Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday 21 July 2011

Why Cameron discussing BSkyB with Brooks would matter

Yesterday, David Cameron repeatedly refused to answer whether he discussed the BSkyB bid with Rebekah Brooks on any of the multiple occasions he met with her since becoming Prime Minister. Instead he has relied on a rather precise formulation of words where he claims he had "no inappropriate conversations" with her and he also points out that he had been taken entirely out of the BSkyB bid process.

It is true that the ultimate decision lay with Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary and that he is supposed to be following a quasi-judicial process.

But it still matters if (and I repeat if) Cameron did discuss the BSkyB bid with one of News International's most senior executives. The fact that the relationship between the Prime Minister and Brooks (and also Andy Coulson) was so close provided almost deafening mood music as a backdrop to the bid. Hunt would have to have a particularly tin ear not to have picked up on it. And of course Hunt is relying on Cameron for future promotion and preferment. I am not saying there is anything provable about how one may influence the other, there almost definitely will not be. The main protagonists may not be consciously aware of it even if there was; it could happen on a subconscious level. They are only human beings.

So Cameron should never have discussed the BSkyB bid with Brooks. At all. If she had started to go near it he should have cut her short and insisted it would be wrong to discuss it. If he had done this though I imagine he would have had no problem saying so in the Commons.

Cameron's attempt to draw a line under the affair yesterday with his statement to the House and the questioning he faced afterwards appears to have been partially successful. For the first time in two weeks the "hackgate" saga is not leading the bulletins. But his refusal to answer this properly yesterday has opened up more questions about precisely how close the relationship was and casts further doubt on his judgement.

After all, why would a Prime Minister put himself in a position where he is having to use terminological contortions to obfuscate on this question when he should just be able to say unequivocally that he never discussed the bid?

Monday 18 July 2011

What if this is as good as it gets for the Lib Dems?

In the recent local and devolved elections, the Lib Dems polled around 16% of the vote. This was down around a third on the 23% the party polled at the last General Election. Lots of very hard working councillors lost their seats and as a result of this the party's local base has doubtless been damaged. Of course I feel desperately sorry for those people. Fighting against a national trend is very difficult and can feel like one hand is tied behind your back before you even get started.

However what I wanted to focus on today is how the national political picture is likely to pan out over the next few years and to put this into historical context.

Since 1945 there have been 17 General Elections and of the 16 up until 2010 the Lib Dems or Liberal Party achieved precisely 0% of the power in the aftermath of each of them. There was a brief period of influence at the fag-end of a Labour government in the late 1970s with the Lib Lab pact but that was a mere blip and did not result in ministerial office for any Liberal MPs. So effectively we were looking at 65 years when the third party had no executive power to implement its policies.

That historical trend was well and truly bucked last year however when the Lib Dems formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. They got a little over 20% of the cabinet positions including Deputy Prime Minister and a chance to implement all sorts of policies across the political board, even in departments where they did not have the Secretary of State. Indeed recent BBC research suggests that so far the indications are that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is being implemented in the government programme vs 60% of the Conservative manifesto! That is an incredible achievement when you consider that the Lib Dems have 57 MPs against 307 for the Conservatives.

But that context is thrown into sharp relief by the opinion polls which regularly have the party in single digit or low double digit figures and the local election results in May which were not quite that bad but still well down from last year as I mentioned at the start.

I suppose there are a number of reasons why the party is doing so badly in the national polls now. Amongst them will be the way Lib Dem MPs mostly signed a pledge promising to vote against a rise in tuition fees and then as a governing party did the opposite (although plenty of individual MPs kept that promise of course), the fact that the party has signed up to a deficit reduction programme that is rather at odds with what was said during the election campaign and so on and so on. The party is in coalition and has had to make compromises but some of them have been hard for Lib Dem inclined voters to swallow.

This would have been the case whoever the Lib Dems had formed a coalition with though. Even if a Lib/Lab coalition had been feasible (and from what I have read I remain convinced it was not for various reasons, both political and mathematical) the Lib Dems would have ended up in a similar position now as well. Lots of people who had voted for the party as an anti-Labour protest vote would have been disgusted that it had "propped up" Labour and would have gone off to vote for another party or not voted at all.

