Sunday, 25 November 2012

Parliament needs a serious debate on votes for prisoners, not playground posturing from the government.

Parliament will get the ultimate decision as to whether or not the UK grants voting rights to prisoners, says Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. Although something of an assertion of the obvious this is exactly as it should be.

The government has waited until the last possible moment to address the issue of complying with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the current practice of denying prisoners the vote is not compatible with the convention on human rights. In a statement to parliament on Thursday he cited legal advice received by the government making it clear that parliament could breach individuals’ human rights if it wished, in this case by denying prisoners the vote.

The Ministry of Justice has published draft legislation offering MPs three options, maintaining the status quo, giving votes to prisoners serving sentences of six months or less, or giving the vote to prisoners serving up to four years behind bars. What, if anything might be done to give voting rights to prisoners serving longer sentences is an issue that seems to have been swept under the Westminster carpet.

In his statement Mr Grayling said that it was ‘ultimately for parliament to determine’ what to do and that ‘nobody can impose a solution on parliament, but it is accepted practice that the UK observes its international obligations.’ Last year parliament voted by 234 votes to 22 not to give prisoners the vote, at the time this was seen as an instance of plucky little Britain striking a blow against the overweening EU.

Although the language he used on Thursday was suitably cautious the subtext in Chris Grayling’s speech was that parliament should take the opportunity to do so again. This is something the sillier sections of the Tory party will respond to in the way dogs respond to a high pitched whistle; by rushing off to obey the call of unreasoning instinct.

The Justice Secretary added that the ‘constraints’ exercised on parliament were ‘political not legal’ and that the ‘principle of legality means that parliament must confront what its doing and accept the political cost.’ Reading between the lines any dissenters from the populist line can expect to be thrown to the tabloid wolves, who just happen to be ravenous for a taste of woolly liberal.

One such dissenter is Labour MP Paul Flynn, who pointed out that by following the line suggested by the government the UK could by ‘insisting on the British way on a relatively insignificant matter’ be giving ‘ an open invitation to other countries in Europe to mistreat their prisoners.’

I agree with him on everything apart from one point, whether or not we give prisoners the vote isn’t a ‘relatively insignificant matter;’ it is a hugely important one. An issue of principle that goes to the heart of what sort of country we want to be.

Not that you’d know it from the way the government has handled the issue, an odd mixture of foot dragging and blustering assertions from the PM that ‘prisoners are not getting the vote under this government.’ A stance that seems as baffling as it is reactionary from a man who is, quite correctly, willing to fight his own party over the issue of gay marriage. Yet again we are left wondering which, if any is the real David Cameron; the shire Tory or the metropolitan progressive or some grey mix of the two.

The principle behind the issue is simple, so simple it needs repeating time and time again. Giving votes to prisoners isn’t to do with soppy liberalism or condoning what they might have done to end up behind bars; it is about protecting an inalienable right of citizenship. In a democracy when someone is jailed for a crime they may lose their freedom for a period, but they are still citizens.

An honest and open debate in parliament would draw this issue out into the open and make MPs confront the real political cost of their choice, if we can take the franchise away from a prisoner is it secure for anyone else? Can the UK continue to preach the virtues of democracy to other nations when its own isn’t operating fairly? I don’t intend to offer up pat answers to either question, it is something that has to be wrestled with as an issue of conscience.

Sadly what we have been presented with is muddled legislation and shallow gamesmanship on the part of the government. This is perhaps par for the course since its leader has truly shown himself to be the ‘heir to Blair.’ A showman who alternately patronises and provokes his own party and treats parliament with thinly disguised disdain.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

PCC elections break the wrong kind of record.

This has been a record breaking week for Britain, although not in the way people remember from the heady days of our ‘Olympic Summer.’ The records in question were for the lowest turnout in a peacetime election.

On Thursday around 15% of the eligible population turned out to vote for one of forty one Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC), in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent that figure was down to just 9.46%. Maybe there was something good on television; either that or this is empirical proof that the voting public wanted nothing to do with this sad farrago.

