David Cameron

Angelic healing, the Hamiltons, and why parliament may only have five years left to re-invent itself

A week is a long time in politics, and a week in the annual silly season of July-August is not only long, but also frequently bizarre. While the Hamiltons are busy fundraising for UKIP in possibly even less salubrious company than their own, a UKIP prospective parliamentary candidate has quit in Somerset on the grounds that the party has been overrun by the occult. In other news, a UKIP councillor branded a peaceful Islamic procession a ‘call to war’, and a council hopeful, in the ‘Description’ box, where she was supposed to write ‘UKIP’, wrote ‘Blonde, curly hair, gray eyes‘.

I do sympathise with the PPC driven out by occultists. I‘ve never personally suffered that fate, but it is certainly a tough call to fight a seat at a General Election, and candidates finding their support evaporate are in a wretched position. The ‘blonde, curly hair’ was probably either just a mistake (and who is free from those?), and may yet garner more votes than otherwise.

What is really disturbing about all these things is that they probably will not matter to UKIP’s showing at the next election. People mock them, laugh at them, call them nutters, or ‘kippers’, but they will continue to gain votes for as long as MPs do nothing to restore faith in politics.

The rise of UKIP is not simply a rise in reactionary, poorly-informed, anti-Europeanism. Britain has always had its pockets of xenophobia, ready to be ignited by any threat to our interests, or even to our pride. We can take comfort that UKIP’s strong showing at the polls this year went hand in hand with a collapse in support for the BNP. UKIP is also not the only protest party to have garnered votes. The Greens did extremely well, and independents have been gaining ground in council elections.

The real problem is not with UKIP or UKIP voters, but that the public has despaired of MPs. We are now well-used to MPs coming at the bottom of the annual polls in trustworthiness, where nurses come top, doctors come second, and MPs, estate agents and used car salesmen at the other end, with typically around a quarter of people trusting them.

This has comedic value, of course, and no comedian short of a joke can go wrong making one at the expense of politicians.

And yet, and yet.

It is one thing for us to have a robust, disrespectful view of our elected representatives. It is another to think so poorly of them that we are prepared to dismiss everything we are told as lies, assume the worst of all their motives, imagine that they are all in the pay of multinational corporations or foreign governments, and rise in fury when there is even a hint of them being paid the same as nursery school head teachers.

A reasonable amount of disrespect is, I think, absolutely necessary if we are to hold them to account. Complete dismissal, however, does not strengthen us as voters, it leaves us liable to the charms of anyone with a pleasing manner and an opportunistic personality.

I don’t seriously think that Nigel Farage is a particularly reprehensible individual. He is cavalier with facts, and very willing to pull the wool over the eyes of the unwary, as we saw in the Farage-Clegg debates where he described a made-up figure as ‘our estimate’, and when his subsequent interview on LBC  revealed some things about his attitudes that he evidently preferred to keep hidden. Farage though — to briefly bow to Godwin’s Law — is no Hitler in the making, and he never will be.

What’s more, UKIP’s poll ratings are now contracting, and it’s unlikely that they will win seats at the next General Election, though they may retain more deposits than in the past, and their attritional effect is almost certain to give David Cameron and Grant Shapps some sleepless nights on the way.

Fast forward five years, though. If nothing is done, if we have five more years of expenses scandals — which, notwithstanding pledges, have not gone away —, MPs in court over sexual harassment or perverting the course of justice, U-turns on manifesto pledges, cat-calling in Prime Ministers Question time and questions about cash for honours and cash for access, then the corrosive work of one-guilty=all-guilty media reporting will have taken us close to the point of no return. No party can claim to be innocent of all these things, least of all UKIP. Quite possibly it will not be UKIP in 2020 which is rounding up the disaffected votes. It could be anyone, or anything.

What is the first duty of an MP? To serve their constituents? To fulfill their election promises? To turn up and vote? Surely the very first duty of an MP is to preserve and promote confidence in democracy itself. Nobody should burn the platform on which they stand.

To win back public confidence, MPs must change their own behaviour. No matter how much shenanigans people enjoy watching on TV soap operas or reading about in the tabloids, they expect something different from their MPs. We need to end the public school style bullying in the chamber of the House of Commons. Party whips need to be much, much tougher on MPs caught redirecting their expenses in non-legitimate directions (aka fiddling). Ministers need to quit fast when their departments fail, as they did in the old days, not leave civil servants to take the blame.

MPs are not the only ones who need to take a look at themselves. The vast majority of MPs were never implicated in the expenses scandal, and yet ask any person in the street and you will hear the words ‘they’re all at it’. This is a direct result of the way news is reported. Newspapers have long argued that freedom of the press is essential in a democracy, and they are right. But where freedom is in danger of destroying that democracy, the time has come for newspapers to express restraint. It is not the reporting of the news which is at fault — if something has happened, it should be reported. Rather, it is the barely veiled insults, character assassinations, insinuations and inferences which are used to leave readers to ‘draw their own conclusions’.

