Monday, 17 April 2017

“The Alternative”: some notes on the editors’ introduction

Nandy, L, Lucas, C and Bowers C, eds (2016), The Alternative, London: Biteback Publishing

The Alternative is an attempt to sketch the skeleton of a progressive politics. The editors’ introduction juxtaposes despair and optimism. It was born in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election which saw off Labour and LibDem challenges to the Tories and rewarded the Greens with one seat for more than a million votes.

Votes per seat per party in 2015 make interesting reading:
SNP 25972
Conservatives 34347
Labour 40290
LibDem 301983
Green 1157613
UKIP 3881099 (which is of course now no seats for nearly four million votes)

It takes 11 times as many votes to elect a LibDem MP as an SNP one, and 7 times as many votes to elect a LibDem MP as a Labour one.

And it takes 44 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as an SNP one, and 28 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as a Labour one.

Does this imply the need for a change in the voting system? The editors reach for PR, but I think this is inadequate as an overall response. A new system will change the balance of power within Parliament, but will not necessarily change the relationship between politicians and voters.

We now live in a world of uncertainty. The editors refer to this – nation states and globalisation, and the state of information. They refer also to inequality, but instability is a different thing from unfairness, and I suggest instability rather than unfairness is the driving force behind much of the protectionism, isolationism and conservative sentiment we are living with today. Inequality and instability are closely related. Inequality is probably one of the most powerful driving forces behind instability. But in my view inequality is not what people feel; instability is.

Instability has been with us for some time, and it will not go away. I am reminded of 1997. Before the election there was much talk of the “feelgood factor”, implying a feeling of confidence that the Tories hope was returning to the national mood. After the election the phrase was dropped instantly and entirely from national discourse (or maybe it was just the media discourse). It was as if we recognised at last that the old securities of a job for life had gone and we needed to get used to it.

I suggest the same is true now. Globalisation and its bastard offspring neoliberalism make it unlikely that we can make employment more stable and secure. But we can make income more stable and secure, by having fairer distribution to start with, and effective mechanisms for dealing with troughs in employment.

Part of this process is making a more effective state to regulate neoliberalism’s daily excesses and create structures within which people can be more secure. And part of that process is putting into office politicians who actually listen and act. They are part of what a progressive politics looks like. To go further with this, we need some sort of agreed starting point. The editors offer a definition of “progressive” which is worth quoting in full.

Progressives want to move beyond the current system and create a better one. We continue in the tradition of those who ended slavery, won votes for women, built our welfare state, and fought for the protection of our environment. Progressives believe in cooperation. We want a supportive and responsive state which brings the best out of people’s instinct to share success and support each other in hard times, and which offers genuine equality to all citizens, together with social justice, civil liberties, human rights and responsibilities, without discrimination on grounds of gender, age, physical ability, race or sexual orientation.

Progressives are, by definition, radicals. We re-imagine the way our society and our economy works from the bottom up. We wish to reform the socially isolating and environmentally degrading mainstream economics that has dominated our political discourse for several decades. While wealth creation is important, we need fairer and more effective ways of distributing the fruits of that wealth so that everyone benefits. We therefore want power and wealth redistributed, in order to empower citizens to work together to build fair and resilient communities for generations to come.

Progressives come from many ideological positions – including socialists, liberals, feminists, ecologists – and none. We share a rejection of the politics of fear and division, and wish to move towards a more inclusive society in which every citizen not only has the opportunity to develop themselves to their full potential but has as much control as possible over their own destiny and the chance to shape the society in which they live. This way we believe we will build a society that both empowers people and allows us to live within environmental limits. (pp xix-xx)

I don’t agree with all of it. As soon as I started looking at it in detail, I started nitpicking. Agreement is not to be expected, but this is a very good starting point for debate and progress towards working together.

To return to the start, perhaps optimism is not what I feel right now. What I do feel is purpose. Politics is a long, hard road, and I have no idea where it will take us. We are entering new territory fr progressives, territory where we co-operate rather than split, so we need new tools to survey it, map it and make it ours. We make the road by walking so walk we must.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The search for justice: Christian involvement in politics

This presentation with notes, is the material I used for a discussion at the Christchurch Think Tank (via the "What's On" link) entitled "The search for justice: Christian involvement in politics". You need to download it to see the notes.

