Wednesday, July 25, 2007

How representative of Britain are our parliamentary parties?

Given that the chattering classes like to talk about how voters no longer relate to parliament, I thought it would be useful to look at how representative of Britain the main political parties are. The theory is that the more representative the parties are, the more likely the public will feel affinity with parliament (rather than think of them as "others", who are nothing like them), and the more likely that the opinions of the public are reflected in parliament (in the sense that gender and background always inform and colour the viewpoints of the persons concerned).

First of all gender. Just over 50% of the population is female. Here's the breakdown in parliament:

Labour: 97 women MPs (27% of Labour MPs)
Tories: 17 women MPs (9% of Tory MPs)
LibDems: 9 women MPs (14% of LibDem MPs)

So none of the parties reflects the gender balance of the nation, though Labour is well ahead of the others.

Next up, education. 7% of current students go to public school. 88% of current students go to comprehensives and 5% of current students go to grammar schools. The following data on Parliament comes from the Sutton Trust:

Labour: 18% of MPs went to public school
Tories: 59% of MPs went to public school
LibDems: 39% of MPs went to public school

Labour: 53% of MPs went to state comprehensives
Tories: 20% of MPs went to state comprehensives
LibDems: 41% of MPs went to state comprehensives

Labour: 29% of MPs went to state selective schools
Tories: 21% of Tories went to state selective schools
LibDems: 20% went to state selective schools.

Most of the MPs who went to state selective schools (aka grammar schools) are over 40. As time goes on, they will dwindle as a % of MPs, reflecting the abolition of grammars in most parts of the country in the 1970's.

Regarding university attendance the figures are as follows:

Labour: 67% of MPs went to university
Tories: 83% of MPs went to university
LibDems: 81% of MPs went to university

All the parties have been increasing the number of graduate MPs over time (in 1964 the figures for MPs who had attended university were Labour 42%, Tories 63% and LibDems 78%).

I am most surprised by the LibDem figures for public schools. Most LibDem MPs entered parliament in 2001 and 2005. Their public school MPs are not a legacy of candidate selection policies of 20 or 30 years ago, in the way some of the Tory public school MPs are accounted for.

Considering ethnic minorities, 7.7% of the UK population is non-white and 92.3% is white. There are only a total of 15 ethnic minority MPs in parliament out of the 646 MPs (2.3%). 13 are Labour and 2 are Tories. None are LibDems. The two Tory ethnic minority MPs entered parliament in 2005.

Obviously Labour is the most representative of Britain as it actually is (though they could increase the number of women and ethnic minorities).

The Tory position looks awful - but some of that is down to legacy. They got decimated in 1997, hardly improved in 2001 and gained only a modest number of MPs in 2005. Lots of their fuddy-duddy male public school MPs were elected in the Thatcher years or before. Until this "old guard" retires it is unlikely that they will get to govern Britain as the assertive modern voter no longer tolerates the idea of "elites" who are nothing like them, ruling over them. If they had any sense they would be trying to deselect as many of the old guard as possible and replacing them with more normal people. But Cameron and Osborne and co are handicapped by the fact that they too are part of the elite public school brigade. To give Michael Howard credit though, he did put through two ethnic minority MPs and more women in 2005.

But the big surprise is the LibDems. They prattle the most about "representative democracy" (aka proportional representation), but they don't exactly practice it in-house. Unlike the Tories, they don't have the excuse of "legacy" MPs. Most LibDem MPs entered parliament in the last decade. You would have thought that like Labour they would seek to have more comprehensive school educated people, more women, more ethnic minorities - but this is not the case.

You get a glimpse of this looking at who attends the party conferences. Labour has the broadest range of people from all backgrounds, creeds and colours. And while the toffs are heavily represented in the Tories, they do have a minority of self-made working class Tories that Thatcher attracted to their party - and these working class Tories are the most hostile to the elitist Cameron - in a peculiar Tory way, the grammar school row was covert class-war row, as Nick Robinson observed.

The LibDems though tend to be awfully nice white middle class people, the narrowest group of all. This is why they are the third party and failed to break through and become "the real opposition". Charlie Kennedy masked this narrowness temporarily when he was leader because of his egalitarian Scottish tone. Since he's gone, they've fallen back, as people look at them and think, they don't really represent me. If the LibDems really want to break through, they need to broaden their tent. But this means dealing with people from very different backgrounds whose views might not be as "pure" as their own. Do they really want to do this? My impression is that the LibDems find this too distateful to bother with.

