Friday, 25 November 2011

David Cameron, toxic Tory (?)

Bagehot in today's Economist newspaper believes that the Conservative leader is under pressure to reverse his whole leadership strategy....

If David Cameron is loathed by voters but grudgingly credited with economic competence, can he win the next general election? A few months ago the question would have sounded bizarre. Mr Cameron secured the Conservative leadership in 2005 with a pledge to decontaminate the party’s brand. Rescuing the “nasty party” was Mr Cameron’s mission, and he pursued it with well-bred cheer, whether being pulled by huskies across an Arctic glacier to show concern over climate change, talking of his devotion to the National Health Service or making the conservative case for gay marriage.
With Britain seemingly headed back into recession, the prime minister finds himself at a turning point. Close allies, Conservative MPs and sympathetic think-tanks advise him that the quest for economic growth must trump all other considerations. Wish lists are pouring in from all sides, with a bias towards supply-side reforms aimed at making Britain a lightly-taxed, flexibly-regulated and competitive place to do business. All point to the same conclusion: that Mr Cameron might have to retoxify the Tory brand to save the economy.
Suggestions include abolishing the 50% top rate of income tax and speeding up cuts to corporation tax. Keeping wealth-creators in Britain matters more than accusations of being the party of the rich, many on the right tell Mr Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Ditch those huskies, others argue, and with them British pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions faster than European neighbours. There are calls to postpone dreams of “rebalancing” the economy away from the finance-oriented City of London and the south-east of England: this is a moment for helping the strongest first. Defend City institutions from hostile European Union regulations, it is argued. Slash back employment laws and other red tape, say many MPs: if that involves a dust-up with Brussels, good.
Tories close to the leadership insist that Mr Cameron is willing to stake everything on the economy. The mood inside 10 Downing Street is now “all about growth”, says one. “We can be thought of as nice or not, but if the economy isn’t growing, we’ve had it.”
Alas, many Tory MPs do not believe their party leadership, suspecting that Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are too focused on the party’s image to risk really unpopular reforms. As men of inherited wealth, the prime minister and chancellor cannot imagine the scrappy rage of the self-made entrepreneur drowning in red tape, suggests a Tory MP. Worse, their privileged backgrounds make them feel guilty about curbing workers’ rights.
Some senior Tories seem determined to force the pace of reform. Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s chief policy guru, commissioned a venture capitalist, Adrian Beecroft, to write a report on areas in which employment laws could be loosened. The Lib Dems rejected Mr Beecroft’s boldest idea—giving employers the right to sack unproductive workers with compensation but without giving a reason. Workers who fear the sack do not spend, argued the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
Amid the worsening economic gloom, Lib Dem ministers are showing signs of flexibility. On November 23rd the business secretary, Vince Cable, announced a new, two-year probation period before workers could claim unfair dismissal, and said he was seeking evidence on whether Beecroft-style “no fault” sackings might be allowed in the smallest firms. Disgruntled, unnamed Lib Dems told reporters this was a return to “Victorian employment practices”—a painful rebuke for Mr Cable, who earlier this year swore he would not help the ideological heirs of those who sent “children up chimneys”.
Yet for now, on the big political choice facing the coalition—to worry about public opinion or gamble everything on economic growth—Mr Clegg’s party is hedging its bets. Well-placed Lib Dems talk about the need to fix the deficit while advancing goals such as social mobility, and continue to argue that their presence in the coalition is softening the harshest Tory policies. On November 26th Mr Clegg was due to unveil an avowedly interventionist scheme to subsidise the wages of teenagers hired by private firms. Too many Lib Dems complacently point to opinion polls showing that voters may be wary of the coalition’s economic management, but distrust Labour still more.

Just now, only the economy matters
Coalition tensions are rising. Tories blame the Lib Dems for holding the coalition back, accusing them of terror at being seen as “mean and nasty”. Lib Dems deny that they are blocking pro-growth reforms, saying that the real divide is between realists and “supply-side fantasists” in the Conservative high command who think that tweaking labour laws can offset billions of pounds of vanished demand.
Enough. The economic stakes for Britain are too high for such squabbling. The Lib Dems still dream of being the kindlier half of the coalition. Yet without economic growth, this will earn them no voter gratitude in 2015. The Conservatives are being hypocritical: for all their bold talk of deregulation, the party is still defending right-wing shibboleths, notably plans to limit skilled immigration, even though government-commissioned studies predict that this will hurt growth.

A grand bargain beckons. The Lib Dems should accept new, pro-growth reforms to employment laws, welfare and education that anger the left. In return, they should demand concessions on things such as immigration rules that will enrage the right. Coalition government is rare in Britain: both parties should use it to overcome each other’s flaws and remove obstacles to growth. It is a risky strategy. But the alternatives are worse.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

David Cameron's statecrafty revolution

Danny Kruger, writing today in The Guardian's Comment is Free, argues that the rumoured 'rift' between George Osborne and Steve Hilton is actually a creative divide that reflects the PM's own character. Definitely worth a read ahead of moving into the Prime Ministerial topic of study. If nothing else, the situation in and around Number 10 presently is worth contrasting with Gordon Brown’s short premiership, where it is safe to say that it was toxic at the top....
It seems unnatural. The intrigues, the partisan loyalties and betrayals of court life seem largely absent from David Cameron's government. A number of backbenchers are grumbling, to be sure, with one even predicting a coup next spring. Yet at the top all is peace.

You can see why. The emollient personality of the prime minister makes the atmosphere in No 10 friendly. The key players have toiled and fought together for years, in much humbler offices than the ones they now occupy. They were friends long before they were bigwigs.

And yet there is a difference in Downing Street, not of personalities or even ideology, but of strategy – of how the government should operate, by what methods and in what time frame. It is the difference between George Osborne, the PM's long-term political partner, and Steve Hilton, his closest friend and adviser. It is the tension in Cameron between the statesman – or "statecraftsman" – and the revolutionary.

Statecraft, the use of the instruments of power for particular ends, is the vocation Osborne was born to. The chancellor knows the forces at work – the media, the political parties, the civil service, the European Union – respects their power, and plays them. Hilton, the revolutionary, is exasperated by these forces, frustrated by the checks on change and, often not very deep down, wishes he could abolish them altogether.

While the revolutionary is in a hurry, the statecraftsman takes the long view. Hilton wants Cameron to govern as if this term of office might be his last. Osborne wants to govern to win another election, and win that one outright.

The difference can lead to tension in policymaking, for instance over how far and fast to reform public services, and how much control central government needs to retain. But it can also be fruitful, prompting the effective use of state power for radical – Tory – ends.

