Register a complaint

Being subtle in the House of Commons is not particularly easy, let alone encouraged, so maybe it’s no surprise that Siobhain McDonagh (Labour, Mitcham and Morden) has gone full out neon-lit cuckoo-bananas with her Bash The Coalition Bill.

I’m so sorry; I mean, with her “Homeless (Voting Exclusion) and Head of the Household (Retention of Power over Vulnerable Women and Children) Bill.”

The idea behind the proposed law – which has no chance of progressing much further – has a sound core. It’s just the rest of the structure around it which lacks integrity. Surrounding the central argument is rice-paper and silly string, a ragbag collection of thinly veiled partisan attacks. It’s not surprise to me that a Labour politician wants to nobble electoral administration to benefit the Party; such an attitude was the basis behind their shameless attack against AV and the childlike squealing of ‘gerrymandering!’ during the ultimately killed off boundary change process. Nothing pleases Labour more than keeping the voting system and electoral administration firmly in their grasp, and McDonagh’s proposed Bill ensures the grip is tighter than ever.

One line of attack in the Bill – formally “Electoral Register (Access to Public Services)” – rubbishes individual electoral registration. The move to IER removes the nonsense of the ‘head of the household’ having the power to register (or in most cases, deliberately not register) people living at an address. In my “previous life” as an electoral candidate, it was something of an open secret that manipulation of the registration process by ‘head of the households’ and related problems with postal votes excluded women and young people from voting. IER will go some way to alleviate that problem. McDonagh tries to make a negative thing out of the loss of voters in Northern Ireland when they switched, ignoring the fact that many of the missing names on the Norn Iron voting register probably didn’t exist in the first place. Or indeed had been long since deceased.

The most remarkable piece of nonsense has to be the central part of her proposal. If a person wants to take part in any aspect of everyday life, then they must be registered to vote. I assume this is the same thinking which had the Labour Party promoting compulsory ID cards as part of the ‘war against terror’. Putting to one side the bizarre leap in logic required to accept the notion that wanting to drive has the same passion as wanting to vote, we get to the oddest sentence of all. Namely this beauty;

If someone does not like living in a democracy, that is fine, but they should not expect all the good things that democracy offers in return.

 

Does this remind you of Louise Mensch’s “you can’t be anti-capitalist if you use an iPhone” argument? I love the premise. “If you’re angry about an issue or specific policy, then you ruddy well better wait until an election, young person, rather than this placard waving protests you keep banging on about.”

It’s a wonderful piece of homeless prejudice too, as it completely misunderstands the journey many vulnerable people have to take to seek help. By making the register a form of National Registration Scheme, McDonagh takes the basis of democracy and squishes it into a flattened Colgate tube.

Reaction to her idea has been largely negative in the real world, where McDonagh and other MPs ignorant of democracy tend not to live.

Source, and source and source

Readers of a certain age may recall the fallout from the Poll Tax, during which time the electoral register shrank across the country as people tried all the could to avoid paying charges they couldn’t afford. Linking the electoral register with any kind of State benefits or crime-fighting purpose is therefore toxic in some areas, particularly Labour-leaning cities such as Liverpool or Glasgow which saw the worst of the backlashes. If McDonagh understood the problems people have with the words “electoral” and “register”, she would have realised that threatening to withhold benefits for non-registration sounds like a police sanctioned threat. It’s not the language of politicians generally let alone specifically Labour.

This horrible, twisted and offensive Bill will die a quick death, as the Parliamentary process is not kind to Ten Minute Bills and their related brethren. In the case of this proposal, which threatens women and children with social exclusion and places power in the hands of unscrupulous landlords, nothing could be kinder than a shot to the head. What a shambles.

 

Have passport, will travel, won’t legislate

I’m no fan of Nadine Dorries, the Mid Bedfordshire MP whose time in the Australian jungle on prime-time ITV was meant to teach the basics of abortion law to an audience ignorant of politics via the processes of eating an ostrich anus. (I could at this point say ‘she was lying with cockroaches rather than sitting on the backbenches with them, but let’s not go there….)

Her inappropriate trip abroad rightly saw her punished and stripped of the Party Whip, the significance of which might filter down to her when she’s stopped catching up with her constituent’s emails whilst lazying in a luxury hotel.

