Posts Tagged ‘elections’

Foot’s a bit better today,, but since this was the half written post I referred to, here’s the finished version. A bit shorter yet more meandering than intended, but here you go.

The first time I could vote in a general election… I didn’t.

Yeah, that feels weird writing that. Because there’s not been one general election since where I’ve not voted. Even when I’ve considered the candidates available to me from the ‘main’ parties to be disqualifyingly bad, I’ve still voted. Even when the candidates from the main parties have seemed to me a choice between shit, shite and shitty, I’ve still voted,

Occasionally, it’s been as a protest vote, to lend my vote to someone else almost as a ‘thank you for standing’. More often, recently, on such occasions, I’ve taken to giving my vote to someone specifically to try to assist in getting them ‘over the line’ so they at least retain their deposit.

(In the UK, it costs to run for election; you have to pay an amount of £500; if you get 5% of the vote, you get the deposit back. If not, it goes towards the costs of running the election.)

But no, I didn’t vote in that first general election, the one in 1983. The reason? I was at Manchester Polytechnic and I hadn’t bothered to register for inclusion on the electoral register where I lived. Nor had I applied for a postal nor proxy vote.

So, yeah, I could have jumped on a train to vote, but seeing as I was coming up to the end of my first year exams, and my brother was in hospital with a life threatening medical condition, andand… and…

Look, to be honest, I couldn’t be bothered. I lived – in Manchester – in a ‘safe’ Labour constituency, so what was the point?

(I’m still not entirely convinced by all the arguments most people give for ‘the importance of voting’ when you live in a safe seat, but that’s a separate point.)

As it was, more than a few people seemed to agree with me in the 1983 election, since Labour got hammered in the election, which was exactly what was expected. That they got hammered quite so hugely wasn’t expected by everyone, but that they’d get hammered? Yeah.

In fact, it was the worst result for Labour until… well, until two years ago, in December 2019, when Labour got their worst result for 100 years or so. And the one election that Labour’s 2019 result got compared to again and again and again on election night? Yeah, 1983’s.

I currently live in the safe Labour seat of Westminster North. For anyone who’s followed me over the past few years either on here or on Twitter, however, it won’t come as a surprise that even had the seat been a ‘balanced on a knife edge’ marginal, I wouldn’t have voted Labour. Not for a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

I like my MP, on the whole. She seems nice, and she has views which would under normal circumstances make me pleased to vote for her.

But as I’d said publicly, I would not vote Labour under any circumstances, for any elected position, at all… while Jeremy Corbyn was leader. I left the party the day he was elected (after an admittedly short membership) and I can’t ever see myself joining Labour again. Ever.

Sidebar: Oh, and the ‘…but you vote for your local MP!’ argument doesn’t stand up for two reasons:

1) yeah, in theory you do… but in practice, no. Most people still vote for the candidate of their favourites, and research by Stephen Bush of the New Statesman suggested that in London, only 6% of voters votes for the candidate not the party.

2) the leader of the party with the most MPs gets to be Prime Minister, whether or not an individual MP is a supporter of the leader. I’m wasn’t, and am not, going to vote for a candidate that’ll make an antisemite… Prime Minister.

Simple as that.

Oh, and you’re responsible for your vote; you’re responsible for who you vote for. You’re not responsible for not voting for someone else.

But leaving all of that aside, something occurred last week that made me think about when it’s important to vote ‘the right way’, and when it really doesn’t matter.

For a start, all such judgements are subjective. Of course they are, how could they not be? People who vote in the Eurovision Song Contest do so because theythink it’s important. I may think such a vote is unimportant, just as I do all of the talent shows that infest our tv schedules.

But I wouldn’t tell them that their vote is unimportant. because to them…. it’s not.

Elections for representatives, however, are votes that I do consider important, even if roughly 40% of the electorate, going by turnover numbers at general elections, disagree with me.

I thought it was important to vote in the two national referendums we’ve had in the past decade: the one to decide the electoral voting system; I voted to change the voting system; the other side got more votes and won. And I voted to remain in the EU; the other side got more votes and won.

Yeah, I don’t have a great record.

But both of them were, to me, important votes and I cast them happily.

As I have every general election, and every by-election I could vote in, and every council election.

The 2016 by-election in Richmond Park constituency (where I then lived) was an election that was marginal. Lots of by-elections are – as they’re often taken by the electorate, and the media, as a popularity poll on the government of the day – but this one was especially so. I voted cheerfully. Who I voted for, however, that I voted reluctantly, one of the very few times I’ve voted against someone. I loathed how that made me feel.

But going back to last week. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY: D) voted against the infrastructure vote in congress.

One of her supporters explained her vote (She herself explained her vote here) by saying that she had problems with the measures, specially its decoupling from a larger reconciliation package, but stressing that AOC knew the measure would pass without her vote, so her vote was merely a protest vote… but that had her vote been needed, she’d have voted with it. (It’s notable that AOC did not say the latter part.)

