Tag Archives: anti-politics

Andreas Whittam Smith and why Democracy 2015 should be called Technocracy 2015

Andreas Whittam SmithI’ve been following the development of Democracy 2015 in a professional and personal capacity since it launched this summer and listened with interest to Andreas Whittam Smith’s speech at the Unlock Democracy AGM on Saturday. Sadly as a result of Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday I’ve been forced to reassess the project, away from a relatively harmless hopeless cause and towards a dangerous, profoundly undemocratic idea – which fortunately is unlikely to go anywhere (I should emphasise at this point that these are my personal views only).

If you don’t know, Whittam Smith’s big idea is as follows: he’s trying to find 650 people to stand in every constituency in the 2015 general election, sweeping the board and helping to establish a reforming parliament that will take all the difficult and radical decisions that the politicians from established parties consistently fail to. The candidates, who will preferably be selected by primaries, will served for a single term and all have experience of “running things” – be it the head of a school, a trade unionist or a someone with a business background. And finally,this will all be paid for by supporters donating a maximum of £50 each.

As a former party agent and campaign organiser, it is easy to scoff at the practicalities of all this. Even leaving aside the election campaign itself, there is the question of how all these targets will be reached. Whittam Smith stated that he expected the £35,000 cost of running a primary in each constituency that the Conservatives have had to spend would be lowered if you had economies of scale – ignoring the fact that largest single cost will be on postage which will have a fairly flat marginal cost. If you think this all sounds hopelessly impossible and impractical however, Whittam Smith has a simple answer: he agrees with you but feels he has to try anyway.

That isn’t a remotely satisfactory answer. I don’t find it especially noble or inspiring to see people embarking on a project without any credible strategy or targets whatsoever. It is, after all, other people’s money – and blood, sweat and tears – which he is planning to use up on this project. He isn’t so much a Scott of the Antarctic as a Lord Kitchener: sitting safely behind enemy lines while sacrificing others on deeply flawed plans. I can guarantee that his followers will remain quite as enamoured as they clearly are if they end up with nothing to show for at the end of this little adventure.

Thus far, this is nothing I didn’t conclude from the first week of Democracy 2015’s launch. I was struck however during Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday by how his analysis was not only wrong but positively scary.

His main broadside against the political establishment is that it is fundamentally incompetent. No argument there, we see evidence of this pouring out of Whitehall and Westminster on a daily basis. But his analysis is that at the root of all this is the fact that politicians are simply poor at managing things: replace them with people with managerial experience, so the argument goes, and everything will be solved.

I’ve been a “manager” for the last 5 years but it is only in the last 12 months that I’ve had to fully manage staff on a daily basis. What I’ve learnt as both a manager and an employee is that “management” and “competence” can often be wildly divergent. Often the most talented person in an organisation can be someone who lacks the temperament or inclination to be a manager. Often the people who rise the most rapidly are people who’s ambition is far greater than their actual ability, but manage to float to the top because other people lower down the food chain manage to keep things on the rails and because few organisations would risk giving an incompetent employee was a bad reference and face either being stuck with them or an industrial tribunal. And then there is the Peter Principle, the dictum that “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” Great members of staff can make terrible managers, and vice versa. So when Whittam Smith dismissed the idea of cleaners and lower down the work chain as making suitable MPs, he wasn’t just being snooty but actually quite naive.

Perhaps a good test of how good a manager an MP would be would be to force them to manage and motivate a team of volunteers, raise their own money, build relationships with constituent groups and the press and generally run a difficult and stressful election campaign? Of course that happens to be what most winning candidates in marginal constituencies do indeed have to do. Not all of them do (sometimes you can get away with recruiting the right campaign manager at an early enough stage and leaving them to it – the lucky ones have the right campaign manager allocated to them by the party), and not all of them go on to become good managers, but it’s as good a test as any and certainly suggests that the key to having good people with managerial experience in parliament is to have more competitive elections.

