At the First Time of Asking

Lorraine Fullbrook, Laura Sandys, Jessica Lee. Who these women are, and what they represent for David Cameron and the Conservative Party, could provide for many an uncomfortable truth for the glacial modernisation of the ‘nasty party’.

Sandys is the MP for South Thanet, the pokey-out bit of Kent built around Ramsgate and surrounding villages. Labour-held at Westminster since the Blair landslide in 1997, Sandys took the seat in 2010 with a lead of over 7,600 votes. Even with the whispers and rumours about Nigel Farage’s intended candidature here, the former director and member of (I’m not making this up) the Shopping Hours Reform Council, could have enjoyed another five years of parliamentary career. What made her choose to stand down early? And why has been joined by South Ribble’s Lorraine Fullbrook and Erewash’s Jessica Lee in choosing to only have one term in Parliament?

It has been well documented that women have found Parliament a difficult place to work. The initial burst of ‘Blair’s babes’ included a number who spoke out loudly and proudly against the working hours, the macho culture, and the blatant sexist attitudes of a selection of their male colleagues. In terms of attracting women to a Parliamentary life, Labour has been far more successful than the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, primarily through All Women Shortlists. By the next election, over half of the CLP will be female, a record for Westminster. For the Tories, the doomed A-List championed by David Cameron was supposed to redress the balance by promoting women in target seats; the tactic proved unpopular and barely changed the make-up of the backbenches. A certain number of Conservative women in the recent take-up have certainly not stood in line with the leadership – Nadine Dorries is the Sarah Palin of Westmister, Louise Mensch flit to New York for family reasons, and practising GP Sarah Wollaston has many sharp thorns to stab into the sides of her colleagues. These three could point to their place within the Party as being compromised by the outdated atmosphere of the majority male Palace of Westminster (particularly Wollaston, who has been overlooked for promotion in a marked nose-thumbing for not being all humble and loyal).

Whilst Louise Mensch walked away immediately, Fullbrook, Lee and Sandys will continue in their jobs until a few months before polling day, when they will technically transfer everything over to their replacement candidates. Is there one common reason behind their decisions? Financial, frustrated ambition, realising politics is not for them? Is the possibility of a fixed-term Parliament on the backbenches as opposition MPs persuading current members to re-evaluate their career plans? Or is there something about being amongst the 2010-intake and a woman which has pushed them out?

If it’s the last of these suggestions, what does David Cameron and the Conservative Party aim to do about it? Should the Whips be having quiet words with their backbenchers about the reality of being a woman in the Conservative Party? Certainly the reputation of the Tories and women isn’t so good, not least because Cameron has not reshuffled many female colleagues into top positions around the Cabinet table.

The three constituencies involved are all, coincidentally enough, the kind of important marginal seats which Labour must win to be assured of success in 2015. South Ribble, based around the Lancashire commuter towns of Penwortham and Leyland, is a true bellwether, exactly the kind of seat the Conservatives need to hold to retain a hold in the North West of England. Labour won in 2005 with a lead of 2,000 votes, Lorraine Fullbrook gained it with a lead of 5,000. Not an easy defence for the new candidate.

Thanet is a tougher prospect for Labour, but the threat of Farage puts this seat into dangerous territory. Sandys leaves a tough ask for whoever replaces her. Erewash in Derbyshire can only go two ways, Labour or Conservative, and whilst it was Tory from 1983 to 1997, Jessica Lee gives her successor a lead of just 2,500 votes.

If the Conservatives has a problem with one-term women not feeling confident enough to defend tight majorities, is that because they lack the support from their Party? Have they been left to fight alone or is there a less obvious and complex reason? For David Cameron and his modernisation attempts, he might need to look for some answers and solutions quickly…

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ReBrand

“Well, fine, you know, Paxman, I mean he’s lost his teeth anyway, he’s like Russell fucking Hearty these days.”

Cynicism about politics has existed since the first Greeks picked up some pebbles. Democracy, as wise men have said many times before, is the worst of many evils, and just plain doesn’t work.

Fresh from calling panellists and audience members “mate”, “that fella” and “Dave” on Question Time, Russell Brand faced Newsnight attack dog Jeremy Paxman for what appeared to be something of an old-fashioned slice of television, a long and characteristically sprawling interview during which Brand took apart (or tried to) every piece of scaffolding built around the country by Establishment & Sons, Ltd. Like the well versed man he is, Brand pebble-dashed objections, observations and general opinions with little regard to reason. This was not outrageous, nor was it Occupy; it was a proven performer performing.

The reaction has been immense, both on the largely pro- side, who consider Brand and politics to be the new Dawkins and religion, and from the anti- side, for whom the interview was little more than an exploration into the world of a badly dressed sixth former. Somewhere in the middle, surprise surprise, is where you currently find me. I am not subscribing to Brandism, nor do I dismiss everything he says as fluffy idealistic nonsense. As the man himself told Paxman, he can’t create utopia in a hotel room.

