Saturday, May 14, 2005

A way out of the EU constitution problem?

With the French referendum vote too close to call, if you’re a pro-EU pessimist like me this is getting a tad too nerve-wracking. Given that Britain will almost certainly opt for a “No” vote in any referendum, the whole exercise of constitutional ratification also seems rather futile.

To turn Britain's vote around would have taken a long, sustained period of campaigning which simply hasn't yet materialised. Now there is too little time - especially as the campaign won't kick off until at least after Blair's managed to consolidate and work out his post-election position, and thanks to the European Parliament voting to overturn the UK's opt-out from the working time directive, looking like yet more Brussels meddling, if a referendum happens, Britain will vote no.

If Britain is the country that scuppers the EU's chances of advancing, it will be well nigh impossible to regain the trust of the other EU member states when it comes to matters of the Union. The constitution has already been watered down to become more acceptable to the UK, much to the chagrin of the French, and it would be pretty tricky to dilute it any further without making the bloody thing even more pointless and meaningless than it already is.

So, if Britain rejects a constitutional treaty seen in a number of quarters to be pandering to British Euroreluctance (which is, I reckon, a rather more accurate description of the prevailing attitude in the UK than Euroscepticism), it is going to be pretty damn difficult to get our voice seriously heard in any post-rejection negotiations for an alternative. The tendency on the continent will simply be to think "sod that - we've tried our best to keep the rosbeefs happy already, let's just ignore the reactionary bastards" and progress without us.

This could, actually, be the best thing for the EU. Dump Britain - we're shit, merely acting like a ball and chain around your proverbial ankle.

It would, however, as much as the more hardcore Eurosceptics in this country may celebrate, be a disaster for Britain. By sitting on the sidelines while the rest of the EU moves ahead, not only would we no longer be able to influence the future direction of the EU project (after all, why would you listen to the kid who doesn’t want to play while you’re charging around the playground with your mates?), but we would no longer be able to maintain that wonderfully privileged position we currently hold of being one of the big three of European politics while maintaining a modicum of distance.

It is Britain’s ability to be involved - but not too involved thanks to our avoiding joining the Eurozone - at the heart of the EU which attracts non-European powers to us as a broker. Yes, us speaking the same language as America helps, but does anyone really think it is just a coincidence that the closest relationships the UK and US have shared in the post-war period have been since Britain joined the European Community?

Up until the early 1970s, the US refused to give us long range nukes, buggered up our chances at Suez, and repeatedly neglected to inform us of its Cold War plans. They were a rival as much as a friend - but a rival with far more power and against whom we had absolutely no leverage. After joining the EEC, Britain finally had something to offer - a subtle means of communication and influence with Brussels and the western European states, most of whom - at the time - resented the presence of US troops on their soil and the fact that it would be their homelands which would see the brunt of the damage in any hot war that grew out of America’s standoff with the USSR. Today, the US wants (though still doesn’t need) European support on the international stage - and Britain is its ambassador.

This position would be impossible to maintain if we are no longer close to the centre of EU power which, no matter how much anti-EU voices may claim we have little ability to influence anything in Brussels, at the moment we - along with France and Germany - most certainly are.

I am not claiming that if Britain fails to ratify the EU constitution there will be an instant implosion. In fact, there will be bugger all in terms of immediate change to our situation. But those EU countries which wanted to push ahead will resent what would effectively have amounted to a veto on their chosen direction from the British people. The attitude will be, if Britain is the only country to vote against, “fine - they don’t want to join in, they don’t want to move forward, so we’ll press on without them.” This won’t be immediate. It will take a few years, as the constitution is redrafted and renegotiated. But it will come. Britain is already seen as a reluctant partner - rejection of the constitution will tip this feeling over the edge into outright resentment.

