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Archive for May, 2010

If last night’s Question Time is anything to go by, there may be trouble ahead for LibDem politicians attempting to justify their going into government with the Tories. Mehdi Hasan and the audience savaged LibDem MP Simon Hughes, arguing the LibDems betrayed progressive voters. Hasan gave voice to the arguments he makes in the New Statesman. Earlier, I gave an impressionistic account of the possible consequences for the LibDems, citing the Labour campaign billboard near my house with an essentially vote Clegg get Cameron argument. Over at Left Foot Forward, Tim Horton does the analysis, concluding the coalition amounts to an opportunity to make inroads into LibDem marginal seats. Horton highlights a pre-election YouGov poll (pdf) that finds,

43% of LibDem voters describe themselves as centre-left or left
29% of LibDem voters describe themselves as centrist
9% % of LibDem voters describe themselves as centre-right or right

39% of LibDem voters describe the party as being centre-left or left
33% of LibDem voters describe the party as being centrist
5% of LibDem voters describe the party as being centre-right or right

Horton goes on to explore the consequences for marginal seats depending on what percentage of LibDem voters defect to Labour. Horton finds defections from disaffected LibDem voters could contribute to winning seats back from LibDem MPs as well as Tories.

As for how the cabinet shapes up, “scandalously undiverse” is an apt description. Few people who didn’t attend Oxbridge (30%), fewer women (14%), and even fewer ethnic minorities (1 of 29 regular cabinet attendees). A diverse range of elite private schools does not count (two thirds of the cabinet went to private school compared to 7% of the population).

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Fortune plango vulnera I bemoan the wounds of Fortune
stillantibus ocellis with weeping eyes,
quod sua michi munera for the gifts she made me
subtrahit rebellis. she perversely takes away.
Verum est, quod legitur, It is written in truth,
fronte capillata, that she has a fine head of hair,
sed plerumque sequitur but, when it comes to seizing an opportunity
Occasio calvata. she is bald.
In Fortune solio On Fortune’s throne
sederam elatus, I used to sit raised up,
prosperitatis vario crowned with
flore coronatus; the many-coloured flowers of prosperity;
quicquid enim florui though I may have flourished
felix et beatus, happy and blessed,
nunc a summo corrui now I fall from the peak
gloria privatus. deprived of glory.
Fortune rota volvitur: The wheel of Fortune turns;
descendo minoratus; I go down, demeaned;
alter in altum tollitur; another is raised up;
nimis exaltatus far too high up
rex sedet in vertice sits the king at the summit –
caveat ruinam! let him fear ruin!
nam sub axe legimus for under the axis is written
Hecubam reginam. Queen Hecuba.

– I bemoan the wounds of Fortune, Orff’s Carmina Burana (libretto)

Just like that. The smooth, carefully choreographed final act of British politics took place yesterday, with Gordon Brown as fortune’s unfortunate. After five days of turbulence, fleets of Jaguars ferrying party negotiators about, and swimming in the speculation that passed for reportage, the United Kingdom has an outcome. Brown delivered his farewell and took the short journey to Buckingham Palace where he resigned as prime minister and advised the Queen to call on David Cameron to form a new government. Perhaps half an hour later Cameron was at the palace to speak with the Queen, then Downing Street to speak to the world. We finally have the result of the general election, David Cameron is to head a Tory government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister. After nearly nonexistent transition, the UK has a new Prime Minister.

Near my house a Labour election poster proclaims Margaret Thatcher the LibDem poster girl. In this part of London, that is meant as an epithet, not a compliment. The entire left of the LibDem party, who voted LibDem to keep the Tories out of government, will look askance at the post election negotiations that resulted in a Tory government. I imagine, having endorsed the LibDems, the editorial board of the Guardian retching as Cameron entered 10 Downing Street. The progressive parties didn’t link up in a Rainbow Coalition as envisioned by many. One MP commented that the Lib-Lab dream was dead.

Coalition politics requires acquiescence of the politicians and the voters. For the politicians, there will be plenty of disappointed Tory grandees who don’t get seats in the cabinet. Additionally, the right leaning anti-modernizing section of the Conservatives will have some complaints about what precisely was sacrificed to create this Tory-LibDem government. Perhaps power will mollify the critics and prevent fissures, but Tory-LibDem is an awkward partnership.

As for Labour politicians, the campaign literature almost writes itself. Labour will pin crypto-Tory to every LibDem politician. Labour politicians have already claimed the title as the only progressive party in British politics. Furthermore, with spending cuts to come I predict some easy point scoring on class-based critiques of Tories. Basically, the top of the Conservative leadership have had privileged lives (Eton, the Bullingdon Club), the withdrawal of welfare programs and/or front line public services is going to be unpopular and well, as I said before, the election literature nearly writes itself.

I’ve been reading and watching commentary on the sustainability of the Tory-LibDem partnership, the coalition is meant to least five years. I think along with everyone else, I just don’t know if this is sustainable. The parties’ philosophies are very different, on several issues (immigration, nuclear deterrance) the LibDems ran as to the left of Labour. And you can’t write down everything in a coalition agreement, new issues will arise, unforeseen challenges will present themselves. Yes, the coalition has a cushion of parliamentary seats to allow for defections, and serving in cabinet together means the parties are as closely lashed together as is possible. But for instance, recall during the debates Nick Clegg said the Tories had allied themselves to “nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes” in the European Parliament. Now Clegg is to be Cameron’s deputy prime minister and they’re going to get along just fine? What’s more, internally the Tories are divided on Europe, one of the issues that brought down Thatcher and caused John Major to label some of him fellow party members bastards. The euroskeptic Tory party and the most europhile party in coalition together. There’s bound to be a question mark over sustainability.

