Friday, 3 August 2012

A Tale of Two Green Parties

We are the 1%. No, not the world's rich capitalist elite but sadly the mere 1% of people who care about the Green Party's leadership and executive elections. Since Caroline Lucas announced she was to step down as leader earlier this year, it was clear that the party was to face its first truly competitive leadership election (when Lucas was elected originally it was by a massive landslide and she became the first actual leader of a party that used to advocate not having an official figurehead at all). This is thus something of uncharted territory for our party. On one hand it presents the opportunities to reflect and debate our position and ideology whilst also threatening us with the dangers of division and internal friction. There are four candidates in all, as well as a collection of deputy leadership and administrative hopefuls.

However in reality the party faces a simple choice between two versions of itself, reflected in different candidates. There is the party of old; the stereotype of hippies, hemp and homoeopathy. An image of a party that many within it fought so hard to change. The image that perhaps many non-members still have of us, as well meaning but ultimately naïve. The image that leads internet commentators to see us as “a bunch of hopeless gap-years”, “an undergraduate party” or just “a f****** joke party”. Policy based on emotion rather than a coherent vision of both ideology and the practical means of putting that ideology into action. This party has a plethora of well meaning positions on a variety of issues but no overall coherence joining the dots together. By failing to prioritise the most impacting and effective of issues it traps itself in the political wilderness. It values the most important of green issues, such as how to transform the economy and how to unite social and environmental sustainability, on the same level as issues such as animal welfare, that are ultimately side issues. For example; a more sustainable economic transformation is much more likely to reduce the maltreatment of animals in laboratories, whereas focusing on animal rights has very little chance of contributing to the wider socio-economic platform. All in all this is, and must remain, the green party of old, confined to the dustbin of history.

Instead the party must embrace its new self that it has begun to embody in recent times. Still a party of values, ideology and principle, yet also one of coherence and clarity. It has an ecosocialist (or eco-social democrat depending on your preference) ideology that underpins its policies and links everything together, whilst at the same time being complemented by hard facts. If anything the modern green party, not the Tories, are the the party of empiricism. We base our policies on what are often the consensus opinions of experts and scientists. On climate change we have effective backing of 97% of peer reviewed science. On the economy only our policy is in line with that of practically minded organisations such as Positive Money, Land Value Tax, the New Economics Foundation, and many more. The sheer detail and length of our policy statements on such matters are far more in-depth than that of the major parties. At the very least our policies on tighter financial regulation, a tougher stance on tax avoidance and havens and the breaking up of banking monopolies are all supported by most practically minded economists such as Ha Joon Chang, yet are all opposed by the political establishment. The facts are on our side; benefit fraud costs the economy barely £1 billion whereas tax avoidance by the rich costs well over £70 billion, yet only green party policy seems to reflect this fact by focusing more on the latter. In contrast the Tories reject any of these proposals for fear of interfering with the current state of the economy that their ideology is so attached to, while Labour ignores their true ramifications out of a fear of shouts of “socialist” from the right wing press. Crucially this new Green Party understands that the environmental and socioeconomic difficulties are in fact the same problems, and thus require the same solutions. Hence its ideology combines both an ecological and leftist heritage. This party can also win elections and make a real difference to British, if not global, politics. This is the party that can take us of the dark night of obscurity and lead us into the day.

So what candidates represent the old and new parties? Well firstly, and most obviously, Pippa Bartolotti represents the old. Her attitude to the whole election has been troubling from the start. Pledging to be the “unreasonable green” and boasting of her combative approach to the media is exactly the wrong approach. Her obsession with the quote “don't raise your voice, improve your argument” is downright bizarre and annoying and finally, her very character is perhaps too hippyish to be part of the new wave in the party. Equally Natalie Bennett, who would probably dispute this herself, also forms part of the old ideal. By claiming to be the “post-watermelon candidate” she paradoxically traps herself in the past while trying to position herself in the future. “Watermelon” essentially means left wing and green. It has been used as an insult, but we should embrace it, for this is who we are. Being left wing comes with being environmentally conscious and vice versa. To oppose the watermelon ideology is to divorce the socioeconomic and ecological aspects of party ideology and thus be part of the defunct version of the Green Party.

