Small Unimportant State Calls Fresh Elections as Corruption Accusations Fly

The Prime Minister of a small European nation has called for a general election. But the leader of the country’s incumbent hard-right government faced immediate demands to come clean as it became apparent that state prosecutors were preparing to bring charges against around thirty of the party’s legislators and staff over irregularities in the previous election – held two years ago.

The ballots cast back then had catapulted the PM’s predecessor to a shock majority in the national parliament, with the idiosyncratic electoral system giving the party more than half of the seats on a mere 37% of the popular vote. But investigations by a state-owned media channel found that there had been over-spending in several key seats, and that in some cases spending hadn’t been declared at all.

It became clear that this had the potential to have decided the election, and that without this undeclared assistance, key marginals may not have fallen into the hands of the blue team.

Police forces followed up on the media investigation, opening 29 cases a year after the election. 29 by-elections would be more than enough to create a political earthquake; the government’s slim majority was only 12.

The then PM was in a bind. He’d run into difficulties with that tiny sliver of control, and despite the uncertainty over the legitimacy of his position, he decided to take drastic action. Calling a referendum on the country’s place within its most important trading bloc seemed unnecessary, even foolish; but it would appease those on his backbenches who frequently seemed to be sharpening their daggers.

The referendum was a parade of falsehoods. The campaign director of the winning side admitted later that they would not have won without telling a straightforward lie. They claimed that money ‘saved’ from abandoning free trade would be spent on the nation’s health services – a claim that was immediately abandoned by the campaign’s own leaders after the result came through.

Nonetheless, the decision was made. A cosmic cloud of political fallout followed. A summer of insanity in which both the governing party and the opposition held leadership elections, only for the former to be left with a coronation and the latter to retain their previous leader, despite his deep unpopularity.

Not only that; the new PM had been on the wrong side of the result in the referendum, but now appeared to be dead set on implementing that unwanted result.

Of course, the people did not have the opportunity to offer an opinion on their new leader. The argument ran that the general election had given the party a mandate, and that the mandate had been refreshed and strengthened by the referendum, even though the party’s official policy had been defeated in that referendum, and even though the country’s leader had had to resign in ignominy.

The new PM quickly set about testing the strength of that mandate by abandoning the commitment in the previous election manifesto to stay in the trading bloc even if the referendum was lost. At the same time, a vicious campaign against dissent was beginning to swirl in the media, with judges involved in assessing the constitutional impact of the plebiscite branded ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’. This language was not condemned by the PM herself.

Just a few months after the new PM was elevated, it became clear that her top aide had been involved in the election expenses scandal. Further evidence was uncovered a few months later.

Once again, though, the party pressed ahead. A seismic decision was taken: the country officially began the process of leaving the trading bloc. This was despite further revelations – that same month – that the party’s headquarters and many top officials had been deeply implicated in the election expenses scandal.

All of which brings us to the present. Today, the Prime Minister called for an early general election, presenting this as a natural way to refresh her government’s mandate and strengthen her hand in negotiations. But it seems clear from this torrent of obfuscation and chicanery that it is only about one thing: shoring up her corrupt, disastrous and potentially illegal regime by any means necessary.

How the country can continue to pursue its extreme policy of self-defenestration, at a stroke making its economy less competitive and taking freedom and rights away from its people, is unclear. It would at least have been appropriate to wait until the police forces and the prosecutors had finished their inquiries.

Instead this plucky island nation is now faced with the prospect of a quasi-dictatorial PM whose power was acquired in an undemocratic, opaque fashion, prosecuting policies on behalf of her friends and cronies, not the nation she represents.

It must now be the role of international observers and – perhaps – interventionists from prominent countries to build an appropriate response.


“Crush the Saboteurs”: Vladimir Lenin


Why Nick Tyrone is wrong about First Past the Post

Nick Tyrone, formerly of the Electoral Reform Society and the Yes to AV campaign, has revealed his support for the First Past the Post voting system today. This is a pretty courageous move (in the Yes Minister sense) for someone with those associations and who is still a Liberal Democrat, as far as I’m aware.

So naturally I was intrigued to see someone of his stature within the Lib Dem/liberal community resile from electoral reform at a national level. He still supports PR for local government.

I was wondering whether he would make any new arguments for FPTP that I hadn’t already heard. But actually, he hasn’t. I don’t usually make a habit of fisking other people’s writing but on this occasion I have to make an exception.

His argument for retaining FPTP begins like this:

But at Westminster, I actually think First Past the Post has definite advantages. Relevant to the age we live in, it keeps extremism at bay. Some electoral reformers talk endlessly about how the Tories got a majority with only 37% of the vote. Yet, if we’d had a proportional system in place, the most likely government would have been a Tory-UKIP coalition, which would have had just over 50% of the nationwide vote together. I don’t see that as a step up myself, and many centre-left voters who automatically see PR as more progressive should have a long, hard think about DPM Farage.

