Thursday, 28 April 2011

Why I am not a Republican (anymore)

Zarina Katwala, 5, and Jay Katwala, 3, heading to Royal Wedding parties at primary and nursery school today.

“It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would be more ashamed of being caught standing to attention during God Save The King than of stealing from a poor box” - George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

I felt a sting of self-recognition when I first read Orwell say that. I was about eighteen. I was certainly a Republican. But, then, if I wasn’t going to be a Republican, who on earth was?

I knew I was on the political left - devouring as much Orwell as possible, perhaps to see if that gave any shape to my emerging views. My parents came from India and from Ireland. They both came here to work for the NHS. So, if you asked me now, I’d say how on earth, with that background, would I have ever been anything but British? But questions of national identity may have seemed a bit trickier than that for a while. Resolving the Irish question, if you looked into it, was rather more complicated than my mother tended to claim. Rather more pressingly, I had just had to work out whether I could carry on supporting England at cricket once Norman Tebbit had declared it compulsory. As I’d supported them against India and my Dad since I was nine, it was too late to switch sides. I’d just have to look less keen, in case anybody thought I might be a Tory.

All of that seemed complicated enough without Orwell throwing in the Monarchy too. And God Save The Queen still doesn’t do anything for me. Sure, Orwell warns the English left not to be suckers for everyone else’s nationalism but their own. But isn’t it just the truth that there are five better tunes in the Six Nations, even before you get onto the English civic illiteracy in not realising we’ve misappropriated the British anthem? I’d swap it for Jerusalem in a heartbeat.

So I would still like us to get our anthems right on the sporting field. But abolish the Monarchy for a Republic? Once that seemed like simple common sense. Do we want to be citizens or subjects? Now, I’m not nearly so sure. I can’t see what we would gain, and now think we could lose rather more than I had appreciated. So, perhaps still a little reluctantly, I am no longer a Republican. I found myself in the unusual position of partnering Peter Hitchens, a rather more ardent monarchist to be sure, at the Orwell prize debate on Tuesday, against the proposition that it is time to make Monarchy history, while my more natural allies Joan Smith and Iain McLean put the case for a British Republic. (The video is online).

The democratic failure of Republicanism

British Republicanism is perhaps the least successful political project of my lifetime.

There was 19 per cent support for a Republic in 1969. It is almost exactly the same today. This has been described by veteran pollster Bob Worcester as “the most stable indicator of British public opinion that exists in this country”. Over the last thirty years, almost everything that could go wrong for the Monarchy did go wrong.

Yet Republicanism has barely advanced a single inch.

So the Republican movement’s core democratic principle– why shouldn’t we choose our head of state for ourselves – is unassailable. Except for the fact that it clashes with one equally unassailable democratic principle, that of public consent.

All democratic Republicans and genuinely constitutional monarchists ought to be able to agree on this democratic principle of consent:

Britain could (and indeed should) become a Republic if most of its citizens wanted it to become one, but it can not (and indeed shouldn’t) until they do.

That majority consent would be needed to change this is undoubtedly a political reality. We have now evolved a new constitutional convention that it is necessary to hold a referendum not just to change the voting system, but to establish a London or north-east assembly, or an elected mayor for Stoke-on-Trent. Public assent through a popular vote is surely necessary to do away with the Monarchy. Alternatively, a liberal democracy can have a constitutional monarchy if there is sustained and settled public consent for one.

Does anybody seriously contest the idea that we currently have a constitutional monarchy with public consent, however much they might believe that this could change now, in a decade or in half a century’s time? Up to eight million Republicans in this country have every legitimate right to challenge that and to try and bring about the change they want.

But they show little sign of being able to do so.

What would we achieve?

What Republicanism has not found is a persuasive argument which reaches beyond the already committed. I suspect that the truth is that Monarchy’s vices are exaggerated by its foes, and its virtues overstated by its foes.

I find it difficult to identify any serious political project – beyond being able to elect a head of state – that is blocked or seriously undermined by the existence of Monarchy.

It is said that the Monarchy is a stifling symbol of class and hierarchy. Yet the Monarchy did not prevent the creation of the NHS and the Beveridge welfare state, nor the rolling back of that post-war settlement. Whatever it is that prevents Britain from emulating Sweden and choosing to be more equal, it is unlikely to be the fact of constitutional monarchy, which happens to be a feature of egalitarian and female friendly Scandinavian-style social democracy.

Some of our most strident Monarchists believe that Britain long ago surrendered all sovereignty to Brussels, and so accuse the political class of treason. Yet the Monarch gave Royal Assent to the European Communities Act and later Treaties, and would do so for an Act of Parliament to repeal it, if the sceptics were to win the political and public argument.

Were we to create a people’s constitutional convention to codify and write a constitution, the nature and role of the head of state could be up for grabs with everything else, but it would very likely, perhaps somewhat reformed, be kept. Questions of whether we have the Alternative Vote or proportional representation, or abolish the Lords, or have freedom of information, even whether we want to disestablish the Church, are determined politically, not by the existence of a constitutional monarchy.

This is also true of the existence of the Union itself. Continued Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish participation (or indeed English support for the Union) is a matter of democratic consent, as the Good Friday agreement and the Scottish claim of right have articulated. Scotland rejected and then voted for devolution, and may one day decide to vote for or against independence too. Were the SNP to win that argument, they say that they would invite the Queen of Scots, supporting the 1603 Union of Crowns but not the 1707 Act of Union, though much of the party favours a referendum on the issue.

The British Monarchy must be constitutionally indifferent to all of these political outcomes. Is its private power to persuade greater? The Queen’s disapproval of Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to divide the Commonwealth by opposing sanctions against apartheid South Africa certainly stretched constitutional theory, but did not change government policy. No competent government minister ought to be more persuaded by the spidery hand of a Prince Charles missive than by Sir Humphrey style obfuscation from their permanent secretary.

Why don’t people want change?

If Republicanism wishes to expand, it could do with a deeper engagement with why most people are not persuaded. The standard answer tends to be propaganda and false consciousness. Joan Smith, an articulate and plausible advocate of modern Republicanism, told the Orwell prize debate that Republicans don’t get a fair hearing in the media, so that the argument has never really been put. (I have quite often heard her make the point on the BBC). And there are four pro-Republic national newspapers – in the Guardian/Observer and Independent titles. Republicans tend not to mention that their usual bĂȘte noire, the dreaded Rupert Murdoch shares their cause. That his newspapers do not would seem to be a simply commercial decision.

The choice between having the Monarchy and a Republic is very easily grasped – rather more so than that between first-past-the-post and the alternative vote. National occasions like the Royal Wedding, present each of us with a clear sense of what we think and feel about the Monarchy itself - whether we are excited monarchists, desperate to sleep on the mall decked in bunting, armchair supporters, benignly indifferent or desperate for the whole circus to disappear at once. It gets a bit more complicated with children. My five and three year old have parties today at primary school and nursery – dress codes, red, white and blue, or paper crowns. Even if I were still a committed Republican, I would hardly want to conscript them into conscientious objection.

Republicanism is stalled partly because it has too often tended to project an angry and negative image. The Not the Royal Wedding street party, organised by Republic, seems potentially a good attempt to break with that. Many of us are in favour of more community, more shared national occasions and more street parties too. So establishing a dissident option both platforms an alternative voice, and indeed makes the whole national occasion more full inclusive!

Yet Republicans too often seem to imply that anybody who disagrees is somehow an irrational and unthinking drone. Yet the reason that most people instinctively feel that they would lose more than they would gain from having a vote for a President is fairly straightforward. On the one hand, there is a case that any of us might be first citizen in the land. But, on the other, we would be removing something that is distinctive about this country, which offers a living link to our history and traditions, in a way that might be sensible, rational, but which can look like tidying things up to become just that little bit more like everywhere else.

The case for removing national symbols to which many people feel an attachment and an allegiance, (and to which most others feel benign indifference) seems weak.

Republicans hope that it will all be different after the reign of the current Queen. In Australia, that is probably true. In Britain, we shall have to wait and see. My own prediction is that Monarchist sentiment is more likely to hit an alltime high in the solemn fortnight after the death of a reigning Monarch, as the nation tells itself the story of how we changed over the decades since the 1950s.

Sometimes Republicans wonder about mass abdication as a possible route to success. Bagehot of The Economist calls for compassionate Republicanism freeing the Royals from their gilded cage to lead more normal lives. The teenage Prince William once had every reason to be sorely tempted, but he has succumbed to the call of duty and tradition. For Republicans, this fantasy scenario is simply a distraction from the real challenge: that the only barrier to their success is whether they can convince their fellow citizens.

