Friday, 31 December 2010

Top ten political events of 2010


10. A new blog is founded (clearly one of the more important political events of the year)
9. The Greens get an MP
8. Gillian Duffy goes to the shops and meets the Prime Minister
7. First TV election debates
6. Ed Miliband beats his brother
5. Cleggmania comes and goes
4. Gordon Brown resigns as Labour Leader
3. Gordon Brown resigns again, this time as Prime Minister
2. David Cameron becomes Prime Minister
1. First coalition government in 65 years

All years have unexpected and bizarre events, but in terms of British politics, 2010 has been extraordinary. Had you told me exactly 12 months ago the political events of 2010, I would have believed it. In fact, I still find it hard to believe.

Labour losing the election and David Cameron becoming Prime Minister were expected, but a Coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives was inconceivable. And yet, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is a reality.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Protests have the opposite effect


As I have said before, the British people don't like violent protests. More than that, protests have little use in liberal democracies.

On Thursday, the Coalition faced its first rebellion in the House of Commons with more than half of the Liberal Democratic's voting against their own government. Yet, all the TV news reports that night, and all the newspapers the next morning, showed images of windows at the Treasury being smashed, flags being pulled down at the Cenotaph and the heir to the thrown being attacked. The story of the tripling of tuition fees and rebellion in the Commons was lost. I wonder if those protesters who decided to turn violent are pleased with themselves.

In the end, the bill past and tuition fees will rises. The protests have achieved little to change the will of the government. In dictatorships, change can often come from the streets as that is the only place where the people's voice can be heard, but this is not the cases in democracies where the government is chosen by the people.

Voting in elections is where the people are heard and their will expressed. Ironically, the demographic least likely to vote are those who were protesting last week. People aged between 18-25 (a group to which I belong) are far less likely to vote than any other age group. If they want their voices to be heard by those in elected office, they should actually vote in elections instead of rioting in the streets.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Strange vote on tuition fees


A week today the House of Commons will vote on controversially removing the cap on tuition fees. The Minister who has written the Bill, Vince Cable, has said that he may abstain on the vote.

It seems a little bizarre than Mr. Cable will not be supporting his own legislation, but it shows how nervous the Liberal Democrats are on this issue.

Most Liberal Democrat MPs signed a pledge before the election stating that they would vote against any rise in tuition fees. This was economically unadvisable, but most Liberal Democrats didn't think they'd get into government.

Now student protesters are burning effigies of senior Liberal Democrats. If nothing else, it's a sign that the Liberal Democrats are now powerful, though in a democracy, that can be toxic to a political party.

Monday, 22 November 2010

20th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's assassination


20 years ago today Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation as Prime Minister (although she didn't actually leave office for another six days).

I don't remember it happening as I was only five-years-old (and in Berlin) but the resignation of Margaret Thatcher would greatly effect all British politics that came after.

Friday, 19 November 2010

"Never had it so good"


In 1957 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave a speech in Bedford in which he said "most of our people have never had it so good." At the time, the speech was said to be optimistic (if not arrogant), but in fact it was meant as a warning. Mr. Macmillan was trying to say that the recent years of prosperity wouldn't last forever.

Today Lord Young was forced to resign after saying "For the vast majority of people in the country today, they have never had it so good..."

He wasn't a member of the government (he was the PM's enterprise adviser), but it is still embarrassing for David Cameron.

It must be especially annoying for Lord Young as what he said was true. People who are in work and have a mortgage are doing quite well. As interest rates are so low, mortgage repayments are very small.

This group of people (which is sizeable) suddenly have more money at the end of month and can't be feeling too bad at the moment. However, they have job losses and public service cuts to come.

To me, Lord Young's ill-advised words seem like a Macmillan-style warning.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Across the Irish Sea


The history of the relationship between Ireland and Britain is not a happy one. Centuries of oppression and atrocities followed by war and partition means that few Irish people view their island's time under British rule with nostalgia.

However, in recent years there have been moves to improve relations between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. There is agreement and cross border cooperation on a large range of issues, most notably with Northern Ireland (where both the Republic and UK agree that the sovereignty of Northern Ireland should be determined by its people).

For most of the last decade Ireland was known as the Celtic Tiger due to the extraordinary growth of its economy, much to the benefit of its people and its closest neighbour and trading partner (the UK). However, the Republic's economy was very closely linked to the property market and thus was hit hard by the economic downturn.

It now looks increasingly likely that the Republic of Ireland will require a bailout from the EU, and today David Cameron stated that it was in the UK's national interest to help Ireland. The Prime Minister was talking about the very close economic and trading links, but he could also be referring to something less tangible.

Most British people (including myself) have Irish ancestry and the links between the two nations are far closer than most neighbours (which is why the prefix 'Beyond Blighty' has been omitted from this post).

However, the Irish are an incredibly proud people, and accepting a bailout from their former occupiers will not be appreciated in all parts of the Republic. But perhaps it will help heal some of the wounds of the past and make the future prosperous for all the people of these islands.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Buried


This afternoon Downing Street announced that Andrew Parsons (the PM's photographer) and Nicky Woodhouse (the PM's filmmaker) have been removed from the civil service. The two had been referred to as 'vanity staff' and the Prime Minister was widely criticised for paying them with public money.

