Tag Archives: democracy

D is for Death, Dark Judges and Democracy

I can’t really get away with reaching D and not mentioning Judge Death and the Dark Judges. Judge Death and co come from a parallel universe in which life itself is deemed to be a crime on the unarguable basis that only the living commit crimes. Sidney De’ath is a judge on that world and he and and his colleagues become undead killing machines in order to carry out their deranged policies.

Death first appeared, alongside Judge Anderson, in the eponymous story in 1980 (progs 149-151). Designed by artist Brian Bolland, the story was an instant hit, leading to a follow up featuring the rest of the Dark Judges – Fear, Fire and Mortis – in 1981 (Judge Death Lives!, progs 224-228).

Since then, the characters have appeared on numerous occasions, ranging from Anderson’s first solo strip and two of the four Batman crossovers to three Judge Death solo series: Young Death – Boyhood of a Superfiend (Judge Dredd Megazine vol 1 #1-12, 1990-91), My Name is Death (progs 1289-1294, 2002) and The Wilderness Days (JDM #209-216, 2003-2004). The latter appears to feature the unkillable Death’s death, but somehow that seems unlikely to be permanent.

The problem with Death and his brothers in arms is that they are basically personality free. Not so much characters as cyphers, they look great but essentially have no motivation other than to kill as many people as possible. Attempts to deepen their characters have not been wholly successful. Young Death explains his origin but ultimately ends up as broad comedy. A lot of subsequent stories have followed tack, with Death forced to wear a rubber chicken for a shoulder pad in Judgement on Gotham (1991) and going drag in Dead Reckoning (progs 1000-1007, 1996). Attempts to make the character darker and more explicitly horrific have not been entirely successful.

Where the Dark Judges tend to work best is in stories where the protagonists are forced to deal more with the destruction they leave in their wake than head on. The best example of this is probably Necropolis (progs 661-699, 1990), a 52 part saga (including prologues) in which the Dark Judges themselves barely feature. In many respects a rehash of The Day The Law Died (see Judge Cal), a heavily scarred Dredd returns from a self-imposed exile to find Mega City 1 and its judges under the control of the Dark Judges. He enlists the former Chief Judge McGruder, Judge Anderson and a group of Cadet Judges to retake control. Necropolis also features three more Dark Judges: the Sisters of Death Nausea and Phobia (whose psychic auras enable the Dark Judges to take control) and Kraken, a clone-brother of Dredd’s and former Judda who replaces him after he goes into exile and is corrupted by Death.

With Death apparently departed, John Wagner opted to bring back Fear, Fire and Mortis during the recent 35th anniversary mega-epic Day of Chaos (progs 1743–1789, 2011-2012). Many of the same problems remain in terms of tone, with the sub plot involving P.J. Maybe capturing them seeming remarkably similar to Death’s previous run-ins with Batman villains Scarecrow and The Joker. I remain to be convinced this will lead to anything particularly memorable, although apparently a new series reuniting the four Dark Judges with art by the excellent Greg Staples is in the works.

Speaking of heretical opinions, I’m also sceptical of the received wisdom that a future Dredd movie sequel should feature Death. Speaking personally, I think the film makers have enough of a challenge on their hands selling a lay audience the concept of Mega City 1, without getting into the messy business of alternative dimensions and the supernatural. Some simplifying will be almost certainly necessary, and that could lead to the same sort of mess which plagued the original Judge Dredd motion picture (1995). With Anderson in a co-starring role in Dredd 3D however, it may well be that they have already figured out how to make it work and that we will see some foreshadowing in the first (of hopefully several) film.

Highlights include:

  • Judge Dredd: Judge Death (progs 149-151, 1980) and Judge Death Lives! (progs 224-228, 1981). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 3 and 5.
  • Anderson, Psi Division: Revenge (progs 468–478, 1986). Reprinted in the Judge Anderson Psi Files Volume 1.
  • Judge Dredd: Necropolis (progs 674–699, 1990). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 14.
  • Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham (1991). Reprinted in the Batman/Judge Dredd Collection (not yet published)

Necropolis is not just a good example of John Wagner managing to make the Dark Judges work as a concept; it was also the culmination of the first arc of the Democracy storyline. Alongside the non-death of Chopper (and, if you’re counting, the Last American and Alan Grant’s decision to kill off Johnny Alpha in Strontium Dog), it was the development of this ongoing storyline which helped lead to the break up of Wagner and Grant’s writing partnership. Once again, Wagner wanted to adopt a more subtle approach while Grant wanted to simply deepen the idea of the Judicial system as little more than fascism and play the satire for all it was worth.

