Thursday, May 10, 2012

Could this be the real reason behind Tory opposition to Lords reform?

Twenty five years ago, Mrs Thatcher won her third general election and formed her cabinet.
Shall we see what happened to those Cabinet Ministers are now?

Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher (now Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven)

Chancellor of the Exchequer
Nigel Lawson (now Lord Lawson of Blaby)

Chief Secretary to the Treasury
John Major (turned down a peerage in 2001)

Foreign Secretary
Geoffrey Howe (now Lord Howe of Aberavon)

Home Secretary
Douglas Hurd (now Lord Hurd of Westwell)

Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
John MacGregor (now Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market)

Defence Secretary
George Younger (initially made Lord Younger of Prestwick, before succeeding as Viscount of Leckie)

Education Secretary
Kenneth Baker (now Lord Baker of Dorking)

Employment Secretary
Norman Fowler (now Lord Fowler of Sutton Coldfield)

Energy Secretary
Cecil Parkinson (now Lord Parkinson of Camforth)

Environment Secretary
Nicholas Ridley (became Lord Ridley of Liddesdale – died 1993)

Health and Social Security Secretary
John Moore (now Lord Moore of Lower Marsh)

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Kenneth Clarke (still an MP and currently Justice Secretary)

Secretary for Northern Ireland
Tom King (now Lord King of Bridgwater)

Secretary for Scotland
Malcolm Rifkind (currently MP for Kensington and Chelsea)

Trade and Industry Secretary
Lord Young (had received his Life Peerage in 1984)

Transport Secretary
Paul Channon (became Lord Channon of Kelvedon – died 2007)

Secretary for Wales
Peter Walker (became Lord Walker of Worcester – died 2010)

Lord Chancellor
Lord Havers (former MP who was made a Life Peer in 1987 – died 1992)

Lord President of the Council
Viscount Whitelaw (former MP who was unusually given a Hereditary peerage in 1983 – died 1999)

Lord Privy Seal
John Wakeham (now Lord Wakeham of Maldon)

By now, you will have got the reason for this article. All but three of the 1987 Cabinet found themselves in the House of Lords. The three exceptions are because they are still active in politics (Clarke, Rifkind) or because of refusal (Major).

To be fair to him, George Younger would have got his hereditary peerage anyway. And of course it is not only Tories who have accepted such honours – Lords Kinnock, Prescott, Steel, Owen and Ashdown are all there too, as well as numerous MPs of all parties.

But opposition to reform of the House of Lords is strongest within the Conservative party. Former Cabinet Ministers such as David Davis, John Redwood and Peter Lilley would doubtless find a seat in the Lords one day as things currently stand.

Could the real reason for dissent in the Commons be the fact that, like virtually all of the 1987 cabinet, many Members of Parliament have one eye on their retirement?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Alternative Queen's Speech - My Review

It must be unprecedented for MPs and supporters of a party in government to produce their own version of the Queen’s Speech in anticipation of the real thing, but that is exactly what Tim Montgomerie and Conservative Home have done – with the acknowledged help of David Davis and John Redwood.

Some would see this as undermining David Cameron’s Conservative-led government, but Tim has argued that it could strengthen Cameron’s hand in coalition negotiations and prepare a programme for the next manifesto and subsequent majority government.

In case, you are not familiar with Conservative Home, it claims to represent the Conservative grass roots and is influential amongst the right wing of the Tory party. The general editorial policy is to be opposed to David Cameron and the coalition government and in favour of a right wing agenda. Its favourite topic is, of course, the European Union. It is worth a read, the articles are generally well-written, and the comments are always entertaining and are sometimes very extreme. Anyone who dares defend Cameron can expect a ferocious response.

Whatever you think about Montgomerie,Davis and Redwood, they are all talented people with fine minds, so I was interested to see what ideas they might come up with. The alternative speech claims to be‘popular, pro-poor and broadly based’. Unfortunately, this is not so much a programme to encourage jobs and growth but more the reiteration of a right-wing agenda that would have made Mrs Thatcher blush. But see what you think as I list the 15 main Bills below.

British Bill of Rights Bill
Basically to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights specific to Britain, which was in the last Conservative manifesto. I actually like the idea of a specific Bill of Rights but think it could be made to work alongside the HRA rather than instead of.

Promotion of Competition Bill
Introducing competition to the water industries by a common pipe network – and promoting banking competition in line with the Vickers report. The water option sounds expensive but could be worth examining. Vickers may well get a mention this week.

Rail Improvements Bill
This is just to cancel HS2 and plan for long term railway investment – and I am not sure a Bill is necessary to do that.

Make Prison Work Bill
Two astonishing proposals here – one is that foreign nationals should serve their sentence in their country of origin, while the other suggests mentally ill criminals should be sent to professionals or social services.

How can you ensure that the host country will look after foreign prisoners to an adequate standard, or, on the other hand, not just release them? Is this just a covering way to deport lots of foreigners for crimes such as six months for shoplifting? And do social services have the facilities to take care of mentally ill criminals?

Fairness to UK Taxpayers Bill
A road charge for foreign lorry drivers to use UK roads. A requirement for foreign nationals to pay for NHS treatment. And a charge for foreigners to go to museums where UK citizens go free.

This is simple xenophobic nonsense – perhaps the lowest point of this speech. It tells the world that you are not welcome here and would hit our tourist industry. Also, do you want to take your passport or birth certificate whenever you visit the British Museum?

The only way this Bill could work would be to re-introduce Labour’s ID cards scheme. And we don’t want that!

Affordable Energy Bill
Energy prices may well come up in the actual speech. The proposed Bill here says little other than promoting competition and reducing subsidies.

Anti-Congestion Bill
Basically a large road strategy to reduce congestion. But improving public transport may be a more effective and environmentally way here.