Not participating in the democratic process, as Brand advocates, is not a solution. Turnout at many elections, particularly local authority elections, are meagre enough as it is without celebrity-backed boycotts. The fewer people vote, the greater risk of one of two outcomes happening; the incumbent party holds on through lack of opposition; or extremists from either side of the political spectrum sneak through. Ah, people say, but we don’t agree with the electoral system at all, so such concerns don’t matter. I agree that the volunteer sector is proving that people can create opportunities for people to seek and provide help without local authorities’ direct involvement, but no town or city, however small, can survive on support networks created without some form of democratic organisation overseeing the results.

Unelected, unaccountable groups to whom local councils fob off services or decisions, the nameless “vision boards” and the like, are more unacceptable than volunteer groups running the local library. Rather than promoting non-participation in governance, Brand should encourage pressure being put on central government to award or return genuine power to Town Halls – abandon the use of arm’s reach boards and consultancies, and fire up true devolution through councillors to the people. I accept that not voting can, in itself, be a valid democratic act, but far more can be achieved by being within the process than always being outside.

The machinery of national politics needs rewiring, from lobbyists and pressure groups and how they work within the parties and not just outwith government, to the electoral administration of the country. Fix one element and the machine will purr again. Yes, your eyes can glaze over at the sound of the words “voting reform”, but lack of trust in the democratic process stems from members of the public knowing that it makes no sense for Britain not having a truly representative parliament. All those of you who complained – to me, with vigour – that your vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 somehow helped create Hell on Earth need reminding that your votes and millions like them, meant tiddly squat in a country where fewer than 100 of the 650 seats in parliament actually mean something. Far too many ‘safe seats’ created by First Past the Post can only – and has – encouraged apathy in millions of people who know that they can never change the government of the day.

Fewer government departments and less MPs would help reduce the cost of Westminster, and true devolution to the regions would loosen the London-centric media grip on covering ‘politics’. Our politicians are not representative of the nation at large – not those Labour front benchers who claim to be ‘on your side’ whilst backed by healthy donations from Unions, and who don’t earn, or would ever claim, anything approaching the average in their predominately working class constituencies; not Conservative members from the leafy shires who still do not understand the anger over expenses claims for comfy country pads and ample gardens. We need to open up Town Halls and Westminster to genuine representatives of the people, not just sharp suited bores straight from Uni who have only known a life of bag-carrying for MPs and climbing ladders within the system. If Westminster is to represent real people, those chosen as candidates by any of the main parties must stop choosing oiks who think The Thick of It was a lifestyle programme.

And yes, candidate selection and proper representation does go back to the dry electoral administration talked about earlier. Open primaries, proportional representation, recall elections, electronic voting, open hustings, votes at 16 – if we are a grown up democratic country, let us fix the machinery. There have been failed attempts at reinvigorating elections – the Referendum Party in 1992, the Jury Team, an ITV reality show to pick an independent candidate. Such ideas don’t necessarily have to fail if used as basis to try again.

Yes, Brand looked beyond such tinkering to a much wider, radical, less democratic revolution, but I’m a believer in representative democracy, and I don’t believe I could any easier create utopia in my room than he could in his. No functioning country in the western world could survive without corporations or democratic institutions. I know far more people who hang on every word of unaccountable, unelected corporate suits – Apple, Rockstar Games, the FA – than those who could name their MP. That’s a failing of the democratic system. That’s not to be ignored as a problem, but it cannot be resolved by the dream-world candyfloss created by a very smart, very clever dreamer. Brandism is but suggestions for a better world already in the mix of debate, particularly in a country of Whigs and Liberals, Churchill and Mills, Dawkins and Hitchens. Let us use Brand’s ideas to form a new structure for the country – but let’s not use his blueprint for the future. It won’t work.

South Shield of fair play…

Labour have the chance to show they’re ready to try something different…..but prominent blogger Mark Ferguson puts forward a good reason to prove how they’re not.

When Louise Mensch left Crosby for New York, the Labour Party had one up in the resulting by-election by way of an already selected candidate who could legitimately use the ‘local boy’ tag. It chimed loudly with Ed Miliband’s  new cry – the still somewhat vague “One Nation” rebranding of Labour – and with it came certain victory. He used one soundbite very well – “The road to Westminster runs through Corby” – and then spoiled it all by claiming he won as proof of “one-Nation Labour”. I can only assume John O’Farrell lost as proof that Hampshire is technically independent.

Things are very different in South Shields, as they were in Manchester Central, and Cardiff South and Penarth. This is a slice of working-class Tyne and Wear, a safe-seat so monumentally strong for Labour that the Electoral Reform Society suggested there wasn’t much need for a by-election at all.