I’m sorry to see Gordon Brown go. His speech at the Open University is probably the nearest thing to the type of cosmopolitanism I favor I’ve seen in international politics (Youtube, 37 minutes). Strong echoes of Alexander Wendt’s “Why a World State is Inevitable: Teleology and the Logic of Anarchy” (pdf). In the meantime, Cameron and Clegg need to watch out for Fortune’s wheel, their colleagues in Parliament may have some comment on how long this partnership will last.

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Cognitive polyphasia is how one pollster described public opinion. Voters desire public policy that reconciles the irreconcilable. The examples the pollster used were the British public’s wanting Swedish level public services on American levels of taxation, local control over public services without the postcode lottery, and more fellow citizens to participate in local governance without personally volunteering for the task. It is up to politicians to attempt to makes some sense out of voters’ conflicting goals and steer public policy in a coherent direction. Overall, I think the Labour Party makes the most sense of these competing demands. If I could vote in the UK elections today, I would vote Labour.*

Though they ultimately endorsed Cameron, the Economist has an excellent survey of Labour’s accomplishments over the past 13 years. (I’m particularly amused that the Economist uses the Iraq War against Blair, though the paper supported the war.) The minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, civil partnerships, removing most hereditary peers, dramatically improving the health service, the massive schools and hospitals building program, Sure Start (similar to Head Start in the US) – a sampling of Labours accomplishments in office. If cuts in government spending must be made in the coming years, I trust Labour to make them. In part because I know that Labour won’t relish making cuts. Labour will be more sensitive to the consequences of cuts for those who have the least. (One of the Tories’ priorities is to cut inheritance taxes; the Tories are also highly likely to raise the regressive Value Added Tax.)

As for the Tories, I’m deeply skeptical of parties that were so recently toxic; xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, the Tories have ventured into all sorts of nasty corners of UK politics. One is obligated to ask exactly how thoroughgoing are the shifts in Tory policies? One of the emblematic examples during the campaign was the Shadow Home Secretary’s gaffe. Chris Grayling suggested that Bed and Breakfasts should be allowed to bar gay guests out of deference to a proprietor’s conscience (BBC). If elected, as Home Secretary Grayling would be responsible for enforcing the statute that bars that sort of discrimination. After Grayling’s comments became public he did some furious backpedaling, and dropped of the campaign radar for a few days. Even if the echoes are faint, the battle over repealing Section 28 (a nasty bit of anti-gay legislation from the 1980’s) comes to mind. Guess which side the Tories were on?

Looking at the Tories more broadly, the section of the party dubbed the Turnip Taliban does not exactly inspire confidence; progressive ends with conservative means sounds nice, but there are crosswinds that have gone unacknowledged. That segment of the Tories is probably less widely reported abroad, but they’re liable to come up with chestnuts like, “I have got absolutely nothing against women. Who cooks my lunch? Who cooks my dinner? How did my wonderful three children appear? Women, you can’t do without them. My God, take my wife” (BBC). David Cameron and the Notting Hill set must jockey for power within the Conservative Party with the Turnip Taliban and it is unclear that Cameron will win.

Cameron detoxifying the Tories reminds me of the feminist cookies, particularly this one,

Minimum Standards

Congratulations to David Cameron. He has brought the Tories to the minimum standards of respectability. Maybe. Withdrawing from the mainstream center-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament to found a new bloc with highly suspect right-wing parties means Cameron does not get the cookie just yet (BBC).

Finally, I’m skeptical about Cameron’s Big Idea this election, the Big Society. In short, Cameron seeks to roll back the state and sees civil society as poised to take on formerly state responsibilities. Dissatisfied with your local school, well band together with parents and start your own – so goes the Tories thinking. My cognitive polyphasia intro may have indicated where I am on this debate of the public suddenly taking the reigns from a chastened state. Civil society based provision of public services is exposed to the risk of exogenous shocks. What happened to those charities that invested with Bernard Madoff? They closed (Haaretz). Civil society is not always as committed to nondiscrimination as public authorities providing services. For instance, in Washington DC the Catholic Church threatened to withdraw a wide range of services, adoption, homeless shelters, and health care. Why the dramatic threat? DC proposed religious organizations “obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians.” WaPo. The government should not be exposed to threats by charitable organizations. It is great that charities supplement public work, but reliance on civil society introduces goals and visions of public policy that may not align with government’s responsibility to promote everyone’s welfare. Overall, the government can provide a stable home for public service provision.

So, that’s my view of the British elections. I hope the British public agrees.

* Full disclosure, I’ve been interning at the Labour Party, so I was not likely to endorse the Tories. I mentioned I was working for a British political party in December, but had not identified it. The views expressed here are only my own, I don’t know why anyone would get the impression I spoke for anyone else, but just to be on the safe side.

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