Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why Barlinnie still won't be a stop on the campaign trail

I just want to return briefly to the plans to give (some) prisoners the vote, and address a couple of the most fatuous arguments that have been doing the rounds about why it couldn't possibly work...

1) It would distort the result of elections in constituencies with prisons.

As with so many other aspects of this issue, it appears that those determined to be outraged have simply stuck their fingers in their ears whenever an explanation has been given of how the new rules are likely to work in practice. The government made clear from day one that they would be looking to register people to vote in the place they were last resident before being sent to prison. It's not as if there's anything complicated or ground-breaking about such a system - that's exactly how it already works for ex-pat voters. Thus the (very small) "convict vote" will be diluted to the point of virtual meaninglessness across all the constituencies of the UK.

2) Politicians would have to go to prisons to canvass for inmates' votes.

This is the most laughable one of all. Since when has simply having the vote ensured that any particular group has to be listened to? Are politicians interested in the underclass simply because they have the vote? Or in 18-year-olds? Or in singletons who enjoy lie-ins and daytime TV? No, they're interested in middle England, older people and the fabled "hard-working families" respectively. What matters is not whether a particular group has the vote, but how strong they are in numbers, how likely they are to turn out to vote (hence the greater attentiveness to people in older age ranges) and above all else how 'worthy' they appear to the electorate at large - politicians might know perfectly well that the votes of people on benefits are numerous and valuable, but it would still be suicidal to be seen to be actively chasing them.

So, bearing all that in mind, what are we looking at with prisoners? A group that is weak in numbers (less than 0.2% of the population), that will probably not be highly motivated to use the right to vote, and that is the absolute antithesis of "decent, hard-working families" in the public mind. That does not strike me as a recipe for regular campaigning stops to Barlinnie.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Woolas today, the Snarl tomorrow?

To turn now to a meatier aspect of the Phil Woolas ruling (assuming it stands), the first thought that occurred to me is that it's only a matter of weeks since Iain "the Snarl" Gray appeared in a Labour Party Conference Broadcast and uttered the extraordinary words "over the last three-and-a-half years, the SNP have broken every single promise they have ever made". If we are now going to have a firm legal precedent that politicians cannot knowingly make statements that are demonstrably untrue, presumably in future the SNP will be able to challenge such broadcasts. But what an immense pity Gray didn't make such an absurd claim during the formal period of an election campaign...

Wishful thinking over Woolas?

As I've mentioned before once or twice (well, twenty-three or twenty-four times) I've been an off-and-on poster on Political Betting for the last two-and-a-half years, but I've become increasingly alienated as time has gone on - although somehow I can never seem to keep away entirely. The main problem has been the slow but steady takeover of the lengthy comments sections (which have always functioned more as open forums) to the point that it is now something akin to ConHome II, or GuidoLite. But what has also increasingly irked me of late is the subtle agenda-pushing in the guise of objective posting by its Tory-leaning Lib Dem editor Mike Smithson. To be fair, he made no secret of the fact that he wanted his party to form a coalition with the Tories rather than Labour in May, but since then there have been an endless series of innocuous-looking posts that pose as thoughtful, non-partisan editorials, and yet which mostly carry the same underlying message - coalition with Tories good, alternatives bad. One recent fixation has been the court case against Labour MP Phil Woolas, and the prospect of a by-election - which, on paper, the coalition parties would have a chance of winning. So unsurprisingly today's news from the High Court has been greeted with a certain amount of thinly-disguised glee -

"So now we have it. The case has gone against Woolas and we look forward to the by election."

Well, no we don't just yet, do we? What we actually wait for first is the possibility of further legal proceedings - which, as anyone who remembers a court case that disbarred a Labour MP after the 1997 election will know, could perfectly easily go in Woolas' favour. Mike then gives the game away completely with this train of thought -

"But why oh why in the period between the hearing and today’s judgement did Ed Miliband appoint Woolas as a shadow home office minister...what sort of message does this send out about EdM’s approach to this ultra-sensitive area? And what does it say about possible future relations with the Lib Dems?"

Just for the sake of clarity, I'm no fan of Woolas or of the smearing of political opponents, and I'll shed no tears for him if the verdict is upheld. I'm also - in principle - happy to see the complacency of the mainstream media shaken up by the likes of But I really think Mike is doing his site few favours with this repeated reporting of wishful thinking as objective fact. Perhaps he should just drop the pretence and transform it into an openly pro-coalition blog and forum.

UPDATE : As the afternoon has progressed, increasing doubts have been raised about the possibility that any legal avenues Woolas could explore would actually prevent a by-election, a change in understanding which Mike Smithson reports in the following way -

"There’s lots of confusion about the current status of Woolas which has been partly clarified by Paul Waugh’s Tweet."

