Tuesday, May 31, 2005
The French Referendum, the EU and Us
It's true that in 1975 before the campaign for the referendum started, there was a 2-1 poll majority in favour of pulling out but after the campaign the result was a 2-1 majority for staying in. But then the press and business was solidly in support of 'Common Market' membership; this time the press is mostly hostile and the public, fed on such a diet for a decade or more, are hostile to the EU too. Moreover a referendum will almost certainly be used as an opportunity for a protest vote against an unpopular government. Few can doubt that many people, who voted for Blair earlier this month, would take the chance to deny him victory if the stakes were lower than a general election. So French communists and Le Pen supporters have let Blair off the hook. Robin Cook, I heard today, has suggested that now the 'natural' standing down occasion of the referendum has been denied the PM, he should instead go later this year. Tony really should have given him a job a few weeks back.
The third effect is that France has possibly opened up the chance that Chirac will urge the creation of an 'inner core' EU which retains the agricultural privileges it enjoys and protects the socalled 'French model' of employment protected welfarism. Should this happen Britain will be shifted to the margins of the EU though such a move might precipitate the complete unravelling of the EU project which some commentators are predicting. However the EU countries have much to lose by such an eventuality. Furthermore the expected election in the autumn of the Christian Democrats in Germany under a reforming rightwing Frau Merkel(compared by many to Maggie Thatcher) will militate against such a comforting refuge for the beleagured Chirac.
The fourth effect is that the Conservatives will have lost a valuable stick with which to beat their infuriatingly successful chief opponent. They have been salivating over the expected disaster of a Blair led Yes campaign. If it falls flat enough, they have reasoned, it might even precipitate his removal from office with his place in history-long assumed to be concerned with locking the UK into the heart of the EU- still unachieved. Now that happy scenario has been denied the former natural party of government and they have to envisage a more trouble free transition of power to the ever-waiting Gordon Brown. In the short term, additionally, Eurosceptics fear the removal of the draft constitution from the political agenda might encourage the defiantly Europhile Ken Clarke from dusting down his leadership application one more, possibly successful time.
Sunday, May 29, 2005
Does it matter? About as much, I'd say, as the story about William Hague drinking fourteen pints a day when a whippersnapper assistant on a beer lorry. It might be part of a New Labour strategy to add a new dimension to their man's appeal but more likely, it was a jokey interview with which the Blair's went along but which the po- faced broadsheets chose to take seriously.
Friday, May 27, 2005
Parties impose at their peril
And now Labour headquarters are busy expelling those Labour supporters who worked for the rebel challenger. Nothing can be more calculated to inflict major damage on Labour in Wales than this flagrant defiance of local loyalty and local sentiment. Welsh people hate being dictated to especially by those 'sais' in London.
But what is this we seee in the Conservative Party? Few deny that the system of electing leaders, giving the final say to party members-average age in the late sixties- was a silly way of preserving the party in the aspic of views rooted in the fifties. But the way in which Central Office sought to introduce the necessary changes together with a 'piggy back' of restrictive rules on MP behaviour was equally foolish and has caused the predictable furore just when an 'orderly progression' was much needed.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Tory Masters' Voices
A Norwegian friend of mine recently suggested that all the recent Conservative leaders had poor voices. Leaving aside the tutoring of Maggie, it's true that Major had strangulated vowells, Hague sounded a bit like JB Priestley on tranquilisers and IDS sounded like the junior officer lacking authority he basically was. Howard too had that unusual 'pipple' idiosyncracy and a slightly menacing sound which does not endear.
So maybe the next one will have an attractive voice. If this were criterion then George Osborne, with his public school RP and his Etonian buddy Cameron might be in trouble: they sound exactly as they are: expublic schoolboys with no empathy with the social groups the Tories must win over to regain power. Mind you, it hasn't hurt Tony Blair. Looking further back Ted Heath's voice made even John Major sound like Richard Burton and Neil Kinnock allegedly pressed the 'anti Taffy' button in too many English people. The ideal voice in politics is still awaited.
Friday, May 20, 2005
Will we get voting reform?
