Daily Archives: 17 September 2009

Marx, Marquises and Marquand

David Marquand is offering the Liberal Democrats some advice, graciously for free, over on Our Kingdom.

First of all he denounces us for having “more unelected legislators than elected ones” and concludes that this proves that we “can’t be taken seriously as an agent of democratic change.” Unbeknownst to anyone else until now, this is apparently the magic formula for testing whether party is establishment or not. On this formulation – praise the Lord! – Labour is the most anti-establishment party in the country. The fact that they happen to actually run everything is a mere detail that we can safely ignore. Either way, it is likely to rejoin the establishment in May after which point David Cameron will be leading the anti-establishment vanguard.

He goes on to suggest that “surely it would be possible for the Lib Dem leader to announce that he will hold party elections – including Lib Dem voters, not just members – to decide which people will be nominated to serve in the Lords.”

A few points. Firstly, unlike any other party we do elect our peers – or at least a panel of individuals get to select them from an elected list. We don’t run elections for specific places because we don’t know when the next rounds of appointment are likely to take place, or how many will be appointed at that stage, and when we do know we typically get just a few weeks’ notice. With that in mind the panel option is the best one available. Secondly, with the sole exception of Sue Garden, the Lib Dems have had no new appointments to the Lords since the dissolution honours in 2005 – this in stark contrast to the swelling Labour and Tory ranks. Thirdly, dissolution honours are only available to just-retired MPs – no chance of an election there. Fourthly, if Labour hadn’t reneged on its promise in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to ensure that the Lords was roughly proportional to the votes cast in the previous general election we would have something like 100 more peers. The idea that the Lib Dems are somehow sitting pretty in the Lords is laughable.

Could the Lib Dems make the process more democratic? Certainly. We could have ordered lists for instance and insist that people should be selected in order (although since the list would have to be published it would quickly become apparent which candidates had been blackballed by the authorities). However, a proper selection process would cost tens of thousands of pounds and amount to a serious drain on resources. If we were to take Marquand’s advice and let the public participate in these elections they would cost even more. Either way they would amount to a serious distraction for the party. And that is assuming that we will ever see another Liberal Democrat appointed to the Lords at all.

Marquand argues that we should do this because it “would punch a huge hole in the present system, shame the other parties, and infuriate the Whitehall mandarinate.” Would it? I would imagine that most people would react with complete indifference. The fact that we already have the most democratic system doesn’t seem to impress anyone. I write as someone who sat on the working group that came up with the current system. It certainly was a fight to get the party whigs to concede every minor point. When I started on the party’s Federal Executive I was a true believer and really thought that such posturing made a difference; now I’m not convinced it amounts to anything. We need reform, not a vanity project so we can pat ourselves on the back for being so worthy. Empty gestures do not an anti-establishmentarian make.

There is an alternative proposal which has been aired from time to time and that is to boycott the Lords appointments entirely. If anything I think I have veered towards this view in recent years. It certainly has the merit of being the simpler option. Once again however, would anyone care? If we’d started a boycott four years ago it would have meant we’d have one fewer life peer. Big deal. Would anyone have noticed?

Even more radical would be to get our people to walk out of the Lords entirely (let’s leave aside their willingness to not claim attendence allowance and other expenses for a second). But here’s the thing: in the real world (as opposed to that bubble in which a lot of people seem to exist where the House of Lords is full of independent-minded sages), the Lib Dems hold the balance of power in the Lords. If they hadn’t been sitting there doing their jobs then, however illiberal government legislation is right now, it would now be significantly worse. Given that this fact is widely unrecognised, do you really think people would even notice a boycott? It is Trot tactics and is likely to make as much impact in the public consciousness as all Trot tactics.

But wait, he has more. Apparently we should also reject any notion of attempting to reform the current system and instead “transcend capitalism altogether.” He helpfully adds that “I don’t begin to know how to do this” and that “it wouldn’t be practical politics in the short term” but suggests that the answer lies in reading more Marx.

Would it be uncharitable of me to point out that David Marquand, a public school educated Oxford graduate, a former MP, a protege of the ever clubbable Lord Jenkins, a reformed Social Democrat and Blairite, a longstanding member of the mainstream media’s commentariat and an admirer of David Cameron, is a little bit on the establishment side himself? Most of his advice here amounts to little more than ‘japes’ of dubious tactical or strategic merit. Former members seldom make the most objective of critics; are we really to believe he has our best interests at heart?

The House of Lords is a dreadful anachronism and not democratically legitimate, but at least the fact that no party has control of it means that it is a place where politics actually happens. The House of Commons by contrast is totally dominated by the executive and, in a very real sense, apolitical (unless you count jeering loudly at opponents as some kind of meaningful activity). The control of the whips is so absolute that even pragmatic amendments get blocked in the Commons for fear of giving MPs ideas above their station. Obsessing about the “establishment” nature of the Lords is simply posturing while the Commons is an open sewer. No doubt Marquand’s answer to that should be we should boycott Commons elections until we have “shamed” the other parties into reforming it. But the other parties don’t have any shame; that’s the point.

As for economics, if the Green Party wants to spend the next 30 years discovering an alternative to capitalism, then good luck to it. This investigation hasn’t done it much good over the previous 30 years and we are still paying the price for the Communists’ alternative. If this is what it means to be anti-establishment, I hope you don’t mind if I carry on with actually trying to make the world a better place.

