Do we need a Peoples’ PMQs?

UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband recently floated the idea of a weekly “public question time” where an audience representative of the country would question the prime minister on any issue of the day.

Miliband was a bit short on details regarding how this would work. Apart from stating that the audience should be representative of the country, the only other details he provided was that the public PMQs should be held in parliament at least every two weeks, but preferably weekly.

On the surface, it’s an interesting idea, but it also raises a number of questions. First of all, how would these people – representative of the country – be selected? Would it be a completely random process, you know, sort of like being chosen for jury duty? Or would interested persons be invited via a website or social media to put their name in? If the latter, self-selection, then you’re not going to end up with an audience “representative of the country.” You’re going to end up with an audience full of political partisans and people with specific causes and agendas.

As Dan Hodge rightly notes in this column:

The vast majority of British voters have zero interest in Prime Minister’s Questions. Nor, once the initial novelty had worn off, would they have any more interest in watching People’s Questions. It’s only politicians who think the weekly interrogation of politicians is of major national significance.

This is the reality of our times: most people – most ordinary people “representative of the country” just don’t care enough – or at all – about politics. They’d have no interest in participating in a Peoples’ PMQs. The only people who would be keen on participating, as I stated above, would be partisans and people with vested interests. The sad truth is that people who are really keen on politics aren’t the majority. And if you end up with an audience full of partisans, the questions won’t be any more enlightening than what you currently get in PMQs. Case in point: when this story came out in the UK, the Guardian put up an open thread column asking “What would you ask David Cameron?” If you’re not familiar with the Guardian, suffice it to say that the vast majority of its readers do not like the Tories. The paper is strongly associated with the Labour Party, and its readers are decidedly left-of-centre. A quick perusal of some of the suggestions quickly demonstrates what sort of questions partisans would ask.

I admit that I am very leery of “real people” questions. There has been an extremely annoying trend here in Canada regarding leaders’ debates during election campaigns, where the normal practice of having the party leaders face questions from a panel of seasoned journalists has been replaced with asking questions from “ordinary” Canadians. The problem with this is that, as I’ve said, most people aren’t really into politics, and the questions that are asked often tend to be rather non-specific, and often inappropriate. A lot of “ordinary” people will ask federal party leaders questions about education and healthcare, which aren’t federal responsibilities. Yes, the federal government provides funding to the provinces to be used for education and healthcare, but Ottawa’s ability to do much in those areas is quite limited. I do miss the days when Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe would simply sneer at those questions and dismiss them with “That’s not a federal responsibility, it’s provincial” and refuse to say more, while the other federal leaders would try to wax poetic about grandiose plans over something they really couldn’t do much about. I would think any sort of “Peoples PMQs” wouldn’t be much better.

Another issue is simply that this idea looks like an attempt to by-pass Parliament. MPs are elected to represent people – it is their job to hold the PM and the Cabinet to account. If citizens have certain concerns about a government policy, they can (and should) contact their MP and that MP should try to get answers on behalf of his or her constituents from the relevant government minister, including the PM. There are a number of UK MPs who, once they learn that they’ll be allotted a question during PMQs (because the names of MPs are drawn in a lottery), ask for suggestions for questions on Twitter and other social media. Whether or not they actually use any of the questions suggested to them by their followers, I don’t know, but I do regularly see them on Twitter inviting people to suggest questions.

UK party leaders are already quite accessible to the public (especially compared to Canadian party leaders). Before he became PM, David Cameron held a regular number of Q&A sessions in marginal ridings. He has continued this practice since becoming PM (here’s a recent one from this year). Yes, these aren’t always public events or televised, so not the same as a Peoples’ PMQs, but my point here is that at least the PM is regularly going out and talking to people, being questioned by them. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has a weekly radio call-in show.

Every single minister regularly appears before his or her department’s select committee for questioning (including the PM, who appears before the Liaison Committee a couple of times each session – you can watch his most recent appearance here. More and more of these committees have also turned to Twitter and other social media to invite “ordinary people” to submit questions to be put to the Minister. They will often reserve the last 20 or so minutes of the session for questions submitted by the public. Here’s an interesting assessment of the very first time this was attempted back in 2012, by the Education Committee.

