Is it 1983? Fire up the Quattro!

April 17th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

Last night I watched Ashes to Ashes on BBC1.  For those who didn’t get to see it, it is set in 1983, and the storyline last night was linked to the General Election of that year.

The relevance to this post was a piece of footage of the election, showing Roy Jenkins, one of the gang of four who left Labour in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party;  The BBC news commentator said Mr Jenkins is buoyed up by recent polls placing the Alliance ahead of Labour”… ominous stuff following the first-ever televised leaders’ debate this year.

As I type, the dust has barely settled on the YouGov/Sun poll last night showing a massive bounce for the Lib Dems, just pushing Labour into third place. Now there are reports of two other polls showing a similar trend (though ICM still has Labour in second place).

Of course none of us really knows how the debate will affect the dynamics of the remainder of the campaign.  Can the Lib Dems solidify their position, or have they peaked too early?  Who knows? And frankly it is pointless speculating.  What we have seen is our politics (and this election) getting interesting.  When I wrote my blog piece on the February polls, and the speculation of a hung parliament, it was just that – speculation.  Now it is looking more and more likely as an outcome.

Even before the debates, the Tory leads in most polls were not quite enough to deliver them a majority in the new House of Commons on a uniform swing (though with local factors and a concentrated effort in the marginals and a non-uniform swing in key seats it was actually possible).  Now, with each of the main parties appearing to be very close to each other with around a third of the votes each, a hung parliament is looking very likely indeed.

Back in 1983, and because of our electoral system, the surge in support for the SDP/Liberal Alliance didn’t translate into seats. It did however help to deliver a massive Conservative majority by depriving Labour of seats it needed to hold (and others it needed to win back which it had lost in 1979), and it pretty much kept them out of power until the Blair landslide of 1997.

If the current poll trends are to be believed (and they may settle back down into the pre-debate positions in a few days), and because of the same electoral system, Labour on around 30% would win just short of 300 seats and would be the largest party in the House of Commons. The Tories and the Lib Dems also on around 30% would win something like 200 and 100 seats respectively.

Unlike in 1983, the present Lib Dem surge is actually a disaster for the Tories. Undoubtedly, if replicated in the election, the current polls would spell the end of any hope of a Conservative majority. The Cameron project will have spectacularly failed.  The scale of the Tory slump is really clear when yesterday’s YouGov/Sun poll is compared with the YouGov/Sun poll from just TWO days earlier:

14th April            Con: 41%, Lab 32%, LD 18%

16th April            Con: 33%, Lab 28%, LD 30%

17th April            Con: 33%, Lab 30%, LD 29% (Update at 9pm)

Nothing yet is written in stone. There’s still two debates and three weeks left to go.  The Alliance surge of 1983 didn’t in the end ‘break the mould’ of British politics. Will 2010 be different?

How is it for you? GE2010

April 16th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

Please understand that I’ve been a bit busy and so I haven’t sadly been able to blog as much as I would have liked, what with the general election (and local elections in Stockport and Tameside (have to keep my councillors sweet!)).  I know the first rule of blogging is keep things up to date, so I apologise.

Even in a constituency like Denton and Reddish, a parliamentary candidate’s diary very quickly fills up.  I’ve had the official campaign launch; opened a £6m new primary school in Audenshaw; opened a new play area at a local SureStart centre in Haughton Green (both done before I officially ceased to be an MP) and today I’ve had a school visit and a hustings both in South Reddish.  Tomorrow, there’s the delight of our street stall at Houldsworth Square in Reddish, too!

Anyway, for any candidate, elections are a very hectic time.  We are completely obsessed by polls and newspaper headlines. We stress about nomination papers, getting leaflets from the printers, batching them up and getting them delivered.  We are absolutely fixated on canvass returns and voter ID; but of course, the reality is that while the rest of the population may have a passing interest in the election, most people are just getting on with their daily lives.

