Monday, 30 May 2011

So... what is a Conservative?

Apologies if this reads a little muddled, I'm writing it as I think about it which is rarely conducive to perfect clarity. If it does read oddly or could use work please just leave a comment and I'll cast fresh eyes over it and tidy it up.

An odd question, I'll admit, but its been puzzling me lately. It comes up whenever a debate I'm having with a fellow member of the party gets heated, which happens from time to time. When the argument has raged for a while, with myself and my interlocutor expressing wildly divergent views, almost inevitably one or the other of us accuses the other of just 'not being a Conservative', or asks why on earth the other is in the party at all. A recent example of this would be my reaction to Dean's post over on New Right wherein he supports social democracy, 'positive' discrimination, Keynesian tax-and-spend policy and all manner of other frankly left-wing things, but I don't want to single Dean out - this happens with other people too. He's just a convenient, linkable example of what I mean.

I thought it might be interesting to address this on the blog because I've been on both sides of the looking glass in these circumstances. Sometimes, I'm arguing with somebody who to me seems completely, sopping wet or an outright traitor. They might be supporting the abandonment of grammar schools, positive discrimination, all-women shortlists, breaking up the UK or abolishing the monarchy, and I'll be filled with righteous fury that these people purport to be Conservatives. Other times, I'll be arguing with someone who I hold to be a complete dinosaur - they might be obsessively anti-Europe, anti-immigration, an absurd aristocrat, a closet UKIP supporter or a die-hard Thatcherite ideologue. To these people I maintain the line that the party has to modernise, that every generation of Conservatives sees the death of 'its' party, and that digging into an ideological ditch and waiting for the British people to come around is a delusion. I dismissed as ridiculous their claims that they represented 'true' Conservatism.

It was a little while ago that I had the obvious-in-retrospect realisation that my treatment of these two groups of people is entirely at odds with itself, and that it is grotesquely hypocritical of me to claim great swathes of my own beliefs as inviolable Conservative doctrine while lecturing those I perceived to be political fossils that there was no such doctrine at all. I remembered how angry I got when wets told me that there was 'no such thing as an inviolable Conservative principle' while trying to excise things I believed in passionately from the party program and realised that I was exactly the same in the eyes of those Tories to whom I appear a ruthless moderniser.

Although my love of debate - combined with an unfortunate tendency to let my passions get the better of me when arguing about deeply held principle - means that I've not become markedly less vigorous in my skirmishes with opponents, the insight has allowed me to take a better-informed look at my position within the Conservative Party, and the position of ideology within the Conservative Party itself.

For example, I'm a monarchist. Not simply a supporter of the British monarchy for reasons of profit or tradition, but a genuine believer in the benefits of constitutional monarchy and its general superiority to the republican form of government. I consider royalism - if not the pan-monarchism bit - to be a natural and inseparable part of what the Conservative Party stands for. Yet I have met a (very) few republican Conservatives. Who is to say that they are any more wrong than previous generations of Tory rebels, some of whose actions - such as the Peelites - I support? Who is to say that in a century or two's time, the Conservative Party politicians of the day will not look back on monarchism the way we look back on the limited franchise, the supremacy of the Lords, or the Corn Laws?

The end result of this - long and slightly rambling - thought process was the realisation that nobody, regardless of their views, can ever claim to be a 'true' Conservative. Unlike the Labour Party and perhaps even the Liberals, there is no font of ultimate ideological authority or legitimacy that any single strain of Conservative thought can draw upon as a trump card. Attempting to de-legitimise an argument by claiming that it deviates from 'true' Conservatism is wrong.

Yet this does not mean that the Conservative Party stands for nothing, or that any view can be considered incontestably at home within it. Rather, the identity of the party and its beliefs are defined consensually. The core of the party, if one exists, is a sum of those areas where the great majority of its members can reach a consensus over a long period of time - and I mean a long period of time. Beyond this core, the philosophical outlands of the party consist of those areas where there is divergence and debate, but within broad, commonly accepted parameters.

