X

Today’s the day. Now is the time. It’s been five years since we had the chance to elect a representative government, fighting hard for our right and privileges, and for the good of every single one of us.

We ballsed that one up good and proper, didn’t we? Time to give it another go.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I have the cliches here in my cliche bingo box. Voting never changed anything. Whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. If voting did anything, they’d ban it. Blah blah blah HOUSEYYY.

Of course voting changes things. The democratic process is the thing that gave us the forty day working week, paid holidays, the right to tribunal and a fair trial, an end to slavery and discrimination, the vote. In a dizzying period of change between the 1850s and 1970s, the society we know and take for granted was built by people on the streets and in the House of Parliament, who believed that we deserved better and were prepared to risk everything in the pursuit of that dream.

Now, of course, we think we know better. The system has broken, favouring the entitled few, open to abuse. Who’s in charge of changing that? They are. So what’s the point? We protest, and we’re ignored. So best to hide out, grumble a bit and give up.

Anyone that saw the recent BBC documentary series on the inner workings of the House Of Commons would, like me, have been slack-jawed at how out-of-date and out-of-touch the place seemed. Our system of government is filled with loopholes, stifled by tradition, unwilling to change. So what’s to be done?

Well, duh. We vote, and we vote for the party that best covers our needs. If we can’t find one that does, we vote tactically to kick out the people who don’t. If we don’t feel that anyone in government is on our side, we put a big black cross through the ballot paper. It’s called spoiling, and the great thing is that it’s still counted.

A third of the British electorate didn’t vote in 2010. That’s 15 million people who felt so disconnected and disenfranchised by the system that they decided not to be counted. That was the worst thing they could have done. If that 15 million had spoiled their papers (or as I choose to call it, choosing the “none of the above” option), it would have sent an incredibly clear message. We choose to vote for none of you. You don’t represent us. But deciding not to be counted meant that the 15 million chose to be ignored. And that’s a real shame, because 15 million no-votes would have beaten the votes gathered by Labour and The Conservatives. 15 million people rejecting the current system would have been the majority vote.

Imagine the shockwaves that would have sent through the Houses Of Parliament, and then tell me that voting is meaningless.

The thing is, career politicians are terrified of elections. It’s the one time when they have to justify themselves to the public, the one time when they actually have to do something to keep their jobs. The smug, over-stuffed bloater who keeps knocking at your door and shoving leaflets with his smug over-stuffed face through your letterbox? That’s your MP, who you haven’t seen in five years. Guess what? He needs you to vote for him. So don’t ignore him. Open the door. Have a chat. Ask him an uncomfortable question. Look at the fear in his eyes*. That’s the power of democracy.

Now tell me that voting is meaningless.

Today, we have a chance to change the political landscape. We can support the MP who works hard for his constituency, or help to bin the smug fuck who’s put through his second house on expenses. This time, the field is wide open. There’s a chance to get independent voices into Parliament, or to make safe seats less so. If you’re not sure who to vote for, there are a ton of online tools that’ll match your needs and values to a party. You might be surprised at who you support. Even if you just cross out every choice on the ballot paper, you’re making yourself known.

So get yourself to the polling station today. They opened at 7. They’ll be open till 10. You have no reason not to take the time. Today is the day. Now is the time.

You’re in charge. Enjoy the feeling.
*Notice I’m describing your MP as male. The gender skew in Parliament is still deeply biased towards men. Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s certainly unrepresentative to a population that’s pretty much half and half male to female.

A Day For Change

NewImage

This is it. We’re finally here. I’m so excited. Today’s referendum is only the second that we have ever had in this country (the first was on our membership to the Common Market in 1975). It’s a chance to change the way we vote for a fairer, more representative system.

I love voting. It always gives me a weird little thrill to take my card down to my local station, to stand in the booth with my pencil poised. Even when I know exactly who I’m going to vote for (and I usually do – I also enjoy getting the research done on my decision, and I read every bit of political literature that come through the door) I like to have a short dramatic pause, just to extend the moment. Then I will swoop, marking my preference with a flourish. I will walk out of the station with a straight back, head held high, a smile on my face. “There,” I will tell myself. “I HAVE VOTED.” I can be such a ponce sometimes.

