Dec 022009
 

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!

More on framing the debate

 indolence  Comments Off on More on framing the debate
Nov 142009
 

Perry de Havilland has written a post at Samizdata that reinforces what I touched on yesterday about allowing one’s political opponents to dictate the terms of debate, which he calls the meta-context:

What is audacious about conceding the choice of battleground entirely to the nominal enemy? I say ‘nominal’ because in truth the philosophical/ideological differences between New Labour and the Tory Party (BlueLabour) are not that significant.

And so Cameron’s audacious stuff is to try and do what Labour tried, just ‘do it better’. Far from being audacious, this is just more of the same heard-it-all-before by-the-numbers political droning, tailored slightly to appeal to whoever he is talking to at the moment and which way the weathervane is pointing today. Audacious would require an actual meta-contextual shift and Cameron has made it clear he represents continuity, not radical change.

The only think we need more of from government is inaction… we need less across the board, not more… Richard Reeves cannot see that because he is a regulatory statist who sees government in terms of the parties being competing ‘management teams’ rather like Soviet design bureaus… offering creative options within essentially the same ideological system and meta-contextual framework. But in truth we do not need ‘better’ government action, we need ‘less’ government action… dramatically less. We also need actual intellectual opposition, not a difference of management theories. In short we need a far less powerful and intrusive state vis a vis civil society.

This is exactly the sort of thing I mean when I say we are tacitly permitting the enemy to frame the debate. And this failure to step outside the meta-context is why libertarians tend to view the present-day Tory party as more or less indistinguishable from Labour.

Which is interesting, because of course Labour supporters still see the Tories as both diametrically opposed to their own views, and indistinguishable from their Thatcher days.

Witness the words of Ed Miliband at Comment is free:

Cameron’s argument was that the state is the cause of poverty. “The size, scope and role of government in Britain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing, the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality …” And indeed, ever since the late 1960s, the state has been “ineffective”. There is no evidence, historical or otherwise, for this claim, only pernicious political motive.

The difference between Thatcherism and Cameronism may be that rhetorically, one says poverty doesn’t matter, and the other says it does. But let’s not be taken in: there is no difference when it comes to prescriptions.

Ed Miliband actually thinks Cameron wants to reduce the size of the state. (This is as laughable as those disaffected Republicans who believed Obama wanted to restore civil liberties.) What he doesn’t seem to realise, which libertarians do, is that Cameron is still speaking within the framework that social democrats like Miliband himself have created: Cameron still wants to reduce poverty and inequality. His only disagreement with Labour is over the method by which that is done. He is not questioning the the desirability of those particular goals.

This is why libertarians see so little difference between the two main parties: they have both adopted as desirable ends the same ‘progressive’ ideals. What distinguishes the Tories from Labour is the means. Truly to step outside the meta-context, the Tories would need to ask whether those ends are, in fact, advisable. Is reducing relative poverty and inequality of outcome really a goal worth pursuing?

Very few people in mainstream politics appear to be asking that sort of question.

Quote of the week

 hilarity  Comments Off on Quote of the week
Nov 062009
 

From commenter D. Bum at the Devil’s Kitchen:

But when it comes to broken promises, explicit promises, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are two cheeks of the same Vichy arse and I would gladly cut off his cock and winch Gordon Brown’s intestines from his treacherous stomach and cook them for him in front of his remaining eye before cutting him in four and beating the rest of the cabinet to death with bits of him, the cunt.

D. Bum, I commend you.

Nov 042009
 

In the words of David Osler:

This place is poor; in your face, 40% below the poverty line, smack addicts congregating in the shopping centre, poor.

Things have pretty much always been that way, of course. One hundred years ago, Springburn was the site of the largest workhouse in Scotland. A century of progress later, and levels of deprivation remain among the highest not just in Britain, but come near the top of the table for western Europe as a whole. It never got noticeably better at any point in between, either.

The constituency goes to the polls in a by-election in two weeks’ time, and normally the result would not be in any doubt. The seat and its predecessor have effectively been Labour non-stop since 1935, and may well stay that way…

A century ago, Glasgow NE was gut-wrenchingly poor. After 75 years of ‘non-stop’ Labour representation, the area is…still gut-wrenchingly poor. In fact, it’s never become ‘noticeably better.’

Oops.

Oct 222009
 

I know Mr E said he was sick of hearing about it (sorry, dude), but since Nick Griffin’s forthcoming appearance is all over the internet, and my feed reader, and the newspapers, I feel compelled to write about it again, mainly because I suspect I don’t really understand the furore.