And once again, John Wagner proved to be correct.

As I touched upon in my B entry, at the heart of the Dredd strip, certainly for the past 25 years, is the dramatic tension which surrounds the very legitimacy of the judicial system. The Judges take over from a democratic system which has clearly failed (and one which rather resembles our own), but however justified those actions may have been, the result is a society in which most citizens have no responsibility over their own lives. Are they irresponsible, and is crime endemic, because of that removal of responsibility or is the judicial system necessary because people lack the capacity for it? In John Wagner’s hands (unlike the hands of many others), the strip offers no clear answers, merely more questions.

It really all kicks off in Letter from a Democrat (prog 460, 1986). This story juxtaposes the actions of a group of pro-democracy insurgents with the text of a letter by one of them, Hester Hyman, to her husband to explain her actions. The strip caused quite a stir and resulted in a sequel a year later, Revolution (progs 531–533, 1987). In this take, a group of non-violent democracy activists organise a march which a team of judges lead by Dredd himself methodically and brutally suppress.

In conjunction with the Chopper stories which ran in parallel, these two vignettes did far more to humanise the plight of the Big Meg’s citizens than any crude satire ever could. In Revolution in particular, no attempt is made to justify the judges’ actions – it just portrays what happens. As a 12 year old, I found the story quite chilling; as a 14 year old observing the Tiananmen Square massacre a couple of years later, it was revelatory (the older and wiser me would also cite the civil rights movements in South Africa, the US and Northern Ireland and the miners’ strikes); it is no exaggeration to say that these stories lead directly to my subsequent career in politics and campaigning.

Revolution has major consequences. It causes America Jura and her cohorts to adopt more violent methods. It adds to Dredd’s existing doubts about the system which eventually leads to his resignation and voluntary exile in the Tale of the Dead Man (progs 662–668, 1990).

This brings us back to Necropolis, where the system is shown to have palpably failed – possibly as a result of Dredd’s absence, possibly not (this is left open: the Dark Judge’s takeover is made possible because of the mistakes of Dredd’s replacement Kraken, but it is not clear whether Dredd could have resisted the Sisters of Death if he had been in the same position). Having saved the city, Dredd’s price is to force the judges to hold a referendum on whether or not to restore a democratic system. In the end, the citizens vote to reject democracy on 68%-32% on a 35% turnout. Apropos of nothing, this just happens to be almost identical to the result in the 2011 UK referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system, which I was closely involved with. 😉

Since this referendum, the more overt storyline about the quest for democracy have fallen into the background, with the exception of the ongoing America storyline. America Jura‘s organisation Total War returns in an eponymous storyline (progs 1408-1419, 2004) which satirises the counter-terrorism policies engulfing the UK and US at the time. In this story, Total War scale up their activities by detonating a series of nuclear bombs around the city and threatening to continue to do so until the judges relinquish control. Not surprisingly, these actions fail to win much public support.

The other main way in which democracy as a theme has continued in the latter years of the Dredd strip is the portrayal of Mayor Byron Ambrose. Ambrose is one of the most competent and popular mayors Mega City 1 has ever had, even winning the support of Dredd himself. However, it emerges that he is in reality the notorious psychopath and mass murderer P. J. Maybe. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what John Wagner is implying there.

But just as it looks as if the pro-democracy cause is dead and buried, the series took a left turn. The events of Origins (see Booth) again left Dredd questioning the system he has sworn to uphold. This time he uses his influence to force the Chief Judge to abolish the anti-mutant laws and adopt a more permissive policy which by Dredd’s own admission, doesn’t work out very well (Mutants of Mega City 1, progs 1542–1545, 2007 and Tour of Duty, progs 1650–1693, 2009-2010). More recently, the judicial system has come under renewed scrutiny in the Day of Chaos storyline (progs 1743–1789, 2011-2012). A series of intelligence failures and a total breakdown in public trust leads to the massacre of most of the city’s population. How this will play out remains to be seen, but it is clear by the end of that story that as far as the writer and main character are both concerned, the judicial system as we know it no longer exists. Is democracy on the way back?