P.S. Regarding ethnic minorities, someone pointed out to me that the SNP have an ethnic member in the Scottish Parliament and Plaid Cymru have an ethnic member in the Welsh Assembly. This means that of the five major parties (Conservatives, labour, LibDems, SNP and Plaid) the LibDems are the only party to have no ethnic representative at Westminster, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. And they don't appear to be disposed to readdress this either.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

David Cameron and Rwanda

The Daily Mail and other papers have been laying into David Cameron for disappearing to Rwanda while his Oxfordshire constituency of Witney has been flooded.

Tories defend this saying that "Dave" isn't in power, so there is little he can do here. Of course as he isn't in power it's equally pointless him addressing the Rwandan parliament as he has zero authority to offer aid, trade or anything else. The Mail reports that:

David Cameron's much-criticised trip to Rwanda has descended into farce as only 16 of the 80 Rwandan MPs scheduled to hear him speak turned up and his speech was hit by a power cut.

Looks like the Rwandan parliamentarians thought it was a waste of time listening to someone who is not in government.

Should he have gone? Surely the correct thing to do was to have stayed at home himself, but let the other 41 Conservatives on the Rwandan trip go ahead with their plans, and sent someone like William Hague along to be head honcho on the trip. That way he would have got kudos for putting his constituents first, but the Tories would still have got points for caring about Rwanda. Of course doing this would have meant that someone other than Dave would have been in the limelight, which he might not have enjoyed (Dave is quite egotistical - even to the point of putting "David Cameron's Conservatives on ballot papers; Blair for all his ego never once dared put "Tony Blair's Labour" on the ballot paper at any point during his 13 years as leader).

The thing about events like floods, is that residents want their MP on hand for moral support (and if they can do other things such as stack sandbags and distribute water bottles etc, so much the better). Nothing irritates voters more than the thought that while they are struggling, their MP has swanned off somewhere else. If they are miserable and uncomfortable, they want their MP to be miserable and uncomfortable along with them.

The other pertinent point is that most of these floods are happening in Tory areas. They may carp at the Labour government, but not only are they unable to vote the government out (as they are already Tory constituencies) but Dave's behaviour indicates that a Tory government would care much less than a Labour one.

In the rare instances where there is a Labour MP in the flood areas, the MPs are in their constituencies. For example Parmjit Dhanda, Labour MP for Gloucester has been on the ground, organising water bottle donations, talking to residents, doing all he can to help. The residents of Longlevens in Gloucestershire (which is part of his constituency) reported that they all received letters from him after they got flooded, which began:

Dear resident,

I am writing to you in connection with the severe weather and flooding that has occurred in your neighborhood.

Although a few residents have contacted me on this issue I want to ensure you have my full contact details so I can assist you on a one-to-one basis should you need further support.

He goes on to talk about crisis loans and community care grants for those in serious need and urges them to contact him directly on this.

This is exactly what people want from their MP - someone who voluntarily gets in touch with you and says here I am if you want one-to-one help in this crisis.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Interesting take on what happened in Southall from Nirpal Dhaliwal who grew up there, writing in the Sunday Times:

But while Southall’s Asian population is entrepreneurial and family-oriented, it is at heart a blue-collar neighbourhood that remembers the debt it owes to a welfare state that nursed and educated its children, and to the trade unions that protected its jobs and helped in the fight against racism. The riot that broke out when the National Front tried to march through the high street in 1979 is a basic part of Southall folklore. If the Tories were going to win it over they needed to offer a lot more than a brown-skinned Cameron clone.

One common criticism of Lit among the people I spoke to last week was that “He’s too young. What does he know?”. While the Tories hailed his youth and energy, they overlooked the fact that Asians generally revere age and experience. While Lit promoted himself as young and modern, the seat was won at a canter with a low-profile campaign by the 60-year-old Virendra Sharma, who has served as a Labour councillor for more than 25 years.

The Labour party even hired an old Indian Tata bus, decked out in gold and silver decorations, from which to blare out its campaign messages. It was a touch of sentimental genius, a comforting nod to the people’s love of their motherland and their roots.

..........Southall is a traditional, close-knit but also parochial and gossipy neighbourhood. Growing up there in the 1980s I couldn’t even smoke a cigarette on a street corner without some busybody relaying the information to my mum before I’d even got back home.

..........The Tories might have thought Lit’s fame was an asset, but it provided negative fuel for the gossips. Shopkeepers spoke to me of a “Lit mafia” taking over the area. Lit’s father Avtar had transformed a pirate station that operated out of borrowed attics in the 1980s into a legitimate business that is now worth millions. Avtar is a notorious Southall figure, not least for outraging the locals by divorcing his first wife – Tony’s mother – and marrying again, an act regarded as scandalous by Asians of his generation.

