Thursday, 28 July 2016

Don't Throw Away Your Vote On An Abuse Of Process

I count the leading figures of Jersey's “Reform Jersey” political party among my personal friends. I wish them to remain so, thus I shall take pains to be temperate in this critique of their latest tactic. However, I disagree with it too strongly, not to challenge it at all.

(Background for non-Jersey readers: The island has a unicameral parliament, but with three different modes of election for the members, having different titles for functionally the same office.)

Senator Zoe Cameron was frozen out from working on her subjects of special interest and competence by the Council of Ministers, was totally ineffectual and rapidly became disengaged. To her credit, instead of serving out her full term as a waste of space, she admitted her failure and stood down so that another could put her seat to better use. So, we have an island-wide by-election to look forward to.

The purpose of a by-election is to replenish the House to its full complement of working members, that is all. The ballot asks no other question of voters than, which of the candidates do they prefer to take office. In practice, for many voters, the choice is who is the least unacceptable, rather than whom do they want, but it is still about filling a vacant office with another holder.

Reform Jersey have disappointed me greatly, by putting forward Deputy Sam Mezec as a candidate for the by-election. Now, this is not going to be an ad hominem attack on Sam: I know him personally, like him a lot as someone to talk with about our mutual interests, and I approve of him as a politician. However, I believe that his candidature in this election is wrong in principle on multiple levels.

The first objection I have is that Sam is already a member. If we vote for him, and he wins, then we have made no change at all, but simply delegated the choice of who the new member eventually is to the electorate of Sam's current constituency as a Deputy. This is an abdication of our democratic right to no discernable benefit. We have no idea who the candidates would be in the consequent by-election there, and, moving from principle to strategy, it is one of Jersey's most bipolar constituencies, with a track record of electing both very right-wing and very left-wing candidates to its multiple seats, so we can hardly count on them to give us another in Sam's mould, even if Reform Jersey offer them one.

My second objection is that Reform Jersey are justifying the plan with some sophistry about how a vote for Sam serves as a referendum on the proposed Medium Term Financial Plan. No: As I said above, the vote chooses a new Senator, that is all. It is quite possible to disapprove of the MFTP and also want to see one of the other candidates become the new member of the House, and totally impossible to legitimately deem votes on an explicit question of who should be elected to office as referendum votes on another matter entirely. I am pretty sure all the RJ leadership are sharp enough to understand that, so to suggest otherwise is a cynical ploy that I am somewhat less than proud of them for stooping to. Disowning them as friends would be a gross over-reaction, but I am not going to pretend I approve of the duplicity.

A more trivial objection is simply this: Elections have a substantial cost, to the public purse, to the candidates and in the time of honorary officials and volunteers working pro bono publicae. To contest an election with an intention to simply cause another is an irresponsibly wasteful plan.

Now RJ have announced this, they are pretty much obliged to go through with it. So, I shan't waste my time calling on them to think again. I can address my fellow voters, though. If you have no sympathies with Reform Jersey anyway, do what you would have done. If, however, you are like me in wanting Sam to be in the States, we already have him there: We do not need to waste our votes on him now. By the time all candidates have declared, there will at least one credible and capable progressive candidate in the field, whom we can get behind to fill Senator Cameron's place to good effect.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Cluster[bomb]

A cluster bomb is a munition in which the main bomb scatters numerous small land mines around the explosion site, to cause multiple subsequent casualties. Thus, a neologism that has recently crossed the Atlantic takes the concept and replaces the word bomb with a swear word, whose commonest secondary meanings are to harm irreparably and to put into a hopeless situation. And now the word has been invented, David Cameron has seen fit to give us a practical example of one.

The consensus of expert analysts is that Cameron’s referendum on EU membership was a tactical gambit to avoid losing votes to the official Conservative Party’s fellow-travellers in UKIP. Still a shabby thing, even if it had been done well, but against all precedent for referenda on major constitutional changes, it was drawn up to decide by a simple majority. The case for continuing in the EU was then presented as badly by the official campaign as the case for leaving was presented by their rivals, but at least the Leave campaign shrewdly targeted the prejudices of the mob whose fitness to hold the franchise is dubious, and won the referendum. So, there was the burst. Now, where have all the mines gone? Just like a real cluster bomb, we will be finding the last of them the hard way for years to come, but we can track a few already.

Although Parliament’s sovereignty was not conceded to the referendum in any formal way, and the result does not bind it to act, now the result is known, it would be political self-destruction for the Houses not to implement the choice they have asked the nation to make for them. The Leave contingent’s small majority include all of the violent and anti-social far-right groups, and a refusal to abide by the decision would turn over half the public bitterly against the government, and promote the far-right from a fringe of despised pariahs to leaders of the revolution, which would spell horrific bad times whether they won or lost in the end. So, on a crucially important issue, Cameron has thrown away Parliament’s  practical capacity to give leadership to Britain.

