Tag Archives: leaders debate

Cameron rats on early devolution & is nakedly partisan to secure Tory interest

So much for ‘The Vow’.   Agreed by all three party leaders just a week ago in the spirit of the union together, it is rapidly unravelling in a welter of uncertainty over what the ‘extensive new powers’ for Scotland will be, the timetable for their delivery, and above all by their being linked to party political gaming in Westminster.   The Vow commited them keeping Scotland’s current share of public spending, yet the day after the referendum Hague was already saying that with increased devolution the Barnett formula would be ‘less relevant’ over time.   There isn’t even agreement on the degree of fiscal powers to be devolved.    The timetable is also slipping, with a draft bill to be published in January, but almost certainly no second reading debate before the House is prorogued on 30 March for the general election, so that all the detailed negotiation is postponed till a new government is formed.
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The US-Israeli nexus begins to show cracks

How will the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, with this Gaza war the third in 6 years and unlikely to be the last, ever end?   US support for Israel has always been seen as  unquestioning and unconditional (except, interestingly, during the reign of George W. Bush), but that is now under greater strain than ever before.   It rested however on certain key principles which are now beginning to fray badly.   One was a shared belief in the two-state solution to which hitherto Israeli leaders have always paid lip service and some like Yitzhak Rabin genuinely believed in.    Another was the legendary power of the Jewish lobby in Washington in corralling US public opinion to the side of Israel at any time of crisis.    Both are wearing thin.
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Whatever happened to the PLP?

The PLP has changed dramatically over the long years of my political experience.   It used to be the forum where policy differences were thrashed out, the front bench was held vigorously to account, and ideological debate provided the lifeblood for political activism. No more.   It must be the most placid in modern times.   Good of course in terms of maintaining unity, which is an important objective, but less good in terms of political inspiration and campaigning drive.

The PLP is not unique in this respect.   The same process of dumbing down has smothered party conference which once was the heaving soul of the Labour Movement, but now has shrunken to become merely a showpiece for the Leader’s speech.
There are three main reasons for this.   One is that Tony Blair wanted the PLP to be a stage-managed army to secure his political base in Parliament and to that end the Left was squeezed out of parliamentary selections and the PLP was systematically colonised by those of Blairite/Progress persuasion.   The culture changed too.    Loyalty and compliance were rated over integrity and participation, and such habits, though they have somewhat ebbed since his time, die hard and still inform much of the mindset of the PLP.
Second, not unrelated, is the decline in ideology.   The Labour party, or at least certain lead elements within it, have all too readily accepted the Thatcherite dictates of deregulated finance, market fundamentalism, ever more privatisation, and keeping the unions on a short leash.   With those objectives it’s difficult to see how a radical vision of a very different economy and society can gain traction.
Third, where ideology is downplayed, careerism and image and presentation gain the upper hand.   Ed Miliband’s brave speech denouncing this tendency and asserting that what matters is what politicians do, not what they look like, needs to be taken to heart by every single member of the PLP.
Clearly a transformation of the PLP is needed, at several different levels.   It needs to be far more representative of the electorate it purports to serve.   That means far less drawn from the Progress route of middle class, university, student union, PA, special adviser to an MP, and thence eased access to a seat from the inside (just like the Tories).   Instead it means far more with real experience of the working class who still represent some 40% of the population at large, but only about 5% even of Labour MPs.
There has to be more debate about controversial issues in the PLP, more expression of genuine views, more consultation of Labour MPs before difficult decisions are reached.   In a real democratic party the policy discussion should flow both ways between the leadership and the led, yet at present it is invariably top-down.   Above all the PLP needs to get out of the constricting distortions of the Westminster bubble.   Regular weekly campaigning on the big political issues of the day, which was the life and soul of the Labour Party decades ago and without which political education will never flourish against the relentless propaganda of the Tory tabloids, needs to be urgently re-introduced.


