The personal tax statement George Osborne doesn’t want you to see – Some accurate data on where the British Government actually spends its money.
Norman Baker, political journalism, and hinterlands – “We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.”
The ‘Devo Manc’ proposals represent centralisation on steroids – Is it time to coin ‘Osbornification’ to describe the centralisation by stealth they represent?
What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050 – Some interesting speculation on the prospect of electric planes. Those of you with a more technical bent than me may well have a different view on their likelihood.
Five minutes with Robert O. Keohane – Very interesting LSE interview with one of the world’s leading theorists of international relations about the difference between liberal constitutionalism and democracy at the transnational level.
The personal tax statement George Osborne doesn’t want you to see – Some accurate data on where the British Government actually spends its money.
It was an interesting debate to watch, though the amount of straw man arguments and false dichotomies being put forward was somewhat dizzying to watch. As far as I can tell, there are very few people in the party who oppose widening democracy within it, but there’s a wide range of views on how to do it and so Conference made the right decision. We’ve agreed that we want the principle of one member, one vote, but now we have to agree on how to implement that before it comes into force.
The question I’ve been asking for a while – and no one supporting the proposals gave an answer to in the debate – was how are members who can’t be at Conference going to be represented under any new system? We’ve heard lots of tales of people who want to come to Conference but can’t be conference representatives under the current system, but nothing to suggest that the views of those who can’t make it to Conference because of time, money, other commitments or any other reason have any importance.
That got me thinking – why are we fixated on voting at Conference? Sure, Conference is a great event for party members to go to, and political party conferences have been around for a long time, but are they necessarily the best way of deciding a political party’s policies in 2014? If we were creating a political party from scratch, would we insist that the only way they can decide on that party’s policies is if they can get to a certain city on a certain set of dates, while paying quite heavily for the privilege of doing so? Shouldn’t we be looking at a system that suits the way people, technology and politics work now, rather than patching up a system based on the technologies and politics of decades ago?
That’s why one suggestion in the debate chimed with what I’ve been thinking over the last week or so – we need a full review and rewrite of the party’s constitution to review everything about the way the party works. The party constitution wasn’t set out in stone, and lots of things have changed in the twenty-five years since it was first written. There’s a lot that has changed since then – not least the party actually being in Government – and it makes sense to me for us to review everything about how we work in the light of all that experience. If we want a party that really empowers all its members, and gives them all an equal voice in running it, then we need to be prepared to make some real reforms to it, not just bodging together something to try and fix it up again and again.
I won’t be at Conference this year (in short: didn’t know if I’d have the time, then when it looked like I did have the time, costs had gone up so much I didn’t have the money) so my contribution will be the occasional blog post and the odd bit of long distance heckling via Twitter. Even if I can’t be there, I can still hope to influence those of you who are there.
It’s that issue of who gets to have a say that’s getting my attention first. On Saturday afternoon, Conference will be voting on an amendment that will radically alter the way the party works. It’s billed as ‘Expanding the democracy of our party with one member, one vote’ because, after all, what Lib Dem would want to say they’re against expanding democracy? Why, it’d be like declaring yourself to be against Shirley Williams!
The problem is that the principle behind the motion – giving all party members a say in policy and how the party’s run – is good and democratic, but the actual proposal doesn’t really deliver on that principle. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that democracy is just about voting for things, so therefore if more people have more chances to vote for more things, then everything must be more democratic. The assumption behind the OMOV proposals is that simply making it so that any member can vote at conference and any member can vote for party committees is intrinsically more democractic, regardless of how it’s implemented.
As Mark Pack and others have pointed out (disclaimer: I’ve seconded Mark’s amendment), the proposals that have been submitted to Conference are a mess in what they’re attempting to achieve, and don’t even address the wider issues of ensuring that the expanded electorate is an informed electorate. I don’t dispute the idea that giving more members a say in the process is a good one, or that there are some members effectively disenfranchised by the current system, but that doesn’t mean that any replacement system is necessarily better. Bringing in a dog’s breakfast of changes and crossing our fingers that there won’t be problems or that we’ll sort them out when they turn up is pretty much the same idea David Cameron has for dealing with constitutional reform.
