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>Election diary

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I tried very hard not to be interested in the election campaign, avoiding the historic TV debates and most of the day-to-day media flim flam – although ‘Bigotgate’ offered a grim confirmation that politicians are exactly has depicted in the TV satire In The Thick Of It. In the end, however, the apparent Lib Dem surge, sheer uncertainly of the result and intriguing possibilities of hung parliament hooked me and pulled me and there I was on election night mug of coffee in hand up till 4am watching the TV results, pausing only to switch off the sound and dip into a Swedish crime novel when politicans and pundits came on to fill in a temoorary lack of any news. I, like they, could not work if it was a hung parliament, a Tory majority or another variant of hung parliament we were in until just before dawn the patter (or patterns) became clear: huge Tory gains against Labour in the South and Midlands, largely gains elsewhere, no gains in Scotland,; no Lib Dem surge, but a successful defence, with the odd exception, of seats held against Conservative challengers.
The oddest exception, of course, was North Irish-Estonian Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik, whose celebrity status on the chat show circuit and pop star Cheeky Girl girlfriend seemed no longer to endear him to Welsh voters he represented and he was overhauled by well established local Tory, who probably paid more serious attention to bread and butter issues. My colleague Allan Sikk mischeviously suggests that Opik could add a splash of colour Estonian politics by entering the race for the Estonian parliament in 2011 (party to be confirmed). Indeed, there is even a Facebook Group urging Lembit to enliven the political life ancestoral homeland with his own brand of eccentric liberal reformism. So far, however, it hasn’t exactly gone viral (supporters 3 including me). There is always an issue as to whether Lembit’s Estonian is as a good as Nick Clegg’s perfect Dutch.

A couple of days before the election I answered a journalist’s questions about the differences between British and UK parties for a mini-interview for the Czech financial freesheet E15. It wasn’t the first time I had chewed such things over but it was an interesting exercise. My thoughts? There is less more of an ideological divide in Czech politics, although not the gulf you would think from Czech parties in-your-face campaigning, and the UK has a post-Thatcherite consensus on certain fundamentals; the Czech Social Democrats’ high profile campaign defence of the welfare state and avoidance of the issue of how and when not if to make cuts makes it a very different political animal from the British Labour Party – although not necessarily less genuinely social democratic; the closest CEE equivalents to Blairite New Labopur were probably the market friendly ex-Communist parties of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, but in the end they all got electorally roasted; if there is no Czech or Central European Nick Clegg is it probably because swathes of CEE voters tend to recognise themselves more in blunt spoken pugnacious strongmen like Orbán, Fico, Paroubek or even Topolánek than the role of clean cut middle class everyman (and, of course, it’s always a man) that British politicians seek to play – and English voters to go for. Interestingly, explaining the Liberal Democrats through a Czech prism is a convoluted and difficult exercise.

At 8 o’clock in the morning of 6 May, I walked down to polling station with my daughter before school, past a mass of Lib Dem hoarding that seems mysteriously to grow in size every day – perhaps a side effect of ‘Cleggmania’ – still wondering who to vote for. If there is a rising Lib Dem tide there is, the Guardian’s online poll-and-seat calculator suggests, an outside chance of this fairly solid Conservative seat changing hands.

There are no queues and I cast my vote, but instantly have h a vague presentiment that I had not quite done the right thing.

>Polls together

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The Guardian has thoughfully offered all its ICM/Guarduan opinion polling figures for last 26 years in downloadable form for readers to mash up. So in the spirit of do-it-yourself quantitaive analysis, I decided to look at the 1984-2010 six month moving average. It offers some interesting historical perspective and a reminder (above) of how party fortunes fluctuate: the Lib Dems real high point in terms of support comes in the mid-1980s in the wake of the 1983 election when they are over 30% before crashing badly in the late 1980s following disappointing 1987 election results and a botched merger with the Social Democratic Party. The Lib Dems then recovered to 20-25 per cent, which has chararacterised their supprt up until the current election campaign. The moral? Perhaps that the Lib Dems are more likely in the current to be beneficiaries of protest vote and vague desire for change and reform rooted in David Cameron’s apparent failure to ‘seal the deal’.
The same moving average for ‘other’ parties (below) shows a more regular pattern of relentless increase in minor party support over the last quarter century driven – interestingly – but European elections- the peaks in the graph. This seems true before the introduction of PR, when he Greens got 15% (the first big spike)

>Golden Brown: How Gordon might have pulled it off?