I feel that the argument against abolition of the Monarchy goes beyond there being more important issues and priorities on which to campaign. Perhaps it is also about the way to make change in our societies possible. Many of the most effective radicals have been dispositional conservatives, who understood why people felt an attachment to the familiar, while rejecting the idea that this should be a barrier to major social and political advances. I think of Attlee and Bevan creating the post-war welfare state, the way in which Nehru articulated an inclusive identity for an independent India, or Nelson Mandela deciding that a democratic and multi-racial post-apartheid South Africa didn’t need to destroy the Springbok emblem, cherished by Afrikaners, but could embrace it as part of the new.

That was absolutely in the spirit of Orwell, who wanted a patriotic English revolution, in which so much would change, yet where we would still be England.

An English Socialist government will transform the nation from top to bottom, but it will still bear all over it the unmistakable marks of our own civilization, the peculiar civilization which I discussed earlier in this book.It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier's cap-buttons.

Orwell would be disappointed that the egalitarian spirit of post-war England proved less powerful than he anticipated. He would be surprised that we are still talking about a democratic House of Lords, but he was right that we could decide to abolish the Lords but keep the Monarchy too.

In a parallel universe, in a different country, it might be different. Perhaps, in a referendum, I could be persuaded to cast a vote, in fraternal solidarity, for the Republicans, albeit in the knowledge that three-quarters of my fellow citizens would do the opposite. But I very much doubt that a British Republic is going to happen in my lifetime. And my Republican friends have not convinced me that we would gain if it did.

The dangers of underestimating David Cameron

Why won't Cameron call a General Election?

Because he wouldn't win it - as Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome sets out clearly and concisely.

I argued something similar on Labour Uncut on Tuesday.

John Rentoul in The Independent today examines and critiques what he calls 'the Katwala critique' - that "the blindspot of much of the political class lies in consistently overestimating David Cameron".

Rentoul is less kind than I am about the Prime Minister's manners and grace under pressure, but warns that the greater danger is of Labour underestimating the Prime Minister.

As I agree with a fair amount of the Rentoul critique of Katwala, so it may be worth clarifying the version of the Katwala critique which I advocate. Naturally, the Fabian gradualist argument (the goldilocks critique?) warns against both over- and under-estimating the Prime Minister. (This is, at heart, something of a Cameroonian argument, because it accepts the core proposition of the Cameroon camp that the problem is to be found rather more with the party than the leader. The critique of the leader is that, given that view, he has gone for a shallower version of change than his own thesis demands).

It seems to me beyond serious dispute that Cameron was somewhat over-estimated in 2010, as I argued on new year's eve. Relatively few people predicted a hung Parliament - except for the Tory inner circle themselves. Over-estimating Cameron explained many of the big calls of the year - Tory confidence in wanting the leaders' debates, Labour's fatalism in preparing for defeat rather than the hung Parliament, and LibDem opportunism on the campuses.

Cameron played the moment of the hung Parliament with much skill, having had the advantage of having anticipated it. The jury is still out beyond that. The biggest puzzle is paying so little attention to so long to an incomprehensible reform agenda on his signature issue of the NHS. I expect he will deftly escape from some of the potential damage, but it is again worth asking why a rescue plan is needed.

Cameron is still overestimated by those who believe he can call an election whenever he wants, especially that he would win it by banging the Tory drum harder, or that he is a certainty to beat Ed Miliband at the next election, as Matthew d'Ancona declared immediately after the Labour leadership election result.

The truth is that it will be very difficult for either major party to win the next election which, given inevitable political damage to the Liberal Democrats, means that British politics has rarely been as unpredictable. (It may be worth cutting out and keeping everything the Prime Minister repeated this month, as well as last Spring, about how much he hates Prime Ministers trying to bargain their way to cling to power after a hung Parliament).

The AV referendum campaign has killed stone-dead all talk of blue-yellow electoral pacts. The Cameron-Osborne plan to win in 2015 should not be underestimated. (And a No vote to AV is important to it).

But they, like Labour, have a lot to do.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

How the snow spin has finally paid off for George Osborne

George Osborne didn't do much for his credibility as Chancellor in making quite so much of the snow effects when the GDP figures of the last quarter for 2010 were released.

(In what is becoming a characteristic pattern, Number 10 and David Cameron ditched the Osborne line after widespread mockery, to admit that the underlying non-snow affected picture was of a flat economy, neither expanding nor contracting).

The revised figures showed a contraction of -0.5% of GDP.

Now the eagerly awaited first quarter of 2011 figures show GDP up + 0.5% on that previous quarter (subject always to the caveat that the preliminary figure is subject to revision). Or exactly where we were six months ago.

[UPDATE: Almost. As Guido Fawkes points out on twitter, a 0.5% increase on the reduced figure doesn't make up for the 0.5% fall from from a higher base: "100 x 0.995 x 1.005 = 99.9975. You are being uncharacteristically generous to Osborne. Wrong direction over 2 quarters". We do of course try hard to find nice things to say about George Osborne and other political opponents where we can.]

Cue Treasury briefings about a 'return to growth' and 'good news', about an economy heading in the right direction.

Yet the ONS points out that this could be an entirely "arithemetic effect" - we have a snow related -0.5% and now a recovery of that lost ground in this quarter.

That's in effect zero growth in the last quarter, and zero growth in this quarter

"Abstracting from the snow, we have an economy on a plateau", said the chief economist of the ONS".

Having deployed the snow as an excuse, one can't logically claim this as growth.

The 0.5% is the mid-range what the markets expected, though the independent Office of Budget Reponsibility was more optimistic at 0.8%. So an important question is whether the OBR now downgrades its forecasts for the remaining three quarters, which could seriously dent the Chancellor's projections for deficit reduction.

But expect to hear the Chancellor ignore the weather effects now and simply talk about the headline figure as a return to growth.

Consistent with that is the Treasury pointing out that US GDP is up 0.5% in thie first quarter too, implying we are even-stevens with the Obama stimulus approach.

But we're obviously not.

But as economist Duncan Weldon tweets, that involves a sleight of hand:

HMT is pointing out that 0.5% is same as US. But US didn’t shrink last quarter. Totally bogus comparison. Grasping at straws there.

Snow, damned lies and statistics?

Peer through the fog and one thing is clear.

There's no growth, George.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Why the LibDems could have no women MPs after the next election

A General Election in 2011 is no longer unthinkable, argues Jackie Ashley in The Guardian. Few LibDems would re lish the prospect. But how many realise that, if such an election took place, they would face a serious risk of ending up with no women MPs at all?

Even if the election takes place on the Coalition'sschedule in 2015, it is quite likely that the LibDems will find themselves with a more male dominated party than their 1930s predecessors, when one out of ten Liberal MPs was a woman. The reasons why the LibDems are now likely to go backwards on gender, even if they recover some lost support in the polls, are reported in The Guardian by Allegra Stratton, based on Fabian Society and Fabian Women's Network research by myself and Seema Malhotra.

So why do LibDem women specifically face such a dramatic meltdown threat, compared to the party's male MPs? You can read our Fabian Review article below. This will appears in the gender equality special issue of the Fabian Review, published later this week.

The LibDems have only seven women MPs out of 57. Yet five of the LibDem women hold seats among the dozen most vulnerable for the party, while they hold none of the party's 20 safest seats. And the party leadership has failed to realise that its decision to support a cull in the number of MPs has effectively cut off any chance of progress at the next election.

Women MPs in the dozen most vulnerable LibDem seats

1. Lorely Burt (Solihull) 0.3%, 175 votes
2. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset) 0.6%, 269 votes
3. Norwich South 0.7%
4. Bradford East 0.9%
5. Tessa Munt (Wells), 1.4%, 800 votes
6. St Austell 2.8%
7 = Sarah Teather (Brent South) 3.0%, 1345 votes
7 = Somerton 3.0%
9 St Ives 3.7%
10 Manchester West 4.1%
11. Burnley 4.3%
12. Jo Swinson, 4.6% (East Dunbartonshire*), 2184 votes

Other LibDem women MPs

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green), 12.5%, 7875 votes
Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central), 12.7%, 4576 votes

[* Corrected: Constituency given as East Dunfermline earlier]

In an early election held on current boundaries with current MPs where the party lost only 12 seats - a much stronger result than anybody would predict from the polls - the LibDems would (on a universal swing) return with a Parliamentary Party of 43 men and 2 women - a drop from 12 per cent to just 4.5 per cent of the party’s MPs. In practice, it could even be worse. The two 'safer' seats held by LibDem women are both pretty vulnerable to political responses to the Tory-LibDem Coalition. Both were gained in 2005 from Labour, through appeals to students and voters disillusioned with Labour over Iraq and other left-of-centre issues. The LibDems expect to lose Cardiff Central in the Welsh Assembly election on May 5th.

