Sunday, 30 May 2010

Beyond Blighty: Oh gloria inmarcesible

A few weeks ago I received an email from a friend of mine in Bogotá, who talked of an excitingly close election which could see a change in government for the first time in over a decade. She was not however, talking about the UK election.

Today Colombians are going to the polls to elect their next President, who in Colombia is the head of the executive as well as head of state. If no one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote there will be a run-off election next month between the two highest polling candidates in today's vote.

The incumbent, Alvaro Uribe, has been President for the last eight years, having served two terms. The constitution prevents him from running for a third, which President Uribe must think is a shame as he currently has an approval rating of about 60%. In fact President Uribe did try to change the constitution to allow him to run for another term – but this was vetoed by Colombia's constitution court.

You might have thought that President Uribe's popularity would aid his hand chosen successor – the former Defence Minister, Juan Manuel Santos - but Uribe's choice isn't doing as well as expected. Mr. Santos still leads the polls but not enough to avoid a run-off election. The other main candidate is Antanas Mockus, the former Mayor of Bogotá and the Green party candidate – he was also diagnosed with Parkinson's disease earlier this year.

One of the criticisms of the UK election was all the main parties were effetely the same ideologically - this cannot be said of the Colombian election. Mr. Santos would continue the conservative legacy of President Uribe, Mr. Mockus on the other hand would signal a radical change in Colombia's domestic and foreign policy.

Change is an exciting prospect in any election, but a radical shift in politics at the top might destabilise some of Colombia's more delicate issues such as fighting against powerful drug cartel and left-wing guerrilla groups.

Santos and Mockus are both far ahead of all the other candidates in the polls and are likely to face a run-off vote, in which anything could happen. Expect more from the land of Shakira very soon.

My Colombian friend just Skyped me to say that Juan Manuel Santos received 47% of the vote, with Antanas Mockus only getting about 22%.

This is something of a surprise, as it was expected to be much closer. There will be a run-off but it seems almost certain Mr. Santos will be Colombia's next President. It seems continuity has won over change.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Rotten Parliament lives on?

It was exactly a year ago when MPs would wait in fear for the publication of the next day's Telegraph. Every new front page of the newspaper gave more revelations of extravagant expense claims which, although within the rules, were completely unacceptable in the eyes of the public (as well as anyone with any amount of common sense).

It was hoped that with the election of a new parliament (and the ending of the pervious 'Rotten Parliament' as it became known) politicians could rebuild their deeply tarnished reputation. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg said that cleaning up after the expenses scandal was a key priority of the 'new politics'.

However, the front page of today's Telegraph had an unpleasantly nostalgic feel. The new Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, is said to have claimed over £40,000 on what he said was his second home but was in fact a home owned by his partner - who happens to be a man.

There is talk of the Chief Secretary resigning, but I doubt this will happen. David Laws has apologised and will give back the money, and he is protected by the fact that he is one of the few Liberal Democrats who the Conservatives actually like. Also, the fact that Mr. Laws' private life has now become very public will no doubt lead to sympathy from the famously fair-minded British public, and thus help to dull any anger directed at him.

The coalition and David Laws will survive - the lasting damage however is to politics as a whole, as for a second Parliament in succession, MPs are marred by expenses. Although I doubt many people would have believed the new government, new parliament and new politics would bring an end to scandal, it's never good when cynicism is vindicated.

Alright, so I was wrong, David Laws has resigned as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It's quite sad on a human level, but I think it may help exorcise the coalition from the expenses scandal of the last parliament.

The fact is, David Laws' resignation was one of great dignity, a complete contrast from some of the previous politicians forced out over expenses who went kicking and screaming from office.

David Laws has not survived the latest scandal, but I think the coalition and the new politics will.

Friday, 28 May 2010

The Newest Peers of the Realm

So the House of Lords will soon to be getting some new members; Michael Howard, the former leader of the Conservatives, Ian Paisley, former First Minister of Northern Ireland, and John Prescott, former Deputy Prime Minister who became world famous when he punched a voter during the 2001 election campaign.

To be a peer of the realm is not a bad life, being able to influence legislation without having to worry about annoying things like elections. The new members must be wondering though, how long they'll have to relax in the Lords before the chamber is pulled down around them.

The question of how the United Kingdom, which claims to be one of the oldest democracies in the world, can have an unelected upper chamber of the legislature is long established in British politics. In the last election, all three main parties promised to reform the Lords, making it more democratically accountable. Although the Conservatives said this was not a major priority, and also Labour had promised to reform the Lords during the previous three elections. Though to be fair to Labour, they did remove most of the hereditary members of the Lords. Before the last government's reforms, you could join the House of Lords by inheriting the position from one of your parents. Thanks to Labour, this is no longer the case, but that was more than a decade ago and there hasn't been much change since then.

