Can this week’s violent protests in Westminster simply be dismissed as the hijacking of an orderly demonstration by a ‘small minory’ of anarchists. Or are they a sign of things to come for an ‘out-of-touch’ government with 18 millionaires in its cabinet?
On and on it went: aerial shots of the heaving crowd, rolling commentary, bursts of stuff shot on mobile phones, and the usual parade of talking heads. While what the BBC was calling a “mini-riot” happened both inside and outside the Millbank tower, the people in charge of its news channel were presumably ecstatic: this kind of stuff, after all, is what rolling news was invented for.
Over there: a fire! Suddenly, on the roof: more protesters! On the phones: frantic office workers, taken aback by the disruption of their day! And in the midst of it all: that delicate and ever-shifting line of police, anxiously trying to do whatever they could, knowing full well that the people they were up against had already – if you’ll excuse the pun – stolen a march on them.
Meanwhile, the president of the National Union of Students did the media rounds. Aaron Porter is 25; he stood for the office as an independent, but is a member of the Labour party, whose dress code – the Nick Robinson-esque glasses are a good example – rather suggests that he’s destined for a career in mainstream politics. Certainly, if you fancy being a high-ranking Labour MP, clambering to the top of the NUS isn’t a bad move at all. His predecessors have included Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, the current shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy, and Phil Woolas, the MP last week suspended from office for making misleading claims in the course of the last election campaign – all of which highlights the fact that NUS presidents are not exactly renowned for being what the French call enragés.
And so it proved. “Let me be clear,” he told yet another camera. “I absolutely condemn the actions of a small minority who have used violent means to hijack the protest . . . if some people think it’s appropriate to use violence, it’s a total disgrace, and they have completely hijacked this opportunity to make a serious point.” In his own way, he was endorsing the view that was subsequently splashed over the front page of yesterday’s Daily Mail: “Anarchists spark violence as 50,000 take to streets over student fees – HIJACKING OF A VERY MIDDLE CLASS PROTEST”.
On the BBC, there was a particularly priceless moment. When Porter once again talked about “hijacking”, the coverage cut to the mass of people outside Tory HQ, the presenter made the point that this was not what “a small minority” would look like – and Porter seemed momentarily lost for words. You had only to look at the crowd to know that the vast majority of them were not anarchists, but reasonably regular twentysomethings. As if to illustrate the point, when one of the people on the roof made the stupid decision to hurl down a fire extinguisher”>stupid decision to hurl down a fire extinguisher, they were met with an outraged chant of “Don’t throw shit! Don’t throw shit!”
Long after the fires had burned out, and the riot police had belatedly arrived, I spoke to a Guardian colleague who had spent most of Wednesday at the scene. Talk of cynical provocateurs, he said, was “nonsense”: the crowd was made up of “ordinary students who were viscerally angry”, but also mindful of what was ill-advised, or plain daft. When one of their number had prised up a cobblestone and moved to lob it at the police, he had been roundly told to “stop being an idiot”; moreover, the attempted occupation of Millbank had seemingly started on a whim, when a handful of people had walked into the foyer, not quite believing they had been allowed to do so, and decided to stay put. He was also unimpressed by talk of an assembly of self-indulgent, bourgeois moaners: time and again, he said, he had bumped into people from such northern towns as Bradford and Wakefield, who were students at FE colleges, angered to the point of fury by the government’s axing of the educational maintenance allowance – the means-tested benefit that has enabled so many people to take up post-16 education without being a drain on the family budget.
His basic point – and mine – is simple enough. What happened on Wednesday afternoon was not some meaningless rent-a-mob flare-up, nor an easily-ignored howl of indignation from some of society’s more privileged citizens. It was an early sign of people growing anxious and restless, and what a government pledged to such drastic plans should increasingly expect.
If you hadn’t noticed already, these are strange, tumultuous times. We are still in the midst of the uneasy period of phoney war before the cuts actually bite, but we now know what’s coming: the deepest and quickest reductions in public spending since the 1920s – which, according to an under-reported quote from David Cameron, will not be reversed, even when our economic circumstances improve (2 August, at an event in Birmingham: “Should we cut things now and go back later and try and restore them later? I think we should be trying to avoid that approach”).
