Sterile Debate

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Well, HM The Queen has been informed, and they’re off although it’s hard not to think from watching recent performances at PM’s Questions that Westminster has been electioneering for at least a couple of months. It’s only Day 3 of the official campaign and the main parties have yet to publish their manifestos, but already it seems that all sides will play it safe and that the electorate are going to have a particularly tedious 5 weeks.

In a previous post called avoiding the debate, I mentioned some of the factors that have broken the British political debate resulting in electoral apathy and a dangerous cynicism of the modern democratic process in the UK. These included the lack of proper argumentation and the one-sided and repetitive promotion of policies without even a nod to the counter-arguments or an acceptance that a policy is rarely ‘right’ but merely ‘the best’ course of action. This type of campaigning is the result of an unholy alliance between an army of politicians’ media advisors and the media itself who rarely have time for much more than a quick soundbite.

What is rapidly becoming apparent is immeasurably more cynical and disturbing, and that is a ploy by the parties deliberately to avoid clearly stated positions aside from vacuous statements such as ‘I want a country of opportunity’ or ‘we want prosperity for all’. The saddest part of this problem is that it is a deliberate ploy. By taking a firm position on a matter and producing a firm and directed policy to support that belief, it is likely that a floating voter, somewhere, will disagree and switch to the other side. With conventional 2 party political in free-fall, every floating voter has to be courted and issues that might encourage him to vote for the other side avoided. The debate is therefore reduced to dishonest and meaningless platitudes with discussions on personality and looks rather than political substance. It also encourages the promotion of polices targeted at single-issue or niche voters. This provides a poor foundation for proper government as such policies are inefficiently piecemeal and lack an intellectual basis or strategic framework. In effect they are bribes.

In an ideal world, a Party would start with a political philosophy, then develop a strategy for applying that philosophy and then develop policies that fit within that overall intellectual framework. It’s what we used to have before politics became fragmented and it made it interesting which is why voters engaged and, by in large, viewed parliament with respect. The problem is that the more that party politics fragments, then the more the parties will behave in the current manner putting us in a downwards spiral of electoral discontent. The sad thing is that the media advisors are wrong. The public is crying out for a debate based on solid political conviction and belief. Ed Miliband came close to it the other evening during the TV debate which is probably why he polled quite well afterwards.

Things won’t change soon, however, and the sterile debate will get a lot worse before we eventually have to overhaul the system, probably by a change in the voting system. I would also like to see a British Federation to bring politics closer to the people and improve accountability but more of that soon.

More hay, Sir?

EU: Making A Failing Democracy Worse

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I promised that I would dip a toe into the acid bath of EU matters, and with my feet well protected in rubber boots I will wade in….ankle deep at any rate.

Whatever your viewpoint, the first fox that needs shooting is that the EU is primarily an economic organization. In my view, that is a diversion. It is actually a political structure that lists economic management as one of bailiwicks, and uses economic arguments to further its statist ambitions. Once you accept this proposition then the debate about whether we should stay in the EU or leave becomes more a matter of political taste and where you sit on the tribal spectrum.

It was the vision of European leaders that the EU would use political, economic and social policies to unite the continent in an ever closer union in order to suppress the nationalistic tendencies that did so much damage during 2 world wars. For the founding fathers, political union was accepted as being a long game but it would become inevitable once centrally imposed social and economic policies developed poorer countries and ultimately bound them together in a unified political process. Harmonised fiscal and social policies, a single currency, a parliament, commission, foreign policy and, as recently announced by Juncker, an aspiration for an EU army, are much more than an economic single market. They are the trappings of a state.

