UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Friday, 30 September 2011

A lurch to the left?

A brief post this morning on Ed Miliband's conference speech. Here's the main things I observed.
  • You really know you're luck's down as leader, a leader struggling to make an impact, when your conference speech loses transmission to the BBC, Sky and ITV all at once. I didn't see 7 minutes of Ed's speech. Blogger Iain Dale wondered whether David Miliband had pulled the plug. It was unfortunate, of course it wasn't his fault... but it didn't help and Labour aides will have been furious.
  • The "good" and "bad" businesses "proposal" sounded vague and almost impossible to implement. Fine, perhaps, as a broader philosophy... but Miliband will struggle to explain how civil servants would put this into practice. He talked about changing the "rules" to allow "good" and "bad" behaviour to be regulated. In doing so, he took Labour into a more statist stance, the state deciding and regulating good and bad business practice, than Blair or even Brown would have. It wasn't a liberal position, and I'd rather let businesses have the freedom to do what they think is right than be hamstrung by regulations established by Labour Ministers (none of the Shadow Cabinet has ever run a business, incidentally) and civil servants who know nothing about business. Let's not forget that businesses are the foundations of growth and jobs and that the vast majority are "good" - both small businesses and FTSE companies alike. It was a relatively small number of very, very large banks that caused the economic crisis, and Ed Miliband identifying a problem with all businesses seems heavy-handed and meddlesome at a time when the economy is flat-lining. Business know best how to run their own affairs, and interference from the state should be kept to a minimum.
  • The booing of Tony Blair was embarrassing. I know of course the unpopularity over Iraq and the feeling that Blair was a closet Tory. But it just made Labour sound as if they had settled back into Opposition again. With Brown's two Ed's in charge, it was a small thing that underlined the impression that the Labour party is moving away from the centre ground - a place where Ed M himself admitted they would need to be to win the Tory votes needed to win an election.
  • There was probably a bit too much apologising at the Conference. Voters say they like politicians to apologise, but in the end it sounds a bit incompetent. Admitting Labour got Fred Goodwin's pension wrong, OK. There was also an admission that Labour didn't do enough to reduce the gap between rich and poor (it widened). But saying you got something wrong, doesn't do wonders for persuading people to think you'd get things right now or in the future.
  • Delivery still suspect. Hague was no better. IDS was much, much worse. But the voice and the sometimes vacant look are troubling because Ed M just doesn't look like a PM in waiting, where Cameron and Clegg look the part. That Ed M isn't making more ground when the Coalition has made its core message one of cuts and austerity, and where it has a free run at Opposition without the Liberal Democrats as a second Opposition party, should be worrying for Labour.
Overall, a speech that will probably be forgotten - but it was unfortunately one that attempted a deep argument that was a bit confusing ("good" and "bad" businesses?), and most crucially will not have helped achieve Labour's No1 objective at the moment. Getting voters listening to Labour again.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Constituencies are about communities, not maths

I'm blogging a little after the event on the proposed boundary changes for England, which were announced a fortnight ago. The Government's objectives were to reduce the number of MPs by 50, to save £12m; and to equalise the number of voters in each constituency. For some Conservatives, this is their preferred flavour of electoral reform. They complain that it's unfair for the average size of a Labour seat's electorate to be 68,487 compared to 72,418 in the average Conservative seat.

So, the Boundary Commission for England has spent months conducting a wonderful mathematical and cartographical exercise to equalise the constituencies. They took an electoral map of the UK and ch
opped it up so that every constituency is no smaller than 72,810 voters and no larger than 80,473. It's a plan with some serious flaws. Here's my main concern.

It's first past the post that's unfair, not constituency sizes. Before I go down this route, I know that the "Yes to AV" campaign lost in May. But the proposals to equalise constituency sizes run counter to the "No to AV" campaign's own arguments in favour of keeping FPTP that they trotted out just six months ago. It blows their key arguments out of the water, because the supporters of equal sized constituencies recongise the connection between votes in ballot boxes and fair outcomes. It confirms that they recognise the inherent unfairness of FPTP in ignoring the popular vote.

The "No" campaign argued that FPTP should stay because it was simple, all you needed was a clear winner - the winning candidate had to win more votes than his or her competitors in that constituency. If that argument's right, then it shouldn't matter if a candidate wins with 22,000 votes in a constituency with 60,000 electors or 14,000 votes in a constituency with 45,000 electors, because they argued that the beauty of FPTP was to elect MPs in a decisive way, in individual constituencies (not regions) where MPs would have a link with that community.

Arguing for equalising constituency sizes poses the same question that the "Yes" campaigners were asking in the AV referendum, namely that there is something unfair in how the popular vote translates into seats. The "No" campaigners and those in favour of equal sized constituencies both highlight the unfairness of Labour polling 8,609,527 votes at the last election and getting 257 seats and the Tories polling nearly 2 million more votes but getting only 50 more seats for those 2 million votes.