In opposition Cameron promised a national citizen service for all school-leavers. Left and right united in disdain, if for opposite reasons: too military, not military enough; too statist, too wet; a waste of money, the kids won't sign up. But the PM plugged on, launched the scheme when he got into power, and we now have the lessons from a year of operations. The scheme has been an indisputable success. Contrary to critics of the "big society", there is clear demand for social action opportunities among young people from all classes, and plenty of space for new projects to enhance, without supplanting, existing provision. One NCS scheme, The Challenge, worked with more than 3,000 young people this year, half of them non-white, a fifth on free school meals, and two-thirds having never volunteered for anything before. Some 96% completed the programme and demonstrated greater levels of trust, belonging and responsibility.

The Challenge is a classic little platoon of the sort beloved by Tories: a means of engendering respect and responsibility in the young, using local activism to link them to the national story. What do we learn? That government can do big, comprehensive, uniform things, directed to collective goals; things that are good for morale. The NCS, like national service in the old days, is rigid, a prescriptive programme designed in Whitehall and delivered by the book. But though it is organised by government, it is not delivered by government. The state can work with small charities if the remit is simple and the outcomes clearly defined.

Another instance of the Osborne-Hilton axis working well is schools. There has been a statecrafty emphasis on the content of education, especially the way in which maths, English and history are taught. Yet at the same time a revolution is under way in the structures of education, with free schools and academies sprouting like mushrooms.

Government sets the curriculum – the big, comprehensive act, imparting non-negotiable values – while communities are free to run their own schools, and to create new ones: a conservative anchor in a revolutionary system.

Tory radicalism is about to receive the biggest boost yet with the announcement next month of neighbourhood community budget pilots. At their simplest, the budgets will consolidate public spending in an area in a single pot under the control of residents, with an emphasis on the role of the third sector.

This is government acting as the catalyst of radical localism, breaking down bureaucratic silos, banging heads together, routing funding outside the normal channels – all so that communities can run themselves. This is Osborne's statecraft in the cause of Hilton's change.
Just for context: the Daily Mirror archives a convenient article dating from before the last General Election exploring the rivalry between Osborne and Hilton in gaining David Cameron's ear. Take a look!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Cameron's trouble with women makes Theresa close to unsackable

The Guardian features an article today, penned by Allegra Stratton, suggesting that the Home Secretary - despite her problems this week - stands in an almost unsackable position within a male-dominated Coalition Cabinet. The article provides several useful insights into the thinking behind Prime Ministerial choice of Cabinet colleagues... Start reading ! :
This week the career of Theresa May, until now regarded as one of the cabinet's safest pair of hands, appeared in doubt as she attempted to explain exactly what she had or had not known about the relaxation of border controls. For David Cameron, the possibility of the home secretary's departure became potentially a bigger problem than Liam Fox's resignation as Defence Secretary last month. But May won't go. Nor, really, can she go.

May is close to the prime minister. Not showy nor a briefer, May embodies what the prime minister loves in his staff – discretion and loyalty. She's also central to Cameron's project – she intuitively understands the right wing of the party, something he has increasingly realised he has to, to survive. And having first coined the "Nasty Party" critique of its Conservatives, she also understands the branding problem Cameron has attempted to tackle. When, a few months ago, May blocked Downing Street's wish to make former US supercop Bill Bratton the head of Scotland Yard, May avoided Cameron's wrath. "What you have to understand about Theresa and David," said one of Cameron's staff, "is that he adores her."

An equal part of her indispensability comes from the fact she is the highest profile woman the government has, in a government that – the polls demonstrate – has turned off women voters. Women may not be persuaded a government is on their side because women front up the policies, but knowing women are party to decisions inside Whitehall might head off those own goals with women the government has repeatedly let in.

In opposition Cameron pledged that by the end of the parliament a third of his ministers would be women. Currently one-sixth are: 19 of 119. Seventeen of these are Tory and two (Sarah Teather and Lynne Featherstone) Lib Dem. There are now 41 female Tory MPs but very few of them are ready for hyper-promotion to the top of the government, and to do so would incur the wrath of male colleagues. The promotion of Chloe Smith, 29, to be economic secretary to the Treasury produced a large backbench splutter.

If May were to go Cameron would need and want to fill her shoes with a woman to ensure female representation in one of the big four jobs – Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary.

The other women in the cabinet do not have unblemished records. Conservative co-Chairman Lady Warsi has impressed with her handling of the riots, and pugnacious role attacking Lib Dems throughout the AV campaign. But she has also annoyed No 10, for instance by suggesting activists weren't campaigning hard enough in the Oldham East and Saddleworth byelection.

The current Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan is impressive and smart but has already served the coalition notice she will resign if they go ahead with pushing the new high speed rail link through her Chesham and Amersham constituency in Buckinghamshire. The Welsh-born MP for Basingstoke, Maria Miller, the Minister for Disabled People, is being lined up to fill those shoes.

The Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, could be subbed in to May's seat but her tenure has seen the government have to retreat on a perceived sell-off of the forests. That was not wholly her fault, but nor is it the stuff of herograms and does not suggest she could withstand the home office house of horrors where there is a bad news story buried under every desk.

Cabinet newbie Justine Greening, a beneficiary of the mini-reshuffle after Fox was forced out, could be promoted from Transport Secretary quickly. But this is unlikely – it flies in the face of Cameron's own preferred strategy of letting his people bed into their job.

If necessary Michael Gove could come in to be Home Secretary and Norfolk South MP Elizabeth Truss made Education Secretary, but this would incur much ire.

The PM's problem is partly of his own making. He has been party leader nearly six years, which should be enough time to bring some women up to the necessary level such that when your big beasts like May suffer damage there are options. A decent programme of mentoring would have meant that Miller or, say, Theresa Villiers, the transport minister who was in the shadow cabinet before the election, was seen as ready by now.

Friday, 4 November 2011

BBC News: MPs say new individual voter system has real risks

BBC News today presents news of the broad findings of the Parliamentary committee examining the Coalition government's proposals for changing the system of voter registration:
Changes to the way people register to vote could "damage democracy" by resulting in large numbers dropping off the electoral roll, MPs have warned. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee says there are "real risks" involved in the planned change from household to individual registration. The MPs want it to be an offence for individuals not to register to vote.

The government says it is "putting safeguards in place" to prevent people dropping off the electoral roll.

Currently, the head of a household can be fined up to £1,000 for failing to register all eligible voters at his or her property. The government wants to switch to a system in which individuals register themselves, but does not think there should be a similar legal penalty for those who fail to do so.

The committee's report says it welcomes the principle of individual elector registration (IER), but believes there is a danger that the number of people registered to vote could fall significantly if it is implemented in the way the government plans. It says some people may choose to opt out for reasons like avoiding jury duty, and warns that urban areas, with a rapid population turnover, are likely to be the worst affected.

