Is this the future for Labour and Britain being outlined here? If Labour swing behind a eurosceptic leader such as Gisela Stuart, speaking here in a way which shows a determination not to give in to EU power, the Conservatives under Cameron, now selling out to Lisbon entirely, will be left high and dry. Many Conservatives would abandon Cameron and vote Labour if Labour re-emerged as a genuine eurosceptic party with views as expressed here by Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for Edgbaston.
Labour could hold onto power, and Cameron’s run of optimism be over.
There are numerous strong eurosceptics in Conservative ranks, of course, but Cameron’s the leader and they will not be permitted to control the course of events. In the Labour Party, on the other hand, as Brown falls, there’s a chance that the eurosceptics might gain control of the Party.
Take this extract from Gisela’s speech (Pictured above with Vince Cable). It is far more definite that the post-Lisbon arrangement will not do, than anything being said by leading Conservatives.
Once the Lisbon Treaty is fully implemented the EU will be able to affect every single aspect of UK life. Foreign Affairs, Defence and Taxation is still subject to national veto – but the veto is a blunt weapon and the decision to use the veto is made by the executive not parliament. Parliament is informed but does not decide. Knowledge without power; that’s not good enough.
Such words if expressed by a Labour leader would be dynamite in the minds of Conservative voters, a majority of who definitely want their Party to be positively eurosceptic and are disappointed by Cameron’s unwillingness to address the EU issue, except when he has no alternative.
The Lord Howell Memorial Lecture, where these words were spoken, would have been noticed and heard by quite a few Labour MPs. As they chew over their options as to who would best turn round their current dire situation, Gisela Stuart must be rising in the list of possible options.
The full speech below –
Denis H lecture – The Lord Howell Memorial Lecture By Gisela Stuart MP Edgbaston (Labour)
Ruling is easy, governing is difficult
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It’s a privilege and an honour to be asked to deliver the annual Denis Howell memorial lecture.
By the time I entered the House of Commons Denis had stopped being an MP – so we never overlapped – but I have three distinct memories of him.
When I was elected as MP for Edgbaston, I had only ever been to one cricket match before. But there I was sitting at the Edgbaston Cricket ground next to Denis who patiently and enthusiastically explained some of the rules and tactics. Though I remain confused about Leg Before Wicket!
Later I would at times curse him. I wanted the QE rebuilt but Denis was determined that nothing would ever happen that could in any way undermine his beloved City Hospital. And being the skilled operator he was, he could always get the front page of the Evening Mail!
But my most cherished memory is his memorial service. If I remember rightly he had left strict instructions. Music was to be provided by the Welsh choir. Mark Santer, the then Bishop of Birmingham, and Roy Hattersley talked about Denis the man and his faith. I also recall that Roy was adamant that he would never ask you to do anything, but tell you what to do!
In the end we left the church with a spring in our steps. We had paid tribute to and celebrated an extraordinarily rich life.
Traditionally, these lectures have an ethical theme.
This is not so easy.
Ethical standards change; even in cricket.
I gather that in old days, batsmen used to “walk” when they snicked a ball to the wicket keeper. This doesn’t happen today, though I understand this practice was never very prevalent among Australians.
More seriously, ethical standards are being scrutinised in many fields, not least in business, but even here ethics have proved very difficult to define.
Lord Woolf’s Committee on Ethical Business Conduct at BAE Systems came up with a number of recommendations which drew a distinction between things lawful and things ethical.
However when pushed on the Today programme to define “what’s ethical” he ended up saying that it’s essentially “things we wouldn’t mind other people knowing”.
I am not sure that this gets us very far.
As for my own field, a lot of people regard political ethics as a contradiction in terms. This is not a new phenomenon, and healthy cynicism is a good thing, but the very openness that liberal democracies encourage requires continual readiness of to defend the values upon which it depends.
I chose the Goethe quote because it touches on something that goes to the heart of democracy.
Rule can be imposed.
Governing requires consent.
This distinction is not new.
The roots of what we today call democracy goes back the Greeks.
Many of you will know John Claughton, the master of King Edward’s School, Edgbaston. In his book on Herodotus and the Persian Wars (Cambridge University press, if you want to buy it) he describes the Persians’ attempts to conquer and dominate Greece, the Spartans’ defeat at Thermopylae and the subsequent victories of Salamis and Plataea.