Immediately there are a lot of problems. First of all, Nick says FPTP “keeps extremism at bay”. That’s a problematic statement both because it begs a question – namely, what constitutes extremism. Plenty of people might think the current government has an extreme agenda on the economy, or on intelligence and surveillance, for instance.

But more troublingly, it takes for granted the notion that the voting system we should use should have an in-built anti-extremism safety mechanism. In other words, we should rig our democracy to reduce the possibility of certain views being fully represented. That is, of course, the opposite of democracy.

Another problem: “the most likely government would have been a Tory-UKIP coalition”. This is based on the vote share those two parties received under FPTP. But you can’t extrapolate from vote shares under FPTP to a PR outcome; voting behaviour could change, possibly dramatically, with moderate parties like the Liberal Democrats likely to benefit from voters’ anti-extremist preferences.

But also this is just another version of “keeping extremism at bay”.  A genuine democracy sees the majority view represented. If the majority vote for parties that are considered extreme, then an extremist government is what we should get. I have no desire to see that outcome, but the possibility of its reality is in line with the principles I subscribe to as a democrat. I cannot abandon those principles for political expediency.

Another problem is that PR for Westminster can just sound like sour grapes. For instance, Caroline Lucas always going on about the Westminster voting system being “broken” or some other pejorative term. It feels a bit like, sorry to say, the Greens couldn’t break through under FPTP so now it’s time for a new voting system that will help them do better. Or then she talks about a Labour/Lib Dem/Green alliance. Putting aside the political realities standing in the way of that – if you want a “progressive majority” so badly, why don’t you just join Labour and fight for stuff inside of that party?

This isn’t an argument against PR, but against the Green Party. Unsurprisingly, I have some sympathy with it. I want my party to succeed under whatever voting system we have, and that’s why it’s not sensible to keep banging on about electoral reform as the central political issue facing the UK today (even though, in one sense, it is).

On the other hand, small parties are right to feel aggrieved at their lack of representation in Parliament. UKIP won a lot more votes than the Lib Dems in 2015; they have 1 seat to the Lib Dems’ 8. The Lib Dems won 24% to Labour’s 29% in 2010; they won just a fifth of the seats (57 against 258).

This is a fundamental injustice. It’s not about helping parties “do better”; it’s about recognising that they have broken through by winning votes, and that the system should reflect their success.

Finally, Nick turns to coalition government:

The last coalition may not have been to some tastes, but it was stable and it was effective at getting legislation passed. The Lib Dems thought if coalition could be shown to be functional over the course of a five year parliament, enough people would vote Lib Dem again in order to have another pluralist government. The Lib Dems were wrong about this, as May 2015 showed. And you can go on and on about tuition fees and what you see as the betrayals of the Lib Dems in government – you are only proving my point. The British people, and most pronouncedly in some ways now, those on the Left in Britain, are not prepared to accept coalition government. Given PR is almost guaranteed to produce coalition government in most instances, FPTP is the only way to go at Westminster level until the British public finds itself in love with coalitions (i.e. never).

This is a mis-diagnosis of the Lib Dems’ failure in 2015. The decision to go into coalition obviously lost the party a chunk of its support, but fundamentally our disastrous performance was about loss of trust. To say that that means the British people have rejected the idea of coalition itself is wrong.

The reality is that British voters are anti-government in whatever form it arises. A YouGov poll conducted in April 2015 showed that no form of government had a net positive reputation with voters. Even a Tory majority only scored -3. Moreover, there was some evidence in polling around the election to suggest that voters actually approved of the idea of the Lib Dems mitigating the other parties.

It is, in any case, impossible to extrapolate this kind of conclusion from election results – partly because FPTP itself does not tell us enough about voters’ preferences. Perhaps that is why Nick supported AV, a preferential (but not a proportional) system – because he himself recognised at one time that having the most possible information about what voters wants will create a better democracy.

All he needs to do now is recognise that seats should match votes – and he’ll have completed his journey from darkness to light.

Terrorism is not the greatest current threat to the British way of life

It’s now almost eight months since the face of British politics was decisively altered. Yet the full impact of the UK’s 2015 general election has still to be understood by politicians, let alone the voting public.

You might think this is hyperbole. A lot of people said the same thing after the 2010 election, for instance, due to the apparent breakthrough of the Lib Dems as the third party – and the prospect of perpetual coalition government.

But my view is no exaggeration. The reality of the election is this: we have been left with a Conservative Party vulnerable only to its own hubris. The opposition is either disinterested, splintered, or simply invisible.

We are now in a situation where world events threaten to further diminish our ability to discern the dangers of our domestic political environment. The emphasis on responding to recent attacks is understandable, but not at the cost of allowing a majority government to do whatever it wants.

