ReBrand

“Well, fine, you know, Paxman, I mean he’s lost his teeth anyway, he’s like Russell fucking Hearty these days.”

Cynicism about politics has existed since the first Greeks picked up some pebbles. Democracy, as wise men have said many times before, is the worst of many evils, and just plain doesn’t work.

Fresh from calling panellists and audience members “mate”, “that fella” and “Dave” on Question Time, Russell Brand faced Newsnight attack dog Jeremy Paxman for what appeared to be something of an old-fashioned slice of television, a long and characteristically sprawling interview during which Brand took apart (or tried to) every piece of scaffolding built around the country by Establishment & Sons, Ltd. Like the well versed man he is, Brand pebble-dashed objections, observations and general opinions with little regard to reason. This was not outrageous, nor was it Occupy; it was a proven performer performing.

The reaction has been immense, both on the largely pro- side, who consider Brand and politics to be the new Dawkins and religion, and from the anti- side, for whom the interview was little more than an exploration into the world of a badly dressed sixth former. Somewhere in the middle, surprise surprise, is where you currently find me. I am not subscribing to Brandism, nor do I dismiss everything he says as fluffy idealistic nonsense. As the man himself told Paxman, he can’t create utopia in a hotel room.

Not participating in the democratic process, as Brand advocates, is not a solution. Turnout at many elections, particularly local authority elections, are meagre enough as it is without celebrity-backed boycotts. The fewer people vote, the greater risk of one of two outcomes happening; the incumbent party holds on through lack of opposition; or extremists from either side of the political spectrum sneak through. Ah, people say, but we don’t agree with the electoral system at all, so such concerns don’t matter. I agree that the volunteer sector is proving that people can create opportunities for people to seek and provide help without local authorities’ direct involvement, but no town or city, however small, can survive on support networks created without some form of democratic organisation overseeing the results.

Unelected, unaccountable groups to whom local councils fob off services or decisions, the nameless “vision boards” and the like, are more unacceptable than volunteer groups running the local library. Rather than promoting non-participation in governance, Brand should encourage pressure being put on central government to award or return genuine power to Town Halls – abandon the use of arm’s reach boards and consultancies, and fire up true devolution through councillors to the people. I accept that not voting can, in itself, be a valid democratic act, but far more can be achieved by being within the process than always being outside.

The machinery of national politics needs rewiring, from lobbyists and pressure groups and how they work within the parties and not just outwith government, to the electoral administration of the country. Fix one element and the machine will purr again. Yes, your eyes can glaze over at the sound of the words “voting reform”, but lack of trust in the democratic process stems from members of the public knowing that it makes no sense for Britain not having a truly representative parliament. All those of you who complained – to me, with vigour – that your vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 somehow helped create Hell on Earth need reminding that your votes and millions like them, meant tiddly squat in a country where fewer than 100 of the 650 seats in parliament actually mean something. Far too many ‘safe seats’ created by First Past the Post can only – and has – encouraged apathy in millions of people who know that they can never change the government of the day.

Fewer government departments and less MPs would help reduce the cost of Westminster, and true devolution to the regions would loosen the London-centric media grip on covering ‘politics’. Our politicians are not representative of the nation at large – not those Labour front benchers who claim to be ‘on your side’ whilst backed by healthy donations from Unions, and who don’t earn, or would ever claim, anything approaching the average in their predominately working class constituencies; not Conservative members from the leafy shires who still do not understand the anger over expenses claims for comfy country pads and ample gardens. We need to open up Town Halls and Westminster to genuine representatives of the people, not just sharp suited bores straight from Uni who have only known a life of bag-carrying for MPs and climbing ladders within the system. If Westminster is to represent real people, those chosen as candidates by any of the main parties must stop choosing oiks who think The Thick of It was a lifestyle programme.

