We Need To Constrain Unchecked Government Power, For The Sake Of Brexit And Our Future Democracy

Dr Phillip Lee MP - Tory government minister - reverse Brexit based on economic forecasts

Does the UK government have the unilateral right to ignore instructions from the electorate if it finds them to be “harmful” based on narrowly subjective criteria? And if so, shouldn’t we do something to constrain that power?

A couple of days ago I mused that the most fundamental question facing both Britain and America right now is that of whether or not the people should be permitted to make mistakes as they participate in the democratic process.

Regardless of whether one thinks that electing Donald Trump and voting for Brexit were “mistakes” or not (and I strongly believe that Trump was a mistake and that Brexit is not), it is a question we must ask ourselves because of the nature of the opposition to both. In both countries, large parts of the opposition are not content to let events play out and then capitalise at the next election; rather, many want to thwart these unwelcome electoral decisions altogether.

This is best encapsulated by the #Resistance movement in America and by the #FBPE (follow-back pro-European) social media movement in Britain – people convinced that their nation has made the wrong choice, and unwilling to wait for the “regular order” of the normal democratic process to reverse what they see as an existential mistake made by the voters.

Yesterday I wrote:

In both cases, the objectors – those who want to summarily impeach Donald Trump or overturn the EU referendum result in the light of “new facts” – are actually saying something quite serious. They are saying that in the cases of highly consequential decisions, the people are wrong and should not be allowed to inflict their wrongness on the country via the ballot box.

The implication is that some decisions are simply too important, consequential or irreversible to be left to the direct judgment of the people (unless, conveniently, the choice in question can be blended with a bunch of other decisions in a general election, supported by all the main political parties and thus be preserved in perpetuity). And the clear subtext is that the ruling classes know best, are imbued with a deeper wisdom and sense of morality which must prevail any time there is a conflict between the governed and the governing.

I also wrote that politicians rarely if ever explicitly come out and actually say that they reserve the right to overturn or ignore a decision made by the people and expressed through the political system if they happen to dislike it. Rather, they obfuscate and couch this point (or threat, depending on how you interpret it) with grave warnings about the dangers of populism – some of which are valid, but which are never accompanied by an explicit statement of the precise circumstances under which the political class reserves the right to reject an electoral decision made by the people.

But no sooner had I published these thoughts than I came across a story in the Huffington Post reporting that Conservative junior government minister – Dr. Phillip Lee MP – last night made the following statement in a short burst of posts on Twitter:

The next phase of Brexit has to be all about the evidence. We can’t just dismiss this and move on. If there is evidence to the contrary, we need to see and consider that too. 1/3

But if these figures turn out to be anywhere near right, there would be a serious question over whether a government could legitimately lead a country along a path that the evidence and rational consideration indicate would be damaging. This shows the PM’s challenge…2/3

The PM has been dealt some tough cards and I support her mission to make the best of them. It’s time for evidence, not dogma, to show the way. We must act for our country’s best interests, not ideology & populism, or history will judge us harshly. Our country deserves no less 3/3

My emphasis in bold. Phillip Lee is stating here what most politicians are only willing to tiptoe around – the fact that the government and the political class reserves the absolute right to ignore an instruction from the electorate if an ill-defined process of “rational consideration” of a certain pool of “evidence” that they themselves select means they think that it would be unwise to do so.

Still we get no specifics about just how potentially damaging a scenario would have to be or what form the damage would have to take for this antidemocratic override of elitist salvation to kick in, but here we have an admission in plain English, from the mouth of a government minister, that senior politicians think in this way. But if government ministers are going to publicly claim the prerogative to ignore an instruction from the electorate if they happen to dislike it, at the very least the people have a right to know the precise circumstances and criteria under which this might happen, both now relating to Brexit and in the future relating to the many other important national decisions that we will have to make in coming decades.

And as I wrote yesterday, this is just further evidence that Britain needs to debate and ratify a written constitution for the United Kingdom, one which “upgrades” the patchwork of our unwritten constitution and augments or replaces large parts of it with a document which clearly sets out the limits on government, the rights of the people, electoral and judicial processes and more, all in a language which people have a fighting chance of understanding.

But in the short term, for Brexit’s sake if nothing else, we also need to challenge Dr. Phillip Lee’s casual but totally unproven assertion that “evidence and rational consideration” might give the government legitimate grounds to ignore the result of the EU referendum. Phillips is clearly talking here only about the economic case – he references the leaked Brexit Impact Report. But by restricting his focus on the reasons for Brexit to such a narrow point he is saying that either the non-economic reasons for voting to leave the European Union don’t exist, or that they do exist but are outweighed by the economic reasons to remain.

