Could Cameron do a Hugh Grant on Saturday?

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The differences between the Prime Minister’s EU aspirations outlined in his 2013 Bloomberg Speech and the thin gruel seemingly contained in his draft EU renegotiation agreement are so stark that I find it perplexing. In no way, could the draft agreement constitute the promised ‘fundamental reform of the EU’. It throws some minor titbits in the UK’s direction but the EU itself is largely unchanged and will lumber on regardless especially as there is no legal cement provided by treaty change. However, Cameron is no fool, and all this makes me wonder what he is really up to? I can’t accept that what seems to be on offer is the end of the story and I find myself wondering if he could really be a Leaver who might be prepared to throw caution to the wind and declare an honest hand in the manner of the British Prime Minister played by Hugh Grant in the film, Love Actually

Then I woke up!

And yet. Surely, the Prime Minister can’t think that the British voter will fail to notice a dud deal when they see one. David Cameron is far too clever for that, and I therefore fully expect that he is playing a subtler game and that his real strategy has yet to be revealed. Here are some thoughts on how things could unfurl

In the first scenario, the conventional narrative is correct and what you see is what you get. In this case, the Bloomberg Speech contained promises that, in the context of a 2013 Coalition government, the PM never thought he would have to keep. The majority he gained in the 2015 election was unexpected and so he now finds himself having to wriggle out of his previous declarations. In this case, Cameron has already decided that the UK will stay in the EU and he has calculated that he can scare the voters into supporting him. He is following the Wilson model and he will brazen it out by trumpeting what a great deal he has secured. His assertions will be supported by a ‘3-shirt, acrimonious’ meeting with fellow EU leaders from which he will emerge bleary-eyed and victorious after a hard-fought battle with the French playing the traditional role as the defeated European foe. If he feels his side of the campaign needed an extra boost he might even walk out of this weekend’s talks before returning to ’emergency’ talks a month later to secure the ‘important’ terms that he demands. The press might have you believe that this would constitute a ‘failure’ on the PM’s part but in the eyes of his core vote and the undecided middle ground it would probably be seen as a show of strength and reinforce the idea that the deal is actually something substantive and worth fighting for. This is the scenario being played out in the press but it is the least likely to my mind. The deal is so transparently a paper tiger that there is a real likelihood that the electorate will reject it and vote to leave, leaving the PM on the losing side and the wrong side of history. It’s why I believe it’s not that simple.

Before moving on, we should briefly address the key question of which target audience is the PM addressing with his recent remarks? It can’t be his party who increasingly see his round-robin of european capitals as a begging mission and a bit of a national humiliation. I don’t think either that it is the europhiles who are largely convinced ‘Remainians’ anyway. In my view, he is addressing European politicians and the public in other countries, and I need to explain this.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is absolutely right that a British Prime Minister should seek to minimise the diplomatic damage that will undoubtedly result from the referendum process as to do otherwise would be against our national interest. If we end up leaving, we need to minimise the strategic fallout which could be considerable. On the other hand, even a vote to remain in the EU could undermine long-term diplomatic relationships if it was secured clumsily. With this in mind, I believe that the PM had no choice but to enter into EU negotiations seeking realistic (weak) changes and to portray the UK as ‘willing’ Europeans and ‘reluctant’ potential leavers. If he had entered into talks demanding huge and unrealistic changes that could never be accepted in other capitals he would have been perceived as a pre-determined leaver and the EU would have just given up on us amid much diplomatic rancour and long term damage.

If this explains the PM’s behaviour and remarks in the last few months, it also raises questions about what he is really seeking. If it is indeed a diplomatic charade, then it raises the possibility that the Prime Minister actually does want us to leave the EU or is at least agnostic. I noted that the PM has not unequivocally signed up to Tusk’s draft letter and there have been remarks from No10 and Ministers about it ‘being the basis of a negotiation’ Does this mean that the UK might attempt to introduce new and as yet unseen material into the talks? Certainly the French are alive to the threat as even President Hollande remarked last week that there should be nothing else in the talks beyond what is stated in the draft agreement. If the UK wanted to ensure that the talks were unsuccessful, then I can think of no better way of engineering it than by making a late bid for new clauses. The effect of failed talks would be electrifying. In the extreme case, the PM could come home on Saturday declare himself a reluctant leaver and campaign to leave. This would be the Hugh Grant option. Does this explain why some of the more senior ministers seem to have gone silent? In reality, probably not although its a nice thought. I believe that it is more likely that he plans to use the failed talks as a lever to gain something altogether different such as the Associate Membership model. Under this plan, the UK would sit in outer ring of slowcoaches whilst an inner core forged ahead with closer political integration. To my mind, Associate Membership would constitute a second class status which I would vigorously oppose but I mention now to illustrate that the Prime Minister’s position is still opaque.

