Archive for the 'General' Category


Away from Trump/Brexit/Antisemitism Sean Fear on the perils of running a pub

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

It’s Time to Scrap the Beer Tie

Over the years, several clients have instructed me to help fulfil their lifetime’s dream, by purchasing a pub. My usual advice is “Don’t, but if you must, for Heaven’s sake, buy a freehold.” Running a pub successfully is one of the hardest jobs one can do. One has to manage temperamental staff, satisfy demanding customers who have plenty of alternative ways of spending their money, fulfil endless regulatory requirements, and deal with suppliers who are frequently unreliable. All in the face of supermarkets selling cheap booze, and the smoking ban. Turning a profit as a pub landlord requires a working week of at least 60 hours, and taking these hours into account, you probably won’t earn more than the minimum wage in any event.

But it can be far worse than that. You can fall into the hands of a Pub Co. A Pub Co. is a species of predator whose business model can best be called the parasitic wasp method of capitalism. There are thousands of species of parasitic wasp, that lay their eggs in a host. The eggs hatch and eat the host alive, over the course of several days. Eventually, the host dies, and the young wasp emerges from the empty husk of its victim. A Pub Co. operates similarly. It buys numerous pub freeholds, before then luring the unwary into signing long leases that will bleed them dry. The unfortunate lessee will be forced to purchase beer and other drinks from the Pub Co., or its nominated supplier, at up to twice the market rate. If he purchases from someone else, in breach of the tie, he will face a hefty fine from the Pub Co. If he challenges the behaviour of the Pub Co., he will face threats of litigation from a very expensive firm of solicitors.

Win or lose, the terms of his lease will require him to pay the Pub Co.’s legal costs on an indemnity basis. Alternatively, he may find that the Pub Co. refuses to deliver on time, alienating his customers.

In contrast to most business leases, a lease from a Pub Co. takes into account the profitability of the pub, when reviewing the rent; in principle,  that could work to the advantage of a tenant if profitability declined. However, a typical rent review clause will be upwards only, so the tenant bears the risks of a decline in profits, but has to share the gain with the Pub Co. if profits increase. Moreover, If he tries to sell the lease, his lease may first require him to offer it to the Pub Co. at a discount to the open market value. If his lease does allow him to sell it to a third party, he can expect the Pub Co. to cause him maximum difficulty, before offering to take it off his hands at a discount. At the very least, he can expect to pay all sorts of administrative charges, and a hefty solicitor’s fee for dealing with the assignment.

None of this is theoretical. Every One of the examples I have given in the preceding paragraph has been experienced by my clients. One, who was the tenant of a historic pub in a city centre, lost £600,000 over the course of ten years, in large part, due to the behaviour of her Pub Co. landlord. This client is a millionaire, and so can absorb the loss. Most tenants are not so lucky.

Pub Cos. emerged, paradoxically, because of the Thatcher government’s efforts to deregulate pubs in the late Eighties. Historically, pubs were divided into freeholds (or free houses) which could purchase alcohol from any source; managed houses, owned and run by breweries, which largely stocked their products, and tied houses, owned by breweries, let to independent landlords, but tied to the brewery in terms of the products it could sell. The government sought to limit the number of tied houses which any brewery could own, so that many pubs were then put up for sale. Pub Cos. bought up many of these pubs, which they then let out on highly unfavourable terms. The booming property market between 1996 and 2007 meant that from their point of view., there was no downside to seeing their tenants fail. They could always apply for planning permission to convert the vacant pub to residential use.

Back in 2009. The Commons Business and Enterprise Committee published a damning  report on Pub Cos.,  which concluded “We believe that the supply ties operated by Pub Cos. may well be anti-competitive and may have a detrimental effect on the public house market.” The issue is again being considered by a Select Committee, but really, it’s time to treat the beer tie as the restrictive practice which it is, and abolish it for tied houses.

Why should this matter politically? I suggest three reasons:-

Firstly, rapacious business practices are undermining public faith in capitalism. This is just another sordid example, to be added to the examples of unethical business practice that have emerged since the Great Financial Crash.

Secondly, pubs matter to a lot of people. In many rural areas, they are important social centres. When they close, the village suffers.