I don’t disagree with Ed Miliband and others that there is too often a disconnect between elected officials and the general public, but I don’t think that a Peoples’ PMQs will really do much to change that. My gut feeling is that a lot of people, probably a majority of people, will never be that interested in politics in general, and gimmicks won’t change that.

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Coalition government is not a marriage

On 7 January 2012, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg held a joint press conference, which you can watch here, to promote the Coalition government’s Mid-Term Review. That review lists what the government says it has achieved in meeting its coalition agreement and outlines further reforms to come. Both Cameron and Clegg stressed that the coalition would last the full five-year term.

One of the stranger questions asked during the press conference was if the coalition was like a marriage. Indeed, when Cameron and Clegg held their first press conference together back in 2010 to launch the coalition, some of the press coverage read as if it should have been on the Society pages rather than in the Politics section (see for example, this piece, or this one). Cameron answered that question thusly:

“To me it’s not a marriage, it’s a Ronseal deal, it does what it says on the tin – we said we would come together, we said we would form a government, we said we would tackle these problems, we said we would get on with it in a mature and sensible way, and that is exactly what we’ve done.”

This prompted the BBC’s political editor to write a column entitled: Coalition: Official – it’s not a marriage. The column starts:

It’s not a marriage. It never was. They were never in love so they are not renewing their vows.

That, in summary, is the reaction inside Downing Street to how the media, including me, have spoken about today’s joint news conference to be held at Downing Street by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Robinson goes on to explain:

The reason this debate about terminology is revealing is that both sides of this coalition have concluded that all this talk of marriage is toxic as it invites hacks like me to conclude that the Tory and Lib Dem partners are still “in love” – something which infuriates many of their natural supporters – or preparing to “divorce” in the run-up to the next election.

The Cameron/Clegg talk of their strengthened “shared purpose” was, of course, always going to make it hard to resist the temptation to ask whether both men are protesting too much. I doubt that many hacks today will resist.

It’s not surprising that the UK media haven’t known exactly how to cover the coalition – it is a rarity in First-Past-the-Post jurisdictions such as the UK. Indeed, the UK media, almost from day one, has regularly speculated not on if the coalition would collapse – that seemed to be a given, but when this would occur. At times it seemed that every single policy was “the one that will tear the coalition apart”, bring about the aforementioned “divorce”.  What the press have failed to understand is that, in the words of the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell, is that the UK has a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have not merged their two parties, therefore it is not surprising – or at least, should not be surprising – that the backbenches of each party often disagree. Such disagreement in the House does not mean that the coalition itself is coming apart at the seams. Indeed, even the parliamentary splits aren’t always divisions between the Lib Dems and the Tories, but divisions within the Conservative Party itself, as this other analysis from the Constitution Unit explains. A coalition is not merger of two parties; it is an attempt by two parties to find common ground in order to govern jointly.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was questioned by the House of Lords Constitution Committee on 9 January 2012 and addressed many of the issues surrounding the workings of the coalition, in particular how it impacts the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. It’s an interesting discussion and I recommend watching it.

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Some interesting links

This blog’s author is rather swamped at work these days, and so I will take this opportunity to share with you some recent links that have caught my attention.

1. Is the tide finally turning for Nick Clegg?

Having gone from everyone’s darling after the first ever leaders’ debates last spring to the most despised person in British politics, Nick Clegg seems to be getting some respect in the press these days, and from rather unlikely sources. First up is this piece in the right-leaning, pro-Tory Telegraph by Paul Goodman, wherein he writes: “Whatever happens, Clegg will be in the midst of it – polite, influential, under-scrutinised and enduring as ever, despite the opprobrium heaped on his head. (…) His party has not split. He has faced no leadership challenge. None of the party’s MPs has called for him to go. His last party conference rallied round – as will the coming one, despite the inevitable huffing and puffing. His one-man masochism strategy is also a marathon strategy, as he strains towards the day when voters will thank him, however begrudgingly, for his role in the great mission of deficit reduction.”

