What You Can Get Away With

I’ve decided that from now on any policy I expose on this blog or elsewhere will have to have to have gone through a ‘people test’ first. This will determine what their effects will be on people, so we can be sure these policies won’t cause any harm to people. I’m not going to make any specific definition of who these people my test will apply to are, but rest assured that I am committed to supporting people despite not coming up with this gimmick vitally important test until now.

Yes, I’ve got the idea from David Cameron’s ‘family test’ that he’s promising to subject all new policy to, without actually specifying what definition of ‘family’ he’s using. I suspect he’s not applying Conrad Russell’s subjective definition – ‘those groups are families that believe that they are’ – but I also doubt he’d have the courage to stand up and say who he does and doesn’t include in his ‘family test’. It thus becomes more meaningless political twaddle, as he might as well be proposing a ‘people test’, given that he won’t (publicly, at least) exclude anyone from his definition of ‘family’. He’s blowing the dog whistle again, hoping people won’t notice that he wants some people to think he’s happy to screw over certain parts of the population if they don’t fit his definition of ‘family’.

The question is will anyone – a journalist today, an MP at PMQs when Parliament comes back from recess – be willing to put him on the spot and ask Cameron what he defines a family as, and who is not included in his ‘family test’?

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Who Stole the Four-Hour Workday? – How we lost our dreams of more leisure and less work.
America Is Not For Black People – “They — we — are inexplicably seen as a millions-strong army of potential killers, capable and cold enough that any single one could be a threat to a trained police officer in a bulletproof vest. There are reasons why white gun’s rights activists can walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles and be seen as gauche nuisances while unarmed black men are killed for reaching for their wallets or cell phones, or carrying children’s toys. Guns aren’t for black people, either.”
This is what dysphoria feels like – An explanation that was enlightening for me, so I share it in the hope it may enlighten others.
Why Does Society Seem To Be Falling Apart, Even Though It’s Not? – “Every advance in technology allows us to do more with less, extending our reach further while allowing us to expend less energy*. Which means that the power that a deeply unpleasant person has to inflict emotional damage has also scaled up massively, and continues to do so.”
The Story of Class Struggle, America’s Most Popular Marxist Board Game – Not that there was much competition for the title.

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vote for nobody 2Former MP Tony Wright has written an odd piece for the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, that tries to disagree with arguments that politics in Britain is broken by seemingly accepting most of the arguments that it is, then claiming that the fact some reforms have happened over the past few years means that things will work out all right. To me, it feels like he’s arguing that it’s not broken because it’s been stuck roughly back together with a flour-and-water paste that he insists is actually superglue.

It’s prompted me to finally sit down and write down a few thoughts I’ve been having on what I think is a slow breakdown of the British political system. I think one mistake Wright makes – and he’s not alone in it, as I’ve written about before – is to confuse politics and the political system, assuming they’re one and the same. It’s a common and understandable solipsism amongst politicians to believe that what we do is the only thing that properly counts as politics, but I think that’s one of the sources of problem. By believing that politics can only include that which is contained within the existing political system, we assume that the system is capable of containing everything that’s ‘political’. (That may be a tautology, but these are still very rough thoughts)

However, what if the system isn’t capable of doing what’s expected of it? What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated? Sure, there have been patches and tweaks, such as the ones Wright points to, over the years but these have not addressed the fundamental problems within it. It’s like insisting everything’s fine with your car because you’ve replaced the carburettor, while ignoring that it can’t go faster than 10mph and needs ten litres of fuel to get to end of the road.

I think of this as a slow breakdown because I think it’s the culmination of a long process that began in the 70s (and possibly before) but the system has managed to conceal that – and will likely try to pretend that things can still be fixed with tweaks. The system worked on the principle of there being two main mass-membership parties that sat on either side of the class divide (in line with Pulzer’s 60s observation: “Class is the basis of British politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”) The problem stems from the fact that the pillars that system rested on have crumbled away. To look at some of those factors in brief (it might take a full series of posts to cover it in any reasonable amount of detail, though):

Class is no longer the main driver of British politics. That’s not to say that class isn’t important in Britain but that other forces and other cleavages in society are much more than ‘embellishment and detail’. Old cleavages, such as the core-periphery divide, have re-arisen, class itself has evolved into a more complex issue, and new issues have arisen that may divide society but aren’t reflected in the parties.

