23 April 2011

The case for electoral reform: Why to vote YES to fairer votes on May 5

By Rupert Read

There’s a good old saying: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But: BRITISH POLITICS is BROKEN. Our electoral system is unfit for purpose. It was designed for a two-Party system: it can’t cope with a multi-Party system. We need to fix it: Ergo, it’s time for electoral reform. It’s time to vote Yes to fairer votes. It’s time to vote Yes2AV. AV [The ‘Alternative Vote’] is the change we need.

How is our current system ‘broken’? Because being able only to crudely put an ‘X’ in one box just doesn’t work when you have 3 or more serious candidates standing for election – as in virtually all elections nowadays we do. In the 1950s, 97% of people voted Labour or Conservative. That figure keeps dropping and dropping every year, with the presence on the scene of the LibDems but also the dramatic rise of new Parties such as the Green Party, UKIP, etc. . We need a system that allows you to list your preferences, from 1 all the way down, so that you can vote FOR those who you support AND AGAINST those who you oppose. AV is voting for who you really want to vote for, and being able to stop those you really don’t.

Our current system, ‘First past the post’, means that you have to try to guess who is best-placed to win, and who you should vote for if you want to keep someone else out. The new proposed system, the ‘Alternative Vote’ [AV], means that you simply list the candidates in descending order of preference. AV really is as easy as 1, 2, 3…

That’s the core case for voting YES, and joining the many countries that use AV in their national elections: Australia, India, Ireland, Papua New Guinea, etc. AV is a modern system, an improvement on the antiquated, outdated FirstPastThePost system we currently have.

Think about it this way: If you go into a pub, and your first choice drink isn’t available, do you just walk out again? Of course not – you ask for an alternative, your second choice. But under FirstPastThePost, you don’t get a second choice! FPTP means no second choices in the pub. Whereas AV means a second choice if your favourite drink isn't available! Thank God that we don’t use FPTP when ordering at the bar… And, for the same reason, we should stop using it for elections, too! Because it is just far too crude. Because it’s just silly. Whereas AV is democracy – your choices – in action.

So: The case for voting YES is clear. What’s the case for voting NO? These are the two main lines I hear:

1) ‘AV is good for extremists’.
This is simply a lie, a Goebbelsian big lie that right-wing newspapers and the Prime Minister, to their shame, are spreading in their desperation to stop electoral reform from winning the day. The truth is the very opposite of this lie. The truth is that AV is far worse than FPTP for extremists such as the BNP. Which is presumably why the BNP are vigorously opposing it... That’s right: Nick Griffin and his dreadful little-Englander Party of racists are campaigning for a NO vote on May 5. Voting YES to AV -- a system in which voters can in effect work together to make life harder for unpopular, hated Parties -- will help ensure that the BNP never gets elected to Westminster. Moreover, if AV were introduced in local government elections, it would lead to the defeat of virtually all their Councillors. For under AV, you need to get 50% of voters onside, to win. The BNP hardly ever achieve that, because a majority of voters hate them. The BNP have only ever got one Councillor elected with 50% or more of the vote. Under AV, most people would put the BNP bottom of their preference-list. AV would shut the door on the electoral prospects of the BNP.

…But if you want Nick Griffin to wake up with a big smile on May 6th, then vote NO...

AV would have saved us from Thatcher. AV would have kept us safe from values that weren’t really ours. If we bring AV in, it will safeguard us now against the BNP.

2) ‘To hurt the LibDems, vote NO’.
The NOtoAV campaign, understandably (given that they seem to have no constructive arguments at all to offer) are trying to turn the AV referendum into a referendum on Nick Clegg. This is an unacceptably-cynical way to treat a hugely important constitutional question; but there’s another reason, less obvious, why it’s wrong, and it’s this: Nick Clegg's Party will not benefit from AV. Under AV, you can give your first preference to whoever you want to win. The LibDems might under AV gain votes in areas where they are weak, as they will no longer be perceived as a "wasted vote" in those areas. (A great thing about AV is that it abolishes the ‘wasted vote’ argument against voting for who you want – you can vote for who you really want, and give your 2nd preference to the lesser of three evils.) However, in some quarters the LibDems are now hated, so see my argument (1) above: AV will make it possible if you want to to put the LibDems bottom of your voting-order! Moreover, under AV the LibDems will lose some first preference votes in areas where they are currently strong, as people will no longer be compelled to vote for them ‘tactically’ in order to cast a vote that is not "wasted". Losing votes where you are strong loses you seats; gaining votes where you are weak does not ...Ironically, it simply isn’t true that AV will be good for Clegg’s Party! AV is good news for democracy, but not good news for Nick Clegg . . .