This is a considerable feat of omission by Phillip Lee, one which is best illustrated with an example.

Imagine – and I acknowledge that this is an extreme example to which I draw no direct parallel, though it clearly illustrates my point – that one were to take Dr. Phillip Lee back to the Britain of 1939 as war loomed, or in 1940 after Dunkirk. Would he have counselled appeasement of Germany on the same grounds? After all, if one considers only the economic metric, the Second World War was always going to be utterly ruinous for Britain. Aside from the military and civilian casualties our cities were levelled, our industry appropriated by the government (and in some cases not returned to private hands for decades), food and clothing were rationed, arts and science were overshadowed and our footprint on the world stage shrank in every conceivable way.

Surely, then, the right course of action would have been to make a deal with Hitler, no? Peace at any costs? After all, we are only considering the economic metric here, because we are “rational” and look only at Approved Facts. After all, life under a puppet Westminster government wouldn’t have been so bad for most of us. Who really needs self-determination so long as the occupying power is delivering the many fruits of a non war-ravaged economy? And hey, who knows, maybe the Nazi war machine might even have helped modernise British industry, which was already falling behind our competitors at the time. On every front, things would have been better had Britain stayed out of the war. Loved ones would have lived and families remained intact. Our major cities would not have been pockmarked with bomb damage. Coventry Cathedral would not be a burned out shell (though I mean no disrespect to its replacement).

Now, the decision to go to war in 1939 is not the same as the decision to leave the European Union. But it was Phillip Lee, not me, who proposed a vague, ethereal set of criteria under which the government might claim the right to overrule the people in the event that politicians think they know better on a key national issue. I am simply showing one reasonable endpoint of applying the very framework that he proposes.

In reality I do Phillip Lee the courtesy of assuming that he would not have been an appeaser, that his intellect and moral code would have compelled him to risk immense short-term harm – not just to Britain’s economy but to our very continued existence as a country – in service of a higher goal, namely freedom. Further, I am convinced that Phillip Lee would not have had to sit down for a second weighing the risks and creating economic forecasts before arriving at his decision. Because Dr. Lee knows as well as I do that cold hard numbers do not encapsulate the value of this country or the dignity, resilience and potential of her people.

And yet Dr. Lee is quite happy to pretend – again, I do him the courtesy of presuming that he is intelligent enough to actually understand that other very valid and serious arguments were in play during the EU referendum but simply chooses to ignore them to bolster his argument – that the entire decision should be based on a government cost-benefit analysis or the output of an Excel spreadsheet on a Whitehall computer.

We see this again and again from Remainers – this steadfast, stubborn, furious refusal to look at the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union in anything other than their own chosen short-term economic terms. People doubtless have their own reasons for thus deliberately restricting their peripheral vision, but at this late stage none of those reasons can be deemed honourable or respectable. Dr. Lee knows full well that whether one agrees with them or not, there were very valid arguments about sovereignty, self-determination, trade relationships, immigration and national identity which together with the economic warnings formed the complex backdrop against which every single one of us cast our vote on 23 June, 2016.

To pretend that the sudden discovery of “new evidence” (as if the publication of a new economic forecast can be called “evidence”, given their consistent record of alarmism and inaccuracy) constitutes anywhere near sufficient reason to overturn a national plebiscite which was based on a multitude – a multitude – of factors, is deeply disingenuous and really an affront to any notion of democracy.

Furthermore, it is a total fallacy to talk piously about the need to respect “evidence and rational consideration” when deliberately focusing only on the evidence you want to see, and simply pretending that no other evidence and no other rational arguments exist for the opposing side.

Even if you are an ardent Remainer, this should concern you. Because after the government uses this get-out clause to avoid following the direction given to them by the EU referendum, what’s not to stop them from starting to disregard other, future directives from the electorate? After all, we have no written constitution to constrain the government or make our rights and the separation of powers crystal clear.

I think that Dr. Phillip Lee knows all of this. I believe he is a good person simply trying to win the argument for his side, or perhaps just blinded against other perspectives after years of percolating inside a bubble where the very idea of life outside a supranational government of Europe seems absurd. But he his also spinning a falsehood. Remainers in general are spinning a pernicious falsehood, and have been doing so since the referendum campaign began. And now that this falsehood threatens the integrity not only of the EU referendum vote but of our wobbly, unwritten constitutional settlement it needs to be confronted and stopped.

If Dr. Phillip Lee genuinely thinks that the government has the authority to unilaterally disregard the result of a referendum in which it committed in its own propaganda to obey, let him clearly state the case. Let him publicly outline first the legal and then the moral basis on which such an act might be justified, and provide other examples of when such a code might apply.

