Tag Archives: democracy

Is our democracy OK?

The behaviour of Trump and May over the past few days should make us ask some hard questions about our governance.

I don’t normally go to public demonstrations.  Yesterday evening I made an exception, and joined in one of the many rallies around the country provoked by President Trump’s travel ban.  Even more out of character, I stood up on a bench, took the proffered microphone and spoke to the crowd.

The rally was in Exeter and some 700 attended. The speakers before me had concentrated, rightly, on the impact of Trump’s travel ban and the damage and hurt it was already doing to individuals and families.  They spoke movingly, based on personal experience and knowledge.  I spoke to highlight the other spectre in the room – the UK Prime Minister, who failed to condemn the ban when first asked about it, and has since made only mild disapproval known through other ministers and her spokespersons.  This is further evidence that Mrs May is not keen on human rights – during the EU referendum campaign, her most memorable intervention was to favour withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (which is nothing to do with the EU).

Mrs May has steered our country into a position where our government is in effect begging the United States for an early post-EU trade agreement, as if that were the only priority in international relations.  Trump had barely paused for breath after being sworn in as President, before she was on a plane to see him.  And Trump knows we are the supplicant: the pointed refusal at the press conference to confirm his “100% backing” for NATO that May claims to have extracted from him; the hand-holding; and the executive order for the travel ban as soon as she was on the plane home (he clearly couldn’t have tipped her off, otherwise she would not have been so equivocal when asked about it in Turkey – wouldn’t she?)

What we’re seeing is the two leaders of the “special relationship”– both novices in their own way – practising bad government.  Trump is rushing out executive orders on hugely controversial topics, firing anyone he can who disagrees with him (the acting US Attorney General has just been removed), and allowing his press secretary to use inflammatory language: the Attorney-General was guilty of “betrayal”, the senior US diplomats who are protesting against Trump’s policies should “either get with the programme or they can go.”  No respect, no acknowledgement that others may have a point.

Back on our side of the pond, the Prime Minister is unmoved by a petition of over 1.5 million signatures protesting against a state visit by Trump – note that the objection is to a state visit involving the Queen, not to a working political visit.  Statements from May and her office completely fail to recognise the strength of feeling on the issue: she’s issued the invitation and that’s that, is the line.  Even though it’s unprecedented (I think) for a state visit invitation to be issued no more than a week after the invitee has taken office – but then there’s that trade deal to be thought about, isn’t there?  A deal, by the way, that will almost certainly favour the US more than the UK, and will resurrect the objectionable elements of the now-defunct TTIP [1].

Our Prime Minister also has scant regard for Parliament.  It took a decision of the Supreme Court to reassert the need for Parliament’s authority to approve the decision to give our Article 50 notification to the EU.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the behaviour of May and Trump highlights the fragility of the arrangements for representative democracy, here and in the US.  Government is, at the end of the day, a series of negotiated settlements between competing interests, and the purpose of elections is to redefine from time to time what the “public interest” is in those negotiations.  Ministers need to be sensitive to the views of others, open to change where that seems to be in the public interest, and ready to acknowledge and respect other views even where they do not agree with them.

It would be ironic if the two countries who perhaps more than any others stood firm in the defence of freedom, tolerance and democracy during the 20th century were now to be debased by leaders who prefer diktat to persuasion.  But that is what seems to be happening.  In the UK, Parliament needs to remember that it is the source of all legitimate authority – and start acting on it.  And a critical appraisal of our governance should be high on its list of priorities.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – was being negotiated behind closed doors between the EU and the US until talks broke down last year.  In the name of “free trade” the TTIP would have led to some weakening of EU rules on the environment, food standards and employee rights; and would have ensured that once a public service had been privatised it could never be returned to the public sector.  It was drafted as, in effect, a charter for big business to do pretty much what it liked.

The trouble with this election is that the voters might think for themselves

Well, that’s clearly the view of the Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, Conservative MP for East Devon and a Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Mr Swire recently treated readers of the Exeter Express and Echo to an article headed “Beware of voting for chaos politics”.

The first half of his article is the usual scaremongering along the lines of a vote for anyone except a Tory will lead to a Labour-led coalition with the SNP/Greens/LibDems.  The Greens are singled out for particular venom, though Swire tops his ineffective hatchet job by the accusing the Greens of holding to what he clearly regards as the grossly irresponsible belief that “money, in the end, is less important than quality of life”.  So, there you are: the Tories are after the fat cat vote.