The removal of Mr. Parsons and Ms Woodhouse from the civil service is an embarrassing u-turn for the Prime Minister, but oddly, the press haven't covered it much today - they seemed to have had another story to talk about.

The happy and historic news of a Royal wedding has also buried some sad news for the readers of political blogs. Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South, has announced that he is to give up blogging as it was getting him "into too many squabbles". A lesson for us all!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

When politics gets violent


Today thousands of prospective students, current students, lecturers and ordinary people peacefully marched through Westminster in protest to the government's proposed lifting of the cap on tuition fees.

Sadly, these peaceful protesters will not on appear on the front pages of tomorrow's newspapers. Instead, images of the violence at Millbank Tower (the location of Conservative party HQ) will be what millions of people will see when they read their daily papers tomorrow morning. And none of this will change the governmen's policy - if anything, the violent protests have now made the new fees more likely to happen.

The blurb to this blog states my dedication to impartiality, but there is one issue where I feel I should state my opinion. To quote Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Most of the violent protesters were not students (nor are they ever likely to be), they were anarchists, who dislike democracy and believe direct action is the best way to achieve their goals. To be blunt, they are wrong.

This morning the Liberal Democrat MPs were very nervous about the changes to funding. At PMQs today, the Deputy Prime Minister (standing in for the David Cameron who's in Seoul) faced question after question about his party's sudden change in opinion on university fees. Many of Nick Clegg's MPs were terrified that this issue could lose them their seats and where talking about voting against the Bill when it comes to Parliament. However, the British public tend to support the campaigns of ordered and civil protesters, but quickly turn against those who resort to violence. Meaning those Liberal Democrat MPs probably feel a little safer now.

Direct action simply doesn't work in a democratic society, and it often has the opposite effect than that desired by its proponents. If you want to change policy in a democracy, debate the issue, convince people of your point of view, and scare the MPs with your support, but don't start smashing windows as it will get you nowhere.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Mutiny in Labour!


In my last post I commented on the brutality of Labour's suspension of Phil Woolas. Today Labour MPs, in their own words, mutinied against their own leadership as a result. In a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) the Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, was heckled by her own MPs who were angered at the treatment of Mr. Woolas.

The thing is, Labour MPs don't normally do things like this. Unlike the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, Labour is boringly loyal to its leadership - for most of the time. Of course, Ed Miliband is on paternity leave following the birth of his son on Sunday. Meaning, Macavity-like, Mr. Miliband wasn't there to face the resentment of his party.

Although Mr. Woolas is still fighting the decision to remove him from parliament, there will be a by-election in his constituency as that decision cannot be overturned. All that Mr. Woolas can hope for is that the three year ban from standing for parliament, imposed on him by the court, can be lifted. If he wins on this point, Labour will have to make a difficult decision as to whether to readmit Mr. Woolas into the party and allow him to contest his own seat as a Labour candidate.

The problem for the leadership is that they'll look foolish if they let Mr. Woolas back into the party, but their own MPs will mutiny again if they don't.

Friday, 5 November 2010

What does this mean for the future of UK politics?


It's not uncommon in the United States for the results of close elections to be determined in court. Who could forget the 2000 presidential election, which in the end was resolved by the Supreme Court - not the voters. But things are different in the UK, or so I thought.

I hadn't bothered to blog about the election court, convened to decide whether Phil Woolas' election literature was lawful or not, because I had thought the result was a foregone conclusion as no UK court would overturn the decision of the British voters. Clearly Ed Miliband had come to the same conclusion as me, otherwise he wouldn't have recently made Mr. Woolas the Shadow immigration minister. However, Mr. Miliband and I were completely wrong.

Today the election court found Phil Woolas guilty of deliberately making false statements in his constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth during this year's general election campaign. As a result, Mr. Woolas has been banned from standing for Parliament for three years and the election result in his constituency has been overturned – meaning there will now be a by-election to fill the seat.

The Labour party quickly suspended Mr. Woolas, and Harriet Harman forcefully condemned his actions, even though they had been serving together in the same Shadow Government just yesterday. It all felt a bit like Labour was over compensating. Of course, as a result of the verdict, Labour (along with the other parties) is now in election mode.

It is easy to forget that, even though the government has a comfortable majority, there is still technically a hung parliament, and every seat counts. The by-election will also be the first real chance to gauge the public's opinion of the new politics and to see how the coalition parties cope with fighting against each other in an election campaign.

One thing that worries me about this case is the precedent it sets. In years to come, as a result of today's decision, will close elections be determined by the courts instead of the people?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Beyond Blighty: A good day for Pres. Obama?


It's something of a clique to say that the next election begins the day after the last vote of the previous election has been counted, but the case of the US, it's very true. There is already speculation about which Republicans will run for President in 2012.

This sort of thing happens at the end of all midterms, what makes this time different is that the result of this election means we already know the result of the next – Barack Obama will win a second term.

This may seem like a strange prediction given Pres. Obama's glum assessment of the midterm results, but he shouldn't be too worried as history is on his side. Harry S. Truman in 1946, Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994 all suffered heavy losses in the midterms and all went on the win re-election with ease.

