Clegg’s Conference Speech

Caveat: I’ve never listened to a speech delivered by Nick Clegg to the party faithful before. I have listened to a couple of speeches he’s done as Deputy Prime Minister, but never one delivered in his capacity as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I did watch Clegg’s keynote speech delivered earlier today at the Lib Dem party conference. My caveat above is only to make it clear that I have no point of comparison against which to measure this year’s speech. I don’t know how previous speeches have gone down, during the years when the Lib Dems probably thought, if they were being honest with themselves, that being in power wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I don’t know if Clegg was realistic in those speeches, or if he spoke as if there was an actual chance that the Lib Dems might win the next election. I can imagine that it’s a difficult position to be in, leader of the perennial third party – you have to act as if you might really make it to government one day, when deep down, you know that’s not very likely to happen.

But it did happen, and the Lib Dems are actually part of government. Perhaps much to the dismay of some, since it involves working with the much-hated Tories, but nonetheless, there they are. I must say that I was quite impressed with Clegg’s address, and rather surprised that the BBC’s Nick Robinson described it as “largely defensive“. I didn’t find it defensive. I thought Clegg conveyed a degree of maturity and responsibility, appropriate to his new role as Deputy PM.

His speech did focus on driving home the Lib Dem contributions to the Coalition and its policies. Perhaps that is why Robinson saw it defensive. Clegg knows many in the party aren’t happy with some of the policy decisions the Coalition has taken, and fear that they’ll either be swallowed up by the Tories or pay a heavy price at the polls in the next election, so I can understand why he’d make a point of stressing how Lib Dem values are prevailing and will continue to prevail. He needed to try to reassure party members, and I thought he did a fairly decent job of it. “Hold our nerve and we will have changed British politics for good”, was one line, another was “we’ve always been the face of change, now we’re the agent of change.”

What impressed me the most, however, was how relatively non-partisan the speech was. He said nice things about David Cameron (“he showed he could think beyond his party and help build a new kind of politics”), but did pledge to ensure that the Coalition would never repeat the Conservative excesses of the Thatcher era.  He made a case for coalition government, saying it can be “braver, fairer and bolder than one party acting alone”. This coalition is the “right government for right now”. The BBC, which was live-streaming the speech, also had a liveblogging feed set up. Brian Wheeler commented: “This is very sober stuff. No jokes, no ritual bashing of other parties and definitely no crowing about being in government” which is exactly what I’ve been trying to convey here.

He was most critical of Labour, both past and future: he attacked them for not taking full advantage of huge majorities and a strong economy to bring true, progressive change to the UK, and almost pleaded (I thought) with the party to be a more effective, constructive opposition. But he could have been far more partisan, and perhaps in the past, he was.

Again, I didn’t find this to be a defensive speech. It was sober, yes, even humble. Did it succeed in quelling the doubts and fears of many in his party? I don’t know. Perhaps many were expecting a far more partisan speech, but Clegg’s in a difficult position. Labour is the only real target he has, since he can’t really rip into the Tories anymore, other than to remind them that the Lib Dems will be their Jiminy Cricket, but even when it came to his hits on Labour, perhaps because the party’s in the midst of a leadership race, he didn’t hit as hard as he could have.

Of course, I’m not a party member, and have no vested interest in what happens to the Lib Dems in 2015, so perhaps my assessment is more positive. However, I do think that even as a party member, I would have been quite satisfied with this speech.

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Book review: The Best Laid Plans

WARNING: Slight spoilers below. Also, The Best Laid Plans is a work of fiction. Eric Cameron is a fictional character. There has never been a real Finance minister in Canada named Eric Cameron.

The Best Laid Plans is a novel by Terry Fallis which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2008.

The premise of the novel is quite simple. The main character, Daniel Addison, leaves Ottawa after several years working for the Liberal Party, most recently as head speechwriter for the leader (who is Leader of the Opposition), and returns to academia as an English professor at the University of Ottawa. Daniel’s decision to leave the world of politics began with a growing malaise as he became more jaded and cynical, but was finalised when he discovers his long-term girlfriend in a compromising position with the party’s House leader. That scene alone should win a prize for most creative use of parliamentary language to describe something other than parliamentary procedure.

However, Daniel can’t make a clean break from politics or the party – he has to do one last favour for them. There is an election coming up, and the Liberals need to find someone to stand for them in the riding of Cumberland-Prescott, a seat which has been Tory forever, and is currently held by the Conservative Finance minister, Eric Cameron, dubbed the most popular Finance minister in Canadian history. It’s a hopeless cause of course, and Daniel is desperate to find someone willing to run. He finally manages to convince his landlord, a retired Engineering professor named Angus McLintock, to stand, in exchange for Daniel taking over the teaching of English for Engineers, which has been foisted upon Angus again, much to his absolute dismay. While there is no chance that a Liberal will win Cumberland-Prescott, Angus makes doubly sure of that by insisting on several conditions: no lawn signs, no press, no photos, no actual campaigning, etc. He even leaves the country during the latter part of the campaign.

Of course, things don’t go as planned, and in the dying days of the campaign, a scandal involving Eric Cameron comes to light. The rest of the novel traces Angus’s reluctant acceptance of being an MP, and his decision to do things his way, much to the party leadership’s dismay.

Anyone who is interested in Canadian politics (or even politics in general) will probably enjoy this novel. It provides the reader with a fascinating look at party politics and behind-the-scenes machinations. And if you’re particularly a fan of the idea that MPs should behave more independently, you’ll embrace Angus McLintock – even if he is a Liberal.