However, it’s not only parties that fall to the withering Swire analysis.  His next paragraph is worth quoting:

Then there are the occasional independent candidates that pop up every now and then and think they can change the world. They can’t. If by some miracle they get to Parliament, and occasionally they do, they are up against a system that does not cater for them. They rarely win a second term because once there they are powerless and ineffective.

This is probably one of the most insightful statements, from an experienced insider, of how utterly unfitted for the 21st century our parliamentary democracy has become. What sort of representative democracy is it where “the system” freezes out an elected MP just because he or she doesn’t belong to a mainstream political party?

Of course Swire doesn’t see it that way. He’s trying to frighten his East Devon constituents into believing they’ll be wasting their vote if they support his real opponent, the community-focussed, committed district and county councillor Claire Wright who is standing as an independent.

My late father was fond of saying that one of the problems with the Tories was that they thought the voters were stupid. 50 years on, that at least hasn’t changed.

Policy-making in the dark


The government’s threat to cut funding to the rural community action network has graver consequences than the damage to the organisations involved.


First, some brief background for those unfamiliar with the rural policy world. Cognoscenti can skip this bit.

In 2010 the new coalition government announced it would abolish the Commission for Rural Communities, though the quango’s death throes were drawn out until 2013. Much of what the CRC did was of minimal value, but it did generate a significant evidence base which could inform ministers’ rural policy decisions. The government decided instead to rely on a new and small Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra. The lack of resources in the RCPU led to it receiving a critical review from the Commons Efra select committee in July 2013.

The RCPU presumably realised that evidence-gathering was not its strong point, which made life a bit difficult for a government and a civil service ostensibly committed to evidence-based policy making (though my own experience, and that of others, suggests that “evidence-backed” would be a better description). The RCPU entered into a funding contract with ACRE, the umbrella body for England’s rural community councils, aimed at filling the void.  Under the contract ACRE provides hard information, collected from the 38 county-based rural community councils, about the effects of government policies – or the lack of them – on rural communities. So the RCPU has been fed tailored intelligence collated and interpreted by ACRE to inform policy responses across government.

I ought at this point to declare an indirect interest. From 2011-14 I was a trustee of ACRE, elected by the RCCs in the south-west.  I was also a Defra civil servant, but that was in another life.

The Defra funding has not only supported intelligence gathering, although that is the focus of this blog. The most recent impact report shows what else is achieved by the ACRE Network with the funding: the executive summary explains all you need to know, including the fact that £2.25m of Defra investment has enabled a further £12.5m to be levered in from local and national sources, with consequent additional benefits to rural communities.

Now the bad news. As part of the endless cuts in government expenditure, Defra has threatened not to continue to provide funding to ACRE in 2015/16, the final year of the contract. This is entirely consistent with the government’s view that communities should take more responsibility for themselves, though it’s not clear how cutting funding to community development organisations will help communities do this.

ACRE has launched an e-petition with a view to getting the issue debated in Parliament or – perhaps more realistically – drawing public attention to the issue. The e-petition is carefully worded: it does not say there will be a catastrophe if the funding ceases but rather that the work of the RCCs and the network would be seriously weakened, with a knock-on effect on communities. What it doesn’t address – understandably – is the impact on government policy-making.

As part of its civil service reform programme the government is establishing a set of “What Works” evidence centres, outside the civil service, designed to review evidence of policy implementation and initiatives across six key policy themes. Unsurprisingly, rural policy does not figure directly, though one would expect a rural dimension to all of the themes, particularly Local Economic Growth. It follows that good rural intelligence will be needed to ensure that the evidence centres take account of the particular circumstances of rural communities and the changes they are undergoing. The ACRE intelligence collection programme is an obvious and proven source of such intelligence. Abolishing it can only lead to a much less informed civil service.

But perhaps evidence isn’t so important to the government after all. The foreword to the latest review of the progress in achieving civil service reform is distinctly confrontational in tone. Two statements stand out:

  • Discomfort over value for money and implementability should be handled by way of an open discussion and, if necessary, a Ministerial Direction.
  • In the event that the permanent head of a civil service organisation thinks that his/her organisation’s professional capability is being seriously eroded by current Ministerial priorities or decisions, then that Accounting Officer should seek a Ministerial Direction.

