A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Tag: Politics

A tale of a shipwreck

Having spent much of yesterday in a state of baffled disbelief, this overwrought analogy came to mind – it seemed quite profound this morning; I’m not so sure now…

Red Duster

(Pat McDonald, flickr)

Let me tell you a story about a ship: HMS Economy. She has a long and proud naval history, but now she is (mostly) a civilian vessel. She is run by the Captain, and every so often the crew and the passengers on board vote whether to sail under a red flag or a blue one. When they have voted, the Captain with the relevant flag goes to the ageing figurehead at the prow, and receives her blessing to take the helm.

What do the flags’ colours signify? When the passengers and crew feel that HMS Economy is in danger, they tend to vote for the blue flag. These Captains are hard taskmasters. They do “whatever it takes” to keep the ship afloat and on course. They lash the crew to the oars, man the pumps and make liberal use of the cat o’nine tails. Red captains are elected when the crew need respite – they untie the rowers and even let some of them come up on deck to stretch their legs and see what life is like for the passengers. It was a Captain sailing under a red flag who gave the crew free access to the ship’s doctor, for example.

After a while, the passengers grew most comfortable sailing under a blue flag. Some of them felt a bit bad for the crew below, but it seemed very important for HMS Economy to keep progressing in the right direction, to speed along as fast as possible and not risk losing her way under a red flag. There was more dissent among the crew, although many of them also agreed that it was better to keep a blue flag so they would all benefit by reaching their destination (wherever that was) sooner and with the ship in a good condition, even if many of the crew were not.

So the red flags changed their approach. “Ok, y’know, alright,” they said, holding their arms out, palms turned trustworthily towards the audience. “We’ve been watching the blue Captains and we think they’ve got pretty much the right approach, actually. So we’re not going to unlash the crew from the oars any more. What we will do – and this is the crucial difference now – what we will do is let them have a tea break, as long as it doesn’t threaten to damage or slow down the ship. HMS Economy is what matters and we will look after her and her passengers really properly from now on.”

And this persuaded most of the passengers and the crew to trust the red flag, and it seemed as though the course was set for years to come. Life was much the same as it had been under the blue flag, but perhaps a little easier on the crew.

Then disaster came. Yes, the conditions were bad – other ships nearby were making the sea choppy. But HMS Economy herself, it seemed, was in far worse condition than anyone had realised. The blue flags began telling passengers that the red flags had failed to fix the sails while the sun was shining; that we were heading straight for the rocks; that we would all be sunk.

Everyone panicked. The ageing figurehead was called upon to support a Captain and First Mate, sailing under a flag that was mostly blue but had a bit of orange on it, too. The crew were lashed harder to their oars, the cat o’nine tails came out more often, and all hands were put to the pumps (except the top-deck passengers who, quite discomfited by the thought of the ship sinking, were reassured and given lavish new cabins with TVs and inflatable life-savers built in to the walls).

Five years later, HMS Economy was becalmed. She seemed in less immediate danger of capsizing, although the Captain and First Mate had done relatively little to repair her, but she just wasn’t making any headway. Some of the passengers and crew began to regret having been so harsh on the rowers below decks. They thought HMS Economy would probably have survived just as well under a red flag, and without so much harm to the crew – and maybe there hadn’t even been that many rocks. Perhaps it was time to go back to a red flag?

But although lots of people were chattering about this – also the unexpected rise of the yellow flags (dour engineers, for the most part) – it seems most of the passengers and crew meanwhile had quietly put the blame on the First Mate, and quietly believed the blue flags when they said this was no time to risk the ship by hoisting a red flag. Why, a red Captain might fail to get HMS Economy moving again at all, or if they did, it would be in the wrong direction, or on to the rocks – like they did the last time. Better trust the blues.

And so the people voted and the ageing figurehead had to let the Captain keep sailing under a blue flag (no orange required any more). And the Captain vowed to work the crew harder, and make the passengers more comfortable, and to keep HMS Economy sailing on to glory.

That’s the story, then; but it is all codswallop.

The economy is the sea, not the ship

I don’t really believe that politicians have anything like as much influence over the direction and speed of the economy as they claim. Labour didn’t ‘break’ the economy in 2008, any more than a sailor can ‘break’ the ocean. Equally, the Coalition government deserves as much credit for the recovery as a sailor gets for a storm dying down and the sun coming out. The ship they sail is not the economy; rather, the economy is the water that keeps our ship and all of us afloat.

