Category Archives: partisan politics

Lib Dems & Coalition: Final Thoughts

Approval ratings, image courtesy The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/16700180)

By Nikita Lalwani

NEW YORK—Although Parliament was officially in recess, my last week working in Westminster was one of the most exciting for my office. On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he wanted to introduce term limits for those who live in council homes. Liberal Democrat voters – many of whom live in council homes – were furious, and everyone wondered how Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Simon Hughes (the MP for whom I work) would react. Would he go along with Cameron’s proposal and risk alienating thousands of voters? Or would he criticize the prime minister and risk creating a rift in the coalition? Eventually, he made a statement that was calm and firm. While he said he would support further discussion on council home terms in government, he made it clear that fixed term housing was neither a Liberal Democrat policy nor one he favored.

From Twitter feeds and media headlines, it quickly became clear that Simon Hughes’s statement resonated with Liberal Democrat voters, who were happy to see one of their politicians standing up to Conservative policy. This support came at the right time.

As the above graph indicates, Liberal Democrats are the only party to have suffered a loss in popularity after this year’s general election. This trend is likely the result of two factors. First, as is the case with any opposition party who has become part of government, the Liberal Democrats have had to make some tough policy compromises. This is especially tough for a third party such as the Liberal Democrats, who have been in opposition for the better part of a century and whose constituents therefore are far less willing to tolerate even slight policy adjustments. Second, the nature of the coalition alliance has also alienated Liberal Democrat voters, who do not understand why their party has had to ally with long-time opponent Conservatives. Additionally, Labour and the media have successfully portrayed Liberal Democrats as the weaker half of government. It is no surprise, then, that many Lib Dem voters wonder what their party is doing for them, particularly in light of harsh governmental public spending cuts that – as I have said previously – affect Lib Dem and Labour constituencies the most.

What, then, can still save the Liberal Democrats?

First, as Simon Hughes did last week, Liberal Democrats should not be afraid to stand up for core values whilst in the coalition. Of course, compromise – especially in a coalition – is necessary and often preferable. But Liberal Democrat politicians must take care to highlight their role in shaping policy. Otherwise, they risk losing more voters than they already have.

Second – and perhaps more importantly – Liberal Democrats are hoping that next year’s referendum on voting reforms will be successful. Liberal Democrats hope to implement the Alternative Vote system, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference and the candidate with a majority of first-preference votes wins. If no candidate secures a majority of first-preference votes, second-preference votes – and later, if necessary, third-preference votes – are taken into account until someone obtains a majority. The proposed reform will not only make elections more democratic by taking into account everyone’s preferences, but it will also give Liberal Democrats a larger share of the vote. Under the current system, Liberal Democrats are severely disadvantaged. As the New York Times reported after the general election, Liberal Democrats received nearly 25% of the popular vote but less than 10% of the seats in the Commons. A successful referendum on AV could very well make up for the pains Liberal Democrats have felt thus far.

In the end, although Liberal Democrats walk a difficult road in the years ahead, they also have a chance to effect real change. For although being in government invites criticism and blame, it offers something else opposition does not: real power. And while I am now back home in New York, I know I will follow the next five years of British politics with great interest.

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For Lib Dems, Tough Road Ahead

By Nikita Lalwani

LONDON – As I am nearing the end of my time here in Parliament, I thought it fitting to reflect on the state of the coalition thus far. In an astute article for The Economist – aptly titled ‘The Liberal Democrats dig in for three years of pain’ – the new Bagehot columnist pointed out that Britain’s third party has been the biggest target for coalition critics. In debates, I rarely hear Labour members criticizing Conservatives; instead, they insult and pressure Liberal Democrats, urging them to see the error of their ways. Labour has vilified the LibDems, portraying them as unprincipled and power-hungry politicians.

Paradoxically, however, Bagehot argues that Labour’s vilification of Liberal Democrats is neither productive nor strategic:

[One] Tory notes that his Lib Dem colleagues are “taking much more flak than we are” from the press and the Labour party, when it comes to cuts. The same Conservative argues that the coalition is strengthened not weakened by this asymmetric pounding. Labour were behaving as if the LibDems belonged to them, he suggested, and the LibDems have noticed this. Labour’s rage was rather inept, he felt: it would be more clever for Labour to criticise the LibDems more in sorrow than in anger.

He’s right. It is common sense: if you want someone to join forces with you, you should court – not snub – them. Labour’s strategy has united the coalition because it has unwittingly transformed Labour into the common enemy of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Working in a Liberal Democrat office and having heard countless Labour MPs attack Liberal Democrats, I feel much more sympathetic towards the Conservatives than I do Labour, and I suspect my colleagues feel the same.