In the immediate aftermath of the election I retained some hope that with such a small majority, a combination of internal squabbling and a united opposition might force the Conservatives to veer away from Austerity Mk II. And for a brief moment in October, this looked like it could yet ensue.


View of Westminster from Embankment Bridge

The tax credits issue threatened to throw some light on the punishing and unnecessary way in which George Osborne is planning to slash and burn the welfare state. Had Labour peers sided with their Lib Dem counterparts in the House of Lords, the government could have suffered a decisive defeat. But instead, Labour trimmed their sails just as the wind turned in their favour, adopting a halfway house position that gave Osborne breathing space to come up with a “solution” by the time of his Autumn Statement.

I confidently predict that that solution will be spun as a major climb down on his part, but will give almost no real relief to the people against whom the cuts were targeted.

Of course, since the Lords sent Osborne back to the drawing board, events have moved on rapidly. UK politics, like those of every other Western democracy, are currently dominated by questions of foreign policy, terrorism and conflict.

The irony of this should not be lost on anyone who witnessed as recently as April the major parties of a still-influential nation conniving to pretend that we are serenely unaffected by world events.

While of course we should take every sensible step to respond to terrorist attacks effectively – if, indeed, there is an effective response – the significance of recent events domestically is already plain. A ComRes poll released last night shows a remarkable 70% of voters agreeing with the statement: “We have to accept infringements of privacy on the internet for the sake of fighting terrorism”.

Theresa May has so far declined to force through her new surveillance measures despite this overwhelming public support and the best efforts of arch-authoritarian Andy Burnham to speed her up. But it is a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the same poll showed that public perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn are rapidly worsening in the wake of his post-Paris prevarication. A mere two months after he became leader, he now looks in serious danger of being toppled before next spring’s elections, with MPs and even Shadow Cabinet ministers lining up to criticise and undermine him.

People won’t necessarily thank me for talking about domestic politics in the context of the current debate around our response to Daesh. But it is unavoidably relevant. This Wednesday, George Osborne will be in the House of Commons to deliver his Autumn Statement and the results of his spending review.

His statement will have far more profound effects on our way of life than terrorist attacks ever could, even ones of the same shocking scale as Paris. As I write that sentence, I blanch at a comparison that seems extremely insensitive, but that is the reality we face.

Will Hutton – hardly a raving Marxist, but rather a mainstream, Keynesian social democratic economist who was strongly associated with New Labour – has an extremely powerful article in today’s Observer which urges us to weep for the country we live in. It details the hard facts of Osborne’s plans, and what they could mean. This is the “security” the Conservatives promised the nation in April and May:

the de facto wind-up of the Department for Business as a pro-active department, further shrinkage of the criminal justice system (mitigated by prison sell-offs), local government reduced to a husk and the knell of further education. Meanwhile, the cuts in welfare will hit the wellbeing of millions, including their children. Expect on top a firesale of government assets – from housing associations to Channel 4.

Terrorism is a serious and awful threat to our lives and our way of life. But my point here is that it is emphatically not the greatest threat. We should not – must not – allow attacks like those in Paris and Mali to distract us from what is being done by our own government in the name of “security” – whether economic or military.

In five years’ time, our government may well have helped to wipe Daesh off the face of the earth. I will be the first to celebrate that outcome. But unless there is a serious change in the way our government is scrutinised and held to account by our opposition parties, our media and, most of all, voters themselves, we can expect our country to have been irrevocably damaged in the meantime.

This process can and should start on Wednesday. George Osborne’s statement will be carefully stage managed. As in the summer Budget and as both he and David Cameron did at their party’s conference, he will take great pains to appear ever so reasonable, moderate, even centrist. He has been given space to do so, of course, by articles like Hutton’s (and like this), with their dire warnings of imminent doom.

The presentation will be serious, but with just the right amount of apparent backtracking, alongside some trademark difficult decisions and some patriotic purchases.

The question is whether we have yet learnt not to take him at his word.

What an “unfettered” Tory government might actually mean

A little more than 24 hours after it became painfully clear just what the Conservatives had achieved in the general election, there is already a developing sense of buyer’s remorse. Apparently almost 2400 new members have joined the Liberal Democrats since polls closed. This is obviously a good thing, although perhaps it just reflects the endless propensity of British people to back a plucky underdog.

But it was striking already across both old and new media yesterday how subdued the response to the prospect of five years of majority Tory rule was. There was limited triumphalism from newspapers that had mostly advocated some species of continued coalition or power-sharing arrangement. And the response on Twitter – certainly from people I follow, who are not all Lib Dems by any means – was quite sceptical.