The very fact that I am able to stand and give myself a little moment in a voting booth is the result of hundreds of years of struggle to get power out of the hands of the privileged, monied few and into the grasp of the people of Britain. I always want to recognise and appreciate that fact, and the sacrifices that have been made on my behalf. The simple act of voting, that so many people take for granted and that less and less of us actually manage to get off our arses and complete, is the foundation of our democracy.

Many people these days say that their vote doesn’t matter, that it makes no difference whose box they put their cross into. It’s this argument that makes everyone’s vote less powerful. Not showing up devalues everyone else’s vote. It’s a selfish, dangerous stance. That’s what makes today’s referendum so important. A Yes vote will give us a system where our vote does matter, where extremists can’t get power, where you can vote your conscience instead of tactically.

But that’s my opinion. You have yours. And it’s your inalienable right to express it whichever way you like. Whatever you do, don’t waste it. Be a citizen today. Take a half hour and enjoy the fact that we live in a country where you can freely go into a voting booth and say what you think.

See you at the voting station!

(The excellent photo comes via Andrew Bloch on Twitter).

A Response To The Chancellor

(I didn’t watch the live Budget broadcast yesterday, for fear that I might throw something at the telly. This is a fairly common occurrence whenever George Osborne is on screen, so I figured probably best not. However, I was following the Twitters, with particular interest shown to tax expert and strident reformist Richard Murphy. He was not impressed. I’ve had a chance to see what was in young Osborne’s little red satchel, and I would like to respond as if I was the Shadow Chancellor (incidentally, isn’t that a great name for a fantasy villain?) – admittedly, with the benefit of hindsight that I don’t think Ed Balls gets.)

The Shadow Chancellor rises, and waits for the applause and jeering to die down. He fixes his opposite number with a hooded glare, and taps impatiently on his lecturn with the eraser end of a pencil.

The House of Commons is, unusually, completely silent as he speaks.

“Is that it? Really? Is that the best you can do? Have you given up so early in the game, George? I mean, this is just derisory. There’s hardly anything here! Alright, let’s see what you’ve managed to do, shall we?

A penny off fuel duty. When you’d raised it by two in the last budget, and a postponement of the next hike until January. Which means you’ve just promised the drivers of the nation two price rises on fuel in 2012. 50p on a packet of fags. Fine, I’m with you on the coffin nails. A sneaky play on alcohol duty though. No rise doesn’t mean you’ve abolished the duty escalator. So that’s a 2% rise above the rate of inflation. 10p on a pint over the next year. You’ve just doomed the rural pub market. Not that people can afford to drive to them in the first place, but that on top of the VAT hike is going to grease the slide on which a lot of these local community businesses are already teetering. Nice work.

“That’s a sweet little drop in corporation tax rates there. And I see you’ve made an attempt to address tax avoidance. Sort of. A bit. A fifty grand payment if you’ve lived in the UK for twelve years. I can see Philip Green quaking in his boots over that one. And you’ve not put a limit on the tax assets that banks are sitting on from the losses they incurred in the 2008 banking crisis. That’s what kept Barclay’s tax bill down to a 1% payment. Nicely done. Keeping your paymasters sweet.

“If you were serious about tax avoidance, you’d give HMRC the cash and staffing it needed to get to grips with the staggering amount of revenue we lose to corporate shenanigans every year. Instead, you’ve provided loopholes in inheritance tax and charitable contributions that will turn this country into a haven for tax abusers. Nicely considered.

And after that, we can still see that growth has slowed for the third successive quarter that you’ve been in charge of the accounts. That’s not the best record, really, is it?

