Friday, 25 June 2010

Is Harriet Harman "doing a Cable"?

In 2007, during the Liberal Democrat leadership election, Vince Cable served as acting leader. Mr. Cable excelled in this role and left many Liberal Democrats wishing that he had stood for the leadership.

Harriet Harman, the current acting leader of the Labour party, is shining in her role and yet, like Cable, she is not standing for the leadership to the regret of many Labour members. What made Vince Cable so popularity was his great performances in the House of Commons, at one point saying of Gordon Brown "The House has noticed the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean." Ms. Harman is also performing very well in the Commons, saying of Vince Cable this week "The House has noticed his remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from national treasure to Treasury poodle."

This is hardly surprising as Ms. Harman was Leader of the House for 3 years, meaning she was in the chamber for most of the time, listening to and answering questions on many topics. So she knows what works and what doesn't. The next Labour leader might want to ask her advice before taking to the Commons, just as Nick Clegg did of Vince Cable.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

George Osborne - the most unpopular man in Britain?

Tax rises and public service cuts a two things which tend to make government's unpopular. Today the Chancellor did both. And yet, through carefully explaining how and why these things will be done, maybe George Osborne won't become 'the most unpopular man in the UK'.

The British people aren't stupid and polls show that the public think (in theory) tax rises and public service cuts are inevitable and needed. Though theory and reality are two different things, time will tell how unpopular the new Chancellor will become when the people begin to feel what he announced today.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Is Labour learching to the right?

After the formation of the coalition government, there was talk about what would happen to the Labour party which found itself in opposition for the first time in 13 years and facing mixed centre-right/centre-left government. The most likely scenario seemed to be, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democratic taking up the middle ground, Labour would be pushed into talking about issues which are to the extreme left of most voters. In this new again of politics, even the most logical conclusions can be proved wrong very quickly.

In a BBC interview today, Ed Balls again said that one of the biggest issues in the UK at the moment is immigration, a topic normally talked about by those to the right of the political spectrum. Having said that, the people inclined to vote Conservative have benefited the most from recent immigration which has helped fill the worker shortage, and Labour voters are most disgruntled with the migration of skilled workers from Eastern Europe, who are erroneously believed to be taking jobs and housing. In fact the increase in support for the BNP at last year's local elections came mainly from disaffectioned Labour voters, not Conservatives.

Perhaps Mr. Balls believes the old conclusion that immigration is a right wing issue may not be true any longer. If the Labour party elects Ed Balls as their new leader, they will have chosen a path that will change the structure of politics as much as the coalition.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The BBC's Labour hustings

Standing out as a leader was the mission for the candidates at last night's Newsnight hustings, yet none of the five contenders completed their mission.

At PMQs today, David Cameron said the candidates looked 'like a Star Trek convention', though I don't think the Prime Minister's view is necessarily impartial.

It's hard to judge how each candidate did, there was no clear winner. With the exception of Diane Abbott, the candidates seemed nervous and unwilling to stand out for fear of saying the wrong thing. Even for political nerds, it wasn't all that interesting, yet the winner of the Labour Leadership could end up being our next Prime Minister.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Northern Ireland apology

It's said that all powerful nations have an original sin. With the UK, it's Ireland. The British have filled many dark pages in the history books with atrocities in Ireland, but in recent history the darkest day was 30 January 1972 (Bloody Sunday) when British paratroopers opened fire on a crowd of people in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Commenting on the publication of the inquiry into Bloody Sunday, today David Cameron (who was five years old when the killing took place) apologies in the House of Commons for what happened on that day. The apology was honest and unreserved, even though it should have been said by a British Prime Minister 40 years ago. There is now a fragile peace in Northern Ireland and in laying out the unforgivable David Cameron may have opened to door to forgiveness.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Is Abbott the new Clegg?

The hustings have started for the Labour leadership election and apparently Diane Abbott has been the clear winner in most of the confrontations.

It reminds me of the response to Nick Clegg's performance during the TV debates of the general election. Diane Abbott is also getting the most favourable media coverage, as did Clegg.

