Problematising Boundary Review Is Just A Way Of Entrenching The Labour Party’s Structural Privilege

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There are many obvious reasons for delaying or scrapping the upcoming constituency boundary review changes – but no good ones

See what I did with the headline there? Right-wingers can adopt the wheedling, victimhood-soaked language of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics too, if we think it is going to advance our cause or smite our enemies.

Left Foot Forward editor Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is in high dudgeon because the coming boundary review and shrinkage of the House of Commons from 650 seats to a slightly more manageable 600 MPs apparently means that too many of those who are left will be on the government payroll.

Ní Mhaoileoin writes:

The government’s plan to cut the size of parliament will increase the proportion of MPs on the government payroll, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has flagged.

According to new research, in a 600-seat Commons some 23 per cent of MPs would be on the government payroll, the highest proportion ever. The ERS warns that this could have ‘deeply worrying’ effects on parliamentary scrutiny and is calling for a cap on the number of payroll MPs.

‘This research shows we risk a crisis of scrutiny if the cut in MPs goes ahead without a corresponding cap on the number of payroll MPs,’ ERS chief executive Katie Ghose commented.

Having nearly a quarter of all MPs in the pocket of the PM is not a healthy situation for our democracy.

I think we can all agree that a body tasked with holding the executive to account which itself includes government ministers, parliamentary private secretaries and other hangers-on is always going to struggle to do an effective job – which is why many of us who think and care about constitutional issues all the time (as opposed to only when the system throws up a result we don’t like or disfavours our own preferred party) favour the total separation of the executive and the legislature.

Conservatives and progressives could potentially work together on reducing the size and cost of government while improving oversight by reducing the number of unnecessary junior ministers and official bag carriers, were it not for the leftist desire to have a government minister for everything under the sun, from Culture, Media and Sport to “Children, Young People and Families”. When your political philosophy expects and demands that the state be involved in every aspect of our lives, it inevitably necessitates a large cohort of ministers to do the meddling.

A cap on government payroll MPs would nonetheless be a reasonable (if typically British) compromise, but of course this is not what Ní Mhaoileoin really wants. And what Ní Mhaoileoin really wants is to maintain the current structural privilege currently enjoyed by the Labour Party. As Labour tends to perform best in urban seats, which themselves tend to be smaller and less populated than the suburban and rural constituencies where the Conservatives do well, the net effect for many years has been that it takes far fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative MP.

Think of the gross anomaly whereby the SNP won 56 seats in Parliament at the 2015 general election with just 1.5 million votes, while UKIP won just a single seat despite winning 3.9 million votes. In the case of Labour and the Conservatives, the disparity is less pronounced – but it still exists. Boundary reform seeks to equalise constituency sizes, thus addressing the problem (though sadly not helping UKIP, who do not boast the SNP’s narrow geographic concentration of support). And this equalisation will enforce a basic fairness, the value of which makes it worth suffering through any negative side effects, particularly where these can reasonably be mitigated.

The concerns about the upcoming boundary review are well-rehearsed and rapidly becoming tedious. One might take them more seriously if those who raise the concerns showed any interest in solving or overcoming the issues that they raise rather than cynically using them as an excuse to halt something which – despite its inherent merit – is likely to be detrimental to the Labour Party’s electoral fortunes.

In short, this overwrought leftist concern about a toothless Parliament in the pocket of Theresa May is merely an attempt to problematise the issue of boundary reform, throwing a spanner in the works to prevent electoral disadvantage to Labour. Ní Mhaoileoin is doubtless in favour of reducing the size of the Commons as an abstrat theory, and if she were pressed through a hypothetical example would likely object to the current distribution of voters among seats which favours one party over another. But because the currently-favoured party in our system is Labour, and because Labour stands to lose out in relation to the Tories through this particular boundary review, Niamh feels compelled to oppose it.

But how to oppose something that is so self-evidently worthwhile and logical? The only way is to go grasping for every last flaw or possible technical hurdle in the review, inflating them out of all proportion and presenting each one as a show-stopper (or at least as justifiable grounds for interminable delay). As with the British Left’s general approach to Brexit, Ní Mhaoileoin is desperately problematising the boundary review, hoping to scupper it without ever having to reveal her true, grubby, anti-democratic reasons for doing so.

Smart politics? Maybe. The principled, moral, liberal thing to do? Absolutely not. Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin’s position is actually profoundly conservative – and not in a good way.

