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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.

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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 »

Question Time 23-06-11

In BBC Question Time, Ideology on June 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Part of a Question Time column

David Weber

Another week, another Question Time (and yes, I am aware that the last time I blogged about this was nearly a year ago).

Normally I only write about this show if a particular question, response or comment sparks a chain of thought, and this week is no exception. The comment, or rather comments in question came during the midst of a rather philosophical debate about the nature of U-turns and, if you accept my extrapolations, could be quite illuminating about the reasons for the proliferation of “big government”, and popular support for it.

The Philosophy started predictably enough. David Mitchell came out in favour of a Burkean view of democracy, with MPs and ministers elected to serve with principle, politely ignoring all populist indulgences and doing the best job they can until the next election. The slight flaw that comes with his argument, that it assumes that all U-turns are made on the basis of populism alone, rather than suddenly realising you’re about to make a rather serious error, wasn’t highlighted in Norman Baker’s opposing view, but it was the basic gist of it. However, more surprisingly, it was a point rather quickly lost on the audience.

Often in Question Time some form of consensus begins to emerge about half way through the time spent debating a certain question. What happened here followed this pattern, with three opinions in quick succession expressing a very similar view: 1 U-turn is careless, 2 unfortunate, and 3 either incompetent or unprincipled.

This is the kind of view that, in the exact spirit of such incompetence, manages to be both excessively cynical and naive. Not everyone realises that cynicism and naivity can go hand in hand, and are not mutually exclusive, but it is often the case. Cynics are often so obsessed with finding negative reasons for mistakes that they make naive assumptions. This is such a case, because in assuming that the only reason for constant U-turns is populism, these cynics assume that the MPs and ministers who rule their affairs are near deities in terms of their inability to make unintentional mistakes.

Whatever your view of democracy and meritocracy, any basic critique of government has to start from the assumption that the people inside it are hardly less incompetent or mistake-prone than ourselves. Or, if you really have a more optimistic view than I do, look at it in a more irrefutable way: 100,000 people collectively are no less likely to make a mistake, than 60 million people individually*, if both have the necessary information at their disposal.

Now, many people assume that the only rationale for government is that situations exist where a specific collection of 100,000 people are less likely to make a mistake than 60 million people individually. This isn’t actually true. The qualifier I added — “if both have the necessary information” — makes all the difference. Most areas of government are there because 60 million people have neither the time nor the patience to make decisions based on the necessary information during their own free time, so they employ others to do it. There are also areas where it has been decided, for better or for worse, that 60 million people should not have all the information to begin with, such as defence and policing.

But in most areas of government policy, people can get the necessary information if they motivate themselves enough, or at least something approaching it. So it is often for this reason that governments make U-turns when a public campaign reaches a certain level of intensity, because the collective wisdom of the public has outweighed the limited wisdom of the government. This does not deny the existence of cynical, populist U-turns — I would myself cite the abandoned Forestry privatisation as an example of one. An intense public campaign does not imply an educated public. But it can do.

Now this is why I fear that this combination of public cynicism and naivety is no certain good thing. For it involves the public not just elevating its politicians’, but also its own abilities. And if, despite their regular contempt for the motives of politicians, the public secretly believe them to be superior and wiser beings, then it is not surprising that big government prolongs itself, despite public dissatisfaction. It is this type of mentality that only opposes government for doing the wrong things, or doing things the wrong way, rather than questioning the need for it to do things to begin with. It can be summed up thus: “the world would be a far better place, if only politicians were less corrupt and did X, Y and Z instead of A, B and C”. This is not just a reason for the proliferation of big government, but it is also a reason for the proliferation of incompetent government, and arrogant government.; as governments which don’t admit mistakes are always the former and quickly become the latter. I don’t doubt that some of the blame lies with politicians — pride is a basic human weakness, after all — but I would suggest that if such a public attitude could be overcome, government might be a lot better for it, not to mention more democratic. (I lean towards the Norman Baker, rather than the David Mitchell, vision of democracy.) Like many problems, many of the reasons for big government start with and must be fixed by the public.

And, almost as if to reinforce my suspicions about big government and the public, the last question was about whether to ban live animals in circuses, and not one person who spoke, from the panel or the audience, questioned the need for a full ban. It’s not that I necessarily oppose a full ban, or support the use of live animals in circuses. I’m not exactly sure where I stand. But it would have been nice to have had the facts debated: I might have learned something, and begun to form an opinion. Instead, a politician proposes something which sounds principled, and no-one felt willing to explain their support for this proposal in any detail. Was this to avoid looking heartless on television? Maybe now I am being too cynical and naive.