In the end this attention didn't bring great success to the Liberal Democrats (they lost six seats). Perhaps the same will be true of Diane Abbott, but somehow I doubt it - there is a feel of momentum in her campaign. It will be hard to keep that up until September, but she might just do it.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Prime Minister Diane Abbott in 2015

So, she's done it! Diane Abbott, along with Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and bothers David and Ed Miliband, received the MPs needed to get onto the ballot paper for the Labour leadership.

There is now a very small chance that Diane Abbott will be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. When I say 'very small' I mean miniscule, but still a possibility nonetheless.

David Miliband is the favourite to get the leadership by some way. He was Foreign Secretary for three years, he's been an MP since 2001 and studied at Oxford and MIT. He also has the most nominations from Labour MPs, is seen as a Blairite and his brother Ed, is also going to appear on the ballot paper. Being the favourite though, doesn't mean he's going to win.

As I said in a previous post, the AV system of voting in the Labour party makes the outcome hard to predict. Diane Abbott is popular with the left of the party, which makes up a large section of the trade unions and party members who have 67% of the vote.

The next leader of the Labour party will face a fragile coalition government which has to make dramatic and unpopular cuts to the public services. It is entirely possible that the next Labour leader, if they do their job properly, could lead their party to victory at the next election and walk into Downing Street as Prime Minister. Which of the five candidates is best suited to do this job it is the unenviable decision for the Labour party.

So will Ms. Abbott one day be PM? At this point it seems very unlikely, but then people said the same about Margaret Thatcher in 1975 and Barack Obama in 2007.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Democracy in action

We in the United Kingdom often describe our nation as 'one of the world's oldest democracies'. But in reality, the UK is not a democracy, neither is France, or the United States or even Switzerland. In fact no country in the world is a democracy - not a real democracy anyway.

A democracy is when the will of the people is enacted, where every decision is decided by the people. That's not what happens in our system of government. We don't make the decisions ourselves, we elect the people to make the decisions for us. Today those people who we elected just over a month ago said they want us to make some of the hard decisions, and in so doing brought us closer to being a real democracy.

Today the Chancellor said that the public will be consulted on where cuts in the government should be made. This is something rather unique in the UK, the idea that a government, faced with bringing pain to great sections of country, should ask the public what to do, instead of making unilateral decisions. The flaw in the plan is the flaw in democracy, which is those with the minority view get exclude. The highest population of the UK is in southern England, but most government spending is in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and northern England. Will public services be cut in the areas of lowest population, but perhaps the most need?

The other flaw in democracy is that if the wrong decision is made, the public only have themselves to blame, which is perhaps why the idea is so appealing to the government. If in five years time the public don't like the pain caused by the cuts, the government will just have to say 'but it only what you told us to do'!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Beyond Blighty: New PM in Japan - again!

In the last four years Japan has had six Prime Ministers. Quite a startling fact, made more startling by the variety of reasons for their departure. Junichiro Koizumi, who had been Prime Minister for five years, retired in 2006 and was replaced by Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. On his first anniversary of coming to power, Mr. Abe resigned for health reason, although during his year in power there had been two resignations and a suicide in his cabinet as a result of scandals which, amongst other things, lead to a significant drop in the government's poll numbers. Yasuo Fukuda was the next Prime Minister, but he was forced to resign two days short of his first anniversary in the job after failing to get crucial legislation through the upper house of the Diet (the Parliament of Japan).

Mr. Fukuda was replaced by Taro Aso who left office less than a year later in a more conventional way for democratic leaders – he lost the general election. The election's winner was Yukio Hatoyama who ended sixty years of almost uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party government. It was hoped that an electoral mandate would lead to a sustained period in power for the new Prime Minister; in fact Mr. Hatoyama was in office for less than seven months. The latest Prime Ministerial departure was due to the cabinet resigning en masse following the breaking of an election promise to close the US base on Okinawa. The next and (as I write this) current Prime Minister of Japan is Naoto Kan, the former Minister of Finance. Mr. Kan must be hoping he can last longer than his most recent predecessors.