Then there’s Rafael Behr’s piece in the left-leaning, pro-Labour New Statesman: “Speculation along these lines is a diverting political parlour game, but it ignores the current reality that Clegg is the Deputy PM, leading a party with enough seats in parliament and enough ministers in cabinet to leave yellow fingerprints all over government. The best testimony to the Lib Dems’ power is the fury it routinely provokes on the Tory right. Hawkish on the deficit, liberal on social policy and populist on bankers; thriftier than Labour but nicer than the Tories, the Lib Dems are squatting stubbornly, sometimes chaotically, in the middle of British politics. The voters might not thank Nick Clegg for it in the opinion polls; the other parties resent him for it. One thing he cannot be, however, is ignored.”

2. Political perceptions run amok

Recently, in The Observer, we learned that Labour’s new strategy would be to attack David Cameron as a “recognisably rightwing” leader. This view of Cameron was roundly rejected by readers of the more right-leaning Spectator (note the reader comments on this piece, rather than the blog post itself) and over at ConservativeHome, where the general consensus among right-wing Tories is that David Cameron may be many things, but right-wing is not one of them.

3. Parliamentum

For anyone who generally enjoys reading this blog, I would like to recommend another blog to you, Parliamentum, written by James W. J. Bowden. He writes about “Westminster parliamentarism in the core Commonwealth (The UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), particularly the unwritten constitution, the reserve powers of the crown, and the evolution of parliament, the cabinet, and the crown as institutions.” His approach is more academic than mine, since my goal is more to explain how parliament and parliamentary procedure works to people who aren’t very familiar with either, but I think both blogs complement each other quite well.

4. The Cabinet Manual and the Working of the British Constitution

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) released  a report analyzing the draft Cabinet Manual, a potentially powerful document that codifies and unites the often unwritten conventions and rules that have governed and guided governmental activity for decades. I have mentioned this draft Cabinet Manual in a few posts. You can download the PDF of this report here.

5. For anyone going through Parliament withdrawal

Some good news: the UK Parliament resumes sitting next week. The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy provides a handy look-ahead as to what to expect. If any of that sounds interesting to you, you can livestream proceedings in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and committee hearings thanks to Parliament Live TV. Canada’s Parliament doesn’t come back from its summer holidays until September 19.

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Coalition Works!

Media speculation in the UK over the health of the coalition began quite literally the day the agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was announced and hasn’t ever gone away. Indeed, as the referendum campaign on AV heated up and very public spats occurred between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers, many papers and columnists speculated that the coalition was on shaky ground (again).

Following the release last week of an interim report looking at how the coalition was functioning,  some media chose to highlight whatever was negative in the report. The Guardian trumpeted that the “Deputy PM’s office ineffective, report on coalition government finds“, Public Finance bemoaned “What happened to collective responsibility?”, while the Telegraph reported rather dismissively “How David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide policy – by phone“.

Yet the report from the Constitution Unit was, for the most part, very positive. The official press release, Coalition Works! the Inside Story from the Constitution Unit states:

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

The Unit’s first year report, Inside Story: How coalition government works, is based upon 90 interviews with senior people in Whitehall and Westminster. The mutual trust and close working relations developed inside the government should help as it faces tougher times ahead.

“People feared that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided” said the Unit’s director Prof Robert Hazell. “But in the first year the coalition has been remarkably stable and united. Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years”.

It is interesting how the report has been interpreted by some. Dan Corry, who penned the PublicFinance article above (“What happened to collective responsibility”), writes:

It was all going to be different this time – or so we were told. Far fewer special advisers so that ministers and officials were clearly in the lead and not sidelined. Far more decisions in Cabinet and less second-guessing from No 10. A return to what some academics think is the gold standard – Cabinet collective responsibility – and no more of that old Blairite ‘sofa government’. And indeed a whole set of machinery was set up so that the coalition would work, and that LibDem and Tory arguments would be sorted out. Officials were very happy with this new situation– or so the briefings said.

But thanks to some good detective work from the Constitution Unit we now know that the real action happens not in a well minuted, well attended arena where things are thrashed out between colleagues, but in a Sunday evening phone call between just two people, the Prime Minster and the Deputy Prime Minister. And while the sofa may not be Dave’s thing, we now also know that the other key meeting is on a Monday between the two top men and a very small group of their key officials and advisers.