And I think this is the crux of the matter. We have to face up to the fact that a decent chunk of our support in 2010, and for many years before then was made up a protest vote of various kinds. Anti-Conservative certainly, but also Anti-Labour and perhaps even anti-politics. After all, people could vote Lib Dem safe in the knowledge that they would never be in power to do anything about it. Couldn’t they?

Because of the vagaries of the First Past the Post system for Westminster, a drop in support of a third can produce outcomes whereby the number of MPs lost is much more than a third. On some projections, current Lib Dem polling could see us with 15 MPs at the next General Election or perhaps even less. Now in reality there are likely to be local issues and incumbency factors at play that mitigate this somewhat but if the polls stay roughly where they are (even assuming a bit of a bounce if the economy improves by 2015 and the Lib Dems get some credit for this) the number of MPs the party has the next time the voters are asked could easily be half or even less than now.

For the individual MPs and the local parties they represent this will be very difficult. In many cases decades of extremely hard work will have been put into winning and retaining the seat.

But to put this into the historical context I mentioned at the start, all those decades of work, the long, long march from fringe party with only enough MPs to fit in the back of a taxi, never being able to execute any of the 16 manifestos since 1945, to a position where 75% of the 2010 manifesto is actively being implemented is worth considering very carefully. In a way, the investment that those who put all that effort in over all those years is now being realised in terms of political capital, power and policies.

So what if this is as good as it gets? Maybe the party gets one shot at power when the electoral cards fall in a certain way under FPTP and it has to make the most of that when it happens. And that will never be easy for all the reasons mentioned previously. There will always be some voters who will feel betrayed by a party of protest becoming a party of government. And maybe also, the party will lose seats at the next election even if things go very well for the economy and the strong influence the party had had on the government produces very positive outcomes. Nobody ever said life, or politics was fair!

I have talked a lot about positive outcomes of policy but I still think there are plenty of things the party in government could do much better. I certainly think as I have said before they need to make it much clearer to the public what difference they are making (which to be fair to him, Nick Clegg seems to have belatedly realised). And we should certainly keep fighting for as much of our programme as we can get.

But if this is as good as it gets for the Lib Dems when they are in power then I suppose the party has a choice. It can, perhaps after another round or two of bad local election results (which seem inevitable, certainly as the cuts bite) decide it has had enough and withdraw from the coalition, maybe even defenestrating the public face of the Lib Dem compromises on the way in an attempt to shore up its political position. And let’s not kid ourselves that that route would be a panacea. Electoral meltdown could easily follow then too.

The other choice available to the party is to take the long view that this is its chance to make a real difference for the remaining years of this parliament. That difference might not yield immediate political dividends and might leave the party having to rebuild its local base for years to come but at least all the years of hard work in achieving those Westminster seats would have resulted in a very heavily Lib Dem influenced government in the first half of the decade that started with such a remarkable General Election result and one which the party embraced in the national interest.

That is the route I would choose.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Will Cameron's honesty on press influence spread to drug policy?

Something struck me during David Cameron's press conference about the "Hackgate" scandal last Friday. It was this particular passage:

Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers, we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, get on top of the bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated.

It's a bit like MPs' expenses.

The people in power knew things weren't right.

But they didn't do enough quickly enough – until the full mess of the situation was revealed.

Now, when the scandal hits and the truth is plain for everyone to see ... there are two choices.

You can downplay it and deny the problem is deep – or you can accept the seriousness of the situation and deal with it.

I want to deal with it.

I was a bit surprised, although pleasantly so that Cameron should admit that politicians have been too much in thrall to the tabloid press and the Murdoch press in particular. It is one of those aspects of public life that has been so prevalent for so long that it barely even merits a mention and of course politicians would never have admitted what Cameron has just done in public. Ed Miliband has also said something similar publicly too.

Cameron is of course responding to the current firestorm around the News of the World and tabloid phone hacking allegations. But the influence of the press generally and the tabloid press in particular runs much deeper.

Already Lance Price, Tony Blair's former spin doctor has off the back of this said that Murdoch had a very strong influence on Labour's attitude to the Euro during his time in office.

But there are lots of areas of policy where there is a strong suspicion that the influence of the tabloids and The Sun/NotW in particular has held sway. One of the most obvious has been in drugs policy.

