Wrestling with the growing Rennard scandal, I can’t imagine Nick Clegg was too pleased with the timing of his front page on yesterday’s Sunday Times magazine…
Pity Jeremy Vine; one of Britain’s brainiest journalists and host of an extremely popular national radio show, when he became the anointed heir to the fabled BBC election swingometer, he must have thought he was destined to be like Peter Snow, a fabled sage one day retiring to the mountain peaks of election night legend.
It hasn’t quite turned out like that. For some reason, the insightful Peter Snow swingometer process seems to have been replaced with an annual ritual humiliation of Jeremy Vine. I don’t know what he’s done to deserve it, but he seems to be a producer’s piñata.
Emily Maitlis got a rather snazzy touchscreen to present the results as they came in, so Vine must wonder: why me?
On election night 2008, he dressed up as a cowboy to illustrate Nick Clegg’s vote share, putting on a cringeworthy accent and miming shooting cans:
Then there was election night 2007. which took an inexplicable Ali G theme with Vine being forced to present Lib Dem results as “Ming’s Bling”:
This year, at least the embarrassing costumes and attempts to be down with the kids were gone, but they still got poor Jeremy down on his hands and knees on the floor.
Apparently he was tracing the route of a bizarre walk you could do hypothetically do from London all the way to Land’s End without ever passing through a council with a Labour representative – which may, I suppose, appeal to those who plan their rambling on the basis of local electoral geography. If you meet someone like that, do let me know – I’d advise backing away from them slowly, before fleeing for your own safety.
Less than a year after their walloping in the AV referendum, the Lib Dems are pushing for constitutional change again. Their obsession with their hobby horse regardless of its electoral irrelevance has led them to resemble a bluebottle banging its head against a window, desperate to move ahead despite the battering it gets from its repeated failure.
This time it is House of Lords reform that forms their windowpane of choice . Supposedly, Clegg is demanding that it is prioritised in the Coalition’s legislative programme.
They will face all sorts of problems – the question of whether there should be a referendum on constitutional changes (A: Yes), the question of whether we should be discussing this while the economy is struggling (A: No) and most importantly the question of what a new House of Lords should look like (A: Who knows?)
This last question is the most important – even the Lib Dems, who have thought about little else for the last 50 years, haven’t agreed on an answer. Should it be 100% elected, or partially elected and partially selected experts? Should it be done by STV, a list system, AV or another PR electoral technique? How long should the terms be, and how great should the powers of the chamber be? For that matter, should it be called the Lords, or the Senate or something else?
Personally, I do think Britain should have an elected Upper Chamber. It is perverse to have an unelected, unaccountable chamber disrupting and sabotaging the work of a legislature elected by the people.
I emphatically do not think we should be prioritising Lords reform now, however. People want the economy boosted, and growth restored – if we had a proper system for initiating popular referenda, I strongly doubt we would see Lords reform jumping to the top of the list.
However, if the Lib Dems insist on changing it now, what should the new Lords look like?
For a start, I’d prefer to keep calling it the Lords, because I’m a bit sentimental like that. “Senates” and so on all sound a bit trendy, which is one thing Westminster definitely isn’t.
So how should we select it? The system would need to satisfy several requirements:
- it would need to be in keeping with the verdict from last year’s AV referendum that the people have no truck for obscure forms of PR (no matter how much the Lib Dems may love them)
- it would need to be affordable and efficient
- it would be important that it did not have a claim to greater legitimacy than the Commons
- it would be pointless if it simply produced a second house identical in makeup to the Commons
- if possible, it would be good if it did something to answer the concerns people have about votes being wasted in the First Past the Post system, while maintaining a constituency link where possible
I have a proposal that would fit each of these criteria. We fill the House of Lords with all those who come second in elections to the House of Commons – a “House of Losers”, if you will.