For example, it is generally accepted that you can be a Europhile Conservative, rare and much disliked as we might sometimes be, whereas radical redistribution of wealth and support for trade union militancy lie without the accepted parameters of the Conservative debate. To demonstrate the vital importance of time to something becoming a 'core' value, I can point out that Thatcherism has not killed off entirely the more left-leaning brand of Butskellite Conservatism, nor has Cameroon doctrine eradicated Thatcherism, nor yet has Euroscepticism become an inviolable article of faith. On the other hand, aristocratic High Toryism is essentially dead, for it has been outside the Conservative debate too long, and defence of the monarchy is still taken as an article of faith by the great majority of Conservatives as it has been since our party was founded.

So the parameters of these contested areas are still defined by a rough consensus of the membership. In this way, when I claim that Dean's membership of the Conservative Party is illogical, it is not because he has strayed from some 'true path' of Conservative doctrine, but because so many of his deeply held beliefs - social democracy, positive discrimination, republicanism, near-separatism - fall outside the discourse of  contemporary Conservatism, and there are other parties which better match him. I'm not so much a Pope excommunicating a doctrinal heretic as a priest bemusedly watching a man recite the rosary inside a Hindu temple and suggesting that there are other, more suitable places for him to pray. An avowed social democrat in the UK has two relatively social democratic parties to choose from, after all.

In this reading, there are no rigid absolutes in Tory thinking but that doesn't mean that anything goes either. Those who seek to change the party can do so, but only by winning a debate with the party, effecting change, and then retaining support enough to consolidate that change. If you having a vision of how you want the Conservative Party to be, you can make it so, but you have to fight for it. Similarly, you can't simply de-legitimise an argument you dislike on narrow, doctrinal terms.

The other realisation I had - and I might do a full post on this - is that you can't simply divide the party into 'modernisers' and 'reactionaries'. As my own case demonstrates, any Conservative can be one or the other depending upon the extent to which any change impacts upon their own beliefs. In my instance, I'm generally on board with moving the party with the times but only as long as we try to move the times with us as well. I'm also pretty fervent in my defence of many things that might be considered traditionally Conservative, and I'm an utterly committed unionist. Similarly David Cameron, Dean, and other people that I and others might perceive as 'modernisers' must have been drawn to the Conservative Party by something, and if that was threatened I fancy you'd see their 'reactionary' sides too.

P.S. I've been finishing up my exams, hence the lack of posting. Normal service has resumed. 

Saturday, 14 May 2011

We're Not a Family: Why the Right doesn't do marches

 The 'Rally Against Debt' was a predictable disaster. Thomas Byrne, over at ByrneTofferings, provides a nice summary of why it was a disaster; I'd like to consider why that was predictable.

 I've been keen on the Right emulating the Left's tactics in the past. As somebody who wants right-wing students to engage with their representative structures, how could I not? Plus, those marches just look intoxicating if you're a sympathiser. Hundreds of thousands of people, dozens of organisations, banners, chants, music, the thrill of being part of a great, visually striking mass of people. Often in the past I wondered why the British right didn't have such great rallies, and wished they would. But we don't. Its a damn good thing, too.

 There are several reasons the modern right lacks a marching, protest culture. P.J. O'Rourke quipped that it was because right-wingers have jobs, and the Economist's Bagehot has taken similar vein in the past. There's truth in that - the 'disaffected', the jobless, and students just tend to have more time on their hands. However, I realised the real reason a couple of years ago, when I did two things. First, I read Nick Cohen's excellent What's Left?, in part of which he complaints bitterly about how the supposed 'family of the left' means that moderate lefties show an unhealthy tolerance to the extremes of their own wing. Second, I spoke to a few lefties and looked at the sort of groups who go on marches.

 The main reason left-wing marches can get such a body count to a major event is that, in the spirit of 'solidarity', many, many groups from across the red-tinted end of the spectrum will show. An anti-cuts rally will attract anti-fascists, greens, communists, socialists, feminists and all manner of other fringe groups, which which gets mixed in with an enthused mass of students and the ranks of union members bearing their professionally printed placards. It is this ideological flexibility and sense of common cause that allows so many people to operate in a vaguely coherent fashion as one protest. 