I have become fairly active in campaigning for a relaxation of the drugs laws and lobbying for a more evidence based approach in recent years and have blogged about various aspects of it on many occasions. Given the fact that in his early days as an MP, David Cameron had put his name to a Select Committee report that recommended a more liberal approach to drugs I had hoped his election as Conservative leader would have heralded a new way of dealing with this. But by the time of the leadership campaign in 2005 his views were downgraded to "options should be considered" and by the time I questioned him on the subject in early 2010, just before the General Election he had very firmly distanced himself from his former views.

The strange way in which politicians seem willing to engage with and consider evidence based approaches to the subject of drugs policy when they are a long way from power and how that changes to backing the status quo as they get closer to power is somewhat hard to understand. Unless you factor in the way the press treats the issue with labels like "Soft on drugs" and appeals to emotion regarding keeping children safe (despite the fact that more children than ever can get drugs now under the current regime). Any senior politician who steps outside the narrow tramlines permitted for debate regarding drugs is apt to find themselves hounded by the tabloid press.

Here is what former Conservative Minister Phillip Oppenhein told me about the subject when I interviewed him a couple of years ago:

I think that politicians would be surprised at the response they would get to a serious debate on the subject. My experience is that a lot of Tories now favour reform, but they are terrified about being seen as soft on drugs by the media and prejudicing an almost certain election victory. Cameron had a chance to start a real debate when his own drug taking experiences became an issue, but I guess he was too timid to do so.

If politicians from the PM down are now genuinely throwing off the shackles off the tyranny of the tabloid press then they should no longer have anything to fear from an open and honest debate on this subject.

If that was to happen, perhaps something very good could come of this horrible scandal with the harm caused by drugs in our society greatly reduced under a liberalised, controlled regime rather than leaving it to the gangsters backed by screaming tabloid headlines.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Monday 11 July 2011

Outline of a No2STV campaign

Now that the AV referendum has been lost, those of us who supported the change are licking our wounds and wondering when the next opportunity for electoral change for the Commons may present itself.

At the moment it is looking like a long way off. However I think in the aftermath of the failed AV bid it is worth having a look at what those of us in favour of electoral reform can learn from this campaign to be borne in mind in the future, whenever the next opportunity may present itself.

The system I and most other Liberal Democrats (and more generally most in favour of electoral reform) favour is Single Transferable Vote. It is much more proportional than FPTP (or AV) but importantly it is similar to AV in that you rank candidates in order of preference. The big difference being that more than one MP is elected for each larger constituency (between 3 and 6 is optimal).

Having witnessed at close quarters the tactics used by the No2AV campaign I think we are in a position to at least have a stab at predicting what the outline of a No2STV campaign may look like further down the line. I think this will be a useful exercise in order to ensure that those campaigning for a Yes vote are ready to handle the sort of things that are likely to be thrown at us.

Here are variations on five campaigning messages that I expect we would face:

1) "It's too expensive". This was one of the No2AV campaign's most pushed lines certainly in the early days. Having spoken to people it would seem that this message was resonating. The claim that AV would cost £250 million was bunkum. But it worked this time so you can expect it will be tried again. And of course next time it is likely to be harder to rebut as we already know that counting machines are used for some STV elections. I would suggest that the response to this has to be firmly and consistently on the basis of principle. Moving to STV may cost a little more but what price democracy? I have made the point previously that moving to the universal franchise (twice as many ballot papers to print, issue and count) was more expensive but nobody seriously argues now that women should not have the vote. I have found when trying to make this point that I have faced scorn for appearing to try and conflate votes for women with electoral reform but I maintain it is a fair comparison because to argue it is too expensive to change the electoral system is a diversion and this highlights it. A Yes2STV campaign would definitely need to get on the front foot regarding this message from the off.

2) "It's too complicated". Again, this is a message that was used to apparently good effect against AV. And let's be honest, if AV is considered too complicated then STV could arguably be even more so. Even though I certainly think most people can grasp the concept of what is going on in both cases, a big failure of the Yes2AV campaign was in educating people about how it works. Instead of the first referendum broadcast featuring people shouting at "MPs" using megaphones they would have been much better off explaining how AV actually works (there was none in that broadcast) and highlighting a small number of key reasons why it is better than FPTP. Similarly for STV it will be vital that the system is concisely explained as often as possible and with key messages as to why this is better. With STV I actually think the second part of this will be easier because there is a very clear message regarding fairness with the proportionality factor.