*Estimations may not be 100% accurate. I’m no more a model of competence than any politician.

Blue Labour: broadly good, but don’t lose the party’s identity in the process

In Ideology, Party politics on June 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

We live in an era of slippery political language. We have a coalition government which is Conservative but not conservative, very liberal but with too little Liberal input, and politicians of all colours skirmish over the mantle ‘progressive’. The latest thread of opposition thinking is a similar misnomer: Blue Labour, whose philosopher-in-chief is Lord Maurice Glasman, and whose primary figures hail from very different wings of party, from Progress’ James Purnell to Compass’ Jon Cruddas. It also, perhaps unusually for a fledgling movement, has attracted the attentions of the leader Ed Miliband. Both movement and leader have had no qualms about an unsentimental appraisal of the party’s record in office, and both have been keen to give a voice to traditionally Right-wing concerns, such as the cut in police budgets or the prevalence of benefit fraud. I would argue that Blue Labour offers a broadly positive and constructive vision for Britain, but its problem, paradoxically, is its over-willingness to jettison some of Labour’s greatest triumphs in pursuit of Right-wing populism.

Contemporary Left-wing thinkers such as David Marquand have identified two major threads in Labour’s ideological inheritance, which might be termed ‘rational’ socialism and ‘ethical’ socialism. Rational socialism is rooted in science, and linked to the intellectual Leftists and the Fabian Society of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries – socialism, in this model, is scientifically superior to capitalism. This corresponds to what Sidney Webb once called “democratic collectivism” – power is centralised with a managerial state apparatus, which administers socialism from above. This had been the dominant thread since the 1945 landslide victory, manifested primarily in the NHS, the welfare state and the nationalised industries. Furthermore, this rational socialism transcends the apparently cavernous divide between Old and New Labour. Under both, power was (bar some of Blair’s constitutional reforms) centralised and administered from Westminster. Blair and Brown might have been in thrall to the market, but their attitude to power was remarkably similar to that of Wilson and Callaghan – a technocratic liberal elite of ministers, civil servants and business leaders operates the market-state mechanism from on high, and the country is managed in pyramid formation.

The second thread, ethical socialism, has been an undercurrent for the latter part of the 20th Century. It can trace its origins back much further than the last century to iconic English radicals such as John Milton, Thomas Paine and William Morris. Rather than claiming scientific improvement on capitalism, it instead stresses its moral superiority. Whereas rational socialism at its worst treats humans as mechanically as capitalism, ethical socialism stresses the importance of human relationships, reciprocity, mutualism and community. As opposed to the top-down centralised state model of the Webbs, it grew out of grassroots civil society movements – the trade unions and cooperatives, and Christian socialist, feminist and anti-imperialist groups. Equally, its leading figures, Keir Hardie, R. H. Tawney, George Lansbury and their ilk, were not social scientists but humanitarians. This was not an ideology of a liberal elite, but of ordinary citizens taking action for the betterment of themselves and their fellows. It was Lansbury who described socialism as “love, cooperation and brotherhood in every department of human affairs”. It is this ethical socialism which the Blue Labourites are in the process of recalling from the historical abyss.

Glasman’s vision of the ‘good society’ – a direct response to the Cameron’s and Philip Blond’s ‘big society’ – seeks to re-elevate this tradition of mutualism and grassroots activism above the statist approach which has been overarching from Atlee onwards. He traces Labour’s heritage back to a synthesis of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the “rights of freeborn Englishmen” which finds its expression in, amongst other aspects of British history, the Magna Carta, the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt and the radicalism of the 17th and 19th Century democrats such as the Levellers and the Chartists. He also looks to vindicate the role which religion has played, both historically (the alliance of Catholics and non-conformist Protestants in the 1891 London Dock strike) and contemporaneously (Citizens UK’s Living Wage campaign). In ideological terms, cooperation and the valuing of local culture and legacy comes before abstract egalitarianism. In policy terms, mutualised banks and public utilities come before nationalised or privatised ones.

Labour’s support base can be divided into two broad groups, both economically Left-wing but differing in other aspects. The first are the traditional working class – blue-collar C1s and C2s, typical readers of The Mirror, and socially authoritarian. The second are middle class service workers – the educated white-collar Bs and C1s, typical readers of The Guardian, and socially libertarian. The first group tends to be more homogenously white, whilst the latter is more ethnically diverse and incorporates many socially mobile immigrants. Blue Labour, as opposed to New Labour, might be seen to favour the former over the latter, drawing back electoral support from those supporting the BNP and EDL in protest. But it also has tremendous electoral potential because it reaches out beyond these groups to those in rural communities who have never voted Labour before – who saw, and still see, the party as the haven of unionised urban workers and their liberal elite leaders, with no respect for nation or tradition. This potential is if anything strengthened Cameron’s pathetic inability to form any kind of critical judgement on the free market. New Labour, with its historic majority, was ultra-liberal – Blue Labour, with its fusion of socialism and conservatism, may paradoxically be more successful. In fact, ConservativeHome’s review of Blue Labour thinking identifies it as a potentially fatal threat to an ultra-liberal government which has more in common with Ayn Rand than Enoch Powell.

