Politics.co.uk Blog

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."