Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Clegg's hypocrisy over weakness of Parliament

Writing in The Independent today, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg returns to the theme of the quality of our democratic system, in particular the weakness of Parliament to hold the government to account.

Clegg argues that Parliament has been 'castrated' and is virtually powerless to influence government decisions, pointing out that "in 11 years, there have been only three defeats for the Government in votes by MPs."

Talking of this being "the record of a system in crisis" in which "the legislature dances to the tune of the executive", Clegg laments "a spineless abdication of scrutiny and accountability at the heart of our Government."

"The mother of all Parliaments has become the eunuch of all Parliaments," he concludes.

Important themes indeed. And in many ways what he says is true. But coming from Nick Clegg, such complaints amount to massive hypocrisy.

Accountability squandered

A mere two months ago, Clegg had an opportunity to defeat a government plan to ditch their clear manifesto promise of a referendum on the EU Constitution - recently revived and re-named as the Lisbon Treaty.

By voting in Parliament in support of a referendum along with the Conservatives, and ensuring Parliament held the government to their manifesto promise, Clegg would also have been upholding an identical promise made at the last election by his own party.

So did he take this opportunity? No. In fact, he deliberately fluffed it.

Instructing his MPs to abtain at the crucial vote on the question of a referendum, he allowed the government to get away with it.

Despite apparently being concerned that voters are losing faith with a system that doesn't represent them, he didn't just fail to represent those who voted for his own party, but also those Labour voters whose expectations of a referendum were being thwarted by the government.

And now that the treaty has moved on to the House of Lords, Lib Dem peers are actually planning to vote with the government against the referendum that both parties promised.

Taking people for fools

So who does Nick Clegg now think he's fooling by rather tragically trying to re-invent himself and his party as a champion of Parliament and of holding the government to account?

One of the biggest problems afflicting faith in our democracy today arises from politicians imagining that people have no memory beyond what they happen to be saying that particular day.

Hypocrisy - taking people for fools - is fast becoming the norm, whether politicians are talking about post offices, NHS service closures or the EU. Just like The Independent in their accompanying report about Clegg's article, the national media seem almost too embarrassed to point out the increasingly glaring inconsistencies between the words and actions of our politicians.

Or if the media's problem is not embarrassment, then it is more serious - one of competence.

If actions really do speak louder than words, then far from being likely to offer a solution, Nick Clegg has so recently and so clearly shown himself to be one of the main causes of the problem.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Four pro-treaty charities given £34m by the EU

When, back on 21 January, David Miliband introduced the Bill to ratify the re-named EU Constitution (aka. the Lisbon Treaty) into Parliament, he rather smugly announced that a clutch of charities had joined with the government in endorsing the treaty.

"The NSPCC pledged its support, as have One World Action, Action Aid and Oxfam,” Miliband declared.

Well, the reason for the apparent enthusiasm of these charities for a treaty designed to bring about further EU political integration - a highly controversial political project that's not related to their chief charitable purposes - has only recently become clear.

Responding to a question put by MEP and Daily Telegraph blogger Daniel Hannan - himself following up a line of enquiry raised by the excellent EUreferendum blog - the European Commission has revealed that ActionAid, the NSPCC, One World Action and Oxfam received between them an incredible €43,051,542.95 - about £34.5 million - from the EU during 2007 alone.

Hardly surprising then, as Hannan says, that organisations in receipt of such colossal sums should dutifully endorse a treaty supported by their paymasters.

Keeping it in the family

The revelation once again draws attention to the incestuous system by which EU decisions are made and by which we are now increasingly governed.

As Hannan explains, from his experience at the heart of the EU institutions, whenever the EU wants to extend its jurisdiction into a new field, Brussels institutions go through the motions of “consulting civil society”.

By this, the EU means inviting the opinions of a series of organisations that it has itself heavily sponsored, and which look in large part to Brussels for their income: the European Women’s Lobby, the European Union of Journalists, the European Trade Union Congress and so on.

These cooked-up 'representatives of civil society' inevitably tell the EU essentially what it wants to hear, and the EU can then claim to have listened to 'The People'.

