Sixteen and Seventeen Year Olds should vote in the EU Referendum

Labour Party

I was gratified to see that the Prime Minister has conceded that the House of Commons should vote on whether 16 and 17 year olds should be eligible to vote in the referendum on EU membership.

He is, of course, personally opposed to extending the franchise for the EU vote, notwithstanding the fact that this group voted in the referendum on whether Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom.

As we know, Cameron’s argument is that the vote on EU membership should be done on the same basis as that used for general elections. Although such an arrangement would clearly favour the Conservatives, it is difficult to understand his logic, particularly in the light of the extension of the franchise for Scotland. The EU referendum is not a political party contest as such. It is rather a vote by the British people about an issue of vital importance to them.

Research published today examining the potential voting patterns of 16-17 year olds in Scotland, revealed that two thirds would have voted in the general election had they had the opportunity to do so. Young people are engaged in politics. The fact that turn out in the 18 – 25 year old group is low in general elections says more about traditional politics in our country than young people’s attitudes towards their lives, how they are governed and what they care about.

Many 16 and 17-year-olds are entering the world of work whether it is part time or full time; they are expected to pay taxes, contribute to national insurance, they are allowed to start a family, fight for their country live independently and get a mortgage. In other words they are allowed to participate in almost all areas of civic social and economic life and are treated as, and have the same responsibilities as, adults yet they are not allowed to participate in political life beyond supporting a political party.

The referendum in Scotland generated immense enthusiasm, the like of which has not been seen for a long time in elected politics. If the EU vote generates anything like the liveliness seen in Scotland that, in itself, will be a victory.

Britain outside the EU would be much diminished. We rely on the European Parliament for not only our trade but also our place in the world.

Let’s be truly democratic and give 16 and 17 years olds a vote on their future.


Liberal-Democrats dither over increasing female MPs

Labour Party

Now that the Liberal-Democrats have gone back to their constituencies to prepare for whatever coalition they think may give them some chance of being in government, this blog will use one post to review their performance.

The only item of real substance was Ed Davey’s call for more female Lib-Dem MPs. The party’s current standing – only 12% of its MPs are women – is pitiful, even compared to the generally low bar set by the British Parliament (which is only 22% female). Davey said it was “not good enough”. For a so-called progressive party the figures must be particularly galling. Even the world of finance – hardly a pioneering sector on these types of issue – does better than the Lib-Dems, with directors at UK banks now 20% female.

As a champion of gender equality in politics I would love to see more women across the British political parties. But unfortunately the Lib Dems’ lukewarm reaction to all-women shortlists does not fill me with hope. Minister for Care Norman Lamb, who purports to be an advocate of more women, nevertheless said he was “not very keen” on the policy. Others in the party complained that all-women shortlists would be undemocratic, by taking power away from constituency parties, and a survey found that the idea was deeply unpopular among Lib Dem activists.

Fears of positive discrimination or ‘tokenism’ make people wary of all-women shortlists. But the policy helped Labour, whose MPs are now 31% female, without detracting from the calibre of its candidates. And the European Parliament does even better, with 34% of MEPs now female. As several studies show, diversity drives standards up, not down.

The current 4:1 ratio of men to women in the UK Parliament is unacceptable. And the idea that quotas for women means a lower quality of candidate really doesn’t wash unless you think men are four times as equipped as women to run the country.

So how do we change this? Well, in my view concrete action rather than big talk is what is required. We need more all-women shortlists which have been proved to have an impact on the number of women in politics.

Unfortunately for the Lib Dems decisive steps of this kind seem to run counter to the laissez-faire ethos of the party. As a result I fear that very little will change for them in the immediate future, and they will continue to lag behind rather than lead the gender equality debate.


The House of Lords with 792 members is in urgent need of reform

Labour Party

It has always been a mystery to me how Britain can claim to be a modern, twentieth-century democracy and have its parliament’s second chamber chosen by prime ministerial patronage. The only other country with an appointed second chamber is Canada, based on the British tradition.

 Every other democracy with a second chamber elects its members. As a parliamentarian, I find it difficult to accept that Britain is so behind in this matter. Other European countries either have no second chamber or one that is either directly or, as in the case of the French senate, indirectly elected.

Even those countries which, like Britain, have undergone minimal disruption by war or revolution throughout their history have managed to come to a democratic conclusion. Sweden has a unicameral system as does Denmark; both countries evolved peacefully towards this state.

 Yet Britain is unable to get anywhere with this thorny problem. Members of the upper house who gained their place by heredity lasted far too long. Now we have a truly messy mish-mash of appointees who got there by virtue of their relationship with the prime minister. Just to add to the mix, there are also 26 Church of England bishops whose status is a historical remnant of the landed wealth of the medieval church.