There is one recurring theme. Xerxes and the Persians only understood force, autocracy and fear. The Greeks on the other hand, who admittedly kept arguing and bickering, acted by consent. And that bond of being held together by free will and consent ultimately made them stronger than the Persians.
So when the 300 Spartans under Leonidis fought to the death in Thermopylae they did so because that is what Spartans did, not because they were forced to.
In the modern world, consent and the rule of law go hand in hand and, I would argue, the nation at least as envisaged by John Stuart Mill.
The whole basis of the nation state is to maintain at least some aspects of separateness from other countries, while creating a community that minimises the risk of class or race conflict within the nation. That is the nation state is defined by the willingness of its citizens to say, “We and only we will make the laws that govern us, and only us”.
Who are we?
Just look at the Putney Debates of 1647.
“For many days, officers and ordinary soldiers of the New Model Army, ranging in background from gentlemen to button-sellers and shoemakers, debated together how the country should be run, with little sign of deference and as if everyone’s opinion mattered.
No army has ever behaved like this before or since.
Many of the participants spoke as if they were starting with a clean sheet from first principles, and ideas then revolutionary, such as giving the vote to all men and abolishing the monarchy’s powers, were put forward and were taken seriously, even by those who opposed them. And this in a country which less than a decade had been a hierarchically organised kingdom with a powerful monarch and aristocracy.”
Of course, this debate took place at a critical time in British history when Crown and Parliament were in dispute; and I have always thought it particularly British, or more correctly English, that having had your revolution you then restore the old regime.
Nonetheless, it one of the interesting aspects of British identity is that it is a political identity – not ethnic or blood – which has been defined by its political institutions, the Crown in Parliament and so on.
It shares this with France (The Republic) and the United States (The Constitution) and it has enabled all three countries to absorb and integrate new populations and settlers.
So where do these institutions stand today, in particular where do politicians and Parliament stand, and does it matter?
I want to make three points tonight.
– Don’t take democracy for granted – here or abroad.
– Politics is an honourable occupation.
– The kind of decisions we have to face up to in the next decade or so will be difficult ones, and if we don’t have a robust and functioning democracy and the institutions which underpin it, we won’t be able to take them.
Don’t take democracy for granted
We take it for granted, but it’s not the norm across the world.
Maybe because I was born in Germany that I am more conscious of how precious democracy is than the average Brit, who has known nothing else.
I am a trustee of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. In countries where there are established political parties we work with them – in others we help to establish them.
Some countries – like those in Eastern Europe, have had functioning governments in the past. The challenge was to help them re-establish the democratic institutions. But in others, where there is no civic society, no political parties, and no traditions of the rule of law or property rights – it is a much more difficult job.
China is clearly going to be an increasingly important economic power, but some commentators seem to assume that economic changes in China will inevitably lead to a more democratic system. I hope they are right, but it seems to be a peculiarly Marxist-determinist view of development.
Elsewhere the picture is even gloomier, with dictators hanging on despite wrecking their economies.
[Remember President Mugabe was elected.]
I have just returned from a visit with the Foreign Affairs Committee to Japan and Korea. Japan and South Korea are successful democracies, but North Korea is one of the few remaining totalitarian dictatorships.
North Korea has no economy to speak of, other than the military. Its people are extremely poor and the borders are closed – but it has nuclear weapons.
How, when and if North Korea will become a democracy is anybody’s guess. South Korea has struck an extraordinary deal with their neighbours. They are getting access to the cheap workforce of the North Koreans by setting up an industrial area.
Hyundai initiated the Gaeseong Industrial Zone, where 950 South Koreans work with 26,000 North Koreans in an industrial complex comprising 69 companies, located in North Korea.
The workers are paid some $80 a month. The money is paid to the North Korean government, which withholds 30% for what they call social provisions, and the rest is paid part in cash and part in coupons which can only be redeemed in a number of specified shops.
I have not met anybody who has been inside these shops, so I have no idea whether the workers get a fair deal, but I doubt it.
But for those who are allowed to work in the Industrial Zone, it’s a tremendous privilege – it’s a damned sight better than any other deal on offer to the average North Korean.
But the long standing democracies of the West need reinvigorating too.
In Britain trust in politicians and political institutions is low and so far the response by our political leaders to this has been inadequate.
Democracy depends on the consent of the people. But at the last election the Government was only elected by about twenty five per cent of the eligible electorate.
