climate change

In 2010, demand better

British democracy has three problems. The vast majority of votes make no difference to who forms the government. The system persuades governments to go for short term wins at long term cost. Many politicians believe, or have believed, that you can get away with it.

Actually, we don’t have to have any of these things, and in 2010, we are in a position to demand better.

MPs are only beginning to get the message that they can no longer get away with it in the way they once did. Even that really only applies to expenses. I discovered recently that one MP was writing to newspapers to praise himself for not having to repay expenses, while at the same time making a profit of £1 million on a second home whose mortgage had been paid by the taxpayer. Clearly, he still believes he can get away with the second part, as long as he isn’t stained by the first. Some MPs appear to believe that they can conceal their background of privilege. Others appear to believe that past criminal behaviour will never come to haunt them. Many seem to think that a safe-seat means the electorate will never hold them to account for any of it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we should. Letters to the MP. Letters to the local newspaper. Reminding ourselves and our friends that we don’t have to put up with it. Changing the way we vote.

The bi-polar parliamentary system ensures there is little continuity from election to election. Even a party winning a second term can abandon the promises of its first term on the grounds that it has sought a new mandate for a new manifesto. More importantly, although it will probably be blamed for things which it does which later turn out poorly, it can almost guarantee not to be blamed for things which it doesn’t do. We are only in the situation regarding climate change now because successive governments did nothing. In the 1980s, instead of using North Sea oil money to build an infrastructure which no longer relied on fossil fuels, we spent the money getting ourselves out of recession and back into boom-and-bust. True, at the time we were mainly worried about when the oil ran out, and to a lesser extent about pollution. But both of those, if acted upon, would have been enough to help us stave off the catastrophe our grandchildren will now face. We don’t have to have two big parties which hate each other and use every opportunity to ridicule each other and scupper one another’s plans. Of course, any attempt to change this is met with the argument “this is how things have to work”. But they don’t. Other countries, not just the ones we tell jokes about, have multi-party systems, and parties and politicians are held responsible over the course of several parliaments.

In 2010, we can insist on grown-up politics. We can demand that our elected leaders work together for the common good. We do not have to tolerate bickering in the House of Commons. Once again, it will only change if we make sure our politicians know that it is what we expect and demand.

We now face the prospect of a General Election whose result may well be decided by ten or so swing seats up and down the country. No party is predicted to get anywhere near 50% of the vote. But one party or another may well discover it can form a government based on how many of those swing seats go which way. Those ten seats have, between them, less than a million voters. Turnout is likely to be around 70%. The winner in each of those seats will probably be winning with 35-45 per cent of the votes cast. The actual majority is liable to be 3-5 per cent in each of those seats. Which means that the fate of 61 million people may be settled by the swing votes of less than 100,000 people. In other words, less than 2% of the voters will decide the fate of all of us.

We all laughed at the way George W Bush won his first term despite the fact that most people voted for his opponent. But our system is more laughable than that.

We almost certainly do have to put up with this in 2010. We do not have to put up with afterwards. Again, change will only happen if we make it clear that this is what we want, and we are prepared to change our votes to get it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we owe it to ourselves to do so.

Both wrong on marriage

The Tories are promising tax-breaks for married couples, which Harriet Harman has described as ‘hypocritical moralising‘. But both are in fact wrong — Harman for her notion that ‘Families won’t want to be lectured by anybody about how to lead their lives’, with the implicit underlying assumption that all forms of family are equally functional, and the Tories for attempting to use tax-breaks as a form of social engineering.

Large numbers of studies have shown that long term stable parental relationships are better for children, and that married couples are less likely to split up than cohabiting couples. But equally strong evidence suggests that increasing wealth inequality across society has an at-least equally detrimental effect. The pivotal study is described in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, which shows how more equal societies do better.

The problem with the Tory proposal of creating a more advantageous tax situation for married couples (and I was one of those disadvantaged when Labour took this away in the 1990s) is that they are piling material rewards onto those who are more likely to become wealthy anyway. Voters, of course, love the notion of rewarding the good (married couples) while punishing the bad (single mothers on benefits), and it’s an easy button to press if you are an unpopular politician facing an angry crowd. But the truth is, if you punish single mothers by limiting their benefits, then you exacerbate inequalities in society, and the result will be more crime, more social unrest, less happiness, a greater differential in life expectancy, and a vicious circle which we should be doing everything we can to avoid.

Harman’s attack on the Tories is misguided — there is nothing hypocritical about supporting marriage, and a tax-break is not a form of lecturing. But the Tories have reverted to type by making a financial appeal the measure of all things. The reason we are now in a recession, despite the promises of Mssrs Clarke and Brown of an end to boom and bust, is that we have persisted in evaluating all things in economic terms. We have urged the brightest, most able, and (let’s face it) the luckiest on with ever higher bonuses, and we have supported an industry where companies are free to advertise loans to people who cannot possibly afford them, and no-win-no-fee court cases to those who would be better to get on with their lives. At the same time, our culture has increasingly valued possession of goods as the marker of personal worth. The three consequences of this should be obvious to all: economic recession, as we adjust to only spending money we actually have, climate change, brought on by conspicuous consumerism on a global scale, and deep social malaise, as everyone looks at the ideal world presented in TV ads and colour supplements and sees themselves falling short.

