10 challenges facing David Cameron’s new government

If the last five years were about the economy and the public finances (two separate issues, but intrinsically linked), the next five will be about the state of our nation.

The last five years were dominated by tough choices. The next five will be dominated by intellectually difficult decisions.

Upon negotiating his coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats in the days following the 2010 General Election, David Cameron secured himself a Commons majority of 76. Now he has the luxury of leading a Conservative-majority government – but his Commons majority is just 12. Such a majority offers little leeway, particularly given some of the awkward challenges facing the Government over the years ahead.

It would take just six of Mr Cameron’s MPs to rebel in a key vote to diminish his majority to nil. And majorities change over time. People die, or resign as MPs, bringing risky by-elections. Other MPs may cross the floor of the House, though recent precedent (Carswell & Reckless) suggests MPs so doing may be inclined to submit themselves to a by-election.

John Major’s working majority in 1992 was 21. By the time Parliament was dissolved in 1997, Mr Major’s Commons majority was precisely zero. Before he steps down as PM – he says he’ll serve a full term – Mr Cameron could well preside over a minority Government.

Aside from simply holding itself together, what challenges does the new Government face in the years ahead? Some of them are born of the Conservative Manifesto, and others are natural challenges that time will bring.

In no particular order…

1. Our relationship with the European Union

David Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. There is no reason to suppose this will not happen – as promised – by 2017. The vast majority of his party (including many EU-sceptics*) are in favour, and some Labour MPs would also support such a referendum. In the meantime, David Cameron wants to negotiate a more favourable relationship between Britain and the EU. This could include reforming the EU itself.

I stand ready to work with you to strike a fair deal for the United Kingdom in the EU and look forward to your ideas and proposals in this regard.

Jean-Claude Juncker
President of the European Commission
8 May

The European Union is in great need of reform, but securing the change sufficient to mollify the British public in 2017 will not be easy.

For a thorough examination of the merits or otherwise of ‘Brexit’, check out David Charter’s book – “Europe: In or Out” – balanced and brilliant.

* I prefer the word ‘EU-sceptics’ because ‘Euro-sceptics’ is not a good fit. Most sceptics’ beef seems to be with the EU as an institution, and not with Europe.

2. Scotland’s place in the Union

As agreed following the independence referendum, further power needs to flow towards Scotland. The nation now has 56 SNP MPs of 59 in total. The others are merely one Labour, one Lib Dem and one Conservative. In 2010, just 6 SNP MPs were elected. The sea change, almost wiping out the other parties in Scotland is likened to a tsunami.

If the UK is to remain intact, devolving further power to Scotland is only the beginning of an challenging healing process. Nowhere is that healing more needed than within Scotland itself where brothers and sisters, fathers and sons are pitted against each other in their vision for the future.

My friend Pete has suggested that David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon now have a responsibility to model effective cooperation with each other in the years ahead. Fervent disagreement need not mean enmity.

3. “English votes for English laws”

It’s in quotes because it’s David Cameron’s formulation. But by 2020, we will be a generation on from the introduction of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the West Lothian Question is yet to be answered.

The question was first posed in 1977 (the year Star Wars was released) by Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for the constituency in question. He wondered about the anomaly of a system in which he (as a Scottish MP) could vote on issues pertaining only to England, while he could not vote on the same issues pertaining to his own constituents.

With the prospect of even more power flowing north to Scotland, and likely the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland, English voters are increasingly disenfranchised on some issues. The issue will only become even more pressing if the next government relies on Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish MPs to manage its domestic agenda in England.

Precisely how to answer the West Lothian Question is the challenge. Different answers seem to favour different parties, but then that is the nature of devolution. Without doubt, the question must be put to bed.

4. A divided nation

The Conservatives have an overall majority. But they must govern alone with a majority of just 12 over Her Majesty’s Opposition. And although the Tories increased their share of the vote (ever so slightly) to 36.9%, opposition to the Tories amongst the remaining 63.1% is often quite intense, to the point where it’s little wonder so many Tories are ‘shy’.

As we conduct this vital work, we must ensure that we bring our country together.

As I said in the small hours of this morning: we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means ensuring this recovery reaches all parts of our country from north to south, from east to west, and indeed it means rebalancing our economy, building that northern powerhouse.

