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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

PIIGS not PIGS

There hasn’t been a pig of the week for some time. At least in part this is due to economics commentators messing up my google alerts with references to the PIGS countries. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, at the Daily Telegraph, is the latest to commit this error; a particularly egregious instance as he actually discusses Italy’s situation. As we should all know by now, the Eurozone countries with unstable or possibly unstable levels of national debt should be referred to as the PIIGS countries. PIGS are a completely different thing.

PS. However! I did not know until I read that article that Angela Merkel has a PhD in nuclear physics! That is pretty cool.

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This is just a round-up of some of the better things I have read on the riots. I might add to it as I go along.

Owen Hatherley:

Riots always start with an immediate grievance—a hugely corrupt police force shooting a man to death, this time—and become a free-for-all, where people exploit the absence of the law, in which the people who suffer are often innocent. Rioting is a politics of despair, but to claim that these riots are somehow different, somehow ‘neoliberal’, because of the allegedly novel phenomenon of mass looting, is asinine. It would be infantile to cheer on rioters against corner shopkeepers trying to defend their already small livelihoods; but equally so to pretend that this had nothing to do with the demonisation of the young and poor, nothing to do with our brutally unequal society and our pathetic trickle-down attempts at amelioration. Then we line up with those who think that looting Foot Locker is worse than the looting of an entire economy.

Nichole Smith at Racialicious:

As we face-off with the returned ugliness of the 80s British conservatism and increasing hostility, conditions are being set for a ‘police army state’. I was disgusted listening to a BBC Radio 5 reporter commenting ‘If you shoot at the police what else do you expect?’ I expect the police to arrest and charge their suspects. I expect individuals charged with crimes to face court and the full length of our judicial process as required. (The Guardian has since published information stating early ballistic tests show that all bullets were fired from the police – evidence of the false account used to cover police corruption.) I have not been so deceived out of my citizenship, nor convinced of the absent humanity of those of us living in the inner city, as to expect and humbly accept rising numbers of curious deaths at the hands of our police – and certainly not when they are all men of African-Caribbean descent.

Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb:

The truth is that riots almost always hurt poor, working class people.  There’s no riot that embodies a pure struggle for justice, that is not also partly a self-inflicted wound.  There is no riot without looting, without anti-social behaviour, without a mixture of bad motives and bad politics.  That still doesn’t mean that the riot doesn’t have a certain political focus; that it doesn’t have consequences for the ability of the ruling class to keep control; that the contest with the police is somehow taking place outside of its usual context of suspicion borne of institutional racism and brutality.  The rioters here, whenever they’ve been asked, have made it more than abundantly clear what their motives are – most basically, repaying years of police mistreatment.

Seumas Milne in the Guardian:

If this week’s eruption is an expression of pure criminality and has nothing to do with police harassment or youth unemployment or rampant inequality or deepening economic crisis, why is it happening now and not a decade ago? The criminal classes, as the Victorians branded those at the margins of society, are always with us, after all. And if it has no connection with Britain’s savage social divide and ghettoes of deprivation, why did it kick off in Haringey and not Henley?

Lasophielle at Bankraub: eine Initiative von Dilettanten:

We create a system based on only-just-barely controlling (through law-abiding earn-and-shop mechanisms of governmentality) visceral urges to HAVE MORE SHINY EXPENSIVE STUFF all the time, and then have the cheek to regard those people who break down the shop windows (and the figurative barriers around that gluttonous drive to consumption) with disgust. What pigs – grabbing as many mobile phones and trainers as they can – we would definitely not do that; we have earned ours.

Stafford Scott in the Guardian:

To behave in this manner young people have to believe they have no stake in the neighbourhood, and consequently no stake in wider society. This belief is compounded when it becomes a reality over generations, as it has done for some. If the riots at the weekend and the disturbances around London today have come as a surprise to the police and that wider society, the warning signs have long been there for those of us who engage with black youths.

Nina Power in the Guardian:

One journalist wrote that he was surprised how many people in Tottenham knew of and were critical of the IPCC, but there should be nothing surprising about this. When you look at the figures for deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them), then the IPCC and the courts are seen by many, quite reasonably, to be protecting the police rather than the people.

