Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 20 December 2015

The unaccountability of Nick Clegg

Something that has been bubbling under for a while with me is a niggling feeling that Nick Clegg hasn't really been held to account for the utter devastation that the Lib Dems suffered back in May. Sure he resigned and is now just a lowly backbench MP. And indeed he is now in the somewhat excruciating position of not being able to step down as any subsequent by-election under current circumstances would probably lose the Lib Dems another seat that they can ill afford to squander.

So perhaps that combination is enough. And yet I feel that somehow it is not.

I was a Lib Dem from 2008 to 2013 and I still very much consider myself a fellow traveller at least with the membership if not the leadership in the latter years of the coalition. I was excited by the vibrancy of the party in the run up to 2010 and after the coalition was formed I was genuinely optimistic about the possibility of real political reform and a strong liberal flavour to the government that would play out over the following 5 years.

Sadly it was not really to be. At least not in any meaningful and sustainable way. Despite the promises the only political reform we got were fixed term parliaments which were only really instituted to protect the Lib Dems from their larger coalition partner and they were set at 5 years rather than the more accountable and liberal 4 years that most campaigners for this change wanted to see. Apart from that, electoral reform at Westminster, Lords reform and other measures people like me wanted to see fell by the wayside.

In addition to that a number of measures that most liberals would never have wanted to see on the statute books were rammed through in the teeth of party opposition. Secret courts were a resignation issue for some, most notably Jo Shaw who made the best political speech I have ever seen in person from the podium at the 2013 Lib Dem conference. I nearly left myself at that point but stayed on in hope only to drift away disillusioned later that same year. There were other things as well, tuition fees, 45p tax rate etc. etc. etc. I don't need to go through the list. Most people reading this will know them all by rote.

But politics is tough and it certainly wouldn't be fair to blame Clegg for all of those, although he was complicit.

There are some things though for which the blame squarely falls on his shoulders. I'll highlight just three here although there are more.

Firstly the complete lack of any attempt to change the way PMQs was practised at all. Clegg stood in for Cameron at PMQs many, many times. And instead of using the opportunity to do it differently, perhaps taking a more emollient tone and not constantly bashing anyone who criticised the government he did the exact opposite. He used the bully pulpit to attack the opposition over and over again. In many respects he was worse than Cameron. It made him look like Just Another Tory. Indeed after he resigned as leader he cited "sitting next to the Prime Minister" at PMQs as one of his biggest mistakes because of the "optics". He is right about that but it is much much worse than he states because of the way he himself carried out the same duties.

I asked Clegg about this very subject when I interviewed him in September 2012 and he claimed that he would have liked to change PMQs but when he had made slight attempts to move in this direction he had been branded as "ineffective and weak" and hence he had had no choice but to stick to the bearpit style. But this just simply is not good enough. What was the point of having a Lib Dem Deputy PM taking PMQs if when he deputised for the PM he made no difference to how it was practised and more importantly gave no inkling of how a liberal PM could do it? He had a responsibility to show how liberals in general and Lib Dems in particular were not happy with the current system and would change things. On this particular point he completely and totally failed.

Secondly cleaving far too closely to the Conservatives in the early years of the coalition. The "Rose Garden" press conference was clearly a misstep but it was indicative of a wider problem about how the party presented themselves. On the media and in parliament they went on and on and on about how there was a strong Lib Dem flavour to the government. They pounced on research that suggested 75% of their manifesto had ended up in government trumpeting this from the highest rooftops. But all this just made the Lib Dems look like they were crypto-Tories; when the cuts started kicking in, the tuition fees were raised, the NHS reforms were announced and all the other policies that were anathema to 2/3rds of the voters who backed Clegg in 2010 they "owned" the entire lot. There was no serious attempt to distance the party from these policies in government from the top level. Indeed Clegg seemed to revel in what he was doing, at one point light heartedly quoting Blair saying "It's worse than you think, I actually believe in the policies.". By the time the "differentiation" strategy kicked in in the last year or so of the parliament it was far, far too late.

The final one I want to focus on is how totally misguided Clegg's long term political strategy was. He seemed totally convinced that there were a huge swathe of liberal leaning voters out there who had previously gone for the Tories but now the Lib Dems had demonstrated they could do government they would come flocking to the yellow banner. And that these voters would replace all the lefties who had previously backed the party. Time and again at conference we members were all assured that the leadership knew exactly what it was doing and it would all come good. After the wipeouts in local elections and in 2014 losing all but one MEP (a devastating result for "The Party of Europe) the members were urged to keep the faith.

It was all wishful thinking. In May this year the electorate delivered their verdict. The Lib Dems lost 83% of their seats. They are now down to 8 MPs. There are some projections (that I take seriously) that suggest that in 2020 after the boundary changes they could be down to 4 MPs. They are a shadow of their former selves and are likely to be a political irrelevance for a generation or more.

I'm not saying there were any easy answers after the 2010 general election. There weren't. As I have argued many many times Clegg took the only option for stable government for 5 years and his party have paid in my view a disproportionate price for effectively putting the country before party.

But Clegg and his aides were complicit in a large number of tactical and strategic mistakes that made the ultimate result 5 years later even worse than it needed to be. They didn't listen to the many many voices from both inside and outside the party urging them to change tack. Clegg refused to stand down in June 2014 after the Euro elections when it was obvious to almost all political observers that he was a busted electoral flush.

I have no specific recipe for what sort of "punishment" Clegg should now undergo. Indeed it is unrealistic and probably even churlish to think there is one. But the party, its current and future leaderships and its members should think very carefully before pursuing the line that Clegg was very brave to do what he did and that the party in any way owes him a debt of gratitude. They should also all do their best to try and make sure he does not ultimately become a well respected and loved grandee of the party (like say Paddy Ashdown) who is listened to and has great influence in the future direction of the party.

He made some major errors that have cost both the party and ultimately the country in terms of much reduced liberal influence in parliament for many years to come.

At the very least he should be held accountable for that.

Sunday 13 December 2015

How the Labour party will now be slowly destroyed by our electoral system

Here we go again. Mark banging on about electoral reform.

Well guilty as charged. However I really do feel it is going to play a substantial, probably pivotal role in the evolving disintegration of the Labour Party.

Before I lay out my thesis I should make it clear that despite my obvious opposition to New Labour's more authoritarian aspects and also to the sheer opportunism of the party in opposition between 2010 and 2015 I certainly do not wish to see its demise as a serious political force. Most of my family were Labour supporters when I was growing up. I was delighted with Blair's victory in 1997 and indeed enthusiastically voted for the party in both 1997 and 2001. If I was going to have to choose between 20 years of hegemony from Labour or the Tories I would choose Labour. They are closer to my own political philosophy than the Conservative Party for sure.

But it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the Labour Party as it is currently constituted will not be here within a decade or two. We have seen a confluence of factors that now militate against its long term survival.

Firstly the membership has changed beyond all recognition from even 6 months ago, let alone 6 years ago. The extraordinary rise of Jeremy Corbyn who only squeaked into the ballot due to acts of charity by several Labour MPs who would never have dreamed he could win and certainly would never have done so had they realised this has triggered an influx of hundreds of thousands of new members, both full and "supporter" level, but all of whom have a vote in leadership elections. Many of these new members are what we used to refer to as "hard left" or even if they don't recognise themselves as such are certainly fellow travellers with much of what the hard left stands for.

Secondly Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and their acolytes now have their hands firmly on the levers of power within the party. And despite their denials it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Momentum group set up to support Corbyn's aims is organising at a grassroots level and will eventually either through confrontation or attrition start to replace more moderate Labour MPs with candidates who are "one of them" to adapt one of Thatcher's most famous phrases.

Thirdly, the mere fact that Corbyn is the leader and groups like Momentum are now so active is leading to more and more people who were previously members of Trotskyist groups and other parties like the SWP etc. joining or in some cases re-joining the Labour Party. They feel like they have got their party back and are swelling the numbers.

A combination of these factors make it almost impossible for Corbyn to be dislodged. He won in the first round with 59.5% of the vote. This is a crushing victory. Burnham only managed 20%. And by way of comparison Blair only got 57% when he stood and won in 1994. Corbyn is master of all he surveys within the party. And the fact that if anything the membership now compared to a few months ago is likely to be even more Corbynite makes it even more difficult to imagine him being successfully challenged.

