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Douglas Carswell's Blog

29 JUL 2014

Ed Miliband can't be worse than Gordon Brown, surely?

It's quite something when Gordon Brown's former spin doctor, Damian McBride, attacks you as a Labour party leader for being ..... well ... a bit .... pointless.

After years of coveting the top in 10 Downing Street, Gordo was infamous for not really knowing what to do with it. Having finally prised Tony Blair out the door, Brown muttered something about values. Grinned foolishly on youtube. Wandered around Suffolk on his summer holidays pretending to enjoy it. And then lost the subsequent election.

No one really seemed to know what a Gordon Brown premiership was for, least of all himself.

Miliband's policies by contrast are a "great, steaming pile of fudge", says McBride.

Worse, the coterie that surrounds him are "dysfunctional". Perhaps that means that when they throw Nokia's at one another the way Gordo was alleged to have done, they keep missing?

It's not just McBride who doesn't think Ed Miliband is up for it. According to this rather amusing website, www.JustNotUpToIt.com , dozens of Labour party members across the country are starting to ask what Ed Miliband is for.

"This is all just Westminster bubble silly season stuff" various left leaning pundits will say. "Its childish and puts people off politics" they will sternly inform us. "Time to focus on the real issues"

I'm not so sure. I have just spent the past week going from door to door in one of the more Labour leaning wards in my part of Essex. If there was one constant that keeps coming up its doubts about Ed Miliband from once Labour leaning voters.

No. I wasn't able to tell them what Ed's about either.


21 JUL 2014

Panic in Foreign Office as minister speaks of Out

They won't like it at the Foreign Office. Not only has the new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, given a straight answer to a straight question. He's said that he would be prepared to vote to leave the EU if things don't change.

Hammond is not just the first Foreign Secretary to say that exit is an option. Hammond has made it clear that the current terms of our EU membership are not in our interest.

There could be some interesting conversations with the Sir Humphrey's in his department this morning. It will be interesting to see if Hammond remains resolute, or if he begins to buckle to the views to the big Whitehall bureaucracy.

Ever since David Cameron announced plans for an in/out referendum in 2017, our Foreign Office has followed what you might call the "Wilson strategy". That is to say they intended to engineer a bogus renegotiation, like Harold Wilson in the 1970s. The Prime Minister, they hoped, could then wave this new deal at the public in 2017 – and then persuade them to vote to stay In.

At the same time, Britain's permanent representative in Brussels – Ukrep – has organised meetings for Tory MPs in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere to try to soften their Euroscepticism. Mixed results, apparently.

The failure to block the appointment of Jean Claude Juncker has caused real alarm in King Charles street. Stopping him was a key part of the Wilson strategy. "Look! We blocked that unreconstructed federalist! We can get a new deal", they wanted ministers to be able to say.

For the Wilson strategy to work, our government needs partners willing to go along with the smoke and mirrors trick. But by 26 to 2, the rest of the EU showed that they are not even willing to pretend to make concessions.

Philip Hammond's position has now become the default position for most Tory MPs: vote to leave, unless there is a substantially new deal.

Hammond, like most, is a little vague about the detail in any new deal. The Prime Minister has already specifically ruled out a Swiss type of trade only arrangement. Indeed, Mr Cameron has made it clear that he is not even seeking arrangements that would apply distinctively to Britain, but rule changes applicable to all.

Great. As Hammond says, without substantive change, the chances of exit grow. The longer there is a lack of detail about any new deal, the more mainstream the out option becomes.

This article first appear for the Telegraph.


16 JUL 2014

And now for some policies .....

With the reshuffle over, we now have in place the Tory team to take us into the next election. Good. But what about policy?

Attention will begin to turn to the manifesto this summer. Here are a few suggestions as to what we might put in it:

Education: The next Conservative manifesto should promise to give every parent a legal right to request and receive control over their child's share of local authority education funding.

If you are happy with the education your child is getting, fine – carry on. If not, you should be able to ask the state to give you direct control of your child's pot of money, and spend it at a school that is able to give your child an education that you are happy with. Think of it as self-commissioning, but for schools.

