Category Archives: Democracy

The consequences of the Grenfell Tower tragedy could be profound

I have a strong feeling that the atrocity at Grenfell Tower this week (and my sympathies are with those affected) will prove to be both another nail in the neoliberal coffin and the beginning of a sweeping Labour revival.

This I have thought not for a very long time, but the longer I ponder the prospect, the more convinced I am that it is correct. At least, this is what the signs point us to.

There is something going on in Britain. Sections of the population are mobilising in profound ways, workers are demanding action where their voices were once muffled.

Who knows where this renewed energy will lead? I hope not towards the violence we saw at Kensington Town Hall. The poor know better and can get their messages across in more constructive ways.

Corporate failure to provide suitable, non-flammable cladding has sparked intense anger. But the emotion provoked is about more than just that. It is being more widely aimed at four decades of neoliberalism.

Public mistrust of the private sector was certainly aroused in 2008 after the financial meltdown. There came a turning point for the west, which I believe has swayed slightly to a more Left-wing, interventionist economic consensus.

The neoliberal agenda is treated by the working classes with understandable disdain. It promotes individualism over the maintenance of a social conscience and has represented a sustained attack on democracy.

There is also an interesting parallel at play here. When Margaret Thatcher was in power and she introduced ‘right to buy’ (a form of housing privatisation), homelessness right across rural England soared.

This has been recorded quite brilliantly by my friend Anthony Clavane in his new book A Yorkshire Tragedy. Though Grenfell Tower is a wholly separate problem, it does reflect a certain disregard for the housing needs of the country’s poorest.

I noted yesterday, also, the scurried way in which Mrs May climbed into her convoy 4×4, choosing, perhaps understandably, to avoid the baying crowds demanding both answers and leadership.

I can of course imagine that such a situation would be nerve-wrackingly intimidating. Local residents, bereaved families and angry demonstrators do not make for the ideal public meeting after such a painful week.

There was, though, something slightly symbolic about the Prime Minister’s forced departure from Kensington yesterday. Mrs May appears weak and biding her time, and this crisis could be the beginning of her end.

That is not to say that Grenfell Tower’s blaze was her fault. I think there have been very cynical attempts by hard leftists to associate her with the deaths of, at the time of writing, an estimated 58 people.

The idea that Mrs May ought to be blamed for the fire is fanciful and unhelpful nonsense. Leftists who have genuine (and I think reasonable) grievances with corporate ineptitude will undermine their cause by engaging in this useless finger-wagging.

I have defended the importance of protest at this blog as an important avenue of expression in any democracy. But there can be no excuse for ensuing demonstrations to erupt into savage carnivals of violence.

I also believe that the Labour Party will win the next General Election, whenever it is called. If contemporary British politics tells us anything, it could be as soon as this autumn. There are a few reasons why I think this.

The first is that the myth and fakery of Tory strength and stability has been left helplessly exposed, both by the party’s incompetent leader and their throwing away of 21-point polling leads in one of the worst political campaigns in modern history.

The second is its potentially disastrous dealings with the Democratic Unionist Party, which could completely hollow out Tory support in more urbanised, metropolitan areas of the country.

Social and moral conservatism, but for occasional stirrings, has been more or less wiped out in Britain. The Conservatives have instead presented a more liberal agenda for many years.

This has been because they have no alternative. The Tories are electable if they mouth conservative sentiments but advocate liberalising policy. They are able to tap in to a wide range of the electorate this way.

Of course, there are setbacks. The popularity of UKIP over the last three years (though now decaying again) was a result of Conservative Party failure to address problems caused by mass immigration and Brussels-imposed attacks on our sovereignty.

Theresa May tried to pose as the rescuer of the party; the woman to restore the winning ways of the 1980s, but her personality-centric campaign only managed to reveal her fatal weaknesses.

The mess she now finds herself in, combined with negotiations with the DUP, who don’t subscribe to the Tories’ more liberal agenda, will cost her party dearly at the next election.

More progressive Tory members, voters and activists have already begun questioning their support for the party. LGBT Tories, many of whom I know, will be particularly uneasy with this unfortunate (and thoroughly unnecessary) alliance.

There is also the question of Jeremy Corbyn, whose stock has changed significantly since last Thursday. He now looks the part, talks the part and oozes refreshing confidence.

Something resembling stability has returned to Labour over the last week. I am also convinced that Mr Corbyn’s party would have garnered many more votes from the electorate on June 8th had people genuinely thought he was within a chance of winning.

He should, though, refrain from overtly politicising tragedies of the kind we have seen this week. I don’t think he should, for instance, spend two minutes on Sky News berating cuts to local authority budgets and fire services without the causes of the fire being properly established.

If the election were held tomorrow, Labour would undoubtedly outperform themselves. Nobody believes that the Tories are adequately prepared for governing.

And nor are they in a strong enough position to negotiate our withdrawal from the European Union effectively. No wonder there is such anger.

 


Final thoughts on voting, non-voters and elections before results are finalised

A few weeks ago I decided, against the advice of friends and family, not to vote at this General Election and I managed to stick to that vow. I have written at this blog about my reasons for abstaining, but to summarise, I mistrust both major parties and their leaders, the election was called to allow the Tories to extend their lead over weakened opposition and I live in a safe, Leave-voting seat extremely unlikely to be toppled by Labour.

Obviously, a part of me wanted to take part. My polling station is but a five-minute walk from my home. The polling card I was sent on Tuesday is still leaning against my television as I type, almost guilt-tripping me into feelings of wrongdoing. But in good conscience, I did not wish to. There is something very slavish about the voting process that is especially magnified when one lacks enthusiasm for all of the available, balloted candidates.

As a non-voter at this election, I wanted to rebut three of the more ludicrous claims that have been made, particularly today, about the vote. They are certain clichés that are recycled every polling day, but that nonetheless linger despite being so profoundly false. I then want to slip in a few final thoughts about improving elections, turnout and predictions ahead of tonight’s result. I should note that this blog has been written partly before and partly after the emergence of tonight’s exit poll.

