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Archives for May 2010

UKIP: thinking inside the ballot box?

Martyn Oates | 15:40 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

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Lord Pearson

A UKIP source tells me the party's planning a more "professional" approach to politics in future.

That might mean a retrenchment from some of the slightly unconventional tactics it piloted this spring.

The party's "outside the box" thinking during the recent campaign would certainly have raised eyebrows among more traditionally-minded political strategists.

Party leader Lord Pearson urged voters in some constituencies - even here in UKIP's West Country heartland - to vote for other parties' candidates rather than his own.

Interviewed during the campaign by the BBC's Jon Sopel, the same Lord Pearson declined to discuss the "minutiae" of his election manifesto. In his view, the minutiae in question seemed to include the party's policy on regulating the banking sector - not the most obviously marginal of issues in the present political and economic climate.

But the same source assures me that - for the time being, at least - Pearson's own tenure at the helm is not under threat.

Towards the end of the campaign, though, there were certainly dark mutterings about him being pushed unceremoniously over the side after his "don't-vote-for-us-vote-for-them" antics...

Lords reform: the end of the peer show?

Martyn Oates | 15:49 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

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Nick Clegg and David Cameron c/o PA Images

The collective finger of the Coalition is hovering over one of Westminster's nuclear buttons - quite possibly for the last time ever.

The Government hopes to unveil proposals for "a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation" by December. In the meantime, "Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is relective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties of the last general election".

This suggests a mass elevation of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers which would give the Coalition a majority in the Lords as well as the Commons.

According to the Times, one Labour MP described this as "a massively illiberal step to take - the single largest simultaneous act of political patronage probably since Charles II came to the throne in 1660".

King Charles II depicted in BBC drama

Charles II, of course, came to the throne at one of the great climactic points in British history. His accession was also the restoration of the monarchy after the country's only experience of republican government.

Threats to pack the House of Lords with Government supporters have tended to occur at pivotal points.

In 1832 the Whig Prime Minister Lord Grey persuaded William IV (David Cameron's great-great-great-great-great grandfather) to create a large number of Whig peers in order to force the Great Reform Bill through the Lords.

Their lordships found the Bill's key objective - extending the franchise beyond the existing small élite - distasteful. But the King's willingness to start doling out peerages right, left and centre subjected them to something like the "excruciating torture" the Lib Dems were allegedly going through a couple of weeks ago while trying to decide whether they should jump into bed with Labour or the Conservatives. Extending the franchise might destroy one élite but polluting the red benches with a lot of parvenus threatened another one rather closer to home.

The greater evil - ghastly merchant types getting their grubby fingers on the ermine - was averted and the Lords passed the Bill.

David Cameron and the Queen c/o Getty Images and Christopher Furlong

A similar thing happened in 1909 when Lloyd George was trying to get his "People's Budget" - the first serious attempt at wealth redistribution - through Parliament. Again, the mere threat of 250 newly-enobled rookies sufficed - though the showdown did lead to the first Parliament Act which definitively reduced the Lords to junior partner status.

We're told that the present moment, too, is a great constitutional watershed in our history. But there are a couple of obvious differences. In 1832 and 1909 the object was to destroy a Conservative majority rather than create one. And, in both those instances, it didn't actually happen; it was a threat rather than a statement of intent.

Whether or not their numbers are boosted by more than 100 or so coroneted freshmen, it is unlikely to be (rather sedate) business as usual for the present incumbents.

So what could the future hold for Lords Tyler, Teverson and Burnett, say? Or Baronesses Miller and Wilcox (recently appointed a Business Minister). Two of these West Country ornaments of the peerage have barely had time to make themselves comfortable on the red leather.

Well the Coalition says it may offer them a bit of "grandfathering" in a reformed (and wholly-or-mainly-elected) second chamber. Dispensing sage advice to the newcomers, perhaps.

"One day, my son, all this could be yours... err, well, I suppose it is already, really..." That kind of thing.

But the gardeners-in-their-own-palace option may not appeal.

In the Savoy Opera Iolanthe the noble lords took a far from relaxed view of radical plans to reform their House (even more so than Lord Cranborne and his gang in 1999).

The reform in question made admission to the upper chamber dependent on competitive examination - to ensure that its members were persons of intelligence.

Appalled by this - and utterly unwilling to share the red benches will all those grammar school boys - the peers sprouted wings and flew off to Fairyland (bear with me, this is Gilbert and Sullivan we're talking about).

