Politics.co.uk Blog

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

If Cameron dies, who takes over?

That was the question posed by the rather eccentric Conservative backbencher Peter Bone to Nick Clegg in deputy prime minister's questions this lunchtime.

Mr Bone, who is well-known in Westminster for his penchant for including the views of his wife Mrs Bone in Commons questions, kept the other half at home for his query to the DPM.

"I wish the deputy prime minister a merry Christmas," he began deceptively, "but if the prime minister was killed in a terrorist attack, who would take charge of the government?"

This was an important question of constitutional significance, perfectly legitimate given Clegg's responsibility for that portfolio. It also set up the political punchline which was the whole point of the exercise.

Bone added: "Will the deputy prime minister confirm that it would not be him, as he leads a party that has less support than the UK Independence party?"

Ouch! Most recent polls have kept Britain's third party in their traditional place, but one recently did put eurosceptic Ukip ahead of the Lib Dems. How embarrassing for Clegg, who managed to keep his head and come up with a very effective answer.

He replied: "I receive his season’s greetings in the spirit in which they were intended. As he knows, appropriate arrangements would be made in that very unfortunate event. I must say, however, that his morbid fascination with the premature death of his own party leader is a subject not for me, but for the chief whip."

Very neatly done from the Lib Dem leader. But it didn't really answer the question, did it?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

politics.co.uk's new podcast is on iTunes!

Great news from iTunes, which is now hosting politics.co.uk's podcasts. We've been putting out a few bits of audio this year claiming them to be 'podcasts', but - as listeners have informed us in polite and courteous terms - unless they're on iTunes, they're just not the real deal. From today that's changed! We've already got a pick of the best items produced this year available for download, and at the end of each week in the run-up to Christmas we'll be adding another.

After a couple of longer documentaries we've settled on a format which we're going to stick with: a fast-paced look at the biggest issues affecting Britain and how the politicians in charge of the country are coping with them, all packed into ten very busy minutes. It's all about attention-span: ten minutes of high quality comment, interviews and analysis works better than 30 minutes of more open-ended discussion. This content is the result of painstaking editing and the pick of the interviews we've conducted in the past week. It should be something everyone who's interested in politics should look forward to at hte end of the week.

Podcasting is all about broadcasting to an audience. It's about interactivity and engagement with your specific community. At politics.co.uk we're really keen to engage more with our readers. We want to build up a loyal listenership which comes to our podcast not just to hear our latest reports and interviews, but to get their views across and contribute to the debate, too. Email me at alex.stevenson@politics.co.uk or tweet us at @politics_co_uk - we want to hear from you.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Making the case for a British first amendment

Here's a guest post from politics.co.uk correspondent Tony Hudson:



One of the founding principles of the United States is its Bill of Rights. The first ten amendments to the constitution are integral to the very makeup of American law. The first and most important amendment guarantees its citizens the right to the freedom of speech. As a result, nobody in America can be jailed for the words they say.

In this country, things are slightly different. We have libel laws and injunctions. There are ways for British citizens to be criminally charged if something they say, or write, breaks certain rules.

It was this tricky issue being debate with regard to internet blogging this afternoon in parliament. The joint committee on privacy and injunctions had four notable British bloggers giving evidence on the legal minefield that has been created by the blogosphere. During this hearing, the idea was touched upon that a first amendment model would be a good blueprint for use in Britain.

Guido Fawkes editor Paul Staines said, rather flippantly, "that country seems to be doing rather well" when discussing the impact of complete freedom of speech the first amendment has had upon America. In a somewhat slippery jurisdictional manoeuvre Staines has his website hosted in the United States and, as a result, he is protected by American law despite not being an American citizen.

It is a shame that he is able to take advantage of something that is unavailable to most other British bloggers. Of course, if Britain were to adopt an equivalent to the first amendment, this sort of trick would not be necessary.

Richard Wilson, another blogger present at the hearing, also commended the idea of the first amendment. He said that America "protects freedom of speech better" than Britain does. He even went as far as to say that it sometimes "seems like freedom of speech is in trouble in this country".

Wilson argued that transparency was indispensible when defining "the rule of law" and, as such, those who break super-injunctions are more closely following the spirit of law than those imposing them. He proposed "something akin to the first amendment" as a starting off point in the regulation of British media.

Both men made the case that the pursuit of truth is the primary motivating factor for what they do. They both decried injunctions and super-injunctions as barriers to the pursuit of truth and that when there is public interest involved, those barriers should not be so easily and readily available.

The debate will undoubtedly continue but, regardless of what you may think of each individual blogger's politics, there is certainly an interesting and compelling case to be made for the adoption of a British first amendment.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Who was better: Tories' William Hague, or Labour's Rory Weal?

An extraordinarily effective speech from a 16-year-old has proved the unexpected highlight of Monday at the Labour party conference.

Rory Weal proved a real breath of fresh air when he stood up to address party delegates in Liverpool before the main event of the morning session, shadow chancellor Ed Balls' speech.

Like all successful speeches from young whippersnappers, it invited instant comparisons with William Hague's infamous speech to the 1977 Conservative party conference. You can compare and contrast the two addresses below.

Leader of the opposition Ed Miliband, Balls and Harriet Harman were among those listening spellbound as the teenager delivered a forceful three-minute tirade against the coalition's cuts.

The hike in tuition fees, the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance and changes to the welfare system all came in for criticism during the speech.

"As someone who would have benefited from the full EMA payout before it was scrapped, what does he advise when I can't afford to go to school in the morning?" he asked of prime minister David Cameron.

"What does he advise when I can't buy the materials and textbooks I need for school? This government is repeatedly showing just how out of touch it is with the lives of ordinary people in the UK."