It is worth bearing in mind as well that if Corbyn is challenged, then according to the Labour Party rules he is on the ballot by default. This means he would no longer need the nominations of 35 Labour MPs to be a candidate in any future election.

The only way I can see the hard left cabal being ousted in the forseeable future would be if Corbyn himself decided to stand down. I wouldn't completely rule this out. It is possible that over the course of the coming months and perhaps couple of years he gets so worn down by the constant attacks from both inside and outside his party and from the media that he eventually chooses to throw in the towel. I have to say though that at the moment this seems pretty unlikely. He appears to be enjoying the job more and more and I doubt he will eschew the chance to remake the party in his own image.

And even if Corbyn did stand down I am certain another left winger, probably McDonnell or someone similar would stand for the leadership. And although the 35 MP threshold would kick in, given how hugely the membership has changed this year I would imagine there would be huge pressure on MPs to at least allow a left winger onto the ballot (who would then of course win). If MPs prevented this I would predict out and out civil war between the membership and the PLP with dozens of deselections happening in short order. Momentum might be largely keeping their powder dry for now but they would definitely not stand for that and they know they have the power to hold the MPs to ransom.

Perhaps the most important question arising from all of this though is why is it happening at all? How can we have a membership of a party that is so at odds with the vast majority of its own MPs? Why is someone like Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell even in the same party as say Peter Mandelson or Tristram Hunt or Liz Kendall? It doesn't really make much sense. Those people should really be in a completely different party to each other. Their aims and political anchors are in completely different places.

It's because of the electoral system stupid.

Of course in an ideal world Corbyn and Kendall would be in totally different parties. It was clear during the leadership campaign that they agreed on very little substantively. The problem is that if the hard left or the moderates wanted to split off and form another party the electoral system would punish both sides for doing this. In safe Labour seats where the Tory vote is very weak the left would probably be OK and the Labour Party and Splitters Party could fight each other for those constituencies. But in the vast swathe of marginals and semi-marginals against the Tories or other seats where e.g. UKIP or the Greens or the Lib Dems can run a united Labour Party close a split Labour Party would be a disaster for the left. In dozens, perhaps well over a hundred seats we would see the Tories primarily and perhaps other parties more marginally reap the rewards. Not because these other parties have necessarily done anything to deserve winning these seats but because Labour had split and First Past the Post awards seats to the largest plurality. In simple terms if Labour hold a seat with 50% of the vote where the Tories last time got 30% and Labour splits into two parties where each split party gets 25% of the vote the Tories win even if they still only get 30%.

Of course Labour knows all of this. If they have any doubt they just need to look to recent history and see what happened when Labour split during the 1980s when the Gang of Four formed the SDP. In the following two general elections both Labour and the SDP were hugely punished for being separate parties and the result was 16 more years of Tory government.

If we had a different electoral system based on some form of proportionality a decision to split would be much easier as even if the vote split down the middle (or more likely say the hard left got 10% of the vote and the moderates got 20% or 25% of the vote) then they would get seats allocated in roughly those proportions. And then following an election it's possible that those parties, perhaps in conjunction with others could form a government. But their respective electoral strengths would be clear and the coalition would be formed after an election rather than being forced to cram a load of people who loath and barely even understand each other's politics into the same party before an election.

But we don't have a system like this. And this is why by far and away the most likely scenario is that the Labour Party does not split and instead remains one single party. And slowly but surely that one single party is in the process of destroying itself. The constant off (and increasingly on) the record briefings against each other, the incredulity of many Labour MPs at the behaviour of the leadership (just look at the video of Tom Watson's face when McDonnell recently pulled out Mao's Little Red Book at the despatch box for this in microcosm), the grassroots organising to punish MPs who deviate from the Corbynite line. And eventually, inevitably the proof that Corbyn is unelectable in 2020. But even when this happens that won't stop the hard left. They simply will never accept that their programme is unpopular. They will blame anything but themselves and will instead carry on with their purity drive.

They will eventually after years of this be a hollowed out force with MPs fallen by the wayside replaced with true believers.

This could have been avoided or at least mitigated if the party had been able to separate into the more natural political groupings that common sense would dictate. But that can't happen. Our electoral system simply will not allow it.

It would be easy for someone like me who has campaigned for electoral reform for a long time often in the teeth of opposition from dinosaurs on the Labour benches to find this highly amusing. It is only 4 years since we had the chance to make a change to AV that could have helped facilitate a much better situation for the current Labour Party. But many within Labour fought tooth and nail to prevent this relatively minor but important progressive change to our system and they won. So they will now reap what they sowed.

But I do not find this situation amusing. It is deadly serious. Because the consequence will be probably 20 years at least of Tory governments. A Tory party who knew very well what they were doing when they blocked any chance of a proportional system during the 2010 Lib Dem coalition negotiations and a Tory party who pulled out all the stops (in alliance with those Labour dinosaurs) to prevent AV in 2011.

I suspect eventually Labour will come to see how they have shafted themselves in the long term through their refusal to countenance a more progressive electoral system.

But it will be too late by then. They won't have enough MPs to make any difference any more.

Friday 11 December 2015

My radio show - 09/12/2015 - Professional Poker Playing and Radio Presenting

I do these most weeks between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I talk to professional poker player Neil Channing about his life at the felt and how he fell into this rather unusual line of work and to DJ Rick Edwards about his career behind the mic.

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.

Thursday 26 November 2015

My radio show - 25/11/2015 - Votes at 16, Autumn Statement and In Vision TV Continuity

I do these most weeks between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I talk to Henry Hill of Conservative Home about votes at 16 and Osborne's Autumn Statement and to cultural commentator and old school TV expert Steve Williams about in-vision TV continuity and why it's largely died out

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

My radio show tonight at 8:30pm - Votes at 16 and has Osborne dodged a bullet?

On my Music Mill FM show tonight from 8:30pm:

First I'll be joined by assistant Editor of Conservative Home Henry Hill about votes at 16. 16 and 17 year olds had a vote in the Scottish referendum last year and the Lords have now voted for similar for the impending EU referendum. Would this be a good thing? Do under 18s understand the issues well enough to make an informed decision?

We'll also spend some time discussing the Chancellor's Autumn Statement today. Has he dodged the tax-credits bullet? And if so how has he managed to execute a U-turn that may have severely damaged the career of lesser politicians?

Then later we'll be joined by old-school TV enthusiast Steve Williams to discuss in-vision continuity. If you recall, back in the day, mainly on ITV lots of the regions had continuity announcers who we could see, usually sitting behind a desk. In some ways this gave the viewer a strong connection with the station in a way that perhaps we don't get any more. Have we lost something here? And could they be set for a comeback with some of the hyper-local TV stations that have started recently?

If you want to listen live the best way is either to find "Music Mill FM" on the TuneIn Radio app if you have a mobile device or via this link from a browser.

If you want to get in touch during the show I'm on twitter @MarkReckons – you can tweet your thoughts about today's topics or anything else. You can also e-mail me on either during the show or if you're listening to the podcast version any time afterwards.

I will also be uploading a recording of the show to the House of Comments podcast feed in the next day or two as usual.

Friday 20 November 2015

My radio show - 18/11/2015 - Nuclear deterrence and Police Commissioners

I do these most weeks between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I am joined by Emeritus Professor of War History at Kings College London Lawrence Freedman to discuss the nuclear deterrent and by Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall Alison Hernandez to discuss her campaign and politics more generally.

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.

Thursday 12 November 2015

My radio show - 11/11/2015 - FOI, Corbyn and Lib Dems

I do these most weeks between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I speak to media expert and former Labour adviser Paul Blanchard about Freedom of Information reform and how Jeremy Corbyn is doing and also former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Kelly-Marie Blundell about how her party is getting on 6 months after the general election

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

My radio show tonight at 8:30pm - FOI/Grayling and Lib Dems 6 months on from the election

On my Music Mill FM show tonight from 8:30pm:

I'll be speaking to media expert Paul Blanchard about the changes that the government are currently planning to Freedom of Information. In particular we'll be focusing on some comments that Justice minister Chris Grayling recently made about how FOI requests are apparently being “abused” by journalists.