So how is the election for you so far? Two weeks in and lots of leaflets and direct mail delivered, media coverage galore, and the first-ever televised leaders’ debate… has the election campaign in 2010 set you alight yet?

PS, only three weeks to go!

Sometimes we can change the world

April 7th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

Thank you Gordon Brown… having been told yet again by the doctors (and the Whips) to “take things easy and rest” the prime minister has gone and paid a visit to Her Majesty and called a General Election.

Semi-joking aside, 6th May was the worst kept secret in all Christendom.  Given that the local elections were already scheduled to take place on that day, it made no sense to hold the two polls on different days – although that did last happen in 1992 (when the General Election was in April and the Council polls just four weeks later).

Of course, until next Monday I remain a Member of Parliament.  Then the current parliament is formally dissolved and a Writ is published for elections to the new parliament.  As I type, MPs are currently pushing legislation through streamlined parliamentary procedures so that some Bills can become law in this session.  Commonly known as the wash-up, the procedure is usually non-contentious, although this time round the Digital Economy Bill is causing real concerns to people (if Twitter is anything to go by).  I agree. I think a Bill of this magnitude probably needs full parliamentary scrutiny.

The good news from the wash-up though is my Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill was included on the list of Bills agreed between the Government and Opposition and, thanks to Sally Keeble MP for stepping in once again, it completed its Commons stages today.  Tomorrow it is in the Lords and – with a bit of luck – it should become law!  To everyone who supported my bill, thank you!

My private members bill succeeding is actually quite a nice way to end this parliament.  After all the (self inflicted) bashing politics and politicians have taken in recent years, let the Debt Relief Bill serve as a reminder that most people are involved in politics for the right reasons, to help change the world… and sometimes, just sometimes, we manage to do just that!

Over the next month I plan to blog from the campaign trail…

The best things in life are free

March 29th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

Firstly my profuse apologies to my regular visitors (and to Think Politics) for me not blogging as frequently as I ought to have in recent days. I have been using my time well preparing for the General Election.

Some good news – today is officially my first day back at work after my long illness. That’s not to say I’m 100% better – I know I’m not; but I am fit enough to return to my Parliamentary duties, so I’m typing this up on the Virgin train to London.

On the subject of news, I notice there’s a full-scale debate kicking off over some national newspapers deciding to charge for access to their internet content.  Of course, on one level, this is crazy. There is so much ‘free’ competition in cyberspace that many people will just go elsewhere for their daily fix of news.

On another level, this is part of much larger process of change taking place in the media world.

Last year I spoke in a Commons debate on regional and local news.  The debate had been granted following the Guardian Media Group’s decision to close a number of local newspaper offices around the Greater Manchester area and ‘consolidate’ their operations with the Manchester Evening News. Inevitably this led to job cuts and less pro-active local journalism.  Now there’s set to be further changes given GMG has sold the Manchester Evening News Group to Trinity media.

The whole episode at the Manchester Evening News and Greater Manchester Weekly Newspapers is relevant to the ‘free news’ debate, because many of the changes locally have been driven by the same factors, not least with MEN having to become a free sheet in the city centre to compete with the Metro; and while this is probably an extreme example, I know of one elderly gentleman who – using his ‘free’ travel pass – gets the local train from where he lives and travels into Manchester (a 12 mile journey) in order to pick up his ‘free’ edition of the Manchester Evening News!

Certainly for Guardian Media Group, and their owner, the Scott Trust, the only issue has been their legal obligation to maintain in perpetuity the (Manchester) Guardian newspaper. All the recent organisational changes have been to achieve that aim; cost cutting elsewhere in the organisation to protect the national title which itself is struggling financially.

Set this within the context of loss of advertising income (partly by the growth of internet advertising and partly due to the economic downturn) and the general expectation that news should be free online, all newspapers are finding it increasingly difficult to remain economically viable.

Should we care? I think we should.  It is certainly nice to have access to free news online (and there are some excellent sites out there), but if that’s what we want then we have to find a fresh business model to pay for it.