 It also helps to gloss over the fact that some of the fringe groups present are genuinely disgusting, including defenders of the likes of Mao, Stalin and Hoxha, who were present at the anti-debt march that Ed Miliband so grandiosely addressed. To paint you a right-wing comparison, its like David Cameron addressing a rally attended by Combat 18. In fact, a fuller right-wing comparison makes clear just how ridiculous the idea of the right having a mass rally of the sort the left occasionally throw actually is:

 We'd have a march put on by the CBI and the Countryside Alliance. The TaxPayers Alliance, the LPUK and the Freedom Association would be in attendance, as would the English Defence League and tons of Conservative Party members. Conservative Future branches from all over the country would attend in strength, making up most of the numbers. On top of that we'd have ultra-royalists, neo-nazis, and fundamentalist clerics. The N9S would probably be running a street stall somewhere. To give us that international flavour, we can throw in the likes of the CDU, the Fronte Nationale, the Kuomintang, Danish Freedom Party, Republicans from the USA and all manner of weird and exotic fringe organisations from across the world. Shah supporters? Ultramontanes? The AWB? Why not, all are welcome to show 'solidarity' with us about whatever we're marching about.

 The example above highlights the main two reasons, in my view, that the right don't do mass protests the way the left does. The first, big one is that 'right' is not in any way ideologically cohesive - it is essentially defined as 'not left'. This gives us few common causes to rally around. My brand of right-wing politics is probably completely different to most other righties I meet and I'm sure its true for plenty of others too. While politics might be just as personal on the left (for all I know) they have the myth of the common cause to bind several hundred thousand bored people together in a park for an afternoon. When the right tries it, you get a few hundred bedraggled-looking libertarians and some bad press.

 This leads to the second reason: we can't turn a blind eye to the horrific nature of the people's we'd be sharing a march with. Unlike the various impenetrable communist parties, right-wing groups tend to be at least identifiably distinct and - because fascism bombed us and communism bombed other people - elicits greater revulsion from the ordinary person. While that revulsion is utterly merited, the lop-sided nature of it means that the left can tuck all kinds of strange things on the edge of its marches that moderate right wingers could not get away with and would not wish to try.

 That covered, my final thought is utter bafflement that sensible right-wingers would want to try to emulate the left's marching culture. I was tempted by it once, but having seen the last few such events I don't see how it would be an asset for us. Marching around, shouting, breaking the odd thing, inconveniencing people and occupying shops, all the while scaring centrist voters away in the process? What does it accomplish?

We have little to win and much to lose if we try to outdo the left at one of their most pointless strengths. If we aim to spend years the corridors of power, we don't need to begrudge them a few hours on the streets.

P.S. That said, the cockles of my heart could not help but warm to Brian Micklethwait's photographic collection of hand-made right-wing protest signs. Refreshing to see.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Mancunion Article: We're Not All Children of the Revolution

Published in The Mancunion, issue of 09/05/11.

It is sometimes quite challenging, being a Right-Wing student in a Student Union with a political culture quite as introverted, Left-Wing and often hostile as Manchester’s, but it’s rarely dull. In less than a month I will have sat my last exam as a University of Manchester student and must thus surrender my council seat and hang up my hat as UMSU’s token Righty. I thought I’d use my last article for The Mancunion to relate some of my motivations and experiences of politics inside your Students’ Union, and try to encourage more people who are neither flower children nor Communists to step up and take my place in years to come.

 Not that it’s a particularly appealing prospect, on the surface. Perhaps the most egregious slander I’ve sustained during my time here was a persistent rumour in my first year that I was a member of the British National Party. Whilst this rumour was thankfully discredited by the (remarkably timely) leaking of the BNP membership list to the national press, it serves as useful illustration of the gauntlet of hostility any dissenting student politician has to run if you want to stick your head above the parapet. Other examples include my being mobbed at the 2011 student elections (one of my gallant defenders was punched in the face by a newly elected candidate, I was merely spat at) and a faintly laughable but nonetheless intimidating Socialist occupation of the Conservative Future AGM last term. We had the nerve to hold our meeting in the Students’ Union, you see.#

 So why on earth should you, the Right-Wing student of tomorrow, put yourself through all that? Why did I? Fundamentally, because our Students’ Union is supposed to represent all of us, and I don’t think that many people can honestly claim that it does. That’s why I think that Centre-Right and Right-Wing students need to brave the horrors of Left-Wing intolerance and take part in the Students’ Union. For too long, UMSU has had systems that empower tiny special interest groups to enact their agendas in the name of every student. Would a Union that was genuinely responsive to the great majority of its students ban meat from our bar on Mondays, or Coca-Cola from our shop, or outright ban the word “Fresher’s” from ‘Welcome Week’? I don’t think so. The Students’ Union will remain a remote and largely irrelevant institution until it represents the broad spectrum of student opinion.