Highlights include:

  • Letter from a Democrat (prog 460, 1986). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 10.
  • Revolution (progs 531–533, 1987). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 11.
  • America (JDM 1-7, 1990). Reprinted in Judge Dredd: America.
  • The Devil You Know and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (progs 750–756, 1991). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 15.

D is also for…

Dave
Before Letter from a Democrat, John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ron Smith chose to explore the theme of democracy from a different angle in Portrait of a Politician (progs 366-368). While lacking legislative powers, Mega City 1’s mayor and council continued to be elected. Dave the Orangutan shot to prominence, first as a sports pundit and eventually as the mayor himself, prefiguring Stuart Drummond‘s successful bid to get elected as mayor of Hartlepool while dressed as a monkey by 16 years (Dave himself more closely resembles Boris Johnson).

Dave is eventually assassinated by his owner and drinking partner. The post of mayor is left unfilled for a decade.

DeMarco
Judge Galen DeMarco is a street judge and key supporting cast member who first appeared in The Pit (progs 970–999, 1995-1996). Highly competent, she quickly wins the trust of Dredd. However, it is discovered that she is having an affair with a fellow judge and suspended (judges are prohibited from having sexual relationships).

DeMarco is eventually reinstated and recovers her reputation. Eventually, she is even made Sector Chief of Sector 303. At around this time, she develops a crush on Dredd and eventually propositions him. He rejects her but does not report it, something which Public Surveillance Unit chief Judge Edgar uses to undermine Dredd (Beyond the Call of Duty, progs 1101–1110, 1998). DeMarco is forced to resign, after which point she becomes a private detective. Before spinning off into her own short-lived spin-off series, DeMarco plays a pivotal role in exposing the plot which leads to the Second Robot War (The Doomsday Scenario progs 1141-1164 and JDM vol 3 issues 52-59, 1999).

Does Simon Cowell have the political X-Factor?

No, is the basic conclusion of my article on Comment is Free today:

In reality, the X Factor could only dream of having as many voters as we take for granted in UK elections. Ten million votes may sound like a lot, but it is only two-thirds the number of people who voted in the European parliament elections this year and a third the number of people who voted in the 2005 general election. The campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name to deny Joe McElderry the Christmas No 1 also suggests that the X Factor can alienate the public as much as any MPs’ expenses scandal.

Read the full article here.

Jury Team – the verdict

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent this morning at the launch of Jury Team. You can read my livetweeting of the event here.

There are a few points I’d like to emphasise:

Firstly, it is now clear that Jury Team is not another Your Party. It’s strength is the simplicity of the concept. In essence, anyone can put themselves forward as long as they sign a statement declaring that they will not discriminate against people on the basis of sex, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, etc. and sign up to the “Nolan principles.” I will credit them with the fact that this is a very simple organising principle and is likely to ensure they at least clear the first hurdle. What happens after that however, will be at least interesting.

Secondly, for an organisation that has launched itself as in favour of transparency and against sleaze, they have left themselves extremely wide open. The relatively lax vetting system (compared to the average political party) will mean that it should be quite simple for a crook to get on their books and not be exposed until after they have accepted their seats. More fundamentally – and the one thing I found absolutely gobsmacking – is that they are not imposing any transparency or capping rules on individuals putting themselves up for selection at all. The election campaign itself will of course have to abide by the PPERA 2000 and relevant subsequent acts, but if you want to get to the top of the Eurocandidate list, you can spend as much as you like and accept money from anyone you like.

The implications of this is potentially huge. It means that their candidate selection process is open to the highest bidder. And it won’t even be too hard to fix by the look of things. At the moment, the most activity is currently happening in their South East selection. At the time of writing there are four candidates, the most popular of which has twelve votes. The scope for abuse is huge and the best they can hope for is that either they get ignored (which will kill the concept stone dead) or that the various mobilising forces effectively cancel each other out.

Indeed, there is a grey area as to whether this situation is already covered by legislation or not. Does a putative parliamentary candidate, for example, count as a regulated donee for instance? I would have thought they were – and in any case would be suspicious of any candidate who didn’t abide by that minimal level of transparency. But is Jury Team highlighting this to their putative candidates?

