So: who will lead the Con-Lab Grand Coalition that will be formed in May 2015?

Things aren’t going well for the Westminster political machine. Their short-term, focus-group and opinion poll led campaigning has missed or ignored the changing mood of voters. Things were bad enough with the rise of Ukip; they got a lot worse with the Yes-surge among former Labour supporters in Scotland. At this week’s Labour conference the party is desperately trying to get the political agenda back to familiar territory. It is failing, and in doing so it is losing the political initiative. In this unfamiliar political territory I want to indulge in a bit a bit of political fantasy. But ask yourself: just how unrealistic is it?

Roll forward to May 8, 2015, the day after Britain’s General Election. The Westminster parties lost control of the election agenda. In England Ukip have surged forward to take 30 seats, taking votes from all sides. In Scotland, angry and unreconciled Yes voters have moved in behind the SNP, who take another 30 seats. The Lib Dems, through a lot of hard local campaigning, luck with voter splits, and a dead-cat bounce, are relieved to end up with another 30 seats (a bit over half their 2010 tally). The Greens do well in national polling, though only pick up a small handful of seats. The Tories are the main victim of the changed situation in England, losing seats directly to Ukip, but also to Labour. They fall back by 40 seats to between 260 and 270. But Labour’s gains in England are partly neutralised by the advance of the SNP in Scotland. They end up with a very similar number of teats to the Conservatives, with a net 15-20 gains.

Both main parties are badly bruised: their share of votes has fallen; they are not in control of the political agenda. Only the inherent electoral bias towards incumbency has left them with so many seats. Both feel as if they have lost. And the parliamentary arithmetic is horrid. To form any kind of stable coalition government with smaller parties they will need to round up two of the Lib Dems, Ukip and SNP. For different reasons none of these parties want to play ball. For the Lib Dems it is a moment of reckoning, with open revolt against the party leadership, and a desperate feeling amongst the membership that they need to rebuild in opposition. Ukip are too toxic for the main parties, and their terms of engagement are too high. The SNP have no interest in the governance of the UK as a whole. If there is no natural governing majority, there is a comfortable and motivated opposition majority against any government led by one of the two main parties.

Meanwhile the fiscal deficit and the national debt remain large. The financial markets are jittery, which puts the financing of the deficit in question. The pound takes a tumble. With its yawning current account deficit Britain needs foreign financing. But this in turn requires a strong government able to keep the fiscal deficit in hand. The fragile recovery is in jeopardy, as investment is drying up, and property prices start to fall, as foreign investors take fright. The Treasury civil servants are worried and quickly set to work on their political contacts.

There is an obvious solution. One that has been tried in Germany, Austria and Greece. A Grand Coalition between the Conservatives and Labour. It slowly dawns on the senior figures in these parties that this is the only way out.

What would be the organising principle of the new Coalition? As Labour realises that it is no longer practical to use its Scottish MPs to ram through reforms of English public services, they are at last able to contemplate some form of new federal settlement for the UK. They also accept that the UK’s relationship with the European Union needs to be reset. Both sides agree to a Constitutional Convention. The idea is that this will come up with one or more referendum propositions in Autumn 2017, after which the country will move towards a new General Election. All this will secure the Conservative participation in the government. In return Labour will insist on a choice selection of its core policies: halting “privatisation” of the NHS (though not wholesale unpicking of the previous coalition’s reforms); perhaps the freeze on energy prices and reform of energy markets; maybe further rises tot he minimum wage; surely the reinstatement, in some form, of the 50p top tax rate and termination of the “bedroom tax”. Their proposed Mansion Tax is unlikely to make it though – such a significant change to the tax system hardly seems appropriate in a time of constitutional transition. Both sides will agree to something tokenistic on immigration.

But who will lead this government? Both Party leaders will face revolts from their own side. Mr Cameron will surely find his position untenable. Mr Miliband may even have lost his seat to the surging Ukip. The natural thing would be for the Prime Minister to come from whichever party is a nose in front in parliamentary seats. The popular vote can be used as a tie-breaker. The other party will no doubt insist on the Treasury.

On the Tory side, the obvious choice would have been William Hague. But he is stepping down at the next election. Other senior figures are: Theresa May, George Osborne or Boris Johnson. Ms May stands the best chance of these, though she does not come across as a particularly gifted politician. The other two are surely too blatantly political to be trusted enough by Labour. Another idea is to summon up a former senior figure from the back benches; Malcolm Rifkind would be an obvious candidate.

It is even harder to think of Labour candidates with the appropriate stature. Harriet Harman has the seniority, but I can’t see her as having enough clout. I’m not even sure if Margaret Beckett will be standing, and she is a bit old at 71 – though since this is something of a caretaker role, that is less of an obstacle than it might be. The existing front bench all seem to be lacking to some degree. Gordon Brown’s reputation may have been enhanced by his intervention in the referendum campaign, but there is no way that he can lead a coalition. Meanwhile Alistair Darling’s reputation has been diminished.

Is there a serious point to this fantastical speculation? Yes. As we see the rise of anti-politics, of political parties who are only interested in causing trouble, and not solving problems, then we must get used to the idea that previously bitter opponents will have to cooperate in government. The current coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may be foreshadowing the future of politics in ways that the current political chattering classes don’t yet understand.

