Britain’s new government (2)

by Chris Bertram on August 6, 2015

Back in May, to squeals from some commenters, I observed that “within less than a week of coming to power, the new British government has made financial threats or legislative proposals with the following effects:

* [to intimidate independent journalism](
* [to make legal strike action impossible](
* [to criminalize dissent](
* [to increase state surveillance of citizens](
* [to block access to legal remedies against the abuse of state power]( .”

To this list we can now add

* [to deprive its principal electoral opponents of their finances](
* [to cripple public-sector union finances](
* [to strip the electoral roll of non-Tory voters and to ensure boundary changes that under-represent economically deprived areas](

In short, the British government is acting so as to make it as hard as possible for opponents of its intended changes to the state to oppose them by voice, by collective action, by exercising legal rights and in the political arena. Taken together, the systematic and comprehensive attention the Conservatives are giving to closing off avenues of opposition leaves the UK drifting in the direction of those states that are nominally democratic, but where the political system strongly favours the incumbent, states such as Russia, Hungary, Turkey. Hyperbole?



david 08.06.15 at 9:22 am

Not quite hyperbole, but it is inaccurate in a dangerous way. Russia, Hungary, and Turkey are instructive, in that the opposition is dominated by disunited frothing radicals and corrupt mogul opportunists precisely because the field is slanted just enough to make it an unattractive route to political change. In the meanwhile the incumbent government (at least until 2008, for Russia) governs flexibly enough to maintain an acceptable mandate and co-opt intelligentsia moderates who might otherwise organize or lead an opposition coalition.

The cycle of an authoritarian incumbent and a clownish opposition is self-sustaining – e.g., Pussy Riot presents the Russian regime with a deft opportunity to further its own domestic support. Conversely, successful legal persecution by the Russian regime ensures that mainstream figures of the lawmakers-must-not-by-lawbreakers variety lose credibility amongst dissidents. Because an authoritarian regime can wrangle the rule of law to pick its battles, it can only gain by baiting dissidents into defending an unpopular line on eg freedom of speech, electoral finance, etc. In Britain the opposition cannot be American/European stooges, but it still can be shrill, unserious, crazy, etc. Critique must instead be built on precise terms that take the incumbent mandate as given, eg that extremism is poorly-defined in the “extremism disruption orders” as a demonstration of the incompetence of individual named actors in the incumbent govt, rather than that the incumbent is obviously malevolent.

I mean, insofar as Britain is actually still a liberal democracy, being shrill for the purposes of political mobilization doesn’t matter. Coalitions gonna coalition, your radicals insult theirs to their face. Jeering is a proudly British tradition. But insofar as Britain does slide closer to authoritarianism, it is a phenomenally stupid thing to do.


JohnD 08.06.15 at 9:26 am

Yes. It’s hyperbole.
I’ve been a paid up opponent of the Tories for a long time, but you’re losing perspective. They just won power, obviously they are going to move on the things they want to do. Given that the chief change has been the removal of the Liberal Democrats, who it turns out were in fact A) genuinely liberal and b) genuinely stopping the Tories doing illiberal things, it’s not surprising that the list contains some illiberal nastiness. That being said, few of them are a surprise, and none of them will prevent a reasonably well-organised opposition taking over in 5-10 years when they have made themselves as unpopular as ever. On the specifics
1) Anyone who knows BBC staff knows they lean against the Tories. It is therefore massively unsurprising that the Tories are going to make nasty noises in return. Secondly the BBC is an unusually large state broadcaster, and it is a perfectly normal right-wing objective to want to reduce the size of state-run business working in a competitive marketplace. It seems a bit much to expect the Tories to break their normal preference for private industry specifically to support an institution which dislikes them.
2) The Tories are going after public sector strikers not to close down the revolution but because it’s a useful and nasty bit of populism. Public sector strikers are not very popular, especially among the Tory base.
3) There is only one specific type of ‘dissent’ they are going after with the law – Islamic extremism. Again, that’s illiberal, but realistically Islamic extremists are currently less popular than leprosy and I suspect that Labour will not be voting against this. I would also be genuinely astonished if these kind of laws were used against any mainstream opposition in the next ten years, which is what happens in states like Russia and Turkey.
4) & 5) are bad measures but again, they have been extensively flagged as being part of the Conservative programme and realistically are not going to get used against mainstream opposition of the kind that could actually win the next election

In your newer list, you have to admit it’s going to be difficult to argue against letting union members, often low paid, get an active say in whether their dues get sent to the Labour party. (Personally, I am surprised that Labour didn’t ban donations without explicit shareholder consent from companies, which could be viewed in the same way). Going after check-off – again, is it really Putinism for a governing party to abolish an unusual practice in the public sector which actively funds its bitterest opponents? Can’t the revolution be funded by the unions collecting their own dues, and the Labour party its own membership fees? Finally, I’ll admit that the voter registration changes look worrying, but the boundary changes are overdue –everyone knows the current boundaries actively discriminate against the Tories.
To sum up, the free election of a somewhat illiberal right-wing party is leading to the implementation of some illiberal, right-wing measures as per their programme, and the reduction of state support for entities which actively oppose that party. This is not Russia – to equate this with the treatment of the Russian opposition is silly, and to believe it meaningfully reduces our chances of getting rid of them in 2020 is worse – I’m still pretty confident that by the time they’ve finished twisting themselves into knots around the European referendum (aggravated by their small majority and byelections) any borderline competent opposition will be able to stomp them. Giving up at this point is senseless.


Salem 08.06.15 at 9:40 am

What JohnD said. Your previous post was bad enough; comparing Cameron to Putin or Orban is unhinged.


christian_h 08.06.15 at 10:28 am

Not comparing Cameron to Putin or Orban is what is unhinged. Of course the Tories are attempting to destroy whatever is left even of the performance of democracy in the UK. The sad part is that the Labour right is actually collaborating in this effort, as they prefer Tory rule to even moderate social democracy a la Corbyn.


William Burns 08.06.15 at 11:10 am

When I think of trying to purge the voting rolls of your opponents and attacking the ability of labor unions to finance your opposition, I don’t think of Putin as much as US Republicans.


