It Is Time for a Woman to lead the Labour Party

The Labour leadership race is now taking shape. The hustings have been begun and we now know the names which will be on the final ballot paper. Two of the four positions on the ballot paper are occupied by women: Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. This is notable as Labour has never elected a permanent woman leader in its history. Both Harriet Harman and Margaret Beckett have performed the role temporarily but only for a brief period before being replaced by a new male leader.

Labour has long been at the forefront of promoting equal rights for women and were the first party to bring in all women shortlists. The leadership issue is the last obstacle they have to overcome and now might just be the right time to clear this hurdle. The country has changed and the Labour Party needs to change with it. In this leadership contest, Labour has two competent women standing for the top position. Both of these candidates have the necessary skills to lead the party and would do so with great aplomb.

The culture of the Commons and the brutish behaviour on show can be off putting for some women. Although, gradually changing the leadership teams of all the major parties are still predominantly white and male, with limited female (and indeed ethnic) representation. The culture and appearance of politics in this country can often appear very masculine and does little to encourage women into politics. A Labour Party which is led by a woman would go some way to changing this.

From a Labour perspective there are also clear political reasons for making this move. A woman leader would change the tone of the debate and there is a belief that Cameron’s laddish style would not work so well against a female leader. Cameron was able to defeat Miliband with ease in the Commons chamber, but it is questionable whether he has the skills and temperament to do this to a female leader.

The case for this argument is now overwhelming. There is now nothing that should stop the Labour Party from moving in this direction. The idea of a female women Labour leader needs to change from theory to reality. This seems the perfect opportunity to achieve this, but if it is not done now, it is clear it must happen soon.

 

Should Tim Farron’s Faith Matter?

With Labour’s leadership contest dominating the news, it is easy to forget the Liberal Democrats are also in the middle of a leadership contest. Tim Farron is the front runner and is widely expected to win the contest against Norman Lamb. However this has not meant Farron has faced an easy ride. Over the last week his Christian faith has been highlighted and many have asked the question whether a man of Farron’s beliefs can lead the Liberal Democrats pointing to his views on euthanasia, abortion and gay marriage.

The initial debate has focused on whether it is fair that his faith is being brought into the spotlight. When anyone puts themselves forward for public office, they will face heavy scrutiny. This is rightly part of the territory that comes given the role they are going to do and therefore there should be no complaints when these questions are asked. It is also an important part of Farron’s character and guides elements of his politics.

The more pertinent issue may be why we deem that politics and faith cannot mix. Alastair Campbell famously summed up the feelings of many when acting as Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy when he said ‘We don’t do God’. Although having a faith may not be held against a politician, it is expected that this will be kept in the background and will not be brought to the fore.

Over the last few years, there have been many scandals involving men and women of supposed faith abusing their position. This has probably enhanced the negativity that exists in some quarters towards faith in the public arena. It is easy to forget though that men and women inspired by their faith can often do many positive things. Politics in this country and across the world is full of these examples, with the most obvious historical case being the works of a figure such as Wilberforce. Maybe rather than looking at what Farron’s faith may stop him doing, we should look at what his faith can lead him to do.

Tim Farron strikes me as a decent principled man and in politics we need more members like this, both those with faith and those without. However whether he is the right man to lead the Liberal Democrats is another question and one that only Liberal Democrat members can answer.

No Political Party Represents Our Entire Country Anymore!

The election results have highlighted how politically divided this country is. No one political party can claim to represent the entire nation anymore. In the South outside of London, the Labour Party has almost been totally wiped out, but yet they still remain very successful in the North and the major cities. The Tories are currently dominant in the South and in the Midlands, but are still struggling to make any inroads in the North. Both major parties also now have very limited representation in Scotland.

This could simply be seen as a nuance of the political system that we have. Under this current electoral system you only need 326 seats to win a majority. It does not matter where these seats are located in the country and all that matters is that you win the required amount of seats to form a government.

In much of the country voters feel they are now being represented by a government they did not vote for. If the result had been different and the Labour Party was in power, the feeling would still be the same. This is only going to cause disillusionment amongst many voters. If a party has no representation in specific parts of the country, then it is going to be harder for that party to understand the needs and concerns of these voters.

Both parties appear to accept this is a problem and are trying to solve this. The Tories are attempting to make inroads through the organisation Renewal and the idea and aims around the concept of the Northern Powerhouse. The Labour leadership candidates also appear to understand the difficulties that they are facing in many areas of the country and are all claiming to be the candidate who can change this.