Now there is no doubt that the EU has been beneficial for former Soviet Union countries like Poland. However, the question is whether a political union is still necessary to save Europe from itself and maintain stability in the post Cold War era? In my view it is no longer necessary. For a start, it is pie in the sky to think that the EU could ever deploy its own army. There is just too much historical baggage and a plethora of differing opinions for effective policy formulation. Think about the current and past EU foreign policy disagreements such as the Yugoslavia fiasco, and more recently, the different attitudes within the EU towards Russia. This is why NATO, acting solely as a security mechanism and backed by a strong US should remain the foundation of Western European security. The alliance has a clear mission that is universally supported by its members, and its security focus is unencumbered by the distraction of European political state-building. Moreover, it is my view that free markets in goods and services will ensure the economic interdependence of states and act as a far tougher glue than any social or political engineering by a central European authority.

Turning to the politics, the EU is essentially dominated by socialist and social democratic parties that have an altogether different viewpoint that is at odds with the political culture here. Despite the current polling balance of left and right parties in the UK, I believe that the British instinct is essentially Conservative in nature and not in the mould of European social democracy although I would accept that the situation in Scotland currently seems to be different to elsewhere (but watch what happens when they are responsible for raising their own taxes). This difference in political culture is readily apparent by the behaviour and constitution of the European Parliament which by British standards is as left-wing as anything we have seen here in the UK since the Michael Foot days. Whilst the British electorate periodically elects Labour governments it only does so when the Party moderates its politics towards the centre, and in my view this demonstrates that mainstream Britain sits further to the right of the political spectrum than most of our European neighbours.

Whilst differences in political culture causes practical problems for policy, my main issue with the European project relates to its size. I have previously discussed some of the factors that seem to be undermining the credibility of our political process here in the UK, but perhaps the main issue is the feeling that politicians are too remote and that voters feel unrepresented and unable to affect the outcome of the political debate. For many, it seems that a vote cast has little value, and voters therefore feel powerless and disenfranchised from the decisions affecting their lives. This problem is not just confined to the UK and is characterised by the rise of extreme and populist political parties at each end of the spectrum with potentially destabilising implications. When voters become disenfranchised they eventually take matters into their own hands by voting for decisive change with unpredictable results. Witness the rise of the far right in France, for example.

History suggests that the feeling of disenfranchisement gets worse as political structures get larger especially if power is retained centrally. It is far harder to represent an individual voter’s opinion if he/she is one individual in a massive sea of people with different political views and culture. On the other hand, whilst smaller structures improve representation they can be inefficient and prevent administrations from balancing competing needs between regions. It comes down to balance again, but one things is for sure, if the existing UK political structures have become too large and distant for voters, then we are making the situation worse by hitching our wagon to the European monolith where the democratic deficit is magnified tenfold.

I am increasingly concerned about voter apathy, cynicism and disenfranchisement and where we might end up if we don’t fix this democratic deficit soon. The more I have reflected on the matter, the more I am favouring a massive devolution of power, including taxation, away from a central federal government based at Westminster down to some newly created English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have a population of 65m, and with other countries operating very well with populations of 6 million or even less, there is plenty of scope to design our regions such that they would be economically viable and capable of operating more like the states in the US. Decentralisation to a federal model would increase local political accountability and promote voter engagement. Crucially, as part of this project, we should take back powers from Europe and return them to the British people. Decision making needs to come closer to the people not further away from them.

There are many that argue that we would be damaged economically if we withdraw from the political structures of the EU but I believe this is a disingenuous distraction with political undertones. I will offer one fact that illustrates why trade with the mainland would continue whatever political alterations are made to our relations with the EU: half of the cars that are made in Germany are purchased in the UK. We just buy too much of their stuff for them to close their trading doors to us.

This is a political matter not economic. We need to bring decision making closer to our electorate, and EU integration is going in the wrong direction. I would vote OUT in a referendum at the moment but I remain open-minded about potential reform. The changes would need to be significant, however, rather than superficial.

More hay and rumination, Fritz and Pierre?

Twitter Wars: The Tribal Politics of Unmentionable Racial Issues

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Yesterday I reviewed a Sunday Times article by the journalist Trevor Phillips (also here in the Mail but scroll past the DM political hype to get to his piece), and I praised his candour for highlighting the woeful lack of debate about some of the practical problems posed by multiculturalism. After I published my blog I issued a tweet advertising it and then had an interesting exchange with one individual that I believe illustrates the real problems presented by tribal politics in our quest for meaningful debate.

