Sunday 30 May 2010

David Laws

There's been a lot of comment about David Laws. His resignation is a blow not so much to the coalition and Conservative/Lib Dem co-operation but to the resolution of our financial problems. He had more intelligence and credibility than most to identify and sell necessary cuts in public sector expenditure.

So if you believe the financial situation is by far the most important problem facing this country, is it right that a brief media campaign can force out someone very well (if not best) qualified to help sort it out? Especially as the amount he actually claimed was much less than he could have claimed. My first thought was that as he had been reasonable there was no story and he should have stayed. But at the end of the day, he does appear to have claimed the wrong amounts and he did not take advantage of the quasi amnesty last year when all the fuss was going on to clean up his disclosures. This suggests a lack of judgement. He also would not have had the credibility to do his job properly. And lastly: it is important for the new Government that they are seen as clean. So he had to go.

As far as the economic situation is concerned, I know nothing about the new Chief Secretary, but he will have loads of help and lots of market pressure forcing him to cut expenditure. So as always, no-one is indispensible.

The intriguing thing for me, though, is why did the story come out now? Was it the Telegraph just being good jounalists and checking out the stars of the new cabinet? Or was it because Laws' "whiter than white" attitude annoyed people? Or did Liam Byrne (his predecessor) or Vince Cable (shown up as economically inept) resent him? Or was it disaffected Tories or jealous Lib Dems who tipped the Telegraph off? This is the part of the story we'll probably never learn, and the part that will be the best indicator of the strength of the coalition. Guido has more on the conspiracy theories here.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Free thinkers

Independently minded MPs who don't just follow the party line are popular. But there's a fine line between principled opposition and being a self indulgent pain - and you can usually spot the line. The coalition will give an opportunity for both Lib Dem and Conservative awkward squads to posture, not least because they have lost influence and therefore power. (Their Labour equivalents will be occupied for a few months with their leadership election).

The first signs of the self indulgent pains are emerging as backbenchers line up against the proposed fixed term arrangements.

My problem is that I can't see what the problem is. Given the real problems facing the country, who cares whether we have fixed term parliaments or not? There are good arguments for them - and against. On balance, it's probably a good thing because it puts more power in the hands of backbenchers rather then minsiters. But it's hardly a big deal.

And if we do have fixed term parliaments then surely they should be just that - fixed term. So you must have an arrangment to stop the term ending too easily, especially if there's a hung parliament. So a 55% requirement for dissolution seems fair enough. In practice, if over half of MPs have no confidence in a Government then it will fail.

So why the fuss? I can see Labour simply want to stir, but I don't understand why the Conservatives would complain. Except as a token gesture of dislike for the coalition. It'll be interesting to see if this protest is just a one off self indulgent release of tension or if the taste for dissent will be catching. I hope not; and I hope that voters identify those MPs who are self indulgent rather then principled. And punish them. Even if it takes 5 years to do so.

Thursday 13 May 2010

A new phase

Now the election is over, I'll take down the manifestos etc. After all, they won't be of much use to anyone now. I will link to the coalition agreement as that could be a useful reference document in the future.

The Cabinet and ministerial appointments are mostly good, but there's a couple of real disappointments. Particularly good appointments (I think) are Iain Duncan Smith at Work and pensions, who has done hard work in identifying the causes of poverty rather than just seeking to create a dependent society, and those like Hague, Gove and Fox who have taken on the department they were shadowing. I think I heard Cameron say on the radio that "stability" and a long term outlook must apply to ministerial appointments as well as cost cuts, and I hope that he means it and ministers will be allowed to stay long enough to learn and manage rather than just create headlines. The exception to that stability is Osborne: although Clarke will be a good figure for political reform, I would have preferred to see him as Chancellor simply because he is more credible and has a track record of previously dealing with economic problems. Especially with Cable as Business secretary. Lastly it's hard to see Theresa may being tough enough to be home secretary, a job better suited to Chris Huhne.

As far as policies go, again, they seem pretty reasonable; in fact I think the combined tax policies are better. My worries are the retention of FSA, although macro supervision will move to the Bank of England, and energy security (ie will nuclear power stations get built?).

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Polling Day

It took me longer to post what happened on polling day than it took to form a Government; but perhaps this post will last longer.

Polling day is quite exciting but also hard work if you are involved in a political party. Most people just have to vote - although that seemed to be too hard for about 1/3 of the population - but the rest of us are active. One of my friends who helped at the Council election suggested that all we were doing was giving us something to do to keep us quiet, but in fact the polling day function - also known as get out the vote - does help and I am sure we go out the vote.