Farris published a sequel earlier this month entitled The High Road. You can read that review here (although there are spoilers re: The Best Laid Plans).

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Don’t worry about polls

“Don’t worry about polls, but if you do, don’t admit it.” (Rosalynn Carter)

Opinion polls taken outside of an election campaign might provide a snapshot of current public opinion regarding political parties, but most of the time, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt. The way the media reports on such polls should be taken with an entire salt shaker.

The Independent has a story with the ominous headline: “Clegg sold out to get power, say voters“, followed by a by-line which informs us that “Four in 10 supporters say they wouldn’t have voted for him if they’d known about coalition.

Two things about this. First of all, while 40% of supporters is a significant percentage, the paper could have just as easily emphasised the fact that 60% of supporters were OK with the coalition. There is also the fact that quite a few traditionally Labour supporters voted Lib Dem for the first time in the May 2010 election in a bid to prevent the Conservatives from winning. It’s not clear to me if the poll questioned only traditional Lib Dem voters, or anyone who voted Lib Dem in the last election. If many of the normally Labour voters were included in the poll, rather than only traditionally Lib Dem supporters, of course you’re going to end up with a significant number saying they’d never have voted Lib Dem had they known there would be a coalition with the Conservatives. That vote was largely anti-Tory, not pro-Lib Dem.

The second thing is perhaps a bit more of a head-scratcher. The Liberal Democrats have always been strongly in favour of electoral reform, with their manifesto calling for a move to STV. Now any move to a more proportional electoral system would most likely result in regular coalition governments.

Therefore, what I’m finding somewhat confusing here is if you’re a staunch Lib Dem supporter, you have to know that 1) the party advocates moving from FPTP to a more proportional electoral system; 2) such a move would result in coalitions being the norm rather than exceptions; 3) even with some form of PR, the Lib Dems would most likely remain the 3rd place party; 4) it wouldn’t always be possible to form a coalition with Labour.

I can understand that quite a few Lib Dem supporters might be more at home with the thought of a Lib Dem-Labour coalition than they are with a Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, but the reality is that sometimes the latter would be the only real option available.

My advice to the Lib Dem leadership is to not worry too much about this or any other poll. It’s more than likely that had the Lib Dems opted to join forces with Labour after the election, we’d be hearing the same opinions expressed. It’s also a bit ludicrous to ask people if they’d vote differently after they know what the results of the vote. Would that theoretical 40% seriously have voted for Labour and kept a failing government in power under Gordon Brown?

The Lib Dems will be in government until May 2015, which is an eternity in politics. Come May 2015, all parties will come under the spotlight again in a general election, perhaps on a completely new voting system. That’s the opinion poll that truly matters, not one taken four months after the last election.

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Rethinking fixed-term parliaments

I have discussed the issue of fixed-term parliaments previously (see this post and this post), mostly in the context of the legislation under consideration in the UK, however, it is an issue I’d written about on a previous blog (now defunct), when various Canadian provinces and the Canadian federal government were considering adopting fixed-term parliaments.

My initial position, which has remained unchanged, is that fixed-term parliaments aren’t necessary because the main “problem” they seek to address isn’t really that much of a problem, and that in all likelihood, fixed-term parliaments would simply create new problems. Based on the experiences of various Canadian provinces, I believe my initial objection to the need for fixed-term parliaments has been borne out.

The main justification for adopting fixed-term parliaments is that it levels the playing field for all parties since the governing party can no longer call an election when it wants to, at a time that might be particularly beneficial for that party.

In Canada and the United Kingdom, parliaments last a maximum of five years (in a sense, there is already a term limit in place). The governing party can call an election pretty much whenever it wants to, with the only limit on that freedom being that an election has to occur five years to the day of the previous election, for example, if an election was held on 1 May 2006, another election would have to occur on or before 1 May 2011. That would be the latest possible date for a new election; the problem, for some at least, is that there is no earliest possible date limit.

The argument in favour of fixed-term parliaments is that because it is the governing party which has the power to decide when the election will be, it can choose  a time that will be the most favourable to it, for example, when opinion polls indicate a sizable lead over other parties, when the economic forecast looks particularly strong, or when it can exploit any weaknesses in the opposition parties, i.e. leadership issues, fund-raising problems, lack of nominated candidates etc.  Also, since the governing party has a particular date in mind for an election call, which it of course keeps secret, it can begin unofficially campaigning weeks, even months ahead of time, travelling around the country or province making spending announcements, all on the taxpayer’s dime. Or it can table a particularly generous budget, full of tax cuts and spending announcements, then call an election to campaign on its generosity.

The introduction of fixed-term parliaments was supposed to put an end to that sort of thing. True – now the date of the next election is no secret, and if the governing party finds itself trailing in the polls when election date rolls around, or if the economy takes a turn for the worse, there isn’t much it can do about that. Similarly, opposition parties know when the date of the election will be, and so would no longer find themselves caught unprepared: they’d have time to put together a comprehensive platform, and ensure all their candidates and constituency teams were in place. Other arguments in favour of fixed-term parliaments include: fixed election dates would make it easier for parties to recruit stronger candidates since they’d have more time to reorganize their lives to accommodate a run for public office; and that fixed-term parliaments would improve the overall tone and caliber of debate.  However, the only issue that truly has been addressed is that of the governing party having total control over the calling of an election. There is no real evidence that any of the other proposed pluses have indeed materialized, and as I stated previously, new issues have emerged.

