Monday, 8 February 2010

A disgrace to the nation

I wanted to blog on the future of Britain's defence policy or some other hard hitting policy topic, but I have to stick up some thoughts on my outrage and disgust at the three MPs facing trial for defrauding the nation and seeking to claim Parliamentary immunity.

They are an absolute disgrace to everything that the democratic system stands for and a disgrace to the political party of which I am a member.  I know I am idealistic, but to me elected representation is the greatest honour that can be bestowed upon you by your fellow citizens.  By electing you they entrust you with a sacred responsibility to work on their behalf, to be a servant of the public.  In addition the Labour Party has long prided itself on its concern for society, its belief that we achieve more together than apart.  All of this has been thrown back in our faces by some men who have demonstrated that they do not believe any of these things.

They should be taken to trial and, if they are found guilty by a jury of their peers, they should be punished with the full weight of the law.  By the very nature of their role as Members of Parliament they must be held to higher standards - as representatives they carry the hopes, needs and aspirations of all of their constituents upon their shoulders.  This is a huge responsibility, but if they are not up to it then they should have admitted that fact.  Their actions imply a belief that they are above the public, set apart from the petty rules and laws which us mere mortals must abide by.  This is disgusting and is compounded by their attempts to escape justice.

Our democracy has been critically injured by the expenses scandal and the gulf which exists between our elected representatives and the people they are meant to serve.  It is imperative that those who did not just milk the system for all they could, but actually broke the law in order to profit themselves, are seen to face justice for those actions.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Renaming Unionism

I watched Mo last night having taped it at the weekend.  Julie Walters was excellent as the "People's Politician" and I found the story a very powerful and moving, which certainly didn't stint in its covering of Mo's life, illness and death.  At a time when our politicians are held in particularly low esteem, it was good to be reminded of the potential and possibilities which politics offers.

This was most highlighted in the coverage of the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland during Mo's stint as Secretary of State.  Peace in the Province, at such a tentative state just now, came about from two main causes - the overwhelming desire of the people living in Northern Ireland, and the political process.  Politics is fundamental to life in all its functions, and it is useful to be reminded of this when we are feeling scunnered with the state of our democracy.

Another point which the film made me think about was the connotations of the word Unionism.  I am a Catholic with Irish blood in me like many others in the West of Scotland.  When I hear the word Unionism, I think of Trimble and Paisley, figures quite frankly inimicable to my beliefs and background, figures who I would never wish to be associated with.  Yet at the same time I, by dint of my belief that Scotland is best placed in continuing as a member of the United Kingdom, am a Unionist.

It is a horrible predicament to find myself in!  I think though that it highlights one of the challenges for the political debate in Scotland concerning the country's future.  Thankfully in Scotland our positions on being independent or in the UK are not based predominantly on religion, in contrast to Northern Ireland.  Rather they are political positions, broadly crossing the divides of class, religion and culture.  Yet the connotations of the word Unionist are strong in Scotland where so many of us have a connection to one side or the other across the water, leaving us in an uncomfortable position of trying to square a psychological and cultural circle.

The current consensus on the North, that it should remain part of the UK until the majority of its population wish otherwise, seems a sensible position to me.  Logically it is also the same position to hold via Scotland.  I may not agree that independence is the best future for Scotland, but I do believe that it should be the right of the people to decide. 

Of course to further confuse matters and to seemingly contradict myself, I don't believe that a referendum on independence is appropriate at this time.  Although 10 years seems like a long time, it is actually in the context of a country and a parliament a very short period.  Devolution is still bedding in and the appallingly low political literacy of the populace mean that making an informed decision on the future is difficult, particularly when Holyrood is not yet being used to its full potential.  Within this context I also believe that the Calman Commission was premature - of course devolution should be an evolving process, but it should also have continuity and time.  Rushing these matters doesn't help the process at all.

However, whenever the referendum happens (and there will be one at some point, even if only to finish the issue off for a while) it is important that those supporting Scotland's continuation in the UK find new language to express their ideas in.  Whilst Unionism as a term obviously makes logical sense, its potential connotations impact upon it usefulness and further heighten the feeling that it is not Scottish to be pro-UK.  The pro-independence camp has done a fairly successful job of distancing their use of the word nationalist from the many negative connotations that it carries from other political contexts.  Likewise the pro-UK camp must work harder to find new and positive ways to express their vision. 

