Ah, those weeks following an American presidential election. Tempers calm, fanaticism wanes, and wishful thinking becomes wistful thinking. The news is all about deconstruction of the results, and peace reigns until next year (when everything ramps up again before the mid-terms).

So what is the deconstruction?

Both sides are postulating the existence of a permanent Democratic majority in the American populace, a turning point reached wherein there are no longer enough people in the country who benefit from Republican policies to be able to elect them. Talk on blogs is of the 47% plus the 1% in permanent coalition (though that still only makes 48%).

Looking at the results on the map, though, I’m not sure I get that. Obama won in the states the Democrats usually win in, and Romney won in the states Republicans usually win in.

Why, then, is there all this talk of Republicans never taking the presidency again? Why is Janet Daley writing in the Telegraph about the Europeanisation of the American electorate when all that happened was that a Democratic incumbent won again? They sometimes do, you know. Clinton did. The pendulum swings back.

Maybe it’s something to do with why people voted the way they did. Election analysis, pre- and post-, loves to delve into “what the election is all about.” I remember in 2004, people were saying the election was being fought on values: patriotism, Jesus, and the American Way. Bush won because Americans were still proud of themselves and thought America was the greatest place on Earth. Kerry lost because he was “too European” and considered a dweeb who had never done an honest day’s work.

That certainly wasn’t what the election in 2008 was about. You don’t vote for hope and change unless you feel hopeless and stuck, so there was something wrong with the brand already.

What happened to the brand? Did people stop believing in the American dream? Is the United States still the land of the free, where an honest day’s work gets you an honest day’s pay?

I’m not sure what people thought in 2008, but I’m pretty sure I know what they think now: the American Way is a clapped-out clunker. If you’re an Average Joe, working in an average job, paying down a modest mortgage, bringing up a modest family, and modest town somewhere, you don’t expect your country to fail you. After all, you’re doing your bit. When, for no reason you can divine, your company goes bust, you lose your job, your house is repossessed, and you have to go on food stamps, you kinda lose that patriotism, don’t you? You definitely lose your pride.

And here comes this Romney guy, talking about how he stands for hard-working Americans and the virtue of honest toil, and you probably hate him just a little bit for it. If his American Way is so great, how come your life sucks so much?

Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame for the economic situation in the US and around the world. What mattered in this election was the number of Americans who knew it wasn’t their fault, and who couldn’t understand this dude effectively telling them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. If that worked, they might have thought to themselves, they’d have done it already. But just as they clearly had no power to prevent the collapse, neither did they feel like they had the power to recover from it through their own efforts.

And I think that’s basically why Obama won. He acknowledged that these average people were both blameless and powerless, and suggested that as it was the government that got them into this mess, thus it was the government’s duty to get them out of it again.

So all of the chatter in the aftermath that this election was fought on how Americans feel about the role of their government is right; I just think the commentators have it backwards. American voters haven’t embraced big government as the way to a fairer society (although maybe some of them have). They’ve looked big government in the eye and said “You sons of bitches broke it. Now you fucking fix it. We’ll just sit over here and wait until you’re done.”

There’s a degree to which I sympathise with this point of view, but I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed. There’s a reason people say “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always wins.” The solution to the problem isn’t more of the problem, and if you feel like the much-abused little guy getting stomped all over by the powers that be, you’re crazy if you think a nice guy like Obama is going to be able to put a stop to the stomping.

Obama probably is a nice guy, and probably wants to help, but fundamentally he is one guy amongst hundreds of thousands of government apparatchiks, special interest groups, think tanks, and corporate donors. And he is certainly one guy who said he was going to put a stop to the stomping in 2008, and totally failed. But I agree that he probably had more credibility in claiming this than Romney.

There is one outcome from this election that nobody seems to have made much of yet, and that is the announcement of Ron Paul Kenobi’s retirement. Americans, he says, would rather have the Empire than freedom, and least he can retire and not, like Cato Uticensis, feel compelled to put a sword through himself.

This article is not so much Lucas or Plutarch, though, as it is Seuss:

The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he hoisted himself and took leave of this place
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks with one word…UNLESS.

Last time we spoke, I had some predictions for ye olde election, and they all came true. Just call me Cassandra. Allow me to refresh your memory.

(1) Obama will win.*

He did.

(2) It won’t matter that Obama has won…Republicans don’t have to vote for Romney to piss in Obama’s cornflakes, they only have to vote for Republican congressional candidates, which they will do.

They did. The Republicans have kept the House. I HOPE Obama is looking FORWARD to the total absence of CHANGE in the House’s attitude toward his policies. It’s going to be a hard four years for the guy, and I hope all of those people who said he would use this second term to really fix his slice on the golf course are right, otherwise we might see the first presidential suicide in history.

If Obama thinks he’s had a hard time up to now, it’s nothing compared to what he’ll suffer when his apologists melt away because they don’t have to care about getting him re-elected any more. They’ll be looking for their 2016 candidate at 8am on 7th November.

Turns out I was late to the party on this one. This New York Times article from 6 September states:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Whether President Obama wins or loses in November, one thing is certain for Democrats on the morning after Election Day: the 2016 auditions begin.

A buncha people I’ve never heard of are in the running, plus Joe Biden (not fucking likely), Hillary Clinton (okay, maybe) and Andrew Cuomo (he’ll be lucky if he’s even still governor of New York by that point).

Then, the prediction I was most certain would happen:

(3) Paul Ryan’s career in the big-time is over.

He didn’t even carry his home state.

Ryan is toast.

*Looking on the bright side: at least I don’t have to retire my “oops! Obama” tag.

(1) Obama will win.

Not even Romney’s own party likes Romney all that much, so any vote for Romney is essentially a vote against Obama. And while there are a lot of people out there who would enjoy sticking it to Obama, all of the presidential elections I’ve been alive for suggest that “voting against” is vastly inferior to “voting for” as a source of motivation.

Just ask Mondale, George HW Bush, Dole, and Kerry. Especially Kerry.

(2) It won’t matter that Obama has won.

If Obama thinks he’s had a hard time up to now, it’s nothing compared to what he’ll suffer when his apologists melt away because they don’t have to care about getting him re-elected any more. They’ll be looking for their 2016 candidate at 8am on 7th November. Republicans don’t have to vote for Romney to piss in Obama’s cornflakes, they only have to vote for Republican congressional candidates, which they will do.

I think the Republican party knows this, and therefore haven’t really exerted themselves to put up a compelling candidate. As Andy Parsons put it on “Mock the Week” the other night, they’ve decided to run a guy who lost the nomination to the guy who lost the nomination to George W Bush. Many critics from within the Republican camp attribute this to an “it’s his turn” mentality, but I think it’s probably just that the party bigwigs don’t give a crap this time around.

Any Republican who won this year would probably be a one-term president, because the economy is in the shitter and you can bet that the media—who are ignoring this point at the moment to help out Obama—wouldn’t be ignoring it in 2016 if the incumbent were a Republican.

Much better to give Romney his way, shrug sadly when he loses, and proceed to torment the ever-loving shit out of a now-friendless Obama for four years, thus paving the way for a charismatic Republican to win in 2016 and 2020.

(3) Paul Ryan’s career in the big-time is over.

There is nothing more damaging in American politics than being the VP candidate to a guy who loses. I mean, apart from their VP run, do these names mean anything to you?

  • Geraldine Ferraro
  • Lloyd Bentsen
  • Jack Kemp
  • John Edwards

Okay, that last one might mean something to you because he’s now known as the guy who was indicted for using campaign funds to cover up the affair and love child he had while his wife was dying of cancer. But if that hadn’t happened, John Edwards would be a total nobody.

I won’t be voting in this election because I don’t believe in this faux-democratic bullshit and I don’t support either party. But I’m going to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ve used this presidential election, which it wouldn’t benefit them to win, to purge the lunatics, also-rans, and has-beens from the nomination slate, and are gearing up to stick it to their weakened, herdless prey.

I mean, it’s what they did to Clinton, and that turned out pretty well, no?

Somewhat strangely this year, I find myself in possession of a vote of higher value than normal. Allow me to elaborate:

  • In 2008, the presidential popular vote in North Carolina was extremely close. Obama won the state’s electoral college votes by a margin of 0.32%, the equivalent of about 19,000 votes.
  • The current US Senate has 51 Democrats and 47 Republicans. Of these, North Carolina supplies 1 Democrat and 1 Republican.
  • The current US House of Representatives has 193 Democrats and 242 Republicans. Of these, North Carolina supplies 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans.

All of which means that, for the first time I can ever actually remember, North Carolina is an important swing state, where candidates are suddenly bothering to campaign—the Democrats have even chosen North Carolina’s biggest city to host their national convention this year. North Carolina might therefore just become a deciding factor in this year’s federal elections, and my vote, historically puny and pointless, this year carries some weight.

(Although not in the primaries, thanks to the NC General Assembly’s long-standing and well-attested tradition of constant gerrymandering.)

I thought I might bring this up for the purpose of drawing attention to a basic and amusing irony: I, suddenly possessed of an important vote, nevertheless don’t care; while many foreigners, possessed of no votes in the American elections at all, would give their eye-teeth to have it. What the United States political class does, so the argument goes, affects the world, so the world should have a vote. And yet it doesn’t, but I do.

And this is likely to be a dirty-fought and close-won election, in both legislative and executive branches.

I have therefore decided to offer my federal vote to one non-American person who gives a shit that is statistically significant from zero. I will vote the way you want in the presidential and congressional elections, whether it be for specific candidates or a straight-ticket party or not at all, or even spoil my ballot with amusing sayings. I stress that this is a gift, not a trade; I am conversant with North Carolina general statute 163-275 making it a class I felony to accept any thing of value whatsoever in return for my vote.

Therefore, any person who would like to take up this offer of mine must be scrupulously conspicuous in offering me no value for it at all; in fact, it might even be better if such persons were to cause me a loss of value somehow, for example by kicking me in the shins or making me buy them pints.

Takers in the comments, please.

Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer today has written a fairly ridiculous article in which he complains that FPTP supporters spend too much of their time being negative about AV, and uses the second half of the article to be negative about supporters of FPTP.

But let’s pass over this lack of self-awareness and give him a bit of credit; he does lay out succinctly what are supposed to be the advantages of AV:

I do think it would be a fairer and more appropriate electoral system for contemporary Britain. It will be a worthwhile improvement if MPs have to gather some form of support from at least half of the voters. The parties will be impelled to engage with more parts of the country than just a minority of marginals and it will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies.

I’d like to address these points a bit more seriously than I did yesterday.

First: the claim that AV is more appropriate for contemporary Britain. By Rawnsley’s lights this may well be the case, but what is so different about contemporary Britain? If AV is appropriate now for the reasons he gives, it has always been appropriate, and FPTP is a bastard system that has always been unfair and unrepresentative. And if this is true of FPTP in Britain, it is true of FPTP everywhere and at all times. Rawnsley does not address why, then, most democratic countries use FPTP.

Second: that MPs will have to gather support from at least half the voters. This is probably right, for certain values of ‘support’ and ‘half.’ For one thing, nothing in AV necessitates that an MP will have the support of half the constituency electorate; only that s/he will have the support of half of those who actually voted. If we examine, for instance, the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election in January, we see that less than half of the electorate turned out. Already we are not going to have the majority of voters represented.

Furthermore, if we redistribute the votes from all but the top four parties (Lab, Lib, Con, UKIP) to Labour, for the sake of simplicity, their share of the votes cast goes from 42.1% to 49.3%—not enough to win under AV.

Now we have to play a little game. Which party would UKIP voters place as their second preference? Probably Conservative. If we distribute the UKIP votes to the Conservatives, our top three totals are as follows:

Labour: 49.3%
Lib Dem: 31.9%
Conservative: 18.6%

Still no majority. So we have to redistribute the Conservative votes to their second preferences, and the UKIP votes to their third preferences. I have a difficult time believing that either of these groups of voters would choose Labour as anything but their last wish, although some might have chosen parties already eliminated in earlier rounds. However, let us say that most of these votes would go to the Lib Dems next, so we’ll add another 15% to the Lib Dem share, giving us:

Labour: 49.3%
Lib Dem: 46.9%

Um, crap. We’re on our last two candidates. We’re certainly not going to start fiddling around with the second preferences of the Lib Dem voters, as that would be utterly absurd. But if we don’t, then we don’t have a candidate with at least 50.1% of the votes cast. So AV does not necessarily deliver MPs support from at least half the voters who voted.

Now obviously this is a rough and dirty calculation, that doesn’t take into account tactical voting. There may have been Conservatives who voted Lib Dem in the hope of keeping Labour out, as the Lib Dem candidate very nearly won in the general election. But that still doesn’t solve the problem that the Labour candidate, even if you very generously allow all of the smaller-party votes to them, would most likely not have achieved a 50.1% majority under AV. What happens in that case? A run-off, which would be less fair even than FPTP, since it would deny a good 50% of the voters to select a candidate they truly agreed with and thereby restrict voter choice even further? Who knows.

Third: the claim that AV would impel parties to engage with more of the country than just marginal constituencies. This, I fear, is a silly belief. Seats are ‘safe’ because a majority of the voters in those constituencies firmly and regularly support one party. Let us examine what is generally considered to be the safest seat in Britain: Bootle in Merseyside, which has been held by the Labour party since 1945. In that time, the Labour candidate has never won with less than 50% of the votes. The closest was in 1955, when the Labour candidate won with 52% of the vote. Since then, the Labour share has been well over 60%, once even as high as 83%. Other parties in Bootle simply do not have a chance, nor would they even under AV. This seat is not ‘safe’ because FPTP delivers a skewed result in which some people’s votes don’t count. This seat is ‘safe’ because the vast majority of voters there like Labour. And the fact that it’s ‘safe’ doesn’t appear to affect voter turnout; turnout in Bootle is no worse than anywhere else on average.

I’m not going to spend my whole afternoon trying to discover whether these facts are similar for all ‘safe’ seats, but I imagine they probably are. In which case, even under AV, I have a hard time believing Labour would bother directing its campaign effort at Bootle. Labour is in no danger whatsoever of being ousted from Bootle.

Parties will always campaign the hardest where they have to work the hardest to get elected, and I see no reason to think this would not also be the case under AV. It seems that the real complaint here is that parties don’t engage on a broad national level during election time, which is a pretty bizarre complaint if you ask me. A particular candidate need only bother engaging with the voters in his own constituency anyway; they’re the only ones who can vote for him. If his party as a whole focuses its campaign efforts elsewhere, that’s between him and his party, not between him and his voters. AV won’t solve this.

Fourth: AV will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies. If this is true, then MPs are damned stupid and there is simply no saving them. What candidate does not try to get the largest share of the vote possible? What candidate does not, already, try to increase his existing majority? In short, what candidate is not trying his damnedest to win? Show me this person. No, really: show me.

AV, therefore, is not a solution to minority majorities, safe seats, or MPs who don’t give a damn about the voters. It does not even make every vote ‘count,’ as there is still only one winner. At best, it is an opportunity for those who feel unrepresented by any major party to give their support to the candidate they dislike the least, and a chance to indicate that a vote for a party doesn’t necessarily equate with wholehearted support for that party.