In Northern Ireland, where IER is already in place, failing to register to vote is an offence and the committee says the same should be true in the rest of the UK. It suggests that penalty could be phased out after five years once the new system has bedded down.
The potential problem of voter drop-out could be compounded, the MPs say, by the government's decision not to hold an annual canvass in 2014. The report says this could lead to inaccuracies in the electoral roll for 2015 and also have "a marked and potentially partisan effect on the parliamentary constituency boundaries" for 2020 which will be based on that roll.
The chairman of the committee, Labour's Graham Allen, said: "Getting individuals to take responsibility for their own votes is the right thing to do, but it needs to be done in the right way.
"The transition to individual registration will only be a true success if the electoral rolls become not only more accurate but also more complete.
"The amendments which we propose - especially on the 2014 canvass and on not opting out - are essential if IER is to command public confidence and not to be seen as unfair and politically partisan."
A Cabinet Office spokesman said the move to IER would modernise the electoral system and help to combat fraud. "We are putting safeguards in place to stop people dropping off the register, as well as looking at ways we can increase registration levels," he said.
"Under the new system, everyone will be invited to register in 2014 and will receive a number of reminders - if they do not respond they will then be visited at their home by an electoral registration officer to ask them to register.
"In addition, there will be publicity to make people aware of the change and we are looking at opening up new ways of registering, including online registration."
Under Labour there were plans to introduce IER from 2015 at the earliest, but the coalition's plan to bring it forward to 2014 for new voters is designed to save £74m. But Labour argues that accelerating the process risks disenfranchising millions.
Deputy leader Harriet Harman told the party's conference in September the Tories were "hoping" that "if they take away the right to vote from students, young people living in rented flats in our cities, people from ethnic minority communities" it will help their chances of re-election.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Guardian: The history of PMQs

The Guardian today features a lengthy and interesting overview of the House of Commons institution known as Prime Minister's Questions—turning only 50 years old this week:
Everyone hates prime minister's question time. At least they often say they do. How much they mean it is another matter. In its current form (more or less) PMQs has now survived 50 years, almost exactly as long as Private Eye, another great national institution routinely accused of not being what it used to be.

Backbench MPs arrive at Westminster determined not to join in the gladiatorial shouting match their constituents say they so dislike. Then they see old hands on the other side cheering their own leader for a good retort and loyalty kicks in. Voters? They deplore schoolboy antics, but complain whenever lapses into sobriety, let alone statesmanship, make PMQs look like an elite fix or, worse, boring.

The media? Its collective lip curls too. But (as with MPs) the 30-minute session at noon on Wednesdays is the one time in the week when watching the Commons chamber on TV monitors from their desks isn't enough. Reporters pile into the press gallery, 24/7 TV analyses the run of play like a Premier League grudge match. Editors wait for a good soundbite to enliven the six o'clock news.

As for the gladiators themselves, without exception they all claim to dislike it too, even Margaret Thatcher, who regularly made mincemeat of opponents across the dispatch box, but not all of them. Jim Callaghan, Labour's hugely experienced prime minister from 1976-1979, usually worsted the rookie opposition leader. But in doing so in more chauvinistic times "Sunny Jim" prompted the commentator Hugo Young – no Thatcher fan – to protest that he was offensively condescending.

Callaghan regarded what was then the twice-weekly session, at 3.15pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as "a complete waste of time". His predecessor, Harold Wilson, once master of the joust, fortified himself in advance with a brandy or two during his later years. Tony Blair, another PMQs champ in his prime, admitted at his final appearance in 2007 that he had always feared the Commons.

"This is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And, if it is on occasions the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes," Blair told MPs before they rose – Tory MPs included – and clapped him out of the chamber where he had dominated and infuriated for a decade in power.

As for Harold Macmillan, on the dusty pages of old volumes of Hansard his words still convey the unflappable urbanity which was the trademark style of "SuperMac". The shy, earnest young MP of the 1920s had been utterly transformed by private adversity (a fraught marriage), decades of hard work and growing self-confidence. PMQs, he once confided, still made him feel "physically sick". Yet this is what he wrote in his private diary a few weeks after succeeding the hopeless Sir Anthony Eden in the Westminster debacle that followed the collapse of Britain's last imperial venture, the Suez invasion of 1956:

"I didn't worry ... I didn't mind even losing a by-election or bother too much with the outside world, if you can once impress upon the House of Commons that the government is strong and the prime minister is in control ... then gradually it begins to go out into the country as the members go back to their constituencies."

In the age of a televised parliament, where PMQs is a niche market (very popular on the US cable channel CSpan) and TV panels instantly score the leaders' performance, that leisurely transmission mechanism has long gone. But an instant-death X Factor version is still recognisable. PMQs remains a test of character, stamina and grasp of policy, as well as a chance for voters to judge whether the party leaders understand their lives and are real human beings – not geeks or mere technocrats. Gordon Brown's inability to master quick-witted cut and thrust did him harm when he succeeded Blair. His evident scorn for David Cameron was not enough.

A ready wit, not dependent on scripted made-for-TV soundbites, is a bonus, but not compulsory, as Thatcher showed. Michael Foot and William Hague were both very witty opposition leaders. Foot was loved, Hague's brainpower respected by the colleagues. It was not enough. Voters gave them the thumbs-down well before their landslide defeats on polling day in 1983 and 2001.

So the occasion is fraught with ambiguity. Neil Kinnock, who had the unenviable task of facing Thatcher (far more condescending than Callaghan ever was) in her pomp for nine years, told the Guardian this week that, yes, "PMQs is over-rated, but it's permanent and part of the territory. It has to be done. In some ways our parliamentary democracy is more testing than others.''

Even a sceptic like Kinnock acknowledges that it requires "hours and hours of preparation", which means that the prime minister will know more detail about policy across Whitehall than might otherwise be the case. Thatcher, who once scornfully remarked that many of her EU colleagues barely knew where their parliaments were, prided herself in detailed knowledge – "from some local hospital to a great international issue".

"Each department was naturally expected to provide the facts and a possible reply on points that might arise. It was a good test of the alertness and efficiency of the cabinet minister in charge of the department whether information arrived late – or arrived at all; whether it was accurate, wrong, comprehensible or riddled with jargon," she wrote in her memoirs.

Few prime ministers have been as driven or domineering as Thatcher, none since Churchill in his wartime supremacy. Even during a war the pace was more leisurely than the globally wired world of 2011. Before the 1880s MPs asked questions of ministers without prior notice before the start of the daily agenda, with the PM treated no differently from any other minister.

As a gesture to Gladstone (then 72) his questions were placed at the end of the list in 1881 to allow him to arrive late. But that meant they were rarely reached. In 1904 they were answered only when questions – ever more were being asked – reached No 51; after 1940, they were addressed at No 45, a procedure that survived until 1953 when PMQs were restricted to Tuesdays and Thursdays only to assist the ailing Churchill (78). Even then several cabinet ministers were still expected to be around to answer questions every day as they had been 100 years before: old-fashioned accountability, but time-consuming. Nowadays each team does up to an hour once a month.