At the time of writing, Parliament has not yet had the chance to carry out its obligation to give formal notice of leaving the EU, and it remains to be seen what shape our relationship with Europe will take in coming years. It seems unlikely to be as good as we have had, however. Wisely, guarantees are already being put in place for the millions of EU nationals already settled in the UK, which will not only prevent the misery and social disruption that would come of their forced expulsion at the expiry of Britain’s notice, but also head off the risk of the tit-for-tat repatriation of millions of British emigrants to the EU. However, there is a choice of the “Norway” option, if it can be negotiated in time, where Britain continues to get the benefits of European access, at the continuing price of legal harmonisation and fiscal contributions, or the “World Trade Organisation” option, where we just lapse to being part of the Third World, so far as the rest of Europe are concerned. 

Before the referendum, the Brexiters were cocky about how desperately the EU would want to keep us, and how strong our negotiating position would be as result. However, our decades of intransigently demanding special treatment have in fact used up Europe’s goodwill, and now we have given them the opportunity to be rid of us, they are keen to make it happen as soon as possible.

The Leave campaign also robustly denied the forecasts of economic disaster flowing from Brexit as scaremongering and sneered at the idea of listening to experts. In a matter of days, though, the pound has crashed in value and global businesses are reconsidering their British commitments. The weakening pound may save some export related jobs from being lost altogether, but will still diminish the purchasing power of their wages. Many other jobs will simply be lost to economic contraction though. Even jobs that do not directly depend on EU exports or services will be affected by the reduction of EU related trade in the economy as a whole.

Racism in Britain is hardly a new problem - there have been four hundred years of private bullying and public rioting since Shakespeare felt the need to write the classic anti-racism play, The Merchant Of Venice, but the Brexit result was in part down to the votes of those who hoped to send all the foreigners back, and has emboldened them to become more aggressive and offensive in their hatred. The foreigners are not going to be sent back, of course, but that means still more public disillusionment with, and alienation from government. Those of us with liberal views may not want to see the racists prevail, but we have to admit that there are enough of them out there to be worth worrying about, and that they will now become angrier than they were, at another perceived betrayal. So we may expect many more harrowing and unpleasant tales of atrocities against European and Commonwealth immigrants - the typical racist not being interested enough to know the difference.

In choosing to leave the European Union, England has inadvertently made the case for the end of an older and closer union, too. Scotland knows it is too small a country to thrive in isolation, and is far prouder of its EU membership than its UK membership. Many English people seem not to understand the difference between union and empire, and bemoan rule from Brussels when the sovereign power has remained in London, and Europe has to dance to British tunes as much as any others. On the other hand, the “United” Kingdom has a more imperial flavour. In recent decades, a modicum of power has been restored to Edinburgh, but to a large extent Scotland is still ruled from London. While Scotland has supplied more than its share of senior Westminster politicians in recent years, they have been incidentally Scottish leaders of a Britain mainly consisting of English living in England. It now looks a serious possibility that Scotland will leave the UK to rejoin the EU. Soon, we may well have an even littler England than the Brexiters were hoping for.

Our cluster “bomb” has started a couple of other political fires that bode very ill for the well-being of British government and democracy. The Leave campaign was conducted with a good deal of gross dishonesty, inducing voters to vote Out on the basis of false facts and impossible promises. Faced with the challenge of delivering on their impossible promises, the leading Brexiters hastily stepped back. Another betrayal for the voters, who thought they knew who would be their new leaders, if Leave won. We are now doomed to another Maggie. The next PM will now be either May or Leadsom, and it won't matter a lot which one it is. Both are hardline right-wingers who begrudge human and workers’ rights and will use their power for repression and austerity to the people and asset-stripping and privatisation to the state. Of course, a terrible Tory PM wouldn’t matter a lot, if they were likely to soon lose a general election. However, the Brexit vote has inspired the Parliamentary Labour Party to spectacularly self-destruct. In Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party finally have the leader who can present inspirational alternatives to modern conservatism, and the moment was theirs to press home their advantage. Instead, disgruntled with not getting yet another greasy pole climbing apparatchik to carry their business on as usual, his parliamentarians have mostly deserted and betrayed him. This could end with Corbyn having all the moral authority to be the next PM, but no ministerial talent to form a government with, or it could end with an experienced but discredited Labour team led by a usurper into electoral wipeout. Just when we needed a change from the Tories most.

Looking further ahead, the big challenges of the coming decades will be global ones, which no country, however, proud and vain its patriots, will be able to solve unilaterally. International co-operation and adherence to world rules will be the only hope to salvage some of the good bits of our civilisation from the “green” problems that we have been building up for the last couple of centuries. Resource depletion, over-population, pollution and climate change are putting physical constraints on how much further we can take industrialism, and either we make controlled changes or uncontrolled changes will come upon us. Exiting the EU will not be a pass for Britain or England to go their own way, and if they try, in the long run, the road will be to disaster and nobody to help.