» jennie rigg ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Jennie Rigg and James Graham have both written posts recently that have touched on issues that have been concerning me. To quote Jennie:

And because people are just generally pissed off with politicians, political media, and elections this feeds into the perception that there is a lack of meaningful choice – if all politicians are the same and they are all venal scumsucking money-grubbing bastards, why bother to try to choose between them? It won’t make any difference.

And James:

What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours

(Read the whole thing from both of them, of course)

We’re sleepwalking into a democratic crisis in this country. In fact, we may already be in the middle of the one. I know there’ll be lots of ‘whither democracy?’ articles floating around the ether after the PCC elections, but they were just a symptom of the ongoing issues that are affecting the country, not the cause of something in itself.

The problem is that in many people’s perceptions democracy has become conflated with ‘voting for things’. We forget that democracy is meant to be an ongoing process, not just something you turn up and do periodically and then forget about. To borrow from Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds:

The core of democracy, for its inventors, was participation. You not only voted, you served in office when called upon. Now, perhaps, a gentleman might think it poor form to discuss politics; his Athenian forebears would think it idiotic not to. Literally idiotic: those who ‘kept out of politics’ were risible, contemptible, ‘The Selfers’, idiôtes, foolishly self-absorbed and out of the swim.

Now, this could be a rant about people not getting involved and not voting. How dare they sit at home when we’ve given them things to vote for! Why would they not want to take the time to have their say about whether they want someone as their PCC who’ll cut crime or someone who’ll priorities crime cutting instead? But that’s definitely not the issue: the problem isn’t that voters are idiots (under any definition of the word) but that the system insists on treating them like they are. People discuss politics and political issues, they do it often and in great depth – they just don’t feel any connection to the political systems that are supposed to deal with these issues. To quote from Jennie again:

The causes of this are many and complex, but a large part of it is the electoral system which forces there two be two big broad church parties of disparate people BEFORE an election rather than coalitions forming after; a large part of it is the media who love to take politicians down and misrepresent them for sensationalist reasons; some of it is a lack of education on politics and its processes; and some of it is the dishonesty of politicians in not admitting that actually, there is very little difference between any of the main parties precisely due to the above effects.

And as James points out, ideology is being slowly removed from British politics in favour of a form of competitive managerialism, where people don’t compete on vision and ideology but on who can best hit a set of ill-defined targets.

And the reaction to this disengagement between the political system and the public is to promise more disengagement. PCCs, like elected Mayors before them, come from the rather Mussolini-esque belief that too much democracy – lots of people discussing different views and coming to a joint conclusion – is horribly inefficient (and nothing’s worse for a managerialist than perceived inefficiency within a system) and we’d be better served by a single leader making all the decisions because – for reasons no one can quite explain, but seem to revolve around the ability to vote them out in several years if they choose to stand for re-election – that one person will be ‘accountable’. Again, this is managerialism in action, where you set one person a group of targets to meet and assess them on whether they make them or not. The problem here is that I’ve never met a voter who makes their decision based on that sort of criteria.

This is why I’m concerned about a democratic crisis in this country, as voters become more and more disengaged from the system, and the system responds in ways that only deepen the divide and invite contempt. As well as government, though, there’s a crisis of trust in many institutions in the country: the police after Hillsborough and other events, the BBC after Savile, the press after phone hacking, and so on. Add to that all the problems of the economy and austerity and we’ve got all the precursors for a complete collapse of confidence in all institutions in place.

My fear is that we’re in a position similar to Italy’s in the early 90s, and all we’re lacking is a Berlusconi to come along and take advantage of the situation. The main political parties are all seeing their membership dwindle and their capacity to engage the public be correspondingly reduced, and there’s a huge vacuum waiting to be filled. People want to be engaged in politics and political discussions, but they’re not getting that from the system at the moment. As I wrote a few months ago, the parties have reduced politics to a big game, and people want more from it than that. Given the right message, the right funding and the right figurehead, a British version of Forza Italia could bulldoze the other parties out of the way – and thanks to our electoral system could be swept into a huge majority and near-absolute power. We might be lucky and get a movement led by someone who wants to be a benign dictator in the style of De Gaulle, or we might be unlucky and find ourselves like Italy after the early 90s, finding we’ve got rid of one damaged system to replace it with one that’s worse.

That’s where my fear comes from – that this perfect storm of crises might be used by certain forces to bounce us into a system of government that’s a long way from where we are today. Scotland might be lucky enough to get away from it if that were to happen, but what of the rest of us?

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The results from the Liberal Democrat federal internal elections came out this morning, and you can see the results here (for a list of who was elected) and here (for the full voting breakdown).

Various people on blogs (see Jennie and Andy, for example) and Twitter have been discussing the results and the way we run elections before and after the results were declared, and I wanted to jot down some thoughts I’ve had before I forget.

How many party members read Lib Dem blogs? And how many of those are voting reps?

There was a lot of discussion about these elections on various blogs and Twitter, but how many of the relevant people were actually reading them? I noticed that many people who I expected to do well in the elections because of their prominence as bloggers did pretty poorly.

