Recently in Politics Category

Bit of a rush of blog posts recently. I guess I'm getting frustrated with having to squeeze everything into 140-character tweets.

So, election last week, eh? It just happened I was in the UK on polling day, so I was planning to vote in person. The Thatcher government gave the vote to expatriates courtesy of the Representation of the People Act 1985 - presumably because they assumed expats were wealthy types who'd vote Conservative. I'd registered by faxing the registration form to my local council's registration office a few days before the deadline.

Come polling day, Tara went to vote herself in the morning - and just happened to ask the polling clerk to check the register for my name. Nope, it wasn't there. She was given the phone number of the council electoral registration office, which I rang to ask what was up. The person on the other end was helpful but apologetic, and told me that if I'd faxed my form "our fax machine had printed some pages out blank", and mine was probably one of them. Hrm. Not so great - I remember waiting for the fax machine to spit out a confirmation that it had sent the form successfully, so I was pretty sure it was sent okay - must have been a problem at their end. The council were very apologetic, but it was too late for anything to be done. 

No vote for me, then - I knew I wasn't going to get to vote by arguing with the council, but I was suddenly curious to know how many other forms may have been lost by their fax machine or through other means. This became more important when our constituency, Oxford West and Abingdon, was lost to the Tories by a slim margin of 176 votes. How much closer could it have been had everyone who'd wanted to vote been able to vote?

I sent a Freedom of Information request to the council elections office a couple of days ago asking for details of how many forms were lost, how many overseas voters' postal ballots were received after polling day, and various other bits and pieces of statistics. They've replied to firstly point out that the Returning Officer isn't actually bound by the FOI Act, but that they're happy to give me the information once they've finished getting all their numbers together after the election. This will be some time after the 28th of May, and I look forward to hearing from them.

It's very clear that there are major issues with electoral registration for overseas voters in general. For those who have postal votes, ballot papers aren't usually sent out until about a week before polling day - scarcely enough time for them to reach the voter in some countries, and even more unlikely that they'll be returned on time even from many countries in Europe. In the UK, the rule is that postal votes have to be received by polling day, unlike other countries where they can still be opened and taken into account up to a number of days after polling day if the election is close enough to warrant it.

The evidence suggests that overseas voter fraud is still a big problem as well, given the lack of checks and balances in the system which ensures that only people who are entitled to vote are allowed to vote. It's really time to bring the whole system of overseas voting up to date and remove the corruption from the system - to rely on mailing around pieces of paper on very tight deadlines or on faxing through forms to broken fax machines is disenfranchising tens of thousands of expatriates. I'd be in favour of solving the corruption and timing problems by only allowing expats to vote at British diplomatic posts or other designated secure overseas polling stations, for instance, and I don't think anyone would object strongly to being asked to produce some ID to prove they are who they claim to be.

The whole system just seems to be a mess. It's very disheartening to expats who care enough about the country to bother to vote - after all, it's entirely likely that we'll find ourselves back there some day.
There has been much brouhaha from people who should really pay closer attention to the details about the proposals as part of the UK's new coalition agreement for a fixed-term parliament to require a vote of 55% of MPs to dissolve it. 

The essential thing to remember is that the government is not Parliament. The government is formed from among the ranks of Parliament, but the two are different entities and the two motions proposed reflect this:

  • A motion of no confidence is Parliament expressing a lack of confidence in Her Majesty's Government, and can be passed - as today - with 50% of voting members plus one member. If it passes the government falls and we need to find a new one.
  • A motion of dissolution is Parliament expressing a lack of confidence in itself, and in its ability to produce a viable government from among its ranks. It will be able to be passed with 55% of MPs voting in favour. If it passes Parliament is dissolved and a general election is called.
It looks a lot less menacing when phrased in this manner, and what's really inexcusable is the number of MPs who really should already know these kind of details sounding off about how outrageous the 55% threshold is. Is it really? We're looking here at the same parliamentarians who passed the Scotland Act 1998, which defines the parameters under which the Scottish Parliament functions. The Scottish house already has a mechanism to dissolve itself in this manner - but there it requires a two-thirds majority. In other places with Westminster-style parliaments this is not uncommon.

What's really happening is that with fixed-term Parliaments, the Prime Minister relinquishes the right to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament at a time of his or her choosing. There therefore needs to be a new mechanism to give Parliament the ability to dissolve itself - as a no confidence motion only forces the resignation of the government.

In a coalition government or under proportional representation, it's quite likely that there will be multiple coalition possibilities. If the current Con/Lib coalition were to fall to a confidence motion, there would be nothing to stop Labour trying to put together a coalition of its own (perhaps the 'coalition of the progressive' touted last week) and being invited to form a new government by the Queen if it looks like they can make it work. This is essential if we are to move away from a de facto two-party system, but also to prevent tiffs among coalition partners from forcing elections at the drop of a hat. Only if a new Government can't be found would Parliament elect to dissolve itself and force an election, and compared to the countries where 2/3 is the requirement I don't think 55% is an entirely rebellion-proof threshold.