This is a long term issue for both parties and one which has serious implications not just for the parties but for the country as a whole. Our political system would appear to be fairer, if a political party had wider support across the country as a whole and not just pockets of concentrated support. It is clear what the problem is, but the solution may be somewhat more difficult and that is the challenge for our political parties.

Labour needs to be more than the party of social justice!

Since the General Election there has been much debate about what the future holds for the Labour Party. Deep conversations are taking place about what the Labour Party now stands for and what they believe in and whether they need to take stock and re-assess their principles and ethos. Yvette Cooper, a prospective party leader, led calls at the weekend imploring fellow leadership candidates not to simply swallow the Conservative manifesto but to present something different.

One heart and soul issue which always seems to crop up when Labour loses an election, or even when it wins for that matter, is the emphasis Labour places on social justice. Miliband when in charge of the Labour Party talked a great deal about social inequality and his desire to see it reduced or even erased. This was in stark contradiction to the “New Labour Party” led by Tony Blair and was one of the major differences between Miliband and New Labour. It should always be a Labour Party priority to defend and protect the most marginalized and vulnerable in society and they should not be ashamed of that.

However, in the modern age, it is no longer enough to simply be the party of social justice. Whilst this may appeal to their core vote, it doesn’t extend beyond this, and if Labour wants to win a General Election and return to power then they have to expand their policy repertoire. They need to talk of business and aspiration and also show they understand the concerns voters have about their economic competence. Their performance at this election and to some extent in 2010 shows that Labour cannot win on a social justice agenda alone.

The Labour Party has to be more in tune with the times and learn the lessons from previous elections which mean they have to broaden their appeal and emphasise areas which they may not have traditionally talked about. It is a fallacy to say that Labour cannot do both. The reality is that if Labour fail to do both then they are in real danger of becoming an irrelevance. Labour cannot survive by just being the party of social justice, but neither can they survive if they fail to remain its champion.  They must find a way to balance these aims if they wish to become successful again.

 

Has the Time Come for Electoral Reform?

It is easy to forget but during the last parliamentary term we had a referendum on voting reform. The choice was given to voters to move from the current system of First Past the Post to the Alternative Vote model. The proposal was heavily defeated and seemed to put an end to the debate about voting reform. However the General Election results and the subsequent distribution of seats has raised questions once again.

The drive for change has been led by the Greens and UKIP who feel let down and under-represented by the current system. The Greens gained over 1 million votes and UKIP almost 4 million yet both only picked up one seat. These numbers are in stark contrast to the average number of votes which were needed per seat for the Tories (34,000), Labour (40,000) and the SNP (26,000). This has led to a petition calling for a “fairer” voting system being signed by the leaders of UKIP, the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru and presented to Downing Street.

On the face of it, these numbers seem compelling, however we should remember why we currently have First Past the Post. The population as a whole have voted for this system and therefore the chances of another referendum are slim. The system does have its strengths, notably in providing a stable government and despite what was said about this election it has created this result again. It also creates a link between an MP and his or her constituency.

There is presently no clear alternative. Many potential voting systems have been suggested, but there does not seem to be an obvious winner. All other options including those based more on proportional representation have their weaknesses. A “fairer” voting system probably means different things to different parties and in the absence of a clear alternative the case for change appears weak.

The distribution of seats after the result of this election makes this an obvious gripe for seemingly under-represented parties. The current system does disproportionately impede the smaller parties and therefore could be perceived as being unfair. From their perspective a change is considered necessary. However, regardless of the increasingly noisy voices there is little chance of change occurring. The new Conservative administration will feel they have bigger priorities and anyway have a political interest in maintaining the current system.  So don’t expect change any time soon.

Why the Liberal Democrats must learn from Charles Kennedy

The tragic passing away of former Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, which rightly resulted in eulogies from all sides of the political spectrum, also provides a moment for the depleted Liberal Democrats MPs to consider the future of their own party. Under Kennedy’s stewardship, the Lib Dems gained the highest number of Liberal MPs since 1923 but following the disastrous 2015 general election, this legacy of 62 seats has been decimated to a mere 8 seats only a decade on.

Following the election disaster, many prominent Lib Dems, from Vince Cable to Paddy Ashdown have found a wide range of reasons to explain their electoral collapse, except one : The Coalition Agreement (which Kennedy himself didn’t support). Local and European election results from 2010 indicated growing public disaffection for the Liberal Democrats, resulting in their calamitous sixth placed performance in the 2014 European elections. The idea that the SNP, opinion polls or divisive Tory rhetoric killed the Lib Dem’s election chances is ludicrous. More worryingly, if the party continues to live in a parallel political universe, it could turn the Lib Dems into a political irrelevance.

