Thursday, 7 April 2011

Why I’m voting “Yes” on May 5.

There has been a lot of rubbish talked in the debate over the electoral system referendum. What was a potentially interesting and non-partisan issue has been dragged to lowest common denominator mud-slinging. The number of petty and disingenuous claims by both sides has been embarrassing, and suggests that for a mature, political discussion the last people to ask are the politicians. David Cameron has repeatedly claimed that AV is too complicated, a claim that is both patronising and incorrect - indeed it was the method by which he was elected leader of the Conservative party. Similarly, the ‘Yes’ campaign have focused on negative campaigning, as with their recent poster showing Nick Griffin with the caption, “He’s voting ‘NO’ How about you?” The faults with this line of argument are many, and show that the terrible debate has been caused by both sides, in a ‘rush to the bottom’ campaigning style.

Personally, I don’t think that anyone in the country feels as strongly as the campaigns would have us believe. Whatever the result of the referendum, the sun will still shine, and we will still have to pay taxes. AV is not a major overhaul of our voting system, and is not even a proportional system of voting. I’m not convinced by the claim of the ‘Yes’ campaign that AV will make politicians more accountable, and nor do I believe that AV will lead to an end to British society as we know it. I just think it will be a bit better. That’s all.

I am a relatively recent convert away from First Past the Post (FPTP). (I hesitate to say convert to the ‘Yes’ side, as I am unwilling to credit them with any role in my decision, and want to distance myself from them where possible). I understand many of the benefits of the FPTP system, and I think it has served Britain well for much of our political history. The benefit of FPTP is that is grants a majority to the party which wins a plurality in the election. The First Past the Post system creates a situation whereby the party which receives a plurality, but not a majority, is imbued with a majority in the House of Commons. I can see the benefit of this. However, the salient point for me is that I believe that the electoral system should not take the results of an election and fix them to make them ‘better’. In essence, I don’t think the electoral system should get a vote. I think the result of the election should match as closely the votes cast in an election. I’m not advocating for PR, because I believe a local link to an MP is important at a time when Parliament seems distant and discredited. But I feel that the votes cast in an election should be the result.

In the 2005 German Federal election, Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU party won 35.2% of the popular vote. Her party won 248 seats in the Bundestag, out of a possible 598 (41.4%), and formed a coalition with the SPD. In the 2005 UK General Election, Tony Blair and the Labour party won exactly the same percentage of the popular vote as Angela Merkel, 35.2%. Tony Blair won 355 seats out of 646 (54.9%) and held a majority of 66 seats. With just over a third of the popular vote, Blair was able to enjoy a comfortable majority, where Merkel formed a coalition, which in total accounted for 69.4% of the popular vote. I know which result I think is better.

One of the major arguments against non-FPTP systems is that it breeds too many coalitions (something which puts David Cameron in a bit of pickle, since it is difficult to say coalitions are bad without undermining the current coalition - however, I don’t think Cameron really believes coalitions are intrinsically bad any more than he believes AV is complicated). Benjamin Disraeli famously said that “England does not like coalitions”. However, there’s no real reason why coalitions are bad. Yes, it means that law-making can be slowed, but only because no single party has a mandate for legislating. Instead coalitions force political parties to be less partisan, and more consensual, something which voters appreciate. The U.S. Constitution is based on compromise and scrutiny, and has achieved certain elements of success. In Europe, coalitions are common. Even in the UK, local government is more often than not run by coalitions. Indeed, conservatives (with a big and a small c) should welcome coalitions as an opportunity to prevent radical and unmandated legislation from becoming law. Obviously, coalitions with huge numbers of parties are too unstable, as any student of Weimar Germany knows, although this was an example of full PR, rather than the measured reform of AV.