I have left out the name of my sparring partner but an examination of my twitter account will reveal his identity if you’re curious. I have also offered him a full right to reply by blog on this site if he so wishes. Here is the exchange that took place:

Me: Brave, brave Trevor Phillips tackling unmentionable issues like race. His article reviewed here…link to the ruminating sheep blog.

F: dog/whistle rubbish for the Tory Press. Sadly Trevor’s realised there is a lot of cash to be made as a right- wing black guy.

Me: What’s right or left got to do with it? We’re talking about multiculturalism and ability to debate issues free of censure.

F: claiming all Jews are rich, and all blacks are criminals, is little to do with multiculturalism.

Me: Read the article. His point was the inability to discuss the subject and the dangers therein. You’re twisting it (poorly)

F: I’ve read the article. It’s very racist.

and

F: We’re not allowed to say ‘most black people are criminals’ for a reason – it’s judging a human being purely on their race.

Me: He’s not saying most black people are criminals. I will blog about our exchange tomorrow and give you full right to reply.

Now there is a delicious irony to this exchange which I will come to in a moment, but before then I feel it is right to address the implication that Trevor Phillips has written a racist article. First of all, a quick read of Phillips’ bio reveals that this is a man who has consistently promoted equality, diversity and social opportunity over a long career as a broadcaster and more latterly as a public servant. Second, there is nothing within his article that I could construe as racist. The context ( and I urge you to read the whole thing) – is about the barriers to a meaningful discussion on racial and multicultural matters. The focus of F’s objections seems to be this:

“If African Caribbeans are statistically more likely to commit some kinds of crime than other people, as indeed they are — we are especially proficient at murdering other African Caribbeans, for example — it might make some sense to understand why, so we can stop it happening. Not all Jewish people are wealthy; in fact, some are extremely deprived. But if — as is true — Jewish households in Britain are on average twice as wealthy as the rest, might it not pay to work out what makes these families more likely to do well? Is there something that the rest can learn from their traditions and behaviour? We all know why these things cannot be said. The long shadow of slavery and the Holocaust rightly makes us anxious about the kind of slack thinking that led to the dehumanising of entire populations.
Yet should history prevent us from understanding the differences between us — especially if those insights might improve life for everyone?”

I just don’t see that as racist especially in the context of the main thrust of his article. He is merely stating facts and explaining why they are relevant to his thesis. Note also that Philipps is of Afro-Caribbean descent himself.

Now to the irony. In previous posts, Avoiding the Debate and Toxic policies I explained some of the factors preventing proper analytical political debate and how this was causing electoral apathy and cynicism.  Some of these factors include media hyperbole, tribal politics, political dogma and the party whip system. Importantly, it also includes certain nefarious activities like evasive politicians attempting to be all things to all people and pressure groups and organisations suppressing debate by calling into question the integrity and motives of anyone attempting to discuss certain matters.

The whole point of Trevor’s article was about the suppression of the multiculturalism debate. By accusing him of having financial motives and of making racist remarks, his detractors would seem to be using ad-hominem accusations to avoid discussing the substantive issue. This precisely and extremely elegantly proves the exact point made by Philipps in his article. Quad erat demonstrandum.

I have no idea of the motivations of ‘F’ in his twitter remarks but tribal politics and his instinctive defence of multiculturalism as a political rather than social phenomena seems to have played a major part during our exchange on twitter. That is tribal politics at work and neatly illustrates how it raises barriers to proper debate. I have offered ‘F’ the right of friendly reply with a post of his own here in the sheep shed, and I would be interested to hear his perspective. Let’s hope he will eat hay with us and ruminate in the spirit of constructive debate.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Postnote: ‘F’ has posted his reply in comments which you can find below or by following the link here. I still feel that he is viewing the issue through a political lens which in my view is unhelpful but probably realistic in today’s climate. I would nonetheless like to thank him for his constructive contribution to the board. Perhaps others have a view?

