Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Solution to the House of Lords

The recent vote against the proposed Tax Credit changes by the House of Lords, despite having previously been been voted through by the House of Lords, has once again raised a question of the legitimacy of the UK’s second chamber, albeit from the opposite side of the political spectrum than most previous demands for change.  While the Lords has changed significantly over the last 20 years, with the vast majority of the hereditary peers now gone, it is now overloaded with appointed peers, totalling 821, (plus another 41 who are currently disqualified or on leave of absence), with no retirement age, and lacks democratic legitimacy.  Set against that, the lack of elections results in peers being rather less malleable to party whips and independent of thought than their colleagues in the House of Commons, who are never more than 5 years from having to stand for election.

So is there a way to combine the benefits of the appointed House of Lords while adding democratic legitimacy?  I believe there can be.


First, the size of the Lords has to be limited.  I would set this 750, with a retirement age of 70 (the same as judges), and a 15 year term for each peer, with no second term.

Appointed Peers

The Lords certainly benefits from the expertise of non-political appointed peers, and I believe it would be a shame to lose this entirely.  I would therefore propose 150 of the 750 be appointed cross-benchers, 50 retiring and being replaced at the end of each 5 year parliament.

Democratic Element

The remaining 600 peers would reflect the results of elections, but rather than change dramatically at each election, there are benefits from a degree of continuity, so I would propose they be based on an average of the popular vote at the last three elections.  The representation of parties would be limited to those who averaged 5%+ in the last three elections, with allowance made for the smaller nations by including the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies in proportion to their population, while for England the UK General Election results would be used.  As with the appointed element, one third would retire at the end of each 5 year parliament and their replacements reflecting the change in those averages in the elections during the term.  The peers themselves would be selected by their parties in whatever method they choose.  This model would give the following party split:

Liberal Democrats
Scottish National Party
Plaid Cymru



Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Pivot to China or Just a Pivot?

Much comment has been made about President Xi's visit, with claims of selling out both the jobs of steelworkers and the human rights of minorities in the PRC, alongside others regarding the commercial benefits.  The most interesting comments in my view however, have come from across the Atlantic, with, for example, Foreign Policy magazine saying:

“That has plenty of observers in the United States and the U.K. fretting that Osborne’s courtship of China threatens the decades-old special relationship that has long served as the keystone of the trans-Atlantic alliance. While the White House publicly downplays the significance of the Sino-British embrace — “the United States welcomes strong relations between our allies and China,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday — many U.S. diplomats are privately said to be “incandescent” with rage at Britain. And many in Britain, from former officials to current opposition politicians, have excoriated what they see as a British sell-out to Beijing.”

Considering the Obama administrations on well publicised “pivot” to Asia”, it might be argued that Cameron and Osborne are merely following their lead.  I would however like to put a different perspective on it.  

Since Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979, Britain, under both Conservative and Labour administrations has followed an essentially similar foreign policy: junior partner to the USA in global matters while trying to drag the EU in a more free-market, pro-NATO, neo-liberal direction.  While most people will not remember, or at least not remember well, anything different, this was not always the case.  While I do not wish to delve into the into the policy of “European Balance of Power” that had dominated Britain’s foreign policy for centuries until World War I, during the intervening 65 years the policy was much more multi-polar.  While not always successful (notably the failure to prevent the circumstances that led to World War II), it was nuanced.  Clement Attlee tried to sail a middle ground between the USA and USSR, at least to begin with., and in 1950 the UK was the first western government to recognise the People’s Republic of China.  The Conservative administrations of the 1950s and early 1960s tried to combine decolonisation with an effort to turn the Commonwealth into an economic relationship and one into which the European efforts at integration (EFTA and EEC) might be combined.  Harold Wilson in the 1960s avoided entanglement in Vietnam, while many of the difficulties in the negotiations for joining the EEC by Wilson and Heath and subsequent re-negotiation by Wilson revolved around ongoing trade relationships with Commonwealth members.
So does this week’s visit by President Xi mark a pivot to a more diverse foreign policy?  Maybe not by itself but let us look at other events:

  • The UK was the first western country to apply to join the Chinese sponsored Asian Infrastructure Development Bank in March 2015, at a time when America was rather hostile to what it saw as a rival to the US-led World Bank.
  • The current government’s policy of re-negotiation of Britain’s EU membership (whether it is successful or not) is aimed at somewhat loosening these ties.
  • Philip Hammond re-opened the UK embassy in Tehran in August and immediately made efforts to strengthen trade ties with Iran, while Washington remains much more cautious.

