Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Sound of Muzak, Catchphrase Christianity And The Perfect Church

As Christmas approaches, there is one thing that gets on my nerves. Go into a supermarket, or a coffee shop, and blaring out will be the Christmas muzak. Last year, I was driven up the wall at Sainsbury's with The Little Drummer Boy blazing out the loudspeakers, so went to the customer service desk:

  • Me: Could you stop playing that Bieber rubbish?
  • Assistant: It's not Bieber, it's Michael Jackson
  • Me: He's just as bad

And the thing about Christmas muzak is that it is so soulless. Anything Christmassy, whether Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer or O Little Town Of Bethlehem - doesn't matter if it's secular or not - has all emotion removed from it with an effectiveness that would make a Cyberman seeth with jealousy, and what is left is something that is technically perfect, yet bland and meaningless at the same time.

And I am also thinking here about "catchphrase Christianity" - the use of those little catchphrases which sound so full of wisdom, yet are not actually found in the Bible.

If you find a perfect church, don't join it or else it won't be perfect!

One thing you frequently find in sermons is - quite correctly - there are no justifications for sinning.

It's just my nature

It's my upbringing

I've always had a bad temper - just one of those things

I'm not a gossip - I only share things "for prayer purposes"

In the book of Revelation, Jesus has messages for some of the churches - Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. These are a mixture of encouragement and criticism (except for Smyrna).

By the way, I find nothing in the Bible to suggest these represent Seven Ages of the Church.

Sardis and Laodicea are striking. The image there comes across as smug, self-satisfied churches. I guess they would have seen themselves as the perfect church. And I am sure we've come across those.

I know that some, by the perfect church, are looking for one which has the music just right, the coffee and the carpet just right etc. and will be persistent critics who will never be satisfied.

However, just as churches are reasonable in expecting Christians to aim to be Christlike and not to make excuses for falling short, the converse should be true.

Churches should always be reforming, looking at ways they fail to be Christlike (which is different from keeping the person who wants a particular style of music happy), and see how they can change and improve (and yes, each individual church member needs to see themselves as part of the problem and ask how they can be part of the solution). Pointing out that a church is very unwelcoming (for example) isn't something to be tackled with a "No church is perfect" response, but a "OK, where are we falling down on this and how can we improve?" response.

Don't Deny UKIP The Helium Of Publicity

I see today that the University of East Anglia has given in to pressure and cancelled a debate where there was to be a speaker from the UK Independence Party.

In the letters page of the local paper - Southern Daily Echo - there are often letters from a little gaggle I call the "UKIP Letter Writing Society". And the way I deal with them is not by calling for them to be banned but by challenging them with evidence and not being deterred by suggestions that I need to learn the FACTS about the EU or that I should read "an excellent little book" by Richard North.

Let's continue giving UKIP the helium of publicity, so their views can be challenged with logic, reason and evidence.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Article 50 Is Not A Blunt Negotiating Tool

I am old enough to remember the Maastricht Treaty, and this was the era when Euroscepticism took hold in the Conservative party, with one buzzword being "renegotiation". The logic went like this:

No, we're talking about renegotiation, not withdrawal. All we want is some reasonable changes to the Treaties so we are treated fairly. But if the other member states behave unreasonably, then we will have to look at leaving.

Translation - let's make some demands the others will never agree to, and shed a few crocodile tears when leaving.

In an article in The Times (€), Owen Paterson, the former Environment & Rural Affairs Secretary, is calling for invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to be a manifesto commitment:

He will argue that, in order to present the best possible alternative to EU membership, Mr Cameron must trigger the formal mechanism for cutting ties with Brussels.

He will call on the prime minister to make a manifesto pledge to invoke immediately article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty if he wins a second term in office. The clause allows member states to activate a two-year process for leaving the union. Mr Paterson will say this was the only “legally binding” way to make the EU enter meaningful negotiations.

Following negotiations, he proposes an in/out referendum in 2017 offering voters a stark choice: fully integrated European membership, including joining the euro, or leaving the European political project and retaining only a trade agreement similar to the one enjoyed by Norway.