The welfare state is in for an unprecedented reinvention, as ministers get dangerously close to reviving the nasty old trope of the undeserving poor; yesterday, as if to try to neutralise recent fretful noises from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Iain Duncan Smith talked about supposedly self-imposed worklessness as a “sin”. Changes to housing benefit look likely to drastically change the social makeup of our cities, and London in particular; even Boris Johnson has talked about the danger of “social cleansing”.
Meanwhile, just about every area of our lives will soon feel the pinch: travel anywhere in the country, pick up the local paper, and it’s all there – the imminent hacking back of youth centres, social care, school buildings, libraries, parks . . . you name it. Everyone will be affected: as ever, the most vulnerable will take the biggest hit, though it is no accident that the idea of the “squeezed middle” is being talked about as never before.
Of late, my mind has returned time and again to a celebrated article from 1999 by the Oxford academic Ross McKibbin, and one passage in particular: “The middle classes make more use of the NHS, public transport, public libraries, local swimming pools, public parks and their right to state welfare than anyone else.”
Underneath the coalition’s plans, there is an obvious enough agenda: not just the brutal cutting of public spending, but a decisive rolling-out of the market-obsessed, “choice”-fixated ideas that took root while Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, were revived and retooled once Tony Blair decided he had to define himself against the Labour party – and now look set to be taken to their logical conclusion by the Tories, and the like-minded Lib Dems who took their party into the coalition. Here lies another reason why Wednesday’s events were so significant – for within the government’s plans for higher education lie not just the hiking-up of fees, but an entire reinvention of the very ethos of our universities, whereby the idea of education as a public good takes yet another kicking, and everything comes down to “choice”, and whatever is meant to be good for business.
A recent issue of the London Review of Books featured an inspired demolition of the Browne review, the report into higher education by the former chief executive of BP that was hailed by the government as setting its “strategic direction”, and thereby opened the way for the lifting of the cap on fees, and much more besides. The LRB piece was written by a Cambridge don named Stefan Collini, and it quickly got to the heart of the problem: “Overwhelmingly, the general statements announce, with startling confidence, the real point of higher education: ‘Higher education matters because it drives innovation and economic transformation. Higher education helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.’ . . . This report displays no real interest in universities as places of education; they are conceived of simply as engines of economic prosperity and as agencies for equipping future employees to earn higher salaries.”
Meanwhile, where are the public? When it comes to tuition fees, do not believe the voices who tell us that the average Briton thinks students are a pampered lot who should get with the government’s plans and count themselves lucky. A recent YouGov survey commissioned by the Sun found that the public opposed the Browne proposals by 45% to 37%; an ICM poll from around the same time offered the choice between raised fees and the far fairer option of a graduate tax, and found that people favoured the latter over the former by 61% to 29%.
More generally, presumably to the delight of the government, a cliche has long since oozed into the reporting of what they are up to: that people accept the need for drastic austerity, and are meekly preparing for the necessary dose of fiscal medicine. Browse the requisite opinion polls, and you could be forgiven for assuming the worst: late last month, for example, Ipsos Mori found that 59% of people agreed that there was “a need to cut public spending on public services” – the kind of statistic cited almost daily by those newspapers who habitually encourage the government to go further, and faster.
In fact, things aren’t as simple as that. According to the same poll, the share of people who think the government has made either the right or wrong calls on public spending is evenly split: 41% and 38% respectively, while one in five simply don’t know; 40% of people disagree with the idea that the coalition’s approach will improve the state of the economy; while 49% reject the idea that, as the coalition insists, public services will somehow improve in the long run; 47% oppose cutting back the number of people who work in the public sector. Public opinion, it seems, is as contorted and contradictory as ever – and for the government, there is much less comfort than you might imagine.
