As the race* for the United States Presidential election of 2016 hots** up, it’s interesting*** to see how the potential candidates for their parties’ nomination frame their arguments and identify the most pressing issues of the moment.

* more of a canter, actually
** becomes slightly less tepid than it was a couple of months ago
*** no, actually, this one’s accurate

What are particularly of interest to me are the vast differences between the UK and the US, and I don’t just mean the old line about two countries seperated by a common language. There are things of great import in the US that simply don’t apply over here: the argument’s been won – or lost, depending upon your view – and the matter is effectively settled for a generation or more. It certainly won’t be part of any serious political discussion in the UK.

Let me take just three. I’m not going to go through the arguments for each ‘side’ and I’m certainly not going to make a case for one side or the other; I’ll merely point out that these matters are done, dusted and aren’t up for serious discussion. Sure, each of them have their amending adherents on each side, but those who demand a material change in the law are those on the fringes of serious political debate.

(1) Abortion.  There’s no-one of any seriousness suggesting that abortion should be made illegal in mainland Britain. There are debates every so often about how and when abortions should take place, but – and I do not in any way trivialise those arguments when I say this – every debate in parliament is about tinkering with the existing rules. No one serious is suggesing extending the right to everyone who wants one, say at 36 weeks, nor saying they should be banned at 6 weeks.

(2) Capital punishment. It’s gone. Done. Never to return. No matter what opinion polls suggest, no matter how ignorant the arguments made – on both ‘sides’, the UK will never allow capital punishment again. It’s done. No serious political party would ever have as a policy anything coming close to bringing back capital punishment. 

(3) The right to bear arms. The right of the general public to own and use guns. Never going to happen over here. Never. Going. To. Happen. It would be stupid to pretend that no-one has guns over here. Of course some do, and if you believe television drama, anyone with an ounce of common sense knows how to get one. Yeah, not true. We’ve never gone in for that. Some police are armed, but surprisingly – to an American, say – few. I’ve only ever seen ‘real working guns’ carried by police officers at airports and once outside a court during a terrorist trial in the 1980s.

These things are all current debates in the United States, both at a State level and for national discussion. And not one word was heard about them during the admittedly short, thankfully, official UK election campaigns during April and May this year.

While the NHS was discussed, no-one is talking about abolishing it. (Before you jump in to say that it’s being privatised by the Tories behind closed doors, I’m not going to go into that argument here, merely say that they’re not calling for its abolition.) 

Of course, one thing that the US has and we don’t is a single document entitled The Constitution. I’ve come to believe that we should have one as well; note that I don’t say that the US has a written consitution and we don’t. That’s just ignorant. Of course we have a written constitution: it’s just not in a single codified document entitled The British Constitution; instead it’s partly in various laws, partly in case law judgements, and partly unwritten. An example of the latter is the Salisbury Convention (unwritten) and The Parliament Acts (written). Together they tell the House of Lords what they can and can’t oppose when it comes to legislation proposed by a government and brought forward through the House of Commons. 

As a result – and inevitable consequence – of having that congle codified document, the Supreme Court of the United States spends, and has spent since the late 1700s – an extra-ordinary amount of time defining what the Constitution actually means, and since Marbury v Madison (1803) and then Martin v Hunter’s Lessee (1816), an awful lot of that time apportioning rights between the federal and state governments, and between the various branches of the executive and legislature.

Which is good. Which is right. A court should have the final say as to the interpretation of the law.

Which is why it remains astonishing to me that anyone on this side of the pond is against universal human rights, identified and promulgated by the European Convention of Human Rights, and interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. I’ll have more to say about this as the government’s proposal to remove the UK from the convention and court, and replace it with a “British Bill Of Rights”. At the moment, I’m still in shock that any politician thinks this is a good idea. It isn’t. It’s a stupid, ill-conceived, ill-thought out piece of nonsense, and among the many things this government will do about which I’ll be ashamed in the next five years, this one will come near the top.

   

Every so often, I write a short piece of fiction for this place. Occasionally, I pull out from the archives a story I wrote some time ago that (a) you probably haven’t seen and (b) I want to have a larger circulation. I hadn;’t quite realised until I checked quite how many had their origins in politics, or at the very least were inspired by politics. 