And then let’s have another talk about that boring old campaign for a written constitution.

 

Update – 31 January

Reports suggest that Dr. Phillip Lee MP has now been slapped down by Downing Street and told to “air his views in private” rather than on Twitter in future. However, the government has not explicitly repudiated Lee’s argument. Whether this is due to their continuing incompetence, internal division or secret agreement remains to be seen.

 

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Don’t Expect Better Political Outcomes In Britain Until We Change The System

Brexit - EU protesters - Breverse

Upset by how Brexit is being prosecuted by the government, overseen by Parliament and reported on by the media? It’s time to stop lamenting the symptoms and fixing the underlying issues with our constitution and system of government

Of the sum total of British political discourse at all levels, a good 95 percent is probably spent whining about events with just 5 percent devoted to thinking about the systemic issues which all but ensure that our political system continually throws up results we don’t like or believe to be illegitimate, over and over again.

I was musing on this the other day, and started a rambling Twitter thread on the state of British democracy which I thought was worth spinning into a slightly longer blog post, if for no other reason than to prevent the words being buried deep in the dusty archives of Twitter. And so here are those same words, expanded and transplanted to the even dustier archive of this blog instead.

The great question before us in these challenging times is this: Should the people, as they participate in the democratic process, be permitted to make mistakes? This is the underlying but often obscured contention behind some of the most contentious issues in British and American politics right now, namely Donald Trump and the “resistance” to his presidency in the United States, and the effort to undermine or reverse Brexit here in the UK.

Rightly or wrongly, the political classes of both countries, as a whole, object both to the policy initiatives of Trump and Brexit as well as the tone and context in which these events transpired. Parliament may have voted convincingly for Britain to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and commence the process of secession from the European Union, but few MPs believed that it was a good idea and many only voted to do so under duress. In America, most Republican politicians have either chosen to circle the wagons around Donald Trump or study feigned ignorance of his unsuitability for high office, in both cases because they see him as a useful idiot and an automatic pen with which to sign their own policy priorities. Yet hardly any of these Republican politicians are firmly aboard the Trump Train.

Whether it is Republican politicians using illegal immigration as an issue to get themselves elected in opposition only to blanch at the idea of illegal immigration actually being significantly impeded or reversed now they are in power, or Tory MPs building entire careers on moaning about Britain being ruled by a nascent European superstate only to fall in line with David Cameron and the Remain campaign during the referendum, there is a deep and unpleasant hypocrisy at work – a hypocrisy which needs to be acknowledged and confronted whether or not one agrees with the policies in question.

In both cases, the objectors – those who want to summarily impeach Donald Trump or overturn the EU referendum result in the light of “new facts” – are actually saying something quite serious. They are saying that in the cases of highly consequential decisions, the people are wrong and should not be allowed to inflict their wrongness on the country via the ballot box.

A degree of catastrophisation is required to pull off this argument, given how odious and undemocratic it sounds when stated plainly. And so we hear wildly overwrought tales about how Donald Trump represents a near-physical threat to designated minority groups, or that Brexit will see the UK economy returned to the stone ages.

The implication is that some decisions are simply too important, consequential or irreversible to be left to the direct judgment of the people (unless, conveniently, the choice in question can be blended with a bunch of other decisions in a general election, supported by all the main political parties and thus be preserved in perpetuity). And the clear subtext is that the ruling classes know best, are imbued with a deeper wisdom and sense of morality which must prevail any time there is a conflict between the governed and the governing.

Yet rarely do the decisions thus normally kept out of the reach of the people rise to this level of irreversible calamity. Take immigration. If throttling illegal immigration would harm the economy, do politicians have the right to override electoral wishes, even if the decision could be reversed? How great would the economic harm have to be, how would it be measured and how would it be balanced against any other factors?

Secession from the EU is rather more complicated, since reversal would likely involve the UK returning to the bloc on worse-than-current membership terms and therefore only ever be partially complete. But again, it could be done. So should politicians have the right to prevent the people from making only semi-reversible decisions? And if so, what are the criteria which should be met in order for politicians to step in and ignore popular opinion in order to effectively prevent the public from potentially scraping their knees?

Sometimes, though, the argument becomes more distasteful. Many polls have suggested that the British public would back the restoration of the death penalty given a straight-up referendum. Should politicians allow people to make that “mistake” too, and if not, what clearly written and easy for laymen to understand justification is there or should there be for thwarting such an odious policy change?

