Budget thoughts

This is all word vomit, so forgive me.  

I really don’t give a shit about paying taxes. I don’t.  If I get decent, efficient services back from my taxes, I couldn’t care less about them taking the money off me.  My problem is that I don’t feel confident that this Government takes my tax money and uses it efficiently.  So when George Osborne stands in the Commons and says people don’t want the state to spend more, I don’t believe him.  Of course, this is only based on my views but I truly don’t mind state-spending (typical lefty) my money if I think it’s channelled in the right direction, which is open to definition depending on your political persuasion.

Problems I have:

  • Rent.  Private landlords in London are making a mint from people like me.  I support a rent cap but fuck all will be done about it whilst everyone’s favourite clown, Boris Johnson, stays in power.
  • Affordable housing.  I’d love to own my own flat or house eventually, though I doubt in my lifetime this will happen for me.  Not in London anyway.  Unless I come into a big lottery win, also unlikely.  The construction industry is on its arse in Britain, yet whenever I see housing estates and flats being built, they are simply not affordable for first-time buyers like me.  Something needs to be done.
  • Prices and incomes.  I work in the public sector and Osborne has just announced my pay increase will again be capped to 1% until at least 2016.  I understand in these tough times that we all have to take a hit.  I wouldn’t care so much if the combined hit of rent + prices/inflation didn’t have such a profound effect on my income and expenditure. 
  • Democracy.  It’s a joke in this country.  You wouldn’t think Prime Minister’s Questions is a serious tool of government accountability with this bunch of jeering schoolkids.  Actually that’s an insult to schoolkids who would probably behave better than this lot (on all sides of the Chamber).  How are we expected to take politics and our own political system seriously when the best they can do is yell and beat their chests?  The Deputy Speaker had to stop the Budget reading TWICE to calm down MPs.  It doesn’t help encourage people to participate in this system, especially at a time when many citizens already feel disengaged from the processes and decisions that affect them.
  • Transport costs.  I have had a YP railcard since I was 18 and have saved a shitload of money on travel with it.  But when I turn 26, my eligibility will be gone.  Fair enough.  At 26, there is an expectation that you don’t need a subsidy for your travel if, as expected, you are in full-time employment.  My fare will go from £51 return to £77 without my railcard (approximately).  Again, I wouldn’t care so much if I felt I got a decent service.  I have perhaps not suffered as much as people on the East Coast do.  The problems there are well noted.  But on Monday afternoon, I caught the 14:10 Glasgow to Euston service from Wigan, which should’ve arrived in London at 16:12.  Thanks to overhead line problems and a deluge of fuck ups at Euston, we arrived into Euston at 17:12.  This is the tip of travel-chaos iceberg.  This single experience is nothing compared to the stories I’ve heard.

This is all I can think of for now, but that’s probably enough. I’m angry and cynical.

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PCC elections reinforce need for proper discourse on British democracy

I listened with intent this morning as Damian Green MP did the rounds on television.  He had the unenviable job of trying to paper over the cracks that have emerged since yesterday’s Police Crime Commissioner elections.  These elections have proved, once again, that we need a real conversation in this country about our democracy.

Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are another bright idea of this Coalition government, first confirmed as Conservative policy way back in 2010.  On paper, it sounds wonderful – making democracy more local, having an assigned person in control of policing priorities for specific areas.  Well and good.  But the success of such policies hinges on a naive belief that local electorates are interested and educated enough about PCCs to want to vote in such elections.

PCC elections took place yesterday across a swathe of localities.  Turnout was expected to be 18.5 per cent according to the Electoral Reform Society – but the first few results have proved this to have been an optimistic estimate at best.  In Wiltshire, turnout was just 15.2 per cent – 78,794 people voted out of a possible 520,000 registered voters.  In Greater Manchester, turnout was 13.5 per cent.  In the West Midlands, this figure dropped lower, with some election turnouts at a meagre 12 per cent.

