Sunday, 19 May 2013

The graphs that explain EVERYTHING that is going on in politics at the moment

Recently, I was asked by a local newspaper to explain why people are generally so fed up with politics.  Thinking on it, I realised that a good way to explain what is going on in modern politics is the following series of graphs.
Yes it’s simplistic, but it’s true.

The political spectrum
If you were to make a graph of the political opinions of the people of Britain, it would look something like this: 

There are a range of political opinions, stretching from the fascist BNP on the right, back through the euro-sceptic Tory MPs and across to the borrow-and-spend Marxists and anarchists on the left … but (as the bump in the centre shows) by far the majority of us are, more-or-less, in the middle.

The Political Parties
Now, if you were to map onto this graph the people who are Labour Party members and supporters, you would find something as follows:

None of them are very extreme, but they sit visibly left-of-centre. Generally, they believe in the Welfare State and citizen-rights, and state-provided services, and they want the state to re-kickstart the economy.

Meanwhile, Tory Party members and supporters would occupy this part of the graph:

None of them are very extreme, but they sit visibly right-of-centre.   Generally, they believe in authority and the-way-we-used-to-do-things, and they advocate individualism – entrepreneurship and pulling yourself up by your own shoelaces. 

What is worth noticing is that there is a clear gap between the parties.  Labour supporters and Tories are NOT 'all the same' and they DO believe different things.

The problem with both these party memberships is that they are not big enough.  The coloured area below the black line is an indication of how many people each party attracts.  The key thing you need to notice is that neither party, on its own, has enough supporters to win a majority in an election.

And the Party leaderships know this.

The Party Leaderships
The Party leaderships, therefore, realise that they need to attract voters beyond their party – that was how Thatcher and Blair won elections.  Ed Miliband and David Cameron, therefore, know that – to win the next election – they need to win over that huge body of people who occupy the centre-ground.

How to do this?  They know what those people want and believe – the opinion polls tell them that.  So they say what those people want to hear.  Sod the principles – we just want to get elected, and to get elected this is what we have to say. 

The result is that – although there is a clear distinction between what the different party activists want – you can hardly slide a piece of paper between the messages coming out of the party leaderships:

This explains everything
Yes they try to spin their policies ‘left’ or ‘right’ to make them seem different, but generally they are ploughing a middle furrow.  Party analysts no longer even define politics in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’ – they analyse you in terms of whether you are visionary or pragmatist, aspirational or threatened.  Every statement, every move is analysed as to how it will play to that huge centre-ground of voters.

And it is when you realise this that everything drops into place.

It explains why politicians never answer questions.  They have been told the exact form of words which plays to the mass, and they just repeat it, whatever the question.  (It also explains why politicians are often so wooden – they are so busy trying to say the required thing, and get the required facial expression, and move their hands in the way their spin doctors have told them, that they are totally NOT themselves.)

It explains why politicians spend so much time attacking each other.  When you are all chasing the middle ground, how do you persuade people to accept your brand of middle-of-the-roadism, rather than the opposition’s?   You can’t appeal on the grounds of differences in policies, because they are so damn similar … so you’ve got to wreck the reputation of the other lot.

And this explains the scorn and apathy of the electorate.  They are continually told (by other politicians) that politicians are incompetent liars.  They can see that the politicians are not conscience-driven, but are just spinning a line.  They can see that the politicians are just spinning them a line to get elected, and suspect that they will do what they please when they get into power. 

Funnily enough, party activists feel this as much, if not more, than the general public.

EVERYBODY is disillusioned with politicians.
NOBODY feels that the system-as-is is representing their views.

Party tensions
So this also explains the tensions that are increasingly opening up between the Party leaders and their members.

The newspapers today are full of the Tory leadership desperately denying that they think their activists are ‘swivel-eyed loons’. 

They are lying, of course.
This becomes clear if you superimpose the graph of the electors whom Cameron wishes to attract, onto the graph of the people who are members and supporters of the Tory Party:

You can see that many of the Tory Party are WAY to the right of Cameron’s target voters.   He needs them to fill the Party coffers and to do the foot-slogging at election times, but generally they are an embarrassment – indeed, if he lets them say too much they will turn off his target voters.
Gay marriage is the perfect example.  Rank-and-file Tories hate the idea of gay marriage, and are castigating Cameron for supporting it – but he knows that by far the majority of people in the country support it and he cannot (dare not) indulge his members.

