Sunday, 23 October 2011

EU know it's crazy!

David Cameron and the Conservatives have managed to get themselves into a mess over Europe. This comes as no surprise to most of us, as this soap opera has been ongoing since 1972 when Britiain finally joined the Common Market.

This mess is one entirely of Cameron's own making, and could prove very damaging, and does once again raise questions about his judgement. There is a debate tomorrow afternoon on whether there should be a referendum on leaving the European Union. There will be amendments supporting other positions on renegotiation, but the in/out option is what's at the heart of it.

What makes the situation ridiculous is that the debate is on a non-binding resolution, and comes from the backbench committee, because a public e-petition gained over 100,000 signatures.

Cameron has decided to impose a three-line whip (for those not familiar with this, basically it means you need to practically be dead to have an excuse not to vote with the government), which has made the Conservative backbenchers very unhappy indeed.

His problems are complicated by the decision of Ed Miliband to do the same, Labour too has an anti-EU cabal but nowhere near as big, as have the Liberal Democrats. What makes this a problem for the Prime Minister is that it could well be that emboldened by knowing they won't actually defeat Mr Cameron, more Tories may decide to defy the whip, so he wins on opposition support.

Ed Miliband is probably guilty of opportunism here, but Cameron did the same to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, so it's really a case of the biter bit. The Liberal Democrat position is even more bizarre, as they had a referendum in their manifesto, and being clever (something they seem incapable of) could have done the maths, and found they would lose the vote, which would be what they want, but stick to their pledge by voting for a referendum.

David Cameron and William Hague are arguing that a referendum would be a distraction, which may be true to a certain extent, but not as much as an ongoing row over Europe as the party tears itself apart again. They didn't seem to think the AV referendum was a distraction, though getting the Liberal Democrats on board was the intention there.

The judgement of all the party leaders is dubious here, but for David Cameron it is yet more evidence, which continues to mount up. The right of the party will be in the ascendency because they have gained the momentum of a large rebellion, and could well be emboldened enough to start to really push their agenda. It is, therefore, very possible that Cameron will spend the next few years battling his own party, and this will worsen if more questions associated with Andy Coulson arise.

This isn't helped by the economy's stubborn refusal to pick up, as for every step forward it takes (private sector employment seemingly improving, a small growth in retail sales in September), it takes two back (unemployment and inflation rising, growth revised down yet again, and a downgrading of the second quarter figures). The resignation of Liam Fox is another blow, as he is a leading right winger, and in his resignation speech, he avoided mentioning Cameron amongst those who had been supportive. Those such as Peter Bone have felt that Fox shouldn't have had to resign, and this doesn't help Cameron's position with the right of the party.

The pressure on David Cameron is mounting, which makes his decision to impose the whip even more bizarre. He has created for himself a totally unnecessary internal party row, and you have to question his thinking, as it was all so easily avoidable.

The debates which come from the backbench committee are merely an opportunity for the public to get aired issues of concern they have. They do not force the government to follow on, and even if the vote for a referendum won, the government could ignore it, or at best just make a vague promise to bring forward a bill in the future.

As it happens, I think these debates should all be free votes, as they are ones the public want, and it would give MPs an opportunity to show a bit of independence. The party leaders, however, have made their decisions, and all will feel some backlash, but the consequences for Cameron could be politically devastating.

He will now be more worried about his own party than the opposition, and as Caesar and Thatcher have discovered, once you have turned those on your side against you, the consequences can be fatal.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Just when they thought it was safe to go back into the water!

MPs must have begun to think they were safe. They would have thinking that the expenses scandal was starting to be replaced with other things. Yes a few of their number had been sent to prison, and perhaps one or two were yet to end up in court. But by and large, things like wars in Afghanistan and Libya, hacking scandals and riots on the streets of Britain, were now the subjects in the headlines.

It seems that they were wrong, as news of the severe sentences being handed out to participators in the riots leaked out, people began to remember the behaviour of MPs, and what had happened to them.

Theft is theft, and regardless of whether it is a bottle of water, or a flat screen television, the principle is the same. That at least is what many would argue, but judges do have a lot of discretion in the sentences they hand out. It seems that the word has gone out to them that those before them must be made an example of.

I study and teach history, and is apparent over the centuries, is that justice for the have and have nots has always been starkly different. Even when it came to executions, the rich and the nobles were beheaded, whilst the poor were sentenced to a slow death at the end of a hangman's rope.

In the modern world, people see the members of the House of Commons as the modern nobility. I know we have the Lords, and the royals etc, but in the overall scheme of things to the majority of us, MPs live in a world completely detached from what we experience.

When the expenses scandal broke, the public were astonished at what had been going on. Members had been claiming for televisions (Michael Gove and Gerald Kaufman as examples), moats, duck houses and all sorts of things the ordinary man or woman in the street would only see on programmes like 'relocation, relocation, relocation.'

On programmes like that, these people are using their own money (I presume), but MPs were trying to live the high life at the taxpayer's expense. The stories of 'house flipping' and the ludicrous claims left many of us aghast. And it wasn't just that they did it, politicians have been very low down the public's respect ladder for a long time, it was that they just seemed to get away with it.

Education Secretary Michael Gove was featured today, having been able to repay some £8,000 in expenses for a claim, and Gerald Kaufman a similar amount for a Bang & Olufsen television. These men have both resumed their careers uninterrupted, one a senior member of the government, the other the chair of a committee, and one of the most respected voices in the House.

Yet, we know that if most of us had been in the same position, we would have ended up in court, probably a criminal record, which would have had a serious effect on our future career prospects. There are many other senior politicians; Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, David Cameron, Francis Maude, Gordon Brown who have all repaid sums, or had to admit mistakes. But as I understand it, in law, 'ignorance is no defence.'

Now Wandsworth Council is seeking to evict the family of a man charged in connection with the riots. It is his parents who are being served with the order, and if he's convicted they will seek to throw them out. This is a measure which is just going to cause problems for the council (and Manchester and Salford have similar plans), because not only will the family have to be housed somewhere, they will be given leave to appeal and I don't see it being allowed by the courts.

Ravi Govindia, the leader of Wandsworth Council, was saying this evening that tenants had contracts which stated conditions of residence. This is, of course, true, but evicting someone because their son has been convicted of a crime, sounds retrospective action to me. This is without them trying to explain what is so different about this crime to others of vandalism or robbery. Will the council be changing the terms to include all those convicted of crimes, and evicting them in the future, and the past?

David Cameron has jumped on the bandwagon, and saying they should have thought of this before commiting the crime. Now the mother of Daniel Sartain-Clarke faces an uncertain future, and many will say she should have been controlling him. He's 18, and therefore legally an adult, so what do they expect her to do about him?

Mr. Cameron was saying that those evicted would have to move into the private sector. Apart from the shortage of private rented accomodation anyway, the cost os prohibitive. especially in London. The Prime Minister has made yet another statement without having grasp of the facts, and this will come back to haunt him. As the leader of this country, he should not be making kneejerk statements, but taking the time to think this through properly.

I don't recall a single MP who flipped a house, being threatened with eviction (these houses were in the main being paid for by us, so a form of social housing), yet people who are innocent of any wrong doing are going to find themselves not only homeless, but stigmatised, and that never goes away.

So, our Members of Parliament, our Prime Minister and other public figures need to be very careful how they approach the aftermath of these events. Although a ComRes poll tonight shows strong support for punishing rioters, the same poll also said the sentences being handed out were too harsh in many cases.

Our MPs and their past are, therefore, once more in the spotlight, as Nick Clegg has discovered as his previous indiscretion of arson was raised again. He says he was drunk, and they ran away, and anyway it was only cactus.

Yet, will any of the people appearing before magistrates this week be allowed to just repay the value of goods they stole. Will they be allowed to laugh off vandalism as 'youthful indiscretions' which will not impact their future careers? As most of them are poor, it would not seem so. Now as it always was, justice will depend on who you know, and whehter you have the money to defend yourself.

So, having thought that their recent crimes were being forgotten, MPs now find them thrust back into the spotlight. Every member that talks about how examples must be made of those caught will find their past raked over, and anyone who has hoped that their 'errors' have been forgotten will find they are very much mistaken. The defence of many was that 'everyone else was doing it,' and if that's not going to work for the rioters, then it shouldn't do so for those that lead us.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

What Yvette could say!

Yvette Cooper will have a difficult job on Thursday morning, as she makes her statements, and asks a number of questions of the Home Secretary, as parliament is recalled to debate the events in London over the last three nights. It seems David Cameron may employ the same tactic he has in debates on the hacking scandal, and have a separate Q & A before the main debate.

