Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fili-what? The Filibuster hits our shores

There's suddenly a new word in British politics, a word which is normally only heard on the other side of the Atlantic.

1. U.S. Politics .
a. the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by a member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority.
b. an exceptionally long speech, as one lasting for a day or days, or a series of such speeches to accomplish this purpose.
c. a member of a legislature who makes such a speech. 
For many people their only knowledge of Filibusters is from The West Wing Episode - The Stackhouse Filibuster, which shows an elderly senator giving an extended length speech in order to stall a vote on a Family Wellness bill on which his autism centre ammendment had been defeated. It turns out that his grandson has autism (hence why he is so determined) and of course after the Whitehouse realise this they support him and his fillbuster and the bill is (we presume) ammended. The episode leaves you with a feel good that the system works and that the right things was done.

Of course as we watch fillibusters appearing in the British political process for the first time you look at that episode in a slightly different light. Was it right for Senator Stackhouse to hold up an otherwise acceptable bill for what was effectively personal gain?

If looked at in that way then someone in the Labour top tiers did indeed get The West Wing for Christmas as I previously suggested (It's series 2 episode 17 so they clearly haven't had time to get far through it), as this is exactly what Labour Peers have been doing in the House of Lords.

The idea appears to be to talk for as long as possible in order to draw out the length of time of the debate whilst claiming that all you are doing is properly scrutinising the bill and offering helpful (read as 200 plus) ammendments. In reality peers are just waffling, as this well reported example from Lord Harris of Harringey at 1:45am this morning:

“So what were the reasons for choosing 600 (MPs) as opposed to 650, 630, 575 or 585? I was tempted to say that there was some sort of arcane numerology about this. Noble Lords will be aware that 650 is the product of three prime numbers: two, five squared and 13; 630 is of course the product of four prime numbers: two, three squared, five and seven. I defy anyone to find a similar formulation or number that involves five prime numbers. Maybe my noble friend Lord Winston, or some such person could come up with something.”

Labour claim that their issue is the bundling of the AV referendum with the redrawing of constiuency boundaries and the loss of 50 MPs as a result, and have previously tried to block this by making out that it was hybrid legislation. An initial challenge that was defeated. In reality it makes sense for the two aspects (both of which will come into affect at the next general election) to be in the same bill as they both relate to the reform of our electoral system.

In reality they're playing the numbers hoping that in the end the government will given in and split the bill on the basis that failing to deliver an AV referendum in May will cause unrest on the Liberal benches and amongst their activitsts. If this happens they then hope to be able to delay the boundary changes, possibly indefinitely but definitely too late to be implemented for the next election. Why? Because as everyone knows the current boundaries are uneven and favour Labour. It is after all the current system that means that the Conservatives could get a national vote share that means they fail to win a majority but which would result in a Labour majority if the situation were reveresed.

So the Filibuster continues, unhindered by the guillotine and business order motions that mean we never see these in the House of Commons. The Lords are certainly earning their money at the moment, or they would be if they were paid.

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