So I was highly amused this morning to hear Mr Green come out with this hilarious quote:

“The measure of this policy is not the turnout, it’s what the police and crime commissioners achieve over the next few years.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20352539)

Amazing.  Yes, Mr Green, we’re all looking forward to seeing how this experimental policy plays out over the next few years.  But what you fail to understand that, actually, the success of a policy must begin with its own legitimacy.  How can we seriously say that PCCs have a right to decide force budgets, appoint chief constables, and set local policing priorities when barely 15 per cent of the electorate gave them a vote?  How can an MP imply on live TV that a core tenet of our democracy can be dismissed as long as a policy is successful?  If you’re willing to admit on national television that turnout – whatever number – can be overlooked, what other democratic processes are similarly being overlooked?

These elections again prove the need for a proper discussion on where democracy is heading in this country.  I have read from a range of sources about the reasons people did not turn out for these elections.  Many voters did not know what they were being asked to vote for.  Candidates were unknown to potential voters.  Information was not given out on candidates and their manifestos.  How can we ever expect people to get out and vote when they don’t know what they’re voting for?

We had a similar situation with the electoral system elections and I fear that we will see a continuation of decreasing turnout in parliamentary and European elections.  We need to seize this opportunity in the wake of the PCC election results to ensure that your average Joe on the street is informed about why they’re voting, what exactly – in the most explicit terms – they are voting for, and who their choices are as candidates.  This is especially important in the case of PCCs, some of whom will be earning a £100,000 pay packet in these roles.

Apathy and disenfranchisement are crippling our democracy.  Confidence in our elected officials is at a low.  It is absolutely crucial to the future of the British political system that action is taken now to prevent these turnout figures being repeated elsewhere.  Tackling apathy starts in the classroom.  We must arm future generations with the basic facts about the country they live in and the democracy within which they will eventually participate.  If we cannot do this, then we are betraying the democracy and the freedoms which we have fought hard to keep over successive centuries.  It’s time to act now.

Cash for access

And so rolls on the juggernaut of government scandal.  Secret videos of Conservative co-treasurer Peter Cruddas selling access to David Cameron and George Osborne emerged at the weekend and the ramifications are far from over.  Cruddas has resigned but there is increasing pressure on Number 10 to disclose more specific details about party donations and who gained ‘access’ and when.

This is not the first scandal of its kind, and no party can claim any moral superiority when it comes to cash-for-something corruption.  In 1994, Neil Hamilton MP came under fire in cash-for-questions scandal involving Mohammed Al-Fayed. In 1997, eyebrows were raised when it transpired that Bernie Eccleston had donated £1million to the Labour Party, which soon after its election decided to relax laws on tobacco advertising in Formula 1. Labour was subsequently forced to return the donation. Most recently, in 2009, four Labour peers came under the spotlight due to cash-for-influence allegations.  This is not new news.

But when the scandal itself links directly to the highest offices in the government and the Conservative Party, questions must be raised again about the quality of democracy in this country.  It is just 2 years since the widespread expenses scandal tarnished our Parliament, and yet here we are again, with another example of how easy it is to find corruption in the offices of Downing Street.

Cruddas has quite rightly resigned.  But the questions this issue raises will continue to be asked.  At a time when trust in our elected officials is at an all-time low and electorate apathy is on the increase, how can party officials be so arrogant as to think this is acceptable practice?  Cameron’s apparent ignorance to the situation has yet to be proved true either way – time will tell.  His refusal, however, to reveal who has dined at Number 10 with him raises further issues of trust.  I understand the security aspect of revealing these names, and that yes, the Prime Minister does have a right to some privacy in his home.  But when private dinners are taking place in Number 10, by rights a state-owned taxpayer-funded residency, these arguments lose weight.  If our Prime Minister has nothing to hide, then this list should be revealed and any further allegations of impropriety put to bed.