British Columbia was the first Canadian province to adopt fixed-term parliaments legislation in 2001, and its first election held under that legislation, also the first fixed-term election in Canada, was held in 2005. Since then, five other provinces and one territory have joined the fixed-term parliaments club (date of first fixed-term election in brackets): Ontario (2007), Newfoundland and Labrador (2007), the Northwest Territories (2007), New Brunswick (2010), Saskatchewan (2011) and Prince Edward Island (2011). The federal government also adopted fixed-term elections, however, given that we have had minority governments in place, there hasn’t yet been an election based on the fixed-term legislation. Still, five elections across the country have been conducted under fixed-term parliaments legislation, and these have provided us with some useful information.

First, while it used to be that only the governing party knew when an election would occur, and would not-so-subtlety start an unofficial campaign, now every party knows when the election will be, and all parties start unofficially campaigning weeks, even months, ahead of time. It’s not an official campaign, because most, if not all, provinces have strict rules in place that limit that sort of activity and how much money can be spent during and outside of campaigns (although there are no limitations on how much the government can spend under the guise of conducting “government business” that more closely resembles campaigning), but all parties nonetheless begin jockeying for attention. This will happen both inside and outside the legislature.

New Brunswick will be holding its first election under fixed-term legislation on 27 September of this year, and one political analyst from the province, Don Desserud, has already decided that fixed-term parliaments legislation was a mistake. Desserud writes:

We now have an extended pre-campaign period, what we call the “phoney campaign,” during which election finance rules restrict the opposition parties’ activities, but can do little to prevent the government from openly campaigning.

Ever since the New Brunswick legislature adjourned on April 16, all parties have been doing their best to campaign. No one even pretended they weren’t.

New Brunswick isn’t alone in this. The next Ontario election is still over a year away (October 2011), but the parties are already jockeying for position in the legislature, particularly during question period. While you can argue that question period is usually fairly raucous, there is something different afoot in Ontario. The Opposition Progressive Conservative party is trying to build name recognition for its relatively new leader, by regularly mentioning his name when they raise questions. This is contrary to parliamentary procedure, where Members are not to refer to other Members by name but by riding only, and the Speaker has had to warn them repeatedly that he will not allow this to continue.

Desserud adds:

The long, phoney campaign has had other negative effects. Most people (except political junkies like me) find even a four-week campaign tedious.

An election campaign that drags on for four months is interminable. We won’t know the election turnout until after the ballots are counted, of course, but I will be surprised if the participation rate improves.

I can only imagine the impact of a campaign that drags on for a year, if what is currently happening in Ontario continues until October 2011.

Desserud again:

Neither have I seen any evidence that the quality of the debate has improved, now that opposition parties have more time to build their policy platforms. If anything, the phoney campaign has dropped the level of debate to new lows.

Certainly, neither the PCs nor the Liberals have managed to present anything approaching a vision for the province or a plan to deal with the growing list of serious and difficult issues that the province faces.

Again, this certainly applies to Ontario, with the Opposition Progressive Conservatives more intent on discrediting the sitting Liberal government than they are on pushing an alternative vision for the province, while the sitting Liberal Government simply attempts to defend its record.

When debates over the issue of fixed-term parliaments have arisen in the past, some people pointed to sitting governments calling elections unnecessarily early rather than serving out their complete mandate. I have found some interesting statistics that indicate that this isn’t really the case. In Canada, parliaments, both federally and provincially, tend to last about four years without fixed-term parliaments legislation.  The New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy conveniently informs us that since 1785, elections have been held in New Brunswick on average every 48.3 months (which you can find on page 6 of this PDF presentation). The Parliament of Canada website informs us that the average duration of majority governments in Canada since 1867 is 4 years and 6 days. Canada has had a fair few minority governments over the years (11), which last on average 1 year, 5 months and 9 days, and so if you calculate the average for all parliaments from the return of the writs to dissolution, the average duration drops to 3 years, 3 months and 27 days. Elections Ontario doesn’t provide averages, but it does provide the dates of general elections from election day to dissolution. I didn’t want to calculate the average duration going back to 1867, but from the 24th Parliament onwards (1951 to current), the average duration of a parliament in Ontario was 53 months (please note that I rounded off the dates for reasons of laziness and practicality).

Perhaps the statistics from only two provinces and the federal government aren’t quite enough to form an overall generalisation, but I will nonetheless.  My point here is simply that in Canada, there isn’t that much evidence to support claims that sitting governments tend to call elections well before their fourth year in office (particularly when you take minority governments out of the equation, and most provinces don’t end up with minority governments that often since most of them tend to be dominated by two parties). On occasion, a sitting government would call an election earlier than that. Sometimes their gambit was successful, but often, they’d pay a price for going to the polls unnecessarily early. Similarly, the only governments that drag out their term to the maximum limit are governments who know they’ll be defeated – badly – at the polls. It is seen as, and rightly so, a desperate bid to hold on to power for as long as they possibly can. I would argue that instinctively, most opposition parties know that, coming into a government’s fourth year in power, an election will be imminent and would thus organize themselves accordingly. There are always signs that a party is contemplating an election call, knowing the exact date doesn’t provide that much of an advantage.

Don Desserud’s sums up quite well the merits of moving fixed-term parliaments:

I do concede that with fixed-date elections, political parties should have an easier time attracting quality candidates. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any objective way to measure whether this has in fact happened.

