Friday, 27 August 2010

Does the Australian Coalition offer a potential future for ours?

To any casual British onlooker following the Australian election recently, one of the strange things they might have noticed is that the battle was often described as Labour versus something called "The Coalition", with Liberal leader Tony Abbot often described as its leader. Given that Labour (or as the Australians inexplicably spell it, Labor - a misspelling solely reserved for the political party) were in government before the election, it surely seemed strange to mention a coalition? Wasn't the Australian system very similar to the UK, except with the Conservatives called the Liberals?

The fact is that in Australia, an electoral system that allows for ranked preferences means that the two pre-eminent centre-right political parties (the United Australia Party and the Country Party originally, and their successors the Liberal Party of Australia and the Nationals) have been in near-permanent political alliance since the Second World War. In short, the Nationals tend to stand in rural seats where the ALP are less attractive, and the ALP stand in the urban and suburban seats that largely have never heard of the Nationals. The ability to rank preferences means that the parties are free to stand candidates against each other - and remarkably, campaigning against each other has rarely done serious damage to the Coalition.

With the present speculation that the Conservatives might offer certain Liberal Democrats a non-compete, or the government contesting the election on some sort of joint coalition ticket, the Australian model looks intriguing. If the AV referendum produces a positive result (which for the moment this blog hopes it does not), could our coalition adopt a similar approach to the Liberal/National alliance? It certainly has its attractions - the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would be free to promote an exchange of second preferences and defend the governments record whilst also being able to compete with - and campaign against - each other. A coalition electoral arrangement without the divisive need for a carve-up of the constituencies.

This arrangement holds extra attractions for those unionists who like me are integrationist but also sadly realistic. This is because an extra facet of the Coalition in Australia offers a potential solution to the 'party of the whole nation' crisis of the Conservatives. For the Coalition is not formed of two parties but - technically speaking - of five. In addition to the Liberals and the National Party of Australia there are the merged parties (the Liberal National Party of Queensland and the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory) and the National Party of Western Australia - a party that shares a brand with the national National Party but maintains a separate structure and identity in accordance with the particularist tendencies of that state (Western Australia actually voted Yes in a widely-ignored secession referendum in the 1930's.

This arrangement demonstrates that a unionist centre-right Coalition in the UK could more comfortably include having separate parties in Northern Ireland and even Scotland than the current setup because they could more naturally remain part of an overall electoral alliance - whereas under FPTP such an alliance would be highly uncommon and thus much more of a defining feature and talking point. Such an arrangement could even allow more than one regional party to compete for it - allowing a liberal UUP to swap preferences with a pro-coalition Alliance, to draw an example whose realism is obviously not to be taken too seriously bu serves well as an illustration.

Could there be an opportunity for unionism - not to mention liberal conservatism and orange-liberalism - in an electoral system that allowed for and even encouraged the formation of such an alliance? In my view, it could allow for a more dynamic political centre-right than this country has seen in recent decades, as well as offering an opportunity for more internal debate, competition and dialogue without the inevitable accusations of splits and divisions that arise when such things occur within a first-past-the-post political party. But I'm no expert - there could be some key aspect of the Australian system I'm missing, or any number of grievous errors this humble politcal dilettante has overlooked. Still, it is certainly food for thought.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Scottish Conservative Party should not be made 'independent'.

Any vaguely unionist Conservative will be familiar with the plight of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party. Since a heydey in the middle of the last century as a strange coalition of Scottish political parties led by the Unionists, it merged with the southern party in the sixties and has declined since, with a total collapse at the end of the last Conservative administration* leading it to its presently parlous state of being Scotland's fourth party.

