Thursday 30 October 2014


The UK Parliament has a regular opportunity to quiz the "head" of the Executive branch of government - the Prime Minister. For half an hour each Wednesday when the House of Commons is sitting, Members have the opportunity to put any question to him. This contrasts with the ordinary question times, at the start of business on Mondays to Thursdays, when questions must relate to the relevant departmental minister's responsibilities.

But how much in-depth scrutiny is actually achieved? Judge for yourself. Could "PMQs" be improved? and if so what changes are necessary?

Monday 27 October 2014

Worth watching

Chris Cillizza writes in today's Washington Post

"For an election that few people are paying attention to, it’s turning into a pretty exciting one. There are at least 11 Senate races in which the outcome is far from certain, with about a week left before voters go to the polls Nov. 4.

That’s an unusually high amount of uncertainty this late in an election. Typically, the playing field winnows with every passing week as party committees (and candidates) are forced to make fish-or-cut-bait decisions on races that just don’t look winnable. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan handicapping service, had just seven “tossup” races in 2010 and six in 2008. Today, it rates 10 races as tossups."

Indeed this is an election in which anything could happen. There have been many reports that voters are slightly more likely to turn out to vote for Republican candidates - which could mean that the House of Representatives will remain in GOP hands - and the Senate could see a Republican majority. But neither result is a foregone conclusion. No particular issues seem to have galvanised voters. So we may have to wait to see what the mood is next week.

While there may be little apparent interest in the election campaigns (I loved the depiction of this election as "the shiny object election" - the latest thing to come along excites the pundits - but there is no great theme or issue to engage voters for any length of time) - the results WILL be important. The direction of the USA will be set for the next two years - and just drifting will be bad for that country, and the world.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Dicey - Hero or Villan?

This morning I'll be discussing the British doctrine of "Parliamentary Sovereignty" with my Open University W201 class in Oxford. It's an interesting doctrine (some writers refer to it as "Parliamentary Supremacy"). We'll be looking at where the idea came from; what it means; and whether it is valid in the 21st Century.

It's impossible to ignore the contribution of A V Dicey. He was a significant writer on the workings of the British Constitution - but first and foremost a teacher. He knew how to impress an idea on his students minds - and keep it there. Any student of constitutional law would spend their limited time wisely if they searched their textbooks for summaries of key UK doctrines - the Rule of Law; Parliamentary Sovereignty - by Dicey. He recognised the value of "three points". I'll talk to my students this morning about his three points on Parliamentary Sovereignty. I won't even have to glance at my notes. They are instantly memorable.

But was Dicey right? Do his three points accurately represent the doctrine? Is it a useful doctrine anyway? Is it in fact a hindrance to the development of modern constitutional law - and at the heart of Britain's problematic relationship with the EU; and various international treaties that we are subject to?

I personally think it is outdated; and the cause of unnecessary problems - BUT Dicey's three points are an excellent way of explaining - and setting out the grounds for debate. His clarity is useful for revision - and a good framework for undertaking critical analysis.

So over the next few posts I'll use the three points to explain the doctrine.

Tuesday 21 October 2014


I'm down at Westminster to attend a couple of hearings of the Education Select Committee (for some research I hope to present at next year's Political Studies Association conference). Whilst drinking a coffee at the "Despatch Box" in Portcullis House, I looked through the weekly "Select Committees: Meetings in Public in week beginning...."

And there are a number of potentially interested meetings that I might attend - though some clash, and others are on days when I will be elsewhere - thank goodness for the archive on the parliamentary website which allows people to watch the meeting at a time of their convenience.

So what tempts me?

Of course, the meetings today & tomorrow of the Education Select Committee - two ongoing inquiries, and tomorrow has the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan (no relation), appearing for the second week running - this time on the subject of Academies & Free Schools.

Also at 9-30 this morning, so I can't attend, is the Justice Committees hearing on "Impact of changes to civil legal aid under LASPO";  The Culture, Media & Sport Committee will hold a hearing on the Future of the BBC at 10-30. Former MP & and now reader in Law at Cambridge, David Howarth, will give evidence, along with Jack Straw & James Arbuthnot on "The Standards System in the House of Commons" at 13-30.