The sight of a schoolboy explaining how his home was dispossessed two-and-a-half years ago, and the experience of relying on the welfare state his family experienced, proved a brief tear-jerker. Then came the killer blow: "that very same welfare state is being ripped apart by the vicious and right-wing Tory-led government", he said angrily, a study of controlled frustration. Cue another big round of applause.

"I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for that system, that safety net," Rory continued.

"It is up to us in the Labour party to create a vision of what a better Britain will look like. Let's get to work!"

Weal is obviously a man - or rather, a boy - or rather, somewhere inbetween - of the people. His suit was just a little too big for him.

He walked over to Miliband and co, clapping delightedly from their seats on stage, before wandering off. It was not quite the sort of wild reception saved for enthusiastic audiences of talent show auditionees. But it wasn't far off.









Thursday, 28 July 2011

One nose job later, Ed's still Milibunged-up

Interior, day: a hospital ward in the Royal National Throat, Nose and ear hospital. The leader of the opposition is in bed, surrounded by a gaggle of supporters. He opens his eyes. Amid an atmosphere of fevered anticipation, he speaks.

ED MILIBAND: 'As by nose job imbroved by terror-bull boice?

(instant consternation. Ed Balls tears large chunks out of his hair. Mrs Miliband bursts into tears. The spirit of Gordon Brown's political career falls off its chair)

SPIN DOCTOR 1: Blair in heaven! It didn't work!

SPIN DOCTOR 2: Ach! We'll never win in 2015 now! (exit all bar Miliband, gnashing their collective teeth)

ED MILIBAND (to himself): I bidn't think id was thad bad.

(curtain)

This, it should be noted, is a work of fiction. But it's based on an event which happened yesterday, when the man all right-thinking left-wingers hope will be Britain's next prime minister had a nose job.

The problem, as the Labour spinners explained, was his snoring. A deviated septum has caused him to suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea, causing him to lose sleep at nights. When he does nod off, it is his poor long-suffering wife Justine who is kept awake. A supreme irony, you might think, that a politician whose speeches are occasionally sleep-inducing also has a special talent for keeping someone awake.

There was only one thing for it: a nose job. Ed nose day, as yesterday was instantly termed, was strongly suspected by everyone in Westminster, down to the tea lady, as being motivated more by spin doctors than real ones.

A caller on BBC Radio 2 summed up the problem when the Labour leader appeared for a Q and A session earlier this year. "I get really frustrated when I see you on TV night after night with your grawling voice."

Perhaps Miliband spent those sleepless nights wondering what this refreshingly honest voter meant by 'grawling'. Growling? Drawling? Groaning? App-awling? It didn't really matter which, he must have concluded. None of them were likely to prove vote-winners.

As every politician knows, the voice is a key part of the personality. Some ridiculous individuals suggest it's the ideas that matter, but they're way off the mark. A slick haircut, snappy dress sense, the ability to turn on the charm like a tap - these are the key ingredients of political success in 21st century Britain. Add to the list a smooth, reassuringly self-confident tone of speech and you're 90% of the way there.

This is why there have been so many knowing glances when the spinners claim the nose job has nothing to do with ending Miliband's 'grawling' for good. We haven't yet heard the change, but those who have say it's essentially unchanged. I can't help but have a sneaking suspicion it might have altered, after all. Perhaps they said the same thing before Margaret Thatcher's vocal coaching turned her from a whimpering junior minister into a fire-eating tamer of the 'wets'.

Personally, I think it would be a shame for Miliband to lose his bunged-up persona. It makes him sound a little drab, just a little bit depressed, which is perfect for a leader of the opposition trying to appear like he's been personally let down by the prime minister's terrible policies.

Right now, it works just fine. But in four years, when he's trying to persuade Britain that he's the man they want on the world stage standing up for Britain, it might be a different matter...

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Two Commons subplots: John Bercow and David Miliband

What with the extremely busy - and important - Commons agenda this afternoon, I wasn't able to sneak in a couple of subplots which would usually have found their way into my PMQs sketch.

It would of course be a travesty for the world to continue without these interesting morsels being shared. So, here they are.

Number one: the Speaker taking it easy.

Last week John Bercow launched his strongest attack on the prime minister. He interrupted him in full flow as he wound up to polish off Ed Miliband, simply because he thought he was going on too long. Later in the session he noted that PMQs is "principally for backbenchers".

This sort of manoeuvring is not without consequences. Tory MP Rob Wilson has laid into Bercow in an article in the Telegraph which we've reported on, calling Bercow "bombastic" and "divisive". Worse still, the PM has consigned the Speaker to semi-regular exile in Afghanistan, in an exchange of parliamentary Speakers.

This week Bercow kept himself to himself a bit more. His first intervention came against Cameron, to be sure, but it was in support of the PM, not against him. "I apologise for interrupting the prime minister," he said sorrowfully.

The Speaker may have been acting under the influence of his wife, Sally, who was sitting in the gallery above the government benches. They hate her because of her ambitions to be a Labour politician - and the influence she has had on her husband's own, now officially irrelevant, political opinions. It was striking how firmly she nodded whenever Ed Miliband made a point. And how much she smiled whenever the Speaker spoke.

Number two: the soap opera, still simmering away.

Most MPs run for cover when PMQs are finished, it being lunchtime. Not David Miliband, the former foreign secretary. He was seen slinking into the chamber against the tide to hear David Cameron's statement on troop withdrawals in Afghanistan. Apart from an odd penchant to stroking his red tie, there was nothing really remarkable about this reappearance. But it was striking to see how he silently gazed upon his vanquisher, and younger brother, Ed Miliband nod at Cameron's statement.

