The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘reform’

September Sittings

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 2, 2010 @ 10:18

Dry, dusty, deathly dull. Academia: The new fragrance from Calvin Klein.

Being such a bore, I have just finished skimming through a few copies of Hansard relating to all the parliamentary fun of the past week or so. The most interesting part comes here, spoken by the Leader of the House, Sir George Young…

Colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise at the end of business on Thursday 29 July and, subject to the will of the House, return on Monday 6 September for two weeks.

That means Parliament’s failed attempt to introduce September sittings many years ago is going to be reattempted this year.

There are many arguments for and against September sittings. The most obvious one against it is that there seems little point coming together for two weeks, only to then bugger off again for the party conference season, before returning once more in October. In normal years, MPs would be returning for the fag-end of a session before the Queen’s Speech. This year, because it’s a long-session, there won’t be.

All a bit silly, but so much of politics is in this country, because we’ve never designed our system from the ground up. Everything is tacked on, modified, adapted, and scrapped in a piecemeal fashion.

In principle I’m not all that in favour of our parliament sitting more, not if it’s merely to pass more legislation. Our parliaments have done quite enough of that in the past 13 years. But if the extra sitting time is used for some more debates, some more private member’s business, genuinely topical stuff, and perhaps a debate initiated by a public petition, it might actually be worth it.


Unfortunately, the last time September sittings were tried most MPs just didn’t bother. Most resented losing their usual constituency time, and the whips only half-heartedly scheduled business. There was nothing interesting going on, and so no one bothered. The idea was quickly scrapped.

I have a feeling we’ll be going this way again. It looks like a new government trying to show how much they want change, and going out of their way to make a token gesture that will affect no one, and might even be made up for by adding bonus recesses elsewhere.

My only hope is this: Leader of the House Sir George Young and his deputy David Heath are both strong parliamentarians. They both want to strengthen scrutiny, both want to make the House more relevant, and make the government more accountable.

It remains to be seen whether they can convince their colleagues that it’s going to need more than just a tinkering with September sittings…


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Hannan: A Marked Card

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 26, 2009 @ 09:08

Carlsberg don't write books on party discipline, but if they did...

Dan Hannan, that strange creature whom the Tories once loved – and are now keeping him at a necessary distance – has decided its time to make MPs work harder:

There is a case, though, for making an exception in 2010 and having the House of Commons sit through August, as my party is apparently considering. Why? because doing so would allow an incoming Conservative Government to implement The Plan in just one legislative session

My first impressions on this post were that it was just another shameless Christmas sales plug. After all, his co-author Douglas Carswell has been doing that too. It might even be a concerted effort by them. Well, we all have to make a living somehow.

Then my thoughts turned to the size of the ego of anyone who can make the above statement. Yes, let’s make MPs sit through the summer so they can implement your agenda – a man who won’t even be a British MP, and is on the fringes of influence in the Tory party.

But then that’s an easy criticism to make. After all, most politicians have vastly inflated egos. It’s almost part of the job description, to think you’re good enough to represent 70-80,000 constituents. And in Mr Hannan’s case, his European parliamentary constituencies are even larger.

Of course, the idea of cancelling MPs holidays and getting them to put in some extra shifts is hardly revolutionary. People seem to be calling for it all the time, and I have a sneaking feeling that at some point in the future MPs very long summer recesses are going to be either broken in two or redistributed across the calendar, resulting in longer recesses for half-terms and Easter.

So far, so dull.

But Hannan is insistent on trying to claim the credit for the various raft of unconnected ideas the Tory party have came up with over the past 12 months. From open primaries to fewer MPs. But is he right? And furthermore, is any of it actually going to happen?

We still don’t really know. We may get a better idea when the Tory manifesto emerges for the next election. Some of the ideas are good, and I hope the Lib Dems will join on board for the useful aspects of parliamentary reform, assuming Labour kick all of this into the long grass before the election.

Yet on the question of whether he is right to say the party are following his lead… I suspect he is deliberately over-playing his influence in an attempt to appear relevant to the party leadership. He’s gotta stay in the news somehow. After all, Hannan resigned from his responsibilities amongst his fellow Tory MEPs. His ascent up the greasy pole lasted all of two months.

In truth, the trappings of office probably didn’t suit him. He is used to speaking his mind. Used to telling us how wonderful his ideas and plans are. And now he will be able to do so.

Loose cannon alert.

It will be very interesting to watch a Prime Minister Cameron deal with the likes of Hannan and his renegade chum Douglas Carswell. After all, Cameron has never really had to deal with real internal opposition.