This is a difficult proposition as the pro-Union side incorporates a far broader range of views from strict traditionalists to radical federalists.  It will require debate and the recognition that there are some very different outcomes possible for Scotland's future.  It must move away from the purely negative approach of declaring that an independent Scotland would be a disaster - it wouldn't be.  An independent Scotland would get along alright - I just don't believe it would do as well.  The public are fully aware that Scotland won't go down the drain and that the SNP will not destroy the country.  What they are looking for is a positive vision for the future which shows how Scotland can be the best it possibly can.  The SNP and other nationalists are providing one vision - it is up to the other side to now counter that with its bright future.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Reforming our Elections

It has been confirmed that the PM is going to announce plans for a referendum on the Westminster voting system. Following a period of discussion within the Government and the Labour Party (lukewarm environments at best for electoral reform at best, more often rather hostile!) he is going to propose that the Alternative Vote (AV) system should be introduced for future elections.

It is definitely to be commended that there is any discussion of change within the system, however the proposed measures do not offer a genuine attempt to reform the problems which exist. In the 1997 General Election Manifesto, Labour stated "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system".

The key element of this commitment is "proportional". The promise had partly been made in advance of possible coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats, which following the landslide were not needed. Labour did go ahead with the independent commission, leading to the Jenkins Commission Report. Tellingly for the current proposals, the Jenkins Commission specifically rejected AV as it did not provide for proportionality. Indeed, had AV been used in the 97 election then Labour's already swollen majority would have been increased even further, primarily at the expense of the Tories (see Chapter 5 of the Report).

And this is where the great difficulty of effective and legitimate electoral reform arises, as political calculations outweigh arguments for fairness and proportionality. The Conservatives oppose electoral reform because they fear it generally impacts negatively upon them, even though it often could help them. Indeed looking at the Scottish context where a proportional system is used for Holyrood elections, the Tories are the third biggest party, in stark contrast to their Westminster standing in Scotland. The Lib Dems obviously support purer electoral reform as they have the most to gain from it, however they need to work on making their arguments look less motivated by their own interests and more about improving democracy.

The challenge of course within the Labour Party is that it has the most to lose. Generally changes in the system would impact upon Labour's support - for example following the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system to Local Government elections in Scotland, Labour lost overall control of a large number of Councils (although it did remain the only political party to retain overall control of any councils). Furthermore, real changes to the voting system, such as introducing STV or similar systems which lead to an increased likelihood of coalition governments, require changes in political psychology on the behalf of the parties themselves, as they contemplate the realities of working with erstwhile political rivals.

Coalitions are not the sole preserve of proportional systems. With latest polling indicating that the Tories' lead could be down to 7 points, the reality of a hung parliament and the Lib Dems deciding the next Government is very real. I know that I am not a particularly partisan person, but I don't want to see the Tories win the election. However, the idea that they could win by 7%, a clear victory by any standards, and yet not actually 'win' because of the imperfections in the voting system embarrasses me and definitely does not increase the legitimacy of the system. Likewise coalitions do not have to be 'bad' things. From a progressive political standpoint, a proportional system could create a fertile environment for long term progressive coalitions between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with possible roles for smaller centre-left parties. Admittedly under Clegg the Lib Dems are now closer (at least in presentation) to the Tories, but the reality of a progressive coalition is one that could provide for very real and sustainable changes in Britain.

It will be interesting to see where the debate goes from here. Since the issue has arisen it has been noticeable that there has been a growth in expressions of support from Labour elected representatives, including Cabinet Ministers such as Ben Bradshaw. However, there is a great deal of opposition from large sections of the Labour Party and more-or-less the entirety of the Conservative Party, and this could impact upon any changes. At least the existence of a debate is to be welcomed - there is no doubting that our political system is suffering from an existential crisis and must adapt to regain the trust and support of the electorate. Proper reform of the electoral system is not the sole answer to this crisis, but it would serve as one element of a revitalised and re legitimised democracy.