Monthly Archives: June 2008

Electoral Reform: no surrender!

I’ve written a piece on Our Kingdom about the debate currently bubbling under in reformist circles about whether or not the campaign for fair votes should be abandoned in favour of a “compromise” in the form of the Alternative Vote system. In my article I seek to show how AV is not a compromise but a wholesale surrender, will not be any easier to get introduced than full electoral reform and won’t do what a lot of its supporters think it will do:

I would summarise the push for AV as a call for a lot of pain in exchange for very little gain. Pushing through this reform will mean facing down the combined might of every single minority party, the Conservatives, the media and a large proportion of the Labour Party. Even if the Lib Dem leadership were convinced of this strategy (which I doubt), a lot of the grassroots will be in uproar. It will mean convincing the potential activist base to curb their enthusiasm and compromise on almost everything that they believe in – that tends not to work as much of a motivator. For every supporter of first past the post who might be prepared to compromise on AV there will be a supporter of proportional representation who would not. The whole thing reeks of stalemate and Whitehall farce.

This is a particularly pertinent discussion to be having at the moment because, on Saturday, the Electoral Reform Society will be having the same debate. I should point out in the interest of political balance that not all Labour people think AV is the only way to go; the alternative “compromise” – 3-member STV – which I write favourable things about in my article is going to be advocated on Saturday by one Recess Monkey.

You can read the full article here.

More from the IP Wars front line

I wrote an article back in December about intellectual property becoming one of the big ideological political footballs in ther 21st century and it got a good reception. Time for an update of some recent trends methinks.

First of all, numerous posters have recently gone up around Islington claiming that, as you can read in Islington Now (PDF), DVD piracy “finances crimes including child trafficking, drug smuggling, gun crime – even terrorism.” If I were an Islington council tax payer I’d be demanding my money back.

Leaving the claims to one side for a moment, why is council and the police devoting so much resources into what is a civil matter? Couldn’t these resources be better allocated elsewhere? This is doing the film industry’s job for them, isn’t it?

Fundamentally though, is there really any evidence that dodgy DVDs fund trafficking? I get the impression that Islington officials have been watching too many 1960s espionage TV series. There is no global criminal organisation that exists to simply do evil things for their own sake. Is it really that complacent for me to suggest that if child trafficking, drug running and illegal arms dealing were such loss-making industries, people wouldn’t do them?

As for terrorism, anyone who has ever sat in a pub or cafe around Chapel Market will know who does the bulk of the illegal DVD selling in Islington: it is Chinese immigrants of presumably dubious legal status. I have to say I’m rather dubious about the claim that the money they make will be going to Al Qaeda or even Kim Il-sung. Is it really so hard to believe that illegal activities might be going to fund… criminals?

Onto other matters, and a return of the Performing Rights Society. The Federation of Small Businesses has been complaining that many of its members have started being harassed by the PRS – something which I reported on here late last year. I can certainly confirm that when the PRS rang my office it was of a distinctly threatening nature.

I can understand why any business which uses music as a marketing tool ought to pay the PRS, but why should TV license fee payers, listeners of commercial radio and individuals who have already paid for the music they want to listen pay twice? In that, I’d include car mechanics and people sitting in an office listening to their personal stereos. This isn’t about whether people should pay for the music they listen to, it’s about why they should be forced to pay twice.

And as for the PRS’ claim that 90% of their members are small traders themselves, that may be true, but you can bet your bottom dollar that those members don’t get 90% of the revenue the PRS raises. Perhaps if they did (but really, why should they?), they might expect a little more sympathy. But of course it is the big music stars who get the lion’s share so let’s not kid ourselves this is about sticking up for the little guy.

Finally, from PRS harrassment to harrassment by the US military. Clive Stafford-Smith wrote an interesting and at times amusing article in the Guardian on Thursday about how the US uses music as a torture weapon, and how the music industry doesn’t seem to care. It’s ironic, isn’t it? The music industry is busy trying to lock up everyone with an illegal download on their iPod yet are quite sanguine about using their intellectual property to hurt people (presumably the US army has a PRS license though, so that’s okay).

What is most interesting is the reaction of the musicians themselves. It should surprise no-one that Napster-slaying and all round dickheads Metallica seem to think it is wonderful (“If the Iraqis aren’t used to freedom, then I’m glad to be part of their exposure,” according to James Hetfield). David Gray at least laments it: “It’s shocking that there isn’t more of an outcry. I’d gladly sign up to a petition that says don’t use my music, but it seems to be missing the point a bit.”

He has a point in that the real issue is music being abused in this way, not whose music. But he can do more than sign a petition – it is surely within his rights to not allow it to be used in this way? If intellectual property rights are worth fighting for at all, surely they should be used in this way? If I owned a gun and left it lying around I would be criminally negligent. Surely it is equally negilgent (morally, if not criminally) of musicians to knowingly allow their music to be used in this way? If musicians aren’t prepared to stand up for their rights, why should we respect them?