This is not to say that governing is as simple as setting a course and sticking to it. Clearly, the nature of the economy is that it has swells and currents, tides and tsunamis. A good captain is one who maintains the ship and responds well to changes in the weather, keeping the people safe from the sharks in the economical ocean all around.

By confusing the nature of the ship (deliberately or otherwise), the Conservatives make HMS Economy the be-all and end-all of government. If HMS Economy is faring well, they claim, then she is carrying us all to a brighter place. But HMS Economy is a ghost ship, and she has no destination for there is no endpoint to the economic journey of any country. All she can do is continue to push on, keep the crew slaving below deck and the passengers comfortable above. Heaven forfend she should slow down, or even drop anchor, and let everyone enjoy the view.

Labour’s failure in 2015 was not that they couldn’t persuade people they were capable of captaining the ship – though they signally failed to do that, too. The real failure was that they didn’t even try to show us that HMS Economy is a con.

We do not exist to keep the economy afloat. The economy has the potential to drown any of us, and so the ship we have built – the state; HMS Britain, I suppose – is a means of surviving the chaotic waves of economic fortune. The ship exists to keep us afloat. And given that the ship has no destination, there is no need to lash ourselves to the oars in order to maintain a notional speed of growth – we could just as easily hoist the sails, come up on deck and maybe even engage in some water sports (while the Captain keeps an eye out for any banks of stormy cloud on the horizon, of course).

Perhaps that is more akin to the narrative the SNP (not dour engineers at all, of course) offered this time round with their anti-austerity plans. Perhaps so many people want to shake off the red and blue flags because they stick too slavishly to the frightening ghost story of HMS Economy and sea monsters and rocks. But for all the ‘success’ Labour had beating the blue flags at their own game from 1997 to 2008, most of the electorate still seems prone to panic and vote for the blue flags at the first sign of trouble.

I really hope Labour choose a leader who can take this opportunity now to undermine the game: make the red flag stand for real change, and put the quality of people’s lives ahead of the health of the economy, which the government really can’t affect very much anyway. Paint over the ship’s old misleading nameplate, relaunch her with a new bottle of Champagne (or maybe Scotch), and focus on her true purpose – to carry the people so we can live our lives free from the risk of ‘drowning’ in the economy, not enslaved to it.

God bless this ship, and all who sail in her!

Election party!

“Who will win the General Election?” seems to be the way the question is being framed by a lot of commentators as we approach polling day. With the voting surveys inconclusive, various people are jostling for pre-emptive positions on what they would consider to be a ‘legitimate’ government. In particular, I’ve noticed Nick Clegg, current leader of the Liberal Democrats, talking as if he will again be the ‘kingmaker’ who gets to choose which of the two larger parties to prop up. Seems rather presumptuous, given that his is unlikely to still be the third largest party and he cannot be sure that he will even be an MP any more this time next week. A man who says the party with the most seats in Parliament deserves first go at forming a government must surely admit that the third-largest party should get first go at choosing which of the big two they want to prop up – and that looks like being the SNP, not the Lib Dems.

But all this talk of ‘legitimacy’ is ridiculous anyway. Nobody formally ‘wins’ a British General Election under the current constitution. The ‘winner’ is decided de facto by dint of being able to form a stable government (with the Queen’s blessing). Now, yes, the easiest way to do that is to have more than 50% of the seats be won by your political stablemates (and yes, each seat can be ‘won’ by getting the most votes in the constituency) – but this outright outcome, the most common in 20th century elections, entails a covert process of basically the same kind of horse-trading and compromise that we’ll see more publicly after the hung parliament expected on Friday morning.

Party mix

Our political parties are not homogeneous blocs of precisely like-minded people. They are full of factions, wings and outliers that their leaders have bargained, bribed and browbeaten into just enough stability to unite under one political brand. Given these loose associations of political affiliations, it is hardly surprising that the lines separating a Tory from being a UKipper are pretty thin. There are LibDems who could just as easily be Conservatives, and others who could be socialists or maybe even Greens. The SNP’s surge in support seems to have come from a lot of young new Scottish voters looking for something different, but it also owes a lot to (older) people simply changing allegiance from Labour (and other parties, too).