Commenting on the low turnout Labour shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna told that the election had been a ‘total shambles and the £100 million spent on it could have been spent on 3000 police officers’ instead. This was a line that would later be repeated by shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and has everything to do with nailing the false, as Labour would like it presented, contrast between their supposed profligacy and Tory fiscal rectitude.

The Electoral Reform Society hit out at the way the elections were organised, calling it a ‘comedy of errors’ and citing poor scheduling, a lack of information and a tepid coverage in the media as contributing factors. Civil rights group Liberty commented on the dangers posed by the ‘sole concentration of power in one elected official’ and warned against the risk of political interference in the way the police operate.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP so unworldly he took his nanny with him on the campaign trail and seems like a minor character from a PG Wodehouse novel felt obliged to comment on what he called an electoral ‘experiment’, saying ‘nobody really knows if its worked, £100 million would seem to be a high price to pay for this.’

Anybody who thinks because most people couldn't be bothered to vote for them the arrival of a PCC in their region is a matter of no concern is quite wrong. This is a post that gives its holder a large salary, the power to fire the Chief Constable is he or she wishes to do so and all the ‘face time’ with the media an ambitious politician could ever want.

The way the election was organised was a shambles, the only excuse for holding an election in November should be a national emergency, and creating a sinecure for party hacks is definitely not one. As for the £5000 deposit required from candidates, this was a blatant attempt to keep independent candidates out in favour of people on the payroll of one of the three main parties. The whole point of having free open elections is that anyone from the ambitious young man or woman with one eye on Downing Street and the oddball dressed as a carrot has an equal opportunity to take part.

What should really stick in our collective craw though is the thinking behind the whole sorry project, which seems to boil down to a mad notion that all you need to do to engage the public is give them lots of things to vote for. Understood in this way politics is, supposedly, a bit like the X-Factor, leaving no opening for the hard but necessary work of building networks of shared experience that people can use to take control of their lives and communities.

All that has been achieved at ruinous cost is a move from having the police ruin by a largely anonymous Police Authority to electing a PCC who will most likely caper in the media spotlight but do little to lead a rational debate into how complicated and increasingly fractured communities should be policed. Instead it will be all skewed crime statistics and initiatives designed to grab a few easy headlines for the incumbent.

The Electoral Commission is to hold a review into why the turnout was so low, I am not at all hopeful that it will come even close to considering why so many people feel alienated by politics. It certainly won’t entertain the possibility of giving communities the chance to vote again on whether or not they want a PCC in a few years time. The government have learnt the lesson of New Labour’s experience over elected mayors, they too were once seen as the bright new hope for re-engaging the public with politics, when many of the towns saddled with this expensive and unwanted office voted for it to be scrapped.

This shows, sadly, that in our brave new world you can vote for anything you like; apart from real change.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Note to Nadine Dorries, you’re a politician not a celebrity.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries must have thought it seemed like such a good idea when she signed up to appear in the latest series of ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. Unfortunately things haven’t turned out as she planned.

It turns out, surprisingly, that parliament and her own constituents take a dim view of a sitting MP skipping the country for a month or more to muck about in the jungle. On Tuesday a spokesman for the Tory Party expressed ‘concern’ that she ‘will not be doing parliamentary business in the meantime.’

Poor soul, do you think he’s ever seen ‘I’m a Celebrity…?’ All he probably knows is that it’s on that television thingy they seem to enjoy so much below stairs. Ms Dorries, an elected representative, is going to spend the next month or more removing her own dignity one atom at a time in the company of ‘celebrities’ you’ve either never heard of or thought had died years ago.

Her decision to embrace the witless world of reality television has attracted rather more focussed criticism from other quarters. Home Secretary Theresa May pronounced ‘frankly I think an MPs job is in their constituency and in the House of Commons’ with the frosty disdain of someone being touted as a future party leader. Fellow back bencher Sara Wollaston said ‘we need more women in parliament but it doesn’t help if they make themselves ridiculous by swanning off to the jungle.’ Paul Duckett, the Chair of Mid Bedfordshire Conservative Association told the press they were considering a range of sanctions against their errant MP, including de-selection.