While the coalition comes over all Churchillian, endlessly talking about the “national interest” and the spurious idea that we are “all in this together”, there is also a low hubbub of noise about their shortage of a mandate. On Wednesday, the ire of the marchers was focused on all those Lib Dems who blithely signed the NUS’s anti-fees pledge (“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative” – yesterday, Nick Clegg limply said that he “should have been more careful” than to put his name to it). But there are also serious questions about the Tories – not just that they are pushing what Cameron recently called a “revolution” with the support of around one in five of the electorate, but also when it comes to the pronouncements they made during the election campaign.
Consider, for example, a now-infamous quote from the PM, issued on the Andrew Marr show on 2 May: “What I can tell you is any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions – they’ll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.” And really: they wonder why some people are increasingly angry.
And so to the wider context, and things that most of the media very rarely mentions. Political debate in Britain is endlessly distorted by the way that London so dominates the national conversation, and assumptions that run wide and deep in some of Britain’s more desirable postcodes are assumed to blur into the national mood. In Islington, Notting Hill, and the more upmarket corners of the home counties, austerity will doubtless be taken in a lot of people’s stride: if you have opted out of large swaths of the public sector and earn a six-figure salary, the prospect of the cuts will inevitably cause you relatively little worry. Self-evidently, this will not be the case in Bolton, Merthyr Tydfil, or Hastings; but neither will it hold true in Basildon, Crawley, or Harrogate.
At the top of government, what might be called the “experience gap” grows even wider. There are at least 18 millionaires in the cabinet: Cameron is said to be worth around £3.4m; Nick Clegg’s wealth is put at a mere £1.8m. Of late, even commentators on the right have been talking about the distance between some ministers and the people at the sharp end of their policies, not least when it comes to the middle class. Last month, for example, the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne bemoaned their “devastating” fate, in a piece worth quoting at reasonable length, if only to prove that the idea of an out-of-touch elite blithely wreaking havoc is not the preserve of hard-bitten lefties.
Among Oborne’s most telling passages was this one: “Doubtless both David Cameron and George Osborne think of themselves, quite genuinely, as middle class. Indeed, a few weeks ago, David Cameron referred to himself as a member of the “sharp-elbowed middle class”, and the political intention of this remark was clear: he was claiming associate membership of the club of hard-working people who pay their taxes, do their best to rear their children and find it desperately hard to make ends meet. Few would challenge the Camerons’ fundamental decency. But the middle-class people David and Samantha Cameron know socially tend to be on quarter of a million a year and upwards. Life for them may indeed be tough, but only in the sense of whether they can afford a skiing holiday or a spring break in the Caribbean.”
In last week’s news that Cameron had put his personal photographer on the public payroll, there was a slight touch of the Marie Antoinettes, and a tension that may yet cause the government no end of trouble. It boils down to this: if you are secure in such an exclusive social bracket, it will inevitably distort your view of things. Around £27,000 for a university degree may well seem like the acme of both affordability and common sense; lost child benefit may seem like money dropped down the back of the couch; people on welfare will inevitably look like the residents of a completely different planet.
Meanwhile, some longstanding assumptions seem to be changing at speed. Wednesday gave the lie to the idea that our young people are thoroughly post-ideological creatures, with no fight in them; if even the most fusty newspapers are worried about the chasm that separates the government from the so-called squeezed middle, you can bet that the politics of class may yet make an unexpected comeback.
Oh, and one other thing. Though few people seemed to notice, on 3 November, a Treasury minister named Lord Sassoon served notice that the coalition’s work on City bonuses was done: “The government has taken action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the banking sector,” he said, and that seemed to be that. Six days later, Barclays announced that its latest bonus pot would total £1.6bn – which is about a third of what the government currently spends each year on university teaching. The annual season of big executive payouts is about to commence once again; at this rate, do not be surprised if the seditious spirit of Millbank spreads – and fast.
John Harris, The Guardian, Friday 12 November 2010
At some point in early May, Nick Clegg’s economic philosophy switched from Keynesian to that of a deficit hawk. Today he completed the conversion by reiterating Margaret Thatcher’s flawed household debt metaphor.
During his speech today, Nick Clegg said:
“It’s the same as a family with earnings of £26,000 a year who are spending £32,000 a year. Even though they’re already £40,000 in debt. Imagine if that was you. You’d be crippled by the interest payments. You’d set yourself a budget. And you’d try to spend less. That is what this government is doing.”