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Osborne’s ‘recovery’ – as in First World War we have advanced a few dozen yards, but absorbed fearful casualties to take it

The Tories suffered a miserable debate yesterday, and I hope my remarks contributed to it:

The cost of living crisis has had a fairly good airing in this debate and has been poignantly described in some detail, so I intend to concentrate on the second part of the motion, which concerns the Government’s economic policy and, on the cost of living crisis, to ask the obvious question: was it all necessary? The Government’s answer, as provided by the Financial Secretary in a rather frivolous and provocatively partisan knockabout, was, predictably, yes. He simply repeated the well-worn Tory mantra that we all know: Labour left behind a huge economic mess; there was no other way to deal with it other than through massive cuts in public expenditure; we were “all in it together”; and now the Chancellor’s policies have been vindicated as it has all come right. All four of those statements are flat wrong.

First, Labour did not leave an economic mess. The budget deficit in 2007-08, just before the crash, was 2.6% of gross domestic product—one of the lowest in the OECD and about the same as Germany’s. It rose to 11.6% in 2010 only as a result of the bankers’ bail-out. I noted that the Financial Secretary did not even mention the banks today, so I was beginning to wonder whether he had even heard of the bankers’ bail-out. [Interruption.]I am prepared to give way at this point, before going on to answer in some detail

Perhaps the Financial Secretary did not mention the bail-out because he was working in financial services as a banker himself? Graham Jones (Hyndburn, Labour

That may well have had something to do with it, but it happened also because the Tories decided to blank out the bankers’ bail-out and put the whole blame on the Labour party. For any objective economist or objective observer of any kind, that is obviously absurd.Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton, Labour)

Secondly, there was another and much better way to deal with the budget deficit than through semi-permanent austerity. It is costing the country £19 billion a year to keep 2.5 million people unemployed. I simply say that it would have been far better to get these people off benefit and into work through public investment, so that they could earn and contribute to the Exchequer through taxes and national insurance contributions. I well know that the question will come, “How do we pay for that?”, so I shall answer it. This can still be done—and it could have been done three years ago—without any increase in public borrowing at all, despite the Chancellor’s continuous jibes to the contrary, by a further tranche of quantitative easing targeted not on the banks but directly on industry, or by instructing the publicly owned banks RBS and Lloyds to prioritise lending to industry, or by taxing the ultra-rich.
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What on earth is happening in the Labour Party?

You might have thought from the Tory tabloid screams at Ed’s conference speech plus the sidelining of the three older Blairites in the reshuffle that the Labour Party was taking a sharp turn to the left.   Nothing could be further from the truth: plus ca change, plus la meme chose.   The Left has been dropped or shunted out of sight, whilst the Right is everywhere dominant both in the shadow cabinet and in the Leader’s office.   If this were a plausible plan for restoring a demoralised party or for winning an election, there might be a case for this.   But it isn’t.   The new incumbent at DWP loses no time at all in repeating the mantra of her predecessor, which had made him so unpopular within the party, that ‘Labour will be tougher than the Tories on benefits’.   Her new colleague at education, equally untried, has immediately cosied up to a version of Gove’s free schools and has said Labour will put ‘rocket boosters’ under parent-led academies.   With Labour still stuck to the Tories’ expenditure cuts and presenting no clear alternative to austerity, this is clearly a consolidated shift to the Right.
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Bring back democracy to Labour’s annual conference & sack corrupt party officials

Labour’s annual conference has long been a machine operation designed to showcase the Leader’s speech and to suppress any serious discussion of other controversial matters (and the Tory party conference is, if anything, even more orchestrated).   It is done to convey a contented and anodyne impression for the television cameras, and the result is of course ineffably bland and boring.   The economic debate was a good example.   Some 60% of the allotted time was taken up by shadow ministers like directors giving the company report to shareholders, about 10% was devoted to the moving and seconding of lengthy resolutions, and the remaining 30% to the floor.   However those speakers from the floor weren’t drawn at random, they were in every single case selected beforehand.   Thus they turned out to be exclusively union leaders or parliamentary candidates, about 8 of them, not a single ordinary delegate.    Even more alarmingly, there was no debate on economic policy as such at all: the first half of the debate was on workplace rights and the second was introduced by the spokesman on welfare reform – both important subjects, but not economic policy.
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Ed Miliband walks on water