The best outcome, if you take this pessimistic view of the constitution’s chances, is for any country OTHER than Britain to vote “No”. France would be an ideal choice, as the resentment would then be focused on to her - and there has been a lot of resentment of the French within the EU ever since Paris managed to negotiate various preferential terms for French exports and industry in the Treaty of Rome. France has continued to hold an influence in excess of her size or economic might ever since the 1950s, and a French “Non” would simply make this even clearer to the other EU member states. They would see France as voting against to maintain her own power, not for the good of the Union - and in subsequent renegotiations, France would find herself with too much resentment and opposition to get her way, just as would Britain.

But there is promise of a better candidate to both halt the constitution AND prevent acrimonious post-rejection squabbling. The "No" camp in Holland is currently leading in the polls with 60% - compared to just 21% for the "Yes" camp. That's even worse than in Britain - and the Dutch referendum is less than three weeks away, on June 1st.

While the Netherlands may be small, it was one of the original six, so its reservations really couldn't be ignored. There is far less history of anti-EU troublemaking there than in Britain, and Holland has less to lose than France from the constitution's attempts to bring greater equality to the EU.

If Holland rejects, then the thing would actually be able to be reassessed in a rational, non-confrontational manner. It may be possible to finally take our time over this thing, and produce a blueprint for future change within the EU which is not only better, but clearer than the rambling vagaries of the current document. And, of course, Britain would not get the blame - which really should be the biggest consideration for anyone in the UK’s pro-EU camp.

If Britain is seen to bugger up the rest of Europe's chances, the anger and irritation towards us will be even greater than that experienced by us towards the EU this week when we got told we had lost one of our opt outs. If Holland does it, the surprise will be such that genuine reassessment will be possible. Fingers crossed for June 1st...

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Tories and the EU

When ARE the Tories going to realise that the hardcore anti-European fringe are not their way back to power?

The anti-EU parties (including here UKIP, Veritas, the BNP and the Greens, not all of which are by any means solely made up of disaffected Tories) between them got 1,109,987 votes. But I'd say it's a safe bet that most people voting for the Greens weren't doing so for their stance on the EU, so knock off their total, you're left with just 852,229. Though this is more than the difference (in terms of popular vote) between the Tories and Labour, it's nowhere near enough for a majority - just 68,000 votes. On top of that the anti-EU vote tends to be readily mobilised, so it's unlikely there are many more of them knocking around.

I mean, I can fully understand why the withdrawalists reckon leaving the EU is the answer to all their problems (and it's not just because some of them are barking), but the Tories really need to reclaim the positive side of the EU. I mean, after all, the EU got a lot of its impetus from Churchill, it was Macmillan who tried to get us in to start with, Heath who finally got us there, and Thatcher and Major who signed us up to a bunch of the subsequent treaties. Britain's place in Europe is thanks to the Tories - it's about time they reclaimed it, even if they have to do so with a slightly sceptical take.

A reserved pro-EU stance - acknowledging its major faults but with a positive message of evolution and change (which will be much easier to bring about with the new member states on board, tipping the balance of power away from France) - may not only be a handy way for the Tories to bring together their various sects, but is also what the pro-EU camp in this country sorely needs.

This could in turn bring back to the Tory fold some of the semi-sceptics - those who don't like the way the EU is currently being run, but who don't want to pull out altogether - while simultaneously allowing those who don't really care much about the EU but who are put off by the often massively overblown rhetoric of the anti-EU camps to vote Tory without worrying that they're going to be tainted by association. A lot of the reason for the repeated splintering of UKIP is that sensible eurosceptics simply didn't want to be associated with the more rabid variety. The Tories need to appeal to the sensible ones while shutting out the mad ones, and work together with those pro-Europeans (like me) who want to make the EU better.

It is frequently fogotten, amidst all the invective, that there is actually a lot of common ground between the sensible eurosceptics and sensible europhiles - both groups can see the problems with the current EU. The Conservative party could make itself the place where they can come together to work out solutions.

