Tag Archives: political parties

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.

Is an honest debate on electoral reform possible?

David Cameron’s big speech about democratic reform is most notable for its chutzpah. Like Jack Straw, a man whom Cameron has seemingly impressed, he has managed to make a speech saying very little fool journalists into thinking he is being radical. It doesn’t say much for the state of modern journalists that they are impressed by proposals to send out text messages about legislation; it should have been laughed out of court for being the modern equivalent of John Major’s Cones Hotline.

To the surprise of precisely no-one, Cameron has drawn the line at electoral reform. In doing so however, he repeats a number of canards that I have to say I am sick of having to rebut every time these bozos repeat them:

The principle underlying all the political reforms a Conservative government would make is the progressive principle of redistributing power and control from the powerful to the powerless. PR would actually move us in the opposite direction, which is why I’m so surprised it’s still on the wish-list of progressive reformers. Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites. Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver transparency and trust?

This is utter nonsense from beginning to end. It does, to be fair, depend on the electoral system. If Cameron were to use this as a reason for ruling out the Additional Member System or Closed Lists, that would be fair enough. But of course, first past the post is a closed list system. In an FPTP election, electors are not given a choice of candidates. Primaries are all very well, expanding the level of engagement in candidate selection by, at maximum, a few more hundred people per constituency, but the candidates are still vetted by party headquarters.

Only electoral systems that offer voters a choice of candidates within a single political party give the voter greater control. And what are reformers calling for at the moment? AV+ and STV – both of which satisfy that criteria. So what is Cameron objecting to exactly?

He might be objecting to the way, where no single party has a majority in parliament, parties must negotiate to form a coalition or other working relationship. It doesn’t happen automatically – as the Scottish Parliament currently exemplifies – but coalitions are certainly more common under proportional voting systems.

But does that hand power to ‘elites’ or to the public? What is more open and transparent: the difficult and fraught negotiation process that happened in Cardiff Bay in 2007 or the behind-closed-doors Warwick Agreement thrashed out within the Labour Party before the 2005 general election? The process that lead to a Lab-Lib Scottish government in 1999 and 2003 or the ridiculous internal bunfight within the Conservative Party in 2006 that lead to Cameron’s laughable opposition to Grammar Schools but support for something called “grammar streaming” (three years on, and I still don’t understand what that meant).

The fact is, if you have politics dominated by hegemonic parties more decisions – not less – get made in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. With coalition talks, the media tends to cover the negotiations blow-by-blow, warts and all. That is openness. Private chats in the tearoom are the very opposite.

More to the point though, no-overall control is not a unique phenomenon to PR systems. In local government it is quite common. In Canada, which also uses FPTP, the last three general elections have resulted in a balanced Parliament. Worse for Cameron, as the level of support for the big two parties declines, the likelihood of balanced parliaments massively increases.

Academics talk about a thing called the “effective number of parties.” In the UK, we have an ENP in Parliament of 2.5 but an ENP in terms of vote share of 3.6. That is an alarmingly high missmatch and as the disparity increases the chances of no-overall control increases accordingly. If the ENP in terms of vote share reaches 4, according to Josep Colomer anyway, “maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent ruling party” – essentially they lose any real claim of having a mandate (see Helen Margetts’ chapter on Electoral Reform in Unlocking Democracy for more on this). If an election were held tomorrow, it would almost certainly push us over ENP 4. In 2010 it may well happen anyway.

In short, a lot of the objections Cameron and others have to PR apply to FPTP in a multi-party system anyway.

Another common canard was expressed by David Hughes in The Telegraph yesterday when he claimed that “The problem for the PR zealots is that there’s no public appetite for it.” Actually, that isn’t a problem for us. The public consistently support electoral reform in opinion polls, the last State of the Nation poll being a case in point. True, they aren’t manning the barricades for reform at the moment, but you would have to be blind, deaf and brain dead to be unaware of the fact that the public are fundamentally disatisfied with a political system that doesn’t listen to them. If that were the case though, why not go along with the call for a referendum? If the Tories are so confident that no-one wants electoral reform, what are they worried about?

Jury Team: a question of transparency

I’m not obsessed with Jury Team, really I’m not. It’s just that they keep doing these … things … to provoke me.

At the time of writing, the party which claims to be more representative than the other parties on the basis that 100% of the electorate selects their candidates doesn’t have a single candidate with more than 40 votes. The party that claims to be seeking to do in the UK what Obama did in the US doesn’t seem to even have the basics right. And for a party which claims to represent “real transparency,” they seem to be anything but.

