Five Years Later

I think this might be the first general election in which I’ve not voted Conservative. It is, of course, only my third general election as a voter but still. I do always try to examine my voting decisions because the concept of voting for someone just because they’re “your party”, regardless of policies, is bizarre. I don’t think my political opinions have changed that profoundly since 2010 but aligning those to a specific party this time has been harder.

This election has been strange. I’ve been much less engaged than I was in 2010, I think I only watched one debate – if you don’t count the Scottish Leaders’ Debate I saw in Glasgow last week. Generally all the choices available have felt uninspiring, there’s no-one who feels like they can really offer the kind of change I’d like to see. It also seems unlikely that anyone’s likely to have much of a mandate to do anything radical.

I hate the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric peddled by UKIP, the Conservatives and (to some extent) Labour which has definitely been a defining point in choosing who to vote for. I’m a lot more pro-European than I’ve ever been before and I can’t see anti-immigration rhetoric as anything other than racism in a fancy hat. In addition, I don’t think the Conservatives have done enough to protect the poor and vulnerable in our society. Whilst I still think that some level of austerity/rebalancing of the economy was necessary it’s clear to me that too much of that burden has fallen on the people who have the least. In terms of social issues I probably align more with the Greens than anyone else but economically I can’t contemplate voting for them. So I’ve come full circle to the party I voted for the first time I ever cast a vote – the Liberal Democrats. Let the hung parliament chaos commence!

P.S. One last point on stereotypes. I’m not voting Conservative and unless they change their tune I’m unlikely to do so in the future but I’ll never subscribe to the “all Tories are evil” doctrine perpetuated by so many people I know. Firstly, evil is such a strong word – I would really hesitate to use it of anyone. There are caring, compassionate Conservatives just as there are unpleasant members of the Labour party.  Judge people on their individual merits, not a lazy out-of-date political stereotypes.


Feminism’s New Entry Policy

This blog post has been brewing for a while – ever since the Guardian published an article on Tory feminism several weeks ago in fact – and I discovered the hitherto little known “fact” that you could only be a feminist if you hated the Conservative Party.

I’ve described myself as a feminist from a very early age. I remember reading about the suffragette movement whilst I was still in primary school and being shocked that women hadn’t always been allowed to do the same things as men. Equality has always been one of the most important principles in my life – and not just for women – I believe passionately that all human beings are equal regardless of race, sex, sexuality, religion or any other descriminating factor that anyone cares to think of. All feminism has ever been for me is the belief that women are equal to anyone and anything.

However, according to people like Suzanne Moore, the fact that I voted for David Cameron negates my right to believe this. Because Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a feminist, because the Conservative Party have on occasion acted like the the worst kind of right wing dinosaurs you can only be a feminist if you are “left-wing” (I put left wing in inverted commas here because there is no mainstream political party in the UK whose policies are remotely left of centre). Why? Why in 2012 when no major political figure would deny female equality or the power of the feminist movement can I as a feminist not make a decision to support a political party based on my own beliefs and priorities? In 2015 I may well vote for a different political party (hell, I may even set up my own political party to avoid the dilemma of having to vote for any of the uninspiring choices currently on offer) but in 2010 I voted for the Conservative Party (the reasons for which are explained here). I am technically a Conservative Feminist and thus cannot possibly exist.

So again I’m back to the question of why? Surely it’s a good thing that women are represented across the political spectrum and are fighting in different ways for issues important to them! I don’t particularly like Louise Mensch or Nadine Dorries but I can’t deny that they stand up and fight for the issues which they feel are important. I may fundamentally disagree with Dorries’ stance on abortion but hell I fundamentally disagree with every word which comes out of Laurie Penny’s mouth as well – and I deny neither of them the right to be a feminist. I may not like the way they do it – dictate what I can do with my uterus or what type of cake I am allowed to eat at your peril – but the most important thing is that they are women standing up and being counted.

So my message to the sisterhood is pretty much just this: respect my right to say and be something, even if you don’t like what I’m saying or what I represent. Women aren’t all the same, just as all human beings aren’t the same. If you don’t like my stance on something politically challenge me, I’ll debate anything with anyone – I have even been known to change my opinion if given a decent enough reason to do so.  But never ever deny my right to call myself a feminist because of what political party I support.