In the early days, exchanges were more succint. Back on 6 June 1904 the Tory philosopher-PM Arthur Balfour took four questions, mostly about imperial defence (Germany was menacing), but usually replied that it would serve "no public object" if he shared his thoughts; or that it would take a whole speech to reply; or that the war minister had already covered the point.

By June 1948, not much had changed. Then it was the opposition's deputy leader who asked Labour's prime minister, the famously terse Clement Attlee, for a statement on the London dock strike on five successive days – and got one too in brief exchanges over five or six minutes (today such an exchange would last half an hour).

It did not stop Labour's Bessie Braddock accusing Attlee of "complacency" over the strike. Rudeness and rowdiness is nothing new. MPs could be bitchy without the stimulus of TV, which makes for more noise and crafted soundbites but also has an inhibiting effect on more outrageous exhibitionism when MPs remember voters are watching. In 1961 another Labour troublemaker, Desmond Donnelly, rudely asked Macmillan if there had ever been another PM "so gorged on his own words". Yet when Tony Banks likened Hague to a foetus in the TV era most voters were not amused.

Backbenchers with a talent for PMQs are invaluable. Labour's Tam Dalyell's supplementary question once consisted of a devastating single word ("Why?") but the MP also had forensic skills, harrying Thatcher for months over the sinking of the Argentine cruiser Belgrano for months after the 1982 Falklands war. Leftwinger Dennis Skinner's timing for a witty heckle (waiting for a pause before shouting) could be brilliant. When Major first rose to take PMQs, Skinner shouted "Resign" before the new boy could utter a word. After Major later acquired lame-duck status Skinner would mutter: "Quack, quack." In opposition days, ambitious, articulate Tories such as Norman Tebbit and Alan Clark did the same service for Thatcher.

Personal grudges have always given an edge to PMQs. Macmillan despised Labour's then leader, Hugh Gaitskell, as a weak, priggish public school socialist. In return, Gaitskell thought him dishonest. But SuperMac admired Labour's next leader, the wily Harold Wilson, whose later demolition of Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64) at PMQs paved the way for the left's return to power.

For his part, the grudge-minded Ted Heath despised Wilson as devious, just as Foot and Kinnock genuinely disliked Thatcher, who thought neither rival was up to the job. Blair thought the same about the Tory leaders he saw off: Hague, IDS and Michael Howard. Hague's wit and speed disconcerted him at first, but once he got a line on him (Hague had "good jokes, bad policies") Blair reasserted himself until Cameron arrived to tell him: "You were the future once."

By this time, the twice-weekly sessions at 3.15pm – instituted against some resistance in June 1961 and confirmed 50 years ago this week – had given way to Blair's once-weekly 30-minute joust at noon on Wednesdays, imposed without consultation. Alastair Campbell reckoned it saved the boss one-and-a-half days a week of prep. Though Blair denied it, most MPs think it makes a PM less accountable than before.

Kinnock (who found it awkward being aggressive towards an older woman) agrees. He also argues that the old convention that allowed an opposition leader three questions in each session (one to the Lib Dem leader) has wrongly morphed into six on Wednesdays, which is often too many. In the 60s opposition leaders often intervened only once – and late – in PMQs.

The fact is that like many things in Britain's fluid constitutional system, PMQs constantly adapts to new realities. Global affairs usually intrude less, social security and constituency worries feature more. So does Europe. Thatcher's cabinet feuds became a staple of PMQs and helped bring her down. So did Major's and the Blair-Brown feud. TV raises the stakes for both sides.

Similar fissures, magnified by rolling news in ways that would have baffled or alarmed Attlee or Balfour, may yet wreak havoc on the coalition. Cameron's critics have already noticed that beneath that urbane exterior (surely modelled on the Etonian Macmillan's style) there lurks a bullying tendency to resort to cheap shots ("Calm down, dear") when the going gets tough.

If voters come to see PMQs as a reprise of Flashman of the Bullingdon Club he may pay the familiar price of misjudging a loved-and-loathed national institution on which everyone has an opinion.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

BBC Daily Politics: Advice for junior ministers

The BBC's Daily Politics program today featured a brief, yet insightful exploration of the role of the junior minister within government—a nice title, but with mixed blessings....

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Revealed: How the City bankrolls the Tories

On the eve of the Tory conference this coming week, The Guardian website leads this morning with an exposé regarding Conservative Party funding... The central finding: donations from finance account for half of payments to Tories since 2010 general election:
The influence of the City over the Conservatives has been laid bare by new research showing that more than half of the Tory party's donations since the general election have come from individuals and businesses working in finance.

Hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms contributed more than a quarter of all the Tories' private donations – which this year poured in at a rate equal to £1m a month – the study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found.

The figures show an increase in the proportion of party funds coming from the financial sector, raising fears that the City's financial influence over the Tories is on the rise as key pieces of legislation are discussed by the coalition government.

They come amid growing concerns that some parts of the financial sector, described by Labour leader Ed Miliband this week as "asset strippers" or "predator financiers", are profiting from financial instability.

The senior Labour shadow minister Peter Hain said the figures confirmed that the Tories remain wedded to the few who do well out of the financial and political system. The Liberal Democrats used the research to step up their campaign for changes to party funding.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has mapped, for the first time, donations to the Tories from business to the year ending 30 June.

Using analysis from the Electoral Commission and Companies House databases, the researchers found City donations in the 12 months to July accounted for 51.4% of the £12.2m of funds received by Central Office. Hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms contributed £3.3m – 27% – while 50 City donors paid more than £50,000. All donors contributing this amount or more become members of the Leader's Group and qualify for a face-to-face meeting with the prime minister.

The largest contributor across all the business sectors studied by the bureau was hedge funds which donated £1.38m (11.4%). Three of the City's biggest name hedge fund bosses – Michael Farmer, Lord Stanley Fink and Andrew Law – together contributed £636,300. Fink is the party treasurer. The top financier donor was David Rowland, who contributed £1.1m. Rowland has a colourful City career and was forced to resign as party treasurer before he even took up the job because of links to tax havens. He now controls Banque Havilland – which used to be the crashed Icelandic Kaupthing bank business – in Luxembourg and the hedge fund Blackfish Capital Management.

Outside the City, the sector that donated most was industry, including manufacturing and defence. This sector contributed £913,411 (7.5%). A company controlled by Michael Spencer, another former Conservative party treasurer, donated £163,350. He is campaigning against the EU's attempts to introduce a transaction tax on financial trades and threatened on Fridayto shift some of his company's operations from London "extremely rapidly" if the tax was introduced.

Peter Cruddas, the multimillionaire currency trader who grew up on a Hackney housing estate and left school with no qualifications, handed over £123,600, while his business, CMC Markets UK, donated £100,000. He is co-treasurer of the Conservative party, alongside Fink.