There is a by-election in Crewe and Nantwich on Thursday. There is always a fair amount of press attention on such occasions, but despite that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the turn-out will be little more than 50%. In other words half the people entitled to vote will not do so.
The turnout in the Ladywood Ward at the last election was 16.7% – only one in six voted.
Now it could be that a low turnout reflects contentment, but I don’t think that is the case.
If people think it matters they will vote.
My guess is that if there had been a referendum on the EU Constitution or the Euro there would have been a very high turnout indeed.
The London Mayoral elections provide a useful lesion.
In 200the turnout was 34.4% rose to 37% in 2004 and in 2008 it was 45% – people knew that there would be a tangible outcome and there was a good contest.
Incidentally I still firmly support the idea of an elected mayor for Birmingham too.
The response to low turnout has been to make voting easier.
This is a mistake.
It should not be difficult to vote, but how much effort does it take to go down to the local school and put a cross on a ballot paper?
Of course some people should be allowed to vote by post, the infirm and sick, but we have made postal voting too easy, encouraging corruption and further discrediting a system once regarded as the envy of the world, and not just by chauvinistic Brits.
I still think that polling day should be a distinct event in time and space. Voting is important and there is something significant about going to the polling station – making your cross on the piece of paper – and putting it in the ballot box.
The level of turnout is a good thermometer, telling us something about the health of the system. We need to deal with the illness rather than trying to fiddle the reading.
I admit the voters’ apathy can be very annoying. I get very angry when I am told – as if it was a badge of honour – “I never vote”.
It’s the word never that I object to.
If you don’t vote I tell them – politicians can – and will ignore you. They shrug their shoulders and walk away – or worse.
And I do think people underestimate the significance of voting for the things that matter to them.
I remember Bartley Green Technology College coming down to Westminster on a day when Westminster Hall was heaving with angry pensioners who had come to lobby their MPs.
In reply to the question “why should I vote” I told them:
Think of a general election as a job application I have to go through ever four or five years – except that the potential interviewing panel are some 60.000 voters.
One group want more play facilities and youth clubs the other ones want better pensions.
If I know that the ones who want the youth clubs don’t take part in my “job interview” because they can’t be bothered, but those who want better pensions do – who do you think I am going to listen to? They got the point I think.
The same applies to political parties. If whole sections of the population disenfranchise themselves by not turning out, they will not see their needs reflected in party manifestos.
Nonetheless there is a deeper problem: people don’t see that a vote makes much difference to the things that affect their lives and there is no real sense of accountability. All too often politicians are seen to be in it for themselves.
Politics is an honourable occupation
“For Brutus was an honourable man, so are they all; all honourable men”.
Impugning the motives of politicians is as old as time.
I think it important to understand the nature of politics and political skills. Compromise, bargaining and dissembling are part and parcel of getting things done. It is not always a pretty sight. Some of the greatest politicians have been masters of it – Roosevelt, Churchill and Lloyd George, as well as some of the worst. I’d better not name them as some may still be alive!
There are bad apples in every walk of life and there have always been rogues in politics, perhaps Horatio Bottomley being the most infamous. Even William Pitt would not pass muster today!
As in other walks of life standards have changed – practices that were part and parcel of a day’s activity forty years ago would end in jail today.
In my view politics is probably cleaner that it ever was, but behaviour is scrutinised by the media and press in a way that was not the case for many years. In part this is simply a matter of quantity – 24/7 news coverage and so on, but it is also a matter of tone.
Historically, the British press has always been pretty aggressive. If modern politicians think thinks they are being savaged, they should take a look at some of the attacks on monarchs and politicians in the eighteenth century.
Nonetheless, there is a sharp contrast between today’s media coverage and the rather deferential tone towards politicians that dominated much of the inter-war coverage and in the post war period, at least until the 1960s.
In general I think this confrontational press reflects a confrontational political culture that on the whole is better than the suffocating consensus and timidity that has often characterised the press in continental Europe.
Living in a goldfish bowl is not comfortable, but I don’t think there has been a decline in probity: Brendan Bracken and a good many others wouldn’t last too long today.
However, two things in particular have changed which have affected the way politicians are seen.
First, as the behaviour or politicians has come under more and more scrutiny, more and more rules of behaviour have been set. This has meant that so long as MPs abide by the rules, that are themselves often open to interpretation, probity is satisfied. However, this is not really good enough – for example, it can never be right to claim for things that have not actually been purchased. There is right and wrong behaviour, whatever the rules say.