Caitlin Moran manages to sum up what I’m trying to say far more eloquently than I’m ever going to be able to:

“The purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right ‘types’ of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long… What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be.”

(Seriously if you haven’t read How To Be A Woman yet – do it! Even if you’re a man, it’s fine…)


The Shape of Things to Come…

Well, it’s been a while but the twin factors of both the Browne Review and the Spending Review have driven me back into the waiting arms of my blog to muse about the reality of the brave new world I welcomed so enthusiastically in May…

First things first – last Wednesday’s Spending Review was undoubtedly D-Day – not just for the coalition but for us all. Would it be as terrible as we feared? Well, I have to say no. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to stand up and cheer about cuts to public spending which are undoubtedly going to make all of our lives more difficult in the short term – but I actually thought it would be worse. In truth, given the unrelentingly doom-laded tone of the media, until I actually read the Spending Review document in full I thought it was worse.

The biggest criticism Labour seem to be able to level at the government is that it’s cuts are ideologically driven, that regardless of the country’s financial situation the government would have gone on some kind of rampage of oppression – just because they could. Apart from the fact that this argument is somewhat childish it also ignores the fact that this ideological “roll back of the state” will only reduce public spending to 2007 levels – hardly an era of massive underinvestment.  All the things that are being protected or invested in are hardly the choices of an insanely right wing mob – the health service, which will remain unequivocably free at the point of use; international aid and low carbon technologies. Rather these are the priorities of a liberal-minded government with a desire to position Britain well for the future.

The Spending Review isn’t however devoid of ideology – quite the opposite – and for that we should be grateful. I certainly don’t want anyone making decisions on the government’s priorities for the next five years without a clear vision of what it wants the country to look like after those five years. What the CSR sets out is a plan to fundamentally reshape Britain – to create an economy dependent on innovation, enterprise and private sector growth rather than on an ever-expanding public sector, a burgeoning budget deficit and an over-stretched welfare state.

The decisions being taken on welfare and benefits are tough ones but it’s important that they are taken. I defy anyone to say that our welfare system doesn’t need fixing, I really do. I’m not denying that we should have one – exactly the opposite, it is our ability to care for the poor and vulnerable which makes us an enlightened society. But poverty and reliance on the state for survival should be the absolute last resource not a lifestyle choice. The fact that many children in low income families grow up with no ambition other than have a child, qualify for a council house and, if they’re lucky, to stay out of jail is an appalling indictment on this country and one that we should feel ashamed of. Ultimately the reforms Ian Duncan-Smith is proposing will revolutionise the welfare system and improve the quality of thousands of people’s lives but to do this the government has to make tough decisions up front, decisions which it is attempting to mitigate, but which will hurt.

However if the choices made in the CSR really deliver the brave new world we were promised in May than ultimately all of us will reap the benefits. Worth the risk? I think so. I hope so…

The Unavoidable Budget

Well, no-one expected it to be pleasant but I’m not sure today’s Emergency Budget made anyone (beside cider brewers) particularly happy. However, I can broadly support the ideals that the budget argues it represents – deficit reduction, encouraging enterprise and fairness.

Firstly, deficit reduction – the aim of this budget is ambitious: the balancing of the UK’s books by 2015. £113 billion pounds worth of cuts is a big scary number – and £73 billion of these cuts were already set out by Labour (not that you’d be able to tell given their reaction today). But look at our balance sheet, really look without your party political goggles on – it’s horrendous and we have to deal with it sooner rather than later. If you think the medicine of this budget is bitter, just envisage the sort of strictures that the IMF would impose. If we can rebalance our books ourselves, then surely we should give it our best shot. Yes it means 25% off departmental budgets and significant reductions to the welfare bill.

