Skip to content

Election coverage must be about more than Leaders Debates

September 17, 2018

Today Sky News launched a campaign to make Leaders Debates an integral part of every general election.  They want an independent commission to be set up in order to set the rules on formats and participants. I was interviewed by Sky’s Jayne Secker on their lunchtime news.  It was broadcast from Bristol’s Harbourside, opposite the Arnolfini Gallery, the scene of the first Leaders Debate back in the 2010 general election. I support televised debates between the main party leaders but worry that they overshadow every other aspect of the campaign and distort TV coverage.

I remember the Bristol Sky News 2010 debate very well. The three main party leaders and their entourages all descended on what was then my Bristol West constituency.  A media circus arrived in Bristol and the faces of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were projected onto the outside of the Arnolfini.  It was certainly good TV exposure for Bristol but was it good for the election? Did that debate and the subsequent ones on the BBC and ITV help voters to decide who to back?

In the short run I think the debates did swing some votes.  Nick Clegg put in a great performance.  Gordon Brown said “I agree with Nick”, inadvertently providing us with a new campaign slogan. The Liberal Democrats soared towards 30% in the polls and Nick became Britain’s most popular leader.  Millions of people cast their postal votes shortly afterwards. Enthusiasm tailed off during the remainder of the campaign as the newspapers laid in to Nick and his party.  But when the Liberal Democrat shadow cabinet team met on the Saturday morning after the election I and my colleagues were in no doubt that Nick’s performance had buoyed up the party’s fortunes and won us several marginal constituencies.  First Past the Post, as usual, had suppressed the party’s seat tally.  Despite putting on a million votes compared to the 2005 election and moving up to 23% of the national vote share, the party had gone down from 63 to 57 MPs.  But 14 of those seats had been won with majorities of less than 5%.  Several of my colleagues owed their place in Parliament to Nick’s strong performance in the debates.

During the interview with Sky today I reflected that it was possible that the 2010 Sky debate had changed the course of history.  If it hadn’t happened it’s possible that the Tories would have won enough seats for David Cameron to govern alone.  There would have been no coalition.  I would probably still be an MP!  But counter-factuals are debatable and it’s just as possible that Nick would have done well in conventional coverage of an election, in the same way that Charles Kennedy (on a good day) and David Steel were regarded as campaign assets in previous elections.

While it’s debatable what effect the 2010 debates had on the outcome of the election, it’s undoubtedly true that they changed fundamentally the nature of the coverage of the election. There has always been attention on the national party leaders.  Gladstone and Lloyd George were household names.  But I recall in 2010 that the TV debates drowned out essential coverage of the issues that were at stake.  Another former Bristol MP, Tony Benn, used to say that elections should be about the issues, not the personalities.  I worry that politics is no longer “show business for ugly people” but an activity where performance counts for more than content and where it certainly helps to be “charismatic” or just look good on TV.  If debates are to return for the next election then I believe that the broadcasters have a duty to explain the issues at stake and analyse the policies on offer.

Broadcasters also need to constantly remind people that our elections for the House of Commons are 650 (or maybe 600 next time) local contests for an MP, not a national election.  The only people who can vote for a party leader are the electors in their constituencies.  Each constituency has a different political profile.

So I think Sky are right to call for debates to be embedded into our national elections.  They are right that the format should be set by an independent debates commission. Vince Cable has said that it is preferable to sort this out soon, rather than have “argy bargy” just before the next election. This is what happened in both 2015 and 2017, when David Cameron and then Theresa May declined to debate their fellow leaders. The result was a series of very cumbersome debates with far too many participants from small parties.

My preferred format would be one debate featuring the three leaders of the main political parties that fight every seat in Great Britain.  That’s currently the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties but if Brexit causes a break up of our existing parties then the commission would need to respond to allow new challenger parties a voice. There should be separate debates in Northern Ireland and a further debate in Wales and Scotland involving the nationalist leaders. The debates should be complemented by hour long in depth interviews with all of the party leaders, with additional slots for smaller parties such as UKIP and the Green Party.

Politics is in a strange place at the moment.  It would be foolish to predict with certainty who will be the main players at the next election, or even when that election will be held. But one thing is certain – the public think that their political leaders don’t get enough tough scrutiny.  Lively debates and testing interviews will be essential to restore some confidence in our politicians and generate interest in our elections.

 

More about Sky’s campaign here – https://news.sky.com/story/sky-news-launches-campaign-to-make-leaders-tv-debate-a-permanent-election-fixture-11499817

Advertisements

Reducing the number of MPs is bad for our democracy

September 13, 2018

The ability of our MPs to keep an eye on the actions of government has been dealt a major blow. The reports of the parliamentary boundary commissioners were published this week.  These periodic reviews rearrange the constituency jig saw, altering the size and shape of the pieces that make up our electoral map. All previous reviews were an attempt to alter the map to reflect shifts in population.  This review is different.  It’s the first since the departure of the Irish Free State in 1922 to set out deliberately to reduce the size of the House of Commons by a significant amount. The size of the government will not be changing.  But there will be fifty fewer backbenchers to hold them to account as the Commons shrinks from 650 to 600 MPs.