Non-voters surrender their right to complain

Of all the nonsensical remarks made by the sad individuals who spend polling day pressuring others to vote, none is more irritating and wrong than the argument that non-voters cannot complain about their future political environment or public policy.

The first reason for this is that voting is not by any means the only way to express your views or mobilise politically. In fact, for large portions of the country living in safe seats, it is scarcely a way. Other, very good avenues through which a person can become active and influence the political landscape might be through think tanks, research, trade unions or protest.

Can we really say that a highly active political person, who falls outside the traditional spectrum and thus does not support establishment parties, does not have a right to complain despite engagement in other relentless forms of campaigning and activism? Furthermore, this cliché ignores the reverse: that the reason many do not vote is precisely because they have no party to vote for. Are these people not entitled to a moan? There are plenty of them.

We don’t elect all kinds of bodies and individuals who represent our national institutions. We don’t elect judges, public servants or Lords. Does this mean that, upon their occasional incompetence, we are not allowed to deride and moan about them? I fail to see how the absence of a personal vote equates to limits on that individual’s speech.

It is perfectly plausible that complaints from non-voters, especially those with influence such as academics, may actually help in their complaining to form constructive solutions to difficult problems. I would also add that common reasons for not voting have nothing to do with disinterest. Often, health or scheduling issues may conflict with access to a polling station.

I don’t want to set a complaints threshold. I am not going to say: ‘Only taxpayers can moan about flaws in public policy’, because I think children have the right to moan about injustices and failures at school and in their local communities. The truth is that targeting non-voters (who may live in seats rendering their votes unworthy of effort) as individuals who need to be silenced instead of contributing to debate is a very flawed idea indeed.

Britain fought wars to defend the right to vote

Can anybody name a war in which British troops were explicitly fighting to defend the right to vote? I certainly can’t think of one. A quick examination of any of our country’s more notable conflicts over the last century or more will induce the sensible to conclude that votes were no factor in our military pursuits. Brave men and women have always fought, and continue to fight, for liberty and to resist unjust oppression. These are the necessary motives for war, not protecting or winning any kind of vote. I am not sure why people constantly spread lies like this.

If by ‘war’ we mean suffrage, then that is at least more accurate, if a little misleading. Men in the early 1900s (whose suffrage is always mysteriously forgotten) and women in the late 1920s did indeed fight for the vote, but through domestic mobilisation and pressurising of political institutions. Certainly not on any battlefield.

Abstaining is unjust as other countries do not have the vote

Many countries, it is true, do not have public elections, but it is important that we clarify what we mean by countries that ‘do not have the vote’. The United States, for instance, holds quadrennial elections that the public are able to vote in, but does not constitutionally enshrine any explicit right to vote.

There are also countries in which voting is mandatory, such as Egypt, Lebanon and North Korea. Regardless of the appeal (or lack thereof) of candidates, or of the views of individuals, citizens are legally obliged to cast a ballot every few years. Furthermore, there exist countries that hold elections at municipal and not national levels, or in tier-based systems. Saudi Arabia and China are good examples of countries that operate these respective systems.

But I do not see why the existence of less democratically organised countries provides any moral reflection of abstentionism in countries that do allow their citizens to vote. It is not our business to decide upon the running of other countries as much as we would appreciate not allowing the influences of others dominate the way we govern our own. If citizens in oppressive regimes demand more voting rights, then those opportunities must be fought for at the bequest and approval of the affected population.

If we look for a moment in countries that restrict voting participation or refuse to hold elections altogether, we notice that these practices go on in un-free countries. I would ask the voting zealots to remember that as well as craving votes, many citizens in these countries would also appreciate the freedom not to vote (and hence legitimise the leaders that they despise).

Spoiled ballots ‘None of the above’ option

Why do people spoil their ballot papers? It is the most ridiculous waste of time and I have never understood why folk bother doing it. I was actually informed by a colleague this week that standing candidates are actually shown and read all spoiled ballots, which I found quite amusing (though I didn’t independently verify that it was true).

One interesting idea that I do think people should pay more attention to, though, is that of a ‘none of the above’ option on electoral ballot papers. I believe that if enough of the electorate opted for such an option, say 25% of voters, then an election ought to be declared void and is re-started with new leaders and new manifestos. I do not know if such an idea would cause massive political instability, but it would certainly provide shelter for the disillusioned.

The youth and voter turnout

Last night, I put a bet on with Ladbrokes that voter turnout would fall between 60-65%. I still imagine that this is the case, as I think that post-referendum fatigue may have caused many people to stay at home and not both today. ‘Brenda’, infamously interviewed by the BBC outside her house a few weeks back, captured this mood excellently by asking: “Why are they asking us again, can’t they just get on with it?”

Public figures, usually trendy liberal lefties and rich celebrities, once again tried their best to rally the young at this election. Their mannerisms are often so patronising. I wouldn’t mind so much if these people were honest, and openly asked youngsters to cast a vote for the Labour Party. That would at least be a little more sincere. The young may have turned up in surprising numbers today but it will be a while before we have any evidence. I suspect youth turnout was, as is customary, proportionally low.

The freedom not to vote and marginalisation

It is worth remembering that the freedom not to vote is very important. It was not protected by any of the nation’s wars, but it remains a useful method of political protest. The freedom not to vote is imperative purely because it allows members of the public to refrain from voting in instances where all balloted candidates propose policies and espouse views that they personally disapprove of.

I am actually developing a rapid dislike for the term ‘marginalised’. It is overused in political discourse. But, for social and moral conservatives such as myself, as well as other narrowing sects of the population, marginalisation is something we are experiencing. And I see no end to it.

Many who do not vote choose not to because they feel that in doing so, they would be fuelling a consensus or knot of parties with whom they have fundamental disagreements; thus bringing upon themselves further disenfranchisement. In this regard, not voting can be just as powerful and as telling as voting.

