Wrong about whips

This Tuesday’s Independent contained what was for the most part a by-the-numbers article about parliamentary whipping; it managed to squeeze in references to ‘fear’, ‘submission’, ‘the little black book’, and ‘Francis Urquhart’ all in the first two paragraphs. But it was saved by the inclusion of Whip’s Top Trumps profiles.  They only covered four of the current whips, graded on empathy, competence, and ferocity, but there is clearly the potential for something wider.  I’d pay good money for a historic Whips Top Trumps set, in which I could match up Tommy McAvoy and David Margesson.

The core of the Independent’s piece was that, as well as being an especially rebellious bunch, many of the new MPs were also complaining about being kept late for votes, only then to see the government win with enormous majorities.  As the paper reported:

“The whips seem to have no sense at all of ‘threat management’,” said one disgruntled backbencher who, like a number of his colleagues, was not confident enough to be named.

He said: “We’re all being kept here – often late into the night – to vote and then we end up with a majority of over 200 because no one from the other side turns up. It’s a total waste of everyone’s time and not a good way to run Parliament.” Another MP said: “The whips’ office doesn’t appear to have any sense of career development for new MPs like me. All they seem to care about is us doing as we’re told. But many of us have lived in the modern world and won’t simply accept that things are done like this ‘because they always have been’.”

I get cited in the piece, described as a ‘political commentator’, a phrase which always brings to mind that Alan Watkins line about people wanting to be constitutional experts (‘how many O levels does that require?’).   And for some reason, the reference is to the whips wielding discipline through their ‘little black book’, even though almost everything I’ve ever written on the subject has tried to stress how this is the wrong way to understand the role of the whips.

But what really struck me is how similar all these complaints are to those I’ve heard before.  As I wrote in a book about the 1997 period: ‘the main criticism of the whips under Blair was neither of arm-twisting nor bullying but just of poor and ineffective time-management.  A number of backbenchers felt there was a ‘psychological desire’ on the part of the whips to have a majority of at least 100 in every vote.  As another put it: ‘They [the whips] are like First World War generals.  They don’t need to think; they just throw numbers at the problem’.

It’s easy to criticize whips for this, and suspect that they are just being bloody minded or thoughtless.  But it’s their job to get the business through; they need to have enough MPs present to cope with the possibility of an Opposition ambush; and they also need to get MPs to realize that delivering the government’s legislation is part of their job.  If you can’t secure discipline and attendance at the beginning of a Parliament, then what chance do you have when things get tough at the end, let alone during a second term?

Philip Cowley

AV Special Edition

A threat to democracy.

A miserable little compromise.

A miracle cure that kills 99.9% of all domestic germs, dead.

A measure that will make lazy MPs work harder.

Only one of those things has NOT been said of the Alternative Vote in the run-up to the referendum on May 5th 2011. Can you spot the odd one out?

Given the hyper-ventilated, caffeine-charged nature of the Yes and No campaigns, possibly not. For if anybody hoped the referendum on AV would be the occasion for people to soberly consider how they would like to be represented and reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of First Past the Post and AV they will have been very disappointed. Instead the campaigns have dished up dubious charge, bogus counter-charge, juvenile stunts (see picture above) and even the threat of legal action. Who do they think they are, Premier League football managers?

Who or what is to blame? The way the choice was constructed in the first place? The nature of the rival campaigns? Or the sheer lack of interest on the part of the wonderful British public?

These are questions we will be able to answer after May 5th. In the meantime here are some of our contributions to the Great Debate that Never Was.

Steven Fielding looks at what happens when historians get involved in the AV debate.

Christopher Burgess assesses the negative nature of both the Yes and No campaigns.

Steven Fielding casts his eye back to when Labour first seemed to embrace AV, in the 1930s, and what lessons that has for the present.

Finally, Philip Cowley does what few have done during this campaign: he gives you the unalloyed facts.