Political parties have not changed. The usual claim here is that parties have changed, but I think the issue is that they’ve only tweaked and patched, not made a fundamental change. One of the drivers behind mass-membership parties was that they provided social opportunities in a time when there were a lot fewer ways to spend your free time. As those vast networks (that were apolitical a large amount of the time) have withered away, the nature of political parties has not changed in response with some imagining the days of mass membership and participation can be restored. Parties are still being run as though they are still mass parties, when they’ve become more like cadre parties (or to borrow Peter Mair’s term, ‘cartel parties’).

The electoral system doesn’t allow voters to be represented. One of the reasons I think of this as a slow breakdown is that you can see it emerging in the election results of the 70s, when the big parties started watching their share of the vote slip further and further away from 50%, yet not seeing this slippage represented in the share of seats and power won. Moving a bit closer to the present, one reason that the 1997 election is pivotal is that it’s the last time a single party won more votes than there were non-voters. Voters have consistently moved away from the two-party model, but the electoral system continues to prop it up.

There are other issues too – media that prefers personalities to policies, local government that’s trying to deliver for 21st century communities based on 19th century boundaries, the belief that anything that’s worth doing should only be done centrally – but my time today is limited.

What I do want to say in conclusion is that I see and hear people talking about political issues all the time, but because we restrict our definition of politics to ‘that which is represented within the political system’ we tend to not recognise it as such. However, this then turns into disengagement from the system when people don;t see the issues that are important to them being represented or discussed there. I think this tendency has been accelerated by the internet and social networking, but this is just the culmination of a process that started long before home broadband and smartphones. Just tweaking the existing system and claiming it’s completely fixed isn’t enough. We need a system that reaches out to everyone, not one that imagines those it can’t reach have nothing worthwhile to say. To paraphrase Adrian Mitchell, most people ignore most politics, because most politics ignores most people.

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Officials count ballot papers in WitneyWriting on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, Steven Ayres looks at where UKIP’s vote came from in the 2014 local elections, and what this might mean in next year’s general election.

It’s an interesting piece, but it brings me back a thought I’ve had recently with regard to UKIP’s chances next years and whether analysis is factoring in the effects of differential turnout and the motivation to vote of UKIP voters.

One assumption that we tend to make in projecting local election results forward to a general election is that the different turnout at the two elections can be ignored as a factor. We know that general elections have larger turnouts that local elections, but we assume that the voters who turn out at local elections are a proportional sample of the voters who’ll turn out at the general election. As an example, imagine a constituency with four parties where 20,000 people will vote at a general election, but only 10,000 of those will vote at the preceding local election. At that local election, we get the following result:

  • Party A: 4000 votes
  • Party B: 3000 votes
  • Party C: 2000 votes
  • Party D: 1000 votes
  • The tendency is to assume that the percentages of votes received in that election represent the share of opinion amongst the wider electorate and that thus amongst the general election electorate of 20,000 Party A will have 8,000 voters (40%), Party B will have 6000 voters (30%) etc. We assume that the 50% who will turn out for the local election is drawn equally from the parties – a Party A voter and a Party D general election voter both have a 50% probability of voting in the local election.

    The reason I’m writing this in relation to UKIP votes is that it seems to me that projections of what UKIP might do in 2015 assume that their voters turned out at the same rate in 2013 and 2014 as did supporters of the other parties. I’d need to go back to some of the polling from before May’s elections to confirm this, but my recollection is that it showed UKIP supporters were much more likely to intend to vote than those of other parties.

    To go back to the example, we assume it represents voter intention amongst the wider population, but what if each party’s supporters had a wildly different likelihood to vote at local elections? For example, if Party A’s supporters were 80% likely to vote at local elections, while Party D’s were only 20% likely, both could actually have 5,000 supporters amongst the general population. Extrapolating a general election result from a local one when the parties have had differing levels of turnout is not going to produce accurate forecasts.