The origins of this strange “reform” go back to before the 2010 general election.  All three party leaders at the time were falling over themselves with eagerness to give MPs a kicking in response to the abuse of the expenses system by some of their colleagues.  Nick Clegg talked about “reducing the cost of politics” and one of his suggestions was to reduce the House of Commons by an arbitrary number of 50.  It wasn’t clear to his bemused colleagues which of us he expected to volunteer for self-immolation but it’s safe to assume he didn’t have the member for Sheffield Hallam in mind. David Cameron came up with an identical proposal.

When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition was formed in 2010 the reduction made its way into the Coalition Agreement. This time it was dressed up as part of the package of constitutional reforms that included a referendum on the voting system and an elected second chamber.  The PM and DPM trotted out the line that reducing the Commons to 650 MPs was hardly a calamity, after all the US got by with just 535 members of the House of Representatives.  I could not vote against the 2011 Bill that provided for the reduction as it was intertwined with the legislation paving the way for the AV referendum.  But I spoke against the seats reduction during the committee stage.

I pointed out that the charge that Britain was over-endowed with politicians was spurious.  I had recently been on a cross party delegation of the Britain-America Committee designed to increase understanding of US government.  We had spent time in Washington DC, a weekend with a Congressman (in my case a curious match with Republican Robert Aderholt of Alabama, we got on fine) and then a few days in Lansing, the state capital of Michigan.  In my speech I pointed out that a citizen in Michigan would be able to vote for the President and Vice President, two federal Senators, a federal Congressman, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Michigan, the state Attorney General and Secretary of State, a state Senator and a state member of the House of Representatives.  There was also the statewide Board of Education and a plethora of local council members and officials.  The citizen had plenty of choice of who to contact about a personal problem or who to lobby about a political issue.

In contrast, Britain’s political system is remarkably thin and flat.  In England people would have an MEP (now with a 6 months sell by date…) and an MP and that was it for national or regional issues.  There would be a local councillor or two and since 2011 there are now some city Mayors and Regional Mayors plus a Police and Crime Commissioner.  Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have national Parliament members.  But Britain is very lightly governed compared not just to the US but also all our fellow European neighbours.

Power in Britain is still concentrated in Westminster.  An over-mighty government is drawn from the ranks of Parliamentarians, another key difference with the US conveniently glossed over by Messrs Cameron and Clegg. There is no separation of power between the executive and legislature. Scrutiny of the executive is done by MPs (and unelected Peers), many of whom are wannabe or ex Ministers. This is an imperfect system but the changes proposed now will make it worse.  There will be a reduced pool of MPs able to question ministers and scrutinise legislation and policy implementation. Theresa May’s government in 2018 has 25 MPs in the cabinet, 58 MP ministers outside the cabinet plus 17 whips – a round total of 100 MPs in the executive.  In a House of Commons of 600 members, a government needs only about 295 MPs to command a majority, once the Speaker and Sinn Fein MPs are taken out of the equation.  A government should be able to operate with fewer whips, their flock of sheep having been reduced.  But the government will be a bigger beast, with a reduced number of challengers both on the government and opposition benches.  There will be fewer MPs for the vital work of legislation Bill Committees and departmental Select Committees.  Causes that are promoted by cross party APPGs will have fewer parliamentary champions.  The House of Commons will be impoverished and the imbalance of numbers with the unelected Lords will be even starker.

In 2011, as in 2018, most of the attention has been focussed on the changes to boundaries, rather than the diminished scrutiny of the government.  The boundaries are being altered for more reasons than usual.  The Coalition enshrined in law a requirement that constituencies should be of equal size, with only a 5% tolerance away from the norm.  Using the electorate at December 2015 this means a target electorate of 74,769 with a minimum size of 71,031 and maximum of 78,507.

I supported this change back in 2011.  First Past the Post is a terrible system to use in a multi-party democracy.  But its distortions are made more extreme if constituencies vary too much in size. This proposed change triggered howls of protest, mainly from Labour MPs representing small constituencies. For instance Tristram Hunt, my fellow member of the Constitutional Reform Select Committee, was a vocal critic of the reform.  His Stoke on Trent Central electorate in the 2010 general election was just 61,003 compared to my Bristol West electorate of 82,728. Even within the same city there were major distortions – my Labour neighbour in Bristol East had 69,448 electors.

Equal sized constituencies means that five of the six demands of the Chartists in the 1840s are now in place.  British democratic reform moves at a glacial pace.  But the constituency map will now change massively.  The Press Association calculates that 272 current constituencies will be either completely abolished or changed radically. Half of Labour’s current seats fall into this category as do just over a third of Conservative seats.  The elections centre at Plymouth University (essentially Professors Thrasher and Rallings, psephologists extraordinaire) have re-run the 2017 general election, with estimates for the new boundaries and a 600 seat House of Commons.  The Conservatives would have won 308 seats. Theresa May would be free of the bowler hatted men of the DUP, if not her own troublesome backbenchers.  Labour would be 76 seats behind and my own party would be on just 7 seats.  Of course people will often vote differently if local circumstances change so the position could be rosier for Labour and the Lib Dems.  But it is clear that it will be harder for Labour to over-haul the Tories at the next election now that they have lost the cushion of small safe seats.