This, at least to me, sounds pretty good in theory. The problems come, however, when one begins to consider the practical applications of some of this ideology. Firstly, a break from New Labour’s particular kind of liberal elitism is certainly welcome, but how conservative is Labour to become? Since 1945, Labour has been the praetorian guard of social liberals in promoting gender equality, legalising homosexuality, ending discrimination in the workplace and housing, and, more recently, ensuring the environment is a concern of government. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “family, faith and flag” feel of Blue Labour strays dangerously close to the territory of the American Tea Party movement, with its exceptionally reactionary approach to civil rights. If, as Glasman seems to suggest, the new moral watermark should be the general opinion of the white working class, then we may well see regressions unpalatable to many progressives, such as a very hard stance on immigration and a punitive crime policy. New Labour was notorious for triangulating policy decisions based on the stance of the Tories and tabloids: might we, under Blue Labour, see the same done for the BNP and EDL? Even Marxists are under no illusions about the need, in some respects, to educate in the working class rather than pander to bigotry. One of the defining features of socialism is that it views liberalism as necessary but not sufficient to building a good society: what happens, then, when liberalism is thrown out of the mix entirely?

Secondly, if the new vogue is localism and British historical culture, what is to become of the guiding beacon of socialism: equality? Former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley was quick to criticise Blue Labour for forsaking the party’s historic commitment to evening out the “postcode lottery” brought by arbitrary birth and market. The belief in the redistribution of wealth has been the most persistent aim of party policy, whether through Old Labour universal welfare payments or New Labour targeted tax credits. In searching for a lost British (or, in Cruddas’ case, English) identity, the Blue Labourites may lose Labour’s one.

Thirdly, where does internationalism stand in the Blue Labour vision? From social democracy to communism, a responsibility to the oppressed of other nations has been central to the concerns of the European Left throughout its history. This is a tradition which still holds strong, with, most recently, British trade unions campaigning in solidarity with the Arab Spring revolutionaries. In a globalised world, most social-democratic policy must have some kind of international dimension if it is to succeed, yet Blue Labour has yet to contribute a position on, for example, environmental degradation. In a similar vein, the Blue Labourites want their party to be much tougher on immigration. A contentious issue already, this is likely to enflame a rift within Labour between those who want “British jobs for British people”, and those who feel the UK has a duty to those from less prosperous nations looking for work or asylum. Multiculturalism has been an iron-cast commitment of Labour’s for decades now – the party being by far the most ethnically diverse of all three – and there are those who are understandably wary of a renewed national and local pride returning some of the spectres of white racism. Cameron’s vacuous “muscular liberalism” may yet be surpassed by a far more solid “muscular conservatism”.

Nevertheless, as the latest renaissance in British Left-wing thought, Blue Labour has a lot to offer. Its vindication of grassroots activism and alternatives to a managerial statist approach are its most welcome aspects, and a respect for national and local cultural identities has arguably been too long neglected by the party. But the Blue Labourites have been too quick to reject three traits which have guided Labour through opposition and government in the last century: liberalism, the commitment to equality, and internationalism. Unless it forms a less hostile response to this trinity, Blue Labour risks treading perilously near the territory of the BNP.

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.

Ed, show us the alternative

In BBC Question Time, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on April 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Audience responses on the BBC’s Question Time usually range from the mildly interesting to the banal, providing little more than an identification of which panel member the viewer most aligns with. However, once in a while, someone says something so original and yet so obvious that it merits serious consideration. Such a thing was said on last Thursday’s episode: a woman, chosen by David Dimbleby to speak, asked why Labour, if it’s so committed to the alternative, doesn’t pen a Shadow Budget to lay out their alternative deficit reduction plan.

The panelists response to this was painfully predictable. Diane Abbott, as the Labour representative, spluttered something about it being nonsensical four years before an election, whilst Mark Serwotka, the head of the PCS union, repeated his tenuous claim that there is no necessity for any spending cuts whatsoever. And yet this idea of a Shadow Budget, levelled by someone so lowly as to not be a professional economist or politician, is one that, I think, should be adopted by the Labour Party without hesitation.