In the 2001 general election Avtar ran as an independent, only to lose and have Sunrise fined £10,000 for broadcasting a political interview with him in breach of the Broadcasting Act. Avtar Lit is the subject of much local tittle-tattle regarding his business and personal dealings; choosing his son wasn’t the smartest move the Conservatives could make.

Though Tony’s campaign was fought within the rules, he made the most of his radio connections as his campaign cars drove around blaring recordings by Sunrise’s most famous presenters. Many people regarded Lit’s desire to win the seat as an attempt to turn their town into a father and son family business.

So there you go. It was local knowledge what won it, and local politics. Sedgefield was also won by a local man. Perhaps this is a new trend, with local candidates and local campaigns trumping orders from central office - certainly it contributes to political stability when the MP knows his constituency like the back of his hand - and his constituents know him familiarly too.

Friday, July 20, 2007

UK Economic Growth Unexpectedly Acclerates

According to ONS stats released today, UK Growth in the second quarter was 0.8%, up from 0.7% in the first quarter, faster than expected.

The rise is mainly down to manufacturing, mining, quarrying and energy increasing from the previous quarter. Services were slightly down, but as ever, business services and finance showed increased growth over the quarter. Government and other services grew a mere 0.1% compared to 0.5% in the first quarter. But who needs government services when business, finance and manufacturing are doing so well? More important may be the steadiness of growth. Since the last quarter of 2005, growth has been either 0.7% or 0.8% each quarter, remarkably even and steady.

Also encouraging was the trade figures released last week. As the graph shows, the trade deficit is narrowing. It was £3.5 billion in May, compared to £4.2billion in April and about £6.5 billion in May 2006. Simply, we are exporting more, (the improvement in the manufacturing figures above is related to this).

Not surprisingly, sterling rose against the dollar to $2.05 - the highest since mid 1981, 26 years ago. However the pound remained relatively stable against the euro (the euro-zone is our main export area, and the relative steadiness of the sterling-euro rate is the reason for our exports increasing). The markets are all abuzz about the prospects of another interest rate rise. I'm not quite so sure. Inflation is moderating and the good growth figures are mainly down to manufacturing and an improved trade deficit, while services moderated, indicating that the consumer is pulling in their horns - this rebalancing is exactly what the BoE wants.

Nervous eyes as always are cast across the Atlantic. The Americans are still struggling with their sub-prime mortgage scandal. And they are still a huge economy with the capacity to destabalise the rest of the world. Thankfully though, the euro-zone has come out of it's extended trough, and as we are Europeans and EU members, we are more dependant on Europe than America. As long as Germany continues to motor we might escape contagion from the American crisis, fingers crossed. All-in-all it's not a bad place to be in the 11th year of a Labour government.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Perils of Political Blogging

Dizzy of Dizzy Thinks has a very interesting piece entitled "Is the Tory Internet about to turn on itself?". In it he discusses a new Tory site called Platform 10:

"The word is the site is to be an antidote to ConservativeHome which some have said is far to critical of the leadership and is causing them headaches".

He concludes:

"Frankly, I can hear the word "split" echoing around the TV studios of talking heads already. There is indeed it seems a battlefield forming. The problem is it looks to be a battlefield where the same side is preparing to look in on each other".

Much has been made about how Tories "dominate" the blogosphere, and how "lamentable" Labour's efforts are. But I guess "success" depends on whether you are intending to get talked about a lot in the press and on the net, or whether the aim of the blogging is to actually win you elections.

The press understandably love ConservativeHome. Journalists in search of stories of dissent and division among the Tories need only trawl through the articles and comments on that site for their story. Add into the mix the site owner who fancies himself as a bit of a "guru" and alternative power source, and who is willing to be interviewed on television to tout his "surveys" of the Tory membership (which are usually critical of the leadership), and of course Cameron and co feel a little queasy about it. Other Tory bloggers like Iain Dale and Guido Hawkes also seem to exhibit the same publicity-seeking vanity to the point where if it was a crunch between burnishing their own profiles and the needs of their party, they'd put themselves first.

The LibDems have a similar problem with the site Political Betting. This is actually a very good site (though most of the people who post comments on it tend to be Tories), with many insightful articles, and it is especially good at covering elections. But when Mike Smithson the site owner talks about Lib Dem issues, he packs a particular punch as he is a LibDem member and indeed has stood for election under their banner. When he writes about Tories or Labour it is generally understood that this is his opinion of them as a LibDem. When he writes about LibDem matters, the assumption is that his is an Insider view. This can cause unforseen problems. For instance last year when Ming Campbell had a few bad PMQs, Smithson kept up the pressure with several articles exploring whether Ming could survive this, and with a killer article in May 2006 asking "What about a woman to follow Ming". This merely months after Ming was elected. Of course the press followed up, and poor Ming has been struggling with "who will follow Ming" questions ever since.