The argument was first used by Margaret Thatcher in 1976 when she told Thames TV’s ‘This Week’:
“I think you’re tackling public expenditure from the wrong end, if I might say so. Why don’t you look at it as any housewife has to look at it? She has to look at her expenditure every week or every month, according to what she can afford to spend, and if she overspends one week or month, she’s got to economise the next.
“Now governments really ought to look at it from the viewpoint of ‘What can we afford to spend?’ They’ve already put up taxes, and yet the taxes they collect are not enough for the tremendous amount they’re spending. They’re having to borrow to a greater extent than ever before, and future generations will have to repay.”
But this line has been thoroughly debunked in recent times by The Times’ Anatole Kaletsky and New York Times’ Paul Krugman as well as by Keynes himself. Of course, until his Damascene conversion, Nick Clegg knew this. On Saturday May 1, he told Reuters that:
“My eight-year-old ought to be able to work this out – you shouldn’t start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it is completely irrational.”
Lib Dem members tend to share this older view. AYouGov poll today found that only 29% of party members fully agree with the government’s policy of cutting spending to reduce government borrowing. An identical proportion of Lib Dem voters share Clegg’s position.
At some unknown point after the Reuters statementbut before he spoke to Mervyn King, Clegg changed his mind. With his conversion complete, the Liberal John Maynard Keynes will be turning in his grave.
Left Foot Forward
After so much political disenchantment, now, when we have this new beast in office, a peacetime coalition, is it time not to be cynical, but instead to take pause and allow our new political élite to prove itself? Should all us naysayers and members of the professional sarcastocracy shut up?
Over the past 15 years or so, the electorate has become increasingly disaffected by and disengaged from the political process, at the same time as the political classes have claimed to be acting more and more in response to our opinions. In the “information age”, politicians hide their behind-closed-doors approach to politics beneath a veneer of public accessibility and accountability. They go on YouTube, but their decisions are made where you can’t see them.
In particular, the language in which public debate is still conducted – the mentioning of you, I, and we – is a rhetorical smokescreen to allow undiscussed, undisclosed policies to be enacted under the guise of apparent transparency. It bends sense, maths, logic and English to breaking point.
The most blatant instance of such disintegration remains, for me, the moment in February 2003 when one and a half million people marched in vain against the invasion of Iraq. When it was put to a government spokes-man that it would be very hard to ignore such a great number demonstrating on the streets of London, his reply was devastating in its logic. “A million-and-a-half may have marched,” he said, “but there are 60 million people in Britain, which means there are 58-and-a-half million who didn’t march.” By the same logic, when the Queen Mother died, 100,000 queued to walk past her coffin, which indicates that, given over 59 million of us chose not to, she must have been one of the most reviled and hated figures in British history. Giving democratic victory to those who choose not to do something makes The X Factor one of the most despised TV shows in recent times, the Daily Mail an unpopular paper for minority interests, and David Copperfield a ridiculous flop of a book with no lasting impact.
Changing this abuse of logic – and it may take a generation – will define whether or not we really have a “new politics”.
Here’s Nick Clegg, three weeks before the election, outlining why, despite all the constitutional niceties built up over centuries of parliamentary democracy, no Prime Minister, especially one called Gordon Brown, should be allowed to stay in Downing Street the day after an election, even if a coalition government hasn’t yet been formed: “Well, I think it’s complete nonsense. I mean, how on earth? You can’t have Gordon Brown squatting in No 10.” (The implication being that this is how we think so we can’t really argue with what he says.) He added: “Whatever happens after the election has got to be guided by the stated preferences of voters, not some dusty constitutional document which states that convention dictates even losers can stay in No 10.”
Said the man who came third and now has an office in Number 10.
David Cameron performed a similar constitutional volte-face. Fourteen days before the election, he proposed that anyone who became Prime Minister without winning an election first would be obliged to call one within six months of taking office. Two weeks later, when he proposed the coalition, he announced it would secure itself in government for five years by raising the majority threshold for a dissolution of Parliament to 55 per cent of MPs. Cameron had gone from arguing passionately for more elections to arguing passionately for fewer. He gave as his reason: “It is a big change. It is a good change. It is a change that will result in strong and stable government, as I believe we are demonstrating already.”