Thirdly, it would be a quick win for an unpopular government. Drinkers and pub tenants would welcome it. Pub Cos. would howl, but how many of the public will care what they think?

Sean Fear


Hubristic Overreach – what happens to dominant parties

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

From ex-LAB MP and longstanding PBer Nick Palmer

It’s pretty widely-believed that politicians are all in it for themselves – the fame, the money, the sense of power. On the whole, that’s not true in most democratic countries. Fame is a double-edged sword: the media will build you up and then tear you down. If you’re good enough to get a Cabinet salary, you’re good enough to earn more for less work outside. And few retired politicians report that their experience was one of untrammelled power – most report perpetual frustration alleviated by short periods of achievement.

No, initially most people take up politics because they want to make a difference, overused phrase though that may be. More freedom, more equality, more national independence, more prosperity – the objectives vary, of course, but the spirit is surprisingly similar. That’s why you get enduring cross-party friendships: at heart there are kindred souls on the other side. Later on, though, you may start to think that what it’s all about is really just winning, so you can do Good Stuff. And that’s where you sow the seeds not just of cynicism (“What do I need to pretend to believe so I can win?”) but of hubris.

Why? Because the eternal compromise and difference-splitting and settling for quarter-measures go against the grain. You feel you need to go along with them, because otherwise the other lot will get in, and that would be terrible. But democracy forces parties to compromise with the electorate, making just enough concessions to popular preference to get a majority. On the whole, that’s a good thing, even remembering the fickle nature of many not very interested voters. But if you went into politics to achieve great change, it’s tantalising.

What, though, if you think you’ll win anyway? You are X% ahead in the polls, your opponents are divided, your personal ratings are well ahead. Well, then, it’s the chance to do the job properly, implement all those things you fancied in your most ambitious days. Why not sort out retirement care with a new system of charges, Mrs May? Why not impose an escalating fuel duty to wean people off petrol, Mr Brown? Why not send the Armed Forces to help sort out the situation in Iraq, Mr Blair? Why not slash taxpayer spending on public services, Mrs Thatcher?

Now look across the Atlantic. The Republicans control all the major levers of power, and may well continue to do so after the November elections. Why not take the opportunity to reverse Roe vs Wade? Why not really do the job of getting rid of any kind of universal health care?

Because it’s Hubristic Overreach. You can get away with it for a while, if you start in a dominant position, because voters aren’t paying that much attention. But at some point they notice, and they think, “Hang on a moment, that’s not what I voted for.” They protest, but the momentum carries you on. It’s the Right Thing to Do. They’ll appreciate it in the end. And they’ll never vote for the other lot, the polls are clear, aren’t they?

But polls measure what voters think today, not tomorrow. And, sooner or later, people get fed up. They may not vote for the alternative, but they stop voting for you. Keeping you in power has gone to your head, and it’s time to stop supporting you, even if it means giving the other lot a chance.

Conservative Republicans hope they can maintain an absolute grip on Congress in November, so they can move decisively to roll back the vestiges of liberalism. Brexiteers hope for a clear, hard Brexit, to achieve the great triumphs of freedom from tiresome European entanglement.

They should be careful what they wish for. At some point, people will pay more attention, probably in the middle of an election campaign. They notice that you’re in the grip of Hubristic Overreach. And at that point, it’s too late to rediscover the reasons why you used to compromise.

Nick Palmer


The language of priorities. What we talk about when we talk about infrastructure

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

Infrastructure is a grand word.  Politicians use it with a grandiosity to match.  Ever since Augustus boasted that he found Rome made of brick but left it made of marble, rulers and politicians have most prized projects that leave a lasting impact on the minds of their subjects.  You can’t blame them.  There’s a glamour about a plutonium-powered hyperloop that impresses the general public in a way that upgrading the sewerage or incremental improvements to public wifi speeds will never manage.  So if you’re a politician looking for electoral bang for your buck, you’re going to look for something with as high a public profile as possible.

The needs of politicians are not necessarily the same as the needs of the country.  For example, Harold Wilson no doubt thought that securing victory in the Hull North by-election merited the pledge to build the Humber bridge.  Its value as an infrastructure project, however, is questionable. 