“The eurozone has already embarked upon a path that we can never follow,” Mr Paterson will say. “We are simply recognising that reality. We must either be fully committed to ‘Le Project’ or we must build an entirely new relationship. The British people must be allowed to make that decision. Article 50 is the only way of making that happen.”

So, invoking Article 50 in May 2015 will enable us to open up negotiations and then have an in/out referendum in 2017, will it? Let's look at what it says:

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.

A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.

It is immediately clear that this is not about renegotiation the Treaties and then deciding whether to stay or not - its purpose is for a nation that has already decided to leave to negotiate not its EU membership but its relationship with the EU after it has left.

Invoking Article 50 will not be a give-us-a-better-deal-or-we're-out threat. It will be telling the rest of the EU that we are going by May 2017. No ifs, no buts, no referendums.

A Conservative manifesto with invoking Article 50 in it is one that is committed to withdrawal from the EU, but would be dressing it up in misleading language of "negotiation".

One Parliament Or Two - The Flaws In "English Votes For English Laws"

After the Scottish independence referendum, there is a consensus that Holyrood (i.e. the Scottish Parliament) should be given more powers, and this raises the English Question - basically, what sort of devolution, if any, should be offered to England. Regional devolution? City-regions? More powerful local councils? English Parliament?

One thing to note is that local government is devolved to Holyrood. If it wanted to bring back the old regional councils - Borders, Central, Dumfries & Galloway, Grampian, Lothian, Strathclyde, Tayside - as the upper tier of two-tier local government, then it could. (Yes, I've missed out Fife, Highland, Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands and Western Isles as these are each the same as a single local authority).

Therefore, if an English Parliament were set up then it would have the power to create regional assemblies, require major cities to have directly-elected Mayors, reform local government etc.

One "solution" being suggested is "English votes for English laws", which would mean that the Speaker of the House of Commons would designate some Bills as "English-only" and only MPs representing English constituencies could vote on them (there are weaker suggestions, such as Second Readings being for England-only MPs).

Sounds fair, doesn't it? After all, as some supporting it say, that would mean England would be getting what Scotland has - our own Parliament to discuss things that just affect us.

But it doesn't. And this brings me to the concept of the dual mandate.

When the Scottish Parliament was first elected in May 1999 there were people who were both MPs and Members of the Scottish Parliament:

MP/MSP Party Constituency/Region End of dual mandate
Dennis Canavan Independent* Falkirk West Resigned as MP in November 2000
Malcolm Chisholm Labour Edinburgh North & Leith Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party Perth Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
Donald Dewar Labour Glasgow Anniesland Died in October 2000
Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party Moray Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
Sam Galbraith Labour Strathkelvin & Bearsden Resigned as MSP prior to the June 2001 general election, at which he retired as MP
Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat Scotland Central** Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
John Home-Robertson Labour East Lothian Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
John McAllion Labour Dundee East Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
Henry McLeish Labour Fife Central Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party Galloway & Upper Nithsdale Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
Alex Salmond Scottish National Party Banff & Buchan Resigned as MSP prior to the June 2001 general election
John Swinney Scottish National Party Tayside North Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party Angus Retired as MP at June 2001 general election
Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat Orkney*** Retired as MP at June 2001 general election

  • * Cananvan had been expelled from Labour in March 1999 after being nominated for the Scottish Parliament against the official Labour candidate
  • ** Gorrie was MP for Edinburgh West
  • *** Wallace was MP for Orkney & Shetland

There were also members of the House of Lords elected to the Scottish Parliament:

Peer Party Constituency/Region
James Douglas-Hamilton Conservative Lothians
David Steel Liberal Democrat
Mike Watson Labour Glasgow Cathcart

There are no dual mandate MSPs at the moment. The crucial thing is that if someone wants to be an MSP they have to stand for the Scottish Parliament, which sounds rather obvious, but there is an important point here. MSPs have one job, MPs have another, and if someone wants to do both they have to be elected to both.