These changes, if approved by MPs, will go ahead in the absence of compensating constitutional reform. Westminster will remain far too powerful, particularly in England where devolution is at very early stages.  English MPs will completely dominate the House of Commons.  There will 501 MPs representing English constituencies compared with just 29 for Wales, the lowest number since before the 1832 Reform Act.  This is particularly hard on Wales, while the National Assembly remains under-powered with just 60 members. Brexit is consuming all the political energy of the government and the Labour “opposition” have shown no interest in meaningful reform either.

In the absence of a fairer voting system, an elected Senate and real devolution within England, I believe these changes worsen our democracy. In 2013, after being stabbed in the back by Ed Miliband over AV and the collapse of House of Lords reform, Liberal Democrat MPs broke ranks with our Tory coalition partners and voted down the boundary changes.  (I wish we’d done this a little more often, most obviously on tuition fees.)  In 2018 it is likely that the DUP will stick with Mrs May and support the changes, which are expected to leave DUP representation unchanged at ten MPs. If Mrs May’s Brexit critics eventually force her out of Number Ten, her successor will have very incentive to call another early election on the more advantageous boundaries.

British politics has had four shocks to its system in the last few years.  The full effect of Brexit on domestic politics is as yet unknown. Corbyn has transformed Labour, probably for the worst.  Labour’s hegemony in Scotland has been shattered by the SNP.  The Coalition broke the Liberal Democrats.  All of these are changes that could be reversed or take a new direction. But the reduction of the House of Commons will impair the effectiveness of our Parliament for years to come.

 

Notes

My blog on a model constitution for Britain and Northern Ireland can be read here – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2016/08/08/how-a-federal-republic-could-keep-britain-united/

The boundary reviews for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland can be read here –

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-boundary-commissions-boundary-review-2018

No Bristol Arena, so what now for our city centre?

September 7, 2018

Bristol’s elected Mayor has scrapped plans for an entertainment Arena near the city’s Temple Meads mainline station. In making this decision Mayor Marvin Rees has binned plans going back over a decade that have been promoted by previous city leaders and several government ministers and agencies. He’s discarded a fully worked up design for a building that received planning permission in 2016 and was assumed to be a done deal by most Bristolians. The future of one of the last large city centre development sites has been thrown into confusion. Bristol, once again, looks like a city that struggles to deliver big projects and is led currently by a politician without a vision.

Bristol should have a large capacity arena, capable of staging some of the world’s biggest acts in music and entertainment. I’ve long believed that the largest city in the south west of England and the country’s most economically successful city region should have the very best cultural, entertainment and sporting facilities. We lag behind on most fronts, apart from theatre and art house cinema and in recent times our sporting facilities have improved. Our concert hall, currently bearing the name Colston, is closed for a revamp that should put it into the premier league for orchestral music and venues hosting other events for a crowd of up to two thousand.  The O2 Academy also sits about 2,000 but Bristol can’t stage anything indoors on a scale beyond that number. An Arena, with a capacity exceeding five thousand, would mean Bristol attracting the acts that currently by-pass us for Cardiff, Birmingham and Bournemouth.

But while I’ve consistently supported Bristol having a new arena, I’ve also always thought that it should be in the city centre. An arena in the centre would complement Bristol’s existing cultural facilities and provide a boost to hotels and the hospitality industry. Its location would be sustainable, located right next the region’s busiest main line rail station, itself due for a revamp. The signalling and line improvements currently being made will increase its capacity. Many major bus routes pass the station. The city centre is the core of radial road routes and there are plenty of car parks nearby that are under used (or closed at the moment) in the evenings.  I don’t agree that a city centre arena would cause unbearable gridlock.  The city centre of Cardiff has the 74,000 capacity Principality Stadium, the 7,000 capacity Motorpoint Arena and the 2,000 capacity St David’s Hall.  I am not aware of any calls for these facilities to be relocated to the northern outskirts of the city. People enjoy congregating in city centres.

If Bristol isn’t to have a large arena in its centre, then I would rather it didn’t have one at all.  An arena at Filton, which appears to be the Mayor’s preference, would definitely cause traffic congestion on a smaller road network, with far fewer public transport options. Like Cribbs Causeway is to Broadmead, an arena at Filton would be a rival for city centre attractions and businesses. Competition is fine if it leads to overall growth in the combined economy.  But I think a damaged city centre is the more likely outcome.

This leaves two questions and problems to solve – what to do with the abandoned Temple Island site and what to do with the Brabazon hangars at Filton?

Let’s take Temple Island first.  Bristol is a city without an obvious centre.  When I came to Bristol as a student I was puzzled by people referring to “The Centre”, which at the time was strip of greenery resembling a sea front garden.  The only major attraction there (and now) was the Hippodrome. The name derives from “Tramways Centre”, which has been irrelevant for about 80 years!  The truth is that Bristol’s shopping, commercial, cultural, political and transport hubs are strung out in a lineal pattern from the Victoria Rooms on the edge of Clifton, down Park Street to College Green, through the “Centre” to Broadmead with a gap before reaching Temple Meads station.

