Opening the Gates

One of the most striking achievements of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition agreement was the pledge to end all detention of children for immigration purposes. Unlike areas such as prisons and civil liberties, where Liberal policies chimed with Cameron’s instincts, this is a policy that the Tories would never have implemented on their own. This is a hugely commendable policy, correcting an injustice that has shamed Britain in recent years

Unfortunately, the policy comes with a sting in the tail. In June we heard that the government planned to build a ‘reintegration centre’ in Kabul, for Afghani boys who had sought asylum in Britain. Such a centre is designed to ease them back into life in Afghanistan. The policy has a veneer of care but is in essence extremely cold-hearted if we can’t imprison children, we’ll simply deport them. Then last week there was a further development, a leak of a pilot scheme in the North-West of England. Under said scheme, failed asylum applicants would have 2 weeks to leave the country, after which they can be deported at any time without notice, presumably in a ‘dawn raid’ that has become so commonplace in the asylum system. The two week notice period would apply regardless of how long you had been in the country; a family might have been in Britain in 5 years, with children attending school and then given a mere 14 days to uproot themselves.

Many other injustices in the system remain: adult asylum seekers may still be subject to detention despite having committed no crime, most refugees are prevented from working legally or claiming mainstream benefits, leaving them frequently close to destitute. Most benefits that are received are in the form of supermarket vouchers, depriving the claimant of any meaningful liberty. On top of this there is the ingrained attitude of the UKBA, which as was recently revealed, has an institutional culture in which every accepted application is considered a failure, and the low standard of immigration tribunals and their decisions which require so many cases to go to appeal. All of this designed with one goal, confirmed by the leaked document, of increasing the number of removals, and keeping down the overall immigration headlines. This then is not a policy not driven by the needs of the immigrant, nor by economics, since, even in recession, migrants tend to do the jobs that British citizens refuse to. No, immigration policy continues to be driven by the desire for good headlines, regardless of any other factors.

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Left Without a Left

At the start of the Labour leadership campaign, before MP’s nominations had been recorded, things looked pretty hopeful for those seeking a radical change from the New Labour era. It seemed likely that John Cruddas, unofficial leader of the intelligent ‘soft left’, and representative of the  (modernising left) pressure group Compass, would stand. He seemed set to combine the sensibility of the intellectual (holding a PhD in philosophy) with the groundedness of the activist, in touch with working class concerns around housing, minimum wage implementation and privatisation. It also seemed likely that John McDonnell, who was prevented from challenging Gordon Brown in 2007 through lack of MPs support, would also be a candidate. McDonnell, an MP since 1997, and a backbencher throughout the Labour government years is chair of the (hard left) Campaign Group and holds beliefs consistent with this; stridently anti-war, anti-privatisation and unapologetically socialist. He combines these views with great intelligence, great wit and a good deal of charm. He would have been a great voice in the leadership debate, articulating the case for genuinely left wing policies, forcing the more centrist candidates (centre right?) to justify their policies in a way that Blair of Brown never had to. Would either have had a chance? In the case of McDonnell, no, in the case of Cruddas, a very small one. They would, however, have set the debate on fire, forcing a serious re-evaluation of the New Labour era and an open consideration of what might be the way forward.

Sadly, neither made it on to the shortlist. Cruddas ruled himself out, saying that he didn’t believe he had the qualities necessary to be leader, let alone Prime Minister, and that instead he wanted to influence the policy debate and be a debate between the grassroots and the leadership. On the one hand this seemed pretty selfless, Cruddas lacking the ego necessary to want to be leader, his desire being only to get particular policies implemented. On the other hand, his decision could be seen as rather selfish. He didn’t wish to have the vast pressure and personal scrutiny that comes with being leader; this is understandable, but if so, isn’t it a mistake to go into politics at all? The only way for agendas to be implemented, for policies to be put into practice is for someone to step up to the plate and put their name to them. If the left is too principled or fearful to fight for the leadership then we’ll be forever saddled with unprincipled careerists of the right whose deepest thoughts concern how to keep Rupert Murdoch on side. If Cruddas had stood and (as most likely) come a respectable second or third, he’d have been guaranteed a shadow cabinet role and chance to build a real power base from which to set an agenda; as it is he faces another 5 years on the back benches, respected yes, but without any real influence.

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6 Theses on the Budget


The budget has blown apart the notion that Labour and the Conservatives are much the same. Many commentators during the election argued that the 2 parties had very similar policies on dealing with the deficit, and differences between them were exaggerated for electoral purposes. This view was strengthened during the campaign when the difference between the parties was reduced to whether or not to make £6 billion of early cuts.  Now there’s a massive difference: Labour pledged to halve the deficit in 4 years, which they projected would involve taking £82 Billion off it (which in itself seemed ambitious), the coalition has said it will eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-15, therefore going twice as fast, adding a further £40 Billion reduction.