But apparently any behaviour, no matter how tawdry and self-serving, becomes noble and virtuous when it is performed in the service of the Labour Party.

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Top Image: Wikimedia Commons

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This Generation Of Politicians Will Not Secure The Benefits Of Brexit

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Four months after the EU referendum, our leaders continue to shrink from the challenges (and opportunities) which lie ahead

As is nearly always the case, Pete North has the best analysis and summary of exactly where we are with our Brexit deliberations – and right now, the answer is rather depressing:

For several months we had the great and the good telling us how important the single market was and how valuable the EU was to the UK. Now that they are tasked with leaving the EU we see that they can barely define the EU and the single market let alone offer an adequate critique as to whether it is right for the UK.

Through successive treaties our parliament has idly signed away substantial areas of policy to be decided overseas with hardly any public scrutiny. It is therefore ironic that MPs now demand parliamentary sovereignty in scrutinising the terms of the exit arrangements when they showed so little interest in what they were signing away.

By voting to leave the EU we have caught the entire system of government off guard to show that is is totally ill-equipped to govern – and those claiming to represent us have failed in their duty to safeguard our democracy. Through forty years of negligence the UK’s trading relationship with Canada is decided not by Number Ten or Westminster. Instead it depends entirely on the Walloon assembly in Belgium.

And therein lies the inherent flaw in the EU design. The DNA is faulty. Introduce democracy and the whole thing grinds to a halt. Take it away and power ends up in the hands of the few. It cannot work and it cannot be reformed yet we have endured decades of politicians telling us otherwise.

One of the most depressing aspects of life post-EU referendum has been watching our national leaders shrink from the challenge of implementing Brexit. I don’t mean that they are all necessarily in denial, or that they wish to subvert the referendum result – but rather that their every public pronouncement suggests that many of them are simply not up to the task which lies ahead. Typically, this isn’t a question of intelligence, but rather a lack of imagination and ambition. And in truth, perhaps it is too much to expect the same politicians used to implementing EU decisions or operating within their constraints to suddenly step up and become adept drivers of a country suddenly without training wheels.

The debate has thus devolved into two rather tiresome strands – the one held by most Remainers, who have become intent on catastrophising Brexit at every turn and seizing upon every scrap of potentially troubling news as further evidence that the end is nigh, and the opposing, buccaneering view which loudly insists that everything can be wrapped up to Britain’s complete satisfaction by March 2019, and sees any questioning of this certainty as evidence of anti-Brexit treachery.

This blog falls down the gap between these two comically exaggerated positions, which is perhaps why I haven’t been writing about Brexit as much as I should have been lately. One can only slap down so much ridiculous establishment catastrophising of Brexit (now the nation’s fluffy kittens are in peril, apparently), while pointing out the need for a transitional arrangement and securing continuity of access to the single market still falls on deaf ears among those in charge, and only feeds the smug (but not entirely false) Remainer assertion that Brexiteers don’t know what they are doing.

And yet a transitional arrangement is exactly what we need, as Pete North explains:

What will become clear in due course is that Britain will need a continuity arrangement that sees little or no change to the labyrinth of customs procedures and regulations that make up the single market. Neither Britain nor the EU can afford to start tinkering under the hood of long established trade rules. The sudden collapse of CETA at the hands of a Belgian provincial assembly shows just how dysfunctional the system is.

If anything is inflicting damage on the UK it is not Brexit but the overall uncertainty over what Brexit looks like. This in part down to those media vessels determined to make Brexit look like a catastrophe and in part down to those politicians who have not bothered to plan for the eventuality. We are four months on from the referendum and key ministers are still struggling with basic terminology.

Brexit is by far the biggest and most ambitious thing that this country has attempted in decades – frankly, since the Second World War. It demands painstakingly extricating Britain from a web of agreements and schemes of a complexity befitting an organisation which still seeks to become the supranational government of a federal Europe. But to make it even more complicated, we will wish to maintain many avenues of cooperation after leaving the EU’s political union, meaning that a slash and burn of laws will not do – hence Theresa May’s much over-hyped Great Repeal Act.

As Pete points out, it is highly ironic that sulky Remainers are suddenly so interested in having Parliament examine every aspect of the secession deal (with the more juvenile characters, who clearly know nothing about negotiations, expecting to be briefed in advance) when over several decades they blithely signed away powers to the EU with barely a second thought, and certainly no real public debate.

