Monthly Archives: April 2015

Party Leader Election Debates

Bear with me on this one, I actually wrote it last week prior to last night’s 7-way leader’s debate broadcast. Although I’m feeling perfectly vindicated as the whole thing more or less confirmed my suspicions as detailed below….

UK politics were treated to another novel concept this election cycle, the slightly oddly formatted affair on Channel 4 that saw Cameron and Miliband grilled separately in quick fire succession by the tenacious Jeremy Paxman, in addition to a small studio audience. It felt like a dense affair with little breathing room, as both leaders were put under no small amount of pressure by their inquisitors. Snap opinion polling gave the nominal win over the affair to Cameron by an order of 54 to 46, but the small margin has seen some commentators claim that, due to low expectations, Miliband was the actual victor.

Various other subsidiary metrics were gleaned via polling, relating to matters such as leadership quality, world standing, likeability, veracity etc., but really it’s hard to measure what if any genuine impact the event will have on the election. Reactions from journalists, politicos and the average observer seem to pretty much boil down to confirmation bias, and the much vaunted “undecided” are unlikely to pin their ultimate decision down to what they witnessed. It largely felt like a vapid presentation piece during which we learned nothing new, and the best a sceptic might say is that it was entertaining to watch both leaders squirm a bit.

Frankly, these leadership-oriented events are something of a betrayal of the traditional nature of British politics and a further step in the trend towards imposing a presidential sort of perception on things. For anything that adequately and accurately represents how the Westminster machine still really ticks you would have to include at least the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary. But given the tedious palava that were the negotiations to establish this year’s varied set of cross-party forums, such an eventuality would probably be beyond the capabilities of the broadcasters and parties to achieve.

The seven-way debate on April 2nd could be fairly forecast as a complete debacle, unless ITV’s Julie Etchingham has moderating qualities of supernatural proportions. If you’ve ever watched an early-stage US presidential primary debate, in which there are multiple candidates still in the field, you’d probably agree with that statement. They either descend into noisy and cluttered diatribe, or the moderator wields an iron fist and the strict time allocations reduce proceedings to a stilted competition of who has the best sound bites. And that would be referring to the relatively mild Democratic primaries. The Republican iterations are downright outlandish.

As for the other main formats, the April 16th BBC five-way will offer little by way of improvement for lacking Cameron and Clegg, despite Dimbleby’s formidable experience, though at least the April 30th Question Time between Cameron, Clegg and Miliband carries the familiar and tested feel of a UK political staple. The town hall vibe feels marginally more genuine, as even if the core questions are guaranteed to be pre-approved, there is no grooming the often visceral reactions of the crowd. The people in the audience that night will hopefully feel entitled to express themselves as freely as they often do on many an ordinary Thursday night.

One wonders if the broadcasters considered something completely different though, something that might have offered the electorate a proper look into the parties in a fashion that is actually representative of UK politics. The cross-party aspect possibly does provide an adversarial entertainment element, but really it is completely meaningless. Going back to the notion that the Chancellor and Home Secretary should be representing their parties as well, you could expand further and include other major portfolios, and have broadcasters host single party events that more fully delved into individual party legacies, policies and promises.

Line them and give them a treatment on par with Paxman’s uncompromising assaults on Cameron and Miliband for Channel 4. Perhaps it may appeal less to those who don’t already have a healthy degree of political engagement, but considering a major complaint of the Channel 4 spectacle was that it broadly lacked substance, perhaps not. The format would provide proper focus and strip away the chaff of who is a better debater or performer, which is an utter irrelevance to political competency and ideology.

There’s no doubt the parties would still find a way to moan and quibble over how the broadcasts were released, which day of the week, timeslot, order, interviewer, proximity to election and more, but it would be worth pursuing in future elections if the British public are keen on more accessible modes of having their political options presented to them. The spirit of televised pre-election political broadcasting is in that sense very worthy. But clearly as they are still a newfangled thing in this country, there’s great room for improvement on what we’ve seen so far and are yet to be served up with.


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Limited Term Politics

Now there was an announcement of interest – David Cameron won’t run for a third spell as Prime Minister, assuming of course he grabs a second by what won’t be more than the skin of his teeth. This caused surprising levels of disquiet among the Conservative Party, and the world of political analysis went into overtime to parse the meaning of it all. Was it clever? Was it reckless? What impact will it have on the election, and who would be the next in line? One question that doesn’t seem to have been asked though, is why it’s seen as appropriate for one individual to hold such a degree of authority in the nation’s politics for longer than two terms?