With that in mind, maybe we don’t really know Cameron after all…

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The Problem With The Kelly Report

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 5, 2009 @ 09:02


Rumours that the report contained one of these appeared to be exaggerated.

Yesterday’s release of the Kelly Report into MPs expenses was largely overshadowed by the fact that it had been leaked horrendously in the week before. Worse, it was then pushed for airtime by the nonsense that is Cameron’s new EU policy, which has made Dan Hannan even more of a muppet than before, and which will completely isolate us within it.

But there was a gaping hole in the middle of the Kelly Report. For those who thought it might lead to a brigher era, with new spiffy MPs that are respected because of their hair-shirtedness, it is something of a disappointment.

The big problem is that the report says absolutely nothing about what MPs ought to be paid. Bear in mind that MPs pay is the elephant in the room, and that Kelly’s recommendation to farm it out to an independent body is merely buck-passing.

It’s far more important because the MPs expenses and allowance system got so grotesque because MPs pay was being artificially kept low. It’s the classic con-trick. Watch my hand as I only raise MPs pay by small amounts per year, while my other hand is furiously filling in expense claims, to which I attach no receipts, and simultaneously speculate on the property market…

A number of MPs and organisations made submissions to the Kelly inquiry hoping that MPs pay would be front and central of his recommendations. Instead, the issue has been dodged. Maybe by some miracle the new independent regime to handle expenses will finally come to the right conclusion and recognise MPs genuinely do deserve a pay rise…

But the right time, surely, was now. While the issue is live and the public are keen to see reforms. While the media are paying close attention is the honest time to have this debate. Not in a couple of year’s time when the expenses affair, nullified by a general election and a new system, has died a death. That would only be seen as, yet again, greedy, grasping MPs trying to claw back what they’ve lost.

Worse, it would start to bring down the reputation of the newly elected Parliament, something we could avoid entirely by doing it now. After all, the reputation of the current lot could hardly be any worse. Why not utilise the lame-duck status of it to deal with this issue once and for all?

The Kelly Report is otherwise a useful step. It stops all the obvious outrages. That’s what we expected it would do, and MPs would be foolish to try to derail it; that really would push the reputation of politics over the edge.

But maybe we could have convinced them by sweetening the deal a little.

Politics should be fair to everyone. Even politicians.

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Bercow “Gets It”, But Do Other MPs?

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 25, 2009 @ 06:33

See? I told you he's been waiting. He's been standing there all summer, parading with the Mace. He told me he wants to get the Speaker's Procession "just right".

See? I told you he's been waiting. He's been standing there all summer, parading with the Mace. He told me he wants to get the Speaker's Procession "just right".

At last! Having enjoyed a nice summer, thank-yew-very-much, Speaker Bercow has decided that it probably should be the last.

I can just imagine him in Speaker’s House, sitting there all summer, “smart but unfussy” black gown hanging neatly in the wardrobe, twiddling his thumbs waiting to get back into action, laying the smackdown on errant MPs and ministers. Seeing all this political activity buzzing around him in conferences up and down the country, and yet powerless to do anything about it.

But it’s not just the summer recess that he wants to truncate. No, he’s got big plans.

The good news for those of us who like manifestos and mandates is that Bercow was elected on a pledge to try to bring these into action. In other words, he’s going to attempt to keep his promises.

“Attempt” is the strongest word we can use, though, as it’s all going to be down to whether his fellow MPs take his lead and bring about some of these changes.

They’re nothing too revolutionary… but they are a very welcome start to try to make the House of Commons more relevant in the modern age. Tacked at the end of the above linked article is probably the most important one: the chance to give backbenchers the opportunity to call a vote. This was a power they used to have, but one they desperately need if we’re to avoid a debacle like the one we saw which eventually led to the demise of Speaker Michael Martin.

Following that too would be the institution of a business committee, like the Scottish Parliament, that would mean the government no longer controls the agenda of the Commons. That is important to strengthen checks and balances.

But the other reforms are just as sensible, and will do an excellent job of at least bringing the Commons into the 20th century, e.g. bringing peers before the Commons is just “common sense” – forget the arcane rules that currently don’t allow MPs to hold Lords Mandelson and Adonis to account. He also listed other reforms, but the level of detail is dull. Suffice it to say that each one on their own is useless, but as a package they will improve the ability of MPs to do the job they should be doing: i.e. holding the government to account.

