Confessions of a Political Animal

August 23, 2012

Two weeks in London

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 7:55 pm
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This post was originally a guest column at The Practical Pinko.

Panem et circenses. When Juvenal coined his scathing phrase about Roman politicians, he inspired two thousand years of cynicism, of conspiracy theories, of scepticism. The master manipulators, seeking to distract from ideological failings, from corruption and drudgery, through gaudy entertainments and cheap bread.

Two millennia old it may be, but Juvenal’s hoary old phraseology got plenty of outings from Olympic-sceptics as the night of 29 July 2012 approached in London, and occasionally in the two remarkable weeks that followed. This was how our rulers, across party boundaries, would change the narrative. No more would we think about the pain of austerity, the injustice of cuts that make the worst off pay for the mistakes of the richest, the deadly spiral of rising youth unemployment, a continent teetering on the edge of yet another financial armageddon. Panem et circenses, but mainly circenses.

If any politician really believed that, they were cynics headed for disappointment. They will fail to reap any such reward. But the real cynicism in this case was, perhaps, not the politicians, but those whose opposition to London’s Games was that they would succeed as a distraction. That is to take a view of the electorate that is deeply patronising, that somehow the mere ordinary people can handle only one narrative in their mind. Swept away in a whirl of stadia and gold medals, we would forget all that has happened over the past years, and our fears for the future, rallying to the flag and to David Cameron.

We didn’t. Well, maybe we forgot briefly, as the sun beat down and the world fell in love with London, but there has been no ‘Olympic bounce’ for the government. No real respite for the teetering coalition. Yes, the media covered little but the Games, and yes, that pushed important issues both at home and abroad off the front page. But anyone who has lived through a British summer will know that the idea that governments fall or destinies shift due to what the media reports in the first two weeks of August is risible. We are an imperfect democracy, but we are not fools.

The problem for some, mainly but not exclusively on the left, is to become seen as miserabilists, trudging out the idea that a bit of fun, a bit of light, a bit of diversion is somehow wrong so long as people suffer poverty, unemployment or inequality. Criticise the Games, by all means – and there is much to criticise and question. But criticise them for their practice, not their fact. A left that believes in a role for an enabling state beyond being simply a nightwatchman should not see ‘bread and circuses’ as a motto of the cynical politician, rather as a rallying cry. Yes, we want government to ensure that no-one goes without the basics of a decent life, but so too do we want to see an active engagement in supporting the diversity of life, including culture and sport. And that means engaging with, supporting and – yes – spending money on events with mass, sweeping appeal. The crowds at the torch relays, the scramble for tickets, the TV viewing figures all show that the Games had that appeal.

Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about what the Games mean for London and Britain. It is one of those events so broad, so sweeping and so beyond the normal register of occurrences, that it provides space onto which everyone has been able to project their own viewpoint and ‘lessons learnt’. The comparisons between the Games and the 2011 riots, taking place a year to the day before, have been crudely drawn. But both have provided canvasses vast and blank enough for anyone to paint upon them.

There is no guarantee that anything will change as a result of the Games. The key facts of life, the economy and politics remain the same as they did on the morning of the 29th July. A thousand conflicting predictions of what happens next mean that most will be proved wrong. But there is that little glimmer of something, as yet intangible.

The danger of the Games is that they would become another soggy Jubilee. A few days of slightly introverted, slightly enforced festivity, based on flag and tradition. Enjoyed by many, but simply reinforcing what we are, where we are. And there has been no shortage of flags paraded over the past two weeks. But from the first astonishing moments of Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony, this had a feeling of something different. It was a very British event, yet also cosmopolitan. We waved flags for Team GB, but we welcomed the world to London as equals and peers.

That was the eye-opener. This was sport, it was competition, in theory between nations. Raucous and proud, but rarely partisan; and sometime simply about celebrating humanity. On Wednesday last week, a mainly British crowd packed out one of ExCel’s huge halls for a Greco-Roman wrestling final, a sport for which no British athlete had even entered. And yet they yelled and cheered the athletes on with as much passion as the groups of Iranians and Georgians in the crowd with home athletes to support. On the first Sunday, in those first few days when home advantage seemed a myth, the crowds lining Box Hill in lush Surrey loudly applauded the power of Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos as she broke from the pack on the gruelling climb, to put paid to gold hopes for Britain. And at the final event, the final medal, on a blistering Greenwich Sunday, there was probably not a Lithuanian in the crowd for the modern pentathlon. Yet there was nothing to distinguish between the stand-shaking cheer that greeted Laura Asadauskaite as she entered the stadium leading the final lap from that which, 10 seconds later, heralded the British athlete chasing her down. Nor for one moment did anyone in that crowd begrudge standing for Lietuva,Tėvyne mūsų rather than God Save The Queen. The idea, at a London Olympic event, of separating home and away supporters, would have been met with bemusement and laughter.

