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The legacy of 9/11 has weakened liberal democracy, not strengthened it

In Events, Foreign Affairs, Law And Order on September 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm

James Bartholomeusz

Predictably, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City has provoked an orgy of reflection on the ‘war on terror’ decade. After ten years of war, we must ask ourselves, is the world a better place? Has the life of the average Western or Arabic person been improved enough to justify the actions taken? Neo-cons and liberal interventionists alike have adopted the Arab Spring as evidence that toppling dictators is beginning to catch on in the Middle East – failing to mention, obviously, that the two most high-profile autocrats were until last winter funded and supported by the West. Whilst the democratic revolutions of this year have been welcome, it is a tempting but treacherous line which is drawn between these uprisings and the supposed victories of the ‘war on terror’. In fact, liberal democracy is looking sicklier than perhaps at any time since the 1930s.

Across the Western world, the birthplace of liberalism, we have witnessed the steady erosion of our rights and liberties. To take two British examples, detention without trial and stop-and-search legislation have undermined the fundamental concept of innocence until guilt is proven. Blair’s draconian 90-day proposal for the former was, thankfully, halted by a rebellion in his own party, whilst the additional powers afforded to police by the latter have been used disproportionately on the young and non-white, often with no regard for the potential Islamist credentials of the suspect. What is perhaps most striking about these developments has been that they have achieved cross-party consensus. After Bush and Blair, part of Obama and Cameron’s appeal was the prospect of democratic reinvigoration: progress has been almost non-existent, with Guantanamo Bay still open and Britain’s authoritarian state apparatus remaining intact.

Furthermore, in an age of multiculturalism, Islamophobia is more widespread and more acceptable than ever: Islam has been singled out as having ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts, as if that made it unique amongst religions or ideologies. The renaissance enjoyed by the far-Right, though mostly to do with the effects of globalisation, cannot be divorced from the apparent tolerance of anti-Islamic views. The EDL in-particular is opposed specifically to Muslims, and yet it shares with the mainstream Western establishment the sense that there is something uniquely barbaric and murder-inducing about Islam. In a report last year by a former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism operative attributed hate crimes against Muslims to “a negative view of Muslims . . . acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports or commentaries in the media”, and even went as far to suggest that “Anti-Muslim crimes have not been afforded the same priority attention [that] government and police have invested in racist hate crimes”.

And let us not ignore the ostensibly ‘stabilising’ effects of Western intervention abroad. In Afghanistan, the civilian death toll from 2006 to 2010 is estimated at over 8,000, whilst 70% of southern Afghans think that the intervention has had a negative effect on the country. Iraqi civilian deaths have not been recorded, but estimates place the total at almost 1.5 million. As campaign organisations have consistently pointed out, torture has become commonplace treatment for those detained by NATO forces in war-zones. Extraordinary renditions – the illegal movement of humans against their will from one country of custody to another – have become the norm, as prisoners are passed from the Middle East to North America and back again. Meanwhile, profits of arms companies have soared to levels as-yet unseen, so that Afghanistan is now one of the most militarised areas of the planet: to give just one statistic, in the period 2008-10 the UK exported £32.5 million worth of arms to the country. And yet even by its own standards of murder, torture and profiteering, the West is failing. Having broken Iraq and tossed it aside, we are now in the middle of a protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a compromise with the Taliban, once derided, is now looking increasingly likely.

Another unwanted effect in the Middle East of the ‘war on terror’ has been the loss of Western credibility at a time when local people sorely need support: the Arab Spring. The democratic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya were hailed by Western leaders as a fulfilment of the aim of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since February this year, a collective amnesia seems to have descended on the Western establishment, conviniently omitting from memory the West’s long and ongoing support for authoritarian regimes. The Arab people, however, are not likely to forget the scene of Blair embracing Gaddafi, or Hilary Clinton referring to Mubarak as “a close personal friend”. Neither are they likely to forgive the lack of serious reprimand towards Israel, despite it holding the illustrious position as the nation to have violated the highest number of UN Resolutions (along with the tacit assumption that centuries of Jewish oppression entitles successive Israeli governments to ignore Palestinian human rights). Perhaps the most egregious example of this duplicity was in Iraq, where NATO funded and armed Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s whilst he was an asset against the USSR, and then bombed him in the 1990s and 2000s when his own expansionism began to threaten oil resources. There was no miraculous change in the Bathaist regime’s morality to merit this U-turn: the human rights of Iraqis did not enter the discussion at all until humanitarian aims became usefully (and accidentally) aligned with economic ones. It was pure hypocrisy.

By no means would all of us describe ourselves as ‘liberals’ – most Brits would probably opt for ‘conservative’ or ‘social democrat’ as a label – but we cannot escape the fact that the ground on which our political intuitions are built is that of liberal democracy. Few Westerners would refuse to pay at least lip service to the fundamental ideas of individual liberty, freedom from abuse and equality before the law. And yet, as a decade of war fought to protect our way of life draws to close, Western society looks less liberal and democratic than it did ten years ago. The legacy if 9/11 has given new credence to the old truth that, in war, opponents are often far more similar than either side would like to think.

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Soapbox Debates: The future of British media

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Soapbox Debates, The Media on August 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm

James Bartholomeusz, polarii, Stephen Wan, Elliot Ashley

In light of the phone hacking scandal, how would you change the UK media; its composition, its accountability, and its relationship with government?

James Bartholomeusz

The phone hacking scandal which has engorged our news output over the last few weeks is best understood as the third in a series of shake-ups over the last five years. The first, the financial crisis beginning in late 2007, dealt a grievous blow to our economy and the market fundamentalist ideology of the last thirty years. The second, the MPs expenses row dating from 2009, decimated the remaining faith of the British public in modern politics and our constitutional settlement. In all three scandals, what had previously seemed like insurmountable pillars of the British establishment were exposed as hollow oligarchies. In all three, men and women who had posed as respectable custodians of the state of the nation were revealed as incompetent and corrupt. And in relation to all three we might still ask the question ‘has anything really changed?’

