All posts by tristanhumphreys

Political Campaigner, second rate writer and lover of football. Needless to say these views are my own and not that of my employer. I welcome all comments, providing they're more expansive than four letters and an exclamation mark.

General Election 2015 – Some Parliamentary Mythbusting

Where to start? For fellow election junkies, this has been a particularly frustrating campaign.

The General Election is the one time every five years when political discourse becomes, temporarily at least, public discourse. Its an opportunity like no other to engage the electorate with the serious. substantive issues of the day and to illuminate unseen parliamentary processes.  If you want to wake the body politic from a collective slumber, here’s your opportunity.

So why the frustration? Because rather than using the media glare to enlighten voters, it has instead been used to blind them. We’ve been left groggily stumbling through a murky stream of misinformation. The key narratives of the campaign have been based on little short of fantasy yet they they’ve  abounded airwaves and saturated soundbites. The political discourse has been woeful.

So consider this my contribution. My small effort to insert some facts amidst the fatuous. Some sense into the spin.  I’ve not tried to cover all the myths (who has the time?) but hopefully the below at least sheds some light on the key claims and counter claims about what awaits us in the days and weeks to come. Enjoy and happy voting.

1. The party with the most votes is the winner?

Nope. In British politics, the aim of the game is getting a majority in Parliament . That means 323 seats (Sinn Fein don’t take up their 3 seats).

This is what is referred to as a ‘Majority Government‘.  This matters because you need enough votes to be able to pass legislation, to govern.  Ultimately, the test of your right to form a government is whether you can survive a vote of confidence in parliament. Do you have the support of enough MPs? Whether they belong to your party or not does not enter the equation.

In 2010, no one party won enough seats to govern alone and so we ended up with the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. They chose to enter a formal coalition but they could just have reasonably agreed a confidence and supply agreement  with a Minority Tory Government. Together they had the numbers, alone they didn’t. Constitutionally this is the ONLY measure of a Government’s legitimacy.

5 years ago Gordon Brown was unable to get the numbers and so resigned as the constitution demands (Cabinet Manual, Paragraph 2.12).  Come the 8th of May, The Prime Minister will be required to do the maths once again. If he cannot realistically find a majority he must go, whether he has most seats or not.

2. Deal or No Deal? Ed Miliband and the SNP

The Tories have got Labour between a rock and a hard place and Ed Miliband knows how damaging suggestions that he’ll be held to ransom by the SNP are in England, whether they are true or not.

Ed Miliband & Nicola SturgeonHe also wants to undercut  Nicola Sturgeon’s message in Scotland that a vote for the SNP is a vote for a more progressive Labour government.  Hence why he’s ended up being ever more definitive in his refusal to ‘deal’ with the SNP than he perhaps would have liked at the start of the campaign.

Labour won’t be getting a majority (neither it seems will the Tories) so will need the support of MPs outside their party. On current polling that would mean SNP MPs. So what constitutes a deal? Well it seems fair to assume both the most formal Confidence and Supply agreement and a Coalition fall into that category but what about informal conversations and reassurances in the halls of Westminster? Labour are essentially calling the SNP’s bluff. Having promised to ‘lock out’ the Tories, would the nationalists dare vote down a Labour minority government?

Even without a formal deal, provided Ed Millband can be sure he will not lose a vote of confidence, he can govern as the leader of a minority government. This would then leave him needing to secure support for legislation on a vote by vote basis. To be successful he’ll no doubt have to make some concessions and offer incentives along the way with the SNP as well as others but lets be clear about something. This is how the parliamentary system operates already. Even Majority Governments have to curry favour with friends and foes across the chamber at times. Add to this the fact that, whisper it quietly, the SNP spending plans and many of their manifesto commitments are very similar to those already made by Labour and this could lead to a reasonably productive parliamentary term.

But what if Labour can’t get SNP support? Can the nationalists block trident? Well, if all the above sounds complicated, this shouldn’t. Labour & The Conservatives both support Trident.  As long as the Conservatives vote in favour of it, SNP MPs can do nothing. The same applies to any attempts to secure Full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland. So yes, Ed Miliband will talk to the SNP and may even make some concessions on a vote by vote basis. Whether that counts as a deal is up to you.

3.There’ll be another election before Christmas

Not likely.
Nick Clegg

We’ve had plenty of scaremongering this election but we’re really through the looking glass when politicians start threatening us with an election. So when Nick Clegg says “the last thing Britain needs is a second election before Christmas”, what is he really getting at?

