House of Commons

Decisive victory for Clegg

Following the first leaders’ debate on ITV tonight, Nick Clegg took 46% in the ComRes poll (Clegg 46, Cameron 26, Brown 20) — as much as Brown and Cameron put together. In the YouGov poll he took 51 points against Cameron 29 and Brown 19. There were, of course, a number of unscientific polls conducted on newspaper websites, but they do nothing more than reflect their readers’ opinions. The real, scientific, polls are unequivocal.

If this were replicated in an election (of course, it won’t be, but the illustration is still valid), it would result, according to the BBC website’s calculator, in 530 seats for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons — a majority of 410 seats: a landslide beyond all conception and all precedent.

Liberal Democrats were, of course, looking for Clegg to make up ground tonight. Brown is generally considered to be undervalued and Cameron overvalued, a view not supported by tonight’s public response. Conventional wisdom suggested that Clegg needed to be up with the others, and it would do Lib Dems good because of the exposure. But the scale of the Nick Clegg result was absolutely devastating: an absolute majority of votes in one poll, an equal vote with the other two parties combined in the other.

Where did the debate landslide victory come from?

There were three factors, I think.

First, Nick Clegg made a point of answering the question. I followed the BBC comments page while watching the debate, and — leaving aside the obviously partisan comments — this was commented on again and again. He not only answered the question, but made a point of looking at and referring to the questioner to see if they thought he was answering the questions. Brown famously jibed at Cameron ‘this is answer time, not question time’, and, certainly, Cameron’s unwillingness to give an actual answer told against him. But Brown’s own attempts fell flat as well. My feeling is that Brown really was trying to answer the questions from time to time, but he was held up by his own opaque language: beginning a sentence with “Net inward immigration…” three times does not make for a good connection with viewers.

Second, the Lib Dem manifesto published this week was a clear winner in terms of the power it gave to Clegg over the other two. The manifesto sets out in detail exactly what the Lib Dems would spend and what they would save. Neither Labour nor the Tories — as Clegg pointed out — included figures in their manifestos. Cameron tried to have a bit of a go about the figures, but it is never easy to argue with a man on his own turf: Clegg knew his manifesto and his figures much better than Cameron did, and Brown made no attempt to overturn the Lib Dem figures at all.

Third, Nick Clegg positioned his two opponents very clearly in his own address as the ‘same old same old parties’. The bickering between Brown and Cameron which followed underlined that again and again. Clegg certainly benefited from the game that Brown and Cameron tried to play. They were almost deferential in their treatment of him, and when Cameron did attempt to question Clegg, it fell rather flat, especially on immigration, which should have been his strongest suit. Brown again and again tried to say that he and Clegg were agreeing. Unfortunately for him, Clegg refused to play along. This was all especially important because, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the bulk of Tory/Labour jeers are often enough to drown out Clegg’s comments. In a studio, with a studio audience and clear rules, this extraneous factor was taken away.

What difference will all this make? That remains to be seen — over the next few days, as the pundits weave their theories, and as the spin-doctors from left and right attempt to demonstrate (as William Hague is already attempting) that, despite all the opinion polls, their candidate won after all.

There may be more polls tomorrow, and they may give a different result. But, for now, based on this debate only, and without any particular connection with other realities, the result is a clearer victory for Nick Clegg than any Liberal Democrat could have hoped for.

Election date confirmed

Brown to go to Queen on 6 April — BBC. Gordon Brown is set to go to the Queen tomorrow for an election date on 6 May, according to the BBC. This brings to an end the most remarkable sitting of parliament in recent years:

• Tony Blair was elected in 2005. Gordon Brown was never elected, neither by the UK population, nor even by his own party, as no-one stood against him and he won the contest by default when Blair stood down.
• The expenses scandal, though run as a major newspaper publishing venture by the Daily Telegraph, was actually the fruit of years of work by Heather Brooke.
• Michael Martin was the first speaker of the House of Commons to be forced to resign since Sir John Trevor in 1695
• More MPs will stand down at this election than any other since the end of the second world war. 200 are expected to stand down, including John Maples, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who announced his intention on 10 January.
• Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the longest parliament in recent memory. Five years and one day will have elapsed between this election and the last one. John Major’s term was ended by the election on 1 May 1997, five years and 21 days after he won on 9 April 1992. Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 to 1992 was also longer than this sitting. Prior to that, the longest sitting since the war was 8 October 1959 to 15 October 1964. However, although there can be a gap of more than five years between the elections, the maximum length of a parliament itself is 5 years.

Job Descriptions for MPs?

By far the biggest story of the parliament-which-is-soon-to-end is the expenses of Members of Parliament. Expenses, perks, salary, general behaviour. To a certain extent, we ought to celebrate the final ending of the age of deference, when we, the people, now feel able to challenge the political class to explain how they spend our money.

But the elephant in the room (this cliché has become very common recently) is the question of what MPs actually do. Cabinet ministers, of course, run government departments. Sort of. Actually, civil servants run government departments, and cabinet ministers (if they are wise) set policy or (if foolish) get involved in top-level executive decisions. Junior ministers, naturally, do what their senior colleagues do, but less so. The opposition is there to hold the government to account, and back-benchers of the government are… well… to provide the necessary support for the government to be a government.

If MPs are merely voting fodder or some kind of inspection agency, then their senior-management level salaries look a bit over-priced. Some MPs ask barely more than one or two parliamentary questions a year — not the sort of thing which holds anyone to much account. There are All Party Parliamentary Groups on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from human trafficking (a substantially overlooked topic) to beer, a subject which is seldom overlooked. However, these APPGs have no direct influence on the activity of government. There are also select committees, which form part of the process of law-making. But, again, quite a few MPs are not members of any select committees. These are typically the MPs who ask the fewest parliamentary questions.