It makes the Remain camp’s current favourite attack line – Brexiteers wanted to return decision-making power to Parliament, so why won’t they let Parliament have a say?! – especially cynical. But the argument is wrong anyway. “Returning powers to Parliament” is a handy catchphrase, but it is a glib one, always favoured more by eurosceptic MPs than the general public.

The current anti-establishment rage currently roiling Europe and America shows that political leaders have become too distant from (and unresponsive to) the people, no matter the level of power. Therefore, returning powers to the Westminster parliament is not enough – we need an end to British over-centralisation and the devolution of power back to the counties, cities, towns and individuals.

Sadly, the chance of meaningful constitutional reform taking place in Britain any time soon continues to hover around zero. And rather than Brexit being the catalyst for such change, as this blog once hoped, it now seems that an intellectually and imaginatively challenged political elite will hide behind the complexity of Brexit as an excuse to avoid doing anything else of substance. One can easily foresee a situation in a decade’s time where Britain is technically outside the EU but stuck in an increasingly permanent-looking halfway house, with acceptable access to the EEA but with none of the later work to move towards a global single market even started.

Would this be good enough? Well, Britain would be outside of the political structure known as the EU, which was always the base requirement – so if one is happy to shoot for the middle and accept the bare minimum then yes, it might have to do. But it would be an appalling failure of ambition, when there are real opportunities to improve the way that international trade and regulation works and to revitalise British democracy through wider constitutional reform.

But to realise great ambitions requires there to be half-decent leaders pointing the way. And looking at the Tory “Three Brexiteers” and the dumpster fire that is the Labour Party, one cannot help but conclude that great leaders – even just competent heavyweight politicians – are in short supply at present. Do you really see Boris Johnson’s name featuring in a future Wikipedia article about the great British constitutional convention of 2020? Or Theresa May’s? Jeremy Corbyn or Hillary Benn’s?

Do I regret my decision to campaign for Brexit? No, never. The European Union is offensive to any proper sense of democracy, or to the notion that the people of a sovereign nation state should decide and consent to the manner in which they are governed. Being rid of the EU (and hopefully helping to precipitate that hateful organisation’s eventual demise) is a solidly good thing on its own. But Brexit could be so much more than it is currently shaping up to become.

And perhaps this is the most damning thing of all about the European Union: the fact that 40 years of British EU membership has slowly turned the nation of Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher, Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore – men and women of principle and substance – into the nation of Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Chuka Umunna, Diane Abbott and Owen Smith.

A nation simply does not bounce back from that kind of decline in the space of a few years, and the more that our contemporary politicians carry on about Brexit the clearer this becomes.

Assuming that Brexit goes to plan, it may not be until the next generation of political leaders come of age (at the earliest) before we can finally take full advantage of our newfound freedom.

 

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Top Image: Stux, Pixabay

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Unimpeachable

The blogger MyKeyStrokes writes an excellent piece trying to dissect the American right wing’s newfound, fruitless obsession with the idea of impeaching President Obama.

Yeah, that's not going to happen.
Yeah, that’s not going to happen.

Essentially, those elected GOP officials and conservative pundits who peddle this impeachment talk know that there is zero chance of making this outcome a reality – but of course, that was never their aim:

Sometimes politics is like high-stakes poker. If you look around the table after a few hands and you can’t tell who’s the pigeon, citizen, chances are it’s you: the guy who plunked down $26.95 for a book called Impeachable Offenses: The Case for Removing Barack Obama from Office.

Yeah, you with the “Impeach Obama” bumpersticker on your car. The guy standing on a freeway overpass waving a “Honk for Impeachment” sign. You may as well go around in a little bird’s nest hat, like Donald Duck’s eccentric friend Gyro Gearloose.

Because it not only ain’t going to happen, but the people peddling this nonsense don’t even want it to happen. Not really. They’re just making a buck off people who can’t count and running a classic misdirection play.

Yes. Making a quick buck by whipping scared people into a furious rage, and then either selling them products that help to reinforce their End Times beliefs (Obama wants to destroy America! We are now a socialist country!) or leveraging their support to achieve higher political office.

As MyKeyStrokes sees it, however, this is potentially good news for any centrist or Democratic-leaning voter, because the more preoccupied the GOP becomes with the alluring mirage of seeing President Obama impeached, the more they inadvertently reveal that they have given up hope of passing any of their agenda (see the 40 pointless votes to repeal ObamaCare in the House of Representatives as just one shining example):

Like it or not, the possibility of repealing “Obamacare” ended when the Supreme Court found it Constitutional and the president won re-election. You’d think after 40 — count ’em, 40 — fruitless votes to abort the law, that message might start to sink in. We still have majority rule in this country.

