Tag Archives: New Labour

Will the Government Go for Voting Reform?

Word has it they might:

The idea, backed by senior ministers, has come to light amid growing recriminations within the Labour party over poor campaign strategy and a lack of fresh ideas for attacking Cameron, following Labour’s thumping loss in Thursday’s Norwich North byelection.

Last night, after the Conservatives overturned a 5,000 Labour majority to win the Norwich seat by 7,348 votes, Labour MPs gave warning that, unless the party did more than peddle scare stories about possible Tory spending cuts, it faced a wipeout at the next election.

Cabinet sources have revealed that one idea being developed is to paint Cameron as a leader opposed to a wide-ranging reform of the political system that voters are demanding following the scandal over MPs’ expenses.

As part of this, plans are being considered to hold a referendum on general election day in which people would be asked to support or reject a switch from the present first-past-the-post system to a new model, under which candidates would need to have the support of at least 50% of voters to be elected.

If a majority backed change, a new method of voting called Alternative Vote (AV) could then be introduced at the election after next.

Great news at first glance, but I believe that a referendum would be at risk from the outset, hampered by being associated with this government, which is unlikely to argue its case in a positive way. Running it on election day as well would without doubt be calamitous – with the government almost without doubt likely to be hammered in the general election, how would a referendum fare any better? As others have also pointed out, a referendum would also re-open the argument about New Labour’s denial of one for the Lisbon Treaty – a democratic solution for one problem but not the other? Neal Lawson argues the case for reform:

First, the state is no longer a machine that can be controlled from the centre. We the people have to be part of the process of identifying the problem and delivering the solution. Reform has to be done with us and not just to us. Second, with FPTP, only the votes of a few swing voters in a few swing seats count. As few as 100,000 rather fickle punters decide each election. What is more, the media barons like Rupert Murdoch who are perceived to hold sway over them call all the political shots. This leads to the third problem: democracy is only meaningful if it allows competing visions of the good society to do battle. FPTP doesn’t allow any such competition as the main parties huddle on the centre ground.

The argument to move on from first-past-the-post is sound, but the government’s tentative support for a referendum looks strategic rather than principled. Should one actually happen, do those of us who believe in progressive politics support a quite possibly doomed referendum on AV (which could quite possibly be the last and most cynical act of New Labour’s cynical existence) or do we just reject it because (if successful) the results won’t be any more representative than first-past-the-post? With Cameron openly opposed to changing the voting system, how do we overcome both parties’ separate attempts to bury  reform? If there is to be a referendum, both AV and PR should be on the table, and it must not take place on the same day as the general election.

Tories: The Party of Equality

Nick Herbert is both right and dead wrong:

The truth is the major parties are reaching a consensus on gay equality. So the real dividing line will be between the parties that are honest with the public and those that are not; between those who can mount a broad appeal and those who fall back on a narrow tribal base. Even as their once natural supporters abandon them, New Labour still has not learned that the public is rejecting old politics, and that people – gays included – are crying out for change.

I think his final comment is spot on. The failures and abuses of the New Labour government are so severe that gay voters will indeed not vote as overwhelmingly tribally as in previous elections. However Tory gains will hardly come because of a so-called consensus between the major parties on equality – just look at Cameron’s new pals in Strasbourg. And I don’t believe for a moment that the gay electorate is so ill-informed that it would start switching its allegiance to a party whose essential nature is greedy and divisive, merely out of a feeling (without any proof I might add) that it simply no longer hated gay people. If they make significant gains next year, it’ll be because gay voters (as straight) have seen the entire system fail – economically and politically, with the resulting disenchantment transcending questions of voter self-interest in every demographic.

I suspect though he’ll have as serious problem as New Labour, because the Tories are also seen as wedded to ‘old politics’ and will also suffer at the ballot box. If they win it’ll only be because of an absence of believable choices for voters, not because alienated gay voters suddenly think Dave’s their ‘mate’.

Poor Old Jacqui Smith

Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is embarassed. Say it with me – ‘awwwwww’:

Reflecting on this period, Smith said: “Having to fight your way out through TV cameras when you go out of your house in the morning, having press photographers outside your house for weeks on end is a real intrusion. It’s horrible”.

She added: “I could have coped with it on my own but my oldest son was doing, has just finished in fact, his GCSEs … and I just felt that it was not fair on all of them.”

