Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

How to do Constitutional Reform Totally Wrong

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on November 14, 2014

According to ITV:

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has unanimously agreed to recommend:

    Online voting (including on smart phones)
    Quicker ways of registering to vote (including on the day of an election)
    A huge programme of devolution as well as mandatory voting
    Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds

Where to begin with the wrongness?
I’m more-or-less in favour of giving sixteen and seventeen year-olds the vote. I don’t really care one way or another, but fine,

Huge programme of devolution — show me the details. I don’t like the “DevoManc” stitch-up, but I’m entirely in favour of proper devolution.

But there are two big, HUGE, problems here for me — two problems so massive that I am actually angry and wanting to punch something.

The first is compulsory voting. I am absolutely, utterly, in favour of everyone who has the ability to vote using their vote. You won’t find a bigger supporter of the democratic process than me anywhere in the world. But I am utterly in favour of people CHOOSING to use their vote. It is utterly abhorrent to force anyone to take part in the process. There are many people with strongly-held convictions that stop them from participating in elections, whether because they believe the system to be illegitimate and that their participation adds a veneer of legitimacy, or because they hold religious beliefs that forbid them from taking part in secular government. To force them to take part in something that goes against their conscience is something no civilised society should do.

There are also, though, those who just can’t be bothered — surely they should be compelled to vote?
No.
Firstly, because of the harm principle — “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (sorry for the sexist language — quoting John Stuart Mill). Refusing to vote causes no-one any harm, so no power should be exercised to force people to do it. That, to me, is an absolute.
But also because from a purely pragmatic point of view, people who can’t be bothered to vote will tend to have uninformed opinions, and to vote frivolously, because they don’t think their vote matters — if they thought it mattered, they’d vote.

So compulsory voting forces people to go against their deepest convictions, weakens the democratic process, and does so for no actual gain.

I have voted in every election since I turned eighteen — every council election, every EU election, every stupid local referendum about mayors or speed cameras that gets ignored anyway, all of them. I believe exercising my democratic rights to be hugely important. But should this rule be brought in, I would consider it my duty as a liberal and a democrat to take part in peaceful civil disobedience and refuse to vote. I’m a liberal, and I’m against this sort of thing.

But I wouldn’t even need to refuse to vote, it turns out, because the committee plans to take my vote away from me, by making it trivially easy to steal, or for someone to coerce me into voting for a candidate I don’t support. The introduction of online voting would be an utter disaster — as Dave Page puts it, “verifiable, anonymous, online — pick two”. Read his post — he made all the points I would have made about online voting a month ago. Basically, if you want to have online voting, you either give up the secret ballot, give up ever being able to check that the vote you think you cast actually went to the person you wanted to vote for, or (most likely) both.

This cretinous, foetid, outrage of a plan is what you get when you have a constitutional committee consisting of nine Labservative MPs, an SDLP member who might as well be Labour, and Jeremy Browne, the single most authoritarian Lib Dem MP in Parliament. Please God let these proposals be shredded, because as it is if they get accepted we might as well give up any hope of ever having a functioning democracy in this country.

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Imposition of Identity, English Parliaments, and “Englishness”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on November 6, 2014

At Alex and Richard’s wedding a little over a week ago, I got into a discussion about devolution, inspired by the recent decision of the North-West Liberal Democrats to declare independence from the English party. This was entirely as moderate and reasoned as you would expect a debate on such an abstruse procedural matter among Liberal Democrats at a formal occasion like a wedding to be, by which I mean it ended with me and Jennie Rigg screaming incoherently at someone who I’d never met before, but who Jennie knows well.

The reason for this is that this person (who I won’t name as I’m probably misrepresenting him) believes that England exists, while Jennie and I (and Mat, who managed to remain calm) do not.

More specifically, he believes that England as a coherent country makes sense. I don’t remember many of his arguments, and I certainly don’t want to straw-man him, so please accept from here on in that I am misrepresenting him horribly, but that I *am* representing arguments I’ve seen elsewhere accurately. I’m talking here about a generic argument, rather than a specific person’s argument.

