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Blog content: commentary, news and analysis from behind a bar in London.

Short Term Thinking III

My last two posts provided the primer for a discussion of how post-industrial economies interact with the drive towards a democratic system from our current standpoint of an unplanned constitutional monarchy in which approximately two thirds of the country are not represented by someone they voted for, under any outcome.

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Short Term Thinking II

The most salient similarity between the two inordinately long, one might almost say ’19th Century’, regimes that have dictated our lives for the past forty years is the way the markets reacted to them (of course, they pursued unexpectedly similar financial policies). In both cases, they were positioned for their launch into extremism by a very strong economic position they had precisely nothing to do with creating. North Sea oil and gas was almost entirely paid for by Labour and then sold by the Tories, to their own advantage. This also more or less describes the public infrastructure that was privatised, though several Tory governments had helped build that. The Internet and mobile phone booms were not only not helped by New Labour, they were actively and systematically handicapped.

Both regimes exploited the strength of their perceived position as winning teams to orchestrate subtle, and then not-so-subtle, witch-hunts. Bizarrely, in the case of Thatcher’s social services, there was a literal witch hunt. As Reagan was expanding Nixon’s War on Drugs into Wars on other things, Thatcher was declaring war on organised labour, Irish travelers, peace-protesters, environmentalists and the counter-culture in general. And she was winning, because let’s face it, if you smash all the news men’s cameras and if you’re just beating up a gang of filthy hippies and left-liberal wets, why would middle England care? It’s not like your party will ever need the votes of the liberal and progressive middle class. Er, hang on…

Labour, having surfed into Cool Britannia on a wave of BritPop pizzazz, shambled to the right over the War on Terror and then proceeded to abandon the world of rationality all together. Evidence became a deprecated practice, science policy was subjected to political speculation and short-term party interest. The rational but leftist economic inspirations of a young Scottish Presbyterian in the 80s turned into slavish neo-Thatcherite greed in office in the 2000s. The hysterical Christian wing of the Labour Party are just as terrifying as Christina Odone and Nadine Dorries.

Why did I justify typing all of that when I’m lurking deep within the bowels of a pile of boxes significantly higher than my head, moodily smoking and wishing I’d had more than 4 hours sleep at any time this week? Patience, gentle reader, good things come to those who wait.

The last and most significant parallel I need to draw is between Black Wednesday and the collapse of Northern Rock. In both instances of over-long government by a functional dictatorship (full majority in the commons) their term saw the collapse of significant chunks of the Square Mile boom the government had been exploiting to maintain its autarchy. And unlike what usually happens, where a government is lucky to get ten straight years and very lucky to get ten years of a more or less free hand to legislate, in both cases the economic failure actually had been engineered by the incumbents, not the last guys.

Thatcher over-clocked the economy quite deliberately to gain the largest possible advantage from the North Sea, the privatisation binge, and the world-wide economic and financial boom that accompanied the rise of the Tiger economies. Most governments who run their economy too fast with inadequate cooling are safely out of office when the magic smoke escapes. The Tories weren’t, and David Cameron bloody well knows it; he was standing behind Lamont when the Chancellor announced an interest base rate of 15%.

Unexpectedly, Brown’s Chancellorship saw New Labour follow exactly the same pattern. The City was given its head, the communications boom was exploited ruthlessly while its lucrative consumers, mostly under 30, were demonised in Westminster and Wapping alike. The housing market boom was then artificially inflated well beyond its natural term to off-set the horrendous costs of the War on Terror. The Rock did not fall over because it was heavily invested in US sub-prime instruments, it was a home-grown collapse which came about because the government over-clocked the economy until something blew. What blew was Northern Rock.

I would argue that we can in part credit Gordon Brown’s response with saving us some half a million jobs versus the Tory management of the previous recession. Too late, and in the wrong way, but he did try to respond constructively for the country rather than just happily for the city.