This is because we have allowed bankers to reform banks and politicians to reform parliament: we cannot allow journalists, least of all Murdoch’s News International, to reform the media. Though the media never had the reputation of the City of London or the House of Commons, the public outrage to the phone hacking allegations shows that no one knew of the depths Andy Coulson and his ilk have descended to.

The prospect of the imminent collapse of Murdoch’s press brigade is to be welcomed (and even celebrated) – and forcing the closure of the newspaper which hacked the phones of 7/7 victims can be seen as a victory in itself. But these events should not fool us into thinking that Murdoch will not strive his utmost to retain his position as arbitrator of British politics. It’s hardly a secret that, since media laws were blasted open by Thatcher, News International has had exploited its influence to ensure the election of a compliant government. It has become a common sight for an aspirational leader to make a pilgrimage to prostrate himself before Murdoch’s throne. This is not the place to explore the fundamentally undemocratic essence of Murdoch’s power; suffice it to say, any opportunity to curb it should be seized.

I propose three reforms which should begin to ease Murdoch’s stranglehold on our media. Firstly, the Press Complaints Commission should be replaced by a much more vigilant regulatory body, allowing members of the public to set up citizens’ tribunals (advised by independent experts) to take on the corporate media when necessary. This would help make our media accountable to the British people and reassert the idea that we are not just consumers of news but active participants in current affairs. Secondly, our monopoly laws need to be much stricter: the fact that Murdoch taking a majority stake in BSkyB was even considered shows how lax our regulation has been made by the continuous barrage of corporate influence on government. Thirdly, we should consider ways in which to resurrect and protect local/regional media. A major problem in our current media settlement is the narrow middle class London background from which journalists are drawn, particularly noticeable, for example, in the patronising coverage of council estate tenants. Competition from national media has driven smaller outlets into oblivion – the return of a strong, independent local media would allow for greater representation of diverse voices outside of the elite which still controls our economy, politics and press.

polarii

Contrary to the rhetoric, there are very few serious problems with the UK media. There is a diverse plurality, with newspaper readers being able to choose between newspapers owned sustainably by six different groups (News International, Trinity Mirror, Guardian Group, Lebedev Group, Telegraph Group, Associated Newspapers), with television viewers being able to choose their news from BBC, ITV, C4, Sky, and other channels available on Freeview stations. The internet is a hive of uncensored opinions, and streams foreign news providers, such as CNN. The only medium that presents an effective monopoly on news is radio, where the impartial BBC holds sway. Even if we look at providers across media – the largest the BBC and then News Corporation – we can see that these fall well short of a monopoly across all media taken together. More competition is always welcome; this can be achieved by reducing the number of services on the BBC, and a News Corporation monopoly will be prevented by its outlets suffering reputational damage from phone hacking.

The media is accountable to itself. The Telegraph, Independent and Guardian (not to mention Private Eye) united to expose phone hacking at News International titles. The diversity that exists enables fierce competition, which ensures accountability. It is a risk for government to establish an independent regulator – newspapers should stand or fall on their own stories and sources, as the News of the World has. The Press Complaints Commission needs bulking up; but this should be done by the industry, not the government. Perhaps the industry should agree that it can issue unlimited fines. Wrongdoing by the News of the World was exposed by competition, and other titles, even outside News International, will follow. But a free press, to paraphrase Churchill, means a press that has the option of sometimes being foolish. For areas where the media has broken the law, the courts are blissfully independent.

A change of relationship does need to occur between media and government. When government values style over substance, when it judges its policy by focus group and not by results, it is always going to pander to opinion leaders. Murdoch, the most politically flexible of the news proprietors, sold a cunning lie – that he and his papers controlled the balance of opinion within the country. Yet the Sun never won it: not in 1992, nor 1997, nor 2005, nor 2010. It is the fault of politicians, not the press, that they bought it. It was Murdoch’s contacts in the government and police that prevented full and thorough investigation in the first instance; again, in an area where style dominated substance, detectives and ministers were more concerned with the good words of the Sun than any morality or legality. The police and politicians have to recognise this imbalance of priority, and not fall into the trap again. Other media moguls in the history of this country have taken fixed positions, and still failed. The media-centric method of politics and policing – pioneered by the Blairs Ian and Tony – needs to go.

Newspaper moguls have risen and fallen throughout the entire history of media in this country. Murdoch is the latest in the pattern: Rothermere, Beaverbrook, Maxwell. In the 1990s, there was no legislation about phone-hacking – it was not illegal to listen in. Phone-hacking is a legacy of that culture. Time, scandal, and the law will expunge these practises. The media will retain its self-regulation, and the British public is wise enough to ensure market plurality. The future of British media may well be online as opposed to on paper or on TV, but the framework doesn’t need much change.

Stephen Wan

The UK media cannot continue to operate as it has been doing – with impunity, arrogance and without consideration of the social damage it creates. Whilst recent focus has been on the phone hacking scandal, far more crimes have been committed – trials by media, such as during the Joanna Yeates murder case, risk perverting the course of justice, and routine scaremongering fuels ignorance and paranoia. The phone hacking scandal marks a turning point in public opinion of the UK media, and this is a good thing.

It would be easy to say the problem is with us: “We buy the newspapers – the UK media is reliant on our willingness to buy its coverage of the news. They merely pander to our tastes, supplying our insatiable demand. If we want to change the practises of our newspapers, then let us do so by using the power of the purse, altering the media we consume – in an age of information technology, accessing alternative sources of information has never been easier. Boycott the worst media corporations, and they will either reform or collapse. One could say that the News of the World was closed down due to public outcry and pressure placed on News Corporation. Ultimately, the UK media is accountable to us.”

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The relationship between the public and the media is better characterised as a symbiotic relationship, where media outlets rely on the public to consume their content, and the public relies on the media to distil information and set the news agenda. Because of this, we are as influenced by the media as they are influenced by us. Negative feedback loops occur, and as the news agenda degenerates to trivialities, the media resorts to ever more extreme methods to obtain the latest gossip. Phone hacking was not the result of a few journalists gone rogue – it was institutionalised, widespread, and a direct consequence of how the media market is structured.