David Cameron, yesterdayPeople are belatedly poring over the Conservative Manifesto to find all the horrors within that might now become a reality. Certainly there are some big, beastly policies that spring out immediately which would never, ever have happened under a continued Tory/Lib Dem arrangement. These include:

  • Abolition of the Human Rights Act

Because we, the people, like governments actively to reduce the number of rights available to us as citizens…

  • £30 billion in further cuts, including £12 billion from welfare – the so-called “rollercoaster” of public spending cuts that will be deeper and more rapid than anything between 2010-2015

Because we, the people, like governments actively to reduce the quality and breadth of public services available to us as citizens on the basis of an arbitrary numerical target…

  • No increases in the vast majority of tax rates

Because we, the people, would rather see the government hack away at vital services than ask us – or our wealthier friends – to pay a bit more to the Treasury…

  • “Abolish” long-term youth unemployment

This is code for the following policies: tougher Day One Work Requirements for jobseekers; introduction of a “Youth Allowance” to replace JSA for 18-21 year olds that forces them to take an apprenticeship, traineeship or do “community work” for their benefits; remove automatic entitlement to Housing Benefit.

Because we, the people, think the best way for new adults to start in life is through a combination of embarrassing and demoralising situations. Work for your benefits and live with your parents into adulthood.

  • Introduce a 50% workforce threshold for strike action, and make it harder for staff in health, education, fire and transport to strike

This will presumably be known as the No Bob Crow Bill. Other policies include the removal of restrictions banning employers from hiring cover during strikes – at a stroke, undermining the whole point of industrial action.

Because we, the people, want our employers to have even more power over us – the balance at the moment is far too much towards us, the bolshy workers.

  • We will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote

Because we, the people, feel this is a sensible use of government and Parliamentary time in the 21st century. And because we like using hounds to kill foxes.

  • We will make EU migrants live here for four years without claiming any benefits

Because we, the people, want to benefit from the presence of people who “work hard and get on” without having to protect them if anything bad happens to them, like if they lose their job – you know, the one a lot of British people wouldn’t want to have to do.

  • “Deport first, appeal later”

This rule will be extended to all immigration appeals and judicial reviews, including where a so-called right to family life is involved. Satellite tracking will also be introduced for every foreign national offender subject to an outstanding deportation order or deportation proceedings.

Because we, the people, care more about getting rid of suspicious-looking foreigners than ensuring they have a right to fair treatment and due process.

  • Introduce new powers to force coasting schools to accept new leadership

Because we, the people, think the best way to make schools better is always to force them to change their leadership. Because problems always start at the top, and nothing can be blamed upon, say, social deprivation or the lack of buy-in from rich parents who can move to be nearer good schools.

  • We will address the unfairness of the current Parliamentary boundaries and reduce the number of MPs to 600

We’ll also introduce “votes for life” for expatriates who live abroad permanently, meaning all those angry people who spend their days on the Costa del Sol, whinging about the country they left, will be able to have an influence on future elections.

Because we, the people, think changes to our electoral system should be left in the hands of whoever won the last election, so that they can make sure the changes made benefit them as a party.

  • We will force Housing Associations to sell their stock at a discount

Extending the Right to Buy to tenants of housing associations? It’s just the beginning. Let’s also extend Help to Buy, give people free money if they’re saving for a deposit, and protect the Green Belt.

We pay lip service to building more bloody houses, but that takes a long time whereas all of these super-popular policies can be done pretty much straight away.

Because we, the people, know that the best way to solve a shortage of a thing is to increase demand for that thing. It’s simple economics.

  • An end to new onshore windfarms

We’ll stop public subsidy for these because they often fail to win public support (but, strikingly, not always).

Because we, the people, like a clear view of our electricity pylons, thank you very much.

  •  We will allow security services to know everything they want to about communications data – the Snoopers’ Charter

And we’ll do “whatever is necessary” to protect the British people.

Because we, the people, are happy for the government to know who we’re talking to, where, when and how. None of that is remotely intrusive as long as they aren’t actually reading the messages themselves.

  • We’ll stop taxing people when they inherit wealth up to £1 million

People should absolutely have the right to have £1 million dropped into their lap without having done a stroke of work to earn it.

Because we, the people, think the best way to make sure everyone in society benefits is to make it easier for aggregated riches to be retained solely by the extremely wealthy.

But does a majority actually mean the Tories will be able to push forward with all of this stuff?

The answer is probably – and hopefully – no. The Conservatives have won a very small majority of 12. That’s worse than John Major’s in 1992, which was 21.

The difficulty of maintaining discipline in such a Parliament cannot be underestimated. But I think it will be worse than it was even for Major. Thanks to the Coalition, the Tory backbenchers from 2010-2015 have had relative freedom to rebel, safe in the knowledge that the majority created by the stability of Conservative/Lib Dem agreement would be sufficient to pass government legislation.