There isn’t really a word to describe the feeling that swept over Britain these past two weeks. This certainly wasn’t nationalism, at least not in its normal form. Nothing so ugly, or so small minded. We invited the world as equals, not to humiliate them. Nor was it patriotism, the famed ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’, in its normal form. Proud of our athletes, yet also in awe of others.

What it feels more like is a pride in a job well done, for its imperfections, and in difficult times. If there are parallels to be drawn, perhaps it is with the civic pride which gave Britain’s industrial cities their peculiar, culturally-rich, form of municipal socialism. Or perhaps with the unique form of pride and determination which inspired Britain’s greatest government to its heights of achievement after 1945. Not based on being better than others, but in being unique and proud of what we could achieve. In 2005, London won the Games by showcasing what is unique about the city. It did so again this summer, promoting our multiculturalism, our diversity, our organic city and yes, even our infrastructure. We celebrated what London and Britain is, not what we imagine it once was, and we didn’t seek too hard to hide the cracks. This pride in modernity is why so many backward-looking commentators have called these past two weeks so badly wrong. The less said about Aidan Burley MP the better, or indeed Piers Morgan’s reaction to the Opening Ceremony, thinking that it was a call to rebuild a British empire, or his petty insistence that emotionally and physically shattered athletes should belt out the national anthem. This wasn’t that sort of moment. And no, I don’t believe that one editorial in The Sun eulogising a migrant from Mogadishu as having defeated the far right means that paper and their bedfellows have turned their back on barely concealed race-baiting. But every little moment like that helps.

But maybe the greatest political potential from these Games lies in a reversal of the sense of managed national decline. A right-leaning perspective might relate that decline to the end of empire and the eclipsing of Britain as a global power. Whilst the debate about Britain’s global role is important, there is no need for it to be framed in such a way. But since the late 1960s, the unspoken consensus is that Britain can no longer do things, no longer make things, is no longer the nation that held the Festival of Britain or hosted the 1948 Olympics. And that has fed into our national psyche and narrowed our political horizons. We decided we could no longer afford to dream the big dreams of the scale that the post-war governments did; we trimmed our ambitions of freeing every woman, man and child from Beveridge’s five giants. We couldn’t have a world-class infrastructure. We were content to be the dirty man of Europe when it came to environmental protection. Our decline as a society was deemed to be inexorable, unstoppable. The job of government was to manage that as best it could.

Maybe, just maybe, that has changed a bit. The tale is that when a bid for the Olympics was first mooted, senior civil servants reacted with horror, protested that Britain could never make such a gigantic undertaking and advised in the strongest terms against it. The lesson, supposedly, of the story, is that they had been schooled in the era of managed decline. We couldn’t dream any more. It would be foolish and simplistic to try to turn this into a parable of the visionary Labour ministers and mayor rebelling against their stuck-in-the-mud mandarins. But if the decision to bid was based, in any little way, on a desire to show the ‘declinists’ that they were wrong, then it turned out to be fortuitous. No-one in the sun-lit economic uplands of 2003 could have predicted the Britain of 2012, yet the coming of the Games could not have been more timely.

In the weeks to come, and after the closing ceremony for the hopefully-as-successful Paralympics, we will need to talk about a lot of things. We still need to get to the bottom of the G4S debacle, and to unpick what that means for the future of public services; and there is a legacy to pursue, both nationally and locally in East London: the grand promises of affordable homes, active venues and real jobs need to actually be delivered. There will be moments of soul-searching and moments when we wonder if it really was all worth it.

But perhaps there will also be those moments too, when a glimpse of the towering Olympic Stadium and the memory of a wall of sound carrying Mo Farah to two gold medals; or hearing a train driver announce the next station and recalling the time he painstakingly translated it in his GCSE French simply to play his part in welcoming the world to London; perhaps those will be the moments when we will say – we aren’t better than anyone else, but we are capable of dreaming great dreams and achieving great things together – we can have bread, roses and circuses; we can set our sights higher. That would be a legacy.

