On Politics, On Society

In support of multi-cultural Britain, 2010-2015

Digging through old shoe boxes of hoarded tickets, birthday cards and travel memorabilia this weekend, I found my Editor’s Note for a special mini-issue of the uni student journal. The mini-issue, Perspectives on Immigration, was produced to accompany an on-campus photography exhibition, but its publication was also timely because of the subject matter’s relevance to the 2010 general election. It’s no big secret that economic migrants experience more resentment during economic downturns; what was perhaps surprising at the time was the extent to which politicians across the political spectrum seemed to jump on the bandwagon, arguing for greater controls and doing little to sell the benefits of immigration.

Fast forward to 2015. The third of the televised leaders’ debates was heartening viewing, insofar as the nationalist, more left-leaning party leaders united against Nigel Farage in highlighting the net contribution made by immigrants to British social and economic life. They also didn’t overlook the advantages of EU open borders to Brits searching for a warmer climate or job opportunities elsewhere. Yet arguably, Sturgeon and co. were preaching to the converted. Shaping the immigration discourse in this country will take a much larger and more concerted effort. The Con-Lib coalition government entirely shied away from delivering this, despite the importance of foreign talent and investment in maintaining the UK’s status as a global financial hub.

In light of political intransigence regarding the issue of immigration, I thought it worthwhile re-publishing part of my Editor’s Note. The following comments are just as relevant today as they were five years ago, and I suspect will still feel current in 2020. I wanted to put forth these views to remind people before they go to the polls that issues of tax and debt are not the only ones that matter. Community, society and culture receive little airtime unless UKIP raises these – that’s to our detriment. I hope that others with a positive view of multi-cultural Britain agree and cast their vote with issues other than cuts and business interests in mind.

The 21st century has seen opposition to the influx of economic migrants in the UK become a central issue in the public sphere. The tabloid media sits firmly in the anti-immigration camp, with sensationalist headlines beckoning the British public to share in their stance. Even on the left of the political spectrum, politicians have pandered to the public and media on the issue. Anti-immigration sentiment has even permeated popular culture; the infamous Morrissey interview conducted by the NME – in which The Smiths singer lamented the loss of a distinctive British identity – is the example that springs to mind.

Perhaps most troubling is that references made to the “immigration explosion” and “flooded gates” are almost reminiscent of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. Political correctness has prevented the overt racism that characterised the immigration debates of previous generations in this country, but comparisons can still be drawn. It’s true that many people today are merely expressing legitimate concerns regarding the rate of immigration, but there are members of the ‘indigenous’ population spewing the xenophobic prejudices of old. National identity is still frequently viewed as a fixed entity, and thus as something that is destroyed with change. This notion is overly conservative, and entirely untrue; growing heterogeneity in our society marks transformation of British culture, rather than disintegration. Unity in diversity is not an uncommon fact of collective human existence, nor does it amount to a death sentence for national identity.

On Politics

Ill-Thought-Out Health Reforms

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has proposed radical changes to the NHS in a new white paper. All 152 primary care trusts and 10 strategic health authorities are to be replaced by GP commissioning consortia and, for the first time, all NHS contracts will fall under EU competition law. The consortia will seek to find the best and cheapest services in the healthcare market for their patients. This shake-up of the health system is intended to reduce government “bureaucracy” and give GPs more power to decide on the care their parents will receive, as well as increasing the role of the free market in healthcare provision – all very in-keeping with the note struck by Cameron’s pre-election “Big Society” ranting.

However, it is not at all self-evident that creating hundreds of GP consortia will cut NHS “bureaucracy”. Why would staffing these cost less than staffing primary care trusts? Conversely, if there were less consortia they couldn’t claim to be local bodies, and thus the reform wouldn’t fulfil its objective of locally-run healthcare. Rather than saving money, the reforms will mean greater public spending in the short-run; in the British Medical Journal, Professor Walshe estimates that the transitional costs of the NHS reorganisation will be £2-3bn.

Toynbee also highlights the possibility of the free market sabotaging relationships between GPs and local hospitals, as competition law will prohibit the former from favouring the latter if it entails rejecting a cheaper offer from elsewhere. Moreover, imposing a neat divide between GPs purchasing healthcare services and hospitals providing them – to create a market scenario – is a mistake when most patients need a complex network of services, or services that are provided by GPs, nurses and consultants but not hospitals. More worryingly, a free market in healthcare could lead to overprovision of the most profitable services and underprovision of specialist services for which there is little demand – a concern voiced by health service union Unison.