Indeed, by the time they meet, more occurrences may have taken place, and a young man from Croydon died today, having been shot on Monday night. There will also be discussion on the current financial crisis, though I expect Osborne and Balls to be leading the debate on this.

If I was in Yvette's position this is what I would say (though after reading it, you may well be grateful I'm not):

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, and for the advance copy she sent to me. I join her in paying tribute to the police and emergency services for the courage they have shown, putting themselves on the line to protect people and property.

The Prime Minister was right to return home at this time, and to recall parliament, so we have the opportunity to debate before the people what we believe is the way forward.

However, I would like to take this opportunity to also pay tribute to the Home Secretary, her immediate return, and the calm and assured way she has dealt with events to date. She has not panicked, and has resisted calls for water cannon, rubber bullets or the army to take to the streets of London.

As we have seen unfolding, dreadful things have happened in the last few days, but it is essential that government and police remain calm in the face of such provocation. There can be no excuse for the lootings and violence that occurred over the weekend and into this week, and the police must be enabled to take any necessary measures to restore order. As my Right Honourable friend said on Tuesday afternoon, there must be no no-go areas.

As we know, there was a peaceful protest in Tottenham on Saturday afternoon, by members of the community against the shooting on Thursday of Mark Duggan, as part of an 'Operation Trident' initiative.

There are reports that initial trouble started when a sixteen year old girl was assaulted by police officers. So my first question is, what does the Home Secretary know about this, and can she confirm whether it is true or not?

Even if true, that does not of course excuse what followed, as a crowd went on a rampage through the streets of Tottenham, destroying property, putting innocent people at risk, and making many others homeless.

As we seen since, this has spread to other parts of London, and subsequently to Birmingham and Liverpool amongst others.

There have been many arrests sebsequently, with no doubt, many more to follow. The courts must be enabled to carry through due process, and the perpetrators severely punished.

These people seem to have no other motive than destruction, violence and theft. Many businesses have been destroyed, and people have lost their jobs, and untold damage has been done to the local economies.

What plans does the government have in place to help those businesses, and individuals affected by these events? Can the Prime Minister urge insurance companies to make quick payouts, so businesses can get up and running as quickly as possible.

As a sad consequence of the economic crisis, there are many properties lying empty, and therefore, could the government talk to local authorities allowing rapid relocation of businesses, and giving holidays on council taxes so they can get up and running?

There can be no justification for the events of the last few days, and if any police officers need to be brought to book over actions either in Tottenham, then the Independent Police Complaints Commission, must investigate, and act if fault is found.

We have debated in the past our different views of the impact of government cuts and policies, and we will do so again. However, this is not the time for that. Now we are fully behind the government, and police as they seek to deal with this crisis, for as long as the response stays proportionate.

Therefore, I just ask the Home Secretary these questions before I close:

What plans do the government have to help businesses ruined by the events of the last few days?

Will the government be setting up a fund to help those businesses and individuals who aren't adequately insured?

The police and other emergency services have done a magnificent job dealing with the violence and destruction, and it would be sensible to put cuts on hold, whilst a review is carried out in light of events. Does the Home Secretary agree?

Finally, there will be a number of inquiries initiated to investigate causes and effects of the riots, as well as what changes should come in. Whilst I do not expect the Home Secretary to preempt the outcomes of those inquiries, could she please let us know if there will be a separate government inquiry, with the remit to gather information from the others, so we can get a clear overall picture of events, to avoid repeating the errors?

As I said a short while ago, the government, and police, have our full support as they seek to deal with these events in a responsible and proportionate way.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Let the real voices of Tottenham speak!

The police in Britain are under a great deal of scrutiny, as is the body that oversees it the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The hacking scandal, and allegations that police officers took payments for information has led to a greater public distrust of the force, especially the Metropolitan Police.

On Thursday night in Tottenham, a young man named Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, in an operation carried out under 'Operation Trident' which was set up in 1998, to investigate issues of gun crime in the black community. This followed on from an initiative originally established by members of the black community.

Information is too confused to be able to say exactly what happened, other than Mr. Duggan was killed in a minicab on Thursday night. Therefore it is the aftermath, and how we on the left should react that I intend to deal with.

On Friday there was a peaceful protest outside the police station in Tottenham against the shooting of Mark Duggan. The march started at Broadwater Farm (which has historical significance as in 1985 PC Keith Blakelock was murdered there, perhaps as an indication that the protesters were not intent on trouble.

Tottenham is a deprived area of North London, but relations between police and community had been better, especially since further riots in 1995. But on Friday night things got out of hand, as rioting broke out following the march, and a number of buildings were attacked, and police cars and a bus set alight.

Some twenty-six officers have been treated in hospital, some quite badly hurt, and a lot of damage done. However, unlike incidents in the past, there seems to be more of an element of criminality over the rioting, than a statement against alleged police violence. As I watched the riot unfold last night, one thing that struck me was, that despite Mark Duggan being black, and his killing being a part of 'Operation trident,' the perpetrators of the violence were from all backgrounds. Young, mainly, men who were intent just on destruction and robbery. Although more details will emerge over the next few days, this wasn't 1985 or 1995, this wasn't about race.

Many people have been made homeless, and shops and businesses have been destroyed, which will inevitably cost people, perhaps already suffering, their jobs. Looting of many well known chains occurred, with names such as Comet, B & Q and McDonalds affected. However, there are reports of cash machines also having been ripped out, and these would take some specialist equipment to do. Even if they turn out to be free standing ones in shops, it would indicate planning and not random events.

Reports of further looting in Enfield tonight, would seem to confirm this. It would appear that groups from outside the area, are coming in, and using the tensions as an excuse to cause criminal damage and attack the police. These are the same sort of people who jumped on peaceful protests last year and this, against rises in university tuition fees, and government cuts to create havoc.

Whilst it may not be the same people involved, it is the same mentality, as they take the legitimate protests of people, in order to advance their own agendas. Previously it was against government property, but this is just the right of ordinary people to make a living, and live peaceful lives.

It must be clearly understood these people are criminals, not protesters. The protesters on Friday were peaceful, and making a statement against the killing of one of their community by the police. Mark Duggan's family and friends have themselves condemned the violence, and Tottenham MP David Lammy said:

“The vast majority of people in Tottenham reject what has happened here last night. A community that was already hurting has now had the heart ripped out of it…by mindless, mindless people.

“What happened here on Thursday night raised huge questions and we need answers. But the response to that is not to loot, to rob. This is a disgrace… this must stop. And this is nothing like the sorts of scenes we saw in Tottenham 25 years ago. Then, there was a particular relationship with the police. This is an attack on Tottenham, on people, ordinary people, shopkeepers, women, children who are now standing on the streets homeless as a consequence…

“I’m concerned that what was a peaceful protest escalated. It seemed to go on for many hours before we saw the kind of policing that was appropriate. What were small skirmishes initially should have been stopped far quicker…

“The IPCC need to be in close contact with the family of Mark Duggan, who felt totally isolated in the initial stages after Thurs night…We don’t want 25 years of rebuilding community and trust destroyed because of mindless nonsense on the streets of London.”

That is why it has pained me to hear some prominent spokespeople on the left have taken the opportunity to make political points. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London and candidate for 2012, used the riots as an opportunity to blame the rioting on the government's cuts, and to take forward his election campaign.

There will be ample opportunity over the next year for him to make political points, and legitimate statements about government policy, and the performance of Boris Johnson as Mayor. But now is not the time, the Labour leadership have hitherto let David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham do the speaking on this, and they are right to do so. No doubt Ed Miliband will say something in the next day or so, but for now, it is the voices of the real people of Tottenham that need to be heard.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Petty Petitions

Petitions have played an important role in our Parliament for the best part of a millennium. Petitions have two main uses, firstly for people to show they support a particular view on an issue, and secondly to let those in power know they feel strongly about an issue, they feel isn't being addressed.

That, at least is how most people to view them, but they are much more far reaching than that. Take for example the Petition of Right which was enacted in 1628. This wasn't a document in which the public lobbied parliament for something, this was parliament stating to the King, Charles I, what they believed they were entitled to. It was, in fact, a declaration that there was to be no taxation without representation, or to quote:

"(T)hat no tallage or aid shall be laid or levied by the King or his heirs in this realm, without the goodwill and assent of the Archbishops, Bishops, Earls, Barons, Knights, Burgesses, and other freemen of the commonalty of this realm: and by authority of Parliament"

Charles, of course, although assenting at first, because he wanted money, had his own solution, and dissolved Parliament the following year, and ruled on his own for twelve years.

