Sunday, May 31, 2009

Looking in the mirror

There will be a defence debate on Thursday in the House. MPs will hear some interesting news which will signal another shift towards realigning defence policy, closer to meet the needs of current operations, rather than feeding the industrial-military complex and the ambitions of the military for its "future wars".

The Commons chamber will be almost empty. Most of the very few MPs who will attend will not understand what they are being told. Others will misunderstand it – some deliberately. Others, of those that speak, will waffle aimlessly, delivering a variation of their stock speech used for every defence debate.

Yet this will have been the opportunity of MPs to get to grips with a crucial aspect of government policy. It will largely be wasted, but not entirely so. Of one thing we can be assured though - the debate will scarcely be reported.

If anything does escape into the wider public domain, it will probably be a pre-packaged sound bite, carefully constructed by its author with the specific intention of seeing it in print the next day. More thoughtful and relevant contributions will be ignored.

One of the issues that may be discussed is the Jackal. Today we learn of the deaths of yet another two soldiers. They were part of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, operating near Musa Qala. This almost certainly means they were in Jackals, bringing to eight the number killed in this vehicle. We will be writing in more detail about this later on DOTR.

There are many pros and cons to this vehicle – more cons than pros, we would aver. Its utility, therefore, is highly debatable.

Here, the point is that, while it has been debated endlessly on Defence of the Realm and elsewhere, it has not been debated in any meaningful way in parliament – and neither has the role or the equipment been examined specifically by the Defence Committee. Instead, we see an orgy of navel-gazing – in the House and in the media while, the claque indulges in what we called pratting about.

Yet, what will happen on Thursday is the meat and drink of politics. The fact that it will largely be ignored and poorly attended speaks volumes about politicians, the media and the nature of Parliament. Away from the headlines, unrecognised, this is where politics is going wrong. It is not doing the bread and butter work at all well and, even when it attempts to do so, the work is not recognised by the baying crowd.

If we want MPs to represent us well, therefore, it seems to me that we must look to ourselves as much as to Westminster. If we don't care what they do, why should they? And if then soldiers die in useless vehicles, for want of robust intervention by Parliament, with all its powers and resources, are we not at least partly to blame?

Thus, if our political system is failing, perhaps – in addition to everything else – we should have a quick look in the mirror.


Doing the job

Booker in his column in The Sunday Telegraph makes the case for Ann Winterton and, in so doing, also writes about The Ministry of Defeat.

By the by, we also got a review of the book yesterday in our local paper, the Telegraph and Argus, reproduced here. Thank you Jim. Interestingly, the MoD has already reacted to the title, trying to beat us to the punch. Time will tell if they succeed.

The serious point from Booker though is that, while Guido is whipping up the mob, there are MPs who, out of the limelight, have been working assiduously in the background, doing the job they were elected to do.

And when the mob gets its way, what then? A House full of Ester Rancids?


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Keep the politicians out of it

On the back of the Populus poll which brought us the current expectations on the euro-elections also come indications of support for "radical" reform of parliament.

The trouble is that was not an open-ended survey of course – not that it could have been. Instead, the company put to respondents a series of proposed reforms to the system – ones that it had identified.

These included provision for a "recall", referendums on "important issues", fixed-term parliaments, more "free votes" in parliament, a cut in the number of MPs, stopping MPs having second jobs and a fully elected House of Lords. Also proposed was a change to proportional representation.

It almost goes without saying that all proposals got a favourable reception. Seventy-seven percent went for referendums, 74 percent backed fixed-term parliaments and 73 percent wanted more free votes. Even proportional representation got 56 percent support, a small but clear majority in favour.

What precisely is the point of conducting this survey is not clear. Asking people, the majority of whom most probably have a limited grasp of how parliament works, much less of governance in general and constitutional theory, what is needed to fix a broken system, seems to have limited utility.

The whole process is akin to taking a broken-down car to the garage, to be confronted with a list of possible repairs, with the family being asked to vote on what should be done.

The great danger of this approach is that it gives spurious legitimacy to changes which will not necessarily fix the problem. With Gordon Brown also mooting changes, including proportional representation, the whole process is in danger of getting out of control.

In days gone by, before even considering changes, we would have had something like a Royal Commission, thoroughly to explore the problem and to produce a report, following which there would be widespread discussion and debate.

Whatever else, we must avoid knee-jerk reactions and quick-fix Elastoplast solutions. And, above all, the politicians – who have made the mess in the first place – must not be allowed to dictate the terms of any reforms, with or without opinion polls.


EU Referendum on telly

A kind reader put it up on YouTube.


Vote for Dave?

"A vote for the Conservatives is also a vote for a referendum on the EU constitution. We're the only party that has stuck by the promise to give people their say".

That is in a letter signed personally by William Hague, dated 26 May - as unequivocal as you can get. There are no caveats whatsoever. The message is clear, simple and direct: vote Conservative and you will get a referendum.

And if that is not a direct lie, it is a half-truth. If the German constitutional court rules against it, if the Irish vote – for the second time – against it, and/or if Klaus manages to hold out long enough, so that the treaty is not ratified by the time the Conservative administration takes over, then we will get a referendum. Otherwise, as "call me Dave" tells us in The Daily Telegraph today, we will "not let matters rest".

Had Mr Hague's letter contained all the caveats, as indeed if had Elastoplast's speech, either or both would have come over as flat and equivocal. So they dress it up and keep the small-print for another day.

The title we gave our piece commenting on Dave's speech was Are we being taken for fools?. All the indications suggest that the answer must be in the affirmative. And, all else aside, that is the one thing that is intolerable from the mouths of any politician. We will not have it.

But there is something deeper here. Even if little Dave doesn't know it, his advisors have told him that, to sweep the board at the euro-elections, all he has to do is one thing: give us an absolute, unequivocal, bankable promise that he will give us a referendum.

In fact, Dave does know it, and the very fact that he does not make that promise, but goes out of his way to pretend that he has given it, speaks volumes.

In that sense, the Conservatives are worse than Labour. At least with Labour, what you see is what you get – repulsive, venal, low grade and all the rest. But little Dave would have you believe that somehow he is above it all. "Trust me," he says … or implies. My co-editor had it in one.

Despite this, The Daily Telegraph leader goes to great pains today to tell us "Why a vote for Ukip is a wasted vote" – with a vote for the BNP "something much worse". However, when it comes to UKIP, here in Yorkshire, the lead candidate is Godfrey Bloom. My response to voting for that low-life scum is, "not even if Hell froze over".

Nevertheless, the Telegraph, as do the Tories, want us to use the euros as a surrogate for a general election – to give Gordon Brown a message. That in turn conveys its own message. A vote for any MEP is a wasted vote. As we remarked earlier, all we are allowed is to pick the pigs who feed at the gold-plated euro-trough.

