Friday 29 May 2009

MP couldn't see wood for the trees

It can hard for Westminster villagers to admit that political pressure is local as well as national and global. But MPs who fail to acknowledge the role of their local paper in tuning into neighbourhood affairs can find they have less chance of making friends and influencing people.
In these days of a 24-hour news drip via Sky, the internet and digital signals that allow you to tune into Australian outback radio (should you so desire), the generally held view is the local newspapers are doomed, doomed, Mr Mainwaring.
Sales have been falling for years, and this year, under the guise of responding to the recession, local newspaper bosses have decided to make public those swingeing cuts they were planning away - but scything through the ranks of reporting staff; leaving those left with the less than edifying role of never getting out of the office, sitting around rewriting PA copy, and turning around a press release.
But the MPs expenses news riot has shown just how influential local newspapers can be in tapping into local concerns, matching them with an expenses story and then exerting pressure.
For some months the Eastern Daily Press has been following the constituency work of South Norfolk MP Christopher Fraser and his willingness to talk to the local media and appear at constituency events with a rather critical eye.
The former MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole -- with a family farm in Dorset - was picked as Tory candidate for the Norfolk seat over many local opponents, but the paper has felt his commitment to the constituency has been less than obvious, and has taken to publishing statements about his unavailablity to comment with increasing fury.
Not as mundane as you might imagine. Yesterday's "not available to comment" was found rather bizarrely in bold in a picture caption under a large photo of said MP.
Hours later the MP - who had claimed on expenses for cherry trees to be planted around his Norfolk home to add  a somewhat unusual security cordon - had decided to stand down. 
Were the two matters related? The support of his local paper might have made a huge difference in whether Fraser continued to battle on. 
In the same issue of the EDP, Norwich MP Ian Gibson, who has strong local credentials and a reputation for working hard in the constituency, was being defended by North Norfolk LibDem Norman Lamb. While not condoning Gibson's decision to sell his London flat, formerly claimed for on his second home allowance, to his daughter at less than the market rate, Lamb felt Gibson was being dealt with too harshly by the Labour star chamber.
Lamb's comments were given a good show, next to the story of Fraser, the cherry trees and the no comment.
Is there an argument here that local papers who know the ins and outs of the lives and work of their local MPs have chosen this moment to out some of the long-running issues and complaints and add fuel to the fire? Perhaps.
Whether this will in any sense save local newspapers reporting staff from the impending axe is less clear.

Thursday 28 May 2009

52 Lords not leaping

Martin Kettle has a curious little scoopette in this commentary piece which has also sees the Guardian columnist in unusual territory co-bylining a news report with Nicholas Watt.

{Update: the news report is in fact the front-page splash on Friday's Guardian}

In the clearest indication to date that increasing numbers of Labour figures believe the party is heading for a heavy defeat at the hands of David Cameron, the Guardian has learned that at least 52 MPs have formally approached Downing Street to be given places in the upper house.

The MPs include current chairs of select committees as well as past and serving middle and junior ranking ministers, according to Labour sources. They account for a seventh of those elected at the last election

The information is as curiously precise as it is lightly sourced. It has clearly not been generated by a ring-round of the backbenchers, to see how many will want to let The Guardian know about that.

It would seem that it could only come from somebody who is keeping a list of such requests - perhaps in Downing Street itself, or perhaps from somebody in the Whips Office who might have the ear of the premier.

It could be true. Or it could be black arts and misinformation. But whether true or false, what is entirely baffling is what the motive behind revealing it. The likely spin would be Labour MPs fear defeat and looking to bottle out.

Perhaps it can be read as reminding the backbenchers where the power of patronage lies - in the event that anybody is considering contributing to a headless chicken act on June 4th. (But perhaps not. As a threat, it depends on retaining the power of patronage, which could not provide inoculation in the actual event of a coup. Nor does that theory quite fit with the warning in the report that the desires for Ermine are unlikely to be met by the PM).

Another Labour figure said the keen interest in the Lords shown by the party's MPs highlighted how disconnected senior figures are from the prime minister.

"They should look at how many peers Gordon has created – he is no fan of the upper house," one former minister said.

Moreover, the recipient of the scoop is very much not a fan of the PM.

Curiouser and curiouser.

I admit I am baffled.

But the best way to prove that it is nonsense would be to include a swift move to an elected second chamber in the government's plans for restoring trust to politics.

(PS: Tom Harris has already posted on this, and is also sceptical, noting there he is not aware of any way to "formally apply" for the Lords. Unless its on a need-to-know basis and Tom has missed his Ermine fitting).

Is Cameron having a Laffer?

While the MP expenses scandal is outrageous, it’s dominating the news cycle to an extent that isn’t really healthy.

No-one denies the expenses system needs a complete overhaul. People are rightly angry with the liberties our elected representatives have taken, and the fact that some of them are still apparently living in the 15th century (claiming for moats and, um, quarters for one’s servants).

Cameron’s proposed Parliamentary reforms - as Nick Clegg, Simon Jenkins and Sunder Katwala argue - add up to, well, nowt much really. Putting political debates on YouTube and having text alerts for legislative bills is all very well, but does not a reformed Parliament make.

No doubt if Cameron becomes Prime Minister, Parliament will be so thrillingly modern that PMQ’s will be conducted entirely through Twitter, while Cabinet reshuffles will simply be done via text message (Ken u r now Mnstr 4 Trade lol!)

But there are other pressing matters to consider. Let’s not get so het up over subsidising a politician’s predilection for Ginger Crinkle biscuits that we forget to ask exactly where our £37bn of bailout money is going. Let’s also not neglect other little things, such as examining what our politicians actually believe in.

For example, it’s slightly worrying that the leader of the opposition in this country sincerely believes in the Laffer Curve economic theory.

For the uninitiated, the Laffer Curve is based on ‘trickle-down’ economics. The theory, sketched out on a restaurant napkin by Arthur Laffer (probably after having one too many beers) proposes that lowering taxation can actually increase government tax revenues.

Now, regardless of whether you’re on the left or right of the political spectrum, almost everyone agrees that the theory is nonsense. George Bush Sr mocked it as being ‘voodoo economics’. (Ronald Reagan nevertheless got out his best shaman gear as President, put it into practice and subsequently saw the federal deficit balloon from $900 billion to over $3 trillion on his watch).

So despite the fact that the Laffer Curve has about as much credibility as a rehab programme run by Shane MacGowan, Cameron thinks it’s the way to go.

Will the media press Cameron on this?

Don’t hold your breath.

David Cameron's McCain moment

"I'm not sure. I'll have to check with my staff" was John McCain's response to an inquiry about how many houses he owned during the last US election campaign.

Johann Hari's Independent column yesterday noted an uncannily similar uncertainty from David Cameron in a recent interview.

This was part of a long Who is David Cameron? interview with Ginny Dougary in The Times, published the weekend before last, and which seems to have been largely overlooked because of expenses-gate.

The relevant section is here.

The four properties thing is rubbish. Touching that you believe everything you read in the newspapers!”

You patronising git, I exclaim.

“I don’t mean it like that, but…” So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be… Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

The rest of the interview was punctuated with Cameron’s nagging anxiety about how this exchange was going to make him sound: “I was wondering how that will come across as a soundbite”; “‘Not that I can think of’ makes me sound… I am really worried about that…”; “I am still thinking about this house thing”; and his parting shot was: “Do not make me sound like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got.”

(Hat tip to Liberal Conspiracy for the source).

As Hari writes

The fact that David and Samantha Cameron are worth an almost-entirely-inherited £30m, according to financial expert Philip Beresford, isn’t in itself damning. Franklin Roosevelt was very rich, but became a great crusader for the poor. But Cameron is advocating policies that will benefit his tiny class of super-rich Trustafarians at the expense of the rest of us. He is committed to spending billions on a massive tax cut for the richest inheritees, paid for by the bottom 94 percent of us – and now he has announced his enthusiasm for a bogus economic theory that will justify shovelling far more of our money their way.

Jowell backs Labour primaries

Stuart White's post against open primaries for candidate selection has generated some interesting discussion on the pros and cons.

The Guardian today - trailing a speech she will give at Demos after the European Elections - reports that Tessa Jowell will call for Labour to open candidate selection to party supporters as well as members. (It sounds as though Jowell is advocating is what Anthony Painter calls 'closed primaries' though perhaps something like 'supporter primaries' would be a better description).

The newspaper reports that Jowell will quote Ben Brandzel's argument in the recent Fabian pamphlet 'The Change We Need.