Next month sees the visit of India’s Prime Minister Modi to the UK, and possibly a similarly warm welcome as given to President Xi.

Creating a more multi-dimensional foreign policy will not be easy, but if it can be achieved, it may well offer many benefits.


Monday, August 31, 2015

Europe & Migration

It appears to be impossible to read/watch/listen to the news without the interrelated topics of migration, immigration and refugees being raised.  Whether it is people fleeing the wars of the Middle East, young workers of central Europe seeking greater opportunities or populist politicians calling the end is neigh like Chicken Lickin, the subject is most certainly topical.  On one side are humanitarian calls to help those risking life and limb to make treacherous journeys to reach the European Union (“EU”) and then onward to preferred countries, while on the other the concerned calls of those who fear that public services will be overwhelmed, housing shortages exacerbated and wage rates undermined.

Is it possible to have a rational debate and look at matters in a logical manner in such an emotionally charged environment?

My first thought is that if ever there was a matter that is best addressed at an EU level, it is this.  The movements of populations are multi-faceted.  From outside the EU, there are refugees from war zones, those seeking relief from grinding poverty, while within the EU there are the young workers of the less-developed East and recession-ridden South seeking opportunities in the more economically buoyant countries of the North, while in the other direction many retirees (or semi-retired) from the cold, wet, bustling North seek sun and a slower pace of life in the countries of the Mediterranean.  Even within the larger and more successful economies of the UK and Germany, there are significant internal migrations from the areas with fewer opportunities to those with more.  Separately, but with long term relevance to the conversation, the EU native-born population is is in decline due to low birth rates concurrently with it ageing due to the post-1945 baby boom and the longevity benefits of first-class health and social services.

So what we see is not a movement of people in a single direction, nor a universal social situation, but something substantially more complex.

My question is why these issues are not looked at in the whole?  While cities like London and Munich might be drawing in migrants from both within their own countries and the wider EU, how many a former Yorkshire mining village, industrial town of Thuringia or rural town in Limousin is slowly dying because it is being drained of those with ambition and energy as they head to the cosmopolitan delights of London, Berlin or Amsterdam?  Notice must be taken of the flows of migration within the EU and within individual countries, but it is a fallacy that Europe is full and cannot accommodate these refugees.  Would these communities not benefit from an injection of new blood, just as over many years London has benefitted from waves of immigration, and more recently, Leicester benefited from the entrepreneurial spirit of the Ugandan Asians who arrived in the early 1970s?  However, such communities cannot be just left to their own devices; they will need support, and again, this needs to be delivered on a pan-EU scale if it is to be done properly.  The quid pro quo for this is that those coming to Europe as refugees would need to understand that their residence within the EU would be predetermined until they had established their new economic position.

Migration is rarely an economic negative in the longer term; the people who have the determination to make such a journey will have the drive to make a positive life for themselves in their new home.  Let us stop being and look at the opportunities instead.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Corbyn Breakthrough

Like most Arsenal supporters, I had long bemoaned the team’s lack of a good defensive midfielder, and then, during the height of last Autumn’s injury crisis, a player who had been on Arsenal’s books since 2008 was recalled from the latest of three loans, this one to Charlton Athletic, Francis Coquelin.  Mr Coquelin had been written off by most, and it had been anticipated that he would be sold, but since then he has played almost every game and has blossomed into a first rate player; he had the proverbial “breakthrough year”.  But this article is not about football, it is about politics, and Mr Coquelin’s sudden rise from the reserves is an analogy for the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Corbyn/Coquelin comparison bears comparison on other levels as well.  Not only were they both forgotten by their team/party, but Francis’ adherence to some of the traditional tenets of football such as strong tackles, headed clearances and interceptions in amongst a team of football artists, has comparisons with Jeremy’s move to traditional Labour policies such as nationalisation and close union links among a the spin and artistry of New Labour.  But enough of my admiration of Le Coq…………

So far the reactions to Mr Corbyn’s rise appears to fall into three camps; I shall call them Left Center and Right.  For the Left he is loved, a prophet who has spent the proverbial (and almost literal) 40 years in the wilderness, and believe him to be a genuinely positive influence.  The Centre hate him because they see a leader of the opposition that they believe is unelectable, and thus result in a Conservative victory in 2020, even if they have sympathy for his policies.  The Right hate his policies with an almost evangelical zeal, but they equally love the idea of him becoming leader for the same reason the Centre hate him.

