Sunday, 16 May 2010

Looking at the Liberal Conservatives from an Anarchist Point of View…

Some people might see a dissonance on this blog between my professing to be an anarchist on the one hand, and my engaging uncritically in the mainstream discourse of statist politics on the other.  I don’t see that as a problem at all – the kind of anarchism that I believe in (authentic democracy) is one which will take generations to make viable.  It will never exist in my lifetime and will require an entire paradigm shift in public thinking and political education over a number of years to make possible.  It is an aspiration – a goal; a political system which I feel is most in line with our true nature and species-needs and interests – but it is not the world we live in right now.  I therefore think it would be stupid not to engage meaningfully in the world as it is at the same time as I long for a different one.  That said, I was recently asked for an “anarchist reading” of what was happening here in the UK with the Liberal-Conservative Coalition.  The following is my take on the situation from an anarchist point-of-view:

The anarchist reading of what’s happening in Britain with Cleggameron is this: we had an election where the central narrative given by the politicians and the media was that the British public were fed up with Labour after 13 years in power.  That sense of fed-upness was not particularly clarified other than to make vague allusions to the war in Iraq and the economic meltdown – the fact that Labour had ideologically betrayed its supporters by following essentially Tory economic and foreign policies for 13 years was not mentioned and, in fact, the Tory Party themselves were now painted as the only people who could save us from disaster.

The seeming fly in the ointment came when, during the first ever UK televised debate between the three competing party leaders, Liberal Democrat, Nick Clegg, was allowed to speak for the first time and the British public actually heard him.  Offering a slight alternative to the dominant two-party parameters that had been the norm of discourse for so long, his words were heralded as radical, even though nothing that he said hadn’t already been published in the Liberal Democrat manifesto earlier that week.  The media and public fawned over him and he was able to get a lot of traction out of several key ideas: not renewing the UK’s “independent nuclear deterrent”, Trident; introducing Proportional Representation into our voting system instead of the unfair “first-past-the-post” system; giving an amnesty to illegal immigrants already in the country, etc…all of which were genuine alternatives to what the Conservatives and Labour were offering, making Liberal Democrat’s polling numbers suddenly go through the roof.

Of course, this was all done in the context of safely knowing that the first-past-the-post system we have in place meant it was absolutely impossible for the Liberal Democrats to actually win an election outright, so there was no danger of any of these radical promises actually being fulfilled.  And alongside the pages and pages of publicity for Nick Clegg there then came the very serious discussion of the likelihood of a “hung parliament”: no one party winning a commanding majority of seats in the House of Commons.  This was put over to the public as being either a) a good thing or b) the end of Britain as we know it, but in all cases it was always put over, for good or for bad, as being a fundamental change in politics.  Importantly, it planted an important seed in the public’s mind at a time when faith in our political system was absolutely battered in the wake of the MP expenses scandal, economic catastrophe and two illegal and unjustified wars: there is still a left-wing alternative to Labour, so you don’t need to go off and form any new and radical parties that actually represent something new, and at the very worst, if there is a hung parliament, it will be a chance for “radical” reform of our system which will wipe away all those bad memories of what happened under Labour and let us start again.

Chomsky calls this kind of thing “change of course”.  We last saw it in the UK in 1997: after eighteen years of the Tories, New Labour were voted in on a promise of change and renewal only to continue doing exactly the same things that the Conservative government had done, but in a slightly different way, while throwing enough bones to the working classes to keep them happy.

Unsurprisingly then, after the huge propaganda campaign for it across the media, come election day we had a hung parliament.  Logically, the Liberal Democrats then had two options as to whom they could form a coalition government with: an ideologically linked coalition with Labour (the two parties had very similar platforms on certain key issues throughout the election and are both, allegedly, parties of the left), or a numerically strong one with the Tories, supposedly their sworn enemies on the right.  Now, there are many reasons why the Lib-Dems ultimately chose to do a deal with the Tories, but all that matters to us anarchists in terms of the state protecting itself and the interests of power taking precedent over the interests of people is that, now that they have done this deal with the Tories and the dust has settled, we have seen the real uniformity and similarity of vision between supposed political opponents and a brand new narrative has been established: this is a “new politics” and it is the “change” we all voted for.  All those bad things that happened in the past – they were the doing of people like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.  They were not systemic problems.  There is nothing wrong with our system.  They were problems caused by individuals and now those individuals have gone.  We can start again.  This is a new era.  Everything will be different now.  Sure – all those nice and radical proposals in the Liberal Democrat manifesto that so appealed to the electorate and gained them all that press coverage have been scrapped in the name of “compromise”, and the policy areas on which the Conservatives stood alone, such as making drastic and immediate cuts in the budget right away and allowing public money to be spent on essentially privatizing education, which the business world adored – the policy areas that 52% of the public specifically voted against – have somehow made it through…but that shouldn’t make one assume for one moment that the notion of a hung parliament and a coalition government has simply allowed our leaders to pull a bait and switch with their manifestos, turn democracy into a pantomime, and cherry-pick out only those polices which best serve the needs of the elite while discarding all the rest and calling it compromise.

There are lots of interesting things to say about what has happened if you want to jump on board the dominant mainstream narrative of the situation and discuss the three parties involved as if they really do represent three different and unique constituencies and ideologies and as if the new coalition government really is a major change in UK politics (which is exactly what I have hitherto done on this blog), but in terms of an anarchist reading I think it’s pretty straightforward: the political elites have saved themselves once again.  They have taken the public’s threatening disillusionment with a crumbling political and economic system and directed its rage and calls for change into something safe and manageable: not revolution, not radical reform, not addressing the systemic problems which are causing our continued despair…but by putting two new faces at the top and letting them perform the same old politics of yesterday in a way that makes it look different. 

"Change of course."  Like how Obama saved America and undid everything bad that Bush did :-)


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Coping With Cameron

So the Liberal Democrats have made their choice, betraying their progressive roots, their progressive membership and the progressive mandate given to them by 52% of the voting population, and have decided to get into bed with the Tories.  David Cameron is now our Prime Minister.

But this is not all as terrible as it seems.

First: the obvious.  Instead of May 12th, 2010, being Day One of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, we must never forget that, had the election gone differently, May 12th, 2010, could have been Day Six of a majority Cameron government. 

Let no-one tell you any different: the Conservatives did not get a mandate in the General Election and the country has not shifted rightwards in response to their disillusionment with Labour.  The country – 52% of them – voted for a distinctly un-Tory flavour of change, maintaining the progressive values that saved this country after the ravages of Thatcherism.  David Cameron as our new Prime Minister is a pretty scary thought – but it would have been even scarier had he done it on his own instead of with the help of the Quisling Liberal Democrats.

Which brings me to my next point…

While it is easy (and comforting) to call the Lib-Dems traitors for doing a deal with the Conservatives instead of Labour (and certainly, if you were foolish enough to vote for them, they have taken your anti-Tory vote and shat on it), there is actually nothing at all traitorous about it.  As long-time proponents of Proportional Representation, the Liberal Democrats are a political party inherently at ease with the concept of coalition governments with strange and uneasy bedfellows.  If PR were introduced to the country by the next General Election, parties like the Tories would not magically disappear, and if you are committed to the notion of proportionality in political representation then that means understanding that you must work with all parties in order to govern.  There will always be a right-wing in any country, and there will always be those with whom you are diametrically opposed ideologically; but the cooperative spirit of the kind of coalition governments usually yielded by PR means that their actual political power is kept in line with their true level of public support.  If 36% of the population want a Tory government, then there should be some proportional share of representation of those views in government.  Importantly though, PR and coalition government is about compromise and tempering the extremes.  It is about finding common ground and working through party differences for the good of the country instead of clinging to myopic tribalism, and it ensures a more rational and reasonable political dialogue than the black/white, yes/no, left/right dichotomy of our current first-past-the-post system.

On May 6th, we were offered a false choice: are we fed up with Labour?  If so, then we must vote for a party, the Conservatives, who are so fundamentally different ideologically that they see the world in a completely backwards way to our every political instinct.