It follows then that institutional change to the UK media is required. The current system in place is self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission. This has not worked – their website reads almost as satire, extolling the ‘commitment of the newspaper industry to tough and effective self regulation‘. A solution, as advocated by our leaders, would be for the government to establish an independent watchdog. A further idea may be to establish an information source database – when a journalist writes a newspaper article, they must cite in a separate report all the means by which that information was obtained, to be entered into the database after approval by the editor. Access to the database is available to the independent watchdog only. This will ensure full disclosure of the means by which stories are obtained, ensure good research practise, and prevent editors claiming to be unaware of dubious practises in their own newsroom.

How would I change the UK media? Enforce good media practices. The rest can follow.

Elliot Ashley

When looking at the deepening crisis facing the print media industry it is hard to see how it can recover. It is unlikely that newspapers can, or indeed will bounce back fully from the phone hacking scandal. Readership has been steadily dropping over the last two decades, as broadcast and online outlets for the news are becoming easier to access around the clock.

One could enter this argument: that the fault lies in a self-regulated industry that clearly needs to be more strongly controlled, with the likes of fines such as those issued by Offcom or Offgen. However it is the public that have initiated the collapse of News International and, as time can only tell at this point, possibly other large news companies also.

If the public had not continued to pressurise journalists, editors and media barons to produce in their publications ever increasing drivel on the latest celebrity affair, or a diet that two days previously was good for you and now carries a high risk cause of cancer (all this being in the public interest); then it is possible that papers such as News Of the World (NOTW) and others may have avoided stooping to the level of hacking into the voice mails of everyone from members of the Royal Family to Z-list celebrities.

This simple, yet under the counter method of collecting stories, or starting blocks for them, is inevitably widespread and probably largely unknown to the wider world. It would have continued had it not emerged, in a rival newspaper, that the NOTW and News International had gone a step too far in their quest to provide the public with its quota of gossip and scandal, by hacking into the voicemail of murdered school girl Millie Dowler.

The outrage and distrust that was caused by this has begun to unravel the rapidly disappearing mystery and power held by the fourth estate. Even if readership does start to increase in a few years, it is likely that the financial pressures placed upon publishers and editors of UK newspapers (and indeed the greater print media), by legal cases and investigations, will probably see the daily papers disappear from shop shelves. Perhaps just a select number will remain to provide news of every interest, from sport to motoring and holidays to gardening, on either a Saturday or Sunday.

Print media within the UK does has a future, but right now it is bleak and far, far different to what experts from the industry were envisaging a year ago.

__________

If you are interested in participating in a future debate, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

The Big Society, the market, and society: why deficit reduction might actually be a good thing

In Economy, Events, Ideology on July 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

David Weber

I must admit that I originally intended this to be a full response to James Bartholomeusz’s recent article on working class politics and welfare reform. However, while reflecting on his various arguments, my response to his comment underneath the article quickly became feature length, and an article in its own right:

The problem is, [the Big Society] dovetails a little too nicely with the market fundamentalism that got us into this mess, and the tough deficit reduction plan which has ostensibly been forced upon the government against its will. [emphasis added] Read the rest of this entry »

This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.

Soapbox debates: The Alternative Vote

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Soapbox Debates on May 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Stephan Wan, polarii, David Weber, James Langford, Jack Blankley, Ronald Collinson

With the referendum on 5th May rapidly approaching, The Daily Soapbox has decided to help any remaining floating voters make up their minds about AV (the Alternative Vote), by using it for the first of our written debates, in which 6 of us give our views about AV, along with how we intend to vote in the referendum.

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead’? Yes or no?

Stephan Wan: YES

This is not a perfect question. There is no doubt that in an ideal world, we would not be seeing just a choice between Alternative Vote (AV) and First Past The Post (FPTP), but also with other voting systems. However, this is not an ideal world, and ultimately we are faced with a simple choice. Is the AV system better than FPTP? The answer is yes. The AV system is both a more legitimate and more effective voting system, that has both fairer process and fairer outcomes.

Firstly, in what sense does AV involve fairer process? A good electoral system must seek to accommodate and realise the preferences of the electorate – the more a system takes into account the wishes of the voters, the better a system it is. AV allows exactly this – the system gives every voter the right to rank the candidates from the one they want the most, to the one they want the least. In comparison, FPTP allows no such choice – it does not reflect what views you have on other candidates, or your preference relations between them. This problem leads to the phenomena of tactical voting; currently, the voter may vote for a candidate other than the one they most support, in order to prevent another candidate from winning who they least support. AV eliminates tactical voting, by allowing these preferences to be shown on the ballot paper. AV is a better system for reflecting voter preferences.

AV graph

Secondly, in what sense does AV involve fairer outcomes? A good electoral system must also seek to result in the election of candidates who have the support of the majority of the electorate. The greater the correlation between the outcome of the election, and the preference of the electorate, the better the electoral system it is. FPTP has a poor record of correlation between outcome and preference – constituencies can have MPs elected on as little as 30% of the vote. AV will in theory work in a far better way – candidates must gain over 50% of the vote to win, either outright through gaining 50% of first preference votes, or through the reallocation of second and subsequent preferences. AV thus ensures that over 50% of the voters will have in some way chosen the winning candidate over all other candidates. This is more legitimate than FPTP – AV is a better system for fairer outcomes.

polarii: NO

Before laying out my case against AV on the issues of practicality – Ronnie and James will have much more to add in other respects – I shall briefly rebut some of Stephen’s points. He argues that tactical voting is a problem; why then, does he advocate a system that encourages it? In FPTP, when a ballot paper is marked, some electors do indeed consider the wider ramifications of voting, rather than just what they want. In AV, voters also consider the wider ramifications, but simply mark a second preference to indicate their ‘tactical’ choice. Instead of removing the problem, it legitimises it.

Furthermore, where preferences are not filled to the bottom of the ballot, there will be a significant number of ballots will be blank, which will be counted as ‘spoiled’ after round 1. So it is not necessarily true that MPs elected under AV will have 50% of votes cast.