David Cameron, victory speech, 8 May 2015

For the first time since 1832, a different party topped the polls in each of the UK’s four nations: the Conservatives in England, the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales, the DUP in Northern Ireland. Each nation has its own unique challenges, and the devolved administrations can be held only partly responsible for meeting them.

The Government needs to demonstrate it recognises the disparity between the four nations, and also the huge variance inside each nation. A rebalancing of the economy, particularly the private sector, to struggling areas is crucial. George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse agenda is an important step forward in this regard. A success story here should help the Tories politically, as it would help the North of England economically.

One-nation Conservatism, if done properly, could be David Cameron’s attempt to fight Labour on its own territory – as boldly and as effectively as Blair raided the Tories’ turf 20 years ago.

Fraser Nelson, writing in The Telegraph, 9 May

Like Disraeli before him, David Cameron is a ‘one-nation Tory’. He has promised the Conservatives will “govern as a party of one nation”. Now he needs to get on and do it.

5. The Human Rights Act

The new Justice Secretary Michael Gove has confirmed the Government will scrap it, replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. The HRA is controversial. Scrapping it would be equally controversial.

Few would argue with the core principles of the Human Rights Act, but there is concern about how it has sometimes been applied, giving undue comfort to foreign criminals facing deportation from the UK, or to others who have shown no mercy to their victims.

But until now, Britain has had great moral authority on matters of human rights on the world stage. How would that authority be damaged if we abandoned the HRA? Mr Gove should tread carefully.

6. Deal with the “housing crisis”

The free-market economist Andrew Lilico has argued that there is no UK “housing crisis”, but we certainly live in an era where home ownership is becoming unattainable for more and more people, many people live in overcrowded homes and, in some areas, there are long waiting lists for people hoping to access social housing.

Like many of the other issues on this list, I don’t know the answer to the housing challenge, but I spent several years on the board of a housing association, Poplar HARCA, in east London. I have seen the struggles of people living in overcrowded conditions, and of others in need waiting interminably for social housing.

The so-called bedroom tax (or spare room subsidy/under-occupancy penalty – delete as you prefer) is flawed, not least because many of those affected have been unable to downsize because of complex personal circumstances or the lack of availability of smaller homes. Despite the proliferation of the ‘bedroom tax’ expression, it is, in fact, not a ‘tax’ – but the financial impact on those affected is real. Many of them have had little leeway in their personal budgets to accommodate this penalty.

However, as I argued within Poplar HARCA a decade ago, there is a case for periodically reviewing people’s housing needs to free up social homes for people who need them and larger homes for growing families. Inevitably this points towards incentives for those with lesser needs to accept smaller homes or leave the social housing sector altogether. How to get this right? I do not know.

I am fortunate enough to be on the second rung of the so-called housing ladder. I am only here because other good fortune (along with a pinch of foresight and a ladle of hard work) helped me onto the first rung in 2002.

House prices have risen significantly. The home I bought 13 years ago is worth twice that today. As things stand, millions of millennials will struggle to get onto the housing ladder at all.

For those with secure tenure, London is becoming a polarised city – wealthy home-owners, and the poorest in social housing with lifetime tenure. Many others are renting on short contracts paying more than a mortgage for a home they will never own and considerably more than social rent for a home they could be turfed out of in 12 months.

I don’t want to see a housing crash, nor do I want to see onerous burdens (such as rent controls) imposed on private landlords. I am nervous about the special assistance offered to first-time buyers that merely serves to stoke demand and push up prices further.

Evidently we need more homes across the country, but particularly in certain areas. All sorts of excuses have been offered by successive governments about the lack of house-building. Lack of funding, planning logjams and land-banking are all blamed.

Whether or not the government itself should building new homes is academic. But by 2020, it ought to be able to laud a million or more new homes built under its watch.

7. The relationship between work and welfare

Iain Duncan Smith is widely seen as a reforming Work and Pensions Secretary, particularly for his work on welfare (also in his brief). The relationship between work and welfare is certainly in need of reform though it is safe to say Mr Duncan Smith’s efforts have not been without controversy, stirring up discontent both amongst some of his own Conservative colleagues and probably most of his Labour opponents – for different reasons.

