Jumping into the ballot box

Some moons ago I wrote on the matter of Government reshuffles, those flurries of end of the pier entertainment which used to occupy the minds of ministers more than their job requirements. Read any diary or memoir of the time and the promise of a change in job underlines almost every decision, accompanying every minister like a shadow. The phone at the end of a corridor becomes more attractive than the office secretary.

The other parlour game of British politics is the good old fashioned defection. Once a mainstay of the political process, for whatever reason the high-profile ship jumper has become something of a rear treat. Defectors were always assumed to be somehow “special”, dismissed by former colleagues in often very colourful language (read Alan Clark’s diaries for the most colourful), welcomed with photo-ops and smiles by their new leader. MPs defect less often these days – Quentin Davies and Shaun Woodward being the most recent – and the prominence has been deadened over the years in any case.

Until, perhaps, this year: of the Jubilee, the Olympics and scaremongering Mayans. Starting with a piece in the Times and on ConservativeHome last week, rumours about defections from the Conservatives to UKIP have grown from just the two MPs to potentially a dozen or more. Suddenly the defection thing seems to have regained its relevance and, yes, sexiness. This is the stuff which pumped the blood of long since forgotten political times, after all. Of course, this drum banging intrigue does tend to fall apart at the sight of some of the names – Nadine Dorries is many things, but she’s neither particularly powerful and definitely not sexy. Bill Cash and the like are not exactly big hitters either, being much of the ‘old boys’ brigade for whom accompanying headlines – “Anti-EU backbencher joins anti-EU party” – would not cause David Cameron much of a headache.

The UK Independence Party has been a constant in British politics now for over twenty years. It has singularly failed to get any of its candidates elected to Westminster, but from Parish Council to Brussels, the UKIP success story is more remarkable than its critics might ever concede. Its done fantastically well despite only having one policy, changing its high profile leader Nigel Farage for an obscure Peer during the last election, and being unable to explain how its well paid MEPs have brought the country ever nearer its aim of leaving the EU from inside their very nice offices in Strasbourg. Somehow the party with little credibility outside its hobby horse has managed to grow in strength and size by achieving precisely nothing. What UKIP has always enjoyed, however, is a credible protest vote attraction to them. They are not the British National Party, knuckle-dragging anti-everythings without unity or purpose. They can’t point to success in their aim to drag the UK out of the European Union, but they can still attract votes. And with a hung parliament in 2010 and something similar possible in a reduced House of Commons in 2015, Nigel Farage knows exactly how significant his party has become.

Let’s assume one backbench Conservative MP defects prior to, or just following, next month’s local elections. No great problem for Cameron – if the jump is to UKIP and the defector is a known “old boy” looking for handshakes and a new tie, there is no real winner. Farage will point to his new MP sitting with fellow “one party states” George Galloway (Respect, Bradford West) and Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) and talk of “a new breath of air in British politics”. Here comes the smaller parties, despite first past the post, proving that Britain wants real change. 

Two, maybe three, possibly four MPs going across would be difficult for Cameron to defend, though the nature and character of the “gang” may do his argument the world of good. “They are just one-policy nutters,” he could explain, “going to a one-policy pressure group.” Local Conservative associations might not appreciate their MPs suddenly taking a leap into the unknown like so many lemmings draped in the Union Flag. There could be more tension in the Party as different shades of right-wing battle it out amongst themselves. “Whilst that lot busy themselves like ferrets, ” Cameron would tell the House, “I’m getting on with leading the country.”
Things will get tougher if the rumours, some of which come from hints and allegations within UKIP, that the true number of Tory defectors is nearer two-dozen. That’s not normal. That’s unexpected. And that is a constitutional earthquake. Yes, it makes the Conservatives smaller in the Commons, less anti-EU and presumably less right -wing. Yes, it even shores up the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition, who find themselves speaking with a louder voice as the backbenches empty around them. Though what would a mass phalanx of anti-EU defections do to the governance of the country? Would it need the MPs to resign on mass, causing by-elections across the land to smoke out ‘true’ conservatives, forcing local associations to choose between party loyalty and perceived patriotism? Would Labour capitalise on the splits within the Government by forcing through amendments to controversial health, welfare and education legislation? Could they even force a vote of no confidence? Could there even be an early general election?

Due to the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, another LibDem manifesto promise now in law by the way, David Cameron has very little wiggle room to call an early ballot. It’s no longer the case that the Prime Minister of the day can fire the starting pistol on a whim. The pressure to do so in most circumstances would not be enough to ‘create’ circumstances in which MPs vote down their own government, as often happens in countries which have Fixed Terms. If there’s a grouplet of UKIPpers in the Commons, the constitutional consequences are hard to ignore. What government is now running the country? It’s hard enough explaining why a Coalition has legitimacy now, imagine trying to do so if near enough two dozen Tory MPs cross the floor in one swift movement?

To have any legitimacy, the MPs would have to resign their seats and force by-elections. They would have to, for UKIP is not a parliamentary party and their electors cannot just be told that it’s normal for MPs to create parliamentary groupings over a weekend that didn’t exist before. Farage may well be the man with more power than most at the moment. 

He could probably absorb Nadine Dorries trying to “do a Sarah Palin” by coming across as a strong, independent maverick woman with a voice of her own and no man ain’t gonna tell her otherwise, no way, no how. He could cope with Mark Pritchard, not exactly a household name, acting as de facto leader of the UKIP Rump State. 
But if he finds himself with 20 or more MPs under his party label sitting in the Commons as a group larger than the SNP, larger than Plaid Cymru, and in greater number than all Northern Irish parties combined, he has the sudden strength of the starting pistol no future Prime Minister can ever use. How legitimate is Project Cameron now, he’ll ask, when we’re the Party his MPs are moving to?

Cameron has been exceptionally unlucky these past few years. He failed to win an outright majority against an unpopular Labour Prime Minister who dragged the country into the longest, deepest, most damaging recession in peace times. He has struggled to shake off the image of his Cabinet as out of touch, and has had to say goodbye to close allies within his Office at the least appropriate times. He has struggled to maintain opinion poll leads against a Labour Party led by a policy-wonk with all the charisma of a Speak-n-Spell machine. 

Now Cameron has another piece of bad luck shadowing his every move. And it’s not as though he hasn’t been warned.
To lose one MP might be considered misfortune. To lose two, careless. To lose over a dozen and have a rival effectively force a General Election onto you? That, Prime Minister, is incompetence. 

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…