Emma Does Politics

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

Archive for the month “March, 2015”

Open Letter to Brian May

Hi Brian,

I saw your campaign, and I am very interested in it. I see something promising. I am sure you have a lot of mail, but please hear me out. Because I have the answers to the problem.

The basic problem is that ordinary people don’t have to interact with politics more than once every few years. And even then, they aren’t making decisions. They are a step removed from that — they choose people who can make decisions. We need the following reforms:

1) Strong “NOTA”. Without the ability to say no to all the presented options, the ability to say yes to one of them is a rather coercive form of democracy at best. Being able to reject all offered candidates means that even in seats where no “protest” candidate comes forward, voters have a reason to vote. In addition, the risk of being voted less preferable to a tub of lard means parties will improve their game and naturally try to present candidates that appeal to more of the public in general, rather than just “more than the next guy”.

2) Voter recall of MPs. Unlike the proposal doing the rounds a few months ago, we need to be able to recall our MP for any reason or no reason at all. All that should be required is a no confidence petition signed by the majority of constituents. Because the MP is there to represent not party donors, not the party, and not themselves — they are there to represent the constituents. This recall would also ensure that if the popular consensus does shift, the MPs in parliament will continue to represent the majority interest within that constituency. A recent BBC article shows that this inevitably shifts over time, and away from the ruling party. Vote recall will prevent the worst extremes of that.

3) Referendums. Britain has had two referendums total (three, for Scotland). Last year, Switzerland had 12; California had 8. But their referendums differ not just in quantity, but on what they vote on. Our referendums were essentially votes on how we choose the people who vote on issues. The referendums in Switzerland and California were directly on the issues themselves, and were binding. That’s the kind of referendum we need, and the quantity we need, if we are to engage ordinary people in politics on a continuing basis. By having everyone be a potential decision-maker, you break down the “us vs. them” barrier in politics.

4) Proportional Representation. I’m not sure what the best form is here, but something is needed. Whatever is chosen, it should be something that does not make it harder for an independent to become an MP; party politics is already overwhelming and stifling of dissenting opinion. To address one specific counter-argument, yes I know if implemented tomorrow it would mean UKIP would be vastly stronger represented than under FPTP. However, UKIP’s rise to the extent it has is actually a symptom of a dysfunctional voting system. Both radical and reactionary parties will rise from time to time, and the thing that curtails their rise is when the dominating parties take note , take them seriously, and engage those who would support them, either to take up those policies or to convincingly explain why those policies were dumb. UKIP grew so large unchallenged because it had not grown large enough to threaten seats, so no parties engaged (either for or against) the points they were making.

5) More local government power. Yes, devolution would be a good idea (I think the UK should be re-framed as a federal state). But more important, county and borough-level powers should be increased, so that local government can provide an entryway for people to get a taste for politics without needing to up sticks and move to London. The present system means that very few opportunities for involvement in politics exist at a local level, which effectively excludes many people who might otherwise be excellent politicians from discovering they can do good in it.




Direct Action in Elections

This is the first of several pre-election articles I will be composing, discussing various aspects of elections and how people have reacted or can react to them. I plan to cover other aspects in the coming weeks.

Of all the possible forms of election hacking, “direct action” is perhaps the most notable. In broad terms and in the context of an election, this covers any act that is designed to disrupt or delay election proceedings.

(Disclaimer: I do not recommend anyone try this. The people who would be directly affected are just ordinary election workers trying to earn a bit of extra money. It is also liable to result in legal problems for the activist. If you are seriously considering this, do not claim this blog post as inspiration, and take professional legal advice first.)

Johnathan Elliott gained fame in May 2013 when he dropped a couple of stink bombs into the ballot box during the 2013 Local Elections in Kent. According to the news reports, the items were discovered during the election count, resulting in police being called and delaying the count itself. He later phoned a BBC radio station to claim responsibility for the act. In the initial court course, he was sentenced to a three-month curfew and a fine. After an appeal, newspapers report that this was changed to a six week prison sentence. Presumably, the second judge felt the original sentence was lenient.

I had the opportunity to interview him. Below is a copy of the interview. I have left his replies as they were, except to correct for spelling and grammar.

In your own words, could you describe what you did? (I understand from the newspapers, you placed two stink bombs in the ballot box along with your ballot paper, and that they were discovered, unbroken, in the counting hall).

“I went down to the ballot station in Belmont road Whitstable in my right mind and knowing what I was going to do. First it occurred to me that I might put some dog dirt in the ballot box to make everyone wince at the count, but I thought that might not be a powerful enough message in the end.

I went down and wrote on the ballot paper the word “Revolution” and then folded the paper neatly in half so as to hold the stink bombs. I noted from going in also that the new ballot boxes were made of plastic and had wider opening so as to allow me to put the vials in with out to much hassle. I was actually in the ballot booth for maybe five minutes organising this but the receptionists (poll clerks — Editor) didn’t bat an eyelid.”

What were you motives behind the protest?

My motive I would say was to cause a stink about how undemocratic and unrepresentative of the populace the whole system was, and that the elections were part of this well-designed system, and that they were fixed in such a way that only establishment people were elected.