The Coalition Government oversaw 1.9 million more jobs during its term of office, and the Conservative Government pledges a further 2 million over the next five years. It needs to address the critique that many of the jobs are born of zero-hours contracts. Such contracts have been much-maligned, and while they are just right for many workers, they clearly offer too much uncertainty and too little work for many other workers.

The last government tried to simplify the welfare payments mechanism through the Universal Credit. There is clearly more to do on this. Furthermore, the welfare trap must be abolished. The system should be fair to those who cannot work whilst acting as an incentive to those who can. David Cameron has said work is the best route out of poverty. This may be true, but many workers enjoy little or no real benefit for every extra hour at work.

Finally, the Conservative Party promised in its manifesto to cut a further £12 billion from welfare (excluding pensions) to help meet other spending priorities. No indication has been given thus far as to how this might be achieved. It has been suggested that this policy was designed purely to be abandoned in coalition negotiations. With an overall majority, David Cameron has promised the manifesto will be implemented in full. But on this pledge, his Government should tread carefully. The social and political consequences of this cut could be severe.

8. Airport capacity in the South East of England

The Airports Commission has said there is a need for an additional runway in the South East by 2030. It has shortlisted three options: two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick.

The overall plan is politically controversial.

A prominent west London Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith, would resign his seat if one of the Heathrow plans is approved. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, now an attendee of David Cameron’s political cabinets, is opposed to all the shortlisted options, preferring his own ‘Boris Island’ proposal, east of London.

Some environmentalists say no expansion is needed, and that the environmental cost of increased air traffic outweighs the economic benefits. I have some sympathy with this view. While current trends suggest the extra capacity is necessary, we may be in quite a different world by 2030, with relatively less need for business travel than today. But I am concerned that this assumption could be risky in an increasingly globalised and competitive business environment..

This government will need to decide how to proceed.

9. The future of the BBC

John Whittingdale was appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the post-election reshuffle. The Telegraph’s immediate response:

Mr Whittingdale is an opponent of the TV Licence, from which the BBC draws the vast majority of its income. However, as chairman, recently, of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he seems to accept that there is “no realistic alternative to the licence fee” in the short term.

I have my own concerns about the licence fee:

  • It is like a regressive tax, insofar as the poor pay a higher proportion of their income towards it than the rich.
  • It is increasingly unfit for the current era because more and more consumers primarily use PCs and other media devices to access on demand content, avoiding the burden of the TV Licence altogether.

As a BBC staffer, I am concerned about any threat to its funding, but I am a big supporter of its commercial operations, as a former producer with BBC World News, our international commercial news TV channel. I am certainly concerned about a government ‘at war’ with my employer, though I believe there might be some hyperbole here.

The BBC’s charter is next up for renewal next year. The Government and the BBC will need to work carefully together to secure the organisation’s future.

10. Taxation, spending and the deficit

George Osborne has promised to eliminate the deficit by 2020.

His party has promised to ring-fence the NHS budget, increasing it in real terms every year and by a minimum of £8 billion in real terms over the lifetime of the parliament. It has also promised to maintain its International Development budget at 0.7% of GDP, which probably means a real terms growth year on year. And there is pressure on the Prime Minister to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP (a Nato obligation).

Last month, David Cameron promised a law “guaranteeing no rise in income tax rates, VAT or national insurance before 2020”.

I am a member of what Ed Miliband might have called the ‘squeezed middle’. I have what might ordinarily be seen as a good salary. I pay tax at the higher rate. But, as the main earner in a small nuclear family with a dependent toddler, I am a long way short of the skiing classes. We have a suburban bungalow in a nice area. Our car is a 1999 VW Golf which we are saving to replace. Holidays are aspirational and occasional rather than routine.

I am well aware I live in great comfort compared to many of my neighbours locally and further afield. But sometimes I wonder: was higher rate tax really intended for the likes of me? I think of all this and conclude:

  • It would be nice to pay less income tax (of course it would!)
  • It would be great to see VAT (a regressive tax) back at 17.5%
  • It would be politically untenable (and arguably economically unwise) for this particular Government to bleed the rich at 50% or more of their marginal income.

