democracy

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.

Taxpayer, voter, citizen or stakeholder?

Here’s another question to try at home. Are you a taxpayer, a voter, a citizen, or a stakeholder? Of course, you are quite possibly all four, but which are you really? The nuances are quite different — but if we allow ourselves to be guided into one or other, the consequences are profound.

It was Aristotle ((Politics, Book V)) who suggested there were six kinds of government — three good, and three bad. Good governments, he suggested, were monarchies, aristocracies and polities. Bad governments were tyrannies, oligarchies and — indeed — democracies. That’s probably an arrangement which would surprise most modern people, but Aristotle uses the words in a slightly (or entirely) different sense. A monarchy, to Aristotle, was government by a single benign ruler, whereas tyranny was a government by a single, selfish, ruler. Aristotle’s monarchy had no particular connotations of hereditary monarchy, though he probably would have naturally seen things in that light. After all, he was tutor to Alexander, who rose to power because his father was Philip of Macedon. Aristocracy, to Aristotle, was government by the few noble — that is to say, by those who were better, more virtuous, more able to govern. We would probably talk about a meritocracy. An oligarchy was government by a few who acted selfishly. A democracy was government by the commoners, acting selfishly, whereas polity was a society governed by all for the benefit of all. Or more or less. You don’t want to spend too much time in Aristotle, because he goes on to expound the importance of slavery as an institution.

Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and we see the American presidential system showing some signs of the single, benign ruler. Some would say that Tony Blair was taking us fast down that route when in office. Let’s explore that for a moment. The problem with a single, benign, ruler, is that he can still be singly, benignly wrong. It’s a brave man today who would defend the second Iraq war, but, at the time, it was clear that Tony Blair really believed it was the right thing to do. The Blair government was often accused of spin and playing games, but it was when Blair acted in good conscience and with enormous conviction that he made the greatest mistake of his premiership. Blair talked incessantly, at least in the beginning, about a stakeholder society, and this is a notion which fits well with his style of premiership. The single ruler will make the decisions, but everyone has a stake in their outcomes, and so we ought all to behave well together, because this will result in better outcomes.

The term ‘stakeholder’ betrayed — I think — more of the Blair agenda than it was intended. If you have ever used the simple business tool the stakeholder analysis, then you will know that stakeholders are categorised by their interest and their influence. Those with high interest and high influence are engaged, those with low interest and high influence are kept informed, those with low interest and low influence are, simply, ignored. In a stakeholder society, the monarch, overlord, president, executive prime-minister, or what you will, makes judgements about who he can safely ignore, and who he must assiduously court — in other words, his courtiers. Take away the ruffs and frills of the court of Elizabeth I, and you see something alarmingly close to the stakeholder economy which existed under the government of Tony Blair in the time of Elizabeth II.

I suspect nobody alive today would defend aristocracy as a form of government if that meant allowing hereditary peers to lead us. But our civil service — a shadow government if ever there was one — is a meritocracy: a self-selecting government by the few brightest and best. We could argue about how bright and how best civil servants really are, but their entire framework, recruitment process and rewards system is designed to promote the most able at the expense of the least able. Given the amount of power which senior civil-servants wield, we should accept that, at least to some extent, we live in that very aristocracy.

But think again. An oligarchy is government by the few acting selfishly. But this is exactly the way in which we behave when we describe ourselves as ‘the taxpayer’, at least, if we do so to distinguish ourselves from benefit-claimants, asylum seekers, children in school, students in college, or pensioners. I’m always astonished when I hear people describe themselves in those terms, but I hear it often. Do we really believe that payment of taxes makes us more able or deserving of being allowed to run the country? And, if we do so, do we really want to make money the measure of all things? One would hope not. But, in the light of the recent MP expenses and second-jobs scandals, we give a strong impression that the only thing we are looking for in our politicians is cheap, value-for-money, bargain-basement politics. I don’t, won’t, and never have defended MPs who pilfered the public purse for personal profit. But the more we focus on that particular aspect of their conduct, the more we push ourselves into the mould of a tax-payer oligarchy.

We protest, strongly, if anyone tries to suggest that democracy is not the best thing there can be. Certainly, as a Liberal-Democrat, I would strongly assert democracy over monarchy, aristocracy and oligarchy. But perhaps we should side with Aristotle a little. When voters vote selfishly, we see the tyranny of the 51% majority. Voters can arbitrarily choose parties — such as the BNP — whose programme involves the removal of the rights of minorities. Voters can arbitrarily vote to punish the very wealthy, or, indeed, the very poor. As elections come up, politicians may posture on taking away the benefit rights of single mothers, or gypsies, or the under 25s who appear to be not working hard enough to find a diminishing number of jobs. If we see ourselves purely as voters, and we vote on a purely selfish basis, we discover very quickly the limits of the social contract.