There’s no sense in dredging up the ostensible facts about the structures of British politics, cabinet politics, where technically the Prime Minister is only meant to be a part of a core team of fellow ministers. This isn’t the USA, some would say, Cameron isn’t the president and the differences in these systems means unlimited-term ministers are of less concern. But if we’re being honest, there has been a shift in the last two decades in the character of British politics that has seen the role of Prime Minister assume greater relevance. While still a far throw from being actually presidential, there’s no doubt a heady step in that direction was taken with the ascendancy of Tony Blair.

Even if that wasn’t the case, the question would remain – what is the logic and wisdom of allowing a limited group of individuals an unending seat at the tables of power? Why in this country is that effectively the default position for our ministers, from the lowly junior elect all the way up to No.10? Whatever bearing Cameron’s declaration will have on the imminent political landscape, and assuming the declaration was honest and to be borne out in the fullness of time, it’s hard to understand why it was greeted with any sense of controversy. Where were the congratulations for daring to be forthright about the limited extent of his political ambition?

It is a rarity that a political career of noticeable longevity was thus because of the excellence of the politician in question. More often than not it is a product of entrenchment, where the individual in question was simply able to cling on out of vanity and comfort, without any aspect of genuine competition for their place in politics. We see it in Westminster and in Washington, and in many other of the halls of governance across the world. That constituencies can be so utterly stagnant as to allow for the continuation of political livelihoods that span decades is surely something that defies the better wisdom of public service.

In the UK we have even enshrined the position of longest serving MP with the title “Father of the House”. For the last five years that honorific has belonged to Sir Peter Tapsell, although it may just be that this man belongs to that less common set of genuinely unflinching public servants, and it’s difficult, perhaps not even called for, to make criticisms of someone so broadly respected. This doesn’t mean the system in place that allowed a ministerial career that started in 1959 and runs to this very day, only disrupted by two years out of parliament from 1964-66, isn’t worthy of criticism.

It takes a glance across the Atlantic to see what is unquestionably the poster child for reformations to the allowed terms of public service, one Congressman Charles Rangel. How this perennial lightning rod of ethical discrepancies has maintained his 44-year career is no mystery, as we go back to those key words: vanity, comfort, entrenchment and stagnation. Leaving behind naïve ideals of politics, open ended political service is far more want to produce the Rangels of this world then it is the Tapsells.

Look to the expenses scandal our dutiful MPs found themselves embroiled in, in 2009. To date, eight politicians have had criminal charges brought against them, Labour’s David Chaytor, Jim Devine, Eric Illsley, Denis MacShane, Margaret Moran and Elliot Morley, and Conservative Peers John Taylor and Paul White. All but Jim Devine had served for a period of not less than 13 years, in most cases considerably longer than this. Of the dozens of other MPs obliged to repay the public coffers for their indiscretions, most assumed office in or before 1997.

This isn’t to say that a prolonged stint on the public teat is definitively corollary with petty corruption, and many MPs were quite capable of resisting temptation, but it is simply another layer to the argument that ministers, let alone cabinet or prime ministers, should have better restrictions placed upon them. Besides, a traditional ideal of politics was that it never should have been a substitute for an “actual” career, namely one that began and thrived in the private sector and then ceded into public service once some form of wisdom or experience of the real world was accrued. In that sense, politics carried some characteristic of sacrifice, rather than opportunism.

Like or loathe or David Cameron for his politics, there is at least a little something to applaud in his apparent unwillingness to plough ahead indefinitely in Westminster, without doubt with regards to his role as Prime Minister. Periodically, new leaders, new ideas and a new direction are hugely important to reinvigorating national politics. While it also remains to be seen if Cameron becomes part of the “revolving door” dynamic of modern politics that sees many slip from office into some form of lobbying, there shouldn’t be anything implicitly negative about saying, in politics, “Enough is enough.”

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Vote Your Politics

Emanating from the heart of the Labour party as much as from its ardent supporters on the fringes, is a message that causes deep frustration to the more hopeful observers. “Vote Green, Get Blue” is the most often touted line, but recently we’ve also seen “Vote SNP, Get Blue”, and the sentiment clarifies. Effectively, vote anything but Labour, and we’ll have a Tory government for the next five years. Don’t waste your vote on a party that can’t win the seat.