Quality of Life (3) – Communities, Activities and Mental Health

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

16. How can we actively promote ‘good neighbour’ policies?
Noting that word “actively” my response is that we shouldn’t. More equal societies tend to be more trusting societies but I’m not sure there’s much we can or should do to force people to be good neighbours.

The one thing we could do is scrap all legislation that is designed to tackle this thing called “anti-social behaviour.” Criminal behaviour is a different matter, but we need to avoid giving people the impression that it is the role of the state to intervene when it comes to naughty or irritating behaviour.

Another thing that might help would be to move away from gated communities and sprawling housing estates and promote mixed housing wherever possible. I simply can’t see what will stop people from drifting apart on socio-economic lines however if we don’t have some way of discouraging it via, say a land value tax system (i.e. you can have that gated community if you are willing to pay wider society for the privilege).

17. Should government provide greater financial support for community activities – community spaces, clubs, other collective activities? Should it provide other support? If so, what?

Again, rather than doing more it might be an idea if government did less. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is an example of an interference too far in this respect.

18. Should we try to increase significantly the status of those who carry out voluntary activities? If so, how? Should some kind of honours or rewards system play a role? If we increased the status of these activities, would we reduce the stigma attached to unemployment?

If something is rewarded it ceases to be voluntary. I certainly believe that unemployed people should be encouraged – and certainly not be penalised – for doing voluntary work. Perhaps we could combine job centres with time banks (but if Mrs Miggins can’t leave her home, how will she notify the job centre that she needs her shopping done?).

Ultimately though, we don’t want “voluntary” work to be restricted to unemployed people because they have nothing better to do. If we want to avoid such volunteering to lose status as more unemployed people take it up, we have to find ways to encourage employed people to participate too.

I can’t see that there is much national government can do however. The answer, surely, is decentralisation and allow local government to experiment.

19. How can we ensure everyone, including people of diverse ages, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ability is included and welcome in the life of their community? How do we combat prejudice while respecting difference?

This is like the “good neighbours” question. I’m not sure there is anything active we can do about this at all. What we need is to break down barriers, which is why I think mixed communities are crucial.

20. Watching large amounts of TV is a major contributor to lower wellbeing. What is the right Liberal Democrat approach to discouraging or limiting it?

We need to make our minds up. Either British TV is the best in the world and a public service, or it is trash that we should discourage people from watching.

TV is on the decline and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet. This may be a problem that is solving itself as mass media becomes more interactive.

The simplest way to discourage poor people from watching television is to replace the licence fee with subscription television. That way, a number of people – especially older people – will be priced out of watching. But if my grandmother is anything to go by, Eastenders and Countdown are a great comfort to them. Taking the goggle box away from them is certainly unlikely to be popular.

21. How do we combat loneliness, and in particular the isolation of the elderly?

Again, more mixed communities and a more equal society will help.

I’m actually relatively optimistic about this for the future. I strongly suspect this will be much less of a problem for my generation in old age as we will have the internet and a range of opportunities to explore our interests and long distance relationships (assuming climate change hasn’t sent us back to the stone age of course). Even my parents’ generation will have made strides towards this.

22. Should more public money be spent on improving the appearance of local areas?

Again, that is a local matter. Are we talking broken windows theory here? Certainly I can see a case for local authorities responding to vandalism as quickly as possible. But once again, if young people lived in a more equal society where they felt like stakeholders instead of trespassers we would probably see less vandalism.

23. How should government be involved in promoting good mental health?

Greater experts than me will, I’m sure, make specific suggestions. Again I feel the need to point out that the evidence suggests that more equal societies face fewer mental health problems.

24. How can we use education to enhance public understanding about mental health issues?

I certainly would not support adding yet another clause to the national curriculum. If people were taught critical thinking more in schools, it would almost certainly help as they would be less prone to prejudice and I would be happy to see whole swathes of curriculum trashed to make way for this to be on the core syllabus.

Ultimately however, we should leave teachers to get on with it and encourage them to learn from each other.

25. If we make mental health treatment a much higher priority for government spending – do we spend more on health or make cut-backs elsewhere?

This sounds like a false dichotomy to me. Mental health appears to be linked to physical health problems – it thus follows that more investment in the former will lead to savings in the latter.

26. How do drugs and alcohol impact on mental health? What should government do to reduce demand or supply?

Not a lot. We need to be treating people when they’re down not treading on them.

The experience in places such as the Netherlands is that decriminalising drugs leads to a reduction in usage simply because people get less trapped in the criminal justice system. Alcohol is a more intractable problem and alcohol abuse seems to be more a symptom of wider problems than a problem in itself.

How do we deal with that? Empowering local authorities to take a firmer grasp of their licensing policies would be a start. Designing pubs so that they cater more for talking and families and are less Viking drinking halls would help too.

One idea might be to lower the drinking age on real ale and wine in pubs (to 16?), while retaining the 18 age for things like spirits, alco-pops, cider and lager. I’m serious. If we encouraged young people to acquire a taste for proper alcoholic drinks they would be less tempted to blag things like Bacardi Breezers that taste like soft drinks and promote binge drinking. As a positive by-product, it would also help local breweries.