Unmentionable Racial Issues

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In a previous post, I talked about how some subjects are never discussed because they are, or have been made, politically toxic. As a result, important issues lie unmentioned and simmering with politicians preferring to ignore them rather than raise their heads above the parapet. With this in mind, it was extremely refreshing to read an article in The Sunday Times by journalist and former chairman of the Racial Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, on the deep racial problems lying within our multi-cultural society and our inability to discuss them.

In his brave article (unfortunately behind a paywall), called Ten Things About Race that are True but we Can’t Say, Trevor highlights how New Labour’s attempts to tackle discrimination failed to addressed the problems of multi-culturalism in practice. He says that local authority funds promoting multi-ethnic diversity have been misused by community leaders who benefit from preserving isolation. He highlights that many young people are “trapped behind walls of tradition and deference to elders”, and identifies that the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France were partly of a consequence of segregation within Muslim ghettos. He believes that similar issues lie behind our own 7th July bombings.

The article would be incendiary if it wasn’t written by a well-known and respected black journalist, and perhaps this is the point. Trevor is absolutely correct that in our desperation to avoid causing offence we are ignoring critical issues and he cites as an example the institutional reluctance to tackle the grooming of young girls by some young Pakistani men in our cities. He also points out that the recent fury over Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of the term ‘coloured’ meant that his important point about the need for more black actors to be employed got completely lost. His key point is that it is “more and more difficult to address problems in our society because we are too afraid to describe them”

Bingo! This is exactly the point I tried to make in my previous post on toxic policies, and Trevor is also correct to highlight that unless we are brave enough to overcome this reluctance, then the far right, already ascendant in some European countries, will continue to make electoral progress for merely ‘speaking the truth’

Trevor Phillips will develop his theme in a Channel 4 documentary on Thursday at 9pm, and I for one will be interested to see it. Well done Trevor.

Toxic Policies: Mentioning the Unmentionable

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In a previous post called Avoiding the Debate, I mentioned some of the factors that I believe are stifling our political debate and reducing its quality resulting in worrying electoral apathy and a democratic deficit. Today, I thought I would mention another feature that undermines proper discussion, and that is the toxic policy.

The toxic policy is an issue that has become so politically suicidal ever to mention that no MP will even dare to raise the matter for discussion. It is a political no-go zone. A good example is our centralized funding model for the NHS. Now I don’t know if our current model is the best solution or not. But I do know that the NHS costs an extraordinary sum of money and that demand for health services is increasing at an alarming rate. With this in mind, it seems to me that periodically we should at least look at other ways of funding health care even if we subsequently decide that the current model remains appropriate for today’s circumstances. At the very least we should have the courage occasionally to take a look and discuss it.

Making subjects politically impossible to raise is a deliberate tactic employed by those who oppose change and seek to stifle debate. Frequently, those employing the tactic will try to adopt the moral high ground by implying that someone is extreme or despicable if they dare even to open a matter for discussion. At a local level, a good example is the use of the term Nimby to describe someone opposed to a development. The moral implication is that an individual or party is somehow acting selfishly and against the common good for opposing a development even if they are the person most affected by the proposal. The Greens are particularly adept at employing the tactic when wind farm developments are proposed but it is also used to stifle debate on other policy matters. In these instances, contrived moral outrage is often reinforced by accusations that the very fact that a subject has been opened for discussion reveals that a decision for change has already been made.

The problem with such political correctness is that questions that need to be asked remain buried, change becomes impossible to achieve and political orthodoxy becomes dogma. Now you might think that a politician that is unwilling to tackle the toxic policy lacks bravery and that would be true to some extent, but in the face of the likely adverse media coverage it becomes much easier to bury a subject rather than to raise it.

This is ultimately bad for all us in my view. How will we ever get better if we don’t look at all the options?