But is management the answer to everything? Here I just think that Whittam Smith doesn’t just misunderstand the problem but is actually seeking to reinforce the status quo which has got us into this mess in the first place. As well as believing that having more managers in parliament would improve things, his concern is that ministers spend too much time interfering with the peope who are meant to manage the implementation of policy – the civil service. As an aside, I think he has a rather uncritical attitude about the civil service (the civil service is often known as the fourth political party in party circles with good reason, as anyone who has tried dealing with them will know), but the simple question you have to answer yourself is this: if the problem is too much ministerial interference and micromanagement, how will promoting more of a management culture in parliament and government help? I can’t think of anything that would make it worse. Imagine the former head of a school blundering in as the new secretary of state for education attempt to run the department like a school?

I have a rather different analysis. In my view, while I agree that the problem is that politicians have become obsessed with micromanagement and find themselves out of their depth, the cause is that politics has converged. Because there are no longer any big ideas being fought over in parliament it is only natural that politicians will turn their attention to things like competence and organisation. If parliament was fighting a daily battle over what kind of immigration policy we should have, it would be rather more content to leave civil servants with the job of implementing government policy – and ministers would too.

If I’m right, then Whittam Smith’s proposal would only make things worse. Having hundreds of MPs elected specifically on the basis of their management skills and a mandate to crack down on incompetence will only lead to more micromanagement, not less. The civil service, will not thank us for it even if former members of their ranks like Gus O’Donnell and Siobhan Benita seem to have similar shortsighted views.

What’s more, it’s the same agenda that Tony Blair inherited from Bill Clinton and bequeathed Cameron, Clegg and Miliband: ideology is dead; what matters is what works and seizing power. Whittam Smith was extremely dismissive of the people who criticised him from the left and seemed proud of his position in the centre ground. It seemed pretty evident that if he has his way, Democracy 2015 will fight on a platform firmly in the middle of the major two parties, but with a populist, anti politics edge. That’s the platform Nick Clegg adopted in 2010 and it didn’t work out too well for him.

Where he differs from the Blair copybook is his insistence that his successful candidates should only serve a single term. Whittam Smith sees this as a way of avoiding corruption, but the main purpose of re-election is accountability. What accountability will we have over MPs who plan to vanish after five years? At one stage in his speech, Whittam Smith said that he was sure that his one term MPs would have no problems seeking future employment. I agree, but most likely in the same jobs all too many MPs find themselves doing: consultancy, lobbying and public affairs. How many will spend the last few months in office behaving like taxi cabs Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt? And how many will find themselves in the same position as Louise Mensch, bored of the role and walking after just a couple of years?

None of this remotely resembles anything which you can call democracy. When unaccountable “experts” take over a country we call them technocrats. It’s the last throw of the die for a failed state. Is the UK a failed state? It is certainly failing but I don’t see us having exhausted all other policies first.

NaBloPoMo November 2012What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours, but even if it has as much a chance of success as the Whittam Smith plan, it is certainly a more worthy prize (which isn’t to say we should be as excited by adventurism and simply stumbling along in the way that he intends to proceed). By contrast, no good can come from a project which ultimately has nothing more to offer than the technocracy of modern politics without even the veneer of idealism.

Zac Goldsmith, Peter Watt and the anti-politics age

On the face of it, Zac Goldsmith and Peter Watt are two very different people. One thing they have common however is that they are high stakes rollers in the game of politics who claim to not be politicians.

Writing in today’s New Statesman, Peter Watt bemoans the fact that:

Working in front-line politics is like working in a goldfish bowl: everything you do is a potential story, good or bad. Elected politicians rightly have their say, argue their corner and defend themselves. It’s different for the staff of a political party. As a political staffer, you know there’s a risk that one day you could, however inadvertently, become a bad story yourself.

You know, too, that if and when that happens the “machine” will protect you as best it can. It is an unwritten but understood insurance policy andgoes to the heart of how and why political staff will go the extra mile.