“I suppose we should be grateful that you haven’t done more. After all, the cuts that will begin to bite in the next couple of weeks will be bad enough without you turning the screws any further. Unfortunately, you’ll probably find that your lame duck budget hasn’t fooled any one. I suggest you have a look at the people who will be filling the streets of London this Saturday. The people who will be clearly and directly affected by your politically motivated financial agenda. Is it a coincidence that you’re rushing through your attempt to clear the deficit in time for the elections of 2015, when most economic experts consider that there’s no problem with taking 12 years to do it? And in fact that this country is in significantly better financial shape than you’d have us believe?

“It’s becoming pretty clear to everyone with two brain cells to bang together and a fast internet connection that your policies aren’t working, that your interests are not those of the people you claim to represent, that you’re lying to the electorate in order to push through policies that are based on discredited economic theories dragging us back to the worst excesses of the Thatcher years, that your arrogance and hubris will not allow you to admit that the gamble you’re taking with this country’s future is putting us on a path to disaster. This Budget is pointless, because the damage is already done.

“I’d say thanks for nothing, George, but the sad fact is that you’re going to leave us with less than that.”

The Shadow Chancellor sits, and waits for the inevitable tumult.

The Accidental Shareholder

I was pleased to see that the Lloyds Banking Group has posted pretax profits of £2.2 billion. It’s cheering to see a publicly owned company announcing healthy returns on our investment.

However behind the headlines, the news isn’t all so rosy. Despite the increase, shares in Lloyds have dropped sharply, and their profit forecasts for 2011 have been downgraded. The group as a whole has also dropped over 26,000 jobs in it’s quest to cut costs – in a week when it’s departing chief executive, Eric Daniels, pockets a £1.45m bonus, and is in line for another £6m payout based on shares he already owns.

Let’s not forget, this is the guy who railroaded through a toxic merger with HBOS at the height of the banking crisis. This is the guy that saddled the group with billions of pounds of bad debts, and still seems to think it’s a good investment. It’s thanks to Daniels that the UK taxpayer is a major shareholder in Lloyds. We should all be worried about his financial acumen, and loudly question his bonus.

The profit announcement also serves as a reminder not to swallow the Coalition Koolaid, and believe the line that our current financial difficulties are due to overspending in the public sector. It was the bailouts of banks like Lloyds and Northern Rock that did for the deficit, not the NHS. If the Tories were in power at the time, they’d have had to do exactly the same thing.

Bail-in protests are going on this Saturday, turning HBOS banks across the country back into publicly owned and run spaces. These actions are great at pointing out the wild disparity between the profits that huge financial institutions make and the bonuses they pay, while vital services are being cut to the bone. Check out the UK Uncut site for more info, or follow @ukuncut on Twitter for the news on the ground as it happens.

Meanwhile, I’m going to find someone to help me dump these toxic shares I’ve been saddled with.

 

Protest In Your Pocket

It’s looking more and more likely that Libya will be the latest of the domino nations to shrug off an oppressive regime, and hopefully find a better alternative. The power of social networking will be heavily cited as a prime factor in the destabilisation of hitherto unbudgeable despots like Mubarak and Gaddafi. Or, if you’re Malcolm Gladwell, nothing whatever to do with it.

Continue reading Protest In Your Pocket

The Sunday Lao Tzu: on governing

“To lead the people, walk behind them.”

When the best leader’s work is done the people say, “We did it ourselves.”


I enjoy Lao Tzu’s teachings on the art of government. He is pragmatic, practical, something of a libertarian, always aware of the importance of a light touch.  He’s also very clear on the need for a leader to have a deep understanding of the needs and the will of the people.

I wonder, then, what he would make of a leader who heavily taxes his people and cuts their services, and then loudly proclaims that it is now their job to take up the slack.

I wonder what he would feel about a politician who chooses to insult and demonise a large portion of his population, and time that speech to coincide with a parade by thugs and provocateurs who have made it their mission to do the very same thing?

How would he view a government that punishes it’s most vulnerable citizens because of the actions of the rich and powerful? Or a political party that systematically forgets, ignores or lies about the promises it made to the people in order to achieve power?