And yes, candidate selection and proper representation does go back to the dry electoral administration talked about earlier. Open primaries, proportional representation, recall elections, electronic voting, open hustings, votes at 16 – if we are a grown up democratic country, let us fix the machinery. There have been failed attempts at reinvigorating elections – the Referendum Party in 1992, the Jury Team, an ITV reality show to pick an independent candidate. Such ideas don’t necessarily have to fail if used as basis to try again.

Yes, Brand looked beyond such tinkering to a much wider, radical, less democratic revolution, but I’m a believer in representative democracy, and I don’t believe I could any easier create utopia in my room than he could in his. No functioning country in the western world could survive without corporations or democratic institutions. I know far more people who hang on every word of unaccountable, unelected corporate suits – Apple, Rockstar Games, the FA – than those who could name their MP. That’s a failing of the democratic system. That’s not to be ignored as a problem, but it cannot be resolved by the dream-world candyfloss created by a very smart, very clever dreamer. Brandism is but suggestions for a better world already in the mix of debate, particularly in a country of Whigs and Liberals, Churchill and Mills, Dawkins and Hitchens. Let us use Brand’s ideas to form a new structure for the country – but let’s not use his blueprint for the future. It won’t work.

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Clarkson the Parliamentarian

Let us try to end the march of the Boring Snoring MP….

Two years before the 2010 general election (you know, “I Agree With Nick”, “Bigot-gate”, “Ester Rantzen Loses Luton South”, that one), one man was named as one of the best potential candidates who would really shake things up. That man was Jeremy Clarkson, the year was 2008, and the chosen constituency was Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam.

There’s been talk from the man himself that maybe, just maybe, the idea of a double-denim wearing MP giving it the full Daily Mail might not be so outlandish. Indeed I’ve grown quite fond of the idea. Would it be so mad, bad and loony-tunes to have the infamously anti-everything Clarkson in the Commons, on Question Time, representing a small slice of England somewhere as in Independent?

Now for the science.  There’s no chance of Clarkson winning, because the First Past the Post voting system almost guarantees defeat. Yes, exceptions to prove this rule exist, and are more common lately – think of Labour losing Blaenau Gwent, and of George Galloway’s result in Bradford. Sometimes the will of the people defeats both the London-elite party establishment and basic mathematics. It has been proven, and far more in the post-politics age in which we are slowly entering, that First Past the Post does not always prefer the main three parties.

Ask UKIP, for whom numerous by-elections in this parliament have resulted in very close but ultimately useless second place runners up spots time after time. Were these elections run using, say, AV or STV, we would now have maybe three or four UKIP MPs, and despite disagreeing with them on pretty much everything, I’m a good little democrat and would accept their right to sit in the Commons. I don’t have the knee-jerk fear against UKIP or even the BNP which seems to infect usually normal and everyday people who treat proportional representation as some kind of evil fascism enabler. If the maths add up, then so be it, I don’t think using bogeymen works as an effective argument against dragging the UK into the 20th century.

I shouldn’t say this out loud, you know, but honestly, I’d like to see Clarkson as an MP, a one-man mission to end the Boring Snoring MPs, the photocopied professional bag-carriers too afraid to speak out without having every word polished beforehand. The lack of characters in British politics is one of the many reasons why the general public has switched off, and this problem can only grow if all parties continue to prefer conformity over confrontation. He may stand on the opposite end of every belief I hold, but I’d rather hear Jeremy Clarkson in the Commons than the likes of Rachel Reeves.

Who? Exactly.

Politics and pay-rises

Should MPs have their pay increased by 11%?

No, of course not.

It’s been funny watching the Westminster village act as characters in a soap opera would do when twists and turns appear which have been neon-lit for weeks beforehand. Yet this is not Eastenders or Pobol y Cwm, it’s real life, and in the context of an economic downturn, an 11% salary increase is just about as tasteless a joke as you could imagine. Even if you are Frankie Boyle guest scripting Family Guy. We’ve known about the upcoming decision on MPs salaries for some time, and yet only now do chickens start to run around headless.

