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Archive for the ‘Labour Party’ Category

May 22,2009

There was the start of an interesting discussion on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning about celebrity independent candidates standing at the next General Election. I say “the start” because it did not really pursue the issue to its logical conclusion.  There is no question that public anger with politicians of all Parties is now at unprecedented levels following the expenses revelations in recent weeks. 

Two backbench MPs (one Labour, one Conservative – neither of whom have been named in any of the national newspaper articles so far) I was with a week ago were already traumatised by the reactions that they had faced in their constituencies.  Some MPs are said to be suicidal.

There are the stories that Esther Rantzen is prepared to offer her services to the nation (whether the nation will accept her offer remains to be seen).  Joanna Lumley is on her way to political sainthood.  Jeremy Clarkson has already been touted as a possible Prime Minister.

Where will it all end?

All the mainstream political parties have to face up to the fact that so far the public do not think they have done enough to clean up politics.  If a well-financed campaign (will the Barclay brothers be prepared to follow through what their newspaper has started?) centred round a popular and plausible figurehead, started now with a stated mission to purify the political system, it could by the time a General Election is called later this year or in the spring of 2010 have built up enough momentum to overturn the current orthodoxy.

Some may say that would be a good thing (Guido for example?).  However, the danger is that such a popular ‘revolution’ may throw up untested (maybe unknown) individuals that turn out to be far more venal than any of the MPs who have been named and shamed (UKIP’s track record on expenses in the European Parliament is hardly exemplary).  More significantly, the existing established political parties each have their own guiding philosophy and history and, whilst many would say that this is blurred these days (Is Cameron the heir to Thatcher or Blair?  What do the LibDems really believe?  Is Gordon New Labour?  Is New Labour Labour etc?), what would any new “Clean Hands” Party stand for apart from the overturning of the existing order?  What is more would what it stands for be subjected to any scrutiny at all in an election focussing on the alleged venalities of the existing Parliament and the mainstream political Parties?

Some people – and the newspapers – should be careful what they wish for.

May 19,2009

I have posted before about the interminable discussion on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill – we are now on the fifteenth day of detailed consideration (a day at Second Reading, eleven days in Committee and this is now the third day on Report).

I am promised by the Whips that tonight the discussions will stop by 7.30pm.

Why?  Because everything that could conceivably be said – by everyone who conceivably might want to say it – has been said?  NO.  Because common sense has broken out and the LibDems now recognise that this is a good and sensible Bill bringing useful improvements to the legislation governing the protection of the coast-line? NO.

The real reason?  It is Lord Philip Hunt’s birthday today (he is 60, since you ask).  As the Minister he has had to answer the debates on all the myriad of points that have been raised over the last fifteen days of discussion and, I am told, he has said “Enough is Enough”, and that at half past seven he is taking his family to dinner.  At last, a breath of sanity …..

May 14,2009

I have now started reading the House of Lords Privileges Committee report on the conduct of the four Members of the House.  Actually, there are two reports and it is the first that I have been through so far (I will probably save the 540 or so pages of the main report on conduct and the associated evidence until tomorrow).  The first report is on “The Powers of the House of Lords in respect of its Members” and its broad conclusion is that the House does not have the power to exclude a Member permanently but can suspend a Member for a period during the remaining life of this Parliament.

This may not sound like a very Earth-shattering conclusion, but it turns out not to be as straightforward as one might think.  The question turns on what powers the House of Lords already has, whether a House of Parliament can take extra powers upon itself without primary legislation and whether the House’s rules can over-ride the Monarch’s Writ of Summons to a Member.

What is interesting is that the Committee first took advice form the Attorney General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, the senior legal advisor to the Government.  However, when she concluded that the House did NOT have the power to suspend a Member, but could merely resolve to invite a Member to take “leave of absence” for a specified time, the Committee asked one of its members, the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to give a second opinion.  When he gave his view that the House DID have the power to suspend, the Committee decided unanimously to accept his advice rather than that of the Attorney General.