That’s it. No commission, no panel of constitutional experts, no private consultation with senior civil servants.
It is a quick fix to a problem, rammed through as an extension of the Blair mantra, “I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do”, but sugar-coated in the reformist language of change. Ideas uttered in that context are, today, simply unassailable, and anyone in the media or the commentariat or the Opposition who questions them is dismissed as being out-of-touch and churlish.
Blair once infamously said: “Do I know I’m right? Judgements aren’t the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I’m like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong. I only know what I believe.”
That passage only makes sense if the final line is reversed. Normally, we seek evidence, and form conclusions on the basis of what we find. We believe what we know. Blair’s logic overturns about two-and-a-half-thousand years of rational inquiry.
“I only know what I believe” typifies the thinking of the modern politician, who speaks in an “aw-shucks” conversational tone to make himself seem and sound a regular kind of guy, but who will use whatever props are at his disposal to enact his predetermined decisions without deviation.
Our political masters try to look and sound like normal people, while being more exclusively political than any previous generation. All the main candidates for the Labour leadership are forty-something career politicians who studied politics at university before going into political research, think tanks, and Parliament. Cameron and Clegg are two young like-minded individuals running the country who have known very little else outside the world of politics. Politicians only know what they believe because they’ve had nothing else to know.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that the number of people voting for the main parties in general elections has fallen dramatically in the past decade and a half, just as this new hermetically-sealed language of political self-belief has flourished, and just as the media commentariat has grown in number. That’s because the language and tone the media adopt seem no different from the politicians they’re meant to be critiquing. Politicians and broadcasters are gravitating towards each other, in much the same way we’re told that similar masses will coalesce at the end of the universe. They have been increasingly finishing each other’s sentences, inhabiting each other’s mindsets, and the result has been a homogenous body of material light years away from the electorate.
So how Britain governs itself, and how its political élite behaves and thinks, cannot be overturned by one quirky election result. The mindset has to change as well, and it requires a mighty effort of engagement by us.
The public used its own initiative to engage with this election. There were record voter registrations, especially among the 18 to 25s, and the electorate was broadly interested and energised by the television debates. Moreover, the traditional weapons of party propaganda were neutralised by faster-moving online communities, who came up with collective responses to any claims that seemed unreasonable. Wild allegations about Nick Clegg in the Tory press saw a tsunami of sarcasm engulf the elderly media barons – and Nick Clegg’s press improved. And after the online spoofs of Cameron’s airbrushed posters were followed by Cameron’s own spoofing of Labour’s Ashes to Ashes parody, posters were spoofed beyond relevance and never heard of again. There is now a media- and politically-savvy population with the means to engage creatively in politics.
I believe it is precisely at this point in our politics, just as we might be persuaded we should sit quietly and give all the new chaps in the Government a chance, that we should actually be at our most alert. For this moment of “change” to have any meaning, people in government must have their words, their behaviour, policies and arguments, dissected and held up to scrutiny. That is not negative. It is not destructive to be forensic. It is possible to have a positive belief in the power of politics to change lives for the better, and to wish those in office well, while urging more diligence than ever before.
Looking for the pitfalls, pointing out the contradictions and alerting people to the flaws contributes to a larger movement of inspection and debate and questioning that we must all participate in if we are ever to get the politics we truly deserve.
Armando Iannucci Saturday, 5 June 2010
Norfolk mother jailed for benefit fraud
Last updated: 27/05/2010 06:30:00
A Norfolk mother who falsely claimed more than £76,000 in benefits after failing to declare she was living with a partner, was last night starting a 20-week jail sentence.
Sarah Riley, 34, falsely claimed the benefits over a six year period from 2001 to 2007. Norwich Crown Court heard that she obtained a total of £64,433 in income support and £10,225 in housing benefit as well as £1,583 in council tax benefit.