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The post-referendum Hall of Shame: Cameron, Salmond, Farage, Miliband

Normal politics has been on hold for the last weeks of the Scottish referendum, as nobody from south of the border wanted to rock the boat. But that phoney war is well and truly over, as the party leaders and their followers have pitched in with a free-for-all on the previously little discussed subject of the UK constitution. It is a pretty unedifying spectacle, which demonstrates why politicians in Westminster (and Holyrood for that matter) aren’t trusted by the public. But some are behaving much worse than others.

First place in my Hall of Shame goes to our Prime Minister, the Conservative leader David Cameron. The ballot papers had not been fully counted before he launched into a manoeuvre designed with little other purpose than to embarrass the Labour party, and to protect the more controversial parts of the Coalition government’s reforms. He, along with the other party leaders, has committed to the rapid transfer of powers to the Scottish parliament – having been arm-twisted into doing so by his predecessor as PM, Gordon Brown – who was the star of the No campaign. He then suggested that that the English should get the same rights as the Scots, on the same timetable.

There are three ways in which this is mendacious. Firstly he does not mean giving English people the same rights as the Scots. That would mean a separate English parliament and executive (or perhaps a number of regional ones). It turns out what he means is stopping Scottish MPs from voting on laws in the UK Parliament that only affect England. This may be a good idea in itself, but it falls far short of any idea of devolution of power, or, as I prefer to look at it, the empowerment of voters and intermediate levels of government. Secondly, it is well-known that this is not as simple as it sounds. There is no recognised constitutional distinction between English laws and UK ones, something which becomes particularly difficult when it comes to financing. Which taxes are English, and which are general? This problem has defeated many great minds, so any attempt to ram changes through on a tight timetable is going to end badly. Thirdly, what the Scots have been afforded is many years of deliberation, and a number of referendums, about the sort of government that they want, leading up to the independence referendum, which secured a very high level of political engagement. Mr Cameron has no intention of offering the English any equivalent level of engagement. It’s just a stunt.

What Mr Cameron is trying to do is to highlight Labour’s plan to use their Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to unpick a number of Coalition reforms on English public services, most notably the NHS. That really is all he seems to care about. We should expect more from the holder of such a high and responsible office. But with a bit of luck he will be sabotaged by his own backbenchers, who, on the whole, are more principled, even though they generally scare me.

Second place in my Hall of Shame must go to another holder of an important public office: the Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. He has announced that he is stepping down, but he as eschewed this opportunity to show any kind of statesmanship. He has accused the Westminster political leaders of backsliding on their promise to devolve more powers to Scotland. This is a very tendentious reading of a very proper argument between the Conservative and Labour leaders over English devolution and the wider UK constitution. Neither have suggested that Scots devolution should be delayed – there is just a concern that these wider issues might delay things. During the campaign Mr Salmond had suggested that if the Scots had voted for independence, then the English political leaders would accept the result with good grace, and enter negotiations with a spirit of peace and light. If that’s what he expects of them, he should apply that standard to his own conduct. It is right an proper that politicians from other parts of the UK should ask how extra Scots devolution affects them. And, indeed, Scottish political leaders should take an active interest in how the UK constitution as a whole works. Scotland is a fully participating member of the UK, and not some foreign power. The First Minister should show some concern that over-hasty constitutional change will affect Scottish interests, and should be demanding a seat at the table – and not acting as if all that mattered was a few extra powers for his government. But, of course, he has no interest in a stable UK constitution, and just wants to exploit the situation to keep discontent amongst Scottish voters bubbling away.

Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond are by some distance the worst culprits. They have responsible public offices and yet are acting like immature student politicians. My next entrant in the Hall of Shame is Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader. He wants to make mischief by stoking up discontent and resentment in England over the role of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament. After a highly divisive referendum, responsible politicians should be promoting reconciliation, and not stoking up resentment. But to his credit Mr Farage is at least advocating the correct way forward, unlike Messrs Cameron and Salmond, which is a UK-wide constitutional convention to promote a measure of agreement on the the shape of the constitution.

To his credit, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is also promoting a constitutional convention, and one with a wide enough scope to tackle broader issues, like the House of Lords. But he needs to overcome a huge legacy of cynicism when it comes to Labour’s record on constitutional reform. In this parliament Mr Miliband talked the talk on reform of the electoral system and the House of Lords, but behind the scenes he has sabotaged both initiatives based on short-term politics. Voters may well feel that he has no more interest in promoting a fair constitutional settlement for the UK than Vladimir Putin has in promoting peace and reconciliation in Ukraine. To bridge this gap of trust he needs to give a clearer picture of the reforms Labour want, and to go along with shorter term initiatives to deal with the question of Scottish MPs. He should call Mr Cameron’s bluff, and not just try to kick the whole issue into the long grass.

But above all Mr Miliband needs to give a clear timetable for his proposed convention, and  promise a referendum on its outcome by a specific date. He must make a promise that would be hard to quietly bury. But instead he wants to change the subject and hope that all this talk of constitutional change will blow over. The Labour Party is intent on pushing ahead with the media plan that accompanies its party conference, evidently planned before its Westminster elite had an inkling that the Scottish referendum might set the political agenda. Therefore he enters the Hall of Shame behind Mr Farage.