If you read this blog often, you’ll be aware that I’m one of them durty furriners, who despite years of ridicule and reminders, is still not fully emBritified.

And what I don’t understand, perhaps, is the significance of Question Time.

The BNP have been on the news, and on news commentary programs, even on the BBC, loads of times. Nick Griffin, as party leader and then as a candidate and now as an MEP, presumably goes to public meetings where regular people get to ask him about his views. He certainly gets plenty of interaction with the public in the form of protesters hurling abuse (and eggs) at his creepy face. His views, and those of his party, have been outlined and discussed and debated in newspapers. The BNP have a website detailing their policies. This man and his party have never not been given ‘a platform.’

So what’s the big deal about Question Time? It’s just another news program, right?

I mean, having Nick Griffin on the program is not exactly like pissing on a shrine, or taking shoes into a Mosque, or slipping bacon fat into the matzo-ball soup.

I get that Question Time is something of a big deal, what with it being a respected, once-a-week, publicly attended forum. But good grief, Griffin was interviewed on Newsnight. Surely that’s a respected (if more regular and less public) forum on the BBC, too. From my perspective, Question Time isn’t any more of a ‘platform’ than anything else the BNP have been featured on.

Is there outcry because QT is the country’s current-affairs Holy of Holies?

Or is there outcry because, as I suspect, it’s nothing to do with the program or the ‘platform’ – but because other ‘respected’ politicians don’t want to have to share oxygen, and thereby association, with a man who’s stealing their votes an unapologetic racist?

Only 5 hours to go, by the way. I’m getting really excited. Somebody had better end up looking like a jackass on QT tonight, otherwise I shall feel cheated.

UPDATE: Hurrah! Everybody looked like a jackass. They’re all shits. Yes, Nick Griffin got his ass handed to him on a platter, and that was great. I loved it. His hands were shaking by the end.

But the general hostility of the British people, as represented by many in that audience, was breathtaking. On the one hand, they hated Nick Griffin: they applauded when he was shown up, and booed when he said offensive things, and made it clear they had no love for his racism or his party’s policy of repatriation. On the other hand, they wanted to know what the government was going to do to stem the incoming tide of durty furriners.

‘Oh no, we’re not racists! We just think the population’s grown too huge and put too much of a strain on the public services!’

To be fair to him, Jack Straw was totally accurate when he said that recently the Labour government has made it much harder for immigrants to get work permits. When Baroness Warsi disputed that, I actually shouted ‘Fuck your mother’ at the television set. ‘Cause yeah – they have made it much harder. I’m the fucking proof. And every time I read or hear some sanctimonious twat going on about how there’s too much immigration, I want to punch him in the fucking face.

Right; that’s enough bitching for now. For the moment, the British people are dead to me. Here’s hoping I feel better about them in the morning.

Oct 212009
 

It seems I’m not the only one who understands Peter Hain’s reluctance to appear on Question Time with Nick Griffin. As I said moons ago, the only thing that differentiates the BNP from the ‘social justice’ platforms of the three main parties is its racism.

Richard Littlejohn agrees:

Interviewing the shifty and unsavoury Griffin was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. We went through his ‘manifesto’ point by point.

There was little in it which couldn’t have been espoused by any of the main parties.

His law and order policies, for instance, were straight out of the David Blunkett song book.

He was against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, just like the Liberals. The Tories and UKIP were both promising to repatriate powers from Brussels.

I put it to Griffin that what set the BNP apart was the large elephant not in the manifesto, namely that it is the ‘Wogs Out’ party.

Even when I confronted him with the incontrovertible evidence in chapter and verse, he shrugged and shuffled, mouthed a few platitudes and that was about it. I may have pressed him again on the overtly racist appeal of the BNP, but it didn’t achieve anything.

Needless to say, I shall be watching Question Time tomorrow night with great amusement. I’ve even stuck a reminder to myself on the television set so that I don’t forget.

H/T Obo the Clown.

Oct 092009
 

Working class kids are dumb.

This seems to be the view of John David Blake, who lays into the Tories’ recent statements on education with particular zeal, in ‘The Terrifying Face of Tory Education’. (‘Terrifying’! Really!) He is, as he says, a history teacher, so he knows all kinds of shit about shit.

As it happens, I too was once a history teacher, so I too know all kinds of shit about shit.

Let’s see how his shit and my shit compare, shall we?