Why did you feel “direct action” was necessary, as opposed to some other form of protest?

“I have come to the belief now that the only form of action the establishment fears is in your face direct action. All other ways have been proved useless, as the establishment controls the corporate media, especially the BBC. Information is attained by the masses from this mass media, and propagandises and brainwashes us into apathy, so ensuring the status quo where the rich get richer and the poor become slaves.”

What result were you expecting from this direct action protest? Do you think this act achieved the goals you had planned?

“I was hoping that at the next elections people might wonder whether they have more options available to them to say they do not give their consent to be governed by a group of bankers and corporate CEOs using neo-liberal puppets. I hoped that some or a few who are brave enough would follow what I did rather than sit on their hands at home and watch their futures drift away as I did when I left school. I’m hoping it hasn’t reached its full potential in this next election.

I apologised to the counter (counting assistant —Editor) for her scare. I’ve realised she was actually used against me to make me seem violent which I definitely am not as anyone can tell.”

How did the election authorities react? When did they notice something unusual had happened?

“The election authority’s reaction as I understand it was to call the police and stop the count from that ballot box. I heard that some of the candidates were quite amused realising what had happened and that it wasn’t serious, although the Conservatives and UKIP were flustered by it for obvious reasons. The chief executive of Canterbury city council is a well-known cohort of the tory administration in Canterbury. It was he who stopped the count. His name is Colin Carmichael.”

What were the consequences in terms of how the police reacted and the legal issues? (I under­stand from the news­papers, there was a three-month curfew that was converted to a six-week prison sentence after an appeal).

“First I would like to say I actually owned up to it to BBC radio Kent Julia George Show after I waited some time for the count to start. The producer phoned me back after a few hours and then started shouting at me down the line to which I didn’t have much opportunity to reply, as I wanted to point out that it was the BBC’s propaganda bias towards UKIP that spurred me into my actions in the first place. Although the BBC now looks at UKIP now with a bit more balance, back then they (UKIP — Editor) were given them every opportunity for free advertising. Had the Green Party for instance got that much free coverage I believe they would be challenging the Labour Party even here quite possibly.

The police reaction was over the top in my mind, and I think they were only obeying their master’s voice. They brought me in for questioning where I asked for a few friends to accompany me, as they were aware of how the police operate. I sat in the interview room with a video and voice recording machine at Canterbury police station. There were two plain clothes police detectives who played good cop bad cop game with me, which they swapped roles at. My solicitor and a retired social worker friend sat on the opposite side. They asked me if I realised what I had done, where I got the vials from, if I knew the vials were safe, and whether I tested the vials on myself, to which I replied in the affirmative. I was asked if I realised that the chemicals inside could change over time into something harmful to which I said that was ridiculous. The interview lasted about an hour I think although I’m not sure but it seemed long.

I kept looking at my solicitor for prompts to say “no reply”, but not once did he prompt me which I thought odd and dis-heartening. He was a good man and when it came to the magistrate represented me very well. However, I wanted to plead not guilty so that it would go to a higher court where I would be judged by my peers rather than what always seems to be the case, a bourgeois upper class twit.

My solicitor told me after the judgement to appeal the case, as he said the curfew was ridiculous to which I did. When I got to Canterbury high court accompanied by a good friend I was met by a posh barrister, and during the hearing I realised the barrister had no intention of representing me.

The judge was an extremely grumpy old man from South Africa so I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I thought he would just re-apply the curfew, but to my surprise and my friend’s shock, he said what I did was an extremely violent political act and then sentenced me to three months’ prison. My friend angrily got up and shouted and was told to sit down by the barrister or he could be penalised as well. He was the only one there – no press nothing else – and my prison sentence was not reported on until I wrote a letter to the local press about my incarceration and what it was like at Elmley Prison on the isle of Sheppey.

Elmley Prison has also been in the press for being one of the worst prisons alongside Wandsworth Prison in London, because it has a lack of staff, a high suicide rate, violence towards fellow inmates and staff, and because you can be locked up 24 hours a day, which I experienced in a cell containing three people. Six weeks by the way is half the three months; if you behave well you get released early.”

Looking back on it, how do you feel about it?

“I feel I did the right thing, as Martin Luther King might have said. It was only afterwards I realised I behaved naively. I knew that police-obtained representatives could be bad, but getting a solicitor who is well known for defending political direct action activists is virtually impossible to find, as I found out. The only regrets I think were at the magistrate where I ignored my solicitor’s request to plead guilty, and to say “no comment” at the police station; that’s all. You know when you’re on your own and there’re these professionals around giving you advice, it’s very tempting to follow that advice.”

Do you wish there had been more (or less) media coverage? Why?

“Yes, not for egotistic reasons mind you. I wish there was more coverage; that way I would probably have gotten a good solicitor and a caring, thoughtful barrister. Most barristers are unfortunately upper class and all the legal system seems to be oriented towards. My advice to others is not to own up but stay anonymous and cover your tracks. I only did what I did to show what could be done.”

