That Old Chestnut

David Cameron has a nerve. Not only has he U-turned over his pledge in opposition to hold a referendum over the UK’s terms of membership of the European Union, but today he had the temerity to force Nicolas Sarkozy to back down and accept his presence at key Eurozone talks to try to deal with the Greek debt crisis on Wednesday.

Once again, only one year into the new government, a Conservative prime minister is becoming about as stable on Europe as Edwina Currie is on her feet. We all know deep down he is a staunch Euro-sceptic, so why doesn’t he have the guts to come out and be frank with the British people, and say that he would love us to turn our backs on our continental partners, but that he also loves us to lecture and patronise them on economic policy, despite the fact that UK growth is anaemic at best, and backwards at worst, thanks to his policies.

A referendum on EU membership now would of course be absurd, but having called for one in opposition, the PM should stick to his guns and create a disunited and discredited government, and do us all a favour by breaking up the coalition and triggering a general election. You can’t have your bun and eat it, and you can’t be half in, half out, of the EU – leaving the Eurozone (or more accurately, Germany) to do all the hard work and then turning up to talks this week to act as one of the key players while facing a referendum proposal at home from your own backbenchers is hypocritical and downright embarrassing for Britain.

It was Ed Miliband, incidentally, who called on Cameron to give up his trip Down Under and attend the meeting, therefore whether or not you agree that Cameron has a right to be there, it is clear that the Labour leader is ahead of the curve on this one, as he was on phone hacking and as he was at PMQs this week.

It might sound like a cheap shot from the comforts of opposition – and we all know Blair and Brown disagreed over the Euro – however it is clear that yet again the Tories are divided over Europe. Europhile or Europhobe, this is one of the few reliable constants of the European project.


9/11 Ten Years On, Coalition Politics and Blood Donation

9/11 – A Warning from Recent History

For someone of the age of the current crop of Labour Students, it is particularly difficult to believe that it is ten years tomorrow since the lives of millions were changed forever on September 11th, 2001. Most of us were still in primary school at the time, and it is perhaps apt that our generation – one that was constantly told we were growing up too fast – had our innocence of the world around us robbed so suddenly on that bright Tuesday morning. Hearing and seeing the images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center still transfixes all of us, and as much as we might want to look away having seen enough, we can’t quite bring ourselves to stop watching.

However it is our generation – the 9/11 generation – who will be the politicians and headline-makers of the coming years, and if anything good can come of the last decade, it is surely the lesson  that those in power have a responsibility not to overreact when faced with such onslaughts. Our party’s most successful leader (in electoral terms) no doubt had good intentions, but made the grave error of marching the troops gung-ho into an unplanned and illegal war, probably creating a whole new generation of terrorists in the process, while at home him and those around him were complicit in eroding many of the freedoms we were meant to be protecting, including detention without charge and freedom from torture. If the horror of terrorism reaches us again, we must pause and assess the causes before acting. The same rule should apply for other crises, like the riots this summer.

Backbench Tories Have Nothing To Worry About

Today is the final day of the Plaid Cymru autumn conference in Llandudno, north Wales. The outgoing leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, made his final conference speech yesterday after an electoral drubbing for the nationalist party in the Welsh Assembly elections in May. Unlike in Scotland, where the SNP have been successful, he argued that coalition government in Cardiff Bay (of which Plaid was the junior party) meant Plaid’s achievements in government were smothered by Labour, and that the party was punished by voters for not claiming credit for them.

Aside from the fact that Plaid achieved very little in government in a time of economic turmoil other than a referendum with poor turnout which managed to bore even political anoraks, their experience in coalition should serve as a lesson to Westminster politics. This week Tory backbenchers, angry over law and order, Europe and abortion, moaned that the Lib Dem ‘tail’ was wagging the Tory ‘dog’ and that Nick Clegg was being given too many concessions by the Prime Minister. However come the election in 2015, the Tories will have nothing to worry about, as the voters are likely to give them sole credit for any successes – particularly if the economy picks up (not a given considering Osborne’s slash-and-burn approach) – and they will certainly not be looking to make some sort of permanent alliance with the Lib Dems, contrary to what some commentators are predicting. The coalition dog will probably have his tail docked when the voters are next given a choice.

About Bloody Time

This week the ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood for life in Britain was finally overturned (although you’d be forgiven for not noticing the leap forward because the BBC thought Strictly Come Dancing was more important on the news bulletins that night). This is a triumph that equality campaigners have been working tirelessly for for years, and at last gay men will be able to save lives and help tackle the urgent need for more donors. No more will the official policy imply that gay men cannot be trusted to practice safe sex and ‘probably have HIV’.

Although the ban was only replaced with a one-year time lag since a donor’s last encounter, it is still progress, and puts us more in line with the situation in similar countries.

The AV result

02.05.2011: Martin Rowson on the electoral reform vote

First off. I’d like to point that I respect the decision of the people of Britain in a resounding ‘No’ vote to AV. It’s a shame further electoral reform has been buried for a century, but I’m not a Lib Dem so I’ll get over it. But, I would like to explain why ‘No’ won.

The primary reason for a ‘No’ victory was Clegg’s insistence in holding the referendum on the same day as local elections across England, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Irish Assembly elections. Because of this the people regarded the referendum as one on Clegg rather than a change to the voting system, consequently, due to Clegg’s unpopularity the referendum could have never been won. The coinciding with the local elections was further capitalised on by the ‘No to AV’ campaign, blatantly spreading personal attacks on the Lib Dems and more specifically Clegg himself. Admittedly, I myself am not the Lib Dems biggest fan any more and the ‘Yes’ side was not perfect either in the campaigning, but the Tories completely refusing to discredit the personal attacks which only gave them legitimacy.

