Emma Does Politics

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

Archive for the month “February, 2014”

An open letter to Angela Eagle MP

Dear Angela Eagle,

Thank you for your enlightening talk on Monday (24th February 2014). It is slightly unfortunate that the topic of your presentation didn’t quite tie in with the name of the event (“How We Re-Engage People with Politics“). Given the title of the event, people were bound to expect the ideas presented to be about restoring engagement in processes where people used to be engaged. The most notable such example is voter turnout, which as you noted, has been declining steadily since I can remember, and even since before that.

Instead, we were given a presentation on parliamentary procedures and one idea on how it should be reformed. Unfortunately, I am not the parliamentary procedures geek that Emily (one of the event’s organisers) is. I doubt many (any?) members of the public who attended were, as were were led to believe the topic would be something else. Don’t get me wrong — I learned a great deal from your presentation, but it was very much Parliamentary Procedures 101 for me. I didn’t have the background knowledge necessary that evening to give a fully considered and meaningful response to many of the points you raised. Judging by the questions from the audience, neither  did many others.

However, I do not mean to appear dismissive. I would very much like to engage in a meaningful discussion of the important issue you raised. It has become clear during the life of the current parliament that bills can be sped through parliament without due process with regard to whether a bill can be implemented in a practical manner, and without proper time for review by those who would wish to consider whether the proposed bill is a just and fairly-written bill. I would very much like for you to either publish your notes on Monday’s presentation, or directly send me a copy, so that I may study them and give the well-thought-out responses and queries that I believe you had hoped for that evening.

Bringing this letter round top my favourite topic (implementing “None of the Above” on election ballot papers), I would like to thank you for your time listening to me talk on the subject that evening. You raised a few objections to the idea, such as how we can already spoil our vote, and if we had “NOTA with teeth” it might lead to an unending series of by-elections.

While it is true we can spoil our vote (or indeed, abstain), neither of those truly express a conscious expression of disapproval for the candidates on offer. A spoiled vote is, for official purposes, read as an accidental error, and historically, has resulted in ever-more-precise instructions about the “correct” way to vote. A “spoiled” ballot in which the voter placed a cross too many or too few or not clearly for a single candidate is, in the final analysis, considered no differently from a “spoiled” ballot in which the voter has written a long essay explaining his disapproval of the candidates and/or parties available in his constituency. Even if we were to officially recognise all spoiled ballots as NOTA votes, the resulting statistic would still be viewed with suspicion, since there will undoubtedly be “genuinely spoiled” votes, in which the voter intended to vote for a single candidate but got it wrong. The only way to clearly disambiguate protest votes for NOTA from spoiled ballots is to make NOTA a conscious choice rather than the result of human “error”.

I later explained that genuine NOTA has yet to be implemented anywhere, as the current implementations across the world simply call for the leading “live” candidate to win the seat outright as if the NOTA votes were abstentions. After I outlined my proposal for how “NOTA with teeth” could be implemented (a by-election to be called after one year), you objected to that idea, as it could lead to an unending series of by-elections.

I have two counterpoints to that. In the “real world”, everyone is subject to annual performance reviews anyway. Asking for only those MPs who had a nominal level of mandate granted at the polls (instead of say, all MPs) to prove their worth in an annual review seems quite reasonable when examined in that light. Knowing that their performance will be reviewed at the polls in a year’s time might even incentivise that MP to do a better job (or at least, that is the popular theory among management experts). Second, I would put forward the notion that any MP who is demonstrably less popular than a literal “someone, anyone, other than these guys” vote probably shouldn’t be put forward by their party again in the by-election. Having a NOTA with teeth might motivate parties to put forward candidates who are more acceptable to the general public.

Additionally, NOTA would be of demonstrable advantage to all parties. First, it would increase the voter turnout; people who would vote NOTA currently tend to abstain. The increased voter turnout would serve to increase the perceived legitimacy of the electoral mandate. Second, since NOTA voters are actively engaged in the election process by voting, it is that much easier to convert a NOTA voter to a party voter, something that should be of relevance to any political party. And given the topic of the event on Monday, something that really should have been given proper air-time that day.

