Lord Toby Harris Logo

Archive for September, 2009

Wednesday
Sep 30,2009

At last someone has made the point that I have been meaning to make for weeks: the alternative vote is even less proportional than first past the post.  If anything, an electoral system based on AV will produce bigger majorities for the leading political parties than FPTP and fringe parties – like the LibDems and the BNP – will find it even harder to make headway.

However, the principle of AV is important for anyone in a particular constituency who wants to express a preference for a particular party, but that particular party is not one of the leading contenders for the seat.  AV gives such people the chance also to influence the final outcome by expressing further preferences.  The winning candidate emerges who has the support of at least 50% of the electorate (assuming people use their preferences) and it retains – if not strengthens – the link between an MP and their constituency.  For more details see this.

Such a system is undeniably an improvement on a simple FPTP election and it is one I have long believed should be adopted in the UK.  It is successfully used to elect the Australian House of Representatives.

For those who want proportional representation it is an anathema: it does not deliver proportionality.  What it gives you instead is a genuinely-representative constituency-based system.  No requirement for multi-member seats and no creation of two-tier MPs.

Apparently, the Electoral Reform Society and Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass, are unhappy.  However, the Prime Minister’s proposal for a referendum early in a new Parliament is the sensible way forward.  It avoids the public debate on the issue being lost in the turmoil/excitement of a General Election campaign and, if there is really a popular groundswell for some different change in the electoral system, no doubt that would surface in the run up to a referendum.

Tuesday
Sep 29,2009

One of the sharpest and loudest bursts of applause during Gordon Brown’s speech at the Conference today was for the restatement of the intention to legislate before the General Election for the removal of the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords of the remaining hereditary peers.

So sharp and loud was it that it roused from its slumbers a pigeon that had been roosting in the roofspace of the Brighton Centre.  The pigeon then flapped around the Gallery for a few minutes before disappearing whence it came.

It is just as well that it had disappeared before it was captured by the Conference Stewards given what they did to the handful of red balloons that had been released just before the speech began.

Tuesday
Sep 29,2009

At a joint fringe organised by Progress and the Quilliam Foundation the question of engagement with British Muslims was debated in depth.  Four key messages emerged (articulated right at the beginning by Ed Husain, author of ‘The Islamist’):

  • you don’t engage with British Muslims as Muslims (every Muslim is like everyone else – an individual with their own interests and preoccupations);
  • don’t just go through mosques to engage (just as no-one would try and reach the white working class just through Church of England vicars);
  • don’t rely on self-appointed “community representatives”; and
  • don’t shy away from confronting “brown fascists”.

The central point for me – as someone who spent the best part of thirty years trying to build community cohesion in London – is that engagement with any community only flows from building a relationship with that community over a long period.  You cannot just be “fair weather friends”.

There is no point in a local councillor asking for people’s support at election time – he or she needs to be seen to working in their interests and listening to their concerns all the time and not just in the four weeks before a council election.

The same applies in building community cohesion: it is offensive (and certainly counter-productive) just to talk to a community when you are worried about violent extremism; you have to build a long-term relationship based on addressing the issues that matter to that community and then you are in a position to have a serious dialogue on more difficult issues.

Tuesday
Sep 29,2009

Lord Peter Mandelson’s speech is the talk of the Conference so far.  For those who didn’t see it, the text is here.

This morning at a fringe breakfast – ostensibly about Northern Ireland (he followed Martin McGuinness) – he made the point again: “The centrist David Cameron didn’t last long under pressure – and that interests me.”

Monday
Sep 28,2009

The Labour Party Conference today coincides with Brighton University’s “Freshers’ Pub Crawl”.  Several thousand scantily-clad and inebriated freshers have converged on Odeon Cinema adjacent to the Brighton Centre.  The armed Police are looking nervous: what if they surge towards the security cordon? An ambulance has had to be called to a delegate overcome by the expanses of bare flesh heat.  Ed Balls sweeps by with his entourage and looks scandalised.

Will he be talking to Lord Peter Mandelson to suggest some candidates for cuts in University funding?

Monday
Sep 28,2009

A few years ago, the Guardian was famous for its typographical errors.  I was reminded of this when I ran into Anita Pollack, the former London MEP, at the Foreign Policy Centre fringe.

She has a book coming out: “Wreckers or Builders? – A History of Labour MEPs 1979-1999″.

I can never see her without remembering the Guardian error.  This was in the European Election results issue in (I think) 1989.  At a late stage, the editorial team had clearly decided that they should refer to the “turnout” rather than the “poll” in each euro-constituency.  They used the then cutting edge technology of “Find and Replace”.

The result was that one of London’s MEPs suddenly became – the hitherto unknown – Anita Turnoutack.

Monday
Sep 28,2009

I went to an entertaining (if small) fringe meeting organised by the Foreign Policy Centre addressed by Baroness Cathy Ashton, former Leader of the House of Lords who was parachuted into the European Commission as the new EU Trade Commissioner when Peter Mandelson returned to the Government last year.

She gave a genuinely fascinating account of the negotiations at Doha (about which I readily admit I had known not a lot), but she also described how Britain is viewed in Europe and across the world.  Gordon Brown is “hugely revered around the planet” (sic) for his achievements in shaping a global response to the international financial crisis and for what he is doing through the G20 process.  She painted a vivid picture of reactions in mainstream Europe to the UK MEPs from the BNP and UKIP and to the strange positioning of the Conservative MEPs now that they have left the EPP grouping.