Let’s test it against the above criteria. We continue to use the First Past the Post system, which the people clearly don’t want to get rid of. We wouldn’t need to spend anything extra on holding another wave of elections. There would be no challenge to the legitimacy of the Commons, given that those on the green benches would have beaten the red benches at a general election. The new Lords would be a counterbalance to the Commons in their political makeup, providing for energetic scrutiny. Finally, millions of votes currently viewed by many as “wasted” on candidates who come second would in fact count for something – dramatically upping the proportion of voters who get a representative they voted for.
The important thing would be to get the powers of this new House of Losers right. Too little, and it would become redundant as a scrutineering chamber, too great and it would deliver gridlock. But that goes for any reform of the Lords – at least under this system we wouldn’t waste a fortune and we would improve the proportionality of our Parliamentary democracy.
One thing was always clear about the Government’s EU “referendum lock” – the EU’s defenders were always going to claim it didn’t actually justify a referendum. Whether they did it outright in the wording, or later in a tortured limbo around what that wording meant, is irrelevant.
So it has come to pass now that the first proposed treaty changes since the lock was passed into law have hoved into view. Nick Clegg has rushed straight out, his face painted blue with a delightful ring of yellow stars scattered across his cheeks, chin and forehead, to announce that proposals for fiscal union among the Eurozone countries are not eligible for a referendum as they don’t constitute a transfer of sovereignty from Britain to Brussels.
Underlying this is the argument being pushed by the Conservative leadership that, as Tim Montgomerie reported it, an EU referendum would “plunge Britain’s economy into chaos”.
But it is this latter argument which undermines the former.
As we can now see from the crisis hanging over us – a crisis that has emerged as a direct result of the Euro’s disastrous creation and the ongoing, eternal grind of ever closer union – losing sovereignty is not just about Brussels being able to directly overrule Britain. It is also about whether we are losing the ability to build a successful, sustainable economy on our own terms.
EU integration has made Britain more economically vulnerable to crises on the Continent, a problem which is compounded by the fact that it has also made such crises far more likely. At the same time as our exposure to EU risk has increased, the Single Market’s aggressive protectionism has forbidden us from diversifying by trading freely and fully with other economies around the world – particularly with the BRICs.
In effect, they have tied a weight to our feet, dragging us down into the ocean depths, and bound our hands, stopping us trying to swim upwards.
The decision by a core group of EU countries to integrate through a single currency has diluted our sovereignty by reducing the effectiveness of the measures the British Government might take to boost our economy. As we are currently seeing, you don’t have to be in the Euro to be screwed by its failure.
Can they seriously claim that fiscal union in the Eurozone – a step which is likely to bring down even worse disaster on all our heads – won’t have a similar effect?
We are tied to the Eurozone through our EU membership – as a result, their fate does affect our fate. That’s why we have a veto on these proposals for fiscal union. And that’s why the British people should get a referendum on whether that veto is used.
The NUS and the Student Unions have made great play in the last few months about the Coalition’s supposed lack of “democratic legitimacy” or a “mandate”. Cameron and Clegg, we are told, don’t really represent the voters.
The Student Union establishment is on shaky ground here, as today’s news from Sheffield University shows. In publishing the results for their SU elections they proudly boast that they have achieved “the highest ever election turnout for a Students’ Union election in the UK”.
So what was this staggering percentage? Erm, 23.82%
Yes, you read that right. They who complain about the democratic legitimacy of the Government can only achieve a turnout from their own constituents that would make most local councils blush.
Thom Arnold, the Sheffield student president elect, received 1,933 first preference votes out of 6765 cast – a miserable 28.5% of the 23.82% of the constituents who bothered to vote. It was only after six rounds that he was able to go through on others’ lower preferences.
This is the same old story – most Student Unions are far worse. I remember when I was elected to represent Durham at the NUS conference (for my sins) we had a miserable turnout of 10% or so. When we arrived at the conference we were amazed to find that most other delegates viewed our “high” turnout as a remarkable success.