I think it would be hard to deny that Labour did not treat Watt at all well and that Gordon Brown ratted him out at the first opportunity. So much for Gordon Brown. But it isn’t quite a simple as Watt would have us believe. After all, he was not strictly speaking a member of staff but an elected official. We was not there simply to do his political masters’ bidding; he had a political mandate of his own (from Labour’s National Executive Committee).

I think that failure of insight on his part explains a lot. If his agenda from day one as general secretary was merely to carry out instructions, it is no surprise that he failed to get Gordon Brown to commit to an October 2007 general election. If he failed to appreciate the political nature of his role and the importance of watching his own back, it is no surprise he was caught unawares by the Abrahams donor scandal.

Meanwhile on the other side of the political spectrum, we have Zac Goldsmith in the Evening Standard today airily announcing that:

“I hate politics. I hate the game of politics. I don’t want to get involved in this childish Punch and Judy. I have seen enough of politicians to know that it is not a class of people I particularly want to spend my time with.

“I don’t like career politicians. I don’t like what they stand for. I look at a politician who votes 100 per cent with his party and think: why did you do that? It’s all about career.”

There are several problems with these claims. First of all, Zac Goldsmith is by any rational definition a career politician. He started as editor of the Ecologist magazine back in 1998. I got the magazine for a few issues, discarding it because it had a distinct weakness for tinfoil hat theories regarding things like “electrosmog.” The other thing that used to wind me up were Goldsmith’s often polemic – and highly political – editorials, especially the ones where he bafflingly claimed that the EU was actually bad to the UK’s environmental policies (we would almost certainly be less green without the EU to prod us and a European Economic Community to enable us). The sort of pointed criticism he has received in recent months is exactly the sort of thing he has written himself, only on a different subject. And even if you ignore his former role as an environmental commentator, the simple fact is that he has been a party politician for four years now.

The only sense in which Goldsmith can be said to not be a career politician is that, as a dilletante, it is arguable that he does not have a career at all. His aversion appears to be less towards politicians per se and more towards those who lack the sort of financial independence he does. In short, he is waging class warfare here, pure and simple. For “career politician” read “oik”.

Either way, this whole “politician, moi?” stuff annoys me tremendously. I hated it just as much when Brian Paddick tried it on during the London mayoral election in 2008 with his “a policeman not a politician” posters et al. Paddick had a much better claim to not being a politician than either Goldsmith or Watt but his biggest problem lay in the fact that in his shiny suit he looked more like the consummate politician than any of his rivals (be it “regular bloke” Ken Livingstone, “toff” Boris Johnson or “hippy” Sian Berry). There’s a lesson to be learned there: if you indulge too much in this populist anti-politics mood then the ultimate victors are not “ordinary” people but consummate politicians who have enough cunning to hide it from view. The 2008 mayoral election was a great taster for what we might see in 2010: an election dominated by personalities, haircuts, tactics and name calling where the issues take a back seat. Neither Peter Watt’s book or Zac Goldsmith’s above-it-all act will exactly help in this respect.

Why the green movement fails [ADDENDUM]

I went on the National Climate March yesterday, as those who read my tweets will be painfully aware. The march itself was the usual festive fun, although not well attended (the organisers say 10,000 people attended, the police say 5,000 – by my own estimate it was somewhere between the two):

(credit: Helen Duffett @ LibDemVoice)

I don’t usually stick around for the rallies of these things – I feel I’ve done my bit by marching – but as Cleggy was speaking I decided to hang about. I’m afraid that the speeches that followed highlighted for me everything that is wrong with the green movement.

The rally began with music by Seize the Day, a terribly earnest group of folk singers. Not content with singing songs, the lead singer (pace Bono), decided to try his hand at proselytising. I really do wish he’d kept his mouth shut. Leaving aside his rather confused attempt at sarcasm about being glad people hadn’t taken direct action against Tesco for selling patio heaters (I couldn’t work out if he was implying he was disappointed at the crowd’s failure to storm the nearby Tesco Metro), he ranted about how disgraceful it was that politicians had constantly failed to take action on climate change and called for people to “occupy” Parliament next year. At one point, I swear he said we needed to “tear down Parliament” to ensure that we have “proper laws.” Think about that for a second.