His amended 'Additional Member System' was designed to maintain the link between constituency and MP via single member seats but to remove disproportion via a 'top-up' pool of members elected from PR lists. By 1998, when Jenkins had reported, those who disliked PR- probably a majority in the party- seemed to have persuaded Blair of their case and the matter was not acted upon. Since then opinion, if anything, has hardened, with Scottish and Welsh activists complaining at the loss of their hegemony which the new PR systems for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have delivered.
But the last election has produced another anti-democratic result. Labour won 37% of the vote on a 61% turnout yet a whopping 55% of the seats. A truly proportional system would have produced 213 seats for the Conservatives, 239 for Labour and 142 for the Lib Dems. Jonathon Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Robin Cook, not to mention the Electoral Reform Society, have raised their voices in favour of a reformed system but will they succeed? Have they got the best arguments on their side? In my view, yes, they have but I also think that they will not succeed. Why not?
Firstly Labour MPs are unlikely to vote themselves out of a job by supporting a system which would have made over a hundred of them redundant at the last election.
Secondly, Labour has the power now and that provides a riposte to any suggestion which might change that state of affairs.
Thirdly, the present system is skewed dramatically in Labour's favour, largely through the fact that Labour needs a smaller number of votes to win seats as their constituencies are smaller than than the average Conservative ones. This produces the wildly undemocratic situation in which both major parties could have polled the same number of votes on 5th May, yet, according to the Electoral Reform Society, Labour would have won 336 seats and the Tories 220. Poliitcal realities make short work of principles, however democratic, and no political party is going to give up such an advantage willingly. This is especially so as Labour officials worked so tenaciously and sucessfully to maintain this advantage during the Boundary Commission's last redrawing of constituency boundaries in the early nineties.
So for the foreseeable future it's undemocratic business as usual. On 13th May Charlie Falconer dismissed the need for any change of the voting system and in the Guardian on the same day Jack Straw rubbished the case for Proportional Representation.
Hoggart on Galloway
'Triumphant in his own eyes, perhaps. Yet, while it is true that he is generally loathed on all sides of the House, there is a sneaking admiration of his performance this week in front of 'the world's greatest deliberative body' as the United States Senate styles itself, apparently without irony. We may be a minor power these days, and nobody much bothers to follow our debates, but when it comes to bombastic brow-beating, hectoring, bellowing, rant and cant, plus half truths delivered with the weight and effect of stone tablets hurled at senators, then your traditional British MP is still a world beater.'
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Gorgeous George goes to Washington
Galloway left the Harris Academy in Dundee at 16 to work in a tyre factory. At the precocious age of 26 he became Labour chair in Scotland and then chair of the charity War on Want. From there, not without some controversey already, he entered parliamentary politics when he won Glasgow Hillhead from Roy Jenkins in 1987. It was soon clear Labour had a natural orator of some strength on its side-some saw a future foreign secretary even- but at the same time he was something of an unguided missile. His campaign against sanctions imposed upon Iraq was acceptable but when Labour interpreted some of his utterences in 2003 as incitement to British soldiers to disobey orders, he was expelled from the party. He immediately set up the antiwar Respect Party and wiped the smirk of Tony Blair's face by sensationally winning Bethnal Green and Bow on 5th May.
His appearance in the Senate, albeit in front of a committee which mostly had not turned up to hear him, was in the best traditions of his style: readymade headline excoriations delivered without notes and without pause. He has a natural gift for vituperative condemnations but here it seemed he had right on his side and, I have to confess, it felt good to hear this fearless autodidact biting huge lumps off the world's only superpower. It was also a clash of styles: the churchlike atmosphere of the Senate invaded by the street fighting ruffian from the much less deferential legislative chamber this side of the pond. He may be the star in the movie of his own life(complete with what looks like a false tan), but yesterday he was, undeniably, a star.
