Making the Case for AV

Ed Mili…Edward Miliband has made some good judgement calls recently, balancing his rather unwise “I have a dream” moment at Hyde Park. (Historians will not, I suggest, draw a linear connection from the Suffragettes to the Right Honourable Member for Doncaster South).

First good call – supporting the “Yes” campaign for the AV referendum, which should ensure a decent turnout amongst Labour supporters, many of whom still smart from Tony Blair’s dismissal of all things related to constitutional reform. (It was Blair who asked Roy Jenkins to come up with a new voting system for Westminster. When he did so – a modified form of AV called “AV+”, Blair decided he didn’t like having his eyes glazed over by policy documents so dumped them without apology).

Miliband’s support for AV is significant in this age of Coalition government. He is confident – and genuinely so, it seems – that there still can be bridges built between Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and others ‘of the centre and left’, to use his phrase. It ensures that he can have some of his words from last year pinned on him – that Labour under his leadership won’t oppose for the sake of it. He makes the case for AV fairly and reasonably, unlike NO2AV, whose ignorance and groundless claims have been rightly ridiculed from the start.

“Having words from the past pinned on you” draws me to my second tick against Edward’s actions. He has, quite rightly, ensured Nick Clegg is nowhere near the Yes campaign stage. Nick is currently on some kind of Deputy PM fact-finding tour in Mexico, speaking Spanish no less, so is as far away from the Yes crowd as could possibly be. This is very good news. Clegg’s “calamity” moments from the last election do tend to keep stacking up, not least his label “miserable little compromise” attached to the AV voting system he is now supporting.

Making the case for AV is absolutely vital for the wider constitutional health of our country. The chance for change is not mere rhetoric. Saying “No” to AV would mean slamming the door on almost every other reform agenda – the House of Lords especially, possibly even the proposals to allow binding referendums on council tax increases currently in the Localism Bill. Importantly “no” would mean “NO!” for generations. We would be lumbered, stuck, anchored to and disabled by the first-past-the-post system for decades to come, never again able to revisit the question of voting reform, trapped in the frigid Hell of small-c conservative opinions.

AV is not perfect, though it offers much more for our democratic process than FPTP ever would. It would stop this nonsense of candidates becoming very handsomely salaried law makers on 33% (or less) popularity in the constituency they claim to represent. Every candidate from all parties would need to work that little bit harder, sell their candidature that little bit harder, to ensure the magic 50% mark was reached. This silly “one person, one vote” campaign on the NO side, launched today, misses the point entirely. AV gives people ONE vote – just the ONE – which is given to candidates other than the initial leader under specific circumstances. There is no more “loonies deciding elections” than under FPTP (I have been around elections long enough to know how many people go into polling booths to choose one party as an alternative to their first preference, usually BNP or other extreme frapperies)

Making the case for AV means being able to concede that some problems with Coalition government is misplaced. Political rivals can, and should, work together. Political parties are not, here or anywhere, ‘walled gardens’. There can be shades of grey. Standing still, trapped within dogma, leads to stagnation. Making the small step to AV opens up the possibility of better, more proportional systems, and if STV is good enough for Scotland and if d’Hondt is good enough for Great Britain’s allocation to the European Parliament, then something over and beyond AV is surely decent enough for Westminster.

I agree with Edward. AV must pass. It may be the darkest irony that a Liberal Democrat leader cannot be associated with voting reform, but such sacrifices are often needed in the march towards the greater good. Join Ickle Ed and other progressives – and that includes the Liberal Democrats…and Nigel Farage…and vote YES to AV.

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Protest votes

Just when you thought it safe to put away the Relentless and return to normal sleeping patterns, the next Constitutional reform package makes its way to the House of Lords. When the “Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill” passed from Commons to Lords, the brakes were slammed for a very, very long time.

Learned Peers are timetabled to begin their toothcomb treatment this week and all signs are pointing to more marathon sittings and strained relationships between Lords and Peers, Labour and the LibDems, and doubtlessly LibDems and Conservatives. In this regard, the Lords are very much like your boss, whose eager expectation of your Report is acknowledged with the assumption that it will be stuck on his desk with questions posed on every full-stop and comma. Copy one VLOOKUP incorrectly and you may as well clear your desk…

A principle shared between both Coalition partners, fixed-term parliaments are long overdue in the UK. The historic situation, during which the Prime Minister of the day can fire the shooting pistol at will, is a postcard from an ancient time. It’s a power which no longer has relevance, not just in the 21st century but specifically post-expenses scandal Britain. Prime Ministers have always used their power to call an election as a bargaining tool, explicit and implied, and as a result political discourse is carried on within the context of clock-watching. Fixed-term parliaments would allow governments – and importantly opposition parties – to prepare for the long-term.

When the Parliamentary Voting Syst….”PVSaC” was going through its slow, slow, backstep, slow stages in the Lords, matters of concern were small but significant. The reduction in number of MPs didn’t particularly matter, it was the detail which caused the consternation. Should the electoral quota be fixed at 5% either way of the average? When should submissions be accepted and how should they be treated? In matters of constitutional reform, it is always the specifics that count. “PVSaC” foreshadows the Fixed-Term Parliament Bill, which I suspect will slow the already considerably glacial Lords on one very specific point of argument. Should parliamentary terms last 4 years, or five?

British parliamentary terms last, on average, between 3 and 4 years. The 5 years proposed in the Bill is drawn from recent history – John Major and Gordon Brown held on as long as the could to the very end, Tony Blair’s attitude ensured all policy announcements were fed into a pre-determined polling day. There is a crucial difference between choosing a date and having one chosen for you.