Thirdly, while the puffery about “people before party” was all well and good at the start of the launch, by the end it had started to look dangerously like groupthink. The people on stage really did seem to think there was something magical in calling yourself an “independent” which instantly connected you to the mind of the millions of people you presume to represent. By contrast, anyone with a party label was incapable of working in the national interest. I won’t seek to repeat why this is such a nonsense again here, but there was something about it that was vaguely sinister – a communitarian notion that somehow legitimate differences of interest didn’t exist in society and that anyone who didn’t agree with this was divisive and a threat to be neutralised.

This was made quite explicit by Tony Eggington, the Mayor of Mansfield. He boldly announced that two of the reforms he had advocated were the reduction of councillors (= less scrutiny for him) and turning the “divisive” multi-member wards into single member ones. As I observed yesterday, one of the things you might expect to come out of an Independents movement would be electoral reform. Not a bit of it – what was being advocated this morning was something that resembled a paean to the the Rotten Borough. In his presentation, Sir Paul Judge talked wistfully about the era before political parties, ignoring the fact that they arose because of an extension of the franchise. This doesn’t ultimately surprise me – I’ve witnessed a similar disdain for democracy and a robust, vibrant, noisy political system from independents on numerous occasions in the past.

Fundamentally, I welcome the rise of the Independents movement. It’s time we had this debate. Let’s make it easier for them still, by introducing open lists or better still the single transferable vote. After today however I am more convinced than ever that at its heart is an anti-democratic notion of communitarianism which is ultimately a threat to progress and a free and open society. Let’s face it down in the ballot box.

Bring Parliament closer to the people!

Thanks a lot to Bridget Fox for kickstarting the debate, both on her own blog and at the Guardian, over the motion “Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament” which David Boyle and myself will be proposing at party conference next month:

This process might not have stopped the Iraq War (no legislation there) – but it could potentially have reversed such controversial measures as the poll tax or the Dangerous Dogs act, Section 28 or the hunting ban. And it could ensure a real public debate on issues like nuclear power, ID cards, or a third runway at Heathrow.

Even if the results in terms of legislation implemented are not dramatically different, the impact on the process of having people – and politicians – aware that they can really influence the agenda between elections could be revolutionary.

I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament: your help needed!

I’m attempting to get a motion on the agenda of the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth this autumn. The motion itself speaks for itself (see below).

If you support it, and are a voting representative for conference this autumn, please can you email me (to semajmaharg[at]gmail[dot]com) the following details:

  • Your name
  • Your address
  • Your membership number
  • The local party you are a voting representative of (or LDYS as appropriate)

I need everyone’s details as soon as possible as the deadline for submissions is 12 noon on Wednesday 21 May.

Many thanks!

Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament

Conference notes:
a. In the government’s 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper, it proposed to “improve direct democracy” yet has failed to produce substantive proposals on how it plans to do this in over a year.
b. Liberal Democrat-run councils such as Kingston have lead the way in developing more participatory forms of decision making. The party outlined a number of proposals for rolling out best practice nationwide in its September 2007 policy paper The Power to Be Different.

Conference believes that giving the public a greater say in policy making and a right to petition elected representatives at all levels of government could enhance representative democracy by providing accountability and clearer lines of communication between elected representatives and their constituents.

Conference therefore calls for:
1. A Petitioning System Fit for the 21st Century: the system for petitioning Parliament should be simplified and it should be possible to submit petitions online. Parliament should develop a system to formally consider all petitions submitted to it and take action where appropriate. Any resident or expatriate of the UK or a British Overseas Territory would have a right to petition Parliament in this way, including children.
2. People’s Bills: whereby the six legislative proposals that received the most petition signatures from registered voters in any given year would be guaranteed a second reading debate in the House of Commons.
3. A People’s Veto: all Acts of Parliament would be subject to a rule whereby, if one million registered voters petitioned against it within 60 days of the law being passed, a referendum would have to be held on whether or not to repeal it.
4. A Responsive Electoral System: elect both Houses of Parliament using single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (STV). Unlike other electoral systems, STV gives the voter choice between candidates from a particular party, as well as choice between parties. No other system is as good at taking politics out of the backrooms and into the daylight.
5. A Citizen’s Convention: an independent convention to review how to improve the governance of the UK. At least 51% of the Convention’s membership would be made up of randomly selected members of the public. The government would be required by law to co-operate with the Convention in implementing its findings and hold consultative referendums where necessary.

Due to the clear need for security when implementing such measures, Conference reiterates its call for individual voter registration. Submitting petitions in support of People’s Bills and to veto legislation should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as nominating candidates for election.

UPDATE: Motion duly submitted this morning. Thanks to everyone who sponsored it!

Rowan Williams on religious hatred: quite silly actually

Before Thursday’s brouhaha about sharia law erupted, I had already intended to read Rowan Williams’ earlier speech about religious hatred laws, following on from the praise that Chris Keating garlanded it with on Monday. I’m afraid I don’t share Chris’ enthusiasm.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Academic background or not, Rowan Williams is a politician. He is the leader of a worldwide movement which is happy to roll its sleeves up and get involved in political matters on a daily basis. He is a member of the UK’s legislative assembly. So when he says something, it matters. And when he makes a speech about religious hatred laws, at the very least he must acknowledge the role in which he and his political party (in this case, the Bishops) personally played in getting those laws onto the statute books. In particular, it should be remembered that the neutered piece of legislation we have now is not the draconian measure that the Church of England actively campaigned for and which we would now have were it not for the ineptitude of Hilary Armstrong, the anti-Parliamentary instincts of Tony Blair and arguably the intervention of another Rowan. For Williams, two years later, to make a speech justifying an Act of Parliament he didn’t actually want in its final form is utterly shameless.

In terms of his speech on religious hatred (which is equally as long but in fairness not quite as oblique as his speech on sharia), it can essentially be summed up by two statements:

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

and

It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.

These two principles are designed to guarantee what Williams refers to, both here and in other speeches as ‘argumentative democracy’ – the idea of the public realm being a marketplace of ideas where people can freely argue without fear of being shot down, moderated by restraint.

Superficially this all sounds fine. The powerful must not be allowed to drown out the powerless. The problem is, it is so subjective and his definition of ‘power’ is at best undefined, at worst to be taken to refer merely to the power of the state. It certainly is when he offers his critique of the Enlightenment – there we are asked to put it in the context of a few brave intellectuals standing up against an over-powerful church which influenced every part of public life. No supra-powerful church these days (thanks to the Enlightenment), ergo no real need to continue the Enlightenment project. Their work is done, time to move on, is essentially Williams’ argument.

But the power of the state is just one tool. There is the power of big money, something which religion continues to use around the world, from Saudi Arabia through to the US Presidential elections through to the bankrolling of UK Academies. There is also the power of violence.

Williams does not reflect on this and without wishing to sound like a neo-con this is pretty unforgiveable in the post-9/11 world where the asymmetry of conflict is now well understood (at least outside of Lambeth Palace). You don’t need to be a super-power to change the world these days, just enough people who are willing to die for your cause.

In a global world, does anyone have a legitimate claim to be a Goliath-fighting David? The brilliant film In the Valley of Elah explores this theme in the context of the Iraq conflict, showing how that metaphor can be applied and reapplied in different contexts. It’s an evocative image, and one which our global culture is in love with (from The 300 and the Seven Samurai through to Dad’s Army), but I would suggest in a world where everyone is both David and Goliath it isn’t a particularly useful foundation for law.

Ultimately, any such narrative is intensely political. Eurosceptics like to emphasise about how they are plucky Brits standing up against the immensely powerful monolithic Brussels. Nationalists, be they English, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish or Russian, flatter themselves that They have Us under their yoke. And of course it has now become a Christian tradition, each December, for people of faith to claim their celebration of Christmas is under attack from sinister secular forces.

The latter point is particularly relevant because of course Charles Sentamu, who is fond of denouncing the evils of ‘aggressive secularism‘, is the Ying to Rowan Williams’ Yang. Sentamu’s allegations are explicitly intended to limit atheist’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life – not only are his allegations about Winterval et al without foundation and highly inflammatory but he is lecturing people what they can or can’t have on their Christmas cards. Where does this fit in Williams’ picture of things? Ostensibly nowhere – the irreligious are not to have any of the rights he insists the religious should have. And if we are to believe the rest of his speech, the Church is no longer a powerful entity, at least compared to the aggressive secularist hegemony (which in reality has as much substance to it as the Elders of Zion). To not even begin to grapple with this issue, in a six thousand word essay, when his second-in-command is going around making such blood libels willy-nilly, is sinister indeed.