This sorry tale has clearly done serious damage to the psychology of Scottish Conservatives. Some, such as the blog New Right (whose Europhilia I share) are advocates of fiscal autonomy for Scotland. Other times, a story of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party calling for an expensive memorial centre to be built on the site of some rebel victory will filter through. There are signs that the Conservatives north of the border are trying to ape some SNP stances, or at least appeal to their electorate. And then, in the wake of an election where Scotland again swung towards an unpopular incumbent, the likes of Norman Tebbit again bring up the idea of making the Scottish party independent.** As a Conservative but especially as a Unionist, I think this would be a very bad idea.

Firstly, there's the fact that those who simply wish to 'undo' the merger tend to have misunderstood the state of the Scottish political right before it. I read somewhere that the 'Scottish Progressive & Unionist Party' should be refounded - no such party ever existed. The right in Scotland during the mid-century heydey was a coalition of the soft-protestant Unionist Party and a motley assortment of people who used labels such as National Liberal, Liberal Unionist and yes, Progressive. This state of affairs was the product of decades of political evolution north of the border to say the least - it cannot simply be reconstructed by severing links with the Scottish party.

Assuming then that the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party became independent as a single party, how would it then relate to the Conservative Party? The Conservative Party would even more than now be viewed as a 'strictly English' political party, and when making cuts would be deeply unpopular in Scotland. The new party - who after all have been created solely to boost their electoral fortunes - would have precious little reason to be loyal to the London Conservative government.

Indeed, much might be gained by beginning to score political points off it. Assuming for a moment that the party's stance on unionism did not continue to soften into non-existence, it is not hard to envisage this Scottish party evolving along the lines of the 'Little Ulster' unionists in Northern Ireland. A centre-right 'Little Scot' party that 'defends Scotland' from London as strongly as it fights the SNP might well be more popular than the current Scottish Conservatives, but is it really one the Conservative Party should be in the business of creating? Given the noises that intermittently come out of the Scottish Party, it is perhaps expecting a miracle for an independent party to remain (if that is even the right word, perhaps 'become') a vociferous champion of integrated unionism north of the border. And in my view, the Scottish electorate deserve such an option.

And finally, what would an independent Scottish party mean for the Conservatives - especially under Cameron? In one of his most admirable strains of political consistency, Cameron has shown himself to be the most enthusiastic unionist to take the helm of the Conservative Party in a long time. He has taken a big risk in attempting (and continuing to attempt in the face of setbacks) to establish the Conservative & Unionist Party as a pan-UK party, including rebuilding links with what was once the Conservative Party surrogate in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party. Is he seriously willing to countenance undoing all that at a stroke by confining the Conservatives to England, Wales and Northern Ireland? It seems ridiculous. Experience with the UUP is also telling - I for one would not consider creating a Scottish UUP-equivalent an attractive proposal for restoring the fortunes of post-1997 Scottish conservatism.

In a way, it again reinforces the consistent theme I have noticed that unionists are veritable Picassos of pessimism. After our defeat in 1997 even O'Neill is saying that the Conservatives "are never going to be again the second, never mind first, party in Scotland". Why not? In the 1950s, when the Liberals had 5 MPs, I don't suppose any of them thought they'd be in government again. Like the Scottish Conservatives, many of them remembered a bygone golden age. But they persevered, and continued to hold true (ish) to their beliefs. What is it about having 5 Liberal MPs in an age when 97% of the population vote Labour/Tory in an FPTP system that is so much more inspirational than being the fourth party (although not by much) in a more proportional electoral system? Nothing I can see, unless you accept the much-pushed 'Thatcher killed the Scottish Conservatives' mantra.

Unionists should buck up and learn to believe in themselves and their cause. And the Conservative & Unionist Party should remain the pan-union party it has so recently started to again become.

*This 'It Was Thatcher' interpretation has gained wide currency but seems to overlook the fact that in the 1992 election Scotland swung towards the Conservative Party, and the Tories became the second-largest party north of the border.

**I would normally at this point furnish links, but typing 'Norman Tebbit Scottish Conservatives' into Google provides a cornucopia of material.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Can I join the UUP?

Just a quick question to any passing reader who knows for sure - given that the UUP and the Conservative Party now have an electoral alliance am I allowed to be a member of both?

