Speak your brains

When Tony Blair introduced the Number 10 petition site, critics and plaudits arranged themselves in formations not too dissimilar to those now reacting to the Coalition’s proposals to allow Parliamentary debate and even Bills from a website-based scheme whereby 100,000 signatures could be the gateway to Commons scrutiny. “This could open up Westminster”, claimed those in favour. “Magnet for obsessives and saddoes” decry the antis.

In reality, the Number10 scheme was not a total disaster. It did encourage debate; over 1 million people supported the proposal to scrap road tolls and vehicle monitoring, something the Labour government was forced to carry-out and something the Coalition has pledged not to introduce. I recall the issue coming up in conversation in the office at the time, which led to people spending a lazy afternoon creating and signing petitions of their own interests and persuasions. Although the Number10 model was flawed (and in some cases open to this sort of tin-hat oddity), it opened a door which subsequent Governments will find difficult to close.

(Labour have been very good at laying ‘traps’ for subsequent Governments, I notice, they may have been economically illiterate but they were as cunning….)

As Mark Pack points out over at LibDem Voice, the scheme proposed by the Coalition has some in-built ‘checks’ against viral campaigns and trouble-makers; the 100,000 minimum signature level should deter some of the usual suspects, and even then only those ‘deemed appropriate’ would make it to the floor of the House. I worry about how those which cross the 100,000 line would be ‘chosen’, and whether orchestrated campaigns for extreme or frivolous suggestions would be themselves encouraged by MPs who want the scheme ended, but from the groundwork of the original site I think a sound building has been proposed.

Asking our MPs to debate awkward subjects – maybe an immigration petition, possibly abortion law reform or tax evasion – cannot have a down-side. There is all to play for if the scheme allows the country to put pressure on MPs to debate those subjects which attract the attention of the increasingly politically inclined Twitterati and Facebook group creators?

There is something of the ‘novelty’ about all the recent attempts to – horrible word alert – ‘engage’. Nobody seems to have responded to “The Big Conversation”, and Nick Clegg’s ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom to’ website has only been given a prod today thanks to the Independent on Sunday running a front page feature (with highlighted proposals running from the legalisation of cannabis and relaxing the Licencing Act, to scrapping the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Out in the country is a genuine hunger for debate and discussion, one which is fired up with every newspaper comment column and phone-in. Petition sites with the ‘prize’ of a Bill at the end could be a great idea (I hope is it), though the path getting here is littered with forgotten schemes and redundant websites.

Democracy has not been fixed since the general election; schemes like this won’t repair everything, and must be attached to such ideas as the referendums in the Localism Bill and genuine work on fixing broken relationships between people and elected representatives. Has anything come from the Labour idea to make creating parish councils gone anywhere? “Estate Councils” would empower disadvantaged people build their local area far more than pressing ‘Like’ on the proposal ‘Give checkout girls nurses wages!’.

Critics bemoan all these ‘devolution’ schemes as gimmicks. They underestimate the power of the internet to collect and organise, to frame and focus debate and lobbyists. There’s a lot of constitutional reform being pushed through this Parliament, and the main focus seems to be on returning power to the people through direct democracy. This could be a massive opportunity for reform, one which will shake the certainty of ‘the establishment’, one which will test the doubters if its allowed to happen.

Doubters have valid concerns – the cost, the feasibility, how the valid petitions will be chosen, how much of this is ‘buck passing’. One interesting idea from the comments section of Mark Pack’s blog post is to have a “NO” vote reduction on the scheme, reducing the total of supporting signatures. That could dampen the viral campaigning of the troublemakers.

I have tentative support for the ideas, all told. It would encourage debate of some tricky subjects, introduce to the House the subjects so often called ‘those our MPs never want to discuss”. There’s a heap load of logistical nightmares to overcome, though I’m one for siding with the opportunities it encourages. Dealing with difficult truths could be Blair’s petition legacy…

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all the news fit to print

It’s been a busy old week for news. Can you tell there’s an election coming? Yes, you’re getting quicker flicking over to Glee when you hear the BBC News theme aren’t you?

Always a sign.

Tony Blair – remember him? Last seen doing the old science-fiction “retcon” trick over at the Chilcott Inquiry? – has been sounding the drum for his (auld) enemy Gordon Brown. This surely cannot have gone down well in the heartlands, as most Labour seats are lost as a consequence of Tony Blair sticking around looking and sounding exhausted and deceitful.