What about those of us, like me, who were fed up with Labour not because they weren’t right-wing enough, but because they weren’t as left-wing as I would have liked?  Because their taxes on the rich were too low, because they were too in bed with the bankers and the businesses who robbed our country dry? 

That sort of nuance is incapable of being articulated in a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system.  My disappointment in Labour could not be expressed effectively by anything other than voting for Labour in opposition to the more extreme right-wing alternative.

The Liberal Democrats have long been aware of the inefficiencies and unfairness of our current voting system and have campaigned against it for years.  Part of that desire for a “new kind of politics”, however, does involve working with other parties, even parties who you are not naturally inclined to work with.  Proportional Representation means coalition governments, and coalition governments mean compromise and give-and-take.  The Lib-Dems siding with the Tories over Labour does not mean that the Liberal Democrats are now duty-bound to support every insane Conservative policy that comes along; it means engaging in conversation with their Conservative Cabinet colleagues and limiting their excesses whilst making small progressive inroads of their own.

That they ultimately opted for a Conservative coalition instead of a Labour one is disappointing, yes, and it will certainly stop me from ever voting Liberal Democrat in the future, but in the long-term it was the best thing that they could do if they are serious about bringing this “new kind of politics” to Britain.

First of all – by choosing to form a government with the most difficult and unlikely of the two courting parties, the Liberal Democrats will show, if the coalition works, that coalition and compromise is possible and desirable within the UK.  If political enemies like the Lib-Dems and the Tories can work effectively side by side and the country does not fall apart, then when the referendum for a new voting system occurs they already have a fantastic body of evidence to point to in its favour.

Related to this was the question of legitimacy.  Although intellectually and ethically it is quite clear to me that a Lib/Lab deal would have been absolutely legitimate on paper (a majority coalition representing the 52% of the country who voted against a shift to the right), legitimacy ultimately rests on public perception.  From the moment the idea was seriously broached, the media were all over it and denouncing it as a possible “coalition of the losers”.  Furthermore, with Gordon Brown resigning, there would be no possible way of carrying out the Lib/Lab coalition with an elected Prime Minister.  Again – although that is intellectually and ethically acceptable, and there is no constitutional or legal requirement for the direct election of a Prime Minister in our Parliamentary (not Presidential) democracy, public opinion – shaped and twisted by the media – was that one of the central failings of Labour over the past few years was the unelected nature of Gordon Brown’s ascent to power.  That opinion was, in my view, wrong, and even irrelevant, but it is what it is: the public were fed up with a man in Downing Street that they did not have a say in voting and to replace one unelected Prime Minister with another would have been both a Public Relations and a Proportional Representation disaster.  Public Relations because it would look like the Lib-Dems were propping up an unpopular and rejected Labour government (even if, in actual fact, that wasn’t what was happening at all; the slavish Conservative media would be sure to promote that narrative regardless) and Proportional Representation because when the inevitable referendum occurred the Conservative argument against it would be clear: unelected leaders, unpopular governments propped up by minority losers…this is what PR would mean for the country.

We must remember – a referendum on PR is not a vote for the House of Commons to make, and it doesn’t matter how much political support it can muster.  It is a public vote, and how the public perceives the issue will be crucial.  On this point, I believe that the Liberal Democrats have been quite savvy.  They will lead by example: show that they are capable of compromise and that PR and coalition does not mean that we can’t have strong and stable government.  By doing this, they will take away from their main political opponents on the issue – the Conservatives – the validity of much of their opposition; when the referendum comes their argument will look flimsy and out-dated. 

The final reason why the Liberal Democrats’ decision is not an absolute disaster is this: it gives the Labour Party time to regroup.  They can listen to their base, build on the support that they received on May 6th, woo former Liberal Democrat supporters disgusted with their party for the deal they have done with the Conservatives, elect a new and electable leader, clean off the stench of the last thirteen years, and generally sort themselves out to come out fighting by 2015 – or sooner if the coalition breaks down.

Certainly the lesson they must learn from this election is that progressive politics has not died out in this country, despite Tony Blair’s best attempts to assimilate the party into the right.  Labour made two major mistakes: illegal and unjustified wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and not regulating banks and businesses sufficiently to stop them from playing roulette with our money.  Their downfall came from their own flirtation with the policies of the right and their revival must come from recognising the appeal of the left, capitalizing on the exodus of Liberal Democrats angry at their party for selling them out, and then offering a genuine leftist alternative to the Conservatives and the soiled Liberal Democrats by the time election day comes.

Had they not been offered this opportunity; had they clung on to power against media and public opinion and been demonized for their actions, tarred with their record and attacked by Conservatives at every turn, you could be sure that the postponement of their demise by a Liberal Democrat deal would have led to a much greater death down the line, and a possible banishment to the political wilderness from which they might have never recovered.  As it is, they have managed to bow out of the government just in time to not be burdened by the unpopularity sure to come once “savage cuts” in public spending occur, and they have allowed the country to be reminded, over the next five years, why it was that we ejected the Tories so unceremoniously back in 1997.

Theoretically – a five year recharge and revitalization of the party, helped along by continuing demonstrable evidence of the paucity of the Conservative vision – could leave Labour primed to reclaim power in 2015 and fix the inevitable mess.  And if the Lib-Dems play it right, and that election is fought under rules of Proportional Representation, we could see the next five years become nothing more than a Conservative swan-song.

Of course I’m angry that we now have a Conservative Prime Minister.  If you voted Liberal Democrat on May 6th then you must feel incredibly cheated and let down.  But this is no ordinary Conservative Prime Minister – this is a Conservative Prime Minister kept in line by a Liberal Democrat Deputy, leading a Cabinet watered down by a handful of Liberal Democrats.  I don’t believe Nick Clegg’s decision was the right one, but I do think it was the best one he could make under the circumstances.  Whatever happens over the next five years, I’m fairly certain that British politics will never be the same again, and whilst this may look like a disaster in the short-term, in the long-term this could be the greatest gift the progressive left have ever received.


Monday, 10 May 2010

Democracy: It’s More Than Just Numbers

Right now the central question in British politics is what the next government will look like.  Will Nick Clegg choose to align his Liberal Democrat party with David Cameron’s Conservative Party (who got 36.1% of the overall UK vote), or with Gordon Brown’s Labour Party (who only got 29%).  Despite the substantial ideological differences between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, there are those who believe that forming a government with the defeated Labour Party would be a betrayal of democracy: a “coalition of the losers”, unfairly placed to rule above the clearly victorious Tories.  There are others, however, and I am one of them, who believe that, far from being a “coalition of the losers”, a coalition Labour/Liberal Democrat government is exactly what democracy requires.

Looking at the election results, although it benefits the Conservatives immensely to view their numerical majority of 306 MPs and their net gain of ninety-eight seats as a decisive victory and rejection of the incumbent Labour government, in reality it is hardly that.  Though Labour did indeed lose ninety-two seats on May 6th, and only returned 258 MPs compared with the Tories’ 306, their loss was hardly a resounding rejection.  Indeed, considering the appalling low polling numbers in support of Labour over the past eighteen months, one could even argue that support for the party had increased across the country throughout the election campaign.  On election day, Labour remained strong in many parts of the country where the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats hoped to make a gain, and though they undoubtedly suffered a loss and part-rejection of their last thirteen years in power (sometimes where it was justified, such as anger over the illegal and unjustified wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; sometimes merely as a scapegoat, such as over the cross-party expenses scandal, or the current global economic crisis that is more a failure of unregulated globalised capitalism than it is of any specifically Labour policy) that loss and part-rejection did not translate into a massive swing rightwards towards the Conservatives.  The Tories got some gains, but not enough, and though there may indeed be disillusionment with Labour after thirteen disappointing years, what was made clear at this election was that the alternative to Labour which the voting public sought was not a Conservative one. 

While 36% of the public did vote Conservative; 52% of the public did not.  29% chose to continue with the present Labour government rather than pursue the Conservative agenda on offer, and a further 23% voted for the Liberal Democrats who, on all central areas of key policy and ideology, were in direct opposition to the Conservative Party and had much more in common, ideologically, with Labour.