Simply put, Clegg’s argument is that a Minority Government (be it Conservative or Labour) would be too unstable and bound to collapse, thus triggering a second election before Christmas.  What he’s getting at is that in a Hung Parliament the only stable solution is a Coalition, with as it happens, the Lib Dems at its heart. Had he been talking in May 2010, he could well have had a point (a failure to pass a Queen’s Speech or budget could have prompted one) but he wasn’t and that matters because whilst Deputy Prime Minister he helped pass the Fixed Term Parliament Act (2011) . This set a fixed term of 5 years for each parliament and removed the power of the Prime Minister to choose the timing of the election. In order to call an election earlier than this, two thirds of MPs (including Sinn Fein) need to vote in favour of parliament’s dissolution. Importantly it also made clear that only a specific vote of no confidence could trigger an election.  Even in this situation, it still allows the political parties 14 days to form an alternative government. A new vote of confidence would then be held and were that to fail the clock would reset and we’d have up to another 14 days (a few goes of this and you might be wanting an election). Minority governments have survived reasonably well in the past and the FTPA makes that even easier. This is a point made by Professor Colin Talbot in his excellent blog on the issue.

So will we have a second election before Christmas? Maybe but its a lot less likely than it used to be, ironically in large part thanks to Clegg himself.


In the Shadow of the No Vote: What Next for the United Kingdom?

Campaigners on both sides are agreed that yesterday’s referendum represented a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland to vote for independence. The settled will of the Scottish people is therefore now clear. But whilst this morning’s result marks the culmination of a constitutional debate that has been taking place over decades in Scotland, in other parts of the United Kingdom, the discussion has barely begun. In such circumstances, it is hard to imagine exactly how and within what timescale a truly sustainable constitutional settlement can be arrived at, let alone the likely shape of that settlement. It is therefore essential that a new debate should begin, across the whole of the uk, regarding our respective futures and how power should be distributed across our nations and regions.

The Prime Minister has already sought to pre-empt this debate by promising to deliver a draft bill in January that will offer additional powers to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved institutions, whilst also addressing the West Lothian question by ensuring “English only votes for English only issues” within the UK parliament. Yet listening to David Cameron’s statement this morning, its tone was striking, giving the distinct impression of a man seeking desperately to unite an increasingly split and restless Conservative party, rather than national leader seeking to bring together a fractured union. Barely hours after the polls have closed in Scotland, the smell of fudge is already in the air from Lands End to John o’Groats.

A UK-wide Constitutional Convention is now required, in order to examine all of these issues in minute detail and to engage people from all parts of the UK in the debate. It is clear though that the place where this debate is most urgently required is in England, where to date, the response to Scottish and Welsh devolution has been largely characterised by indifference and there is nothing even approaching consensus, amongst English politicians or the English general public, regarding the future governance of the country and its regions. Achieving such a consensus will not be easy, but it is essential if further, regular, constitutional crises are to be avoided.

Here in Wales it seems inevitable that events in Scotland will lead, sooner or later to a significant increase in the powers of the Welsh Assembly. Indeed, it seems very likely that it will only be a short period of time before the institution evolves into a genuine Parliament. However, whilst this prospect is undoubtedly exciting, the continued structural weakness of the Welsh economy means that increased devolution (particularly fiscal devolution) could also bring immense challenges. It is therefore essential that there should be a strong and unified Welsh voice at the negotiating table, so that we can secure a settlement that protects our interests. It is also essential for Wales that the future of Barnett Formula and the issue of ensuring fair funding for all parts of the UK (based upon economic need) should also be on the table.

A further difficulty in achieving a permanent constitutional settlement relates to the electoral timetable. It is inconceivable that a lasting deal can be arrived at before next May’s General Election, whilst the likely outcomes of that election make it equally difficult to imagine that the next government will have a sufficiently strong mandate to take controversial legislation through parliament. Opinion polls also point towards the prospect of next year’s election seeing the arrival of four party politics in England (five party politics in Scotland and Wales). This threatens to fatally undermine the authority of whatever government is elected, via a First Past the Post electoral system designed for a bygone era. It is therefore essential that the electoral system should also be placed within the remit of the Constitutional Convention, with all options (including Proportional Representation) up for consideration.

Make no mistake, the dramatic events of the past two weeks mean that radical change is now on its way across the whole of the United Kingdom. As with all sorts of change, an element of risk is inevitable. However, the opportunity to forge a more democratic, more engaged, less centralised Britain, that is better placed to make the most of the talents of all of its people is immense. The debate on how this can be achieved begins today.

Ben Lester

Yes or No? The Unspoken Impact of Scottish Independence

In less than a week the people of Scotland will head to the polls to make one of the most momentous decisions in this union’s history and one for which this country has no democratic precedent. Column inch after column inch has rightly been devoted to the impact a possible yes vote could have. After 300 years, what price a divorce now?