Our MPs are paid, give or take, £65k for their basic work, plus all the expenses which got them into so much trouble before 2010. In response to the expenses scandals, two things happened at two very different speeds: the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was set up (eventually) and each and every expenses claim was published in full. One of them seems to work quite well, the other not so well. And most MPs seem to agree at least that the one which works (in-house policing) is far better a system to follow than the one which seemingly doesn’t work (IPSA).

The issue remains one of trust, a currency with very little value around Parliament at the moment. And it’s an issue which “pro-pay rise” MPs have clearly taken to mean nothing at all. To scrap IPSA, to allow MPs to award themselves pay rises, to scrap any form of external policing of Parliament, would be the craziest and most self-serving decision in many a year. There is barely enough justification to give parliamentarians quite so much money in the first place (they earn forty-odd-thousand above the national average, after all.)  There’s no justification at all for adding ten grand (an amount which was once the usual wage for out-of-London checkout staff and the like, and may well be in some parts of the country for other such jobs.)

I don’t want to sound like Owen Jones, heaven forfend, but if MPs genuinely want to continue doing the job they like so much, then continue doing so for the current salary. There’s no public sector worker in the land who is currently happy with being ordered to stick with 1% pay increases and salary caps; this unhappiness would develop into something far uglier were the very people ordering that salary restraint voted in favour of such a large increase in their own takehome pay.

David Cameron is right – Westminster politics needs to be made far leaner, far cheaper. We needed to lose 50 MPs in the aborted boundary change process, and it’s to Parliament’s shame that they chose to become so petty about that minor stepping stone change. (Honestly folks, getting into a rage over gerrymandering because Little Hamlet was being moved into Mid-Countyshire made you look petty, childish and wholly unsuitable for office.)

I would go much further than a reduction to 600 – Britain can be governed by 500 MPs, a straight saving of plenty millions, and with a smaller, elected second chamber, the costs would continue to grow. If MPs wantht second jobs to top up their income, then they jolly well resign their seats. Hey, office workers would love to keep taking more and more paid work to make ends meet, and some often do, but they don’t have a country to run. If your MP thinks that being a law-maker can be done part-time with being a consultant or manager or director, then that MP can leave for someone else. At my most Owen Jones-ian, I would consider it necessary for the professional political class to consider if they’re in it to represent their constituents, or in it because The Thick Of It made it look “cool”.

IPSA is a vital organisation, treating MPs like so many quangos and bodies treat ordinary people (see Douglas Carswell’s very good blog on this line). MPs are too easily phased by the criticism of “real people”, because they so often refuse to meet with them. The Westminster village remains an aloof and arrogant club. They rightly surrendered the right to award themselves pay increases; they should now rightly refuse to accept one.

Anything else would be cigarette-paper close to corruption.

Warming Up the Rubber Chickens

I don’t often agree with Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South and Twtter ‘attack dog’. Lovely chap, probably, and a Doctor Who fan like me, so there should be some level of understanding between us; (I’ll check by way of these stock answers;

1) Patrick Troughton
2) Chiwetel Ejiofor
3) The sonic screwdriver
4) Still nowhere near as bad as RTD
5) I don’t think anyone, from producer downwards, actually knows what was blowing up the TARDIS in Series 5, so let’s just leave it as that)

Harris recently wrote against the leaders debate, those moments of “groundbreaking”/”useless” televisual delights from 2010, around which the general election of that year appeared to orbit. And like Harris, I would rather they never happened again.

I’ve written against the debates before and indeed hindsight suggests that even when writing about them at the time, there was an underlying sense of their uselessness. Looking back three years as we stand approximately two years away from the next general election and it all looks clear; repeating the leaders debates would be a huge mistake.

