Emma Does Politics

There is such a thing as society. It's called politics.

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Police Brutality? In MY Country?

It’s more common than you might think.

Just the other day, in quiet Ilford, the police “moved on” a group of homeless people. They were in an abandoned building of some sort, so technically they were guilty of some crime or other based on squatting. While these anti-squatting laws are of a certain moral questionability (to put it politely), the laws exist and the police have a legal obligation to uphold those laws that have been passed. One of many proper reactions is to get those laws repealed, and never to allow the politicians who voted such laws in to be responsible for anything more important than keeping a rubber duck afloat.

However, the police stepped way beyond what their legal mandate required. They stole sleeping bags, personal keepsakes, and donated food parcels from these homeless people. The police have a responsibility to gather evidence in court cases.  But this was not for evidence. The homeless people were moved on. There was no suggestion in the news that they were arrested, cautioned, or otherwise documented as specific identifiable people by the police force. That makes the optimist viewpoint that the police stole their possessions for “evidence” a false one.

And yes, “stole” is a rather inflammatory word. It’s not often I accuse the police of actual theft, of committing crimes against the citizens that police officers are sworn to protect. But there is no other word for it. There is just one specific situation in which police are authorised to take things from the general public, and this was not it.

This Event in the News:

The Centre of Power

London is widely acknowledged by the pundits as being the political and economic centre of the UK. So much so that every now and then (such as in today’s Evening Standard), some journalist will write a Modest Proposal style piece suggesting that London secede from the UK. At least, I hope he is writing in jest. It is after all hard to tell good parody from extremism when written well.

But London is choking on its ‘success’. The transport system cannot cope. Heathrow airport is overloaded, and talks of whether to expand it or build a new one (and where?) are delaying a solution interminably. The transport links from Heathrow to London proper are just as crowded. The roads and commuter rail system is so heavily burdened that a boat service had to be set up (not a bad idea in itself on aesthetic grounds if nothing else, but that’s not the reason it happened). Train stations, such as London Bridge, routinely experience construction projects lasting years (the current scheme is expected to finish in 2018).

Even the Boris bike system is expected to shrink back in the near future, due to budget cuts. And London’s roads are so congested that local councils have resorted to draconian traffic misdemeanour fines to keep the traffic moving. Most new housing doesn’t even come with an option on eventually getting an assigned street parking space from the council.

But never mind that, because the housing market in London has never been so buoyant! Right? Sorry, this isn’t really true either. London’s housing market is in a classic bubble. The luxury upper end of the market is being bought up by foreign investors, who see a London house in the same way they see bars of gold bullion – it’s an investment, a secure place to put money. But not something to actually be used or lived in. They generate rather modest amounts of tax income, relative to what multiple plots of affordable housing in the same space would generate, and because no one lives in them, they generate no jobs, and the owners spend no money on the local economy. In short, the extreme luxury housing market is creating localised economic holes inside London that will be slow to repair once the bubble bursts. And at the lower end of the market, even “affordable” one-bedroom shared ownership properties are advertised with a caveat that you must be earning, for example, over £30,000 a year just to be considered as a tenant in a ‘studio’ bedsit. That’s the top 23%, for those who were wondering. ‘Affordable’ housing is not for the poor. It’s not for the average earner. It’s not even for the average earner by London’s local bubble standard (£27,800 as of 2007).

How do we fix it? It’s simple really. So simple I’d be astonished no one in power hadn’t already suggested it, if I didn’t suspect that the lobbyists have a vested interest in keeping everything in London.

London should not be the only centre.

There are a number of “second tier” cities across Britain that could be developed as centres to rival London, New York, and Singapore. Any one of these (I’d suggest Birmingham or Manchester as the first and second to receive such development, city communities and councils willing). Let’s consider Birmingham. It is in a very good position geographically to allow transport to the rest of the UK. It has an airport, which has room for expansion, and greenfield sites close enough to be developed into a second airport if needed. It has a ready population of workers available. It would make a logical choice even for a devolved ‘English’ parliament. As a business centre, it lacks only the political will to allow it to develop and be promoted. With the completion of the HS2 rail link, it will even have good transport with the original UK centre.

This will allow the UK economy to grow further. Why continue choking the goose that lays the golden egg, when we can have two unchoked geese laying golden eggs?

What’s not to like?

None of the Above

Voter election turnout is pretty bad. It’s down about 10% since I first started voting. It now stands at around 65% for the last general election and 35% averaged over the last two local elections. The local election before that was simultaneous with the general election, explaining the (for a local election) high turnout that time.