The finite resources of government provide a curb to the vote-buying antics of politicians.  They also require politicians to choose where to invest in infrastructure: unlike the caucus race, not everyone can have prizes.  There are going to be winners and losers.

Both questions – where to invest in infrastructure and which projects – can be and are analysed by reference to economic return.  These figures are much considered in private and barely discussed in public.  Why?  Because the answers they produce are extremely awkward politically.

How so?  Well, Vulcan logic tells you that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  That means that projects in areas where the many are found are almost inevitably going to look like a better bet.  Similarly, projects in areas which are economically thriving are often going to be easier to justify on economic grounds because the greater initial economic wealth of the area requires only a small uplift from the project to count, while a much poorer area might require a far bigger uplift from a project to get to the same absolute level of improvement.   

So we would expect, all other things being equal, for London in particular to do very well indeed out of infrastructure projects, other large successful cities to do well too and for large poor sparsely-populated areas like the north east to do poorly.  And that is, pretty much, what we get to see.  There’s a reason why Heathrow’s new terminal is being given the go-ahead at the same time that the train network in the north is in chaos.  There’s a reason why Crossrail 2 is on the agenda at a time when the TransPennine Express upgrade is apparently being shelved.  Economically, developing infrastructure to support London should be the overwhelming priority for Britain.  Successive governments have tacitly accepted that priority.

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.  This is good scripture but bad politics.  So you get regular justifiable complaints about the metropolitan bias of infrastructure projects (and silly comments like the tweet from IPPR North, who really should know better).  An economic approach which focuses on single projects will inevitably tend to concentrate infrastructure spending in London and other successful cities.

This cycle can only really be broken if government looks at projects not just on a piecemeal basis but as part of a wider development plan for an area.  There are plenty of past examples of the government trying to do this.  This is the thinking behind the introduction of metropolitan mayors, of the Northern Powerhouse and development areas in general.  With few exceptions – ironically, the obvious one, Docklands, being in London – these have not been pursued so far with sufficient consistency and sense of purpose to be effective.  At best they have broken the fall.

If no action is taken, economics will in practice ensure that by default infrastructure spending will be focused on the successful areas of Britain in general and London in particular.  Success will breed success.  Less talked about, failure will breed failure.  Poor rural areas and smaller towns can expect to be left behind.  They already have been.

What can be done?  If allocated infrastructure budgets are not just administered but controlled at a regional level, we have the prospect of revitalising those regions.  As already noted, the metropolitan mayors no doubt hope to achieve exactly that – they all have a 30 year investment fund.  Whether that is enough to turn things around, time will tell.  The Northern Powerhouse seems to be falling by the wayside as a project.  This threatens to be a serious missed opportunity to galvanise a part of the country that could sorely do with a protective coating to prevent further rusting.

That also leaves a lot of areas – a majority of the country – which are having their infrastructure needs dealt with on a piecemeal basis.  As things stand, their decline looks almost inevitable.  If you don’t live in or near a successful large city and you don’t live in a tourist area, the government is failing to prepare for you.  So you should be prepared to fail.

Alastair Meeks


Teams from Remain areas once again dominated the Premiership and it will be even more the case next season

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Yet again sides from Leave areas get relegated

The 2017/2018 English Premier League season came to an end yesterday and the above chart shows the final rankings linked to the Brexit referendum Remain shares.

As can be seen the top half of the table is almost totally made up of sides from places where there was a high Remain vote while the bottom is dominated by team where Leave did best.

With three Leave area sides being relegated to be replaced by possibly two from Remain areas the trend will be even more striking.

In its own way this very much reflects the Remain-Leave divide that exists and continues to overshadow our politics. Inevitably the top most financially powerful teams are in the big metropolitan area while the weaker teams are in smaller centres which are less wealthy.

In the 2016/17 the Premiership was made up of ten sides from leave areas and ten from remain. That moved to an eight-twelve split in the current season which could be six-fourteen from August.

