Politics.co.uk Blog

Friday, 26 November 2010

MPs' committee privacy breach won't rock Westminster to its foundations

Select committees are an important part of our democracy. Their grilling of ministers is often hailed as one of the best ways in which MPs do their job of holding the executive to account.

You'd think, given their prominence, that parliamentary journalists would be carefully monitoring their sessions. Gripped to their television screens. Or, now that these things are streamed online, their web browsers.

An accidental broadcasting of a 15-minute private session proves that this is not the case.

Keith Vaz's home affairs committee didn't realise as they discussed an evidence session which has just concluded that their closed-door remarks were being streamed live on the web.

Yet, so it appears, just one journalist noticed.

Well done to the Press Association hack for clinging on and achieving what all journalists crave: the chance to be a fly on the wall. Doubtless if they had said something sensational we would have had a great story. As it is, Vaz and co are thoroughly relieved the session's secrets will not become public.

"I am most grateful that even though they had this information, PA is choosing to respect parliament in this manner," Vaz said.

We shall draw our own conclusions. That the committees don't get as much attention as they perhaps should is... well, it might be one of them...

Who will rid me of these pesky peers?

Here's a guest post by one of our writers, Peter Wozniak, which will be appearing on the site over the weekend. It's a bit of a humdinger...

David Cameron's attempt to drag the Conservative party into the 21st century is far from complete - but without the odd eccentric, politics would be a much duller place.

Let's be honest. David Young and Howard Flight are not government ministers. They are eccentrics whose time in frontline politics has long since passed.

Their comments about the distastefulness of the poor "breeding" and scepticism about the "so-called recession" demonstrate a grotesque and unreconstructed view from the right that is anything but representative of the people now pulling the levers at CCHQ.

Labour synthetically rages about how this demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the government is out of touch with Joe Bloggs on the street.

It doesn't. It shows that two ageing dinosaurs, each of whom could be plucked fully-formed from the politics of the 1980s, are out of touch.

And yet, I can't quite join in the chorus of rage that seems to want their heads impaled on a pike atop the Tower of London for being so hopelessly mistaken. My heart isn't really in it. This may be rather selfish from a hack's point of view, but without these eccentric nutters to liven up political debate our jobs would be an awful lot less fun.

It is only when politicians are immediately destroyed by public opinion for expressing daft opinions that we need worry. When that happens we end up with a political class so afraid of saying anything of value or interest that we are faced with a series of production line party apparatchiks capable of uttering only the most banal and meaningless platitudes.

For instance, I may (and do) despise the views expressed by Ukip leader Nigel Farage. I may find it depressing and faintly pathetic that if all the sheep in New Zealand were to suddenly die of blight, he would still almost certainly find a way to blame the European Union.

But I would defend to the death his right to spout such stupidity. What we do not want is a political debate paralysed (as I fear is happening) by an atmosphere in which no meaningful discourse can take place for fear of saying something 'out of touch' or untoward.

Argument and controversy ought to be fostered by proper political debate. That is the very purpose for which it exists.

Eccentricity and mistakes enliven politics. It is only polished perfection which is manifestly dull.

Observe 95% of political interviews these days and you'll see what I mean.

The suggestion that the only views allowed to be expressed are those which are 'in touch' raises worrying implications, of which the reaction to the Conservative peers is only a symptom.

What precisely are they supposed to be in touch with? If the answer is 'the public mood' then logically politicians should never do anything unpopular at all. That way lies the madness of basing policy on the focus group and the opinion poll, rather than on ideology.

It enfeebles our politicians to a state so excellently parodied in the film In The Loop, where a Cabinet minister gravely informs his Alistair Campbell-esque tormentor: "I might be forced to the verge of making a stand!"

As our prime minister should well know, appearance means a great deal for the purposes of elections. He still needs to quash the image of a Tory party implacably opposed to masses of the wretched poor.

David Cameron spent five years of clawing the Tories out of an age in the political netherworld.

The prime minister could be forgiven for tearing some hair out and sprouting a few greys at having two political non-entities threatening to scupper the immaculate PR image he has constructed.

It is quite possible to imagine a scene in Downing Street reminiscent of Henry II railing against Thomas Becket: "Who will rid me of these pesky peers?"

But the truth is there are plenty of Conservatives (and more than a few others) who privately agree with the sentiments of the two offending Lords, even if they condemn the language in which they were expressed.

It is a sign of the times that such people are far too concerned about the reaction from our 24-hour news cycle to raise their voices. Kenneth Clarke said last night that in today's media environment, "there are no problems, only crises". He wasn't far off the mark.