Then later we'll be joined by Lib Dem activist and former parliamentary candidate Kelly-Marie Blundell to discuss how her party is now doing six months into the new parliament. With their number of MPs reduced from 57 to 8 are they still an effective force? Is the electorate perhaps starting to think they've had enough of a kicking and are starting to listen to them again?

If you want to listen live the best way is either to find "Music Mill FM" on the TuneIn Radio app if you have a mobile device or via this link from a browser.

If you want to get in touch during the show I'm on twitter @MarkReckons – you can tweet your thoughts about today's topics or anything else. You can also e-mail me on either during the show or if you're listening to the podcast version any time afterwards.

I will also be uploading a recording of the show to the House of Comments podcast feed in the next day or two as usual.

Friday 6 November 2015

My Show on Music Mill FM - 04/11/2015

I'll be doing these most weeks now between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I speak to journalist and BBC Radio 4 Analysis presenter Jo Fidgen about the ethics of eating meat and also to the comedienne Wendy Wason about fulfilling different roles in our busy lives and how much room is left for the real us. We also try to answer the question as to why Postman Pat is so incompetent.

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.

Friday 23 October 2015

My News Show on Music Mill FM - 21/10/2015

I'll be doing these most weeks now between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I speak to drug law reform campaigner Steve Rolles about the current drug laws and how they might change and then to chief spokesperson for the pressure group Republic about the monarchy and republicanism as well as Jeremy Corbyn's recent royal related problems.

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.

Thursday 15 October 2015

My News Show on Music Mill FM - 14/10/2015

I'll be doing these every week now between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I speak to head of press for UKIP Gawain Towler about the EU referendum and technology journalist Nicole Kobie about broadband coverage and so called "not spots" in the light of a debate on this subject by MPs this week.

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.

Thursday 8 October 2015

My Radio News Show on Music Mill FM - 07/10/2015

I had my radio hosting debut yesterday on Music Mill FM.

It went quite well I thought. I forgot to put my fader up for a few second at the start until my producer gesticulated at me and I turned it on. I also had a problem getting the first song started but after that it seemed to flow pretty well and I really enjoyed it. I'll be doing these every week now between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I talked to Conservative commentator Rupert Myers about the Tory conference and author and cultural commentator Tim Worthington about famous TV defections of the past following Robert Peston's move from the BBC to become ITV's political editor.

You can also hear my attempt at an impression of Alan "Fluff" Freeman doing a chart countdown.

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

My radio broadcast hosting debut tonight at 8:30pm

Tonight at 8:30pm I am going to be hosting my first ever radio show for an hour, from a proper studio and everything!

I am very excited about this and am grateful to the good people of Music Mill FM for having asked me to do this. I have been a guest on radio shows lots of times but never the host so this a new departure for me. We did a pilot last week and it went quite well so fingers crossed this one does too.

The show is a light hearted look at a couple of the week's top stories. We will have guests and also music from Music Mill's own recording studio.

The topics for tonight will be Tory conference (naturally) in general and Cameron's speech in particular. We are also going to cover top TV defections in the light of Robert Peston's move to ITV.

If you want to listen live the best way is either to find "Music Mill FM" on the TuneIn Radio app if you have a mobile device or via this link from a browser.

I will also be uploading a recording of the show to the House of Comments podcast feed in the next day or two.

Wish me luck!

Thursday 27 August 2015

Cameron renages on his Lords proportionality promise to spite UKIP

I don't like Nigel Farage. I don't like his attitude or his approach to things. I don't care for many of his party's policies especially the twin planks of leaving the EU come what may and blaming everything on immigration.

However I am also a democrat. It is shocking that at the recent general election UKIP got 13% of the vote and 0.15% of the seats in the Commons. Absolutely shocking. That is the sort of disparity that the First Past the Post system can throw up as we all know.

But not to fear. We knew that Cameron would at least try to redress the balance in parliament somewhat through Lords appointments wouldn't he? Because during the last parliament he told us that until the Lords was properly reformed to be largely or wholly elected appointments would be made to create a chamber reflective of the votes cast at the most recent general election. Look, it was in his first programme for government in 2010:

In the interim, lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.

So presumably Cameron will have appointed some UKIP peers today in his latest honours? For proper proportionality there would need to be about 100 of them but to be fair we couldn't have expected him to do it that quickly. He's appointed 45 today. So how many of them are UKIP? 15? 10? 5? Surely 3 or 4 of them?

None. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

This is a flagrant renaging on a political promise. And it was an important promise. Because everyone knows the Commons is not proportional. But Cameron assured us he would redress this in the second chamber. And he has gone back on his word.

It seems pretty obvious to me why he has done this. He hates Nigel Farage. And he hates UKIP. He is worried what they would do with a decent tranche of peers. So out of malice, spite and political cowardice he is not going to appoint any of them to the upper chamber.

With a slick turn of phrase Cameron recently made a statement on this subject that sounds very similar to his promise in 2010:

It is important the House of Lords in some way reflects the situation in the House of Commons. At the moment it is well away from that. I’m not proposing to get there in one go. [But] it is important to make sure the House of Lords more accurately reflects the situation in the House of Commons. That’s been the position with prime ministers for a very, very long time and for very good and fair reason.

He has subtly changed his wording to say the Lords should now reflect the "situation" in the Commons rather than the "votes" for the Commons. That almost seems like a semantic distinction at first glance but it makes all the difference in the world. Because the "situation" in the Commons is a result of the FPTP system which as we know gave UKIP 1 seat when they should have had 82 of them. And Cameron is now trying to use this as justification to give UKIP no extra peers. They already have 3 Lords, all of whom used to be Tories and defected.

It is also worth pointing out that Cameron is making up the rules on the fly here whilst trying to sound like he is just fitting in with what previous PMs have done. It's not true. There has never been a rule that the Lords should be reflective of the situation in the Commons as Meg Russell points out in this recent Constitution Unit post.

No it is quite clear what Cameron is doing. He is using the brute force power of patronage his position gives him to prevent UKIP from getting any more representation in the Lords. There is no justification for this so he's making up one based on a non-existent precedent.

Remember this next time he claims to be a democrat or that he is a fair man.

He is clearly neither.

Monday 24 August 2015

House of Comments - Episode 129 - The Corgasm

The latest House of Comments podcast is now out.

This week the podcast is back for a(nother) one off special during the current podcast hiatus. I am joined by Editor of Ian Dunt to discuss the remarkable surge of Jeremy Corbyn and its current and likely future effects.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

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

Thursday 13 August 2015

Labour doesn't have any values - so how can new members be required to support them?

I was amused this morning to see that Mark Steel, one of the most outspoken left-wing activists in the media has been banned from joining the Labour Party because he doesn't "support their values":

Now in Mr Steel's case there seems to be some question mark over whether he is still a member of the SWP which could be another reason why he has not been allowed to join and vote in the current leadership contest. But it is worth looking a little bit more closely at the given reason for his rejection, the charge that he does not support their values. Because Labour currently doesn't really have any values.

I don't mean this glibly. I mean it literally.

Labour have just (badly) lost an election that they and many of the rest of us thought they would win, or at least they would form the next government in the aftermath of it. That hasn't happened and they seem to be going through some sort of collective nervous breakdown as a result.

It certainly wasn't clear what the party stood for in the previous parliament. Indeed that is one of the reasons they lost. They spent the first 3 or 4 years of it opposing every single cut the coalition government made and then in the last year or so suddenly tried to turn on a sixpence and claim they were the party of fiscal responsibility (whilst still opposing many of the cuts and claiming they were ideological). They also campaigned hard on the NHS claiming that the coalition was "privatising it" despite having themselves extended private provision whilst in office (at one point under Andy Burnham). There are various other examples of where they either said or did one thing in office and another when in early opposition and then yet another in the run-up to the election. No wonder people were confused.