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And here’s a UK election result you won’t see this Thursday – again courtesy of the Prime Minister Forever 2010 computer simulation game: Labour and the Tories tied for the popular vote on 30% with Labour gaining 300 seats and Cameron’s Conservatives way behind on 230, and also marginally behind in terms of popular vote. The Lib Dem advances proves – as in real life and the last simulation I played – hard to stop, but this result is in terms of political consequencs the mirror image of the previous simulation: Lib-Lab co-operation with electoral reform in weak form on Labour’s terms.

The trick? Intensive debate practice for Gordon (he and Nick Clegg drew all three – Cameron as in two of the three real life ones ineffectives – and, of course, keep him away from the voters and stick to set piece events; coupled with a strategy concentrating on attacking the Tories in big cities and the electoral battlegrounds of the North West and Midlandss, more or less sacrificing Labout MPs in the South East and East, who were duly decimated at the hands of the Tories., so their colleagues in London and Birmingham could hand on against the odds. The upside of this from the Labour point of view was also that the low Labour vote in the South allowed the Lib Dems to win a few seats unexpectedly off the Tories – including, wonder of wonders, Mid-Sussex. The Greens, again, picked up Brighton Pavilion.

>Virtually Nick Clegg

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I didn’t go to Westminster school, can’t ski, don’t speak Dutch and may not vote Liberal Democrat, but in a very real sense for about an hour last night I was Nick Clegg and, what’s more, I see the 2010 election results come in seat-by-seat and I can tell you all about them. The Lib Dems achieved the electoral breakthrough all the polls have been forecasting on a impressive scale with105 seats – very much at the upper end of what the pundits were saying. Unfortunately, however, the Tories also put in a much better than anticipated performance winning 296 seats, coming close to a majority and, giving a good moral claim to be PM. I

t looks like some kind of Lib-Con pact is on the cards, probably centring on electoral reform, but the Lib Dem hand isn’t as strong as it might of been if Dave can buy off the Scottish and Welsh Nats – who hold a total of 12 seats and the Democratic Unionists. Things look very bad for Gordon Brown – Labour was outpolled by the Lib Dems (26: 25 per cent) and Labour has just over 200 seats. Minor parties did better than anticipated though: Caroline Lucas came through the middle to take Brighton Pavilion, as did Salma Yaqcoob for the Respect party in Birmingham Hall Green. The BNP polled a scary 21% in Barking.

OK, I admit it, I haven’t had an out of body experience, slipped through a time warp, Nor has my wife been sllipping pyschotropic substances into my Nescafe. I was playing Theory Spark’s excellent – if rather belated – update of election simulation game Prime Minister Forever 2010. The game is based on their very successful President Forever game, which simulates US presidential contests (including primaries – it’s incredibly hard to win as Obama, by the way, and boy is Iowa crucial). For computer game buffs, I should say it’s essentially a resource management game with no very flashy graphics and you need to play experimentally a couple of time to get the hang of it, but there’s not too much to keep track of and enough real strategy there to make it intriging challenge for anyone with a serious-ish interest in electoral politics, who fancies themselves an armchair election general.