But no, it hasn’t sunk in at all. Like a baseball team demanding to play the eighth game of the World Series, GOP hardliners have come up with yet another plan to force the president’s hand. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has called for something he infelicitously called a “grassroots tsunami” to make Obama relent.

Whether the GOP’s current malaise is a good or bad thing largely depends on one’s own political leanings, or the importance that one attaches to having a functioning two-party system where neither party is beholden to an intractable, crazy political base. Personally, as someone who advocates for smaller government and empowering the citizen over the state (and consequently very much against the recent assaults on the First and Fourth Amendments by the Bush and Obama administrations), I find it disheartening to find myself frequently having to side with Democrats because the other side are, more often than not, acting in a totally nihilistic, immature manner.

It was bad enough when this childish behaviour (“I didn’t get my way, so now I’m taking my toys and leaving, and refusing to cooperate or compromise in the business of government”) was limited to the House of Representatives, but now we see this reality-denial infecting the Senate as well. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are rising stars in the GOP, and both have some degree of promise. Certainly neither of them are stupid. And yet they both seek to burnish their conservative credentials by playing chicken with the US debt ceiling again, and failing to call out the crazies from among their supporters who have persuaded themselves to believe that a twice-elected president pursuing his political agenda is somehow akin to “high crimes and misdemeanors” worthy of impeachment:

At a recent town hall meeting in Muskogee, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, ostensibly a personal friend of the president’s, answered a constituent’s question about impeachment by allowing as how “those are serious things, but we’re in serious times. And I don’t have the legal background to know if that rises to ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ but I think you’re getting perilously close.”

Campaigning in Texas, Senator Cruz responded to a constituent who asked, “Why don’t we impeach him?” by saying, “It’s a good question.”

No. It isn’t a good question. It’s a dumb question. Ted Cruz graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and assuming he wasn’t high during his constitutional law lectures, understands perfectly well that Obama has not committed any impeachable offense any more than have the previous eight or so presidents.

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But impeachment is not the goal. The business of governing through compromise is not the goal. Even the full enactment of their declared conservative agenda is not the goal (Republicans will rail against dependence on government but would never risk the wrath of the AARP by voting to abolish the socialised medicine that is MediCare). So what is the goal?

Money and/or Political Power.

And all of those saps “honking to impeach” Obama are playing right into their hands.

Taxes, The Answer To Everything

HMRC taxes

 

When your default position holds that Government should always be bigger and seek to do more, and play an ever larger role in the life of the citizenry, it generally follows that you will also be obsessed with tax policy, and ingenious ways to come up with new revenues. After all, the all-seeing, all-knowing behemoth has to be funded somehow.

Polly Toynbee, in her latest Guardian column, lambasts the Conservative-led government for “giving up” on trying to find new revenues, and imagines a world where tax avoidance (perfectly legal) and tax evasion (not so much) can be eliminated at the click of her fingers. She writes:

Cutting the 50% top rate suggests no great enthusiasm for rigorous taxing. Last week’s ONS figures revealed gigantic avoidance of the 50% top rate. It could have been collected but George Osborne needed to prove it didn’t work. The Treasury estimated raising the rate to 50% should bring in £6.2bn, but the actual return was a puny £100m.

In year one, before its official start date, high earners gamed the tax by rushing to take dividends and bonuses early. They paid more into pensions, gaining undeserved higher tax relief. Or they used trusts, or took income as capital gains. (That can be stopped, by fixing capital gains, as Nigel Lawson did, at the same rate as income tax, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies advocates.) Once Osborne announced the top rate would fall to 45%, high earners gamed it again. Incomes Data Services reports a massive delay in bonuses until after 6 April, when they leapt up by 107% in the finance sector to catch the new 45% rate. That could have been forestalled.

In Polly Toynbee world, a 50% top rate of tax is absolutely worthy and to be encouraged, and she sees nothing wrong with this, but we already know that. What is more striking, however, is the glib way in which she assumes that the population, outraged by such high taxes, can simply be stopped from taking perfectly legal measures to limit their tax bill. Phrases such as “that can be stopped” or “that could have been forestalled” are boldly laid down, but are not followed up with the how to do it when it comes to implementation.