Otherwise the alternative, I fear,  is poorer journalism and, for me, that’s not an option worth considering.

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Kill Bill

March 15th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

Everything seemed to be going smoothly, a bit too smoothly perhaps, for the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill.  That was, until a lone Conservative MP – and there were only three in the Chamber! – shouted “OBJECT”.

That one word, echoing around a near empty House of Commons means my Private Members Bill did not get its third and final reading last week.  We try again this Friday (19th March) but realistically last Friday was the only opportunity we had to get proceedings started in the Lords before the General Election is called; there has to be a two week gap between the Commons stages and the Lords.

It was just possible, with government and opposition support, that the Bill could have been agreed in the ‘wash-up’ immediately after dissolution and, therefore, would have become law.  This now won’t happen.

Indeed, the most annoying thing is how the Conservatives have led people a merry dance over my Bill.  On the face of it, they supported it (albeit with some minor reservations).  At second reading, they said lots of nice things about the Bill from their frontbench, and yet the tell-tale signs were there, even then.  Sally Keeble, who kindly piloted the Bill through the various stages in my absence, and I wanted to try doing all the stages – 2nd reading, Committee and 3rd reading – all on the afternoon of 26th February.  The Liberal Democrats and the various minor parties all agreed to this approach because they supported the Bill.  The Conservatives, however, wouldn’t agree to this fast-tracking approach, ensuring it had to go though each stage separately.

We continued to try and bring Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition on board, and at Committee stage even accepted a number of concessions and amendments so the Bill could be supported by all parties and become law.  The Conservative frontbench got everything they asked for, including a sunset clause, meaning the legislation would have to be voted on annually for it to continue.

Which brings me back to last Friday: just three Conservative MPs were in the Chamber. Two were Opposition whips, and one was the Chairman during the Committee Stage of the Bill.  One of them shouted “OBJECT”.  With that single word, not only was my Private Members Bill effectively killed, but the hopes of the 40 poorest countries in the world, too.

With that single vocal objection, the United Kingdom Parliament sadly signalled to other countries (many who are looking to introduce similar legislation) that we think it still alright for the so-called vulture funds to buy up cheap historic third world debts and then sue for full repayment with interest here in the British Courts.

View the Jubilee Debt Campaign on Vulture Funds here

Co-sign Douglas Alexander’s letter to David Cameron here

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All politics is local

March 10th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

In one of the Commons committee rooms there is a huge portrait of Joseph Chamberlain, the Birmingham MP and father of the infamous Conservative Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.

“Our Joe” as I am told he was affectionately known by his supporters, was also the Mayor of Birmingham at the height of municipal greatness; perhaps local government’s finest hour!  For example, Chamberlain established a municipal gas supply by forcibly purchasing the two private gas companies on behalf of the city for £1,953,050, even offering to purchase the companies himself if the ratepayers refused.

In 1876, Chamberlain also forcibly purchased Birmingham’s waterworks for a combined sum of £1,350,000, creating Birmingham Corporation Water Department, having declared to a House of Commons Committee that “We have not the slightest intention of making profit…We shall get our profit indirectly in the comfort of the town and in the health of the inhabitants”.

By the late nineteenth century, these kind of improvements were being replicated in towns, boroughs and cities around the country. Local government had the power to act – and it did.

Looking at local councils now, they are huge organizations – often the largest employers in their communities after the NHS; and yet they are, sadly, a shadow of their former self.   In part, it is because they are less ‘local’ than they once were.  The large authorities created in April 1974 may have made sense in terms of introducing proper economies of scale, but at best it made councils seem even more remote from the communities they seek to serve.  My own council, Tameside Metropolitan Borough, in Greater Manchester is a collection of nine towns – five from the old Lancashire side of the river Tame; and four from historic Cheshire.  I’m sure you can imagine the civic rivalries!

