(I hope the following is coherent — I’ve been sleep-deprived for much of the last week, and really don’t feel very good)
We no longer live in anything that could be made to convincingly pose as a two-party system, even if you squint a bit. Nor do we live in the two-and-a-bit party system we had from 1981 through 2010, where Labour or the Tories would get a massive majority and the Lib Dems would have a handful of seats.
At the next election, while the Lib Dems’ vote has haemmoraged, the party is still likely to get twenty or thirty seats — the same levels they were getting in the 90s — through targetted campaigning and the incumbency factor (I was predicting 35 until recently, and that’s still possible, but would require rather more competence in getting a liberal message out than we’ve seen). UKIP topped the poll at the European election and look likely to come third nationally, but seem unlikely to get more than (at the very most) one or two seats in the election. The Greens are polling better than they ever have, and may still overtake the Lib Dems in support, though I doubt it. And the Scottish National Party have more members than any UK-wide party now, I believe, with the Scottish Socialist Party and Scottish Greens all doing fairly well.
Some of this I’m very glad about, some of it I’m much less happy about — I’ve often said that I wish the two main parties in the UK were the Lib Dems on the liberal side and the Greens on the authoritarian centralist side — but all of it’s a fact. It’s looking incredibly unlikely that any party will even get as high a share of the vote as the low share the Tories got in 2010, when they got most votes but couldn’t get a majority without going into coalition with the Lib Dems.
In fact it’s possible, though not likely, that the following absurd situation could happen next time — the Tories come first in popular vote, but second in seats, Labour come second in popular vote but first in seats, UKIP come third in the vote but get no seats at all, the Greens come fourth but also get no seats, and the Lib Dems come fifth but get enough seats that they get to be the kingmakers who decide what party or parties form the next government.
I don’t think that’s going to happen — I think the Lib Dem vote will recover enough, and UKIP’s vote will drop off enough at an actual election, that those two parties will be pretty much neck-and-neck in the popular vote in May, with the Greens a distant fifth — but it’s not at all unthinkable.
Three years ago, after the massive failure of the AV referendum (still the most upsetting public event of my lifetime), William Hague was crowing at Conservative party conference that electoral reform was “dead for a generation”. Now the political system has become so chaotic and unpredictable that we’re starting to see kite-flying articles in the Tory broadsheets talking about how the Tories should consider putting “PR” into their manifesto for the next election. I don’t think that will happen, but electoral reform is not looking anything like as unthinkable as it did after the referendum — and if something as blatantly stupid as the scenario I outline above happens and we don’t get reform, I could see riots happening.
The problem is that the kite-flying we’re seeing talks about “PR”, not about a specific system. And this is dangerous. It’s partly the fault of the Lib Dems, for spending decades talking about “PR” rather than systems — and that was something that helped sink the AV referendum, when a load of thick bastards who thought they were being clever said they’d only vote for “full PR” without really knowing what the words they were saying meant.
There are actually at least three criteria that, in my view at least, need to be met to consider a voting system truly representative. Proportionality is one — the result should lead to roughly the same proportion of representatives for each party as there were people who voted for it — but it’s only one, and to my mind the least important of the three. The system should also be preferential — it shouldn’t discard as pointless all the votes that don’t go to the top two candidates, which the Biggest Loser system we’ve got now does — and it should allow people to vote for specific candidates, or more to the point *against* them. If you’ve got an incompetent representative, you should be able to get rid of that person even if they’re in a generally-popular party, and conversely if you’ve got a good independent candidate they should be able to win even without being a member of a party.
AV was my second-favourite choice, because it had both those latter two conditions. It isn’t proportional, but it is preferential, and it allows you to vote for individuals rather than parties. Other voting systems have these aspects in different measure. The only one I know of that has all three is the single transferable vote, or British Proportional Representation (to give it the name which would possibly sell it to more voters, and by which it used to be known). This is the system that the Lib Dems have always advocated, and it is also the one that the Electoral Reform Society, among others, campaign for.