This kind of thing is quite common in football, though, with just about as much sincerity. “I respected the job he did at the club and there’s a lot of signs of his influence around the ground today…” he says, looking at dwindling crowd of anoraks Twittering around a Thermos while a huddle of unfit next-big-things hoik long balls towards the local paper reporters.

It was Blair, we remember, who gave Brown the title “clunking fist”, and for headline writers everywhere, Brown has not disappointed. He’s made a clunking fist of everything since taking over. He couldn’t even make a disaster work in his favour though; he’ll always have the longest, deepest recession in history to his name – after all, he created it – but Blair sanctioned an illegal invasion of Iraq. Second place again, Gordon!

Bigger, more meaty news-stories of recent times struggled to make the lead on either BBC or Sky. The former retreated into usual territory – the ban on methedrone was treated pretty much like the IT’S WAR! frenzy over on The Day Today – while the latter continues to push its forthcoming Leaders Debates slot as though self-referential programme plugging is part of OFCOMs definition of “news”.

In times gone by, the staggering achievements at the Large Hadron Collider would have been enough to send all workers and schoolchildren home to enable the population the honour of being within a screen’s width of life-changing science.

The…shall I say…”incident” within troubled waters excited those of us who have North Korea down on the “end of the world sweepstake”. Currently – I think, you know how these things change when North Korea are involved – the South claim the whole thing was caused by a mine. Possibly Northern. Probably one of their own. But it definitely did not start with warning shots being aimed at flocks of The Dear Leader’s Armed Seagull Division.

Though you never know.

Last night, Ribéry showed what comes when you’re an expensive top-league footballing talent who doesn’t lose concentration after 80 minutes. Tonight, may Allah be kind upon us all, Messi will treat Arsenal’s gameplay as a particularly cruel and cunning poker player toys with novices used to the occasional on-line flutter.

I understand, flicking over to cricket for as short a time as possible, that there is some concern over IPL commentators referring to players “scoring a maximum 6” and wondering if “all bases are covered”.

We warned them this would happen, did we not?

To conclude, I have two stories, but only enough space for one….So it will have to be….Toads can predict earthquakes.

In no particular order…

As expected, Tony Blair has scribbled all over the newsgrids in place for January and his questioning at the Iraq War Inquiry. The former prime minister told renowned investigative journalist Fern Britton that had he known about the lack of WMDs in Iraq at the time of the Parliamentary vote on any proposed Iraq invasion, “other justifications” would have been sourced and used. This is the infamously grey area barely above the level of lying so favoured by the political class: the world of “known unknowns” and suppressed legal advice and other such curtains drawn to hide the facts.

The media have not done themselves any favours against claims of “dumbing down” in recent months, not least in their coverage of the Iraq Inquiry. With barely any headline news, it has become pretty much established fact that the war had its genesis years prior to the World Trade Centre attacks, that “regime change” was far above any other justification for invasion, and George W. Bush did not necessarily require the firm handshakes or solemn prayers of Tony Blair before sending American troops into battle. How the media will cover Blair’s actual questioning in front of Chilcott will be interesting now the “big admission” has been so subtly placed into the public arena “a month early”.

The bigger story for both BBC News and Sky News this past week has been Tiger Woods’ “moment of madness”. Interestingly, BBC News placed Blair above Woods in the running order only after placing them the other way around for most of the day. Sky News was still preferring Woods to Blair at first thing this morning. It is quite the unfathomable thing that the pulling out of British troops from Iraq and subsequent uncovered allegations surrounding the war have had barely anything like the media coverage at the time of the invasion. Is it boredom on the part of the news teams? Focus Group feedback?

As I potted down to Tesco this morning for a croissant and the NonLeague Paper, I noticed each and every tabloid front page was covered self-generated X-Factor press releases and speculation. The stars may not be the best or most talented – and anyway, why do I care now Stacy has gone – but the genius of Simon Cowell to ensure his empire strikes at the top of every office coffee break, breakfast table banter and indeed chart rundown shows no sign of being reduced. That he is considering taking the X-Factor model into some kind of international Eurovision-style festival of amateur talent should come as no surprise and as a warning to anyone who would prefer a return to the days when the ability to sing came above the ability to manipulate an audience to telephone vote for you.

It’s Christmas early-pay-day-week. And I’ve yet to start any Christmas shopping. I’m playing “Christmas chicken”, it’s a bloke thing. In any case, there’s every chance that financial pressures will tighten so why not wait until every scarf, chocolate box and voucher is available at cheapness for the right to say the purchasing was genuinely all in the spirit of Goodwill?

Yep, I’m convinced. More convinced than by Blair, I’ll say that….

Turnout at the next General Election may fall below 50%…unless the population are required to vote by law….

Liberal that I am, the last thing I want to do is follow Tony Blair’s footsteps in turning our democracy into anything more of a “banana republic” style joke. Democracy is precious, and for all the improvements made to the way in which our system works there are far too many ways in which corruption is now commonplace. I say this as an activist and a voter: postal voting “for all” has taken away the assurance of British democracy being amongst the best in the world.

Understandably the MPs expenses scandal (of which so much more is being played out as we speak) has turned off many more thousands of voters who have tired of parliamentarians of all persuasions. There can only be so many times MPs can promise to be “whiter than white” only to throw a strop when an attempt is made to close the scandal sooner rather than later. Turnout in 2010 will fall below 50%, of that I am confident, as a consequence of the expenses mess and the inability for anyone – most notably Gordon Brown – to do anything constructive about the sorry affair.

As with so many Prime Ministers, the administration of elections – voting systems and the like – flies over the head of Brown as a mere irrelevance. That our democracy is more flawed and failing now than it was 10 or 20 years ago means nothing. That Labour are a Government with less support than any other in living memory is just tittle-tattle. First-past-the-post means winner-takes-all, and that is – as they say – “end of”.

So how about we look at the “modernising for the sake of it” zeal of Tony Blair and the Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice addiction to fiddling about with electoral administration, to come up with something of our own? If it’s alright for Belgium, Greece, and Australia, it could well work over here. Could the United Kingdom be fit for….compulsory voting?

From “a stern letter” to “a month community service”, what to do with anyone who does not cast a vote under compulsory voting is often brought up as a damn good reason not to introduce it here. Certainly no party leader has yet suggested the nation should be forced by legislation to show an opinion at a ballot-box (and I know from experience that opinion can be, in red capital letters, “CORRUPT BASTARDS”). Compulsion does not equal with liberalism, and I agree that following this Government down the route of legislating for everything is not the way to install confidence in the minds of very suspicious voters. However there is a massive contradiction which doesn’t tally up with my liberalism; how can there be so many opinions on politics, expenses, and current affairs, and yet so few people turning out to vote?

How can – indeed – so many people phone X-Factor phone lines or get Facebook to analyse what kind of serial killer/vegetable/famous footballer they are while not walking to the nearest church at election time? Compulsion, with a small fine perhaps after two or three no-shows, would surely promote politics and current affairs at the most local level? It would certainly ensure candidates do knock on every door in fear of being labelled as the one who can’t even get out the vote when there’s a law ensuring it happen…

Of course compulsory voting has not been suggested by anyone for one very good reason, and for that matter why my personal liberal persuasion cannot quite feel totally invigorated by the promise of future telling sessions being a little busier. Compulsory voting would merely sour further the relationship between voter and Westminster. For all my hope that people would be willing to find out more about each party, each candidate, every issue, the reality would be far less ideal; voters would feel angry at the lack of a “none of the above” option, and dismayed that politicians have tried to repair a broken system by seemingly punishing ordinary people. Turnout is falling because of a failure of more than just access to a ballot box on a wet Thursday.

As a liberal, compulsion from “up high” never sits well with me. Belgium and Australia have their systems woven into the fabric of their states, and in Greece there is no penalty for not voting anyway. In the UK our negative opinion of politicians suggests high turnouts, even though this is not the reality: trying to force people to have an actual recordable opinion by means of a ballot paper would be something to aim for…were it likely to achieve anything. For all that it may kill off the purile insult “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain”, I guess it is not something for the United Kingdom’s rather unique electoral system.

Unless, of course, radical reform far beyond the tame introduction of AV is the elephant crouching in the corner of the room. Liberalism never was easy to align with reality…