So the question has to be whether the debates we have on Lib Dem blogs (up to and including those on Lib Dem Voice) are actually being seen by much of the party membership. And even if blogs do reach lots of people, are they the same people who vote in these elections? (Have there been demographic analyses of how elected conference reps compare to the membership of the party and the population of the country?)

One other thought – why not just call them ‘Federal representatives’ and ‘Regional representatives’ and not mention Conference? Would that encourage more people to take on the role, if it’s not thought of as being just about going to Conference?

And one last point – the people who get to vote in the 2014 internal elections will actually be getting elected as voting reps in about twelve months time. People planning campaigns for then perhaps should be getting organised a lot sooner than they think they should.

Should the party be encouraging more internal debate?

We pride ourselves on being a democratic and open party, so we shouldn’t be afraid of debating openly amongst ourselves. Indeed, the fact that so many candidates wanted to stand for the different committees shows that there is an urge for that to happen. However, is that debate best accomplished by giving each candidate one sheet of A5 to set out what they want? (And then only letting most people see that if they’re a voting rep) Should the party be encouraging candidates to supply more information online and enabling virtual hustings and debates?

(Jennie pointed at the Pirate Party’s system this morning, which makes a distinction between a campaigning period and a voting period – that could be something worth considering)

Andy makes a good suggestion in the LDV comments:

If there were a dedicated website, a really useful feature would be for it to ennable an online hustings system, where anyone can submit a question to all candidates, subscribe to replies to a question they or someone else have asked, etc. A kind of clearing-house for questions. If it was a reasonably formal part of the way the election was run, then it would avoid the issue of some candidates not supplying their contact details, making it difficult for people like Jennie Rigg and myself to step up to ask questions and broadcast the replies. When you look at each candidate’s details on this website, it could then show not only their original election statement, but also their replies to any questions they’ve been asked.

That would be very useful, and having that in one official location would make it easy to direct people to, while allowing others to campaign and promote people based on what’s being said there.

Following on from Andy’s thought, it occurs to me that if you were to build a system that enabled people to contact candidates, ask questions and receive public replies, there’d be uses for it outside of internal elections. Imagine at the next General Election if, rather than just having their bio on the party website, people could pose questions to parliamentary candidates through it? (It could even be extended to be available for local council candidates, if they wanted to use it) If the party was to start working on a system like that now, then the internal elections in two years time could be the test bed for it – and you could increase participation in the debate and questioning by telling people this is a test of an important part of the General Election campaign – and then it could be rolled out publicly a few months later for the General Election.

That’s all for now, but I reserve the right to bore you all with more thoughts about this at another time.

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I mentioned the other day about Jennie Rigg’s plan to gather questions together for candidates in the Liberal Democrats’ internal elections. Unlike when I come up with a grand plan and then neglect to follow through, Jennie’s a woman of action, and not only has she collected together a list of eleven questions for candidates for both Federal Policy Committee and Federal Executive Committee, she’s managed to send it out to most of the candidates.

So, if you’re a candidate and you haven’t received any questions yet, now you can go and find them, and if you’re a party member wanting to know more about what people want to do if they’re elected, you can go and find out. The answers are being collated here as they come in, and they make for very interesting reading so far, giving you a much greater insight into what they stand for than a side of A5 in the manifesto booklet ever could. Indeed, it occurs to me that this sort of public forum, with the opportunity to question and debate the points made is something the party should be encouraging for a healthier internal democracy. I’ve noticed previously that Labour Party members are often debating their NEC and Policy Forum (I think that’s the right name) elections, and it seems odd that ours up to now have almost been conducted in secrecy.

There’s a few other thoughts I’ve had about internal party democracy from reading those responses, but I’ll save them for another post. Until then, get over to Jennie’s blog and read what they’ve got to say!

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My, is it really two years since the last set of internal elections in the Liberal Democrats? Obviously yes, because the Lib Dem Twitterverse and blogosphere is at something-that-might-be-a-fever-or-might-be-the-result-of-sitting-too-close-to-the-radiator-pitch about it, but this time we may get more discussion of them because the rules have finally been relaxed to allow it.

Given that the deadline has passed, it’s probably too late to point candidates towards my suggestions for what to say and not say in their manifestos from last time, but I would say that they’re important things to remember when campaigning in these elections. They are important, and the committees will have some important decisions to make about the future direction of the party as we approach the next election.

With that in mind, I’d like to point people towards Jennie’s plan to gather together questions for FPC and FCC candidates – if you’re not standing, it’s your chance to get a question to a lot of candidates, and if you are standing then when she’s gathered together her list of questions, answering them is a way to get your views seen by a lot of people. Hopefully, it’ll mean we can get a proper debate going, and give me a chance to really think over who gets my 63rd preference for Policy Committee this time.

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I left a comment last week on Jennie Rigg’s post about potential leaders of the Liberal Democrats that I wanted to expand on.

Jennie was looking at the potential candidates for next leader of the Liberal Democrats, and one thing that comes up from her survey is that the party isn’t exactly overwhelmed with leadership contenders. What I wonder is if this is a result of what the party expects from Parliamentary candidates and MPs, effectively limiting the pool of leadership candidates by preventing potential candidates from even jumping the first hurdle – being an MP – long before any of the others come in to play.