 


Terror is not a reason to suspend political campaigning

It is especially disheartening that Paul Nuttall’s most worthwhile contribution to this General Election campaign has been to refuse to cease political campaigning in the wake of Saturday’s London Bridge attack. Though occasions in which I find him even mildly impressive are rare.

But he is right that the country should not have to routinely disrupt its democratic procedure all thanks to the unfortunate and unsurprising persistence of jihadism in our society. Especially when polling day is just days away (perhaps it is me, but the whole thing seems to have gone very quickly indeed).

It is of course important that, for the sake of rebuilding broken spirits and reminding ourselves of the good in humanity, efforts to commemorate and remember those who have lost their lives are made. Sometimes, a period of reflection and deep thought is useful.

But these things can be achieved independently of the campaigning of political parties. Most of us do not leave our charity at the door even in times of intense political contestation. Politicisation of tragedies, I have noticed especially amongst my generation, tends to be met with the scorn that it deserves.

What interests me far more, however, is the modern obsession with suspending our daily activities in response to mindless terrorism. This is particularly apparent in the midst of political campaigning, arguably an innately more vulnerable time for the country as it is a more politically-sensitive and reactive period.

This, the country that dealt with the menacing embrace of the Luftwaffe, now appears to want to scurry about in useless panic, desperately cleaving to whichever platitude it can offer in order to make us feel better about ourselves. Well, without meaning to sound crass, I don’t think platitudes are helping anybody. Especially not those most affected.

So, why do we suspend political campaigning? Is it a mark of respect? I don’t see how. All we do is afford jihadists and those waiting to follow in their footsteps more airtime than they perhaps warrant. Candles, prayers, bouquets and momentary unity are more than enough. The democratic process need not suffer too.

Terrorism is, if we remember, politically motivated. It feeds off the cameras, the alarm and the inevitable changes to public policy that serve only to further slice away at British liberty. I am trying carefully not to pen the very slogans that we have all become so tired of hearing over the last couple of years.

Indeed, there is something to be said for preserving most what the terrorists crave to bring down. Even more so when it is as precious and as (often) irrecoverable as freedom itself. This is why I am suspicious of renewed support for internment of our enemies in Britain.

It was tried in Northern Ireland not too long ago and proved a powerful recruiting agent for the Irish Republican Army. It is also a fundamental violation of Habeas Corpus, perhaps the most profound symbol of freedom ever marked by the country. I think there are better responses at our disposal (I will be exploring internment at this blog soon).

And shutting down the British election certainly oughtn’t to be one either. If anything, the magnitude of the terror threat we face demands an intensifying of political campaigning, not an easing of it. The country deserves to know what our potential leaders plan to do to help the situation, especially before such a time that they have been elected.

As I sit here and think about Thursday’s election, of Manchester Arena and of London’s blood-stained streets, I find it unfathomable that combating terror has not played a more significant role along the campaign trail.

Issues like police cuts have rightly been raised, and Jeremy Corbyn has been quizzed on his opposition to renewing Trident, but that has been the extent of security discussion. I am appalled by this. It is as if our leaders have no answers or are frightened to voice them. How has such an issue escaped political discourse? I fear the country will regret the relative silence of its leaders at this General Election.

And the more we suspend party politics, presumably to appease victims who are in no way enamoured by our doing so, the louder the silence grows.

 


All together now…there are more than two types of production ownership

A fascinating YouGov poll entitled ‘Nationalisation vs Privatisation: the public view’ has been published, with results in brief accessible here: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/05/19/nationalisation-vs-privatisation-public-view/ and a more detailed, in-depth table here: https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/uufxmyd8qm/InternalResults_170518_nationalisation_privatisation_W.pdf that showcase the country’s views on ownership of several of the country’s most important industries.

It is a relatively mixed bag produced by a cross-party sample of slightly fewer than 2,000 adults. Some results, such as the substantial support for renationalising the energy companies and privatisation of the telephone and internet providers, surprised me. Others, like the tiny percentage in favour of privatising the NHS, did not.

I like studying polls of this sort because they offer quite a clear picture of the economic consensus embedded in the population. I have a feeling that much of the growing support for state involvement in major sectors of the economy is down to a mistrust of the market; exacerbated by both the 2008 financial crash and other consequences of the neo-liberal period, such as the ripping apart of the middle class.

Admittedly, the sample is quite small, but I don’t think larger samples would suggest that this poll is especially anomalous. It appears to me that the country has steered slightly to the Left on the economy, but since most do not think in terms of ideology, it means very little for Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral prospects. A party breakdown of beliefs is provided and yields quite interesting results. Labour and Tory voters, more alike on policy issues than they will ever care to admit, are most sharply divided over rail ownership.

There is, though, something else about polling such as this that concerns me. The title of it and the options given to those who took part are very misleading and assume that only two different kinds of production ownership exist. It is crucial for the sake of informing political debate over public policy that people are reminded of the forgotten third option. The means of production in a society can be arranged through nationalisation, privatisation or worker control of industry; which can itself be described as the very core of socialism, where producers take control of production.

Omitting the third option in polling is to be understood, of course. Adding in ‘worker control of industry’ may create unnecessary confusion and boost the likelihood of a ‘don’t know’ response. But polling is not the only incentive for this post. This past week, the country’s major parties have all released their manifestos ahead of next month’s General Election.

Much of the commentary since particularly the Labour and Tory manifesto reveals has circulated around whether or not Britain can afford to renationalise certain sectors of the economy and whether it is a viable solution to the problems we are facing. Plans to bring the Royal Mail, railways and National Grid back under public ownership, as well as introducing a National Investment Bank and National Education Service, have prompted misleading newspaper headlines about the 1970s and the now conventional bashing of state socialism, which is less electable than it has ever been (in part due to the UK’s staggering levels of public debt).

Direct worker control of industry, therefore, ought not to be left out of public debate because it may represent the alternative to neoliberal capitalism that the Left has been searching for over the last forty years. The Labour Party of the last two years has openly referred to itself as a socialist party, so why doesn’t it support producers taking control of production instead of managing industry itself?