The problem I see is that any real one-member-one-vote system isn’t actually compatible with the ‘Conference runs everything’ system we have at the moment. (For a simple example of this, imagine if every member wanted to attend Conference and use their vote if the new system comes in) At present most of those who can’t attend Conference – because they can’t afford it or because they don’t have the time – are represented there by representatives from their local party who they can influence. Change the system to the one being proposed, and how are those who can’t get to Conference going to be represented? They won’t be represented by anyone from their local party, and if they can’t get to Conference themselves, they’ve been completely disenfranchised.
The point is that just giving people the vote is only step one in the process, and no real plan is being put forward for step two and beyond. Passing the OMOV proposals in their current form doesn’t address the issue of making the party a genuine mass democracy, which would involve a lot more changes than most people want to consider.
If you’re genuinely interested in expanding the democracy of our party, then vote for Mark’s amendment or to refer back this motion so proposals that actually do that can be created. Democracy doesn’t just come about because we pass a motion and declare ourselves more democratic, and voting for this proposal as is would be to stumble forward into the dark in the hope we can make it happen.
We often use the phrase ‘elective dictatorship‘ to describe the British system of government, reflecting that the nature of our system means that a Government with a majority in Parliament can do pretty much as it wants until the next election. Unlike most actual dictatorships, there are constraints to that power and a Prime Minister or Government can be removed from power if enough of their party decide they want to get rid of them.
Despite ‘elective dictatorship’ not normally being regarded as a positive description, recent years have seen it being rolled out across other forms of government. Believing that ‘strong leaders’ could wield miraculous powers, the Blair government brought in elected mayors for local authorities, concentrating most executive powers for an area in an individual, and even if a council didn’t want a mayor, most of them were forced to shift to the cabinet model – and later to the ‘strong leader’ model, where council leaders would be given effectively the same powers as a mayor, whether they wanted them or not.
This was presented as making local government more ‘democratic’ and ‘accountable’, because one of the persistent myths of British politics – and part of the ‘elective dictatorship’ – is that democracy and accountability are things that only need to happen at the ballot box every few years. Democracy is seen as an act rather than a process with accountability normally being framed as requirements to consult and consider rather than any real controls on the exercise of power. In most cases, any checks on executive power are to potentially block it after it’s announced rather than amend it beforehand.
Which brings us to Police and Crime Commissioners, another classic British case of someone coming up with a solution and then looking for – or creating – a problem that they can fix. In this case, it was the supposed non-accountability of Police Authorities, where accountability had been defined as ‘being known by the public’. Members of police authorities could be removed from their position if they weren’t doing it well, because many of them were appointed directly by councils within that police force’s area. By contrast, although PCCs were elected, no one was given the power to remove them from their office, short of them committing a crime. Police and Crime Panels are required to be consulted and can occasionally block an action by a PCC, but if the PCC’s incompetence isn’t criminal, they can do nothing to remove them from power. The person whose job is supposedly to make the police accountable is so unaccountable themselves, they can’t be removed from their office (unlike just about every other executive office in British politics). That’s why we’ve got the situation we currently have in South Yorkshire, where no one can remove Shaun Wright from office, despite even his own party thinking he should go.
(I know that’s just one part of a bigger issue, and what’s happened in Rotherham is bloody appalling but I really have very little to add to that discussion beyond ‘this is terrible’ as I don’t know how to improve child protection)
The police need to be more accountable to the public they serve (especially when senior police officers think they should be demanding fundamental changes in the law) but PCCs were an ill-thought out way to try and achieve that end. Proper democracy and accountability is an ongoing process of interacting institutions, not an occasional event that grants power to someone and the ability to use it without repercussions. If we want proper accountability it takes work to enable people to hold all power accountable, not and that’s something that can’t be delivered by a gimmick.
The Explosive, Inside Story of How John Kerry Built an Israel-Palestine Peace Plan—and Watched It Crumble – A detailed account of how he came close to getting a deal, then watched it all fall apart. Rationalist theories of international relations hold that war occurs when the sides in a conflict have informational problems and commitment problems – this is a case study in both.