Of course, using history to predict the future is very dangerous, but there are other things to cheer up the Democrats today. Tea Party candidates did very well in many states, which has unnerved many moderate Republicans as the Tea Party's views are significantly to the right of most American voters. And yet, this insurgent group will have a great influence over the next Republican Nominee for President, who may end up being unelectable as a result.

One other thing that might make Pres. Obama feel a little better. With Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives, the President can blame them when things go wrong.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

And so it begins...


Boris Johnson and David Cameron went to Eton together, they both went to Oxford, were in the Bullingdon Club at the same time, and they were in Michael Howard's Shadow Cabinet together. However, you would be wrong to think that this makes them friends.

The rivalry between the two men has been much documented and at the same time remained in the shadows, never overtly coming out in public, there have just been suggestions of its existence here and there. This has made it one of the most tantalising political stories of the moment.

I predict that Boris Johnson's description of the government's housing policy as 'Kosovo-style social cleansing' is just the opening skirmishes in a much longer battle between the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister.
Some of this was inevitable, Boris Johnson will be fighting for re-election in less than 18 months, and he needs to separate himself from the government. Mr. Johnson knows people tend to vote against the party of government in mid-term, especially one which is rising taxes and cutting public services. As a result, the Prime Minister will probably tolerate these differences of opinion - for now.

In the meantime, I'm guessing the Mayor will enjoy snipping at his old schoolmate and it is probably are foreshadow of Conservative Party conflicts to come.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Even I understand this



I must confess, although I love politics, I have little knowledge of economics (budgets speeches tend to send me to sleep). However, I had no problem understanding the Spending Review - we've run out of money and all need to cut expenditure (all of us).

Even the Queen faces a 14% cut, although having been on the thrown for almost 60 years, Her Majesty has been through spending cuts before - unlike many of the civil servants currenlty working in government departments.

For the last decade, government departments have seen increased spending and investment every year, and for many who have grown up with that culture, it will be very difficult to change.

The UK we see today has come about as a result of the investment culture, what the UK looks like after a parliament of the cutting culture is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Mr. Miliband's first PMQs



Some nerviness before your first Prime Minister's Questions as leader is understandable, and an uneasy performance from Ed Miliband would have been more than forgivable. However, Mr. Miliband seemed neither nervous nor uneasy at his first PMQs as Labour leader, in fact, his questions were measured and clever, his delivery was smooth and he actually had some genuinely funny jokes. David Cameron however seemed rather uncomfortable at times, and was often unable to give a clear response to questions from the Leader of the Opposition. Even the Father of the House, Conservative MP Sir Peter Tapsell, complimented Mr. Miliband on his performance.

Fortunately for the Prime Minister, and unluckily for Mr. Miliband, the media gave near blanket coverage to the extraordinary rescue of the 33 miners from the San José Mine in Chile. During the rescue, Mr. Cameron telephoned the President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, to congratulate him. The Prime Minister really should have also thanked the President for rescuing the miners on the same day he was trounced at PMQs, thus pushing Mr. Miliband's success off tomorrow's front pages.

Ed Miliband always has next week's PMQs to get the media's attention, although I suspect victory will be a bit more difficult next time - Mr. Cameron will want to learn from today's defeat and make sure he is ready for his next meeting with Mr. Miliband.

Of course, the importance of PMQs for those outside the Westminster bubble is rather insignificant. When William Hague was Leader of the Opposition, he frequently defeated Prime Minister Tony Blair in debates across the despatch box, but he then lost the 2001 general election in a landslide. Mr. Hague once described PMQs as "exciting, fascinating, fun, an enormous challenge and, from my point of view, wholly unproductive in every sense."

One thing PMQs does do is give a sense of the personality of the party leaders. Today Mr. Miliband seemed calm, cool, clever and funny. The big test for a successful leader is whether they seem 'Prime Ministerial'. In my opinion, I don't think Mr. Miliband did that today, but this was mainly due to the fact that he wasn't the guy answering the questions.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Good or bad conference for the PM?


At the start if the conference season, I had thought that, in comparison to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative conference would seem rather dull. In fact, it was one of the strangest and most interesting conferences due to it being hijacked by the Chancellor's announcement that child benefit would be cut for families with high incomes (most of whom are Conservative voters). George Osborne apparently announced his plan without talking to the Cabinet, something for which Mr. Osborne used to criticise Gordon Brown.

Many Conservative delegates and MPs were greatly angered at the announcement but an opinion poll suggested that 83% of people support the cut. Although, as most commentators pointed out, about 83% of people aren't affected by the cut and it's easy to support someone else losing money.

David Cameron's speech on Wednesday was good, but not his best. There was a very sweet moment when the Prime Minister talked about Niamh Riley, a six-year-old girl from Salford who sent Mr. Cameron a £1 from the tooth fairy to help with the deficit. Mr. Cameron apparently returned the money with a thankful note advising Miss Riley to 'treat herself'.

To me, it seemed as if the bad headlines were affecting the PM (either that or his newborn had been keeping him up). George Osborne however was unaffected and unapologetic, he knows that there are worse cuts needed and that the government is going to become very unpopular in the next few months.