There’s a danger with that attitude. And it’s sheer arrogance for anyone to not only hold it, but to say it. (Which is why I suspect AOC didn’t, and left it for her supporters to say it.)

That danger? Well, what if it hadn’t passed?

What’s that you say? Of course it was going to pass.

Well, ‘of course we were going to stay in the EU.‘ The Brexit vote was a 52% : 48% win for the ‘Leave’ side.

And what was noticeable afterwards (mainly I suspect because the news programmes actively searched for it) was the number of people who claimed ‘oh, I voted to leave because I wanted to express my anger and upset at the government… but I knew we’d remain, I knew my vote wasn’t needed.

It’s dangerous to assume that your vote isn’t going to be needed.

I’m not saying that every vote counts. How can it? In my own constituency, Labour won in 2019 by 10,759 votes.

So one could argue that 10.758 Labour votes didn’t ‘count’, or maybe that no one else’s (other than Labour’s) vote counted.

But certainly, without doubt, beyond peradventure, one vote, my vote, didn’t make the slightest difference to the result.

So, why did I vote? Because I’m old fashioned enough to think that the actual act of voting is what counts.

(If you’re interested in the usual ‘reasons for voting’, why they’re wrong and what what I think is the single biggest reason – in theory – for voting is, check here. The author said it better than I ever could.)

But I think the best reason for voting – whether or not you feel is counts – is that it makes you feel part of the process. And that’s never a bad idea.

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on voting before the 2015 general election.

I finished it with the following words;

So, vote. Vote because you think it’s important, not because anyone else tells you it’s important. Vote because you want to, or you need to, or just because you’ve nothing better to do.

But vote.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Oh, before I forget, one more link. Every so often recently, someone will bring up the idea of a “Progressive alliance”. Three months ago, I expressed a fairly jaundiced opinion on the idea because of several reasons I laid out. If anything, over the past few months, my views on the subject have curdled even further.


See you tomorrow, with… the usual Thursday ‘something else’, one that will be written for a very special purpose.



Sixty-one days. Sixty-one posts. One 2022 slowly approaching.

I’ve signed up to, so if you fancy throwing me a couple of quid every so often, to keep me in a caffeine-fuelled typing mood, feel free. I’m on

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to the new year. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

Well, it is, isn’t it? A mug’s game.

Making predictions about elections, I mean.

Ok, with some elections, you can make a decent stab at a result, caveating your forecast to hell and back. And some elections, yes, are such foregone conclusions that the result itself is almost an anti-climax.

The obvious one that springs to mind isn’t 1997, to my mind, but 2001.

It was obvious in 1997 that Blair was going to have a thumping victory. But the size of the majority – over 160 – surprised many. That wasn’t the case in 2001. It was obvious from the moment that he called the election that the result was only going one way, the same way: another thumping majority. And after four years of a New Labour government, it was just a matter of whether the majority would be roughly the same as 1997’s, 20 seats fewer, or 20 seats more.

2005? Again, not a surprise that Blair won, and it was fairly obvious that his majority would shrink. Not sure everyone expected the final numbers, but yeah, not a huge surprise.

Since then, however, they’ve been difficult to predict. Partly because polling models never seemed to cope well with change, and overestimated this party’s support, underestimated that party. (For a long time, polls always overestimated Labour support; that seems to have been addressed, but we’ll see.)

2015 came along, and again, the result was a surprise to many who after five years of coalition government expected nothing but a coalition government going forward.

I did a countdown blog to the 2015 election, and — no, don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this 2020 countdown into an election blog, though there’ll no doubt be some election related material.

But no, as I say, I did a countdown blog leading up to the 2015 general election. It was fun, for the most part, commenting on stuff that was going on. But yes, I thought a coalition government was the inevitable result. I even wrote a piece about how Cameron was actively misleading the electorate, claiming that he really really didn’t want one, and you couldn’t vote for the Lib Dems again…

Well, more fool me.

After the election, before I did anything else on here, I held my hand up, admitted I’d got it wrong, and wrote a full mea culpa.

I started that piece with the words:

Notwithstanding Sir Humphrey Appleby’s view that you get anything potentially troublesome out of the way in the title of an Act Of Parliament (so you don’t have to actually do anything in the body of the thing), it’d be remiss of me to even begin to set out my thoughts on what happened on election day, or to suggest what I think will happen in the days and weeks ahead without admitting one, crucial thing: I was wrong.

I wrote something just under 40 blog entries specifically about politics, and the forthcoming election, and I was wrong. 

I was wrong about so, so much. Now, were I to start listing out all the things I was wrong about in regard to anything at all since only January… well, I’d take up far more of your time than you have a right to expect. 

But even limiting it to the election, there’s a lot. So, let’s get at least some of them out of the way in this entry and then we can move on.

About the only thing I was right about was my late-on-in-the-campaign prediction that whoever’s party lose the election, or didn’t do well…? Well, they’d speedily resign.

