Alternatives to fixed-term elections

Until the present coalition government introduced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, in 2011, the UK Prime Minister had discretion to call elections at will, a power often used for partisan advantage. As Petra Schleiter reports in her recent post on Politics in Spires, 60% of the UK’s post-war elections were called early (i.e. more than six months before required). Further, her analysis suggests that this gave incumbents a 6% vote gain, roughly doubling the PM’s chances of remaining in office.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act allows early elections to be called only in very restricted circumstances (either with support of two-thirds of the House of Commons or following a vote of no confidence after which no alternative government is approved by the Commons within 14 days). Schleiter points to a number of advantages of this; not only does it stop PMs from calling elections opportunistically, in order to increase their chances of victory, but depriving them of this power also prevents them from using the threat of an election to bully backbench MPs or coalition partners, thereby making the government more accountable to parliament.

However, in focusing on the advantages of fixed-term elections, Schleiter does not consider whether there are certain advantages to the old system, in which an election could be called at any moment.

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Migration and the political

Ever since the collapse of second-world socialisms as “actually existing” political alternatives to global capitalism, the political terrain has shifted considerably. Old political subjects, such as class, seem to have disappeared or waned in significance, while new political subjects are elusive. Political action consists of seemingly unorganised and spontaneous mass events without clearly articulated agendas or of practices of daily life that have subversive political effects. Both forms of political action are often invested with hope that they will somehow enable alternatives to the currently predominant forms of organising collective life.[1]

This political desire also attaches to migration. Some years ago, Étienne Balibar wrote of immigrants as “today’s proletariat” (2004: 50). More recently, Dimitris Papadopoulos, Vassilis Tsianos and Niamh Stephenson (2008) have written about clandestine migration as imperceptible politics, namely as a social practice that does not have an explicit political goal, but that brings about large-scale shifts in the political field. The prevailing sentiment in activist circles seems to be that if migration is disruptive, as mainstream political elites suggest, then this disruption might as well be put to different political ends. Thus, for example, a group of scholars and activists working on borders recently occupied the discursive terrain by introducing new keywords in migration and borders, such as “militant investigation”, “counter-mapping” and “bordering” among others (Casas Cortes et al. 2014).

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And the House of Lords trundles on

In an election held this month, Raymond Benedict Bartholomew Michael Asquith, third earl of Oxford and Asquith was elected to take up the seat in the House of Lords vacated by the death of Robert Alexander Hold Methuen, the seventh baron Methuen. The ballot was conducted using AV (the Alternative Vote), but Lord Oxford received 155 votes of the 283 votes (55%), so preferences were not taken into account. (The proxime accessit, Lord Napier and Ettrick, received only 35 votes, and seven of the fifteen candidates received only one vote or none at all.) Turnout was 36%. All members of the House of Lords (currently 776) were eligible to vote. The new member will sit with the Liberal Democrat peers, as did his predecessor.

This unusual process is a result of a compromise reached when the House of Lords was reformed in 1998 and 1999. The Labour Party manifesto in 1997 had proposed to remove all of the hereditary peers from the house, but in a departure from the Salisbury-Addison convention the Lords objected and prevailed, forcing the government to retain 92 of them. (McLean 2009: 234) (In reality, only ninety were retained. The other two hereditaries are held ex officio by great officers of state: the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who are peers.) Lord Cranborne, who as Conservative leader of the Lords engineered this bargain, failed to tell his leader William Hague about it and was sacked when Hague learned of it independently.

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Alternative liberal solutions to economic inequality

The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.

– J.S. Mill, Autobiography, 1873, speaking of himself and the philosopher Harriet Taylor.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century argues that, absent corrective action, we can look forward to a rise in capital’s share of national income and a corresponding depression of the share of labour. This might not be so significant were capital evenly distributed so that all could share in its higher returns. But Piketty shows that the distribution of capital is extremely unequal and likely to grow more so. At the same time, he argues, the share of wealth that is inherited looks set to increase. Together these trends threaten to produce a society in which a relatively small section of the population comes to claim a larger share of national income through its (increasingly) concentrated ownership of (increasingly) inherited wealth.