However, the next general election is a long way away, and the coalition hopes that by the time polling day comes, the economy will have been repaired and the government will get the credit. In the meantime, they will have to suffer through some very bad headlines and a few more hijacked conferences.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley, in his take of the week, compared Ed Miliband to a mafia boss. This image is rather strange as Mr. Miliband in the rest of the media is portrayed as soft and cuddly. Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell even drew Ed Miliband as a panda.

Yet to stand against his brother took bravery and steal. Then, one of his first acts as leader was to attack his former boss (Gordon Brown) and removed one of Brown's closest allies in the party, Nick Brown.

When Tony Blair first became Labour leader in 1994, he was described as 'Bambi', perhaps Mr. Miliband's panda image will be proved to be as erroneous. British voters tend to like the idea of a strong leader, Gordon Brown's polls numbers increased when he was accused of bulling his staff.

This week is the Conservative party conference. Then, on Wednesday 13th, Don Ed Miliband (as Mr. Rawnsley called him) meets the capo di tutti capi (Prime Minister David Cameron) at noon in the House of Commons for PMQs. It will be our first look at the new order in Westminster. I can't wait!!

Beyond Blighty: Ecuador and Brazil - a tale of two presidential republics


Public service cuts will no doubt be the main talking point at the Conservative Party conference. Although the cuts will be unpopular with many workers, David Cameron is not risking his life by implementing them. This is not the case for Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador.

Last Thursday, President Correa was shot at and had tear gas thrown at him by this own police and military after the President announced a cut in their pay. Loyal troops were able to rescue Mr. Correa from a hospital where he'd taken refuge, but for short time it looked like the democratically elected President might be forced from power.

Military coup d'états are not uncommon in Latin American countries, Ecuador has seen several coups and military juntas, as have most South American nations. The last coup in Ecuador was just five years ago when President Lucio Gutiérrez was forcibly removed from office at the point of a gun.

The number of coups in that part of the world is partly due to culture, but another reason is the system of government. Almost all Latin American countries are Presidential republics where the head of state is also the head of government and Commander-in-chief, very similar to the system set out in the United States Constitution (once described as America's most dangerous export).

It would be wrong to condemn all Latin American counties. Today voters in Brazil are electing a new President. Opinion polls suggest that Dilma Rousseff will win comfortably and become Brazil's first female President. Brazil is seen as an emerging superpower and a stable government is an important part of this success story, but Brazil's history is not trouble free, having had a few coups of its own in the 1960s. Like Ecuador, Brazil's constitution is very similar to that of the United States.

The text of the US Constitution seems very sensible and democratic. The states are given great autonomy with the Congress to deal with federal issues and a President who acts as a unifying national figure, dealing mainly with foreign policy and defence. When put into practice however, it doesn't work like that. The executive branch is incredibly powerful and there is little accountability for the President. In countries which use versions of the US Constitution (although not the US itself) this has led to dictatorial Presidents who could only be removed by the military in a coup.

In 2008 the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the countries of the world in order of the state of their freedom and democracy. This list was called the 'Democracy Index' and out of the thirty countries classed as 'full democracies' only four were presidential republics (the United States, the Republic of Korea, Uruguay and Costa Rica). Most of the world's presidential republics were classed as 'authoritarian regimes'. By contrast twenty-five out of the world's thirty full democracies have a parliamentary system.

It is no coincidence that former Iberian colonies (which almost universal became presidential republics) have a history of military dictatorships and economic instability, whereas former British colonies (which almost universal became parliamentary democracies) have a long history of stable government and economic prosperity. There are several exceptions of course, but in general parliamentary systems protect democracy.

A parliamentary system gives systemic accountability as the executive is directly answerable to the legislature. If a Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy suddenly became tyrannical, he or she could be removed by their parliamentary party, by the parliament itself, or even by the head of state. It is incredibly difficult to peacefully remove a President in a presidential republic (hence the number of military coups in such countries).

I am not saying that presidential republics are doomed to become tyrannical, but if you happen to find yourself choosing a new system of government for a country, I'd suggest a Parliament and Prime Minister, not a President and a Congress.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Different Labour, no longer New Labour



A large amount of Ed Miliband's speech today could have been given by David Cameron, and even more of the speech could have been given by Nick Clegg. The new Labour leader wanted to show that he is very different to the past few leaders of his party.

The Iraq War, the removal of civil liberties, mass emigration, even how to combat the deficit, Ed Miliband said that the Labour government had been wrong. He was trying to show that under his leadership, Labour will be a very different party to the one that lost the election last May (even though it was Ed Miliband who wrote the 2010 Labour manifesto).

Although there was a lot of criticism of the Prime Minister, which was expected, there was nothing about the Deputy PM. Perhaps Ed Miliband is thinking of a future coalition government of his own - or maybe he'd like to gain the support of those Liberal Democratic voters who feel disillusioned with their party's union with the Conservatives. At the general election, the Conservatives received 36% of the vote, Labour had 29% and the Liberal Democrats 23%. The most recent poll showed the Conservatives at 39%, Labour in the lead at 40% and the Liberal Democrats down to just 12%. In order to become Prime Minister, Ed Miliband will have to keep those Liberal Democratic voters who have switched to Labour.