Edit:

Francie’s take on the riots:

A large proportion of London teenagers know the police are racist and violent, and hate and mistrust them accordingly (including my teenage self). They shouldn’t know it, because happy children don’t know how fucked up the world is, but many of them know it from first-hand violence and humiliation. In Forest Gate, where everyone has been mugged or burgled, everyone hates the police. There were lots of stories on Twitter on Tuesday and Wednesday about Asian boys in Green Street, Forest Gate, defending the local businesses from rioters. My favourite story, unfortunately completely unverifiable, has those boys saying ‘We don’t want no looters round here. We don’t want no cops, either.’

Also, another good round-up/reading list at The disorder of things.

Edit 2:

Another good piece from Owen Hatherley:

The idea seems to be that those in social housing could just find somewhere else, they could just walk into private housing. Like the similar proposals for taking away housing benefit from miscreants, it is based on an inability to imagine what poverty is like, to think for a second what might happen to a family when it loses its income or its home. Given that the riots were largely concentrated in areas where extreme wealth and poverty rub up against each other – from Clapham to the Thames Valley, from Manchester to Bristol – it shows the total mutual incomprehension that we have for our literal neighbours.

Edit 3:

John Harris in the Guardian:

You could certainly be forgiven for comparing the fate of the Facebook pair to the MPs jailed for fraudulently taking tens of thousands from the public purse – whose average jail sentence came in at around 18 months. But it’s arguably even more instructive to look at those who merely paid back hefty sums for claims they clearly thought had been indefensible, many of whom are now cheerleading for the sentencing craziness that has seized the courts.

Edit 4 (yeah, this is silly now):

Jews sans frontieres have a great set of links for a more historical perspective, including a recommendation for E.P. Thompson’s The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century, available here.

 

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Photo from the Guardian.

So the bullet which was recovered from a police radio, supposedly fired during Mark Duggan’s arrest, is now discovered to be a bullet from a police issue gun.

This is how the police and media operate in crisis situations when the police have really fucked up, and particularly when they kill someone. Immediately after the event there is a big, detailed lie. That lie says the police are completely innocent and acted in good faith and the victim was behaving in a way which meant the police had little choice but to use lethal force. The lie doesn’t necessarily come from the official police channels, but unofficial ones, a friendly officer briefs a friendly journalist. Sometimes (as in the case of Jean-Charles de Menezes) the story comes from a supposed witness who imagines a media-friendly version of events with a clear narrative and therefore gets airplay on every media outlet repeatedly for several days.

Everyone hears this story.

Then it becomes apparent, thanks to the persistence of decent journalists and campaigners, that this version of events is completely, or substantially, untrue. But the correction doesn’t appear all at once as a coherent version of events; instead details are ‘clarified’ and corrected one by one until it becomes apparent that what most people understand to have taken place never took place at all. But by this time a lot of people are no longer following the story.

So the public understanding of what has taken place becomes a mass of confusions and misunderstandings; some people know this detail; others think that’s wrong and have heard something else; a proper informed understanding of what’s happened is confined only to people actively following up every connection to the story. The problem is exacerbated by the laziness and irresponsibility of media commentators who don’t make the effort to be fully informed before they weigh in on an issue.

It’s worth noting that the version of events on the Metropolitan Police press page has been simplified over the last couple of days, removing any reference to shots fired on the police. This may be due to the ongoing IPCC investigation. But the IPCC investigates every police shooting, so you would expect the Met to exercise caution in releasing details on the Mark Duggan case.

PS. My sister on facebook on the police:

…I’d like to suggest that it’s difficult to sit in a police car, fire a bullet from your own gun into your own or your colleague’s chest and then make the honest mistake of thinking that bullet came from the gun of a man sitting in a different car and that you must therefore shoot and kill him dead. That is not an honest mistake. That is not only a cover-up but a deliberate lie, and probably a murder.

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Ed Miliband on the strikes:

These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are going on. People have been let down by both sides – the Govt has acted recklessly.

Ralph Miliband on Labour parliamentarians, in Parliamentary Socialism:

The kind of sweeping changes at the top which a good many socialists hope to see one day brought about in the Labour Party, and which would signify a major ideological shift to the left, would presumably, given the nature of the political system, have to be engineered from within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But to say this is surely also to indicate how unrealistic that hope is. It is unrealistic because it ignores the perennial weakness of the parliamentary left. That weakness is not accidental but structural, which is why the indignation so often manifested by left activists at the derelictions of Labour Left M.P.’s is futile. The derelictions are real enough, but they are built into the system of which these M.P.’s are a part. Left parliamentarians operate within the rules of a game designed to limit their capacity and indeed their willingness to challenge their leaders. They are required to behave ‘loyally’ and to accept compromise in order to help maintain the ‘unity’ of the party. They must not give aid and comfort to the other side, most of all when Labour is in government, but also when it is in opposition.