But now we have pledges to cut the deficit, increase spending (at least in certain areas) and a personal plea for tax cuts. This unholy alliance of aspirations is clearly impossible in a static economy. It might just be possible in a strong and growing economy.

The state of the nation may be the theme for the years ahead, but the economy and the public finances still matter!

Conclusion

These are my ten challenges for David Cameron’s new government. Meeting them all will not be easy, but failing to meet any of them would be a disappointment.

David Cameron has other especially political challenges ahead.

  • A constituency boundary review will be a necessary priority, to correct an historic electoral imbalance against the Conservatives.
  • Party management could be difficult, as it was for John Major.
  • And, given the reaction in some quarters to the Conservative victory, the detoxification of the party’s brand has some way to run.

For good or ill, Mr Cameron says he’ll step down by 2020.

Then – finally – he can chillax.

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7 factors to weigh when you cast your vote

It’s decision-time – almost!

Polling day for the UK general election is in just a week – on 7 May.

But that’s too late to start thinking about your vote. There’s simply too much information to digest and cogitate on a single day to make a meaningful judgement. Instead I see it as a decision that should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.

If you want to shortcut that, The Sun has offered some helpful advice…

Here are two different papers, with a clear divergence in their editorial line.

  • If you vote in England or Wales, The Sun says vote Conservative.
  • If you vote in Scotland, The Sun says vote SNP.

But there appears to be a strategic alignment. In England & Wales, it’s about buoying up the Conservatives; in Scotland, it’s about sinking Labour. Others say it simply about backing winners, but I see it as backing David Cameron in his bid for a second term as PM.

You could do what the Sun says, or the Mirror, or the New Statesman, or the Spectator. But this is your decision. By all means listen to their arguments (see a wide range here), but make the decision yourself.

So, unless you’ve already voted by post (I have), what factors should you weigh when you cast your vote?

1. Policies

All the main parties have published their manifestos – the pledges on which they propose to govern. They tend to be long. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto is 160 pages, totalling 33,000 words. My university dissertation (about the Good Friday Agreement, since you wondered) was about 12,000 words.

They are probably too long. Partly with regard to this, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman wonders why they’re all “so rubbish”Rob Ashton even explains why, with his analysis of the writing style of seven manifestos. Labour, he writes, had the highest number of grammar and punctuation errors.

Famously, Lord Pearson – the UKIP leader at the time of the 2010 General Election – was unable to answer questions about his party’s manifesto. His successor, Nigel Farage hadn’t read it and later described it as ‘drivel’. Perhaps it wasn’t the only one, then or now.

I won’t be reading the manifestos. It’s simply too much work, and I’d rather leave the analysis to key bloggers and political correspondents. Sometimes the parties do their own point-scoring analysis of their opponents’ manifestos. This can be surprisingly insightful, particularly where a key policy issue is fudged or omitted entirely.

For all their faults, manifestos do reveal a something about a party’s plans for governance. Those plans are vulnerable, of course, but they are not to be ignored. For all the backlash the Lib Dems felt for their U-turn on tuition fees, each one of their five priority pledges of 2010 was honoured in part or in full (at least in theory). Once again they have five priority pledges that we might suppose they would bring to the negotiating table in the event of a hung parliament.

I think the temptation for some people is to feel they can make their voting decision based almost solely on weighing up the manifesto proposals. That process is worth something, and it’s interesting to check out which party you seem to most align with using web tools like Vote Match.

Making your decision based on policies alone is a purist approach. Perhaps too pure, in my view. Here are a few other perspectives to consider.

2. Values

Typically, it’s the values that underpin the policies. What values are important to you, and what priorities flow from those values?

A party’s values should be fairly constant over time. But sometimes the values of a party leader or his/her lieutenants do drift from the core values of the party – sometimes genuinely, and sometimes for reasons of expedience.

3. Reputation

This particularly applies to the party of an outgoing government, but it’s also a factor to consider with a party of recent governments. How did these governments perform during their hour in the sun?

