29 April 2011

A British Republic: the non-conservative case

Today's royal wedding has ignited considerable debate in the blogosphere about the merits or otherwise of the British royal family as an institution. Most readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool republican, but I think it's worth engaging with two of the most cogent arguments for monarchy from the Left that I've seen so far. One is from the brilliant outgoing general secretary of the Fabian Society, Sunder Katwala, on the Fabian Next Left blog. The other is from economist Chris Dillow on his equally excellent Stumbling and Mumbling.

Sunder used to be a republican but has since become a (possibly rather reluctant) monarchist. His argument for retaining the monarchy seems to boil down to two distinct points:

  1. The monarchy's powers are so limited that it doesn't get in the way of any Left political projects (NHS, minimum wage, progressive taxation, electoral reform, etc.) so there is nothing to be gained by its abolition.
  2. For the last 40 years or more, opinion polling has shown that only around 20% of British voters have republican sympathies. Therefore, a referendum on abolishing the monarchy (which, based on recent constitutional convention, would be necessary to get rid of it) is unwinnable. Nor do there seem to be any trends in public opinion in the direction of republicanism.
I think the first point is the most important so I'll address that first. Sunder's justification for retaining the monarchy is very much pragmatic - "if it ain't broke don't fix it". That is, the key issue at stake in deciding whether to retain the monarchy or not is: does it work well?

Whereas I approach the question from a different, more ideological, direction. For me, the question is: what do my principles, as a democratic socialist, tell me about the criteria that the head of state needs to fulfil, in order to be acceptable in a democracy? For me, by definition, the monarchy doesn't "work" as an institution if it doesn't satisfy those criteria.

The main criterion I would apply is that people in positions of power should be subject to democratic accountability. There is certainly widespread popular acceptance of this principle in the case of the British government - we have an electoral system (albeit a flawed one) rather than relying on some kind of benign dictatorship. As Tony Benn has long argued, "how can we get rid of you?" is THE most important question to ask about any authority figure.

If we don't have a system where people who hold political power can be removed, then we are essentially trusting to the hope that whatever alternative system delivers people into positions of power will lead to them exercising that power in our best interests. In the case of the monarchy, the alternative system is a mixture of genetics, assortative mating, and luck of the draw. The current popularity of the monarchy, in my view, is a result of a good draw from the card deck: Queen Elizabeth II does a good job within her terms of reference, and is popular and well respected.

But what about her successor? There are huge worries that Prince Charles - who has been a very vocal advocate for a large number of causes, some of which are IMHO worthy (organic food), some of which are simply flaky or downright dangerous (homeopathy anybody?) will continue to argue for his pet causes when he accedes to the throne. And just this week, the monarchy has demonstrated clear political bias in choosing to invite previous Prime Ministers Major and Thatcher to the wedding, but not Blair and Brown. (For the record, I wouldn't have wanted Tony Blair anywhere near my wedding either, and I'd be worried that Brown would punch someone out or go into a sulk. But that's not the point).

The monarch does not usually play a role in determining what kind of government we get, but there are exceptions to this rule. For example, last May we had a hung parliament and in a finely balanced parliamentary situation, the monarch could, in theory, have chosen to favour one side rather than the other, had the negotiations between the parties been inconclusive. For example, the Queen could have approached David Cameron to form a minority Tory government even if Labour and the Lib Dems had been willing to try an alternative 'rainbow coalition' government with the minor parties. This was never going to happen with the Lib Dems under Clegg, but if Kennedy or Campbell had still been Lib Dem leader, it would have been a very plausible scenario. So, the monarch's power is limited - but it is far from non-existent.

For sure, an elected head of state with similar powers to the current British monarch would have the power to influence events in hung parliaments and would probably make their views known on other issues too. The crucial difference is that presidents who abused their powers or their position would have to face the consequences of their actions in the popular vote. The question of how powerful an elected head of state should be is a separate issue. Personally I'd rather keep the existing structures with the head of state as largely a figurehead who only comes into play as a power-broker in limited circumstances - more like the Irish model than the US model, where the president is the most powerful single person in the government. But there are a number of potential systems - all of which would be preferable, in my mind, to relying on heredity for good governance.

