Tony Blair recently made a speech (here) where he spoke about the need for a directly elected President of Europe. Not surprisingly, as soon as he made the speech, the usual suspects made their remarks about how Blair was pretty much advocating a job that he quite fancied himself. This raises an obvious question: could Tony Blair be elected President of Europe?
The default conventional logic is that Blair’s Iraq legacy makes him unelectable in Europe. I’m not so sure. People forget that Tony Blair is probably the greatest political communicator of his generation, and led the Labour Party to victory on three occasions. More importantly, Tony Blair made people who would never have considered voting Labour (like me) look at the party in a new way.
I always equate Blair with Richard Nixon. Now, I’m sure Blair would just love that comparison, but students of political history who study Nixon recognise that like Blair, Nixon had an incredible ability to read the political gut of American voters and find where the centre really was. In 1972 Nixon won reelection in a landslide that carried EVERY SINGLE STATE except Massachusetts. Nixon now, post Cambodia, Allende and Watergate is painted as a far-right possibly unhinged monster, but for most of his political career Richard Nixon was Mr. Middle America. Not just that, but his political skills got him from first term Congressman to Vice President in six years, party nominee for president in 1960, which he lost by a tiny fraction, and then, incredibly, the ability to come back successfully in 1968 as the New Nixon, the standard bearer of moderate sensible American values.
Let’s imagine the scenario. The office of elected President of the European Union, combining the Commission and Council President, is declared. The EU parties, the EPP, the PES, the ELDR and The Greens start looking for candidates, mostly amongst the faceless masses of the European Parliament.
Then Blair announces that he wishes to seek the nomination of the European People’s Party. The whatnow, you say? But, wasn’t Blair a member of the Labour Party? Yes he was, but only because Britain didn’t have a proper Christian Democratic party. He asks to be allowed attend and address the EPP convention, where he is nominated by former Irish prime minister John Bruton, and then addresses the meeting in English, French, and a little apologetic Spanish and Italian. He talks about the European centre, about his Catholic faith which warms the Bavarians, Spanish and Italians, about his commitment to Europe as an equal partner with the USA, which sits nicely with the Germans and the Dutch, and about the need to balance the free market with social cohesion, which sits nicely with Christian Democrat philosophy. On Iraq, he defends the values that led to his decisions, but accepts that if he knew then what he knew now…he is eloquent, funny, self-deprecating, still good looking for his age and by the end of the meeting the panel of ex-commissioners and MEPs intending to throw their hats into the ring look very second-tier indeed. The nomination is his for the asking.
As for the campaign, if the other parties manage to nominate candidates of equal electoral charisma, like Joscka Fischer, then it’s game on. But what are the chances that they will nominate candidates with the same household recognition as Blair? Sure, the far left will go ballistic, and dog his campaign across Europe, but so what? They were never going to vote for him anyway, and they never seem to get the fact that their high profile hysteria will recruit as many supporters to Blair as they will cost him.
Then, of course, Blair will do what he is a master at: He’ll ignore the hard left, savage the hard right and construct around himself a coalition of moderate centre-left and centre-right people whose values he will identify and speak for, the great silent majority who wants jobs, law and order, decent public services, a non-ideological approach to problem solving and who really don’t like extremism be it religious or political. Or as we used to call them: Blairites.
There’s nearly something for every party except Labour coming from the Meath East byelection. FG win, FF recover, SF in third place, DDI come fourth, it’s a buffet of political nibbles to be feasted upon.
But let’s look at it from two specific view points:
The first is the effect on real politics, by which I mean actions that will effect, short or long term, the actual lives of our people. By that measure, the parties that broadly support the Troika have overwhelmingly won the election, albeit on a turnout of only 38%. The two interesting notes are the fourth place showing of the Direct Democracy Ireland candidate, and the humiliating result for Labour. Will it force Labour to change policy, which would be a real event, or merely engage in a heave to replace leader but without any concrete change in policy direction?
The second is the de facto Fianna Fail/Fine Gael primary election, the ongoing battle to see which group of associated individuals gets to form the largest gang in the combined conservative centrist pro-Troika bloc in the Dail and implement the broadly same policies. In that regard, the individuals under the Fianna Fail banner recovered some ground whilst the individuals under the Fine Gael banner put up solid resistance. For those people and their in-house concerns, this was an important day.