But FPTP already permits people to send these signals. And send them the voters do. What, then, is the advantage of AV? That we would have a better way of quantifying these signals?

I mean, imagine how this would pan out. My MP is Chuka Umunna. Here is how he won:

Labour: 42.8%
Lib Dem: 35.8%
Conservative: 18.3%
All others: 3%

Let’s assume the Conservatives all give Lib Dem as their second preference (I have a hard time believing any real Conservative voter would choose Labour anything but last.) Under AV, it’s therefore possible that Chuka Umunna would have lost. But could anyone then claim that Chris Nicholson was supported by more than half the voters? No. A true statement would be that Umunna was supported by less than half the voters. Since the FPTP vote already delivers this message, there is no need for AV to send the signal. Another true statement would be that more than half the voters preferred someone other than Umunna. Again, we can see this from the FPTP vote. But why should this mean Nicholson deserves to win, when clearly more voters actively want Umunna than passively reject him? Those 42.8% of people who really want Labour are effectively disenfranchised by the fact that the Conservatives get to vote twice. How is this ‘fair’?

Or let’s examine it another way. Lots of people vote Lib Dem for tactical reasons—in the case of Streatham, probably as a vote against Labour. Under AV, the theory goes, people wouldn’t need to do this. Suppose a third of those Lib Dem votes were actually Conservatives in sheep’s clothing. Under AV, our first-preference result might look like this:

Labour: 42.8%
Conservatives: 30.1%
Lib Dem: 24%
All others: 3%

Let’s be generous and say that of those 24% of voters whose first preference is the Lib Dems, a third choose Labour second and two thirds choose the Conservatives. In which case Chuka Umunna wins, and AV delivers a result absolutely no different from FPTP: Chuka Umunna becomes MP for Streatham. Everything else an AV vote might tell us is academic.

If I studied the results from every constituency in the 2010 general election, I could probably show this again and again: AV would deliver an obviously unfair result, or one exactly the same as FPTP, or one where nobody manages to secure more than half of the votes. The more marginal the seat, the more likely an unfair or inconclusive result; the safer the seat, the less difference AV would make.

FPTP means that a candidate can win with less than half of the votes. Admittedly this is not great. But at least it means he was wanted by more voters than any other candidate was. At least it means every voter had exactly one vote of equal weight. Why should we reject this system for one in which some people’s half-hearted second preferences are held equal to others’ whole-hearted first, and may not even then deliver a conclusive result? That is not ‘fair’. That is the bastard system.

I’ve decided that ‘electoral reform’ is an issue so utterly pointless in the modern British polity that it deserves me taking the piss.

For your pleasure and mine, I’m going to provide alternative answers to Yes2AV’s FAQs.

Q: How does AV work?
A: It destroys even the fig leaf political parties have to wear of possessing a consistent, unified ideology about how governing should take place, and instead replaces it with a system in which contradictory, populist vote-chasing sets of laughable ‘policies’ are constitutionally enshrined and pursued by all political parties at one and the same time.

Q: So what’s the point?
A: There is no point. You’ll still only get to vote every four years, and the Government will still do whatever the fuck it wants, manifestoes be damned.

Q: Isn’t that too confusing?
A: Only if you possess insufficient intelligence to observe that even under AV, your ‘fairer’ vote won’t necessarily deliver a candidate or Government of your choice.

Q: Isn’t it fair that the candidate with the most votes wins?
A: Nothing is fair when ‘fair’ is defined as ‘not losing, ever.’

Q: Doesn’t that mean that some people get two votes?
A: Yes. In fact, more than two; some people might get as many votes as n-1, where n is the number of candidates on the ballot paper. And even then, the candidate in second place still loses.

Q: Don’t you end up with the Least-Worst candidate?
A: You end up with a Labour or Lib Dem candidate. Whether you consider that ‘Least-Worst’ is up to you.

Q: Do I have to give a 2nd preference if I don’t have one?
A: Not yet. But it’s only a matter of time before all of this shit becomes compulsory in the name of ‘fairness.’

Q: Will my ballot change?
A: Yes. Right now the ballot is designed so that even the illiterate and innumerate can vote. Do you really think that a voting system that requires people to be able to count and write in actual numbers won’t result in a total re-design of the ballot to make it more accessible? Get real.

Q: Who uses AV?
A: Almost no other democratic country in the bloody world. The one that does—Australia—has had a hung Senate for 25 years. In its House of Representatives, the same two factions exchange control every couple of elections. But I guess this regularly alternating result, identical to what happens in the UK, is okay with the voters, since at least their votes were ‘fair.’ (UPDATE: Their votes were also compulsory.)

Q: Who benefits?
A: Whichever two of three main political parties are the most similar to each other.

Q: Who loses out?
A: Everybody else.

Q: Wouldn’t AV mean more hung Parliaments?
A: Probably. But surely that’s the idea? No winners = no losers = ‘fair.’

Q: Wouldn’t AV mean more tactical voting?
A: All voting is tactical. Get over it.

Q: What about the constituency link?
A: MPs who actually care about their constituents will do so whatever the electoral process. MPs who don’t, won’t. This is true even in marginal seats.

Q: Wouldn’t reform help minority parties like the BNP?
A: Of course not. Extremists don’t deserve ‘fair’ votes.

Q: Doesn’t the current system let us ‘kick the rascals out’?
A: Not really. But then, if Australia is any indication, neither will AV.

Q: Won’t election night take longer?
A: Yes. It will also be more susceptible to unintentionally spoilt ballots (“Hey, this one has two 1s! DOES NOT COMPUTE.’), mistakes (‘Are we on second preferences now, or third? I’ve been counting for 15 hours straight and I’m bleeding to death from paper cuts.’), and fraud (‘That 2 totally looks like a 1. Yay, another vote for Labour!’).

Q: Will AV boost turnout?
A: No. AV won’t make busy people less busy, apathetic people less apathetic, or disenfranchised foreigners, prisoners, and homeless people less disenfranchised.

Q: Will AV change things on the campaign trail?
A: Yes. Candidates will promise even more of the bland sameness than they do now. Good luck with your Hobson’s Choice.

Q: Why a referendum?
A: Because even though we elect representatives to make every other decision about our lives, our country, and our money, and this is considered right and proper in the case of (for instance) letting the people determine Britain’s role in the United States of Eurasia, whether we put Xs or numbers on a ballot paper every four years is way too important to be left up to those jokers. After all, this is the one instance in which the public choice problem is admitted to exist.

Q: Isn’t First-Past-the-Post a British tradition?
A: Yes. Which is why it MUST GO. You fucking racist.

Q: Do the public even care about voting reform?
A: No, which is why this referendum doesn’t require over 50% of the electorate to vote in it for it to count, and why it’s being held at the same time as notoriously low-turnout local elections. If the public really cared, as represented by their representatives, we’d get a special Referendum Holiday with voting booths on every street corner.

Q: Isn’t electoral reform just for Lib Dems?
A: No. It’s for Labour too.

Today’s episode has been brought to you by the colour There’sStillOnlyOneWinner and the letter GTFOverIt.

[I wanted to leave this as a comment over at John Demetriou's original post, but his implementation of Blogger rejects comments of more than 4,096 characters.]

JD, unlike your usual rants, this post is dire. I don’t mean that to be harsh, but you’re coming at this from an angle of misunderstanding that makes your ‘I don’t understand’ claims all too believable.

For one thing, you refer to ‘Americans’ and ‘the American people’ as if there is one collective American mind, and you find its schizophrenia puzzling. Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, it might be better to think of Americans as two collective minds: those who voted for Obama, and those who didn’t. For all sorts of reasons, he is and has been a polarising figure. And so you have two poles, rather than the single mad hive-mind you say is so bizarre. It is one pole that exhibits ‘curious rage’ against Obama, not ‘the American people.’

For another thing, you massively overstate Obama’s popularity during the election and at the beginning of his term. You assert that he ‘won by a landslide’ and was the subject of ‘hero worship,’ ‘hagiography,’ and high approval ratings. In fact, he did not win by anything like a landslide. He won with 53% and 28 states.

By comparison, in 2004, George W Bush won with 51% and 31 states. In 1988, George H W Bush won with 53% and 40 states. And in 1984, Ronald Reagan won with 59% and 49 states. And that wasn’t even as impressive as the 1972 election, when Richard Nixon (Nixon, of all people!) won 49 states and 61% of the vote.

Obama has had nothing like the electoral success other presidents have managed. Your perception of hero-worship and hagiography, just like your perception of rage and hatred, comes from one pole of the American populace.

Furthermore, your understanding of the role of US president is woefully incomplete. You say that ‘Bush inherited an excellent, albeit imperfect, set of books from Clinton and very quickly wrecked it.’ As if either Clinton or Bush had anything whatsoever to do with the books or quality thereof. Congress controls the cash, and the Congress that delivered Clinton a budget surplus was, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress that fucked it all up for Bush. And the Congress Obama has been working with is, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress Bush was working with during his last two years in office. The state of the books in the US is entirely unrelated to the views and actual quality of the president.

You also say that Obama is hated ‘for having the temerity to actually carry out what he proposed to do.’ Again, the president does not ‘do’ things. He does not draft legislation, propose it, debate it, or vote on it. He merely signs it once it’s made its way through Congress. (Or not, as the case may be, but I don’t think Obama’s actually used his veto yet.)

So any carrying out during Obama’s term has been done by Congress. And what they have carried out bears little actual resemblance to the platform on which he campaigned. Sure, the health care bill, but what about everything else? What about the war, the ‘middle-class tax cuts,’ the great repeal of the Bush administration’s incursions on civil liberties? Neither he nor Congress have done any of those things, which were major selling points among Obama’s supportive node. Surely you don’t think the whole election revolved around the question of a healthcare bill?

A healthcare bill which you describe thus: ‘The timing…was perhaps ill-judged, even from a social democrat perspective, but this was one of those once-in-a-thousand-years opportunities, politically, to achieve this ambition.’ For a once-in-a-thousand-years opportunity, Obama and his Congress sure did fuck it up, didn’t they? Instead of doing thorough research, either before the election or after it, and determining the best possible way to ensure universal, affordable healthcare, they cobbled together a travesty of a bill, full of unrelated pork to get various hold-out politicians onside, that when all is said and done, could serve as an exemplar of what every rent-seeker (in this case, the insurance industry) hardly dares even to dream. That’s not even to mention the costs this bill imposes, both to individuals and to the body politic, which have been revised upward continually since the passage of the bill. And the bill fails to achieve even its basic objective, which is to ensure that the poor and low-paid have access to affordable, customised insurance and care.

Is it any wonder that a significant number of Americans are horrified and disgusted by it?

All of this is a far cry from, ‘Hey, you all voted for him, he did what he said he’d do, so what’s the big problem?’

Finally, you assert that les Americains sont fous because ‘their media and overall educational standards are so lacking in substance.’ This is, basically, not true. Unless by ‘their media’ you mean Fox News, and by ‘their overall educational standards’ you mean ‘those five schools in Kansas where they teach intelligent design.’

Or perhaps you just mean the rednecks, Tea Partiers, and Christians are poorly educated. Maybe you can confirm or deny.

What I don’t understand is why you are displaying so much contempt for a bunch of people who, for the most part, share your opinions. These are people who didn’t vote for Obama (as presumably you wouldn’t have, did you have the opportunity) and who loathe what he stands for and what he’s supported as president. Sure, some of them have authoritarian tendencies, but they’re with you on at least 50% of stuff. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you be angry? They didn’t want him, they didn’t vote for him, and his presidency is riding roughshod over their cherished conception of what the United States is.

I never expected you to take this position, I must say. That you would present Americans who disagree with their president and his Congress, and who display that disagreement with words, ideas, and peaceful legitimate protests, as ‘wild, irrational…mad and retarded’ comes as a great surprise to me.

And a serious disappointment.

UPDATE: JD rebuts here.

For some reason I have this corny idea that for a political party in Britain to stand a parliamentary candidate in a parliamentary constituency, that party has to pay £500 to… somebody. And he must win 5% of the vote if he wants that money back.

Therefore to have even the hope of securing a parliamentary majority, a political party has to stump up a minimum of £163,000. And until recently there has been very little point in aiming for less than a majority. (Pace the Lib Dems, the true winners of the recent election despite coming, er, third.)

Assuming this corny idea is at all accurate (and trust me, I hope to be corrected on this point of fact), the only possible justification for it is that somebody, somewhere wishes to discourage what we might call ‘frivolous’ candidacies. That is to say, nobody shall stand for parliament for giggles, else he or his party shall lose £500.

The average size of a parliamentary constituency in the UK is 70,000 voters, at least according to Wikipedia, of which 5% is 3,500.

If we apply average voter turnout for the nation to the constituencies themselves (a rough and dirty approximation to be sure), then of the potential 70,000 voters in each, only 45,500 of them actually voted in this most recent election – meaning that to secure his £500 deposit, a candidate actually need only about 2,275 votes.

It is very difficult to know ahead of time whether acquiring this number of votes is possible for a small-party candidates, and indeed many majorities (Ed Balls’s, for instance) are smaller than this amount.

But what I’m getting at vis a vis my corny idea is that somebody, somewhere in the British government has decreed that if you can’t get 2,275 people to vote for your ass, you must pay up, sucka.

And if we carry the arithmetic just a little bit further, we see that the British government has essentially assigned a monetary value to every vote, and that value for the recent election was approximately £0.22.*

I’d say that’s about right, wouldn’t you?

P.S. Does anybody know what party expenditure was during this past campaign? I’m interested to know because, at that value per vote, one would expect a Tory party spend of some £2.3m, a Labour party spend of about £2m, and a Lib Dem spend of about £1.5m. Does those numbers sound close to reality?

*Merci, Dan.

Whenever constitutional reform is mooted here in the UK, the drive seems to be something along the lines of: the executive has too much power, MPs have too little, and oh yeah, unelected Lords have no place in a democratic nation. (Let’s pretend in this discussion, for the sake of simplicity, that the Lisbon Treaty hasn’t made Parliament redundant.)

What kind of reforms would be required, then, to address these perceived problems?

The House of Lords is easy: sweep out all of the old peers and bishops and allow people to stand for election. Presumably the old peers and bishops would be permitted to stand if they wanted to; certainly they would have to have the franchise returned to them.

It’s not as easy as that, though, is it? First of all, how many members of an elected Lords should there be? Will it be fixed, or determined by population the way Commons constituencies are? Should it even be called the ‘Lords’ any more? What will be the length of term – same as the Commons, or staggered, or fixed terms? What will its constitutional functions be?

At the moment, its high-court responsibilities having been snaffled away, the Lords exists primarily to scrutinise Commons legislation. Because the lords themselves are supposed to be non-partisan, they are meant to be able to judge legislation on its merits, rather than according to who drafted it and who’s whipping them into place. In reality, however, the Lords rarely scuppers Commons legislation. A part of the reason for this is probably because they are unelected, and Commons legislation is supposed to represent the will of the people. Another part is probably because, though supposedly non-partisan, a great many of the lords themselves are ex-party higher-ups. Does anyone really think Kinnock, Mandelson, and Martin, for example, have been busily scrutinising Commons legislation on its merits?