Howard Flight and David Young have expressed unpleasant and inaccurate views in foolish political language.

Criticise them by all means. Dismantle their arguments and pillory their antiquated notions.

But as the most radical government of modern times sets to its controversial work, the very last thing we need right now is a bonfire of the opinionated.

Monday, 22 November 2010

What Lib Dem leaflets teach us about Oldham East and Saddleworth

The Lib Dems and Labour couldn't be behaving more differently in Oldham East and Saddleworth, which remains on track to be the coalition's first by-election test.

Phil Woolas, who is as disgraced an MP as he is a former one, is clinging on to the hope he might be able to overturn the election court's ruling kicking him out of the Commons. While he does so the local Labour party are keeping their heads down, hoping against hope that the government's unpopularity will hit the Lib Dems.

Their hopeful, Elwyn Watkins, is taking a different view. He's been bombarding his voters with leaflets, repeating the drown-them-under-an-avalanche-of-literature tactic which fell just 104 votes short of beating Woolas on May 6th.

These are the first Lib Dem election leaflets to defend the party in government – and they make for some interesting reading.

"After 13 years of Labour let-downs, the Liberal Democrats in government are delivering a fair deal for local people," one notes.

It says the link between pensions and earnings has been restored and points out an extra £2 billion has already been fixed on social care.

Another lists "just a few of the positive changes being introduced by the Lib Dems in government". These include "more money for schools", "action to get Britain working again" and "no tax on the first £10,000 you earn". There's not much of a mention of the VAT hike, or tuition fees, either. Instead the approach is a very general one.

The bulk of the leaflets try to ignore the national picture, however, instead focusing on what the Lib Dems are achieving on Oldham borough council. Local issues like better street lighting, tackling antisocial behaviour and even "a new leisure suite at Saddleworth pool" are trumpeted. "I depend on the same shops, hospitals and everyday necessities as everyone else here," Watkins writes. "I know how much this part of the world to offer [sic] – with the right support."

Watkins will become the Lib Dems' 58th MP if he wins the by-election, giving himself the chance of entering the Commons after most would have given up and walked away. His decision to take Woolas to court, for the first time in a century, has shaken up the electioneering rulebook. But Watkins doesn't mind – in fact he's making the most of the victory.

"Labour's shamed MP Woolas has let our area down," one headline proclaims. "Labour MP Phil Woolas lies to local people to get re-elected," says another. "Labour's Woolas brings shame on our area." You get the idea.

Interestingly, there are no claims that Watkins is an absolute paragon of virtue in response. Instead he contrasts himself with Woolas by pointing out he has "a record of fighting hard for local people". He's a "no-nonsense northerner who'll stand up for all of us". Equally, the leaflets' overall tone is one of generalised frustration against Labour – exactly the right approach, given we don't know who Watkins' opponent will be yet. "ANGER," one extra-orange leaflet blares out in massive letters – even if it adds, in smaller print underneath, "... as Labour's mess leaves Greater Manchester police facing cutbacks".

The biggest purpose of the leaflets, common to all of them, is the Lib Dems' infamous bar chart. This is always deployed when the party needs to demonstrate it is the only alternative to the incumbent. "Just 103 votes in it!" it says, above a bar chart showing the top two parties in the seat at the general election. Labour got 14,186 votes. The Lib Dems got 14,083. The logic is clear: if you want to oust Labour, you've only got one option.

In fact that's not quite accurate. In 2005 the Conservatives were a long way behind, taking 18.2% of the vote compared to 33.2% for the Lib Dem candidate and 41.4% for Woolas. In 2010 the incumbent stood on 31.9%, with Watkins on 31.6%. The Conservative candidate, Kashif Ali, took 26.4%.

The conclusion is clear: Oldham East and Saddleworth is a three-way marginal. And, as Watkins' uncompromising rhetoric shows, it's going to be a close fight. His early leaflets suggest he is aware of the danger voters' residual anger from a tough-fought campaign earlier this year poses now. The emphasis on fighting the Labour party generally – and ignoring the Conservative threat completely – is unlikely to shift even when the official campaign gets underway.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Is this really what the Lords is for?

Sometimes the openly political machinations of peers makes it far too easy for critics of the unelected upper House to do their job.

Earlier this week we reported on Charlie Falconer's attempt to derail next May's planned referendum on electoral reform. He was attempting to shunt the parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill, of which it was part, into an obscure House of Lords committee which could have delayed it sufficiently to kybosh the referendum. In the end the Lords narrowly defeated his motion with a majority of just 14, ending the matter.

