26 May 2010

The Tragi-Comedy of the Square

Yesterday, a lot of people were getting very excited about Parliament Square as police tried to enforce some sort of security and/or tidiness upon it.

As irritating as the sight of assorted members of What We Used To Call The Left (WWUTCTL) pitching tents, banners and placards on the Griswald's favourite London attraction is, I reckon Winnie, Abe, Dave, Ben, Jan, George, Edward and Pam might have benignly approved. (As Nelson is still alive, he can speak for himself). It's all very tame compared to the political upheaval of their days. And that is what is truly irritating about Democracy Village: its faux radicalism that typifies WWUTCTL. If there was any coherency to what these people were doing, their despoilment of a world heritage site might attract a tad more sympathy.

According to the Democracy Village website, this whole operation is a "peace strike". Hmm. A "strike", eh? Cool. Workers strike, don't they? Those horny-handed sons (and daughters) of toil. Betcha Dad's told you all about the miners' strike, hasn't he? Now that, that was a strike. And what the BA cabin crew are doing. Phew. That's almost too exciting to bear! Not only are they striking but, in the process, they are also grounding those CO2-spewing aeroplanes.

Hold on, though. Surely to be a strike, you have to be witholding something that that those whom you are striking against want. Now the ruling classes are a sensitive lot, I know. And I'm sure they'd prefer a nice, unobliterated view out of the windows of the Houses of Parliament while they quaff cognac from hollowed-out diamonds and gently caress the capitalist lap-dogs curled up in their Saville Row-tailored crotches. But refusing to be "not in Parliament Square" falls short of a proper strike, don't you think?

Fear not. I'm sure you've got a few other ideas up your sleeves. Like these three, who set out several yards from Democracy Village to drape a protest banner over Westminster Abbey:

Woah, woah, woah, woah. Wait a second. What's going on there? Soldiers home, please? PLEASE? Soldiers home bloody comma please?! There is no greater pedant than me. No one more admiring of the correct use of a punctuation mark. But are you demanding an end to a war which you insist is illegal? Or ordering breakfast? The woman leading this heroic act of peace even described it as "a little bit naughty". What is this? "Carry On Smash The Imperialist Conflict-Mongers"? I'm still not sure exactly what it is you're trying to achieve but I strongly suspect it might take more than being "a little bit naughty".

Help. Please. Help me understand. What's that? Ryan'll sort me out? I can just go along to the Information Stand? Lovely. Now we're going somewhere. I'm starting to get it. Democracy Village is the Ideal Campaigns exhibition. Will you guys be at Olympia, next year? Ryan won't, I'm sure. He'll still be too busy "worrying" about the war in Afghanistan. Pete Phoenix might be, though, as long as there are some suitable "network experiences" to be had.

"The most controversial speaker was a mouthpiece for the
Tories who encouraged us anarchists to register as such in
return for mind-altering substances. A few Villagers didn’t
seem to have a prior understanding of satire and became
quite riled at the ‘Tory’s’ opinions; one lady began shouting
about the Village being funded by oil and arms companies…
and the Israelis."

You can begin to understand when the original long-term Parliament Square protestor, Brian Haw, is said to be less than impressed with his new-found co-habitors. Though if he had a grasp of basic economic theory he would have known that this tragi-comedy was all very predictable. (We know he doesn't have a grasp of basic economic theory through his insistence that the Iraq War was all about the oil when everyone else knows it was about serving the interests of Jewish bankers*.)

Thanks to its unique location in the heart of our political district, Parliament Square can provide great publicity for an issue and the opportunity to communicate with decision-takers. If that opportunity is over-exploited, that provision is depleted. While individuals may benefit from their experience in Democracy Village, the cost - of incoherency, dissipated responsibility, inaccessibility, and counter-productive campaign tactics - is borne by all.

Through his strangely pointless but impressively stubborn nine-year long sit-in on the Square, Mr Haw has established its status as a shared resource for protest. Like all such resources, it has now become vulnerable to the Tragedy of the Commons.

*As this is a new blog and the web is full of lunatics, I rather suppose I should point out that this remark is what is tecnically known as "a joke".