So, yeah, it’s a mug’s game making predictions about elections. Only a fool would do it. And only an idiot would make predictions this early.

Let’s make some predictions this early.

So early, in fact, that it might have escaped your notice that the election hasn’t actually been called yet.

Yes, the House of Commons passed that Bill, but it’s not an Act of Parliament yet. It still has to go through The House Of Lords, then – if unamended – back to the House of Commons and then off to Her Maj for Royal Assent.

Final day of Parliament will be next Tuesday or Wednesday, after which Parliament is dissolved. At that point they, all 650 of them, all stop being members of parliament (since parliament is no longer sitting) and those that want to get the job again are now standing for election as prospective parliamentary candidates, along with about 3,000 other people by the time the election takes place. (In 2017, 3,303 candidates stood for 650 seats.)

So, yes, the election hasn’t actually been called yet.

And that’s the first prediction: people will get stuff wrong. Not the politicians – but see later – not the pundits, but interested observers, people who don’t actually know this stuff inside out, so misinterpret, misunderstand. These aren’t people lying, nor actively seeking to mislead. They just get stuff wrong occasionally. They mishear a word or phrase, or don’t quite understand the rules, or procedures. We’ve all done it. We will all do it again.

My hope, a forlorn hope, no doubt, is that this is understood. That it’s appreciated that people fuck up from the best of motives, that mistakes are made and sometimes they’re in good faith. Not everyone making a prediction, or saying what is happening is doing so from bad faith. Sometimes they’re misinformed; sometimes they’ve misinformed themselves.

Second prediction: people will lie. Will knowingly mislead. Will deliberately tell untruths. And all for political advantage. Yeah, being open to all of that above doesn’t mean you should be a fucking idiot. If someone is openly promoting a political candidate and/or party, and is promoting untruths about political opponents, or casting separating aspersions on those who vote, or may vote, for someone else…

Yeah, they may well believe every word they say and type is gospel. Doesn’t mean you’re obliged to. And neither does it suggest that you’re mandated to assume good faith. And certainly not if they repeatedly do it.

Third prediction: Parties and candidates will call for clean elections. Third and a half’th prediction: they don’t mean it. Oh, they may mean it when they call for it; that’s possible, I guess. But the moment they think they can gain advantage by a bit of let us say not-exactly-ethical manoeuvring, either they or their staff/supporters will do it and sleep well afterwards. The purpose, their objective, is to win an election; as long as it’s not breaking the law – and sometimes not even that will stop them – it’s all fair, they’ll protest. It’s all part of the game.

Prediction Four: Each side will regard an opponent’s entire political history to be up for grabs, but anything in their own record more than five years ago will be decried as ‘dirty tricks’, “desperate smearing’ and, of course, ‘out of context’, that favourite of the caught out. I found it genuinely bemusing how the left regard, say, anyone who served in Maggie Thatcher’s cabinets as beyond redemption, but anything from a decade or two back, hell from 2012 (!), in Corbyn’s history is apparently off-limits. Or how the right will cheerfully pull up stuff from Corbyn and McDonnell’s pasts in the 1980s, but the contents of memos Letwin wrote about race are ‘in the past…’

Fifth Prediction: For some people, every poll that suggests ‘their’ party is doing well will be trumpeted; every one showing it’s doing badly will be ignored or the polls or polling company, will be attacked. The hypocrisy that surrounds polling never fails to astonish me. I might have more to write about this subject another time, but for today, I’m just slapping that down on the table like a wet, slightly smelly, fish.

Sixth Prediction: Four in one here. Whether or not tv debates happen,

(1) Someone will point out that they’re a new thing, someone else will point at the US, and someone else will publish a long piece on whether we’ve entered a period of presidential politics in the UK.

(2) Each party will claim the others are the reason that debates might not happen, and claim the rules they want are perfectly reasonable but the other lot are being wholly unacceptable.

(3) Smaller parties will demand they should be treated exactly the same as larger parties, including parties with no MPs currently, or only one or two.

(4) If they happen, when a party leader doesn’t do well, the format will be blamed. Or the host. Or the broadcaster. Never the leader just not being any good.

OK, four personal ones to end on.

Prediction Seven: I’m going to hate this election campaign. Not only for the obvious, pre-stated, reasons, but because the nastiness has already started.

I’ve already seen accusations that unless you vote for this party, you don’t care about the environment; unless you vote for that one, you don’t care about the poor; unless you vote for this party, you lack human empathy; unless you don’t vote for that one, you have no national pride.

Note: these aren’t ‘don’t vote for that party.” That I can understand. “Vote for anyone else…”, I get. “Vote for whoever gets rid of that MP”. Again, I completely understand and appreciate that. “Vote tactically.” Again, yes. I may or may not agree, but it at least makes sense to me intellectually.

What I don’t get, what I can’t agree to, is the “you must vote for this party, because they’re the only ones who care; they’re the only party who cares about [insert subject of choice]”.