At the core of this news is a simple truth that they don’t want to accept – the so-called “student leaders” are utterly disconnected from the people they claim to represent. They don’t inspire attention from most students, never mind confidence or actual support. Next time they throw stones at the Government, they might want to pause to consider their own glass house.
There are very few people out there in politics who genuinely mix up tax avoidance and tax evasion. Among the lay population the two can easily be confused for obvious reasons, but it’s long been a hobby of high taxers to deliberately elide the two in order to mislead the public. Sadly, Nick Clegg has repeated that sin in his speech to Lib Dem conference.
Tax evasion is a crime – and it should be punished. Tax avoidance, on the other hand, is simply a smear term for perfectly legal, indeed desirable measures taken to not pay any more tax than you have to. It’s not wrong – it is by definition obeying the law.
If Nick Clegg or anyone else doesn’t like the levels of tax that people lawfully pay, then he should use democratic routes to change the legal rates. Smearing the law-abiding to imply they are criminals simply isn’t on. If they actually go down the proposed route of inspectors and lie-detectors to pick up on legal tax minimising, what will they do when they find it? They have no power to punish people who haven’t broken any laws or rules.
To properly illustrate the kind of behaviour Nick Clegg is talking about when he criticises tax avoidance, I thought it would be handy to start a list:
Saving money in ISAs - the ISA is specifically set up to help people avoid paying tax on their savings. If tax avoidance is wrong, then surely the Government will be slamming itself for aiding and abetting the sin by introducing such a shameless avoidance vehicle?
Giving money to charity – in order to encourage people to support worthy causes, there are a variety of tax-exemptions and reductions available on money given to charity. Will Nick Clegg be taxing charitable donations, or discouraging people from giving?
Taking public transport and buying greener cars – Successive Governments have ramped up fuel duty in order to discourage people from driving gas guzzlers or indeed from driving at all. The clear intention of the policy is to encourage people to avoid this tax by either using public transport or buying greener cars. Indeed, the Lib Dems have been key proponents of both forms of tax avoidance.
What other forms of evil tax avoidance is Nick Clegg planning to clamp down on? Suggestions on a postcard.
Conservative Home’s poll of Conservative party members explores an interesting idea this week – should the Coalition partners step aside for each other in key seats at the next election?
The results are mixed – 55% of Conservatives think it “may be necessary” but are withholding final judgement, but 35% view the idea of a non-agression pact as “totally unacceptable”.
This is an extremely sticky topic. The Coalition partners don’t need to decide yet, or for quite some time, but they will eventually have to make their minds up about what to do. They will be desperate to avoid discussing it for as long as possible, because the eventual decision will crystallise what the Coalition is really all about – is it a temporary and uncomfortable marriage of convenience, a happy and lasting ideological meeting of minds or something between the two?
It also plumbs the existential questions which the Liberal Democrats have brought upon themselves by joining the Coalition in the first place. The polls already show them suffering not because people dislike what the Government is doing but because people are starting to wonder what the point in voting Lib Dem is. If they are seen to be too keen on a non-aggression pact it could be interpreted as a sign that they are scared to face the public, but there are great electoral risks if they try to fight every seat.
Consider the recent history of non-aggression pacts. The Better Off Out campaign, which I launched when I worked at The Freedom Association, brokered a deal that UKIP would not stand against true, out and out anti-EU Conservatives. In places like Shipley (Philip Davies) and Harwich and Clacton (Douglas Carswell) it worked fantastically, helping to land whopping majorities for anti-EU MPs in previously marginal constituencies.
The problems came in places where UKIP couldn’t control their local activists, who broke the deal their leaders had agreed to. Instead of trust and co-operation, you end up with an embarrassing mud-slinging match.
The rebellion in UKIP only really sprung up in the South West, but it’s a safe bet that such disobedience would be far more widespread if there was a deal sewn up between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. If 35% of Tories deeply oppose a deal, then a lot more Liberal Democrats would probably do so. Could Nick Clegg and David Cameron bring them all to heel?