    To return to the UKIP question, one thing I have noticed is that while they have had relatively high percentages in some elections, they’ve not gone beyond around x% of the total electorate. By my calculation, the share of the electorate UKIP have got in high-profile elections recently is:

  • Eastleigh by-election: 14.7%
  • Newark by-election: 13.7%
  • 2014 Euro election (East of England): 12.4%
  • 2014 Euro elections (East Midlands): 10.9%
  • 2014 Euro elections (national share): 9.4%
  • Rotherham by-election: 7.3%
  • Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election: 6.7%
  • South Shields by-election: 6.4%
  • My suspicion – and it’d take a lot of time with a lot of polling and election data and a stats package to explore that in more depth – is that UKIP’s peak support within the electorate is somewhere around 15%, but they are much more likely to turn out at all elections than voters for the other parties are. Thus, in elections with a lower turnout, their higher propensity to vote and our tendency to assume that those elections are a mirror of voters as a whole makes them look more of a threat in the general election than they will actually be. However, in a general election with turnouts of over 60%, it’s very hard for a party that can’t get more than 20% of the electorate to win a seat. That would require winning a seat with 33% of the vote or less, and while that’s possible, it’s very rare.

    UKIP’s dilemma for next year is that their best chance of winning seats comes if a) there’s a low overall turnout in a seat, allowing the higher motivation of their voters to be a factor and b) there are multiple parties competing for a seat, thus making it possible to win with a low share of the vote. However, seats with strong competition between multiple parties are unlikely to have a low turnout because of the amount of campaigning that’s done in them. It seems that UKIP are very good at getting out the vote, but they’ll need to broaden the number of people willing to vote for them to have a serious chance of winning a Westminster seat.

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    How did the First World War actually end? – Paul Mason explains some of the causes of history, and how our accounts of the war are often missing out the social and labour movements that were very important in it.
    The Fake Sheikh and me: Tulisa talks – I wouldn’t normally link to a showbiz story, even in the Guardian, but the fascinating details in this are the lengths Mazher Mahmood and the Sun were willing to go to for an entirely manufactured story.
    “Open Door Policy” – Andrew Hickey on the realities, rather than the tabloid headlines, of living with Britain’s immigration policy.
    Work less, live more, do better – Is working too many hours actually meaning we’re doing less? Written from the perspective of working as an academic, but much of the information is relevant to many fields.
    Two politics – Chris Dillow on the difference between politics-as-policy and politics-as-celebrity.

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    When David Cameron says


    Do you think he remembers this?

    But then, Boris doing something nasty, crude and thuggish, then trying to get out of it by doing the ‘lawks a mercy, silly Boris, ho ho!’ act is a perfect summation of his career.

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    One of the small highlights of the recent World Cup for me was the BBC showing the official FIFA World Cup films on BBC Two on weekend mornings. In the 1982 film – G’Ole! – there’s a moment near the end when the camera pans over the crowd for the final and shows a Colombia 1986 banner, the only time that tournament ever appeared on camera.

    Colombia had been selected to host the 1986 World Cup but withdrew from hosting later in 1982 because of a host of domestic and economic problems. In the words of President Betancur: “We have a lot of things to do here and there is not enough time to attend to the extravagances of Fifa and its members.” Colombia 1986 is the only time a country has not hosted the World Cup after being awarded it.

    Luckily for FIFA, there do still remain several countries willing to attend to their extravagances, and indeed will compete to provide more and more extravagances in order to get to host the World Cup. That’s why there was heated bidding for the rights to stage the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and why some have cried foul after they were awarded to Russia and Qatar. Since they were awarded, there’s been constant criticism of the Qatar 2022 decision, and recent events in Ukraine have also made people question whether it’s right to host the 2018 tournament in Russia and Nick Clegg has called for it to be taken away from them.

    Unlike the complaints about Qatar, the arguments given for having the 2018 World Cup are almost entirely political, based on the recent actions of the Russian Government, though they tend to ignore that world sporting bodies are generally autocratic institutions themselves and don’t really respond to that sort of argument. Despite the fact it opens up a lot of other questions – should British clubs refuse to play in Russia in UEFA tournaments? If FIFA don’t change their minds, should the home nations boycott 2018? – it’s a legitimate thing to propose.

    However, if you want to scupper your entire campaign very quickly, what you shouldn’t do is this:

    Talking about the situation in Ukraine, Nick Clegg raised the question on whether Russia should host the World Cup in 2018:

    “He (Putin) can’t constantly push the patience of the international community beyond breaking point and still have the privilege and honour of receiving all the accolades in 2018 for being the host nation of the World Cup.”

    In light of Russia’s actions, one option could be to bring the World Cup to England instead.

    If you agree, sign this petition.

    We the undersigned call on England to host the 2018 World Cup instead of Russia.