Of course this rarely used provision has always been in the small print of minister-civil service relations. Yet to give it such a degree of prominence in a public document might lead a sceptic to conclude that ministers are wedded to battles with a civil service that retains a commitment to evidence-based decisions rather than solely to political dogma or political short-term fixes.

Against that background a decision to axe the ACRE contract would be a small illustration of how, despite the fine words, ministers aren’t really interested in good government.

75,000 voters are locked out of the UK’s democratic process

Can you imagine a country in which people are not allowed to vote for the party of their choice because the ruling elites think it’s a bad idea to let them? There are indeed many examples. Oddly, the UK is one of them.

At the May 2005 general election the Buckingham constituency re-elected the sitting Conservative MP, John Bercow. In June 2009, Mr Bercow became Speaker of the House of Commons, ceased to be a Conservative, but promised his constituents that this would not impact on his ability to represent their interests to government. To be fair to him, he has continued to speak out on key local issues, including his opposition to HS2. However, unlike Carswell and Reckless, he did not consult his constituents before changing his party status.

Come the May 2010 general election, the Buckingham electors – of whom I was then one – were offered a choice of candidates: the non-party John Bercow, the UKIP leader Nigel Farage (much less well-known than now), a former Conservative MEP standing as an independent against Bercow (who came second), and a range of unknowns. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties did not put up candidates, pleading the long-standing convention that the Speaker should be re-elected unopposed.

Feeling less than thrilled at being denied the right to vote for a party that stood a chance of forming the next government, I wrote to the three party leaders in advance of the election asking them if they considered this situation satisfactory and whether they had plans for change. The Conservatives stood by the status quo. The LibDems said that the system should change, but not now. Labour didn’t reply.

John Bercow was duly re-elected. After the election, I wrote to him setting out my concerns about the exclusion of 75,000 electors from the democratic process. I was not alone, and Bercow was clearly sensitive to the strength of feeling on the issue. He asked the Commons Procedures Committee – made up of MPs – to review the question of whether there should be a “Speaker’s Seat” in a general election – meaning that once a MP is elected as Speaker there should be a by-election to enable a new party-aligned MP to be elected by the constituency.

The Procedures Committee looked at the issue as part of a wider enquiry. Their self-serving conclusion is worth stating in full:

“In the context of this report, we have not conducted a full inquiry into the proposal for a special Speaker’s seat, which would in any case require primary legislation. From our review of the arguments and the history of the idea, we are firmly persuaded that the advantages of the change are outweighed by the disadvantages. There are great benefits to the House and to the Speaker in the Speaker’s retaining responsibility for a normal constituency and being thereby fully aware of the issues currently causing concern to constituents. The access that the Speaker, like Ministers who are also unable to speak out in debates, gains to the Government in order to raise matters relating to his or her constituents compensates in no small measure for the lack of a constituency voice on the floor of the House. We are also concerned that the proposal would remove the important democratic check on the re-appointment of a Speaker by either the public or the House and would create a new separate, distinctive and privileged category of Member to the detriment of the House. Finally, we recognise that the existence of a Speaker’s seat could lead to worse consequences for a returning Speaker, if not re-elected by the House, than at present since there could be no possibility of a return to the backbenches in such circumstances and the traditional honour of a seat in the Lords could cease to be available in the foreseeable future.” [1]

All the Committee’s arguments centre on the benefits to Parliament of the present arrangement and on the adverse consequences to the Speaker of changing it. There is not a flicker of recognition of the effective disenfranchisement of the Speaker’s constituents and the affront that this is to the democratic process. So much for the House of Commons as the voice of the people.

In May 2015, the electors of Buckingham will yet again be denied a vote for a government of their choice. The good news is that the Green Party intends to field a candidate in Buckingham, which offers a positive alternative for voters fed up with the shenanigans of the mainstream parties.

If you think current practice is wrong, write to your own MP now. Seek a commitment that s/he will if re-elected campaign in Parliament for reform. And do the same to the other prospective candidates. The blight will one day move on from Buckingham, and it could be your constituency’s turn next

Notes:

1  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmproced/1573/157305.htm#a12

Atonement: why the baby boomers should vote Green

Exeter, January 2015

It was Winter 1972. The lights started going out, thanks to the miners’ strike running rings round the Central Electricity Generating Board. As a university undergraduate I recall groups of us studying the power cut rotas and arranging to visit each others’ houses to carry on studying (and making instant coffee).