And what is true for the Tory Party is just as true for the Labour Party:

Tony Blair always used to be utterly candid about it.  The Labour Party does not need to appeal to its rank-and-file – they are going to vote Labour whatever.   Rather, the Labour Party needs to appeal to the vast numbers of voters in the centre-ground, and Labour’s declared policies need to reflect this.

The Labour Party has been much cleverer than the Tory Party in placating its membership by instituting a regime of consultation and policy forums, and party discipline remains intact.   But the Party leadership are still way to the right of their membership, and follow ‘Purple Labour’ policies; occasionally a union leader explodes in frustration.

The rise of UKIP
All this also helps us understand the rise of UKIP, too.

Generally, UKIP is a fairly nasty, right-wing party:

It is not as nasty and right-wing as the BNP, of course, but therein lies its danger for the Tories.  Because UKIP principles – whilst way to the right of Cameron’s ‘modernising’ centrist-appealing conservatism – actually overlap significantly with what real Tory members and supporters want:
Hence the haemorrhaging of votes to UKIP in the recent elections.

There is not yet any similar danger for Labour. Left-wing alternatives to Labour (such as the Socialist Workers Party and TUSC) tend to be more to the left of the Labour membership, and do not exercise the same attraction:

And, ultimately, the probable truth is that, for both Tories and Labour, any defections will come back at the next general election.  Tories flirting with UKIP know well that, if they vote UKIP in 2015, they will not get a UKIP-Tory government, they will get a Labour one.

Are there any solutions?
It is hard to know if there are any feasible alternatives to this very unsatisfactory state of affairs of lying leaders and dissatisfied supporters.

The problem is that – lacking a leader of massive personal charisma – if either Party begins to take a political stance, vast numbers of people will stop voting for them, so I can’t see things changing in the near future.

Proportional representation would allow politicians and parties to be more honest about their personal beliefs.  But the problem with PR is that it generally leads to coalition governments, and we have seen how unsatisfactory that is – as far as voters are concerned, a coalition still ends up pursuing policies far different from those in their manifestos.

In this digital age, you wonder whether we might move towards a more direct form of government – that we might, for example, have more referendums.  But, until the general populace becomes more politically educated, that carries huge dangers of its own.

Ultimately, the only answer lies in the voters, not the politicians.  If popular interest in politics grew, and active membership of the parties expanded, Party leaders could begin to move away from the centre towards their membership, because their membership would command enough votes to make a difference at the ballot box.

And the beginning of that process is political education.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Queen’s Speech – “My Government Will Continue To Grind Down My People”

All the newspapers are talking about the Queen’s Speech. You can read it for yourself here.  Both the Guardian and the Telegraph are of the opinion that it is a lacklustre effort, and the beginning of the end for the coalition.

They are wrong, of course.  As journalists, they are looking for a new departure, an exciting development.  And it is true that there is no Plan B in the Queen’s Speech.  But what the journalists have failed to realise is that it is that very lack of a change of direction which is most important for ordinary British people.
For Britain’s hard-pressed ‘ordinary’ people, the Queen’s Speech offers a terrifying promise … ‘We will continue grinding you down’.

The Economy
As you might expect, the economy figured greatly in the Queen’s Speech.  Of the 36 paragraphs (excluding formalities such as ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’), TEN were about the economy.

There actually are some concrete promises.  The government will promote the HS2 rail link. It is going to bring forward legislation to update the energy infrastructure.  There is a reference to an ‘employment allowance’ to help small businesses.

But the bulk of the passages on the economy were merely a reassertion that the government intends to continue on the austerity path it has chosen.  The word ‘continue’ occurred ten times in the Speech, and it is that word more than any other which should strike fear into the public.

The key to Britain’s economic success, the Speech asserts three times, is ‘economic competitiveness’ – ‘compete and succeed’ would have a ring as a logo.  And it is how the government intends to promote that competitiveness which should frighten you.