I think it is fair to say that the central concern of this entire election, underlying all other questions of policy, was this: how are we going to deal with the economic crisis?  How will we secure recovery and get the country’s finances in order?  Are we going to raise taxes or cut taxes?  Invest or make cuts?  Are we going to protect frontline services or put them at risk?  Basically: how can we propose to do anything about crime, education, health, immigration, defence, etc, if we don’t know first where the money’s coming from and how we are going to tackle the deficit?  And on this central issue, the split between the Conservative Party and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats was clear: the Conservatives were alone in advocating making massive cuts in public spending immediately, whereas both Labour and Liberal Democrats believed that such measures could be risky for a fragile economy right now and, instead, proposed not making cuts until 2011.

From the three party manifestos:

CONSERVATIVE:  “Labour will not take action to cut waste in government. They have identified £11 billion pounds of waste, but they do not plan to start dealing with it until April 2011. So Labour will continue wasting money while putting up taxes on working people. We will act immediately to cut government waste…we will take immediate action to cut a net £6 billion of wasteful departmental spending in the financial year 2010/11, with further savings in future years.

LABOUR: “We will continue to support the economy while growth is still fragile, sticking with our targeted increase in public spending over the next year to sustain the recovery…Once the recovery is secure, we will rapidly reduce the budget deficit.  We have set out a clear, balanced and fair plan to more than halve the deficit over the next four years and we will stick to it.  We will achieve this through a combination of: fair tax increases; a firm grip on public spending including cuts in lower-priority areas; and strategies for growth that increase tax revenues and reduce spending on benefits.”

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: “We have already identified over £15 billion of savings in government spending per year, vastly in excess of the £5 billion per year that we have set aside for additional spending commitments…If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs.  We will base the timing of cuts on an objective assessment of economic conditions, not political dogma.  Our working assumption is that the economy will be in a stable enough condition to bear cuts from the beginning of 2011-12.”

On this vital and immediate question, therefore, the British public have spoken: 52% of them do not want the fragile recovery jeopardized by making cuts in public spending too soon.  Despite this, David Cameron made it clear in his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to Nick Clegg: “We remain completely convinced that starting to deal with the deficit this year is essential.

The second important issue at the forefront of the election now is the question of electoral reform.  As soon as it became likely that this election might result in a hung Parliament, a major discussion throughout the country began around the prospects, likelihood and desirability of changing the voting system to some form of proportional representation.  The importance of this issue became amplified by the election results themselves: the Liberal Democrats received 23% of the votes, yet returned only fifty-seven Parliamentary seats, whereas Labour, who only had 6% more votes than the Lib Dems, received 31% more seats.  Meanwhile, back in first-past-the-post-land, we were left confused and unimpressed with a Conservative majority that was not majority enough to govern.

There came a complex and subtle message from the electorate on May 6th that our clumsy and outdated electoral system is structurally incapable of deciphering: we are unhappy with Labour, but we are equally unhappy with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat alternative.  Who, therefore, should govern our country?

Returning to this question of whether or not the General Election was a massive rejection of thirteen years of Labour government, the answer was clearly: no.  It was a rebuke, certainly, but a rejection?  Hardly.  A truly responsive democracy must allow for more than black or white options: in a complex and diverse world there will always be shades of grey.  Labour have let a lot of people down and have made a lot of mistakes over their thirteen years in power, but in certain areas, and on certain questions, they have done great and popular things.  Why must it be that, for the handful of mistakes, an entire programme is rejected, or that, for a few bad apples, we must expel the entire bunch?

Similarly – the surge in Liberal Democrat numbers before the election did not translate into votes on polling day.  Why?  Well, likely because voters were all-too aware of the stacked deck against their vote in a flawed, first-past-the-post system.  No one wants to waste their vote, so they voted cautiously instead: for Labour, if they didn’t want the Tories to get in, or for the Conservatives if they were sick of Gordon Brown. 

Certainly in this election we can read a disappointment in what Labour have done – but that disappointment was clearly not enough for people to reject them from government entirely, nor were the alternative agendas proposed by the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats popular enough to gain mass support.  True democracy, therefore, must be more than YES or NO – in a representative democracy there must be a mechanism in place for nuanced representation: not simply YES or NO, but a qualified YES or NO – something that tells the party you support that you are not going to abandon them entirely and switch your allegiances across the political spectrum, but that you are dissatisfied with certain aspects of their record and that they must change or it will cost them votes.  

It is clear that, to do this, electoral reform is needed.  For Liberal Democrats, such reform has been at the forefront of their agenda since their inception, and if they are to remain a party of their principles, then a demand for electoral reform must be the price they ask of any potential partner in coalition.

In their 2010 manifesto, they make it clear: “Liberal Democrats will change politics and abolish safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs.  Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties.” 

Similarly, Labour – though late to the party – were not afraid to acknowledge this need for electoral reform in their own 2010 manifesto, weeks before a hung Parliament became a reality and it became politically useful to hold such a view: “People want a greater say in how the country is governed and for politicians to be more accountable to those they serve.  So while we are proud of our record of devolving power and reforming the constitution, we believe that further and more radical reform is imperative if we are to renew our democratic public life.  Britain needs a new constitutional and political settlement for a new era.  To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliament more democratic and accountable in referenda on reform of the House of Commons and House of Lords, to be held on the same day, by October 2011.  To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons.”

The Conservatives, meanwhile, on this vital matter of national interest, yet again do not share the opinion of the 52% majority.  As they put it in their manifesto: “We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with.”

And that is precisely the problem.

As the results of May 6th show – the country did not necessarily want to kick the government out.  Or at least: they did not want to kick the government out and replace them with a distinctly Conservative one.  Only 7.1% more voters specifically chose the right-wing Conservative agenda on offer than chose the existing Labour government, and, taken as an ideological whole – those opposing a shift to the right and sharing a progressive vision of the future – 52% of the voters rejected the Conservative programme.      

Now, numerically it could be argued that, similarly, 59.1% of voters rejected the Labour programme, or that 65.1% of voters rejected the Liberal Democrats’, but when we look beyond the numerical results and to what the three individual parties were actually offering, I think there can be no argument at all that ideologically the Conservative party stood alone and were rejected by the majority.  They were the only explicitly right-wing party on the ballot out of the three, and stood at significant odds from Labour and Liberal Democrats on the two main issues of the day – making immediate cuts to public spending instead of waiting until 2011, and opposing proportional representation – and so the 52% who voted against this lone platform is therefore a much more significant figure than any other combination of Lib/Con or  Lab/Con.  It represents a 52% shared progressive mandate against the Conservatives’ meagre 36% of support.

We have been taught by first-past-the-post politics to think of winners and losers, but real democracy is more than just a number of arbitrarily distributed seats.  Although with 306 seats to Labour’s 258, it seems like the Conservatives are the “winners” of this election, when we actually consider what our votes mean, and what it was that 52% of the electorate actually voted for on May 6th, then it is clear the direction that this country needs to go.  Whilst certainly sense and decency suggest that Nick Clegg, as apparent kingmaker in this scenario, ought to hear out what the Conservatives have to offer in the face of their numerical victory, he should feel no shame in joining the majority of the population in rejecting a Conservative proposal if it does not concede important ground.  To form a coalition with Labour instead would not only make much more sense ideologically, but democratically too.  An expression not of the “coalition of the losers” but of the combined progressive majority in this country who opposed the Conservative programme.

Democracy is more than just numbers.  It is about translating mechanical votes into meaningful representation.  The first step, therefore, is in forming a government reflective of the nation’s true feelings; the second is in introducing proportional representation so that in future those votes can speak clearer.  Neither of these things can be done with a Tory government, and I hope that Nick Clegg looks beyond the misleading numbers and makes the right decision for democracy.