The tech utopia nobody wants: why the world nerds are creating will be awful – We’re in a world where someone is making, actively marketing and recommending for the poor a food substitute called Soylent. Science fiction hasn’t predicted jet packs for years, but it’s been entirely correct about the soulless grey corporate dystopia we’re stumbling into.
Time for 21st century democracy – How old assumptions about the way the British political system should work are making it less in tune with people’s expectations.
Guy Walks Into A Bar – A joke becomes an anti-joke, then a story.
Two Enemies – Alex Andreou on trying to understand the situation in Israel and Palestine.
Let’s say you want to see the House of Lords replaced by an elected chamber. ‘Great!’ Someone tells you. ‘Then you’ll love my plan! I want the upper house to consist of three hundred senators, each one elected from a single constituency at each General Election with the same electoral system as MPs, will you support me?’ You say no, because that’s not the sort of upper house you want to see, but before you can talk about the flaws in that plan or explain a way to improve it, the proposer starts telling you that you’re clearly not interested in electing an upper house because if you were you’d support their idea whole-heartedly and then make any changes after it’s introduced.
It’s an odd example, but it’s how I feel after encountering the people who are proposing that the Liberal Democrats switch to ‘one member, one vote’ (no more local party representatives at party conference, and federal committees elected by all members not just conference reps). Various people – including me – who aren’t opposed to widening the electoral franchise or changing the way Conference works have pointed out that there are various flaws with the current proposals, and in return the response has come that we clearly don’t support the idea at all, and that if there are problems then we should support the proposal as it is and look to fix them afterwards.
The problem I have with the proposals is that they fall into a trap that’s common in British politics in assuming that democracy is about voting for things, so if we have more people able to vote for more things then we must be more democratic, right? This ignores the fact that democracy is a process, not an event, and to make something ‘more democratic’ is about more than just reforming voting procedures. Whoever the electorate is, they need to be engaged and informed about the process they’re part of, and there are no proposals to change that process.
At an electoral level, there’s no commitment to change or invest in the electoral process to ensure that members are actually able to make an informed choice about who they’re voting for. As it stands, we’re likely to get more manifestos that say effectively nothing and have to rely on individual members giving up a lot of their time to ensure there’s any scrutiny of people standing for election. If we want a more open and democratic process then effort has to be put into achieving it, not just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. (My proposal would be to publish manifestos and open campaigning three or four weeks before voting opens, giving proper time to campaign)
There are lots of other things that have been suggested (see the comments here for examples) but the point is that they should be introduced at the same time, not some add-ons to be potentially brought in at a later date. Over the years, I’ve seen too many packages of reforms in different fields that have introduced a first phase with a future second phase promised but never delivered (to go back to the beginning, look at House of Lords reforms) and I think just introducing ‘one member one vote’ without contemplating the wider implications of it is a mistake. I worry that people seem to think it’s a magic fix for everything they perceive as wrong with the party, and are assuming that ‘more democracy’ is automatically better without considering what ‘more democracy’ actually means.
About Teather’s “explanation” of voting against equality – Lee Griffin points out the problems with Sarah Teather’s reasons for voting against the same-sex marriage bill.
The Other 11 Doctors – What if the Doctor had always been played by a woman?
Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church – Megan Phelps-Roper, one of the more prominent members of the Westboro Baptist Church (‘God Hates Fags’) has left it.
Open letter to Andrew Turner MP – “I will not vote for you, because you think I am worth less as a person than you. No-one who believes I am as entitled to civil rights as anyone else will vote for you. Yesterday was not an attack on religious freedom, but a doorway to it for so many people who’ve been denied a full spiritual and civil engagement in society. If your vote yesterday were a matter of conscience, I suggest you consider the lives you have wished on young LGBT people under your care, because they are so much better off today than when I was growing up and you’ve done everything in your power, which is the power entrusted to you by the people of the island, to oppose that.”
Political failure modes and the beige dictatorship – If you think I’m cynical about modern politics, read this post by Charles Stross.