Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Lib Dems' strategic blunder means that the coalition is more likely to be an aberration than a new dawn

"Coalitions are here to stay," declares Nick Clegg, leaving me scratching my head slightly. Now, if the Lib Dems had done what they should have done in the coalition negotiations and held out for nothing short of AV+, it would have been a perfectly reasonable boast. But AV on its own - and it really is jaw-dropping how large swathes of the media have spectacularly failed to cotton on to this simple fact - is not a proportional voting system, and does not in itself make coalitions any more likely. Indeed, in circumstances where the two largest parties occupy the centre ground and the smaller parties hold more radical positions (as in Australia), it can actually entrench the duopoly, and make single-party government even more likely than it would have been under first-past-the-post.

What the Lib Dems are banking on, of course, is that as a centre party they are well-placed to be "everyone's second choice" and thus make significant gains under AV. Along with making a renewed coalition more likely, those extra seats will, the theory goes, create a bridgehead from which the prize of proper electoral reform can be pushed for. But the paradox is that, as a direct consequence of entering government with the Tories, the Lib Dems' first preference vote has now utterly collapsed in the opinion polls. Unless they can reverse that trend, it will more than offset any boost they might receive from a switch to AV, and the net effect will be that future coalitions and electoral reforms have been made somewhat less probable by the Lib Dems' deal with the Tories, not more so.

Hung parliaments under first-past-the-post have tended to be a bit like solar eclipses - they occur extraordinarly rarely, and when they do it's not necessarily at a time that will suit. Yet, because they represent the third party's only golden opportunity to reform the electoral system, the moment has to be seized with both hands whenever it does crop up, otherwise that party will just condemn itself by default to a few more decades out of power. The FPTP neanderthals in the Tory ranks (not to mention the Tom Bradby ranks) seemed to instinctively sense that such a pivotal moment was upon us earlier this year, hence the hysterical attempts in the run-up to the election to weave the apocalyptic narrative that, during an economic crisis, it was not the moment to be "irresponsibly" focusing on changing the electoral system, and that no-one would ever forgive the Liberal Democrats if they did so. But, hang on - wasn't the last hung parliament election in 1974 also a "moment of crisis"? Indeed, couldn't the same have been said to some extent of other close elections, like 1979 and 1992? The message to the Liberals has invariably been : there's always tomorrow to think about fair votes, and tomorrow is never more than a few decades away.

By settling for a referendum on a voting system that no-one really wants (except, ironically, parts of the Labour party) the Lib Dems have just flunked their - and our - golden chance yet again. Next try in 2037?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Love is proving blind for some Tories

Reading through the comments on this post on ConservativeHome about the possibility of the Liberal Democrats pulling the plug on the coalition, it suddenly struck me just how far some Conservative supporters have fallen in love with the idea of the leading Lib Dems being their ideological soulmates - and of course there's nothing like the intensity of a passion that breaks into the open after being suppressed for so long. But I fear the infatuation may be causing these Tory posters to lose their sense of perspective somewhat on where the Liberal Democrat ministers' ultimate loyalties lie. (The same phenomenon has been on open display at Political Betting for weeks.) They seem to take it as a given that the Clegg/Laws wing of the party wouldn't think twice about sticking with the coalition, even if it meant the party rupturing and the left flank breaking off, either to join forces with Labour, or to form an independent social liberal alternative to both the coalition and Labour.

It seems to me that only a Tory could possibly feel that senior Lib Dems' loyalty to the coalition is - and ought to be - stronger than their loyalty to the integrity and future viability of their own party. I have no doubt Nick Clegg is philosophically very close to the Tories and desperately wants to see out the coalition's five-year term if at all possible - but on the other hand I doubt if he's keen on being the Lib Dems' Ramsay MacDonald or David Owen. If he was, he'd hardly have stuck so scrupulously to the party's laborious internal procedures during the coalition negotiations - in spite of the likes of Paddy Ashdown earlier branding them unimportant.

If the grass roots of the Lib Dems and a large chunk of the parliamentary party force Nick Clegg to choose between them and a realignment of the centre-right in British politics, I suspect (and, admittedly, hope) there'll only be one possible answer.

Dimbleby and Dougie - grrrr

Without doubt one of the more infuriating editions of Question Time I've seen in recent times. For starters, what exactly was David Dimbleby's problem? Firstly, he goads Nicola Sturgeon in an utterly peculiar way about the high level of interest that a Scottish audience is taking in the misfortunes of a cabinet minister whose writ only runs in England. Well, at a rough guess, could that possibly be because the London media that Dimbleby is part of is hellbent on perpetuating the fiction of British political uniformity, thus leaving much of its Scottish audience utterly uninformed about the limits of the UK government's authority north of the border? You know, "Prime Ministerial Debates", that sort of thing?

