Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday 31 August 2013

Cameron's loss is parliament's gain

To listen to much of the coverage of politics in the UK these days you would often think that the opinion of only three people really matters. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg.

So much of the debate is conducted around what these three men think and want that the commentariat are largely at a loss to know what to do when suddenly the true nature of our democratic system asserts itself as happened on Thursday with the Commons voting to decline military support for an attack on Syria.

So the prism that this story has been filtered through has been a "defeat" for Cameron. Or a "victory" for Miliband (even though his position shifted several times in the run-up to the vote). Or in some cases also a "defeat" for Clegg who is pretty much in the same position as Cameron albeit less exposed.

This sort of reporting though seems to follow the unwritten rule that we live in some sort of presidential system whereby a usually all-powerful man (Cameron) has somehow been inexplicably thwarted. That is not the system we live in. We live in a parliamentary democracy. 650 constituencies return members to this parliament and they vote on our behalf on issues. If a majority of them are in favour of an action or change, it happens. If they're not, it doesn't. There's nothing strange or ahistorical in that sense about Thursday's vote. There simply were not enough MPs willing to vote for military action. Or more accurately the principle of military action (the actual vote on action would have come later and now almost certainly won't).

After some soul searching I personally found myself by Thursday reluctantly in favour of military action. But it was a finely balanced thing and I completely understand others, including a majority of parliamentarians coming to a different conclusion.

There is no doubt that the Prime Minister lost the vote on Thursday. He wanted support for a plan to intervene and now that is not going to happen. But we are in a hung parliament with a fragile economy and many other problems. It is hardly surprising that on a vote to start launching missiles at a rogue regime within a highly unstable region our representatives in Westminster decided no. If they were unpersuaded then so be it.

My initial reaction on Thursday was to think that Cameron was severely damaged by this episode but I have since checked myself. I was reacting like a typical Westminster Bubble-ite filtering everything through a presidential "politics of personality" filter. There is no reason why the PM cannot emerge from this episode with his head held high. He tried to garner support for action that even the most gung-ho would surely concede the consequences of which are highly unpredictable and lost by only a couple of handfuls of votes. Parliament were accurately reflecting the will of the country if polling is to be believed. So Cameron now goes back to Obama and says he cannot follow through with what he would like to do due to his hands being tied. Obama of all people knows what this feels like having had many bruising battles with politicians in his own political system with its separation of powers and staggered electoral timetables. If anything I expect the President has much sympathy with his UK colleague and respects the position he is in.

If anything Cameron might actually end up in a stronger position than he would have done. If the military action that the US and France are still very likely to pursue goes badly now he will not be politically damaged by the fallout from it. But if it goes well he can rightly point out that he was in favour of it. It's sort of a win-win for him.

And all this talk of his "loss of Prime Ministerial authority" is rather overblown. What is the point of having a parliament at all if the Prime Minister of the day can simply push his or her will through it? What we have seen is parliament doing its job.

We should not complain about that but rejoice that the system is working correctly.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

House of Comments - Episode 73 - Miranda Rights and Wrongs

Episode 73 of the House of Comments podcast "Miranda Rights and Wrongs" is out. This week myself and Emma Burnell freshly back from a few weeks off cover Will-gate and party funding, the arrest of David Miranda, the lobbying bill, the "bedroom tax" and votes at 16.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Sunday 4 August 2013

If Cameron is a "loser" we're going to see a lot more of them

If this is losing, I'll have a bit of that please...
One thing I find difficult to get my head around is how so many people consider Cameron to have been a loser in 2010.

The argument goes that Gordon Brown was a terrible Prime Minister, that a solid majority was ripe for the picking for the Tories and Cameron totally screwed it up.

I'm afraid I don't really buy it.

Yes, Brown was dreadful but for all kinds of complicated reasons it was always a big ask for Cameron to get a majority. In 2005 they were still way behind. The way Labour's vote is distributed across the country makes it hard for the Tories to get enough seats even in a bad year for Labour (indeed 2010 was the red team's second worst vote share since WWI). UKIP shaved some of the Tory vote away, enough to perhaps cost them a dozen or more seats by some calculations. The Lib Dems were surgent in a way not seen in previous elections. Etc. etc. etc.

I'm not trying to make excuses for Cameron. I am not a huge fan of his. It's just that the narrative that it was there for the taking and he bollocksed it up does not stand up to serious scrutiny. He actually got a larger share of the vote than Blair did in 2005 (which delivered Labour a solid majority) but it wasn't enough for him to get over the line.

Many across the political spectrum and within his own party really do consider the Prime Minister a loser though because of this lack of a majority. His own side mutter darkly about how if he does not win a majority next time then he will have twice failed the electoral test and will be forced out as leader, even if the Tories are still the largest party and can form a government. They cite Thatcher and Blair with their thumping majorities and highlight how by comparison Cameron came up woefully short, but that wilfully ignores how the political landscape has shifted over the decades.

Other countries where their Prime Ministers and Chancellors regularly have to share power and often go on to win successive election victories (i.e. remaining in power, not having a majority!) must look upon our hung parliament discourse with bemusement. For them, the dynamics of compromise and coalition are completely normal.

Many psephologists now think that hung parliaments in the UK will become the norm despite us retaining First Past the Post for the foreseeable future. The vote share of the two main parties combined has gone from around 97% in the 1950s to around 65% in 2010. The trend is clear, people want to vote for alternatives to red and blue. Whether it is Lib Dem, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Mebyon Kernow and a multitude of other smaller parties, in the consumer and internet age we like to be able to exercise a much wider choice. This is not Cameron's fault and the idea he can somehow reverse all of these trends is completely unrealistic.

I think the analysts are right and we will see more coalitions/minority governments. Politics is now much more volatile and unpredictable than it once was. If I had to put money on it I would wager that in the next 20 years we will see at least half of the governments being led by someone who was unable to muster a majority at the ballot box.

If Cameron is a "loser", I suspect we're going to see many more such losers walking into 10 Downing Street in the not too distant future.