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Winning Here!

A view from the doorstep: South Cambridgeshire edition.

I do love a tour. I also love free stuff. So, when my good friend Kirk Taylor promised me not only a whistle stop tour of the mayoral campaign for Rod Cantrill in Cambridgeshire plus the county council election campaign plus a much-coveted “Rod for Mayor” mug (as seen recently at the York Lib Dem Pint) I was very much in!

After a reasonable journey through the English countryside (via the M25 and M11) I arrived in a village called Sawston to meet Kirk. After a cup of coffee and a catch-up we wrestled what has to be the largest orange diamond in existence into the back of his Fiat 500 (no mean feat I can tell you) and off we went.

The biggest diamond in existence!

The biggest diamond in existence!

First stop was a bit of canvassing just up the road in Great Shelford. We were canvassing on behalf of Peter Fane and Brian “bar chart” Milnes as the other candidate in Sawston and Shelford, as well as Rod Cantrill as the mayoral candidate for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. We were knocking on the doors of postal voters and possible supporters, so the canvassing was very targeted. Finding people in was a challenge (but then it was the Bank Holiday weekend) however the response overall was good. I also was lucky enough to meet Peter as well as Alex, another member of the team. They carried on where we left off, proving that teamwork really does make the dream work.

The next stop was actually Waitrose for a spot of lunch! Then on to another village called Over for more lunch (well, a superb chocolate cake) and to catch up with Sarah Cheung-Johnson. She is a newbie who is standing in the county council by-elections for Longstanton and is one of the most inspiring candidates I have met in a long time. Inspired to join after the EU referendum last June; she is hard working, motivated and definitely one to watch for the future! Also, the large diamond we had shoehorned into the car was for her and it was good to pass it on.

Julian Huppert with Sarah Cheung-Johnson

Julian Huppert with Sarah Cheung-Johnson

The action day here (and they seemed to be happening all over Cambridgeshire that day) was a slick and organised operation. It was being hosted by another newbie called Anne. It is great to see so many new members getting stuck in and with such enthusiasm! We also bumped into former MP for Cambridge (and future MP with any luck) Dr Julian Huppert who was more than happy to pitch in and help with the campaign. The combination of new members and more experienced ones is great; it means that everyone learns something new and those of us who have been doing this for a while receive inspiration from the newbies who are always fired-up and ready to go!

After the obligatory campaign photos, we hit the village with Tom, a former councillor. Response here was a lot more positive; not only because people were in their homes which always helps, but those we were speaking to planned to vote for both Sarah and Rod! Local people here are unhappy with the way the Conservatives are running things and are certainly not happy with the prospect of a hard Brexit looming, therefore will not vote Conservative again on any level. Going out with someone who is well-known to local people is also a good boost; he was a face that everyone not only knew but were very happy to talk to. Tom is clearly still held in high regard which is heart-warming to see.

I left South Cambridgeshire filled with positivity and motivation. Everyone here wants to do well; they work well together as a team and are all in constant communication with each other. It is always great to visit a team that is organised, knows what they want to achieve and are willing to work across the division to achieve it. I was only sad not to catch up with John Berkeley-Grout who is another friend of mine working hard on the campaign team. I also did not get to meet the man himself; Rod Cantrill, however I suspect he was a bit busy elsewhere.

The man himself! Rod Cantrill.

The man himself! Rod Cantrill.

If you are at a loose end and fancy a day out in beautiful countryside twinned with some positive canvassing, then this would be a good place to be. From what I saw in Longstanton and Sawston we can easily win this one back from the Tories, but of course the team always need help. Especially as this was an area that only lost by 1% in the 2015 General Election, meaning that nothing should be taken for granted. Looking at recent polls in the local press, it would appear that Rod is the only alternative to the Conservatives in this area. I can promise a warm welcome, lots of positivity, beautiful countryside and maybe cake. I can’t promise a free mug though.

Some of the attendees at the Newhaven action day

A trip to Newhaven

I must be mad. On Saturday 8th April, all my friends were getting ready to enjoy the unexpected beautiful weather; group chats filled with beach days out, park trips, barbeques or even just the promise of a lay-in and a trip to the pub garden. Not for me; I had decided that the good weather was a great opportunity for a campaigning trip!

