Too Shy Shy

I didn’t write much about the General Election campaign beyond a comment on Labour’s Zero Hours Contracts proposals. I’d felt for a long while that somehow, despite Ed Miliband’s oddness he was probably going to hobble somehow into Number 10 and that if he did, he’d probably be weak enough not to do anything too radical or harmful – most of his policy announcements or statements of general philosophy were pretty vapid and consisted of criticising the effects of market based policies but only replacing them with a temporary fix to hit a particular failing rather than to strike at the cause of that failing (eg by fixing energy prices- hastily amended to read retrospectively as capping them when in fact they fell regardless of intervention and those who’d fixed their rates ended up paying more than those who stayed on variable tariffs).

Since the surprise result last week of a clear Tory majority there has been a lot of speculation about what went wrong. Why did the polls stay level pegging even up to the eve of the election? Innumerable Labour MPs and pundits suddenly announcing that they knew their campaign and leader were duds all along (which struck me as deeply unfair – if they thought that, why not do something about it rather than let poor Ed, an obviously decent man, carry the can before circling to fight over the remains?).

The most interesting line has been about the phenomenon of the “Shy Tory” to explain why there were many more Conservative votes in fact than would have been predicted by the opinion polls. The first General Election I could vote in was in 1992 where the Shy Tory first came into view. I’d been a rather lackadaisical student Tory activist and my recollection is that nobody even in the student Conservative Association thought Major had much chance (perhaps skewed by fruitlessly trudging the streets of safely Labour Oxford East, perhaps because the Association’s membership included more right wing luminaries like Mark Reckless) so the overall result was a surprise.

The day before the election, on my train home from London I had the chance to read an interesting (if very long!) statistical analysis of opinion polling for the last 50 years of elections compared with the actual votes. I recommend reading it if you have time. The striking conclusion that it came to was that in 10 of the previous 12 elections, the opinions had understated the Tory vote share (now 11 of the past 13). It doesn’t go into the psychological or political reasons why this might be the case in any detail but rather looks at the methodology of polling (which was changed after 1992 because of how wrong it had got that result). Most strikingly of all, on its final page it suggests a Tory lead of 6 points for 2015, which is pretty much spot on. After reading it I was tempted, in the face of everything else coming out of the media, to put a bet on a Tory majority (which would have stymied it!).

From a personal perspective I can well see that there may be a Shy Tory effect. Those who read this blog regularly or know me well in real life (and in some cases describe it/me as rabidly right wing- though I’d prefer to think I’m at least reasonably measured and rational about it!) will not perhaps see me as particularly shy. However, I tend not to talk politics much with people I don’t already know well. At least not on a party basis. Curiously, I’ve found that often if you just talk about particular things that are happening or could be done, the discussion is more interesting and friendly. Until the point at which it transpires that what you’ve just said is Tory policy. Whereupon it gets taken down for being a sham or a front for some corporate conspiracy theory or a misdirection away from something else. Which makes further discussion redundant.

I was rather mortified last week when Mrs B told me she’d told the mum of one of OMB’s school friends, who I get on with well and who is also a local Labour councillor, that I’m a Tory member (fortunately she didn’t seem to hold it against me!). Even good friends of mine will accept it only generally in the context of it being an eccentricity that years of friendship makes just about tolerable. Memorably after the 2010 election one friend said she’d assumed I was a LibDem as it was as right wing as would fit with her idea of people she’d spend time with. So, I didn’t join with the rest of my facebook timeline in bombarding everyone with political messages (largely Labour, some Green) ahead of the election or indeed gloating about the result afterwards. It just isn’t worth the bother.

I think the phenomenon of Shy Tories will continue to exist until either there is an acceptance that not everything (or even most things) which might be proposed by the Tories are by definition evil or uncaring, or when many of those things are accepted and proposed by others so that you can support them without having to mention or be one of the Tories (the Blair effect). The reality is possibly that at least some Tories aren’t so much shy as just more introverted than those who want to shout their moral crusades on marches and placards, sound off on social media campaigns or to dominate a dinner party or pub night by chivvying everyone up to agree with them. We can find the campaigns run by The Sun and the Daily Mail to be cringeworthy without having to support those they are aimed against or be drawn into defending them and their proprietors.

No answers, only caricatures on HRA and EU

I have no interest in dredging through the judgments in the case infelicitously referred to by the Home Secretary in her Conference speech and the media’s reporting of them; if you’re interested, there’s a good account here. The story demonstrates something else which I think is more important. That there are at least two serious issues where the Conservative part of the coalition government is happy to wade in but without offering an actual answer. Human Rights is one of these and the other is membership of the EU. What these two issues have in common is that they are major areas in which there is a conflict between a system with an unwritten constitution where Parliament is sovereign and systems where the sovereignty of Parliament is subject to the jurisdiction of Courts and judges.

