Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

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.