Mike Smithson


The Palace is laying the groundwork for a Regency

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

The Queen won’t abdicate but she might still retire

The beauty of the Commonwealth lies in its pointlessness. Far from being a hindrance, the fact that it doesn’t have a purpose is a feature, not a bug. No-one is being swept along by ‘the Project’ and rarely does anyone expect anything from the two-yearly get-togethers – and that lack of clear agenda, combined with an informal atmosphere with leaders parted from advisors and officials, is what can create the space to nudge international discussions on one topic or another in a positive way – such as the focus today on addressing poor vision among the world’s poor. The meetings are in that sense rather like a working funeral, except without the need for a death.

This one, as well as the generalised statements of intent, did take a decision: to appoint the Prince of Wales as its next Head, in due course – an ambiguity we’ll come back to. Such a decision was necessary because the role isn’t officially hereditary: a technical nicety the media have fixed on while ignoring two more important aspects of the story. Firstly, the timing. There was no need to appoint Charles (or anyone) today. With most jobs, the normal process is to wait for a vacancy and then decide who’ll fill it. The variance from that norm here is worth commenting upon. And secondly, the Queen herself openly lobbied for the role to remain tied to the crown. When someone who for over sixty years has studiously avoided any public political involvement chooses to proactively engage in a political process, we should take notice.

In fact, the tie to the Crown might not be quite so tight. This is where it might get intriguing. I wonder whether she might be planning on retiring from the Headship of the Commonwealth. While it is undoubtedly a role that means a lot to her, it’s also one that she’s not really able to physically fulfil. She hasn’t made an overseas visit since 2015 (to Malta) and is unlikely to do so again. While she can – and does – send her children and grandchildren abroad to represent her, it’s not quite the same.

    Now that the succession as Head of the Commonwealth has been assured – and because that role isn’t officially tied to the Crown, so could be given up by her without it impinging on her coronation vows – she could stand down and formally hand it over, while still remaining queen.

To do so would obviously be a huge marker in a transition process. Yet that’s a process that’s been underway for some time and with good reason. Today is the queen’s 92nd birthday. It’s easy for our familiarity with her on our TV screens and internet pages to obscure that fact but she is a very old lady whose job requires her to work hard. Certainly, she has a lot of support in her duties and in her private life, and she seems in good physical and mental shape. Even so, she’s at an age where the average person has long since retired. Indeed, she’s at an age where the average person has been ten years dead.

The general assumption is that retirement is not an option: her coronation oath is literally sacrosanct, as, to almost the same degree, is the promise she made on turning 21 to devote her whole life to the people of Britain and the Commonwealth. However, that devotion can take a number of forms and none of her vows explicitly prevent her from handing standing aside, should the burdens of office become too great. Indeed, arguably, they could be said to require it.

We are not at that point now but I do think plans might be being put in place to at least make it an option in the future. After all, if Prince Philip can retire, and if several monarchs from across the world, from Spain to Japan, can do so, why not her too?

What won’t be on the table is abdication. Apart from the connotations with Edward VIII, there would be too much of a problem with Commonwealth countries: each one would require an Act of Parliament to alter the succession in that manner. By contrast, the ‘soft retirement’ option of a regency need only affect Britain: the queen’s role is carried out in all her other realms by the relevant governor-general, something which could happily continue irrespective of her personal status. There are, of course, negative associations both with a regency and a Prince Regent too but events would overcome the former while the latter title need not be used.

Whether or not such an arrangement comes about, it seems clear that the transition of royal duties is accelerating. When the next CHOGM takes place in Rwanda in 2020, I would not be at all surprised to see Prince Charles open it as Head of the Commonwealth, irrespective of whether he is yet king or not.

David Herdson


Into the political void opened between Brexit Tories and Corbynite Labour there came … no-one

Saturday, April 7th, 2018

What’s happened to the Others?

“Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government!” David Steel’s rather premature exhortation to his activists at the 1981 Liberal Conference is remembered – to the extent that it’s remembered at all – as a classic example of over-optimism verging into hubris. It shouldn’t be. For a brief moment, there really was a genuine chance that the old Lab-Con dominance had been broken. At the last poll before the conference, the SDP-Liberal Alliance had pushed the Conservatives into third place; by the end of the year, they would record an astonishing 50.5% with Gallup.

