All over the place

The Internet is leaking. Or at least the bits I was under the impression were only visible to me and whoever temps for 38Degrees on days ending in ‘y’. With the hilariously misjudged ‘National Service Bill’ and ‘Margaret Thatcher Day Bill’, a tiny corner of Parliament’s website, that which lists every current proposed piece of legislation somewhere gunked up within the Westminster pipework, has become an unexpected adjunct to Twitter. Well, the campaigning bit of Twitter, which I currently imagine to be a Parish Church’s community hall in which two trestle tables are manned by a rota of Guardian, Independent, and New Statesman journalists with handouts and loopy juice. I’m no stranger to it only because, as a nerd, keeping up to date with this sort of thing genuinely interests me, although Jimbo Wales’ talkpage and New Years Honours Lists genuinely interest me, so maybe I’m just completely mad.

Among the soon-to-be-talked-out Bills above lies another fringe-benefit proposal from the wackier side of the Tory backbenches, namely the “United Kingdom Register of Places Bill”, which at the time of writing hasn’t yet been published. The Bill is sponsored by Andrew Rosindell, who people may know for being the kind of Tory who speaks with an Estuary accent, walks around with a bulldog, and has a massive Union Flag as the background to his currently dead Twitter account. If ‘Working Class Tory’ still exists as a valid label, Andrew (or ‘Rozza’, maybe?) is yer man. The gist of his ‘Register of Places’ proposal seems to be a deeply held issue that the country has moved on since the 1940s, and isn’t about time we had Kircudbrightshire, Cardiganshire and Amounderness back on maps and road signs, for God’s sake, people, hmm? The bells of St Bonkers began to ring most clearly during the 10 minutes allocated for him (“Rozzi”?) to explain his reasoning. He said the Bill would “ensure that local authorities have a duty to preserve and uphold identities of genuine towns and villages that have been around far longer than…local government constructs“, whilst banging on like a broken SatNav about Dorset and Highgate and where he grew up and, oh yes indeedy, “Whitehall bureaucrats”.

By the end of his allotted time, I was no clearer to understanding what he was proposing to achieve. A big fat red reset switch, perhaps, to review every local authority in the country to ensure they represent the areas they’re supposed to, rather than be stymied by the 1970s boundaries in which many of them remain trapped? Redrawing local council wards to make way for the introduction of STV after 2015? Anything remotely progressive?

Nope. Not a hope. What Andrew wants is a time machine. He and other mavericks in the madcap organisations obsessed with ‘traditional boundaries’ wish to return to some fictional moment of English history where men were men and Lancashire stretched from Barrow to the Mersey without pausing to catch breath. And you know, I’d like to see a form of this happen in a way, but not under the leadership of Andy “Bruiser” Rozza, the man who would, he implies, force four London Boroughs to merge to enable one village to be re-united. Indeed his plea for local villages and hamlets to be respected beyond all other distractions suggests that he wants one single Government for the whole of England, to do away with pesky local councils, particularly those Labour ones oop North. It’s a charmless and blatant attempt to UKIPise the country, to redress progress in a retroactive and damaging way.

The unfortunate thing, for me at least, is how close A-Rozz gets to where I would like to see Government go with regards constitutional reform. We need to have a reset button moment, to take away all the local government constructs and start again – more representative local government with recognisable boundaries and responsibilities, and voted for by a fairer voting system. We need to do away with two-tier governance, to sweep away County Councils once and for all. We need to see true devolution of power from Westminster to Town Hall, and further to the streets. What nobody really wants is Rozza’s Register of Places, a paper-pushing exercise in nerdy nostalgia, where only people who obsess over the disapperance of Middlesex and  Lostwithel can be invited to stroke sepia maps of Ye Olde Countyies of England. The nerd-do-wells of the Traditional County Society cause enough damage as it is removing road-signs on a whim because their obsession commands they do. I don’t think an MP should be encouraging them.

True constitutional reform is the great overdue policy no Government dares touch. It’s left to “Bruiser” to tinker around with this sort of backwards looking history worship, rather than working towards a better future. We do deserve better than this.

Advertisements

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.

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.

all trigger, no bullets

What we know in Britain as democracy is a clumsy and chaotic compromise position, moulded through centuries of give, take and establishment necessity. Without the structure from a written constitution, it’s been possible to grow electoral administration only as successfully as it is possible to call “gardening” the act of throwing seeds onto a pavement. Every element of our electoral and constitutional machinery is broken – from the way in which legislation is timetabled to the voting system for Town Halls. Nothing works as it should, or indeed could, and for all the talk of necessary “repair work” on that machinery, not one party leader seems willing to break out the WD40.

It’s only a few years ago that David Cameron appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up and a screwdriver in his hand. Politics was broken, and he was the emergency call-out man who could help fix it. With the formation of the Coalition, it seemed even more likely that something would be done, as after all there’s no group on these islands more obsessed with improving the democratic ills than the Liberal Democrats. Maybe, just maybe, something would actually be achieved.

And then they had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “It’s being considered very carefully”. This is establishment speak for “We’re not interested, go away”.

The cases of Eric Joyce, Patrick Mercer and to an extent Nadine Dorries in the jungle have brought into stark focus one of many problems which keep the 21st century United Kingdom anchored in the 19th century. The good voters of Falkirk, Newark, and Mid-Bedfordshire did not vote for their MPs to leave their parties (or for that matter the country to appear on reality television), nor did they vote for an MP to confirm he won’t stand at the next election after being arrested though would stay on as an MP, on full pay, away from his party. The people of Falkirk voted for a Labour MP, not an independent, and under our broken system they can’t do a thing about this. They can’t even protest at the next election, because Eric Joyce won’t be there to face their decision.

This situation is one amongst many cuckoo-banana realities of British democracy.

When Cameron and Clegg spoke of the “right to recall”, one of the ways these situations could be resolved, there was a sense that lessons had actually been learned. Maybe, just perhaps, “right to recall” was on its way, and Britain would be able to boot out errant MPs in-between elections.

And then, the proposals came out, and the chance collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. What the Coalition proposed was not “right to recall”, as wanted by Douglas Carswell, Zac Goldsmith and others, but a form of State-approved confirmation hearings. Rather than allowing members of the electorate to decide if an MP should be subject to a recall by-election, Nick Clegg and Tom Brake put their names to a process by which electors would have to wait for the establishment to make its own decision. Policing the police, and all that, and nothing close to how Cameron had initially voiced his determination to clean up politics.

“Right to recall” would deal with examples like Joyce, Mercer and Dennis McShane if there was a genuine will within their constituencies. There’s little to no danger of opposition supporters trying to “rig” referenda; who other than political obsessives would attempt to oust all 650 MPs? There’s plenty of clear and obvious safeguards against “rigging” – including only permitting the process to start after a resignation or under-12 month prison sentence – that fears expressed about all MPs being under constant threat sound nothing more than willing the long grass to grow.

The Clegg/Cameron approach to the “trigger” element of the process lacks exactly the power which voters need to keep their MPs in check. It’s exactly the same fault which killed off the AV referendum, boundary reviews and House of Lords reform – a lot of talk about weaponary, very little evidence of firepower.

There are so many faulty and failing elements of the British electoral system that’s it difficult to know where to start. I’d love to see a fully proportional system for electing local government, I’d love to see an end to the stubby pencil, I’d love to see votes at 16, but with every passing year it seems the UK is happy to slide back another decade into a dusty, irrelevant past. “Right to recall” is a sidestep into responsibility, maturity, and the present day. Or at least the 20th century. Let’s see it introduced properly.