The Grimond-Obama link

An interesting link made by Martin “son of Richard” Wainwright between the current Obama bandwagon and the Red Guard of the 60s:

Jo Grimond in particular enjoyed intellectual experiments and didn’t mind the excesses of youth. He sent Young Libs out all over the world to report back to him on Yugoslavian workers’ cooperatives, black power in the US and the first stirrings of free thinking behind the iron curtain.

There was also a much more significant model: John Kennedy. And that brings this period of history up to date and gives its experiences and lessons a relevance. Barack Obama appears to have captured a similar mood. His youthful volunteers are streaming out across the States at the moment, as confident as the YLs were that they can make a difference.

Article here.

Party funding on OK

I’ve written a piece on Our Kingdom about the government’s meaningless new party funding proposals:

Hencke asserts that “The Conservatives have been blocked from targeting Labour marginals with spending that can run to tens of thousands of pounds a year by legislation which will limit all parties’ candidates to spending a maximum of £12,000 from October until the general election.” Straw’s proposals do nothing of the sort. What they do is return us to the pre-2000 situation whereby party spending limits are only “triggered” when a candidate is formally adopted by their party or declares themselves (inadvertently or otherwise).

Full article here.

To be David Davis’ Sancho Panza?

I still haven’t made up my mind as to whether David Davis’ resignation is some sort of mad genius or just plain mad and I suspect this debate will rage for years to come. Over the weekend, my respect for him has increased as it became clear that part of the reason he did it was out of a fear that the Tory opposition to internment without charge was lukewarm at best and that Cameron was powerless to stop his backbenchers from rebelling as the general election loomed closer (as I’ve said so many times before, Cameron does not lead the Conservatives as much as chair their internal debates). The fact that this is a stand against his own party as much as it is one in opposition to Labour makes it a noble gesture indeed.

But there is a danger that, with even the smallest of windmills refusing to put up a fight, Davis may start to look less like a Don Quixote figure and more like Ozymandias. He’s done a terrific job as scaring off the opposition – Brown, Murdoch, Kelvin Mackenzie – but it will be a Pyrrhic victory if his only opponents are the OMLRP, a former beauty queen and John “set aboot you” Smeaton.

The question is, what should us liberal-minded folk do? We didn’t pick this fight or choose Davis to be our champion, but can we really afford to sit back and watch? I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts and facebook groups I’ve skimmed past denouncing Davis for being a hypocrite on the issue of civil liberties. That may be so, but what is more hypocritical? A hang ’em, flog ’em politician standing up for fundamental civil liberties or a smart arse who claims to care about the drip-drip erosion of our rights while sitting on the fence because the one person taking a stand doesn’t pass a “purity” test. Some of the attacks are even worse and appear to be partisan Labour attacks masquerading as crocodile tears for those very rights that Labour has been spending its time trashing. If Stonewall really have been actively briefing against Davis, they will have lost all credibility with me. If Stonewall is allowed to question Davis’ commitment to civil liberties on the basis of his commitment to gay rights, aren’t we free to question Stonewall’s commitment to civil liberties outside of the comparatively narrow interests of lesbians and gay men? I didn’t ask for this to become some kind of libertarian pissing contest, but there are plenty of people out there who want it to become precisely that. If they succeed, Brown, Murdoch and the other Forces of Darkness will have had a meaningful victory indeed, regardless of the vote in Haltemprice and Howden.

To say “only Nixon could go to China” is a cliche, but cliche’s have the irritating tendency to be true. There is a real question mark over whether there is actually a fight here to be fought, but refusing to fight it out of some sniffiness about Davis’ principles would be despicable.

Throwing their bibles out of their prams

A very honest and perspicacious article by Giles Fraser in the Guardian on Monday about how organised religion has unedifyingly thrown itself out of the temple, or rather registry office. It puts new light on things like Islington’s Registra-Martyr.

It all feels too much like the parable of the prodigal son. You sometimes get the impression that the “great” religions are sorely in need of a big hug. Sadly though, any such attempts normally result in a rather sharp jab in the ribs.

But it also raises the question of why the government was so willing to go along with such blatant silliness. It is almost as if it has been tacitly accepted that organised religion owns the intellectual property of the Bible and religious paraphenalia and that we mere morals only have access to it with the bishops’ permission. There is plenty in the Bible for an atheist or humanist and even (gasp!) homosexuals to find of intellectual and moral value. Does the Church really consider us all so damned that the word of their precious book would be wasted on us? Clearly so.

The people have spoken. The eejits.