What you don’t get is any direct input from voters. Rather, public opinion is intermediated by a wide variety of quangoes heavily dependent on the EU's financial largess.

It's a method of government that some years ago in an article entitled 'The New Euro-Corporatism', the Democracy Movement's campaign director Marc Glendening pointed to as an area of similarity between today's pan-Europeanism and pre-war fascism. The article was published at the time in the European Journal.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Parties punished for broken referendum promise?

On the face of it, it's perhaps hard to imagine that the issue of the broken promise over an EU Constitution referendum can have made much of a contribution to Labour's terrible results in last Thursday's local elections.

Not with such powerful factors as mortgage problems, rising food and fuel prices, and the badly handled change over the 10p tax rate in play.

Those issues alone could easily explain Labour getting a hammering.

But that the betrayal of the referendum promise may have been a bigger influence on the results than many have imagined is perhaps shown in the fact that it wasn't just Labour doing badly.

Despite Labour's woes, and despite Nick Clegg's recent election as their new leader, the similarly anti-referendum Lib Dems' also had a terrible night.

Taking economic factors alone into the equation, that really shouldn't have happened.

The Lib Dems managed to pick up only 33 more councillors (compared to 257 for the Conservatives) and saw their share of the vote decline again.

According to BBC political editor Nick Robinson, it dropped 1% lower than last year and was 4% lower than 2004. That Labour did so badly that the Lib Dems edged up into 2nd place overall is really neither here nor there.

Lib Dem London disaster

Looking at the results in South London in particular, this situation must be a particular concern to several MPs at the very top of the party.

In the London assembly 'South West' constituency the Lib Dems were beaten into a not-even-close second place after the Tories.

Given this assembly constituency is chiefly made up of not a single Conservative parliamentary seat but three Lib Dem ones - in particular those of Lib Dem deputy leader and shadow chancellor Vince Cable, and shadow foreign secretary Ed Davey - these results must have created considerable concern among the party's leadership about their prospects at the next general election.

Neither was this an isolated result. Nextdoor in the 'Croydon & Sutton' London assembly constituency, comprising two Tory, one Labour and two Lib Dem parliamentary seats, the Lib Dems were beaten into third place.

DM campaigned heavily in South London

No coincidence, perhaps, that these constituencies were the subject of intense campaigning by the DM criticising Liberal Democrat MPs, and those of other parties, for intending to abandon their manifesto promises to support a referendum on the EU Constitution treaty.

More than 20,000 of our 'Don't let your MP take you for a fool' leaflets were distributed in Ed Davey's constituency alone, and the same number in Sutton & Cheam.

Ten thousand leaflets were distributed in several others, including Richmond Park and Carshalton & Wallington, complemented by local media advertising.

Parties should reflect on referendum gaffe

If the Lib Dems were hit by their behaviour over an EU treaty referendum, as seems a plausible explanation for their poor performance, then it would surely be a mistake to imagine that the issue had no effect on the Labour result.

Polls consistently showed than an overwhelming majority of people wanted the say they were promised on the treaty, and the arguments used to slide out of promises given were so threadbare it should have been embarrassing.

Beyond the details of the treaty, their actions made both Labour and the Lib Dems look shifty and untrustworthy. And that's never going to make for good election results.

While together they may have succeeded in pushing the treaty through the Commons, both Labour and the Lib Dems should reflect on whether these results show they in fact haven't yet got away with breaking that referendum promise.

And on whether, with the treaty still being ratified by Parliament, there's still time to honour their manifesto promises and prevent an even bigger disaster come the general election.

If not, we plan to be very busy in the most likely two years before that election, ensuring local voters know which MPs they can and cannot trust.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

10 years of the euro

A couple of quotes by EU-state supporters appearing over on Mark Mardell's blog today deserve greater scrutiny.

Marking '10 years of the euro' (the fixing of exchange rates, rather than introduction of notes and coins), the BBC's Europe editor has written a well-balanced piece about the EU's currency - looking at plans for its future and asking whether we would have been better off joining.