So here are two very different tales of fast fiction, both set after elections, one the night of the election… one sometime later…

Title: Infinite Density Explosion
Word: memetics
Length: 200 words exactly

Midnight; nothing would change now

He leaned over his desk and checked the newsfeeds, sweating. This hadn’t been planned.

A decimal point in the wrong place. Dammit.

He cast his mind back to the meeting three months earlier – Lord, was it only three months ago? – and the throwaway question when the subjects of amateur political punditry, blogs and replication of content had arisen: could memetics be an answer?

The first test run had been with a council by-election in a small town out in the sticks. Bloggers passed around a question and answer meme, unknowingly being subliminally influenced. The target was a 5% majority. They got 4.972%

Then they tried it with a parliamentary seat. Leaflets, blogs, advertising; they’d aimed for a 9% swing. Even the death of the candidate on the eve of the election, a heart attack during congress with a goat, hadn’t changed the result: a 9.015% swing.

But today?

He looked at the general election exit polls. A 100% swing, and that only because that was how high they could calculate.

He looked at the pistol his boss had left him an hour ago.

He looked again at the screen, and again at the pistol, pondering…

© Lee Barnett, 2010

 
 

Title: Once Within Memory
Word: truffle
Length: 200 words exactly

There had once been something called a chocolate truffle.

The younger of those present would snigger at the tales when they heard older people mention them with fondness.

There had once been hamburgers.

Less tolerance of this was expressed by the younger generations at what was regarded by them as an abhorrent practice. This had less to do with the rights of animals and more because of the now widely held belief that humanity at least now possessed common human dignity.

There had once been universal education.

And again, as they did upon hearing the older generation reminisce about long extinct qualifications, those who had been born more recently would sigh, as if to excuse the stories, and the people who told them.

There had once been naturally born children.

And those without navels openly laughed at their forebears, blatantly mocking the ugliness and blemishes that everyone of the older generation carried on their bodies.

There had once been elections.

Only the very old remembered these, and their recollections were either listened to with barely disguised impatience, or with irritation that was not disguised in the least.

There had once been freedom.

But no one talked about that any more.

© Lee Barnett, 2010

party games

Posted: 19 May 2015 in politics
Tags:

There’s an inbuilt problem with democracy; sometimes, the people you don’t want to win an election… win. And while I side with the comment most often attributed to Churchill that: 

“Democracy is the worst system of choosing a government… apart from all the other than have been tried.”

I’ve also some sympathy with the Sage of Baltimore, H L Mencken, when he said: 

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what’s good for them and deserve to get it… good and hard.”

Almost two weeks since the general election, something’s struck me. With the notable exception of two constituencies*, no-one’s alleged unfairness in how the election was run, nor that any reputable party engaged in thuggery, violence or intimidation.

“Well, of course not!” I hear you say. To which I’d reply that it’s a measure of our society that we count on that to be the case, don’t we? Looking around the world though, there are so many elections where that’s not the case, where intimidation and coercion are so common, it’s expected. That’s not to say that there are more dodgy elections that non-dodgy, but I think it’s something about which we should feel proud. Alistair Cooke often told the story about how the golfer Bobby Jones once informed an umpire that he’d done something requiring a two stroke penalty, something that no-one else witnessed; thereafter when he lost the championship by one stroke, people praised his honesty and his sportsmanship. A disdainful Jones is reputed to have replied that one might as well have praised him for not robbing a bank.

Well, indeed. One might as well praise the British for not robbing a bank. But you know what? In a world where it’s not bank funds but elections that are stolen, allow me to feel at least a little satisfaction that our elections were free and fair.

(*Those two I mentioned earlier? Well, George Galloway is alleging misconduct by the [successful] Labour candidate. I’m sure it’s got nothing at all to do with the returning officer reporting him to the police for breaching election rules. Nothing at all. Oh, and UKIP supporters are still giving Al Murray grief about his campaign, straining reason, common sense and credulity in maintaining that Al’s campaign was ‘financed by the BBC’. I’d say I was astonished, but when you consider the average UKIP supporter (and most of them are very average) reason, common sense and credibility are not foremost among their attributes.)