The Human Rights Act and a British Bill of Rights

On Human Rights, the “catflap” masked the real issues. The Conservatives campaigned in the last General Election on the basis of repealing the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. Now, it is possible that there are no genuine criticisms of the HRA so this is a bad policy. However, the debate on the issue on the BBC’s Question Time on 6 October 2011 showed that most of the people on the panel and in the audience in Salford had reservations about the scope and content of human rights and how they should best be treated in English Law. Much of this debate was, admittedly, rather ill-informed. That does not mean that there should not or could not be a debate. The problem is that I suspect the government does not really know what would be in a British Bill of Rights or how it would look. It is more politically expedient to run a campaign without any specific end-point which allows for there to be someone or something to blame for the “mad” stories that come out in the tabloid press, like the one about Maya the cat and whether owning her meant it would be a breach of the HRA to send a Bolivian student who had outstayed his visa back to Bolivia. It is a bit 1984 – a shadowy enemy of reason is built up and made to be the target of a regular two minute hate.

It is quite possible to take the view of human rights as being nonsense upon stilts without being a barbarian. It is also perfectly possible to think the HRA is a bad piece of legislation without denying the importance of human rights and their protection in the UK. Perhaps it was unnecessary to make enforcement of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) possible in the courts of the UK – is the UK really a more civilised place with a better record on human rights now than it was prior to the HRA? Back in those dark days the UK was still a signatory of the ECHR and its provisions could still be applied, albeit in a more laborious and costly way.

At least from the press coverage (which of course is very partial and not particularly well informed) it would seem that the sorts of legislative acts that have been reviewed most often under the HRA are recent measures which ought, if the HRA had a normative effect (ie it altered the approach of the State to take proper account of human rights issues), to have been considered when passing the measures into law or policy. Older legislation which was passed without the direct need to consider the application of the HRA somehow seems to be less often challenged. Although, as an aside, I remember from my time in the DTI that the ECHR was something that was considered when putting together legislative proposals well before the HRA.

So, if discussion about the madness of the HRA is to happen, it needs to be on the back of some concrete proposals about precisely what is wrong with it as legislation and what needs to be done to address that. Not silly and factually misleading anecdotes from the Daily Mail. My suspicion is that the sorts of change that would ultimately be proposed are going to be technical and not very easily communicated or understood by ordinary people. Silly soundbites are more effective ways of doing nothing very much.

Membership of the EU

Membership of the EU is another similar topic. There are good arguments on both sides. At the same time there is at least a significant minority who are opposed, whether for good or bad reasons to continuing membership. Yet the Conservative leadership of the government tries to sit on the fence. Partly this is political and practical – being too overtly in favour of withdrawal would make remaining in coalition with the europhile LibDems rather difficult. The problem here is that there is no real consensus on what those on the right would do if they were to be granted their wishes – that is, not only to have a referendum on whether to leave the EU but to win it. There’s no coherent plan or dream about what we could do if only we weren’t part of the EU.

So, there’s unlikely to be any real clamour for a referendum on the issue from anyone who might actually deliver one. None of the three main parties has an agenda that it is itching to put in place if only it weren’t for that pesky EU (although Labour could most easily come up with one but shows no signs of doing so). As an issue it is barely of more interest to the general public than the tedious AV referendum all the time that there is no-one holding out a credible plan for how life would be improved in practice were we to cease to be members. A sign of how close this parallel is can be seen in the number of “anti-EU” campaigners who advocate proposing to join EFTA (or more accurately the EEA) as being a way of getting the free trade area that “we” (or rather, a generation of people who are almost entirely over 60 today) voted for. Quite how they think that joining Club Liechtenstein will enthuse the masses escapes me.

The constitutional conflict

In both instances the real problem is that conservatives ultimately believe that the British “way” is a better one. That we have survived and prospered for hundreds of years on the basis of an unwritten constitution where politicians and Parliament have been sovereign is the basis for this belief. There’s a recognition that both the HRA and membership of the EU import an alien political and constitutional culture by eroding that notion of Parliamentary sovereignty in its strongest sense. That is, the sense in which what Parliament has decreed, on the basis of its democratic legitimacy, is not to be subject to undemocratic review by either domestic or foreign Courts or officials. Of course, there is still a weaker form of Parliamentary sovereignty in that it is not disputed that Parliament could repeal the HRA or determine to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the EU institutions.

The exercise of this weaker form of sovereignty is what is sought by UKIP and those who do not want the HRA or the ECHR to apply so as to bring back the stronger form of sovereignty. The government, perhaps driven by pragmatism, doesn’t want to be so very assertive but rather to try to find a way of mitigating the weakness of the sovereignty that it has so that it does not have effects which are so offensive to its broader belief that it should be in charge of more things.