These days, in order to be a member of the House of Lords for the rest of your life, all you need is to be made a Life Peer by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. Church of England bishops are members automatically, and until last year the Lords was also home to the twelve judges which made up the last court of appeal in the UK, but they have now moved to the newly created Supreme Court across the road from Parliament.

Although still unelected, the Lords is no longer a house of nobility, and it now more closely resembles the Senate of Canada or the Seanad in the Republic of Ireland. In both these places, members are chosen by elected representatives of the people, but not by the people themselves.

There have been consistent calls for a completely elected House of Lords since the days of David Lloyd George, who had historic battles with the disruptive upper chamber and eventually managed to significantly reduce their power over legislation which had been approved by the elected House of Commons. Even Lloyd George could not bring democracy to the Lords though, and in the end he accepted a peerage himself, dying just a few months later (although I don't it was as a result of joining the Lords).

Now the coalition (or at least the Liberal Democrats in the coalition) wants to get on and finally complete the process of reform by taking that final step and having an elected upper chamber. Although there are inevitably a few issues which need to be sorted out first.

A concern with House of Lords reform is the people who would be lost if the chamber was elected. Anyone can be appointed to the Lords, and often some of the great minds of the day have found themselves being offered a peerage. Currently, Robert Winston sits in the House of Lords and is able to comment on and amend legislation as it goes through Parliament. It seems unlikely that people like Lord Winston would want to put themselves up for election, so they would be lost if any major reform to the Lords was to take place.

One other reason why, in recent times, many people have been reluctant to change the Lords is that, bizarrely, the unelected Lords have a strange tendency for standing up for democratic values a lot more than the Commons. Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights groups Liberty, once described the House of Lords as the "guardian of fundamental rights".

For example, in 2008, 42-day detention without charge (described by some opponents as an affront to basic freedom) was forced through the House of Commons, in which Labour had a large majority. But when it reached the Lords it was blocked and never became law. There is a fear that this culture of standing up for democracy against the will of the party in government might not survive if the members of the Lords feared punishment from their party bosses at the next election. Meaning, ironically, having a wholly elected legislature might result in the UK becoming less free and democratic.

So it looks like it is going to take a while to sort out all of these issues, perhaps the new Peers announced today will have some time to get comfortable on those red benches.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Power and titles

In the last government Peter Mandelson developed a reputation for collecting governmental titles and honours. By the end, his full title was The Right Honourable, the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. William Hague once joked that "it would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find that he had become an archbishop".

One title never bestowed on the Lord Mandelson however, was that of Deputy Prime Minister. Indeed, the office of Deputy Prime Minister was vacant throughout Gordon Brown's premiership. The history of that office is a peculiar one, mainly due to the fact that it is relatively new.

Offices of State in the UK normally have ancient histories. There has been a Chancellor of the Exchequer, for example, since the early 14th century. The office of Deputy Prime Minister however, was only created in 1940 following the formation of a coalition government - that sounds familiar.

Back then the political parties had united together to better fight the Second World War, and Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to give the leader of the Labour party, Clement Attlee, a title of high authority. So he created the office of Deputy Prime Minister.

Since the Second World War the title has been used sporadically. Prime Ministers have been reluctant to give it away for fear that it would create a possible rival. This meant that in recent years, when the title was used, the Deputy Prime Minister was normally someone who the PM didn't feel was a threat to his or her leadership. John Prescott for example had no desire to remove the word 'Deputy' from his title.

A problem for any Deputy Prime Minister is that the title doesn't have a defined role or job in government other than filling in for the PM when he or she is off at international summits or on holiday. American politician John Garner, who served as Vice President during Franklin D. Roosevelt's first two terms in the White House, once infamously described the Vice Presidency of the United States as "not worth a bucket of warm piss." Some British politicians have felt a similar sentiment could apply to the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

So when David Cameron appointed Nick Clegg as his Deputy, the Prime Minister wanted to make clear that this was not just an empty title given to make the Liberal Democrats feel a false sense of prestige. As a result, Mr. Clegg was also given special responsibility for political and constitutional reform.

Most people get sudden onset narcolepsy when politicians start to discuss constitutional reform, but Liberal Democrats have been talking about it for years and now their leader is in a position to actually do something about it.

The coalition document, which sets out a plan for the government's next five years in office, talks of a new voting system for the House of Commons and an elected House of Lords. Fixed-term parliaments are already planned.

Nick Clegg also holds on to one of Peter Mandelson's old titles, Lord President of the Council. Normally, the Lord President has a propionate role in the State Opening of Parliament, but last Tuesday Nick Clegg chose to remove himself from the ceremony. Perhaps this was a sign that he plans to be a reformer. In the end though, he may have some impressive titles, but it's the Prime Minister who has the power and the last word on policy.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Yet more elections

Vince Cable has resigned as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats in order to better focus on his new role in the coalition government. The Deputy Leadership election will be interesting to watch. Will Liberal Democrat members support the coalition and vote for a member of the government, or will they support an outsider from the backbenches? We'll know the result by mid-June.