I am not (yet) a constitutional lawyer and I don’t have answers to all of these conundrums, but it seems clear that the current processes (if you can even call flying by the seat of your pants and making it up as you go along a “process”) that we in Britain have in place to adjudicate questions of vital importance are wholly inadequate to the decisions now before us.

When should referenda be offered, and when should they not? If they are to be offered, when should they be advisory and when should they be binding? When should blanket decisions be made at the national, supranational or local levels, and are exemptions ever to be allowed, and under what circumstances? What recourse should the public have when repeatedly rebuffed on a subject by politicians?

Many of these questions could be foreseen & mitigated through a well-written constitution which clearly prescribes the powers reserved by the people and those which are lent to local, national and supranational government. If we abandoned the Traditional British Fudge in favour of a written constitution, no longer could we so plausibly claim that we didn’t know what we were doing or that the outcome of any constitutionally legitimate process was unfair.

Of course a written constitution would not be a cure-all. Much would depend on the process of drafting such a document, who could participate and whether the process was taken seriously or simply used by special interests as an excuse to shoehorn every last entitlement onto the statute books as a “corporate necessity” or “human right”.

Britain’s constitutional monarchy is another complication, being one of those institutions which nobody would think to invent today but which arguably serves its purpose well enough and is part of the rich cultural fabric of our country that cannot be measured and summed up in an Excel spreadsheet. Embarking on any kind of constitutional convention would immediately generate enormous friction with the monarchy and its strongest supporters, which is one of the key reasons why such a movement has never properly gotten off the ground (with some honourable near-exceptions).

But unless we bite the bullet and physically write down a code of governance under which we are all willing to live, we are going to keep coming up against political elites of one faction or another assuming a divine right to attempt to implement their own worldview, wholesale, over the objections of others.

It’s worth noting too that such a national conversation was neither realistically possible nor worthwhile so long as Britain was bound to remain a member state of the European Union. When you are busy being slowly subsumed into a supranational government of Europe with its own ideas of federalism and subsidiarity, tinkering around with a little old national domestic constitution is almost laughably pointless, comparable to an animal grooming itself in ignorance of its surroundings while a much bigger predator sneaks up from behind.

It is only now that we have taken the first (hesitant and often erroneous) steps toward undoing the error – or great national act of settling for second best – that was our EU membership that we more fully realise the flaws in our own system and have the opportunity for a serious discussion about what comes next.

So what would such a constitutional document look like? That is a big question best left to a separate blog post but at the highest level I believe that any law or treaty which threatens to impinge on the life, liberty or property of other citizens – things like the death penalty or confiscation of property – should, *if* ever put to a referendum, require such a super-majority that the process is not easily abused by demagogues.

Other decisions, though, should be put within much readier reach of the hands of the people – such as whether successive UK governments are authorised to freely give up vast areas of sovereignty, wholesale, without sufficient oversight or realistic chance of painless future revocation.

I am open, for example, to the argument that the EU referendum should have required a certain threshold of victory to achieve quorum and passage, but then so every significant EU treaty signed by successive UK governments should have been put to the British people – the most recent of which would certainly not have been approved and ratified. But we are where we are and there is very little point crying over spilt milk – the best we can do is fix the system for the future.

At present there are virtually no meaningful checks and balances in our democracy. Victory goes who whoever can summon the loudest and most vociferous outrage, either on the pages of the tabloids or (far more effectively, though curiously less controversial) at the dinner parties & papers of those in the governing class.

By all means, we can keep blundering on as we are, lurching from crisis to crisis, failing to tackle our problems in a systemic way and then just working ourselves into a spittle-flecked outrage each time our broken system throws up a result we don’t like. That’s Option 1. Option 2 involves stepping back a bit and thinking about what kind of constitutional, governmental processes are most likely to yield outcomes which we can all get behind.

Option 2 is far more boring and requires more work, and lacks the appeal of being a meme-worthy MP, smug newspaper editor or shouty TV news talking head. But that’s what we need to do at this point, because given the period of discontinuity we have entered (one which affects many other countries too), there will be other hugely consequential decisions to make down the line, and we need to handle them a hell of a lot better than we are currently handling Brexit.

As a country, our capacity to competently govern ourselves has atrophied and withered during our 4+ decades of EU membership. That membership, combined with a bipartisan but increasingly broken centrist consensus, succeeded in masking the extent of the rot for some time, but no longer. Now the rot has been revealed and the full horror of the decay is clear to us, effecting every branch and level of government from the town council to 10 Downing Street.

If, as a side benefit, a period of serious reflection on how we govern ourselves as a country (whether or not that leads to a constitutional convention) further exposes just how ill equipped many of our institutions and present leaders are to navigate these national challenges, so much the better.