English Votes for English Laws is not giving the people of England the same as Scotland has. It would create 533 people who would have a dual mandate - sometimes being being part of the UK Parliament and at other times being members of an English quasi-Parliament.

There would be nobody who the people of England would be electing to represent us solely on English devolved matters, while the people of Scotland can choose people to represent them on devolved matters.

When I looked at the West Lothian Question, I briefly looked at the issue of the "bifurcated Executive", whereby there would be a UK Government which would not have a majority in the House of Commons on "English-only" matters.

We can look at the results for England at all elections since 1945 (the Speaker is listed among their original party's tally and parties in bold are those forming the UK Government) - note that we are including the English university constituencies until their abolition at the 1950 election (Oxford University, Cambridge University and Combined English Universities each elected 2 MPs by the Single Transferable Vote and London University elected 1 MP by Single Member Plurality, or "First Past The Post" as it is often known as):

July 1945

  • Labour - 331
  • Conservative - 159
  • National Liberal - 7
  • Liberal - 5
  • Independent - 2
  • Communist - 1
  • National - 1
  • Common Wealth - 1
  • Independent Labour - 1
  • Independent National - 1
  • Independent Progressive - 1

Labour majority 152

February 1950

  • Labour - 251
  • Conservative - 243
  • National Liberal - 10
  • Liberal - 2

Labour/Liberal majority 0, Conservative/National Liberal majority 0, or Conservative/National Liberal/Liberal majority 4

October 1951

  • Conservative - 259
  • Labour - 233
  • National Liberal - 12
  • Liberal - 2

Conservative/National Liberal majority 36

May 1955

  • Conservative - 279
  • Labour - 216
  • National Liberal - 14
  • Liberal - 2

Conservative/National Liberal majority 75

October 1959

  • Conservative - 302
  • Labour - 193
  • National Liberal - 13
  • Liberal - 3

Conservative/National Liberal majority 119

October 1964

  • Conservative - 256
  • Labour - 246
  • National Liberal - 6
  • Liberal - 3

Conservative/National Liberal majority 13

March 1966

  • Labour - 286
  • Conservative - 216
  • Liberal - 6
  • National Liberal - 3

Labour majority 61

June 1970

  • Conservative - 292
  • Labour - 217
  • Liberal - 2

Conservative majority 73

February 1974

  • Conservative - 268
  • Labour - 237
  • Liberal - 9
  • Democratic Labour - 1
  • Independent Labour - 1

Conservative majority 20

October 1974

  • Labour - 255
  • Conservative - 253
  • Liberal - 8

Labour/Liberal majority 10 or Conservative/Liberal majority 6

May 1979

  • Conservative - 306
  • Labour - 203
  • Liberal - 7

Conservative majority 96

June 1983

  • Conservative - 362
  • Labour - 148
  • Liberal - 10
  • Social Democrat - 3

Conservative majority 201

June 1987

  • Conservative - 358
  • Labour - 155
  • Liberal - 7
  • Social Democrat - 3

Conservative majority 193

April 1992

  • Conservative - 319
  • Labour - 195
  • Liberal Democrat - 10

Conservative majority 114

May 1997

  • Labour - 329
  • Conservative - 165
  • Liberal Democrat - 34
  • Independent - 1
Labour majority 129

June 2001

  • Labour - 323
  • Conservative - 165
  • Liberal Democrat - 40
  • Kidderminster Hospital & Health Concern - 1
Labour majority 117

May 2005

  • Labour - 286
  • Conservative - 194
  • Liberal Democrat - 47
  • Respect - 1
  • Kidderminster Hospital & Health Concern - 1
Labour majority 43

May 2010

  • Conservative - 298
  • Labour - 191
  • Liberal Democrat - 43
  • Green - 1

Conservative majority 63

You can see why this is an attraction for some Conservative - longer periods of Conservative rule, forming an English Government without the Liberal Democrats at the moment...

To which I have a one-word response - Tullymander.

A tullymander is a gerrymander that backfires.