Of course the Government is going to have its ideologically-shaped arguments for reducing the state’s grip on healthcare provision. Yet at a time of financial austerity, practicalities should override ideological concerns. This view is a popular one, with even those on the Right complaining that we simply cannot afford to make changes to the NHS. By preaching deficit reduction while proposing costly and disruptive reforms, the Government is sending out mixed messages regarding where its priorities lie.

On Politics

The Alternative Vote: A Suitable Alternative to FPTP?

On 5th May 2011, the British electorate will be asked to cast their vote in a referendum on electoral reform. To AV or not to AV – that is the question. One important argument for AV listed is that under the system, all MPs would have the support of a majority of their constituents, as opposed to merely a plurality. Indeed, Labour leadership candidate David Miliband recently said, “I think that it’s important that we move to a system where every Member of Parliament has at least 50 per cent of the vote of their constituents.“ Whilst Miliband won 52 per cent of the vote in his South Shields constituency in the May election and therefore is just about safe in making such a statement, 434 MPs received less than 50 per cent of the vote in their constituencies. This immense number includes Ed Balls, Jon Cruddas, Danny Alexander and David Davies, and incredibly, over 70 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party. A move to AV could be more democratic and, arguably, also strengthen the constituency-MP link, but it’s easy to see why so many MPs are shaken by the prospect.

Another pro-AV point is that it goes further in excluding extremist parties from representation, as the latter are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes. The possibility of second- and third-preferences has additional benefits: it eliminates the need for tactical voting (no more agonising over whether to pick your no-hope first-choice candidate or your safer second-choice), and it can entail a reduction in negative campaigning (you’re not going to slate a candidate whose second preferences you want).

Despite the potential advantages of AV over FPTP, there is one major argument against the electoral system: it doesn’t necessarily offer better proportionality, in terms of votes to seats. The majority of the Lib Dems have backed AV because they believe it will improve their representation in Parliament – and who can blame them? Having received 23 per cent of the national vote in May but less than ten per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, they have been most adversely affected by the current voting system. Had the most recent election been conducted under AV, the Lib Dems would have a higher seat share of 79. However, the system can produce results even less proportional than FPTP; the Jenkins Report of 1998 estimated that Labour’s disproportionate majority of 179 in 1997 could have risen to 245 under AV, with the Tories’ number of seats falling to a lowly 96.

Greater proportionality is so important because it transforms voter power. The number of “wasted” votes falls with increased proportionality, and the resulting Parliament better represents voter preferences. In fact, the voter empowerment generated by proportional representation could dramatically reduce apathy. Yes, the coalition governments likely to result from PR are not hugely popular in this country, but neither is the feeling that our votes often count for nothing – a feeling that is probably a major factor contributing to falling turnout. Without improving proportionality, I don’t believe that the arguments in favour of AV are strong enough to justify its implementation. If only the Lib Dems had managed to secure a referendum including an option for the single transferable vote, the proportional system favoured by them. Yet as things stand, the Lib Dems are in for a real battle against the Tories’ negative campaigning, as they try to win public support for an electoral system that is by no means their first-choice candidate.

On Politics

Deal or No Deal?

Kingmaker Clegg

Kingmaker Clegg

So much has transpired since the 6th of May. The non-decisive general election has left us in a bit of a constitutional pickle, with the Tories 7% ahead of Labour in terms of the vote share, but short of enough seats to command a majority in the House of Commons. The predicted hung parliament has indeed become our political reality. Although Labour lost, its hold over most of London and certain other seats the Tories hoped to gain has meant that the latter party didn’t win a mandate to govern. Significant Conservative figures are vocalising their disappointment at the result, blaming the shambolic Tory campaign for their failure, as well as Cameron for agreeing to the televised debates. Ashcroft in particular is furious that he didn’t get value for his money! As for the Lib Dems, the polls bounce didn’t translate into tangible results; they somehow managed to lose a few seats (oh Lembit, how you won’t be missed!) and to only increase their vote share by a meagre percentage point. The public flirted with the notion of a three-party system, only to have a change of heart when it came to committing on the ballot paper.