Matthew Edwards prosecuting said that Riley’s claim had not been fraudulent from the outset but she had failed to notify the Department of Work and Pensions when she had started living with her new partner in 2001.
The court heard that Riley had now split up from her partner and was making efforts to repay some of the money and had paid back more than a £1,000.
Riley of Cremer Street, Sheringham, admitted 10 counts of benefit fraud.
Jailing her for 20 weeks, judge Alasdair Darroch, told her he accepted that prison would be devastating for her but said: ?This is a very large sum of public money and there was dishonesty going on for a long period of years.?
Cathy Newman checks it out 12/05/10
“We are all going to have things we said thrown back at us,” the new PM said today, when asked if he regretted saying his favourite joke was “Nick Clegg” (video here). And you’ve got to hand it to him – he must be the first politician to pre-announce cabinet splits. He said: “If you want to spend the next five years finding Lib Dem politicians who slightly disagree with Conservative politicians about this, or a slightly nuanced policy, you can find lots.”
The new coalition government set out their joint policy statement on key issues today – but how many U-turns have they performed since leaving the campaign trail? FactCheck has been finding out.
Over the team for the analysis
Cutting the deficit
What the Lib Dems said before: The Lib Dems want to make spending cuts – but not until the economy is strong enough. Their manifesto, published just a month ago, assumed this wouldn’t be until 2011-12. Cutting sooner would “undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs,” it said. Vince Cable also dismissed the Tories’ planned £6bn of efficiency savings this year as “school boy economics” when they were announced at the end of March. “They haven’t a first clue about how these savings are going to be realised,” he said. “Unless they can say how they will realise these savings, the Tory proposals aren’t worth the paper that they are written on.”
Coalition policy: To start cutting the deficit this year, by making £6bn of “non-frontline” cuts. Cuts to the child trust fund and child tax credits for higher earners are in the pipeline too.
Scrapping the national insurance rise
What the Lib Dems said before: The Lib Dems criticised the national insurance increase planned by Labour as a “damaging tax on jobs and unfair to employees”. But they said ensuring the health of the public finances was more important, and didn’t believe the efficiency savings the Tories planned to use to reverse the national insurance rise were credible (see above).
Coalition policy: The original Tory policy was bigger – to scrap most of Labour’s increase in both employees’ and employers’ national insurance. The new alliance will just cut the employers’ part of the tax rise.
What the Lib Dems said before: Clegg challenged Cameron for “proposing a cap but you don’t know what the cap would be” in the second TV debate. “Let’s not pretend that you can put forward these ideas which have got no substance, haven’t been thought through,” he said.
Coalition policy: The Tories’ plan to cap non-EU immigration is being carried through.
What the Conservatives said before: “I agree with Gordon,” said David Cameron at thesecond leaders’ debate, after Brown had told Nick Clegg to “get real” about the need to replace Trident. “You cannot rustle up a nuclear deterrent at the last minute as the Liberal Democrats seem to think you can,” the Tory leader said.
Coalition policy: The government is commited to the maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, but “Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives”.
What the Conservatives said before: David Cameron did indicate he was moving towards the idea of setting the length of a parliament earlier this year but the 25-page “change politics” section in the Tory manifesto made no mention of fixed-term parliaments.
Coalition policy: A Lib Dem win.The next election will take place in five years’ time, rather than at a date chosen by the prime minister. There is a get-out-early clause: parliament could be dissolved before that if 55 per cent of MPs agree.
Raising the income tax threshold
What the Conservatives said before: “I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick,” said David Cameron at the first leader’s debate. “It’s a beautiful idea, a lovely idea. We cannot afford it.”
Coalition policy: By keeping part of the NI rise and increasing capital gains tax, the Conservative-led coalition has found itself able to afford at least some of it. The tax-free personal allowance will get a “substantial” increase from next year so more of the lowest earners don’t have to pay tax on their wages. It will be increased to £10,000 in the longer term.
What the Lib Dems said before: Although not a manifesto commitment, the Lib Dems have said the Scotland office and the business department were ripe for the chop.
Coalition policy: Nick Clegg’s chief of staff Danny Alexander is to be Scotland Secretary; Vince Cable will be the Business Secretary.