We, the voters, also need to take a look at ourselves. We get the government we deserve. We expect political parties to do the work of campaigning and informing us at election time, but we treat them with contempt when they do, and complain that it isn’t election time if they disturb us at other times of year. We are happy to Like, Post and Share on Facebook and retweet accusations and evidence which we haven’t even taken the slightest effort to verify.

This is not about blame. Voter apathy, media complicity and politician complacency will kill our democracy just as effectively as democracies were destroyed in the mid-twentieth century, without even the necessity of insurrection.

In the words of TS Eliot, ‘this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper’.


The upshot of Leveson — press a part of democracy, not above it

The upshot of Leveson — press a part of democracy, not above it

BBC News – Leveson report: Maria Miller urges swift action by press Lord Leveson has given his report on press self-regulation, and matters must now move swiftly on.

At the outset I need to admit I have not read his 2,000 page report. I doubt many have. In a sense, it is already irrelevant, because what matters now is not what Leveson said, but what government will do about it. We are already looking at the prospect of a bill put forward by the government which will have the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but not by David Cameron’s Conservatives. Whether such a bill can actually make it through the House of Commons is another matter.

The upshot of Leveson’s inquiry, though, is to sharpen the question of whether the press is a part of democracy, or above it. The Conservative view is that Parliament should have no role in setting limits to the press — the press needs to do that itself. The Liberal Democrat (and, it seems, Labour) view is that having attempted non-statutory self-regulation, and found it wanting, the case is clear that Parliament should assert its authority.

In a sense, this is the difference between Liberalism and Libertarianism. Liberalism is about maximising the freedoms for everyone, even if this means limiting the freedoms of some. Libertarianism is about refusing to limit any freedoms, even if the upshot is that the rights of some are infringed by the freedoms of others.

No British political party welcomes government by the arbitrary restriction of freedoms. In that sense, Britain is a liberal democracy. The question is, what freedoms must be restricted, to what extent, and by whom.

In most cases this depends on the people exercising them. Although Parliament has the power to legislate on anything, it tends only to legislate either to promote the specific policy objectives of the party in power, or in response to abuse of existing freedoms.

At the same time that we are looking at regulation of the press, we are also looking at the regulation of pay-day loan companies, and at a minimum per-unit price on alcohol. Both of these other issues are the result of abuses. In the case of pay-day loan companies, interest is being charged at many thousands of percent per annum on those least able to manage their own financial affairs. While the responsible end of credit companies have worked hard to assure that people do not put themselves in financial difficulties through borrowing, the pay-day companies have exploited people’s financial difficulties in order to profit from ruinous borrowing. With alcohol, the availability of cheap ways to get drunk at home has had a savage effect on the health and well being of many, and, incidentally, a destructive impact on pubs and restaurants.

We would not be debating any kind of regulation on the press if the existing system of press regulation was working. I’ve commented on that elsewhere, which prompted a long phone call with the communications lead at the Press Complaints Commission who felt I had been unfair. In principle, I agreed with her — when functioning as advertised, the PCC would have done the job. In practice, my experience was I set it out. Leveson seems to have come to a similar view.

The reality is that the vast majority of articles published in the vast majority of newspapers are honest, as accurate as the journalist could make them, provide a valuable service to the readers, and were generated through a legitimate and upright process. The problem is that a small minority of stories were anything but — and it was often those stories which provided the big headlines, the scoops stories and the enormous sales on which some major national titles depended.

The reign of terror inflicted on the JK Rowlings, the McCanns and the Dowlings, among many others, should not stand in any democratic system.

At the moment, no-one is proposing a government-run body to supervise the press. Government supervision of what the press can publish would set our democracy back hundreds of years. We need a free press as part of the way we hold politicians, big companies, rogue traders and pressure groups to account. We are already beginning to see the impact of inadequate protection of the press in the way in which scientific journals are receiving threats of legal action because they are publishing papers with which vested interests disagree. We need more protection for the press to publish those kind of public interest stories, not less.

What we are looking to is an independent regulator with statutory teeth. The possibility, for example, of genuinely large fines that threaten the viability of the most profitable and frequent offenders is something that self-regulation cannot provide. In a self-regulatory regime, a paper faced with a choice between going out of business or ignoring the regulator would — from a commercial point of view — most likely ignore the regulator. Self-regulation organisations are aware of this, and are therefore unlikely ever to attempt to impose tough sanctions that they cannot enforce.

Leveson does not go far enough for the McCanns — as we heard eloquently put by  Gerry McCann on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. He goes too far for David Cameron, who described his proposals as a Rubicon we dare not cross.