The temptation, therefore, is to walk away from the elections – quite deliberately to stay at home and refuse to vote. Another attractive alternative is to spoil the ballot paper, marking it "None of the Above" or "leave the EU" – or some such other futile gesture.

One other option - which many people are determined to take - is to vote BNP - for precisely the reason Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, tells us we should not. It is because they are so repulsive.

Although Nazir-Ali cautions that "the apparent moral failure of MPs shouldn't tempt us into extremism," many people want to send this message to the incumbents: "However foul the BNP is, or might be in your estimation, you are worse. You, the politicians, have feathered your nests at our expense, you have lied to us, you have cheated us and you have betrayed us. We are sick to the hind teeth of the lot of you."

It it a sad and sorry pass we have come to. There is just time to recover the situation, but the politicians are going to have to work very hard to avoid what would be a travesty of the democratic process if these loathesome people got in.


Empty promises

A Populus poll for The Times has the Tories on 30 percent for the euros with UKIP in second place on 19, relegating Labour to third place on 16. The Lib-Dems get 12 percent, the Greens poll 10 and the BNP are on 5 percent (eight percent in the North).

What is interesting about this is that Cameron's speech about needing a "massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power ... from the EU to Britain ..." seems to have made no difference to UKIP's fortunes. Nor indeed has his apparently unequivocal pledge to give us a referendum on the constitutional Lisbon treaty.

No doubt this is because the majority of people did not believe that Cameron meant what he said, doubt that was – it appears – entirely justified from comments in The Daily Telegraph today.

In that paper, Andrew Porter interviews Mr Elastoplast, asking him outright whether he will "finally promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, even if it has been ratified elsewhere?" And the reply is the stock Tory answer: we will "not let matters rest" says the Boy. "I think everybody understands this, if the treaty is ratified by everyone and the election isn't until 2010 and the Irish vote yes then obviously I won't be content with that."

Thus, as we suspected all along, the apparent promise to hold a referendum come what may was not a promise after all. Mr Cameron was playing word games and nothing at all has changed.

By coincidence though, William Hague is interviewed by The Spectator, where he tells us that: "Trust in politics is now at an unprecedented low point; the shameless and deliberate abrogation of a binding manifesto pledge [on the treaty referendum] is surely one of the reasons why."

Another reason, young William might venture, is the Conservatives playing word games on the referendum. Empty promises, it seems, are the politicians' stock in trade – and people are getting a tad sick of them.


Friday, May 29, 2009

History repeats

MP Bill Cash has "some very serious questions to answer" in relation to his expenses claims, Conservative leader David Cameron said.

This is according to The Guardian which reminds us that the MP for Stone, Staffordshire, claimed more than £15,000 in expenses to pay his daughter rent for her London flat.

We are thus told that Cameron, speaking outside Keswick Police Station in Cumbria, said: "I think Bill Cash has got some very serious questions to answer and he needs to answer those questions."

Suddenly, there was this flash of déjà vu. We've been there before. This is "Cash for questions" all over again.


Filling the vacuum

Where one would like to see the blogosphere leading the charge, dominating the political debate as it is doing in the United States, the heart sinks when we see the desperately trivial contribution to the "great constitutional debate" made by Tory Diary.

Oblivious to the discussions going on around him, Tim Montgomerie suggests only what amount to marginal changes, failing to address the fundamental failures in the system, arguing for such things as a five percent annual reduction in taxpayer funding of political parties until it is completely eliminated. Even his one substantive point, "A renegotiation of our relationship with Europe that will see key powers returned to Westminster" is weak, building on the Conservative myth that renegotiation is in fact a possibility.

Elsewhere, in the much-derided MSM, we get two intelligent contributions. One is from Adrian Hamilton in The Independent on reform of the Select Committee system. The other is from David Green, director of Civitas, in The Daily Telegraph.

Green offers "a radical solution would be to ensure the complete separation of powers by emulating countries such as Germany, France and the US, where government ministers are forbidden to serve in the elected assembly."

As for Hamilton, he argues that most select committees are led by placemen, made up of the mediocre and tasked with the irrelevant. He is worried that calls for reform are directed at the wrong problem. The aim, according to the reformers, he says, is to enable parliament better to hold the executive to account. Yet is setting up Commons Committees as attack dogs on the government really their most useful function, he asks. Hamilton thus continues:

If the problem were an overweening central government out of control, as the reformers suggest, that might be so. But the problem of government in Britain is not really an untrammelled executive, for all the size of recent parliamentary majorities. It is that policy making and legislation is so poor.

The failures of health and education policy, the negligence of financial regulation, the mistakes of military procurement, the lack of North Sea depletion policy or a balanced energy strategy, the perversion of Public-Private Finance Initiatives, the timidity of the transport approach, the tardiness of environmental measures – all these arise not from an over-strong executive, but a political system that has been unwilling or unable to work through and discuss alternative approaches to central issues.

Select committees ought to fulfil this function.
That is a good point, arguing for a more proactive involvement by committees. Riding a populist bandwagon after the event is not fulfilling any special public duty, says Hamilton, echoing our argument on defence procurement, where the committee should be involved before a purchasing decision is made. It should not be left merely to comment on the failures, some time after the event, when money had been wasted and men have died.

Arguably, these two issue of "separation of powers" and reform of the select committee system are amongst the most important we need to address. But they seem to have passed the political blogosphere by, and are sadly absent from Montgomerie's offerings.

Some long time ago, we reviewed a report on the political blogsophere, and not much seems to have changed since. The commentary is still largely lightweight and derivative, and the MSM is still making the running. The blogosphere needs to up its game.

Nor is this an academic issue. Despite the "right" preening itself on dominating the blogosphere, the BNP – as the above graphic shows – is still the lead political website by a long chalk. And yesterday, we saw another by-election success for the BNP, where it took 19 percent of the vote in Middlesborough's North Ormesby & Brambles Farm ward, coming second after Labour and relegating the Conservatives to third place.

Unless we as a collective are able to offer better, real improvements to the system, the BNP will win the argument by default. Either we fill the vacuum or they do.


Invisible Europe

As the euro-elections come closer, The Economist has devoted an article to noticing that "Europe is invisible" in the campaign – telling us that it "shouldn't be".

As to the invisibility, that certainly is the case. The campaign literature from the main parties scarcely mentions the EU, while a Conservative Party circular letter tells us that the election "gives us an opportunity to send a message to this government, loud and clear: it's time for you to go". Media interest is minimal and the claque obstinately focuses on the domestic political scene.

However, in an article apparently devoted to this phenomenon of invisibility, the magazine offers little by way of explanation for it. The tide of European integration has slowed in recent years, leaving Britain with less to get worked up about. Also, Tony Blair was constantly talking up the EU while Brown has rarely shown the same zeal, and is anyway preoccupied with fighting a recession.

That's it. That is all we get on this bizarre situation, the magazine being more concerned with telling us why we should be interested in "Europe" than exploring why we are not.