It’s understandable to a point, First Past the Post is a fairly odious electoral system that generates extraordinary advantages to the established parties with both intensive and extensive enough support among the constituencies. We’ve seen cycle after cycle that lesser but ambitious parties like the Greens and Lib Dems do not reap remotely proportional benefits in relation to their overall vote share, to the benefit of Labour and the Tories.

So here’s the question. When the hell is that ever going to change if all we can bring ourselves to do is perpetuate the dynamic in feeble subjugation to the cautionary words of the established parties? From where will the impetus for a better system ever come? Not selflessly from the parties that the current system well serves, you can be assured of that.

A basic truth of proper democratic government is that winning the election does not grant the victor an unyielding mandate to pursue their agenda. Not only is there an opposition to convince or circumvent, but there is in fact still the message of the people rendered by the vote. A winning Labour or Tory party understands that many millions of people don’t support their vision, otherwise they would have voted for them too.

This is to say, a vote for a losing party is not a zero sum game. Every vote carries with it even the smallest amount of political capital, even if it doesn’t translate into seats, and this is exactly why we should be ignoring the fear-ridden message of Labour. A vote for Green is a vote for Green, and a vote for the SNP is a vote for the SNP, and so on. If you sympathise with these parties’ messages, or any other party’s message, you simply must vote for them. Do not vote the system.

Voting the system means the system will never change, and you’ll never have a hope of achieving the politics you want. Of course you’ll always have to temper that hope against the fact that this is a democracy and your views may well just be in the eternal minority, but the notion that we only have room for two major and only a few minor schools of political thought as represented by the current parties of Westminster, is daft.

The issue has never been more pertinent, as this year we do see several smaller parties muscling their way onto the centre stage, notably over the matter of the televised debates. In only their second incarnation, two of three debates will see not only the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems, but also UKIP, Greens, SNP and, controversially given that regional parties Sinn Fein and the DUP actually courted more votes in the last election but are not invited, Plaid Cymru.

It’s right that these forums are as representative as possible, and chances are you’re going to hear some very appealing notions from parties you never thought to bother with. But what’s the point if all you’re going to do is vote based on electability? On that basis there really only are two parties in this country, Labour and Tories, being that no other party is likely a generation within being a viable majority party. Unless, of course, we start to have the courage of our convictions and vote purely and only for our politics.

There’s no surprise whatsoever that the Lib Dems have long since championed reforms to the electoral system, and that Green and other minor parties support this change as well. Labour have shown some meaningless sympathy to the idea, smothered in prevarication, and the Tories are simply just against any change in this regard.

Looking ahead to May, we can predict that the Greens might elicit around 6% of the national vote, for which they will likely be rewarded 0.2% of available seats, or in real terms, likely only one seat, their Brighton stronghold. This is, in and of itself, a clarion call for changes to the system, as it is patently, demonstrably incorrect that this should be the case. However you feel about UKIP politics, a possible 15% of the vote share translating into possibly four or five seats, 0.6% of available… well, it just isn’t a fair reflection of the will of the people, is it?

The UK is, for the time being at least, one sovereign political entity, not 650 constituencies. Having constituencies works in terms of establishing geographical or demographic units for individual MPs to serve, but it’s madness that they should function as they currently do, which is effectively as self-contained electoral units. The national vote should be the national vote.

Without going into the nitty-gritty of the more representative systems available to us (and they are perfectly available to us), the message here is that if sufficient millions of votes appear to back the mandate for changes to the electoral system, it becomes a difficult issue to ignore. Voting Labour or Tory as a tactic, or out of a sense of futility, instead of a conviction, is nothing more than a vote to perpetuate an unrepresentative system, which is itself the only reason not to vote your convictions.

Staring down the barrel of a political future where outright majority governments are fewer and further between, where the coalition will be key and smaller parties of greater relevance, there is every reason to make the push now. Vote Green. Vote SNP. Vote Lib Dem. Vote UKIP. If they or others speak to you, give them the legitimacy to say the system in place is just too flawed. That is the meaning of your vote, even it doesn’t win your party the seat, and even if it does defer votes from whichever major party is politically “close enough”. As politicians live and die by the vote, they’ll clamber to be the party that delivers.