And in the brief time I was a councillor (from 1996-2008) I have seen leisure centres, housing provision and other key functions lost to non-elected bodies, Trusts, or even centrally managed by Whitehall.

The main parties all say they support localism – it’s the new buzzword, but what does it mean, and why do so many policies put forward by the parties contradict it?  If we believe in localism, then let’s stop capping Council Tax increases.  I know in some areas, that may be unpopular but I say let the people decide if they want to pay more for better services; if they don’t, then vote for someone else. It may actually start to increase local election turnouts.

In fact, isn’t it a scandal that our councils are so heavily dependent on central government funding that in order to increase their annual budgets by just one percent, they have to increase the Council Tax by over four percent!

Others argue that the Council Tax is unfair and regressive – and I understand that position – but want to replace it with a local income tax which – wait for it – would be administered through PAYE or self assessment via HM Revenue and Customs, effectively stripping local authorities of even their revenue collection functions. More centralisation!

There is a real danger that our local authorities will merely be administrators for central government.  The time is now right to have a debate about what powers our local councils should have; what size our councils should be, respecting community ties but maintaining those economies of scale (maybe by joint commissioning); and let’s have a proper discussion about how local services are funded.

If “all politics is local” then let’s start to prove it!

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Farewell Michael Foot (1913-2010)

March 4th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

I was genuinely saddened to hear of the death of the former Labour Leader, Michael Foot, yesterday.  Without a doubt, his death marks the passing of one of the great parliamentarians of the post-war era.

Born into a Liberal family, Foot became a committed socialist after he witnessed extreme poverty in Liverpool.  He subsequently came to London and worked for both Tribune, and for Beaverbrook as a highly successful journalist and writer.  Foot gained his first great claim to fame as the author of Guilty Men, the 1940 polemic against the pre-war appeasers.

In Labour’s 1945 landslide victory, Foot unexpectedly won Plymouth Devonport for the party. After losing Devonport in 1955 he succeeded his hero, Aneurin Bevan in Ebbw Vale after his death in 1960.

Michael Foot represented a tradition in the Labour Party that often fell out with the party’s leadership, and he even had the whip taken from him in the early 1960s.  He also shunned high office, despite several offers of ministerial posts from Harold Wilson; he finally he relented to be Employment Secretary and then Leader of the House under Callaghan.

Much has been written about Foot’s great oratory (a skill sadly lacking in modern politics) and for me, one of his most memorable Commons speeches had to be the one he gave as Leader of the House of Commons on 28th March 1979, when he closed the ‘No Confidence’ debate on the night the Callaghan Labour Government fell.

He became my party’s leader in the aftermath of that 1979 election defeat and Callaghan’s resignation the following year, as the candidate most acceptable to both wings of the party.  It is easy to be critical of Foot’s leadership not least because he led Labour into near oblivion in the 1983 General Election where we came close to third place behind the SDP-Liberal Alliance!

I actually take the more sympathetic ‘Kinnock view’ that Michael Foot did his best to hold what had become a divided and self-indulgent party together in extremely difficult circumstances.  In any case, the Labour Party survived (which was by no means certain back in the early 1980s) and after 18-years in the political wilderness, eventually returned to government.

The 1997 Labour manifesto couldn’t have been more further removed from that of 1983 – or ‘the longest suicide note in history’, as Sir Gerald Kaufman famously dubbed it.

Whatever Michael Foot thought of Tony Blair’s new Labour project, he continued to passionately support the Labour movement and the Labour government, and loyally kept quieter than I imagine he would have done in the 1950s!

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Middle-East: Peace in our time?

March 1st, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

Foreign Affairs is one of my main interests in Parliament; I have a particular interest in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and, importantly, in the middle-east peace process intended to resolve it.

Israel and Palestine is a fantastic region, with a wonderfully rich history, beautiful scenery and really great people and it is nothing short of a tragedy that, for the past 60 years, Arab and Jew have been in conflict over the same relatively small piece of land.

