Monday, 30 March 2015

The 2010 parliament

As from today, we will be without MPs until a new lot is sworn in after the general election. That does not mean that there will be no government. David Cameron will continue to be the Queen's Minister until a new PM kisses hands. (I seem to recall one contentious action by Labour in their 2010 period of hiatus when they could not be held to account by the Commons, namely the granting of bonuses to the state-owned banks.)

Scrutiny has been the hall-mark of the 2010-2015 parliament. Boosted by the change in procedure that allowed their chairs to be elected by members rather than imposed by the powers-that-be, select committees have carried out some notable investigations and issued significant reports*. Ministers have been summoned by the Speaker to make statements to the House, on which they can be questioned, on significant situations or government actions. There has been an increasing tendency, which Speaker Bercow has been unable to stop, for government to rush to the mass media before considering that parliament might have a say.

I have mixed feelings about Speaker Bercow. On the one hand, he made a heavy-handed and crude attempt to reorganise Commons management, losing an outstanding Clerk in the process. He has also shown some partiality in his treatment of certain members - a fault he shared with a few of his predecessors. On the other hand, he has not only been supportive of back-benchers against the executive, but has also been concerned about how the Commons appears to the outside world, taking in its proceedings through television and the Web. I wish he had gone further in naming and even ejecting members who persist in holding loud personal conversations during questions sessions. If they are not interested in the subject under discussion, why are they in the Chamber?

He has also made a point of cutting short both rambling questions and extensive answers, even bringing the prime minister to order on one occasion. There is nothing he can do about stereotyped questions, though. These blight particularly Prime Minister's Questions, though other high-profile ministries come in for a share. The repetition of slogans dictated by PR advisors to the political parties and complementary "answers" must be a turn-off for the public as well as crowding out more productive inquiries.

These PR-dictated passages increasingly mar too many speeches, too. One might just as well have a robot deliver some of the stuff which has come from the Labour benches. The Conservatives have displayed a little more individuality, though some of their contributions to the budget debate have clearly been read from a brief. MPs are at their best when they are allowed to be themselves, as the valedictory debate showed. Freed from the diktats of their party managers, they revealed their true motivations and the personalities which appealed to their electorates in the first place.

There were also short valedictories from my MP, Hywel Francis, and from Elfyn Llwyd on yesterday's "Sunday Supplement". Dr Francis was one of the less biddable of Labour members - he reminded us that he voted against the invasion of Iraq - and also courteous and thoughtful in dealing with constituency correspondence, even when that was critical, as I can attest. Elfyn Llwyd demonstrated what individual members, even in small parties, can do.

Greg Mulholland - not retiring, and surely one of the more certain Liberal Democrat returners in May - also showed that back-bench MPs have the ability to change government policy, in his case reform of public house tenancies. It was more difficult for him, because he had to fight not only against some of his coalition partners with commercial interests but also against a minister from his own party who unwisely allowed himself to be briefed by the very pubcos which needed to be reformed.  Andrew George was thwarted in his move to correct the iniquities of the cuts to housing benefit only by an arcane manoeuvre by the government. The same mechanism was used to block what would have otherwise been a success by a Conservative back-bencher, the EU Referendum Bill. Sarah Teather also had her triumphs, including the ending of revenge evictions. These are the achievements by back-benchers which immediately come to mind, but a little research would produce more .

Another means by which back-benchers were potentiated in the last parliament was the back-bench business committee.  This was one of the late fruits of the select committee chaired by Tony Wright but, as David Heath reminded us in his last speech, more of the public administration committee's recommendations, and those he and Sir George Young raised when in the office of the Leader Of The House, need to be acted upon.

All in all, one of the best parliaments that I can remember. Certainly it was less supine than those dominated by huge Conservative or Labour majorities. All the signs are that May 2015 will also produce a balanced parliament, which bodes well for continuing empowerment of MPs. Naturally, I would want to see an increase in the number of Liberal Democrat members but at least I trust that the new House will continue the process of reform.

* There is a sense of hypocrisy in the flow of reports critical of the government emanating from two key select committees, chaired by vocal Labour members. So much of what they criticise could have been corrected under thirteen years of Labour rule. However, that does not diminish the validity of their judgments.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Black and minority ethnic parliamentary representation

This BBC Wales News report refers. I was pleased to see that from the figures displayed in the TV presentation that Welsh Liberal Democrats have as many BME candidates in the upcoming general election as the other parties put together. However, we are not able to take the extra step that some activists demand, that BME candidates are planted in safe seats for the simple reason that there have never been any Liberal Democrat safe seats.