Yet amidst all the marriage analogies a truth has been missed. This is a relationship between more than 2 countries. That a yes vote will be transformative for Scotland should be clear and England will of course suffer from more than just bruised pride by such a seperation but what will become for example of Wales?

Perhaps of all the home nations, it has most to lose from Scottish independence. Many of the concerns raised in Holyrood can also be heard in Cardiff Bay too. There is a sense of disconnect between the values of this small progressive nation and those espoused by successive right leaning Westminster Governments. A feeling only inflamed by Cameron’s current Austerity drive. After all, Wales is a nation for which labour struggles are within living memory; its scars still healing.

Yet like Scotland, it is also a country with an unspoken division between the the Nationalists and the Anglophiles. There is a tension between different visions of what it means to be welsh and the role that an historic language plays. To examine and encapsulate all these tensions and commonalities would take a better man than me but post Scottish independence you can be sure they will be felt ever stronger. For without Scotland as a useful ally, the union becomes a remarkably imbalanced affair. How will the people of Wales feel about the increased prospect of Tory majorities?

Inevitably the case for independence for Wales would be stoked by a Scottish yes vote. But it is also true that the same risks faced by an independent Scotland would to an even greater extent greet an independent Wales. Either way, a yes vote on Thursday would spark major upheaval and ignite a fresh conversation about the role of the union.

This much must be clear. Whatever the result on Thursday, a new constitutional settlement must now be sought. Not as a temporary fix or a batch of cobbled together powers. Or a Westminster fudge to stave off the clamour for independence from the UKs junior partners. What we need instead is a new deal for this union’s nations and English regions. One that answers the people’s legitimate cynicism toward Westminster politics by devolving power back into hands of the communities in which most British people live. Westminster does not reflect the demographic, cultural or economic realities of the modern day United Kingdom and until it does it is difficult to trust it will adequately meet this country’s challenges.

Structural reform does not of itself bring about change but a more transparent, democratic and dynamic approach to power does at least give us the tools to engage properly in the government of our country. It is one step among many but one we can’t afford to miss. After all, Its repercussions will be felt well beyond the parliaments of Holyrood and Westminster.

Tristan Humphreys

Clegg the AV go hero

Within the space of seven days, Barack Obama has been transformed. Once an un-American, Presidential imposter, he now stands heralded as the Commander-in-Chief responsible for bringing America’s greatest enemy to justice. No wonder they say “a week is a long time in politics”. This dramatic week that began with the enforced decision of the Obama administration to release his birth certificate, countering claims from opposition groups, including Presidential wannabe Donald Trump,  that he was born abroad and as such was not eligible for the office of President. Or friend Barry released the birth certificate with an unveiled sense of annoyance, saying that “we do not have time for such silliness”. And no wonder, after all he was at that very moment in discussions with senior military officials over a special forces mission to find and capture the sponsor of 9/11, Al Qaeda’s spiritual leader, Osama Bin Laden.  They got their man, albeit not alive, and with it a particular chapter has been closed on recent US history.

This week is unlikely to be quite so volatile this side of the Atlantic. Yet for Nick Clegg it might just prove as important to his and his parties political future as the events in the US prove to Obama and the Democrats. This Thursday, the country goes to the polls, not just to decide who to vote for (Council elections across the UK and National Assembly elections in the devolved nations) but also how to vote. We will be presented with two options, one, to stick with our current system of electing MPs, First Past the Post, or two, to vote for a new electoral system called Alternative Vote.  AV broadly works on the principle that the least unpopular candidate wins. Each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference (1 for the favourite, 2 for second favourite and so on.) each round the last placed candidate is knocked out and his/her voters second preferences reallocated. This process continues until one candidate has over 50% of the vote or all the votes have been counted. A much better explanation can be found here.

Regardless of the merits of AV, the result matters hugely to Clegg and his party such is the political capitol he has expended to ensure the referendum takes place at all. Win and the Lib Dems will benefit from the new system, gaining more MPs for the same portion of the vote and open up a debate that could ultimately lead to holy grail for Liberal Democrats, Proportional Representation. Clegg can claim that the gamble of joining with the Tories was not only sensible but worth it as the voting system, a major Lib Dem policy ask, had been achieved.   Lose however and the outlook looks pretty bleak.  Many Lib Dem voters will feel short changed by a coalition agreement that ceded so much Lib Dem policy for a chance at electoral reform that came and ultimately went.  Given that a Yes vote would pose a pretty stiff challenge to Cameron’s authority too, it’s virtually impossible to see a result from which the unity of the coalition government isn’t in some way damaged.  With this in mind, it seems clear there’s more than just the voting system is on the line this Thursday.