Tomorrow the Public Accounts Committee will take evidence from the leading Treasury Civil Servants on "The Whole Government of Government Accounts", not very sexy, but of key importance! In the afternoon the Procedure Committee wil hear from a Minister on "Written Parliamentary Question-answering performance in 2013-14". Finally ( in the sense of hearings that I have a particular interest in) there is an evidence session on "What next on the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries" to be held on Thursday.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Westminster Hall

In typical British fashion - changes to our political institutions come slowly. Yet in recent years there have been a number of very positive improvements to the working of Parliament. One has been the introduction of "Westminster Hall Debates". These allow for debates outside the main chamber. There is usually more light than the heat associated with Chamber debates.

Further small reforms have been proposed - and the House of Commons Procedure Committee sets out the history of the committee and the rationale for the reforms it proposes. It's a short report - and well worth reading.

The report is available here.

Despite the name - the debates are not held in the magnificent Westminster Hall itself (one of the finest and largest medieval halls in Europe), but in a committee room off the Hall.

Saturday 18 October 2014

The 1964 Elections

It will shortly be fifty years since the election of 1964. This trailer for an hour long documentary explains the significance of that election. It has also reminded me to put Theodore White's "The Making of the President, 1964" on my reading list for the next few days (I have just physically popped up to the library annex (otherwise known as the 2nd bedroom in our home) to get my copy.

Friday 17 October 2014

A Select Committee in action

This week I attended a hearing by the Education Select Committee. The Secretary of State (the senior minister in a Government Department - and usually a member of the Cabinet) for Education, Nicky Morgan (no relation!) answered questions about the "Trojan Horse Affair" - an attempt to take over some schools in Birmingham.

The Chair is a Conservative MP, but he presses the Conservative Minister at particular points and is quite critical. There are two other Conservative MPs present; one Liberal Democrat and Four Labour MPs.

Further information about the committee can be found at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/

The recording can be viewed here - http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16059
(warning - you can see my arrival as the public are admitted, just after the DfE officials have entered - wearing my red tie!)

Thursday 16 October 2014

Oversight in Congress

The Congressional Research Service is part of the Library of Congress. It is a fantastically useful resource for members of both Houses, enabling them to have quality; well researched materials to aid them in their work. As long-term readers of this blog will be aware, I am a huge fan of CRS - and much appreciative of the quality of their staff and their output.

One of their most useful documents is the Congressional Oversight Manual. It both explains the tools of oversight, and is a practical manual. It can be downloaded from -


It is also a useful document to reflect upon - how can legislatures (or for that matter any body which exists to ensure that government services are accountable to the people they should be serving - and that includes local councils as well as national legislatures) be effective in their work. What are the issues and the tools?

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Confessions of an addict

I have to confess - I love elections. The first one, that excited my interest, was the 1970 General Election. I was ten years old! My father took me to a number of election meetings. I met & got the autograph of Roy Jenkins (Chancellor of the Exchequer & former Home Secretary). I also met George Brown (Deputy Leader of the Labour Party & former Foreign Secretary), who refused to sign my autograph book - he lost his seat days later!!!

In 1974 I became actively involved - handing out leaflets for Geoff Edge; and cutting up a copy of the electoral register to glue onto cards for use on election day. (How I appreciate computer printouts now!). At the Walsall North by-election I did my first door-to-door canvassing. Subsequently I ran for the Westminster Parliament, twice - and the European Parliament - as well as running for council (even being elected to Northamptonshire County Council).

US elections have fascinated me since 1972. I have flown over to Virginia for the 2004; 2008 and 2010 Elections. As an academic I have presented papers on the 1974 congressional elections. I have quite a library on US and UK elections - as well as practical and academic books on political marketing and elections. I also have Le Monde's results for French elections going back a number of years!!!

