Whither Coalition?

Labour Party

Following yesterday’s blog which showed that hung parliaments and coalition governments are not the rare species in these islands that so many politicians and commentators seem to believe, the time has now come to move on from academic analysis.

I have been absolutely entranced by the past four days of negotiation.  Not being part of any inside track, I have had to make do with the television to which I have been glued, Evostick fashion, since Thursday night.  Tearing myself away to come to Brussels yesterday was a real wrench, and I spent the evening in front of the BBC website, the nearest thing I was able to find to rolling UK news.

As I am sure is the case for many friends and colleagues, I have my own hopes and fears for the outcome of this extraordinary process.  Obviously I don’t want the Tories anywhere near power.  Indeed, if there is anything this election has demonstrated it’s that there are two very clear political philosophies in Britain, one to what we have come to call the right and one to the left, one regressive and backward looking favouring wealth and the other going forward seeking to bring fairness and justice into our lives.

Sadly throughout the last century the progressive side of politics was split Liberal-Labour, Labour-Liberal, Labour-SDP/Liberal and finally Labour-Liberal Democrat.  It was this division that allowed Margaret Thatcher to lead the most partisan government since the Second World War which forced record levels of unemployment decimating swathes of industrial Britain.  As if this were not enough we saw the introduction of the poll tax, the first flat rate tax since the 18th century not based on ability to pay.  There were, of course, many more affronts to natural justice too numerous to list.

We now have the chance to end the right wing hegemony once and for all.  Previous Labour governments have self evidently not achieved this.  It was not until the Blair years that Labour won three general elections on its own, a rare blip brought about by a popular leader blessed with a strong economy.  The 2010 general election was, I fear, a return to business as usual with the forces of progress split as they have been from Lloyd George onwards. 

It has always seemed obvious to me that there is one straightforward way to put this right: a proportional voting system which would give political parties seats in the House of Commons reflecting their party’s share of the vote.  We should never forget that in 1983 Thatcher received 42.3 per cent of the popular vote as against a combined Labour-SDP/Liberal total of 53 percent.  The percentage of the votes in 1987 was uncannily similar – 42 per cent for Thatcher with Labour and the Lib/SDP on 53.5 per cent.

Since the 1980s we have also seen the rise of the nationalist parties plus the odd Green/Independent, another indication that politics is moving away from what used to be viewed as comforting certainties.

Given that Britain now stands at an historic crossroads, I think it would be absolutely criminal, a gross insult to the people of Britain, not to pursue an historic Labour-LibDem coalition with proportional representation at its heart.  Labour should go all out to secure an agreement with the Liberal Democrats to give the British people the opportunity to get what they vote for.  In this election the votes cast were 36 per cent for the Tories, 29 percent Labour and 23 percent Liberal Democrat, a clear 52 per cent mandate for a Labour-Liberal Democrat progressive alliance. 

Working in Europe I perhaps don’t have some of the reservations about coalitions felt by many in the UK.  I am also used to negotiation and compromise in the European Parliament.  I truly believe it’s a better way to go about business than Britian’s adversarial system.  Bring on the new politics.

Lewisham West Campaign Launch

Labour Party

I was very happy to attend the launch of the general election campaign in Lewisham West last Friday.  As a  former Lewisham resident and Labour Party activist in Deptford, I always enjoy returning to my old stamping ground.

Lewisham West MP Jim Dowd was very much in evidence – it is, after all, his election.  I was especially pleased to see the Mayor of Lewisham Sir Steve Bullock, an old friend I have known for rather more years than I care to remember.

The guest speaker, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, put up a strong performance, as ever.  It was particularly good to see David since, as Minister for Higher Education he is one of the members of the government I have worked with on a regular basis.

My thanks to Lewisham West Labour Party for their hospitality, and the very best of luck to Jim.  I somehow think he will get back to the House of Commons without too much difficulty.

Westminster North Candidate gets on with people – shock!

Labour Party

I see that the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Westminster North Joanne Cash has resigned as candidate.

It is not for me to speculate as the Daily Mail and Conservative Home have done as to why Joanne is no longer a candidate.

