Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Are Tory proposals designed to fatally wound Labour?

Paul Richards has a piece on LabourList today entitled "Tory proposals are designed to fatally wound Labour by 2015". In it he discusses three Tory pledges and links them together to form a theme that he claims will make it much harder for Labour to win any subsequent election.


He starts with the pledge regarding only English MPs being allowed to vote on legislation affecting English seats:

In 2008 Ken Clarke MP, then chair of the Tories’ 'democracy taskforce' published a proposal for restrictions on non-English seat MPs voting on some of the stages of bills which affect England. David Cameron said recently: "for English-only legislation, we would have a sort of English Grand Committee. That is our intention and what is likely to go in the manifesto."

Such a move would endanger the Union, and create a two-tier Westminster Parliament, and so the Tories’ policy should be opposed on principle. But it would also massively favour the Conservative Party, because if it is in a position to enact its plans after the 2010 election, it will have won scores of new seats in England. English votes for English laws in effect means Tory votes for English laws.

If such a move would "endanger the union" then Labour have only got themselves to blame. The West Lothian Question has been widely discussed since 1977 when it was first named as such via Tam Dalyell it so it is not as if they have not had time to work out how to resolve it. The current settlement is not fair. I have my concerns about the Tory proposals on this but at least they are trying to sort the problem out. The effect might be damaging to Labour but they had their chance to ensure the current anomalies were ironed out and chose not to for reasons I suspect of political expediency. They will reap what they have sown.

On Paul's second point I have a little bit more sympathy albeit qualified:

The second announcement is Cameron’s plan to cut the size of the House of Commons by around 60 MPs. Speaking to the Financial Times in January, Cameron said "I think the House of Commons could do the job that it does with 10% fewer MPs without any trouble at all." He said the Tories could legislate in their first term for an urgent boundary review so that all seats had roughly the same number of electors in time for the general election that followed. Cameron will propose this in the general context of anti-Parliamentary feeling in the country. I pity those who might have to oppose the idea – arguing for the status quo against such a seemingly radical policy. Cameron’s spin doctors have since confirmed that this would be a "first-term priority". But where would the axe fall? On Wales, and the English cities, where Labour would have most of its MPs, even after a Conservative win. That means Cameron would fix the system by abolishing Labour seats in the first term to make it easier to win a second term. Analysis by John Curtice at Strathclyde University suggests a smaller Commons would exaggerate swings, and "would improve the Tory chances of winning".

As I have argued before, Cameron's proposals on this are tinkering with a hopelessly broken electoral system. From my perspective it is taking an appalingly bad electoral system which allows parties to get a majority of seats on a minority of the votes and fiddling with it in order to improve the chances for the Conservatives to get a majority of the seats on an even smaller minority of the votes. At the same time deploying any and every argument he can muster to completely refuse to countenance that there might be a fundamental problem with a system which gives the third party 10% of the seats on 22% of the vote and ensures smaller parties fare even worse.

Having said all this, I am sorry to say that again Labour had their chance to reform the electoral system properly (indeed they promised they would in 1997) but Tony Blair kicked it into the long grass claiming it would be "quixotic" to change the electoral system that had just delivered them a huge majority.

Paul's final point is on funding of political parties:

The third announcement appeared in the Telegraph last week, and it concerned Cameron’s desire to reform party funding. Since the cross-party talks on party funding reforms broke down in 2006, Cameron has made it clear that the Tories will legislate to cap all donations to parties (£50,000 is the latest figure). That means any individual or institution can only give up to £50,000. It makes sense if your party is funded by rich people and companies. If your party is funded by trade unions, it sounds a death knell. Cameron’s point-man on the negotiations Andrew Tyrie MP made union funding the sticking point, and the casus belli for the Tories breaking up the talks. The Labour Party is now reliant on the big four trade unions, not just for election posters and leaflets, but to pay the staff wages and utilities bills at head office. If each union could only give £50,000, Labour would cease to exist as a functioning organisation.

I think Paul has a more clear-cut case here. The effect of a change like this would be choke off funding for the Labour Party. I expect over time they would find other sources of funding. I don't pretend to have any easy answers myself here except to say that I think lots of the money thrown around by the parties is wasted on silly, negative advertising campaigns and they could save money by not doing them and/or being smarter about how they spend their money. I do wonder in the end though if it would be politically possible for Cameron to bring in a measure that so disproportionately affected his primary opponents in this way. Surely it would look dreadfully partisan and spiteful, exactly the sort of thing that his party regularly accuses Gordon Brown of?

So in summary I think Paul has a case for his final point but I am much more dubious about his first two. Labour have to accept responsibility for the open goals they have left a putative incoming Conservative government. They behaved for many years as if they would be in power for ever and didn't need to worry about fully following through on their reform rhetoric.

Well it is looking like they may now pay a high price for this calculated inertia.

4 comments:

David Weber said...

"I have my concerns about the Tory proposals on this but at least they are trying to sort the problem out."

They are not. The only thing that can 'sort the problem out' truly is to equalise the devolution settlement in all four constituent countries of the Union.

Every other option is flawed. Federalising devolution without delivering a separate English option would mean having a divided government in Westminster (not all legislative issues separate out into "English/British" type of concerns, and when you get down to the committee level, things become much more complicated, as Clarke indeed pointed out on The Daily Politics in 2008). The WLQ is about *representation* far more than it is about legislation -- forcing an "English votes only" on certain issues wouldn't result in an English legislative agenda, but rather a government which skirted around English issues for fear of giving way to an opposition agenda. And "English votes on English bills" would be constitutionally absurd if devolution *wasn't* federalised -- because Parliament would remain sovereign, thus meaning that there would be a constitutional deficit of representation for the devolved part of the union. This would most likely not mean much, as overruling the devolved institutions would be political suicide, but there's always the possibility that it might in the future.

This is no-where near as simple an issue as most people seem to think, in other words.

"I don't pretend to have any easy answers myself here except to say that I think lots of the money thrown around by the parties is wasted on silly, negative advertising campaigns and they could save money by not doing them and/or being smarter about how they spend their money."

Negative campaigning will remain part of the status quo. It's not something that can be solved by funding reform, even if that reform were even-handed (which, from the sound of it, the Tories' idea isn't). It's a basic part of human nature.

"Labour have to accept responsibility for the open goals they have left a putative incoming Conservative government. They behaved for many years as if they would be in power for ever and didn't need to worry about fully following through on their reform rhetoric.
Well it is looking like they may now pay a high price for this calculated inertia."

True, but this is irrelevant to the wider concerns of the population *as a whole*, which is to have a fair and well-functioning democratic system. Or, in other words, Labour's mistakes do not justify granting the Conservatives any slack for their actions in office.

Toque said...

Vote here for English Votes on English Laws, at least then we will have a chance to debate it rather than the Conservatives introducing it without debate.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

Your suggestion might properly be considered outrageous since the Tory proposals can be seen to be directed at addressing in reasonably sensible and certainly intellectually defensible ways matters that need fixing in the interests of us all - which interest do not extend to saving the New Labour Party from its (largely self-made) fate.

David Weber said...

"the Tory proposals can be seen to be directed at addressing in reasonably sensible and certainly intellectually defensible ways matters that need fixing in the interests of us all - which interest do not extend to saving the New Labour Party from its (largely self-made) fate."

The 'New Labour party' is not a separate entity to the old one. You do know that, do you?

Secondly, the Tory proposals are only seen in that light if you don't actually look at them very thoroughly. They are hardly "reasonably sensible", and "intellectually defensible" is a long way from the mark.