However I believe passionately that the state should not be the economy – the public sector is currently bloated and unprofitable and if it were a private enterprise it would have gone into administration years ago. Encouraging enterprise should be the core mission of government, creating a sympathetic environment for people to start and grow businesses.  I meet a lot of people with fantastic ideas that have the potential to make a real impact on people’s lives in all sorts of ways – you have to make it easier for people to turn their great ideas into reality. Lower corporation tax, a general commitment to simpler tax regimes and enacting the Conservative manifesto policies on a “one-in, one-out” approach to regulation all appear to be the approach of a government genuinely committed to unleashing enterprise.

Finally, on fairness – I can see that the coalition have genuinely tried to be fair and to target the brunt of any welfare cuts and tax rises at those who earn more. I can genuinely applaud the increase in the personal allowance for basic rate tax earners and I think a refocusing of the benefits system so it helps those genuinely in need without providing an excuse not to work is probably long overdue. The compromise that has clearly been reached on Capital Gains Tax is also fair without being punitive and a bank levy is more than fair, given the help the financial services sector has recieved over the past 18 months. However I’ve got reasonably serious reservations about the rise in VAT – whilst this may raise significant funds I can’t help but think this will punish anyone on low and medium incomes, despite the retention of exemptions for food and children’s clothing. The fact that such a tax rise has come about under a coalition government where both parties are diametrically opposed to tax rises in general is perhaps a sign of how bad things are. And despite the howls coming from the Labour benches I cannot help but think that we would have heard exactly the same thing from Alistair Darling today had the spectre of a “rainbow coalition” ever have managed to propel itself into being.

On a slightly separate note, I was also pleasantly surprised by George Osborne not appearing like a complete incompetent at the despatch box – I know he can’t help his face but he’s never looked like someone you could trust with your money. However he gave a good performance today, delivering a budget which has clearly drawn on both the Conservative policies developed in opposition and the Liberal Democrat’s genuinely interesting thoughts on income tax and rebalancing wealth. I’m not sure you could ever argue this budget is truly fair – we’re all suffering disproportionately from the prolifigacy of both the banks and the Labour years in general – but I genuinely think that the Coalition has at least tried to think and act in a way that is more progressive and fairer than perhaps a majority Conservative government would have been able to.

All we can do now is wait and see – the early signs from the markets are promising, the Bank of England seems to support the course of action laid out by this budget and investors seem reassured by the new Government’s determination to balance the books. But this is going to be the true test of the Coalition – if its ideals of a smaller state, a revitalised private sector and swift action on the structural deficit are the correct ones then in a couple of years time we will all be able to look around and say “well that was tough but we’ve survived”.

The alternative, quite frankly, doesn’t bear thinking about.

A Little Bit of Pomp & Ceremony

I should probably start this post off by clarifying that I am, generally, a fan of the British Monarchy. I’m not sure I’d institute a hereditary monarchy if I was starting a new country from scratch and there are a lot of members of the Royal Family whom I think are a waste of space but as an institution the monarchy is a *good thing* – at least in my eyes.

Thus the State Opening of Parliament will always be one of those occasions that fills me with joy – I love a Crown, a ridiculously long train and an archaic ceremony with a strange fervour. I suspect this comes from the fact that as a historian by inclination very old things will always appeal… However today wasn’t really about the past – it was about the future, about the still shiny and new Coalition government telling us in a bit more detail what they plan to do over the months and years to come. It marks the start of a certain amount of returning to reality in UK politics…

So what do I think of the Coalition now the dust has had two weeks to settle? To be honest it all still seems  bit unreal – according to folklore hung parliaments are supposed to bring inertia and bickering not a general love-in and rapid action. I admit to having had my own assumptions well and truly challenged – although at least I didn’t make a party political broadcast about the dangers of the Hung Parliament party (a piece of wit David C must be regretting even more than *that joke* about Nick Clegg)… How I thought other countries coped I have no idea!

Broadly, I still like the Coalition a lot – the Programme for Goverment issued last week set out a policy framework that seemed to capture the best bits of both parties and it is clear that a lot of work has gone (and continues to go) into making this partnership work. The almost lightening speed with which the £6 billion of spending cuts for this financial year have been identified is the exact opposite of inertia. It feels like the entire country has been put on a new server and suddenly you realise how much the old server was slowing you down.

