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Friday, 27 June 2008

The lies at the heart of Straw's white paper (IV)

So far I have tried to demonstrate that
  • Political parties have no special constitutional role; inside parliament they perform a useful function of 'grouping' MPs, but this is not an 'indispensible' role and other mechanisms have been used in the past and are possible now
  • Mass-membership national parties were a phenomenon that flourished during two or three decades of the last century and have been in decay since
  • Changes in particular since 1979 that have increasingly centralised legal and administrative control in government have been paralleled by changes in party management that have marginalised the role of local party organisations and have accelerated the loss of local political engagement
  • Party expenditure overall has not grown significantly above inflation since the 1960s, but there has been a massive shift in spending from local to central
  • As a result of these changes local political activity has atrophied and memberships are in freefall. State funding has already been substituted to the extent of £1.75bn over the parliamentary election cycle (Pinto-Duschinsky)
Cui bono?
One of the most telling facts revealed by P-D is that the number of Party workers employed by the State - as political assistants and the like - dwarf the numbers employed privately by the parties; 1,000 full time equivalent workers employed by the parties (at HQ and paid agents and the like) to 13,000 full time equivalent party workers paid for by the State - i.e. by you and me. Given that 98.6% of the electorate are not members of one of the three main parties, you may feel they are right to be aggrieved at not being consulted on this.

And this brings us to the question of who benefits from all this? Not electors, for sure; 16m electors have deserted the polls, not, as politicians would believe, from apathy but largely from disgust. The Power Commission's research has comprehensively exposed the myth of 'apathy'.

Pinto-Duschinsky comments:
It doesn’t take very much for political leaders, parliamentarians and local politicians to convince themselves that it is a matter of the public interest that they should receive more money from the taxpayer. Whether it comes in the form of improved salaries, benefits, allowances or subsidies for their party organisations, the basic demand is for more.
And this has given rise to what Peter Oborne has called in the eponymous title to his book 'The Triumph of the Political Class'. He writes:
This new Political Class has emerged over the past three decades to become the dominant force in British public life - and increasingly pursues its own sectional interests oblivious to the public good. It encompasses lobbyists, party functionaries, advisers and spindoctors, many journalists, and increasing numbers of once independent civil servants. All mainstream politicians of the three main parties belong to it. Gordon Brown is a member, so is the Tory leader David Cameron.

The Political Class is metropolitan and London-based. Its members perceive life through the eyes of a member of London's affluent middle classes. This converts them into a separate, privileged elite, isolated from the aspirations and the problems of provincial, rural and suburban Britain.
And here is the nub. We have almost lost a national grass-roots politically engaged electorate for whom politics and political activity is just a part of their normal lives and work to a cabal of those who pronounce smugly that 'politics is a career' and 'politics is a profession', and who look to the taxpayer to fund their introverted but aspirational lives.

Oborne also comments:
MPs from different parties now have far more in common with each other, as members of the Political Class, than they have with voters. They seek to protect one another, help each other out, rather than engage in robust democratic debate.

As a result, the House of Commons is no longer really a cockpit where great conflicts of vision are fought out across the chamber. It has converted instead into a professional group, like the Bar Council or the British Medical Association.

To be continued

Thursday, 26 June 2008

David Icke will not take an oath to a lizard

David Icke, standing against David Davis in H&H, has declared that if he wins he won't take the oath to the Queen as he thinks she's really a twelve foot lizard from the constellation Draco.

Oh gawd. It's going to be a long summer.

Until men have babies, this pay gap will remain (reprise)

I'm just going to take a break from Straw for a minute to repost something I wrote some time ago. Harman announced today she is going to clamp down on the pay difference between men and women. Sigh. Right, here it is:

Discrimination is not an evil. We discriminate in favour of the most capable candidate when we appoint people to jobs. We discriminate in favour of tractors over racing cars when we choose a vehicle to pull a plough. All this is 'good' discrimination and is not only entirely legal, it is essential for economic efficiency.