 Thankfully, some of the worst of the constitutional monstrosities are being phased out. General Meetings – wherein the whims of a few hundred activists are held above the mandates of execs with many thousands of votes – are going at the end of next year, replaced by general referendums where all motions are put before the full student body. This offers an excellent opportunity for people from a broader range of political viewpoints to engage the next generation of Manchester students with their union, but this opportunity is only as valuable as what students do with it. 

So this plea is to you, all the centre-right students who aren’t graduating this year. Next year, get involved. Write for this paper, stand for election and generally make nuisances of yourselves. Demonstrate to the wider world that not all students are socialists, communists, radical feminists and greens. It’s the only way you’re ever going to change the union, and the left will continue to present itself as the universal “voice of students” until you do.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


 Ordinarily, I only post articles on this blog. I tend to shy away from short pieces, links, and other such things. I couldn't resist printing this though. It is a complaint my student paper received to my article attacking weak arguments against war. You can read that article in all its glory here. I'd advise doing so, if you haven't already, so you can enjoy this complaint all the more. Below the complaint - which the paper published as a letter - is my response, which sadly they did not have room for. Without further ado:
Dear Mancunion, 
Last week I had the pleasure of enduring Henry Hill’s flimsy excuse for an article on western foreign intervention and I was enamoured by the prevailing ignorance towards affairs in the Middle East. Maybe Hill is a devious media troll, revelling in the inevitable wealth of responses generated by his moronic interpretations; still, I had to write in just in case he really had been corralled by the deceits of the neo-conservatives. 
Firstly, Hill flippantly equated attitudes towards Iraq and the current war in Libya. This is inherently misguided and a pairing that often occurs in the media narrative. The two present drastically different situations and many who were rightly against the former opposed the latter. 
More to the point however, Hill presents a clichéd straw man of the arguments against Iraq with the usual buzzwords, oil, Imperialism but more astoundingly, implies that we were right to go into Iraq and our success in that part of the world legitimised further intervention. Perhaps Hill should be employed at the foreign office equipped with a map of the Middle East, a set of darts and a blindfold (just to make declarations of war a little more fun) so we can maintain our conflicts. 
My response to the article may seem overblown to some but such an ill informed opinion of our recent interventions in the most politically volatile part of the world seem plainly offensive. Implying that the lives of Iraqis has been vastly improved by deposing Saddam is almost as stupid as believing that the motivations behind the conflict were based compassion for the Iraqi people. It is surprising to me that so many have failed to understand that the Iraq conflict represented the greatest example yet of the military-industrial complex directing US foreign policy. Iraq represented the triumphs of arms companies like Blackwater (now XE services) and private security firms, not the liberation of the Iraqi people, who are now forced to adopt daily suicide bombings as a part of life. Iraq was the privatisation of war in action. Perhaps our action in Libya is the right thing to do, but that remains to be seen. Iraq was not the right thing to do, and of that we were sure before the first pair of ‘boots on the ground’. 
Jack Armstrong
 Enjoy that? I know I did. Below is the letter I wrote in response:
Dear Jack, 

 First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to respond! I've carefully read your letter, which is a greater courtesy than you paid my article, and I'm happy to clarify what seems to be our central problem. My article is not about the rightness of Iraq or any other war. Indeed, I dedicate a whole paragraph to clarifying that there are legitimate reasons to oppose war, and the entire article is urging people to use those arguments.

 It is not about whether or not Iraq was a good thing for Iraqis (although I do hold that view) but rather that the arguments that war in the Middle East is 'hypocritical' or 'imperialistic' are very bad arguments because a war could be both of those things and still benefit the people of a targeted government. In short, they are not harms in and of themselves. It seems particularly fatuous to accuse me of picking on straw man arguments against war in an article whose express intent was analysing and demolishing weak arguments, but as stated above clearly you could not discern that theme.