Poor her. This is someone who thought that it was ok to tread on the constitution and allow the Metropolitan Police to investigate an opposition MP on political grounds. This is someone who thought that it was necessary to tag the entire population with an ID card and fine them for not updating them. This is someone who thought it was a clever idea to tap every single text, email and web access made by every single person in the country. This is someone who thought it was alright to send a gay asylum seeker back to Iran as long as he was ‘discreet’. And she has the nerve to say she was embarassed at press intrusion after her parliamentary expenses were made public? Disgusting. We’re well rid of her.

Get Some Guts, Brown!

But it’s not just Brown is it? This after all was the party which voted for an illegal war. They may bleat on about Brown not listening, but how many of them have recently? John Kampfner sees electoral oblivion:

So, like lemmings, Labour MPs have been bought off by a combination of fear, bullying and the promise of a fresh start. They feared the onset of an autumn general election, believing that by hanging on they stood a better chance of salvation next May or June. They allowed the haranguing and the briefings by the thuggish to get the better of them. And they appeared to accept the prime minister’s assertions that, this time, he will improve his own behaviour, and that of those around him.

Behavioural change is hard to achieve, particularly for a man of Brown’s wizened years. But perhaps in adversity he will throw caution to the wind on policy. If so how about, for a start, political and constitutional reform, genuine measures for fiscal redistribution (rather than the belated stunt from the last Budget), a fully independent and public inquiry into the Iraq war, and legislation that would enshrine into law greater punishments for banks and other institutions that put greed ahead of the public good? I, for one, will not be holding my breath.

Most of those who believed that Brown would give the Labour party fresh impetus after the Blair years, who believed that during his decade of scheming he might actually have come up with a plan, saw their hopes evaporate quite some time ago. Others are prepared to give him one final opportunity to turn around their party’s fortunes. In so doing, they have begun a slow sleepwalk to oblivion at the next general election, and the dismantling of what is left of the British left.

I fear he’s right. Johnson and Miliband may demonstrate an understanding of the need for electoral reform, but the government’s hardly talking about it. Where’s the constitutional convention? Where’s the public education campaign to sell PR to a public no longer sceptical about constitutional change? As was mentioned at the Liberty conference last weekend, a government eager to teach the electorate about swine ‘flu should have no problem leafleting about PR. So where is it? And where’s the swine ‘flu leafleting for that matter? Sigh. They’re incompetent aren’t they, both the government and the party? Polly Toynbee even has a speech prepared for the Prime Minister, be they Brown, Johnson, Harman, Miliband or Straw:

“Friends, there will be an election and a referendum on constitutional reform. I relinquish the injustice of the prime minister choosing the date: from now on elections will always be on the first Sunday in May, with fixed parliaments. Before then, we will clean up expenses and every sitting Labour MP will undergo reselection. A convention on the constitution and on liberty will bring in clean party funding: democracy will not be in hock to the whim of millionaires. We will have an elected Lords, sweep away obscurantist flummery in the Commons and devolve more powers. This parliament that made a mess of things must clean it up before it goes. A referendum on proportional representation deserves time for the arguments to be put fairly.

‘But above all, as a new prime minister, give me time to lay out my priorities. In a time of hardship we will share the burdens more fairly, protect the most vulnerable better, make sure benefits and the minimum wage are pegged to earnings levels in perpetuity. Green jobs, already begun, will be increased with more housebuilding – and no, there will be no third runway. All we do from now on will be for cleaner, greener and fairer government. I will apologise for things we have done wrong, so you may better believe me when I boast of all we have done well. There is much to be proud of, and much that will be put at risk if we don’t sing the praises of the considerable good Labour has done: Sure Start is just one emblem. Don’t let anyone say the money was wasted or that the state should be shrunk. We stand for all the important things in life that we can only buy together – health, education, safe streets, beautiful parks and the long fight to stop climate change.”

Brilliant – one of the best pieces I’ve ever ready by Toynbee. But even she knows he & they won’t go for it – their supine nature, cultivated by Blair ironically to win elections won’t allow for it. The clock is ticking for an entirely avoidable Cameron premiership and renewed hell under the Tories, with their promises to repeal the Human Rights Act for starters.

Brown Won’t Change

I think Chris Ames is right:

Is this as good as it gets? The spin coming out of Number 10 is that Gordon Brown will use an Iraq inquiry and a delay to the part-privatisation of the post office to appease voters and, more immediately, the Labour MPs who are circling him. There is virtually nothing new in the Iraq inquiry story, but Brown’s attempt to get a few quick brownie points shows he is still wedded to the old, discredited way of doing politics. He still doesn’t get it.

