General Election

The X Factor, Boring Politics and the August Blog Hiatus

The casual passer-by to this page might reasonably conclude that I have been terribly lazy throughout the month of August. It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and there are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is the fact that my job (the one that pays the bills) is currently at full stretch with the height of the Cornish holiday season. I normally delight in telling people how easy my job is (loafing around behind the bar, making the odd sarcastic remark) but August is the month in which you could probably stretch it and say that I actually earn my money for once.

Of course, the traditional tourist rush isn’t the only reason I haven’t bothered to post here. As you will probably be aware, this blog is mostly (although not entirely) about politics, and the beauty of the free availability of blogging websites is that non-entities like me have every opportunity to vent spleen in a public forum about the poor misguided fools who aspire to run our lives.

The trouble is, after the General Election and the initial excitement of the first hung parliament in nearly forty years, politics has become rather dull again. The Coalition, while by its very nature containing some finely distilled elements of pure evil, is doing its best to be as insipid as possible. Pickles and Gideon only slither out infrequently, while even David Cameron seems to have temporarily parked the shrill, fat-faced toff act from the months leading up to the General Election. All of these things have served to keep my bile levels in a manageable state over these last few weeks. I can’t say this is a situation I entirely welcome.

The Labour Party haven’t helped matters much either. Their leadership election could have been a golden opportunity for a party, freed from the shackles of a long period in office, to capture the public imagination with an eye-catching and far-reaching debate over the future of the country and the role of the left. Fat chance. It’s been a bunch of dull people talking about dull things in a dull way. They could at least have organised some sort of nasty spat between a couple of the candidates but we haven’t even been given that pleasure. Deeply disappointing.

And so I find myself nearing the end of August with very little to write about. I can’t even summon any great sense of disgust about the return (tonight) of the single event that will over-shadow everything else for the next four months. I refer, of course, to the over-produced, overblown dung-polishing extravaganza that is the X-Factor. I wish it would make me mad, but I just don’t really care, to be honest. There’ll be bad auditions, heart-breaking back stories, manufactured spats between the judges, the annual assault on the Christmas Number One and the whole thing will be reported and tweeted about endlessly and watched by millions (although I won’t be one of them). But, to be honest, it’s part of the furniture now and Cowell’s dominance of the Christmas charts (Rage Against The Machine aside) at least spares us from Sir Cliff.

So I’m hoping that things will get back to normal before too long. Cameron, Gideon, Pickles et al will soon be back from their holidays (one pictures them all collectively attending some sort of giant reptile camp for the parliamentary recess) and my natural irritation levels will surely soar again. And who knows, the Labour Party might even do something hilarious and choose Ed Balls as their Leader. Here’s hoping…

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If you lie down with dogs…

If you lie down with dogs there’s a good chance you’re going to get up with fleas. With that in mind, I don’t suppose I should be in the least bit surprised at the nature of this week’s Budget, not least the inclusion of the Tories’ favourite tax, VAT.

I’m also fully aware of the nature of coalition. There are those who express surprise at the amount of Lib Dem election manifesto commitments which have either disappeared or been completely reversed, but I guess these people haven’t grasped the concept of being the junior partner in a coalition. The Tories have the lion’s share of the seats and so the government’s agenda is basically theirs with a few added Lib Dem bells and whistles (movement towards a £10,000 tax allowance, for example, or a referendum on limited voting reform).

But I still can’t get past the thought that the price of these noble policy aims has been to accept a regressive Budget from a Chancellor who clearly doesn’t give a damn about those less well off than himself (in other words, most of the rest of us). I deliberately didn’t post in the immediate afterscorch of the Budget for fear of bursting out with a purely emotional response to its provisions, but three days on and my view of it is pretty much the same.

I can accept some of the cuts for the simple reason that as a country we can’t simply keep on spending money we clearly don’t have. Contrary to what the Labour Party will tell you, running a massive deficit is not a progressive policy because someone will have to pay for it in the end and the longer we wait the more it will cost, both in terms of cash and public services. That said, there has to be a balance between controlling spending and making sure such cuts don’t damage the wider economy. I think the nature and timing of the cuts will put the economy at serious risk and that the coalition has taken this leap for ideological rather than pragmatic considerations.

