Tag: Conservative Party

Still no votes in defence, supposedly

It is being reported in The Times and The Mail newspapers that a number of Tory MPs are not happy with the government’s stance on defence spending. About thirty of them, we are told, are preparing for some sort of Commons revolt next week when NATO spending is debated.

Their anger stems from the growing impression that the Tory hierarchy isn’t that bothered about defence. Defence of the realm is supposed to be a Conservative issue—the first responsibility of government—so you can see why some might be upset by these reports.

It seems increasingly likely that defence spending will fall below 2% of GDP, which is the amount all members of NATO are supposed to allocate to defence. This, of course, does not necessarily mean defence spending will fall in real terms, just that it will fall as a percentage of national wealth—provided the economy grows. Having spent so much time berating other members states, it seems a bit rich for us to fall below the level in the next year or two.

But there are also whispers that defence spending will fall in real terms, too. What they are talking about is a freeze, holding spending to about £36 billion for the next few years. When inflation is taken into account, this amounts to a real terms reduction in defence spending. This would have a real impact on our defence capabilities.

And on top of this, the dreaded phrase “There are no votes in defence” is raising its head again. Allegedly from Philip Hammond the Foreign Secretary no less. I have no idea whether he said this (his people say not), but if he did it would not have been a radical observation. Perhaps it’s because the benefits of defence spending are too intangible—much better to vote for benefits, subsidies and spending on things people will draw on every day, such as health or education.

It would also seem that these Tories have a right to be suspicious. The Coalition government has already slashed the size of the Army by 20,000 soldiers. This is 20% of total strength. By anyone’s measure, even when offset by the proposed uplift of 10,000 reserves (which is still a concept that needs to be proven), this is a significant reduction in our military strength.

Coming at a time when the threat from Russia to its neighbours, particularly the Ukraine and potentially the Baltic states, seems to be on the rise; and at a time when the threat from Islamism shows no sign of abating and every sign of increasing: it seems entirely logical that MPs with an interest in national defence should make their point.

It’s just that I’m sure the government would prefer them to make their point in private, and then shut up about it.

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Twelve final thoughts on the Scottish referendum

The Scottish electorate may have rejected independence and the end of Great Britain by 55 to 45 percent, but what these figures alone show is that this is an issue that runs deep; it will not go away. But what do these last few weeks tell us about British politics and the future of the country? I’m not sure, but here are a few observations:

1. Perhaps the most certain point is this: the independence debate is not over. Politicians of all hues have said that it is over for a generation, Salmond even suggesting for a lifetime, but this is not so. There might not be a vote for a long time yet, but the campaign will continue – and it will continue right now. There is an insatiable desire, deep in the DNA of Scottish nationalists like Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, to be rid of England. Sadly it’s not just about Scotland; it’s also very much about England, the country many believe oppresses, in various ways, the Scottish people. Sad that.

2. The Scottish electorate may have rejected independence, but we now face an almighty constitutional mess, from which it is not clear we will be able to extricate ourselves. The Labour party is not going to be happy with English votes for English measures, for electoral reasons, though it is not clear how successful they will be challenging it. Scottish nationalists will watch gleefully at the spectacle of English politicians squabbling among themselves, and they will do their best to identify points of grievance that they can use in their continued campaign against the Union and the English. Devolution, as implemented in 1999, was always a lop-sided mess; it never made true sense, because it was never balanced. The West Lothian Question – Scottish votes on English matters – illustrates the exact problem. For this, we have the Labour Party to thank.

3. Even if the politicians now institute a more or less balanced devolution settlement, the Union will continue to weaken. The imbalance created by England’s sheer size will continue to provide Scottish nationalists with the ammunition they require to continue their fight. There’s a possibility that this will create a positive tension; but we should prepare ourselves for the brick-throwing. It will only work if we all get behind the Union and our common British identity – and it is not clear the separatists will ever be able to do that.

4. Scotland is now a country divided more than ever in its recent history. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, neighbours, friends and relations, and communities and cities have found themselves in opposition to one another over this issue. But this is not like some everyday dispute over whether the council should pick up bins once a week or once a fortnight; it’s one of those existential issues that in the past would have caused civil war. Many ‘Yes!’ voters think ‘No!’ voters are traitors; and many ‘No!’ voters think ‘Yes!’ voters are foam-flecked lunatics. This has led to a feeling of betrayal, especially with the ‘Yes!’ voters, and it will linger a while yet.