As long as the Left pushes for government programs which increase borrowing, public spending and taxes, it will not be able to formulate a constructive alternative to neoliberalism. It must recognise the value in low-tax, democratising policies like worker control of industry if it is to avoid further swelling of our national debt and more hits to its voter base.

I make no comment about whether worker control of industry is preferable in each individual sector or to the efficiency of production as a whole. To make judgement would be difficult at this stage. I also reaffirm that I am not a socialist. I merely think clarification is useful where it is not being applied by politicians or by the media.


The right to smoke does not equal the right to vote

It is striking to me that Theresa May has said something so straightforwardly sensible in reaffirming her wish for the voting age to remain at 18. I had always been under the impression that, given the dwindling interest in voting and sharp decline in participation over the years, politicians would be looking to 16 and 17 year olds to help beef up turnout by now.

She needn’t have bothered trying to rally the youth ahead of this election. Mrs May doesn’t exactly possess the charm that Nick Clegg displayed in attracting the youth vote during the 2010 General Election campaign, when he promised to scrap tuition fees upon getting into government.

The Tories would have just as much success rebranding themselves as the British Communist Party. Young people consistently show Left wing, liberal biases, and remain far more at home in the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats, at least until they enter the world of work and become taxpaying citizens.

I do enjoy the usual string of arguments deployed by those in favour of lowering the voting age. Especially humorous is the idea that because 16 and 17 year olds can smoke or drive they ought to be offered the vote in order to align rights with responsibilities.

Smoking and driving do not have anywhere near the impact upon public policy that voting can have, and 16 and 17 years by and large do not have the wisdom or knowledge that older voters do. Many will vote according to their parents’ biases, and not on the backs of independent thought or comparison.

It is at least a reminder that we don’t really have any coherent societal position on what exactly our ‘rights’ are. Of course, I appreciate the nuances in this argument. A 17 year old who turns 18 in July of this year might contend that he or she doesn’t lack the wisdom or knowledge of somebody a month older, and that person would probably be right.

But we need to draw lines somewhere. If we extend this argument, we can quite reasonably ask why 15 year olds ought not to be given the vote straight afterwards. It is a bottomless pit that creates nothing but problems and is never forwarded consistently.

The Prime Minister is, though, right when she claims that there are plenty of other ways to become active in politics, though the examples she gave (youth parliaments and councillors) were horrendously uninspiring. I myself used the lure of the summer’s referendum to do so, and with great personal benefits.

Most democratisation has absolutely nothing to do with government. It is arguably the workplace that is in most need of a little more democracy, since that is where adults spend most of their daily lives. I have been encouraged, for instance, by the slow growth in worker owned cooperatives in tiny pockets of the west.

Germany and Denmark operate thousands of successful, communal energy cooperatives, with many able to invest in renewable sources without the clouds of political forces hanging over their heads. A large network of worker owned enterprises has shielded Mondragon, in Spain’s Basque region, from the worst of the country’s economic hardship.

The vote often achieves very little in the way of democratisation. This is particularly so when a largely uncaring base are offered it. On the 11th November 2016, Darragh O’Reilly, a Northern Irish member of the UK’s Youth Parliament, laughably claimed in a parliamentary sitting:

“I tell you this: votes at 16 is no one-trick pony. It is nothing short of handing young people the freedom to achieve freedom. The freedom actually to fund the NHS. The freedom actually to have a decent transport system. The freedom to tackle racism.”

His statement was an enjoyable soundbite and I admire his genuine passion, but his view is baseless and most his age simply aren’t politically enfranchised. And of course no emotive political statement would be complete without a reference to the National Health Service.

Just like most other proponents of lowering the voting age, he dressed up its importance to be something other than what it actually is: a gimmick. If a genuine campaign were to emerge proposing to allow 16 and 17 year olds in the Armed Forces alone the vote, then I would be much more interested (and likely to agree).

Until then, Theresa May is correct to ensure that the voting age stays where it is. Britain is a one-party state and appears to have entered its second era of Tory dominance in the past forty years.

And 16 year olds aren’t about to change that.


A moment of reflection on the eve of Article 50 day

Excuse me if I afford myself a moment of quiet celebration, for tomorrow is the day that Britain triggers Article 50 and embarks upon a process of withdrawal from the European Union. It was important to pen a few words this evening as I am unavailable to do so tomorrow.

In truth, I can’t quite believe it is here. I was sure there would be yet more twists and turns before we cemented our desire to leave, be it ping-pong between our Houses or a snap General Election.

As I write, I am flooded by campaigning memories of 2016 that will be forever etched into my mind. It began just over a year ago, in early spring, with a trip down to Bournemouth with their regional Vote Leave team to take part in a day’s leafleting and street stalls.

I decided to travel (from Kent) partly because I don’t leave London enough and partly because my National Express coachcard was becoming increasingly useless. Bournemouth is lovely, thriving town, too.

The day was fun. Since the referendum wasn’t in full swing, many were either unsure or appeared disinterested in how things would go, and this did not surprise me.

What I did find a little shocking, though, was the vast numbers of people expressing solidarity with our campaign. At that time, and like many others, I believed that Remain would win the referendum. I was about as sure of Leave victory as I was of the Tories gaining a majority at the 2015 General Election.

I am glad I chose to campaign with Vote Leave. Back then, my political acumen was weaker than it is today, but if I knew one thing it was that Nigel Farage and ‘GO’ would not be able to scoop up enough mainstream, middle class or swing support for an EU exit.

As I look back, I realise that I should have made more of activism. It was more enjoyable than I gave it credit for at the time, and I now miss it profoundly.

Standing at stalls in town centres, having elderly ladies coming up to me, thanking me for my support and spending hours expressing their desire for Britain to leave the European Union to me were conversations I now cherish.

I often got the impression that pensioners were particularly grateful for the youth who backed Brexit. They remember a time in which they lived in a country that controlled its own affairs; a country that did not wait for external approval before implementing policy; a country that could stand independently in the world without isolation.