By focusing on the disconnect between votes in ballot boxes and the outcomes, further discrepancies emerge. The injustice, for example, of the Liberal Democrats polling around 2 million fewer votes than Labour, and Labour getting 201 more seats. As advocates of PR would put it, it's unfair and unlikely that voters will feel their vote counts, if 23% of the popular vote translates into only 8% of Parliamentary seats. If that also means the BNP would get MPs, let's have the debate - not have our electoral system cover up their current support.

So the real problem with the Boundary Commission's proposals is that they've been asked to make the system fairer in a system that can only ever deliver unfairness. FPTP isn't able to reflect the value of individual votes, because it is by its very nature not about vote numbers but about winning individual contests. As long as our electoral system focuses on individual constituency results, the wider intricacies of what the wider electorate thought will be ignored. Make constituencies the same size if you like, but it's not going to change the weakness in FPTP that the reformers want to fix - you'll still end up with a disconnect between the popular vote and how it translates into seats won.

So, these are pointless changes - made more pointless by these remaining weaknesses.
  • This is about saving £12 million, right? Personally, I'd rather keep 50 MPs and find savings elsewhere. The NHS, it emerged today, wasted £12 billion, messing up its computerisation. Can we really not save money elsewhere? Is this about saving money or delivering fairer votes? Because the changes don't really do either. In the grand scheme of government spending, this really is peanuts. It's certainly not worth carving up Parliament or our democratic map for.
  • We're emerging from a massive crisis in trust between MPs and the public. Creating a raft of new constituencies, carving up the links between communities, constituencies and MPs, seems to me to risk further alienating the public from their MPs. Orphan wards, seats crossing county boundaries - it might sound petty to oppose those sorts of changes, but consituencies need to be rooted in human connections in connected communities; not rooted in mathematics or cartography.
  • What happens when the number of electors in a constituency changes again? These changes can only ever be a snapshot. Does the Boundary Commission get its map and calculator out again?
  • The constituencies are worked out according to the number of registered voters. What about those who have not registered to vote, are under 18 and cannot vote but are still represented by their MP?
  • These are not small 'c' conservative proposals. Do the benefits of change really outweigh the downsides? If the changes don't pass that test, conservatives - small 'c' or otherwise - should reject them.
  • We had a referendum on AV. I believe these changes represent such a huge change to the democratic links between MPs and communities that they should be approved only by referendum.
I've never responded to a government consultation before. I might just do so with this one, because it feels like a botched policy answer to the wrong question. It risks further alienating voters from their democratic representatives, whilst delivering no fairer system for electing those representatives, in the name of saving very little money indeed.

To have your say, you can respond to the Boundary Commission's consultation here. There are 71 days left.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The 9/11 decade

I was watching Neighbours, a 22-year old student, when I switched channels and watched 9/11 unfold live on my TV screen. I felt angry and upset, but also a strange sense of pride. Proud that the monstrous minority responsible could and should never be allowed to hold the moral high ground. Pride and respect for the bravery of ordinary Americans whose lives had been torn apart but responded so stoically. Pride too in the way that so many countries rallied unreservedly in support of America.

I remember speaking to a friend that night, barely able to comprehend how many might eventually be dead, and hoping that the West would respond responsibly.

Here was an opportunity for the West, with unity and a high sense of the moral high ground, to punish those responsible but also to heal, over time and not as a knee-jerk concession of defeat, some of the grievances which had not justified or caused 9/11 but were running sores which we had a duty to try to resolve.

This was a line in the sand where we would not so much try to “re-order the world around us" as Tony Blair said on the evening of 9/11, but try to re-order the world around fairness, bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks, being as tough on Israel's defiance of UN resolutions as on Saddam or Mugabe. Above all, I remember being fearful about what would happen next and thinking that it would actually be the West's response, not the attack itself, that would really change the world.

9/11 was an attack different to any other seen before. The most colossal attack on a nation state by a non-state terrorist group. We were seeing buildings felled by groups of extremists, doing things that even in the dark days of the Cold War we thought nation states would never dare to do. They could have killed, and wanted to kill, many thousands more.

There was a sense that, horrific as it was, it could have been worse and could be worse next time. We now faced a threat from shadowy non-state actors that criss-crossed many countries, that were driven and led by ideology more diffuse and perhaps more dangerous than a single nation state or ideological leader. On 9/11, the notion that our greatest threats in a globalised world were no longer from nation states but from elusive, multiple groups of extremists, was the biggest wake-up call.

Here came the difficulty with the response. How to respond to an "act of war" that, this time, was perpetrated by a extremely small group of people, a minority. Bin Laden and Afghanistan were the logical targets to attack, given that Bin Laden was being sheltered there by the Taliban. In the West's reaction to 9/11, it was too quick to define a conflict (“war on terror”) and an opposition (“Al-Qaeda”) that was, and is, almost beyond definition.