One of Ms Dorries constituents took to Twitter, as reported by, to write ‘My MP Nadine Dorries just arrived in OZ for I’m a Celeb! No wonder she hasn’t replied to email about my poorly boy. Busy eating bugs! Thanks!’ Which rather puts things in perspective, this isn’t about a sometimes stuffy institution being embarrassed by one of its members, it’s about people struggling to cope with serious problems being let down by the person elected to represent them.

Justifying her decision to go on the programme Nadine Dorries told the Daily Mail she was ‘doing the show because sixteen million people watch it. Rather than MPs talking to other MPs about issues in parliament, I think MPs should be going to where people go.’

Generally I don’t much care who appears on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ or what they get up to once there, the programme has its target audience and if they enjoy it all well and good. Personally I’d rather glue toenail clippings to the roof of my mouth than join their number.

However, when an elected representative decided to join in the stupidity at a time when the reputation of parliament and politics in general is at an all time low it is a different matter; one that raises issues of trust and responsibility that go to the heart of the problems afflicting our political culture.

The thinking, such as it is, behind Dorries actions is that she is somehow making politics more ‘accessible’. If you follow this all the way to the outer edges of reductio ad absurdum David Cameron should enliven the next PMQ’s by doing a Gangnam style dance routine and the leader of the opposition should change his name by deed poll to Ed ‘rock n roll’ Milliband.

If you think this would be stupid, harmful to the dignity of their respective offices and a grave insult to the intelligence of the British public you would be quite correct. Politics isn’t made accessible by cheap gimmicks, to do that the people who practice it have to get on with the unglamorous and often thankless task of helping the people they represent and holding the government to account.

Perhaps Nadine Dorries, a somewhat eccentric character at the best of times, really does think she can do so by appearing or an exploitative and often cruel televised freak show. We are all free to entertain whatever delusions we choose; but she might have been advised to consider the case of George Galloway before she reached for her passport.

These days nobody remembers that the week before going into the Big Brother house he ran rings around a Senate committee or that he is, for all his opportunism and eccentricity, one of the smarted and most articulate members of the house. Nobody remembers these things because the memory of him capering about in an unflattering green body stocking on live television keeps getting in the way.

This will one day make a sad epitaph for an admirably free spirited, if often misguided, political career. Nadine Dorries has in the past been no stranger to saying unpopular things because she happens to believe them to be right, that made her an effective back bencher even if she was a little too fond of courting publicity.

This latest exertion into the spotlight though could well come at the coat of her political career or at the very least mean she forfeits the right to be taken seriously. I seldom agree with what she has to say, but if Nadine Dorries is really the woman of principle she portrays herself to be that may in the long term leave a far nastier taste in her mouth than any of the bugs she’ll have to eat over then next few weeks.

And Another Thing

I don’t know what came over This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield when he ‘ambushed’ David Cameron live on air with a list of Tory politicians accused of being linked to child abuse allegations cobbled together from the internet. Maybe he snapped after years of listening to celebrities drone on about their latest film/book/divorce; either way his actions were misjudged and unprofessional.

Child abuse is a terrible crime and neither age nor status should shield perpetrators from facing the consequences of their actions, false accusations though have the power to wreck innocent lives and make it harder for victims to come forward. The only way the problems abuse causes can be addressed is from a firm basis of evidence, not as part of the sort of ‘witch hunt’ the Prime Minister so rightly warned against.

BBC Director General George Entwistle resigned late last night, brought down by shoddy journalism and his own staggering lack of curiosity. Am I the only person who is surprised that the former ‘Head of Vision’ couldn’t see any of the problems that did for him coming?

Clive Dunn, Corporal Jones in the long running BBC sitcom Dad’s Army died this week aged 92.

The remarkable success of this most enduring of programmes, the last episode was filmed in 1978 but it has seldom been off our screens since, rests on a mix of nostalgia, strong scripts and brilliant comic acting from the likes of Dunn, Arthur Lowe et a; by far its biggest attraction though is that it could be about anyone living at any time, Captain Mainwaring and his platoon are archetypes of our own foolishness and virtues, everyone knows somebody who is a bit like one of the characters in Dad’s Army.

Dunn was a lifelong Labour supporter, maybe Ed Milliband could draw inspiration from his two famous catchphrases. Don’t panic when the press turn against him and remember that the Tories, like Jerry, don’t like it up em!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Fancy footwork over Europe won’t win the next election for Labour.

This has been another bad week for David Cameron’s beleaguered government. On Wednesday they suffered a humiliating defeat in the commons over the EU budget at the hands of a coalition of Tory rebels and Labour MPs.

The Tory rebels wanted a real terms budget cut for 2014/2020; the Labour Party wanted to land a punch that would make the PM stagger against the ropes. It was a marriage of political convenience that produced a result of 307 to 294 against the government and could come back to haunt all concerned.

There followed something of a ‘spat’ between the Conservative and Lib Dem halves of the coalition, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Thursday there was now ‘no hope’ of a budget cut, something about which his party was entirely comfortable. Chancellor George Osborne though later told the BBC’s Today programme that the UK was still ‘at the beginning of negotiations’ on the EU budget.

He added that although he wasn’t saying ‘Nick Clegg is wrong. I’m saying we’re beginning a negotiation. Let’s see where that negotiation leads.’ The Chancellor might not have said so out loud, but he was certainly implying that Nick Clegg was wrong and that any negotiation would be more likely to result in a cut to the budget than any other outcome.

Thanks to the division within the coalition Labour are riding high, their poll ratings are healthy and PMQ’s has stopped being a weekly exercise in humiliation for leader Ed Milliband. In fact this week he was able to raise the ghost of our own dear PM being more than a little like his inglorious predecessor John Major, a hapless dupe clinging to the tail of the party he is supposed to be leading as it goes wild over Europe.

About the only thing the coalition seems to be able to agree on these days is how unhappy they are that the opposition have learnt to be sneaky. Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Labour had ‘taken a step further away from government’ by siding with the Tory rebels. Nick Clegg called their position ‘dishonest’ and ‘hypocritical’; adding that although it may have been seen by some people as ‘clever opposition politics’ it was not ‘the behaviour of a party serious about government.’

If you can ignore the vintage of sour grapes being trodden out on the government benches Nick Clegg does, surprisingly, have a point. It must be hugely satisfying for Ed Milliband and his advisors to see the coalition coming so spectacularly off the rails, it must bring back fond memories of the nineties when another Tory government tore itself to pieces over Europe letting Labour sweep in with a huge majority.

Unfortunately in politics, as in so many other things, the shiniest fruit often has the bitterest taste. It would be a serious mistake if Labour imagined that the wider public are as impressed with their nifty footwork in the voting lobby as they are; trust me they aren’t. To the average voter this will look like so much cheap point scoring, they may have opinions on Europe and whether or not we should be in or out; but most aren’t obsessed with the subject.

There is also the small matter of this being actually a less adroit move than it at first appears, siding with Tory Euro sceptics will produce little in the way of long term advantage for Labour, their new found friends will be unlikely to reciprocate the favour of supporting Labour in the voting lobbies. The whole thing is the political equivalent of a grubby one night stand that will only return to embarrass both parties at the most inconvenient moments.

What Ed Milliband needs to do is get back to what he was trying to do when he was booed by the crowd at the recent TUC march through London, talking about the priorities that will have to inform the fiscal restraint practiced by a Labour government. He needs to talk about how he intends to be more realistic about the sort of country the UK is now, as opposed to what it might have been in the past; maybe not a ‘great power’ but one with the potential to be a great society.

As the cliché goes it is governments that lose elections rather than oppositions that win them, however the make the transition from one to the other effectively a party needs a clear idea of what it stands for and what it wants to achieve.

The mistake made by New Labour in 1997 was relying too much on the fact that the electorate was tired of the squabbling Tories; as a result they squandered a huge mandate and an equally large store of good will in return for little in the way of achievements. Despite a rocky start Ed Milliband has a chance of putting Labour back into government at the first attempt, but to do so he must learn from the mistakes of the past and devote as much time to serious thinking as he does to fancy political footwork.