During Gordon Brown's periods of unpopularity in the country, Labour MPs had plotted on several occasions to remove the Prime Minister from power. The argument against such action was the myth that changing the PM twice in one Parliament would be democratically unsound. Tony Blair won the election in 2005 and was replaced by Gordon Brown in 2007 who thought about having his own election three years earlier than was required, before infamously changing his mind at the last second. As the economic crisis emerged and Labour's place in the poll dropped lower than shares in Northern Rock, Labour MPs began to wonder if a different, more media aware Prime Minister might help the party's chances more than Mr. Brown.

To change a PM a second time without consulting the people, so the argument against removing Mr. Brown went, would lead to an immediate election. This argument seemed to prevent a coup against the PM as Labour MPs feared what would happened to them if there were an election soon after they'd stabbed their leader in the back. However, as Japan shows, the argument was flawed as in a parliamentary system, the people elected the legislature which then determines the government. Another flaw in the argument is this; why is changing the Prime Minister once without an election acceptable, but not twice or three times or more?

Perhaps Japan shows the real argument against such action and why continuity in government is important. Aside from the democratic issue, Prime Ministers need to be able to feel comfortable and confident doing the job (this is true of all work) but it takes time before this can happen. Also, a nation's current prestige is often related to the people who are in power at the moment. Just think of the world's view of the United States under George W. Bush and compared it to the US under President Obama. In an economic crisis, a nation's prestige is important, but not knowing a country's political leader because they change every few months cannot help that country's standing.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Who will still be fighting in a weeks time?

Next Wednesday the nominations close for the Labour leadership. After a slow start, there has been a flurry of nominations this week. The biggest riser has been Diane Abbott who has moved from one nomination to seven in a matter of just a few days. This may not seem like much, but a big task for a candidate in any election is convincing the electorate they can win. This is especially true with Labour MPs, whose votes are public and they don't want to upset the new leadership by having supported another candidate.

Looking at the numbers, it seems like Ms. Abbott has little chance of winning. David Miliband has almost double the 33 MPs needed for nomination, his brother isn't far behind and Ed Balls has exactly the correct number of MPs to get him a place on the ballot. Andy Burnham still needs a few more nominations, but he insists he will make it. Then there is John McDonnell and Diane Abbott whose nominations are in signal figures. And yet, there still is a sense that Ms. Abbott could make it. The undeclared MPs are disproportionally form ethnic minorities, from whom Ms. Abbott says she has the most support and she is popular in the wider party too.

The system of nomination in the Labour party was specifically designed to keep left-wing candidates (like Ms. Abbott) off the ballot paper. In the actually election, two-thirds of the vote comes from the ordinary party members and the affiliated originations, who are significantly to the left of most Labour MPs, not to mention the general public. This means that when left wing candidates do manage to get onto the ballot, they tend to do rather well.

For example, left wing MP Jon Cruddas received the highest number of first preference votes in the 2007 Deputy Leadership election. If the Labour party had the same system for electing its leaders as the Conservatives, Mr. Cruddas would now be Deputy Leader. The reason why he is not is due to AV.

The Alternative Vote (AV) is a form of preferential voting. Instead of voting for just one candidate, the voter puts a '1' beside their first choice, and a '2' beside their second choice. If no one candidate gets more than the 50% of first preference votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the second preference votes of that candidate are added to the remaining candidates. If no candidate still doesn't have over 50% of the vote, then the next candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their second preference votes are redistributed as before. This goes on until one candidate has over 50% of the vote.

As I have said in previous blogs, where the second preference votes of eliminated candidates go is hard to guess, making the result hard to predict and the election that much more exciting. This time next week, we'll know what the ballot paper will look like and the election proper will have started.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Politeness in the Commons?

The House of Commons, known for its boisterousness, especially during Prime Minister's Questions, was strangely polite and quite today. The tragedy in Cumbria no doubt was partially responsible for this. In many ways it was similar to Gordon Brown's first PMQs which took place just days after attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow.

When he first became Leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron said he wanted to put an end to 'Punch and Judy politics' which the Commons is known to produce. This was quickly forgotten, and as Leader of the Opposition Mr. Cameron continued the adversarial tradition of Commons' debating. Perhaps today's politeness on the part of the Prime Minister was an attempt to return to his original policy of orderly discourse.