Yet Labour may end up on top in the end. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives appear to agree that much hinges on the state of the economy over the next five years. Should cuts and austerity lead to a deeper recession, both parties will suffer hard losses in the next election. On the other hand, if austerity leads to growth and balances the budget, voters may yet forgive them. Concerns over the economy, Bagehot notes, may even strengthen the coalition, as both parties have a common stake in the next five years.

But again, Liberal Democrats – whose electorate will be among the hardest hit by public spending cuts – appear to have the most to lose. Disgruntled voters may not forget, as one letter to my office put it, that they “voted Lib Dem but got Tories instead.” Liberal Democrats must rely on forgiving voters to realize that coalition requires compromise, and no compromise comes without tough trade-offs.

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UK vs. USA: Parliament or President

by Nikita Lalwani

I was at dinner with a Yale friend and his family the other night when his parents posed an interesting question: “which do you prefer,” they asked, “British or American politics?” It’s a good question, one that compelled me to reflect on the political differences on this side of the pond.

The most striking aspect of British politics is its vibrancy and intellectualism. Debates in the House of Commons are fast-paced, substantive, and witty. Members of Parliament often insert clever jibes or sarcastic remarks into their statements and rebuttals, and politicians are often forced to quickly confront and answer opposition to their arguments. Debates are facilitated by the Speaker of the House, currently John Bercow, who keeps order efficiently and humorously. On Monday, he interjected into the contentious debate on constitutional reform:

Mr Speaker: Order. I genuinely apologise that I have to keep interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister, but I want to hear him. I want to hear the content of his arguments and his mellifluous tones, and I keep being prevented from hearing him by people chuntering away from a sedentary position. Please do not.

As is clear from the above quote, House of Commons debates are often lively, boisterous, and – dare I say it – fun. When I attend debates in the House or watch them on my office television, I consistently find myself engaged, a state I would not ascribe to watching C-SPAN.

Yet there are problems with the parliamentary system that are less prevalent in the U.S. presidential system. In the UK Parliament, the executor and legislator are one and the same. Once legislation is proposed, a simple majority is required to vote that legislation into law. Since Members of Parliament are pressured to vote along party lines, it is easy for Government to secure a majority to back legislation. In effect, the majority party may pass any legislation they wish. Unlike in the United States, where the President checks Congress and politicians frequently vote independently, the Government here is held less to account.

Separation of powers is arguably the most important check against abuse of power. For all of its vibrancy and rigor, the British system must change to reflect this truth. Fortunately, it seems the coalition government agrees. An exciting part of their agenda is the extent of their constitutional reforms, which aim to transfer power from Government to Parliament and from Parliament to the British people. I will cover these reforms in more detail in my next post.

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British Budget: Progressive or Regressive?

By Nikita Lalwani

LONDON — This past week has been an exciting one for British politics. On Tuesday, George Osborne – the youngest ever Chancellor of the Exchequer – unveiled the emergency budget to much media attention and public debate. As many expected, the budget responded to the economic crisis with fiscal austerity. From the New York Times article on the budget:

The steps outlined to the House of Commons by George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, would cut the annual government deficit by nearly $180 billion over the next five years, shrinking Britain’s public sector and instituting tough reductions in public housing benefits, disability allowances and other previously sacrosanct aspects of the country’s $285 billion welfare budget.

Only time will tell if these cuts will herald a new era of prosperity and smart spending or catalyze a double-dip recession. What was readily apparent from the post-budget debates, though, was the way in which the three parties interacted with each other and the strategic way each chose to portray the coalition.

Conservatives seem pleased with the budget. They argue that cuts were necessary, and they constantly remind Labour that they are at fault for Britain’s financial predicament. The numbers, they say, show results – the increase in value-added tax alone will raise $18 billion by 2012. Of course, the budget suits Conservatives ideologically as well, as it puts them on their way to small government and to a smaller public sector. To counteract this, Conservatives have highlighted Liberal Democrat contributions to the budget, emphasizing their commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Not surprisingly, Labour MPs have claimed just the opposite: they have criticized the extensive budget cuts, claiming that Tories are trying to bring back Thatcher-era reforms while harming society’s poorest and most vulnerable. They have criticized Liberal Democrats for compromising their ideals in support of a budget they perceive to be quintessentially conservative. Labour’s strategy seems to be to undermine the coalition at all costs. They constantly refer to the “Tory budget” – although the budget is a combination of Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy – to portray Liberal Democrats as an insignificant and ignored part of government.  Their rhetoric seems designed to create a rift between the two coalition parties. In Thursday’s budget debate, for instance, Labour MP Edward Miliband all but urged Liberal Democrats to unite against Conservatives in next week’s vote.

Liberal Democrats, by contrast, are quick to point out their contribution to the budget, which most seem ready to support. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, in a letter to the party, emphasized the more progressive elements of the budget. Liberal Democrats are right that their contribution is apparent, from an increase in Capital Gains Tax that will target the wealthy to an increase in state pensions that correlates to earnings and inflation. So far, Liberal Democrats have stuck to their line that the budget will result in a fairer Britain for all. Ultimately, Liberal Democrats are smart not to rock the boat. The coalition is still new, and the two parties are still learning how to work together. It is best for the success of the coalition if the two parties seem to be on the same side, at least for now. But how much compromise is too much? Many Lib Dem voters may feel betrayed, particularly when they start to feel the effects of the budget in the coming years (I have already opened several derogatory letters at the office). Britain’s third party must walk a fine line between sticking to their Liberal principles and effectively compromising with the Conservatives. It is a tough balance to strike.

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 2: Buenos Aires

By Ramon Gonzalez

BUENOS AIRES — It began as a World Cup, has become South America’s, and the hope here is that it will end as Argentina’s. With confident play so far and brief glimpses of brilliance, the national squad has grounded the faith here in reason, and to see a well-coiffed Diego Maradona patrolling the sidelines in a suit makes one believe in the providential workings of the Hand of God.

With the recent and (here) delightful collapse of the French team, the struggles of Old Europe, the bizarre and card-happy referring which makes even NBA referees appear competent, the charming American exuberance, and the sincere concerns for the North Korean’s coach’s return home, the travails of Argentina’s qualifying campaign have largely faded from mind. I believe, however, that they do deserve a brief nod. Argentina suffered through a 6-1 thrashing from Bolivia (the second to worst team in the continent). It spent many long nights and days discussing why Lionel Messi — Argentina’s star and the world’s best player — could not replicate the form that graced his club play for Barcelona, risked seeing Coach Diego Maradona — the best player in Argentina’s history and among the best ever — suffer the indignity of helming this tragic failure, squeezed into the last automatic qualifying slot from South America, and sat through verbal volleys in the press from players, coaches, and administrators that mucked through the lewd to make their points. So Argentina can be forgiven her present excitement.

Besides offering irregular soccer commentary, in Buenos Aires I am working at the Argentina Council for International Relations where you’ll find my writing on the G20 Finance Ministers’ Meeting, Obama’s National Security Strategy, forecasts about European financial trouble, and a preview of the upcoming G20 conference in Toronto (sorry, but Spanish only). To whet your appetite and in case your favorite team books an earlier than expected flight home from South Africa, I’ll soon be covering (provided Argentina (or the US or Spain – I’m working the odds here) doesn’t do too well) the consequences of Juan Manuel Santos’ victory in the second round of the Columbian Presidential elections and Argentine debt and trade disputes. Please pace your reading so you don’t overload the servers all at once.

Let’s return to the game. Or rather, the game surrounding the game, as there is little of much interest to say about Argentina’s productive and solid victories against rather outmatched competition. As most of the matches fall here during normal working hours, many employers have taken to setting up televisions in the office for everyone to gather around, a clear-eyed concession to the reality that when the national team plays, everything stops. For those caught walking on the streets, a symphony of car horns keeps all abreast of an Argentine goal, and inside the slap of hands and shouts of joy match the sound. On television Argentina games merit hours of commentary and dissection with strategic considerations and player decisions receiving the full CNN election treatment of touch finger screens and images dragged in all directions.

In reading about the Cup I’ve comes across a quote from CLR James, a Trinidadian historian of repute, that I particularly enjoy. Motivating his famous autobiography which discusses cricket, Beyond a Boundary, was the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” From the inescapably charged discussion surrounding the use of vuvuzelas to the oftentimes enjoyable awkwardness and bad feeling when countries play their former colonial powers (and frequently win), the nasty commentary at some French players after the team’s poor showing to the wincing at a white American’s overdone enthusiasm for the African teams: when the camera cuts to the mugs of politicians and royalty watching their teams play, it’s a reminder that there are not just 22 men on the pitch.