That safety net no longer exists. So what you now have are right-wing Tory backbenchers hungry for red meat – and with a track record of rebellion. The Conservatives’ whipping operation, which was hardly rock solid towards the end of the last Parliament, will become critically important now. The question is whether Michael Gove (the current Chief Whip) or his replacement will be up to the challenge.

On the other hand, these right-wingers will be pulling the party further in the direction of Euroscepticism, spending cuts, and general nastiness. There are few notable exceptions: David Davis, for instance, will continue to fight the good fight on civil liberties, and there might be a small group that joins him. They might be able to get in the way of things like the Communications Data Bill.

But realistically, we should be afraid of what this government is likely to try to do. Against an opposition in disarray, even a strident backbench voice might not be too difficult to quell. Decent people need to mobilise fast against some of the worst aspects of this agenda.

#GE2015: Bloodied but Unbowed

Right, first of all a quick video response to recent events:

Last night (and this morning) was the most bitter political experience of my life. It was made worse by the fact that I, like most Lib Dems, thought I was braced and prepared for the worst. At 10pm, when the exit poll was broadcast, it turned out I wasn’t – and then it turned out that was only the beginning of something even worse than that. Yes, it was truly the worst of the worst of the worst.

The loss of Julian Huppert in Cambridge is the single most devastating indictment of UK representational politics that I can remember. Never can any constituency have rejected such an intelligent, hard-working, passionate and most of all effective Member of Parliament. The list of achievements Julian has racked up in five short years is nothing less than astounding, and reflective of his boundless energy, his unquenchable curiosity and his genuine compassion and care for constituents.

Perhaps I’m biased, as I used to work for the man. But then he treated me, as one of his staff, with the same remarkable care as that he gave to all constituents. So I’m more than happy to be biased.

Julian’s narrow defeat was only one of many kicks in the teeth. At times it felt like the blows were coming in so fast they were more like an avalanche, burying hope beneath an endless cascade of lost deposits and overturned majorities. Just listing the likes of Vince Cable, David Laws, Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone, Simon Hughes, Adrian Sanders, and many more…

It’s not fair. It didn’t have to be like this. But we can’t blame anyone but ourselves.

The temptation is to turn inwards in denial and acrimony: pointing fingers, extracting pounds of flesh, demanding apologies. No doubt some will want to do so. But that is not the right response.

The right response is what has been firmly, if forlornly, advanced by some of our remaining MPs and by the likes of Paddy Ashdown. A Conservative majority was not foreseen. But it now exists, and must be met with a liberal opposition. The UK, too, is on the verge of splintering, of turning inwards, and becoming a more dangerous and authoritarian place. Theresa May is set to continue in Marsham Street, happily proposing ever more mad ideas that will limit our liberty and do little for our security. Iain Duncan Smith will soon be given the task of finding the £12 billion of welfare cuts that the Tories wouldn’t give us answers on before polling day. George Osborne will be sizing up other spending cuts in key areas like further education.

We cannot leave it to others to do what the Liberal Democrats still exist to do. There is no one else around to do it: to provide a different, better way forward. One based on liberty, equality and community, on internationalism and openness; on the vital commitment to empower each person to live a life that is full of opportunity and creativity, free of poverty, ignorance and conformity.

I have been guilty of doing too little to safeguard that identity. The party, too, has been guilty of neglecting it and allowing government to turn us into nothing more than an often-overlooked rudder on a ship bound for the rocks.

Now is the time to accept what has happened – and our responsibility for it – and fight, and fight again, for the values that we are founded upon. I intend no longer to be a passive Liberal Democrat. Today marks the day when we begin the long process to turn the anger and pain of this general election into renewal: not just for ourselves, but for the society we still aim to serve.

First Rule of Negotiation: Keep Your Options Open #GE2015

In an election where the outcome is highly uncertain, and likely to be defined by feverish negotiations between many parties – with even the smallest possibly playing a part – ruling out options before the result is known is obviously foolish.

2010 was a success

The Liberal Democrats know this well. We have recent experience of negotiating in a balanced Westminster Parliament. In 2010, we established a clear principle – that we would talk first to the party with the largest number of seats and/or votes. This was our initial negotiating position. Crucially, we did not rule out talking to other parties.

Over the five days following the last election, Nick Clegg and his team played a blinder. They skilfully used tenuous electoral arithmetic (which only just made a deal with Labour potentially viable – and wouldn’t have in practice) to increase their leverage in conversations with the Conservatives, who were terrified that such a deal had already been done. (This is often forgotten, but the reason for Cameron’s famous “big, open and comprehensive” offer was that senior Tories believed – laughably, in hindsight – that a Lib/Lab deal had been struck.

I still believe that in 2010, the Lib Dems got a good deal in policy terms. We secured our main goals, and while there was obviously a major error (you all know the one), I still don’t believe the Tories could have been forced into a better deal on the constitution.