The area around Temple Meads station was derelict for a long time but in recent years a transformation has got underway. New commercial office buildings and blocks of flats have sprung up.  The Coalition Government made the Temple Meads area into the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone, with favoured business rates retention for the council as an incentive to encourage development. The zone was billed as a hub for Bristol’s creative industries.  The government provided £12million for a new bridge over the Avon to improve connectivity with the “island” earmarked for an arena. While cutting the sod for the bridge in May 2014 I announced another grant, £6million which was to be spent (though for commercial reasons I couldn’t say so) on the acquisition of the derelict former Royal Mail sorting office (which ironically closed in favour of a facility at Filton), an unsightly blot on the landscape greeting all train arrivals from London.  I was hopeful that the BBC would relocate from Whiteladies Road to the sorting office site, freeing up their old home for expansion of the Bristol University precinct.  Instead we’ve got a new university campus at Temple Meads.  This in itself may be a good thing, if the research activities complement the city’s digital and creative sector. But it also means lots of precious land given over to student flats.

The Temple Island site itself needs a new use.  Mayor Rees favours a “medium sized” conference centre.  This could be a good solution, if the surrounding uses are got right. A medium sized conference venue could be on a similar scale to the centres familiar to most politicians at Bournemouth and Brighton, hosting conferences and music and entertainment acts for about 5,000 people.  For this to work, there will need to be an adjoining hotel plus plenty of smaller halls and break out rooms for fringe events.  A convention centre that is used during the day as well as evenings will provide a stimulus for more cafes and bars nearby so mixed use developments should be stipulated in a masterplan.  Ideally, the council should draw up a masterplan for outline planning approval and invite applicants to come forward with designs that can deliver the vision for the site.

Temple Quarter should become a new thriving East End of the city centre.  What is needed is a plan to deliver an arc of prosperity and sustainable living through to the West End and Clifton.  Temple Meads needs to be better integrated to the city.  This means improvements to both Victoria Street and Redcliffe Way. It’s time to dust down plans for Redcliffe Way that I first saw as councillor for the city centre back in the 1990s.  Redcliffe Way should be traffic calmed and turned into an attractive boulevard linking Temple Meads to Queen Square.  The road should be moved towards the Portwall, enabling the creation of a new square in front of St Mary Redcliffe church.

At the end of Victoria Street and over Bristol Bridge we have the total mess at the corner of Castle Park that was the heart of the medieval city. The junction of High Street and Wine Street badly needs new development.  The unsightly disused bank buildings should be demolished.  New buildings will recreate the historic heart of the city and should enable a new public space around the hidden ruins of St Mary le Port church.  This will provide a boost to the struggling west side of Broadmead, a counterpoise to Cabot Circus.

Our linear city centre needs to be joined up and made accessible in a sustainable way. I would like to see a city centre circle line, with trams joining Temple Meads to College Green via Victoria Street, Baldwin Street and back through the Centre and Broadmead.  As an interim measure this is the perfect short haul route for clean electric buses.  Something for our Regional Mayor Tim Bowles to take up…

What about Filton?  The huge Brabazon hangars need a new purpose.  Siting an arena there would be a huge mistake, for the reasons already given.  Maybe the spaces lend themselves to sporting use, for indoor hockey, basketball and 5-a-side football.  I think the site owners YTL should set aside their private chats with the Bristol Mayor and open up a conversation with the people of Bristol and South Gloucestershire, asking them for what they would like to see there.  The Regional Mayor should lobby Network Rail and the government for swift reopening of the nearby Henbury rail link.

Finally, a comment about the state of our local government.  Bristol now has experience of two very different directly-elected Mayors.  I’m fonder of George Ferguson than most of my fellow local Liberal Democrat politicians.  But his flinty temperament meant he lacked the diplomacy to persuade councillors to buy into his plans. But nobody could credibly accuse him of lack of vision for Bristol. His successor Marvin Rees doesn’t seem to have much of a vision about the sort of Bristol he wants to build.  His lack of any political experience prior to being elected Mayor (never once standing for election as a ward councillor for instance) means that there is no platform of experience to carry his ego. Politicians need self-belief but they need to be grounded as well.  Mayor Rees has set aside the clear desire of most councillors (and the tens of thousands of people that they represent) for a city centre sited arena. The opaque way he has arrived at this point and the somewhat lofty manner he has dealt with questions and challenge has undermined his office. An air of suspicion hangs over his dealings with Malaysian property developer YTL, the owners of the former Filton Airfield, and his apparent failure to give serious consideration to an offer from Bristolian property magnate Stephen Fear and impresario Harvey Goldsmith to develop the Temple Island Arena.

