Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Can MPs really be trusted on Lords reform?

Imagine that you work for a medium sized organisation. Imagine that you like your job, it gives you status and respect and that there was a real battle for you to get the position in the first place. Also, every few years there is a big reorganisation and you have to reapply for your role.

Now imagine that there is another sister organisation just over the road from your one. The pay isn't as good but it provides similar status and respect within society. And even better you don't actually need to apply for a job or go through a grueling selection process to get in there. Once you leave employment with your current organisation there is a roughly 50/50 chance that your boss will simply give you a job for life in the sister organisation.

Now, finally imagine that you and all your colleagues are given the chance to change the way the sister organisation works. Instead of having an evens chance of being given a sinecure in that place, you can instead vote for the selection process to be thrown open to everyone and for it to be as grueling to get in there are it was to get into your current organisation.

That is pretty much exactly the dilemma faced by most MPs as they consider the Lords reform bill which is being published this week. There are noises off from Labour and Tory MPs that they are going to give this bill a rough ride. Indeed it is not at all clear that a Commons majority can be mustered to pass it despite a commitment for reform being present in all three of the main parties manifestos.

I'm sure that there are some MPs who have genuine concerns about the proposed reforms and really do fear the loss of a scrutinising chamber with expertise. I'm also sure that some of the arguments used against reform such as risk of constitutional deadlock are well meant. But the problem is you cannot separate these out from the massive conflict of interest faced by a huge swathe of MPs. If they vote for the bill they are kissing goodbye to a cushy semi-retirement.

For those of us observing politics there is a useful precedent here. MPs used to be in charge of deciding their own expenses regime. They came up with all sorts of arguments as to why this should be the case (primacy of parliament etc.) and many of them fought tooth and nail to prevent publication of the details for years. They wanted to remain in charge of one of the main conditions of their employment.

Of course when The Telegraph finally published the details of the expenses it precipitated the biggest political scandal in decades. It wasn't just a few MPs, but hundreds of them who had abused the privileges of their office at the expense of the tax payer. It became abundantly clear that MPs could not be trusted to decide their own expenses regime. It is now administered by an external body.

But in the end, MPs are only human. A sort of group think appears to have emerged whereby they collectively thought what they were doing was acceptable. Yes, we expect MPs to be held to a higher standard but I would however suggest that any group of people left in charge of their own conditions like this will consciously or subconsciously gravitate towards a solution that suits them.

We are in the same sort of situation again with Lords reform. I am far from convinced that we can trust MPs to come to an impartial decision about something that so directly affects the future political careers of so many of their number. Whatever arguments they use, there will always be the suspicion that self interest lies at the heart of their opposition whether that is conscious or otherwise.

There is no easy answer to this. The Commons is supreme and ultimately if MPs will not allow the reform it will not go ahead.

But they should tread very carefully. They have already seen the political explosion that can result when blatant self-interest against the public good takes hold within their institution.

If I was an MP I would want to avoid any risk of appearing to put my own personal desires above what we would expect from a fully functioning and accountable democracy.

An edited version of this post was first published on Liberal Conspiracy.

Sunday 24 June 2012

I blame David Davis

On the 12th June 2008, the Conservative opposition front bench spokesperson on Home Affairs did something very unexpected. He resigned his seat as an MP.

The reason he gave for this was to spark a national debate on the issue of civil liberties which is an issue close to his heart. He fought the ensuing by-election on this issue and won with 72% of the vote (albeit on a 34% turnout).

But the net result of this somewhat inexplicable action is that from the day he resigned to this David Davis has been a backbench MP. He would have been a shoo-in for Home Secretary in 2010 had he simply remained in post.

His decision to give up that front bench position is thrown into sharp relief by recent events. The Home Secretary Theresa May has released a draft bill which seeks to allow the authorities powers to intercept pretty much any and all communications between citizens of this country. It is more authoritarian than anything Labour dared propose I'm this area and would be a fundamental change in the relationship between the people of this country and the government. It is exactly the sort of thing that Davis was hoping would not happen when during the 2009 Convention on Modern Liberty he implored his party to "keep my promises".