I've been talking to a clerk in the Lords about the baffling legalistic "wheezes", as the leader of the Lords put it, which Lord Falconer was deploying. Without entering into the complexities of "hybridity" – whether the bill specifically affects private interests or not – milord Falconer's argument was that something which is usually spotted before a bill begins its passage through the Commons and then the Lords had not been spotted, or even complained about, during its passage in the Commons.

This was suspicious enough, as peers pointed out in Monday's debate. What has now been explained to me is how brazenly political the move was.

Had Falconer's motion been successful, the 'hybridity' question would have been put to a a panel of Lords officials who would have provided an answer. These are the clerk of public bills in both Houses, who would also call in counsel to the chair of both committees. It turns out these are the same clerks who informally categorise bills before they begin their parliamentary journey, meaning they are highly unlikely to change their minds. Doing so would admit they got it wrong the first time! Doesn't seem at all probable to me.

Falconer was confronted with this when he discussed the matter with the clerks, but – so I'm told, at least – he didn't have a leg to stand on. But he went ahead and very nearly got his way. Is this really what the unelected Lords is for?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

'Mumbai-style': Emails we don't like to get

Part and parcel of living in a well-organised, security conscious country are contingency plans. We all have contingency plans. They are sensible, practical, useful things for when things go wrong. I have a contingency plan for when I lock myself out of the house (my wife). politics.co.uk's editor, Ian Dunt, has a contingency plan for if he fails to buy, possess or procure any kind of writing implement. He just steals my pens.

Now we have learned that parliament has a contingency plan for if armed terrorists launch a 'Mumbai-style' attack on the Palace of Westminster. The details were circulated to all who spend their days toiling away on the parliamentary estate, which includes politics.co.uk's editorial staff. Journalists have been discouraged from printing details of the plan, but it would be both fair and accurate to state that the running-away option is being positively encouraged. Don't hang around, we're told.

"We have contingency plans to cover a range of emergencies, of which this is one," a House spokesperson will say. "It does not relate to a specific threat. We do not comment in detail on security matters."

I was in parliament on July 21st 2005, when police officers thwarted a potential terrorist attack. The place was locked down quickly and efficiently. In a fast-moving situation like Mumbai, the atmosphere would be less calm. But at least, amid the chaos, all those present will be able to think: 'At least I once received an email about this.'

Monday, 15 November 2010

Why you shouldn't watch 'I'm a Celebrity'

Being a respectable Westminster-based news outlet, politics.co.uk doesn't watch programmes like I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

In no way would politics.co.uk be so vulgar and populist to watch a reality TV show, especially one which specialises in the kind of coarse humiliation rituals which pass for entertainment in modern Britain.

And even if politics.co.uk did accidentally switch on said programme accidentally last night, and promptly spend an hour enjoying itself immensely, it would certainly gain no pleasure from watching prominent former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik being forced to handle rodents.

If that had happened, it certainly would not proceed to, say, cancel its evening plans simpl to watch said former MP be buried alive with rats and fight his way out of a makeshift coffin.

Nope. No way. It would never happen.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Our new editorial board unveiled

Exciting news is rippling around the Palace of Westminster. MPs huddled outside the Commons chamber have been muttering about it, breaking away in suspicion as strangers approach. The researchers have been chattering about nothing else in the canteens. Wise-owled journalists have been taking careful notes. Now the moment they have all been waiting for has finally arrived. politics.co.uk has unveiled its new editorial board!

A few changes were required from the old line-up of MPs tasked with making sure the website's editorial content remains scrupulously neutral. Alistair Carmichael, our Liberal Democrat representative, was promoted into the deputy chief whip role following the formation of the coalition. This meant, now that he is on the government payroll, it was no longer appropriate for him to continue in the position. So Stephen Williams, who shadowed Peter Mandelson before the general election, has been drafted in to take his place. Stephen is now chair of the party's Treasury backbench committee.

Our former Conservative MP, Nigel Evans, was re-elected as Ribble Valley's MP on May 6th. But he won another election soon afterwards, becoming one of the Commons' three deputy Speakers. Setting party politics aside is part and parcel of this new job, but Nigel has agreed to stay on in a neutral capacity and as a representative of parliament.

Stepping into his Tory shoes is Jason McCartney, who won a close three-way marginal in Colne Valley to take the seat from Labour at the general election. Jason has a background in the media, having worked as a journalist for the BBC and ITV in his native north-west. All that followed a career in the RAF, making his time in politics something like career number three. We're delighted to have him aboard.