Four geopolitical storylines involving Argentina deserve mention, one already in progress and three to play out. First, the poor showing by European and African squads and the dominance by the Americas, and in particular South America, whose five teams have not yet suffered a loss, seems likely to ignite pressure for reform of the qualifying system and FIFA rankings. Using the grass leaves from the pitch as clues to some larger commentary on national strength is as hackneyed as it often is wrong, but European failures can’t be welcome by politicians back home desperate for some good news during a brutal series of months on the economic front. Second, the emergence of Brazil as a world power and leader in South America has occasioned a noticeable inferiority in Argentina, another reminder of its past economic superiority and the accumulated toll of years of anemic growth. An Argentine victory in the Cup would be enjoyed, but a victory over Brazil particularly so. Third, Argentina and Uruguay have a longstanding dispute over a pulp mill on the Uruguay River. Though less present in the national consciousness, a game against Uruguay would invite reflexive flexing of nationalist muscles in some quarters. Finally, with Presidential elections a year away a fairly strong anti-Kirchner (referring to both the current President Cristina Fernandez and her husband, the former President Nestor Kirchner) mood has taken hold. At a gathering of diplomatic types I was told that some opposed to the pair are privately hoping for an early Argentine defeat to prevent soccer success from propelling the duo back into the Casa Rosada, the seat of the Argentine presidency, amidst a general national mood of good feelings. Though you have to imagine those doing so are not the most devoted of soccer fans.

That cautions one against the geopolitical instinct. Sometimes as Americans know well, it is tough enough just to know cricket. Though it’s difficult to resist imagining some friendly side-betting taking place between leaders at the G20 summit this weekend, when politics seems to intrude on soccer I generally prefer to imagine it the other way around, that soccer and sport intrude on politics, or more precisely, on the human lives that make up our politics. The world now is at play. Let’s enjoy it.

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Coalition: Compromise and Cooperation

by Nikita Lalwani

LONDON — This summer I am interning for Simon Hughes, Deputy Leader and Member of Parliament for the Liberal Democrats. This is a particularly exciting time for the UK’s third party, and it is a particularly exciting time for British politics in general. After the 2010 general election left no party with a clear majority, the Conservatives entered into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This time in British politics has been marked by a series of firsts: the election resulted in the first hung parliament since 1974, the first full coalition since the Second World War, and the first time the Liberal Democrats have been in government. In this blog, I will chronicle what I observe working in Westminster during this historic moment. I hope to write about the state of the coalition, the new identity of the Liberal Democrats, and the new government’s policies and reforms, among other topics.

The other day, I heard something rarely heard in a Liberal Democrat office: praise for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Granted, the praise followed his eloquent and appropriate public apology for Bloody Sunday. Nonetheless, as I’ve more often heard my colleagues insult the Conservatives than praise them, I felt the occasion noteworthy.

This exchange is perhaps indicative of the change brought by the coalition. The most exciting possibility the coalition offers is a time for Britain’s leading political parties to set aside their differences. From my time working in Westminster, I’ve observed a partisan system that is particularly rigid and insular. In my office, jibes at other parties’ MPs and their staff are commonplace, sometimes at the expense of sincere analysis of competing ideologies and policy. On a more macro level, Members of Parliament are expected to vote consistently along party lines at the risk of being ostracized by party ranks. This dangerously creates a system in which independent thinking is discouraged in favor of blind partisanship and tribalism among party members.

But now, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives — longtime opponents — are on the same team, if at least on the same side of the House. No longer can Liberal Democrats or Conservatives respond to each other with knee-jerk disapproval. For perhaps the first time, the parties will be forced to confront each other for what they are. And Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have more in common than they realize, although prejudice and a culture of partisanship have long fostered hatred between them. Their central ideological similarity is their desire to shift power away from the centralized state into local councils and charities. As The Economist article “Servants of the people” noted:

The two parties share not only a few policy specifics—something that is true, after all, of the Lib Dems and Labour, or indeed the Tories and Labour—but also an underlying critique of the British state, which both see as uniquely centralised by Western standards. “Freedom, fairness and responsibility” were the soporifically banal themes chosen for the speech by David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, and Nick Clegg, his Lib Dem deputy; “giving power away” would have been more fitting.

Along with their critique of the state, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives agree that civil liberties, eroded under Labour government, must be restored. They have already scrapped ID cards, and they plan to extend the Freedom of Information Act and roll back the National Identity register, among other reforms. Of course, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are ideologically distinct — they disagree on many issues, notably nuclear policy and attitudes towards the European Union, but new times call for new compromises and cooperation.

Though this coalition offers an exciting chance for new politics and reform, the government will ultimately be judged by the people on how it deals with the current fiscal deficit. Unpopular budget cuts will be necessary, and the public will not respond well. People will undoubtedly be watching closely this Tuesday, when Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announces the budget. Yet although the days of this coalition may be numbered, one thing is sure: the next five years will be fun to watch.

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