It’s easy to dismiss Cameron as making a political judgement to keep his friends in the media on-side. Certainly the investigation, and the arrests which have been linked with the same issues, are difficult for him politically. But his concerns are legitimate. We must not put a tool into the hands of parliament which a benign government will only use for good, but which opens the door for manipulation at a later stage.

Nonetheless, the current situation cannot continue.

It is now the task of parliament to turn Leveson’s proposals into something which does not realise Cameron’s worst fears, but which provides a remedy so effective and substantial that the worst offenders change their practice to something which — in the rush for headlines — does not trample the rights of the innocent in the name of freedom.

How should I vote?

How should I vote?

English: US President Barack Obama and British...

US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron trade bottles of beer to settle a bet they made on the U.S. vs. England World Cup Soccer game (which ended in a tie), during a bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Toronto, Canada, Saturday, June 26, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elections are upon us again. In the USA it’s Romney or Obama, and in the UK we have our first ever police commissioner elections. For some people the choice will be easy: they will vote the way they always vote, even though, as fixed voters, it means that their political influence is minimal. But what if you are a floating voter? Or what — as, for many Liberal Democrat voters facing the police commissioner elections — your party or favoured candidate is not on the list?

We once organised a meeting on this subject in the city of Ghent, Belgium. Unfortunately, most people who came to it did not want to know how to vote, but what to vote. They were not intersted in the principles for making up their own minds, but simply on an instruction  as to which candidate they should select.

If you’re a fixed voter, and your candidate is available at the next bout of elections, you’ve probably already made up your mind. But, even then, there are a large number of things in modern life which call us to make a choice where there is no party candidate standing. X Factor votes may not be particularly significant, but choice of school governors, staff reps in a job negotiation and even club elections are potentially substantial choices which will shape the future.

People vote for essentially four reasons, two of which (I argue) are good, and two of which (I maintain) are bad. This isn’t just me. Aristotle, in his Politics, describes six kinds of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, versus tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Monarchy he saw as one ruler ruling for the benefit of all. Aristocracy was the noble ruling for the benefit of all, and polity was the citizens ruling for the benefit of all. Tyranny, by contrast, was a single ruler ruling for their own benefit, oligarchy was the powerful ruling for their own benefit, and democracy was the people ruling for selfish purposes.

Most modern thinkers would argue that monarchy and aristocracy inevitably lead in time to tyranny and oligarchy. However, we have appropriated Aristotle’s demeaning term democracy to describe the polity which he recommends: citizens, deciding together for everyone’s good. Equally, though, we recognise the tyranny of the 51% vote where the majorrity rule at the expense of the minority, and we deplore it.

My belief is that people vote for four reasons:


  • Rationality
  • Reaction
  • Prejudice
  • Self-interest
Rationality is when we vote because reason tells us to. We examine, perhaps, the policies of the candidate, or their track record, or their expertise, or documented actions which inform us about their character, and we vote accordingly. Essentially we are asking ourselves: will voting this way further the common good, based on my interpretation of what that is?
Reaction is when we vote because of a gut feeling. This is by no means counter-rational. Every day every one of us increases our experience of people. We observe what they say, how they say it, what they then do, and what the result is. These observations are tiny and unnoticeable, but they build up into a coherent model which we use without thinking about it in millions of ways. It tells us who to trust, when to get out of trouble. When making a political speech, we all know that a candidate will make the best possible case for his programme and his candidacy. If we agree with the programme, we still have to ask ourselves, ‘do we trust him?’ Better a candidate who is honest about what they can and cannot do, than one who will promise the world but deliver nothing.
Prejudice is the debased form of Reaction. It can be prejudice about gender, ethnicity and religion, or it can be more subtle things: we don’t like someone’s accent, we don’t like the car they drive, we don’t like their job, we don’t like where they live. Barack Obama was attacked by many because he had an Islamic sounding middle name, and an African sounding surname, despite all the evidence that he was an American from an at least nominally  Christian background
Self-interest is the debased form of rationality. There are laws in most country against overt  attempts to buy votes, which is considered to be a form of corruption. Appealing to people’s self-interest, though, is the key to the difference between Aristotle’s polity and democracy. This self-interest appeal is fundamentally an appeal to what benefits you over what benefits everyone, including you. This is not a left-right issue: conservative voters are perfectly capable of voting for the good of all, even when it will cost them something, and socialist  voters are equally able to vote for the good of a particular union or community against the wider good. Historically, I don’t see a greater pattern of altruism on the left or on the right, though people on the left tend to be more concerned with social morality and those on the right with personal morality.
It’s very easy to get tricksy about these things. Demagogues can effectively present an appeal to self-interest  as an appeal to the greater good. Fascist parties and extreme nationalists are skilled at dressing up their appeals  as more virtuous and honest, in order to create an impression that you are responding instinctively to their character whereas you are really responding on prejudice. Even highly skilled and perceptive analysts are susceptible to flattery.
You may be responding to this by saying that it is your vote, and you are entitled to use it in pure self-interest. You are certainly entitled to cast it any way you want, but there are certain  ways of casting it which, in the long run, will result in there being no society to cast it in. Rational voting may well be enlightened self-interest, but pure self-interest logically results in societal collapse, since it was the principle of collaboration and seeking the common good which enabled societies to function in the first place.
You may also be responding by saying that you always and only vote rationally. If that really is what you think, then most likely you are voting out of prejudice or self-interest. In a series of seminal studies, Drew Weston showed in his book The Political Brain that those pre-committed  to a particular view go through a series of mental exertions when confronted with facts that run against their view. However, they quickly post-rationalise, and come out more convinced of their original position than ever. It’s one of the marks of rational voting that the voter is willing to reconsider when new evidence emerges — and also prepared to recognise that often the evidence is insufficient. The truly rational voter is humble about that rationality, and looks to support it with human reactions.