There is no way the current state of affairs can be viewed as an edifying way to run a country. Indeed, I am reminded of those robber barons who came to England with William the Conqueror and were rewarded with tracts of the English countryside, not to mention royaly dispensed titles. The current situation whereby the 21st century equivalent of William the First’s cohorts gain advantage is the same in principle, if not in practice. A second chamber appointed by the prime minister is positively feudal, its antecedents brought into sharp relief by the strange costume peers wear for formal events and the Lords’ quaint customs.

The powers of the House of Lords are almost as murky as its composition. While it can certainly influence government, its real role is to scrutinise legislation. Yet this is constantly under threat as successive prime ministers seek to pack the Lords with their own place men and women. Tony Blair created 162 Labour peers while David Cameron has already appointed 47  Conservatives. The result of prime ministerial attempts to neuter the Lords is that the upper house now has 792 members, compared to 650 for the House of Commons (probably to be reduced to 600) and a mere 754 for the European Parliament.

The case for reform of the second chamber is, I believe, irrefutable. As ever, the current debate is being dragged down by various vested interests, namely the Lords themselves, those in government who find the present set-up to their advantage, Tory right-wing Eurosceptics who bizarrely think a referendum on Lords reform can also be a referendum on EU membership together with woolly well-wishers who respect the peers who are experts in their field. There are, of course, also those who think the current economic malaise makes this a bad time to introduce constitutional change.

The debate about the powers of the second chamber strikes me as a rather clever red herring. The argument that an elected second chamber would challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons is both arcane and obstructive. Of the 13 countries in the EU which have second chambers, four of these are directly elected. Interestingly three of the four are in former Communist countries. These three and the other, Spain, all seem to manage quite well, as does the United States, home to the world’s most high-profile dual camera system.

The United Kingdom, or at least its constituent parts, are old and proud nations. Our distinctive customs and ways of doing things should, of course, be preserved when they are beneficial.  However, we must learn when to let go of the past. Reforming the House of Lords to make it a modern, elected second chamber is well overdue. Achieving this would be a credit to our country both now and for a long time into the future.

Fiona Bruce – women in the home, not in the news.

Labour Party

Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton, has tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill going through parliament designed to “encourage marriage”. This particular nuptial inducement would mean that any non-employed spouse would be able to transfer their non-taxable allowance to their partner and thereby reduce their overall tax bill.

Once again we see this Tory-led coalition pursuing its particular version of right-wing ideology. Ms Bruce’s amendment does not simply encourage marriage, it encourages a specific type of marriage, one in which there is an unemployed partner. Fundamentally, this is a bill to encourage marriage where the woman is a housewife. This category applies to fewer and fewer women these days not only because we now live in times where generally two incomes are needed but because the vast majority of women chose to work and thereby lead a multi-dimensional life. This amendment would penalise them for making this choice.

At a time of national stringency it does not appear prudent to reduce the tax for those couples who can already afford for one partner not to work. Indeed, the Lib Dems have a point when saying that it is far more important to increase the taxable limit for all as a means to improving living standards, rather than doubling it only for those who happen to have an economically inactive spouse.

What is more, this amendment penalises married women who work and therefore contribute economically, which is something this government professes to encourage. It also seems odd that Tories believe it is ok to encourage married women to stay at home while insisting that single mothers must work for their keep (and heaven forbid they try to ask for money from an absent partner). 

Fiona Bruce’s amendment is simply a misguided attempt to reinstate the family values of yesteryear in spite of all of the evidence that this is neither economically or socially prudent nor in the best interests of women.

Addressing Fulbright Scholars

Labour Party

I was delighted to have the opportunity to address the American academics and scholars of the US-UK Fulbright Commission at the House of Commons. I followed Liam Byrne MP who gave a strong defence of Labour’s economic record.

Some parts of my work in the European Parliament can be difficult to explain. As a London representative with very few farms in my constituency, it is even harder to explain why 40% of the Budget still goes on agriculture. The Common Agricultural Policy still requires reform, and a reduction of the amount of money that is spent on it.

I talked about matters that regular readers of this blog will be familiar with women, culture and also how the European Parliament relates to the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. Somewhat different to the American system the audience were familiar with.

I was followed by Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon. Caroline commented about how Mayor of London Boris Johnson was inattentive at times in Mayor’s Question Time, noting that at over 2 hours long this gave an opportunity for a detailed examination of the work of the Mayor. She detailed the work of her colleagues on transport and how this had helped keep buses going through the recent bad weather.

The group were due to undertake a study visit to Cornwall, so I asked them to look out for Blue Flag beaches to observe an example of European environmental legislation in action. To provide an introduction Conservative Cornish MP for St Austell and Newquay Stephen Gilbert came to address the meeting. He talked about the weather, explaining how important this was to the British people as a conversational topic. He got the groups attention by revealing he had dated a Fulbright scholar.