She has been inspired by the writing of the political activist Ben Brandzel, a veteran of US progressive politics. She will quote him as saying: "Mass movements open to anyone … will always be pulled towards the commonsense centre. It's why Wikipedia can self-police for accuracy, why Obama's open forums never seriously embarrassed the candidate and why the London citizens' agenda called for things like ensuring the Olympic Village creates public housing – not erecting statues to Che."

This was the issue on which I disagreed with Luke Akehurst's fear that "the Trots" will kill a Labour party which tries to open up. This leads to a fear of change among the top-down tendency in New Labour. Jowell will back Brandzel's argument that "it is through widening the circle of participation, not narrowing it, that we best guard against such risks".

Wednesday 27 May 2009

An open letter to the BBC Complaints Department

Last week Guy Aitchison of openDemocracy and Defend Peaceful Protest and I published a letter of complaint we sent to the BBC concerning the coverage by BBC News of the policing of the G20 protests. We sent the letter on Thursday, May 21, and received a reply by Philip Boyce of the BBC's Complaints Department the following day. Philip Boyce's reply to our original letter is included at the bottom of this post.

We do not think the reply adequately addresses the complaints set out in our original letter. Some of the specific complaints we made are ignored. Therefore, we have written again to the BBC requesting answers to very specific questions about BBC News' reporting of the events. Because we think this correspondence raises important issues about the quality of BBC journalism we are, once again, publishing our letter simultaneously here at Next Left and at OurKingdom.

Open letter to the BBC Complaints Department

Dear Philip Boyce,

in our letter of Thursday May 21 we set out a number of complaints about the BBC News' coverage of the policing of the G20 protests.

We are writing again in response to your reply of Friday May 22.

In your reply, you failed to address (either at all or adequately) a number of complaints made in our original letter. We therefore feel obliged to ask you again to consider these complaints. As with our original letter, we will publish this letter on two websites, that of openDemocracy and Next Left (affiliated with the Fabian Society) so that the wider public is able to judge the adequacy and seriousness of your response.

We appreciate that you are probably busy with many complaints, so we will restate the complaints you have not addressed (or addressed adequately) as briefly as possible.

We will ask you some direct questions relating to these complaints to which we would appreciate direct answers.

(1) Grossly inaccurate article on kettling. In our original letter, we explained in detail why an article by Julian Joyce on the issues surrounding so-called kettling posted on the BBC News website on April 16 was factually incorrect on the most elementary question of what kettling is.

We pointed out that it is the duty of the BBC to get information on a debate of such basic importance to our civil liberties accurate, and to quickly correct any mistakes.

Your response of May 22 completely ignores this specific complaint.

So, we would ask you to answer the following question: Do you accept that the article in question was inaccurate and therefore misleading, and that the BBC failed in its duty to properly inform public debate by publishing this article and, in addition, by failing to publish a correction?

(2) Lack of investigative impetus. Our original letter raised a complaint specifically about the alleged initial disinterest of the BBC Newsroom in the breaking news around police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson.

You have ignored this complaint.

So, we would ask you: Is the allegation true? If so, do you accept that this was a grave error of judgment, reflecting a very distorted sense of priorities in the BBC Newsroom?

(3) Inaccurate and misleading reportage of the Climate Camp. In our original letter, we complained that the BBC News reporting failed sufficiently to distinguish the Climate Camp from other events at the G20 protests and, in consequence, failed to acknowledge any distinctive issues about policing which the kettling of the Climate Camp raises.

Your response of May 22 ignores this complaint.

Your response does point out that the BBC News did include one report on the Climate Camp on April 1. However, our complaint was not merely about the failure to mention the Climate Camp, but the failure to distinguish it, and the issues raised by its policing, from other events at the protests.

As we pointed out in our letter, the report on the evening of April 19 which discussed the Camp included the footage of the smashing of windows at RBS, encouraging the viewer to associate one with the other, creating a false impression that the Climate Camp was a somewhat violent event.

So, we ask: Do you accept that the BBC News failed to distinguish the Climate Camp from the other events at the G20 protests, in particular to indicate clearly its peaceful intent and character?

Do you accept that use of the window-smashing footage at RBS in the context of a report about the Climate Camp - without any explanation that one event was unrelated to the other - could have created a false impression that the Camp was not a peaceful event?

(4) Further on lack of investigative impetus. Aside from the complaints about the alleged initial treatment of breaking news about the circumstances of Ian Tomlinson's death (covered in (2) above), our original letter made a broader complaint about a lack of investigative impetus on the issues surrounding G20 policing.

We do not think that your response of May 22 adequately addresses this complaint.

You do point out that many BBC reporters were active around the G20 protests on the day. You also refer, and we are grateful for it, to the report by Daniel Boettcher on the police action to clear the Climate Camp on the night of April 1.

However, it remains the case that the major stories concerning police violence were not broken by BBC News. It is also the case that there have been many such stories. So if the BBC News had lots of reporters on the ground, they do not seem to have done a very good investigative job.

So we ask: Given that the BBC News had so many reporters on the ground, why did the BBC News play so little role in breaking any of the major revelations about police violence which emerged in the days and weeks after April 1? Does this not constitute a failure to carry out real investigative journalism?

These are straightforward questions. We expect equally straightforward answers.

We await your reply with interest, and we very much hope that given the time and effort we have put into detailing our complaints, on what is surely a serious constitutional issue, you will give our complaints more thorough consideration than the first time round.

Yours sincerely,

Guy Aitchison, openDemocracy
Stuart White, Jesus College, Oxford

Letter from Philip Boyce, BBC Complaints Department

Thank you for your e-mail regarding our coverage of police tactics at the G20 protests.

I understand you felt we didn't sufficiently cover the tactics deployed by the police on the days in question and that you feel this amounted to poor reporting.

The G20 was a challenging story to cover as there were so many issues surrounding the event. There was the conference itself, the receptions at Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, the various protests taking place in the City and of course the death of Ian Tomlinson.

Daniel Boettcher was live in Bishopsgate as police moved in to disperse the Climate Camp protestors later on in the evening. The News Channel showed live pictures and Daniel described the scenes as he witnessed them. He pointed out that the protestors had been sitting on the ground as the police dragged them away and we have reported on the criticism of the tactics used by police at the Camp on the BBC News website.

The website also had the live text and map pages featuring messages, pictures and video from BBC reporters, producers and correspondents, and from the public relaying events as they unfolded all over London.

More recently, we have reported on the wider concerns about the tactics used by police during the protests. For example, the video footage of Ian Tomlinson's contact with police prior to his death has featured heavily on BBC News, as has the footage of Nicola Fisher.

In closing, I'd like to further assure you that your comments regarding our G20 coverage have been registered on our audience log, an internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily and is available for viewing by all our staff. This includes all our journalists, news editors, commissioning executives and also their senior management. It ensures your points, along with all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.


Philip Boyce
BBC Complaints

There's no 'done deal' on Barroso

I keep reading in the media that Barroso’s second term as Commission President is a ‘done deal’.

I disagree.

It’s true that that many Governments are supporting him and so his nomination by the Council for a second term looks likely.

But the Council’s nomination is not sure. It is due to make its nomination on June 18/19 – very likely before a majority in the Parliament has been finalised. A proposal to postpone the Council until later in the month, when a new Parliamentary majority is more likely to be in place, is being resisted by guess who.

Barroso has been lobbying capitals for months if not years to give him a second term and is now is trying ensure that the Council nominates him before they know the majority in the Parliament. That’s not the behaviour of a man with a done deal.

And why the recent round of media interviews? Is this the behaviour of a man with a done deal, or the act of a man anxious to create the impression of a done deal?

Then there is the much more problematic question of the majority in the Parliament. The FT’s Wolfgang Munchau wrote “If the centre-right wins the elections to the European parliament, as everybody seems to expect, nothing can stop Mr Barroso’s bandwagon.” But whatever anyone expects the centre-right cannot ‘win’ the election. The European conservatives, who have nominated Barroso as their candidate, may say they are going to be the largest group – but even in their wildest dreams they don’t expect a majority. I can state as a matter of fact that on June 8 – the day after the European elections – the European conservatives will not have a majority on their own.

They need other political groups to support them or enter some agreement with them – and they do not have an alliance or a coalition lined up with anyone else for the next Parliament. Getting a majority is not a simple matter. It is hard to imagine the yet to be formed anti-federalist group led by British and Czech Conservatives being in a hurry to pledge their support for Barroso. And even if they were, that would still not deliver a majority. The future of other right of centre groups is uncertain.