The current debate on the economy, both national and global, has lined up between the two foremost schools of economic thought: neo-classicalism and Keynesianism. The neo-classicalists, inspired primarily by the 19th Century economist David Ricardo, see budget deficits as dangerous and immoral: according the Ricardian equivalency, any national deficit between income and spending (the UK’s being approximately 10% of GDP) is just taxation deferred for future generations. By radically cutting public spending to balance the deficit (‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, or, in Cameron’s terminology, ”rolling back the boundaries of the state”) neo-classicalists believe that the private sector will be freed from taxation and competition with the public sector to drive the economy back to prosperity. Keynesian thought, meanwhile, led the original response to the financial crisis, bailing out the banks and implementing fiscal stimuli to drive the economy quickly out of the recession. Now out of the immediate danger zone, Keynesians, such as Robert Skidelsky and Joseph Stiglitz, do not dispute the need for eventual deficit reduction, but are concerned that a premature fiscal contraction underestimates how much the private sector relies on the public sector, and so will drop the UK economy back into recession. Instead, Keynesians argue for fiscal policy based on growth and investment to stably harbour the economy, whilst slowly but steadily cutting the deficit.

This is the debate which, since the initial crisis response, has been mapped on to British party politics. Last May, both the Labour manifesto was based on the Keynesian response, whilst the Conservative one was neo-classicalist, and the Lib Dems in between but Keynesian-leaning. At least partially on these grounds, the majority of commentators predicted, before the election, a Lib-Lab coalition in the event of a hung parliament. And a hung parliament we had, except that the Lib Dem high command, vested with the choice of how to form the next British government, elevated David Cameron’s Tories over Gordon Brown’s Labour. Now in government, Clegg and his allies have apparently been won over to the neo-classicalist, and by extension George Osborne’s, fiscal plan: to entirely eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament through a 73:27 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises.

All the evidence suggests that Osborne’s economic management so far has ranged from lacklustre to abysmal. The Office of Budget Responsibility, set up by the current government, has downgraded its growth forecasts from 3-3.5% to 2.6%. Unemployment is still rising, now at a 17-year high, with one-fifth of all young people unable to find a job. Inflation is at 4%, the highest in 20 years. The Consumer Confidence Index was last measured at -29, the biggest drop since 1994. Even the mainstream centre-Right newspapers, which had previously praised the Chancellor’s conviction, have now turned their attention more to the human costs of deficit reduction than the stability it will ostensibly bring. Osborne’s attempt to blame poor economic performance on heavy snowfall over December fooled no one: the US, German, French and even Spanish economies grew by over 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010, whilst ours shrunk by more than 0.5%. The problem is, what is the alternative?

Ed Miliband’s Labour, having dithered in the autumn months, has now settled on maintaining Alastair Darling’s plan of halving the deficit in a single parliament. With Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor, this position has now been confirmed. Labour has since busied itself with rebuking the Tory-led government on its choices for deficit reduction: the VAT rise to 20% (predicted to cost families with children £450 extra in 2011), the rise in higher education fees, and front-line cuts to public services have been particular targets of the Shadow Cabinet. But Labour has yet to commit to what it would cut, or which taxes it would rise, were it currently in government. Although exactly how much would have to be cut under Labour’s plan is unclear, Miliband and his colleagues have so far sidestepped the sticky issue of what their ‘alternative’ would actually entail. It is this, more than any other factor, which will cost them electoral support.

I marched, carrying a Labour Party banner, alongside up to half-a-million others in London two weeks ago. And yet, will Labour’s reticence to commit to a specific deficit reduction plan, I am losing faith that there is a credible alternative to the government’s plan, however badly executed. A YouGov poll conducted on the same day found that the majority of the population, 52%, now supports the campaign against public sector spending cuts. But Labour should not fool itself that, just because it happens to be in opposition to an unpopular government, it will automatically gain the support of the electorate. This was the mistake made, in the last two decades, by both Kinnock and Cameron; 1992 resulting in a narrow Tory victory, and 2010 in a hung parliament. Labour should pen a Shadow Budget, laying out exactly which cuts and tax rises it would make. Ed Miliband has rightly sounded the death knell of New Labour and embarked on a holistic policy review, refusing to make manifesto commitments before the cuts have really started to affect the nation. But reconstructing its economic credibility needs to be the party’s top priority, and Miliband cannot afford to be haunted by the ghost of Gordon Brown any longer.