However, petitions have a long and noble history, from the Barons forcing John to the table at Runnymede, William Wilberforce's petition signed by over 100,000 people, to those presented most evening in the House by MPs on behalf of constituents.

The petition therefore, has a place of pride in our society, as a way of getting issues aired. The last government made it a lot easier for ordinary members of the public to create petitions, and get them to the countries leaders, in 2006 with the creation of the Number Ten site. Those that gained over 500 signatures would then receive a response.

As long ago as 2007 David Cameron had said:

"I would like to see a system whereby, if enough people sign an online petition in favour of a particular motion, then a debate is held in Parliament, followed by a vote - so that the public know what their elected representatives actually think about the issues that matter to them,"

So he is consistent, and in February last year had first mentioned the 100,000 figure, and that those gaining a million, would give the petitioners the right to actually put forward legislation on it, which MPs had to vote on.

In that light, it did seem odd when the Coalition originally took office, they said they would not be carrying forward those on the site that had not received a response. However, by the middle of June they'd changed their mind, and reverted, at least partly to the original position, so managed two u-turns in the first month. Obviously they liked it so much, they thought they'd carry on turning, but that's another issue.

So when the new e-petitions site was launched today, the government are in fact just carrying on with the system the Labour government started, with a couple of tweaks. Indeed, if you look at the site, the list of petitions is just a continuation.

The publicity today surrounded Paul Staines, otherwise known as Guido Fawkes the right wing blogger, and his one (of many) to seek a return of the death penalty. He is confident that he'll gain the 100,000 signatures required to get it debated, though we'll have to see.

Sir George Young has said that the government will monitor the situation, and see if the number of signatories needs to be lowered or raised. The issue I have is not that it is easier for the public to make their concerns known, and although I would never support the return of the death penalty, it's a subject many feel strongly about. Mine is whether a government should guarantee the subject is debated, as this could lead to some very strange debates. Remember, it was only in 2001 that an online campaign was successful in getting Jedi put by a large number of people as a religion, thereby somewhat skewing the figures.

The big problem is that this is yet another ill-thought through idea by this government. They take an idea that already existed (I'm sure it would have been tweaked over time), and not only tried to claim it as their own, but turned it into a publicity stunt. The committee that will decide which ones get debated, so that already means many will feel disappointment as they believe the 100,000 will lead to automatic debate, will only meet for 35 days a year, and will easily get sidelined by other, more pressing matters.

As Natasha Engel said in today's Financial Times:

“This isn’t as well thought through as it could have been, and my concern is that the government is raising demand and expectations they may not be able to deliver on...there’s so much other business parked up for debate – the operations in Libya, huge defence issues..It’s in danger of becoming a bit gimmicky.”

The government is yet again making a rod for its own back by making such a big thing out of this. The likes of Staines will use it for their own agenda, but also the public will quickly become disenchanted with yet another government idea (this one or the last) which fails to do what it said it would.

A good idea, which has been in existence for five years to enable the public to make its concerns known, is in danger of being thrown into disrepute by spurious petitions. The government might think it has covered itself by creating the committee, but it won't be long before people start grumbling that their petition is being suppressed, and that debate is being avoided.

So, I am not going to criticise the government for trying, but once again they haven't really thought an idea through, because they went for the one that looked good on a press release.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Committed to finding the truth?

When Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch, and James Murdoch appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee today, they will have a lot of questions to answer. The role of the News of the World, and its parent company, News International, is one that requires careful investigation.

The committee will also need to be very wary as it questions the trio, as there is now a big political element to this story, but that is largely irrelevant to the scope of the committee, and Lord Leveson's inquiry.

The members of the committee have been very aware of their responsibilities, John Whittingdale and Tom Watson especially, and have steered clear of making cheap party political points. Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have made it clear recently that they have both been too close to News International, and the media in general, so it strikes me that, whilst an important debate, it is not one for this particular case.

The biggest political story surrounding all this, is David Cameron's employment of Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications. Whilst many people, on both left and right, would like to see Cameron put under scrutiny for this, it is not relevant to the inquiry, unless (and I consider this unlikely) evidence emerges he knew what had been going on. There are plenty of legitimate questions to be asked regarding his judgement, but this is a political issue, to unfold on a different field.

Indeed, to a large extent, our leaders have kept this free of party points scoring. People mustn't confuse the back and forth over judgement, which has been happening from both sides, over who should employ whom, with the way they've approached the whole issue. David Cameron was indeed a little slow in fully agreeing to hold the inquiries, but like Gordon Brown in 2009, perhaps he was a little too reluctant to upset the media if he could avoid it. However, he has now set up these inquiries, and we must let the story unfold. The reason that so much headway has been made in a short time, is because politics has largely been absent, and its allowed the inquiries to be set up relatively quickly, and that is to the credit of Ed Miliband and David Cameron.

In the last few days there have been three high profile resignations, Rebekah Brooks, Sir John Stephenson and John Yates, but yesterday the latest victim may have been claimed with the death of Sean Hoare, the former News of the World entertainment corespondent who first raised the whole issue of phone hacking. Currently there is, according to the police, nothing suspicious about his death, but the stress and profile of the case recently, can take a toll on someone whose health is already damaged.

So, as the committee meets the protagonists today (Stephenson and Yates appear before the Home Affairs Committee) they will have to stick strictly to the issue of hacking, and what they knew. Anybody who tries to make this a political issue will be in danger of turning the event into even more of a circus than it is, and making that the story, when there are a lot of serious questions to be answered.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Will the lessons be learned?

David Cameron has been under a lot of pressure recently, and the irony is, that is a decision he took in opposition that is causing it. It must be remembered that Andy Coulson left his position as Communications Director in January, so had only served him as Prime Minister for eight months.

The whole phone hacking scandal came to light in 2006 when the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire were arrested, then subsequently gaoled for intercepting voicemails. Since then a large number of other allegations have arisen, most notably the hacking of, and deleting voicemails of Milly Dowler, a thirteen year old girl murdered in 2002.

The editor at the time the original story broke was Andy Coulson, who maintains that he knew nothing about what was going on, and it perhaps should be noted that Milly's death occurred in 2002, whilst Coulson did not become editor until 2003. However, he had been deputy editor under Rebekah Wade since 2000. As Wade (now Rebekah Brooks), also denies any knowledge, you have to ask who was actually in charge of the News of the World during the period 2000-2007, when Coulson resigned?

A big question surrounding this whole issue is when did the hacking start, and when did it end? It certainly appears to have occurred between 2002 and 2005,when Milly Dowler's voicemails were hacked, with some deleted, and (if the allegations turn out to be true) that the families of victims of the 7/7 bombings had their phones hacked. Was it an ongoing process when Wade and Coulson joined, and they were either kept in the dark, or did nothing to stop it, or did it begin under their watch, in which case, why didn't they know? Did they suspect information was being gained by underhand methods, but didn't ask the right questions?

A police investigation was launched under the leadership of Andy Hayman, and this subsequently failed to turn up any new information, beyond that already known around the activities of Goodman and Mulcaire. Hayman himself was a policeman of some repute, having first led the Special Branch's anti-terrorism group, and was in charge of the investigation into the 7/7 bombings in 2005. However, was resigned in December 2007 surrounding allegations regarding expenses, and relationships with fellow officers and a member of the IPCC.

Hayman appeared before the Home Affairs Committee earlier this week, in which he admitted receiving hospitality from people he was investigating, though he didn't consider this unusual, especially as operational matters weren't discussed. Whilst there is nothing to show that Hayman's relationship with News International employees affected the investigation, his subsequent employment by News International, perhaps indicates his relationship with them was too close to be in charge of such an important investigation.

An inevitable question arises which is, why didn't the Labour government in 2007 order an investigation into the hacking of the Royal family's voicemails? This is a perfectly legitimate question to ask, and the responses in the last few days haven't really cleared up the issue.

On July 6th, during the emergency debate, Alan Johnson, who was Home Secretary 2009-10 said that Commissioner John Yates (whose own appearnace before the media committee last week raised many questions) said it was just the obsession of a single newspaper, The Guardian, and a couple of backbenchers, Chris Bryant and Tom Watson. Johnson then added that they Home Office did look at whether there should be an independent review of the investigation, and he admitted, and John Whittingdale had already said, all the information seems to have been there. Johnson also claims that he was told that it was at that time out of the remit of the Independent press Complaints Commission, and that they should wait for the report of the DPP.