Williams mentions the Behtzi case, but laughably tries to have it every which way:

In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power.

Or, to put it another way: Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was making valid criticisms but the hoi polloi is too stupid and ignorant to fully appreciate her argument. Therefore, on balance, her play should not have been performed.

This gets to the heart of it. Far from approving of an ‘argumentative democracy’ Williams wants to insulate the public from any argument it may not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of. The Ivory Tower of academia can have these debates but the rest of us must have it doled out in strictly vetted, bite-sized chunks. Given the events of the past 48 hours, I do hope the irony isn’t lost on anyone here. Given the enormous backlash that Williams’ speech has caused, and given his call a week earlier for people to exercise restraint, could he not be accused himself of knowingly “damaging believers’ freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society” and thus be restrained in order to “avoid the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded”? Or should such restraints only apply to anyone who happens to disagree with him? In reseaching his article I am reminded that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 would have made it an offence to stir up religious hatred if you were “reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up” if Williams’ had had his way: in a parallel universe his counterpart is currently sitting in a police cell.

Ultimately, we can’t agree who is powerful or weak any more than we can agree what is a valid criticism or not. In a global, information rich society, ideas about the powerful versus the weak are losing resonance in any case. The self-assured righteousness which religion imbues in its adherents and all too often descends into violence must be regarded as a powerful thing in itself – it doesn’t need the power of the state it had in medieval times to still cause oppression.

Recoil at recall!

Bad law is often passed when people encounter a problem, seize on a solution and wed themselves to it regardless of the unintended consequences. It’s the sort of kneejerk reaction we see from our Labour and Tory rivals all the time. Sadly, Antony Hook and Duncan Borrowman have done this over the “solution” of recall for MPs to solve the “problem” of Derek Conway fiddling his expenses.

Let me start by adding this caveat: I can see the case for recall where an executive is directly elected, such as in the case of an elected mayor. Directly elected executives are powerful things which are supposed to represent communities as a whole. This would be a valuable check on their power.

An executive is not the same thing as a representative however; both perform radically different functions. The purpose of representative democracy is that elected representatives have leeway to disagree with the people they represent, on condition that they are held to account after a period of time.

Liberal Democrats – and anyone with half a braincell who lacks a vested interest in the status quo – support proportional representation. This would maximise choice and competition within the system and ensure that politicians had to sing more loudly for their support. PR might even have ensured that benchwarmers like Conway had been given the heave-ho a long time ago. Either way, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has designed a system of recall that works with PR and avoids imposing the very majoritarianism that the electoral system is designed to bypass.

A Green MEP supported by 10% of the electorate should not be subject to the indulgence of the majority. Under PR, a system of recall would be outrageously open to abuse. We can have PR, or we can have recall: we cannot have both.

It might be argued that in lieu of PR, recall might be justifiable if under a FPTP system (or AV for that matter). The problem with this is that recall would exacerbate many of the worst aspects of such electoral systems.

An MP with a majority of 30,000 would be much less vulnerable to recall than an MP with a majority of 30. MPs in marginal constituencies would be under constant attack; MPs in safe constituencies would be free to do as they pleased.

We already have a system whereby the swing voters in marginal constituencies have a disproportionate level of influence on our Parliament. Recall would give them even more influence.

I’ve often been criticised for my support of things like citizens’ initiatives and Chris Huhne’s proposed people’s veto on the basis that it would undermine representative democracy. On the contrary, I want to strengthen it and see some forms of direct democracy as a way of doing that. But recall is an example of a system which can only undermine representative democracy. It is a way of exerting the tyranny of the majority onto MPs. Only the most venal, spineless and self-serving politicians could work their way through the political culture it would impose on us.

In summary, recall is incompatible with PR – which we should all support. It is incompatible with the principle of representative democracy – which we should all support. And even as an interim measure it would exacerbate the worst aspects of majoritarianism. If you value pluralistic politics, you should avoid it like the plague.

Thankfully, Parliament is unlikely to adopt recall before hell freezes over. It is even less likely to adopt recall than it is to adopt PR. We’re probably safe.

In the meantime, I’m afraid that unless he resigns (and I think he should), either Mr Conway will have to be with us for another couple of years or he will end up in the slammer for a fraudulent use of public funds. That’s a price I for one am happy to pay.

The new flag for a vassal state?