Secondly, there has been the growth of the so-called “professional politician”. This too is a problem because it reduces the experience that is brought to Parliament and it further cuts off politicians from the voters.
Some of this is generational. The generation of politicians who fought in the war as young men, the Healeys, Heaths and Whitelaws, brought experiences and judgments that made them better politicians.
I think this is linked to another issue: the huge increase in the payroll vote – or “placemen” – as they were known in earlier times. The creation on non salaried ministerial post, increasing numbers of unpaid parliamentary aids, and paid Select Committee Chairs and the Speaker’s Panel – these are all forms of patronage.
Of course Parliament requires parties to function, but today the broadly loyal, yet independently minded Members and perhaps more importantly the MP prepared to speak openly, is an endangered species.
The late Gwyneth Dunwoody was one of them.
She made a very astute observation when she talked about Parliament in an interview with the House Magazine.
She said “The House of Commons judges by your own measure – if you can be bought they will buy you, if you can be bullied they will bully you, if you are your own person they will respect you”.
She was right – but I am not revealing great secrets when I say that the whips [or party managers] were not too fond of her!
All MPs have strike the right balance between party loyalty, the interests of our constituents and our own personal convictions.
And some of the most impressive debates have been on subjects that cross party lines, sometimes on Europe, or where conscience and ethics are to the fore.
This very week we have what are called “free votes” on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Many MPs will have been lobbied heavily and by the Catholic Church in particular. How should a Catholic MP vote if the party line and constituents’ wishes run counter to the teaching of the Catholic Church?
Stephen Wall – who was a senior civil servant in the Blair administration before moving on and working for – amongst others – Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, puts it this way:
Up to the fifties and sixties of the last generation “there was no such big gap as exists today between Christian teaching and public policy. What the churches held to be right was by and large what the majority held to be right too and the law, in framing the public mood, largely followed the mind of the churches as well. Since then radical changes in our society means that authority and the public respect that goes with it, has to be earned. Fewer people believe in a personal God and in life after death. In a kind of perpetual reformation, even those of us who DO believe think ourselves competent to decide what is right or wrong, based on our own reading of the Gospels and the exercise of our own intelligence and judgment. The laws we make are human laws, reflecting the exercise of public and politicians of their intelligence, conscience and judgment.”
There was never a golden age of parliamentary debate free from whips and arm twisting, but the executive has again become too powerful,
I believe the vast majority of MPs do the job because we want to make the world a better place. Most of us start of by saying “things don’t have to be the way they are – and we want to change them”.
But there need to be institutional changes if they are to play their proper part within our Parliamentary system.
And this does not mean building up huge staffs of advisers and the like. In fact I suspect I MPs were paid more money and no additional expenses and had to fund all there activities there would be a remarkable and swift decline in the employment of researchers and other staff.
Nonetheless, being an effective MP does require money.
Being an MP means that we have to employ staff, send out letters, travel from our constituency to Westminster and necessarily live in two places.
And we are members of political parties and have to fight elections – and that does cost money too.
The real question is which of these activities should be paid for by the taxpayer – and which should be paid for by donors to political parties.
I do not believe that political parties should be paid for by the taxpayer. Raising money directly from our supporters is the right way forward, but we do have stop pretending that there is anything dishonourable about giving money to a preferred political party.
It’s not about buying influence, but about being prepared to put our money where our beliefs are.
I think at present much of the debate has become muddled – and we have ended up with the worst of all worlds. The public, who by and large have regard for their own MP, think that we as a group are all on the make and corrupt.
This is bad for democracy in two ways. It discourages people from taking part, but it also means that power shifts from politicians to the commentators, who without being accountable to anyone can destroy careers and reputations.
But this isn’t the real problem. What troubles me most is that we seem to have become afraid to talk of values and of what’s right and wrong.
In Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”, the Mexican whiskey priest agonises over whether he, who is so clearly impure himself – he’s fathered a child and drinks – can be the bearer of a “pure” message.
Whether it’s John Major’s “Back to Basics” or Gordon Brown’s “Moral Compass” – there is sneering and ridicule.
We think the public wants to be told a “story” and an easily understood narrative – rather then uncomfortable truths.
That is true up to a point.