The conclusions are three-fold. Firstly, it is clear that there is a natural cycle which is used by financial traders to consolidate their industry (ensure that very very few new contenders ever make it into the Deep Pocket Club). If permitted by government, it is in the interests of our official gamblers to over-inflate, bust, then over-inflate rather than reflecting the accurate market price of a given commodity or instrument. This is because market men make money in the margin (say that drunk): they can only ‘win’ if the market price is not the same as the actual worth. If the price is too low you make money buying; if it is too high you make money selling. If it’s right, there’s no margin for the Monopoly players in rainbow coats.

Secondly, it is clear that our system promotes governmental short-termism. Both of these two over-powered regimes governed in the short-term interest by actively inflating natural booms until they became insubstantial bubbles which, predictably, burst. This is most certainly not the only way to run a county, it’s just the only way that any Briton under 40 has ever experienced. Safe seats lead directly to ministerial corruption; safe majorities lead directly to autocracy and a bitterly divisive national discourse.

And thirdly, it is bad for Britain to have long-term, majority governments. Both times we’ve tried it in the modern era it has permitted those governments to engineer vastly damaging recessions for short term gain. Twice in that time it has allowed the government to engage us in a war of aggression we didn’t want. Both times won the government significant short-term political gains. Letting either the red or the blue teams run the country with an over-all majority guarantees that they will wreck your economy in their own interest at least once.

Our system is designed to produce majority governments, but it has evolved to deliver (in Sir Humphrey’s words) an aristocratic system of government occasionally interrupted by elections. This situation is well reflected in the educational backgrounds of our current cabinet. In vote-share terms, the country is more or less a quarter liberal, a third conservative and two-fifths labour. That is the direct result of two long, autocratic, socially authoritarian regimes both of which shot themselves in the foot while scuttling the economy. The people, as my friend Laurie suggests, have mumbled. They have spent two generations trying out elective dictatorship in the 19th Century model, and it would seem that they don’t like it much.

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Short Term Thinking I

The economy (and political map) of Britain have changed radically since 1977. This is not a controversial statement. We’ve gotten collectively richer, while in the process metastasizing tumours of disadvantage which will take not years but generations, plural, to heal. We’ve shifted our economy finally and irrevocably from one based on most people working in manufacturing or primary industry to one where better than two thirds of the country work in service, knowledge or other tertiary industries. We have not evolved adequate union models for an era in which increasing numbers of the under-40s are self-employed and multi-skilled but broke and completely disenfranchised by demographic accidents and a broken political system. And we’ve had two, very long, governments in that time, one Tory and one Labour.

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Electoral reform

More or less, the offer from both senior parties to the LibDems depends from the same flawed premise. Both parties are prepared to put AV to the country; neither are prepared to do the same with STV. And I believe the reason why is pretty obvious.

It’s about safe seats. AV is the only one of the alternative systems which preserves them intact. Safe seats are graphably the reason for the expenses scandal. Safe seats allow parachuting of candidates, placing too much power in the hands of central committees over local candidates and parties. Safe seats are wholly counter-democratic. And the LibDems have almost none of them, but the other parties have quite a few each.

For voting reform to matter, it must remove safe seats. Only one system does. Neither large party can countenance that easily. 62% of those polled recently support PR. Therefore neither large party can offer a referendum on anything other than AV, which isn’t PR.

For some more interesting analyses, check out Alix Mortimer and MatGB.

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Clegg-iscite II

Some real politics has happened in London, nothing like the scale or reach of the G20 demonstrations last year but arising from the same kind of alliance of grass-roots movements; by which I mean Power2010, Make Votes Count, Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society, Ekklesia, Compass, Hang ’em, Vote for a Change, and Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the New Economics Foundation… According to the Head Research Otter’s on-the-spot reporting, there were somewhere around 2,000 present at the original rally in Trafalgar Square, and that about a thousand of them fitted into Smith Square to invoke Nick Clegg.

And they got him. It was remarkable in British politics to see a spontaneous demonstration of political intent call out a politician to stand on his steps and speak to them. It rather stunned the BBC, whose coverage has a slight scent of the bewildered about it. It seems to have surprised Mr. Clegg, though he was also pretty chuffed.

