Last week’s Strategic Defence and Comprehensive Spending Reviews brought out the best and worst of the British political system. In particular the format of Prime Minister’s Questions, with two opposing teams hurling groans at one another, was shown to be both redundant and formulaic on the one hand and sensible and necessary on the other. In the majority of recent encounters in the chamber, the Prime Minister David Cameron has used the inexperience of his new opponent Ed Miliband to derail any challenges before they can gather steam. He stands there, shaking his head at the indignation swelling from the Labour benches, moaning about the shambolic economic legacy they left behind. Rather than accept any alternative method to the path chosen by his coalition, he puffs out his chest and talks patronisingly as a wise old figure, one that has been there and done it. “You cannot attack a plan without a plan” he tells Miliband, is something he learnt from his time in Opposition. Miliband must be desperate to slam the Prime Minister for his sheer cheek and hypocrisy. After all it must be obvious to anyone that Miliband and his new Labour front bench will need time to devise an alternative to Cameron’s cuts, just as he and George Osborne took time to decide where the axe would fall hardest. And given the way Cameron did a drastic u-turn on economic policy after the banking crisis, guided by ideology and the opportunity for massive political gain, it must pain Miliband to watch the Prime Minister get away with his own allegations now. But sensibly, rather than lose his cool, Miliband has stuck to a reasoned, calm approach to PMQs that should quietly serve him well if he can keep it up.
It’s been difficult for Miliband to land any decisive blows, given that Cameron’s catch all defence of the deficit still seems to hold sway with voters. But Cameron must know that he will not be able to pass the buck forever, and soon it will be the policies of his own government being judged and assessed. He must hope, for example, that circumstances do not change and Britain does not need to fight a conventional war within the next ten years. The decision to go ahead with the construction of two aircraft carriers was made inevitable due to the costs of cancellation bizarrely exceeding the build itself, but surely it would have made sense to provide these carriers with strike capability, if they had to be built? As usual Cameron blamed Labour’s legacy of overspend and for the most part the defence budget was balanced in a way the Opposition could not disagree with. The vital parts of the military’s capability, such as those operational in Afghanistan, were protected and excess necessarily trimmed. Provision was made for the emergence of new threats such as terrorism and cyber warfare, and strengths like our Special Forces were recognised and reinforced with additional funding. In fact the only real disagreement Miliband had with the SDR was the fact that it was rushed and made more about cutting than equipping the nation to protect itself. This led to a largely pointless session in which Miliband reasserted this main theme.
Of course Miliband was right not to challenge strategic advice for the sake of it, and I am not saying he should have. However there were certainly other approaches that could have been taken to the review and some will regard it as an opportunity dangerously missed. Why, for example, did the majority of the defence budget still deal with threats deemed extremely unlikely, and a far smaller portion dedicated to combating new, ever present dangers? The intelligence services did receive a funding boost but many will say that the real threats are still not properly dealt with, in favour of costly projections of power such as carriers and troop numbers. Critics will argue that in a time of austerity the money safeguarded for outdated areas of defence, which aim to maintain Britain’s world power status but fail, would be better spent on public services and assets the country has that could broadcast our influence globally in other ways. The big decision on Trident was essentially postponed. Millions of voters would happily see Britain’s nuclear deterrent decommissioned, especially when the equivalent cost of schools or hospitals is drawn in stark comparison. Despite all the political talk of fairness doing the rounds at the moment, the views of millions will go unheard. And it’s very hard to believe in the so called fairness being dished out when it is controlled by establishment figures from a wealthy, elite background and they are failing to deal with the looming problems of the future.
There was of course far more fundamental disagreement between the coalition and Labour over the Comprehensive Spending Review. It’s practically impossible to get a firm handle on all of the cuts, as they are so widespread. It’s clear though that some will lead to greater unfairness and inequality, and Labour should rightly fight them. However lame an excuse it is though the Prime Minister has a point about Labour’s lack of an alternative plan. So far the only thing Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson have come up with is a promise for more taxation on the banks, which is good but would need to be carefully implemented, and an archaic stimulus package for growth. The emphasis on growth is right but too vague and will need to be contrasted favourably with the coalition’s overreliance on a private sector driven recovery. The growth should also be modern and sustainable, so to hear Johnson talking about road building projects sounds like something from Germany or America in the depression hit 30s.