Hardie’s legacy and Labour’s civil society future

In Ideology, Party politics on January 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

At the risk of over-simplifying my first assertion, the history of post-1970s British politics can be seen as a binary conflict between the following spheres: state vs. market, Labour vs. Conservative, working class vs. middle class, wealth redistribution vs. wealth creation, equality vs. liberty. By the 2010 general election, a torrent of factors – national sovereignty being challenged by supranational unions (e.g. the Lisbon Treaty), economic autonomy being undermined by globalisation (the increasing power of the IMF and WTO), the 2008 financial crisis (ending the neo-liberal consensus) – have finally rendered this binary a deadlock. We are now drifting through an immaterial void, the new national order which will dominate the early 21st Century still forming in primordial soup. Cameron, in opposition, had the first opportunity to act, performing a volte face with the Conservative party and laying claim to civil society. The coalition has, so far successfully, painted Labour as the party of the out-of-touch managerial state and top-down reform. However, as I hope to show, the older and alternative thread within the Labour Party is of civil society activism and bottom-up reform, and that Labour’s recognition and revival of this thread is the key to its critique of the Big Society and re-forging progressive politics for a new generation.

The Big Society is a multi-form concept; a regeneration of British communities, a redemption for painful deficit reduction, a way out of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite cul-de-sac. Whilst Thatcher famously declared at her zenith that “There is, as we now know, no such thing as society”, Cameron’s loudest mantra has so far been “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” Cameron’s aspiration for Britain is one in which the public sector is scaled back as much as possible, and power is devolved to local communities; schools placed in the hands of teachers and parents, hospitals in those of GPs, public services with business and the voluntary sector. This fits neatly with the constantly laboured necessity of dismantling Labour’s juggernaut-sized state in order to reign in the country’s spending deficit. Cameron believes that, with the state scaled back, people will be freer to run their own communities and lives.

As laudable and potentially inspirational as this rhetoric is, there are gaping rends in the ‘progressive conservative’ Big Society philosophy. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not the same as the state, but it’s not the same as the market either. Retracting the state does not miraculously make people free; in a huge number of communities, the state, however distant and bureaucratic, is the only force preventing the market from privatising all. Taking the example of education reform, Michael Gove wants to shift power from local authorities to create independent ‘free’ academies, and is doing so against the will of the vast majority of teaching staff who he claims he wants to empower. Aside from the concerns many have about the creation of a two-tier system, the overbearing workload for staff, the temptation for schools to opt-in in exchange for a short-term cash boost, and the likelihood of affluent ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle-class parents hijacking the process to best help their own children, these academies would be democratically unaccountable to children and parents. If an academy goes bankrupt, where does it turn? Why, to the line of businesses ravenous to rake in profits from running chains of them, of course. Companies such as Tribal, Edison Learning and Serco have already expressed an interest in buying academies, and Gove has publically stated he has “no ideological objection” to this. I know I’m not the only one who finds the commodification of education a repugnant idea.

Nor, though it may shock the coalition leadership to hear it, can the government through sleight of hand exchange the state for voluntary sector in public service provision. Before the election, Cameron expressed hope that charities and faith groups would perform the job of the public sector in alleviating poverty and providing welfare utility. In light of Eric Pickles’ confirmation that voluntary groups would not receive additional funding for this work, the last week of December saw David Robinson of Community Links and the Bishop of Leister joining the growing number of voluntary sector figures concerned about the workability of the Big Society in the face of a massive welfare scale-back. The latter commented that “This can’t be the throwing of a switch and saying the state walks out and the church walks in. It is completely irresponsible to say these people will be cared for by amateurs.” If Labour has sometimes been guilty of undervaluing the role of civil society, then the Conservatives are optimistic to fantastical levels about its ability to do the job of the state unaided whilst at the same time fending off the vultures of the free market.

So how can Labour respond to the Big Society, and ensure that the post-crisis order is one dominated by progressives? The largest hurdle it must overcome is, I believe, not its association with Gordon Brown’s economic mismanagement – that is only part of the bigger picture. The real problem is the legacy of Labour’s top-down managerialism, and the fact that the party compromised its values and vision to be elected under a neo-liberal consensus. The new shadow cabinet proclaims its progressive credentials from the opposition benches – public sector investment, equality legislation, the largest ever redistribution from rich to poor – but none of this, as the rolling coalition reforms show, is set to outlast the government which instigated it. Miliband cannot criticise Cameron’s privatisation, because, far from providing a counterpoint to Thatcher-Major privatisations, New Labour joined the fun by part-privatising schools and the London Underground. He cannot criticise the meagreness of the new banking levy or minimalist regulation, because New Labour was happy to let the financial sector steer Britain into the economic abyss. And he cannot criticise the government’s removal of ring-fencing and centralisation of funding, because Labour, New and Old, saw it as a virtue to keep the reigns of power firmly in Westminster’s grasp. Labour’s job is hard because, in many ways, Cameron is only pursuing policies from the Blair-Brown platform.