Mardell first highlights apparent EU concerns that the currency isn't 'punching its weight' on the world stage, confirming that the Commission still harbours ambitions to remove eurozone member countries from being represented in international financial bodies - and to replace them with one EU representative.

An un-named Commission official is quoted as saying "At the moment we take up too many seats, too much space."

Leaving aside the idea that a lack of space, or seats, in perhaps the offices of the IMF or OECD is apparently a sufficient justification to deprive elected governments of an important international voice, what's more interesting from a British point of view are the implications of this Commission attitude in another EU policy area.

Namely, the 'common foreign policy', arising from the re-named EU Constitution.

Will the Commission be pushing for the removal of "too many seats" in international fora under this banner too, and what does that mean for Britain's seat at the UN?

UN seat under threat?

During negotiations on the Lisbon Treaty last year, the government strongly denied that Britain's UN seat would ever be under threat as a result of the treaty.

But it was subsequently revealed - in a standard EU 'step-by-step' move - that the EU could in fact take the seat for Britain and other EU member countries if representing a 'common position'.

This strategy was then confirmed by Lord Malloch-Brown - now a foreign office minister - who revealed to diplomats that the EU's advancement into international institutions in the place of its member countries would "go in stages".

"We are going to see a growing spread of it institution by institution," he said.

As ever with the EU, its tricky to see who exactly would be in charge of such a 'common foreign policy' decision to merge national seats into one EU seat in international fora, and whether we truly have a secure veto.

One thing we do know is it's doubtful that any of the MPs who gleefully voted to approve the EU Constitution without supporting the referendum they promised at the last election could tell us with any certainty.

John Monks: euro zealot

The second interesting quote in Mardell's piece comes from John Monks - head of the European Trade Union Confederation.

Obviously still clinging to his long-held fanaticism to get Britain into the euro, exercised very vocally when he was head of Britain's TUC, Monks tries to claim that the idea of our being better off in the euro has been "masked ... by the British economy doing well."

At least he admits we're "doing well", contrary to all the scare-mongering he used to indulge in about the consequences of keeping the pound. He's obviously conveniently forgotten about all that. But any chance of final recognition that we're doing well because we kept the pound, Mr Monks?

He then goes on to claim that the euro has "probably" prevented devaluations of the "franc and the lira and some other currencies".

While it's true that euro membership makes devaluations by individual countries absolutely impossible - given their currencies no longer exist to devalue - whether as a result of the credit crunch there would have been any without the euro's existence is highly debatable.

What the euro is not likely to do, however, is solve any underlying economic problems that in the past have made devaluation the least worst option for governments.

Economic pressure that could in the past have been resolved by an exchange rate adjustment would, under the euro, very likely just burst out in another possibly far more harmful aspect of the economy.

Pro-pound campaigners proved right

What's certain, though, is that those of us who campaigned for Britain to keep the pound have had our arguments completely vindicated.

Britain remains the top destination in Europe for inward investment, we avoided euro price rises, unemployment is at record lows and we've clearly been far better off setting our own interest rates for national needs.

All the euro-zealot scaremongering has proved groundless - a lesson, surely, in how seriously to take their statements on other EU issues.

Today, we're far more likely to see one or more eurozone countries no longer able to stand the strain of the euro strait-jacket and quit, than Britain decide to join.

The biggest threat the euro presents today to those inside it is that, in locking both exchange rates and interest rates, it can only create an economic pressure cooker.

And the bad news for the EU is ... the temperature's going up!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

More government hypocrisy

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears was on Newsnight tonight to defend Wendy Alexander's U-turn to support an independence referendum in Scotland.

Stressing that the government was not afraid to put the issue to the people, in the context of the government's refusal to hold the promised referendum on the EU Constitution Ms Blears exhibited hypocrisy of monumental proportions. Not exactly a new trait for her, either.

She said: "If Alex Salmond is going to bang on about having a referendum then actually he should put his money where is mouth is and be prepared to have that vote. We are not afraid of the argument with the people...

"We are not afraid to have a political argument with our opponents whether it's the referendum in Scotland or the Tories in Crewe and Nantwich."

Oh really? So where's our EU Constitution referendum then Hazel?