It seems that all the major parties are happy to surrender the green agenda in the current climate. Miliband, once Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has done absolutely nothing since becoming leader to demonstrate a commitment to the challenge and a disheartening impression that green issues were always simply a means to end for him is developing. Cameron will no doubt continue to call his government the “greenest ever”. Whilst he may have cancelled the third runway at Heathrow, and he may not be proposing outdated road building programmes, he is providing little actual public investment for much needed green power sources. Plans for a barrier on the Severn estuary, which could have potentially generated 5% of Britain’s energy needs for zero carbon output, were dropped in the spending review. The efficiency of the technology was questionable, but it’s the sort of ambitious project that someone ought to be championing. Labour kicked up a little fuss, despite it fitting their ideals of investment for sustainable jobs and growth.
At the moment there is a sole Green voice in Parliament, that of party leader Caroline Lucas, speaking up on these issues. Of course this does not accurately reflect the extent of support for the Green party at the last election. Under a truly representative voting system the Greens would have more MPs based on the last set of results. But should the system be made more fair then without a doubt more still would vote for not just the Greens but whichever fringe party they genuinely thought to have the best policies and that cared about the right issues. Given the crisis of confidence in British politics recently, I can think of no better breath of fresh air and accountability than a more democratic, modern system of election. Next May we’ll have the chance to vote for real votes. And with any luck the defenders of the establishment will fail and the next time decisions as important as those made in the CSR are carried out, thousands of previously silent people will have a genuine voice.
I passionately believe that without fairer votes honesty cannot be restored to politics. And not only honesty but the ability to inspire. Votes that count will inspire people to use politics as the vehicle for real, progressive, needed change. I’m saying YES to the Alternative Vote and I hope you’ll join me.
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A leading article in The Observer today, linked below, argues that Nick Clegg is not simply a Conservative in disguise, adopting Cameron’s austerity drive with relish, but a pragmatic visionary with the aim of transforming British politics. On this blog I have long argued that Clegg needed to have the resolve to make the Lib Dems a serious, credible party of goverment in order to smash the Red and Blue seesaw of power at Westminster. This article in the Observer wisely points out the risks the Lib Dems face, of abandoning the bulk of their idealistic, protest vote, but also point out the necessity of a better politics, in which coaltions are effective and commonplace and policies are not beset by tribal division and disagreement. This better politics requires the Lib Dems try and seek a new wave of support, and I can only hope the British people recognise the fairness in Clegg’s vision for a political system that isn’t simply a two-sided battleground and back his party at elections. As I’ve said before Clegg and Cameron’s partnership has not brought instant honesty and reliability to Westminster, but the presence of a third party in goverment does reperesnt revolutionary, progressive change that ought to halt the worst of right-wing Tory policy and be good for fairness in the future. Nick Clegg is a political pragmatist who deserves to be admired for setting about changing his party and the country in the most idealistic and liberal of ways; by breaking an established mould. Whether his economic gamble proves right or wrong Clegg has rightly gone for the bigger prize of political regeneration, that ought to ensure the country is governed more progressively and democratically in the future.
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Tagged austerity, AV, better, blue, British, Budget, Cameron, Clegg, Coalition, Con, Conference, credible, culture, Cuts, deficit, Dem, Democrat, economic, Editorial, fair, gamble, growth, Honesty, idealistic, Labour, landscape, leader, Lib, Liberal, Manchester, minister, MP, new, Nick, Observer, Parliament, Party, policy, Politics, power, pragmatic, priavte, progressive, public, Red, reduction, revolutionary, right-wing, Spin, tax, three party system, transform, tribal, tussle, visionary, Westminster, yellow
The aftermath of the General Election on May the 6th has undoubtedly been historic and produced an unexpected, new kind of government. There have been grand claims that politics has somehow fundamentally altered, as if parliament had literally been strung up by the electorate, leaving corpses of the old way strewn about Westminster. Whilst scepticism as to these claims of a newly purified political class is wise, it is also foolish to deny the scale of the change that has taken place.