This is really bad. It’s shockingly bad in fact. These jokers decide things that affect us in very real ways. To take housing owners as one specific example, 64% of people are home owners. I’m guessing the rest of us are a mix of renters, homeless (yes, it still exists, and is getting worse), “people living in temporary accommodation”, and people living in a family member’s house. Lots of different circumstances there. But if you have a mortgage, or if you pay rent (and thus are covering the costs of someone who has a mortgage), your government’s policies affect you in a very direct way. And this is just one aspect of government policy that affects people.

There’s a significant fraction of people whose economic welfare is being directly affected by government policies in a very real direct terms, but can’t even be bothered to decide who (or whether) politicians get to push them into penury. Is the problem simple apathy that can be cured by “rock the vote” campaigns? I do not think so. No matter how fired up you are about voting, you won’t actually vote if the available candidates on offer only represent their professional lobbyists and do not represent their alleged “apathetic” voters.

There’s a significant fraction of people who don’t vote because no party represents their views. That is a legitimate viewpoint. But under the current system, such voters get identified either as “apathetic non-voters” if they stay home, or as “spoiled ballots” if they choose to air an opinion on the ballot paper.

Incidentally, a “spoiled ballot paper” is examined just long enough to verify that it is not a clear vote for any candidate. A low-level party functionary may ask to examine the spoiled papers pile to verify that none of their party’s votes have been misfiled. This pile is then counted and the number written down. The papers are then placed in a large sack for archiving. At no point will anyone of political significance actually read any comment written on a “spoiled ballot paper”. Spoiling a ballot paper is time-honoured, fun, and cathartic, but doesn’t actually achieve anything. The people counting the votes don’t read them either; there simply isn’t time.

We need a way for the dissatisfied to be counted separately from the disinterested and the ballot papers spoiled by accidental error. We need a “None of the Above” option on all ballot papers. This would be a first step in distinguishing those who want to vote but can’t find an acceptable candidate from those who are simply not interested. It’s an essential first step towards making our representatives actually represent us instead of their lobbyists.

And so it begins…

So let’s start with a few semi-random statements, that may explain where I am coming from.

I grew up on a diet of Spitting Image (back from before it stopped being funny). This pretty much set the tone for my interest in politics. One of my earliest jobs was counting votes in elections. This was before I was old enough to legally vote. I used to be a lifelong Liberal Democrat voter. There were a couple of gaps, such as when I was living abroad, and more recently when the local councils failed to keep track of my frequent changes of address (this is a symptom of London’s housing crisis; more on that another time).

I was shocked and disappointed when Mr Clegg decided to join forces with the Conservative party. While I did not vote for the Liberals in that election, I would have if the paperwork had been in place.

So where do we stand now?

The Liberal party has lost credibility, sacrificing it in the name of short term power. There were in a position to set themselves up as the fulcrum in British politics, part of her majesty’s opposition, but by judicious use of party whips they could have allowed either of the two larger parties to bring through specific policies that they wanted. Instead, Mr Clegg wanted to sit in the cabinet meetings. He got his wish. The electorate didn’t get theirs.

The Conservative party is rather obviously in the pocket of big business. It doesn’t represent the electorate.

The Labour party? The leadership sacrificed its Fabian Society roots. It was originally created to represent the interests of the urban poor. Given that it allowed the banking crisis to develop thirteen years into its reign, it can’t really deny blame for this. Yes, the financial crisis did start in the USA, and the old saying that, “When the USA sneezes, the world catches a cold” is certainly true. But it’s not the whole story. In their desperation to build up the British banking industry, they did nothing to control the high level of risk undertaken by UK banks. In a good economic climate, those risks did little damage. But just as you don’t go out in the rain without a coat, you don’t take big risks in a recession. And Labour allowed big risks to happen.

We’re all in this together. Bankers, factory workers, office clerks, retailers. Every one of us. Labour’s “oh well, so what if a banker takes a risk” attitude clearly failed us.

All three big parties failed us.

The problem isn’t the recession. Or the depression, as some of the economists are now calling it. That’s just a symptom. The problem is machine politics. This is sometimes called party politics, or the whip system. Essentially, it means that an MP votes according to the needs of his party and the instructions of the party whip, handed down from the party leadership. And as often as not, the party leaders are receiving kickbacks from special interest groups and professional lobbyists. The party machine political system means that it is inherently impossible for a party MP to represent his constituency.

It is time for independent politicians who will represent their constituents. It is time for demarchy in the UK.

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