The speech itself was good, but Ed Miliband is not yet as good an orator as Tony Blair, President Obama or David Cameron. However, such skills often come with time. The wounds in the Miliband family, caused by the leadership election, will probably heal with time as well.

All the indications are that David Miliband will not seek election to the Shadow Cabinet, and thus leave frontline politics. So there will be no Miliband equivalent of the Blair-Brown rivalry on the Labour frontbench, and from now on when I say 'Mr. Miliband' I shall be refereeing to Ed.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Miliband age has begun


So, Ed Miliband, MP for Doncaster North, is the new Leader of the Labour party, beating his own brother by just 1.3% in the last round of voting. It will take some time to get used to Mr. Miliband and see how his leadership will affect the party.

One thing I noticed was David Miliband, who looked devastated. He led the vote in every round except the last when he was overtaken by his younger sibling. Speculation about a Ed-David split in the party has already begun, but Ed Miliband can take some comfort from a look at recent history. At the height of Gordon Brown's unpopularity, David Miliband was given the opportunity to challenge Mr. Brown for the leadership on three occasions, and he was never able to go through with it. On that record, it seems unlikely he'll find the courage to unseat his own brother.

So Ed Miliband is the Leader of the Labour party and the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, but is he also the next Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Which Mr. Miliband?


After a four month campaign, the Labour leadership election is over. As of 5pm today, the polls have closed. Of course, we won't know the actual result until 5pm on Saturday, but at least the candidates can now rest without worrying about missing a hustings or a canvassing opportunity.

So, who will win? Well, if Diane Abbott, Ed Balls or Andy Burnham wins it will be seen as a major upset. If Diane Abbott gets it there is a strong possibility of a civil war inside the Labour party between the left wing (which includes Ms. Abbott) and the right wing (which is the majority of Labour MPs). Ed Balls will be able to keep the party together (his somewhat stern reputation will see to that) but he has a similar problem to Brown in that the public don't warm to him.

Andy Burnham is an unknown. He will appeal in northern voters, but he looks young and innocent (although so did Tony Blair when he became Labour leader in 1994). David Cameron should fear Mr. Burnham as Labour leader. In politics, figures who come from nowhere tend to win elections (Barack Obama, Tony Blair, David Cameron are good examples of this).

Speculation about the hypothetical leaderships of Abbott, Balls and Burnham are interesting, but it would be extraordinary for the winner not to be called 'Mr. Miliband'. Which 'Mr. Miliband', of course, is a matter of debate.

This leadership election has been given a unique dynamic due to the fact that the two frontrunners are sibling. This dynamic is unlikely to end when the result is announced on Saturday, it will have a great influence on the leadership of the eventual winner. The loser will almost certainly stand for the Shadow Cabinet, which will be led by their brother. The Blair-Brown rivalry influenced the Labour party and the country for over a decade. I wonder what influence will a Miliband-Miliband rivalry have?

Monday, 20 September 2010

The fear of power



You may have thought that after 65 years out of power, the Liberal Democrats would be excited about having government ministers address their conference and putting Liberal Democrat policy into effect. However, the ordinary Liberal Democrat members are uneasy, and not just because they are in coalition with the Conservatives. After so long without it, power can be very frightening.

I should point out that to say the Liberal Democrats have been out of government since 1945 is somewhat inaccurate. The Liberal Democrats as a political party have only existed since 1988, before then they were two parties, the Liberal party (which used to formed governments in the 19th and early 20th centuries) and the Social Democratic party (which split from the Labour party in 1981). So, although the Liberals haven't been in government since the coalition during the Second World War, the Social Democrats were technically in power as part of Labour in the 1970s.

However, the membership of the Liberal Democrats is very different from the party itself. This is true of most political parties, but the Liberal Democrat members are a particularly interesting group. Unkindly described as "sandal-wearing" or "tree-huggers", in general they are dramatically to the left of their party leadership and the rest of the country. For most of them, being in power is a very strange experience, and in such a difficult time, with such a large deficit to deal with, many Liberal Democrat members are wondering if being in government is such a good thing.

Today Nick Clegg (David Cameron's Deputy Prime Minister) tried to convince his party membership that the coalition was a good thing. He was very careful not to sound triumphalism, but instead asked the party to trust that what he was doing is 'right for Britain'. Whether the Liberal Democrats will continue to follow their leader when the spending cuts begin will only be known at next year's conference.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Fun at the conference!


Conference season is here again, and there's always something of interest at this point in the political calendar, though normally it's one of the party leaders in some form of difficulty. However this year is interesting for very different reasons.

Next week is the Liberal Democrat conference which in previous years has been described as narcolepsy inducing, but this time the keynote speakers will be members of the government. Nick Clegg will give his traditional leader's speech as Deputy Prime Minister and Conservative MPs will be welcomed! Who would have predicted that a year ago?

Then, on Saturday 25th, the Labour party will begin by finally announcing the result of their leadership election. This is probably the most important moment of this year's conference season. The next leader of the Labour party will have an enormous influence on British politics in the next few years. The really exciting thing is, no one knows who the next leader will be!!

