Saturday 25 June 2022

Modified By-election Rapture


On page 382 of his "Modernity Britain: a shake of the dice,1959-62" historian  David Kynaston, picks out "Orpington" as "perhaps the most famous by-election of the century . . .where. . .Eric Lubbock . . . overturned a Conservative majority  of almost 15 000 into a stunning Liberal victory of almost 8 000."

Well, although we are still only in the first quarter of it, the 21st Century can beat that.

In Tiverton and Honiton we Liberal Democrats have overturned a majority of over 24 000 with a stunning victory  of  over 6 000.    Rapture indeed, and many congratulations to those involved in achieving it, along with relief that Labour has reversed its misfortunes in Wakefield by regaining the seat it lost in 2019.

The Orpington result led to the then Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan's "night of the long knives," in which he sacked a third of the cabinet in the hope of restoring Tory fortunes.

And, here's where the rapture is modified.  He, and his successor Sir Alec Douglas Home, very nearly did.  In spite of the low ebb to which Tory fortunes appeared to have fallen after 13 years of power and a dash of sexual scandal,  Labour under Harold Wilson won the subsequent general election by only four seats.  

The Tories are good at recovering and doubtless have not lost the knack.

In addition, a  numerate friend has pointed out to me that the combined  votes cast for the major parties in the two by-elections last Thursday were as follows:

Conservatives:          24 634

Liberal Democrat:     23 045

Labour:                     14 728

Green:                       1 651

It beggars belief that, even after 12 years in continuous power, and with the lies, sleaze incompetence and failures of the present administration under Johnson's amoral leadership, the Tory party can still muster more votes than anyone else, even in the hot- house atmosphere of by-elections, when party loyalists  are more  willing to stay at home, or "lend" their votes  to other parties just to make a protest and give the incumbents a kick in the backside.

The combined non-Tory vote is massively greater than the Tory vote but, unless we can replicate the informal non- aggression pacts  which operated in these two by-elections at a general election, the Tories are destined to yet another victory..

The "progressive parties" are not yet ready, or have decided that the electors is not yet ready, for formal pacts to avoid avoid fighting each other at all, so informal low key campaigning seems to be the best alternative we  can manage. 

However informal, the Tory PR machine will be quick to dub such understandings as wicked conspiracies.  To counter this we need to be ready and point out that their current 80 seat majority was achieved by their  persuading UKIP not to stand against them in 2019.  Maybe we should refer to the present government as the Tory-UKIP coalition, or even the Tory-UKIP Front.

 Be that as it may, it is possible that in fact the electorate is ahead of the party stalwarts in this, and that the common sense which has clearly operated in the by-elections will transfer to a general elections.  I sincerely hope so

Tuesday 21 June 2022

Railway Strike: confrontation, not co-operation

The railway strike which begins today invites comparison with the 1970s. This is not, however, everyone's view, for reasons this constructive article by Will Hutton makes clear.

Whether or not these comparisons with the 70s are valid, what is clear is that we have learned so little in the last half century.  Britain's basic problem, than and still now, is that both our political and our economic institutions are organised to promote  confrontation rather than co-operation.

In our politics, our "winner takes all" electoral system  narrows our choice to two major sides, which sit opposite each other in parliament, jeer at each other and try to impress their sporters by acting tough.  Confrontation rather  than co-operation results.  This was damaging enough when the  winners' arrogance was tempered by deference to the largely unwritten rules of the "good chap theory of government."  Now that these conventions are routinely ignored by the present government, or, if they are written, torn up and re-written to suit the present incumbents, we are staggering further and further away from the  true democracy of which we are pioneers, and which, among other things, assumes the rule of law and respect for the views of minorities.

The same confrontational structure dominates our economy.  Put at its simplest, private company boards represent solely the shareholders, and have  the legal duty to maximise their profits.  Excluded from formal representation, workers band together in trade unions and unite to try to achieve better wages and conditions.

When I first campaigned as a Liberal way back in the 1960s we proposed new structures in both politics and economics in order to replace competition with co-operation.  In politics we proposed that our parliaments  should be chosen using an electoral system based on proportional representation achieved by single transferable votes in multimember constituencies..

 To promote co-operation in industry (and there still was lots of it) we  argued that company boards should, broadly speaking, represent not just the shareholders, but also the employees and some form of community representation. Each should have one third of the seats so that, crudely, neither owners nor employees  could have it "all their own way" but would need to gain the support of some of another group,  or maybe both of them, for their ideas to be implemented.

 This, of course, made little progress, though some companies, such as the John lewis Partnership, have adopted the allied idea of profit sharing with great success, and similar structures exist in the Scandinavian countries, Germany and France, all of which now have higher levels of productivity and standards of living than the UK.  

The present rail confrontation illustrates the weakness of the government's position.  It is a nonsense to claim that the issues are for the management and unions to sort out for themselves.  Of course the government has a stake and should exercise it.  After all, railways are a public service and are heavily subsidised from the public purse. 

The managements have the genuine case that railway usage now, party as a result of the increase in home working, has reached only 80% of its pre-pandemic level, and adjustments need to be made.  The unions argue that their members  have kept the service running in the dangerous times of the pandemic, their wages have remained static and need to reflect the present levels of inflation, and that adjustments should not involve compulsory redundancies reduce safety levels

The government, representing society, should be involved so that a suitable compromise is reached.

Instead of acting constructively in this way, one suspects that Prime Minister Johnson is delighted  to have a "national emergency" which takes attention away from Partygate and the shambolic performance  of his government, and the official opposition is terrified of any move which might enable the right wing press to identify it as on the side of the workers.

Both our political and economic structures need urgent reform.  Instead we are still trapped in the confrontational grooves which existed fifty years ago.  We have learned nothing and, sadly, there is little sign that serious ideas about reform are anywhere near the surface of current political discussion.

Monday 13 June 2022

UK/EU:60 years of standing still

 I am somewhat belatedly* reading Volume 2 of David Kynaston's  "Modernity Britain" which covers the years 1959 to 62.  Regarding attitudes to the then EEC, on page 252 he quotes the Liberal luminary, Lady Violet Bonham Carter (Asquith's daughter, no less) in  a letter to her son (presumably Mark.), as follows:

"Both the major parties are split down the middle. . . Many Tories still don't realise that we have already lost "national sovereignty" - through NATO, UN,Gatt, IMF, etc.etc. . .The Labour party are Jingo Little Englanders, economic nationalists & xenophobes who dread the "foreigner". . ."

As in so much the Liberal Party was (and the Liberal Democrats now are) well ahead of the game.  

To be fair most of the Conservative Party moved on and it was Macmillan's government that tried and Heath's that eventually succeeded in joining the the EU, and eventually most of the Labour party came to accept membership, some with enthusiasm after their eyes were opened by Jacques Delors.

Unfortunately the anti-EU fantasists, whom David Cameron dubbed "the Bastards," have now taken control of the Tory Party and manipulate their former vote winner, PM Johnson, like a puppet on a string. The Labour Party lurk in the shadows for fear upsetting their former supporters in the "red wall" areas, whom they suspect of fitting Lady Vi's description.

Both major parties share the blame for the debacle of the Brexit vote.  Neither has espoused full-throated enthusiasm for the European ideal, both have been quick to blame any measure which seemed to be unpopular on "Brussels" even though for most of the period of our membership unanimity was required, so their governments must have agreed to them.

Public opinion has been so poisoned by the press that no political leader now has the confidence to lead the obviously urgently required fight to rejoin, even though the damage to our economy and international influence which result from our far from splendid isolation become daily more evident.

Surely this is a "call to arms" for the Liberal Democrats.  Political parties should be prepared to lead public opinion,  not cravenly follow grudging prejudices, or simply hide in the shadows until the "sunlit uplands" re-emerge by some mysterious process of their own.


* I read "Modernity Britain,"  which covered the years 1957-59,when it was first published in 2013, and assumed that was it. I've only just realised that a second volume had appeared a year later. Given that I was in my early 20s in that period Kynaston's meticulous research awakens many happy memories, and a few painful ones.