The dragon finds its teeth?

The iconic image of the Red Dragon has come to symbolise Wales’ sense of courage and strength. Following the March 2011 decision by Welsh voters to say yes to their Assembly having full law making powers, the dragon superficially appears to have finally gained its teeth. However, for all the anticipation of a stronger Assembly, there remains the sense that the Welsh are to be convinced of the need for devolution.

In 1997, the Welsh embraced devolution on the back of a referendum in which turnout was just 50.1% and the majority in favour a mere 50.3%. In March 2011, whilst the majority in favour of full law making powers was more comprehensive, the turnout of just 35.2% was an indication that enthusiasm for devolution remains nothing like that on show in Scotland. Politicians of all parties have yet to convincingly demonstrate how the Assembly can make a difference to Wales.

Having been First Minister for just over a year, Labour’s leader, Carwyn Jones has been upbeat about his party’s prospects, with recent polling indicating that it is on course for an outright majority, albeit of just one seat. Small though it might be, this would be a significant achievement given a voting system which since the first Assembly elections in 1999 has denied any one party an outright majority.

Having been in coalition with Plaid Cymru since 2007, Labour’s strategy has mirrored that of their Scottish counterparts. It has sought to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Westminster coalition and outlined how it proposes to follow a different course. As Labour’s Counsel General, John Griffiths recently stated:

We are pledged to keep free bus travel for older people and disabled people, free prescriptions and free school breakfasts. Sixth formers and further education students will continue to receive Education Maintenance Allowance and our university students will not pay the higher tuition fees applicable in England. The distinctive approach of co-operation and collaboration rather than competition, public services not privatisation, remains our underpinning philosophical basis.

If this sounds like what Rhodri Morgan once called classic Labour, Carwyn Jones’ pledge to establish a ‘Delivery Unit’ after the election suggests he recognises the need to appear more Blairite than his illustrious predecessor.

Despite being associated with an unpopular Westminster government, recent polling suggests Welsh Conservatives might do relatively well on May 5th. Unlike their colleagues in Scotland, they have seemingly managed to detoxify the Tory brand.

Nick Bourne, leader of the party in Wales actually goes into the elections from a relatively strong base. Whereas Conservatives in Scotland retained just one seat in the 2010 general election, in Wales the party picked up an additional five. The year before they even managed to top the poll in the European elections – the first time since 1918 that any party other than Labour had come first in a cross-Wales election.

Conscious of the unpopularity of the London coalition, Conservatives have sought to focus attention on the need for change in Wales after three successive terms of Labour-led administrations. Speaking in Wales, George Osborne rejected the idea that the May elections were a referendum on the Westminster coalition, declaring:

I don’t think Wales has been well served by the government in Cardiff and we’ve had a change of government in Westminster, I think it’s time we had a chance of administration in Cardiff Bay as well.

Judging by the polls, it’s an argument that seems to be going down well. The party might also benefit from the AV referendum boosting the turn-out of its base support, which is strongly opposed to abandoning First Past The Post.

For Plaid Cymru, May’s elections look set to be difficult. Faced with a Labour party confident of an outright majority, and a Conservative party almost certain to come second, polling indicates Plaid could lose seats.

Following a disappointing general election and the lack of any real enthusiasm for Plaid’s raison d’etre of independence the party has found it hard to find a distinctive voice. Whisper it quietly, but Plaid’s Director of Policy, Nerys Evans’ recent article outlining a vision of improved public services without the creeping privatisation seen in England is barely different to the one articulated by Labour. Polling evidence even suggests Plaid voters would rather see Carwyn Jones as First Minister rather than Ieuan Wyn Jones, the party leader.

Plaid’s strategy therefore is simple. It must chip away at Labour in the hope that they can deny them an outright majority and keep themselves in contention as a potential coalition ally and so remain a relevant force in the next Assembly.