The Director of Public Prosecutions then said that based on the information given to him by the police, there was no cause for any further investigation. As Alan Johnson said that afternoon, "We were all swimming around wondering whether we were receiving the correct information." Indeed as now the issue of being seen to do something that may interfere with operational matters, and that was why they didn't act then, though he felt it right to do so now, even if it proved uncomfortable.

In the last few days it has emerged that Gordon Brown, who was Prime Minister at the time, did wish to hold an inquiry, but seems to have claimed he was blocked by Sir Gus O'Donnell the Cabinet Secretary. However, Sir Gus has released the memorandum he sent to Gordon Brown and refuted the claims he blocked an inquiry.

In his speech on Wednesday Gordon Brown said that the formal advice rejected an inquiry, and that whilst new facts existed and the News International had a culture of illegal activity, the select committee did not believe such activities still went on, and therefore were not urgent, particularly as those involved had been punished. he also said that, the memo said, "there was no evidence of systemic failure in the police, and anyway all their decisions had been checked with the Crown Prosecution Service;" and that the prominence of a general election would lead to accusations of political motivation. Brown also went to say that it warned that if there was a appeal made about a judicial inquiry it might succeed, and there was no case for reopening it in any form.

Today Sir Gus O'Donnell authorised the release of his original advice to Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister regarding the issues raised in his speech. On reading it seems to me quite clear that Sir Gus was not blocking any attempt to hold an inquiry, even if he had the power to do so. The advice is certainly weighted against holding an inquiry, but to my mind, all his arguments are reasonable.

It would seem to me the all parties here were seriously misled by the police especially on what they had discovered in their investigation, including the committee, which is why Sir Gus read their report as he did.

It appears that if he had really wanted to Gordon Brown could have ordered an inquiry to begin, and I'm sure that if he had consulted David Cameron, and possibly Nick Clegg, they could have avoided making it a political issue, and it would have continued after the election, as they have with Chilcot.

I don't think Gordon Brown has told any untruths here, but his interpretation of Sir Gus O'Donnell's advice did avoid causing any ructions with News International in the period leading up to the General Election. Therefore, I think subconsciously it suited the Prime Minister not to start investigating this issue at the time, and that it was in reality a political decision which I believe was mistaken, as by now we would have a clear picture of what had happened, and people facing retribution for their crimes.

Here is Sir Gus O'Donnell's advice so you can make up your own mind

Following his resignation from the News of the World in 2007, Andy Coulson went to work for David Cameron, when leader of the opposition, as his Communications Director in July that year, only two weeks before he appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee where he denied any knowledge of hacking.

It appears now that David Cameron was given a number of warnings that employing Coulson could well turn out to be a mistake. Cameron was himself doubtful, but sought reassurances from Murdoch and it appears that George Osborne also very strongly put his case.

Despite occasional rumblings, the subject seemed to be largely dying down until after the General Election of May 2010. Despite further warnings from Paddy Ashdown and possibly Nick Clegg, Coulson followed Cameron to Downing Street.

In December last year new allegations emerged surrounding the hacking of celebrity phones, particularly the actress Sienna Miller, and this made Coulson's position and in January this year Coulson stepped down from his position, citing similar reasons to Alastair Campbell, in regard to him becoming the story and distracting from the government's business.

As more and more revelations have since appeared, the whole News International Empire, especially its British holdings, have come under increased scrutiny. Rebekah brooks, now Chief Executive at news International has faced demands that she stand down, including from Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

In the last couple of weeks the Labour Party have seen a transformed Ed Miliband as he has found a new confidence. He has led from the front on this issue, calling for inquiries, not only into the News of the World, but also into wider media practices as it became apparent that News International weren't the only ones engaged in nefarious activities.

Although a little slow to follow suit, to his credit David Cameron has come fully on board and is setting up an inquiry under a judge, Lord Leveson, to investigate the whole issue. Instead of having two inquiries, this will be in two parts, firstly investigating wider media activities, and make recommendations for a, "more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media and its independence from government, while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards".

Lord Leveson's remit also covers investigating the whole phone hacking scandal, including the the first police investigation, including whether police officers received corrupt payments. I think this is a sensible way to go, as two separate inquiries would inevitably have crossed paths, whereas this will save money, but be a more efficient evidence collecting, and collating mechanism.

In the light of all this, there have inevitably been questions surrounding David Cameron's judgement in employing Andy Coulson, who has recently been arrested and bailed over the new allegations, and some people believing it could lead to his resignation.

I feel that this is unlikely to happen, although Cameron will be weakened for a while by the fallout. It is true that he did make a severe error of judgement in taking Coulson into government, it seems that he made the mistake of just putting too much faith in the opinions of others, as well as his desire, like many others, to stay onside with the Murdoch empire. Indeed Ed Miliband himself has admitted that he too was mistaken in trying to get close to them, and in his statement yesterday, Cameron said it was a natural thing for opposition leaders to do, to try and get media backing.

The prime Minister has had a lot of bad press this year, as the economy struggles to get going, inflation stays stubbornly high, and there have been a number of policy u-turns and delays. Yet he currently keeps a firm grip on his party, and is its main spokesman. Whenever a big policy announcement is made, it seems to be Cameron fronting it, and without him, the Conservatives, and probably the government, would have no effective spokesman at all.

There is also no likely successor on the horizon, as the only cabinet minister of sufficient stature, William Hague, has already had the job, and other possibles, George Osborne and Theresa May don't have the public image needed in modern politics.

In the end nobody is going to come out of this whole scandal with much credit. Although individuals such as Ed Miliband may gain some kudos for the way he went about pushing for the inquiries, and to his credit, kept party politics by and large out of it, he too had tried to cosy up to Murdoch.

The important thing now is to ensure that all inquiries, the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks will appear before the media committee next Tuesday, though whether this will reveal anything new I am doubtful, but hopefully some accountability and explanation for previous actions (Brooks previously admitted to knowing about hacking) will be sought, are able to investigate and reach their conclusions unmolested.

There are many lessons to be learned for politicians and the media alike, with the public's trust in them having been even further eroded. Politicians were burned by the expenses scandal, and the media has been by this one, will they lead to any real changes? There may be in the relationships between the press and politicians on the surface, but they will still need each other, the press will still be looking for stories to sell their papers, and the politicians will be seeking to gain power, and ways of getting their message across.

Political pressure was sufficient to force News International to withdraw its bid for BSkyB, but it would be wrong to take too much from this. If it hadn't been for the actions of the News of the World, it is almost certain that the takeover would have been approved at some stage. It may even turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory if Murdoch decides to dump all his British media investments, which whilst causing some short-lived cheer, might have longer term consequences.

There is a long way to go on this investigation, and more revelations may yet come out. Whatever positives there are from this week, and perhaps the cross-party agreement reached, and the general tone of the debate, being the biggest, we must not think that it is all over.

Monday, 2 May 2011

No Change, No Chance!

On Thursday May 5th Voters in the United Kingdom go to the polls to elect a Parliament in Scotland. and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. There will also be council elections, as well as Mayoral ones all over England, except for London. The one common theme seems to be, ' How much can we punish the Liberal Democrats, for breaking their promises, and the role they've played in the coalition?' The principle target for this ire being the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.

However, there is another ballot that day, which covers the whole country, and is all that Londoners will be voting on, and this is the referendum on the Alternative Vote.

This referendum is the subject of this blog today, and why I believe that many people could well find themselves regretting their decision very quickly, deciding in haste and repenting at leisure.

This is because if the current polls are correct, not only will the No camp win, but quite substantially.

Firstly, let me say, those voting No because they genuinely believe First Past The Post is the best system, I have no problem with at all. I may disagree, with them but it an honourable position. I wouldn't have an issue with Cameron's support, if he hadn't spouted the No campaign's lies as well. if he stuck to his 'FPTP is best' mantra' there wouldn't be an issue. I do not intend to go into the campaign's misinformation, as I intend to look at different issues today.

There are three main reasons why I believe most No voters will be ruing their decision in the near future.

1) A lot of Labour supporters see it as a way to give Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats a 'kicking' and that it will put the coalition under pressure. This will not happen, because not only do the Liberal Democrats need it more than the Conservatives, their only hope now lies with the economy picking up by the time the next General Election arrives, which is currently planned for 2015.

The Liberal Democrats are firm advocates of referendums, and they will have no choice but to accept the result, even (or especially) if it goes against them. Indeed, any problems within the coalition will continue regardless of the result, because it is the nature of the campaign, not being on opposite sides, that has caused rifts.

I don't think this would change even if Clegg was replaced before then as leader (perhaps taking over Jackie Ashton's job in the EU), because whatever difference there might be, survival would be the new Liberal Democrat leaders prime concern.