And so we come to the last of the main party leaders, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister. I have been highly critical of his record to date on constitutional matters, which been misjudged and piecemeal. He has now set out his views on the Constitution. And they are very creditable. He makes it clear, as Mr Cameron does not, that dealing with wider constitutional matters should not be tangled with the issue of further Scottish devolution: it should be a parallel track, with reforms not dependent on each other. On the matter of Scottish MPs he sensibly suggests following the McKay report, which the Coalition commissioned earlier in the government, only for it to be kicked into the long grass. He correctly points out that devolution in England means devolution from Westminster – and suggests a bottom up process for achieving this (by giving local councils the right to demand powers). Finally, and greatly to my relief, he agrees with the idea of a constitutional convention – which should secure directly public participation as far as it can – he suggests a citizen’s jury. This points to an credible way forward: allowing progress on the most urgent issues, while not losing sight of the big picture. So putting him in my Hall of Shame at all would be harsh. If he belongs there it is for not being clearer about all this a lot earlier. Alas, his real problem is a lack of political clout, though. The Libs Dems are facing a number of years in the political wilderness, though I firmly believe that they will be back.

The referendum on Scotland was a near-death experience for the UK. It would be becoming for the politicians from Britain’s mainstream parties to come together with a plan for updating Britain’s constitution, and consulting its citizens as it does so. Instead the Tories are being blatantly opportunist and Labour is pretending that nothing has changed. Only the darker forces of British politics, Ukip and the SNP in particular, will benefit from this.

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#indyref – now is the time for more democracy, not political manoeuvres

So Scotland voted No to independence, and by a margin of nearly 11%. That’s a big relief. A Yes vote would have ushered in three or more years of hard negotiation and uncertainty that would have served no very useful purpose. But what next? There are signs that the political elites both sides of the border are on manoeuvres. But I am backing the Electoral Reform Society’s call for a Constitution Convention. There is a link where you can sign up here – though this is confused by a focus on just Wales; I hope they get their act together o this.

The story so far. Though Scotland voted No, this was only after the main Westminster party leaders, and the hero of the No campaign, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, all promised to deliver Scotland further devolution and protect their funding settlement. Some refer to this off as Devo Max – but others say it falls short of this ideal, whereby the Scottish parliament would be responsible for everything but defence and foreign relations. This promise has to be delivered – but it destabilises the constitution of the UK as a whole.

In particular the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said that reforms must take account of English government. By this he means the problem that Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs vote on domestic English matters, while having no equivalent powers for their own regions. The Conservatives spy an opportunity to embarrass the Labour Party, who may depend on Scottish and Welsh MPs to deliver their party programme in England. Many Tory MPs are talking a lot of sense (for example John Redwood in the FT) – and this not something I say lightly. But opportunism is not a solid basis for a robust constitutional settlement. Most thinking is half-baked, because we have not had a proper period of deliberation on the matter.

It is right that MPs are asking about the wider constitutional settlement. But it is wrong to neglect the process of democracy. One of the energising aspects of the Scottish vote was that it involved voters in an important decision. The turnout was very high (85%) by our normal standards – securing a level of political engagement that has been most unusual. Any constitutional settlement for the UK needs to similarly democratic, even if it cannot hope to reach such heights. There needs to be a deliberative process that draws people in, a Constitutional Convention, followed by one or more referendums across all of the UK. The Westminster elite don’t seem to want this; the Edinburgh elite seem no better. They don’t want a process that they can’t control. They want a platform for point scoring, not a process of consensus building.

But these are hard questions, which are not susceptible to quick political fixes. If we don’t opt for a proper deliberative and democratic process we are in danger of lurching from one constitutional crisis to the next.

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

UK constitution: Westminster’s elite still doesn’t get it

“Nor do the English seem to want any kind of devolution for themselves”. Thus does this week’s Economist dismiss any chance of far-reaching constitutional reform for England and the UK as a whole. It offers a couple of tepid ideas as “promising” ways forward to relieve the tension. A committee of English MPs to vet legislation in parliament; devolving more powers to city regions in England. An English parliament or giving English regions equivalent powers to those mooted for Scotland, if it votes No, are dismissed as too difficult, in the absence of a serious clamour from the voters. I have every reason to believe that the thinking expressed in this article is typical of Westminster politicians in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. If something doesn’t feature amongst the top issues that voters highlight as concerns to pollsters, it’s not worth worrying about.

This, of course, is exactly the type of short-term thinking that got them into a mess with Scotland – which may very well vote to separate from the UK this week. The politicians checked the opinion polls, and there didn’t seem to be too much to worry about. They did not have the imagination to see that the separatists would cash in on the national disillusionment with politics. They cannot understand that the current national mood gives politics an inherent instability that the normal polling will not help them with. As the public yearns for leadership, all they get is followership.