Thanks to reprints, the "The Making of the President" series  is once again available.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Creating a Constitution

To better understand constitutions, it can be useful to look at a real-life creation of a national constitution.

The classic example is the US Constitution - which was discussed at a convention held in 1787. There is an excellent set of resources at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/. Although it was a closed-door convention (because the view was that deliberation would be enhanced if members felt free to express their honest opinions, rather than be looking over their shoulders to avoid criticism) - James Madison made extensive notes - so we can follow what was said and done. The key issues are also discussed in the Federalist Papers. (Very useful for anyone studying Constitutional Law - not as a description of a constitution - but food for thought about what matters need to be addressed. I'm recommending it to my W201 students!)

A recent C-SPAN programme on James Madison and his role in the creation of the US Constitution can be viewed here.

Monday 13 October 2014

British Library Events

Last week I attended an excellent presentation by Amy Walter (National Editor of the Cook Political Report) about the US elections. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative evening. [held at the Conference Centre of the British Library - there are some excellent events on there, do say hello if you attend a future event & see me there - forthcoming events can be seen by clicking on the relevant month - October 2014; November 2014; December 2014. It's also worth keeping an eye on the Eccles Centre website - http://www.bl.uk/ecclescentre

Ms Walter's talk, and subsequent Q&A session was an excellent briefing for the forthcoming elections. She looked at the political map of the US, and explained why congressional elections were very different from Presidential elections. The Republicans are on the back foot at the Presidential level, but on very solid ground for the Congressionals. The impact of the tea party and voter ID laws were discussed.

The Cook Report website can be found at http://cookpolitical.com/ - Amy Walter's weekly column
can be found at http://cookpolitical.com/author/amy-walter/

Her recent comment about the 2016 Presidential Election is worth keeping in mind - "The most important skill for those remaining on the field is that of endurance. Pay attention to how candidates do when they are under duress, not just how they are doing while in the limelight. One bad week/month does not equal the end of a campaign. A bad response to that bad week/month, however, suggests a campaign that’s not equipped for the long- haul."

Sunday 12 October 2014

Halloween is Coming

As Halloween approaches - I'm sure you'll have children coming round to trick or treat. That's great - and its nice to see local kids having fun. Perhaps you are a Mum or Dad (or grandparent) thinking of something special to celebrate Halloween with the family?

Well - it doesn't HAVE TO involve confectionery. The local shops may be pushing sweets and chocolates - but with sugar now being linked by scientists to dental health problems; obesity; diabetes; heart disease; depression and dementia, it is time to ask - "is this what we want for our kids?"

Join a campaign that is growing. It started in the US, but is relevant to us here in the United Kingdom. Let's start to turn the tide against the companies who - for their own profit (but at the cost to individuals - and the taxpayer who picks up the tab for the consequences of the epidemics of obesity; diabetes & dementia) - seek to "push sugar".

I'm #FedUp with sugar and I'm pledging to have a #HealthyHalloween. Join me! http://thndr.it/1E4t90Y”                            

Saturday 11 October 2014

Online Voting

C-SPAN recently aired a discussion about Online voting. Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council introduced the programme - which highlights that organisations recent report on online voting by saying-


The Report can be downloaded in PDF format from here.

The C-SPAN programme is available at

What are your thoughts?

Friday 10 October 2014

Recall of MPs Bill

This bill is due to be debated in the House of Commons on Tuesday - where, at the end of the debate the House will vote on whether it be given its Second Reading. The House of Commons Library - which is an excellent non-party-partisan body - has produced a research paper about the bill.

The research paper can be downloaded in PDF format from http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/RP14-53.pdf

Conseil des ministres

The French Government provides a useful summary of matters dealt with at the meeting of (the French equivalent of the Cabinet). Last week's newletter can be found at http://www.gouvernement.fr/newsletter/34

It is possible to subscribe to an email - and the good news is that this can be viewed in a number of different languages, though you need to sign at  http://www.gouvernement.fr/recevez-nos-actualites

The membership of the Conseil is set out (in English) at http://www.gouvernement.fr/en/composition-of-the-government

Thursday 9 October 2014

The Senate Firewall

It was reported earlier this week that the Democrats regarded the states of Iowa; North Carolina and Colorado as key to holding control of the Senate. There are other important races - but these are the ones that they see as key to the final outcome of this years Senate campaigns.

