For Sale: Bank branch, worn condition, one mostly careful owner

This morning, the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls suggested that high street banks should be forced to sell off branches. The intention is that these could be sold to “challenger” banks, which would create more competition.

This isn’t a proposal you’d ever see from the Conservatives – it involves forcing a private institution to sell something it owns, and in many (if not most) cases, has built itself through being successful. Interestingly, the list of banks Mr Balls mentions includes HSBC, which sought no financial assistance from the government as a result of the economic crisis*. This makes the issue one of principle for all parties, and raises two broad questions:

  1. Should a private company ever be forced to sell something it owns?
  2. If we accept there are circumstances where they should be forced to sell, should they still be forced to do so if it is the industry that is at fault and not the company itself?

I’d be interested to know people’s thoughts (and arguments) on this. I suspect we might hear technical and practical arguments over the next few days, but I can’t help but wonder about the principles behind it, and whether this is now widely regarded as proportionate and appropriate course of action. I suspect the LIBOR scandal will change people’s views and make the public more sympathetic to forced sales involving banks, but it will be worth watching how those views change as the investigation goes on.


*As far as I’m aware. Happy to be corrected on this point if I’m wrong though.

Access and Lobbying – Two Sides of the Same Coin

Understandably, there has been much anger over the ‘cash for access’ scandal and the claims made by Peter Cruddas. The notion that someone could pay to bend the ear of politicians is alarming, but there’s an argument that this already happens.

The research by Full Fact into lobbying by way on banqueting, select committees and APPGs isn’t lobbying in the sense often used in the papers, in that very little of it was done by third parties on behalf of their clients. Nevertheless, many charities and companies provide funding for APPGs, or provide benefits such as tickets to sporting events.

When the claims made by Mr Cruddas became public, the debate immediately turned to party funding. Whilst this is a perfectly legitimate point, there was room for a much broader debate about access to politicians, which failed to materialise. Full Fact’s work on lobbying provides another chance for a debate that needs to take place. Simply ignoring the issue will only result in the same problems emerging.

Disclosure: I worked as an intern at Full Fact for two months, and during that time helped process some of the data for the lobbying research.

Playing the Long Game: Political Positioning on the EU

The positioning over the EU debate is, inevitably, very political. The Liberal Democrats have a three line whip against a referendum despite their manifesto commitment, presumably because any referendum would split the coalition badly.

Labour also want to seem united on the matter, keen to avoid a Conservative-style split. Despite a few Labour names (including Keith Vaz and Kate Hoey) making their way onto the motion, they’re broadly against a referendum. But the motion only recommends a referendum – it doesn’t enforce it. Labour have the opportunity to embarrass the government by siding with the backbenchers, but they aren’t taking it, instead opting to accuse the Tories of “squabbling”. My guess is that they’re playing the long game, and don’t want referendum support to be cited in the general election campaigning.

That leaves the Conservatives, who appear to be taking the opposite approach.

There are many reasons why a free vote on the issue might be in Cameron’s favour. Firstly, there’s keeping everyone in the party happy. If MPs are allowed to vote however they want to without any pressure, then they can’t be accused of “squabbling” over an issue. Secondly, it would provide some ammunition to use against others, particularly their coalition partners. Pointing out that the Liberals not only ignored their referendum promise but actively voted against it would be a pretty effective attack during the general election. Finally, it could be portrayed as allowing open debate in a party, safe in the knowledge that with the other parties against the motion it is unlikely to pass.

Yet as I write this a three line whip remains in place is being predicted, despite some speculation it may be retracted. This may be to try and keep the coalition together and to keep the debate at arm’s length until the economy has calmed down, or in the hope that there will be a Conservative majority after the next election. Either way, it seems that whilst Labour have the upper-hand in the long term, there’s still plenty of room for manoeuvring by the government.

N.B. For a list of MPs supporting the motion, ConservativeHome is keeping track of these things

Correction:The three line whip is not in place for the Conservatives, but is “expected”:

My Right, Your Left: Political Labels (and a word on The Agora)

Do you consider yourself “left-wing” or “right-wing”?

Let’s assume that by “left” and “right” we’re talking about the level of state intervention exercised to balance wealth – left being in favour of significant state intervention, right being in favour of minimal intervention.

What about the specifics? What do you think of criminal justice? Is that left or right? The economy? Europe? Healthcare? Immigration?

You might have a uniform answer to all these, but the odds are there will be a little discrepancy. What’s more, the “state intervention” definition doesn’t always fit with the normal ideas of what “left” and “right” mean, particularly for immigration and crime.

I had a quick Google for some recent polling numbers on this (and didn’t find any on the first few searches*) and came across this quote from Nick Clegg in March 2011 on the Lib Dems:

Our opponents try to divide us with their outdated labels of left and right. But we are not on the left and we are not on the right. We have our own label: Liberal. We are liberals and we own the freehold to the centre ground of British politics.

