I know I witter on a fair bit about democracy and accountability, call it a bug-bear. I don’t believe, for instance, that a coalition agreement should be implemented following the 2015 election without being put to the voters. You can sense, then, what my attitude on Nicola Sturgeon’s latest comments about the possibility of an SNP-Labour coalition might be.
Sturgeon has said that the SNP would be prepared to join forces with Labour, even if they didn’t have more MPs than the Tories following the election. It’s not a rule that the party with the highest number of MPs form the government, but it’s a standard that hasn’t been broken since the 1920s. Of course, this comes with a price – at the moment that’s a £180bn spending spree, though I expect that to increase the more desperate Labour look as the election nears. Whatever your view on austerity, it’s a pretty neat subversion of democracy on the part of the SNP.
The trouble with Labour at the moment is that they simply reek of desperation. That means the SNP can name their price (don’t be fooled, they’re aiming for independence either via another referendum or by the back door) and the Lib Dems too. The prospect of a Labour/SNP/Lib Dem coalition is terrifying, not least because it will have no legitimacy in the eyes of much of the country. We’ve had five years of back-room deals between the Tory-Lib Dem ‘quad’ and it’s left a sour taste. If anything, it’s served to distance the electorate further from their MPs – after all, does it matter who we all vote for if they decide what’s ‘best’ for us in the end? It stinks, and the stench is only going to get worse until May.
The furore over the televised debates rolls on like the distraction technique it quite obviously is. So much time is being spent wittering about who should be included that politicians are avoiding many of those difficult questions they should be facing a hundred days before a general election. It’s ingenuous really – and rather pathetic.
David Cameron initially said he wouldn’t take part without the Greens present. Blatant selfishness as facing Nigel Farage with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg sucking up to each other across the way would’ve been tricky for the PM. I can’t decide whether Cameron expected the broadcasters to roll over and include the Greens or cancel the debates altogether. In the event, they pulled a rabbit out of the hat and said, yes, they’d include the Greens along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru. After which, the DUP, quite rightly, become irritated that they, with eight MPs, are excluded. It’s all shaping up to be a right old mess but I have a few points.
1. On recent polls, if that’s what we’re using for this, the Lib Dems are trailing. Why should they be included?
2. Regional parties have a limited appeal. By all means, have separate debates for them to participate in but they’re a little surplus to requirements in a national debate.
3. However, if regional parties are included then the DUP should be too. It’s only fair.
4. The large, unruly debate that this is shaping up to be will be useful to nobody. Perhaps that’s how all major leaders would like it.
Yet again, events are occurring faster than I can write about them in any depth so I thought I’d do another round-up post briefly detailing my thoughts on recent issues. I may well go into more detail in future posts but I wanted to get these down.
- The scuppering of the EU referendum bill – This irritates me, of course it does. However, it was always going to be scuppered one way or the other and, naturally, it wasn’t going to be voted down in a debate where voters could actually hold their MPs accountable. This is politics at its worst and I live in hope that the Westminster bubble will pay for it at some point. If they don’t think we can tell what they’re doing then they think even less of us than I supposed. Talk about being ruled by your inferiors! But the fact is, apathy will win. Apathy always wins.
- Ideas for HS3 – Yes!! I’ve detailed my hatred for HS2 on numerous occasions, both here and elsewhere. I think it’s a colossal waste of money which will only benefit the south. I think the first stage will prove so calamitous that the second will never be built. I also believe that the cost benefits are vastly over-estimated and the money would be better spent on other aspects of the rail network. However, HS3 is designed to link northern cities together. In that respect, it steps away from the London-centric attitude which permeates planning in this country. Trimming time between Leeds and Manchester and freeing up capacity on other routes in the area could actually be useful. I could defend the differences between the two projects in detail if you want me to but my stance is this: No to HS2, Yes to HS3. Scrap the first. Or at least build the latter before it. If the government is really serious about these rail projects benefiting the north of England and not just sucking more oxygen down towards London.
- UKIP’s voting in the EU Parliament – I’ve seen a lot of criticism floating around about the things UKIP have voted against in Brussels as a form of attack, mainly from the left. My understanding of the UKIP voting policy is that they vote against everything. Anyone who’s watched a voting session in that parliament knows how confused it is. Items are lumped together and it’s said that nobody knows what they’re voting for. UKIP’s decision to vote against stems from that and, also, a reluctance to engage with the bureaucracy they want to detach us from. I don’t see much wrong with that in all honesty.