25 May 2010

10 questions for the Labour leadership candidates

Dear Andy, David, Diane, Ed B, Ed M and John,

So you're all agreed that we've become "disconnected" from our "core vote". Break it down for me. What, or rather who, is our core vote?

Everyone's also quite clear that we need to "listen" more. Listening is good. But so is leadership. Is there any conflict between the aspirations of our core vote and those of the voters we need to attract (or attract back) to regain power? How would you balance this?

Specifically, one of the oft-cited reasons for the disconnection is our failure to satisfactorily address immigration. Is putting the case for immigration part of the solution here? If so, how would you articulate this?

More generally, do science and evidence-based policy-making play a large enough role in determining Labour's direction and ideas? If not, how would you ensure they do?

Let's imagine that it's the morning after the next General Election. Labour is in the same position that the Conservatives were on May 7th this year. You are standing pretty much in David Cameron's shoes and having to intiate coalition discussions. What are the main principles of negotiation in such circumstances? What is your experience of leading similar negotiations?

Alternatively, Labour win that election with an overall majority. It's minute one of your time in Downing Street. What's the first thing you announce? Or, in other words, why do you want to be Prime Minister?

Yours, in genuine curiosity,


11 May 2010

There is much in the Con-Lib programme that we can and should support - and much we can't and won't.

During my two decades of political activism, I had never got round to attending an election count. I put that right last week. And it was magical. Like a democratic technology at which those from a different era or political system might only wonder. 

As the papers spilled out, we could be sure that nobody had been physically threatened during their journey to and from the polling stations. No gangs had tried to disappear a ballot box or two. No bribes had been offered to (let alone taken by) those counting what had been cast. Relief that the campaigning was over mixed well with a certain pride that an election free and fair was culminating in the trays of neatly clipped papers piling up in front of us. The Sunday Times completely missed the point with an article fretting about the non-requirement of ID. Damn skippy we do not have to prove who we are to polling station staff. Long may it remain so.

It is easy to take for granted the pacifity with which one elected representative is chosen over others in our body politic. For while magical, it is no illusion. 

That said, I make no claim for our democracy as the optimal reflection of the collective choice, effortlessly creating a consensual vision of the future around which a cohesive national effort for unstoppable reform and progress is launched. For now, we find value elsewhere in the decisions taken on 6th May 2010 - and 1st May 1997, 3rd May 1979, 28th February 1974, 18th June 1970, 15th October 1964, 30th May 1951 and 5th July 1945. On these dates, incumbent governments were essentially given their notice by voters who wanted them out for reasons (both real and perceived) of incompetency, leadership failure, simple over-familiarity, or the alternatives being better. 

Political scientists talk of "change" elections. I think a better description is "safety valve" elections, in which frustration is expressed and then relieved. The choices made under such circumstances may not be postitive but they are no less significant for that.

Which is why as progressives we can feel disappointed with the General Election result but, on democratic principle, satisfied with the outcome of coalition talks. The people spoke. And their will has been alchemised into an administration.

Ultimately, renewing ourselves in government turned out to be nigh on impossible. In opposition it will be much easier but riskier. Our approach must be measured and pragmatic. This was no 1997-style wholesale rejection of a long-standing government but we did lose badly and the message has been clear: while there is much to be proud of in the indisputable progress of the last 13 years, there is also room for contrition and some in-hindsight recognition of when we got it wrong. Equally, there is much in the Con-Lib programme that we can and should support - and much we can't and won't.

The Left's rather odd (and one would think contradictory) propensity for reactionary and elitist responses has already been glimpsed in the Take Back Parliament campaign. What if the electorate made the right choice? Not "right" as in what we agree with. "Right" as in what people felt about the parties, their leaders and the policies. Just because the Lib Dems didn't do as well as you hyped hoped, does not mean that the election was "broken".

We are already in danger of tying ourselves up over process and nurturing a resentment of what ordinary men and women think while real opportunities to influence pass us by. Choosing a different direction over the coming weeks will ensure that our experience of being out of power this time is for years, maybe months, rather than decades.