There is nothing inherently wrong with voting Fianna Fail. If you believe that Ireland is essentially OK the way it is, save for a few modest tweaks here and there, then FF is the party for you, and more power to your elbow. FF is a party of minimum change, not out of ideology, but out of simple pragmatism. Change always upsets someone, so avoid it unless the alternative is worse. As a political value it is perfectly reasonable, and so I would not begrudge people who vote FF on that criteria. This is a conservative country, and it is hardly surprising that hundreds of thousands of people want it to be, broadly speaking, left alone.
Neither, by the way, is it wrong to vote FF purely to get revenge on FG and Labour for lying their way into office in 2011. STV is a particularly good voting system for getting some specific bastard good, transferring all over the shop to give him/her a good kick in the political goolies. Just ask FF in 2011.
But who are the morons, the gobshites, who will vote FF because they think FF will radically reverse the policies of Fine Gael and Labour? Who think that FF have a secret plan to supply billions in tax cuts and cut reversals? Who are these fools? In the last three years anyone with a pulse and a capacity for reason will have experienced life under FF, FG and Labour, and concluded that it is not radically different.
Of course, maybe I’m worrying too much. After all, anyone stupid enough to think that voting Fianna Fail will radically change Irish society will probably struggle to turn up at the right polling station on the right day anyway, and that’s assuming they don’t accidentally stab themselves with the pencil in the polling booth.
Hmm: is that why Bertie wanted to get rid of “the aul pencils” in elections, I wonder?
Next year’s European Parliament Elections do not, from an Irish perspective, actually matter. Now, before the EP office get upset, all I’m saying is that Irish MEPs don’t really matter that much. Name two Irish MEPs since 1979 who led the parliament and/or one of the three main parties. “Well, there’s Pat Cox, then there’s, eh, um, eh…”
Domestically, it does not really matter much either, save for the image it gives. If Labour fails to get a single MEP elected, a prospect which is not impossible, it’ll solidify the public image that Labour is the most despised party in the country at the moment, in terms of numbers of people actively disliking it.
Now, Labour, like the PDs and Greens before them, have this fundamental misunderstanding about our Single Transferable Vote system. They think it is always proportional. It isn’t. If your party becomes transfer repellent, as FF were in 2011 and the PDs were after 1987, you get less seats than you are entitled to, and when you’re at 9% in the polls that has the potential to wipe you out.
A solution? Labour should demand FG do two things. The first is redraw the European boundaries, which have to lose a single seat anyway, into a single 11 seat constituency. Running two or three candidates should give Labour a chance of holding at least one and maybe scraping a second. Secondly, they should introduce an Australian style Above The Line voting option on the ballot, where voters, IF THEY CHOOSE, can just tick a party box, and the parties transfers are allocated according to a pre-published order (perhaps at county or province level), ensuring that FG and Labour transfer solidly to each other.
A radical solution? Yes, but if I were one of the walking dead Labour TDs zombie-ing around Leinster House at the moment, I’d start thinking outside the box, because if this works, they could try it for the general election.
I received some ire on Twitter recently when I suggested that the Meath East byelection does not actually matter. Most of the flack was from party activists in the constutuency, who are no doubt working physically very hard to get their candidate elected. I’m not disparaging that work at all. I used to do it myself, and it is long and gruelling work. All I’m saying is that the result will not matter because I can tell you now what it will be, and certainly how it will look to a rational observer of normal democratic politics.
Meath East will elect a moderately conservative centrist who broadly supports the EU/IMF/ECB status quo. That’s the result. If a radical anti-bailout socialist were elected, that would have some significance, but that’s not going to happen. The gap in differences between the two conservative candidates are no wider than differences they might hold with members of their own respective parties.
Yes, the professional party political hacks on the ground, and those who want to aspire to that position, can see a huge difference as to whether it is a diesel train, or an electric one, or a steam driven old classic. The rest of us just see a train.
Within minutes of starting to read “2030: the real story of what happens to America” I knew I was going to love it. In fact, I’ll go one step further. This is my favourite novel of the last 12 months. It’s just plain great.