Actually, contrary to what the above headline might imply (I couldn’t resist), I’m actually quite sanguine about the Irish “no” vote on Thursday. I’m not at all convinced that Europe has been “saved” by the Irish or that the Lisbon Treaty was anything other than a moderate and sensible reform, but this latest chapter in EU reform has been farcical from beginning to end and I pray dearly that it will soon be over.

The fundamental problem is that, since the mid-eighties we have had one EU reforming treaty after another. As soon as one is out of the way, and often before, work on another has begun. It has been a case of not so much salami slice politics as cheese slab politics. It has alienated large numbers of pro-EU people and switched the vast majority of the European public off completely.

The result is a paradox whereby a minority of hardcore Euro-sceptics have been able to hold sway. They have no popular support – look at iwantareferendum‘s futile attempt to get even 46,000 supporters after spending millions of pounds over the past year. Yet when referendums are held in the most pro-EU countries – France, the Netherlands, Ireland – the “nos” hold sway. This isn’t opposition; this is alienation.

The solution then is obvious: have a moratorium on further EU reform, at least on anything that would require a treaty change, for at least a decade. That isn’t to say that a lot of the good things in the constitution couldn’t still go ahead. We could still have Council meetings in public. We could still give the Parliament a more central role in selecting the President. We could still operate the “yellow card” system and ensure that national parliaments are sent legislation in a more timely manner. We could still operate the system of Citizen’s Initiative. I struggle to believe that even the most swivel-eyed of Eurosceptic would oppose any of that (go on, surprise me…), and it would a lot to calm tensions.

Is there really anything this treaty would have achieved that a bit of self-restraint wouldn’t replicate? One of the main reasons why I supported the Constitution was that it would end France’s veto on the CAP, but the truth of the matter is there is nothing to stop France from voluntarily giving this up. Except, of course, the French. Frankly, if they were willing to give up the veto, they should be prepared to consider the fact that agribusiness subsidies no longer have a place in a planet which is currently suffering from mass starvation. Either way, if reforms are necessary then which ones will become apparent from attempting to implement the status quo rather than insisting that at all times EU governance must be perfect both in practice and in theory.

What we must oppose, strongly, is the appalling idea of a multi-speed Europe in which “Perfidious Ireland” is shut out of Club Class. Oddly, I find that my villain of the week is not Declan Ganley (back in Westminster to answer to his paymasters before the dust has even begun to settle in Dublin), but Will Hutton. What a vile piece of steaming crap he belched forth in the Observer this Sunday. Rather than make a single argument as to why the Constitution/Reform Treaty is so necessary, he actually called for Ireland to be given one last chance to get the “right” answer before being kicked out of the EU! If that is how Club Europe is to treat its members in future, send me my 51st State application form in the post tomorrow.

Let’s not forget that Ireland has steered every other treaty through a referendum up until Nice with nary a problem. According to Hutton’s logic, that is only explainable if you work on the basis that Amsterdam, Maastricht and the Single European Act were the sort of treaties that “Hitler and Mussolini” would approve of. Shouldn’t we consider the fact that Ireland is having increasing problems getting such treaties past its public as a warning sign?

If a canary drops dead at the bottom of a mineshaft, you don’t insist the miners should keep digging on the basis that it is only very little compared to the strapping lads working on the coal seam. You get them out of there as quickly as possible. The reflexive reaction of too many pro-Europeans to want to shoot the messengers just demonstrates why a cooling off period is so necessary. Instead of continuing to bash their collective heads into a brick wall, it is time the leaders of the EU got on with the job of governing.

David Davis – the view from Strasbourg (well, Kehl actually)

What funny games appear to be going on in Westminster at the moment. First, Labour and the DUP redefine porkbarreling for the UK context (deny everything, smirk, smirk), then David Davis resigns – with Clegg’s backing.

In terms of the latter, I’m just confused by the whole business. It is a little moot about whether Clegg should have agreed to not field a candidate against the Tories or not on the basis that it is hard to see how Davis would have resigned if he hadn’t. I don’t think it makes the Lib Dems look particularly bad; by contrast it is the Tories who appear to be in danger of haemorrhaging over this.

But if I were Gordon Brown I wouldn’t even consider fielding a candidate. Davis is gaming the system – attempting to magic a mandate against 42 days out of a by-election. The only grounds on which he will be able to claim such a mandate is if Brown is foolish enough to fall for the trick. And of course Brown isn’t that stupid is he?

Is he?

It may simply be that Davis has calculated that Brown has now so completely lost it that he would fall for something like this. For myself, I’m not so confident.

With the BNP refusing to field a candidate and UKIP indicating they might not either, this could be the OMRLP’s defining moment. In such a situation, I have to admit I would be sorely tempted to make the trip up to Howden. It would be sweet revenge on the Tories getting Howling Laud Hope elected in exchange for Boris Johnson. LOOK AT HIS FUNNEEE HAT!!! LOL!!!!