She also talked about the implications of the delays in ratifying the new EU Treaty.  Ireland’s second referendum is, of course, imminent, but assuming that they do vote “Yes” there remains the issue of what the Czech Republic will do.  The Czech Parliament has approved ratification, but since then the Czech Government has fallen.  There were going to be early elections in November, but the Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that the elections cannot be brought forward from next June and the Czech President has said that he will not conclude the ratification process until after the elections and there is a new Government in place.

Apparently, David Cameron is urging the Czech President to stand firm in his intention to delay ratification.  This, of course, is something of a two-edged sword for Cameron.  His pledge is to have a referendum on the Treaty, which he could presumably drop on the basis of cost, if by some chance he were to find himself as Prime Minister with the Treaty ratification safely concluded.  His hotheads are pressing him to have the referendum anyway, which they want to turn into a referendum on the whole principle of EU membership.  The Czech delay is emboldening this faction and there are moves to harden the Tory position on Europe at their Party Conference next week.

Europe is a far more divisive and corrosive issue for the Conservatives than it is for Labour (the Labour Party went through its own patch of divisiveness and corrosiveness on this thirty years ago – the Tories have still not got past that stage).  It’s all potentially a toxic Achilles Heel for Team Cameron.

Monday
Sep 28,2009

My Conference Pass and papers have been sitting somewhere in a North London Royal Mail Sorting Office for the last couple of weeks – so my first act on arriving at Brighton was to make my way to the Conference Office to join the queue for what used to be called ‘Late Accreditation’.

In previous years this has been notorious with waits of four, or even six, hours not uncommon.  In fact, I was in and out in about an hour and spent a pleasant time chatting to friends and colleagues.  The queue, while I was there, included two Ministers, several MPs, a number of Labour Peers, a London Assembly Member and even a former Party General Secretary – no special treatment, everyone treated the same – and all in good humour (with the only exception being a woman from a public affairs company with five passes to pick up for her clients).

Security is as tight as ever – two pass checks, a bag search and a metal detector arch – but in addition at one of the pass checks you are asked a security question.  This is fine, although a bit of a surprise the first time it happens.  And it is fine as long as you know the answers.  One Labour Baroness – who will remain nameless – discovered that her age had been keyed in wrongly (or at least that’s her story).  In the end, she had to say “Do you really think I look that young?” before they let her in.

Saturday
Sep 26,2009

I was interested in Sean Fear’s analysis on Political Betting of how the London Borough elections will pan out next May.  His predictions (bear in mind he is a Tory activist) give the political map of London Government becoming:

  • Conservative  16  (he calls Ealing, Kingston, Merton and Sutton as Tory in what will be close contests)
  • Labour  8 (he calls Islington as a Labour gain from the LibDems)
  • LibDems  1
  • No Overall Control  6
  • Too close to call  1 (Haringey – between Labour and the LibDems)

I’ve not done my own calculations yet.  However, his analysis looks reasonably plausible, although I would want more information from a number of places before taking a firm view.

In July 2005, I was asked by John McTiernan, then Political Secretary to the then Prime Minister, for my assessment of what would happen in May 2006 in the London elections.  I gave my view Borough by Borough (which subsequently turned out to be almost exactly correct).  This was dismissed as “much too pessimistic” and was told “what you are forgetting is that by next Spring the situation in Iraq will have really improved and we will have got the ID cards legislation through and that’s going to be seriously popular”.  I make no comment on the political judgement expressed ……

Friday
Sep 25,2009

The Parliament Education Service runs an annual Discover Parliament Programme aimed at 16-18 year olds studying higher level politics, citizenship and general studies.  This afternoon I met 80 students taking part in the Programme.  They were from three schools in Pinner, Chelmsford and Bristol.

As ever on such occasions, the questioning was lively, sometimes challenging and extremely wide-ranging.  We covered – amongst other things – such topics as:

  • aren’t MPs too old (I’d explained that the average age of members of the House of Lords is 69);
  • why aren’t 16 year olds allowed to vote or to sit in Parliament;
  • what did I think of Gordon Brown;
  • should taxes be put up in the current economic situation;
  • should the age for getting a driving licence change;
  • what were my views about David Cameron, Lord Mandelson and the BNP (interesting grouping);
  • what should be done about knife crime and gangs;
  • was “kettling” of G20 protesters fair (from a teacher);
  • should children be taught more about current affairs;
  • did the LibDems have a better record on MPs’ expenses;
  • is the threat of terrorism rising;
  • should there be limits on immigration;
  • was the war in Iraq right; and
  • did I think Labour would win the next General Election and when would it be?

As I said, a lively hour – and an exhilarating one too.

Effectively, these Discover Parliament programmes can only take place during school term time and when Parliament is not sitting.  In practice that means they are only possible for about four weeks a year from the early part of September.  A by-product of Speaker John Bercow’s proposal to shorten Parliament’s summer recess might well be to end these programmes. Whatever the merits or otherwise of Parliament sitting in September (something I personally would favour), it would be a retrograde step to lose this outreach work with young people.