July 10, 2012

Lords Reform: Went the Day Well?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 8:41 pm

Several people have asked me to try to explain what happened in Parliament today over reform of the House of Lords. It’s all a bit too complex for Twitter, so I thought I’d stick up a short post here. Disclosure: these are my views, and the wonderful thing about this situation is that there are very few facts, and merely opinions and predictions. If for some reason you want to know what I think about Lords reform in general, I would refer honorable members, senators and strangers to my post here.

First, I’ll try to explain what happened today, then what might happen in the future, and finally who might have won and lost from today. But my key message is this: ignore any media outlet, any triumphant Tory or hand-wringing Lib Dem who tells you that Lords reform died today and that Labour or rebel Tories killed it. Lords reform lives – and is perhaps more likely to actually happen after today than it was before.

What has happened today

As I write this, the Commons is in the last hour of the debate on the second reading of the government’s Lords Reform Bill. Unusually, because of the number of MPs wishing to speak, this has gone over two days. The intention was that at 10pm tonight, there would be two votes. The first of these would be to give the Bill a second reading (i.e. to allow it to proceed to the next stage) – this would, and indeed will, pass easily. All three major parties have three-line whips to vote for it, and I suspect every minority party will also back it. There will be a significant number of Conservative rebels and a small number of Labour rebels, but nothing to threaten the bill.

The second vote would have been on a so-called ‘programme motion’. This is a motion which the government attaches to some bills, particularly those that, like this one, will have their committee stage on the floor of the Commons. It sets out how much time the government is prepared to give to consideration of the bill – in this case, ministers were prepared to give 10 days. It became increasingly clear over the past few days that the government was very likely to lose this vote. Labour announced it would oppose it because it has significant issues with many of the details of the bill (such as term length, the need for a referendum, and the 20% appointed element) – the argument is that ten days would simply not be long enough to guarantee scrutiny of the bill and for all Labour’s amendments to be brought forward. The government argument is that without a programme motion, the bill will clog up the Commons for months to come, with opponents of the bill seeking to talk it out.

This afternoon, when the numbers of Tory MPs proposing to vote against the programme motion and with Labour became clear (now believed to be well in excess of the 70 MPs who signed the public letter against reform), the government decided to withdraw the programme motion, rather than face almost certain defeat. This means there will now be only one vote tonight, on second reading of the bill. This will pass, and the bill will be cleared to move on to committee stage.

What happens next?

We don’t entirely know. Announcing the withdrawal of the programme motion, Leader of the House Sir George Young suggested he might be able to say more when he makes his weekly business statement on Thursday. The government now has the long summer recess (the House rises a week today) to attempt to find a compromise on how to go forward. It is possible that it can find enough compromises or goodies for Tory backbenchers to get an amended programme motion through the Commons when it returns. At this stage, however, Labour says it will not back any programme motion or a ‘guillotine’ (which curtails debate at a pre-decided time). The government will therefore have to convince a large number of its own backbenchers to agree to back such a motion – and any compromises would likely need to be on the actual substance of the bill, rather than simply debate time.

Perhaps a more likely outcome is that the the summer is spent in negotiations through back-channels with Labour. The opposition front bench has been clear today that it does not wish to ‘wreck’ the bill and is committed to it going through, once it has achieved adequate scrutiny. Shadow Leader of the House Angela Eagle today committed Labour to sending the bill to the Lords in good time. What this means is that whilst Labour will not support a pre-emptive programme motion or guillotine, which limits debate time before the debate begins, it will, when it believes the time is right, vote for a so-called closure motion on an amendment or the bill itself. This will serve to end debate, and because of the combined numbers of Labour+Lib Dem+pro-reform Tory MPs, will act as a block on filibustering from Tory backwoodsmen. This means the bill could well take a while to progress, and expect there to be at least one day per week in the Commons to be dedicated to the committee stage of the bill. But as fictional PM Harry Perkins said, “democracy takes time, comrade. Dictatorship is quicker, but more people tend to get shot.” Eventually, this bill will complete its committee stage and will make its way to the Lords, where life gets really interesting. As one Labour MP put it to me today, normally bills leave the Commons in a complete mess, with a mass of badly drafted and hasty amendments. It is the Lords’ job to tidy it up. This time, the Lords are not going to co-operate in that. The Lords Reform Bill has to leave the Commons in law-ready form.