5. Despite the positive spin put on things by Ed Miliband, the Labour Party will be most damaged by the fallout from these past weeks of vitriolic campaigning. The English will blame Labour for this scare to the Union, because they set us down this road with their botched devolution, and because they are the party that spends most effort undermining British national identity; Labour will lose their Scottish Labour MPs in the new English parliament; the English will be woken to the injustice of the West Lothian Question; and, perhaps more importantly, the Conservatives will see this as a once in a generation opportunity to refashion English affairs and dismantle Labour’s Socialist state. Perhaps Ed Balls is the only Labour front-bencher who truly understands all this.

6. This has damaged British standing in the world. The Scottish nationalists think this a good thing, that British pretensions are part of the problem with the Union; but that is because they do not face geo-political realities. The world is not a very nice place; Britain has serious enemies; the problem of nuclear weapons is not going to be solved by unilateral disarmament; and if Britain steps back too far, bad people and bad regimes will fill the void. There are many who do not wish to believe this, but a credible and properly governed Britain makes for a safer and better world. These internal British divisions, exposed to the world, has undermined all this, and politicians will have their work cut out to make good the damage.

7. It is also worth noting that separatist movements are not restricted to the United Kingdom. Various countries around the world will have been watching the vote with mixed feelings. Spain would not have welcomed a ‘Yes!’ vote; neither would Turkey or Russia. Depending on your attitude, separatist movements are good or bad. What is certain, however, is that separatists that do not follow democratic principles are a source of serious instability. We should be thankful that this vote has been an advert for democracy; but we should also not delude ourselves that Scottish independence would have provided a fillip for more unsavoury separatist movements across the globe. Not necessarily Scotland’s problem; but worth considering, especially for those who don’t think separatism is a solution to any serious practical problem.

8. Perhaps the best outcome of all this will be the reduced likelihood of the Labour party directing English finance, spending and budgets for years to come. This could be an opportunity to move away from social democracy and embrace liberal democracy, which is much more likely to liberate people trapped in the welfare ghettos created by Labour’s brand of socialism. In time, when this is shown to create better outcomes for the people, especially the poor, perhaps the rest of the United Kingdom will follow England’s lead and cut loose the anchor of socialism and trade unionism that has been holding the country back for so long. But then again, if Labour are right about things, England could be in for a world of pain. We shall see.

9. It is also possible that the Conservative Party will not make the most of this situation (some will cheer at that). Many backbench MPs are fuming at their leadership: first, for allowing Britain to gets so close to breakup; and second, for promising further constitutional change seemingly made up on the back of a fag packet. This is the same group who rile against the failure of successive Conservative leaders adequately to express Conservative attitudes to the EU, Lords reform, immigration, international human rights law, initial devolution and now this – all of which revolve around the complicated question of the British constitution. If the Conservative Party cannot find a way to unite in the coming months, the party may end up losing out again.

10. Devolution, so the Labour Party said, was meant to ‘kill demand for independence stone dead.’ But it has not. Scottish nationalism, thanks to proportional representation, is going to be a major force in Scottish politics for years to come. And even if support for the SNP now dips – because, a) it failed to deliver independence; and b) because its seriously unpleasant underbelly has been exposed, most obviously in the quite frankly fascistic approach some of their members took to the campaign trail – their prospectus is going to be a feature of British politics for the foreseeable future. And while the country engages in this navel-gazing, the country will have less energy for solving the more serious problems it faces. Internal division is always a distraction. Britain is now characterised by separate national conversations. Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English are going to speak less with each other and more among themselves. Rather than one people, Britain is increasingly going to be four peoples. This is not necessarily a disaster, but if left unchecked will promote division and mutual wariness of each other’s motives.

