Nadhim Zahawi welcomed to contest

I would like to welcome former Wandsworth councillor Nadhim Zahawi to the Stratford on Avon parliamentary contest, selected tonight by the Conservative Association as their candidate. Nadhim is a highly respected figure and Chief Executive of YouGov. I do want to send my condolences to Councillor Philip Seccombe who, as the only local candidate, might have expected to have gained the vote. Philip has a strong background in the constituency, and would have fought a very strong campaign.

I look forward to a clean campaign, fought on the local issues which we all care about. I also want to echo Digby Jones’s comments of this week, as he urged us all to put the people of Stratford on Avon first. Digby is (as so often) right: more at this time than ever before, it is for us politicians to earn the trust of the people we will represent, not to impose a central party will on them.

Wrong answer too late.

In tonight’s vote the Commons opted for a national referendum on the Alternative Vote as a replacement for our current first past the post system. The referendum would cost an estimated £80m, but, because the Government has delayed so long (almost 13 years, in fact), it is unlikely that the bill will be passed before the General Election, and therefore even less likely that any referendum will take place.

More seriously, Alternative Vote is not a true proportional system — up to 49 per cent of the votes would still be discarded, meaning that a government can still be elected with an absolute majority on around 30 per cent of the total national vote.

This paragraph is going to be short and mercifully simple. But if you lack the Liberal Democrat passion for discussing complex voting systems, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph.

So: in first past the post, you put down one X on the ballot paper, and, late that night, the candidate with the most Xs wins. The candidate may have gained not much more than 1/3rd of the total vote, and, often, only three quarters of the voters will have voted. As trust in politics declines, the numbers voting shrinks, and so our elected leaders have less and less of a mandate. The alternative vote system gives you a 1-2-3 etc choice of your favourite, second favourite, and so on. When the votes are counted, the least successful candidate is eliminated, and their second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. This carries on, until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote, and they are the winner. All the remaining votes are discarded. Although this is marginally more successful at giving people an MP they are happy with, it does not mean at all that the government is elected based on the votes cast across Britain. There’s a variation, AV plus, which I won’t go into, which is a much more proportional system. Truly proportional voting comes with the Single Transferable Vote, which is hideous to work out on paper, but which computers can do as easily as AV, AV plus, or even first past the post. And, these days, even the government has computers.

So where does that leave us? The one thing that the Alternative Vote Labour has pushed for tonight will give us is a system where it is much harder for a Conservative government ever to be elected. Gordon Brown may be counting on getting the support of Lib-Dems because of his fig-leaf gesture towards a proportional system, but, in truth, this is tinkering with the electoral system in order to change the result of future elections.

If Labour had done this, as it originally promised, when it first came to power, then we might have avoided much of the collapse of trust in politicians of the last ten years. Even Alternative Vote reduces the number of ‘safe’ seats which play no real role in an election. And it is in the safe seats that we have seen the greatest abuse of expenses. But this death-bed conversion smacks of nothing more than desperation. And it is a desperation which will surely further undermine the residual confidence the electorate has in government.

Quite simply, it is the wrong answer, too late.

Don’t break up the BBC

The Tory-backed Policy Exchange think-tank has today called for the BBC to be dismantled, with BBC Worldwide privatised, the BBC Trust scrapped, and sport and popular entertainment dumped to create opportunities for commercial channels, according to a preview to the report “Changing the Channel” covered by the BBC website and the Guardian.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what the Policy Exchange is saying because, although they have given away copies to the BBC and to the Guardian, they have yet to publish their own report on their own website.

But, based on what we know now, this is the old right-wing (Policy Exchange actually calls itself ‘centre-right’, but you don’t need to read very far before you realise that ‘centre’ is a euphemism) animosity to the BBC. While the Labour party has long decried the ‘Tory Press’, Conservatives get equally frustrated with the ‘liberal BBC’. Of course, at the moment they are able to build on popular opposition to large salaries, such as the one Jonathan Ross is giving up, but the truth is, they want to take away from the BBC many of the things we most love about it.

Following the Policy Exchange’s prescription, we would lose sport and popular entertainment. So, no more Eastenders, no more Doctor Who, no more football, athletics, Wimbledon, the Olympics, and definitely no return for the cricket. Based on current schedules, the new look BBC might be something like this on a Saturday evening:

7pm – nothing – replaces ‘So you think you can dance’
7.45 – National Lottery draw, probably extended edition
9pm – nothing – replaces “Casualty”
10pm – nothing – replaces “Live at the Apollo”
10.45pm – News – extended edition
11.00 pm – nothing – replaces football

Of course, they wouldn’t really leave all those nothings in. But what would they fill them up with? Not re-runs of old classics, as that would be popular entertainment. Certainly not cutting edge wildlife shows — they cost as much as popular entertainment to make. Ditto Horizon, Panorama, Shakespeare productions, Grand Opera, Jane Austen. Policy Exchange’s prescription would be about taking the money away from the BBC which currently goes on those shows.

There is, of course, a channel which already does what the BBC would be like if Policy Exchange had its way: it’s BBC News 24. The same news, over and over again, all day and night long. It doesn’t cost much to make. But, equally, it doesn’t have many people watching it for long.

If you take away the things that people like on the BBC, you will not assuage their opposition (if there is any) to the license fee. You will increase it. They will be paying the same amount of money (Policy Exchange wants to beef up Channel 4), but getting nothing they like.

How long before the BBC is abolished?

On that basis, not long at all.

But have a care. Policy Exchange is publishing a new report every three or four days. They are setting out the programme for a Tory government — the things that David Cameron dare not put in his manifesto. Britain after Cameron might well be a place with marginally less debt, if he can somehow get his sums right. But it will be a joyless, grey place, where only sure-fire hits are played on commercial TV (in other words, US shows six months after they were shown on Sky), and where home-grown television has as much interest and creative flair as a 1970s Czechoslovakian cartoon.

Tory MP to step down

Stratford on Avon’s Tory MP John Maples today announced he is stepping down. His delay in doing so, which he explains in a letter to the Conservative Home website, means that the Tory selection will now be under their by-election rules, with a centrally imposed shortlist.

John Maples has served the community of Stratford on Avon for thirteen years, and deserves the thanks of opponents and supporters alike. I believe he has chosen the right time to retire. Liberal Democrats have taken seat after seat from the Tories in this constituency over the last two years, culminating in a dramatic by-election win in supposedly safe Tory Alveston in November.

With Warwickshire Tories now deeply unpopular in Stratford following the fire consultation debacle, it is our intention to press on and take this vacated seat at the General Election.

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