Friday, 29 April 2011

Chris Mathews is Terrific

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Donald Trump looks so ugly when he says "Excuse Me"; Sarah Palin looks so ugly when she can't let go; Vincent Libelle's bald-faced cheek.

This is politics as theatre.

The Royal Wedding: Arts Program Funding Gone Right

Please, dear reader, do not be angry about the £20 million on security this wedding will cost: the royals bring in (reputedly) hundreds of millions every year in tourist revenue, plus the wedding is supposed to generate £50 million in revenue for the country today alone.

I think of the Royals as a profitable arts program where we get double back what we put in. It's terrific and sort of makes sense of the whole crazy circus surrounding two wealthy twenty-somethings getting hitched.

We all play this game of "let's pretend" with the Royals, like they are somehow ordained by God to rule but don't because of (technically two) revolutions and a gradual marginalization by parliamentary manoeuvring.

They put on the gowns, we say "God save you" and everyone is satisfied. It is a piece of ceremonial performance art, but it is one that turns a profit for everyone involved, so why question it?

If only the coalition government had the same attitude to the Arts Council England, whose funding it cut by 29.6% for the next four years - despite it providing a similar level of profitability to the Royals (who, to be fair, also faced cuts).

Arts are easy to cut, but it makes no sense to cut something that gives you back more than you put in. That is cutting your profits, damaging a successful system: it's just madness. Just imagine if we didn't say "God save you" to those nice people from Windsor: the whole bloody thing would be in ruins, we'd lose millions.

Well, same with the Art Council England funding debacle. It's madness. Arts are the lifeblood of culture and without them we are poorer - literally and figuratively.

I'll finish with the famous Churchill story, on the off chance you haven't seen it before.

"During the Second World War, Winston Churchill's finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill's response: "Then what are we fighting for?"" (

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

"Yes" to First Past the Post (If you want a job done properly...)

OK, so commentary does not necessarily need to be balanced to be worthwhile, but I thought I'd have a stab at writing the "Keep First Past the Post" (FPP) pamphlet.

While I'd love to claim that I had a "Road to Damascus" moment while flicking through the "No" campaign leaflet on my door mat, the truth is I just hate seeing a job done that badly. "Perhaps" I thought "I could have done it better."

So here it is:

Vote "No" to AV; Vote to Keep First Past the Post!

1. The Most Inspiring Candidate Wins

FPP gives the seat to the candidate with the largest majority of impassioned supporters. This means that it is the candidate who inspires the most of those who care to listen to his/her views who wins.

This means that we have MPs in Parliament with strong personalities, who can get the views and needs of their constituents heard and seen to in the din of the halls of power.

Our MPs are larger than life, not the affable, inoffensive but forgettable people you might get with a system like AV.

2. Fringe Parties remain on the Fringe With FPP

In other countries there are myriad parties all sharing the reins of power, which leads to compromising, fudging and weak governance that can harm the country as a whole.

This is because they have systems which allow for too many provincial or minority issues to be represented, rather than there being strong, national parties.

FPP marginalizes single issue parties, whose manifestos are not serious blueprints for rule, in favour of the national parties who have the wider view.

3. FPP provides us with Strong Governments.

Instead of different factions all pressing for their provincial interests, our governments tend to have a shared vision for the country and the power to carry it out.

Compromising on policy can lead to excessive red-tape, weakened regulators, weakened commissions and ineffectual initiatives. Too many people with disparate ideologies creating policy can drown good ideas, making for a stagnant political climate or deadlock.

FPP will tend to result in single-party rule between elections, meaning that one manifesto can be said to be the most popular and the direction the country wants to go in.

Governments can move forward with the support of the country and introduce the initiatives they believe in. Whether they succeed or not will depend on the strength of their ideas and their personal competence, not on political wheeler-dealing within a coalition of disparate interests.

4. FPP is Proven, Trusted and our Tradition

FPP has been a part of our electoral system throughout the history of democracy in this country. Great Britain has maintained its place at the high-table of world politics thanks to almost always having strong willed leaders leading strong parties.

Our leaders have almost never had to demur on the world stage because they weren't sure that they might not deliver on their promises because of troublesome political partners.

Changing to a different system could endanger the continuance of that history and fundamentally change the character of our politics and our leaders.


So, there it is. That wasn't so hard: Four substantive benefits of FPP, strengths it has over AV. Now: If I can do it in about an hour, why can't the policy wonks at Tory HQ, who've had a year?

Why do they insist on making non-sequitur, ad hominem arguments like "Clegg promised not to raise tuition fees; he became deputy PM in a FPP election and raised tuition fees; he supports AV; don't vote for AV"?

Why do they try to make AV seem random and complicated, when it certainly isn't?

Why didn't they just sit for a minute and argue the case for FPP?

That's the subject of another post, I think.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A 'Yes' to AV: Primary Motivations

Am I interested at all in the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum? Not really. Like most people, there are other systems I might be more interested in voting for, while AV seems like (in Nick Clegg's words) "A miserable compromise". I don't care about it.

However, I will be voting for it. What's my motivation?

1: Annoy the Tories.