During the five years of the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, a centre-left party which still, somehow, prides itself on fairness and decency, supported the Bedroom Tax, oversaw cuts to legal aid, cuts to their cherished mental health budget, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals and an explosion in the number of food banks and homelessness. At the same time, they broke promises on tuition fees, VAT increases and the mansion tax. This was a complete dereliction of democratic duty and political suicide. This is the real reason why the Lib Dems lost 85% of their MPs. Squeezed on all sides by the Greens, Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats ended up in a no-man’s land where they criticised their coalition partners, only taking responsibility for their favoured policies whilst shirking responsibility for their part in a government which ’hit the poorest hardest’

If the next Liberal Democrat leader has a fraction of the political and moral judgement, principles and courage of Charles Kennedy then the party might just rebuild itself from this nadir. Otherwise, the stark alternative is an obsolete or even defunct political party.

Fixing British politics

Public trust in politicians has reached such depths that even estate agents and bankers are more trusted to tell the truth. In addition to widely stated reasons such as the expenses scandal, empty rhetoric and broken promises, I believe one underlying reason is the lack of expertise and professionalization in British politics across all parties. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice is an English graduate without any legal experience. An ex-Labour shadow Chancellor, without any relevant qualifications or experience, admitted to needing a book in economics for beginners when given the role. The Education Secretary is a former corporate lawyer without any teaching experience. The Equalities Minister voted against gay marriage. The list of examples is endless but the random nature of the government ministerial appointments does not inspire public confidence. Furthermore, ministers could feel less confident introducing policy reform especially in the face of civil service opposition. Therefore, relevant expertise in their field would not only make the public more confident but the minister in the implementation of their own policy agenda.

My policy suggestion would be for the Prime Minister to insist on previous experience or qualifications before awarding a portfolio to a minister. This criterion could be met through previous and/or current academic studies, extensive professional experience before entering politics or a mandatory acclimatisation period of, at least, 12 months if the party is currently in opposition. This mandatory training period would involve work placements, shadowing and academic study of relevant policy issues facing the department. This training period could be necessary in order to compensate for the lack of expertise around more modern departments such as the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The initial problems of narrowing the talent pool for current Members of Parliament would be far-outweighed if political parties started to look at potential parliamentary candidates from professional bodies, for example Keir Starmer as a prospective Secretary of State for Justice. Although future reshuffles would be more limited as promotions would effectively be ‘in-house’, junior ministers, who were familiar with their brief, would be able to take on more senior positions.

This relatively cost-free policy would bring credibility to Cabinet ministers, improve public confidence in politicians and increase the levels of professionalism and expertise in British politics as a trend emerged away from ‘career politicians’ towards distinguished experts in their respective fields.

Labour is having the spending debate five years too late!

The post-mortem has well and truly begun in Labour ranks with many differing explanations and reasons being given for Labour’s comprehensive General Election defeat. There appears to be an acceptance that the party was not pro-business enough and did not reach out to aspirational voters. It is also clear Labour did not do enough to convince voters on the economy, notably failing to answer the question on whether Labour spent too much whilst in government.

This last question in particular is currently defining the leadership contest with each candidate trying to prove they are the one who can win back voters trust on the economy and show they have learnt the lessons from this election defeat. Both Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall have been fairly open from the beginning in saying they believed Labour spent too much before the crash in 2008. This is also a position Andy Burnham is also expected to endorse in a speech. Yvette Cooper has yet to make the same admission. Debate over this issue is clearly going to run and run throughout the leadership campaign.

The frankness of these admissions is in stark contrast to much of what we heard during the election campaign. Ed Miliband famously did not rebuff this question when it was posed at the last leadership debate, choosing instead to defend Labour’s spending record. To be fair no one in the Labour Party seemed to want to face-up to this question.

It is easy to look wise after the event and after a defeat but you have to question whether this sudden apparent change of mind from some leadership candidates is credible and is not simply a convenient about face.  Opposition to this view seemed scant in the run up to the election with seemingly little being done to advise the Labour leader to adopt a more convincing position

This debate feels five years too late. Labour had the whole of the last parliamentary term to come up with a more credible position on this issue and failed to take it. It should not have taken two election defeats to open this particular can of worms.  Questions over the economy constantly define elections, so failing to provide a compelling answer to the spending question was always going to be costly and so it has proved.