To sum up: AV won’t heal everything about our political system. But it is a positive step; it represents real progress. This electoral reform is a change worth believing in – and so this referendum offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help revive British politics. Because AV is fairer. AV allows you to express your preferences, to vote for who you want to. That will help small Parties such as the Greens. But at the same time AV helps stop extremists (such as the BNP), by allowing you to place them bottom of your preference-ordering.

AV should be viewed as the proud legacy of the Suffragettes. AV is the natural next step forward for British democracy.

• Are you totally happy with British politics as it is? Do you think everything is going just great? If so, then you should vote NO to change on May 5. (Sadly, doing so would make Nick Griffin’s day . . .)

• But: If you think there's room for real improvement, if you want a democracy to be prouder of, if you want to help fairness and truth to triumph over foolishness and lies, then vote YES to electoral reform . . .

Poster from www.yes.greenwordsworkshop.org

15 April 2011

Confessions of a Class Traitor

By Charlotte Du Cann

Where you are going is overwhelmingly dependant on where you are from.
Just before the last election OWC columnist Lee Marsden wrote a perspicacious analysis of public school education and the class system. If the Labour government had hidden their Etonian and Oxbridge advantages, it was clear the next millionaire cabinet were going to flaunt them. We were entering a very different political period. A moment of turbulence in which we were all about to be thrown out of our comfortable seats.

During the last 30 years as the global finanical credit bubble swelled, many people in Britain improved their material lives. Everyone it appeared was able to buy houses and go on holiday. Shopping became a national pastime. In 1998, in a shocking report on poverty and prostitution, Dark Heart, the Guardian journalist Nick Davies looked at the hidden cost of that improvement, the demolition of the working class and the creation of an invisible underclass, a quarter of the population who served as scapegoats for the rest, and most particularly the governing elite.

We imagine that class has disappeared from modern consumer society, but of course it hasn’t. It operates insidiously as a signalling sysem, through language and behaviours, to establish who we are and where we figure in the pecking order: the people who take charge or who obey, those who bask in the limelight, or act out the collective shadow. In spite of what we do in our adult lives we are strictly labelled according to our childhood circumstances and education.

“Daddy, what class are we?” “We’re professional class,” replied my father, once a lawyer. “If anyone asks you tell them you are a professional.” I’m standing outside his old chambers on the Victoria Embankment and a group of socialist lawyers are gathering under a banner in wigs and gowns to protest against the cutting of the court services. It’s March 26 and thousands of workers, students, unemployed and sympathetic protesters are massing beside the Thames. I’m talking with Gurkas, London fireman, librarians from Manchester, engineers from Birmingham, student nurses, actors and coastguards. There’s a strong feeling of solidarity in the crowd I haven’t experienced for a very long time.

My father was born (illegally) in the Inns of Court and spent his whole life behind these gates, defending the innocent and the guilty, pornographers, murderers and fraudsters. During the day he battled against censorship, at night he told me stories about the woods and birds from his rural childhood on the Sussex Downs and about the protagonists of the French revolution. The liberation of Paris obsessed him. Allons citroyens!

We are made of the stories we are told. Sometimes we are told them in order to live them out. And sometimes we are born to end them - not just our personal narratives but the ones we tell ourselves as a culture, as a people. The most enduring story we are taught is that some people are better than others. Better fit to rule, better fit to live in splendour, more intelligent, more evolved. I was raised to believe that “lower” class people were poor because they were stupid and when workers went on strike they were holding the country to ransom. But this wasn’t the story my life followed.

At the age of 19 I found myself living in the slumlands of Birmingham with working class students from the North, who unlike me, had struggled hard to get here. It was the mid-1970s and all our world-views were being challenged. In the red-light district of Balsall Heath amongst the immigrant sweat-shops, I learned about Diggers and Levellers, studied Chomsky and socio-linguistics, stood by ASLEF workers and against the National Front, and when I faced a police charge realised I was in a country that bore no relation to the one I had been brought up in.