For the Liberal Democrats, the fate of Plaid is of interest as an example of how a smaller party within a coalition fares at elections. Welsh Liberal Democrats however have a bigger problem of their own. As Richard Wyn Jones of the Wales Governance Centre explains: ‘the determining factor in the election will be the Welsh response to the formation of the UK coalition government’. With the Conservatives not faring badly, it is the Lib Dems who are – as in Scotland – now taking the pain for the actions of their London colleagues.

If recent polling is to be believed, the party is on course to lose at least one seat, taking them down to five. In one survey, just 3% of voters indicated that the Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams was their favoured choice for First Minister. The party’s priority is therefore simple – avoid a total wipeout. For the Lib Dems, it’s as bad as that.

Ed Jacobs is Devolution Correspondent for leftfootforward.org and a graduate of Nottingham University’s MA in Public Policy programme.

Belarus and the EU: new thinking please

Belarus, a country some call the last dictatorship in Europe, is rarely mentioned in the Western media.

Europeans can however ill afford to ignore this former Soviet republic, if only because it is a key transit point for their supplies of Russian oil and gas. Moreover, thanks to the 2004 accession of Poland, the EU actually borders onto Belarus.

The EU has long hoped that the right combination of carrots and sticks would persuade the authoritarian Belarusian regime to eventually liberalize itself. All hopes were squashed however in December 2010 with the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko and his suppression of those protesting against vote rigging. Lukashenko’s pre-election promise to loosen his iron grip on Belarusian society in exchange for improved economic ties with the West have subsequently come to nothing.

After imposing a fresh batch of sanctions, the EU is effectively back to square one. The Belarusian regime remains stable and no dramatic changes can be expected overnight. Moreover, in light of events in North Africa and the Middle East, Belarus is in danger of falling even further down the EU’s list of priorities.

Writing in our capacities as a Czech politician and a PhD researcher at Nottingham University with a long and active interest in Eastern Europe, we think the EU needs to pursue a varied approach in order to revitalize its policy towards Belarus.

First, as a result of the crooked 2010 presidential election, the Lukashenko regime has lost any shred of credibility. European countries should not waste time talking to Lukashenko or his coterie but should instead make the best use of smart sanctions – such as travel bans and the freezing of assets held abroad – tailored just to hurt the leadership.

Second, the EU needs to launch a sustained engagement with all strata of Belarusian society, barring the regime itself. It needs to promote contacts between the Belarusian people and the rest of Europe, for example by making it easier for students to study in the EU.

Brussels should also encourage interaction with low-level government officials outside the Lukashenko elite.

Third, the EU should boost its spending on democratization projects. Given the level of oppression within Belarus this means primarily supporting groups outside the country in their efforts to articulate an alternative to the regime through radio broadcasts.  The Czech Republic has a successful track record of funding such projects but more needs to be done.

Fourth, the EU needs to liberalize those visa restrictions that stop ordinary Belorusians travelling to the West, even if Lukashenko does not reciprocate. The less isolated are the Belarusian people, the better are the prospects for the strengthening of civil society in the long run – perhaps the only real hope for ending the Lukashenko regime.

If this strategy is to succeed, however, it is critical that Lukashenko be deprived of any opportunity to play his two most important neighbours against each other. It is no secret that before 2010 Russia had grown increasingly impatient with the erratic Lukashenko who, to compensate, tried to cosy-up to the EU.  Russia consequently suspected the EU of trying to usurp its influence.

Since the 2010 elections however Russia and the EU appear to share the same desire to be rid of the Belarusian leader as quickly as possible. Thus, the EU needs to communicate to Russia in the clearest possible terms that on Belarus they can gain more by acting as partners rather than rivals.

In some ways Belarus points to a bigger issue for the West. For the Belarus problem can only be finally solved after the EU (and NATO) and Russia transcend their current – and disabling – relationship of mistrust, one that effects (as earlier posts have pointed out) other strategic matters, such as missile defence and Afghanistan.