 The rest of your letter isn't really related to my article at all, but we can go through it quickly. I do not draw any comparison between Libya and Iraq whatsoever beyond including them both in lists of western interventions, which they both are. I do believe that the long term prospects of the Iraqi people are better now than under Saddam's rule. This is a view also held by many Iraqis - I recommend to you Republic of Fear by Kanan Makiya for a glimpse of what Saddam's regime was actually like. I do not believe that the Iraq War was motivated by compassion but it is a fallacy to presume that something has to have pure motivations to have good outcomes. The idea that the war in Iraq was simply the product of private enterprise is a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

 Finally, it bears saying that your decision to personally attack me and grossly misrepresent my case, rather than try to engage with the actual argument put forward in my article, is simply further evidence of the very behaviours and weaknesses amongst a section of the anti-war debate that my article was actually about. Thank you for the demonstration.

 Peace and love,

 I hope it will be the considered view of my readership that, regardless of whether or not you agree with me, I got the better of that particular encounter.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Buzz: A Safety Net or a Padded Cell? The NHS, Universal Healthcare and Freedom

 I have an article published over on ConservativeHome USA arguing that the NHS - not universal healthcare per se - operates in a way that undermines liberty in British political culture. I wrote it as buzz to this article over on Smitten by Britain.

P.S. CH have edited it slightly, putting in American spelling and restructuring a few sentences, in case anybody feared I'd gone over to the dark side and started writing "ize" instead of "ise". 

Friday, 6 May 2011

Better Safe than Sorry: Dilettante on The Student Journals

 I've got an article published over on The Student Journals, defending the security arrangements from the Royal Wedding from another TSJ contributor who attacked them.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

A Referendum on Independence Could be Good for Scottish Conservatism and the Union

 Originally written for submission to ConHome, as part of my long-running and apparently doomed attempt to get published there.

 Like most Conservatives from the “ardent unionist” branch of the party, I have long been vehemently opposed to a referendum on Scottish independence. I always thought that such a thing might call into question in the minds of the electorate the very existence of the United Kingdom in a permanent fashion, even if won, and as such should be fought against as hard as humanly possible. 

 That is, until recently. One of the reasons I decided to start blogging and getting seriously involved in the party is because I realised that unionism is too often a pessimistic, defensive creed, prone to bouts of apologetics and despair. This is one of the reasons I feel that, compared to the dynamism, charisma and vigour of some of its nationalist opponents, defenders of the union continue to struggle to make the case for it, and display little confidence in the ability of the union to survive or the capacity of the people to support it.

 As an Irish citizen of Catholic heritage, perhaps my perspective on the union is different, although I’m not entirely alone in my diagnosis. However, it seems to me that unionist defensiveness is the reason that the initiative when it comes to the great constitutional questions about the fate of our nation continues to lie in the hands of the nationalists. The Conservative Party is still too determined to show that it accepts devolution to suggest ways in which it could be improved, and unionists are too preoccupied by the supposed fragility of the union to meet nationalists head on, for fear of upsetting people.

 If – as is possible – Alex Salmond and the SNP win enough seats to gain a majority with the support of the also-separatist Scottish Green Party in the upcoming election, then we could very soon see a referendum north of the border on the continued existence of our United Kingdom. As a unionist, I find that prospect frightening. But get past that fear and there could be a great opportunity in this for Scottish Conservatism. 

 The reasons why the Scottish Conservatives have yet to rebound like their counter-parts in England and Wales are varied. In his latest article on Comment is Free, Kevin McKenna argues that it is because the party has not been right-wing enough. Another commonly accepted reason is that the SNP has displaced the Conservatives and attracted most of its centre-right votes. These are two maps, one from the Scottish Parliamentary election of 2007 and the other from the General Election of 1992, the last creditable Conservative performance north of the border. You will note that the great swathe of SNP constituencies in the centre and north-east of Scotland are seats that were formerly held by Conservative candidates.