AV is used in Australian, Fijian, and Papua New Guinean Parliamentary elections, and Irish and Indian Presidential elections. In Ireland, a major party is always returned to the presidency, and half the elections have been uncontested since 1980; the Congress Party has won every Indian election since its formation. Though both have had fewer hung parliaments than the UK, Australia and Fiji have only two main parties; PNG has only one. The ‘third party’ in Australia, the Greens, took 11% of the vote, yet received 1 seat of 150.In Fiji, only 4 MPs do not hail from the major parties; and unrepresented parties receive over 10% of the vote. However, in the UK, the highest party not to receive representation was UKIP at 3%. These statistics do not suggest that AV is more representative – in fact, it may even be less so.

In Australia, the parties distribute leaflets showing people how they should use all their preferences for the maximum advantage of their preferred party.

Moreover, there is significant disengagement with the system. Turnout in Ireland is 47%. In Australia, 7% prefer a fine to voting; 5% spoil their ballots and 55% admit to following a party-issued card that says how to rank the candidates. This is indicative of serious problem; people are not really convinced in these countries that their vote will matter, or are very unsure about how to use their system. The system does nothing to solve any democratic deficit created by FPTP. In fact, it may even make it worse.

And who actually wants AV? Certainly not David Cameron, who is campaigning for FPTP. Certainly not Nick Clegg, who describes it as ‘miserable’. Maybe Ed Miliband, but he hasn’t said much about it. MPs report a complete absence of pleas from constituents advocating AV. Yet, it seems that if voting trends are the same, the Liberals will gain about 20 more seats – though it is not clear that UKIP will get one, for instance. This is the reason the Liberals are so eager to have it. And the people who run elections don’t want it either; elections will cost more, take longer, and be much harder to check.

In short, no benefit will come of AV. No-one will be satisfied by having it. And likely, fewer people will engage in democracy once we have it. FPTP is clear, popular and simple. There is no choice. FPTP receives not just my preference, but my vote.

David Weber: YES

What separates the Alternative Vote, in a bad way, from First Past the Post? This is the standard of proof those who oppose AV have to meet. It is no use complaining about the cost of the referendum, because it will happen anyway: our MPs have decreed it. So the ‘No’ campaign needs to demonstrate why we should reject AV in favour of the current system. It needs to demonstrate that AV is comparatively worse.

This is what polarii, in the previous speech, failed to do. His argument that AV is unrepresentative (backed up by an impressive array of statistics) is irrelevant. Both systems are unrepresentative, and for the same reason. In both, MPs represent a single constituency, including those who did not vote for them. This is what makes them unrepresentative, and neither can be criticised above the other because of it.

polarii also claims that AV ‘may even be less’ representative. Does he explain how? Does he corroborate it? The ubiquitous statistics are strangely silent on this point! In order to demonstrate this, he has to show that AV has additional problems, which he has failed to do. I invite you to re-read the previous speech if you wish, in case you don’t believe me.

A (hypothetical) AV ballot paper

A highly complex ballot paper

Nor do I think AV would increase disengagement with the system. It’s hard not to be derisive here; I find the idea that voters will be put off by having to number preferences both hilarious and outrageous. The slogan “it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3…” is possibly the only accurate campaign slogan in history. It really is as easy as 1, 2, 3. People are put off from voting for real reasons, not because they have to count in single digits.

So that’s why there’s no reason to reject AV in favour of the current system. Equally, why support AV over it? The answer, when it boils down to it, is actually very, very simple. If MPs do represent an entire constituency (including, as I pointed out earlier, people who did not vote for them) then they should have the support of as many of their constituents as possible.

The current system allows an MP to be elected even if a majority of the electorate vehemently opposes them. This is ludicrous. Representing people is not the same as winning a 100 metre sprint. It should not mean collecting supporters. It should mean seeking the support of as many you seek to represent as possible.

This is why no political party worth its salt uses FPTP. Labour uses AV to elect its leader. The Liberal Democrats also use it. The Conservatives use an almost identical system. It appears that there is consensus among all three parties in favour of AV for them — but not for us. I wonder why this is?

James Langford: NO


Firstly I would like to add my support to Mr Bagg for his excellent contribution into this debate. There are many strands of argument which I could hope to explore in this article but firstly I want to make some refutations to the proposition focusing in particular on comments made by Mr Weber. On a point of technicality Labour or the Conservatives do not fully use AV to elect their leaders – they have both invented their own electoral systems which incorporate procedure similar to that of AV. Moreover – he asks us why FPTP? Simply – it creates strong and accountable governments, gives us coalition at times of national uncertainty, works simply and efficiently during election periods with easily interpretable results, the list goes on…

Returning to my own argument I would firstly like to explore the background to this referendum. This referendum is a waste of money; it’s the voting system that no one really wants – people who want us to change our voting system, such as the Lib Dems, want fairer representation and representation for the smaller parties, but by switching to another majoritarian voting system neither of these aims can be realized. This is the wasted compromise. Those people need PR or STV – and if either of these voting systems had a solid base of national support or could mobilize such a base we would be having a referendum for one of those.

Now I want to bring us back to reality – the democratic idealists are proclaiming that ranking candidates is better but in this voting system safe seats will ignore rankings and tactical ranking will be widespread. Moreover in the marginal constituencies we will still see some MPs elected without 50% of the vote. In a voting system where two of the main principles of that system are not enshrined the average voter will be left confused. I’m not talking about the political nuts like ourselves but the ordinary people of this country, who may only ever engage with politics by voting once every five years. I’d also like to infer that given the increased complexity of this voting system and the lack of understanding behind the procedure, some will become disillusioned and give up voting altogether. In the pursuit of democracy we may damage our democracy.

Jack Blankley: YES

May I first say well done to all the contributions so far, they have been very interesting and this has been a very intelligent debate on a hotly contested issue.

First things first, I am not a supporter of the AV voting system. I believe it is a system which will not fully represent the British public and lead to only a slight improvement on the current system, which I believe is outdated and lacks sufficient representation of the population.

My main argument for supporting the change in the voting system is not so much about the empirical arguments against FPTP, which I believe are not fundamentally changed with the introduction of the AV system, but about wider politics in general. Over the past couple of years, are politicians have been riddled with scandals ranging from expenses claims to affairs, with the tabloid press coming up with imaginative names for our politicians, such as “2jag Prescott” and “Paddy Pantsdown”. A change in the way politics works in this country might help to bring people back into politics, which nowadays is seen as an elitist subject. This is the one thing politicians should be trying to avoid!