No, parents would not be able to fritter away the money on something other than education, since the pot of money could only be redeemed by an approved school. No, it would not mean subsidies for private school fees, since those paying top tax rates would be exempt.

Michael Gove's reforms have done a brilliant job of widening the supply of education. Now let's free up the demand. It is absurd and antiquated that we allocate school places using catchment areas. Give mums and dads real control – unless of course you don't trust them, the way one or two patrician Tories once argued that council tenants could not be trusted to own their homes...

Health: Patients need a legal right to control access to their own medical records. Don't try to build a giant, government-designed mainframe database. Don't require folk happy with how things are to change. Simply allow those who want to access their medical data digitally a right to do so.

The impact of this would be massive. GPs might have to compete for their patients, rather than patients compete to see a GP as currently happens. This idea is so Right-wing that even Labour's Ian Austin wants it in his party's manifesto.

Europe: Of course we Conservatives will give a manifesto commitment to an In/Out referendum in 2017. But how about making sure it is a choice between two known options?

The current Scottish referendum campaign strikes me as a contest between two unknowns – the blank slate of independence versus a vague sense of devo-max. Not a great template, I'd suggest.

The party needs to make a manifesto commitment to offer voters a choice between In (meaning David Cameron's new deal – or not so new deal) versus Out (meaning good relations with the EU as good neighbours – free trade et al). The manifesto should be the place to flesh out the two alternatives, giving voters some sense of what In or Our would look like.

After the frustration of coalition, drafting the manifesto could prove rather invigorating.


14 JUL 2014

Network Rail isn't working

Could there possibly be a worse way to run our railways?

The companies that operate the trains are all private businesses. But the entity that supplies the operators with the track on which to run their trains – Network Rail – is a government-backed monopoly.

This means that the former are utterly dependent on the latter. Yet the latter seems to have few incentives to raise its game.

In my corner of Essex, we have seen a series of unacceptable cock-ups in recent weeks. Weekend engineering work overruns into Monday morning, resulting in cancellations during peak commuting times. Over-head lines that ought to have been maintained properly have apparently not been maintained properly, resulting in massive delays.

Of course, everyone understands that accidents happen from time to time. And when they do there is no one more stoic and understanding than the British rail commuter. But it is a sense of serial incompetence that is really starting to get people's back up.

At the same time, public attitudes are shifting. Modernity has elevated people's expectations of what good customer service looks like. Folk simply aren't prepared to be fobbed off by big corporations who fail to deliver like they might have been in the past. "Why do the signals keep failing?", a fellow commuter recently asked

Network Rail is supposed to maintain a railway network for a living. It is what it does. Yet time and again they seem pretty hopeless at it. They have a board of grandees that oversee it, but who is there to speak up for the customers.

"Re-nationalise it!" one of my constituents suggested. Part of the problem, surely, is that Network Rail is already a de facto nationalised entity. It is backed by taxpayer cash and has little incentive to respond better to its customers. I am not convinced that ministers running the railways would make things better.

I am not sure what the answer is, but the current corporatist configuration is simply not good enough.


10 JUL 2014

Cheer up doomsters! The world is getting better

The OECD famously failed to foresee the financial crisis of 2008-09. That has not stopped this Paris-based think tank from publishing a report telling us what the world economy is going to look like in 2060.

According to the OECD, there will be less growth, more inequality, and lots of jobs are going to disappear.

If that wasn't bad enough, Channel 4's Paul Mason has now written a piece suggesting that the doomsters at the OECD are being hopelessly optimistic. Things, he suggests, will be even worse.

We should take this all with a large pinch of salt.

To be sure, many jobs will disappear over the next fifty years, just as lots of jobs disappeared over the previous fifty years. They will tend to be the more repetitive, menial ones, and they will generally be replaced with more interesting ones.

Many more people in 2060 may indeed be working part time. But that is because they will earn more for doing less.

Seen from the perspective of a dawn-to-dusk farm labourer in the nineteenth century, today's work patterns, with seven-hour shifts and two-day weekends, must seem pretty part time. And a very good thing too.

Far from slowing down, I suspect that growth will speed up. The internet will make us more interconnected, allowing ideas and innovation to happen faster. The network of specialisation and exchange that drives human progress will be even greater.