As a Liberal Democrat – and a small l liberal, no less – my default setting is “reform”.  There’s no cog or wheel of the British democratic system, which doesn’t need fixing. Our voting system is broken, our unwritten constitution needs writing, our Parliament needs reducing in size (and one part of it needs scrapping completely), the relationship between local government and local electors requires serious repair, and so on, etc, forever. Of course “leaders debates” seemed part of the solution back in 2010, within the context of the expenses scandal and total collapse in respect for politicians. They could even help decide the result, mixing in the “West Wing at Westminster” attitude Tom Harris writes about.

The debates had been part of the “reform” process, though as we look back, they’ve enacted more damage than repair.

Harris is not the first MP to bemoan the presidential manner of our elections. Shirley Williams and Anne Widdecombe used their allotted time with Jeremy Paxman during the 2005 general election programme on BBC One to do just that; and the then Ms Williams did much the same on the 1987 equivalent [yes, I’m the kind of person who watches general election reruns on YouTube. Judge me, go on.]  The British system has always been in danger of turning presidential, and it wasn’t specifically Tony Blair in 1997 who accelerated the process. By 1979 the media had already chosen to focus on the suitability of individuals as Prime Ministerial material in the context of that decade’s political and social unrest, with little in the way of opposition for them doing so. Margaret Thatcher’s handbagging of all and any opponents (usually within her own party), increased the importance of figureheads in the British system, despite that very system not being built to suit such a system.

By 1997, the PR driven “New Labour” campaign took advantage of the accelerated media let attitude towards presidential style politics. Forget the 650-ish individual fights across the country, many of which are interesting, complex, charged contests, it’s all about the money shots; three British party leaders getting on open-topped bus…(no, no, no, they get on helicopters and get cheered on arrival by hundreds of specially invited/vetted guests).

The good old days election campaigns which Harris invokes – men dressed as rubber chickens following candidates down the road being one of the great British traditions – are increasingly rare. That’s something to mourn. Like most people I want – expect even – a proper and thorough election campaign, something the leaders debate actively destroyed. They weigh down the efforts of all other candidates, blocking their efforts like the school bully standing guard at the top of the stairs or the toilet doors. Everything which the British system used to focus upon – the local contests in marginal seats, the make do and mend campaigns with cash-strapped associations – have been gradually pushed off camera. Little wonder that some people with whom I used to work assumed that the role of Prime Minister was directly elected.

Maybe this is nostalgia. Or senility. Nobody wants to become the old men huddled around pub tables moaning how music doesn’t quite sound like it did, and the last thing any political nerd wants to do is turn into an auto-anecdote robot; (“Oh, when Guildford declared first in 1974 you just KNEW things were going to change.”). But there’s a lot to be said for the low-rent, small change, and yes, honest way British elections used to be run. Let’s try to tempt one or two genies back into the bottle. The media must be persuaded to stop treating elections as Prime Ministerial bunfights, though political parties will also need to disable most of their machinery too. There are hundreds of MPs whose fights against placard waving, chicken suit wearing, leaflet waving protesters are ignored because of the bright lights of three (plus one) party leaders and their choreographed routines.

I can’t bring back cheesy 90s dance, or decent storylines to Neighbours (or Doctor Who for that matter), but sure as damnit I can try to move British elections back to Britain….Even if it means aligning myself to Tom Harris…

top shelf and behind closed doors

In those hazy, lazy, faraway union-flag-quilt-and-Smirnoff-Ice days of the 90s, “lads mags” were all the rage. Whilst faded in glory today, they retain a certain grip on both supermarket shelves and amongst the court of public opinion. Recently a group of disgruntled feministbots raged against them with threats of legal action on grounds of human rights and sexual harrasment, provoking another flurry of he-said, she-demands outrage on- and off-line.

There’s plenty of threads to pick at here. Let’s start with the body image argument, one which has a very valid foundation even if the rest of the building is unsound. The desire for a body beautiful worries men as much as women, only the boys chasing a six-pack tend to be pushed aside by mainstream media’s coverage of teenage body image crises. As long ago as 2001, the British Medical Journal warned that male concerns about chasing the magazine “approved” look was leading to suicide.