Even Mervin King, the governor of the Bank of England, says he’s surprised with the public reaction to the banking meltdown, saying people should be angrier. I believe nowadays people believe there is nothing they can do due to the British political system, and these views of “they’re only in it for themselves”, “greedy” and “out of touch” are comments regularly used in the tabloid press describing all 3 main parties. I know this arguement is hard to understand and even harder to try and write down! But this small change may be a way to reconnect with some lost voters showing that politicians are willing to change a system which the British people think is inherently flawed!

Finally the argument that the referendum is a waste of money is one I disagree with. A referendum is the fairest way to change constitutional practises and to suggest it a waste of money is to suggest that MPs decide how they are elected (which leads to a democratic deficit). The public should be directly involved in deciding on the voting system.

Ronald Collinson: NO

Mr Blankley’s post rounded off what has been a stimulating debate. Several of the supposed arguments in favour of AV have already been dealt with: against Mr Wan, Polarii and Mr Langford noted that it is simply untrue to say that candidates would require the assent of 50% of voters to be elected; against Mr Weber, Mr Langford noted that no major political party in fact uses AV to elect its leaders. Polarii also demonstrated the several respects in which AV may be less representative than FPTP.

It might be added that tactical voting remains possible under AV: the important question is which parties you want to make it into the final round; the order of elimination matters. It is therefore possible to model scenarios in which candidates might in fact be benefited if some of their supporters had given them second rather than first preferences, a clear violation of the principle that expressing second preferences should not harm first preferences. Of course, to exploit this system requires substantial local and national political knowledge – so tactical voting would not be eliminated, but made the preserve of precisely the political obsessives Mr Blankley railed against.

Mr Weber and Mr Blankley both claimed that changing the voting system would revitalise British politics. If that is so, the British people don’t seem to be aware of it: while the 2002 march in favour of the minority pursuit of fox hunting attracted more than 400,000 people, the electoral reform ‘rally’ in May attracted only 1,000; while even the deplorable Facebook group in support of police-killer Raoul Moat attracted over 38,000 members, the Electoral Reform Society has not even achieved 9,000. There is no evidence whatever to suggest that public malaise has anything to do with the electoral system.

Indeed, the aftermath of the expenses scandal was, if anything, a vindication of FPTP. Several MPs in supposedly ‘safe’ seats, like David Heathcoat-Amory and the ludicrous Lembit Opik, were duly unseated. There is substantial academic debate about how AV would change the distribution of safe seats, but there is clear consensus that it would not eliminate such seats. But the evidence of last May is that such seats are not in fact ‘safe’ against the force of local anger.

AV does not, then, reliably make electoral battles more competitive; it restricts tactical voting to the voting to the elite; it violates its own preferential principles; it does not require victors to have the support of a majority of voters. It is, additionally, a much more complex system, lacking the easy transparency of FPTP in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

On this question of ‘the most votes’, Mr Weber ambitiously attempted to draw a distinction between ‘collecting supporters’ and ‘seeking… support’, claiming that under FPTP a candidate can win against an ‘opposing majority.’ But what is the significance of an ‘opposing’ majority if its representative is contingent entirely on the order in which other candidates are eliminated? National politics isn’t like a student union election: there is no option to ‘re-open nominations’. Voters must align themselves by one programme for government or another – simply voting on the basis of ‘not you’, which is surely the ruling logic of the alternative vote, can hardly be considered satisfactory.

________________________________

This marks the end of our first written debate. If you are interested in participating in future debates we choose to hold, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

A cynical take on referendum campaigns

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, The Media on February 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm

By Sean Wyer

Cross-posted from They Say it so Seriously…

Britain’s first referendum in a while is fast approaching. As you probably know, the one option is AV (alternative vote) as opposed to our current ‘first-past-the-post’ system. In the spirit of being a good citizen, I thought I would make sure I was making the right choice, so I didn’t ruin the country by accident.

I was aware that the referendum isn’t an issue contested by people, but by ideas, so maybe their websites would make me think.

The people campaigning against the alternative vote didn’t really have any ideas. They just talked about loads of irrelevant public-services-related items that people need, such as bullet proof vests and maternity units, which don’t have anything to do with voting systems, but some ‘PR expert’ in an office seems to think we’ll believe them if they say ‘vote yes in the referendum and loads of people will die’ (paraphrased). Which is probably a lie. They also said (also paraphrased) ‘it’s too complicated for normal people to understand’. Which isn’t actually an argument, and succeeds in condescendingly insulting the public’s intelligence.

AN APPALLING BLACKMAIL TECHNIQUE

I thought the other side might be less terrible at convincing me. If you look really hard, you can actually find some information on their site, but it’s obvious they’re pretty much the same as the other guys, just funded by people who will benefit in the future if their side wins, which means they’re basically an advertising campaign. Their website pulls the age old trick of having a war vet talking about democracy, which seems like a desperate move, using ‘selling stunts’ instead of actual politics.

AN EQUALLY CRUDE ADVERTISING CHOICE

Both sides essentially admit that they don’t have a convincing enough political argument. They make it obvious that the people funding their campaign will enjoy plenty of success (or maintain it) if they win, because both sites have an air of desperation and power-hungry marketing techniques about them.

Don’t know if either side deserves/will get my deciding vote.

Confused.

Two resignations. Two bad decisions?

In Events, Party politics, The Media on February 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

David Weber

Before I begin, I would like to welcome our newest writer, James Bartholomeusz. I enjoyed reading his analysis of Labour’s past and future, and look forward to future articles.

On the face of it, Ed Miliband’s recent decision to grant the shadow chancellorship to Ed Balls following Alan Johnson’s resignation looks like bad judgement. It is the most potent way he could have gone back on his decision to sideline the Brown treasury team back in September, when he appointed Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper to shadow Home and Foreign portfolios respectively. Not only this, but there would have been a strong logic in offering the shadow Chancellorship to Cooper instead, given that she came first in the shadow cabinet elections and has taken a less vocal line over the economy. Given that Cooper is married to Balls, this would have been a less than meaningful decision, but it might have looked ever so slightly better.