As we know, that surge would prove ephemeral – they were already on the slide before they were overwhelmed the next year by the Falklands factor – but when the Alliance score settled down, it did so into the low-20s that would be a decent benchmark for the Lib Dems through to the point when they finally succeeded in entering government. It did, however, prove that there were a huge number of people willing to support parties other than the old Big Two, even if in the end they didn’t actually do so.

Furthermore, as the years went on, and other parties such as the Greens, UKIP and the SNP became stronger, the narrative of the breakdown of the Two Party System became an acknowledged truth. By 2010, the share of the two big parties was down to 65%.

And then something odd happened: the smaller parties suddenly lost half their votes. That of itself wasn’t all that odd: the combination of the Coalition and Brexit was always likely to prove extremely challenging for Lib Dems and UKIP respectively.

No, the odd thing is that despite the political world moving on at an unusually rapid pace, despite Labour being led by an over-promoted rebellious far-left backbencher, and despite the Tories being headed by an chief administrator rather than a leader, Labour and the Conservatives continue to poll 80-85%. Even with all the opportunities of those circumstances, the rest have made no impact as all.

Why so? One obvious answer remains that the other parties remain unusually irrelevant. UKIP might have been struggling for a purpose even if it weren’t so chaotic and rudderless – though we shouldn’t be too certain on that point: the government’s Brexit is likely to take longer, cost more and be softer than many Leave voters would have liked. A well-run UKIP could have made something of that, though it wouldn’t have the same potency as advocating Leave itself; Europe remains a niche subject.

And just as the Tories have adopted UKIP’s central policy, so the Greens have found Labour tanks all over their lawn (and one or two of Michael Gove’s too). It’s not at all obvious what Caroline Lucas offers that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t.

But the biggest conundrum is the Lib Dems. As in the 1980s, the drift of the two larger parties to their respective outer wings should be an opportunity for them, yet their poll rating has more-or-less flatlined at around the 7% they scored at the 2017 election. The Coalition might be part of that explanation but at best it is only part of it. From around December 2016 through to the end of April 2017 – after the general election was announced – the Lib Dems averaged around 10-11%. This was in the same May/Corbyn/Brexit/post-Coalition era we’re in now (apart from the collapse of UKIP: that didn’t happen until the 2017 election was called). If people were being attracted back to the Lib Dems then, it can’t be that a legacy of the Coalition is putting them off now; we have to conclude that it’s some other pull factor keeping them with the Tories or Labour, or some new push factor keeping them from returning to the Lib Dems again – or both.

We can explain a good deal of the Lib Dems’ decline during the 2017 campaign in terms of voters who’d previously defected from Labour returning to that party. What’s harder to explain is why neither they (nor other members of Labour’s coalition), nor Tory voters from 2017 have switched since. Apart from in a few pockets, it seems that Tory Remainers have gone straight to Labour, despite Corbyn’s own ambivalence to Brexit (and indeed, his other policies). The unexpectedly quiet leadership of Vince Cable can’t have helped.

Perhaps also, the changed nature of the Lib Dems is also a factor. It’s been much remarked that more than half of Labour’s membership has joined since 2015, so changing greatly the internal dynamics of that party. But the same is true of the Lib Dems too. I wonder whether the new members are not the same sort of pavement politicians who traditionally built up the Lib Dem profile locally, and that the enhanced membership numbers isn’t translating into community action.

    For all that, I don’t think it can go on. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum – and a big gap in the centre with the Lib Dems on 7-8% is near-enough a vacuum. What I’m not so sure of is what fills it.

One possibility is that the Lib Dems themselves do, for which they’d have to win votes from both Tories and Labour.

Another is that in a re-run of the 1980s, a new SDP breaks off from Labour: that’s far from impossible but nor should we get carried away by speculation. Emotional and practical ties bind MPs of all parties to their movement.

A third possibility is that the Tories make a pitch for the ground. For all the talk of the Tories heading to the right, when it comes down to it, there’s only really Brexit which stands that contention up; on domestic and fiscal matters, the Tories are, if anything, drifting left. If May or her successor can make good on the intentions she laid out when she entered Downing Street, it’ll impress a lot of centrist floating voters – though that means not getting too distracted by Brexit or allowing it to undermine taxes excessively, as well as tackling and making progress on difficult and ingrained social problems.