In contrast, Peter Cranie and Romayne Phoenix, as well as several other candidates for the administrative and deputy posts, understand the new direction the party needs to go in. They understand the need to unite socioeconomic leftism with environmentalism, as well as the need to bring together ideology with a coherent and practical array of policies. Moreover such candidates are also capable of getting these ideas across to the public. That is something that is often overlooked. As a party of the left we should mourn the place appearance has in today's politics, yet at the same time our leadership posts were created simply to be a conduit for the media and public. This is partly why Pippa is so unsuitable because of her stereotypical 'old school green' image. Many of the 'experts' and organisations I listed above still see us as naïve and silly despite our shared ideas. Equally a whole host of charities and respected NGOs have beliefs and proposals highly similar to ours yet cannot make the link. We have the ideology and policies in the bag more or less, and now we simply need to focus on getting them into action and showing them to the public. Unlike Blair and New Labour however, this focus on presentation does not involve a shedding of ideals and principles. This is because the leader is only for the media and voters, real change in the party comes from all the members at conference. Ergo, this is why I feel the election is more about the different visions and depictions of the party presented by each candidate rather than the specifics of their ideology or policy. When the Tories choose a leader, they also know they are effectively choosing their party's ideology and policy platform for the next few years. When we choose a leader we just choose a different face. Of course this is still important, but it means we need to view the election from an alternative perspective.

At such a critical juncture in human history, the Green Party must make the right choice. All of us as members must embrace the currents of reformation and choose to be part of a party that offers a real alternative, one that is practically feasible for the concerns of many ordinary voters. For want of a better vocabulary, this election is the perfect chance for the green party to enter political maturity and grow up.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Immanuel Wallerstein and the end of the world.

This is a review of an address made by leading historian Immanuel Wallerstein at York Uni in June 2012.
I did not envy Professor Wallerstein. As he stood up to make his lecture at the “Festival of Ideas” last week, I thought of all the many other equally capable thinkers and academics who had predicted the certain demise or change of such and such a system or regime and been proven wrong.

Even the title “Structural crisis of the capitalist world-system: How serious? How long? Endpoint?” extolled a certain audacity that so haunted the works of Karl Marx and so many other great minds on the left. This was reflected in the vast amount of interest the event generated, the lecture theatre was packed full of academics and students alike to see the world-famous American historian, sociologist and founder of the 'World Systems' approach to social science.

So it was to my pleasure and relief that Wallerstein delivered a masterful outline of the nature of economic systems and their rise and fall that seemed to justify the certainty of his predictions. Whereas most other predictors of capitalism's downfall base their visions on the exploitative nature of capitalism and how this would eventually engender revolutionary opposition amongst the oppressed, Wallerstein uses capitalism's own logic against it.

By showing that the costs of capital accumulation, based on labour, input and taxation, gradually yet inevitably increase in the long term, he argued that capitalism would fail because it would no longer become profitable for the capitalists themselves. By “2050” a new system would have emerged and replaced capitalism.

Tis mirrors the “hegemonic cycle”- the rise and fall of leading nations. Just as in the period from 1945-1970 capitalism expanded to an unthinkable extent, this was also the time when the US got its way “on 95% of things, 95% of the time”. Since 1970, capitalism has faced a long, gradual crisis and demise, as debt and costs spiral out of equilibrium with the rest of the system and “financialisation” occurs, based on unstable speculation replaces the more reliable basis of physical products.

At the same time the US has faced a demoralising decline in power, with a huge army on paper, but one that is much less effective in practice. Therefore both capitalism as a world system and the superpower hegemony that has underpinned it, face a questionable future.

Meanwhile he also criticised the “fantasies of capitalism” that have so underpinned lberal economic theory. It is a myth that capitalism is about markets, but rather it concerns monopolies and vast corporate empires. Truly free markets, argues Wallerstein, would undermine the profits of the capitalist elites. Further, it is for this reason that the other “fantasy” of capitalism is flawed- capitalists need state intervention in the economy to uphold the system that so rewards them with profit and capital accumulation.

Indeed the failure of the ideologies of capitalism as a world system also mean it cannot sustain itself. After the French Revolution, Wallerstein sees ideologies as being formed by the system to protect itself against radical ideas such as popular sovereignty. Conservatism and then later “Centrist Liberalism” formed the ideological centrepiece of capitalist dominance. The ability of these ideologies to reinvent themselves was also key, for example in the 1950s Wallerstein remembers Milton Friedman as being considered “a joke” but later the needs of the system had reinvented him as a great scholar.