Whilst hyperbolic, that ERS post does contain a valid argument. South Shields has been Labour since Universal Suffrage, had a 13,000+ majority in 1979 never mind the 22,000 majority in 1997, and has awarded almost all its MPs with some of the most significant jobs in British politics. No other party but Labour could possibly hold this seat, a position which makes my democratic senses tingle, even whilst realising there’s hardly anything to be done to break the record.

David Miliband was given this seat – in every sense “given” – in the quiet landslide year of 2001, achieving rapid fire fast-forward promotion within months. Flying off to New York for a £300,000 job isn’t something many of his working class constituents can do, but he’s flying off now leaving a vacant seat looking very tempting for hundreds of Labour Party members. Doubtlessly dozens of local members hope to “do a Corby” by showing how much better things would be if the next MP isn’t so detached from the everyday lives of voters.

Unfortunately the Labour Party machine might not be thinking quite so similar nice thoughts about localism and respecting local opinion.

As Ferguson points out the selection timetable is prejudiced against anybody outside the Labour machine from becoming the next South Shields MP. The selection meeting takes place in London, in only a few weeks, and the South Shields CLP will be unable to fully scrutinise the shortlist in good time. It’s a curtailed timetable with a swift turnaround, made all the less fair by implicitly excluding anyone with a modest income or without ‘contacts’.

I live in a safe-seat for Labour, where elections tend to be try-outs for the “others” as there’s no way Preston would ever fall to anybody but Ed Miliband’s Party. To their credit, the Conservatives have chosen more women candidates recently than the Liberal Democrats have ever done (which isn’t hard, given the latter figure is zero). This is almost, kind of, sorta what the Labour Party could be doing in South Shields. Just because the Tories in Preston have been nice-but-useless doesn’t really matter; they were given the chance to fight a useless seat to give them experience, and as women from the south trying out up north, they could try out new ways of campaigning without blotting their future career prospects too hard. Didn’t win rock-solid Preston as a Tory? Doesn’t really matter, we can review how you did whilst being rightly semi-detached from the objective of the election itself.

Labour could do exactly this in South Shields, trying somebody who doesn’t quite meet the same model as the post-Blair era professional politician, someone who has more about them than a career path which avoids getting their finger-nails dirty. If a woman is selected – there’s not been one of those representing South Shields before – not a political bag-carrier woman known to the Party machine. If a South Asian – ditto – not a think-tank suit from Islington.

Despite talking the talk on “doing things differently”, Labour can’t help but micromanage their local constituency associations’ processes. In Rotherham and Middlesbrough recently, candidate selections were marred by controversy. At the former local members walked out of the selection meeting citing concerns over ‘outsiders’ and ‘stitch ups’. Not very “one nation”.

If we must have safe seats in this country, and we really should be looking at reforming our democracy to avoid having quite so many, then it’s time all political parties vowed to stop rushing towards professional politicians who use The Thick Of It as the context for their everyday lives. All main parties in South Shields should take the opportunity of fighting a foregone conclusion by stepping away from the norm. To an extent, the selection of O’Farrell in Eastleigh did just that; a writer and comedian who could talk “off message” and shake-up normal expectations. Unfortunately the media chose to ridicule out of context quotes from a 20-odd year book and he stepped down from candidature as a result.

Maybe all three main parties, and UKIP, could try tripping up the media and Twitter Outrage Corps. by choosing unconventional candidates in one big push. Maybe just one Party should, for greater effect. Not those who will finish fifth or seventh or even second. Maybe the Party who have already won South Shields without a vote being cast.

If Ed Miliband and Labour can’t loosen the parental ties in a seat like this, where and when will they?

all change with Tories and trains

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys camping under starlight whilst eating potatoes cooked in lager cans (or for that matter, actual proper food served in a castle with actual proper beds), there’s a great option for you in the Small Isles off the west coast of Scotland, a ferry ride away from Mallaig. The most highly recommended way to travel here is via the West Highland line, regarded as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the United Kingdom, with a line which twists and turns around, and occasionally through, the mountains of northern Scotland, involving negotiating Ranoch Moor and Corrour, the highest and most remote railway station in the country.

It’s not headline news to learn that this line is incredibly popular with tourists travelling from Glasgow through Fort William to either Oban or Mallaig, whilst the intermediate stations enjoy sporadic visitor numbers. If Tim Leunig, chief economist at CentreForum (no, me neither) had his way, lines such as West Highland and stations such as Spean Bridge, Bridge of Orchy and Upper Tyndrum would be shut down for purely economic purposes. Leunig, you see, wants the Government to close down 30% of Britain’s railway stations.