This was because the ‘No to AV’ campaign, despite all the publicity of its Labour supporters, was in effect another Tory ‘No to AV’ group and any attempt to deny this is just misguided. The ‘No to AV’ group was 90% funded by Conservative donors and famously in areas of London ‘Labour No to AV’ leaflets had to be withdrawn because of printing at the bottom that read “produced by the Conservative party”. The ‘No to AV’ campaign went even further down the line than merely personal attacks, they also went on a blatant lying spree with famously the £250 million and vote counting machines claim. The reason why we now no this was a blatant lie was because prominent Labour supporter of ‘No to AV’, David Blunket, actually admitted that the £250 million claim was a figure they plucked out of the air. Now while it was a blatant lie (coupled with the “If you vote Yes this baby/soldier will die” lie) it was an effective lie.

This then leads finally onto the effectiveness of the ‘Yes’ campaign which was nothing less than a shambles. There was no coherent and simple message to sell to the British people and their entire campaign group was made up of Lib Dems and a number of charities, with the former being only good at localised, targeted campaigns.

But anyway, electoral reform is now buried for another century, it was good while it lasted, but it’s time to move on.


To AV or not to AV? That’s not the Question…


So the eagerly awaited and oh-so exciting AV referendum is now in sight, with Ed Miliband today setting out the Labour leadership’s opinion on one side, and many other Labour MPs and party members saying why they will be rejecting the proposal on the other. It does seem that the party is split down the middle – not a great position for an opposition party reassembling itself after electoral defeat. Incidentally, it is perhaps not the most shining example of ‘new politics’ or maturity when our leader refuses to unite with Nick Clegg because of his new status as Public Enemy Number One – surely there would be less cynicism in the electorate if we as an opposition party took each issue exclusively, instead of pointing the finger at the Tuition Fees Bogeyman.

The arguments for or against the Alternative Vote aside (I’m personally in the ‘Yes’ camp for want of something marginally further down the road to Proportional Representation), what strikes me the most after the disheartening advertising tactics of the ‘No’ camp (I’m sure you’ve seen the baby-in-incubator and soldier billboards) is the lack of interest amongst the wider electorate. Today I asked a friend of mine whether he had yet considered which way he would vote, and the reply was that it would make no difference to the political scene, so why should he bother? I wanted to answer his rebuttal, but found to my horror that I couldn’t. Whether or not we stick with First Past the Post or adopt AV will have little bearing on electoral outcomes on a national scale, only at constituency level (where AV would make elections far more interesting, as those who witnessed the Guild election results will testify), therefore the best we can hope for is the lesser of two evils, while those running for office continue to make vacuous or downright deceptive pledges in their election manifestos e.g. the marketisation of the NHS and tuition fees.

The real question on the ballot paper should not be ‘AV vs FPTP’, nor even the far more deomcratic ‘AV vs FPTP vs AV+ vs STV vs AMS…’, but something which reads less like a mathematical formula and more like a choice between two fundamental democratic frameworks that disillusioned voters can really get their teeth into. We need a choice over whether or not we want to overhaul the House of Lords (a process which has thus far taken a century); whether or not we want to de-throne and de-robe the monarchy; whether or not we want to reduce the stranglehold of the elites over our economy; in short, whether or not we want a new constitution. That is not to say the previous government had a gleaming record on constitutional affairs, although devolution and removal of hereditary peers were a good start. But by throwing a bone for the Lib Dem poodle in the form of a paltry referendum on AV, the Tories have got away with it again, whichever way we vote on May 5th.

The case for AV

As I noticed on the BUCF blog today, they have made their position clear on the upcoming referendum, no guesses what side. Now this is the first nation-wide referendum since the 1975 referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EEC, but, BULS officially doesn’t have an opinion on the matter. Now unlike the Lib Dems Youth Society and BUCF, BULS is a far broader church in regards to electoral reform with all forms of voting being supported by individual members, FPTP, AV, AV+ and STV. However, I’m pleased to officially announce that this may well change, as on (probably) the 24th March BULS will have an internal debate and vote on the direction of support for the referendum with “Yes”, “No” and “Neither” being BULS’ final decision on the referendum (ironically using an AV system). This blog is where I’ll put the case for a “Yes” vote for BULS.

One of the great myths of AV is that it fails to produce strong and stable governments. If you look to Australia  and its AV system since 1910 there have been only two hung Parliaments, 1940 and 2010. Comparing this to the UK’s FPTP system where we have had hung Parliaments twice in 1910, 1929, February 1974 and 2010, not to forget almost hung Parliaments in 1950, 1964 and October 1974. While in Canada where they also use FPTP, there are more less permanent hung Parliaments.

The second is that people who vote for minor parties get two votes, which simply fails to acknowledge one of the simple aspects of AV. Candidates who are eliminated also have any first preference votes they received eliminated also. So no, people can’t vote twice.

And thirdly is that AV is not tried and tested unlike FPTP. For those in the “No” camp from the Tory party who fail to remember that AV (or at least a similar form of it) was used in the 2005 leadership election and if FPTP had been used, David Davis would have been elected leader of the Conservative party. AV is also used to elect people in charities, businesses, trade unions and even MPs electing their speaker. Hypocrisy is consequently laid bare for some politicians and political party members who oppose the referendum.

AV represents a change to end tactical voting, MPs appealing to a narrow section of their constituents and wasted votes. I’ll be voting “Yes” on March the 24th and May the 5th, I hope you can do the same on at least the latter.


p.s. This is my 200th blog(!) making ‘Ramsay’s F Word’ the largest single category on the BULS website!