I find the 'no' campaign needlessly negative. It shouldn't be a 'no' campaign at all - but a "Yes to First Passed the Post" or "Keep First Passed the Post" campaign. Instead, the leaflets I get through the door are childish and emotive drivel that rely on spreading confusion and fear in the electorate.

It is needless. Why not simply tell us about the benefits of the system they want to keep?

The 'No' campaign is run by the Tories, who have lost me through their bundling efforts at governance over the last year. In the end, it will annoy them if I vote for AV. Good.

2. Our Political System Needs Reform.

The referendum should have been run, not by parties, but by an independent special commission whose job it is to inform the voter with facts. Voting on the matter should not be a one-day event, but the ballots should be held open over the course of a week to allow a greater sample of the electorate to vote. There is no reason for this not to be done.

I don't see why this should have been a party political campaign. Why can't the voter simply be informed and make their own judgments, without the tribal coercion of red, blue and gold?

AV is said to increase the chances of more hung parliaments in the future, which I think must lead to more sweeping reform of our stupid system. I am for anything that draws us closer to a time when issues will be decided on the strengths of arguments and not allegiance.

3. Foil the Tories.

When they were cutting a deal with the Liberal Democrats in the coalition talks, the Tories forced a compromise on the voting system issue.

While the Lib Dems wanted a referendum on Proportional Representation (PR), the Conservatives forced them to settle for the AV referendum, in the knowledge that it is not really what the Lib Dems wanted.

The idea was that no-one wants AV - not Labour, not the Tories and not the Lib Dems - so the likelihood of a successful 'Yes' campaign is pretty slim with this minimal level of enthusiasm on every side.

Oddly enough, I would have certainly voted against PR.

However, after forcing this compromise from the Lib Dems, the Conservatives then set about showing AV up for being a compromise.

So: they forced the referendum on AV as a compromise, then attacked it for being a compromise. It is intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind and I would be happy to help their plan fail.

4. I haven't heard from the 'Yes' campaign.

This either means they are a disorganized rabble, or aren't active in Brighton, or that I threw it away without looking at it. The pamphlets I have seen from all parties have been sickening and appallingly written.

Having not heard from 'Yes' makes it much more likely that I'll vote "Yes" because I won't have to stomach the dishonesty they no-doubt peddle.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Benton Harbor/Catherine Ferguson School Michigan Shuffle

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Rachael Maddow has been doing a series of pieces on Michigan's move away from democracy in the last week or two. The employment of 'Emergency Financial Managers' for cities in dire financial straights, kicking out the locally elected officials and being parachuted in by the Governor, is a disturbing happening.

The idea is that if a city or a county is failing then the governor simply appoints someone to take over the running of that city or county. Someone who is not concerned with the popularity of their measures, but only with the secure financial future of the city/county.

And that all sounds fairly straight forward, as a way of circumventing the unfortunate reality that sometimes rulers must do unpopular things or face ruin, but if they do unpopular things in a democracy then they will simply be voted out.

Most intellectuals will agree that a benign dictatorship is the ideal form of government: a supreme ruler, unconcerned with popularity, who has the best interests of his/her populace at heart. One problem with this is that the populace has no way of knowing whether their dictator is going to be truly benign or wise before they are installed into power.

As they say: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's a question of prayer whether you get a good one, or a Hitler/Mussolini/Franco/Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot/Idi Amin/Pinochet/Chauchesku (that's just the 20th century), which is something Maddow references here.

Giving business people their own little fiefdoms within a capitalist framework will lead to self-interest being served before the common good. In a democracy, self-interest is served by serving the common good, so the circle of motivations is complete.

Simply telling a businessman (as these Emergency Financial Managers all are) that they have a city to make profitable is madness. In business you can lay off workers and restructure departments, but in a city you are stuck with the same population and you cannot just rebuild a city without massive, and I mean massive, investment.

There are fragmentary similarities between ruling a city and running a business, but they are not enough to justify the equivalence that is drawn by the Emergency Financial Managers Law.

And then there is what one defines as an 'emergency'. One person's emergency is another's off-year. Who decides what is an emergency? The Governor. Emergency can basically mean that the governor doesn't like your mayor's tie that morning. The whole thing is far too subjective, far too open to abuse and corruption.

Look at Maddow's report on Benton Harbor:

Abuse? Possibly. Corruption? Oh, yes.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Mrs Palin: Not Extreme Enough.

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The frightening statistic here demonstrates that Sarah Palin is beginning to lose out to the nuttier Donald Trump. What's that you say? "Palin's as crazy as they get"? Well, I won't disagree with you, but she had not until now been a 'birther', i.e, someone who believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore not eligible to be president. Quite apart from the fact that even if he was born in Kenya, his mother was a US citizen and so he would be too: it is clearly a sleight with racial undertones.

It was thought that to identify yourself as a birther would be to effectively give up on being a serious presidential candidate, because it is such a nutty thing to espouse. However, Donald Trump has been making headlines, climbing polls and getting a lot of coverage for his stated birtherism. Coverage that he has taken from Sarah Palin.

I guess the point I'm making is this: Sarah Palin is not right-wing enough, not crazy enough, to court today's Republican party. Two years ago she was plenty nuts enough: probably too crazy. Not any more.

And if that doesn't scare you, you haven't been paying attention.