The reason we got a good deal was because we kept our options open. There was a clear, established principle – the largest party is the one we’ll talk to first – and our manifesto had sufficiently radical policy positions to enable a sensible trade-off or trade-down based on Hegelian-type principles.

Why not the same again?

I can only assume, though, that senior Lib Dems this time around think we got a bad deal in 2010, as the approach seems to be entirely different now. Nick Clegg has been on the news today, ruling out some sort of minority coalition with Labour. As it happens, the arrangement he describes – one where the SNP are free to come and go, nipping at our heels and creating instability – would perhaps be both unworkable and damaging to the process of government.

But the idea of ruling such deals out now – difficult though they may be – is deeply counterproductive. At best, people will ask why we haven’t specifically ruled out other deals, perhaps with parties that are no more representative (or even less representative) than the SNP; we can think immediately of the DUP. At worst, the risk is that the Lib Dems look like they are pulling only in one direction, especially when Nick has also said that a government formed by the second largest party might “lack legitimacy” – something that has no basis and actually militates against sensible coalition-building.

This is doubly baffling when one looks at the Lib Dem manifesto and realises that it is a highly cautious, measured document, designed to allow synthesis with either of the two big parties. If anything, the Lib Dems’ current policy agenda is closer to Labour’s than to the Tories. Effectively, unlike in 2010, we have pared down our expectations before even commencing negotiations, hoping to act as a tacked-on adjunct rather than as the engine of ideas. This, I believe, is a grave mistake and one we will live to regret as a party.

What’s the result?

It’s a very confused position, especially as current polling indicates that a Labour-Lib Dem-SNP match-up of some kind may be the only grouping that actually guarantees a majority.

But more damagingly than that, voters who only read headlines (and that’s probably most of us) will again get the sense that Nick Clegg only wants to do a deal with the Conservatives. I know that this is not the case: all Lib Dems are passionate about working in government in the national interest, and would certainly not be averse to working with Labour if it meant a better settlement and another opportunity to push through liberal policies. I think even Labour recognise that, which is why we are yet to hear official calls for Clegg to stand down to enable a deal; there is recognition within Labour that Clegg is a player and a believer in plural government.

All of which only brings us back to the question: why take this position publicly, less than two weeks before polling day?

#GE2015 Your Questions Answered #3: What’s Your View on Tactical Voting?

This is the third in a series of posts attempting to answer questions and comments put to me by family and friends around the General Election. This time round, the issue is tactical voting. The specific question put to me was as follows:

What’s your view on tactical voting? (e.g. a relatively safe Labour seat, where UKIP is the only potential contender)

First, let’s define our terms. Tactical voting, according to Wikipedia, occurs “when a voter supports a candidate other than his or her sincere preference in order to prevent an undesirable outcome”.

This is a relatively simple one for me. You have to separate out the question into two parts to get things clear. There’s the matter of how we should act in our current system, which arguably encourages tactical voting. And there’s the matter of whether we should retain such a system.

Let’s start with the question of how we should act in our current system. It is obvious that in a decision involving more than two candidates where there is only one winner, tactical voting is automatically rational. The example given in the original question is a good one. If I am (say) a Conservative supporter in that constituency, I have the following choices:

  1. Follow my sincere preference, vote Conservative, and “waste” my vote
  2. Vote for Labour if I dislike UKIP sufficiently
  3. Vote for UKIP if I dislike Labour sufficiently

To me, as a natural Lib Dem supporter, I dislike UKIP to such an extent that I would vote Labour in that environment, as problematic as I find their current attitude to immigration and many other things too numerous to discuss.

This would not be true if you replaced “UKIP” with “Conservative” in the question, though. My current constituency is a Tory-Labour marginal and I will be voting Lib Dem on the basis that it’s my sincere preference, and it makes little difference to me which of the two leading candidates win.

Another wrinkle is the calibre of the candidates. If I were in Brighton Pavilion, for example, I would be highly likely to vote for Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s sole MP, as she has improved Parliament by her presence, showing a principled approach and working in a collegiate way with others on various issues. This is also true of Ed Timpson, the Conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich, who has been to my mind a very good Children’s Minister.

It’s not at all simple. But ultimately the point of the secret ballot is to allow you to make such decisions based on your own conscience. I would tend towards encouraging people to vote for their first preference on that basis, even though the system militates against it. But I would never judge people for voting tactically, given the restrictions placed upon us by the system as it stands.

Unsurprising then that I don’t believe the system should remain as it stands. There are certain things that I hope most people would consider axiomatic about a representative democracy:

  1. It should be representative. To me this means that the votes cast should translate accurately into the representation elected to enact laws and create policies on our behalf.
  2. It should be democratic. To me this means that citizens are able to vote freely and fairly in a system that gives an accurate picture of the people’s wishes.