Igor Belanov 08.06.15 at 11:16 am

christian_h is right. The whole political process is about closing off the potential for change, and the Tories are just proposing measures that will continue to erode the ability for wider political participation and organisation. As the Labour leadership election and the record of the later Blair/Brown governments have demonstrated, the Labour Party establishment is all part of this arrangement, merely seeking to skew things in its own favour.

The mistake is to single out Britain amongst ‘Western’ countries- it is just happening to a greater degree here than in other liberal democracies.


Josh Jasper 08.06.15 at 11:31 am

William Burns, Cameron sounds more like Scott Walker in the US to me.


Barry 08.06.15 at 1:09 pm

I’d also remind people that a ‘hard crackdown’ is not needed. IIRC, Thatcher never got more than 40% of the vote; geography took care of the rest.

Rearrange electoral districts, apply barriers to voting which will trim the opposition of 10% of their vote, make it far harder to reveal government actions, cronyize the system, and have a legal system friendly to political persecution, and one has gotten quite a bit of the way to a one-party state.

And the final trick is that if things get so horrible that the party has a hard time retaining control of Parliament, they can allow a castrated opposition to assume control. Of Parliament, that is, not the rest of the government, and certainly not the support of the Establishment media, the financial elites, or the nexus of cronies, who will have long-term contracts to bind the government.

At that point a very seriously limited opposition will have to deal with a horrible situation, with limited power, and the Deep State blaming them for causing it.


MPAVictoria 08.06.15 at 1:09 pm

The Canadian Conservative Party has been doing pretty much the same thing. Attacking their opponents funding, weakening unions, changing the electoral law to benefit themselves and freezing out the press. And don’t even start on the Republican Parties war on voting.

I think this is just what right wingers do now.


Salem 08.06.15 at 1:26 pm

Actually, Thatcher got 43.9%, 42.4% and 42.2% of the vote in the three elections in which she stood as Tory leader. It wasn’t geography that translated these pluralities into massive Parliamentary majorities in 1983 and 1987; it was that the opposition was split.


Barry 08.06.15 at 1:29 pm

Thanks, Salem.

That’s another trick (although she might not have done that) – when people are frustrated, encourage third-party fringe movements.


Salem 08.06.15 at 1:53 pm

The Alliance wasn’t a third-party fringe movement, they were centrists. The Labour Party decided that the reason they lost in 1979 was that they were too moderate and so moved decisively to the left. This was just as successful then as it would be today. So the moderates in the Labour Party broke away and allied with the Liberals – eventually merging to form the Lib Dems. Their game, then and now, was to appeal to moderates of both parties.

On the one hand, this meant that the Conservatives were able to win massive majorities based on only 42-43% of the vote. On the other hand, the whole reason for the Alliance is that huge numbers of former Labour voters balked at the prospect of Foot. In a straight Labour-Tory choice, the Conservatives would have won anyway.


JohnD 08.06.15 at 1:55 pm

Barry, that’s not entirely relevant in the Thatcher case – the third party was the SDP-Liberal Alliance. The biggest component of that was the Liberal party, which has been a political force in the UK for over 150 years. The SDP prove your point better, but I think it’s a stretch to blame them directly on Thatcher – rather they were the outcome of the Labour party being unable to keep its discipline and its nerve after a beating by the Conservatives – exactly the outcome they should be trying to avoid at the moment.


Barry 08.06.15 at 1:59 pm

I should have written better – I didn’t mean that the Tories *did* that, I meant that they (from their viewpoint) *should* do that. A nice third party on the left can suck up 5% of the vote, and a lot of energy and attention.


Igor Belanov 08.06.15 at 2:47 pm

@ JohnD

Yes, the SDP should have kept its discipline and its nerve by accepting the democratically expressed wishes of the party they belonged to. After all, the Labour Left has done so after they were on the receiving end post 1983.


Daragh McDowell 08.06.15 at 3:12 pm

As someone whose living is made on the study of Russia (and to a lesser extent Hungary), I can confidently assert that comparing current UK policy, or even just it’s ‘direction’ to Putinism is indeed hyperbolic, to a degree that it totally discredits the person making the claim. The policies listed may indeed be lamentable, but to say that they’ve put the UK on the path of becoming a personalised authoritarian kleptocracy, where large parts of the country are ruled by murderous warlords (Chechnya) and the government’s political opponents are gunned down in the street is so transparently ludicrous, not to mention offensive, it gives a massive boost in the public debate to the people actually advocating said policies. Ditto with Hungary which, while not as bad as Russia, has become a basically authoritarian and ethno-chauvinist state. There are real institutional constraints -such as the judiciary, the rule of law etc. – on government power in the UK. Until the Tories advocate their abolition, comparing them to Putin and Orban is the kind of deep silliness usually confined to 16 year olds just finished skimming through Das Kapital for the first time.

Additionally, I think its also worth noting that all of these policies, which you argue are putting the UK on the path towards crypto-fascism, were previously blocked due to the participation of the Lib Dems in government, participation at the time you derided as placing basically no meaningful restraints on the Tories and functioning as little more than a fig leaf. A degree of basic intellectual honesty might behoove you to start this post with an admission that your previous assessment was an error.


Bruce Wilder 08.06.15 at 3:19 pm

The Left does not try to do corresponding things, because the Left does not what to change the system, the Left wants to transform consciousness. And, inevitably, commenters will interpret these measures, not as changes in the system, but as expressions of conservative identity.


bianca steele 08.06.15 at 3:34 pm


Yes–and I think one can say this is so without invoking some mythical national culture that would cause the drift in the UK to be different from that in the former USSR. Is this even a question?


Chris Bertram 08.06.15 at 4:24 pm

Ah yes Daragh. I think the last time you got this angry with me was when I doubted Nick Clegg’s claim that the coalition government would implement the greatest programme of constitutional reform (in a good way) since 1832. I think I can collect my winnings on that one, don’t you?

As for the positive claims you make here for the Liberal Democrats, well, they were only mitigating because they were also enabling, and look where that has got us (and them).