I’ve already pointed out how the laws regarding “regulated donees” appear to apply to Jury Team prospective candidates, yet when I asked them whether they are working on this basis or not, I got an odd couple of emails from “Morus of London,” who on prodding admitted his real name was “Greg” (no last name – apparently he is quite well known in politicalbetting.com circles), who explained that it was complicated and would be far quicker to talk rather than explain it all in an email. I have to admit that I’ve taken a few days to reply to his second email, but I have now done so and asked him simply to answer the following two questions:

1) Do the PPERA rules on “regulated donees” cover your prospective candidate in your view (I note that the law explicitly applies to “members” and you include “membership” as part of your £10 administration fee)? YES / NO
2) Are you appraising your prospective candidates of what you understand the legal situation to be? YES / NO

But this isn’t the only example of Jury Team being less than transparent. For all their attacks on sleaze, they explicitly state they welcome anonymous donations of £199 or less on their website. To quote:

To donate under £200 you don’t need to provide your details but we would love to know who you are so we can thank you. Please fill in your details below if you wish, or if you would prefer to remain anonymous please just click on the PayPal link and you will be taken through the form.

This is technically legal (the PPERA has a “de minimus” level under which donations are not regulated), although neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Lib Dems accept anonymous small donations via their respective websites. There is also a question here about enforcement; what is to stop someone from making 100 £199 seperate donations to Jury Team? And finally, there is a question of honesty. If they are accepting payments via PayPal, then they will know your email address so it ain’t anonymous. This of course means that technically they could see if someone were to make multiple donations via the same PayPal account. So, either they are going to enforce the law and break their promise to respect anonymity, or they will respect anonymity and potentiall break the law. Once again, they are failing to make their position clear.

I will give them one thing though. I genuinely welcome their pledge not to accept donations of more than £50,000. As I have argued previously, Nick Clegg should have got the party to practice what it preaches ages ago. With the prospect of a legal cap now disappearing over the horizon, it is time to claim the moral high ground.

UPDATE: Morus/Greg Callus has now got back to me and confirmed “yes” and “yes” to my above questions. Progress at last, but it shouldn’t have taken so many email exchanges.

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.

In defence of whips

Here we go again. Andreas Whittam-Smith has written an eye-wateringly hyperbolic piece about Jury Team, which is launching tomorrow. I plan to be at their launch and it remains to be seen how exactly they intend to organise, but when people use stock phrases like “harness the power of the internet” I tend to assume they are going to fail before they begin. Apparently we are to regard Sir Paul Judge as the UK’s Barack Obama. The anti-sleaze champion who is to turn this all around needs money, lots of it, something which he would have had £200,000 more of had he not failed in his bid to sue the Guardian for libel over the Asil Nadir affair in the mid-nineties. Apparently the old adage about he who without sin throwing the first stone, doesn’t apply if you call yourself an independent.

All of this smacks of déjà vu all over again for me, in two ways. First of all, there is the fact that the media was falling over themselves five years ago to big up YourParty, which was apparently going to set the political stage on fire. I even commssioned an article from them, which now appears to be the only online record of their strategy. Talk about history repeating as tragedy and then farce – at least they were dotcom millionaires as opposed to former Tory director generals.

But secondly, there is my experience of student and parish council politics. Seemingly very different spheres, both these battlegrounds have one thing in common: to call yourself an independent is worth real votes. For years, most of the places at the NUS top table were reserved for Labour Party membership card-carrying “independents” who would denounce Labour on the conference stage and then do the party’s bidding behind closed doors. Point this fact out to their supporters and they preferred to ignore that fact, finding the lie much easier to deal with.

In parish elections, there is a similar phenomenon. It doesn’t matter what your political agenda is, so long as you play the independent card you are at an automatic advantage. You don’t have to produce a manifesto and you do it in the certain knowledge that most of your supporters will not really be interested in the day-to-day goings on of the parish council, and so hegemonies arise of “independents” who are really only doing it for glory and low-level corruption. And then they have the cheek to lay that smear on anyone standing with a party label.

It remains to be seen how Jury Team plans to select its candidates. Whittam-Smith suggests it will be done by mobile phone primaries. Leaving aside the security implications of such a system, even in the US Congressional primaries – where the system is well established – are notable for their low participation rates. And if the party is to have no policies other than the twelve proposals it has already listed, how is this going to work with the current system for European Parliament elections? If there is a rabid rightwinger at the top of their list, am I really expected to vote for that guy in the knowledge that it might get the more reasonable person in the number two spot elected?

This example highlights the one notable thing that is absent from Jury Team’s twelve proposals, most of which are interesting: reform of the electoral system. Without reform, running an indpendents list for the Euro-elections is a nonsense, but it is also a bit of a nonsense under the first past the post system as well. Jury Team could get 20% of the votes in 2010 and not get a single MP elected; knowing that, why should people waste their time with them?