Whilst it’s valid to point to the ladies with the ample balcony and cry “foul”, the lack of any concern for the male equivalent is worrying. Young men are likely to be as wary of not looking “built” as young women are for not appearing to have a glossy-cover body. (And this is before we look at something like the cover of Gay Times, for example, where the well-built and tanned cover stars might attract more concern for perfection from a community already beset with issues of self-confidence and image problems.)

And then we get to porn. Good old fashioned, every day porn. The days of my youth were peppered by attempts to read the top shelf goodies which even by the 1990s were still heavily censored – and for that matter, heavily hirsute, if you know what I mean. What teenagers of 2013 can access with a few clicks makes the 1993 versions seem as tame as Victorian ankle-flashers, but even then dire warnings rained down about the dangers of seeing half-naked women in the pages of “Whitehouse” and “Razzle”.  Iceland would like to outlaw Internet porn entirely and Labour in this country have hinted a similar policy would be forthcoming if they win in 2015. There’s a lot of sayings crossing my mind here – horses, stable doors, the closing of such.

I’m not in denial about the realities of some members of the pornography industry, or of the harsh and often dangerous circumstances for women behind the XXX website banners. But I’m not here to defend the State-sponsored censorship of the Internet on the back of a misguided concern about safety, either for children or women or both. If this sounds like “protesting too much”, I counterargue that the reality of Internet porn is as much wobbly and out of focus amateur videos uploaded to Cam4 as it is slickly edited “professional” material locked behind passwords and subscriptions.

My automatic discomfort against any form of legal threats and censorship comes not from an obsession with porn, but a determination to stand against the moral guardians strongarming common-sense. It’s unjust and unfair for feminist outrage corps. to dismiss lads mags as unacceptable whilst implicitly allowing Take A Break and Closer and others to zoom into wobbly thighs and lumpy stomachs with thick red circles and thicker yellow arrows. If Zoo magazine showing a glamour model is sexist, of what crime is Closer guilty for showing a soap star without make-up under the label “ROUGH AS!”?

A debate has to be had about the attitude towards sex and sexuality which has taken the State unaware, that much I accept. There’s no validity in the “BAN THIS FILTH” argument, especially from such moral champions as The Daily Mail who run an hourly sidebar of shame ticking off women (specifically) for being too thin, too fat, too garish, not garish enough, too daring, too old-fashioned, too feminist and not feminist enough. They’re not being “the best friend” pointing out fashion tips, they’re being the bitter bitch behind the net curtains hating women for being themselves long after their own beauty has faded.

Maybe I’m naive, but teenage boys finding women attractive is the way of nature. If they didn’t have Zoo (or page 3 or anything as soft/censored as I did in the 90s), they’d have some way to beat out (snigger) their natural desires. Ditto women, for whom there’s enough sniggering and tittering about fit men within the pages of their magazines. There’s no innocence amongst women’s glossy magazines when it comes to showing the flesh of either sex, or the demands on men in the bedroom. Is that not counter to the belief amongst certain kinds of feminists, or am I being dismissive?

The debate the country needs must look at everything which relates to sex and sexual politics, and that has to be cut through by some pretty obvious realities about human nature. The fallout from Leveson shows just how dangerous the topic of press freedom can be, especially when the State is put under pressure to regulate or censor material before publication. Let’s not pride ourselves on being a country in which, during a time when people are reminding us “not to let the enemy win”, we sleepwalk into blocking, banning and censoring material on the grounds of morality.

Preston needs changing to stay the same…

Preston City Councillor Bill Shannon, (LibDem, Ingol), has set out why he believes the city council requires serious reform if it is to survive in the long-term. In short, Cllr. Shannon believes Preston can no longer remain as a mid-sized unit on the banks of the River Ribble, constrained by the compromise boundaries drawn around it forty-ish years ago.

Whilst disagreeing with Cllr. Shannon on certain subjects I won’t go into here, he’s absolutely right about the future of our city. For Preston to survive, it needs to change, and that means a slow but sure process of amalgamating services as a precursor to full merger with neighbouring administrations.