For now the main talk is about why Vince Cable has chosen to resign - the real reason. The decision is an interesting one as many have said that, if the coalition begins to fall apart, Dr. Cable is likely to be the first to going.

Vince the Cable, as Andrew Neil calls him, is one of the most famous Liberal Democrats in the country, second only to Nick Clegg – and Mr. Clegg only overtook Dr. Cable in popularity during the election campaign. Dr. Cable has stated on several occasions his belief that the two coalition parties are not natural partners.

Cable was once a Labour councillor in Glasgow and many think he would have preferred a coalition with that party rather than the Conservatives. So was today's resignation just a way of allowing himself to resign from the government more easily at some point in the future, if the coalition begins to falter?

The Labour party will be hoping that the coalition stays together for at least a little while as they won't have a permanent leader in place for months. Now Labour have setup a leadership counter on their official website which shows the number of nominees for each candidate. Each potential leadership contender requires the support of at least 33 Labour MPs. As I type this, only the two Miliband brothers have the required numbers. Surprisingly, all the other candidates (including Ed Balls, seen to be one of the favourites) are some way from the number of MPs needed. They have until 9 June to get enough support, and all claim they'll be able to do it, but there is a chance that the field might not be as crowded as some had thought just a few days ago.

Not wanting to be left out, today the Conservatives had their own election. This one was for the new chairman of the 1922 Committee.

As I said in a previous blog, David Cameron had succeeded in changing the rules of the extremely powerful committee in order to allow government ministers to be members. Perhaps sensing the anger this act had caused, the Prime Minister agreed that although Conservative members of the government could join the 22, they would not be allowed to vote in any of its elections.

I wonder if the PM now regrets that decision, as tonight the 22 elected Graham Brady (the MP for Altrincham and Sale West) as their new chairman. Mr. Brady is not what you'd call a great supporter of the Prime Minister. He was once the Shadow Minister for Europe under David Cameron, but he resign in 2007 so he could more easily criticise the Conservative leader over his position on grammar schools. I wouldn't expect the 1922 Committee to be very sympathetic to the Conservative leadership in the times ahead.

Meanwhile, there is one more election to report. Tomorrow the voters of the Thirsk and Malton constituency will go to the polls to elect their new MP. Voting had to be delayed from the general election after the death of the UKIP candidate during the campaign. In the UK, if a candidate for an election dies after nominations have closed, the election is delayed to prevent a dead person being elected - as has happened in some countries.

The newly created constituency should be a safe Conservative seat, with the Liberal Democrats in second place. Reports on the grown say that the fight between the coalition partners is as fierce as ever. Strangely though, whether Thirsk and Malton's voters go for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, the winning candidate will sit on the government benches in the House of Commons.

And some people thought the elections all ended on 6 May.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Old ceremony for the new politics

The old ceremony, described in the previous post, took place today but was it the beginning of the new politics much talked about by David Cameron and Nick Clegg?

Conservative MP, Peter Lilley, opened the Queen's Speech debate by proposing to give thanks to Her Majesty for coming to Parliament. Traditionally the humble address, as it's called, is normally a witty speech and Mr. Lilley certainly told many jokes, but most of them were directed at the coalition.

The MP for Hitchin and Harpenden said he wondered whether he should now refer to Liberal Democrat MPs as "My Honourable Friends" (a form of address normally for when an MP is referring to members of his or her own party). Mr. Lilley suggested calling his new Liberal Democrat allies, "partners".

The jokes underlined an issue which might become very serious in the come months and years, which is, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats simply don't like each other. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister seem to genuinely get along, but the rest of their MPs are not so keen.

Maybe time in power will help the two parties to bond, but there will be much argument and debate in the short term. Today's Queen's Speech was a mixture of Conservative and Liberal Democrat bills and many members of one party might find it difficult to vote for the policies of the other.

Compromise and restraint will be needed in the times ahead. For Westminster, that really will be new politics.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Pomp on a budget

Tomorrow is the State Opening of the new Parliament. At 11am, the Queen will travel from Buckingham palace to the Houses of Parliament in an ornate horse drawn carriage, escorted by hundreds of soldiers on horseback and dressed in traditionally uniform. When she gets to Parliament, the Queen will enter the Robing Room where she'll put on the diamond encrusted Imperial State Crown. From there, the Queen will walk to the House of Lords where she'll sit on a golden thrown and say "My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, my Government's overriding priority is to… find ways of saving money" - or words to that effect.

To be fair to Her Majesty, the carriage, the crown, the thrown, et cetera are not her personal property (they belong to the state) and the words of the speech will have been written by David Cameron. But the Queen, along with almost every government department, will have to go through their budgets and find any possible saving to reduce expenditure. The Queen actually has a reputation for frugality with public money, so she shouldn't have a problem doing this. Departments of State in recent years however, have had a culture of extravagance which makes the Imperial State Crown look thrifty. This culture will now have to change.