(Inspired by and originally a dashed-off comment to this post on The Sharpener by our New York correspondent, Third Avenue.)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Glenda Jackson is great

I am very glad she is still my MP, despite my not voting for her, and have just emailed her to that effect. Those members of the Labour party who have maintained their principles and have the guts to speak out in the face of yet another propaganda offensive from the Blairite core need the support not just of traditional Labour voters dissatisfied with the current leadership (and I am not one of those, having only ever voted Labour once before), but of all of us who value a healthy, accountable democracy.

An edited extract:

"May 5 will go down in history as the day when the myth of the great Blairite coalition was finally exposed. Tony was able to secure the support of 2 million fewer voters than Neil Kinnock did in 1992, the election that supposedly represents the crucible upon which New Labour was formed...

"Of course, it may well be that Tony Blair and those around him will be able to reach out to the disaffected. David Blunkett's savage attack on "the self indulgent" voters who expressed disquiet over trivial issues like the death of 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians may well herald the dawn of a new progressive centre-left consensus - but I have my doubts...

"The fact is that the process of renewing the party has to begin, and it has to begin today. Not in four years, not in two years, but now. Those who are calling for a "moment of calm reflection" should reflect on just how calm we will all be feeling in 12 months' time if the collapse in our national support is repeated at the local elections or in a Euro referendum.

"That process cannot be started, never mind completed, by Tony Blair. Renewal cannot be accomplished by someone whose authority and popularity are so visibly eroding. We must move forward, not back. The prime minister has spent his premiership distancing himself from his party. Now the time has come for him to leave it for good."

Yet more electoral reform stuff

I was at that meeting at the Commons last night run by the Electoral Reform Society, and in the pub afterwards for the freaky experience of meeting a few other Britbloggers in the flesh. Open Democracy has a good write-up.

It was interesting, attempted to be realistic, had some bizarre moments, and Committee Room 14 (where I once had the fun of shaking Gorbachev by the hand, and where the Parliamentary Labour Party did their best show of loyalty to Blair earlier in the day) was packed to the rafters.

The overall message was simply that we have to make our voices heard, and the best way to do that at this early stage is keep as non-specific as possible. No suggestions of specific systems, just vocally pointing out the flaws in the current one. Build up the grass roots, push for local election reform first, and hope it builds momentum.

A few key quotes I managed to jot down:

Polly Toynbee (sub-par Guardian columnist)

  • "gross distortion of the whole political process... you have to treat the electorate as if they were all idiots" (hadn't noticed from your columns, Polly...)
  • "for the moment what we need is a spirit of rebellion and revolutiion, the chartists, the suffragettes... money... huge demonstrations... from whatever side of the political process"
  • "Let's target every marginal seat with a member who doesn't support reform" (this coming from the woman who only last week was telling her readers they were idiots if they voted tactically to send a message to Blair about Iraq... Just a tad hypocritical...)
Billy Bragg (Lefty singer/songwriter/activist)
  • "there's a huge amount of tribalism out there" (hence The Sharpener - trying to break down the ideological divide to enable proper, open debate with none of the usual petty protectiveness over individual party / ideological loyalties)
  • "The Conservatives - how willing will they be to reform a system where a 1% extra share fo the vote gives them 30-40 extra seats? ...we can't kid them this is their way back to power"
  • "take every opportunity to move the constitutional debate forwards"
Martin Linton (Labour MP)
  • "people who were for the Labour government but not going to vote Labour... voting Green or Lib Dem in a constituency like mine does mean letting the Tories in" (he won after three recounts with a majority of just 163...)
  • "probably the worst voting system in the world... we voted for a shift to the left and ended up with a shift to the right... it is the least sophisticated voting system in the world"
  • "it has needed reform since the 1860s... you can't toss a coin between three people"
  • "of the people who voted Labour... 1 million said they were voting to keep another party our and 1 million Lib Dem voters said the same thing... so the popular vote is a very bad indication"
Chris Rennard (Lib Dem peer)
  • "the simple fact we have to explain is that 36% of the electorate voted and got 55% of the MPs in parliament"
  • "tactical voting is what a rotten and corrupt electoral system requires"
  • "it is absolutely not about keeping the Conservative party out"
  • "The House of Lords ironically is more representative of the country than the House of Commons" (too true - currently we need to reform the Commons before the Lords, I reckon - at least the Lords is doing its job properly)
Peter Tatchell (Gay/Human rights campaigner - speaking from the floor)
  • "We need to learn the lesson of history for how people win democracy - chartists, suffragettes - the leaders will not listen to rational arguments... it is necessary to take to the streets, breaking the law"
In short, interesting, but with little in the way of concrete suggestions. There's a vigil planned outside Downing Street on Tuesday 17th to coincide with the opening of parliament, but beyond that it looks like being a slow process.