The whole issue rests on the mystical significance of the Writ of Summons from the Queen, which each Member receives on first being appointed to the House and then on each occasion a new Parliament is called (ie after each General Election).  This was a big issue at the time of the House of Lords reform when all but 92 hereditary peers lost the right to sit in Parliament.  Could an Act of Parliament over-ride the Monarch’s Summons?  Parliament (and the Courts) eventually concluded that yes it could.

Intriguingly, according to John Wells in his book “The House of Lords“, this same issue was tested by Lord Tom Taylor (one of the four Members who are the subject of the other Privileges Committee report).  According to page xiv in the paperback edition I have, Tom Taylor “argued in the early 1980s that insanity should not prevent peers from attending”.  The book goes on: “He himself had been detained in a psychiatric hospital, where his wife would have preferred him to stay, but he secured his release by claiming parliamentary privilege and made his way back to Westminster.”

Patricia Scotland took her argument back to 1705 when both Houses of Parliament agreed that “neither House of Parliament hath power, by any Vote or Declaration, to create to themselves any new Privilege, that is not warranted by the known Laws and Customs of Parliament.”  She then argued that as the House had never suspended anyone since then to introduce a power of suspension now would indeed be a “new Privilege” contrary to the 1705 decision.

Lord Mackay’s contrary argument was that suspension would not interfere with the Writ of Summons itself.  The Writ of Summons does not confer a right or privilege; it is a command to fulfil a duty (ie attendance at Parliament) and the duty includes an obligation to perform the duty in accordance with the rules of Parliament.  It follows therefore that a breach of those rules is a failure properly to fulfil the duty and suspension might be an appropriate sanction.

Lord Mackay also argues that in any case the power to suspend already existed in 1705 – it had been used on 19th May 1642 when the House resolved that Lord Savile should not sit or vote for the remainder of that session.  Lord Mackay admits that the power has not been used since then, but the House would not be voting itself a “new Privilege” if it decides to suspend one or more Members.

The first thing the House will have to do next Wednesday when it considers the Privileges Committee’s reports will be to decide whether it backs the Mackay view or not (and by implication whether it is rejecting the advice of the Attorney General).  Then assuming the power of suspension is approved, decisions can be made about the two Members who the Committee is suggesting be suspended.  It will be interesting to see whether at that point anyone will raise the point that retrospective penalties are being applied (an issue that normally vexes many Members of the House when it is deemed that a piece of legislation has a retrospective effect).  It may be a long debate.

May 14,2009

I have just introduced a short debate in the Moses Room (Grand Committees in the House of Lords take place in a room known as the Moses Room as there is a large fresco called ‘Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law from Mount Sinai’ there) on the possible use of the Segway Personal Transporter in the UK.  My interest in this was fired by seeing a demonstration of a Segway in use and hearing of the use of  them made by some 1000 police and law enforcement agencies around the world.

The police experience elsewhere has found a series of benefits: they can easily be integrated into patrolling, they cut down response times, they provide a better line of sight for officers (because the officer is on a platform 40-50cm above the ground), and they improve engagement between the police and the public (compared with officers in a car).

They are also of use for other specialised purposes.  For example, BAA deploy them at Heathrow and find that they speed up response times in the event of an incident or equipment breakdown and provide an efficient way of patrolling and doing routine maintenance tests.  A number of UK local authorities are also interested in deploying them in parks, city centre precincts, routine maintenance patrols and even for parking enforcement.

Finally, if made available for general use, there is evidence from a major study in Canada that a high proportion (62%) of car users would be keen to give up their cars for many short journeys – with a considerable saving in carbon emissions and congestion.

Most other countries permit their use.  In the UK, however, the Deparment for Transport is adamant that existing legislation does not permit their use on roads, on cycle routes or on pavements.  Moreover, there are – it is claimed – no powers that would even permit a trial to take place. (I am not convinced of this.  As a non-lawyer, Section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 seems to permit the appropriate exemptions to be made.)