Sunlight can often be the best disinfectant.

 

Scene at the signing of the Constitution of the United States - Howard Chandler Christy - Hamilton musical - Brexit

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Upset An MP On Social Media? Prepare To Lose Your Voting Rights

Intimidation in Public Life report - Committee on Standards in Public life - Parliament - Britain - UK - online social media abuse

Hurt an MP’s feelings and lose your civil rights. This could be a reality in the prissy, authoritarian, neo-puritanical Britain we inhabit

Having learned nothing from the past three years of populist insurgency, rather than facing up to their shortcomings and accepting the validity of justified criticism (and the inevitability of unjustified criticism) the political class is instead preparing to further insulate itself from public accountability.

A new report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposes punishments such as barring people from voting or removing them from the electoral register as suitable punishments for the “new electoral offence of intimidating
Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election” – which if enforced with the same arbitrary capriciousness as all other UK speech laws would inevitably see many people unjustly stripped of their basic civil rights while other, worse “offenders” who happen to hold officially sanctioned opinions go unmolested.

We in Britain now have a government which would give convicted prisoners the right to vote while stripping the franchise from certain free citizens who commit vague and loosely-defined acts of speechcrime – including hurting the feelings of an MP or Parliamentary candidate.

The report (prefaced with a quote from the late Jo Cox MP, so as to imbue the document with an air of incontestable wisdom and grace) graciously concedes that the existing restrictive framework of draconian anti-free speech laws does not need augmenting to protect the feelings of MPs at this time, but then immediately ventures the possibility of unprecedented new punishments for those accused of speechcrime:

Electoral law can overlap with and complement the criminal law, such that offences with criminal sanctions can also involve sanctions under electoral law. These sanctions are specific to the election process, such as being barred from voting for a certain period, or removal from the electoral register. Such sanctions recognise that these offences, such as undue influence or electoral fraud, are offences against the integrity of the electoral process, and that it is therefore appropriate that individuals face sanctions relating to their own privileges within that process.

[…] However, the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

During an election period, it would therefore be appropriate to have specific electoral sanctions that reflect the threat that intimidation of Parliamentary candidates and their supporters poses to the integrity of elections. Any such offence in electoral law should be tightly defined, to capture intimidatory behaviour that is directed towards an individual specifically in their capacity as a Parliamentary candidate or party campaigner, which intends unduly to influence the result of the election (for example, by affecting their candidature or inhibiting their campaigning).

[..] the introduction of a distinct electoral offence will serve to highlight the seriousness of the threat of intimidation of Parliamentary candidates to the integrity of public life and of the electoral process, and will result in more appropriate sanctions. We believe that specific electoral offences will also serve as an effective deterrent to those who are specifically targeting Parliamentary candidates and their supporters.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, a body whose intended purpose was to ensure that elected and non-elected officials uphold standards of behaviour appropriate to those who serve the public in high office, now seems far more interested in passing haughty judgment on whether members of the public are abiding by the new speech codes dictated by our puritanical, thin-skinned rulers.

I would be interested to know which of the Seven Principles of Public Life the committee believes it is defending by proposing new speechcrime punishments which attack so fundamental a civic right as voting – particularly as each of these principles sets a standard specifically for “holders of public office” and not private citizens. The only tenuous link offered in the entire report is this throwaway sentence:

[..] the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

Ah, that’s okay then. So because the rowdy public is supposedly threatening “the integrity of public service” (presumably by scaring people away from getting involved in politics, because those who are already inclined to get involved in politics of course tend to be shy fauns who take fright at verbal hostility) the Committee on Standards in Public Life can use this as an excuse to regulate the behaviour not of people in positions of power, but of those who seek to express their feelings about people in power.

Of course, MPs are not the only people to find themselves at the receiving end of vitriol on social media, as anybody with even a semi-public profile or the desire to talk about politics on Facebook or Twitter can attest. Twice in recent months I have been at the receiving end of such a barrage, first when a “comedian” chose to misrepresent one of my tweets to his baying audience of pro-EU Remain supporters and again when an SNP MP sicced his Twitter supporters on me for daring to write about the office of Scottish First Minister in less than worshipful terms. None of the hate I received (on those occasions) amounted to the level of death threats, but other private citizens have suffered far worse.

Yet the political class seem to want to carve out a special protection in terms of exempting themselves from harsh criticism while doing nothing for anybody else. As Members of Parliament they already occupy a high-status, well-remunerated position in society, are generally endowed with a level of intelligence which enables them to articulate their priorities and concerns and be taken seriously, and make laws and decisions which impact our present reality and future happiness. Yet many of these same people now seem determined to portray themselves as shrinking violets, vulnerable victims-in-waiting, a discriminated against minority group who require the special and proactive additional protection of the law. This is absurd and insulting to the citizenry they notionally represent.