For in many ways Nick Clegg is not wrong to claim that a new era of political history has been ushered in, replacing the way things were forever more. For the first time since the Second World War the country is guided by a coalition government and crucially the two party seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives has been interrupted. This is truly an exciting time in British politics and a time of change and the coalition has sought to highlight just how daringly different it will be to the “old” system, in order to paper over cracks in its hurriedly assembled agreement. It might be true that the deal between the Conservatives and Lib Dems has changed politics forever but it does not ensure sudden transparency, honesty and fairness. David Cameron wishes the public to acknowledge how enormously grown up he has been to get into bed with Nick Clegg for the “national interest” and to paint a picture of a more civilized, cooperative government. He hopes to ride a wave of popularity, based on doing the right thing and getting things done through compromise, all the way to the next election.
Whilst Nick Clegg’s surge in the polls during the election campaign, following his effective use of the TV debates, did not translate into an increased number of Lib Dem seats it did show his potential for popularity. In many ways the popular backing Cameron will gain from embracing Clegg is more valuable than the stable Commons majority afforded to him by the Lib Dem MPs. The new Prime Minister has instructed his Deputy to direct a programme of political reform including a PR elected House of Lords, a referendum on Alternative Vote and a “Great Repeal” Act. Clegg understandably sought to emphasise the liberal opportunities open to him and the extent to which the state would be rolled back in favour of the individual. Whilst Cameron is likely to incur the wrath of his backbenchers he is also likely to acquire new support from the public from those keen to see reform. And the anxious Tories needn’t worry, as Clegg’s grand programme is only likely to yield moderate reform that the two coalition parties agree on such as the right to sack MPs, whilst giving the impression of something far more inspiring to the nation.
Cameron then appears to be manipulating Clegg’s role for his own long term benefit. Combine this with the lack of women in the new cabinet, the high proportion of privately educated ministers and the misuse of the coalition’s honeymoon goodwill to conceal realities of deficit reduction with talk of quangos and waste once again, and very little about politics seems to have changed. However as I have said the breakthrough of a third party into the status quo cannot be underestimated. Fresh ideas and policies can liven up the new government’s agenda, with the Lib Dems winning some surprising concessions in the negotiations. Part of the radical redistribution of the tax system advocated by the Lib Dems will go ahead, for example. Crucially for those on the left of the party, the Liberals also have the opportunity to restrain the worst of Tory policy, with inheritance tax the headline casualty from the Conservative manifesto. As I have argued previously the Lib Dems were absolutely right to enter into a coalition, and those opposing it from within cannot be genuinely serious about making a difference through the best of their own policy and halting the worst of their new partners. However as the Labour leadership race accelerates it is understandable that many Lib Dems might fear for the future prospects of their party following the coalition deal.
Following the deal Labour was boosted by an influx of disaffected Lib Dem voters, who felt betrayed. This is perhaps not surprising given that many may have voted Lib Dem primarily to avoid a Tory government. Labour also did better than it might have done in the election, retaining a strong base upon which to build as the only party in opposition, with plenty of targets to aim at. It will be tempting for the victorious candidate in the Labour leadership election to score easy points by demolishing the morally compromised Lib Dems and continuing to snatch their supporters. However I hope that the winning candidate has the foresight and sense of fairness to realise that avoiding a return to the old tussle between red and blue will benefit democracy and leave the Tories weakened. It will be a difficult balance to strike, but the new Labour leader should not alienate the Lib Dems and dismiss its contribution to taming the Tory beast. They should rebuild the party to appeal to a wide range of voters, embracing the progressive agenda of the Lib Dems to isolate the Tories. Hurriedly looting Lib Dem support would only strengthen the Conservatives in the long run and rob the country of genuinely needed new direction and debate. The coalition will limp to the next election on the brink of disintegration from internal disagreement, battered from without by the pain of deficit reduction and media scrutiny of scandals like that of David Laws. Labour and the Liberal Democrats must be careful that whenever this government does end, the Conservatives and David Cameron do not escape blame.
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Tagged 2010, Cameron, Clegg, Coalition, Cuts, deficit, future, General Election, Honesty, Labour, May 6th, MPs, New Politics, Parliament, reform
The assertion that politicians twist the truth and occasionally just tell bare faced lies will not come as a surprise to most. Following the expenses scandal the entire country was united, irrespective of class and generation, in disgust at our MPs and their detached dreamland played out in a bubble of privilege a million miles from the concerns of their constituents. However what is deeply worrying is the way in which the parties are responding in the build up to a General Election that faces a range of crises that seem certain to lead to voter dissatisfaction and another decrease in turn-out. A combination of economic gloom, inaction on immigration and the tarnished reputation of Westminster is threatening to make a mockery of democracy at a time when any new government needs a strong mandate from the people to make right decisions not popular ones. Sadly though trends in the campaigning we’ve seen so far suggest a preoccupation with popularity rather than the honesty needed for the nation to reconnect with politics.
One issue in particular highlights all the factors that appear to deter campaigners from truthful messages, as opposed to easily digestible slogans. This election will be fought largely over the economy and who is best qualified to oversee its recovery and inevitable change of course in the next few years. The Conservatives made much of the need to slash the deficit and preserve Britain’s integrity in the eyes of the financial world but have since backtracked so that in reality dividing lines between the government and opposition are about whens, not whats. The two parties essentially agree but Labour would simply delay cuts for an extra year.
In their election campaigning thus far the Tories have struggled to strike a balance between attacking Gordon Brown’s track record of handling Britain’s budget with their own inexperience in the area. Rather than focus on the Prime Minister’s mismanagement of the economy whilst Chancellor during the boom years as they have previously done, the Tories have honed in on Brown’s actions as Prime Minster during the economic collapse. The VAT cut has come under intense Tory scrutiny and has been portrayed as a prime example of the government’s needless spending and failed fiscal stimuli. However in reality the cost of the VAT cut is insignificant as a contribution to the record breaking national deficit. Its effectiveness can certainly be questioned but the real damage was done by years of growth in public spending during the boom years under Blair.
The reason the Conservatives choose to withhold this truth from the public in their campaigning is that whilst it may show Gordon Brown’s incompetence it is harder to attack the Prime Minister on his history of ploughing money back into society. Such an image of the Prime Minster as a good natured man now attempting to rectify his mistakes in the fairest way possible does not fit well with the Tory representation of a bully incapable of accepting advice and determined to forge a political legacy for himself by conning the country and dragging it to the brink of economic oblivion. David Cameron also no doubt likes to remind himself that Brown made mistakes as Prime Minster, despite “saving the world” from economic collapse by leading the way with government guarantees for the banks. Labour too are equally guilty of twisted messages when it comes to the battleground of the economy however. They could rightly emphasise the role played by the Prime Minister in stabilising global finance, but such an important success is now viewed as a turn-off for voters because bankers are universally hated figures and the Tories will pounce on any mention of the slump to point out it was a Labour government’s doing in the first place. Instead then Labour’s efforts have focused on making the Tories the evil figures of austerity, when in actual fact either party would be forced to cut ruthlessly in the next government.
The way the economic debate is unfolding teaches us a number of essential truths about the absence of truth in politics. Firstly the two main parties have broadly similar policies in many areas and the actual dividing lines are ideological ones ingrained in the minds of voters. Secondly politicians assume the public has a limited attention span and forgetful memory; it will therefore be unwilling to embrace plans for long term change and unlikely to recall the truly vital errors of the distant past. Thirdly the main parties will never acknowledge that the other took the right course of action. And finally the reason they will not recognise the strengths of their opponents, even when justified, is because they are reluctant to concede any ground as both have something to lose.
“Change that works for you, building a fairer Britain”. This is the campaign slogan unveiled by the Lib Dems today, as they seek to combine elements of the Tory emphasis on change and Labour’s on fairness to be the party of compromise. However if the Lib Dems really want to break the mould and appeal to Labour and Tory voters they must embrace honesty. If Nick Clegg can answer questions honestly and with genuine passion at the TV debates scheduled during the election campaign he could propel his party up in the polls towards a position of greater influence that may enable real change. British people are in dire need of reassurance that democracy is not failing their country and it will take more than empty slogans with honest gestures to convince the electorate this time; it will take trust and respect.
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Tagged 2010, BBC, Expenses, Fake, General Election, Honesty, Lib Dem, lies, Nick Clegg, Politics, Slogan, Spin, truth