So we end up with a conundrum. The lords are granted the power to scrutinise legislation, but only because they are meant to be non-partisan. But non-partisan also means unelected, so they can’t scrutinise too closely or they’ll be usurping the power of the people as represented by the Commons. But if we start electing them, they’ll no longer be non-partisan, and there will no longer by any point in their scrutiny because it won’t even have the current veneer of disinterest.

Okay, that’s a little too tough for a Saturday afternoon. Let’s look at MPs and the executive, because they go hand in hand. Absent the European aspect, the reason MPs have so little power is because the executive has so much. The executive controls the parliamentary calendar of bills, it introduces bills, it whips its party’s MPs to vote on those bills. Ministers have extraordinary powers in their departments to introduce measures that don’t have to go before the Commons at all. This is why the executive is called the Government, and the Commons is just a bunch of fat-chewers.

The current hung parliament really throws this into stark relief. Why is there such consternation? Because Britain, at this precise moment, has no government. Or rather, no Government. The people have had their say, and there is certainly a legislature. But the legislature can’t act, because no executive exists to, well, execute any action. The executive is, by constitutional tradition, the leaders of whichever party holds a majority of the seats in the Commons. No majority means no executive means no Government means that, even though MPs have been duly elected all over the country, they are sat on their asses with nothing to do at the moment. They are, in a word, powerless.

Now, that’s weird, isn’t it? Normally MPs have no power because the executive is over-bearing. But then we discover that they also have no power when there is no executive at all. So what is the point of MPs, exactly?

Quite clearly, then, we see that the only purpose of MPs is to provide a count by which it is determined which party’s leaders will rule the country. The electorate are not choosing a person to represent their interests in the legislature; they are choosing a counter for the party’s leaders to whom they wish to give power. After an election, the party leaders tally up their counters, and whoever has more than half gets to be dictator for 4-5 years, as long as he maintains his number of counters. He gets to choose the rest of the executive, and the executive rules the nation.

We can see now how pathetically laughable are all of the ‘reforms’ that have been mooted to give some of the executive’s power back to the Commons. Committees? HA. Relaxing the whips? Slightly more muted, but still ha.

The only thing that will transfer power from the executive to MPs is to change the way the executive is chosen. And the obvious solution is for the people to elect the executive separately. We can even be generous and just elect the Prime Minister separately. Then parliament can approve, by vote, his or her Cabinet choices.

Except – wait! Remember that newly-elected House of Lords with little to do because their partisanship has destroyed their previous role? Hey, why don’t we let them ratify the Cabinet? Let’s let them ratify the executive’s choices of important judges, too, just for funsies. Keep them busy with something, since we’ll be paying them to sit there. And maybe they can still have their scrutiny of legislation, because the balance of parties in the Lords may be quite different from that in the Commons.

We can also open up the Commons a little bit too, now. The parties can still have their whips, of course – otherwise what’s the point of parties? And the executive can even decide the calendar. But instead of introducing legislation, the executive will have to get its MPs to do that – because of course the Prime Minister et all won’t be members of the legislature any more. So now the legislature will actually be able to control legislation. As it should be.

And so at the end of all of this, we get a less dictatorial executive, a legislature that is actually in charge of legislation, and a democratically elected House of Lords (or House of Whatever) that can act as a legitimate check on the power of the Commons. We’ve spread all of the power around, you see, and because every elected representative will have a greater say in what the government does, so will the people who elected him (or her). The democratic deficit is reduced, the parties become less tyrannical –

– and there are no more hung parliaments.

What’s not to like? Come on, you constitutional reformers out there: propose something like this, and maybe we can stop nominating you for Biggest Bullshitters of the Millenium award.

None? Not a single wish come true?

YOU SUCK.

*double-deuce*

Dear Election Fairy,

I have been a very good girl this year. If you could see your way clear to rewarding this, I would be most grateful. I have only three election wishes.

1. That Ed Balls should lose his seat.

2. That Nigel Farage should defeat John Bercow.

3. That Old Holborn should win in Cambridge.

And, Election Fairy, if you are feeling particularly generous and it’s not too much trouble, one further thing: Phil Woolas should suffer.

With many thanks,
Bella.

The other night, I encountered* a homeless man named Ian chilling on the sidewalk outside a branch of NatWest with his bull terrier, Tyson. He greeted me in friendly fashion as I walked up and did not ask for my spare change.

This may sound ridiculous, or condescending, or both, but that fact had me asking him if I could give him some money – I didn’t want to offend his pride. He said yes rather appreciatively, so I gave him all the cash I had on me, and as I was in no hurry to be anywhere, I sat down next to him for a bit of a chat.

We talked for a while about Tyson and the fact that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. Ian clearly loved his dog, and Tyson was as good-natured a pet as I’ve ever encountered. He sniffed my hand for a bit, then came over to lean on me in that way dogs do so I could rub his back.

Our conversation eventually led to how this man had ended up with two blankets outside of the NatWest, and it was a sorry tale indeed. He had lost his council home when his wife had left with their son – single men are automatically bumped to the bottom of the social housing queue. He was turned away from several shelters – homeless people without drugs or drink problems are at the bottom of shelters’ priority list. Unable to find a legitimate place to sleep, he had taken to spending his nights in car parks and loading docks when he couldn’t beg enough during the day to hire a spot in a hostel, though even that was difficult because most of the hostels don’t allow dogs. When he did manage to beg sufficiently during the day, the police sometimes arrested him for begging, and he was forced to spend his takings on court fines.

That day, he told me, he’d been trying to acquire enough money to buy a sleeping bag – though not by begging, which was why he hadn’t asked me for my change. He was hoping for people’s unprompted generosity, and hampered by the fact that he couldn’t explain his need, for fear of being arrested, unless somebody actually asked him.

‘What about work?’ I asked him.

‘I’m looking,’ he answered, ‘but I don’t have an address. Nobody wants to hire someone who can’t even give a shelter as their address.’

‘What a perverse situation,’ I said, and he nodded in agreement. ‘But there’s an election on,’ I added, aware this was small comfort. ‘You have the vote, you can try to vote for people who will fix that stuff.’

‘I can’t,’ said Ian. ‘You can’t vote if you don’t have an address. And I wouldn’t vote for any of them anyway. I’m tired of politicians saying they help people when all they ever do is make things worse.’

We talked for a little while longer, and I told him I wished there were more I could have done for him. Even as I said it, I was aware of how feeble that statement was. I could have given him more money – enough for him to buy a sleeping bag the next day. Enough to make him comfortable for food and drink for a few days at least, provided nobody robbed him in the night. Had we been anywhere near a shop, I would have bought him some food myself there and then, as I’ve done for other homeless people. And all of that would have helped at least a little bit.

But it wouldn’t have gotten him into a shelter, or found him a job, or protected him from police who find it useful to arrest beggars. And it certainly wouldn’t have restored the franchise to him, the franchise which every British person treats as a natural right. This most vulnerable of individuals, because he has no home, is denied even the tiniest bit of power the vote brings with it. That vote, which so many people have but choose not to exercise, is denied to Ian and people like him because they have no home.

I know he said he probably wouldn’t have used it anyway. I’m also aware that he could have been lying to me through his teeth about his circumstances (though for what it’s worth, I don’t think he was). But even in the midst of all the perverse incentives this man was facing, his disenfranchisement struck me as the most significant. There are hundreds of thousands of homeless British people. Presumably many of those are prevented from exercising this most basic privilege of citizenship.

People told me afterward that the electoral register is linked to addresses to prevent voter fraud. I’m sure that works really well, what with people who have more than one address getting more than one vote. Nevertheless, I find I can’t really countenance a system of electoral fraud prevention that effectively restricts the suffrage of a giant bunch of British citizens.

Can anybody explain to me how this squares with the whole ‘social justice’ thing? Does anybody know if the electoral commission, or any of the parties, have a plan to fix this, or even consider it an issue?

Or is the British body politic perfectly happy with this property-based ‘universal’ suffrage?**

*In Leicester. I swear.

**Please note that I am not making an argument about who, objectively, should have the vote, or whether it should indeed be somehow rooted in property or other kinds of economic activity.

UPDATE: RC informs me that homeless citizens can register to vote by making a ‘declaration of local connection’ at their local Electoral Registration Office. This seems reasonable, but it is clearly not common knowledge amongst the homeless. Also, it occurs to me that people who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered can be liable for a £1000 fine.

Just some brief remarks, because I expended most of my rage by silently live-tweeting.

There were two main things that struck me about what the party leaders had to say.

The first was something Brown said about an hour into the debate: that if the voters realised how much of their daily lives was affected by government policy, they would be a lot more politically engaged. Someone had asked about coalition governments, hung parliaments, and voter turnout, and his response was to point out that income, benefits, housing, the environment, business, crime, social cohesion, etc. etc. etc. were all inextricably linked to government policy and action.

Frankly, I was horrified. If your argument that people should exercise their vote is that government affects everything in their lives, you’re not exactly pointing out a positive there. Unfortunately, I think he’s right. I don’t like it, mind, but he wasn’t misrepresenting the truth (or whatever is the parliamentary language for lying). The fact of the matter is that he is right. Government in this country does have an impact on almost every aspect of people’s lives. And that is profoundly depressing.

Oddly enough, the other thing that really gripped my wick was also a Brownism. I expected not to have any reaction to Brown – I thought I was completely insensitised – but actually I found what he had to say more interesting (if also more objectionable) than the other two know-nothings on stage with him.

During the question on immigration, roughly 20 minutes before the end of the debate, Brown was defending Labour’s points system (introduced less than two years ago, by the way) by claiming that it made sure that the only non-EU immigrants who came here (legally) were ones with necessary skills.

I beg to differ, my friends. Having gone through the torturous process of the new points system, I can say with absolute certainty that it has nothing to do with skills and everything to do with wealth.

Now, some of you may argue that wealth is a good indicator of skills, and that showing a high previous income roughly correlates with having useful skills. Perhaps so.

But not if your job is highly skilled (in the general, wishy-washy sense) but low-paid. I was a teacher. Britain had a teacher shortage. Before the introduction of the points system, teachers could immigrate here quite easily. After it, only teachers of maths and sciences can do so easily, even though the shortage of teachers has not diminished, regardless of the subject being taught. The ‘skills-based’ points system application never enquired as to my profession or the skills necessary to work in it. It wanted to know how many degrees I had, and how much money I had earned in the previous twelvemonth.

I was fortunate in that I had been earning in sterling during that time. But an American, or Canadian, or Australian teacher wanting to come here would have been in a pickle (and I’m sure many were) because of the exchange rates. Teachers in those countries are paid roughly the same number amount as teachers in the UK. So, for example, a teacher in the UK might earn £25,000 p.a., while a teacher in the US, Canada, or Australia might earn $25,000 p.a.

But the ‘skills-based’ points system only considers your earnings in pounds sterling. So a quite respectable wage in the other Anglosphere countries becomes miniscule under this system, because it has to be converted into pounds sterling. When I first applied for my ‘skills-based’ points system work permit, the exchange rate was roughly £1.90 = £1.00. That $25,000 an American teacher might have been earning would only count, under the points system, as £13,000 – not enough to earn even a single point in the ‘previous earnings’ section of the application.

The honest-to-God truth is that Labour’s points system gives the highest rewards to those who have earned the most money, not those who have the most necessary skills. Third-world kleptocrats would have no problem immigrating to the UK, whereas skilled professionals earning what would be considered huge amounts in their native countries would be turned away because the points system measures earnings in pounds sterling, not the average wage in the country of origin.

The other thing I’d like to point out regarding Labour’s points system is that it gives huge advantage to those who have an MBA. Many, many people on the left wing are big fans of Labour because they have the impression that Labour will stick it to the evil capitalists. They do not realise that Labour’s immigration system is now designed specifically to favour those evil capitalists: an MBA will automatically grant a person 80% of the points they need to immigrate here. Add into that the points you gain for knowing English, and someone with an MBA will waltz into the UK, way ahead of doctors, nurses, teachers, blue-collar workers, etc – the very people the left wing are supposed to be supporting.

Now, obviously I don’t care much about the massive advantage MBAs have in the British immigration system. Businesspeople are all well and good. But I found that, in the reality of Labour’s ‘skills-based’ points system, it no longer profited me to be a teacher. Instead, I have gone into evil capitalism. This country, with its dire shortage of teachers, has lost a skilled and experienced teacher because it treated me like a piece of foreign shit: not as worthy as a businessperson, and not nearly as worthy as a native Briton, despite the kind of bottom-feeding scum who are native to this country and contribute nothing to it in the way of hard work, taxes, or civil behaviour. This government (and all prospective governments) has done everything it can in the past two years to reinforce their view that compared to even the shittiest British wastrel imaginable, I am inferior. There are Britons who have never worked or paid taxes – I do. There are Britons who are criminals – I’m not. There are Britons who hate me, as part of a general ‘inferior’ class, because I was not born on this soil and because they think I’m stealing something from them, either a job or resources, or because I’m diluting their pristine and delightful culture that… treats immigrants like shit.

I did not choose to come to this country out of romantic Anglophilia or anything like that. I came here because, in order to do my post-graduate degree, I needed documents archived in British libraries and it made more sense to get the degree here than to do inordinate amounts of travelling from the US. I stayed because, for the most part, I like the British people and I like British culture. I would certainly never do anything to harm either.

But I get more and more demoralised by the fact that a lot of British people, most of whom are perfectly happy to have me in their country, nevertheless go on about how ‘something must be done’ about all of these fucking immigrants. And they say it without realising just how hard it is, in reality, to be a legal immigrant in this country. They seem to have this idea that immigrants are just strolling over the border and doing whatever they please – and I can state without reservation that for 99% of immigrants, that is just not the case. It’s hard to immigrate here. And I’m not saying that’s wrong.

What I am saying is that none of the parties – none – are going to fix it in any reasonable, humane way. Cameron and the Tories want an arbitrary quota. Clegg and the Lib Dems want to intern migrants in particular regions. And the Labour party has already shown its fascist colours in making their points system overtly partial to wealthy businesspeople rather than, as Brown disingenuously avers, the highly skilled.

So let’s cease the lies, shall we? Forget complaining about racism towards immigrants. Let’s all just admit that the vast majority of British people are xenophobic hypocrites who preach endlessly about social justice but then vote to prop up an immigration system that is manifestly socially unjust. Oh yes, everyone has a right to education, healthcare, a living, blah blah, except immigrants. They can get to fuck. They’re stealing benefits that should be reserved for native Britons. And if they come here and work and pay taxes, then they’re stealing jobs. And if they come here as independently wealthy taxpayers, they’re diluting the culture.

Immigrants can’t win. And the three fuckers leaders have made that abundantly clear.

If I had the vote, I’d vote for whoever acknowledged that the vast majority of non-European immigrants subsidise your fucking state and come here because they want to be part of British culture.