I have already explained in a previous blog why we Socialists are much less likely in 2009 to enter an agreement with the Conservatives than we were in 2004. The Greens are supporting a campaign ‘anyone but Barroso’. And why would the Liberals rush into a deal to vote for Barroso? The Liberal former Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, who is standing in the European elections, is being touted in some quarters as an alternative to Barroso.

The Parliament looks set to vote on the President of the Commission on July 15. Neither Mr Munchau nor anybody else knows what the majority in the Parliament will be on July 15 as it will be the outcome of negotiations between groups (some of which do not even yet exist, and will take some time to come into being) following the elections. There may not even be a fixed majority.

But I wholly agree with the admirable Mr Munchau when he describes Mr Barroso as “among the weakest Commission presidents ever”.

He says the likelihood of Barroso getting a second term is “very depressing”. I might join Mr Munchau in being depressed if I believed that it’s practically a done deal.

But thankfully it isn’t – it’s spin by Barroso and his supporters.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Cameron's constitutional caution

David Cameron shows characteristic dexterity in pitching into the Guardian's New Politics debate with a piece projected across a double-page spread with a front-page news story to preview his speech today.

But the content surely falls far short of the 'massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power' which is billed. And one does not have to read far between the lines to find that Cameron is rather keen to control what should and should not be part of the reform agenda - particularly seeking to remove the electoral system from the menu for possible reform.

A good test of proposals to redistribute power is whether any power is ceded, and by whom. I see nothing wrong with a proposal to "open up the legislative process by sending text alerts on the progress of Parliamentary Bills and by posting proceedings on YouTube". But this is better communication and presentation from Parliament. It can hardly be billed as redistributing power.

Probably, the biggest change mooted is that of fixed term Parliaments (though this is just being floated for now, with Cameron stating the pros and cons. And there is some devilling in the detail. One important caveat is that Cameron appears to be offering a get-out clause for minority governments, so that a stable minority government like that of Alex Salmond's in Scotland would be able to pick and choose when to try for a majority of its own).

Fixed term parliaments would be a good reform. It is also clever politics. It sounds like a rather big power for a would-be PM to give up. But is it really? Reviewing the history of election date decisions suggests it is rather overrated: hence my prediction last year that a major party leader would seek to win plaudits by offering to give it up. When governments have been re-elected - in 2005, 2001, 1987 and 1983 - the choice of date has tended to make little difference. Attempts to gain advantage from tactical deployment of the power - as with Heath in 1974, with Callaghan not calling an election in 1978 and the election speculation of 2007 - have tended to blow up in the face of the premier concerned.

Elsewhere, there are several useful areas of emerging consensus. The need to scrutinise the use of Royal Prerogative powers by the Executive was set out by the Fabian Monarchy Commission in 2003. Both frontbenches are now talking about this - but the question of whether scrutiny will be substantive depends on the broader parliamentary reform agenda.

Removing the powers of the whips over who is on Select Committees is another useful reform, which is suddenly turns out that everybody agrees on after all this time. But Chris Mullin makes a rather sharper point in The Times today - in noting that the size of the frontbench payroll vote is part of the problem, particularly with the extension in the number of unpaid PPS and special envoy positions. Strikingly, the Conservative website suggests that, even in opposition, David Cameron has almost 100 MPs involved in his frontbench in some way, almost exactly half of the Conservatives in the Commons. He talks a good deal about strengthening the role of backbenchers - but there need to be some credible, senior backbenchers for this to be matter.

An auction between the two major parties on political reform is to be welcomed. David Cameron is offering incremental reforms of a rather similar kind to that which has been pursued by the government, where Gordon Brown's intention of a "new constitutional settlement" has so far become something more of a tidying-up exercise of moderate reforms.

David Cameron's intervention sets out two possibilities for the next few weeks.

One is that a broad consensus is emerging on an incremental and somewhat cautious agenda of useful but piecemeal constitutional reforms of the type he sets out. This would strengthen Cameron's claim to have responded confidently to the Parliamentary crisis, though in several areas his proposals are similar to those of the government.

The alternative is that the Labour government realises that Cameron has left considerable space for a more comprehensive constitutional reform agenda, and seeks to reignite an agenda which has lost momentum since 2001.

How should the bidding be raised? Alan Johnson's intervention on an electoral reform referendum is gathering further support.

The most significant would be to move well beyond talking about responding, consultation and 'listening' to the public mood - and to cede significant power to shape the outcomes of political reform to a new constitutional convention.

Cameron's agenda: populism not republicanism?

Regular readers of Next Left will know that I am an enthusiast for something called democratic republicanism. The crisis of political representation at the moment, prompted by the scandal over MPs' expenses, has been described by Richard Reeves as a potential 'republican moment' as new possibilities open up for wide-ranging political reform. Jonathan Freedland has also written superbly on the republican potential of the crisis.

However, republicanism needs to be distinguished from something else: populism. To make the most of the republican moment, we must keep this distinction in mind.

David Cameron's article in The Guardian's 'New Politics' series, for example, might be read as putting forward a republican agenda. In fact, however, much of the agenda he sets out is populist rather than republican.

Let's clarify the difference.

Republicanism not populism: deliberative democracy

Republicans believe in the principle of popular sovereignty. They do not accept that the 'crown-in-parliament' (where Parliament itself is not fully elected) is legitimately sovereign, as is the case under the present UK constitution. So republicans are populists in the sense that they demand a basic constitutional reform that is based on popular sovereignty. (Note: there is of course no indication that David Cameron accepts this.)

But republicans do not celebrate the popular will uncritically. Popular majorites can will some pretty awful things. Republicans, following Rousseau, believe that a legitimate political system is also one in which the people is encouraged to exercise its sovereignty with an eye to justice.

Accordingly, republicans believe in what is these days called a deliberative democracy: a democracy in which political choice is framed by ongoing debate amongst citizens and their representatives over competing accounts of what justice requires. For a republican, then, the question is not simply, 'Does this reform proposal enhance popular sovereignty?' It is: 'Does this measure enhance popular sovereignty and do so in a way that promotes a deliberative politics?'

Some of the ideas which have emerged in recent weeks in response to the MPs' expenses claims fiasco are populist rather than republican in that they do not take seriously enough this deliberative aspect of republican politics.

Here are two examples, both taken from David Cameron's article:

(1) 'Let's have US-style open primaries'.

David Cameron writes: 'One of the reforms I'm most proud of is the widespread introduction of open primaries for the selection of Conservative parliamentary candidates in recent years. I want to see this continue, with much greater use of open primaries for the selection of ­parliamentary candidates – and not just in the Conservative party, but in every party.'

As I argued in an earlier post, open primaries are a really bad idea. In part, this is because open primaries can be expected to narrow the range of political debate between parties in the long-term and so impoverish the quality of public deliberation. (Anthony Painter would want me to make clear that closed primaries do not necessarily suffer from the same defect, at least to the same extent.)

(2) 'Take power from the judges and give it to the people.'

Cameron writes: '..since the advent of the Human Rights Act, judges are increasingly making our laws....we will introduce a British bill of rights to strangthen our liberties...'

From the republican point of view, this is extremely worrying. Strong bills of rights are crucial to defining the basic requirements of justice. Judicial review is an important mechanism by which society tests its laws against its own basic commitments to justice.

The idea need not be that judges get to throw out a law they judge to be unconstitutional (as in the USA). Rather, the idea is that the raw outputs of legislative decision-making get scrutinised in a way that forces law-makers to return to a law if it is judged questionable in terms of basic rights. Judicial review, operating from a strong bill of rights, is in this way an important mechanism for deepening democratic deliberation.

Now if a British bill of rights gives even stronger protection to basic rights than the European Convention of Human Rights (and in my view there are some areas, such as freedom of religion, where the ECHR is too weak), then Cameron's proposal would be welcome from a republican point of view. However, given the background of Conservative criticism of the Human Rights Act there is bound to be a big worry that Cameron's proposal would in fact weaken the underlying legal protection of basic rights. In this way, it would also weaken the extent to which public deliberation is forced to consider alleged abuses of basic rights.

Republicanism not populism: economic democracy

There is one further important difference between the republican and populist perspectives. Republicanism differs from the 'new populism' in that it sees the need to address power relationships beyond the official political sphere. The problem of arbitrary and unaccountable power in our society is not one confined to the political system in the usual sense of that term.