It reminds me of those doomed companies, who once ruled their world, and who thought that product development was a matter of following market research. Nokia, Blackberry or  Kodak, for example (there are plenty of non high tech examples – but it is difficult even to recall their names now). Like these doomed businesses Westminster politicians (and their many hangers on) do not want to do anything that might upset their existing ecosystem too much. Or to put the business parallel in better perspective, if Apple had followed market research, it would never have invented the iPod or the iPhone. Or IBM had to pull its existing business apart in order to survive and prosper as the world changed. Unfortunately the professionalization of politics does not make politicians immune from the same sort of progressive entombment that overcomes big businesses from time to time. There are times when it pays to be visionary and move ahead of public opinion.

Britain is lurching from one constitutional crisis to another. If it isn’t Scotland leaving the Union, it will be the UK leaving the EU. Quite possibly it will be both. The Westminster machine is quite likely to get bogged down in years of negotiation to unpick highly complex constitutional, financial and trading arrangements, which will advance solutions to the substantive problems of the economy, public services and national security not at all. By avoiding proper constitutional reform because voters don’t mention it to pollsters, they may in fact find their lives dominated by constitutional problems as a result of referendums conceded too easily.

Britain needs a new constitutional settlement to distribute political power to its most appropriate level. This means more than devolution. The word conjures the picture of a superior power throwing scraps to the lower orders. We should think of  power residing with the people, and delegated upwards to the most appropriate level – and not devolved downwards. When a US city wants to build a metro system, it just goes ahead and does it, subject only to its power to raise taxes, fees and loans. If a British city tries, it has to grovel to several central government departments for permission, with the all-powerful Treasury liable to squash the whole thing with a shrug. Westminster is prepared to tweak this system a bit, but not to change the balance of power fundamentally. When they do offer concessions for devolution, these are so feeble that they fail to command popular support.

It is time to stop the sleepwalking, and for our leaders to wake up and see what is happening to our beloved country. The English may not be agitating for constitutional reform, but if they don’t get it the country will progressively come apart.

 

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

As Scotland decides, the recriminations in Westminster begin

I make no apologies for the third post in a week on Scotland’s referendum next week. A political story this big is rare. This time I want to consider Westminster’s reaction to the episode. There is, of course, shock. The story has departed from its script. And with that shock comes recrimination. This sort of reaction is only human, of course – but the reactions miss the point. Britain, with its unwritten constitution, is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of sleepwalking disaster.

The most extreme reaction comes from John Major, who was Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, at a time when the move towards devolution in Scotland developed unstoppable momentum. He is basically saying “told you so”. He said that the whole devolution idea was a mistake, as he said at the time, and it is ending just as he forecast. Well, he is right that simply devolving power to Scotland (and Wales and eventually Northern Ireland) without considering the impact on the wider United Kingdom constitution was asking for trouble. But the resentment felt by the Scots over remote rule from Westminster was overwhelming. Something had to be done in the name of democracy. Besides, devolution seems to have been a success, for Scotland at least. Outside London and the South East Scotland is the most successful region in the UK. This kind of success is about a lot more than public subsidy. No doubt the oil industry has helped, but Scotland has seen the sort of economic dynamism that is sadly lacking in other regions of the country.

But Mr Major’s is a lonely voice. Many more are saying that it was foolish of David Cameron, and the Scottish Secretary of the time Michael Moore, not to agree to Alex Salmond’s wish for a three-way referendum, with “Devo-max” as a third option. But almost nobody outside the SNP thought that a three way referendum was a good idea at the time. I personally could not get my head around it. Referendums are a blunt instrument, not suited to complex questions. The whole thing looked like a sly manoeuvre on the part of the SNP to get more devolved powers, from which to launch a future bid to independence. If they had wanted Devo-max rather than full independence, they should have negotiated that explicitly.

A third line of recrimination, and the loudest, is against the No campaign. It is accused of being lacklustre, pessimistic and negative. It focused too much on the practical problems of separation. This is true. But negative campaigning is the Westminster way. Our politicians, advised by sophisticated professionals, find negative messages more useful than positive ones when it comes to campaigning for votes. They have two basic types of strategy: one is to rally the core vote, and the other is to swing marginal voters. Nothing rallies the core vote better than distrust of the other side. And swing voters are often cautious types who make up their mind on small things. This was certainly the view of the No campaign, which went for the second strategy, sensibly given the likely high turnout. Their polling showed that it was worries about the practicalities that was bothering the swing voters – so it addressed its energies to them. Such negative tactics worked triumphantly well in the referendum on the Alternative Vote in 2011; the No vote campaign was simply doing things the Westminster way. But that left the feeling that the argument for union was hollow at its core – something that besets Westminster’s other campaigns.

Of course what the critics are unwilling to do is look at the wider picture, and recognise the vulnerabilities of the British system of government. Our highly centralised ways are bound to cause disaffection at the periphery. Devolving spending powers faster than taxation powers is not a stable solution to this: it just sets up a tension between the central government and the devolved one. And asymmetric devolution, favouring some areas over others, creates further tensions – tending to focus the tension in some areas rather than across the country.

There is a tried and tested method for containing and managing such tensions, that almost every other democracy uses. That is a written constitution, which defines the powers clearly at each level of government, and sets out clear ways of how the balance of these powers can be changed. The constitution usually has its roots in a process of consensus building at an important, nation-defining moment, giving it moral authority.