This week’s destination was Newhaven to help the team down in Lewes. In typical fashion I was running late (those that know me know I am always running late) but thankfully I could put my foot down on the motorway. I made it to Newhaven just a bit before 11am.

Sadly, my tardiness meant that I had just missed the morning rush. That was ok. This meant I had time to meet some of the team and chat about the campaign over a nice cup of coffee (essential) and some envelopes that needed addressing.

It was clear that this was a much larger operation than I am used to, certainly at council by-election level. I’ve planned and run Action Days in the past and they have been smaller affairs than this and I’ve attended quite a few in my (short) time too. So, it was comforting and motivating to know that around forty-five people had signed in so far and more were expected in the afternoon!

I think it is worth pointing out just how much work goes into planning and organising an Action Day. For starters, a hall had been hired and decorated. This made the perfect base for activists to swing by, update the team, get a cup of tea (and of course more leaflets), rest their legs for half an hour and get back out there! Banners and balloons adorned the outside; what better way to make your presence known in the town. Also, kids love balloons! Promoting the Lib Dems with a bright yellow helium balloon which can be tied to a pushchair or carried round all day is a great idea.

Inside was a hive of activity. Holding things down were Kelly-Marie Blundell as the Parliamentary Candidate for Lewes and George Taylor who was keeping an eye on all the available areas for leafleting and canvassing, ensuring everyone signed the sheet and taking plenty of all important pictures. There were other people also present to oversee indoor activities such as feeding and watering the troops (very important) and the addressing and stuffing of envelopes. The latter task is a great way to get involved if you don’t feel confident or able to get out on the streets. Anyone who has done it will tell you what a vital task this is as it frees up other people to get out and perform other tasks. Every contribution matters.

After a hearty lunch of soup and cake I hit the streets. I was with Newhaven candidate Sarah Osborne. She spoke passionately of neglect in Newhaven by the Conservative councillors and how cuts to the local budget had affected schools and roads in the area. Reception on the doorstep was mixed, however it was a great boost having a local councillor on the team as he was well-known in the area and able to drum up support where possible. I suppose this is where the excellent weather was counter-productive; the majority of residents were out enjoying the sunshine so we were unable to talk to them! However, quite a few that I had spoken to had genuinely not made up their minds yet and were receptive to Sarah’s message. I’m positive she will get a good result.

There are lots of great campaigns up and down the country right now. From mayoral campaigns to county campaigns to the parliamentary by-election up in Manchester Gorton; there is plenty for activists to get their teeth into. I am a bit nomadic by nature; I like getting out, meeting new people and doing something different. Believe me, campaigning outside of your local areas is different! I guarantee you will always learn something; a new skill or a new way of doing things you hadn’t thought of before for example. I can’t emphasise enough how great it also is to meet new people and make new friends. In addition, it’s extremely motivating for those on the campaign to see people who have come from miles away just to help out. I remember this from my own campaigns and this was confirmed by a few of the members upon hearing how far I had come.

My message to newbies and fellow activists is this; it pays to get out of your comfort zone and go somewhere new. You don’t have to travel as far as I do, there’s so much going on at present that there’s probably an active campaign going on in your next-door town (if you aren’t working on one already of course). To more established members: promote your action days wherever you can as you never know who may be able to help you out.

Overall this was a very positive day. The team down here are clearly extremely organised and very motivated. I suspect they will do very well come 4th May, however if you fancy coming down I’m sure they will be very grateful for the help. All that’s left to say is good luck, thanks for having me and thank you for making me feel so welcome!

culture

Westminster Wednesday: Political Culture

The institutions and challenges we have identified in previous weeks’ editions of Westminster Wednesday do not exist in a vacuum. They sit within and among us, and therefore our understanding of them – what they are, what they should do, where they came from – and so on, informs the way they operate, and how we respond to that. The concept of ‘political culture’ is one worth introducing here. Philip Norton defines it as “denoting the emotional and attitudinal environment within which a political system operates.” All of us exist within the UK’s political culture, and have been influenced by it – consciously and unconsciously. Here, we will look at two things – first of all, some of the influences on the process by which we acquire our political culture (this is called political socialisation) and secondly, some of the ways in which our political culture shapes our view of politics.