Governance of Britain LogoMillennium reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while now.

The Ministry of Justice’s Governance of Britain initiative now has a logo (pictured). Is it my imagination or does it look rather like an airstrip?

Given Gordon Brown’s avowed Atlanticism and scandalous adoption of Son of Star Wars by press release, is this the sign of things to come, perhaps?

Jeremy Hargreaves and Paul Walter get in a muddle…

Okay. It’s late, I’m tired, and so I’ll try to be as brief as I can.

First of all Paul Walter:

So please tell me which provisions of the proposed EU Treaty result in transfers of sovereignty from the UK to the EU significant enough to warrant a national referendum and to justify the title “constitution”. Please list those provisions.

Quite simply, by massively extending the scope of co-decision to an extra 51 areas of EU policy, and by establishing legal personality to the EU – enabling it to sign international treaties on our behalf. I’m not against these rules – in fact I will defend them – but they clearly impact on the UK’s sovereignty.

I didn’t study any form of politics at school or university, aside from history. I have, however, taken the trouble to read the US Constitution and, peculiarly, found myself enjoying it. Yes, of course, it doesn’t have a flag mentioned in it, though its provisions do form the basis of the flag in the sense of the membership of the states in a greater union (the stars on the flag representing the current number of states, the stripes representing the original states). What the US Constitution does have are some fairly hefty items: Senate, House, President, Supreme Court.

The European Parliament, Commission, Council and Court of Justice seem pretty “hefty” to me, and the Reform Treaty impacts on each and every one of them.

It’s a revising treaty! It’s not a constitution. If you want a referendum on the EU constiution (as James, I think, implies he accepts with his point about the EU constiution being the series of treaties since Rome) you would have to have a referendum on all the treaties since Rome – i.e a wider referendum on EU membership as Ming has suggested.

We had a referendum in 1975, so treaties before then have already been ratified by a referendum. The Lib Dems called for a treaty for Maastricht; this is clearly the biggest reform since Maastricht. All I’m being is consistent with past party policy. Ming by contrast has only made a mild suggestion in lawyerly terms – hardly a clear commitment to a referendum on EU membership, more thinking out loud.

From the Cameron/UKIP angle this is not a debate about the EU treaty, it is a debate about EU membership per se.

In the case of UKIP, this is of course correct and I’m sure Nigel Farage would line up with Ming in calling for a referendum on membership itself. For the Tories, it is more complex. If the bulk of Conservative MPs really wanted to leave the EU, they’d have committed to this years ago. The fact is, they remain split on the issue. The fact that these splits have not been immediately apparent for the past decade is because no-one has ever bothered calling their bluff.

Cameron and Hague do not want to leave the EU, yet they are stuck in a holding pattern rejecting every EU reform, no matter how sensible. Holding a referendum will cause them no end of difficulty. If this treaty were rejected in a referendum and Cameron subsequently became Prime Minister, I can guarantee he would eventually come back from Brussels with a deal that looks remarkably similar to this one. He knows this better than anyone.

But what is wrong with a “proxy vote” anyway? I thought anti-referendum people were demanding a proxy vote in the form of a general election? The real problem is that, as Anthony Barnett points out, we are facing a crisis of trust. If the political class turn their backs on the public, the public will turn their backs on them. We can’t afford this situation to continue. If that means holding a “proxy vote” so be it.

Just as Hague’s “we want to keep the pound” campaign failed in a general election, so will Cameron’s “Referendum for a EU Treaty” campaign. So Ming is very clever, tactically, to help increase the danger of this happening for Cameron.

Oh really? In 2001, the Lib Dems were committed to a referendum on the Euro. In marginal constituencies, the party made great play of this. It was what Chris Rennard called a “shield issue”. Hague may have failed to make progress, but that was because both Labour and the Lib Dems neutralised him by being committed to a referendum. We did the same again over the constitutional treaty in 2005. Where’s our “shield” now, Paul?

As for Jeremy Hargreaves

However I don’t agree with that and it has also not been the traditional way of decision-making under the British constitution.

In fact I think it’s remembering just how unusual referendums have been in the process of British constitutional development.

Those who argue that we should have a referendum on this treaty because it represents important constitutional developments, need to answer the question of why therefore we have never ever had a referendum on any reform of the House of Commons, on any reform of the House of Lords, or on the introduction of a fundamental new piece of law such as the Human Rights Act. Are these not important constitutional developments?