You may yet be saying that you always vote with your gut instinct, and you can’t trust the politicians anyway. Unfortunately, being nice and being honest don’t necessarily equip someone to lead a country, or even a police authority, any more than being nasty and brutal do. It’s still necessary to ask the question: what will they do?



Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Simon Hughes addresses parliamentary candidates, June 2010

Simon Hughes — a one man conscience of the coalition — addresses Lib Dem candidates.

BBC News – Will geeks inherit the earth?. Like it or not (and I don’t), our electoral system is locked into “us” and “them”. Government and official opposition. That’s how the system works and, though I believe it’s time to change it, as long as it is the system (to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force), we have to make it work.

Until three months ago, we had the luxury of two opposition parties. The system didn’t really cope with that particularly well, and the electoral framework creaked under the weight of it. But it meant that legislation, policy and rhetoric were put under powerful scrutiny.

Journalists, of course, argue that they are the real scrutiny on government, which is why freedom of the press is so essential to democracy. As an aside, the same newspapers which bleat longest about this tend to be the ones that exercise the maximum of power without responsibility, and complain the loudest at any attempts by the BBC to increase its journalistic reach. But that is an aside. Journalism does play an important role, but the very fact that journalists are not offering to form the next government limits that role severely: anyone can pundit (Michael Gove, when still a journalist, introduced himself and some of his colleagues to me once as “the punditing classes”), but, like an irritating teenage back seat driver, one tends to pay less attention if the critic has never actually put themselves forward for a driving test.

Which brings us back to our two-way / three-way system, which has suddenly become a one-way system. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining that Liberal Democrats are in government. We knew this would push us back down in the polls. We knew we would have to swallow some policies which we found unpalatable. But we also knew that to abrogate the responsibility, play no part in government, and limit ourselves to the role of endless back-seat motorist, would do the nation no good.

But, perhaps in this at least we were deceived: we imagined that Labour would quickly reinvent or at least reassert itself, find a leader to rally around, and start asking the questions of government which we would be asking if we weren’t in it. This is not a function of there being a leadership contest. David Cameron and David Davis made considerable use of their own leadership campaigns to get some substantial barbs into the then Blair government. In a certain sense, it gave the party a free shot at goal, because it would be committed to the point of view of only one of the contenders. One might imagine that by having five contenders, Labour would be able to launch a veritable broadside of witty, incisive and damaging attacks.

But they have not. We are all worried about cloned animals entering the British food chain, but with four identikit contenders and just one token ‘other’, Labour has taken political cloning to a beyond-GM level. Far better it would have been for just one Miliband, one person representing an entirely different perspective (old-fashioned left-winger, anyone? anyone?), Diane Abott, and no others. The public can’t really cope with five options, even if the Labour faithful can get all passionate about the benefits of one ex-Oxbridge ex-policy advisor with two or fewer children over three others of the same type.

I am not looking for a decent opposition in order to bring down the coalition. Far from it: I want the coalition to succeed, and Britain needs it to succeed. But it will succeed better if properly scrutinised by a considered, passionate and informed opposition that can command the public’s respect. At the moment — for all their policy credentials — the Labour gang of five cannot even command the public’s interest.

It is left to Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, party deputy leader, to carry on as a one man opposition within the government, a conscience for the party and the coalition.

This can be sustained — but only for a short while. We desperately, desperately need Labour to find its feet and fulfil its system-ordained purpose.

Political parties worry about being endlessly condemned to opposition. But that is not the worst place to be. Far worse for them, and Britain, to be self-condemned to offering no opposition.

Or none that serves any purpose.

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