He was sitting next to Jack Straw, another has-been veteran of the Tony Blair years. When the text of Cameron's statement was passed along, Straw instantly began poring over the document making annotations hither and thither. Miliband, on receiving his, instantly chucked it disdainfully into the shelf in front of him - and started gazing around him, especially up at the press gallery.

There is something about him - a restless energy, perhaps? - which makes me certain he will return to frontbench politics before the next general election. The elder Miliband is surely biding his time, even if he looks rather bored doing so.

Monday, 13 June 2011

A new chapter for politics.co.uk

The new-look politics.co.uk has finally gone live and some of us have social lives to get back to.

We've been working flat out behind the scenes for a couple of months, trying to bring you more of what you want and less of what you don't.

Evolution, not revolution is the key. We've brought our comment and analysis content front and centre by featuring select pieces on the homepage. Everyday you'll find a new package waiting for you here, on anything from Labour leadership speculation to video games age-ratings.

Don't worry: politics.co.uk is and always will be a news site. These packages will always be connected to a major news development happening in British politics. Over on the news homepage we'll bring you all the most important news stories from Westminster and the UK. If you're a political fanatic, there's no better place to find in-depth, comprehensive news stories on what's happening behind the scenes.

Speakers Corner, I'm afraid, has gone the way of the dodo, but Comment and Analysis will still bring you some of the most perceptive and controversial coverage on the internet. From MP comment pieces, to our own analysis of unfolding events, to our 'speech in full' feature, this is the place where we trigger debate.

Over on Opinion Formers you'll be able to secure your access to the political world, unmediated by editorial. Here the movers and shakers from the worlds of think tanks, public policy, political parties and the private sector post their press releases, so you get access to the information you need, uncut and unedited.

Finally, there's our reference section, arguably the most useful political directory on the web. From MPs' profiles to blog reviews to issue briefs, this is a one-stop shop for your research. No frills, just reliable information.

The latest social media and sharing utilities have been embedded across the site along with a more engaging design that still maintains the basic structure and attitude of politics.co.uk.

Whatever else changes, politics.co.uk's mission statement remains the same: Impartial, in-depth, thought-provoking coverage of the political world.

Just politics. Nothing else.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Our prime ministerial enthusiasm falters

There's a sense at politics.co.uk towers that the prime minister is being wheeled out a bit – well, a bit too much.

Don't get us wrong. Normally there is nothing we love more than spending time picking over every word of David Cameron's finely-crafted speeches.

But today felt different. It was not the delivery, or the content, or even the length – excessive thought that was.

We just can't help but get the feeling that the government's spin doctors are running out of options on this one.

It's a mark of how desperate officials are that they're having to deploy their ultimate trump card, the PM, to get the message across.

Clearly health secretary Andrew Lansley is no longer considered sufficiently trusted, or liked, to get the job done.

Instead, if you want reach, go upstairs to No 10. That's been in the spinners' playbook for years. Now it feels like they're pushing their luck.

***Actually, there is one gripe at the content of Cameron's speech I need to get off my chest. Astonishingly, one of the reasons he cited for the need to reform the health service was a disparity in current quality – ie, postcode lotteries. Surely an NHS driven solely by competition would only exacerbate this?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

An alternative means of punishing politicians

In the 21st century, the chief means of punishing politicians is at the ballot box. It's highly possible this is exactly what voters are doing up and down the country today, as elections – and a referendum – give the people their chance to influence the fate of the country, and give those in power a kicking at the same time.

Every so often, individual politicians need to be punished too. We've seen the highly unusual spectacle of MPs being dispatched to prison for their expenses crimes in recent months. This was viewed as being a staggering extremity of punishment, although it may not have satisfied some members of the public.

Which is why they might be interested in a strange event taking place at St Andrews University in Scotland tomorrow.

Perhaps trying to distract themselves from the ongoing row over their Centre for Syrian Studies, experts from all over the world will read excerpts from Dante's Inferno which explain, in gory detail, what happens to those who are guilty of hypocrisy, deceit and corruption.

"Those being punished included false prophets, corrupt politicians, and hypocrites," the University explains.

"In the text, corrupt politicians – the old term 'barrators' is used for those who take money for political favours – are forced to stay submerged in a pool of burning tar. If any emerge, they are hooked out and tortured by devils.

"Hypocrites meanwhile are forced to walk in a circle wearing unbearably heavy cloaks, representing the appearances they kept up in life, and the burden of that is increased for eternity in hell."

Now that's what we call calling politicians to account. Maybe we should hold a referendum on introducing some of these measures?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

A beginner's guide to PMQs

Here's a guest post from Hannah Brenton:


It will come as no surprise that watching prime minister's questions in person is quite a different experience from watching it on television.

While the camera's natural focus remains on whoever is speaking, it misses many of the more magical moments that make prime minister's questions such a gladiatorial contest between the parties – and the sparks of backbench humour that litter the repartee.

The flow of 'political theatre' is easier to appreciate. Instead of seeing the image on the screen cut between prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband, it's possible to read the body language of both men as they either angrily jump up to retort the other's point or casually lean against the despatch box in a sign of languid contempt.

Without the constraint of the camera angle, you can take in the entire panorama of the chamber and read the reactions across the backbenches.

As Mike Gapes spoke of the need to increase the number of allotment places available, one of his Labour colleagues laughed and began rubbing his belly.

The din from the benches is louder than it appears on the screen – and the noisy bellows of one MP seem to grow amorphously into a general chorus of jeers or cheers.

While it is clear on television that the Labour frontbench are heckling the prime minister, it is much more apparent from within the chamber the number of side retorts and continuous back-and-forth that takes place across the frontbench.

Today, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper persistently spoke over the prime minister's responses, which clearly grated on Cameron.

The camera's blind spot is the smaller reactions that create the humour and tension of the occasion - something the large number of sketch-writers and lobby journalists inside the chamber know very well.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The voting systems you won't find on the referendum paper

Two months after the 2010 general election, 18 voting experts gathered at the Chateau du Baffy in Normandy for a rather unusual session. They were discussing the relative merits of a number of other, lesser-used voting systems, before choosing which one they believed was the best. In the end, first-past-the-post was unanimously rejected, as I wrote about last week:
Voting experts reject first-past-the-post
You can also have a look at the academic research paper if you want to delve into the details further.

Here's a pick of some of the mind-bending alternatives they considered:

Approval voting

This is one of the more positive options on offer, perfect for those voters who feel constrained by only having one vote. Under approval voting, each voter approves as many candidates as they want. The candidate with the most 'approvals' is the winner. If you wanted to encourage the democratic process, for example, you could vote for all the candidates on the ticket as a 'well done for taking part'. Or you could vote for all but one, to punish a particular candidate. Best of all, voting for the Conservative and Lib Dem candidate would be a vote of approval for a coalition government... the options are endless.

Tournament score

In this system voters submit a ranking of their candidates. Each candidate is then assessed on how many of their challengers they beat under what is known as "pair-wise majority rule" – that is, a straight fight between the two for a majority. The candidates with the largest scores are chosen. There's one problem here, though – it's not clear how ties are broken. Explaining this one to the British public might take some doing.

Two-round majority

A first-round election takes place in which each voter backs one candidate. If no candidate gets an overall majority, all but the top two candidates are knocked out and a run-off takes place. This is used around the world, but has its pitfalls. In France, for example, there is a real possibility the far-right Marine Le Pen could beat the Socialists into the runoff against Nicolas Sarkozy.

Coombs

This is a variant on the alternative vote. Rather than knocking out the candidate that came last, if no-one has an overall majority the eliminated candidate is the one who is most often ranked last. It's named after the academic who came up with the idea in 1964.

Majority judgement

This appears one of the most baffling of all. Voters assess each candidate based on a graded verbal scale (eg Cameron is 'satisfactory', Clegg is 'marvellous', Brown is 'hopeless'). The median result for each candidate is then calculated. A "linear approximation scheme", whatever that is, is then used to choose the elected candidate. Wow.

Minimax procedure

If the voting system is being decided on which has the best name, this must surely be among the frontrunners. The aim of this voting system appears to be to find the candidate who is the least unpopular. Each voter ranks their candidates. Then each candidate is assessed by the size of the majority of all the other candidates against them. The winner is the one which has the smallest majority gathered against him or her.

Range voting

Why bother ranking candidates relative to each other, when you could mark them out of ten? Each voter assesses each candidate by giving them marks. The elected candidate is simply the one who receives the most points when all the marks are added together. This system is also known as "utilitarianism". Try putting that on a referendum ticket.

Leximin

This is another 'the least unpopular' type of method. Each voter grades each candidate according to some kind of scale – it doesn't really matter what. The winner is the one who gets the fewest of the worst possible grade. This is calculated through a mathematical equation which, I'm afraid, I don't understand in the slightest.

Plurality

Each voter chooses one candidate and the candidate with the most votes is elected. Oh, wait – we've heard that one before, haven't we? It is, according to the research paper, "the most common voting rule in the Anglo-Saxon world". It has another name, too: first-past-the-post.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The prime minister strikes back

I've been mulling over David Cameron's very robust response to Vince Cable's criticism of his immigration speech. In the past I've always thought the PM has bent over backwards to keep his junior coalition colleagues happy. There was none of that friendly cooperation on show today.

"This speech is Liberal Democrat policy," the prime minister said when Cable's comments were put to him. By this logic, the entire weight of the Liberal Democrats backs a policy that it bitterly fought against during the 2010 general election campaign. That is, quite obviously, preposterous. The reality is the Lib Dems gave the Tories free rein in this area as part of the wider coalition deal. Why can't they just come out and say it?

The looming elections are an obvious factor in the game – as I've written about in this analysis piece on immigration being a very convenient coalition punchbag. Perhaps this sort of grandstanding suits both Cameron and Cable. It's not out of the realms of possibility that they might even have agreed to have a very public spat about this issue. Doing so in these terms seems to be taking it a bit too far, though. "The policy is agreed by the coalition. It is coalition and government policy and is being put in place right across the board," Cameron insisted.

Perhaps he is merely trying to get the message across that, despite grumblings from the party responsible for maintaining him in power, he will get immigration down to the tens of thousands, come what may. Is that different to "Liberal Democrat policy"? Obviously, but not according to the prime minister.

He must be careful not to rile the Lib Dems' grassroots activists any more than is necessary, for pressure on the coalition is slowly but surely intensifying.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Will GPs really be able to charge under the government's NHS reforms?

Among the details of Ed Miliband's dossier on the government's NHS reforms lies a potentially explosive proposal: GPs will be able to charge for services.

As a sentence it doesn't quite have the resonance of 'the death of the NHS', but that's ultimately what it means. If true, it would mark the end of guaranteed free, comprehensive healthcare in Britain.

So, is it true? Well, apparently yes. After reading the Labour dossier I tried to get more details from Labour and the Department of Health but neither were particularly useful (surprise!)

Instead, the best work on the subject comes from professor Allyson Pollock, from the Centre for Health Sciences. She wrote a piece in the British Medical Journal recently which you can read here. It’s detailed and complex but well worth your time.