But Westminster dislikes written constitutions. It loves the flexibility of Britain’s looser arrangements, whereby Parliament adopts the powers of a Renaissance monarch, bolstered by a sort democratic myth in place of the divine right of kings. And indeed such flexibility has its advantages. But it has vulnerabilities too. The constitution becomes a plaything of ordinary short-term politics; small changes are made that create further tensions that require more short-term changes. Or some constitutional problems are deemed too difficult, and not addressed, allowing very destructive tensions to build. Devolution to Scotland is a case of the former. Devolution within England is a case of the latter. The country sleepwalks into constitutional disasters. Scottish independence is one such potential disaster; departure from the European Union is another.

It requires some kind of national shock to give momentum to comprehensive constitutional change. The referendum in Scotland, whatever the result, is a big enough shock to set such a movement in motion. Time for a Constitutional Convention.

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

As Scotland debates, what about England?

The referendum in Scotland is the most interesting thing to hit British politics for a long time. Last night the unionist side wheeled in former Prime Minster Gordon Brown. Mr Brown vindicated my judgement of him last week as being a cut above our current, mediocre political leaders. But how is this drama playing down here in England? After all the outcome involves us too.

The first point is that we are bit late on the game. The Scots have been arguing about the matter intensely for many months. The English, taking their cue from their politicians and media, have largely treated the matter as a foregone conclusion for the union. Only now is the terrible truth dawning. That lack of debate has left thinking very underdeveloped. But I have detected some new trends, at least in the rather non-typical, liberal circles that I inhabit.

Firstly there is envy. People in Scotland are having a real debate and vote on something that clearly matters. If they vote Yes it will make a real difference to the ruling political elite. Usually all that seems to be at stake is the recycling of the same group of usual suspects. Scottish people are talking about the country they want to be. It’s no wonder people are registering to vote and a high turnout is expected. We aren’t getting that here. And the thought of giving that elite, not just the politicians but the media pack, civil servants and lobbyists that cling to them, a bloody nose is distinctly tempting. It becomes rather less tempting when you think that it empowers an Edinburgh political elite, who, to say the least, do not look a trustworthy bunch. But that’s another matter.

The next thing is a common hope. Surely, after a Yes vote, or the near-death experience of a narrow No vote, a shake-up will follow in England? This referendum could be good for all of us. But that will only be true if a grassroots movement, from outside the Westminster elite, demands it. That is possible, though I see no sign of it yet. That movement needs something to ask for – some sort of constitutional change – but I see no evidence of the English developing enthusiasm for that. Without a grassroots movement, Westminster will simply drop back into its usual complacency.

A further response is a rather depressing one. Without the Scottish MPs the House of Commons will be weighted much more towards the Conservatives. There is a much greater chance of a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU. For many this is just the sort of constitutional change that will shake things up – even though its outcome will be to concentrate more power amongst the Westminster elite, rather than take them down a peg. The odds of the country leaving the EU will surely rise. Actually we should be a little careful here. The environment after a Scottish Yes vote will be so different that we cannot make predictions about how political attitudes will shift. The Conservatives may not find it so easy to win in the rump UK.

But what if Scotland stays in the union? The Westminster leaders are already promising the country a greater level devolution on our behalf. But they are silent about how this will affect the rest of us in England. That is no doubt because they are hoping people won’t care enough create much of a fuss. But it leaves us with the English Question. This is referred in Westminster pompously as the “West Lothian Question”, after the very pompous former MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell. This is no doubt their way of trying to minimise its significance and I refuse to accept this nomenclature.

The English Question is this. If Westminster has devolved powers to Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, it means that Scottish MPs can vote on a whole range of important questions of English policy, without English MPs being able to influence the same issues in Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland). It is a very awkward conundrum for Westminster types, because it is difficult to deal with without undermining their own power. Their typical reaction, when it is posed, it to mutter something about it being very difficult, and then to change the subject.

How might the English question be solved? There are three lines of attack The first is to somehow stop non-English MPs from voting on English matters. This is invariably the way Westminster politicians think of solving it. But it gets very messy. How do you, precisely, differentiate between English and British affairs without an explicitly federal constitution? What if the British PM does not command a majority in England? The second appraoch is to devolve powers to local governments in England. But, to be anything like equivalent to the Scots or Welsh devolution, there would need to be some kind of regional level of government. This only exists for London, though other metropolitan areas are inching towards such structures. The regions defined for European elections and statistical purposes have no resonance with public identity and are not fit for this purpose.

The third approach it to set up a separate English parliament, and English government, leaving a federal government to govern the residual issues of the UK itself. To me this looks the most promising way forward. But it raises many questions.

But the most important point for now is that there is no consensus in England about the right way forward, and the issues have not been aired enough. The next step, surely, is to convene a constitutional convention to develop proposals, which can then be put to the whole country in a further referendum or referendums. This convention could be convened either at the English level, or for the whole of the UK. The latter, of course, is the only way of dealing adequately with how a federal level of government could work, and what to do with such institutions as the House of Lords. But the big requirement is political momentum – and it may be easier to get this at the English level, and to deal with the wider consequences later. After all this whole process was set in motion by a Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s.