I favoured the move to the Mayoral model of governance both for the city and the wider sub-region. But the lack of vision by Mayor Rees and Mayor Bowles coupled with the inadequate means of holding them to account does throw the model into doubt.  Mayors are the norm in every other country and should work in England too.  Let’s not forget the truly awful Labour Leaders of Council that were a disaster for Bristol for many years.  But just maybe what our region needs is a return to the more collegiate model of Leader and cabinet, accountable to councillors, for the city council.  A strong executive Mayor is still needed for the West of England region, with the powers and budget to deliver a vision but with robust scrutiny in place.  Whatever the model, in the end what matters is the quality of candidates and their willingness to work together for the good of our city and region.

 

 

Notes and updates

More information on the government funding for the Arena Island Bridge and Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone can be found in my blog from May 2014 here – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/big-boost-for-bristol-arena-and-enterprise-zone/

After the special council meeting Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors used their power of “call in” to re-examine the Mayor’s decision.  A scrutiny committee was held on Thursday 20th September 2018. The Labour and Green Party councillors voted to uphold the Mayor’s decision so there can be no reference back to the full city councillor and the Mayor can now go ahead with whatever plans he makes for Temple Island.

Stephen Fear and a group of American investors have met with council officers (but not the Mayor) and have stated that they think Filton is a non-runner and that the Arena will work only if it is on a city centre site,  either Temple Island or elsewhere.

Meanwhile Stephen Lansdown’s company Bristol Sport announced that they would be building a new sports arena, hotel and flats next to Ashton Gate stadium.  https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/plans-unveiled-new-south-bristol-2015609 The arena will be home to the Bristol Flyers, the basketball team owned by Lansdown, who also owns Bristol City FC and Bristol RFC, both of which play at Ashton Gate.  The new basketball arena will also be able to host conferences and music events.  Is the market big enough to support a similar facility at Temple Island?

The trouble with Boris

August 10, 2018

Is the joke at last on Boris Johnson?  His multiple gaffes, political mistruths and misjudgements would have sunk most other politicians years ago.  Johnson’s career as a serious front line politician has been living on borrowed time. Now, maybe, surely, his time is up.

Johnson has survived as long as he has as a politician and columnist partly due to his self-deprecating charm and humorous lines. Anyone who’s had any dealings with him will know that the self- deprecation is skin deep and internally he has the bags of self-confidence possessed by most Old Etonians. Since 2016 he has been one of the heroes of Brexiters.  His late decision to back Vote Leave was in itself an act of self-promotion and belief, knowing he would be one of the few well known faces of the Brexit campaign.  As a Remainer, he would have been overshadowed by that other possessor of Etonian swagger, David Cameron.

Theresa May gave him the chance to deliver the Brexiters’ vision of global Britain.  He turned out to be the worst Foreign Secretary since 1945. His eventual resignation was another act in the Johnson playbook, escaping responsibility for the government’s Brexit failures and positioning himself at the head of hard Brexit malcontents and then for a challenge to Theresa May.

His Telegraph column on the clothing choices of Muslim women was no doubt meant to be the start of the next stage of achieving his destiny in Downing Street.  The column was the usual Johnson blend of comedy and politics.  But it’s blown up in his face.  It was a little too obvious to everyone that the mocking of face-veiled Muslim women as “letter boxes” or “bank robbers” was really a shrill and nasty dog whistle on immigration, masquerading as comedy.  He probably gave more thought to those words than the rest of the article, seeking lines that would be noticed, rather than penning a serious column on culture clashes in a liberal society.

Brexit has obvious economic consequences.  But the 2016 referendum also exposed deep seated social divisions, which were exploited to the full by the Leave campaign. The success of Trump across the Atlantic later that year showed that exploiting social fears, spreading “fake news” and deploying other underhand campaign techniques could work to devastating effect.  We know now that there was a huge amount of cross over between the Leave and Trump campaign techniques.  Trump’s associates, such as Steve Bannon, are keen to make Britain the next front in their culture wars.  Johnson, Gove, Fox and Farage see themselves as his British generals. Britain’s first past the post electoral system (for Westminster) lends itself perfectly to a polarisation of society, with a right wing party stoking up fears about immigrants and championing economic nationalism.  I’m surprised they’ve not already borrowed Trump’s slogan and called their movement ‘Britain First.’

Liberals, social democrats and others who believe in an open and diverse Britain must be careful how they respond to the rise of identity and culture based politics. I’ve written other articles on this blog site about how we should respond on policy issues.  But one thing that should definitely be avoided is an over-reaction to every provocation. There’s a tendency among far too many liberals to express their hurt and to show in public how they feel offended at the slightest barbed comment.  There’s often a rush to label someone a racist, homophobe or transphobe just for expressing an opinion or making a poorly worded joke.  If the words are uttered by a political rival then there’s palpable glee in the trashing of their reputation via social media.  I’ve been called homophobic and racist on several occasions by rivals on the political left.  The over censoring of political speech ends in the stifling of legitimate debate, most obviously on immigration. Over sensitive criticism of genuine extremist politicians plays into their hands, giving them more publicity and strengthening their appeal among the disaffected voters whom they are targeting.

Some of the criticism heaped on Johnson has been over the top.  I guess many of us feel he’s got away with so much for so long that a heavy pummelling is justified.  But in my opinion his comments aren’t racist and aren’t a hate crime. They are culturally insensitive, rude and calculated to appeal with those who do have a problem with Muslim immigrants, which is bad enough. The criticism isn’t just from liberals and the left. Moderate Conservatives are desperate to block his path to the top.