And then, from the other side of the Commons, along comes a man to usurp the scourge of abortion clinics and horny teenagers everywhere in the pursuit of passport-stamping.

Hendrick has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons by way of the hitherto obscure “All Party Parliamentary China Group”, who seem to promote on their website press-releases from other government departments whilst not doing anything themselves. The MP for Preston is called “an officer” of the Group, but one seemingly without portfolio.

Well, the former MEP for Lancashire Central has found something to do without a portfolio, and has found it to the great cost of £43,211. He has spent four months  – FOUR, count them Nadine, you amateur! – away from his Preston constituency, presumably acceptable to his Labour colleagues on Preston Council because they’ve chosen not to say anything against him in public. (At least Nadine’s party colleagues grumbled to the press; Preston’s Labour Group have been silent.)

Oh wait a minute, maybe they have said something about his conduct. Earlier this year they had to grumble and groan because he’d forgotten that his constituency has something called a Guild once-every-twenty-years, calling his decision to wander back to Preston on a whim an embarrassment. An MP since the year 2000, he should by now have been told that it’s tradition for Prestonians to mark the Guild from the start.

There’s nothing on his personal website or the APPCG site which explains why Hendrick has to take so much time away from being an MP for Preston. It’s reminiscent of the worst days of arrogance from parliamentarians, who considered a safe seat (majority 7,733 in 2010, down from 12,268 in 2001) to be a platform from which they launched a totally separate career. At least Nadine said she was leaving her constituency duties to talk about politics (or at least try to, good job ITV editors). What does Mark Hendrick say? Well, from what I can see, nothing.

His predecessor as Labour MP was Audrey Wise, for whom the term ‘firebrand’ might as well have been her given first name. The difference between them is beyond comprehension. From being the MEP for the area, Mark has now become the MP for jollies and junkets, so distant from the Ribble that he almost forgot about the Guild. Is it any wonder that his share of the vote has plummeted in the ten years between first election and the most recent? Voters are aware of his jet-set lifestyle even if he isn’t aware of them.

Even if the ‘zombie review’ does get voted through, Preston’s constituency boundaries give any Labour candidates a headstart. Hendrick could spend four weeks out of every five drinking at Ambassador’s parties without suffering much at all. It’s this complacency and arrogance which marks him out the most. There’s no justification for his absence or the connected costs. There’s no justification for his jetting off to China without any reason or result published on-line. Preston already has very strong relations with China and elsewhere in Eastern Asia through the University of Central Lancashire and from their website it appears Mark Hendrick’s jet-setting adventures have no place in their achievements.

Safe seats foster ‘ownership issues’, and boy does Holidaying Hendrick come across as having those. Preston is not supposed to be the hotel he checks into every quarter whilst clocking up the airmiles. But it seems to be, and that can’t be something on which the local CLP can be silent on for much longer….can it?

masters of the map

Constitutional reform turns even the strongest man to jelly. Tony Blair was known to switch to ‘glazed eyes mode’ whenever someone mentioned a policy not related to the important stuff – like academy schools and PFI hospitals and invading Iraq without justification, that sort of thing. Mention ‘House of Lords reform’ to Blair after the 92 hereditary peers fudge and you might as well have been discussing boot polish.

For David Cameron, constitutional reform was supposed to be over and done with by last Christmas. Help defeat voting reform, stifle the Lords and cover party funding legislation with more grass than you’d find on a teenager’s windowsill. Well you don’t always get what you want, eh?

In the week we find that ‘man of the match’ is to be trademarked I wonder what we could come up with for our D-Cam. “You can’t always get what you want” seems a bit over blown, even if it is accurate. After all, I genuinely believe he wants to reduce the size of the Commons for good reason and not just partisan advantage. This is the proposal which sees Nadine Dorries’ constituency disappear, remember, it’s not as though the Conservatives come out of this without some advantage. Anything which might just open the door to the possibility of a new constituency being formed called “Valleys of Ribble and Lune” seems like a ruddy good scheme to me.

(Disclaimer, that might just have been an idea for which I’m partly responsible. At least I admitted it now, eh?)