Therefore, a Yes win could, in my view, actually increase these rifts, because it would give Liberal Democrat cabinet members the upper hand, and the right would be after Cameron's blood.

2)I can understand the frustration of those who, like me, want to see Proportional Representation adopted for Parliamentary elections, as it is in the various Assembly elections.

However, those voting No because they believe that will make PR more likely are, in my opinion, living in dreamland. The Alternative Vote is by no means a perfect system, and has many elements of FPTP, but does give a wider choice to the electorate.

A decisive No vote will actually make PR a very distant prospect, because the campaign will claim a clear victory for the status quo, and it will take any electoral reform off the table for generations.

A Yes vote is no guarantee that PR will follow on quickly, but it will show an appetite for reform, whereas a No vote will indicate that people are happy with the system under which governments ignored the Countryside Alliance, and the anti-war protests in 2003, as well as the expenses scandal.

On a personal note, it just seems so odd to me that people spend so long complaining, then when the opportunity arises do nothing to try and change things. Another aspect that is strange about this for PR advocates, is that so many of the arguments being used against AV; cost, complexity, minor parties influence, are exactly the arguments that will be used, and worse, against PR. So if you want PR, you're shooting yourselves in the foot voting No.

However, as a friend of mine more or less said a few days ago, 'I'd rather be stuck with AV for twenty, or even forty years, than the current system for another two hundred.'

3) This reason is very much linked to point two, and that is that David Cameron, no doubt with that smug expression he seems to permanently bear, that the voters have comprehensively rejected reform.

Indeed, I believe that a decisive rejection, will give the Conservatives the confidence to massively slow down, or even abandon, other proposed reforms such an elected upper chamber (especially as he seems happy to support PR for those elections).

Cameron's line will be that there is no appetite for reform in Britain, and no matter what questions arise in the future, he will say that it has been rejected decisively.

It will also create huge problems for any new government in the future, in that even if the leader is in favour of changing the voting system, what priorities will they feel the people have?

The new boundaries will be in place for the next election, which will make it very hard for any party other than the Conservatives to gain an overall majority, and they certainly won't be seeking to change the voting system for Westminster.

If Labour were able to gain a majority, then they may well feel that there are other things they need to do, and that the public would not welcome another referendum on a subject already so decisively rejected.

However, a win for the Yes campaign (although I do agree the official one has been almost as useless as the No campaign) would put Cameron under immense pressure from within his own party.

Many on the right of the party do not like being in coalition, and believe (strange as that may seem to many) that too much has been ceded to the Liberal Democrats, including the referendum itself.

A win for Yes would put Cameron's position under threat, and enable the differences between the partners to be emphasised, as the likes of Chris Huhne's and Vince Cable's comments during the campaign are constantly repeated.

Therefore, I believe that a win for Yes in the AV referendum on Thursday will be a win, win, win, for many opponents of the coalition, and the advocates of electoral reform.

It would increase rifts within the coalition as the anti-coalition Conservatives will begin to flex their muscles, and Cameron's position will come under threat. He will have to distance himself ever further from the Liberal Democrats.

A win for Yes would demonstrate that there is an appetite for reform in Britain, whereas any other result will end any chance for many years. I'm not foolish enough to say further reform would follow quickly, but a tiny step forward, is better than a huge one back.

Finally, a Yes vote not only threatens Cameron, but also the stability of the coalition as newly confident Liberal Democrats leaders, begin to be more vocal in their criticisms.

So, I urge those of you who are thinking of voting No because you see it as a way of getting at the Liberal Democrats to think again. It might well give you short term pleasure, but the ling term prospects of a Yes vote would be more substantial, and telling.

As for my fellow supporters of PR, no change will mean no chance of further reform. A small step AV is, and it is by no means a perfect system, but it will show the powers that be, that we do want change, and that we are prepared to show it.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Oliver Cromwell - Hero or Villain?

"It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter'd your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil'd this sacred place, and turn'd the Lord's

So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go! for a few pieces of money. temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, are yourselves gone!"

No, this is not the speech Ed Miliband will make on Parliament's return, telling the coalition their time is up. It could be the voice of the people demonstrating their total distrust of all politicians. But it is that of Oliver Cromwell on April 20th 1653, when he marched the rump out of the House, and began his period of personal rule. Mind you, the more more famous version of this speech was quoted by Bulstrode Whitlocke who wrote, "You have sat too long here for any good that you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!" This version does have a little more drama about it.

Following the execution of Charles I on January 30th 1649, the Commonwealth of England was declared and was ruled by a Parliament until that fateful day, when Cromwell's loyal commanders expelled the members for the second time.

The first time had occurred in November 1648 when those MPs Cromwell believed would not support a trial and execution of the King were purged, by Colonel Thomas Pride. The remaining members were known as the Rump, and this was what Cromwell kicked out in 1653.

Abolishing the House of Lords and the monarchy, the Rump became the sole arbiter, and all the powers of the monarch became absorbed into it, and through a series of committees and commissions, carried out all administrative for central and local government.

The situation for the democratic progress looked promising, as Cromwell appeared to be getting his way, and parliament began to prepare for new elections, after Cromwell's decisive victory in the Battle of Worcester in 1651. However, complicated by the issue of war with the Dutch, and the House's seeming reluctance to dissolve itself, seems to have led Cromwell to believe the House was seeking to perpetuate itself. This is certainly the image put forward in the film 'Cromwell' starring Richard Harris.

Whatever the precise reasons, the country found itself now ruled by an elite called the 'Barebones' (after Praise-God Barbon one of its members), who were nominated by the army, and although often ridiculed as being 'inferior' was mainly made up of gentry, and lower nobility.

However, this legislature was an ineffective body, there were no lawmakers amongst its members, and there were increasing tensions between radicals (Fifth Monarchists etc), Moderates and Conservatives over religious reform. In March 1653 the radicals gained enough support to defeat a Bill supporting the status quo, the Moderates and Conservatives invited Cromwell to one again take over. For a third time, soldiers marched on parliament under Cromwell's command, to expel the 'barebones.'

Oliver Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector on 16th December 1653, and began a unique experiment in British constitutional history. I do not intend to make this a detailed examination of this period, this is more a celebration of that period.

Cromwell's main task, as he saw it, was to restore order and good sense to politics, and to a large extent in that he succeeded. The war with the Dutch was ended, and there were reductions in taxation.

He made a concession in 1657, which considering the times was quite remarkable. Religious intolerance was rife, especially by protestants against catholics, yet Cromwell himself within those confines was in favour of freedom of worship. There was also an economic element, in that Jews (expelled from England by Edward I) had played a substantial role in Dutch economic success, and he invited them to return.

That same year he was offered the crown, but after a period of agony, decided against accepting, and on April 13th said, “I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”

Cromwell continued to rule until his death on September 3rd 1658, and on his death was succeeded by his son Richard. However, Richard wasn't really cut out for the task, and eventually he stood down, paving the way for the return of King Charles II in 1660.

Some revenge was extracted by the new regime, and Cromwell's body was exhumed and hanged. His head after was much travelled in the following centuries, before eventually being buried at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, his old University.

It is often difficult, outside perhaps the Jewish community, to judge what Oliver Cromwell's legacy is, but many of the constitutional changes to the way parliament is run, were instigated at that time.

For Ireland his name is one of death and destruction as he suppressed their religious freedoms, and committed atrocities, especially at Drogheda in 1649, even if they didn't match the myths that subsequently grew up.

However, hero or villain, Oliver Cromwell is one of the most famous names in English history. His 'warts and all' phrase is often used (even though like most quotes, that's not quite what he said), and shows Cromwell up as a man seemingly without vanity.

To me Cromwell is a great man, and stands up for those who resist arbitrary power, and the defence of law. I don't agree with his actions in Ireland, but it is so easy to criticise at this distance in time.

As the twentieth century ended, in a poll of the ten greatest Britons Oliver Cromwell came tenth, which indicates how he has become a part of our national heritage, and British school children will still be studying him, and his legacy for years to come.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Cameron's first war...right or wrong?

David Cameron stated a few moments ago that British planes were now engaged in action over Libyan airspace. This is in response to the actions of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, as he repels a rebel uprising in the country.

Unlike in Iraq, the British, french and US forces are acting under the auspices of the United Nations, with resolution 1973 being passed in the early hours of Friday. In his statement to the House of Commons later that day, David Cameron laid out the extent of the action allowed, and Labour leader Ed Miliband expressed support for the government's actions, and our forces involved.