So why is everyone falling over themselves to rule out this, stake a claim to that, and declare the other ‘illegitimate’? Well, they still have 650 elections to win, naturally. But when the votes are cast, negotiations between the parties after the General Election will be no less valid or unbecoming than those within the parties in all the years before it.

Unwritten laws

I rather like the pragmatism of the tacit UK constitution. I read today that John Griffith, an LSE academic (and friend of Ralph Miliband), once said that our constitution is “no more and no less than what happens”, which I think means we have our national institutions and they relate to each other, and those institutions and relationships may change over time, but as long as they still relate to each other and to us, and function, that’s what matters. There are rarely any hard and fast rules, therefore, but this would actually allow for quite radical solutions to problems, too, if the parties involved were willing to be sufficiently bold.

There is no rule, for instance, that a bloc of Scottish nationalist MPs cannot support another party as the UK government, even if that government would not be able to rule without their support. There is certainly no rule that Nick Clegg gets to decide who should be the next Prime Minister. And there is no rule that the party with the most seats (but not a majority) should get first dibs on trying to form a government.

Because ‘winning’ a British General Election is not about getting the most votes or the most seats; it is a question of pragmatism alone: Can you muster enough support to be a viable Prime Minister in Parliament?

Horses for courses

If you don’t like that, and you want to vote directly for your government, well the first thing you need to do is not live in a (tacit) constitutional monarchy. For now, you vote for your constituency representative, your MP; the MPs go to Westminster and each chooses a leader from among all the other MPs to back. These alliances are usually forged over years and formalised through political parties, but alliances forged in the days ahead will be just as ‘legitimate’, although they don’t necessarily come with a branded party stamp. Then the leader who can command the most MPs goes to the Queen and gets the royal nod to be PM (and they are Her Majesty’s PM, strictly speaking, and not ours).

My point is that political parties are a convenient way to judge which potential PM your constituency candidate will back in Parliament, but they do not define the limits of who can work with whom in politics. A coalition of all parties except the one that gets the most (but not a majority of) MPs, for example, would indeed be a legitimate government if it could keep everyone involved sufficiently happy – just as everyone in a single party would have to be kept happy if they were to stay in power. Political divisions and makeshift coalitions are fluid and free – as free as we are to change our allegiance and our vote in each General Election should we so choose. So how will you choose tomorrow?

Update: 7/5/15

Another point I forgot to make is that no one should think the ‘national vote’ constitutes useful data. You cannot aggregate the tallies of 650 separate elections and think that everyone would vote the same way if they were voting directly for a government. Under the current system, that would be an illegitimate way to argue for power.

Power and politics

(Image by Pete on Flickr)

(Image by Pete on Flickr)

Less than a week to the UK General Election. I haven’t been thinking about it a great deal* – I know who I’m going to vote for in my constituency, and I believe in letting the votes be cast before futilely arguing over who should make a deal with whom to form the next government…

What has interested me is the perennial (or quinquennial) focus on voter apathy and the way politicians and celebrities (and people who are neither) exhort anyone who will listen to vote, to make a difference, to have their say. But voting in a General Election is not a powerful act. When I go to put an X on the ballot paper, it is not with a feeling of political influence coursing through my fingers and that stubby little pencil, it is more with a feeling like the one you get when you look at the picture made famous by Carl Sagan – the pale blue dot that is Earth, suspended in a sunbeam somewhere in the universe. It’s famously humbling, but also rather thrilling, in a way, to be so insignificant!

There are 64 million people in the UK, some 45 million or so of whom are eligible to vote (though far from all do, of course). My constituency alone has an electorate of some 75,000. One vote does not – should not – make “a difference” to the outcome. Those who decide not to vote because theirs will not be decisive in determining the outcome ask too much. It is, after all, the tallies of all our votes, the collective counts, not the individual Xs, that are the expression of democracy in an election.

Politics is not easy

Democracy is built on compromise. Whether it is holding your nose to vote at all, or choosing a candidate despite their party, or vice versa, or – for those who are elected – to give ground to your allies or opponents in order to make gains elsewhere. So for me, voting, and the majorities and minorities that it inevitably defines, isn’t really about influence or power, not at the level of the individual, anyway. Holding a vote lets you know (in theory, in a world without tactical voting, which I dislike**) how many people you have yet to persuade before you do get the right to exercise some democratic power (if only our politicians were more interested in persuading voters than pandering to them, though***).