But the necessity for free and fair elections isn’t of course limited to 650 individual contests to elect our members of parliament. They range from trades union elections, to political party elections, the leadership of both of which can fairly claim to have a greater mandate than most politicians, whether they’re councillors or members of parliament if only due to their electorate often being many times that of a constituency.

It ill behoves those elected on a small turnout, though, to criticise those elected on a greater turnout, not without very good other reasons to do so. The current head of the Unite union may have gotten 85% of the votes cast, a thumping win under any circumstances, but he was elected on a turnout of a shade over 15%. Not exactly a huge mandate, one might argue. “But the others are obviously quite happy to let other people decide,” comes the counter argument. True, as far as it goes, but then you don’t get to use the “xxx only had a low turnout so no real legitimacy/mandate” as I’ve seen union supporting folks use as a justification for attacking the police and crime commissioners, some of whom were elected on turnouts barely in double digits.

An inescapable paradox of a transparently open election process – and I’m thinking mainly of political party leadership contests here – is that the more transparency you get regarding the politics and personal beliefs of the candidates, the more bitter will be the fight to become leader, and the harder it will be to unify the party afterwards. For what should be obvious reasons by now, I’m most concerned about the forthcoming Labour Party leadership election. If the past few days are any indication of the next three and a half months, and there’s no certainty that they will, we’re in for a very nasty contest, something that makes the nastier elements of the general election weve just been through look like a polite tea party.

I wince when I think of what the right wing press will try in order to discredit worthy candidates, and I similarly do so for what some ‘supporters’ of the various candidates will do to try to ensure their bod wins.

I haven’t made my mind up who I’ll vote for yet; how could I? I haven’t seen enough of their pitches. Which is why I’m more than a tad worried about what’s already being said by some, that only this candidate or that candidate can make the party electable in 2020. Let’s see what they have to offer; let’s see what they have to say. Let’s see what they think about the last five years, and the thirteen before that. And most importantly, let’s see what they think about the next five, and the five after that.

And only when I’m sure will I make up my mind. Surely, that’s the democratic way?

busy busy busy

Posted: 18 May 2015 in Uncategorized

In case you follow this blog, just to let you know, there’s no politics – or indeed any – blog entry today; I’m taking today off.

Back tomorrow.

There was an interesting story in today’s Sunday Times. Well, that is, I suppose news in itself, but the story at its heart was shit stirring about the forthcoming Labour Party leadership election, suggesting that “the unions” are exploiting a loophole in the rules for who’s allowed to vote. To understand why this is important, it’s useful to know that the rules under which the new leader of the labour Party will be elected have changed since Ed Miliband (the former leader who resigned the day after the election) acceded to the position in 2010.

When he was elected leader, the electorate was split into three, one-third each. There were the Labour MPs and MEPs, Individual members of the party, and individual members of affiliated organisations, (such as trade unions). Each third would constitute 33.33% of the final vote.

This has now been replaced with a straight ‘one member one vote’ system, where individual party members as well as ‘registered’ and ‘affiliate’ members. Affiliate and registered members have to pay a small one-off fee to be part of the electorate. The story then in the Sunday Times is that trade unions are trying to ensure that as many of their members become affiliated members so they can vote. I see nothing wrong with this whatsoever. Even leaving aside the long and detailed relationship between the party and the trades union system, it surely cannot be but for the benefit of the party to increase the electorate to catch the greatest possible of voters.

Where I’m less sure of my ground – and the unions’ propriety – is that under the rules, the member themselves doesn’t have to pay the affiliation fee; that can be paid by the union. Now, that may well be within the rules, but I fail utterly to see how in any way, that’s within the spirit of one member one vote. It’s not beyond the wit of man to see that if someone’s paying for you to be able to vote, they want you to vote in a specific way. And can tell you so. Again, while that’s within the letter of the rules, I cannot see how it’s within the spirit.

So what? I hear you cry. It’s within the rules, and the rules were carefully drawn up to avoid precisely this appearance of the unions shoving their weight into the contect. So, they knew what they were doing and it’s all lovely and no problems whatsoever.