Point two. Employment discrimination on grounds other than for economic efficiency is termed 'taste discrimination' and is a bad thing and largely illegal. Taste discrimination includes discrimination on grounds of race, sex or religion (the last is important in Northern Ireland).

Point three. The aim of the firm is to maximise profit. Firms other than micro 'mom and pop' enterprises very rarely practice taste discrimination. Very often the opposite is true; Grunwick Film labs deliberately employed Asian women over white working class men because they would work for less, and the firm earned itself the bitter hatred of the Union movement. Taste discrimination is more likely to be found in public sector organisations than in private sector ones.

Point four. Employment, promotion and reward decisions that are made in the furtherance of economic efficiency are made on the grounds of an employee's qualifications, experience and an 'employability factor' (are they acquainted with a toothbrush and an iron, and refrain from swearing at customers).

Point five. It's been ten years since I did my Masters, and the pay gap then, when I studied this subject, was 18%, and it's hardly moved. There was a substantial body of economic research into this pay gap, all of which found that the pay gap attributable to taste discrimination was somewhere in the region of 3% to 5% - meaning that 13% - 15% of the pay gap was attributable to other factors. The reason for this larger difference is essentially simple; men and women of the same age with exactly the same qualifications and 'employability' often differ substantially in the third factor, experience. The proximate reason why women have less cumulative experience than men is because they spend significant periods out of the workplace when having babies. And that's it.

Take two 30 year olds, John and Janet, working for the same firm. They started on the same day, with exactly the same degree from the same university, and both are equally bright, personable and compliant. John has 9 years of experience since joining the firm, but Janet only has 6, having had two children and having taken advantage of the firm's enlightened and progressive 'career break' scheme. John earns a fifth more than Janet because his additional experience makes him more efficient.

It angers me when twunts such as Judy Mallaber, the Labour MP who led the enquiry, suggest that the 18% gap is all due to capitalist private enterprise exercising taste discrimination against women. It's untrue. It's a lie. And what's more it's deadly dangerous.

If the firm is forced by law to ignore Janet's years out of the workplace having babies and is forced to pay her the same as John, the firm becomes less efficient, and therefore less competitive, and the economy as a whole is the loser. Twunts.

Tim Worstall has posted a rather better developed piece on this on the Guardian's CIF. And drawn the usual loony rantings.

The lies at the heart of Straw's white paper (III)

One of the key issues identified in Hayden Phillips' risible and scrappy little report, upon which Straw relies heavily for the substance of his white paper, is an 'arms race' in party spending. The white paper quotes the Constitutional Affairs Committee from 2006
The Labour Party's national campaign expenditure increased by more than five times in real terms between 1983 and 1997 and the Conservative Party's by more than three times, giving rise to the argument that there was an 'arms race' between the parties ...
And again from the Neill Report of 1997
Without doubt the parties' belief that elections can only be won by the expenditure (mainly on advertising) of vast sums of money has given rise to something of an arms race.
However, Pinto-Duschinsky (P-D) demolishes the 'arms race' as a myth. His research has been widely available, and was doubtless known to Straw before this white paper was published.

National campaign expenditure is only one aspect of party spending that also includes local campaign expenditure, national routine expenditure and local routine expenditure. Measured over the election cycle, party expenditure has only risen by around 1% a year in real terms since the 1960s. What Straw identifies as an 'arms race' is really nothing of the sort; its actually a massive shift in party spending from local to central.