 The true answer is probably a fusion of both. The Scottish Conservative Party’s position has been eroded by being a largely irrelevant third party without a distinctive position, a crisis exacerbated by its own timidity. This is where a referendum on independence could help. Polling has consistently demonstrated that support for independence is stuck at roughly 20% of the population, and it is very likely that a referendum held soon could be won, and won convincingly, by the unionist parties. Such a reaffirmation of commitment would not only be good for the union, but by making the SNP the party of independence it could finally allow the Scottish Conservatives to reclaim their old heartlands amongst the pro-union centre-right in Scotland. 

 The SNP continue to poll substantially higher than the prospect of independence itself because they have become a broad-spectrum party of government and the natural recipient of anti-Labour voting. For too long the Scottish Conservatives have been unable to make political capital out of their unionism because, in a debate driven almost entirely on the nationalist’s initiative, they have feared appearing anti-devolution, and because the union was simply not a political issue. Without that, there was nowhere for the Conservatives to carve themselves a proper niche in Scottish politics. The centre-right Scottish electorate need a reason to distinguish between the SNP and the Conservatives if the latter is ever to rise again, and the Union is it. 

 The breakup of the United Kingdom in Scotland, as in the rest of the country, remains the province of a vocal minority. The success of Labour’s recent switch to a relentlessly anti-independence message in closing the SNP’s poll lead in recent days is evidence that independence may yet be the SNP’s Achilles ’ heel.  The more closely the SNP can be wedded to a hard-line position on separatism, the narrower their electoral appeal will get. This provides the opportunity for a well-led and confident Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party to seize the initiative, and start its long march back to relevance. If a referendum must come, we should have confidence in our arguments and our country, meet the challenge head-on, and win.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Canada 2015: Harper must triangulate the NDP

 The results of the general election were good for both Conservatism and Unionism in Canada last night: Stephen Harper's Conservative government now governs as a majority, a gift caused by splits in a balkanised left, and the nationalist Bloc Québécois was annihilated. The Conservative Party broke out of its strongholds in Western Canada to seize 71 seats in Ontario and make gains throughout the Liberal's Maritime heartlands. 
 Only in Quebec did the government suffer a defeat, and it is from Quebec that the challenges of this Parliament for Canadian Conservatism stem. Although the province now lies overwhelmingly in unionist (federalist in Canadian political parlance) hands, the Conservative Party held only six of the eleven seats it held at dissolution. According to a national Canadian paper, not since 1917 has a majority government been so under-represented in Quebec. 

 Furthermore, Quebec has provided the main game-changer of this election: the rise to prominence of the New Democratic Party, formerly the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Canada's answer to the Labour Party. Almost a century after its British equivalent, it appears to have finally overtaken the Liberals as Canada's second party. Moreover, it won its Quebecois landslide by making many of the same promises to sovereigntists (nationalists) as the shattered Bloc did. Canada's Official Opposition is now a decidedly left-wing, perhaps socialist party committed to proportional representation and in thrall to a separatist electoral base. The need for a strong, broad-based and cleverly-led Conservative Party has perhaps never been greater.
The federalist darling of the separatist electorate? 
 Harper is a natural pessimist, and tends to favour incremental gains and an assumed low overall ceiling of support to playing for high stakes. Yet the next parliament is crucial. Deplorable as the NDP are, it would be foolish to sit back and hope the Liberals bounce back. Nor can the Prime Minister afford to make the fatal error of ignoring either the opposition or Quebec. There are those who argue that the NDP's success is ephemeral, and won't last. Perhaps they're right, but that doesn't mean that the Conservatives can afford to ignore them or fail to exploit the opportunities now presented to them.

 Some believe that the breakthrough of the NDP in this election has redefined Canadian politics. In my view, the real opportunity to redefine politics is this parliament and the 2015 election, and the initiative lies with the Conservatives. Despite the challenges, if they choose too this could be the parliament where they set in motion Stephen Harper's dream of becoming Canada's natural party of government. The way to do this is the method used so effectively by Tony Blair to consistently outmanoeuvre the British Conservatives: triangulation.

 The nature of the parliamentary NDP has two advantages for the Conservatives. First is the quite startling lack of calibre amongst some members of their new Quebecois caucus: paper candidates have been elected in numbers, and while it makes for a mightily impressive election result the influence of these people on the future of the NDP could be anything but good. Even if not actively malign, the fact that the NDP caucus will be presented as inexperienced and gaff-prone will only exacerbate the Conservative's incumbency advantage and their self-image as the sensible, reliable and trustworthy custodians of the nation. The NDP will be under scrutiny as they've never experienced before, and if their MPs aren't up to scratch all the charismatic leaders in the world won't save them.