I disagree with part of this quote, not because I don’t think the Liberal Democrats are in the centre – they probably are. I disagree with the notion that labels of “left” and “right” are out-dated.

The labels are still relevant for political parties, and play an incredibly important part in giving a broad idea of what parties are likely to stand for. But to my mind they have been applied widely to individuals, whether members of the public or backbench MPs, and it doesn’t always work. Worse than that, I believe it sometimes impedes genuine discussion and debate, as tribal tendencies obscure pluralism.

There’s a wonderful quote from the West Wing which seems relevant (Season 1, Episode 20: Mandatory Minimums):

I dream of a great discussion, with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty

As I hope this post shows, I haven’t forgotten about The Agora! I’m working away on several overhauls of parts of the site and look forward to getting them online. More than that, I’m looking forward to seeing the sort of discussion where labels and political categories are ignored entirely.

* This is more an indication of my lack of skills with Google than an absence of numbers

British Rioting

An e-petition calling for rioters to lose their benefits has rapidly gained the 100,000 signatures needed for it to be passed to parliament (and last time I checked had over 200,000 signatures). Personally, I foresee problems with this not as a result of some sort of right to benefits, but purely because you are introducing a new punishment after the crime – a very dangerous precedent.


Nevertheless, here’s my take on why people are calling for these measures.


The perception is that there has been a huge expansion of “rights” in the country. Arguably there has been little expansion, it’s just that more people are aware of their rights. We’ve all heard the stories of children in the classroom who defy the teachers based on “I’ve got my rights”.


The European Convention on Human Rights is, regardless of your thoughts on it, and incredibly important piece of legislation. There’s a reason why any proposal to scrap the Human Rights Act is accompanied by a promise to replace it with a “Bill of Rights”.


Perhaps the solution is an association of responsibility, but the principle behind many rights is that they are unconditional. Even the most violent rioter is entitled to our hope that one day he might reform and become a valuable member of society. Subsequently any attempt to instil a sense of responsibility cannot really be enforced by law – it has to be something more subtle, and I would contend, based on pride.


What if the rioters had a greater sense of pride in their community and country, recognising that their actions reflect poorly on both the area and the entire country?


Great Britain is in a slightly odd position, since although we have one of the greatest democracies in the world (and the “Mother of all parliaments”), we have no formal constitution. There are certainly constitutional documents such as the Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act, but nothing on the scale of the American constitution.


So perhaps now is the time to look at formalising things – a written constitution comprising of the relevant legislation, setting out rights which comply with the ECHR, taught in schools as part of the values upheld in being “British”.


This isn’t part of some nationalistic or isolationist fantasy – we should celebrate being British and invite others to hold the same values. Nor is it something which will deal with all the causes of the riots. But the people guarding buildings against looters and amassing on the streets with brooms are more British than any rioter, and I wonder if it might be time to recognise this.

The Strikes: Political Consequences

Bluntly speaking, the strikes don’t seem to have benefited anyone politically.

I’m not sure anyone really expected it to do the coalition any good. No government wants a strike on its hands since images of thousands of people waving signs protesting against it will dominate the headlines that day.

Ed Miliband had a very difficult line to tread as there’s some debate as to whether or not the strikes are broadly supported by the public. He tried to strike a delicate balance between attacking the government and cautioning the unions. Unfortunately for him, he did so by repeating the same prepared line in the hope it would be the only one quoted, and then the whole footage was released. Worse still, the unions themselves criticised his comments – not something any Labour leader wants to happen.

That leaves the unions. Last night on Newsnight, Danny Finkelstein pointed out the problems with the timing of the strike, arguing it would have been more effective had they waited for a year when the coalition might be weaker. It’s worth noting how little coverage of yesterday’s strikes appears in the news today.

U-Turn If You Want To: The merits of changing your mind

There’s been a lot of coverage of the changes to the NHS reforms announced today. In particular, the media have focused on the notion that it is “yet another U-turn” by the government in a long list of changed policies.

The government won’t say it as it would look stroppy, but I suspect a lot of them are thinking the following:

You said you wanted changes, and we made them. Now you’re attacking us for making changes. What do you want us to do?

It’s a fair point. Most pieces of legislation under any government which are attacked by the other side are deemed “controversial”. The difference here is that rather than ploughing ahead (which would have been politically difficult) the government announced a “listening exercise” consulting medical personnel, and then followed the suggestions.

I don’t think a U-turn is a bad thing in many scenarios, particularly where there has been extended debate. I’d go as far as to say that in certain circumstances parties should be praised for U-turns – recognising faults in policies and doing something about it. But is it any wonder that other policies will be battered through even if they’re unpopular when we attack people for doing the opposite? Does anyone recall ID cards – a hugely unpopular scheme which was floated for years before it was scrapped? By all means attack attempts to smash unwanted legislation through, and if they do change their minds feel free to remind the public how long it took.

But government response to public demand should be celebrated, not attacked.