What phrase should be look towards selling off to the highest bidder then? “We’re all in this together” seems to have lost more credibility with every passing nano-second so that’s out. “Compassionate Conservative” joins “Quiet Bat People” in the lexicon of the clinically insane. What about “be careful what you wish for”? That could be the 2015 manifesto title. “Party Chairman Grant Shapps, there, holding up the Conservative Manifesto, ‘”Be Careful What You Wish For”, it’s cover showing Nick Clegg in a car with the windows slightly ajar and the engine running, hint hint.”

Regular readers will know that I’m somewhat fond of the ongoing process of reducing the size of the Commons, as I see it without all the nanny goat bleating from the benches opposite. “Gerrrrrymandering!” they….bleat, I suppose….like so many of those people who stand outside shopping centres handing out pocket sized leaflets entitled ‘Let’s Think About Jesus;.  Only in this case it’s “Let’s Listen to Ed Balls”, for which there can be no greater punishment for committing any of sins for which Christianity has cobbled together over the years. I admit that the boundary review has turned into a pile of arseache, with Nick Clegg gambling on acting tough on the one subject matter 90% of the general population don’t care if he acts tough about or not. You see, I’m not that obsessed about equalising constituency sizes to think that it’s the first topic of conversation at the Cricketer’s Arms, no matter how many times I try to shoehorn it into whichever debate is ensuring amongst the barflies. And trust me on this, I’ve had a punch swung at me for daring to suggest that black holes might exist, it’s a tough crowd.

In his pursuit of the one constitutional reform which benefits his party the most (….well, second most, there’s still an in-built Labour bias in the system due to First Past the Post but let’s not meander along that cul-de-sac),  Cameron is in the territory marked ‘at least he tried’. No assists, no goals – he could be the Stewart Downing of politics. Now there’s a phrase I know won’t be trademarked.

a third way

Earlier this year I likened the constitutional argument between Nick Clegg (House of Lords) and David Cameron (reducing the size of the House of Commons) to the horror film Saw, insofar as whatever one man achieves the other suffers personal/professional injury. I concluded that it would be better for the Liberal Democrats in the long term to play down House of Lords reform; the amount of damage done to the LibDems if they’re seen as obsessed with the issue will only benefit Cameron and his stirring backbenchers.

(Incidentally, Labour are now against House of Lords reform, which might come as a surprise to people).

Somewhere from the long grass is another constitutional tinkering that could be about to whack the Coalition in the face like Sideshow Bob and garden rakes. That’s the ‘right to recall’ issue, something Cameron said he supported at the height (or depth, depending on how you see it) of the expenses scandal.

Although it has been spoken of as early as April by the Leader of the House, ‘right to recall’ remains the reform that dare not speak its name. MPs were reticent to scrap 50 of their colleagues in the boundary review process so it’s not surprising that handing electors such power is down the list of priorities. It’s not as though other countries which use recall mechanisms make it easy – there’s petition chasing across the US on an almost daily basis as people rush to find millions of valid signatures. In the UK, a smaller population with smaller constituencies makes recall potentially easier to manipulate, handing the profession awkward squads (the Newspaper Comment Section Corps.) the power to play merry Hell for the sake of it.

“We should have the power to sack MPs!” is a populist move, which might persuade people to rush for a pen at the earliest opportunity. Remember, though, that the e-petition to bring back the death penalty barely registered much support at all, which dampens fears that the green ink parade will be orchestrated to chuck out any Cabinet Minister which looks at them funny.

If the push-me/pull-me games over House of Lords reform verses Reduction in the Number of MPs ends up with both defeated, ‘right to recall’ could be the compromise choice. It may have something of the gesture about it, though it’s easier to trail at either devolved assembly before being introduced at Westminster, and should see a genuine change in the attitude of MPs who think the expenses farrago has died down. Forcing a by-election in cases of criminal behaviour makes as much sense to me as chucking out of parliament lawmakers whose seat exists by virtue of a great-great-great grandfather getting into an emotional clinch with a washer-woman. General elections can be easily ‘ducked’ by MPs who don’t fancy having to face the music (as we saw with record numbers of retirements prior to 2010). The ‘right to recall’ would be almost unavoidable.

Constitutional reform is long overdue in the UK, in part because the mere mention of the administrative wheels behind the whole charade tend to make people glaze over (not just their eyes). The lack of will by any government, of any colour, is in stark contrast to the manner with which this Coalition has tried to get into the workings with spanners and hammers aloft (“spanners” is not a derogatory term meaning ‘Clegg and Cameron’, honest). That Labour, of all parties, stands against constitutional reform is jaw-slapping. That a party ‘of the workers’ chose to stand against modernising the voting system (which would give members of the public more say in who represented them in parliament, one of Labour’s founding principles) staggers me still today. The AV referendum would have been won had Labour chose to kick FPTP rather than Nick Clegg.

Lords reform may well be defeated by a bizarre combination of the now anti-reform Labour Party and backbench Conservative dinosaurs, in much the same way that reducing the size of the Commons was almost chucked out by the same tag-team of old school grumps and new breed professional politicians in Burton’s suits and safe northern constituencies. I warned the LibDems against looking like obsessives over issues like this, just in case the passion overflows. No party would lose face if, as an alternative to the bickering over the most serious reforms to our country’s governance, they helped ‘right to recall’ onto the statute books. Cameron once called for all parties to follow him in supporting the change: I wonder if he’ll now use this as his price for peace across the Cabinet table.

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.

taking the register

Justice Minister Michael Willis has hailed the switch to individual registration as “radical” and “an unprecedented move”.  To tackle electoral registration fraud, including at the initial stage and on polling day, the step-change away from blanket forms for one house is a welcome development in attitudes by central Government.

Mr Michael Willis is now…….Lord Willis, and his place in the Justice Ministry is no longer occupied by a person from his Labour Party. The profound shift in electoral registration came before the most recent general election and was a direct consequence of decreasing confidence in Britain’s credibility as a place for free and fair elections. Labour had been stung by an electoral judge condemning the ease with which fraud could be conducted as something which would “shame a banana republic”

Back in 2009, when Mr Willis was flying the flag for this policy as a Minister in a Labour government, the rash of condemnation appears to have been muted. Not so now, as the Coalition’s desired move towards the same policy has whipped up the kind of furious anger reserved for filling in comments sections at the bottom of newspaper on-line content. At the core of the opposition argument is a flawed premise – “Ah, it will deny the poor a vote!” – and a disingenuous one at that.  “Elections should be based on population not electorate” is another auto-response, an attempt to suggest that all future elections should involve people who are not eligible to vote. Population figures were not used for the boundary review instigated under Labour, and nobody with much of a mind about them is suggesting that should happen again.

Labour helped bring individual registration to the United Kingdom during their time in power by way of Northern Ireland. Known for having…colourful and not always, shall we say, expected attitudes towards putting names on the electoral register, the Norn Iron experience has seen a fall in numbers. How many people were real in the first place is open to argument, and it’s that argument which now needs to be tackled here. As the Birmingham case has shown (and not exclusively), we cannot be confident that the rigorous checks we expect on validity are being made. We certainly cannot be confident that the names on an electoral register are always real.

On the politics forum I visit – Vote-UK – this issue has been roundly discussed. As an adjunct to the main debate, one poster said;

 At the 2010 election I witnessed some quite disgraceful behaviour at several polling stations in inner city Birmingham. There was clear intimidation and bribery of electors and in several cases the police stood by and watched. If they were willing to turn a blind eye to what I witnessed I have no difficulty believing that they would ignore other cases of electoral fraud.

Another poster added:

Individual registration is obviously superior and it will also hopefully help to keep people on the register who move from place to place regularly. My only concern is that complaints about it removing people from the register are being viewed solely through a partisan prism. I think we should all be able to accept that those legitimate voters leaving the register are more likely to be Labour supporters, but still agree that we ought to be making an especial effort to try to keep the register as full as possible.

Whilst a much less enthusiastic tone was set by the member who wrote:

The real issue here – which I’m surprised hasn’t been mentioned in this thread – is not (thread title notwithstanding) moving to individual registration (for which there may be some good arguments, as already mentioned) but effectively making registration voluntary……

As the story says, this is a deliberate calculated decision to lessen involvement in the democratic process – something which I regard as fundamentally immoral 

 

This last post has been the prevailing tone of the opposition. It is not one I agree with – and deep down, I suspect many opponents realise that too. From my own experience in Preston, there is a clear case of “head of the household” registration in some communities, something which cannot be tackled if election officers lack the safety net which individual registration provides. Broader arguments against the change talk about working class, or black and ethnic minority or non-English speaking people having the ladder of democracy somehow whipped away from them. This is far removed from either reality or intention; it is the responsibility of everyone involved in “politics” generally, be it national or hyper-local, to ensure the people we want to represent have the ability and opportunity to case a vote. “This is excluding the poorest in society” is not a valid claim if either you do nothing to ensure that the people who worry about have registered.

Another thread in the argument involves the moves to make parliamentary boundaries fairer, and reviews of constituencies more frequent. From around 15-year cycles to 5, the first of which is now underway. “This is just gerrymandering!” cry opponents, showing another blatant misunderstanding which borders on the medically unstable. Elections have always asked those who are able to vote to do so – it makes no sense to set up straw man arguments about immigrants or under-18s.  If opponents wish to encourage individuals to register for elections who are, for example, about to turn 16 and for whom “voting” and “politics” seem like bizarre sexual fetishes, they could do well to help the Youth Citizenship Commission in their aim to roll out registration in schools and colleges.

If we are to have an electoral system people can believe in, then those seats we create for elections must be robust reflections of the voters within the boundaries who are able to vote; everyone who has the right to vote, with the ability to do so, on a register we can trust. There is too much doubt on the issue today, and partisan bleating about “fixing the system” pithily denies an awkward truth about the system as it currently stands today.

It is not evil for any Government to consider it vital that those who are willing to participate in elections should be encouraged to do so themselves. Labour recognised this in 2009, and the Coalition are now seeing it through.

Labour keeps its grip on the NW

When the Boundary Commission for England released its initial proposals to reduce the number of constituencies across the country, you couldn’t hear yourself think over the shouts from the Labour Party of “fix”, “fudge”, and “gerrymander”.  Got a Bingo Card? Full house before noon. “It’s a Tory stitch-up,” came the cries, and at the first glance it was almost enough to believe the hype.

Now the instant reaction buzz has died down, number crunchers have taken their time over the spreadsheets and maps, and found some rather interesting details which Labour’s critics may find interesting.

If we focus on the North West of England, the conclusion is very clear; Labour do very well out of the proposed changes, even if those include such insane creations as “Mersey Banks” (two sides of the River Mersey connected by the M65 and a couple of dual carriageways) and a “Leigh” seat which excludes Leigh town centre whilst requiring prospective parliamentarians to navigate Chat Moss.

From the website Electoral Calculus comes news about Greater Manchester. Rather than demolish the strongholds and citadels of Manchester, notoriously undersized Labour bankers as they were, the BCE proposes to strengthen Labour’s in built majority. Current LibDem seat Manchester Withington is calculated as a Labour hold; the same conclusion is made by UKPolling, who decides current MP John Leech would fall by just short of 2,000 votes.

The proposed Manchester Central (which also incorporates Salford city centre and Salford Quays) would fall from an 11,000 to 8,000 seat majority for Labour, not exactly a collapse. Indeed, factoring in the Hazel Blears factor (her cheque-waving fixed-grin arrogance cost thousands of votes last year), the seat could have an automatic majority beyond the existing figure.

There are notional gains for Labour too – the newly divided Burnley would present them with two notionally held seats. “Rochdale North and Rawtenstall”, a creation destined to force BBC news presenters to sound like Jane Horrocks, and “Rochdale South” would move further away from the grasp of the Liberal Democrats who regard the town as their northern spiritual home.

Under the new proposals, Warrington, Chester, and Bolton shift away from marginal status, which for Bolton at least should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. The proposed “Westhoughton” (which should be called “Westhoughton, Horwich South, Hindley and Leigh. And also Atherton”) creates a cushioned safe-hole of nearly 10,000 votes (around 7,000 using Electoral Calculus).

What this means in the wider picture brings two conclusions; that the in-built natural Labour bias has not been fully eradicated. Neither the BCE nor Democratic Audit found a way to jigsaw Manchester or Liverpool in such a way to make them any less safe for Labour. The second conclusion underlines the extent to which Labour misunderstands the concept of ‘gerrymandering’, almost certainly wilfully. The new rules presented the BCE with a challenging remit, something which occasionally produced unfortunate accidental brain-farts one assumes can be redressed (taking Fishwick out of Preston, for example, something which hasn’t been the case in any context since the mid 1830s). What has happened in the NW is an interesting result of taking boundaries further out into towns which have been consistently undersized before – in quite a lot of cases, it is the Labour Party which benefits the most.

Of course, there is quite a lot of tea-leaf stirring here. These predictions are drawn from past local electoral results and stats, and in politics as in business, past performance is no indicator of future behaviour. It’s notable that the loudest critics of the scheme to reduce the size and cost of Westminster have missed out the specific consequences in those parts of the country where first glances would have given the impression of impending disaster.

The whole episode makes things very tough for the Liberal Democrats, who I have supported for over 10 years now. We lose, notionally, two seats, and that is a significant number in a region where vote share and constituency numbers have never correlated particularly impressively. If anything, the results show just how much greatly strengthened should be our resolve against the Labour Party, in parts of the country where we have consistently out performed them.

If Labour go into the 2015 election thinking, genuinely or not, that the boundaries have been stacked against them, they may discover the flip side of getting what you wished for.

parallel lines

For a small island with enough room (just) to move about in, we sure do like having our towns, cities and counties carved up by administrators waving their sharpened HBs on a lazy Tuesday.  Through centuries of governmental landgrabs and civil servant line wobbling, there is barely half-a-year free of local administrative boundaries, or parliamentary boundaries, having changed for the benefit of democratic cohesion and representative validity.

Common changes which carry on without much comment outside the local press, if at all, are the product of the Local Government Commissions, hardy souls whose responsibility starts and ends with the Town Halls and Civil Centres of Great Britain. Right now, if you’re that way out of an evening, you can comment on the proposed council ward shake-up of Purbeck council. THRILLING, I am sure you agree. Some of you may even learn where Purbeck is, for I’m sure it came as news to me.

Next week sees the bigger brothers of the local boundary shakers take to the centre stage of political discussion, and boy, will it be bigger. You may have heard the cries of “Gerrymandering!” from the summer of last year, from ill-informed bitter opponents of the somewhat overdue plans to cut the number of MPs and do something about the huge difference in Westminster constituency sizes.  When the Boundary Commission for England publishes its proposals for the 500 English seats in a weeks time, followed by Northern Ireland and Scotland before November, and Wales in the new year, it will be part of the greatest constitutional shake-up since devolution.  Not since 1945 have Westminster constituencies been subject to such radical reforms.

First off – the reasons why it’s obviously a good idea to take an axe to 50 Members of Parliament and a stretching device to those seats which border soon-to-be-abolished constituency units.  Quite obviously, all boundaries are fake. All of them, completely invented. From the decision to draw country lines round mountains and through lakes by means of happenstance and expediency, through to contemporary council ward shapes, every attempt by some form of establishment or other to carve up nation states begins with circumstances nobody wants. It’s a measure of man how we agree to the invisible lines which bind us into boxes and files and codes: most significance is only drawn in this country through somewhat petty partisanship.  I often wonder what opponents of the forthcoming parliamentary boundary review would do in Israel or Somalia or Western Sahara.

We need smaller, more relevant democracy in this country, one in which the machinery of party politics is left to tick and tock far away from the streets and playing fields of peoples every day lives. To lost 50 MPs in one go is but a small step – it is necessary to take the axe to the ‘payroll vote’, reduce the size of most Town Halls and create more local, responsive parish/neighbourhood councils. Reducing the number of MPs by just 50 to 600 is a small, vital, and progressive step in the right direction. Having done nothing to reform the parliamentary establishment, it’s very rich of the Labour Party to sound off about ‘representing the people’.  Losing 50 MPs saves money in the long term, and opens up the possibility of greater,  more significant reforms in the long term.  Proportional representation, above all, an elected Senate, an axing of two-tier local government….Can you hear the creaking in the old guard’s strides?

What begins next week is not gerrymandering. The Labour Party can cry all it wants (not least because they did so well in persuading the Boundary Commission under their regime to divide Derbyshire, East London and a fair amount of Wales in their favour).  By making the new parliamentary seat rules so tight, so rigid, so difficult to twitch, alter, manoeuvre, the Coalition has created a refreshing alternative to the old school horse trading of years gone by. Having followed the most recent review, which ran up to the 2010 election having started over 10 years previously, I know only too well how ‘stitched up’ everything felt.

There is nothing in the Great British Rule Book which dictates “An MP must not represent both rural and urban communities”. We are a small island, where urban sprawl exists almost everywhere, and the outdated ideas of ‘rural isolation’ and ‘high street magnetising suburbs to its core’ all reek of ancient arguments dusted off by those most likely to do well from favourably drawn lines. It is not beyond the means of any conscientious MP to represent town, city and farmland in one go.

Cheaper democracy, and more vibrant too, as candidates fight over unfamiliar territory at the next election. Yes, the resulting constituencies in some parts of the country may have some contrived elements – watch out Leeds, things aren’t going to be pretty – though when did it become necessary for the United Kingdom to be marked up in straight boxes? This is not the United States, we do not need compact squares and rectangles to make it easier to colour in the lines.

Cheaper, vibrant, more reflective of the ‘commute to work’ culture, and more relevant to the population shifts in northern cities and the affluent south. The recent previous reviews finalised their ideas ready for 1983, 1997 and 2010;  from this year onwards, the reviews must take a maximum of 5 years. The most recent English review saw parts of the country experience two general elections and a change in Prime Minister before they finally got the chance to vote in the seat designed for them half-a-generation gone. It’s not very modern of our democracy to take outdated population figures and expect representative seats to be drawn from them.

Cheaper, vibrant, up to date, relevant, reflective – and independent. We are not the US – appropriation  is carried out by pen pushers and map mechanics, not political appointees and the interested parties. Our parliamentary representation is the more precious and important because of the way in which we draw our lines; it is vital we retain that independence, something opponents of the new regime seem to take for granted.

Is it a Tory gerrymander? No, and it is not because Labour supporters have proven it. The left-leaning Democratic Audit published its report and found rock solid Labour seats in Manchester, Liverpool, east London and Scotland remained even with the tougher, tighter electorate rules. As I discovered when thinking about submitting my own proposals to the Commission, the domino effect caused by the new regulations make the creation of isolated blobs of party support very hard indeed.

Labour’s opposition seems to be tainted by two flavours – bitterness that they didn’t get here first when they had the chance, and uncertainty over the safety of their smaller, compact inner city seats. It should do our parliamentary system some good if Labour, and all other parties, have to fight that little bit harder in newer, more unusual seats. Why the Labour Party is so obsessive in their opposition is beyond me; are they so cynical? Or bored, and in need of anything to shout down if it’s seen as easy enough to do?

Our attitude towards the ever changing, always shifting representative means seems mostly shrug-shoulders and rooted in the past. We cling to “Greater Manchester” and “Merseyside”, both of which no longer exist. We occasionally scratch our heads at “Middlesex”, and look in vain for “Clwyd”.  Our incessant bored fiddling with figures and numbers have awarded Southport with a PR postcode and L-accented Post Offices.  Next week sees one opportunity to take seriously the new chapter in representation which will revitalise our relationship with candidates, parliamentarians and politics. It’s lazy and churlish to whinge about the radical nature of the review process; remember, only 50 MPs are going. I would prefer far less with a proportional voting system; maybe you want even fewer than 500 by 2020.

If you want more information about the great boundary re-jig, then Wikipedia is your friend. Whatever happens when the Boundary Commission for England declares its provisional plans next week, let’s try and get through it without too much bruising.

I have been asked to advise the North West Region Liberal Democrats on some specific constituencies for the North West of England, and will be present at a number of North West public consultation meetings on behalf of them.. The proposals I linked to in this post are my own ideas, almost all of which are absent from those which are being considered by the NW Region. 

AVin’ a larf

Those of you with difficulty sleeping may have already noticed how long the House of Lords has held onto the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill. Having started before Christmas, it’s still there and they’re still at it.

One look at the amount of amendments lodged should give a clue as to what is holding back the Bill .

Essentially this Bill is in two halves, and reflects the compromise which ultimately brought the Coalition together. Reducing the number of MPs from the Cameron camp, removing the skewed and failed First Past the Post coming from Clegg. The one Bill – I’ll call it “PVSaC”, which sounds like a minor player in the first post-Communist elections in Transnistria – has joined a whole swathe of constitutional reform coming from the Conservative-led Government, and heaven knows we’ve been waiting for the Tories to flood the Commons with reform (voting change, fixed-term Parliaments, directly elected police chiefs, referendums on proposed council tax rises, what a time to be alive, etc.)