The Speech gives us some clues about what this will mean in practical terms:
1. ‘the growth of the private sector’ = so more ‘marketisation’
2. ‘reduce the deficit’ = so more austerity and cuts
3. ‘reduce the burden of excessive regulation on businesses’ = so we can expect further measures to erode employment and Health & Safety laws … those pesky rules which prevent employers from exploiting us and help to stop us dying at work

In the meantime, although the Speech does mention issues which we would all support (‘tackle tax evasion … while continuing to make progress in tackling climate change’) it is alarming to see these promises broached, not as part of the programme of government legislation, but as an adjunct to Britain’s presidency of the G8 – i.e. the Tories are going to kick these issues into the long grass of the international arena, where we can be fairly certain that little or nothing will be achieved beyond fair words and fine promises.

The Quality of Life
Terrifyingly also, the Speech continues to link economic success to the ‘reform’ of the benefits system: 

My government is committed to building an economy where people who work hard are properly rewarded. It will therefore continue to reform the benefits system, helping people move from welfare to work.
Even more alarmingly, the government is now including its education reforms, ‘the way long-term care is paid for’, and ‘a simpler state pension system’ into its general commitment to ‘a fairer society where aspiration and responsibility are rewarded’.  Given what we know about the way this government operates, we can be fairly sure that all these changes will involve more cuts for those at the bottom, and more business opportunities for those at the top. 

Distressingly, meanwhile, on housing, the Queen’s Speech promises only that:

New arrangements will be put in place to help more people own their own home, with government support provided for mortgages and deposits.
Given that the need is for a massive programme of housing provision – especially of social housing – this has to be a huge failure on the part of the government.  What it means in practical terms is that the housing stock will not grow, and prices will not fall – but that people will be encouraged to buy the existing houses at the existing inflated prices.

Battering the Vulnerable
After 3 years of this government, we know how they address social problems.  They do not attempt to provide solutions or ways of escape – that would cost money.   Instead, they stigmatise and penalise the victims, in an attempt to force them to ‘change their ways’.   Thus people on housing benefit are stigmatised as bedroom-stealers, and (in effect) fined … even though there are no smaller properties for them to go to.  Similarly, the unemployed are called scroungers, and ‘coerced’ … to get a job which does not exist. And so on.

So it is depressing to find two more groups added to the government’s hit list of social targets:

Legislation will be introduced to reform the way in which offenders are rehabilitated in England and Wales.
My government will bring forward a bill that further reforms Britain's immigration system. The bill will ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deters those who will not.
Given that we know how this government works, we know what to expect.  People coming out of jail and people coming into the country are to be battered.  In the case of immigrants, the Speech is explicit – we are going to punish them for being immigrants.   One of the already-known ways the government intends to do this – restricting immigrants’ access to the NHS – is particularly frightening; refusing medical treatment to a defined group is the thin end of a very nasty wedge.

The Tory Garage Sale
The other thing this government has been assiduously doing, of course, for the last three years, has been giving away our public services.

In this respect the Cameron government has been far cleverer than Thatcher.  She privatised (= sold off ) the public services – which meant that big business had to PAY to get control of them.
This government does not privatise … it ‘marketises’.
This means that it takes public services which we have paid to build up, resource and organise, and offers them out to tender – handing them over as working enterprises for big business to exploit.

The Queen’s Speech makes two statements which give us concern about where the government intends to go next:

My government will introduce a bill that closes the Audit Commission
Legislation will be brought forward to … further reform the police.

Actually, of everything this wicked government is doing, this is the most alarming, because such measures create conflicts of interest which we are simply expected to accept without question.

Closing the audit commission (the body which monitors public expenditure) will complete the process of marketisation which the government has already begun.  But has no one thought about the conflict of interest created where a government body is putting out a tender for the very body which is going to monitor its finances (including its tendering processes).   Is there not a very real danger that audit providers will be hugely incentivised to produce gentle audit decisions … in the hope of winning next year’s procurement exercise?

And as for reforming the police, the expectation has to be that this will involve the putting out of services to tender by companies like G4.  Given that it has already put out chunks of the prison service and the transfer of prisoners to G4, and that it has just invited G4 and other big companies to tender for the Legal Aid system, handing over parts of the police service threatens to give us a justice system which – from arrest to court to prison – would be run by the same company!  How frightening is that!

Finally, here is another proposal which – given this government’s determination to marketise everything, should scare the sh*t out of you:

Measures will be brought forward to improve the way this country procures defence equipment, as well as strengthening the reserve forces.
… as one wonders which parts of our defence system will, like our helicopter search-and-rescue service, be handed over to American suppliers…