Devolution: Who’s Accountable?

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Since the Scottish referendum, there has been much discussion about devolving power down to the regions, and the recent announcement by the Government that it intends to devolve a £6 billion health and care budget down to the Greater Manchester area has been largely greeted with approval across the political spectrum. For sure, it gives local authorities the responsibility to set health and care priorities and to shift cash around but does it actually increase accountability and promote value for money for the taxpayer?

Well, I expect that there are few that would disagree that centralized structures are unwieldy and often struggle to get value for money despite the attractions offered by the economics of scale. We’ve heard about the £10 Whitehall paperclip too often for this not to be true. There is also no doubt that a centralised and corrupt political system often directs resources for political purposes rather than on the basis of actual need. Where it is allocated altruistically, it is often misdirected owing to a lack of understanding about particular local conditions and requirements. Local spending also gets better scrutiny and is more transparent as budgets are smaller and easier to inspect than the national versions.

Devolved budgets look attractive then, but in my opinion it is only by owning the right to spend and to raise revenue that proper democratic accountability can be enforced. If it is only the power to spend a budget that is devolved then there is little to stop the spender using up all the cash and then pointing to the central government when it finds it has run out of resources. ‘It’s not our fault, you haven’t given us enough’ will be the excuse. Particularly from a Labour-run council with a Conservative Government (or vice versa). On the other hand, if an authority has to raise the cash that it wishes to spend then it is totally accountable for both sides of the equation. It may decide to raise more revenue through an increase in local taxation and spend a little more but to do this there will have to be a conversation with the local electorate who may see things differently. That is proper democracy at work and a powerful driver for encouraging tax-payer value for money. Moreover, if that conversation takes place at a local level then the debate is often better focussed and able to highlight the real issues rather than a centralized argument that gets lost in all the Westminster noise.

So, it’s an open and shut case: we should devolve the maximum power down from the centre. Well, perhaps not. Whilst a centralised treasury sometimes misdirects resources through corrupt politics or incompetence, it does allow the central authority to at least have a stab at resolving geographically competing needs. If we fully devolved tax-raising and spending powers to small regions then the sparsely-populated or poorer areas would be completely disadvantaged, and it is unlikely they would be able to offer the same standard of services. In extremis, this could encourage significant population movements
to the metropolitan areas which could be destabilising and suddenly increase the pressure on services in particular areas. On a more philosophical note, I suppose one aspect of belonging to a country is that the population has a common interest in looking after each other regardless of location. Isn’t that why we have the Barnett formula for Scotland? That collective insurance would soon disappear as the devolved regions started to become more like autonomous mini states.

I am instinctively against big government and so the devolved solution looks attractive. But it is not a straightforward case and it requires careful thought. It may be that a half-way house solution that partially devolves tax and spending would provide the right balance of efficiency and accountability. In this regard, a locally levied sales tax (with commensurate reduction in VAT) might be one way of devolving tax raising powers without going the full hog. However, our Union has already suffered some shocks recently following the Scottish referendum and I think we need to move cautiously to avoid the unintended effects of any fiscal actions we take too hastily. It is probably a question of scale. The Soviet Union was too big to run from a centralized authority but, on the other hand, we can’t live in little tribes. Thoughts?

Political Leaders’ TV Circus

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Oh Dear, the TV companies have agreed the dates for our lords and masters to strut their stuff live on the telly. There will be two TV debates where 7 of the party leaders will engage in a political soundbite melee, and a final event where just David Cameron and Ed Miliband will go head to head. They will be screened on 2, 16 and 30 April so my advice would be to attend your pub quiz night on those dates as you are likely come away better educated and, I suspect, a good deal more cheerful.