The LibDems have fallen behind the Conservatives as well as Labour in the diversity of their Parliamentary representation.

Party leader Nick Clegg argues that this is an important issue, and has made high profile commitments to change this. He told the Speaker's Conference in 2009 that his party was woefully" unrepresentative, expressing confidence that the 2010 election would see the party make a major advance to begin to catch up. That proved over-optimistic: the party went backwards, losing 3 women MPs and gaining one, again partly due to the pattern of selecting women in more vulnerable prospects. But there is little sign that the party's internal debate has acknowledged how likely a further sharp reduction in female representation has now become, nor has the leadership apparently understood how the Coalition's policy of a smaller House has set their chances of progress back. The A-list style measures adopted at the LibDem Spring Conference may turn out to gradually do some good over time. The chance of their having any impact in 2015 is much reduced by the decision to shrink the Commons.

Our analysis of the numbers suggest that these modest reforms are far from enough to prevent the Liberal benches after the next election being more male dominated than in the 1930s.

Here's the Fabian Review piece:

Why LibDem women face meltdown threat

The marginalisation of women in the 2010 election campaign, the total absence of women from the coalition negotiations, and the low numbers of women in the new cabinet has meant that every party is now stressing their desire to speed up progress towards gender equality in politics.

It sounds like the race to the 50-50 party has finally begun. Yet with boundary reforms and seat reductions, the risk is the race will be lost before the next election, with all three parties losing momentum and Lib Dem women MPs facing political annihilation.

Labour has the strongest record and currently 32 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party are women. Prompted by the Lead for Women grass roots campaign, Ed Miliband declared his commitment to a 50/50 party of equal voice and power at every level. With 16 per cent of current Conservative MPs being women, their highest proportion ever, David Cameron can point to more progress than his predecessors but acknowledges the need to do more.

The Lib Dems, lagging behind in third place, hope to catch up. However, their election strategy for gender was disastrous – numbers of women MPs dropped from nine to seven. They also have no ethnic minority MPs. Having previously rejected positive action, including in 1998 when Baroness Williams called for an end to the Commons ‘Old Boys’ Network’ and warned “we will not get more women involved just by providing more training and education”, this year the party’s Spring Conference passed an a ‘priority candidates’ list – an A list. This will do no harm and perhaps some good. But the debate showed the party has not appreciated how great a risk there is that Lib Dem women will face meltdown at the next election, or how the coalition’s own reforms have cut off their real chance to make any progress by 2015.

New Fabian Society/Fabian Women’s Network research shows that the Lib Dems would need to take urgent steps to avoid a collapse in gender balance, which would leave the party’s Commons benches in 2015 even more male-dominated than the Liberal benches of the 1930s.

The meltdown threat arises from a toxic triple cocktail:

1) Firstly, political unpopularity. Having lost more than half of their support since the general election, the Lib Dems are preparing a defensive campaign, hoping to regain support and defend Lib Dem held seats. Even selecting many more women candidates to take on Tory and Labour MPs is unlikely to return as many MPs next time around.

2) Secondly, coalition populism. The Lib Dems have inadvertently scored an own goal on gender by supporting a smaller House of Commons. Shrinking the House to 600 will see the smallest new intake in any post-war election, slowing down progress since new intakes have a better gender balance than the whole House. Typically, around 60 to 80 MPs stand down at the end of a Parliament while up to 590 defend their seats. This time, many retirees will be replaced not by new hopefuls but MPs seeking a new berth after constituency mergers. The Lib Dems would have expected to select six or seven new candidates to replace retiring MPs; this will probably now fall to two or three – even if all current seats were deemed winnable.

3) Thirdly, the legacy of past selection patterns. Five of the Lib Dem women MPs are amongst the party's dozen most vulnerable seats. They are proportionately more electorally vulnerable than their male counterparts. The two 'safer' seats held by women – in Cardiff West and Haringey – are pretty risky prospects too. The party's twenty safest seats are all held by men. This long-standing pattern is not unique to this Parliament. Three Lib Dem women (a third of those standing again) and five men (a tenth) lost in May 2010. The causes are complex: chance, informal hierarchies of power, the sociology of political recruitment and electoral geography. Professional women Lib Dems have tended to fight southern marginals; there is only one woman among 11 Scots Lib Dem MPs, again holding the most vulnerable seat.

Lib Dem party strategists would be over the moon if they held four out of five seats at the next election. If an early election were held (under current boundaries) that would mean a parliamentary party of 43 men and two women, a drop from 13 per cent to 4.5 per cent of the party’s MPs – half their presence in the 1930s. But if the current polls were even half right, not a single Lib Dem woman MP would survive.

The problem could get even worse if any Lib Dem women lose out in the boundaries scramble. The leadership will need to work out how to pragmatically protect them and perhaps encourage another retirement or two. Or might the party even, exceptionally, consider dropping its opposition to all women shortlists for the two or three constituencies where it will replace a sitting MP? More likely, it may seek to achieve a similar result by ensuring there are strong women in the field, and informal pressure highlighting the gender gap problem.

But such tinkering will merely limit the damage unless the Lib Dems respond to new boundaries by reopening every selection, with the aim that women candidates should contest a quarter of the party’s 20 most defendable seats, rather than none of them. This might mean Sir Ming Campbell or Charles Kennedy swapping their safe seats with a colleague to defend a marginal. If this seems too difficult or painful, the party should admit it’s willing to run the risk of only electing men in 2015.

The smaller Commons will also slow down Labour and Tory progress, though both parties hope to gain seats. Labour should adopt an all women shortlist in any winnable seat being defended by a woman MP from another party, within the current strategy to select women in 50 per cent of all winnable seats. The message would be that voting Labour could not reduce the number of women in parliament. No other party could claim this.

Some may worry about the impact on voter choice. This seems a weak argument. There were already 11 constituencies in 2010 where all three major parties selected a woman. And who spoke up about voter choice, or even noticed, the 267 constituencies where all three major party candidates were men? Political equality is a pre-requisite for, not just a consequence of, social equality. The gender challenge at the next election will test the commitment of the three parties to fairness in an unprecedented way.

Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of the Fabian Society, and Seema Malhotra is Director of the Fabian Women’s Network


The gender research builds on earlier Fabian evidence to the Speaker's Conference, which sought to identify how each of the parties might overcome the barriers to achieving 'fair chances and no unfair barriers' to prospective candidates.

The LibDem MPs are also all white. I am not sure that the party has fully taken on board the evidence that a significant part of their problem here is that the pattern of selections suggests a strong attachment to an 'ethnic faces for ethnic voters' approach to non-white candidates. This means that they consisently select non-white candidates heavily only in inner city areas such as East London and Birmingham where the party's prospects are relatively weak. So the LibDems have now fallen a good way behind the Conservatives as well as Labour here, in part because it has been consistently less likely to also select non-white candidates for winnable seats where there is not a large ethnic minority population. The new priority list may possibly have some positive effect here, though it depends on generating more support at all levels of the party for breaking this pattern.

Why Clegg is wrong to accept Church veto on scrapping anti-Catholic Royal law

Anybody in line to the throne who wishes to marry a Roman Catholic must give up their place in the succession, unless their spouse-to-be relinquishes their faith.

As The Observer's editorial noted on Sunday, this is a specific anti-Catholic prohibition.

The prohibition on an heir marrying a Catholic, while remaining free to marry a Methodist, Muslim, atheist or Jedi Knight, is indefensible bigotry. (The separate condition that the monarch must be a member of the Church of England raises broader questions about the established church.)

Now The Telegraph reports that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has now been persuaded that this can't be changed.

Mr Clegg was initially attracted to the idea of repealing the Act but is said to have been persuaded that the difficulties raised by the Anglican Church were insurmountable.

It is odd that Clegg has thrown in the towel so easily on such a modest reform in the face of such weak and ill-founded objections. Remember that Clegg has promised to bring about the greatest constitutional reforms since 1832 (which rather implausibly means outstripping both the universal franchise and votes for women, not just devolution and freedom of information). Clegg demonstrates that he is more constitutionally conservative on this issue than John Selwyn Gummer, the former Tory cabinet minster who was an active member of the Church of England Synod before converting to Catholicism, and who sponsored private legislation to challenge this prohibition on Catholics.

Gummer described it as an "outrage" - but Clegg is reported to now understand and accept the obstacles to changing it. He spoke at ippr last Thursday of his self-image of being an insurgent crusader against vested interests, suffering a backlash for that reason. There is no evidence of that here.