I’m not going to name names (because that would probably start a whole other discussion) but at many party events, conferences etc, I’ve been struck by the talent and abilities of people in the party who aren’t MPs, and clearly aren’t planning to become one. It’s my opinion that many of these people would not just make great MPs, they’d be assets in senior leadership positions. However, because they’re not going to be in Parliament, those talents rarely get seen beyond a small area. Why is it, though, that these people don’t choose to go for Parliament?

As I said on Jennie’s post, one major problem is that to become a Parliamentary candidate for the party – particularly in a winnable seat – you are expected to put in a large amount of time and effort across a number of areas. As has been pointed out by the Campaign for Gender Balance and others, this is huge disincentive to stand for many people. Unless you get lucky and win selection in one of the party’s very small (and probably reducing) number of safe seats, then you effectively have to give up whatever career you already have to devote yourself to trying to get elected. While there are some exceptions who have given up almost everything and gone for it, I think others prefer taking an easier path. That’s not to say that their decision is wrong, but in the overall scheme of things, it could go towards explaining why Jennie’s survey comes up with so few candidates.

(And this post isn’t special pleading – I’ve got no desire to become an MP, as hooting like an idiot in the House of Commons isn’t my idea of a rewarding career)

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Another gathering of things people have said better than me:

I Hate It When Politicians Talk About “Hard-Working Families” – Jennie Rigg points out the flaws in a bit of politician-speak.
Democracy 2015 – The Independent’s new campaign – I was thinking of pointing out some of the flaws with this campaign, but A Dragon’s Best Friend has beating me to it.
Gathering of the damned – DoktorB on party conferences and leaders’ speeches.
Do we have to be so macho? – In the wake of David Cameron’s ‘butch’ comments, Emma Burnell questions the style of modern politics.
Comedians using their fans for co-ordinated, safety-in-numbers bullying – There’s a ‘y’ in the day, so Rick Gervais is behaving like a privileged arsehole.

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I was reading various blogs and other things last night on the subject of police accreditation for Liberal Democrat Conference, and I was struck by the fact that several people I saw on the other side of the debate to me were using the ‘why get upset about it, there are more important things to worry about’ argument. I was reminded of that today, when Jennie Rigg wrote this after receiving a similar response from someone else:

Yesterday, someone I care about a lot told me that while this decision was deplorable, the other stuff I was posting about yesterday, the economic stuff, was more important, and I should “get a sense of perspective”. The fact that the adoption of this process means that people I care about will literally be risking their lives if they want to come to conference apparently needs to be put in perspective with the fact that Vince Cable said a thing…

Of course, the use of ‘there are more important things’ isn’t just limited to Lib Dem bloggers arguing about Conference. We’ve seen it being deployed recently by the Tory backbenches as though it’s a compelling argument against House of Lords reform, equal marriage or whatever else they’re in outrage about at the moment.

I’m quite sure I’ve probably used the same argument myself at some point, but I do find it a very weak argument, so I hope my uses of it have been light-hearted rather than as a sole objection. In and of itself, though, it’s a very weak argument. The main problem with it is that it’s presupposing that there’s some grand mutually-agreed list of Stuff In Order Of Importance that will prove that the person deploying the argument is right, and the person supposedly wasting their time on the things that aren’t as important will agree that they’ve been focusing their attention on the wrong subject.

Human beings really don’t work like that, and what’s high on one person’s list may rank pretty low on someone else’s. There’s also the question of the effect an individual can have. Yes, the economy’s a mess and we need to do more to create jobs, but how much effect on the economy are me, Jennie or anyone else going to have writing about it on the internet? On the other hand, as party members and activists, we can have a direct influence on the accreditation at Conference issue, so isn’t it better to quickly nod and say ‘well done Vince’ then divert your attention to something where you as an individual really can make a difference?

It also forgets that human beings are capable of paying attention to more than one issue, and that when you get a large group of them together – say, into a Government – they’re capable of doing more than one thing at the same time. It’s why the Tory backbenchers arguing against Lords reform or equal marriage just seemed rather silly to me in their belief that this would occupy all the Government’s time. I can’t quite see why anyone in the Treasury, BIS or Transport (to pick three departments that have an effect on the economy) would find themselves distracted from their job because of an entirely different part of the Government putting forward proposals that don’t affect them.

In the same manner, when one joins a political party, part of the reason for that is to spread the effort involved amongst a number of people. The fact that some of us want to use our position in the Liberal Democrats to stand up for some actual liberalism doesn’t stop anyone else from getting on with doing whatever they want to do in the party, and it’s only their urge to sneer ‘don’t you have something better to do with your time?’ that helps to reveal those who’d like to use their time to get rid of those pesky liberals who keep messing up their plans.

And I’m sure you had better things to do with your time than read this post – didn’t you know that there are people starving elsewhere in the world? That climate change could render huge swathes of land uninhabitable? That the sun will expand and destroy the entire planet in a few billion years? What are you doing about any of those, eh? – but thanks for doing it, anyway.

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