A quick low-down on personal backgrounds first, though, since that matters a great deal to Mr Blake. He used to teach at a grammar school! *gasp*

Now, first off, a confession – probably best to get this out of the way: I spent two years working in a grammar school. Gnash your teeth if you wish…

But don’t give him too hard a time, y’all. At least grammar schools are still funded by the state, so he was earning an honest living off the toil of the taxpayer, just as every honest man should. I, on the other hand, have always worked in private, fee-paying schools, taking no penny of my salary from the taxpayer, unless perhaps indirectly by teaching the children of government employees.

You might say, actually, that Mr Blake has combined the worst of both worlds: living off the sweat of others whilst teaching only the privileged, well-behaved and brightest of the country’s children. In his eyes, one of those is a sin. Three guesses which.

But backgrounds are important to Mr Blake; a sticking point for him is that Tory education policy was dreamed up and announced by some guys who were educated in selective, sometimes expensive schools and then went on to university at Oxford – thus disqualifying them from any credibility:

Baker, Gove and Willetts seemed inordinately fixated, for a group all of whom were educated at Oxford after (respectively) public, private and grammar school educations, on the notion of “real skills”. Since “real skills” clearly aren’t currently being taught in schools (otherwise why the need for the new technical colleges?) I can’t help but wonder what the phrase actually means. Did Baker pick up no “real skills” at St Paul’s? Did Gove’s have no “real skills” as President of the Oxford Union? (part 2)

Yeah, those guys have no idea what they’re talking about. ‘Cause nobody who has ever been involved in Labour’s education policy went to selective schools (*cough*VernonCoaker*cough*) or Oxford (*cough*EdBalls*cough*KevinBrennan*cough*) or was president of the Oxford Union (*cough*MichaelFoot*cough*) or all three (*triplecough*TonyBenn*cough*).

But the ad hominem strategy was never going to be a good way to prosecute an argument, so let’s move on to Mr Blake’s problems with the policies.

First, creating new grammar schools. Mr Blake deploys the common complaint that they take away bright kids from other schools, thus depriving the dim kids of the company of their intellectual (or perhaps just hoop-jumping) superiors:

Obviously, where grammars continue to exist they cause problems (especially, say, Kent, which has an appalling record of educational achievement and has been run by the Tories since the dawn of time) – they can drain the brightest kids away from other schools, they often gobble up resources unfairly… (part 1)

I could almost buy this, except for the fact that bright kids do not exist to help dim ones, nor should we be treating them as if they ought to. ‘Brightness’ is not catching; the only benefit bright kids have for dim ones is that their general attitude toward learning and work ethic might inspire. The hope that this might happen is not a particularly good reason to keep bright kids in classes with slower learners, or more disruptive pupils, than themselves, mostly because the influence tends to flow in the other direction: weak or difficult pupils inhibit the learning experience for the bright ones far more than the bright ones enable it for the weak and disruptive. I mean, should doctors force healthy people to hang around the wards in the hope that their positive attitudes might improve the attitudes of the sick? After all, healthiness is no more catching than brightness.

As I say, I could almost buy that, except Mr Blake then carries on to say this:

…[grammar schools] generally result in a divide between middle and working class children in education (which often mirrors a racial divide).

Now, anyone may correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of grammar schools was that they took in the bright kids irrespective of background. This was sort of the point of them: any kid bright enough, working class or no, could attend. Grammar schools divide the bright from the dim; apparently they also divide the middle class from the working class. By analogy, then, Mr Blake thinks the working class are dim. If they can’t get into grammar schools, and all you need to do to get into grammar schools is be bright, then working class kids must not be bright. Or ‘ethnic’ kids, for that matter, since grammar schools cause (?) highlight (?) a racial divide.

This attitude of Mr Blake’s is frankly insulting.

I do not think it remotely true that the working class, or the non-white, cannot benefit from grammar schools. All you have to do is be clever, and cleverness knows no class-based or racial boundaries. The problem at the moment, of course, is that there aren’t enough grammar schools to service all the bright kids. The other problem, one which is nothing to do with the education system per se, is that children from deprived backgrounds, of whatever race, tend not to be brought up in environments in which learning is prized. Either nobody bothers to tell them that education can improve their minds and lives, or they are actively discouraged by immediate peers and role models from pursuing it in the first place. Send grammar school representatives into these areas to recruit, and the class/racial divide such schools cause (?) highlight (?) will disappear. The ‘problem’ of separating the bright from the weak will persist, of course.