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Following the student demos on the 24th November, when my sister was kettled for eight hours, I made a complaint to the Metropolitan Police about their tactics and I’ve now received a reply (pdf, below). Superintendent Roger Gomm defends the use of ‘containment’ (he says: “‘Kettling’, as it is referred to in the media, is not a term used by the police”) on the following grounds:

On [the 24th], two marches met up in Trafalgar Square and about 3,000 demonstrators proceeded down Whitehall. Limited police intelligence* suggested that some of the protestors were intent on getting to the Liberal Democrat headquarters in Cowley Street. Police cordons were in place to prevent that and to prevent the march from getting in to Parliament Square. Skirmishes broke out with demonstrators attacking police line and destroying hoarding around road works. This resulted in a containment being authorised. During the period of containment, a police carrier within the crowd area was attacked and amaged. damage was also caused to telephone boxes, bus stops, the Old War Office and the Treasury. Attempted incursions into premises in Whitehall by protestors were prevented. During the day a number of police officers and members of the public were injured and a large number of arrests were made for public order offences and criminal damage, both on the day and subsequently.

You can see the full letters here. The second one is an explanation of why my complaint is being treated as a concern and not a complaint against a police officer.

Response to police complaint 1

Response to police complaint 2

This is a fairly standard defence of kettling; the Met were saying the same sort of thing the day after the protests. But by their own account most incidents of public disorder and vandalism happened after containment began. I also question the ‘large number’ of arrests – in actual fact the Guardian reported that only 32 people had been arrested, and 17 injured, with 13 needing hospital treatment. One of the arrests was for stroking a horse.

The assertion that water and toilet facilities were provided “where possible” is, of course, simply untrue. The statement that “the consideration of a release plan to allow vulnerable persons […] a means to leave the containment was treated as a top priority” is either a lie, or was not apparent to sick friends who asked to be treated by police medics when they became ill inside the kettle.

Yopu can also read my other sister’s report of Saturday’s demonstration in Manchester here – well worth a read.

* Ha ha ha.

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Hmm

The justice secretary, Ken Clarke, will today launch a scathing attack on the Victorian “bang ’em up” prison culture of the past 20 years. […] Clarke will warn that simply “banging up more and more people for longer” is actually making some criminals worse, without protecting the public.

Tory hypocrisy aside, this stat is actually pretty shocking when you consider that crime, except violent crime, has fallen in the last fifteen years:

Clarke was last in charge of prisons when he was home secretary between 1992 and 1993, when the prison population in England and Wales stood at 44,628. He says today that the current population of 85,000 is “an astonishing number which I would have dismissed as an impossible and ridiculous prediction if it had been put to me in a forecast in 1992.”

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On forced industrialisation and collectivisation of farming:

The whole experiment seemed to be a piece of prodigious insanity, in which all the rules of logic and principles of economics were turned upside down. It was as if a whole nations had suddenly abandoned and destroyed its houses and huts, which, though obsolete and decaying, existed in reality, and moved, lock, stock, and barrel into some illusory buildings, for which not more than a hint of scaffolding had in reality been prepared; as if that nation had only after this crazy migration set out to make the bricks for the walls of its new dwellings and then found that even the straw for the bricks was lacking; and as if then that whole nation, hungry, dirty, shivering with cold and riddled with disease, had begun a feverish search for the straw, the bricks, the stones, the builders, and the masons, so that, by assembling these, they could at last start building homes incomparably more spacious and healthy then were the hastily abandoned slum dwellings of the past.

Imagine that that nation numbered 160 million; and that it was lured, prodded, whipped and shepherded into that surrealistic enterprise by an ordinary, prosaic, fairly sober man, whose mind had suddenly become possessed by that half-real and half-somnabulistic vision, a man who established himself in the role of super-judge and super-architect, in the role of a modern super-Pharaoh. Such, roughly,  was now the strange scene of Russian life, full of torment and hope, full of pathos and of the grotesque; and such was Stalin’s place in it; only that the things that he drove the people to build were not useless pyramids.

–Isaac Deutscher

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The posties are coming out on strike nationally tomorrow over pay, conditions and job security.

This is a really good diary piece in the LRB written by a postman, talking about a lot of the cutbacks and modernisations the postal service has undergone over the last few years.