Labour’s foot-dragging has been an affront to democracy. They daren’t even put the door of reform ajar; they would rather lock it shut. Labour’s dinosaurs (“they’re off the leash, as Clegg put it, somewhat muddled) have not “scrutinised” the Bill, they have torn it to shreds. They patronise the electorate – (“People aren’t used to referendums” they say, “They might not know how to cope with multiple ballot papers on the same day”, treating voters as fools for the basis of a strawman argument made not from common-sense but spit and string.)

Make no mistake – this Bill is in serious danger of being talked out. Today, tomorrow and Wednesday is all it has left to have any chance to survive. Labour’s wrecking amendments have already pushed back polling day from May to October, and have promised to talk out the constituency boundary review section until they drop dead rather than hand the Conservatives with constitutional victory. The AV referendum may be suffocated before it is given to the people to decide. How offensive that Labour will be the Party who deny the people a right to say how parliamentarians are voted.

I have been a passionate (and doubtlessly boring) advocate for constitutional reform all my life. It is one of the rare passions I have left. It frustrates and angers me that Labour, of all parties!, are now those standing against reform whilst the Conservatives, of all parties!, are left making the case for change. The decision to talk out the Bill will ultimately kill any chance of future reform for my life time, if not forever.

Between today and Wednesday the future of democratic reform will be drawn. To borrow a phrase; “the Bill has been torn to shreds, the pieces are in flux, what happens when they rest is up to us. Let’s reshape the country.”

NUS – the problems with issues

First things first, the old-fashioned, good old facts. I am against tuition fees, always have been, from the moment Labour introduced them in 1997 while I was just starting out at college. “Where did this policy come from?” we asked, in somewhat stunned confusion. Well, nowhere, for Labour sprung them onto the nation without much introduction.

(The same, of course as top-up fees, another post-election surprise from Labour)

I don’t know what the NUS have been smoking, but their current violent attitude spilling across the centre of London really does nothing to make them look like the mature counter-argument to university funding. The NUS have got this completely and utterly wrong. By promoting millions of pounds worth of damage to persons and property across London as part of their “debate”, the NUS “leadership” is showing the very worst characteristics of student politics. Shouty, slogan-sore ignorance on a national scale.

Their collective amnesia is stunning. Labour’s introduction and promotion of tuition fees have brought us all to this state, where the only affordable option is to keep the system going with the improvements suggested by Liberal Democrat MPs now in Government. There is no point, at all, in solely blaming the LibDems, as the NUS are doing with all the coherence of a bus-stop drunk.

Graduation Tax proposals were highlighted by the Browne report as being unfair, for they would be levied on students from the moment they earned around £7,000. The new tuition fee proposals, as recommended by Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government, would see repayments START at £21,000, an increase from £15,000. This is an improvement, something the NUS cannot hear above the screaming and gnashing of teeth.

Labour sewed tuition fees into the fabric of university funding. The NUS has to explain what system it would introduce instead of tuition fees, one which would raise AT LEAST the same amount of money. Nobody in the NUS has come up with a credible reason why the entire nation should be expected to pay for university education out of general taxation.

Their “plan” to force by-elections in every LibDem seat is also indicative of their ignorance. There is no “recall MP” law in place yet, that LibDem proposal is still to make it through Parliament (as with the fixed-term parliament proposal, and increasing tax allowances and all other promises made, these things take time). The “right to recall” is only for MPs who have broken the law – such as Phil Woolas. What has Nick Clegg done to break the law? Nothing.

I have great sympathy with anti-tuition fee protesters. BUT I do not, cannot, accept the view that the only organisation responsible is the Liberal Democrats and the only recourse is setting fire to the Square Mile. The NUS has got its argument completely wrong. In the court of public opinion, they resemble the very worst kind of student protesting stereotype.

Labour got us into this mess. If they had increased University funding in line with all other public spending splurges, this mess would not know be realised. There is no point in whinging about the result of the General Election, not trying to rewrite history to present Labour as “friends of students”.

As the sight of the NUS-led protests against “Tony B. Liar” prove, sometimes all the students unions need are reasons to be angry with no solutions to back up the slogans.

I am against tuition fees, now as ever. I am against the NUS setting the HE funding argument as a LibDem witchhunt. It is not accurate, it is baseless in fact and shallow in detail.