So far, it has been the old routine of nods and winks signifying nothing – and to achieve not so much party political advantage as personal political advantage. After the savaging Brown got at Friday’s press conference for first briefing that Alistair Darling was for the chop, then denying it when he was too weak to wield the blow, you would think he would learn. But he seems incapable of learning. He has only one way of doing things.

Delaying part-privatisation of the post office and a quite possibly private inquiry into the Iraq War aren’t anywhere near enough to change Labour’s fortunes. There’s no talk anymore about ending child poverty, about reducing the gap between rich and poor, in fact noone seems to know what’s driving New Labour anymore other than the pursuit of power. As far as we can tell they still want to control us with ID cards and superdatabases, and Jack Straw’s odd response on Saturday to one side they aren’t giving any indication that the police will behave any less violently, nor pursue climate protesters any less doggedly. There’s no indication that they have realised just how totally markets have failed in areas of civil society in which they don’t belong, like education and health, or just how inhuman it is to withold legal aid from asylum seekers and make ‘failed’ refugees destitute. These are not things which a Labour government should be doing.

They have to realise they’re gutting local communities, that boosting the fortunes of the mega rich accelerates the gap between rich and poor and that boosting faith schools will only divide communities, not bring them together. Labour has to get back the guts it started out with – radical social, financial and constitutional reform (regardless of what the Daily HateMail thinks) – if it has any chance of even surviving as a viable national force at the next election.

Bye Bye Gordo?

It begins

A group of rebel MPs have begun soliciting signatures for a round robin letter calling for Gordon Brown to step down, which they plan to hand to the prime minister after the results of the local and European elections have come in on Monday morning.

The Guardian has learned there are reports that the backbenchers think they can reach 70 or 80 signatories, with some claims that the letter could be delivered to Downing Street by the end of today.

Johnson must be better, otherwise this is an exercise in futility. He must demonstrate an understanding of how Barack Obama was elected, but also roll back the illiberal politics of control which even Obama has balked at. Should he become Prime Minister he must follow through with his public ruminations about government giving up power in order to increase democracy. It’s the only way (apart from its record on devolution) for New Labour to retain any positive legacy.

Jacqui Smith Resigns?

So the appalling Home Secretary is about to leave?

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is to leave the Cabinet in the wake of the scandal over MPs’ expenses, according to Sky sources.

There is no indication yet that Ms Smith will also step down as an MP.

Sky’s political correspondent Joey Jones said: “I have had it from impeccable sources that she has entered into that agreement with the Prime Minister.”

“There will be results on Friday from the local elections and results on Sunday from the European elections and these will probably be very bad for the Prime Minister.

“I fully expect that on Monday morning he will be calling people in to speak to them, to try and reshuffle the Cabinet, the entire government, to try and change things and move forward.”

Good riddance to bad rubbish. It’s only worth celebrating mind if she’s replaced not just with the likes of John Denham, but if her departure marks the beginning of the end of New Labour’s addition to its attitude and culture of ‘protection’ and control. ID cards must go. Innocent people must be immediately removed from the DNA database. Moves to the contracted out superdatabase must be stopped completely. Reform of the police must take place to stop them behaving like a brutal, semi-autonomous militia. People mustn’t be banned from entering the UK just because the Home Secretary doesn’t like them – they must pose a genuine danger. Asylum seekers with genuine risks of torture or death must not be sent back to the countries which they’ve fled from. And let’s not forget her involvement in the Damien Green affair…

This woman was more complicit in establishing a police state than any other Home Secretary. Her departure is worth celebrating, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s important if the hard line she took doesn’t change.

David Miliband Hasn’t a Clue

New Labour uses entirely the wrong man and the wrong argument to attack David Cameron on his EU policy, ahead of Thursday European parliamentary elections:

Labour’s constitution commits it to put “power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few”. Devolution, freedom of information, incorporation of the European convention on human rights into British law, and party-funding reform are a record of merit. Gordon Brown set out the links between economic, social and political reform on taking office. He said that we had to go further. He has taken the project forward most recently in the work on a constitutional renewal bill.

And yet it’s put power, wealth and opportunity into the hands of the few. It’s fought against its own freedom of information provision, regularly slanders its own Human Rights Act and has done next to nothing to reform party funding. Brown isn’t offering anything of note for constitutional renewal, indeed he alongside Blair ditched the Jenkins Report advocating proportional representation after Labour took office and found it an inconvenience. This government has avoided any positive engagement on the EU at all since taking office. Where’s the case for the Euro? Where’s the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty?

