This is a sometimes 'cheesey' blog about British and American politics and anything else which tickles my fancy!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A New Supreme

Congratulations again to Barack Obama for stealing a march on the Republicans and everyone else by nominating Sonia Sotomayer as the first Latino on the Supreme Court.

She would replace David Souter, a liberal, who is due to retire in June.

With issues like civil rights, gun control, abortion and terror laws likely to rear their head over the coming decade, Sotomayer's elevation to the Court will ensure it does not tilt too far to the right.

You can already hear the Republicans sniping though.

They argue that her radical, hard left judicial activism makes her an inappropriate choice to defend the Constitution. But I wonder why John Roberts right wing conservativism made him a better one. (He is the current Chief Justice and was nominated by Bush a few years ago).

Incidentally, there is nothing hard left or radical about her approach to issues like affirmative action, which just seem like good, mainstream, liberal common sense to me.

A female Latino Justice makes the Court a more diverse place which is a better reflection of America as it stands today. And a court which is a more accurate reflection of society is a better, more legitimate one.

The fact that she was appointed to her first judicial post by George Bush Snr and then promoted by Bill Clinton also shows that she must have some bipartisan appeal. Her back story also makes her an appealing choice.

Anyway, all of this reminds me of the time the West Wing staff nominated Glenn Close to the Supreme Court. It was a good episode.

Monday, 25 May 2009

What next for Parliament?

In today’s Guardian, Ed Miliband is quoted as saying that there needs to major constitutional and political reforms in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal.

I think he is right.

There hasn’t been a better time in the last ten years for Labour to make the case for political reform. I believe there is genuine public appetite for it and I believe it might just help Labour reverse its declining political fortunes too. This is what I would do:

- Cut the number of MPs to roughly 500-550 and let an outside, independent body set the pay levels. MPs should abide by this

- Continue reforming the House of Lords. Have a partially elected, partially appointed second chamber with fewer peers

- Introduce the idea of open primaries.To David Cameron’s credit, the Conservatives have piloted this idea in the selection of some of their PPCs and it has thrown up some interesting choices. We also saw in the US that it can be a really exciting way to rejuvenate the political process. It keeps MPs on their toes and might help remove the odd one or two who have just sat on their seats for 20 years

- Beef up the powers and responsibilities of Select Committees and their Chairs, paying their members more and turning them into a genuine alternative to a ministerial career. We need our select committees to behave like Congressional committees. In the long run, this leads to better government and better legislation

- Members of Parliament who have made inappropriate expenses claims should be encouraged to step down and if they refuse to do so their local parties should deselect them. Those that have committed fraud must be prosecuted

- It is not unreasonable to expect non London MPs to have a second home in the capital in order to do their jobs properly. Taxpayers should pay for the rent or mortgage, council tax and utilities but nothing more. Here is a novel idea – the fees office should enforce the rules

- MPs should behave less like social workers and delegate some constituency casework back to local councillors where it can be dealt with more appropriately. There need not be hard and fast rules about this, but we should have a proper debate about the role of MPs in the future. Constituency casework should only inform a MPs understanding about the issue, it is not for MPs to fix everyone’s broken fences

- PR. We should go into the next General Election with a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform based on Roy Jenkins proposals. I have no idea where I stand on this yet – and, in the end, our current system might actually still be the best one - but it is an argument worth having and people should be offered a choice about it

This is not an exhaustive list and other suggestions should be considered. But, the system does need an overhaul and some of this has to start happening before the next election. We have a parliamentary system which people no longer have faith in and a question mark hangs over its legitimacy.

I also think if Brown goes for this it will look like he is taking proper action to fix the system and I think people will have respect for that. It is not enough for us to win the next election on, but we can outflank the Tories on it and importantly do the right thing. It would be best if it wasn’t done in a piecemeal fashion either. After all, it was someone else who once said, “we are best when we are boldest”.

Friday, 15 May 2009

From the mother of all parliaments to the mother of all scandals

I haven’t blogged about the expenses scandal so far because I am quite literally speechless. I haven’t been able to find a way to articulate my anger.

But I don’t want to be accused of burying my head in the sand and hoping it will go away. It won’t. So this is what I think…

The expenses scandal is so serious and so damaging to the Labour Party and by that token the Government that I believe we are heading to the most crushing electoral defeat that is imaginable.

After this, Labour will be out of power for decades.

It might not be fair but Labour is the governing Party and we will suffer the most.

I also sort of expect Tory grandees to claim for their moats and country estates but not Labour MPs. I expect Labour people to have a higher moral and ethical code. I expect them to be governed by strong values. I expect them to have a better sense of fairness. But the whole affair has just proven how morally bankrupt some Labour MPs are.

I am so disappointed that I just don’t know how to defend the Party at all. I don’t know what to say on the doorstep.

In particular, I feel personally let down by Hazel Blears.

If you have read my blog before, you will know how highly I rate Blears. I think she is a wonderful politician and for a long time she was something of a political hero. I have defended her for years. She is one of the most genuine, authentic politicians on the Labour benches and someone who I think still does care and should be listened to.

But her actions leave me feeling depressed. She will no longer be able to talk about social justice, poverty or a fairer distribution of tax with the same credibility and authenticity that she once had. How can she look her Salford constituents in the eyes anymore? How can she ever have thought her actions were acceptable and above reproach?

She has adopted some sort of ‘masochism’ strategy to try and get through it – appearing on every news channel, hopping on her motorbike, carrying on business as usual – but wouldn’t a bit more contrition be in order? Where is her mea culpa? Where is the mea culpa from any of them?

How can Labour talk about benefit fraud when some Labour MPs have committed fraudulent acts?

How can we talk about fairness and helping ‘hard working families’ through the recession when some of our MPs are claiming hundreds of pounds worth of food each month?

Why should I pay for their groceries from Waitrose?

Why should I pay for David Miliband’s potted plants?

What are they spending the money on that they actually earn?

Until Brown decided to suspend Elliot Morley’s membership of the PLP (quite rightly in my opinion), there was a typical lack of leadership from Number Ten. There was a vacuum at the heart of government about what to do and how to respond. But why should that be surprising?

The only person who came out stronger was David Cameron. He turned what could have been a potentially catastrophic day for the Conservatives into his strongest day yet as leader.

He took quick, decisive action in forcing some of his shadow cabinet members to pay the money back. He looked in control of events and in chime with the mood of the public. It was reminiscent of Tony Blair in his heyday and exactly what Blair would have done.

I think MPs should get a second home and should be able to claim back rent or mortgage, council tax and utilities bills on their second properties. But there a line should be drawn. It isn’t acceptable that we pay for their scatter cushions and bottles of gin.

Some have said that it’s the system which is at fault and to an extent it is. But the rules were very clear, they just weren’t properly enforced. And, anyway, why shouldn’t we trust that Members of Parliament, who decide our laws, will have their own set of ethics to police them?

It is clear that many don’t.

The real tragedy is that cynicism and apathy about politics just increases – as if it wasn’t bad enough to begin with.

Monday, 4 May 2009

An Inconvenient Truth

The last few days have seen further speculation about Gordon Brown's position as Labour leader. But interventions from Stephen Byers, Charles Clarke, David Blunkett and now Hazel Blears do not mean the "tectonic plates" are moving.

It is certainly true that the last week has been another horrendous week for the government - since the last one.

For Brown to place himself on the wrong side of the Gurkha issue just defies belief. Sometimes in politics there are clear rights and wrongs. And this issue was one of those. To hear Brown try and wriggle out of it, with a few weaselly words about the financial implications of resolving the issue, was utterly embarrassing and shameful.

But not only did he get the decision wrong, he managed to force the opposition leaders into bed with one another too. Hardly the evidence of a masterful tactician at Downing Street.

But Hazel Blear's comments this weekend are potentially the most serious. And I agreed with them 100%.

As an authentic Labour voice and one of the most impressive members of the Cabinet, Hazel Blears is more qualified than most to tell the Party a few inconvenient truths. She is right to argue that the Party needs to step up a gear and remedy its "lamentable" failure to get its message across.

Like me, she must be exasperated with the Prime Minister's seeming inability to demonstrate any emotional intelligence whatsoever. He seems to bumble from one crisis to another without even demonstrating the wily cunning of Harold Wilson, who was often deeply unpopular, but managed to survive because he was good at the game of politics.

All too often, Brown gets the decisions wrong and the politics wrong.

However, barring the odd display of strength and leadership ie the G20, some of us have been saying all of this for well over a year. And yet, we are still in a worse position than we were a year ago.

What I cannot excuse are those Labour MPs who have already resigned themselves to losing the next General Election and are therefore not doing anything at all to change the situation. They don't appear to care that the Conservatives are heading to a landslide victory and many of the programmes and policies that we sweated blood for will be overturned or neglected. Burying your head in the sands is not going to place Labour on the right side of a General Election victory.

And I think this is why Hazel Blears made the comments she did. I don't believe she intended to fuel speculation about a leadership challenge. She is too loyal for that. But I think she did intend to kick start a debate in the Party and force it to face some uncomfortable truths about what we are doing and where we are heading. For this she deserves our support and congratulations.