More to the point, what are WE supposed to think of all this?


(I understand and apologise to you, oh my Readership, for the political slant X&HT has taken over the last few days. It’s simply been the way my attention ha been drawn. We’ll be back to the usual shenanigans tomorrow. Thank you for your patience.)

The Big Problem With The Big Society

David Cameron’s Big Society is based around the idea that volunteers will take up the slack from public services that have been cut. This brings out my bristles. It makes the assumption that there are enough people out there with the time and spare income to be able to give their time for free. It also devalues the work that the public sector employees are doing.

As an example, let’s look at libraries. They offer all kinds of services above and beyond simple book-lending, and are involved in deeply complex digital archive and stewardship incentives. Sourcing and distribution of books, DVD, music and web-based services are all part of the remit. Take a look at this breakdown of a librarian’s day from the Voices Of The Library site:

 

  • Two separate TV companies want background info for programmes they are making for this autumn.
  • I need info on the founder of a local college for the deaf.
  • Please find me a local newspaper report of the death of a motorcyclist in 1951 (narrowed it down with GRO indexes on Ancestry).
  • Please search local trade directories for me for a pub on the county borders, 1870s to 1880s.
  • A lady from the USA comes in to research her family, who lived at a local manor house. She is delighted with the amount of resources we have on them.
  • Another lady needs help copying an exact small rural area on the 1880 map.
  • A man comes in to research the navigability of the local river.
  • Another man needs intensive staff help to search the FindmyPast site.
  • A lady needs guidance in using newspapers on microfilm.
  • When did a local village magazine start, and how can I write to them?
  • Please can you help us trace the whereabouts of a book containing original watercolours by a Victorian lady artist, which we think we saw in a local museum in 1995?
  • We need photographs and history of a jeweller’s shop in the county town.
  • A colleague from another council dept asks if we can suggest a local book suitable for official presentations? (We recommend a very good one published by ourselves, which will mean income for our photo website).
  • Local man would like us to run off more copies of his little book which we produced for him; his nephew has mentioned it on Facebook & it’s selling like hot cakes.

And that’s not the end of it!

Yet the government and local councils aiming the cuts seem to think that these tasks can be accomplished by the same kind of community-minded individuals that man the tills at Oxfam for a couple of mornings a week. As if the job was shelf-stacking and ticket-taking. Iman Qureshi treats this argument with the disdain it deserves over on the Open Rights Group blog. The Little Chalfont Community Library in Buckinghamshire is being held up as a prime example of what can be done when people rally together to save their local bookhouse. But, as this post on Words With Jam makes clear, it takes a certain kind of community to be able to take on the complex job:

Both Little Chalfont and Bucks’ other community library in Chalfont St Giles are in highly prosperous areas at the edge of the London commuter belt. The surrounding communities are both willing and comparatively able to raise the cash for a service it wishes to maintain. What’s more, there is a large pool of people (retired, at home with children etc) who have the professional, managerial and business experience to carry out all the functions necessary to run a library. The same thing simply could not work on, say, a sink estate where many of the residents are second generation unemployed, or a scattered farming community where a majority are working 18 hours a day just to survive.

The ConDem push to get volunteers to do the work of trained professionals is failing. The wheels are starting come off the idea of The Big Society. Liverpool County Council, one of the four showcase zones for community-driven regeneration has pulled out of the initiative – largely because of spending cuts that will directly effect thousands of volunteer organisations.

Worse/hilariously (delete where applicable), Lord Wei, the man in charge of the whole initiative, is cutting the hours he’s spending on the job. He simply can’t spare the time to work for free. This sums the whole idea up nicely. The coalition can’t even get it’s message straight, praising “alarm-clock Britain” while expecting those same hard-working yeoman to spend all their spare time running services that are subject to pointless and injurious cuts. It’s all a bit of a joke really, and not a particularly funny one.

Anyway. That’s enough cut-and-paste opinioneering for one day. I’m off to the library. Anyone else coming?