack of transparency, back-room deals and cynicism – in other words, everything this government has represented since last May - I'm very proud to say I'm anti the new politics”.

For Harris, the campaign is very much about the political expediency of the Alternative Vote (AV) for the LibDems. There's no love lost over Clegg and he has even less time for the Yes campaign's arguments for moving to AV.

“Clegg says vote no if you want to see more duck houses. This is the man responsible for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority” - to you and me, that's the new body responsible for paying MPs' expenses.

“I mean, what a cretin. They [Lib Dem MPs] must know he was lying through his teeth - what an insult to their intelligence”.

Clegg-bashing aside, I asked Harris what his overwhelming objection to AV was:

“How much time you got? First of all you have to be very careful before you ditch an existing system. First Past the Post has its faults, but it has provided us with a very workable system that's easy to understand, as well as stable government, which people often sneeringly dismiss”.

“Yes, we had Thatcher, but we had Blair too, and if you look across the world stable government is actually quite prized in a lot of areas.

“I'm not saying that coalitions should never happen, but I do genuinely believe that AV will result in a likelihood of more hung parliaments because the Lib Dems will obviously benefit from AV.

“If we have more Lib Dems then we will increase the chance of having hung parliaments.

But if you want the perfect electoral system, go and search for the Loch Ness Monster instead. You'll find that a lot more rewarding and productive”.

I point out that the current electoral system briefly brought us 'unstable' government in the form of a hung parliament. After all coalitions are now the reality of our political system, AV or not. And in terms of outcomes, the only tangible difference would be an increased number of seats for Liberal Democrats, at least based on the 2010 result.

Harris does not buy my argument. “It is a profoundly dishonest campaign to say that AV is in any way an improvement over FPTP”. Indeed, his hostility to AV goes right to the heart of what democracy is all about – and the old tribal attitudes become a little more obvious.

Deep down, Harris tells me he has an instinctive reaction against the idea that we should be encouraging people to dilute their political views.

“Politics should be about taking a stand and being principled. I was speaking to a colleague today, who was going to vote Yes, but whose 87 year old mother is voting no. She was giving him a hard time about it, saying that she didn't want to vote for anyone apart from Labour”.

“In this country we're always being told that politicians have sold out and that the Labour party have sold out, and that we need conviction principled politicians. Are we really going to get conviction politicians under AV?

I am trying to work out whether Tom really does see Westminster politics as nothing more than a rigid two-party affair, and remind him of the well-known statistic that fifty years ago, 96% of people voted Conservative or Labour, yet at the 2010 General Election, 35% voted for other parties. How do we translate this? Don't we need to react to the reality of people voting for other parties by changing our electoral system?

“A lot of people are telling me I should vote for AV because otherwise we will entrench the two-party system. Well, we probably have a two and a half party system”. Whatever that is.

But if I felt my voice was never being heard, wouldn't AV provide some form of redress? Isn't it possible to create an electoral system in which every person's view is represented?

“At the root of this whole argument are a lot of people who say 'I'm not represented, I'm not getting my voice heard'. That's an attitude that goes wider than politics - that if you believe in something then you have the right to be represented by someone who believes exactly the same as you. Well, no you don't. You have the right to go and vote. And if there are other people who outnumber you, that's democracy. Politics is about winners and losers.

“That's maybe not fashionable. But it is democratic”.

That's maybe so. But what if it turned out that AV actually helped Labour?

“If it's for party political advantage I'm not interested” claims Harris. “After the 1992 election even I was tempted to look down the road of electoral reform. I was so discouraged by the fact that we had lost for a fourth time, and that the only way we were going to get into government was through electoral reform.

“But you go for it because it's the right thing to do. You don't go for it because it suits your party for the next five years - that's a ridiculously short term view, and a triumph of tactics over strategy.

There's an incredibly arrogant and short sighted view that Conservatives deserved to be in government for three quarters of the last century and Labour was in opposition for most of it. And that's because we deserved it because we kept losing elections. But the Tories had better arguments. That's how you win elections, and if you keep losing them, you shouldn't be in government.

“I want Labour to win the next election because we've got the best policies”.

So what would the political consequences be if it's a yes vote come Friday 6 May?

“David Cameron will be very unpopular among his backbenchers. And in the Labour Party, I'll accept the result if that's the settled will of the people.

“If it's a no vote, Clegg will be under the same sort of pressure as Cameron would be with a Yes. With the new constituency boundaries facing approval by Parliament at some point in the next couple of years, why would the Lib Dems vote for new boundaries without AV?”.

Supporters of AV say that it is a stepping stone to a more proportional system, and without a yes vote there is scant hope of changing the way we elect MPs. And Tom Harris says he can see how Clegg settled for a referendum on AV from the coalition agreement.

“If he had come out of these negotiations without any commitment to electoral reform at all politically his position would be untenable.

“I understand and agree with that notion the AV is a stepping stone towards full proportional representation [PR] – that's why I'm voting no. I'm absolutely, unequivocally, against PR”.

But Harris thinks that Clegg has the “wrong deal”.

“We know that historically the Lib Dems have never supported AV – they've never stood on a principle in their entire existence. If Nick Clegg doesn't get this it will be bad for him personally.

“The game-plan if they win on 6 May is to start the campaign to get rid of it on 7 May”.

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