Social cohesion is essential for our future, and marriage is a key building block in social cohesion, but rewarding it with more money simply adds to another social problem.

As I mentioned before, I was personally cross when Gordon Brown took away our married person’s allowance, and that, with the subsequent demise of MIRAS which kept our mortgage down, had a very serious impact on our finances at the time. Taking things away that people rely on always causes hardship, and rarely does anywhere near the amount of good that was expected of it. But reinstating this allowance, as the Tories wish to, will not really be helping those who are hardest hit by the recession. Doing so in a means-tested way might help, but means testing is what the Tories hate most, since they want to reward people who have money with more money. I would not go so far as to ever accuse them of wishing to punish the poor for being poor. But in a society where relative, rather than absolute, poverty contributes so strongly to low self-esteem and consequent problems, that is effectively the result of what they are proposing.

We do need to support the things which hold society together. But we need to think of more creative and effective ways of doing it. As long as we continue to make money the measure of all things, we will continue to see British national life slide into oblivion.

Nonetheless, tomorrow we must vote on the issues

Tonight is pre-election night. Tomorrow, county and Euro elections.

Which means not one person who has been implicated in MP expenses is standing. To be sure, MEPs have been questioned about their expenses in the past, most notably UKIP, whose value to the taxpayer in terms of cost for work done is lamentable.

Westminster must be reformed, but tomorrow’s vote will not have a direct bearing on it. We could, of course, vote to send a message, but, for once, it appears that all the major parties have got the message already — though, what they intend to do about it varies from the disingenous to the radical.

So, what are the issues for the European elections?

By number of parties standing, you would think the main issue is Europe — in or out. But it isn’t. Not one of the major parties suggests we should leave the European Union. UKIP may see itself as a major party on this issue, but, after a full term with members in the EU parliament, UKIP has yet to be able to show a single change to the European system which it can call its own. A vote for UKIP is, in every sense, a wasted vote.

The reason that the serious parties all agree on our membership of the EU is that, notwithstanding any number of pictures of Winston Churchill and British Bulldogs (now more commonly used for selling insurance), Britain needs to be at the head of an effective, negotiating Europe. No matter what we would love to believe, the USA, Russia, India, China, and the federations of South America and of Africa are much too big for us to negotiate with as a single player. Worse, climate change is much, much too big for us to deal with alone. And worse still, international crime has now successfully organised itself to slip by any single-government policing programme.

Of course, the serious parties disagree seriously on how we should be involved in Europe. To me, it seems clear that there is only one logically consistent position. If we accept at all that we should be in the EU, then we should be fully participating just as much as France and Germany. Otherwise, we will be second-class members paying the full membership fee. This means full co-operation on crime, a genuine collaboration to rebuild our economies, and a concerted approach to climate change. Pollution, drug and people trafficking, and the credit crunch are three things that will not stop at the white cliffs of Dover.

Various gradations of ‘not-really taking part’ seem to me to be more about being seen by the electorate to be just Euro-sceptic enough to vote for. But they will do us as a nation no good in the long run, nor in the short, as we have bitterly seen in the last years.

So what about the ‘consistent’ position not of Euro-scepticism, but of total Euro-phobia? I spent a bit of last Thursday handing out leaflets while the BBC filmed me as background material to vox-pops. It didn’t take long for us to spot which two people were (more or less) walking up and down, lingering, in order to get their chance on camera. And, of course, they launched a tirade against Europe, the Commission, MEPs, MPs expenses, etc, etc.

If you want to get really angry about something, Europe is always a good choice — after all, it’s not going to come round to your house later saying “what was all that about, then?”, nor is it likely to be on the committee of any club you might subsequently want to join. Europe is, in some ways, tailor-made for the English eccentric who wants to have a jolly good rant, and then get back to raking up the leaves or making cakes for a jumble sale.

But, in reality, the Euro-phobic parties do not go any further than that in terms of their real policies. Euro-phobia is just another manifestation of xenophobia. And, like xenophobia, the real problem is where you draw the line about who is ‘foreign’. In its extreme form, American survivalists end up drawing a line around themselves and their immediate family, and declaring cold-war on the rest of the world.

Neither UKIP nor any of the other fringe parties has ever put forward any kind of a credible process by which Britain could leave the EU, nor have they ever put forward figures that any independent commentator would accept about how much it would cost the British economy to do so. This is not simply because there is no credible process. It is because anyone who works to acquire sufficient knowledge to put together such a process learns quickly that the programme itself is nonsensical.

I used to know a lovely old lady who had (as anyone would confirm) a heart of complete gold. Occasionally, though, she would talk about Europe. “They should never have built the Channel Tunnel”, she used to tell me. “That was really the end of Britain as an island.” She never quite explained what the exact implications of the channel tunnel were. I’m not sure if she felt that European-ness — perhaps a fondness for olives, French bread and espresso coffee — would come wafting through the tunnel like a ground mist. I don’t think she knew herself. But I feel that her fears were of exactly the same kind as the Euro-phobic parties: ill-defined, unfaced, impossible to pin down to any specific threat that could be managed or mitigated.

Such is the way of fear. Fear, as we have seen too often in the 20th century, is the worst of all guides at the ballot box. Closely followed by fury.

Tomorrow, we must put aside both fear and fury, and face the issues. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to each other.

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