Far from being less equal, many of the barriers to individual success are starting to come tumbling down. Elite university courses, once the preserve of a privileged few, will be available online to the masses. Access to capital, without which would be entrepreneurs cannot succeed, is becoming ever easier.

Specialist knowledge, once the preserve of the powerful, is a mouse click away. Thanks to solar and shale gas, energy costs in 2060 will, I suspect, be a whole lot lower.

Paul Mason claims that the best of capitalism is over. What capitalism? Today we have a system of crony corporatism masquerading as the free market. It is about to get blown away by the real thing. A system of capitalism under which anyone can own the means of production, distribution and capital.

The world in 2060 will as a consequence be much more prosperous, better educated and more equal. Folk will have much more leisure time and vastly higher living standards.

One thing perhaps that won't survive is the twentieth century Western model of big government knows best that gave rise to today's creeking corporatism. But that really is about the one thing left that is holding us – or at least the Western part of humankind – back.


02 JUL 2014

A rotten way to run a country

It's no way to run a country. After reading the same sort of degrees at similar Oxbridge colleges, many MPs become MPs having worked in the offices of MPs. Selected for a safe seat, they then sit on the front bench – and prepare to govern us.

Many of those at the giddy heights of SW1 politics have got there without ever personally having had to depend on winning over swing voters in marginal seats. And it shows.

The ethos of Westminster today is that MPs answer to one another, not outwardly to the voters. Promotion comes by regurgitating the established line, not by challenging it.

Fundamental questions go unanswered because no one seems to even ask the question.

"At what point", wrote Charles Moore, recently "does the freedom to borrow, so necessary for wealth-generation, go too far?" Six years on from a financial crisis created by unrestrained fractional reserve banking, no answer. No solution. No fresh thinking. The candy floss credit machine simply revs up again.

"How can public services", he continues, "replicate the degree of choice and personal attention that a market-based culture has come to expect?" No one in SW1 is looking to give us playlists for our own personalised public services.

When I first arrived in the Commons, I assumed that somewhere across the road in Whitehall would be rooms full of wise, cool-headed experts. After considering important public policy issues from every angle, they would then present their recommendations.

Now I realise it's more like the Wizard of Oz. Draw back the curtain and you find a rather befuddled, middle-aged man (it usually is a man) making it up as he goes along. On everything from energy policy to overseas aid, public policy is made on the basis of ingrained departmental assumptions that are often years out of date.

Our system of democracy isn't working. On everything from EU policy to defence procurement, it has a Byzantine capacity to stifle essential reform and reinforce failure.

It wasn't always like this.

In 2014 many more people – thankfully – have the right to vote than they did in, say, 1914. But that does not necessarily mean we have become more democratic. Many more have the right to vote, but the ability of those with votes to hold those with power to account has steadily diminished.

A hundred years ago, it was not simply MPs who decided which MPs got promoted. If your local MP was appointed to the government, they had to resign their seat, come back to the constituency and get your permission in a by election for them to join the government.

There were no A list party favorites and think tankers, to be parachuted into safe seats. Until remarkably recently, candidates were selected by genuinely autonomous, mass membership branches.

Until the 1930s, those we elected decided how much the government spent. MPs could table amendments to the budget. Since then, MPs are only allowed to rubber stamp what Treasury officials have decided – and government largesse with taxpayer money has increased dramatically.

If we are to be well governed again, we need profound, far-reaching change. Government needs to be made accountable to Parliament, and those who sit in Parliament must be made properly answerable to the people.


23 JUN 2014

Chuka is wrong. Voters are angry because they are online

Lots of voters are angry and disconnected, according to Labour's Chuka Umunna, because they can't send emails and have no idea how to use the internet. These techno-illiterates would feel a lot less alienated, continued the sage of Streatham, if only they had better digital skills.

Chuka has it 180 degrees wrong. Many of the angriest, most alienated voters that I've come across feel that way precisely because of time spent online.

Firstly, the internet has democratised opinion forming. Instead of a small clique of BBC-type pundits telling folk what to think, people can now source comment and opinion from blogs and Twitter. This has left many voters feeling a lot less deferential towards smug opinion formers – and their smug, self-satisfied opinions.

