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The election was little more than two weeks ago, though, in truth, the astonishing developments of recent days make it feel like half a lifetime has passed.

This weekend is the first since before the start of the campaign that I have had a moment to catch breath and reflect on the incredible and exhausting roller-coaster of emotions that has carried me through the last few weeks. I am still struggling to get my head around a moment in history that has taken the party to which I have devoted most of my adult life from being the second party of opposition, fighting against media expectations of annihilation, through the incredible highs of Nick Clegg’s performances in the television debates, to the shock and dismay as we lost seats, and, finally, after careful and determined negotiations, on an extraordinary journey into government. Not at any moment had I envisaged the highs and lows of the last seventeen days, nor the conflict of emotion, loyalty and reason that has tested me and many, many party members.

As regular readers of my blog will know, I have never been backward in offering up frank criticisms of the Conservative Party. At the risk of offending “socialist” colleagues (I use the term advisedly these days), I have long mischievously regarded the Labour Party as merely a hundred-year anachronism that, hugely significant in its impact on the politics of the twentieth century, is merely the upstart younger brother of a progressive Liberal tradition that has a far longer and richer history as a counter-weight to the political and societal inhibitions of Conservatism. With that as my starting point, the idea of a coalition with the Conservative Party was never something I had entertained, instead attaching my instincts in terms of coalition in a balanced parliament situation to the romantic notion of a realignment of the left and a partnership with a Labour Party looking to rediscover its sense of purpose.

I use the term ‘romantic’ quite deliberately. That sense that Labour were the natural partner of the Liberal Democrats paid scant regard to the illiberal and authoritarian reality of thirteen years of Labour government, but owed more to my admiration for the integrity of leaders such as Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell who sought the prize of a realignment of the left in order to usher in a new era of liberal reforms. That emotional detachment from political reality governed many of my initial reactions to the General Election result and the truly baffling parliamentary arithmetic delivered by a cynical, angry public to the political class.

Despite an illegal war (yes, it was illegal), huge incursions by the state into our private lives, the threat to traditional British rights such as trial by jury, repeated failure to deliver on reform of the Lords and our electoral system (even though these were manifesto promises), the running down of our rural communities and the ruin of our agricultural industry, the bankrupting of the nation’s finances, and complicity in the ruin of confidence in our Parliament, Labour somehow still felt a more appropriate partner for government. However, listing these abject failures, just as I did in the pause for thought that was created by Nick Clegg’s commitment to allow the party with the greatest mandate to seek to form a government first, forced me to recognise that the political instincts of the Labour Party, still nominally progressive, are as far from my own and my understanding of my party’s as are those of the Conservative Party. More importantly, from the point of view of attempting to come to terms with the political and economic reality of 2010, the Labour Party is exhausted and broken, uncertain of what it believes or what sort of party it should become.

By contrast, the Conservative Party revealed a confident capacity to subordinate expectation, objectives and tradition to the practical necessity of negotiating with its erstwhile political opponent – qualities that had clearly escaped the observations of many commentators who saw minority government as its only route to power. If I am being completely honest, they are qualities that had escaped me, also, my ready preference to hide behind (well-founded!) tribal prejudices proving that I did not know the party I had been campaigning against as well as I liked to believe.

The outcome, a Coalition Agreement and a Coalition Government which sees Liberal Democrats at every ministerial level, is a genuinely radical attempt to confront the challenges facing the country and, in its composition, demonstrates a commitment from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party to making this arrangement work.

Knowing how many of my fellow party members share my instinct, I am proud at the way the Liberal Democrats both locally and nationally have responded to the challenge set by the electorate. That there was such considered acclaim for the agreement at the special conference convened to provide an opportunity for members to discuss the Coalition Agreement does not detract from the hard questions the party asked itself. We fully recognise that a new and tough challenge will be to promote ourselves as a party of government, making clear the very real impact that having Liberal Democrats in government will have on people’s lives.

Of course the proof of the pudding will be in its eating at the end of this Parliament and the extent to which the Coalition has delivered on its clear commitments. However, the ambition is tremendous and a high benchmark that has the potential to reconnect the public with politicians and provide a real opportunity to break open the old ways of doing things. The list on which this Coalition is determined to deliver includes things I never seriously believed I would see in the programme of a single government: fixed term parliaments to end the game-playing of sitting prime ministers; an opportunity for the country to decide on voting reform, jemmying the crowbar of preferential voting into our creaking and unrepresentative electoral system; reform of the House of Lords; an ambitious plan to green our economy; a Freedom Bill to roll back the powers of the state; huge investment in the schooling of the country’s poorest pupils; and the raising of the income tax threshold to help those on the lowest incomes.

Most of all, this Parliament provides a uniquely important opportunity for all those supporters of electoral reform: to demonstrate that pluralist politics can work and that the national interest is served by a strong and distinctly Liberal voice in government.