The phrase “in the national interest” has been supremely overused over the past few weeks but it genuinely feels like that is how the Conservative and Lib Dem front bench teams are trying to govern – and that’s what we need. The Eurozone is in meltdown, war appears to be looming between North and South Korea – this is really no time for prevaricating or party political points scoring. The next few years, maybe even the whole of the next five years, are going to be tough – but I have this quiet sense that we might just come out the other side ok.

Election Reflection: Part Two

I was freakishly excited about the election results last Thursday – I fully intended to stay up until about 5am when a result became clear, drink a lot of wine and then sleep in on Friday. After all there’s always a result in UK elections, all those opinion polls couldn’t possibly be right about a hung parliament…

The first sign that this was different was the exit poll at 10pm which predicted a hung parliament and, despite the BBC harking back to 1992, I knew the polling was likely to be much more accurate. The night went on and there was still no sign of anything resembling a clear result by about 3am – lots of talk of recounts, “odd” results and the BBC presenters getting increasingly het up about queues of people outside polling stations (what happened with that by the way?!). 5am came and went without a result, David Dimbleby and Professor Vernon Bogdanor were harking back to 1974 and none of the party leaders looked particularly happy. The dog thought I’d gone mad when I fell asleep on the sofa and I then woke up to my mother coming into the room at 6.30am to see what had happened.

The answer appeared to be nothing! The Conservatives had done very well but no outright majority seemed likely – 326 seemed an impossible target – and by about 7.30am on Friday morning it literally was. We had the first hung parliament since 1974 and I’d finally found a vocation for historians as pundits on election shows (the BBC had had at least 5 on by this point). I was still on the sofa in last nights clothes but instead of removal vans in Downing Street there was just a procession of sleep-deprived politicians and reporters trying to work out exactly what was supposed to happen next. Gordon Brown couldn’t resign, David Cameron couldn’t form a government and Nick Clegg just appeared close to tears that Lib Dem popularity hadn’t translated into more votes or seats.

Thus began my six day addiction to the BBC News channel, Radio 4 and any other source of news… Friday was first Nick Clegg’s announcement that the Lib Dems would first talk to the Conservatives – which I welcomed but never thought anything would seriously come of, particularly as Labour were wildly talking up a progressive alliance of the left. Then came David Cameron’s address on Friday afternoon which was impressively wide-ranging in its offer to the Lib Dems as partners in a coalition.

The two parties seemed massively unlikely bedfellows – I had a long debate via twitter with the lovely @DaughterOfLir about the ins and outs of a deal – finally concluding that one would be nice but that the Conservative right were just too barmy for it to be a realistic proposition! Particularly given the rumblings of discontent emanating from the direction of Lord Tebbit and Lord Ashdown… Then came the news that discussions between the two official negotiating teams were “going well” throughout Sunday and Monday – I had a bit more hope but the Twitterverse was aghast at the idea!

We all got a little more familiar with the internal workings of the Liberal Democrats and their now infamous “triple lock”. Conservative backbenchers grumbled covertly to journalists. Flashmobs invaded Westminster demanding PR. The SNP started shouting very loudly about the Conservatives having no writ in Scotland (it was at about this juncture I began to support Scottish independence). Journalists looked increasingly desparate for a story, reporting on the delivery of pizza to the Lib Dem HQ. In short the world appeared to have gone mad…

Then on Monday night Gordon Brown resigned and announced that negotiations for a Lib-Lab coalition were officially opening. Given that I’d waited for Brown to go for three long years and fully expected him to be dragged out of Downing Street kicking and screaming – which in the end was very uncharitable of me – it was a surprisingly depressing moment. On Tuesday I woke up to the dulcet tones of Alan Johnson talking up Labour’s ambition for a “progressive alliance”, apparently being fully supported by Paddy Ashdown and the SNP. Doom appeared imminent…

Tuesday then appeared to have taken some kind of drugs – Malcolm Rifkind appeared on the BBC accusing the Lib Dems of cheating on the Tory party, everyone agreed that a decision needed to be made today or the world would end and the Lib-Lab talks foundered. Dave and Nick had a secret second date in the House of Commons and the rumour mill picked up frenetic pace despite the fact that the people making the decisions were locked up in the Cabinet Office. When I left work at 5pm breathless reports of bags being loaded into vans at the back of Downing Street and Lord Mandelson leaving in a black mood were circulating. By 7.30pm Gordon Brown was resigning for the second time in two days and the Queen was on the verge of inviting David Cameron to form a government, apparently in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. I then stayed up until after midnight to wait for the Lib Dems to push the deal through their triple lock system.