However the key year for Wallerstein is 1968. Here non-system ideologies such as social democracy and left-liberalism were ascendant in one third of the world while Soviet style communism ruled another third. Despite this grasp of the majority of seats of power in the world, the “radicals” still could not change it, and this effectively destroyed the notion of creating a better world within capitalism. Those who dreamed of a better tomorrow were irreconcilably divorced from the capitalist world system.

Another refreshing difference between Wallerstein and other prophets of the demise of capitalism, is that he does not try to envision its idyllic replacement. Rather, the chances are “50/50” that the replacement will be better than capitalism. This was expressed as a possible shift to either the “spirit of Davos”, the locale of the World Economic Forum, where the rich capitalist elites would no doubt forge an equally exploitative and profit-driven system, or the “spirit of Porto Alegre” home of the World Social Forum, whose mainly NGO and social movement based members would favour an entirely new and untried system based on egalitarianism and democracy.

Any more than this, Wallerstein refused to tell us. This is because of the “butterfly effect”-that such grand changes are in fact the product of a mass cumulative accumulation of tiny, seemingly insignificant and even unrelated actions across the globe. Thus he ended the speech urging us all to “go out and be little butterflies in the spirit of Porto Alegre”.

For me, that was the beauty of Wallerstein's address. Despite all the empirical and practical analysis, there was still room for a great deal of idealism. The vision of our generation each as a small butterfly, our seemingly minor roles and actions in life contributing to the building blocks of a better world is far more appealing than a revolutionary vanguard or leadership doing it for us.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the logic of Wallerstein's theory, few could deny this force underlying his argument; it is not up to the academics, the elites, or the leaders to make a better world, but each and every one of us ordinary human butterflies.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

The worst minister ever?

This article appeared in the Yorker June 2012.

Objectivity is a dangerous thing in politics. The notion that your ideals and beliefs are factually, irrefutably superior to those of your opponents, that they are scientifically correct, has been the grounding of all the great evils of political history. That is why I have always opposed the extremism of those who claim the world can be reduced to a series of equations or policies which will guarantee prosperity if followed to the letter. This is because such thinking promotes the idea that those in opposition to such ideas are factually incorrect and thus barriers to goodness and progress. Indeed this is why I oppose the use of the word 'reform' for what is essentially privatisation and austerity.

However the past two years have slowly made me feel that an exception needs to be made to this rule; Michael Gove. Our beloved Education Secretary is plain wrong. Almost every one of his policies has been objectively incorrect. Take his views on reforming the teaching of history- replacing thematic and conceptual frameworks with mere repetition of facts and tales of “Our Island Story”. No. Just generally no. This is not what history about, remembering facts and dates, kings and queens is the exact type of history parodied in the famous “1066 and all that”. For well over 50 years it has been recognised that this is an non-constructive and pointless method of teaching history. The nationalistic connotations of “Our Island Story” are also worrying, implying a reversal in the appalling slow rate at which British history teaching has come to terms with the crimes of war and Empire. Ultimately for a long time it has been understood that using history to answer questions of who we are and how we got here is objectively better than teaching it as a pub quiz style patriotic fact-fest. What next? Chemistry without the periodic table? Biology without evolution? It just doesn’t make sense.

Free schools and academies are also flawed policies. The former will give more leeway to middle class parents with the time and resources to create local schools and further marginalise the poorer sections of society in the education system. The images of Toby Young planning a school to teach his little darlings Latin whilst drinking red wine in plush kitchens with other yummy mummies and daddies is just as chilling as the thought of evangelical or similar interests corrupting the minds of the youth from their minority standpoints. According to the NUT only 25% of parents want free schools, those that shout the loudest will always divert the scheme into one of unaccountability and fringe control. As for academies, it has been hinted by Gove that reforms will aim at brining even more corporate funding into the composition of such institutions. The free market and private sector are indeed much more efficient and able distributors of certain goods and services. However this does not apply to education where non-profit goals are key and thus the market can only serve to disregard the best interests of the young in exchange for greed and usury. This is already illustrated by the regression of years of pro-health food programmes in schools and the return of junk food and vending machines in 90% of academies.

Then we had the infamous bible scandal. Sure, there may be educational value to promoting a reading of the bible from a cultural or linguistic perspective. But this was largely already in place before 2010. Most children are aware of the basic cultural influences of Christianity via early school teaching or other sources. Hymns, RE, interest groups and so on already fulfil this function without parading Gove as the great patriarch of the nation's young. To waste £370,000 on printing a load of new bibles with the fact that they are from Gove himself paraded on the covers in golden sycophancy, was clearly the worst idea any one has ever had. Moreover, trying to demand schools teach more about religion will inevitably lead to further religious indoctrination of the youth, before they have the freedom to choose their religion. Something that any rational being should oppose.