When she does offer specific prescriptions for raising more tax revenues, she picks and chooses from the worst and most counter-productive tax policies from around the world, including this gem:

Britain can do plenty alone: we could adopt US tax laws that make every UK passport holder, wherever they are in the world, pay UK tax.

Ah yes, double taxation. The United States is the only major western country to enforce this policy of taxing their citizens on money earned overseas, and the policy is universally despised and acts as a significant disincentive for many Americans to work abroad for any length of time. But by all means Polly, let’s adopt that hated policy.

This is not to say that there is not a very real problem of tax avoidance, but it is far more on the business side than the individual side. People are rightly outraged when companies such as Starbucks use crafty mechanisms (“oh, we have to pay all the money we make in our UK stores as a royalty to our European headquarters in Amsterdam, so we don’t have any UK profits to be taxed this year, sorry”) to avoid paying tax on profits earned in Britain. And somehow it seems even worse when those same corporations, under the harsh glare of the media spotlight, deign to cut the government a cheque, to throw the exchequer a small bone to help solve their PR crisis.

Of course, the whole quagmire could be cleaned up very easily if only there was a political party (hi, UKIP) willing to take a scythe to the existing British tax code and rebuild it from the ground up, based on the tenets of real fairness, which of course means a flat tax. A flat rate of tax on income, corporate profits, capital gains and (if we must keep it) on value added, i.e. sales. Wherever possible, double taxation should be avoided – if you have paid tax on income or a purchase already, HMRC should not be allowed to come back for a second bite of that asset later on. And if we have learned nothing else from our friends across the sea in the United States, deductions should be avoided at all costs, as should Gordon Brown’s labyrinthine system of tax credits that you can claim for everything under the sun. Eliminate deductions and tax credits so that you can lower rates for everyone.

Toynbee concludes:

Tax cheating should be Labour’s chance to tell honest political truths: you get what you pay for, you can’t have Swedish services on US tax ideology. Tax is the price we pay for civilisation. At elections, all parties promise the impossible, more with less and cuts in “bureaucracy” to pay for everything. Treating the public like children on tax does nothing for trust in politics. The door has opened for that conversation.

In her mind, big government is synonymous with “civilisation”. The more responsibilities that the government takes on, and the more that citizens are subservient to the government, the more “civilised” that society becomes. Polly Toynbee probably knows more history than me, but I can think of at least a couple of great civilisations from the past that survived and prospered just fine without 50% top rates of income tax, married couples allowances, earned income tax credits or personal allowances.

And if Polly Toynbee really thinks that the door has opened for a conversation about the government going back to talking half of every pound that you earn above a certain threshold, and preventing citizens from making private financial decisions and transactions at a time of their own choosing so as to limit their tax liability, I am reasonably confident that she will find that door slammed very hard in her face by the British people.

Budget 2013 Drinking Game – The Results

Well, Budget 2013 is now behind us, though the frenzied analysis continues unabated.

We heard George Osborne’s more-of-the-same speech.

We heard Ed Miliband’s “I would do roughly the same, but make things slightly worse” rebuttal (despite the deputy speaker’s unfortunate rhetorical question asking Labour backbenchers why they didn’t want to hear their own leader).

It’s time to check our scorecards and see how we fared in the Semi-Partisan Budget 2013 Drinking Game!

Semi-Partisan Budget 2013 Drinking Game - The Results!
Semi-Partisan Budget 2013 Drinking Game – The Results!

 

Well, the results are in and it looks as though I have done rather well.

The most magnificent triumph, of course, was my correctly predicting that George Osborne would have a “Marco Rubio” moment mid-speech, and urgently grasp for a glass of water. I awarded myself extra points for that prognostication.

Some, of course, could not be proven one way or the other – the ridiculous rules which still govern the filming of Parliament mean that you rarely get to see a full shot, so I’m not sure who was throwing their order papers, or popcorn, or kicking the seat of the MP in front of them.

But I will take 18/25 as a good result any day. The middle square, of course – an actual sensible policy proposal – was always out of the bounds of possibility, and needless to say did not come to pass.

I hope that you had fun playing, and I would be very interested to hear of any other similar Budget (or other politically) related games that readers may know about. Please do share them in the Comments section underneath this post, or send them to me @SamHooper.

A “fiscally neutral” budget. Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic (to use a very tortured metaphor).

Happy Budget Day, everyone!

 

Semi-Partisan Sam