The UK government says no to democratic reform

Within hours of the general election Whitehall started making new MPs irrelevant. Even before the new parliament has heard the Queen’s Speech, Whitehall has begun to treat the legitimate and elected part of our political settlement with contempt by abolishing an effective part of parliamentary scrutiny, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee. New MPs will of course know of the battle between parties, but there is also an historic, never ending democratic battle – regardless of party – between the executive (government) and legislature (parliament). It is an uneven battle which – while not covered in new MPs’ induction packs – those who think beyond the tribal will soon become familiar with. It often transcends partisanship since all parties who aspire to run government also conspire to control parliament. This forces MPs into difficult choices as either parliamentarians who want to defend and extend our democracy or party representatives made to vote for leaderships that see only Whitehall power.

Government have taken in their first week their immediate opportunity to use their control over parliament to weaken its ability to hold them to account. In which other democracy are the institutions of those who hold government to account controlled by those who are to be held accountable? Key Whitehall officials who set Parliament’s agenda have been preparing for this moment from well before the election. They are the most powerful people in Parliament ,yet the most anonymous and beyond any democratic scrutiny. Led by Roy Stone, Private Secretary to the Chief Whip and Mike Winter, Head of the Leader of the House’s office, they operate in the dark, agents of the secret state of the most over-centralised political system in the Western world without so much as a Parliamentary Business Committee (promised but not delivered by the last government) to hold them to account. Even as our politics is in such disrepute, those who run the system are on auto pilot, not governed effectively by ministers, not challenged to think afresh to save our democracy from further erosion, just business as usual. The benefit of a five year parliament is that it can take the time now to get law right, to have proper engagement, to timetable helpful pre and post legislative scrutiny. However old habits die hard and ramming reflex drafts through parliament is what they have always done so why change now even though there is the opportunity to do so. It is just too easy, too tempting to carry on as before oblivious to, and dislocated from, the frustrations of the electorate.

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Notes on the Elections

This election promised to produce constitutional confusion and uncertainty and instead it has delivered stark clarity. The British electoral system values clarity: few people dissent from the line that it is better to have a government that can pass legislation and take decisions when it needs to than to be stuck with one that stumbles on hand-to-mouth from vote to vote. We seem to prefer certainty to confusion. But why? What evidence is there that majority governments are better at governing? The fundamental long-term problems this country faces – inequality, a struggling education system, growing health costs, changing employment patterns, environmental threats – are ones that a series of majority governments (and I include the coalition, which had a big parliamentary majority) have failed to address. This is not just a left/right issue. Blair didn’t tackle them, despite his massive parliamentary ascendancy, any more than Thatcher did. Majority governments flatter to deceive. They are not more decisive. They are just more biddable.

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The British syndrome: an abdication of responsibility

My book, Mammon’s Kingdom, was born of incredulity. The global financial and economic crisis of 2008 was the second most devastating in the long history of capitalism. Only the crisis that began with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and culminated in the Great Depression of the 1930s did more damage to output, employment and welfare.

And, just as the crisis of the 1930s made nonsense of the economic orthodoxy of the previous half century, the crisis of 2008 and its aftermath tore gaping holes in the intellectual system that had underpinned the assumptions of central bankers, ratings agencies, business schools and professional economists for a generation, and had shaped the policies of international economic institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund.

On a deeper level, the crisis exploded the dogmas spawned by that system: that government intervention in the economy does more harm than good, that markets should therefore be left to regulate themselves, that rewards reflect productivity, that, since ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, the forces that make the super-rich richer also benefit the poor, that the information available to buyers and sellers in the market place is symmetrical, that the choices made by unfettered economic agents are rational and that the booms and busts which had been capitalism’s most obvious hallmark for centuries were no more.

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How the international community failed Libya

The international community has failed Libya. While this may come across as a harsh verdict to the many organizations, governments and individuals, sometimes well-meaning, who since 2011 have been flocking in and out of the country in an attempt to secure its transition to state-hood, it is the case that many of those transactions remained confined to the surface of Libya’s socio-political transition. One still remembers the high hopes of 2011. Libya, with the largest oil reserves in Africa, was well-positioned to launch a new era unlike its neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia, who had mounting economic and structural challenges to address. In Egypt, between 2004 and 2010, there were more than 3,000 labor actions, between protests and strikes, mobilized against a baggage of old anti-democratic and intricately corrupt state structures in what came to be called the “deep state”.[i] Libya was deemed to have none of that “depth”. But did it? Is it true that Libya, with no known institutional history, possessed none of the complexities of its neighbors? This article will reflect on some of the aspects of that invisible complexity.