When I was young and drunken I used to bait people at Speakers Corner. One of them challenged me to take a turn on the soap-box, and I took him up; for a while, I became slightly addicted to the experience, which was invigorating for a fan of the Pythons and Withnail & I who had reasonable reflexes. But Speaker’s Corner is a safety valve; it is a place where the ignored can go to feel heard, without being heard by anyone who matters. The role it once played in providing a public and adverserial agora for the intrepid Foxes and thundering Burkes to sell their ideas in has been transferred to the Internet.

A bit of a theme of my writing since May last year is that Britain hasn’t seen real politics for so long that the denizens of the Westminster bubble and their clattering commentariat have forgotten what it looks like. A more recent theme has been comparison between the progress towards democracy of my adopted nation, and the slow lurch that way currently occurring in the UK. Well here’s installment 3; this is what real politics looks like. Only this is rather more polite than most real politics; though we may have recently fallen into the slough of complacency, we have a lot of practice at this and we do like good manners.

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Con

Were there no other reasons to see this election as an open call for a new system, there is the loss of Evan Harris. I was guessing that this outcome would lead to a second election soon. Now that we need to get Dr. Harris back into Parliament, I’m hoping for one.

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Shambles

I’m considering shaving my head and getting a pair of antlers tatooed on it.

I thought I was indulging in black humour when I drew comparisons between the progress of Ghana toward democracy, and the current UK election. I really thought it would look funny later. But now I’m hearing about the kind of shit that used to happen under Achaempong. I’m hearing about police breaking through spontaneous protests of the disenfranchised outside polling booths.

The BBC report that hundreds of people in constituencies spread across London, Manchester, Chester, Liverpool, Bolton and Sheffield have been shut out of polling stations after multi-hour queuing. I fully expect to hear of more. I’m hearing about polling stations that ran out of ballots. I’m hearing about spontaneous protests at polling stations being broken by police.

The Electoral Commission have announced that they will be investigating electoral irregularities. 3 seats have returned and they are already saying this! In 1992, three separate sets of observers were in action; UN, some Swiss hired by the government and some Finns I never found out who hired. Everyone and the BBC agreed the elections were fair. One observer said on air, “If Eastern Europe could run elections this clean I’d be out of a job.”

Not if the returning officers of Sheffield Hallam have anything to do with it, mate. What we have here is students (the group most likely to vote LibDem) being separated from ‘residents’ into a separate queue. They were then processed so much more slowly that ‘hundreds’ (BBC) were turned away without being able to vote.

[ Edit 0040: Here is the 140-character saga of the Sheffield Hallam law student Rak Smith. Disenfranchisement in a modern democracy, tweeted live. I would like to congratulate Raksky for presence of mind and good liberal instincts in making a speech to angry riot police. And I would like to add my fury and support to the pleas of those who have been denied their right to vote. ]

This is scandalous. Leaving aside the convenient coincidence that this is Nick Clegg’s own seat; this is a travesty against one of the longest democratic traditions in the world. Be it conspiracy or not, it is most certainly cock-up, and that’s not bloody good enough.

We suspected that a hung parliament would reveal the bankruptcy of this system. There’s no evidence yet to suggest that the seats will accurately reflect the popular vote, so that is still likely. But it didn’t occur to me that we’d see the kind of voting irregularities we saw in elections run by the Bush regime.

I could never vote in Ghana. I campaigned, but couldn’t vote. And I remember what the polling queues looked like. Hundreds of people standing singing in the sunshine, baking and sweating and grinning their ears off. I remember hearing about violence in Gonja territory, and how fast it was dealt with. People were in jail by the end of the day. I predict now that no-one will go to prison for this. If we wouldn’t prosecute them for the Iraq war we won’t prosecute anyone for this.

BBC, in 2010, report that the police have broken picket lines in two places, where enraged voters who had been denied the chance to vote had blocked the ballot box until it carried their electoral rights within its seal.

The system is bankrupt. It cannot be permitted. I’ve heard calls for V masks in Parliament square. I’m inclined to echo them right now.

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