There are probably a number of other scenarios that you could think of and any one could be true. The important point though is that nothing is ever as it seems with politics and international affairs. David Cameron is a wily animal and in my opinion we have not yet see the half of it. The clues will be in his remarks and by careful consideration of which audience he is talking to. The BBC’s Andrew Marr show may well provide the clue. The weekend ahead promises to be extremely interesting.

Polls: Bad for Debate?

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In this general election we seem to be bombarded with polls on an almost daily basis. Whilst it is fascinating stuff for the political wonks to pour over, I wonder if it is skewing the debate in an adverse way that is bad for the democratic process.

It seems to me the polls affect matters in two ways. The first issue is the media treatment of the information. Polling has now become the main story, and instead of a forensic analysis of the relative merits of the manifestos, we instead get bombarded on a minute by minute basis with speculation about coalition building and potential alliances. Now, I am not saying that this is not important, but the matter has become so prominent that the content of the manifestos seems to have been largely forgotten by commentators and interviewers. It also means that the smaller parties, who may eventually hold the balance of power are receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage to the detriment of the main issues.

The second disadvantage is a philosophical one really, and that is that the daily polls seem to be encouraging people to vote tactically in marginal seats. As a result, votes will be cast on the basis of which policies people wish to avoid rather than on the basis of which policies people prefer. Now this seems to be a very negative aspect to me that devalues our democratic right. It may provide some instant satisfaction when a party is kept from power but the cost is that the government that does eventually form may not actually represent what people want and this will increase voter dissatisfaction in the longer term. It seems to me we should cast our vote in a positive way for what we want rather than for what we don’t.

It is interesting that some countries such as France, Italy and Spain ban polls in the run up to elections, and I wonder if we should consider doing the same. The media wouldn’t like it because it gives them daily fodder to talk about, but it might improve the outcome of the result. There would need to be a discussion on when the ban should start but I would have thought 3-4 weeks prior to the election should do it.

When Two Tribes Lose the War

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With only 17 days left until the general election, the polls suggest that the two main parties seem to be roughly tied on 35% with the remainder of voters’ intentions spread across a number of different smaller parties. Historically, Labour and the Conservatives would command a much greater proportion of the vote than this, and both sides must now look back at the past with a degree of nostalgia and wishful thinking. But how is that two party politics has fallen away to such an extent? It is my belief that they only have themselves to blame.

In the past, electoral campaigns were couched in terms of competing political philosophies. Specific policies could be traced back to the main intellectual bedrock, and when voters made their mark they were making a choice as much about the philosophical arguments as they were about specific spending plans or tax cuts. It was classic left versus right, with key questions argued over endlessly about such matters as the role of the state, property ownership, wealth creation and wealth redistribution.

Today this intellectual foundation is missing from the most of the campaigns. Instead we have piecemeal and standalone policies aimed at specific sections of the electorate, and supported by no obvious underlying philosophy. So for example, we have Labour targeting commuters by promising to renationalise the trains, and the Conservatives trying to lure tenants by promising to allow them to buy housing association homes. Neither side couches these policies in terms of the role of the state or the benefits of property ownership. They are purely for the benefit, of a particular section of the electorate, and without the ideological discussion of why these policies benefit the wider country, they are of little interest to the rest of the electorate.

This situation has arisen because Party strategists, started by New Labour in 1997, decided that there was electoral advantage to be gained by directed polices and by avoiding the ideological contest. It confused and smeared the political spectrum, uniting different and opposing wings of the party and was an effort to broaden the appeal to a wider cross section of the public. It is not just Labour, however, and the same principles have been embraced by the Conservative Party. There are a number of unintended effects, however.

First, campaigning has become characterised by media management, spin and, in the eyes of the electorate, intellectual dishonesty. This has resulted in voter apathy and a complete lack of respect for our democratic processes and Parliament. That is worrying enough, but in adopting ideologically barren campaigns, the two main parties have sown the seeds of their own demise. Voters have become confused. Previously, they may have felt energised by the old ideological battles and were willing to to take a stand on principles rather than specifics. Now, they have been encouraged to vote on the individual and narrow policies that personally affect them. However, the problem for the main parties is that these policies may now be on offer from the smaller parties too. In fact, voters may find attractive policies within the manifestos of a number of different parties and find an obvious choice hard to find. Combined with the electoral cynicism I mentioned earlier, this has encouraged the electorate to vote on the basis of how they are personally affected rather than on the basis of what they feel would be best for the country. The smaller parties have profited massively from this situation, and as the old allegiances have fallen away they have been able to campaign on quite narrow issues such as immigration in the case of UKIP, for example.