Not least of the reasons why we should be interested – although not mentioned by the Economist - is a recent research which tells us that regulation generated by the EU has cost businesses across a total of €1 trillion in the last 11 years - equivalent to 12 percent of the gross domestic product.

That 12 percent figure is not exactly new, first reported in November 2004 and reinvented by Open Europe in February of this year. But what is intriguing about this current report is the view of one of its authors, Professor Francis Chittenden, who declares that EU regulations are largely driven by political motives, with little assessment of the impact they will have on businesses and the economy.

This, of course, is a theme which we have been plugging ever since we started this blog – and before. The primary purpose of EU regulation is not regulation, per se. It is a mechanism for promoting economic integration, from which political integration follows, the embodiment of the "Monnet method", relying on engrenage and latterly the "beneficial crisis" to drive the agenda forward.

David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), calls for this "massive burden of regulation on business" to be reduced, but he is whistling in the wind. The EU cannot and will not reduce regulation – it is its very raison d'être.

If EU politics was normal politics, on the national model, there could be change. Parliamentarians – in theory at least – could demand it and MPs holding themselves up for election with ambitions of forming a government could pledge change in their manifesto. But in the euros, there are no manifestos because the right of initiative is the prerogative of the EU commission. All the MEPs can do is conform with the "working programme" set by the commission, their power confined to making tweaks round the edges.

That is another of the reasons why the euro-elections are unreal. They don't matter because MEPs don't matter. They are a supreme irrelevance, serving as the gloss on a fundamentally anti-democratic system, there to give it the appearance of legitimacy.

The trouble is that, as the EU takes over more and more powers, and thus expands its legislative range, it also marginalises our own Westminster MPs. They also become irrelevant, thus ending up filling their idle hours with increasingly inventive schemes for self-enrichment.

And that is a true measure of the decay in our system. Collectively, in the last three weeks, both the politicians and media will have devoted far more time and energy to discussing parliamentary expenses than they have given to the EU in the last three years. That, however, leaves a huge vacuum and, in the way of things, if the politicians do not address it, others will.


It won't magically disappear

click the pic to go to Amazon"Some conspiracy theories are true – and the worst of them all is the European Union." Thus writes James Delingpole in his Daily Telegraph blog.

Delingpole then goes on to refer to "the best, most comprehensive account ever written on the EU", naming The Great Deception by Christopher Booker and Richard North.

Our arguments are then summarised in the piece Delingpole writes, extracted from his own book, How to be right, delightfully sub-titled, "The Essential Guide to Making Lefty Liberals History. The extract concludes with these observations:

What's extraordinary in an age of conspiracy theories is that the greatest modern conspiracy of them all – and one that happens to be true to boot – has been so pointedly ignored by so many for so long. It's significant that the only serious and thorough investigation there has ever been on the subject – The Great Deception – went unreviewed in every national newspaper.

The European Union has been the single greatest political disaster since the Second World War. This is rather a large and terrifying mistake for anyone to admit to having made. Perhaps too large. No wonder we're all so determined to avoid the issue. If only we can all ignore it for long enough, seems to be the thinking, maybe it will magically disappear. It won't.
He is dead right about the book being unreviewed, even by Booker's own newspaper. Two years of incredibly hard graft went into that book and the media ignored it, as did many others. That still rankles.

Delingpole is also right about the EU being the single greatest political disaster since the Second World War. Yet what is so maddeningly frustrating is that there are so many people out there who, having ignored the book, also think they can ignore the EU in the hope that it will go away. But that final sentiment is right again. It won't magically disappear. It will destroy us, unless we destroy it first.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

If, if, if

No this is not a posting about Kipling's great poem (that would not belong to this blog) but a short musing on the Conservative Party's change of heart (if there is, indeed, a change) over governance and, in particular, the European issue.

In preparation to the debate on the BBC I thought I had better glance through the Boy-King's speech about which the boss has blogged several times. (In particular, here.) On the whole, I avoid politicians' speeches, on the grounds that they rarely say anything of interest and are, in any case, written by a team of talented speech writers. (No, not Daniel Hannan or Douglas Carswell, as ConHome pointed out.)

My first reaction was that it was not too bad a speech for the Boy-King, though the routine attack on bankers was tiresome. No, they did not break the economy - that was the governments, both in Brussels and nearer home - and they pay a very high level of taxes on their salary, bonuses and benefits in kind. Can Mr Cameron say the same about himself and his colleagues?

Nor am I too impressed by the crocodile tear shed over the fact that people now see the state for the enemy that it is and not an ally. Historically, the state was seen as the enemy by the English (and the Scots and the Welsh, and let's not even talk about the Irish in that respect). The fact that there was a relatively short blip from, roughly speaking, the 1820s to, again roughly speaking, the 1930s during which Britain, almost uniquely, had good governance, that is light but ever-growing governance is irrelevant. The surprising thing that it has taken this long for people to shake off the ideas they acquired in the space of just one century.

Most of the rest of the speech is blather. But if he really means what he says about the need for "massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power"; if he really means that we need to take back power from Brussels (method, as usual unspecified); if the Conservative Party is really going to put the idea of returning power to the people and making government once more accountable by restoring it to these shores then we need to ask what is the motivation here.

Well, of course, we all know the answer. There is only one thing that motivates politicians and that is fear of losing votes. The Conservatives are rightly worried about those eurosceptic votes that they thought belonged to them. These may well go somewhere else next week with far fewer Tory members in the Toy Parliament than expected.

So, we can conclude that support for those small parties does work, no matter what the Tory boys and girls tell us: it puts pressure on the party to change its policies. Of course, we do not know yet whether the Boy-King's pronouncements will find their way into specific policies but there is only one way of making sure they do: keep the pressure on them. It really can work.

Which reminds me, ToryBoy blog has also alerted everyone to another pronouncement by the ineffable John Redwood. I am grateful to Jonathan Isaby because I do not consider the man's self-promoting blog essential reading.

In a posting, entitled "Power to the People" (dear, oh dear - that was cool aeons ago) John Redwood informs his readers that he has already outlined what the next Conservative government will have to do to reclaim power from Brussels.

Easy - don't give away any more vetoes and take some back.

Restoring the veto for future laws is no longer sufficient, as too many laws of a kind we do not want have been passed already. A renegotiation for powers back has to encompass the right to remove EU laws we do not like in areas where the veto has been restored.

Two big areas of spending are fishing and agriculture. Neither of these policies have worked well. We need our own control of our fishing grounds, as I have often argued. We need agricultural reform, which should include more being done nationally and locally.
And we are going to do this how?


EUReferendum on the BBC

As part of its programming in the run-up to the European elections, BBC4 News at 7 o'clock this evening will have a short debate between three bloggers. EUReferendum is one of the blogs taking part. The debate, I am told, will be shown about 7 minutes into the programme but these approximations are never accurate. Anyway, they will be showing an episode of The New Avengers afterwards, so that might be an inducement to watch. Personally I did not think Joanna Lumley was a patch on Honor Blackman (Cathy Gale) or, especially, Diana Rigg (Emma Peel), despite the hairstyle.