To be fair, they were also lured thence by the prospect of eternally youthful (and doubtless delectable) fairy brides. Something, alas, that even the "groundbreaking" Coalition is unlikely to be able to deliver for any of us.

But it's just possible that this solution was in the mind of one South West peer I questioned on Lords reform a couple of years ago.

What, I asked, would happen to ceremonies like today's state opening - a pageant interwoven with the gilded Lords' chamber and its aristocratic inmates - if a wholly elected Upper House were introduced.

"Oh," he replied, with a knowing look and a twinkle in his eye, "we'll leave all that to Gilbert and Sullivan".

Yeoman of the Guard at House of Lords c/o PA Images

Fusion food in the Lib-Con café

Martyn Oates | 16:45 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

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Martyn Oates interviews Richard Drax

The "Rainbow Coalition" was never much more than a gleam in the eyes of a few nationalist politicians on the Celtic fringes of these islands (and I don't mean Cornwall).

However, a surprisingly wide spectrum of opinion appears to be flourishing within the ranks Conservative Party itself when it comes to the Lib-Con pact.

The official line is the obvious one: while the alliance falls far short of what the Tories ideally wanted from this election, it's now best feet forward "in an historic new direction".

But not everybody's as keen to be new best friends as Messrs Cameron and Clegg.

Watch the film below and you'll hear Richard Drax, the new Conservative MP for South Dorset, describing his partners in government as political bed-hoppers who'll cosy up to anybody in order to get their hands on power. In short, not the kind of chaps you can trust.

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At the other end of the broad church that is the Tory Party (I'm not sure whether she's very high or very low) is the new MP for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston. Successor to the legendary Anthony Steen, she prides herself on not having a traditional tribal background in party politics. This, perhaps, goes some way towards explaining her view that the Lib-Con pact is a marriage made in heaven.

So much for the backbenches. Meanwhile Cameron and Clegg are hailing "a seismic shift" in British politics".

Lloyd George c/o Getty Images

Lloyd George - you'll understand that the Oates bedside table is now ladened with learned tomes analysing the great and not so great coalitions of the past - would have found this kind of talk right up his street.

From 1916 he presided over the coalition which saw Britain and its Empire through the Great War. Emerging from the Armistice with near superhuman status, he decided to apply his Midas touch to keeping the coalition going into peace time.

Lloyd George was, of course, a Liberal. But his government wasn't - as you might reasonably expect - a largely Liberal administration with a few Tories thrown in to make up the numbers. On the contrary, he relied overwhelming on the Conservatives as the core of his government.

Many of the Liberals, indeed, were technically in opposition under the party's actual leader, Asquith, and cheerfully carried on during their own things (things, which fortunately for Lloyd George, didn't include trying to topple coalition governments).

Everything was held together by the charisma and cunning of the Welsh wizard.

From 1919 he tried to bring things to what he viewed as the natural conclusion: uniting all the coalition members into one nation-wide coalition party. The old party labels, he argued, were outdated; the challenges of the post-war era - not least the rise of Bolshevism - demanded a union of all the anti-socialist parties (there's a thought, perhaps, to resonate in 21st Century Tory breasts).

He called his big idea "fusion".

It failed, of course. In 1922, the Conservatives made a break for freedom following a summit at that high temple of Toryism, the Carlton Club.

The future was partisan and a political world in which the once-mighty Liberals were condemned to being bit players.

Which brings me back to the present.

I've just received a press statement from Jenny Roach, Nominating Officer for the Liberal Party in Exeter. The "continuing" Liberals, who rejected the merger with the SDP to form the Liberal Democrats, believe they are the true heirs of nineteenth century Liberalism.

"Liberals and Liberal and Radical Associations have always been locked in battle with a Tory Party representing privilege, wealth and elitist authority - since before 1857 and the formation of The National Liberal Federation," she says.

"I urge every Liberal and radical still left in the Liberal Democrats to resign to rejoin the Liberal Party."

It's fair to say the Liberal Party needs all the new members it can get. The party's traditionally remained fairly active in the South West, standing a respectable slate of candidates at general elections. This May though, it stood just one - in Exeter.

This was because its Cornish candidates were busy doing their own things. In this case a rather contrary thing: standing down and encouraging their potential electorates to vote for UKIP.

But for people who see themselves as the spiritual successors of Lloyd George and Asquith, this all, perhaps, makes perfect sense.

The cruel necessity of coalitions

Martyn Oates | 16:02 UK time, Monday, 10 May 2010

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Gladstone and Disraeli

"This... I know, that England does not like coalitions."