My strategy as the virtual Nick Clegg was to try to match what has actually happened over the last weeks cencentrating on winning TV debates and building momentum for third party breakthrough, campaigning mainly in marginal seats South and West of England and relying on the Big Mo to secure Lib Dem seats elsewhere, especially Scotland. It was tough: Gordon Brown did unexpectedly well in the first debate, but with better preparation I achieved the same kind of breakthrough the real life Clegg did in debate 1, only in virtual PC debates 2 and 3. Indeed, astonishingly my political timing was, I think, rather better than that of the real Clegg Cleggmania took hold a bit later than it has in real life eaving the Tories little time to bounce back. Gordon’s early momentum burned itself out, you will be unsurprised to hear.

My mistake though was not to campaign in the Midlands, where the Lib Dem electoral surge tended to open the way to the Tories, tranforming them into three-way marginals. The result was a distinctly Pyrrhic victory.

>The Straight Choice online UK election leaflet archive

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I came across a very interesting website mapping UK election leaflets – The Straight Choice | The election leaflet project. Voters are invited to photo or scan election material that comes through their letterbox. Interesting, as it picks on variation in party organization and strategies characteristic of Single Member Distrcit contests and as a do-it-yourself, networkde way of building up an archive of historical material. Surprising, that no research institute thought of asking people to do this. And, of course, it would be an interesting exercise for other countries, CEE states included. Pity, I binned all the leaflets a week ago as part of my general UK-election-campaign-ophobia.


>UK Tories to send gay MP to quell Polish social conservatives

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Conservative party to send gay MP to quell EU extremists reports The Guardian. The story? Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, Tory spokesperson for the environment and one of several openly gay Conservative MPs has drawn the short straw and has agreed to go to Poland to attend a gay pride event in Warsaw in July (so far, so straightfoward) and also held the Tories’ highly socially conservative ally, Law and Justice (PiS) embark on a ‘journey’ to modernize its negative views on homosexuality. Possibly a tall order. One of the founders of the PiS, Poland’s late President Lech Kaczynski banned such events when mayor of the Polish capital. You have to feel sorry for Mr Herbert. He seems a nice guy. He met my mum when canvassing and was quite charming when she told he she was a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat, would like Gordon Brown as PM and a would not vote conservative if her life depended on it. I wonder if he will get on as well with Catholic social conservative in Warsaw as social democrats in Mid-Sussex.

>Easter Holiday diary

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It’s family holiday time in the Czech Republic. The neighbouring out-of-town high rise estates where my in-laws have improved slightly in some respects as some grey brutalist communist-era towersblocks have been insulated and refaced with a splash of pastel colours in the years following EU membership, althhough such refurbishment now seems to have slowed. There is also a very nice ‘muti-generational playground’ with a pirate theme just near the local football pitch, which – innovatbively – even has an exercise corner for seniors although there were no pensioners in evidence and precious few kids around on the cold Sunday morning we were there. The local mayor is a leading light on the Greens regional list for the forthcoming eletions, I was interested to discover. She doesn’t seem to be have been able to have done much about the ubiquitous graffiti on every available wall and dogshit on every availablle grass verge though. What’s the Czech for pooper scooper?

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Traipsing between tower blocks is no fun, so we quickly drive off to country. Having invested a 40 minutes being passed from queue to queue and counter to counter in the local post-office to buy a 10 day motorway vignette, we take full advantage of the empty, new motorway to Kroměřiž – part of slow, corrupt and not-likely-to-be-completed-any-time-somm road expansion and upgrading programme. The proverbial road to nowhere.

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The kids eat ice cream sundae in spa town of Luhačovice. I have backache and want to buy some ibuprofen. This means locating the local pharmacy, as the idea that so much as an aspirin on sale anywhere is anathama. Eventually, I get there and get a packet for three times the price they would cost at my local Tesco in England. Frustrating? Not half. With the collapsing pound, the Czech Republic is expensive as well as rather overregulated by British standards. Apparantly, Czech pharmacies have fought an effective rearguard lobbying action to hang on to their retail monpoly. On the other hand, perhaps I am too quick to think it is a basic human right to buy anything at knock down prices at the nearesr hypermarket.