A joint statement was published yesterday, from the British, French and US as well as Arab States:

Resolution 1973 lays out very clear conditions that must be met. The UK, US, France and Arab States agree that a cease fire must be implemented immediately. That means all attacks against civilians must stop.

Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull back his troops from Ajdabiyah, Misratah, and Zawiyah, and re-establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas.

Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya. These terms are not negotiable.

If Gaddafi does not comply with the Resolution, the international community will impose consequences, and this Resolution will be enforced through military action.

The beginning of operation 'Odyssey Dawn' marks a new era, and is David Cameron's first war, since he assumed office just ten months ago. Already we, along with the US, are firing tomahawk missiles at Libyan Army tanks, yet as we know all too well from the Iraq conflict, the innocent often get caught up in these matters.

Resolution 1973 is clear in its remit, and this is where the danger lies, as it won't take much to go beyond it. President Obama has quite rightly stated that American ground forces will not be used, and I would like to hear David Cameron say the same. If things move on, and the UN sanctions it, I will make my mind up then, but we have already been tainted by the stigma of regime change, which is against international law, as currently understood.

The official position is that it imposes a 'No Fly Zone' for other than planes involved in humanitarian missions, and allows for the targeting of ground forces if they are believed to be a threat. However, my fear here, is that this can be interpreted as attacking airfields and bases of troops, thought to be loyal to the regime, would be legitimate. The missile attacks seem to support this fear, and I'm very concerned that this could be seen as an act of war by surrounding states, particularly Iran.

The big question is what is the next stage if Gaddafi refuses to leave peacefully, or no one tries to overthrow him. Both Cameron and Obama have explicitly called for Gaddafi to go, and if he remains in place do they have a plan of action?

Currently the 'allies' have the support of several Arab states, but if Libyan civilians start to die in large numbers then that could quickly ebb away, and even if the majority of UN security members supported further military action, the Russians and Chinese would veto it, and the lesson of Iraq would surely prevent unilateral action by allied states.

There is also the wider issue of what seems to happening in other states in the region, as reports come in of protests in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, with varying levels of state brutality in response.

For many of us, these should not be ignored, because they are suppliers of much of our oil, and have in the past supported us in actions in the region, as indeed did Gaddafi. We must be consistent in this, which is why the action taken over Libya presents such a problem as expectations may well be heightened as to how we will react if the authorities start stamping down on the protesters and rebels.

It is certainly apparent that Gaddafi is different from other leaders, in that there is evidence that he can act very unpredictably, and seems to be in a state of denial as to what is happening in his country. But, there have been plenty of reports of brutality and killings in Yemen and Bahrain, and the public would expect the international community to take action, if these develop along similar lines to Libya.

David Cameron did well to take the international community along with him on the 'No Fly Zone,' and the extension to enable action to protect Libyan citizens and humanitarian missions is the right one. However, he mustn't lose sight of what that objective is, and allow himself to be dragged into taking further action, without official support from the United Nations.

As hard as it would be to take, if the UN fails to support further action, for whatever reason, Cameron must accept it, and if other countries take things further, he must stay out. Harold Wilson gained a lot of credit with the British electorate when he refused to send troops into Vietnam, although he offered other types of support.

Therefore, for the moment, I am fully supportive of David Cameron, and the lead he has taken, but offer a word of caution that he must stay within the remit of Resolution 1973. That is all I ask Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander to do, offer full support, but ask the right questions, and ensure that David Cameron is constantly reminded of his responsibilities, not only to Britain, but also our service personnel, and the wider international community.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

What if....forming the coalition was Cameron's biggest mistake?

As we approach the local elections on May 5th, the coalition parties both face an uncertain fate, with both expecting to get 'huge kicking' from the electorate. The cuts and other policies such as tuition fees, are proving to be intensely unpopular, and dissatisfaction is high. So although David Cameron and his government have made many mistakes since taking office, was his biggest one entering into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats?

Why do I say this? It's because I believe that the coalition has given the Conservatives the confidence to go forward with their policies on cuts, and face down the protests and marches that have, and will, be coming. At the moment they seem to be protected, as the Liberal Democrats are feeling the brunt of the public's ire, but as the recent Barnsley Central by-election showed, the Conservatives themselves are vulnerable.

So, what other options did Cameron have following the May 2010 General Election, a result which left no one in charge, but the Conservatives the biggest party? The arithmetic meant the Labour Party was not in a position to form anything other than a multi-party coalition, but they felt that this wasn't really a feasible option, and the gap between them and the Liberal Democrat negotiators, particularly David Laws and Danny Alexander, was too large. So Gordon Brown ordered them to stop, and informed the Queen he would step down as soon as a new government could be formed.

Although negotiations with the Liberal Democrats had made some progress, rumblings inside David Cameron's own party, particularly over the prospect of a referendum on electoral reform, led to him thinking a full coalition would cause more problems than it solved. Therefore, a much looser 'confidence and supply' agreement was reached, in which the Liberal Democrats would support policies they felt they could live with.

Chancellor George Osborne and Chief Secretary Philip Hammond had wanted to cut very severely, in the hope of paying off the deficit within four years, and hope that the recovery in the private sector had taken off sufficiently for substantial growth to occur in the year leading up to 2015. However, they quickly realised that a budget with this aim would not get through the House, so they knew they would have to rein back.

Discussion with the Liberal Democrats revealed that they felt that Labour's plan top half the deficit in four years was their preferred option, but the Tories wanted to make deeper cuts, even if they realised that elimination was not likely. The agreement was that they would seek to halve the deficit within three years, and eliminate it totally in the first half of a new parliament, when they hoped the economy was more or less back on track, and growing strongly.

So when George Osborne's emergency budget was presented in June, he brought forward a number of policies which sounded restrained, and there was less of an emphasise on cutting, and more on how to create opportunities for growth. The Labour Party, whilst still believing the cuts were too severe, were forced to say they were pleased to see that growth was a high priority, even if they disagreed with some of the detail. Another aspect was that Osborne had been persuaded to levy the banks more than his instincts would have allowed him with a majority behind him.

There were a number of other contentious issues, which the Conservative minority government were forced to be much more circumspect on. The Building Schools for the Future fund was cut, but Education secretary Michael Gove restricted it to projects that were very early in the process of design. Although this caused disquiet in the areas affected, and accusations of Labour areas being targeted, Gove was able to assure them that once a new, more efficient, funding process had been developed, most of them would go ahead.

The Browne report on the future of university funding was published that October, and the government were debating whether to follow its recommendations. Browne had advised tuition fees should rise to £12,000, but David Cameron felt this would be too high. Business secretary David Willetts suggested £9,000, but Cameron knew he would never get this through the House, as the Liberal Democrats had pledged during the election, to vote against any rise. Yet cuts in university funding, which although not the 80% feared, at 40% were still substantial, and the gap had to be filled somehow.

Therefore, the plan put before the House was to double fees to around £6,000 a year, with the hope and expectation that most would see rises in the region of 33%, or £4,500. The sweetener in the deal was that universities that showed a commitment to students from poorer backgrounds would get additional funds in the future, once the economy had recovered. The other big change was that the fees would not be upfront, but repaid after graduation once a salary of £21,000 had been achieved. It was expected the average student would leave university with debts of around £35,000.

The Labour opposition felt this increase was too much, but supported the principle of a smaller increase, and brought forward amendments to that effect. In the end an agreement was reached on a rise in the maximum to £4,800 a year, and with the support of a large proportion of the Labour members, the bill passed, as most Liberal Democrats stuck to their pledge, though one or two, felt the rise was reasonable given the circumstances. There were a number of demonstrations by students against the rises, but these were Small and despite the noise, easily contained by the police.

A number of other measures were brought forward which were much circumscribed, Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms being the main one. It was felt within the government that as this was not something they had included in their manifesto, they would have too much difficulty getting it through, and it was quietly dropped, much to Lansley's chagrin. Lansley's constant briefing against Cameron led to him being shifted sideways to Communities at the first reshuffle, when Eric Pickles was moved to defence and Liam Fox dropped from the cabinet altogether.

Although slow, the economy continued to grow, and cuts in public services were much smaller than it was feared they would be, and councils were able to target them better, so it was felt the less well off weren't being singled out. The boundary changes bill was much amended, and in the end, the Boundaries Commission were charged with reducing the number of MPs to 600 over the next two parliaments, and should seek to equalise constituencies within a certain threshold. The Labour party were unhappy about this, but the Liberal Democrats supported it, and Labour were happy that there would still be a full consultation process, thought eh Commission's overriding target would take priority in the end.