As some commentators have observed, the controversy over MPs' expenses has drawn attention away from the hugely important issues about irresponsible behaviour by major financial institutions. It remains crucially important that we think not only about how to make political representatives more accountable, but how to make financial institutions more accountable. The battle for democracy, for the republican, has to extend to the economic sphere as well as the officially political one.

There was one point in Cameron's article when I thought he was about to make this point. He writes:

'But the tragic truth today is that no matter how much we strengthen parliament or hold government to account, there will still be forces at work in our country that are completely unaccountable to the people of Britain – people and organisations that have huge power and control over our daily lives and yet which no citizen can actually get at.'

Yes, yes, I thought, he's about to talk about the huge, unaccountable power of major financial institutions!

Alas, not. It turns out to be a premable to a standard Tory blast at the EU and the judiciary....

Our politics has reached a potential republican moment. But we will not make the most (or anything) of this moment if we do not pay close attention to the distinction between republicanism and populism. Cameron's article is helpful in clarifying the quite distinct - and undesirable - populist agenda that could too easily emerge as an alternative to a genuinely republican one.

Why open primaries are a really bad idea

In the wake of the MPs' expenses fiasco lots of ideas are in the air about how to reform not only the expenses system but the wider political system. One idea getting some air time is the idea of open primaries.

Open primaries, as I understand the term, means that the selection of party candidates for elections is determined by the general public as well as by party members. The idea is bad because it is both highly illiberal and undemocratic.

Why is it illiberal? Well, consider a case which has some parallel. Over the past weekend the Church of Scotland debated whether or not to allow an openly gay man to become a church priest. This was, properly, a decision for the church members, not the general public. The Church of Scotland is defined by certain religious beliefs. It is properly up to the members of the church, who have these beliefs, to decide what is or isn't compatible with them. It would be quite inappropriate for people outside the community of belief to decide what follows from these beliefs and, therefore, to have a say in whether an openly gay man may or may not be a priest of the Church of Scotland.

To give the wider public this power would, in effect, be to dissolve the church as a distinctive community of shared belief. It would strike a fatal blow to one of the basic freedoms of a liberal society: freedom of association. Freedom of association is meaningless without the right to disassociate from those who have different or contrary beliefs to one's own. And key to that right of disassociation is the right to limit participation in crucial areas of church decision-making to members of the church.

Political parties are also communities of shared belief. I am not a member of the Labour party because I prefer the colour red to the colours yellow, blue or green, but because I have certain values and I judge the Labour party to be the best (if highly imperfect) vehicle for bringing these values to bear on the political system. In choosing candidates for an election, party members choose someone to stand up for these values, make the case for policies that reflect these values to the wider public, and act on them if elected.

Under an open primary system, however, party members would lose the ability to choose candidates who reflect the distinctive values of the party to which they belong. If an open primary system works, it means that candidates are chosen who reflect the values of the public at large. The political party thus loses the ability to stand candidates who offer ideas to the public who express its distinctive values and beliefs. What, one might say, is then the point of having political parties? The open primary effectively undermines political parties as communities of shared belief. As such, it is also a fundamental blow to freedom of association.

That's why the open primaries proposal is illiberal. But why is it also undemocratic?

A healthy democracy is one that presents voters at elections with real choices. Political parties, as communities of distinctive shared belief, are the main institution we use to frame choice. Under an open primary system, however, meaningful choice would be under threat. If the open primary system works, then all party candidates will end up looking pretty much like the median voter. Elections will become contests between centrists, and, given the absence of real policy or philosophical difference, will be determined more by issues of personality. That is bad for democracy.

Of course, any competitive electoral system generates pressure on parties to move to the centre to maximize votes (or, in the case of the our present, dysfunctional electoral system, to move to the centre in a small number of swing constituencies). But one check on this is that candidates and party platforms do have to address the views of party members as well the median voter. Under an open primary system that check on across-the-board centrism would be removed.

There is good evidence that one of the reasons for things like falling electoral turnout in contemporary democracies is precisely that parties do not offer voters sufficient choice. The open primary, ostensibly a way of putting the political system more in touch with the voter, would be likely to accentuate this in the long-term and so actually risks worsening lack of interest and engagement in the political system.

So, open primaries: illiberal and undemocratic. A populist measure, not a genuinely democratic republican one.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Is it too late for electoral reform?

I am among the signatories to a letter in today's Observer calling for a referendum on electoral reform to be held on the day of the next General Election.

The Observer has a report noting that Alan Johnson and John Denham (long-time electoral reformers) believe the argument is worth pushing. There is more on the Makes Vote Count blog, noting that Labour voices in favour include Matthew Taylor, myself, Neal Lawson of Compass, former MP Oona King, Young Labour chaIr Sam Tarry, NUS President Wes Streeting, Lance Price and Tony Robinson. (My understanding is that MPs and Peers were not invited to sign the letter, but some will be backing the campaign).

And The Observer editorialises in favour of electoral reform too.

So once more unto the breach for electoral reform?

Andrew Grice in The Independent yesterday noted pressure for a 'big bang' constitutional reform from David Miliband and James Purnell. But Grice argues that, while this might have worked in 1997, it is now too late.

Constitutional reform was a significant part of Labour's first term agenda. The 1997-2001 parliament saw, by some distance, the most significant political reforms since 1911. Yet these were commitments inherited by New Labour; that momentum was not sustained after 2001 as those pluralist advances seemed at odds with the governing style of the administration. And so it is that the government has so often been caught out by its own half measures: freedom of information, party funding reform and the disclosure of MPs expenses all mean we know so many things we would never have known even in the recent past. Yet transparency is not enough if it what is made transparent is not legitimate.

Electoral reform has been seen as one of the missed opportunities of Labour's time in government, despite some valiant efforts to keep the issue alive. The current crisis may - or may not - open the question. There are an enormous number of different agendas being proposed for 'political reform'. None is a panacea, but it will be necessary to think about the links between institutional reforms - such as strengthening the Commons, electoral reform and the role of a second chamber - and broader changes to political parties and in our political culture if we want a more participatory and more pluralist politics to result.

While "I wouldn't start from here" may be correct analysis - but it is always difficult advice to act upon. However, this strengthens the case for an open reform - for the creation of a constitutional convention, where the governing party is clear that it is ceding to citizens the power to determine outcomes, and indeed creating a process and momentum behind a new constitutional settlement which will conclude some time after the next General Election.

The problem of attempting a major reform at "five minutes to midnight" was the conclusion of the first piece I wrote when about to take over at the Fabians was an essay for a Policy Network book 'Rethinking Social Democracy', edited by Matt Browne and Patrick Diamond, which was published at the 2003 party conference season.

This was the conclusion of my 2003 piece, 'Is Britain a progressive country'.

Tony Wright has written that the British seem to think that pluralism is a lung disease. This peculiarly weak conception of what politics is - the belief that compromise is always a dirty word and that power can not be shared but must ultimately reside in one place or the other - has done much to contribute to an excessively centralised and adversarial political system which has lost public confidence and trust. It doesn't make sense to talk about the importance of choice, diversity and responsiveness in public services and then to fail to make democratic politics much more responsive too.


If a week is a long time in politics, there is rarely much point in looking too far beyond the immediate political controversy or crisis. Of course, nobody can make confident predictions about the future. But if we are to take seriously talk of a 'progressive century', then we must also have a longer-term perspective.

Like death and taxes, some facts of political life are unavoidable. No government likes to think about its own political mortality but eventually, one day, its end will come. If Labour were to win the next election and govern for a full term, it would have been in office for 12 or 13 years. And it will only be in the years after Labour has left office, that we will be able to fully assess its legacy in office.

A progressive government which does moe to reshape political debate, create alternative centres of power and change the political culture in Britain would have done much to sow the seeds of its own subsequent political recovery, as well as to define the terrain on which any future administration must govern. But to guarantee these achievements fully, we need to more firmly embrace political pluralism. A genuine social democratic consensus can't rely on social democrats always being in government. There are many different ways to change the British political culture. But if Labour, as it seems likely to do, leaves the electoral system unchanged, it will take a major gamble by leaving the central pivot of the 'winner-takes-all' culture of British politics intact. It will fail to insist that any future British government must have widespread public support or, at least, be 'coalitionable' in party political terms. It leaves the door open for the Right to win, possibly on a low share of the vote and a historically low turnout, and to claim a mandate for a 'slash and burn' ultra-neoliberal agenda.