That is not to say that AV is perfect, and I certainly don’t think it is the best electoral system we could have in this country. The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system used in Germany and in the Scottish Parliamentary elections allows for a local MP, whilst giving more proportional results. This would be my ideal system. However, AV is a step in the right direction. A ‘No’ vote would, I believe, end the case for Parliamentary reform for a generation. AV is not the end point, but instead will gradually lead to further parliamentary reform. The 1832 Reform Act is knows as the ‘Great Reform Act’ not because it slightly extended the franchise, but because it ushered in the age of reform, with Acts in 1868, 1884 and 1918 all building on the extension of the franchise. Voting ‘Yes’ to AV is a very British form of politics, favouring evolution over revolution, and gradual change over rebellion. A ‘Yes’ vote would be a vote improving a system which has seen better days. In the words of Edmund Burke, one of the philosophical fathers of modern Conservatism, “Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Nick's 'Cleggacy'

Nick Clegg - as predicted before the election - has emerged as kingmaker, albeit one with less of a personal mandate than was expected. His decision appears to be an unenviable one - does he prop up Gordon Brown, a man whom Clegg seems to personally dislike, and his fetid Labour party? Or David Cameron and the Tories, the party that inspires the most hatred from their opponents? The ideological basis of Liberalism and the Liberal Democrat party is such that common ground can be found in both cases. Like the Tories, Liberalism favours a small state, and a reduction of political control over society. Like New Labour, Liberalism is a party of the middle and lower-middle classes. The dilemma is complex, but that should not mask the fact that the Liberal Democrats have an unprecedented opportunity. A plethora of options is a positive situation, not a negative one.

Given this, Nick Clegg should be looking to the long term. Whilst he may be tempted to take David Cameron's offer of a coalition, this would harm the party in the long run. At the next election, assuming the coalition was successful, the Tories would be able to campaign alone and a polarised Conservative versus Labour election would squeeze out the LibDems. If the coalition were unsuccessful it would be even more damaging to the LibDems at the next election.

What Nick should do therefore, is relatively simple. Sometimes the easy option is the hard option. The LibDems should categorically refuse to be in a coalition with the Conservatives. There is no way that this option would be positive for the LibDems. Instead Nick Clegg should insist that David Cameron forms a minority government. In a time of financial crisis politics should be looking to consensus, not division. Forming a coalition is an exclusive act disguised as an inclusive one. If Cameron wishes to pass laws through Parliament he should design them to be popular across all parties. Let the election result herald a new era of non-partisan politics, the topic which gained Clegg most support in the election debates. Cameron has spoken much of the national interest, so let him design legislation that meets with the support of all of the nation. Cameron would be Prime Minister of all within the nation, not only those who voted for him. Britain is a pluralistic country, a 'community of communities'. How better to represent this than by forcing the government to win the support of people who nominally oppose them. Clegg should promise to let good bills pass, and poor ones fail. An end to the 'elected dictatorship' is surely in the national interest. Clegg should support the Tories, albeit from an arms length.

The call for proportional representation grows in the country. The LibDems have mooted the idea of demanding PR as a prerequisite for coalition. Gordon Brown has offered full PR if the LibDems work with the Labour party. Instead, Nick Clegg should use the fractured majority-less House of Commons for his own benefit. The fact that the (anti-Reform) Tories do not have a majority means that they cannot, by definition, prevent Bills from passing. Clegg can, early in the new Parliamentary session introduce a Private Members Bill for Parliamentary Reform. It can be considered, reasoned Reform, based on a great deal of research (much of which the LibDems have already conducted). With the support of the Labour members, as well as the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, and the other small parties (all of which stand to increase their influence under a proportional system), the Bill would pass, and Clegg would be able to claim a personal triumph for Parliamentary Reform. If the Bill were well designed, it would be able to gain much popular support, and some Tory members may even be induced to support it. Alternatively, Clegg need only pass a Bill granting a referendum on Parliamentary Reform to achieve the same aim, albeit with less of a personal victory.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats experienced a shocking squeeze in the last week of the campaign, as Labour and Conservative supporters abandoned their desire to vote idealistically not tactically. The strength of the LibDem campaign was also their undoing -they were not Labour or the Tories. This is, in general, the LibDem's greatest strength and weakness. By using this, however, they can maximise personal partisan gain, as well as ensure the consensus-based governance that a hung parliament mandates. Nick Clegg has an opportunity to achieve Parliamentary Reform, and stand to watch the Conservative party struggle to remain popular as they make drastic cuts in public spending. Clegg can go into the next election (which will be soon) having achieved Parliamentary Reform, campaigning against a Tory party which has savagely cut the economy and a Labour party still disliked by the vast majority of the public. In effect, Clegg must stop thinking about the last election and instead look to the next. The Liberal Democrats won 23% of the popular vote on Thursday. Under this plan, Nick Clegg could not only ensure that the LibDems fought the next election under a system which would grant them a representative share of the seats, but would be doing so against two parties who were hugely unpopular and with parliamentary reform under his belt. That is a remarkable opportunity for Nick Clegg, and for the future of the Liberal Democrat party.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The audacity of Pope