That leaves Labour's Barry Sheerman, the erstwhile Huddersfield MP, who has now been an MP for 31 years. His status as a parliamentary heavyweight was confirmed when he emerged as a key critic of Gordon Brown during the ex-prime minister's last months in No 10. His now chairs the Skills Commission for the Policy Connect organisation, which he helped establish.

Much of our business rests on us being politically neutral, so the board do an invaluable job in making sure this continues to remain the case. You can see our official blurb on the editorial board here.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Lib Dem discomforts continue to mount

That feeling of discomfort which many Liberal Democrat MPs felt in the initial aftermath of Nick Clegg's decision to enter into coalition just hasn't gone away.

They worried, then, that the party's identity would be eroded. One even admitted fears that the press would call David Cameron's administration the 'Conservative government' rather than the coalition government. That nightmare, at least, hasn't come to pass. But much else has.

Two stories published on politics.co.uk this week reveal the full extent of the malaise. Yesterday we showed how fed up many of the party's mid-ranking MPs are. They've been handed roles as co-chairs of the various parliamentary policy committees, which are supposed to help keep ministers honest by constantly referring to Lib Dem party policy. But the precise purpose of the roles has not yet been pinned down. One even called his committee a "waste of time".

Today we've published comments from an interview with the woman who set up those committees, Lorely Burt. Her job is to chair the parliamentary party. "I think it's a cross between a shop steward and a favourite aunt, really," she tells us, describing her role. "I listen to their moans and groans, I pass it on to the appropriate people."

Nowhere has she been hearing more moaning and groaning than on tuition fees, an issue which has once again leapt to the fore today. Burt has conceded that the issue is simply not one on which business secretary Vince Cable, at least, can afford to abstain on, as per the coalition agreement. She's also backing the leadership's stance over those of the malcontents, as you can read here.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Woolas' demise was hard, but not impossible, to spot

Even with the benefit of hindsight it was impossible to tell, as I travelled around Oldham East and Saddleworth with Phil Woolas and Elwyn Watkins, what lay ahead. But the clues were there.

By Alex Stevenson

The first inklings of tension came on Sunday April 25th, when Woolas and Watkins clashed in a hustings event in Saddleworth Civil Hall – the same venue in which the five-day hearing was heard.

The two high court judges would subsequently conclude that Labour leaflets were misrepresentative when it came to how 'local' the Liberal Democrats' Watkins was. Referring to one of Saddleworth's villages, Watkins told constituents: "I believe you need at least three generations to be a proper Delphonian, but at least I've - ah - made a start." The audience's reaction, I wrote, was 'unclear'.

Woolas, meanwhile, was going down a storm. "I'm always proud to be called a professional politician," he said. "I wouldn't want an amateur one." Watkins didn't look at all happy as a murmur of approval rippled around the room. The jibe didn't go unnoticed.

Locals say Watkins lost the May 6th election that day. His performance was heavy-handed and laboured. He appeared uncomfortable and out of sorts. Saddleworth is the well-off half of this constituency and those attending the hustings should have been flocking to the Lib Dems in their droves. Afterwards, some had changed their minds.

The following day I began to understand why this was the case. In the afternoon I met up with Watkins, who I shared a pint with in a village called Shaw. He was clearly overwrought, shaking his head repeatedly, flustered and breathless. "It's been terrible," he said, as he drove me to the day's leafleting destination. Of all the candidates I met during the general election campaign, Watkins most resembled a drowning man.

Woolas, by contrast, was much calmer. He frankly admitted that he didn't know which way the result was going to go. In the end he won by 103 votes, a desperately narrow margin which makes Oldham East and Saddleworth one of the supermarginals at the next general election. Scratch that – at the upcoming by-election, of course.

As we walked around the Holts housing estate, a deprived area on the outskirts of Oldham, his strikingly blunt manner shone through. Nowhere was this the case than when it came to the seat's famous racial tensions. "We haven't done anything to address it," he admitted.

Locals say the situation has improved in the decade which has passed since the Oldham race riots – and many give Woolas some of the credit for that. The importance of racial politics to the constituency's dynamics remained critical in 2010, however. The Conservative candidate, Kashif Ali, was thought to have removed well over a quarter of Woolas' votes in the Asian community. Perhaps this was why Woolas' literature tried so hard to link Watkins to Muslim extremists. It backfired, as we learned today.

Now Watkins must muster up the strength to fight a second campaign within 12 months – in a political climate much harder for the Lib Dems than it was back in May. The grim look on his face as he told me of Labour's allegations is hard to forget. "It's a very dirty campaign Labour fight when they're losing," he told me. What did he mean by that, I asked? "Get the muckspreaders out."