It is good to see the Speaker using his mandate in this way. He promised he would get out in public and make speeches, even appear on television. That is absolutely right in this modern age. The people aren’t going to come back to the politicians willingly. Alas, they are going to have to go out and re-earn the respect they once had.

The big question is as I said earlier: will the government and opposition frontbenchers (because they’re going to be the next government!) be willing to subject themselves to more scrutiny? Do turkeys vote for Christmas?

And will those Tories who think Speaker Bercow was just one big Labour conspiracy support this agenda?

Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a remarkably popular behaviour in Parliament. I wouldn’t bet against it.

(Bercow’s speech to the Hansard Society is not yet available, but most of the key points have been twittered)

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Purnell: “Send In The Goats” (apparently)

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 24, 2009 @ 06:34

What does he look so happy about? He's jobless isn't he? Oh no, hang on, he was magically given the job as director of "Open Left". The result of a free and fair selection process, I'm sure.

What does he look so happy about? He's jobless isn't he? Oh no, hang on, he was magically given the job as director of "Open Left". The result of a free and fair selection process, I'm sure.

… says James Purnell:

British politics is better for the appointment of Mervyn Davies, Stephen Carter, Mark Malloch Brown and indeed Baron Mandelson. We should make such appointees accountable to the Commons so that this becomes an accepted way of attracting people with recent real life experience of politics.

One might think this is James Purnell coming out in favour of more appointments to the House of Lords who then become ministers, which is an entirely undemocratic process for our political system, especially when those same ministers later resign/retire and then become a burden on the House of Lords for the rest of their days thanks to cronyism. But wait…

peers should be elected and given the task of amending legislation

Well… it seems the Guardian headline doesn’t quite match the story. As usual, suckered in by the media.

Instead, what Purnell’s article in Progress Magazine is actually about is the question of democratic renewal and the best ways to achieve it. Number one on his list is my old friend, the open primary. He reckons that this is the way in which we will usher in a broader range of people from different backgrounds into politics. He moans about it being:

almost impossible to get selected as a candidate of one of the main parties unless you’re a political lifer. As an ex-special adviser and councillor, I’m not against people who’ve worked in politics becoming MPs, but we should be a smaller share of the total.

… which is an easy thing to say but rather difficult to achieve in practice. I’m not so sure the trend towards “professional” politicians is that bad; as long as our MPs are extremely empathetic individuals with a great deal of emotional intelligence, they will be good at seeing the world from the perspective of others no matter where they come from. That’s not to say I want a Parliament of career politicians, but they do have their role to play.

So what is Purnell’s real point? Coming out in support of an elected House of Lords is always welcome, but Labour won’t be delivering it any time soon. Neither will they be ushering in an era of open primaries, or party funding reform (Purnell suggests parties should be state funded), and suggesting the era of collective responsibility for Cabinet is dead and may it rest in peace.

All very nice. But Labour have had 12 years to do all this and spectacularly failed. The obvious conclusion is that there is clearly no appetite for his ideas in the party.

In other words the only way any of this is going to happen is if: a) Cameron does it; or b) Purnell becomes the leader.

So is that the real point? Is this merely a little piece of fluff to rebuild his reputation with the dying breed of radical reformers on the centre-left? A long term plan to not be the next leader, but the one after that?

Or should he just defect to the Lib Dems now, where it sounds to me like he’ll be more at home?

Well, we are supposed to be the party of all the talents. POATTs doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, though.

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Book Review: The Audacity of Hope

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 22, 2009 @ 06:30

Now he really is a little too cheerful on this cover page...

Now he really is a little too cheerful on this cover page...

I’ve been meaning to share some of my thoughts on my completion of Barack Obama’s second treatise for a while now but never seem to find the time to do it. However, a trip to Bangor to do some Lib Dem canvassing tomorrow means this post was prepared a little earlier for publication today. Oh, how I love WordPress!

The Audacity of Hope is an impressive read. Obama’s mastery of the spoken word is legendary, but that doesn’t necessarily translate so easily into print. The delivery of Obama’s speeches is as much responsible for his talent as the content of them.

In written form, you have no chance of using pauses for effect and dramatic intonation. You’ve gotta deliver the goods in a completely different way: with cogent, well-structured argument that builds up to its thesis.

Obama seems to be pretty decent at this too. The book is a measured approach to what Obama plans to do during his term(s?) of office. To say it is pragmatic would be an understatement. This book has convinced me that Obama is no visionary, like FDR. He has his dreams, but he doesn’t appear to be able to follow them through because of his (paraphrased) continual refrain of “I see your point”. It gets somewhat exhausting the deeper you go into the tome.