One thing which won't change is the ceremony of the State Opening. Before giving her speech, the Queen will send Black Rod (her representative in Parliament) down to the House of Commons to ask the MPs to come and listen to her speech. Black Rod will then walk to the Commons, but before he reaches the door to the chamber, the MPs will slam it in his face and he'll have to knock three times (using his black rod) to gain entry.

The tradition now looks slightly comic, but it has a very serious history. On 4 January 1642, King Charles I attempted to enter the chamber of the House of Commons in order to arrest five of its members. The MPs were so angered by this that they slammed the door of the chamber in the faces of the King's soldiers. The troops were only able to open the door by ramming it (three times). When King Charles finally entered the chamber he found the five members he'd come to arrest were not there, and when the King asked Speaker William Lenthall where the men were, Mr. Speaker refused to tell him, saying "I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me" (in those days, that was considered to be a major snub). This was the last time a monarch entered the chamber of the House of Commons, and King Charles ended up being tried and executed by Parliament.

The ceremonial slamming of the door is supposed to represent the separation of Parliament and monarchy, but in modern times it has come to represent Parliament's independence from the often domineering government, more than the now powerless monarchy.

Tomorrow the MPs will be slightly more polite than they were in 1642. Once Black Rod is let into the chamber, he will say the words "Mr. Speaker, the Queen commands this honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers." At which point Dennis Skinner (the MP for Bolsover and a notable republican) will shout an insult at Black Rod, before all the MPs, led by the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, walk to the House of Lords where they'll listen to the Queen read the speech, which details the legislative programme in the new session of Parliament. For the last few hundred years, the speech has actually been written by the Prime Minister of the day.

Queen Elizabeth is quite use to this ceremony as she has been doing it since she came to the thrown in 1952 and has only missed it twice (when she was pregnant). Although this is the first speech to be written by her newest Prime Minister and it is also the first time in her reign the Queen has read the legislative programme of a coalition government - there hasn't been one since her father was on the thrown.

This year's speech will detail some of the spending cuts to public services in an attempt to lower the UK's massive budget deficit. For a time the coalition will be able to blame the last government for the painful times ahead in public services, but David Cameron must know that this tick won't last very long.

The Queen my read out the speech, but it's the man who wrote it that will get the blame for what it says. Perhaps, when Black Rod knocks on the door tomorrow, David Cameron might be tempted to tell him to go away.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Beyond Blighty: The rise of the Tea Party

On 16 December 1773 a group of colonists in Boston harbour, in the British colony of Massachusetts Bay, boarded several ships which were carrying tea bound for Britain. In protest to the British imposed taxes on tea, the colonists through the ships' cargo into the water of the harbour. This became known as the 'Boston tea party' and was one of the earliest rumblings of the American Revolution, which lead to the formation of the United States.

As a Brit, I feel it is my duty to point out that the taxes on tea were actually at an historic low in 1773, and many of the people who through the tea overboard were in fact smugglers who were worried that cheap tea would threaten their illicit business. Also, the taxes in the American colonies were far lower than those in Great Britain. But of course, the people of Britain elected the people who taxed them, the colonists did not.

The story of 'brave colonists' opposing taxation without representation became part of America's creation myth and the tea party became a byword for a very American type of rebellion.

So it was no surprise when, last year, a group of Americans, who were unhappy with President Obama's economic stimulus bill, bailouts and healthcare reform, began a series of protests called 'tea parties'. Within just a few months, what was just a group of disgruntled protesters, has now became one of the most influential political movements in the US today. The Tea Party movement's sudden rise has been compared to the similarly sudden rise of the movement which brought Barrack Obama to power in 2008, although neither group would like the comparison.

It is an oversimplification to say the Tea Party movement is just a group of people who oppose President Obama, but it is true to say the vast majority of the movement's supporters do not like him. Some of the protesters have very good reasons for this, some just don't like the President for no good reason at all.

Like 2008, this is an election year in the US, and although the President himself is not up for election, all of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will be facing the voters on 2 November this year.

Last Tuesday there were several primaries to choose party nominees for the elections in November and there were some surprise results which were said to be caused by the Tea Party's influence. The most notable of these was Rand Paul who won the Republican nomination for one of Kentucky's Senate seats. Paul is a libertarian and seen as the Tea Party's favoured candidate.

The power of the Tea Party has not been welcomed in all parts of the Republican party. In Florida, Governor Charles Crist had hoped to get the Republican nomination for one of Florida's Senate seats, but instead the nomination went to Marco Rubio, who was strongly supported by the Tea Party. Crist is now standing as an independent candidate, which could split the Republican vote in November and lead to the Democrat's nominee winning the seat.

Some say President Obama should be concerned about the power of the Tea Party, I don't think he has too much to worry about. Although, I wonder if people said the same thing to the British government in 1773?