But crucially, they were also lied to in the 1970s by Edward Heath, who insisted that despite immersing ourselves within the European Economic Community, there would be no loss of parliamentary sovereignty.

And sovereignty, above anything else, is the fundamental requirement for the sorts of people who favour Britain leaving the EU. It is understandable that so many feel so disillusioned and disenfranchised, given that over the past four decades, governance has increasingly drifted from the confines of Westminster to those of Brussels.

There is something inherently liberating about taking back control (to coin a legendary phrase) of important powers from the European parliament. Doing so increases democratic accountability, empowers local communities and the added responsibility burdened onto our politicians’ shoulders will tell us an awful lot more about the kinds of people who lead us.

So, tomorrow starts the alleged two-year period. I can almost guarantee that the endeavour of leaving will not take two years to complete. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will creep on some time after that. After all, the hurdles jumped between polling day and the triggering of Article 50 truly highlights the complexity of the task ahead.

I will breathe a short sigh of relief tomorrow at 12.30, when the UK officially commences the withdrawal process. I’ll be in Maidstone spending a few days with my older sister. I’m sure I’ll open a bottle of something in order to appropriately enjoy the occasion.

After the trials and tribulations of the last few months, the legal challenges and the calls for a second referendum (they mean third, but they don’t acknowledge the first as the result went their way, despite it also not being legally binding), Leave voters will soon sleep easy.

That is, of course, not to say that the period of negotiations ahead will be easy. I am still confident that the UK will snatch a satisfactory deal for itself, but from tomorrow onwards the pressure really kicks in.

I have no idea what to expect from negotiations, particularly as hundreds of civil service jobs are yet to be filled, but I do rather expect something like regaining control over our territorial waters to be an acid test for the kind of deal we reach.

I would also urge caution to those who claim that ‘no deal is better than our current deal’. I don’t think this is true. No deal would probably shatter the confidence of businesses and heighten the worries of EU nationals unsure of whether they will be able to stay in Britain or not.

But at least we are moving in the right direction. I will spend tomorrow thinking not just about Article 50, but about the tireless street campaigners and some of my brilliant former colleagues, many of whom are the real heroes of the referendum and will never know the credit that they deserve.

 

 

 

 


What to do with the House of Lords

The following blog post is a plea to journalists, activists and politicians. The country has entered a period of intensifying debate over the future of its Upper House, and this proposal (not solely forwarded by me) must feature in the argument. If readers support the idea, then please email a link to this piece to your local MP.

I am getting tired with repeatedly seeing fresh calls for the abolition of the House of Lords, or with demands for the second chamber to be an elected one, so I want to use this blog to help push forward a proposal for real Upper House reform; the kind not being discussed by the very people who would appreciate and support it most. I will present a case against abolition of Westminster’s Upper House entirely (with particular emphasis on the dangers of a possible referendum), a case against electing the House and a case for a system of citizen juries, known more formally as sortition.

The first thing that needs to be said about this new wave of anti-Lords sentiment is that, were it not triggered by Britain’s EU withdrawal, it would not exist in such vitriolic form. Politics, as I feared post-referendum, has become a battleground entirely transformed by the Brexit vote. The public is now viewing issues from the perspective of its referendum camp, which has resulted in a skewing of objectivity. The Lords debate is not the only evidence of this, either. By-elections, too, such as that of Richmond, are being manipulated according to how voters voted in last summer’s poll, and results are being translated in the same fashion. I hope, therefore, by writing this and avoiding EU-related tribalism, I will present a reasonable case (though likely untenable at the present time) for radical reform of the Upper House.

 

Why we shouldn’t abolish the Upper House

Without meaning to condescend, I believe that much of the anger of the abolitionists is down to short delays to the Brexit process and not principled opposition to the House itself. The public were told many months ago that March 31st would be the deadline by which Article 50 was triggered. I don’t think anybody remotely sensible ever thought that this would be over quickly, given its obvious constitutional magnitude.

I also think the reactionary behaviour of Leave voters is dangerous because they fail to present us with a viable alternative or safety mechanism. They simply say: ‘Abolish the Lords!’, without proposing any legislative reform or telling us either what will come in its place, or how the Commons and its operations will adjust to being the sole source of law-making in the UK. Overzealous reformers can sometimes, as problems in our education system show, be the obstacle to positive progress. 

Those calling for the abolition of the second chamber should remember, firstly, that due to timetabling restrictions, the House of Commons often has to rely on the Lords to introduce smaller bills. Commons ‘sessions’ do not manage to get through all proposed legislation, so the second chamber plays a useful role in introducing Bills which would otherwise be forgotten about. In the 1983-87 parliament, for which we have easily accessible data, the House of Lords introduced 88 Bills[1] out of the 209 tabled in total. It may be argued, therefore, that the Upper House often speeds up the legislative process, despite popular allegations to the contrary. Readers may like to give the current table of Bills a glance. Please pay particular attention to those with [HL] in their titles. This means that the relevant Bill was introduced in the second chamber. I would put it to those calling for the Lords’ heads that, if they got their way, legislation beneficial to their interests may be slowed, ignored or not introduced to parliament at all.

Unicameralism, for good reason, is not anywhere near as common as bicameralism across international legislature[2]. Another reason why this is so could be down to harbouring appropriate scrutiny of government. Those who take a look at the map provided will quickly note that some of the most authoritarian countries in the world, such as Iran and China, opt for systems that do not allow for the executive to be held to account. I acknowledge, also, that many civilised and democratic countries appear in the list of unicameral legislatures, but thorough examination tells me that most are either rife with corruption or authoritarian in nature. Part of the reason for this could be a lack of monitoring of government operations, and so I think that Britain benefits from having strong measures of scrutiny throughout its parliamentary process. The Lords have also shown unity with public opinion on many occasions, proving their worth when voting on major changes to the law. Halting George Osborne’s tax credits plan, showing their support for same-sex marriage and voting against Blair’s anti-terrorism legislation are three such examples. As James Forsyth wrote in ‘The Spectator’ recently, “the House of Lords has a strong self-preservation instinct: it knows its limits.”