Who has won today?

That’s an impossible question – in all reality, no-one has completely won and no-one has completely lost. But these are my estimates of the scores on the doors:

David Cameron: 5/10 – on one hand, it’s been a bad day for the PM. He’s had to back down in the face of a massive rebellion on his backbenches, and at least one PPS has resigned. He is going to have to do something urgently to rein in the mood of disquiet on his backbenches, not only over Lords reform and the coalition, but over the performance of the government since the budget. On the plus side, however, he has bought himself time on this controversial issue. Lord reform isn’t in the long grass, but it’s in the unmown rough. Cameron now has the summer recess for feelings on his backbenches to simmer down, for some of the more wavering rebels to be bought off, and for a way forward to be worked out. Ending today with a heavy defeat would have been far worse. But one thing is certain: Cameron wishes he’d never put Lords reform in the 2010 manifesto, let alone the coalition agreement.

Ed Miliband: 7/10 – in combination with the Tory rebels, Labour scored a significant win today. Whilst the party would have rather seen the government defeat, but a slightly humiliating withdrawal of the programme motion is a passable second best. Barring some remarkable man management over the summer by Cameron, Labour could well end up in the driving seat of the committee stage of the bill, holding a whip hand over when closure motions occur. That ensures Labour will get to push its own amendments to a vote – and it is far from impossible that on some of them (such as a referendum) will be passed with the help of Tory rebels. On a more tactical note, it gets to clog up the Commons and prevent more damaging bills getting parliamentary time. There is a risk to all this, which is that the narrative being pushed hard by the Lib Dems and the Tory front bench – that Labour has blocked reform – gets traction, and allows Miliband et al to be painted as being anti-reform, coalescing Lib Dems. Miliband needs to be ready to noisily turn on the Tory backwoodsmen when the time comes. It is also possible that the Tory leadership manages to negotiate a generous programme motion with its own backbenches over the summer, and calls Labour’s bluff on it in the autumn.

Nick Clegg: 4/10 – a bad day – Lords reform will get a buffeting ride, and his coalition allies have had to give ground rather humiliatingly to their right – but it could have been worse. In the short term, Clegg doesn’t wake up tomorrow to headlines about a government defeat and the coalition under threat. In the long term, he now has the opportunity over the summer to seek to build a reform package that can attract a cross-party consensus, ironing out the idiocies in this bill. A bill which can command the support of the vast bulk of the House will have far greater integrity when it comes before the Lords, and will give the Commons the upper hand when it comes to the inevitable rounds of ping-pong. If he plays his cards right – and he might well not – Clegg could end today somewhat closer to his goal of Lords reform than he was this morning.

June 12, 2012

New column…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 10:54 pm

Am really excited to have started a weekly-ish column over at the excellent Practical Pinko blog. My first column, on why Labour needs to rip up the twenty-year old playbook on how to win elections is here.

May 10, 2011

In Search of the Air-Conditioned Desert

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 10:57 pm

Over Easter I travelled by train, bus and ferry from St Pancras to the Red Sea, through Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. I’ve written up an account of my journey over at my travel blog – http://travellinganimal.wordpress.com/in-search-of-the-air-conditioned-desert/

February 14, 2011

New Travel Blog

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 12:06 am

Apologies that for various reasons this blog has been pretty quiet recently – I’ve yet to decide if, or when blogging will recommence here. I have, however, started a new site chronicling my occasional travels, here. Do pay a visit if long-winded travelogues are your sort of thing.

September 28, 2009

European Left Watch: Germany & Portugal

BundestagOne weekend, two elections. And two rather differing stories for the European centre left.

Germany: After what was, by all accounts, a dull campaign, Germany went to the polls for elections to the Bundestag on Sunday. This could perhaps be described as a two headline election. The first was already written well before this week: the centre-right CDU‘s Angela Merkel would win a second term in office as Chancellor. The second part was more interesting: who would she be governing with? Merkel and the CDU made no secret throughout the campaign (and well before) that it wanted to end the grand coalition with the centre-left SPD it was reluctantly forced into following the tight 2005 election. The CDU’s choice of partner was quite clear – the economically liberal FDP (who for some reason always get described in the British media as ‘pro-business’, as if the CDU and SPD weren’t), the longstanding king-makers of post-war German politics.

