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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 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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Nick Clegg: Britain’s next prime minister?

Posted by Matt Walker on April 17, 2010

In the early 1980s, David Steel told the Liberal/SDP Alliance to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.” This was the height of Mrs Thatcher’s unpopularity and Labour were in complete disarray, putting the so-called Alliance on 50% in the polls. In the 1983 general election, they actually won a creditable 25% of the vote, just behind Labour. But they won only 3% of the seats. Good old first-past-the-post!

Since the first leaders’ debate on Thursday, the political world seems to have been turned upside down. That’s what is so great about an election campaign. Nick Clegg’s performance has been said to have ‘electrified’ the campaign and has turned the latest opinion polls on their heads.

A YouGov poll published today in The Sun has The Tories on 33%, Lib Dems on 30%, and Labour on 28%. According to this much esteemed publication, Labour are now in disarray, and apparently, Brown has ‘blown it’. I suppose you’d expect The Sun to take this line, given their support for the Conservative Party. But how accurate are they?

Well, if we use Electoral Calculus to help us, the result would be interesting. Assuming similar voting across all constituencies, including the marginals, this poll suggests that Labour would become the biggest party in a hung parliament, 9 seats ahead of the Tories, but 63 seats short of a majority. It is clear that both main parties could lose out if the Lib Dems do very well, but as this latest poll shows, if the gap between Labour and the Conservatives narrows, Cameron could well be the main loser. Indeed, some have argued that he was the big loser in Thursday’s debate because Nick Clegg stole his thunder as the charismatic voice of change.

There has even been talk this morning of the Liberal Democrats winning the election, which quite frankly is ludicrous. And of course, we should be cautious when analysing a single poll. There will be more for us to look at tomorrow. However, for political train-spotters like me, this is all very exciting!

Posted in Elections, Political Parties | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

The Tories: ‘We are all in this together’

Posted by Nicole Berry on April 14, 2010

The Conservative Party have offered us all an ‘Invitation to join the government of Britain’ (the longest invitation known to man,) shunning the traditional manifesto in an attempt to portray themselves as ‘modern, progressive Conservatives.’ At the heart of this ‘invitation’ is the vision of the ‘big society’ not the ‘big state.’ What the Conservative’s are pledging is bottom up governance, with people having the power to take decisions into their own hands, transferring power from national to local level. A huge emphasis has been placed on social responsibility, which we all hold as a member of British society. The Conservatives believe promoting greater responsibility is the way to patch up our ‘broken society.’

As with the Labour Party, a concise summary of what the Conservatives hope to do to achieve a more cohesive society is outlined on the Conservative Party website. The broad outline consists of:

1. Acting now on debt to get the economy moving
2. Getting Britain working by boosting enterprise
3. Making Britain the most family friendly country in Europe
4. Backing the NHS
5. Raising standards in schools
6. Changing politics

Despite this one nation conservatism being all very High School Musical, the specific policies demonstrate the serious commitment the Conservatives have to regenerating Britain. The Conservative’s say they will:

• Cut the number of MP’s by 10%
• Cut ministerial pay by 5%
• 1 year public sector pay freeze (excluding the million lowest paid workers)
• Stop the paying of tax credits to earners of over £50,000
• Power for constituents to sack MP’s
• Linking GP’s pay to results they deliver
• An annual limit on non-EU migration
• Ability for parents to set up new schools
• Head teachers to have final say on discipline problems
• Raising stamp duty threshold to £250,000 for first time buyers
• Cutting National Insurance for first 10 employees of new businesses

The list goes on. But check out the details on the links below.

The Liberal Democrats have been quick to criticise the manifesto with the generic claim that they are the ‘same old Conservatives.’ Gordon Brown also condemned the manifesto saying it had a ‘hole’ in it. But have the Conservatives done enough to convince the electorate otherwise?

BBC: At a glance

The full manifesto


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Labour lays claim to a progressive future

Posted by Matt Walker on April 13, 2010

Yesteday the Labour Party published its election manifesto, “A future fair for all”, containing the values, ideas, and policies it hopes it will be able to implement over the next five years. What is immediately interesting is the sheer length of it! It is 76 pages long (although the Tory manifesto is 130 pages long). Now, I have a great interest in politics and yet find this pretty much unreadable. What the general public will make of it I don’t know, but I can guess – most people won’t read it. Gone are the days when a manifesto covered a few pages and could be easily digested.