The truth, however, may be more nuanced. We do not know that Miliband had any real choice in who to appoint to the position. Cooper and Balls, sensing weakness and a lack of alternatives, may have threatened to consider their positions if the outcome was not to their liking. Both have a significant number of supporters within the party, and Miliband must be keen to avoid the kind of infighting that characterised Labour’s last spell in opposition. Without knowing the internal politics of the shadow cabinet, which has arguably not been infiltrated by the media to the same extent as the government, or the previous government, it is hard to evaluate Ed Miliband’s judgement.

What it is possible to say is that events are increasingly conspiring against him. Ed Balls repudiates the nuanced and flexible position laid out by Alistair Darling prior to the last election. He stood for the leadership on a platform laying out his opposition to the need to cut spending at all. This article will not speculate whether or not he was right to do so, but merely note that the public disagreement between Johnson and Miliband over tuition fees will pale in comparison should Balls choose to disagree over deficit reduction. An agreed economic policy is essential.

It is all very well for the political freedom of ideas brought by coalition, but I suspect that this is more workable in government, where the need to make tough decisions is at least recognised by the public, than in opposition. And it is perhaps an irony of coalition politics that people may become more accepting of disagreements between parties, rather than inside them. The opposition’s task in the short-term is to bring a simple, well-defined and credible alternative to the table. Only then can it worry about the niceties of pluralism and diversity of opinion.

Incidentally, I do not agree with those who argue that appointing Johnson in the first place was a mistake. There are two lines of argument: one which points to Johnson’s mistakes since being appointed, which is obviously opportunistic, and another which points to his lack of economic experience or qualification prior to being appointed. The latter holds more weight, but fails to credit his experience in government, which is greater than most of the current government, and surely counts for much more than a degree in PPE from Oxford. The argument also has no evidential strength to back it up so far. If George Osborne, who has been criticised too for a lack of economic credentials, single-handedly wrecks the economy before long, it will be strong evidence that Alan Johnson’s appointment was not a good decision. But unless that happens, we will not know whether economic qualifications are needed to take the role of chancellor.

So much for Reddening Ed. What of David Cameron, whose judgement is now called into question with the resignation of Andy Coulson? For many commentators, the ongoing fallout from the News of the World hacking scandal shows David Cameron’s judgement to be highly flawed in allowing Coulson to continue, and actively supporting him, for so long. I will not pass comment one way or another on the case, however. I know too little about it. I will rather look at a tangent that stems from it.

I believe this is further evidence to suggest the tenuous theory that Cameron is a far more relaxed Prime Minister than either of his predecessors. Although Brown’s government was famed for dithering over certain matters; when it came to the continued existence of liabilities, it tended to be more because of the party political context than because of any evidence of the Prime Minister being particularly relaxed. And Blair’s behaviour earlier on in his tenure bordered on paranoid at times, so determined was he not to lose momentum through scandal. A particular example was the first Mandelson resignation, which was back-dated in an attempt to make it look as if he had resigned the previous day, to avoid the opposition taking credit.

Cameron, in contrast, has shown little evidence of paranoia or dithering. He has wisely kept himself further from the forefront of the coalition in the media than Nick Clegg, investing his efforts (as far as one can tell) in its smooth running behind the scenes. This has worked well for his political momentum, as it leaves those out of the know more confused about his political positions, leaving him more room for manoeuvre and minimising accusations of dithering and U-turns. It also avoids the impression that he seeks to control every area of government, which ironically ended up costing Blair so much control.

So both resignations are at present very open to interpretation. Both risk accusations of bad judgement, slow decision-making and lack of control. Yet as we have briefly discussed, there is in reality very little difference to the way previous resignations have played out, other than in spin. Both were of figures who their employers were less than willing to lose; Johnson because of the political significance of his appointment, and Coulson because of the importance of his job. Both Miliband and Cameron may have been wise to play a relaxed game, letting events unfold leisurely rather than spin out of control as a result of frantic behaviour.

True, the wind may be blowing more in Cameron’s favour than Miliband’s; after all, when have more parties been united in government than opposition? When has the collected opposition lacked not just a majority of seats but also of votes? The other conclusion, which I was uncharitably tempted to disguise, is that this is a key lesson in the limits of pluralistic politics, such a key feature of my reasoning in recent articles. Oppositions, as I pointed out earlier, have traditionally had to put up an artificially united front in order to be seen as credible. This is a problem which needs addressing, but which it is difficult to see a solution to.

Mr Bean’s revenge

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Party politics, The Media on December 22, 2010 at 12:47 am

David Weber

Vince Cable famously said of Gordon Brown “from Stalin to Mr. Bean”. Yet it is Mr. Bean today, long since politically deceased, who must be celebrating (or at least mildly pleased). For Vince Cable has suddenly affected a transition of similar proportions himself, and the worst of it is that he can blame few people other than himself.

True, he can blame the Telegraph, which must be furious for failing to fell a second cabinet minister; and Robert Peston, and the BBC. But such a strategy will do little to comfort him: journalists are ever trying to sniff out facts to undermine politicians, parties and governments. And the manner of his falling seems careless: it is one thing to be secretly recorded having discussions with senior party figures and wealthy businessmen, but it is another for these quotes to slip out during constituency surgeries.

In fairness to Dr. Cable, we should take into account the Liberal Democrat fragility. It is understandable that members are particularly concerned about the impact of coalition on their majorities, given their national showings in the polls, and the sense that they will be punished for being the junior partner in the Coalition. It is also understandable that the people they find most difficult to deal with will not be their colleagues or department connections and interests, but party activists, members and voters. It is those people who will be the most difficult to win over.

Despite this, the effect on the reputation of Dr. Cable will be considerable. Having built a reputation for being a sensible pair of hands, long-sighted and competent, he now is dangerously close to Mr. Bean, and does not convey the same easy amiability. Rivals and ill-wishers will have serious ammunition, and his Liberal Democrat colleagues will probably take steps to distance the party from him. He may well no longer be seen as a pivotal figure.