First of all, we’ve never had reform of the House of Commons and only marginal reform of the House of Lords. Should we have a referendum on Parliamentary reform? Ideally, yes. Should we have had a referendum on the Human Rights Act? God yes! If we had, we would not now have the crisis of legitimacy we experience with people largely ignorant about what it is and what it does, and vulnerable to media scare stories about it guaranteeing prisoners porn, criminal suspects Kentucky Fried Chicken, et al.

In the latest party report on British Governance, to be debated at conference next week, the party does NOT commit itself to a referendum on the electoral system. But it does commit itself to a referendum on not only setting up a constitutional convention but ratifying its findings as well. The constitutional convention will, of course, be free to change the electoral system back to first past the post if it sees fit. I presume that Jeremy will be speaking against giving the public a say on such trifling constitutional matters.

And those advocating one now, especially they need to answer why we have never had a referendum on ratification of any previous EU Treaty.

The short answer to that is “because the Liberal Democrats were not in power” – we promised a referendum on Maastricht. And yes, relatively minor though they may have been, if that had set a precedent committing us to referendums on Amsterdam and Nice, I don’t think it would have been the end of the world. In fact, I strongly suspect the British public would have a much more adult relationship with the EU right now if we had (and the Tories would now be even more sidelined).

I don’t believe that people who actually believe the EU has an important role to play should fall into their trap and support a referendum on this treaty of detailed procedural points.

That’s because we aren’t falling into any trap: we simply recognise that the EU has a crisis of legitimacy within the UK which is unsustainable. Back when the Lib Dems were more self-confident than they are now, we weren’t afraid of such referendums. Sadly, the mere thought now has people like Jeremy and Paul (not to mention Ming) quivering under their beds in fear.

If they had anything positive to say about how we begin the hard work of educating and engaging the British public about the EU it might be a different story. Sadly, their bland response is “its a procedural matter”. Well, you could say that about pretty much anything to do with public administration. That being the case, why have elections at all?

We are in a bloody, unholy mess over Europe. It isn’t purely down the mendaciousness of the Eurosceptics; it is because pro-Europeans cede ground to them on an almost daily basis by positioning themselves against democracy and popular sovereignty. They come up with excuses about “proxy voting” blithely ignoring the fact that no ballot on any subject is ever cut and dried. They weren’t manning the barricades four years ago when it became apparent that the promised public debate on an EU constitution did not happen – they merely shrugged their shoulders and left it to the Eurosceptics to do all the shouting. Now the chickens have come home to roost they simply deny any responsibility. It is not good enough – it is appalling – and the Lib Dems should treat such deadbeats with contempt.

Getting it backwards

A glaring bit of nonsense in an otherwise sensible article by Simon Jenkins today:

One of many reasons for not subsidising national parties is that it will further encourage them to ignore the public and live in the lap of the national press.

I note that he says ‘national parties’ specifically and not ‘political parties’ more generally (i.e. he seems to accept a different case can be made for local politics). But leaving that aside for one minute, and the ongoing argument that it depends on what kind of ‘subsidy’ you’re talking about (giving political parties money every time it engages with a member of the public would surely encourage it to engage with as many people as possible), this is illogical in the extreme.

The tabloid press exists because it flatters the prejudices of the general public. It is very much ‘in tune’ with the public. Therefore, if political parties were thrown into their arms, far from ignoring the electorate, they would be indulging it.

It’s a common fallacy to assume that something that you think is common sense is a view shared by the majority, and that the only reason it isn’t public policy is because politicians are wicked or ‘out of touch’. You here it all the time from environmentalists, constitutional reformers and teenagers (all three of whom I’ve spent most of my political career hanging out with).

The problem with our political system is not that the majority of the public don’t get the majority of what they want most of the time – they do. The real problem is that the system doesn’t allow for minority or dissenting views to be heard with any real force. A society which lacks meaningful self-criticism finds the process of change extremely difficult, even when it is neccessary. As such, we are beginning to resemble more of a closed society than an open one.

Democracy, for me, is about more than the majority getting its own way: that’s mob rule. Democracy has to be about deliberation and hearing all sides of the argument before rushing to conclusions. Our great challenge is introducing systems – and a civic culture – that enable that to happen.