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Introduction

In its fourth term, the post-Soviet Polish Sejm saw 1,264 bills introduced.

That would tax the skills of even this draconian Labour Government’s business managers. However, we had our own little version of this un-democracy this week. And no-one should be under any illusion about the threat to our liberties and our democracy that this cosy procedural stitch-up between Labour and the Conservatives has become.

It is not something that might happen. It has happened. Laws have been passed without scrutiny that further erode our civil liberties and, were we talking about Eastern Germany under the Staatssicherheit, we would be loftily condemning the extension of police state powers.

It is called the “wash-up”.

What is “wash-up”?

Before I can explore it further, you need to understand “wash-up”, the procedural insanity that has been conducted in increasingly authoritarian fashion by successive Labour governments – and colluded in entirely by the Conservative opposition – at the fag-end of a Parliament.

Its academic presentation is entirely respectable: a government has a manifesto that it has promised to deliver and so it is important to secure the passage of as much of that as possible, even though time has run out. Therefore, the political parties are invited to “negotiate” over the content of bills, agreeing which bits to drop and which bits to pass, as there will have to be a lot of business to get the bills through Parliament in two days and not much time for votes. (Bills are not laws until they become acts and, simply put, that can’t happen until they have been voted through by both the Commons and the Lords in the same version. If you are interested, the Parliamentary Education Service has an extensive paper on how laws are made.)

The reality, though, is very different.

Labour and the Conservatives negotiate, the Liberal Democrats are notified – and no-one else is given a look-in.

There is a lot of myth and misconception around “wash-up”, which is happily perpetuated by those political parties – and government officials – who like the simplicity of an institutionalised duopoly (Labour and the  Conservatives). You hear and read a lot about “veto”, especially this time from the Conservatives, who, as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, proclaim loudly when they claim to have forced concessions from Government. (They seem desperate to maintain the sense of entitlement to office that lofty allusion to convention and institution helps confer, especially with the political illiterati in the media.)

That is all bunkum.

There is no constitutional veto wielded by the Official Opposition. The only thing that actually matters are the votes to secure passage of legislation. And it is these that are informed by the earlier negotiations.

The Lords can do whatever it wants, all by simple majority. If it decides it wants to do it, it can.

Of course, it is all much easier to simply carve up decisions between the two old pals, who between them have a majority of votes…

“Cut and shut” legislation

In the Commons, where Labour had a majority, the Government should have been able to deliver its legislation, assuming its MPs had confidence in it.

In the Lords the situation is more complicated as no-one has a majority.

In the Lords the Government has two choices: play along with the confidence trick of “constitutional convention” where none really exists and accede to the Tories wishes; or have the bottle to deliver legislation by entering into discussions with all political parties and those peers on the crossbenches.

It was Labour’s decision to do grubby deals by dodgy handshakes with the Tories,  perpetuating the two-party cosiness.

Worse, they rail-roaded through a bunch of stuff they hadn’t put in any manifesto – either of them.

It is this cowardly, unprincipled wheeling and dealing with our civil liberties and fundamental British freedoms that leaves those genuinely committed to reform despairing at Labour’s lack of resolve and failure to deliver.

For a more graphic image, try looking at it like this.

Imagine the Government Chief Whip as an auctioneer of second-hand cars. Imagine the Tory Chief Whip as a second-hand car dealer at the Government Chief Whip’s auction. The laws that emerge are the product of some last minute chopping and changing between the two of them. The public then find themselves the proud recipients of however many “cut and shut” Acts of Parliament as have been haggled over. (Auto Express warns readers that a “cut and shut” is a deception with no guarantees of structural integrity, safety or handling. Readers musing on this analogy to “wash-up” can draw their own alarming conclusions.)

So how did “wash-up” 2010 work?

First of all, on Tuesday, Harriet Harman made a statement to the House of Commons setting out which bills would be considered and how much time each bill would get.

It was draconian beyond belief.

She announced that in its final two sitting days, the Commons would consider a business motion, thirteen bills and, for good measure, a motion amending the Misuse of Drugs (1971) Act. Amongst those laws being rushed through were the Digital Economy Bill, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and the Crime and Security Bill. All of these are major pieces of legislation, with far-reaching implications for our lives, our communities and the way we govern Britain.

Normally, any one of these would have been subject to many, many hours of debate in the Commons. But not in “wash-up”. For example, the Finance Bill received the longest amount of time: just three hours.

When Labour were in opposition, in 1992, Margaret Beckett raised concerns that they had just four hours to discuss eleven clauses of the Finance Bill.

In 2010, Labour and the Conservatives agreed a timetable that meant that there were just three hours for a second reading and discussion of 73 clauses and 22 schedules of the Finance Bill.

Most bills received just one hour.

Absolute procedural insanity.