I want to start this post by saying something which has, sadly in my opinion, become very contentious on the left in British politics in recent years: I consider myself to be a ‘friend’ of Israel.  Of course, as parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel, you might expect that statement to be a given.   Actually I consider myself equally a ‘friend’ of Palestine and the Palestinian people, too.  I don’t actually see why one should cancel out the other, particularly if we believe in a peace process where ultimately there will be two viable and secure states side-by-side, as I do.

I first visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories in 2007, and I have since led delegations of British MPs to the region in both 2008 and 2009.  We get to meet a cross section of key people in Israel and Palestine including Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, US Lieutenant General Dayton and Quartet Representative, Tony Blair; through to the aid agencies, charities, teachers, doctors working hard on the ground for peace. We get from them all a clear understanding of the issues and the work being done to bring the two sides together.

Every time I visit the region, I am struck by the real optimism for the future despite all the seemingly intractable issues still on the table left unresolved.  It is also very easy to focus on the things not going right and to ignore that real progress is actually being made too.

For example, in recent weeks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to a US proposal for indirect peace talks with the Israeli government. That has to be a good thing.  The British government has also continued to call for the resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority towards a two state solution and the Egyptian and Jordanian leaderships have made positive statements on the need for renewed talks.

Movement and access, and the availability of water, continues to improve in the West Bank due to increased Israeli-Palestinian Authority cooperation.  Indeed, the visible changes in Ramallah just between my visits in 2008 and 2009 were remarkable.  The West Bank economy is growing by over 7% a year, assisted greatly by the lifting of movement restrictions as the British and US trained Palestinian policing units take more control over internal security; and it shows!

There is the problem of Hamas in Gaza, of course.  This is a ‘two state’ peace process, not ‘three states’ but Palestinian unity is proving very difficult to achieve, despite Egypt’s best endeavours to bring Fatah and Hamas together. Equally, as life for ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank improves considerably, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip remains dire with Israel and Egypt severely restricting the quantity and type of goods allowed into the territory in an effort to prevent Hamas from manufacturing and firing rockets.

As a result, much of the extensive infrastructure damage caused by last winter’s Israeli military operation is yet to be repaired. The British government rightly pledged £54 million in emergency aid over the last year to meet the needs of the people of Gaza, and in December 2009, DfID pledged an additional £5 million for teachers for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides schooling for 206,000 children in the territory.

So some things are improving – albeit I admit very slowly on the political front – and there are still some very difficult issues to be resolved on Jewish settlements, final borders and on the eventual status of Jerusalem. There is also a niggling fear in the minds of ordinary Israeli citizens that, despite the recent period of quiet, rocket attacks could easily be resumed from both Gaza and Lebanon.

Let me end this post on an optimistic note: In a CNN interview on 7 February, King Abdullah of Jordan urged the USA to give the peace process its “undivided attention”, asserting that “the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Palestinians want a two-state solution as soon as possible”.  He’s right.

Can a lasting peace be achieved soon? With that renewed effort, I very much hope so!  The opportunities and benefits for the region are there to be grabbed.  After 60 years of conflict, the time is indeed right.

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England, a constitutional conundrum

February 25th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

To anybody who is still sceptical about the use of ‘new media’ in political debate, take note; I’m still pretty much engaged in the English devolution debate started on Twitter a few weeks back, continued on my blog and now continuing to rumble on, on Twitter!

Only today, the SNP minority administration in Holyrood has announced draft plans for a referendum on either full Scottish independence or what they are calling ‘devolution plus’ (giving further responsibility to the Scottish Executive for matters still currently the remit of Westminster).   What happens to the draft referendum bill, let alone what the result of any referendum would be, is purely a matter of political speculation at this stage.  What I want to explore is the English dimension to all this.

As I have previously said, I am a Unionist.  I want the United Kingdom to continue as a sovereign nation state. I believe that we are stronger together than we would be apart.

But the United Kingdom as we know it today, evolved over centuries– and must continue to evolve and adapt if it is indeed to survive for the future.