 

Socialisation

There are many places from which we, as humans, draw our understanding of how the world both is and should be. From our families, to teachers, friends, work colleagues, and beyond, we are all informed by the environment in which we live. In terms of how we understand politics, those listed above are important, but not exclusively so. Here, we will consider three key factors in the UK’s political socialisation process; class, location, and history.

The UK is a deeply class conscious society; as anthropologist Kate Fox noted “class pervades all aspects of English life and culture.” Class is, as Fox, Norton and others have observed, more than merely a function of how much you (or your family) earns; it is also a social statues, and has measurable impacts on our behaviour in everything from how we speak and dress, to what we do with our front gardens. Naturally, therefore, it shapes our view of politics. Traditionally, those of a working class background voted for the Labour Party, and those of a higher class background voted Conservative. But the class distinction also operates in terms of interest in politics – surveys have indicated that people of a lower social class report less interest in, and less optimism about, politics, than those of a higher class.

Secondly, our location plays a critical role in shaping our culture. On the grandest scale, there is a sheer geographic fact which shapes British political culture – that the country is an island (or series of islands), dwelling close enough to a major landmass to be unable to ignore it, but far enough away that it is able to rely on the sea as a means to be permanently distinct. Below that, we are confronted with an array of nations, regions and localities, each with their own identity. These identities are informed in part by their location within these islands – rural areas and urban areas have developed different value sets, different views on the importance of aspects of politics, based on their geography.

Finally, there is history. The history of the UK, and the countries that would form it, is told to us through a host of mechanisms – schools, the media, politicians, our families. We are told about the UK’s relationship with Europe over time, our relationship with monarchs and powerful leaders, our attitudes towards values such as liberty, justice, and peace. We are told about what we have fought for, built for, lived for – and so carried on in ourselves, and the world. Sometimes, we are told things that we are ashamed of now, as a warning to keep away from repeating past mistakes – more often, we are told things we should be proud of, things that are worth preserving. This is not just a lesson about old buildings or pieces of paper – it informs what we believe are politics are for, what makes them valuable, and how we can impact them.

 

Impacts

We can measure the impact of political culture in a host of ways; for now, we will focus on three key areas – its impact on problem solving, political systems, and co-operation. Each of these is a distinct area, with clear impacts on the way we, as the British, think about and “do” politics.

The UK’s approach to problem solving can be characterised as focused on the empirical, as opposed to the rational. Whilst this division was theorised by the Italian thinker Giovanni Satori, other writers such as George Orwell have identified this distinction that marks the UK out from its continental neighbours. What this means in practice is that the UK tends to justify things in pragmatic terms – that is, they’re good because they work, rather than they’re good because the theory is sound – and to look to policy issues when something goes wrong, rather than an overarching theme of the state, or democracy, or similar, to understand these issues. The UK is perhaps the clearest example of an empirical political culture anywhere in the world.

The British political culture towards its own political systems exists in a strange state of semi-deference, and semi-approval. Individually, the British often disapprove of the actions of their governments, or the way that the system is seen to respond to their expectations and demands. But, on the other hand, there is no significant effort to overturn the fundamental basis of the constitution, nor has one seriously been threatened in the UK since the end of the 17th Century. There have been changes, but the process is seen as incremental – and that is understood to be a good thing. Whilst the British political culture does not entail whole-hearted deference to, and approval of, its political system, it would be wrong to state that the British reject these systems.

Finally, the British conceive of their politics in terms of individual liberties. Here we see the history coming through strongly – a story about the UK’s attachment to individual freedom often begins with the Magna Carta of 1215, and may include such events as the Civil War and the Great Reform Act. British political culture places great emphasis on the right of individuals to go about their lives without what is seen as undue interference from the state, and this manifests itself in frequent angry resistance to government efforts to invade the privacy of citizens.