George Osborne has, with great fanfare, created the new Office for Budget Responsibility, the OBR. Its purpose was to undertake tasks previously done by the treasury, to make forecasts for economic growth, the size of government spending and borrowing, and comment of the shape of the economy. This has been billed as a great reforming measure, taking power from politicians (bad) and giving it to trusted experts (good).  The trouble is that is doesn’t look very independent. Its chair, Sir Alan Budd, a former advisor to Norman Lamont (like David Cameron) has been working for the Conservative party for the last year. Recently, following a document leaked by the Guardian that presented a damning set of statistics on job losses, the OBR rushed out its own document, rather more favourable to the government, in time for David Cameron to quote from it at Question Time. For the OBR to have any credibility at all it need to be appointed by Parliament, not just the chancellor, and should, like the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, include a range of economists with different specialisms and differing approaches.

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Fundamentalism and Organisation

On community organising, religion and getting things done

Citizens UK (formerly London Citizens) are pretty hot right now. During the election campaign they held a rally at which all 3 main party leaders spoke. No other organisation had the clout to achieve this. Their model of ‘community organising’ epitomises David Cameron’s dream of a ‘big society’ and now David Milliband has promised to use his campaign funds to train a thousand community organisers as part of his vision for Labour renewal. What is the secret of their success, and do they offer a model that can be widely followed? Are they the way forward or a dangerous retreat into communitarianism?

Founded in 1989, and gaining real prominence in the last 5 years or so, Citizens UK is a London dominated alliance of community organisers, modelled on Saul Alinsky’s ideas developed in Chicago in the 1930s. Community organising, a tradition well established in the US but less known in the UK, is an attempt to give power to the powerless by encourage them to organize (usually locally) and make demands, in their own self-interest.

Alinsky’s principles were confrontational and hard-nosed, realising that power would not be gained merely by asking for it:

A People’s Organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness. They are basically the same issues for which nations have gone to war in almost every generation. . . . War is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play.

Citizens UK has stayed true to this confrontational approach. Its first, and most famous success was to force Banks and other city institutions to pay a ‘living wage’ to their cleaning and other menial staff. This was a higher amount than the national minimum wage, calculated to reflect the real cost of living in London. The campaign combined a variety of tactics including occupations of buildings, interventions at AGMs and public shaming of the Banks in order to force a change of policy. The Living Wage later became a key part of Ken Livingstone’s mayoral policy, has been continued by Boris Johnson and has now become a major part of national political discourse. Other campaigns include a call for an amnesty for illegal migrants (a version of which was proposed by the Liberal Democrats at the election) and for ‘community land trusts’, a sustainable approach to long-term, community owned housing. In these, and other areas, Citizens UK has punched above its weight, arguably influencing debate and policy far more than more traditional bodies such as think tanks and trade unionists. Its combination of wide membership, consensus building techniques and direct action are a powerful combination, and their approach seems immensely attractive to progressives and liberals.

One element, however, is less likely to warm liberal hearts. Citizens UK has no membership for individuals, only for organisations and is thus run on communitarian/collectivist lines rather than liberal ones. This reflects the fact that the majority of their member organisations are religious groups, a broad coalition of churches, mosques and synagogues (though Jewish involvement has been limited, perhaps because of the event at Bevis Marks Synagogue where a rabbi was sacked for allowing his synagogue to be used as part of a demonstration). London Citizens activist Maurice Glasman, at a meeting during a Compass conference, described this as central to the organisation’s success. He argued that if a trade union claimed they could get 100 people to a demonstration, only 10 would turn up. If however, a Mosque leader made the same claim, they could be sure of getting nearer to 90 participants. Given that numbers of committed activists are central to the success of campaigns, and given the decline in membership in political parties and trade unions, the galvanizing of activists through religious institutions is an exciting prospect. It raises, however some awkward questions.

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Defending the Indefensible

Israel’s actions today were unjustified. In launching an operation to take control of the flotilla of ships seeking to take aid and materials to , an operation in which at least 10 people died, the Israeli army has behaved in an entirely unjustified manner.

Some may think my language excessively moderate. Others have already used term like ‘massacre’ ‘war crimes’ ‘barbaric attack’ and variations on these. I avoid them because I believe that where Israel/Palestine is concerned it is best to lower, rather than raise the volume, to deal in facts rather than in slogans. If nothing else, easy slogans make it too easy for the defenders of Israel to ignore the critique. In this case, where the facts so clearly fail to justify the IDF’s behaviour, we need to make full use of them.