I’ve whinged before about how I’m not sure when we went from ‘the other lot are good people with bad ideas” to “the other lot are bad people with worse ideas.” But we got there long ago, and this election campaign will prove it once again.

Prediction Eight: I’m going to miss a typo at sometime in the next six weeks and I’ll type “I’m really not looking forward to the result of this erection.”

Ninth Prediction: I’m gonna forget how bad I am at predicting election results. At some point, I’m sure I’m going to forget it. I’ll get carried away one night, or I’ll have one too many single malts, or I’ll just get pissed off with the incompetence of this politician or that campaign. And I’ll make a prediction.

Prediction Ten: I’m going to regret making any predictions at all, including the ones above.

Oh, and one more, not a prediction, resting on a sensible appreciation of the facts and the history, and forecasting an extrapolation, but a feeling of impending doom, as if I’m watching a car crash approaching. This is the final time, the final week, that I’ll regard some people as friends and that they’ll regard me in the same light.
Something else tomorrow…

Once you’ve been on Twitter a short while, you quickly get used to the unconscious wince that occurs when you receive a reply that starts “Actually…”

It’s invariably someone clumsily pretending to correct you; I use “clumsily pretending” because anyone who merely and genuinely wants to supply additional information, or correct your misunderstanding of an issue, also knows how “actually…” is interpreted by recipients. There are a dozen or more other ways, alternative phrasings, to word it but of course, that’s not what they want to do. They want to show their disdain, their contempt, for you and your argument. And, while everyone’s obviously entitled to their own opinions, no-one’s entitled to their own facts.

It’s not so easy to be egregiously and obviously offensive in ‘real life’, unprotected by the anonymity of a screen name. Face to face, social mores, customs and just not wanting to look like a dick in public usually mean that a flat, rude or obscene denial of the other person’s position isn’t the done thing. It’ll be covered by even the mildest polite fiction of courtesy… unless you’re Donald Trump and you’re in a Presidential Debate.

Then the flat denial comes to the fore; not only of the other candidate’s position, but also of reality, facts, the record, evidence and anything approaching sense.

“Wrong,” when Trump’s opponent is right.

“Lies,” when his opponent speaks the truth.

“I never said that,” when his opponent accurately quotes him.

“What a nasty woman,” when his opponent was right, spoke the truth, and accurately quoted him.

Looking at the three Presidential debates this year, and the primary debates before them, it’s no wonder that while many might think they’re great television, one wonders if they actually serve any purpose beyond being great television

Though, of course, I write as a novice. A novice who’s watched previous Presidential debates, sure, but a novice nonetheless. Because I’ve far less personal experience of the whole political debates thing actually meaning anything. I’ve never seen a televised debate after which I could vote for one of the candidates.

(Yes, there were the Labour party hustings last year, but as the word implies, they were hustings, not debates; they were a chance for the candidates to set out their own stalls, not challenge their opponents on theirs. Amusingly, after I’d left the party, this years’ Labour Party leaderships hustings were stil called hustings, but they were far more like debates, with both Corbyn and Smith pointing out the holes in their opponent’s positions.)

But on the whole, we don’t really go in for televised debates in the UK. It’s a relatively new thing for us. 

The excuse usually offered is that because we have a parliamentary system, we’re not electing “a Prime Minister”. Which is at the same time both true… and utter nonsense. Of course we don’t elect the prime minister. The leader of the party will have been elected as a Member of Parliament solely by their own constituents, and as leader of their party either by the party members of acclamation. But there’s not a soul with any knowledge of the British political system who doesn’t know that the leader of the party with the most MPs after an election is the Prime Minister. So, yeah, when you vote in an election, you know which are the [usually two] candidates that could become Prime Minister. 

For years, decades, the leader of the opposition – effectively the sole other candidate for the job of Prime Minister – has always called for them during a general election campaign (I might be wrong, but I think the first call came from Neil Kinnock) but until 2010, the Prime Minister has always declines the calls, with the same specious reasoning:

  1. The two debate every week when Parliament is in session, performing in the pantomime known as Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs)
  2. The public will be voting on the party’s manifesto, not the person who’s implementing it
  3. We have a prime minister who is ‘first among equals’, not a President who’s head of government as well as head of state.

And the Leader of the Opposition makes similarly specious arguments:

  1. Erm…

It doesn’t matter, to be honest. As always, the arguments made by a Leader of the Opposition calling for the debates are always made, and they’re always declined by the Prime Minister, even if the Prime Minister made the arguments a few years earlier when he – it’s usually he – was Leader of the Opposition.

Perfect example was the PM who resigned this year. David Cameron, when Leader of the Opposition, called for debates with then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and said:

“Prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons are no substitute for a proper primetime studio debate. They [the public] want to see the leaders of the main political parties talking in detail about the issues that matter to them, setting out the policies on offer, and opening themselves up to public scrutiny.”