If we can explain our policies the way a screenwriter would put together a film script …. fact, emotion, action, change.
The passion to tell the story, the problem to be overcome – followed by the moment of awareness when the penny drops – completed by the solution!
Tony Blair’s Mondeo Man – or David Cameron’s tale of when he filled up his car with petrol the other day – are just two examples of the technique.
But there must be some values which underpin the narrative.
So when the Labour government talks about early year’s education and extending the school day – we also have to say something about what we think parents are for.
And when the Conservatives urge us to vote blue and go green, they have to be about more than just collecting rubbish bags on time and providing recycling bins.
Our voters have a right to expect more from their governments.
We try to pretend that actions have no consequences – and that works when things go well and the economy is growing. But when things get tough, the narrative has to be underpinned by some solid principles and values.
When things get tough there will be some losers – and governments need to be able to defend their decision.
The recent outcry over the abolition of the 10% tax rate is a classic example of how things can go wrong.
There was a legitimate argument to be made against the introduction of the rate in the first place. But having introduced it, for a Labour Government to be seen to simplify the tax system and reduce the basic rate of tax at the expense of the lowest paid was just one step too far, even for those who personally benefited from the changes.
Difficult future decisions which will require robust democratic institutions
The past decade has been relatively prosperous. This isn’t going to last. Politicians will have to make difficult decision.
Energy prices are going up and food is becoming more expensive. The climate is changing, and whether we want to affect these changes or simply learn to deal with freak weather, we will have to stop doing some things and pay more for others.
None of this will be popular with the electorate. Politicians will have to do things which are uncomfortable and disliked, but necessary. For this to work we require robust democratic institutions.
I want to leave aside Whitehall accountability for this lecture. But suffice it to say, that the more central government does, the more the public will find cause to complain about it. It’s no good wanting to be popular, just stick to doing what is right and what is necessary.
Lets’ look at the things MPs can do to restore trust. Let’s get away from talking about turnout and making voting easier and focus on reasons why the voters should care to turn out at all.
Parliament discusses and talks more about the actions of the executive more than it used to, but it has not become more effective in holding the executive to account. This is not just a function of large majorities. MPs need to assert their right to control the business of the House. The executive has too much power of patronage and singularly controls timetabling of debates.
Westminster has still not taken sufficient account of how the extension of the powers of the EU and the devolution of power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has affected its decision making. Once the Lisbon Treaty is fully implemented the EU will be able to affect every single aspect of UK live. Foreign Affairs, Defence and Taxation is still subject to national veto – but the veto is a blunt weapon and the decision to use the veto is made by the executive not parliament. Parliament is informed but does not decide. Knowledge without power; that’s not good enough.
The Commons need reforming. We should halve the number of MPs as at present we have more than the whole of the US Congress. Then, we should reform the tangled mass of salary and office expenses arrangements. We should ensure that MPs receive a suitable salary of a size that enables them to meet their living expenses, but also their office and administration costs too. A single salary payment from which MPs pay everything, from their offices rent to staff wages to second home. Every MP will have to decide how much to spend themselves.
And we need to focus on our primary role which is holding the executive to account. MPs need to control the business of the House as well as decide on the chairmanship and membership of select committees. Debates in Westminster Hall should be abolished; it adds little to executive accountability.
The present balance in the House of Lords, with none of the three parties having an inbuilt majority, has given it more authority. It regularly defeats the Government and generally improves legislation. Any reforms should lead to the balance of membership to reflect more the balance of parties at the last election. This could continue as now via appointment or through voting by some form of PR, but if the latter there would have to be cross party agreement that this does not mean a move to proportional representation in the House of Commons. It is very important that the two chambers are not elected on the same basis and end up competing for power and legitimacy.
The executive has always tried to avoid scrutiny, that is why we need a representative House of Commons and an effective House of Lords as an amending chamber.
We must reverse the past trend of centralisation. The base for changes on institutions is going for the unit that people identify with, in particular the big cities and County Councils rather than regions. To give cities like Birmingham elected mayors with real powers is just one example.
Dick Knowles, whose memorial service many attended yesterday understood this when he argued that Birmingham was too big and should be organised in parishes.
These are just a few suggestions on how we can restore trust in our democratic institutions.
To meet the challenges ahead people and their elected representatives need to have mutual trust and respect.
Much can and should be done by us the MPs. And I hope we can and do rise to the challenge. I know Denis would have!