We have the same problem in the English parliament, but at least we have been able to recruit some distinguished non-pink-and-male peers who have made outstanding contributions to the House of Lords. I am thinking in particular of Navnit Dholakia, Kishwer Falkner and Floella Benjamin.

Visible rôle models are surely the way forward. I have had my disagreements with Vaughan Gething, but I have to admit that he has been an excellent example to those who have hitherto been put off by perceived racial discrimination in politics generally and the Labour Party in particular. Sadly, the converse is also true and one bad performance by a BME minister, like that by Tory constitution minister Sam Gyimah for the Conservatives in Hackney last night sets back the cause where a similar débâcle by a white minister would be passed over - unless that minister was a woman, of course.

Peter Black makes a good point about the way a fair voting system can help.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Deflation: we have been here before

 - or rather, Sweden has. A chart here shows that our fellow EU member and euro refusenik, benefited from deflation several times during the 1990s, and also showed a negative CPI last year. She has not spiralled into recession, as some economists have predicted for the UK.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Surely most would welcome this electoral reform

If  Janice Atkinson, the figure at the centre of the latest UKIP scandal , had remained in the party and succeeded in her bid for a seat at Westminster, she would have had to resign as a member of the European Parliament under EU regulations. The Office of Member of the European Parliament is incompatible with that of member of a national parliament. What would then happen would be that the next person on the UKIP party list for the South East of England would take her place. There would be no reference to other runners-up in last year's EP elections. That person is the one whom UKIP ranked as next best to Ms Atkinson and may have been totally unknown to her constituents.

Similar situations have arisen in the Welsh parliament, where election is by a mixed system of constituency elections plus a top-up from party lists which ensures (almost) proportionality by party,

The EU insists that members of the EP are elected proportionately, but leaves the actual implementation to legislation in member states. There is no requirement for party lists or lists of any kind, though only Ireland and Malta use what many would regard as the best PR system, Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies. This is the system used in domestic elections in Ireland, north and south, and also in local government in Scotland. There are six other EU nations which use closed lists like ourselves. All the others allow voters to express some preference between candidates.

Westminster has competence to give voters more power in European Parliament elections. Many of us would like to see this via STV, but at least the voter should be able to rank their choices, even within a list, as in Denmark, to cite a polity which has attracted so many fans over here.

If you need to be able to distinguish d'Hondt from Sainte-Laguë/Schepers, there is more on electoral systems from those nice people in European Research in this pdf.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Secure colleges

It's good to see that the Ministry of Justice is basing policy on evidence, as this Radio 4 programme lays out. However, it is too easy to look to the United States. Good though the Missouri System clearly is, it is a reaction to a national régime which locks up more offenders than anywhere in the free world. Surely, we should be examining systems closer to home - for instance, in the Netherlands, which has emptied so many of its own cells that she is importing prisoners from Norway.

Moreover, Glen Parva is only an experiment and one wonders whether it will survive the sort of attack from the Daily Mail which has done for previous progressive moves in the British prison system. I would like to think that if Wales were given responsibility for our own policing, prisons and probation, those measures could be routinely introduced here and that there would be a reduction in home-grown crime.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Criticism of a government is not an attack upon its state religion

A powerful reinforcement comes from someone with more authority than my own:

At my local university I have been shocked at the racist and Islamophobic comments made in talks and seminars by those who support Israel unreservedly.  Had I made similar comments about Jews and Judaism, I would have been thrown out.  Islam is no more homogenous than Judaism or Christianity  and the way it is practised is as much cultural, political and historical as any other. When I condemn Saudi Arabia or ISIS I am not condemning Islam as a whole, nor do I delegitimize Saudi as a State. On the contrary I am often defending Islam. When I criticise Israel, as a Jew myself, I am not attacking Judaism, I am criticising a regime that gives Judaism a bad name and when I criticise the USA, I am often criticising those who give Christianity a bad name.
Thanks to Liberal Democrat Voice, where Miranda Pinch's whole article deserves wide reading.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Sviatoslav Richter

Thanks to Jessica Duchen for publicising Richter's centenary today. The second or third LP I ever bought was a coupling of Pictures at an Exhibition with Prokoviev's Sonata No. 7 by Richter. I haven't played it for a long time, but I probably subconsciously judge other pianists' interpretations of either work by my memory of Richter.

The veils surrounding Richter's life referred to in Ms Duchen's piece surely derive from his homosexuality, something not safe to admit to in Russia. The supposedly progressive Communists, though they were quite happy to make use of gays in positions of power in the West, did not change anything in practice at home.