Yeah, there is a problem. A huge whacking great problem: “it’s within the rules” is the worst possible reason for doing anything except for “I was just following orders”.

MPs expenses? Well, except for the few (and they were a few) who broke the law, all the other claims – proper or not, honourable or not, dodgy or not – were “within the rules”. When people complained about bankers getting huge pensions and payouts, they were “within the rules”.

Oh and don’t forget tax avoidance, the very exemplar of ‘it’s within the rules”. I don’t see too many trades unions saying that’s a good enough reason for tax avoidance.

Hence my concern. Of course Unions should be able to give their recommendations as to who they’d like to be the next Labour Party leader; I’m fairly astonished that’s even in dispute. Everyone and every organisation is entitled to not only supply their opinion, but to publicise it as well.

I’m just uneasy about anyone leaving the impression that they’re buying votes. Apart from being a gift to the right-wing press who never need another reason to take a pop at the unions or Labour, it just smells bad.

We’re not even at the stage where nominations have formally opened. And already, I can see this is going to be very complicated. Labour have a habit of airing their dirty laundry in public, which I suppose is better than pretending everything is fine, but is it really impossible for people involved, for the unions, the candidates and their supporters, to fight for their party without leaving festering wounds? If not, those wounds will last for years… until the next election and after.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, what was striking was not only how quickly the media concentrated upon the ‘winners and losers’  of the election but how quickly such features faded away. Partly, I suspect, that was because the cabinet reshuffle that provided much material for similar pieces. For once, I’m not entirely sure of the protocol for cabinet appointments following a successful election. 

Anyone with an ounce of sense understands that even though they cease to be members of parliament once parliament itself is prorogued, ministers stay in the job until the election result is clear. However, I believe – not know – that unlike America, where the entire cabinet resigns so that the President can appoint new people without the whole ‘been sacked’ thing, ministers stay in their job unless replaced by someone else at the Prime Minister’s whim, erm, wish.

So we do get the whole “been sacked”, “been promoted”, “been left in place” thing. Notable losers this time around include the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who was despatched from the government with haste, and the Party chairman, Grant Shapps, who was demoted to a junior minister’s job. This last appointment seemed to indicate that David Cameron agreed with the public on at least one thing: the Conservative Party won this election despite Grant Shapps, not because of him. 

There were some other losers, and some big winners. With a single party majority, Cameron could – and did – appoint a Cabinet from solely his party, something he was unable to do in the last parliament. And some of his appointments were so egregious that you suspect Cameron reviewed potential ministers’ curriculum vitae, saw what they didn’t like, and then appointed them to the ministry responsible. So we got a minister for equalities who voted against equal marriage in a free vote, a new disabilities minister who voted against protecting benefits for disabled children and cancer patients and a culture secretary who has contempt for the BBC Licence Fee. Oh, and don’t forget the new health minister who is “personally and principally opposed to abortion“.

However, away from the reshuffle, there were other big winners and losers, the very fact of which seems to have been neglected somewhat. It’s almost as if, in some cases, the media seem to have thought as one: “Well, me mentioned them a lot in the forty-eight hours after the election, we don’t need to mention them again.” So, let’s just take a look at six, three of each.

winner – nicola sturgeon

Unquestionably the single politician who came out of the 2015 general election with the biggest personal bump in fortunes. Anyone who thought – and I suspect there were many in the UK who thought this – that she was destined to be forever in Alex Salmond’s shadow, to be someone who would pale next to what he achieved, had a rude awakening. Every time she spoke, people listened. I think it’s fair to say that lots of those people didn’t actually hear what she said, though. She spoke with passion, but never allowed that passion to override political common sense. To be fair, she had an easy target with David Cameron’s manifesto, but that didn’t seem to helpLabour  that much, did it? A friend on mine maintains that had Alex Salmond said before the independence referendum that he’d step down immediately afterwards not matter the result, the Yes campaign could have grabbed another 10 percentage points, and won. I wasn’t so sure; I am now. Knowing that they’d get rid of Salmond and get Sturgeon in his place, I don’t doubt the Yes campaign would have triumphed. Whether that would have been good or bad for Scotland is an entirely separate question.