But frankly, if that’s the only reason left for keeping the new system, I suggest we explore other means for attracting good people to run for office.

Fixed-date elections make election planning more convenient. However, the price we are paying for this convenience is a system that favours the party in power and serves only to convince the voting public that elections are horrendously boring and nasty affairs.

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Why the Tea Party won’t work in Canada or the UK

Alex Massie wrote an interesting, albeit brief, blog post on why there couldn’t be a “Tea Party” movement in the UK. The points he makes apply equally to Canada.

As Massie points out:

The establishment party controls who is put on the ballot even in the so-called open primaries and, generally speaking, the party isn’t going to risk putting forward for selection the British equivalents of [Christine] O’Donnell or Rand Paul.

This is the main difference between party politics in the US and party politics in Westminster system countries such as Canada and the UK. In the US, the two main parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, seem to exist in name only. They don’t function the way parties do here. Their candidates don’t campaign on a single party platform. You can end up with Democrats who are more conservative than Republicans from more “liberal” parts of the US. Anyone can present themselves as a candidate for a given party in a primary – they don’t need the party establishment’s approval to do so, as the recent victories by “Tea Party” candidates have demonstrated.

In Canada and the UK, the main political parties all control who can be nominated as a candidate for that party – to varying degrees. At the very least, you have to be a member of the party. To the best of my knowledge, the party has to approve your application to seek the nomination in a given riding. This means that even if the riding nomination is a heavily contested one with several candidates vying for the nomination, each person seeking that nomination has been approved by the party.

The only way the equivalent of a “Tea Party” candidate could attempt to be elected would be to run as an Independent candidate in a given riding. Independents are very rarely elected. More importantly, Independents have next to no power in the the House or legislature to which they are elected since the system is built around recognizing organised parties, not a loose collection of individual MPs.

This reality is also at the heart of the debate (such as it is) over whipping the vote. While it might be desirable to many that MPs be freer to vote according to their conscience, or according to the will of their constituents rather than toeing the party line, no party will endorse the candidacy of someone who doesn’t play by party rules. There have been instances, of course, where an MP has defied his or her party and voted differently on a whipped vote, been kicked out of caucus, then run and re-elected as an Independent. However, more often than not, that MP either opts to not run again, or is defeated by the party’s new candidate (or by another party’s candidate). Successful Independents are a rare breed. They need to be extremely popular individuals in their ridings, capable of holding the vote based on constituents knowing and liking that individual and being willing to vote for that individual despite their lack of party endorsement. The reality is that most candidates get elected because of their party affiliation, not because of their personal attributes.

If political parties are to allow their MPs more freedom in how they vote in the House, they will also have to be willing to loosen their control over the nomination process. I have a difficult time imagining any party endorsing a candidate who repeatedly refused to vote according to the party’s position on key issues. Before there can be more democracy for MPs in the House, there would have to be more democracy within the parties which would probably require a completely new approach to party politics in Canada (and the UK). I don’t know how eager any party would be to seriously consider undermining their own power.

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On report stage debate

I have already discussed the casting vote of the Speaker, albeit not in detail. It is worth revisiting the matter in light of the debate surrounding a pending vote in the Canadian House of Commons expected later this month.


I will not debate the pros and cons of Bill C-391, nor get into any of the partisan debate surrounding what has become a very contentious issue in Canada. There are plenty of bloggers writing about the issue and a quick Google or visit to Progressive Bloggers will provide any interested parties with a taste of how the debate is being framed.

I will, however, provide some context to the debate. Bill C-391 is ostensibly a Private Member’s bill aimed at repealing Canada’s long-gun registry. It was introduced by a Government backbencher. The current governing party, the Conservatives, is the only party in the House of Commons which opposes the long-gun registry and promised to abolish it. The other three parties represented in the House, the Liberals, the New Democrats (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois (BQ) all officially support the registry. The bill has survived first and second reading and was sent to committee for study. Both the Liberals and NDP did not whip their vote against the Bill at second reading, which they would have done had it been a Government bill, because traditionally, votes on Private Members’ business are free votes. Eight Liberal MPs and 12 NDP MPs voted in favour of the bill at second reading. The BQ whipped its vote and voted against it. There are reports that the Conservatives also whipped their vote.

However, opponents of the Bill have argued that Bill C-391 is a Private Member’s bill in name only; the reality, they argue, is that this is a case of the Government trying to pass through the back door a policy they could never get passed as a Government bill. There is a strong case supporting this position, but I will not comment on that. Suffice it to say, during the summer recess, the Liberals have reversed their position and the next vote on the bill will be whipped. This leaves only the NDP still allowing a free vote on the matter.

The Issue

The opponents of Bill C-391 have been attacking the NDP for not whipping the vote and for sticking with the “it’s a private member’s bill” argument. The NDP, however, plan to table their own private member’s bill which would propose amendments to improve the long-gun registry, addressing the issues that have vexed some rural gun owners. Opponents of Bill C-391 argue that there is no point in doing so, because by the time the bill is tabled, the vote on C-391 will have taken place and there will be no long-gun registry to fix. Over the past couple of weeks, some NDP MPs who voted in favour of the bill on second reading have announced they will now vote against it. Current consensus is that the vote will be extremely close, perhaps forcing the Speaker to cast the deciding vote.