And yet, when he was Prime Minister, and Ed Miliband – then Leader of the Opposition – called for televised debates, Cameron resisted them, saying he’d faced Miliband hundreds of times at the despatch box…

Of course, some debate mythology of British politics still runs true: you call for them when you’ve nothing to lose, and you resist them if you’ve got nothing to gain. the British public are used to seeing the Prime Minister with [the trappings of] power and the Leader of the Opposition with none. They’re used to seeing the Prime Minister doing stuff – good or bad – and the Leader of the Opposition saying stuff. 

We had televised debates in 2010 because Gordon Brown figured he had nothing to lose. I still think he was right on that; he didn’t come over any worse than people expected him to. And what was the effects of the debates? Not much. They might have gained the Tories a seat or five, and lost Labour the same, but the election result – a hung parliament – had been predicted for months. (And while pretty much everyone agreed that Nick Clegg – then leader of the third party – ‘won’ them, what happened at the ensuing election? The Lib Dems lost seats.)

I’m blathering a bit, because I’ve been revisiting something myself: talking about the US debates we’ve just enjoyed endured.

I don’t know what to say that others haven’t said better. What can you say when one candidate actually condemns another for preparing for the debate, as if that’s a valid criticism? What can you say about…? Oh, fuck it, ok then.

I’ve seen lots of debates before; never have I seen as unprepared, as amateur, as unhinged, as stupid, as bullshitting, as lying, as detached from reality a candidate as Donald Trump. Clinton, whatever her faults – and there are many – didn’t have to say much about her own policies; her preparation no doubt included much information and detail about what she would do in office. She didn’t need it. Not even her wildest supporters and debate prep staff could have imagined how tissue thin Trump’s skin was; the slightest brush against it, the merest contradiction of his position, the tiniest but accurate quote of his, and he was off, sniffing like he was hoovering up vast quantities of invisible substances. His faults as a candidate, as a person, as an orator, are manifold, and when speaking to rallies of adoring fans, those faults don’t matter to the audience.  But in front of a tv audience that weren’t acolytes?

I’ve heard audiences laugh with a Presidential nominee before at a debate. Not often, but I’ve heard it. It’s always risky trying to make an audience laugh at a debate; if it goes wrong, you look like you can’t tell a joke and for some reason American voters seem to think that’s important. But I’ve heard it done cleverly, and done well. Reagan’s line in the Mondale debate about not exploiting his opponent’s youth and inexperience got laughs not because it was particularly funny – it was very clever rather than very funny – but because he perfectly addressed a perceived weakness, perfectly judged the audience, and perfectly delivered the line perfectly. Heaven only knows how many times he practiced the line.

The audience laughed at Trump’s declaration that no-one respects women more than he does. 

They. Laughed. At. Him.

They laughed not merely at the sheer audacity of the line, the chutzpah squared, but also at a candidate so self-deluding that he might actually believe it himself.

No-one knows yet the long term effects of this election campaign; if, as looks likely, Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency, how much damage Trump has done to the electoral process will in part depend on how big her win is, not just in the popular vote but in the electoral college. 

If Clinton wins by a landslide, and a lot of down ballot races cling to her coat tails, the Republican Party just might view the results as an utter repudiation of the Trump campaign and those in their own party who aided him in turning the democratic process inside out. 

BUT if Clinton only wins by a small margin, there will be people in the GOP who’ll believe there was only one thing wrong with Trump’s campaign; not the tenor, nor the manner of the campaign, but merely the incompetence of the nominee. And then the mid-terms in 2018, as well as the 2020 Presidential Election, will see a competition among the GOP as to who can manage the nasty, racist, far right pandering shitstorm that Trump created, while saying to them all “it’s ok, because I’m not like Trump; I’m smart”. And that, folks, is a scary thought. Not quite as scary as the idea of “Welcome to the Oval Office, President Trump’, but close. Damn close.   

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

It won’t have escaped most people reading this that in about nine months’ time, there’ll be a general election in the UK. I say ‘most’, making the assumption that the vast majority of people reading this are in the UK. For folks who’re not in the UK, this may well be the first time you’ve been told about it. Let’s face it, for almost all Americans, they’ve as much interest in when the UK has a general election as most Brits would have in knowing when California elects its governor.

But on 7th May 2015, the UK will go to the polls to elect a government for the ensuing five years. Long before then, in under six weeks in fact, there’ll be a referendum in Scotland about whether or not that country will gain independence. And the results of that decision may have huge repercussions for the 2015 general election, depending upon the result. If the Scots vote for independence, then it will; if they don’t, it will have, I believe, almost no effect.

This is the first time the public has known when a general election was positively going to happen, as it’s the first general election since the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 received its Royal Assent. And that means the election campaigns are going to be very different, particularly in length.

In the old days… heh, the old days, right back in 2010… the Prime Minister chose when to “go to the country”, as the phrase had it. Usually, from then until the election was no more than a few weeks. Now, like America and everywhere else with fixed term legislatures, the election campaigning will commence months in advance. The manifestos will certainly be released to the public much further from the elections than previously.