It is unbelievable that in 21st Century Britain we allow our lawmakers to pass laws in this way.

If you are not outraged by this travesty of democracy, you should be.

The timetable motion is worth exploring a little further because it reveals the depths of collusion between Labour and the Tories. Debating the Finance Bill, Mark Hoban, speaking for the Tories, tried to make out this was all the Government’s fault and attacked Nick Brown, the Government Chief Whip, attributing Margaret Beckett’s words from 1992 incorrectly to him.

What is remarkable and utterly bizarre about this little tirade is that hours earlier, Mark Hoban’s Conservatives had whipped Conservative MPs through the lobbies in support of this timetable!

As you can see from the division list, the only party united in opposition was the Liberal Democrats, supported by a handful of Labour rebels and Tory mavericks.

The bits that got through – and the bits that should have, but didn’t

These are some highlights of dozens of stitched-up proposals which were rushed through “wash-up” in various bills, despite Liberal Democrat opposition:

Crime and Security Act

  • Draconian DNA provisions in respect of innocent people.
  • The further criminalisation of children.

Digital Economy Act

  • Website-blocking.
  • Bandwidth-throttling and internet disconnection.

Finance Act

  • Secret interception of packages sent in the mail.

These are proposals which were dropped from various bills or business in “wash-up”, despite Liberal Democrat opposition:

Constitutional Reform and Governance Act

  • Reform of the restrictions on the right to protest in the vicinity of Parliament were dropped, maintaining the current infringement of our freedom to protest.
  • A referendum on the voting system (very weirdly the Government were voting yesterday to remove the referendum from their own bill, having announced the day before that they would have a referendum).
  • Powers for the House of Lords to expel peers convicted of criminal offences (so any peers currently facing criminal charges can breathe a sigh of relief – the day job is safe).

Wright Committee Reforms

  • Whilst there was room for thirteen bills and an order, there wasn’t room for the Standing Order changes that had already been discussed and which would have prevented fiascos such as the Digital Economy Bill.

A detailed example of abuse of “wash-up” (or “How Conservatives and Labour colluded to open your post” [packages only, of course, for now])

Back up a bit.

Yes.

You read that right.

The Conservative Party and the Labour Government conspired to change fundamentally the way our postal system works and allow Revenue and Customs to open any package they “suspect” “may” contain something it shouldn’t.

So this is “goods” and applies to “packages” in this instance. But how long before – in the interests of national security of course – the Government feel it is necessary to extend powers of intercept to some new commissioners? And it becomes applicable to written correspondence?

Impossible?

I don’t think so.

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris challenged the Government over it last night and the Government minister flustered and said it was all about tobacco smuggling.

Ok.

Take a look below at a note I did, marking out the changes to the Postal Services Act 2000:

There is nothing about tobacco smuggling in it. There are no restrictions in fact on content or size of package. And all the safeguards about the recipient being present or notified are removed. As Henry Porter wrote in the Guardian recently: “We must ask ourselves how many more rights are seized by government and its agencies before Britain becomes the GDR’s most obvious European imitator.”

Because it was Clause 59 of the Finance Bill, and there were only three hours for debate, it didn’t get reached for discussion. In fact, by the time MPs got on to the bit where they consider the bill in detail, line-by-line, there were only 28 minutes left to look at the whole bill.

Think about that for a moment.

28 minutes for a line-by-line examination of the bill that would usually – for the Finance Bill – take months in Committee.

This change to the law was made without a single second of proper scrutiny – and without a single vote. Worse, it was made without even the opportunity for a vote.

And that is what the Conservative Party and Labour Party wanted.

Coda

This is your democracy. This is your Parliament.

This is the system that has served the Conservative and Labour parties very nicely  over the years and that the Liberal Democrats have consistently wanted to change.

We have been consistently opposed by both of them.

So when you get angry about the website-blocking powers in the Digital Economy Act, or outraged that corrupt peers will be able to still sit in the House of Lords even after a criminal conviction, remember which two parties colluded to work this all out: the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

Think about the Postal Services Act 2000 and the Finance Act 2010.

Don’t get angry at the failure of reformers to reform a system that they are consistently blocked from changing by the Old Pals’ act.

Instead, vote for more reformers.

Vote for more Liberal Democrats.

And take back your Parliament.

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Political parties rarely do internet humour well. The infamous Jib-Jab virals of 2005 set a high benchmark and British politics has rarely attempted to emulate them. Surprising then to find a political party making a more than half-decent stab at a bit of internet humour. Even more of a surprise to discover it’s my own. If you missed them earlier in the week, meet the Labservatives. They’ve launched a website which I’d encourage you to check out. As for their manifesto, meet their would-be PM… Gorvid. 🙂

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There is something remarkably gratifying about your politics becoming the subject of a doolally rant from Peter Oborne.