Andrew Adonis, the Lords Transport Minister, stonewalled elegantly on behalf of the Department.  However, he did agree to try one out himself (although he insisted that I do so as well) and offered me a meeting with his Departmental colleague, Jim Fitzpatrick MP.

What was noticeable was the make-up of the discussion.  As Andrew pointed out, he and I, “as the representatives of the Proletarian Party were the only mere Life Barons present”.  The other speakers were the Earls Attlee (grandson of Clement, but now speaking on behalf of the Conservative front-bench), Liverpool (also a Conservative and descendent of another former Prime Minister – a Tory this time) and Erroll (a cross-bencher who is also the hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland), and Viscount Falkland (speaking for the Liberal Democrats).  The Earl of Glasgow (another Liberal Democrat, who had originally wanted to speak as well) also sat in for most of the debate.  When Earl Attlee expressed his sympathy to Viscount Falkland that he was only a Viscount, Lord Falkland hastened to point out that he was, in fact, also an Earl, but as it was a Jacobite creation it didn’t count.  All in all, five of the ninety-two remaining hereditary peers still sitting in the Lords were present.  I am not sure what it means, but it certainly felt strange.

May 6,2009

Michael White has written an extraordinary Comment piece in today’s Guardian, headlined in my copy “Mr Nice Guy asked to deliver the undeliverable”.  I can only assume that this is Michael White’s bid to win “The Political Assassin of the Year” newspaper columnist award. 

How can any Chief Whip – let alone one with the avuncular charms of Nick Brown – survive being labelled as Mr Nice Guy?  Michael White then makes it worse by quoting unnamed Labour MPs describing their Chief Whip as “decent” and “not at all the unsubtle brute”.

Chief Whips are MEANT to be brutal for goodness sake!

And how helpful is it to Nick Brown’s authority for Michael White to go on to list the Chief Whip’s disagreements with Government policy?

Apr 23,2009

On this morning’s Radio 4’s “Today” programme, George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, made it clear that the Conservatives would not repeal the proposed 50% income tax rate on top earners.  His reason: they had to think of the “many not the few”. 

Those who remember the mid-1990s will remember that the “many not the few” was one of the campaign mantras used by Tony Blair and the Labour Party in the run-up to the 1997 General Election to highlight the difference between Labour and the Conservatives.  It is nice to hear that the political consensus has now shifted so much that George Osborne can repeat it with approval and with what was presumably (as you know you cannot see on the radio) a straight face.

But the point he seems to miss is that the whole Budget, which he was of course trying to rubbish comprehensively, was for the “many not the few”.  Still one step at a time.

What will be really interesting is how the rest of the Conservative Party interprets it – will they be so happy with the “many not the few” line?  Will Mayor Boris Johnson, for example, who was distinctly unchuffed with the idea of having to pay 45% tax on his newspaper earnings be happy with a Conservative Shadow Chancellor going along with the 50% top rate?  We will see.

Apr 15,2009

I have not long been back from speaking at a meeting of Ilford North Labour Party.  They had invited me to talk to them about the dilemmas faced in counter-terrorism policing.  A lively and invigorating discussion followed, covering such issues as the role of faith schools, the problems that may arise in local authorities grant-funding certain groups, the difficulties involved in balancing public safety against the desire to secure convictions for terrorist offences, the responsibility (or lack of it) of the media, and what can be done to prevent individuals being lured down the path to violent extremism.  The debate was mature and thoughtful and – in microcosm – demonstrated why the Government was right to publish such a full exposition of its counter-terrorist strategy in the recent White Paper.  It made the long journey on the Central Line worthwhile.

Apr 14,2009

I have been out of the country for a few days (France, since you ask) and following the McBride “smear-gate” story from internet news reports and bloggers’ comments.  With the benefit of that small degree of distance, there seem to be some very simple conclusions to draw.