Europhobia's Matt chips in via email:
PR won't get anywhere if it's just mocking Blair and the tories. If it does that it links it too much to the political situation of today, and circumstances will change. If the Labour Party dumps Blair after next May's elections, and the tories are still an ineffective minority (both of which are likely), what will we need PR for?

The rhetoric has to be timeless. This is about a better system for the next century.

For similar reasons, I wouldn't take up the Chartists and direct action- smacks too much of class politics. We need to get the Conservatives onside. All the debates around radicalism in the 1760s revolved around creating a parliamentary system representative of and answerable to 'the People' (handily never defined). Perhaps its time to revive John Wilkes and Major Cartwright. Pitt the Younger was a reformer early in his career, too, so there's one role model for the tories.

But I have a horrible feeling that any pro-PR campaign will end up like the pro-Euro campaign, staffed by true-believers for true-believers.
Splitting into factions is inevitable, as everyone has their own preferred systems (viz. the anti-European campaign, with UKIP splitting, splitting, then splitting again). So for the time being, any movement for reform has to avoid advocating any specific scenario.

Even the phrase "proportional representation" should, I reckon, be avoided - it summons up too many images of the loss of local representatives, strict proportionality by popular vote, a succession of chaotic and impotent coalition governments and the like, none of which are necessary outcomes of PR, but which are linked with it in the popular imagination.

The call is not for proportionality. The call is for fairness.

The working time directive business

It's big news, the European Parliament's vote (378 to 262) to remove Britain's opt out from the working time directive. But the focus has largely been on the fact that Labour's MEPs voted with the Socialist group in the EP rather than follow the party's official line, which was to maintain more flexibility. As this blog is nominally supposed to have a bit of an EU focus, have some:

There have been scare stories of understaffing and job cuts if a 48 hour maximum week is imposed, and scare stories of overworked and knackered doctors and firefighters and whathaveyous if it isn't.

To be honest, I can see the merits of both sides of the argument. No regulations on working hours and employees can continue to be exploited (a certain person sitting not too far from me being obliged by contract to work as many hours as are needed to get the job done - without overtime pay); regulations on working hours and overly keen employees who have the luxury of getting overtime may miss out on extra pay.

Tricky, though I am beginning to lean towards the opinion of the eurosceptic Scotsman on this one. I also reckon it should be more than possible to prevent employee exploitation without putting caps on the number of hours they can work via better regulation of other areas of employment contracts. Because, let's face it, when you're offered a job you'll often sign up for pretty much anything - if you don't, someone else will.

Britain now has to gain a bit of extra support from our EU friends to get the thing thrown out at the Council of Ministers and then it'll take three years to come into force, so it's not over yet. Perhaps by the time that it is I'll understand it all a bit better...

More at the European Parliament, EU Observer and The Financial Times. There's also a handy working time directive Q&A from the Guardian.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Voting and democracy and all that other guff (again)

Via The Sharpener, a particularly fine defence of abstaining from the whole damn mess at Stumbling and Mumbling:

"there's something irresponsible about voting. A vote means you're giving 100 per cent support to your candidate; there's no room on the ballot paper for caveats. Isn't it irresponsible to give unqualified support for someone whom you cannot recall for at least four years, and who - even if you sack him at the earliest opportunity - will get a big pay-off? And, what's more, if this MP imposes costs onto the electorate through his stupid votes, you'll bear no higher a burden of these costs than anyone else. That seems irresponsible to me."
Good point well made. There's a lot more that's dodgy about the British electoral system than merely the lack of correlation between popular vote and number of seats.

