A Level Politics

Improving your grade

More equal than others

Posted by Matt Walker on March 25, 2012

In a liberal democracy political equality is essential. As a citizen of the UK, I would expect to influence government no more than alternative voices, and hope that government would be even-handed when mediating between different interests, choosing policy positions on a rational, logical, and evidential basis. If this were not the case, then some people or organisations could influence government to make decisions in their own favour, at the expense of others who lack access to government circles.

And so this morning’s news about Conservative Party co-treasurer, Peter Cruddas, does not make for comfortable reading. I should say “ex-co-treasurer” as he has already resigned. Cruddas has been caught by a Sunday Times ‘sting’,  videoed saying that a £250,000 donation to the Conservative Party would gain people access to the prime minister, as well as get their concerns on a Downing Street policy committee.

The Conservative Party has denied accepting money on this basis, and Cruddas has suggested he was merely exaggerating the influence donors could have over government policy. No doubt more information will emerge over the coming days, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sunday Times has other revelations up its sleeve. To some extent, this is nothing new. The Bernie Ecclestone Affair over donations to Labour in the 1990s jolted Tony Blair for a while, and Michael Crick produced a wonderful piece for the Channel 4 News about business donors at the 2010 Liberal democrat Conference. Such unsavoury happenings occur because  political parties need to raise huge funds for their campaigns.

This latest scandal will only consume the government if it is proven that senior Tories have been accepting donations for direct influence over government policy. But it has once again highlighted some of the weaknesses within our democracy, and to echo a phrase George Orwell used in Animal Farm, some people are more equal than others.

Peter Cruddas

David Miliband

BBC News article


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Budget 2012: coalition blues (and yellows)

Posted by Matt Walker on March 18, 2012

The crucial narrative in British politics today is undoubtedly relations within the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. There is nothing like the euphoria of ejecting a rival party from power, particularly if they have been in charge for a number of years. And in May 2010, David Cameron and Nick Clegg would have been delighted to do so, and thereby find themselves sitting around the Cabinet table in Downing Street.

However, the problem with this coalition right from the start, has been the nature of the parties involved. The Conservative Party is a right of centre party, whose core voters require it to appeal to the middle and business classes to ensure it can win elections. Being conservative it strongly supports tradition, and has a strong sense of nationalism. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand, are a progressive left of centre party, which favours state support for the poorest, ensuring that the wealthy pay their way in terms of taxation, and is somewhat iconoclastic in its approach to constitutional matters. In short, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are like oil and water, and don’t really mix that well.

A number of issues demonstrate this point, and I have written about the NHS reforms in previous posts. This morning’s Observer highlights further problems over this year’s budget. George Osborne wants to scrap the 50p tax rate on higher earners, and doesn’t seem keen to introduce a mansion tax on the rich, which the Lib Dems want. Osborne wants to keep middle class Tory voters happy, whilst the Lib Dems want to garner the support of progressive voters who want the rich to pay higher taxes.

There is some suggestion that Lib Dem MPs will vote against the budget when it is presented to the Commons. The budget should still pass, as with over 20 Lib Dems in the government the coalition will still have a majority even if Lib Dem backbench MPs vote against it. However, this does not auger well for Nick Clegg. And, as some wise sage once said, rebellion is a habit, and if Lib Dem MPs gain this habit their leadership could be in for a rough ride.

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Mr. Cameron’s ‘dry’ side

Posted by Matt Walker on March 12, 2012

David Cameron’s closest political advisor, Steve Hilton, recently announced that he was taking a sabbatical from his duties at 10 Down Downing Street, to move to California with his wife. Hilton was the man who came up with the Tony Blair demon eyes poster which backfired on the Tories during the 1997 general election. More recently his ideas have had a considerable impact on the coalition’s policies.

The Economist has written a very interesting article about Mr. Hilton, which you should make use of when thinking about party policy as it provides more evidence for labelling David Cameron as a New Right Conservative.


The article highlights the government’s wish to:

  • get charities and the private sector to run public sector services, such as schools – remember the New Right slogan: ‘’private good, public bad’;
  • focus on decentralisation, deregulation and shrinking Whitehall;
  • provide extra money for Michael Gove’s free schools policy;
  • end national pay standards in the public sector – hence the market would play a greater role in determining wage rises.

The article refers to the division that has existed within the Conservative Party since the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, namely the ‘wets’ and the ‘dries’. The dries were those who supported Mrs Thatcher, and her New Right policies, and hence were very radical in their approach. The article concludes that, “Despite being a scion of the establishment, Mr Cameron generally sides with the dry insurgent wing” of the Conservative party.

Hence for The Economist, David Cameron’s Conservative Party is definitely New Right.