Inevitably part of the ‘medicine’ comes in the form of increased taxation, but here is the most glaring case of Tory ideological fingerprints all over the Budget. (I know I’m running the risk of turning this blog into a continual rant about VAT but I really do believe it is a most unfair revenue-raiser which disproportionately punishes those who can least afford it.) I think I could probably have lived with much of the remainder of the Budget had the Chancellor looked towards Income Tax as his source of increased revenue, but that was never going to be on the cards. Throughout the campaign the guarded comments of both George Osborne and Alistair Darling can have left no one in any doubt that, whichever of them was Chancellor, they would look to VAT to balance the books. What has been surprising is how meekly the Lib Dems, who rightly spoke out against the tax during the election, have allowed the rise to 20% to be nodded through.

I can’t pretend I’m happy about the Budget (or the coalition for that matter) but none of that stops me being a Lib Dem, albeit on the progressive social democrat wing of the party. I’m also relieved to have an excellent local Lib Dem MP (Dan Rogerson) rather than a Tory alternative. I’m certainly not going to jump ship – Labour are, let’s not forget, the authoritarian, warmongering joke that helped get us all into this mess in the first place – but equally I have no intention of being an unquestioning apologist for the coalition. I will happily applaud them when they do well, and there is already much they can point to, particularly in the area of civil liberties. But I’m no longer prepared to stay silent when they indulge in the morally indefensible, as they did this week with Osborne’s Budget.

Ed Balls: dishonest or delusional?

Ed Balls is right. As he wrote on Thursday, an increase in VAT would be unfair to the poorest and damaging to jobs and the economy, and the coalition will be making a big mistake if George Osborne’s budget includes such an increase.

Balls has said, in an email to Labour Party members, that “Raising VAT is hugely unfair. The VAT rise will hit the poorest households harder than the richest and will hit pensioner couples and ordinary families hardest of all. It is simply not right.” His parliamentary question, tabled ahead of the Budget, asking for the distributional impact of a VAT rise is a smart political move which gets to the very heart of why VAT is wrong, and his stance on this issue has helped to set him aside from the other candidates in the Labour leadership contest.

But does he honestly think that if his great mentor, Gordon Brown had won the General Election Labour would not have increased VAT? Ever since 1992 Labour have been terrified of increasing the headline rate of Income Tax – clearly the fairest way of raising revenue – and all the evasions during the election campaign clearly pointed to a VAT hike as their preferred tool for dealing with part of the deficit. Yes, Alistair Darling – rightly – increased the top rate to 50% in his 2009 Budget, but this can clearly be seen as the act of a dying government which had suddenly found a lost reserve of courage. It certainly wasn’t a typical example of the New Labour approach to fiscal policy.

Balls’ posturing on VAT is of course naked opportunism, designed to bolster his bid for the Labour leadership, and I can’t blame him for that. The party’s leadership contest has yet to burst into life and hasn’t come anywhere close to engaging the wider public. Perhaps Balls has found an issue which can resonate with many who are sceptical at best about Osborne’s “we’re all in this together” nonsense.

None of that changes the fact that VAT is a thoroughly regressive tax and that it will be a particularly appalling day for the coalition (and in particular the Lib Dems) if Osborne is allowed to push through a hike.

But had Labour pulled off the impossible and won the General Election they would certainly have increased VAT – no question about it. As Balls himself admits, all of their campaign rhetoric pointed in this direction. For him to claim now that there would have been any other outcome demonstrates that he is either plainly dishonest or deeply delusional.

And so the deal is done

Details have been published today of the coalition agreement reached between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In short this looks (on paper at least) to be an arrangement which should lead to a stable five-year government with an agenda that represents a good mixture of the two policy positions.

I can’t deny that I’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching over the last twenty-four hours or so. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have no great love for the Tories, and the prospect of putting together a deal with them was something I was instinctively, viscerally opposed to. My natural inclination would have always been to seek an arrangement with parliamentary parties ‘of the left’, but the stark electoral arithmetic (not to mention Labour’s understandable reluctance to stay in government) meant that this was always merely an outside possibility.