After the Labour conference, it's the Conservatives' turn with David Cameron's first conference speech as Prime Minister.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Beyond Blighty: Is a strong Tea party good for the Democrats?


The Democrats in the United States unveiled their new logo today, perhaps in a hope to reenergise the brand after being damaged from two years in power. It had looked like the midterms in November, which elect all of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, would be an unhappy time for the Democratic party, but recent primary results have given some hope to the party of President Obama.

Tea Party candidates have won the Republican nominations in several Senate and Congressional seats currently held by the Democrats which the Republicans had hoped to win this November. However, the Tea Party candidates, although able to galvanise the far-right, look unelectable when put before the general public (according to the polls).

In order to regain power, a party must move to the centre. This is true of parties, both left and right, in all countries of the world. However, the Republican voters (if not the Republican leadership) are moving to the right.

This trend can best be seen in the fortunes of Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska and John McCain's 2008 running mate, who has come to personify the Tea Party movement. It's almost certain that she will announce her candidacy for President early next year and, if the strength of the Tea Party continues, she has a very good chance of getting the Republican nomination for the 2012 Presidential election. Governor Palin is extraordinarily popular with the right wing of American politics, but she is truly terrifying to Democrats, independents and even moderate Republicans.

The Tea Party came into being as the American right's response to President Obama's left wing policies. It would be ironic if the strength of the Tea Party led to President Obama securing a second term in the White House.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

PMQs and a correction


Back in July I said that Harriet Harman had appeared for the last time at PMQs as Leader of the Opposition. I must now correct that statement as she will appear two more times (next week and the week after). This is because Parliament is back early as the Coalition wants to get on with their legislative programme. However, Harriet Harman will not appear today, as the Prime Minister is in France with his Father, who is unwell.

This means that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, will be answering questions for the government and Jack Strew will ask questions on behalf of the opposition.

I am guessing that Nick Clegg will be regretting the decision to call Parliament back three weeks early as I predict Labour will bring up the Andy Coulson affair a few thousand times. I think the next hours are going to be a bit tricky for Mr. Clegg.

UPDATE:


Well, the Andy Coulson affair did come up, though the session was more sombre than normal due to the news of the PM's father.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The start of a new term


During the summer holidays, as you might expect, not much was happening in the political world. It all changed this week though as the coming of September has brought with it about a month's worth of stories in a week.

Probably one of the biggest stories was the release of Tony Blair's memoirs. They were surprisingly frank, and showed that the rivalry between Blair and Brown (know by Downing Street civil servants as 'the TB-GBs') was a lot worse than most people thought. Also, Mr. Blair likes George W. Bush and still thinks the invasion of Iraq was right – what a shock!

Ballot papers for the leadership election started going out this week. What influence Blair's book and the memories of the Blair/Brown relationship will have on the leadership election will only be known with the result on 25th September.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary commented on allegations on the internet that he was gay and in a relationship with an aid with whom he'd shared a hotel room during the election campaign. William Hague categorically denied ever having been in a relationship with any man and stated that he and his wife are happily married, despite having recently suffered the tragedy of a miscarriage. There have been rumours about Mr. Hague's sexuality for years, but only on the political blogs and he has never been talked about in the mainstream media before. It just goes to show, don't trust what you read on blogs!!

For the second time in 12 months, UKIP is electing a new leader. This week Nigel Farage announced his candidacy. Mr. Farage has been leader before, but he resigned last year in order to focus on fighting the constituency of Buckingham in the general election. Nigel Farage is the best known member of UKIP and the leadership election is his to lose.

The Communications Director at No. 10, Andy Coulson (David Cameron's Alastair Campbell) has been on the wrong side of the headlines in recent days. Before working for Mr. Cameron, Andy Coulson was editor of the News of the World during the phone hacking scandal when the newspaper logged into the private voicemail of politicians and celebrities. This week, John Prescott has been calling for a judicial review into the affair, and specifically Mr. Coulson's role in it. I wonder whether Lord Prescott would be doing this if Andy Coulson was working for Labour instead of the Coalition.

And finally, the Camerons have brought their new daughter to Downing Street for the first time. The only question the proud parents would answer was "Is she keeping you awake?" To which Mrs. Cameron replied "Oh yes". I'm not sure a sleep deprived Prime Minister is not the best thing for the country.

So much news in just seven days, and Parliament isn't even back yet!!

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

When family and politics mix


One of the most interesting features of the current Labour leadership election is the fact that two of the candidates (the front runners no less) are brothers. At the start of the leadership election, David and Ed Miliband assured the media (and their mother) that 'brotherly love' was stronger than politics. However, in the last few days things have become somewhat more acrimonious.

In an interview with Eddie Mair on PM two weeks ago, Ed Miliband was asked if he had the courage to sack his brother. He refused to answer the question, saying he didn't want to answer hypothetical questions. When David was asked the same question two days later, he simply said 'yes'. Both the brothers have written newspaper articles and given speeches which have been interpreted as attacking their respective sibling.

Perhaps this behaviour is natural between the front runners in a close race. Normally however, after an election, the candidates are able to move on from the electoral battle. Even in the most hostile contests, at worst a friendship might come to an end, but this election might split a family.