The only way grammar schools would become a massive issue in education again is if someone proposed building dozens of them in every local authority in England and Wales.

Which is effectively exactly what Kenneth Baker is proposing.

Hurrah for Kenneth Baker. One issue solved: there will be enough grammar schools to service the bright kids. Now just send them out to recruit.

And, incidentally, don’t include behavioural history as part of the selection process. My own experience as a teacher – and this is anecdotal of course – is that most of the behaviour problems in schools are caused by bright kids who are bored out of their fucking minds. Personalise their education, allow them to pursue their scholastic interests, and put them in small classes where they can get lots of attention from the teacher, and bingo. No more bad behaviour.

Then there are the proposed vocational diplomas:

Diplomas force children at 14 to choose between academic and vocational education – the decision to study GCSEs or Diplomas is the defining issue around which everything else is then shaped in their lives, because it determines how many other GCSEs they can do, which in turn affects what they can study at Sixth Form (can they do A-levels if they decide the diploma isn’t for them? Well, possibly, but not the “hard subjects”), which shapes what, if anything, they are able to do at university level.

This is just silly. Why the hell do we have FE colleges, if not to enable people to go back and do GCSEs and A-levels after they have done something else for a while? Education does not have to stop at age 16 or 18 if a person doesn’t want it to. What’s to stop somebody from doing a vocational diploma as a teenager, working for a while with it, then going back on their own time to do some GCSEs and ‘hard’ A-levels? Nothing.

But of course, this is not really about learning. This is about evil Tory LEAs stuffing all the ‘difficult’ kids into vocational schools where they don’t bring down the league table ranking:

[Baker] wants each local authority in the country (about 100 of them) to set up separate schools which will take children with an interest in vocational work – so popular will these schools be, said Baker, that soon local authorities will want more of them. And indeed, which local authority run (as most of them are today) by Tories wouldn’t want a school into which you can legitimately dump at 14 every difficult child in every other school in your area?

This strategy would apparently isolate kids from everybody who knows them and make sure they know their place forever:

Take them out of that environment and put them into a new school where no one knows them and everyone has an incentive to keep them just where they are for as long as possible and these children will be cut off from the higher levels of academic achievement throughout the rest of their school career at the age of 14 (and, let’s be honest, if that happens, very few of them are going to go back in their own time later in life). Worse, they will be earning qualifications which, the history of educational qualifications in Britain would suggest to us, are less likely to be highly regarded by universities or employers (the reason we have a GCSE today was because employers were only interested in the “academic” O-level not the “second-class” GCE). Students will be divided by outcome; and not the outcome of the same set or a similar of examinations, but at different qualifications entirely, within a system which is already set up to favour those who follow the traditional route.

Oh, I see: they won’t go back to school later in life, after being sequestered in the vocational schools to keep them out of the classrooms of the privileged middle class kids. They’ll, like, not go to university! Or get jobs!

Again: silly. They’ll get jobs. Maybe not hugely remunerative ones, but they’ll get them. They won’t go to university, but hey, lots of people don’t. It’s not for everybody. It helps if you want office jobs, or academic jobs, but not everybody wants those.

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, if employers insist on job candidates having GCSEs these days, it’s probably because that’s one of the few ways to confirm that an applicant is functionally literate and numerate (and even then you can’t be sure). If we had fewer problems at the pre-secondary level – if kids could definitely all read, write, and ‘rithmetic by the age of 11 – employers would likely have less of a box-ticking mentality about the GCSE.

The US model is a good one to look to: although vocational schools are few and far between, they offer the core curriculum alongside the vocational skills. Half the day is spent doing English, maths, history, and science, and the other half in the workshop. If that was done here, kids in vocational schools could get GCSEs easily. It might take them an extra year or two, but they’d have them by the age of 17 or 18.

This has nothing to do with improving education for the least well-off in society; this is about saving Home County parents from having to send their children to school where working class kids also go. That’s Kenneth Baker’s offer: build a new sink school, local authorities, and the rest of your schools will drained of the poor, the problematic and the needy. Wave goodbye to the black and the backwards, it is Grammar schools for everyone (who already votes Tory).

And your argument, Mr Blake, has nothing to do with children’s needs, despite your protestations about pastoral care and attention. It has everything to do with class warfare, in which the person who appears to hold the lowest opinion of the working class is not Kenneth Baker, but you.

Moving on, we get into the arena of ‘real skills’, which we’ve already seen Mr Blake doesn’t think well-educated Tories are fit to judge.