With a “Progressive Alliance” effectively ruled out there were then only two options left to the Lib Dems. Firstly, they had the choice of doing a deal with no one, thereby allowing a minority Tory administration to be formed. This would hardly have been an advertisement for the Lib Dem commitment to stable government. After years of campaigning for a ‘balanced’ parliament, how ridiculous would Nick Clegg have looked if his party had backed out when the golden opportunity finally arose? The other drawback would have been the likelihood of David Cameron seeking a second General Election within a matter of months. Only the Tories would have been well-resourced enough to be able to afford this, and a majority Conservative government by the end of the year would have had no reason to take on board many of the Lib Dem policy objectives that now form part of the programme of government.

The only realistic option left was to form a coalition government with the only party that had enough seats to make the arrangement work: the Conservatives. There are many bitter pills to be swallowed (Cameron in Number Ten, Tory policies on Europe, Trident and immigration, and George Osborne anywhere near government) but there are also many areas where Liberal Democrats can be happy with what has occurred. A principled, though theoretical, place in opposition would not have delivered the fairer tax agenda, banking reform, a real advance on environmental issues, fixed-term parliaments and at least the start of political reform. Nor would we have had the chance to have Liberal Democrats in government, making decisions.

In an ideal world I would prefer there to be no Tories in government, but the electorate delivered their verdict and the politicians now have a duty to behave responsibly and get on with it. I fully respect Labour’s decision to take to the Opposition benches – they will come back stronger for rest and renewal – and I believe that there is much they can be proud of from their thirteen-year period in office. I am also encouraged by the Conservatives’ willingness to listen and compromise (even if it’ll be a long time before I trust them). The next five years will not be easy for either of the coalition partners, but I take the view that it is better to have Liberal Democrats in the government than in the opposition. Perhaps this is the start of a different way of doing things.

Thanks Gordon, but it’s time to go

Judging from the invective-specialists in the press and the comments of a number of the more strident people I come across, it would appear that I’m one of the few non-Labour people who doesn’t feel a little bit of sick rise whenever Gordon Brown’s name is mentioned.

I happen to think that he is an individual of no small intellect, and I applaud many of the difficult decisions he took on the economy when the banking crisis hit (regardless of where one thinks the blame for that state of affairs should be apportioned). I tend to think that Brown has been treated rather poorly by the media, the Conservatives and even some within his own party over the past two or three years. But the sad fact is that the only thing that can save us from the Tories now is if he goes, and goes quickly.

The first thing to say is that Gordon Brown’s observation of the constitutional position, largely unwritten as it is, has been impeccable. He has provided stability in the uncertain days following Thursday’s election and given Civil Service support to other political parties as they attempt to thrash out a deal to replace him.

But he and his advisers must surely come to recognise that the only clear message the electorate gave on Thursday was that they weren’t really sure who should be running the country, but they knew it shouldn’t be Gordon Brown.

Because the Labour Party is not the Tory Party, and ruthlessly butchering their leaders is not their preferred way of responding to electoral setbacks, there have so far only been three backbench Labour MPs willing to go on record and call for Brown to go. Perhaps the others know something we don’t. Perhaps a succession plan is in place and Gordon will go of his own volition within the next day or two.

But the longer he stays, the longer Labour will be excluded from coalition talks with the other parties, and the more distant the prospect of a “Progressive Alliance” will become. Brown is the stumbling block that currently makes the Tories look like the only show in town. His alleged angry phone rant at Nick Clegg the other night is probably neither here nor there, the real problem for Clegg is Brown’s electoral toxicity. The Lib Dem Leader knows full well that if he comes to any kind of arrangement with Gordon Brown a bit of the Prime Minister’s three-year bad luck curse is likely to rub off on him.