Monday, May 16, 2005
Problems over the idea of 'mandate'
So on which side does the weight of the argument lie? I have to say I'm not sure as it's a throny problem. How many Labour MPs were involved drawing up the manifesto? Not many I'd say. And how much detailed discussion, with criticisms taken into acount, allowed? Not much I'd venture. What can an MP do to indicate they disagree with aspects of the manifesto? Seems to me they can only do so via their local election addresses. Especially as Labour's manifesto was about the size of a small novel this time. Until MPs have closer engagement with the manifesto producing process it seems to me they must be allowed to express their democratic disagreements with the party leadership. This is a problem for the leadership rather than the rebels to solve.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Ken Clarke, Bloody good bloke
Clarke's attempts to stand for leadership seemed disarmingly less than wholehearted, as if he couldn't really take politics all that seriously - a key part of his appeal in these disillusioned times. Being away in Vietnam on British American Tobacco business in 1997 - he is its Deputy Chairman - was typical of the man, but I am delighted he seems to have decided, at the relatively advanced political age of 64, to have another run at the job. And I hope he'll succeed as we will all benefit from an effective oppostion to Blair's government. But will he, if elected, mastermind the sort of transformation in Conservatism which Andrew Rawnsley says in todays Observer, which the party needs? The key word here, of course, is 'if'. Clarke is very unConservative, from his jazz loving to his hushpuppy footwear; from his beerdrinking and ciggies to his flabby physique. Nothing of the austere Thatcher, Hurd or Redwood about him, and one might even believe him if he claimed to have drunk 14 pints in a day. The sticking point last time, when he went head to head with Duncan-Smith, was Europe.
He believes we need the EU and vice versa and refuses, admirably, to dissemble or even trim. This is the fault line which broke Major but maybe, since then, the issue has declined in salience and the ageing xenophobes in the grassroots will have, perhaps, become less visceral in their prejudices. When the alternatives are surveyed - Osborne and Cameron too young, Davis too rightwing, Rifkind too old and resonant of Thatherism - Clarke is still the most compelling candidate. Unless his party wants him to go down as the Conservatives' Dennis Healey, another uncompromising heavyweight, its members would do well to overlook the European side of his personna and embrace his expertise in the many areas he has administered when in office as well as his peerless, self confident political skills.
Friday, May 13, 2005
Future of Tony Blair
Secondly, I predict that Blair will stay rather longer than many people are suggesting. It might be best for the party and even for the country that he go sooner rather than later, but politics, it seems to me, is much more of an individual sport than a team game and Blair is the man at the crease who is still scoring runs. Moreover, replacing an in situ leader is not easy for Labour; it requires 20% of MPs to support such a move plus approval by two thirds of the annual conference. So I reckon he'll be there for more than half of the parliamentary term, which these days is four years. So Gordon need not order the removal men until summer 2007 according to my reasoning. Unless, of course, events intervene...
She lives, she speaks!
Yesterday she even managed to make an input into the political process. In the US, where she is still regarded in Republican circles as a cross between a reincarnated deity and Audrey Hepburn, she saw fit to write a letter in support of John Bolton, who is seeking ratification of his appointment as Bush's ambassador to the UN. Mr Bolton has a reputation of being viscerally opposed to the body to which he has been appointed as well as being a knee-jerk ideologue and bully to his staff. Mrs Thatcher couldn't see anything to worry about there: 'A capacity for straight talking rather than peddling half truths is a strength and not a disadvantage in diplomacy, particularly in the case of a great power like America.' She clearly sees Mr Bolton as a surrogate bearer of her own mantle.
I was more impressed by Republican Senator George Voinovich's comments on the proposed appointment: 'What message are we sending to the world community when have sought to appoint an amabssador to the UN who himself has been accused being arrogant, of not listening to to his friends, of acting unilaterally, of bullying those who do not have the ability to properly defend themselves'. Well said George and get back to the crypt Maggie.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Arguably the party needed to lose badly as Labour did in 1983 and then 1987, to suffer a trauma and face total meltdown. The article by Tony King in the Daily Telegraph a couple of weeks ago showed how out of touch the party was in the views of voters. In 1997 and 2001 there was an option of root and branch reform via a new leader but the party bottled it in the case of Ken Clarke, still the most compelling Conservative communicator, and then in the case of the remodelled Michael Portillo who, perhaps significantly had suffered a trauma in the form of losing his rock solid seat to Stephen Twigg in 1997. In consequence he made a genuine effort, I believe, to re-examine his beliefs and concluded a more liberal form of Conservatism was necesary for the party to engage with the modern world. How did it work out? Well, you'll recall, Clarke was too pro those awful EU foreigners, of course and Michael? Well, he was a little too, how should we say it for the aged party members? Exotic. Why not choose a sound family man advised Norman Tebbitt? Good, now we've got Iain Duncan Smith.