And we need to start advocating for British Proportional Representation now, and constantly, and explaining the difference between that and just “PR”, which isn’t “full PR”, but is “only PR”. There are many proportional systems out there, and some are profoundly undemocratic. The Bloody Stupid d’Hondt System (to give it its full name) that we use for the European elections, for example, is hideously undemocratic even though it’s proportional — voters get to choose from lists of candidates chosen by the parties, with no control over which individual their vote helps elect. This moves control and accountability away from the voters and toward the party leaders. We all remember times when unpopular individual politicians from all sides have been kicked out by their local voters because of their personal unpopularity, even when they’ve been important figures in their parties (naming no Michaels, Peters, or Lembits). We’ve also seen, less often but occasionally, strong independent candidates get elected. Having a PR system like d’Hondt would ensure that that could never happen.
We need proportionality, but it must be balanced by the ability to vote for individuals. We need to make sure that if we do get electoral reform as a result of the current mess, it’s not a stitch-up that transfers power into the hands of four voters named David, Ed, Nick, and Nigel.
No to PR, yes to STV.
(What follows is me trying an idea out. I am not at all sure it’s not a horrible idea, hence the question mark in the title. PLEASE criticise it — but also be aware when doing so that while discussion of *immigration* in my comments is fine, abuse of *immigrants* will get you banned.)
Like many Liberals, I am antipathetic to Nationalism at a fairly basic level, simply because to me the nation state seems the wrong sort of size to hold my interest or affections in any meaningful way. I love the city where I live, and even more those areas where I have lived or spent a lot of time within that city — Rusholme, Moss Side, Fallowfield, Didsbury, Levenshulme, Longsight, Chorlton, Withington, Whalley Range, and the city centre — that square about four miles on its side is an area I feel at home, know at least some of the people, feel comfortable.
To a lesser extent, I feel some loyalty to an area stretching roughly from Liverpool at the west to Bradford at the east. That chunk of the country is not somewhere you can fit into your head the way you can a small part of a single city, but still I know Mytholmroyd or Warrington, Alderley Edge or Halifax, not well, but well enough that they feel like parts of my extended community, close in the same way a second cousin you meet at family weddings is.
And in the other direction, I can feel a generalised loyalty for “the world” or “humanity”. All men are my brothers, all women my sisters (except my wife, that would just be weird), all people with nonbinary genders my siblings-without-gendered-descriptors.
But England, or even more so Britain, I have no time for. It’s too diffuse a concept, means too many things, is too big an area. I don’t know what it means to love one’s country in that sense — to feel the same affection for the grim concrete hell of Spaghetti Junction and the standing stones at Stonehenge, the battered, tacky, seafront at Blackpool and the Roman ruins at Chester. And while I share many experiences in common with other people in south Manchester, and some with people in Bradford or Liverpool, I honestly think Londoners have more in common with New Yorkers than they do with Mancunians, and I found Cornwall infinitely more foreign to me than I did Milan or New Orleans on my brief trips to those places. Britain, or England, is too diverse, not homogeneous enough to love for what it is, rather than a simplified ideal, and I am at heart a Puritan — I won’t worship idols, and especially not idols of my own making.
So no, I’m not a nationalist, and I don’t understand the nationalist mindset. I never have, and I doubt I ever will. Not that I think it necessarily bad, but it’s alien to me.
And this is a problem for Liberals in general right now, because the two big stories in politics over the last few months — and ones that look likely to continue for the forseeable future, are stories about nationalism: the left-wing nationalism in Scotland, when 45% of the voting population voted for independence from the UK, and the right-wing nationalism of UKIP, who are somehow a bigger story because they managed to get a single incumbent incompetent Tory MP re-elected to the seat he’d represented for years, but with a purple rosette instead of a blue one.