In fact, Labour has an often overlooked rich tradition of civil society movements. It was created in 1900 out of the efforts of trade unions, which represented a sizable chunk of the poor population disregarded by the Conservative and Liberal state apparatus. Its founder and first MP, Keir Hardie, is regarded as one of the greatest activists in our history – his sense of democracy extended beyond the market and parliamentary state to local communities, faith groups, feminists, trade unionists and anti-imperialists. Labour’s historic values, as Maurice Glasman has pointed out, are not only abstracts like equality and liberty – they are also solidarity set against liberal individualism, activism set against conservative servility, and mutualism and reciprocity against capitalist self-aggrandisement. In many ways, the post-war Old Labour of Atlee, Wilson and Callaghan is as guilty of equating progressivism and socialism with statism as its New counterpart. After Labour’s experience of wartime governance and the 1945 landslide, the idea that the only route to change was the seizure and steering of the central state became hegemonic within the party. By contrast, early Labour in the tradition of Hardie, Lansbury and Tawney was a true grassroots mass movement, the like of which we have never seen since.

The voices on the Left which have represented this bottom-up rather than top-down tradition since Blair’s rise – Jon Cruddas, Will Hutton and Neal Lawson prominent among them – are finally being listened to. And neither is this renewed commitment to mutualism, localism and active citizenship rather than passive consumerism purely intellectual. The Conservative government’s spending cuts have kindled a new wave of civil society activism rarely seen in the last 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony, but this is not Cameron’s ostensibly citizen-empowering Big Society, which is showing itself to instead empower unaccountable big business and quangos. This is a wave of new grassroots organisations created to battle against the slicing up of the public sector – there are now dozens of regional anti-cuts groups, national anti-privatisation groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, and others for single-issues such as the anti-tax avoidance UK Uncut. The Labour Party itself has gained 32,000 new members since May, 10,000 of them disillusioned Lib Dems. Seven months into this parliament, it seems that the only community Cameron has succeeded in building is one against his own government.

If Miliband is tactful, he will ride the wave of public outrage (only set to grow as the cuts begin to strike the poor and middle) and in the process shear off its violent fringe. In doing so, he will attain a democratic mandate at least as great as a government which was formed from a series of enigmatic backroom deals. This will lay the foundations of the civil society-centred platform Labour must fight the next election on.

I suspect that, given the renaissance ideas of community and civil society are enjoying at the moment, Labour’s policy review will yield such answers. There are already prominent examples of such policies in action; for instance, Lambeth Council is in the process of becoming Britain’s first cooperative local authority. Some service provision has already been mutualised with promising results; Community Freshview to revitalise derelict land, cooperative housing for poorer people to own whilst avoiding loan sharking, and peer mentoring to rehabilitate potential young offenders. Another case can be seen in Citizens UK’s campaign for the living wage, which Ed Miliband has backed, and has enriched low-paid workers by over £40 million since 2000. Unlike the Big Society, this is not to diminish the important role of the welfare state, but to localise it and make it work alongside communities and people, rather than managing them like employees of a gigantic corporation.

Labour must jettison the narrow liberalism not only of the Blair-Brown years, but the top-down, managerialism, centralising thread of its ideology which goes back to the post-war nationalisations. It must also reenergise its concept of socialism past Antony Crosland’s now canonical assertion of economic equality as the party’s sole creed. Perhaps most importantly, it must re-stake its claim to the Big Society which Cameron has hijacked for the Tories – mutualism, localism and solidarity must become core tenets of its vision once more, coupled with an unambiguous commitment to the environmental cause. The direction emerging from our national void-drifting is increasingly away from central state and towards the literal meaning of democracy: the empowerment of the people. For the sake of the majority at the mercy of unrestrained capitalism, Labour cannot allow itself to be left behind.

Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.

Concerning Devolution, and Democracy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 6, 2011 at 12:49 am

David Weber

Warning: long article approaching

For a while I’ve been wanting to write something equivalent, or at least in response to polarii’s analyses of democracy, not just to outline differences in opinion but also to cover issues which, I feel, were not discussed. The cut and thrust of this article, and possible future ones, will mainly focus (through the prism of a leading issue) of on the general untidiness of democracy; in attempting to define it, assessing its qualities, and outlining solutions. We will start by looking at Devolution.