Of course, there have been other political families. The Churchills in the UK, the Kennedys and the Bushs in the US, the Nehrus and Gandhis in India and the Bhuttos in Pakistan. The difference with the Milibands is they're not working together, they're fighting against each other - John, Robert and Edward Kennedy all ran for President of the United States, but not in the same year.

In the next few days Labour and Union members will be receiving ballot papers for the leadership election. The polls suggest that Mr. Miliband will be the winner, though which Mr. Miliband is still in doubt. Perhaps, after the election is over, the wounds will heal and the brothers, no matter which one (if any) is leader, will be able to move on. That's certainly what their mother will be hoping!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Beyond Blighty: Hung parliament down under


There was an element of schadenfreude watching the Australian election this morning. The incumbent Labor party (which went into the election with an unelected Prime Minister) lost its majority, although the opposition couldn't get enough seats to claim victory, meaning there was a hung parliament. It all felt very familiar.

Of cource, there are a many differences between what happened in the UK in May. For example, there is no Australian equivalent of the Liberal Democrats for the two main parties to negotiate with as the remaining seats, which will determine the next government of Australia, are not held by a single political party but a collection of independents, each with very different agendas.

Just a few months ago it was all very different. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was far ahead in the polls and it looked like he would easily lead the Australian Labor Party into a second term. Meanwhile, the opposition was in a certain amount of disarray having changed its leader three times in as many years, the latest one being Tony Abbott, born in London, who was seen as something of a joke by the media.

It all changed very quickly when Labor's poll numbers began to dip. Just eight weeks ago, Mr. Rudd was forced into a sudden leadership contest which he lost in a shock defeat to his own Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The insinuation was that Ms. Gillard, who was born in Wales, had been planning the coup against Kevin Rudd for years and was just waiting for the perfect time to strike.

So it was Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia's first woman PM, who led Labor into this election and its surprisingly bad result. It seems the government lost support for many reasons, but a big one was that the Australian public didn't like the way Mr. Rudd had been treated by his party. Another problem for Labor was that they were unable to run on their relatively good record in government as the first question would have been "if you were doing so well, why did you ditch your Prime Minister?"

Michael Heseltine famously said "he who wields the dagger never wears the crown". Ms. Gillard appears to have wielded the dagger against Mr. Rudd, and she wears the crown, for now, but how much longer?

It is going to be an interesting few days in Australia and there could be a change in government and another new PM in the form of Tony Abbott, or maybe Julia Gillard will become Australia's first elected woman PM. Negotiations on government forming will start soon.

As is often the case with Australia, it's very far away but somehow seems very close to home.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The first 99 days



For some reason the first 100 days in office is now seen by the media as a crucial point to measure the results and progress of a government. The accuracy of this gauge is questionable. How well could the government of Margret Thatcher be judged in August 1979? What were the merits of Tony Blair's time in office in August 1997?

Also, although David Cameron has been Prime Minister for 100 days, for the first few hours of his Premiership he led a minority Conservative government. The Liberal Democrats only formally agreed to the Coalition deal after midnight – meaning the Coalition's 100th day is tomorrow. In any case, the new government has done a lot in its first 99 days in power, although no one has really felt the benefits or pain of it yet.

The really interesting question, which has been asked since the start, is how long will it last? If it does break apart, the first cracks in the Coalition won't come from the Cabinet, most of them have found that they like their colleagues from the other party and are enthusiastic about being in government. If it happens, descent will come from the backbenchers, the 1922 Committee or disgruntled Liberal Democrat MPs, who can and will stand up to their leadership. One thing both Coalition parties have in common is a proclivity for regicide, unlike Labour.

There is a sense of limbo in British politics at the moment, partly because there currently isn't a Labour leader, but also because a coalition in the UK still feels strange, especially one between such unlikely bedfellows. In time, as policies are implemented and the novelty fades, things will change, but on the 99th day it's impossible to say how or when.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Queen of second preference?


Almost exactly five years ago the Westminster village was gripped by the Conservative Leadership election. There was a real sense that the winner of that contest would go on to become Prime Minister, a sense that was proved to be correct. The 2005 Conservative leadership election, won by David Cameron, had an excitement to it that is very much lacking in the current Labour leadership election.

Oddly, as I have said previously, the next leader of the Labour party has a much better chance of becoming PM than David Cameron did in 2005. Despite this, even I, a self confessed political nerd, couldn't bring myself to watch the last televised hustings. I knew what all the candidates would say – it's what they've said in every other such meeting. So why does Labour's contest lack energy?

In the Conservative party, leadership elections go through several rounds before the final vote. The MPs each vote in runoff ballots over a period of several days until only two candidates remain, then the ordinary members of the party choose from those two. It was this successive election process that was exciting in 2005 as it showed the gradual and unexpected rise of David Cameron. Similarly, the primaries and caucuses of the 2008 US presidential election, in which Barack Obama rose to prominence, made that vote all the more exiting.

In Labour's leadership elections however, after the initial nominations, there is only one vote. Also, AV elections are notoriously difficult for pollsters to measure, so there is little interest in the opinion polls. This means it is hard to know what is happening in the country and which candidates are doing well or badly.