Right now, both the electoral arithmetic and the workings of the first-past-the-post system itself are heavily stacked against our political opponents. But an attempt at reform will not be credible if we wait until it is five minutes to midnight, and seek to construct some sort of last minute deal to try to secure another year or two in power. We need to act sooner - from a position of strength - to underpin a progressive and pro-European consensus in British politics. Which is not to end on a point of defeatism. Rather it is about having the confidence to put in place the building blocks if we want a progressive century.

I can at least claim consistency in also having argued for electoral reform - making a case for the (non-PR) Alternative Vote to unlock the reform stalemate, as part of a much broader pluralist settlement - at the height of the Brown bounce in the Autumn of 2007, and again in much less auspicious circumstances at the start of this year.

Friday 22 May 2009

The beautiful game under threat from unfair chances

Guest post by Tom Stratton

Is it possible that British society can learn a thing or two from the state of our national game? That is what Sunder Katwala and I have claimed in an essay charting decreasing social mobility in English football. Through research undertaken in conjunction with the Fabian Society we show that football has become stratified; if left unchecked, this could undermine the legitimacy of our domestic competition. The dynamics behind the threat inequality poses to football are enlightening and make a compelling point about society at large.
The case for decreasing mobility in football is undeniable. The game today has become almost predictable; the same teams, with a few exceptions, compete for the end of season honours, others reside in mid-table oblivion, while some yo-yo between divisions. The reality is that a ‘caste’ system exists in English football, where teams know their place and revise their aspirations accordingly. Finishing outside the top four is a catastrophe for the big four teams, while seventeenth place for promoted clubs represents a successful season. Only twenty years ago there was a greater chance of a promoted team finishing in the top six than being relegated.
The loss of social mobility in football was down to an erosion of the football ‘society’, a narrative that was concurrently played out in Thatcher’s Britain. During the 1980s larger clubs began to feel their worth to football was not being sufficiently rewarded. The first TV contract to weight its payments specifically towards the bigger clubs was negotiated at the beginning of the 88/89 season, while the onset of the Premier League brought the end of cross-subsidisation of gate receipts for clubs in the top flight. The individualisation of football reflected the rise of the ‘New Right in Britain’; John Redwood once noted that Conservative measures against the ‘culture of dependency’ would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the 80s, and that they came into existence at all represented a shift in the psyche of the country. Rampant individualism and minimal investment in public services saw those at the bottom left to fend for themselves. Inequality rocketed as a result of the change in atmosphere and policy; the Gini Coefficient, a widely respected measure of inequality, rose during the period 1979 – 1990 from 101 to 135.
There are useful parallels between the problems English football and Britain could face as a result of their respective unequal societies. Football is a joint product; teams are interdependent and only become viable entities as a result of combination with another club to produce a competitive saleable output. This is something even the most rabidly free market societies are aware of. In the US, the draft system favours redistribution of playing resources; American football and basketball employ salary caps while gate receipts and television money are shared under varying arrangements. Similarly, unequal societies don’t just harm those at the bottom. The Spirit Level, a wide ranging study on the consequences of inequality, shows us that in unequal societies there is lower life expectancy, higher rates of obesity and teenage pregnancy, and more violent crime than in fairer equivalents. On a purely economic level, Britain is a far more attractive investment prospect if there is a vibrant internal market, skilled, literate and healthy workers, and an environment in which people feel encouraged to be creative as upward mobility and success are obtainable, even for those at the bottom.
English football and Britain are facing not dissimilar problems. While everybody can appreciate the glamour and excitement the Premiership and the last decade of affluence have brought, it would be foolish to ignore the potential harm inequality can have on long-term prospects. Beyond the moral argument that societies should help those least able to help themselves, the gap between the top and bottom in football and British society must be reduced if both are to retain their reputation as vibrant, competitive entities.

Thursday 21 May 2009

An open letter to the BBC

Guy Aitchison, of openDemocracy and Defend Peaceful Protest, and I have jointly written a letter of complaint to the BBC concerning the coverage of the G20 protests and related policing issues on the BBC News. We believe the letter points to some serious concerns about the quality of BBC News reporting on this matter, and so we have decided to make this an open letter with simultaneous publication here at Next Left and at OurKingdom.

Here is the letter:

'We are writing to complain about the BBC’s coverage of the policing of the G20 protests in the City of London on April 1st. In our view the BBC’s coverage has been incomplete, inaccurate, and frequently misleading, amounting to a failure on the BBC to discharge its proper obligations as a public service broadcaster. We have four principal concerns with the BBC’s coverage.

Partial and incomplete reporting of events amounting to misinformation

The BBC’s on-the-day reporting of the G20 protests failed to acknowledge the kettling of the Climate Camp at Bishopsgate and the aggressive police action recorded in videos and eyewitness testimony. The kettle was imposed between 7pm and 8pm which is when the police started to attack the Camp, but this was not reported on the BBC website or on BBC TV News.

At 9.16pm an article went up on the BBC website entitled Eyewitness: Climate Camp, which, under the sub-heading “Happy Campers”, reported that protesters’ were very pleased with the policing of the Camp. There was no other reporting on the Climate Camp that night at a time when it was being kettled and protesters were being beaten by police and it wasn’t until Friday April 3rd that the BBC website reported concerns with the Camp’s policing.

A feature by Julian Joyce on April 16th purporting to examine the merits and demerits of kettling in light of events at the G20 Police "kettle" tactic feels the heat contained no mention of the kettling of Climate Camp whatsoever, despite this being the most controversial use of the technique since it was carried out against an entirely peaceful protest.

By our reckoning, it wasn't until April 19, almost 3 weeks after the events, that a report on the BBC TV News acknowledged the police action at Climate Camp - and it did so then because another media outlet, The Sunday Times, had released video footage of aggressive policing. This failure to acknowledge the Climate Camp, and the particular issues raised by its policing, was a feature of nearly all the BBC News's reportage that we have seen - and certainly all the TV News reportage.

Further, the BBC TV News coverage routinely used the pictures of people smashing windows at RBS, thereby giving an impression that a degree of violence was a basicfeature of the G20 protests as such, which was very misleading given the non-violent character of the Climate Camp.

Indeed, even when, on April 19, the BBC TV News reported on the Climate Camp, the report in question failed to explain the context/motivation of the Camp and to differentiate it from events elsewhere, e.g., outside the RBS. The repeated - and, frankly, rather lazy - showing of the smashing of a window at the RBS will have given viewers the impression that the window smashing and the Climate Camp were related (which they were not) implicitly justifying the aggressive police action.

Grossly inaccurate statements about police tactics

Julian Joyce’s feature on kettling was factually misleading in stating that in a kettle the police allow protesters out of the cordon if they are non-violent. All the evidence, and our own experience, proves that this was not the case and that protesters and passers-by were indiscriminately detained with only a lucky few (mainly press) allowed to leave.

There were two problems here. One was factual: readers would have hadthe impression that the police did allow people out of the cordons at the G20 protests which we know, in general, to be untrue.

Second, there is a legal-conceptual problem. When the Law Lords considered the legality of kettling in January, they were explicitly considering whether the police could kettle on the understanding that this involves the police refusing to let non-violent individuals out of the cordon. So Julian Joyce's report did not seem to have taken into account what the legal definition of kettling is.

It is not possible to have a meaningful debate on kettling and whether or nor it is a legitimate tactic for use against peaceful demonstrations unless this basic features of kettling is understood.

Poor follow up to the story of heavy-handed policing

Follow-up of the story by BBC News has been very limited. There are now investigations by five separate official bodies into the policing of the G20 yet there has been almost no reporting on them and the important issues they raise on BBC TV News or on the BBC News website.

For example, Channel 4 News had a 3.5 minute segment on last week's Parliamentary hearings on the policing of the G20 protests. So far as we could tell, the BBC TV News the same evening - Tuesday, May 12 - had nothing. This arguably reflects a failure to appreciate the constitutional and ethical importance of the issue.

Lack of investigative impetus

More generally, the BBC’s coverage has been non-investigative. Other media outlets have done excellent investigative work, including Channel 4 News. BBC TV News, to our knowledge, has not aired one single investigative report on the issue - a report that sheds new light on the issue, rather than just reporting on the light others have shed.

The investigation to uncover the truth behind Ian Tomlinson’s death and expose the
misinformation coming from police sources was carried out entirely by other media outlets. Not only was the BBC playing catch up, it seems that it wanted to deliberately play down the significance of a story involving a passer-by’s death at police hands during a controversial policing operation and a potential police cover up.