Devolution has been in the news recently, and for once it isn’t the arguments about a Scottish independence referendum. The new powers proposed by the Calman commission are (partially) being unveiled by the new government, which seeks to deliver a certain amount of tax-raising power to Scotland, presumably not least with the intention of forcing it onto a more equal fiscal footing with England. That Scottish Government ministers are protesting that it will make Scotland worse off in cash terms seems to be evidence in support of this.

I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the Scottish government here, not least because the level of Scottish spending seems unnecessarily disproportionate to England. Obviously, Scotland being in general poorer than England, a degree of higher spending is needed, but for that to extend to free University tuition seems ridiculous, when there is no evidence that English students are particularly disadvantaged by the system which applies to them. Clearly, in this place, if in no other, there is some fat which could be trimmed.

But while the Commission’s terms of reference were the fiscal imbalances in Scottish devolution, I will be looking at democratic imbalances of devolution in general. According to some schools of thought, these are so grave as to override any merits the policy may have, and make abolition of the devolved assemblies the only solution. I am not so sure. I will begin, however, by outlining the case against Devolution.

The first, and most obvious attack, is the “West Lothian Question”. This actually originates from a theoretical question asked by the eponymous MP for West Lothian, Tom Dalyell, in 1977, long before the 1998 Scotland Act came into force:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

The word “decisive” is crucial, as some might hope this question away as an eternally theoretical one, with majorities never slim enough for it to truly make a difference. This is wishful thinking. Labour governments often rely on Scotland for a lot of their support, and indeed the Labour government in 1979 was brought down by the votes of Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs. More recently, in 2006, the vote on — you guessed it — University top-up fees was won based on the support of Scottish MPs; had they abstained, it would likely have been defeated. Democratic Unionist Party MPs voted in favour of raising detention without trial to 42 days in 2008, which passed by a majority of exactly the same number as the 9 DUP MPs, although that particular bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

Not only this, but there is also a more fundamental undemocratic charge against Devolution. It provides some people more representation than others, creating a two-tier or even a multi-tier system, where geography determines strength of political representation. Thus in Scotland, voters elect not only sovereign Westminster MPs, with theoretical responsibility for everything, but near-as-sovereign Holyrood MPs, with very real responsibilities for Health, Education, Justice etc. into the bargain. The voter therefore has two calls for help if something goes wrong, and, in theory, twice as much leverage in their everyday battles. In contrast, a voter in Herefordshire elects a sovereign Westminster MP and a couple of rather dusty councillors, if they even know that a local election is on. Voters in Wales have something of a half-way house between English anonymity and Scottish power. Voters in Northern Ireland — well, I’ll not get into that minefield (until later).

As suggested by the preceding paragraph, devolution is also unequal between regions. The Welsh Assembly does not (yet) have the extensive powers of the Scottish Parliament. London has the Greater London Assembly which, although weaker still, is far more powerful than most local government in England. So in summary, the picture painted by devolution is a very uneven and untidy one, resembling the sort of painting which attaches a lot of importance to the leaves of a tree but somehow fails to convey the basic structure of the trunk with balance and accuracy.

Such is the case against devolution. And before I go into any further, and consider the counter-argument, it is worth considering the fact that nothing argues for the current system quite so well as the inability of its opponents to outline sensible solutions.

One such solution is “English Votes on English Laws”: barring Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation. This has a certain long-enduring popularity, and it is often assumed, most often by Conservatives, that this would solve the Question in a blow.

Now, if there is any one phrase I have grown to hate, normally because it is nearly always misapplied, it is “constitutionally illiterate”. Yet I am tempted to apply it here. Devolution, as some opponents evidently fail to grasp ten years after its implementation, is not the same thing as Federalism. The official power of the UK Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament is absolute. Parliament is sovereign. It’s political power is, of course, limited severely by devolution. But this is not to say that it will never overrule the devolved assemblies.

And whereas the ability of regional MPs to overrule the will of English MPs is limited, due to their small number, the scope for English MPs to overrule the will of the devolved assemblies, should they wish to, is far greater. Therefore the only way “English Votes on English Laws” would be constitutionally balanced would be to similarly ban English MPs from voting to overrule the devolved assemblies. Which would mean that for each of the four countries, there would be matters where the UK Parliament had no say. Far from strengthening the Union, English Votes on English Laws would go some way towards dividing it permanently.

There are also more practical objections. There is the fact that it probably wouldn’t lead to equality of representation in the first place, because it doesn’t address the “different quality of representation depending on region” criticism of devolution that I outlined earlier. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters would still have far stronger local democracy than England, although I acknowledge that the situation is almost impossibly complex to assess when it comes to Northern Ireland. But the gravest objection is that it would throw up the possibility of two different majorities being available in the House of Commons, one for English legislation and another for UK legislation.