It is thanks to Nick Clegg's diligent actions behind the scenes that this bill is only in draft form and hence can be debated and modified. I know that the parliamentary Lib Dems led by the impeccably civil liberty credentialed Julian Huppert will fight tooth and nail to ensure this bill is consistent with the party's principles.

But it will be a difficult battle. The starting proposition is a terribly illiberal piece of work and May has already set the terms of the debate with talk of how we need this bill to deal with terrorists and paedophiles and how we have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide. Exactly the sort of thing we used to hear from Labour authoritarians.

Imagine how much easier this battle would have been if the Conservative Home Secretary had been someone whose political identity was very strongly linked with liberty. In fact I'd go further than that and suggest the draft bill would never even have been published. I suspect Davis would have strangled it at birth or his civil servants would never have even tried to suggest it in the first place.

The fact he is not in that position is entirely his own fault. He voluntarily gave up his chance at being the minister who decides these things to instead be one of the muted voices on the sidelines.

That quixotic decision just over 4 years ago has led to the situation we now find ourselves in. At the time I could not fathom what Davis thought he was going to achieve and the intervening period has if anything made it even less explicable.

And the strangest thing of all is that I'm far from sure David Davis himself truly understands what he was trying to achieve.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Thursday 21 June 2012

My name is Dave and I am a pressaholic

Something fascinating has happened in the last year or so. Many senior politicians have effectively been coming clean and admitting an addiction. They have been confessing that they have been addicted to a rather dysfunctional relationship with the media, the press in particular.

That's good. The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting you have one. It is a necessary precondition to recovery from an addiction. But it is not sufficient.

What needs to come next is a full and frank admission of what exactly was wrong with these relationships. Indeed if we imagine these politicians as equivalent to alcoholics, we know from the 12 step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous that one of the most important steps involves admitting the exact nature of the wrongs committed. I'm not really seeing that anywhere here.

Sure, we get a lot of earnest language about politicians having got "too close" to the press and vows to not let it happen again. But so what? I don't really care if they got a bit "too close". It doesn't matter if Cameron had 1000 "country suppers" with Rebekah Brooks. Unless of course that closeness led to some sort of undue influence. But all the politicians who have been asked about this have flat out denied that they have allowed this sort of influence to take place.

Something does not add up here. It's like someone turning up for counselling and saying she wants to stop drinking but then denying there have been any negative consequences from her behaviour relating to this. In which case why does she want to stop?

In order for it to be credible that these politicians are truly on the road to their recovery from the scourge of their addiction we really need more specifics. But of course the problem is that if for example Cameron was to come out and say that his Ofcom policy changed in 2009 in order to fit in with what James Murdoch wanted or if politicians from all parties admitted that their approach to drugs policy is to accord with the agenda of tabloid editors they would terminate their political careers.

Perhaps in private they will be able to properly admit in detail to how deeply in thrall they were to their rapacious Fleet Street creditors.

But unless they confide in us, their electors then they shouldn't be surprised if we behave like a suspicious spouse who's heard it all before and doesn't really believe they have learned much if anything.

Friday 15 June 2012

Peter Hitchens learnt something from his days as a Trot

In recent years I have noticed that Peter Hitchens, the right-wing columnist who is steadfastly against any relaxation of the drug laws has come up with an eye-catching formulation regarding this policy area.

He claims that there is no "War on Drugs". His argument is that liberal society is turning a blind eye to drug use and the police and authorities talk a good game but essentially pedal softly. His further argument is that until we crack down "properly" on everything to do with drugs then the problems will continue.

It's a neat way of trying to justify why the current policy has failed. It's not because as people like me would have you believe, prohibition of drugs causes many of the problems but because we haven't had enough prohibition. Or at least we've had the wrong sort of prohibition. Do you see? Those of us who are campaigning for an end to our nonsensical drug laws have got it totally arse about face.