The same friend maintains that Nicola always wanted a Tory government; much easier to spin the ‘we’ll never get what we want inside the Union’. I’m definitely not convinced on that one. In no way does the election result we’ve just had damage Sturgeon’s ambitions for herself nor for her country. I think she’d rather have had a Labour government dependent – if only vote by vote – on her Westminster representatives, but with the Tory government she’s quite prepared to use that same line… in spades. It worth noting that Cameron went to Scotland to discuss the Smith proposals and didn’t shy away from acknowledging that further devolution, beyond Smith, is on the table.

winner (for the moment) – the SNP

I’m separating out the leader from the party because I think they came out of the election very differently. Not only because the Westminster representation has it’s own group leader (Angus Robertson is continuing in the role, with 56 MPs, not the six he had before the election) but also because I suspect the next year will grant them very different fortunes. One of the advantages of having ten times as many MPs is the extra power the party has in Westminster. Formally granted ‘third party’ status last week, they’ll have seats on select committees and be guaranteed two questions every week at Prime Minister’s Questions. One of the drawbacks is that the leadership (both in Westminster and in Scotland) will encounter more rebellions and bad behaviour, if only because no-one but no-one expected – at the time the prospective parliamentary candidates were selected – ninety-five percent of them to be elected.

While I wish Mhairi Black, the new MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, every good fortune, I defy anyone to tell me that when she was selected, to fight the seat held by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, they expected her to win, and win decisively. There are a lot of similar winners who are now going to have to learn what it is to be an MP. And some of them won’t be up to the job. That’s not limited to the SNP; there are always some in every party. It’s just a matter of how they implode. But unless every vote is going to be a three line SNP whip, while some in the Westminster group of SNPs will be on the left of the party, some on the right, some of them will vote however the hell they want to, party party (and discipline) be damned.

winner – the first past the post system

One of the reasons offered way back in 2011 (yes, it was that long ago) by those who supported the first past the post system was that it tended, on the whole, to offer single party majority governments. Sure, there had been minority governments in the past, and even the odd coalition. (It’s important to remember that all coalitions are odd beasts, but that’s not quite what they meant.) But as a rule of thumb, you could do a lot worse than “first past the post gets you single party government. Now, for some, this is an advantage; single party majority governments, while of necessity, being intra-party coalitions, do tend to be more stable, do tend to involve less compromise and again on the whole, tend to supply the best chances of a government enacting its manifesto. A manifesto, I remind you, that they have a mandate to enact. For others, single party majority government in a parliamentary system means ‘rule by executive fiat’, more supine legislatures and since an opposition is limited in their ability to prevent legislation passing, and political nature abhors a vacuum, it always leads to vicious infighting among the main opposition party.

But whether or not you support the consequences of first past the post, it lived up to its reputations – both good and bad – and delivered a single party working majority. Some have suggested that this will be its last harrah, that in the next few years, the anger of an electorate at a government that was elected on only 37% of the popular vote will lead to a campaign for a new electoral system. I doubt it. Not only are the two main parties as always unlikely to kick away the prop by which each of them has at times been elected to government, they’ll now be joined by the third main party. If you assume that with a form of proportional representation the votes would have been similar (a view to which I’m not sure I subscribe), the SNP would not now have 56 MPs. They’d have 25, just a little more than the Greens. And UKIP would have more than three times as many as the SNP. I don’t think we’ll see the SNP calling for any changes just yet.

So, if those three were the winners, who and what lost out? 

loser – scouring the entrails

Every single published poll over the six weeks before the election was wrong. Not a little wrong, but spectacularly wrong. While some predicted the Tories moving ahead, while a few predicted Labour pulling ahead, I don’t recall a single poll or interpretation of same predicting a majority for Cameron’s Conservative Party, with Labour down to 232 seats. Some said the Lib Dems would be thumped, but no-one predicted they’d be left with few enough MPs that they could comfortably fit inside a people carrier. And very few pundits differed. Most predicted coalition or, at the outside, minority governments and possible parliamentary gridlock and deals in darkened rooms at best. John Curtice is a notable exception, but then he had the actual exit poll to work with which, as I’ve stated previously, he got pretty damned close with, as he had in 2010.