Then at the end of the show he seemed to have a rather enormous bee in his bonnet about the suggestions that there was any problem at all with holding two ballots on the same day next May. Even after Sturgeon explained very clearly the background of the Gould Report, he was still determined to look tickled by the whole thing, citing the routine American practice of holding multiple ballots for a plethora of exotically unimportant posts. Well, I've a feeling I have a slight advantage over Dimbleby on that point - as I've mentioned before, I have dual US/UK nationality, meaning I'm entitled to vote in certain US elections. And I can tell him that even filling out the mammoth ballot form in the comfort of my own home has literally taken me two hours on occasions. Bearing that in mind, can he truly say with a straight face that combining ballots has no impact whatsoever on the democratic process? But as I pointed out a couple of days ago, the real problem in this instance will not be in the polling stations, it will be in the impact on the Holyrood campaign, and it was frustrating that none of the panellists zoned in on that far more important aspect of the issue.

Now, then - Wee Dougie. Can ever a man have been so brazen? The chaos in the 2007 elections was caused by "the Scottish government's decision to hold the local council elections on the same day", was it? Nothing to do with Alexander's own boneheaded determination to a) use a single ballot paper, and b) rely on an untested electronic counting method, despite countless warnings of the risks? And, of course, we can safely assume the reference to the "Scottish government" was in any case a cynical attempt to sow confusion in the viewing public's minds and associate the ill-fated decisions with the SNP, when in fact the devolved administration at the time was run by a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition!

And all that's before we even come to his soothing words about how he's not going to be "party political" over the Megrahi issue and will approach the matter "rather differently". A refreshingly mature approach, undoubtedly - or at least it would have been if he hadn't proceeded to do the exact opposite. A year on, I must say I'm still struggling to work out exactly how the flying of flags in a Tripoli airport was in any way the SNP's doing. More the Foreign Office's province, surely, Dougie?

Incidentally, in spite of what Nicola Sturgeon had to say, I think it's high time there was an independent inquiry into the Lockerbie case - just a very, very different one from what the US senators have in mind.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

If we weren't English BEFORE England were knocked out of the World Cup...

The BBC have, as is customary, been the better of the two World Cup broadcasters this year (although just for once ITV have had the better theme tune). But some of last night's panel discussion about the state of grass-roots football, and the lessons that could be learned for England from the likes of Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, illustrated yet again the all-pervasive (and probably unthinking) 'England is the country we're broadcasting to and for' mindset. Yes, it was perfectly natural that British broadcasters should focus exclusively on England as the sole UK qualifiers - until they were knocked out. At that point, a state of equality was restored between the four 'Home Nations', all of whom are now on a par as potential qualifiers (or indeed non-qualifiers) for future international tournaments. So why did Gary Lineker - two complete rounds of the competition after England's departure - feel it was appropriate to focus exclusively on the way forward for English football? The reference solely to England's performances in recent age-restricted international tournaments was particularly striking, given that it's just four years since Scotland were runners-up (to Spain) in the European under-19 Championships.

Moat makes us thank our lucky stars again that we have gun control

It never ceases to...well, bemuse me how American gun rights activists seem to honestly believe that any time an atrocity is committed with a gun in the UK, it somehow strengthens their case. You'd think even they might recognise that a moment like now would be a very good time to keep their heads well down, but not a bit of it. Witness Exhibit A - an utterly brazen post on the Raoul Moat case written by a former poster on this blog, 'Weer'd Beard'...

"Remember the the Police can protect you, you don’t need to defend yourself! Also Gun Control stops this nonsense from happening!

I wonder what James Kelly will have to say about this."

Well, you need wonder no longer, Mr Beard, because this is what James Kelly has to say about it : thank heavens we have gun control, and that it does indeed prevent 'this nonsense' from happening on the majority of occasions. Do I really have to point out yet again the mind-boggling disparity between gun deaths in the UK and the US? But, that said, what a tragedy our controls weren't quite stringent enough to prevent Derrick Bird carrying out a mass killing with a legally-owned weapon just a few weeks ago - not least because, as a criminal psychologist pointed out on Newsnight tonight, such high-profile incidents always produce a copycat effect, and Moat's actions are highly likely to be an example of that phenomenon.