Instead of electoral reform, Jury Team propose to bring an end to the party whips. Now there is some out and out nonsense here, such as:

The only real challenge to the UK Government is now through the crossbenchers in the House of Lords who are individuals acting on the basis that they have a free vote which is not whipped by any party. The success of the Lords’ crossbenchers in enforcing better discussion of Government proposals in recent years provides very strong support in favour of allowing similar discussions and votes, unfettered by party whipping, to take place in the House of Commons. It should also be noted that the crossbenchers act as a formal group, even electing their own chair, but these structures confine themselves to administrative matters and do not direct any political policy, exactly as envisaged for the Jury Team.

Are they deliberately trying to wind me up here? It is nonsense from start to finish. The challenge in the Lords is a whipped party vote in a chamber in which no single party has overall control. The crossbenchers barely turn up enough to actually count. Indeed, if this is the model they are seeking to replicate in the House of Commons, it would be an absolute scandal. It would mean turnout amongst MPs would plummet, the government would be held to less account – not more – and yet we would continue to pay them their salary (which, under their proposal to make MPs’ pay awards independent, would mean we end up shelling out even more, as Will Howells points out).

If the party whips system did not exist, we would have to invent it. 99% of the time, the whipping system is entirely benign. It is about making sure MPs vote according to the party line so they can afford to specialise and not have to focus on the minutiae of every single debate. It is about ensuring that if an MP has to be away from the chamber at any given time, then the overall political balance in the chamber can be maintained. Occasionally, very occasionally, it can lead to strong arming and even outright violence – mainly because we have a two-party model that is rooted in the idea that the government cannot afford to ever lose a vote on the Commons floor. If we had a politically balanced House of Commons, we’d see more defeats but I doubt we’d see much more in terms of rebellions. Again, MPs are, if anything, more rebellious than Lords. Could it be that they tend to vote along the party line not because whips hold some kind of terror over them but because they perceive the system is in their long term interests?

If we didn’t have party whips, we would still have a similar system of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-mine. In place of parties would be informal relationships between individuals. The key difference will be that the conspirators will not be accountable to a common manifesto and it will be far more opaque than what we have at present. If I vote for a Labour, Tory or Lib Dem MP I have a fair idea of what I’m getting. How many people knew in 1997 that when they voted for Martin Bell they were getting an opponent of gay rights, for example?

I want Jury Team to make a real go of it, in a way that Your Party never did, not because I think it is a good idea but because I think it is a terrible one. In many respects I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love to be sitting here, in 20 years time, as an Independent MP cringing at the thought of how I bought into all that party nonsense. But the truth is I suspect it will fizzle out within twelve months, just as all similar attempts have done so – not because of an evil hegemonic political system with an agenda to stop anyone from trying something new, but because it is a fundamentally bad idea based on an exaggerated fixation on the importance of the individual over and above the need for collective action. We will see.

Madeline Bunting has a point SHOCKER!

Madeline Bunting is atheist baiting again. In her Guardian column this week she makes one spectacularly silly point, one mildly silly point and one good point which is a genuine issue for secularists. But it is a problem for the religious as well.

Firstly, the really silly point – worth quoting in full:

At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions – belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment – that I couldn’t see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can “probably” change someone’s mind?

Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.

Even reading it again makes me laugh out loud. Apparently it is “patronising” to urge working people on the Number 73 to “stop worrying and enjoy your life” but not for a middle class woman from a privileged background to presume to speak for them, oh no. Worse, we are to believe that this is an affront on their very sense of hope and dignity. So much for faith then, if it can be that easily challenged. And does she really mean to say that only the educated can be atheists? Isn’t that rather close to saying that religion rooted in ignorance?

She then goes on to pontificate how Barack Obama is religious and that his social conscience stems from his faith. On one level, I don’t quibble with that at all. As I’ve said before, I’ve always considered myself more of an ally of religious people of good conscience than secular people of bad conscience. Nor am I blind to the fact that many of the ethical teachings that Obama bases his principles on are the same ethical teachings I value. The Bible is indeed a good book (my only real difference of opinion is that it is no more than a book).

But Bunting over-eggs the pudding. If we are to credit Obama’s religion with his conscience, and not Obama the intellectual, then we should also blame Obama’s religion for his current seeming vaccilation over Guantanamo and Palestine. If Bunting’s logic is to be followed through, she can’t then go on to conveniently (to use her own phrase) “pick and mix.”