We received a challenging set of questions about tiers of government, how coalition partners worked at different levels of government and the success of the congestion charge and how this could be applied to American cities.

My thanks to Penny Egan and her team, for all their work in putting the event together.

David Miliband talks Sense on the Alternative Vote

Labour Party

As you know I am a supporter of changing our outdated first past the post voting system to something more proportional and fairer.  I therefore think it’s a good idea to have a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system.  I am, however, totally opposed to the Coalition’s proposal to reduce the number of House of Commons seats to 600, which I, along with many others,  view as gerrymandering for the benefit of the Tories.  Putting the AV referendum and reducing the number of seats in one bill is quite shocking, a blatant bribe to get Lib-Dem MPs to vote for the reduction in seats.

Steve Richards excellent interview with David Miliband in the Independent newspaper (the whole piece is worth reading) says it all:

“Labour’s possible next leader has a direct message for Nick Clegg on electoral reform: “I am strongly in favour of the Alternative Vote, but if the Liberal Democrats want AV they are going about it very oddly. Let us be clear. They need Labour to be in favour of it, yet they support a package that includes other constitutional changes being rushed through to help the Conservatives. It’s student politics and not clever politics. If Liberal Democrats want electoral reform they should think very carefully about supporting amendments to the legislation that we are putting forward. Remember we want AV to succeed and there are Tories who oppose electoral reform who are rubbing their hands about the way the Liberal Democrats have gone about this … if we want AV, which I do, we have to find a way around this.”

My thoughts exactly and demonstrates why David Miliband is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party.

It is a mistake to try and derail the referendum on AV

Labour Party

There are those in the Labour Party who seem to be siding with the Tory 1922 Committee in opposing holding the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) on May 5 next year, the same day as local elections and the polls for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.  Quoted in the Guardian, Jack Straw said he would support a referendum on AV because it was in the Labour General Election manifesto, but he told Radio 4’s World at One: “There is an issue about the date. We have got to think about this.”

As far as I’m concerned, the Labour Party promised a referendum on AV in its manifesto and having promised this we must want to make sure that the referendum is won.  I would have thought this is the correct and logical point of view, even though the referendum vote will be put forward by the Tory-Lib-Dem Government.

I have never understood why the Liberal-Democrats in the coalition talks with the Tories agreed that the Conservatives could campaign against the AV referendum.  Until the 2010 General Election electoral reform was the defining policy of the Lib-Dems, a hallowed principle they have now all but thrown away in their rush to government.  The Lib-Dems shamefully gave in and accepted that in the campaign for the vote on the AV referendum they will have to fight the Conservative Party machine which will more than likely be aided and abetted by Ashcroft money.

It is sad to see there are those within Labour who want to take our Party in the same direction. While proportional representation for the House of Commons has never been one of Labour’s core beliefs, in the way it used to be for the Liberal-Democrats, we did put AV in the 2010 manifesto. We should therefore honour this commitment.

Honouring our promise to hold a referendum on AV means doing all we can to win the referendum.  Anything else, such opposing moves to hold the referendum vote at an electorally advantageous time, i.e. at the same time as other polls, is mere talk.  In fact it’s worse than that, it’s saying one thing and doing another – hypocrisy in other words.

Reforming the UK’s archaic voting system for the House of Commons was always going to be just about the most difficult of the Coalition’s pledges to implement.

There are those MPs (generally Conservative but, I am sorry to say, Labour as well) who get very worked up about anything they perceive as upsetting their chances of re-election, and see first past the post (FPTP) as their best bet.  This is hardly surprising since every single Westminster MP was elected under FPTP, though the lack of imagination and willingness to embrace change is disheartening.

Meanwhile the House of Commons is the only lower house of any national parliament in Europe to elect its members by first past the post.  Every other European country uses a system of proportional representation or alternative vote.  They all recognise that a system where every vote cast actually counts is fairer and delivers a result which better reflects the views of the majority of the electorate.

I want Britain to catch up.  There is movement now to start serious modernisation of our political system.  It would be quite unforgivable if Labour MPs prevented us moving forward.

One final word of warning.  Supporting a referendum on AV does not under any circumstances signal agreement to the Tories’ iniquitous proposal to reduce the number of Westminster constituencies.  This is cynical manipulation to get more Conservative MPs.  Introducing AV, on the other hand, is a principled policy to change our voting system to something fairer and would be a long overdue reform. I’m sure we will be able to make this distinction clear in any future discussions and campaigns.  I for one intend to support AV and work for a yes vote in any future referendum while strongly opposing a reduction in the number of constituencies.