In fairness, the Labour Party website itself does try to help us out a bit. It specifies its broader values as :

  • Rebuilding the economy
  • Reform and protection of public services
  • Renewal of politics

There is also a handy video, which does make the manifesto more digestible.

It is also worth taking a look at either the BBC and Guardian websites. The Guardian’s analysis is particularly interesting, taking the reader through each page of the manifesto, with various annotations. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • “It is our belief that it is active, reforming government, not absent government, that helps make people powerful.”
  • halve the deficit by 2014
  • no increase in income tax
  • national minimum wage to rise in line with average earnings
  • Referendums on electoral and House of Lords reform
  • Strengthening of public power over public service delivery

Given that the manifesto is 76 pages long, this post could in theory go on forever! It will be interesting to see which parts get emphasised over the campaign. Anything here which excites or depresses you?

Gordon Brown launches Labour priorities

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Four (million) weddings and a tax allowance

Posted by Matt Walker on April 11, 2010

The Conservative Party have continued to set the agenda during the early stages of this election campaign. This time it has been through their proposals on tax allowances for married couples. Their plan is to allow one married partner to transfer their unused tax allowance to their other half. It would be worth £150 a year to around 4 million married couples.

The Conservative justification for this policy is that the British tax system is unfair, penalising married couples by treating them as individuals rather than as couples. The Conservatives have said that they want to support commitment, rather than moralise about people’s life choices. This of course is a fine dividing line. Promotion of marriage and families is a strong theme which runs through conservatism. Conservatives argue that the two-parent family is an important source of nurturing and authority, and is therefore the basis of a strong and stable society.

Interestingly, Gordon Brown’s criticism of this policy was not that it rewarded marriage through the tax system, but that it was disingenuous given the Tories’ other policies which would take money away from families. Brown himself stated that marriage is the basis of society.This is not surprising given the prime minister’s Presbyterian and New Labour roots, a reminder that whilst political parties may tend to centre their values around a single ideology, they will also be influenced by opposing ideologies.

Arguably, Yvette Cooper offered a better critique of the proposal when she said that if a man left his wife to set up home with another woman, upon remarriage he could gain the tax benefit, whereas his wronged ex-wife would not. (Presumably, the gender of the wrongdoer could be reversed!)

It was left to the Liberal Democrats to offer an ideological criticism of the Conservative proposals. Nick Clegg, specifically referring to his own liberal values, stated that the policy was wrong, and that the government should not moralise about people’s life choices nor financially favour one group of people over another simply because of how they organise their private lives.

It is clear that ideological differences have and will continue to surface during this campaign, even though the parties will try to down play them. And as always, disagreements regarding the role of the state are at the centre of it all.

BBC article

BBC News report

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It’s the economy, stupid!

Posted by Matt Walker on April 9, 2010

What is it that determines the outcome of elections? This is a difficult question to answer but undeniably a key determinant is public perception of a party’s economic competence. During the 1992 US presidential election campaign, Bill Clinton’s slogan summed this up perfectly: “It’s the economy stupid!” This was less the case in 2001 and 2005 when the UK economy was doing well. In 2010, it is as true as it ever was.

The first four days of the 2010 campaign have been taken up with taxation, public spending and the economy. Whether both parties planned to focus so much attention on Labour’s proposed national insurance increases, or whether circumstances have prevailed, it is hard to tell. But election campaigns are a bit like that. A particular issue catches fire, one party runs with it, and the rest have to follow, either rebutting their opponents’ claims, or going on the offensive.

Why has Labour’s proposed national insurance increase become such a key election issue? On the one hand, it comes down to trust. Who will the electorate believe? On the other hand, the parties want to use this issue to tell the public something important about themselves. For Labour, they can claim that Tory talk of cutting the budget deficit lacks credibility because they also want to cut taxes, or alternatively they will have to immediately cut public spending and will damage frontline services. For the Conservatives, they can argue that the government is wasting money, which should be used for cutting taxes, whilst simultaneously arguing that raising national insurance will damage the recovery. In fact, Labour and the Conservatives accuse each other of threatening the recovery.

The Lib Dems are playing their usual card of suggesting that both the main parties have got it wrong, though at the moment they are turning most of their firepower on the Tories, suggesting that the national insurance cut will be paid for by an increase in VAT, something David Cameron denies.

The effect of all of this is difficult to judge. However, none of the parties can afford to lose the argument on an issue which is probably the most important at this election. What do you think?

Conservatives outline plans

Labour steps up attack

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