This is a revised version of an article published by Europe’s World.

Jakub Kulhanek and Jan Hamacek

One election, two campaigns

While they are ostensibly part of the same election for seats in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Scotland’s four main parties are actually fighting two very different campaigns.

There’s the one between Labour and SNP, in which both are vying for the keys to the First Minister’s official residence at Bute House; and then there’s the battle between the Conservatives and Lib Dems to avoid being the fall guy for the Westminster coalition’s unpopularity north of the border.

In the first campaign the SNP has adopted an unashamedly ‘presidential’ focus on their leader, Alex Salmond. As Ian MacWhirter says: ‘Alex Salmond remains by far the most popular party leader in Scotland with an approval rating greater than all the other main party leaders combined’. Little wonder therefore that the SNP is presenting the campaign as a battle for who the public prefers to be First Minister. Such is the party’s faith in its leader’s appeal, ballot papers will have alongside the SNP logo the words ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’.

Despite Salmond’s popularity, Weber Shandwick’s poll of polls shows Labour in the lead. The reason? One might be the SNP’s raison d’être, namely independence. In a recent poll for the BBC, voters placed a referendum on independence – a key SNP policy – close to the bottom of their priorities. Furthermore, many voters are looking to the Holyrood elections to give David Cameron and Nick Clegg a kicking – and voting Labour seems the best way to do that.

This suits Labour, whose campaign is mostly being fought on Westminster issues. Wary of its leader, Iain Gray’s image problem, the party is seeking to turn May’s vote into a referendum on the government in London. Thus, Scottish Labour’s policies are centred around the need to set out an alternative course to that being taken by the Westminster coalition. If this seems to go against the spirit of devolved politics, it seems to have the SNP scared.

Having won just one seat in the 2010 general election, Scottish Conservatives have spent much of the past year navel gazing. What does it have to do to overcome the hostility Scots still have towards the party? Her failure to come up with any convincing answers has meant that leader Annabel Goldie has been the subject of much hostile secret briefing.

Despite this Goldie is popular with voters. David Cameron even dubbed her his favourite ‘Scottish auntie’ after Goldie came second in voters’ preference for First Minister in a poll following the first leader’s debate. Her no nonsense appeal seems to go down well with some; but predictions of significant gains are probably wide of the mark.

The Conservatives are however likely to come out of May’s elections in much better shape than the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems are, to put it bluntly, in the fight for their lives. With the poll of polls suggesting the party could lose two-thirds of its seats at Holyrood, for leader Tavish Scott, the mission (impossible?) has been to distance himself from Nick Clegg. Having admitted that the Westminster coalition poses ‘challenges’ for him, Scott used a recent interview to emphasise as best he could his differences with the man who rather inconveniently leads the party in the United Kingdom.

Given Scotland’s somewhat convoluted voting system, the Lib Dems are also seeking to do all they can to position themselves as a viable coalition partner for either Labour or the SNP. For it is likely neither will get a majority of seats. This explains Tavish Scott’s recent assertion that he would have preferred a Labour/Lib Dem government in London, whilst simultaneously refusing to rule out the possibility of the SNP-favoured referendum on independence.

It remains to be seen whether Scott has managed to detoxify the Lib Dem brand. What is clear however is that it is the Lib Dems, not the Conservatives, who are bearing the brunt of the Westminster coalition’s unpopularity. As Martin Kettle has concluded:

In 2007, one Scottish voter in three voted for either the Tories or the Lib Dems. Eleven months after the formation of the Cameron-Clegg coalition, that is down to one voter in six. The Tories are defending their position reasonably well. But the Lib Dems are not. Unless they can turn things round, which no one to whom I have spoken believes they can, they are facing a disastrous 5 May and possibly even long-term oblivion.

Ed Jacobs is Devolution Correspondent for leftfootforward.org and a graduate of Nottingham University’s MA in Public Policy programme.