Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Coalition

I dont normally write about politics, well, that's not true. But I dont normally write about party politics. I'm not partisan, there are idiots and there are brilliant minds in all parties (... well ... maybe some of the minor parties that may not be the case). And there are brilliant and awful policies from all parties. (I am for example, a huge fan of UKIP's policy on drugs and education, but am I ever going to vote for them? Oh hell no). And I dont like to ally myself with specific parties and be asked to defend some policies I dont like.

This is not to say I dont have strong tendencies, far from it. I am a fully paid up card-carrying (... well not card carrying because they dont have cards but ...) member of Pirate Party UK. They have 3 policies and I agree with all of them, so I feel it is appropriate for me to give them support. Likewise in the last election I voted for, and publicly supported, the Lib Dems. I dont like all of their policies, far from it, if I had to decide if opposing nuclear power or capping bank bonuses whilst doing nothing to salaries was the crazier idea I'd have difficulty making my mind up. But the bulk of their manifesto (on the areas of science and political reform which I care about) was very good, and far superior to either major alternative.

I'm laying all this out because I dont want to be blamed for what happens over the next 5 years. If this parliament goes badly wrong then I reserve the right to say "nothing to do with me guv". I do not support this government unreservedly, nor do I automatically applaud all it's actions. Neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems are "my guys". Not my fault.

However, I'm writing this because I have a terrible feeling. A feeling that has shocked my anarchistic soul: I'm happy with this government. I approve of the broad sweep of its policies. Not just one or two things, there are entire sections of the Lib-Con agreement that I simply love. I think this parliament has the capacity to be Great. And here's why

Political system. For a while now I have been advocating a fully elected second chamber (who hasn't) but with a fundamentally different voting system to the first. This way the second chamber has democratic legitimacy but is not simply a mirror of the first. This is important. The reason for a bicameral parliament is for both chambers to hold the other to account. The idea being that if one chamber wishes to do something very objectionable the second chamber has a chance to stop it. This is impossible if either the second chamber has no power or authority to stop destructive legislation as now or if the second chamber is going to agree with the first one anyway. For this reason I advocated a full PR system for the Lords and some kind of FPTP/AV unrepresentative system in the commons. This way we can have a real check to the power of the commons.

Fixed terms. Fixed terms are a good idea. But that's not important compared to the clause tucked on the end of this section. That it would require 55% of MPs to call an election before that time. This is truly radical. For those panicking that this is illiberal and dangerous because it raises the threshold for confidence votes, I think your worry is a good reaction, but in this case invalid. It is still the case the a government that didn't pass the budget by a simple majority would resign. The opposition has never had the power to force an election, only to force resignation of the government, a power it maintains. What is radical is what is important. It is the curious nature of our constitution's concept of parliamentary sovereignty that a group of 325 MPs is sufficient to act as unrestricted dictator. There are precedents, treaties and guidance to limit what a majority of the commons can do in practice, but in principle they have total authority. This is, in my humble opinion, a serious failing of our constitution. The principle is laudable, that it should be parliament, not the king or the gentry, who decide our laws. But this implementation is just wrong. It is not anti-democratic to say that 51% of our MPs do not have the authority to do as they please without limit. It is an empirical fact that 51% of MPs have acted in the past and will act in the future against the will of the people, and against the principle of liberality that many of us hold dear. It is a major leap to suggest that some things should require more than this, and it is a good one. There have to be limits on what MPs can do. Not to tie their hands, but to slow them down and make them think. Many complained that 40% of the US Senate could hold up health care reform for a year, this was America's fine constitution in action. That bill was bad, those who thought it was far better than no bill still agree it was bad. And it is important that no government be permitted to rush through bad laws without proper scrutiny and consideration.

The Great Repeal Act. Doesn't it just sound like a subheading in a history textbook? "The Liberal-Conservative coalition passed the Great Repeal Act in 2010, this overturned some of the worst excesses of the previous government and set the scene for a great expansion of civil liberties in the years to follow." ... maybe a tad optimistic, and we dont know the exact content. But cutting back ID cards, stop and search, Digital Economy, the DNA database etc is really really important for this country. Whatever you think about the labour government's record, their response to terrorism and their utter contempt for civil liberty is utterly disgraceful. We need to cut the vast majority of all anti-terror laws, most the powers given to the police and local councils. Simply because they are incompatible with a liberal democracy. You cannot have a free country if 40% of black men are on the DNA database compared to 5.2% of the population. You cannot have a free country where councils are allowed to follow people's moments in order to determine if they live in the catchment area they say they do. You cannot have a free country where the police can break into a man's home and handcuff him for displaying a poster calling David Cameron a wanker. Civil liberties in this country are in a grave state, we need this bill.

Coalition. The very principle of the thing pleased me. Quite aside from the deal that was struck this was the best outcome arithmetically. The other options were: the anti-Tory alliance with a majority of about 3 or a Tory minority 20 seat short of security. We got a majority of 37. I would like this majority to be smaller. I like weak government, ie government that has to do most things by consensus, this tends to produce the most clearly thought out and liberal laws. Up to a point. This point is why I prefer the majority to the minority. The US senate is again an example, I applaud the republicans for holding up health care, it's exactly what they need to be doing, holding the majority to account and making sure that their legislation is in the public interest. However. The way they did it produced very bad results. The bill as passed was a nonsense, a thousand page monstrosity of a bill with thousands of small exceptions, loopholes, special projects. This is what happens when the minority tries to sink legislation rather than improve it. So I dont think it's the case that minorities are automatically better. In this parliament in particular it is important for a workable majority to exist. Leaving economics quite aside, this needs to be the reforming parliament, it needs to pass changes to the voting system, great improvements to civil liberties etc. These require one government to be around for several years. And a minority would not produce this, a minority might have better scrutinised legislation (more likely however it would simply pass a whole lot of bribes in the form of funding to Scotland, NI and Wales) but it would collapse after at most 3 months. Probably to produce a far stronger Tory government than the current coalition, with no commitments to a great program of reforms.

Lib Dems No, really, Lib Dems, in office. This is fantastic. This will do two things: make the Lib Dems a real force in politics, and whatever you think about the Lib Dems as a party, and end to monolithic left v right arguments is something to be happy about. Secondly it will improve the Lib Dems. So often they have been dismissed as being impractical and high-minded, "that works fine if you're never going to be the government, the real politicians have to be more realistic though" is used against the Lib Dems all the time. And, often, fairly. It will be good for there to be 3 parties that genuinely know what government is like and can produce realistic and workable policies.

In summary. I'm cautious. But I'm very optimistic about this government. It may fizzle out, but it has the potential to be a parliament that goes down in history books as a major period of reform and change to the constitution,and to politics in general.

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