In my post, Avoiding The Debate I discussed the reasons for the poor quality of the political debate in the UK and the adverse effect it was having on the electorate. Forgive me for sounding cynical but is this really going to help the situation? The media will talk up the programmes and tell us they are bringing politics to the people when in fact all they really want are the viewing figures and the hope that someone trips up so that the story can be kept going for a few days. Forget any idea of a considered discussion on the strategy-led policies of the various parties. Instead it will be a fest of soundbites, faked outrage and manufactured drama. It will be Eastenders meeting Westminster in a Christmas panto special. The audience will boo and hiss, the protagonists will roll their eyes at each other and those at home will think solely about who got the better of who in the war of pre-rehearsed wit and soundbite.

And how could it be otherwise especially in the two debates where there will be seven parties (Con, Lab, Lib/Dem, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru). There will be no time for any detailed argument just the same old inane point scoring that has turned so many people off politics and politicians.

The only hope is that the whole thing falls apart and gets cancelled although the TV companies have said that if anyone pulls out, the programmes will continue with an empty seat on the stage.

Enjoy your quiz.

Avoiding The Debate

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There is nothing more frustrating and boring than watching a politician avoid answering a question, and it is little wonder that public respect for MPs and the political process has sunk so low. But how is it that we have arrived at this point and are MPs solely to blame? The mother of parliaments was once regarded very highly, and its members were largely seen as public-spirited and principled. Now the electorate yawns at the day to day political tussle, and MPs are mocked and set alongside merchant bankers in the court of public opinion.

To my mind, the primary reason for this state of affairs is the manner in which the political debate is hosted and targeted. Modern communications are instantaneous, and fickle media outlets provide such fleeting opportunities that politicians often only have time to spill out some short and catchy, yet inane, sound-bite that they hope may later command a headline in the following day’s paper. There is very little opportunity for considered argument about the pros and cons of a policy: only its one-sided and instantaneous promotion.

This problem is made worse by the misreporting of any kind of admission by a politician that a counter-argument may have some merit even if he believes that those disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages of his own position. What tends to happen is that if a politician acknowledges both sides of an argument then it is often the fact that he has acknowledged the disadvantages of his proposal that is reported as the main thrust of the story. As a result, his reasoned debate that might well have interested the audience is left unexposed.

But why are political discussions reported in this way? It is quite clear that many media outlets have their own political allegiances and will spin a story to suit their own political allegiances. So, for example, from the same interview content, The Telegraph would report that a Minister favours tax cuts to stimulate the economy whereas The Guardian would report that the Minister wants to cut services to make tax cuts for the rich. The party whip system also makes this situation worse. So utterly tribal has party politics become that absolute adherence to the party line is demanded and anyone caught going off message is immediately dragged into the Whip’s office for a metaphorical (or real, who knows?) spanking. The problem with this approach is that it not only discourages MPs from discussing matters rationally, but it encourages the media to make the thrust of their story the very fact that a minister or MP has raised their head above the parapet to occasion proper 2-sided debate.

Finally, I suspect that there is another altogether more cynical component to this issue. With the erosion of 2 party politics has come the rise of the special interest groups and ever more research into the polls. Rather than steering public opinion through good leadership and strategic vision, parties now seek to be all things to all people in the hope that they can court the maximum vote. This is a strong driver for avoiding reasoned debate because any clearly stated position risks alienating a potential voter somewhere. How intellectually dishonest is that? It is obfuscation, and it is driven purely by the thirst for political power rather than a desire to make the world a better place.

I don’t know where the answer to this problem lies. In the first instance, I really wish that media outlets would act more responsibly by encouraging fair reporting and creating the conditions to allow politicians to make their arguments properly. Second, the local party associations, whips and party apparatchiks need to recognize that opinion cannot be uniform and that it is not necessarily damaging for both sides of an argument to be exposed. Indeed it is healthy for the country. Finally, it is possible that we will have to re-examine our electoral system. Whilst I was always a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, perhaps the other factors I have mentioned mean that it has finally had its day. Whatever the answer, we cannot go on with matters as they are. Democracy relies on proper debate and voter engagement, and we don’t appear to have either at the moment. Anyone got some good ideas?