11. The Conservative Party is, unfortunately, largely an English party. They don’t want to be, but they are. The strong Conservative footprint in Scotland in past decades was thanks to the Unionist party’s footprint. Since the unionists were subsumed into the Conservative machine, they steadily lost support. They do OK in Wales but they have no representation in Northern Ireland. This need not be a problem. It reflects the reality of national sentiment below the level of Britain. They should perhaps think about stepping back from Scotland permanently, allowing a new centre-right party to form, which has a stronger connection to Scotland, and trusting in a centre-right alliance in the Westminster parliament. It used to be that way; why not again? Labour, on the other hand, is the only truly British party. We do not know if this will be an asset for them, or a liability.

12. This campaign, perhaps more than any other in recent years, has exposed the difficulty politicians have in dealing with rhetoric that twists the facts. There’s an asymmetry between honesty and dishonesty. In a democracy, it seems, honest and courteous politicians face something of an uphill struggle. Libel laws perhaps prevent specific mention of these dishonesties, but they were there, in spades. The vote went the way of ‘No!’ but ‘Yes!’ had the momentum. The debate on the NHS, Defence, and the currency all suffered. The lesson? Politicians must never be afraid to enter the debate; they must have the courage to risk the eggs and the verbal abuse. If they do not, the platform is left to those with fewer scruples. None of this is to say that there is not a noble dimension to the desire for Scottish independence (there most certainly is), but it is to say that politics needs people to stand up to the bullying. For this we should thank people like Jim Murphy MP. We need more like him.

This has been a difficult period of British history, and it is by no means certain that those difficulties are on the wane. The present situation suggests quite the opposite. One hopes our politicians are up to the job of finding a new unity in the British Isles. It’s just that their track record doesn’t fill the casual observer with much confidence. We can only hope that, as they say: cometh the hour, cometh the man (or woman).

Are Labour arguments in favour of the UK better than Conservative ones?

Philip Webster‘s early morning Times briefing, Red Box, tells us that Ed Miliband is heading to Scotland tomorrow. Once there he will try to convince voters that Labour will win the general election next year. Labour strategists, in their modest way, believe this is the best way to stop Alex Salmond and the separatists.

This fits in well with the Labour conceit that the Tories, braying and condescending, are the source of Scottish anger with the Union. If only the hated Tories would disappear, everything would be all right, the thought goes. It is rarely, if ever, stated clearly, but the insinuation is that the Conservatives hate the Scottish, in much the same way they hate the Welsh, the Irish, foreigners generally, Muslims, gays, lesbians, ethnic minorities, poor people, single mothers, northerners and any other identity group certain Labour and left-wing campaigners feel belong to them.

You can see Ed Miliband making his points: the source of Scottish (and British, as it happens) suffering is Toryism; their policies stink; they persecute the Scottish, just look at the guinea pigs they made of them over the Poll Tax; they rig the economy to suit their hedge-fund mates in London. That might not be the exact wording, but the sentiment is about right.

He might also talk about the Tories privatising the NHS, and how the only way to stop them is to have a Labour government in Britain and Scotland. But this falls down because under the terms of devolution Scotland runs health already. And yet, if the Scottish people can just see their way to voting against separation, next year they will have the benefits of both a Labour government and a Labour governed Union. Win! Win!

But Alex Massie, the Spectator’s Cricket blogger, took a contrary view. Writing about the recent Darling Salmond debate, he suggested that ‘Darling had many problems last night but among the greatest was the fact he’s not a Tory.’

What?

If Scotland doesn’t need to go its own way because there will not be a Tory government next year, how is not being a Tory a problem for Darling? One would have thought Darling’s biggest strength was being a thoroughly decent Labour man. He, after all, and unlike the Tories, cannot possibly want Scotland to remain in the Union as some sort of English vassal state – he’s Scottish, for goodness sake!

Though perhaps Darling, being a Scottish politician down in Westminster, is not quite as impeccably Scottish as other more independent minded Scots? A sort of traitor, even? You may think this is too strong, a bit hyperbolic. But perhaps you should ask Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire. He recently had to suspend his Scotland-wide tour because of the abuse he was receiving: the eggs, the intimidation, the name-calling, such as paedophile, terrorist and a Quisling – oh, and the charge of being a traitor.

East Renfrewshire, by the way, is a Scottish constituency, and Jim is Scottish too, born in Glasgow and schooled in Glasgow. His wikipedia page does, however, say he lived in South Africa between the ages of 12 and 18. Why? Because his parents moved there. He returned to study at the University of Strathclyde, but perhaps this absence degrades his Scottishness, I don’t know.