His comment piece in today’s Mail is both astonishing and embarrassing in its swivel-eyed political illiteracy – riddled with hackneyed clichés to such an extent that you can almost see his words foaming on the page like some twenty-first century incarnation of a nineteenth-century pamphleteer.

Of course on one level he can be simply dismissed as a slightly dotty commentator who, whilst perhaps a little too spiky to be regarded a lovable eccentric, nevertheless fulfils a role in the media as a vocal representative of a certain small-minded, right-wing conservatism. Of course, whilst in US politics the right has radio ‘shock jocks’, Britain, despite an increasing pace of life, still conducts its politics in a comparatively leisurely fashion, better suited to writer-provocateurs in our newspapers. These I always imagine to be sartorially-challenged individuals given to flamboyant or eccentric dress – ‘sock jocks’ if you will.

On another level, however, Oborne’s flailing around is a fascinating indication of the rising panic on the part of Britain’s conservative politicians and commentators who have coasted along for years, relying on a ropey strategy perhaps best summarised as opportunism bolstered by a confidence born of entitlement. Oborne, whether as ‘sock jock’ or unofficial Tory mouthpiece, reveals how politically confused and contradictory the right-wing of British politics has become – grasping out in a vacuum of principle for a policy to justify this strange sense of entitlement to power.

Bizarrely, he decides that the key point of political differentiation is not principle, policy or even political message, but rather election slogan. Sadly, I suppose his obsession with slogans is not unexpected from someone who is part of a media industry that seeks in its own condescending way to portray British voters as supine – unable to make political choices based on more substantive criteria without the benefit of the media intervening to interpret and translate.

Oborne, interestingly, also accuses the Lib Dems of opacity on the big issues. This seems to be one of his odder comments, reflecting more the fact that his preferred emperor is clearly wearing no clothes and, I presume, hoping that by shouting loudly at as many people as possible, no-one will notice.

It is also contradicted by his admiration of Nick Clegg’s stance on Afghanistan and civil liberties. In the same piece!

Add in the fact of the Liberal Democrats’ four key election commitments and Oborne’s article is reduced to simple, ignorant bluster.

This is confirmed by his dependence on a tiresome and dull confusion between campaigning and political positioning in a dismal attempt to justify an accusation of hypocrisy:

“For example, one internal campaigning document – called Effective Opposition – hypocritically advised the party’s candidates to face in both directions at the same time.

It urged them ‘to secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and similarly in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory’.”

Oborne, like many ‘sock jocks’, appears to think that politics should occur in a vacuum of activity. The reality is any party looking to win a seat will be looking to maximise its support from voters by differentiating itself from other parties. To do that well, you need to present your policies in a way that is both relevant and effective. If you believe in the importance of local community politics that is going to be different in different parts of the country. It is basic campaigning common sense.

Fortunately, voters realise that, even if armchair media pundits – who lack accountability and often comment without any sense of responsibility – do not.

All of this adds up to one important thing: this election is still wide open and in the hands of the British electorate.

And the Tories know it…

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There is something very uncanny about the iDave whose limitations are, to my mind, increasingly analogous to the iPhone. The obvious counter-charge is “but the iPhone is so popular!”. However, I’d suggest that this is a superficial gloss that doesn’t reflect the way in which the iPhone’s rivals do a rather less impressive job of countering the propaganda than those of the iDave’s – certainly the Liberal Democrats.

So what are the iPhone limitations of the iDave?

  • As already hinted, and despite a slick marketing operation, its design flaws are coming to light and are being highlighted by increasingly confident competitors.
  • In terms of real life experience, it has majored in self-promotion rather than real work in the real world.
  • Despite large sums of money having been spent on development, it has proved entirely incapable of multi-tasking, something that later iterations have failed to address.
  • More worryingly, after stress-testing the product develops significant faults.
  • When it comes to engaging the community in developing its operating systems and applications, it is strictly not open-source. Collaboration and participation are prohibited in favour of central prescription by corporate wonks. (And to be clear, there are definitely no custom ring-tones – potentially frustrating for European customers.)

So where does that leave the iDave?

Ahead of the iPhone in at least one respect. On the Apple site is the following unanswered question:

“I’m moving to Belize Central America if i just use a local antenna will this product work for me?”

Whilst Apple might be able to provide no comfort, Lord Ashcroft – developer, majority shareholder and strategist for the manufacturers of the iDave – should be able to reassure…

The iDave has an app for that.

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In today’s Independent, Paddy Ashdown answers a fascinating array of questions on  a wide range of topics.  One of those is from a Cathy Saunders in Bath. She asks: “Is David Cameron the most impressive Tory leader since Churchill?”