I've got no problem with people being opposed to the 55% threshold - that's democracy - but I do have a problem with people not getting their facts right, as I am an obsessive nerd who cannot stand it when someone is wrong on the Internet.
A couple of years ago I posted Neil Kinnock's legendary words, delivered at a speech in Bridgend the night before the 1983 general election which returned Margaret Thatcher in a landslide driven on the patriotic fervour of the Falklands War. 

Over the last couple of days my fear of the shadow of a radical Conservative government returning to the UK has crystallised into out and out terror, and I found myself thinking of Kinnock's words again after reading Johann Hari's article on the Conservatives' "model" council. Times have changed, of course - now they're a rallying cry for voting for the Liberal Democrats, not for Labour (much could apply to a Labour government as well) - but they're still some of the most powerful words spoken in post-war politics. 

I was thinking of rewriting, in my amateurish way, Kinnock's magnificent words to describe an economically troubled Britain under a Conservative majority in 2010. However, once I reread them I found that so many of Kinnock's lines can be used today without change that, well, all I had to do was to add a couple of lines about issues of today which weren't yet mainstream issues in 1983.

The following, therefore, is 99% Neil Kinnock and 1% me (and I apologise to the now Lord Kinnock for mangling his work, especially as this is only a half-hour rush job). All I've done is changed a couple of names, added a few lines, and rewritten the lines about Tebbitism and "you will be quiet". I know I'm not the first person to have done this, but this is my take on why voting Conservative tomorrow just because you don't like what Labour has done is a bad idea. Don't give them the mandate they think they deserve to have. Vote for what you believe in.

If David Cameron is elected as Prime Minister, I warn you.

  • I warn you that you will have pain -
    When healing and relief depend on payment.

  • I warn you that you will have ignorance -
    When talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

  • I warn you that you will have poverty -
    When pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a Government that won't pay in an economy that can't pay.

  • I warn you that you will be isolated -
    When the country shuns its neighbours and the doors are slammed shut to even the most desperate, we will be shunned in turn.

  • I warn you that you will be cold - 
    When fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

  • I warn you that you will be ashamed -
    When the poor and vulnerable plead desperately for help, but the services they need have been eliminated to keep taxes low for the rich.

  • I warn you that you will be a second-class citizen -
    When the religion and the prejudices of the minority are used to alienate and discriminate against the different.

  • I warn you that you will be quiet -
    When constant surveillance, ever-increasing police powers, and the lurid threat of terrorism are used to muzzle you into silent obedience.

  • I warn you that you must not expect work - 
    When many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies.

  • I warn you that you will be powerless -
    When the corrupt two-party system is perpetuated forever through boundary manipulation and manufactured fear of change.

  • I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

  • I warn you that you will have defence of a sort -
    With a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

  • I warn you that you will be home-bound -
    When fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

  • I warn you that you will borrow less - 
    When credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If David Cameron wins, he will be more a Leader than a Prime Minister. That power produces arrogance and when it is toughened by tabloidism and flattered and fawned upon by spineless sycophants and the Murdoch media, that arrogance corrupts absolutely.

If David Cameron wins -

  • I warn you not to be ordinary.
  • I warn you not to be young.
  • I warn you not to be different.
  • I warn you not to fall ill.
  • I warn you not to get old.

- based on a speech by Neil Kinnock, Bridgend, 7 June 1983

Just a quick post (yeah, I should post here more) as a few of us on Twitter found this article kind of interesting in that it purports to show a long-term declining trend in the combined vote share of the two main political parties in the UK, which they claim will lead inevitably to a hung parliament if not in this general election then soon.

Well, the graph doesn't quite tell the whole story, so I went to the same source (thanks, the Guardian!) and plotted the full data set, including that from before 1990 where the article's author had chosen to start. Here it is:

share_of_vote_1984-2010.png

Rather different, isn't it? The main points which arise here are:

  • Saying hung parliaments and electoral reform are inevitable just isn't true - people who want to see change still have to work for it.
  • The Lib Dems (well, their ancestors) have been polling 30% or more before during the heyday of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the early 1980s
  • Support for the main two parties seems to wax and wane, but when we include the data from before 1990 there's far more waxing going on there seemed to be when the data was being used more selectively.
  • Support for "Others" has been on the rise all along.
  • There really isn't any room for complacency on the part of Lib Dem supporters!

See? It is possible to mix internet memes and politics:

[om nom nom poll]

I Warn You

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Neil Kinnock, former leader of the Labour Party through the years of the Thatcher government, was an extremely good orator, even if history has rather forgotten that in favour of remembering him as the Labour leader who managed to lose the 1992 election. This is rather unfair on him. The current buildup to the US elections has reminded me of a speech he made on the eve of the 1983 general election, which Margaret Thatcher won due to the country surfing on a wave of patriotic fervour after Britain's victory in the Falklands war.

In this speech Kinnock laid down his vision of what a second term for the Thatcher government would mean for Britain (and, as it turns out, pretty much did mean), in stark yet eloquent terms. I think it's one of the finest pieces of political oratory of the 20th century, but for some reason I could never find the full text on the web. So I dug it out of a book and retyped it, and here it is. It rings equally true today, even if some of the references (to, for instance, Norman Tebbit) are a little out of date. Change a few words and it could describe the dangers of electing any authoritarian right-wing government.