Angela Eagle, I look forward to receiving your response at your soonest convenience.

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Politician-Speak and Trains of Thought

I must admit I haven’t studied Marx, or Orwell, or Rand, or Smith, or any of the other notable political and economic thinkers of the last couple of centuries. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s not necessary. This is of course a piece of heresy against the cult of the expert.

My usual approach is to work out solutions from first principles, rather than trying to find out what the great and not-so-great philosophers of yesteryear would have done. It probably takes longer, but on the other hand, the old thinkers didn’t have the contextual knowledge of the present situation we do. Karl Marx didn’t have the Internet. If he did, he might have called kittens the opiate of the masses instead of religion.

This approach has a couple of consequences. It means I never have the One True Answer to the world’s problems, which will remain now and evermore the way to fix the crisis of the day. That definitely leads to accusations of having “politicians answers,” and not keeping a stable political position, but dodging and weaving as the need demands. Nonetheless, it has to be the case. No answer will always apply in all situations. Much as we would want to make-believe otherwise, society and the global political situation changes, and we need to have the flexibility to change with it. Giving an answer to a problem as the One True Answer Now And Evermore simply sets us up for failure.

I prefer to find solutions that work in the present situation and cause no unforeseen bad consequences, and acknowledge it might not be the right answer the next time something apparently similar comes up. Because it probably won’t work (the fact that the apparently same problem had come up again would show that solution didn’t work first time, after all).

I also rather dislike the idea of using the word “politician” as a bad word. Simply by expressing a political view, we are all politicians — Society *is* politics. Being a “politician” is something people should embrace, instead of hiding behind other labels, such as lobbyist or pressure group campaigner or concerned citizen or environmentalist or writer of letters or citizen-journalist. We are all politicians!

Part of the reason I try to work my ideas from first principles is because it acts as a learning process and helps me to better understand and explain my own ideas. It also means I don’t fall into a rut of following the old thinkers’ ideas just because it is easier to do when it might not be quite right for the present situation. I prefer to look at problem, think up solutions, think up problems with those “solutions,” think up different solutions either to the original problem or as patches the the flawed solutions, think up problems with those new solutions, and so on. It’s an iterative process. I basically play devil’s advocate against myself.

The Problem with Trade Unions

I like trade unions. They do a great job of fighting for workers’ rights. Without them, we’d probably still have 8/0-hour working weeks with no sick leave or holidays. But it’s not all good.

A trade union’s primary motivation is to fight for the rights of its members. Just as a short-sighted corporation typically fights for profits over the interests of the general public or its workers, a short-sighted trade union fights for the employees in its sector over the interests of the general public or the corporation. Neither view taken to an extreme is good. All three interest groups — the business, the workers, and the general public — need to be considered.

For example, a hypothetical strong coal miners’ union today might be strongly opposed to reform of energy production towards renewable energy sources, because it would reduce the need for coal miners, even though the needs of the population as a whole are in favour of cleaner energy for environmental reasons.

More relevant to today, transport unions in London fight for keeping more public-facing staff, which I agree with, but then they also fight for some truly incredible bonuses for certain staff to work at key times (such as train drivers during the Olympics). I couldn’t help noticing that non-train drivers in that union didn’t get that bonus. Either way, I’m not sure people should get a bonus for simply doing their job correctly. Following the lead of bankers simply results in a race to the bottom. And train drivers going on strike for pay that is often twice that of their passengers doesn’t do much to elicit sympathy. Yes, driving a train is stressful. But the transport union would elicit a lot more sympathy if they on strike over the lousy service the underground offers to Londoners. I’ve more or less given up hope of doing anything in London on weekends due to closures. On weekdays, the trains are so overcrowded I’m lucky if I can breathe in fully, let alone find a vacant seat.

When the unions have already struck a deal far superior to what the customers (“passengers” we used to be called) get, they could more usefully campaign for a better service to be delivered. Or at least, campaign for the rest of the transport workers to get as good a deal as the train drivers. I wonder if the train station cleaning staff get paid more than minimum wage, or if that union even cares.

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