So with the economic picture looking better, unemployment high, but not thought to be surprising considering the crisis that had occurred, and David Cameron proving to be a popular Prime Minister, and the polls showing the Conservatives to have a lead over Labour, he decided to go for an election in October 2012 following the party conferences.

The Boundaries Commission changes had not yet kicked in, so it was fought under the previous ones and the result was Conservative 327, Labour 254, Liberal Democrat60 with others gaining one extra seat, as the Greens doubled their membership. This gave the Conservatives an overall majority of two, but they continued to govern circumspectly, realising it could so easily be lost.

The 2017 General Election proved even more fruitful, as the Conservatives prudent control of public finances meant that they were returned with a majority of 60 and in a position to push on with reforms to public services, they had held back on for so many years. In 2019 David Cameron stepped down and was replaced by Fraser Nelson who had been elected in 2012, and had proved to be a brilliant Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

David Cameron had seen off two labour leaders, with Ed, and then David Miliband both failing to take Labour back into office. The Conservatives mantra that Labour had left just a huge mess behind them had taken hold, and the sensible approach the government had taken was a stark contrast to the 'tax and spend' policies of the previous government. The leader that Nelson faced was Labour's first woman leader, Stella Creasey, but that is another story.

This is, of course, only one of many possible scenarios, but not completely without merit I believe. In this May's local elections the Liberal democrats will be hammered, but the Conservatives will also take a big hit. The drastic cuts look as though they will lead to a stagnant economy at best, and if the coalition last the full five years, the Conservatives could face a huge defeat, regardless of the boundary changes, and whichever electoral system we have in place.

The protests against the cuts are going to be widespread, and the future looks bleak. The changes to the NHS, and education are unpopular, and the public are very quickly becoming disenchanted, and the honeymoon is well and truly over.

The Liberal Democrats may well have virtually disappeared as a single party, especially if the May elections reflect the national polls, and the referendum on the Alternative Vote is badly lost.

But, more than anything, the Liberal Democrats have been seen to have betrayed many of their principles for the trappings of power, and had allowed, almost without protest, to let the Conservatives ride roughshod over the public services, with the cuts in benefits for the disabled, pregnant mothers, housing and many others.

Without the Liberal Democrats, a minority Conservative government, with Liberal democrat support on certain issues would have been forced to rein back on what it wished to do, and instead of the possibility of one term, with many more years in opposition, it could have meant nearly a decade of Conservative rule.

So, although greeted as a brave act when first proposed, and then acted upon, it is possible that creating the coalition was David Cameron's first big mistake, and the doom of the Conservatives.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Protest! The song remains the same?

In London and Manchester yesterday, the 28th January there were large marches against the rise in tuition fees and the cuts the coalition government is imposing on Britain. These are just the latest in a series of protests and ther are many more to come. But! Are we seeing a new age of protest? Is there anything new about them? Will they have any effect?

The people have been protesting, and rebelling, against the forces of authority and oppression since ancient times. In Britain alone we learn of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, the enclosure riots of the 16th century, the English Civil War, Peterloo, the Suffragettes, the Jarrow March, and the Poll Tax Riot to name but a few.

France had its revolution in the late 18th cnetury, followed swiftly by the Americans, then in the mid-19th century there were a series of uprisings especially in 1848. Other parts of the world have also experienced their own revolutions, and protests. So protesting is an essential element as people try to make themselves heard, and even overthrow their governments.

For the modern generation, the first experience, albeit second hand for most Britons, is the movement that swept away the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989. These tapped into a changing mood, and, with the exception of Romania, seem to have been largely peaceful. The revolution however, was only possible because the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had indicated that they would not intervene, if the people rose up against their imposed governments. South Africa's change was of a different nature, having built up over a long period of time, international sanctions playing a part, and the government eventually deciding on a peaceful handover themselves.

So the protests of the early 21st century are following a long tradition, but is there anything different about them in any significant respect? Technology is playing a big part, the ability to email, tweet and text to organise protests has enabled fairly rapid organisation, and relaying of information. This is then enhanced by using the internet and social networking sites such as facebook and twitter to keep people updated on events.

In 2008 Barack Obama's campaign made very good use of technology to organise, and now it is being used in Egypt as the people rise up to try and oust Mubarak who has been in charge for thirty years. The authorities fear of technological advances being used is such that they have cut off internet links, and blocked mobile networks. The Egyptian uprising is inspired by the forcing out of Tunisia's long-serving leader Ben Ali, and it has similarly inspired the same in Sudan.

Egypt and Sudan's are youth led, in a way reminiscent of Europe's 1848 movements (Young Turks,Young French etc.), and it is reported today that a group calling itself 'Youth for Change' is protesting in Khartoum. It seems that there is now a sweeping movement across the North African/Arabian border states, and it will be very interesting to see if other states such as Algeria and Libya get caught up.

In the wake of the financial crisis, nobody has escaped the effects, with Britain suffering especially badly of the major industrialised countries. There are many arguments as regards the reasons for this, which will be argued about for generations to come. However, what Britain does have is a government that believes drastic cuts are needed to pay off the deficit by 2014.

As a result a number of measures have been taken, which will come into effect over the coming years. There are two main areas affected by the government's policies, public services and universities (including further education), as well as a rise in VAT, which is regressive. many jobs are going to be lost in the near future, many in the public services, but private companies, especially those who work closely with the public sector, are also going to feel the pinch. The government is hoping the private sector will be able to fill the gap in services and employment, but unless the current downturn turns out to be a blip, that could well turn out to be a false premise.

The rise in tuition fees, and the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance has caused the first stirrings, as students all over the country have marched against them. Although teachers, lecturers and parents have joined in as support, it is the youth who have been the drivers of these protests. The irony of the part played by university students, is that they will not be liable for the rises in tuition fees, but they feel as though they are playing a part on behalf of future students. Many of these are those currently in their first year of A level courses, who have had their maintenance allowance abolished, with nothing, as yet, to replace it. But this is what links these protests with those in Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan, that it is the next generation leading them, and not the forces of the past.

Public sector strikes could be the next move, but those who will be losing their jobs are now beginning to join with the young protesters to make their opinions known. and although the unions will play a part in organising these, it is new movements such as UK uncut, led by Aaron Peter's, that are the driving force.

As said technology has played a big part in the organising of these protests, and the ability of participants to quickly disperse information, means that we can all follow what is happening. There are many more protests planned over the coming months, as the unions and others join in, as the cuts begin in earnest.

We therefore come to our first question, are we seeing a new age of protest? The answer to that, in reality, is no. Protest has been an integral part of society in one form or another since the polis came into existence, and almost certainly long before then. Whatever the changes in organisation and information dispersal, they are the continuation of a long tradition when people feel they are being treated unfairly by government, whether that is true or just a perception. The cuts, and policies, are affecting people and they feel that this is the only way to make themselves heard.

The second question is there anything new about them? Again I have to say no, because as in many ways all the great revolutions, the current protest movements all over the world, are driven by a similar imperitive, the failure of the old politics. Whether it is the ancien regimes of France in 1789 and Britain in 1642 and 1776, apartheid in South Africa, Communism in Eastern Europe, or the political system in Britain western Europe, or North Africa and Arabia. It is this failure that is seen as the reasons behind the high unemployment and economic difficulties facing people all over the world, and their seeming unwillingness to deal with the root causes.

For many years now, certainly in Britain, political participation has been falling, and people have become more engaged through other mediums such as the green movement, or the National Trust, it is through civil society that people have expressed themselves. Turnout in General Elections has also fallen, as the electorate feel as though the parties, and their representatives do not actually really understand the issues they face in their lives.

The expenses scandal brought this to a head, as it seemed to confirm what many have believed for years, that politicians are only out for themselves. They also feel, with some justification, that those they elect to represent them in parliament, have very little real experience of ordinary life, with millionaires in government telling them "we're all sharing the pain," or leaders of other parties that have done little else but politics. There seem to be very few who have similar backgrounds to those that voted for them, and even fewer seeming to reach the upper echelons, then if they do, as with Alan Johnson, are dismissed as 'postie,' as though his having had what many would consider a real job, and makes it appear that the ordinary person in the street is considered less important, and that their experiences have nothing to tell the policiticians.

So we come to the most important question, will they have any effect? History already tells us the results of many past revolutions, whether successful or not. The Tunisian regime has fallen, and Egypt seems to be on the cusp of a new age, but both these country's rulers were long standing, and their positions were long regarded as undemocratic, as even when elections were held, they weren't regarded as free or fair. When the people rebelled, and decided that change was needed, they had a common target, as the regimes had lost the support and trust of the people, and the armies decided not to intervene on behalf of the authorities.