The Confusion

The debate has become increasingly confused primarily due to a combination of sloppy media reporting and a failure on the NDP’s part to clarify one important fact: the upcoming vote on Bill C-391 will not be the final vote.

The Bill was sent to committee in May, where it was studied. The Committee reported back on June 9, 2010. The next vote on Bill C-391 is the vote on the report stage. Once a bill has been examined in a committee, it is considered by the whole House. At this stage, Members may, after giving written notice, propose amendments to the text of the bill as it was reported by the committee. Those motions are then debated.

At the end of report stage of a bill that has already been read a second time, as is the case for C-391, the motion for concurrence at report stage is put forthwith, without amendment or debate. If no motion in amendment is moved at report stage, no debate takes place and consideration of report stage becomes the simple adoption (or rejection) of the motion for concurrence at report stage, before proceeding to third reading.

Third reading debate will not occur immediately, unless unanimous consent is obtained to do so, meaning after this upcoming vote, there will be another vote on Bill C-391, which will be the final vote on the Bill in the House (but it will continue on to the Senate).

In the Event of a Tie

Should the vote on report stage end in a deadlock, the Speaker will cast the deciding vote. In this instance, the Speaker would vote in favour of the bill, the rationale being to allow for further debate (third reading). However, if there are proposed amendments, and the vote on any (or all) of the amendments results in deadlock, the Speaker would vote against the amendment. The reason would be to maintain the bill in its existing form.

Motion for Third Reading

Should the vote following third reading of the bill result in a tie, then the Speaker would vote No because important decision should not be taken except by a majority in the House. It also allows for the matter to be brought back before the House at a future date.

The only thing that is important to remember here is that the vote expected on Bill C-391 later this month will not be the final vote on the bill. Contrary to what many bloggers are arguing, the vote expected next week will not be the vote that kills the long-gun registry. It is not third reading debate, it is report stage debate. As well, amendments could be proposed by MPs that would significantly alter the bill, for example, opting to improve the registry rather than repeal it, as the NDP claims it wants to do. With a minority government in place, the Opposition parties would have sufficient numbers to do just this.

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Job sharing for MPs?

The sole Green Party MP in the UK House of Commons, Caroline Lucas, recently proposed job sharing for MPs, arguing that this would potentially increase the number of female MPs in the House.

Ms. Lucas, who is also party leader, recently proposed at the party’s conference, that pairs of candidates should be allowed to stand for election and share the job if elected:

“This is actually incredibly sensible. How many times have people talked about career politicians, about politicians being out of touch with reality?

“If you had job-sharing MPs, what that would allow you to do is to keep MPs with a foot in their community. They could keep their caring responsibilities, they could keep voluntary work, they could continue part-time in their profession. It would enable far more women to get into politics.”

While certainly an interesting proposal, I don’t know if job sharing lends itself very well to the post of MP. Much of an MP’s work consists of taking in information, attending meetings, listening to individuals concerns, relationship-building etc. It is questionable how this could be accomplished by job sharing MPs. Having to deal with two separate people might complicate getting constituency-related issues resolved. If a constituent went to their MP with a problem, and on one day dealt with one of the paired MPs, then the next time, it was the other of the pair, would they have to start over from scratch, re-explaining everything? If the paired MPs failed to communicate properly between them, a lot of duplication and confusion could arise.

There are a lot of other questions that would need to be considered. For example, what if a Prime Minister wanted to appoint one of the paired MPs to cabinet, but not the other? Would that even be possible, or would both have to be appointed? If only one of the pair was appointed, would the cabinet minister be limited to doing ministerial duties on a part-time basis?

Would the paired MPs share the one salary (and benefits, pension, expenses allowances, etc.) or would they each get a salary?

What if one of the pair has to resign for whatever reasons (health problems, scandal, etc.). Would the other have to resign as well? Would a by-election be held to replace only one-half of the pair, or would there even be a by-election, since there was still an MP in place?

What happens during votes, if the job sharing MPs disagree on the issue being voted on or other matters of policy?

Would voters be more or less inclined to vote for a single candidate, or for a double candidacy?

Ms. Lucas is proposing job sharing primarily for women in a bid to increase the number of women in the House of Commons. Does this mean men wouldn’t be allowed to participate in such a scheme?

I do agree that there should be more women in politics, both in the UK and in Canada, but I am not certain that job sharing is the best way to achieve this. Certainly the long hours that MPs must deal with (contrary to popular opinion that they hardly do any work) aren’t family-friendly, but that issue can be addressed by other means, for example, by changing the sitting hours to put an end to evening meetings (which might be a good idea for a variety of other reasons). A more concerted effort to change the confrontational tone that too often exists in the House of Commons might make the work more appealing to women. Other issues – such as having to be away from home for extended periods of time – aren’t as easy to address (granted, this is mostly an issue for women with young children, and certainly more of an issue in Canada due to the geography of the country compared to that of the UK), but this reality hasn’t stopped women who truly want to serve from running and serving as MPs.

I’m not saying job sharing isn’t worth consideration, I simply don’t think that in itself, it would significantly address the issue of female under-representation in the House of Commons. And as I’ve listed above, there are a great many questions that would have to be considered and addressed before implementing such a measure. However, if nothing else, perhaps the proposal might prompt a wider debate on how to get more women into politics, and how to make being an MP a more family-friendly occupation, and that would benefit all MPs, not only women.