Massie, however, was making an interesting point that contradicts the view that Scotland’s place in the Union can best be defended by Labour people. This may or may not be the case, but Massie seemed to be arguing that Salmond’s reasons for leaving the Union are, in fact, better defeated by conservative arguments.

Darling could not, for instance, argue against Salmond’s notion that his new government – any government, in fact – will create lots of new jobs come independence. Neither could he argue against Salmond’s criticisms of Coalition welfare reforms. And nor could he argue ‘that however uncomfortable life might be for the poorest sections of society it might be even less comfortable after independence.’

Darling’s weakness in arguing against these points was that he and his left wing political tradition largely agrees with them – that governments not markets create jobs; that welfare reform is punitive, and that there is a ‘cost of living crisis’. If this is all true (debatable) then who would not want to get away from such a government, especially if it’s a hated English Tory government?

But then this takes us back to Ed Miliband’s plan to go to Scotand and tell the Scots they need not vote ‘Yes’ to escape these vicious policies; the Labour party is going to win the next election and return not just Scotland but the entire United Kingdom to the sanity of Brownian economics. There’s a certain logic to it, I suppose, even if you think it a rather alarming prospect.

Conservatives win the Newark by-election

The earthquake is over apparently. The Conservative Party has won the Newark by-election and the UKIP fox has been shot for the mangy creature it is. This is the gleeful tone many are taking, and will continue to take, out of desperation that maybe their worldview is not the worldview of as many people as they thought.

The indignation that quite a lot of people are not in benign agreement with current policies concerning the EU and mass immigration is tangible. And a favourite way to attack an inconvenient presence is to construct a straw man – who cares what one does to an inanimate straw man?

In this case it is to pretend that UKIP expect to win the 2015 General Election, or at the very least win enough seats to occupy a sizeable block on the green Westminster benches. When they fail, as they surely will if this is the absurdly high bar over which they are expected to jump, the crowing can quicken and everyone can be reassured that the British people are neither racist nor xenophobic nor bigoted and that the incumbents of power were right about almost everything all along.

The thing is, straw men arguments are not real. Fabricate something your opponent says or does and then demonstrate with smug and abundant ease how they are wrong or have failed in their objective. It’s an old trick, but a favourite. As it happened, the figures, far from reassuring the Conservatives, should worry them considerably – and Labour, who won Newark in 1997. UKIP support could very well drift away, but the evidence suggests not just yet. Here are the results from the BBC:

  • Robert Jenrick (Con) 17,431 (45.03%, -8.82%).
  • Roger Helmer (UKIP) 10,028 (25.91%, +22.09%).
  • Michael Payne (Lab) 6,842 (17.68%, -4.65%).
  • Paul Baggaley (Ind) 1,891 (4.89%).
  • David Kirwan (Green) 1,057 (2.73%).
  • David Watts (LD) 1,004 (2.59%, -17.41%).
  • Con majority 7,403 (19.13%) 15.46%
  • Turnout 38,707 (52.67%, -18.69%)

I don’t know what the psephologists will make of this data. Perhaps we will be told to account for the ‘plague on all your houses’ attitude some voters assume at by-elections; perhaps we will be told that the high UKIP vote is the result of momentum which will run out before next year’s election. But whatever we are told, it is difficult to see how anyone can regard the UKIP vote, 25.9% no less, as anything other than highly significant. They polled more than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined.

The threat posed by UKIP to the status quo has never been – and almost certainly won’t be for some time, if ever – taking enough seats to create that sizeable Westminster block, let alone forming a government. The threat is that UKIP takes enough votes to alter the outcome of the General election, or to deny one of the two major parties a majority.

And on the basis of the local council elections, the EU election and this by-election, the UKIP threat is still very much present. It might fall away, that much we should all concede not least because of our First-Past-The-Post system; but the evidence so far suggests the earthquake is not over yet, even if it remains rather low on the Richter Scale.

Politicians, presentation and the subversion of integrity

What sort of politician do you prefer: a conviction politician led by a clear sense of what is right and wrong, or a perception politician led by the public mood? Should a politician rely mostly on their political philosophy or on the deliberations of various focus groups?