The Church of England's reasoning conflates two issues - the religion of a Monarch, and of their spouse - in order to claim that treating Catholic spouses similarly to those of any other faith threatenss the Establishment of the Church.

The Church told the Telegraph this:

The prohibition on those in the line of succession marrying Roman Catholics derives from an earlier age and inevitably looks anomalous, not least when there is no prohibition on marriage to those of other faiths or none.

“But if the prohibition were removed the difficulty would still remain that establishment requires the monarch to join in communion with the Church of England as its Supreme Governor and that is not something that a Roman Catholic would be able to do consistently with the current rules of that church.”

The conflation depends on believing that Catholics always get the children.

The argument is still an illogical objection to the reform which is being proposed - that the prohibition on marrying a Catholic should go, without changing the separate requirement for the Monarch to themselves be a member of the Established Church.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Did William Hague approve the Royal wedding invite for Mugabe's Ambassador?

The Royal Wedding is not, officially, a state occasion.

“It is not a state occasion ... it is a private wedding and the couple are entitled to invite whoever they want to it"

So says a St James Palace spokesman to the Sunday Telegraph, in explaining that the invitation to former Prime Minister Sir John Major is a personal one.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that "While Prince William and Miss Middleton have taken a “hands on” role in overseeing the guest list, the invitations sent out to politicians and foreign dignitaries will have been closely monitored by Buckingham Palace". However, there is a rather contrasting emphasis placed in a St James Palace statement to another Sunday newspaper, the Independent on Sunday, which was inquiring about foreign rather than domestic guests.

St James's Palace defended the wedding list yesterday, insisting the Foreign Office had approved it. "Invitations are extended from the Queen following the long-held tradition of inviting other crowned heads of state; we have taken advice from the Foreign Office about their continued inclusion," a spokesman said.

So perhaps the question of who wants the pro-Mugabe Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Gabriel Machinga, at the wedding remains something of a mystery.

Mr Machinga would seem an odd choice for the Royal couple to share their happy day with. But he would seem a rather odd choice for Foreign Secretary William Hague and his Foreign Office officials too.

Zimbabwean human rights groups have called for the invitation to be rescinded. The exile group Zimbabwe Vigil has written to William Hague to request this.

“Ambassador Machinga has always made it clear that he represents Mugabe and not the people of Zimbabwe or even their coalition government,” said Vigil Coordinator Rose Benton.

As Clifford Chitupa Mashiri writes in the Zimbabwean

It does not require a UN resolution for the Right Honourable William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary to withdraw the invitation to the royal wedding. It is not too late to act. It would be a great symbolic gesture of solidarity with the suffering people of Zimbabwe


It would be in very bad taste for Britain to ignore protest voices of Zimbabwe’s human rights activists and civil society. International isolation of Mugabe’s regime has proved effective in getting political reforms albeit a case of too little, too late.

It could be argued that the justification of the invitation by Britain that it has diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe is a lame excuse for wanting to warm up to dictator Robert Mugabe who has threatened to seize UK businesses in retaliation to targeted sanctions slapped on him and his inner circle for rights abuses.

Sanctions remain in place against Mugabe in an effort to create pressure for free and fair elections, and for the ZanuPF-MDC power-sharing coalition to keep its commitments to respect human rights.

The Foreign Office reports that human rights issues "remain a serious concern", with Amnesty International last week reporting on how human rights violations have continued unabated under the new government of national unity.

Zimbabwe quit the Commonwealth in 2003, when its suspension over human rights abuses and breaches of the democratic principles of the Harare Declaration was confirmed. Commonwealth human rights groups hope it will return to the organisation in the future, a hope shared by the British government too. Mugabe has said he would never rejoin the "evil organisation".

Inviting the ambassador was a mistake - whether by Buckingham Palace, the Foreign Office or, most probably, both. Zimbabwean human rights campaigners are right to call for it to be withdrawn.


Another unwelcome wedding guest is the Crown Prince of Bahrain, as The Observer reports.

The British government has been extremely muted in its criticisms of the Bahrain government's violent suppression of protestors, a government which has enjoyed close relations with both the UK government and the Royal family,

Physicians for Human Rights, a human rights group which has won the Nobel Peace Prize, released a report on Friday, protesting the arrests of medical professionals who treated injured human rights protesters, targetted because they have "evidence of atrocities committed by the authorities, security forces and riot police", according to the report. The Bahrain government denies the report.

The Guardian special report on Bahrain offers extensive coverage on the crackdown against human rights protests.


The King of Swaziland is still heading for a no expenses spared trip to the Dorchester Hotel with an entourage of around fifty people before attending the wedding.

Domestic opponents say this is rather undermining the "all in this together" message of his autocratic government during a severe economic crisis, as South African newspaper The Mail & Guardian reports.

Mary Pais Da Silva, coordinator of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, condemned Mswati for making expensive travel plans while nearly 70% of his people live in absolute poverty. "If we had it our way, he wouldn't go anywhere," she said. "Right now, Swaziland is in an economic crisis. The government talks about belt-tightening but it doesn't seem to apply to the king. It must apply across the board. "


The campaign group Action for Southern Africa, the successor organisation to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, joined the criticism. Its director, Tony Dykes, said: "It is astonishing that the Palace, presumably with advice from the British government, have invited the king of Swaziland to the royal wedding. "They may claim they have done so due to some kind of protocol; if so, they are putting protocol before human rights. Whilst the king and his entourage party in luxury in London, the people of Swaziland are being pushed deeper into poverty and those who speak out face arrest and even torture."

Saturday, 23 April 2011

England, my England

A happy St George's Day to you all!

We should do more to celebrate it - so, each year, this blog adds its small voice to the hope that we might put out more flags.

Others might do more too. Perhaps it is tricky when it sneaks up, slightly unheralded, on an Easter Saturday, the weekend before a Royal Wedding, but it was disappointing to see that Mr Dacre's Daily Mail seems to have entirely failed to mark the occasion this morning. The Daily Express masthead is decked in a free Royal Wedding bunting offer, all Union Jacks, but St George takes a back seat there too.

St George never foot in England, of course, and the slaying of a dragon is rather hard to document. But the questionable provenance of the story of St Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland does not the global Guinness festival on March 17th.

Another reason to celebrate England and the English on April 23rd is that it is both the birthday (maybe, or close enough) and the date of death of Shakespeare, the greatest writer ever produced by the English, or anybody else. That should be enough occasion for a Bank Holiday every year, without needing to marry off one of the Royals to get a day off.

The reason that English has the greatest and richest of any world literature has been its openness to bringing new voices and accents to the great literary tradition of Shakespeare. That argument was made particularly well by Michael Gove, now Tory education secretary, who had been asked by the Quilliam think-tank to speak alongside Liam Byrne and others to talk about Britishness, marking St George's Day a couple of years ago. (Watch it here)

Gove drew on TS Eliot's argument about the tradition of English literature to make a broader point about English and British cultural life, arguing that because Britain had been multiethnic and multinational from the start, it had a strong tradition of being more successful than any other country at including new citizens.

We have all benefitted from that. And, in that process, Britain has changed for the better. It used to be the case, particularly on the right, that when new citizens came here, we required of them that they integrate or assimilate.

I happen to think that request or demand gets its wrong, and that there is a better metaphor. A metaphor that somebody who was themselves a migrant to this country came up with. That was the metaphor that TS Eliot used when he was describing the great tradition of English literature. Eliot described the presence of each new author in the tradition as subtly altering how we saw that tradition.

What Dickens, or Hardy, or Yeats or indeed Eliot himself contributed to English literature changed how we see all of English literature.

And so when we think of Britishness, it is impossible to think of it now without the contributions of each successive wave of new citizens.

Not just in the sense as Robin Cook famously pointed out that chicken tikka massala is now Britain's favourite dish. Some of those who best summed up how Britons think were not John Bull figures themselves. There is no better author who better understands the English tradition of liberty than Isiah Berlin. There is no better student of British history than Lewis Napier. There is no better exponent of the British tradition of pragmatism and empiricism than Karl Popper

All of these figures sum up what it is to be British, what it is to have a British sensibility. They are all people who took their place in an existing tradition and subtly altered it by their presence. And that particular British tradition, as Liam argued, has been uniquely open to the world.

Even if George never quite made it here to contribute as an immigrant, we should embrace St George for England and the English, as John Sentamu argues in The Sun today.

To make this a day of unity rather than discord, let me also endorse the fine sentiments of Michael Gove along with that other recent laureate of the mongrel English, Billy Bragg.

Here are the lyrics to Bragg's English, Half English, part of his jubilee year meditation on English identity.