Leaving aside their rather optimistic faith that the only thing required to turn around our most disaffected youngsters is some time with power tools, or the fact that they were just making jobs up out of thin air (not everyone who leaves the new technical schools will be guaranteed a job unless the government starts interfering with the economy in a fashion that “David” and “George” are not going to be happy with), what we seem to be talking about here is a vision of education which relates solely to the things you can do practically at the end of it. I have real problems with this, largely because as a History teacher, I find that when people say “skills” they mean “things that will obviously make you money” rather than “things that will allow you to assess, understand and work to alter yours and other people’s place in the world”. (part 2)

So: the Tories want to fix education so that people can better themselves; Mr Blake thinks the purpose of educating a child is so that he can better other people. Who’s right?

A good education is not something that can be shared, in the sense that, once you’ve got one, you can’t siphon off a little bit to someone who hasn’t. In that respect, education is very much a selfish endeavour: you want the best possible one you can get, which will accrue to you the greatest possible benefit. But ‘benefit’ is a fairly subject value; some people feel benefited by ‘making money’, others by ‘assessing, understanding, and working to alter their and other people’s place in the world.’ But ultimately, it’s up to the individual to judge that. In fact you might say the purpose of education is to provide the individual with the critical skills necessary to make that judgment.

But the Tories just want to educate you so that you can ‘ make you money’, those evil bastards. This from the guy who was just whinging about people being ‘guaranteed a job’! Make up your mind, Mr Blake! Should they be guaranteed a job (and thus make money, how horrid), or should they assess, understand, etc? Or, perhaps, they should somehow be getting non-paying, world-altering jobs. I dunno. I’m confused. You complain that these kids won’t get jobs, but then you say education shouldn’t be focused on enabling them to make money. So somehow education should be focused on enabling them to get jobs that don’t make money. I don’t get it.

But this allows us to move into another of Mr Blake’s critiques, which is that the Tories aren’t promising jobs. Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity that anyone should be guaranteed a job (is this a new human right?), he says:

Unless someone gives building firms, engineering firms and others a great deal of money, there aren’t going to be any jobs for these young people to go to. The banks haven’t got any money, and David Cameron is ideologically opposed to government giving any money…

Excuse me, but the people who should be giving these firms ‘a great deal of money’ are their customers.

Finally, Mr Blake carries on to rail against fee discounts for university students who repay their student loans early:

…when our bright, articulate working class youngster gets to the dreaming spires, or the solid red brick, or the upcoming 1992 university, she will discover rich people will be getting their university places for cheaper than she is.

Willetts, a beaming smile on his face, guaranteed that 10,000 new university places would be provided by giving students who paid back their debts early a discount on their fees. (part 3)

I must admit, I don’t really know how this policy operates, given that the fees are paid at the set rate before the student begins to pay back his debts. Perhaps he will be given a discount on the repayment interest rate. But it was my understanding that all (English) students at all British universities pay exactly the same amount of money in tuition and fees. Getting a cheaper interest rate on your student loans hardly translates into ‘getting [your] university places for cheaper’.

Government-funded student loans represent a market failure anyway. The reason we have them is because banks don’t like to give out loans to people with no collateral who are likely to default. The government absorbs that risk via the taxpayer – but still attempts to obviate the risk by garnishing a person’s salary for repayments as soon as he ceases to be a student and gets a job.

Now, one could argue that since we want to encourage people to go to university, whether they are rich or poor, these are reasonable government policies. But surely it would be better for students to borrow from a private lender, with the state acting as guarantor, than for the state to lend the money and then garnish wages.

It was also my impression that student loans were means-tested, so this complaint is a little odd to me:

There are student now who manipulate the student loans system by taking out loans they are entitled to, sticking the money in a high interest savings account, and then getting through their university with handouts from mummy and daddy. Now, fantastically, they’ll actually get to keep not just the interest from that cash, but some of the money too. It’s like a lottery only rich people can win.

If there are ‘rich people’ getting student loans, maybe it’s time to change the way those means are tested. They do it in the US – it’s called the FAFSA. It’s pretty harsh. Even some people who are low on means indeed have trouble getting government aid. Of course, they take a different view of paying for university in the US; grants are swell, loans are tolerable, but if you expect to go to uni for fucking free you’d better get a scholarship. Most American university students I knew worked at least part-time throughout their course (including me). British university students appear to take their government money, pay their rent, and spend the rest on beer. There is no shame in tending bar or waiting tables whilst studying – and I’m sure many British uni students do – but give me a break. If the government is stupid enough to give you a loan you don’t need, and you stick it in the bank to collect interest, good for you. The fact that not everybody can do that is no reason to start bitching.

