A couple of constitutional questions

A couple of quick constitutional questions.

First, as I understand things, there has always been a parliamentary convention that The Lords would not block legislation sent over from The Commons, if the content of that legislation was contained within a manifesto pledge.

I wonder, could this principle apply in reverse? Thinking about the current row over an EU Referendum, perhaps the Lords has a duty to block legislation that is contrary to a stated manifesto pledge? Indeed, where better than the highest court in our land to rule on whether there is a substantive shift in power?

Personally I’m a Europhile of sorts. I think there are some projects, like tackling climate change, where it is probably advantageous to pool sovreignity. But the EU’s reputation for bureaucracy undermines it, and this messing about over referendums is a sitting duck for the Euroscrotics.

Cheats and the Church

David Cameron has been defending those parents who baptize their children in order to win a place at popular schools. Meanwhile, the hackles of some Labour MPs have been raised:

Fears that middle-class parents are adopting religion to get their children into popular schools have led some Labour MPs to call for an end to the expansion of faith schools.

The usual Labour objection over schooling is that parents can ‘buy’ better education for their offspring, either by sending them to a private school, or by moving to an expensive area with better state schools. But I don’t see how this argument works regarding faith schools, since presumbably parents of all classes can arrnage a cynical baptism, thereby gaining that edge in the competition for places.
More likely, the Labour MPs are objecting because they beleive the practice emboldens Catholicism, which in turn they believe to be a threat.
If his is the case, then they are mistaken. Although Catholicism is a threat to progressive, liberal values, it will not be strengthened through this particular ploy. In fact, quite the opposite – by inviting these pseudo-Catholics into their churches, Catholic priests dilute the fervour and reverence of their congregations. The cohesion of their community is inevitably weakened, and the religion as a whole loses power and influence.
By making silly demands on people’s spirituality, priests of all religions undermine themselves. One aetheist friend of mine signed allowed his fiance to sign a form committing their unborn children to the Catholic faith, just so they could get married in a Catholic Cathedral. And a Hindu friend of mine will ‘convert’ to Islam this year, just so certain relatives of her betrothed will attend the marriage.Yet her appreciation of the five pilliars is slight.
The social pressures which religions were able to exert over their communities many centuries ago, hardly exist in contemporary Britain. Baptising someone is no longer enough to keep them in the pews. By demanding these empty conversions, priests ask these parents and newlyweds to tell a lie, the easiest they will ever tell. No souls are secured, and the church will recieve no succour. More of it, I say.

Voting for Someone Different

Posting here has been light due to a catastrophe that I cannot yet bring myself to discuss.  Don’t worry, no-one has died, but its a bereavement of sorts.
The political crisis in Kenya, and the US Presidential Primary season, remind me of some old thoughts on the nature of democracy.  First, is voting along ethnic lines really democratic?  Apparently the Kenyan crisis has an ethnic element, with supporters of Kibaki and Odinga dividing along tribal, rather than ideological lines.  As I said before, such voting seems to be nothing more than a count to see who has the bigger gang, and undermines the rationalism on which democracy is supposed to rest.
Meanwhile, a race row circles the Democratic Party like a vulture. “Is America ready for a black president?” squwark the commentators, comfortable with their cliches.  Just under a year ago, I wondered whether a good indicator of a mature democracy is when someone who is not from the traditional ruling elite is elected.  I admit this is a rather optimistic stance when Hillary and Barack are mudslinging, but I think there’s a kernel of truth here.  Voting for someone who is different, be it gender, colour or ethnicity, requires a certain confidence in the system.  It is an acknowledgement that you have certain things in common with someone from a different background (this is what the Dalai Lama calls multiculturalism).  And of course, it means there is a high level of political equality.
The counter argument is that, in a democracy, we don’t get to set the terms on which people vote, and that a citizen can vote based on whatever criteria they choose – including racist or sexist considerations.  Attempting to stamp this out would be ineffectual and illiberal.  This may be true, but I think the point about the relative health of a democracy still holds.  If you’re voting for someone purely on the basis of ethnicity or gender, then I’m sorry, but you’re not doing it right.
Other countries are not immune.  I recently read that Jacob Zuma will probably become “South Africa’s third black president“, as if his ethnicity was politically interesting in that country, with its very particular history.  A white president in modern South Africa is currently impossible, but that would be the more politically significant milestone, because only then will politics be blind to race.
Here in London, Rushanara Ali is the Labour Candidate for Bethnal Green & Bow, and therefore stands a good chance of becoming the UK’s first female Muslim MP.  If she is elected, it may count as a contrived first, but I understand that the campaign against her is likely to centre around her religion and gender, rather than her ideas or achievements.  Not very mature at all.