In defence of Caroline Spelman

I don’t rate Caroline Spelman as a frontbencher. She has particularly annoyed me in the past by attacking the government for its proposals to revalue council tax (according to the Tories there is something magical about the year 1991 which means that all property taxes should based on the value of homes at that point). I question how someone who believes such nonsense can be said to be qualified to sit on the front benches of any political party. Sadly however, if you follow that logic you would have to get rid of most of all three front benches.

Regarding what will almost certainly be dubbed “nannygate” in all the Sunday papers tomorrow however, I am less inclined to criticise. I have watched both Crick’s totally unbalanced report and Spelman’s defence and am inclined to side with Spelman.

Let’s be clear; there is no doubt that her decision to employ her nanny to do some secretarial work for her after first getting elected in 1997 was in clear breach of the rules. But by all accounts it was an oversight, and one which was quickly corrected within less than a year. We are talking about what looks like a genuine mistake by a new MP, which was then corrected, and which happened over ten years ago.

Compared with, say, Margaret Beckett’s herbacious borders, this is very small fry, no matter what Crick and Guido might say. I’ve seen up close how bewildering and difficult it is for new MPs to get their offices up and running, and even to find out what they are and aren’t allowed to do. 2005 was the first year, as I understand it, that new MPs were given a formal induction. Such initiatives have always been resisted by whips who prefer to control the information their neonates receive so as to make it all the easier to keep them under control. Mistakes happen, and it is a very sorry state of affairs if we now seek to present even the slightest of cock ups by a politician as a sinister conspiracy against the public; not to mention highly delusional.

The biggest joke is Crick pointing out that the ex-nanny doesn’t mention the small bit of secretarial work she did on her Facebook profile. At around the same time I was doing temping work for the Legal Aid Board but I think Crick will struggle to find that on my Facebook profile either; that doesn’t “prove” I’m a liar for admitting I did it. I also like the comedy voice he put on when “quoting” the nanny, by way of demonstrating she must have been lying (as opposed to trying to recall a minor incident in her life ten years ago). I know what those Crick phonecalls are like having been on the receiving end of one myself; if a gobshite like me can be intimated, I’m not surprised she comes across as a little hesitant and nervous.

Of course, if it turns out that Spelman paid this woman for a longer period of time than she both she and Crick appear to agree she did, it might be a different matter. Otherwise it is a non-story and an act of scraping the very bottom of the barrel.

Now a piece on James Gray on the other hand…

Seumus Milne: why let the facts get in the way of a good argument?

Seaumus Milne is one of my least favourite columnists, to the extent that I rarely bother reading more than the byline of his articles. I bit this week though, although I needn’t have bothered.

His article “A mania for tax cuts at any cost defies public opinion” gets the current political situation pretty much ass-backwards. His overall thesis, that the main political parties are all trying to outdo each other in cutting taxes at the expense of public services, simply isn’t true. Certainly both Clegg and Cameron have recently made speeches about cutting waste, but that is hardly new. Four years ago, all three parties were jumping on this particular bandwagon and it didn’t particularly go anywhere.

But then he outdoes himself by claiming that what the public want is fairer taxes, not lower taxes:

There’s a powerful case, backed by most voters, for taxes to be cut for the low paid and raised sharply on corporate profits and the wealthy. But all three major parties cower before the corporate elite, even as the financial edifice they have erected is crashing all around us, and instead are holding public services to ransom because of their refusal to countenance tax justice.

I’m not particularly disputing the claim that the public want fairer taxes, but it has to be said that Milne provides little actual evidence. What’s more, the public is notoriously contrary in this area. There were several reasons for the Lib Dems axing their 50p income tax rate on incomes over £100,000: one of them was that the policy was not as wildly popular as it had been assumed. Partly this is because it was perceived by some as a “tax on aspiration”. By contrast, the public lapped up George Osborne’s (now unfunded) pledge to cut inheritance tax, despite the fact that the only beneficiaries were the richest.

But more to the point, there is a party that is not only committed to tax justice but has spelt out how it would do so: the Liberal Democrats. Whichever way you look at it, lowering income tax by 4p in the pound while raising tax allowance, and paying for it by a combination of environmental taxes and raising taxes on the rich, is an example of tax justice. Milne knows this is our policy because he has read (or has purported to have read), Clegg’s Policy Exchange speech a couple of weeks ago. So why is he misrepresenting the party in this way? Is it too much to expect a bit of honesty from columnists? Or should we simply accept that the facts should never be permitted to get in the way of a good old fashioned leftist rant?

My suspicion is that tax justice is about to become the latest bandwagon that all parties are going to jump on, with varying degrees of genuine commitment. The cutting waste froth will come and go, as it always does (which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to cut waste; just that the civil service will always make it as difficult as possible for us to do so). So Milne will get his wish, but I doubt his efforts this week will have had much to do with it.