The issues were discussed at length on BBC Breakfast this morning.  It was mentioned that trade union funding has much the same influence on the Labour Party, and that cash for access and influence is nothing new.  I agree with these sentiments, as a I detailed above.  I may be accused of being a Labour apologist for what I am about to say but  I think the distinction is important.  Political parties in this country depend on party donations.  Apathy is rife in our society.  Daily examples of ignorance and disillusionment can be found everywhere.  For those reasons alone, party membership numbers have plummeted and thus the argument for allowing party donations is understandable.  People, rightly, want to donate money to the causes they believe in.

Having said that, I do not see trade union donation and private Tory interests as one and the same.  Trade union donations and influence are surely a natural consequence of a political party founded on the principles of organised labour and working-class rights.  Without trade unions, there would be no Labour Party.  Many would argue that without millionaires there would be no Conservative party, but the Tory party itself was not formally founded to protect the interests of millionaires and business.  Property, prosperity etc, yes.  But there is no exclusive rights for millionaires and private business interests in the formation of the Conservative Party, despite what it may have become.  The Labour Party is born out of the trade union movement, so can we really argue that union influence is identical to that of what is happening now within the Tory party?  I think not.

Whilst that is not to say that the intentions of trade unions are always good, I would side with the unions any day – fighting for fair pay, workers’ rights and pensions – over the elite interests of millionaires that I should imagine frequent dinners with Cameron and Osborne.  But I am betraying my political leanings here, and I don’t think this is of great importance to this blog entry because it’ll simply descend into name-calling and yaboo politics, and we see enough of that in the House of Commons on any given day.

Clearly something must be done.  Suggestions were made on BBC Breakfast this morning that laws on political party funding must be changed.  Our electorate is disengaged from the political processes so fundamental to the smooth running of our country.  Trust has to be rebuilt in all arenas of our political system, and this must mean looking at every piece of legislation relating to the operation of our political parties and institutions.  The three major parties must be an example of clean, fair practice – the rest, I think, will follow.  If nothing changes and the shrouds of secrecy over Number 10 prevail, Joe Bloggs on the street will again see this as another example that Parliament has lost touch with the electorate, and that the only way democracy works in Britain is if you have a hefty bank balance and the right contacts.  We shall see.

Whipped in more ways than one

Yesterday’s controversial debate on whether we should hold a referendum on EU membership brought to light a whole range of problems within our political system.  Whilst many would like to discuss the Conservative party splits, or the credibility of the coalition government’s “e-petitions” which prompted this debate, I think it necessary to look at the whip system.

Both the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband issued ‘three-line whips’ to their respective parties ahead of this vote.  In basic terms, this required each MP to attend, vote, and toe the party line.  Or in Dave and Ed’s terms, vote no, and if you don’t, there’ll be serious repercussions.  Stewart Jackson, Conservative MP for Peterborough, rebelled against the three-line whip and has now lost his job as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  Adam Holloway, Conservative MP for Gravesham, resigned his position as PPS to David Lidington MP, Minister of State for Europe and NATO, in light of his rebellion against the three-line whip.  It remains to be seen how the other 79 Conservative rebels will be punished.

Arguments for adhering to three-line whips usually focus on loyalty to the party.  I watched an hour or so of the Europe debate yesterday, and I think it was Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, and a famous party rebel, who said that she understands the rationale behind whips.  After all, it is your party who select you as a parliamentary candidate, support your campaign and give you the resources and tools to win an election.  But should this rationale elevate loyalty to party above the loyalty to your constituents?  Kate Hoey disagreed, and I disagree too.

The foundation of representative democracy is, well, representation.  Whilst Members of Parliament will ultimately make their own voting decisions based on a number of factors, one of the most important of these factors must be constituent opinion.  Your party may have made your candidacy possible, but it is your constituents who queued at the ballot boxes and put a cross next to your name.  This is not to say that all Members who voted with their party are careerists or disloyal to their constituents; I believe many of them simply did not support the motion.  But it is downright wrong for party leaders to coerce their Members into voting a certain way simply to make a political point, especially on an issue as salient as European Union membership.