This is why I’ve suggested your “decision should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.” But how far back do we go? The reputational question becomes less and less relevant as the candidates of today are able to divorce themselves from the governments of yesteryear. Candidates who were ministers in previous governments need to be held to higher scrutiny than candidates who were not even born during the period in question. That may apply for some Conservative candidates with regard to the Thatcher years; it will certainly apply to many Labour candidates with regard to the Callaghan year, and it applies to every Liberal Democrat candidate with regard to the Gladstone years.

4. Prime Minister

Who do you want to see as your Prime Minister? Or whose breast pocket do you want them to govern from?

The leadership question is a blend of other factors in this list, along with judgement and character. The more controversial question of whether they ‘look the part’ is really a wider one about charisma and authority, and it still matters. It helped Winston Churchill win the war by inspiring his country, and it continues to matter on the world stage.

5. Wider Cabinet

The process of government is a team effort, so it makes sense to assess the members of the team, particularly if you have a particular policy interest. Who’s likely to be the minister overseeing that policy?

6. Your candidates

Who are the key candidates in your constituency? Is one of them a friend, or someone you hold in high regard? It might persuade you to cast your vote for an unfavourable party. I confess to having voted for a party way outside my comfort zone in a local council election several years ago, because I knew the candidate was a good egg. He later defected!

Someone I follow on Twitter recently wrote to her local candidates, which included a Cabinet Minister, to ask where they stood on life issues (ie abortion, euthanasia, etc). She posted the minister’s response, in which he confirmed such issues would be subject to a free vote if it came to it – a party answer, not the personal answer requested. It was such a shame he declined to give a meaningful response. As my Twitter contact said, even if the minister disagreed with her, “I’d at least respect his honesty in informing me.”

It’s important to understand our local candidates, and often local hustings help with this.

7. Tactical voting

Ideally we make a simple decision on our preferred candidate and cast our vote accordingly. For many of us, that’s all there is to it:

  • In a two-way marginal (eg Conservative vs Labour), if you already wanted to vote Tory it’s a no-brainer. There is no tactical benefit to voting for another party.
  • If you are party loyal, or loyal to a friend who’s standing, you may decide to sacrifice tactical concerns to add to your preferred candidate’s vote tally – even if they are guaranteed to lose.
  • If you take a purist approach, the tactical benefits of voting outside your party loyalty are neither here nor there.

But there are many places where tactical considerations lead to some awkward choices. A few examples:

  • In Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg is under threat from Labour. Conservatives might vote for Clegg to prevent Labour winning another seat. Some of them might also feel that Mr Clegg would be a more favourable Lib Dem negotiating partner for the Conservatives than some of his colleagues.
  • In Brighton Pavillion, some Labour supporters might vote for the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. It was a three-way marginal in 2010. While Labour could still win the seat, some voters might feel Mrs Lucas has a better chance of locking out the Conservatives’ Clarence Mitchell.
  • In Conservative marginals, some UKIP supporters might consider voting Tory to lock out their more Europhile opponents.
  • In Scotland, some Conservatives might vote Labour to keep the SNP out, or Labour supporters might vote Lib Dem for the same end.

I suspect tactical voting will be a big deal at this election.

So there we have it. Seven factors to weigh when you cast your vote next week.

Weigh them carefully!

My prediction…

…published ahead of the exit polls.

The turnout will be high, about 72%. That’s higher than 2005 (61.3%), but lower than 1992 (77.7%). The warm weather will have helped, but apathy pins many people to their sofas.

The Conservatives will win 323 seats. The Ulster Unionists will win two seats. They are already in a formal coalition, so that grants David Cameron the support of 325 MPs, exactly half of the total. Truly a ‘balanced parliament’.

Labour will win 222 seats and the Liberal Democracts will win 74.

Sinn Fein will win five constituencies, but they do not take their seats. The Speaker of the House is John Bercow and he will retain his Buckingham seat by a small margin. For his main opponent, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, it will be the second blow in 24 hours. Mr Speaker does not vote. In effect, this enables Mr Cameron to govern with a practical majority of six.

But it is always the nominal overall majority that is quoted, and so my prediction is zero. John Major won a majority of 21 in 1992 which dwindled to precisely zero by the end of his term. He found it hard to govern throughout.

If David Cameron wins outright, it will be by a tiny margin. Frequently, he will need to count on the support of every one of his MPs, and maybe others. It will be tough.

For whatever government emerges over the next few days, tough years lie ahead.