A bit later one of the other speakers denounced the fact that, as awareness of climate change has grown, the very same companies who grew rich from carbon fuels are now being allowed to diversify into environmentally friendly industries. Finally, speaker after speaker announced that the only way to make progress on the environment was to have more direct action. I’m afraid to say that, with the exception of Nick Clegg and to a certain extent Caroline Lucas (I’ll let her off for denouncing “that place behind me” – i.e. Westminster Abbey – for failing to take action on climate change; even the most fervant believer of the Da Vinci Code would probably assume she meant the place on her right), the nonsense on show at the rally was of such a high quotient that it qualified as organic, sustainably-sourced fertiliser itself.

First of all, politicians. In the 13 years I’ve been involved in party politics, I can honestly say that – regardless of political party – the average MP is ahead of the curve when it comes to the environment than the average person in the street. It isn’t that MPs “don’t listen,” it’s that they listen only too well. They talk to people on the doorsteps and in their surgeries, they read the opinion polls, and they are made painfully aware, day after day, that the vast majority of the public do not consider real action to minimise climate change to be a serious option. Far from being undemocratic, MPs are only too willing to bend to public opinion when it comes to this issue.

Now, it’s true that the political system could be more responsive than it is, although constitutional reform wasn’t on the CACC’s list of demands, but that responsiveness works both ways. If we had an electoral system which meant the Green Party was proportionally represented in Westminster, we’d also pave the way for UKIP, and even more denier-oriented parties to get representation.

Where the political class has arguably failed is to provide decent leadership on this issue. Even though there were two party leaders speaking at the rally yesterday, neither of the two main parties have taken a stand and held firm even as public opinion oscillates between environmentalism and consumerism. Dave Cameron was notable by his absense yesterday. But the green movement itself is hardly guiltless in this regard. Interest in the environment has increased substantially in recent years, largely thanks to Al Gore, but it barely hit the mainstream before being dumped in favour of economic concerns. If the green movement can’t inspire the public, it can hardly blame the political class for failing to do its job for it.

Regarding big business, here is an inconvenient truth the environmentalists themselves need to recognise: if we are to achieve a global shift towards green technology, Big Oil are going to end up being a large part of the solution not the problem. They have the spending power, the infrastructure and the global reach. Tear them down and nothing will replace them for decades.

Complaining about them for moving into the biofuels business, and implying this is all part of some vast, anti-green conspiracy, is just stupid. Cast your mind back five years ago and you will find that the biggest champions for biofuels (CACC insist on calling them agrofuels – presumably because it sounds a bit like “aggro” – but it should be agrifuels, surely?), was the green movement. Just 18 months ago I had a very loud and vocal argument with a friend, who fancies himself to be both an environmentalist and a scientist, who denied there was any evidence at all to suggest that biofuels could be environmentally harmful. Despite the West Wing being ahead of the curve on this one, awareness of how self-defeating the switch to biofuels could be has come extremely late. To hector corporates in the unforgiving tones that were on display yesterday is extremely misplaced.

On the merits of direct action, I would certainly agree that it has its place and if environmentalists want to try occupying the Houses of Parliament then good luck to them. But was the vote for women won by the Suffragette, as Caroline Lucas suggests? Only partly. It was the suffragists who did all the spadework; the Suffragette’s switch to direct action in reaction to Asquith’s betrayal may have kept the issue in the public eye, but it was the economic necessity of the post-War period that lead to women getting the vote. Maybe what we need to get action on the environment is a bloody great war? Any takers? No?

But again we return to the fact that the general public is largely disinterested and is resoundingly hostile to any meaningful action that might affect them. Direct action can raise awareness but ultimately, on this issue, it has thus far resoundingly failed to change hearts and minds in sufficient numbers. Direct action can’t affect a paradigm shift, it can only give voice to something that is already there.