Although it might seem attractive to Conservatives in 2014, how about 2024? 2064? 2114? 2214? When I followed the debates on Scottish independence, I was struck by the short-termism of the Yes campaign, with an emphasis on how it would stop the Conservatives ruling Scotland. In 300 years' time, I expect the terms "Conservative Party" and "Labour Party" will sound as unfamiliar as the terms "Court Party" and "Country Party" are to modern ears.

A problem, as I have noted, is that English Votes for English Laws would mean that there would be Governments (normally Labour ones) which would not be able to get their business through the House of Commons on "English-only" matters. You could take three approaches to this.

One approach would be that we would just have to live with this - there is not much difference between the gridlock that exists in the US Congress when the House of Representatives and Senate are controlled by different parties. Labour and the Conservatives would have to sit down and decide "English-only" legislation that would be acceptable to both.

A second approach is that we would have to ensure that a Government could get its "English-only" legislation through, and if that means an early election, with the Prime Minister getting back the power to set an election date, then so be it. So, off we trudge to the polling booths until Scotland and Wales elect enough Conservative MPs so that there could be a Conservative majority Government for both the UK and England, or England elects enough Labour MPs for the other result.

Then there is a third approach - that of an English Executive, complete with an English First Minister (who may or may not be the Prime Minister).

When I looked at the West Lothian Question, I noted that objections were made when Labour's John Reid became Health Secretary and later Home Secretary, on the grounds that he was a Scottish MP overseeing departments whose remit did not cover Scotland. Actually, they do, in part.

If we look at the current Government and consider Ian Livingston, the Minister for Trade & Investment. Now, he is one an example of a recent development in ministers, namely who has a cross-departmental role, at both the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

So, does Vince Cable, the Business & Innovation Secretary, have an England-only department, an rUK department or a whole UK department? If you look at the list of departmental responsibilities, then the clear answer is that it depends.

Any English Executive - and I appreciate this would be an issue if an English Parliament were set up - would come across the issue that the way departments have evolved has been messy rather than logical, with fuzzy boundaries, rather than sharp, clear lines saying "this is an England-only department" or "this is a whole UK department". Any English devolution of this sort would give the civil service hours of fun as they determined which was which and then suggesting to the Prime Minister how departments could be created, restructured, abolished and merged to ensure that they were England-only, rUK or whole UK.

Related to this, any Bill would have to be carefully examined to make sure that it didn't combine two or more of these categories, as it would get very tricky if there were MPs who could vote on some clauses and not on others.

"English votes for English laws" most definitely does not create any sort of equality between England and Scotland voters. If we are to have a Parliament that decides England-only laws, then I want a vote for it. Not a vote for someone who sits in the United Kingdom Parliament and then has to moonlight as a Member of the English Parliament.

If you project Scottish election results onto the Westminster constituencies - as I did for May 2007 and May 2011, then you see the growing separation between how Scots vote for the Scottish Parliament and for the House of Commons. In 19 (out of 59) constituencies in 2007 the poll was topped by someone from a different party than the previous Westminster election; in 2011 this has increased to 43.

Once we separate out what is England-only and what is all-UK, then the logical consequence is that people may be attracted by different parties. You may, for example, support the Conservative stance on foreign affairs, defence and social security, while being attracted to the Labour stance on health, education and the environment.

If we want true equality on this issue, then we cannot go for a UK Parliament with English MPs dual-mandating as a pretend English Parliament. We need to go for a full English Parliament, elected by the people of England voting on manifestos that deal with England-only issues.

The First Labour Government Shows Us That Fixed Terms Can Be Less Stable

In just a few months, we will see the first general election held under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 - the scheduled date is 7 May, but it could be postponed via Statutory Instrument (which would need to be passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords) to as late as 2 July, with the Explanatory Notes giving a 2001-style outbreak of foot and mouth as an example of a scenario that could lead to this.

One thing that is often said is that this leads to more stability - a Government takes office, knowing it has the full 5 years. Rather than manically legislate, it can pace itself. Opposition parties can plan, knowing when the next election date is and sure that the Prime Minister isn't going to call a snap poll.

But is this actually the case? Could the Act make general elections more frequent, rather than the intended less frequent?