Those years changed everything. At the age of 35 I sold everything I owned and went on the road, compelled, like many of my contempories in the 90s, to reconnect with the earth and with people in a way that broke with our conventional upbringings. Today I’m about to march past the offices where I once had a successful career as magazine journalist. Fortnum and Masons, where I used to meet my grandfather for tea, is about to be filled with the tax-dodger protesters from UKUncut. It’s another England. I’m no longer inside those gates.

Like many people I'm struggling to co-create a new narrative, one of equality and fairness - not just for myself among the crowd in Hyde Park and the millions dependant on the welfare state, but also for the invisible people of the global South, on whose natural resources and slave labour the global North depend. In order to write a new story I need to deconstruct a very old one.

The coalition government are made up of the kind of people I was brought up amongst: proud, ritualistic, acquisitive, obssessed by form, terrified of losing face, with a horror of the masses, all fellow feeling having been ruthlessly bullied out of them. In order to hold its superior position, the ancien regime needs to continually push others down. The more equality and fairness exerts its pressure within the collective, the harder they push. They are, as George Orwell points out in his peerless study of class, Road to Wigan Pier, terrified of losing control and falling. In this they are as much at the mercy of this heartless system as anyone else.

In order to deconstruct a story you have to know what it’s made of. The institution of class is ancient, stemming from the Aryan caste system, established in India thousands of years ago and upheld by the powerful few within all Empires from Assyrian overlords to corporate CEOs. It works its restrictions through all our lives, born high or low. The barriers between us are kept in place by hatreds, by humiliation, by blame, by revenge, terror, hostility and mostly by ignorance. In 1975 in Birmingham Mel Foster railed at me. An ex-miner, he had gone through Trades Union college to study for a degree and was cracking under the strain. Like many of his working class peers he was loathe to betray his origins by becoming educated and thus middle class. "You have destroyed the Hull fishing fleet and all our livlihoods!" he yelled.

He knew nothing about London. I knew nothing about Hull, but I did know I had a legacy, A crooked inheritance I had to put straight. We all have that legacy. And in this the working class is no more exempt than any other section of society, for it too has its whipping boys - the unemployed, the migrant, the homeless Orwell once walked amongst. Everything in our consumer society is a product of the exploitation of our fellow human beings, from the child slaves of the African cocoa plantations to the Chinese IT factory worker. None of us has impunity.

To break out our historical mould we can’t identify with the class we were brought up in, hold on to our positions as victims or conquerors, as righteous Conservatives, as ideologially pure Socialists, we have to let go of them and come together in a new and fluid way. We have to see the world from a common perspective. Because, if we don’t, the corporate elite will push us all down as far as we can go. We will lose everything our ancestors fought for so hard - all our freedoms, all our public services, If we separate and attack each other, we play into their hands. United, we can exert a force that could change how we live on this planet as a people forever.

Part of that unifying future story, that radical shift, is that we have to listen to each other’s stories. We have to know what it’s like to be in other people shoes whoever they are, and when we understand begin to act from within a deep frame of change. And this is why I am telling you mine. I fell and failed. I quit my position, my house, my job. Contrary to the cautionary tales was told I did not die in destitution as my great-grandmother did in a workhouse on the Isle of Wight. I found that people are kind and fair and intelligent everywhere you go, so long as you don’t give way to your hatred or rage or self-pity, or close down from fear. What matters is that you give that natural empathy and desire for liberation a chance. History does not need to repeat itself. The French revolution, like all revolutions that followed in its wake, ended in the Terror and the brutal reinstatment of another kind of hierachy. We don’t need another revolution. We don’t need class war. We need to evolve.

Photos: March for the Alternative, Victoria Embankment, March 2011; looking outside the door, Kent, 1958; Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth behind Hidden Britain by Nick Davies; coming together to discuss civil liberties and economic system, Transition Norwich, Aladdin's Cafe, Magdalen Street, Norwich, April, 2011.

8 April 2011

A Mountain of Debt

Real incomes are being squeezed as pay rises fail to keep pace with inflation; unemployment is at its highest since 1994; Portugal follows Greece and Ireland in going to the EU for a bail-out of its financial system and here in the UK it’s the start of a new financial year. So disasters of the natural kind are pushed off the top of the news by those of a more human construction and I thought I might share a few thoughts on the subject and perhaps challenge some cherished notions.