3) "It will help the BNP". Or substitute BNP for whatever extreme party (or parties) exist at the point of the campaign. It proved remarkably difficult to shake this accusation against AV during the recent campaign. This was particularly surprising to me because the BNP was actually in favour of keeping FPTP. However the No campaign rather deftly managed to sow confusion by discussing how lower preferences from those voting BNP as their first preference could end up "deciding elections". I am not going to deconstruct the counter arguments here, it has been done elsewhere many times (best example I have seen is here in this excellent post by mathematician Tim Gowers which incidentally rebuts pretty much all the No2AV campaign's claims) but I will make the point that if the No2AV campaign was able to make this message stick when the BNP are against the change themselves, then I think we can have a pretty good guess at how hard they will push this message when the BNP are likely to be for the change. And I would imagine moving to a more proportional system, even STV would be something that extremist parties like the BNP would be in favour of. I actually think it would be pretty hard for parties like the BNP to get any MPs under STV because it is preferential and therefore makes it very hard for parties that are actively strongly disliked by most people. However having seen what happened during the AV campaign I would expect this message to be drowned out as it relies on a fairly detailed understanding of the underlying counting process for STV. What I would suggest for this message right from the off is that it needs to be rebutted with the argument that the way to beat parties like the BNP is not to rig the electoral system against them. All that does is make them look like martyrs. Instead the way is to beat them by arguing against their extreme and unworkable policies. There are other arguments that can be deployed here too but I think the one of principle is the one that is on strongest ground and should fit in with other campaign messages well too.

4) "Under STV, candidates that come first can end up losing". This was another effective message from No2AV. Of course it all depends on what your definition of "coming first" is. No2AV was relying on the number of votes after one round of counting which is what we are all used to under FPTP. Because under STV there would be multiple seats up for grabs it would be a little different. But I can certainly imagine them trying to argue that STV is "unfair" because a candidate that is way behind when first preferences are taken into account could still eventually end up getting a seat. I expect because the move would be to multi-member constituencies that the change is quite wide reaching and therefore a direct comparison with FPTP is harder. But I am certain No2STV will find a way, and probably quite an effective way of portraying this as unfair. It would be tempting for Yes2STV to try and rebut this claim with technical details but I think instead the "fairness" mantle has to be seized immediately by Yes regarding the proportionality argument. Once people understand that the proportion of MPs elected will be much closer to the number of votes cast, any claim about fairness regarding second, third and so on preferences would hopefully have much less potency.

5) "It will lead to weak and unstable government.". The Yes2AV campaign expended quite a lot of energy trying to claim that coalitions and hung parliaments were no more likely under AV than FPTP. This was a very defensive approach and they may well have been better off trying to argue in favour of coalitions in principle rather than the rather muddled messages that ended up coming across. At least a Yes2STV campaign would have little choice but to argue from the off in favour of coalitions as STV is certainly much more likely than FPTP to produce them. Indeed that is precisely why most campaigners for reform want it!

This is obviously just a very first pass by someone who is admittedly biased but followed the campaign from both sides with great interest. I was disappointed by both AV campaigns as I have blogged about in detail previously. But I still think it is worth thinking ahead whilst the wounds the Yes campaign are licking are still very fresh! I expect others will have their own ideas and I have almost certainly missed some important lessons here. One that springs to mind instantly is the "multiple votes" argument. But I am very tired of rebutting that particular one and let's face it, we have a lot of time to learn all of the lessons!

In conclusion, in some ways STV will be easier to argue for than AV. It has some advantages over FPTP (from a reformer's perspective) that are probably easier to sell than AV. Its proportionality is whatever your view certainly a clear change, rather than the rather mixed change in this respect that AV would have given. However the counting process is harder to explain than AV and that is the area in which I expect No2STV would try to make the most capital (I plan to come back to this point in a future post where I will discuss some other potential broader consequences for the electoral reform movement from the AV No vote). I think another thing that is clear from the AV failure is that more time would be needed to ensure the new system could be explained and understood much better than AV was by 5th May 2011.

Oh, and one more very important lesson. Please, please, please let's not have the referendum on the same day as any other elections!

FOOTNOTE: I have made the assumption for the purposes of this post that an STV campaign would follow roughly the same blueprint as the AV one did, i.e. a single question referendum with only two choice with a No and Yes campaign batting for each side. I actually think there are much better and more sophisticated deliberative processes that could and arguably should be used for something as important as changing our electoral system but that argument is for another day.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.