A reprieve for cider drinkers

After the Budget, I wondered: who do cider drinkers vote for? Along with some other measures, the proposed big tax rise on cider has been shelved.

The general election is on 6th May and Parliament will be dissolved in a few days. So soon after the budget, the Government has had to cut deals to pass legislation (including the finance bill) and the higher cider tax is one of the victims. The winners, of course, are the cider drinkers and manufacturers of the West Country (and elsewhere!)

The Government has a healthy working majority in Parliament. But it cannot do all it pleases. It is not all-powerful. In this case its ambitions were thwarted by MPs fighting for their constituents (particularly for cider makers, not just the drinkers). These MPs may have been acting in concert with others fighting for different causes.

Sometimes – working together – the ‘powerless’ carry enough strength to deliver. Perhaps the Great Ignored could collaborate to influence the election and the next Government.

Cider drinkers probably won’t swing the election, and the Government knows this. If Labour stays in office after 6th May, the tax rise will be reinstated.

But it doesn’t concern me; just stay away from my Guinness!

QT – Is the criticism justified?

I found Question Time fascinating on Thursday evening, but slightly dissatisfying for reasons I’m still thinking through.

I stand by my view that the BBC made the right decision to include Nick Griffin. But it’s taken a lot of criticism for the format of the show, starting with Mr Griffin himself. Read the editor’s defence here. I doubt very much that the audience was hand-picked to look a bit ‘ethnic’ or to give Griffin a hard time, but I do have some sympathy with other criticisms.

I believe the issues debated should have been wider than immigration, race and the BNP itself (+five mins on Stephen Gately). What about the postal strike? It’s a idea that’s explored further by an old friend of mine on Doobs’ Musings. Of course there are times when one issue attracts attention more than others, and QT needs to reflect that, but I don’t believe the time to do that is when one of the panellists IS the story. It had the effect of drawing the focus to him (unfairly) and denying him the opportunity to discuss anything other than media stereotypes about the BNP (also unfairly). The other panellists and the audience could easily have tied the man in knots on all sorts of issues and I’d like to have seen more of that.

I enjoyed the baying audience, and in that respect, Griffin got everything he deserved. But I believe David Dimbleby should have given the man more space to explain his points. Griffin is clearly a racist. There is enough evidence from both the distant and recent past to make that clear. But some of his points were dismissed as racist without proper exploration. That made him look bullied and it was unnecessary. The BNP’s policies are stuff and nonsense across the board: political claptrap. That’s what needs to be exposed. The racism is obvious, but the thinking it leads to is simply stupid and that’s what could have been exposed better.

What he has to say about the indigenous British population wouldn’t stand the scrutiny of a gnat. But rather than actually demonstrate that scrutiny, it was again dismissed as racist and that let the viewers down. Channel 4’s FactCheck scrutiny after the event is very worthwhile.

I barely mentioned Bonnie Greer in my earlier post. But I thought she was outstanding. Her lightness of touch cut straight through Griffin several times. He thought she was flirting with him and kept laughing inappropriately (just to show how well he gets on with a black woman?)

Jack Straw was weaker than I thought. He let himself down on the question about whether government policy had led to more BNP support. His tactic was to explain/defend the policy. Now the policy may well be defensible, but the avoidance of the question was all too obvious and frankly unnecessary. The main parties’ approach to immigration has cost them support in certain areas. And that has benefited the BNP. That may be an acceptable price to pay for the right policy or it may not be, but Mr Straw ignored that distinction to his cost.

Sam Coates of The Times ranked the key players and gave Griffin 7/10. Equal to Jack Straw and certainly more than I’d have given either of them. The BNP makes much of this on its website. I don’t agree with Mr Coates on much of what he says, but his views are interesting and certainly worth a read.

Listening to Nick Griffin is unpalatable, but he is an MEP, he is entitled to his opinions, voters are entitled to vote for him and those who didn’t are entitled to hear from him. It was right to hear from him on Question Time, but it could have been done better.