The key clause is clause 22. It hands the health secretary the power to "make such charges as he considers appropriate" to GPs' consortia. Section nine of the bill allows GPs to determine which services are part of the health service and which are chargeable. Section seven gives them general powers to charge.

So really, the health secretary's powers to unilaterally charge for particular operations or procedures has been transferred to GPs. That doesn't seem such a big change. It almost seems as if the NHS was never that safe. But actually, GPs will be freer to charge than the health secretary ever was, because he always had to abide by the government's duty to provide comprehensive healthcare free at the point of delivery. Various government innovations – not least under Labour – have chipped away at the structures and mechanism holding that duty in place, but the transferral of the power marks a much greater change.

Not only that, but any move to charge by a health secretary would have been a major political story. By moving that decision to the local level and tasking a technical commissioning body to do it, we can assume that it would cause much less of a stir.

There are further complications. The health secretary's duty to promote a comprehensive service is replaced with a duty "to act with a view to securing" comprehensive services. His duty to provide certain services throughout the UK will be scrapped. Instead, consortia "arrange for" services to meet "all reasonable requirements". Tellingly, they can determine which services are "appropriate as parts of the health service". The duty for comprehensive services is replaced with "services… it considers appropriate".

Similarly, the existing duty on the health secretary to promote equity of access is replaced with a duty to "have regard" to the need to reduce inequalities.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Kerry McCarthy (and her iPad) make Commons history

There have been many landmarks in parliament's long history. Cromwell raised a few eyebrows. Those sensational debates between Disraeli and Gladstone excited the fledging press gallery. Churchill barked on, talking about "their finest hour". Now we have another milestone for that great pantheon of parliamentary landmarks.

All those great parliamentarians have one thing in common. One thing that they all failed to achieve. One box they did not tick. None of them, indeed no MP ever, is thought to have used an iPad as a prompt for a speech in the House of Commons before last night.

This is the feat of the uber-techno-savvy Kerry McCarthy, a former Labour whip who has been feted as the nearest thing Labour has to Steve Jobs. No doubt the Apple supremo will be proud when (or perhaps if?) he hears the news of his product's latest breakthrough. He may be disappointed she didn't use the iPad 2.

MPs have been angling for permission to use more computer technology in the chamber for several years now. The advent of smart phones has made it possible to furtively keep up to date, but until recently even twittering MPs from the chamber were treated with something close to disgust. The problem was fixed last week when the Commons' procedural committee announced it was endorsing the use of iPads in the chamber. It's a big breakthrough for MPs. McCarthy took the opportunity with both hands last night.

This has left those who have stuck to the old ways rather out of the loop when it comes to fast-moving developments. It takes so long to catch the Speaker's eye, they complain, that they can't possibly be expected to know what's going on at the same time. Perhaps there was a reluctance to admit that being in the Commons chamber is bo-ring. Or perhaps it's just that this is the start of a trend which will take a bit of time to get going. Can you see Sir Peter Tapsell with an iPad? No, me neither.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The press missed out on Ed Balls' Budget tirade

Ed Balls has spent a lot of his political life in government, so he probably wouldn't like to acknowledge a simple truth: he's a natural opposition politician.

The shadow chancellor was in full flow this afternoon as he laid into George Osborne on the Budget.

But with the majority of journalists either working their way through the main red book and its supporting documents with fine toothcombs, or just feeling that the main event is over and they can relax, there were next to no hacks in the Commons chamber.

By parliamentary tradition it's the leader of the opposition who gives the initial reply immediately after the Budget has been delivered.

This is why Balls had to wait until today for his turn, when no one is listening. Here's a sketch of what they were missing.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Highlights: Tetchy MPs deny themselves a pay rise

One thing's for certain: they weren't especially happy about it. For 90 minutes late on Monday evening, the Commons debated whether or not to push ahead with a one per cent pay rise. In the end they backed the government's decision to vote for a pay freeze. But they didn't like it one bit.

Here are some choice snippets from the debate:

Sir George Young, leader of the House

Hon. Members must now decide whether their constituents would welcome Parliament exempting itself from that policy and thus insulating itself from decisions that are affecting households throughout the country, or whether, as I believe, the public expect their elected representatives to be in step with what is being required of other public servants. I believe that it is right for us, as Members of Parliament, to forgo the pay increase that the current formula would have produced.

Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)

This government, like their predecessors, are poking their nose in where it does not belong.

Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab)

What he is doing tonight, of course, is renationalising the terms and conditions of MPs' salaries, which is going in exactly the wrong direction. Does he accept that this matter will go on and on, and that MPs will be undermined consistently by the media and the public until we have a wholly independent authority that does not come back to this House or to the Government for a final decision?

Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)

It is absolute agony that we are having this debate this evening after we have had such a fantastic and informed debate on Libya. It goes to prove that there is never, ever a good time to talk about MPs' pay and conditions.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

How can we earn public respect and work in the national interest to solve this country's acute economic problems and to reform public services, let alone to assert Britain's place in the world, which we debated earlier, when we have so abjectly and continually failed to sort out our immensely damaging internal difficulties?

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab)

To do what is proposed is to demean the House. If that means that the proposals have been drawn up in a short time scale, then what have the Leader of the House's office and his deputy been doing all this time, if they knew that it would come to this? It is an embarrassment; therefore, I am sorry to say that the Leader of the House and his deputy have been found at fault. If they had any sense, they would withdraw the motion and bring forward a correct motion before the end of the financial year.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes

The politics are that tonight we would have been given a 1% pay increase when we are asking other people earning more than £21,000 a year not to have that pay increase. However, the problem would not have existed if the government had always accepted that the independent pay review body should recommend salaries for us as public servants, as well as for ambulance workers, health workers and so on. In that respect I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and others. It really is not acceptable for us to set a rule one year and break it the next.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)

It would be impossible for the House to accept a pay increase in these circumstances. The recommendation for people in the national health service who earn below £21,000 a year is that they should receive an extra £250 in a year. For us to take 1% on our pay would not work in these circumstances.