My holiday reading, The Spirit Level, does a good job of popularizing academic finding that more equal market democracies have a better quality of life and fewer social and health problems – although I am less convinced by some of the evolutionary pyschology about status anxiety used to fillin the blanks and policy recommendations are the end some fairly tired and unimginative social democratic prescriptions like employer share ownership, co-operatives and municipal enterprises- worthy and probably quite effective, but frankly the political equivalent of a dose of ibuprofen.

Time was I knew the bookshops of Brno like the back of my hand. These days, however, I hardly ever stick my nose over the threshold of a knihkupectví, but instead spend a lot of time at zoos, children’s theatre and riding the city’s public transport system with my tram-crazy offspring. Today, we head to the Divadlo Polarka to see a performace of the classic Czech (well, izvinytye actually Russian) children’s favourite Mrazík. The theatre foyer is packed with surpisingly unruly school groups, who make up the children’s theatre’s clientele, supervised by an implausibly small number of teachers, who are good deal less fierce and imposing than the dragon remembered by wife from the 1970s when kids had to say ‘Yes, comrade’ instead of ‘Yes miss’ in class. Coincidently, Czech news magazine Respekt reports that Czech parenting has become considerly more liberal since the mid-1990s, leaving schools struggling to cope with more loud and assertive generatio ns of kids, who are a whole lot less cowed by authority.

Eventually, we get a seat – although it is 10am in the morning and the second performance of the day – the Polarka’s actors put in a fantastic performance with perfectly co-ordinated music, acrobatics, rapid scene changes and great story telling that knocks the average English panto into a cocked hat.

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Brno zoo is a bit of a disappointment, but the new refurbished Anthropological museum Anthropos with its papier mache cave people and life-sized model mammoth is a much more interesting proposition.

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>Traces of nuts may be detectable

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The mildy controversial article Tim Bale, Aleks Szczerbiak and I wrote for Political Quarterly about the British Tories and their East European allies in the new European Conseravtives and Reformers Group (ECR) European Parliament has just appeared – interested readers based in universities with an institutional subscription to PQ might like to click through here. Otherwise, friends and colleagues, please feel free to drop me an email to ask for an electronic offprint.
The new ECR group, however, looks a bit more shaky than it might have done a few months ago, if the recent interview with Civic Democrat faction leader in the EP Miroslav Ouzký, who pulls no punches in telling Czech news magazine Respekt that the leaving the European People’s Party was a bad move, depriving his party of political clout and was the brainchild of arch-eurosceptic and one time Klaus protege, Jan Zahradil (now the Vice-Chair of ECR). The ECR’s dependence on small one MEP parties, Ouzký says – as we too argued in the article (seealso an East European oriented presentation I did on the subject last year fwith some figures) leaves it vulnerable to collapse.

My co-author, Tim Bale, is also author of new book on the British Tories, which he describes here in a podcast on the Bookhugger site. I had a small enabling role here, as it was recording in my office: a fact obvious by default for anyone who knows it in that Tim is seated in front of the only area not cluttered with untidy piles of books, papers and coffee cups: the space-age window-cum-porthole which sometimes leaves me feeling more like Major Tom than Dr Sean.

>Fractured alliance

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Tim Bale’s brief on the Parliamentary Affairs website trails some of the arguments and analysis about the new European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament that Tim, Aleks Szczerbiak and I have been working on.

>BNP on Question Time: Kilroy wasn’t here

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I sat in the front of the TV with one eye on a sheaf of article from the Czech press and one eye on BBC TV’s widely billed, controversial edition of Question Time, it flagship panel discussion programme featuring British National Party leader Nick Griffin: the first time the far-right has been accorded the accolade of such recognition, although the BNP has had relatively easy access to the airwaves with its representatives regularly being interviewed on the radio. And, of course, British far-right parties have regularly been exposed and infiltrated by TV documentary makers since 1970s.