A crucial opportunity

We’ve a very important job to do on Thursday.

Vote.

Every Westminster constituency is up for grabs. 650 of them. For many of us it’s time to choose our local councillors too. Both elections are important, but the opinion poll story suggests our votes in the General Election are particularly crucial.

As I’ve argued, there are many parallels with the election of 1992.

But in some ways, the parallels with February 1974 are more important.

In that election, a surge in support for smaller parties produced a hung parliament (or ‘balanced’ as the Lib Dems like to call it) which left the Conservatives too weak to govern. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, leading a minority Labour government. In need of strength, he called a fresh election in October 1974, securing an overall majority of just three seats.

Apparently the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, believes whoever wins the election ahead “will be out of power for a whole generation.” Perhaps he was thinking of 1974. Our economy then was in deep trouble. The years ahead brought great strife and many strikes. It took Labour 18 years to return to government following its defeat in 1979.

We are immersed in a fiscal nightmare; last year the government spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. Dealing with the deficit will be very painful. We may be out of recession for now, but the years ahead will be harder, not easier. Pity the Prime Minister calling an election in 2015.

But it is not 2015. It is 2010 and we’ve a very important job to do. We must think of the five years ahead, not the years after that. We must put our country first as we cast our ballot.

In 2005, 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. In 1992, the last time we knew it would be close, the turnout was 77.7%. I suspect we’ll see a similarly high turnout this time.

I will be voting in Poplar & Limehouse. It’s a fascinating contest; a three-way marginal where Respect’s George Galloway has entered the fray to unsettle Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick. It presents the Conservatives’ Tim Archer with a golden opportunity to win a challenging seat; a diverse, deprived, inner-city constituency.

George Galloway

George Galloway campaigning for Respect outside my home.

The BBC’s take on my constituency is here. Few seats will be watched with such interest, but every seat is important. Even safe seats are decided by those who actually turn up. They are only ‘safe’ because the voters make them safe. In 1997, the ‘Portillo moment’ showed that no seat is truly safe.

Voting is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

As a Christian, it’s interesting to note how many of my brothers and sisters feel it’s not their place to vote. Some of them don’t want to compromise their beliefs, by voting for the lesser of two evils. Others note that voting is not sanctioned in the Bible and that Jesus did not engage in the government of his day.

However, God created us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to rule “over every living creature” (Genesis 1v28). Later St Paul writes that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13v1), “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v5) and “the authorities are God’s servants” (v6).

It reasonable inference that Christians might play a role in government or in electing it. It is even more important for us to pray. Each of us is but one man or woman and we have just one vote. But our prayers call upon a supreme authority for whom all things are possible.

While I have my doubts about the extent of the state, I do believe it has a role to play in regulating society and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is a good mission. But it can be undertaken well or badly and I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure our government acts well.

The debate about Christian engagement will go on. There is a similar argument in Islam, where some believe voting is “Shirk” (forbidden and unforgivable). But Muslim political engagement here in the UK is very strong, probably stronger than amongst Christians.

It is probably explained partly by a feeling of oppression as a minority in a secular christian country (small ‘c’ deliberate) and partly by an optimism that change is possible. Whereas the rest of us, Christian and secular alike, have come to feel that our votes count for very little.

Perhaps that’s true, but they still count for something. If they didn’t politicians wouldn’t be fighting so hard for them.

Christians may find it useful to check out the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement or the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Together they established Christians in Politics, a broader resource.

Vote for Policies is an independent website which merits 10 minutes’ investment. With so much focus on the personalities and the impression given by the parties, which party might we choose if it were entirely down to the policies? Vote for Policies might help.

If you want to examine the policy issues from first principles, check out the party manifestos (listed alphabetically, not by preference!)

Alliance Party (NI)

British National Party

Christian Peoples Alliance

Conservatives

Conservatives & Unionists

Democratic Unionist Party

English Democrats

Green Party

Jury Team

Labour

Liberal Democrats

Official Monster Raving Loony Party

Plaid Cymru

Respect

Scottish National Party

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sinn Fein

UK Independence Party

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!