Double EU Referendum Bill
No surprise to see this come up – but such an odd format. The Bill proposes two referenda, the first on our negotiation position (powers to take back, budget, authority of EU etc) and the second to vote on the subsequently renegotiated deal.

I am not sure how you can have a referendum on our position – if you ask several questions, the results will only be confused.

My suggestion is simple – a one-off referendum – ‘Do you think the UK should remain as part of the European Union?’ Yes or No.

Education (Choice and Opportunity) Bill
Expand grammar schools, allow private companies to run schools, open up places at independent schools, and confirm choice within the education sector to build on the free schools and academies.

All good Tory stuff, but this would be a mammoth and highly controversial Bill. I would be very unhappy with introducing privatisation to the education sector, in the same way as it has been introduced into health. We don’t want to go back to the days of good schools for those who can afford it!

It seems that governments, of all parties, cannot leave schools alone!

University Standards Bill
Essentially this proposal is to severely reduce and weaken the powers of the Office of Fair Access – which has as its aim to ensure that more students from poorer backgrounds get into higher education.

Again we don’t want to go back to education for the rich – which will certainly reduce standards. Dare I say I would like to see further investment to reduce fees and the re-introduction of maintenance grants?

Double Devolution Bill
To give more powers to the Scottish Parliament (the devo-max) and to allow only English MPs to vote on English issues.

I have no view on the first, but as for England, we should have an English Parliament set up on the Scottish mode. This would solve the West Lothian question.

Finance Bill
Take more people out of the 40% tax rate and reduce capital gains tax from 28% to 20%

Capital gains tax was increased to combat tax avoidance. We should go the other way and tax it as income.

Trade Union Members’ Bill
To make strikes legal only if turnout in the ballot is 50% - and to give people the choice of where the political levy goes.

Strike ballots are a good idea but rigging them as suggested gets you on a slippery slope. As for the levy, this is an obvious politically motivated law which does not deserve consideration.

Electoral Integrity Bill
To combat electoral fraud by reversing the right to claim postal votes without good reason, and to require stronger proof of ID at poling stations.

Good motives but this would simply reduce turnout even further. My solution is even more radical – introduce compulsory voting.

Lords Reform Bill
Basically to abandon the plans for an elected Lords and set up a Royal Commission to examine the Lords powers, duties etc and make sure the whole idea drifts on so it is forgotten about.

So there you have it. Nothing about encouraging jobs, businesses and growth, nor benefit and health reforms. Just a series of measures to ensure the wealthy and privileged stay where they are and that nothing ever changes. And in some parts to discriminate against foreign nationals.

David Cameron may have been concerned when he heard about the alternative Queen’s speech – but now we have all read it, I don’t think he need worry too much.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Six silver linings

The local election results were obviously another bad night for the Liberal Democrats – losing hundreds more councillors and having a less presence in local government than ever before is not something one can easily disregard. However in the fine traditions of spin, I have tweeted a few silver linings as follows.

Silver lining 1: Liberal Democrats kept control of all seven councils (albeit one with Mayor casting vote).

We were defending control of seven councils at his election. In Portsmouth, South Lakeland and Eastleigh we increased our numbers, and we kept control of Cheltenham, Three Rivers and Watford. While we lost control of Cambridge, we have 21 out of the 42 seats and so, in effect, we control it with the Mayor’s casting vote.

In areas which have Liberal Democrat MPs, our vote seems to be holding its own after two years of unpopularity, which must look good for the general election.

Silver lining 2: It is entirely consistent for governing parties to do badly at mid-term local elections.

This has been the case in the over 30 years or so that I have been following politics. In 1981, Michael Foot’s Labour gained 988 council seats. In 1999, the Tories under William Hague took over 1,300 seats. Both successes were followed by heavy defeats.

Silver lining 3: If you are going to go down, who better than a Tory to take with you?

A bit rough maybe on our coalition ‘partners’ but then they did take such joy in our difficulties last year when they did surprisingly well. Perhaps I read Conservative Home too much.

Silver lining 4: UKIP doing well will help us in Con-Lib Dem marginal.

I am very fond of UKIP, and our local party are nice chaps. My fondness is not about their policies (most which I disagree with) but that they are not Conservative or Labour – and I think the more people vote away from the big two, the more chances we will get of genuine change in this country.

It is a fact that many of their policies (tax cut for the wealthy, more grammar schools, a freeze on immigration, expansion of the navy, environmentally-sceptic and of course their main objective) are music to the ears of a certain kind of Tory – and by taking votes away from such Tory supporters, it can only help us.

Silver lining 5: Peter Bone is not happy.

Perhaps it is unfair again for me to pick on Mr Bone, when I could have chosen any of dozens of backbench Tories. But this group passionately hates the coalition and passionately hates Nick Clegg when they should be grateful to him for putting the Tories in government and all the flak he has taken subsequently. If Peter Bone, who today called this ‘the beginning of the end of the coalition’, is unhappy – then I know we must be doing something right.

Silver lining 6: Above all, let’s remember Lib Dems are in government! Isn’t that what it is all about?

Ask any political party to choose between a major role in the UK government, or control of a few councils, and they will always choose the former. Ed Miliband would gladly exchange all of Labour’s council successes in return for walking into Number 10.

Most of us never expected to see the day that Liberal Democrats would be sitting round the cabinet table, or putting Liberal Democrat policies into practice, such as taking the poor out of tax, helping disadvantaged schools, setting up an environmental bank, installing fixed term parliaments, protecting the state pension – the list goes on! This is what is important.

It is three years to the next election – and let’s be honest, it may be quite a while before we are in government again – so, after these election results, let’s get off the floor, dust ourselves down, and get back to work. There is still so much to do in so little time.