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The four letters which won't go away

The last British soldier left Iraq over a year ago, yet the very mention of that country still haunts the Labour party.

Most of the anger about the Iraq war is directed at Tony Blair, but a certain amount is focussed on the Labour MPs who voted for the invasion in the House of Commons, without which the UK would not have been involved in the war.

The two candidates who were not in parliament at the time of the Iraq vote, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, decided to bring up the subject today and both said that the war was a mistake. This put Andy Burnham and David Miliband into a difficult position as both were in parliament at the time and both did vote for the invasion of Iraq. Understandably, David Miliband said it was 'time to move on' from Iraq, and Andy Burnham said it wasn't a big issue anymore.

The other two candidates, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, were also in parliament during the time of the Iraq war, but they voted against the invasion, and they think it definitely still is a big issue and they really want to talk about it – if for no other reason than to point out to potential supporters how they voted on the Iraq war.

Perhaps this is the real reason why the two Eds (Balls and Miliband) wanted to state their opposition to the invasion, as it neutralises the power of the outsiders (Abbott and McDonnell) and at the same time it points out that the frontrunner (David Miliband) supported the war which most in the Labour party were vehemently against.

How all this will affect the leadership election is extremely hard to tell, but one thing is certain, two general elections and as many Prime Ministers have now come and gone since the invasion of Iraq, but the Labour leadership contenders all feel it still has resonance with the voters.

Friday, 21 May 2010

The power of 1922

It's often said that, due to the UK's wonderfully bizarre unwritten constitution, it's a lot easier to remove a Conservative Prime Minister from power than it is to remove a Labour Prime Minister. There are mechanisms for removing a Labour PM, but they're convoluted and, more than that, Labour MPs tend to be unwilling to use such mechanisms. This is not true of Conservative MPs who have a belligerent tendency, not to mention the fact that they can remove their leader with a very straightforward mechanism which rests in the infamous 1922 Committee.

The committee was actually formed in 1923 but was named after the year in which its founders were elected. However, when Conservatives hear '1922', they don't think of the general election which took place in that year, they think of something far more dramatic.

On Thursday 19 October 1922 Conservative MPs gathered at the Carlton Club in London to discuss the coalition government which consisted of Conservatives and Liberals. Does this sound familiar? The difference between that coalition government and the current one is the Prime Minister in the 1922 coalition was a Liberal (David Lloyd George), despite the fact that the Conservatives were the largest party in the Commons.

Austen Chamberlain, the leader of the Conservative party and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lloyd George, strongly supported the continuation of the coalition as did most of the leadership of the party. But many of the ordinary Conservatives MPs did not like linking themselves to an unpopular Liberal Prime Minister. So on that day in October 1922, there was a vote of the members present at the Carlton Club, effectively on whether to remain in the coalition or not. The party leadership lost the vote, 187 to 87, and as a result Chamberlain resigned as leader, the coalition collapsed, an election was called and the Conservatives won a majority in the Commons. Ever since, '1922' has been shorthand for the devastating power of ordinary MPs when they become sufficiently disgruntled.

The new Conservative MPs who entered Parliament in the 1922 election formed a committee of backbench MPs – the 1922 Committee – which continues to this day and is far more powerful than equivalent groups in any other mainstream party. For example, an immediate vote of confidence in the leader of the Conservative party can be called if just 15% of MPs write to the 22's chairman asking for one, and Conservatives are not timid about using this power either. It was most recently used less than seven years ago to forcibly remove Iain Duncan Smith from the leadership.

Perhaps this is why yesterday David Cameron changed the rules of membership of the 1922 Committee. Previously, only Conservative MPs who were not part of the government were allowed to be members of the 22. At the Prime Minister's request, this rule has been changed and now all Conservative MPs are allowed to join. This is significant as members of the government are far less likely to vote against their Prime Minister in any vote of confidence. The 22 has other powers, such as overseeing elections within the Conservative party, including the selection of Conservative chairpersons of Parliamentary committees, which can now be influenced by the government.

Interestingly, the vote to change the rules wasn't that close - 168 supported the change, 118 were opposed. Of course, when you consider the fact that there are 147 new Conservative MPs, it is not too surprising as they wouldn't want to upset the leader who has just brought them into Parliament, but many of the older Conservative MPs were very angry at this change.

David Cameron should perhaps be careful; even after these changes, the 1922 Committee is still extremely powerful and past experience shows Conservatives are not coy about using their power.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Could Diane do it?

Today Diane Abbott through herself, grenade like, into the ring for the Labour leadership, blowing the contest wide open. Just yesterday, some Labour backbenchers were complaining that the declared and potential candidates were all men who 'look the same' (both physically and politically). With the intervention of Ms. Abbott, this is no longer true.