And now, he is trying to scrap GCSEs with a return to O-Levels. The problem with this is that it is self-defeating for Gove, who has long argued that the overall vision of his education policy is to replace exam centred teaching with a broader and deeper mode of learning. Yet by creating even tougher exams, with fewer retakes so that the stakes are much higher, children and teachers will simply be increasingly obsessed with passing the exam rather than any constructive learning. We all know exams have gotten easier but the solution does not lie in suddenly cranking up the difficultly in a all or nothing exam sitting. Instead we should value learning on a much longer term scale based on classroom interactions and contributions.

The seemingly regressive nature of such policies illustrates the simplistic nature of Gove's weltanschuung. Other government policies are more arguable and potentially justifiable even if I personally disagree with them. In contrast Gove's education agenda is based on a blinkered view of live and a desperate attempt to reverse the progress of modernity.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The First Estate: BBC Bias

 For the Yorker June 2012

Once the hobby of angry Telegraph comment accounts and obscure, paranoid blogs, accusing the BBC of a left leaning bias is now perfectly acceptable in official centre-right circles. Boris Johnson exemplified this earlier this month with an attack on the “statist, corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, Europhile and overwhelmingly biased to the Left” organisation. More recently, Cameron's spin doctor, Craig Oliver, was filmed berating a BBC reporter for bias in a report on Jeremy Hunt and the Levenson enquiry. This is nothing new, conservatives have always accused the BBC of a pro-Labour or left leaning bias, with phrases like 'anti-business', 'anti-American', 'anti-Israel' and so on thrown in for good measure. These arguments are then used to conclude that the license fee be abolished and the BBC become like the paragon of impartiality that is Sky News. In reality, nothing has changed to justify the theme's shift from marginal blog rants to mayors and media manipulators. It is still driven by an absurd paranoia, one that is simply misplaced and does more to reveal how far the centre has been moved by the right in their favour, over recent years.

If anything the BBC could easily be said to have developed a right-leaning bias in recent years. The way modern media manipulation works is about not controlling what you think, but what you think about. By making reports about the potential abolition of the welfare state, repeatedly giving platforms to minority far-right groups like the Tax Payers' Alliance as if they were some time-honoured arbiters of public opinion and by bleeping out the word 'Palestine', the BBC is clearly guilty of this. Last week there was furore over the attempts to shamelessly present an ordinary human being as a feckless sub-human scrounger, and during last year's teaching strikes the Beeb did its up-most to try to portray parents as resentful when canvassing for opinions, despite general support for the teachers.

Individuals within the organisation also have clear biases and conflicts of interest, that tend towards the establishment. On a debate on fracking Jeremy Paxman dismissed any criticism of the policy beyond narrow, immediate economic growth as “ideological” (something which is in itself highly ideological), and thus irrelevant. This follows a string of arrogant remarks from Paxman such as berating Paul Mason's report on unrest in Greece for daring to suggest that some people might oppose unfair and morally bankrupt austerity. Further the aforementioned Oliver is also notable as his wife is a BBC News 24 reporter, while many others like James Lansdale and Nick Robinson come from the same private school, Oxbridge circles as the current political elite.

Governments of all colours have been known to bully and enforce their agenda upon the BBC or charm their way into sycophantic relationships with leading faces. Most infamously the Blair regime was able to seduce Andrew Marr into giving the most bias political report in BBC history after the fall of Baghdad, saying of Blair's critics “he has been right and they have been wrong”. Boris Johnson's now ex-media chief, Guto Harri (a former BBC man himself) sent a string of threatening emails to the corporation, threatening to use the influence of “good friends in number 10” to turn the national press even further against the BBC if it did not show the mayor in a good light. These are just snapshots of a wider connivance between the BBC and the 'establishment' by which I mean the collective mindset of leading political, economic and media spheres, often formed by the government of the day.

What this means is that the BBC does not have a partisan, left wing or right wing, bias but is one-sided in favour of whatever the 'establishment' constituents any given time. In a time when brutal and immoral austerity measures and elitist privatisations of democratically owned public services, measures that only benefit the 1%, are seen by the establishment as a progressive 'reform' agenda, a right-leaning bias is inevitable. The BBC supports the Coalition, just as it supported the more personal regimes of Blair and Brown. Those who criticise the BBC's “leftist agenda” must be shown to be what they truly are. Individuals and groups, far beyond the political centre and instead stuck in the world of Ron Paul esque, right-libertarian conspiracies. Because the BBC does not totally align to their marginal views at all times, it is accused of bias.

