all trigger, no bullets

What we know in Britain as democracy is a clumsy and chaotic compromise position, moulded through centuries of give, take and establishment necessity. Without the structure from a written constitution, it’s been possible to grow electoral administration only as successfully as it is possible to call “gardening” the act of throwing seeds onto a pavement. Every element of our electoral and constitutional machinery is broken – from the way in which legislation is timetabled to the voting system for Town Halls. Nothing works as it should, or indeed could, and for all the talk of necessary “repair work” on that machinery, not one party leader seems willing to break out the WD40.

It’s only a few years ago that David Cameron appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up and a screwdriver in his hand. Politics was broken, and he was the emergency call-out man who could help fix it. With the formation of the Coalition, it seemed even more likely that something would be done, as after all there’s no group on these islands more obsessed with improving the democratic ills than the Liberal Democrats. Maybe, just maybe, something would actually be achieved.

And then they had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “It’s being considered very carefully”. This is establishment speak for “We’re not interested, go away”.

The cases of Eric Joyce, Patrick Mercer and to an extent Nadine Dorries in the jungle have brought into stark focus one of many problems which keep the 21st century United Kingdom anchored in the 19th century. The good voters of Falkirk, Newark, and Mid-Bedfordshire did not vote for their MPs to leave their parties (or for that matter the country to appear on reality television), nor did they vote for an MP to confirm he won’t stand at the next election after being arrested though would stay on as an MP, on full pay, away from his party. The people of Falkirk voted for a Labour MP, not an independent, and under our broken system they can’t do a thing about this. They can’t even protest at the next election, because Eric Joyce won’t be there to face their decision.

This situation is one amongst many cuckoo-banana realities of British democracy.

When Cameron and Clegg spoke of the “right to recall”, one of the ways these situations could be resolved, there was a sense that lessons had actually been learned. Maybe, just perhaps, “right to recall” was on its way, and Britain would be able to boot out errant MPs in-between elections.

And then, the proposals came out, and the chance collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. What the Coalition proposed was not “right to recall”, as wanted by Douglas Carswell, Zac Goldsmith and others, but a form of State-approved confirmation hearings. Rather than allowing members of the electorate to decide if an MP should be subject to a recall by-election, Nick Clegg and Tom Brake put their names to a process by which electors would have to wait for the establishment to make its own decision. Policing the police, and all that, and nothing close to how Cameron had initially voiced his determination to clean up politics.

“Right to recall” would deal with examples like Joyce, Mercer and Dennis McShane if there was a genuine will within their constituencies. There’s little to no danger of opposition supporters trying to “rig” referenda; who other than political obsessives would attempt to oust all 650 MPs? There’s plenty of clear and obvious safeguards against “rigging” – including only permitting the process to start after a resignation or under-12 month prison sentence – that fears expressed about all MPs being under constant threat sound nothing more than willing the long grass to grow.

The Clegg/Cameron approach to the “trigger” element of the process lacks exactly the power which voters need to keep their MPs in check. It’s exactly the same fault which killed off the AV referendum, boundary reviews and House of Lords reform – a lot of talk about weaponary, very little evidence of firepower.

There are so many faulty and failing elements of the British electoral system that’s it difficult to know where to start. I’d love to see a fully proportional system for electing local government, I’d love to see an end to the stubby pencil, I’d love to see votes at 16, but with every passing year it seems the UK is happy to slide back another decade into a dusty, irrelevant past. “Right to recall” is a sidestep into responsibility, maturity, and the present day. Or at least the 20th century. Let’s see it introduced properly.

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Nadine, you’re not a celebrity

Why do we want to put stars in our children’s eyes?

Nadine Dorries (MP, Mid-Bedfordshire), asked that very question in a blog, in which she defended her parental duties to protect her daughter against the explicit nature of the celebrity culture world on TV screens and (somewhat bizarrely) the Reading Festival stage. Indeed, Nadine, the celebrity culture world IS setting up our children for a fall, isn’t it?