Though superficially it may seem that the Daily Telegraph, and the BBC — who broke the most controversial comments concerning the BSkyB takeover — are the chief beneficiaries, this is not the case. In fact it may be that through being overenthusiastic in lighting the blue touchpaper, they have been somewhat burned. Both parties are opposed to the BSkyB takeover, and this leads to the significant problem that their own interests may be seriously set back in the near future.

The News Corporation takeover bid for BSkyB, the subject of Dr. Cable’s political near death experience, now looks healthier. Had Dr. Cable kept his cards to himself, he may well have been able to block the takeover even if few independent justifications were at hand. However, with his stated intention to “declare war” on Murdoch’s “empire”, and “win”, the government’s decision will be far more explosive. Add into the equation the EU regulator’s recent green light, and the future looks rosy for Murdoch.

The Telegraph, however, was one of the signatories to the letter opposing Murdoch’s bid, sent to the Business secretary, Dr. Cable himself, only recently. And this may be the reason why it was the BBC who released the most controversial part of the story, concerning Murdoch’s “empire”, and not the Telegraph. That certainly appears to be the claim of the original whistleblower, who complained about the way the Telegraph was releasing the information.

Yet it is difficult to see how the Telegraph could have avoided this story emerging, particularly after giving such a high profile to the first part of the story (concerning Dr. Cable’s relationship with the Coalition). Indeed, from the very moment when the investigation was successful, it must have only been a matter of time before the information emerged into the public domain. Perhaps they intended to make certain of Dr. Cable’s resignation, by releasing the quotes at a time which maximised damage. Or perhaps they intended to bury the more dangerous comments about News Corp, to favour their own interests. We will never know.

So who are the winners in this? It is David Cameron who must now be feeling pleased. Dr. Cable owes his position to him, which will make him far less of a problem for the time being, and easier to remove in the future, as his party will be keen to end their reliance on him.Thus the Liberals’ standing in the coalition is reduced, and Cameron’s control over his government increased. Better still, the issue of Conservative party relations with News Corp, a thorny issue, may yet resolve itself in his favour. If regulators continue to sign off the bid, his Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, might even be able to approve it with little controversy, and use it to testify to the Coalition’s political diversity of opinion, and the Conservatives’ independence from the Liberal Democrat party. Relations between News Corp and the Conservative party would improve considerably, and the approaching election in 2015 would look that little bit less difficult. Except for the Liberal Democrats…

Tuition fees round-up, part 2

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

David Weber

Part 2 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part one.

The next thing I want to focus on is the practicalities of this issue. If one assumes that fiscal austerity made Higher Education cuts inevitable (which I do), how justifiable has the Coalition’s response been? Were they wrong, as Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students, contends, to rule out a graduate tax as a viable alternative? How thorough have they been on matters of detail in ensuring fairness?

The first issue to look at is a graduate tax, as this is the basis of most constructive disagreements over the policy, such as the NUS’. It is worth noting as we start that despite quite a lot of strong arguments against it, not all criticism of the graduate tax has been worthy. Quite a number of criticisms have had something of a weasel nature, criticising the worst possible form of the policy without addressing any of the stronger proposals on the table. It would be all very well if these were merely the typical emanations of those who do not know better, but when they crop up in the Browne report itself, it is indicative of a more serious ideological agenda.

Arguments such as: “poorer graduates would have to pay back more”; “it would take time for the money to accumulate”; and even “you could avoid the tax by moving abroad” are simply not credible in the manner they are flung about by most opponents. Arguing that poorer graduates would have to pay back more under a graduate tax is simply childish. It assumes that a government would levy the tax directly on top of the basic rate of income tax, which it would be under no obligation to do. As for the money taking time to accumulate, given that student loans are paid back as a deferred graduate tax, this will already hold true. No new money will come in from the new fees until roughly three years after they come in. It is true that the government loans money upfront to the student by which they pay fees immediately, but the government could just as easily loan money to the University and wait for greater future returns from a graduate tax to pay it off. There is little difference. As for moving abroad, although graduates do now have to make repayment arrangements with the Treasury on moving abroad, this will prove difficult and the Treasury allegedly receives little money from graduates living abroad. If that wasn’t enough, there are also political difficulties. No government of a democratic and liberal nature will want to be seen to use student debt to force graduates to stay within the country, therefore proving that a graduate is not paying their fair share will be very difficult.

That said, I think that there are strengths to the fees system. The first is that it relieves government of the political control it has of University funding, at least to a degree (no pun intended). Any system with a cap on fees is of course going to incur a certain amount of co-funding by government, to prevent public Universities from losing out to private ones (although private Universities currently number only two in Britain). The fees system means that Universities are therefore less often under the danger of political tinkering or sudden funding cuts than they would be if they were funded by taxation.

It can also be argued that government control of the system of funding is more likely to lead to inefficiencies and wasted money than student control. I am somewhat more sceptical of this view than I used to be, however, mainly through my own experience of university and the knowledge that students are, in general, poor consumers. We do not know what the experience of a course will be, in full, until at least a year in, by which point a lot of money is spent. We do not know a great deal about educational methods ourselves, and are not likely to be able to assess university quality in our current positions. Add into the equation the distorting effects of a fee cap, and it is likely that some Universities over-charge by quite a degree for their own courses, confident in the knowledge that the cap makes it unlikely that students will disregard higher quality courses for a cheaper alternative. And just to cement this argument, evidence from America, which has the highest University fees in the world, shows that it is unlikely that an uncapped system would keep prices down.

But there are other flaws with a graduate tax system. There would be no incentive for Universities to invest in the future of their graduates — unless the student paid their taxes directly to their University, which would incur its own problems: high paying degrees would immediately become the market winners, distorting it beyond any level that a market in fees would. Arts and certain humanities courses would only survive by being subsidised by ‘winners’, which would be the death warrant for specialised colleges such as conservatoires and arts colleges.

With a fees system, funding follows the student in a rational way, where higher paid graduates merely pay back their contributions quicker than the lower paid — in the long term, there is little difference between the two. Admittedly, the new system is more skewed, interest means that many will pay back more than what they were loaned, whereas many will have their loans written off partially unpaid. But by taking on all or part of the risk, the government can tame this problem. And passing on a little of the risk to Universities would mean that they had a small incentive to offer high quality courses, without spelling the death warrant for Arts and Humanities.