Diane Abbott was the first black woman to be elected to serve in the House of Commons, and is one of the most passionate speakers in Parliament today. Most people know her from her weekly appearances on the BBC's late night political programme "This Week", presented by Andrew Neil, which takes a light-hearted look at politics and shows-off Ms. Abbott's whimsical said.

She has never been a member of the government or shadow cabinet, but Diane Abbott has not been without criticism. In 2003, Ms. Abbott decided to send her son to a public school, this caused great controversy due to her previous criticism of Tony Blair and Harriet Harman for sending their children to independent schools (which were still state schools, although selective). Her actions were condemned as hypocrisy by many in the media, and she herself said it was "indefensible".

It seems unlikely she could win, but then people said the same about David Cameron in 2005 and Barrack Obama in 2008. The leadership election is going to go on for a long time, no one could have predicted the events of the last four weeks, who could predict what will happen in the next four months? As I said in an earlier post, the Labour party uses an AV electoral system, which makes the outcome difficult to predict.

The first challenge for any candidate is to find 33 Labour MPs to support them. Ms. Abbott claims she can do it, others are not so confident. But this afternoon the NEC announced that it had extended the deadline for nominations to 9 June. This might help John McDonnell to get nominated and, if he did, his candidacy would hinder Ms. Abbott's as both are seen as left-wing candidates and they may split that voting bloc.

So, can she win? That is the question for anyone voting in this election who might be thinking of supporting Ms. Abbott, and the question doesn't just refer to the leadership but also to the next general election. The Labour party are voting for someone who they can present to the public as an alternative Prime Minister - that's no small decision to make, no wonder it is going to take them so long.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Freedom vs. Safety

The above photograph, which appeared on the front page of today's Times newspaper, was taken yesterday by Jeff Moore when David Cameron was walking from 10 Downing Street to the Houses of Parliament, seemingly unnoticed by the people walking around him. To be fair to the Westminster crowds, you wouldn't expect to see the Prime Minister walking alone down a busy street.

It's hard to imagine the President of the United States being allowed to do something like that, America's 'right to bear arms' makes life a bit more dangerous for public figures in the US, which leads to the US Secret Service being very strict with any overly adventurous commanders-in-chief. This wasn't always the case, President Harry S. Truman used to walk unaccompanied from Blair House, up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House every morning when the presidential mansion was being renovated.

Of course, four US Presidents have been assassinated, there have also been many more assassination attempts, and most of that was before the threat of Islamic terror was realised. It is something of an irony that the self proclaimed 'leader of the free world' cannot freely walk down the street unaccompanied by at least a dozen well armed Secret Service agents.

In democratic societies, political leaders have always had difficulties balancing keeping safe and remaining free, and I'm not just talking about the personal safety of the politicians. Yesterday, Abid Naseer won his appeal against deportation to Pakistan. Naseer is suspected by the Security Service to be an al-Qaeda operative, but crucially he has never been found guilty in a court of law. As a result, Home Secretary Theresa May is believed to have issued Naseer with a control order which would significantly restrict his rights. With a control order, Naseer would lose his right to use a mobile phone and the internet, he'd be tagged, his movements would be closely monitored and he wouldn't be able to go any great distance from his home without first checking with the police. Of course, if he wanted, he could go back to his home country of Pakistan, where he'd probably be tortured for being linked to al-Qaeda.

Harry S. Truman's direct predecessor as President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his 1941 State of the Union address, listed freedom from fear as a right as fundamental as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The question is, in modern times, is it possible to free people of their fear of extremism without making them fearful of the state.

One of the main tests for any government, and especially a coalition, is how it can keep the people free and at the same time fulfil the first duty of every government – to keep the people safe. In opposition, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives condemned the Labour government and its policies that seemed to undermine civil liberties, like detention without charge and ID cards.

Now they are the ones in government, faced with ensuring national security, it will be interesting to see if the coalition still believes loss of civil liberties is not a price worth paying for defending the realm.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Longer elections

So, some MPs did shout "No" during the re-election of John Bercow, but it wasn't enough to prompt a formal vote. John Bercow was dragged to the Speaker's chair, as tradition dictates, and his first act was to call the new Prime Minister, who was sitting next to Nick Clegg – something that would have been unthinkable when MPs last sat in the Commons.

There was no sign of David Miliband, but Ed was in the chamber. Perhaps the elder Miliband brother was out canvassing of votes, although it's not as if he's short of time to do that. The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party announced today that the new leader won't be revealed until the start of the Labour Conference on 25 September. Oddly though, potential candidates only have nine more days to enter the race.

Ed Balls is said to be planning on announcing his candidacy tomorrow. Balls was once described by Andrew Neil as 'Gordon Brown's representative on Earth', and is seen as the former Prime Minister's favoured candidate - although Brown has said will not officially support anyone. Then there is John McDonnell, who was the only other candidate to run against Brown in the last leadership election and is seen as the candidate of the left wing of the party.