Those who complain that voting is pointless and powerless have missed this point: it is not voting that gives power to the people, but rather it is opportunities to participate. If you don’t like the options on your ballot paper, and cannot bring yourself to compromise, it is both possible and incumbent on you in this democracy to create an alternative that you can stomach. Find others who agree with your politics, or persuade others that you are right. Persuade more people to join you, and you have a chance to find a candidate that you can vote for. It might even be you. If you can’t persuade people you are right, maybe you’re not.

Why vote?

Voting is a vital part of democracy, but not because it is de facto an act of democratic power. Voting can help you to know your own mind and to find out how many people agree with you (if everyone voted ‘honestly’). That’s important, but the implication is that to actually wield real democratic power, you must do more than cast a vote each time you are asked: you have to be active, engage with other voters, listen and argue with them, and perhaps compromise a little.

My vote is not going to change the world on its own. Nor should it. I still think everyone who is eligible should vote because it lets the rest of us know where we all stand. But if we want to exercise democratic power, we have to stop bleating about the pointlessness of voting and make an effort far greater than it takes to get to the polling station and write an X on a piece of paper.

So I would say vote precisely because it won’t alter the outcome, because it is ‘merely’ the reckoning. And if you actually crave the power to change this democracy, you will have to work for it and find it beyond the polling booth.

* Unlike Simon Kane and Tassos Stevens, for example, who have been thinking about the election most excellently, thank you very much…

** Of course, this is the problem, which is that the system has become a game and our politicians know how to play it and, if not how to win it, then at least how to stop other people from winning. Maybe we should change the system – but to one that doesn’t inherently advantage political machines (aka “parties”), please…

*** Naturally, this implies that I should try to persuade politicians to persuade me, but I’m not after power, and I’m not sure I’m right about any of this anyway…

Politics to Progress

Another round of additions to my Dictionary, albeit only a few extra definitions as I have subscribers now and don’t want to overwhelm them!

Politics, Power and Progress all seem pertinent this week; Programmes does not so much and then yet again perhaps….

Do feel free to suggest some music for me to listen to in the decay of other sounds.

Yes, I am voting No….

The Economist would vote No were it enfranchised on 5 May. I am inclined to vote the same way, albeit for rather different reasons. The Economist says it is in favour of an element of proportional representation (PR) within our elected systems, with the remainder being the mis-named first past the post (FPTP). I don’t like PR. I think it accepts and enforces the de facto status quo and doesn’t address the real underlying problems with our electoral system. So while The Economist rejects the alternative vote (AV) system because it is not like its favoured 20% PR (I don’t understand how this would work), I reject AV because it is irrelevant to the actual problems in our politics and would, I suspect, reduce the likelihood of us ever getting a Parliament that I would be happy with. Read the rest of this entry »

State theatre

A couple of weeks ago, while the Queen was opening the British Parliament for a new session – in that way she does – former Reuters correspondent John M Morrison was asking himself the question: ‘Should the Queen’s speech get an Olivier award?’.

His post focused on the innate theatricality of this formal state occasion – the costumes, traditional rituals, words and gestures. But it reminded me that back in the 16th Century, when theatre was but an emerging artform, putative dramatists did, in fact, work on the ‘scripts’ and staging of these pageants. Part of their work was to emphasise the relationships between the protagonists, showing on the grand stage of the streets of London, in what might today be termed ‘promenade theatre’, who was the boss of whom.

I’d love to get my hands on modern-day pageantry and update the display of relationships to reflect contemporary politics. So although I find it amusing that the Justice Minister hands the speech to the Queen – as if underlining the fact that it was written by the Government, not the Palace – how much more fun would it be to arrange the running order to highlight more strongly the nature of the puppet show? To introduce new rituals that demonstrate the true state of politics in the country?

And I need to research it again, but I’m sure there are lovely moments in the Lord Mayor’s Show, too, that could do with being updated so that the ceremonies are illustrative of relationships between the state, elected officials, unelected dignitaries and the people.

Perhaps what is called for is some illegitimate street theatre to play with these ideas. But actually, it needs to be for real – a genuine pageant being played with self-awareness and deliberation.

I should write to Boris….