Monday, May 17, 2010

Burqa blues

Hitchens argues in favour of the French burqa ban.

Norm disagrees.

I'm inclined to agree with Norm simply because a burqa ban falls into the Rosseauesque 'forced to be free' territory, which is always dodgy ground to find yourself in. There's no doubt that this whole business of women wearing a moveable tent is patriarchial in origin. And it would be naive to deny that the contemporary practice is often the same. But to insist this is always the case today is to make the genetic fallacy.

A good test of any proposed law is to ask: what happens if someone refuses to comply? Would the punishment meted out be worth it? In this case what you are talking about doing is fining women for failing to comply. And if they refuse to pay the fine, presumably a custodial sentence would be next. So you find yourself in a position where you jail women for failing to conform to a law that is supposed to be about women's freedom? It is for this reason that a burqa ban fails the test.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Liberal Democrats: the Partick Thistle of British politics

In case you don't know who Partick Thistle are - they are Glasgow's third football team. Their supporters would claim they are for people who dislike the sectarianism of the Old Firm. Their critics would say they are for people who aren't that interested in football.

The Liberal Democrats are the Partick Thistle of politics. There are those who don't vote on some matter of principle ("I won't use my vote; it might get dirty.") and then there are those who use their vote but are uncomfortable with the idea that their votes might actually have political consequences. Chief amongst these are, of course, Liberal voters - many of whom are horrified by Clegg taking theirs and throwing them in with the embryonic Coalition of the Unthinking.

But it isn't just Lib Dem voters who are uncomfortable with power. From what we can deduce so far, there are signs that Lib Dem politicians share this aversion. I appreciate this may seem counter-intuitive, what with the Liberals deserting the centre-left ground they were alleged to occupy in order to do a deal with the Tories. Gone, it seems, is any commitment to the European ideal. Gone is the supposed deal-breaker - PR. All this to gain a seat in power. But behind the sun-eclipsing boner for power that we have seen on display thus far, we also see the genetic discomfort with it that the Liberals have incubated over seventy years. Consider this, for example:
"One of the first acts by the Lib-Con coalition will be to table legislation requiring a minimum 55% of House of Commons votes to force dissolution. So the simple majority no-confidence vote to force a new election evaporated as day dawned at the start of an era of “new politics”.

What this means is that even the implosion of the Lib-Con coalition that sees all Lib Dem MPs streaming into the opposition lobbys with Labour et al will be insufficient to bring down a Tory party government that can count 47% of the available votes."
Brownie remarks, "We all know power corrupts, but isn’t it supposed to take a bit longer than this?" Indeed - but one of the most commonly noted corrupting tendencies of power is for those who have it to seek to acquire more of it for themselves. Yet Clegg here is surrendering power - giving up as he does his party's power to bring down the coalition if it is no longer considered viable.

Cameron, then, has been quick to identify potential impediments to his power and to take steps to neutralise them. Another obvious one is the potential wrecking influence of Scottish votes in Parliament, which is the motivation behind this line in the Con-Lib deal:
"We have agreed to establish a commission to consider the 'West Lothian question'."
This being, "Why should Scottish MPs vote on matters only affecting the English when English MPs, post-devolution, have no such reciprocal powers?" It's not that it isn't a reasonable question. Unlike many of my compatriots, I think it is. It's just what it represents politically: Cameron is seeking to alter the constitution in his and his party's interests and all the available evidence we have so far is that Clegg and the Liberals seem willing to be led by the nose here. You could claim they are motivated by principle but if so, why have they abandoned the demand for proportional representation that they claim to feel so deeply about? Because one could be forgiven for thinking that over the years PR is the only thing that the Liberals hold as a principle that distinguishes them from either Labour or the Conservatives.

It may be psychologising but I suspect that behind all this is some kind of grasp for power combined with a deep aversion to the same. In office but not in power - because they are fundamentally and temperamentally ill-disposed to the latter? I'm not sure but if this is in anyway right, it leaves a question: why did the Lib Dems feel obliged to go into coalition with anyone? They refused to join the SNP in Holyrood and the net result has been that while the nationalists remain in power, they have been confronted on a regular basis with the reality that they simply don't command a majority in Parliament and have been unable to pass any controversial or partisan legislation. I would have liked the Tories to have shared the same fate. But Clegg had other ideas. If he had good reasons for this, thus far he has kept them to himself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reflections on the ascension of the Cameroon

I'll write something sensible in due course. For now a couple of observations. First up, the sage that is Polly Toynbee. I'm working on the theory that the hot air she generates may be a major factor behind climate change. She repeats, in her latest pile of shite, this notion floating about that Labour didn't go for the 'progressive alliance' option because too many prefer the 'comfort of opposition'.

How comfortable or otherwise Labour feels in opposition is irrelevant. Labour is going into opposition because it lost the General Election. A pretty obvious point that you might have thought wouldn't need making - but apparently it does. The 'progressive alliance' was a stupid fantasy that bore no relation to reality. Not being very good at the predicting thing, I can't say whether Labour will be out of power for a generation but it is a fate that would have been more likely had they attempted this ridiculous coalition of losers option suggested by writers of a paper that advocated this mess in the first place.

So here we have it: the Liberals do a deal with the Tories and, true to form, various fuckwits whom I won't link to have the audacity to blame the Labour party for this? Because it was their outrageous connection with reality wot scuppered the 'rainbow alliance' where everyone would celebrate the gorgeous mosaic of their political diversity under PR. You know - the system that would have never won a majority in Parliament? (Turkeys, Christmas: fill in the spaces - I don't have time for remedial education.) So we'll get, on an optimistic prognosis, a return to some kind of Gladstonian liberalism - with added flip-charts. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to describe this as 'progressive'.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Beware nationalists bearing gifts

Regardless of how a coalition is cobbled together, this election result spells trouble for the future of the Union. If a Conservative-led - or a Conservative minority government emerges, one fears a return to the eighties when nationalism with a small 'n' was used as a stick to beat a government pursuing deflationary policies. So far, so obvious.

But nationalism will also do for the 'progressive majority' option now being championed by various Guardianista types. Forming a government under these circumstances would be the West Lothian Question with bells on: not just Scots and Welsh MPs occasionally deciding on matters that only affect the English but actually forming a government with this problem at its very core. It's just another reason why the 'progressive majority' option isn't terribly realistic. There's another problem too: even if this were tolerable, the sums don't quite add up. The only commentator I can find who has spotted this obvious but overlooked arithmetical point is this gentleman here:
"For such a government to have a majority it have to obtain at least the acquiescence of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Both parties, however, as a matter of principle do not vote on English matters. This means that (assuming they can rely on the support of the DUP) the Conservatives would be able to defeat any measure brought forward by a putative anti-Tory coalition that applied only to England. On the other hand, even with a minority of seats in the UK as a whole the Conservatives would be able to rule England. This fact has been rather overlooked amid all the talk of deals and Parliamentary arithmetic, but it is really quite basic and obvious."
The nationalist parties could always abandon this principle of course - but this would serve only to undermine their own arguments about governments lacking mandates in the Celtic parts of the UK. It would certainly be the source of anger amongst some English MPs and voters - and would therefore serve to be another nail in the coffin of the Union. What ever else he might be, Salmond is not stupid so it is likely that all this has occurred to him. It is for this reason Brown and the Labour party would be wise to ignore the advice of Guardian journalists - although my advice is hopefully superfluous, given that the hierarchy of the Labour party are rather better acquainted with these matters than people like Jackie Ashley and Will Hutton.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Reflections on the election: voting, voting reform and the myth of the progressive majority

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that this election has highlighted the need for voting reform. This case is often put in unambiguous language. Our majoritarian system has been described in various places as, as best, 'outdated', if not 'irrational' - occasionally it is 'crazy' and it is always 'undemocratic'. PR, on the other hand, is 'fair' - so obviously fair that it is often simply described as 'fair votes'. Fair because it is more representative of the General Will, tending to produce coalition governments that represent more than 50% of the electorate.

Now I'm agnostic on the issue but some of the arguments that are being made run the risk of making me a PR infidel.

Why, for example, has this election 'discredited' FPTP more than the last one? In 2005, Blair won an overall majority in the Commons with about the same share of the vote Cameron got this time. And in 1983, the SDP/Liberal Alliance did better than this time - gaining only one percent less of the vote than Labour, yet gaining a tenth of the seats.

While this election also shows the disproportions in representation that can arise with our system, it isn't such an obviously good example. The electorate have spoken and now they are left waiting for the parties to interpret what they've said. Advocates of PR surely can't be unaware that this is a matter of routine in most European elections - with a pattern roughly like the one we're seeing here: the guy who came third gets to decide who comes first. I can't understand how anyone could possibly argue that the case for this is somehow 'unanswerable'.

Part of the enthusiasm for PR re-heats the arguments we became familiar with in the eighties - with all this talk of an anti-Tory majority in the country. This short article in Liberal Conspiracy makes it for a new generation, suggesting that on Thursday a majority of the British people voted 'progressive'.

I dislike the term 'progressive'. If Melanie Phillips can describe herself thus, one wonders if the term has any meaning at all. It doesn't seem to mean much in Hobshouse's hands either, with 'progressive' people being simply those who didn't vote Tory.

I didn't vote 'progressive' on Thursday, I voted Labour. People who voted Lib Dem didn't vote 'progressive' either. I wonder what they thought they were voting for? Even if this unifying abstraction could be applied to Labour and Liberal voters, it just simply isn't realistic to think it is possible for the guy who came third to prop up the guy who came second in order to exclude the guy who came first from power. Those who are arguing this is constitutionally permissible must surely see that it is nevertheless politically unfeasible?

They should have voted Labour. In situations like this - or a council election that ends up NOC - I can't know with whom my favoured candidate might align themselves with - but I can be pretty sure they would never support Conservatives in a coalition. As it happened, my councillor* will not have to do this either because Glasgow is one of the two council in Scotland where Labour can govern without the need to enter alliances with other parties, despite the fact that the elections use STV. And my MP is one of the few in the country who gets more than 50% of the vote.

Advocates of PR suggest people feel disenfranchised by this because it makes voting pointless. But this seems to suggest that the only proper motivation to vote is when you think you can affect the outcome. Instead you vote, first and foremost, to register your approval for a system that is superior to those where no votes are cast.

Beyond that, I vote to indicate my support for my party. My MP didn't need it - having as he already had by that time a substantial pile that far outstripped his nearest competitor. I didn't think this pointless and I certainly didn't feel disenfranchised. Advocates of voting reform should understand this: Glasgow North West is a safe Labour seat not out of some cruel caprice of an unjust voting system but because we the electorate have made it that way.

*There was a council by-election in my ward on Thursday.
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