Voter dissatisfaction is a product of modernity, not a rejection of it. If you are used to the idea of Tesco being open 24 hours a day, you feel less than happy about GP services that shut at the weekend.

As more people do more things online as part of their everyday life, public attitudes and expectations are beginning to shift. Once you are used to things being hyper-personalised around you and your requirements, as they are online, you feel a little underwhelmed by politicians offering you nothing but generic public services offline.

If millions of commuters are able to log in and log out of London's transport network each week, you might start to ask – as one of my constituents did recently – why no government is able to log people in and out when they cross our borders.

If you listen to music through Spotify, self-selection starts to feel like the norm. So what are you to make of a political party that imposes candidates and shortlists on you?

What are you to think about a political system that produces identikit candidates, who speak and think in cliché?

Far from being a rejection of modern Britain, voter disillusionment arises out of a sense of how else things might be. It is precisely because more voters are plugged in to the modern world online that they are feeling disillusioned with the retro offering from Chuka and co in SW1.

The internet has not cut voters off from politics, but politicians off from voters.


18 JUN 2014

Juncker in the top job? What next

It looks as if it might be Jean-Claude Juncker after all. Despite the best efforts of Downing Street to block his appointment as next President of the European Commission, I reckon that next week this uber-federalist is going to get confirmed in the role.

Not since Jacques Delors will we have had a head of the Commission so personally, and explicitly, committed to the grand project of European integration.

What might be the consequences?

David Cameron opposed Juncker on the basis that he is "a face from the Eighties", unsuited to reform. Indeed. If the face from the Eighties gets the job, the chances of there being any serious efforts to tackle Euro-sclerosis or the growing political disaffection spreading across the continent are pretty much nil.

I doubt there would even be the sort of token reforms – minor concessions on who can claim benefits, lip service to national parliaments – that the Foreign Office has been angling for.

Having Juncker in the role will make it harder for the Whitehall establishment to concoct some sort of bogus new deal in order to try to hoodwink the public in the 2017 referendum. Which would be a good thing.

Juncker is such a committed federalist, he would do almost anything to preserve his grand project. Even if that means letting Britain go. Indeed, he has already hinted at giving the British some sort of associate, trade-only membership. That might terrify the political tribe in SW1, but not the folk in Essex.

Juncker getting the top job in Brussels will be a wake-up call in Whitehall. Having cheerfully signed away the right to decide who becomes the Commission President in the Lisbon treaty, only now have ministers and mandarins woken up to the implications. "Did we really agree to that?" one can hear officials saying. "Cripes!"

Almost 20 years ago, John Major vetoed the appointment of Jean Luc Dehaene as Commission president. Today, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom no longer has the power to do even that. This is what surrendering your sovereignty feels like, chaps. Not nice, eh?

A Juncker win next week makes it clearer than ever that we need a coherent Europe strategy. For too long Europe policy has been all tactics; Turning up to Brussels ready to cut a deal with the French president over financial services regulation, but ending up vetoing a treaty when he wouldn't play ball. And then pretending that was your intention all along.

Opposing an EU budget only after losing a Commons vote. Saying you want less Europe, but then opting back into the European Arrest Warrant. Saying you don't want Juncker, but not lining up an alternative candidate. Saying you want a new deal, but not spelling out any meaningful details.

We need not only a strategy, but strategists. Too many of those officials in Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office that I have come across are too clever by half. All tactics, they lack any sense of strategy. They are federalist to their fingertips.

If Juncker gets the job, it might be time to ... you know ... appoint some officials who have a sense of Britain's national interest. And who can talk about us having a distinctive national interests without rolling their eyes and smirking? Yes, "cripes!" indeed.


10 JUN 2014

Where are the Thatchers, Attlees and Reagans to show us the sunlit uplands?

It was only when I discovered how to order contact lenses online that I realised what a bad deal I had been getting previously from my optician. Once a little bit of choice and competition came along, the terms of trade between punter and provider changed.

So, too, in politics.

For years, we have had two (and a half) providers in politics. This meant that politics was played out as a game between politicians.