Pope Benedict XVI's plans to visit Britain in September are increasingly meeting with opposition. Now, a cursory knowledge of British history should suggest that this is perhaps not totally unsurprising. Even now, in 2010, a Catholic cannot be King (or Queen), and Tony Blair felt it necessary to wait until he left office to embrace the Church of Rome. The Northern Irish situation has only recently made breakthroughs in preventing Catholics and Protestants from acts of aggression towards one another. British history is predicated on a strong anti-European feeling, and the Pope represents within the British psyche a foreign tyrannical power.

What is notable about these protests, however, is that much of them have come from atheist and agnostic organisations, particularly the British Humanist Association (which, in the interests of disclosure, I confess to being a member of). Atheism and agnosticism are growing trends within British society. In 1990, around thirty percent of Britons stated that they were not members of any religion, which has risen in 2007 to slightly under forty-five percent. Admittedly statistics defining who is an atheist are notoriously difficult to trust, owing to the problem of what question to pose (for some reason, "Are you an atheist?" is not simple enough). We can see, however, that numbers of atheists and agnostics are increasing as numbers of church-goers declines. Numbers of 'atheists' and 'Christians' in the UK are relatively even, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2007.

Many of the arguments made by the British Humanist Association centre on the fact that religion holds a too-important role in present society. The BHA claim that religion, and religious issues are, for want of a better word, 'deified'. So far so noble. However, the protests over the visit of Pope Benedict expose a tragic hypocrisy within the atheist movement. Aside from the issue of endemic Church abuse, which emerged as a scandal after the protests to his visit began, there seems to be little justification for the atheist opposition to the Pope's visit. Increasingly, the BHA is playing into the stereotype of 'dogmatic atheists'.

If, as I suspect, the BHA wishes to show that the Pope is an outdated concept, based on superstition and overseeing what is increasingly emerging to be a network of pederasty, then fine. However, by protesting his arrival, it is they who are serving to 'deify' him. A true humanist would not protest the visit of a peaceful old man to any country. In doing so, they succeed only in emphasising his importance. By banning 'Mein Kampf', the German government tacitly implied that the book was so persuasive, that to allow Germans to read it would ensure the return of the Nazis. By protesting against the Pope's visit, the BHA is tacitly indicating that the Pope is so important he should not be allowed to come to the UK. Atheists and agnostics gain much of their strength in argument from refusing to be drawn into theological or scriptural mudslinging. By surrendering this high ground, they greatly inhibit their case.

In 1989, in the midst of the furore over the publication of 'The Satanic Verses', Salman Rushdie stated "It is very, very easy not to be offended by a book. You just have to shut it". Similarly, if you don't want to recognise the importance of someone, it's very, very easy. You just have to ignore them.

As an agnostic, I don't recognise the Pope's authority as either relevant or interesting. I'm sure many in the BHA would agree. But lots of non-relevant and uninteresting people come to Britain each year. It's not very humanist to prevent them. Let the old man come, I say.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

In Media res

Since this is the first proper post, it seems fitting to start with a topic selected by Radical Joe himself. I was lucky enough to spend some time perusing his private papers, and amongst his personal correspondance I found this little gem, written during a holiday to Turkey:

"Turkey is an interesting country with no resemblance to the bird of that name. The people live chiefly on tobacco and coffee and the dogs bark all night and sleep all day. They are not muzzled, but the press is."

There is much that could be talked about within this three sentence passage, although what seems most interesting, and most relevant to the modern world is the issue of press censorship.

There are two current news stories that are directly related to the role of the press within society, in very distinct areas of impact. The first is the ongoing Chilcott inquiry, and the issue of the extent to which Blair and Alastair Campbell manipulated the press with their (over)emphasis of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein. This discussion is particularly interesting given the two-way nature of the argument- Blair and Campbell manipulated the press throughout their time in power, particularly in allowing 'The Sun' to seize on the 'forty-five minute claim' to justify the invasion of Iraq. However, following journalistic claims that the WMD dossier was sexed-up, Campbell in particular cried foul, leading to the sacking of Andrew Gilligan, and the unfortunate death of Dr. David Kelly. The presence of the Chilcott Inquiry should serve as a basis for a wider debate on the role of the media in the political process, particularly in a nation of a strong centralised executive such as the UK, without the checks and balances of a separation of powers. In essence, the media should be the watchdog of the government in a political system that has a weak legislative branch. Too often it is not.