I’ve written about my views on the next set of manifestos before; I remain convinced that with the advent of – and in my view, continuing likelihood of – coalitions, the very nature of manifestos have to change; they need to. And they will. If not next time then certainly for the election after that.

And as a part of that, as an inevitable consequence of the last election’s result – coalition negotiations – the questioning of those standing for parliament and those forming the election teams need to be more demanding.

Four simple questions spring to mind; I’m sure there are more. I’m not suggesting that the list is exhaustive by any means. My point is that no matter what the state of the country, no matter how bad the Middle East is, whether we’re likely to go to war, whether in fact people are better or worse off, these questions should always be asked of those seeking to represent us in Parliament.

And, just before I start writing about them, again let’s deal with whether or not MPs represent us, and if so, how?

It troubles me that the membership of the House of Commons is not more representative of the country as it is now. Of course it does; I wouldn’t believe anyone who said it didn’t bother them. That doesn’t mean that any individual MP should be representative of the seat to which they aspire. Merely because there’s a large ethnic minority in a particular constituency doesn’t mean that the MP should be from that ethnic minority. Nor should the candidates for a particular constituency be a woman just because there happen to be more women than men in that specific constituency.

But as a whole, the chamber is wholly unrepresentative of Britain today. And that should be dealt with by the main parties; it’s shameful that they haven’t done it by now.

imageBut when it comes to representing the views of an individual constituency, I side with old Edmund Burke when he said, way back in 1774,

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Well said, that man.

Anyway, to the questions:

Let’s get the first one out of the way; it links back to the manifesto argument.

(1) What are the items in your manifesto that are deal-breakers in any coalition negotiations?
I think that this isn’t only a necessary question, it should be, perhaps suitably, a deal-breaker for seeking votes. If a party is standing for office, upon a manifesto, the voting public has not only a right but an obligation to know what things from the manifesto will be junked, and which will be put forward in legislation.

One of the oft-stated but most irritating comments post-2010 was that ‘no-one voted for this government’; no-one ever votes for a government. Ever. But what it is fair to say is that people voted for a manifesto. And the one thing that is absolutely true is that no-one voted for the coalition agreement, with the exception of the people who were already elected, i.e. the Lib Dem MPs. David Cameron, maybe sensibly, didn’t ask his MPs to sanction the agreement.

Next, let’s look at the ‘we know best’ attitude; the entirely unwarranted confidence with which candidates present themselves. So…

(2) If you lose the election, what do you think will be the reason?
I got told this question a long time ago, when interviewing for staff. But I think it more relevant for people seeking election. Standing for election (or running for office, as the Americans have it; have always found the two phrases amusing in their different implications but anyway…) Anyway… Standing for election, every candidate seems to know the answers to every question, or at least to be eager to convince the electorate of that. What’s wrong with admitting that there are hits against you and your party? What’s wrong with admitting ‘yeah, we got it wrong’? Why doesn’t it happen more? Well, that’s obvious: if anyone does it, they get hammered by both the press and their opponents who, in their turn, never admit to making errors of judgement of their own.

We should do something about that.

Something else that politicians are never asked, and it puzzles me. It always has, but now it’s beginning to bug the hell out of me.

I was reminded of it when in correspondence with a friend. Indeed, mention of it sparked today’s post in its entirety.

(3) What’s the end game?
As part of the last election campaign, the Conservative party pledged that there would be no ‘top down’ reform of the NHS. Well, yes, we know precisely how long that pledge lasted. Thing is, the next government – whoever it is, whatever its make up – will tamper with (or reform, take your pick) the NHS. Of course they will; it’s what governments do.

Same as they’ll reform the education system. And the tax system. And defence procurement. It’s what governments do. But they never admit what the end game is. I want a potential government to tell me what the end game is; what, ‘events, dear boy, events’ not withstanding, their ideal health service, or educational system or tax system will look like. So, candidate/potential government, all things being equal:

(a) what are your preferred tax rates, if everything went your way?
(b) what will the health service look like, when you get to the point where no further reform is necessary. (Note: not ‘what will it do’, what will it be?)
(c) what will the media ownership and diversification be when you’ve finished all necessary reform?

In other words, what will society be when you’ve done your bloody jobs?

Finally, and it’s an important one…

(4) What do you intend to do to increase political engagement in this country, and what evidence do you have that your policy will succeed?

Now, people can argue that “party political engagement” does not equal “political engagement”, and such people have a point. However, as long as party politics is the overwhelmingly important fact of life in getting people into the House of Commons, any suggestion that it doesn’t matter falls flat.

So let’s just stick to party politics for the moment. It’s been said that the electorate don’t reward disunity; well, if that’s true, the voting public will have a hell of a choice in the 2015 election. I cannot remember a previous time when there have been such obvious and such panicked undeclared civil wars in each party.

Unless the party leaders manage to create an environment where the public understands a reason to vote for a slate of policies, party political engagement will further fall, cynicism and scepticism in party politicians will rise and that handbasket on its way to hell will get lots of company along the way.