Astonishingly, it is alleged that when the footage of the police assault on Ian Tomlison came to light BBC News’s initial reaction was that the story wasn’t important enough to run. According to Guardian journalist Stephen Moss: "When The Guardian offered this astonishing footage to the BBC News at 6, apparently the response was "No thanks, we're not covering this, we see it as just a London story.""

Again, this reflects a rather limited understanding of the vocation of a publicly-funded media outlet in a democratic society.

Discussion around the legitimacy of the tactics used by police at the G20 protests raises profound constitutional and ethical principles and that is why it is essential that the public be provided with full and accurate information of what actually took place. The BBC’s reporting has frequently been incomplete and inaccurate thanks to an over-reliance on official sources and a lack of investigative impetus. As a public service broadcaster the BBC has a special responsibility not to distort a debate which is so vital to the health of our democracy. This it has failed to do. We hope for better from future BBC reporting.'

Presentation is everything, Esther

It’s becoming abundantly clear just how important presentation is in politics - and I haven’t even seen Gordon Brown’s infamous YouTube broadcast yet (I didn’t want to scare the children that were in the room).

The thing is, I don’t really care how politicians appear. I don’t require them to be attractive, or polished, or great wits. I don’t want to be their friend. All I require of politicians is that they are intelligent, driven individuals that pursue principled politics that I can relate to (if not necessarily agree with).

Put it this way: if you had the choice of choosing the surgeon who was about to operate on you, you wouldn’t choose the one who seems like they’d be most fun down the pub. You’d go for the one who was most experienced and had the best recovery rates. Image isn’t important in fields such as medicine.

Such common sense rarely applies to politics.

If Abraham Lincoln were around today, it’s doubtful whether he’d get to be President. For all his undoubted intellect, ability and courage, he was – let’s face it – an odd looking cove. He’d be a challenge for the Republican Party communications team in today’s media saturated, image obsessed world. (“Listen, Abe. If you’re to stand a chance of getting the soccer mom vote, you’re going to have to sort out your eyebrows. And for God’s sake, lose the beard.”)

If you’re still not convinced that image is everything, consider that Esther Rantzen is now contemplating running for Parliament. Truly, we’ve gone through the looking glass. We’re so desperate for integrity, and trust, that anyone who’s appeared on TV will probably get into Parliament with a thumping majority.

And yet – with all due respect to Esther – I’m not sure what she stands for, besides being against expensive dry rot claims. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But what else is she planning to do in her five years as MP? And will she be able to function effectively without the support apparatus of a political party? As David Aaronovitch argues, it’s a moot point. It’s also something that most of us don’t tend to consider as voters.

After all, why have a boring MP who’s slogged their way through grassroots politics and knows their constituency inside out, when you could elect that one off the telly?

The way things are going, the next Parliament will be littered with the remnants of daytime TV. Bowing to public pressure, the next Cabinet will probably contain the likes of Rantzen (she’d be good as a touchy-feely Minister for Health); David Dickinson (getting the taxpayer bargain deals as Chancellor); and Jeremy Kyle (as Home Secretary, he’d keep the chavs in line through a combination of tough legislation and shouting loudly at them). While we're at it, why not bring the Loose Women team into the fold (as a special no-nonsense Cabinet taskforce to sort out the Israel-Palestine conflict).

Oh well. The campaign for Ant and Dec’s joint premiership may as well start here.

Poster boys (and girls) hit the roadsides

Just back from a short trip to Ireland, where the telegraph poles are adorned by millions of political posters for the upcoming local and European elections - in stark contrast to our own nude version.
To pass the time on long car journeys we opted for a vote among the group - which included a collection of friends from India, Germany and the UK - on our nominated candidate based solely on the poster.
Poster power is a major factor in Irish politics which leads one to wonder what the candidates poster budgets are like? Massive, I should think, if the output is anything to go by. And what is the likelihood of getting elected if you don't poster - has anyone researched the question?
A 3.5 hour road journey tuned into RTE1 meant I am better informed on Irish news and politics than normal. Election coverage played a major factor in the news - with potholes being nominated as a major local election issue.
There seemed to be a general feeling among the populace, taxi drivers and people we met that the Irish government were due a good clout at the elections for the way the economy had taken a nose dive. Watch that pole.

Thinking about reform

One of the likely consequences of the whole MPs expenses scandal is that parliament will change – we don't quite know how yet, but certainly some (of the admittedly more optimistic) commentators are starting to cast this as a great opportunity for reform. Whether panic leads to good changes is a pretty debatable matter. Instead the danger is we get the classic Dangerous Dogs Act scenario where a desire for quick fixes leads to bad decisions. And the jury is still very much out on whether any and (if so) what kind of reforms will mollify an angry public. 

What is interesting about this whole discussion though are the many different ideas being suggested. In an article in today's Times, for example, Peter Riddell talks about seven possible avenues for change (and in fact there are more, as he omits to mention the possibility of electoral reform – but more on that in a second).

Riddell makes many good points (parliamentary petitions seems a particularly good idea, and I agree with his broad conclusion that the most likely outcome is probably a strengthening of parliamentary power). However, I wanted to take issue with one comment he makes, which I think is wrong. He claims that:

“Reformers are split between supporters of representative democracy wanting to give more power to MPs and advocates of participatory/direct democracy wanting to shift power from MPs to voters. The views are inherently incompatible.”

I don't think this is the case (although perhaps Riddell is right to suggest this is how the debate has frequently been framed). But I think he is confusing two distinct issues – the power of MPs relative to the executive, and the relationship between MPs and voters. Furthermore, I would suggest that the two matters do not present a contradiction. In fact, quite the reverse – if you change one relationship, you are, by default, necessitating a re-think of the other.

First, I would argue Parliament currently lacks confidence, and many of its actions in recent years have occurred because of a lack of understanding of its true constitutional position, coupled with the needs of short term political expediency. I first realized this during the cash for honours crisis. The initial investigation was carried out by a Public Administration Select Committee. However, as soon as the police were called in, this action was suspended. However, this makes no sense: Parliament is, in theory at least, sovereign, and the highest authority in the land. I would argue that quite the reverse should have happened – the parliamentary committee should have told the police to desist, engaged in a complete investigation and then, if necessary, provided the evidence to bring charges. This is, of course, a recurring pattern. In recent days, for example, many Parliamentarians have been very keen to pledge that they will give away their decision making autonomy to external bodies, such as the proposals being drafted by Christopher Kelly on MPs' expenses. Parliament seems simply desperate to pass the buck. 

Part of the problem here, I would argue, are the constitutional arrangements we have in this country. The public don't trust parliament to police itself or the political classes, because they are all assumed to be in bed with each other. Because authority (and thus patronage) is so centralized in Britain, the success of an individual political career is largely reliant on the leadership of a party, so there is (rightly or wrongly) an assumption that no one has any interest in rocking the boat.

How might this be solved? One solution I would suggest would be to create greater scope for politicians to become true legislators. Let's face it: virtually no one in Britain wants to be an MP. They want to be ministers, and the Commons is just a necessary step on that path. But by strengthening the Commons (by for example making it easier for individuals members to sponsor and co-sponsor bills with a genuine chance of getting onto the statute books and strengthening select committees), it can become a much more powerful counterpoint to the Executive. As a result, it becomes possible to imagine people forging hugely important political careers without ever entering government.

Does a renewal of the House of Commons contradict devolving power down to citizens? I don't think so. In fact, quite the reverse. The flip-side of granting individual legislators more power is that they must be held accountable for how they use it. At the moment (with some exceptions), voters tend to see their vote for an MP as a tacit decision on the Premiership. If MPs were more empowered to pursue their own agendas, then their own records would necessarily come in for closer scrutiny.

While lawmakers would certainly have to look to their constituency more (thus undermining the power of party whips), this wouldn't mean that MPs had to follow the will of the public, but rather that they would have to justify their decisions a lot more. As a result, some, who were unable to do this, might lose out, but it is important to remember that there is also be the potential for political rewards.