I saw a journalist remark the other day that when they approached the Labour Party to ask what its values were in order to clarify they were directed to read "Clause 4" of the Labour Party constitution. Here it is as modifed in 1995 under Blair's early leadership:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect

That's fair enough as far as it goes but it's difficult to pin down how this would relate to specific policy positions. For example (apart from the special case of the banks in 2008 when there was a huge crisis and any government would have had to act) how many nationalisations did Labour undertake whilst in office? Because reading that clause you might presume they'd have taken the opportunity to renationalise all sorts of stuff to fit in with their "value" of power, wealth and opportunity remaining in the hands of the many, not the few. Of course they barely nationalised anything and social mobility went into reverse between 1997 and 2010. Or how about their values of "tolerance and respect" and living "freely". I'm not sure how that could be reconciled with their attempts in office to push through 90 days detention without trial or their steadfast backing of the hopelessly illiberal and broken drugs laws to pick two of many egregious examples.

So it is far from clear how the Labour Party of the last 20 years and its actions in office could be reconciled with its own Clause 4 that the party machine directs people to read to check they are not to be an unperson.

But it's worse than that. Because Labour are in the middle of a leadership campaign. A leadership campaign that could very well hugely change the party's stance and approach to all sorts of things. Which would surely mean its values had changed?

As an example, imagine a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour Party led by Liz Kendall. They would be so different from each other as to be almost unrecognisable as the same party, certainly after the leader had got their hands on the party levers and had had some time to reshape it in their own image. The idea that there is a specific set of values that irrespective of who wins the leadership the party will stick to come what may is laughable. Corbyn has already explicitly stated he'd like to change Clause 4 if he wins.

So it is a nonsense for Labour to cast people out for not sharing their values when they are at best highly flexible and more realistically something akin to Will-o'-the-wisp.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

On Corbyn: What if the rules have changed?

Like many seasoned Westminster watchers I have been somewhat amused by the recent travails of the Labour Party.

There were three candidates of the centre/centre left (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall) all of whom managed to get the requisite number of nominations from MPs (35) to stand in the contest. But there was also a figure that many people had never even heard of who wanted to enter the race. The very left-wing MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn.

Enough MPs "lent" Corbyn their nominations in the interests of having a wide debate and hence he also entered the contest.

Since then to say he's been a disrupter to the contest would be a gross understatement. Polls have indicated that he could actually win and the other candidates have been scrabbling around desperately trying to work out how to respond to the rise of the red tide.

Also like many seasoned Westminster watchers I have been assuming that Corbyn has very little chance of winning (despite what the polls say - remember the general election?!) and that if he was to somehow manage to win he'd have absolutely no chance of becoming Prime Minister.

But what if we're all wrong?

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008 I have been wondering when things will change politically. I don't mean in terms of the Tories getting in and implementing austerity or even the coalition (that was bound to happen eventually when the dice fell that way). I mean something much more fundamental. The crisis demonstrated that the way we have our economy (and politics) structured is woefully wrong. The banks took reckless risks with everyone else's money and then when they were standing on the brink the taxpayer stepped in and bailed them out to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds, making a mockery of the term "Moral Hazard".

So far there has been remarkably little actual change in response to this complete and utter failure of our structures, despite the fact that we have all paid the price both literally and figuratively. Growth has been much forestalled, the economy is much weaker than it was before 2008 and many millions of us have had to readjust our longer term plans. But the banks and the institutions that prop them up haven't really changed very much at all.

This is what I mean when I ask if all of us old hands are wrong.

The received wisdom which has seemed to be true ever since Thatcher came to power is that parties, whether of the left or right have to run on the centre ground and also tack towards the direction of the party in power when in opposition (cf Blair in the mid-90s and Cameron in the late 00s). But what if the rules have changed and we just haven't realised it yet? Given how devastating the financial crisis has been, a realignment of politics and a recasting of the rules is actually now overdue. Could it be coming in the form of a 66 year old socialist who can easily be mocked up to look like Obi Wan Kenobie?

However the 2015 general election would appear superficially to contradict this thesis. Didn't the result prove that Labour should have run a more centrist campaign? That's what most of the commentators (including me) have been saying since 7th May.

The truth is the result of the election is a very, very mixed bag and there is a lot of noise which makes it difficult to correctly read any signal that may be contained within it. Firstly there was the UKIP surge which led to them getting 13% of the vote and thus distorting what would have been the results in dozen of constituencies. This affected both Tories and Labour but seemingly more so Labour. There was also the (lesser but still very real) similar effect of the Greens again mostly affecting Labour. Then there was the collapse of the Lib Dem vote which allowed the Tories to capture many more seats than they would otherwise have done. Indeed the Tories increased their vote by 0.8% but managed to get 25 more seats than in 2010 due to these disparate effects. There was also the huge effect of the SNP in Scotland who actually ran on an anti-austerity ticket and almost swept the entire board there.

That still doesn't fully answer what happened with Labour though. They increased their vote by over 1% but actually lost a couple of dozen seats. But by wide consent Ed Miliband was a bad leader. He was uncharismatic, unfocused, chopped and changed during the parliament allowing his shadow ministers to oppose almost all the cuts and then latterly trying to claim Labour could be "trusted" on the economy when he had allowed the Tories to paint them as profligate and set the agenda. On all of these scores Corbyn would be more consistent than Miliband. He is charismatic, very focused and would clearly stick to his line of opposing austerity. He is also a breath of fresh air as Evan Davis pointed out last night on Newsnight after interviewing Andy Burnham (who was typically evasive on various questions as most modern politicians are) Corbyn simply answers the questions. He doesn't faff about trying to triangulate or refusing to accept the premise of the question. Sure, this could eventually trip him up but from what I have seen so far it merely makes him look like he believes what he says and his word can be trusted, unlike so many of his Labour colleagues.

It is also worth noting that in many of the policy positions Corbyn took in the 80s and 90s he has subsequently been vindicated. For example he was in favour of equal marriage and against section 28 when it was not fashionable to be so, he talked to Sinn Fein when the official government line was to claim they were beyond the pale (and dub their voices over with actors on TV) while at the very same time secretly talking to them which ultimately led to the peace process. He is also in favour of policies such as renationalisation of the railways and the energy companies which have high levels of public support. What the political classes try to paint as extreme are actually often fairly popular positions. It is very difficult to read how a leader and a party that fully backed these policies would now fare as it simply hasn't been tried for several decades.

I could be reading this all wrong. In many ways it would be more comforting for me if this analysis is wrong because if it is right then lots of what I think I know about politics and how to follow it is also wrong. Ever since I have been interested in it (and even before that) the rules have been set in stone and those deviating from them have paid a high price.

I just wonder though if we need to prepare ourselves for a shock. At the moment Corbyn is set to win the internal contest. And if he does, perhaps, just perhaps his chances of becoming PM are a fair bit higher than received wisdom would suggest.

Friday 17 July 2015

House of Comments - Episode 128 - The Living Wage Budget

The latest House of Comments podcast is now out.

This week the podcast is back for a one off special during the current podcast hiatus. I am joined by the Guardian political columnist Rafael Behr to discuss George Osborne's "Living Wage" budget and its political consequences.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

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

Thursday 16 July 2015

MPs should keep their pay rise

I've written about this before when it was first mooted but today IPSA have confirmed that MPs will get their 10% pay rise. Their pay will now rise to around £74,000 per year and will henceforth be linked to pay rises in the public sector.

As far as I am concerned MPs should not feel pressured to hand money back or give it to charity. An independent body has determined that is what the role should be paid. After the expenses scandal in 2009 there was a huge outcry and MPs' ability to set their own expenses regime and salaries was (rightly) taken out of their hands. But now that the independent body has looked long and hard at this and made its decision it is simply not fair to treat this situation as if "MPs have awarded themselves a massive pay rise" (as plenty of people today seem to think). That is simply not true and as electors we cannot have it both ways. There was strong agreement in 2009 across the country that an independent body should decide and it's hypocritical of us to ignore that fact now.

It's worth bearing in mind that MPs are still paid less than plenty of headteachers, almost all GPs (pro-rata) and many other professions. And bearing in mind they are representing tens of thousands of constituents, holding the government to account and voting on laws that affect us all I want them to be well remunerated for that.

There is a risk that if we keep on like this and MPs feel pressured to reject the rise and/or give it away to charity, and perhaps abolish IPSA so they can properly turn down future rises that in time the salary will slip further and further behind other vocations until it becomes very difficult for anyone except the independently wealthy to seek to become MPs. I definitely never want to see that happen.