I’m wondering whether there’ll be any accountability, real accountability. Will parties stop using polling organisations that, to be polite, utterly fucked up? Will any pundits not only apologise for their distinct lack of accuracy but also quit the game? I doubt it. I really doubt it. Maybe I should have labeled this bit “loser – accountability”.

loser (for the moment) – a decent opposition

I’m a firm believer that governments are at their best when they have been and continue to be challenged by people who know what they’re doing. Governments, and departments, who have to justify and defend their actions and policies bring light more than heat. We need strong opposition in this country, not as some would wish to prevent governments doing what they’ve been elected to do, but to ensure that it’s not done in secret, that transparency becomes a policy in and of its own right. Slogan painting, literally and metaphorically, is easy to produce and sadly equally easy to ignore. Evidence based opposition, fact based debate, proving that a government is wrong, whether it’s legally, ethically or morally is far more important. 

I despair when I hear someone say that debate isn’t enough, for what that almost always means is that “their debaters are better than our debaters, so we’d better find another way to beat them.” 

“Ah, but the government ignore evidence-based arguments.” Then find better arguments that they can’t ignore.

Unfortunately, the Labour leadership campaign and the SNP’s apparent lack of interest in English votes (they’ve already said they’re going to abstain on the attempt to repeal the fox hunting ban) means that opposition is simply not going to be there for at least the first four months of this parliament. Some have said that this time is precisely when attack should be made because that’s when the government will be at its weakest. I couldn’t disagree more. This government will be incredibly strong until the autumn conference season. But that’s not a reason for not opposing them. It’s a reason to oppose them more; unless you’re prepared to seriously oppose the government every blood day of the next five years, again and again, you won’t win the next election. And what’s more, you won’t deserve to.  

loser – any chance of reforming the manifesto process

If the election and the single party majority government resulting have killed anything, it’s the chance of making a manifesto what it should be: a set of policies placed in front of the electorate that a government will try to get through, but don’t ‘pledge’ to do. The Tories can say, with some justification, that they have a mandate to govern and to enact every single policy in their manifesto, from the sensible to the ludicrous, from the easy to the impossible, from the intellectually rigorous to the ‘came up with on the back of a fag packet in the pub late one Friday night.” And that’s a pity, because every government needs wiggle room, and the specifics demanded by a more knowledgable* electorate don’t give them any.

(* I’m not convinced for a moment that the overwhelming majority of voters had more than the very vaguest idea of what the parties’ manifestos contained. I said ‘knowledgable’. I should have typed ‘ostensibly knowledgable’.)

Oh, while I think about it, nothing to do with winners or losers, but P J O’Rourke came out with a cracking line while commenting on the election, one of those lines I dearly wish I’d have written. I didn’t, but he did:

The British have voted Conservative – not by an overwhelming margin. But a “whelming” margin will do.

Until tomorrow.

Yeah, I dunno where to start today.

Chuka Umunna has this morning unstood for the Labour Party leadership after three days, the same length of time it took Nigel Farage to unresign as UKIP party leader. I’m racking my brains for anything I did on Tuesday so I can ‘un‘ it now. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions (for the US folks, that’s like the UK’s District Attorney, but unelected) won election as a Labour member of parliament last week and some are seriousky suggesting he run for the party leadership.

Too much to think about; not really in the mood for thinking about it.

So how about something non-political for today’s blog entry? Yes, that’s what I thought: good idea, budgie.

So here, for no reason whatsoever, are some youtube videos, some you’ll have probably seen before, some might be new. Anyway, until tomorrow.

Spot The Stiff – Steve Punt and Hugh Denis explain the best ‘war movie’ game in history.

 

United Breaks Guitars – Fairly self-explanatory, but Dave Carroll explains what happens when he and his band flew United.

 

The Opening to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum… Comedy Tonight!

 

One of my favourites (and not only just because I’m in it for a second and a half…) Proud Of The BBC by the wonderful Mitch Benn

 

The True Cost of the Royal Family Explained – not funny, per se, but interesting nonetheless.

 

And last, but not least, the classic: Spiders On Drugs