Many times in the book Obama insists that both sides have got the solution to a problem wrong. This is no more so than when he talks about race – an area in which his writing is particularly compelling. He argues that the left making excuses for black people means that they don’t take personal responsibility seriously. Meanwhile, the right’s arguments that they deserve no special treatment doesn’t appreciate the pain brought about by decades of repression.

Yet Obama manages to square the circle in his response, something I’ve discussed in a previous post. His solution to most things appears to be to tell both left and right that they’re wrong reminds me of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Our old friend, The Third Way.

It works to a limited extent. It gets you elected. It keeps people happy for a while. But in the end, when it comes to conviction, it can be a huge drawback. Perhaps this is why he is missing the huge opportunity to push forward with healthcare reform. He tried to make out that he would be a “healing” President, contrary to the way George W. Bush drove everything and anything through Congress.

Consequently, he is terribly afraid of doing the same.

But in the case of healthcare, he’s missing a trick. The public are behind him. He has to be brave enough to take upon the mantle of the destroyer of special interests. He claims he is prepared to take them on in this book; indeed he insists that they are one of the reasons why America is in trouble. But I’ve yet to see him really do it.

I think this natural caution is stopping him from becoming a seriously great President.

While the book is sensible and middle of the road, tackling defence, terrorism, partisan bickering, religion and family in rational, logical ways, his approaches and solutions are lacking. By that I mean that he underestimates his own power of persuasion.

Instead of trying to be centrist and “bi-partisan” by pandering to his opposition for no reason other than keeping them sweet, I believe he could very easily forge a consensus around his true beliefs by ratcheting up the rhetoric. It is equally “bi-partisan” if you stick firmly to your guns and win people to your side. On healthcare, if he could only do that, rather than trade away bits of the necessary reform to buy off corporate lobbyists and corrupt Senators, he would achieve his vision; rather than only get bits of it.

Better still, he would actually deliver something that works. Taking ideas from left and right, just because that’s the nice and friendly thing to do, and adding them up into one package doesn’t make a neat centrist plan that will succeed. It makes a hotch-potch of contradictions that will be exploited and ignored.

This is the dangerous ground he is wading into. He almost did it with the stimulus – which is working – to buy votes in the Senate that he didn’t need. Throughout the book though he is hyper-obsessed with delivering things without the usual partisan battle. Like he has a fetish for seeing the Senate vote count read 70+ instead of the 50 + Joe Biden that will do equally well.

Face up to it, Barack. Politics is about the battle. That’s partly why we play it. That’s why the Republicans want to fight with you at every turn. That is democracy, and the way it has always been done. Even in consensual countries; they still have elections after all! You’re right to say we can work together if our opinions are similarly aligned. But you will get no extra credit for working with crazy, right-wing nutters who think you weren’t even born in the country. Doing so will only water down what you really want, and deliver none of that so-called “change” that you desperately want to bring.

In the book, he seems to believe that he will be able to overcome these decades of partisan hackery. It’s not going to happen. Instead, he needs to show more courage in his beliefs. More faith that he, himself, does have the right answers.

Because that’s the real message that comes across. People shouldn’t go into politics unless they think they have a solution. That they have ideas and a strategy to deploy it. Instead, Obama comes across as not believing he has a way forward – but that he will find it by working with everyone.

It’s a noble attitude, admitting that you don’t have the solution to all of life’s problems. And none of us do. But, for those of us in politics, our fundamental beliefs should give us a steer on almost every issue, no matter what.

Obama doesn’t seem to have that conviction. At least, it doesn’t come across in his writing. His only faith is that the spirit of the American people is strong enough to find a way out of the hole they’re in. As if he can delegate enough power to let everyone else do the reforming for him. A misguided belief, too, that when people work together they can all find the answers that the country desperately needs.

In other words, it’s all the usual optimism and hope that “yes, we can”. But not enough meat.

Then again, if it was full of turgid policy details, I imagine it wouldn’t have been all that exciting a read.

Instead, it flowed well, was enjoyable, and it was uplifting. I really did believe that his brand of change is worth buying into. As a slick marketing document for his presidential candidacy, it is superb. And, as we’ve seen, it did the job.

But, as soon as I put my politico hat back on, I realised I still wasn’t quite sure exactly what it is he wants to sell me. What the implications of his agenda will be.

Fortunately, we have been able to see him get elected, so we can match him up against his word.

So far, it’s not all too good.

Perhaps, like Tony Blair though, he will learn to back his conviction more and more as the years go by.

Just as long as they don’t lead us into Iraq again…

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