Hmmm. I'm not quite sure how all that "confusion" over his status was reflected in the initial post four hours ago that baldly stated "and we look forward to the by election".

'Nation' shall speak war unto 'region'

Just a few more thoughts on the furore over last week's Question Time in Glasgow. I originally wrote the following as a response to Tris on the previous thread, but I thought I might as well devote a fresh post to it :

It's striking that Audience Services' response to BellgroveBelle (and others) again seeks to draw a black-and-white distinction between the 'national' issues that are appropriate to discuss before a UK-wide audience and the 'regional' issues that are not - without ever explaining how they actually go about defining a 'national' issue, which is where the nub of this problem actually lies. Based on what we've seen over the last two weeks, the only possible interpretation is that Question Time policy is to define matters relating solely to England as 'national', and therefore by definition of interest to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - but to define matters relating solely to Scotland as 'regional', and therefore of no conceivable interest to viewers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (That would be consistent with the example I gave last week of David Dimbleby perversely referring to the English rules on DNA retention as the "United Kingdom position".)

Now, a bright three-year-old could spot the gaping hole in that logic, but nevertheless there can be little doubt that's the policy. Wouldn't it be helpful, therefore, if the programme-makers stated it out loud, tried to defend it (God knows how), and let others take issue with it in an open debate? Instead, it's just 'out there' somewhere in the ether as the unspoken premise for their defence of last week's show - a premise they apparently (and incredibly) feel is so self-evident they don't even need to bother justifying it.

UPDATE : I see that BellgroveBelle has sent off a complaint about last night's show as well, asking for an explanation of how discussions about English tuition fees and the US midterm elections could possibly be deemed appropriate in the light of last week's ruling from Dimbleby that only matters of relevance to a "UK audience" could be raised. Now, what do you want to bet that, if she receives a personal response at all, it'll strategically pretend not to notice the tuition fees point (which genuinely is unanswerable) and deal with the American example instead?

Britain a democracy in 1867?

Nothing on Question Time tonight to match last week's extraordinary scenes, although I did form the distinct impression that David Dimbleby couldn't have listened to a word of Jeremy Browne's response on prisoners' voting rights. Dimbleby started challenging the Liberal Democrat minister on why all prisoners had to be given the vote just seconds after Browne had made fairly clear that wouldn't actually be the case. And a couple of other points that raised my eyebrows...

Jack Straw lambasting the Lib Dems over their "deceit" on tuition fees. He's quite right, of course, but is he really ideally placed to be making that point? He was, after all, a senior member of a government that was re-elected in 2001 on a manifesto pledge that "we will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them".

Secondly, David Davis asking if the European Court of Human Rights didn't realise that Britain had a democracy in 1867 when the ban on prisoners voting was first introduced. Hmmm. If we had 1867 levels of enfranchisment today, I think a great many more people than just Strasbourg judges would be startled to learn that it apparently constitutes democracy - not least women.


Going back to last week, I've just caught up with the response that was sent to BellgroveBelle after she complained about Dimbleby's handling of the programme in Glasgow. It goes without saying that it's totally unsatisfactory and airily dismissive of the very serious concerns that were raised - and the fact that the producers couldn't understand that what happened was indefensible even after a period of reflection is in many ways more troubling than the initial incident. But what leapt out at me most was the very careful usage of the words "anti-Scottish bias". Now, it wouldn't be quite fair to call that a straw man argument, because the claim of anti-Scottishness certainly has been made by some - but it's nevertheless a very convenient one to latch onto. Implicitly asserting that David Dimbleby is not some kind of anti-Scottish bigot is rather easier territory on which to fight than trying to rationally explain away the breathtaking contradiction of an editorial policy that demands Scottish guests and audience members must address "UK-wide" issues at all times, but which somehow permits the first quarter of tonight's show to be largely taken up with a discussion of a tuition fees policy that does not apply in Scotland. (You know, that well-known part of the United Kingdom.)

Rule of thumb - if you wait for an answer to an unanswerable question, you'll generally wait in vain.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Are David's little helpers about to go large?

The Independent is reporting that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are toying with the idea of a pact in the event of a Yes vote in the AV referendum, meaning that each party would urge its supporters to give a second preference vote to the other -

"Some Tory MPs are advocating such an agreement to keep Labour out of power. Although Liberal Democrat MPs are more cautious, they admit a pact would be a possibility if the Coalition proves successful."