The argument is that if we have further devolution to Scotland and Wales, there must also be devolution to England. Not because it makes sense from a pragmatic point of view — an English Parliament would have a 90% or thereabouts overlap with the UK Parliament — but because “English identity needs to be represented”.

Now, I have problems with this for a few reasons. The first is that I don’t think decisions on the best way to govern should be based on intangible things like “identity”, but on more pragmatic factors like “do the people here speak the same language, do they have the same economic needs”, that kind of thing. My own view is that the level of devolution should be to areas somewhere in size between the old historic counties and the current European Union regions — “Yorkshire” and “Cornwall” make sense to me as lumps-which-can-be-governed, but “Lancashire” doesn’t, and “the North West” feels like more of a sensible unit in that case. But those sort of sizes, anyway — regions which are, if not homogeneous, at least small enough that people in different parts of them are aware of issues that affect people in the other areas.

But even putting aside the pragmatic factors, the question of identity is one I find quite infuriating. Because yes, there is an “English identity” — but it’s not an identity that actually incorporates huge swathes of England. Rather, when people talk about England and the English identity, nine times out of ten they live in, and are talking about, the Home Counties. In the case of a legislature, this would be poisonous — in fact we know it already is, because we live in a country already where laws are made by and for London with little or no concern for the rest of the country. I suspect that would be replicated in the case of an English Parliament, and I don’t see how Penzance, Newcastle, and Hebden Bridge benefit from having laws and regulations made to benefit London, whether those laws are called “British” or “English” (nor for that matter do I see that laws and regulations that benefit Penzance would necessarily be particularly helpful for Newcastle or Hebden).

But even on its own terms, if identity is what matters, the fact is, a large chunk of English people don’t consider “English” to be a meaningful identity. During the Scottish Independence referendum, the comment I saw more than any other from English people living, roughly, north of the Trent or the Dee was “take us with you!” — and, indeed, most Scottish Yes voters I talked to said “oh, we’re not trying to get away from the North, it’s the English we’re trying to become independent from”.

It may not be the case for all of us — perhaps not even a plurality — but there are *millions* of people in the north, and also in Cornwall, who feel a far greater affinity with Scotland and Wales than with those parts of England that people usually mean when they talk about “the English identity” and “Englishness”. Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds are closer to Glasgow not only geographically but also culturally and economically. Wales feels far less foreign to me than Oxford does.

There are many, many people who feel this way. I won’t, of course, say that there is no sense of Englishness outside the Home Counties — of course there is — but I know a LOT of people from Yorkshire, for example, who don’t think of themselves as English, as having anything in common with the South.

Any form of devolution based on concepts of “identity” has to take into account the fact that different people have different senses of identity. In the case of Englishness, there is a large group that doesn’t want to be part of that identity — but that identity can only exist by erasing and subsuming those people.

And this is what happens if you build systems based on identity, rather than based on practicalities. Ignore the “English identity” and you’re ignoring one group’s wishes. But the alternative is to impose that identity on people who in many cases already see themselves as being oppressed and ignored by the very people doing the imposition. Quite apart from the sheer futility of it as a legislature, an English Parliament would be seen by many, many people in the North as yet another case of something being done for London’s benefit, and imposed on the rest of us against our will.

The argument for an English Parliament boils down to an emotive one — that people’s feelings about England matter, that they’re not important. But by even making the argument that way, by framing it in those terms, the people making it are also saying that the feelings of those who disagree with them *do not* matter, and *are not* important. And we’ve already heard that rather a lot.

I’m British. I’m a Northerner. I’m an (adoptive) Manc. I’m a European. But I’ll never be English, and you can’t make me.

We Need STV, Not “PR”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 21, 2014

(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.

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The Liberal Approach To Immigration?

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 14, 2014

(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: A Note About Race

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 11, 2014

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.

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