I don’t know if Corry bothered to read the actual report, of if he limited himself to that article in the Telegraph (which I also linked to at the start of this post). Had he read the actual report, he would have learned that:

Cabinet and its committees have been greatly revived under the new government. Cabinet Committees now meet which under the last government never met. They are used as a forum for strategic and general policy discussions, as well as resolving the frequent differences which arise between Whitehall departments when addressing difficult policy problems. Membership on these committees is carefully constructed to ensure Lib Dem representation. But most of the differences resolved in Cabinet Committees are interdepartmental issues, not differences between the coalition parties.

Overall the new Cabinet system is a great deal more collegiate. It may have slowed things down; but to take time over gaining collective agreement is not necessarily a bad thing. Cabinet Office insist on papers being circulated in good time for Cabinet Committees, and on 10 days to clear anything by correspondence. That is part of the general ‘no surprises’ rule: there is much less scope in this government for bounces, because of the need to always consult the coalition partner. All papers for Cabinet Committees must state what has been done to ensure collective approval: that the policy has been checked against the coalition agreement; cleared with the Treasury; and with the parliamentary business managers. The chair and deputy chair (one from each party) must sign everything off.

What is decided by phone or more informal meetings between smaller groups of individuals at the heart of the coalition isn’t policy, but coalition management issues. At the outset, the Coalition had set up two coalition committees that were intended to deal with coalition management issues, the Coalition Committee and the Coalition Operation and Strategic Planning Group (COSPG). The first was to be the final arbiter of coalition issues. It has met only twice:

once at the beginning of the new government to establish ground rules about coalition management; and the second time a couple of months later, when the agenda included the health service reforms. But there have been no formal disputes. Coalition issues are resolved in informal meetings, not Cabinet or its committees. This is more efficient and less adversarial.

The COSPG isn’t a committee, it’s a working group with a membership of four: Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander as co-chairs, and Francis Maude and Lord (Jim) Wallace as the other members. It has hardly met as Letwin and Alexander have regular bilateral meetings instead.

I get the sense that people aren’t quite understanding the difference between coalition issues and government policy. Policy is being decided by cabinet committees. What is being resolved via more informal channels are coalition issues, which get sorted behind the scenes, informally, so that there is agreement by the time a policy gets to cabinet committee.

The Guardian chose to focus on the Deputy Prime Minister’s office being “ineffective”. The report does indeed say that the office “remains under-resourced and overstretched”. This is not surprising since the position of Deputy PM is normally more of an honorary one rather than a central figure with key responsibilities. Many PMs don’t even bother naming a Deputy PM. Consequently, there wasn’t any real Whitehall mechanism in place to accommodate the role Nick Clegg was to play in the Coalition government.

As the Guardian article also points out, the Liberal Democrats are spread too thin, according to the report’s findings:

Lib Dems argue that the Lib Dem minister in a department, regardless of status, has a remit to watch over all departmental business as the representative of the smaller coalition partner. That is necessary because Lib Dem presence in a department signals tacit acceptance of that department’s policies and actions. Yet in practice, many Lib Dem junior ministers have been unable to perform this role: they lack the capacity to monitor policy across a whole department. Lacking special advisers of their own, various ad hoc solutions have been reached, including additional support within their private office, relying more heavily on their parliamentary researcher, or calling upon the already overstretched Lib Dem Policy Unit.

Overall, however, the report paints a very positive picture of a healthy, functioning coalition. In particular, it notes that there is surprisingly little policy disagreement between the coalition partners:

Serious disagreements are as likely to be between ministers of the same party, in classic interdepartmental disputes (eg Ken Clarke vs Theresa May on justice versus security; Vince Cable vs Chris Huhne on business disliking climate change policies). Issues are seldom presented in terms of reconciling Lib Dem and Conservative views: it is generally about reconciling conflicting policy objectives, often based on traditional interdepartmental responsibilities.

There is far more in the report than has been covered in the media, including the functioning of the two parties in Parliament. I would encourage you to have a look at the actual report, particularly if all you have read are media reports.

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Link sharing

I’d like to share a few links with readers.

Everyone’s favourite elections expert from down under, Antony Green, is in the UK at the moment – in part to observe the ongoing referendum campaign, and in part for a vacation. He has a provided a very interesting contribution to the British Politics and Policy at LSE blog in which he writes that the experience with AV at the Australian state level suggests that AV in the UK may not change the national picture of who wins seats that much, but will increase the legitimacy of MPs who otherwise could not demonstrate that they have local majority support.