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On electing the cabinet

In the Westminster parliamentary system of government, the Executive consists of the Prime Minister and the ministry or cabinet. Normally, members of the cabinet are chosen from among the governing party’s sitting MPs by the Prime Minister. The choice of ministers may be  influenced by political considerations respecting, for example, geography, gender and ethnicity; however, the Prime Minister alone decides on the size of the Ministry and what constitutes an appropriate balance of representation. (See this post for a detailed explanation of cabinet formation.)

Last week, the UK Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) voted on new rules for choosing the Shadow cabinet,  rejecting a move to allow the new party leader to choose who serves in the shadow cabinet. Instead the party will revert to its usual practice in opposition, whereby a ballot of MPs decides which MPs will serve on the front bench. The party leader will still be allowed to determine who gets which portfolio, however.

I wasn’t aware that this was a traditional policy of Labour’s, but according to this editorial from The Guardian, it is one that the party tends to abandon once in power. However, Tony Blair’s first cabinet was at chosen for him by the party (at least in part – I can’t find specifics about this online anywhere), prompting a reshuffle  a year later.

It is an interesting practice, but I have to think it could be potentially quite problematic. The Guardian editorial is in favour of the policy, arguing that MPs:

are as well placed as anyone to assess who shines the brightest among them, and elected secretaries of state – with their own power base – might just cut more substantial figures than the suits-full-of-bugger-all who so often sit around table.

Similarly, a Labour blogger who favours electing cabinet writes:

The party leadership has gone through the process of realising that too much of New Labour was “top-down”, and has grasped the desire for internal democracy. Surely there is no sense in increasing democracy within the party, as all leadership candidates have promised, whilst removing it from a section of the party who should be the most actively involved.

Those who would favour a system based on patronage from the leader betray the desire within the party to embrace pluralism, to reach out to all sections of the movement and build on the best of all of our talents. Having a cabinet selected by the party leader is effectively playing “double or quits” with the leadership race. Want the issues that you care about to be represented in the shadow cabinet? Then you had better hope your candidate wins the leadership contest, or those who support your candidate might not be chosen by the new leader.

I can see both pros and cons to this approach. And I will admit that some of the things I might consider cons would probably be considered pluses by others.

The one potential plus would be that a caucus-chosen cabinet might ensure that the party leader is more responsive to the party and its members. However, that could also end up being a major con, as I will discuss below.

The most obvious problem I can see with this policy is that the party leader might find him- or herself surrounded by cabinet colleagues who have a different ideological stance. For example, if we take the case of the current Labour leadership race, if acknowledged front-runner David Milliband were to win, he could find himself with a cabinet consisting of much more left-leaning MPs. This would probably be considered a plus by more left-leaning Labour supporters, and is the plus I listed above, but it could also severely restrict the new leader in his attempts to put forward the various policies on which he campaigned for the leadership.

Another issue is that of trust. The cabinet needs to be able to work together effectively, and trust is key, particularly when more difficult policy decision have to be taken. If the leader has no say in who he or she will have to work with, trust may be a difficult thing to come by. The leader might well be constantly wondering to whom the cabinet members are ultimately accountable.

I also question the claim made in the Guardian editorial, that MPs know better (or as well) as anyone who amongst them should be in cabinet. If the election returns a large number of new, first time MPs, they won’t have had the chance to make this determination, nor do they necessarily know what is required of a cabinet minister. Nominations for the 19 shadow cabinet posts will open at the Labour Party conference on 26 September. The 257 Labour MPs will vote over a number of days and the result will be announced on 7 October. MPs interested in being in the shadow cabinet will openly campaign for votes. In fact, they have already started campaigning.  Those who win may not be best suited for cabinet, but the best campaigners.

I have to say that I am more in agreement with one of the commenters on that Labour blog, who wrote:

The shadow cabinet should be a group of MPs the Leader of the Party has absolute confidence in – in precisely the same way a cabinet is appointed, not elected.

Not a representative cross section of society. Not to make sure all strands of party thought are reflected at the top of the party. Not to meet quotas. The very best of the party comptible with the leader. I trust the leader to pick those he thinks best. Mark clearly does not, which is a shame.

The biggest farce of our first weeks in office back in 1997 was the obligation on Tony Blair to include in his first cabinet those who were clearly not good enough to be Secretaries of State (or Chief Whip). This only precipitated a reshuffle soon after: hardly conducive to good, stable government. We could be back in power in five years or less, depending on the choice of leader we make.

This isn’t about party democracy: it’s about effective and coherent opposition in tune with the direction the leader wishes to lead us in – and a team fit for government from day 1. Electing the shadow cabinet (and especially the chief whip – someone who absolutely has to be in lock-step with the leader for the PLP to function) is the one sure way not to achieve that.

I am not in favour of placing artificial constraints on the choice of who should or should not be in cabinet. In Canada, there is the established practice that cuts across parties wherein all regions of the country will be represented in Cabinet. This can be problematic for a party that either fails to elect any MPs from a particular province, or elects only one or two, thus forcing the PM to appoint someone to cabinet not because they were the best choice, but because they were the only person elected from a certain province. Or alternatively, if the party elects a large number of MPs from one province, many of them who would be very capable cabinet ministers, only one or two might end up in cabinet lest it appear the PM is favouring that province over others.

A cabinet, or shadow cabinet, first and foremost, has to be a team that can work together effectively and decisively. To deny the party leader any say in the composition of his or her team seems counter-productive to that end. I am not saying there isn’t any role for wider caucus input, but ultimately, the party leader needs to be able to trust and work with his or her team in order to put forward the party’s policies and programs in a coherent, unified way. If the party trusts that individual enough to elect them leader, surely they can be trusted to choose a cabinet that will achieve just that.