It is, of course, unutterably depressing that our political leaders, including the Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, who should know better, are not calling for such a convention. But we English should be demanding it.

 

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Why neoliberals will be voting Yes to Scottish separation

Scotland votes for independence or not from the rest of the UK in just ten days time. Until now the complacent Westminster establishment, politicians and media alike, hasn’t taken the debate seriously. In the last week more opinions polls have been commissioned for the Clacton by election than on the referendum question – one reason that it is hard to tell how opinion is shifting. But the Yes campaign now seems to have the wind in its sails, and Westminster has to take the issue seriously. They are completely unready. Westminster types understand why a Scots breakaway is bad for them, but are struggling to understand why it should be bad for the Scots. Or to show that Westminster complacency has been dented by anything more substantive than temporary panic. The latest idea is to promise Scotland more devolution within the UK if it votes No; but the idea of a constitutional convention for all of the UK still seems to be off limits.

And yet there is muddle on the Yes side too. Independence supporters are making real headway with the argument that separation is the best way to preserve the Scots’ social democratic heritage. Scottish people have tended to be more left leaning than the English, and treasure such institutions as the NHS and social security. But this is under threat from “neoliberals” in Westminster, who want to shrink the state and run Scotland more like Texas. A Yes vote means No to the neoliberals.

At first sight this line of argument looks plausible. Most neutrals think that separation would be financially neutral; the extra social security transfers that Scotland gets compared to England will be made up for by extra oil revenues. This being so, an independent Scotland should have little difficulty in keeping the current level of state generosity going. And anyway, look at Sweden, Denmark or Norway, notable for very generous social security, in spite of being of similar size to Scotland.

All this follows the popularity of deciding political questions on “facts”. But there are two problems with factual analysis. First factual analysis is backward looking, when political decisions must be based on the future; second is that our usual factual analysis is based on aggregates and averages – concealing important fluctuations and details within. Both issues affect any analysis of Scotland’s future prospects.

The first point is that bigger ships make for a smoother ride. Look at northern Europe’s smaller nations, from Ireland in the west (or we could include Iceland) to Finland in the east. Their economic history of the last 40 years has been marked by deep economic crises, striking deeper than anything that the UK has experienced (Denmark may be an exception, admittedly) – even as they might experience headier booms. This rougher ride makes generous provision of state services more difficult to manage over the long term. During periods of crisis governments find it difficult to borrow and they are forced to make deep cuts.

But the Scandinavian countries have achieved a generous welfare state, haven’t they? Yes, but at the cost of much higher levels of tax. According to the Heritage Foundation, the UK tax take in 2012 was 39% of income; in Finland and Norway it was nearly 44%, in Sweden nearly 46%, and in Denmark it was 49%. Funnily enough Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond’s main idea for economic growth is to reduce taxes, modelling his policies on Ireland (2012 tax take nearly 31% and a weak welfare system to match). Danish welfare based on Irish taxes doesn’t add up.

But can’t Scotland just follow the Danes and Swedes and ratchet up taxes? Ignoring the economic issues with this (which these states have managed to overcome), the political tide in Scandinavia is rightwards. It seems that the higher taxes were acceptable to homogenous, inward-looking  societies where people were less worried about freeloaders – but that the pressures of a modern economy undermine that. Surely Scotland will find it impossible to recreate the conditions of a past Scandinavia;  it will be politically hard to raise taxes.

And meanwhile Scotland faces the same demographic challenges of an aging population, and rising healthcare costs, as the rest of the developed world with the added challenge of having to reallocate jobs, infrastructure and taxes as its oil resources are depleted.

Scotland faces a much more bracing climate as an independent country than within the UK. This is not a bad thing in itself, of course. It will help the Scots break out of a victim culture, where too often problems are blamed on the English. But the political movement that will most welcome this state of affairs is that despised breed: neoliberals. Independence would give them a shot in the arm. Scotland’s cherished social democracy depends on being part of a larger system of taxes and transfers that absorbs shocks more easily, and makes financing on world markets easier. Big states are more sustainable in big countries.

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Would a Miliband victory be good for the Lib Dems?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Here’s a paradox. Britain’s political party leaders are the most mediocre, as a set, that I can remember. At least in 2010 we had Gordon Brown: a disastrous prime minister, but one who at least had the moral authority to help lead the world from economic disaster in 2009. But next year’s General Election looks to be the most interesting contest for a very long time. The shame for Liberal Democrats like myself is that we are bit part players, hoping to hang on to most of our parliamentary seats, but without playing much part in the national debate. But the rise of Ukip means that three-party dynamics remains potent. But perhaps the Lib Dems longer term prospects are better?

To start with, we have an unknown effect from the Scottish referendum later this month. Whatever the result, this will surely change dynamics north of the border in ways that it is difficult to predict. The Westminster elite hardly dare confront the possibility of a Yes vote, though the race is tightening and this is a real possibility. They have contented themselves with promising extra devolution for the Scots, without addressing the implications for England. If the Yes result comes, the Westminster politicians will have nobody but themselves to blame.

The constitution of the UK (note this not a “Scots question” – it affects us all) remains the most important issue hanging over our politics, including next year’s election. But for a moment I want to join the Westminster chatterers and put this to one side (the chatteres’ favourite website politicalbetting.com seems to think that the forthcoming Clacton by-election is more important than the referendum), and consider other dynamics.