 

Stories

There is a caveat to all of this. Some of you will have read this, and immediately produced a red pen to correct my history or evidence here and there. But that in some sense is wrong – because political culture, like a nation, relies not on evidence to function, but on a common story. These stories aren’t necessarily true in an objective sense – Magna Carta was, for example, mostly concerned with restating existing land rights for nobles, rather than any kind of effort to establish some sort of widely held rights for the citizenry – but they are held to be one thing or another, and so become a part of the story.

This, here, is a truth that has been forgotten and uncovered again in recent months – politics, political culture, the very essence of a community – rely as much on stories and narratives as they do on objective, recoverable facts. We tell ourselves stories to give our communities a sense of higher, wider, nobler purpose than the cold light of day would seem to allow for. It might be comforting to some of you to image these fairy tales will blow away on the wind; but they remain critical to our lives, giving meaning and texture to the world around us. Without understanding them, the institutions that run our lives can seem arid and strange. Put them back into the picture, and context draws them into full life.

Throwback Thursdays: PPBs: And Now For Something Completely Different, Part 3.

 

This week is the final part of the Pythonology. John Cleese returned to Lib Dem PPBs in 1997 where he asked the voting public to help him with a problem.

According to polling at the time half of every voter surveyed stated that they would vote for the Liberal Democrats if they thought we could win. This, as Mr Cleese points out, leads to somewhat of a paradox.

Though not as energetic or informative as his two previous broadcasts, I wanted to include this particular one up as it also signals my own entry into the Lib Dem universe.

I remember watching this particular PPB live back when I was an eleven year old boy, and my understanding of politics had only just started to manifest. Whether the fact a member of Monty Python was trying to reach out to me as a non voting child could be attributed to my eventually becoming a Lib Dem, I cannot say. I would probably assume having a Grandmother who voted liberal her entire life might be the most important influence. However, it’s my oldest Lib Dem memory and the start of a long journey in politics.

Looking at the history, according to some within the inner circles of the Lib Dems at the time, there was at this time a possibility of a “progressive” alliance in parliament. With Labour, under the soon to be Prime Minster Tony Blair. After the subsequent Labour landslide of 1997, the Lib Dem’s services were no longer required and Labour governed alone.

But more, much more, was still to come.

local government

Westminster Wednesdays: Local Government

This week, Westminster Wednesday’s is on the UK’s system of local government. This is a complex component of the UK’s politics, and also an incredibly important one. UK local government employs well over 2 million people, and is responsible for 23% of all government spending (around £95 billion in 2015-16). Whilst in three of the nations of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is relatively simple in structure, in England it remains a perplexing mix of structures and powers. This post aims to try and provide an outline of local government, especially in England – by looking at its structure, and its powers.

Structure

The structure of British local government, as indicated above, varies between the various home nations. In three of them, the structure is relatively simple. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a single (principle) level of local government – 32 councils in Scotland, 22 in Wales, and 11 in Northern Ireland. In two of these – Scotland and Northern Ireland – councillors are elected using the Single Transferrable Vote system; whilst in Wales, the First Past the Post system is used (the same as is used for the House of Commons).

In England, the situation is more complex. To understand why, we need to recall a principle from the very first posts in this series – that of parliamentary sovereignty. Because Parliament has the ability to make or unmake any law, Parliament alone is responsible for the creation, redesigning, or removal of local authorities. Their boundaries, responsibilities, and financing is designed or set centrally. If Parliament wished to do so, it could remove all local government – but, given the important role that it plays in the running of the UK, that would be extremely unlikely! What Parliament has done, over many years, is continually give force to large-scale and repeated redesigns of UK local government. It was the Conservative government in the 1980s that gave Scotland and Wales their single-tier system of councils, for example. In England, however, the process has resulted in that more complicated picture.

In 1931, for example, England’s local government looked like this – a mass of local authorities, some very small, (very) broadly divided into two categories; boroughs, and counties. This was the result of a considerable reform process in the 19th Century, but after the war this system was under growing strain. It took until 1974 for a comprehensive review to be pushed forwards, resulting in these boundaries. The 1974 review was extremely comprehensive – everything that had existed before was swept away, and replaced with two levels of local government. At the top, there were counties, and below them were districts (in rural areas) and boroughs (in urban areas).