The protesters in Britain face a different set of problems, as the government is freely elected, and because the facility exists to punish them through the ballot box, a revolution of the sort in Tunisia (or even Britain in the 17th century) is highly unlikely. But that doesn't make the protests invaluable, or that they will not affect policy.

In 1990 the Poll Tax riots were not responsible alone for Margaret Thatcher's removal from office. They were an expression of great unhappiness with one element of government policy, but that was just representative of a government, and leader seen to have lost touch, and it became apparent that if Mrs. Thatcher remained in place the Conservatives would almost certainly lose the next election. Margaret Thatcher was therefore replaced by John Major nine months later, and the Conservatives managed to win the subsequent election in 1992.

The current protests are occurring very soon into the new government's term, and are going to get more frequent as economic pressures and policies combine to affect the people of Britain. The government is a coalition, and many in the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, are less then happy about the policies the government is enacting. In the polls at the moment it is the Liberal Democrats taking the hit, and if they do very badly in May's local elections, pressure will be brought to bear on the party's MPs. There may even be calls in some quarters for them to withdraw from the coalition, though highly unlikely at this stage.

The Conservatives are not immune from this, and if the economic situation continues to worsen, the pressure to change direction will be immense. A poor performance by the Tories in May, especially if they are almost wiped out in the Scottish and Welsh elections, and David Cameron will come under internal pressure to make changes in policy. At the moment the government is resisting all calls to alter course, and lessen the impact of the cuts, saying they are necessary to restore faith in public finances. But if things do not begin to improve measurably for ordinary people quite quickly, then they could find themselves facing a similar situation to the government in 1990.

Overall then, the new wave of protests at home and abroad are nothing new, and even the reasons are very much the same. Unemployment, or fear of it, economic difficulties, leaders out of touch with the ordinary man and woman in the street, and that the politicians are only concerned with their own comforts.

The real difference is that new technology enables mass protest to be organised quickly, and that those all over the world can follow eventsw as they happen. The twenty-four hour media allows us to see the pictures, whilst we read the thoughts of those involved, and gain a wider understanding of what is happening.

So although the reasons for mass protests remain the same, it is the way they are organised that makes them different. The ability to cross boundaries, and to relay information, and therefore the authorities ability to control the dispersal of that information is restricted.

When I was on the December 9th protest in London, I was able to provide a running commentary on my phone, and today's events were relayed on twitter, and we were able to see instance photographs of protesters being pepper sprayed. At this moment I have twenty-four hour news on, and can watch the situation in Egypt unfold before my eyes.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Resignation, resignation...a question of judgement!

Resignation, resignation....well, only two so far, but Baroness Warsi's consistently pathetic performances, and David Cameron's less than supportive language over her speech on Islamophobia, might yet force her to step down. Whilst Mr. Cameron deserves credit for wanting to promote diversity within the Conservative Party, the promotion of a failed parliamentary candidate, wasn't the right person for such an important symbol.

However, that is something for the future, and will probably pass by almost unnoticed in the wake of the last twenty-four hour's events.Firstly, the resignation of Alan Johnson as Labour's Shadow Chancellor, and secondly that of Andy Coulson as David Cameron's Director of Communications.

Although the circumstances surrounding both resignations are completely different, there are also similarities in the background, principally that of judgement. However, the long term effects could have different ramifications.

Alan Johnson's appointment as Shadow Chancellor by Ed Miliband came as a surprise to practically everybody. he admitted himself that his economic knowledge was lacking depth, though as a former health, education and especially Work and Pensions Secretary would have provided an understanding of economic matters.

The appointment of Alan Johnson was always more about politics than economics. He needed to make a senior appointment of a David Miliband supporter, as the Shadow Cabinet elections had put Ed Balls supporters into three of the top four places. However, there was nothing to stop him appointing Johnson as either Shadow Home or Foreign Secretary, both jobs he had done in reality.

The second political reason was Johnson's 'ordinary guy' persona, compared to George Osborne's privileged upbringing and his lack of understanding of, 'how ordinary people live,' as David Heath said. To a certain extent this worked as a tactic, but Alan Johnson's lack of detailed knowledge often caught him out.

However, in mitigation for Mr. Johnson, I suspect outside distractions prevented him from learning these details, as he was more than capable of grasping them. It is this that I believe brings Ed Miliband's judgement into question, in that Alan Johnson's family issues must have been known by then, and it would probably have been wiser to appoint him to a portfolio he was more familiar with.

The third political element, of course, is that in his early days as leader Ed Miliband possibly felt appointing either Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper as Shadow Chancellor, would create more immediate problems than solve them. As it was public differences between Mr. Miliband and Mr. Johnson on various polices did that anyway. However, I always find it amusing that disagreement and debate within the Labour Party are displayed as splits, whilst in other parties, as vigorous debate, which shows they are thrashing out ideas. If parties want clones, then leader's should just appoint those that agree with them.

So, Ed Balls now has the job he's always wanted (perhaps more then leader, which Yvette is probably better suited to), and the Tory response is predictable. But I'm not talking about that today, just to say, that his expertise in economic matters is indisputable, and George Osborne won't be able to get away with trying to throw it back at him by asking detailed questions on particular aspects of economics, such as the National Insurance rate..

The second big event has happened in just the last few hours, and that is the resignation of Andy Coulson as David Cameron's Director of Communications. This is principally over the allegations he has faced for the last few years, over phone hacking whilst he was editor at the News of the World.

As Mr. Coulson has constantly denied any knowledge, thereby showing he must have been a pretty awful editor, I will not comment on the legal situation which is an ongoing investigation. However, considering all the issues surrounding the hacking, for which former NOTW journalists are serving sentences and facing trials, it does bring David Cameron's judgement into question.

As I said earlier, if Andy Coulson didn't know about the hacking, he must have been a very bad editor, if he did, then it is obvious it would always come back to haunt him, with possible legal ramifications. Either way David Cameron's judgement failed, in that he either appointed someone not very good, or someone up to his ears in illegal activity. Both reflect very badly on David Cameron, and Coulson's resignation was deemed more important than Tony Blair's second appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry.

We, therefore, have two prominent resignations, both of which reflect negatively on the judgement of the main party leaders. So, who is most damaged, and is it long term?

Ed Miliband has only been leader for about 120 days, and can be expected to make misjudgements along the way, all leaders do. However, he now has the chance to put things right, and only time will tell us if he has managed that. Critics of him have said he's made plenty, but as they were carping from the moment he took over, their neutrality is doubtful. In recent weeks there has been a marked improvement, and the appointment of the Times' Tom Baldwin as his Communications Director seems to have helped.

The long term impact of Andy Coulson's resignation are, I believe, tied up in two things. Firstly, the outcome of all the legal proceedings, as if Coulson is ever convicted of an offence, that will come back to Mr. Cameron. The second is, that even if Mr. Coulson is cleared legally, is dependent on the performance of the coalition. If the economic recovery fails to be sustained, and/or if Cameron comes under increasing pressure from Conservatives opposed to the alliance with the Liberal Democrats, then it becomes a stick to beat him with. If the policies are seen to work, then it will become a footnote in history.

Similarly, Ed Miliband's performances as leader over the next few months, leading up to the May elections (and referendum?), will decide how important the whole Alan Johnson affair turns out to be. By the time of the party Conference in September (beginning exactly a year after Ed Miliband became leader), a good performance in the local elections, along with providing strong opposition (Ed Balls playing a major role here) will mean it is practically forgotten.

The twenty-four hour media cycle raises all these issues, and in order to fill space they are analysed ad infinitum. However, it is only in the longer term that the rue effects will be known, and I will watch it all unfold with great interest. In my personal opinion, I think it is David Cameron who will suffer the more negative impact in the end, because it will be part of a long list of misjudgements held against him.

As the economic situation in the medium term (it will take time for the long term picture to become clear) is not looking particularly rosy, as the cuts and VAT rise start to impact on people's lives, then the media will be very negative. The backbenchers in the Conservative Party are stirring, and have made threats, and because they are especially unhappy with the coalition agreement (which they see as having given too much to the Liberal Democrats), will use the Coulson situation to weaken David Cameron's position.

Labour's opponents who read this, if any, will no doubt point to Ed Balls, and David Miliband as those making similar moves, yet despite their yearnings, there is no evidence of that, whilst David Cameron's own troops have been publicly briefing against him, with the issue of Europe looming in the near future.

I'll finish there, but the situation for both leaders will be an evolving one, with no certainty of what will happen, we can only speculate.