Wales was effectively conquered in the 14th century, and legally subsumed into England during the Tudor period.  Scotland has been conquered, regained political independence, itself secured the English crown peacefully, and in 1707 voted to join England in a political union creating a whole new country, Great Britain.  Ireland too, joined this political union in 1801 to create a ‘United’ Kingdom, and ever since those various points in history the debate about ‘independence’ and ‘Home Rule’ have dominated domestic politics – right through to this present day.

Britain has never actually been a unitary state.  Scottish law remained different to that in England and Wales, and for many years Northern Ireland had its own Parliament despite still sending Members to Westminster too.

Without a doubt, the UK of 2010 is politically a changed place.  Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is a firm reality and – with a few hiccups along the way – has been largely successful for those nations.  But there is also clear unfinished business in our constitutional arrangements.

Firstly, we in England need to decide what we want our relationship to be with the other home nations.  We need to decide how best our own political arrangements can be improved to allow decisions to be taken at the appropriate level of government, and in a fair way.  As I said previously, I have an open mind about how to address the ‘English question’.

I am not a fan of regional assemblies and never have been.  I don’t believe my constituents want one and it would be largely irrelevant to them.  Had we had the referendum in the North West, I would have campaigned for a no vote.  I can, however, see some logic in having a devolved English Parliament with similar powers to Holyrood, and a much smaller UK Parliament for all reserved matters.

And, though I still think it would be largely unworkable, because most bills do have a Scottish or Welsh dimension (however small), I can also see the logic of having the status quo at Westminster but with only MPs from English constituencies voting on ‘English-only’ matters.  I’m sure other ideas can be added to this fairly inexhaustive list!

Perhaps a good model to adopt would be the Australian and Canadian federal system where each state (provinces in Canada) have their own legislature, government and Premier, and then a Federal Government and Prime Minister overseeing all the national politics. We are three-quarters the way there anyway!

Whatever the model, perhaps the starting point needs to be the establishment of a cross-party, cross-civic society Constitutional Convention.  Let’s thrash out a devolution settlement for England and put an agreed position to the people and let them decide how we wish to be governed for the future.  And, for someone who wants to defend the Union, importantly let’s debate what England’s political relationship should be within a modern United Kingdom.

Let that debate continue…

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Andrew’s addendum

February 24th, 2010 by Andrew Gwynne

POLLS UPDATE:

Late last night on Twitter, @toryatsea (yes I do have quite a few Tory friends on Twitter, I know!) was bemoaning the ‘poll obsessives’ – something I concede from my sick bed, I have become.  This was following the latest YouGov tracker poll for The Sun, continuing to show only a 6% Tory lead.

The tracker poll is an interesting beast.  My understanding is there is a set sample and each day, the oldest data drops off and a similar new sample is added.  In theory, any switches in support over events, should be immediately apparent, rather than having to wait for the next monthly poll to be produced.  Of course, the usual points about margins of error, etc., still apply.

The most interesting thing about the YouGov tracker (as at 24th February in any case) is that there has been very little movement, despite all the media hype over ‘Bully-gate’.  Whether this factors into subsequent polls still remains to be seen, but the YouGov tracker is also in line with all the other current published polls (except the Angus Reid polls which are wildly out on anything else published!)

YouGov Tracker Poll:


CON LAB LD Lead
24 Feb 38% 32% 17% Con +6%
23 Feb 39% 33% 17% Con +6%
19 Feb 39% 33% 17% Con +6%
18 Feb 39% 32% 18% Con +7%
17 Feb 39% 30% 18% Con +9%

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VULTURE FUNDS:

My Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill has its second reading on Friday. As I mentioned in my earlier blog piece, Sally Keeble MP (pictured) has very kindly agreed to take the Bill forward for me on Friday – and until I can properly return to work following my recent health problems.  The text of the Bill and Explanatory Notes can be found here.

And here’s a piece from today’s Guardian too.