Talking the BNP down

Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, is among the guests on BBC Question Time on Thursday. The idea was mooted in early September, some time after they won two seats in the Euro-election. They were already represented on a number of local councils and the London Assembly.

I’m looking forward to it. The BNP deserves to be heard. More importantly, it deserves to be challenged. Around the table with him, along with David Dimbleby, will be Jack Straw, Baroness Warsi, Chris Huhne and Bonnie Greer.

Mr Straw, the Justice Secretary, has many years experience facing down the BNP in his Blackburn constituency. Baroness Warsi, a muslim, is the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action. She is on record as saying she understands the concerns which draw some people to the the BNP. It’s her job to answer those concerns on behalf of the Conservatives. Those concerns need to be addressed, not ignored. Who better than Mr Straw, Baroness Warsi and the great British public to take on this challenge! Here are some questions they might consider putting.

The BNP is controversial for obvious reasons. It has its supporters, but its detractors are widespread. Its constitution is overtly racist and offensively nationalistic, allowing only “indigenous Caucasian” Britons to join. In court last week, Mr Griffin has agreed to use “all reasonable endeavours” to revise this. He has no option, and it’s for that reason alone that his party will probably agree to it.

Some of the BNP’s detractors appear perpetually apoplectic. They’ll throw eggs, break car windows or urge the BBC not to broadcast their infantile views.

I disagree with this approach. Too much of what the BNP apparently stands for is revealed through the words of others. In fairness, we ought to hear from them. Not because they have something interesting to say, but because they have received significant democratic endorsement. It didn’t work when Prime Minister Thatcher tried to gag Sinn Fein. Gagging the BNP won’t work either. And throwing eggs at Nick Griffin reduces the level of discourse to somewhere far beneath student politics.

I really appreciated the recent Radio 1 Newsbeat interview with Nick Griffin. That too was controversial, but I found it enlightening. I write as a relatively politically-aware news journalist, someone who wouldn’t normally rely on Newsbeat for my political education, preferring Sunday AM, Nick Robinson’s blog or Adam Boulton for this. But Newsbeat exposed Mr Griffin and I was pleased to hear it. I have no doubt some listeners will have liked what they heard and so be it. We are all entitled to our views. But the judgements we all make ought to be well-grounded.

The BNP is not just about racism. Or immigration. Or repatriation. It is about many things. Some of what they they say has a kernal of sense. But more of what they say is nonsense. And they can be effectively argued down without going anywhere near the race issue.

It is not for mainstream politicians to collude against those whose views most of us find abhorrent. That is the job of the voters and we must be armed as effectively as possible to make the right judgement at the ballot box. Otherwise, what is democracy for?

Nick Griffin is an intelligent man. Under his leadership, his party has made leaps and bounds. But what he and his party stand for is appalling. They are fascist and extreme (though not so clearly aligned to the right as is commonly perceived). We should not use the tools of fascism to close down the debate. Let’s rise above that, listen to them and let them be damned by their own words.

When is E-Day?

Much has been said about when the general election might be. Well-informed tongues began wagging ahead of the Labour conference in 2007, Gordon Brown’s first as Prime Minister. Should he call a snap election to consolidate his authority? As leader of the underdogs, David Cameron’s challenge was to frighten the PM and force a rethink. He was helped by some clever politicking by his Shadow Chancellor. In the end, there was no election and it became clear Mr Brown would aim to see out the mandate won by Tony Blair in 2005.

Today is four years on. Each of the previous two elections were held after four years (or thereabouts). Both of Margaret Thatcher’s re-elections were held after four years, but John Major held off until the five year mark on both occasions.

When might Mr Brown see fit to go to the country? My view is that the election will take place on 6th May 2010, one year tomorrow. The argument for this precise date is put succinctly and effectively by James Forsyth in the Spectator last week. Basically, we know the local elections will be held that day and he doesn’t think it will happen before then or afterwards.