But since I can’t vote, I simply have to ask the rest of you British people, with all sincerity and no small amount of self-interest: consider what the immigration system here is really like. Take a look at the UKBA website and see if you, as I did, could sort yourself out without a solicitor or immigration advisor. Ask yourself if you would be willing to do what I did to get a visa. Ask yourself if your boyfriend, girlfriend, or whatever would be willing to do what DK did for me. Consider whether you earn the minimum of roughly £22,000 p.a. that a foreigner needs to earn to get a work permit here, or whether you have have the master’s degree you would need. Really put yourself in an immigrant’s shoes. And then, when inevitably some of you discover that if you were an immigrant you would be turned away with a contemptuous laugh, give a thought to how you vote.

There are more people in Britain than simply Britons. Most of us have no say in this election. We are entirely at the mercy of whatever government is in power. If you have no preference yourself, consider what our preference might be. One of the primary precepts of libertarianism is that all people are human and equal, regardless of race, creed, gender, or nationality. Yes, we came to Britain knowing we wouldn’t have the vote. But I think most of us would like to think that the British are humane enough to consider us when making their decision at the polling station. We, the foreign minority, rely on you to protect us. Please don’t let us down.

I am coming late to this, I realise, but in case you were not aware, LabourList decided it would be a sweet idea to post, on Easter Sunday, an article by Christian Socialist Andy Flannagan called ‘Ten Reasons Why Jesus Might Vote Labour.’ Apparently the original version was an ‘old draft’ and the post has since been updated ‘in its full context’, so I don’t know what nonsense it might have contained when it was first posted – but the nonsense it currently contains is enough to be getting on with, really.

Many of readers here are, of course, not Christians, so I will try not to be too theologically tedious*; but we all hold certain ideas and principles quite dear, so I hope you can sympathise with my incredulity that Labour have attempted to co-opt Jesus, and with my desire to point out just how pathetic and mistaken are their justifications for it. (Imagine, if it helps, how furiously you would want to fisk an article called ‘Ten Reasons Why Libertarians Might Vote Labour’ in which absolutely no mention was made of the central principles of libertarianism.)

I’m not exactly taking issue with Flannagan’s characterisation of Jesus; he lists nine of Jesus’s qualities or beliefs that are, as far as I know, reasonably accurate (and heavily paraphrased by me to strip out Flanagan’s politics-speak):

1. Jesus identified with the poor and the marginalised.
2. Jesus believed the kingdom of God was more important than any earthly kingdom.
3. Jesus promoted working for ‘the common good.’
4. Jesus is central to the story of creation and redemption.
5. Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of speaking for him while acting against him.
7. Jesus affirmed the dignity of work.
8. Jesus was passionate about families.
9. Jesus asserted that all were equal in God’s eyes and image.
10. Jesus believe there was such a thing as society.

[I've omitted no. 6 because the insertion of the concept of trickle-down economics into the early Roman empire is an absurdity.]

Indeed, these are all true. But Jesus was not a social worker. Jesus was, according to Christians, the Son of God, and according to most Christians, true God from true God, of one being with the Father. I would expect the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement to be at least as well versed in the theological tenets of Christianity as any Catholic child who goes to Mass regularly enough to have learned the Nicene Creed. Why is this relevant? Because Jesus’s teachings, whatever they may suggest to us about the proper ordering of human interaction, were ultimately eschatological: that is, concerned with the final outcomes of death, judgment, and the destiny of the human soul. His advice is to individuals: how to purify the soul in anticipation of meeting God. Actions, such as caring for the poor, working for one’s sustenance, and treating others as equals, are merely the outward manifestation of a genuinely held personal belief that the most sinless soul is the one that wishes only good, wishes no harm, and accepts God’s love as a gift given in spite of our imperfections, not because of our good works.

Good actions that are driven by the desire to perfect an earthly society, rather than the individual soul, are the hallmark of the non-Christian. I am not saying this is a bad thing; far from it, actually. But advocating good works for the sake of perfecting society is not a religious attitude, and Christianity is a religion, not a charity club. And the desire to perfect the soul before God is what differentiates a Christian from a nice person – and we all know the world is full of nice people who are not Christians.

So this characterisation of Jesus and Christianity as being focused on improving society actually strips both of their essentially religious nature. Doing good works is wonderful, because it makes life on earth liveable; but the distinguishing feature of Christianity is that of the perfection of the soul in preparation for death on earth; and each of us dies alone, and will face judgment alone in front of God, with Christ co-substantial and co-eternal at His right hand.

But, of course, that is only part of the religion that is Christianity. I’ll say again, Jesus was not a social worker. Jesus was and is the path by which Christians perfect their souls. Again, I would expect the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement to understand this, especially since he makes special mention of Jesus’s central role in redemption. For if you are a Christian, Jesus is the Redeemer, God’s gift to humanity of His mercy, and Jesus’s death was the Atonement in advance for our imperfections. Before Jesus, God punished wrong acts, as a manifestation of inward imperfections, immediately and directly on earth. The Old Testament is full of examples of this; God was above all a just God. After Jesus, God ceased to punish wrong acts on earth; the God of Christians, the God of the New Testament, is a merciful God, who forgives you your imperfections for the whole of your long life, knowing that the entire length of your life is necessary in order for your soul to pursue perfection. That punishment, which before Jesus He would have visited immediately, was taken by Jesus in your place, in advance, to provide you with the free will to pursue perfection at your own pace, in the ways which are open and suited to you as an individual.

The road to perfection, therefore, is to wish good and thus to do good, to wish no harm and thus to do no harm, and with gratitude to accept the free will granted by Jesus’s self-sacrifice and to use that free will to pursue closeness to God. To focus, as Flannagan does, only on the good of society and others as what Jesus taught, is to obviate Jesus’s absolutely central role in individual redemption.

Now, I understand that for many non-Christians, the idea of anyone’s (even Jesus’s) suffering punishment, for not believing in a God whose existence is unproved and not believing in a soul whose existence is unproved, is barbaric. I understand that many non-Christians accept that there is only one life, to be lived on earth, and that there are only right acts and wrong acts, and that right acts improve this one life and wrong acts damage it. I love that this is so, because it makes everyone’s life on earth better and harms nobody else. Thank God for the non-Christians, because they will not accept that life is a vale of tears, and in their non-acceptance, they ensure that life is not a vale of tears. In their way, they pursue perfection too.

For non-Christians, then, actions are all. For Christians, however, actions are a by-product of the state of the soul. I would expect anyone, like the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement, who presumes to speak as a Christian authority to recognise this. But it seems that for such people, Christianity is now a brand to be decontaminated, and apparently that means downplaying its ‘barbaric’ theology and promoting only those aspects of it which are, in fact, not ‘Christian’ at all, but practically universal among humans, be they Muslims, atheists, or even Druids.

For this reason Flannagan’s ‘reasons’ why Jesus might vote Labour are worse than just a cynical ploy to reconcile his beliefs with his politics; they are also completely devoid of any specific Christianity. Tim Montgomerie, who I’m told is also a Christian, attempts a fisking and falls neatly into the same trap. To the contrary, he cries, Labour’s policies as Flannagan has interpreted them are not in line with Jesus’s teachings as above! For every Labour policy that Flannagan asserts is totally Jesus-compatible, Montgomerie points out one that is totally Jesus-contradictory within the same sphere. But like Flannagan, Montgomerie ignores the fact that in Christianity, actions are a by-product and the soul is all. The only real way to measure how Jesus-like Labour’s policies are is to ask, ‘Has doing this helped to perfect the soul?’ As government policies have everything to do with society and nothing to do with the individual soul, the only possible answer is ‘No,’ regardless of which party’s policies are in question.

***

So how would Jesus vote, if he could vote in this election? (He couldn’t, of course, being a non-European immigrant.)

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, he said. If Caesar, in the guise of democratic duty, requires your vote, you vote. Fortunately, Caesar does not quite control how we vote; so if you feel compelled to render unto him a ballot, you may at least choose from the options on it that which best fits your conscience and your pursuit of spiritual perfection.

But Jesus has no conscience. Jesus, being of one substance with God, is already perfect. For him, there is no party or candidate who is a ‘best fit.’ To him, all parties are imperfect, all parties are wholly worldly; none are concerned with the redemption of the human soul. The choices available offering no avenue for individual spiritual perfection, and Jesus in need of no such thing anyway, I doubt you would find him at the ballot box at all, much less voting according to the conscience of Andy Flannagan or Tim Montgomerie.

*Sorry, I failed.

Written by Fabian Tassano, this post gives remarkably prescient advice to the Conservatives on how to win the election following this one, after David Cameron has led the party to yet another shameful defeat. Of the thirteen strategies he identifies as being likely to lead to victory, the Tories have abandoned every single one, particularly these:

9) Whatever you do, do not try to imitate the Labour Party or outdo them on their own terms. This will badly backfire. You will be seen as the worst of both worlds: associated with the morally unfashionable Conservative brand, while also repelling those who dislike nanny statism. Interventionism is only appealing if it comes with a trendy ‘radical’ or ‘progressive’ label, and this is something which is beyond your reach.

10) Don’t try to seem cool or trendy. This will never work. The best thing you can do is to seem boring and sensible. That way, when the country’s infrastructure gets badly unstuck (as it will), you will be the safe default option.

With the Tory lead today at 2 points – well within the statistical margin of error, probably – Cameron would do well to heed this advice now, instead of leaving it for his successor to attempt.

Why are the Conservatives so unpopular? Because of no. 9 above. They offer the voters no real alternative at a time when voters desperately want one. The electorate doesn’t expect Labour to offer anything new, but they were hoping for some real radicalism from Camerhoon. Instead they get boring, unworkable, more-of-the-same policies. And this phenomenon makes voters hate the Tories almost more than they hate Labour, because in addition to thinking Tory policies are crap, voters feel betrayed by them, too.

I suspect Obo’s position is going to become a lot more popular over the next couple of weeks…

Neil Robertson of the Bleeding Heart Show has had a great idea to take some of the unceasing election pressure off us poor exhausted political bloggers:

We are in the midst of an election campaign which would try the patience of a saint. Though blogging is necessarily combative, we would do well to remember that one of its joys is the space it creates to interact with opposing points of view. In the ongoing campaign for our own utopias – our own visions how Britain can be made better – we should not lose sight of this, nor forget that behind the psedonyms & avatars are real people.

So how do we preserve, and even build upon, the fledgling community that this election campaign threatens to coarsen? I have one idea.

We create a space where everyone – regardless of party or ideology – can write about the music they enjoy; our favourite albums, overlooked artists, most memorable gigs or cherished social experiences. We write not as esteemed political bloggers with our gripes and demands and agendas, but as music fans.

For this to work, there should be but three rules:

  • You should be a political blogger.
  • You should write about any aspect or genre of music.
  • Your writing should not be party-political.

Here’s the catch: I can’t do this on my own. As you might’ve noticed, work constraints mean that I’m not currently able to keep my own blog ticking over as much as I’d like, so running two is an impossibility. I’ve already had some kind offers of contribution and admin, and I would be happy to receive more. I would also be delighted if those of you who believe in the concept could promote it within your own blogging communities – the experience will only be richer for having a multitude of voices. Naturally, all contributors would have a link back to their own political blogs, and a spot on the blogroll.

If you would like to contribute, or have any ideas/suggestions, do feel free to leave a comment either here or with LeftOutside, or leave an email at bleedingheartblog at gmail dot com.

I’m doing it. You should too.

It strikes me that the Conservative party came to power in 1979 for the following reason.

The Labour party said, ‘The country is fucked up and needs to be fixed, and we will do so.’

And the Conservative party said, ‘The country is fucked up and needs to be fixed, and we will do so.’

And the British people saw and agreed that the country was fucked up and needed to be fixed, and decided the Conservatives’ plans were more convincing. There was only one step required on the path to judgment, and that step was determining who was more likely to fix the country properly.

The Conservative party has a much more difficult battle this year, because Labour cunningly refuse to agree that the country is fucked up and needs to be fixed. ‘Everything is fine,’ they say, ‘indulge your submerged optimism. Sure, there have been hiccoughs, but all is under control, and any attempts to say otherwise are paranoid, eschatological scare-mongering.’

So now the British people must take an extra step on the path to judgment. First, they must determine whether the country is fucked up and does need to be fixed. Then they may proceed to evaluate which party will do a better job of fixing.

But suppose the British people have determined that, as Labour says, the country is not fucked up at all? Then the Conservatives’ campaign tactics, which revolve largely around trying to convince people that they will do a better job of fixing things, appear non-sensical. In fact, the Conservatives’ policies only make sense if one believes in the fucked-upness proposition. And since Labour have cunningly refused to concede the truth of that proposition, belief in it is by no means universal.

This, I postulate, is why the Conservatives’ lead is not nearly as large as one might expect, or as it was projected to be in 1979 when conditions were similar. Labour have undermined the Conservatives’ appeal as fixer-uppers by claiming that, in fact, nothing is broken.

Therefore I propose that if the Conservatives want to win, they alter their campaigning tactics immediately. Forget ‘broken Britain,’ forget fixing Labour’s mistakes. These are not effective targets because not everyone believes they exist. Focus instead on things that virtually everyone believes in: making government more accountable, democratic, open, responsive, etc. Shoring up civil liberties and the political rights of the people. Almost nobody will argue with these. Stop blabbing on about the deficit, cuts, blah blah finance. Nobody who denies these are problems wants to listen to you going on about them; nobody who accepts these are problems is going to take your puny promises seriously.

First, begin immediately to practise what you preach re: accountability, openness, responsiveness by operating the Conservative party according to these standards. The party is a large organisation very like a government; its own record on these matters will be viewed as an accurate predictor of how the Conservatives will run the government itself. So stop the stupid infighting about selection. Stop providing local associations with shortlists chosen by non-local party leadership. Sure, you might end up with a load of straight, white male PPCs as a result, but that won’t matter because you’ll have shown that you encourage localism and democracy within your own organisation, thus giving voters more confidence that you’ll encourage it across the nation when you’re in charge.

Second, announce everything you intend to do to protect or, if necessary, restore civil liberties. Without mentioning Labour, enumerate every piece of legislation you will repeal or amend to this end. Commit to destroying the NIR and ID cards, repealing the Coroners and Justice Bill, the Digital Economy Bill (if these things have passed), the Civil Contingencies Act, RIPA, etc. If you think a Bill of Rights is desired by the populace, produce a draft and circulate it. Invite suggestions, consultations, the contributions of legal experts, constitutional experts, and so on. Actually tell the country how you intend to ensure the restoration and protection of ancient and long-held liberties.

Then leave the money stuff for later. You’re the opposition party; you don’t have access to the information you need in order to make credible promises about finance. You don’t have access to the civil service brains in the Treasury who could explain the ins and outs of the budget and recommend cuts that wouldn’t affect ‘frontline services.’ You don’t even really know where the money comes from. So quit throwing around silly figures like £7 billion. Instead, reassure people that you are committed to responsible financial management and eliminating waste, and promise that one of your first, if not your actual first, undertakings in Government will be a thorough and completely open auditing of the country’s books, after which you will commit to responsible financial practices and put the budget back into the hands of Parliament as a whole – in which every expenditure, saving, tax cut, or tax rise will have to be approved by the legislature before you can implement it.