Of course I disagree with Hitchens on this. Tell the thousands of people every year who are locked up for minor drugs offences and/or have their lives ruined with a criminal record that there is no War on Drugs.

But the more I have heard Hitchens pedal this line, the more it has reminded me of something from my youth.

In the 1980s as I was coming of age politically, as the USSR was clearly in decline and other countries where Communism had been experimented with such as Cuba showed how such states always seem to degenerate into some sort of Totalitarian dystopia a curious thing happened. Proponents of Communism argued that "True Communism" had never really been tried. Despite the evidence staring them in the face that their One True Way simply did not work they raged against the dying of the light essentially saying that the problem was we hadn't had enough Communism.

It is no surprise to me that Peter Hitchens was a Trotskyist in his youth. And even though he has repudiated much of what he learnt during that phase of his life he has certainly kept some of their rhetorical tricks in his arsenal. He should not get a free pass on this.

There is another interesting parallel here. Those who so passionately argued that we needed more or proper Communism were blind to the fact that the actual outcome of their ideology was what had happened in real countries time and again in the real world. They weren't anomalies, they were the evidence of what happens when you try to follow that route.

Exactly the same applies with the War on Drugs. Country after country after country has tried prohibiting many, many substances. The end result has been an explosion in drug use and violence from criminal gangs across the world in the last 40 years. These are not side effects from the "wrong sort of War on Drugs". They are the end result of the current policy.

Exactly like the solution to the problems with Communism was not more Communism, so the problems with the current drug laws cannot be more of the same, even in a more hard line form. That would simply exacerbate the problem.

What we actually need is Glasnost and Peristroika in our drugs policy where we are honest about what has failed and are open to what we need to do to improve them.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Why is leaving things alone never an option?

Michael Gove has been sticking his oar in in recent days. He's decided that he wants children to start learning foreign languages from the age of 7. Also he's announced that he wants 5 year olds to recite poetry to each other in class.

I'm not going to dwell on the merits or demerits of these specific proposals. Except to say that if there was strong evidence that these things would increase the wellbeing of British children I suspect it would have been done a long time ago.

What I'm more interested in today is what this says about how governments approach governing.

Gove is an intelligent man. I know this because he used to sit on the Newsnight Review sofa regularly and intellectually spar with the likes of Germaine Greer and Paul Morley. And also I sometimes didn't know what he was on about. OK, maybe that just makes him more intelligent than me. We'll draw a veil over that.

But what makes him think that he knows best about how to micromanage the national curriculum for everyone in the country? The answer is quite simple. He is a politician.

Politicians have to do something. Anything. It's how they get elected. It's no good them standing for election and saying "Vote for me and I'll leave things pretty much as they are.". They'd be vilified by their opponents and would be a laughing stock. Politicians get elected by promising to change things.

But the consequence of this is that things keep getting changed all the time whether that's a good thing or not. Labour embarked on goodness knows how many sets of reforms of the NHS. I think it was at least 3 in 13 years. Now the coalition is at it all over again. Schools have had lots of fiddling in recent years too. Curriculum changes, Key Stages tweaked and meddled with, targets, league tables, new powers, powers taken away, Academies, Free Schools, tighter Ofsted regime, slackening of Ofsted regime etc. etc. etc. And that's just two departments in the last few years. The same pattern is repeated all over government.

Here's a thought. What if we just left things largely alone for a bit? Maybe if we allowed things to settle down, for doctors, nurses, teachers, managers etc. all to get used to the latest way of doing things for say 5 (or shock horror 10) years perhaps we might find performance improving. You know, because so much time and money wouldn't need to be spent reorganising everything every 3 years.

Of course this is fantasy land. But it is worth pondering why we demand politicians always have to campaign on a platform of major change. Because until we allow them to be more reasonable and sometimes say things like "In this area we're doing OK and we propose no major change" without shooting them down in flames we will keep getting these huge shake ups right across all departments.

But if we did this then Gove would have to go back to debating the work of Gilbert and George with Greer and Kirsty Wark.

That's a price I'd be willing to pay.....

This post was first published on Dale & Co.