Politicians, if you want to do something, tell us exactly what and why. If you believe that it is fine in principle for the UK’s democratic institutions to continue to delegate and cede their sovereignty to the Courts and EU institutions then say so. If you believe that we have made a mistake in outsourcing these issues then say so. If you believe that in principle these changes ought to be made but that you have nothing concrete or attractive to put in their place when exercising the sovereignty that would be thereby returned, we need to know so that we can choose someone who has a better idea about what they would do. Make your choice openly. Then go and do it. Don’t insult everyone’s intelligence by sounding as if you’re interested in an issue, bang on about it and then do nothing.

Musical Chairs in Leeds

The Boundary Commission has published its initial proposals for new constituency boundaries in England to implement the reduction of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600: http://bit.ly/qepSHe . I blogged last week about how unedifying it is to have politicians who appear to make decisions based on their personal career interests and tribalism rather than principally on the grounds of what is best for their constituents and the country: http://bit.ly/qm93sN . But that is nothing compared to the “chicken run” of MPs in the affected seats (all but 77) as they play a massive game of musical chairs to find a new seat under the new boundary definitions.

It is understandable that in the heat of government Ministers might believe that there is little distinction between the interests of their government and that of the country. It is not even that surprising if they persuade themselves, albeit hubristically, that their personal progression and prospects are also in the national interest. It is rather less acceptable, with nearly 4 years to go to a General Election, for MPs to be positioning themselves for the seats and constituents they would like to be representing in 2015 rather than the ones they were voted in by less than 18 months ago. Reports from Parliament suggested that the queue of MPs to get their hands on the Boundary Commission proposals before the press embargo was lifted was longer even than those for getting into the Select Committee grillings of Rupert Murdoch and other News International executives. Every desk and table was apparently spread with maps like in a GCSE Geography exam as MPs pored over the fate of their seats and their careers.

From a “civilian” perspective, there’s going to be plenty of fun and games come election night 2015. Several high profile MPs from Ken Clarke, through Chris Huhne and Ed Balls are having their seats abolished or heavily changed. If you were one of the ones who stayed up for Michael Portillo losing his seat in 1997, the next election will be one to enjoy. Nadine Dorries’ seat is being split between a number of other seats, much to the joy of twitter.

In Leeds, which is of particular interest to me as it is where I live, there will be a great scramble for seats. Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, who only just managed to win in Morley and Outwood in 2010 after his previous seat was abolished in the last reorganisation, finds his seat being split and donated to two other constituencies currently held by his Labour Party colleagues. Hilary Benn sees his Leeds Central Seat being split up. In fact, every seat in the city will look very different in 2015 if the proposals are accepted following consultation. Some have rubbed their hands at the prospect of finishing off Ed Balls, but I think it is most likely that one or maybe more Leeds Labour MPs will retire in 2015 to make space (eg George Mudie, who will be 70 and/or Fabian Hamilton).

As a resident of Leeds North West, the fate of our current MP, Liberal Democrat Greg Mulholland will be more fascinating and more representative of the effect of the proposed changes. The seat is being reorganised so that its wards will go to the new seats of Guiseley and Yeadon, Leeds North West and Nidderdale, and Leeds North. Mr Mulholland used to be a councillor in Headingley before being elected MP in 2005. Headingley and Hyde Park will form part of Leeds North. He also has a strong interest in pubs and beer (this is not a euphemism!) and appears from his twitter feed to spend a lot of time in Otley which will go into Guiseley and Yeadon. Which of the three seats will he pursue? It is a tough one to call, because, on the basis of votes cast in 2010, none would have returned him as MP despite the fact that he substantially increased his majority in the current Leeds North West constituency. He might breathe a sigh of relief that he won’t face the backlash over student fees if he lets Leeds North be fought by someone else – one of the three Lib Dem councillors in Headingley was soundly defeated earlier this year by Labour so it is likely to be a much safer seat for Labour than the 2010 General Election vote would suggest. Both of the other two constituencies are notionally Conservative seats (eg see the Guardian’s analysis at http://bit.ly/qDNQvI ) with the Lib Dems third, undoing the 14 years since Tony Blair’s landslide. He’ll also face a challenge from his fellow Lib Dem MP, David Ward who currently represents Bradford East if he decides to contest Guiseley and Yeadon, which will include the ward for which Mr Ward was a councillor prior to becoming an MP.

The question for local people here, and in a lot of other parts of the country, will be, will I have an MP for the next few years or someone who is rather keener on developing his reputation elsewhere? Reducing the number of MPs is a good idea, but, unless there is an uncharacteristic outbreak of altruism by the current crop of MPs, it might leave something of a democratic deficit for many people. As the reduction was accepted by the Lib Dems in exchange for the ill-fated AV referendum, the double blow of losing disproportionately more seats than the other two main parties might just be too much for local activists to bear. Particularly where, as in Leeds North West, this activist base had built a strong representation in the City Council and a growing majority for its MP only for it to be seen to be blown away by decisions made from the centre.