On every issue, big or small, Woolas and Watkins would sneer or splutter in turn whenever I told them of the other's claims. The Holts estate was a typical example – Woolas claimed the Lib Dems had abandoned its residents, but Watkins said the Lib Dem council had helped turn it around. "For him to claim credit for that - I'm almost speechless," Watkins said despairingly. This was, by itself, not that unusual. When added to the greater extremes taking place elsewhere on the campaign trail, though, even the slightest attack seemed to have a disproportionate impact on the challenger.

All marginals are close and difficult to predict, but the perfect storm of two sides' acrimony and voters' failure to pick a clear winner made this one of the most compelling. With Woolas launching a judicial review against today's verdict that struggle, even now, is not quite over. The bitter taste will not have faded by the time the second round of campaigning begins.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Miliband's plans to 'regenerate' Labour

Ever since Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership we've been trying to work out whether he will reflect the rhetoric of his campaign and march his party off to the left. Now we have our first real clue as to his plans for Labour's future.

His leader's speech in Manchester didn't clear up this question, providing material to please both the centre-left and the left-left of the party.

His allocation of shadow Cabinet roles wasn't very revealing, either. Perhaps focusing on unity rather than clarity, Miliband balanced his team with supporters of his own and backers of his elder brother. No insight there, then, into his longer-term plans.

At a soiree with lobby journalists earlier this week Her Majesty's leader of the opposition all but admitted this was a very deliberate strategy. "Being in opposition is different to being in government," he said, explaining that Labour would not make their position clear immediately.

The frankness is refreshing, even if it does mean we will have to wait a little longer to find out where Miliband really stands.

Or maybe we don't. Backroom staff close to the Labour leader are suggesting that, by the end of Miliband's first 100 days, he will have revealed his direction of travel much more clearly.

Miliband is set to emphatically rule out a shift to the left. It doesn't matter that the unions got him over the line; Miliband will attempt to redefine the centre-left instead. New Labour, like Doctor Who, will regenerate into a new political party without different emphases and sensibilities – but occupying exactly the same political territory which won Tony Blair three terms in power.

(Whether this is possible, or mere semantics, is beyond this particular writer. Politicians' reinventions are always tortuous processes, but this one sounds agonising).

Miliband's '100 days' milestone, by the way, fall round about January 4th. So don't be surprised if Labour's first full year in opposition kicks off with a major speech clarifying that Ed is a man with a centre-left plan.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Could Lib Dems be in for some good news on tuition fees?

It's been nothing but misery for many – correction, all – Liberal Democrat MPs since Lord Browne published his review of higher education funding last month.

Plans to increase tuition fees directly contradict the pledge signed by the party's candidates before the general election. Nick Clegg has tried his best to persuade them why they need to break their promise, but many have understandably threatened that they simply can't betray their constituents in this way.

Now some good news may finally have arrived. politics.co.uk is hearing that ministers have come up with a solution to the impasse which would allow the potential rebels to fall into line.

We understand a statement from either the Conservatives' higher education minister David Willetts or the Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable could be made as soon as tomorrow lunchtime, after prime minister's questions, resolving the matter.

One Lib Dem source told us that the moves were sufficient to persuade him not to vote against the government, as he had previously feared he might have had to do.

Another said a cap on tuition fee rises remained a possibility. Cable suggested introducing a £7,000 cap on fees, more than doubling the current rate, last month.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Was the government nearly defeated last Thursday?

This news story just uploaded to politics.co.uk has the phrase 'diary' written all over it:

Red-faced Labour whips will not be looking forward to tonight's parliamentary party meeting after an attempted stunt to defeat the government in the Commons backfired last week.

Angry opposition MPs are expected to demand an explanation as to why they were forced to stay in parliament later than usual on Thursday for a debate which did not go to a vote.

The debate on the comprehensive spending review was a one-line whip for the Conservatives but a three-line whip for Labour MPs, a parliamentary source told politics.co.uk.

Panicking coalition whips, having noted the number of opposition MPs' cars in parliament's underground car park, believed they faced an embarrassing defeat as they could only muster around 150 votes in the chamber.

But Labour's failure to understand Commons rules meant when time ran out the deputy Speaker moved straight on to the next item, the adjournment debate.

It would only have taken a Labour figure to stand up before 18:00 and call for a closure motion for a formal vote to have followed on whether the House had 'considered the CSR' or not.

Mistakes of this kind had been anticipated by government insiders, who expected mistakes after Ed Miliband appointed inexperienced Rosie Winterton to the chief whip job.