The flotilla was the latest attempt in the campaign, led by the Free Gaza Campaign, to break the blockade of Gaza. There have been several ships sent during Israel’s 3 year blockade (of which more below), and while most have been stopped, some have been allowed through (see here ) in moments when the Israeli government decided to be a little more tactical, or perhaps more importantly, before Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister.  The Flotilla, the latest of such attempts, was bringing in necessary

“cement & building materials, medicine & medical equipment, wheelchairs, school & art supplies, playground & sports equipment”

Israeli spokespeople have claimed that in reality, there is no blockade, and had the activists simply brought their cargo to an Israeli port, Israel would then have brought them to Gaza. This is disingenuous. While Israel is allowing in what it terms humanitarian aid, the amount, and items allowed in are strictly controlled. It is estimated that the permitted deliveries to Gaza represent a mere 20% of imports before the blockade began in 2007, and that’s without considering the greater need for materials for reconstruction due to the war of January 2009. Just as importantly, Israel bans all materials for building for entering Gaza, including cement and glass. The reason is to make it impossible for Hamas operatives to build more weapons, but has the effect of stopping Gazans from rebuilding their houses, schools and public building, or from restoring any semblance of normal life.  It would be one thing for Israel to stop actual weapons from entering Gaza; quite another to ban materials that are necessary for maintaining society.

Within Israel’s stated policy of maintaining the blockade, they had the option of simply stopping it from reaching Gaza. They could have sent naval ships to surround the flotilla, enclosing it, and then, once it acquiesced, escorting it to the Israeli port of Ashdod. If, following such an action, the flotilla had fired upon the navy, showing that it was seriously armed, the IDF would have been then justified in taking control of the ships, being then, a more genuinely self-defensive act. Why did they not do this? Presumably, because it could have led to an embarrassing stalemate, and kept the issue in the news for the several days it might take to resolve. Ironic, given the terrible publicity they have now received.

Instead of this, Israel opted to send in soldiers to take control of the ship, in international waters, making the act entirely illegal. In taking such action, in the middle of the night, it was almost inevitable that there would be resistance, and with it, the risk of fatalities. Perhaps if the organisers had been absolute saints, carefully trained in non violent resistance, the deaths could have been avoided. Certainly the activists should have been more fastidious in ensuring they gave no provocation to the Israeli troops. There can be no justification in illegally invading a ship, an action which is extremely likely to lead to injury and death, in a situation where the ship is not attacking you, is not carrying arms and has no violent intent.

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On 55%

We are starting a period, that like 1997, is a paradise for fans of constitutional reform. The new coalition, artfully dubbed ‘ConDemnation’ by the Mirror, is embarking on a set reforms, several of which seem to have written on the back on envelope. This of course is constitutional reform UK style – don’t bother with a constitutional convention, independent enquiry, or even all party agreement. If you’ve got a majority in Parliament, go ahead and change the rules. The next government can always change them back again. Simple, ineffective, usually ill thought out, and piecemeal. That, apparently, is the way we like it.

One such reform currently proposed is to institute fixed term parliaments. This has been a long-standing demand of reformers, and should be viewed sympathetically. Until now, the Prime Minister had the power to call an election whenever he or she chooses, within a maximum time frame of 5 years since the previous election. This gives a substantial advantage to the incumbent, allowing them to go to the polls when things are going their way, and avoid the electorate when things are not going to plan. This part of the proposal is widely supported, and naturally is the part that David Cameron is eager to promote:

“I’m the first prime minister in British history to give up the right unilaterally to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament. This is a huge change in our system, it is a big giving-up of power.

If we had a presidential system this would all make perfect sense. The president would be elected for a fixed term (as in the USA), would seek to get his/her programme through the legislative arm, and would face the voters at the end of the term. The UK, however has a parliamentary democracy.

We elect 650 representatives to the House of Commons, and they then vote in a government, usually the leader of the party with the most seats. A government is only sustained by their majority in the house of commons, voting for their programme. Should they lose that majority, either through by-elections or through MPs withdrawing their support, they face a ‘vote of no confidence’ and through this mechanism the government is brought down. In the past a vote of no confidence has almost always been followed by a general election. The prime minister, having lost the support of parliament, went to the queen and formally dissolved it.