With apologies to the songwriting team of Ray Evans and Jay Livingstone, who wrote Mona Lisa, as most excellently performed by Nat King Cole,

Manifesto, manifesto, MPs adore you…

Something’s been bugging me since 2010’s general election, and the formation of the coalition government.

Now, fair enough, many things have bothered many people, including the arguable destruction of the NHS, the abandonment by both government parties of various pledges, the callous attempt to dismantle the welfare state, an austerity programme that isn’t working and an ever-growing social division that has been created and deepened either by incompetence, apathy or cruelty.

Further, the apparent wilful unwillingness of the government to acknowledge the harm of its policies and the austerity programme in its current form goes beyond normal lack of decency and well into the realm of negligence.

But yes, while all of those are important… They’re for discussion on another day. That’s not what’s been bugging me, at a low level admittedly, for almost three years. Before I get to that though, let’s address some myths that seem to have arisen since May 2010, myths that say – for the main part – far more about ignorance than incompetence.

And it’s specifically ignorance (or possibly naiveté, I’ll grant you) about the constitutional arrangements for government in the UK I’m talking about.

1. No-one elected this government. To be precise, no-one elects any government in the United Kingdom. I haven’t had any part in electing any government in my lifetime. And nor have you. What you’ve done is helped elect an MP. What we do, individually, in constituencies all over the country (or up to four countries, if you want to argue the point) is elect members of Parliament, who may – not will – then go on to form a government. But the voters do not get to decide who’s in the government. The Prime Minister does that by selecting ministers. A backbench MP of the governing party is no more a member of the government than a backbencher of the main opposition party. Hell, the voters don’t even get to decide which is the governing party, which brings me on to myth 2.

2. The leader of the party with the biggest mandate gets to form the government Well, yes… and no. It’s only since the rise of the whips who can keep control of backbenchers’ votes (by threat and by favours granted, withheld and called in) that this even starts to apply. What’s needed to form a government is the ability to command a majority in the House of Commons. That’s it. The Monarch will ask whoever can do that to form a government. Usually, fair enough, it’s the leader of the Party with the greatest number of MPs, but it doesn’t have to be.

3. Governments are morally obliged to implement their manifestos once elected. Really? Does anyone believe this? Seriously? It’s impossible, literally impossible, for a government to bring into policy every one of their manifesto pledges. Even if the government had a landslide majority, there isn’t nearly enough parliamentary time to pass the legislation necessary, if – that is – the legislation is to be subjected to the right and proper scrutiny that all legislation should undergo on its way to the statute book.

And no matter how important the legislation is, I’d be wary of anyone who wanted to circumvent the usual processes of scrutiny, debate, amendment and the rest.

We’re getting closer to my concerns now, by the way…

4. The Lib Dems broke their promises! Well, yes, they did, and no they didn’t. They broke some but not one very big one, one stonking HUGE one.

Many friends, and some pundits, made the following comment after the 2010 election:

“I don’t know what was in people’s minds when they voted for the Lib Dems, but I bet it wasn’t to put the Tories into power!”

This astonished me then, and it astonishes me now. Surely only the very stupid, the very naive or the very ignorant weren’t aware that the Lib Dems had repeatedly said what they’d do in the event of a parliament in which no one party had a majority. They’d said on several occasions, in interview after interview, that they’d first seek to enter government – in the event of a hung parliament – with whichever other party had the biggest mandate.

Now, fair enough, the Lib Dems left themselves a tiny bit of wiggle room, as they didn’t say how they were measuring “mandate”: by total number of votes cast, or by number of MPs elected. It didn’t matter: in the event, the answer was the same in both cases – the Tories had the biggest mandate, by some way.

Not only that, it was very, very likely before the election that the Conservatives were going to be in that position: all the polls pointed to a hung parliament with the Tories having the most MPs. You don’t like that the Tories had the biggest mandate? Sorry, feel free to blame who you like for that, but please don’t be stupid enough to deny it.

5. The Lib Dems had no mandate to do what they’ve done Yes, the Lib Dems voted for (and did) things in government that they said they wouldn’t before election. You know what? They had every right to do so – the coalition agreement gave them that right. See above, but just for the record – there’s no obligation for a government to implement their manifesto. In fact, looking back over my lifetime, I can’t remember a single government that’s even managed to legislate for a majority of their manifesto, let alone all, or nearly all, of it.

6. The Lib Dems gave up everything and the Conservatives got everything they wanted. How can I put this? Ah yes, bollocks! I can think of at least half a dozen things the majority party of the government junked as a cost of going into government with the Lib Dems. Take a look at the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto and see how much of it made its way into the coalition agreement. Just for a start, the increase in the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million (which had been trailed as a central part of the Tory taxation plans) went the way of all things, as did various pledges regarding VAT, capital gains tax, no referendum on voting reform and a plan against the zombie apocalypse. (I may have made that last one up.)