AV, New Politics and The Agora

Throughout the campaigning for AV, and for some time before, there has been a lot of talk of “new politics”. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of what the term means has been assumed by both those who use the term and those who hear it: accountable politicians, an end to scandals, and politicians responding to the concerns of their constituents and the public.

There is an enormous debate to be had as to the effects of AV and whether it will result in any of these things, but what about the campaigning itself?

A lot of attention has been given to the role of the BNP. Opponents of AV claim that it will give greater prominence to the party. Supporters of AV use a slightly more direct approach: they have argued that the fact that the Conservatives, Communists and BNP are the only ones openly opposing AV “tells you volumes” about the campaign.

I don’t believe that anything being related to the BNP “tells you volumes”. I don’t like the BNP, but just because they advocate something doesn’t mean they must be wrong because they’re the BNP. To my mind, any “new politics” should take into account arguments, not party politics. No argument should be dismissed by mere association – it should be reasoned and discussed.

Before the expenses scandal, politicians weren’t the most loved people in the country regardless of the number of incidents given the suffix “-gate”. Turnout in elections was already dropping – the scandal just cemented the public perception of Westminster. There’s more to fixing politics than expenses.

It is fairly widely acknowledged that the AV campaigning has failed to increase public interest in the issue – it has, to be fair, had competition for headlines with the Royal Wedding. I suspect though, that if the polls are to be believed, it is just because people don’t believe the hype. The public don’t believe that a change in the voting system will change the nature of Westminster or that it will make politicians “work harder”, in the same way that they don’t dislike politicians just because of expenses or recent events.

Personal attacks from either side don’t help this perception. Instead, they damage interest in politics. (Side note: if the No2AV campaign want to seal a win, they merely have to point to the bickering and say that coalitions clearly don’t work)

The party affiliation and partisanship is why I’ve built the Agora. I’m not suggesting that it will somehow revolutionise politics, or increase turnout, or even increase interest in politics. What it should be is somewhere to discuss issues without the sideshow, bickering or labels, and to come up with ideas which are evaluated on their merit, rather than the affiliation of the person suggesting them.

That’s the plan anyway.

Introducing The Agora: a new sort of discussion site launching on 11th May

A few days ago, I put up a new page at to announce the launch of the Agora on May 11th – a new discussion site. In keeping with my previous post, here’s the summary:

It’s a site where anyone can discuss current affairs and the subjects that should be covered by politics, but without the partisanship.

We regularly hear how “politics is broken” and that “politicians can’t be trusted”, but politics (or rather, government and parliament) covers some incredibly important fundamental aspects of how the country is run. At the same time, we are in the middle of campaigning over whether or not to change the voting system, but democracy should be about more than just voting.

The Agora is built to provide a place to discuss how we run our country without resorting to political labels or party affiliations.

When the Spending Review was announced, Alan Johnson accused the Coalition of making “ideological” cuts. He didn’t expand on this, but I do wonder why he didn’t. For the government’s part, the line has been that they don’t want to make the cuts, but must, so there hasn’t been a chance to debate the issue. Whatever your stance on the matter, there hasn’t been a debate as to whether certain cuts can ever be a good thing. If you did believe this (and arguably, any supporter of “efficiency savings” does), then making ideological cuts wouldn’t be something the opposition attacked. There’s nothing wrong with an ideology you can effectively defend, even if someone disagrees with it.

What if we could have an effective debate in the public domain? What if we entirely forgot about “left” and “right” and instead talked about the core of the issues? Jon Stewart rightly points out that “most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives”, and we shouldn’t assume a similar thing here. There’s nothing to stop someone supporting more rehabilitation and less imprisonment, whilst advocating smaller government, but the two stances are branded as “left” and “right” respectively.

What if we talked about this sort of thing as an accessible public debate?

That’s what the Agora aims to do. You can sign up to the mailing list for a reminder when it launches on May 11th at

It's Not Just the Economy, Stupid (Although it is Mostly)

As a result of Alan Johnson’s resignation today, Ed Balls has become the new Shadow Chancellor. Inevitably there will be much speculation about the consequences this will have on Labour’s economic policy, given that Mr. Balls has argued so strongly against any cuts and even spoken out against Alistair Darling. Ed Miliband has tried to pre-empt this a little, but if this is a quote jumped-on by the coalition may have got himself into a bit of trouble:

Economic policy is unchanged. Actually, Ed and I have similar views

Either way, there is another aspect to this story. It may be worth remembering that Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader when the final round distributed the second preference votes of Ed Balls. Both men are perceived* to be backed by the trade unions.

There has been some comment from Ed Miliband in an effort to calm talks of strikes. It will be interesting to see if the language changes over the next few months. I suspect there may be little movement in Labour’s position on the issue to try to detach themselves from being seen as a “party of the unions”. However, it might be worth watching how each side reacts.


* Whilst looking up articles for this post, I found a bit of number-crunching by the BBC that suggests Ed Balls didn’t get the union backing many expected. Nevertheless, perception could be everything.