Those wanting to win elections did not have to ask what was right or what was in the national interest. Instead, they only needed to ask where they stood in relation to the other side. It was all about positioning – preferably as close to the middle ground as possible, but just short of where the other lot stood.

The two and a half parties came to be seen as pretty indistinguishable to many outside Westminster.

Now it seems that some in SW1 are starting to wake up and recognise that the two and half providers – rather like my old optician – haven't really been serving the punters as well as they might have.

With all that emphasis on a tiny number of swing seats, a large swathe of the electorate has come to feel neglected. All that clever-dick positioning has left many wondering what the parties really stand for. The subjects and values that animate the SW1 tribe might not, it seems, do it for all the folk beyond.

These voters – the great ignored – might be angry, but they are not, in my experience, reactionary. In fact, many seem up for some far more profound change than anyone in Westminster is willing to contemplate.

At a community supper in Clacton the other evening (full to capacity, organised entirely online) people were anything but anti-modern. On the contrary, they wanted to know why we manage to have 24 hour super markets, yet they can't get to see a GP when they need one.

Far from being ill at ease with the world, they wanted to know what was keeping public services and the politicians behind.

"Millions of commuters use oyster cards each day to log in and log out", said one. "The system knows who they are and has all their details". "So why", he continued, "can't the government keep track of people, logging them in and out, when they cross our borders?"

Many of the most politically disaffected seem that way precisely because modernity has raised their expectations of how things might be. It is the full-time politicians that have failed to keep up. Anyone who thinks that it is the voters fault for losing touch with politicians, rather than the other way round, has spent too long in SW1.

If the great ignored are at times a little pessimistic, whose fault is that? Where are the Clement Attlees, the Margaret Thatchers and Ronald Reagans showing them the sunlit uplands?


04 JUN 2014

Recall - it should be local voters, not MPs, who trigger it

In her speech today, Her Majesty the Queen announced a recall Bill. This could have been the most significant change in decades to the way that Britain does politics.

For far too long, politics in Westminster has been done for us by a clique of career MPs, most of who come from "safe seats". Secure in the knowledge they can only be sacked if they lose the party whip, most MPs tend to answer primarily to other MPs. Politics in SW1 has thus become a game played by politicians and pundits, without much reference to the people.

Recall ought to overturn this cosy way of doing things. It's wildly popular: over 150,000 people signed up to 38 Degrees' superb campaign within the first two days. (Please add your name here.)

Recall could make the customer – rather than the whips' office – king. But will it?

I suspect that when we see the small print, it won't actually mean more direct democracy.

The SW1 gang, terrified of the implications of letting the people back into politics, will ensure that the trigger for any recall mechanism remains safely in their hands. Local people will only be allowed to vote to confirm what political insiders have decided.

Done properly, recall must be triggered by local voters, not a committee of Westminster grandees. And it must also involve an actual recall ballot – should your local MP be recalled, yes or no?

We trust juries to decide if someone has broken the law, rather than pass a verdict on whether they agree with the law. Similarly, recall means trusting local constituents to decide if the behaviour and conduct of their own MP is acceptable, not if they happened to vote for them last time round.

It is a sad reflection of our political system today that so many in Westminster balk at the very idea of allowing their electorate to make that kind of decision. I suspect most MPs would get a fairer hearing from their constituents than they ever would from a committee stuffed full of whips'-office placemen, under pressure from the lobby pack in full hunt mode.

Giving local people the power to recall their representatives, it is sometimes said, would lead to vexatious attempts to unseat MPs. What makes you think SW1 insiders cannot be vexatious?

Local people would be far better at deciding what was and what was not a legitimate complaint about their local MP. When the Tories triggered a judicially sanctioned recall ballot in Winchester in 1997, it backfired spectacularly. Seen as sore losers, they managed to turn a Lib Dem majority of almost zero into a Lib Dem majority of over 20,000.

"I can't see the point of recall," scoff some pundits who have rarely spotted a swing voter in a marginal seat either. "What we should really be focusing on is whether Boodle will be promoted in the reshuffle rather than Doodle. And what was on the menu when the PM and the German Chancellor met for lunch?"

We Conservatives have long understood the importance of choice and competition in business. I fear we have missed a chance to extend that same principle to politics. 


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