 

The absurdity of a referendum

If readers recall, the last time we held a referendum on substantial change to Britain’s constitution, we found ourselves stuck in the position we are currently in. Delays, anger and confusion have become the three pillars of British politics. Referendums require Bills, and Bills require filtration and inspection, so I doubt that those sitting in the Upper House would be convinced that a simple national poll is provision enough for major constitutional change.

Referendums are a fun exercise of direct democracy (not because people vote, but because they get to decide themselves on an issue rather than hoping somebody else will), but they aren’t usually congruent with the constitution, as the incessant delays and stoppages attached to Britain’s departure from the European Union illustrate. Referendums are, by their very nature, simplistic and often binary. In their make-up, they ignore the nuances that become apparent after votes for change are cast.

 

Why we shouldn’t elect the Upper House, either

I hear constantly the term ‘unelected’ being used pejoratively. This is primarily because the public has been conditioned, after many years of propaganda by politicians and parties, to conflate ‘democracy’ with ‘elections’. I will delve further into this at some point in the future, but democracy, firstly, predates elections, and secondly, most democratisation has absolutely nothing to do with government (see, for instance, the introduction of the daily newspaper in the early to mid 19th century).

There are three main reasons why electing members of the Upper House is a bad idea. The first concerns general voting patterns, marginalisation and plummeting turnouts. I would at this point ask the reader to consider, hypothetically, that the UK is about to hold a national Upper House election. What do you think voter turnout would be? European elections in Britain have historically produced very poor turnouts[3]. Turnouts at General Elections have for very many decades been on the decline[4]. What makes anybody think that voter turnouts would be anything other than miserable? I don’t, myself, see a scenario in which voter turnout for Upper House elections reaches even 30%. Low turnout is important because we are told that the purpose of elections is to provide those in power with a mandate.

My suspicion is that, given immense electoral fatigue – thanks largely to the digital age and the information saturation that comes with it – and widespread public disengagement from politics (that voter turnouts highlight), most British people would not care enough to venture to their nearest polling station and vote for members of the second chamber. Increasingly, we don’t bother to vote at General Elections, so electing a senate would prove no less purposeless.

Secondly, electing the Upper House would transform it into a mirror-image of the Commons. One of the great features of the House of Peers was that it was supposed to act as an objective, politically-unaligned chamber more able to provide the executive with appropriate scrutiny and amendments. In a scenario where members are elected, they are more easily forced to think along party lines, as they are constrained by campaign promises, manifesto commitments and may view legislation more tribally and ideologically, perhaps reducing space for independent thought and concern for others. I also think it could be the case that Peers may see their democratic mandate (however small) as not subservient to the Commons, but as equal in its validity. This could create a situation in which there is unnecessary competition between chambers, and long periods of ‘ping-pong’.

A third issue with Upper House elections is that they will consume unnecessary resources and eat into time and budgets. The legislative process is long, drawn out and requires a lot of thorough examination and re-examination. Taking a couple of months out of a parliamentary session to focus on being re-elected would seem to me to hamper the ability of Peers to carry out their primary function: scrutiny of government. Election campaigns are expensive and have a noticeable draining effect on both the public and those involved in them. They also, crucially, subvert attention away from getting on with the job. We begin to focus more on people and less on issues.

 

Proposal: Replace the Lords with citizen juries

Most people are not familiar with the meaning of the word ‘sortition’. It is a political structure that has proven successful in British life, most notably in our courts, where juries of randomly selected citizens come together to decide upon the fate of another person. Juries were first constructed shortly after the Norman Conquest more than 1,000 years ago, but have undergone several reformations since. Sortition is the process of allocating to office or duty a jury of citizens selected at random. I mention our courts because, before we proceed, it is important that we respect both the liberty the system has given us and its use in Britain’s criminal justice system. Most people report high levels of trust in criminal juries, despite the lack of legal experience of those sitting on them, and consider taking part an ‘important civic duty’[5].

It is my belief that an Upper House comprised of a jury of citizens, cycled on periods lasting a few weeks, with those from afar allowed to expense either travel or accommodation expenses, would be a much more democratic and fairer alternative to its current formation. By bringing together randomly-selected, representative members of the public (on a scale closer much closer to 600 than 800) to scrutinise Bills presented by the House of Commons, vote on legislation and contribute to committees and initiatives that they care about, Westminster will be enriched by more cognitive diversity, democracy will be enhanced through the introduction of more people into the legislative sphere and we will have an excuse to end the slow, painful suffering of the peerage.

I mentioned earlier that scrutiny is perhaps best provided by a chamber that is objective and non-partisan. It is also true that most people think in terms of issues and not in terms of ideology. To propose, therefore, an Upper House comprising of randomly-drafted members of the public is to join together these two premises. And I think ordinary people will jump at the chance, too. The House of Lords is an exotic place, especially for those living in distant, forgotten parts of the UK. Introducing jury service may also act as a way for Westminster to reach out to forgotten communities and perhaps ease some of the discontent and mistrust that has grown substantially in the modern political climate.

There is also no technocratic argument against this proposal. Members of the public have skills, knowledge, expertise and common sense, and are able to think rationally about the effects that Bills will have upon individuals. They will also, upon initiation, be aided by secretaries, parliamentary assistants and researchers with experience of the inner workings of the Upper House and legislative procedure. We trust our fellow man to make important decisions over matters of justice, so we can do the same in other aspects of public life. I am not saying that jury service in court is logistically identical to service in the Upper House, but as research shows[6], people approach civic duty in a conscientious and serious manner. I do not think this would change under this proposal. 

 

The suffering of the peerage

Back in November, Jacob Rees-Mogg instructed the Prime Minister to create 1,000 new sunset peers in order to help speed up the Brexit process. This may sound like a good idea for those who support Britain’s departure from the EU, but this sort of political puppeteering has profound consequences for the legitimacy and value of the peerage; one of the oldest – and now most devalued – honours anywhere in the world. One of the main causes of the suffering of the peerage has been the temptation displayed by governments (often acted upon) to give peerages to party representatives, usually donors or political advisers behind the scenes, purely for the purpose of aiding legislative efforts in the Upper House.  Tactical posturing on the part of parties is cynical and undermines the importance law-making. It is, after all, about what is best for the country, not what is best for preserving electability.