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John Stuart Mill and the Tyranny of the Majority

John Stuart Mill is one of the classic liberal thinkers, and one that I greatly respect. That doesn’t mean I am a “Millist” who slavishly interprets every issue in terms of his ideas (much as some Thatcherites and Marxists are said to do with their inspirational leaders). I agree with those ideas of his I agree with, and cheerfully ignore the rest. I am my own thinker, and its a happy coincidence that I sometimes agree with various philosophers of the past.

As well as being a big promoter of utilitarianism – the idea that people should work to create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people — he also wrote a create deal on what liberty actually means. He is an important figure in liberal political philosophy. He was also a feminist and an atheist. In the 1860s, he was the first British MP to call for women to have the vote. Here’s some choice quotes of his…

On treating others, he foreshadowed what has since become known as Wheaton’s Law (“Don’t be a d***”).

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.

He did not love war, but he recognised it can sometimes be necessary@

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.

He recognised that religions, regardless of their truth or lack of it, can still motivate people to do good things.

It is conceivable that religion may be morally useful without being intellectually sustainable.

On Conservatism:

I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any honourable Gentleman will question it.

On the dangers of the tyranny of the masses:

Two very different ideas are usually confounded under the name democracy. The pure idea of democracy, according to its definition, is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented. Democracy, as commonly conceived and hitherto practised, is the government of the whole people by a mere majority of the people exclusively represented. The former is synonymous with the equality of all citizens; the latter, strangely confounded with it, is a government of privilege in favour of the numerical majority, who alone possess practically any voice in the state. This is the inevitable consequence of the manner in which the votes are now taken, to the complete disfranchisement of minorities.

This last point is particularly important. Elected MPs typically only pay attention to those constituents who are members of their party, at least when it comes to responding to requests to promote specific policies. This is wrong. Regardless of their party, they are there to represent all the people in their constituency. Not their party, not their corporate sponsors, not the people who voted for them. The constituents in their entirety. Anything less is a tyranny of the majority.

And last, but not least…

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

— Monty Python

Electoral Reform: Voting Buttons

This guest blog entry was by David Shepheard. He is a member of UNISON, working and living in London. Views expressed in this post are those of the author only.

I was talking with a friend about politics earlier and it reminded me of something I dislike about politics. That thing is the amount of faffing about they do, with silly old rituals.

One of those things is the long process of saying “Aye” and “Nay” and ringing the Division Bell and having people walk around in lobbies. That all eats up time. And as we pay these people a ton of money to work for us, I would like them to be more economical with our time.

Voting Buttons for the House of Commons

I would like to see all of that tossed out and replaced with a bunch of buttons in front of each MP:

  • Aye
  • Nay
  • Abstain

Instead of having party whips running around and trying to get party members to obey their commands, MPs should just be told to get on with it and vote by the Speaker. And instead of having party whips calling up MPs on their mobile phones and asking them to come back from the pub to vote, they should be sitting in their seats and pressing voting buttons. We pay these people a lot of money to talk about laws and think about laws – not to sit in the pub and to come back and blindly follow the orders of a party whip like a zombie.

I would like to see those buttons send out data in real-time, so that there is an instant result, and the MPs get on with talking about the next law immediately (or after a short toilet break). They should put a gigantic screen up in the House of Commons and show the vote on a pie chart.

I would also like to see the content sent out of the House of Commons in real time, so that people can log onto a website and see instant stats for laws, as they happen. And it should be possible for people to dig into the data (to see exactly who voted for or against each law – or to see exactly what laws any MP has voted for or against).

Voting Buttons for the House of Lords

I also think there should be a similar system in the House of Lords. They should have a gigantic screen too, and it should show a queue of laws coming in from the House of Commons that they have to vote “Content” or “Not-Content” on. Again they should have buttons in front of them, this time they could read:

  • Content
  • Not-Content
  • Abstain

What I would really like to see with the House of Lords, is for them to also try to work in real-time, and work towards reducing the amount of time they take to deal with laws that are sent over from the House of Commons.

If they decide to approve or reject laws, that could be bounced back to the House of Commons in real-time. There should not really be an excuse for laws taking a long time to bounce back and forth.

Why an Abstain button?

If any MP or member of the House of Lords fails to vote in any vote that should also be recorded in the stats (so we should be able to get stats to show who is not bothering to do half their work). Abstaining is a conscious decision to avoid voting yes or no. If someone listens to the “yes” and “no” arguments and is undecided by either argument, that is fine.

But not turning up to work, without a good reason, is not acceptable. Regular people face getting the sack if they do not turn up to work. The same should apply to people in government. There should be some sort of threshold of “Failed to vote” that triggers a “dereliction of public duty” investigation, with possible removal from office being a consequence.

I even think that, if someone is too ill to get into the Houses of Parliament, that that should trigger an investigation and possible removal from office. But, as illness is not “dereliction of public duty” there should not be any disgrace to someone being too ill to be a Lord or MP. But if they cannot do the job, and arrangements cannot be made to help them do the job, they need to pass on the baton to someone else.

This guest blog entry was by David Shepheard. He is a member of UNISON, working and living in London. Views expressed in this post are those of the author only.

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