Today the electorate of Britain will vote in a referendum on the voting system. We can choose to adopt the Alternate Vote system in favour of our traditional First Past the Post system. I won’t go into the mindboggling intricacies of AV- partly because I still don’t fully comprehend the labyrinthine outcomes issue (and who really does?). However, it asks the voter to rank candidates in order of preference, as opposed to a simple vote for your desired candidate a la FPTP.
The first thing to say is that the referendum, a result of a compromise agreement in order to broker the Coalition, has galvanised people who would be unlikely to turn out for a local election (it is also local election day). People certainly do want to participate in politics, given the right incentive. Let’s face it, local elections are boring. Hip celebrities like Eddie Izzard have been hired to explain the reasoning behind AV. However, the Yes campaign has done a poor job of explaining itself. What exactly is the benefit of AV? Is it just change for changes’ sake? There are various arguments out there, easy enough to look up on the internet. But I have not been convinced by any of them. It was funny to watch the usually persistent Andrew Neil give up on cross-examining Eddie Izzard because it became obvious that Izzard had no idea what its consequences of AV would actually be. However, the fact that no one has adequately explained the ‘why’ is no problem for some. The vote for AV is being rationalised as a vote against the Coalition, as many of the comments on the Facebook echo chamber bear out. I would have thought that supporting a permanent change to the voting system in order to piss off a temporally limited party was self evidently moronic.
An objection that is seldom raised is that voters should not feel obliged to rank candidates in order of preference. This creates equivalence between ‘most liked’ and ‘least hated’. You could end up ranking a party you disagree with. But if you choose to stick to one party that you wholehearted support, and support no other, then your vote has less value. We should support a political party that best represents our sincere views, and once an MP is elected they have a solemn duty to represent all constituents. If there is a problem in terms of parties not relating to peoples’ political and moral opinions, then that problem cannot be fixed with a new voting system. It is a symptom of a deeper crisis in political philosophy. It is worth bearing in mind that parties like Green and UKIP are fundamentally protest vote parties who are most effective on the fringe of the mainstream, focussing as they do on one issue.
Finally, this raises an important point about Referendum. Should we not consult the people on whether or not to actually have the vote? There should be a mechanism to establish a level of popular interest and/or dissent that justifies the thing in the first place. Unlike this one.
There have been many attempts to connect the pro-democracy movements elsewhere in the world to todays demonstration in London. The thing to point out is that whilst protests elsewhere have railed against a despotic state, our protests are mounted with the intention of bringing it back. You can go round and round the debating points of profligate state + low cost of borrowing + poor regulation= disaster till you are ready to eat your own hands and the penny still doesn’t drop. It seems to be of no relevance whatsoever to the interest groups involved that the cuts are unavoidable. The reductive argument that ‘it was the bankers wot done it’ gets trotted out time and time again, and for many this seems to perfectly encapsulate the situation, as if the high level of public spending is a myth put about by the evil right. The fact is that we cannot expect anyone who works in the public sector to behave in any other fashion. Their livelihoods depend on it. And of course running a large public sector affects more or less everybody, because the State becomes innately pervasive. So it seems to me that the debate, assuming anyone is interested, should move away from the to-and-fro about the size of the State, to the fundamental question of why collective action embodied in the regulatory State should morally trump all others? This is the really dark meat.
For the past few weeks many have been following the progress of the Egyptian political turnaround. Comment has throbbed between support for the people in Tahrir Square and pessimistic warnings about the likely benefactors of a shiny new democratic process. A lot of people who were not particularly bothered about Mubarak prior to these events now feel passionate about Egyptian democracy.
It may be that voters in the States can reasonably lay claim to a truly democratic society in which the franchise applies at a local level as well as at a national level. I do not think that this can be said in Europe. We strongly support the furthering of the democratic process abroad. To us, it equates to social justice and representation. But how can we in the UK be so bold about the gains of the democratic society when ours is in such a questionable condition?
You hear a great deal about the abuse of the vote in the Middle East. ‘One man, one vote, one time’ has become a shorthand for the Islamist electoral takeover. How is that so different to the EU ‘referendum’ votes? And a ‘no’ vote in those is swiftly followed by another referendum until the electorate return the ‘correct’ answer. We have also had the long reign of an unelected PM, Gordon Brown. We now have an arguably unelected government- certainly one that lacks a serious mandate. Not to mention more or less continual constitutional vandalism.
Maybe I am exaggerating a bit to make the case. But it’s worth pointing out that we don’t stand on solid ground when we talk about representation, and holding elections is only one aspect of our democratic system. Behind the voting franchise lies the hidden clockwork, all of the brakes and flows of representative democracy. We have had a thousand years of fragile but steady evolution on this one, and the Robber Barons are still lurking around. So we should slow down a bit on this one. Elections could go either way, or neither way,or not at all. Our current political model is proof that voting and representation are different animals.