I don’t know how realistic the speculation about a “Progressive Alliance” is (a minority Conservative administration still looks most likely when the Tory and Lib Dem negotiators realise with horror what their counterparts are actually supposed to believe in) but I know it has no chance at all as long as Brown is the man at the top. It may be that Labour would simply prefer to go into Opposition and rebuild while the Tories are doing all the nasty stuff. But if they do want to stay engaged and be part of what could be one of the great reforming eras in British political history then Gordon will have to go.

David Miliband, his brother Ed, Alan Johnson, Harriet Harman – all of these are names thrown about as a successor. Labour’s choice of Leader is none of my business, but some sort of change will be necessary if they genuinely want to rescue that last, faint hope of genuine reform, as opposed to the ushering in of a new age of intolerance (whether moderated by the Lib Dems or not) if the Tories grasp power once again.

So I hope that Gordon Brown is making the most of a quiet weekend with his family, and that he will reflect on his options and decide to leave now, on his own terms. The longer he stays the harder it will be for parliament to grab the once-in-a-generation opportunity that lies before it.

The aftermath

The electorate have spoken. In spite of the worst efforts of Britain’s right-wing press, the 2010 General Election has resulted in a hung parliament with David Cameron’s Conservatives winning the most seats (306) and the largest share of the vote (36%). Neither of these numbers represents anything like a clear mandate to govern, but equally Labour’s position has weakened considerably due to an exodus of support and the Liberal Democrats have not made the breakthrough many expected.

So what happens now? The last couple of days’ headlines have been dominated by Cameron’s overtures to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, while a succession of senior Labour figures have talked up their electoral reform credentials (not that impressive, since you ask). The media commentary seems to be “who will the Lib Dems go into coalition with?” A better question might be “do the Lib Dems need to go into coalition with anyone?”

Given the arithmetic thrown up by Thursday’s results, it’s difficult to do anything other than sit on the fence when it comes to predicting how this will all pan out, but one thing seems clear – Gordon Brown is surely finished. If Cameron’s wining and dining of Clegg comes to nothing, there would have to be a highly complex series of negotiations between around half a dozen parties to form the “progressive alliance” which would keep Labour in government. It would seem inconceivable that these parties could support Brown as Prime Minister given the clear rejection he has just received at the polls. If Labour were able to quickly and ‘cleanly’ replace their leader such a deal may have legs, but the permutations still appear painful and the nationalists’ demands may prove a step too far.

On paper a Tory/Lib Dem arrangement looks more likely. Between them they could command a comfortable majority in the House of Commons without needing to strike deals with nationalists or Northern Ireland parties. There are even areas where they could find policy convergence (ID cards for example), but there would also need to be painful compromises over massively divergent policy positions on issues such as Europe, immigration, taxation and spending cuts.

Would it all be worth it for proportional representation? I firmly believe that electoral reform is a vital change but I’m also prepared to accept that it is one that should be won by virtue of argument, rather than the surrender of principle to a Conservative Party not exactly cherished among the Lib Dem grassroots.

Electoral reform will be the reason a Tory/Lib Dem coalition will (probably) not happen so perhaps that’ll put an end to all this talk and everyone’s blushes will be spared. The Tories are instinctively opposed to a fair voting system, but it’s difficult to see how the Lib Dems would benefit from climbing into bed with Cameron if they don’t get PR.

The temptation for the Lib Dems to accept Cabinet posts is totally understandable. As Michael Portillo pointed out on Newsnight on Friday,  the increased profile of government would give them a terrific opportunity to demonstrate they can run things, particularly on the back of the most eye-catching of the three major parties’ recent election campaigns, but principle must be the most important consideration.

I have to be honest, any kind of arrangement with the Tories is not something I want to see. I’m firmly of the belief that the Conservative ‘philosophy’ (such as it is) is selfish, socially destructive and fundamentally malign. Could the Liberal Democrats moderate a Cameron government by working alongside it? I doubt it. Once a deal is done, while concessions may be agreed, there is no doubt who the dominant coalition partner would (and should) be. Personally I would prefer the “progressive alliance” option, but I think there are too many obstacles in its way.

I expect the end result of all of this to be a minority Conservative government for the simple reason that the alternatives are too complex and uncertain, and as a result you can probably expect another General Election within a year.