But in addition to protecting the powerful from the masses, these puritanical proposals also fundamentally misunderstand the problem. As even many victims of social media harassment would likely agree, the really damaging part of online abuse is not the individual insults but their combined, collective effect. One person insulting or mocking you can be laughed off or brushed aside, but this is not so easily done when one’s notifications fill up with a constant wall of such derogatory, negative messages. Indeed, when under attack on social media, at times it can be difficult to step back and remember that the strident opinions of social media moralisers is not reflective of the feelings of the country or society as a whole. At times, I myself have momentarily allowed hate and derision on social media to interfere with my self-esteem, despite my fairly thick skin.

The answer to online trolling and abuse (whether directed at politicians or private citizens) is not to criminalise individual acts of strident, unpleasant or insulting speech, let alone to curtail the fundamental civil rights of individual citizens as punishment for (or deterrence of) something which is in large part a swarm effect, an unpleasant but distastefully necessarily defensible part of our society’s commitment to free speech.

To do so would be akin to criminalising the act of gathering together in crowds because of the risk that somebody might be crushed or trampled, punishing individuals for what in itself is often a very small contribution to a larger group effect. No single individual is usually responsible for a stampede, just as very few individuals commit specific acts on social media which alone trigger substantial distress, and barring such people from voting (one wonders what offence merits losing the franchise while retaining one’s liberty) will not deal with the vast bulk of abuse on social media and consequently the vast bulk of suffering resulting from it.

The issues addressed by the report are real, worthy of discussion, and are already being debated at length. There is no lack of editorialising or scholarship on the impact of social media on public political discourse, and the way in which the semi-anonymity of interacting online brings out a far more vicious side of human nature than is usually visible during face-to-face interactions. These are problems which we need to face up to as a society at a time when we are learning on the go. But the solution is not to announce further new restrictions on freedom of expression, as though filling in gaps in the statute books will in any way compensate for filling in the mental and spiritual void which turns some people (including the highly educated and outwardly successful) into social media trolls.

Furthermore, at a time when the yawning disconnect between the ruling class and many of the people they represent is growing wider and fuelling all kind of populist outbursts (some welcome and others far less so) it is the height of irresponsibility for those in power to publicly toy with the notion of punishing the plebs for insulting their masters by stripping them of their voting rights.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life should cast their haughty, disapproving gaze back where it belongs – on those who debase their political offices or abuse the public trust. Now more than ever is a time for humility and introspection from the ruling class, not a whinnying list of grievances about those who fail to sing their praises.

 

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The Conservative Party Has Lost The Pulse Of The Nation

Laura Pidcock - Labour MP North West Durham - 2

Labour’s statist, redistributionist policies are as bad as ever, but unlike the Tories they increasingly have the pulse of the nation

Once again I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with a stridently left-wing MP in their criticism of this drifting Conservative government and the failing centrist consensus which it represents.

As Jon Trickett continues to curate LabourList for the week, North West Durham MP Laura Pidcock writes:

Those people who sit on the government benches, who speak very well and pronounce their excellence and their firm grasp of the system, probably do believe it was their hard work that got them there. I’m sure they believe that it was some unique brilliance that put them in a position of power, not their childhood classrooms with numbers in single figures; not their personal allowances whilst at university: not their ability to recover from failures, because of the large cushion they sit upon. Not everybody who is wealthy and privileged is like this, but it certainly – and evidently – it makes it harder for those that are to understand the reality of what is happening to ordinary people.

This is why you get a system like universal credit, like the bedroom tax, the rape clause, the sanction system, the work capability assessments and he hugely alienating disability benefits system. It is why there are fines and punishments associated with all aspect of working class life: parking, smoking, littering, debt payments, libraries, electricity meters. When I had a book that was overdue to return to the Commons Library, I did not receive a fine. Undoubtedly it was assumed that I was too busy, that I had better things to be doing. Do the same presumptions apply to 99 per cent of Britain? Of course, not. On the contrary, they seen are lazy, feckless and are perceived to be “cheating” the system for turning up minutes late to a benefits assessment. Then they are hit where they won’t recover: through their finances, and so the cycle continues.

Of course, Pidcock ultimately goes on to spoil it all with economically illiterate class envy and a programme based more on tearing down the privileged rather than giving greater opportunities to the underprivileged:

We must expose the absurdity of our current system, we should shine a light on the cosy, privileged networks which lock out our people, our communities and our class. We have to call out poverty pay for what it is: it is robbery from the real wealth creators.