His reasoning is pure Beeching, and purely cold economics in the grand tradition of conservatives for whom monetary concern trumps everything else. In the context of serious concern about the cost of the railways in this country, it’s no surprise to see both political wings unleash their most extreme responses – nationalisation from the left, harsh economic penalties from the right. As usual, it’s hopeless finding answers from either extreme, for the answers lie somewhere in the middle. Leunig, and many who support him, has drawn the wrong conclusions from his available evidence through what seems to be an ignorance about the realities of rail travel in the UK. This might come as little surprise too – anyone who deals with numbers over experience can’t be entirely trusted to understand the consequence of their mathematics.

 Let’s deal with the West Highland Line. If these proposals were ever to be introduced, the line would barely survive, with it’s 20-odd station stops between Glasgow Queen Street and Mallaig reduced to just three stations; Dumbarton, Fort William and Mallaig itself. Any budding tourist trap, from cafes to walking pursuit organisations, would shut down overnight. Whatever pressure is already forced onto authorities to supply bus or coach links to Scotland’s most remote villages would be increased to such perverse levels that the character in 50 Shades of Grey would feel a bit uneasy. From being one of the UK’s best loved rail routes, the WHL would be reduced to a high-speed tourist trap, hurtling local people and holiday-makers alike through the Highlands in a fast-forward version of a promotional video.

Taken as a whole, the proposal would rob communities of their links to bigger cities, from which follows employment and leisure opportunities. “Let the buses take the strain” made some form of twisted sense in the days of Beeching, who viewed the railways as hopelessly out-dated and out-moded. Had Beeching and his successors been allowed to continue, the UK would be unlike any other country in the developed world, lacking railways out to the suburbs, tourist towns and local communities, employing instead two unconnected super-highway rail lines connecting no more than five major cities together. It’d be impossible to even cross Birmingham, with no link between one side and the other. If you didn’t have a car, or maybe a helicopter, the railways would be inaccessible to you, forever.  Londoners could not visit friends or family in any of the Home Counties immediately surrounding their city, whilst enjoying a rapid high speed ride to Leeds, the first and only English station stop between them and Edinburgh.

Leunig calls leaving stations open as “a preposterous waste of money”. He doesn’t offer much in the way of figures for this, though this might be because there’s little evidence to suggest closing a station is no more affordable than allowing passengers to board a train which might only make one visit every hour. There are bus services to parts of Preston, where I live, less frequent than train services to Lostock Hall, with both realities no more able to ‘disprove’ the worth of the other than any comparison which might be made between the footfall enjoyed by McDonalds and the independent cafe three streets away. In any case, keeping a station open is actually less difficult and cheaper than closing one down, as the legal process of closing down railway stations is so complicated that they’re invariably kept open. “Parliamentary trains”, so called because of the need to clumsily circumnavigate various Railway Acts, are maintained by TOCs to provide a rudimentary service in place of spending the money to remove all trains completely. The 30% plan would, therefore, cost  more money than Leunig realises. To slash so many stations from the network would require TOCs to run hundreds of make-believe trains around the country, often unadvertised deliberately, as part of a ludicrous game of ‘efficiency savings top trumps’.

Beeching transformed our rail network, and did so in all the worst possible ways you could imagine. It’s beyond bizarre that anyone could consider it appropriate to use Beeching as a blueprint for further reforms, a kind of abusive partner-meets-Stockholm syndrome set-up, drawn from years of feeling turned on whenever anybody mentions “Thatcher”, “tell Sid” or “it’s a replacement bus service leaving from the station forecourt”.  What we should be doing – well, what Conservatives should be doing at the very least – is encouraging building MORE stations in MORE locations, adding increased numbers of blobs on rail-maps to allow people greater access to the existing network. George Osborne’s infrastructure plan allowed for the construction of just two new stations across the whole of England – Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge in Yorkshire. He should have allowed the construction of dozens, and then hundreds, and then yet more, bringing people who live in the outcrops and environs the opportunity to access the national network. More construction jobs, more income generated in parts of our cities and major towns which often feel ‘isolated’ from big bang projects, more opportunities for businesses to recruit from a wider net.

In case you thought that your eyes deceived you, Leunig also recommends the introduction of a ‘standing class’ London train, in which people would pay a £1 fare for the right to have no seats at all, as standard. This policy is all manner of bonkers, for reasons of health and safety as well as common human decency, though it’s also worth noting that the Railway Regulation Act 1844 ensured that passengers could no longer be subjected to such inhumane treatment by rail companies.