And the final (and least likely) possibility is that Labour does, as Blair did. It might seem implausible now given the left’s ascendency but sometimes the wheel turns quickly and one thing about short-term members is that disillusion can easily turn to departure, from where many things become possible.

The problem is that none of these look particularly likely and yet surely something has to give, somewhere.

David Herdson


A message to political leaders – Remember, you are mortal.

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Curiously, the reasons why some political leaders fall from office is linked to what was once their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Callaghan’s closeness to the unions was seen as one reason why he (rather than the confrontational Heath or strident Castle) would be better able to reach a workable accommodation with them, to the country’s benefit. Having undermined the “In Place of Strife” proposals it was poetic justice that it was the unions’ behaviour which destroyed his (and Labour’s) USP, forever associating the Callaghan premiership with the Winter of Discontent. Similarly, Thatcher – a politician priding herself on speaking up for ordinary taxpayers – was brought down her hubristic refusal to understand the outrage and sense of unfairness which the poll tax (an attempt to protect her beloved ratepayers) engendered.

And so to two apparently very different politicians: Blair and Corbyn. Blair’s USP was that he seemed like a trustworthy “one of us” ordinary guy, able to understand the desire for a nice house, better car, foreign holidays, unthreatening to those with assets and comfortable with the modern globalising world. Out with beards, scruffy dressing, Conference motions and old-fashioned socialism. In with branding, pledge cards, multi-culturalism and investment in public services. In the words of Rupert Everett, we could now enjoy “all-day drinking in our burkas”. Blair may not have been Labour born and bred (no Welsh mining valleys for him to reference in his rhetorical flourishes) and was perhaps more admired than loved but he was a winner.

And yet, even then, there were signs that he was rather more evasive, more slippery, less trustworthy than the image so carefully created and nurtured. When questions were raised about whether Labour policies had been changed to suit one of the party’s funders, he told us that people thought he was a pretty straight sort of guy. And then he confirmed to us that he was indeed such a guy.

He was satisfied he was honest so no reason for any of us to question the truth of what he told us. And, indeed, no-one did and anyone who tried was simply not listened to. But in that indomitable self-belief lay the hubris which eventually brought him down.

Even more worryingly, the cult of Blair – the belief that he was a winner, that there was no alternative – and that any questioning of his policies and motives was unacceptable – meant that when, finally, Blair’s beliefs finally met reality (in the Iraq war, the revelations of how the intelligence dossier had come about, the unquestioning support of the US, the apparently casual approach to the war’s legality) the betrayal and loss of trust was (and is still being) felt all the more keenly.

Corbyn’s view of Labour and personal style are diametrically opposed to Blair’s vision. His USP is socialism, old-fashioned campaigning and a principled – and very British – concern for the underdog and oppressed. It is this last which, his supporters say, explains his unfortunate tendency to be so often found in the company of or supporting those with some very unpleasant Fascistic, even Nazi-like, views, situations from which he requires the sort of careful extraction usually reserved for unexploded WW2 bombs found decades later.

In truth, Corbyn’s sympathy for the oppressed is a very qualified one. His sympathies are engaged most actively when people are oppressed by those he dislikes most. And those he dislikes most are Western imperialists and colonialists. A cynic might say that it is really the oppressor which matters to him not the victim. (The former can do nothing right; the latter nothing wrong.)

Like most politicians, he believes in dialogue with even the most unpleasant of opponents (Putin, Assad) and with anyone in order to achieve peace (hence his meetings with Hamas, a designated terrorist organisation) but curiously this privilege is not extended to those he disagrees with (“criminal” Israeli politicians, in his words, for instance). There was little sympathy for the Yazidis or Syrian or Iraqi Christians or those children poisoned by Assad or those oppressed by the Taliban. Nor in earlier years for Northern Irish Protestants killed by the IRA or Jews killed by Palestinian terrorists nor for Bosnian or Kosovan Muslims oppressed by Serbs and (eventually) rescued by Western imperialists. Still, the country has had enough of foreign interventions and Corbyn’s refusal to agree that the UK must always intervene and follow the US’s lead is popular and may also on occasion be right, however mixed or morally dubious his motives may be.