Clegg is now in an unenviable position. He would probably taint his centre-left party by entering into an unholy alliance with, or giving confidence assurances to, a Tory government, which will have to make unpopular spending cuts in the near future. An additional problem is the ideological gulf that exists between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. The two parties completely clash on Europe, immigration and the timetable for spending cuts. Conversely, Clegg can reach agreement on a Lib-Lab coalition, thereby forming a progressive government. Yet this outcome would ignore the fact that the electorate awarded the Tories with a plurality of the vote. Moreover, now that Gordon Brown has announced his plans to resign, it would mean a second unelected PM for this country – most likely in the form of Miliband. And smaller parties would need to enter this coalition to give it a seat majority. It’s questionable whether the Lib Dems want to be shackled to a party that people believe has outstayed its welcome in national government. Both parties are trying to entice Clegg with a referendum on electoral reform, but this alone is not offering a great deal, especially as the alternative vote does not necessarily produce a “fairer” result anyway.

It’s the party that won less than 10% of the seats that will determine who governs us, rather than the popular vote – how remarkably undemocratic. Will the government that emerges from the series of behind-closed-doors talks credibly be able to make the tough decisions that are needed in the coming months? Which party combination will be the most conducive to political and economic stability? What about the implications for our democracy and the national interest? These are the questions Kingmaker Clegg must seek to answer when he and his party decide between a) a deal with the Right which many Lib Dems and their supporters will find unpalatable and b) an alliance of the election losers. The choice urgently needs to be made, to take the country out of post-election limbo. Maybe flip a coin, Clegg?

On Politics

Fear and Loathing in the Final Hours

Both fear and loathing – or at least reasonable dislike – are emotional drives which have featured prominently in the general election campaign. Especially in the last few days, Labour and the Conservatives have employed scare tactics to warn voters off voting for the Lib Dems. Fear of a hung parliament is squeezing the latter’s popularity; Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove equated voting for the third party to “succumbing to a sort of blind date politics”.

If it’s not fear of the uncertainty that a hung parliament would bring, it’s the loathing of the “old politics” that is influencing the electorate. As I have commented before on this blog, 13 years of the same government has made change the issue of this campaign. Initially the Tories thought they would be known as the bearers of change, but then the first TV debate graced our screens and ten million viewers were razzle-dazzled by Nick Clegg.

Clearly, conflicting forces are at work. The electorate may want a government that isn’t led by the much-maligned Brown or disingenuous Cameron, but they don’t necessarily want a chaotic hung parliament situation to unfold on 7 May, which would essentially see the Labservatives rule for another five years anyway. Plus our electoral system is so ill-equipped to deal with the current distribution of party support that even those planning to vote tactically are confused about what move they should make.

Combined, Clegg’s success in the first ever British leaders’ debates, the failure of Cameron to sell the New Conservatives to the public, and Labour’s waning spirit have really shaken up this election. Less Clegg airtime and a bit more fight from Labour could have seen them win a fourth term in office. One Guardian poll in particular shows that people still think Brown is the most capable leader, the best in a crisis and best at understanding world problems. It’s his prickly personality that’s the deal breaker – a character flaw that’s certainly been under the magnifying glass due to the TV debates. Conversely, a different Tory strategy which didn’t involve Cameron pandering shamelessly to the “plebs” probably would have yielded different poll results, even taking into account the Clegg factor – but of course, the debates haven’t done them any favours, either.

Polling day will be cloaked in uncertainty. With so many undecideds at this late stage of the game, no one is quite sure what election results will materialise. Will those riding the Lib Dem surge in popularity arrive at the polling station and suddenly revert back to being a Labour or Tory supporter? Will Labour supporters, about to cast their ballot, find that they cannot bring themselves to vote for the governing party in its current tired – if not exhausted – state? Will all the young people who’ve hastily registered in recent weeks swing the vote one way or another? For us first-time voters, it’s great to see big question marks looming over this election. It’s roughly 16 hours until I’ll be casting my vote, and the fact that at this time the result doesn’t seem pre-determined makes this an election to get excited about.