Ban Opinion Polls

We all know that opinion polls are useful. Even in a representative democracy, the opinions, wants, and needs of the people should be known and taken into account, so that the ‘democratic conversation’ can make headway.But I question their usefulness at election time, when the settled will of the people will be known in a few days/weeks time anyway. The hysteria in Iowa and then New Hampshire, concerning the fall-and-rise of Clinton, and the rise-and-fall of Obama, are entirely driven by, and make no sense without opinion polling. Obama’s performance in the latter state was only considered a ‘loss’ because the pollsters had him up by 15%. Had the last polling been a few weeks earlier, the same result would have been a ‘win’.
It is because of polling that politicians change strategy, flip-flop, and say what they think the public want to hear, not what they actually believe. In turn, this duplicity insults the public and demeans the system.
The polling surrounding these Presidential Primaries is ridiculous, and not only because it appears to be so innaccurate. What is the point of calculating these pseudo-results, when a real plebiscite is only days away? Each Primary acts as its own, super-opinion-poll, asking an entire State of people what they think.
What would happen if public opinion polls are banned within one month of an election? Candidates and Election Monitors could still do their own, private polling if they wished, and a more even distribution of the Primaries would mean that the media had an unfolding narrative to report on. We would still have the highs-and-lows, winners and losers (both real and ‘percieved’). But these would be based on tangible results, not conjecture, extrapolation, falsehood, or hyperbole. The Bradley Effect, and insidious concept, would be killed off. Voters would vote for their preferred candidate on the issues, and not suffer the emotional blackmail of being asked to vote ‘tactically’ for what the media tells them is the most electable candidate.
Polling is like a lense, which often allows us to magnify and understand a political issue. But at election time, these lenses do nothing but distort, and the picture we see is uglier than it should be.

The Status Quo of Conservatism

For various reasons, I’m re-reading Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism. This quote resonated:

[The British Conservative Party] lacks the essential attribute of a counter-revolutionary party – a faith, a dogma, even a theory. A passionate desire to restore the past must rest on a deep attachment – moral, ideological, or theoretical – to the virtues of that past. And this the British Conservative, typically pragmatic and empirical, seldom has. His attachment to the status quo, whatever the status quo may be; and his function is less to reinstate the past than to preserve the present.

I think this is a key reason why I consider myself to be Of The Left – The word ‘Conservative’ means resistance to change… and that’s not me. Indeed, the quote above looks like a slur to my eyes.
Interestingly, though, I sense that it does not look like a slur to anyone who does consider themselves Conservative, or just conservative. Last year’s Christmas reading, The Conservative Soul by Andrew Sullivan, puts the reluctance to change things at the heart of the Conservative mindset.
Sullivan also rejects the need for a core ideology. He celebrates what Crosland condemns, calling the Conservative approach the politics of the doubter. Indeed, that is the distinction between the religious/social Conservatives and the fiscal/libertarian Conservatives, two groups who are becoming increasingly uneasy bedfellows within the US Republican Party (and I suspect the British Conservative Party too). The religious/social Conservatives do seem to wish for a return to an earlier time, which is what makes them so much more worrying than Conservatives of the fiscal/libertarian bent.
None of this, however, allies me with blogger Alex Hilton’s recent suggestion that Toryism is ‘evil’. There’s more subtlety to politics than that, which is why its so interesting, and challenging.