In the wider context of the revelations of the Levinson enquiry and other media scandals, this is a great opportunity to change our nation's relationship with what has become the first estate. Reform should aim at separating media from power elites and ensuring that only one company or individual owns one outlet. Gove and others fear such reforms will undermine “freedom of the press”. Yet these are the same people who have pushed our press far to the right in favour of their minority political agenda. Take the Telegraph; its accusations of 'Trotskyism' at the BBC, and offhand, unsubstantiated denials of anthropogenic global warming show that it is dominated by such brinkmanship. These people genuinely believe that New Labour, NGOs, Climate Change and various equality movements are all part of a Marxist conspiracy against 'god, capitalism and stability'. Their 'freedom' is like all their other 'freedoms'; the freedom of the rich and powerful to manipulate and control our lives under the illusions of meritocracy and popular government.

Instead a truly 'free' media will have firm regulations to ensure that such elites can no longer abuse its integrity. It will be a positive liberty I will not endorse the folly that news can somehow be impartial. Rather, if it must be partial, let it be bias in favour of compassionate ideals that we can all agree on. To decide what these are, we'll need a national conversation, and this time, it cannot be allowed to be corrupted by dissimulation. And to do this, we'll need an organisation to live up to its potential as a media outlet free from private finance and intrigue. We'll need a BBC.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

A guide to appearing on Question Time

This satire of QT was in the Yorker May 2012

About to appear on QT? Worried, nervous, and scared of the baying hordes of democracy mocking you're every word? Not sure how to respond to Dimbelby? Fear no more, this guide will explain exactly how to survive the most contrived and tired formate for a political debate show on TV, so long as you follow these simple rules;

-The 'sit back' manoeuvre. Any question or retort on QT can be answered using this method of delivery. Lean forward when speaking, point and raise your arms at the peak of the answer and then sit back to finish. Regardless of what is said, sheer fear of awkwardness will lead many members to clap even the most bland, meaningless answers. Take this example from one of the great doyens in this field, Yvette Cooper;
"We need to stand up for them, we didn’t do enough to stand up for them in Bradford at that particular election but we will do so and are doing so at the moment across the country."

By using this technique she has managed to get anyway with saying absolutely nothing. She has masterfully spoken a sentence devoid of all meaning, a candidate for the most vacuous statement of the 3rd millennium, on any sane show this would be pointed out and she would sent to fight the rancor. Yet still she gets clapped by simply sitting back at the end. For some inexpiable reason sitting back on the magical QT chairs generates applause, no matter how spurious the response. Vaguely democratic noises like “stand up for them” will always succeed.

-Quote Churchill, always quote him, all the time. Because Churchill is God, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus and Flying Spaghetti Monster, rolled into one. Never forget that. In fact quote him regardless of context. Make up quotes- “As we all know Churchill liked to say “quantitative easing is wrong”, quote casual phrases; “as Churchill once said 'I disagree'”, “in the words of Churchill 'no'”. Just make sure that you appear to be to somehow be related to him. No scrap that, actually be Churchill, dress like him, talk like him, smoke and drink like him (probably see your doctor first) but above all remember Coogan's law; YOU+CHURCHILL=GOOD.

-Be funny. It is vital that in a serious panel show that you must appear funny at all times. This is best achieved by joking with Dimbelby. However it is a scientific fact that the only possible joke that can be made with him is when he mentions twitter at the start of the show; “do you even know what trending is David?” Although this is done EVERY DAMN TIME it never ceases to be funny because mildly being ageist and accusing all elderly people of technophobia is infinitely hilarious to the extent that it defies the fundamental principles of chronology. Alternatively you can use the famous Farage tactic of laughing excessively at any pro-UKIP (or whomever you support) joke from the crowd.

-Assume that the audience is full of complete idiots with no understanding of basic political notions and a desperation to make a certain point or case regardless of context. Roughly every audience will have the following members;

-Random royalist. “I’m very much in favour of having a royal yacht and very uneasy of private naff is that, poor queen” (19/01/2012). This is easily defeated by pointing out the obvious fact that anyone who has sympathy for an unelected monarch who lives a life of luxury off millions of tax pounds and who is still technically capable of upending British democracy, on the grounds that her free mega-yacht might be funded partly by the private sector, should be immediately executed for crimes against every logical notion of justice ever conceived.