If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as Prime Minister, I warn you.

  • I warn you that you will have pain -
    When healing and relief depend on payment.

  • I warn you that you will have ignorance -
    When talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

  • I warn you that you will have poverty -
    When pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a Government that won't pay in an economy that can't pay.

  • I warn you that you will be cold -
    When fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

  • I warn you that you must not expect work -
    When many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies.

  • I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

  • I warn you that you will be quiet -
    When the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

  • I warn you that you will have defence of a sort -
    With a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

  • I warn you that you will be home-bound -
    When fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

  • I warn you that you will borrow less -
    When credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins, she will be more a Leader than a Prime Minister. That power produces arrogance and when it is toughened by Tebbitry and flattered and fawned upon by spineless sycophants, the boot-licking tabloid Knights of Fleet Street and placement in the Quangos, the arrogance corrupts absolutely.

If Margaret Thatcher wins -

  • I warn you not to be ordinary.
  • I warn you not to be young.
  • I warn you not to fall ill.
  • I warn you not to get old.

Neil Kinnock, Bridgend, 7 June 1983

As a non-US citizen who doesn't live in the USA, it could easily be suggested that I have no reason to think that anyone should care in the slightest what my opinions are about the upcoming US presidential elections. Indeed, my opinions might well be harmful - my 2004 endorsement of John Kerry is widely agreed by political scientists to have tipped the electoral balance just far enough for Bush to win. I'm also not allowed to donate to US political causes, entirely correctly. So why should I feel it's worth even mentioning the US elections?

Here's the thing. It's not something I can really keep quiet on, not least because I'm a big fan of the USA both as a country and as an ideal. The Constitution of the United States is an extremely well-written document - notice that the only bits which regularly spark controversy are amendments - which lays down the foundation of an extremely robust democracy. It's a beautiful, varied country full of nice people (and yes, people can be nice or nasty completely irregardless of their political views). Heck, I even married an American.

As an idealist myself, one of the most painful things of the last decade of both American and British history is the relentless grinding-down of ideals. It's a process that started in the 1980s but which has only really been brought to fruition since the turn of the millennium, as political idealism has been gradually replaced with political fear, government for the people has become government of the people, as people have been encouraged to accept the most mindnumbing jackhammering of their basic rights in return for claimed protection from exaggerated enemies. The America of Jefferson, Franklin and Lincoln has become the America of Dick Cheney, of Guantanamo Bay, of detention without trial, of waterboarding, run by a government of small-minded paranoiacs who see the Constitution as something to be worked around and reinterpreted to suit their own ends.

Don't get me wrong. Britain's done pretty badly too. The Labour government which we ushered in with such optimism in 1997 after 18 years of rule by inhuman Thatcherite dogma has reduced itself in the last few years to a paranoid husk, passing law after law restricting civil liberties as the country grows into a CCTV-studded wasteland where imaginary enemies prowl the streets - if it's not terrorists, it's some other bogeyman du jour, like paedophiles or immigrants or maybe trainspotters. The grotesque spectacle of a Labour government (thanks for that turn of phrase, Neil Kinnock) bribing that party of intolerance and bigotry, the DUP, to support its odious 42-day detention bill is one of the more shameful moments in our recent national history.

I see no prospect for improvement in the UK for the time being - if anything, the country seems to be sinking into a new dark age of superstition, selfishness, bigotry and fear. We shall have our own fights to fight in the future if there is to be any hope of restoring the basic values of humanity, trust and mutual respect to public life. The surprising thing is that the spark of idealism that lights the darkness may be coming from the other side of the Atlantic.

For the first time in a long time, America has an idealist in the electoral pipeline, someone who gives the impression of being genuinely determined that things can be done better, that the USA should be a country run by other things than fear and vested interests. There's something very brave about coming straight out and saying that your campaign isn't fundamentally about stability or cutting taxes or anything else material, it's about hope and change. I would say it's audacious, but that would give the impression that I was just cribbing from the title of the guy's book. 

The next few years are going to be critical for both the US and the UK, as what happens over in the US always casts a shadow on the UK sooner or later. Our two countries are tied more closely both historically and culturally than many of my more snooty British acquaintances or many of the more isolationist sections of US society might like to admit. What's bad for the USA will usually turn out to be bad for us, and right now I think that another 4 years of rule by Republicans would be terribly bad for the USA, not least with McCain's dicky state of health making the terrifying prospect of a Palin Administration very real if he wins in November.

Which is why I think an Obama Administration would be a jolly good thing, not just for the US but for the rest of us too. Some may agree, others may not. Some may disagree sufficiently virulently that they post comments about how "we kicked your limey asses in the War of Independence" (newsflash - that was 230 years ago) and that I'm a "pussy", or maybe a "jerkwad" or even worse, a "liberal" (gasp!). I guess they're not my target audience here.
While cleaning out the old crud from my web directories just now, I stumbled across an image from late 2004:



It took me a few seconds to figure out what it was, but then I remembered what it related to - this old entry. Well, it's four years later now. Here's hoping, eh?

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