Human rights activist Jemima Khan has an in-depth interview with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The comments from readers are the typical anti-Clegg knee-jerk reactions that have become the norm in the more left-wing media, but the interview itself is interesting.

One of the points Clegg raises in the interview is his concern the impact of his work might be having on his children:

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, “to create a firewall” between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that “what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I’m having to explain things. Like he asks, ‘Why are the students angry with you, Papa?’”

This led James Forsyth to pen a thoughtful piece on the consequences of political abuse. Sadly, the comments there aren’t much better – not aimed at Clegg specifically, but at politicians in general, which then leads me to this piece by Steve Richards in the Independent calling for an end to the loathing of politicians:

Throw into the mix the fashion for a fairly aggressive media culture and it is not surprising we are where we are. It is a dangerous place to be. Think about the weird sequence. We vote, or some of us do, and then those who are elected are loathed. What would we prefer? Perhaps Prince William should not only get married but rule over us too.

Also from the Spectator, from a couple of weeks ago, a post by Alex Massie about the use of hyper injuctions in the UK, which prohibit individuals from even talking to their MPs about certain matters. There is growing concern that this might be a breach of parliamentary privilege.

From Canada, a rather depressing assessment of the House of Commons. Again, it’s a bit old (from February), but still worth reading.

And finally, a piece from ConservativeHome about what academics think of the coalition.

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Watch those open mics

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron were in Nottingham promoting the government’s budget. During a round of applause, Clegg was caught off mic saying to Cameron:

“If we keep doing this we won’t find anything to bloody disagree on in a bloody TV debate.”

You can hear it for yourself on The World At One. It’s at the 7:13 mark.

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Media agendas?

I can’t help but comment about one of the oddest examples of pointless editorial commentary I’ve ever come across.

Yesterday, while perusing the Daily Telegraph website, I followed a link to this story, which is about David Cameron’s “gift for making the Government’s chosen course seem like the only natural thing”, at least according to the writer, Andrew Gimson.

What is odd, if not outright bizarre, about the article is that it is accompanied by a large picture of Nick Clegg. It is even tagged under “Nick Clegg”, as you can see just above the headline in the top left corner of the article (below the Telegraph’s navigation menu). The photo is captioned: “Mr Clegg has no credibility left, and no plan to restore his credibility”, yet if you read the article, you discover that there is not a single mention of Nick Clegg in the article itself.

Even if the writer had set out to contrast Cameron’s communication abilities with Clegg’s, and decided that Cameron was infinitely more talented on that front, the comment about Clegg’s lack of credibility would still be completely pointless. Try as I might, I can’t for the life of me understand why this particular article features the Clegg photo and insulting caption, and is tagged under Nick Clegg, when there is zero mention of the Deputy Prime Minister in the article itself. I assume this was all approved by some editor before it was posted to the site – so it can’t be simply the writer’s personal decision to take a completely gratuitous shot at Mr. Clegg. Rather tacky on the part of the Telegraph, if you ask me.

And while I’m on the topic of questionable media tactics, I was somewhat peeved by the BBC as well. On Friday, on the UK Politics homepage, the text for a link to one story read “Clegg ditches AV campaign launch”. (Note: this link still appears on the UK Politics homepage as of writing, but may be moved off by the time you read this.) This text is quite misleading since it sounds as if Nick Clegg has decided to pull out completely from campaigning for the Yes to AV side, perhaps out of concern that his personal unpopularity will undermine the Yes vote. The headline of the actual article isn’t much better: AV referendum: Clegg pulls out of Lib Dem launch, but at least we’re a bit clearer of what Clegg pulled out of.

It turns out that Clegg has to cancel plans to attend the official launch of the Lib Dems’ Yes to AV campaign, not because he’s unpopular, but because of an emergency cabinet meeting on Libya. In other words, it’s a story about the DPM doing his job – prioritizing emergency cabinet meetings over party-related functions. Bit of a non-story, when you think about it.