 

Final comments

I invite readers (whom I thank sincerely for reading what has turned out to be a necessarily long post) to leave their feedback in the comments below. As I said in my opening remarks, this idea is not unique to me. In 2008, The Athenian Option: radical reform for the House of Lords was published by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty. The argument about the future of the Lords cannot be a binary one. If a perfectly reasonable suggestion such as this exists, we must not frame this debate merely in terms of abolition or election. The political potential of sortition has been an interest of mine ever since I became familiar with the pitfalls of electoral representative democracy. I think it should interest you too.

 

Notes:

[1] See third table (section 3): http://www.leeds.ac.uk/law/teaching/law6cw/hc-3.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicameralism#/media/File:Unibicameral_Map.svg

[3] http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.htm

[4] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

[5] See table 3.1: http://www.icpr.org.uk/media/10381/Juries%20MOJ%20report.pdf

[6] See page 2: http://www.britsoccrim.org/volume4/004.pdf

 


UKIP will not pose a threat in 2020, but this may be bad for British politics

I now think that UKIP will play no considerable role at the 2020 General Election (provided, of course, that there isn’t one sooner). My conclusion is partly informed by uninspiring quarrels between its senior figures and partly by the result of last year’s referendum, which now seems so far away I can scarcely believe how time has flown.

Notice that I use the word ‘uninspiring’. Of course, squabbles in political parties – despite the fact that they can open up debate – aren’t usually very helpful, but with UKIP, matters are made worse. The party was primarily a one-issue political force, acting as a battering ram and driving home an agenda that had been forgotten or deliberately ignored for far too long.

At present, UKIP lacks purpose and direction. Its primary goal has almost (barring a few late hiccups) been achieved and it must now attach itself to other issues worth pursuing. Indeed, Michael Heaver, Nigel Farage’s former spin doctor, thinks that proportional representation and House of Lords reform are two such issues that the party can use to maintain its foothold in British politics.

This is a false trail. These areas of policy are fringe issues not capable of rallying a significant portion of the electorate. UKIP’s divisions are therefore uninspiring because neither side is offering any credible path towards long-term relevance in the current political climate. Arron Banks, who funded UKIP at the last General Election, claims that Paul Nuttall is week, but the problem is in fact much deeper.

The party has reached its sell-by date, and as the party only ever truly planned for a referendum, it is unsurprising to me that it finds itself a little hollowed out and purposeless afterwards. This is itself causing internal doubt and frustration. Being the leader, Mr Nuttall will find himself in the crosshairs, but truth be told, even Nigel Farage would struggle to keep UKIP on the map.

I do not write this gleefully by any means. I have always been fair to UKIP and stood up for the party when under unjust attack. This is because I believe that its impact on British politics has been largely productive. Its success transcends electoral representative democracy and, perhaps ironically, was aided largely by its very inconvenience to the establishment parties and their pocketed media tycoons.

UKIP’s most profound influence on British politics was to apply serious pressure on the Conservative Party to be conservative; to stop supporting Britain’s ongoing membership of the European Union, to stop imposing on the country unprecedented levels of mass immigration, to strengthen and illuminate the national culture and character. These simple premises had long ago been abandoned by a party that knew that all it had to do was mirror Blairite values and – as the Labour Party was hollowed and left demoralised in the ensuing post-Blair years – it would guarantee electability for years to come.

The Conservative Party knew that it had become New Labour. How could anybody have missed the many glaring parallels between its leader, Mr Cameron, and his now infamous predecessor? The trouble was, so too did many of its members. Its most disgruntled supporters switched their allegiances and opted instead to seek refuge in a growing party that believed and said the things conservatives had been saying vainly for so long. It is no wonder that UKIP became a force in such a short period of time.

Nigel Farage shrewdly spotted a few years ago that if he could only (but correctly) associate mass immigration with EU membership, and raise awareness to a possible referendum, his and his party’s political legacy would be secure. Though what he still does not recognise, to his discredit, is how ineffective the Leave campaign would have been had UKIP been spearheading it during the country’s referendum period. Alas, it no longer matters. Our side won it, all that remains is for departure to be negotiated and executed.

But what of the future of UKIP? I would love for my prediction to fall flat. They have been a useful kick in the backside for the Tories down south and northern Labour who, shamefully, have resisted public opinion (even that of its own voter base) and insisted on fighting – rather than listening to, UKIP. In the run up to the triggering of Article 50, backsliding on Brexit was widely suspected. But come the inevitable collapse of UKIP, a party almost too combustible for its own good, more serious backsliding may be seen.

The Tories, knowing full well that much of conservatism is damage limitation, may not see a battle worth fighting, and we could well see them revert to their old, disingenuous ways, freed of the UKIP-led electoral pressure that so many took for granted.


Brexit: the House of Lords has not let anybody down tonight

And still we are yet to trigger Article 50. This time thanks to what is actually quite a reasonable intervention from the House of Lords, who have attracted the wrath of Leave voters now agitated to get the exit process under way. Being one of them, I understand their frustrations, but tonight’s government defeat was actually an example of the Upper House at its most useful, not at its most destructive or contemptuous of democratic procedure.

The amendment, which proposed that the government commits to protecting the rights of EU citizens living in Britain within three months of triggering Article 50, defeated Mrs May’s Brexit bill by 358 votes to 256 earlier this evening. At first I sighed at what I thought would be yet another bump in the road to leaving the European Union, but then I took the time to consider a couple of things.

Firstly, the amendment (despite its lack of concern for British citizens living within the EU) is a sensible one. Being the leaving party, it is down to Britain to set the negotiating standard and settle the nerves of other member states who are concerned about damage to diplomatic ties. By enshrining in law protection for the rights of those who came to the UK legally throughout our membership, we lay the groundwork for productive talks and calm EU-born immigrants living in Britain, who in many cases will be uneasy about committing to long-term projects, like finding a mortgage or setting up a business.