Friday, 7 May 2010

The Anti-Conservative Majority

This bears repeating from yesterday, because the false argument against the idea of an alleged “anti-Conservative majority” continues to be spun.  From The Tone of Our Oppression yesterday:


There is a distinctively anti-Tory majority in this country that is not the same as the arguable anti-Labour or anti-Lib Dem majority one could extrapolate from the exact same polls, because both Labour and Liberal Democrat support comes from a place of shared progressive values, no matter how different the proposals of each individual party as to how best to manifest those progressive left-leaning values in practice, whereas the Tories are alone in popular support for regressive, right-wing thinking.


As I said this morning: on investing in the economy and securing the recovery now, and holding off cuts until 2011, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are in agreement and opposed to Conservative plans. Both parties are also in agreement for the need for electoral reform, whereas the Conservatives oppose it.  On that basis, the two parties – Labour and Lib Dem – absolutely do form an “anti-Conservative majority”.

Indeed, right now, the vote share is like this:

Conservatives – 36.2%

Labour/Lib Dem combined – 52%

Combined with the commonality of shared progressive policy and opposition to key Tory platforms, I’d call this a distinctive and morally authoritative anti-Conservative majority formed by a Lib/Lab pact.


Elected Prime Minister?

I think it’s worth remembering, on this question of “who will be the next Prime Minister” and whether or not Gordon Brown has lost his mandate (indeed, on the very question of whether Brown has been our “unelected” leader until now and, if Labour should change their leader in a coalition government, would that new Labour leader be, again, an “unelected” Prime Minister): we do not vote for a Prime Minister in this country.  We vote for a Parliament.  We vote for the Party member in our local constituency, and then the Party – not the public – choose their leader who, if they are in government, will then become Prime Minister.

On the subject of Gordon Brown – he has repeatedly won, and won again last night, his seat in his constituency, thus he has been elected.  That the Labour Party felt it right to make him their leader is up to them, and if they choose to change him and select another leader, that is their right too.

That may not be democratically sound, but that is the system that we’ve got, and the Conservative/media notion that Gordon Brown is “unelected” and “has never won an election to be our Prime Minister” rings slightly false whenever it is repeated.


An Important Policy-Based Moral Argument for a Lib/Lab Coalition…

As we wake up to the prospect of a hung Parliament, there is much argument about who would have the “moral authority” to rule the country.  Constitutionally, the answer is clear: the standing Prime Minister has the first opportunity to create a coalition government that gains the acceptance of the House.  But the Conservatives are making the argument – superficially sensible – that, as they have the most seats, albeit not a majority, they should have first chance at creating a workable government instead.

Something important seems to have been forgotten amidst all the speculation: an important moral argument as to why a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition is more in line with the people’s will than a minority Conservative government.

The most important difference between the three parties throughout the campaign was on the question of cuts in public spending.  The Conservatives were alone in endorsing the idea of immediate cuts this year, whereas both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats believed that taking money out of the economy now could jeopardize the recovery, and instead proposed waiting until 2011.

On this key difference, the Liberal Democrats and Labour are agreed.  In both their manifestos they state caution about making cuts too early, and on this crucial election argument on which the Conservative Party made their case – do we cut now, or do we wait until 2011 – the British public appear to have spoken: they do not want cuts in public spending this year, as the Conservatives are offering, and have voted majoritively for those parties which endorse continued investment in 2010.

This is a vital matter in terms of who gets the moral authority to form a government now, as the issue itself is specifically time sensitive.  If a minority Conservative government took power and forced through immediate cuts that have been rejected by the majority of the population, where is the democracy there?  More importantly, as, traditionally, coalition governments in the UK seldom last longer than a year or two, does it not make perfect sense to establish a union of collaborative parties this year who agree, along with the majority of the country, in the direction that the economy should be going now?  Then, if that government fails, if their popular economic policies falter and get us into trouble, the Conservatives have a fair and demonstrable argument a year from now to hold a vote of no confidence, win an election, and introduce their immediate austerities.  They do not have that mandate now.

There is also another important area of policy agreement: electoral reform.  If this election shows anything, it is that our first-past-the-post system is absolutely useless at truly representing the views of the people.  Indeed, the very party who so vehemently oppose electoral reform – the Conservatives – on the basis that only first-past-the-post politics can provide strong governments, are today realizing that this simply isn’t true.  On numbers alone, they have seemingly “won”, but their chances of forming a strong government are absolutely nonexistent, yet still they refuse to consider the idea of proportional representation.  The people are desperate for this outdated system to be scrapped, and it is only the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party who have been proposing electoral reform, not just today, when it is politically convenient to do so, but in their manifestos.

On the two major issues facing our country today – the economy and election reform – the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats share a joint, and publically endorsed, vision.  The Conservatives stand alone, and their policies on these issues – when looked at collectively – have been roundly rejected by the majority of people, giving them absolutely no moral authority to rule.


Thursday, 6 May 2010

Election Day 2010

Well, today’s the day and I’ve done all that I can.  At 7:55 this morning I placed my vote for Labour candidate, Steve McCabe, here in Selly Oak and all I can do now is sit back and wait until the wee small hours to see if this country is as stupid as I fear it might be. 

Walking around the constituency yesterday, the signs were good – lots of Labour posters, a couple of Lib Dem ones, and only two for local Tory, Nigel Dawkins; one of which was in the window of a cafe which also boasted posters for the Lib Dems and the Christian Party – so not exactly a ringing endorsement.

But I still fear the results around the rest of the country.  The media coverage of the entire campaign has been disgusting, and with the preponderance of Cameron-slanted Murdoch outputs all across the nation – not only in the papers, but in the all-too-common big screen TVs found at train stations and supermarkets constantly churning out partisan SKY News – I worry for how many people might have bought into a plainly false narrative of a “failed” Labour Party, a “long-shot” Liberal Democrats and the unquestionable right to rule of the anointed Conservatives. 

The absolute burying of Gordon Brown across all media has been truly astounding.  There are plenty of things to hold Brown accountable for, but inane things like his supposed temper, his social awkwardness, his non-telegenic appearance, his unlikability, etc, are not one of them.  From day one he has been made the scapegoat for problems arguably out of his control, and the media – too lazy to report the intricacies of things like a global financial crisis or their own involvement in Labour’s unpopular wars – have latched on to the simplistic idea that if we just cleared the decks and started again then everything would work out ok.

Brown and New Labour have done some terrible things to this country – but everything terrible they have done is right out of the Conservative Party playbook too: they are the failings of power, not of party.  The failings of a pseudo-democratic system that always puts the elite interests of a small but powerful minority over the interests of the many, whoever has the keys to Number 10. 

Importantly though, because of where the Labour Party splits ideologically from the Conservatives – if only in the minds of the voters who hold it to account – it is restrained in how much it can ignore the needs of its regular citizens whilst pursuing those unchanging elite power goals, and so small but significant steps of social progress are made along the way: a minimum wage here, a Sure Start programme there…  The Conservative Party, however, have no such need to appease the masses when they take control.  They are a selfish party for selfish people, built on an openly selfish platform.  When they take money away from the poor, or shut down schools and sell-off hospitals – there is no safety-net of accountability there, only the open declaration that this is what they were always going to do.  They are the party of business, of greed, of “you’re on your own” responsibility, of disregard for those who can’t, or won’t, help themselves.  They are the party that closest resembles the elite interests of the truly powerful in our country – the rich – and as such, the same pattern continues to repeat itself throughout our electoral history:

An elite, right-wing party – in this case, The Conservatives – start off in power.  The rich get what they want, but eventually the people get pissed off and threaten to revolt, so a party of the left is formed to funnel the public’s righteous anger into something neutered and less threatening to the accepted social order.  That party – in this case, Labour – then win an election and help to redistribute wealth a little and make things fairer for the disgruntled citizens (whilst never straying too far from the underlying power goals of any government to promote elite interests above all else).  Eventually though, the failings of that party at creating any real change becomes clear to all those who hoped they would be much more radical than they are, and with that disillusionment comes loss of support.  Meanwhile, those who have benefitted from the redistribution and advantages provided by the left-leaning party during its time in power begin to identify with the rich people they had previously despised.  They begin to decide that maybe it’s time for lower taxes, that there’s maybe too much regulation and “political correctness”, and that it’s time to go back to a “less complicated” era of governance, where a person isn’t “punished” for doing well.  Labour are discredited, the Conservatives are painted as the only alternative, and before you know it they have taken back the throne…until the next time the people threaten revolt and the whole cycle begins again.

For some reason we never seem to get into the stage of actual progression following the restoration of order after a destructive Conservative rule.  When our progressive leaders let us down for not being progressive enough, we are told to look backwards again, not forwards. 

A few days ago, some pundit or another thought they were being smart when they countered Gordon Brown’s claim that there “is an anti-Conservative majority in this country” with the argument that, if that is true, then it must also be true that there is an anti-Labour majority here too.  All Brown was doing, so this pundit said, was taking the polling numbers for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters and plotting them together against the solitary Tory figure, but he called that tactic into question as it could work in all three directions and was a blatant straw man. 

This, to me, showed a fundamental misunderstanding of political ideology within contemporary political debate because, undoubtedly, Brown was right and the pundit was wrong. 

There is a distinctively anti-Tory majority in this country that is not the same as the arguable anti-Labour or anti-Lib Dem majority one could extrapolate from the exact same polls, because both Labour and Liberal Democrat support comes from a place of shared progressive values, no matter how different the proposals of each individual party as to how best to manifest those progressive left-leaning values in practice, whereas the Tories are alone in popular support for regressive, right-wing thinking.  Taking today’s Harris poll, for example, with the Tories on 35%, Labour on 29% and the Liberal Democrats on 27% – although it does seem like the Tories have the majority, when you look at the poll in terms of ideology, then it is clear that 56% of the country oppose the hard-line right-wing agenda of the Conservatives.  This is important stuff, yet the media have been more concerned with pathetic character assassinations and sound-bites than in delving any further into the true nature of what we, as citizens, really want.   

There is so much more I want to say about this but no doubt it will form a continuing theme of critique in the commentaries to come once we get the election results in the morning.  Even in the most optimistic and partisan polls, the Tories are looking hard-pressed to find an outright and undisputable majority right now, and with one in four voters apparently still undecided as of this morning – not to mention the effects that increased turnout and a huge surge in youth voting will have on the polls – it is still really anybody’s guess as to who will win come ten o’clock tonight. 

Like I said at the start: I’ve done all I can.  There’s nothing left now but the waiting…


Friday, 30 April 2010

Prime Ministerial Debate III: Question Time

Watching the BBC debate show, Question Time, is a frustrating experience at the best of times. More often than not the panel of political representatives and media personalities are so busy spouting out their own sound-bites and prepared talking points that you are left screaming at your television set that they are not answering the question, or that they are lying, or that they have no idea what they are talking about, or that the views they are expressing have been outdated and discredited for twenty years… And even though the audience are allowed to speak and call these people to account, what usually follows is simply more of the same evasiveness and spin: the audience-member feels wonderful that their view has finally been represented, but the panellists air-time is longer and their voices carry more weight. The question is forgotten and only emptiness remains.

Last night’s episode of Question Time was doubly frustrating, because instead of being at home, where you are buoyed by a certain sense of detachment and the ability to turn the sound down, I was in the studio audience at Birmingham University and watched the entire thing live.

You would have thought that this would make it far less frustrating: instead of watching in futility at home, unable to get engaged with the debate and call the politicians on their spin and manipulation, in person I could actually put my hand up and get involved. I could ask my questions, I could state my opinions.

But I discovered last night that there is something much more frustrating than the impotence you feel at home when you see an entire panel of liars and idiots and there are no means of having your say: actually being in the audience, with your hand up for sixty minutes desperate to put forward your opinion, and not being called on throughout.

I’ll blame it on my positioning. We had no real choice in where we were seated and unfortunately I found myself at the far left end of a row quite near the back, not only out of the sight of most of the cameras, which concentrated mainly on the central section, but crucially – because of the placement of one of the main cameras that filmed the panellists – often out of the sight of David Dimbleby himself. Though he looked in my direction several times, for whatever reason, I wasn’t asked to participate. And so I had to sit, with my arm aching in the air, listening to hollow lies about the debate earlier that evening, awful and – yes – bigoted rubbish about immigration, the various ways in which the parties plan to cut public spending instead of taxing the rich and how democracy had changed for the better because of the implementation of vacuous television debates.

Still, despite not getting to add my own venom and bile to the vibrant melange of misinformation and spin, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. It was nice, if nothing else, getting to boo Liam Fox in a roomful of people and hearing David Dimbleby tell us to “just bloody enjoy yourselves” before we went on air. It was also nice, in the sound-check portion of the technical rehearsal, to be able to ask a question of the fake stand-in panel even if I didn’t get to do it on TV. We were told we couldn’t address anything that might actually come up in the show, so I contributed this little enquiry to the proceedings: “This week, Stephen Hawking has told us that if we came into contact with aliens, it is highly likely that they will be hostile. Liam Fox, as Shadow Defence Secretary, should we go to war against the aliens?”

A heated debate ensued, with audience members and fake panellists suggesting that the rationale for war might be different if we knew that the aliens had oil and once we knew just exactly what the alien weaponry was like…and if they had weapons of mass destruction.

It was a hell of a long evening though. We arrived at the University at 5:45pm and didn’t leave until midnight. Once we’d arrived, we were bussed (quite needlessly – it was about a two minute walk) to the venue, where we sat around tables getting to know each other, eating free sandwiches and coffee and writing our second Question Time question.

We had already been asked to email a question earlier in the week. The question I had sent in was this: Would Conservative proposals to give parents public money to set up experimental new schools take vital funding away from the schools that we already have? I thought it would be something likely to come up being as how the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, was on the panel, and there had been such an excellent furore about the issue earlier in the week that saw Michael Gove absolutely eviscerated on Radio 4.

It didn’t, and I wasn’t asked to read the question. But my second submission was this: Is it really so wrong to call a person “sort of bigoted” after they have just expressed some “sort of bigoted” views?

That obviously didn’t fit in with the editorial take on the whole “bigot-gate” incident though, because the version of the question ultimately asked in the show was: Are you a bigot to ask the Prime Minister about immigration? With not a single person on the panel (including Ed Balls), or Dimbleby himself, attempting to clarify the fact that Gordon Brown did not explicitly call Gillian Duffy “a bigot”, but rather described her, undeniably “sort of bigoted”, views as “sort of bigoted”.

After the coffee and question-writing was done, we moved into the real studio, where the alien-based technical rehearsal occurred and people were told whether or not their questions had been chosen. Sadly, after spending the earlier part of the evening with a great group of left-leaning people (utterly by accident – we were obviously drawn to each other), somehow I ended up sitting next to an excitable Tory guy who clapped vigorously at every empty trope Liam Fox uttered all night and tried to convince me that David Cameron had “won” the Debate.

Indeed – the Debate. Before Question Time began, we had a giant screen brought into the makeshift studio and watched the entire Prime Ministerial Debate live as an audience. This was actually pretty cool. Unlike watching at home, with just me and my wife grumbling to each other, or even watching it live in the auditorium, where you are not allowed to make a sound, watching the debate cinema-style in a big room full of people meant that we could boo and cheer as we pleased to the various points the leaders put across. We could clap when they said something sensible and we could call out “RUBBISH!” when they said something we disagreed with. Unfortunately, it was quite depressing to see how many people cheered and got excited when David Cameron laid into the usual Tory memes of immigrants and people on benefits. Indeed, on Question Time too, my heart sank at how deeply so many people feel this hostility towards immigration.

Still, the biggest cheers of the night went to Clegg, and when we were polled later via a show of hands, in our room, Clegg won. If I were a focus group manager for Gordon Brown I would point out two major observations from last night: Gordon Brown smiling makes the entire audience laugh, and not in a good way. And everything that he says – no matter how valid, reasoned and true it may be – simply does not connect with voters who have been misled and lied to by a promise-breaking Labour government for thirteen years. If anything loses him the election though, it will be the shit-eating grin he whipped out right at the end of his atrocious prepared final statement. The statement was bad enough – an attack on Clegg and Cameron instead of a robust defence of Labour and positive reason to vote for them, that ended with him telling people he was “desperate” – and then when he smiled I have never heard such a groan fill a room. Just terrible, and I actually thought he did really well once you take presentation out of the equation. That said, I was fairly disgusted that he failed to point out the fundamental, £40 a week better off in work guarantee and rise of the minimum wage, that, according to the two manifestos, separates Labour policy on cutting benefits from the Tory one considerably. In a bid to out-Tory the Tories, he simply pressed on about “no life on the dole” and forcing people to work. That correlating rise in the minimum wage and promise that when you are forced into a job you will be guaranteed to earn at least £40 a week more in work than you would on benefits, however, makes the Labour policy much more humane, but not a single voter watching the Debate last night will know about it.

I also can’t believe that the opinion polls have Cameron winning the Debate last night. What did he actually say that was any different from any of the two previous Debates, or indeed from the Conservative manifesto? Absolutely nothing. I guess it just proves that old adage that if you repeat a lie long enough, people start to believe it as truth. He was evasive, he offered platitudes instead of arguments, his policies don’t add up and all have fundamental flaws, and yet he drills through all the sound-bites and pounds them into your head and by the end of ninety minutes you feel like you’ve been convinced; a sophistry of the highest order.

It would have been nice to have said that on Question Time too – but I guess there’s always next time.

I just hope that next time it won’t be Prime Minister Cameron I will be talking about, and that on May 6th, even without having heard me speak on TV, the great British public will show me that they’re not as dumb as I think they are, and go to the polls and vote for our future, instead of our draconian past.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

On Immigration, Gillian Duffy IS Bigoted…

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past twenty-four hours you will be aware that a lot of fuss has been made about a certain Prime Minister calling one of the residents of Rochdale a “bigot”.  Indeed, this fuss appears quite capable of completely derailing the already failing Labour election campaign and knocking them out of the race entirely.

Yet am I the only one out there who agrees with Gordon Brown?

The most important thing to take away from the “Bigot-gate” incident is not that Brown was caught calling a Labour supporter a “bigot” when he left his SKY News microphone turned on after waving her goodbye, but that what he in fact said was this: 

When asked what Duffy had said that had made the meet-and-greet such a “disaster”, he said, quite hurriedly, trying to short-hand his explanation: “oh everything - she’s just a sort of bigoted woman…said she used to be Labour”.

The difference between saying “she is a bigoted woman” and “she’s just a sort of bigoted woman” are immense.  In the one case you are dismissing a person entirely, whilst in the other you are stating a vague feeling about what was said and why it left a bad taste in your mouth.  Not that she is a bigot, but that what she said was “sort of bigoted” and it was surprising coming from a woman who “said she used to be Labour”.

And on this point Brown was absolutely spot on.  Duffy was not some misunderstood victim of a cruel and intolerant monster.  She was a woman who, in the midst of talking about benefits and the economy, suddenly said: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants…all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in – where are they flocking from?”

Now, just as Brown claims that what he said was not exactly what he meant, perhaps Duffy herself did not mean to sound as bigoted as she did when she spoke about “the immigrants” and their “flocking” in.  But in the one minute handshake conversation on which Brown was forced to make his opinion, all he had to go on was that she claimed to be a Labour supporter, yet spouted the standard right-wing tabloid garbage about “all these Eastern Europeans”.  If I had been having that exact conversation with Duffy, I would have come away thinking exactly the same thing too.

Furthermore, the media is also claiming that this off-mike/on-mike outburst was a public illustration of the exact kind of behind-the-scenes tyrant Brown has been portrayed as being over the past few months: an intolerant bully who blames everybody but himself. 

I did not get that at all from listening to what was actually said.  I just heard a tired and disappointed man who felt that the last few minutes had been a “disaster” say quite calmly that he thought it was ridiculous to have been put in that position and wanted to know who’s idea it had been.  He did not say he wanted anyone’s head on a platter; he did not shout and curse and scream.  He said that the meeting with Duffy had not gone well, he should have never been put in the position of having to deal with her, and when he was asked what she had said which had made him feel it had gone badly, he pointed out, quite fairly, that what she’d said had been “sort of bigoted”.

In any civilized country with a less-hysterical media, this private and reasonable conversation between a politician and his aides might have been mentioned as a point of humourous faux pas and then quickly brushed aside for more important things (for instance: the solid answer Brown had given Gillian Duffy when confronting her “sort of bigoted” views – that, though we have about a million EU nationals coming into the UK each year, we also have about a million UK nationals going into the EU so it all evens out).  Instead though, we had this empty, sensationalist flogging of the issue – filming Duffy’s reaction to what was overheard by deliberately misquoting what Brown had actually said; showing her (understandable) offence when she was finally played the tape and the word “bigot” was heard in a manipulated context; swarming around her house as if one woman’s obvious offence at an individual, heat-of-the-moment, personal evaluation of her principles were some vital crux of the election campaign; and mentioning the gaffe as if it were headline news every five minutes and having various talking heads dissect the ramifications of events now largely caricatured out of all recognition to the actual facts of what happened.

I also think it is important to note the source of this irrelevant hysteria: Rupert Murdoch’s SKY News. 

The mike which caught Brown’s statements was a rogue SKY News microphone that the Prime Minister had left on.  Murdoch, of course, is an arch-conservative; the owner of the US’s rabid FOX News Network, and, here in the UK, owner of Cameron-backing The Sun, The Times and The News of the World.  He is a highly partisan player in this election and his news organization is being used as a tool to help promote the Conservative cause.  This could be seen during last week’s Prime Ministerial Debate, when SKY host, Adam Boulton, violated the agreed rules of the debate and attempted to derail the surge in Liberal Democrat momentum by asking Nick Clegg an erroneous question about party donations which had already been cleared up and dismissed earlier that day, and it could be seen yesterday, when a reasonable man’s reasonable comments about an angry woman talking ignorantly about immigration was used to smear his election campaign and discredit an entire political party.

That our politics have come to this is a sad indictment of the current British system, and one can only hope that a hung Parliament, and radical voter reform, will help change all that on the morning of May 7th.

In other news: I will be attending the BBC’s Question Time tonight in Birmingham.  I don’t know if I’ll get to ask a question, but it sounds like it should be a good one: Ed Balls, Vince Cable and George Osborne were announced last time I checked, and we all get to watch the final Leaders Debate together beforehand – a political junky’s dream :-)  I’ll let you know how it went, and, of course, you can watch it tonight at 10:45 on BBC One, following the news and the final debate.


Friday, 23 April 2010

Prime Ministerial Debate II: The Quickening

Some thoughts on last night’s 2nd Prime Ministerial Debate:

Whilst David Cameron continued his efforts to manipulate and con the British public into anointing him Prime Minister through shallow sound-bites and comforting repetition, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown actually offered meaningful policy discussions on some of the major issues of the day.

Quite frankly, Cameron infuriates me.  After last week’s ridiculous and transparent anecdote about a “black man” who supports immigration (a 40 year old black man who Cameron claimed had served in the Royal Navy for 30 years – making him, at most, 10 years old when he joined!), this week we had an even more annoying gaffe: when Gordon Brown laid into Nick Clegg about his opposition to Trident, Cameron said – in a very well-rehearsed way - “I have never uttered these words before…but I agree with Gordon.”  A funny line in light of last week’s “I agree with Nick” catchphrase, but an absolute heap of rubbish because just a few minutes before, on a question about Afghanistan, Cameron had said “I completely agree with Gordon Brown” about how brave and heroic our troops were, and how we must continue to fight al-Qaeda around the world so that they cannot commit atrocities here in the UK.  The news agencies this morning have not seemed to pick up on this blatant bullshit, however, because it gets in the way of a good sound-bite.

I also found much of what Cameron said last night to be completely void and empty: tried and tested Tory tropes about “people who work hard and save hard not getting punished” under a Conservative government, “people who do the right thing their whole lives not losing out”, and how, if a thousand business leaders think something must be wrong, then clearly it must be. 

In many ways it was like seeing a magician try to do magic after you’d read the book on how all the illusions are performed: the newspapers and websites yesterday were full of inside information about what Cameron’s team were going to try and do in order to improve his performance from last week’s, and he did exactly what they told him.  Talk more directly to the camera (he did), paint a picture of the Conservative Party as being the only real possibility for breaking free of Labour (he did), sell the terror of a hung Parliament (he did), and tousle your hair a bit (he did!)  It was an absolute master-class in vapid talking points and well-rehearsed spin, which reached its crescendo when the same man who tells us that “Gordon Brown’s jobs-tax will kill the recovery” and that a hung Parliament will destroy the economy, accused Gordon Brown of scare-mongering!  Brown, who stated – quite reasonably – that the Conservative Manifesto makes no mention of free prescriptions or eye-tests for the elderly, was taken to task for leaflets which therefore claim that a Conservative Government would take medicines away from the sick.  This is apparently scare-mongering, whereas the entire Tory campaign, which is based around the fundamental premise that “we can’t go on like this”, is not?

But enough of David Sham-eron.  What of the other contenders?

Well, once again Nick Clegg showed that he was a serious political candidate and that the Liberal Democrats are a genuine party to vote for.  The only people to be amazed by this fact continue to be the media, but  nevertheless, although lacking in the novelty-value of last week’s debut (and in the willingness for Brown and Cameron, fearing a potential hung Parliament, to suck up to him) Clegg remained sound and innovative on policy and fresh and bold on politics.  Continually, he discussed new and practical ways of getting difficult things done, and showed that there were real alternatives to the fictional limits on action set in place by the traditional two-party system.  He not only did well, he did amazingly well, considering that both Cameron and Brown were out to get his blood.  After last week’s disastrous schmooze-fest, the game this week was expose the Liberal Democrats as a flash-in-the-pan novelty, and at that task, both Cameron and Brown epically failed.  When questioned and scrutinized about Liberal Democrat policies, Clegg had answers; when grilled and interrogated about the nature of his character, his opponents were forced to fabricate fictions and put words into his mouth.  No one managed to win a knock-out blow on Clegg, and far from showing he was a one-trick pony, he used this second debate to clarify and expand on positions put forward last week.  Indeed, his performance was decidedly Prime Ministerial.

Which brings me to Gordon Brown.

Gordon Brown is the man who bank-rolled the two unjustified and illegal wars on terror, continued the Tory economic policies of the 80s and 90s, and sat back and made friendly with bankers instead of giving them more regulation…yet last night, and the week before, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his contributions to the debate.  Just as I felt when reading the Labour Party Manifesto last week, whilst there have certainly been some tremendous failures and nightmares brought about by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, since 1997 the Labour Party really have done so many wonderful things for this country: be it the implementation of the minimum wage; furthering the equality of women, homosexuals, the disabled, and ethnic and religious minorities; providing better benefits for the elderly; improving health and educational services; attempting to shake-up the House of Lords; the Freedom of Information Act…the Labour Party have by no means got everything right (and even in their successes there could have been much bigger improvements and much better means to achieve them) but what they have done right has been important.  Crucially, it is these areas of social reform that are most at danger with a Conservative victory (we all remember how things were under Thatcher and Major), and I thought that last night Brown managed to remind us of Labour’s successes, admit to some of their failings, and put forward an clear and appealing vision of the future. 

When it came to substance and policy – Brown was a machine.  He gave figures, facts, agendas and aspirations, and he did it all whilst pointing out the stark ideological differences between the right and the left in 2010.  “Not everyone has the answers,” he told us, right off the bat, “but I say get the big decisions wrong and Britain’s security and jobs are at risk. Get the big decisions right and we can have a prosperous, fairer, greener and better Britain. Like me or not, I can deliver that plan and the way to do it is with a majority Labour government.” 

And that is Gordon’ problem – nobody seems to like him.  He could sit down and rationally explain an absolutely cast-iron solution to all of the world’s problems with a thoroughly costed ten-point plan of exactly how that agenda would be achieved by the end of the first year of Parliament, and still people would shrug their shoulders and say: “well how can we trust him?  We’ve been lied to by Labour before.” 

If anything is the subtext of this election it is that: Labour have badly let us down since 1997, we all know it, and we are desperately looking for an alternative.

Now, that alternative could be Nick Clegg, or it could well be the Labour Party themselves.  A revitalized and re-energized party, starting a new chapter in their political lives and admitting to the mistakes of the past with the first General Election of the Gordon Brown era.  Don’t forget – the past thirteen years were largely on Tony Blair’s watch, and because of the weird way in which Gordon Brown became our Prime Minster, he has never really had a mandate or opportunity to truly lead the party. 

It could, of course, all be bullshit, but the 2010 Manifesto suggests a Labour Party that is changing – a more responsive, more democratic Labour Party, that has looked itself in the mirror, been woken up and shaken about a bit by the fallout of the expenses scandal and the war in Iraq, and wants to remember why it was put in government in the first place.  In thirteen years the social and economic advances that the Labour Party have brought to this country have been significant and they have been welcomed.  They have not all been perfect, and there has been their fair-share of mistakes, but the good things that Labour have done have been entirely the result of the significant ideological differences between a party on the right and a party on the left.

The Conservative Party, ideologically, do not care about social justice.  They do not care about economic justice.  They do not care about equality, the environment, multilateralism, or human rights.  They simply care about what they have always cared about: keeping the better off, better off, and helping the rich get richer.  Yet I truly fear that on May 6th our disillusionment and cynicism with Gordon Brown and the Labour government might deliver this country in David Cameron’s hands.  When you’ve been raped and beaten for thirteen years, you don’t really care who rescues you, so long as you are saved.

No matter how much sense the Labour Party talks, and how much it fights to remind us of all it has done for us, the fact of the matter is this: thanks to Iraq, thanks to rendition, thanks to the economic crisis, and thanks to a thousand promises un-kept, the Labour Party is a broken brand.  It’s like Toyota – they can make the best cars in the world over the next few years, but because of the problems of the last few months, nobody will really want to buy them. 

“I’ve met some of the people who have rightly complained about the abuse that they were subject to when young” said Gordon Brown early on in the debate, discussing the Pope’s imminent visit to the UK.  “It never leaves them, it’s something that is with them always and no matter what you can try to do to help, there is always this problem that they have to face up to every day that they were abused, cruelly abused, by people in whom they placed their faith and trust.”

As much as I hope it isn’t true, and as much as I wish for a Labour or Lib Dem victory in two weeks’ time, there was a part of me last night that thought Gordon Brown speaking of the cruel abuses suffered by people in whom they had placed their faith and trust was like a eulogy for his own party.


Thursday, 22 April 2010

My Favourite Moment of Election Madness Yet…

My local UKIP candidate, Jeff Burgess, put his election leaflet through my door this week.  Though I have no intention on voting for such a hollow and xenophobic party I thought it’d be amusing to give the leaflet a read anyway.  I wasn’t wrong.

After a fairly standard UKIP ramble about declining standards and political correctness gone mad, the pièce de résistance came in the section headed: “My local issues are”.

Two bullet-points followed the heading.  The first was definitely a local issue: “Ensure that no jobs are lost at Cadbury due to the Kraft takeover, also to ensure Cadbury and its traditions remain in Bournville.”  He wasn’t clear exactly how he would achieve this, but to give Burgess his credit it is a far saner and much less disgustingly xenophobic statement than Conservative candidate, Nigel Dawkins, offered hysterically in his own new leaflet this week: “It was one of the saddest days of my life when Cadbury ceased to be British.”

Bullet-point number two, however, is possibly the maddest piece of election literature I have ever received. 

After the relative calm of the Cadbury promise, we are suddenly greeted with this nonsense:  The promise to “Expose the myth of global warming created through the use of falsified figures which are then used to raise excessive taxes.”

What the what?

Where the hell did that come from?  And how is it in any way a “local issue”, let alone an election priority?

UKIP: not just xenophobic pound fetishists, but climate deniers too.


Monday, 19 April 2010

Volcanic Ash and the Paucity of the Conservative Vision

If ever there was a working metaphor for exactly what is wrong with the Conservative Party’s vision of a decentralized Britain, with basic public services put into private hands, it is the current travel crisis.

With Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, sending dangerous plumes of ash into the skies of Europe and air-space now locked down, leaving thousands of people stranded across the world, the Labour government have decided today that it is time to call in the Navy to try and bring people home.  Alternative commercial carriers – ferries, Eurostar, coaches and cars – are simply pushed to capacity, and there are more people needing passage than there are seats, so the plan is to send out three Royal Navy ships to help repatriate those that the private sector have had no choice but to leave behind.

The lesson here is stark: for all the good-will in the world, the private-sector is not perfect, and we cannot rely on private enterprise when it comes to providing necessary public services.

Sometimes, as has happened here, human need demands more than the private sector can offer.  The system breaks down, or is ill-equipped to deal with requirements that extend beyond the basic drive for making profit, and we need some form of public, not-for-profit, intervention to perform the function unburdened by cost-benefit analysis.

Train, ferry and coach companies are not evil – but they are not able, by market economics alone, to cope with the sudden influx of needy passengers desperate to get back to jobs and loved ones across the sea.  They can only do what they can do, with the limited amount of tickets they have left to sell.  Meanwhile, it makes perfect economic sense, as demand for their product grows and grows, to start charging ridiculous amounts of money for the few tickets they have left; to exploit the needy and desperate willing to pay anything to get home.

Government cannot just sit back and let private enterprise perform its tasks for it.  It cannot abdicate its responsibility and hope the free-market will sort it out.  Sometimes, it has to act – to send in Navy ships where commercial ferries are failing, to regulate banks who are not regulating themselves, to impose fines and taxes on persistent polluters who don’t care about the environment they are poisoning so long as they make money, to provide welfare and housing to those the private sector has left behind.

We really are all in this together, and, until the perfect anarchist utopia materializes, part of that means creating some sort of permanent and responsive central safety net – or government – for when things go wrong…or, better still, for ensuring things don’t go wrong in the first place by allowing that central safety net to oversee the smooth and continuous running of various laws and regulations that protect citizens from harm, be it harm from natural disasters, or the harms that are more man-made.  This is something the Conservative Party do not understand, and just another in a long line of reasons why you should not vote for them on May 6th.


Friday, 16 April 2010

After the Debate…

If ever David Cameron was exposed it was last night, and boy did he look worried under the bright lights and scrutiny of the first ever UK election debate between the three contending Prime Ministerial candidates.  The format was perfect for perforating through all the Conservative sound-bites and exposing the hollowness of their “Big Society” programme, and both Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, in my opinion, demolished the Tory candidate at every turn.  If it isn’t clear to you now that the Conservative programme is nothing more than empty and unworkable promises, arbitrary and compassionless punishments and stale and outdated rhetoric masquerading as something new, then you can’t have been paying attention.  There is nothing new here in David Cameron’s Conservative Party that hasn’t been tried and discredited already in the 80s and 90s, and the entire 2010 Tory campaign just a shameless grab for power based on a manipulative and dishonest platform of old wine in new bottles.  That said, there were some very sage words from Tom Clark in The Guardian today: "Amid the renewed excitement about breaking the mould, progressives would do well to remember that they will pay a high price if they forget the psephology of their own seat. They are desperate to smash an electoral system that forces them to choose between their heart and their head. But they will not succeed if they forget to follow their head in the meantime."

Along with what seems to be the majority of the country right now, I left the big debate last night thinking how nice it would be if Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats could actually win the General Election in three weeks time, and as someone who has voted Lib Dem in every General Election since I was old enough to vote, I began to ponder the possibility of actually voting with my heart on May 6th here in Selly Oak instead of holding my nose and voting tactically for Labour.

“I agree with Nick” is clearly the “I Like Ike” of our generation (at least until some hideous BNP supporter co-opts the phrase for the wrong Nick and puts it on a racist tee-shirt), and it amazes me that by simply being given some air-time in which to lay out the policies already available in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, the British public are finally waking up to the realization that this election is a legitimate three-horse race.  The media last night were quick to say things like “in many ways the debate served to introduce Nick Clegg to the British people for the very first time” and the question I kept asking myself was: why?  Why had the media done such a bad job up until now in portraying a central political party in our supposedly democratic country as somehow being outside the scope of electability despite their rising poll numbers each and every year?  As recently as Monday, I watched Jeremy Paxman interviewing Clegg for the BBC, and he was basically ridiculing him for daring to believe he might actually become Prime Minister.  It was disgusting, and I’m glad that this watershed moment has seemingly sky-rocketed the Liberal Democrats into contention and made the derisive and mocking commentators out there finally listen up.

However, as much as I would love to vote Lib Dem on May 6th, the fact of the matter remains that, in my local constituency, historically the Liberal Democrats have never even come close to winning a seat here.  Indeed, whilst the leaflets and letters from Conservative, Nigel Dawkins are endless, and Labour’s Steve McCabe is sending out mail-outs and pressing the flesh all over town, our Lib Dem candidate has been highly conspicuous by his absence.

If I thought he had a hope in hell of winning here, I would vote for him, but right now it seems highly unlikely, no matter how well Nick Clegg did on TV last night, and this is an important point to remember for whatever constituency you may be voting in.

For a political party to win a General Election, they do not need to win every seat – they just have to win a majority of seats.  If you think your local Lib Dem candidate could actually win the seat in your area, then you should do everything you can to make that happen if that is the outcome you wish for.  But if you are living in a seat, like me, where a Lib Dem victory seems improbable, then there is absolutely no shame in voting Labour to keep the Tories out.  Indeed, by keeping the eye on the prize – if either Labour or Liberal Democrats get in, they have both promised massive electoral reform; if both get a lot of votes but there is no clear majority, it is highly likely they will work together to form a coalition government – you make sure you avoid the worst of all scenarios: another George Bush moment.

For those who don’t remember, America in the year 2000 wasn’t a particularly inspiring place.  Eight years of Bill Clinton hadn’t really given the country the massive social reform that had been hoped for on the left, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal had left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.  Meanwhile, on the right, some clown named George W Bush was seeking to fill the shoes vacated by his daddy just eight years before.  Ralph Nader and the Green Party, therefore, thought it was high time to step in and try to force the issue of third party politics and offer the voting public a real alternative to political business as usual.

It was an admirable effort, and if I were registered to vote that year the chances are, I would have voted for them too.  The problem was though, that with an uninspiring Democratic Party to vote for, many of those who would have voted Democrat voted Green instead because they were so disillusioned with the party, whilst those who would have voted Republican continued to vote for George Bush.  What that meant in real terms was that the Greens still didn’t get enough votes for serious Presidential contention (because not enough new or swing voters signed up alongside the disillusioned Democrats), but as a result of the exodus towards the Greens, the Democrats lost a lot of their support.  We all know what happened next: the Supreme Court made George W Bush President, and one of the key reasons this travesty occurred was because the difference in votes between the Republicans and Democrats was so slim.

Now, this isn’t to blame Ralph Nader, as many have done, as some kind of “spoiler” in that election – if the Democrats had wanted their Green Party votes back they shouldn’t have sold their supporters down the river and conceded so much to the Republicans during the Clinton years (sound familiar?)  But it is a warning about voting with your heart instead of your head: if people like me on May 6th vote Liberal Democrat without being cognizant of the specific circumstances of the constituency in which they are voting, instead of shocking the world and getting the Lib Dem MP that they want, it is much more likely that they will split the Labour vote and return an unwanted Conservative to the seat.  And that would be a terrible thing in our first-past-the-post, majority-take-all, electoral system.

This needn’t be seen as cynicism, nor as the claim that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a wasted vote.  It isn’t.  I expect a lot of people to vote Lib Dem on May 6th and in a perfect world, they would even win.  But it is an endorsement of voting smartly instead of stupidly.  I agree with Nick as much as the next guy…but I agree with Gordon a hell of a lot more than I agree with David Cameron, and if it comes to a choice of risking a Cameron victory by taking an unwise gamble on Clegg, I think it’s far safer to stick every time.