The SPD, going into the election trailing heavily in the polls under the grand coalition Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier was less clear about its preferred outcome, guessing perhaps that beggars weren’t in the best of positions to be choosers. Having, foolishly to my mind, ruled out a coalition government with Oskar Lafontaine’s Die Linke party – which the opinion polls briefly suggested could take power as part of an SPD-Green-Linke coalition, they appeared to go through the campaign seeing a forced continuation of the grand coalition as their only hope of retaining power. At no point did it look like the SPD and their Schröder-era coaliton partners in the Greens would by themselves be able to command a majority.

Fan or not of his heavily reformist brand of social democrat politics, it has become increasingly clear that the SPD is still suffering from being deprived of two term chancellor Gerhard Schröder. On two occasions he bought the SPD back from seeming certain defeat: to a narrow victory in 2002 and to a defeat so narrow in 2005 that it gave some of his colleagues four more years in ministerial Mercedes. Equally, it is clear that Merkel (or someone else in CDU high command) drove a great bargain in demanding that Schröder should play no part in the CDU-SPD government. (more…)

December 11, 2008

Back soon…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 3:21 pm

No, really. I’m well aware that posting has been sporadic at best here recently, but you know what December can be like. Especially when you are busy writing a rather lengthy and scathing response to Boris Johnson’s transport plans (not, sadly, for publication here).

I will be away until mid next week for our annual stollen and mulled wine blow-out in frozen Mitteleuropa (with Ginger and Ebony taking a trip to not-quite-so-frozen Sidcup), but promise a post or two when I return. Probably on the 2010 London elections, but don’t wait up.

December 3, 2008

European Left Watch: Neck and neck in Romania

the world's largest administrative building

The Romanian Parliament: the world's largest administrative building

What will almost certainly be the EU’s last legislative election of 2008 took place on Sunday in Romania (the first since accession to the EU), with the results finally being announced late yesterday. Not that the results shed much light on the likely make-up of the country’s next government.

Romania is pretty unique in having a bicameral parliament where both houses (The Senate and The Chamber of Deputies) are elected on the same day in their entirety, using exactly the same electoral system. The system in use, closed list proportional representation should, in theory, produce a highly proportional outcome, although it has not on this instance prevented the party that came narrowly second in terms of vote share from coming narrowly first in terms of seats.

Over the past four years Romania has experienced relatively turbulent politics, following an inconclusive outcome from the 2004 elections. Following these elections, a broadly centre-right coalition government was formed of the National Liberal Party (PNL), the Democratic Liberal Party(PDL), the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) and the Conservative Party (PC). To form a narrow parliamentary majority, the modestly named ‘Justice and Truth Alliance’ government, (more…)

November 27, 2008

A Western Democracy?

cc-signIt probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Boris Johnson has today announced that he will be scrapping the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge. We noted before that there had been straws in the wind in the opposite direction and that Johnson had been modifying his language and moving towards the ‘third option’ of the modification of the charge – and indeed even as late as yesterday the Evening Standard, normally a good barometer of the mayoral climate, was bigging up the compromise option. But despite this, and blue Boris trying to present himself as green Boris as recently as Tuesday, the candidate’s hyperbole over the western extension had simply been too great for any kind of credible u-turn to be executed with any kind of credibility.

The Animal’s previous posts on this subject have pointed out that Johnson had been trying to play the great democrat on this issue, whilst sticking to a very limited definition of democracy. We quoted Johnson previously as having said

“The previous Mayor made the decision to introduce the western extension in the face of overwhelming opposition. Unlike my predecessor, I am going into this with an open mind and this will be a genuine consultation. It is high time that politicians listened to the people whom they represent and I am proud to keep the pledge made during my election (more…)

How fare the elected mayors?

One of the Labour government’s big ideas for the reform of local government was the introduction of directly-elected mayors across the country. But rather than a great firework of reform, the whole idea seems to have turned out to be something of a damp squib. There is, of course, one well known example in London, but that doesn’t really count – the Mayor-led Greater London Authority set up is unique to the capital and represents regional rather than local government. The Mayor of London’s powers resemble more those of, say, the First Minister of Wales than the local government version.

But what of the rest of the country? The powers for local authorities to hold referendums on an elected Mayor-led system was included in the Local Government Act 2000. Since then, just 37 local authorities in England and Wales have held referendums, and the verdict from these has not been (more…)

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