In fact I'd go further than this: I think the argument for a hereditary monarchy rather than an elected head of state is a fundamentally conservative argument (with a small 'c'). Adherents of this view - whether they be social democratic conservatives such as Sunder, or true blue conservatives such as Simon Heffer - are effectively saying, democracy can't deliver a better head of state than genetics. But if we have so little faith in democracy as to think that, doesn't that start to undermine the basis for democratic government itself? Why shouldn't we think (using the same argument) that heredity delivers better Prime Ministers than democracy? Where do we stop? And if hereditary monarchy was so good in the first place, how come only a handful of countries in the world are still absolute monarchies?

In short, anyone who isn't a (small c) conservative - and a conservative to the extent that they have grave doubts about the desirability of democracy as a system of governance - should support the abolition of the monarchy. But only about 20% of us do. Which brings me on to Sunder's second point - which seems to be an argument against holding a referendum at the moment (why bother if the public is so heavily opposed) rather than an argument against making the case for republicanism per se. Surely one should make the case for republicanism (or withdrawing from the EU, or reintroducing capital punishment, or whatever) based on what one believes to be the right thing for the UK, rather than based on opinion polls. Otherwise, no-one would ever argue the minority view - which would be a sad state of affairs.

Chris Dillow makes some interesting other points in favour of the monarchy in his piece. One is that it seems to work well despite being a ludicrous system in theory - I'd argue this is entirely a function of luck of the draw and who the present incumbent is. At best it's an argument for keeping the current system until we get a particularly duff incumbent (perhaps only a few years away?) so one could label Chris's position as "republicanism but not right now". Chris's second point is that the inherent unfairness and randomness of the hereditary principle serves to underline the unfairness of our wider society and in doing so, increases support for efforts to make it fairer - redistribution of income, etc. There may be something in this, but surely the most worrying feature of current British society for people on the left is that it has become much more unfair since the late 1970s, with huge increases in the inequalities of income and wealth. If we had just been looking at the hereditary monarchy as a barometer for social unfairness we'd have missed these dangerous trends in the real economy, so the institution of the monarchy can't be the best way to put these concerns in the public eye.

Finally, Chris suggests choosing the head of state by a lottery of all UK adults - this is a very interesting idea as it's egalitarian and anti-conservative but without relying on democracy as an alternative system. A lottery is the solution I'd end up with if I believed that the democratic process in modern capitalist societies was so corrupt and ineffectual that it was not fit for purpose as far as selecting a head of state was concerned. I do have some sympathy with this, but I'm not cynical enough to believe it all the way down the line - and if I did believe it, it's hard to see why the same wouldn't apply to MPs or Prime Ministers as well. Prime Ministers by lottery? It's coming sometime... maybe.

28 April 2011

Cameron: the airbrush is off

The Tory election campaign of 2010 underperformed spectacularly compared with what their activists had hoped for, securing barely 1 percent of the vote more than a damaged and fading Tony Blair managed for Labour 5 years before - and not even being able to secure a majority despite being 7 points clear of Labour, who ran their worst campaign since 1983. However, if it hadn't been for the slight "detoxification" of the Tory brand under Dave Cameron compared with his predecessor Michael Howard, there is reason to think the result could have been even worse. The Tories had been stuck in the 31-33% vote share range since 1997. Another "nasty party" campaign, along the lines of the 2005 campaign where they majored on anti-immigration, might even have meant Labour emerging as the largest party in terms of number of MPs, and perhaps staying in office - even with Gordon Brown as leader.

Now that would have been an extraordinary result, and possibly the pretext for civil unrest; but the personal popularity of Cameron did manage to get the Tories that 3% extra of votes which gave them 307 seats, and made it very hard for the Lib Dems to do a deal with anyone else but them.