To those ends, I would tentatively suggest some ideas for reform of both Westminster and popular politics:

  • Reform the private members bill system. All MPs should be allowed to propose legislation. Some kind of transparent filtering mechanism (probably involving select committees) should decide which bills go forward, and enough time should be allowed in the parliamentary schedule for these bills to have a realistic chance of becoming law. This would break the executive’s stranglehold on the parliamentary schedule. Bills could be co-sponsored to encourage bi-partisan solutions.
  • Increase the power of select committees. Legislatively, they should have far greater power to scrutinize and amend legislation proposed by the executive. As a result, senior committee chair people would become very powerful figures in defining the legislative agenda, but remain separate from the executive. The power of committees to investigate issues and misdemeanors should also be increased, including the right to subpoena and hear evidence under oath on penalty of perjury. They should have the same power as police to pass evidence onto the Crown Prosecution Service and recommend charges are bought.
  • Cabinet appointments should be ratified by committees. In the event of disagreement, a vote should be taken by the whole House of Commons.
  • Given all of the above, it is vital the select committees are insolated from the executive. 
  • House of Lords reform needs to be re-visited. A wholly elected chamber is certainly preferable to the current arrangement. However, this institution must be a very different beast to the Commons. Various solutions (longer period of office, maybe a decade, but limited to a single term? Rolling elections every two years? Broad regional constituencies elected under a different election system?) could be considered, but this would again provide a legislative counterpoint to the executive.
  • As was advocated in The Change We Need, primaries should be rolled out. However, instead of this just being a party initiative, the possibility of instigating a broader system with universal partisan voter registration should be examined. This would mean that broad-based campaigns to oust sitting MPs could be more easily organized. 
  • A system to organize a recall election for an individual Member of Parliament should be set-up. Necessarily, the threshold will be high, but the very presence of the tool will change the relationship between MPs and constituents.
  • Campaign finance law should be reformed so as individual MPs are far more reliant on attracting many small contributions support from individual donors. This would require an examination of the relationship between central and constituency spending, and a reconsideration of the legality of large donations and institutional giving.

These are just vague ideas, but I certainly don't see inherent contradiction in seeking to construct a constitutional settlement that creates responsive and accountable legislators, but also a respected and powerful legislator.

One obvious oversight here is the discussion of the electoral system. Given the twin aims that I outline above, I would not favour a shift to a European-style party list system of PR (as we are about to use in the European elections, in fact). Such a system greatly undermines the power of the electorate to dispense with or reward individual lawmakers. Other systems, such as a candidate list system, where voters choose the individual rather than the party may be better. But I also wonder if the discussion of PR – while having its own merits - is a little tangential to this debate, for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, plenty of countries with PR have very corrupt politicians; far more so than our lot. Second, and more importantly, I also wonder if public dissatisfaction with the electoral system (and it is highly questionable how broad-based and deep that dissatisfaction is, even among the proverbial riders on the Clapham Omnibus), is more a symptom of some of the issues I have discussed above, rather than a cause of it. The normal data cited to prove the flaws in our electoral system is the discrepancy between vote shares and the meta-outcome of the election – so how big the government's majority is. But if power were shifted from the executive to individual lawmakers, that meta-outcome would grow less important. Instead, results in individual constituencies would start to have a far greater impact. Given this, a move to a system like the alternative vote may be more attractive than a system guaranteeing national proportionality.

The immorality of the campaign for Ghurkhas

The campaign for the right for Ghurkhas to stay in the UK reached a successful conclusion with Jacqui Smith’s announcement this afternoon that all Ghurkha veterans who retired before 1997 with at least four years' service will be allowed to settle in the UK. But it is a ‘people’s campaign’ that seems to me to be morally confused, and to entirely miss the more profound injustices in the issue.

Of course the basic argument has great appeal: if someone is prepared to risk their life fighting for a country, they should be allowed to live there. This is where the government’s earlier refusal to accede to the full demands of the campaign seemed immoral, in denying residency to those who had done so much for our country.

But I see a greater issue in the fact we are willing to let people living thousands of miles away from us fight for our country in wars that can have little significance for them, wars started by governments they never voted in, and whose interests they have no need to represent. Are there Ghurkhas fighting for us in Iraq? How can that be right, whether or not we then allow them to move here afterwards? What does that war mean to them? What are the beneficial effects of the war likely to be for Nepal?

The ‘deep connection’ between Britain and the Ghurkhas is an imperialist one. We came across the ‘tenacious’ Ghurkhas in an unsuccessful invasion of Nepal; the treaty signed by the British East India Company in 1815 then allowed Britain to recruit from the ranks of the former enemy. Britain found these soldiers then to be a useful asset whilst fighting in India. And now, to maintain this historical connection, we let some of their lucky, bright, fit young men continue to fight our wars.

The fact that fighting for Britain is an attractive prospect for the young men of Nepal simply points to the obviously inexcusable disparity between our country and theirs. Many young men aspire to become Ghurkhas, training for years to pass through the highly competitive application process, often at great expense. Less than one in thirty who apply get in; the others are ‘left’ to live a life that the Lumley campaign recognises to be far poorer than that available to people in the UK.

Indeed, the manner in which they are praised as soldiers seems to me largely to speak of their poor situation in Nepal, and our hugely imperialist relationship with them: a BBC report cites historian Tony Gould arguing that the Ghurkhas “are tough, they are brave, they are durable, they are amenable to discipline.” This sounds eerily like a description a British general might have offered a few hundred years ago of the ‘natives’ of some foreign land we had just ‘discovered’.

If we are to have people from foreign countries risking their lives fighting our country’s wars for us, we should let them live here. But the more immoral act to me seems the fact that we allow the world’s poor to compete with one another for the privilege of experiencing a small taste of western wealth. We should not have foreign mercenaries fighting our wars for us. Even less those poorest people whose effective choice in the matter is limited. And if living in Nepal offers unjustifiably poorer opportunities than those available to those of us living in the UK, we should think more profoundly of how we might redress this inequality so that the country as a whole might enjoy greater prosperity.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

The idea of Indian democracy

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deserves congratulations for the victory of his Congress-led coalition in the world's largest democratic election. Having been attacked in personal terms as India's weakest ever premier by the opposition in the campaign, the cerebral Singh has become the first Indian PM since Nehru to be re-elected after a full term in office.

It is always dangerous to generalise, given the complexity of Indian politics, and I do not claim any expertise beyond a general interest. So it would be good to hear from those who have followed the campaign closely. But here are three reasons to be cheerful about Indian democracy.

1. The idea of India

A heavy defeat which is provoking much soul searching among the Hindu nationalist BJP must surely be welcomed.

There were many obituaries written a decade ago for the idea of India as democratic, secular, committed to religious and cultural pluralism, public service and economic development and an outward-looking, non-chauvinist patriotism. That was the vision of Jawahlarlal Nehru, one of my great political heroes (and, for me, perhaps the greatest of all Fabians too).

Sunil Khilnani's splendid book 'The idea of India' offers an excellent discussion of both the challenges and complexities but also the enduring appeal of Nehru's vision.

Singh faces simplistic and rather misleading attacks from both left and right for his speech at Oxford in 2005. The idea that it was an exoneration of colonialism is ridiculous if you read it. It was a confident outward-looking expression of India's independence and global engagement, recognisably in the tradition of Nehru, who remained an Anglophile despite being jailed by the British and saw it as in India's interests to forge a new Commonwealth in which independent states could enter as partners (and indeed Republics). Nehru won his triumph over colonialism in the name of universal as well as Indian values of democracy and humanity.

2. The case for growth and poverty reduction.

The great criticism of Nehru's nation-building was the stalling of India's economic progress - with what economists derisively called 'the Hindu rate of growth' (though this too had a good deal to do with the application of Fabian secularism) while Jagdish Bhagwati posited a "cruel dilemma" between democracy and development in the comparative experiences of India and China. That was too pessimistic. The story was a more complex one, as Meghnad Desai sets out. And India has been able to liberalise and accelerate its development since the early 1990s, and to do so in a way which avoided either the great famines and political torments of China's cultural revolution.

Nobody could accuse the Singh government of not being pro-growth, pro-trade and pro-global engagement. Singh's reforms as Finance Minister pioneered India's liberalisation. But they have had a strong emphasis too on a politics of redistribution.

The BJP's election defeat in 2004 stunned international observers, who expected a government with such strong growth rates to back its claim to national renaissance triumphantly re-elected under its India Shining slogan. Wisdom after the event converged on the idea that the BJP forgot about India's poor, who could not see that the benefits of the New India would trickle down to them.

The government's success has again surprised most international and Indian observers - and indeed the government itself - but the breadth of its electoral coalition is partly about a sustained attempt to fuse growth and development. (This may also be one part of the reason why the left parties did worse than expected).