What we -and all the parties in all the seats they hope to do well in - do is sit outside the polling stations to find out who has voted. (It helps in an area like ours because so many people know each other). We then cross this off and nag people we think will support us to vote. It sounds easy but its a lot of hard work and co-ordination. We had 30 people in the Belford and Coastal area helping on polling day, and we have about 8% of the electorate in Berwick upon Tweed. My job was to try and make sure the operation worked, which involved a lot of driving about looking busy.
I think we did well; we had more voters than expected, we managed to call out some who would not otherwise have voted and we think we had a majority of Conservative voters in this area. The result overall was both excellent and disappointing - it was a shame Anne-Marie didn't win, after an excellent campaign and record on helping people in the area, but winning would have been very hard, and she has turned the constituency into a marginal from a safe LD seat. Next time?

We didn't have queues at 10.00 at our polling stations - people were much more sensible than that. But the experience in some seats was shameful, and I hope one of the things that the new Government will have time to do as it looks at political reform is to get rid of the Electoral Commission, which is unaccountable, and to focus on proper management of polling day and voting.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Principled politics

I know the Lib Dems are now my dearest and most trusted friends, and therefore beyond criticism, but I thought the Guardian's photograph and analysis of the major issues for Clegg (as shown by his notebook) during the negotiations was interesting. For someone caring about the country, they showed a surprising number of issues focused on his and his colleagues' position.

In the meantime, given the election result, the coalition is the best outcome for Britain. I am pleasantly surprised the Lib Dems signed up to a deal with the Conservatives; I was wrong on thinking they'd only work with Labour so maybe I'll also be wrong in predicting it won't last long. There is one real worry: the appintment of Osborne and Cable to important posts dealing with the economy. Neither are capable and hopefully will be supported by people who are. And of course the bond market investors will be the main drivers of sorting out the economy as we need to borrow so much from them.

Conservative Home (an independent site) has a very good (and lengthy) analysis of "what went wrong" without naming too many names; a summary is here, the list of contents here.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Where Next?

The smoke filled room discussions that are an inevitable consequence of proportional representation are proceeding.

A couple of weeks ago, I would have been horrified at the thought of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition or even compromise. There are too many areas of difference, especially in economic policy.

But given the result of the election, it must be right for them to talk especially given Brown's clear intention to hang on as Labour leader until he is forced out.

Cameron's statement on Friday was polished and politically astute - if there is not a deal, he knows that come the next election he can point to it and show he wanted to compromise for the sake of the country; if there is then he can start cleaning up the mess and having a wider group on board should help the implementation of expenditure cuts. The size of the two parties combined in Parliament should also be good for market confidence.

There are clearly some lines that should not be crossed (as there will be for the Lib Dems) but if a deal can be done it will be good. Especially as it may mean there's a focus on the economy rather than on other areas. A hidden benefit could be that a new Government won't start meddling in the detail of how hospitals, schools etc work. Letting front line staff get on with things would lead to better public service.

So I hope the stupid parts of the Conservative party don't try to grandstand and oppose just to make them feel better and as revenge for a pretty badly run campaign. That post mortem can happen later.

However, I still have a sneaking suspicion that:
a) the Lib Dems will do a deal with a Brownless labour, and
b) in any event we'll have another election within 18 months.

Friday 7 May 2010

The Morning After..

I'll post on the polling day experience later (when we know the result of our constituency), but first some thoughts on the election result.

I'm obviously disappointed because the result does not lead to a definitive Government and is almost certain to lead to another election within (say) 18 months. The uncertainty over this, and more importantly over which parties will co-operate to form the next Government, has lead to a fall in sterling and a rise in the cost the UK has to pay to borrow. As I noted earlier, this really is money taken out of the economy. Hopefully the parties will sort out who will do what before Monday so they can get on with sorting out public finances.

I'm a bit pleased since the result is in line with my expectations posted yesterday, particularly with my comment that all the parties had a bad campaign.

First thoughts:
- the real unfairness of the voting system remains the unfair distribution of seats and boundaries, hence the reason the Tories do not have a majority despite getting so many more votes. All methods of voting have elements of unfairness; I would be focusing on reducing the number of MPs and making seat distribution fairer before introducing another system.
- this particularly emphasises the different result in Scotland, where the seats largely remained unchanged with a small swing to Labour, to England where there was a sizeable swing to the Conservatives. Scotland has more seats per head than England. Is it time to promote Scottish independence?
- the Lib Dem surge didn't happen. This suggests that the excitement either came from people not registered to vote, or it was just a media hype (very likely), or on reflection people realised the Lib Dems were not promoting anything new.
- I'm rethinking whether there will be a Conservative arrangement with the Lib Dems. It is too soon to resolve this - they need to know the results of all the seats to see just how far from a majority the Conservatives are - but the sudden switch of Labour to wanting voting reform, and their continued promotion of Brown as leader, may make it all a bit too unconvincing.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

National Views

This has been a strange election where none of the three parties has really done well - apart perhaps from the Lib Dems, where a sparkling "we're not like the other two" performance in the first Leaders' debate has increased their polling percentages, but they have not really stood up to scrutiny.