Like Blair in his prime, Corbyn’s followers will brook no dissent, no criticism, no scepticism, no forensic scrutiny. Corbyn is a good man and therefore there must always be an explanation which exculpates him, even if it makes him look like a simpleton who cannot see or read or understand what is in front of him.

The alternatives – that he may not be quite as good as he – or his supporters – think, that he can be as evasive and untruthful as most politicians or that even good men do bad things are not to be borne. The latest row about Labour anti-semitism is fundamentally seen as a PR issue, to be cured by statements rather than actions, let alone a smidgen of self-criticism or changed behaviour.

Does this matter? Probably not, electorally at least. As Mr Weinstein might ruefully observe, moral compasses are not needed by the powerful or those on a winning streak. And they can be seen as an unhelpful irrelevance to those keen for a change of government.

Corbyn dominates his party; he has been more electorally successful than many imagined; he may well end up PM. Who needs criticism, especially from those who are not true believers?

But the risk is that one day – like the Blair his party no longer cares for – his self-belief, his Nelsonian blind eye to any faults in those he campaigns for or alongside, his flexible principles, his faithful supporters’ aggressive silencing or cowing of critics, his Chamberlain-like belief in the value of dialogue even with those acting in bad faith may come face to face with reality and prove his and the Labour party’s undoing. And, possibly, the country’s.



MPs’ proxy voting can and should go further

Saturday, March 10th, 2018

Catering for extended absences would mean fewer by-elections though

Parliament took another small step towards the 21st Century last month, when it voted without opposition to allow MPs who are new parents to nominate a colleague to cast proxy votes on their behalf, meaning that they can more meaningfully take maternity or paternity leave without having to worry too much about the effect that doing so would have on the government’s majority.

Some might argue that MPs occupy an unusual position that’s not comparable to normal jobs; that they are elected by their public and have not only a mandate but also a duty to represent their constituents. As such, giving their vote to a colleague abdicates that responsibility and undermines democracy.

There is a little in that argument but surely the stronger point is that parliament should ideally represent the country at large. Two under-represented groups are women and the under-35s and making Westminster more family-friendly might address some of the structural reasons that result in those imbalances.

However, if parliament is going to consider the principle that someone who wasn’t elected to represent a given constituency can cast votes on behalf of the MP who was, why limit it just to sitting MPs? After all, much of an MP’s job is done outside the voting lobbies – receiving and responding to constituency mail; tabling questions, amendments, EDMs and so on; speaking in the Chamber; serving on Select and other Committees. Some of those roles could be filled by either the MP’s office acting on an understanding of what the member would want, and for the larger parties, many points that a given MP might make could likely be made by a colleague but that needn’t be true for smaller parties, for example.

Also, why limit the proxy system to just parental leave? Sheffield Hallam effectively went without an MP for several months when Jared O’Mara went on what amounted to a self-declared long-term sick. His case might have been a little unusual in its specifics but it’s far from unknown for MPs to function at far below the normal capacity due to illness, particularly where it’s a terminal one but also when the MP might be recovering from a serious accident, illness or other medical event. On the one hand, their constituents deserve representation; on the other, it simply might not be possible or if it is, it might be unreasonable to expect it.

One argument would be that MPs in such positions should resign and let someone who can do the work take over. But such a case ignores both a basic humanity and also practical politics. MPs are unlikely to resign where they think their party might lose the seat – especially when the numbers in parliament are poised as the currently are. Also, where the MP recovers, or expects to, it’s both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect him or her to resign.

It’s not unreasonable, however, for the voters to expect their voice to be heard in Westminster. How to square the circle? I’d suggest that it ought to be possible for an MP to nominate a substitute to act as a proxy, with full powers and for up to six months at a time, subject to a confirmatory vote in the Commons. That condition might give a little scope for mischief but there would have to be some sort of check on the system.

The limited proposals for parental leave are a good baby step in the right direction but they could, and should, go a lot further.

David Herdson