I enjoyed hearing Bragg sing this at lunchtime during the Fabian Future of Britishness conference five years ago (as well, as a dissenting voice 'Take Down the Union Jack' as the flag which Gordon Brown had reclaimed on the same stage that morning fluttered alongside):

My mother was half-English
And I’m half-English too
I’m a great big bundle of culture
Tied up in the red, white and blue
I’m a fine example of your Essex Man
And I'm well familiar with the Hindustan
‘Cos my neighbours are half-English
And I’m half-English too
My breakfast was half-English
And so am I you know
I had a plate of Marmite soldiers
Washed down with a cappuccino
And I have a veggie curry about once a week
The next day I fry it up as ‘Bubble ‘N’ Squeak’
‘Cos my appetite’s half-English
And I’m half-English too
Dance with me
To this very English melody
From Morris dancing to Morrissey
All that stuff came from across the sea
Britannia , she’s half-English
She speaks Latin at home
St. George was born in the Lebanon
How he got here I don’t know
And those three lions on your shirt
They never sprang from England’s dirt
Them lion’s are half-English
And I’m half-English too

That history of openness reflects some of the many reasons why I'm proud to be English.

A very happy St George's Day to you all!

Friday, 22 April 2011

Democracy Day: Voting for the Alternative

This is my editorial commentary in the new Fabian Review - setting out why I will be voting Yes in the Alternative Vote referendum - published alongside our cartoonist Teal's take on the referendum campaign. (Image used by permission of Adrian Teal: please respect copyright; for permissions, please contact


What if they threw a referendum and nobody came? Our first national plebiscite for 35 years has hardly set the country alight.

Labour voters will probably decide the referendum, though many may not vote on the issues. It is impossible to vote against the coalition Government: a No vote cast to spite Nick Clegg will also bolster David Cameron and George Osborne.

The Yes campaign makes too simple a contrast between ‘democracy or duck houses‘, stretching a very tenuous link from safe seats to MP expenses. But the No campaign has focused primarily on false claims, making a blatant lie – that changing the voting system will cost £250 million – its central public argument, after its polling showed this could shift inattentive voters.

There is a particular chutzpah in a No campaign led by Matthew Elliott, the head of The Taxpayers’ Alliance , which hates public spending and campaigns with passion for deeper cuts, running emotive but irrelevant posters calling for more spending on premature baby units. Even they surely can't believe it.

There will be no expensive voting machines. None are planned, nobody wants them, and Australia counts Alternative Vote (AV) votes by hand. But Yes campaigners should do more than factual rebuttal – and invite those campaigning against this (fictional) waste of money to join them in a bipartisan promise to legislate that General Election votes shall be counted by hand, whether we keep the system or change it. There would be an overwhelming Commons majority to defuse the threat. Refusing such an olive branch would be to openly admit that the bogus campaign is a dirty trick.

An honest account of the choice would acknowledge several similarities between first-past-the-post and the Alternative Vote. AV would retain a parliament in which every MP represents a single constituency, but must now seek 50 per cent. Both are majoritarian systems, which will tend to deliver a majority to a single party which receives 40 per cent of the vote, while both will deliver hung Parliaments in conditions like those of May 2010.

I will vote Yes as the differences seem clearly in AV's favour. X voting was fine in 1955 when there were, on average, 2.3 candidates per constituency. This rose to 6 by 2010. Every voter can cast a real first choice vote under AV. Fifteen per cent of voters say they don't vote for the candidate or party they want at present. This is particularly important to reversing a Labour retreat in the southern regions, and would help to mitigate the sharp regional polarisation of British politics.

There is no cast iron evidence about partisan effects. Voters and parties would act differently under a new system. AV is good for broadly popular parties, and bad for pariah parties.

Labour would have done better under AV in recent elections, but badly in 1983. The Conservatives are increasingly panicked about a Yes vote, telling Tory donors to fund the No campaign or risk having to fund a much more difficult re-election campaign if the system changes.

AV would make securing a majority for 'no compromise' Conservatism harder, requiring a broader appeal beyond the Tory tribe than David Cameron has yet achieved. But no electoral system would or should ever permanently exclude a major political tradition from power. Tories feared universal suffrage would kill them too, but conservatives manage to live with changes they opposed.

Fabians will make up their own minds on both sides of the argument. Do vote – and for the system you believe would be better for our democracy.

* The Fabian Review is published on the Wednesday after Easter: Ed Wallis previews the gender equality special issue.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

My Tory Cabinet colleagues were insincere in voting for an elected Lords, says Clegg

Nick Clegg spoke at the ippr this morning on the case for the Alternative Vote and the new politics.

The Lords reform debate is also coming back to life, with most in Westminster believing it will be pushed forward as a consolation prize to the Liberal Democrats if the voting reform referendum a No vote.

So I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he could tell us truthfully that the issue would have as much priority whatever the outcome of the AV referendum. And I also asked whether, given that many of his Conservative colleagues in Cabinet had voted in favour of a wholly elected second chamber, and the Coalition agreement was committed to a wholly or mainly elected chamber, the New Politics might involve putting that to a free vote of the House of Commons, rather than stitching it up behind closed doors in Cabinet Committee.

Will Straw also asked a Lords question: whether Clegg agreed with the Constitution Unit's report on the dangers of packing the Lords.

Clegg ignored Straw's question entirely, and the first part of mine. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, also suggested that "only at ippr, would a speech on AV lead to questions about Lords reform". However, his speech had just suggested the issue was a passionate cause for his party to settle after a century, making it odd to mock questions about what he regards as a major constitutional issue.

This is what he did say in response to my call for a Commons free vote on fully or partially elected options.

"As you know, I am personally in favour of wholly elected second chamber. A lot of Conservatives aren't - however they may have voted. As you know, Sunder, there were many tactical voting and games being played to try to block change".

Clegg said that, when the draft Bill is published, "a joint committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords will pore over it for a year or so, or perhaps a bit less, so I think there are many turns of this wheel yet".

The name-check was a neat reminder of Clegg's personal touch in that first TV debate, during the heady days of Cleggmania a year ago.

Clegg is clearly annoyed at the "visceral" personal attacks on him, by the Conservative-backed anti-AV campaign. So perhaps he ought to identify which Tory colleagues he thinks were casting an insincere vote for an elected Lords.

I don't think Clegg's charge against his coalition partner stands up.

Tory Cabinet members who voted for a 100% elected Lords were George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Liam Fox, Eric Pickles, Owen Paterson and Jeremy Hunt. (Almost everybody else already backed 80%). Next Left published the full list on Sunday, of how the current Cabinet voted on an elected Lords in the 2007 free vote, showing how Cabinet members split 12-6 for 100% over 80%.

Yet Clegg's 'tactical' explanation of Tory insincerity fails - certainly in the case of Osborne, Clarke, Fox and Paterson, who all voted exactly as Clegg did, for an 80% Lords as well as for 100%. This makes no sense at all as a tactical wrecking effort - which would have depended on voting against the 80% option. (Eric Pickles and Jeremy Hunt did do that, but might now be challenged to stick to their support for 100%).

Clegg did have a good line in saying "I hear the Labour Party is now passionately in favour of 100% elected, having delivered precisely zero per cent. The zeal of the convert is always welcome".

However, it is quite probable that the class of 2010 have made this House of Commmons keener on a fully elected chamber than the last one.

Perhaps Clegg should pick up the idea of a free vote and run with it under the 'new politics' banner.

Putting women at the centre of politics

The ‘invisibility’ of women during Labour’s general election campaign shocked many in the party, as did the struggle to field a female candidate in the leadership election. It reminded everyone how far away gender equality still is, despite the tangible but incremental progress under Labour. And it showed that Labour, whilst rightly proud of the step change in female political representation that happened in 1997 and still far ahead of the other major parties, had become complacent. It highlighted the extent to which cultural and institutional sexism remains in our politics.

So how do we move forward towards genuine fair representation? Politics is now dominated by a generation of 40 year olds; prime ministers having children whilst in office is becoming old news. There seems a clear opportunity to change some norms. How does that happen? There was lots of handwringing in the Labour leadership debates about the lack of female candidates and the hustings often focused on the pressures on the candidates’ young families – but ultimately it was still a contest dominated by male former special advisers. Similarly, it seemed strikingly positive that four weeks after stepping into such a high profile job, Ed Miliband went on paternity leave. But what should have been a powerful symbol of the importance of shared responsibility for childcare, quickly became a public narrative of a void at the top of the Labour Party. It’s important that new times don’t end up reinforcing the status quo.

The spring issue of the Fabian Review is a special issue dedicated to gender equality. It’s published next Wednesday (27th) and will be hitting member’s doormats throughout the week.