Set in 2030, the novel tells the story of the issues faced by Americans in that year. There’s a president not only recognising that America is no longer the world’s leading nation but also finally having to confront its inability to add to its massive debt. There’s the consequences for individuals caused by inter-generational strife as a result of senior citizens living far longer than the social security net ever planned for.
It’s also funny in a wry way, exceptionally thoughtful, and full of little future nuggets.
But most importantly, it is very, very credible. Reading it, you can see a direct line from where we are today to where the novel arrives at. This is an indictment of reckless entitlement democracy at its worst.
I hesitate to call it science fiction over satire, but it is both, throwing out “what ifs” in the best speculative tradition of both genres.
I really, sincerely hope that this is not his only novel in this genre, because Brooks has a serious talent for it.
I’ve written in the past about the idea that candidates would be legally bound to specific election promises. The idea would be that, along with usual aspirational manifesto, each candidate would make a declaration of the specific pledges that she/he would implement if her/his party entered or supported a government, with a penalty to be paid (50% salary?) if they failed to deliver.
When I suggest such an idea, I tend to get attacked by party political hacks who say that they media/Dail/other parties “hold” politicians to account already. Except they don’t. Fine Gael and Labour supposedly held Fianna Fail to account when in opposition, and then went on to break the promises they made. How do we punish them? By voting for Fianna Fail? Please.
If political parties are using business-style marketing methods to influence voters, why can’t we have consumer protection style laws and agencies to ensure that the product we buy, a policy through voting, does what it is supposed to do on the (party) label?
It’s completely normal for us to have consumer protection laws and agencies to police and protect our rights as consumers, so why not an agency to protect us from candidates and parties who try to pull a fast one? After all, politics is now, effectively, just another consumer activity where entities (parties/companies) try to sell us stuff (products/policies) for a return (profit/votes). Is it really that weird to suggest an agency that demands the same standards of our politicians that we expect from our service providers?
How would it work? Well, we could start with a Which? style expert analysis of each parties manifesto at election time, where the VPA could cost and analyse each manifesto independently, put a cost to taxpayers or promises, or point out where parties have not costed things properly, if at all. It could also criticise parties for giving vague promises.
Secondly, it could operate a website where, by law, candidates would be required to fill in a questionaire to allow voters to find the candidate closest to their values. Take the abortion issue: supposing voters could now check a website which gives a clear and unambigous guide as to where your local TD stands on the issue. And no, “It’s a very complicated issue” is not a policy.
At the following election, the VPA could rate the governing parties as to their manifesto promises and record of delivery.
Finally, candidates who enter government could then be prosecuted by the VPA for not delivering on their legally binding pledges.
Party political hacks hate this suggestion, and claim it’s unworkable, but that’s just not true. Don’t forget, the actual legal pledges are decided by the candidates themselves. If a candidate decides to make no legal pledges, that is her/his right. But then they will have to answer how they are making promises in their manifestos which they won’t legally stand over? It’ll force candidates to be serious about their promises.
The obvious question is: Do we need this, and can we afford it? I think it would force politicians to recognise that there is independent scrutiny, and we can fund it from a tax on party political donations. We’re not talking a huge agency here, in fact, it could be part of the proposed electoral commission.
The key question about an agency, and a legally binding pledge like this:
How will politicians feel about it? That’s an answer in itself.
That’s the decider: candidates would absolutely loath having to clearly state where they stood on specific issues and values, and that is a single good reason why we should do it.
Was in the Clondalkin Motor Tax Office renewing my driving licence today. Straightforward enough process, save for three guys trying to apply for some form of licence. One stood at the window with the official, whilst another filled in documents at the far side of the room, and a third took photos in a passport photo kiosk, and all three shouted at each other for holding the others up. In particular, I liked the one who lost his temper with passport photo guy not for not having his photos ready, but for somehow slowing up the photographic process.
Just finished one of my guilty pleasures, a 1968 thriller called “The President’s Plane is Missing!”, written by the late respected aviation journalist Robert J. Serling (brother of Rod “The Twilight Zone” Serling). A good old fashioned yarn about Air Force One going missing. Incidentally, he followed it up with an intriguingly titled sequel, “Air Force One is Haunted!”
Am reading (and enjoying) Johnny Ryan’s “A History of the Internet and the Digital Future.” Fascinating how human history is shaped by ordinary people just trading ideas.