Of course, cynicism assures me that none of this will happen, if only because the toothpaste can’t be put back into the tube. Whatever the Conservatives may say, open government, civil liberties, and responsible accounting are inconvenient roadblocks, hardships which no incoming government would deliberately impose upon itself. If you doubt this cynical worldview, all you need do is look at the glorious President Obama, who campaigned on a platform of reversing Bush’s abuses in all these regards, but since winning the election has done precisely nothing to reverse any of them.

In fact, most of Obama’s campaign was a big fat lie, if his actual record as president is anything to go by. But at least he had the sense to lie in order to win. The Conservatives, apparently, lack even that dubious distinction.

The Prime Minister’s speech at the RSA on Tuesday deserves a good kick up the metaphorical backside, for it is an excellent example of how the language of liberty and change has been appropriated to describe actions which are entirely contrary to the principles of liberty, self-government, and human rights – and, of course, change.

Many people have assured me that, without government, there are no rights (‘Look at Somalia!’), and to a certain practical extent, I believe this to be true. If one’s right to life can be trampled upon by someone else with impunity, that right is de facto non-existent. Some government or authority is necessary to guarantee that others cannot infringe my rights – what is known as the rule of law. But that right is equally non-existent if the government itself can trample upon it with impunity, which is why I advocate a limited government without the power to infringe rights. There is naturally room for argument about what system of government best enables that ideal, and about the nature of its limitations and how they are guaranteed. But the ideal itself is sound.

It goes without saying, then, that rights supplied by the government, either through provision or financing, are not what I consider to be ‘rights’ at all, but entitlements; and that a government in the business of providing entitlements is ipso facto approaching the opposite end of the scale from my limited-government ideal, whatever else its virtues may be.

Notwithstanding the question of rights versus entitlements, another advantage of limited government is its inability to change itself. Not only does this confer stability, which is certainly an important consideration, it means that the government has not the power to grant itself more power. However small a remit the government might start out with, if it has the wherewithal to arrogate more and more aspects of public (and private) life to itself, it will not stay a limited government for long. So in addition to safeguarding the rights of the people, a truly ‘limited’ government must not contain within itself an easy mechanism for expansive self-alteration.

Only under the auspices of a government weak in all aspects except the rule of law can a people be both in word and in practice free. That, my friends, is liberty.

Gordon Brown clearly does not see things my way.

His speech, called ‘Transforming Politics,’ displays a curious mixture of impotence, brazenness, and lies.

Impotence, because he is the Prime Minister, and most out of all other Britons has the power to transform politics – yet he insists that the people in their diffuse millions must do this, people whose jobs, families, and responsibilities lie outside the realm of politics, people whose sole real political power is a single vote, warped and distended and subject to pressures far more numerous and dislocated than an individual’s choice of candidate. Gordon Brown has his hand on the tiller; he gets on with the job at hand; he single-handedly saved the world’s banking system. Why, then, is the hand he wraps round the lever of the nation’s political culture so weak?

If he truly wanted to transform politics, he with his executive orders and compliant cabinet and virtual stranglehold on his parliamentary party could do so. There is nothing to stop him. He claims to know what the people want, and he unquestionably has the power to make it happen – why insist that nebulous public action be a necessary condition?

Politicians, and Gordon Brown is no exception, must find it tremendously hard to imagine what they would want from politicians, were they regular people on the street. They have entered the rabbit hole; they are incapable of stepping outside of their own frame of reference. Ask any man or woman in the grocery store or the bus queue, and they will tell you: politics should be practised by decent people who are not obviously fraudsters, liars, confidence tricksters, or panderers, who realise that their job in a democracy is to represent the will of their constituents and advocate for policies that are beneficial, practical, and above all reasonable.

Ask a politician what sort of person should be practising politics, and who the hell knows what answer you’ll get. It might be the one I mentioned above. It might be ‘whoever knows what’s best.’ The honest answer (which you’ll never get from a politician, obviously) is either ‘me’ or ‘whoever can get the votes.’ This is not unfounded supposition; it is revealed preference.

Brazenness, because he appears to believe that if he repeats well-worn memes often enough, someone, somewhere, might derive meaning from them. How many times have we heard the following:

‘power back to the people’

‘democratically accountable’

‘giving people… rights to control the services they depend upon’

‘change’

‘power redistributed away from the centre’

‘fair access to all’

‘improving public services’

‘lasting peace and shared prosperity’

‘neighbourhoods’

‘diversity’

Brown endlessly repeats the buzzwords and key phrases, empty assurances that nobody disagrees with and which therefore mean nothing. Brown’s key speech about transforming politics is a repetition of all that his Government has been saying for the past decade. And he does not imagine his listeners will pick up on the obvious contradiction: change and transformation are in reality more of the same.

Lies, because he represents himself as a champion of the people against an outdated, unfair, and ossified constitution – which was equally outdated and ossified thirteen years ago when Labour won a landslide of seats under its unfair auspices. If the need for constitutional reform is so obvious now, it was equally obvious then, yet Labour did nothing. If, as Brown says, the choice is between ‘a new politics, where individuals have more say and more control over their lives,’ or ‘a discredited old politics, leaving power concentrated in the hands of the old elites,’ why were the British people not presented with this choice thirteen years ago, when it was no less real and pressing?

Constitutional reform is the last refuge of the desperate. With little prospect of a democratic mandate under the current system, acutely aware of his general unpopularity but clinging on to power with determined and bloody fingertips, the constitutional reformer sets out to circumvent imminent oblivion in the only way left to him: changing the rules in the middle of the game. It isn’t that the rules don’t need changing; it’s that he hadn’t the will to change them when he was winning. Now that he is losing, he suddenly apprehends that the same rules which used to give him unfair advantage will now deliver unto him unfair defeat.

What were once unfair rules must now become fair, before the game is over, while he still has the power to change them. He is a creature of the immediate; he will not bide his time until the next game.

Does Gordon Brown believe we will not notice this? And if we do notice it, does he expect we will trust in his party to deliver the constitutional change that best suits the people rather than what best suits the Labour party? He, with his parliamentary majority, his executive authority, his supine monarch, his cowardly cabinet, his draconian whips, his placemen in the upper house?

And so he promises us change for our own good, change that will empower the people and enhance their liberty, change dressed up in the beautiful language of freedom and democracy, concealing the meretricious reality beneath: that this government has great power, too much power, and cannot be stopped from infringing the people’s rights or changing itself to accrue yet more power. If this were not so, Brown’s constitutional reforms would be a pipe dream. And yet we are supposed to believe that the endpoint of this vast exercise of authority is to reduce that authority.

Forgive me if I’m a bit doubtful.

And yet it’s all so plausible, which is how he gets away with it. What reforms, specifically, is he proposing?

1. A democratically accountable House of Lords.

…a modern democracy cannot tolerate power to initiate and revise legislation being held for ever by those without a mandate from the people.

Quite right. While there are certain advantages to having an upper house that is not susceptible to the whims of the populace, such a chamber is manifestly not representative of the will of the people.

The cynical interpretation: an undemocratic upper house is also not susceptible to the whims of the Commons and acts as a bulwark against hasty, radical change and as a brake on the tremendous power of the Commons. More than in practically every other Western democracy, the majority party in the elected legislature of Britain wields almost unchecked authority. The unelected, (theoretically) non-partisan Lords is one of the few impediments.

But, I hear you say, the upper house in the United States, the Senate, is elected and partisan, and still gets the job done! To which I reply, the lower house in the US, the House of Representatives, has nothing like the power the House of Commons wields. The majority party in the House of Representatives is not the Government, and its leaders constitutionally lack executive authority.

Only when executive authority in Britain is separated from the majority party in the Commons does having an elected House of Lords make sense. While the majority party in the Commons continues to control both the legislature and the executive, making the Lords both partisan and elected will only strengthen that control, not weaken it.

So does Brown propose to reform the Commons in accordance with this prognostication?

No.

2. Increase parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account.

…parties should elect their own members of select committees in a secret ballot; select committee chairs should be elected by a ballot of the whole house; and non-government business should be managed by members of parliament, not the executive.

Quite right. Parliament is in theory sovereign; it should also be so in practice.

But:

…the proper role of parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive and it should be given all the necessary tools to do so.

Parliament should, at this moment, deny Gordon Brown the ability to give them these tools. For tools which can be given can also be taken away. And once it is statutory that Parliament scrutinises the executive at the will of the executive, the legitimacy of that will is forever enshrined in the constitution. When power is granted, it is just as important to examine the implications of the granting as the actual power. This reform serves only to cement further the control of the executive over the operation of the sovereign legislative body.

3. Electoral reform, from FPTP to AV.

The alternative vote system has the advantage of maintaining the benefit of a strong constituency link…

I am sure this is true.

However:

The first past the post system maintains a clear link to a member of parliament’s constituency and it has usually given governments a clear mandate to govern.

If this is true, why change it? We don’t fix what isn’t broken. FPTP maintains the same strong link to the constituency as AV would; in addition, it has the advantage of usually conferring a clear mandate to govern. What does AV offer that overcomes this obvious advantage of FPTP?

…it also offers voters increased choice with the chance to express preferences for as many of the candidates as they wish.

Ah. AV allows a major party candidate to slide into office as the second preference of those who voted first for a smaller third party. The alternative-vote system will clear up that nasty problem of marginal seats while having little negative effect on elections in safe constituencies. To complete our journey through cynicism, all we need ask is: what is our biggest third party, and which major party are its voters more likely to prefer as their second preference?

Hands up all those who voted Lib Dem in 2005 because they hated Blair the war-monger but couldn’t stomach voting Conservative.

4. Transparency in public decisions and documents.

Over and above our commitment to transparency through FOI we are committed to progressively reducing the time taken to release official documents – ensuring the public have access to public papers far quicker than ever before.

Excellent.

I have no problem with this, actually; it’s one of the few pieces of wheat in all of this chaff. But it is only a small step in the right direction; the government of this nation needs to realise that all public business – everything done in the name of the people with the democratic authority of the people as its claim to legitimacy – must be open to the people. All documents should be official, and all documents should be public. All meetings, committees, hearings, inquiries, and the record of their business should be accessible to the electorate. Everything done in the name of the people and by right of their democratic authority belongs to the people.

5. Make public services more responsive to individual users.

Public services will not only be more personal in future but they will be more interactive – with the ability of the citizen enhanced to make their views known directly and influence the way our communities work.

Great.

Just one problem. At the moment, public services are accountable to the government. The government, as properly elected representatives of the people, oversees their operation, officially assesses their quality, and controls their funding. The government is the middleman, the mediator, between the public and the public services. The best way to make the public services directly accountable to the public is to remove the middleman. Will the government now allow the people to directly oversee the operation of public services, to directly assess their quality, and to directly provide and control their funding?

No, because:

…we do not rest our case on the delivery of better services to people merely on aspirations or targets: we are offering personal guarantees to citizens about the rights they can expect and enjoy.

The government will still be the mediator. As mentioned above, whatever it is in the power of government to grant, it is also in the power of government to take away. And so more and more authority gathers at the centre. Rights which are granted by government are not rights at all, but entitlements; and entitlements granted to the people are as far from being ‘subject to people’s direct control’ as it is possible to be.

6. Strengthening local government.

Local government should be free to innovate and to be creative in delivering better public services.

Quite right.

But:

…we inherited a situation where local government had been starved of funding and had very little power over decisions taken that affected their communities.

This is an implicit admission that he who controls the funds controls the power; and by starving local government of funds, central government had also starved it of power. Nothing in Gordon Brown’s proposals mentions giving local governments responsibility for raising their own funding. As long as local authorities must rely on the central government to pay for whatever it is they deliver, they will always be at the mercy of central government’s demands, no matter how ‘free to innovate’ they may theoretically be.

In fact, Brown skirts around this issue with admirable vagueness (if vagueness is the sort of thing one admires):

It is true that in the past local government has had too many streams of funding from a multitude of central government sources. Our total place reforms are potentially transformative in the better use of resources: they will allow local government and its partners to reach across all the funding coming into an area and enable better choices to be made at a local level about how this money is spent.

I’m not even sure what he means. What are ‘total place reforms’? How reassuring is that word ‘potentially’? What he appears to be getting at is that although the funding will still come from central governments, it may no longer be hypothecated, so local authorities will have more say in how to spend their hand-outs. I’m at a loss as to why he needs such an elaborate circumlocution to make that point, unless it is his desire to gloss over the fact that central government will still control the extent of local spending.

7. Codify Britain’s unwritten constitution.

…I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to lead work to consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution into a single written document.

The various arguments for and against written constitutions are numerous and complex, and it may well serve the British people to have a definitive document; others will know better than I whether this is the case.

In the summer I announced that we would consult on the question of codifying our constitution as part of the consultation exercise on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

For those of you who have not read the consultation document on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, allow me to draw your attention to some of the key points contained in the Ministry of Justice’s green paper.

First, the government considers that the key constitutional question in need of answering is

of the relationship between the citizen and the state and how this relationship can best be defined to protect fundamental freedoms and foster mutual responsibility as this country is going through profound changes.

The impetus for this kind of constitutional codification is explicitly the presence of change and crisis. Gordon Brown believes that ‘if we are to decide to have a written constitution the time for its completion should be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in Runneymede in 1215.’ That gives us five years, during a time of change and crisis, for formulation, deliberation, debate, revision, judicial scrutiny, and finalisation. Enforcing an arbitrary time limit on a process that requires deep scholarship, consultation, bipartisan agreement, and lengthy deliberation during a time of change and crisis when that process cannot even command the government’s full attention is a recipe for disaster. (And the time limit is essentially arbitrary. There is no pressing need for a codified constitution by 2015. The year just happens to be the anniversary of something vaguely historically relevant on the popular connotations of which Brown would like to capitalise.)

Second, the codified constitution being mooted is not the lofty, concise document the United States enjoys, which merely sets out the fundamental rights of the people and the operation of their government. No, the British version will contain much more:

How individuals should live together, what rights and freedoms we should enjoy in relation to one another and against the state and how they should be balanced by the responsibilities we owe each other are among the most fundamental questions in politics. They are not abstractions, removed from the practical politics of jobs and housing and healthcare and education, because they concern the constitutional arrangements which determine how power is distributed in our country. They determine how every other question in our public life will be answered. They are not just about the historic protections of the individual against the state and balancing liberty and security. They are also about the frustrations that can arise in daily life, especially when using public services, and reflect the key role for town halls in tackling these frustrations by making information easy to access and involving local people in the decisions which affect them. They are about getting support to combat anti-social behaviour and to tackle the discrimination and prejudice many of our people still have to endure. They are about the smoking ban, the hunting ban, and taking action to prevent climate change.

This constitution is to be about everything a Briton encounters in his public life – except, apparently, the structure of his government, which is nowhere mentioned.