What riles me more than anything related to the railway issue is just how repetitive these arguments have become. Whilst the country umms and aahs about building a single new station, or electrifying one length of track, Spain continues to  build the longest metro line in Europe, and renowned rail networks in Germany and Italy continue to expand for much less money than it could ever be done here. We’re a backward, slow, ponderous country whose attitude to infrastructure projects is stuck in the steam age. Anybody who considers it correct that we should assist our railway service by slashing it to pieces deserves locking in a waiting room over night without even a Select vending machine for company.

see-saw

In the “Saw” series of horror films, two men are often pitched against each other in contrived set-ups in which one must achieve a certain target to guarantee freedom, often causing the other to lose a limb or his mind or have his jaw knocked into the next post-code. In any case, “Saw” is popcorn nothingness with a central premise which is supposed to remind its audience that in extreme circumstances, people would do anything to survive.

Armed with a hacksaw and good intentions, if the media reports are accurate, is Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, ready to sabotage, blackmail, stride into the Coalition agreement with an angrier voice than usual.

Now I like Farron, not least because he is Prestonian, and at the next leadership election he would get my first preference. On House of Lords reform, however, there’s the scent of a situation which could be a lot worse than he, or any of us, would really like to walk into. The saying “be careful what you wish for” is overused and trite but it still holds true. If a situation looks contrived, it usually is. When a good man goes to war, if I can coin a phrase, he rarely comes out unscathed.

Of all the issues which usually cause wobbles within governments, constitutional reform is somewhere near the bottom of the list. In fact some lists have it chopped off the bottom through bad photocopying and nobody notices. Education, employment, financial fiddling – these are the usual causes of turmoil around the Cabinet table, not taking hammers to the machinery of governance. Only with the  LibDems in Government would it become likely that electoral administration becomes headline news.

In an ideal world, Nick Clegg and the LibDems would achieve their constitutional reforming aims: give the United Kingdom a fairer, representative voting system; reform the House of Lords; reduce the size and cost of Parliament; reform local government including proportional representation at council level: and so on, and on, and on. The reality of the Coalition government means this wish list has to be put into the great big compromise machine, and “getting what we wish for” becomes laced with more danger. Clegg and Farron must know that the long term health of the Coalition is far more important than the rush to reform the second chamber? We should be known as the Party which helped improve the economy and take millions out of income tax, not the Party which broke off the Coalition agreement over constitutional tinkering.

Were I within the Coalition heart right now, I’d accept that David Cameron’s battle with his backbenchers is not a fight worth joining. Getting a smaller House of Commons with the associated boundary changes is a great achievement. House of Lords reform is over 100 years old, we can wait. Indeed, we can go into the next election saying “We wanted reform and still do, only the dinosaurs within the Tories and the current anti-everything Labour Party stopped us. The big two want things to stay the same, only we press on for greater reform.”

Make no mistake about this. The House of Lords needs reform. It is obscene that a developed, 21st century democracy has an appointed second chamber filled with people whose great-great-somebody won a title through a relationship with a well connected chambermaid. There is no place for a second chamber in which Bishops can rule on matters of law. But Coalition government means difficult decisions must be made. Compromise must be sought – and achieved.

We need to allow the Commons reduction to go through, paying the price of Lords reform. Because Labour won’t help us – it was solely the fault of the anti-everything Labour party that AV was defeated. Only the LibDems will continue to fight for constitutional reform, meaningful and relevant. But we need to realise what cannot be achieved in this parliament. Tim Farron is a fine man and one of our best parliamentarians. He would be best advised to stop the blackmail attempts for the good of the Coalition, our Party, and the country.

Say It Again

The Internet never forgets, I know this more than most.  It is good practice to keep this in mind whenever you’re launching something – be it a new product, a come-back single, an App, or candidature for a parliamentary career.

Last night, at a suspiciously late hour, the Conservatives chose Jackie Whiteley as their candidate for the forthcoming Bradford West by-election. Two years ago, Ms Whiteley became their spokesman for Rotherham

As is often the case in these things, and again it’s something I know about, the chosen candidate is quoted as being this, that and the other about their ward, division, constituency or what-have-you. In my past experience, these quotes come from a Big Book of Leaflet Copy. Rarely do candidates genuinely speak in that peculiar mix of tourist board and local paper editorial. 
Ms Whiteley is quoted from prior to the 2010 election saying:

“It is a real privilege to be the Parliamentary Spokesman for Rotherham. Having previously campaigned in the seat at the general election and as the owner of a small business, I have got a real understanding of the issues and concerns of Rotherham’s residents and local businesses.  I will continue to campaign passionately for jobs, investment and a brighter future for the community.” 

Ms Whiteley is quoted from last night saying:

“It is a great honour and extremely exciting to be the Conservative candidate for Bradford West.  As the owner of a small business and local employer, I have got a real understanding of the issues and concerns of Bradford’s residents and local businesses.  I will continue to campaign passionately for jobs, investment and a brighter future for the local community.” 