The debate will be broadcast on BBC World at the same time, which is actually 18.00 GMT.

ADDENDUM: The three bloggers will be back on Monday after the results have been announced across the EU. So, tune in then, folks.


Make politics local

"Does anyone care?" comes a plaintive voice from the corner of the internet, via a single e-mail, the proximate cause of the grief being a piece by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard headed: "Europe tightens regulatory noose on City".

The European Commission, Ambrose tells us, has seized on the financial crisis to bring the City under closer EU control. It is clipping the wings of Britain's Financial Services Authority, unveiling far-reaching plans for a new EU regulatory machinery with binding powers.

This was predictable, if not predicted, the EU being the past master at exploiting the "beneficial crisis". This, in October last year, when we could be bothered with such things, we wrote:

If, by the end of this crisis – if it ever ends – the EU is not a smouldering wreck, it will emerge stronger, more powerful and more arrogant than before. It will destroy the City of London and what remains of our prosperity with it. It will regulate it to death.
Also, we wrote, in respect of the treatment of parliament by the government:

In this and a hundred other ways, Parliament is being treated with contempt. Having surrendered its powers, won at the cost of blood by our ancestors - in part to Brussels and, to a great extent, to the Executive – it has been fatally weakened. And, in being treated with contempt, it is also an object of contempt.
At that time, I added, "We will be the losers – we are the losers. In no manner, shape or form are we any longer a parliamentary democracy." So it has come to pass.

As the media are locked in the daily soap opera of MPs' expenses, truly turning our parliament in that "object of contempt", our real government is hard at work, set to destroy one of the most productive and valuable parts of our economy, the City of London.

In a sane world, we would be storming the ramparts on this. Our MPs would be up in arms, with "Questions in the House", urgent debates, strenuous, aggressive and even angry interrogations of ministers, with frenzied headlines in the newspapers. Dream on.

I have often wondered why we don't get worked up about what is going on in Brussels, especially when something as important as this crops us. And the answer is probably beguilingly simple: because it is "over there" – out of sight, out of mind. We simply cannot engage with something that is so remote, so distant and er … well, foreign.

When I was over in Brussels, after a while British politics looked just the same. Heavily immersed in EU politics, you used to read the British papers in the morning over a cup of coffee. The headlines and the stories were just words on pieces of paper. You could not relate to them, there was no engagement, no fire – it was all "over there".

For, politics to mean something, you must be part of them – have a stake in the issues. There is nothing quite so boring as other peoples' politics. Thus, the oft-quoted axiom, "all politics is local" – attributed originally to US Congress speaker Tip O’Neill – needs to be turned round. For them to be politics, they must be local.

That really is the problem with the EU. It takes "local" - i.e., national - issues and detaches them from their natural constituencies. By this means they become unreal, distant and meaningless. Only when they come back to Westminster do they become real again, by which time it is too late. The decisions have been made, the deeds have been done – the horse has bolted.

So it is that we have this surreal euro-election campaign. Naturally, the politicians focus on the domestic issues – those are what matter to voters. The EU is not a "domestic" issue. Even after all these years of Brussels being our government, news editors still report EU business as "foreign affairs".

That is why, of course, we must get out of the EU. It is not only a question of getting our country back – we want our politics back.


Quite right too

"Today, on the 21st day of our inquiries, it can be disclosed that a Conservative grandee avoided paying capital gains tax after making a £600,000 profit on the sale of his taxpayer-funded house, which he designated as his second home.

Sir John Butterfill submitted regular claims for the cost of running the six-bedroom country house, including £17,000 alone on servants' quarters."

Good grief! Is one supposed to keep one's servants in the barn?


There for the taking

With only a week to go to the euro-elections, attention is beginning to shift to the creatures we are to send to Brussels, supposedly to represent us in the heart of evil but, in fact, to represent the EU to us.

And, if our MPs are turning out to have feet of clay – or some of them – the tiny spotlight that is illuminating our MEPs suggests that many are every bit as foul and grimy as the worst of the domestic species.

With The Sun having a go yesterday – and with a reporter full-time in Brussels digging up dirt – today is the turn of the The Guardian, citing a report from Spinwatch on the less than salubrious habits of some of these creatures. Greed, it appears, knows no boundaries – which comes as no surprise at all.

Meanwhile, The Financial Times is desperately trying to stoke up some interest in the elections, countered by Daniel Hannan who wants the EU parliament closed down and the powers handed back to national legislatures. Fortunately for his bank balance, which will be better off to the tune of £83,282 a year – minus 15 percent tax – no one who matters is likely to be listening to Hannan.

Jack Straw, on the other hand - according to the BBC - is with The Financial Times in trying to breathe new life into the euro campaign. But in so doing, he demonstrates the fatuity of the whole idea of an election. His pitch is that there is "anecdotal" and polling evidence to suggest that voters were still interested in the "real choices" they faced on bread-and-butter issues such as law and order. Thus, to win euro-seats, Straw is accusing David Cameron of being "soft" on crime.

Cameron, for his part, is accusing the BNP of being "fascist" – which is rather like accusing a dog of having four legs.

Being confronted at an agricultural show in Somerset by a voter who told him that the BNP "have a point when it comes to immigration", Cameron came up with the most extraordinary statements. "There is a proper national debate that we should have about immigration … I want us to limit the number of people coming to Britain, but do not believe that the way to beat the BNP is to half agree with them. These people are not pleasant people."

The extraordinary thing is that, having studiously ignored – and even suppressed – any debate on immigration, thereby giving the BNP its opportunity, Cameron tells us that there is "a proper national debate that we should have …". The term "should have had," might have been more appropriate. In the last week of the campaign, it is now too late. The moment has passed and the "not pleasant" BNP is going to reap its harvest of neglect.

However, Labour's Alan Johnson is drinking from the same well as Cameron, telling us that the big political debate would take place among the mainstream parties. Labour, he said, "had the ideas and vision for the future".

Call me quaintly old-fashioned, but it used to be the case that politicians had the debate before the elections, in order better to inform the voters and to assist them in making their choices. Now, it seems, we must vote blind on the promise of a future debate, the pitch being that we must only allow this to happen "among the mainstream parties".

In what is already a bizarre campaign, which has been dominated by anything but EU issues, this really takes the biscuit. "Buy now and read the label when you get home," seems to be the message. If we needed any more evidence that the political classes have lost it, it is there for the taking.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

European elections

"If the established parties have their way, the prospects for change in Brussels vary between fat chance and no chance," says The Sun.

In truth, that applies no matter what party gets MEPs elected. All we are doing is choosing which pigs get their turn at the trough. And, as The Sun tells us, it is a very big trough - a "whopping salary" of £83,282 taxed at just 15 per cent.

"Then there is the £260 a day attendance allowance, famously known as "SOSO" - Sign On and S*d Off. Yet for the few hours they do put in, they are entitled to claim almost £36,778 a year in food and booze - enough to feed several entire families. Plus hundreds of thousands more for office costs and staff allowances - often paid to spouses and family members."

We the people … get to pick the pigs. Why are we allowing this to happen?


We the people

Picking up the thread from my co-editor, it cannot be said enough times that power belongs to the people – not the politicians. It is not theirs to give to us … they hold it in trust and exercise it on our behalf.

Developing the theme further, governments by their very nature, will always abuse the power with which they are entrusted. That is an inalienable fact of life. To that extent, governments are not our friends. They are our enemies, more so our own, which has the capability to do infinite damage.

If we could do without governments, the world would be a better place. Since we cannot, we tolerate them, simply because the alternative – of not having a government - is worse.

But we the people must recognise that governments are not our friends. We must constrain them, control them, limit their ability to act and ensure that the power they hold is exercised for us, on our terms, not theirs. The government should fear the people, not the other way around.

In an effective system, we delegate the powers of supervision and constraint to specialists – just as we delegate growing our food to specialists. The latter are called farmers, the former politicians or, more specifically, parliamentarians. They, the parliamentarians are not – or should not be - the "government". Actually, the better word is "executive", a word not used often enough in this country.

The problem we have at the moment – one of many, although this one is important – is that the executive and the parliament are too close. The one draws its members from the other, to the extent that the role of the one is submerged by the other. The roles must be separated, if parliament - our parliament is properly to do its job.

This is for us to demand – we are the people and the power is us. When we hear politicians offer their ideas for "reform”, by all means we can and should listen politely. But no politician should be awarded approval uncritically, unthinkingly. It is for us to decide, not them, where the constraints lie.

Thus, with "reform" suddenly on the agenda, we cannot and should not allow the politicians to make the running. Inescapably, because their world view is different from ours, they will fashion the constraints and the controls in a way that suits them, not us. If, on the other hand, we choose to lie back and allow them to dictate the agenda, we will not get what we and the generations that follow us deserve. But we will deserve what we get.


Stand and deliver

Good work by PoliticsHome tells us the scale of the mountain Mr Cameron has to climb to convince people that he means what he says.

From a nationwide poll of 1,178 adults on whether a Cameron as prime minister would be as radical as he is promising on devolution of power, it finds that an overwhelming majority of the public are sceptical, predicting that he would be more cautious in office. In figures, a full 70 percent think Cameron would be more cautious and only 23 percent think he would deliver.

Needless to say, in the tribal nature of politics, 54 percent of Conservative supporters "think" (if one can use such a word in this context) he would deliver, as against 44 percent who think not.

We would tend to go with the 70 percent, not least because – in our view Cameron has made promises (or implied that he will take action) on issues where he can either not deliver, or has no intention of so doing. As such, even James Slack of The Daily Mail notes that the man has left "wriggle room".

Of the various commentators, Melanie Phillips echoes our caution, noting that Cameron’s words were good, but "he must know that if the public perceive that the policies on offer don’t match up to the fine rhetoric, then far from remedying public alienation from the political class he will merely deepen it still further."

Simon Jenkins in The Guardian writes under a heading which proclaims: "Cameron can talk the talk, but that's no longer enough". Scepticism, he says, is justified by evidence. Every modern government promises to cut waste and bureaucracy, and duly increases them. Unless politicians have the guts to say how, they deserve a hollow laugh. This, not some trivia about expenses and tinkering with parliament, is the rot in the system.

In most states, he adds, constitutions enshrine the separation and devolution of power. In Britain, students are taught that tradition and the probity of the ruling class are sufficient guard against elective dictatorship. It is no longer enough. That is why I believe that only a written constitution will free us from reliance on the wishy-washy, easy-to-discard pledges of leaders such as Blair, Brown and Cameron. The game is up. Their word is not to be trusted. Liberty from overpowering government must become compulsory.

Even The Daily Telegraph utters a note of caution, warning that "Cameron must follow bold words with action". Failure to follow words with action, he says, "will only further erode public trust in politicians."

Only the Tory claque seem genuinely enamoured with Elastoplast Dave's shining words, with young Daniel Hannan trilling that the "radical proposals" endorsed by David Cameron are the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Tribal Tories are so easily pleased, but the rest of the population is not. We look upon political "promises" with weary cynicism, having been led up the hill so many times only to be led down again, our expectations deflated. That is not to say that we cannot be pleased – simply that words are no longer enough … and we have long memories. Fine words may buy time, but it really is time to stand and deliver.

Devil's Kitchen is not terribly impressed and a Tory Diary commentator says: "Don't try and divert the public's attention it will come back to bite you if you do and may well cost you the next election". Indeed! Cameron had better be serious about this. If he is not, he will find that we are.


A citizens' revolt?

It is rather entertaining, at one level, to see Simon Heffer declare an intention to take on Sir Alan Haselhurst at the polls, protesting at the use of his allowances to pay for £12,000-worth of gardening at his country house.

Heffer, we are told, "joins the growing ranks of public figures who have come forward offering to unseat MPs seen to have abused the system". These include Esther Rantzen, the broadcaster and campaigner. She is to stand against Margaret Moran in Luton South unless the Labour MP resigns over her expenses, including £22,500-worth of dry rot treatment at a house 100 miles from her constituency.

Robert Harris, the writer, said he had considered challenging Alan Duncan, the shadow Leader of the House – another gardening enthusiast – and Lynn Faulds Wood, the television consumer campaigner, is also prepared to have a go. Then we have David Van Day, the former Dollar singer, who says he is planning to oppose Nadine Dorries.

Another one who is feeding on this "anti-politician mood" is Mr David Cameron. He has stated an intention to re-open the Conservative Party candidate list, accepting applications from all-comers, even if they are not members of his party.

Added to all that is the non-party party, the Jury team which wants to field a bunch of amateurs who want us to vote for "democracy, accountability and transparency" – without giving any indication that they understand even the basic nature of the systems they wish to enter.

Looking at these developments in the round, the idea of having Heffer in parliament is indeed entertaining, and he would probably make quite a good MP within the current system. There is a long history of journalists becoming MPs and vice versa, although – as in Julie Kirkbride - the transition is not always successful.

Taken to the extreme, one can even entertain the idea of the country returning a complete deck of 646 "amateur" MPs, stripping out all of the incumbents and starting with a completely clean slate. That, of course, will not happen – but that still leaves the possibility of there being a significant number of amateurs in the next parliament.

Whether we would be better served is another question. Arguably, compared with the ghastly Esther Rantzen, even Margaret Moran and her £22,500-worth of dry rot treatment might seem attractive.

More specifically, while the sentiment is very much against career politicians, in an age when even dustmen call themselves "professionals", one would hope to have professional MPs in parliament – the term signifying that they do at least know what they are doing.