The alienation and marginalisation of local political structures by national parties in particular since the end of the 70s, combined with the slower natural decay of mass-membership parties since their heyday in the 50s and 60s, has led to the crisis in local activism and engagement that I outline in the post below. P-D comments
The parties now lack the infrastructure to provide, either from membership contributions or from volunteer workers, the vital self-sufficiency of constituency campaigning, let alone a subsidy for the ever-expanding central headquarters efforts. The new technologies of media and advertising and electronic communications have added greatly to the centralisation of campaigning.
With the collapse of grass-roots party structures over the past twenty or thirty years the parties have increasingly subvented tax money to compensate. P-D estimates that this is currently worth around £430m a year over the election cycle. Secretarial support is a case in point; in 1969 a secretarial allowance of £500 for each member of Parliament was introduced. This has grown to a staff allowance of £90,505 in 2007. As volunteers and local activists have fallen away, so the State has increasingly picked up the tab. 'Short money' 'Widdicombe money' and 'Cranborne money', political advisors salaried at the public expense, policy development 'grants', salaried councillors, and massively enhanced expenses and allowances for MPs, lords and councillors, including a £10k a year 'incumbency benefit' for MPs now overshadow the value of free TV broadcasts and postage. P-D comments
If we go further down the road of state funding of political parties, we risk exacerbating the long-run trend that is converting parties from popular, democratic institutions into top-down bureaucracies
In other words, the trend that Straw wants to accelerate is the establishment of fully fledged official State parties, the lines between the executive and the civil service and the party structures and the parliamentary parties becoming so blurred and intermingled that we lose the very meaning of our parliamentary democracy. This must be resisted with all our will.

To be continued

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The lies at the heart of Straw's white paper (II)

In the previous post, I pointed out that the party system that Straw is seeking to preserve was a phenomenon that flourished for two or three decades in the last half of the last century. Mass membership parties have been a phase in our national political development, nothing more. Consider the falls in party memberships since 1979:






In the next month or so, Labour will publish their 2007/2008 accounts and we will see whether the trend that is losing them 20,000 members a year is continuing. It's not that we've given up 'joining' as a nation, more that we've given up joining political parties. Excluding members more than six months in arrears with their subs, I doubt that Labour's voting membership now exceeds 150,000. Compare this with our membership of other groups:
National Trust - 3,500,000
Royal Horticultural Society - 370,000
Women's Institute - 215,000
Labour Party - 150,000
Royal Yachting Association - 103,000
RSPCA - 31,000
Yes, the WI has more members than Labour. So why shouldn't we give £20m of tax money a year to the WI?

You'll have to bear with me on this. I haven't yet mentioned the capping proposals in Straw's white paper, but if we get the issue of parties straight first all will become clear. Straw's whole argument is based on the premise that the mass membership parties that thrived from the mid fifties to the mid seventies are a necessary part of our democracy and need preserving. This is untrue.

The smoke and mirrors trick he is attempting is to confuse the groupings and alliances of MPs within Parliament that makes parliamentary democracy effective (who sits on which benches) with the need for taxes to pay for private clubs that sell a national brand and which develop law and policy outside parliament without any accountability to electors. The latter, I believe, are profoundly anti-democratic.

Finally, here is an excerpt from a speech that David Cameron made back in March of this year. Cameron at least realises that trying to resurrect a dead phase in our national political evolution is not the solution.
Public faith in our political institutions is draining away.

According to MORI, the proportion of people trusting politicians to put the needs of the country before the needs of party halved between 1974 and 1999.

Trust in Parliament fell from 54 per cent in 1983 to 14 per cent in 2000.

Since then it's got even worse.

Our Parliament is scorned.

Our parties are shrinking.

Our membership is ageing.

It's getting harder to find candidates willing to stand in council elections.

As far as the public is concerned, politicians are all the same.

Not because they all say the same thing, but because they all do the same thing.

Let's be clear what they think of us: "you lie and you spin, you fiddle your expenses and you break your promises."

To describe this disengagement and cynicism as a 'mood' is to underestimate both the depth and the intensity of the breakdown in relations between the government and the governed.

To be continued

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The lies at the heart of Straw's white paper

'Political parties are integral to our democratic system' begins Jack Straw's introduction to his white paper, 'They make parliamentary government possible'. Now before all those of you who know anything about British history leap to point out that we've had a parliament in some form or another for around 800 years but that political parties as we know them today have been around for less than a century, and before we demolish the patent absurdity that parliamentary government is impossible without political parties, let's wander through the document and find the evidence that Straw offers to support this extraordinary claim.