Memo to Conservative candidate HQ – or to any Party for that matter. The Internet remembers. It holds on to facts, faces, quotes and scandals. It also remembers that a candidate sincere about Rotherham can be sincere about Bradford. If you wanted Jackie Whiteley to be passionate about jobs, investment and a brighter future, you have succeeded only in making her sound computer generated and insincere.

Wales under review

Much later to the party than their counterparts across the other bits of the country, the Boundary Commissioners for Wales are gearing up to show off how they’ve managed to carve up Cymru under the new parliamentary constituency rules.

Reducing the number of MPs to 600 was never going to be without controversy – the English Commission was accused of treating the exercise like men of Empire armed with a ruler, a sharp HB and northern Africa. Their “Mersey Banks” will go down in legend.

Welsh MPs and commentators have been heavily critical of the consequences of the law, as the country will lose ten MPs,  25% in one strike. Arguments for and against have been oft-repeated – the Valleys seats are too small, the Valleys seats have to be that small, Welsh language constituencies must be protected, there should not be any protection for seats in Wales as there has been in the Highlands. Perhaps inevitably, Labour have been most critical, claiming the new legislation disrespects the Welsh people and their parliamentary history. In one waft of a hand, ten constituencies are removed from the map, Wales loses any influence within Parliament for purely partisan reasons.

These claims are so much fluff and bluster. The loss of MPs everywhere as part of this process does not rob anyone of their voice, influence or supply of green ink to write letters to the local gazette on the matter. Britain has always had too many parliamentarians – the reduction to 600 should be a first-step, not the final destination. Wales has its own Assembly and will have forty MPs shouting very loudly for attention – I don’t believe the loss of influence argument much at all.

The Welsh Commission have left it this late through all manner of confusion and administrative cock-ups. Their Local Government colleagues dropped enough balls to drown the First XI, which impacted on the national review. We’ve finally got whispers and hints on what’s to come this week, putting into motion the very tight timetable which has to end by October 2013.

North Wales should be the easiest for the Commissioners to fathom. Ynys Mon (Isle of Anglesey to you and me) has to be attached to the mainland somehow, which is handy because the Menai Strait isn’t exactly the Amazon (if you allow me to coin a phrase). The towns of the North Welsh coast are compacted together like neat jigsaw pieces, so expect Wrexham, Denbighshire, Flintshire and (Aber)Conwy to be largely touched. Good news for the three parties in contention to mop up the seats here – y Blaid will pick up the Anglesey/Bangor seat, Labour and Conservatives will divvy up the rest. One to watch? Wrexham, a dim and distant Conservative target which might yet one day turn blue.

South Wales has a trickier time of it. There’s a fair few mountains and valleys which get in the way, and the small town attitude is not mere awkwardness. The pride and tradition of the industrial and mining past will live on as long as women of ample bosom have enough breath in their lungs to belt out “Land of my Fathers” at fifty paces. This is where the problems start. Cardiff will lose a seat, and this puts the Liberal Democrats under particular strain in holding on to their only bit of the capital city. Swansea will be divided into two – one bit attached to Gower – whilst Newport is likely to be broken up into “doughnut” style into central and outer seats.

What happens to the Labour bankers (if you will) depends on how many mountain passes and mining villages the Commissioners choose to split down the middle.

Mid Wales will see both east and west sides of the country carved up as never before – the statutory minimum constituency size is not kind to sparsely populated rural hinterlands and as a result there will be clumsy rural/urban combinations. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be concerned with how the Carmarthen/Pembroke mathematics work out. Geography may have to mean nothing for the sake of making the numbers work – as the English Commission has so enthusiastically displayed.

For your perusal, a very convincing 30-seat Wales is presented on the Syniadu blog, written by blogger Penddu.

The Boundary Commission will present its initial proposals this week on their website

Ballot papers decide elections though the administrator’s pencil is sharp enough to make points in the fabric of democracy. How Wales is governed in the long-term depends on the decisions of the Assembly and of Westminster – the loss of 10 MPs in one go will colour that debate intensely.

Right to Recall

Remember the expenses scandal? Hazel Blears waving a cheque around, duck ponds and trouser presses (“It’s a bit Alan Partridge”, said Chris Huhne, who probably wishes that was the end of the word association game connecting “MP for Eastleigh” with “controversy”.)

The aftermath flushed out all suggestions and attempts to clean up politics as though the establishment was blowing down the garden hose that had been stuffed on the tallest ledge of the shed for the best part of the year. “PR! Smaller House of Commons! An independent expenses regime! Dealing with lobbyi….Stuff!”