-The 'lets clap at everything' gang. 26/04/12- Farage “We need cuts and deregulation” (Mass applause). Audience member “I support TUSC, we need to stop cuts now!” (Mass Applause). As you can see QT has evolved beyond logic. It is apparently possible for the audience to support two opposing positions at once without any hint of irony or confusion. Use this to your advantage. Do not fear extolling views completely the opposite to those just applauded. Someone wants us to get rid of trident? Demand we nuke France! Another gets applause for praising democracy? Demand a Platonic state ruled by philosopher kings! In QT the extent of applause is directly proportional to the illogical nature of what was said.

-And a bunch of baby-faced young libertarians in suits who've just fapped off to their first Milton Friedman video. “You know people should really leave the innocent bankers alone...” (03/05/2012) The advantage here is that only the 0.0000000001% of the population who find libertarian economics sexually arousing and for whom the “invisible hand” is a form of hands-free masturbation, will ever agree with these sentiments.

Generally these rules if followed will at least help you survive a QT appearance. However, the big potential slip up is the wild-card panel member. This person is apparently meant to represent “civil society” but this is used to justify putting anyone and everyone on. The latter part of this guide will deal with how to tackle these modern Ciceros.

-Galloway. Easily defeated by making unsubstantiated links to “Arab dicktators”. It does not matter whether these are true or whether you are committing a gross act of hypocrisy as a golden rule of QT is that any negative point will always be lapped up by the crowd because “all politicians is liars, innit?” Unless of course, like David Aaronvitch, you are a former communist, in which case it means someone is actually more left wing than Galloway and the universe collapses under the weight of such a paradox.

-The Taxpayer's alliance (TPA). By calling itself the TPA these guys can claim to know exactly what taxpayers want and what they are thinking on every issue. No doubt they have chips in all our brains or something, how else would they know what everyone wants and how it just happens to be the interests of their organisation's tax-dodging owners. Also, their frequent appearances must be due to some forgotten referendum where they won a massive majority of everyone declaring that they should represent our views on every issue. I mean why else would they be on every other week? Only by doing exactly what these infallible arbiters of public opinion want you to, do you, the humble elected politician, have a chance of survival. In fact apply the Dacre formula here; Unelected, obnoxious, unrepresentative right wing organisation funded by millionaires=public opinion.

-Julie Meyer. Although only appearing once on QT (16/02/2012) Julie Meyer was easily the best panel member ever. In what, for the purposes of my sanity and general faith in humanity, must have been a brilliant satire, this random US businesswomen was deemed acceptable as the representative of British civil society. Constantly answering questions with words like “Digitisation! Entrepreneurship!”, she pulled off the greatest coup in QT history, doing what Cooper and Miliband could only dream of, by not even trying to answer the question. When asked her views on police commissioners she simply said “I don’t know much about this issue”. That's it. Having been asked to go on a UK political debate show where we would hope that one would prepare for by researching current affairs, she simply refused to answer the question. Avoid her at all costs. Until then I did not think it would be possible to actually defeat Question Time itself....

With this guide you should now be well on your way to upholding the illusion of British democracy via its most popular televisual outlet. Never again shall you fear the cries of Galloway or the sneers of the TPA. Never again shall you forget not to sit back in your chair or fail to quote Churchill. But above all remember this; the more implausible your answer sounds, the less like it seems you've answered the question, the more likely it is you will get applause.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The illusion of British democracy

This appeared in the Yorker in April 2012
It is an amusing irony that many nations that proclaim so loudly to be democratic are those which are the most anti-democratic. These states are democratic in no aspect, aside from their official rhetoric. As China faces questions of moving towards democratic reform, we are yet again beset with a bunch of smug commentators polluting the media congratulating Western Democracy and scolding the rest. At the same time Britain faces NHS and budgetary reforms that have little mandate, which clearly lack popular support and protests against which are met with armed police. Very little attention is paid to these protest movements from the corporate media, whose allies will no doubt benefit from the stealth privatisation, and every time the authorities are directly questioned, we are told we do not get it. Is it really too audacious to claim that Britain too is merely a rhetorical democracy?

So what, we get to vote every few years. In reality, only one of two highly similar factions will hold power and the system itself is arguably the least democratic one we could have. This tiny snapshot of popular opinion is used to justify disproportionately radical policy programmes.