- PCCs – With a turnout of less than 15% for the recent PCC by-election in South Yorkshire, I don’t see how these pointless roles can continue to be justified. Fair play to the Lib Dems though – they think the roles should be scrapped and so didn’t field a candidate. Labour, on the other hand, think the roles should be scrapped and DID field a candidate. Do as I say, not as I do?
- Recent EU rhetoric – Do they want rid of us? I can only hope. The language around the bill demand and the free movement issues has been strong and, really, I think those are areas of resonance with average voters. People are waking up to the fact that it’s not racist to worry about the impact of immigration on schools, the NHS and other services. Only a minority of people demand that all immigration be stopped – the majority want us to have control of our own borders. That means we can’t exist within the EU. When/if a referendum comes, the EU will throw the kitchen sink at us – they want us to stay on their terms or not at all. It could be an interesting few years.
- Labour’s Scottish problems – Are they trying to self-destruct? Personally, I find the reach of the Westminster elite to be problematic in Yorkshire as our MPs are parachuted in at the behest of London-centric politicos. In Scotland, this seems to be have been taken to the extreme and I don’t blame Lamont for stepping away. It’s ironic, really, that Labour’s response to this is to back a Westminster MP who is arguably part of the problem as her replacement. There’s stupidity and then there’s Labour’s stupidity. On the plus side, they might as well scrap their opposition to ‘English votes for English laws’ since there won’t be enough Scottish Labour MPs for it to make a tangible difference to their prospects.
- Fiona Woolf – This may be an unpopular one but I think the child abuse inquiry should’ve gone ahead under the leadership of Fiona Woolf. I honestly don’t think you’re going to find somebody with the expertise required who hasn’t got links somewhere along the line with someone who’s potentially involved. The process is going to be a transparent one – if things weren’t progressing as expected then the inquiry could’ve been halted. As it is, it’s not even getting started. I’ve seen no suggestions (others might have) of who Woolf’s critics would actually want to lead the investigation, there just seems to be incessant complaining. Without a compromise, this inquiry is going nowhere and that’s a travesty for the victims.
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.
With the creation of yet more peers to fill an overcrowded House of Lords, I was reminded how, when the institution works, it works well, There is sustained debate in that chamber – unlike the other one – and it’s mostly free of petty political point scoring. They quite regularly throw things back at the House of Commons (who quite regularly don’t listen) demonstrating an ability to think things through that MPs just don’t seem to be able to do. However, there are still party constraints within the House of Lords and it is far too big to be either economical or effective. However, I have a proposal for ‘fixing’ it:
- I don’t want an elected House of Lords. This would embed party politics further into the HoL, not minimize it. You only have to look at the PCC elections to realise that some people just vote blindly in accordance with the colour of rosettes. In addition, any electoral process for the HoL would inevitably be complex and opaque – anything championed by Nick Clegg, lover of AV and European bureaucracy, would probably put people off voting for an elected HoL which would, naturally, further embed the political parties who would make sure their voters turned out.
- So what do I want? Well, I want the size of the HoL to shrink – but gradually. So my first point would be that, until the Lords is the same size or smaller than the Commons, only half of the peers ‘lost’ in a year would be replaced. This would take some time to sort out the problem but it’s fairer than an outright cull of peers and, realistically, there is a high turnover in this area. Also, peers holding a conviction for, say, expenses fraud, should be investigated and thrown out instead of returning to their posts.
- Then – and this is the important bit – no peer takes on the banner of a political party. All peers would be known simply as cross-benchers until the political presence died out completely in the House of Lords and they were simply ‘peers’.
- Under this system, the government would be forced to nominate people who could do the job, not people who will defend their party interest in the Lords. There would be no party interest in the Lords.
- Of course, individuals will still have leanings sympathetic to either the government of the day or the opposition. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, the pressure to vote a particular way will be removed and the peer can debate and vote according to their conscience and beliefs. Take this for an example. If David Cameron was elevated to the House of Lords after leaving the Commons, he would take on a role not affiliated to the Conservatives. For the most part he would probably take the side of the Conservatives in the Commons but on some issues he wouldn’t feel comfortable. Say that in ten years we have a fiercely Eurosceptic government which, given his current record, Cameron wouldn’t agree with one bit. He would be free to vote against the party he once represented without feeling he was betraying it.
- As far as debate goes in the new HoL, it would easy enough to nominate one peer who’s on the side of whatever legislation is passing through to lead the debate and one peer on the opposite side to lead the opposition. Where’s the problem with that?
This is radical, I know. But party politics is ruining our country. It’s pretty much done for the Commons because turkeys won’t vote for Christmas but there’s a chance to make the Lords function better than it already does while simultaneously trimming its size. I’d like to see all party leaders bluster and tell me why it’s a bad idea.