Perhaps these things are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the former is too autocratic and the latter too weak, and perhaps the best sort of politician is the one who knows what he or she believes but is not so self-obsessed as to be blind to fallibility.

These questions arise because of a recent post by Alex Massie on his Spectator blog. Labour and Conservative politicians, he writes, ‘are both wrong on the politics of the 50% rate of income tax.’ We might wonder how they can both be wrong. Surely 50% is either the right rate or it is the wrong rate? What does he mean?

The telling word here is politicsWhen various characters ask why so and so is playing politics over this or that issue, they are criticising their political opponent for not treating the issue with the impartial respect it deserves. In this context, it is a pejorative term: to play politics is underhand, ignoble and contrary to the interests of the country.

And yet politics is their game. It is what we elect them to Westminster to do, and it is a serious game that affects people’s lives. Political decisions are necessary in a civilised society: they determine the occurrence of war, the level of public services and the degree of public intervention in otherwise private matters. No-one is exempt from their effects. It just so happens that politics has two meanings: the functional process of deciding policy; and the political process of ingratiating oneself with the public.

In this example, Mr Massie is saying Conservatives and Labour have both blundered: the Conservatives because, by reducing the income tax rate from 50 to 45%, they have reinforced the wrong political message – that they look to the interests of their ‘rich chums’ first; and Labour because, by arguing for a return to the 50% rate, they are reinforcing their negative image as the tax and spend party. They are, in short, reinforcing negative stereotypes.

This is a good point. Perception really does matter. But there is another side to this. What happens if one of these positions is right: ‘right’ in the sense of being in the long-term interests of the country as opposed to the short-term interests of the party? What then? We have subordinated conviction to perception. There might be very good electoral reasons to do this, but the country has lost out. Politics, as one might say, is more than mere politics.

It brings us back to the question: what sort of politician do you prefer? Should they act in the interests of the country or their party? We could get into the circular argument that a party needs to win an election before it can implement its otherwise terrific policies, thus making a bit of politicking an essential precursor to doing good. But what if this analysis is also wrong?

We do not need much reminding that politicians have a pretty low reputation at the moment, and that this was caused by not only the fiddling of expenses but also a growing sense that they lack political integrity. How many times does a vox pop survey turn up a verdict of ‘I don’t trust politicians?’

People vote for various reasons, and perception is no doubt one of them. But in this context, perception is a negative reason to vote, especially if it is based on a set of policies that seem to contradict the overarching political philosophy of whichever politician happens to be standing before us at the time.

For Conservatives to argue for higher tax and Labour for lower tax seems to run against everything we think we know about these parties. When they start arguing for things contrary to their philosophy, it merely reinforces the thought in the public’s mind that politicians lack integrity. To the electorate, it looks like the politicians are simply gaming them. The damage done to Nick Clegg over his promise on university tuition fees comes to mind.

Mr Massie is right to attach importance to political perception, and no doubt he attaches equal importance to integrity. But there is an inevitable trade-off when political philosophy is subordinated to presentation. Political parties will always have an eye to the next election (and also think that this requires a lot of ‘politics’), but they need to ask themselves why people are reluctant to vote for them. Is it because they don’t spend enough time ‘signalling’ and combating ‘negative stereotypes,’ or because the public don’t really trust what they are being told anymore?

Class is certainly still an issue, but is it really the dividing line some suggest?

Tim Wigmore states quite boldly that ‘Class remains the real dividing line in British politics.’ This is rather a depressing thing to read, not just because he is quite young and thus representative of the future, or because others say the same thing, but also because it encourages the view that ‘class,’ in the Marxist sense of the word, is a foundational problem in Britain – indeed, in the world. Karl Marx was a charlatan and a fraud, as were his acolytes, and Marxism in all its forms is a cancer that has done more damage to the world’s poor than any notion of class. Observe the reduction of poverty in India and China since their market reforms.