Mrs. Miliband's candidate, Jon Cruddas, has said he will not run, although he did express concern about the short amount of time for potential candidates to find nominations from other Labour MPs. Cruddas said it was not enough time for proper scrutiny of the candidates by their fellow MPs.

Of course, as the result will not be known until September, there is plenty of time for nominated candidates to be scrutinised by the media. This wasn't always the case, normally when the leader of a losing party stepped down at the end of a general election, the new leader was in place as quickly as possible. This changed five years ago when Michael Howard resigned as Conservative party at the end of the 2005 election. That leadership election went on for months, running right through the Conservative party conference, and lead to an outsider becoming the new leader - his name was David Cameron. Perhaps a longer campaign isn't a bad idea.

Monday, 17 May 2010

New faces in new places

For boring people like me, who enjoy watching Parliament, tomorrow will be a fun day. At 2.15pm tomorrow, for the first time since the election, MPs will assemble in the chamber of the House of Commons.

The exciting thing will be to see where everyone sits on those famous green benches. On the government front bench will be the new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, as well as other members of the new government.

On the opposite side of the chamber, for the first time in 13 years, Labour MPs will sit on the official opposition's benches. As acting leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman will sit facing David Cameron and beside her will be the former members of the Labour government including David and Ed Miliband (it will be interesting to see if the two siblings and rivals for the Labour leadership sit next to each other and, if they do, what they might say to each other).

Spread throughout the chamber will be over 200 new faces after the biggest influx of new MPs in 65 years. One old face will be the new Father of the House (if 'new' is the right word), Sir Peter Tapsell, who has served in the Commons longer than any other member. The former Father of the House, who retired from politics at the election, was Labour MP Alan Williams, a slender and mild mannered Welshman who'd been the MP for Swansea West since 1964. Williams' successor as Father is a rotund Conservative MP, noted for wearing morning suits and expressing forthright views which are often at odds with those of David Cameron's Conservative party.

When you ask people to imagine a stereotypical 'Tory', they think of Sir Peter Tapsell. Even people who have never heard of Sir Peter Tapsell (indeed people who have never seen Sir Peter Tapsell) think of him when they imagine a Conservative MP. To the great loss of parliament, I fear the type of parliamentarian which Sir Peter embodies is becoming less and less common in the Commons.

The Father of the House only has one official job. Parliament can't start passing new laws until the State Opening next Tuesday, but there are still a few things which need to be done before then. The first and only job of the first day back is to elect the Speaker, the process of which is presided over by the Father of the House who sits in the left seat in front of the Speaker's (temporarily) empty chair.

John Bercow, the incumbent Speaker, is seeking re-election unopposed, so there probably won't be too much excitement. I say 'probably' because, for various reasons, John Bercow is not liked by several Conservative MPs.

If all goes to plan, after John Bercow makes a short speech from the backbenches, the Father of the House will say the words:
The question is that Mr. John Bercow do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. As many as are of that opinion say Aye [at which point most MPs should shout "Aye"] of the contrary No [at which point there should be silence].

If there is indeed silence after the last part of those words, John Bercow will be declared Speaker and ceremonially dragged to the Speaker's chair. If, however, even a few MPs shout "No", then there will be a formal vote and possibly a full Speaker election.

It's very unlikely that this will happen though. When Michael Martin resigned last year, it was the first time a Speaker had been forced from office since 1695. Of course John Bercow could be wondering if coups against the Speaker are like buses – you wait 300 years for one and two come along within twelve months of each other.

For the rest of the week members will each take the oath of allegiance to the Queen. The oath is almost identical to the one taken by naturalised British citizens, with one exception; new British citizens must also pledge to uphold the UK's democratic values, something which isn't required of the MPs. I wonder why.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Then there were two

Four days after Gordon Brown's resignation, three days after his brother declared his candidacy, Ed Miliband announced he would stand for Labour's leadership.

The Labour party finds itself in a much better position than it had expect just a few months ago when there had been a fear of 1997 in reverse. In fact, Labour received a lower share of vote in this election than John Major in 1997, but due to the Labour bias in the electoral system their number of seats remained respectably high.

With a potentially fragile coalition government, which has difficult and unpopular decisions to make, this could be a very good time to be the Leader of Opposition. Yet Labour's leadership contenders, with the exception of David Miliband, seem tentative to declare.

This might be due to the complexity of Labour's system of electing a leader. Not only do candidates have to compete for the votes of three very different constituencies in the electoral college, but they also have to win a majority of the vote through an instant-runoff system, also known as AV.

For all those wondering how they might vote in the promised AV referendum for elections to the House of Commons, you might want to look at how the votes fall for the next Labour leadership election. AV normally leads to the least objectionable candidate winning, so you don't want to look too eager or be too propionate too soon, lest you want supporters of other candidates to see you as a threat to their guy and deliberately give you a low preference vote.