The other memorable event that winter was the publication of a paper entitled A Blueprint for Survival. It made up a special January 1972 edition of what was then a new magazine entitled The Ecologist. It argued that the planet was on a disaster course, with human behaviour disrupting ecosystems, exhausting natural resources and food supplies, and leading ultimately to social breakdown. Economic growth as we knew it was not sustainable. Radical social change was urgent.

A Blueprint for Survival was obligatory reading for anyone of even mildly progressive bent. Although some of its proposed solutions lacked conviction, the analysis was compelling.

But the mainstream world moved on as if A Blueprint for Survival had never been, with only a handful of marginalised evangelists pressing the case. The generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s – my generation – failed to respond to Blueprint’s challenges. There was some tinkering at the margins, since most environmental thinking and policy developed firmly in the mainstream: pollution controls, land use planning policies, wildlife protection and modest incentives to behavioural change, such as payments to farmers for environmental services. All important, but nowhere near enough. Even today, climate change deniers ally with big business to resist the costs of adaptation and mitigation.

Why did most of us do so little? The answers would make a fat academic tome, but my own brief take is something like this. We started to make our careers in a period of extreme (for this country) social instability. Mrs Thatcher offered an alternative, and the majority opted for it – again and again and again. That alternative was based on the perceived superiority of markets and the private sector over public provision, and the belief that those markets should be unfettered. The print media – largely owned by the rich and powerful – encouraged belief in the Thatcher prescriptions. And then we started to think that there might be better ways. New Labour offered them – or so we thought. Apart from a tendency to squander public money, it was business as before. All the while, we carried on working, having families, finding houses to live in. If we got involved in environmental issues it was by joining the RSPB or CPRE or the National Trust. Those in Greenpeace were anarchists.

It doesn’t matter whether this analysis is agreed or not: it’s a personal view. What is clear is that at the start of 2015, we have:

  • A government-led obsession with the privatisation of public services, leading to taxpayers funding profits for the few while losing control over essential services and staff either losing their jobs or working for a pittance.  This obsession pervaded the last Labour government (remember PFI?) as well as the present coalition.
  • A widespread conditioning that economic growth should take priority over everything else and that the way to achieve such growth is to loosen controls over “the market” and keep taxation to the minimum.
  • A National Health Service which is fragmented, under-funded and being cherrypicked by private contractors.  No mainstream party is prepared to increase taxation to fund it, despite the obvious benefits of a healthy population.
  • A  banking system which not only operates on the basis that we must go into debt but also skews funding towards the interests of the financial services industry [1].
  • Discrimination against small businesses who cannot afford to employ experts to keep up with (and get round) employment legislation, health and safety requirements, tax rules.
  • Increasing inequality of wealth, where those living in poverty are denied chances to climb out of it because of cost-cutting by big business [2].
  • A requirement on higher education institutions to dance to the economic growth tune, replacing the freedom to think widely with functional training – and charging students unprecedented fees for the service.
  • A feeble response to climate change, particularly on educating the wider public about the need for action.
  • A housing crisis, despite a National Planning Policy Framework which stacks the odds firmly in favour of house-builders wanting to build where they want (rather than where is most sustainable).
  • A major decline in well-being: between 1991 and 2009 prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants increased by 334 per cent in England [3].
  • A system of government which focusses not only on the short-term but also the trivial (have a look at the government’s announcements website) at the expense of confronting the challenges facing society and the planet, eg the failure of successive governments to develop a coherent energy policy.
  • Proposals for “devolution” which would do no more than hand more power to mainstream politicians at the local level.
  • The reduction of politics to a game of tactical voting ….

I could go on. There is a ferment of analysis at present of what’s wrong with our society and how we can put things right. Others explain it better than I do.

We, the baby-boomers, have had huge advantages. A world free from global conflicts; greater access to free education and knowledge; mass communications; a breaking down of deference and (almost) the old social barriers; opportunities undreamt of by our parents. We achieved much, but collectively lost sight of a moral compass. The legacy we leave to the next generations is not one we should be proud of. Just how bad it is is something I’ve only recently understood.

Putting things right must start now. The mainstream political parties and their allies (or bosses) in the media and big business have shown no interest in righting these wrongs. Only the Green Party has a progressive radical agenda – and policies to support it. That small number of people – more far-sighted than I’ve been – who have voted for them in the past have been prevented by our electoral system from making a proportionate impact.