Here, there seems a certain element of confusion as to what MPs actually do – something we have often asked. But the best are very busy indeed, and work extremely hard. They tend to be those who rarely get the high-profile media treatment, not least because they are too busy to indulge in the sort of relentless self-promotion that gets MPs noticed.

And, where the MP attempts to do the job properly – within the constraints of a system that is designed to prevent them from so doing – the work is highly skilled, requires a great deal of aptitude, knowledge, experience and sheer, grinding hard work, leavened with prolonged bouts of frustration, tedium and fatigue. For all the visible glitz and glamour, it is a dreadful job if you do try to do it properly, and is most certainly not one I would enjoy (or even be good at).

Crucially though, the dominant experience is that of frustration. MPs are constantly up against the brick wall of a system that has robbed parliament of its powers and is unresponsive to the needs of a democratic society.

One has to ask, therefore, that if the "professionals" find being an MP such hard going – and find it so difficult to achieve anything – why it is people think that rank amateurs would be any better?

For sure, true "independents" free from party allegiances – if there were enough of them – might force through changes to the system. But that presupposes that they knew enough about the system to know what is wrong with it and what changes were needed. Then they would have to know enough about the procedures to be able to implement their changes, without the "pros" running rings round them and blocking their every move.

Then – ironically – in order to have any effect – the "independents" would have to organise themselves, agree a common line and tactics and then co-ordinate their actions to make sure their agendas prevailed. And hey! We have another political party.

As it is, a bunch of amateurs abroad in the cockpit of parliament would actually strengthen the incumbents. All at sea, without the party machinery to support, inform and co-ordinate them, the newbies would be taken to the cleaners by the established parties. Like as not, those newbies would find out very quickly what every MP already knows – that, as individuals, they are essentially powerless.

As for Mr Cameron and his call for amateur-hour, any party leader would welcome a bunch of novices at his beck and call – ignorant, confused, fearful and compliant, they would be easily malleable and, for a very long time, lambs to the slaughter. Even great egos like Ken Livingston were sucked in, chewed up and spat out, without making their mark.

All that points to the singular and inescapable fact – that the problem is not primarily the MPs, but the system in which they operate. Even the very best are frustrated by it, and new faces – while providing novelty and entertainment – are unlikely to do any better than the current bunch. Many would do far worse.

Therefore, the vital need is to change the system with a view to enabling our parliament to function more effectively. That change is unlikely to come from within parliament itself. This putative citizens revolt, therefore, is probably a dead-end street. Politicians – amateur or not – cannot fix the system on their own. We "the people" are going to have to force the pace.


Devolving power?

Is Cameron seriously suggeting devolving power to the people? Because, if he is, he does not understand the basic tenet of English political history. Mind you, neither do the media and most of the electorate. A short comment on You Freedom and Ours. This is important: if those constitutional discussions start with that kind of a misunderstanding we shall get nowhere.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Are we being taken for fools?

Quite understandably, Tory Diary gives an upbeat account of the Elastoplast King's input to the "great constitutional debate" that is beginning to emerge – one positive side-effect of the Telegraph's relentless pursuit of errant MPs. However, some of the negativity for which this blog is famed and detested in equal measure is found in the comments section.

We ourselves take the view that, in response to Mr Cameron's soaring rhetoric, people are entitled to be suspicious and, after ten years of Blair, even cynical. Any politician needs to recognise that, and should not be surprised if their rhetoric is treated with a certain amount of reserve.

Not least, when Mr Cameron tells us: "I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power ... from the EU to Britain ...", we need to be conscious of the fact that, in order to deliver on this – should it ever become a firm commitment rather than rhetoric – the government would have to abrogate the EU treaties and, effectively, leave the EU.

This would be a highly desirable outcome and it may be what Mr Cameron has in mind. The problem one has with this, however, it that nothing he has said previously has ever suggested that this is his aim, or that he has any intention seriously to engage with the EU with a view to securing a "massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power." In the context, we would assert that suspicion is an entirely sensible response.

However, in his speech today in Milton Keynes, expanding on the Guardian piece, we see what appears to be a startling and, on the face of it, an unequivocal commitment:

We will therefore hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, pass a law requiring a referendum to approve any further transfers of power to the EU, negotiate the return of powers, and require far more detailed scrutiny in Parliament of EU legislation, regulation and spending.
In respect of the Lisbon treaty referendum, there are no qualifications and if we can take the words to mean what they appear to mean – not always wise when politicians are speaking – then EU Referendum is back in business. Such as been the prevarication of Tory Party spokesmen, though, that we will need clarification of this before we get too excited. But, if the contents match the label on the tin, UKIP is dead in the water.

Once again though, the worm of doubt insinuates its way into the core. Cameron's original assertion was: "I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power ... from the EU to Britain ...". His new text reads that we (a Conservative government) will "negotiate the return of powers".

It is not unduly cynical to note that there is a huge difference between the two texts, the former being genuinely new while the latter is merely a re-statement of Tory policy, one which we know to have very limited objectives.

Given the care with which Mr Cameron's speeches are drafted, the words used cannot be dismissed as mere loose phrasing. We are entitled to infer from what he says that he means precisely what he says. Any analytical reading of his second text suggests that he has not said very much at all, and that it is entirely at odds with his first text.

Then, of course, there is the vexed question of "negotiation". This has been a vague aspiration in Tory policy for more than 20 years and, each time it has been put, we have asked – in the spirit of genuine inquiry - "… and what if they [the colleagues] say no?". To that, we have never had a satisfactory response, the issue usually being fudged with references to the Thatcher "handbag" strategy.

Thus, while more than happy and willing to be convinced of Mr Cameron's good intentions, textual analysis suggests that we have a way to go before we can accept that what we are being told is anything more than the "same old, same old" tired political rhetoric.

Elsewhere, we have remarked that, whatever else, Cameron is not stupid. He – and those around him – must know that much of the disillusionment with politicians stems from their tendency to offer high-flown rhetoric and then fall short on delivery. Ten years of Blair has hardened us to that.

Therefore, Cameron must also know that we are not going to be satisfied with mere rhetoric. Over the years, politicians have used up any trust and we are not in the mood to give them the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, Peter Hitchin is not in a forgiving mood. In an updated version of an article published last week, he writes:

I've also begun to notice that Mr Cameron now makes much of the fact that Parliament has lost much of its power to "Europe" and the Judges. He speaks as if he plans to correct this. But he knows perfectly well that unless Britain leaves the EU, most of our legislation will be imposed on us by the European Commission. So this seems to me to be just talk.