Labour has had a series of disastrous moments - surprisingly for a Party which was so brilliant at presentation, partly because of Brown's general incapacity to deal with human beings and partly because the split between Brownites like Balls and Whelan and Blairites like Campbell and Mandelson has prevented a consistent approach. They are probably down to their irreduceable core vote, and the recent suggestions that people should vote tactically and their emphasis on negativity (don't vote for us because we're good, but because the oitehrs are bad) suggests they know that.

They deserve to lose: they had ideas of sweeping changes in the constitution and the management of public services but failed to implement them properly, leaving much running much more inefficiently, and more importantly they have squandered 1997's successful economic legacy, with Brown leaving behind a really serious public debt problem, the most complex and costly tax code in the world and serious unemployment, especially in the young. (I'm not going to link to all those points - they are discussed in more detail in my earlier blogposts).

A neighbour yesterday told me that the UK was not as bad as Greece; I'm not sure about that. We have one major advantage: we are not in the Euro, so have more flexibility to devalue sterling (so increasing inflation and interest rates) to stimulate exports and reduce the value of debt we owe externally. But our total exposure is worse, and we have massive uncounted liabilities from public sector pension liabilities and PFI spending. Just like Greece we are perfectly happy spending other people's money; unlike Greece, we haven't had to start paying it back yet.

Brown was featured in a double page spread in the Times today; they commented on his continual emphasis on child tax credits. A good idea perhaps - but so typical of him. He has created a complex and costly structure so that many who need help can't get it and those who do get it become dependent. But that is how Brown got and wants to keep power: to lock people into dependency and to deprive them of opportunity to break away. Little does he care about the effect of his detailed tax and benefit structures as long as he can be boss. Hopefully, whatever else is the result of this election, he will go.

The polls show that the Lib Dems had a sparkling first part of the campaign, overtaking Labour and equalling the Tories. As time has gone on, the sparkle is a bit tarnished. The Lib Dems policies have not stood up to scrutiny in many areas - immigration, the Euro and Europe and defence to name some, and regular readers will know my view that Cable is incompetent. Some of their tax policies have merit but others appear designed to prevent business growth. The Lib Dems are an old party with as many dubious donations as anyone else (if not more), and with electoral behaviour worse than most. The main problem for me is that the Lib Dems have not really spelled out how they will behave in the event of a hung Parliament, and they have not really convinced they can match the rhetoric. Not being Labour or Tory isn't really a convincing slogan, nor a recipe for long term success.

The Tories have had a poor campaign nationally. Never mind the tactical error of encouraging the leadership debates and allowing Clegg an equal platform, they have not sounded honest on the economy (because despite sounding the right warnings during the 80s and at the last party conference, they have not said just how bad things are and will be) and have not sounded convincing on social issues (by focusing on concepts like "the big society" rather than on the need for freedom and a smaller state). Like Labour, they have to cope with two camps running their campaign. And because many voters have not yet suffered from our economic problems - we are spending other people's money and have not been asked for it back - the Tories are worried that too negative a message won't chime with voters. Cameron has tried all the way through to be positive and optimistic. Despite a poor performance, the Tories offer two things which mean they deserve to be elected:
- they recognise that public spending is not the only answer to problems;
- they believe in the private sector, that economic growth is ultimately what pays for things and will pay for us to get out of debt.

What will happen? I've consistently thought there will be a hung Parliament, which will inevitably increase uncertainty and therefore harm the economy. It's also hard to see such a situation lasting for four or five years, suggesting a further election quite soon.

I think one of two things will happen: a Lib/Lab pact if the Tories don't get enough seats to have a go, and a Tory minority Government if they do. I'd hate to see a Lib/Tory pact because we won't get proper policies and the Tories would get the blame. But lets wait and see....

Local Views

The local paper last week had an interview with the candidates from the three main parties (Alan Beith, LD; Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Con; Alan Strickland, Lab) asking for their views on six topics – their political philosophy, the A1, rural issues, immigration, youth unemployment and a hung parliament.

Most are as you’d expect from their parties and the manifestos (during the election period, see top left of blog for links to the party manifestos); there are a couple that aren’t:
A1: Beith thinks it should be a strategic road and dualled, although his party doesn’t want to spend money on road enhancements of this type.
Immigration: Beith believes there should be more control and a system people should have confidence in – yet the proposed amnesty will not help this.

I don’t think an MP having different views from his party is a bad thing; but Beith’s lack of position within his party (he wasn’t even in the top 50 most influential Lib Dems last year) means he lacks influence and people voting for him need to be aware that they are really voting for a different set of beliefs than his.

Talking to people on the doorstep is always interesting. I sense a frustration that politicians can’t be trusted, a concern that not enough has been done to support North Northumberland, a real interest in what is going on and a surprising indecision about how to vote. I think the Conservative vote will be stronger than people expect because of a need to change. Will it be enough?

On the eve of polling, I’ll repeat my thoughts from the beginning of the campaign:
Nationally, the country has serious economic problems. We are the slowest recovering G20 economy with one of the biggest public sector deficits in the world. We have also had over a decade of largely ineffective initiatives with a new law being passed for almost every day Labour have been in power. The Conservatives are believers in small Government and sound finance – they have a record of achieving higher employment and better finances. In turn, every Labour Government has left office with more unemployment and a bigger public sector deficit than when they came into office and this one looks like being no different. If there is to be a change in Government, constituencies like Berwick need to become Conservative.

Locally, whatever individual help people have received from Alan Beith, this area has suffered from under-investment. This must at least partly be due to the fact that we do not have an MP from one of the parties of Government. Anne-Marie has in a short time made progress on many projects, such as launching the most recent dual the A1 campaign, helping get money for the new harbour wall at Seahouses and getting a mobile MRI scanner to Berwick Infirmary. I think we now need someone of her energy as MP.

Monday 3 May 2010

The Final Countdown

There's two more days of action, then polling day. Then it's all over - although if there is a hung Parliament my guess is there'll have to be another election within a year. And the economic position will be much worse; as I previously posted, coalitions and minority Governments may work where countries are used to them, but we are not. The uncertainty will almost certainly lead to increased interest rates, harming the economy and increasing payments from the UK to investors abroad.

I've been rushing about today trying to get things prepared for polling day; there's a term used by all the parties: Get Out The Vote. It's an operation designed to make sure as many supporters vote as possible, and involves trying to establish who has voted, comparing that to the known supporters and then trying to nag the remainder to vote. At this stage it means clearing my dining room table of all remaining leaflets (one more drop tomorrow) and trying to make sure people know what they are doing on polling day in my small but perfectly formed area. This activity will be being mirrored up and down the country by all parties, and I suspect that it will make a difference in marginal seats, where the best organised and motivated party is more likely to win.

I think Berwick Conservatives have run a good campaign. It's not easy to unseat a long standing MP in a safe seat when they haven't been involved in a major scandal, but the local candidate has worked very hard, focused on important local issues and has got as good a name recognition as the sitting MP. She has also built a hard working team.

I've sensed more interest in the election than I expected, with more people taking an interest in the canvassing, leaflets and media debates. The polls are shifting slightly in the Conservatives favour, although I can't quite believe that they can overcome the massive swing they neded to achieve.

A good sign is that Labour and the Lib Dems are becoming slightly rattled and are campaigning very negatively, about what's wrong with the Tories rather than what's right with them. I was annoyed with Clegg's outburst today about Cameron's "arrogance" in saying what he would do if elected. Actually, Clegg, having an idea about what you would do after the election would be rather helpful. And giving people an idea about what you would do it is what campaigning is about. But as long as you end up in a position of power I suppose you don't care.

What is a Hung Parliament?

The Final Countdown

Sunday 2 May 2010

Leaders' Debate 3

Again, I preferred humilation in our local pub quiz to watching the debate, and again caught up on the impressions afterwards.

My sense was that:
- It was even more boring than the others;
- Cameron won;
- Brown was strong but negative;
- There was less clarity about Clegg; I've heard two views from non Lib-Dem supporters; one that he continued to be the most likeable, the other that we was just irritating because he had nothing to offer except being rude to the other two.

Now that Cameron has finally won a debate, I feel free to express my concerns about the whole exercise. The idea was heavily pushed by Sky (although lots of broadcasters wanted to do something) and I suppose Brown and Cameron didn't want to let Murdoch down. But it was the wrong thing to do:
- It has dominated media coverage to the extent that the 6,000+ candidates dotted around the country trying to get elected have almost become an irrelevance;
- We do not have a presidential system of government; one of our problems is that Prime Ministers have bceome more presidential without the checks and balances needed to control them. This debate has reinfoced the improtance of the Prime Minsiter's office over everything else;
- It trivialises. From doorstep conversations, I don't think it has sparked much interest in the public, but the media have focused on this to the exclusion of much else.

The Daily Politics has held a series of debates on different topics - Business, the Environment and so on. These are available on iplayer and are much better that the Prime Ministerial debates because they are straightforward debates with an intelligent questioner/moderator - Andrew Neil. They have hardly been reported despite being more informative.

So I hope the leader debates don't happen again - although I'm sure they will! If they do, they need to be shorter and have less rules. And better moderators.