This creates a huge amount of uncertainty for the main parties as they flail around trying to find the policy equivalent of a golden goose. Without a change in voting system, it is hard to see the situation changing unless there is a resurgence of political awareness and a return to an ideological based system of campaigning. Instead we are doomed to suffer the uncertainty and watered down politics of coalition government. More warm and fuzzy and less confrontational maybe, but in my view less effective. But perhaps that’s what they want in the sheep shed.

Sterile Debate

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Well, HM The Queen has been informed, and they’re off although it’s hard not to think from watching recent performances at PM’s Questions that Westminster has been electioneering for at least a couple of months. It’s only Day 3 of the official campaign and the main parties have yet to publish their manifestos, but already it seems that all sides will play it safe and that the electorate are going to have a particularly tedious 5 weeks.

In a previous post called avoiding the debate, I mentioned some of the factors that have broken the British political debate resulting in electoral apathy and a dangerous cynicism of the modern democratic process in the UK. These included the lack of proper argumentation and the one-sided and repetitive promotion of policies without even a nod to the counter-arguments or an acceptance that a policy is rarely ‘right’ but merely ‘the best’ course of action. This type of campaigning is the result of an unholy alliance between an army of politicians’ media advisors and the media itself who rarely have time for much more than a quick soundbite.

What is rapidly becoming apparent is immeasurably more cynical and disturbing, and that is a ploy by the parties deliberately to avoid clearly stated positions aside from vacuous statements such as ‘I want a country of opportunity’ or ‘we want prosperity for all’. The saddest part of this problem is that it is a deliberate ploy. By taking a firm position on a matter and producing a firm and directed policy to support that belief, it is likely that a floating voter, somewhere, will disagree and switch to the other side. With conventional 2 party political in free-fall, every floating voter has to be courted and issues that might encourage him to vote for the other side avoided. The debate is therefore reduced to dishonest and meaningless platitudes with discussions on personality and looks rather than political substance. It also encourages the promotion of polices targeted at single-issue or niche voters. This provides a poor foundation for proper government as such policies are inefficiently piecemeal and lack an intellectual basis or strategic framework. In effect they are bribes.

In an ideal world, a Party would start with a political philosophy, then develop a strategy for applying that philosophy and then develop policies that fit within that overall intellectual framework. It’s what we used to have before politics became fragmented and it made it interesting which is why voters engaged and, by in large, viewed parliament with respect. The problem is that the more that party politics fragments, then the more the parties will behave in the current manner putting us in a downwards spiral of electoral discontent. The sad thing is that the media advisors are wrong. The public is crying out for a debate based on solid political conviction and belief. Ed Miliband came close to it the other evening during the TV debate which is probably why he polled quite well afterwards.

Things won’t change soon, however, and the sterile debate will get a lot worse before we eventually have to overhaul the system, probably by a change in the voting system. I would also like to see a British Federation to bring politics closer to the people and improve accountability but more of that soon.

More hay, Sir?

Devolution: Who’s Accountable?

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Since the Scottish referendum, there has been much discussion about devolving power down to the regions, and the recent announcement by the Government that it intends to devolve a £6 billion health and care budget down to the Greater Manchester area has been largely greeted with approval across the political spectrum. For sure, it gives local authorities the responsibility to set health and care priorities and to shift cash around but does it actually increase accountability and promote value for money for the taxpayer?

Well, I expect that there are few that would disagree that centralized structures are unwieldy and often struggle to get value for money despite the attractions offered by the economics of scale. We’ve heard about the £10 Whitehall paperclip too often for this not to be true. There is also no doubt that a centralised and corrupt political system often directs resources for political purposes rather than on the basis of actual need. Where it is allocated altruistically, it is often misdirected owing to a lack of understanding about particular local conditions and requirements. Local spending also gets better scrutiny and is more transparent as budgets are smaller and easier to inspect than the national versions.

Devolved budgets look attractive then, but in my opinion it is only by owning the right to spend and to raise revenue that proper democratic accountability can be enforced. If it is only the power to spend a budget that is devolved then there is little to stop the spender using up all the cash and then pointing to the central government when it finds it has run out of resources. ‘It’s not our fault, you haven’t given us enough’ will be the excuse. Particularly from a Labour-run council with a Conservative Government (or vice versa). On the other hand, if an authority has to raise the cash that it wishes to spend then it is totally accountable for both sides of the equation. It may decide to raise more revenue through an increase in local taxation and spend a little more but to do this there will have to be a conversation with the local electorate who may see things differently. That is proper democracy at work and a powerful driver for encouraging tax-payer value for money. Moreover, if that conversation takes place at a local level then the debate is often better focussed and able to highlight the real issues rather than a centralized argument that gets lost in all the Westminster noise.

