Thursday 23 January 2014

Ringmer debates: does politics have to be a grubby business?

The January Ringmer debate was about politics - does it have to be a grubby business?

We didn't get to an answer to the question, though we did have a trawl through some of the things that happen in politics and the reasons why they might happen. Our non randomised survey of a few streets brought up this list of levels of trust.

Profession    Trustworthiness out of 10
Doctors                8.5
Royal Family        7.7
Teacher               7.7
Clergy               7.5
Police               7.1
Shopkeepers       7.1
Environmentalists    6.3
Lawyers               6.1
MI5/MI6               5.9
Economists       5.4
Entrepreneurs       4.9
Bankers               4.7
Estate Agents       4.4
Politicians               4.3

Politicians down at the bottom, below even estate agents. I forgot to include journalists in the options, which might have ended up with the politicians not being quite at the bottom of the heap. I do think that the media are responsible for some of the mistrust we have for our politicians. I illustrated this with a couple of examples. We hear often for instance, “X insists such and such”, and we often get the impression that X has gone out of his way to make a point to journalists, which they then obediently print. Such as “Osborne insists cabbages are good for you.” The truth is as likely to be along these lines:
Chancellor: I'd like to talk about the economy today.
Journalist: Just briefly Chancellor, what's your opinion about cabbages. Are they good for you?
Chancellor: Well, it's really about the economy.
Journalist: Just a quick word on cabbages
Chancellor: No, we have important news in today's employment figures
Journalist: All I need is a quick word about cabbages, then we can talk about the economy
Chancellor: Unemployment continues on its downward trend which is very good news for
Journalist: What's your problem with cabbages?
Chancellor: ….
Journalist: Are cabbages good for you?
Chancellor: Well, I suppose they are, yes. Now about the economy
Headline in next day's paper: Chancellor insists cabbages are good for you!!!!

Another thing I notice very often is the use of the word “vow”. Taking Osborne as our example again, this is a random sample of headlines culled from Google:

George Osborne vows to cut welfare...
George Osborne vows to slash spending by £25BILLION
'Britain's economy on the move again', vows George Osborne (it would be interesting to know how you could “vow” that. “Says” would have done. Or you could miss the verb out altogether: “'Britain's economy on the move again': George Osborne”)
Osborne vows 'responsible recovery
George Osborne vows first UK budget surplus in more than a decade

“Vow” means “promise”. In fact it means more than promise: it has religious connotations to it, something which we hold as an extremely high moral rule. Now, George Osborne is quite a clever chap, extraordinarily short sighted about some things, but a very good politician. He knows that there is a measure of chance about whether he will get to a budget surplus, or to £25b in cuts. What he really means is that is what he intends to do, always with a caveat about whether circumstances blow him off course, and he intends to get there or thereabouts. But media don't do subtleties: they won't print “we think we can get round about £25b of cuts, we'll be quite happy with £23b”. For journalists it has to be exact, it has to be a promise. And it gets turned into “vow” not because the journalists actually think Osborne is staking his life on it, but for one simple reason which has nothing to do with politics or indeed the representation of reality (which is what I naively assume news reporting is about). It is because the word is short. It fits into headlines better; you can get it into bigger fonts and not fall off the edge of the page. It is also, I think, because it is dramatic, though I think that is minor compared to its brevity. But for the sake of brevity, the genuine nuance of political life and decision making is lost.

The same is true about changes of direction. In our survey we asked “Should politicians be able to change their minds without always being accused of U-turns?” 74% answered yes. But it is very difficult for politicians to change their minds without a storm of criticism from the other side (because they know it works) and from the media - who ought to know better. Follow the dictum of Keynes - when circumstances change, I change my mind - what do you do?

Another interesting issue came up with regard to the change of reimbursement for MPs recently suggested by IPSA. There was a storm of protest when it came out, and the response of most leading politicians was unhelpful, saying that there should not be a pay rise at a time when other people were suffering lower living standards. (I think that is a very good example of the limits of politicians' power - they knew the wrong impression had been given but they knew they could not swim against the media tide.) The IPSA proposals were not actually for an increase in reimbursement. A rise in salary would be compensated for by less in expenses and less generous severance pay and pension arrangements. IPSA said their overall package was revenue neutral, in other words it shifted the forms of payment around without MPs gaining overall. We put this in our survey - stay as now, or increase the salary but with fewer perks, and our respondents were divided 49/51 on which was better.

