An impressive and diverse crowd gathered at S&B Cricket Club last night to hear John Pugh Southport's MP talk about the Coalition and to ask questions. It was good to see so many activists there but more impressive was the high number of non aligned folk from the town who just wanted to hear the discussion. On a personal note I was delighted to see Stephen Hesketh turn up-he made a very good contribution to a discussion thread online the other week. John was on fine form and deliciously off message. Indeed one of his targets was of 'media advisers'- who will no doubt be seeking to exercise their influence over the media coverage of the Health and Social Care Bill which John described as'the worst piece of legislation I have ever had anything to do with' and for which he predicted that there can be 'no happy endings'.
Clearly John regretted that the coalition had not ushered in a new politics of rational debate and an earnest seeking after the common good but rather that in the first phase of coalition there had been a 'realignment of the political tribes'. Now as one who has sought realignment all my political life it is depressing to see it achieved in this negative way. We have wondered too far from Jo Grimond's campaign to 'realign the Left'. Where now is the talk of a 'radical alternative to socialism' or 'socialism without the state'? Instead we had a litany of the ills visited on the body politic by the tribal culture of Westminster: policies opposed because another party proposed them, cynical whips determined to 'educate MP's' from listening to debate and argument, a macho culture that stops Ministers accepting that they made a mistake and a system dominated by whips.
Some of the debate centred on how Liberal Identity can be maintained whilst being in the coalition. He was clearly unimpressed by the strategy of 'spasmodic cabinet spats' as practised by Chris Hulme and (predictably) had little time for the mindless messaging whose advocates entreated MPs to repeat slogans at every opportunity rather than address the questions put to them. Interestingly he held up Vince Cable's success prior to the General Election as a result of his willingness to rationally answer the questions he was asked.
John began his talk by arguing that what drew people toward a particular political party was not a 100% adherence to its policies but rather a general sympathy towards its values. From that he argued that although the Westminster political culture militated against rational discussion and respect for other parties but that must be the direction we should champion.
I was surprised how much John perceived that the whips still had a malign influence on Westminster politics both because of the tribal element and because of their control of patronage and in particular perferment in government. In fact John sounded a bit like John Arlott circa 1950 in the way he analysed the whips influence
It has struck me for some while that the we need to re-examine the separation of powers in the Westminster model. The malign influence of the whips comes from their control of jobs in government. If the House of Commons was an elected legislative assembly holding the executive to account then it would not attract the sort of people whowanted a career as Government ministers. Maybe we have to concede that USA has something to teach us and be less tribal in our support of the Westminster model.
Another question that was raised was over Scottish independence when the frightening spectre of a permanent Tory majority in Westminster was described if Scotland voted Yes. John expressed his concern about the present situation where an Orkney MP was trying to whip him to vote for the Health Bill pointing out that the Bill would not apply in Scotland. And so the West Lothian Question was raised. There is a perfectly good Liberal answer to this question. It is called federalism. It is good to hear the Welsh First Minister raise the possibility of a fully federal solution. It is fast becoming the policy that dare not speak its name. London based writers derided it failing to see that a unitary state of 50+million is far too centralised. It is a situation that cannot be remedied by giving a few token powers to local government.Although I would stress that I wholly approve of Local Authorities taking powers from Whitehall in areas where that is appropriate--schools for example. In that context I was impressed with the article in the Independent 18/02/12 by Graham Allen and Philip Blond calling for a new Magna Carta for local government. Personally I feel we need a thorough going review of the constitution which makes the checks and balances on the Executive, the devolution of powers and a new local government settlement part of a new written constitution which Westminster cannot tamper with or suspend. Back in local government the sort of powers we need to take away from London are the powers that would go to Scotland under 'devo max' and cannot be effectively exercised by councils. If we are talking of malign influences then we must add the American influenced Libertarian Right. To a person they are Con federalist and despise the Federal government. We are not. David Grace has a excellent post over at the Disgruntled Radical looking at that debate in a European context. Time to fight back on Federalism and not let Prescott's NE incompetence ruin it for the rest of the nation.
We recognise that there are some powers best exercised locally but that others are only effectively exercised nationally or pan nationally. There are some neo-con free marketeers who oppose governmental institutions on principal and argue against 'new levels of government'. The economic collapse caused in significant part by the market failure and the absence of regulation should challenge that view. We are not part of the Tea Party anti government movement. The Allen/Blond prescription is to entrench sovereign Local Authorities and guarantee a new financial settlement, as they say:
......political independence for councils would mean less than nothing without financial independence. Of all local authority spending, the bulk is now provided by central government and only a fraction (one eighth) raised locally by the council tax. This dependency culture must end. A radical new settlement is needed on taxation, with HMRC sending the appropriate tax take back to local councils via an independent redistribution commission. Central government could continue to be free to assist councils with funding on particular problems, just as the federal governments of the US and many European states do.
Local councils, assured that the funding of most of their expenditure was secure, could then be free to raise the remainder of their income via property rates, sales taxes or local bond issues. In a mature democracy, local authorities would be confident and competent enough to raise and spend what they decide is appropriate. Citizens knowing what they pay and why they pay it will constitute a firmer discipline and stronger bulwark against central interference than any statute.
I was interesting that so many constitutional issues came up in the discussion How Governments are formed and sustained and the level of scrutiny and challenge they face clearly interests the public more than is generally assumed. All in all it was an excellent evening . It proved there was an appetite for political debate. John's conclusion: more rational debate and less macho Ministers!