Apparently you believe that “comparing” is a synonym of “equating”. A dictionary might help you with that confusion. My claim was that the UK is “drifting in the direction” of states where the substance of democracy has been evacuated but only the shell remains. Perhaps I could have been less hyperbolic in my examples (a few Republican-governed US states instead?), but I stand by the basic point that the basic freedoms on which substantive democracy depends are being progressively gutted.

As for the real institutional constraints you mention, such as the “rule of law”. Well, I wouldn’t be too sanguine about that if I were you. Access to legal aid has been sharply curtailed and the government has proposals to make judicial review of its decisions far more difficult and expensive. The effect will be that ordinary people do not have access to the law.

Moreover, and I could have written a longer post including these points, the government has either put in place or is proposing many measures in the immigration domain that allow drastic action against individuals by officials without recourse to the courts (eviction from their home), stripping people of citizenship, removal or deportation without in-country rights of appeal. All of these measures have been proposed in order to pander to “ethno-chauvinism”.

About one of your comments I am pleased, though. Apparently I have the power to “give a massive boost in the public debate” to someone. I was previously unaware that I had this power, but I now realise that I should use it responsibly.


Daragh McDowell 08.06.15 at 4:43 pm

Chris – I’m currently running out the door so don’t have time to respond to this in longer detail. Suffice to say a) ‘drifting in the direction’ seems to me to be closer to equating than comparing, b) I live in the UK and have spent significant amounts of my time in Russia and other post-Soviet states – there is no meaningful comparison to be made. For example, the recent public downfall of Lord Sewell may have been over something as trivial as sex and drugs, but it was accomplished by investigative journalists who were able to operate freely and publish their findings without being beaten to a pulp or shot in some dark alley.

It may surprise you that I’m very much on your side on issues such as legal aid and immigration. But again – these are not in any way comparable to systems in which the courts rule at the direction of the executive, or in which white nationalist gangs are allowed to violently terrorise immigrants with no legal consequences.

As to ‘massive boost’ – perhaps that was giving you and CT too much credit. Fine – but I do remember a time when the Observer saw fit to call it one of the most influential blogs in UK politics, and it is a public platform for public musings by someone who is a serious (or at least professionally employed) political philosopher. Especially in an age when the Labour party is on the verge of electing Jeremy Corbyn, half-baked posts comparing Cameron to Putin do give ammunition to the (dominant) right-wing voices in UK politics and the ‘looney left gone mad’ narrative. They also make you look silly.

PS – On ‘enabling’ – you’re right. It’s Nick Clegg’s fault for giving into the tyranny of bourgeois mathematics and failing to pretend that Lab+Lib= parliamentary majority in 2010 that we had the coalition. Oh how the scales have fallen from mine eyes…


P O'Neill 08.06.15 at 5:02 pm

The UK is not at all like Turkey. In Turkey, the main obstacle to expanded ruling party powers is a small but well organized nationalist party and the power hungry leader is cooking up an expanded Syrian adventure to buttress his standing.


Lynne 08.06.15 at 6:43 pm

MPAV, you said it before I could. I would add that Harper has stacked the justice system with judges who agree with him, and greatly weakened the balance of the selection process.


Garrulous 08.06.15 at 8:49 pm

JohnD @2 There is only one specific type of ‘dissent’ they are going after with the law – Islamic extremism… I would also be genuinely astonished if these kind of laws were used against any mainstream opposition in the next ten years

Maybe not against Kendall or Harmon or Sturgeon. But on past form (RIPA etc. as well as how ASBOs evolved) you can be certain that banning orders will soon be used against environmental protestors, tax activists, anti-surveillance groups, migration campaigners, and other extremists.


MPAVictoria 08.06.15 at 9:00 pm

“I would add that Harper has stacked the justice system with judges who agree with him, and greatly weakened the balance of the selection process.”

Totally agree Lynne. Out of curiosity are you watching tonight’s debate? I am curious to see how Justin Trudeau does. I will be voting strategically anyway but still it should be interesting.


Lynne 08.06.15 at 9:07 pm

I don’t watch debates. Maybe I should, but they make me so tense…. Have you noticed how Harper calls Trudeau “Justin”? As in, “I’m talking to you, boy.” Also as in avoiding using the Trudeau name.


subdoxastic 08.06.15 at 9:38 pm

@ MPAV & Lynne

I’ll be watching the debate (and have suitably low expectations for anything that Maclean’s and that hack Paul Wells touches). In regards to the liberal leader, I’ll be interested to see how he does (not because I have any intention of voting for him– I’m in what I think is a fairly safe orange riding that I’m sure you, MPA, would know well from your grad studies days). His handling of C51 and then his ham-fisted justification for it– “I didn’t want the conservatives to make hay out of it”, “I promise to repeal it later if you elect me” was so stupendously stupid I think he’s got to have a better answer for it tonight or he’s likely to bleed even more red votes to the orange.

By the way MPA, I used to be in Dewar’s riding, before moving slightly south and ending up in the horror that was Baird’s constituency. I think you now reside in roughly the same greater area– any idea if either of those seats are up for grabs this time around?


Omega Centauri 08.06.15 at 9:39 pm

Echoeing William at 5. It reminds me od Republican efforts to tilt the political landscape against their opponents. Also some of the red states have passed laws making protests against certain targets especially fracking illegal. So I’d say Cameron is copying tactics of US republicans.


Lynne 08.06.15 at 9:58 pm

We already have an orange sign on our lawn. We haven’t had representation in Ottawa since 2008 when we got a talking-point Conservative MP. I think the NDP have a good chance in our riding—we elected an NDP MPP last provincial election.


christian_h 08.06.15 at 10:12 pm

I agree completely with Igor (6.). This progressive hollowing out of formal democracy is happening all over the Western world, but it is particularly advanced in the UK – I would guess in part because the structures of constitutional monarchy (like a powerful civil service and deep state independent of parliamentary control, combined with a very strong executive) are not as dead as the ridiculous tabloid stories may suggest. Similar holdovers are also operative in Canada (see: Proroguing parliament) and as far as I can tell after a month, to a lesser extent here in Australia.


subdoxastic 08.06.15 at 10:14 pm

@ Lynne

here’s hoping it works out for your riding this time around!