David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con)

Constituents will not be fooled if we accept the 1% increase and say, "It was all because of an independent body-nothing to do with us, guv." They will realise that we put that body in place.

John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)

Many of us in this place have believed for a long time that we should not decide our own salaries and pensions, and have abstained in debates on them. We thought in 2008 that we were ensuring that a third party would, in effect, decide; we are now yet again bringing the matter back in-house.

Deputy leader of the House David Heath

It is not a decision for government; it is a decision for the House. Members must make up their own minds, but in my view- and I do not think I am alone - it is a no-brainer.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Ed Miliband 'less popular than Nick Clegg'

Latest polling data from Ipsos Mori provides some troubling news for the opposition.

Yes, Labour are on top in the polls overall – if there was a general election, 41% would vote Labour, compared to 37% for the Conservatives and a measly ten per cent for the Liberal Democrats.

And 45%% like the Labour party, compared to 37% for the Tories.

The problem is the leader.

Whereas 47% like David Cameron - significantly more than the 37% who like the Conservative party as a whole - just 36% say the say about Ed Miliband.

That's nine points worse than the number who say they like his party.

What makes this especially painful is Nick Clegg's comparable figures. Four out of every ten respondents said they liked him, exactly the same proportion as said they liked the Lib Dems. Forty per cent is higher than Miliband's personal likeability.

This is the man who has been burned in effigy on the streets, betrayed his party's pledge on tuition fees and is now steadfastly defending the government's NHS reforms – despite his own party's grassroots voting against the planned changes at the Lib Dems' spring conference last weekend.

Clegg's figures are surprising – but it's Miliband who should really be worried.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The beauty of the shipping forecast

John Prescott, or as we're forced to call him now, Lord Prescott, is set to become the first non-BBC presenter to read the evening shipping forecast, in a stunt for Red Nose Day. But what is it about the shipping forecast that so beguiles the middle classes, most of whom have never listened to it at sea? Why have we, as a nation, developed such a strange, reliant relationship with it?

Everyone refers to the pacing of the forecast, with its slow, meticulous tempo offering listeners a hypnotic, sleep-inducing effect. It comes at just the right time, being followed by the national anthem and then, finally, bed. You'll notice that BBC presenters delivering the goodnight on Radio 4 seem to have some sense of their responsibility as the new high priests of reassurance. There's a lot of emotion put into that goodnight on Radio 4.

That strange timing, the unique tempo, is actually rather difficult to mock with the appropriate intuition and affection. The best effort by far came from Stephen Fry. "Malin, Hebrides, Shetland, Jersey, Fair Isle, Turtle-Neck, Tank Top, Courtelle: blowy, quite misty, sea sickness," he said. "Not many fish around, come home, veering suggestively."

Pop culture has seized on the forecast as a shorthand for a particular kind of Englishness. Blur's 'This Is a Low' brilliantly combined it with scenes of modern England in one of the bands many attempts to put their finger on the collection of modern and archaic qualities which give this island its character. "On the Tyne, Forth and Cromarty there's a low in the high 40s," Damon Albarn sang. "Hit traffic on the Dogger bank, up the Thames to find a taxi rank."

And it's in these strange words, rather than pacing, that the real effect of the shipping forecast lies. People don't know where the Viking, FitzRoy or Rockall sea areas are. But these words have two unique qualities which are almost impossible to find in everyday language: they are at the same time familiar and alien. This combination is the closest any of us get to a return to childhood. The world of our parents was undecipherable but unthreatening - a strange and inexplicable place, but one which was as safe as any we would ever know.

It's that childlike sense which the shipping forecast delivers to the British middle classes just before bed time, the poor dears. One imagines they would quite literally march on parliament were anyone to suggest changing anything about it. In an ever-changing world, it's one thing you can rely on. As Orwell said, we're all "sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England".

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Why Harriet Harman pities 'duped' Clegg

Labour's deputy leader was in fine form at a parliamentary press gallery lunch in the Palace of Westminster this afternoon.

Harriet Harman's remarks to assembled journalists began with the air of a party conference speech, as she contrasted the "hopelessness" and "misery" of the Labour party after its 1983 defeat with its current mood. "There's an atmosphere of real determination," she enthused. They probably said the same thing 28 years ago.

The upbeat attitude may have something to do with the looming local elections, when the opposition are expected to capitalise on unpopularity – especially Lib Dem unpopularity – in the coalition. Harman isn't sure what will happen – will the Tories fight the Lib Dems, and will alienated voters look for an alternative, or just stay at home?

Regardless, she's up for the fight. "We've got to field candidates where we haven't done so before," she urged. In the south-west, for example, previously two-thirds of wards did not have Labour candidates on the ballot paper. That could all change.

May 5th, polling day, will also see the referendum take place on electoral reform. This is a big deal for the Lib Dems, but Harman feels Nick Clegg has been "completely duped".

"On the same day that Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates are fighting... it is so difficult to have cross-party campaigning," she explained.

The widespread contempt which left-wingers currently feel for the Lib Dems does not mean Harman would rule out ever working with them again, however. Ever the astute politician, she left the door open for future cooperation with Clegg and co.

"We're Labour. We know what we stand for... there will be occasions when other parties are going to be doing and saying the same thing. When that happens, we're happy to work with them," Harman said.