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Coalition politics: Lib Dem conference and the NHS reforms

Posted by Matt Walker on March 11, 2012

I recently posted about the need for students to consider the impact the coalition has made on British politics. I suggested that its impact across a range of issues was beginning to be felt, in particular the empowerment of Parliament. The extent of this empowerment might soon be measured regarding the coalition’s NHS reform bill.

Although they decided not to debate the coalition’s NHS reforms, the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference has today expressed its rejection of those reforms. The vote is not binding on the Liberal Democrat leadership. which means that Nick Clegg will not be forced to go to his coalition partners and say the reforms must be stopped. However, rejection of the reforms has  effectively become Liberal Democrat policy.

So what is this the significance of this? In the end, there may be none. However, the question now is how Lib Dem peers and MPs will react, and whether they will vote against the bill. The highly-regarded Lib Dem peer (and former Labour minister) Dame Shirley Williams, now supports the reforms, which may well sway Lib Dem Parliamentarians to finally back the NHS reforms. However,  as the BBC points out, this vote might empower these peers and MPs  into outright rejection of the bill.

Either way, the extensive amendments to this bill would probably not have occurred without the existence of the coalition, as a single party Conservative Government would probably have ignored much of the objections to the bill.

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What is a liberal democracy? Not Russia!

Posted by Matt Walker on March 6, 2012

Right at the beginning of the AS course we discussed democracy, and asked the question: ‘Is Britain a liberal democracy?’. To explore this we need a benchmark, some definition of ‘liberal democracy’ which British democracy can be compared to. We would expect a liberal democracy to have the following features:

  • government accountable to the people.
  • competitive, unpredictable and fair elections.
  • peaceful transference of power from one group to another, with the losers accepting defeat.
  • free flow of information, with regulated media to ensure fairness of political coverage.
  • protection of rights and civil  liberties.

It is worth you pondering why all of these things are important, and it might help you to observe what is happening in Russia. Vladamir Putin has just been elected president. He served two terms of office from 1999 to 2008, but stepped down because the Russian constitution states that a president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms of office. Putin could now serve another two terms, lasting 6 years each as the length term has recently been raised.

Aside from the issue of whether Putin actually controlled Russia anyway during the past 4 years (as prime minister), there has been much criticism of this latest Russian presidential election. Election monitors have said that the vote was skewed in favour of Putin. There has been accusations of vote-rigging, with video footage of election officials stuffing ballot boxes with forged voting slips, as well as reports of people being bussed around more than one voting station to cast multiple votes for Putin. The Russian media is also biased in favour of Putin, with Russian state television supporting him. And furthermore, if we look at Putin’s presidential rivals, it is hard to contend that this was a competitive election.

The result of this election was predictable, and not particularly well run legally. The lack of media transparency as well as the number of arrests of protesters since the election, would make it very difficult for us to describe Russia as a liberal democracy!

See also David Miliband’s views on this.

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What impact has the Coalition had on Parliamentary government?

Posted by Matt Walker on March 5, 2012

Not satisfied with allowing students to weave recent developments into exam answers say, about Parliament, Edexcel examiners have recently asked some nasty questions specifically about the impact of the coalition government. So let us begin to explore the impact of the coalition on Parliament.

Increasingly, political commentators are identifying fault-lines within the coalition. It should come as no surprise that the initial political goodwill of the strangest of political bed-fellows should come under strain once real political choices have to be made. Divisions over the EU were inevitable, given the two very different perspectives of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties. But divisions have also recently been seen over the government’s reform programme: welfare, NHS, and House of Lords. On defence, the decision to be made in 2016 on whether to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent might also be explosive, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Tory and Lid Dem critics of the coalition will no doubt bemoan how their own party’s policies and values are undermined by the coalition. But it could be argued that Parliament itself has been strengthened. Liberal Democrat peers in particular have made significant amendments to the NHS reforms set out in the Health and Social Care Bill, whilst causing problems for the government’s Welfare Reform Bill. It may be the turn of the Conservatives next, as they will seek to challenge the Clegg-sponsored House of Lords reforms.

Jackie Ashley argues that all of this will undermine the government and pave the way for its eventual downfall. This remains to be seen. But the relationship between the Lib Dems and Tories in this coalition government is arguably providing Parliament with greater opportunities and leverage which it perhaps would not have under single party government.

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What kind of conservative is David Cameron?

Posted by Matt Walker on February 29, 2012

Questions about the ideological positioning of the major parties are tricky, and it would be useful for you to have a number of key examples up your sleeve. For the Conservative Party you will need to have an understanding of the two main factions within the party: One Nation conservatism, and New Right conservatism.

I have attempted to consider which type of conservatism David Cameron’s Conservative Party best resembles in previous posts. This, of course, is worth up-dating! I have recently suggested that the government’s current NHS reforms provide useful examples of many aspects of the Politics curriculum, such as the functions and effectiveness of Parliament.  Here, I would suggest using it to illustrate David Cameron’s New Right credentials.