One of the bright ideas coming through all of this mild panic was the “right to recall”, a mechanism through which people could get their MP off the green benches and into the Job Centre…Or at least an enforced by-election of some sort. The Labour Party love “right to recall” so much that they still put it on their website – look, it’s here in their manifesto section.  And the Tories thought it was a good idea too – in April of last year they explained how right to recall might work.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg described plans for a right to recall in a Q&A session in August last year.  And now….Well…

…it’s not easily found anywhere.  The usual websites tend to fall silent on the matter, and Hansard is not an easy stamping ground for looking at where the proposal has landed. Just how long is the long grass?

“Right to recall” is a messy process if handled incorrectly, which it might just be if the proposals are given the same treatment as those to reduce the number of MPs by 50 (which I support, though the specifics of the legislation has created some absolute howler constituencies ).

Would the trigger be an official Parliamentary review? In all cases? Would Liam Fox, for example, be subject to a recall by-election if the good burghers of North Somerset were able to organise enough signatures on a website? If Parliament or an independent review decides that Mr or Mrs MP has not committed an offence even though the “court of public opinion” thinks otherwise, would a petition still be allowed?

There’s all the usual lines in the background about “turkeys”, “christmas” and “the voting for”, and of course professional troublemakers will be in their element attempting to deselect the Prime Minister for looking at them funny. (I notice the NUS has now gone very quiet over its ill-fated recall attempt for all those nasty Liberal Democrat MP, maybe the take up of their wacky scheme didn’t match their lofty ambitions?).

I hope that someone can bring back the recall scheme where it belongs, because as a powerful tool it is one of the most effective. But it needs to be properly configured, and not open to the kind of nutter magnet tendencies you see in the (otherwise flawless) e-petition scheme. Members of Parliament have not been whiter-than-white….ever…..but the mood music at the moment has no patience for wrongdoing amongst our elected masters. “Right to recall” is not a very British policy and would take a while to slot into our mindset. (It has not moved from “shouldn’t grumble” to “Whose Streets?! Our Streets?!” without any intervening period, despite the over-the-top self-promotion of the Occupy ”movement”).

“Right to recall” byelections would open up political and democratic debate, and Lord knows we need a bit more debate recently. They would be rare, of course, because the rules would require a structure that ensured it was used properly by both Parliament and the electors. Those MPs who slipped through the expenses scandal with only nips and cuts to their pride need to feel the heat of the “recall” threat – I’m a democrat, that’s my default position, and recall triggers fits very comfortably into a democratic model.

The age of the local referendum and devolved power is approaching – the Localism Act is a great tool and one which the Liberal Democrats should be rightly proud of producing. This might not be a sexy subject, but it’s important and relevant today as it was during the depths of the expenses scam.

But until someone pokes the Cabinet Office to remind them about this policy, one wonders if it’ll ever be enacted? What’s that people say about the more things change…..

Scot Free

Later today, the results of the Scottish Conservative Party Leadership contest will be confirmed. All the smart money, and some of the maverick pounds too, has backed Murdo Fraser, the man who will win the Leadership, thank the men and women and cake bakers and raffle ticket sellers for all their hard work, and then announce the immediate termination of the Scottish Party’s existence.

Murdo thinks the only solution to the “Scottish Problem” which has infected the Conservatives with pox marks and scars is to rip it all up and start again.

And the man has a point.

In terms of brand awareness, word association plays a huge part in ensuring your target audience stay with you. “Labour” brings to mind so many thoughts and considerations, as does “Liberal Democrat” (and post-Coalition, heaven knows how many swear words amongst the images, but that’s for another thread….).

In Scotland “Conservative” is essentially a swearword. At the 1997 General Election, the Party fell   to a complete collapse north of the border, and to this day the Tories have but just one Scottish Member of Parliament. In the Holyrood elections this year, even with a proportional voting system, the Party musters fifteen members, a minority grouplet in one part of the United Kingdom where the current Prime Minister is one of their number. When Murdo Fraser points to the reputation issue as justification for wanting to rebrand the Party, you can see his point.

 At the core of Fraser’s concern is an issue more substantial than changing the letterhead and choosing a decent typeface (though, if the leaked document discussing names is accurate, “The Caledonians sounds like a novelty act on the X-Factor and Scotland First is a discount travel agents).  Fraser complains that the need for a real centre-right party in Scotland is hindered by the negative connotations attached to the words “Conservative” and even “Unionist”. His victory later today would draw a thick black line under the history of the Party going back centuries; Scottish politics would move further away from its already semi-divorced status to the rest of the United Kingdom, becoming ever more European in its political structures. The  new Party would take the Conservative whip, but would form independent from the Cameron-led Conservatives in its policies and practices.

There is danger in this radical idea (and for the Conservatives, this is about as radical as things get). Scottish political culture is a distinctly different place to the English equivalent; at the last Westminster election the swing was to Labour, conversely  at Holyrood the Labour Party was wiped out of its heartlands. Pinning a new badge on a lapel is not enough. For the Conservatives need to combat a distinctly Scottish problem without having the Oak Tree logo and David Cameron’s face moving into frame, to combat the SNP without the connotations of doing so with an English accent.