Confusingly, the second area in which the role of the press in society is being examined is with the breaking of the story of John Terry's affair with a teammate's girlfriend. The story was previously the subject of a gagging order, which was recently lifted as the judge ruled that Terry's attempts to prevent the story was due more to his desire to protect his sponsorship deals than his family. Personally, I am uneasy with the media being the arbiters of morality, particularly since shock and outrage sells more copy than judicious tolerance. However, the presence of gagging orders for stories tends very much towards press censorship, which in theory I suspect many of us oppose. Is it not better to have a gutter press than a muzzled press?

The problem with the media in society, is that it operates within a constitutional purgatory, simultaneously within and without the remit of the political arena. The media has the capacity to alter election results, to shape public opinion, and to organise opposition to a cause or an individual. One need only think of the campaign against Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross which was organised by the 'Daily Mail' or the role of 'The Sun' in the 1992 election. And yet, despite this power, it operates within the free market, with very little public scrutiny of precisely whose agenda is being advanced. The German author Heinrich Böll wrote 'The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum' in 1974 to describe the rise of invasive news reporting in West Germany. The story concerns a young woman, Katharina Blum who is briefly (very briefly) romantically involved with someone linked with the German terrorist organisation, the Red Army Faction. Under immense press scrutiny, which involves the dissemination of deliberate untruths, Katharina is ultimately driven to murder. The message is clear, the press have won, they have created the story that they themselves will report.

The role of the press within society is one that must, therefore, be actively decided upon by the public. Whilst it is true that the media represents public opinion, the manner in which they do is often aggressive and sensationalised. With the Conservatives' questioning of the nature of the BBC, and the bailout of RBS and Northern Rock, the demands of the public are increasingly turning to issues of legitimacy and accountability. Publicly funded bodies are supposed to be of a higher standard, owing to the absence of a strictly capitalist drive and the greater amount of accountability. Accountability for failed bankers means a limitation of bonuses. For the press it should mean the necessity to name sources and a strengthening of the Press Complaints Commission. Crucially, however, the PCC cannot and should not be allowed to act on issues of morality. These provide a distraction for the work of the commission, and no institution in twenty-first century Britain should be allowed to set a morality agenda. The PCC should instead focus on investigating spurious claims and journalistic methods. Although they will find themselves to be overwhelmed in the initial period, they must persevere, since the finish point is that rare thing, journalistic integrity.

It is bad news for John Terry and other celebrity philanderers, for the price of a free press is the publication of their misdemeanours. It is good news, however, for experts, who will be able to ensure that their comments are not exaggerated or misrepresented. But most importantly of all, it will be good news for us, the British public, since it will draw power away from shadowy newspaper editors, and make the process of reporting infinitely more transparent, shifting power to the public. If the press are the watchdog of the politicians, then ultimately the public must be the watchdog of the press.

Welcome to Radical Joe

Hello, and welcome to Radical Joe, an all-inclusive blog for those willing to think impartially.

First, a mission statement. It is my intention in writing this blog to comment on the news stories of the day, in order allow a new perspective on events to be discussed. I hope that you find what I have to write interesting, since in my opinion, writing should be something that engenders thought and discussion. I hope that even if you disagree with what I write, you appreciate that this blog is intended as a forum for ideas. Call it idea-sharing. I am strongly of the opinion that you can learn from writers with whom you disagree, and yet many of us select newspapers with the most similar political bent to ourselves.

I do not intend to use this blog as a means to advance a partisan agenda. Indeed, in the spirit of 'Radical' Joe Chamberlain, it is ideology which transcends label. The underlying ideology of this blog is that ideas and discussion are fun. Besides, I'm nowhere near important enough to have any sort of agenda to advance.

I will endeavour to write this blog regularly, and even if you just read it in passing, I thank you, and please comment/e-mail me. I look forward to sharing ideas with you.