People don’t send so many letters any more, it’s true. But, then again, the average person never did send all that many letters. They sent Christmas cards and birthday cards and postcards. They still do. And bills and bank statements and official letters from the council or the Inland Revenue still arrive by post; plus there’s all the new traffic generated by the internet: books and CDs from Amazon, packages from eBay, DVDs and games from LoveFilm, clothes and gifts and other items purchased at any one of the countless online stores which clutter the internet, bought at any time of the day or night, on a whim, with a credit card.

According to Royal Mail figures published in May, mail volume declined by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by a further 10 per cent this year ‘due to the recession and the continuing growth of electronic communications such as email’. Every postman knows these figures are false. If the figures are down, how come I can’t get my round done in under four hours any more? How come I can work up to five hours at a stretch without time for a sit-down or a tea break? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight I have to carry? How come something snapped in my back as I was climbing out of the shower, so that I fell to the floor and had to take a week off work?

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Everybody isn’t happy

This is an excellent piece.

First, why don’t Labour politicians grasp that the “economy” they fostered is not worth “saving”, because it exacerbated the very social problems that they are presently wringing their hands over (again)? Second, why don’t they grasp that the “economy” they fostered can’t be “saved” anyway? It is all over, because it was a mirage.

[…]

It’s no use crying that the crash was caused by “international conditions”. Not long before the financial meltdown, Labour was thrilled to observe that London had recently overtaken New York as the most powerful financial centre in the world. Britain played a huge part in setting those international conditions, under a chancellor who thought he could harness the cash generated by a free-market economy to deliver on public services and make everybody happy.

Everybody isn’t happy, as the polls show only too clearly.

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‘If democracy means representation,’ Badiou writes in De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?, ‘it is first of all the representation of the general system that bears its forms. In other words: electoral democracy is only representative in so far as it is first of all the consensual representation of capitalism, or of what today has been renamed the “market economy”. This is its underlying corruption.’ At the empirical level multi-party liberal democracy ‘represents’ – mirrors, registers, measures – the quantitative dispersal of people’s opinions, what they think about the parties’ proposed programmes and about their candidates etc. However, in a more radical, ‘transcendental’ sense, multi-party liberal democracy ‘represents’ – instantiates – a certain vision of society, politics and the role of the individuals in it. Multi-party liberal democracy ‘represents’ a precise vision of social life in which politics is organised so that parties compete in elections to exert control over the state legislative and executive apparatus. This transcendental frame is never neutral – it privileges certain values and practices – and this becomes palpable in moments of crisis or indifference, when we experience the inability of the democratic system to register what people want or think. In the UK elections of 2005, for example, despite Tony Blair’s growing unpopularity, there was no way for this disaffection to find political expression. Something was obviously very wrong here: it wasn’t that people didn’t know what they wanted, but rather that cynicism, or resignation, prevented them from acting.

Žižek on democracy in the London review of books

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Good news

The SOAS occupiers succeeded in most of their aims – details here.

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Nine cleaners at SOAS were detained by immigration officials at a very early meeting last Friday. Three have already been deported; the rest are being held at Yarlswood detention centre. This follows a campaign by SOAS Unison to organise the cleaners and campaign for the London living wage, so there’s a strong suspicion that either SOAS or the cleaning contractors ISS have used the immigration authorities as union-busters.

Students have occupied the admin offices at SOAS in protest – you can read about their protest here. It’s unbelievably sad that migrant workers who have had the courage to organise and campaign for employment justice should now be threatened with deportation. Migrant workers are one of the most disenfranchised group in our society, and do some of the most dirty and unpleasant work: some of the SOAS cleaners had worked there for years. How hypocritical it is that their illegal status should be tolerated right up to the point where they tried to get better treatment.

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Two things are making me sad about the state of school education this week: firstly this news that home educators will be forced to “register annually with their local authorities, submit learning plans and undergo regular inspections. If they fail the inspections they could be made to send their children to school.” (There is more criticism from Education Otherwise and others here.)

The child protection expert who compiled the report said: “At the age of eight they should be reasonably autonomous learners, competent in handling numbers, with rudimentary ICT levels and able to read.”

The second thing that made me sad was this article about Holland Park Comprehensive, where Michele Hanson returns to the school she taught in in the seventies. What used to be a radical comprehensive is now an Ofsted star, getting fantastic results, but as Michele Hanson put it: It feels creepily sterile and rather too rigorous, controlled and driven. Pupils and teachers seem nervous and frightened. Is this what the new academies are aiming for? Are children really a “product” that needs to be measured and “manipulated”?