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Not the best, but somewhat trusted

I haven’t blogged about the myriad of opinion poll which appear pretty much weekly in the UK because I don’t think polls conducted between elections – particularly when no election is expected any time soon – really contribute much to the debate. The way the media has followed the (mostly downward) path of the Lib Dem poll numbers week after week proves my point – all it does is spark a flurry of very premature columns and articles forecasting the demise of the party – a Lib Dem deathwatch, if you will. A week is a long time in politics – five years is an eternity. Let’s talk about Lib Dem poll numbers in 2015, shall we?

That said, I am going to comment on a poll released earlier this week, conducted by ICM for the Guardian. This poll asked people which of the three main party leaders would make the best prime minister. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this question asked, and the result is quite similar this time around – Nick Clegg came in last behind David Cameron (38%) and Ed Miliband (25%). Clegg garnered a meager 12%.

I can understand why Cameron would come out ahead – he actually is Prime Minister and thus it’s easier for people to imagine him in the role. Whenever they see him on the the news, he’s doing all that prime ministerial stuff – giving speeches, slapping down the opposition during PMQs, meeting with heads of state, etc. Miliband, on the other hand, has two things going against him – he’s not been Labour leader for very long, and so people probably don’t have a very good sense of him yet, and he’s also leader of the Opposition – meaning he’s mostly been attacking the Government rather than putting forward clear policies of his own. It’s difficult to appear prime ministerial when you’re constantly attacking and complaining about things.

Clegg, however, because of the coalition, is in a rather unique position for a leader of a third place party. He is in government, and has a very high profile role. As Deputy Prime Minister, he’s front and centre on some of the coalition’s most prominent policies – electoral reform, constitutional reform, civil liberties issues, etc. Unlike Miliband, he has demonstrated real leadership abilities – from being willing to enter into a coalition in the first place to getting the bulk of his Lib Dem caucus to support some of the more difficult policies the coalition has introduced, not to mention steering some difficult pieces of legislation through the House of Commons. People see him regularly on the news, being interviewed, giving speeches, meeting with fairly important people, doing his own Deputy PMQs, and filling in for Cameron when needed, etc.

If the Lib Dems weren’t part of government, and Clegg was simply leader of the 3rd place party in the House of Commons, I could easily understand why few would consider him PM material – he simply wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. But to still be in third place when he’s arguably one of the most important and prominent political figures in the country? I don’t get it.

I have a theory, which I can’t prove at all. I think in part people aren’t necessarily responding to the question based solely on the perceived leadership skills of the party leaders, but are also taking into consideration how realistic it is that said leader might actually be prime minister. The reality is that the Lib Dems will never win a general election outright (well, not any time in the perceivable future), and thus their leader will never be PM. I think people being asked the question “Which party leader would make the best PM” are filtering the question – unintentionally and unconsciously – so that they hear “Of the two blokes who actually have a shot at being PM, which one do you think would be the best?”

Of course, this theory falls apart if we try to apply it to Canada. Canadian pollster frequently ask the same question here, but in the most recent polls, Jack Layton, leader of the 4th party in the House of Commons (the NDP), finished second behind the incumbent PM, Conservative Stephen Harper. Liberal leader and leader of the Opposition, Michael Ignatieff, came in third. Leader of the 3rd party, the BQ’s Gilles Duceppe is never mentioned, so I don’t know if Ipsos Reid include him as an option when they ask the question. If they do, I assume he came in 4th.

If my theory worked in Canada, Layton would be 3rd behind the incumbent PM and the leader of the opposition, but nothing in Canada is working properly anymore. Still, there are good reasons to explain Layton’s 2nd place ranking.  Layton is the longest serving leader of the three main national parties (I too will leave the BQ out of this since they run candidates only in Quebec), having won the leadership of his party in 2003. He is generally well-liked by the Canadian public, even among those who have no intention of ever voting for his party. Unlike in the UK, leaders’ debates have been a regular feature of Canadian general elections for decades now  and all leaders of parties with seats in the House of Commons participate (and in the most recent debates, they even included the leader of the Green Party, even though the Greens do not have any elected MPs), meaning Layton has been in three national debates and benefited from that exposure – much the same way Clegg did in 2010. Ignatieff, on the other hand, has been Liberal leader for barely two years, has not yet had the opportunity to participate in a leaders’ debate, and since the Canadian media pretty much ignore the opposition parties inbetween elections, he’s had a very difficult time building much of a national profile.