6th May 2010 is (a day) more than five years. It surprised me to learn recently that the general election could take place more than five years after the previous one. But apparently so; it happened most recently in 1997. Parliament is elected for a five year term, after which the timetable for the next general election is set in motion automatically.

In practice, the Prime Minister normally requests a dissolution from the Monarch before this point, but it’s not necessary. An election next year could happen as late as 3rd June, or two weeks later if the Queen dies after she’s summoned a new parliament. But as James Forsyth explains, 6th May would seem to be the most likely date. 

Westminster
The Mother of Parliaments

Mr Brown has faced much flak for his failure to go to the country early to secure a personal mandate. He was criticised, partly because probably he would have won; but the philosophical reason is arguably more important. Had he sought the consent of the British people to govern, he could more easily point his critics to this and move on.

He also lacks a mandate from his party. His elevation to the premiership was something of an appointment by inevitability. Labour MPs knew Mr Brown would be their next  leader, so the vast majority of them pledged their support. Two challengers emerged, Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, but neither could secure enough support (45 MPs) to force Mr Brown to face a wider vote.

So Mr Brown has neither a mandate from his party nor from the British people. His only real democratic authority comes from his constituency in Scotland. This reality harms him when he faces other challenges to his authority. So if he is replaced any time soon, would his successor call a snap election? I don’t think so.

All parties are ready for an election at any time. At least they should be. Even the party of government should be ready for when its leader decides it’s time to go to the country. Only the Prime Minister knows when he will do that, but his chief lieutenants must have a campaign plan ready at all times.

So, along with the others, Mr Cameron’s party is ready, Mr Clegg’s party is ready, and Mr Brown’s party is ready. But if Mr Brown is deposed, his party would no longer be ready to fight.

A new commander would need time to marshal his forces. He (or she) would need to draw up his own battle plan. A personal leadership vision would not be enough. A manifesto for government and an effective campaign to sell this message to the voters would take time to draw up. And in the midst of a crisis, the voters may not forgive any prime minister who decided to focus on electioneering instead of governing. The voters know the election will come soon enough. I believe they would rather wait for it, particularly if a key leader was unknown to them.

For Gordon Brown, it was different. He had ten years to prepare for the premiership, and the voters knew who he was. So he could have called a snap election. His replacement would be a fool to do so, particularly if the opinion polls remain stable.

The county council and European elections are on 4th June. This will be a key test. A good day for Labour will possibly settle the leadership question for now. But a bad day will increase the pressure on the Prime Minister. If he steps down, it will happen in June. A new leader would not be in place until, probably, August. At the earliest, a snap election could take place in September. But I suggest this will not happen.

I believe that, at the best of times, a new leader would want to wait at least three months before calling the election; perhaps even six months in the current economic climate. By that logic, an election would not take place before April. In that case, he might as well wait until 6th May, if only for the prospect of better weather. I believe the governing party benefits from a sunny day and Labour, in particular, benefits from a decent turnout.

But what is the likelihood of Mr Brown being turfed out now? I think it is slim. There is plenty of speculation about the leadership, but the next leader of the party will not want to begin a term in opposition after a crushing electoral defeat. Better to allow Mr Brown to take the hit. The circumstances of a stable overall majority for Labour are difficult to envisage; any victory is likely to be akin to John Major’s 21-seat majority of 1992 which had dwindled to precisely zero by 1997.

Who would want to take the helm during this storm? A caretaker, just for now, is a possibility. After all, if the skipper has lost command of his vessel, his crew must either step up or face doom. But if a caretaker is needed, Gordon Brown might as well stay on. For this purpose, he’s probably as good as anyone. The pretenders will recognise this soon. Expect them to close ranks almost immediately; certainly before the elections on 4th June. Watch the rats abandon ship in the year ahead (to a range of parties and some as independents), but Captain Brown will remain on the bridge.

A week is a long time in politics.
(Harold Wilson)

One might suppose that a year is somewhat longer. We will have to see that year out to understand what history reveals. But my prediction is this: the three main party leaders will all fight the next general election and the campaign will culminate on 6th May next year. One year tomorrow.