This much at least is socialist piffle. Yes of course there are some exclusive, exclusionary networks that are unwelcoming to minorities and working class people, and this is reprehensible when it occurs. And yes, recruitment to the SpAdocracy and cadre of parliamentary researchers and advisers which acts as a recruitment pool of future MPs is often too narrowly targeted at people from the same homogeneous background. But as this blog discussed yesterday in the wake of the Oxford University diversity non-scandal, the real issue is a problem with the supply of qualified people from under-represented backgrounds, not a lack of demand for them.

Most institutions remotely connected with government are under huge pressure to improve their diversity ratios, and face constant political pressure and bad publicity when they fail to do so. The fact that insufficient progress has been made tells us that the pipeline of qualified (or interested) candidates remains restricted, not that willing and capable people are necessarily being turned away.

But strip away the leftist agenda and the rest of Pidcock’s criticism is spot-on. Of course there are honourable exceptions, but MPs sometimes manage to display a remarkable lack of empathy for the struggles of the squeezed middle. This manifests in a multitude of ways, and is by no means restricted to the Conservative Party.

The London-raised metro-left Labour MP parachuted into a safe Northern constituency but boasting a voting record more attuned to the priorities of Islington than Darlington is every bit as out of touch as the privately-educated Tory MP who cannot comprehend why a six-week gap between applying for Universal Credit and receiving a payment might be problematic. Or the Tory MP who is confused that a selfish housing policy which chronically restricts the supply of housing stock to benefit older homeowners simultaneously alienates younger voters. Or the rural Tory MP who devotes all their energy to supporting NIMBY causes and then wonders why each election leaves him with fewer and fewer colleagues from urban constituencies.

My concern is not that the Labour Party is suddenly coming up with compelling, inventive new solutions to the problems we face as a country. By and large, they are not. My concern is that Labour are at least correctly identifying some of those problems and speaking to them in a way which makes people think they care, while the Conservative Party steams on in the same dismal direction as before, bereft of vision or policy ideas and with an unfortunate tendency to loudly insist that everything is great when everybody can see otherwise.

My concern is that more than four months after a general election result which has seemingly prompted no change in strategy by Theresa May’s government, Labour MPs are starting to make more sense – and sound more like they live in the real world – than their Conservative counterparts.

And when that happens, it usually means that the out-of-touch party is heading for a spell on the Opposition benches.

 

Laura Pidcock - Speech

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Resurrecting The Citizen Politician

Ben Gummer MP

After Brexit, attracting more exceptional citizen politicians and fewer mediocre career politicians is the next crucial step towards democratic renewal in Britain

A worthwhile article by new Labour MP Laura Smith for LabourList underlines the urgent need for more politicians who look and sound like contemporary human beings rather than cautious clones who have been training to become MPs their whole life.

Laura Smith writes:

I’m new to politics. I’ve never been in local government; I was an activist, a member of the union and came from a long-standing Labour Party family. I haven’t come from a background of jargon and empty words, and I know what it’s like when life throws you a curve ball that takes the wind from your sails and the plans that you had made lay shattered in a million pieces. I can say with integrity that I will try my best to fight against the injustice that members in my constituency feel, and I’ll do it with vigour and sincerity.

Entering Westminster has been an eye opener without a doubt. Never have I been more sure that the ambitions of many there come from a place of self-indulging hypocrisy, and the decisions that they make are sheer games rather than coming from a place of care.

I don’t know the parliamentary protocol nor do I care much for it, I speak with a northern accent, I came to the door with an overdraft, no savings and a limited wardrobe purchased on a credit card to try and look smart.

I am what I am and that is representative of millions of women in Britain. My class has been with me my whole life, forged from the experiences of my Scottish mining grandfather, and I’ve ridden on the rollercoaster of the ups and downs of life. I’m proud to be working class, I’m proud of my people and for as long as my constituency wish to keep me in Westminster I will fight for the working people of this country.

How refreshing it is to hear a politician – especially a Labour politician – speak passionately about the politics of class rather than the politics of identity. Both are divisive, to be sure, but the former is at least reassuringly familiar and relatively harmless these days, while the latter is doing more than anything else right now to tear apart the fabric of British society.

I would probably disagree strongly with about eighty percent of what Laura Smith stands for, but there can be no denying that this is exactly the kind of decent, committed person we should want to attract to Westminster – somebody with strong convictions, a record of community service but also, crucially, a life outside politics (Smith held real jobs and ran her own business).