Johnson’s reputation may well have sunk among his political and commentariat peers. But polls show that millions of voters have misgivings about Muslim women covering their faces, even if they confuse a niqab from a burka. They may tell reporters that Johnson shouldn’t use insulting language but privately they fee such issues need an airing. At this moment in time Johnson may calculate that he’s advanced his standing with the section of the public that might vote for his brand of politics.  But if the Conservative Party finds that he’s breached their code of conduct then his words will have backfired spectacularly.

Finally, one of the problems with Boris Johnson is the over familiar use of his first name. It gives him the air of a jovial fellow who we can laugh along with. News presenters have said “Boris will be Boris” thereby excusing behaviour that would be frowned upon or just considered weird if it came from any other public figure. So let us all resolve to refer to him in the same way as we would any other politician.  It’s the first and easiest step in the battle to stop his attempt to inject American culture wars into our political debate.

 

Note

I wrote a blog  the day after Trump was elected, reflecting on some of the lessons that should be learned by liberals from his success and the Leave result in our referendum –

https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2016/11/09/president-trump-and-brexit-some-lessons-for-the-liberal-left/

Brexit – is the tide turning against Leave?

July 30, 2018

A month is a very long time in Brexit politics.  At the start of July Theresa May had stayed at the helm and held together her minority government for a year longer than many thought likely.  She was edging towards getting her fractious party and cabinet to accepting a carefully crafted Brexit plan that delivered an exit from EU institutions while seeking to minimise the damage to trade. A cabinet away day at Chequers endorsed the plan. Two years after the referendum and a year after losing her majority in a general election, the Prime Minister at last had a deal that could be presented to Monsieur Barnier as the definitive British objective in their negotiations.

Within 48 hours harmony had turned to discord and rupture.  Her Brexit Secretary resigned, followed by the Foreign Secretary and a clutch of minor members of the government. By the end of the month the Chequers Agreement was in tatters, amended in the Commons as May caved in to the Rees Mogg led Brextremist faction in her party.  In trying to hold together her party it seems May had pleased nobody.  The Brextremist faction (numbering perhaps 50 MPs) pulled one way and the Tory hard core Remainers (now as low as about 15 MPs) tugged another way but the party and government has now moved onto true hard Brexit territory.

This raises the prospect of Britain leaving the EU in March next year without agreeing exit terms or a trade deal.  Theresa May’s second most (in)famous Brexit related phrase is that “a no deal is better than a bad deal” but she must now realise that this is as fatuous as “Brexit means Brexit.”  Representatives of British industry have become louder in their warnings about the chaos that will ensue if there is no deal. As her new Brexit Secretary was appearing before a Commons committee, Downing Street announced that the Prime Minister was taking the lead in the remaining stages of negotiations with Brussels. Dominic Raab’s rather unhelpful metaphor for describing his demotion was that it was a “rearrangement of the deck chairs” of government. Let’s hope there are enough lifeboats.

If the government has abandoned “cakeism” and accepts that the EU will agree a Canada style trade deal but not cherry picking current arrangements, then Mrs May’s problem is that her Brexit ultras now appear to prefer a no deal outcome.  Liam Fox has indicated his preference for such a “clean Brexit” and the government has prepared a series of 70 ‘technical notices’ for what we should expect in a no deal scenario.  This has led to speculation that the supply of certain foods and medicines that are sourced from the EU will quickly dry up, the approach roads to ports will be jammed with lorries and the army will be deployed to get essential supplies to hospitals and vulnerable people.

Such talk has previously been dismissed by the Brexit brigade as “Project Fear” and scaremongering. But more of the public, including many Leave voters, are now appreciating that exiting the European Union comes at an enormous cost. They also believe that the government has failed so far and is unlikely in the future to agree a beneficial deal with the EU.  Support is growing rapidly for a referendum on the terms of the exit deal, with an option for abandoning Brexit altogether and staying in the EU. Several polls now show strong support for a “Peoples Vote” on Brexit, rather leaving it up to a dysfunctional Parliament.

A Sky News poll today shows that a slight majority of people now believe that Brexit will be bad both for themselves and the country. A huge majority of 78% believe that the government has done a poor job of negotiating with the EU.  The poll also shows that if there were to be another referendum, the Remain option would be the clear winner. If people are presented with the three options of Remain, the government’s Chequers Agreement or No Deal then Remain comes out ahead with 48% support with No Deal on 27% and the government deal with just 13% support and 3% don’t know.  When asked about second preferences Remain wins with 59% support.  What stood out the most for me was that my home country of Wales, which voted narrowly for Leave in 2016, now becomes the leader of the pack in EU support with 73% backing Remain, a truly remarkable turnaround.  The Sky poll was limited to Great Britain.  Several separate polls have shown a solidifying of Remain support in Northern Ireland. The Brexiters will no doubt now start to panic that the “dream of Brexit”, to quote Boris Johnson’s self-serving resignation letter, is slipping away from them. Expect to see more comments about a “great betrayal” and a “stab in the back” as the Brexcrement hits the fan.

