Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Left is Making a Comeback

00.02k 12.10.11 Political Cartoons. Occupy Wall Street


Are progressives on the march? Some days, it sure looks that way. From the EU to the Americas, progressives… Liberals, Democrats, New Democrats, Liberal Democrats… increasingly seem to be pushing back the blue conservative tide. It wasn’t always thus. Less than two years ago, I wrote a little book called Fight the Right (It’s an excellent Christmas or Hanukkah present, by the way). The subtitle of Fight the Right was A Manual for Surviving the Coming Conservative Apocalypse. That was the book’s central theme… that conservatives, from Europe to the Americas, were increasingly winning elections. A couple of years ago, conservatives were on the ascendancy, for all sorts of reasons. They were better funded, thanks to their well-heeled big corporate backers. They were better organised than at any time in their history. The corporate rightist media adored them. The politics and economics of the era seemed to favour them, too. Moreover… up here in the Great White North, at least… there was plenty of division and disunity on the left, and lots of splitting of the vote. The right was taking advantage of that, election after election, and coming up the middle to win.

Two years ago, there was a rising right-wing tide everywhere. From Rome to Riga, from Maine to Miami, from Whitehorse to Witless Bay, conservatives were the team to beat. The right governed most of the EU, with nearly all the EU’s 28 member states being ruled by conservatives. In Canada, conservative parties ruled the roost in BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, and of course nationally. There were (then popular) right-wing municipal bosses, like Rob Ford. Down in the USA, the Gallup poll reported that just about half of all Americans considered themselves conservative… or very conservative. Only a tiny percentage of Americans… a miserable 20 percent… called themselves “liberal”. Well, that was two years ago. Times are a-changin’, to quote the bard. In the USA, despite facing a Republican challenge financed with billions of dollars, Barack Obama came back with a convincing victory. In the EU, many of those conservative leaders… in Italy, in France… are gone. Here in Canada, Conservatives can’t seem to chip away at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s popularity. Despite spending buckets of dough on attack ads, and despite lots of nasty politicking, Trudeau’s maintained a healthy lead in the polls for many months. The NDP’s Tom Mulcair remains competitive, too. That’s just the temporal world.

Even on the spiritual level, it seems like progressives are winning the day. A year ago this week, Francisco became pope… and he immediately became the world’s most influential progressive leader, challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s orthodoxy on everything from capitalism to gay rights. Pope Francisco has been a revolutionary, in almost every sense of the word. He’s hammered the greedy excesses of capitalism in apostolic exhortations. He’s suspended bishops who’re more into those who have bling, rather than those who have nothing. Just recently, the pope was in glowing stories on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine… did you ever think you’d live long enough to see a pope on the cover of Rolling Stone?

Rumours of the left’s death were premature, to say the least. My own prediction of a right-wing hostile takeover wasn’t entirely correct, either. The ideological pendulum… which was careening off to the right… is now swinging back to the centre, and the left. There are all kinds of reasons for that. Post-recession jitters have faded. Stimulus spending worked. Austerity measures are increasingly unpopular. Voters are just plain sick of conservative policies and politicians. Whatever the reason, one thing can’t be disputed… progressives are getting competitive again, from the Vatican to the EU to the Americas. Those on the right? Check your rear-view mirror. That’s the lefties you see… and we’re getting closer.

14 March 2014

Warren Kinsella

Calgary Sun


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Thursday, 5 July 2012

House of Lords Refuses Reformation


Almost exactly 101 years after the first Parliament Act passed reforming the House of Lords by limiting the powers of Westminster‘s unelected second chamber, British MPs are back at it again. Next week, the House of Commons starts debate on the ConservativeLib Dem coalition proposals for bringing the Lords into the 21st century. Does the House of Lords want to be reformed? The Parliament Act of 1911 was a sort of stop-gap legislation designed to keep an already rank anachronism floating until a democratic replacement was arranged. The jaws of Edwardian reformers would drop in astonishment that a dozen years into the 21st century Britain’s still waiting on that replacement. The chances of success this time are probably greater than ever… but the Lords have such a powerful in-built self-preservation mechanism that no one’s betting on it. The bill is supposed to go through all the parliamentary stages before the House of Commons goes to summer recess on 17 July. Yet, even now, there are signs that it’ll be filibustered and left until the autumn session to calmly fade away, because, at that point, the Commons will have to deal in earnest with the economic recession.

The upper and the oldest chamber of the British Parliament (most consider the first Parliament to be the “Model Parliament” held in 1295… archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, etc.) became an issue long before the 1911 reform. So far, the only person who managed to do in the House of Lords was none other than Oliver Cromwell. In 1649, he abolished the Lords altogether with a single-clause bill that labelled it as an institution that was “useless and dangerous to the people of England”. In 1660, after the restoration of the monarchy, it came back as powerful as ever. Moreover, David Cameron is certainly no Oliver Cromwell. There have been dozens of intermediate steps to reform the Lords during the last two centuries.