On 6 December 1923 there was a general election which produced the following result:

  • Conservative - 258 (including 14 Scottish Unionist and 10 Ulster Unionist)
  • Labour - 191
  • Liberal - 158
  • Irish Nationalist - 3
  • Independent - 2
  • Christian Pacifist - 1
  • Scottish Prohibition Party - 1
  • Independent Liberal - 1

The new Parliament did not meet until 8 January, with the Conservative Stanley Baldwin still Prime Minister - a post he had held for the previous 8 months.

On 21 January, there was the debate on the King's Speech, with John Clynes - at the time the deputy leader of the Labour party - moving an amendment:

But it is our duty respectfully to submit to your Majesty that Your Majesty's present advisers have not the confidence of this House

The Commons voted by 328 to 256 to accept Clynes's amendment (i.e. to turn the motion on the King's Speech into a No Confidence Motion) and then voted by 328 to 251 on the revised motion (i.e. on what was now a No Confidence Motion).

Note that the Government didn't fall immediately - the following day when Parliament met, the Conservative Harry Barnston, of the Whips' Office, was answering questions about the Humber. Later that day, Baldwin informed the Commons that George V had accepted the Government's resignation. The Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald about to become Prime Minister.

Now consider how this would have worked under the 2011 Act. If the Commons passes a No Confidence motion, then there is to be an early general election - unless within 14 days the Commons passes a Confidence motion. It doesn't specify whether this is in the same or a different Government, although the Explanatory Notes give the intentionas :

The intention is to provide an opportunity for an alternative Government to be formed without an election.

Explanatory Notes do not have any legal force. As the Act stands, there is nothing to stop a Government defeated on a No Confidence motion from seeking to overturn it via a new Confidence motion.

Now suppose this Act had been in force in 1924. The passing of the No Confidence motion on 21 January would have meant that Parliament would have to have been dissolved, unless by 4 February the Commons passed a Confidence motion in a Government. But Baldwin's resignation announcement also included postponing the next sitting of the Commons until 12 February (it might seem odd these days for a Prime Minister to make an announcement like that, but until Stafford Cripps was appointed Leader of the Commons in February 1942 by Winston Churchill, if the Prime Minister were an MP then he would also be Leader of the Commons).

The Act places no requirement on the Queen to invite someone else - for example, the Leader of the Opposition - to attempt to form a Government. In theory, a Government that has been defeated at the general election (whatever that means in the era of hung Parliaments and coalition Governments) could still be in office in when Parliament meets after the election and introduces its own Queen's Speech. And then, when defeated in a No Confidence motion is still technically the Government and so the Leader of the House of Commons announces a postponement of all business until a date more than a fortnight in the future. Hence, it would be perfectly possible for a defeated Government to prevent the Confidence vote on any Government taking place that Parliament, and hence trigger a general election.

It is possible to consider a situation where this might happen. A coalition Government exists at the time of a general election, and when the votes are counted, the leading party has increased its share of the vote and number of seats. Its junior partner has lost over half its seats (and with its leader having lost his Sheffield seat and deputy leader retiring from his Aberdeenshire seat, is left leaderless) and teams up with the Opposition party and minor parties to decide that the Commons has no confidence in the minority Government (which is more-or-less a continuation of the outgoing one, but with the junior coalition partner gone). The sitting Prime Minister could make the case that his party has improved on the previous performance, and the verdict of the people was a positive one - they wanted his party to remain in power but without being constrained its then partner. He could argue that the electoral momentum is with his party, and note the example of Labour's Harold Wilson having Parliament dissolved in September 1974 with the aim of winning those extra few seats to turn a minority Labour Government into a majority one.

Such a Prime Minister could suggest he wants to do in a matter of weeks what took Wilson months, and so instruct the new Leader of the Commons to draw up a parliamentary timetable which means the Commons does not meet in that crucial fortnight, and is unable to hold a Confidence motion. Under the 2011 Act, Parliament must be dissolved and a new general election held a matter of weeks after the last one.