Delivering Brexit was never going to be the walk in the park predicted by the Brexiters.  They said negotiating a trade deal with the EU would be easy, as they needed us more than we needed them. Davis and Johnson have fled the field.  Fox and Gove remain in post, believing in a Britain free from the EU but closer to the US. They now have to work with May to salvage Brexit, while reality dawns on more people inside government that the project may be undeliverable.

The Brexiters’ chickens have now come home to roost.  With Trump in the White House, demanding “America First” trade deals, those chickens will be chlorine washed.  I’ve thought since 2016 (perhaps with a dose of wishful thinking) that Brexit would eventually collapse, pulled apart by its internal contradictions. With eight months to go I am now more hopeful than ever that this national act of self-mutilation will be averted.  The public have got wise to the snake oil salesmen of Brexit. The tide is turning but eight months is a very long time and who knows what twists and turns lie in the road ahead.

 

The full data set of the Sky News poll can be read at https://interactive.news.sky.com/brexitshifttabs.pdf

 

Time for full equality in our marriage and partnership laws

June 27, 2018

The Supreme Court ruling that civil partnerships should be open to opposite sex couples is a welcome instruction to the government to update our personal relationship laws.  Marriage law has long been an interest of mine, both as a politician and due to one of my major hobbies outside politics, as a genealogist.  It’s time that marriage moved from its legal origins of advancing the property rights of men and safeguarding the male lineage to a fully equal institution recognising loving and committed sexual relationships and celebrating them in an inclusive way.

The case decided unanimously by the Supreme Court judges today is an important victory for the plaintiffs Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who want a civil partnership rather than a civil or religious marriage. The anomaly in the law was created by the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. The former gave legal recognition for the first time to same sex relationships. The latter extended the rights of marriage to same sex couples.  In a radical change from the usual state of our laws this meant that gay and lesbian couples had more legal rights and options than heterosexual couples. This anomaly was never likely to last long and should have been prevented when the gay marriage Bill was progressing.

Gay marriage is one of the landmark reforms of our century and will be seen as an enduring achievement of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government.  On a personal level, it was something I was proud to play a role in achieving. The reform started in the Home Office, initiated by my Lib Dem colleague Lynne Featherstone and supported by Theresa May.  It was given enthusiastic support at the top of government by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg.  By the time the legislation was ready for its Parliamentary stages Lynne had moved to the International Development Department.  The Bill was to be led for the government by a Tory minister from DCMS, Hugh Robertson. As the Liberal Democrats’ first openly gay MP I asked if I could lead for the party during its Commons stages.  I thought it was important that the Bill was not seen as a Tory achievement and that gay MPs should be involved in its passage.  I was joined on the Bill committee by my Lib Dem colleague Stephen Gilbert, our second openly gay MP.

During the evidence sessions in advance of the formal committee stage (where most of the time was spent dealing with the agonies of the Church of England and other denominations) it became obvious that at the end of the process gay couples would actually have two relationship recognition options open to them, while straight couples could only marry, though their religious options were wider. So I tabled an amendment, opening up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples.  You can read about that amendment in my blog written at the time – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/extending-civil-partnerships-to-opposite-sex-couples/

I assumed, perhaps naively, that the government would accept the amendment.  But it was made clear to me by Nick Clegg’s office that Cameron wanted the smoothest possible passage of the Bill.  This meant no amendments, no matter how worthy.  The Bill was unpopular with many Tory MPs and Cameron did not want any opportunity for it to be derailed.  There was an implied threat that the Bill would be withdrawn if it ran into difficulties and delays. So I withdrew the clause.  Later on, during the Report Stage, Tim Loughton, a Tory MP who had not been very supportive of equal marriage at the committee stage, tabled his own amendment for opposite sex couple civil partnerships.  He had recently been fired from the government by Cameron and many people saw his amendment as more to do with causing difficulty for Number Ten than with a genuine interest in relationships equality.  So I voted against his cynical manoeuvre.  Loughton has taken up the issue again in 2018, perhaps this time with genuine commitment.

I hope that the government will now act swiftly and amend the Civil Partnership Act in the way that I intended five years ago.  I hope that they will also take the opportunity to amend several other aspects of relationships law that were also discussed in 2013.  Humanist marriages should be recognised in England and Wales in the same way as they are in Scotland.  I proposed such an amendment in 2013 and (being made angry by the dismissive response of Tory minister Helen Grant) pushed it to a vote.  The result was a tie, which meant that the Bill was left unamended! Reform is also needed in the law governing married couples where one of the spouses transitions gender.  Again, Edinburgh is more advanced than Westminster on this issue, avoiding a spousal veto.  While on the subject of devolution, as the Northern Ireland has been suspended for some time, I hope Westminster will legislate for same sex marriage and other reforms in Northern Ireland.  Given Theresa May’s dependence on the extremist DUP, this may be a forlorn hope.