Let’s start with some facts which can hardly be considered radical. Here in the UK, and indeed in the developed world as a whole, we have been through a period of sustained economic growth since the end of the Second World War with only the most fleeting of setbacks interrupting the trend to greater wealth and income. Our economic system has grown increasingly dependent on consumer demand, and huge multinational industries have grown up based on devising an ever expanding range of products; convincing us that we “must have” those products; and lending us the money with which to buy them.

So today we find ourselves crushed under an enormous pile of debt we have taken on in order to maintain our lifestyles. Of course neither we or the lenders are particularly concerned about this because for most people it is underpinned by the value of their properties. But here lies the root of the problem. House prices have been driven up by ever looser lending policies at the banks and building societies, giving increasing multiples of salary so people can pay ever higher prices for the same housing stock most of which existed fifty years ago. Now unless you have a very short memory, you might remember where that got us just a couple of years ago – bankrupt banks and a recession.

The fact is that the growth we had was completely unsustainable, based as it was on continuously expanding debt. So unless we repeat the mistakes which led to the last recession – which would ultimately bring an even bigger bust - the economy is not going to recover the way politicians would like us to believe. We are going to have to get used to the idea that the current squeeze on living standards could last for much of the next decade.

So if things are bad for individuals what about our government? The recent Budget showed that it is still living in the dream land that the economy will recover and bail it out from the current massive deficit. But it isn’t going to happen, because the buoyant revenues of the last growth cycle were built on an unsustainable boom funded by financial institutions which were about to go bust. These revenues are not coming back. Ever!

Now before I bring this to a conclusion I think just a few words need to be said about debt. Any individual who has ever overspent and then had to scrimp to pay their debts off, knows instinctively that debt is a tax on the future. This is as true for governments as it is for individuals; the more debt they build up today, the more tax has to be raised in the future. If the economy keeps on growing, then this is a fairly easy trick to pull off, but once the growth stops – as I am suggesting it now has – it becomes much more painful to have to pay higher taxes. That though is exactly what we are storing up for the future.

Though more money may be squeezed from the corporate sector and by clamping down on tax evasion, it will barely make a start on reducing the deficit. So the government, and the electorate, face a stark choice. We can have the level of services we have become accustomed to, but only if we are prepared to pay higher taxes to maintain them. Or we can keep our taxes where they are now and accept a lower level of provision in the NHS, education and other key services. What we cannot do is pretend that we can have it all; low taxes and high spending. That just postpones the day when we have to pay and makes the ultimate price even higher. The harsh reality is that we are not as rich as we thought we were and we are going to have to get used to it.

2 April 2011

We need a No Fly Zone

by Trevor Phillips

At around 11.30 yesterday while in my garden in Norwich, I heard at short intervals - three times - the deep vibrating roar of a jet aircraft passing somewhere overhead. It was not like the sound of regular scheduled or tourist aircraft from Norwich airport so I imagined it might be military planes on their way from RAF Marham to bomb something or someone in Libya.

The noise filled the air in every direction as if it was being captured in a confined space, exploding off transparent but solid walls of a tomb. Clouds made its origin impossible to determine. As the sound approached crescendo, there was a brief moment when I wondered if the volume would ever peak. Has something gone wrong? Should it be so close? It maintained that heightened, rumbling rage for a disturbingly long time. That’s the moment when the hair raises on your neck and the noise is frightening in reality as well as by association. And then the all consuming roar diminished, though retaining its guttural, animal threat which you know could return, still hiding its location and direction. It eventually declined as if a volume control was being manipulated - the bass being faded more slowly, reminding you of its continuing presence. And then it was gone. Afterwards, the birdsong in my garden seemed somehow fresher and more innocent than it had sounded before that invasion.

A couple of thousand miles and a few hours away, someone else may hear that roar approach and with similar trepidation, wonder if it will cease or intensify. Wonder if the target is some miles away, or much closer. And suddenly the awful thought: ‘Perhaps it’s here?’ Perhaps the French or the Americans or the British – whichever it is this time – have made a mistake. Why here? WHY HERE?

For some it could be the last thing they hear. It won’t be the sound that kills them but the ‘precision’ bombs. Perhaps not targeted at civilians but that won’t matter to the victim. This sound, we are told by UK and US military public relations people across East Anglia, and by the arrogant bumper stickers on black-windowed gas-guzzlers, is the ‘Sound of Freedom’.