And to cap it all the new regime is actually not costing the public purse a single extra penny. The pay rise comes about from modifications to the expenses regime and MPs' pensions. If they want to juggle this about to include 10% more up-front salary then it's not really making any difference to any of the rest of us.

So frankly all those crying out how disgraceful this situation is should back off. I don't think most of us would want the sort of parliament that would be eventual end-game of MPs caving in to this sort of pressure.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

The SNP tail wags the Tory dog

During the election campaign, David Cameron and the Tories made great play of how Ed Miliband would be in the pocket of the SNP if he became Prime Minister.

How the tables have now turned.

We are only 2 months into the new Tory (majority let us not forget) government and already there are two occasions when the SNP have forced the government into an embarrassing climb down.

First it was on the subject of the Human Rights Act and how they were supposedly going to repeal it. The SNP raised (perfectly valid) objections about how the plan would strike at the heart of the Scottish devolution settlement. The Tories under pressure from the SNP (and also some of its own more enlightened backbenchers) withdrew their proposals and they did not feature at all in the recent Queen's Speech.

Fast-forward to today and we see another embarrassing withdrawal of a piece of legislation by the government this time on fox-hunting. This time there is absolutely no doubt as to who has forced the withdrawal. It is Nicola Sturgeon who, admittedly opportunistically and brazenly has stated that her 56 MPs will vote against any repeal of the hunting ban. And at a stroke the government had no choice but to stop a vote they now knew they would lose from happening at all.

The truth is that any minority or wafer thin majority government was always going to be at risk of having to tailor or withdraw legislation in the face of a block vote of 56 well disciplined nationalist Scottish MPs determined to make their mark at Westminster. Ed Miliband's protestations that he would not do any deals with the SNP rang hollow because it was obvious he would at the very least have to take their views into account in order to get legislation through. Cameron promised that the solution to this was to give him a majority. But that was a hopelessly naive reading of the situation (which deep down he must have known) and would only have worked with a much larger majority which was never going to be feasible.

All it takes is a handful of Tories to rebel on any government measure (and MPs are now more rebellious than they have ever been) and we will continue to see the SNP tail wagging the Tory dog.

I'm not sure how Cameron goes about explaining this away after all his unrealistic pre-election promises.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

The Tory 2015 ground campaign shows how we need a new electoral system

There's a must-read piece today on Conservative Home from Mark Wallace where he goes through the Tory ground campaign operation in painstaking detail from its inception in the aftermath of the 2012 Omnishambles Budget through to election day,

It's a brilliantly researched post and I am sure many in politics across the parties will be reading and absorbing it to see what lessons can be learned for future campaigns.

I however, as is my wont have absorbed a slightly different lesson. And that is just how utterly broken our electoral system is.

The following sections leaped out at me:

The majority would be won by campaigns targeted directly at a relatively small number of groups, each composed of a relatively small number of people in a relatively small number of seats.


During the last 28 weeks of the campaign, Team 2015 supplied 26,000 campaigning days in the target seats. While this effort was not a replacement for the wider party (or for the contribution of other supporting groups, such as the pro-hunting Vote-OK group, which contributed campaigners in around 25 seats, or the various Conservative “Friends of” groups), it was an undeniably valuable contribution. If just 901 people in the most marginal seats had voted Labour instead of Conservative, last month’s majority would never have been achieved: every one of those days spent campaigning was crucial.

Mark (no fan of electoral reform himself) is essentially admitting just how broken things are here. Almost all the focus of the Tory ground campaign was on a tiny, tiny sliver of swing voters in a very small number of constituencies.

The Tories were of course right to focus on them. That's how you win elections as we've just seen. Well, to be more accurate that's how you win elections under First Past the Post. If Labour want to win again in 2020 they'll have to focus on these same narrow tranche of voters too.

But what a dreadful, anti-democratic situation this is where such huge efforts by the main parties are put into wooing a few thousand voters out of tens of millions. And of course what then happens is that the policy offerings are tailored to suit these tiny number of people who are not representative of the country as a whole.

There is one other, slightly more subtle point I was want to make about the detail from this piece too. You'll recall that in 2011 there was a referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system for Westminster which the Tories vociferously campaigned against arguing that our current First Past the Post system is much better. They won of course but just bear with me.

One of the things about the Alternative Vote that is an improvement over First Past the Post is the amount of information that the counting system then has about the choices of each voter. Instead of just a simple X against a single party in a binary fashion there are rankings. So the counting system knows who the voter's second, third, fourth etc. choice is and that can then be processed by the counting system to ensure an outcome closer to that that the majority of the voters in the seat would want.

Now check this out:

The Survey. With 14 questions ... this was intended to be a swift but effective way of identifying voters. The strategists worked to move away from a binary model of identification – Tory or not, Labour or not – and to collect more subtle information, rating people’s enthusiasm for various parties on a scale of 1 to 10. 
Such data has a practical use: with the kind of hyper-targeted communications CCHQ was planning, it needed to know as much as possible about people’s interests and concerns in order to segment them accurately.

Does this sound familiar? Yes, the Tories were using a much more sophisticated approach in their canvassing to assess in a more nuanced way how strong or weak their support was. In a very similar way to how AV allows an electoral system to assess support for parties in a more nuanced way. Of course the Tories then used this information to bludgeon those it deemed likely to vote for them with squeeze messages to push them through the binary system to their eventual electoral advantage and success.

But it is very, very telling that even those stalwart opponents of reform recognise that a binary filter is such a poor way of assessing people's views that they have even abandoned it for their own canvassing.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

This is the speech that Liz Kendall could give that would make me join the Labour Party

If Liz Kendall* gave a speech similar to the following during her leadership campaign I would immediately join the Labour Party as a member and campaign internally for her to be the next leader. Then if she won the leadership I would remain a member and campaign for Labour during this parliament:

I would like to see the Labour Party achieve an overall majority at the next election. Of course I would. I have been a member of this party for over 20 years and passionately believe that it is the best vehicle we have in our country for social justice and to help people get on and get up.

However I think as a party we need to recognise the huge uphill battle that we face to do this. We are in a similar position to where we were in 1983 and we all know how long it took us to get from there to power again.

I don't know about you but I don't want to wait 14 years.

But there is something else lurking in the background following the general election. It is the growing feeling that great swathes of our country are left unrepresented in parliament. Some of this can be addressed by changing the House of Lords to be elected as we can and must do. But that will still leave the fact that a million people voted for the Green Party and they only got one MP. And UKIP got 3.9 million votes and also only one MP. To put that second one into perspective, if it had taken the same proportion of voters to elect a Labour MP we would only have 2 MPs. That is simply indefensible.

Now this is a difficult subject for us. The current electoral system has been in place for a long time and it has had some advantages for the country, but also if we're honest for our party too. For the country, the clear link between a constituency and their representative has been very important. And in the days when ourselves and the Conservative Party got well over 90% of the vote it usually picked the right winner. The fact it effectively gave a slight "winner's bonus" didn't matter so much when there were very few other parties and they were so much smaller.

But we don't live in the 1950s any more.

We have to face the fact that our electoral system simply cannot cope with a multi-party world. In this election just gone the Conservatives got 37% of the vote but over 50% of the seats. But we have to recognise that in for example 2005 we got 36% of the vote and even more seats than the Tories got this time. Neither of these results are fair in any conventional understanding of the word.

And that is important. Because we are the party of fairness. We want everyone in our wonderful country to benefit from great schools, hospitals and other public services. We want nobody left behind. We are the party of social justice.

But it is simply not good enough to say we want fairness in our public services and in our economy whilst at the same time defending a political system that gives parties over half the seats in parliament on barely a third of the vote.

The time has come to stand up for what is right.

Now I won't pretend that there isn't a little bit of self-interest for our party in this. The near wipeout we have suffered in Scotland with the SNP having over 90% of the seats on 50% of the Scottish vote means that without a more proportional system we will struggle to get more than a handful of MPs there in future given how radically its politics has changed. And there are huge areas of the country in the South East and South West in particular where despite in some areas 20% of the vote or more we have very few MPs.

So reform of the system would help us in some ways.