It’s time that our relationship laws reflected society in the 21st century.  Marriage is available to straight couples but it is estimated that there are over 3 million “cohabiting” couples who do not want to join the institution.  Many of them want to enter a civil partnership.  Enabling them to do so would be a reform that enhances the rights of one group of people without diminishing those of anyone else.  It’s a liberal reform that would bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.  The Supreme Court has spoken, Parliament must act.

Addendum

This was my speech in February 2013, at the start of the Same Sex Marriage Bill – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/marriage-same-sex-couples-bill-commons-debate/

 

 

 

How long will British politics float in suspended animation?

May 31, 2018

A year ago during general election campaign hustings and interviews in Bristol West I predicted with confidence that the shock of Brexit was about to shake up British politics.  One of my frequently deployed phrases was that Brexit was “a meteorite striking the surface of our politics.”  I thought that the almost 50:50 split of the country into two camps would break the mould of politics in the way that many had predicted in 1981.  The fact that the Labour Party really had been captured by the hard left between 2015 and 2017 meant that the conditions were surely right for a major realignment.  I was wrong. But then so were most other predicted outcomes of the 2017 election.

The result left May weakened, Corbyn strengthened, the Liberal Democrats stabilised, the Greens deflated and UKIP almost extinguished. The Tories and Labour had a combined vote of over 80% for the first time since 1979.  The Ugly Sisters had shared the Brexit spoils between them.  The Remain vote had given Labour the benefit of the doubt, with the party clocking up 65% vote shares in most urban intelligensia seats, including the one formerly represented by me. The Tories added lots of votes to Cameron’s 2015 tally but lost seats.  Ironically, May’s Premiership was saved by Unionism, in Scotland where they did manage gains from the SNP and by the Northern Ireland DUP, one of the most right wing parties in western Europe. The Liberal Democrats bet everything on a trenchant pro EU stance.  It worked in south west London, Bath and Oxford but fell flat elsewhere.

In the last year nothing much has changed.   The Brexit negotiations grind on.  The difficulties of achieving a deal that satisfies all sections of the Tory party become ever more apparent.  Yet polling shows very little slippage in support for Leave.  While I don’t set much store in individual opinion polls of party voting intentions, the overall trend is clear.  British politics has settled into support ranges of just over 40% for the Conservatives, just under 40% for Labour, a static 8% for the Lib Dems, with UKIP and the Green Party in the margin of error of negligible support below 3%.  We are now in a holding pattern, the question is – how long will it last?

There is one factor that mystifies me more than any other.  It infuriates me as much as it puzzles me. How does Corbyn still manage to delude millions of progressive voters that he is on their side? How has he remained the utopian Pied Piper at the head of a column of millions of young people?  Corbyn has convinced them that he is the new Red Messiah.  But Brexit is the biggest blow to progressive politics in the post Second World War era. It will reduce work and study opportunities for everyone.  It will hobble economic growth.  A weakened economy means lower tax revenues, starving the NHS and other public services of the extra resources needed for a growing and aging population. There is nothing socialist about Brexit. The only red thing about it is the carpet Corbyn has rolled out for Theresa May’s plans.

Corbyn is May’s brother in arms in Brexit. He is her collaborator, a harsh political word.  It was one that was spat at me with some venom by numerous Labour voters in 2015. The Liberal Democrats have been given a punishment beating and shoved out of the electoral sight of millions of progressive voters for the crime of acquiescing in the increase of tuition fees while in coalition.  Brexit will have a far more adverse and long lasting effect on the future prospects of all young people. But in the weighing scales of progressive opinion Brexit is not yet tipping the balance.

It seems that Corbyn can do no wrong. Neither his long term Eurosceptism, nor his opposition to any war unless it is against the interests of the west, nor his insouciance in the face of evidence of ant-Semitism in his party nor the vile behaviour of many of his acolytes towards their rivals – none of it takes the glow off his halo.  Peak Corbyn, like peak oil, seems to always be further away than predicted.

The Brexit clock is ticking.  In less than ten months time we will have left the political structure of the European Union. Depending on the terms of the eventual deal Mrs May negotiates we may have left the Single Market and the Customs Union too. If Mrs May lands a deal that satisfies most of her MPs then her party will continue to enjoy the support of over 40% of the public and UKIP can be given a local authority funeral.

Maybe it will take until the day after 29th March 2019 for 16 million plus voters to realise that Brexit has actually happened and Labour waved it through. The betrayal of political adultery will finally be revealed as people cease looking the other way, no longer hoping it would just stop. Will they then turn on Corbyn and Labour?  Logically, yes.  But I can’t be sure.  The last couple of years have been one long psephological headache.  I used to pride myself on the ability to read the minds of voters and predict electoral outcomes.  Thousands of hours of canvassing, public meetings, surgeries, letters and emails gave a smell to the wind of public opinion. I now have a blocked nose and just don’t know.  Neither do all the well paid pundits in the media and academia.

One thing is certain – that the Brexit meteorite will strike on 29th March 2019.  When the dust settles we could be looking at a new political landscape.  It’s also possible that the dust will take a long time to clear! Corbyn could still be marching at the head of his true believers and liberalism might still be in the doldrums. Or he could have been rumbled and liberalism will be bouncing back.  I may have lost my political nose but I cling still to my liberal optimism.