But while Spencer and others are now campaigning against potential tax changes, since the coalition came to power several key measures have been introduced that could benefit the Conservative's City backers. Among them is a commitment to reduce corporation tax to 23% by April 2014 and exempting UK resident companies from corporation tax on all profits for their foreign branches.

The figures show the insurance sector has donated £189,400 as the government discusses radical plans to slash the legal aid budget – a measure which critics claim will benefit insurers. Construction companies have donated more than £220,000 amid a lobbying campaign to relax planning rules covering the green belt.

In a separate survey, the Labour MP John Mann disclosed figures that showed that the top three donors – Rowland, Farmer and Fink – had donated almost £10m since 2005. Stuart Wilks-Heeg, executive director of Democratic Audit, said: "What this study tellingly reveals is the scale of the Conservative party's reliance on a variety of City interests at a time when the Conservative-led government is attempting to kick banking reform into the long grass."

Hain said: "The Conservative party has long since been over reliant on donor income from people at the top of the income scale.

"No wonder David Cameron and George Osborne are straining at the leash to cut tax for people earning at least £150,000 a year while asking everyone else to pay the bill for a financial crisis caused by the banks," he said.

The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott said: "Big financiers are still the Tories' big backers with hedge fund gamblers and private equity asset strippers leading the way. Labour is being bankrolled by the union bosses. The coalition must act now to clean up party funding."
The Guardian article concludes with an interesting roll of celebrity donors:
David Rowland, property developer: £1,160,936

Notoriously camera-shy, Rowland was by a distance the Conservatives' largest donor last year. The former tax exile was set to become party treasurer last year but resigned shortly before he was due to start.

Michael Bishop, former airline head: £335,000

Was one of the country's first openly gay senior executives when he headed BMI. Sold stake in airline to Lufthansa for £318m in 2008.

May Makhzoumi, fibreglass pipe manufacturing and supply business: £308,000

The biggest individual female donor. Wife of the Lebanese businessman Fouad Makhzoumi.

JCB Research, industrial equipment company: £300,000

Subsidiary of the Bamford family's JCB digger empire. JCB chairman Sir Anthony Bamford was nominated for a peerage by David Cameron last year, but withdrew his nomination.

David Whelan, fitness clubs & football club owner: £100,000

The founder of JJB Sports sold up in 2007, then later bought its fitness clubs. Also owns Wigan Athletic football club.

John Frieda, hairdresser: £50,000

Celebrity hairstylist with salons in London, New York, Los Angeles and Barbados. Sold his hair care products business to a Japanese corporation for £290m in 2002.

Jeremy Isaacs, private equity firm co-owner: £50,000

Left role as head of Lehman Brothers' European and Asian operations days before bank went bankrupt in 2008. Later co-founded private-equity group vehicle JRJ group.

Hans Rausing, ex-packaging tycoon: £49,000

Co-inherited Sweden's Tetra Pak group, the world's largest packaging production company, then sold out to brother Gad in 1995 for an estimated $7bn. Wife Marit also donated £49,000 last year.

Julian Fellowes, writer and actor: £40,000

Won an Oscar for his first Hollywood screenplay, Gosford Park, and created the hit ITV series Downton Abbey. Was made a Conservative peer in January.

Annabel's, private members restaurant & nightclub: £20,000

Legendary central London society haunt, frequented over the years by Frank Sinatra, Aristotle Onassis, assorted royals and David Blunkett.

Mike Batt, composer: £20,000

Composed such classics as Remember You're a Womble and the theme to Watership Down. Took over composing Tory election themes from Andrew Lloyd Webber and often donates in kind through music.

Bell Pottinger, PR group: £11,900

As representative for Trafigura, tried to prevent media revelations about the oil company's involvement in toxic waste dumping in Africa. Also represents the government in Bahrain.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Viewpoint: What progress on political reform?

On the eve of the Conservative Party conference, BBC News has today published an overview - they call it a 'viewpoint' - regarding the pace and extent of political reform driven by the Coalition government. Guest written by Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Clacton and avid blogger (link), the article is somewhat surprisingly and unsparingly critical of efforts to date, if still optimistic the prospects for future reform.

Topics highlighted include:
  • e-petitions - will they ever be properly utilised, or is it simply too dangerous?
  • the role and power of Parliamentary committees
  • the decline of the quango... or not (!)
  • party primaries - as pioneered, and now marginalised, by the Tories themselves
  • the possibility of recall elections promoted by constituents - an idea now fading fast (?)
  • the role of the current Speaker - good, bad or indifferent?
A balanced overview, all in all - definitely worth a close read!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

LibDems vow to fight rightwing policies of 'ruthless' Tories

The Observer in an article this morning sums up the Liberal Democrats' party leader's opening speech to the LibDem Annual Conference in Birmingham last night:
Nick Clegg signals combative approach to coalition describing PM's party as political enemies who must be taken on

Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats have vowed to face down "ruthless" and "extreme" forces in the Tory party to protect the British people from right-wing policies that would widen inequality and benefit the rich.

At a rally on Saturday night to open his party's annual conference in Birmingham, Clegg underlined the Lib Dems' newly combative approach to the coalition, describing David Cameron's party as "political enemies" who must be taken on when necessary in the national interest. After a traumatic year during which the Lib Dems' popularity has plummeted and their leader has been accused of abandoning his party's principles, Clegg struck a markedly more assertive note.

While trumpeting his party's successes so far in influencing health and tax policies, he said it was more prepared than ever to "fight tooth and nail" for what was right. "We are prepared to be awkward," he said. "We are not here to make things easy. We're here to put things right."

In an interview with the Observer, his deputy Simon Hughes goes further, telling the Conservatives they have no mandate to drive through a rightwing agenda. Hughes says the Tories have shown themselves to be "ruthless" operators in the first 16 months of the coalition over the referendum on electoral reform and boundary changes and says the resurgent right of the party is "extreme" on issues such as Europe and tax.

He says Tories must come to their senses and realise that they did not win the last election – and that they rely on the Lib Dems for power.

"Not only did they not win but they got a third of those who voted," he said. "The Tory party is not the dominant party in British politics that it used to be. It is absolutely not the dominant force in Scotland and Wales that it used to be. The Tory right have forgotten that."

In a rebuff to Conservative hardliners he adds: "There is absolutely no majority in parliament for your views. If there is a coalition government in the national interest then extreme remedies and answers are not appropriate."

