May 062010
 

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.

May 012010
 

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.

Apr 222010
 

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.

Apr 102010
 

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.

Feb 282010
 

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…

Feb 282010
 

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.

Feb 202010
 

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.

Feb 072010
 

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.

Feb 022010
 

… 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.

Jan 202010
 

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.