NB Daniel Hannan has made a similar point on his blog today. worth looking at.
This blog is intended to be a repository of my organised and considered thought. Consequently a month has gone by without my posting a thing. Between the festive season and the jetlag I haven’t really gotten my head above water. However it is now time to tidy up, wash the glitter off my face and get back to it.
As I sit by the fire, finishing the Christmas whisky and wondering what the new day might bring, there is a chance for reflection. Firstly, I regret not hearing any carols anywhere; I didn’t go to a carol service, but I like passing them in the street or listening to them from behind the front door (with the lights in the house off). I just didn’t hear any songs this time around. My mother and I sang ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and the beautiful ‘Coventry Carol’ on the way back from the pub on Christmas Eve. It is for others to judge our performance. I played a few favourites on my mandolin, but I’m not ready for public performance. Maybe next year.
I am glad I was away for the last few months. I don’t do left-wing revolt and I was vexed by the student riots. The idea that you can have a massively expanded student population and pay little for it is ridiculous. People who want university to be cheap, free or grant assisted should campaign for a return to smaller numbers rather than urinating on Churchill or trying to mug Camilla Parker-Bowles in front of her defenceless husband. Meanwhile the alternatives to uni have become far more attractive. You are also less likely to study Applied Marxism on a one year vocational course. The real issue, the removal of the block grant, was obscured. I wonder if the extraordinary facility for studying Old Norse at Leeds will now have to be funded by charitable donations? We don’t have a culture of institutional funding through donation as they do in the States.
Guess there is going to be more unrest this year, and people are gearing up for the uproar over what might be the practical abolition of the NHS as we know it. The continual blurring of the public and private sector always looks to me like having the potential for being the worst of both worlds. And my concern is that old people are going to suffer the most because they are in many cases the least able to fight their corner. But bankrupting the nation by overspending is no answer. The money always has to come from the taxpayer, and it is a matter of how that money is managed. Presumably the consultant class will transfer itself to the new committees, or whatever they are going to be called, and suck up some budget, whilst portioning up the rest. Probably a good time to see if BUPA have got a sale on.
This year, while the cuts bite and the row rages, the failing EU economies will be forced to pay for the overall failure of EU economic policy. Nobody, apart from fusty conservatives, ever gets angry about the EU. Most people seem to view it as an inevitability. However, the same wrongheaded thinking that led to the Credit Crunch has led to massive economic instability in Europe. We, although not part of the Euro, have to pay for it as well. People are prepared to go out on the street to demonstrate in favour of public services. The same people usually support or accept the EU. But if Ireland’s economy is stretched out to snapping point by ‘tough love’ from the central bank combined with an inability to rescue itself by devaluation, how will Ireland pay for hospitals and schools?
There was an amazing story on the BBC website today. A gang of Green Activists have been in court over an attempted attack on a power station at Radcliffe-on-Sea. The big story is that the undercover policeman has turned on his handlers. He is wracked by guilt, and wants to testify in favour of the activists. What is extraordinary, other than the coppers’ identification with the protesters, is the opinion of the judge. The offenders were treated as if society considers ecological activism somehow more morally defensible than other reasons for protest, and the individuals were lauded for their responsible attitude towards the threat of CO2. The reduction of fines that the judge authorised made the whole thing laughable. How is it that an unproved hypothesis warrants moral superiority? But I recall similar statements made about the moral authority of Green Activists by a judge, and also with regard to protestors at the EDO complex outside Brighton. A justification for ‘Direct Action’, the motto of thugs.
Wikileaks is such a red herring. There has been nothing controversial leaked in the last round of revealing. We find that America, as was commented on in the press last year, has no intention of engaging aggressively with Iran at the present time. We also find, unsurprisingly I think, that the USA doesn’t reckon the UK as much as we would like it to. Oh, and Wikileaks has released the work of authors without their permission. Because it doesn’t feel that it needs permission, because, of course, it’s Wikileaks, after all.
The America-bashing conspiracy freaks are lapping it up, though. Despite there being no items of actual interest, Wikileaks is being portrayed as some kind of monument to intellectual freedom that keeps the Man on his toes. I have a suggestion for the wise owls who aren’t getting fooled again; there is a source of information that reports on the mendacious activities of States all over the world, so that we can hold them to account. This information is printed on large sheets of paper, available for a fee from tiny outlets on street corners, which may or may not be fronts for the CIA, al Quaeda or possibly both at once. But don’t tell anyone where you heard this.
No doubt, the accusations that have put Julian Assange in front of a court sound like bullshit. And Wikileaks may or may not reveal things about our governments that are outrageous . But it is not difficult to find out stuff about Bad People if you check out some media. Your conclusions may be influenced by your own political persuasion; well, all fine and dandy. Nonetheless these things are out there, and journalists do extraordinary work . I fear the general attack on so-called bias that I perceive all over the media far more than the clamping down on unaccountable, hard to attribute interweb postings.
It annoys me that Wikileaks sounds a bit like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a magnificent example of a crowd sourced font of knowledge. The Skeptics Society, to name but a few, encourage editing of Wikipedia pages that cover pseudoscience such as homeopathy. Homeopaths are welcome to rebut such edits, if they can. Wikileaks itself does not have the same open skeptical access.
Perhaps Wikileaks is considered to be a standard bearer for freedom. It is a freedom of little value, not really worth having. Liberty is not license.
By and large, the attitude clusters that characterise political attitudes in the UK are duplicated in the States. Left leaning people will typically support a powerful State to implement social justice, point up environmental concerns and recognise sexual and racial diversity in our population. Conservatives will tend to advocate the primacy of inherited moral and social values, property rights and the rule of law. My belief is that this adversarial division is being negated by a political class that holds far too much power and does not really care for the principled stand taken on either side. However, there is a third stream currently mobilising in America that disrupts the familiar political dualities. I mean of course the Tea Party, which demonstrates a mixtures of Conservative and Libertarian tendencies.
Libertarians emerge from the same side of the stage as traditional conservatives; however they are far more evident in America than in the UK. The Libertarian Party are the third largest party in America and yet are only a tiny minority party on the other side of the pond.. Their doctrine essentially holds that regulation is a barrier to human freedom, individual morality and a level playing field for private enterprise. Libertarians share a common ancestry with Conservatives, both emerging from the Classical Liberalism of thinkers such as Adam Smith and John Locke.
The Tea Party is a popular movement that, although it fields Republican candidates, shares Libertarian concerns about regulation and constitutional abuse. And the Tea Party is a challenge to the Republican Party as much as Obama and the Democrats. This is because they are not formed from the political classes that have come to regard political power as their exclusive province, and regard that class as their fundamental enemy. They are anti-Washington. They are also constituted of a great number of people from outside of the metropolitan areas. This could interestingly be compared with the emergence of the Countryside Alliance after the foxhunting ban in the UK. It is fair to say that it took a Democratic government to radicalise them, but I doubt that they are pawns of the Republicans. It is easy enough to establish their credo; a return to the premise of the Constitution, and the guarantees of individual freedom from a despotic State contained within it. They are a spontaneous reaction to the Corporatism that currently dominates politics, and if it did not exist, neither would the Tea Party. Their political mission within the GOP is to change it.
There has been a lot of criticism of this movement. Tea Partiers have been subject to accusations of a personal nature such as racism. Calling people racist is always questionable as it is hard to refute; you might be ignorant of your own prejudice, after all. Who knowingly admits to being a racist? But there seems to be a perception that many TP’s are motivated by a resentment based on the colour of the President’s skin. It is better if people can give specific examples of such attitudes. And just as it is a difficult charge to defend yourself from, it is a difficult charge to make stick- sometimes it is no more than a smear. A more concrete criticism is that of Corporate backing. The Tea Party are funded in part by the Koch brothers; billionaires who give money to such things as art galleries and Libertarian causes. Here’s where it gets messy- an anti progressive movement interested in low taxes funded by very rich people. Looks bad.
However, it should be said that all political movements, political parties, NGOs etc receive funding from somewhere. The Koch brothers have a record of trying to get Libertarians into power and also of funding ‘climate change denial’. This is only considered wrong if you support the other side. Being highly skeptical of eco-politics myself, I can perfectly well understand why someone might fund a contrary lobby; heavy regulation, the outcome of eco-politics, negatively affects businesses and individuals both. It is one sided to criticise a political movement for being funded simply because you disagree with it. Of course the Koch brothers want low taxes, just as the TP’s do. It is the common cause that explains the link.
I think we could learn something from the Tea Party, and from the Libertarians. It is an Anglospheric political outlook, and many British people were sympathetic to the cause of the original Tea Party. Right now there are protests everywhere in the UK by people who believe in a strong State, and there are few to stand up to them, or oppose the increasingly desperate European Union. Or take the current mob in Parliament to task for their Corporatist maneuvering. Such a movement would probably arise from the Right, but would have to significantly change or ultimately reject the Tories. Libertarian Localists like MEP Daniel Hannan operate within the contradiction of being an anti-EU Tory. And it might well find allies on the Left who were anti-European Union, remnants of the older, more nationalist Labour party. It would be interesting at least to find out where all the Classical Liberals went.
In any case, the criticism of the TP’s reveals something interesting. Nothing I have heard people say against the Tea Party really engages with their position (not that they have a particularly well defined stance- they are more notable for what they are against than what they are for) and it is their individual morality, not their arguments, that is found to be lacking. This implies that the American mainstream either does not understand them, or is fearful to tackle them intellectually. I realise that some metropolitan people will find that statement laughable. But the average metropolitan has not had their views challenged in a serious way for some time.