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On political certainty

With the UK House of Commons back in session after a brief summer break, debate on the proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote has heated up again, with some rather eyebrow-raising objections to AV being put forward, mostly by Conservatives.

(Note: Labour has also said it will oppose the Bill now before the House, but its objections are centred primarily on the Government’s decision to combine the referendum on AV and the measures to reduce the number MPs into one bill.  Labour’s manifesto included a referendum on AV, therefore the party is not against the measure. They do oppose the way the Government is proposing to change constituency boundaries, and to a lesser degree, to the fact that the referendum will be held on the same day as local elections.)

Yesterday, on ConservativeHome, Robert Halfon wrote that instead of changing the electoral system completely, Conservatives should instead reform First-Past-the-Post. Halfon sets out that FPTP is “better than a proportional system or even AV”, but acknowledges that it has one major flaw: too many MPs get elected with less than 50% of the vote. To address that, Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, proposes adopting “The Second Ballot” (TSB), which is used by France for both parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as in a few other places for presidential elections. Essentially, a week after the general election, in ridings where no candidate won a majority of the vote (50%+1), a second ballot would be held with only the top two candidates featured, thus ensuring that one of them would emerge with a clear majority.

AV does achieve the same thing by having voters rank candidates in order of preference and then distributing the preferences until someone ends up with a majority, but Halfon objects to AV because these rankings are, according to Halfon, “artificial”. I am not certain how Halfon arrives at this; I have to assume he means that people don’t really have second (nevermind third, fourth, or fifth) preferences, so they have to make them up. In other words, everyone voting wants one, and only one candidate to win, and so ranking the other candidates in an order of preference is a false exercise, because they don’t really want to see any of those other candidates win.

To this I can only reply that it must be nice to live with such a degree of political certainly. I do know of such people, people who know that one party, their party, is the only one worth voting for, and who will vote for that party no matter how ridiculous their local candidate might be, and regardless of what that party puts into its manifesto. They certainly aren’t found only in the UK or Canada – I once encountered an American who proudly proclaimed that he was a Republican, like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and even his great-great grandfather. I started to wonder if voting Republican was therefore a genetic thing, like having blue eyes, or if it simply meant no one in his family was capable of independent thought. I favoured the latter explanation.

But to quote Halfon:

the Alternative Vote places an artificial construct on voter’s intentions, forcing them to make second preference choices – before they actually know the result, which inevitably would disproportionately favour the Liberal Democrats as being the ‘centre’ party.

For voters who aren’t slavishly devoted to a particular party, voting isn’t always a simple exercise. Some of us most certainly do have clear preferences at the ballot box; these are by no means artificial constructs. It could be that the only definitive preference one has is which candidate or party we don’t want to see elected, and our preferences regarding the remaining candidates are more fluid, but this is still a preference. It is only for someone who is so devoted to a single party that they won’t even consider the merits of any other candidate that ranking candidates would be an artificial construct.

This attitude also assumes that FPTP doesn’t place an artificial construct on a voter’s intentions. For some, voting under FPTP often leads to voting for a party that is not one’s preferred choice in a bid to block one’s least preferred option from winning, in other words, strategic voting. This was clearly in play during the May 2010 UK general election, with many traditional Labour supporters in ridings they knew their candidate wouldn’t win voting for the Liberal Democrat candidate in hopes of blocking the Conservatives from taking the seat.

I also find curious Halfon pointing out that AV forces voters to mark their artificial voting choices before they know the result of the vote. I don’t quite see what the potential problem is here (but then again, I’m not someone who is fully committed to one particular party). I assume he’s implying that for someone like him, who doesn’t have any preferences beyond his one and only first choice, if he were forced to vote a second time, then he would find it easier to make a choice, even if his beloved party’s candidate wasn’t on that second ballot. However, while this might make things easier for Mr. Halfon and those like him, it doesn’t do much to help people who don’t have such strong party allegiance. What if my two least favourite candidates are the ones that make it to Halfon’s proposed Second Ballot round? How does this improve things for me as a voter? I would much prefer to rank my choices on the first (and only) ballot, and then have my preferences distributed on subsequent counts. I might still end up with my least favourite candidate as MP, but could happen under any voting system.

While Halfon believes FPTP has only one real flaw, it should be noted that Second Ballot presents other issues. It can punish parts of the political spectrum which split their vote. For example, in the 2002 French Presidential election, the left-wing vote splintered in the first round between 10 candidates, while the right-wing vote was concentrated on four candidates (Chirac, Le Pen, Madelin, and Megret). The result was that two right-wing candidates topped the poll: Chirac with 20% and Le Pen with 17%. They went into the run-off second ballot. However, if you grouped the candidates into three broad political camps – Left, Right and Centre – you had the Left on 46%, the Right on 43%, and Centre on 11%. The vagueries of the Second Ballot system disenfranchised the Left wing voters completely.

I can’t end this without commenting on the last part of that quote from Halfon’s piece: “which inevitably would disproportionately favour the Liberal Democrats as being the ‘centre’ party.” Perhaps that is the crux of Halfon’s objection to AV. His beloved Conservatives wouldn’t be the second choice of that many voters (except perhaps BNP and UKIP voters).  I wonder if it was demonstrated that AV would actually benefit the Conservatives, would he suddenly be more in favour of adopting it?