Nick 08.06.15 at 10:32 pm

It’s continuity new labour with a new anti-union tone. Dismantling civil liberties is the default position of executive government (they just get in the way of whatever happens to be a policy priority). You have to hope for enough opposition in the form of civil society, parliament, judges and new technology to counterbalance this trend. In many ways we are freer than we were in the 20th century. The laws themselves have got worse but they haven’t yet caught up with what technology allows us to do to hold governments to account.


derrida derider 08.07.15 at 12:41 am

Christian_h, there’s a big difference here in Australia from the UK and Canada. We have long had preferential voting – a form of the STV.

This means that smaller parties are often kingmakers though rarely co-rulers, which ensures stable government (unlike PR) but at the same time is a deterrent to governments throwing red meat to their base or otherwise pursuing directions that might seriously upset those parties (eg fiddling electoral boundaries, hampering opposition finances).

I thought at the time, and still think, that UK Labour had rocks in its head to oppose the STV referendum. How long did they think their electoral gerrymander was going to last? And when it was removed, would it be their friends or their enemies doing the removing?

And yes, it is silly hyperbole to compare Cameron to Putin. Tory populist illiberalism and machinations to give themselves an electoral leg-up should be opposed for what they are, not through some paranoid fear of it all being part of a hidden fascist agenda.


dsquared 08.07.15 at 1:03 am

I thought at the time, and still think, that UK Labour had rocks in its head to oppose the STV referendum.

The what? We had a referendum on AV, a non-proportional system which has no virtues at all, other than to give a massive unearned boost to third parties in a two-party system, at a time when we were understandably rather annoyed with our incumbent third party.


Matt_L 08.07.15 at 2:43 am

Definitely hyperbole. Come on, the comparison should be with Texas, Louisiana, and Wisconsin. The right wing shitheadedness pursued in a country with a well established democracy is of a different order than one where they set up shop after 1989-91. Wasn’t the recent election in the UK run by a couple of American spinmeisters anyways?

Follow Hegel, your political sun sets in the West my friend.


Chris Bertram 08.07.15 at 7:30 am

Most analysis has suggested that AV would have given the Tories a larger majority at the GE.


Stephen 08.07.15 at 10:05 am

The Labour Party (or at least Ed Miliband) did support AV for what it is worth.

Not a fan of Cameron or the Tories but unless Andy, Jeremy, Liz or Yvette goes down with something unpleasant after dining on Polonium Sashimi with an employee of MI5, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that an analogy with Putin is not an exact one.


magari 08.07.15 at 11:20 am

In Turkey, the main obstacle to expanded ruling party powers is a small but well organized nationalist party

Actually, the Kurdish-leftist party (HDP) threw the stick in Erdogan’s spokes. Not the nationalists (MHP). Secondly, I know little about Hungary but can tell you that Turkish democracy is dramatically more ‘real’ than is Russia’s. Erdogan will only approximate Putin, and Turkey Russia, if he bans the HDP and goes back to the polls, with his presidential system in mind. That’s within the realm of the thinkable, though he has categorically denied the possibility (instead he wants to strip HDP deputies of immunity so he can try them on terrorism charges).

In short, Turkey may not be the UK, but neither is it Russia.


Daragh 08.07.15 at 1:03 pm

Stephen @36 –

Actually, even then you wouldn’t be close to Putinism. First you’d need every party with parliamentary representation to become completely and explicitly co-opted by No. 10, largely through the provision of personal financial largesse to their senior leaders. The Duma has three, nominally ‘opposition’ parties to Putin’s Unified Russia but it’s an open secret that they’re directly managed by the Kremlin’s spin doctors.

You’d then need to subordinate every newspaper, television channel and radio station in the country to government control, either through direct ownership or through ownership by proxy via tame oligarchs, and send them daily instructions on what to cover. This would include a minimum of 50% of news broadcasts consisting of positive references to David Cameron, followed by lurid horror stories about how literally every country on earth besides the UK is falling apart. Criticism of Cameron, or portraying him in any form of negative light whatsoever would be totally verboten. Say what you like about the Barclay Brothers and Rupert Murdoch, but they’re not afraid to criticise Cameron when they want to.

You would also, in the midst of all this, you’d need to set up a system whereby any decision of political significance taken by the courts is directly and explicitly dictated by no. 10, in advance. Restrictions on legal aid are odious and wrong, IMHO, but they are not the same as the judiciary being subordinated to the executive.

Finally, you would need to denude literally every institution in public life of any meaningful substance in order to eliminate practical restraints on state power, and govern more or less exclusively by extensive, complex networks of corruption and patrimony. You would also need to explicitly ‘manage’ the outcome of elections through direct fraud and intimidation. This is not the same as gaming the inherently anti-democratic FPTP system to one’s advantage when you are in power (and really, the Labour argument against equalising constituency sizes boils down to ‘we find it harder to mobilise our electorate, therefore there should be a bit of gerrymandering in our favour’, which is frankly ridiculous).

Again – one can argue, vigorously, against many of the Tory proposals outlined above. Personally I think making political donations a positive choice, or raising the threshold on strike actions may be justified, and could even be beneficial to the Labour party if they used it to engage with their membership in a meaningful way, instead of generally regarding them with fear and contempt and then getting outraged when they then vote for Jeremy Corbyn as a result. But it isn’t Putinism, or Erdoganism or even Orbanism. And making the comparison immediately, and totally, shuts off the potential to engage with and debate people who might actually be converted to your side. Which raises the question – why make such a deliberately provocative and loopy comparison?


Daragh 08.07.15 at 1:11 pm

Chris @35 – care to provide links? Or even an indicator of which General Election? Hate to be a bore about such things, but changing the way people vote tends to, erm, change the way they vote! And there is also strong evidence that the Tory strategy of direly warning against a Lab-SNP government convinced a lot of people to vote tactically (or at least, that’s what the campaign team claims), particularly in southern seats held by the Lib Dems. It’s a lot harder to do that under AV.