Canada aside, I still find Clegg’s “best PM” numbers somewhat disappointing, all things considered. They seem to conflict with the findings of another poll, this one by ComRes for ITV, which asked which politician people trusted to see the country through the current economic situation. That poll found:

The Prime Minister has the trust of 37 per cent – down from his 43 per cent rating last October. Mr Osborne, the Chancellor, has the trust of 25 per cent – down from 32 per cent.

Although Labour is ahead of the Tories in most opinion polls, it has not yet regained its economic credentials. Only 18 per cent of people trust Mr Miliband to sort out the country’s economic problems and only 14 per cent Mr Balls. They trail Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, who scores 24 per cent.

So people trust Clegg (more than Labour’s Miliband and Balls) with regards to the economy, but don’t think he’d make a good PM.

Perhaps he should take over as Chancellor of the Exchequer then?

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Fall Guy

In the slew of opinion pieces and analysis that followed the by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth, two in particular caught my eye, but not because of their analysis of the by-election results.

In “What really won Oldham East and Saddleworth for Labour“, the Telegraph’s John McTernan notes:

Nick Clegg may draw some crumbs of comfort from the fact that the Lib Dem vote was the same proportion as it was in the General Election. Unfortunately the swing to Labour meant that his candidate lost more decisively than even in 1997 at the peak of Labour’s powers. And on a smaller turnout. That is a poor return for the man who is by some length making the best, most thoughtful, well argued speeches in the Cabinet.

Clegg has an analysis and a politics and a position now to promulgate them, but it’s not doing enough in the seats he has to win or win back.

Meanwhile, over on the Spectator blogs, Fraser Nelson notes in “How it’s going for Ed Miliband“:

Cameron’s embrace has, alas, proved toxic for the Lib Dems. I have been impressed by Nick Clegg since he entered government. I’d like to see him rewarded for the tough decisions he took, and in more ways than being named ‘politician of the year’ by the Threadneedle/Spectator awards. But it just isn’t happening. The ‘merger’ model of coalition that they have chosen (as opposed to the Holyrood model used in Scotland in 1999-07) has robbed them of their identity. This has seismic implications.

What both have in common, of course, is their praise for Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. But as both note, while Clegg is performing admirably in government, he’s not benefiting from that at all. Indeed, as I have mentioned in previous posts, Clegg is probably the most hated politician in the UK at this moment. While editorialists and columnists are (for the most part, but not always) able to assess his performance and write about him in a fair way, the comments left by the majority of readers, particularly on the more centrist and left of centre sites (such as the Guardian and New Statesman, and to a lesser extent, The Independent) often border on pathological in the level of hatred and venom aimed at Clegg.

I’m fairly certain that I’ve previously stated that this unbridled hostility baffles me. I do sort of understand that many feel in some way betrayed – in some cases, they voted for a Lib Dem candidate in order to prevent a Conservative candidate from winning a given seat – only to end up with the Lib Dems in power with the Conservatives. Many of these voters weren’t normally Lib Dem voters, and so I always take reports of voter support for the Lib Dems slipping away with a grain of salt. I do think most of their core supporters are still with the party. Indeed – their membership numbers have actually increased since the election. However, Clegg was very upfront during the election campaign, oft repeating that he believed it would be up to the party that received the most votes to try to form the government and that he would be open to trying to work with that party in some way. And polls clearly showed that the party most likely to end up with the most seats would be the Conservatives.  Similarly, while many have railed against the Lib Dems for turning their backs on some of the party’s key policies, such as eliminating tuition fees, again, the party clearly identified four key manifesto pledges prior to the election that they said they would insist on as part of any agreement with any party following a hung parliament. Tuition fees was not one of those and they have achieved the four they did target.

I also think that Catherine Mayer touches on an important point in her recent piece in Time, “Why Britain has fallen out of love with Nick Clegg” (emphasis mine):

So why Clegg’s transition from hero to zero? There are several reasons. Lib Dem policy pivots, especially regarding university tuition fees, have been clumsily handled. Clegg’s determination to show unity with his Conservative coalition partners at the expense of defining his own party’s distinct mission has helped fuel a growing — and false — suspicion that Clegg is a closet Conservative. But the beleaguered pol’s fundamental mistake was probably to assume that the majority of Liberal Democrat voters actually wanted to see the party in power, with all the messy pragmatism that position entails.