The Cameron posters were airbrushed, and ludicrously simplistic; but the personality cult approach can win elections. Remember the 1997 Labour manifesto - a huge picture of Tony Blair and the phrase "New Labour - because Britain deserves better?" Likewise the SNP coasting to victory in this year's Holyrood elections due to the personal popularity of Alex Salmond.

But of course, the problem with basing your party's appeal on the leader's personality is that the politician behind the airbrush needs to confirm the electorate's image of him or her once the tricky business of governing starts. For this to work, one of two things needs to happen. Either the leader needs to be genuinely "what you see is what you get". Or he/she needs to be a very good actor. Few PMs are the former (in a weird sense Gordon Brown was, but only because he lacked the interpersonal skills to present any other image, and unfortunately it wasn't an image that many of us cared for). Many are the latter - Blair (although less and less as he went on as he stopped giving a tweet what the voters thought of him), Major (remember all that stuff about 'back to basics' when he was f***ing Edwina Currie?) and also Thatcher (a far less self-assured figure in private than she came across in public).

The problem for Dave Cameron is that when the airbrush is off and he is in a tight corner, the real Dave starts to poke through the veneer to the voters. And the real Dave is an arrogant, vicious sexist prat - a sub-Boris Johnson figure in many ways. We're seeing this more and more: whenever Dave comes under pressure at PMQs (which due to the sterling efforts of Ed Miliband, is pretty much every week), he degenerates into a Tory student activist. Thus, yesterday we had Dave channelling Michael Winner as he told Shadow Chief Secretary Angela Eagle to "calm down dear"; and last week we had Dave saying that he couldn't see anything wrong with internships being given out to friends and family on an un-advertised basis rather than paid and advertised (which, whatever his other faults, Nick Clegg had been pushing for). And all the while we have had Dave spinning a web of lies on the supposed benefits of First Past the Post compared with the Alternative Vote.

Combined with the fact that the ConDem programme for government - including such delights as the privatisation of the NHS and most other public services, the virtual abolition of large parts of the social security system, and cuts in corporation tax combined with hikes in VAT - is unreconstructed Thatcherism, whatever the Fib Dems try to tell you - this is a toxic combination for the Tories at the next election. Yes, they are still maintaining that 36% from 2010 in the current polls - but this implies that ALL of the lost vote share of the Fib Dems (since Nick Clegg pretty much told his left-wing voters to piss off) has leaked to Labour, and none to the Tories. And so Labour is 5 to 10 points ahead of the Tories on most polls. That's probably enough to win a general election even with FPTP and even with redrawn constituencies.

Dave's only serious hope for re-election is to reach out to swing voters - which means maintaining the fiction of Nice Dave. But Nasty Dave is more and more in evidence. And that - combined with the generosity of Nick Clegg in telling the majority of his voters to piss off to Labour - is something that Ed Miliband should be mighty thankful for.

25 April 2011

The last rites for AV?

Worth considering the seismic shift in intentions revealed by the recent ICM poll showing a 16% lead for the 'No' campaign in the referendum for a change in the voting system. Never mind the merits of the various polling orgnisations. Lest we forget according to even the most generous poll, Major was obliterated in 1992 by Kinnock, by at least 50 seats, except we all know that did not happen. And mercifully Britain didn't go into the Euro under Kinnock/Smith. Then I think the anti-cuts lobby would really have something to go crazy about. Look at Greece and Ireland.

Perhaps one of the main reasons why I think the opponents of change (almost always derided as reactionary) have the upper hand is that proponents of PR are never really able to define what PR actually is Just a brief summary from the web's most readily consultable reference source reveals about 15 different systems.

I am assuming Giroscoper would like STV rather than AV, although he may perhaps prefer LD or MMS. Just going through the bewildering array of acronyms perhaps makes one nostalgic for a taste of LSD to induce hallucination.