Dsquared – I’d disagree with the analysis at the start, but I’d also point out a) reforms tend to be incremental and b) the degree to which AV failed (largely due to the Labour party refusing to mount more than a token campaign, and the decision by many ‘progressives’ that registering their anger at the LD’s for refusing to pretend a non-Tory majority was possible in the 2010 parliament was more important than electoral reform) has allowed the Tories to claim it was a positive endorsement of FPTP, setting back the cause of reform even further. That’s even before we get to the SNP’s domination of Scotland, despite that country’s unionist majority.


Lynne 08.07.15 at 1:31 pm

subdoxastic and MPAV, what did you think of the debate?

Chris Bertram, as MPAV noted, Stephen Harper has done some of the same things here in Canada. One of the most worrying aspects to these changes is that many of them will be quite hard to undo. Harper has spent years barricading himself and his MPs from the press, and this at least should be easy to change should we elect a new government this fall, but he has stacked the Senate and the courts with appointees who will be there for a very long time. He has cancelled a lot of scientific research, and has hamstrung or fired the scientists who oversaw drug safety. I don’t see them being rehired in future.


MPAVictoria 08.07.15 at 1:58 pm

I actually thought it was a pretty good debate (I wish it had been a CBC debate so more people could have seen it though). Trudeau did very well and definitely exceeded expectations. Muclair did not do as well as I was hoping but he remained calm and on point and certainly didn’t hurt his chances. Harper… Well I am incapable of fairly assessing him. I thought he was awful, fake, unlikable and obviously lying. But I have thought that for years so….

The real surprise of the night was Elizabeth May. I am not a Green Party supporter. In fact I view them as splitters of the left of center vote. However last night May knocked it out of the park. She was articulate, knowledgeable and very likable all at the same time. Still won’t vote Green (going to vote strategically based on who I think will beat the Tory candidate in my riding) but I was very impressed.

What about you? Did you end up watching?


Lynne 08.07.15 at 2:52 pm

No, I didn’t watch. I have a lot of time for Elizabeth May, so I’d have enjoyed that part. I also quite like Trudeau, but luckily I can vote NDP in my riding and actually hope for a win. I’ve voted strategically in the past so I still get hopeful phone calls from the Liberals, and I’ve supported the Greens before so I get hopeful calls from them, too. Strangely, I never get calls from the Conservatives, though they are targeting my son, for some reason.


MPAVictoria 08.07.15 at 2:54 pm

Hahaha. Yeah I am a dues paying member of the NDP and have volunteered on a number of campaigns so I am currently getting about 3-4 fundraising emails a day and a couple calls a week. If I actually had any money I would be happy to donate but….


Lynne 08.07.15 at 3:11 pm

MPAV, oh boy. We make all our donations in my husband’s name, and he is a member of the NDP, but to reduce calls and e-mails I haven’t joined or donated in my own name (different last names). I still get some calls, but nothing like what he gets.


subdoxastic 08.07.15 at 3:26 pm

@ Lynne & MPAV

Watched the whole thing. I agree with MPAV that May was (as usual? seems weird to put it that way since we haven’t had an opportunity to see her since 2008) impressively brilliant in her ability to stay on point, use figures/facts, and time her shots for maximum effect (“I find it ironic that this question started off about civility in the H.O.C….” was a doozy!) I find it hard to impassively judge Trudeau, but he cleared the admittedly low expectations most had for him. Thought Mulcair was a little too gentle, but loved his trouncing of T. on the separation question– a very nice judo move to make the argument that 50+1 has to be the standard in order to stress the importance of the vote, nobody gets a pass arguing that it was only a protest vote. As for Harper, well I can’t , I just can’t listen to that guy talk without a significant spike in blood pressure. Not many party signs here in Fernwood yet, but lots of “I vote CBC signs” which puts a bounce in my step.


MPAVictoria 08.07.15 at 3:29 pm

And thus concludes Canada Hour on Crooked Timber. We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.


Alan White 08.07.15 at 4:10 pm


Amen and amen! Here in Cheeseheadland the Free Partiers have gerrymandered the state so that statewide, Dems win overall in total votes, but they lose the majority of local elections. There’s Democracy, maybe, but here in Wisconsin, democracy-lite.


Stephen 08.07.15 at 6:56 pm

(not t’other Stephen@36: can we sort this out?)

When Chris adds to the other things he dislikes about the present UK government their proposal “to strip the electoral roll of non-Tory voters and to ensure boundary changes that to strip the electoral roll of non-Tory voters and to ensure boundary changes that under-represent economically deprived areas” I fear this is like “the thirteenth strike of a crazy clock, that discredits not only itself but also the other twelve that have gone before it”. (Good phrase, I can’t remember from whom.)

There has been as far as I know no proposal at all (none, nein, niente, nilc, nada) to disenfranchise non-Tory voters. If there has been, I as a non-Tory voter should know. Details requested, if not expected, from Chris.

The proposed boundary changes are not as far as I can see intended to “ensure boundary changes that under-represent economically deprived areas. Rather, they are to ensure the equal representation of central urban districts, currently much over-represented, and other districts. Does Chris have any democratic objection to that? Again, response requested if not expected.


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 7:05 am

@Stephen the system of voter registration has been changed in ways that make it statistically more likely that members of those social groups opposed to the Tory party will not be registered.

See this article from February

“However, the real impact has yet to be felt. The 7 million voters on the register but not data matched will be able to vote in the 2015 general election, as long as they have not moved, but will be removed from the register if they have not provided extra information by December 2015.

This system disenfranchises the mobile, the young and those in private rented accommodation – mainly those living in urban areas. At a time when the urban population is growing quickly, the number of registered voters in these areas is not keeping pace. A parliamentary boundary review is expected. If it takes place after millions of people are removed from the electoral register we could see the biggest transfer of parliamentary representation and political power from urban to rural areas for more than a century.”


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 7:09 am

(That also deals with the boundary change issue which is not just about equal representation but about representation on the basis of the registered population. So changes to registration mean that urban areas will contain more adult people that rural areas do, but the same number of electors.)


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 7:12 am


Daragh 08.08.15 at 10:12 am


Gosh, you mean David Cameron is creating new peers to ensure that the Tories have a majority in both houses of parliament, as has been the case with virtually every post-war government? Well that’s changed my mind – clearly Cameron is the new Putin.