Unfortunately for people seeking to understand English local government, but perhaps fortunately for people such as myself and Jonn Elledge, this simple two-level system has not lasted to the present day. There were a myriad of problems created by the 1974 boundaries, summarised in two key ways – where the lines were drawn, and what the new authorities were called. For example, Humberside was regarded as a monstrous creation by the people on the north bank of the Humber – who considered themselves part of Yorkshire – and on the south bank, who considered themselves part of Lincolnshire. Other unpopular authorities included Cleveland and Avon – these were done away with in the 1990s. What replaced them, and other bodies such as Wiltshire County Council and all of its districts, were unitary authorities. These are single-tier councils which have all the powers previously divided between two. There are periodic pushes to create more of these, but they aren’t always popular – take, for example, the Coalition’s decision to prevent Norfolk from becoming a unitary authority in 2010.

Things become even more confusing in urban areas. Here, the Conservative government of the 1980s did away with the county councils that had been created, turning metropolitan boroughs into a single level authority; but with formal structures to help them co-operate on issues such as transport. Then there’s London – which until 1986 was divided into 32 boroughs (which had only existed since 1965) – and a Greater London Council, in a similar structure to other urban areas. When the GLC was abolished, along with all the other urban county councils, there was created instead a variety of bodies to try and carry on co-ordination among the 32 boroughs – an unpopular choice, which was ultimately overturned in the late 1990s by the Labour government. They created a new Greater London Authority, with a Mayor (the position currently held by Sadiq Khan) and an Assembly, who have a variety of powers over the London region as a whole. Similarly, since 2010, the Coalition sought to grant more powers to urban regions throughout the UK – creating combined authorities for regions such as Greater Manchester, Teesside and the West Midlands. These, in many cases, share boundaries with abolished councils, and hold a variety of powers. It is the heads of many of these that will be elected for the first time this May.

Therefore, there are broadly 6 flavours of council in England – counties, which are divided into districts; unitary authorities, metropolitan boroughs, combined authorities, and London boroughs. This is to say nothing of smaller, much more local authorities – parish and town councils – and the total anomaly that is the City of London. Today, when we map them out, it looks something like this. Each of them has a different set of powers and responsibilities, to which we will now turn.

Powers

As we’ve already clearly established, the structure of local government is determined by Parliament, and so (traditionally) have been its powers. Local government does not get involved in such issues as defence or foreign policy, but instead focuses on delivering a variety of more immediate services to the communities within its area. Each different type of authority will, naturally, deliver slightly different services to another – perhaps the easiest way to lay this out is to begin by considering the county/district divide set up in 1974, and seeing what each half of that equation does.

County councils are broadly responsible for; education, social services, transport, strategic planning, fire services, consumer protection, refuse disposal, smallholdings, and libraries. District councils cover local planning, housing, local highways, building regulation, environmental health, and refuse collection. Unitary authorities, or metropolitan boroughs, combine all these responsibilities into a single authority. The new combined authorities combine all these powers, and in some cases considerably more – Greater Manchester’s new regional mayor will have control over the healthcare budget for the region, for example.

But these powers come at a cost – quite literally, in some cases. The majority of funding for local government comes from grants from central government; money handed out by the government to cover the provision of important services. In this, there will be requirements attached as to how to spend the money, whether particular programmes should be prioritised, and so on. Local government can raise its own money, principally through two key taxes (council tax, and business rates) but these raise relatively small amounts of money for councils, compared to their needs, and what they receive from central government.

There have, however, been some positive changes here for local government – perhaps the largest of which was the Localism Act of 2011. The key provision here was what’s called the “general power of competence”. Briefly put, prior to this point, local government could only do what Parliament specifically authorised it to do – this power allows local government to do anything that is not explicitly forbidden. If retained, and coupled with a less tight financial situation, this could give councils considerable scope to experiment in future.