STV, regardless of what proponents say is significantly more complex to understand than FPTP. It seems designed for two purposes: 1/ to eliminate representation for the BNP, whose second place votes are likely to be negligible (I know almost no UKIP or ED supporters who would vote BNP - most would rather abstain than tar themselves with such a brush) 2/ to maximise support for the equally dangerous Green party, whose second preferences (as revealed by the London assembly) elections are usually very high. Perhaps a function of how effective their propaganda is, this fundamentally misanthropic, basically almost stalinist organisation has persuaded a number of otherwise intelligent people of its relative harmlessness. However, scratch beneath the green veneer and you find a vein of the deepest red, true heirs to the spirit of Beria .

Ironically, as revealed by the european elections, the much derided UKIP would probably be the main beneficiary.Despite being dismissed by the BBC (who cost every household more than £100)as a 'minor party', they actually outpolled the Greens by more than 3 to 1 at the last general election nationwide. Anyhow, it looks like a combination of misinformation, the presence of Nick Clegg in the pro AV lobby, and a lack of clarity about just what people are saying 'Yes' to has scuppered PR for now. Rest assured, though, its proponents won't give up after this setback.

19 April 2011

The moment I knew YES was going to lose the AV referendum

I've recently become convinced that NO is going to win the AV referendum on 5th May. This isn't because of the recent ICM poll showing No with a 16 point lead. While the movement from a narrow Yes lead before Christmas to a strong No lead now is impressive, I place little store in ICM polling on anything because their headline voting intention numbers are ludicrously biased towards the Fib Dems (who poll 15% on ICM but 10% or less with YouGov or other pollsters) and away from Labour (who poll 42-45% on YouGov but 35-37% on ICM). It is quite simple really: the ICM numbers are made up by the Guardian's extreme right wing political commentator, Julian Glover. I think it's sad that a once-venerable institution like the Guardian allows Glover to get away with shit like this, but there you go. If I was the editor, he'd be toast.

No, what swung it towards No for me was finding sane, rational folks like Chris Brooke and Duncan Weldon moving into the No camp (or at least towards it). I'd expect to find reactionary representatives of Ye Olde Politiks (on both sides of the House), conspiracy theorists, English Democrats, birthers, press barons, Ku Klux Klan serving hot soul food and the band playing "In the Mood", etc. in the No Camp. Like Mos Eisley space port it is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, despite the absence of blasters. But when people like Duncan and Chris move into the encampment... you know Yes has lost it.

I think the main reason that Yes is losing is that they have failed to get Down And Dirty with the campaign in the way that No have. I mean, just look at the No2AV leaflet (one came through our door yesterday): intellectually aimed at the level of an amoeba ("the person that gets the most votes should win the election" - but that DOES happen under AV kids, it's just that the votes are counted differently? HELLO?!) it is consequently good at banging home a simple message to the brain-dead component of the electorate. It also has the MASSIVE advantage of being able to put a big picture of Nick Clegg on the back cover (holding his tuition fees pledge, ho ho) with the slogans "AV leads to broken promises" and "the only vote that would count under AV would be Nick Clegg's". And thus, the man who is deservedly the most unpopular politician in Britain today derails yet another progressive cause.

Yes2AV, by contrast, haven't used their gut punches well. I'd have gone all out and said this was a referendum on whether we want the Tories in forevermore through boundary rigging and gerrymandering. I'd have pointed to the shady big money funding the No campaign. And I'd have put a VERY SMALL picture of Clegg on the cover and said "don't let this slimy punk spoil our chance for change." Yes kids, given the opportunity I could have designed a molotov cocktail of a leaflet which would have knocked the machinations of the No effort into a cocked hat.

Instead we got a truly daft Referendum Broadcast with unintelligible people with megaphones shouting at an Evan Harris(?!) lookalike, and no proper arguments either for AV or against FPTP articulated. No wonder Yes is losing.

There's no doubt that making the case for YES in this referendum is harder than NO. Throughout history, to vote NO, all you need to be is a reactionary stiff-upper-lip bastard. It's an easy line to articulate - "this shall not pass" etc. And you can play on people's fears. Yes is a harder case to make, partly because AV is more complicated than FPTP and also because there is only one status quo but many possible alternatives. And let's be honest, apart from John Rentoul, almost no-one in the Yes camp really wants AV as their preferred system. Most people, myself included, want PR. Indeed if this were a PR referendum I think Yes would be miles in front.

