The Paul Richards Column
I have this friend. For the sake of the story, let us call her Jo. She has a conviction that at the very top of politics, there is no such thing as happenstance or coincidence. Every move is a calculation, there’s a motive behind every utterance, and no one just does stuff. It’s all part of a plan. In short: there are no cock-ups, only conspiracies. For Jo, the pleasure of politics is in working out who’s playing who, and why. The scary thing is that most of the time, she’s right. Not every conspiracy works, and of course there is more than one going on at any one time. But if you view the actions of senior politicians through this lens, it explains an awful lot of seemingly random actions.
Take three recent announcements by the Conservative Party on what they would do in their first term in office, should such a calamity befall the nation.
The first is David Cameron’s firm pledge to introduce a system where only MPs in English seats vote on legislation affecting England. Scottish, Welsh and Ulster MPs would be banned from voting on these issues. This idea has been bubbling away inside the Conservative Party since devolution to Scotland and Wales a decade ago, as their answer to the thirty-year old West Lothian question. Then-leader William Hague said in 1999 that “people will become increasingly resentful that decisions are being made in England by people from other parts of the UK on matters that that English people did not have a say on elsewhere.” The situation was exacerbated in 2004 when 40 Scottish MPs helped the government push through the highly controversial bill introducing university tuition fees for England.
In 2008 Ken Clarke MP, then chair of the Tories’ ‘democracy taskforce’ published a proposal for restrictions on non-English seat MPs voting on some of the stages of bills which affect England. David Cameron said recently: “for English-only legislation, we would have a sort of English Grand Committee. That is our intention and what is likely to go in the manifesto.”
Such a move would endanger the Union, and create a two-tier Westminster Parliament, and so the Tories’ policy should be opposed on principle. But it would also massively favour the Conservative Party, because if it is in a position to enact its plans after the 2010 election, it will have won scores of new seats in England. English votes for English laws in effect means Tory votes for English laws.
The second announcement is Cameron’s plan to cut the size of the House of Commons by around 60 MPs. Speaking to the Financial Times in January, Cameron said “I think the House of Commons could do the job that it does with 10% fewer MPs without any trouble at all.” He said the Tories could legislate in their first term for an urgent boundary review so that all seats had roughly the same number of electors in time for the general election that followed. Cameron will propose this in the general context of anti-Parliamentary feeling in the country. I pity those who might have to oppose the idea – arguing for the status quo against such a seemingly radical policy. Cameron’s spin doctors have since confirmed that this would be a “first-term priority”. But where would the axe fall? On Wales, and the English cities, where Labour would have most of its MPs, even after a Conservative win. That means Cameron would fix the system by abolishing Labour seats in the first term to make it easier to win a second term. Analysis by John Curtice at Strathclyde University suggests a smaller Commons would exaggerate swings, and “would improve the Tory chances of winning”.
The third announcement appeared in the Telegraph last week, and it concerned Cameron’s desire to reform party funding. Since the cross-party talks on party funding reforms broke down in 2006, Cameron has made it clear that the Tories will legislate to cap all donations to parties (£50,000 is the latest figure). That means any individual or institution can only give up to £50,000. It makes sense if your party is funded by rich people and companies. If your party is funded by trade unions, it sounds a death knell. Cameron’s point-man on the negotiations Andrew Tyrie MP made union funding the sticking point, and the casus belli for the Tories breaking up the talks. The Labour Party is now reliant on the big four trade unions, not just for election posters and leaflets, but to pay the staff wages and utilities bills at head office. If each union could only give £50,000, Labour would cease to exist as a functioning organisation.
Taken on face value, each of these proposals, which will appear in the Tories’ manifesto in a few weeks’ time, sound reasonable. None will upset the electorate, or even attract too much controversy in the campaign. But each is carefully calibrated to undermine Labour’s effectiveness in Parliament, and fatally wound our chances of winning the election after next. They add up to a concerted attempt to kill off the Labour Party by a series of fixes and fiddles. It may just be a happenstance that the Tory policies have as their by-product a series of lethal blows to Labour.
Unless you believe there’s no such thing as coincidence in politics…