So is the bill that has just passed in the Commons a perfect solution? By no means. The main criticisms I have, in fact, are a matter of far smaller detail than I have yet discussed, and therefore represent not so much an ideological difference of opinion (unlike many critics) than a practical one. I find myself uneasy about the impact of passing on the higher fees all at once. What private good on the market will suddenly increase in price by 200%? Indeed, if it is fiscally possible, the government would be well advised to accept a proposed amendment in the House of Lords, which would stagger the increases.

I am also concerned by the introduction of interest. Despite the fact that I can see good intentions behind this decision — a growing rate of interest will mean that the higher paid the graduate, the more they pay off — and an upfront penalty for early repayment will prevent the very richest from escaping their fair share. But interest is a clumsy way to ensure fairness, and already the possibility of stricter Muslims refusing the loans has arisen. Though I by no means believe the government should be accommodating of every religious value, this is a clear case where it should accommodate.

The fact that the government is fighting a losing battle in communicating the universalism of this system — the fact that everyone will be able to afford university — is also depressing. Here I am not just critical of the government, which only has so much influence with the public, but also the NUS, the media, and the countless people who believe that their own free University education was the only affordable way to go. No doubt such people would be perfectly happy to pay higher taxes to afford that opportunity to today’s generation of students.

In conclusion, then, there are a number of unpleasant factors behind the recent vote to reform university funding, and increase tuition fees. Not only that, but on some points the policy is wrong, and potentially damaging. Despite this, it remains for the most part a necessary, if unpleasant, reform.

Part one

Tuition fees round-up, part 1

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:13 pm

David Weber

Part 1 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part two.

You’ll probably be pleased to know that I intend these articles to be my last on Tuition fees for a while. On the other hand, my record for sticking to pledges made in The Daily Soapbox is worse than the Liberal Democrat’s record of sticking to pledges made at election time. At least they’ve only broken one.

After a somewhat excessive and unfair rant about priorities of students marching in the recent protests, I intend to take a step back and analyse not just the overall picture behind last week’s vote, and whether it was necessary or not, but the cracks and flaws within the art-work as well. I generally think that despite last week’s vote being necessary as a policy in a time of public spending cuts, there are some less than palatable aspects to the whole debacle and one or two individual elements of the policy with which I disagree. When the government will clearly struggle to achieve the fiscal timetable it intends to and is already cutting deeper in some areas than I would like, it was the right decision to pass on some of the costs of universities to future graduates. But it is a pity that it had to approach it from such an unfortunate backdrop, and it has not got the question right on every level.

The first thing to note is the fact that a perverse situation exists where most of the protesters have the moral highground, despite the necessity of reform. There can be no question about this. Despite the fact that Nick Clegg was clearly more sensible about the issue before the election than most of his party, he not only emphasised a manifesto policy he knew not to be sound, but went to the ultimate extreme of signing a separate pledge in public, surrounded by students.

Some background about the Liberal Democrats’ political traditions is necessary to gain a nuanced understanding of this. The Liberal Democrats like to do things en masse. What better demonstrated this than the speculation that Vince Cable might actually abstain over his department’s legislation? This is somewhat ironic for a party wedded to the politics of compromise and coalition, of meeting people half-way — but we have seen ever since the coalition that there is a significant section of the party grassroots which prefers the purity of opposition politics to the practicality of government. And given the amount of time the Liberal Democrats, the Social Democrats and before it the Liberal party have spent in opposition, this is magnified to a far larger degree than in any party of government since 1931.

Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats’ volte face can only be seen, in a moral light, as betrayal. They have performed the opposite action to that which they promised their voters, many of whom only supported them because of this. This is more than a simple broken promise, it is one of the highest order in a democracy. However, it is yet another example of the fact that the British constitution works far better when it comes to government than when it comes to democracy.

And unfortunately for the beliefs of democrats, this is not an example in democracy’s favour. The pledge the Liberal Democrats signed was naive and unsustainable, but they entered into government at a time when the interests of sustainability and hard-nosed decisions demanded it. They were caught between a rock and a hard place. To abandon their pledge would have been immoral, but no less so than to stand impotently by and engineer an impotent government. Viewed in this light, in choosing to sacrifice the pledge and join government they picked the lesser of two evils.

Does this lessen the betrayal towards many students, and from many students’ point of view? Not at all. The simple fact is that the Liberal Democrats broke their manifesto promise, and as such they deserve to be punished at the next election. Whether or not they should be is another matter. The British system of democratic government does not often serve the interests of justice well, contrary to the regular claims of its supporters. The 2005 election, in an ideal world and an ideal system, would have seen Labour more comprehensively punished for the Iraq War, but other considerations proved weightier on polling day. The 1992 election would, in an ideal world, have seen the support attained by John Major garner comparative rewards, but instead his party suffered a humiliating reduction in the size of its majority. Elections are often determined by a rag-bag cocktail of issues, which are often quite trivial compared to the verdict they deliver.

So much, then, for the Liberal Democrats’ shocking betrayal. History may attach little importance to it when judging their record in government. Such is politics. The next important moral issue which requires attention is the conduct of the Conservative and Labour parties during the election. Though these fine parties made no rash promises to renege on afterwards, in certain ways their conduct was more insidious than that of the Liberal Democrats’ recent betrayal. It is a fact that for an opposition party, the Conservatives kept surprisingly quiet about the Browne review, and its likely recommendation of higher fees.

This isn’t to say the the Conservative party should have come out against higher fees. But it could have built support for them, rather than merely using the Browne review as an excuse not to talk about it (“we will … consider carefully the results of Lord Browne’s review into the future of higher education funding”). In “considering carefully”, it colluded with the Labour party, by accident or design, to limit discussion and decrease choice on the issue at the ballot box. Such a course of action was, if intentional, clearly self-interested. Labour’s actions fare worse. Despite setting up a review clearly loaded, as shown by polarii’s recent article, to recommend higher fees, it refused to engage in discussion of the issue — then miraculously came out against the Browne review after the election.

So like MPs expenses, in many ways this is a ‘plague on all your houses’ issue, in spite of the visibility of the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal.

Part Two