    That’s currently on the Lib Dem website, and suddenly turns it from legitimate concerns about Russia to one of the countries beaten by Russia in the 2018 bidding trying to get revenge. It weakens the case against Russia hosting it by associating it with England getting the tournament instead and thus makes it into a contest of two countries, not weighing up the merits of one.

    The reason I brought up Colombia 1986 at the start of this post was because when the decision was made to not have the World Cup there, it wasn’t because another country had stepped forward and said ‘we’ll do it instead’. The decision to not host the tournament and the decision of the location of the replacement were separate, and if FIFA were to decide to take it from Russia, there’d surely be an open process (well, open by FIFA standards) to decide the replacement, as happened for 1986 (with Mexico selected over the USA and Canada). One could also look at the ongoing dispute over Qatar 2022, where the USA (probably the most likely location for it if it doesn’t happen in Qatar) are being very careful not to put themselves forward as the alternative, but instead are keeping the debate about whether it should be in Qatar at all.

    (I’d also question if England was able to host the tournament on such short notice, given the suggested new stadiums and expansions proposed in the original bid. If Russia were to lose it, and it was to stay within Europe, the most logical new host would likely be France, given the work they’re currently doing for Euro 2016.)

    This might just be an overenthusiastic staffer at Great George Street getting carried away and starting off a petition without thinking about it, but it’s a huge own goal. If you want to make the case against Russia, you should do that, and not confuse the issue by trying to fly an England flag at the same time.

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    ‘Galaxy Quest’: The Oral History – The cast and crew explain how it came to be.
    The Higher Sociopathy – “Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.”
    Education should be about progress, not prostituted as a means to earn more – Alex Andreou on the value of education as a good in itself.
    How ‘competitiveness’ became one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary culture – On a similar subject, how we now reduce everything to competition.
    The Suburbs Will Die: One Man’s Fight to Fix the American Dream – How sprawling American suburbs can’t pay for their own upkeep and are an economic disaster waiting to happen.

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    I wrote a few years ago about the BBC’s plans to adapt Philip K Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle
    for TV. As with so many TV projects, it seems that fell through but news has now come out that while we’re not in the universe where it got made by the BBC, we may be in the one where it gets made for Amazon TV.

    Sadly, it appears that while Ridley Scott’s production company is still involved, the script is no longer being written by Howard Brenton. As I wrote four years ago, one worry I have about any adaptation of The Man In The High Castle is that it’s very easy to see it as just a relatively simple what-if story about the Axis winning the Second World War and how the US would be if it was divided between a victorious Germany and Japan. While Dick does create an interesting story about that, as with many of his books, the more interesting part of The Man In The High Castle is its exploration of the nature of reality. It’s a tale of three different worlds: the world where (most of) the book is set, the world Abendsen writes about in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and our world, with the question as to which one is really real and how the I Ching links them all. Stepping back, there’s also Dick’s belief that we are living in a flase reality and ‘the Empire never ended’ – our reality is possibly a hallucination of a Roman-dominated world.

    There’s been plenty of interesting new TV that’s willing to take risks in the last few years, and the online services are definitely willing to try something new, so perhaps Amazon will be willing to contemplate getting their viewers to question the nature of reality. One lesson from most previous Dick adaptations is that the complex philosophical discussions of the nature of reality are the first thing to be jettisoned in favour of the high concept, but maybe we’re in a reality where that sort of TV is possible now.

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    russellliberalism(If you’ve missed the previous posts in the series, they’re here: Index, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and the original post.)

    After nine posts and a lot of words, we’ve come to the end of my odyssey through An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism, and I hope it’s been of some interest. It’s been an interesting exercise for me, as it’s a good framework for examining liberalism, and the way Russell frames his vision of it allowed me to take a step back from current discussions and conceptions of liberalism to take a wider view. Progressing through the different chapters, I’ve picked up on a few different ideas that run across the book and the conception of liberalism I’ve developed from it, which I’ll go through.

    Liberalism as radicalism. By starting back in the 1600s, Russell’s historical account of liberalism doesn’t begin with it as an already accepted and prominent ideology. He points out that British liberalism arose from a turbulent and revolutionary century when all the old certainties had been turned upside down, and early liberal thinkers and writers were on the side of those seeking to overturn the older, not those who wanted to maintain it. This sense of radicalism and of seeking to do things differently is a thread Russell picks up again and again, with the implication that the aim of liberalism is not merely to reform power, but to change it utterly.