Disraeli, 1852

"Coalitions are detestable."


Ramsay MacDonald, 1924

For obvious reasons British politicians have never been madly keen on coalitions - or "mixed" governments, as Disraeli's great adversary Gladstone liked to call them (quite modern-sounding, that).

But they happen - and, in one form another, they've happened quite a lot in the course of this country's history. The Life on Mars world of the 1970s Lib-Lab pact is far from being our only point of reference.

In 1852 Disraeli was recognising the inevitability of a coalition which would drive him and his party from office.

MacDonald was perhaps being rather ungrateful. His two Labour governments of the 1920s (the first Labour governments ever) owed their very existence to the support of the Liberals.

Before inviting you to digest our debate on this very topic from Sunday's Politics Show, here are a few more words of wisdom from the the past, many of which ring uncomfortably true in the present:

"The formation of a mixed Government can only be warrantable or auspicious when its members have the most thorough confidence in the honour, integrity and fidelity of each other: when they are agreed in principle upon all the great questions of public policy immediately emergent: and last when a great and palpable emergency of state calls for such a formation.

"Such an exigency exists at the present moment and not only with respect to contingencies which may happen in connection with our foreign affairs: but more visibly and immediately with regard to a subject on which the public mind is always accessible, ready and receptive; with reference, namely, to finance."

Gladstone, 1852

The combination may be successful. A Coalition has before this been successful. But Coalitions though successful have always found this, that their triumph has been brief."

Disraeli, 1852

Hmmm...

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Porthole politics at the Royal William Yard

Martyn Oates | 17:29 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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The Politics Show election road tour ended on Sunday amid the splendours of Plymouth's Royal William Yard.

The former naval victualling yard has been lavishly regenerated with millions of pounds from the public purse. So we thought it would make an ideal place to talk about the economy and public spending cuts.

The yard was named after the "Sailor King", William IV (incidentally, David Cameron's great-great-great-great-great grandfather) - and we couldn't have had a better patron for our discussions.

William was a great believer in financial prudence, indeed frugality (not a bad thing to flag up to the public after the extravagance and excesses of his brother, George IV). His insistence on a low-key, low-budget coronation (again, in sharp contrast to the silk and ostrich feather-clad campery of his brother's bun fight) was dubbed a "half crown-nation" by those who thought he'd perhaps taken austerity a tad too far.

He also knew a thing or two about electoral reform - arguably the biggest elephant in the room at this election.

William signed into the law the Representation of the People Act 1832, better known as the Great Reform Act. This swept away the eccentric patchwork of constituencies, with all its rotten and pocket boroughs, which had developed since the Middle Ages and enfranchised the great industrial cities.

So, all in all, I like to think the old king was smiling down wryly from his plinth above the gate as we got down to it on Sunday.

If you missed the debate that followed, you can watch it above. I've also included a brief slideshow with some "behind-the-scenes" shots of us bringing the great enterprise to fruition.

You'll be pleased to hear that this Sunday I'll be safely locked up inside the studio again.

Join me then - and on Spotlight and the special BBC1 regional results programme at 9.00 am on Friday - to chew over the results after the big day.

A year on from Balmoralgate: will politicians pay at the polls?

Martyn Oates | 09:35 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

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Anthony Steen c/o PA Images

Following the Clegg bounce and Bigotgate, both politicians and journalists have torn up the script for this election.

Which is a bit of a Groundhog Day experience - because we were all doing the same thing almost exactly a year ago.

Last year's European and local elections were never going to be devoid of interest. Together they represented the last test of the electoral mood before the big one this year.

Then, just as things were limbering up nicely anyway, the Daily Telegraph dropped its MPs' expenses bombshell.

Over the weeks that followed there was feverish speculation that the electorate might be poised to break the mould of British politics. The big parties (none of whom escaped the expenses fiasco unscathed) were apparently heading for a uniform battering; the smaller, non-Westminster, parties would finally get the big break they'd spend years waiting and planning for.

As things turned out, on June 5 I found myself standing outside Devon County Hall reporting exactly the set of results the pundits had been predicting before the expenses scandal broke.

Whether it'll have any more of an impact this time round is anybody's guess.

However, here's a film which follows my entirely unscientific attempt to gauge the public mood.

Where? Why, Totnes, of course. Former constituency of the unforgettable Anthony Steen and home to his country residence. Last May he famously told the nation that his South Devon pad had been likened by some to Balmoral, the Queen's Highland hideaway. (Although a source far better qualified to judge than I assures me Sandringham is the closer comparison.)

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