It cannot hurt to have more MPs of all parties who know what it is to live on a budget as Smith has done, or to have struggled with debt, unemployment or work-life balance issues, to complement those who know how to be an ambitious party functionary but little else. Being an MP is a calling and not a career, but certain accommodations can and should be made which would make serving in Westminster more appealing while still demanding sufficient dedication to public service.

Smith’s dismissal of parliamentary protocol will also chime with many people, including all those SNP MPs who didn’t understand why clapping after a speech was verboten while braying like a donkey at Prime Minister’s Questions is positively encouraged. While there will always be an important place for tradition and rituals which remind us of our heritage and the small part we play in our larger shared history, it is also undeniable that certain habits and protocols are hopelessly outdated and serve no useful purpose. There is no reason why Parliament should not adopt electronic voting, for instance, rather than wasting time while MPs physically traipse in and out of the Commons chamber to record their vote.

But most impressive in Laura Smith’s article is the fact that she clearly went to Westminster with a purpose greater than her own political advancement. Not every MP can or should be a statesman, a philosopher or a leader, though MPs of all backgrounds and ideologies have fulfilled these roles. We also need MPs who care deeply about their constituents and about particular issues, campaigning MPs who want to use their term(s) in office to make a specific difference. Indeed, such MPs can often be far more valuable and effective than those who merely spout reheated rhetoric from four decades ago, be it Michael Foot-style socialism or unreconstructed Thatcherite dogma.

Yet too often we let motivated MPs of this calibre languish for a term or two on the backbenches before they either become disillusioned and stand down, or else lose their inner fire and slowly transform into unremarkable, uninspired time-servers.

One of the best recent citizen politicians in Parliament was former Conservative MP Dan Byles, a man who was the first in his family to attend university, received a prestigious Army scholarship, served on active duty in Bosnia, rowed across the Atlantic, climbed mountains and served on the board of several charities before serving a single term in Parliament from 2010-2015.

This is exactly the kind of person who should now have a senior Cabinet role, and whose charisma and leadership skills might presently be leading the Conservative Party in a more inspiring, less suicidal direction. Yet despite becoming one of relatively few first-term backbench MPs to rack up some real accomplishments to his name (including constitutional reform of the House of Lords via a private member’s bill), Byles stood down in 2015 to “pursue new challenges”. Some of our most exceptional people no longer feel that they can make a meaningful difference by serving in Parliament.

Westminster attracts the power-hungry, the ambitious but also – thanks to elitism and nepotism – the mediocre and the self-serving. And too often, the genuinely talented are overlooked in favour of the well-connected. Witness Theresa May’s government, which managed to find a place for the utterly unremarkable Ben Gummer (son of former Tory minister John Gummer) in Cabinet while leaving thoughtful and intelligent conservative voices like Kwasi Kwarteng or James Cleverly to languish on the backbenches. Note also how Harlow MP Rob Halfon, who could actually articulate a positive (if controversial) vision for conservatism, was sacked as a minister while Theresa May kept faith in Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who entered politics not to advance any deeply-felt political agenda but to “get a grip on her life” and add another accomplishment to her CV.

As if the chaotic Brexit negotiations did not already make it abundantly clear, the calibre of leadership we manage to attract at the national level does not serve us well. This is in significant part due over-centralisation at Westminster and the neutering of local government in Britain, where at present there is probably only one executive role outside of Cabinet – the mayoralty of London – which might remotely prepare a politician to plausibly step into the role of prime minister. But it is also because we expect too little from the people we choose to represent us.

To take the next step in renewing British democracy, we must break the stranglehold that national political party headquarters wields over candidate selection. We must do away with affirmative action shortlists and central casting candidate lists alike, empower constituency party organisations and allow them to nominate candidates who they feel best represent their values and their concerns. We must devolve and decentralise significant powers away from Westminster to the counties and the regions, so that local government can transform from being adult daycare to a useful incubator of future national leadership talent.

And we must re-embrace the idea of the citizen politician, valuing the contributions of those candidates with different backgrounds.We must identify and advance talent wherever it is found rather than demanding that passionate and inspired MPs with executive experience outside politics first spend years acting as bag-carrier for other ministers before being trusted with any real responsibility.

Only if we embrace this radical decentralisation and ideological renewal – here it is particularly important that committed small-C conservatives seize back control of the Tory Party from the dead hand of Theresa May, just as the Corbynite Left deposed the centrists within Labour – can we take the next step after Brexit and finally begin the democratic renewal of Britain.

The alternative is more of the same uninspiring, grinding disappointment with which Britain has sadly become so familiar.

 

Theresa May - Conservative campaign bus - photo op campaign phony

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