To prevent such a sequence of events happening, there needs to be one or both of these solutions:

  1. The quickest and simplest is for a change in House of Commons Standing Orders to give the Government less control over the timetable, and for a Timetable Committee to be set up - with the Government in a minority on it. Such a committee would decide on recess dates and non-sitting days.
  2. Last week saw the Scottish Parliament elect Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister. As I have looked at before, it would be possible for a change in law so that Westminster follows the Holyrood lead and one of its first acts after a general election is electing a Prime Minister, and for the passing of a No Confidence motion to set in process a new election of a Prime Minister by the Commons (which might simply be the sitting one re-elected), with dissolution only happening if no Prime Minister is elected in the timescale set down.

Although it is commonly assumed that MacDonald's government in turn fell on a No Confidence motion, the reality is slightly different. On 8 October 1924, Conservative former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Horne, introduced a censure motion:

That the conduct of His Majesty's Government in relation to the institution and subsequent withdrawal of criminal proceedings against the editor of the Workers' Weekly is deserving of the censure of this House.

The censure motion was passed and the following day, MacDonald announced that Parliament would be dissolved.

It is important to notice that MacDonald's government did not face a Confidence or No Confidence motion during its brief existence. When George asked him to form a Government, it was taken as read that he could form one. The confidence of the Commons was implicit.

The 2011 Act, however, requires confidence to be explicit in these circumstances, creating a hurdle for a modern day Prime Minister that MacDonald never had to leap over. The question is whether MacDonald would have won a Confidence motion in February 1924, or whether the people would have to trudge back to the polling booths?

In the debate on the King's Speech, the Conservative Austen Chamberlain - a former (twice) Chancellor of the Exchequer who would go on to become Foreign Secretary - noted:

It is not so very long since I was pleading with my friends of the Unionist party, at the famous meeting in the Carlton Club, not to break up the Coalition which had then existed for many years between a large and powerful section of the Liberal party and our own party. I ventured to point out to my friends before that election—the last election but one—and I repeated it after- wards when the results were known, that we who defended the old principles and the old freedom, were not so strong that in the face of a common menace we could afford to indulge in mock quarrels. I was answered by Mr. Bonar Law [who would become Prime Minister following the break up of the Coalition in October 1922] in a passage not quoted by my right hon. and learned Friend, but parallel to it. He said that if you teach the country that there are but two parties capable of Government, one comprising all that is most liberal in the Liberal party and all that exists in the Unionist party, and the other comprising the Socialist party, then is it not certain that sooner or later, some day, the Socialist party will come into power. Yes, "some day," if we had continued the Coalition. But barely a year has passed, and to-morrow a Socialist Government enters into office. The Coalition is dead. At this moment nobody can revive it—nobody would revive it if they could. But the Coalition being dead, co-operation is a necessity, and the only question is, who shall co-operate with whom. Between whom shall new alliances exist? I cannot help thinking that a great deal of nonsense has been talked on this subject by a great many I hope not otherwise than sensible men. The late Mr. John Bright once observed that the trouble with great thinkers was that they usually thought wrong.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Aberavon (Mr. MacDonald), in advance, denounced any "wangling" that should dash the cup from his lips, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley [former Liberal Prime Minister Henry Asquith] and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Spen Valley [the Liberals' John Simon, who had been Home Secretary and would go on to become Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and finally Lord Chancellor] lent countenance to this doctrine. But what is going to happen? Two parties have got to "wangle," if that be the word, into the same Lobby to get this Government out. Two parties have got to "wangle" into the same Lobby to keep any Government in. Oh, yes, Sir, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley talks easily at the National Liberal Club about the limits of his acquiescence. We are to turn out my right hon. Friend to-day, and put in the hon. Member for Aberavon to-morrow, and, the day after, if we are in any difficulty, we are to turn to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley. No, Sir; men must be deemed to intend the natural consequences of their acts. The King's Government has to be carried on. If you put a Socialist Government into office, day after day you will walk into the Lobby to keep them there. The assistance must be active or passive. It must be passive by abstention—if the right hon. Gentleman and his friends chose to abstain, the result to-night would be different—or it must be active by their intervention; and they have chosen the course which requires constant activity on behalf of a policy in which they do not believe, in support of a Government which they profess to mistrust, rather than the middle course that might give the country what the country wants.