I wasn't happy with the result. That is to say in terms of the quality of the final presentation; I do not know how much of the desired effect it had on the audience. Ideas evolve, but these needed to evolve more than most.

In particular it was long on analysis, but short on action. I think the ideas were there, just not well expressed.

In a nutshell:
- there is a need to put some effort into equipping ourselves to sort reliable information from the swamp of dross in today's media landscape
- then we need to put constant effort into using the equipment we have
- then we need to assert that the public / political is just as much a sphere for Christian action as the private
- then we need to accept that political action is a long term business that itself requires constant and long lasting effort.

It's a tall order, and not everyone is called to it, but those who are can draw legitimate inspiration from the Bible and Christian tradition, and will need to resist gently but firmly the efforts of politicians, media moguls and other Christians (usually the right wing ones) to put us back in our box.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

This is how to respect the referendum result

Originally posted 7th January 2017 on Liberal Democrat Voice.
I am frequently told that, as a “Remoaner” I must “respect” the result of the referendum. It seems to me that I am not being asked to respect it so much as to fetishise it.
Actually, I do respect it. I respect it for what it was – an advisory vote won by a wafer thin majority based on a mountain of lies.
Then, because I say that, I am criticised (virulently quite often) for being undemocratic and for not respecting the will of the people. And many people who did not vote Leave, and do not want to leave, seem to have accepted the line that the vote has happened and they must “respect” it.
But democracy is so much more than a single vote.
Generally speaking electoral votes stand, even if the majority is unsatisfactory. But that is premised on two conditions.  The first is that the voters get a chance regularly to change their minds. The second is that the voters were – at least relatively – well informed about the subject of their vote. All sides make their offers clear, and the media do a proper job of examining their claims.
Neither of these conditions applies to the referendum vote. There will not be a chance to change our minds about this one. Once we leave the EU, we will not be in a position to get back in for a considerable time. And if we do decide that rejoining might be nice, the conditions to rejoin will be the same as a new joiner, including having to join the Euro, which I do not see happening. So effectively, leaving the EU sets Britain’s course for at least a couple of generations. This vote is not sufficient basis for such a momentous and long term decision.
And the voters were seriously misinformed about what leaving meant. I blame both campaigns and the media for this. The Remain campaign was feeble, the most disorganised and ineffective campaign I have seen in British politics. Even Labour’s 1983 election campaign did not plumb the depths of this one. The Leave campaign was based on deliberate and sustained mendacity from start to finish.
The media failed completely to do the job they are required to do in a democracy. We do not have a free press in this country. We have a commercial press, which conforms to the requirements of its overseas owners, not the needs of the British public. Half the press amplified the Leave campaign’s lies; the other half failed to hold them up to scrutiny. In addition to that half the press has spent around the last twenty years softening the public up for this vote with an even longer sustained campaign of lies about the EU (in which Boris Johnson was a prime, and utterly dishonest, mover).
That is why I claim to be completely democratic in regarding this vote as inconclusive and this fight as unfinished (just as Nigel Farage was going to). To do anything differently would be undemocratic.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

"What I really wanted to hear from Remain"