Five-year terms would allow for grown-up debate, would promote reason, would allow for greater consideration of proposed laws. There is too much broken with the quick-fix demands of the political system today. Maybe – just perhaps – five year terms will iron out the fast-forward attitude of the political establishment.

What I was not expecting from the inevitable swathe of amendments to the Fixed Parl…FPB is former Labour MP Alan Howarth, now Baron Howarth of Newport, coming up with quite the radical alternative take on polling day. Let’s chinstroke for a moment about not just fixed parliamentary terms – which every developed state bar the UK seems to function with – but also weekend-long polling periods (see the first amendment and consequential changes here)

Essentially Lord Howarth is trying to modernise by taking Britain back to the 19th Century…and I certainly welcome exploring the suggestion. Having the stubby pencils and school halls ready for one Thursday in May is one tradition which works, though more people than ever are requesting postal votes for no greater reason than wanting the whole darn democratic hoohah done and dusted quick-smart. Opening up the opportunities to vote over a longer period fits into the changing social realities of peoples lives. Weekend long polling periods would introduce the flexibility with which most voters live today – and with it removes the cost and complexity of hiring out halls for a mid-week interruption. Lord Grocott, another former Labour MP, has clearly got the referendum bug: he suggests Britain is asked to choose a polling day. How would that go down amongst the bar-flies at the Cricketer’s Arms?

I am bemused at the attitude amongst the “anti” brigade. Fixed-terms are a part and parcel of everyday life. Every democratic institution runs on the basis of fixed-terms, from the smallest parish council to the European Parliament. Every European democracy runs on fixed-terms, with differing ‘get out clauses’ for votes of no-confidence based on national traditions. Every elected official in the USA, from county level to Congressman, run on the basis of one fixed-date to another in a regular cycle. Britain stands out, and not as a radical twenty-first century model of excellence. We are a nation whose political machinery has been tolerated rather than repaired, and as a consequence almost every aspect of British life is backwards, stubbornly conservative and afraid.

Fixed-term parliaments will, in isolation, fix only limited parts of the great wheels and cogs of the democratic machine. As each aspect of the repair job slots into place, from binding local referendums to alternative voting systems and greater freedom for local authorities from central State control, we should be looking at a much fairer, freer democratic system, responsible and pro-active.

What’s that? This won’t work whilst we are subjects of a Monarch and not citizens of a state? Well, quite, but maybe that’s for another post…

Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys!

From Rochdale via “the man from La Mancha”, the new album from Elbow is like every other with one significant difference. People have heard about them now, and from the cover of this month’s NME it is Elbow’s Guy Garvey, grasping a microphone and looking matter-of-factly, not a garish garbed bright young thing with lenseless specs. Mercury Music Prizes bestow mixed rewards upon recipients; Elbow found themselves playing with the BBC Concert Orchestra and having “One Day Like This” adopted as the television producers bed of choice for stirring images whenever usual choices Sigúr Ros or Coldplay were deemed no longer de rigueur. Not at all bad – or in character – for a band previously content with relative obscurity.

Following up “Seldom Seen Kid” with what must be the equivalent of the next novel after a Booker Prize, Elbow have shrugged their shoulders and brushed off everything they are comfortable playing. It’s same-but-different, more rounded, spun with observation and realism, miserable but steadfast.

There are tracks on “Build a Rocket Boys!” that venture into territories both new and familiar. “High Ideals” concludes with a drunken fumble at a Tapas bar, all bar-room pianos and brass; “The Birds” whips up hotel room jazz into an over-bearing schalger. In “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl”, the observational postcard from the North is as moving and honest as anything from Cherry Ghost or Richard Hawley, and from here through “Open Arms” and “Lippy Kids” new familiar favourites for fans long-standing and recently recruited.

At their best when enjoying allowing the little things to build into a whammer of a finish, this album revels in the ascending and the simplistic co-operating. “Lippy Kids” is a title which belies its real content, the nostalgia and world-weary, dour and determined. It’s the Lancastrian way of expressing hope and if there’s the hint of the reverential it is subtle – “angels” are namechecked across the album, the religious and the scientific alluded in the title and choral orchestration.

There was something of the happy accident about the way in which Elbow’s trajectory shot upwards, and implied hints of returning to comfortable pastures with this album cannot be denied. It is a strong album, strong in texture and content, and perhaps deliberately there are no obvious repeats of end-credit hugging anthems. Unlike Leeds’ Kaiser Chiefs, whose occasional stumbles into chart-bothering struggled to exit the laden guff of their albums, Elbow know better than to surround one sure-fire bet with also-ran material. “Build a Rocket Boys!” acts as reminder and threat, as a thank-you to the Mercury and all it has allowed, but tellingly also a hat-tip to the crowds waiting for more they could recognise. It deserves as much attention and praise, though could do just as well with neither.

The Candle Thieves

Simple yet effective is back, people.

It’s the age of austrity, music is rediscovering melody and none more sucessfully than The Candle Thieves. The duo – from Peterborough, never knowingly infamous for musicians unless you know otherwise – have a straight-forward, innocent side, at turns endearing and naive. “Breathing (Just For You)” is a repositining of Owl City to the shires of England and it’s all the brighter for its playful charm.

The Candle Thieves spent the best part of 2010 on the road with gigs ranging from colourful toytown instrumentation at fans’ local pubs, living-rooms, kitchens and back-gardens to high-profile US support slots for Scissor Sisters, Lissie and David Gray, in-between releasing acclaimed EP ‘Sunshine And Other Misfortunes.’

With all the talk of cuts and budget constraints, why not enjoy the stripped-down simplicity of a darn-good pop song.

I don’t do scores usually, so give the Candle Thieves a luminance rating of “sparkly”.

“Breathing (Just For You)” is released on the 21 March.
You can find them – www.myspace.com/thecandlethieves