First, the whole idea was deeply and irredeemably wrong.  It is not acceptable to spread defamatory lies about people – whether you dislike their politics or not.  The Prime Minister and the Labour Party should make it quite clear that the pursuit of such tactics by anyone purporting to act on their behalf or ostensibly in their interests will always be unacceptable and the individuals concerned will be treated as having brought the Party into disrepute.  I trust other Parties (no names, no pack drill) will do the same.

Second, the concept would almost certainly have been utterly counter-productive.  I am not convinced that the electorate think it matters what individuals might have done in their student days nearly twenty years ago and they are unlikely to think it relevant to their current suitability for public office.  Nor are the past (or even current) sexual peccadilloes of public figures that relevant to their ability to be Government ministers.  That doesn’t mean that people won’t take a prurient interest, but I am not convinced it makes much (if any) electoral difference.  (Indeed, I remember talking to one politician who had recently had some particularly lurid stories printed about his sexual habits.  He admitted that he had been worried about how his constituents might react.  In fact, he said that, although he had had to endure some ribald comments, most of the reaction seemed tinged with – if anything – admiration.)

Third, it would appear that the execution of the proposed smear plot was incredibly inept – using an official and traceable email address, for example.

Finally, the net result of what has happened will further demean and degrade the reputation of politicians and – in turn – the democratic process.  If you believe, like I do, that democracy and politics matters, then this may turn out to be the most worrying consequence of the whole sorry business.

Apr 9,2009

A report in Local Government Chronicle suggests that the much-vaunted “Charter” due to be signed between London Mayor Boris Johnson and London Councils representing the 32 Boroughs (and the Corporation of London) is running into difficulties. 

I remember when I chaired the Association of London Government (as London Councils was then called) in the five years preceding the creation of the London Mayoralty.  It was always clear that the arrival of the Greater London Authority would present challenges for the London Boroughs.  It was almost inevitable that any directly-elected Mayor would start to encroach on the Borough’s statutory and non-statutory responsibilities.  I remember speaking about this on a number of occasions – my theme was that any incoming Mayor would need to keep his or her tanks off the London Boroughs’ lawns.

During the period of Mayor Ken Livingstone, there were indeed tensions over such matters as – for example – his desire for street cleaning in London to be improved and his ambitions for education.

When Mayor Boris Johnson was elected he proclaimed that he was much more ready to work with the London Boroughs (many of which were by then Conservative controlled).  A new concordat or charter was promised, but now – nearly a year on – it looks as though the initiative may dissolve without any real substance into a bath of warm words.

If this happens, it will be unfortunate and I would urge both those in the Mayor’s team and those in London Councils who are trying to finalise the document to redouble their efforts to reach some form of meaningful statement. 

Although the London Mayor is always going to be more visible than London Borough councillors and, of course, is directly accountable to Londoners, he/she cannot run local services and it is the local councils that are accountable for them.  The Mayor of London cannot dictate to the Boroughs, even though he/she has a direct mandate from Londoners and may have a clear vision for the future of London (I am still waiting to be clear about the current Mayor’s vision, although I sense he his groping towards one). 

Working together is harder.  However, it is essential if progress to be made. 

The skill of any London Mayor will be whether or not he/she having articulated a view of how London is to develop can carry not only Londoners, but their elected representatives in the Boroughs (and indeed all the other elements of civil society), along with their vision and inspire them to work with him/her on delivering it.

Mar 30,2009

In all the fuss about Jacqui Smith’s expenses, one matter that remains obscure is how did the Sunday Express see the documents concerned?  They have not yet been published by the House of Commons authorities.  It seems unlikely that either Jacqui Smith or her husband (or anyone in her Parliamentary office) will have leaked them.  So they were either leaked by someone working in the House of Commons Fees Office or by someone working for Virgin Media.  If the former, I would guess that a lot of MPs (of all Parties) are getting very jumpy and combing over their old expense claims with a fine tooth comb.  If the latter, presumably anyone’s Virgin Media account can be accessed by the press.