The vote against the military strike by 285 votes to 272 is the most momentous Commons vote of at least the last 40 years.   It upended a Prime Minister who only recalled Parliament 4 days before Parliament was due anyway to reconvene because he was sure the House could be persuaded to support a motion which, reading the small print very carefully, could be construed as giving the green light to an early attack.   Within 3 days he got it wrong on every count.   He thought he had the Labour Party in the bag (a reckless presumption), he under-estimated the unrest and sheer bloody-mindedness of the Tory Right (a surprising complacency considering their record of overturning him), and he failed to reckon with public opinion and the caution of the military top brass (his arrogant self-confidence in his right to rule blinding his judgement of the obstacles).   Yesterday was undoubtedly a spectacular triumph for parliamentary accountability – holding the Executive to account on the greatest issue of all, war and peace – but above all for Ed Miliband who played his parliamentary hand with exquisite skill.   But it would be wrong not to acknowledge the baneful influence from beyond the (political) grave of Tony Blair.   The memory of the tissue of lies and deceptions by which he tricked a hesitant Commons into backing the Iraq war undoubtedly substantially increased the Tory naysayers.   So thank you, Tony.
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The current Tory hysterics over Europe have tarnished the real role of referenda

There are two kinds of referenda – those that are for the benefit of the political class and those that are for the benefit of the public.   They are quite different.   When referenda are mooted, it is invariably the former kind.   Political leaders only consent to holding a referendum when they are almost certain to win it, and even then only to try to resolve a political problem largely confined to themselves.   Europe is the classic example of this.   Wilson held a referendum on the EU in 1975 in order to settle the argument then raging in the Labour Party about leaving the Common Market (as it then was) and he won it, but 8 years later Labour then went to the country in the 1983 election pledged to exit once again.   Plus ca change.   Now the Tory party is going through one of its hissy fits over the EU and Cameron is forced to offer a referendum as the only way to calm down the hysterics.   It is doubtful if it will ever be held, but even if it is and is lost (as is most likely), one can sure that the Tory Right after the minimum decent interval will be back again with the same demand.   Politically driven referenda solve nothing, but electorate-driven referenda could have real value.
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Whips’ control over scrutiny of parliamentary bills badly needs reform

One of the key problems in Parliament which is little understood, but which hugely undermines its effectiveness, is the Whips’ stranglehold over the scrutiny of Government bills.   At present Members of these Bill committees are chosen by the House Committee of Selection, itself composed of Whips from the main parties with a chair chosen by the Executive.   It has long been clear that this mechanism has serious disadvantages.

 

     First, by putting the power to select Bill committee Members into the hands of Whips representing the interests of their political leaders, their choice will invariably reflect the wish of the Executive who command a majority to get their legislation through as quickly and painlessly as possible.   It will not represent a balanced range of Members with the necessary expertise to scrutinise the Bill in detail as rigorously and thoroughly as possible, which ought to be the whole object of the Bill committee stage.    The onus will be on selecting Members with ‘sound’ views who can be relied on to be loyal and supportive of the Government’s position at controversial points of the legislation.

 

     Second, the electorate expects Bills which will become the law of this country to be examined critically by Parliament – that is indeed one of the central raisons d’etre of Parliament itself – and it sends to the House as Parliamentarians many M.Ps who have a wealth of experience and knowledge across almost the whole range of the nation’s activities.   To block that repository of skills and intelligence in the interests of the Government’s convenience is a public scandal.   Though there are repeated instances of this happening, it is perhaps best symbolised by the example of Dr. Woollaston who entered the House as a GP with 25 years experience of the NHS, but was denied a place by the Whips on the Health Service Bill committee for which she was pre-eminently suited on the grounds that she wanted to move amendments which she believed would improve the Bill, but which didn’t coincide with Government thinking.

 

     Third, a Bill on which the Government side has a ‘loyalist’ majority (sometimes with a dissident Member to give an impression of balance, though not enough to threaten the majority) may sometimes emerge at the end virtually unamended, despite dozens of hours of debate.   The Government Whip, under instructions to see through the Bill unchanged at least in all its broad essentials, has the power to block every amendment however justified or well argued for – unless there is a revolt on the government side which, sadly, is much rarer than the case often warrants.

 

     There are two ways in which the defects of the current system could be amended:
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