To say:

A week today, while Labour MEPs will start work on taking forward manifesto pledges on the economy and environment, Tory MEPs will be frogmarched by their leadership out of the mainstream centre-right grouping in the European parliament. The Tory MEP Caroline Jackson calls it “pathetic”. Every European leader I meet thinks it mad to give up influence with the mainstream for a deal with Latvia’s Fatherland and Freedom party.

is entirely right, but it’s too late. It’s hypocrisy in the extreme to say that the Tories are being eurosceptic or europhobic when Labour has failed to make the slightest counter-argument. Remember Blair taking sides with Bush rather than the EU over Iraq? The Tories may have an asinine and borderline dangerous policy regarding the centre-right bloc in parliament, but their offer of a referendum will succeed in focusing minds, in sharp contrast to Miliband’s limp policy of…what exactly?

People do feel a sense of powerlessness in politics. Domestic political reform is vital to that. Gordon Brown has been arguing this and will carry it forward. There is also an international dimension – the “runaway world” needs politics.

They do indeed Foreign Secretary, and New Labour is now entirely to blame. Brown hasn’t argued for such reforms at all, and it’s why he really has to lose his job this week. Cameron’s nationalistic argument has gained ground partly by default, but partly because this government has regularly itself pandered to such sentiments. It only has itself to blame. Brown, Smith, Straw and all their discredited ilk must go as a matter of urgency.

Brown and Smith or Johnson and Miliband? Easy!

Where do we go with politics now? The conventional wisdom (which the papers seem to have a vested interest in shoving down our throats) is that the electorate has given up on politics altogether – the expenses scandal has soured everyone’s view of politics, and only a dramatic change will reengage us and stop us voting UKIP and BNP in our disillusionment. I’ll buy Stephen Fry’s argument to a point to be honest, that excessive behaviour with expenses is universal – to hold MPs to a different standard to the rest of us (most of whom do the same thing to differing extents) is unfair and unrealistic. But I also think that the public disdain for all politicians has now taken on a life of its own, and it’s partly because things have come to a head – a process which began before Blair, but which he and Brown have cynically accelerated – has now bitten them on the backside.

We have a first past the post voting system, whereby the first party to the biggest single share of the vote wins the election, even though the majority of people end up voting for someone else. This has led to shameless abuses with no political mandate ever having been given – the road to ID cards, torture, the withdrawal of legal aid to most people, allowing the police to become a brutal, semi-autonomous militia, an illegal war in Iraq. Most people thought Blair was a liar in his first term but accommodated him as long as his lies didn’t abuse the will of the majority; Iraq scuppered that and destroyed his premiership. MPs in turn were assumed to be cheats in small scale, but not to be rampantly stealing taxpayers’ money and trying to cover it up – their mandate too has now been crushed. It can I believe in part be restored by changing the voting system to proportional representation. It’s a reality which David Cameron and Gordon Brown both fail to realise. Nick Clegg and crucially Alan Johnson however do:

The adoption of AV+ would shift the political focus currently concentrated almost exclusively on a few swing voters in a handful of marginal seats. It would end the perversity of the party with the most votes nationally forming the opposition rather than the government, as has happened twice since the war.

Labour is the only party ever to win under First Past the Post (FPTP) and then use its majority to explore a change to the system that elected them. I recognise that Jenkins is gathering dust because we lost the will to carry it through — but that was at a time when it could legitimately be said that there was no public interest and when narrow party political advantage dominated our internal debate in the Labour Party. Of course, I recognise that many colleagues on my benches support FPTP for more valid reasons.

My proposal is that we offer the public the two options of AV+ and FPTP. We should debate these two alternatives freely and openly with no party whip and no government recommendation. Then on the date of the next general election we should have a national referendum and let the people decide. This is a genuinely radical alternative that only Labour in government can facilitate.

Where Brown, Smith, Straw et al are still talking about a British ‘bill of rights and responsibilities’, still wilfully conflating civil liberties and human rights for the most cynical political motives, Ed Miliband is advocating reempowering parliament instead of this almighty executive:

Miliband said the Commons should look at giving select committees more power to shape legislation. But he did not favour moving too far towards the US system, where Senate committees can destroy bills or delay them indefinitely. “There are upsides and downsides,” he said, citing lobbying by fossil fuel companies of the House of Representatives’ energy sub-committee which had the power to weaken climate change legislation. “You do have to protect an elected government’s ability to legislate.”