'In Britain, as in all mature democracies, political parties are an indispensable feature of the electoral process'
Not wholly true. Certainly, they have been central in the UK since 1945; at the height of political tribalism in the 1950s the Tory party had some 2m members and Labour around 1m. Before the days of mass media, before mass circulation newspapers and radio and cinema, before the Great War, our political preferences for a parliamentary candidate were shaped more by our memberships of local intermediate institutions and local factors. With universal suffrage grew a national consciousness over single issues to which the three parties allied themselves on one side or the other. A true statement would be 'From 1945, political parties have been a central feature of the electoral process'. No evidence that they are 'indispensable' is offered at all.

'Parties offer the electorate the opportunity to decide between competing visions of Britain's future and alternative teams of political leaders to realise those visions'
Again, not wholly true. When parties were ideologically divided the first part was the case; now they are crowded on the ideological consensus centre ground this no longer really applies. The differences are of style not ideological substance. As for the second part, Straw knows as well as anyone that we don't vote for a Prime Minister in the UK - we vote for a local MP. The sovereign invites whoever she thinks can command a majority in the Commons to form a government. And that's how it should be. To attempt to institutionalise a 'presidential' system in the UK by institutionalising the role of the current extant parties is fundamentally to undermine our system of parliamentary democracy.

'(Parties) also provide the vital link between the electorate and Parliament and a clear means of ensuring political accountability'
This is wholly untrue and is patent nonsense. Our MP is our 'vital link' with Parliament. He or she is the one we hold accountable. We don't write to the chair of the local Labour party when we have a problem. The local Labour party, and the national Labour party (and the Tories too) are wholly unaccountable; they are private clubs with no public accountability whatsoever.

And on these three flimsiest of premises the white paper sets out a pernicious proposal to establish the incumbent parties as 'State' parties. No evidence is offered. No alternatives are allowed. No options are considered. Indeed, the white paper itself contradicts these risible claims for the eternal and immutable necessity of national parties just a couple of pages later;

'The 1983 legislation did not, however, recognise the much larger role that the national political parties had come to play in parliamentary elections. Election spending was no longer concentrated at a local level as it had been from the 1880s through to the early 1950s.'

Ah, I see. So the white paper is really just attempting to prolong a brief phase in British politics that flourished in the 60s and 70s, declined in the 80s and 90s and is now in its death throes in the oughties. At last a hint of honesty from Straw.

To be continued

More guff from Toynbee

In yet another of those 'stream of consciousness' pieces with unconnected reasonings that read with all the coherence of a jellyfish, Polly Toynbee seems to be berating us all for reading the papers. But in amongst this froth of leftist chagrin I can discern an argument of sorts. It goes like this.

(1) The public are angry with the political class and think our political system needs urgent reform (2) This is being reported by both the mainstream media and the blogosphere (3) The solution to the problem is for Labour to be optimistic about things and persuade us all that redistributive socialism is the answer.

Honestly. Ostrich, sand and head.

Dear Polly, when the nation has accepted an ideological consensus - reflected by the positioning of both main parties in the same centre ground - but remains angry and dissatisfied, doesn't that suggest to you that it's not ideological positioning that needs changing but something else? That trying to resurrect the political tribalism of the post-war years is utterly irrelevant?

Toynbee, like Brown, like 'The State has a right to know who you are' Burnham, and all the other members of the political class, seem wholly blind to what's really making us angry; they are.

What is the African Union?

Look on the website of the African Union and you could be mistaken in thinking that there's not a cloud in sight over Africa. Smug bloated men in Korean polyester suits, their faces fat and shiny as butter, pose for the standard corporate pictures in the style of an in-house newsletter for a processed food company. And like an in-house newsletter the AU's business seems to be the equivalent of congratulating Doreen in bought ledger for the new baby, or announcing that Andy in Sales will be speaking at the Packaged Desserts conference in Slough this year. You can search their entire website (which looks as though it was designed by a particularly unimaginative IT trainee in his lunch hour) in vain for a single mention of the turmoil in Zimbabwe.