What the Conservatives said before: Changing the voting system was firmly off the agenda. “We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with,” the Tory manifestosaid.
Coalition policy: MPs will be instructed to vote for a referendum on moving to the alternative vote system, although this doesn’t mean the Tories have to back a yes vote when it comes to putting the choice to the public. Still, AV’s not the full proportional representation the Lib Dems called for – though they have said it’s a “small step in the right direction”.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are proof that it takes two to tango. In their desire to shimmy up Downing Street together, they’ve had to agree on policies they bitterly contested just a week ago. The Lib Dems have had to swallow their words on spending cuts, and immigration, and they’re probably only too happy to think again about scrapping the Scotland Office and the Business Department – now their bums are on those cabinet seats.
But the Tories have had to dance to their coalition partners’ tune on voting reform and fixed-term parliaments. That much is clear. But one thing I would like to know: if Nick Clegg used to be David Cameron’s favourite joke, what was the Liberal Democrat’s favourite gag about his new boss?
Nick Clegg MP, deputy prime minister, speech on constitutional reform, 19 May 2010
Cathy Newman checks it out
Hold onto your hats: the deputy PM is promising a democratic big bang – the biggest changes to our political system for nearly 200 years. That’s some ambition.
But does getting rid of identity cards and introducing fixed-term parliaments really stand comparison with 19th-century reforms which extended the vote beyond the landed gentry and abolished the rotten boroughs?
Over to the team for the analysis
The Great Reform Act of 1832 abolished the old pockets where just a handful of voters could send MPs to parliament – and extended the vote to “new” towns such as Manchester. It let men owning property worth more than £10 go to the polls – so still excluding much of the working class, and women.
It was the start of significant empowerment of voters – although a subsequent reform act in 1867 did more to increase the number of people who could actually vote.
Today the deputy PM promised a smorgasbord of parliamentary changes, including giving voters the right to sack their MP, an elected House of Lords, fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on moving to the alternative vote system for general elections, and tightening up the rules on lobbying and party funding.
As part of the political “big bang”, Clegg also set out civil liberties measures such as giving people the right to choose which laws to repeal, getting rid of the ContactPoint children’s database, and scrapping ID cards, and promised more power to the people and less centralised bureaucracy.
So does this add up to the biggest shake-up in nearly 200 years?
Clegg’s claim is more hyperbole than fact, says Professor Justin Fisher, director of theMagna Carta Institute at Brunel University.
“He’s not going to just say, ‘this is quite interesting’ – any new reform is going to want to seem like the best thing since sliced bread,” Professor Fisher said. “But Clegg’s ignoring a number of reforms in the 19th century. You could point to lots of shake-ups which were at least as significant as this today.”
To name a few, the introduction of secret ballots in 1872, or the 1883 outlawing of bribery in elections, meaning aspiring politicians were no longer allowed to ply voters with booze and food.
In 1918, the vote was extended to all men – and there’s the small matter of allowing women to vote, too.
The last government might well be able to make a similar shake-up claim, said Fisher, about the almost complete abolition of hereditary peers overnight in 1998, or the establishment of the Scottish parliament for the first time since the early 1700s – plus the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies.
You could also argue that some of Clegg’s promises are building on Labour’s foundations, rather than a genuine revolution. Labour promised to bring in a completely elected House of Lords in its 2005 manifesto, for example, and MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of elected peers in 2007.
And although something like scrapping ID cards curbs the powers of the state, it’s a policy rollback rather than a radical change to a long-standing constitutional principle in the way that, say, giving women the vote was.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said that although there had been significant political reforms in the past, but said that the deputy PM had today outlined a comprehensive package with many different reform elements.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
Nick Clegg might not want to extol the virtues of the political partner he jilted at the altar. But by airbrushing Labour’s democratic reforms out of the history books, the new deputy PM is sounding a bit as though power’s gone to his head.
The aim to transform politics is laudable. But unless he’s got something up his sleeve, giving women the same voting rights as men in 1928 and even Labour’s devolution of power to Scotland and Wales in 1998 were more transformational than anything set out today.