I would like to suggest another reason why a Corbyn election would be positive, and that is the difference between management and democracy.  The last general election saw the three major parties having a fundamental economic policy that was pretty much the same:

  • Conservative - Move into budget surplus before 2020, funded by spending reductions;
  • Labour - Move into budget surplus, excluding capital expenditure, by 2020, funded by balance of spending reductions and tax increases; and
  • LibDems -  Move into budget surplus before 2020, funded by spending reductions and tax increases.

That is an example, but fundamentally the same applied to all areas of policy that I can think of.  They all basically had similar policies, and all people were being asked is who they believed would manage the process best.  I am 44 years old, and have voted in the 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 elections, and with the possible exception of 1992 (I’m afraid my memory is rather faded as to Kinnock’s manifesto), all I have ever been asked in the intervening years is who I believe will manage the process better.  However, my 49 year old self might be faced with a very different prospect in 2020.

To my mind, democracy is about the presentation of ideas and policies to an informed electorate, from which they can make a clear choice as to which they believe is best; it has to be about more that tweaking at the edges like a budget being approved at a chain of coffee bars, and the decisions coming down to 500 or 525 locations of the ratio of couches to dining chairs.  If it is not about something more than modest tweaking, let’s save ourselves some money and just have some sort of rota involving all those who sat PPE at Oxford.  

A Corbyn-led Labour Party would without doubt have a very different set of policies to a Cameron/Osborne/Johnson led Conservative Party.  Is nationalisation of the railways the right policy?  Should we scrap the UK nuclear deterrent?  Is there an alternative economic policy?  Surely in a democracy these are questions that people should have the right to vote on, whether or not you choose that the policy of the current Conservative government are right or not.  I believe that Britain’s membership of the European Union is a positive, that we should remain in it, and that changes and reforms will be slow due to the nature of the beast.  Equally I believe that the policy of holding a referendum on continued membership is the right decision and that David Cameron certainly gained support at the last election as a result.  The unwillingness of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to back such a referendum just fed the views of many that those in power just desired a steady state; that is not democracy and they rightly suffered.

Much is made by the Centre (as I described them earlier) that Mr Corbyn is unelectable because the “mass media” will rise up in unison against him and the electorate of lemmings will scurry unquestionably in to the polling booths.  I note similar claims were made them as regards the poor performance of the Labour Party in the general election and that UKIP and Tory Eurosceptics are already anticipating the same come the EU Referendum.  Really?  Have you slept through the last 20 years?  The newspaper industry is dying on its feet because so few people are buying a daily paper.  TV viewing is increasingly being dominated by streaming, downloads and scheduled recordings.  Instead information is flowing through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blog sites, newsfeeds and an amalgam of other methods that would not even have been imagined when messrs Blair, Brown and Mandelson rolled out the New Labour experiment, and this trend will accelerate.  Are enough people engaged in the process?  No, but neither do they slavishly do what their daily newspaper tells them to do; both ignorance and information have been democratised.

Will enough people in the right mix of constituencies vote in the 2020 general election for a Corbyn-led Labour Party?  Who knows, but if they don’t, it will not be because Rupert Murdoch tells them not to; the Sun will no longer have won it for anybody.  They will have lost because people chose the policies of the Conservatives or they will have won it because people wished to have different policies, but either way it will have been a victory for democracy.  Who knows, the jolt to the system may even result in the LibDems rediscovering what it is to be a true liberal party and the British electorate may be able to choose between conservative, liberal and socialist choices (plus green and nationalist) for the first time in my adult life; I am looking forward to it.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Black Swan of the Labour Leadership Race

Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership election slate by the skin of his teeth, but my gut feel is that he will be considerably more successful in the final ballot. While Mr Corbyn is clearly well to the left of most members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, amongst grass roots Labour Party members, that is not so obviously the case. Add in the changes to the voting system, which has replaced the electoral college system with a one "Member", one vote system.
The intriguing aspect however is that it is not just full members of the Labour Party who count as "Members" for voting purposes, but also includes the new category of "Registered Supporters". The idea behind "Registered Supporters" was to encourage members of Trades Unions and other Labour-affiliated organisations who were not full Labour Party members to also vote in the election, although it is not limited to such.
So why do I think My Corbyn might do so well? Well, there are three (and possibly a cheeky fourth) reasons I think so:
1) Within the Labour Party's existing 221k members, I would suggest that the individuals are generally more left leaning than the MPs. Kendall is clearly the candidate of the right, but the Blairite wing appears to have minority support among the grass roots. Cooper and Burnham hold positions very close to Ed Milliband and there appears little to choose policy wise between them, and are likely to split the centre vote. Corbyn as the candidate of the left may well find himself well up there just among the membership alone.
2) Within the Trades Union movement, which has now lost its block votes, I would speculate that the more politically active, and thus the more likely to register as supporters and vote, will be more left leaning than the membership of the unions as a whole.
3) Those people who have left Labour over the years, disenchanted by its move under Tony Blair to the centre, and who voted LibDem in 2005 and 2010 or Green in 2015, as well as those who support far left parties such as Respect and Trades Unionist and Socialist Coalition, might see this as an opportunity to move Labour distinctly to the left.
4) And here is the cheeky one. There appears to be nothing to prevent those who have no sympathy for the Labour Party whatsoever from registering as supporters. Many supporters of the Conservatives, LibDems or UKIP may feel that they have a better chance in the future facing a Corbyn led party than any of the alternatives.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Who Does the Conservative Party Represent?

I recently wrote a post about who the Labour Party represents and thought it would make sense to follow this up with a similar article about the Conservatives, especially with the Budget fresh in everybody’s mind.

The simplest starting point and to connect with the previous article is probably to say who they do not represent.  Two of the groups mentioned in the previous article are clearly not favoured by Conservative policies: those working in the public sector (circa 11.7% of voters, and referred to henceforth as “Public Servants”), who have seen significant job cuts and low pay settlements; and those who may or may not work, but who rely primarily on support through the benefit system, who have seen measures such as the benefits cap, tougher Housing Benefit (notably the so called “bedroom tax”), Jobseeker’s Allowance and Disability Benefit rules (estimated at 15% of voters, based on number of Council Tax benefit claimants plus 1m people, and referred hereafter as “State Beneficiaries”).

Next the relatively simple identification of clear groups that Conservative policies have favoured, at least relative to Labour.  Those with high incomes (>£150,000) or significant properties will certainly be better off based on stated tax policies, and anybody earning >£52,000 and contributing to a pension will be better off although the amounts are dependent on the level of income and contributions.  Next, those who own significant (>£250,000) assets or businesses, while not having been the subject of specific tax policies, can reasonably surmise that they would be better off under the Tories.  So while certainly greater than the so called “1%”, it is probably fair to say that the top 10% (which will include a relatively small number in the public sector, so let us assume this 10% and the 11.7% mentioned in the previous paragraph are separate) in terms of either income or wealth would be better off under the Tories; for simplicity I shall refer to all of the above as the “Well Off”.
So, we have 10% of voters who are definitely represented by the Conservative Party and circa 27% who are certainly not; so that leaves 63% who are up for grabs.  These people, who I shall call the “Broad Working Class”, are the equivalent of those who in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 voted in droves for the Conservatives, and in 1997, 2001 and 2005 did the same for Tony Blair’s New Labour.  Now, it is unrealistic to think that 63% of voters are ever likely to be attracted to just one party’s policies, but gaining the majority of this Broad Working Class will dictate who wins this election.

As I posted last time, Labour’s problem is with attracting the Broad Working Class while not alienating State Beneficiaries at a time of austerity.  The Conservatives face a similar challenge; attracting the Broad Working Class without alienating the Well Off, however the electoral maths are somewhat different.  Neither the Well Off nor the State Beneficiaries have historically had anywhere else to go in electoral terms; this time it remains true of the Well Off but not the State Beneficiaries.  The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party are all promoting anti-austerity policies that would appeal to State Beneficiaries, plus many may decide just not to vote.  For the Conservatives, the challenge on the right comes from UKIP, which as a populist movement is more a challenge for the Broad Working Class than the Well Off, who in turn are more likely to vote than State Beneficiaries.
So does the Conservative Party represent the Broad Working Class, or at least enough of it to win the election?  What does this week’s Budget indicate?  I think it shows that the current Coalition is representing the Broad Working Class, but it is less clear that the Conservative Party does.  Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander may have severely damaged the electoral prospects of the Liberal Democrats, but they do appear to have focussed the Coalition policies more towards the Broad Working Class than the Well Off; the Conservatives went into the 2010 election with tax cutting focussed on Inheritance Tax, but the Coalition’s primary tax cut has been to raise the tax threshold massively, a tax cut whose benefits reduce for people earning over £100,000 and eliminated if you earn over £150,000.   The policies have been harsh, and there are no doubt that many people have and are suffering as a result, notably among the Public Servants and the State Beneficiaries, but equally, those policies are increasingly having a positive impact on many of the Broad Working Class.  Record levels of employment, low inflation and interest rates, and finally rising wage levels and now starting to make the feel better off, and perhaps the biggest concern amongst many Broad Working Class Voters would be whether a Conservative only government would be less interested in them.
No party has published its manifesto yet, but the indications are that the Conservatives cannot help but lurch towards issues that appeal to a vocal element of its core membership, but which carry only a minority interest in the wider population.  The obsession with Europe and the EU is the most obvious, especially following the UKIP success at the European Parliament elections last year, but other issues such as ending the hunting ban and further Trade Union legislation (notably where it appears one sided, e.g. you have to get a higher number of members voting for a strike, but we will not allow you to make it easier to vote through the use of online voting).  Like with the tax issue, the Liberal Democrats appear to have helped keep such niche matters off the legislative table.