As you might imagine, I have rather more sympathy for the Scottish nationalists than the UKIP ones, if only because the Yes voters I knew were proposing some actual solutions to the problems they see, rather than just whinging, which seems to be the majority of what comes from UKIP. And happily, the Lib Dem policy position is at least one that many of those Scottish nationalists could support — devolution of pretty much all powers to Holyrood, and increased devolution to the English regions as well. That’s the position our party is fighting for in the ongoing weaselling competition in which MPs are trying to get out of their obligations to Scotland by blaming those other bastards, and I think it’s one which the majority of Scottish people I know would support as reasonable, given the result of the referendum.
The right-wing nationalism of UKIP is rather harder for Liberals to work with. In this case, while UKIP have a host of policy positions (some good, most misguided, some which would probably destroy the country), the one that seems to hold the key to their popularity is their position on immigration.
The consensus among all three major party leaders seems to be that this position appeals to people because people are just racist arseholes, and so you should make horrible speeches about how immigrants need their rights taking away — or just, you know, pose with a load of people in blackface.
And no doubt some — many — of UKIP’s voters are racist. They’ve certainly taken most of the BNP’s vote away (and for that, if nothing else, we should be grateful — I have no time for Douglas Carswell, but in many ways I’d rather a Parliament with 650 of him than one Nick Griffin). But there are a lot of people who are concerned about immigration but who talk about other complaints — overcrowding, strain on services, teachers having to deal with huge gaps in culture without proper training or support — and in at least some cases those *are* their genuine concerns.
And this comes down again to the question of Britain not being homogeneous. There are areas of the country — London is the obvious example — that are hugely overcrowded, and where the basic infrastructure to support human life at a tolerable level is frankly at breaking point. I can see why people in London would not want any more people coming there (though I also don’t see why anyone would *want* to move there — paying the GDP of a medium-sized South American country to rent a flat the size of my fridge that you have to share with two strangers doesn’t sound like fun to me, but vive la difference and all that…). On the other hand, large areas of Scotland are apparently desperate for immigration — and frankly no-one in my own area seems at all bothered by it. I suspect that a lot of the reason it’s seen as a problem, in fact, is the London-centric nature of the media.
Note that I’m not saying that the people in London who blame immigration for problems are right to do so — I think they’re not — just that there are people who identify actual problems, and believe they have identified a cause. That’s something that has to be dealt with somewhat differently than people who just hate people with different coloured skin.
Now, the Lib Dem policy at the last election (our policy was changed in March, much for the worse, and I believe this aspect was dropped) had a fairly sensible approach — issue visas that allow people to live and work only in specific areas of the country, those areas which are seen to need more people.
This is an idea that might well be effective, but is not, to my mind, particularly Liberal. It’s still, fundamentally, about the central state telling people what they can and can’t do. I don’t like that centralising of power, and as long as power is centralised it can and will be abused.
So what I suggest is that, since we want radical devolution anyway, we should push for devolution of immigration policy (except EU immigration, which is something of a special case) to regional assemblies. Set a simple national policy — say, anyone who has been legally resident anywhere in the UK can apply for citizenship after a period of time long enough to prevent blatant abuse, but short enough to allow for reasonable changes in circumstances, say two or three years, and would then obviously have the same rights as any other citizen. But then every regional assembly could have their own rules about coming to live and work in their area. London might want to say “no more, we’re full”, while maybe West Yorkshire might say “frankly, we need more of you. We’ll actually pay for your plane ticket over. Hebden’s lovely, you should move there”. You could still travel to London, of course, but you’d have to live and work in West Yorkshire (unless, say, West Yorkshire negotiated a deal with Greater Manchester allowing visas for one to be valid in the other).
Or the other way round — the point is that those decisions would be made by and for those affected, not a one-size-fits-all policy which pretends that the needs of London are the same as those of Kendal, or that Penzance and Newcastle have anything at all in common. And I think doing this would allow any actual problems caused by immigration to be addressed (and again, I doubt there are nearly as many as people say, but I don’t deny the possibility that I am wrong), would allow Britain to get the benefit of immigrants and immigrants to get the benefit of living in places where they felt welcome, and would stop the actual racists from being able to use seemingly-reasonable concerns as a smokescreen.