But we should also recognise it would not help us in other ways. We got just over 30% of the vote at the recent election but we got over 36% of the seats. The system has protected us against what could have been an even worse result. There is also the chance that over the next election or two as our opponents become mired in the difficulties of government that the pendulum swings back towards us and we can end up the largest party or perhaps even a majority government in the next decade or so.

But frankly those are simply not good enough reasons for us to accept such a manifestly broken system.

We need a system that allows all voices, across the political spectrum to be heard. I genuinely believe that there is a progressive majority in this country and that when all the tactical and negative votes cast under first past the post are stripped out we will see that our party is still one of the largest and I would strive to make it the largest. But we will then be able to forge alliances with other parties of the left and centre and govern as a truly one nation government.

I fully recognise this will be a difficult decision for us as a party to take. But we have had other times in our history when we faced a choice between the easy option and the more difficult but worthwhile one.

The 1945 government of Clement Atlee founded the NHS and the modern welfare state despite opposition from the establishment. The 1997 Blair government introduced the minimum wage and devolved power to Scotland, Wales and London. All of these were hugely progressive steps not all of which benefitted our party but which benefitted the country immensely.

We are the party of progress and there is nothing more progressive than ensuring everybody's vote counts.

For me now there is nothing in politics more important than electoral reform. The last election shows just how desperately needed it is. But I now also recognise that it is only going to come about if the Labour Party, partly with an element of self-interest but also partly because they begin to see it is the right thing to do get behind it. Without that I expect I will see no change to the system within my lifetime, hence my willingness to put any other ideological issues to one side and join them if they were willing to campaign for such a change.

*I am singling out Liz Kendall here because of the three Labour leadership candidates she's the only one I can imagine ever giving a speech like this, and even then I recognise how unlikely it would be given the huge opposition within her party to change there would be. But I cannot forsee Burnham or Cooper ever doing anything like this at all. If they did however I would also join up and fight for them.

Monday 25 May 2015

There is one thing Labour needs to do that is more important than who they choose as leader

So the Labour leadership campaign is off and running. It is of course important that they choose the right person to lead them through the next parliament and into the next election.

For what it is worth, from what I have seen so far I think Liz Kendall would be the best leader of the runners. I think she has the best chance of moving the party more onto the centre-ground where it needs to be and she is also not tainted by direct association with the Blair or Brown regimes unlike Burnham and Cooper. From a personal perspective she also seems to be more liberal than many in her party.

However there is something even more important than choosing their next leader that Labour needs to do. And I would suggest their window of opportunity for doing it is limited to the next few months before the next leader is chosen.

It is simply to make it easier to get rid of a sitting leader.

I have watched now, twice in succession Labour go into a general election with a leader who was not likely to win the election for them.

First Gordon Brown after "The Election That Never Was" in 2007 was damaged goods and was clearly not going to be able to win a majority or even be the largest party in a hung parliament. It was obvious that Cameron was going to beat him. But despite several attempts to unseat Brown (e.g. James Purnell resigning immediately after the Euro elections in 2009, the "Snow Plot" of early 2010 etc.) none came to fruition.

And more recently Ed Miliband. Although the polls seemed to indicate he had a chance against Cameron there were two indicators that militated strongly against him, i.e. his personal ratings against Cameron (who always led by a long way on this metric) and the party's economic ratings. There actually was not an attempt to unseat Miliband but given how difficult it is to unseat a Labour leader that is not surprising.

Labour just cannot afford to yet again find themselves sleepwalking into an electoral massacre with a leader who is not up to the job. So regardless of who wins the leadership the party needs to find a way to modify its constitution to enable an unsuitable leader to be removed from office as its leader much more easily than is currently the case. That way come 2017 or 2018 if it becomes clear that whoever they have chosen is not right they can get rid of them and try again.

The Conservatives got rid of IDS in 2003 when it became clear he was going to lead them into another disastrous defeat. And although they still lost in 2005 it was by a much narrower margin than they almost certainly would have done and hence paved the way for Cameron in 2010 to become PM. Labour need to take a leaf out of their book and create a structure that allows them to be more ruthless.

If they are serious about getting back into power in the next decade they absolutely have to do this,

Tuesday 12 May 2015

The most amazing night of politics I will ever witness

Warning this is a long one!

So much stuff to talk about in the aftermath of the most fascinating election in my lifetime (I was born in July 1974).

I'll try and group my thoughts under a number of headings.

The Run-up to Election Night

As I had shared on Twitter in the couple of days running up to the election I had read a piece by Shaun Lawson on Our Kingdom that had convinced me the polling was wrong and the Tories were going be very close to a majority:

I had actually e-mailed a number of key activists and people in the media (some of whom also shared it) about this piece as I really felt like the scales had fallen from my eyes. I also opened up a dialogue with Shaun via DM on Twitter and he pointed me towards this very long post on Number Cruncher Politics by Matt Singh published 2 days before election day which analysed the “Shy Tory” factor stretching back over 50 years worth of data and concluded that the Tories were on course for a majority. It is a highly persuasive and hugely perceptive piece of psephological work which if there is any justice will lead to the author getting the respect and plaudits they deserve even though they are not part of the mainstream media.

As I hadn't had the time I didn't actually start reading this post until about 8:30pm on election day and finished it holed up in a hotel room in Margate at about 9:40pm, i.e. 20 minutes before the polls were due to close. At this point, absolutely convinced we were about to see an incredible result against almost all the polling I tweeted this:

Election Night

So when the exit poll at 10pm on election night predicted that Cameron was going to get 316 seats with Labour on 239 and the Lib Dems on 10 (and SNP in the high 50s) I was probably one of the very few people in the country to have been unsurprised.

Given that these exit polls are usually pretty accurate and use a completely different methodology from the other polls in the run up to an election (they sample 22,000 people's votes as they are coming out of about 140 polling stations hence you definitely know they voted for example and they are asked to fill out a mock ballot paper that is exactly the same as the actual one they have just filled in and then put it in a sealed ballot box) and the sample size is so much bigger I was well over 90% sure that this was the effect that Shaun and NCP had written about in the previous few days coming through. I thought Paddy Ashdown's attack on the poll was ridiculous and so it was proven a few hours later.

I spent the bulk of election night, from midnight with the BBC Radio Kent team in the Winter Gardens in Margate where the counts for Thanet North and South Thanet were being held. They chose that count because South Thanet was the seat that Farage was trying to capture although by the time I got there all the talk was that he was not going to win it judging by the mood of the camps and this also was correct.

I was on air almost continually from 1am to 6am so I experienced election night in a way I never had done before (for the 2010 one I had split my time between a party organised by the Guido Fawkes team – I had been one of the token Lib Dems I think amongst lots of Tories and then later at the National Liberal Club where I sat with then President Ros Scott, her husband Mark Valladares and others which had been fascinating in itself). I was alongside a panel including a couple of academics and a comedian (two comedians if you include Lembit Opik) all overseen by the excellent Julia George. We had various local political stars pop in to be interviewed including Al Murray the Pub Landlord who remained in character for the entire interview, Sir Roger Gale who my political antennae suggest will be one of the thorns in Cameron's side from the right and many others. The format was very free flowing and we were encouraged as panel members to chip in and ask questions which I must confess I took full advantage of!

As the night wore on and the extent of the Tory (and SNP) success and the relative failure of the other parties (despite in the case of UKIP and the Greens getting many more votes than they ever have done before) it evolved into the single most absorbing political event I have ever experienced (and probably will ever experience again).

The sheer number of political careers that were ended in the space of a few hours is unparalleled. I stayed up most of the night back in 1997 when I was a mere strapling living in Liverpool watching it on TV (alongside a die-hard Labour supporter and a Tory) and even that cannot compare. Instead of one “Portillo moment” there were almost too many to count as minister and shadow minister alike fell like ninepins. Douglas Alexander, Vince Cable (who looked like he had just been punched in the stomach at his declaration), Simon Hughes, Jim Murphy, Ed Davey, Ed Balls, David Laws, Danny Alexander, the list just went on and on. Even the Tories didn't entirely escape unscathed with rising star Esther McVey losing her Merseyside seat (I'm sure my Liverpool die-hard Labour friend was delighted with that small victory).