It seems the rule book will be changed again to exclude the decisive vote of party members, whose age makes them too dyed in the wool,in favour of the more moderate members of the parliamentary party. But there is still no sign as yet, of the fundamental recasting of the party's poverty of relevant ideas which have so cruelly been exposed at the last three elections. Whenever a more liberal agenda is favoured, as it was by Hague and IDS, the inflexible members-average age mid sixties- do all they can to keep the party true to an approach which hearkens back to the eighties and spiritually, I always think, to the cosy false utopia of the fifties. Despite being someone who could never vote Tory I have always felt a decent oppostion is needed for good government and I really would like to see a genuine revival of the Conservatives, if only for this reason.
A beautiful idea?
To see this gentle, conciliatory, thoughtful academic pilloried as a serious threat to democracy seems to be one of the odder ideas of Labour's leftwing. He is a serious enough person to have reseached any ideas he has on education with great thoroughness. And anyone who doubts his passion for leftish values shouild read the book on Britain's class system he wrote with Stephen Pollard — A Class Act (Hamish Hamilton, 1996).
As the son of a Cypriot postman, who made it to Oxford, he is well placed to comment on Britain's suffocating class system. Further, in defence of the appointment, he is only one of three parliamentary secretaries in the department, and reports to the highly regarded Jaqui Smith, the minister of state for schools.
I doubt if even his powers of persuasion are going to hold a six strong team in thrall and lead them in a trance down a road towards US style semi- privatised education. In fact, his new position is in one sense weaker than when he was in daily contact with the fount of new initiatives, the Prime Minister as a member, then head of the Policy Unit.
Furthermore, it could be argued that despite his status as an unelected peer, he is more accountable in his new role than hitherto. Any major initiative from him will have to survive resistance in the Commons where Blair no longer has a hegemonic majority. Finally, Labour should not fear having to confront and deal with new ideas. It must be the case that the welfare state, which has not evinced any really spectacular improvement flowing from better funding, needs to consider and embrace new means to the same end.
Howard keen on young blood
William Hague was only 36 when made leader and proved to be too gauche and uncharismatic to make any impact. It was different in the days of Pitt the Younger, the eighteenth century stripling who became Prime Minister at the ridiculous age of 23.Incidentally William Hague's biograhy of another precocious lad, is a gem.
I met and heard Osborne speak last October at the Politics Assocation conference in Manchester and he seemed very charming (a box which has to be well ticked these days) and affable with a relaxed manner and ready wit. He also seemed intelligent and his talk was absorbing. But did he strike me as a future Prime Minister in the 'sooner rather than later' future? Not really, on that showing.
Would Blair have done any better at that stage in his career? I genuinely think he would. Blair has always had a fierce desire to obtain and hold political power and this intensity has illuminated his speaking style. And George has taken on a formidable task: besting the most successful Chancellor arguably since before the last war. It could be, like Hague and then Letwin, Osborne will find the going a bit too tough and the decision to promote him to the very front of the front line against New Labour will prove to have been premature. On the other hand the economic pages tell us that the British economy is headed for stormy waters, so maybe the ground on which Osborne is going to fight is changing to his advantage. Even then it will take a formidable talent and a degree of ruthlessness, neither qualities which the nice Mr Osborne obviously seems to possess.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Random thoughts on 2005 election
Too unpopular to be seen alone — There was an odd symetry observable during the campaign whereby Blair was deemed too unpopular to be campaigning on his own-so acquired the obligatory campaign companion of Gordon Brown; and Michael Howard was thought to have so much of that dark night about him that his lovely wife Sandra was attached permanently to him for every visit and every speech. At least Charles Kennedy was deemed sufficiently acceptable to be allowed out without a minder.
Monday, May 09, 2005
Aim of Skipper59
stuff about me
Why 'Skipper'? It relates back to when I was at university in Aberystwyth and doing research for my PhD. We had a postgraduate cricket team called the Llandinam Wanderers(don't ask)and I inherited the captaincy. One of our number, a sociologist called Pip Jones, now at Anglia-Polytechnic University, invented the soubriquet 'Skipper' and it sort of stuck as-randon extra information here- has his: 'The Dosser'(again don't ask).