Paddy’s response is a splendidly blunt reminder of Cameron’s background:

“David Cameron isn’t even the most impressive Tory in the current Conservative Party. I find the idea of comparing him with Churchill so absurd as to be laughable. In David Cameron we have a man who went straight from Oxford to the back rooms of Tory Central Office, the highlight of which was his role in the catastrophe of Black Wednesday, and then straight into PR. And not just any kind of PR, PR for the media industry.

“His real-world experience is seven years as the spin doctor’s spin doctor. He’s then parachuted into a safe seat, from which he writes for Michael Howard the most right-wing manifesto his party has had for generations. His greatest success for the Tories has been giving it a cosmetic makeover. Most impressive since Churchill? Come on.”

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My twenty-ninth conference working for the party was very different to my first.

My heart wasn’t in my mouth.

Like many seasoned conference goers and professional staff I know the routines and the requirements. In any event, the party is generally a more organised and self-disciplined organisation these days. That has dangers of its own of course, with the chance that people might get complacent.

That wasn’t the case in Birmingham. And two very different veterans – one a senior national politician and the other a senior local politician – both said privately, and quite separately, that Nick Clegg’s was the best leader’s speech they had seen in years.

I agree.

Clegg was passionate, a fact not overlooked by writers such as Ann Treneman. He was also angry – angry at the way public expectation has been so trodden down that the public now demand less of our politicians and our country than they are entitled to.

With a relatively short speech by modern political standards, his message was sharp and to the point: ignore the pundits warning you of this outcome or that. If you like what you see, have the confidence to vote for it: vote Lib Dem and get Lib Dem.

At the last election one in four voters voted Lib Dem. If that were raised to one in three, the Lib Dems would be the next Government. Put like that it makes you realise how much the political landscape has shifted since 1951 when over ninety per cent of the population voted either Labour or Tory.

The policy pledges for this election are clear and to the point – and bear repeating so that there is no mistaking the Lib Dem’s commitments:

Fair taxes that puts money back in your pocket

  • The first £10,000 you earn tax-free: a tax cut of £700 for most people
  • 3.6m low earners and pensioners freed from income tax completely
  • Paid for by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy and polluters

A fair chance for every child

  • Ensure children get the individual attention they need by cutting class sizes
  • Made possible by investing £2.5bn in schools targeted to help struggling pupils
  • Cut student debts and make a degree affordable for all

A fair future: creating jobs by making Britain greener

  • Break up the banks and get them lending again to protect real businesses
  • Honesty about the tough choices needed to cut the deficit
  • Green growth and jobs that last by investing in infrastructure

A fair deal for you from politicians

  • Put trust back into politics by giving you the right to sack corrupt MPs
  • Restore and protect hard won British civil liberties with a Freedom Bill
  • Overhaul Westminster completely: fair votes, an elected House of Lords, all politicians to pay full British taxes.

As I left Birmingham, looking out of the train window at a landscape that has at different times been at the heart of our industrial economy, I felt a genuine excitement at being a member of a party that was making a firm commitment to helping Britain start building things again – turning Britain into a world-leader in green industries such as hi-tech wind-turbine production. It was a real revelation to think that our economy needn’t be reliant on the service industry of the city, with all its old boy networks and incomprehensible lexicon of hedge funds and futures and trades. It could instead witness a 21st Century reinvention of our manufacturing industry, with vital plant and equipment made in Britain for the benefit of our economy as well as benefiting the wider environmental interests of the international community.

Exciting, too, to hear the clear ambition to help people back into work and break the humiliation and hopelessness of trying to make ends meet on benefits, by proposing a radical and costed overhaul of taxation to lift the income tax threshold to £10,000. Is there a bolder commitment from any other party to put real cash back into the pockets of those who need it most?

If you missed the speech, but are interested in seeing what Nick Clegg said, look at the clip below or take a moment to read the text.

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The journalist John Kampfner has established a formidable reputation as broadcaster, writer, political campaigner and commentator.

In 2002 he won awards  for Journalist of the Year and Film of the Year from the Foreign Press Association for his documentary on the Middle East, The Dirty War. Under his editorship from  2005 to 2008, The New Statesman reached its highest circulation figures in thirty years. In 2006 The British Society of Magazine Editors gave him their award for Political Editor of the Year. Both the Observer and the Evening Standard listed his book Freedom for Sale as one of their books of the year for 2009.

Yesterday, Kampfner published an article in the Guardian and a pamphlet through CentreForum, “Lost labours”, both of which address Labour’s record of failure and its betrayal of the British people’s trust. He explains his difficult decision to switch his political allegiance away from Labour to Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, arguing that only they can ensure a fairer Britain and urging other reformers on the centre left to acknowledge the Liberal Democrats as the most progressive force in British politics.

If you are uncertain of the case that politicians make for themselves, take a moment to read Kampfner’s coherent and compelling account.

If you are interested in finding out more about John Kampfner, check out his listing on evri where you will find a number of video clips of debates and commentaries on a range of political issues.

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