Third, this constitution will deliberately not include some of the things we have come to consider fundamental rights. Consider, for instance, this passage:

Additional protections in relation to liberty of the person or fair trials may not be necessary as the belief in their fundamental nature is already so deeply entrenched, culturally and politically, and there is no fundamental threat to them. At this stage, the Government does not propose the inclusion of the principle of habeas corpus or a right to trial by jury in any new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, but it remains open to all arguments for and against as part of an informed public debate.

The Government does not propose to include habeas corpus, fair trials, and trial by jury in the written constitution as, apparently, there is no threat to these rights and no current need to protect them. You may draw your own conclusions about the wisdom of that plan.

Fourth, the proposed constitution is not intended to have legal effect – that is, the rights or responsibilities codified therein are not intended to be enforceable by an individual in court. It is not intended to have the statutory force of an Act of Parliament. In fact, its purpose would be only this:

A non-statutory declaration could be readily amended and updated over time. Its effect would be intended as primarily political and symbolic rather than legal. The fact that a charter or declaration might not have statutory force or was otherwise not justiciable would not mean that the exercise or the text itself lacked force. It could still carry great legitimacy in the wider sense of that word, by the strength of the consent behind it, and by the way in which it helped to set standards, as yardsticks of the behaviour we expected of others and of ourselves as members of UK society.

In short, Brown’s ‘written constitution’ would be a poorly-drafted, cumbersomely huge, non-traditional, non-justiciable framework setting out the minutiae of Britons’ lives without holding the government to any definitive principles of action or, even, guaranteeing its legal responsibility to protect the rights listed therein, let alone enforce the many entitlements also included.

(There are numerous other problems with this proposed ‘constitution,’ which you may identify by reading it yourself provided you accept the risk to your blood pressure.)

The rest of Brown’s speech is a clever call for his political opponents to agree with him. This, truly, is the language of politics: for if they disagree with him, they would entrench privilege and unfairness at the expense of the people; and if they agree with him, there is no need for them at all.

The not-so-clever part of his peroration is the constant call for change. Change, by definition, would be something different from what we have now. And what we have now, what we have had for thirteen years, is Labour. I have to wonder at Brown’s motivation for reminding us all of that. And for enumerating a deliberate and concentrated program of attacks on the existing checks and balances on the Government’s power that are, at the moment, the only institutions and processes in the country that limit the majority party’s near-incalculable power over public life and protect the few fundamental liberties remaining to the people of Britain.

… to me. This blog is one year old today.

Via the Croydonian, this.

As bold plans go, this one is tres bold. Now obviously, districts within US states are redrawn after census so that each district contains roughly the same number of people.

But I have never heard anyone suggest that US states themselves should be redrawn after census so that each state contains roughly the same number of people. Considering that state boundaries are essentially arbitrary, I don’t find this particularly unreasonable. And it would certainly solve the problem of overweighted small-population states and overweighted large-population states.

However. For the moment, gerrymandering is limited to the states at the moment. Extending the temptation to gerrymander to the entire country, and putting that temptation squarely in the hands of the US Congress, is a very poor idea.

Additionally, redrawing state boundaries to make federal elections more efficient would play merry hell with state and local governments. In the US, state and local governments do actually do things, and are responsible for a great many competencies that would be sorely affected by altering the geographical perimeters of each state every ten years.

There is also the problem of revenues. Federal taxation would of course remain largely unaffected by this, but much of what state governments do is paid for by state taxation, be it sales, income, property, or some other form of levy. As you might expect, much of the wealth of the US is concentrated in urban areas and centers of high population, or else in areas where wealth-generating industries are located.

Look at the map provided:

redrawn states

This redrawing of states would create, I predict, revenue problems particularly in the South, which is the poorest region of the US already. The states labelled Pamlico, the Delta, Tombigbee, Brownia, and Pecos all represent the poorer areas of North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. At the moment, these areas which generate little public revenue are all effectively subsidised by the wealthier parts of those states. Dallas and Houston especially pay for much of the public services in the rest of Texas. Redraw the boundaries in accordance with this map, and these poorer areas will see a drastic reduction in transport maintenance (roads especially), public education, and other state- and county-provided services such as law enforcement and rubbish removal. That, or they will be themselves subsidised by the federal government, putting them in hock to the rest of the nation like poor cousins fallen on hard times.

Now, one can argue that some of these competencies are things no government needs to provide, and maybe that’s true, but at the moment state governments do provide them, and there is little chance of that changing any time soon. The fact of the matter is that, at the moment, there are concentrations of wealth and population within states that enable those poorer areas to get by. Divide them from the sources of public revenue, and those poorer areas may become even more deprived. There is always a chance, I suppose, that those poorer areas might adopt reforms that would make them extremely attractive to businesses and industries, but experience (and cynicism) suggest that is unlikely.

Essentially, I do not think this is a good plan. It would be nice to have fairer and more efficient federal representation, but not at the cost of disrupting and in some cases even destroying the provision of state services.

Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, appears to have won the special Senate election in Massachusetts.

Predictably, there is over-hype from the right (‘Healthcare reform is dead! Yay, woo, a victory against creeping socialism!’) and under-hype from the left (‘These things are vastly complicated, the rest of American still wants healthcare reform, this election is not indicative of the true feeling of blah blah blibbity blee.’)

When Scott Brown is seated, the Senate Democrats will no longer have their 60-member supermajority, which as far as I’m aware was what they were counting on to pass their obese and unwieldy healthcare bill. So yeah – maybe that bill is dead.

Unless they decide to hold their vote before Scott Brown is seated. And Harry Reid won’t agree to seat him until the Mass. Secretary of State has certified Brown as the winner. And as we all remember from Election 2000, certifying a winner can be a long and thorny process fraught with much concession and recantation and fro-ing and to-ing and suing and accusations of fraud and faulty paper ballots (paper ballots? really?) and HEY LOOK, it’s the Supreme Court, and Katherine Harris’s political career is over forever, poor woman, through no fault of her own.

So maybe that bill isn’t dead.

The only genuine effect Scott Brown’s victory has had, as far as I can tell, is that it’s been great for morale on the right, and pretty bad for morale on the left (however much they downplay it).

But it’s one Senate seat in a special election won against a dreadfully unpleasant Democrat candidate in a state where they’d had the same self-important blowhard in charge for almost 40 years. While that’s Change the people of Massachusetts Can Believe In, I’m sceptical of claims that it’s a reely reely big deel y’all, TEA PARTY REVOLUTION!

But I’ll happily eat my words if I’m wrong.

P.S. It’s getting harder and harder for me to comment on American politics without descending into silliness.

UPDATE: Lulz.

H/T Hillbuzz.

Via CNN I see that President Obama has considerately taken into account the date of the season premiere of LOST in deciding when to hold the annual State of the Union address:

Fear gripped the hearts of fans when it was announced that the president wanted to push back the annual State of the Union address – typically held in late January – to February 2, which everyone should know by now is the premiere of the ABC drama’s final season.

Crazy talk! Doesn’t he know people have been dying to find out what happened to the castaways?

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assured viewers Friday he “doesn’t foresee a scenario in which millions of people that hope to finally get some conclusion in ‘Lost’ are preempted by the president.”

This non-news was not, I confess, particularly interesting to me, until I started reading the comments beneath it.

And boy, is America unhappy.

Remarks seem to be conforming to the following general categories:

(1) “Americans are pathetic. I can’t believe LOST is more important to some people than what the president has to say.”

(2) “Obama is pathetic. I can’t believe he’d change the date of his speech to suit a bunch of sheeple LOST fans.”

(3) “Politics and politicians of any stripe are pathetic. LOST will be more interesting and more factual than the heard-it-all-before SOTU.”

(4) “You’re all pathetic. Ever since the SOTU has been televised, presidents have taken into account conflicts with the normal viewing timetable.”

(5) “Everything is pathetic. LOST? State of the Union? Who gives a shit.”

The general malaise and negativity displayed in these 470 (yes, 470 comments) is breathtaking. In full awareness of the fact that this is anecdata, I’m still going to postulate that the Change which Obama hath wrought has been, on the whole, not so good. By far the most illuminating of the comments are the ones that express a deep and weary scepticism about why the date of this regular address is in question in the first place. The State of the Union is traditionally delivered in late January; the suggestion of postponing it until February (and thus creating a conflict with the LOST premiere) has led many people to believe that Obama wishes to be able to extol a successful healthcare reform bill therein. As far as I know, this sort of manoeuvring is rare; the whole point of the SOTU is to describe, duh, the state of the union at regular intervals. It loses much of its impact if the president gets to decide to describe the state of the union whenever he judges that state to be most positive.

Not to mention that Obama has been, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the most speechifying presidents I can remember, having addressed the nation in this way at least three times that I can think of already in his first year of office. I realise these speeches have been topical, rather than holistic, but when you put them all together, we’ve had his words on education, healthcare, and the on-going wars in the Middle East. Possibly the economy as well, though I don’t remember that specifically. I think Americans are pretty up-to-date on the state of their union.

I suspect that much of the negativity and cynicism stems from the fact that Obama has gone about his presidency in entirely back-asswards fashion. Having campaigned on a platform that consisted largely of reversing the mahoosive mistakes of the Bush administration, once in office, he immediately set out to… not reverse any of them. Patriot Act? Still there. Guantanamo? Still there. Wars? Still there. Bailouts and stimuli? Still there. Discontinuing these things, while difficult, would have been popular on both sides of the political divide, as well as with the mythical ‘independent’ voters. Obama would have been seen to be cleaning up the mess and providing himself with a fresh slate, correcting the massive loss of civil liberties and doing his best to get the country back on its economic feet.

Instead of pursuing these popular campaign policies, however, he has spent the vast majority of the last year shilling for his Congressional party members and their ridiculous healthcare reform. A task as huge as the overhaul of the nation’s health infrastructure should have been begun cautiously, slowly, and thoroughly, with cost/benefit analyses, input from providers and consumers, multiple scenarios of best practice, and above all, genuine bi-partisan contribution. What Obama has allowed to happen, however, is the creation of a massive, cobbled-together bill based on the barest minimum of research into the health market, the barest minimum of input from the industry as a whole, and containing almost innumerable lines inserted solely to get this or that special interest group onside, or this or that senator. The legislation is a gigantic fucked-up mess that appears designed, not to represent a unified vision of healthcare or emulate best practice elsewhere in the world, but to prove that the Democrats in Congress have done something, dammit, and it looks plausible if you stand back from it and squint a bit.

And Americans are not impressed. Yes, healthcare needed reform. Yes, Obama promised to do it. But did it have to be done so quickly, and in so slipshod a fashion, and at the expense of so much good he also promised?

Few presidents have had as unsuccessful a first year as Obama; even fewer have been almost the sole authors of their own failure. I do not envy the man, but I do not pity him, either. If Americans are unhappy, it is because Obama misjudged them; it is because he believed his initial popularity meant he didn’t have to conform. Ultimately, I think, Americans do not want a cult of personality. They want what they have always liked best: a competent, steady leader, with a sure hand on the helm and an appropriate sense of solemnity for the huge responsibility he bears. Obama has lurched from crisis to panic to embarrassment, and while he’s handled it with fairly good grace, he may at last be discovering that, to Americans, only Mr President deserves respect and confidence. Barack Obama will receive the same when he remembers that they come, not in response to his personal charms, but by grace of the office he holds.

A gentleman called Mark Higginson left a comment recently on the older wordpress.com version of my blog, directing my attention to a project he’s been working on called Magna Carta 2009.

Despite the name, it bears more resemblance to a constitution than the original Magna Carta Libertatum, and it contains some interesting features, not least of which is that it is designed to come into force through plebiscite after England achieves independence. The document lays out some provisions for its maintenance, namely that it cannot be altered, once passed, except by further plebiscite, which alters the current relationship between demos, Parliament, and Crown (and is especially interesting given the growing numbers of culturally non-English voters in England).

The author, having asked me to comment, duly received some input, and he then requested that I tell others about his project so that they may make their own comments known, if they wish. Being a pleasant, obliging sort of lady, I duly draw your attention to the following articles of Magna Carta 2009:

From the section entitled The English Government:

VOTING IN ENGLISH REFERENDUM, shall be compulsory whether referendums are for general elections, national referendums on other national issues, or for voting in and for County councils and matters of county wide importance. There shall be a fine for anyone who does not vote without good cause for doing so.

From the section entitled Law and Order:

IT SHALL BE ILLEGAL for anyone (English people or not), to harm the flag of England in public or before a public gathering at a private function or party or other gathering in any way, as a form of protest either by stamping on the flag, ripping or tearing or cutting the flag, setting fire to the flag, or any other action against the flag in a manor designed to cause offence against the flag of England, England or the English people. Such action if proved in court shall carry a penalty of five (5) years in prison without the possibility of parole.

From the section entitled Rights of the Individual:

ALL ENGLISH PERSONS, regardless of age, have a right to free health care, clean drinking water, nutritious food and a clean environment, as well as a right to protection from any activities that can harm welfare and development.

ALL ENGLISH PERSONS have the right to privacy, provided that such privacy is not used for criminal or inappropriate acts that could result in court action or harm to others.

Nothing in this Magna-Carta-2009 shall give the English person the right to bear arms, except under the current rules for fire arms licensing.

THE ENGLISH GOVERNMENT SHALL help to restore an English person’s health, self-respect, and dignity, regardless of age, after abuse or neglect.

EVERY ENGLISH PERSON has the right to freely participate in English cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits, and have the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

From the section entitled Rights of the Worker:

There shall be a set of minimum wages worked out by the English government for work done depending on age and experience.

THE RETIREMENT AGE for both men and women shall be 60 years. However, nothing shall stop a person from working beyond that age, without loss of state pension, if they so wish.

From the section entitled Education:

THE OFFICIAL LANGUAGE of England shall be English as spoken in England during the Anglo Saxon times before the Norman Invasion of 1066 and the modern Queen’s English as taught and practised in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

THERE SHALL BE THREE official dictionaries, an Anglo Saxon English dictionary dated to 1065, and a standard English Historic dictionary dated from 1066 to 1957. The third dictionary shall be the Standard Queen’s English dictionary dated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The last dictionary shall be an English dictionary without any additions from foreign influences.

From the section entitled Other Matters:

ALL UTILITY COMPANIES, regardless of weather they are publicly or privately owned, be they gas, electricity, water or telephone companies, shall have a duty of care to their customers, and ensure that connections remain in place, regardless of the customers ability to pay.

OPENING HOURS FOR THE PURCHASE and consumption of alcohol at all ale houses, public houses and other establishments where such activities are carried out by the public, for the day time Mondays to Saturdays shall be from 11.00 am to 03.00 pm, with time called at 02.30 pm. On Sundays the time will be 12.00 noon to 03.00 pm, with time called at 02.30 pm. Opening hours for the evening times, Monday to Saturday shall be from 07.00 pm to 11.00 pm with time called at 10.30 pm. On Sundays the time will be from 07.00 pm to 10.00 pm with time called at 09.30 pm.

OTHER ESTABLISHMENTS MENTIONED ABOVE shall include but not be restricted to; Supermarkets, hypermarkets, off licenses, private clubs and establishments, nightclubs and private parties.