Less sarcastically – Cooper isn’t even making the complaint that the Tories are ‘packing the Lords’. She’s arguing that no new Lords should be appointed until a process of constitutional reform of the upper house is completed, which is all well and good, but it does rather elide the fact that Labour have had several attempts to support such reform in the past and have refused to do so for rather cynical, short-term motives at every point.

As to the registration issue – anecdotal evidence it may be, but I’m guessing from experience that ‘the mobile, the young and those in private rented accommodation’ are the kind of people who also tend to make sure their on the electoral register. Beyond that, you’ve provided absolutely no evidence of people who want to exercise their franchise being denied the opportunity to do so, or even there being a realistic prospect of this happening in future.

As to the boundary issue, there’s a nice fix for that – the Labour party actively engaging with potential voters, undertaking registration drives etc. In other words, acting like a political party worthy of the term.


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 10:23 am

Daragh, you seem to be mistaking me for a partisan of the Labour Party, which I am not. Your opening sentence is ambiguous, but I take it that you intend to say that virtually every post-war government has had a majority in the Lords (that is to say, a majority of peers have taken the government whip). You are welcome to point me to figures that demonstrate the truth of that proposition.

A voter registration drive would indeed be excellent, but you’re not convincing me that the current proposed changes are not intended to achieve a situation where Tories are more strongly represented among those on the electoral roll than then are among the adult population as a whole. I fully expect that we’ll soon be seeing enhanced ID requirements at the polling booth too, ostensibly as an anti-fraud measure (another one from the US Republican playbook).


engels 08.08.15 at 10:48 am

As to the boundary issue, there’s a nice fix for that – the Labour party actively engaging with potential voters, undertaking registration drives etc.

You might think that, but they actually seem intent on doing the opposite. (The Labour party – the only political party known to man which views gaining 65 000 members as a threat…)


derrida derider 08.08.15 at 11:57 am

“the thirteenth strike of a crazy clock, that discredits not only itself but also the other twelve that have gone before it”. (Good phrase, I can’t remember from whom.)” – stephen @48

AP Herbert, “Uncommon Law, Being 66 Misleading Cases in the Common Law”.

It’s actually apropos this discussion. The defendant, Mr Haddock, defended himself of against a charge of jumping off the Hammersmith bridge by saying, inter alia, “its a free country and there is no law against it”. Justice Swallow found this such an unlikely proposition that he dismissed the rest of Haddock’s defence with the above words. As they say, read the whole thing – its very funny.

And sorry for mixing STV and AV up – though the political effects of AV, STV and preferential voting are similar – ie tending to force the two major parties to try and keep the third or fourth parties happy while (unlike PR) often not allowing them to be part of the government.


Daragh 08.08.15 at 12:13 pm

@Chris –

Apologies for mistaking you as a Labour partisan. I guess I got mistaken impression due to the fact that you supplied a link to an Yvette Cooper speech as your ‘evidence’ for the charge that the Tories are packing the Lords.

I am trying to find an historical record for Lords membership, but will admit that the 1999 reform of hereditary peers makes an apples to apples comparison rather difficult, as well as ensuring post-war consistent majorities for the Tories (who also formed the government for most of the post-War era so it’s kind of a wash).

That being said, the current composition of the Lords is 226 Tories, 212 Labour, 101 Lib Dem, 17 Other, 20 non-affiliated and 179 cross-bench. Leaving one’s personal politics to one side for the moment, I think it’s safe to say that this is not representative of current public opinion.

The occasional appointment of new Lords to redress the political balance in the upper house is, from my understanding, part and parcel of the post-1999 constitutional norm, and one that has been exercised frequently and with little controversy until now (the current imbalance likely due to those dastardly Lib Dems who sat on their hands and did nothing throughout the coalition).

In other words, I find it hard to reach any conclusion other than that your objection isn’t that Cameron is engaged in ‘packing the Lords’, but rather that a Conservative prime minister is appointing Conservative lords who will support politics you don’t like. That’s perfectly within your rights, but to dress it up as some kind of concern for the health of British democracy strikes me as cynical.

As to your expectation “that we’ll soon be seeing enhanced ID requirements at the polling booth too”, there’s absolutely no evidence to support that expectation. Indeed, there are large chunks of the Tory PLP (such as that around David Davis) who have fought tooth and nail against the kind of national ID card proposals that would have to accompany such a thing. I fully expect they’d also be dubious about imposing extra requirements on the right to vote. Say what you will about the Tories but there are many of them who have genuine principles that they act consistently with.

It also ignored the fact that the GOP’s ‘voter ID’ sham is largely a means of discrimination by race. Say what you want about the Tories, but they have been reasonably successful in opening up their electoral coalition to include non-white voters as well. Do you have any other supporting evidence for your ‘expectation?’

At this point Chris this whole debate is becoming embarrassing. You’re throwing around paranoid accusations that commonly accepted (if not particularly reputable) acts of political patronage are savage attacks on democracy, and attempting to support your criticisms of technical changes to the electoral register with dire warnings about policies the Tories have shown no inclination of introducing, but you’re pretty sure will at some point in the future.

As you brought up the GOP, it’s interesting to compare and contrast the reactions of the UK left to Cameron’s victory and the US right’s to Obama’s. In the latter case, the GOP responded to crushing electoral defeat by retreating further into base politics, and a strategy of wholesale attacks on Obama’s legitimacy, complete with dire warnings about various secret plans to subvert the constitution and destroy the republic. It’s given them some short term success due to structural advantages they possess in the US system, but has ultimately led to Donald Trump, a completely unelectable charlatan who nevertheless happily indulges the paranoid fantasies the party has cultivated in its base, becoming a serious contender for the 2016 nomination. Starting to sound a bit familiar?


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 12:39 pm

“You’re throwing around paranoid accusations …”

Well, whatever Daragh. I thought I was pointing to a large number of separate measures, the cumulative effect of which is to confer advantage on the Conservative party and which in a variety of spheres (legal, electoral, industrial etc) make resistance to their agenda much more difficult.