Why is it only an MP's party / constituency association which can sack him/her, not their constituents? Why do the central parties have so much control over candidates? Why is there no separation of powers? (Important sections of both the judiciary and the executive are STILL part of the legislature.) Why is our executive wholly unelected? (And they are - as members of the executive - the elected members of the cabinet have only been elected as MPs, just as Tony Blair has not been elected as Prime Minister, merely as MP for Sedgefield.) Why are the parties even allowed to use the whips to get people into line when they could well have been voted for by their constituents because their stance goes against the party's on certain issues?

The whole thing's a mess. The only thing that's working as it should is the House of Lords - and that's both been bastardised with little reasoning and is the one section of parliament most likely to see reform take place.

I may well pop along to that meeting tonight, if only so I can hear how massively confused everyone is about the whole thing.

Britain's nuclear future

Considering that ex-CND member Tony Blair seems to be making noises about getting hold of more nuclear weapons and building more nuclear power-plants, I'm quite surprised that this little bit of news hasn't had more airtime:

"A leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel dissolved in concentrated nitric acid, enough to half fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, has forced the closure of Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing plant.

"The highly dangerous mixture, containing about 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel, has leaked through a fractured pipe into a huge stainless steel chamber which is so radioactive that it is impossible to enter."
Christ... I mean, I'm all for having loads of nuclear power stations (efficiency, less pollution, potential to turn us all into superheroes etc.), but, erm... might it not be a good idea to make sure that our current ones are up to speed before we start pissing about with any more? Maybe we should be asking Iran for some pointers...

Reg Keys' Sedgefield speech

The certain highlight of election night was grieving father Reg Keys delivering a note-perfect speech having polled over 4,000 votes in Sedgefield against Tony Blair - the man he blames for his son's death (though it's nowhere near that simple - certainly not from Keys' point of view).

It was one of those speeches that the transcript does no justice to - it really had to be seen for the full impact to sink in, and seen in full - even the highlights can't give the full impression. The look on Blair's face - the combination of irritation, fear, genuine sympathy and humanity, and a constant awareness that the cameras were trained close on his face to catch every slight involuntary reaction to the razor-like barbs that were Reg Keys' perfectly-delivered, spot-on words.

This, Blair was fully aware, was footage that would crop up again and again in overviews of his time in office. This was his Thatcher crying in the back of the car moment, his John Major "the bastards" moment, his Bill Clinton "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" moment. He knew it would never go away.

But, coming as it did at ten to three in the morning, few were still up to see it live. Now, thanks to Dave of Talk Politics and Tim Ireland of Backing Blair and Bloggerheads, the full video is online (3.5mb .wmv file).

Watch, listen, watch Blair wriggle. Be satisfied with how uncomfortable he was, but be prepared to be uncomfortable yourself. This is a man talking about the senseless death of his 20 year old son. It is not easy listening. Blair's reactions also - almost - show that he may not be altogether beyond redemption.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

"Filthy Brussels Eurocrats back terror fund with taxpayers' money!"

is doubtless how this will be pitched by some of the more rabid on the Eurosceptic side, who are always happy to distort any positive EU news. And I can think of little that isn't positive in using some of the EU's fund to help the victims of terrorism to aid a family in their quest to track down their relative's killers.

By offering to help fund any civil action the McCartney sisters may take against members of Sinn Fein or the IRA suspected of involvement in their brother's murder, the European Parliament (for it was our elected officials, not the so-called Eurocrats - although this distinction often seems to be missed in certain quarters) could help not only avoid the need for direct British funding but also put even greater international pressure on Sinn Fein and especially the IRA.

Considering the high profile the McCartneys have managed to build, any court case would already have drawn interest, but now the attention of the whole of the EU will be caught up in it, as it is EU money funding this campaign against terrorists. They may not be the popular, dusky-skinned, desert-dwelling sort, and the murder may have been in a bar fight rather than a suicide bombing, but make no mistake, they are terrorists nonetheless.