It’s not of course. It’s the sound of war. It’s the sound of death. And all too often the sound of unnecessary and counterproductive death. To Al Qaida and other extremists wanting to find new excuses for barbarity, it is the sweet opening bars of another recruitment refrain.

I hold no brief for Gaddafi and his regime. I hope the Libyan people win their freedom from him and from others who would control them, some of them gathering now. I feel as much concern as anyone for the vulnerable rebels and others in Benghazi. I felt the same way for the children of Iraq when the US led coalition tried to weaken Saddam Hussein’s regime after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The comprehensive UN sanctions which they obtained denied Iraq almost every possible import and contributed to the premature death of half a million Iraqi infants, according to UNICEF, the UN children’s organisation. I have spoken with Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq (1997-98) who resigned from that role not wanting to administer ‘a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide.’ Other officials said the phrase was inappropriate because there had been no intent to cause suffering. But the sanctions continued. Military hawks even used the suffering to justify war and invasion as a more ‘humane’ option which would protect the civilian population. War followed, shrouded in this and other lies, with even more devastating consequences for millions of innocents.

We are again hearing of the ‘humanitarian’ case for war. Yes the innocent will be protected. Our intentions are honourable. No, we are not after resources or power for our own benefit. Our fighters are compassionate. Gaddafi is a monster using his own people as human shields. All so familiar. It’s the subtle softening up of public opinion, harnessing the excitement of conflict and exploiting the concerns of decent people while intensifying their sense of loyalty to region, nation and their local military forces.

Witness some recent local coverage: Bombers from RAF Marham, we were told (EDP 22 March), declined to release bombs in a raid on Libya because they were somehow informed at the last moment of ‘a number of civilians within the intended target area’. A senior military figure is quoted saying: ‘We don’t want to fall into the propaganda trap that Mr Gaddafi is obviously trying to set us’. Explaining the pressures of quick decisions to avoid innocent victims, a pilot added: ‘Your whole career can be on the line in those 30 seconds’. Well we certainly don’t want to damage anybody’s career, do we.

I don’t doubt the honest wish of the pilot to avoid civilians (though some of his US peers in Iraq enjoyed their ‘turkey shoots’ immensely). But as for the claimed humanitarian intentions of the politicians, I don’t believe a word of it. If humanitarianism is the aim of these militarised democracies, why did they perpetrate the atrocity of Iraq? Why are drones still destroying wedding parties in Afghanistan? Why were the abuses of favoured dictators indulged for so long – and even now? Why have they tolerated decades of Israel’s impoverishing occupation of Palestinian land? Why no NATO or UN No Fly Zone over the West Bank? Why is there no selective targeting of the Saudi tanks helping to put down democratic demands in Bahrain?

The examples of double standards, hypocrisy and damned lies are just too many.

Now we watch again the ‘mission creep’ as aims shift from the protection of civilians to regime change. And as NATO, with only a Qatar fig leaf, tells us No Fly Zone means arming of the rebels. William Hague adds another aim: the people of Libya ‘want access to free markets’, he says. Has that become a prerequisite for supporting rebels, one wonders? But don’t worry, Qatar is currently managing the oil interests of East Libya, on behalf of the people. At least it’s not the US, where post-war oil concessions in Iraq bring the words fox and hen-house to mind.

No, we don’t want to fall into propaganda traps that Mr Gaddafi is obviously trying to set us. Or anybody else’s traps.

We are told the imperial powers – declined and declining- fear Gaddafi may slaughter the Libyan rebels. But why did air raids begin on Libya just before an African Union delegation was set to arrive, seeking a ceasefire and negotiated settlement? Could it be that the West fears even more the idea that rebels in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere might actually eventually succeed without western support? This would deny the West the opportunity to impose its now familiar Shock Doctrine of economic and institutional rebuilding, which guarantees the safe and profitable incorporation of liberated territories into the western orbit.

Let’s have a No Fly Zone. Let’s start here. Keep the Marham tornados on their home ground. And ship the US planes from their East Anglia bases back to the US. Keep other NATO planes on their European tarmac and get their aircraft carriers out of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. And just possibly, the rebellions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East will be able to proceed without the fear that if they go too far or too fast the ‘Sound Of Freedom’ will come deafeningly to their rescue.