The question that got most interesting responses though was “What words come to mind when you hear or think of Prime Minister's Questions”. I won't print all the responses, but most were along the lines of children, bear pits, hooligans. The single most often used word was “rabble”. Which leaves you wondering why they still do it, given the impression that most people get. The answer some of us came up with was that it is effective in Parliament, and that is what Parliamentarians see. If that is really the case, then the idea of the Westminster bubble perhaps has some validity.

All of this happened before the Rennard and Hancock cases came to public attention, proving that the LibDems can be just as sleazy as the other parties when we choose to be. Much of the commentary has focussed not on what the men have done, but on what the party has done about what the men have done. In my view this focus has been justified. It is a mucky period of our history. The procedures we have in place to deal with such things have not been, and are still not, as robust as they need to be. I suspect that this is because we have always thought of ourselves as the nicer party, ignoring the fact that some of “our” politicians can be just as grubby and just as street vicious as many of “theirs”. We have always prided ourselves on the rationality of our debate. When journalists have talked about the scrums we sometimes get into at our party conferences, we say, rightly, that it's called grown up debate.* And I am very thankful that we still have it. But we need to confront the realities of power, and particularly gender power. We have not done nearly as well by women as we should have, and the party - and Parliament - is the poorer for it. Partly it is a general issue that all organisations face, and partly it is a special one because of the special place Lord Rennard holds in the party's history. Yes, he did us a great deal of good. That doesn't mean we should let half the party down just to hold on to the memory of what he has done for us. Some soul searching is required, but also some determination to be ourselves a party in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity, and that includes conformity to the wishes of would be dominant males.

*Another example of how media report things badly:

Journalist: Is the party split over this??????
Any LibDem spokesperson: No, we're just having a grown up debate about the options
Headline; LIBDEMS SPLIT OVER [insert title of any policy we've debated in the last ten years]

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Ringmer debates: my country right or wrong?

Ringmer LibDems held a debate, open to all, on what national identity means. The material used to introduce the topic is available on Slideshare.

It's a bit surprising how viscerally some liberals dislike patriotism, less of a surprise how viscerally some conservatives dislike liberals for being unpatriotic.

I think there is a liberal form of patriotism. But the first thing to say is that it is patriotism made by choice. It is legitimate to ask why that choice has to be made. Many liberals eschew patriotism because of the evils done in the name of patriotism. But I think it is unavoidable in practical terms. We live by groups. Wherever we are, whatever we do, the human tendency is to clump. We identify with some things and against others. Nationality is only one possible form of identity; many others exist. If nationalities did not exist, we would find another way of dividing ourselves into groups, and we would find other reasons for denigrating, killing and maiming the people who are not in our group. The world has developed in such a way that nation states are the mechanism by which we establish territories and decide who to kill. In our world nation states hold the monopoly of legitimate violence. If it were not nation states, it would be some other form of group identity. As we are members of nation states, it is our responsibility to bend our efforts to making them behave with humanity and decency. To do that properly we must embrace our membership.

So how do we do that as liberals?

First of all, as I have already said, we must acknowledge that a liberal patriotism is chosen. I love my country because I choose to. I do not love my country because I must. (What kind of love would that be?).

I take pride in its achievements, and I acknowledge its shortcomings. I do not need to pretend that half of my country's history did not happen because I love it. (What kind of love would that be?)

My country is exceptional to me. And I can live with the fact that someone else's country is exceptional to them. I do not need to pretend that my country is better than anyone else's in order to love it. (What kind of love would that be?)

I express my love of my country  peaceably by upholding the rules and values of the place in which I live; and by being critical when criticism is needed - it is an expression of commitment to want to improve my country. And it would be an insult to my country as well as to me if I was expected not to object when the country is being pulled into doing something wrong.

And I express my love of my country by crying like a child during Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony.