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.

Crowdsourcers shame Telegraph

Crowdsourcing — an idea that suggests that many people working on their own on a collective project can accomplish great things — has put paid to the Daily Telegraph’s claims that only the vast resources of a major commercial newspaper could possibly have uncovered MP expenses abuse. And it has done it through the mediation of the Telegraph’s derided rival, The Guardian.

Originally put forward in a Wired Magazine article, and subsequently in a book by Jeff Howe, crowdsourcing harnasses the skills of the many (as opposed to — dare we say it in this context? — the lust for blood of the mob) to analyse data or to chew over a problem. In this particular case, Guardian readers, and, we can assume, other bloggers and webites, have been combing through the now-published MP expenses data. Despite the blanking out of crucial data, crowdsourcers have already begun to build up powerful profiles of who is spending how much on what.

More important than the actual method used — although it is important — is the fact that all this user-researched data means that finally we, the people, have access to our MPs’ expenses claims, not in driblets issued by the Daily Telegraph to further its own ill-concealed political agenda, nor in the avalanche of mind-numbing detail on which civil servants and politicians have been counting to put us off looking, but in clear, concise analysis, which can be checked by anyone who wants to.

This is what Freedom of the Press is all about — the freedom for any newspaper, or, in this blogging age, any citizen-journalist, to look at the facts for themselves, come to a conclusion, and put forward their own interpretation. Suddenly we are no longer in the hands of a journalistic-elite, themselves under the thumb of a right-wing editor.

This freedom has come too little too late. Too late for Cameron’s ‘old-guard’, who are set to be swept away in sweeping purges. And certainly too late for us collectively to have any faith in the financial probity of our politicians. And too little to set our minds at ease that now everything is in the open and nothing is being hidden. If you haven’t looked at the MP expenses yourself yet, then do. There is something uniquely terrifying about the way in which whole sections have been blacked out, with (crucially, in my mind) no annotations to indicate the reason for the black out nor the text minus the offending details. Nothing is more compelling in telling us that our interests are deemed as less important than those of an MP. Even though any private detective could dig up the real information (or just buy it from the Telegraph) without a great deal of difficulty.

Guardian readers have so far crawled through 700,000 heavily edited documents. The degree of scrutiny they have brought to it is vastly more than the Telegraph’s — in fact, we now wonder if the Telegraph was not tipped off to go straight for the juicier items, since they, in passing, overlooked so many other interesting things.

More to the point, though, is that the Guardian readers are enabling information to be aggregated. We know now that the Tories claim the most for food. But the aggregations also allow us to compare MP total costs for various things with their actual performance in the House of Commons, thanks to a little additional cross-referencing with TheyWorkForYou.Com.

Once MP second job information is published at the start of July, we will be in a position to see a league table of MP value for money. It will not placate the public. But it may give some old, recalcitrant and now entirely embittered MPs the push they need to, in the time honoured phrase, ‘pursue career interests elsewhere’.

Legit and illegit – expense omissions

MP Expenses claims –
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:
    [table id=1 /]

    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.

    But should they have egged Nick Griffin?

    Just like the Pirate Party winning a seat in the Swedish elections, the pelting with eggs which Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, suffered today must have caused a secret guilty smile for many of us. Of course we don’t agree with restricting the right of anyone to free speech, any more than we agree with copyright piracy. Of course we don’t agree with violent attacks on people, whether with eggs or something harder. And, of course we don’t agree with restricting the right of access of an MEP to the press.

    But a lot of people were secretly very pleased.

    Should we be? Should they have egged the BNP?

    Although it feels terribly emotionally satisfying to have the leader of Britain’s most odious party subjected to public humiliation, what we have actually done is play into their hands. Griffin will go back to his supporters and tell them how we (the public in general) denied him his rights. What happened will exactly confirm everything he is telling people. The BNP want martyrs, and they will do whatever they can to be seen to be unjustly persecuted.

    Hitler used similar techniques. The criminal actions of his followers were not done in secret in order to shift blame elsewhere. Rather, he used opposition to his advantage.

    We must give Griffin no such advantages.

    Would any newspaper have given sympathetic coverage to Griffin’s press conference? Not remotely. Was it then necessary to prevent it from going ahead? No.

    For better or for worse, we, the nation, have elected two extreme-right wing racist MEPs. I say we, because everyone who did not vote is complicit in their success, and everyone who has contributed to the disrepute under which mainstream politics now stands — be they journalist, politician, or pub pundit — has contributed to the voter apathy which allowed the BNP in.

    We have given the BNP a platform, and we cannot legitimately take it away from them.

    But we do not need to. The easiest way of destroying the BNP’s credibility among those it is trying to woo is to let its leaders speak out. Their racist diatribe is not just offensive, it is also nonsense. Put Griffin on the spot a few times, and he will discover that the sharp tools of journalism are far too penetrating for his limited defences.

    There is a poetic justice in allowing the BNP to discredit itself. And it will, it we do not play into its hands. If we prevent them from speaking, it will give the impression they have something to say that is so potent we do not dare allow it. By permitting them to speak — which we must, if we are not to abandon the very democratic principles on which we stand — we give them exactly the rope they need to hang themselves.

    And we should.

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