There's also a body called 'The African Court on Human and People's Rights' - is this tautological or is there a distinction I can't see? - whose judges were appointed two years ago but which has yet to hear a single case as far as I'm aware. I suspect, as with the AU, it's more an opportunity for these chaps to dress up and have their corporate photos taken striking noble poses in the Lumumba Conference Suite in the Addis Holiday Inn than a real court. It is salutary to note that in its terms of reference the 'emoluments and allowances for the judges' are carefully defined but nowhere does it mention what 'rights' ordinary Africans actually have.

And so this morning there are rumblings that the UN should intervene militarily in Zim. Not us, obviously; the sight of British troops in Zim would shock the world's sensitivities far more than a pile of a thousand corpses. And I don't think we should, anyway. The whole of Matabeleland isn't worth the bones of a single Mancunian bombardier.

No. We must be ready to evacuate British passport holders and apart from that we must leave it to the AU, the UN and nations such as South Africa to sort out. And if the AU wants the world to take it any more seriously than a vanity shop it will bite the bullet and take the lead.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Kenan Malik's excellent essays

I have written on here before that multiculturalism is no more than apartheid in a posh frock, but before this morning, listening to 'Start the Week' on R4 (well worth a listen again), I was unaware of Kenan Malik's excellent essays, broadcasts and publications reflecting my own views on this subject. He's wrong on immigration, I think - economics are not his strong point - but sound on race. He's quite candid about having 'come in' from the far left in the 80s, and now condemns the fashionable racism of the left.

I'd love to see him head-to-head with another media Indian, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I think intellectually he'd wipe the floor with her. Read his essays on his website here and let me know what you think, if you like.

Social housing myopia

The Mail's report on the continuing collapse in prices of new flats in those blocks that have sprung like mushrooms across the south-east should surprise no one. Did their buyers never wonder why the sales prices were a third higher than equivalent Victorian and Edwardian properties nearby? Did they never ask who was actually paying for the 30% - 35% of units to be built as 'social housing'? Now of course private owners of flats in these blocks are waking up to the fact that a third of their monthly mortgage payments are buying the flat for the housing association tenants down the landing.

Just another stealth tax.

Brown's sad little fantasy world

Sometimes one comes across people whose beliefs are so bizarre - Scientologists, for example - that one really wonders whether they actually believe that small green aliens chose Ohio in 1964 as the place to reveal the secret of the Universe, or they're just pretending to believe it. So with Gordon Brown.

When the Telegraph reports this morning that Brown blames Thatcher for the stalling of Britain's social mobility, one is tempted to reply with a knowing wink "Ah yes, the same Mrs Thatcher that brought share ownership to millions of ordinary people by ensuring everyone could subscribe to the British Gas privatisation; that allowed millions to buy their own council houses and escape the clutch of the State, that deregulated the financial markets to bring barrow boys into the boardrooms, that encouraged an entire generation of small business and enterprise to flourish."

But of course Brown's intellect is not of the first order. Or even second-rate. He was a college lecturer who taught politics - the 70s equivalent of media studies - in an institution of such academic mediocrity that it failed even to qualify as a polytechnic. So he may actually believe this guff.

While the rest of the country knows damn well that it's Labour's Welfarism that has stalled social mobility over the past 11 years, Brown may well be away with his personal fairies. A cabinet minister's April 2008 quote repeated in CCHQ's annual report that "The trouble is, Gordon is basically mental." just confirms what many of us already suspect. And his pronouncement over the weekend that he will retire 'after winning the next election for Labour' ranks with "Busse and Steiner's armies will throw back the Soviet thrust and Berlin will be freed by May" as the triumph of fantasy over reality.

The real problem is that the world's fifth largest economy is stuck with a fantasist, a mentalist, as Prime Minister at a time when the nation faces great challenges; a man whose judgment is profoundly flawed. Whilst allowing him to remain in office gives the Tories an electoral advantage, it puts the country in great peril. A dangerous choice indeed.