Cameron supports changes to the Lisbon Treaty, but where is the promised referendum?

Labour Party

It seems David Cameron is prepared to renege on his election promise to put all changes to EU treaties to a referendum in the UK.

In a speech to the House of Commons following his first meeting of the European Council,  made up of the prime ministers and presidents of the 27 EU Member States, Mr Cameron was full of bravado about not letting any agreement ‘alter member state competences’ .  However, despite quoting Margaret Thatcher,  in reality Cameron is supporting Germany’s desire to make changes to the Lisbon Treaty in the wake of the financial crisis and the problems caused by the situation in Greece.  If these treaty changes are to go forward, where, Mr Cameron, is your treasured referendum? 

David Cameron also supported the EU 2020 Strategy and Millennium Development Goals in his speech to MPs.  I found this a little strange since, as Harriet Harman rightly pointed out in her response, Conservative MEPs have either abstained or voted against these measures in the European Parliament.  Cameron didn’t even have a response, deciding instead, rather pathetically, to say that he would be keeping an eye on the Labour and Lib Dem MEPs.  I wonder what the Tories’ coalition partners made of this.

Following George Osborne’s deeply damaging budget, David Cameron’s antics in Europe add depth and context to the picture of the Coalition Government which is beginning to emerge, an image of a Conservative Party that really does not know what it is doing over some of the most important issues currently facing us.

Part of me almost feels sorry for David Cameron.  He must have been a lonely figure in Brussels last week.  Seeing the leaders of centre right parties from across Europe meeting before the European Council summit in order to discuss strategy, whilst he was left to ‘strategise’ with one far right Polish MEP.  That is price you pay for isolating yourself from the biggest political grouping in European politics (the European Peoples’ Party) and allying yourself with the far-right, eurosceptic fringe.  Sarkozy and Merkel gave an impressive press conference afterwards, detailing the decsions reached in the summit.  Not too long ago, the British Prime Minister would have been standing right beside them.  Not now.

There was a telling moment in the debate in the House of Commons where one of Cameron’s own MPs (William Cash) asked a question regarding the “30 European directives in the pipeline which will deeply affect our financial regulation and economic governance” and questioned how we might regain and retain control over economic issues.  David Cameron could only rather weakly respond that the European Parliament had made things ‘a lot more burdensome’ and that it was ‘not a satisfactory situation’.  Now I happen to think that these financial regulations are necessary, but perhaps Cameron’s political position would be a good deal more ‘satisfactory’ if they could actually engage and influence European politics.  Cameron needs to realise that euroscepticism may win him the support of the back benches, but in Europe he’ll be left standing on the sidelines with the nutters, looking lonely and confused.

Con-Dems are disgraceful on Women’s Representation

Labour Party

Congratulations to Harriet Harman for maintaining her excellent campaigning on behalf of women.  We would never have expected anything less.  Even as acting Labour Party Leader Harriet continues the good work.

I very much agree with Harriet that half the Shadow Cabinet should be women.  Unlike the Liberal Democrats, a Party once proud to talk about gender equality, Labour increased its proportion of women MPs at the last election.  In the last Parliament 27 percent of Labour MPs were women; it’s now 31 percent.  Compare this to what has to be described as the Lib-Dem failure.  Their percentage of female MPs actually fell from 15 to 12 percent.

I really should mention the Tories, if only because someone will pick me up if I don’t.  Well, I have to admit that their proportion of women MPs actually went up, from an appalling nine per cent to a derisory 16 per cent.

So 12 per cent for the Lib-Dems and 16 per cent for the Tories.  The Con-Dem coalition is truly disgraceful on women’s representation.

As a result of this Con-Dem failure, the House of Commons itself looks bad by international comparisons.  The proportion of women in Britain’s national parliament is 22 percent.  The figure for female representaton in the German Bundestag is 33 percent, 42 percent in the Dutch parliament and 46 percent in Sweden.

Please get blogging!

Labour Party

I was very pleased to receive the following from my old friend Mee Ling Ng, one of the founders of Chinese for Labour.

Mee Ling has written this to Chinese for Labour members:

“The Government intends to reduce the number of MPs by 10% and yet create 100 new peers. Where is the democracy in this? The Main House [House of Commons] is the legislature and the second House [Lords] is the reforming chamber.  Surely, the Main House should have the primacy in keeping its numbers even though the Second House may move to a wholly elected one.

“This is another way the Tories are gerrymandering (i) the reduction of MPs plus redrawing constituency boundaries to even benefit them more and (ii) packing the second house with their own; thereby creating Tory domination in BOTH houses.”

Mee Ling goes on to say that we need to expose this with massive blogging. It is a blatant undermining of democracy via our parliamentary institutions!

All this talk of BIG Society – it is more like BIG TORY Government!