The comments are bound to infuriate Conservatives as the conference season opens. Many Tories are beginning to resent profoundly the way the Lib Dems are already watering down Tory changes on health and education and blocking Cameron from developing a more hardline approach on Europe.
Clegg and his ministers are now convinced they can claw back some of their pre-election popularity if they can demonstrate that they are reining in the Conservatives and stamping their own mark on government. Deep division between the coalition partners will surface in Birmingham over tax, welfare, health, pensions and last month's riots.
There's more detail in the article regarding specific initiatives the LibDems say they will take in the coming months—take a look!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Total Politics: The executive's hidden wiring exposed

Total Politics magazine this month features a timely article from Peter Hennessey (Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London) and Andrew Blick (Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies, King’s College London) regarding the publication of the Cabinet Manual, a document that gives us a never-before-seen insight into the work of government—even if we don't always like what we see.... (article follows)
When the coaliton was formed in May last year, it seemed that the Liberal Democrats would use their pivotal position to drive through major changes in our system of government. But following the decisive victory for the ‘no’ campaign in the referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote in May this year, there were grounds for believing that coalition constitutional reform momentum had been dissipated; a view confirmed by the hostile political reception received in both Houses of Parliament by the government’s Draft House of Lords Reform Bill shortly afterwards.

Yet a document published in draft last December will represent a further constitutional shift for the UK. Though this text – currently labeled the ‘Cabinet Manual’ – is appearing on their watch, its creation cannot be attributed to either coalition partner. It is an inheritance from the dying days of the premiership of Gordon Brown, who announced it was in production in February 2010.

Brown intended that the manual would be the first step in a process possibly leading to a full 'written' constitution for the UK. A more urgent impetus to produce this document came because it could provide public confirmation of the procedures to be followed in the event of an inconclusive General Election, an outcome which seemed increasingly likely in early 2010. An initial draft dealing specifically with the ‘hung Parliament’ scenario was published in time for the poll. Another inspiration for the overall document was the desire to introduce into the UK an equivalent to the New Zealand Cabinet Manual, which has existed in some form since the late 1970s.

While Gordon Brown’s written constitution project has been abandoned, the manual has survived and will represent the fullest publicly available official statement of the rules of the UK political game ever to have been produced.

Subtitled ‘A guide to the laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government’, it will cover many crucial features of the UK constitution: including the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty; the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility; and, as noted above, the regulations governing what happens when there is no overall winner in a General Election.

Some vital principles of the UK constitution are published in an official document seemingly for the first time: for instance, the convention that the prime minister must be a member of the House of Commons, not the House of Lords.
The draft issued in December was also notable for what it did not mention. We were left in the dark, for instance, over whether the ‘yes’ votes secured in referendums held on EEC membership (in 1975) and devolution (at various points since the late 1990s) can only be overturned by further referendums, or whether the UK Parliament could decide to withdraw from the European Union or abolish devolved assemblies entirely on its own account, without referring the issue back to the general populations involved.

Nor was Parliament's precise role in decisions about British entry into armed combat set out. Consequently we do not know whether the government regards itself as bound by the House of Commons Resolution of May 2007 describing it as ‘inconceivable’ that any government would depart from the precedent set in 2002 and 2003 over the Iraq conflict in ‘seeking and obtaining the approval of the House for its decisions in respect of military action’, subject to flexibility in emergencies. It is arguable that this resolution was not fully abided by with respect to the conflict in Libya, since it could be read as requiring advance approval, which the government was arguably in a position to seek in March 2011 but did not. (However, during the debate on the United Nations Resolution 1973 of 21 March, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, pledged that the government would ‘enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action’.)

Those matters that were included in the draft were not always covered in an entirely satisfactory way, particularly because much of the manual deals with constitutional conventions, which are often difficult to put in writing. There is reference to the need for Royal Assent to be provided before a Bill becomes law, but no mention of the fact that it has not been withheld by a monarch since 1707. The ‘primacy’ of the House of Commons over the House of Lords is asserted. But there is no explanation of whether the so-called ‘Salisbury-Addison’ doctrine, which stipulates that the Lords does not obstruct legislation enacting pledges included in the manifesto of the party which won the most recent General Election, has survived the advent of a coalition government with no one ‘winning’ manifesto to draw upon.

Moreover, this document has been drafted within Whitehall, with little outside involvement from either Parliament or public, and will ultimately be owned by the executive. It is arguably inappropriate for such an important publication to be produced in this exclusive way; particularly since it is more than simply an operating manual for the London-based executive, extending widely as it does to issues such as the role of supranational institutions, devolution settlements, the upholding of human rights, Parliament and the nature of UK democracy. Some statements included in the draft text, including about the kind of discretion the judiciary and Parliament should afford ministers when holding them to account, are simply not within the remit of the executive to make.

Discussion of these concerns has yet to break out of the worlds of academia and parliamentary select committees into the wider public domain. But it should. The manual, and the problems with it, matter, not least because this document is likely to be treated by many – including within the media – as the closest equivalent to the written constitution which the UK famously lacks.

In truth, though, there are crucial differences between the manual and the text of a written constitution (which the manual does not purport to be). The inclusion of rules, conventions or laws within it does not explicitly afford them any legal status beyond that which they already possess (although it may come to play a part in legal proceedings to a limited extent). It neither entrenches its contents nor prescribes a procedure through which it can be amended. Moreover, the production of the manual – an executive dominated process – does not accord with the democratic principles that could arguably be expected if it were intended to be a written constitution. It is not owned by all of us, and could not possibly open with the phrase ‘We the people’.

Indeed, powerful statements of this kind – associated with some of the most famous world constitutional statements – are absent from the manual. It lacks poetry – not one of its phrases is likely to cling to the Velcro of memory. Instead of lines such as ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ or ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’, what could be seen as the preamble (the foreword) begins: ‘The way in which government operates is a vital part of the United Kingdom’s (UK) democracy, but it can be complex for those involved in, and for those outside of, government’. And closes: ‘We envisage that an updated version will be available on the Cabinet Office website, with an updated hard copy publication at the start of each new Parliament’.

The true significance – and considerable value – of the manual is as a window into executive practice and the executive’s view of constitutional procedure. Not only enthusiastic constitutional observers should peer through that window – one never before opened in this country – at regular intervals, even though we might not always like what we see. Within the machinery of British politics, the hidden wiring is emerging.

Friday, 19 August 2011

BBC News: Can UK political parties be saved from extinction?

This is the dilemma explored by Brian Wheeler, BBC News' political editor, in an article published today:
Political party membership appears to be in terminal decline in the UK - so can anything be done to reverse the trend? And does it matter?

It was once a source of cultural identity and pride for millions of British people. But at just over 1% of the population - low by European standards - party membership is fast becoming a minority pursuit. There are more members of the Caravan Club, or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, than of all Britain's political parties put together.

There are many theories as to why this has happened. The public have grown cynical and disillusioned with politicians. We live in a more individualistic age (Why rely on political leaders to speak for you when you can do it yourself on Twitter or Facebook?). Politics itself has become too boring and managerial - the ideological red meat loved by the "party faithful" is in short supply.

There have also been profound changes in the way Britons spend their spare time, since the days when the local Labour, Conservative or Liberal club was at the heart of the community.