In order for such a system to pertain we would have to switch to a form of proportional representation and a voting system that allows our preferences to be accurately reflected. The Alternative Vote system on which we had a referendum in 2011 would have achieved the latter of the two goals, a substantial improvement and a down-payment on the former goal, which would be the bigger and more vital shift. How to vote under FPTP and AV, by the great Anthony Smith

We may yet see a renewed movement in favour of such reform after the election. Not only will UKIP and the Greens lack almost any representation, despite picking up perhaps 20% of the vote between them; it looks highly likely that we are going to be in a position where the SNP wins perhaps 90-100% of the seats in Scotland on about 45% of the vote.

The UK will be held to ransom by a party benefiting from the ludicrously unrepresentative First-Past-The-Post system. The difference this time is that it will be a party that wants to break up the UK. But that is a subject for another post…

The real impact of anti-immigrant sentiment: death and shame

Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has a very important article on “Mare Nostrum” – an Italian government policy given EU backing, providing search-and-rescue operations for illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean sea.

The scheme has saved over 150,000 refugees’ lives. But, says Bush:

the cost to the Italian government – close to €9m a month – far outstripped the European subvention, and other member states, facing pressure from anti-immigration sentiment at home, were reluctant to continue funding the scheme, including the British government. Baroness Anelay, a Conservative minister at the Foreign Office, told the House of Lords that there were concerns that continuing the rescue operation could be a “pull factor”, drawing more migrants to make the dangerous journey.

Anelay’s answer got some attention at the time.

People are dying. And we don’t know about it because it doesn’t fit the narrative. This is the real impact of anti-immigrant sentiment. So next time you look at Nigel Farage and see a sweaty, inconsequential buffoon, think again. His agenda brings death to our continent and shame to our nation.

#GE2015: Your Questions Answered 2: Where do the parties stand on education?

This is the second in a series of posts attempting to answer questions and comments put to me by family and friends around the General Election. The focus this time is on education. Two friends asked very similar questions, which can be summarised thus:

What’s your take on the education policies of the major parties, and what impact might they have?

This is a pretty broad question! First of all, “education” means different things to different people. But usually, when people talk about education, though, they’re meaning state schools, so I’m addressing that. If you want me to take on further and higher education, just let me know in the comments.

What do the parties propose?

With two manifestos now published, we have a very good idea of what Labour and the Tories would do in education. You can find a fuller list by either reading the relevant manifestos (here and here), or by consulting the BBC’s updated policy guide here. However, I tend to cut education policy differently to most people so my own summary follows!


The schools budget has been “relatively well protected” over the past five years, but that looks likely to change slightly in the period 2015-2020:

  • The Conservatives say they will protect funding per pupil in real terms
  • Labour say they will protect the entire 0-19 education budget in real terms
  • The Lib Dems say they will protect the entire 2-19 education budget in real terms

These all sound quite positive. “Real terms” means that the parties are going to take inflation (rising prices, a normal part of any economy) into account, and increase spending at least by the same amount to compensate. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a prominent economic think tank, has said that the impact might actually be negative overall, because these pledges don’t fully factor in other things such as increasing pupil numbers and staff wages.

Structural Reform and New Schools

There’s been substantial change over the past five years with the Academies Act fundamentally altering the schools sector, at least in the secondary age range. The parties’ pledges mostly respond to this in some way:

  • The Conservatives want to continue the “academisation” of the secondary schools sector, by forcing failing and coasting schools to convert. They also want to open at least 500 new free schools (270,000 places) – these are new academy-type schools. They’ll also parachute high-achieving headteachers into failing schools, if Ofsted says they require improvement and don’t have a good enough plan.
  • Labour want to extend the freedoms available to academies and free schools to all schools, provided they are appropriate. They also want to introduce “Directors of School Standards” as a new way of monitoring school performance and intervening to improve it. They will also be responsible for commissioning new schools. They say they will end the Free Schools programme and use the funding to cap class sizes. Private schools will also be required to partner with state schools in order to continue to receive business rate relief.
  • The Lib Dems’ policies will focus on greater collaboration and partnership between schools including, potentially, a new accountability model for academies. They would also set up an independent education authority to set the curriculum and monitor standards. They plan to open new schools only in areas with a shortage of places. They would also allow Ofsted to inspect academy chains.


Teaching is obviously a key area for schools policy and the parties have made some specific pledges here:

  • The Conservatives will create an independent College of Teaching to promote high standards. They’ll also reduce paperwork, introduce further bursaries for in-demand subjects, expand Teach First, and pay good teachers more.
  • Labour want to ensure that all teachers in state schools are qualified. They also want to introduce a “Master Teacher” status for experts in their subject. They would also create a new College of Teaching, and will support Teach First. They would also create a new School Leadership Institute.
  • The Lib Dems would prevent unqualified teachers in state schools, starting with academies and free schools from September 2016. They’d require a B grade in Maths and English GCSE for new teachers. They’d establish a Royal College for Teachers that would set professional standards.