The green movement has proven itself to be extremely good at winning battles, particularly battles that both the crusties and the nimbies can agree on, but it is losing the war. I wouldn’t bet on Heathrow’s third runway being built – the opposition has reached a real head of steam now – but when it comes to significant global action the picture is more mixed.

The environmental movement is overdue a rethink. It is for this reason that I very nearly decided to go to the march with these guys, Serious Change:

I didn’t in the end because, to be frank, I’m already in the “serious change” business. That is, I’ve joined a political party, work within that party to ensure it is as environmentally conscious as possible, and work to get that party elected (less so these days, but still). If every individual who marched yesterday joined one of the main parties and campaigned within it for change, I can guarantee that things would change pretty quickly. But just as the general public requires a paradigm shift to recognise how its behaviour and attitude is destroying the planet, so the green movement needs a paradigm shift to recognise that the boring old job of influencing the public and working with the dreaded “men in gray suits.” Party politics is often far too slow, and it needs outside influences, but the greenies allergy to engaging with it has become self-defeating. It is time to stop the anti-politics bollocks and recognise that if you are interested in anything more than the onanism of hairshirt puritanism, you have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

ADDENDUM: Yoink! I missed out a whole section of what I planned to write!

At the end of the march, one disappointed Lib Dem said to me that he felt we should have encouraged people to go on a by-election campaign instead. Well, leaving aside for one moment the fact that that wouldn’t have worked on me, I couldn’t disagree less. It shouldn’t be a prime concern of the party, but turning up to marches like this is crucial. If the change in mindset highlighted above is to happen, the Lib Dems will play a crucial role in bridging the chasm between mainstream politics and the green movement. Although my much ridiculed idea for a samba band has wider applications too, it would be a real boost in getting people at demos to, quite literally, dance to our tune.

But for it to be really worthwhile, much more work needs to go into promoting the event and getting people to come along. We did this for the 2003 Iraq march and it paid dividends. Looking at the free applications available online at our disposal these days, it can be done with far less effort now.

This really ought to be something Liberal Youth should be excelling in. Genuine question: what’s stopping you?

Chariddy begins at House?

More opinionpollballs in the Guardian today. Apparently, the Great British Public wants MPs to do a statutory 7 hours a week for chariddy.

If I ever acquire a John Hemming-style fortune, I’m going to entertain myself by commissioning banal opinion polls. For example, one thing I’m dying to know is whether the British public prefers kittens that are ‘hideous’, ‘ok-looking’, ‘quite cute’ or ‘very cute’.

In all seriousness, this poll is indicative of exactly the sort of mindless anti-politics that is all too pervasive in modern Britain. If every MP in the country did do 7 hours voluntary service each week, the first thing people would complain about is why they are no longer working 50-60 hours a week representing their constituents. It’s based on a complete ignorance of what MPs do and is designed to take a potshot rather than actually inform debate.

Most MPs I know in fact take it for granted that they should work on a variety of charitable and community-based projects. But charity fun-runs are no substitute for scrutinising legislation and holding government to account.

Frankly, I think we’ve already gone too far in terms of turning MPs into mobile Citizens Advice Bureaus and case-worker-extraordinaires. Apart from anything else, I suspect it is one of the main reasons why MPs have been so poor at blocking centralisation. If you devolve too much power, then the ability of MPs to manfully jump in and solve all their constituents’ problems would be severely limited. Instead, people would pay more attention further down the foodchain, something which would help both local politics and service delivery.

Throughout the debate on party funding in recent months, one of the most oft-cited arguments is that political parties already get public funding via their expenses allowances. Personally, I’m coming around to the conclusion that this is one of the more pernicious forms of state support, responsible for both distracting MPs away from their real job and undermining other politicians further down the foodchain. Other forms of party funding, in my view, would be far less pernicious (although I notice a lot of opponents of increased party funding are all for the status quo).