This will, of course, at once be a long-overdue EU action on the Northern Irish situation at a critical time (now that the hardliners of both sides have increased their seats in the general election) and a handy bail-out for the UK justice system which may otherwise have ended up footing the entire bill. But I'm sure someone from the anti-EU camp will be up for trying to spin this to the EU's disadvantage anyway.

Either that, or they'll ignore it - just as the voters did the anti-EU parties on Thursday.

Wednesday Update: Sure enough, the ever-reliable Richard North of EU Referendum has tried to spin this against the EU - apparently the activities of a trans-national terrorist organisation based within one of the EU's member states is "none of its business". Genius. (Link fixed)

Wednesday update 2: Missed this - eurosceptic North Sea Diaries also has an anti spin, albeit a slightly more reasonable one - arguing that separation of powers should prevent the European parliament from meddling with the judicial process. This is actually almost a fair point - although it somewhat ignores the fact that the UK system doesn't actually have separation of powers, and seems to impy that a judge is going to be swayed by knowledge of where the funding of a civil action is coming from. This in turn implies that there should really be no state funding for any legal case lest the implicit support government money would suggest also affect due process... Still - a good effort...

More on PR



(See what I did there?)

The latter via Robin Grant. I may pop along - tomorrow 6:30pm, Committee Room 14, House of Commons.

Oh, and if you haven't yet, check out Jarndyce's rather special piece (fnarr fnarr...) on PR at The Sharpener, sign my petition thing, then sign Make My Vote Count's. Ta.

Internet's dodgy where I am at the moment - exploding HTML, ruptured php, instability in the scripts and rampant machete attacks in the electronic ether - hence lack of updates and being slightly behind with this. Sorry about that...

Monday, May 09, 2005

Has Labour found its Redwood?

Today's early edition Evening Standard (no, I didn't buy it, and no, there's currently no link to the story on the Standard's website) is carrying reports that London Labour backbencher John Austin is considering launching a leadership bid. Not through any belief that he's got a chance, but purely to force a proper challenge from some real big hitters.

Potentially interesting. Though let's not forget that John Redwood's opportunistic leadership bid against John Major in 1995 got precisely nowhere...

A clearer view of the election

This colour-coded map, comparing the results of the 2005 and 2001 general elections, gives a rather clearer indication of the way the country stands and how it has shifted in the last four years than any I've seen so far. Top work there from qwghlm. It also demonstrates quite amply how few clear-cut constituencies there now are, so - perhaps - how unfair the current FPTP system is.

In-depth analysis

Not from me, obviously - after over ten hours of liveblogging on Thursday night/Friday morning I've done my fair share of election coverage for now - but from Eddie of Left Out Liberal in a near-comprehensive series of posts, all jam-packed with insight, which starts with a bit of methodology. Probably best to leave this for your lunch break. Possibly tomorrow's lunch break as well. Somewhat in-depth, shall we say...

Sunday, May 08, 2005

A lazy weekend, can't be arsed kind of post

I've been in the pub all afternoon, watching a particularly dull Brighton/Ipswitch match and getting drunk, so read some other people's stuff.

The Sharpener is getting off to a fantastic start, which is very satisfying indeed. From the stuff that's been posted so far it's very hard to pick any particular highlights, because they're all good. Which was the point of the thing in the first place. Go read all of it.

Then, if you still have time on your hands, Tim Worstall, as ever, has a selection of top-notch reading matter from his latest Britblog roundup. Good stuff all over (and as I'm featured twice in the roundup, once here, once at The Sharpener, I guess I'm twice as good as everyone else. Hurrah!)

Right: coffee, newspapers, food then sleep. Ta ta.

Oh, I've also had a request for a link from Alan Ray-Jones of Politics - Where Now?. Haven't had a chance to check it much just yet, but the guy was apparently at the VE Day celebrations in London 60 years ago, so deserves a look at the very least.

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