As for the issue of voter ID, I didn’t just dredge this up from my paranoid subconscious. It was a proposal from the Electoral Commission back in 2014.

At the time, the Lib Dems put the kibosh on it, or at least your hero Mr Clegg

“signalled that he does not support the move, telling MPs on Tuesday that he thought the measures already being brought in would “stamp out the problems of fraud”.”

Thinking that we might see this idea resurface now we have a majority Tory government is therefore not as silly as you believe.


Barry 08.08.15 at 12:44 pm

Daragh: “As to your expectation “that we’ll soon be seeing enhanced ID requirements at the polling booth too”, there’s absolutely no evidence to support that expectation. Indeed, there are large chunks of the Tory PLP (such as that around David Davis) who have fought tooth and nail against the kind of national ID card proposals that would have to accompany such a thing. I fully expect they’d also be dubious about imposing extra requirements on the right to vote. Say what you will about the Tories but there are many of them who have genuine principles that they act consistently with.”

Daragh, look at the US. Enhanced ID requirements are quite, quite deliberately not matched with a standardized ID, because the goal is to prevent voting by certain people.

For example, in Texas (IIRC), concealed weapons permits, even expired, were valid ID’s for voting; student ID’s, even from state universities, were not.


Stephen D. 08.08.15 at 12:54 pm

Chris @49 According to the article you link to the changes to voter registration were passed into law in 2009. So any benefits to the Conservative party seem more likely to be unintentional rather than an intention of the government which passed the law. As the article is dated February 2015 I would be genuinely interested as to whether there was a spike in registrations subsequently when people realised that a General Election was approaching.

Stephen @48 Clearly our parents had excellent taste in names! I have added an initial to differentiate us.


Daragh 08.08.15 at 12:55 pm

@Barry – yes, that would be because the US is a federal system, and as I pointed out above, the goal of said laws is to disenfranchise minorities. I think they’re odious and shouldn’t be enacted – what’s your point?

@Chris – You are aware that the electoral commission is an independent body, not some subset of the Tories right? Even then – the EC’s proposal specifically includes mechanisms for free-of-charge voter IDs, something Republican proposals have avoided for quite obvious reasons. If you put in place such a system with a sufficiently rigorous campaign of advertisement and distribution of such cards, it might not actually be that bad an idea, particularly given the rickety state of local elections in certain boroughs (most infamously Tower Hamlets). Nevertheless I have my doubts that you could, which is why I’m not a fan. Incidentally, neither is David Davis nor a large chunk of the Tory party, making the likelihood of such a measure passing virtually nil.

So again – your argument for the conspiracy to undermine British democracy boils down to a proposal put out by an independent body, that might actually improve the integrity of elections if practical issues in implementation could be ironed out, but nevertheless has a snowball’s chance in hell of actually passing. Suffice it to say I remain unconvinced.


Daragh 08.08.15 at 1:00 pm

Addendum –

” I thought I was pointing to a large number of separate measures, the cumulative effect of which is to confer advantage on the Conservative party and which in a variety of spheres (legal, electoral, industrial etc) make resistance to their agenda much more difficult.”

Come off it. You were putting the worst, most conspiratorial spin on a number of policy measures you don’t like, but which are nevertheless pretty par for the course in UK politics, which remain pretty imperfectly democratic due to a long standing collusion by Labour and the Tories to keep it that way. When a reformist party – the Lib Dems – gained the ability to make some, albeit marginal reforms (which is usually the nature of things in democratic politics) you largely sneered at them as sell-outs peddling worthless half-measures. That is, you let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and now that it’s back to politics as usual you’re outraged. Colour me unimpressed.


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 1:07 pm

I am perfectly well aware that the Electoral Commission is an independent body. I fully expect the Conservative party to accept suggestions from independent bodies that work to their advantage and to reject or ignore ones that do not. Since this proposal is to their advantage, I predict its uptake.

(Mind you, they are also rather good at setting up “independent bodies” that are rigged to produce the outcome they want. That’s not the case with the EC, but it clearly is with the inquiry into the BBC.

Unless you think that’s another example of my paranoia Daragh?)


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 1:14 pm

@daragh now: “When a reformist party – the Lib Dems – gained the ability to make some, albeit marginal reforms (which is usually the nature of things in democratic politics) you largely sneered at them as sell-outs peddling worthless half-measures.

@clegg then:

“”I’m talking about the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great enfranchisement of the 19th Century. “The biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes.” He added: “Incremental change will not do. It is time for a wholesale, big bang approach to political reform.”

I did sneer at Clegg then. He didn’t achieve what he claimed he would in that ridiculous speech (you attacked me for being cynical when I expressed scepticism). And where is he now? A figure of near-universal derision, with one remaining fan.


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 1:19 pm

@StephenD Not really. The Conservatives are manipulating the implementation phase in order to fix the boundary review:


Daragh 08.08.15 at 1:33 pm

@Chris – you still have to overcome the tiny, insignificant problem of a chunk of the Tory PLP being dead set against such a proposal, large enough to veto it, and facing few constraints on their ability to do so. That’s even before we get to the point that the EC’s proposal is substantially different in key ways to the GOP proposals in the US, but hey ho.

As to the BBC – yep, fully agree. The Tories have had the knives out for the corporation for a while now and I find it deeply worrying. Nevertheless, the BBC hasn’t done itself many favours by swelling the size of its administrative bureaucracy relative to journalist staff, or engaging in an internal witch hunt after the Saville affair to punish… er… the people who exposed Saville. There are big problems in how the BBC is governed, which have left it open to these kind of opportunistic attacks. Nevertheless I remain hopeful that Cameron’s narrow majority can contain the scale of the damage (assuming Labour doesn’t nominate Corbyn as leader and then spectacularly implode).