Many moons ago, Channel 4 launched the British version of ‘Big Brother’. In its earliest years, ‘Big Brother’ did very little to accelerate the celebrity of those people who took part. Some made low-level impact in television presenting jobs and music careers. Suddenly, and without much warning, related reality television programmes appeared on all national channels which thrust unknowns into the spotlight – this wasn’t just a big cheque to a quiz show winner, this was a recording contract, this was glossy magazine photo opps, this was Hollywood treatment to a British postcode and the bright lights of fame and fortune shone directly into the hearts of people who wanted instant success for little work. And who wouldn’t want to have a celebrity career at a fingerclick?

On the flipside of all this, celebrities whose careers had faded through the years found themselves using the same processes to win back a little of the bright lights they thought were lost. Celebrity versions of Big Brother, Fame Academy and others made it acceptable to strip celebrities of most of their charm as a ‘payback’ for their desperation to return into the centre of people’s attention. They danced, sang and wandered around naked for the benefit of nobody but their own attempts to make it again in the changed celebrity world. This new reality, fed by and made for reality television, made celebrities as hungry for fame as the ordinary people who wanted more than a quiz show first prize.

The extreme conclusion of this is ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”, the natural consequence for the urgency with which faded celebrities wanted coverage in the tabloids. ITV couldn’t have known  just how far they could push famous people to do whatever they asked. Insects were eaten, dung was swam through, flesh was revealed and dignities were prostituted. As long as office workers could guffaw on Monday morning about a has-been crunching on spiders, then the production team had done their job.

Viewing figures for “I’m a Celebrity…” topped 16 million people. That’s one of the highest viewing figures on British television, far over-shadowing the viewing numbers for most soaps. Up with other ITV stables such as “The X-Factor” and its predecessor “Pop Idol”, it’s a huge success story for advertisers, producers and celebrities alike.

Nadine Dorries is not a celebrity by many definitions of the term. She’s a member of parliament, representing the constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. At the 2010 election, just shy of 29,000 people voted for her to represent them, over 50% of those who voted. Those 29,000 people probably knew before hand that Nadine was a controversial and divisive figure. Her provocative views on abortion law reform has set her apart from many Conservative MPs. Perhaps most infamously, she attempted to take through the Commons an “abstinence Bill”, an old-fashioned, out-dated “won’t somebody think of the children” legislation.

She justifies taking a televised holiday in Australia to eat  kangeroo anus because politicians are considered out of touch, and that a potential audience of 16 million people want to be taught by her. She believes ITV would allow her to talk about abortion reform law. She could not be more wrong, and goodness knows she has been wrong plenty of times in her career. She’s misunderstood the point of a prime-time reality show if she thinks long speeches about abortion law would be shown amongst shots of models and pop stars camped around a bonfire. She’s misunderstood the point of prime-time reality programmes entirely if she thinks politicians can appear without production choices making them look embarrassing.

This isn’t to say that we should keep MPs on BBC Parliament and pop stars on ITV1. There is a need to make politics and politicians relevant to people today, especially young people. Nadine Dorries can speak about getting her fingernails dirty all she likes; the role of an MP is not to appear on a phone-in reality show where producers have all the power. With Parliament currently sitting, laws are being debated and voted on, and alongside those MPs from Sinn Féin who refuse to take their seats, Nadine Dorries is deliberately absent. That’s not a responsible act from an MP however you measure it.

I’m not against MPs getting out into the real world, but “I’m a Celebrity…” is not reality. Getting an MP to be a bin man for a week or sit in A&E is just as ‘finger nail dirtying’ as anything Nadine pretends will happen whilst being filmed eating a cockroach with a Page 3 model, and it’s more likely to produce something approaching respect with voters.

I doubt watching Nadine eating an arse rather than talking out of one will bring her into a new light. It won’t win her respect as an MP who is taking a holiday on full pay because she feels that nobody is listening to her on Question Time. Already semi-detached amongst her colleagues, the natural conclusion from her jaunt is a permanent exclusion from the Conservative Party. If she wanted to do the decent thing, her next job will be in the Chiltern Hundreds.

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. 

Keep Sunday vaguely notable

Nadine Dorries is the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and is the poster girl for the sort of bloke who enjoys Alpha Course meetings as a come down from the BDSM club nights he usually visits. She is an “anti-everything”, often giving statements on the hot topic of the previous day in the most bizarre fashion. You might recall her claim that the expenses scandal had done so  much damage to her colleagues that some of them were “on suicide watch”.