Should the Coalition redefine poverty?

I'll admit, this is not one of those long-gestated articles that I post from time to time - this is something of a polemical quicky that could full well be completely wrong, or based on some tragically basic misunderstanding on my part. You have been warned.

How should government measure poverty? To me, it seems logical that poverty should measure standard of living - malnourishment, lack of access to basic necessities etc. would contribute to what I would consider a meaningful poverty line. I suspect that I'm not alone in this view, so I'm always surprised when the government announces that a significant minority of people in the United Kingdom are living below its 'poverty line'.

"Really?" I think, "In a country where the main nutritional problem is obesity and where, according to an article in the Telegraph a few years ago, '96% of 15- to 24-year-olds own a cellphone'?* In a century when incomes have multiplied and the costs of basic necessities such as food and clothing have fallen, there are still significant numbers below the poverty line in Britain? Surely that represents a colossal failure on the part of the government?"

Not really, no. Because the government definition of poverty - used since the early 1960's - is not a direct measure of standard of living at all; rather it is a measure of economic equality. The government definition of poverty, for those unaware of it, is that anybody earning less than 60% of the national average income is in poverty.

Now, some may argue (as a new-to-blogging friend of mine put to me when we discussed this piece) that 60% of the UK national average income (which stood at £24,700 in 2004*) is not a lot of money (£14,820), and cannot deliver a high quality of life. Not only is this debatable and very dependent upon regional economic conditions, but this argument also misses a couple of points.

The first is that there is (or rather, should be) a substantial difference between 'not having much money' and 'poverty'. The concept of poverty is debased in the minds of the public if the word contains leeway for a mobile telephone or a flat-screen television. The second and more important point is that the government isn't focusing on the £14,820 or any other objectively assessed sum of money that can deliver a minimum quality of life considered to be out of poverty: it is focused entirely on the percentages involved.

Under the present system, a household can move in and out of poverty without any change in their personal circumstances at all. For example, if the incomes of those with above-median incomes were to double, a whole swathe of people would be moved into "poverty" who are currently judged not to be in poverty. Similarly, if the incomes of above-median earners were halved then a swathe of people would be "lifted out of poverty" without any improvement in their circumstances. You wouldn't even need redistribution for this to happen - poverty could be greatly reduced by confiscating the assets of the wealthy and throwing them off a bridge.

So why did this shift take place? Keith Banting, a historian who has observed this change in the use of the word 'poverty', refers to it as "explicitly political".** Why? James Bartholomew explains that: in the late 1950's, Labour had lost three successive elections. Barbara Castle, the chairman of the conference, said in an aside that "the poverty and unemployment which we came into existence to fight have been largely conquered". Thus, elements of the left moved to redefine poverty in order to give the Labour Party a new (and some might say insoluble) raison d'ĂȘtre. By unhitching poverty from standards of living and essentially turning it into a measure of wealth disparity, "combating poverty" became a false justification for continual redistribution on a vast scale. Rather than openly debating with the electorate the merits of this, the word 'poverty' was invoked instead. I mean, who doesn't want to stop poverty, right? Given this definition, the logical (and as far as I can see, only way) to abolish poverty in this country is a regime of stringent wage controls and strict regulation of private assets - but for some reason Labour hasn't suggested such things in recent times.

So to go back to the question in the title, the government should have the courage, at this time of national stringency, to introduce a more honest definition of poverty. Recognising genuine poverty whilst ceasing to treat it as a catch-all justification for state intervention in wealth distribution would allow for a greatly reduced welfare budget, continue to target help at those who genuinely need it, and allow for a later reduction of taxes to stimulate the economy. If this is a government willing to make tough choices, abandoning this half-century long deception of the taxpaying public should be one of them.

*Daily Telegraph, 27 November 2003
**Quoted in Nicholas Trimmins, 'The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State' (Harper-Collins, London, 1995) p. 255