The last Labour Government of Tony Blair introduced legislation to expel all hereditary peers from the Upper House as a first step in Lords reform. As part of a compromise, however, it agreed to permit 92 hereditary peers to remain until the reforms were complete. Thus, all but 92 hereditary peers were expelled, making the House of Lords predominantly an appointed house. The lucky 92, by the way, were retained thanks to a deal struck with Conservative peers in return for a promise not to behave like “football hooligans” in their attempts to stop Labour government programmes. Under the new bill published last week, the Lords chamber will be reduced from the present 826 to a largely elected 450-strong upper house. For the first time in history, British voters would be able to elect members of the reformed House of Lords in May 2015. They’d serve 15-year terms. One-third of the elected members would be chosen at the general election in 2015, another third in 2020, and the final third in 2025… 120 members in each election. Existing peers would be “phased out”. Eighty percent would be elected, and the remainder appointed for their expertise by an appointment commission. A small number of appointees may be former senior politicians as long as they’ve abandoned their party label. There would also be 12 Church of England bishops, down from the current 26 church representatives. In a concession to critics, Downing Street scrapped plans for a salary of about 60,000 UK Pounds for members of the new Upper House. Members will instead receive 300 UK Pounds for each day they attend… to a maximum of about 45,000 UK Pounds a year… and this sum will be taxed, unlike the attendance allowances currently paid to peers.

On the face of it, the road to a new House of Lords looks amazingly smooth. If there ever was a single issue on which all three major political parties in Britain were of the same mind, it certainly is the Lords reform. The Tories, Labour, and the Lib Dems agree that the House of Lords is indefensible. Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband, and Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg all concur that it’s absurd for a country which is supposedly a mature democracy to have one half of its legislature populated by prime ministerial appointees with a rump of hereditary peers. All three parties made manifesto commitments broadly along the same lines to give Britain a revised chamber that was fit for the second decade of the 21st century. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition’s plans for an elected House of Lords are backed by a majority of more than two-to-one among the British population, according to the latest ComRes poll for The Independent. Asked whether an 80-percent- elected chamber should replace the current all-appointed House of Lords, 67 percent agreed, 24 percent disagreed, and 9 percent replied, “I don’t know”.

However, that’s about where all the smoothness stops and the problems start. Naturally, the centre of resistance to the House of Lords reform is the Lords itself. It is, as they say, a very self-regarding institution. What apologists for the Lords prefer not to highlight are the many members of the bloated upper house who rarely make any contribution, and the large proportion of debates which are mediocre, complacent, stale, ill-informed, and distorted by the inevitable bias of a chamber inhabited by men and women of mainly advancing years who don’t have to stand for election. Yet, by far, the greatest obstacles to Lords reform sit in the House of Commons, and the apparent tri-party consensus is as wonderful as it is terribly deceptive… for there is no more toxic issue for the governing coalition and the opposition Labour Party than the Lords reform. The issue threatens to stretch coalition unity to its breaking point in the coming months.

On the Conservative side, many backbenchers… already frustrated at the Lib Dems’ influence within the coalition… are adamant that they aren’t prepared to support a measure that could, they believe, upset the whole political equilibrium. Opponents advance all sorts of objections. Some contend that this isn’t the right time to bother with an issue that interests the public substantially less than the state of the economy. In the Lords, Labour leader Baroness Royall struck a markedly more hostile stance towards the reforms than that of Ed Miliband, her party leader. She declared that if Labour had been re-elected, it wouldn’t be advancing any Lords reform plans at such a time of economic austerity, saying, “The Lords reform isn’t only not at the top of the priority list of the people of this country, it isn’t even at the bottom of the priority list. It isn’t on the list at all because it isn’t a priority”. A large group of Conservative MPs vowed privately not to support the bill or a programme motion designed to put a time limit on the debate in the Commons. It is expected that 80 Tory MPs would need to rebel for the program motion to fail. There are now 100 of them.

The government insists that the reforms will maintain the primacy of the House of Commons within Parliament. However, critics warn that this will be under threat once the Upper House has the added clout of democratic legitimacy. That is what actually unites both Labour and Conservative MPs in their opposition to the bill. Both camps are afraid that the reformed and elected Lords would threaten their political (and material) well-being. Lord Reid, the former Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s government, expressed these fears quite frankly when he said in a recent interview, “If anyone thinks that you’ll create a new class of 450 senators, with a term three times as long as MPs, with constituencies 10 times as big, with no constituency business to do… and that won’t become the primary house, they’re deluding themselves. It won’t only rival the House of Commons; it’ll supersede it”.

5 July 2012

Andrei Fedyashin

Voice of Russia World Service


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