And of course it wasn't just those who lost their seats. By half way through the next day, three leaders of large political parties that between them had received more than 50% of the vote were gone. Ed Miliband first, followed by Nigel Farage and finally, inevitably Nick Clegg who had presided over almost certainly the most devastating election for a UK party in modern political history.

The Benefit of Hindsight

Already we are starting to see history being rewritten. I recall hearing the highly insightful Matthew Parris saying on a recent Times political podcast episode that whatever the eventual result was, everything that had happened through the campaign would be filtered through that prism and that is indeed what has started to happen. The slight stumble at the end of the BBC Question Time grilling of Ed Miliband will be played as much as Kinnock falling over in the sea has been. The moment in that same episode when Miliband refused to accept Labour had spent too much and there were audible gasps from the audience. The ridiculous obelisk. The late night dash to touch the hem of a loquacious comedian agitator. They will all be pointed at as now obvious missteps. Which they were of course but the Tories had their own, we'll just never hear about them again because they don't fit the narrative. Political history is effectively written by the winners.


For me though the problems with Labour go much, much deeper than a six week election campaign. Since the very start of the coalition I have felt that their attacks have been opportunistic and to a large extent hypocritical. To have listened to their spokespeople who between them have pretty much opposed every single cut that the previous government made. This then meant that when latterly during the parliament they tried to adopt the mantle of “fiscal responsibility” it very much did not ring true and they struggled to be heard and trusted on the issue. I was saying that in podcasts, broadcasts and in writing for years but I think the Labour people who engaged with me generally just thought I was attacking them because I was a Lib Dem and even when I left the Lib Dems because I was still a fellow traveller with them. But that was not true. I always want to see a strong opposition holding the government to account. This was simply not happening.

Despite a few flashes of what Miliband was capable of (preventing war in Syria which however you look at it was remarkable, the fuel price freeze that dominated the political agenda for weeks amongst the more notable ones) his opposition was generally leaden, managerial technocratic and unengaging. I was surprised in the end that his party actually lost seats but I never seriously thought they would overtake the Tories in seats following the election campaign.

I think and hope Labour have learned an important lesson about where elections are won from and it's not from the left. There are some noises off I have heard claiming that Miliband was not left enough. If they are allowed to prevail it will precipitate the end of the party as a serious political force (as I predicted could happen within a generation back in 2011 to not a little derision).

There was another, huge problem with Labour's approach during the last parliament which I raised numerous times, again to general derision from the left. It was that for a long time they seemed to be attacking the Lib Dems more than the Tories (my fellow former Lib Dem James Graham has also written about this very eloquently here). Even though the vast majority of the stuff that Labour didn't like were Tory policies, the Tories had 5/6ths of the MPs in the government and it is simply not possible for a junior coalition partner to force their entire programme through from their manifesto or indeed block everything in the larger partner's manifesto (the Lib Dems made their own huge mistakes in this area which I will come to later). All I seemed to hear from Labour for about the first two years was how the Lib Dems had “betrayed” their principles, how “you couldn't trust a word Nick Clegg said” and how “the Lib Dems only wanted to get their bums onto ministerial limo seats”. This last one by the way is utterly bizarre. Just put yourself in the position of someone like Nick Clegg or Vince Cable when they were beginning their climb up the political greasy pole. If either of them had been desperate to get their “bum on a ministerial limo seat” they would have joined other parties. Clegg would have joined the Tories (that would have been perfectly natural for him to do given he had been a SpAd for Leon Brittan in Europe) and Cable would never have left the Labour Party for the SDP in 1982, and then perhaps more importantly when it became clear there was not going to be a realignment of politics on the left he never would have stayed in the Lib Dems. The same applies to all other Lib Dems. If they had wanted guaranteed power they would have joined other parties. They are almost the definition of politicians who were willing to stick by their principles given they all chose to remain in a party that had not been in government since 1945. The idea that Clegg, Cable, Laws, Huhne etc. all had a Machiavellian plan to join a small party with little representation under a system that hugely favours big parties and usually gives them majorities and then bide their time just to wait until there was a once in a blue moon hung parliament and then, after just 20 or 30 short years “BANG! Ministerial limo seats!” is risible.

The net effect of all these attacks on the Lib Dems was of course to reduce their support. But the primary beneficiaries of this were, you've guessed it, the Tories. The majority of Lib Dem seats were places where the second biggest party was Conservative. It was obvious that if you spend much of your time attacking the Lib Dems the end result would be to increase the number of seats where the Tories could get a plurality of voters to plump for their candidate. And indeed a fair few of the seats that the Tories won last Thursday, the ones that made the difference between being maybe 20 seats short and having an overall majority were taken by effectively cannibalising their coalition partners. So the Labour attacks were very effective, they just meant that they gifted dozens of seats to their primary opponents. There is also the question of “opportunity cost” with so much of their focus on going for the Lib Dems at the expense of fighting the Tories. If the seats that Labour had taken off the Lib Dems were taken off the Tories instead (quite possible with a different allocation of resources) the Tories now would not have a majority. To have approached the election like this demonstrates the extent to which Labour were blinded by tribalism and how much they had begun to believe their own propaganda of “Lib Dem betrayal”.

They need to have a full “drains up” inspection of their machine, party positioning and direction if they are to have any chance of avoiding the period of 2010 – 2030 being a repeat of what happened between 1979 and 1997, i.e. finding themselves on the receiving end of repeated drubbings at the hands of the Tories.

Lib Dems

The Lib Dems have come very close to being destroyed in this election. There are a myriad of reasons for this but for me the best way to sum it up is that before 2010 they positioned themselves as a party of the centre-left and in government they repositioned themselves as a party of the centre-right. Another important thing to note is that despite good intentions they let a lot of illiberal policies either through (e.g. secret courts) or remain completely unreformed (e.g. drugs policy) which although that won't bother the majority of people was devastating to the party's core vote.

There were of course individual mistakes, the most obvious of which was tuition fees. Indeed on this it's easy to forget what was agreed in the coalition agreement (which I voted for at the Special Conference in May 2010 when I was still a Lib Dem member). The agreement was that the Lib Dems could abstain on this policy. I was a little queasy about this thinking that even just abstaining would be damaging to the party but I was willing to trust the party leadership would play it well and make it abundantly clear they were not supporting any rise. In the end though many Lib Dem MPs* ended up voting for the rise, not least Vince Cable who was the principle author of the policy in his role as Business Secretary. This was catastrophic. I also think it is fair to say that the leadership would have struggled to get the 2/3rds majority they required from the Special Conference** had it been clear this is what would happen. I am sure that at the time Clegg thought the party would abstain. It was only during the time in government that they decided this was untenable due to Cable's role and I am sure motivated by wanting to improve things allowed Cable to steer the legislation through the Commons. Indeed the policy was both an improvement on what the Tories would have done alone, and in my view also the previous policy given how it reduced the average monthly repayments by increasing the salary at which it kicked in. In fact it was a graduate tax in all but name. But that's totally beside the point. Clegg had no mandate from his party to do what he did and the betrayal narrative that this act hugely strengthened in the party's opponents was set in concrete.

This was an example of Clegg ignoring what his party wanted once in government. There were many more examples. Ironically Clegg could have turned his party's structures into a strength. One of the reasons I joined the party in the first place was because of its internal democracy. The fact that the voting members at conference decided the policy. This could have been a strength for the former Lib Dem leader because of the dynamics of high level negotiations. Professional negotiators know that something that superficially can appear a weakness (the requirement to defer to others) can actually be a strength. I have experienced this in the business world when negotiating a large sale of a piece of software a number of years ago. The prospective buyers kept talking about “internal stakeholders” and every time we tried to edge forward they would say they needed to go away and talk to them. I don't know if these “internal stakeholders” even existed but whether they did or not was irrelevant. Using this device allowed them to go away and take some time to respond to various points. It also allowed them to play the “our internal stakeholders would never accept that” card to try and stymie our tactics. Bluffs can of course be called in these situations but they help to drive the dynamic of negotiations. Clegg had a perfect opportunity to play his party's internal democracy to his advantage. He could have insisted to Cameron on e.g. secret courts that he would have to defer to his party as it is an issue of core principle for his membership. Then when the party inevitably voted the proposal down he would have had democratic cover to order his ministers to vote against it. Instead of this though, Clegg became a champion of the policy and tried to persuade his membership of its merits. He also tried to use various procedural devices and timings to prevent the membership from expressing its view. And when this failed he then simply ignored the views of the membership and went ahead anyway (and this was far from the only time this happened). Some very good and long standing members of the party left as a result of that decision. I nearly did, although I bottled it in the end only to leave later that year anyway for slightly different but related reasons. The most memorable resignation over secret courts was Jo Shaw, a Lib Dem activist who was widely respected inside and outside the party and who had campaigned tirelessly on this issue. She resigned in a speech on stage at conference directly after the debate and the vote, the result of which she knew would be ignored by Clegg in one of the best political speeches I have ever heard. She channeled the ghost of Harry Willcock stating in her sign off that she is “A liberal and a democrat and I am against this sort of thing.”.