Such a possibility would not result in, say, a Conservative English legislative agenda put forward by a Labour UK government, because a Labour government would never allow it. The result would be stagnation, or at best, coalition between the two parties on English legislation.

Here is the fundamental problem. People seem to think, against all political observation, that the devolved legislatures are the only important part of devolution. The fact is, however, that without devolved government, devolution is at most a panacea. So quite apart from the constitutional issues, changing the rules governing English legislation would at best only be a half-way step towards the full-blooded localism which has transformed Scottish and Welsh politics.

It is, of course, possible to engineer a more low-key, slimmed down version of English Votes on English Laws. The Democracy Taskforce, set up by David Cameron in 2006 and chaired by Ken Clarke, recommended changing Parliamentary practice to make it convention for regional MPs not to be involved in English legislation during committee and report stages only, without banning them from doing so; thus avoiding the constitutional objections. and limiting the potential for deadlock (as all MPs would vote during first and second reading, thus the whole house would initiate English legislation). In seeking to be so reasonable, the Taskforce created an opposite problem: the solution would be far too limited to address the extent of the problems. Not only this, but the potential for deadlock and odd results would still be very real: a bill could be re-written or sabotaged in committee and report stage, creating a legislative mess and confusion about where accountability lies.

So what other solutions? English devolution holds some attraction and almost certainly far more merit, but would run up against some much stronger political roadblocks. The amount of power it would be necessary to give away even to grant it the same stature as the Welsh devolution would entirely transform the way UK government works, and might alarm even the most ‘radical’ of reforming governments, who rarely give away power with no thought to the consequences, which would be unknown in such a big step. More problematic would be the size of England: with approximately 80% of the people in the whole Union, an English system of government would operate very similarly to the UK one. Such an idea also ignores the political motivations behind devolution to begin with, which I will come to shortly.

So were, or are, the opponents of devolution right? Is it impossible for the system to work democratically, or ‘neatly’? Is it crucial for the future of the Union that the devolved assemblies be abolished? Should we offer the regions (and perhaps Cornwall) an “all-in/all-out” referendum? It is at this point where I realise that I am vaguely puzzled, because no opponent of devolution ever makes the case that before devolution, the UK was a model of democratic perfection. This is because it wasn’t.

In fact, the democratic imbalances inherent in UK government before devolution far eclipse any created by devolution since. In 1979, Scotland went from one extreme of propping the Labour government up to being positively ignored for the following 18 years. Wales was in a similar position during the mid-80s, with Plaid Cymru at one point selling “Tory-free” mugs in celebration of Wales’ utter lack of connection to the UK government. In contrast, in 1997 virtually all of Scottish and Welsh representatives supported the incoming government.

In fact, what opponents of devolution really fail to grasp is that the UK system of government has never been particularly democratic when it comes to a matter of detail. If you wanted completely democratic government, then all elected representatives would govern in coalition. Elections as we know them are about winning. Winning is incompatible with everyone being listened to. In a competition, there are winners and losers, which leaves some people with power and some people without it.

In fact, the only system which comes close to being democratic is the devolved Northern Irish assembly, where the two biggest parties must by law be in coalition, which ironically is as a consequence of their historic inability to co-operate with each other. Winning is only proportionate to a public mandate, and the voice of the loser is granted equal respect as the voice of the winner. The lessons learnt from Northern Ireland’s history should, I hope, actually go some way in helping people to appreciate the importance of taking note of everyone’s voice, no matter whether they conform to a majority, plurality, minority, or just form one person’s opinion.

And this is what devolution to Scotland and Wales also set out to do, to end the ludicrous situation where UK politics regularly left regions polarised and often marginalised. Opponents of devolution rather remind me of people stood with a magnifying glass in front of a work of art, moaning about a hairline crack in the middle of the darkest shade, while utterly failing to appreciate the beauty of the picture as a whole. In fact, in my dedication to creating a fair and exhaustive summary of the flaws of devolution, I have been rather complicit in this myself. No doubt there is still much room for improvement. England lacks the local voice that, in time, it may find it needs. Westminster could do much more to prevent regional MPs from acting undemocratically. And Scottish politics is still alarmingly close to polarisation, with a separatist party viewed as the official alternative to Labour. But Scotland has found itself open to far more political plurality than it ever understood before, with the Liberal Democrats finding a voice in its previous government, with the SNP winning Westminster seats which would previously have been considered solid Labour territory, and with a proportional legislature which has quite failed to self-destruct and has quietly governed on a cross-party basis. Far from being a thorn in its side, devolution could teach the Union quite a few lessons for its future.

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