Three years ago, Alan Johnson was the clear favourite to win the Deputy Leadership race, but in the end it was the virtually unnoticed Harriet Harman who narrowly won the day. So perhaps the most likely result is a surprise.

Ed Miliband joked that his mother will probably support outsider Jon Cruddas. You never know, Mrs. Miliband might get her favoured candidate after all.

Friday, 14 May 2010


The now unused fourth verse of the national anthem infamously states:
May he sedition hush,
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush.

I seriously doubt the Prime Minister was thinking of these words today when he went to Scotland, a place where less than 17% of people voted Conservative last week. Mr. Cameron does not want to 'crush' the rebellious Scots, but rather have a 'fresh start' in relations between Westminster and Holyrood.

Mr. Cameron has a problem, for the last thirteen years the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have both been Scots (alright, so Tony Blair was viewed by most people as solidly middle-England, but he was born and schooled in Edinburgh). Now the Scots will have to get use to having an English Prime Minister and Chancellor of a UK government they didn't elect.

Of course this has happened before, in the 1980s and early 1990s when Scotland consistently elected Labour MPs but ended up with Conservative governments. The different between then and now is the devolved Scottish parliament and government, which could call a referendum on independence. The chances of the Scots voting for independence under a Labour PM in Downing Street would seem unlikely, but with a Conservative PM, Scots may start to seriously consider leaving the union.

So you would have thought that the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, who claims to wants an independent Scotland more than anything, would secretly like the idea of a Conservative Prime Minister in Westminster. And yet, the First Minister tried desperately during the start of the week to keep David Cameron out of No. 10 by joining an ultimately unfeasible 'Progressive coalition' of the SNP, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SDLP, and Plaid Cymru. Then yesterday, during First Minister's questions in the Scottish Parliament, Alex Salmond seemed genuinely angry that his coalition plan had failed and as a result there was a Conservative incumbent in Downing Street. No doubt Mr. Salmond would say that a Conservative dominated government is bad for Scotland and so he is against it (whether it makes an independent Scotland more likely or not), but a more cynical person might suggest that Mr. Salmond's party might be held to blame for what he calls 'Tory cuts' at the Scottish parliamentary elections, to be held on Thursday 5 May next year.

The exact date of the next election is known because the Scottish Parliament has fixed terms. The election can be called earlier of course, but only if 67% of the MSPs agree. As part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition deal, David Cameron agreed to fixed term parliaments for Westminster as well as to give up his power as Prime Minister (through the monarch) to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Like the Scottish Parliament, the election could be called earlier if 55% of the MPs agreed.

You might think this seems reasonable, and more democratic than the Scottish parliament, but many Conservative backbenchers disagree. Conservatives point out that the 1979 election, which was narrowly won by Margaret Thatcher, only took place when it did because Prime Minister James Callaghan lost a motion of non-confidence in the Commons by just one vote. If the legislation the Mr. Cameron is now suggesting had been in place in 1979, Mrs. Thatcher might have never come to power.

It seems unlikely that Conservative MPs would try to defeat their brand new government, but they might make some noise about David Cameron's plans on fundamental constitutional reform - and the Prime Minister thought the Scots were rebellious!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

New Government - New Blog!

One of the great virtues of blogging is its immediacy - the fact that, unlike newspaper journalists, bloggers can react to events as they are taking place. And in that spirit, for my inaugural blog, I'm going to talk about something which happened two days ago.

Even the Conservative blogger, Iain Dale, said that his 'eyes moistened' when Gordon Brown walked out of No. 10 for the last time as Prime Minister.

No matter how you voted, it was a sad moment to witness a man's political career come to an end. But actually, Brown himself looked relieved - in fact he was smiling! And not the infamously scary joker-like smile, but a genuine warm smile. Some in the Labour party must have wondered why Mr. Brown didn't smile in that way during the election campaign - if he had, Labour may have won. But, of course, Labour lost and the elegance and brutality of the UK's unwritten constitution came into effect.

Gordon Brown drove the short distance to Buckingham Palace where he tendered his resignation to the Queen. As this was happening, Labour officials and Ministers were flooding out of Downing Street and other government buildings like soldiers fleeing a medieval castle before the enemy army come through the gates.

A short time later, after his own meeting with Her Majesty, David Cameron really did come through the gates (of Downing Street) and walked into No. 10 as the first Conservative Prime Minister in thirteen years. Crucially though, he does not lead a Conservative government. Almost 70 years to the day after the formation of the last coalition government, the United Kingdom has two governing parties.

The idea of 'Prime Minister David Cameron' has been seen as a likelihood (at some points even a certainty) for many years, but the words 'Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg' would have seemed ludicrous just a few days ago. Now the Lib Dems are in government with the Conservatives, and the dominate party of the last decade is leaderless and in opposition.

Some may say I should have started this blog before the election campaign, as now all the excitement in politics is effectively over. Personally, I think the excitement is only just beginning.