Once that was brought in, I would, of course, advocate for the Liberal solution within Manchester (or the North West, or wherever the boundaries were drawn) — let everyone in. For me, immigration has only improved my life, and many of the things I like about those parts of Manchester I named before come from immigrants, whether the Irish community where I live now, with things like the Levenshulme Irish festival, the Asian immigrants who run the takeaways that ensured that no matter how poor I got in the past I could always get a decent meal for almost no money, or the immigrant who lives in my house and tolerates me waking her up after staying up til the early hours writing overlong blog posts. I want to push for more of that.
But that’s an argument that can and should be made at a local level, not a national one. If we have to have borders, let them at least be borders around real places, not the fiction that is “the United Kingdom”.
California Dreaming is a story of the LA pop music scene, but it’s not the story of the LA pop music scene. In writing it, I had to choose a starting point, and for the bits of the story that I wanted to tell, Moon Dawg by the Gamblers is just about as close to a perfect start as could be imagined. The part of the LA scene I was most interested in is the part around 1967, when at the same time something like half a dozen of the greatest creative minds ever in popular music were working in close proximity to each other and moving in the same social circles. This was a flowering of talent unlike anything I know of in pop music, and in about a three year period from mid-1965 to mid-1968 produced about as much of the music I enjoy as the entirety of human history throughout the rest of space and time (and I enjoy a lot of music).
But this didn’t just arise ab nihilio in 1960 when the Gamblers invented surf music. The reason the Gamblers were able to release their record — and Frank Zappa, Jan & Dean, Randy Newman, and all the rest — is because there were a lot of independent record labels in LA already. Records from LA in the years before 1960 included classics by T. Bone Walker, The Coasters, Etta James, The Penguins, Don and Dewey…
You might notice something about all those fantastic musicians.
Most (though not all) of the small record companies in LA in the late 50s and early 60s were owned by white men, and put out the music of black people. With the advent of surf music, they found a way to sell music made by white Angelenos, and given the levels of open, systemic racism in the US at the time (not that things are wonderful now, of course), it’s unsurprising that the focus of many small labels turned very quickly from black musicians to white ones. The white music of the 60s was only possible because of the black music of the 50s.
Many of the white musicians also played the same clubs when starting out as a lot of Mexican-American garage bands. Unsurprisingly, few of those garage bands made much of a dent on the wider music industry.
There were, of course, still black musicians in LA throughout the 1960s, and I have tried to emphasise their role in the story whenever they show up, as I have musicians from other ethnic minorities, to try to give the book some of the balance it should have.
But the sad fact is that BAME musicians like Cleve Duncan, Ronnie Spector, Tina Turner, Arthur Lee, Johnny Echols, Taj Mahal, Larry Ramos, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, and Jimmy Carl Black, who managed to carve spaces for themselves in the white-dominated LA pop music scene of the 60s were very much the exception, not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of opportunity, as were the even smaller number of women who got to play a part in this story, who were kept out for rather different reasons.
None of the individuals I write about in the book was responsible for this situation, very few were racist in their personal lives or their own actions, but I thought it important to acknowledge that there are reasons that those people got to be the ones I wrote about. Some of those reasons are good, but some definitely aren’t.
I won’t be back properly blogging for a couple of days, but something made me absolutely furious — the start of Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour conference:
Friends, it is great to be with you in Manchester. A fantastic city. A city with a great Labour council leading the way. And a city that after this year’s local elections, is not just a Tory-free zone but a Liberal Democrat free zone as well,
Manchester is neither “a Tory-free zone” nor “a Liberal Democrat free zone”. I know, because I’m a Lib Dem who *lives* in Manchester, and has to tolerate that “great Labour council”, rather than praising it while living safely insulated from its decisions hundreds of miles away. 13,134 people voted for Liberal Democrat candidates in this year’s local elections in Manchester. Even in our worst year ever, that’s still more than zero.