The influential Conservative blog, ConservativeHome, recommended the strategy in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election. As Unionists it might come as an unusual tactic to deploy but when everything else has failed…

I am no Tory, though I am certainly no lefty-leaning apologist either. The Labour Party is a walking, talking economic disaster zone, one which has proven itself adept at persuading great swathes of the electorate to support its candidates despite taking those voters for granted. Scotland is going through an unusual two-tier electoral development, pro-Labour at Westminster, creating a built-in Labour bias regardless of circumstances, whilst rejecting the Labour model at Holyrood. The consequences for other parties, including the Scottish Liberal Democrats, is the political equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly. There is nothing to suggest the SNP have coherent policies beyond “independence now, oil profits for a brighter tomorrow!” written in North Korean-style poster boards.

I live in Northern England, where “brand Tory” is devalued in some major population centres. Whilst it is true that Conservatives have many councillors in Cheshire, Trafford and even Salford, their numbers in Manchester and Liverpool can be counted…er….in thin air. Whatever repair job is achieved by Fraser in Scotland will need to be carefully watched by the English party.

All democrats need to accept the vibrancy and urgency which comes from a multi-party system. The Labour Party has an attitude of entitlement which is drawn from years of lacklustre opposition; if the Scottish Conservative rebrand fails, it might mean opposing the Labour Party on both sides of the border becomes even harder.

Farage fandango

Nigel Farage has enjoyed more false dawns than a customer at a transvestite holiday resort.  Third place in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election and runner-up spot at the European Elections in 2009 pointed towards a spectacular break-through at the 2010 general election. Focusing on election in the Speaker’s constituency of Buckingham – the constituency of the sitting Speaker is nominally uncontested though every election sees a collection of independents and oddities make a contest out of it – Farage stood down as leader to be replaced by Malcolm Pearson, aka Lord Pearson of Rannoch.  I have a distinct memory of their election press conference crumbling before my very eyes, Lord Pearson struggling to hide the rather obvious fact that he hadn’t read his own manifesto.

Decked out in their garish purple and yellow party colours – which tend not to go well with mahogany tan – UK Independence Party candidates are notoriously good at talking up their chances. Under our current First Past The Post voting system, it matters not that the recent YouGov poll puts them within one point of overtaking the Liberal Democrats: no UKIP candidate will ever be elected directly to the House of Commons.

That said, it’s not as though Nigel Farage is Nick Griffin, who has seen his own British National Party collapse from height to shambles in a matter of months. Farage is the master of his party’s image and spin, and boy can the man talk. Yes, his anti-Belgium diatribes are embarrassing. His Statesman like behaviour carries all the credibility of a garden gnome. And yet…

The threat of UKIP has never been so potent as it seems to be this year. By “threat” I also mean “promise” and “aspiration”. Farage is not the captain of a sinking ship, even if the tan and fancy get up shouts “Howard’s Way”. With this month’s European Union referendum controversy still ringing in David Cameron’s ears, it’s little wonder UKIP are being talked about in terms of spoiling the party come election time 2015.

Realistically Farage has much more of a steep climb even with the EU debate so freshly served on the agendas of breakfast television programmes and commentariat sections in newspapers. Europe is the bee-hive poke which ruins every well laid out policy picnic Governments have planned since the days of Heath. There’s Cameron and Clegg in the rose garden, trying to return to the happy days of their honeymoon over barbecued halloumi and fruit juice when armies of purple and yellow ants creep up from behind. 


Whilst the Liberal Democrats have been excellent in holding back most of the excessive policies of the Conservatives since last May, the secret coalition partner stalking Downing Street has been Nigel Farage. There must be times when even the mention of the word ‘defection’ sends Cameron into a blind panic, the kind which enters the mind of a teenage boy in the middle of entertaining upon hearing the sound of footsteps outside the bedroom door. What if, what if, what if…Whilst decent showings in general elections are quite beyond UKIP under the current voting system, causing a shock in local and European elections most certainly are not, something Cameron knows all too well. Additionally, any threat of a backbench defection, even just the one, would be a heck load of urine in the punch. 

Crucially for the Conservatives, and in a broader sense pro-Europeans from all parties, is the lack of credibility on Farage’s part with regards to selling UKIP as a genuinely broad church. They have one policy – Europe – to which they return for each and every question posed. Until that problem is solved, then the polls will continue to show only one thing – where Liberal Democrats were once the party of protest for electors fed up with the mainstream parties, now stands UKIP. And as once was said of the LibDems, there’s no chance of a protest party ever getting into government.