On Politics

They’ve Had It

Each time Gordon Brown shook his head during last night’s debate was a sign of his utter dismay regarding how things have unravelled for Labour. The economy is his strong issue; he did his best to associate the Conservative party of today with its past failures during times of economic strife in the ’30s, ’80s and ’90s, and ripped into Cameron for his party’s non-progressive inheritance tax plan. Unfortunately for Brown, he just couldn’t combat the fact that the public is aching for change (and Duffy-gate didn’t help much either). Early polls suggested that Cameron won the debate, even though he definitely lost on the issue of fairness. His tough stance on “waste” must have resonated well with the viewing public. The Tory leader didn’t offer any new detail on further cuts – none of the leaders wanted to touch on this issue – but people trust his party more than Brown’s or Clegg’s to rein in public spending.

Maybe the public is justified in doubting Gordon Brown’s economic credentials. As Cameron pointed out in the debate, the PM betrayed the Labour constituency when he abolished the 10p tax rate and by neglecting pensioners. Yes, the link between state pensions and earnings was broken by a Conservative government (Thatcher in 1980), but Labour has had 13 years to restore it. Cameron also argued that Britain needs “to start making things again” – a statement with which Clegg agreed. Again, it was Thatcher who paved the way for our over-reliance on financial services at the expense of the manufacturing industry, and yet the Labour government has done nothing to relinquish the British economy from the firm grip of the City. Having said all this, Brown should have come in second place instead of third, as Clegg is no whizz kid when it comes to the economy, and he got annihilated on the Lib Dems’ immigration policy once again. It no longer seems to matter what the PM says or how hard he strains to smile when he says it – he’s fighting a losing battle.

The Labour Party itself appears to share this sentiment, as their entire election campaign has reeked of defeatism. There has been little mention of their past achievements: peace and some self-government in Northern Ireland, the introduction of a minimum wage, greatly reduced waiting times for treatment on the NHS, House of Lords reform, falling child poverty. Maybe it’s hard for Brown to extol these virtues of Labour government when they’re attributable to Blair’s administration rather than his own, but I still can’t help feeling that he’s let the side down by not pushing the positives.

Alastair Campbell was overheard telling a security guard, “We’ve had it.” Sadly, I couldn’t agree more.

On Politics

Something Lacking

The election campaigns of the three main parties have been sharply focused on the party leaders – largely due to the live televised debates and the dispute over who would become PM in a hung parliament scenario. This has been at the expense of other aspects that usually make up a campaign. There’s been little mention of the politicians who are likely to be cabinet ministers, should their party win, nor has there been much buzz about the new prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs). Also distinctly lacking from the campaign trail are women.

The obsession with Clegg has obscured the fact that the vast majority of people couldn’t name more than three or four Lib Dem MPs if their lives depended on it. Who else from the party would feature in a coalition government is an issue that should be given more attention. Similarly, although Gordon Brown isn’t the most inspiring leader figure, he’s supported by a political team who have considerable experience of governing and who many may find preferable to the Lib Dem or Tory equivalents.

It’s a terrible shame that the media has failed to give airtime or column inches to the new PPCs. Around 140 MPs have announced they are retiring, which means that the make-up of parliament will dramatically change after 6th May. This is a hugely positive and exciting development that has been largely overlooked. More ethnic-minority candidates have been selected, as well as more women; roughly 60% of Labour’s new PPCs are female. All three main parties are guilty of under-selling their new talent – a grave mistake, considering that new faces will shake up the demographics of parliament and make it more relevant and relatable to the modern-day British public.

Where have these new women been during the campaign?! Whenever a camera lens was in his vicinity, Blair never missed an opportunity to brandish his babes. Sadly, it’s only the party leaders’ wives who’ve made much of an appearance in recent weeks, as this Guardian article points out. One of my previous blogs was critical of the way politicians have tried to appeal to women voters in this campaign, offering up family-friendly policies with little regard for what woman-without-child might want from her government. Having no female politicians featuring significantly in the election campaign is symptomatic of how male-dominated our politics remains today.

I think it needs to be pointed out both to the press and to the public that this is not a presidential election. On 6th May we’ll be voting for our respective constituency parliamentary candidates in order to elect a new parliament, from which a government can be formed. If only the campaigns could reflect this and broaden their narrow focus, instead of giving centre stage to the three leading roles and keeping everyone else behind the scenes.