In the past, the perennially third-placed party made general election pledges that were never tested — and were never likely to be. In an era when politics is a dirty word and politicians command even less trust than journalists or real estate agents, voters could still feel good about putting their cross next to a party of high ideals. That is why so many Lib Dem supporters feel betrayed by the compromises the party leadership has struck since entering office.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I’ve said something similar in the past.

However, perhaps all is not lost for the beleaguered Mr. Clegg. A recent YouGov poll finds that if David Cameron abruptly left politics, Nick Clegg is the 2nd most popular choice to take over the Coalition government – behind only William Hague. Even with Tory voters, he’s far ahead of anyone else in cabinet, and the gap between him and Hague with voters from across parties is very narrow (21% to 18% for Clegg).

I think Nick Clegg did a very courageous thing when he joined forces with the Cameron Tories to provide the UK with a strong, stable government to cope with challenging economic times. It might not be what most voters on the left wanted – including a fair number of Lib Dem supporters – but it was really the only strong option available. David Cameron would have been prime minister even if the Lib Dems hadn’t opted for coalition – the election result is what it is. Blaming Nick Clegg for that doesn’t make any sense at all.

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New progressives

I apologize for my prolonged absence from blogging. As sometimes happens, real life events intervened in such a way that I simply was not able to properly focus on things political, which was at times frustrating, because there were a few events that did catch my attention and on which I wanted to comment.

One of those came courtesy of the 2010 Hugo Young Lecture which was delivered this year by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (23 Nov 2010).

Some time back, I posted about my annoyance with the generalized assumption that a “progressive” had to be left-leaning. Clegg addressed this issue in his Lecture, and while I have certain issues with what Clegg said in his talk, I did find that he put forward some interesting points.

I think my favourite passage from Clegg’s speech is this one:

The new progressive test for any form of state intervention is whether it liberates and empowers people. There are some areas where a new progressive approach would imply more state intervention and investment, such as early years, narrowing educational inequalities and promoting a greener economy. That is why I have argued many times that it makes no sense whatsoever to use a phrase like ‘small state liberal’. It is not the size of the state, but what the state does, that matters.

I think it is that last sentence that resonates the most with me: it’s not the size of the state, but what the state does, that matters. This closely reflects what I have always felt, even if I failed to articulate it in that manner. I’ve always rejected the minimalist approach to government favoured by Libertarians because I do believe the state has a positive role to play in the life of a country, and in some instances, is really the only agent that can deliver certain services or programs effectively. However, there are certainly other areas which I believe the state has no real business, or at least, should definitely stay at arms length.

On the whole, I like how Clegg defines progressives. What I like less is his decision to create classes of progressives – namely “old progressives” and “new progressives”. As you may well guess, Labour are old progressives. The Coalition partners (most of them anyway – he probably has some doubts about some Tory MPs) are the new progressives. Clegg defines old and new progressives as follows. Old progressives emphasize the power and spending of the central state, and conflate the idea of progress with the control and reach of the central state. New progressives, on the other hand, focus on the power and freedom of citizens, and what matters is not the size of the state, but the relationship between the state and the citizen. My issue isn’t with the definitions, it’s more with Clegg’s labelling both “progressives”. I’d prefer to see the term banished from political discourse because it is so vague and meaningless now. Differentiating between “old” and “new” variants doesn’t solve this problem.

But as I read Clegg’s text, it struck me that what he’s labelling “new” progressives are what most would probably call “liberals”. Clegg says as much in this passage:

Not because there isn’t a clear divide here between old and new progressives. On the contrary. Old progressives pose a trade off between individual liberty and national security. But, for liberals, liberty is the guarantor of our security. It is a false trade-off.

Now “liberal” is yet another political term that has been hijacked (particularly in the US) to mean everything except what it traditionally has meant, so I can certainly understand why Clegg might be in search of a new name for what he believes. I’m simply not certain that “new progressive” is the way to go.

You can watch the lecture here, or read the entire text here.

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