To make up for the howls of protest, the programme makers decided to make Nick Griffin’s appearence on their programme the central issue, so the format largely shifted from multiple current affairs questions and familiar party ding-dong to a series of critical uestions about the BNP and its leader: specifically were its views whacky, extreme and racist and its leader someone who cannot explain away his earlier public record as neo-fascist and Holocaust denier.

The answer, of course, is that they were and he couldn’t. All in all, it was reassuringly unimpressive performance by the BNP leaders, lacking not only any credible answers but also professionalism, poise or personal charm. I remember once watching Jean Marie Le Pen comprehensively outmanoeuvre a left-wing opponent on TV discussion with a mixture of sure footing cunning and avuncular bluster on French TV in the 1980s. Happily, the BNP leader clearly wasn’t in this league.

I was just about to turn back to Prague municipal politics, however, when suddenly I caught flash of the kind of leader the British radical populist far-right probably does need and the kind of politician we probably should fear: it was Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for home affairs – up to that point a grey and totally forgettable presence on the panel, – launching into an eloquent tirade about how Britain should have closed its borders to citizens of new (that is predominantly, East European) EU member states for as long as possible and wasn’t it awful that the government that the government didn’t do this and lots of them came over here… Open borders in an opern liberal Europe. What a disaster.

For a fleeting moment, I though Mr Huhne, an unsuccessful contender for his party’s leadership in 2007, was making a pitch for the BNP leadership, which to judge from his poor performance Nick Griffin might soon be vacating. Then I realised, of course, that, having slipped out of anti-fascist mode, he was simply illustrating the well established truth that immigrant-bashing and playing up to the public xenophobia is OK provided you are a respectable person from a resepctable mainstream party. And, Mr Huhne, – public school, Oxford, the City, economist and financial journalist, long-serving MEP, policy expert – is certainly that.

And then it struck me that, here – not necessarily in the person of Mr Huhne – but some of some ambitious, well educated, well spoken, reasonably well known figure public figure gone maverick that the real threat of more articulate, credible and dangerous far-right lies. No of burden of neo-fascist pedigree or a penchant for anti-semitism tor seeing the positive side of Hitler that, fortunately for us, encumbers Nick Griffin (and later held back Le Pen and Joerg Haider). Political or media skills already honed. Stock of political respectability already laid in.

Such figures seem to be media personalities with a certain political-cum-academic commentators (Pym Fortyn, Robert Kilroy-Silk) or frustrated members of existing parties, who turn maverick or decide to air views on race, minorities or immigration they have previously kept to themselves. Interestingly, Liberal parties, typically often under electtoral pressure from bigger competitors of left and right, whose identity is often a rather unstable mix of anti-establishment, pro-market, pro-market and pro-little person/geographical periphery appeals, seem especially vulnerable to such occasionally odd mutations: Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party was originally a liberal grouping, controversial anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders was once an MP for Holland’s Liberals the VVD; Germany’s FDP was hit by accusations of anti-semitism in 2002-3 because of statements of one its then rising stars, the late Jurgen Molleman; in the mid-1990s factions in the FDP associated with the nationalist Neue Rechte intellectual (unsuccessfully) sought a Haider-style transformation of the party.

I don’t, of course, expect to see Mr Huhne leading the BNP or indeed some populist confection (although I’m sure he’d do an excellent job if he did), but as the comedian Alan Davies pointedly pnoted on the This Week programme that followed Question Time‘s BNP-fest, Griffin’s party are not a hugely successful or professional outfit and don’t deserve high profile controverst treatment and still less the back-handed compliment of being banned from Question Time.

The real threats lie elsewhere. We clearly had a lucky escape when ex-Labour MP and chat show host Robert Kilroy-Silk proved too maladroit and egomaniacal to take over the UK Independence Party in 2004. Celebrity populists and mavericks peeling away from already opportunistic mainstream seem a potentially far more potent force than the wafer thin veneer of respectability and normality of a welfare chauvinist niche party that can’t escape its neo-fascist roots like the BNP.