Broadly, though, local government is responsible for delivering a variety of services that can often seem almost invisible to us – or have relatively small levels of awareness. We generally only consider them when they impact directly on us – when our bins fail to be emptied, or the pothole outside our home grows ever larger. But councils are responsible for almost a quarter of all government spending in the UK, and their services are vitally important to our communities.

Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters and London residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Westminster Wednesdays: The Executive

In previous posts, we have discussed Parliament and the constitution – this week, we will consider the executive branch of government, so named because it is responsible for executing and enforcing laws. In the UK, this is centred on the Prime Minister and their cabinet, though it extends out to a host of other bodies. We look at these two key components in turn, and see how they relate back to the concepts and bodies we discussed previously, as well as trying to understand how they interact with each other.

Prime Minister

Whilst the post of Prime Minister sits at the very top of government, and commands considerable public attention, most of their powers do not come from statute or common law, but rather from convention. They are exercised on behalf of the monarch, who appoints the Prime Minister – who has traditionally been the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. So long as they are able to retain the support of a majority of MPs, the Prime Minister and their government should remain in power – by convention, if they lose this support (known as confidence), they would resign. Their powers range from appointing ministers to head government departments, through to attending international summits, and on to dispensing patronage through the honours system (knighthoods, MBEs, and so on).

The most important of these powers is the Prime Minister’s power to appoint and dismiss other members of the executive – ministers, who either head or help to oversee government departments. There are currently over 100 ministers, all of whom are appointed by the Prime Minister. By convention, these ministers are drawn from Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons – by necessity, it may be that the Prime Minister has to include certain MPs in government, in order to appease party factions, or may be forced to exclude others on political grounds. Nevertheless, this is a formidable power, and allows a Prime Minister to shape the government to suit their policy preferences and desired direction of travel for the country.

The next key power to consider is the Prime Minister’s role as chair of the cabinet. In this role, the Prime Minister determines who can attend cabinet, when its meetings will be heard, what will be on the agenda, and will sum up its discussions. This is not a process that involves a formal vote – it is rather rare for Prime Ministers to seek a vote in cabinet on any point. As we shall go to see, the ability of a Prime Minister to mould their ministerial team and the cabinet as an institution has considerable importance.

The other powers of a Prime Minister include their ability to appoint senior civil servants – they decide who the senior civil servant will be in each department (the permanent secretary) and it is only with their approval that a minister can have a senior civil servant moved. They also represent the country at international summits, such as those of the European Council, granting them considerable influence over foreign policy. Finally, we should remember the media and political attention that comes with being Prime Minister – giving one access to a significant reserve of influence to try and shape the direction of the country, and of policy in Parliament.

There are, however, a variety of restraints in place on the Prime Minister. They attend a weekly questioning session in the House of Commons, known as Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), as well as making annual appearances before a Parliamentary committee called the Liaison Committee. They are required to retain the support of a majority of the House of Commons – and the support of their party colleagues. If either of these fail, then they can find themselves removed from office, and often find the agenda set after their departure contrasting with much they had laid down.

Cabinet

The cabinet is the collective decision-making body that the Prime Minister chairs. It serves three key functions; finally determining what will be submitted to Parliament by the government, overall control of the executive in line with what Parliament agrees, and co-ordination between the many component parts of the state. It meets on Tuesdays, in the cabinet room in Number 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister in London.

Its composition is decided by the Prime Minister – who has broad scope to make and unmake the government departments that ministers run. For example, since 2007, the department responsible for overseeing universities has been, in order – the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and now the Department for Education. Very few departments do not experience this process, which is driven entirely by the Prime Minister’s desire to shape government, with the exception of the Treasury. It is traditional that all the heads of government departments are members of the cabinet – the Prime Minister can also ask a range of other ministers to attend. Currently, there are 23 members of the cabinet, and 4 others who attend.

As with the Prime Minister, the cabinet’s powers and functions exist by convention. Aside from the key functions laid out above, to which we will return in a moment, two other key conventions apply. The first is one already stated – if the government loses the support (confidence) of the House of Commons, it will resign. The second is the principle of collective responsibility, which states that once a decision has been made by cabinet, all members collectively accept responsibility for it, even if they disagreed prior to the decision being made. Ministers who cannot do this are expected to resign, or will be removed by the Prime Minister if they openly disagree after the decision is taken.