Despite the colourful, passionate and necessary rhetoric of the election, my own emerging understanding of this unprecedented situation is that coalition cannot be founded on our deeply-held prejudices as politicians, but instead has to be grounded in an objective assessment of how best to serve the national interest in all its iterations, however personally troubling the accompanying journey might be. I believe Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and David Cameron’s Conservative Party have made just that assessment, setting aside instinctive and fundamental differences to establish a coincidence of interests to best serve a tired, cynical, yet hopeful public.

I wish them – us –  every success.

And I look forward to pressing the case for Liberal Democrat achievements in Government against robust challenges from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in five years’ time.

You can read the Coalition Agreement, approved by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party 11th May 2010, here:

You can read the Coalition’s Programme for Government, published 20th May 2010, here:

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Below is a pictorial representation of the projected share of the vote, based on the latest You Gov polling data for 2nd May (34% Tories [blue], 28% Labour [red], 29% Lib Dems [yellow], 9% others [green]):

Below is a pictorial representation of the number of seats that these percentages would translate into, using the BBC’s seat projector:

That’s 264 Conservative MPs [blue], 267 Labour MPs [red], 90 Liberal Democrat MPs [yellow] and 29 others [green].

Look carefully at those two charts and those two sets of figures.

That’s right.

More British citizens could vote for the Liberal Democrats than for the Labour Party. More British citizens could decide they would rather see Nick Clegg leading the country than Gordon Brown. Yet, when it comes to the translation of votes into seats, the Labour Party could receive almost three times as many seats – all because of the vagaries of our electoral system.

Can you imagine if this were The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent?

Would we sit quietly by and accept that we could all cast our votes but the final result could bear no relation to how those votes were cast? Of course not. The switchboards would be jammed. The internet would be crashing. The tabloids would be screaming about fixes and fiddles.

This isn’t The X-Factor. This isn’t Britain’s Got Talent. It’s far more important.

This is the future of our country. Those who are elected will make the laws that determine how we live our lives. Our electoral system fiddles the result.

Isn’t it time we got a little angrier?

Discuss…

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Robert Maynard Hutchins once opined that “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

As this General Election began, there was every chance that it would be just another painfully lingering stage in the atrophication of our politics. Even those of us who have been a part of the reforming insurgency for years have felt alienated from our own political processes, disenfranchised by constitutional arrangements which have advantaged a cosy establishment deal for sixty-five years. For decades we have been told by the Labour and Conservative parties what our democratic choice is. It is a political narrative that has been reinforced by a media establishment that, as David Yelland rightly pointed out on Sunday, has become indistinguishable from those two old parties.

The television debates have changed everything.

By giving Nick Clegg the exposure that the Liberal Democrats have sought for years, they have shown that there is a credible third choice. They have revealed, comprehensively, that the Liberal Democrats can survive appropriately intense levels of public scrutiny, outside of the exhausted – and exhausting – monologuing of Brown and Cameron.

However the debates are only half of this extraordinary political story.

The Rage Against The Election Facebook Group is symbolic of the other.

The debates have combined with the democratisation of comment through mediums like Facebook and Twitter to demonstrate exactly why Labour and the Conservatives were right to fear offering choice to voters: people want to make their own minds up.

Voters are sick to the back teeth of smug politicians ignoring their fears and concerns, whilst abusing expenses paid for by the taxpayer.

They are no longer prepared to be told how it has to be.

Labour and Tory politicians, and their media conglomerate friends, have always been very quick to scoff at the idea that people are interested in subjects as dry as reform of the way we vote. Very late in the day, and terrified of the implications of a huge surge in support for a reforming third party, they are now waking up to the fact that, in an era where people expect there to be clarity, logic and fairness in the decision-making process, the electorate are far more sophisticated than they had hoped. Even more terrifying for parties that have thrived on being able to control the political message, they are terrified that people now have the tools to express their anger.

I wonder what that anger will look like if the creaking constitutional arrangements that inform our decrepit voting system fail to reflect their wishes?

Tom Stoppard once wrote “It’s not the voting that’s democracy; it’s the counting.” He could not be more right and Vernon Bogdanor, writing in today’s Telegraph, shows how comprehensively our electoral system could fail an electorate that is determined to change the way in which politics is done in Britain. The Conservative manifesto proclaims support for the system on the basis that “it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with.”

Oh yeah?

As he points out, on current projections, “In some polls, Labour is pushed into third place. But, through the quirks of the electoral system, the party could still win the most seats…”

People are not stupid. More over, as Stoppard identified, it’s the counting that matters.

The fundamental misjudgement that commentators make is to think that people, particularly young people, are disinterested in voting.

They are not.

They are disinterested in a rotten and unrepresentative politics that ignores them.

In fact, young people are some of the most savvy, discerning and committed voters, doing so on a regular basis. Crucially, the vehicle for their engagement, like the debates, is television. And worryingly, for Brown and Cameron at least, they expect the result to reflect how they vote.

Remember the reaction to allegations of vote-rigging on X-Factor and Big Brother?