Certainty, after all, was exactly what was promised in the government’s White Paper a few weeks ago. It seems to me to be reasonable, as the responsibility for this entire process lies first and foremost with us, that we take the moral high ground on this particular issue. If EU departure is organised poorly and in slapdash fashion, then Britain is the party most liable to political and economic damage. Even Nigel Farage, not known for his humility towards Brussels, agreed with me on his LBC radio show a few moments ago (or, rather, I agree with him).

Since immigration was a major factor in helping to determine the outcome of last year’s referendum, I think foreign-born citizens living in the UK will appreciate a vote of confidence in their worth to the country and support for their stay, especially given the noted rise in levels of hate crime and lingering anti-migrant sentiment after almost two decades of mass immigration from the continent. I also think that other EU member states will be more willing to engage constructively with the UK during negotiations, knowing that their citizens’ rights are to be respected.

Another cause for concern tonight has been the emotional outrage from Leave voters who have emerged in their droves to try to undermine Westminster’s second chamber in calling for its abolition. This is odd, given that most Brexit supporters self-identify as political conservatives (that’s small ‘c’). I can only deduce that they are not thinking rationally whilst their unjustifiable anger consumes them. They only tend to make noise when our Peers behave in ways that they do not personally approve of, and not usually at any other time.

The main problem with a unicameral legislature is that, due to timetabling constraints, the House of Commons simply isn’t able to oversee all legislation put before it. It must, from to time, rely on the Upper House to vote on and scrutinise bills; perhaps one of its more crucial and underappreciated functions. My suspicion is that a unicameral legislature would struggle to get to grips with the sheer wealth of legislation it would have to deal with. And to simply say: “Well, let’s pass fewer laws” seems on the face of things a little naive. It is not possible to predict the country’s future political challenges – especially after substantial constitutional change.

Secondly, as we have seen this evening, the House of Lords has consistently proved itself able to scrutinise government intelligently, reminding them of where they are going wrong and proposing amendments where necessary. This process cannot be understated. It is likely the main reason why the Upper House has remained a fixture at Westminster for such a long time, and while I disagree with the composition of Peers and the manner of their selection, I acknowledge the importance of holding the executive to account.

Those who voted for Brexit may, therefore, want to save their strength. This is not a battle worth fighting, and given the circumstances, it is hard to tell what challenges lie just around the corner.

 


Yes, some peers are useless, but so too are elections!

Once again, the House of Lords finds itself squirming in the spotlight of British politics , this time as our peers attempt to weigh in on the triggering of Article 50. I do not think they will try to block Brexit. The House of Lords has shown that if it cares about anything, it is its own preservation.

For all the scandals, trials and tribulations that have rocked the second chamber over the years, the way in which the Lords remain relatively unscathed really does amaze me. And they know it too. Even Baroness D’Souza, a former speaker in the Upper House, believes that there are peers who offer nothing and get away with the bare minimum. 

She has told the BBC ahead of next Monday evening’s documentary on the Upper House that “many, many peers contribute absolutely nothing, despite receiving the full allowance.” Lords are allowed to claim a daily attendance allowance of up to £300 – but do not receive official salaries. If it wasn’t for absurdly generous allowances, I doubt many peers would bother with the parliamentary process at all.

Most are uncomfortably rich, often businessman or career politicians and do not need to claim hundreds of pounds every day. I don’t usually have any qualms with politicians accruing travel and accommodation expenses, as time taken out of the day to travel between home and Westminster can eat into casework, committee or legislative obligations, but attendance allowances (like those offered to Members of the European Parliament) are nonsensical.

But whatever dissatisfaction with peers lingers, I would reject calls for members to be elected to their posts. Some months ago I wrote an article for ‘Reaction’, which you can read here, on the political and practical potential of sortition (randomly selected citizen juries) in the arranging of Westminster’s Upper House. The article still highlights my position today, but like most of my work, it went largely ignored.

I do not think the Upper House should be an elected chamber. This is primarily because I believe that the British electorate simply doesn’t have the energy or the care to bother with voting for them. European elections consistently attracted embarrassingly low turnouts and even General Elections have revealed the same trend over the past seven decades.[1]

Many do not fully – or even partially – understand the role played by the Lords, and any Upper House elections would struggle to draw in even 20% of those eligible to vote. This would be in part due to electoral fever (made worse by social media) and in part due to a lack of understanding and emotional investment. Peers, after all, are not policy makers and need not produce enticing manifestos.

Another reason for avoiding the electing of peers is that it would help to transform the second chamber into a mirror image of the Commons. At present, Lords do not have to worry about toeing party line in order to keep their jobs. This is good, as it allows them to scrutinise government on a level playing field and operate according to their beliefs and consciences. The entire purpose of the second chamber, after all, is to hold the executive to account; an apolitical obligation almost on its own terms.

Juries of randomly selected citizens in the House of Lords would revitalise, or at least strengthen, the public’s enthusiasm for politics, introduce more cognitive diversity into the second chamber and would allow for more individuals to play a role in the legislative process. There is certainly no technocratic argument against it. Ordinary people have expertise, would be aided by researchers, secretaries and assistants, and we’d have the opportunity to do away with a stale honours system.

Peerages have become disgraced relics, handed out for political, rather than meritocratic purposes. Incumbent governments have been known to add party-political individuals to the Upper House in order to assist their efforts to have legislation passed through. This kind of tribal posturing is exactly what has led to the devaluing of honours and general mistrust in the House.

Committees do not have to be set up by former chancellors or founders of beer companies. Travel and accommodation expenses would indeed be paid to members of the public, just as they are today. The public can read, vote on bills and scrutinise serious issues, as proven by the unmistakeable success of court juries and a plethora of sortition-based research experiments.

Why, then, do we clamour for an elected system that we know perfectly well we wouldn’t care for?

 

Sources:

[1] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm