Thursday, 26 May 2011

Obama's congestion charge

I know this isn't the most exciting thing to write about, but everything else about Obama's visit has been analysed repeatedly. (Huw Edwards was so desperate to make it historic that he kept repeating "This is the first time a US President has addressed both houses of Westminster Hall", like the room it took place in makes any difference to its historic-ness. Next time he will probably be saying "This is the first time a US President has addressed both houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall...on a Thursday afternoon", but I digress)

Before he arrived Boris of London mentioned the US embassy's unpaid congestion charge. Now I'm all for the US paying the congestion charge like anyone else, but apparently they are exempt due to diplomats not paying foreign taxes. Boris argued that the congestion charge is not a tax. The reason the congestion charge is not a tax is because it is a "charge for services". Maybe he should look up what a tax is. All taxes are indirectly charges for services, and I'm pretty sure the money from the congestion charge doesn't go directly into road building.

The next point Mr Johnson made was slightly more absurd. The reason the Pope did not pay the charge but Obama was expected to was: "Unlike the Pope where we didn't charge the Popemobile because we closed the roads, when The Beast rolled through London that Beast paid a congestion charge." If anything is bad for congestion it's closing roads. What Boris essentially said is that had Obama insisted on private roads he would not have had to pay, despite the enormous extra expense of closing off roads, policing and the money lost to the local economy through people being stuck in traffic jams. The Pope should have had to pay an extra charge for closing the roads. And an extra charge for being a doofus.

Friday, 6 May 2011

May 5th

It's currently 4.22 in the morning after polling day. I am tired and supremely pissed off. The following blog will come under the following headings:
An account of my day
Do people get what they deserve?
AV fuck up, who is to blame?

An account of my day
Well, first of all I voted. I put a little mark on my ballot so I could spot it if I counted it later.
Then I was sent to a polling station by the organization formerly known as "Yes to Fairer Votes". I was there for three hours in the warm weather giving out leaflets to about 10 85 year olds who turned out to vote. However, I did have the pleasure of the company of the UKIP candidate for the area. He knew a lot of people in the area through his business and family. We talked about everything from the EU (obviously) to feminism, party funding, national debt and electoral reform. Personally I am instinctively pro-EU because of my lefty upbringing, but I don't have any strong arguments. I actually agree with a lot of what UKIP say on Europe. It is too undemocratic and we don't need the EU to tell us what kind of lightbulbs to use or apples to eat. However, my answer to this is to reform the EU, not to leave it altogether as I think the trade benefits, movement of labour and the need for a strong unified global voice are important. I also find it strange how UKIP argue for more trade agreements etc. with the commonwealth. I don't see why they prefer the commonwealth over the EU and can't help but think that there may be some underlying imperialism at work. I also put it to him, after he had commented on the beauty of free markets, why he opposed the free movement of labour. The markets, surely, are capable of ensuring a well-balanced population with people where they need to be. He replied that it actually doesn't benefit 3rd world countries to be allowed free movement as we end up stealing all their doctors and nurses. (Don't quote me on this, I'm paraphrasing a bit [or would be if I knew what paraphrasing was])
As for party funding, we both agreed that there was too much money in politics and favour a low cap on donations by individuals so parties would need many donations, rather than a few big ones. I've said this for a long time, but I was surprised that a UKIP candidate agreed with me. I get the impression that UKIP, even more so than the tories, rely on wealthy backers. I have done my fair share of political campaigning but have never seen a UKIP volunteer delivering leaflets or canvassing. However, they do have big billboards and signs on the back of trucks. Also, the UKIP £ logo is probably meant to be a symbol of Britishness, but one can't help but speculate that it may be an in-joke by the party's wealthy leadership.
So after three hours and having persuaded literally no-one I headed back to uni to shout at people on the concourse for a bit.

In the evening I was counting votes for the local elections. On the one hand this is an exciting experience as there is the feeling of being at the heart of the election, but it is also quite tedious, particularly by 3 in the morning, and there is a lot of waiting around. It's also ironic that by being at the count you get less of an idea what's going on than if you were at home watching events on telly.
What I like about events like that is seeing all the people in different coloured rosettes chatting politely to each other. That is, apart from the single BNP candidate, who was circulating the room trying to taunt Labour and Lib Dem candidates and make a scene. He opted for calling the elderly Labour volunteers at my table peadophiles. What a lovely man.
Party-political slave that I am, it was quite distracting to hear the feral hoots of Labour members as their councillors won ward after ward while I was trying to count, but what was more uplifting was how close a lot of the results were and as a counter seeing the sheer number of Lib Dem votes. You get the impression in the media that there are no Lib Dems left, but this simply isn't true.
The massive Lib Dem defeat was not exactly fun to watch but it's not like it was unexpected. It's like when your 110 year old great grandmother pops her clogs. You knew it was coming but it's still hard to come to terms with when it happens.
The next day I was counting for AV. This took less time but was oh so much more depressing. I knew already from opinion polls and seeing referendum ballots the day before that it was lost and counting all the no votes on only a few hours sleep was not a bundle of laughs.
I pity the Lib Dems and Yes people at both counts. It was depressing for me but at least I was getting paid good money to be there.

Do people get what they deserve?
I watched a documentary once on call centres featuring depressed call centre workers and angry call centre customers. At the end, one of the customers summed the situation up well. He said that the cheap, impersonal, battery farming approach to customer service was the fault of the big companies for trying to increase their profit margins, and the fault of consumers for always demanding lower prices and not being prepared to pay for the extra bit of service. I think the same can be said of British politics.
People complain that they're all the same. Cameron, Clegg, Milliband. Which fresh-faced, political cliché do you prefer? You may as well flip a coin. People complain they try and appeal to the lowest-common-denominator, having broad, meaningless policies like the 'big society' summed up in vacuous soundbites that fit comfortably into headlines or YouTube clips. This is true. But we deserve it.
The very same people who complain about style over substance consistently vote for just that. Personally I don't dislike Ed Milliband as a Labour leader. He's not as self-servingly tribal as many and seems to be moving the party in a better direction. But all that is meaningless. He will never be Prime Minister, least not if he keeps along his current trajectory. If he ever wants a chance of election he needs to change his voice, style and learn to make a witty speech.
It's the classic market dilemma. The consumers blame the producers and the producers blame the consumers. What we all need to do is grow up.
You can't force people to take an interest but there must be a solution. 60% of people not voting in the second national referendum in our history is shocking, and by rejecting AV the British electorate have shot themselves in the foot again. Next time people are complaining about all politicians being the same they can just fuck off as far as I'm concerned.

AV fuckup: who to blame? 
This AV referendum was a fuck up, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But who, or what, is to blame?

  • The No campaign
The Yes campaign is angry, and rightly so, at the no campaign. The sheer level they stooped to with the £250m (that Blunkett admitted was made up on polling day) and their various other lies such as the BNP getting multiple votes, the end of one person one vote and people who come last actually coming first. However, it's likely that even if we had an honest debate (the Yes campaign wasn't perfect either) No would have won. What I want to know is why they chose this tactic instead of legitimate argument. There are some reasonable arguments against AV. For example, they could have pointed out that Ed Milliband was behind his brother in every round of voting and only one because of the in-some-cases next-to-last preferences of voters for other candidates. This is quite convincing. They could have also pointed out that it wouldn't have actually made a difference in a large number of seats, or that it can sometimes be even less proportional. If they had gone for this approach instead the Yes campaign would not be left with this niggling feeling of having been cheated. Anyone who thinks the public were given fair information and a clear choice must have been out of the country for the last few months.