    Liberalism is concerned with power. I found this one of the most refreshing and interesting ideas from the book. We can too often become obsessed with the idea of liberalism as being about freedom that we forget about the existence of power, or simply wish it away, assuming that it will simply wither away once we have solved the problems of freedom. The problem with this vision – especially when it slides into libertarianism – is that it can tend to assume that the state is the only power that we need concern ourselves with it. To reach its potential, liberalism has to recognise that power – and particularly unaccountable power – can exist outside the state, and indeed the pattern of the future may well be that we need to be more concerned with that form of unaccountable power than traditional state power.

    Liberalism evolves. Again, this comes from Russell’s historical analysis, but it frames liberalism as an adaptive philosophy, centred around core principles. Starting from (and always keeping) that principle of controlling arbitrary power, liberalism has been shaped by circumstance, picking up new ideas along the way, but never letting them become its entire focus or overwrite the initial purpose. That’s why talk of ‘classical liberalism’ as though it’s something that can be held up as a yardstick for assessing the value of contemporary liberalism is meaningless. To claim there is some pure form of liberalism that others must be subservient to is to miss the point of it.

    Liberalism rejects utopias. Or, liberalism does not believe the ends justify the means. This does not mean that liberalism joins conservatism in denying that things can improve or that people can’t make a utopia but more that we cannot know or predict what utopia will be like until we get there. Decreeing that there is only one way, and we must get there elevates the importance of the end above the means, and allows illiberal measures to slip in from the sides. This can happen for good intentions, but it’s easy for those intentions to be corrupted into a Platonic utopia, where everyone is happy and fulfilled because they’re told that this is the only way they can be happy. A liberal society is an open society, and any power within it must be open to question and be able to be shown to be wrong.

    Liberalism needs diversity. If the key to liberalism is to reject that there’s any one central authority that can be correct for everyone, then it needs that plurality of voices within it to provide alternatives and to challenge ideas. To come up with a way that’s good for everyone, everyone’s voices must be heard and no one can assume they can speak for someone else with a different experience to them. A diversity of power at different levels is also important – it may be that one solution doesn’t fit everyone and we need to try different things to see which is the best.

    Liberalism must persuade and convince. This sounds obvious – what ideology doesn’t want to persuade and convince? – but we must always remember that consent is a vital part of liberalism, and a vital part of making power accountable. This isn’t just about getting their passive support, but rather their active participation in creating a liberal society which has to be built by the people, not for the people by some elite who know what’s best for them. A truly liberal society can make power accountable by ensuring everyone can control it and participate it, but to build that we need to go out and convince people it’s a good idea, not just sit around and tell ourselves how good we are.

    I’m sure I’ll talk about these and other issues more over the coming weeks and months, but it’s been an interesting and an enlightening experience. For me, the most interesting part is to frame liberalism as politics about power, and the implications that come from that. I think we are sometimes very simplistic about power and its implications and tend to assume that going in with good intentions is enough to overcome the strategies of embedded and unaccountable power, and on others we become so obsessed with one form of power that we forget that there are other sources and forms of power that we strengthen by pretending they’re not important.

    I think modern liberalism is often comfortable talking about freedom, but uncomfortable when it comes to talking about power, especially in admitting that power exists outside the state. This is shown a lot in a belief that shrinking the state is automatically freeing people, ignoring that removing the protection of the state opens them up to the whims of far more unaccountable and arbitrary powers. It’s also seen in the belief that a free market is intrinsically a good thing, not something that has the potential to be good, but also the potential to be corrupted if power within it is allowed to centralise and dominate.

    Beyond these, I think we also need to think much more deeply about how liberalism adopts to the threat posed by climate change (and ‘pretending it’s not happening’ is not a response). Is it possible to develop a fuller ecoliberalism in the light of an understanding of the power we can wield over the environment, or do we continue with an environmentalist liberalism that regards it as an issue of policy and management, rather than one of fundamental principle?

    These are important issues that we need to address as we move forward, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to them. What I do hope is that those of you who have read this have found it interesting, and that it’s helped to spark off your own thoughts. Liberalism is not something carved in tablets of stone that can never be changed or altered, it’s a living thing that we are free to debate, discuss and persuade others to adopt, and I hope I’ve done a bit to encourage some more debate.

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