To summarise what Chamberlain is saying - the Liberals have ganged up with Labour to force out a Conservative government, and they need to accept there are consequences. They can assist Labour passively or actively. Under the current rules, they would have had no choice but to support Labour actively on a Confidence motion - to abstain would trigger a new election.

The 2011 Act was written for a new era of politics - one where hung Parliaments and coalitions were the norm, but where either the Conservatives or Labour could get enough support from other parties to form a Government. But events of the past few months have shown that the era it was written for is already passing into history.

One election in the Victorian era was that of November/December 1885:

  • Liberal - 319
  • Conservative - 249
  • Irish Nationalist - 86
  • Independent Liberal - 11
  • Independent Liberal/Crofter - 4
  • Independent Liberal/Labour - 1

No party had the 336 MPs required for an overall majority, and in the following February, the Conservative Prime Minister, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, resigned, and the Liberals' William Gladstone returned as Prime Minister with Irish Nationalist support - but split the Liberals over Irish devolution and the Government collapsed, with the July 1886 general election seeing the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists form the new Government.

And the one thing that has changed this year is the rise of the UK Independence Party (in England, and to some extent in Wales and Scotland) and the Scottish National Party. And if they both have breakthroughs, then we could be looking at an 1885-style result, with the Conservatives or Labour having to rely on both for support if they want to form a Government.

There are a couple of sayings - nothing succeeds like success and strike while the iron is hot. If you look at the seats that changed hands at general elections, you see the SNP picking up 6 seats in February 1974, and then in the October 1974 general election going on to win a further 4. Momentum was with them.

Why did the Liberal Democrats not see significant electoral breakthroughs until May 1997? Until then, voting for them was seen as a "wasted vote". And the June 2001 and May 2005 elections both saw increases in seats for them.

Suppose in May 2015 we do elect a hung Parliament where neither a Conservative/Liberal Democrat or Labour/Liberal Democrat majority is possible, and there are significant numbers of SNP and UKIP MPs. Both these parties would see an iron that is white-hot. The SNP would have shown it can win seats in Labour heartlands of central Scotland, while UKIP would have shown that a vote for it is not a "wasted vote". A second election would be in both their interests.

There are then two scenarios that could play out. The first is:

  • Prime Minister David Cameron chooses not to resign after the election and introduces a Queen's Speech
  • The Commons votes down the Queen's Speech, leading to a No Confidence motion
  • The Government is defeated on this, and Cameron resigns
  • The Queen asks Ted Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, to form a Government
  • Thanks to the 2011 Act, the Labour Government has to face a Confidence motion
  • The SNP and UKIP ensure that the Confidence motion is not passed
  • 2015 becomes a year with a second general election

The second is:

  • Seeing the election results, Cameron resigns
  • The Queen asks Ted to form a Government
  • The Labour Government introduces the Queen's Speech
  • The Government is defeated on this, and Ted resigns after a very short ministry
  • Given that Cameron has not attempted to form a Government after the election, the Queen asks him to form a Government
  • Thanks to the 2011 Act, the Conservative Government has to face a Confidence motion
  • The SNP and UKIP ensure that the Confidence motion is not passed
  • 2015 becomes a year with a second general election

The second scenario would see the Government flip quickly from Conservative/Liberal Democrat, to Labour-led for a brief period, and back to Conservative-led, with the possibility of another Labour-led one depending on the outcome of the second general election.

What sort of timetable are we looking at here? The last election was Thursday, 6 May 2010. The Commons met on Tuesday, 18 May. The Queen's Speech was Tuesday, 25 May. So, if this timetable is followed, we should expect the Queen's Speech on Tuesday, 26 May 2015.