As well as considering these issues of political representation, it also focuses on the government's programme of public spending cuts and how they impact disproportionately on women. The Women’s Budget Group report that followed last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review provides a pretty compelling exposition of how under this government, women’s lives are going to get considerably worse. Howard Reed argues in the magazine that the cuts "did not have to be made in a way which disadvantaged women this much".

You can preview Howard Reed's new research data here, as well as piece by Demos director Kitty Ussher on Next Left on how future budgets can be fairer.

We'll be previewing more pieces over the next few days - and you can get more information on what's in the magazine and how to get hold of it here. Comments and feedback as ever very much appreciated below.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A 'Labour moment' as LibDems now trail by 51 points with Guardian readers

"The collapse in LibDem support is the most dramatic feature of the party landscape since last year's General Election", writes Peter Kellner in his 'Can the Liberal Democrats survive the Coalition' analysis and graphics in the new May 2011 issue of Prospect.

The pollster's gloomy prognosis is that "Unless Nick Clegg can secure a new tranche of votes, from the centre and right-of-centre, Clegg's party seems doomed to suffer - certainly for as long as it is in coalition with the Conservatives".

The Kellner piece usefully distinguish between churn between the parties and the loss in net support. So YouGov calculate that Nick Clegg has picked up 600,000 voters who didn't vote LibDem in May but who would do so now - but that this is outweighed by the loss of allegiance of 4.7 million who did vote LibDem, but now wouldn't.

Two million May 2010 LibDems now intend to vote for Ed Miliband's Labour party, half a million for the Tories, six hundred thousand for others, while 1.3 million don't know, and around 300,000 wouldn't vote.

Labour has a net gain of 3.2 million voters. David Cameron's net loss of 0.7 million in year one may well be less than he feared given economic conditions, but he would be wise to anticipate having to increase his support substantially by the end of the Parliament to stay in office.


Among the greatest swingers of all against Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats since the Coalition was formed are Guardian readers, who have been even more likely to desert the party than students, and who now favour Labour over the LibDems by a margin of 51 points.

You Gov reports Guardian voting intentions as follows, compared to May 2010:

Labour 66% (+24%)
LibDems 15% (-30%)
Conservative 7% (-)
Others 12% (+5) - including Greens 9% (+5)

A Labour moment indeed!

The Green party rise to 9% from 4% means that they have now overtaken the Tories as the third party in Guardianland on this poll.

(Just to clarify sourcing to avoid confusion: Kellner's Prospect piece reports findings are from YouGov's latest nationwide survey involving 50,000 people. While the Prospect graphic gives the change in vote share, the party shares behind them, and reported here, were provided directly by YouGov in response to Next Left's inquiry).

The LibDems have lost support with the readers of newspapers on the right too - though only 6% among Mail readers and 8% among Sun readers, where they of course began with much less to lose. They have dropped 15% among public sector workers and 18% among trade union members. It is more surprising is that the loss of Guardian votes outstrips even the loss of LibDem support among students, where the LibDems are down 25% and Labour up 19%. Nick Clegg might well think that life's not fair when he sees that his Conservative partners are up 5% among students: this suggests that he may have lost even those students who did agree with his u-turn to his partner David Cameron.

YouGov showed a 3% LibDem lead over Labour in May 2010 by 45% to 42%

However, contrasting May 2010 findings from other pollsters could cast doubt on the theory that the collapse in support reflects a bursting of a Cleggmania bubble among Guardianistas.

It may also be that the paper's readers were already considerably less taken by the prospect of a "liberal moment" last May than its editorial writing team, before becoming much more disillusioned with Clegg's party since.

One of the curiosities of the election was that The Guardian was the only national paper whose readers swung against the LibDems - according to the British Election Survey - despite it providing the first ever national newspaper editorial of the party, when the Coalition was little more than a glint in the eye of Cameron or Clegg, as we blogged previously:

Labour's slender two point (43-41%) lead over the LibDems among Guardian readers in 2005 extended to nine points (46-37%) in 2010, according to the tables in the Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley British General Election of 2010.

One plausible hypothesis is that the Iraq war was considerably more important in switching Guardian readers from Labour to LibDem in 2005 than the newspaper's endorsement of the LibDems in 2010, when both the fading of the Iraq issue and the threat of a Tory government saw a shift back towards Labour.


There may be some consolation for Nick Clegg in a Prospect column from Charles Kennedy, though he ought not to get too excited by a headline "I've learned to love the Coalition" which does not really come particularly close to reflecting anything Kennedy writes in the text.

Kennedy does somewhat endorse the Coalition, having abstained on its formation, in expecting it to last the parliament, to the extent that he writes that "once the deal was done ... it is in everyone's interest that it succeeds", despite the LibDems having had "the rougher end" of it so far.

As for what that means for the Liberal Democrats when they next meet the voters, Kennedy frankly acknowledges that he does not know:

"The real fortunes of the party will hinge on the economic prognosis in the third and fourth years of this parliament. It is simply too early to tell what that will be".

We shall all have to wait to find out whether the cautious support or this 'wait and see' message turn out to be more significant in the end.

Understanding the conservatism of the left

Blue Labour voices advocate that "Labour's future is conservative". But what does this mean - and does it signal a shift to the right, or a rediscovery of the values of the left? In this guest post, Anthony Painter, co-author of the important recent Searchlight Fear and Hope report, unpicks the emerging politics of identity and ideas, and argues that much will depend on thinking through how the left understands conservatism, identity and belonging, if it is to engage with insecurity but offer a politics of hope.


The debate about Labour's future is in a terrible state of confusion. On the one side we have the ascendent blue Labourites or what is perhaps the more instructive tag of the communitarian left - which has mainly inherited Blairite love of authority, with an added layer of tradition, now combined with a critique of its liberal economics. In their mistrust of the state they have found common ground with 'purple bookers' or the old (or new?) progressives. Somewhere floating in the middle are the liberal social democrats. A caricatured Brownism has been their inheritance and they are struggling to establish a clear voice as a result.

Elements of these three contenders for ideological supremacy are pro- and anti- state, authoritarian and liberal, interventionist and light touch, reformist and traditionalist, nationalist and internationalist. Apart from despair at Coalition austerity, there is little by way of common thread, no shared analysis, shifting allegiances, with no dominant argument holding sway. In a sense, this diversity, a full spectrum critique of state, market and Labour's approach to civil society, is a good thing. However, unless this becomes a coherent political story with vision and policies attached then it is seminar politics rather than the politics of winning and using power effectively.

One word more than other has contributed to this sense of confusion: conservative. Like all conceptual words it acquires a number of different meanings. In normal political discourse, a social conservative is someone who is fiercely defensive of 'traditional values.' At its edges it can become prejudicial. This is the deeply stereotyped 'conservatism' of which Lynsey Hanley writes in The Guardian today.

But this is not the conservatism which Labour's intellectual tribes are debating. When she dismisses the past as 'shit', Hanley touches on a real aspect of the debate. It is about change, loss, security, order, nostalgia, human relations: protecting ways of life, communities of meaning, and understanding the meaning that humans need. Though it most definitely does not dismiss the past, or the present.

Equally, it's not about turning Labour into a respectable version of the BNP, or a kind of non-EU obsessed UKIP. That would be crazy, wrong, dismissive of everything the party stands for, its traditions, and you could count me out. This conservatism is more a philosophical disposition that instinctively understands the value of the things that people actually value, and seeks to moderate change - economic and social - in a way that can be accommodated in the lives that people actually lead. Is fabian gradualism not an expression of this instinct?

And it's not just a working-class thing at all: we all have a resistance to change at some level. What is the left if not about respecting people's lives, seeing nobility in them and acting together to both protect and empower? Is this not the essence of labourism?

Just as blue Labour was gathering pace, the Fear and Hope report co-written by Nick Lowles and myself was also published. For some, this may have added to the confusion. Its top-line conclusion is that British politics is structured around a blend of identity and class politics where economic insecurity interacts with cultural and social anxieties to create a refracted pluralism. It is this political fragmentation that makes electoral coalition formation so difficult. Our attitudes are so divided. The New Labour trick of identifying the biggest pile of potential voters then shifting there doesn't work in such a lumpy political landscape.

So even if Labour were to try to irresponsibly harvest social division as a 'populist' electoral strategy, it wouldn't work. There is a see-saw effect: what you'd gain to the right, you'd lose from the liberal left. While many of the findings of the report seem deeply concerning, eg the 60% who consider immigration to have been a bad thing for the country 'on the whole', scratching beneath the surface of the data reveals some more cause for optimism. 18% believe we should stop all immigration permanently but 61% believe that we should allow inward migration of skilled workers or skilled and unskilled workers who help the economy. Well, isn't that pretty much Labour's policy on immigration?