Colorado is currently held by Mark Udall, who won it in 2008. Republican Wayne Allard had been the Senator whose seat was up for re-election, but he retired. In the year that Barack Obama won the presidency (with 54% of the vote in Colorado), Udall won with 52.8% of the vote. Obama lost ground in 2012 with a majority of 137,858 over Romney. That constituted a Democratic vote of just 51%. Cory Gardner is the Republican challenger.

Iowa is an open Senate seat, with the retirement of Tom Harkin - who was one of the so-called "Watergate Babies" elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, and who won election to the Senate ten years later. Bruce Braley for the Democrats, and Joni Ernst for the Republicans have been fighting a close battle. Obama won the state in 2008 (54%) and 2012 (52%) - losing 6,396 votes on the way. This a race to keep a close eye on!
Kay Hagan has her work cut out to hold on to her Senate seat representing North Carolina. At the last presidential election, Romney beat Obama by 50% to 48%. At the same election a Republican, Pat McCrory, won the race to be governor by 55% to 43%. The two houses of the State Legislature are held by the Republicans. In the US House of Representatives the NC delegation has 9 Republicans and 4 Democrats. Politics in America 2014 commented, "Republicans are eager to knock off Hagan in the 2014 elections, but her actions as a first-term senator have set her up for a spirited defense." The Republican challenger is Thom Tillis, the current Speaker in the State House of Representatives.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Departmental Select Committees

An increasingly important forum for accountability is the Departmental Select Committee System in the House of Commons. Backbench MPs are appointed to committees which monitor the work of a specific department. The appointment is for the whole parliament, though members may move on early - sometimes because they are appointed to one of the frontbench teams; or another committee; or for any other reason. Chairs of the committees meet regularly (as the Liaison Committee) to question the Prime Minister.

Unlike parliamentary questions, there is an opportunity for in-depth questioning of a witness.

There is an excellent film about the committees which was made for the Parliamentary website.

There is a very useful report from the Liaison Committee looking at the work & effectiveness of the committees. It is available here.

Monday 6 October 2014

Congressional Elections

We are now less than a month away from Election Day in the United States. Whereas in Britain, we minimise the number of different elections on the same day - in the US, voters can face a barrage of different electoral contests. Obviously, there is no presidential election this year - but every voter has a chance to elect, at least, a member of the House of Representatives. About a third of states will also have an election for their Senator - and there may be various State and local elections to vote on too.

This blog will highlight the Congressional Elections. So in the next month, I'll be posting about some of the individual races.

If you'd like to see a sample ballot - click here. This is what voters in Fairfax County, Virginia - in the 10th Congressional District will see - or to be more accurate - what they can already see. Already voters can go to the polls with "In-Person Absentee Voting".

Saturday 4 October 2014

Party Conferences

I was in Birmingham this week - though not to attend the Conservative Party Conference. I was visiting my mother and giving a law tutorial - but couldn't miss the impact that the Conference was having in the city. My buses were diverted - and whilst sitting in Starbucks, I saw many delegates walking down New Street wearing their conference passes.

But I did attend the previous week's Labour Conference in Manchester - and if you look back at previous posts in earlier years - you'll see that I have described and explained what goes on inside a party conference.

In the USA Party Conventions are held before each Presidential Election. In Britain, party conferences are held annually (and sometimes more frequently). I had the privilege of reading the earliest Labour Party Conference reports whilst I was undertaking a political history research project. Today of course, the primary audience isn't the delegates - or the other people attending the conference in person - but the wider public. It is the venue for major policy statements - and particularly in the run up to a General Election (and Britain's is due on May 7th next year) - it is the opportunity to showcase the policies which each party will be pushing during the election.

Friday 3 October 2014