"Most people don't use politics for socialising in the way they might have done in the fifties and sixties, when you had a realistic chance of meeting your future husband or wife at a party dinner or dance.

"There may be the odd exception, but that really isn't the case any more," says Jonathan Isaby, former co-editor of Conservative Home, a popular website for Tory supporters.

Even those drawn to political activism can find party politics a bit strange and off-putting, preferring instead to join one of the many single issue campaigns that now exist.

"I sometimes drag my wife along to political events but she hates going because she thinks they are all a load of oddballs," said one prominent single issue campaigner, who did not want to be named.

"Politics is conducted in a very specific way in the UK that doesn't really chime with the rest of the country."

It is not all gloom - there are still many thriving local party associations around the country. And new parties, such as the Greens, UKIP, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, have sprung up over the years to cater to the increasingly diverse political tastes of the British public.

But - with the exception of the SNP in Scotland - the big three Westminster parties still dominate in terms of membership and influence. And unless they can find a way of breathing new life into their moribund structures, British democracy could soon find itself on the critical list.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has made rebuilding his party a top priority. The membership will vote next month on a series of proposals - from discount membership fees to making local parties more "welcoming" - aimed at Refounding Labour. Mr Miliband wants to transform the party into a modern, outward-looking organisation, less in thrall to a rulebook that has not changed much since the party was founded in 1918. He believes local parties should become more like community action groups - forging links with other voluntary organisations. Labour's annual conference could be opened up to campaign groups and charities - who will be allowed to speak from the floor in debates (but not to vote on policies).

But the proposals have not gone down well with some Labour members. They are particularly upset that members of a planned Labour "supporters network" could get the right to vote in leadership elections. What, they argue, is the point of paying a subscription fee - which at £41 is currently the highest of the main three parties - if you do not get some privileges?

The Conservatives have also thrown the party open to non-members and supporters - as well as launching a more conventional recruitment drive.

"I think many find the idea of committing themselves to one party for life a bit scary," says Jonathan Isaby, who recently joined the Taxpayers Alliance pressure group as its political director. "There are a lot of people who don't want to sign on the dotted line to join a party, but who are equally happy to help out by delivering leaflets for a particular candidate they want to support. And that can be just as useful as donating money, if not more so."

David Cameron's party is also trying to get members involved in policy formation - a process that had effectively died out - and it has pioneered the use of "open primaries" to select Tory election candidates.

The Lib Dems have also been opening up their party structures and meetings to non-members.

Some commentators, such as Mark Pack, of the grassroots Lib Dem Voice website, believe parties need to broaden their support base in this way to avoid becoming unrepresentative of the public at large. "There is a point at which you have to see the membership as atypical," he says.

This matters because party members can still have a big influence on government policy as well as getting to choose the party leaders and even, in certain circumstances, the prime minister.

For all their overblown rhetoric - and nothing attracts overblown rhetoric like party recruitment drives - the big parties have effectively given up on becoming mass membership organisations. There will be no return to the 1950s.

What we might be witnessing instead is the birth of a new kind of political party. Not so much a religion to be followed by faithful, as a pastime to be pursued once or twice a year, when other commitments allow.

Not unlike the Caravan Club, in fact...

  • 1951 Conservative 2.9m - Labour 876,000
  • 1971 Conservative 1.3m - Labour 700,000
  • 1981 Conservative 1.2m - Labour 277,000
  • 1991 Conservative 1m to 0.5m - Labour 261,000 - Lib Dem 91,000
  • 2001 Conservative 311,000 - Labour 272,000 - Lib Dem 73,000
  • 2011 Conservative 177,000 - Labour 190,000 - Lib Dem - 66,000
(Source: Estimates based on party reports and House of Commons Library)

  • Labour - £41 standard, £20.50 unwaged and pensioners, £1 youth, £20.50 (union or affiliate group member)
  • Conservatives - £25 standard, £5 (under 23)
  • Lib Dem - £12 standard, £6 students and unwaged

Friday, 29 July 2011

MPs set to debate public's petition demands

BBC News brings news of an interesting development—long-talked about, now coming to some fruition—that might work to enhance British democracy and participation:
Campaigners who gather more than 100,000 petition signatures could have their ideas debated in Parliament, via a newly launched government website.

The e-petitions site, which will ask the public for proposals, is aimed at "building confidence" in MPs' work.

House of Commons leader Sir George Young said politicians could not afford to be complacent and had to give a "megaphone" to people's concerns. But Labour has said the petitions could lead to debates on "crazy ideas".

The system, launched on Friday, replaces the existing e-petitions pages on the Downing Street website, set up under Tony Blair. It allows popular petitions to be discussed by the backbench business committee of MPs, which has the power to propose debates on non-government matters.

But some proposals, including those judged to be "libellous or offensive" or "related to honours and appointments" will be barred from the website. Posting more than one petition on a single subject is also banned.

Sir George, a Conservative, said: "Today's launch represents another step towards a more accessible and transparent Parliament." He added: "In recent weeks, Parliament has been at the centre of public interest, by leading the debate on phone-hacking allegations.

"But this shouldn't mean that Parliament becomes complacent. There's much more that we can do to build confidence in the work of the House of Commons and we should continue to find new ways of encouraging people to engage.

"The public already have many opportunities to make their voices heard in Parliament, and this new system of e-petitions could give them a megaphone."

However, Sir George said: "Of course, parliamentary time is not unlimited and we want the best e-petitions to be given airtime - so we will monitor the site closely over the coming months to assess whether the 100,000 figure is an appropriate target."

Deputy Leader of the House, Lib Dem MP David Heath, said: "The e-petitions website is the latest example of how the coalition is continuing to take forward its programme for government.

"It underscores our commitment to reform of the parliamentary process, and will help to reinforce the aim of greater engagement by people in the politics of this country."

Petitions will be moderated by government departments, with oversight from the Office of the Leader of the Commons. The plans were first set out in the Conservatives' 2010 election manifesto.

Petitions were introduced to the Downing Street website by Tony Blair. The most popular, with more than 1.8 million people in support, opposed road pricing. More than 70,000 backed the one-word suggestion that Gordon Brown should "resign". And almost 50,000 signed up to the idea that TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson should become prime minister.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Time to salute the post-2010 election Parliament (?)

Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent for BBC News, writes today that—in his opinion—we're now seeing "a stronger Parliament" as we enter the second summer recess for the present House:
The dust is settling, the parliamentarians are gone and the workmen have moved in to begin Westminster's usual summer programme of renovation and repair work.

Like the Forth Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, with its cast iron Victorian roofs, its Neolithic heating systems and endless need for maintenance and repair will be crawling with builders and craftsmen rather than politicians - the institution it houses, though, is in unexpectedly good order.