The West, under George W Bush's leadership, did more to create the global brand of Al-Qaeda than Bin Laden could ever have hoped to himself. And with Iraq and our misguided attempts to nation-build in Afghanistan, a nation that barely exists as a nation beyond its tribal factions, the West created new grievances to recruit new members of a terrorist "group" that the West itself had created. It was the West that produced the recruitment campaign and the terms of reference for a new global jihadist club.

The reality on the ground was always more complicated than the labels of "war on terror" or "Al-Qaeda" suggested. A shocking event, simplistic in its horrific destruction, led to a simplistic response.

In 2003, America's foreign policy lashed out to Iraq - starting another recruitment campaign for Al-Qaeda in a war against a country with no link to 9/11 except in Saddam Hussein's hatred of Bin Laden and where a policy of containment turned out actually to have achieved its aims of eliminating Saddam's stockpiles of WMD. As we did so, we neglected Afghanistan. Over there, we started fighting the wrong enemy in the Taliban, becoming the latest interlopers in centuries of Afghan civil war, as the remnants of our real terrorist enemy escaped to Pakistan to cause chaos in an already fractious and failing, nuclear-armed state.

Because the West got the original terms of reference for its “war” wrong, success and ultimately victory have never been measurable or achievable. The West created an expectation of success, of “mission accomplished” in a struggle that could never have a clear endpoint.

We need to recognise now in Afghanistan, that the war that the West started can only be ended when the West leaves. The West called it a war, so it ends when we declare our war is over. (The death of Bin Laden, clearly a key driver for the war, is helping the US here). We need to recognise when we have achieved our aims. And the reality is that our aim of denying terrorists the "space" to operate in Afghanistan has largely been achieved. The more significant threat is now in Pakistan; where there was one suicide bombing before 9/11 but since 9/11 thousands have been killed.

When we think about whether and how the world changed after 9/11, there's no doubt that it did. But I'd argue that much of that change was brought about by the West, rather than by extremists. These are fine arguments of cause and effect, so it's difficult to be absolute in that conclusion.

But if we're going to have a safer world, I think we need to think hard about the response and the effect that it had. And it is possible to make that argument whilst at the same time condemning absolutely those who have committed atrocities before, on and since 9/11. But to argue that extremists operate in a vacuum where our foreign policy choices have no influence seems a dangerous line to me.

We have to get these things right - and we got a lot of things wrong post 9/11. We had the moral high ground, and we lost it. We started a war in Iraq for the wrong reasons. We moved from international consensus to deeply divided unilateral action. We did things which subjugated international law and civil liberties, when we probably didn't need to. We became embroiled in a civil war in Afghanistan, ending up fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country long after our original objective was achieved. We ran an extremely effective advertising campaign for Al-Qaeda, reinforcing their brand and churning out regular recruitment material. Above all, we saw too much through our own prism of threats, rather than thinking about threats to others that were also threats to the West, doing little – for example - to help revive the Middle East peace process.

We got so many things wrong because the initial, despicable provocation was so unusual and unexpected. Ten years on, Bin Laden is now dead and the loose network which organised the 9/11 attacks is far weaker that it was. The Arab Spring is showing that people can achieve change through revolution rather than regime change or having the West "re-order the world around us", as Tony Blair suggested. It is the thing that should fill us with most confidence, more so than Bin Laden's largely symbolic death.

It is a glimpse, I think, of the future where the West intervenes more sparingly and subtly. Influencing debate and arguments rather than starting wars. Helping countries from the Middle East to India and Pakistan to resolve differences which threaten wider stability; having a hard-headed, not knee-jerk view of the threats we face (the scale of the current threat from Iran is a case in point); having the courage to do difficult things in new partnerships (trying to end the war in Afghanistan by talking to the Taliban and talking to Iran; facing up to the reality of a Chinese super-power).

The West has moved on a long way since 9/11. Hardly anyone still uses the phrase "war on terror". It's widely agreed that the Iraq War was a mistake. We are being careful in Libya and the wider Arab Spring to support but not to interfere too much. We should now step back in Libya; no more nation-building. US involvement there was significant, but hardly publicised. It's widely agreed that we need a political solution to get out of Afghanistan, but we need to get on with it much more quickly and with much wider participation.

The 9/11 decade's legacy provides many lessons to learn. We need to keep on learning the lessons, and make sure they - along with all those of all nations who have perished - are never forgotten.

On the basis that it's hardly fair to write a piece on 10 years of foreign policy with 20/20 hindsight and not offer detailed thoughts on the future.... in the next few weeks, I’m going to blog again to spell out in more detail the thoughts I have on the big foreign policy challenges of the next decade.