Over the summer the Conservatives had looked quietly confident, and I shared that confidence on their behalf. They faced a strong challenge from Ukip, whose message appeals to many of their activists, but they seemed ready for that. David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU is highly credible, and it is good bone to throw to potential Ukip defectors. Meanwhile they can promote scare stories about letting Labour in, and also blame the government’s more unpopular policies (to the right) on their coalition partners, the Lib Dems. The Euro election results in May seemed to support this confidence; Ukip were rampant, but Labour’s performance outside London looked lacklustre. Ukip were as much a problem for Labour as the Tories, and Labour’s message to Ukip supporters was (and remains) confused, unlike the Tory one.

Alas for the Conservatives their plan seems to be falling apart. The Tory MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, defected to Ukip, resigned his seat, and has caused a by election which he intends to contest under his new party’s banner. Clacton is a stronghold of the disaffected, white, aging, excluded working classes that is Ukip’s core constituency; a victory for Ukip looks certain. This gives Ukip real momentum. But, worse, it emphasises the divisions within Tory ranks between the more sensible moderate types represented by David Cameron, and what liberals regard as a lunatic fringe, whose strength has grown. This will encourage Tory voters to defect to Ukip, and discipline within the party to break down. That could scare off donors. Add this to the fact that the electoral system is weighted against the Conservatives, and they party’s challenge is looking steep indeed.

Which shifts the focus to Labour. That party has a clear hope that it will win the 2015 election by default. They have swept up a lot of former Lib Dem voters, and it seems certain that they will hang on to them. If the Tory vote sags because it is undermined by Ukip it looks good for the party. Labour faces its own challenge against Ukip, but generally in areas where they have very large majorities. There is an excellent article in today’s FT by Matthew Goodwin, who has been following Ukip’s rise closely. He may well be right that Ukip poses a severe long-term challenge to Labour in its northern heartlands, where its organisation is weak. But even he admits that this is more of a problem for 2020 than 2015.

So Ed Miliband’s Labour party could secure an outright majority after next election. And then his problems will really start. He is bound to disappoint his left wing supporters, including those Lib Dem defectors. The British economy remains fundamentally weak and unable to support the size of public sector that these supporters seem to feel is their birthright. There are no quick answers to this underlying weakness, and many of Mr Miliband’s  ideas will make things worse, not better. Neither will he please the grumpy working class voters to whom Ukip is appealing. There will be a sense of betrayal among one group of their supporters, and panic amongst the Labour machine politicians in northern towns, who have taken their power base for granted. And the question of Scottish devolution’s affect on England will need to be faced, or, worse, the impact of Scottish independence. The party would surely be overwhelmed, rather like the Conservatives were after 1992.

But the Conservatives will not be much better off. They will remain divided between pragmatists, who lean towards EU membership, and idealists for whom the EU represents all that is bad. The party is likely either to lurch to the right or fall apart. Ukip, feeding off disillusioned Labour voters, will rise relentlessly.

You could hardly define more propitious circumstances for the Liberal Democrats, provided they stay away from any temptation to form a coalition with Labour. Labour will end up by prolonging many hated coalition policies, vindicating the party’s record in coalition. Meanwhile the rise of Ukip will create a strong anti-Ukip political backlash. As the Tories fail to contain their right, and Labour panics over its loss of working class votes to Ukip – this backlash will present a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, in a highly dynamic four-party play. This opportunity would be best exploited by a new leader. It would be ideal if this was a commonsense, well-grounded female – a Birgitte Nyborg. Alas I cannot see such a choice being available (my preference, Dorothy Thornhill, Mayor for Watford, is unlikely to be in contention). But the opportunity for a comeback is palpable.

What should the Lib Dems do now though? It has little choice but to stick to its guns in the coalition, and concentrate on winning any parliamentary seat where local strength is sufficient to make it winnable. This will mainly be about denying seats to the Conservatives. If things go very badly for the Tories, they may start to pick up some centrist voters from them generally – though that’s a long shot. But they must remember: the opportunities will be after 2015, they should do nothing that will make that comeback harder.

Interesting times indeed!

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning from the Rotherham scandal – this should be a moment for humility

The big story in the British news media this week is the Rotherham child abuse scandal. This was occasioned by a detailed report from Professor Alexis Jay. This revealed that some 1,400 children and teenagers had been sexually abused from the 1990s by gangs in this Yorkshire town. The perpetrators were largely from the Pakistani and Kashmiri community and the victims were vulnerable white girls, many in care. Council officials and police ignored repeated reports of this abuse. Similar things seem to have been occurring in other northern towns, as well as further south. The revelations have provoked anger.

But instead of trying to understand the implications of this many-faceted issue, most commentators have used it as a battering ram to push forward their own political agendas.

The right wing agenda, promoted by the press, is to blame “political correctness”. This is because the allegations were initially treated as racist, and treated circumspectly for the sake of “community cohesion”.  Implicitly they suggest that the problem was the fault of an immigrant community that was not dealt with robustly enough. Behind this lies a distinctly racist, anti-immigration agenda. But this narrative is at best incomplete. One of the main reasons that allegations were not taken seriously was that the authorities had a shockingly low opinion of the victims, who were treated as “sluts” and authors of their own fate. There is nothing politically correct about such old-fashioned, macho attitudes.