What will the impact be?

The impact on schools, regardless of who’s in power, will probably be a continuing need to restrain spending. That might mean restricting pay increases for teachers. Given there is already something of a crisis in teacher recruitment, and given a lot of teachers leave the profession each year, that could be a serious problem, especially as the number of pupils is already rising significantly. In turn, that might lead to even more pressure on class sizes. So it’s going to be challenging to maintain standards.

A further wrinkle is the fact that further funding reform is likely. The coalition government was aiming to change the national funding formula so that it was more uniform across the country: there are serious historical problems with the current formula which have meant some areas losing out massively compared to others. The question will be whether a new government can do this without taking money out of some schools’ budgets. They’ll be keen to avoid that but it might be very hard to achieve.

You’ll probably have noticed that there is actually a lot of overlap on many of the policies outlined by the parties. That’s because there’s really quite limited disagreement on the big questions of education policy. It’s universally agreed, for instance, that schools should have more independence and freedom to make their own decisions; that teaching should be considered a “profession”, with all that that entails; that funding should be protected; and that there should continue to be attempts to increase accountability and improve standards – if necessary through quite drastic interventions.

Teachers who yearn for a quieter life aren’t going to get it; there’s probably going to be as much pressure, if not more, under any colour of government from 2015 onwards. On the plus side, there will probably be more jobs to go for as schools expand, the recruitment crisis deepens, and pay differentials become more pronounced – in particular, academies are likely to be fighting hard to hire the best staff.

As such I’d expect to see a continuation of the current trends. I don’t think anyone should expect the kind of revolution we’ve had in the past five years, with radical changes to almost every aspect of school life – curriculum, oversight, standards, targets, and the rest. It’s generally acknowledged that there’s been a lot of change; letting that bed in, perhaps with some tinkering around the edges, is likely to be the order of the day from 2015-2020.

Tories Announce Worst #GE2015 Policy Yet

Politicians often talk about “governing for the whole of the country”. This is seen to be the desirable outcome of the democratic process: a system that, as some American guy put it, creates “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The most successful politicians in modern-day politics are those who convince voters, in large numbers, that they are truly committed to such a goal. It usually turns out that they aren’t, but sometimes that takes a long while, or there isn’t an obvious departure from that apparent commitment. This was the case for Tony Blair, and I’d say it’s also been the case for Barack Obama, despite more obvious checks and balances preventing him from fulfilling his mandate.

Tomorrow will see David Cameron and his Conservative Party decisively reject the idea of governing for the whole of the country. Of course, they have rejected it many times previously; it just so happens that they’ve had a decent check and balance, the Liberal Democrats, preventing them from running amok governing like true Tories.

But tomorrow they unveil perhaps their most nakedly offensive policy yet. Housing has once again slipped down the political agenda during this election campaign, which is a shame as it had appeared to be rising in importance. It had even precipitated something of an arms race between the parties, with competing pledges on the number of houses they would build over the next Parliament. None of them were remotely realistic, but there appeared to be an emerging consensus on the importance of increased supply in a property market that is defined by extreme scarcity and extreme demand – a combination which has led to rocketing house prices, even in parts of the country that aren’t London.

Against that backdrop the Tories have kept announcing policies that actually stimulate demand further. These have included things like NewBuy, Help to Buy, Help to Buy 2, Help to Buy ISAs, and an expansion of Right to Buy. The clue’s right there in the name: the Tories have focused all their attention on demand-side policies. The fact that the Lib Dems have let a lot of these things happen is probably the single worst area of our record in government. I don’t make any bones about that.

But now the Tories want to go a step further. They want to extend Right to Buy to social housing tenants. This is a policy that runs counter to everything that defines the UK property market. It is going to give a right to buy social housing at a discount to people who already benefit from cheaper rents. It is going to increase demand and reduce supply. It is going to slap 9 million people living in the private rented sector directly in the face.

It is also deeply problematic, for the simple reason that it will mean a huge amount of government intervention in the social housing market. Effectively it removes at a stroke the idea that housing associations are autonomous organisations, able to develop their own assets and manage them in a sensible way. It is, in other words, a top-down, command-and-control, Soviet-type policy; it just so happens that it moves huge amounts of wealth from public or quasi-public hands into private ones, rather than the other way around.

It is the worst policy so far announced in this campaign. That is saying something given the number of desperate pledges being thrown around on all sides. The Tories should be ashamed, but sadly, instead, their voters will be applauding this grotesque and vile attack on a decent society.

EDIT: It seems people agree with me, based on the response to this tweet, too: