Tag Archives: Gordon Brown

Is Voting Reform Under Threat?

The impetus towards proportional is already slowing, now the furore over the expenses scandal has marginally died down, and Brown’s authority has waned. All the fine words expressed between the height of the scandal and the European parliamentary elections – were they all hot air, have they been drowned out by louder voices following the BNP’s election to two seats in Strasbourg? The problem I see is politicians from the progressive parties advocating reform, but without the authority needed to sound convincing. Clegg has been pushing hard for PR whilst campaigning strongly for the EU, Johnson and Ed Miliband have also for New Labour, but both parties were hammered in the EU elections and Johnson’s motivations are dubious to put it mildly. It’s no surprise that Tory leader David Cameron can get away with garbage like this:

Cameron told Brown that proportional representation had “massive drawbacks” as demonstrated in the election of two BNP candidates to the European parliament and pressed Brown to say whether he intended to hold a referendum on the issue prior to the next general election.

Cameron said: “In 12 years there has not been a squeak about electoral reform and now he has being trashed in the polls he wants to put it on the agenda.” He accused Brown of trying to “fix the rules”.

Whilst Brown can’t argue against the latter point, he certainly can against the first, but hasn’t. The election of the BNP isn’t a drawback to PR; the reasons for the success of the BNP are fundamentally because of the absence of meaningful representation in the political process. Extremism flourishes in a vaccuum. Tom Watson has changed his mind:

Vast swaths of working people in Britain now think parliament is irrelevant to them and their families. MP Jon Cruddas is right when he says that this is as much about policy as it is our democratic framework. But he is also right to say that we can no longer ignore the institutions of representation when it comes to re-engaging working people.

Our voting system is the source code of the power wielded by MPs. It bestows the authority of the people on their representatives. Yet few MPs can claim support from more than 50% of their electors. AV enables ­preference (ranked) voting, ensuring an MP can claim authority of a majority of their voters. AV also allows voters to protest – through the support of small and single-issue groups, while also choosing to support a larger party, if they so wish. Unlike some other voting systems, it allows the retention of a geographic link between MP and electors.

I think he puts it quite well when he says the ‘voting system is the source code of the power wielded by MPs’. Look at what first-past-the-post has brought us to – MPs on the take, a government waging illegal wars, using its police force to brutalise dissent. We don’t want a third runway at Heathrow? They ignore the local consultation and try to go ahead anyway. We want action against climate change? They collude with energy multinationals to suppress dissent. And the poor? The working class? Who is meeting their needs? When their needs aren’t represented in parliament it’s hardly surprising you’d get a spike in voting for extremism. Whilst it no doubt does represent significant, underlying racist attitudes, it’s also a successful means of getting attention. Yet with no PR available at Westminster their genuine needs – New Labour has completely abandoned the poor now in its quest to retain power – who is doing anything to stop the political drift to the far right? Linda Riordan argues:

Since the 19th century the first-past-the-post system has worked. The prevailing mood of the country takes its course under this system. For example, in 1945 a clear majority of voters wanted a Labour government. It gave it a clear mandate to govern.

Would Atlee have been able to carry out such popular post war reforms if we’d had an election under PR? Not at all. He would have been too busy doing back room deals with Liberals and Tories to keep them on board.

On the flip side, in 1979 the country wanted a change of government. And, as much as I detest the policies of Baroness Thatcher, the first-past-the-post system enabled the largest party to form a government.

First-past-the-post is democratic and provides stable government, a clear constituency link between MP and voter, a definite outcome, clear results and an easy to follow system.

It’s a lazy analysis of history and ignores the present reality – we are in a period where a prevailing economic model is driving society and the political process, where the reverse used to be true. First-past-the-post is next to useless under such conditions in providing democratic government and enabling the changes which are desperately needed to be carried out. She goes on to say PR is undemocratic – I argue that politics of compromise and cooperation is the exact opposite, and it’s the opposite of what we have now. It’s not surprising cynical opportunists like David Cameron would agree with her – in the absence of policies or ideology of his own he pretty much has no choice.

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Brown Hints at Constitutional Moves

A referendum on proportional representation to take over from first-past-the-post? A fully or mostly elected House of Lords/Senate? Could it be true?

The question it must boil down to though is – will this all be scuppered because it’s being presented by the wrong man? The tabloids will quickly discredit AV+ as the means by which Nick Griffin could enter the Westminster parliament, and I don’t see where the breakthrough will come in reforming the House of Lords. Robin Cook’s attempts at reform were all tragically rebuffed, and again – with a Prime Minister with so little authority, how is this going to make it through the House of Commons?

If this is going to work, Brown and his new Lord and Master Mandelson will have to realise the political focus has shifted from the expenses scandal and onto Brown himself. Handled wrongly both moves will look self-serving and will sadly (but understandably) be trashed. I’d say if both issues are genuinely now on the table, much will depend on who the messenger is. Ed Miliband’s turn to shine? Or Alan Johnson’s? And just what does Johnson think of ID cards and superdatabases?

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.

He Can’t Hold On

At least I don’t think he can. Last night’s resignation by James Purnell seems to be the final nail in the coffin for Gordon Brown’s premiership. It appears to be a Blairite coup, which begs the question – if they try to move New Labour ever rightward and the failing of Brown’s time as PM has been not to move leftward enough, would doing so now decapitate them? Martin Kettle asks:

Dire though the current hysterical atmosphere is for Labour – and the local and European election results will surely make things worse – there must now be a leadership election. Experts say it can take place quickly. The new leader can be in place by the start of July, even under the cumbersome procedures which Labour has inflicted on itself. Everything points to Alan Johnson being the man of the hour, but there can still be a real debate of the sort that the massively shortsighted coronation of Brown two years ago precluded. My god, they were wrong to give Brown the leadership.

So Brown will be gone in hours, maybe days. He’s right to say that regardless of however much the rules of succession get truncated they must debate the future of the party and the future of the government, and do so publicly. Last time such issues were never discussed at the leadership level, only during the deputy’s race. And remember Harriet Harman, who talked the talk of an independent mind, but who as deputy has never truly changed New Labour for the better. Labour must realise that the reason why this is happening is only partly because of the expenses scandal, for which it is being blamed. Polly Toynbee notes:

The left of centre Compass group agonises over the dilemma: they think Brown a disaster, but a privatising, modernising, rightwing alternative could be worse still. Disappointed that he failed to turn the party progressive, this time they will demand an open debate if a new leader is to emerge. But these bleak calculations of least-worst options are devoid of the support a leader needs, too thin fuel to keep Gordon Brown flying long.

Is neoliberalism working? No, Brown’s been busy trying to patch it back together. Has a limp, half-engagement with the EU been any help there? No. Was Jacqui Smith’s strategy in the Home Office anything other than a disaster? No. Should the party apologise for going to war in Iraq? Hell yes. If Alan Johnson is now to become Prime Minister he needs to realise that the argument has transcended Blair/Brown, left/right divides. The party has become a warmongering, corporate bully, owned entirely by transnational capital, which uses its army and police militia to do its bidding. This is not what New Labour was elected to do. Eradicating child poverty, closing the gap between rich and poor – not endless talk of marketising areas of public life where markets don’t belong and trying everything in its power to stifle the freedom the public should have over the information of government. ID cards must be sacrificed, trident, city academies, superdatabases, RIPA, SOCPA, you name it. Of course if Brown announced all this or Johnson (surely the party can’t be mad enough to appoint Purnell or Miliband, ahead of the now inevitable November General Election) they’d then just become the Greens. And that’s part of the tragedy playing itself out.

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.

To Remove Gordon

Brown must go or progressive politics will suffer. The Guardian knows it:

The tragedy for Mr Brown and his party is that his chance to change it has gone. Although he still purports to be a radical, he has adopted the caution of an establishment man. He cannot lead a revolution against his own way of doing government, and yet a revolution is necessary. Grandstanding on his claims to good intentions, the prime minister demands the right to carry on, even as the cabinet implodes around him. The home secretary, the chancellor, and perhaps even the foreign secretary may go, and Labour faces its worst defeat in its history on Thursday, but the prime minister does not recognise his direct responsibility for the mayhem.

The truth is that there is no vision from him, no plan, no argument for the future and no support. The public see it. His party sees it. The cabinet must see it too, although they are not yet bold enough to say so. The prime minister demands loyalty, but that has become too much to ask of a party, and a country, that was never given the chance to vote for him. Had there been a contest for the leadership in 2007 – and had Mr Brown called a general election – he would probably have won. He decided not to do these things. And he has largely failed since.

They’re right. As they go on to say, even if he put a referendum on the ballot in 2010 for proportional representation it would be doomed to failure because he put it there. Particularly after the departure of Jacqui Smith and the impending electoral disaster tomorrow, Brown’s authority has now gone entirely. There were signs in late 2007 that Blair’s assessment of him as inappropriate for the top job because of a character flaw was correct – now we know it’s true, and there’s little Britain hates worse than a weak leader. The G20 policing disaster, the McBride scandal, the Royal Mail sell off, and now the expenses scandal – there’s no hint of progressive leadership left in the current leadership. Brown must go and go almost immediately. Whilst Alan Johnson would likely not win what would for him have to be a General Election this year, he could at least begin the repair job on the Labour Party decimated by spin doctors, special advisors, big money, its alliance with the American neoconservatives and the ruthlessness of the parliamentary Blairite machine. Jonathan Freedland though urges caution:

such a move (crowning Johnson) would create as many problems as it would solve. There would be public revolt at the notion of a second unelected prime minister. There would have to be an early election, thereby scuppering Johnson’s chance of introducing constitutional change.

However much voters might be charmed by Johnson, they might be appalled in equal measure by the sight of a party turning in on itself, either for a coup or a drawn-out ­leadership election. As the Tories discovered when they toppled Margaret Thatcher, regicide builds up poison that can take years to dispel.

It’s also true that there are no guarantees. It is not certain that Labour would rally to Johnson or, if it did, that he would have the magic healing powers his ­admirers attribute to him. He might do, but as yet he is untested. Recent polling suggests he would not lift Labour’s numbers at all.

And this is the danger that we’re all in right now. The public is so disengaged from all politicians – even the good ones – that even the best, most positive options may not be on the table. What is clear is this – a huge body of the electorate feels forced to vote for radical alternatives because neither of the ‘big two’ parties has anything to offer them. This has been a long time coming, and is the direct result of Labour and the Tories believing that electoral success lay only in the centre ground. That ground shifted after the Iraq War in 2003, yet both parties failed to learn the lesson from the 2005 election – that it’s time for the return of principle, a return to ideology. Whilst Obama isn’t living up to his words in the US, it was a lesson he learned to get elected. Now Labour must kick out Brown and find its principle, its ideology once again. It must do so very quickly indeed, otherwise we face David Cameron repealing the Human Rights Act and allying himself with religious fundamentalist and homophobes in Europe. Want that either? No, I thought not.