Regardless of my own opinions on the EU – for what it’s worth, I am largely pro-EU – when opinion polls are stating that 70 per cent of voters want a referendum on Britain’s EU membership (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/24/eu-referendum-poll-uk-withdrawal?newsfeed=true), it is against the very core of democracy to quash dissent and enable a three-line whip.  How can we ignore these polls?  How can Dave and Ed look at these polls and do the very thing that would make sure this motion would not pass?

But perhaps this is yet another problem of representative democracy.  We have handed over our consent for this system, and created a monster.  We have sat back for too long and remained largely ignorant to some of the more nuanced political engineering that goes on within the halls of Westminster.  If any good can come of this protracted debate, I hope it is this: that we can take another long look at our political system and say ‘no, this is not right’.  We will hand over our votes and our consent to be governed, but there are some issues – such as membership of the EU and its wider impact on British sovereignty – that are simply too big, too important, for us to let our representatives kowtow to the party leadership.

Never was a truer word spoken than when Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” 

Democracy

Last night I came across a page on Facebook that made me think a little deeper about what democracy – and freedom specifically – mean.  The page in question is ‘Make it illegal to burn flags or poppies’.

I knew what would greet me when I clicked onto the page and was unsurprised to see a list of racist, right-wing comments from a variety of people.  Many of them had flags and EDL/BNP logos as their avatars.  One person I clicked on had a photo of a map emblazoned in the St George’s cross, with the words ‘fuck off were [sic] full’.  This angered me, being the bleeding-heart liberal that I am, but it forced me to confront some of the ideas behind why I was angry.  As someone who has war veterans in my family, and as someone who is patriotic about my country, Britain, shouldn’t I be in favour of their proposal?

I’m not narrow-minded enough to assume that all people in that group are nationalists, or racists.  The girl who joined the group, which led to my discovery of the page, is not, to my knowledge, either of those things.  Clearly, and rightly so, there is deep offence at such an insensitive act such as the burning of a poppy, which has become a national symbol of honouring and remembering those who have laid down their lives for the freedoms we enjoy today.

But there lies the irony of this group.  Wars have been fought in the name of our freedom; the freedom to vote, the freedom to live in a liberal democracy, the freedom not to be treated as inferiors because of our different races and religions.  The freedom to live in a society where we can be whoever we choose to be, not that this is always a good thing.   We must accept and respect the right of groups like the EDL and BNP to exist, as much as it pains us.  Countless people laid down their lives to protect these freedoms, and we cannot pick and choose which freedoms we want and discard the others.

I find flag burning and poppy burning offensive myself.  But ban it?  No.  Never.  I do not agree with the desecration of such symbols, the same way I did not agree with Pastor Terry Jones’ Qu’ran burning.  But to make such acts illegal is against the very core of what a free, democratic society means.  If you make such acts illegal, where does it end?  Ban all flags that aren’t British or English flags?  Ban dissent?  Ban criticism of political parties?  Ban any questioning of why we are in Afghanistan?  The slippery slope leads us to an authoritarian, dictating end where free and critical thinking is illegal.

Love of country must be about more than a symbol; it must be an idea, an idea of Britain that does not discriminate, an idea that includes and unites the best of all religions and cultures and races that make up our society.  Respect for veterans is about more than just a poppy on your lapel.  It’s about gratitude for what they have sacrificed for us and the free lives they have allowed us to lead.  Just as burning a flag is a meaningless, albeit insulting, gesture, to outlaw flag burning and poppy burning is much the same.  Using coercion and the strong arm of the law to counterattack these people gets us nowhere – rather it pushes the anger underground and makes a mockery of our democracy.  We must use argument against such extremists, just as I have tried, hopefully, to use it here against the extremist elements of that Facebook page, and deconstruct their hate.