Today, Wednesday 12th May 2010, I woke up to the first non-Labour government in 13 years and to the first peacetime coalition government in 81 years. I’m still slightly stunned but somehow incredibly hopeful for this brave new dawn. Lots of people have told me that you can’t be a liberal conservative, it’s a contradiction in terms – but that’s probably the way I’d best define my own politics. Now it appears the government is this very impossible thing and I am so hopeful, for the first time in a decade, for the future of the UK…

Onwards and upwards!

Election Reflection – Part One

I’ve been following both the General Election campaign and the negotiations for a coalition government pretty breathlessly – which has earned me the title of political correspondent at work as well as some less desirable nicknames!

It’s not my first general election as a voter – I voted in vain against the Blair government in 2005 – but it is the first election I could participate in where there was a real and growing sense that change could happen. However, I dreaded until about an hour ago that real change wouldn’t actually happen – a change I didn’t even think possible until last Friday. To a certain extent we won’t know that anything has changed for months, even years but to me the events of the 7th – 11th May 2010 already seem momentous.

I should probably clarify my own politics a bit more here – I don’t claim to have foreseen a Conservative-Liberal coalition or that I would have voted for one had it been on offer last Thursday. I think the coalition has the potential to do tremendous good for the country but that’s a position I’ve arrived at very recently indeed!

I come from a traditionally Labour-voting community in North Wales – my grandfather once claimed that Wrexham would elect a cow if you stuck a red rosette on it – but not from a particularly Labour household. I remember my parents admiring Margaret Thatcher and whilst Tony Blair taking office in 1997 is a moment embedded in my memory I don’t recall it bringing any scenes of wild joy at home (I was only 11). Personally, I’ve always been interested in politics but quite often from a historical perspective – I studied history at uni – and have struggled sometimes to find a political “tribe”. After all Welsh girls don’t vote Tory do they?!

Except this Welsh girl did and does, at least for the time being… I’ve watched David Cameron change the Conservative Party over the past 4 years and I hoped, prayed and voted for a Conservative Government with a mandate that would allow him to change this country. It was always an outside hope – opinion polls consistently pointed to the result we eventually got, a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party – but I truly believed it was the only way the UK could move forward. Maybe that’s the trouble with being a historian, you get a bit too wedded to the status quo because it is “historical” and not always because it’s the best way of doing things!

Also, given Labour and Liberal noises throughout the election campaign, I can probably be forgiven for attaching virtually no value to Nick Clegg saying that he’d support whichever party gained a majority of votes and seats. The “Anti-Tory” voices were everywhere – much as I love Twitter there’s been some very nasty abuse doing the rounds for anyone who even thought of voting Conservative – and a so-called “progressive coalition of the left” seemed by far the most likely outcome of any split vote. Plus “my” party have their own faults – Cameron’s done well but there are still some hard-line right wingers hanging about (Lord Tebbit I’m looking at you) – so Lib Dem support for the Conservatives seemed about as likely as hell freezing over. I kind of felt that was a shame – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Liberals – but at the end of the day I felt I had to pick a party and I chose the Conservatives.

I did that for a number of well-thought out policy reasons not just because I like David Cameron and think his wife’s pretty… Firstly and fundamentally, I’m not a socialist in even the most moderate sense – socially liberal yes, but I’m a strong believer in capitalism, enterprise and a small state. Secondly, I’m mildly eurosceptic – I believe we get a lot of benefits from membership of the EU but the single currency and other aspects of European federalism just don’t stack up in my head. Finally, I believe in a welfare state that supports its citizens when times are hard but encourages them to be pro-active as often as possible. So I read policies, watched debates and reaffirmed my pro-Conservative leanings. Then I put my X in the box last Thursday and sat back to watch the results – half in hope and half in fear.