But Wigmore (Great name, by the way!) is in fact simply reporting what he sees, and he has a point, not to mention a bit of data to back up his claim. Citing a new ITV News/Comres poll, he tells us that 51% think the Conservative Party only represents the interests of the rich. If class is no longer about toffs and plebs and the use of glottal stops, but is now about money, then this figure indeed implies that enough of the electorate (or, at any rate, of the sample taken in this poll) think class is a defining issue.

The general thrust of the remaining data suggests that while the rich think the economy is going to improve and that they will benefit, the poor are more pessimistic, thinking they are unlikely to share in those proceeds of growth. This idea – that the Conservatives are for the rich and the rich are for themselves – is at the root of those ‘toxicity’ barbs. The Tory brand is toxic! they say. Not because of presentational difficulties, but because of what Tories are!

This is, indeed, ‘very dangerous territory for the Tories.’ It is, as Wigmore writes, why some Conservatives are floating the idea of substantially raising the minimum wage: to show the poor that they are on their side. And while there is also evidence that many people – particularly the less well-off – in Britain have lost faith in all three main political parties, it is not really a matter of class, even if we take class to mean wealth.

It seems to me that class is not really the dividing line in politics we might think it is. Indeed, it seems that there is no real dividing line at all, just increasing apathy and disillusionment; which tends to happen when people think there is nothing at stake and when they don’t believe what politicians are telling them.

Increasing the minimum wage – especially if it’s a substantial increase – might make certain politicians believe it will improve their image with those who are likely to benefit most directly. But it lacks integrity. Conservatives have always believed the minimum wage is counter productive: not because it won’t increase the wages of the low paid in the short-term, but because it tends to a) make other people unemployed, b) price others out of their ‘first job,’ from which they gain experience and the opportunity for better paid work, and c) create damaging distortions in the market which in the long run makes everyone poorer. Depending, of course, at what rate it is set.

While it is true to say that politics usually comes down to how people feel economically, the same problem of integrity plagues other issues. Polls have continually suggested that people are not happy with Britain’s relationship with the EU or with the extent of immigration, yet politicians of all stripes have delivered the exact opposite of public sentiment. Same goes for the Iraq war. None of these issues are class issues, yet they tend to make people ask themselves: ‘What’s the point?’

But we cannot ignore Tim Wigmore’s primary observation: that class (or wealth) is the real dividing line in politics. While people vote in the high street (or online, as seems increasingly the case) with their wallets, it is also true that people are motivated to vote according to how they think politicians will influence the size of their wallet. And if 51 percent of the electorate thinks a particular political party will not help them expand their wallet, then that party has a problem.

It begs the question: What should the Conservatives do about the perception that they are for the rich and not the poor? The PR man or woman might say they need to detoxify the brand, but the public are not convinced when the message is mixed. To change people’s perception of something, it is not good enough to change the surface; the substance needs changing too. But that would mean the Conservative Party becoming something entirely different, a social democratic party. We have one of them already; cynics say we have three.

The other option is to fight harder to convince the electorate that their policies will help them in the long run, even if it seems they will not. They could say with a little more conviction that the purpose of reduced government spending is not to make the poor poorer, but to enable economic growth which in turn will make the poor richer. They could say that the purpose of supply-side reform and reduced (more appropriate) business regulation is not to make the position of workers more precarious, but to make it more certain by creating an economic environment in which businesses are more competitive and prosperous. After all, a company can’t pay its employees if it doesn’t have any revenue.

The Labour Party is, at least, more consistent. The party’s leading lights seldom pass up an opportunity to entrench this idea of a class dividing line. Prime Minister’s Questions seldom pass without someone reinforcing the perception that the Conservatives are for the rich at the expense of the poor. Perhaps they are, in which case Tim Wigmore is right to say that it ‘should terrify the Tories.’ But if Conservatives genuinely believe that the poor are best served by free-market economics then they need to make the case at every opportunity. If not, they simply cede territory to the opposition; and that should terrify the Tories more than anything else.

Politics is therefore not so much about class as about ideas. And if the Conservatives want to defeat the idea that they cannot – indeed, have no desire to – help the working class, then they need to rebut it. If they can do that, then that 51 percent figure will reduce to the point where they can win an election. That is the dividing line: the line between politicians who are believed and trusted, and politicians who are not. Perhaps the reason we have a coalition today is that all parties are on the wrong side of that line?