All the excitement will come on Saturday 25th September when the result is announced. As described in a previous blog, the tactics of the second preference vote is crucial. The Miliband brothers will most likely top the first round, but after that things may get more interesting. A look at what happened in the 2007 deputy leadership election indicates what AV can produce. Supporters of Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott are not likely to vote for a Miliband for fear it will knock out their candidate in the second round. So to whom will they give their second preference? It will probably be someone who is liked but perceived not to be a threat. Could Diane Abbott be that person?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A Special Relationship, or the Special Relationship?


Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, once said "I consider the British as our natural enemies." 200 years later, George W. Bush said the United States "has no truer friend than Great Britain". The reality of the Special Relationship is probably somewhere in between these two statements.

Yesterday, the Senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee no doubt felt it was closer to the former when they announced they had been forced to suspend their investigation into the release of the Lockerbie Bomber due to lack of cooperation from the United Kingdom.

Eight years ago things seemed very different. American and British troops were fighting side by side in Iraq and the British Prime Minister was worshiped in Washington. A change in government on both sides of the Atlantic, the BP oil spill and the release of the Lockerbie Bomber has diminished that. But even at its height, the UK didn't get much out of the Special Relationship, throughout the world Tony Blair was portrayed as an 'American poodle' and whenever British coroners investigated British deaths from American friendly fire, the US always refused to cooperate.

The history of the relationship between the US and UK is long, complicated and swings from mutual mistrust to shared adoration and back again with the regulatory of a pendulum. The future of the Special Relationship is unclear. Currently, the US's most important international association is with China, and the UK's links with Europe and increasingly India (with which the PM wants to create a 'New Special Relationship') are far more central to the British economy.

When meeting David Cameron last week, President Obama kept referring to the US and UK having 'a' Special Relationship, as opposed to calling it 'the' Special Relationship. Barrack Obama is the first US President not to be an Anglophile and David Cameron has little interest in foreign affairs. As a result, the Special Relationship would seem to be entering one of its many dormant stages.

It seems unlikely that the US will ever be just another country to the UK, or vice versa, but in the near future, the relationship between these old enemies and allies will not be so special.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The next Leader of the Opposition

The BBC's chief political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, has interviewed each of the candidates for the Labour leadership.

In a little over two months, one of the interviewees will be the Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition, putting themselves forward as an alternative Prime Minister for the British people. So it's well worth a look for anyone with a vote in the forthcoming election.

Diane Abbott


Ed Balls


Andy Burnham


David Miliband


Ed Miliband

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Changes coming to PMQs



Prime Minister's Questions is the centre of the political week in the United Kingdom. There is something very British about forcing the country's most powerful person into a bear pit once a week to face heckles and questions from fellow MPs. In many ways it embodies the makeup of a parliamentary democracy, where the executive is directly accountable to the legislature.

In the United States live coverage of PMQs is shown on the political TV channel C-SPAN where it gets very respectable viewing figures. It is so admired in the US that when he was running for president in 2008, John McCain promised to have an American version if he were elected.

And yet last week John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, voices his dismay at the culture of PMQs, describing it as 'scrutiny by screech'. Mr. Speaker proposed several changes in an attempt to try to lessen the boisterous and unruly nature of PMQs.

The Problem is though, the atmosphere of the chamber during PMQs is as a result of the culture of the Commons, and as most politicians eventually find out, culture is the hardest thing to change. Even John Bercow admitted that "no committee can legislate for [culture]". Recordings of PMQs from Harold Wilson's time as Prime Minister show that the rowdy culture hasn't changed much in decades.

So perhaps the culture of PMQs can't be changed, but the people can and will. Last Wednesday's session was the last with David Cameron facing Harriet Harman. It's quite sad actually as Harriet Harman, as I mentioned in a previous blog, has been doing a rather good job of flustering Mr. Cameron.

Next week the Prime Minister will be at the White House with President Obama, so Nick Clegg will answer for the government's actions (which will be interesting to see). Parliament then goes into recess and when MPs return to Westminster there will be a new Labour leader!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Can 'divide and conquer' work for Labour?


Labour's main strategy since the formation of the coalition has been to split the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats apart. It is an obvious approach, but one which may rebound if not done wisely. This has implications for the Labour party leadership election as each candidate wants to show that they are the wisest one of all.

David Miliband attempted on Twitter to convince Liberal Democratic MPs to vote against the coalition's budget, calling Nick Clegg a "dumb waiter" of the government. The budget passed with ease.

The problem is that Labour's attempts to prize the governing parties apart might end up bring them closer together – uniting them against their common political enemy.

Mike Smithson of politicalbetting.com has predicted that the coalition will fall on 6 May 2011, though not as a result of Labour. The date of the prediction is the day after the proposed AV referendum. Whatever the result, one of the coalition parties will be very unhappy on that day (the Conservatives if AV wins, the Liberal Democrats if it doesn't).

The next Labour Leader, whoever they are, will have to act very carefully next May if they want to continue the 'divide and conquer' strategy with the coalition.

If the next Labour Leader acts wisely, we might see the collapse of the coalition, an election and maybe even a Labour Prime Minister by this time next year. Acting unwisely may lead to a successful coalition lasting for a full five-years and Labour out of office for a generation.