Meanwhile, those students who do have to pay something but really need the loans face the prospect of not claiming their discount. But, you cry, presumably they can go into high paid jobs? Then they can pay it back faster. Well, possibly … although one would think the Milk Round is going to be a little curdled for a while, and besides, why should the decision to enter teaching, or medicine, or nursing, not be a reason for a discount on your fees, whilst a decision to enter banking or corporate law saves you money? It is an absolutely naked piece of government welfare to the class from which all three of these men, and their leader and their shadow chancellor, are drawn.

The government has every reason to incentivise people to go into high-paying jobs. That lovely welfare Mr Blake and Don Paskini like so much doesn’t come cheap – it requires money. To put it bluntly, for every graduate who pays off his loans early by getting a high-paying job, the government expects to soak him for the maximum possible tax and National Insurance contributions. These people are the wealth creators (well, not from lawyers, obvi), and government can hardly hand out generous welfare without access to some, y’know, wealth. Doctors, nurses, and teachers are not wealth creators; they are at best wealth enablers, ensuring that people are healthy and knowledgeable enough to go out and create some; they are at worst wealth drainers, as some teachers especially are so bad at it that they simply suck up taxpayers’ money without even giving their kids some decent book-learnin’.

But as it happens, this is kind of something I agree with Mr Blake about. If the government is going to mandate the same tuition fees at East Buddhafuck Polytechnic as at Oxford (’cause to do otherwise would just be another example of the Tories fucking over the poor kids by making only crappy universities affordable to them), then the amount the students are made to pay back should be the same across the board, too.

On the other hand, the policy doesn’t really sound to me like aid for the Tory class. Mr Blake spends a bit of time pointing out that they don’t have any ‘real skills’ because they’ve worked in politics and its subsidiaries all their adult lives. From what I’ve heard, that career path doesn’t pay very well until you claw your way up the ladder. Conversely, lots of normal (read: non-toffs) people leave university to get productive jobs, found companies, etc. ‘Discounts’ for those who go into the paid professions, rather than the work-for-peanuts ass-kissing professions, seems to me like it might help working-class graduates rather than hurt them.

But as Mr Blake reminds us, this isn’t about class warfare, despite the fact that he thinks working-class kids are stupid, badly-behaved, and likely to go into low-wage jobs if they manage to get as far as university:

And what [Cameron’s] men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate for power, uncaring of how they get it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people kept them out of power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people Labour never gave you.

Hmm. Change a couple of words, and that paragraph would read:

And what Brown’s men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate to cling onto power, uncaring of how they do it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people has been demonstrated whilst they’ve been in power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people the Conservatives would never give you.

This is obviously not about the substance of the Tories’ proposed educational reforms; it’s about the Tories themselves. And why should the voter give a good goddamn where the Tory leadership went to school thirty years ago? All a voter should care about is whether the policies will work. I don’t think they will; they’re so milquetoast that I doubt they’ll have any effect if enacted. Cameron’s men aren’t being radical enough.

This is about hatred for the Tories, in their incarnation of The Privileged, and finding every way possible to insinuate that they’ve got it in for people who aren’t like them. To what end, I ask you, would they do this? Is it really in the Tories’ interests to foster an ill-educated, poverty-stricken underclass who would (a) simply have to be supported on benefits anyway, and (b) never ever vote again for the party that robbed them of all chance at social mobility? Perhaps Mr Blake thinks this is just the beginning, and eventually the Tories will strip away the benefits too, so that everybody who’s ‘not like them’ will starve to death, thus ridding the country of an inconvenient burden?

I’m sure Mr Blake doesn’t actually think that. What he also doesn’t think is what has actually happened: that social mobility has worsened under Labour, educational achievement has worsened under Labour, and enough people realise this that they’re likely to vote for the very party that supposedly fucked everybody over back in the eighties.

Finally, Mr Blake is invoking the kind of political cant that was the standard 25 years ago. Is he appealing to new voters, young voters, the very people who would be most affected by some of these policies? No – a voter turning eighteen next spring will have been born in 1992. Too young to remember how evil the Tories were. Too young to know anything but thirteen years of Labour government. The only people these days for whom ‘toffs! class warfare!’ is going to work as an electoral rallying cry are the ones who were bitching and moaning around the place in 1984 and who think all Tories are exactly like Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact she’s been out of power for twenty years.

If you want people to take your criticisms seriously, Mr Blake, then make some serious criticisms. Don’t stand or fall on the ancient reputation of the Conservative party and a bunch condescending remarks about how haaaaard everything is for the, by your implication, stupid and unemployable working class.

Sep 272009
 

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.

Sep 082009
 

The Appalling Strangeness highlights Peter Hain’s refusal to appear on Question Time with the BNP and comments:

No doubt Hain sees his boycott as a chance for him to champion himself as a progressive politician refusing to give the cowardly and ignorant BNP a real platform in this country. Unfortunately, he comes across as the coward. He comes across as a man who won’t debate the BNP because he is afraid of making his case. Regardless of his intentions, ducking a debate with the BNP isn’t the noble thing to do. The BNP are a political reality in this country. Failing to engage them on their idiotic policies will only work to help them. The more they are unchallenged, the more influential they will become.

This is no doubt partly true. But given what the ASI lists as some of the BNP’s policies, I suspect Hain doesn’t think them idiotic at all:

  • The protection of British companies from unfair foreign imports
  • The renationalisation of monopoly utilities and services
  • Bring hospital cleaning back in-house and make high cleanliness a top priority
  • More emphasis must be placed on healthy living with greater understanding of sickness prevention through physical exercise, a healthier environment and improved diets
  • Develop renewable energy sources such as off-shore wind farms, wave, tidal and solar energy ; and with sundollarenergy raleigh north carolina you can find a lot more information about how to start, the services and equipment needed.
  • The introduction of a system of workfare for those in unemployment benefit for more than six months with compulsory work and training in return for decent payment
  • Take all privatised social housing stock back under local democratically controlled council ownership

Perhaps Hain sees, as do the rest of us who are not blinded by polemic, that the only thing that separates the BNP from its more traditional rivals is its racism. And if the BNP refuse to be engaged on their racism, and want to talk about their platform of social justice instead, Hain and everybody else are going to find themselves in the unenviable position of agreeing with the BNP but not wishing to admit it. And so the BNP will come across as being quite firm in their ideas, whilst the three main parties flail about trying to show that their sort of social justice is somehow demonstrably different from the BNP’s.

It isn’t.

Aug 052009
 

…what all my immigration struggle is for; because having picked up yesterday’s Guardian rather lazily this evening, I appear to have forgotten in the midst of my spluttering, outraged indignation.

The story, on page 4, is headlined ‘Canvass for a political party to win points for a British passport, says immigration minister‘ (the headline on the website is sneakily different) and begins:

New migrants willing to canvass for Labour or another political party could get a British passport within a year under citizenship proposals announced today by the immigration minister, Phil Woolas.

They also face being sent on compulsory “orientation days” where they will be taught British values, social norms and customs – and be charged for the privilege.

What? What? What the fuck is this? Canvass for Labour! Pay under compulsion to learn to be British! This is the country that gave the world Locke, Mill, and its most cogent expressions of liberty. Are these ministers not listening to themselves?

A Home Office consultation paper, Earning the Right to Stay in Britain, proposes a new “points test for citizenship” and confirms that ministers are looking at ways of penalising those who demonstrate “an active disregard for UK values” when they apply for a British passport.

The Home Office refused to specify what might be covered by the phrase “active disregard”. Woolas said migrants would be expected to show their commitment to Britain. He declined to discuss refusing passports to those who protest at army homecoming parades, a policy idea attributed to Home Office sources over the weekend.

Ooh, and migrants can enjoy the pleasure of being penalised for showing ‘active disregard’ for UK values, without ever being told quite what that entails. Except that the juxtaposition of information in this article suggests that ‘active disregard’ for British values might include, oh I dunno, not canvassing for Labour.

Probationary citizens are to be given temporary residence for five years. They can accelerate or delay the process of becoming full citizens depending upon the pace of their integration into British life. The Home Office paper says a central pillar of this approach will be active citizenship. Those who take part in voluntary work such as becoming a school governor, or “contributing to the democratic life of the nation” through trade union activities, or by actively campaigning and canvassing for a political party, could get their citizenship within 12 months rather than the expected average of three years.

Voluntary organisations have protested that such voluntary work could be seen as compulsory in these circumstances. Concerns have also been voiced about the possible abuse of offering a passport in return for political canvassing.

Fucking right, there could be possible abuse. Wait – possible abuse? Surely not – the very purpose of this proposal is its abuse. Nor will it be called ‘abuse’ – because enshrining it in immigration law makes it legal.

Local authorities are to have a greater role in integrating migrants, including verifying the points accumulated by each applicant. They will also offer orientation days on British values and customs on top of the existing citizenship ceremonies.

The Home Office suggests these could be voluntary or compulsory, and that completing a course could contribute to the points total, but the cost will have to be paid by the migrant. A citizenship application this year costs £720, including £80 for a ceremony. The money is non-refundable in the event of refusal. More than 9,000 refusals were made last year, nearly a third owing to failing the “good character test” – mostly because of a criminal record. Only 610 were turned down because of lack of knowledge of English or of life in the UK.

Voluntary or compulsory, hmm? Cost to be paid by the migrant? No shit. I am astonished by my total lack of astonishment. Applications that cost buttloads, but the fee is non-refundable even if the application is refused? I am bowled over, truly I am. Let’s do the math: £720 per application, with at least 9,000 applications refused, equals £6,480,000 free and clear, for the acquisition of which the government did no work, but simply allowed desperate foreigners to donate to the revenue and operation of a country the citizenship of which they were subsequently denied.

Make that £6,480,820, actually, to include the fee from my own refused application.

Woolas said earned citizenship would give the government more control over the numbers of people permitted to settle in Britain permanently, with the bar raised or lowered according to need.

According to need? Is that some silly joke? You have to have wheelbarrows of cash sitting around just to apply for visas or citizenship in Britain, plus an earnings history the requisite size of which defies all sense, plus enough cash stored away to meet the maintenance requirement, plus fuckloads of spare time to devote to citizen orientation courses, compulsory volunteer work, and political canvassing – and they’re going to raise or lower the bar according to need? What need?

Oh, right: the need for more Labour voters.

Kill me now; I’m no longer sure I can stand the idea of living in a world like this.

UPDATE: Wow, nobody else seems to like this development either. Surprise!

Here’s Shazia Mira, commenting in the very same issue of the Guardian:

Scratch the surface even slightly, and what you find is the truth about how this government would like all its citizens – new applicant or not – to behave. Do not complain. Do not question authority. Do not protest. This government is behaving worryingly like an online predator who grooms children. It is grooming a population for unquestioning compliance. Not just migrants – everyone is being groomed.

And a Guardian editorial, again in yesterday’s issue:

“Once you’ve got a British passport you can demonstrate as much as you like. Until then, don’t.” If ever a caricature of a policy sounded designed to provoke a slap-down, then you might have thought this was it. But when a BBC interviewer yesterday described plans to overhaul the citizenship rules with these words, the immigration minister Phil Woolas signalled she had put it in a nutshell. The topsy-turvy idea of immigrants being made to respect supposedly British values, such as free speech, while being excluded from these themselves did not seem to faze Mr Woolas at all.

Of course it didn’t faze him. Guess what I’m going to say next.*

Finally, Chris Huhne, a man I never thought I’d gaze upon with anything approaching approbation, slaps down these proposals. It’s kind of a girly slap, without much power behind it, but it’s a slap nonetheless:

In this case, the good ideas are obscured by the statement from Alan Johnson in the News of the World that points could be docked for bad behaviour. This is understandable if the government is referring to people committing criminal offences, but the notion seems to go further. The home secretary seems to want to be the chief constable of the thought police. In insisting that people demonstrate a commitment to Britain, they are suggesting that people could be barred from citizenship for engaging in “unpatriotic behaviour”. This strikes me as being distinctly un-British.

Britain has a proud history of freedom of expression and of citizen protest. Despite recent government attempts to curtail such freedoms, it is precisely this tradition that attracts many people to this country in the first place. It is paradoxical to suggest that migrants could be prevented from acquiring citizenship for engaging in behaviour that British citizens take for granted. People should not be barred from becoming British citizens merely because they have the temerity to criticise government policy. If that were the case, I would have failed any citizenship test many times over. Even some members of the Labour party would find it hard to pass.

Perhaps the government will set up a House un-British Activities Committee. I’d find that fitting.

The government will find itself facing difficult decisions and inevitably making mistakes in a system that will be both subjective and bureaucratic.

Mistakes? Subjective and bureaucratic? No, no, no, my naive Lib Dem. Guess what I’m going to say next.*

*That’s not a bug, IT’S A FEATURE.

It occurs to me that if the Border Agency discover this blog, I’m fucked…