The liberal-democracy in which we live, or, at least, the one in which some of us live, is made up not of stakeholders nor taxpayers nor voters, but of citizens. It is the Aristotelian ‘polity’ — a state where all participate in governance, for the benefit of all. Our participation is irrespective of the amount of taxes we pay, and also irrespective of the extent to which we contribute towards the particular kind of society that our overlord believes is best for us. Whether we have high interest or low interest in the government’s favourite programme, we can, and should, play an active role in our public life. And we should do so irrespective of whether a particular politician promises us personal advantage over our neighbours.

Taxpayer, voter, citizen, stakeholder. Just words. But their use in the daily dialogue of media and politics fundamentally shapes our perceptions. Do we care most if our MPs claim more or less expensive, or do we care most (without ignoring their expenses) whether or not they are good MPs? Do we care most that politicians offer us more, or do we care about the general good of society? Are we content to let our ‘betters’ run the country, while we enjoy the Olympic Games, Big Brother and low food prices (circuses and bread, thus)? To what extent are we prepared to use our voices and our votes to protect the unpopular — the group which is always the most vulnerable in a democracy.

We should choose our words carefully.

Legit and illegit – expense omissions

MP Expenses claims – www.parliament.uk.
Here’s the list of what parliament has decided should be omitted from today’s expenses disclosures:

  • Rejected claims
  • Any residential address
  • Regular travel patterns
  • Names of anyone delivering goods to homes
  • Money spent on security
  • Hotels or guest houses used
  • Letters/emails to Fees Office
  • Bank/credit card statements
  • Phone numbers on itemised bills
  • Personal items not claimed for
  • Staff names and addresses
  • Bank/Giro details
  • Landlord
  • or mortgage provider
  • Photocopies of cheques
  • Signatures
  • Reference numbers ie NI
  • Legit, or not legit? Heather Brooke — lest we forget, the journalist who actually pressed for all this to come into the open, long before the Daily Telegraph took an interest — is none too impressed. “I can see that avoiding embarrassment has been the key motivating factor of what’s been deleted,” was her comment.

    Here are my views on what should and should not have been omitted:
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    If you look at the actual expenses for MPs, it’s clear that the omission of details with no inclusion of covering details — for example, a general postcode rather than an exact address, mean that we have almost no power to scrutinise. We would not have seen, for example, where the fabled house of Boris Johnson was which was inside his constituency and yet more than 50 miles from London (Henley on Thames is 36 miles from London — perhaps he was confusing it with Henley in Arden, which is in my constituency Stratford on Avon). We would also not have seen the occasions when neither the MPs first nor second home was in the constituency or in London, nor would we have been able to identify flipping, or most of the other abuses.

    This is simply not good enough. How does Parliament expect to restore public trust if it refuses to disclose the details which would exonerate at least a proportion of MPs?

    Perhaps, in reality, Parliament has not yet faced up to the extent to which it has lost the public’s trust, and the parlous state of our democracy.

    Quite simply, this must change. And soon.

    What would you do?

    Here’s a game you can play at home. Imagine that you are Britain’s next prime minister. You’ve decided that you’re going to stay in power for five years. To begin with you have high hopes of changing everything for the better, but you quickly discover that there is so much work to be done to change even one single thing, and so many obstacles and vested interests, that you will only be able to five really big things — one a year. What would your five be?

    Forget, for a moment, how you choose to implement them. If you could have five things, what five? I tried this one with some of my colleagues. Making the unemployed work was a popular choice, so was making people more honest (remember, I did say don’t worry about how to deliver it). One person said she wanted to plant lots of trees, and make sure there were lots of parties.

    For the record, my five things would be:

      Restore trust in democracy
      End human trafficking world-wide
      Put a stop to predatory commerce (loan-sharks, scams, and those cash machines they put in deprived areas that charge you for your own money)
      Make Britain an environmentally sustainable economy
      Brand greed as a vice, not a virtue

    This might strike you as an odd list for a Liberal Democrat. Why nothing about education, the health service, the arms race, child poverty? These are all important issues, but they’re also all issues which pretty much everyone agrees on. All parties are for health, against crime, against bloodshed, against poverty, for education. My five are things which either — generally — government shows little interest in, or problems to which no-one yet has an adequate answer. Things that are worth going down in history for, perhaps.

    So, what are your five?

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