Originally published on LibDem Voice on 23rd Dec 2016
I don’t know who Little Jackie Paper is but I am grateful to her / him for the following comment on  Katharine Pindar’s recent article on EU reform: “What I really wanted to hear from REMAIN in the referendum was, ‘if we remain in the EU the things that we would do differently in future are…..’”.
I think we all accept how ineffective the Remain campaign was overall. It is still quite painful to revisit it. I can still feel the daily gut wrenching at seeing opportunity slip by as the Leave campaign outthought and outfought us. We had so little to offer that was positive, and Little Jackie Paper’s comment sums that up. It focussed my mind, so here is my answer:
End within two years the silliness of the EU working in two places. It is a waste of money and time and it symbolises everything that is wrong about the EU. Find something to placate French feeling about the loss of prestige involved.
Invite every single EU country leader here on a rolling programme over the next two and a half years to explore concerns and mutual interests.
Get properly involved in the give and take of EU negotiation. We are so often a dog in the manger that we make people reluctant to give us concessions when they can.
Recognise (tough one this) that Britain needs the security of military and intelligence co-operation with all the countries that lie between us and Russia, and work to develop those links.
Give up our support for the remnant of TTIP, and support starting to work on a trade deal that benefits citizens, not corporations.
Work with others in the EU to ensure transparency, particularly in government spending. It should be UK and EU policy that any contract awarded by government must be subject to FOI scrutiny, and cannot be hidden by the fig leaf called commercial confidentiality. People have the right to see how their money is being spent regardless of who is spending it.
Develop an overall EU policy to tax corporations in the countries where they make their sales, not where they are able to set up their headquarters with sweetheart deals.
Make a point of publicising the benefits of immigration for this country, but at the same time recognise that central government policy has been unhelpful in dealing with effects. We should work to create quicker, more generous and longer term responses to places where immigration surges put pressure on housing, schooling and health services. We demand subsidiarity from the EU: we should practise what we preach and put more power, and more money, in the hands of local authorities who have to deal with the negatives of immigration.
That is one way of recognising that, as well as changing our approach to the EU. we need to change the way we do things in this country. The EU is not the cause of many of our problems. The bigger problem is the fascination that Tory, Labour and some LibDem leaders have for neoliberal practices which benefit elites far more than they benefit ordinary people.
We must develop a regional policy that spreads jobs and prosperity beyond the south east.
We must develop a housing policy that actually builds houses.
We must develop a principle that any major spending project, like HS2, must pass a test of benefit to the regions, rather than the de facto test of benefit to London.
We must immediately provide significantly more resources to HMRC to pursue payment of corporation tax.
That’s a start.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Tin of the year

I bought this in 1973. I used the last peppercorn from it this year.

I wonder if there is a museum somewhere that would like to have it.

Best technology of the year: the delivery paddle

Manufactured somewhere near Newhaven. Pressed hardboard. The originals had no thong. The thong was added after one disappeared through a letter box, and now has teeth marks on it.

Monday, 7 November 2016

I want to stay in the EU

This post first appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice.
There has been a bit of a sea change in British politics in the last couple of weeks.
Since June 23rd Remainers have had to put up with their lot, accept the referendum result as if it were a binding expression of democratic will and start preparing for a post Brexit world, or face howls of outrage. I guess that is still the likely outcome, despite today’s court ruling.
But it has become more possible than it has at any time since the referendum to say publicly that I want to stay in the EU, and I hope very much that we find a way to get out of the fix that the vote for Brexit has put us in. Partly it is a matter of courage. Any expression of dismay with the result has been met with a explosive mixture of nastiness, aggression, scorn and abuse ever since. The level has not abated but I have begun to summon up the courage to take it on. Partly that comes from having worked out more firmly the reasons why I stand where I stand:
  • The referendum was not an instruction to Parliament. It was a snapshot of opinion. Opinion was different before, and it has again become different since. (Current polls are around 52-48 for staying in – the margin Farage said he would not accept.)
  • The majority was wafer thin, and it is quite right that our sovereign body – Parliament – should decide “whether” to pursue monumental, damaging and long lasting changes to Britain’s political and economic structures on the basis of such a tiny majority.
  • The vote was won on the basis of a mountain of lies from the Leave campaign and therefore has no moral standing. I do not buy the subsequent lie that both sides lied. The Remain campaign indulged in what I regard as the normal level of exaggeration and selectivity of a political campaign. It never approached the industrial scale of the Leave campaign’s lies.
What has happened since has also stiffened my resolve. Every Leave voter I have spoken to knows exactly what the vote meant for them and everybody else. The trouble is they can’t agree. I have read a number of accounts applying the alleged stages of change to the result. I read one today. It said there are four stages: denial, anger, chaos, renewal. Brexit has not been going through these stages. Brexit has been chaos ever since June 23rd. Nobody, least of all the government, has a clue what is going to happen. It is not wise to plan our long term future on the basis of chaos.
So I want to stay in the EU. I want to be part of reforming it so that it works for its citizens, not its elites. And I want to be part of reforming Britain as well so that it works for its citizens, not for its elites. I want the people who voted to leave because they feel ignored to have a government that is interested in ensuring that they have jobs, houses, a health system and a future that works for them. That means massive change in our political priorities. It does not mean leaving the EU.