As Bhakshar Dutta writes in Calcutta's Telegraph of the coalition's unexpected triumph in this year's election.

Unfortunately, the term, ‘economic reform’, has come to acquire a somewhat narrow connotation. It has come to mean only those changes that make the economy more market-friendly, while pro-poor policies are typically dismissed as populist measures and denied the status of “reforms”.

3. The robust health of Indian democracy

International commentary has consistently stressed the fragility of Indian democracy yet consistently seen pessimistic forecasts of its collapse confounded. This has been a central argument of Ramachandra Guha's books on Indian democracy.

India's first democratic election was a logistical miracle of democracy in the fledgling state, but the pattern has been repeated at so many moments since. Guha quotes The Times report in 1967 declaring that ""the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed" and that the fourth election would be the last. That prediction widely and perhaps more plausibly shared with Indira Gandhi's state of emergency in the mid-1970s; again; and again with the rise of the BJP. Indian politics is always colourful and often chaotic. But what is more evident is how robust a democratic response has been - for example, in the astonishing landslide defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977.

Dynasties certainly play a role in Indian politics. The youthful presence of Rahul Gandhi has been very prominent for Congress, offsetting the experience of the PM. But this could not be about the name alone. His cousin Varun Gandhi was a prominent BJP candidate. This was thought to be a great coup by some on the right.

So this too was a debate which went to the heart of India, as Varun Gandhi played an anti-Muslim communal card with the most extreme language of the campaign.

That seems to have backfired very badly.

India is all the better for it.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Reading tips for expectant dads

You should (very soon) be hearing rather less from me on the blog over the next four weeks. The happy event today of the arrival of Sonny Patrick Katwala early this afternoon means that I am away from the office on paternity leave.

That should be an intense and enjoyable period. But that also takes a day or two to kick in. With mother and baby in hospital for a couple of nights, and having come home to swap over with grandparents and put two slightly older children in bed, I am currently on paternity leave without any parenting to do until the morning.

So I've made a few phone calls and texts, got some photos up on Facebook and all of that. But there remains a few minutes for one short public service announcement. For one thing that occurred to me in the last 24 hours is that, however much they tell us what to read at the beach and during the Turkey hangover, the books sections of the newspapers fall short on one rather specific service. What should the dad-to-be be reading in the pre-delivery suite?

At the back of the mind is always the nagging thought that this might be the very moment to crack Middlemarch. However tempting, this is even dafter than the idea of taking Wittgenstein along on a beach holiday on the off-chance. What is wanted is something light and dip-in-and out-able. No doubt there are classics which would work great: Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, say, or Jane Austen. And a little bit of intellectual respectability sounds fine: it is best kept pretty middlebrow. And you need to pick your way carefully through the last couple of Booker shortlists. Save JM Coetzee for another time. This is not the moment for a stark portrayal of man's inhumanity to man.

So let the guard down a little here. What is needed is something enjoyable, short, dip in and out-able. And life-affirming.

(One obvious caveat: this depends on the birthplan. This may all be somewhat more relevant where an epidural is involved. Still, very tiny babies and mums who have given birth do often sleep a fair bit in the first couple of days. You might want to read something. If you've thoughtfully supplied a couple of mindless women's glossies for your partner, you will also have a chance to learn a few things you should know. But you might want something else after 45 minutes of that. Once everyone gets home, many of us struggle to know what day it is, so it might be the last chance you get for some time).

Anyway, here's what worked for me after three runs at this. (And I'm pretty sure that's all folks).

First baby: new dad-to-be is naturally both clueless and mildly terrified. Baby names book still there too. Much UN-style negotiating ahead, though search for consensus is advisable if partner is a strong advocate of the school of thought that actually giving birth to the baby is trumps. The broader plan is to swot up on "What to expect: the first year" as if its a finals exam. But too much advice and information: no idea what will be relevant.

Fortunately, Nick Hornby to the rescue. In this case, A Long Way Down. The characters all begin off suicidal but was bound to be broadly life-affirming by the end. Hornby is light, engaging, thought-provoking at times, and the writing has much more craft in its simplicity than his critics acknowledge. So I say that Nick Hornby is a good thing to have with you in the delivery suite. Perhaps especially High Fidelity or About A Boy for the terrified male first time parent trying to grow up overnight. I had Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, which was short, pacy and fun, though perhaps a questionable choice of subject.

Second baby: Know more about what is going on this time. Have Michael Palin's diaries out of the local library. Am in no way a Python expert but it doesn't matter. Diaries are also spot on in these circumstances. Michael Palin especially may have the edge on Alan Clark. Ishiguru's Never Let Me Go was around too: I found it stunning. Was that the occasion? Baby gets a name after two or three days. (Name problem this time is that nothing that was in the running and not chosen last time seems to work now. But those were the names we liked. Suits him fine after a few days).

Third baby: Today, it was Jason Cowley's new The Last Game, in which a good memoir of his father and childhood are mixed into what happened to football after 1989 and the season of Hillsborough. OK, I've stuck a bit close to Hornby territory and fancied it after banging on about how football has changed, but the book doesn't depend at all on being a football obsessive.

The tone and - as it turned out - the length, were spot on for the occasion.

If any of us is naturally going to feel warmer towards books read at these particular moments than we might at other times, it is worth remembering that the point of books for most of us is to enjoy them as readers, and not necessarily or always as critics.

Over the next few weeks, I don't particularly expect to be extending the reading list too much.

But ideas as to what to read when you can't back to sleep after being woken at 4am might be another useful category if anybody wishes to attempt it.

More police words that say it all

In a couple of posts recently I've drawn attention to the way the Metropolitan police have expressed themselves about policing of the G20 protests. I've shown how they have chosen words to give misleading impressions, without exactly lying ('Metspeak'), and the way they have said things that are unintentionally revealing of the Met's mindset - for example, when one senior police officer recently implied that the criteria of successful protest policing are wholly about public order, ignoring the right to peaceful protest.

Well, it looks like the problem isn't confined to the Met.

We had some evidence of this back in April, when the police in Nottinghamshire preemptively arrested 114 people about to demonstrate at an E.ON coal-fired power plant. According to one report of the events: "[Protesters] had their hands cuffed behind their backs and were left standing there for an hour and a half while the police searched the building. There were lots of people there who had never had so much as a parking ticket and some of them were really quite shaken...."

Tellingly, according to this report, 'one protester was allegedly asked: "Are you proud to be a terrorist?"'

OK, you could put that down to individual stupidity.

However, George Monbiot's column today indicates that this particular officer may have been voicing a mind-set that is more widely shared in the police. Indeed, it looks as if it could be akin to an 'official' view.

According to Monbiot:

'A few weeks ago, like everyone in mid-Wales, I received a local policing summary from the Dyfed-Powys force. It contained a ­section headed Terrorism and Domestic Extremism. "Work undertaken is not solely focused on the threat from ­international terrorists. Attention has also been paid to the potential threat that domestic extremists and campaigners can pose." '

Monbiot filed a Freedom of Information request to find out what the phrase 'domestic extremists and campaigners' means. The police have told him they will not be replying within the statutory period - er, in what sense, then, is this a 'statutory period'? - or given any indication when they will tell him.

This is pretty amazing in itself. The police wrote this document. Just how hard can it be to tell the public what they mean by words that they themselves penned? Have they been reading some complex literary theory, provoking a crisis in their ability to pinpoint their own authorial intent?

Monbiot refers us to the Dyfed-Powys police website where the force gives an example of policing what it calls 'domestic extremists and campaigners': overseeing the killing of a TB-infected bull which a Hindu community regarded as sacred. As Monbiot points out: '[The bull's] defenders sought a judicial review and launched a petition. When that failed, they sang and prayed. That's all.' These people are 'domestic extremists'? They are somehow a domestic equivalent of the threat from international terrorism?

Finally, Monbiot reports a recent Welsh police bulletin which identifies a new challenge in the form of 'eco-terrorism'. No examples of anything resembling terrorism are given to illustrate what this means. 'It appears,' writes Monbiot, 'to refer to any environmental action more radical than writing letters to your MP.'

What we have, then, is a gradual accumulation of evidence pointing to a widespread and high-level failure of police officers to make elementary distinctions between terrorism, civil disobedience and (in the case of the Hindu community) simple conscience-driven protest.

This is no small point. It amounts to the demonisation of legitimate protest.

And stepping over that line marks a crucial difference between a democratic police force and one operating on the assumptions of an authoritarian state.