Harper's Canada this morning (03/05/2011). Six large NDP ridings -
(E-W) Skeena-Bulkley Valley, Western Arctic, Churchill, Timmins-James Bay,
Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou and Manicouagan - visually mask
the scale of the Conservative victory.
 The second potential advantage for the Conservatives is the NDP's surprise dependence upon a previously unimagined Quebecois base. The long-term impact of this isn't entirely knowable at this point, but it is fact that Jack Layton won many Bloc sympathisers by making many of the same promises to the sovereigntist electorate that the nationalists usually do. There are several ramifications to this. First, it could be used to damage the NDP's federal credentials by turning their position on Canadian unity into something of an Achilles' heel, if cleverly exploited. Second, it makes cooperation between them and the avowedly federalist Liberal Party more difficult, which is a boon to a Conservative Party that profited so greatly from the balkanisation of the left at the last election. Third, it means that if Layton and his NDP don't have a good parliament, and especially if they are seen as not standing up for the province, their Quebecois base could evaporate.

 The third advantage for the Conservatives lies not in the NDPs specific parliamentary makeup but its overall position on Canada's political spectrum. Unlike the centrist Liberal Party, the NDP is decidedly on the left, perhaps even socialist in character. Its rise and the eclipse of the Liberals means there is now a window of opportunity for Harper to try to annex the Canadian centre ground permanently for the Conservatives. Analysts on the CBC's election program last night attributed the Conservative's ground-breaking result in Ontario (seventy-one seats out of 106) to the collapsing Liberal vote "breaking right" to avert an NDP-led administration.

 If the Conservatives can occupy the political centre ground, it will harm both their main rivals. It will further rob the Liberals of any raison d'être they might have still have, which will either lead to them merging with a united left (and shedding what remains of their centre and right-leaning figures in the process) or engaging in a life-or-death struggle with the NDP, depending upon how the latter fairs in the next few years. The end result of such a struggle would either be a revived Liberal Party that had been pushed out of the Canadian centre, or a triumphant NDP nearly as remote from it as ever. Whether the NDP strengthen or the Liberals rebound, the Conservatives need to convincingly occupy the centre in order to maintain their hold on many of the former Liberal seats they gained at this election. Only by seizing the centre can the Conservatives ever 'incrementally' become Canada's natural political home.

 The other Conservative Party imperative for the next few years must be Quebec. There are both tactical and strategical reasons for this. Tactically, the Conservatives need a resurgence in Quebec to help neuter the NDP. The latter gained the Quebecois vote at least in part on fear of Harper's Conservatives, and it would be foolish of the Tories not to try to undermine this representation before it solidifies and the NDP's position in national politics becomes entrenched. Strategically, the NDP's landslide reflected all the worse on a very disappointing performance by the Conservatives, who held only half a dozen of the province's seventy-five ridings and saw a senior minister unseated. Like the British Conservative Party and Scotland, lacking representation in a large and culturally distinct territory damages any party's claims to be a truly national administration, no matter how impressive the party's showings in the rest of Canada.

Gilles Duceppe and Michael Ignatieff, the unseated leaders of
the Bloc Québécois and the Liberal Party of Canada.

 When the next election comes, the Conservative Party of Canada should have acted upon these principles. If they have, they could well be in the position to start the historic shift in Canada's alignment they've long dreamed of. Come the next election the economy should be on the up, which the Conservatives will be able to take credit for. This would also allow them to step away from grim austerity politics and start offering more baubles in their manifesto. If so, it should not shy away from including measured, affordable spending commitments in its manifesto alongside tax cuts.

 If the triangulation is successful, they should face an NDP pushed out onto the left of Canadian politics, with an appeal too narrow to win an election. If the NDP collapse, the should face a rudderless Liberal party unable to claim the centre-ground and uncomfortable anywhere else. If the result falls between those two extremes, they'll face the same divided, vote-splitting left that served them so well last night. If the Liberals and the NDP end up merging, the Conservatives face more of a threat to their centre and it becomes more vital than ever that they have strengthened their position there. 