Members of Parliament have, at least since the war in most areas, supplemented their parliamentary duties with constituency duties. These range from holding surgeries as semi-surrogate social workers, to an endless round of openings and parties. MPs also respond to constituents’ letters, and raise issues of importance with local government. But, again, they raise issues, but have no direct authority. Naturally, in a public sector organisation, a letter from an MP carries a certain weight. But only a certain weight. It is soft influence, not hard impact.

Ask a member of the public exactly what an MP does, and you may get a fairly vague answer. Ask an MP what MPs do, and the answer can be equally vague. To restore trust in politicians, we need job descriptions.

To someone who has lived without one, a job description may seem threatening. MPs have muttered about the unfairness of being told what to do, and how to live. The phrase ‘living on rations’ has cropped up.

But the truth is, the entirely unregulated life of an MP can be as bad for them as it is for the people they serve. A friend of mine was told by his doctor that if he did not stand down as MP for a seat he had famously won a few years before, then he would be dead in five years. Endlessly late nights, a culture which emphasises alcohol consumption, and a demanding programme which is effectively a 40 hour week in Westminster supplemented by a 40 hour week in the constituency, is not good for the MP, nor is it good for the decisions they should be making on our behalf. There is a reason why good companies do not let their senior managers overwork — overworked managers gain progressively fewer results the longer they extend their hours.

The other benefit of a really clear job description is that, if an MP fails in it, he or she could actually be removed. The ability for the electorate to remove failing MPs is part of Liberal Democrat national policy. An MP who seldom turns up at the House of Commons, is rarely in the constituency, and whose letters are written by a team of poorly paid researchers working from a fairly elementary rule-book, is not earning the money we pay them. Worse, he or she is preventing a more diligent, hard-working person from representing the voters.

It is no surprise that all of the worst excesses of the expenses scandal were in ‘safe’ seats. An MP with no accountability framework, no means of removal, and no likelihood of even having to campaign hard when the General Election is called can casually disregard his or her duty. And, it seems, some, or even many, did.

Job descriptions, then. A simple summary of hours to be worked, outputs to be measured, methods of accountability, common standards and disciplinary procedures. Businesses discovered them decades ago. It’s time for the elected-sector to make its way into the late 20th century. Perhaps as a step (heaven help them) into the 21st.

In 2010, demand better

British democracy has three problems. The vast majority of votes make no difference to who forms the government. The system persuades governments to go for short term wins at long term cost. Many politicians believe, or have believed, that you can get away with it.

Actually, we don’t have to have any of these things, and in 2010, we are in a position to demand better.

MPs are only beginning to get the message that they can no longer get away with it in the way they once did. Even that really only applies to expenses. I discovered recently that one MP was writing to newspapers to praise himself for not having to repay expenses, while at the same time making a profit of £1 million on a second home whose mortgage had been paid by the taxpayer. Clearly, he still believes he can get away with the second part, as long as he isn’t stained by the first. Some MPs appear to believe that they can conceal their background of privilege. Others appear to believe that past criminal behaviour will never come to haunt them. Many seem to think that a safe-seat means the electorate will never hold them to account for any of it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we should. Letters to the MP. Letters to the local newspaper. Reminding ourselves and our friends that we don’t have to put up with it. Changing the way we vote.

The bi-polar parliamentary system ensures there is little continuity from election to election. Even a party winning a second term can abandon the promises of its first term on the grounds that it has sought a new mandate for a new manifesto. More importantly, although it will probably be blamed for things which it does which later turn out poorly, it can almost guarantee not to be blamed for things which it doesn’t do. We are only in the situation regarding climate change now because successive governments did nothing. In the 1980s, instead of using North Sea oil money to build an infrastructure which no longer relied on fossil fuels, we spent the money getting ourselves out of recession and back into boom-and-bust. True, at the time we were mainly worried about when the oil ran out, and to a lesser extent about pollution. But both of those, if acted upon, would have been enough to help us stave off the catastrophe our grandchildren will now face. We don’t have to have two big parties which hate each other and use every opportunity to ridicule each other and scupper one another’s plans. Of course, any attempt to change this is met with the argument “this is how things have to work”. But they don’t. Other countries, not just the ones we tell jokes about, have multi-party systems, and parties and politicians are held responsible over the course of several parliaments.

In 2010, we can insist on grown-up politics. We can demand that our elected leaders work together for the common good. We do not have to tolerate bickering in the House of Commons. Once again, it will only change if we make sure our politicians know that it is what we expect and demand.

We now face the prospect of a General Election whose result may well be decided by ten or so swing seats up and down the country. No party is predicted to get anywhere near 50% of the vote. But one party or another may well discover it can form a government based on how many of those swing seats go which way. Those ten seats have, between them, less than a million voters. Turnout is likely to be around 70%. The winner in each of those seats will probably be winning with 35-45 per cent of the votes cast. The actual majority is liable to be 3-5 per cent in each of those seats. Which means that the fate of 61 million people may be settled by the swing votes of less than 100,000 people. In other words, less than 2% of the voters will decide the fate of all of us.

We all laughed at the way George W Bush won his first term despite the fact that most people voted for his opponent. But our system is more laughable than that.

We almost certainly do have to put up with this in 2010. We do not have to put up with afterwards. Again, change will only happen if we make it clear that this is what we want, and we are prepared to change our votes to get it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we owe it to ourselves to do so.

Back to Top