"What it shouldn't be about is tactical positioning... all that games-playing is not the right way to do politics, it's not what the public want."

Monday, 28 February 2011

That prime ministerial softer side in full

Here's a guest post from my colleague Hannah Brenton:

David Cameron showed his softer side in an interview on Friday and let slip a crucial personality trait – he is an optimist.

Asked in a Youtube interview to describe one experience that changed the way he viewed the world, the prime minister waxed lyrical about the end of the Cold War.

"I suppose the experience that made me think a lot, politically, was the fall of the Berlin Wall," he said.

"I had spent some time behind the Iron Curtain, I had travelled through Russia beforehand, and I think that incredible year of 1989 was a momentous year. I think so many people had felt that change wasn't possible, and it proved that change was possible; a more bright, democratic future was possible. And there are some echoes with what is happened in our world today.

"So I suppose I am an optimist, I always like to think on the bright side, and when I think of an experience that gave me a great lift in thinking about life and the future of our planet and the people who live on it, actually that year of liberation was an incredible year."

As we face a bleak economic outlook, optimism may well be a useful quality in a leader – as long as it's not misplaced.

The prime minister was then asked if he could ask one question to a world leader, dead or alive. What would it be and to whom?

Unsurprisingly, as a British prime minister the obligatory answer is Winston Churchill.

Cameron said he would ask the wartime prime minister how he kept going in the face of adversity.

"I think if it was anyone ever, I think it would have to be Winston Churchill in 1940, I think the most incredible year in British history when we stood alone and the whole of the world seemed to be against us, with only us standing against Hitler and all of the armies he had amassed," he said.

"I think understanding how Churchill maintained that courage and that fortitude to take his country, my country through that incredibly difficult time – I have read so many books and articles and stories about that period, but to ask him what it felt like and how he kept so steadfast, I think would be fascinating."

Perhaps Churchill was an optimist.

Friday, 18 February 2011

What PMs do when they don't know the answer

Yesterday's launch of the coalition's welfare reform programme hit the slightest of hitches yesterday – but David Cameron was so smooth in glossing over the hiccup that most people will have barely noticed.

He was in east London, talking with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith about the government's proposal to introduce a new universal credit. The speech went fine. Then came the questions.

The first appeared to be on topic, but wasn't really. This is a deadly combination for the prime minister, who must know what he's talking about at all times.

It was from Leslie Morphy, the chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis. She's worried about the contracting structure the government is adopting as it rolls out its 'big society' plans.

Cameron responded with – let's not beat about the bush – waffle. His generalisations were supreme. "For years we've had a government which has just led to the large players farming those on unemployment benefits and skimming off the top those who find jobs," he began. Completely unrelated to the question. But it didn't matter. Because, after having made one or two generalised points, he concluded thus: "That is very much the intention of our policy. Of course it's extremely difficult to put in place – and Iain's now going to have to explain how it's going." Talk about putting your secretary of state on the spot. Queue lots of laughter, and the situation defused.

After the proceedings had wrapped up I went and talked to Ms Morphy, who explained to me the detail about which the prime minister was so perplexed. It's about contracting arrangements – which sounds dull, but is actually pretty fundamental if the 'big society' is going to get off the ground. You can read the resulting news story here.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Democracy in action

We've just received this from one of our regular readers, who is one of the millions of people in Britain keen to get hold of the deputy prime minister.

‎"Hello, can I speak to Mr Clegg, please?"
"I'm sorry, he's unavailable at the moment"
"Well, can I make an appointment to speak to him?"
"Err - I'm not sure..."
"He is my MP..."
"Ah, I see. So you're not just calling to make a fuss?"
"Well. I am calling to make a fuss. Just in his role as my elected representative, not as deputy Prime Minister"
"I see. You'll have to call his office"
"Isn't that you?"
"Well, yes it is"
"So...."
"I'm sorry, I mean, his constituency office in Sheffield"
"But isn't he in London today? I've just seen him on the telly"
"Yes, yes, he is."
"So, don't you have his diary there?"
"Well, yes I do"
"So can't I make an appointment?"
"I'm afraid not"
"But don't you have his diary there?"
"Yes"
"So...."
"I'm afraid you need to call his Sheffield office"
"How about I leave a message"
"Of course, what would you like the message to say"
"Don't sell off the forests"
"Is that it?"
"Well, you can add my name and address"
[Name and address copied down - unconvincingly]
"Is there anything else I can help you with?"
"Well, I did really want to tell him myself"
"I'll be sure to pass the message on"

DEMOCRACY: FAIL.

An interesting conclusion, isn't it? I'm quite a long way from agreeing it. It seems to me that if every politician was to make themselves personally available to every one of their 80,000-odd constituents, prioritising that over the important business of, you know, running the country, we might find ourselves in even more of a mess than we are now.

But how to prove the point? Well, I'm going to try speaking to some constituency offices of important politicians and look into the matter. Watch this space...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Expenses are dead. Long live expenses.

There's something deflating about covering MPs' expenses while historic change sweeps the Middle East.

Here we all are in parliament, leafing through the files, while the TV screens above our heads show events which will one day be considered pivotal in world history.

"Ah, look – someone's charged £14 for a taxi," you hear. How wonderful.

What was once symbolic of the decline of British politics now seem trivial and tedious – and frankly it seemed pretty dull well before the riots in Cairo.

There's always been something parochial and petty about expenses. The original scandal happened to coincide with the financial crisis, and there was something remarkable about the way the figures contrasted. Sure, we're all banker bashers now, but the vitriol directed at MPs always seemed excessive given the scale of the greed going on down the road, in the City.