If there is a vote of No Confidence, then there is a fortnight for a Confidence motion to be passed, or else there is a dissolution. This is not an automatic one (unlike the one that will happen in March) - instead this is a more traditional one, with the Queen dissolving Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister. It doesn't happen straight-away either. In 1979, the Labour Government lost a No Confidence motion on 28 March, but dissolution was not until 7 April - 10 days later. This is to allow essential business to be cleared before dissolution.

So, if there were a vote of No Confidence on the day of the Queen's Speech, the fortnight deadline for a Confidence motion would run out on Tuesday, 9 June. The earliest date for dissolution would be Thursday, 11 June, which would trigger a general election on Thursday, 16 July - just 10 weeks after the last one. And, it would be possible for the whole process to be repeated with the next Parliament and for us to be going to vote yet again on Thursday, 24 September, with Returning Officers pencilling Thursday, 3 December in their diaries.

I know that this would lead to cries of the Unionists ganging up with Project Fear, or of LibLabCon, but if we do traipse off to the polling booths in July, then the Conservatives and Labour would have to come to a deal whereby whoever loses will abstain on any Confidence or No Confidence motion in the winner, which would at least ensure that there was a minority Government that could last more than a couple of months.

Any constitutional innovation is a work-in-progress, and the next step has to be Scottish-style election of the Prime Minister by the Commons, to provide stability that the 2011 Act cannot provide.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Longest Serving 20th Century MPs

Having looked at when records for the longest-serving women MPs will be broken, I am now turning to MPs who have served in the 20th century.

David Boothroyd's site provides a list, but it has not been updated for a while.

If we look at continuous service, then we have 2 MPs - both Prime Ministers - serving for over 50 years. David Lloyd-George for 20,032 days and Edward Heath for 18,709 days.

After the May 2015 general election, with Peter Tapsell, the Father of the House of Commons and Conservative MP for Louth & Horncastle, retiring, the longest-serving MPs will be a group first elected in June 1970 - Ken Clarke, Conservative MP for Rushcliffe; Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton; Michael Meacher, Labour MP for Oldham West & Royton; and Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover.

They will reach Heath's record on 6 September 2021, while having to wait until Easter Monday 21 April 2025 (which - under current timetables - lies in the 2025 election period) to reach Lloyd-George's record.

Hence, any of them re-elected at the 1 May 2025 general election (their 14th successive victory) would take his seat as the 20th century's longest continually-serving MP. Looking at that timing, would any of them, if re-elected in 2020, want to announce their retirement at the end of that Parliament, knowing that on dissolution (when they would cease to be MPs for the final time) they would be just 4 weeks short of breaking a record? The option to accept a peerage in a Prime Minister's Resignation Honours List which would follow the election if there were a change in Government could be there to enable them to break Lloyd-George's record and retire in the summer of 2025.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Voters Prefer Oxford - Why Labour Should Keep Its Leader

If some reports are to be believed, then there is discontent with Ted Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.

However, there is one thing that Ted has in his favour - he is a graduate of the world's greatest university, Oxford University. And not just any old college, but its greatest college - Corpus Christi, where he was in the year above me.

If we look at the general elections of the past 60 years, then we see an interesting pattern:

Election Conservative Labour Winner
Leader University Leader University
May 1955 Anthony Eden Oxford Clement Attlee None Conservative
October 1959 Harold Macmillan Oxford Hugh Gaitskell Oxford Conservative
October 1964 Alec Douglas-Home Oxford Harold Wilson Oxford Labour
March 1966 Edward Heath Oxford Labour
June 1970 Conservative
February 1974 Labour
October 1974 Labour
May 1979 Margaret Thatcher Oxford James Callaghan None Conservative
June 1983 Michael Foot Oxford Conservative
June 1987 Neil Kinnock University College of South Wales & Monmouthshire Conservative
April 1992 John Major None Conservative
May 1997 Tony Blair Oxford Labour
June 2001 William Hague Oxford Labour
May 2005 Michael Howard Fenland Polytechnic Labour
May 2010 David Cameron Oxford Gordon Brown Edinburgh Conservative

As is clear, every time the people have a choice between an Oxford or non-Oxford Prime Minister, they choose the Oxford one.