The Lib Dems will do a lot of soul searching in the aftermath of what has just happened to them. The sad truth is though that it will probably be decades before they can build back up to the sort of parliamentary strength they had in the last 10 years, if ever. With the fracturing of the vote and no prospect of the electoral system being reformed in the short to medium term they could simply cease to exist as a party in 5 or 10 years time.


Well blimey. Who'd a thunk it? Cameron back in No 10 with an actual majority.

The first thing to say is well done. Very few people thought this was even possible. Yes, I know his party only got 37% of the vote (which has been distorted into 50%+ of the seats) and he played fast and loose with the Union to get over the line but as a political power play it is essentially unparalleled in modern British politics. In fact from where we are now Cameron is starting to look like a Francis Urquhart type character whose tactics and strategy have been totally vindicated, at least from the perspective of someone who wants to win at any cost (which he did). He will now rank among the longer lived PMs of our history such as Thatcher and Blair. Everyone's perceptions will need to be adjusted and indeed that is already happening.

However it is easy to get carried away here. From where he started it is indeed a sweet victory to go from a minority position to a majority one and to have gained 25 or so seats. But his majority is 12. OK, 20 if you factor in that Sinn Fein do not take their seats. This is a majority lower than John Major had in 1992 and we all know what happened there.

I suspect that the rebellious nature of the Tory party in recent years will subside a bit and they will be a little more disciplined now the government does not have a majority of 70 (which is what the Lib Dems gave it previously) but even so it will only take a few backbenchers to vote against the government or abstain for Cameron to fail to get his legislation through. And a few by-elections could reduce that majority to nothing as happened with Major (although MPs are generally younger and healthier than they were 25 years ago).

My point is that despite all the plaudits Cameron and the current political capital and strength he has as he exercises his patronage and rides the inevitable honeymoon bounce he will eventually be in quite a weak position. Europe is going to dominate the first half of this parliament until the referendum is held and given the strength of feeling of a substantial number of his backbenchers on this issue he could effectively be held to ransom by them forcing him to go further on his negotiations and perhaps even meaning he eventually has to campaign for “out” rather than “in”. I don't think this is the most likely outcome but I can certainly conceive of it happening.

The strange thing though is that the government will probably not fall over the next 5 years as no matter what else happens Cameron's party is unlikely to lose a vote of no confidence. And with the Prime Minister unable to go to the country without a 2/3rds majority in the House a voluntary dissolution is also unlikely. All this assumes however that the Fixed Term Parliament Act remains in place which is not a given. I am sure even now Cameron and his close allies are wargaming the politics of potentially repealing it. He could say it had been necessary in a time of instability and coalition but it is not needed any more. If he wants to do this he'll need to do it quickly before he gets bogged down in the minutiae of the next parliament and while he is still riding high following his victory.

I also think it is unlikely that the Tories will make all the welfare cuts they said they would during the campaign. I suspect the policy has served its purpose to help with their “scrounger vs striver" narrative and in reality they will find a way to fiddle around a bit, claim they have actually made the cuts but fudge it so there is not as much pain as an actual £12bn cut would cause. Oh and by the way it will suit both the Tories and Labour to pretend that the cuts have really happened, Osborne to burnish his “tough” credentials and Labour to continue their “Tories are heartless” campaign. This will be a reflection of what happened in 2012 when Osborne actually did change course quite significantly (effectively a Plan B) and allow various fiscal stabilisers to do their job properly whilst pretending he hadn't and it suited both main parties to pretend it hadn't happened.


The SNP's success in Scotland since they lost the independence referendum last September has been simply stunning. They have gone from around 20% odd of the vote to around 50% and in the wake of this taken all but 3 of Scotland's 59 constituencies. Indeed many of their seats now have majorities of 10,000 or more making this a semi-permanent fixture of the political scene.

Yes, Cameron helped to stoke separatist sentiment in both countries with his EVEL speech the morning after the referendum result but even without that it was clear something special has been happening in Scotland's politics. Indeed Jim Murphy sensed the way the tide was going in 2009 when he told Gaby Hinsliff of The Observer that he was going back to Scotland to “Fight the Nats”. Gaby was somewhat confused but Murphy had just sensed what is now obvious to us all, that the SNP were on the rise.

The question now is what will Nicola Sturgeon do with her Westminster troops. The truth is a Tory majority might just be the best outcome for her. Now she doesn't have to worry about making deals with Labour and being perceived as “collaborating with the enemy”. Instead she can oppose the Tories whilst at the same time insisting the election result demonstrates that Scotland need more and more powers as otherwise they are being dictated to by politicians who are simply not representative of what Scots want. And it will be very, very difficult for Cameron to counter this. In fact I don't think he'll even bother. I think he will give the SNP almost everything they demand short of actual independence but to all intents and purposes they will have won what they wanted. Another referendum in 5 or 10 years time will result in formal secession but by their actions in the general election of 2015 the Scots have already essentially written the cheque for the end of the Union and signed it. They just haven't cashed it in yet but that will surely come.

UKIP and the Greens

There is a lot less to say about these parties at least in parliamentary terms than they deserve but that is a simple function of the fact that although between them they got around 17% of the vote they only got 0.3% of the seats. Yes that is totally unfair. In fact it is monstrously, egregiously unfair and long term readers of this blog will know how utterly frustrating I find this. But this is where we are and the fact that we now have a Tory majority, given they are the party most wedded to the First Past the Post system we are not going to see any change in the next few years.

But it is remarkable what UKIP have achieved in vote share terms at least. To have gone from around 3% to around 13% quadrupling their vote is astounding. Under a fairer system that would be a stunning result and the party and its leader would be lauded. As it is, because Farage didn't win his seat in South Thanet (or any of their other target seats) and overall UKIP actually lost one of the seats it won in last year's by-elections it is widely perceived that the party has failed. I personally think that is a misreading. They still have parliamentary representation and in terms of vote share they are the third biggest party in the country. They are also in second place in a lot of constituencies now and in some ways that is more important than how many seats they got this time round as it positions them very well to capitalise in 2020.

As for the Greens, well they still have one MP who has managed to increase her vote share and also they have managed to go from around 1% to around 4%, like UKIP a huge improvement. I suspect in years to come they will continue to take votes from Labour from the left and assuming Caroline Lucas regains the leadership they could do even better next time. They came close in a couple of other constituencies this time around.


We are literally living in a different political world. Scotland has gone SNP yellow. Great swathes of England outside of the North and London are blue. The Lib Dems are almost nowhere to be seen and for the first time in nearly 20 years we have a majority Conservative government at Westminster. It will take time for all of us to adjust to this new reality.

One thing I am almost certain of though is that I will never again witness a night of politics as exciting or devastating as the one I watched from a chair in a makeshift radio studio in Margate last Friday morning.

*Before anyone says, yes I know not all Lib Dem MPs voted for it, indeed many backbenchers did not but that is almost beside the point. The party leadership and its MPs in government did vote for it and that was devastating.

**I am aware that technically the Special Conference was not required as constitutionally within the Lib Dem Party it is a back-stop that is only needed to be used if the minimum 75% majority from the parliamentary party and the Federal Executive cannot be achieved which in this case it already had been. But once the Special Conference had been called (which Clegg probably correctly judged was politically necessary even though it wasn't technically required), they had to get the 2/3rds majority or the coalition would have been dead in the water. It is also worth pointing out that the parliamentary party and the FE may well not have got over the 75% threshold if the way the tuition fees situation would play out had been properly understood.