The left wing agenda is well expressed by this article by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian. This downplays the racial dimension, which she says is but one part of a much wider problem of powerful men abusing and denigrating powerless women. Perpetrators are from all races, as are the victims. She then goes on to blame the “neoliberals” for running down children’s services – in spite of providing evidence from her own experience that shows the problem dates back to well before the neoliberals got going. And you would hardly describe Rotherham’s council leaders and the South Yorkshire Police as part of the neoliberal establishment.

But while both lines of attack are self-serving, both also have a grounding in truth. The paternalist, we would say misogynist, attitudes of the rural communities from which the perpetrators were descended were part of the problem. And fear of allegations of racism clearly influenced the authorities. Abuse of young girls goes much wider than this ethnic minority, as does a reluctance for the authorities to act. Overstretch in social services hardly helps.

And it is very easy to use the scandal to go after your favourite villains. In my case it would be the Labour elites of northern cities who run their fiefs on a clientalist basis – including with the self-appointed leaders of ethnic minority groups. And weak and incompetent police leadership. There is plenty to go on for such a line of attack.

But that too would be incomplete. I think we owe it to the victims to question our own attitudes and practices, not just those of people we don’t like. A large part of the problem also lay with middle-class liberals. Getting to grips with this problem involved crossing two boundaries that we hate to cross. First is criticism of ethnic minority groups, which we fear will be seized on by racists to stir prejudice.  And second, about which comment has been strangely silent, crossing a class barrier. Victims and perpetrators are largely working class, and these formed the power base of council leadership that failed to act. We are reluctant to get involved across the class barrier, and treat working class communities with general incomprehension.

And that is one reason why it took so long for the problem to be taken seriously at national, as opposed to local level. This is clear from an interview given by Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who eventually brought the story to light, on BBC Radio 4’s Media Show . The liberal elites did not want to know, and accused him of racism. This account is backed up by others at the fringe of the story, consider this piece by television journalist Samira Ahmed.

The lesson is this: we are all part of the same, cosmopolitan community. We should not let the barriers of class, religion or ethnic heritage stop interchange and conversation, based on facts. Showing respect is not about treating people with kid gloves and not asking too many questions. We should be open to criticisms of our own values and practices; but we should not be shy of challenging others in an appropriate way. And above all, no individual, of whatever class or ethnic origin, should be treated as “trash”. Even if we don’t like them.

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The revenge of the 50-somethings. Is this why productivity is sinking?

Last weekend I met up with a number of other 50-somethings. Only one of us was still working. The universal advice to her was that she should stop as soon as she could. It wasn’t worth it. Anecdote is no substitute for serious analysis, but it can offer some interesting insights. Economists usually ignore the idea of satiation – that enough is enough – because this wrecks their mathematical models. But it is a growing fact of life in the developed world, and one reason why it is unrealistic to expect everlasting economic growth.

Of course, many 50-somethings are not as lucky as me and my friends. They have inadequate pensions and other savings; they are forced to keep working, and may well have to do so long after their state pension kicks in at 65 to 67. There were two common factors to our group: no children and property ownership – though by no means all of us had had well-paid jobs. There are plenty of others in the same boat, even if we are a minority.

What was striking was how we had found that work had become demoralising, across a spectrum that covered high-flying project management through to ordinary clerical. And looking for new jobs is even worse. The youngsters are pushing ahead, with all their politics and superficiality. Competence and people skills are devalued compared to bluff and fast-talking. Age prejudice is rife in recruitment markets, but impossible to prove case by case. Such sentiments are largely “grumpy old man” (though most of us were female…), rather than substantive; no doubt our predecessors felt the same about us. But work used to be the centre of our lives, providing us with purpose, a social life and the wherewithal to consume.

But now we’d rather move on. Even if that means constraining our consumption somewhat – though our generation are the ones sitting on high value property, which helps quite a bit. We will retire early if we can. Many of us are winding down, into part-time work, often thinly disguised as self-employment. This pattern of reduced work level can continue until well into the 60s and even beyond.

Is this showing up in the economic statistics? This is difficult to say. Overall workforce participation is increasing, including the older age groups. This suggests that the number of people who have dropped right out of the workforce is less than those who struggle on after retirement. But the number of self-employed has been rising sharply, and we have what economists call the productivity puzzle. Labour productivity is not rising in the way technological progress suggests it should. Perhaps the winding-down of the 50-somethings is part this.

Economists stress about this. They had assumed that steady economic growth, arising from improved productivity, was simply a law of nature. When growth fails to materialise, they condemn this as a policy failure, looking to fiscal or monetary policy to correct it. But when low growth arises from free choices made by the public to produce and consume less, this is not a policy failure. But it does create policy problems – especially over the affordability of debt. It would be better for all if economists would stop whinging and help us to understand and address these policy challenges. Low growth future is here to stay. Because that’s what people want.

Share
Posted in Economics & Finance, Politics UK | Tagged , , | Leave a comment