What happens if dates of parliament are fixed? Lets say the current government was brought down by a vote of no confidence (say by the Liberals quitting) in 2013. The next election is not due until May 2015. What happens for those 2 years? In some systems, the right to dissolve parliament, and thus call an election is granted to a third party, the head of state. In Britain that would be, er the queen. While we don’t seem to quite want rid of the monarchy we don’t want them to have any actual power. That would just be embarrassing.

The logical approach seems to be, following a vote of no-confidence, there should be an attempt to put together an alternative government, whether merely under a new prime minister, or a whole new combination of parties. In the current parliament that would be a ‘rainbow coalition’ with labour, the liberal democrats and a few small parties. If the parties could agree such a coalition, they could then serve out the final 2 years of the parliamentary term. All well and good. But what if no alternative coalition could be formed? What if the labour party decided it was not in its interest to form a coalition for 2 years, as it fancied its chances in an immediate election. The logical solution would be a mechanism like this: following a vote of no confidence, there was an allotted period of time in which a new government could be formed (say 2 weeks). At the end of this period, if it had not been possible to form a new coalition, a new general election would automatically be called. This would bring the best of both worlds; the neutrality of fixed term parliaments and a clear mechanism for when a government falls in the middle of a term.

Sadly, this is not what has been proposed.

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An election about elections

On Thursday we’re having an election. You may have noticed. It’ll be held under our ‘First Past the Post System, the worst electoral system ever invented. If we get the voting right this time we should be able to change that system and make this the last election to be held in this fundamentally stupid way. Below I outline why it’s so bad and how we can ensure it gets changed. If you’re already convinced of the need for electoral reform skip to the bottom for some suggestions on how we might change it.

The Broken System

The BBC’s website has a great tool. Its allows you to input projected shares of the vote each party might get and see roughly how many seats they would receive from this. The results are rather startling. Lets, taking recent opinion polls, assume that the Tories get 34%, the Liberal Democrats 29% and Labour 28%. You’d assume that the Conservatives would get the most seats, and the Liberals would have slightly more than Labour, right? Wrong. The Conservatives would get 255, Labour 283 and the Liberal Democrats 83. Labour could easily have the most seats whilst coming third in vote share, and the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly get no more than half the seats that their vote share suggest they should. The most extreme example of this came in the 1983 election, in which the SDP (predecessor to the Liberal Democrats) got 26% of the vote but just 2.6% of the seats in parliament. The majorities of voters voted against Margaret Thatcher, the system delivered a whopping majority for the Conservative. So how the hell do these distortions happen?

Despite the fact that our government is national, making central decisions that apply over the entire country, our electoral system prevents us from voting nationally. We vote 646 local contests, the outcome of each being entirely independent of the others, as if we were a collection of islands seeing ourselves as fundamentally separate but occasionally agreeing to pool sovereignty. This uber-localism makes some sense when citizens feel strongly attached to a local unit for historical reasons, such as the American states. UK constituency boundaries however have no meaningful status, they frequently change from election to election, and most of us have no idea where one ends and another begins. So how does the constituency system so monumentally distort the national vote?

Imagine 3 constituencies, each with 10 voters, and each with the same 3 parties competing for their votes.

Seat 1 : Party A 5 Votes, Party B 4 Votes, Party C 1 Vote

Winner: Party A

Seat 2: Party A 0 votes, Party B 4 votes, Party C 6 Votes

Winner: Party C

Seat 3: Party A 5 Votes, Party B 4 Votes, Party C 1 Vote

Winner: Party A

So Party A wins 2 seats and Party C wins 1. Within each seat that seems totally fair.
If, however we add together the total votes from the 3 seats, a very different picture emerges.

Party A    10 Votes
Party B    12 Votes
Party C 8 Votes

Part B thus gains the most votes but gets no seats because its voters are spread out across the 3 seats rather than concentrated in 1. This model demonstrates what can happen across the whole country. That’s the basic distortion of the system, but here’s some particular problems it throws up.

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The Dangers of Stupid Voting

a leaflet appears through my door.

It is from the Liberal Democrats.

Its headline: ‘Labour Must Go’. It goes on the criticise the failings of local Labour MPs, and suggests that I ‘send Gordon Brown a message he can’t ignore’

From this leaflet, one would assume that there is a forthcoming General Election, that local voters will have the opportunity to elect different MPs, or to elect a new British government

This line is echoed by much of the press, who suggest that the forthcoming European elections offer a chance to ‘give Labour a kicking’ or ‘send a message to the main political parties’.

But this is complete rubbish.

The British government is not up for re-election, and we are not voting to remove MPs who claimed excessive expenses.

We are voting to elect the members of the European Parliament, a place not controlled by Labour or Gordon Brown, and one where, believe it or not, there are bigger issues at stake.

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