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Direct Democracy…?

Recently I wrote about the need to vote because of it’s exclusive significance to political responsiveness. There are presently no better means by which to ensure your interests are paid due deference by the political class, because the vote is the only mechanism that has a binding impact on the futures of our politicians. Simply put, their careers depend on the vote. I didn’t say, however, that this was right.

I think I might have even said that this is quite wrong and a strong root cause of disenfranchisement, but unfortunately it’s one of those harsh realities that has to be directly engaged with if there’s ever to be a hope of change. Vote, vote and vote some more, be politically relevant, then make your demands. Though as it happens that word, change, has been dogging my thoughts for the past week or so. Not for any particularly grand reason, but simply because of the excellent tool,

You may well have signed a petition on the site, pertaining to any matter ranging from the important to the trivial. Currently running petitions include a bid to prevent the evictions of hard-hit families from their homes in the New Era Estate, a noble cause courting nearly 350,000 signatures. There is of course also the latest infamous Jeremy Clarkson debacle, attracting nearly a million signatures in favour of the man’s salvation. Popular causes apparently outweigh serious ones, but the point is that it’s a tool people use in meaningful numbers to express themselves.

Unfortunate as it is to link this back to the futility of relying on such forms of expression in the strong expectation of political action, that’s what has to be done here. Change and similar sites, like Avaaz and 38 Degrees, do not actually guarantee anything, as even the most highly subscribed petitions only offer the tangible outcome of public pressure. While this can be very hard to ignore, particularly for corporations, even governments, and have in notable cases achieved their aims, they remain in any official capacity limited in function.

However in at least the UK, there is of course the nigh-on identical tool of UK Gov e-petitioning, which possesses the significant advantage of actually putting any agenda that attains over 100,000 signatures directly onto the plates of our esteemed politicians. By law, they have to “consider” the issue for debate in the House of Commons. It’s an important distinction, however meek a proposition it is that MPs might debate something, especially when you consider that even if it goes that far they could happily debate an issue straight into the ground.

Regardless, UK Gov e-petitioning does represent an important step in the right direction, insofar as it possesses even a minimal degree of genuine direct democratic representation. Assuming you can build sufficient consensus, it is more effective than going through your local MP to raise an issue. In that scenario you would first have to successfully engage your MP, hope they take the issue to parliament and then hope yet again that your lone MP’s voice might be heard amidst that baying, pantomimic scenery, which occasionally enforces the notion that faith in elected representation is madness.

I don’t quite believe that, and however puerile the Commons can be sometimes there is an obvious logic in allocating the nation’s decision making to a group of, hopefully, informed and responsible individuals who can conduct the affairs of state while we get on with our own livelihoods and concerns. That’s not to say we couldn’t perhaps better harness the increasingly available and effective tools of direct democracy to much better effect. Referendums in their traditional format are messy and fairly expensive things to organise, but looking forward, perhaps even now, they clearly needn’t be.

It would hardly take a technological leap of the ages to implement a function similar to e-petitioning, but with the added democratic clout of being, say… e-voting. While some issues will always be beyond the remit of the broader populace to be entrusted with, requiring varying forms of heightened expertise, that’s not to say there are many issues, some extremely important, that aren’t. One critical issue on the horizon is the question of Britain’s involvement in the EU, and while what I think about that doesn’t matter a jot, it’s a question that among others speaks to the heart of the character of the nation and has been denied to the people for generations.

Nowadays, nigh on every person and their dog as some form of device and internet connection, or access to these things. With a little imagination and desire towards getting the systems up and running, we could fairly say there are few excuses in terms of the logistics of regularly putting important issues to the people in a binding capacity. Although I’ve been banging the drum for voting in general elections up to this point, I would entirely support this kind of change. Whatever enfranchises the people and helps them engage, can only be a good thing.

The only slight irony being that in order to achieve these changes… we’d have to vote in politicians that would enable them via the general elections. Reality bites again.

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May 2015

Dusting off the old blog again… always a curiosity to go back to old writings, and I’m pleased to say I’m not altogether ashamed of some of it. But being that I was graciously published by the New Statesman’s election-dedicated subsidiary May2015 last month, I figured I’d give my enterprise a tentative lease of life again.

