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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 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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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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Exam technique: the decline in political participation

Posted by Matt Walker on October 5, 2011

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Recently I set my students a full exam question for Edexcel Unit 1, encompassing the short, medium and long answers, looking at democracy and participation. The 10-mark part (b) question was, “In what ways has political participation in the UK declined in recent years?”

The first thing to note is that this question is asking you how participation has declined, not why it has declined. Failure to appreciate this distinction will cost you valuable marks.  Neil McNaughton’s AS level textbook points out that participation has declined in 3 main ways:

1)  Voter turnout

2) Party membership

                                               3) Partisan dealignment

For this type of question, 7 marks are awarded for Knowledge and Understanding (AO1), and 3 marks are allocated for your level of explanation (AO2). Good exam technique to access all these marks is:

              1)  Write 3 paragraphs

              2)  Focus on a major point in each paragraph, e.g. voter turnout

              3)  Include 2-3 facts in each paragraph – e.g. levels of turnout across a number of elections

              4)  Explain your facts by linking to the question – e.g. why voter turnout is an important indicator of levels of participation.

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Human rights and the UK’s liberal democracy

Posted by Matt Walker on October 2, 2011

In my previous post I outlined the main criticism of the UK’s liberal democracy. Today’s comments by Home Secretary, Theresa May, illustrates this criticism perfectly. Today’s Sunday telegraph reports her as saying that the Human Rights Act should be scrapped because it causes “problems” at the Home Office, particularly when it comes to deporting illegal immigrants, some of whom “are perhaps terrorist suspects”. A summary of what she says can be found on the BBC News website.

The Human Rights Act enshrines into UK law the European Convention of Human Rights, and is the main cornerstone of human rights within the UK constitution (apart from the Magna Carta of 1215, which was aimed at the barons of the Middle Ages rather than 21st Century peasants like you and me). Aside from the arguments for and against the Human Rights Act, it is interesting to note that if there were a majority Conservative Government in this country they might well repeal the Human Rights Act, thereby changing my rights, your rights and everybody else’s rights just by passing an ordinary law through Parliament. To have such an effect on American citizens’ rights, for example, the US Government would need  two-thirds support from both Houses of Congress, as well as the support of two-thirds of state legislatures.

Put another way, human rights are not entrenched in the UK which means they are easily tampered with. Entrenchment would mean protecting our rights from being swiftly reversed. From the government’s point of view it would mean accepting human rights law even if it does inconvenience and cause “problems” to the UK Home Office.

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Is the UK a liberal democracy?

Posted by Matt Walker on September 26, 2011

In many respects it seems obvious to conclude ‘yes’ to this question, that the UK is a liberal democracy.  The UK enjoys free and fair elections, experiences smooth transitions of power from one government to the next, and is generally a tolerant society whose politics has been opened up by the Freedom of Information Act.

However, there are some major criticisms which we can level, and these stem from the fact that the UK constitution does not successfully limit governmental power,  nor does it entrench our human rights. On the latter point, any British government could in theory alter our key human rights by simply passing a Bill through Parliament. In most liberal democracies, it would require a lengthy challenge to a constitution, making it harder to make any such changes to citizens’ rights.

With regards to the UK’s failure to limit government power, a good example (see video link below) is the decision by the Labour Government to go to war with Iraq in 2003. As evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry indicates, Tony Blair made this decision himself, largely side-lining Cabinet and Parliament in the process. This particular issue demonstrates that in the right circumstances, the UK Prime Minister is very powerful.

Any assessment of the success or otherwise of liberal democracy in Britain cannot ignore this point, and in any essay you write making such an assessment will require you to tackle this issue.

Click here for video link.

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