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Where next for the Liberal Democrats?

Labour’s predicament is difficult, but it is the Liberal Democrats who face an existential crisis. What then should the Lib Dems do next? The overriding priority must be to restore trust in the party.

The general election results marked a damaging setback for Labour and a brutal defeat for the Liberal Democrats. In 2010, patterns of tactical voting which had built up over twenty years helped both parties retain enough marginals to deny David Cameron a majority. This time round, the firewalldisintegrated. Labour made a net gain of just two from the Conservatives, whilst the Liberal Democrats collapsed in suburban England and their south-western heartlands as the centre-left vote fragmented and centre-right voters moved over to the Tories. The SNP landslide in Scotland completed the rout.

It was difficult for both parties to fight against the ‘fear factor’ whipped up by the press and the huge amount of direct mail which the Conservatives poured into target seats, but there were also significant self-inflicted wounds. Not only did the Liberal Democrats alienate left-leaning voters by entering the coalition, but its leaders did as much as David Cameron and George Osborne to brand Labour as spendthrift and irresponsible – Nick Clegg by playing up the comparison between the UK and Greece, David Laws by brandishing the now-notorious note from Liam Byrne. By crediting the Tories with a ‘head’ and Labour with a ‘heart’, the party’s election campaign stoked fears of Labour and helped drive swing voters to the Conservatives. Worse, Nick Clegg’s insistence that a hung parliament was inevitable – in line with the pundits and the published polls – fostered complacency on the left and exacerbated tactical unwind.

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The future of human rights in the UK

Adam Wagner (One Crown Row Ltd and founder of RightsInfo.org) gave a very timely seminar on Tuesday May 12 for the Oxford Human Rights Hub and the Oxford Martin School Human Rights for Future Generations Programme on the future of human rights in the UK under the new the Conservative majority government. The seminar asked two crucial questions: what will they do? And what can human rights activists do?

What Will They Do?

The Conservative Manifesto argues that the Human Rights Act, 1998 (HRA) should be scrapped and replaced with a British Bill of Rights based on “common sense,” but that is still consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). However, besides addressing some of the recent controversies in the UK human rights landscape such as deporting suspected terrorists and prisoner voting, the Conservative Manifesto does not provide much detail on what specifically a British Bill of Rights will contain and how it will differ from the HRA.

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The 2025 Communicator: The Future of Digital Communications and Humanitarian Response

With communication a central element in humanitarian crises and humanitarian response, the next decade will see communicators change their approach in light of the increased significance of digital communications in such situations.

Digital trends include real-time mapping and analysis using social media, crowd sourcing and data mining, the use of mobile phones to disseminate information, online campaigns bringing publics and affected populations closer together, digital platforms for cash transfers and new digital tools for assessment work, as well as monitoring and evaluation. These changes have brought new actors not traditionally associated with humanitarian situations onto the scene: technologists, data analysts, social innovators, private sector businesses and financial intermediaries, among others.Yet to understand the full significance of these trends, we must dig deeper. There is a fundamental change underway in the underlying drivers of humanitarian crisis and of humanitarian response that will become a reality in 2025 if we consider that an essential condition that defines a ‘humanitarian situation’ is a communications crisis. This holds on two critical levels.

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Numbers that matter: Party leader satisfaction ratings and election outcomes

Satisfaction with party leaders of the two main parties would have predicted the outcome of the last nine UK general elections, including the most recent. This measure is worth looking at in more detail as voting intention polls led many forecasters astray in 2015.

Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll (pdf here) showed the ‘three main reasons for voting’ for each political party in the 2015 UK general election. The biggest difference between parties was the number of people who voted on the basis that ‘the Party Leader would make the best Prime Minister.’ David Cameron, at 71%, far outstripped all his opponents, with Ed Miliband (the next most popular) coming in at 39%. On no other question did the Conservatives have such a large lead.

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