Beyond this few people express their political opinions. So it is surely not possible for any government of recent times to claim its policies have had a democratic mandate. Not least this government, whose reforms on the NHS and tuition fees, among others, were not mentioned during the election and had no mandate whatsoever. In the face of mass popular unrest against these policies, the ministers simply smiled and said we did not understand.

More importantly, power and influence over the system here is determined excessively by wealth and privilege. Think about it. Media, corporate leaders, politicians, they all come from a very similar background. Some of them even went to the same schools, and certainly many of them, the same university (59% of the cabinet is privately educated, and 23/29 are millionaires). Hell, we already have famous political siblings in the Miliband brothers. When James Landale, the BBC's deputy politics editor follows Cameron on tour, he is following his old Eton alumnus. The government does not cut and 'reform' (privatise) because it actually believes in neo-liberal ideologies, they simply do it to help their friends who run the big companies, like A4E, Atos and G4S that benefit from these policies. Its remarkable how many politicians end up with cushy jobs at these big firms, while many leading politicians come from corporations or mass media. Vince Cable was a leading economist at Shell, while Michael Gove and Boris Johnson were journalists at The Times and The Spectator respectively.

This is not a radical, Marxist view. Raging paleoconservatives like Peter Oborne and Peter Hitchens have also lamented this new 'political class'. Most annoyingly, these people, and quite a few lower classes as well, claim they deserve to be at the top out of 'hard work'. If you went to private school and Oxbridge, with some nice unpaid internship at Daddy's firm, then you have had a vastly unfair advantage over everyone else. You cannot claim meritocracy. And in the end, our leaders are always more likely to listen to their old school friends and classmates, those with the wealth, influence and contacts to really affect change in our so called 'democracy', than to us. Since May 2010, government minsters have met with corporate representatives on 1,537 occasions compared to just 130 times for trade unions. Think about it.

Reflective of this is how the recent budget seemed geared to pleasing the interests of business leaders. Cutting the 50p rate of tax, corporation tax, and continuing to attack those on benefits. No one dared to suggest that the budget should actually serve the interests of ordinary people instead. Here is a chilling contrast; hundreds of thousands made clear their rejection of the NHS and education reforms and the government did not budge. A handful of rich economists and business leaders complained about the 'tyranny' of the 50p tax rate, and Mr. Osbourne kowtowed to their every whim. If this is what you call democracy then I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

And what of the fourth estate? They, being comprised of the same class of people (only 14% of top journalists attended comprehensives), simply applaud the government's 'reforms' as enlightened and offer a false singular discourse on the economy, or in the case of the Guardian (20 leading Guardian writers went to private school, including lefty heroes Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot) they meekly offer fabricated opposition, that essentially boils down to the same thing, but in a nicer way. The media simply works to hide the innate contradictions of the system from ordinary people and get them to blame all their woes on minorities and those on welfare. Hence these worrying myths about everyone on benefits being a workshy cheat. In our popular culture (60% of top music acts are privately educated) we can see similar trends, with political activity discouraged as not 'laddish' enough, and free thinking drowned up in a sea of rapid populism, which urges selfishness above all else.

 Finally, when people do find the courage to protest and challenge the system, the whole framework acts simultaneously to prevent true democratic process. Increasingly the government uses authoritarian tactics against protesters. Kettling, the presence of armed police, the subtle threats from Theresa May of hose pipes and CS gas being used, all of these should show the anti-democratic nature of Britain to any sane person. Meanwhile the 'free media' only reports protests if the story can be twisted to show the protesters being violent. I did not realise until reading an article on here, that there were actually fairly large protests against austerity on budget day. The media did not care. The press has a profound dislike of political activity that challenges its beloved hegemony. This was shown openly by the rancid Kay Burley in 2010 as she effectively demanded that voting reform activists “go home”.

Paradoxically, all the above was justified on the grounds of 'democracy' based on the 2010 election. The slow death of what little people power we have left is defended on democratic grounds. A real democracy must be about more than just one election every few years. A true democrat votes everyday, and whilst I am not advocating anything near direct democracy, I do feel people need to more actively question the status quo. Most vitally, people need to look at the facts more and think for themselves.

As a Green I am often told that my cause is futile because we live in a “conservative country”. I disagree. We live in a nation where many people do not think properly about politics. If they vote (and a substantial minority don't) they do so on some vague stereotypical assumption or based on the personality not principles of leaders. In a real democracy people would vote based on their conclusions gained from looking properly at the facts, from having a full understanding of the institutions and issues concerned. Currently, we do not have such a situation. Moreover, this ideal state of affairs would entail equality of influence and power.