The New Right favours the ‘rolling back of the state’ – this means to have a government which does less, and spends less. The stated benefits of this can be summarised in the epithet, “private good, public bad”. The private sector, put simply is, better than government (public sector) because free market provision (private sector)  encourages efficiency and innovation.

The current NHS reforms aim to encourage much more competition within the NHS, and achieve greater private sector involvement in the provision of NHS services. Perhaps a true New Right supporter would want to privatise the NHS, but this is not politically feasible as the British public would not support such a move. Hence, the best a New Right conservative could hope for is to substantially increase free market competition within the state-owned NHS.

The nature of the NHS reforms, therefore, could be used to justify the assertion that Cameron’s Conservative Party are New Right.

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House of Lords reform

Posted by Matt Walker on February 27, 2012

The membership and exact role of the House of Lords has been a difficult issue for many years, even prior to the reforms of New Labour in 1999. Labour created a mostly appointed second chamber, doing away with all but 92 of the hereditary peers, and left the issue of whether the Lords should be elected for another day.

And that ‘other day’ seems to have finally arrived. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is the minister in charge of constitutional reform. Today he attempted to see off his critics by defending his proposals for further House of Lords reform. The proposals are:

  • 240 (80%) elected members, who will have 15 year terms
  • 60 members (20%) to be appointed
  • 12 bishops to remain in the reformed chamber
  • members will be paid a salary
  • the powers of the reformed second chamber will not change.

It is envisaged that the first elections to the Lords will be in 2015, using some form of proportional representation. It is worth spending some of your time looking at the arguments either side of this debate, as it may well come up in your exam. Critics of these proposals will argue that democratising the Lords will simply mean a replication of the type of professional politician found in the House of Commons. Those experts currently found in the Lords, such as Lord Sugar, will be lost, and the scrutiny of legislation will suffer. Nick Clegg would no doubt argue that it is indefensible that laws are made in this country partly by unelected legislators. But he might also face critics from democrats who would object to the fact that 20% of the Lords would still be appointed, and that the Church of England would still have representation in the second chamber.

And that has always been a problem with Lords reform. Even those who seek to reform it, can never agree what the nature of that reform will be.

Click on the video links below.

The proposals

Tory-Lib Dem discussion 

Labour peers opposition to reform

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NHS reform Bill

Posted by Matt Walker on February 26, 2012

Ed Miliband suggested last week that David Cameron’s NHS reforms could be his ‘poll tax’, a reference to the local authority tax introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988-9 which effectively destroyed her premiership. Whether this is accurate or overblown rhetoric remains to be seen, but the government’s NHS reforms throw up a number of issues. Here, let us explore the role of Parliament in the passage of the Bill.

The current passage of the NHS reforms through Parliament illustrates the important role the legislature can play during the passage of a Bill. The NHS reforms return to the House of Lords this week, having already suffered two defeats and a number of amendments. An major role Parliament plays is to scrutinise government and legislation, and to ensure that laws are both legitimate and well-made.  Parliament doesn’t generally defeat government, and is there to support it, though with the current difficulties, the present government might not be feeling this right now.

The NHS reforms are very good example of how Parliament can be effective at getting government to think again about its proposals. The House of Lords is particularly wee-placed to achieve this as no party has overall control of the second chamber, and it is less disciplined (and perhaps rigid) than the Commons. As The Guardian points out, the government’s previous parliamentary difficulties with its NHS reform Bill has made ministers rethink how they are approaching future parliamentary battles.

Using such examples is a great way to ensure your exam answers are illustrated with up-to-date details, something your examiners will approve of!

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Turnout at local, national and European elections

Posted by Matt Walker on October 8, 2011

As discussed elsewhere, voter turnout is an important indicator of levels of political participation. The most obvious example of this is turnout for general elections. In 1992, 78% of the electorate turned out to vote, but by 2001 this had fallen to a postwar low of 59%. The 2010 general election saw a small recovery to 65%.

When writing answers on participation, it would be useful for students to refer to turnout in other types of UK elections as well as those those for the Westminster Parliament. If we look at local elections, turnout can be pretty disastrous. In 2008 for example, the average turnout was 35%; in 2000 it was only 29%. UK elections to the European Parliament fare little better, with 35% turning out to vote in 2009, 39% in 2004, and a paltry 24% in 1999. And what about the  2011 referendum to change the UK’s electoral system to AV?  Only 42% of people were sufficiently enthused to pop down to their local polling station to exercise their democratic right.

All of this data is suggestive of a decline in political participation. Having a range of turnout data from local, national, and European elections will no doubt impress the examiner.

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