7. The Lib Dems have no justification for doing what they did. Yeah, they do. They have the best one of all, and what’s more it has the advantage (strange for British political excuses) of being true. You ask Nick Clegg why he didn’t block Tory plans for this or that, even though it’s in direct contravention of the previously expressed policy of his party, and he’ll say one thing:

We didn’t win the election.

Often, he’ll clarify that by saying

We’ve got one in six MPs in the coalition; if we’d had more, we’d have had more power within the coalition, but we didn’t. And we don’t.

And you know what? He’s absolutely correct.

Now, one can certainly argue (and to my mind, quite convincingly) that what he did get for his party wasn’t worth it, that he prioritised the wrong things; that he should have sacrificed a vote on AV and fought for a guarantee about welfare; that he shouldn’t have bothered trying in vain for House of Lords reform, but devoted time and energy to preventing devastating NHS reform.

(I think you can argue against that, by the way, but I think you’d lose the argument. Convincingly.)

However, again, that’s an argument for another day.

But we’re now at the crux of what’s been bugging me, and it follows directly on from the above, from all of the above.

What is the purpose of a manifesto?

No, seriously.

A paper, written for Essex University after the 2010 election, went into huge details about the purposes of manifestos and how much they mean to the parties before an election.

“Manifestos are important. They reflect the parties’ enduring values and policy programmes…

Utter nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. Let’s strip away the polite fiction maintained with an air of complacency and look at how they’re regarded today, by pundits, by politicians and by the public.

Manifestos might, just might, have been the basis for policy once upon a time, in the long ago. Now, however, they’re more like a personal statement that a candidate writes on a job application, hoping that he won’t be asked too much about it, and praying he can remember why he put this bit in, or why he wrote that bit that way.

So, again, I ask… what’s their purpose: what’s the point of election manifestos?

When a government knows in advance that it won’t be able to translate all of their party pledges into government policy, their assurances into statute, what’s their point?

When a government can blatantly lie, using its “mandate” to justify policy because it was in the manifesto, even though it was the universally acknowledged least popular item in there… what’s their point?

When a party can abandon almost every pledge in their election manifesto and can excuse such abandonment with a simple “we didn’t win”, what’s their point?

The answer is obvious: they have no point.

Not in their current format.

Read that again – not in their current format.

The biggest problem with manifestos is not that we have no idea what will be dropped upon entering office, it’s that we don’t know what won’t be…

I’m far less concerned by what a government doesn’t do than by what it does.

So, taking the very neat idea that a couple of the parties used in recent elections, that of the pledges on a card, let’s take it further… Let’s propose the following:

The manifesto of a party seeking election to office in the UK is from now on split into three parts:

(I) The dealbreakers: these policies (limited to six items) WILL be in any government policy document/coalition agreement; these are the items that will be translated into statute. If another party has a contradictory item in their list of dealbreakers, those parties cannot form a coalition without a further election, at which point different dealbreakers can be put to the public vote.

(II) The aspirations: the intellectual backbone of the party’s agenda, limited to twenty separate points. These are the policies that the vast majority of the party’s supporters (and potential voters) would like enacted in a world where the party has a secure working majority and “events, dear boy, events” don’t get in the way. They’re the policies that a government should get through: a Tory party might have a reduction in regulation in here, a Labour party an increase in progressive taxation, the Lib Dems, another crack at reforming the voting system. But – and it’s an important but – everyone understands that if a coalition is formed, these are the things that may have to go by the wayside. These are the negotiable points for a coalition agreement.

(III) The wishlist: the policies that, with a fair wind, a strong working majority, a weak opposition, a lessening of international tension thus allowing concentration on domestic issues, a party (and its supporters) would like to have on the statute books at some point. They’re not urgent, though, and they play no part whatsoever in any coaltion agreement negotiations; they’re simply not on the table. The list is unlimited in length, since no-one genuinely expects more than a handful – if that – to make it into debate in the House of Commons, let alone into legislation.

So now the voters know where the parties stand, as do the pundits, as do other parties, as do the rank and file of the parties.

The battleground for hearts and minds is concentrated, first to the dealbreakers, then to the aspirations. Everyone knows on what grounds the election is fought and – crucially – what’s up for grabs in a coalition. Voters make their mark knowing that some policies are sacrosanct, while others may have to be postponed this time. Fewer secret deals, greater transparency.

The only people who could possibly object, with what they’d say were perfectly valid arguments against this, are the politicians themselves who’d undoubtedly hate to have their freedom curtailed; freedom, that is, to continue to abandon policies with no fanfare, to lie to their voters, supporters and the general public.

We’re in the twenty-first century. We’re told by government that no public institution should escape escape modernisation and reform, yet Parliament and the formation of governments is accomplished in a manner that a 19th Century politician would recognise with nary a raised eyebrow.

We’ve already changed how they behave in office (with amendments to ministerial codes, reform of expenses), but in doing so ignored how they got there.

It’s long beyond time that we looked at changing how governments are formed in the United Kingdom and what we expect them to do once in office.