Why did he do it? Unlike Tim Montgomerie I don't think Smithson suffers from the same vanity and desire to seek publicity. I think he just thought he was being "impartial" from a journalistic and betting point of view. But if journalists or political betting pundits are to be truly impartial, they can't be members of political parties. If they are party members, anything they say about those parties will be amplified and used against those parties.

Labour bloggers are a different animal - much more low-key, none pretend to be "impartial journalists" and none aspire to be Press personalities on television. LabourHome is a web 2.0 operation - unlike Conservative Home, the articles and editorial are not written by a few people based on a particular "faction view" of the party. Rather, the members of the site write the content, posting articles on whatever they want. Site members include some Tories and LibDems as well as the whole Labour spectrum, so you never know what will get posted as it depends on which member has the time that day and what the particular bee in their bonnet is. As a result, the site has the feel of the general low-level chatter that you get at branch meetings. Most of it is friendly and most support the line the leadership takes (Labour has a very strong sense of the collective). This has been a great disappointment to the press who were hoping to find powerful people posting juicy factional anti-leadership stuff in the manner of ConservativeHome.

The other Labour website Bloggers4Labour aggregates the feeds of some 300 Labour bloggers. Unlike LabourHome, there are no Tory or LibDem voices here. But here's the thing - it turns out that Labour bloggers spend more time blogging about football, Dr Who, science fiction, pop music, cookery, abstract graphics of snowflakes, photos of flowers, butterflies, cats and architecture, and stories about obscure goings on in Argentina and Kazakhstan (and apologies if I've missed off some obsessions from the list), than they do about UK politics. To hear Tory bloggers, you'd think this was a bad thing - but in truth it contributes to building an online persona for the party that is every bit as warm and fuzzy as that the Labour party enjoys at street level. And one of the reasons people have always liked the Labour party more than the Labour leadership, and certainly way more than they like the Conservative Party, is because of this warm and human aspect. If a member of the public stumbled across a Labour blog, they'd conclude that here are a bunch of likeable people. If they stumbled across a Tory blog like Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale or ConHome, they'd recoil in horror, especially at the demented venom you find from Tories in the comments. And no one ever puts scary demented types into government.

Those of us Labour bloggers who do write about politics do so in order to play our small part supporting the party and the Labour government. Our aim is mainly to correct the Tory distortions and fibs and to make Labour's case. If we want to be movers and shakers, blogging isn't the way to do it - the locus of power in Labour lies at Westminster especially as we're in government. If you want to carry influence, you have to go through the trouble of putting yourself up for election to parliament, or work as an aide to government ministers.

When they come to assess which web effort aided their party's fortunes best in the next election - the unlikely answer might be that it was Labour's that did the business, because so low key, supportive of the Labour government and because crucially we don't foul our own nest.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

More on Speeding

More on speeding.... On the left is a graph that shows how fuel efficiency decreases after 60mph. It's an American gragh, so the mpg are miles per American gallon rather than Imperial, but the trend will of course be the same - you use up more petrol if you drive too fast.

Essentially doing 75mph (120kmph) instead of 55mph (90kmph) increases the fuel you consume by about 20%. Given how expensive petrol is at the moment, you'd think it was a no-brainer that people cut their speed. Yet drivers rarely do this - and these same drivers then complain about fuel prices and speeding tickets.

Why do they behave this way? I think it is to do with problems with deferred gratification. The same way some people are unable to wait till the sales to buy an item, or to save for it for six months instead of putting it now on the credit card, some people can't wait an extra half hour to get to their destination (or can't be bothered to get up half an hour early to give themselves enough time to drive there at 60mph). If we could just get people to try it out, they'd not only save themselves a lot of money, the volume of petrol consumed would fall, as would the CO2 emmissions. Plus they'd stay within the law and avoid speeding tickets.

I'd say to people, just try it once - perhaps on a weekend trip to see the inlaws. You probably know already how much fuel the journey takes, and you can therefore easily compare how you do with a journey at a steady 60mph. Obviously it will hurt the self-image of some to be driving at that speed in the slow lane with the lorries. But the financial gain is substantial - I'd say, just try it out once. Then decide whether a macho self-image is worth the extra cost (hint: it doesn't matter what other drivers think of you as they don't know you from adam).

Friday, July 06, 2007

Speed Cameras

I thought I'd do a post on speed cameras because one way to tell if someone is Labour or Tory is to ask them their views on speed cameras. Labour people instinctively feel they are a Good Thing: they save lives and it is no hardship to slow down, so they feel that if you get caught and fined for breaking the law it serves you right. Tories by contrast don't give a fig about the law, don't believe that speed cameras save lives, and feel it is their right to break the law with impunity and that speed fines are a "tax".

To inform the debate I thought I'd look up the guidelines as to where you can put speed cameras.

For fixed site cameras, the guidelines are as follows:

1. There must be at least 4 fatal or serious collisions per km in the last 3 calender years

2. at least 8 personal injury collisions per Km in the last three years

3. Collisions where causation factors are not speed related must not be included.

4. At least 20% of drivers are exceeding the speed limit in this spot.

5. Collisions are clustered close together around a single stretch of road or junction

6. There has been a site survey carried out by a road safety engineer that has concluded that there are no other obvious practical measures to improve road safety on this strtch of road.

7. The cameras must be well signed and highly visible.

If it is a digital enforecement site, there must be at least 5 fatal or serious collisions per km in the spot in the last three years and at least 10 personal injury collisions.

It is clear that the cameras are put where there has been a serious problem and where the local authority is trying to prevent further accidents. You could say that the cameras are shrines to the dead, as if there were no accidents on that stretch of road, there would be no camera there.

So why do Tories object? I think it's down to their lack of community spirit. They feel that their pleasure in speeding is more important than other people's lives. Labour people feel the opposite: the community good is more important than minor unimportant pleasures like speeding. Tories also seem to have a more cavaliar attitude to obeying the law than Labour people. At the end of the day we can only conclude that Labour people are just nicer and more humane. You have to have a hard-hearted and possibly cruel attitude to your fellow man to become a Tory.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

On Defections

Steve Richards, writing in the Independent made an interesting observation:

Defections are a wholly reliable guide to the parties' prospects, much more so than opinion polls. In the late 1970s and 1980s all the defections were away from Labour to the Conservatives and the SDP. Even though Labour was often well ahead in opinion polls it lost elections. The defectors knew instinctively which way the tide was flowing.

Since the mid- 1990s all the defections have been away from the Conservatives. That is why the move of Quentin Davies to Labour is significant. His switch suggests that the tide flows towards Labour still. The Conservatives have failed to attract defections in spite of some unsubtle attempts in recent months. They must reverse the tide first.

There is truth in this. Someone like Digby Jones would only accept the Labour whip if they felt in their bones that was the only way to run a department, because the Conservatives and LibDems have no chance at all of getting into government.

The Tories of course are desperate for people to defect to them, and have also been courting some of the independents who have come to Labour. John Rentoul has this bit of gossip about Mark Malloc Brown (the UN chap who criticised the USA):

Sir Mark's recruitment is notable, too, for proving that Gordon Brown is superior at the mysteries of defector management to the amateurs on the Tory side. The Tories thought Sir Mark, who addressed their conference last year, was already in their transfer lounge, waiting for a flight to the land of Cameroon. At 4pm on Wednesday, when his name began to be mentioned around Westminster as a possible minister in the new Government, a member of the shadow Cabinet said confidently: "No chance."

No chance huh? Mark Malloc Brown has not only taken the Labour whip, he's joined the Labour party.

Of course these defections have put Tory and LibDem noses out of joint. When Quentin Davies defected to Labour, some of them suggested that they would "respect" Labour more if we'd have said No to him.

What they don't understand is that unlike the other parties, Labour is not an exclusive club. Anyone who is a citizen of the UK can join. All we ask is that if you are a member of our party, you must not be a member of any other party. We don't do blackballing - that's for the likes of the Bullingdon Club. I shudder at the very idea of rejecting someone because their face doesn't fit. It's a slippery slope to something horrible. Thankfully Labour is open to all comers, and as a result we have the broadest membership base of any of the parties. Members who are cleaners and members who are lords. Members whose names are Quentin and members whose names are Wayne. People of all creeds, colours and classes. This broad church is what makes us representative of the UK, and gives us a sense of what the public wants. This is the reason why we are in government.

Quentin Davies already agrees with us on the EU, and he has admitted that his previous opinions on how we run the economy were wrong and has changed his mind. As for his other views - he is free to argue them within the Labour party and will no doubt find Labour members vigorously arguing back. It is only within the Labour party that he will hear these opposing arguments anyway - and hearing dissenting arguments is a necessary pre-condition to someone changing their mind.

If anyone else wants to join the Labour Party, click here. All are welcome no matter who you are or what your background is. We don't discriminate in Labour.