Reliving 1992

It’s getting close. The election is soon, and the gap between the two main parties is narrow. Various opinion polls give the Conservatives a slim majority over Labour. In some cases it’s just two percentage points. For the Conservatives, a two point lead is not enough for an overall majority. It may not even win them more seats than Labour.

Labour could be in a position to form a minority/coalition government despite polling fewer votes than the Conservatives. This is because Labour dominates in urban constituencies with smaller electorates. So the seats it wins are often secured with fewer votes. It’s a real possibility the Conservatives could win more votes but fewer seats in the forthcoming election. Indeed, in 2005, in England, that’s just what happened.

As an aside, the Liberal Democrats are wrestling with the conundrum of a hung parliament in which Labour secures more seats and the Conservatives, more votes. They say the party with the strongest mandate has the right to govern. But Nick Clegg won’t say whether that means the party with most seats or the most votes. It leaves him some wriggle room.

Election day, 1992

So the Conservatives are ahead in the opinion polls, but each party has all to play for. It reminds me of 1992 and there are a number of similar features.

  • In 1992, the Conservatives had been in office for 13 years. Margaret Thatcher, an inspirational but controversial figure had led her party to three comfortable majorities before losing favour with the country and her own party. She stood aside mid-term to be replaced by her Chancellor, John Major.
  • Now in 2010, Labour has been in office for 13 years. Tony Blair, an inspirational but controversial figure led his party to three comfortable majorities before losing favour with the country and his own party. He stood aside mid-term to be replaced by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
  • In 1992, Labour has been 13 years in opposition. In the early years it  swung sharply to the left and suffered for it in successive elections. But the latest leader, Neil Kinnock, had worked hard to change the party and its brand. By 1992, it had been mainly ahead in the opinion polls for several years.
  • Now in 2010, the Conservatives have been 13 years in opposition. In the early years they swung sharply to the right and suffered for it in successive elections. But the latest leader, David Cameron, has worked hard to change the party and its brand. Now it has been mainly ahead in the opinion polls for several years.
  • In 1992, the Conservative had won three general elections. When they first came to power, they succeeded a highly unpopular and mistrusted Labour government. Margaret Thatcher was re-elected twice, remaining undefeated in the country. She called each of her elections after four years. Her successor waited until the last practical moment: five years.
  • Now in 2010, Labour has won three general elections. When it first came to power, it succeeded a highly unpopular and mistrusted Conservative government. Tony Blair was re-elected twice, remaining undefeated in the country. He called each of his elections after four years. His successor waited until the last practical moment: five years.
  • In 1992, the economy was in recovery from a nasty recession, but Black Wednesday lay ahead.
  • Now in 2010, the economy is in recovery from an even nastier recession, but I have no doubt further challenges lie ahead.

Of course, there are some differences too. For example:

  • In 1992, the incumbent Prime Minister was still relatively new to the voters. He’d served as Foreign Secretary for four months, Chancellor for 13 months and Prime Minister for 18 months before election day.
  • Now in 2010, the incumbent has served 18 years at the highest levels of opposition or government. Mr Brown is well-known.
  • In 1992, interest rates were 10% (on election day). They had fallen steadily from a peak of 15% in 1989.
  • Now in 2010, interest rates are just 0.5%. That is as low as they have ever been.

But there is another critical similarity:

  • In 1992, the incumbent party won a late surge in support.
  • Now in 2010, that is happening again.

In 1992, the incumbent party won.

Politics was not well-served by the re-election of the Conservatives in 1992. They were tolerated, not loved, but the voters couldn’t face the prospect of Labour returning to power. Five years on and the governing party was about as popular as a rat at a hen do.

It has taken many years and a substantial change in tone and focus for voters to come to terms with the Conservatives again. But that last term in office did them great harm. Labour is tolerated, not loved, but the voters are very nervous about the Conservatives returning to power.

Now in 2010?

Against expectations, Labour could remain in government until 2015. If that happens, I predict a landslide the other way, just like 1997. 18 years in government is a very long time. By 2015, it will be a very tired government.

In any case, the next five years are going to be very difficult. The next government will have some very tough economic decisions to take. It cannot risk the politics of popularity. It must govern in the national interest.

For the next government, Labour or Conservative, the election of 2014/15 is going to be very tough indeed.

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.