Mr Beard then goes on to trot out the hoary old argument about how the tool used for killing is an irrelevance, ie. the killing would have happened anyway, so it might as well have happened with a gun as anything else -

"Because James sees cases like this as some how superior to cases like the one above, because Moat shot people with a gun, while the monsters in the linked case, beat, raped, robbed, and burned their victims.

Much better, right?"

I'm reluctant to use the 'L' word here, but the absolute minimum that needs to be said is that Mr Beard is consciously, cynically and comprehensively misrepresenting my views. Every murder is an equal tragedy. It's simply a tragedy that's significantly less likely to happen in the first place if the assailant isn't armed with a gun.

Mr Beard concludes with another question -

"May I propose a better solution?"

Oh, well, now, dear me, let me guess. Would your solution by any chance be - "Quick, more guns"?

Sheer genius.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The SNP and Labour already have the power to thwart Clegg's opportunism

The Scotsman reports that Alex Salmond has suggested that, by initiating a likely U-turn on the clash of dates between the 2015 Holyrood and Westminster elections, Michael Moore has effectively "conceded" that it is also wrong to hold the AV referendum on the same day as next year's Holyrood poll. In terms of logical consistency, Mr Salmond is of course right, but are the Liberal Democrats ready to admit that to themselves yet? If they agree to a decoupling of next year's polling dates, the whole purpose of their ploy will have been defeated. My guess is that Michael Moore hopes that, if he does end up feeling obliged to devolve control of election dates to Holyrood, he can conveniently delay the transfer of power until well after next May.

But the irony is that, as things stand, the SNP government don't actually need any new powers to thwart the Lib Dems' plan. Labour have been completely supportive of the arguments against holding both the election and the referendum on May 5th - and between them, the SNP and Labour hold some 72% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. As we all now know due to an issue that has been very topical in recent weeks, under the Scotland Act a two-thirds majority is sufficient to trigger an early dissolution of parliament. I suggested not too long ago that this rule was a touch superfluous, given that a dissolution can also be triggered simply by a short period of time elapsing after a no-confidence motion has been passed without a new government being formed. That, I felt sure, was the much more plausible sequence of events, thus ensuring that the two-thirds rule would never be activated in practice. But, remarkably, we seem to have stumbled on one of the rare circumstances where there might just be a use for it.

Whether the SNP and Labour's common cause on this subject really runs deep enough for them to vote together for an early election (probably in March or April) is of course a very big 'if' - as the two main contenders for power they will be reading the runes and seeking to maximise their own advantage. On the face of it, they're unlikely to be able to agree on a preferred election date for that reason alone. But if by any chance they can, the coalition government's embarrassment will be a sight to behold.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

Michael Moore writes a letter to Alex Salmond setting out options for a U-turn on the crazy plan in the coalition agreement to hold the 2015 Westminster general election on the same day as the long-scheduled Holyrood poll. Simultaneously, his party leader is introducing the idea of completely unnecessarily holding the AV referendum on the same day as next year's Holyrood poll. Yep, that makes perfect sense.

Meanwhile, Iain Dale says that the likes of his old friend David Davis who are complaining about the timing of the referendum "need to get a life". (Grim news, Iain - the 'sourfaced 15-year-old in a chatroom' persona really isn't a winner.) He also reminds us that referenda are frequently held in conjunction with other elections in countries like the US and New Zealand, adding "I'm not sure how they can argue that we should be any different". Well, if Dale thinks that "what most other countries do" is an unanswerable argument in favour of anything, clearly he should "get a life" and drop his objections to PR immediately. More substantively, while I'm not an expert on New Zealand elections, I'd certainly suggest that the experience in the US provides an overwhelmingly compelling argument for why, indeed, we should be different. Where does Dale think the endless queues round the block, and the need for elaborate electronic counting methods that have led to such controversy in that country come from? Quite simply from too many different elections/referenda held on the same day, with separate instructions that voters need to process for each ballot.

However, like Jeff I'm inclined to think that the particular combination of ballots being proposed for next May needn't necessarily lead to 2007-style confusion, simply because the instructions for the AV referendum will be relatively straightforward. But it doesn't follow that there is no problem and that we should simply accept the date. The real issue is the impact on the Scottish Parliament campaign. The TV coverage will be completely swamped by 'national' politicians talking about a 'national' issue, and the result could well be that the Scottish campaign has a profile roughly equivalent to that enjoyed (or rather suffered) by the Scottish dimension of the general election campaign we've just had. How can that possibly be in the interests of the democratic process?