Democracies should ignore wealth, talent, prestige, charisma, control of information and so many other arbitrary influences that so corrupt our illusory democracy at the moment. Press ownership regulations, a more equal society, a fairer education system (no more private schools), paid internships and so on, along with an attack on the political-media class as a whole is vital to achieve this.

Apathy or disinterest is no excuse, these issues affect us all, and the only way we can preserve our threatened freedoms and democracy is via proper political engagement.

Friday, 16 March 2012

My first conference

This was the third Green Party Yorker column I wrote

It is impossible to escape stereotypes. Even if you know they are false, it is hard not to base your assumptions off them. Political parties are no different. One would expect a Tory conference to be full of suited affluence and intoxicated with the airs of the establishment, while Labour would once have been seen as a tough working class arena, but is now full of eerie professionalism. Thus on the eve of attending the conference of my party, the Greens, for the first time, I thought of bearded hippies without shoes arguing over animal rights and drug legalisation whilst lambasting those who dared consume meat or purchase non-biodegradable products.This common perception of green politics could not have been further from the truth, and simply highlights the great flaws that characterise mainstream political thinking.

Since New Labour's obsession with public image and spin, mainstream politics has become a world populated by increasingly similar politicos with slick, telegenic appearances and meaningless ideologies who give off pointless sound-bites and feel the need to kowtow to dominant trends of popular culture. This forced other parties to follow a similarly cringe-worthy pattern that has only served to dilute the very force of politics and alienate young and old alike.

The deification of appearances also entails worryingly anti-democratic inclinations. For anything that is not in alignment with the demands of stage-managed appearances is marginalised. The voices and concerns of ordinary members are pushed to the side, and the overall bent of the party is determined from the top down. Many grass-roots Labour and Liberal Democrats members remain significantly to the left of the leadership, while the superficial liberalisation of the Conservatives is hardly in line with the majority of members' views.
It therefore gave me a great sense of pride to see that my party had not given in to these currents. Though I stated that the stereotypes of Greens as aloof eccentrics was largely inaccurate, the fact that we are seen as so different to the dull chasm into which the mainstream parties have descended, should be worn as a badge of honour, not shame. Indeed the only Spin in my party conference was the name of the former chair of the university branch.

This was a party for ordinary people voicing real opinions and ideas, not the vacuous products from some monstrous PR machine. Every change to policy had to be voted on and anyone could speak out on any matter. The conflict over the questionable Brighton budget was indeed fiery and divisive, but it was a unique thing in modern British party politics. To question the very moral integrity of the central line would have been suicidal in a Labour or Tory conference.

As a result we produced policies that I'd like to think are far more reflective of ordinary British views that those produced from the politico-media establishment that controls popular perceptions. Proposals on economic democracy, defending the right to protest, decent housing for everyone and fair internships (many of which were badly worded, another sign of a vigorous democratic spirit) all represent the outcomes of true democratic processes. The very soul of the Green Party is an entity full of life and spirit, driven by the will of all its members, all of whom have an equal say.

And that is precisely why I joined the Green Party and why I feel it has so much to offer British, if not global, politics. For, above all else, it represents a vision of real democracy. Power lies in the hands of everyone by virtue of common humanity. Wealth, talent, prestige, charisma, control of information and so many other arbitrary influences that so corrupt our illusory democracy at the moment, that give far more influence to the few over the many, are disregarded completely. Yes, there was disagreement and division, and there were several decisions that I questioned. But for once I felt satisfied with the outcome, because I truly knew that it was achieved fairly and equally.

The great hope for the future is that this supreme democratic vitality, that is engrained to the very fibres of the Green party could be expanded to Britain as a whole, and maybe even beyond. Only our policies on pure proportional representation, media regulation so that no one has a monopoly of information, constitutional reform, and economic democracy, among so many others, are deserving of the title; “democratic”. Cynical attempts by our opponents to mock us as unprofessional or hippyish only serve to reinforce this ideal.

So if there was anything that I took away from conference it was a fuller understanding of what my party truly means. The next time I am asked what the Green Party stands for, I will not list our key policies, I will not give off the old cliché about combining social and environmental justice, and I will not make some over-used references to fairness or alternatives that are so prevalent in current affairs that they lose all meaning. I will simply say; “democracy”.