But even with those difficulties, Yes could have still run a much better campaign than they have done. It needed a gut punch to the status quo. What it got was a picture of Ed Miliband and Vince Cable with balloons coming out of their heads. At least Ed has very little staked on this one - with huge numbers of his MPs wedded to the status quo (which tells you something about the crapness of the Labour party in its current incarnation) he was always going to be a half-hearted yes man. For Vince and his fellow Fib Dems, by contrast, this could be the end of the line. That's a nice consolation prize for losing this referendum. But, in the wider sweep of British politics, it's not enough. Hunter S Thompson's "cheap, greedy killers" are winning again, and most of us will be the poorer for it.

13 April 2011

Things Can Only Get Better

Which was the slogan of the 1997 'New Labour' campaign. It's taken me a little while to get used to the editor's chair and I'm heading across the Atlantic tomorrow. However, expect an update on the serious political situation currently developing in the UK here soon. And for those missing the blog's creator, he's still sticking to a 1970's philosophy and taking on the 'Fibdem' collaborators over on the 'commentisfree' website, a hotbed of former Soviet and other Eastern bloc agents and other people whose income either derives from earlier treason or from the taxpayer.

10 April 2011

I can't think of a deep and meaningful post so let's slag off Nick Clegg

Just posted this on Comment Is Free and I think it bears repeating:

Like millions of others, I was taken in by Nick Clegg in the first TV debate. It's easy to see why in retrospect: Cameron was just awful, and Brown was trying hard but not to much effect. Clegg seemed to be offering something different - a politician who wouldn't lie to you and wouldn't let you down.

And so, five days after polling day, what does he do? He sells out his party and his voters and inaugurates the Fib Dems. By doing so, he ends up REINFORCING the British electorate's belief that our politicians are a generation of swine who will sell them down the river, first chance they get.

EVERYTHING Nick Clegg has said since May 12th, 2010 is a lie - both the broken manifesto promises and the few policies they have managed to persuade the Tories to implement. For example: "we are taking poor people out of tax." RUBBISH! VAT has gone up. They are giving with one hand and taking away with the other. And the AV referendum? Not in either the Tory OR the Lib Dem manifesto, a "miserable compromise" - as you said yourself, Mr Clegg.

Add to that the destruction of state schooling, the NHS and the social security system, and it's probably the worst British govt since the 1930s. I think the Lib Dems will be reduced to about 10 seats at the next election - and people will be very, very wary before giving them another shot at power. A total, complete disaster. And Clegg - a dirty liar.

01 April 2011

"Van Patten" to take over giroscope

Hello kids,

Really sorry for the lack of posts these last couple of months... I've just been ridiculously busy with mainly work, and also making daft comments under the name 'HalBerstram' on Comment is Free at the Guardian website. Sadly, any reference to how crap Julian Glover is gets moderated out of the discussion almost immediately... Glover is very good at policing The Net.

But this lack of posting means that you readers are not getting the fine service you're accustomed to, and after 2 months of only about 1 post a week, I've decided drastic action will have to be taken.

My #1 commenter on the blog these past 4 and a half years has been the vocal right wing critic of Pyongyang, Ken Livingstone, Tony Blair, and Jerry Doyle's performance as Mr Garibaldi on Babylon 5, who posts as "Van Patten". Via private messaging I have tracked this right-wing iconoclast down and he has very kindly volunteered to take over posts for the next six months or so while I get my affairs in order.

So, many thanks Mr Van: readers can look forward to intelligent promotion of the case for withdrawal from the EU, the "draw your own Kim Jong-Il" portrait competition, and steadfast discussion of the merits of different Star Trek franchise stars. (My money was always on Brent Spiner, aka Mr Data, as the greatest ever). Sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

From ho ho to uh-oh.

Signing off (for the moment),