A small digression here. Vikki Boynton posted last week that the Tory position on Lisbon is: "If the Lisbon Treaty is not yet in force at the time of the next general election, and a Conservative Government is elected, we would put the Treaty to a referendum of the British people, recommending a 'no' vote. If the British people rejected the Treaty, we would withdraw Britain's ratification of it." Seems clear.‘

Yes, it does "seem" clear. It is meant to seem clear. But it is not. A British withdrawal of ratification would be followed by immense pressure from the EU to change that position. There is a great appetite in Brussels to get on with ratification. How would a Cameron government respond to that pressure? I believe it would "negotiate" a "compromise" that would end with Lisbon coming into force more or less as it is. That is the key question, and one you won't get an answer to. Only a government which clearly wished to leave the EU could possibly escape from this bind.
Cameron's performance today raises more questions than answers. But he should realise that he, with the rest of the political classes, is in "Last Chance Saloon". Iain Dale believes that, "What Cameron has done is provide leadership - again - in a way which leaves the other parties trailing in his wake." If he is not and merely playing rhetorical games, taking us for fools, vengeance will be swift and complete. For his sake, I hope he knows what he is doing.


A bit of technocratic tinkering

"Three weeks in and it keeps getting worse," writes Richard Littlejohn, everyone's favourite "man-in-pub".

As the revelations continue to pour out, though, there is a sense not so much of boredom as numbness creeping in. And the Telegraph, having started it all is rather in the position of the sorcerer's apprentice – as someone recently observed - having started something it does not know how to stop.

Aside from the obvious casualties of the affair, however – with many more to come – the greater loss will be if the opportunity is lost to push for fundamental reform to a political system which has spawned the self-serving culture that infests not only the political classes but also public service as a whole. Ask not what you can do for Britain, is the current ethos. Ask what Britain (aka taxpayers) can do for us.

Already, though, we a seeing that opportunity draining into the sands, as the self-same political classes who have presided over the wreckage of our system, coming together with Elastoplast reforms which they hope will take the sting out of public anger, yet will avoid damaging the status quo.

Yesterday, we had the Elastoplast King and the fatuous proposals from Boris Johnson and today we have some more offerings from HRH Elastoplast. Amongst the delights on offer is a proposal to: "Open up the legislative process to outsiders by sending out text alerts on the progress of parliamentary bills and by posting proceedings on YouTube."

All this and more we get spelt out for us in an "exclusive" piece in The Guardian, with Elastoplast Dave doing grandiose big time. "We need a massive, radical redistribution of power," his headline gushes, as we are told that "public fury at the MPs' expenses scandal points to deep problems in the British political system."

"We mustn't let ourselves believe that a bit of technocratic tinkering here, a bit of constitutional consultation there, will do the trick," says Dave. "No, this crisis shows that big change is required. We do need a new politics. We do need sweeping reform. But we've got to get it right." Cue text alerts on the progress of parliamentary bills.

Some of the offerings do sound attractive though. "I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy," says Dave.

"Daveyboy ...shadap aint fooling anyone," responds one commentator, sporting a label "Pretendingtocare". "Yo Davey! I've got a bandwagon, wanna jump on it?" adds "Chickenonfire". "Maccusi" simply remarks: "Bullshit. Mr Cameron." The Elastoplast has a way to go.

When we hear very precise details about how "Daveyboy" plans on "achieving a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power" from the EU to Britain – complete with a timetable – then perhaps it will be time to listen. Otherwise, the point by "GCDay" has particular resonance: "Were there any specific measures or proposals in there? I only skimmed the article but couldn't detect anything like that... ". Cynicism rules in this fair land of ours.

Nevertheless, "Daveyboy" isn't the only politician in reform mode. In The Times, we have a contribution from Chris Mullin, former chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, a minister in three departments and an MP for 22 years.

What is uncanny to the point of being sinister is how closely Mullin's recipe for "reform" matches some of that of the Elastoplast King's. Probably more by osmosis than collusion though, the political classes are closing ranks, hatching what they hope will be a package convincing enough to fool enough people that there is to be real change.

Mullin also talks in grandiose terms about the need to "prise the tentacles of the executive from functions that are properly the business of Parliament," using exactly the words and expressing precisely the sentiments that need to be heard more widely.

But if the lion roars, it delivers forth a mouse. The whips, says Mullin, routinely interfere in the selection of select committee chairmen. The time has come, once and for all, he says, to wrest from the whips the power to interfere in the choice of select committee chairmen.

In future they should be chosen by ballot of all backbench MPs, he says. Once chosen, those chairmen should have the final, but not necessarily the only, say in which members sit on their committees.

Next, he says, we need to reduce the powers of patronage available to the Government. How can Parliament function effectively when a large and growing proportion of backbench members are in some way beholden to the Government that they are supposed to be holding to account?

There, we could be venturing into real reform, with a proposal for a proper separation of powers. But if Mullin diagnoses [part of] the problem correctly, he fights shy of going for the only real answer. Instead, weak as dishwater, he tells us that "the place to start is by cutting back on the ubiquitous parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs)". And then, he says, "there may also be a case for a modest reduction in the number of ministers and special envoys".

There is then another 200 words of extruded verbal material, but the message is already clear. Trimming round the edges is all that is on offer. Mullin is not going to be looking at the root causes of the many problems and deal with them.

In the style typical of politicians though, Mullin – having offered us a diet of gruel – dishes up some rich words for his own table. "Only when we have a Parliament that demonstrates itself capable of standing up to an over-mighty executive will the country start taking its politicians seriously again," he says.

Therein lies the truth, but this also illustrates with graphic clarity – far more so than by the allowances scandal – the utter corruption of our political classes. They talk the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, you will find them with their slippers on, feet up by their fires, watching their taxpayer-funded plasma TVs.

Pic: best I could do ... killer-bunny slippers.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Getting there first

The boss will do a far better and more measured piece about the news that both Wintertons are to step down at the next election. He knows them, especially Ann, far better than I do.

However, I want to point to the reactions to this piece of information. With some exceptions they have all been gloating. What people recall is past nefarious experience with expenses, though this time round, both Wintertons are high up in the list of "cheapest MPs".

What very few people seem to have noted is that both Wintertons are in the Better Off Out group and have been since its inception but then, I suppose, that is not something to be proud of, as far as most Tories are concerned; too much like rocking the boat.

What even fewer people have noticed is Ann Winterton's dogged campaign of questions about defence and procurement that has frequently had HMG and MoD on the back foot and has produced a good deal of information that those institutions would have preferred not to produce. As against that personal failings (oh yes, I remember those jokes!) ought to be a minor detail.

Which does make one wonder what do all those people who insist on commenting about political events really think MPs should be doing.


Flawed and simplistic

If Mr Boris Johnson, in seeking to revive Parliament, really thinks the answer is far fewer laws, as he professes in his op-ed today, then one of the most fruitful places to look is Brussels – from where most of our laws now emanate.

Needless to say though, in common with many of his class, he mentions not the EU, which makes him part of the problem rather than the solution.

This though, is what Iain Dale regards as "a thought provoking article", although he goes on to suggest that his [Johnson's] recipe is "flawed and simplistic". And indeed it is.