So, it’s an open and shut case: we should devolve the maximum power down from the centre. Well, perhaps not. Whilst a centralised treasury sometimes misdirects resources through corrupt politics or incompetence, it does allow the central authority to at least have a stab at resolving geographically competing needs. If we fully devolved tax-raising and spending powers to small regions then the sparsely-populated or poorer areas would be completely disadvantaged, and it is unlikely they would be able to offer the same standard of services. In extremis, this could encourage significant population movements
to the metropolitan areas which could be destabilising and suddenly increase the pressure on services in particular areas. On a more philosophical note, I suppose one aspect of belonging to a country is that the population has a common interest in looking after each other regardless of location. Isn’t that why we have the Barnett formula for Scotland? That collective insurance would soon disappear as the devolved regions started to become more like autonomous mini states.

I am instinctively against big government and so the devolved solution looks attractive. But it is not a straightforward case and it requires careful thought. It may be that a half-way house solution that partially devolves tax and spending would provide the right balance of efficiency and accountability. In this regard, a locally levied sales tax (with commensurate reduction in VAT) might be one way of devolving tax raising powers without going the full hog. However, our Union has already suffered some shocks recently following the Scottish referendum and I think we need to move cautiously to avoid the unintended effects of any fiscal actions we take too hastily. It is probably a question of scale. The Soviet Union was too big to run from a centralized authority but, on the other hand, we can’t live in little tribes. Thoughts?

Avoiding The Debate

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There is nothing more frustrating and boring than watching a politician avoid answering a question, and it is little wonder that public respect for MPs and the political process has sunk so low. But how is it that we have arrived at this point and are MPs solely to blame? The mother of parliaments was once regarded very highly, and its members were largely seen as public-spirited and principled. Now the electorate yawns at the day to day political tussle, and MPs are mocked and set alongside merchant bankers in the court of public opinion.

To my mind, the primary reason for this state of affairs is the manner in which the political debate is hosted and targeted. Modern communications are instantaneous, and fickle media outlets provide such fleeting opportunities that politicians often only have time to spill out some short and catchy, yet inane, sound-bite that they hope may later command a headline in the following day’s paper. There is very little opportunity for considered argument about the pros and cons of a policy: only its one-sided and instantaneous promotion.

This problem is made worse by the misreporting of any kind of admission by a politician that a counter-argument may have some merit even if he believes that those disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages of his own position. What tends to happen is that if a politician acknowledges both sides of an argument then it is often the fact that he has acknowledged the disadvantages of his proposal that is reported as the main thrust of the story. As a result, his reasoned debate that might well have interested the audience is left unexposed.

But why are political discussions reported in this way? It is quite clear that many media outlets have their own political allegiances and will spin a story to suit their own political allegiances. So, for example, from the same interview content, The Telegraph would report that a Minister favours tax cuts to stimulate the economy whereas The Guardian would report that the Minister wants to cut services to make tax cuts for the rich. The party whip system also makes this situation worse. So utterly tribal has party politics become that absolute adherence to the party line is demanded and anyone caught going off message is immediately dragged into the Whip’s office for a metaphorical (or real, who knows?) spanking. The problem with this approach is that it not only discourages MPs from discussing matters rationally, but it encourages the media to make the thrust of their story the very fact that a minister or MP has raised their head above the parapet to occasion proper 2-sided debate.

Finally, I suspect that there is another altogether more cynical component to this issue. With the erosion of 2 party politics has come the rise of the special interest groups and ever more research into the polls. Rather than steering public opinion through good leadership and strategic vision, parties now seek to be all things to all people in the hope that they can court the maximum vote. This is a strong driver for avoiding reasoned debate because any clearly stated position risks alienating a potential voter somewhere. How intellectually dishonest is that? It is obfuscation, and it is driven purely by the thirst for political power rather than a desire to make the world a better place.

I don’t know where the answer to this problem lies. In the first instance, I really wish that media outlets would act more responsibly by encouraging fair reporting and creating the conditions to allow politicians to make their arguments properly. Second, the local party associations, whips and party apparatchiks need to recognize that opinion cannot be uniform and that it is not necessarily damaging for both sides of an argument to be exposed. Indeed it is healthy for the country. Finally, it is possible that we will have to re-examine our electoral system. Whilst I was always a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, perhaps the other factors I have mentioned mean that it has finally had its day. Whatever the answer, we cannot go on with matters as they are. Democracy relies on proper debate and voter engagement, and we don’t appear to have either at the moment. Anyone got some good ideas?