What Miliband means is that it’s great to be in a city where those Liberal Democrats, and Tories, Greens, UKIP supporters, TUSCers, Pirates and the rest, have no representation because an unfair, disproportional, electoral system gives Labour a ludicrous advantage. All those people are, to Miliband, unpersons. Those who do not agree with Miliband do not really exist…
I regularly get abuse from Labour supporters (and from those who say they “hate all the parties equally” but never get round to saying anything bad about Labour) about my continued membership and support of the Lib Dems. Despite all the bitter disappointments of this government, the Lib Dems as a party are still the only major party to have a true commitment to reforming the political system to allow other voices to be heard. Labour, on the other hand, celebrate the broken system and erase those silenced voices altogether.
Despite everything, I know which I prefer.
OK, after too long away from this post series, I’m starting them (and the Time Machine and Cerebus) posts up again, assuming my aching hands allow me to. For those who don’t remember, a few months ago I started a series of posts on what Liberalism is, what direction it needs to go in in future, and what the future direction of the Lib Dem party should be.
I’m starting those posts again now, and I’m going to spend the next few posts in this series talking about how Liberalism is distinct from the current political orthodoxy — as I said in my last post in this series, Liberalism is only in the centre if the top of a pyramid is in the centre of its base, and one of the things I want to do more than anything in these posts is to explain where Liberalism departs from the current political consensus.
So before I go into that, I need to look at what the current political consensus is. I’m going to talk below about what I think both the Conservative and Labour parties — and the centrist, moderate, elements within the Lib Dems, for that matter — have agreed on for at least the last twenty years. Please feel free to disagree or correct me in the comments — what I’m doing this for is so everyone’s on the same page in the future essays.
As far as I can tell, every government in my lifetime, and almost every prominent politician has believed:
That there is little wrong with the current political system — that we “need to get people engaged”, but that the way we are governed should be tweaked at best. Those tweaks should, ideally, be cargo-cult copies of some out-of-context aspect of the US system.
That political power should be centralised, and controlled by as few people as possible. Prime Ministers should be de facto Presidents, cities should have elected Mayors with power over Councils.
That house prices should be kept as high as possible.
That taxes on wealth should be lower than taxes on income.
That the highest form of humanity consists of “hard-working families” — family units consisting of two adults, both working more than forty hours per week, and a small number of children — and that any minority groups only have rights in so far as they wish to approximate being a hard-working family.
That the rights of those minority groups should be decided based on the opinions of self-appointed “community leaders”, rather than on any basis such as equality or fairness.
That as far as possible economic power should be concentrated in the hands of monopolistic rent-seekers — that lip service should be given to the concept of markets, but that that lip service should never get in the way of the smooth transfer of state assets to monopolists (with state liabilities, of course, remaining with the state). Any laws to which those monopolistic rent-seekers object must be altered.
That immigrants are the current accepted scapegoat, and thus must be punished at the maximum level possible while still ensuring a steady flow of them.
That mental illness doesn’t exist in any sense worth caring about.
That any limits to the power of the government over the individual are irritants that must be removed.
That the government has a right to all possible information about anyone it wishes to know about.
That it is the proper place of the government to interfere, not only in behaviours which are actually harmful to others, but in activities which are only harmful to the individual, or which cause no harm whatsoever but which others disapprove of.
That the primary purpose of education is to prepare people to be workers, with a distant secondary purpose of inculcating “British values”, and that there is no third purpose.
Not all governments have held all these principles to the same extent — the 1997-2001 Blair government went against a couple of them, as has the coalition government to a greater extent than it is ever credited with (largely because for many of the rest of them it’s gone even further than previous governments), but I think that’s a largely accurate description. Next time, in a week or so, I’ll start looking at the Liberal alternatives to some of those positions.