In any case, we’ve gone way, way off the OT here, which was your decision to make a rhetorical comparison between Cameron and Putin/Orban/Erdogan. As the answer to your question ‘is this hyperbole?’ has increasingly been confirmed as ‘good lord yes, in fact, weapons grade hyperbole’ you’ve been reduced to grasping at increasingly thin straws. To whit – claiming a proposal by an independent body that has superficial similarities to, yet is substantially different in crucial ways, US voter-ID laws (which have increasingly run into trouble with the court system, something I seem to remember the UK having) is evidence of Tory intent to engage in a campaign of deliberate disenfranchisement, or taking Yvette Cooper at face value when she says the Tories are packing the lords, or even defending the practice of unionised workers having their wages automatically docked for the benefit of the Labour party unless they jump through the administrative hoops to not do so.

I feel I should reiterate I’m not a fan of this government, and woke up with the same feeling of despair and disgust on May 8th that I suspect you did. But as I’ve said above – engaging in aggressively over the top, hyperbolic attacks on the Tories and their motives , and comparing Cameron to a dictator who literally blew a planeload of civilians out of the skies over Ukraine last year isn’t just offensive and intellectually lazy. It materially aids those trying to delegitimise Cameron’s critics by painting them all as part of an unhinged ‘loony left’.


Daragh 08.08.15 at 1:37 pm

Chris @64 (with apologies for the multiple comments) – you’ve said above you’re not a Labour partisan. But your ‘evidence’ for the claim that the Tories are engaging in nefarious chicanery is a claim by the Labour party, basically reprinted by the Guardian, a paper which, despite its many estimable qualities, is not generally known for evaluating Tory policy proposals in an objective manner. In fact most of your ‘evidence’ supplied so far has been Guardian articles announcing that a Labour leadership candidate, or the party itself, has criticised a recently announced Tory policy. This does not strike me as a particularly compelling support for your various claims.


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 2:04 pm

Since it is a sunny afternoon, I’m going to desist from pursuing this further.


engels 08.08.15 at 2:16 pm

[Asking on a blog if it is hyperbole to compare authoritarian drift of Conservative policy to Putin] materially aids those trying to delegitimise Cameron’s critics

The word which I’d use to describe this assertion begins with ‘h’…


Abbe Faria 08.08.15 at 2:54 pm

“In any case, we’ve gone way, way off the OT here, which was your decision to make a rhetorical comparison between Cameron and Putin/Orban/Erdogan. As the answer to your question ‘is this hyperbole?’ has increasingly been confirmed as ‘good lord yes, in fact, weapons grade hyperbole’”

Some of Chris’ choices are odd. Manning the barricades to defend a Victorian system of household voter registration is weird. So are efforts to portray as authoritarian those who want to get rid of a system where 10% of criminal prosecutions are for watching television.

But he makes some really solid points. Russia, Hungary and Turkey aren’t trying to withdraw from the ECHR. The threshold requirements to strike ballots will make an already restrictive system for industrial action much more difficult than anywhere else in the developed world. The UK is building a mass surveillance system that ‘authoritarian’ countries only dream of. There are genuine aspects in which the UK is or will become more extreme, this is undeniable.


Daragh 08.08.15 at 3:23 pm

@Abbe – Russia isn’t withdrawing from the ECHR because it generally ignores rulings from the court that it doesn’t like (though the recent Yukos ruling may change that). Ditto Turkey. Hungary, I’ll give you, is a little more complex.

As to your charge that “The UK is building a mass surveillance system that ‘authoritarian’ countries only dream of”, I would invite you to do a bit of reading on Russia’s SORM system, or current practices for internet monitoring in the PRC.

Again – this isn’t to say that Cameron’s proposals are laudable, or benign or even harmless. But to compare them to Putinism is more than a little bit crass, and a good way to concede the debate before it’s started.


Stephen 08.08.15 at 4:58 pm

Chris Bertram@49, 64

Thanks for the references to the Guardian articles. I’m afraid I am not at all convinced that they support your case. Paul Wheeler’s article points out that “Until 2009, one person in each household completed the registration for every resident eligible to vote. However, changing social values and some small but well-documented cases of electoral fraud generated a case for individual voter registration, passed into law in 2009”.Which seems to me to mean that before the reforms some people were registering as members of their households those who were not eligible to vote, or did not exist; and that having the head of the household, usually a man, responsible for registering female members offends modern sensibilities. Both of these are obviously objectionable. I can’t see them as authoritarian attempts to disenfranchise non-Tory voters.

Wheeler also says “But the group most affected is students. Previously, universities, like other institutional landlords, could provide a single list of eligible voters to the local authority. Now every student has to register individually. That is not necessarily a priority during freshers’ week. The result is levels of registration plummeting from 100% to less than 10% in most university residences”. Well, if that is so, what it means is that students who can’t be bothered to sober up and register don’t get a vote.Is that what you mean by disenfranchising the young?

Rowena Mason’s article points out that “Despite warnings from Labour and some experts before the election that millions could have dropped off the system, the Electoral Commission showed the overall number of people on the list went up by 400,000, or 1%, in the year before May 2015 to 46.8 million voters”.

I notice there is one article in the Guardian you did not quote: “Individual electoral registration has already cleaned up the voting rolls significantly, getting rid of “ghost voters” and reducing the risk of fraud with new checks on ID. It’s been a huge success, with 96% of all voting rolls now confirmed as genuine. The remaining people have already been contacted five or six times and, if they still can’t be found, we’re going to try several more times this year, with extra government funds to make sure it’s done thoroughly. So anyone who hasn’t been verified will have been contacted nine times by the end of the year. If there’s still no reply after all that, there’s a high chance they aren’t real voters, so pretending they exist will simply make some constituencies unfairly bigger or smaller than they ought to be, and stop votes in one part of the country having the same weight as in others”.

Which leaves me wondering about your concern that urban, mostly Labour-voting constituencies will have disproportionately more residents than registered voters. Several circumstances occur to me in which one might be resident but not a voter:
Can’t be bothered to register (although online registration has recently been introduced). Your fault.
Am a legal resident but not legally entitled to vote.
Am not a legal resident and do not want the authorities to know details of my existence.

Why do you think that people in such circumstances should count towards determining constituency sizes?


Stephen 08.08.15 at 6:28 pm

Stephen D.@59: very elegant so;union, much appreciated.May the ghost of James Joyce reward you.


Chris Bertram 08.13.15 at 7:23 am

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