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Inquiry into government and coalition formation

The UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has decided that it will look into how the current Coalition Government came about. I am not certain if this is a result of some of the revelations that came to light in the BBC special “Five Days that Changed Britain“, but this BBC article certainly gives the impression that this might be the case.

According to the article, the Committee wants to examine if undue pressure was put on then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign, how policies that weren’t part of either the Conservative Party’s or the Liberal Democrats’ manifestos ended up in the Coalition agreement and “wants to know the implications of the fact that this and other policies may lack a ‘popular mandate’”. Reading that gives the impression that no Government should ever propose a policy on which it hasn’t actually campaigned because it simply doesn’t have a mandate to do so. This, however, is a bit of clever editing on the BBC’s part.

The Committee’s website provides more detail about the scope of their inquiry, and the actual statement concerning non-manifesto policies reads:

This raises questions about the origin of these proposals, the implications, if any, of the fact that they lack a popular mandate, and, potentially, the process for deciding whether to implement them. (italics mine)

By omitting “if any”, the BBC leaves the reader with the impression that there are definitely implications resulting from the Coalition proposing policies on which neither party campaigned, while the Committee is stating that this may not be an issue at all – that is what it wants to determine. The Committee also hyperlinks “if any” to the Wikipedia entry on the Salisbury Convention, about which I have previously blogged.

To summarise briefly, the Salisbury Convention came about following a landslide electoral victory by Labour in 1945, and since then, the House of Lords has not opposed, on second reading, any bill that can claim authority from the winning party’s manifesto. In other words, following a general election, anything included in the election platform of  the party that ends up forming the government will not be opposed on second reading by the Upper Chamber. There is no such convention in place in Canada. The Canadian Senate may choose to fast-track a bill without opposing it in any way, but there is no equivalent to the Salisbury Convention in Canada. The Canadian Senate doesn’t give any special treatment or consideration to Government legislation which is based on something contained in that party’s election platform. All bills are treated equally, which is how I think it should be. Just because a party promised something doesn’t mean it’s a good piece of legislation and deserves a freer pass. Also, just because something was included in a party’s manifesto doesn’t mean most voters support that policy. People vote for parties for all sorts of reasons. I’m willing to bet most don’t actually read the manifestos. Some may have voted for that party despite some of the things in its manifesto. I don’t know too many people who always agree 100% with every single item a party promises during an election campaign.

I will admit to having difficulty understanding why this should be an issue at all. It’s quite obvious that governments regularly introduce policy on issues that weren’t discussed during the election campaign, and that were not included in that party’s election platform. While having a bill fast-tracked through the Upper Chamber without opposition is nice, it’s certainly not necessary for a bill to eventually pass. It may slow down the legislative process, but it certainly doesn’t stymie a Government from moving forward with policies it wants to implement.

In my post on the Salisbury Convention I wrote that a convention is just that – a convention. It’s not a Standing Order, or a legal requirement. It’s become a tradition, but that doesn’t mean it has to remain one, or that it can’t be modified to take into account the realities of coalition government.

The same is true for the UK’s overall fixation on party manifestos. If future elections more regularly result in no party receiving an overall majority, and coalitions become more frequent occurrences, there will simply have to be a growing acceptance of coalition governments putting forward new programs for government that may include some actual manifesto promises, variations on manifesto promises, and compromise policies that don’t really reflect anything that was in any partner party’s manifesto. This is the reality of coalition government.

As for the issue of the Coalition’s policies lacking “a popular mandate”, that is a bit naive to me. It seems based on an assumption that most people who vote have actually read every party’s manifesto and vote according to what is included in them. Certainly, some people probably do just that, but I doubt it’s a majority of voters. Election campaigns usually end up focusing on at best a handful of issues, and sometimes on only one or two key issues, with the bulk of what parties include in their manifestos largely ignored in debates and by the media. In the May 2010 UK election, many people said they voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate, not because of what the party stood for, but because they were hoping to prevent the Conservative candidate from winning that seat. Is that sort of thing an endorsement of a party’s manifesto or more a reaction against another party’s manifesto (or simply against the other party in general, manifesto or no manifesto)? There is also the reality that under First-Past-the-Post, a party can win a large majority of seats with much less than a majority of the vote (sometimes even finishing second in the popular vote). Since most people did not vote for that party, even if they end up with a majority of seats, do they really have a popular mandate? They certainly don’t have a mandate from a majority of voters.

Overall, however, I do find the Committee’s terms of reference rather interesting. It does indicate to me that there is, at the very least, an acknowledgment that coalition governments may well become more frequent occurrences, thus prompting the need to review the various “constitutional and practical issues related to government and coalition formation”.  Some of the questions they seek to address could result in very interesting discussions. In particular, I would single out the following:

1. What constitutional and practical lessons are there to be learned from the process of government formation after the 2010 general election?

6. What impact did media pressure have on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators?

7. Could and should this impact have been mitigated?

8. What is the origin of those constitutional proposals in the coalition programme for government which were not addressed in the manifesto of either party?

9. What are the implications, if any, of the fact that these proposals lack a popular mandate?

10. Are there more satisfactory models for coalition and government formation in use elsewhere in the world, or in other parts of the United Kingdom?

11. Should the head of government or Cabinet require the endorsement of the House of Commons, by way of an investiture vote?

I’m thinking some of those might even make for interesting blog posts…

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