My London office is in the same building as the constituency office of pictured Karen Buck Labour MP for Regents Park and Kensington North (there are boundary changes and a new name for the seat). I can exclusively reveal that Karen gets on famously with her party workers, indeed it is not going too far to say that many of them love her (politically of course). Karen has an excellent close working relationship with her constituency Chair Nilavra Mukerji. I confess I do not know which school her husband Barrie went to, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t Eton.

Karen unites all strands of views in her local Labour Party and has all her Parliamentary staff working in her constituency office not the House of Commons.

Having campaigned on many occasions in her seat both with and without Karen I know that her constituents appreciate all her work and that they can bump into her on the bus or tube.

I will be supporting Karen’s next fundraiser on 24th February. Contact me if you would like details of how to support one of the hardest working MPs, and ensure she returns to Westminster at the General Election.

On the Road to Fair Votes

Labour Party

Last year at Labour Party Conference, when Gordon Brown promised a referendum on changing the voting system, specifically holding a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV), I was absolutely delighted.  Today the Guardian provided this very helpful demonstration of how AV would work.

My twenty- five years of struggling to get even the very idea of fair votes for the House of Commons recognised seemed at last to be getting somewhere.  When you’re involved in what is often seen as a minority, not to say geeky, campaign it’s sometimes hard to keep your sprits up.  But we have, and we’re finally winning through.

Going that crucial step further, Gordon’s announcement in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) yesterday that the referendum will be held in October 2011, was the next thing electoral reformers wanted to hear.  The Prime Minister has now said he will have a referendum, a pledge he will, I believe, do everything he can to honour.  It is now up to Gordon to find the parliamentary time before the expected Easter dissolution.

I understand that some Conservative co-operation may be required to make such time available.  However, Gordon has to come out on top on this one.  Having made such a public commitment, he really must see it through and get the law setting the date for a referendum passed before the general election in order that his target date for the referendum of October 2011 may be met.

Gordon has made it clear that the referendum would be restricted to whether to stick with first past the post or to move to the alternative vote.  There are, I know, those among electoral reform campaigners who think AV is not proportional enough.  I think we must embrace Gordon Brown’s initiative as the only change we are likely to get in the foreseeable future.  It may not go as far as we would like, but it’s much better than first past the post.

We must also all be aware that our opponents do not like PR.  Since there is little that is fair in Tory social policy, it is hardly surprising they don’t want fair votes.  Quoted in yesterday’s Guardian, William Hague showed his usual lack of imagination: “It’s not the voting system that needs changing, it’s this weak and discredited prime minister. New politics needs a new government.”

Things are very different in the Labour Cabinet.  Ed Balls, the schools secretary, is a supporter of AV, as is Home Secretary Alan Johnson, John Denham, the communities secretary, Peter Hain, Welsh secretary, Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell, and, last but not least, Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary.

Though the introduction of AV is the most important policy demanding immediate action, Gordon’s speech yesterday did not stop there.  He also announced that he wants a written constitution by 2015, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta; a right for constituents to recall MPs if found guilty of corruption: a draft bill introducing a mainly elected Lords; and approval for local government reforms, entitled Total Place, that he said could produce £15bn of savings. He also said he supported votes at 16, but gave no commitment to put the proposal in the Labour manifesto.

I believe constitutional reform is important for its own sake.  Britain is the only country in Europe which does not have a proportional electoral system for its upper house.  On the other hand, I remain to be convinced that a package of changes to the way parliament and other representative institutions are elected will achieve very much in restoring people’s trust in politics, except perhaps for the measure to recall corrupt MPs.  Gordon Brown is setting out a vision for a modern democracy.  As the only real modern, progressive Party in Britain, Labour members have, I believe, a profound duty to support our Prime Minister in this crucially important task.

The Tories cannot overcome their problems with Europe

Labour Party

You will remember that on Friday I posted a report on the Tripartite Lords, Commons and European Parliament meeting held the day before.  I deliberately didn’t mention any of the names of those present, but nevertheless tried to give a rounded account of what transpired.