Well, it seems like they are.

I was home educated for a year, and I learned a lot of stuff then. But one of the most important lessons I learned was when I returned to school after a year. I was nine, and I remember vividly the horrible realisation that 70% of school is not about teaching you stuff, but about training you to be obedient, non-disruptive and placidly, mindlessly bored. I had become accustomed to doing the tasks my mother set me by one o’clock, and having the rest of the day to myself. And they were serious, structured learning tasks – my mother was already very involved in pre-school education, and later trained as a primary school teacher. I had to readjust to a system in which I spent the whole day ostensibly learning, but in fact achieved less that I had done in half a day at home.

Why was that? It was due to the time spent in mindless discipline-related activities. You’ll keep walking backwards and forwards from the assembly hall until we can do it in perfect silence. You’ll wait fifteen minutes before starting story time because children (nine-year-olds!) keep laughing. When I enter the classroom, you must all stand up. When I raise my hand, you must all fall silent immediately. If you don’t do this first time, you will practise it until you get it right. This isn’t education. This is training for employment. And not just employment, but alienated employment in a capitalist system, in which no one questions the system and everyone is prepared to confirm as closely as possible to the requirements of the employer, sacrificing their own individuality and sense of self in order to do so.

There is a kind of home schooling where the parents decide that life is learning, and so what the children do is left entirely up to them. If I had the power, this is what all education would be like.  A certain amount of structure as far as the absolute basics – reading, writing and arithmetic – are concerned, but other than that, imagine the education system as a collective of optional workshops, led by people who are enthusiastic about what they are teaching. Liberating not just for the children, but also for the teachers, who would be free to teach the things they really loved and were interested in.

And that is what makes great teaching: the idea that you are approaching a subject out of love, of fascination, out of the desire to share the interest you already have. Not teaching to the test, learning by rote the points which the examiner is looking for, keeping silence in the classroom. Not making explicit the absolute unimportance of the child’s experience and the absolute importance of the exhaustively delineated requirements of the examining boards.

Of course this idea of education is utopian. But when I was smaller there were lots of teachers who could teach what they were interested in and loved, and they were the teachers who I remember most. The national Curriculum was in its early days then, and I don’t recall such targeted teaching-to-the-test as Michele Hanson describes: “What point are you making for the examiner? You’re demonstrating your range of vocabulary.” Words like big and fat are “too simple; [they’ll] get you no marks at all”.

With home education becoming more circumscribed, and school education having any life sucked out of it by Ofsted and the results league tables, it’s sad that there’s less and less space for child-driven learning, but also less and less space for inspiring teaching.

(On a more cheerful note, here is a brilliant blog written by a home educating mother about life with her triplet daughters. It’s so funny and delightful, and makes me more and more convinced that if I could afford to, I would homeschool.)

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Very interesting interview with Owen Hatherley (who blogs at sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy) at ReadySteadyBook, talking about politics and modernism.

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RMT strike action

Whenever the capitalist press praise me, I know I have done wrong to my fellow man. – Keir Hardie

Bob Crow writes about the strike here.

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Decline of the left

Eric Hobsbawm on the European elections:

It is not the threat from the extreme right that is the most striking characteristic of these elections, though clearly there is a shift to the right, and centre-right governments are likely to make more concessions to the far right. The real story is the crisis of the left .

We have been here before, in the 1930s when the net effect of the Depression was to strengthen the right and nullify the left – Labour was reduced to 50 MPs in 1931. The left rose again, but I am not optimistic about it being able to do so this time. Social democratic parties across Europe are in decline. That decline is not as dramatic as the communists a generation ago, but it is still marked. The European left relied on a working class that no longer exists in its old form, and in order to recover it will need to find a new constituency. That may be hard.

The left is in trouble everywhere: Labour in the UK, the French socialists, the Italian democrats. The Spanish socialists, one of the few leftwing parties to gain in recent years, have also slipped. The SPD in Germany are not doing as badly as expected, but they are down to around 20%, and these losses are not compensated by the votes for the New Left party. We have seen the demoralisation of the French left and a degree of disintegration of the left in Germany. Social democrats will need a new vision as well as a new constituency.

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Polling day

So, I voted. Of the 14 parties standing in my constituency, the BNP, UKIP, the English Democrats, the Christian Party, Libertas and the Conservative Party were unthinkable. Labour I would vote for to keep the Tories out, but since the Iraq war, not for any other reason. I knew nothing of the Jury Party, any of the independents, the Socialist Party of Great Britain or Yes2Europe. Of the leftist parties, No2EU’s ’empty-seat’ promise seems particularly futile and nihilistic and the Socialist Labour Party LEADER ARTHUR SCARGILL (this is how they were described on the ballot paper) are also opposed to the EU. That leaves the Greens and the Lib Dems. I went for the Greens. Their health policy seems rather silly, and they’re opposed to embryonic stem cell research for no good reason, but their social policies are to the left of anyone else likely to actually get a seat and I came to the conclusion that I’ll take a bit of mumbo-jumbo for that.

Edit: however, this article did such a good job of making Hazel Blears sound both malevolent and unhinged that I was almost tempted to throw Gordon Brown a sympathy vote to spite her.

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This is rather too easy

Julie Kirkbride, in Hansard, 2006:

Does the Secretary of State accept that the recently organised scam of the tax credit system, which involved a loss of many millions of pounds to the taxpayer, was in large part due to the fact that the Government have made it too easy to claim tax credit? Bearing in mind that it is a duty of the Government to ensure that people who receive benefits should be entitled to them, will the Secretary of State promise the House to make it somewhat more difficult to claim tax credits so that the taxpayer can have confidence that the system pays people who deserve it rather than those who do not?

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Nice to see that Nadine Dorries thinks a house that’s paid for with taxpayers’ money should be part of her private life, but what I do with my personal uterus should be something the state should be involved in.

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Does it matter? Well, yes, it does, sort of. Of course a lot of the moral outrage is whipped up by a press who delight in creating a ten-day scandal just to show they can. But what it says about our parliamentarians and our democracy is important, I think.

There are MPs out there (from all parties) whose expenses are reasonable by any standards, which means that the excuse being trotted out that ‘it’s the system which is to blame’ doesn’t really wash. Clearly some MPs had enough integrity that they refused to take the piss (or realised that if the expense claims were made public, it wouldn’t look good in the press, which may be a more self-interested attitude, but also demonstrates a good deal more common sense than has been shown by Hazel Blears and co.).

There’s an obvious point about the hypocrisy of our lawmakers having their snouts in the trough even as they ‘crack down’ on ‘benefit cheats’ through a revolting series of adverts designed to play up to the worst kind of class hatred. Of course, even by the government’s own figures, the amount of benefit claimed fraudulently pales into insignificance compared to the amount of benefit that goes unclaimed due to ignorance or pride. (I particularly like the way the fraud figures are given not just in pounds but also in numbers of police, nurses and doctors.)

The failure to realise that a) the expenses figures would probably become public eventually and b) most people would feel a certain sense of outrage about claims for Christmas decorations, manure, moats, and so on, suggests that most MPs are either insanely hubristic, or completely out of touch with the public. I tend to the latter view.

So why is that? I think since the eighties, the way people enter politics has changed. Instead of coming into politics through local grassroots work, a lot of MPs start out as unpaid interns for MPs or think tanks (a route which is open primarily to middle class people whose parents are willing to support them while they work unpaid), and move through the political system until they are chosen to stand as MPs. (The reliance on unpaid internships in politics, arts and the media is one of my particular bugbears, and in politics in particular, it’s defended with the claim that MPs don’t receive large enough office expenses to afford to pay enough people to cover all the constituency work. Oh the irony.)

But I think this really emphasises several problems with democracy in the UK. Today ran a series of interviews with constituents in which one bloke, working on a local community project in Luton, complained that this was basically the kind of problem you get with representative democracy, and argued for a move to a more participatory form of democracy. Representative democracy is problematic in that by electing someone to represent you, it’s very difficult to stop an inbuilt élitism creeping into the system: the group of lawmakers now become ‘above’ the ordinary people, and start to see themselves as above the common herd, rather than representative of the people who elected them. Our current crop of MPs showed how out of touch they are with the population long before the expenses scandal: the Iraq war is only the most obvious example.

This recent scandal will not increase voter turnout. No doubt Cabinet ministers will do plenty of self-righteous finger-wagging about voter apathy following the European elections in June. Some voters may move towards UKIP or the BNP, but it’s difficult to imagine that the Tories and their moats will seem a valid alternative to the Labour party and their toilet seats. Voter apathy is caused by the absence of any real political choice and by the political alienation that a lot of people feel. The expenses scandal can only worsen this.

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