How might we prevent this from happening?

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Matteo Renzi’s PD eight months later: where now for the Italian left?

Leading the Italian left has never been an easy task. After the collapse of democratic centralism (i.e. the Leninist practice which obliged the membership to uphold any leader’s decision following an internal discussion), leadership has soon become the Achilles’ heels of the Italian former communists. Party secretaries have been weakened by the rising power of internal factions, used as scape-goats after electoral defeats and blamed for both lack of charisma (Pierluigi Bersani) and excessive protagonism (Massimo D’Alema and especially Matteo Renzi himself).

Moreover, the presidential leadership style of its eternal enemy, Silvio Berlusconi, made the Italian PD (Democratic Party) rather unenthusiastic toward the trends of personalisation and presidentialisation spreading all over Europe. It is not by chance that the Berlusconian model always comes up when discussing Renzi’s personality and politics. Internal opponents and critical observers denounce Renzi’s simplified language and slogans, as well as his post-ideological appeal and charismatic governance. He is even often described as the son of Berlusconi, in the same way that Tony Blair was once called the son of Thatcher.

Albeit controversial, Renzi’s personalized approach seems to have played a key-role in his rise to power. Studies conducted among the delegates at the 2013 Party Conference show that the party’s majority backed him in virtue of his personal characteristics and leadership skills rather than political message. Moreover, whereas the 2012 delegates expected the at-that-time-leader Bersani to promote a process of identity reconstruction and grassroots’ institutionalization, the 2013 Conference asked Renzi for concrete strategies to win the next General Elections (Martocchia Diodati 2014).

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The floating label of ‘the migrant’

“Hang on they are not tourists”, a UK citizen said to his wife with wide eyes and an expression on his face suggesting this realisation was a big surprise. “They could even be ‘migrants’…couldn’t they?”

This is a question — in this case one I heard in an interview — that has always been complex, but is becoming even more so, in the UK and elsewhere. Time has changed legal and regulatory circumstances, and the demographic of people who come to Britain have also changed.

These changes have generated new migrant categories, typologies and tiers but also new stigmas, phobias and labels.

Who is a migrant? Alas, there is no clear legal or administrative definition of ‘migrant’. A 1953 United Nations recommendation referred to the definition of “permanent immigrants” as non-residents (both nationals and aliens) arriving with the intention to remain for a period exceeding a year and of “permanent emigrants” as residents (nationals and aliens) intending to remain abroad for a period exceeding one year (United Nations, 1953).

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Why the Fixed-term Parliaments Act should not be repealed

The Coalition introduced the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011. Now some Conservative MPs want to repeal the Act. But Fixed Term Parliaments are good for UK democracy and the Act should stay.

When the current coalition government introduced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011, the case appeared compelling:

“The Government believes that fixed-term Parliaments will have a positive impact on our country’s political system; providing stability, discouraging short-termism, and preventing the manipulation of election dates for political advantage.” [Government response to the report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill”, 2011, Introduction]

Now Tory MPs have changed their minds. This week a group of Tory backbenchers have been mounting a campaign to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Their aim has been to prepare the ground for a backbench debate on Thursday in which MPs will hold a symbolic vote on returning to the old days when Prime Ministers had full discretion to call elections as they saw fit.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is one of the few surviving elements of the Coalition’s ambitious programme of constitutional reform, which – had it been fully implemented – would have altered the UK’s majoritarian vision of democracy and elections extensively. The reforms were designed to change the nature of electoral representation (the referendum on the alternative vote), alter the composition of both Houses of Parliament (boundary review and House of Lords reform), and to reduce the power of the Prime Minister to time elections. In the event, internal coalition disagreements scuppered most of the reforms.

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