That isn't getting through of course. So there is something deeper going on. There is a pathway to hostility and enmity that can be seen in the report: first people feel that their life hasn't gone the way they expect, that can then become a pessimism about the future for both their families and themselves, and then, it can become refracted into a resentment of others. That's when UKIP and the BNP find fertile ground. A fascinating study by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham has found that the social base and attitude set of UKIP's 'core' (those who vote for it in general as well as european elections) is in many ways similar to the BNP. With both we are dealing with two aspects of the same phenomenon.

Labour's best strategy is not to patronise or dismiss these voters but pursue an agenda that creates real opportunities for all while respectfully agreeing to disagree when it comes to the politics of prejudice and scapegoating. More importantly it must understand what really counts in peoples lives - their family, the local school, their tax bill, a high quality local NHS service, real and status -giving work, less insecurity, new opportunities for their kids, their church, America's Top Model, and meet them there in order to gain entry to the conversation.

And that's the problem with where Labour is currently - it hasn't gained an invite to the conversation. It is tolerated rather than respected - it's hold your nose and vote politics. That hurts but that's the harsh reality.

If Labour can reestablish itself in the conversation then it can prevent any further drift towards non voting and create firewalls against hostility and enmity. Whatever the blue, purple and social democratic Labour debate settles on - and all have important contributions to make while none possesses the complete answer - it must never lose sight of where people actually are. Labour can only speak for people if it understands them first. A politics of despair assumes the worst while a politics of idealism forgets to double check its assumptions. Neither is satisfactory. Without hope Labour is politically bankrupt. Without realism it's politically irrelevant.

Anthony Painter is co-author with Nick Lowles of the recent Searchlight Educational Trust report Fear and Hope. This commentary represents his personal views, rather than those of Searchlight.

So, you want to run the Fabians?

What is he wittering on about now? I could do better than that.

If you've ever thought that - and, let's face it, who hasn't - then this might just be your chance.

The Fabian Society is recruiting for our next General Secretary. I will be leaving at the end of June, to take up a new challenge.

The advert - below - is in today's Guardian, and the full details of how to apply are on the Fabian website. (How to apply (PDF file))

I suggest we approach it like this.

Witticisms, parodies and joke applications are welcome here on Next Left in the thread below.

And, if you would like to apply for one of the most interesting and enjoyable jobs in politics, then you have got until Thursday 26th May to get your pitch in.

Good luck!

Fabian Society

General Secretary

6 weeks' holiday and 7% pension contribution

The Fabian Society, the UK's premier think tank and political association, is looking for an exceptional individual to lead the organisation.

The job involves generating original political and policy ideas for research, publications and events. It requires excellent skills in communication and advocacy and in strategic, staff and financial management.

It is a unique opportunity to influence political debate and public policy.

For more information and application details visit, email (putting 'Recruitment' in the subject line), or send an SAE to Recruitment, Fabian Society, 11 Dartmouth St, London SW1H 9BN. Closing date for applications: midday Thursday 26th May 2011.

The Fabian Society is committed to the principles and practice of equal opportunity. We particularly welcome applications from those under-represented at this level.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Ed M calls for post-hacking inquiry into the press

The Guardian has an exclusive interview with the Labour leader, whose support for an investigation is a significant and welcome move, couched in very sensible and moderate terms.

"I think there does need to be a review after the police inquiries have been completed and any criminal cases that flow from it.

"I think it is in the interests of protecting the reputation of the British press that these matters should not simply be left to rest, and lessons have to be learned."

"The press itself will want to look at how self-regulation can be made to work better because it clearly did not work very well in relation to these issues here."

What happened was very bad, and it is right to say that, but there are very good traditions in our press, and they have to be maintained, but we have to get rid of the bad ones, and we have to find a way of doing that."

"My strong instincts are that we do not want governmental regulation of these issues, but I don't think the Press Complaints Commission has covered itself in glory."

It would be good to hear major newspapers debate the merits of this in their pages. If they could now open up this debate, they would have a good opportunity to set out how such an inquiry might operate so that it could learn the lessons without any threat to press freedom. If there is continues to be silence, or a very muted debate, from much of the press, then parliamentarians and others are more likely to shape the debate.

Next Left has argued that establishing an effective and independent investigation into the issue will need broad cross-party and civic support, and it is to be hoped that there will now be similar calls from senior backbenchers from the governing parties and opposition.

Former Tory party chairman Sir Norman Fowler has called for a judge-led inquiry, as have senior commentators, such as Brian Cathcart.

LibDem ministers will also be sympathetic - and may well be able to find a way to express that, even if the government does not take a position, though it would help if there were Tory as well as LibDem backbenchers.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron today indicated that he would not want to see his Labour predecessor Gordon Brown nominated to head the IMF, despite support from other European governments.

Labour should be more open-minded on the issue of learning the lessons for the press, and promote the case of former Tory PM John Major as a man of integrity and independence who could look into the issues without fear or favour.

So, will the Royal Wedding break really cost us £30 billion?

The Royal Wedding preparations are causing a little bit of cognitive dissonance for the leader writers at Paul Dacre's Daily Mail.

Closed for Business

For some, the break has already begun. And with more public holidays to come, it won’t be until three days after the Royal wedding that Britain gets fully back into the rhythm of work.

Yes, the nation should warmly celebrate the wedding. But are those Jeremiahs completely wrong, who question the wisdom of a £30billion break in the depths of the worst debt crisis in our history?

Now, imagine what they would say if there wasn't a Bank holiday for the Royal Wedding!

Perhaps the Dacre rule is that its always worth giving Jeremiahs a hearing, up to a point, as long as they don't get carried away with their miserabilism.

Still, the Mail backs up its concern with a news report, albeit with a rather tentative headline for its report The everlasting Easter holiday that could cost the nation £30 billion.

Experts warn the economic impact will be devastating, with many firms forced to shut down due to lack of staff and depressed demand.

It could knock up to £30billion off economic output, according to a gloomy prediction from accountants RSM Tenon.

There will be winners, however, including the tourist industry, retailers and airlines. EasyJet yesterday described the next two weeks as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime bank holiday extravaganza’.

Well, that has got their name in the papers, but it will be interesting to see how they have worked it out. The Mail's report suggests that the analysis may just depend on ignoring the fact that we do have an Easter break every year, for example, even if Prince William is not getting married.

As a result, there are just 18 working days in April. RSM Tenon calculates a typical bank holiday costs the economy about £6billion. But the upcoming four could amount to a £30billion loss.

I couldn't yet find any information or a press release on the RSM Tenon website to give the non back of an envelope basis for the figure.

£x million/billion lost to business is a media staple. I am not in a position to comment on the specific study, since it doesn't seem to have been published yet. But there are often grounds for suspicion at the methodology by which such claims are calculated, particularly if such scenarios sometimes assume that little or none of the "lost" output is recovered or displaced, so that economic activity which would have taken place on the bank holiday takes place when firms return to work, or if insufficient account is taken to studying how productivity changes on the other days of a four day working week.

It would be good to hear from anybody who has any academic references about such media reports, or the way to get the methodology right.

And, when the Daily Mail news pages calls a prediction "gloomy" it is a signal that it may just be creeping towards the implausibly high end of the scale.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Faction formerly known as 'Blairites' to publish The Purple Book

Remember the 2001 general election? The posters were purple - a lot done, a lot to do - in a bid to seek a somewhat mandateless re-coronation of the then very popular Tony Blair.

And now the purple banner is to be revived this Autumn, to seize the chance to recapture those old New Labour glories, and (it is suggested) to emulate the success of the Orange Book Liberal Democrats too.

Rachel Sylvester has the scoop in her Times column in Tuesday's paper (£) about a book which Progress plan to publish around the Autumn conference.

Now, the Blairites in the Labour Party are planning to publish their own modernisers’ manifesto that they hope will reshape politics on the Centre Left in a similar way. It is going to be called The Purple Book.

“Purple was the colour of new Labour,” says one of those involved. “It’s what you get if you combine red and blue. It symbolises the need to stay on the centre ground.”

The book will involve Tessa Jowell, Liam Byrne and Alan Milburn, John Woodcock and Liz Kendall, among others. "It is not yet clear whether David Miliband will write a chapter, although he sympathises with the aims of The Purple Book", writes Sylvester.

But please do not call them 'Blairites', though The Times column itself does so. Sylvester also writes:

Already, those discussing the project hope that they may in future be known as the Purple Book group rather than Blairites — an outdated adjective, almost two decades after Tony Blair first became leader — just as some Lib Dems are described as Orange Book MPs.

You can read my considered take on this colourful development in a Labour Uncut column on Tuesday.