  • Circumstances
In many ways this referendum could not have come at a worse time, both in a large sense, at a time of big government cutbacks and when the strongest advocates of electoral reform are disliked across the political spectrum, and in a more random sense that the royal wedding was last week and Osama bin Laden was captured three days before the referendum, stifling whatever limited debate we might have hoped for. Without information, voters are likely to go to a polling station, see something they know nothing about and vote against it. Also, with the lack of proper broadcasting on the subject, voters had to rely on what they were told by the yes and no campaigns, which can't be a good thing.

  • The Yes campaign
As I said before, the Yes campaign hasn't been perfect. However, I don't think it is 'to blame'. It did not have the resources of No to AV, or the newspapers on-side, or the majority of politicians. I read a comment, I think it was in the Guardian, criticizing the Yes campaign for having to enthusiasm for AV. I think this is unfair. Certainly in my experience there was loads of people prepared to pour time, energy, money and dignity into the Yes campaign. Some of us wanted PR, some were happy with AV, but we all knew that this was a better system than FPTP, and if we failed electoral reform in the UK would die for the foreseeable future. I don't think you can fault thousands of volunteers trying to improve the country for the better in the face of the fear and lies of the establishment.

  • Nick Clegg
People have blamed Nick Clegg for a lot of things, should AV be one of them?
There is quite a convincing case that Nick Clegg should not have agreed to an AV referendum. Whether that meant saying "PR or nothing" or having no referendum and looking for more concessions in other areas. This was likely to be the only referendum on the voting system in our lifetimes whether won or lost; should it really be wasted on AV? Also, there is a stronger case for PR and it may have rallied more people to the campaign. However, having said that, if there had been a referendum on PR which was lost, people would have said "maybe we should have made a smaller change to begin with". There are also stronger arguments against PR, such as constituency links and hung parliaments. 
The personal unpopularity of Clegg may have damaged the campaign. Unfortunately some people are tribal or ignorant enough to vote against a positive change because someone they don't like supports it.

  • The electorate
There is a major problem of people simply not caring about voting systems. In fact, I wonder why they always pick the worst issues to have referenda on. Who would have actually read the Lisbon treaty before voting on it? But even so, 40% turnout is bad. I know that I've already criticized the media for providing the necessary information, but people's reliance on the media is also a problem. They should be able to take the responsibility of finding out the facts for themselves and making up their own mind. And, again, we're back to supply and demand. The media doesn't talk about electoral reform because it doesn't sell papers. It's a vicious cycle.

It has been a more historic than usual set of local elections this year, aside from the predictable drubbing of the Lib Dems, we have been left with the very real possibility of Scottish independence as a result of the unthinkable happening: an overall majority in a proportional assembly. This would have a seismic impact on British politics. Any hope of a Labour shift to the left would be thwarted as they would need to appeal to the more conservative English electorate in the absence of their Scottish stronghold, and even without independence Scotland has been proven to no longer be as reliable to the Labour party as it has been. Whatever happens they will now need to look further afield for support. Those people who declare a permanent Tory majority in a Scotlandless UK I feel are mistaken, however, as sooner or later the English will want a change of government whoever is in power. This may also provide a niche for the Lib Dems who could exploit their perceived shift to the right in an independent England to become the second party and main opposition to the Tories, although this is wild speculation.
More important, however, is the future of electoral reform or lack thereof. There won't be another referendum on electoral reform in this parliament, and even if there's another hung parliament at the next election, would either Labour or Tories offer a referendum, and will the Lib Dems even bother to seek one after they have been defeated so comprehensively? It seems futile even to keep it in the Lib Dem's manifesto, as reform seems to have been rejected so wholeheartedly.
My view is that the British electorate are probably not as opposed to reform as it may appear and the proPR anti AV impact may have made FPTP look stronger than it is, but all that is irrelevant now. RIP electoral reform and any chance of Britain ever becoming a democracy. *transferring all eggs to basket of Lords reform*

If you know who is to blame for AV, please post below. And tell me their postcode and any achilles heels they may have.