I would never dream of making a simplistic argument along the lines that Obama’s moral weakness over Palestine is rooted in his faith; Obama is responsible for Obama’s actions and choices – nothing else. It would appear, in this respect at least, that I pay religion rather more respect than Bunting.

Cheap cracks aside, this article isn’t entirely worthless. The core of Bunting’s argument is indeed a problem for atheists and secularists, and deserves consideration:

…Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.

Obama described these three years of community organising as the “best education I ever had”. Michelle says of her husband that “he is not first and foremost a politician. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.”

You don’t need to go to Chicago to find out what this is about. Try much closer to home, Whitechapel. Here London Citizens uses exactly the same training and principles as Obama did when he worked as a community organiser. The ideas originated in 30s depression Chicago, when Saul Alinsky hit on a way to organise the most impoverished and marginalised communities to win power to improve their lives. He spent the next 40 years building up his Industrial Areas Foundation and championing his methods in books such as Rules for Radicals – he was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s college thesis. His thinking influenced the civil rights movement and almost every subsequent progressive movement from feminism to gay rights.

His concept of organising can be boiled down quite simply: its aim is to move the world from how it is to how it should be. Its methods are entirely pragmatic: look for where people gather (churches, unions?), identify where those institutions have mutual self-interest and build on it for local achievable campaigns. Develop relationships – nothing can substitute for the face-to-face encounter. Listen. The paid community organiser (like Obama) is a talent scout for natural leaders and teaches the political tools.

Now, there are caveats I should add to all this. First of all, while I have deep respect for London Citizens, it is fair to say that despite having been around for a while, it has not exported particularly successfully outside of London. The only place where this model has been exported is Birmingham. I met up with a small group of Birmingham Citizens years ago when I worked in the West Midlands and by all accounts they appear to have a much smaller organisation than any of the London groups (not even having their own website for example). Why is this, when London is no more religious than any other part of the UK (again, I suspect this boils down to individuals being rather more significant than religions)?

Neither is the concept of civic activism uniquely rooted in religion. As a Lib Dem I would want to big up our own record in community politics, but the truth is that all political parties organise within communities in a secular way. Bunting and co might be tempted to argue that political parties only empower the middle classes. All I can say to that is that the places where I have personally seen community politics work best is in some of the most deprived parts of London, Manchester and Leeds. Reading up as I have recently on the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, I was particularly struck by how that party’s emphasis (leaving aside the splitters) was on civic-minded republicanism and empowering the working classes at the expense of electoral success. Ultimately more Marxist than Leninist, their view was that the revolution was going to happen anyway and their job was to prepare for it.

But Bunting has a point: it is no good for atheists to harp on about the dreadfulness of religion if they aren’t contributing something positive themselves. We’ve had our little victory with the Atheist Bus, we’ve had our Christmas knees’ up. But it isn’t enough to be better than the worst of religion; isn’t it time to aim higher?

Nor is this about charity, as Bunting makes clear. We’re not talking about some pissing contest about who donates the most (we’ve got Richard Curtis – nyer, nyer, nyer-nyer, nyer). The challenge for the new new atheists is whether it can be a positive force for good in society – not just by campaigning for healthy minds, but full bellies and social justice too. Bunting’s allusion to the religious cleaner on the Hackney bus is patronising in the extreme, but do we really currently have anything to say to a poor working person in that position? Would making an atheist out of her really be a worthwhile victory?

Before we concede too much to Bunting here though, it should be pointed out that the links between civic activism and religion are problematic for religion as well. I’ve come across a lot of avowedly religious people in my time and I have to admit that a lot of them don’t appear, well, that religious. Rather, the religion – more precisely the religious community – is the conduit they use to do good in the world. It’s great that they have found such a conduit, but how many people does religion make into liars by effectively insisting that the good deeds cannot be done without the religious observance? And how many good people end up disempowered because they feel that getting involved in their local church group would make them into hypocrites?

Unless you genuinely believe that having a good conscience is impossible without religion – and I wouldn’t accuse even Madeline Bunting of that – then that is a real problem. Less so in the inner city; much more so in the village where it boils down to a choice between the church hall and sweet f*** all.

The solution for both the secular and the religious – surely – are civic minded institutions that don’t depend on faith as a precursor (either explicitly or implicitly) for involvement. One of those institutions, currently in decline, is party politics but that alone is not likely to be enough. Creating exclusively atheist institutions is likely to be pretty self-defeating as well. What we need are inclusively secular ones.

The good news is that we have plenty of those. Amnesty is one such organisation. Action Aid and Age Concern is another (and that’s just the As). Wouldn’t Madeline Bunting concede that this is ultimately a better way to organise? And shouldn’t atheists, secularists and humanists concede that playing a positive role in society is something that should be encouraged?