If David Cameron wishes to gain a second term as Prime Minister, he needs to ignore the crazier elements of his own party and focus on a manifesto that looks more like the current coalition policies.  Secretly, I think he rather hopes he has to have Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander back round the Cabinet table; they make for far more sensible colleagues than many a noisy Tory back bencher.  If there was an option to vote “Current Coalition” on the voting papers in May, I would anticipate it would be getting a far better current poll performance than the Tories on their own.  


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Who does the Labour Party Represent?

With UK general election just 7 weeks away and the two major parties neck and neck, I have been consuming a lot of political media.  While doing this, a question has come to me:
"Who does the Labour Party Represent?", and the follow on question, "Does the Labour Party know the answer?"
Firstly we had John Cruddas (, Labour’s policy co-ordinator, said the 115-year old party could simply “disintegrate in real time”. 
Then there have been three interesting articles in The Guardian in the last couple of days. First from Rachel Reeves, the Shadow work and pensions secretary (, in which she stated “Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.”. Her position (which should be read beyond that simple quote) by party activist Emma Burnell ( the following day, the original article having garnered a lot of comment. Finally, this morning, campaigner Jack Monroe wrote ( how she had left the Labour and joined the Green Party due to their more left-leaning policies.
At the most basic historical level, Ms Reeves is correct; the Labour Party was established by the Trade Union movement to represent the interests or working people in Parliament. So is she correct in her objective?
I personally do not believe it represents the broader working class anymore due to the near elimination of Trade Union membership in the private sector (only 14.4% - 2.6m people), while the strong position of the Trade Unions in the public sector (55.4% - 3.8m people) means Labour has become increasingly a vehicle and voice for those in the public sector. Within those private sector union membership figures, it also needs to be recognised that many of employers where membership numbers are strong are former nationalised businesses such as utilities, mail and railways where a public service ethos remains in place. This is not meant as either a positive or negative analysis, merely that any organisation reflects the the make-up of its membership. It is also clear from the background of many Labour MPs, councilors and activists that it has become the vehicle and voice for many of those engaged in the charitable and campaigning sectors.
From a perspective of attracting significant further voters beyond that core, the comments of Ms Reeves an Ms Burnell on one side and Ms Monroe on the other reflect the two paths available: 1) those workers in the private sector, including the self-employed, who are receiving little or no benefits, but have no other means of support beyond their wage; or, 2) those who may work or not, but who rely primarily on support through the benefit system.
In recent history, certainly during the Blair and Brown administrations, Labour successfully appealed to both these groups, but in 2010, it lost the support of group (1). Its difficulty in appealing to both groups is that the public purse will not stretch to support both. If you have policies that appeal to group (2), you have no option but to increase taxes on group (1); it is economic illiteracy to think that all the money needed to reverse public sector austerity can come from "the rich" (normally defined as anybody earning 20%+ than the person saying the words "the rich") alone; Denis Healy tried that in the 1970s and it doesn't work. Those in group (1) generally feel they are paying enough of a burden already, so do not wish to pay more to reverse austerity on group (2).
At the moment Labour appear to be trying to appeal to both groups by fudging that difficult position, but the closer we get to the election, I think they will have to lean one way of the other.  My own view would be that Ms Reeves is right, and Labour needs to get back to being a party of the broad working class (i.e. those who need to work rather than having their own capital) rather than being, as it increasingly is, a pressure group for the public sector and public services. Otherwise Mr Cruddas may be right.