But the expenses scandal opened up the political space to rejuvenate British democracy. It led to questions about electoral reform, the role of the whips and the select committees and even the point of Labour and Tories as representatives of social classes which no longer exist.

We've seen some efforts at change since then – a bit more backbench power, the use of urgent questions in the Commons (well done Bercow), a referendum on AV. We need more, to drag us out of our slumber. But in a political system as anaemic as Britain's, you'll take what you can get.

That's useful. Trawling through MPS' expenses really isn't. The way right wing commentators focus on this pitiful amount of money while ignoring the monumental tax avoidance of multinationals is so deranged and misguided I don't really have the words to express it.

The solution to the MPs expenses scandal was always so simple and cheap: Just automatically upload all expenses claims online. I’d like to see how many MPs keep making excessive claims then. No need for Ipsa, no need for hacks to spend their entire day trawling through files of absurdly low claims – and importantly, no need to make becoming an MP an even worse prospect than it already is. Now then, back to Egypt.

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Monday, 24 January 2011

BBC in basic grammatical misunderstanding shock

Sometimes the BBC makes itself hard to defend.

You do your best. Today's development, that BBC Online will be cut by 25%, is basically a punishment for being too good. When the BBC comes up with a decent product, and their web offering is a supremely decent product, they are criticised for killing competition. When they come up with a bad product, their critics ask why we should pay the license fee.

But they occasionally make life harder for themselves. Today's report of a leaked memo instructing BBC staff not to use the word 'reform' during coverage of the electoral… something… referendum is so barmy it's hard to find the appropriate superlative.

According to the leaked memo, the corporation's political advisor apparently said: "Please can we make sure that we don't describe this – in our own scripts, headlines, etc – as the referendum on 'electoral reform'. When the [BBC's] Guidance is published ahead of the referendum period, it will make clear that, in the context of the referendum, that is not an impartial term – 'reform' explicitly contains a definition of 'improvement'."

Spare a moment for Paul Sinclair, director of communications for the 'Yes2AV' campaign, who must be close to madness by now. "Adopting the alternative vote is electoral reform," he said simply. "There is no other way to describe it."

Sinclair was also smart enough to mention that the BBC has spent the last week talking about NHS reform, which it must evidently approve of.

You might also like to ask what the BBC will replace it with. Reform is what it is. The fact that someone wants to change something implies that they believe the status quo is unfavourable. But that relates to their sentiment, not that of the speaker. Mistaking those two things is as basic an error as grasping for a gun when describing a shooting.

Interestingly, the BBC's judgement stems from the fact that people want change. There is such widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo in politics, economics and pretty much every other area available for comment, that any and all change is quickly assumed to be A Good Thing. But that's a change in the world, not in semantics.

At least we get some decent word-gymnastics out of it. Firstly, there's the challenge of discussing an electoral reform referendum without using the word, like some twisted political version of Taboo. Then there's future coverage. Now they've written 'reform' off in this respect, they'll face pressure to avoid it on other matters, for fear of looking partial. And best of all, they'll be doing it under one of the most reforming governments of the modern era. Constitutional reform? NHS reform? Education reform? Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Bigots

It's the word which ruined Gordon Brown's general election campaign, but I can't think of a better way of describing the people I met in Oldham East and Saddleworth yesterday.

Later on today I'm going to contrast my experience at a Muslim community event hustings earlier in the week, which you can read about here, with the conversation I had in a pub somewhere in the constituency yesterday lunchtime.

But for now here's a summary of the views of this bunch of white men spending a Wednesday lunchtime in the pub, proving that the racial divide in this seat is as big as ever. Let me make this very clear: I am appalled by every single one of these opinions, which are definitively NOT my own.

The men in the pub thought that:

- Things have got "much worse" since the Oldham race riots of 2001
- Muslims are "smelly"
- Muslims don't help community relations because they refuse to work on Muslim holidays, unlike Christians who do work over Christmas, Easter etc
- Muslims are bent on global domination and eventually all British people will be subject to their rule
- Muslims cluster together, squeezing white people out of communities
- Jack Straw is completely right when he says Pakistani men prey on white girls

And, most shockingly of all:

- The only way to solve community tensions is to "kill all Muslims"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them were interested in voting in the by-election taking place today. Labour are definitely going to win, they argued, and in any case politicians won't make the slightest difference to their problems. I don't think I've ever felt so sickened by other people's views.

The big divide in Oldham East and Saddleworth isn't political. It's racial. It's ugly. And it hasn't been addressed near enough during the by-election campaign.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

News! Just outside the window

I've just done a strange thing, even for a journalist: write about something that's literally under my nose.

Well, almost literally. Parliament Square would be under my nose if I stood up and walked over to the window. We're based in the Houses of Parliament, which as you can imagine is quite handy for political journalists. No surprises there.

The last time I wrote about Parliament Square was during the final tuition fees riot last year. It was a case of seeing what was happening; returning to my desk, typing up a paragraph in the news story and clicking 'publish'; and then return to the window again. That cycle went on for five hours. Fun times.

Not so fun in the new year, with a drab and dreary view replacing the excitement of anger and violence. Yesterday I was writing about the pessimistic outlook for Brian Haw and his semi-permanent demonstration on the pavement. The tents looked dishevelled, the signs scruffy, the flags pathetically defiant.

But this could be the last year they're there. The police reform and social responsibility bill contains provisions to outlaw the tents for good, a decade after Haw began his vigil. It's hard not to admire the man for his tenacity – but does he deserve the right to remain there, when, as ministers point out, him doing so prevents others from making their case?

Make up your own mind and let me know your thoughts. You can read my feature here.