Such is Johnson's appreciation of the malaise afflicting parliament that he dismisses the idea of a constitutional convention – and thus any major changes to the way parliament is structured or run. Instead, in his own child-like way, he argues for

… a new breed of MPs who will consistently tell the whips to get stuffed; who will smash the brutal and intellectually enervating system of party discipline that turns Westminster into a kind of Seventies Leyland car factory, apathetically turning out badly assembled laws to plague the people of this country.
Thus his advice to constituency parties is not to hire candidates unless they promise to read every line of every Bill they are called upon to pass; and to vote according to their conscience, and not according to the wishes or orders of the whips.

The sad thing is that this is not even "Janet and John" entry level politics. He decries the party system but, in so doing, denies the very advantage it confers. Party specialists can examine law going through and advise on policy lines, thus allowing MPs to take a line in accordance with the policy to which they subscribe, without every single MP reinventing the wheel, and going through it with a fine tooth comb. This is a combination of specialisation and delegation. There is nothing wrong with that in principle.

The greater problem – far greater – is the flood of statutory instruments, which cannot be changed. That is part of the real biggy - EU law, much of it coming out as European Regulations, which come into force as soon as they are "done at Brussels", without ever coming near parliament. How does Johnson propose his "new breed of MPs" deals with those?

Further, his facile image of parliament stresses but one function of the institution – that of passing legislation. He neglects completely the equally important role of scrutinising the executive and holding it to account, at which MPs have proved less that capable, not least because there are fundamental flaws in the system which prevent this process being effective.

Iain Dale's piece, however, has provoked a number of comments, some good – and some not so good – but it is the makings of a debate. Latterly, he asks whether there should there be a UK-wide constitutional convention.

Arguably, the answer is "yes", but with the proviso that Boris is allowed nowhere near it. But if such a convention is to be of any use, it must deal with issues like the leaving the European Union, the separation of powers and then emasculating the quangos and agencies which have deprived parliament of so much of its meaning.

Echoing one of Dale's commentators, we have to say that, until these things are done, everything else is Elastoplast.


The Elastoplast King

Right on cue, out comes Dave this morning with a shed-load of industrial-grade Elastoplast.

Our political system needs big changes, he says, and then proposes … er … a series of small changes. The whole process of how something becomes law is failing, he says. There are far too many laws being pushed through, with far too little genuine scrutiny from MPs, he says. Excessive "whipping" of MPs by party hierarchies further limits genuine scrutiny. This too has to change, he says.

We need standing committees that genuinely examine bills as they go through Parliament, he says. And we need select committees – the committees that look at each of the government departments – that are more independent, he says. At the moment chairing a select committee is too often the consolation prize for being kicked out of government, he says. We need more free votes on non-manifesto items, he says. And we need a strong, authoritative Speaker who can command respect across the House of Commons, he says.

Dave is absolutely right on one thing, and one thing only. Our political system does need big changes. It is dead easy to lampoon MPs for their bleating over the allowances systems, when they complain that the system is at fault. But they have a point. The system is at fault, and the allowances system – as many commentators have observed – is a symptom of the broader malaise.

If Dave is right – and he is – MPs are not going to function effectively until the system is fixed … effectively.

So why is Dave being allowed to get away with handing out industrial-grade Elastoplast? If Dave is so keen on scrutiny, where is the scrutiny of his lame proposals? Where is the discourse on the political blogosphere? If there was any, I would link to it (such as Devils Kitchen), and broaden out the discussion. But, if it exists, I have not been able to find it.

Alright, we link to our own piece which, inter alia discusses the real flaws in the select committee system, which Dave does not even begin to address. Can anyone else do better?

Or are we supposed to stay transfixed with the theatre and let Dave get away with what amounts to a snow job – passing off the pretence of reform without addressing the substance and the root causes of a failed political system? Are we really all that gullible and so easily pleased? Will nursey really make it better with a magic bandage?


Understating the threat

Despite the strenuous cross-party campaign against it, and the attempts to "puff" UKIP in the hope that it will Hoover up the protest vote, the BNP continues to make steady progress in local authority by-elections. It has also produced a "shock" poll result which worries The Sunday Express, pulling 38.4 percent of voters' support compared with 19.2 percent for Labour.

As to the latest local authority by-election result, this was at Irwell Riverside in Salford MBC to the north west of Manchester. There, in a safe Labour seat, the incumbent held with 38 percent of the vote, losing 13 percent compared with the 2008 result. The Conservatives, in an election it was never going to win, polled 12 percent, losing nearly five percent of its share.

Of the minority parties, UKIP and the Greens both picked up 8 percent of the vote but the BNP took 17.1 percent, the only party to increase its share of the vote, up nearly four percent.

The BNP claim a "solid performance" in a ward with over 2000 students registered on the electoral role. The National Union of Students, the party says, had lobbied via the internet to get the student vote out to oppose the BNP, but their efforts met with only a lukewarm response.

It also claims that "the result was a big blow to the Tories" who not only worked hard in the ward and also had their campaign boosted by the arrival of the party's euros election address, delivered just 24 hours before the polls opened.

Coincidentally, the Sunday Express poll was carried out in the Salford constituency, currently held by communities secretary Hazel Blears. The survey of 500 voters showed that Ms Blears would lose her seat, but it also suggests that a disillusioned 55 percent would not vote at all.

But the "shock" is that the BNP picked up 38.4 percent support compared to 19.2 percent for Labour. Tories took 13.4 percent of the poll, the Lib-Dems 10.7 percent and the Greens and the UKIP 7.1 percent each – uncannily similar to the by-election vote. If the result is repeated across the North-West in the euros, says the paper, Nick Griffin will be elected as an MEP.

It is unlikely though that this level of support will be repeated throughout the region. Although BNP is showing strong cluster of support, it does not have the spread enjoyed by more established parties. Nevertheless, in recent elections in two Carlisle wards, the party scored 9.5 and 19.7 percent of the vote.

Then, in Moston in April, there was a closely-fought contest between Labour and the Tories. This resulted in a near 11 percent drop in the Labour vote, but a catastrophic drop of 14 percent for the Tories – with BNP getting 23 percent and coming second – in its first appearance in the ward.

The spread of results, on the back of the Salford poll, does suggest that BNP is indeed in with a chance in the euros and, on the basis of that performance, Griffin is set to become the BNP's first MEP – possibly displacing UKIP.

However, with the Archbishop of Canterbury worried that the current furore over MPs' allowances could "play into the hands of unpleasant fringe parties like the BNP", The Daily Telegraph is today warning of the dangers in constantly talking up the "threat" of the BNP.

Similarly, The Independent is cautioning: "We must stop exaggerating the threat of the BNP", yet also noting the powerful online presence of the party, reporting that figures from Alexa show the BNP registering more traffic than highly publicised political blogs such as Guido Fawkes. (We reported that on 12 April.)

For once though, Rowan Williams might be getting it right. If anything, both the Telegraph and the Independent seem to be understating the threat.