Brown doesn’t get it, whilst Cameron (who is against proportional representation) is a cynical opportunist who has no reform minded ideas of his own at all. Parliamentary term limits? Great, but repealing the Human Rights Act? It’s not exactly in keeping with the people’s will to restore power and rights to them from a cynical and overly mighty government, leaving Cameron a dangerous, unelectable option. Brown and his disconnected, out of touch cronies must thus be kicked out, and within the next fortnight at that. Whilst I don’t think Alan Johnson could save Labour from losing the next election, he has very clear allies, from Miliband to James Purnell who have grasped the clear (and overdue) means of reconnecting the public back to the political process, and whom together could begin reforming the party and political system itself. It really is Labour’s last chance for its principal legacy other than devolution to be progressive rather than embarrassing.

The Time To Go Progressive Is Now!

New Labour started out very well, at least in some aspects. Donald Dewar brought in a new constitutional settlement for Scotland, and similar arrangements were brought in in Wales and Northern Ireland. Then everything ground to a halt. Blair had agreed to proportional representation before the 1997 election, after which he found he had the power to ignore the Lib Dems entirely – so he did. Progressive politics in that respect have never recovered, until now. With the political system at its knees, crippled by its own hubris, illiberalism and an economic crisis partly of its own making, the way out is becoming clear, and some members of the cabinet are starting to realise it:

What the modernisers inside the ­cabinet want on the agenda is:

• A referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons.

• An elected upper house.

• Spending caps on donations to political parties.

• A widening of the base from which candidates are drawn.

However, some senior cabinet figures argue a more radical agenda should be deferred for Labour’s general election manifesto, and are sceptical that broader constitutional reform, including changes to the electoral system, will address public anger over expenses. There are also fears a big initiative would divert from the priorities of the recession and public services.

This can’t be deferred. A referendum must be on the ballot for 2010 (or sooner), asking whether the people want proportional representation. A change in the voting system is desperately needed to force a change in the political culture, away from arrogance and hubris to consultation and cooperation; it works in Scotland. The arrogance with which this government has toyed with our civil liberties is entirely down to a culture which encourages them to do as they please. Most people don’t want ID cards, most people after all didn’t vote Labour at the last election, but that’s not the message they get. Seumas Milne is entirely right too:

Unless parliamentary democracy is about choice, it’s meaningless. The legacy of New Labour is a contest over the narrowest of political and economic options, presided over by highly centralised party machines, where internal democracy has withered and party members have drifted away.

There is no reason why any of the reforms being discussed would automatically overcome that dismal inheritance. Unless new parties are able to break the existing political monopoly – a mountain to climb under first-past-the-post even in current circumstances – that would require an end to authoritarian party control, space for internal pluralism, and the local right to choose election candidates freely.

For Labour in particular, such an upheaval would mean a reconstitution of the party. But without a profound change in the kind of people who are chosen as MPs and a reconnection between electors and elected, underpinned by a right of recall, this crisis of representation will not be overcome.

Nor is there any reason to think that calling an early general election – as now demanded by Tories and Liberal Democrats – would lance the boil. Until the parties have themselves cleared out their more sleazy incumbents, the most likely outcome would be a string of corruption referendums, rather than contests over programmes and policies, with a proliferation of celebrity and clean-hands candidates delivering a Tory landslide on a historically low share of the vote.

John Bercow MP has now acknowledged that it is also the inner workings of parliament which are broken and need fixing, and has announced his candidacy to become the new Speaker of the House of Commons to fix it. He’s promised:

• Changes to the composition of Commons select committees, a hint that he would strip party whips of the right to nominate members;

• Giving backbench MPs a greater role in scutinising the government;

• To act as an “ambassador for parliament to the people”.

And I think these are vitally important points. Granted New Labour’s excesses have been a disgrace, but the illiberal laws they’ve run through, and the illegal wars they’ve waged have been insufficiently scrutinised or rubber stamped by a parliament increasingly unable or unwilling to hold the executive to account. If Bercow’s candidacy is a step towards repairing this broken culture of the House then that can only be a good thing, and it would be a vital second component of the constitutional reform which is being openly mulled by journalists and politicians alike. If a Speaker like Bercow were pushing a very public discussion for proportional representation at the very least, it would be the first step in benefiting both his profession and beginning the process of returning power back to the people and away from this disgusting rabble. I don’t believe for a second that Gordon Brown has the guts to hold a constitutional convention to shape the reforms I mentioned at the beginning of this article, but the fact that he’s being openly pushed to do so could yet augur some of the best news for progressive politics in this country in my lifetime. Will the database state survive?