PRICING FOR ALCHOHOLIC BEVERAGES shall be equalized between ale houses and public houses, and all other establishments that sell alcohol, so that all bottle and case prices are the same, including barrel prices and prices by the bottle and glass. In all such establishments there shall be no reduction of prices, including such things as happy hours, etc.

From Appendix C:

PRIMARY SCHOOLS.

Structured rudimentary teaching in the following core subjects;

Maths (no electronic calculators), Anglo Saxon English, Religion (Christianity), Science, Queen’s Modern English, Geography, English History, World History, French, Art, P.E., Swimming, ICT.

SECONDARY SCHOOLS

A continuance of original core subjects, plus the following additional core studies;

Basic money management, Historic English (Between 1066 and 1960), Cooking, Relationships between all people.

Appendix D contains a primer of English etiquette, including:

Women are usually independent and accustomed to entering public places unaccompanied. It is usual for women to go out and about on their own as well as with friends. Men and women mix freely.

It is ok for women to eat alone in a restaurant.
It is ok for women to wander around on their own.
It is ok for women to drink beer.

These are only the features that leapt out at me as significant, upon several readings through the text. There is much more, which I have left out as being largely unremarkable or uncontroversial. Mark Higginson, the author, welcomes your comments here.

Having said all of that, I feel compelled to point out that when I provided the feedback he requested, I was fairly unsupportive of this document. I do not believe he will ever get anywhere with it, for numerous reasons, but my overall impression is this: this document is so different in scope, tone, and content from the Magna Carta Libertatum as to be wholly unrelated to it. I have trouble imagining how this could possibly be based upon the original, as its author claims. It is no more a charter of liberties than my grocery list. It is a restrictive, self-conflicting, and invasive constitutional treatise, many of whose articles cannot be guaranteed except through the coercive power of the state, and sometimes not even then. Maybe it is the sort of thing English people want. But somehow I doubt it.

The relationship of the political class to democracy is always tricky, what with the need to pretend that the people have the power, and the opposite need to make sure they don’t get to exercise it in disadvantageous ways. Democracy has taken a real kicking over the past couple of days, for reasons I’m not entirely sure I understand, except that suddenly the demos have been giving, like, the wrong answers.

First, there’s that thing in Switzerland where the Swiss, by a majority of both people and cantons, voted to ban the construction of any more minarets in their country. Apparently this sort of plebiscitary urban planning tramples all over religious freedom and freedom of expression. Wrong answer, demos! Some things, like minarets, are too important to be left up to democratic whim. Everything else, like your property, privacy, due process, etc., is well within the democratic purview and free to be meddled with whenever the demos please.

Second, there’s the Lib Dems who, despite their bedrock desire for electoral reform and their manifest belief that the demos all deeply desire it, will not be supporting any call by the Government for a referendum on PR. Why? Because it might help Labour win the next election (bad), and people might vote ‘no’ simply because they hate the Labour party and any policies it backs (also bad). So never mind what the demos want, eh? They might, y’know, keep on voting for Labour. (This is similar to the contempt for the almighty demos anytime a section of it votes for the BNP.)

Third, there’s this opposition to freeing MPs from the whip of…party whips. Apparently this will actually reduce citizens’ power, because MPs might vote the way their constituents want them to instead of for what the party has determined is best for the country as a whole. So that’s representative democracy down the pan, then. Constituents are actually equated here with lobbies and special interest groups, none of whom deserve a say about legislation. The counter-intuition involved is brilliant. Allowing MPs to vote however their constituents want them to will actually disempower those same constituents. So we find that, in this case, the demos are right and should be listened to, except when they’re wrong (which is whenever their wishes don’t accord with what party leaders think is best for the party country.) Examples of issues on which the demos might be wrong include, in this piece, abortion and membership of the EU.

Here’s the hierarchy of importance, then:

1. Building minarets
2. Abortion on demand
3. Membership of the EU
4. Party maneuvering
5. Whatever is ‘best for the country’
6. Democracy
7. Everything else

Items 1-5 are too important to let the flighty, tabloid-reading, ill-informed demos interfere; democracy, and what the wise, well-informed, reasonable demos want, trumps everything else.

So when the demos vote to ban minarets or vote for parties you don’t like, it’s outrageous. But when the demos vote to pick your pocket, store your DNA on a database, lock you up for a month without charge, or demand you prove you’re not a paedophile every time you step outside your front door, that’s totally fine.

[long pause for thought]

Oh wait, I get it now. Democracy is great, but only when the demos agree with me. Right on, brother. Speak truth to power!

A piece by Simon Jenkins on Comment is Free got me thinking this evening about third-party voting and why (or why not) people might engage in it. Jenkins’s essay is a particularly interesting example of this political question, because he essentially demands the existence of a third party he would not actually vote for, but which he would expect other people to vote for, so as to create some sort of actual choice in what is currently, for all intents and purposes, a two-party system:

I want a Liberal party, a proper one. I might not vote for it, but I would like one around: a party that believes unashamedly in the supremacy of the individual, whose freedoms are protected by government against government, in personal risk and identity, in a safety-net welfare not an all-encompassing one.

His problem is, of course, that the Liberal Democrats do not truly present a third alternative, sharing, as they do, many policies with Labour and the Conservatives.

Clegg trooped yesterday to the Liberty fringe at Bournemouth, to preach his opposition to ID cards, control orders and detention without trial. But the Tories also oppose these.

The party is a fair-weather friend to personal freedom. It has not been protesting at the responsibility-sapping inanities of health and safety laws. It does not campaign in defence of church ladders, the right to swim, or the freedom to photograph children. It is in favour of those most useless of nanny state inventions – asbos – and even wants them supplemented by “acceptable behaviour contracts” between state and parents.

The party is nowhere on the classic libertarian agenda, let alone an anarchist one. It does not oppose seat belt and helmet laws, or support risk thresholds, naked streets and shared space. I can find no sign of opposition to stringent planning. The party appears in favour of enforcing wind turbines. It cheers on each health scare, from foot-and-mouth to swine flu, as if it were a slave to the beef lobby or the pharmaceuticals industry. It never pleads the cause of letting people look after themselves. To Nick Clegg, “something” must always be done.

Today’s Liberal Democrats are yesterday’s collectivists ill-disguised: witness their grimly uncritical support for regional government and for ever greater European integration.

Jenkins wishes, instead, that there were a party that

…would champion smallness in everything. It would back families against neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods against councils, councils against regions, regions against Whitehall and Whitehall against Brussels. It would stage a bonfire of controls and regulations. Smallness and autonomy are the only guarantees of personal and institutional freedom, with a commensurate rise in responsibility.

However, let us remind ourselves that he asserts initially, ‘I might not vote for it, but I would like one around‘.

Some of the commenters point out to him the existence of LPUK and UKIP, all to the good.

But I find myself instead asking, ‘What is the point of wishing for the existence of a party you expect other people to vote for, but would not vote for yourself?’ He wants a true opposition party to exist, but is not willing himself to take the electoral risk that would allow such a party to gain momentum or a more powerful voice.

This is a classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma that crops up in the present electoral system. In Britain, what we have is Duverger’s principle illustrated on a massive scale: our single-member district plurality system means that two parties dominate, and a vote for a preferred third party often translates into a vote for the least preferred of the two major parties. This principle was all over the news in the US in 1992 (when people who voted for Ross Perot were accused of thereby diminishing the Republican vote count) and again in 2000 (when people who voted for Ralph Nader were accused of thereby diminishing the Democratic vote count).

In this sort of electoral system, it is not rational for an individual to vote for his first preference if it is a third party, simply because he perceives that doing so will hamper the chances of his second choice winning, and therefore contribute to the victory of his least preferred party – i.e., ‘If I vote for the Lib Dems, it will take away a vote for Labour, allowing the evil Tories to win.’ If most potential third-party voters make this rational decision, the third party will not win, but neither will the least preferred party – meaning that most potential third-party voters end up casting their ballot for their second choice, the compromise between the party they prefer and the party they despise.

The only way to avoid this, as the Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates, is if potential third-party voters unanimously agree to cooperate and vote for that third party. Only with unanimous cooperation can they hope to achieve their desired outcome, rather than a least-worst compromise. This outcome almost never happens, however, precisely because of people like Simon Jenkins; if one person defects, the most rational decision for everyone else is to defect, too. It is one of those curious instances wherein rational action produces a less favourable outcome.

If this is rational action, then, how can libertarians – who are almost all potential third-party voters – overcome the electoral dilemma?

Since unanimous cooperation is not impossible, we could certainly try to create a voting bloc in which everyone promises to vote for the preferred third party. Assuming everyone followed through on his promise, such a plan could work. On the other hand, what if the number of unanimous voters is still not large enough to put the third party into power? If that were the case, it would again become more rational to defect, since even unanimous cooperation would not result in the preferred outcome. The only way to overcome this problem, then, would be to ascertain before balloting the number of potential third-party voters who might be persuaded to cooperate.

This is why PR finds so many advocates amongst potential third-party voters. Not only does it allow us to know how many people prefer the third party as their first choice, it protects that (presumed) minority from seeing their vote metamorphose into an advantage for their least preferred choice. The critique I hear levelled most often against PR is that it rarely returns a legislature with a clear majority party – often it results in coalition governments. There is something to be said in favour of coalition governments, however: quite often they are unable to accomplish much, which for a minarchist is no bad thing. But that, ultimately, is still the least-worst compromise: what a voter implicitly wants is for the party he votes for to hold a majority. I do not want a coalition government that does comparatively little; I want a libertarian-majority government that does practically nothing at all.

The electoral Prisoner’s Dilemma is something that I would guess all non-centrists bemoan; it is very difficult to achieve unanimous cooperation, and even if you could, it might still fail to deliver the preferred outcome. What, then, can we do?

James Hanley, at Positive Liberty, gets right to what I think is the heart of the matter: the single vote with which we are endowed in populous countries is, statistically, ineffective. In that case, then, ‘winning’ can no longer take priority of place in our decision-making process. The secondary value of voting is to exercise our democratic power in what is, essentially, the only mechanism left to us as individuals for doing so. It is only by voting for our first preference that we actually fulfill the democratic function of the individual:

There is one final critique of Scott’s argument that, on a personal level, I can’t ignore.

Otherwise, the voter truly misses out on democracy; he is merely a statistical deviation, instead of being part of a current of public opinion… Your argument is…potentially damaging to the notion of democracy.

I admit that I just don’t get this. I can’t make the same kind of definitive technical argument I have above, as we’re in much fuzzier territory here, but it strikes me as being a very collectivist notion of democracy. If I vote Libertarian because that is my true preference, how am I missing out on democracy? I get the point that I am a statistical deviation – .32% of voters cast votes for the Libertarian candidate in the 2004 presidential election, so it’s accurate to call us deviants, from a statistical perspective at least – but I did vote, and I did engage in argumentation and debate about the candidates, so it seems to me that I didn’t miss out on democracy at all, but was quite engaged in practicing it. And how an individual following their conscience and casting a statistically insignificant vote could endanger democracy is, to me, wholly unfathomable.

It seems a strangely collectivist notion of democracy, in which the individual is only a real participant if he sublimates his own beliefs and desires and joins in with one of the prevailing mass movements. And that, it seems to me, is the greater danger to democracy, because then we can demand that people set their conscience aside, that they do not oppose the mass but surrender themselves to it. We then end up with a Roussean society, which requires

…the total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community [and] since the alienation is unconditional, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no individual has any longer any rights to claim. (The Social Contract, Ch. 6.)

I am not accusing Scott of advocating that, as nothing in his post suggests that’s what he meant. But it seems to me to be the necessary conclusion of his premise, that the individual is not participating in democracy if they are not persuaded to join a major voting bloc.

Whether it is rational for an individual to vote third party and whether it is democratically legitimate to do so are very separate questions. The answer to the first is a clear “yes,” but the answer to the second depends on our understandings of democracy. My understanding of democracy is that it is a constraint on the state (or at least more likely to constrain the state than is autarchy), and that it constrains the state by allowing each individual to follow his or her own conscience when casting a vote. It certainly includes – with absolute necessity – the right to try to persuade others and to try to create a voting bloc, but the refusal to join a voting bloc comports with my understanding of democracy. And while it might be said that my vote is, consequently, a futile gesture, my vote’s inability to change the outcome means it is no less futile when I cast it for a major party.

One can argue about whether the individual has a democratic function – in fact, there are many libertarians, particularly in the US, who insist that voting in any way whatsoever for anybody merely puts the stamp of legitimacy on what is a fundamentally illiberal system of governance (in other words, any attempt at democracy always becomes the tyranny of the majority, in which the rights of the minority are trampled upon by force in the name of the common good) – but if you believe voting is ‘a right that should be exercised‘, as many people do, then prioritising that democratic function when winning is perceived to be impossible cannot fail to be at least a little bit seductive.

And who knows – maybe libertarians do have the critical mass needed to win a majority, and we just don’t know it yet. But we’ll never find out if we allow ourselves to remain trapped in the Prisoner’s Dilemma of settling for second best.

Last Sunday, Madeleine Bunting wrote a piece for the Guardian that is simultaneously the most vicious and most thought-provoking essay I’ve read these many years. Tim Worstall, as usual, tipped me off, taking issue as he did with Bunting’s aside that neoliberalism and fascism have been destructive in contradistinction to communism and socialism, and while he is right to point up the hilarity of that assertion, it is but small beans in comparison to the rest of what she says.

She begins:

The certainties that have dominated the last quarter of a century – that the market knew best, achieved efficiency and produced wealth – have collapsed. Few would disagree with him, but the clarity of that conclusion is matched by the confusion about what comes next.

There is, within this statement, an apparent confusion about what, exactly, a market is. There shouldn’t be, because Bunting could reference a cosy view of life in the pre-modern era, where a market was a place where exchange occurred (village square, local goods stalls, bescarfed women with basketsful of eggs, etc.), but she doesn’t do this. And she is wrong not to, because that is what a market is even today: a space where information about exchange takes place. A market is a tool, an amorality: a perfectly-operating market is efficient, because it permits potential exchangers to learn the value of what they wish to exchange, and it does produce wealth, because that free information allows the parties to an exchange to maximise their mutual benefit. A perfectly-operating market, however, does not know best, because a market is a tool, not a party to exchange itself.

What has collapsed, and Bunting could have pointed this out easily, is the informative value of the imperfect market in which exchange has recently been taking place. This is, by and large, a corporate, capitalist market heavily interfered with by the state in the form of regulation, taxation, and subsidy (amongst other things). Such a market does not convey correct information – its worth as a means of conveying value is approaches nil, because true costs (in particular) are obscured by strictures outwith the market itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing – even the most strident advocates of free markets often admit the need for certain external strictures, especially in pricing externalities, QED – but more often than not, interference in the functioning of the market is performed imperfectly in the pursuit of goals many of us disapprove (public money being used to bail out corporate institutions being one, whether it’s the automobile companies or the banks or the shareholders of both; asymmetrical information in the operation of the banking system; etc.). It is the failure of this type of market that has given the lie to whatever ‘certainties’ we might have cherished for the last quarter of a century; but this is no more an intrinsic flaw in markets per se than the existence of greed is an intrinsic flaw of money (which is simply another tool in the process of exchange).