The fix-and-fudge of local government reform generations ago has left its mark across the country, particularly England where there’s been less change than in either Scotland or Wales. Almost all the local authorities created in the 1970s as a compromise position to the contentious Redcliffe-Maud report remain in place today, their sizes and shapes unmoved despite mammoth changes in population, work-load and responsibilities, employment and the like.

Nobody in Manchester, for example, can fully explain why the council area is such an elongated blob. Of course cynics can suggest plenty of reasons – it kept out largely Tory-leaning bits in Trafford and the semi-rural north, it ensured the Airport and its growth area had to use the “Manchester” name, and so on. Generations away from the map redrawing, the reality on the ground is a population almost unrelated to the official demarcation lines.

Preston, like Manchester, is a city constrained by the flicks of an administrator’s pencil. The city doesn’t stop at the Ribble; people who live to the south are no less “Prestonian”, or less likely to work in Preston, on the grounds of living on the opposite side of an arbitrary border.  The reality of life in this part of Lancashire has seen Preston grow in stature and relevance, and all within the lines of a borough decided upon on a coin-toss in the 1970s.

The financial consequence for the city and its people is profound and dangerous. The only way to safeguard the integrity of Preston, and to ensure the financial security for the services provided for people who live here, is to be bold on the manner in which administrations are formed.

Cllr. Shannon builds a two-step process. Initially councils need to share services, cutting back on duplication which builds up in the everyday processes of providing day-to-day services. As Preston is a two-tier city, served by 57 city councillors and ten County Councillors, there’s plenty of duplication amongst the administrative scaffolding around the representative buildings housed here. Numerous towns and cities across the country are dealing with the Government’s budget slashing by sharing services, and this process can only continue.

The next step, hinted at in Cllr. Shannon’s statement, is a full merger with neighbouring authorities, and is something I’ve always supported. It’s not enough for back-room staff in Preston to work alongside those in the Boroughs of Fylde and South Ribble. Preston is an economic possibility stifled by its status, locked in by suspicious and cynical council leaders in neighbouring towns.

The modern economic reality is too serious for such parochialism. Our city boundaries need to respect that work, study and play in this part of Central Lancashire is no longer respectful of invisible lines drawn on across rivers and along roads. There’s no legitimate reason for South Ribble, Chorley or Fylde being separate when hundreds of thousands of residents already treat Preston as their “hub” for employment, university or college study, or social/piss-up outpost. There’s no legitimate reason why, having cooperated in reducing costs by merging backroom jobs, local councils can’t take the natural step to amalgamate.

My principle is “sphere of influence”. If you live in Tarleton, you’re within the Southport “sphere of influence”, only to be denied by the decision to create Sefton in the 1970s. Preston suffers the same – thousands of potential workers, students, and wealth creators living in Bamber Bridge, Leyland, Chorley, Kirkham, Lytham, all denied by an arbitrary line on a map.

Let’s respect opportunity more than geography. I’ve no time for the types in historic county organisations who wish to reclaim parts of the world which have no existed in forty or more years. I don’t accept calls to “bring back” such places as Middlesex or Westmorland, no more than I do any request to scrap decimal currency.

There’s far too much broken with our democracy – the voting systems at local councils are as close to “corrupt” as you can get, and Scotland is proof of how to resolve that simply by converting to the STV voting system. One other issue is the size and composition of the councils at this level – outdated boundaries drawn for partisan reasons. Cllr. Shannon says we need the “necessary courage” to create a new council, what would inevitably be called “Greater Preston”. I agree with him.

“Preston” was once over  half the size it is now, growing in size only when the separate borough of Fulwood was added in the 1970s. Now the next step has to be taken, not just to correct the problems of Prestonians living far beyond official borders, but to ensure the financial security of Lancashire’s true heart. Anything else is not an option – staying still won’t mean staying the same.