If you do somehow find yourself reading this and have any kind of interest in UK politics and the upcoming election  you should check out Self-serving as I am, why don’t you explore it via the article I wrote, a small impassioned plea to actually get yourself up and go to the polling stations next month. I’m not being airy and idealistic about voting, quite the opposite, as frankly you’re a daft bugger if you can, but don’t. So read.  “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter

More to follow….!?!?!?!?

May2015 appears to have had a hosting issue or two lately, so just in case, here’s the piece:

As we stumble day-by-day towards the 2015 general election, the intensity of analysis and opinion from every conceivable perspective grows. The issues that matter to the people of Britain are made clear via so many polls: priorities crystallise, sentiments entrench, lines are drawn.

It’s all important of course, everything. The NHS, the economy, inequality, education, foreign policy, energy… they all matter. The complication is that they matter in unequal measure when put to one individual or the next. And from the analytical perspective there is no other recourse but to define these groups so as to make sense of it all.

Praise be to the good folk who have done the hard work, the collation and interpretation. Yet what their efforts reveal is the harrowing continuation of an already desperate and unfortunate theme. The “young”, broadly, haven’t got the message. Or perhaps, the young fail to recognise the clean gulf of daylight between their expectations and desires, and the system they’re confronted with.

A fairer voting system makes all the sense in the world. A government that listened to all concerns in fair proportion sounds completely reasonable. Democratic representation outside of the context of elections should matter. Herein is the crux. None of it amounts to a hill of beans.

Hardly a galvanising thought, albeit true. What the young voter needs to understand is that the ideals of politics are removed from reality, the system doesn’t necessarily make sense, doesn’t seem fair and certainly doesn’t appear to serve everyone. So what to do? Disengage? Accept that things are as they are and carry on in the microcosm of your life in hope that the winds of politics don’t inadvertently rattle your tub too much?

Maybe it makes more sense to change the dynamics? Statistics show that increasingly the younger element of society believe more direct forms of democratic expression should count for more. Social media campaigning, petitioning, demonstration. Surely with enough voices singing loud enough no issue can be ignored by the political class? Nope.

The vote is everything, even in a system where the value of the vote seems diminished by structural factors like ‘First Past the Post’. Forget about that. Forget about every one of your electoral gripes. There is only one form of political currency that the people of this country can spend with any hope of true recognition, and that is the vote. The vote is binding. And all the votes together are the sole unimpeachable expression of the people that we have at our disposal.

Ask yourself these things. What did the march of millions achieve before the outbreak of the Iraq War? Nothing. What did the tear-soaked pleas of the deprived and their defenders achieve before the tenets of austerity kicked in four and some years ago? Nothing. What did so much outrage against such deplorable corporate contempt for society achieve? Nothing. I could go on.

This all may seem like fair cause to imagine that your input counts for little, that the greater movements of the world will proceed unabated by your opinion or needs. Well maybe that’s true. No one ever did say life was fair now, did they? You know this, you’ve probably lived it to some extent. But even if so, and I suspect it doesn’t have to be, the correct response to all this is so completely in your hands.

Engage. That’s your responsibility. This is a democracy, the mechanisms are in place. Stop waiting for that political angel to waft down from heaven and deliver the world that appeals to you, figure out what it is that you care about, and fight for it. Above all, vote for it, or near as damned as you can. Make others believe it so they vote for it too. Elder generations and their concerns are paid such deference by our politicians, because they vote. Take the hint.

If every young person of age voted in May, there would be change. Any career politician with two brain cells to rub together would but glance at the demographics and experience a strange and sudden recalibration of focus. All the logic and justice and common sense at your collective disposal, with regard to any issue, doesn’t constitute a moment’s concern in the politician’s mind until they recognise you as an electoral force.

I’m not preaching who you should vote for. And by all means hold your own council in the sophomoric halls, wax lyrical over how the world should be. But my god, never come complaining about politics and governance if you never bothered to hit the polling station. You have no right. You left yourself out of the critical conversation.

It may be that none of what’s been said here sounds right to you, that we should be able to demand the kind of politics, politicians and ideas that we want, up front, so that engagement would seem like a less wasteful thing. I’m sorry to suggest this is entirely not the case, unless you plan on running yourself and setting your own terms. Perhaps it could be, one day, but not yet. The vote comes first.

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