 Stephen Harper understands that right-wing governments are only viable in centre-right political climates, and he has begun the long work of shifting Canada's political axis his way. If he can successfully rebuild in Quebec, outmanoeuvre the NDP and wrest the centre-ground from the parties of the left, he could well succeed.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Will Hutton's Hypocrisy: Electoral and constituency reform.

 Will Hutton opens his latest article in the Observer thus: "Only the Chinese Communist party, my old professor used to say, comes close to the British Conservatives in its understanding of power." His overall line of attack is that the Conservative Party is an effective, ruthless, power-fixated machine, and is committed to maintaining an unfair franchise for narrow party advantage. After meandering some, he finally concludes that the solution for this is full-blown PR, and that we should vote Yes to AV as a consequences.

 Naturally I disagree with him over some of that, but that paragraph of common-enough left-wing sentiment is not what I'm writing about. It's only relevant when compared to the section that did raise my ire: Mr Hutton's condemnation of the Coalition's plan to equalise constituency sizes. I've been meaning to comment on this topic for a while, and this seemed as good an opportunity as any. Here is what Mr Hutton has to say:
"Legislation to reduce Britain's constituencies to 600 while standardising their size, overriding geographical or historical ties, was a priority... The system had to be in place by the next general election to help confer the required Conservative parliamentary majority... Tacked on to this bill, meeting the demand of the Lib Dems, was the provision for a referendum on the alternative vote to replace first past the post, the price of mounting what is an unashamed Conservative constitutional land grab."
 Powerful stuff.  Those three sentences highlight a key aspect of Mr Hutton's argument that I take issue with. He appears to assert that an unfair franchise can be justified by history, and that the Conservative manoeuvre to try to ensure that every vote of a UK citizen is weighted the same* is an act of grotesque "gerrymandering", to borrow Jack Straw's ridiculous phrase. The first seems to me to contradict progressive principle, and the second a highly unfair charge that - given the tone of the rest of his article slamming the Tories apparent desire to maintain unfair systems that favour them - make Hutton appear outright hypocritical.

 It should be an obvious principle of a democracy that citizens should be equally enfranchised. It certainly seems contrary to progressive teachings that our relative democratic empowerment should be determined by quirks of geography, culture or birth. Yet that is exactly what Mr Hutton appears to advance in his column. Let us take the most extreme example: is it fair that the Isle of Wight constituency should have 5.6 times the population of the Western Isles - technically Na h-Eileanan an Iar for Westminster elections as of the 2005 General Election - while each only returns one Member of Parliament? Is it fair that Labour's industrial strongholds return more MPs per head of population than the Conservative shires? I don't think so, and I don't think if the positions were reversed many in the Labour Party would think so either. 

 Living on the Isle of Wight is not a good reason to erode the value of any citizen's franchise. On the level of principle, opposing the equalisation of constituency sizes is to support a geographical franchise lottery. Yes, it is important that an MP represent a geographical area where they can be held accountable by the residents of a clearly-delineated constituency. To believe otherwise is to support Israel-style total PR. But there is always a compromise to strike. To argue that we should operate a system where someone in the Western Isles exercises a franchise nearly six times that of someone in the Isle of Wight, or that being Cornish is sufficient to entitle someone to more franchise power than their neighbour in Devon - is to take communalism far too far.

 It is not the principle of it that got me really riled up, though. That fell to the naked hypocrisy in attacking the Conservatives for trying to ensure that the vote of a country voter matches the value of an urban voter in the same article that attacks the Conservatives for trying to maintain unfair constitutional aspects that are to their advantage. You can either attack the Conservatives defence of FPTP or you can defend the entrenchment of Labour advantage via the deep exaggeration of their urban vote. You can't do both.

*To FPTP critics out there: by 'count the same' I mean that the same number of constituents - or as close as possible - should be represented by every MP and have a say in choosing that MP. I do not buy into the idea that the votes of people living in safe seats count for any less than the votes of people in marginals - a seat is only safe because the party that always wins commands great support amongst the equally enfranchised electors of that constituency. The supporter of another party in a safe seat is not disenfranchised, merely defeated.