One of the most striking (and distracting) things to notes was the Prime Minister's lack of the notes! Pervious PMs have had a massive folder permanently in front of them during PMQs, which contained the government's position on every issue which might be asked about. David Cameron however, for most of the time, didn't have one piece of paper to hand. I wonder how long this innovation will last.

Harriet Harman, acting Leader of the Labour party, performed well, although having been Leader of the House for the last three years, she is used to the atmosphere of the Commons. One thing missing was a third party. Before, the leader of the second largest opposition party (normally the Liberal Democrats) was allowed to ask the PM two question, but of course the Liberal Democrats are now part of the government and their leader sat silently next to the Prime Minister.

Talking of the Liberal Democrats, today the nominations for the Deputy Leadership closed. There will be two candidates for the job - Simon Hughes and Tim Farron – and the election will take place next Wednesday.

Some Labour MPs must look on with envy, their leadership election doesn't end for months. At the moment is looks like only three candidates - David Miliband, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls - will be able to get the support of 33 Labour MPs, which is required for them to be nominated. All three candidates are white Oxford educated men, and two of them share the same surname and parents. This is not the image of diversity for which some in the Labour party had been hoping. There is still a little time for other candidates to get nominated, the deadline is next Wednesday – the same day as the Liberal Democrats Deputy Leadership election and David Cameron's next PMQs.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The new Prime Minister's Questions

In ancient Rome, when a triumph general returned home after a great victory, he was paraded through the streets while being cheered by excited crowds. To make sure the adoration of the masses didn't go to his head, a slave would always be placed near the general and repeat the words "hominem the memento" (remember that you are just a man). Today, the UK has a similar procedure for keeping its political leaders grounded – Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs).

Members of the government were required to answers questions in Parliament long before the office of Prime Minister was invented. But Prime Ministers have only had to regularly answer questions in parliament since relatively recently, only the last 50 years in fact.

Tomorrow David Cameron will take part in PMQs for the first time as Prime Minister. Of course, he is used to the scenario having been Leader of the Opposition for five years, but he was the one asking the questions then, now he has to answer them.

During the election campaign, many Americans watching on the other side of the Atlantic were surprised to hear that the UK had never before had live TV debates. "But you have TV debates all the time" they said, "We've seen them on C-SPAN".

The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (or C-SPAN for short) shows live coverage of Prime Minister's Questions in the US, where it gets very respectable ratings. Americans seem bemused as well as a little jealous of the fact that every week when Parliament is sitting, the British Prime Minister is summoned to the House of Commons where he or she must answer questions from ordinary MPs on any subject they like. There have even been calls for the US President to go to Congress and answer questions as a direct result of Americans seeing PMQs.

Strangely, the British public seem far less interested. The ratings for PMQs are very low, especially in comparison to the TV debates during the last election. The atmosphere of the House of Commons is inherently rowdy and the Prime Minister is free to answer the question however he or she sees fit, which normally means evading the question. The timing doesn't aid public interest either; Prime Minister's Questions starts at the strike of noon on Wednesdays and lasts thirty minutes, during which time most people are in work or having lunch or both.

Tomorrows PMQs might get slightly more interest as for one week only they'll take place at 3pm, at which point we'll see how good our new Prime Minister is at answering questions for a change. Historically, it takes some time for a new PM to get used to the ordeal of PMQs. Margaret Thatcher was famously very poor when she first became Prime Minister, but over her many years in power she grew to become the master of the Commons. Tony Blair's first years at the government dispatch box were difficult as he was against Leader of the Opposition, William Hague who had been a prominent member of the Oxford Union and was an expert debater. During his time, Gordon Brown made several notorious mistakes, such as accidently saying he had 'saved the world', and when asked about allegations he'd been bullying his staff, Mr. Brown just replied "any complaints are dealt with in the usual manner".

It should not be forgotten that PMQs is an incredibly stressful and difficult task for any Prime Minister. In the past some have excelled and some have faltered, tomorrow David Cameron will face acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, as well as all the other MPs, and we will find out if he is just a man.