I'll add the link here when it's published. (Labour Uncut: Purple Bookers try to revive New Labour glories

Should Labour's AV agnostics vote against Clegg - or Osborne?

It would be great if every referendum was decided on the merits of the issue on the ballot. Ed Miliband makes that appeal in The Independent today.

"It is not a referendum on Nick Clegg nor David Cameron. It is a referendum on AV."

But the comparative evidence shows that doesn't always happen - with voters often expressing a view about the government of the day. Many Labour supporters who don't have strong views about AV one way or the other want to protest the Coalition government and its cuts agenda. The polling evidence suggests that they could decide the referendum.

But it is impossible to vote against the Coalition on AV.

Andrew Rawnsley set out in Sunday's Observer the case that a Yes vote would cause deeper trouble for David Cameron than a Yes vote would for Nick Clegg.

In Independent political editor Andrew Grice's analyses those referendum dilemmas, and e quotes me setting out why a vote to spite Nick Clegg would make George Osborne very happy indeed.

A No vote cast to spite Nick Clegg for forming the Coalition is a vote that bolsters George Osborne, the cuts and his strategy for a Tory majority in 2015 on the existing voting system," said Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society. "The one result that would really rock the Coalition would be big Liberal Democrat losses in the local elections combined with a Yes vote on AV. That would see Mr Cameron facing a furious revolt from his backbenchers and grassroots Tories, as the man who failed to win a majority last May and who had now lost the electoral system they love too."

I expand on the argument on how much chief Tory election strategist Osborne believes he can gain from Nick Clegg's unpopularity in a post for LabourList this morning.

The post echoes arguments made about Osborne's future plans also made by some of the best informed centre-right commentators, such as The Telegraph's Ben Brogan.

This helps to explain why the Chancellor of the Exchequer has suddenly found a great deal of time to complain about the Electoral Reform Society campaigning for electoral reform.

But Osborne's plans depend on Labour votes in the referendum. Do those thinking of voting to spite Nick Clegg want to give Osborne's Tory campaign a vital political boost?

Sunday, 17 April 2011

How Clegg's Lords triumph would be settled on Tory terms

“We will establish a committee to bring forward plans for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”
- Coalition Agreement, May 2010.

David Cameron is worried about Nick Clegg, as the Sunday Telegraph reports.

Strategists at 10 Downing Street are drawing up plans for a raft of policy announcements in the weeks following May 5 which can be claimed as Lib Dem "wins" if Mr Clegg suffers reverses in both ballots.

The centrepiece of the policy drive would be plans for a reformed House of Lords, with 80 per cent of its members elected for single "terms" of 15 years.

Crucially for Mr Clegg, they would be elected under a proportional representation (PR) system, although exactly how this would operate would not be known for months, if not years.

That last point is certainly news to anybody who didn't hear about the Coalition Agreement a year ago. And the headline Peers 'to be elected by PR' in sop to Nick Clegg, is likely to generate a lot of ill informed comment.

The more eye-catching line in the piece is that the sensiblist and well informed party activist and blogger Mark Pack already thinks it helpful to pre-emptively issuing a dreaded pre-May 5th vote of confidence to his embattled party leader.

If such a firm proposal was made, Mr Clegg's position would be greatly strengthened. Mark Pack, editor of Lib Dem Voice, the leading website for party activists, said: "If you see House of Lords reform, under a PR system, unveiled soon afterwards, this will provide an immediate reason for Nick's leadership to continue long term."

This may well shore up Nick Clegg's leadership with his party, as Pack argues. But there is less to the deal than meets the eye.

Firstly, that Lords reform is likely to be accelerated if the AV vote goes no was easy to predict. The Guardian reported me telling a Fabian fringe meeting last Autumn: "Katwala said of proposals for an elected House of Lords: "The coalition have got to have some baubles on the Lib Dem tree. If they lose the AV referendum [on electoral reform], the Tories will give them the House of Lords very quickly.)" It would be good to have some progress on the issue, but politically this is more survival strategy than triumph.


Secondly, it is just silly to call a Lords elected by PR a "sop to Clegg".

PR elections has also been the position of the Tory Leader of the House of Commons George Young for many years, long before the Coalition government.

It surprised nobody when PR was stipulated in the Coalition Agreement. This has been a staple assumption of all serious Parliamentary or party debates on Lords reform for many years that any elected element would be by some form of PR. Without this, there would be no prospect of making reform happen.

A good example was the cross-party 2004 proposal which were put forward by George Young and Ken Clarke, along with Robin Cook and Tony Wright for Labour, and LibDem Paul Tyler.

The primary argument for a majoritarian lower house system (such as first-past-the-post, AV or the Jenkins' AV+ which is a majoritarian/PR hybrid) is that it helps voters choose between governments.

Nobody can claim that this applies to elections which do not select an administration, and a second chamber whose on-going confidence is not needed to support one.

So very few people seriously argue for a majoritarian system for the Upper House, and certainly nobody with a serious interest in the politics of making reform happen.

Those who would favour that instead support keeping the appointed House (like Tom Harris) or, in some cases, abolition and unicameralism. (An anti-"deadlock" argument for a majoritarian upper house because a PR second house must not be able to check a majority government is - logically - an argument for unicameralism, and against the checks and balances of a second chamber).


Thirdly, Clegg would have had to trade in a significant LibDem concession. An 80% elected second chamber would give Cameron the policy he was in favour of long before this Coalition.

If you check out how members of this Cabinet voted on the Lords in 2007, it becomes clear that this is a clear LibDem concession to the Conservatives, rather than a Tory concession to the LibDems (particularly as so many Tories were already on the LibDem side of the argument). Indeed, the Clegg deal would have moved the Cabinet backwards from support for a fully elected Lords, as the full list below of Cabinet votes on Lords reform previously shows.

Among MPs who are full members of the Cabinet, there were 12 supporters of a 100% elected Lords, only 6 who maxed out at 80%, and 2 opponents of any elected element

To compromise on an 80% elected Lords would be trade off a LibDem policy supported by all six current LibDem Cabinet ministers and which already in the last Parliament - before there was any whiff of a Coalition - also had the support of George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Liam Fox, Eric Pickles, Owen Paterson and Jeremy Hunt, in order to secure a policy which almost every Conservative in the Cabinet (including Lord Strathclyde) already supported on its merits, without the need for a jot of LibDem persuasion

Again, that the Coalition would go for an 80% elected Lords, retaining a substantial appointed element, was predictable. This blog suggested, on May 23rd 2010 when the Coalition was just nine days old, that despite Nick Clegg publicly stating "I think it should be a wholly elected House" he was already happy to hedge on 80%. I wrote that Clegg's comments to Andrew Marr "gave a strong steer that there is already an agreement between the Conservative and LibDem frontbenches that they will go for the "mainly elected" option.

Those voting figures suggest that, had the LibDems remained outside of the government, they would have been in a very good position to demand that a Tory minority government prioritise Lords reform - as part of a 'supply and confidence' agreement.

They may even have got some concessions in George Osborne's budgets too.


How the current Cabinet voted on Lords elections in March 2007

David Cameron (C) - for 80%; against 100%

Nick Clegg (LD) - for 100%, for 80%

William Hague (C) - for 80%, against 100%

George Osborne (C) - for 100%, for 80%

Ken Clarke (C) - for 100%, for 80%

Theresa May (C) - against 100%, for 80%

Liam Fox (C) - for 100%, for 80%

Vince Cable (LD) - for 100%, for 80%

Iain Duncan Smith (C) - against 100%, for 80%

Chris Huhne (LD) - for 100%, for 80%

Andrew Lansley (C) - against 100%, for 80%

Michael Gove (C) [no vote on 100%; no vote on 80%]

Eric Pickles (C) - for 100%; against 80%

Phillip Hammond (C) - against 100%; for 80%

Caroline Spelman (C) - for 100%; for 80%

Andrew Mitchell (C) - against 100; against 80% [for fully appointed]

Owen Paterson (C) - for 100%; for 80%

Michael Moore (LD) - for 100%; for 80%

Cheryl Gillan (C) - against 100%, against 80% [for fully appointed]

Jeremy Hunt (C) - for 100%; against 80%

Danny Alexander (LD) - for 100%; for 80%

Lord Strathclyde (C) - against 100%, for 80% [against fully appointed]

Baroness Warsi (C) - [not a member of the Lords until 2010]


Also attending Cabinet, but not full Cabinet ministers:

Francis Maude (C) - against 100%; for 80%

Oliver Letwin (C) - against 100%; for 80%

David Willetts (C) - against 100%; for 80%

George Young (C) - against 100%, for 80%

Patrick McLoughlin (C) - against 100%; for 80%

Dominic Grieve (C) - against 100%; for 80%