It’s naïve to think that the 2015 General Election will see the scales fall from the eyes of enough people to elect a Green government. There’s strong evidence of substantial support among younger people for the Green Party, which is hugely encouraging.

But it’s not enough. Those of us who – by action or inaction – helped create the present mess have a moral duty to join in kick-starting change. We need to create a sustainable society – one in which there is no compromise on achieving social justice and on environmental salvation. The two are interlinked – if you feel society is giving you a bum deal, where’s the incentive to save the planet?

The Green Party stands for the common good. Now is the time.

Notes:

[1] See in particular the work of Positive Money at http://www.positivemoney.org/

[2] See for example the work of nef at http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/inequality-and-financialisation

The Equality Trust provides a vivid graphic at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/multimedia/infographic-income-inequality-uk

[3] Quoted in the ONS publication Social Trends 41, Health chapter, at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-41/health.pdf

The BBC should run a competition for a new national anthem

The United Kingdom’s national anthem has remained unchanged since it came into common use in the latter part of the 18th century. The underlying sentiments are summed up in its first line – God save our gracious Queen – and the theme continues throughout. We, the Queen’s subjects, pray to a god that many don’t believe in to keep the monarch safe, victorious, and long-lasting.

There are very few people indeed who don’t have some affection for the person of Queen Elizabeth II and – given the apparent successor to the throne – the words Long may she reign will strike a chord with many. Yet setting aside the personalities, is the current anthem really fit for purpose in the 21st century state?

Republics disposed of hymns of praise to their monarchs at the time of their formation. La Marseillaise originated in the French Revolution and is now enshrined in the Fifth Republic’s constitution. It is a song of praise to the people of France, though you need a strong stomach to gloss over some of the more nationalist, violent and racist bits of it. The German national anthem – the third verse only of the song beginning Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (the rest of the original having been perverted by the Nazis) – celebrates a fatherland of unity, justice, brotherhood and freedom. It too has formal status, adopted by Presidential edict in 1991 as the national anthem for the re-unified Germany.

Other countries with monarchies have recognised that their citizens may not always want to sing the monarch’s praises. Denmark, Norway and Sweden all have two anthems: a “royal” anthem and a national anthem. The former are similar to the UK’s; the latter celebrate the land and the people.

Within the United Kingdom itself, Scotland and Wales have adopted what are in effect their own national anthems: Flower of Scotland and Land of our Fathers respectively. These celebrate the nations, not the rulers. They are sung at international sports fixtures when the national teams are playing, leaving England, oddly, with the UK national anthem.

Views on the UK anthem’s music are inevitably subjective. Played slowly it sounds like a dirge. Played with vigour it can be stirring. Benjamin Britten’s 1961 setting of God Save the Queen is a moving and exquisite piece of music, but the delicacy of the first part will not play well at a rugby international.

There is nothing to prevent the UK anthem from being changed. We don’t need the government’s or Parliament’s permission. The British Monarchy website states: “There is no authorised version of the National Anthem as the words are a matter of tradition.”

So let’s have something fit for the future, and which won’t give some of us a pain in the throat when we’re expected during the next decade or so to sing God Save the King. Something which celebrates our natural and built environments, our scientific and artistic achievements, and our social progress. Something free of triumphalism and favour of peace rather than conflict. Something which appeals to all citizens, irrespective of nationhood, race and faith (and no faith).

How do we find it?

As we live in the age of media competitions – Eurovision song contest, X-factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and so on – there can be no more fitting organisation than the BBC to run a competition come up with a winner.  To avoid a race to the bottom, the first step would be for the BBC to set up a committee to determine the shortlisting criteria.

The committee would determine the process for inviting submissions and for judging the winner , and would consult widely on its proposals in draft. Its membership should include as a minimum a poet, a composer, a choir director, an independent-minded MP, a social scientist, an environmentalist, a historian and someone who knows about running large-scale competitions. Existing works would not be ruled out if they met the criteria or could be modified to do so.

There are two other reasons for asking the BBC to take this on. First, it has a truly national reach through TV and radio and on-line services, so offering the potential to involve as many as possible in the voting. Second, as the controlling body for the Proms, it is well placed to ensure the Last Night concludes with the winning entry, in place of the old.

If you agree write to Lord Hall, the BBC Director-General, saying so and spread the idea as widely as you can.  The time is right.

(Thanks to www.nationalanthems.info for some of the information used in this blog.)