In executing its three key duties outlined above, cabinet faces a huge workload – the UK government is responsible for hundreds of billions of pounds of spending, almost 3 million public sector employees, and of course the executing and enforcing of a vast array of laws and regulations. As a single committee, cabinet and its members would struggle to cope with this workload – so two tiers of support are in place. First are junior ministers; every departmental head has a number of these, with whom they can share their workload, delegating particular areas of their department to the junior minister. Secondly, there are the cabinet committees – these are made of members of the cabinet, and perhaps some junior ministers as well. They are constituted by the Prime Minister, and assigned particular areas of responsibility. Like cabinet, they are there to assist in determining policy, ensuring it is implemented, and co-ordinating policy on a variety of areas – they act to clarify issues before the main cabinet decides them, dividing up the workload. Decisions of cabinet committees have the same power as those of full cabinet, and matters are only referred from them to the whole cabinet if the chair agrees.

Summary

We have seen that the UK’s executive branch, particularly the Prime Minister, has considerable powers at their disposal to make and change government, and to set the direction of the country. We have also seen how they shape the cabinet, which in turn serves a key function at the heart of the executive – as a body to make decisions, oversee the operation of government, and settle disputes. When they operate together, government can deliver policy quickly, effectively, and with an assurance of easy passage through Parliament. Disunity between them, however, can lead to disorder and perhaps even the fall of ministers – or the Prime Minister themselves.

SDPLAlogo

Throwback Thursdays: PPBs and The Alliance

There are few examples of the Party Political Broadcasts (PPB) for the liberals between 1945 and the Early 80s. Some incomplete versions missing large chunks of audio have been archived on YouTube. Throughout this period the Liberals suffered in the relative political doldrums of only a handful of seats in Scotland and Wales.

In 1974, after a general election that left no party with a majority, attempts were made to form a coalition government with the Conservatives, but it fell through when the Conservatives and their Leader Edward Heath refused to agree to bring in Proportional Representation (PR)  for Westminster elections. As a result Labour attempted to govern in a minority.

This ultimately led to the second General Election of 1974 that following October and the narrowest of majorities for Labour. The liberals again attempted to support the government in order to deliver PR which ultimately backfired.

After the Election of 1979 and victory for Margaret Thatchers conservatives, the Labour party, now in opposition, began to change. Alleged corruption and left wing militancy was becoming more and more of an issue within Labour.

On the 25th of January 1981 the “Gang of Four”, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers Launched the Council of Social Democracy, later to become the Social Democrat Party (SDP), in what would become known as the Limehouse Declaration. Within six months the SDP had joined the Liberals under David Steele to form the SDP – Liberal Alliance which was to remain in place until the ultimate merger of the two parties.

The Alliance was polling at 50% at one point before the General Election of 1983, but after the Falklands War of 1982, Margaret Thatcher and the conservatives stormed back into first place to win by a landslide. Although The Alliance polled 25% of the vote, thanks to our first past the post electoral system they only achieved twenty three seats.

The following PPB by the SDP as part of the SDP – Liberal Alliance was made in May 1984. Here SDP leader David Owen coveres topics including, European Unity, Trident, and the use of Nuclear Weapons, an important issue in this period of Cold War between the west and Russia.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

Westminster Wednesdays: The Constitution

The Constitution

Last week, we discussed Parliament, and described it as the “central component of the UK’s constitution.” This week, we are going to briefly survey that constitution, and understand where we might find it – its sources – and the basic rules that it lays out for UK politics – its provisions. Before we do so, as ever, we need to define our terms. A constitution is a “body of laws, customs, and conventions that define the composition and powers of organs of the state and that regulate the relations of the various state organs to one another and to the private citizen.” The UK’s constitution is very different to the model of constitution present in most other states, in that it is uncodified. This means that there isn’t a single document which contains all, or at least most, of the laws, customs, and conventions that make up the constitution. Rather, it is spread across four key sources, to which we will turn first.

 

Sources

The UK’s constitution draws on four sources – statute law, common law, conventions, and works of authority. Statute law in the UK simply refers to Acts of Parliament, and particularly those with key significance to the relationship between the parts of the state, and the state and its citizens. For example, the Scotland Act 1998, which created the Scottish Parliament, is a prominent constitutional act, because it created a new body in Scotland to handle certain Scottish matters, and outlined relations between that body at the existing Parliament in Westminster.

Secondly, we have the common law. This refers to legal principles created by the courts in making decisions, and ones so ancient that the courts treat them as law. This is a shrinking part of the constitution – more and more law is now in statute form – but nonetheless retains an important role. For example, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty that we introduced last week is considered to be an aspect of common, rather than statute, law. Similarly, what are called prerogative powers are used under common law – these are powers that are recognised as belonging to the Crown, but are exercised by the Prime Minister or other ministers. We will return to these next week in more detail.

Thirdly, there are conventions. These are the least tangible form of the UK’s constitution – they don’t exist in statute form, nor are they enforced by the courts. Rather, they are abided to by the parts of the state because to break them would disrupt the normal operation of politics. For example, it is only by convention that the monarch grants their approval to all Acts of Parliament – a convention dating back to the early 18th Century. Sometimes, conventions can be breached temporarily, and then restored to use afterwards – some conventions are stronger than others.

Finally, there are works of authority. Whilst these are much more tangible than the conventions – but their power in the constitution is persuasive only, and they are rather poorly defined. Clearly the work of scholars such as A. V. Dicey, who we encountered in last week’s discussion of Parliament, and Erskine May, count as works of authority – they lay out key principles of how the constitution is meant to operate, and how one of the most important organs of the state is meant to be regulated on a day to day basis, respectively. They are most useful, therefore, in interpreting the conventions and common law that form a part of the constitution.

 

Provisions

The UK constitution, drawn from the four sources above, lays out four basic provisions – parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, a unitary system, and parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy. We can restate the definition given last week from Dicey to cover the first provision, parliamentary sovereignty, as being the power to “to make or unmake any law whatever, and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.”

Dicey also argued that the rule of law was a key provision of the UK constitution. This is a little trickier to define (Dicey himself gives three definitions!) but here we will use Lord Bingham’s definition in his book on the subject: “all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts.” This might be characterised as the idea that no-one should be above the law; as Bingham and other scholars on this note, this principle is not evenly applied in the UK constitution, but it remains an important provision all the same.

The third provision also causes us a little difficulty – the idea of a UK as a unitary state. These are often contrasted with federal states such as the USA. In a federal state, power is divided between the national and more local units by the constitution – in a unitary state, it is the national government that holds all the power. Parliament, as the sovereign body, can create local government bodies, such as councils, hand them powers, withdraw them, redesign them – or even abolish them outright. This constitutional principle holds over even bodies such as the Scottish Parliament – but here the difficulty lies. Whilst it may be constitutional to abolish the Scottish Parliament, arguably the political pressures against doing so would be too great.

Finally, there is the idea of parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy. This covers the relationship between parliament, government, and monarch – with the government the distinctly stronger component. It may broadly be expressed as the idea that the government governs through Parliament, rather than the country being governed by Parliament, with the monarch having a ceremonial role. The Prime Minister and other Ministers are appointed by the monarch, rather than Parliament, but are politically responsible too Parliament for their actions.

 

Summary

We have seen where the UK’s constitution is drawn from, and what its basic provisions are. It is worth remembering that, like any constitution, these are continually under pressure to change as circumstances do. Unlike most constitutions – which are codified – the UK’s uncodified constitution has no special provision to make amending it exceptionally difficult. There was no need, for example, for two-thirds of MPs to vote in favour of the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1998 – it was created through a statute that holds the same basic status as any other statute. Whilst this makes the UK constitution flexible – a strength for some – it also means it can be changed very easily – which is alarming for others. As the UK withdraws from the EU, this will impose further strains on the constitution, a point worth bearing in mind.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

Westminster Wednesdays: Parliament

1st edition of Tim Oliver’s Westminster Wednesday – Understanding Politics series. Today’s post is about understanding Parliament.