Bunting is right to ask, ‘What comes next?’, even though this question is a non-sequitur in the case of market fundamentalism, since what she goes on to explore has very little to do with the collapse of the politico-corporate market. But never mind that; what does come next?

In his last Reith lecture, on Tuesday, Sandel will call for a remoralisation of politics – that we must correct a generation of abdication to the market of all measures of value. Most political questions are at their core moral or spiritual, Sandel declares, they are about our vision of the common good; bring religion and other value systems back into the public sphere for a civic renewal.

So, in the absence of certainties about ‘the market,’ we need a new certainty, a new way of measuring value, though Bunting never addresses the obvious question: ‘Measuring the value of what, exactly?’ It becomes clear throughout the rest of her piece that ‘value’ is being used as a positive abstraction, standing in for some nebulous idea of satisfaction + happiness + equality + prosperity. ‘The market’ has failed to deliver that mixture; what, in its place, can do so?

But never mind that, either, because she’s not going to explore it. Instead, we return to the tired memes of ‘the common good’ and ‘civic renewal.’ There is an a priori assumption here that questions of politics, whether it be government or simple collective action, must have an answer that is geared toward achieving a common good. This assumption may not be such a mistaken one; I’m sure many people share the view that collective action exists exclusively to achieve collective good. What constitutes ‘the common good,’ however, is highly debatable, and is probably at the root of all political differences. If there were a set of easily-identifiable and self-evident commonweals, we would not need so much variety of political choice. (Whether or not we really have, at least in the UK of today, such a huge variety of choice is another question I’ll leave others to explore.)

The same objection applies to the belief that political questions are moral or spiritual. No one has yet, despite centuries of philosophers’ attempts, managed to identify a universal morality or spirituality, any more than we’ve identified a universal ‘common good.’ Morality – the distinction between right acts and wrong acts – is not absolute, even if we think it ought to be – even if some of us think there are absolutes – because there will always be intelligent minds who disagree, and whose reasoning contains no obvious flaw that can be corrected.

Bunting does seem to recognise this problem, at least on some level, because she focuses the rest of her argument on civic renewal; and it is easy to see why, since ‘few indeed’ disagree that civic engagement has ossified:

The problem is a near sense of desperation as to how this is to come about, as current prescriptions offered by all political parties are emptied of meaning and credibility. Meanwhile, politics is in danger of becoming a subject purely for a small technocratic coterie dominated by highly complex financial regulation and arcane detail of parliamentary reform. It’s a politics of credit derivatives and standing committees, which is a foreign language to 90% of the electorate.

The sense of the end of an era is even more pressing in the UK than in Sandel’s America because it has coincided with the final discrediting of a form of professionalised, careerist politics. But to general bewilderment, even twin crises of this magnitude are not prompting political engagement; the paradox is that they may generate anger but are not generating action. The possibility of change – of radically reforming the institutions that have so betrayed trust – is slipping between our fingers. Bankers resume banking their bonuses, politicians revert to party rivalries to elect a Speaker unlikely to command the crossbench support necessary for reform. And we are left pondering what it is that brings about change – crises are not enough, outrage is not enough.

This is a fairly good summation of the problems facing the demos. Crises have occurred; comfortable systems have been discredited; there is outrage but no action. I commend the author.

She does not, then, do what I would do, which is to ask, ‘Why is there no action, when there is obviously such a need for it, and a fertile ground in which it can take root?’

The reason she ignores this is because, in asking why no action is taking place, we encounter a new, and much more troubling, set of problems.

There is a perception that systems for acting do not work. We live in a democracy, and the legitmate mechanism for action in a democratic society is the vote, by which the demos choose their proxies in government on the basis of specific platforms; the proxies are expected to carry out these platforms or be replaced by new proxies. The demos is the master of its government; between elections, it can direct policy through petition, protest, and (though this is itself a problem) lobbying.

In this particular democracy, most of those avenues for acting have been closed. The demos has been ignored: government has taken action without its approval, from bailing out banks to nationalising rail lines to giving Fred Goodwin a pension (if you like) to setting up unelected quangos to regulate government behaviour (IPSA) to creating a surveillance state to cracking down on protestors… and the list goes on. Much of what the government (and remember, it is supposed to respond to the demands of the demos) has done in the past let’s say quarter of a century (since that is where Bunting starts) has shifted power away from the demos, and this is one of the factors that has so depressed civic engagement. The legitimate avenues for action are closed: action in the face of these developments would be akin to beating one’s skull against a brick wall.

To give Bunting a bit of credit, she does not suggest that democracy itself is an unassailable system of governance; as the Devil’s Kitchen has pointed out, democracy has many faults.

A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for change to occur, one might argue, is the belief that change can happen. There appears to be, instead, a desultory fatalism here which Bunting does not address, summed up in part by the uniquely democratic aphorism, ‘No matter who you vote for, the government always wins.’ As long as the entrenched institutions, whether government or corporate capitalism or what you will, continue to barricade the legitimate mechanisms by which change can occur, they grow ever more monolithic and unchallengeable. In such circumstances, righteous outrage at crises and failures will turn inward, because short of fomenting a destabilising revolution, ways of reducing the unaccountable power of such institutions are not truly present.

There are many who would claim that it is the complacency of the demos itself that has allowed this situation to come about: for even unaccountable monoliths are not entirely maleficent, and there will always be those who benefit more than they would do in the absence of such institutions. Unanswerable corporate capitalism has permitted many people to enrich themselves tremendously, often at the expense of others; a powerful and paternalist government has protected many people from the consequences of their own failures, often at the expense of others. There are also people who have enriched themselves without exploitation, and people who have been protected by the state from the consequences of others’ failures. It is the complacency of those who have benefited that has put a cork in mechanisms for change; appeals to self-interest have worked, and I would guess many people who have no experience of any of what I have just said still gamble that, one day, they might do. They don’t want to reduce the monoliths because they judge the possible future benefits of them to be greater than the actual present costs.

But the safety, comfort, and benefit that monolithic institutions provide comes at the price of being unable to alter them easily or indeed limit their acquisition of further power, even when they turn against you.

Having omitted the why of civic disengagement, Bunting still tries to present a solution, and this is where we discover (a) that her omission was deliberate, and (b) the true viciousness of her argument.

Battening on to some documentary-maker’s assertion that ‘what is paralysing the collective will’ is ‘the dominance of individualism,’ she says:

“What we have is a cacophony of individual narratives, everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It’s enchanting, it’s liberating, but ultimately it’s disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change,” explains Curtis.

His analysis is that power uses stories which shape our understanding of the world and of who we are, and how we make sense and order experience. Powerful, grand narratives legitimise power, win our allegiance and frame our private understandings of how to measure value and create meaning. They also structure time – they fit the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future. This is what all the grand narratives of communism, socialism, even neoliberalism and fascism offered; as did the grand narratives of religion. Now, all have foundered and fragmented into a mosaic of millions of personal stories. It is a Tower of Babel in which we have lost the capacity to generate the common narratives – of idealism, morality and hope such as Sandel talks about – that might bring about civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose.

The solution to disengagement, apparently, is a collective grand narrative. In her own words, then, let’s explore what a grand narrative might have to offer.

(1) Grand narratives legitimise power.
Rather than reducing the power of monolithic institutions, they entrench it. This is precisely the opposite of what the demos appear to desire, which is a return of power to the civic level, not a legitimisation of the transfer of power away from it.

(2) Grand narratives win allegiance.
They put a high gloss on failed, unaccountable systems in order to provide the illusion that those systems are both palatable and good. The allegiance here is an adherence to someone else’s vision, an abdication of self-determination in favour of a purpose imposed from the outside that may suit neither the individual nor the collective will.

(3) Grand narratives frame our understanding of value and meaning.
In other words, they change what we desire, rather than fulfill it. This is not changing the systems to suit the demos; this is changing the demos to suit the systems.

(4) Grand narratives structure time, fitting the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future.
They provide a comforting but impossibly teleological illusion of human development. As Bunting points out, this is what religions and modern political systems do. Historians (and I know whereof I speak) are fond of imposing teleological interpretations on the past: Marxist historiographers are particularly prone. Overlaying a narrative on the past implies that there is, or has been, an end toward which all human action has tended. Religions, similarly, overlay a narrative on the future, assuming a state of perfection or enlightenment toward which religious principles are the most perfect route. Although many religions place a great premium on the perfection of the individual soul, reaching the end state requires a collective effort, just as modern political systems do. But do we really want our political systems to share common characteristics with religion? In many major religions, those individuals who do not work in service to the collective goal, or do not achieve perfection individually, suffer punitive judgment; should our politics operate in this same way? Or should they instead operate according to mutual benefit, common agreement, and compromise? The religious edifice is built upon the idea of revealed truth, and access to that truth is controlled by the spiritual elite. Do we want our political edifice to be built upon revealed, unchallengeable truths, access to which is controlled by the political elite?

Throughout history, the mechanism whereby religion has maintained social control and its grand narrative is the restriction of information. Do we really want to emulate this in the political sphere? Ignorance may indeed be bliss, but to impose ignorance on the demos for any purpose whatever, no matter how noble it may appear to be, must be one of the summits of evil.

Bunting’s desire for a grand narrative is not about ‘civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose’; it is about retaining the monoliths whilst finding a way to ensure that the demos happily accepts, and even supports, their power. This is the insidious reason for why she does not address the root of disengagement and inaction: she does not want action, she wants acquiescence.

Curtis argues that we are still enchanted by the possibilities of our personal narratives although they leave us isolated, disconnected, and at their worst, they are simply solipsistic performances desperate for an audience. But we are in a bizarre hiatus because the economic systems that sustained and amplified this model of individualism have collapsed. It was cheap credit and a housing boom that made possible the private pursuit of experience, self-expression and self-gratification as the content of a good life. As this disintegrates and youth unemployment soars, this good life will be a cruel myth.

There are plenty of people around trying to redefine the good life – happiness economists and environmentalists, among others – and Sandel’s authority adds useful weight to their beleaguered struggle against the instrumentalist values of the market that have crept into every aspect of our lives. But Sandel’s call for remoralisation seems only to expose how bare the cupboard is – what would it look like? What reserves of moral imagination could it draw on for a shared vision, given that the old shared moral narratives such as religious belief and political ideology have so little traction?

Individualism, contrary to what Bunting seems to present here, is neither fragmentary nor dependent on consumerism. She is right in presenting it as a struggle for ‘experience, self-expression, and self-gratification,’ but this must be as defined by the individual him- or herself, often without regard for the much-vaunted ‘common good.’ And indeed, no attempt at ‘the good life’ succeeds completely, but the ability to make the attempt, and define ‘the good life’ for oneself, must exist; that, for most people, it does not is but another aspect of that fatalism that has muted the outrage.

And shared visions, shared moral narratives, are bad, not least because nobody has yet found one that can be shared by everybody. A shared vision is an illusion held in common that works only for those willing to be directed (or deceived) by it, and there are many. Understanding this is what led to Nietzsche’s philosophy of perspectivism. He was writing in the context of the grand narrative of Christianity, but the essence of perspectivism is that there is no universal truth, no universal reality: instead, there is only the personal perception of reality, and individually unique epistemologies as numerous as the number of individuals themselves. Many people have criticised this view as relativist, and indeed it is, but Nietzsche also allowed for ‘formal’ truths, which are developed organically through the intergration of many individual perspectives. Perspectivism is perhaps the closest we have come toward the repudiation of the grand narrative as a concept; grand narratives are possible, but only in the presence of wilful or imposed ignorance and the denial of the discrete, individual consciousness.

Bunting goes so far as to identify a possible grand narrative, which she does not like:

A new grand narrative will emerge, Curtis believes, admitting he is an optimist. But perhaps there is another aspect to our predicament. That the new grand narrative has already emerged and it is one of environmental catastrophe. Perhaps this reinforces the sense of political paralysis. That the only grand narrative on offer is so terrifying – of a world rapidly running out of the natural resources required to sustain extravagant lifestyles and burgeoning population – that it disables rather than empowers us to achieve political change. Terrified, we retreat into private stories of transformation – cosmetic surgery, makeovers of home and person – because we see no collective story of transformation we can believe in.

Fatalism rears its head again in the idea of a coming catastrophe that paralyses the will to change. I argue that this is merely an effect, not a cause, of civic disempowerment; it is again the belief that the changes we try to achieve are but minute struggles against the overarching immovability of monolithic institutions.

She finishes:

Every other modern narrative – communism, socialism, even those that were destructive, such as neoliberalism and fascism – laid claim to a version of the kingdom of God, a better world that would nurture a better human being. They were all narratives of redemption and salvation. All that we have now is apocalypse, and it is paralysing. How then can we build hope?

The kingdom of God, a better world and a better human being – what place have these ideas in political discourse? They are entwined with the desire for a grand narrative. This teleological view of human progress is the most paralysing of all views. Even if the goal is unknown, or not yet understood, it imparts a sense of finality and destiny that petrifies the individual and the collective mentality. We are moving toward x, perhaps diverging down erroneous paths, but the desire to reach x exists, and we must all surrender to it. If there is a goal, and we do not share it, what hope can there be for the dissenters? ‘Better human being’ returns us to the world of the moral absolute, a non-reality, and ‘narratives of redemption and salvation’ are especially frightening. Redemption is for those who have transgressed; salvation is in the gift of a higher power. Will we set up human arbiters of sin and human judges of righteousness in our new narrative? I repeat, what place have these ideas in political discourse?

It is a funny thing that ‘apocalypse’ does not mean what Bunting thinks it means. She infers from it chaos, destruction, collapse; but at its root, it is αποκαλυψις, an uncovering, an unhiding, a revelation. And perhaps what she hates about apocalypse is that is has uncovered mutable truths; it has removed certainties and replaced them with the understanding that certainty itself paralyses. The absence of a grand narrative is a state of being to be celebrated; it is both energising and liberating, bringing as it does the knowledge that we are not bound to a shared reality, a vision imposed on us by others. We as individuals can create our own meaning and give our own existence its purpose – and that purpose is whatever we choose, based upon whatever values we wish to hold. We can fight for self-determination even in a society that ritually denigrates the individual, ascribing its success only to the existence of the collective, and demanding gratitude and service in return. The paralysis is proof that that society is dying.This apocalypse is good, and recognition of our own paralysis is a vital step toward freeing ourselves from the tyranny of those who would make us pawns in their ‘narrative’ of social transgression and secular salvation.

Whether you think the results of Iran’s presidential elections were valid or not, you have to laugh at this:

Among the countries congratulating Mr Ahmadinejad on his victory were Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela and North Korea.

Don’t you? ‘Cause I did.

Hmm…

Further to this from Dizzy and DK’s sort-of-rebuttal, I wanted to write about the electoral college and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, but it’s late and something tells me there’s no point. Federalism is dead.

Well, mostly dead, anyway. Maybe I’ll write it tomorrow.

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