Those By-Elections

The dust has settled a bit over the weekend after those too very interesting by-election results on Friday. Douglas Carswell holding the seat as a UKIP candidate was quite predictable but the strength of his vote startled me. My hope in Clacton is that people voted for the man, which is what I believe politics should be all about. Carswell’s aim is to serve his constituents and, by most accounts, he’s very good at that. It will, of course, be interesting to see if this holds sway at the General Election or whether people will be content to become party political sheep again. One thing Clacton proved is that UKIP can win a seat outright – the odds were in their favour because of Carswell’s popularity but it’s a message to other areas that if they vote UKIP then they stand a chance of getting UKIP. That blows a cannon hole in David Cameron’s ‘vote UKIP, get Labour’ strategy. That’s not to say that the ‘vote Farage, get Miliband’ line is unreasonable – the two are different lines of attack. The first relates to particular constituencies where it’s plausible UKIP can win outright; the second relates to the possibility that electing UKIP MPs or splitting the Tory vote could let Ed Miliband into Downing Street.

Labour’s problems are different. While the Tories seem to at least understand why their voters are deserting them for UKIP, Labour are bemused. The disconnect between the elite in the party and the average person they expect to vote for them is astronomical. A lot of people are concerned about immigration. That doesn’t make them racist – one of the left’s most frequently used accusations – but these people encounter the front line of services and they’re not happy with what they see in terms of pressures and demands. Schools are struggling, as is the NHS. Case in point, I was in a queue in A&E last night and there was a (I think) Polish man at the front of the queue taking up a lot of time, asking questions in broken English and baffling the receptionist with what he was asking. The woman in front of me turned to her daughter and said ‘if it wasn’t for the f***ing foreigners’ things would be moving at a decent speed. Of course, I understand the irony of this given the dependence of the NHS on foreign workers but this woman was a typical working-class mum in a deprived area – the kind of voter Labour is supposed to represent. Dismissing her irritation as ‘racist’ would no doubt irritate her more. People who use services day in, day out are far more qualified to comment on the effects of immigration on them than the cosseted politicians who hire an adviser to do their thinking for them.

Labour can’t seem to see past the end of their nose on this. That’s why Miliband’s response to the close-run result in Heywood and Middleton was to say that the Tory vote had collapsed in the North West. Well, yes, it has but that’s not really the point, is it? He followed it up by saying that Labour wouldn’t be ‘complacent’ but that’s just what they are being. People have been predicting that UKIP could affect Labour’s vote for a long time, several by-elections have put the theory to the test and come out in UKIP’s favour. If Labour haven’t ‘got it’ by now then why should this latest shock make a difference?

The implications of UKIP’s surge are best left for another day. Because the prospect of Miliband getting into Downing Street scares me too much to contemplate right now.

Yes to Human Rights, No to ECHR

Do I have to preface this post by saying that I’m not trying to take away anybody’s human rights? Probably. Emotions are running very high on this issue and that’s mainly down to the usual partisan rubbish that insists on labelling things as black and white or, to put it bluntly, right wing=bad and left wing=good. I loathe that kind of narrow mindedness.

By wanting to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), I am not saying I don’t want the rights it covers to be enshrined in law. I’m saying I want them to be enshrined in our law, I’m asking for the sovereignty of British courts, parliamentarians and, yes, voters, to be accepted. It’s true that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) makes plenty of good decisions but it also makes decisions which many people find abhorrent. Invoking the ‘right to a family life’ should not allow terrorists and rapists to remain in our country but the cases have been well-documented. And, no, I’m not saying that some people aren’t entitled to this mythical ‘family life’ but I am saying that there needs to be a balance between the rights of that individual and the rights of their victims and potential victims. Too often, it seems, the ECtHR throws its weight behind the individual. Which, of course, is its job but, sometimes, there is a wider picture which it fails to accommodate, quite possibly because it is so distant from the average British taxpayer.

Most, if not all, of what the ECHR stands for is already written down in our legislation, if not in that specific form then in various acts which have been passed over the years. For example, I’ve seen tweets passing me this weekend suggesting that trans people only have rights because of the ECHR. Well, what about the Equalities Act? And if it doesn’t already cover it then the answer is simple – we update our laws to accommodate anything which has slipped through the net. What’s so difficult to understand about that concept?

There’s the notion that if it comes from somewhere beyond our shores then it’s automatically ‘better’. I don’t like that idea, and not because I’m a ‘swivel-eyed loon’ or whatever you want to call me, but because I recognise the disparate nations that institutions like the ECHR have to draw together. I’ve seen the argument that we have to be in the ECHR because otherwise we’re setting a bad example and putting ourselves with Belarus as the only country on the continent which isn’t a part of the convention. Well, firstly, if we have the rights enshrined in law anyway then why do we need to be? Secondly, since Russia are part of the Council of Europe and so the convention, any idea that the states inside the ECHR are setting a ‘good example’ to those outside is laughable to the point of hysterical.

The amount of Tory-bashing going on around this issue is ludicrous. ‘The Tories want to take your human rights away’ is fairly typical of what I’ve seen. And, yes, I’m sure that minorities within the party would like to get rid of certain aspects of legislation but I’m betting that factions of the other parties also have their pet grievances. Do not accuse me of agreeing with the way this government has attacked welfare claimants and don’t accuse me of being blind to ‘the truth’ about what right wingers want. The ‘truth’ is a hell of a lot more complicated than many on the left allow for. Things aren’t black and white, Labour are not the white knights barging in to protect of the black depths of Tory devilry. They’re just not.

I’m not trying to take anybody’s rights away but I do want British people to have control over their own lives. Sovereignty and human rights is a viable path. I wish we could stop the screeching and realise that.

18-21 Year Olds: Tories Ignoring Lived Experience

The Tory plans for cutting the benefit cap and stopping 18-21 year olds claiming housing benefit as well as linking their JSA to ‘community work’ has caused a bit of a stir over the weekend. First, let me say that, as things stand, it’s unlikely that we’ll get a Tory majority to implement this and I seriously doubt a Lib Dem coalition partner would endorse it (then again, you never know with them). However, there are a couple of issues I’d like to highlight.

Whoever has drafted this policy has done that thing of looking at the figures and ignoring lived experience (possibly because it’s not their lived experience). Unlike many people, I don’t actually believe that Tories go out of their way to attack the poor. I think it’s genuinely a case of not understanding them. A few more working-class members, a few more people who’ve had proper jobs, a little more consultation with the public and things would work out a lot better. But that would deprive them of these nifty headlines, wouldn’t it? Now, where was I?

These new rules on 18-21 year olds use the blueprint of a middle-class family who can just about stretch to supporting a child beyond the age of 18 (and want to). I’m lucky, I come from such a family. However, I’m well-acquainted with people who don’t. One girl I was friends with in college had a fractious relationship with the parent she lived with which led to her being kicked out. She first lived with another friend then moved into a housing scheme which, I’m assuming, involved some sort of benefit. What are the safeguards under this new scheme to ensure that people don’t become homeless? Is it going to be an Atos-style assessment? In which case, every young person with a tricky parental relationship is doomed.

The idea of ‘community work’ to earn JSA is another difficult one. Now, I don’t believe in workfare but, when workfare first came up, I pointed out that asking people to do work in their local areas (rather than for a big corporation which could afford to hire staff) was one way of trying to edge us back into our communities. Of course, it bumps into other policies coming the other way – council house tenancy periods are one that, I believe, saps the incentive for engaging with your local area.

Ultimately, these problems don’t have the easy fix of turning off the money tap and seeing what happens. I can predict it well enough – increased youth homelessness which, in turn, hampers their future prospects and so makes society poorer as a whole. And, if real community work is superseded in favour of workfare, then you’re just going to breed more resentment and deprive working people of actual jobs in these companies.

Good headline: bad policy. That usually covers whatever comes from any of the parties.

Miliband Fudges, Cameron Spies a Chance

For most of the weekend, the news has been on a loop. It consists of ‘Gordon Brown’s vow’, ‘Ed Miliband blusters’, ‘Alex Salmond calls us all liars’ and ‘David Cameron sees his chance’. At this point, I’m wishing it had been a ‘Yes’ vote, just to shut everybody up. Because, as important as our constitution is, there are other important things going on in the world – ISIL are still terrorising the Middle East and we’re sat on our hands infighting. I understand why no moves to join in properly with the air strikes were made before the referendum but we need to push our internal resentments aside and join with our allies. I hope people on both sides of the Scottish debate would recognise that constitutional change while groups like ISIL remain a threat would be like tinkering with the car engine despite knowing a meteor is about to hit – extremely short-sighted.

Of course, this isn’t to say we can’t multi-task. We need a good balance between focusing on the larger problems across the world (Russia’s another one) and national introspection. Which is another good reason why constitutional change cannot and should not be rushed. I’ve seen a lot this weekend about Gordon Brown’s ‘promise’ being broken. I’ve become almost hoarse saying that Gordon Brown is not in government and therefore could not make a binding promise.

Before anyone screams at me, I’m not backtracking on the idea of devolution at all. As I said on Friday, though, I believe we need to do it properly. We can’t stick to an artificial timetable just because an ex-Prime Minister says so. This timetable hasn’t been put to a parliamentary vote yet and, more importantly, it hasn’t been put to the British people. I say ‘British’ and I mean ‘British’ – this time devolution has the opportunity to affect us all and I’m afraid if the Scots have to wait a little while because of that then that’s the way it is. Apparently a good percentage of Scottish voters see the inherent problems in Scottish MPs voting on English-only legislation. Can these reasonable people give us five minutes to catch our breath and work out what’s to be done about it? We’re not denying you your devolution, just trying to grasp some of our own.

Amending our entire political system quickly would be a disaster. Ed Miliband wants a constitutional convention next autumn: that is untenable. Miliband hopes to deflect the issue; he hopes to get into power (utilising Scottish MPs to win, of course) then fudge things from there. He’s repeated this weekend that he doesn’t really believe in ‘English votes for English laws’ because it puts him at a disadvantage electorally (not that he said that, naturally). Miliband will get through this round of Scottish devolution according to Gordon Brown’s timetable and hope the rest of us just shut up. I’m not sure that’s going to work this time.

David Cameron is guilty of opportunism. Weakening Labour’s electoral chances was too great a prize for some Tories to pass up and perhaps that’s why they’re suddenly dancing around at the idea of ‘English votes for English laws’. Opportunistic, it may be, but it is most certainly right. It just can’t be rushed, that’s all.

The Labour conference this week is momentous. I’ll be watching closely to see what Miliband’s speech contains. Any more hopeless platitudes and I fear that his electoral campaign’s over before it’s really begun.

What Next?

For the most part, during the independence referendum, I’ve kept it zipped. I didn’t want to be drawn into arguments and there was certainly a feeling of letting the Scots fight it out amongst themselves. I’ve regurgitated other opinions, blogs and editorials, but rarely ventured my own. It didn’t matter that I was half-expecting Alex Salmond to promise unicorns in an independent Scotland – saying so would’ve only caused an argument and, frankly, one I could do without. It’s all about picking your battles wisely. Part of me hoped that Scotland would  vote ‘Yes’ and then the horrors of Salmond’s half-truths on currency union, EU membership and endless oil reserves could be exposed. However, this mischievous pixie part of me was beaten by the sensible part that didn’t want to see the break-up of Great Britain just to prove a political point (there were several moments in the campaign when Labour seemed happy to do this though…).

So what now? Somehow we have to forget the animosity of the referendum campaign whilst still taking account of the problems it threw up. The most pressing of these is the so-called ‘devo-max’ proposals which have been bandied around a lot since the ‘No’ campaign started panicking. Fair enough – more powers for Scotland. I don’t deny that it’s a wise move. With the same caveats that others are making plain:

  • England and Wales must have their own devolution settlements to match what Scotland gets. At this point, the politicians don’t get to throw a load of powers to Scotland and appease the rest of us with a few paltry changes. Now the campaign is over, we’re through tip-toeing around. This is now our devolution settlement as much as it is Scotland’s.
  • Non-English MPs must not be able to vote on English-only legislation. This throws up massive problems for a potential Labour majority in 2015 which may not have the requisite English MPs to pass legislation but, frankly, that’s their problem, not the electorate’s. Imagine being forced to work in tandem with your ‘enemies’ to pass sensible legislation instead of just scoring cheap political points.
  • This process cannot be rushed. Gordon Brown came up with this rapid timetable to appease the Scots (and get it all over with before the General Election) but it won’t work like that, not if they’re trying to do it properly and sensibly. It’s not backtracking to slow the process down – we just need to do it right this time or we’ll have the same situation in another ten years or so with one country feeling victimised by the union (and, I suspect, the next time it’ll be the English).

We have the possibility here for massive constitutional reform, beyond anything Nick Clegg tried to do with his silly little proposals for the House of Lords. And, naturally, it throws up far too many issues to discuss here. These are just a few things that spring to mind about devolution now:

  • The electorate must have a say on any constitutional changes. Yes, this will slow the process down but, like elected mayors in cities around the UK which were roundly defeated, if the politicos are getting it wrong then they need to be told.
  • My personal preference would be for the majority of powers (where possible, of course) to be devolved to regional assemblies following traditionally accepted lines with a few modern adjustments. Yorkshire is one such region which would make an excellent starting-point (but, then, I would say that). The thing about Yorkshire folk, though, is that we have a strong sense of identity which would make a regional assembly for the people, elected by the people, really work in this area. I can’t comment on the strength of regional relationships in the rest of the country.
  • As these regional assemblies come into being, we would naturally need fewer MPs at Westminster. Yes, they would still be making decisions on overarching issues but they would have much less responsibility than previous. So that would require coherent and sensible boundary reform. The last attempt was ridiculous, making no reference to our inherent regional connections and just chopping everything up to fit a size. While I agree that constituency size should be roughly equal, it would matter less in a scenario where many powers are devolved to local level.

This is sounding like a lot of work, isn’t it? Which is why it simply cannot be forced through. I know that the traditional parties will resist because it saps their centralised power but that’s just why it’s the right thing to do. No party leader wants to relinquish the power they’ll wield when they get into Downing Street so they’d rather give Scotland a few more powers and just let the rest of us bumble along being ruled by people who have no comprehension of our locality and local lives.

We’ve seen how Scotland can be energised by the possibility of constitutional change. It’s time for the rest of us to get in on the act.

Government Blocks HS2 Report

It was confirmed yesterday that a report anti-HS2 campaigners have been trying to get released for two years has been blocked firmly by the government. This is after the Information Commissioner’s Office last year backed a Freedom of Information request to release the information. Patrick McLoughlin has now invoked a rare piece of parliamentary procedure to block it, essentially sticking two fingers up at everybody who has genuine concerns about the spiralling costs of the proposed rail route.

This excellent piece from the Local Government Executive covers the block in more detailing, also explaining that the project was labelled as ‘amber-red’ in 2011 when the expected cost was only £33 billion. Since that has risen to over £50 billion the article points out that it must be now at even greater risk of failure.

The plain fact is, there must be something pretty damning in this report that the pro-HS2 government don’t want us to know. Perhaps it points out that costs are set to spiral further or that the cost-benefit analysis results are weak or that other countries are ditching their high speed projects and we should do the same. Who knows? Patrick McLoughlin doesn’t want us to know and don’t expect any opposition from Labour, whose Shadow Transport Secretary’s presses ahead with her support even after her own area council has voted against the proposals.

Is this going to be the most expensive white elephant ever? Successive governments will palm it off as ‘a mistake made by the previous administration’ but if there is one moment that might define the calamity of HS2, it may well be refusal to release a report that would bring this madness to an end.

2010 Manifestos No Longer Count

I’m heartily disappointed in Douglas Carswell, Conservative MP for Clacton. Despite sharing many of his views on the EU, today he’s come out with something that irritates me and is, I think, completely nonsensical. In his Telegraph blog, he explains that, as much as he’d like to vote against HS2 on Thursday, he believes he can’t because it was in the 2010 Conservative manifesto. I have three arguments against this view.

  1. The Conservatives did not win a majority on the basis of that manifesto.
  2. That manifesto was shattered by joining into a coalition with the Lib Dems, the Coalition Agreement completely superseding it. Things have been done on both sides that contradict manifesto commitments – Lib Dems and tuition fees anyone?
  3. Most importantly, the facts have changed in those three and a half years.

This final point is the stinger for me. So Carswell now believes that if something was agreed to four years ago then it should be adhered to against all reasonable argument? The benefits of HS2 are getting smaller with every report issued, now down to a paltry £2.30 benefit for every £1 spent on the project. HS2 is nowhere close to the beautiful money generator we were initially told it would be. Under these circumstances, is it not right to reconsider your personal position when your party is backing a losing horse?

Also, I would point out that if a Eurocrat was blindly following a commitment that no longer made any financial sense, Carswell would be the first to criticise their folly. I wonder what his constituents think of this weak response to their own, very valid, concerns on HS2? I suppose this is when a politician has to decide whose side he’s on – his party’s or the people who could easily vote him out in two years?