The horrible, doom-laden slog to the last election is a receding memory; the new MPs elected in 2010 (and the considerable number of new peers appointed since then) sit in a more open, more independent and powerful parliament than has been seen for decades.

The House of Commons has won some limited power to set its own agenda and has used it to some effect.

The select committees are more powerful and independent-minded than ever before. And the willingness of MPs and Peers to defy their whips is clearly high - rebellion in this Parliament is already routine; the Tory right, the Lib Dem left, Blairite diehards, eurosceptics, europhiles, libertarians, animal-lovers, NHS reform-sceptics and ultras, all have at least flexed their muscles.

After just one year, new MPs from the 2010 intake - a third of the total, remember - are more likely to have defied their party line than those of the 1997 intake were after four years in the Commons. In short, the Commons in particular, and Parliament in general, is a healthier institution, rather closer to what the public expects of their lawmakers.

Observers offer varying opinions of the performance of the Home Affairs and Culture committees in grilling those enmeshed in the hacking scandal, but the simple fact that the mighty Murdochs were forced to appear before MPs has reminded parliament of its own latent power.

And the trouble with treating select committee hearings as drama rather than inquisition is that reviewers look for "gotcha" moments and the visible collapse of witnesses, when the real importance may lie in the micro-details of answers given. Remember, these inquiries are not over.

More generally, the select committees have amassed more power and respect in the year or so since they resumed operations after the election.

The Treasury Committee has acquired a vet over the hiring and firing of the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the watchdog tasked with validating the Chancellor's economic projections and the Public Administration Committee persuaded a nominee to head the UK Statistics Authority to withdraw, with its chair, Bernard Jenkin remarking pointedly that "there was a perception it was the regulated choosing the regulator".

This kind of thing is clearly going to happen more frequently. As is searing criticism of Government policy in committee reports - take a look at the output of the Public Accounts Committee or of the Defence Committee. Look at the role played by the Health Committee with the Health and Social Care Bill, or the critique of Big Society localism offered by the Communities Committee.

In the Chamber, term ended with the Prime Minister facing a long and gruelling interrogation over the hacking scandal - one which he survived pretty well, but which none the less signalled that it is still essential for senior ministers (and the Leader of the Opposition) to convince in the Chamber.

More generally, a combination of the new Backbench Business Committee facilitating debates on subjects MPs want to talk about, and the Speaker allowing many more urgent questions - and, memorably, the emergency debate on phone hacking - have created a much more vibrant Commons.

To be sure MPs are still members of political parties and mostly vote according to the party line. But there is far more sign of individual judgement being exercised along the way and the Government has to take account of that in advance.

On the other side of the building, the Lords is a pretty vibrant place, too. Peers have already fought one massive, if ultimately, fairly fruitless, battle over the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act.

They can be expected to take to the trenches again over elected police commissioners, over the Government's proposed health and welfare reforms and over the future of their own chamber. You may be in favour of these measures, or against them, but they are all big important subjects and deserve robust debate and scrutiny; and they're going to get them.

Mostly missing from the scene is the expenses issue which so dominated the last parliament. MPs now groan about IPSA, and press for it to exercise a lighter touch. But it will be pretty hard for any future freeloaders to help themselves to the kind of extraordinary perks enjoyed by earlier generations.

So I'm afraid, as I head off for my holidays, I'm going to indulge in a little optimism. A stronger Parliament is doing a better job. And that is a good thing for the country. Blogging will resume when Parliament resumes - and barring an emergency recall, that will be on 5 September.

Tories outspent Labour by £14.3m in election year

This is the stark news reported today by BBC News, using data from the Electoral Commission:
The Conservatives outspent Labour by nearly £15m in 2010, according to the Electoral Commission.

In the period, which includes the general election, the Conservatives spent £49.2m - some £6m more than they collected in income. Labour spent £34.9m, including £1.05 from the Co-operative Party, an affiliated organisation.

The Liberal Democrats spent just under £10m, with the SNP on £2.2m and Plaid Cymru on £932,708

The commission said it was considering whether to impose sanctions on the BNP after it failed to submit its accounts. The party - which is already facing financial difficulties - could be fined up to £20,000 for late submission under new powers handed to the commission to prevent abuses. The BNP has been given 28 days to file its 2010 accounts or provide a reasonable explanation for why they are late. The party was not available for comment.

The Christian Party also failed to submit its accounts by the deadline and faces similar sanctions.

Electoral Commission chairman Peter Wardle said: "This is not acceptable. We have commenced formal case reviews into the circumstances.

"If we are satisfied that the rules have been broken and the parties concerned do not have a reasonable excuse, we will use our new powers to impose sanctions in accordance with our published enforcement policy, to ensure future compliance with the law."

Both parties could also be issued with a compliance notice, demanding that they hand over all financial documentation and appoint an auditor, at their own expense, to examine them.

The BNP was criticised last year by the electoral watchdog for failing to keep a proper record of who was donating money to it - but it could not take any action at that stage as it lacked sufficient powers.

Twelve parties, with expenditure of more than £250,000 in 2010, have submitted their accounts to the Electoral Commission.

The Labour Party has seen donations from wealthy individuals all but dry up since Tony Blair stood down as its leader and is now mostly reliant on support from the trade unions.

Figures released in December showed that the Conservatives had spent twice as much as Labour on campaigning at last year's general election. The Conservatives spent £16.6m, less than their £17.8m outlay in 2005. Labour's expenditure more than halved from £17.9m in 2005 to £8m.
A £14.3m overspend and the Conservatives still couldn't win the election outright! These figures are also fraught with significance for the Labour Party and its leadership...

Monday, 11 July 2011

Mark Easton (BBC): Introducing Cameronism

Home Editor at BBC News Mark Easton has today submitted an interesting article "Introducing Cameronism":
I suspect every modern prime minister secretly wants to have their own "ism".

High honour indeed to have your name ism-ised, evidence that your ideas are radical and coherent enough to be classified as a distinct philosophy or school of thought.

People will have their own views about Thatcherism or Blairism (isms tend to divide opinion), but having a full Wikipedia entry - better still a reference in the OED - dedicated to one's political vision is truly to have made one's mark.

Majorism and Brownism are unconvincing stubs. History appears to have decided they may have re-upholstered the settee and scattered a few cushions but they didn't alter the feng shui of the room.

The current occupant of No 10 hopes today marks the unveiling of a convincing definition of Cameronism.

His Open Public Services paper is less a policy document and more an attempt to join the dots of domestic reform into a coherent whole.

"The reason for having a paper is that, though it won't be packed with policies, we need to try and change the culture so that people can see there is a consistent line of thought," he told me at a briefing in the cabinet room in No 10 last week.
Easton goes on to explore some of the main tenets of emergent "Cameronism", namely, 'upside down accountability' and affirming the importance of private sector profit... Worth a read for insight into developing Conservative party ideology, as represented by the Tory leader.