If Labour get least votes, but end up with most seats, I can’t believe their won’t be fury  at what could only be described as constitutional vote-rigging. Just as importantly, the Tories’ defence of the status quo, that has served them so well in the past, will be demolished by an absurd and outrageous political reality.

Vernon Bogdanor asks “Is first-past-the-post on its last legs?”

Even before May 6th, Rage Against The Election suggests the answer is a damning yes.

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Along with the anger that has been unleashed by the election, as witnessed by the Rage Against the Election Facebook Group, is a huge amount of creativity from artists wanting to express their anger at other parties or their support for the Lib Dems. Here are a few of my favourites:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To see many, many more, take a look at the photos on the Rage Against The Election Facebook Group.

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This is an election that analysts, experts and historians will pore over for decades.

The confluence of mobile technology, media influence, information democracy on the web and voter alienation has created a serendipitous moment for the Liberal Democrats as a voice for fundamental change of a political system that is rotten to its core. From the way we pay for our politics and politicians, to the way government agencies manage information about us, to the way politics is run by two old parties who, as gigantic corporate spin operations, have lost their connection with real people and their every day concerns, people are bewildered and angry.

Paxman’s interview with Nick Clegg was telling in one particular regard: he sought to dismiss the value of £700, the average benefit of the Liberal Democrats’ income tax policy of raising the threshold to £10,000.  Even the BBC, in the person  of Jeremy Paxman, fail to understand that £700 is a colossal amount of money.

I was talking to a family friend at the weekend who, as someone who struggled to keep his small gardening business going, told me that £700 was a fortune. For BBC board member Ashley Highfield, that is less than the £773 he claimed for a single dinner on 4th February 2008 (see BBC expenses). It is difficult to imagine that such expenses are not available to their star presenters, so it is no wonder that Paxman is so out of touch with how hard it is in the real world.

But nowhere is this anti-politics more evident than on the Facebook Group Rage Against the Election. To the astonishment of new media watchers and seasoned party hacks alike, people are taking back their politics and using the democratic nature of the web to make their anger known. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s exhaustive work  The Printing Press as an Agent of Change documents the extraordinary impact of the a technical revolution on the democratisation of information. Academics and lofty historians might scoff, but their should be no doubting the impact of the likes of Facebook on the way people want to take ownership of information and use corporate tools for non-corporate purposes.

The Rage Against the Election Facebook Group is a phenomenon.

Set-up entirely independently of the Liberal Democrats, it has a single objective: to secure one million members in support of the Liberal Democrats and propel them into office.

Read that again: it has been set-up entirely independently of the Liberal Democrats. People out there, angry at their politicians, see the Liberal Democrats as a vehicle for change.

Checking in at 8.20am its membership stood at a staggering 110,847.

That is 110,847 individuals who are confident enough to attach their name to a public statement saying that they want to see the Liberal Democrats in office.

If you wonder what that means, try these figures for comparison, each checked just after 8.30am:

  • Official Conservative Facebook page 50,794
  • Official Lib Dem Facebook page 45,189
  • Official Labour Facebook page 25,658

There is nothing quite so rewarding as seeing people speaking up and refusing to be told what to think and what to believe. With 16 days until polling day, who knows how many will end up joining the Rage Against the Election?

http://www.libdem2010.com/

What is certain is that you would need to be very naive indeed to underestimate the role played by new media and internet technology in this election.

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For many of us involved in politics, Rupert Murdoch represents all that is wrong with the shadowy commercialisation of news. His Fox News Network happily admits its bias as this quote from Scott Norvell, Fox News’s London Bureau Chief in 2005, reminds us:

“Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally, and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly. And those who hate us can take solace in the fact that they aren’t subsidizing Bill’s bombast; we payers of the BBC license fee don’t enjoy that peace of mind.

Fox News is, after all, a private channel and our presenters are quite open about where they stand on particular stories. That’s our appeal. People watch us because they know what they are getting. The Beeb’s institutionalized leftism would be easier to tolerate if the corporation was a little more honest about it.

Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally, and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly. And those who hate us can take solace in the fact that they aren’t subsidizing Bill’s bombast; we payers of the BBC license fee don’t enjoy that peace of mind.

Fox News is, after all, a private channel and our presenters are quite open about where they stand on particular stories. That’s our appeal. People watch us because they know what they are getting. The Beeb’s institutionalized leftism would be easier to tolerate if the corporation was a little more honest about it.”

With that in mind, it’s incredibly  refreshing to find former Sun editor David Yelland writing thoughtfully about the implications for the media’s relationship with politics, should this current upheaval in public opinion continue:

“The fact is these papers, and others, decided months ago that Cameron was going to win. They are now invested in his victory in the most undemocratic fashion. They have gone after the prime minister in a deeply personal way and until last week they were certain he was in their sights.

I hold no brief for Nick Clegg. But now, thanks to him – an ingenue with no media links whatsoever – things look very different, because now the powerless have a voice as well as the powerful.”

If you have the time, read his article.

It poses some very important questions for those who purport to report the news, when privately their interests dictate that they seek to make it.

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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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