Have these Lib Dem MPs even taken ten seconds to think this through? The only thing that could begin to make it worth their while to agree to such a deal would be a commitment from the Tories that the coalition would continue regardless of whether they won a majority in their own right - and yet history shows a coalition in such circumstances is barely worth having for the junior party. The reason? Quite simply that the Lib Dems would have no bargaining power left at all - it would be a coalition that stands or falls entirely at the Tories' discretion. The two parties could draw up the most solemn and theoretically binding partnership agreement in the world, but the Lib Dems' own betrayal over tuition fees shows just how much such commitments are worth once the cold reality of the parliamentary arithmetic makes itself felt. If the coalition breaks up in this parliament, the Tories know they risk losing power instantly - but what would they be risking by breaking a coalition deal if they had a majority anyway?

The paradox is that, under AV, urging Lib Dem voters to give a second preference to the Tories may well - at least in some circumstances - make a meaningful coalition less likely, and a Tory majority that would freeze out the Lib Dems far more likely. The phrase "David's little helpers" is already rather apt, but I trust they wouldn't be so tactically inept as to take the assistance to this gratuitous new level.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Will anyone be more disappointed than right-wing bloggers that murderers WON'T gain the right to vote?

As I've mentioned before, I firmly believe that universal suffrage should mean exactly what it says on the tin, and that therefore all prisoners should have the right to vote, however uncomfortable and unpopular that may be. So I'm glad to hear that the coalition government will finally be giving effect to the European ruling that the current outright ban on voting by convicted prisoners must go, but I'm disappointed - if not remotely surprised - that they will be taking advantage of the discretion the court afforded them to maintain a ban on certain classes of prisoners. And yet I'm starting to form the distinct impression that others will ultimately be far more disappointed than I am. Exhibit A...

"This is Roshonara Choudhry, the woman who tried to murder Labour MP Stephen Timms in revenge for him voting in favour of the 2003 invasion of Iraq...she will be sentenced by video-link, and will doubtless be given a lengthy custodial sentence to be passed in a comfortable, internet-equipped, halal-compliant cell...

...from where she will now be able to vote Mr Timms out of office.

You really couldn't make it up."

Except Cranmer just has made it up - or, more likely, he's had his fingers firmly stuck in his ears. Just how devastated are he and other right-wing bloggers going to be when the penny finally drops that the likes of Choudhry almost certainly aren't going to gain the right to vote, and that they're instead going to have to demonise petty criminals to try to convince us that this dastardly "judicial activism" (emanating from Europe to boot) marks the end of civilisation as we know it?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Angus Reid : SNP draw level with Labour on Westminster voting intention

A new UK-wide Angus Reid poll is out showing Labour in the lead - a fact which makes the Scottish subsample all the more startling...

SNP 37% (+14)
Labour 37% (-10)
Conservatives 13% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-6)

If these figures are even close to accurate, they would be spectacular for the SNP, because of course the party's Westminster performance tends to lag significantly behind its Holyrood vote. It is of course a subsample rather than a full-scale poll, so it has to be treated with great caution - but all the same, Angus Reid subsamples do seem to be in a special category in this respect. My general impression in the run-up to the general election was that the firm's Scottish numbers were much more stable than those produced by other pollsters, leading me to wonder if they were properly weighting the figures for each 'region' independently of each other.

Either way, it's an extremely small sample size, with a huge margin of error. But like the most recent full-scale Scottish poll from YouGov, it's another straw in the wind suggesting that declining popularity for the coalition does not automatically play into Labour's hands in Scotland. Which is just as well, given that it seems reasonable to suppose that the Tories will be taking an even greater hit between now and May.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Debasement of language, or debasement of values?

Tom Harris on the debasement of political rhetoric through the use of "silly, over-the-top language" (a subject he is admittedly a leading expert on following his eccentric series of black-is-white "insights" on the issue of electoral reform) -

"I answered by referring to a local controversy here in Glasgow – the removal, in the early hours of the morning, of illegal immigrants whose applications for asylum have been refused and who have subsequently ignored official instructions to leave the UK. Those opposing such families' forcible removal regularly refer to 'Gestapo' style operations, trying to equate officers of Strathclyde Police with Hitler's secret police.

Such language is (intentionally) offensive not only to police officers (upon whose services the people who use such terms would not, presumably, hesitate to call in other circumstances; what kind of person would dial 999 believing the Gestapo were going to turn up?) but also to the families of survivors of Nazi Germany: you have to wonder what all the fuss was about if all German Jews had to deal with were the 1930s equivalent of Strathlcyde Police officers..."

First point - however much Tom tries to put a happy, smiling 'Strathclyde' face on it, what those failed asylum seekers are actually faced with is a regime drawn up and enforced by the Home Office in London, and which successive Scottish governments have made clear conflicts with this nation's values. Secondly, while it's perfectly reasonable to point out the many ways in which the Gestapo analogy might seem over-the-top, it's equally reasonable to point out the ways in which it is somewhat apt. If the government Tom was part of had put an end to the detention of children, for instance, they'd have given people one less reason for seeing uncomfortable parallels with totalitarian regimes.