The latest splurge of opinion soup to vomit from Dorries reacts to proposals (released through the pre-Budget leakathon) that the Olympics would be a fine time to relax Sunday Trading Laws. Currently, Britain allows shops to trade on Sundays only if customers can potter around for an hour beforehand fondling the biscuits, flicking through magazines and putting items back in the wrong place having reconsidered buying novelty garden gnomes for a fifth floor apartment.  The basis for restricted trading on Sunday is largely based on religious observance; Sunday is the day of rest, after all, and that means mowing the lawn and listening to Desert Island Discs, not stocking up with BOGOFs at Morrisons.

By restricting trade, shops can offer the same service within constrained hours, often paying staff more for the “novelty” of working on a ‘special day’. This can cause head scratches amongst people for whom Sunday is no more special than any other, who find themselves clock watching before they can set out to buy what they need.

Nadine Dorries’ reaction was typically provocative. “Is the coalition secretly implementing an anti-Christian agenda?” she fumed from her Twitter account, surrounded by the strictly observant religious idyll of Mid-Bedfordshire. (What is “Mid”, anyway? That’s a term used by estate agents and wannabe poets invoking Wordsworth. Apparently it contains a town called “Houghton Conquest”, which sounds like a particularly bad non-league football team).

I’m not sure Dorries is quite in the same….planet, I suppose….with this latest tirade. Relaxing Sunday trading laws will be difficult – there are questions of employment law and employees rights to consider – but that does not mean they  would bring about a destruction of the nation by any measure. Families are not going to split over the right to wander around B&Q, nor will the Church slam the doors on people who choose out of town shopping centres over the pulpit. It is a natural extension of the policy as it currently stands – there is nothing stopping a person buying their weekly shop through the Internet at 3am on a Monday morning or during a lunch break at work. Why ‘bubble wrap’ Sunday trading? If there’s nothing sacred about buying on-line during a lazy Sunday, why keep the High Street within the constraints of a previous generation’s attitude?

Dorries is more often wrong than right, choosing to pick fights in empty venues. Her proposed sex education Bill was a puritan’s wet dream (if such a thing exists, though it would have made a Saint a bit frisky). Otherwise known by the nickname “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children Act”, it would have required schools to drive all their female pupils to one of the Small Isles away from dirty boys and their dirty bits and bobs and desire to hump everything that moves.

There is no compulsion to consume from anyone outside PR companies and advertising agencies and yet Dorries sounds downright scared of what might flow from relaxing the laws, even temporarily. I know there are questions to be asked about consumerism and capitalism generally – they will always be there to consider. Relaxing trading laws would touch the surface of those topics and as is so often the case, Dorries attempts to tackle the subject only to appear completely out of her depth.

Morality manifesto

British elections – indeed, most elections in western democracies – are won and lost on economic matters. Who can make money go further, fund public services better, guarantee jobs and investment, ensure taxes are fair, and so on. “It’s the economy, stupid” rings through history and permeates our futures.

Morality and moral choices tend not to envelop British elections particularly prominently. During the general election of 18 months ago, the repeated memes were almost entirely financial or fiscal; tax, funding for public services, cost of education. The tone of the election was markedly similar to those in previous years – tax bombshells, tax u-turns, only our party can be trusted on this, on that, on the other.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, tone during election periods has little resemblance to their British forefathers (and for the basis of most American elections across all layers of representation, ‘period’ means ‘all year round’). The rise of the Tea Party Movement and its infiltration into the Republican Party has changed irrevocably the manner in which USA elections are conducted. The rise of the morality brigade, avowedly Christian, right-wing, suspicious of the State, wary of welfare; there are very few British equivalents: imagine the very worst of UKIP and Tories combined with a script written by a greatest hits of Thought for the Day contributors.

Two people who represent the Tea Party ideals on English soil characterise two very different poles of their respective parties; Nadine Dorries (Conservative, Mid Befordshire) and Frank Field (Labour, Birkenhead). They could not be further apart in their political histories or heritages, and yet together they are spearheading repeated attempts to alter British law on abortion with language and attitudes not experienced in this country for generations. They represent the increasingly palpable sense of religious attitudes fighting back after years of secularisation within politics and political debate.

They represent the Tea Party in spirit.

We all know that the word “rape” has been adopted to mean a brutal result in sports (“They were absolutely raped out there”), and almost parallel to that, “abortion” has been similarly re-defined (“That bloke is an absolute abortion”). It is not with this redefining that I consider how Dorries is associated with the word “abortion” is much the same way as water is defined with the word “wet”. Her career as an MP has become inextricably linked to the issue and the wider discussion on sexual morality. You may recall her proposed Act of Parliament, which would force schools into teaching abstinence in sexual education classes, though only to girls.

Dorries (“At the next election, the Coalition will ensure the Liberal Democrats are wiped out, which is a good thing”) is passionate about driving abortion reform through the Health and Social Care Bill, and connected morality purposes fuel her campaigning spirit. Crucially, such issues require care and attention to debate them soundly. Dorries does not provide much chance of a reasonable debate; she has ridiculed the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists committee (“There is a specific committee which develops the guidelines for the care of women seeking terminations. They’re all abortionists. They earn their living from abortions.” (Source – the very good, albeit spiky, recent interview from The Guardian : http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/06/nadine-dorries-abortion-sex-education)

She protests too much – she is a religious extremist whose additions to this very tricky subject do far more damage than good.

Together with Field, the amendment aims to make what appears to be a modest alteration to current law. Their claim is that Marie Stopes or BPAS, who offer counselling to women who are pregnant and considering options available to them, pressurise the women into choosing the option of abortion for reasons of profit or financial gain. BPAS is a not-for-profit organisation, and its role as an advisor to women has been largely considered independent and fair-handed.

What Dorries is attempting to do is colour the debate with the red mist of her own permanently irate attitude. She is not as pro-choice as she likes to make out, pouring emotive descriptions of her time as a nurse into her anecdotes and examples, associating all experiences with the trauma of long distance memories. Her claims are so much rhetoric – when she claims “Women are given no advice, they are just spoken to and channelled straight into an abortion clinic where they have their abortion in a factory-like manner, then ejected into the street..”, she has not then continued to explain how moving from one state of affairs to another would resolve her view in one move. It’s all “from the very worst I can paint to the very best I can imagine”.

This issue is very complex and emotive, by its very nature. It is unsettling to see the debate bubble and stir in the way it is – not a reasonable exchange, but prejudice, insults, on both extremes of the political divide. It is the American accent sewn into the British debate which unsettles me more. I do not have a problem with people of faith throwing into any debate their opinions, views or suggestions; the issue gets harder to accept when those people desire to dilute facts with moral teachings. “This is my view based on what I have been taught by my religious teacher” is not comparable with “These are my opinions taken from a religious text I hold to be absolutely true”.

I have always held the opinion that women deserve to have the final say on their bodies, their babies, their lives. There is a line in the process from “before sexual intercourse has occured” to “making the decision on whether an abortion should be performed” at which politicians must stand the heck down. Our elected officials push so much judgement on those babies which are born – to single mothers, who are judged; to immigrants, who are judged; to a father who is over 60, who tends to be judged very differently…..What we really need is an isolation tank, a forcefield, behind which is the collated directions from Government, and in front of which is the mother who must be allowed to make up her own mind. Dorries would like to smash the forcefield into tiny pieces, and I cannot accept her notion that it is better for everyone if she succeeds.

And just when we probably need it least, another question of morality and freedom of thought is threatening to run parallel with abortion in the lead-up to the 2015 general election. Martin Green, a government advisor to the Department of Health, has suggested the right to die be a subject to parliamentary debate or even referendum.

I am in favour of decriminalising the right to die. The debate must be held, much as a rational debate on abortion must also be allowed to be aired.

My unease through all of this is drawn from the background noise, the quietened corner of Britain now returning, voice slightly altered but attitude totally reborn. We see through many prisms the natural disquiet over Islamist extremists – whose warped, inaccurate version of the Islamic faith has lead to such tragedies and deaths. News media rush to hear the latest garbled morality fetishism from self-appointed Muslim ‘faith leaders’, no more representative of mainstream Islam than David Icke or my kettle. We are a small island whose political debate has lost its Christian accent; I fear for what other consequences could follow if the Dorries experience means the voice which roars back is not so much Priests as Palin.

We would be better not having the Tea Party dump its wares in our waters.