One thing I didn’t mention and decided to leave for later was a very significant comment by one of the Lords present.  He (all except one of the peers present were male) made the obvious and strikingly simple point that were the Tories ever to form a government they would have to engage with the European Union. Britain is, after all, a fully paid up member and has been for over 30 years.

Were there to be a Conservative government, they would have no option other that to take part in the Council of Ministers.  Government Ministers would have to go to the Council Ministerial meetings. If they failed to attend Britain would be left completely out in the cold.  Not going to Council meetings would mean the government could not stand up for Britain’s interests, surely a very grave dereliction of duty.  Again, I am not going to divulge the name of the Lord who put forward this view, except to say he has been a leading Conservative and therefore speaks with some weight.  However, what he said is not rocket science.  The Tories would have no choice but to be present in the EU and do their best for us, the British people.

This again shows the complete madness of Tory policy on Europe.  They are trying to be neither one thing nor the other.  On the one hand, the Tories do not want to withdraw completely from the EU while on the other they think they can change EU agreements to suit their own agenda.  As I have said many times before, renegotiation of the treaties and agreements is a non-starter.  All of these were closely fought before being signed by all the EU member states.  Given this, it seems extremely unlikely that any, let alone a majority, of EU countries would be willing even to contemplate tearing up what already exists just to placate one particular member state. 

The fact that the Tories had huge difficulties setting up the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group in the European Parliament shows, I believe, just how marginalised they have become in Europe.  The Tories have, as I understand it, lost support from Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy as well as other centre-right governments in Europe.  In all honesty, I really cannot see any way in which they would be able to get enough agreement from enough of the 27 EU member states to change any of the EU treaties. 

This leaves the option of withdrawing completely from the EU.  This, at least, would be an honest policy and is now achievable as the Lisbon Treaty allows countries to leave the EU.  However, it appears Cameron doesn’t want to go down this route. The Tories are stuck with their impossible promises. In all seriousness, would you put your trust in a political party whose leaders are so obviously muddled on a topic as important as Britain’s role in Europe?


Labour Party

If I hear or read one more time that disaster in the European elections will severely compromise Gordon Brown’s premiership I will probably hit someone (or preferably something).  These Euro elections are not about Gordon Brown, Labour in the Houses of Parliament or even the forthcoming general election.  They are about the European Parliament.

Having done what I consider to be a good job here for the last nine years, I get angry when it is all reduced to Gordon Brown’s leadership and Labour’s hypothetical showing in a general election which could be a whole year away.  What happens in the European Parliament actually does matter.  This is the only sensible way to explain the enduring Tory euroscepticism and the anti-EU stance taken by many of our national newspapers.  After all, why bother with something which doesn’t matter?

For the record, since 2000, the year I took up my seat following the resignation of Pauline Green, former Leader of the Socialist Group, I have been actively involved in, amongst other things, the following important legislation and campaigns:

  • Reducing mobile phone charges when calling other EU countries
  • Increasing broadband access to individual homes
  • Allocating radio spectrum fairly
  • Privatising metro and light rail services
  • Standardising the times the clocks change across Europe on a permanent basis 
  • Improving pension provision
  • Reducing pollution from cars
  • Drawing up contingency plans to deal with bird flu
  • Legislating for equality between men and women at the workplace, including outlawing sexual harassment
  • Collating statistics on the gender pay gap
  • Campaigning to stop the trafficking of women and children
  • Supporting the EU Daphne programme which provides money to combat violence against women
  • Producing a directory of women MEPs 
  • Improving maternity provision in the EU
  • Introducing Europarl TV
  • Legislating on better safeguards on television advertising
  • Playing a full part in the accession of Cyprus to the EU as a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee

This is not a full list – these are only the most important of the issues I have been directly involved in, either as a rapporteur or shadow rapporteur on a report, or in a particular campaign;  it does not include routine committee work.  All my Labour MEP colleagues will have as full, if not fuller, lists of the work they have done.  Just like MPs, MEPs also have a full post bag from their constituents.

This is what the European elections are really about.  Since over half of the laws in the UK originate in the EU, European elections deserve to be taken seriously.  It’s not about Gordon Brown at all, it’s really about you.