Ninety-nine years ago today the British Parliament passed the Parliament Act. It limited the powers of the House of Lords and set up as official the idea that the chamber should be democratized. The Parliament Act 1911 also changed the way the House of Commons operated by reducing the maximum term of that chamber from seven to five years and introducing MP’s salaries (then at £400 p.a.). These Commons measures were along the lines of what the Chartists and others had long been campaigning for: shorter terms to give the electorate greater voice (because we can vote more often), and wages for MPs so that a private income is not needed to take up the political ‘hobby’.
It seems that our new ConDem government will be offering us a referendum on changing the electoral system used for general elections from First Past The Post to Alternative Vote (FPTP → AV). The pre-election manifesto status was that the Tories wanted to keep FPTP, the Lib Dems wanted proportional representation (PR), while it was Labour who were the party suggesting a move to AV. A few times the BBC made the mistake of suggesting that AV is a proportional system, but this is not surprising from reporters who are more concerned with personalities than electoral geekery.
There is some self-interest in the parties’ various stances. On the basis of votes cast in this last general election, the Tories would probably lose seats given any of the other systems, Labour would probably gain a few seats under AV, and the Lib Dems would probably gain around a score of seats under AV and over a hundred under PR. Of course, these are hypothetical results, because we can’t be sure how a different system might change the way electors cast their votes (for the data, see this Grauniad article). All the different systems would still have resulted in a hung parliament, but oddly both AV and PR might have made a Lib-Lab coalition more appealing with a stable majority (mainly because the Lib Dems would have more seats). The ConDems offer of AV is a compromise in that the Tories would possibly lose seats but not as many as under PR, and the Lib Dems would gain seats but not as many as under PR.
Leafy Twickenham is all aquiet as volcanic ash has cleared Heathrow’s flight path. Political banners are beginning to bristle from box hedges, although most of them proclaim the incumbent Vince Cable as the choice vote.
When it comes to human rights, the fundamental underpinning of liberal democracy, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have a consistently positive track record (although neither party has been in a position where they have had to live with the consequences of their stance). Labour are often thought of having a poor record, yet, despite New Labour’s increasingly authoritarian approach, it introduced the Human Rights Act, the most comprehensive legislation on human rights in the UK (among many other things, the act totally abolished the death penalty in the UK, which was still available for certain military offenses). Conversely, the Tories have consistently challenged the act, and now wish to replace it with a watered down bill of rights.
Looting is theft whatever the situation, but entirely forgiveable given this situation. However, in the city of Concepción, population 500,000, the Chilean army has deployed 7000 soldiers to prevent looting and protect property. It strikes me as a peculiar prioritisation to use military resources for property protection rather than humanitarian assistance. To underline the perverse decision to prioritise stuff over people, the army shot and killed a citizen two nights ago. Socialists often describe the military as primarily mobilised in defence of property rather than human life, and this is an example of such an abuse of state force under the guise of ‘rule of law’. Read David Osler’s article for more on this.
Essay warning: this is a long article in three parts.
Recently, I wrote an article here on POWER2010 and the People’s Charter. In passing I mentioned how I didn’t support the proposed policy for POWER2010 of ‘English votes on English laws’, something I now realise is a bit of a mantra among English nationalists, with its own camel-case acronym EVoEL (deliver us from…?)!
There were a lot of important ideas in that post, but was surprised by the complete focus on English nationalism in the comments. I was even more surprised by the poor quality of their argument, much of which was ad hominem (‘you are trash’ said one, another found me a traitor, another suggested that I was being anti-English and thus racist!). Then there was the misquoting and misrepresentation of my thoughts. For instance, I had written ‘In general, the promotion of English nationalism by a few fringe groups is very dodgy’. I should have been clearer about what I meant: that English identity and the nationalism based on it, promoted by a few fringe groups, is a minefield of problems that should be treated with care rather than emotional flag waving. However, the nationalists tweeted this as my saying ‘the English are dodgy’ (hmm, nice misquote there)! Aside from this there was demonstrable lack of understanding of our political constitution (I had to direct a commenter to read the 1911 Parliament Act). However, overall, I was shocked by the need to depict the English as persecuted, restricted and disempowered within a UK in which we make up around 83% of the population. If nationalism is about national liberation, nationalists feel the obvious need to conjure up an imagined captivity from which to liberate us.
I am English and proud to be English. I own an English football shirt (somewhere), but I’m not the flag waving type. Many of my friends are not English, and I find their perspective on Englishness very useful. I believe that it’s important to approach the issue dispassionately and practically, against the surging romanticism that can leave one delusional.
This coming Sunday, 29 November, the citizens of the Swiss Confederation vote in referendum whether to ban the building of minarets. The referendum was constitutionally triggered by a successful public petition launched by the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP), a right-wing party with around 23% of the Swiss popular vote and the largest party in the Nationalrat. However, the ‘no’ vote is being urged by the three other main parties and the leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups across the country.
A major plank of SVP domestic policy is a belief that the country is experiencing Überfremdung, and become ‘overly foreign’. Quite similar claims are trolleyed out by British tabloids on a regular basis, and it is now the general policy of the BNP, becoming that of Ukip and has some resonance in Tory rhetoric. The SVP’s public platform on Überfremdung won them a surge of votes and a new raft of seats in the Nationalrat in the general election two years ago.
Switzerland’s Muslim population is surprising large, around 4% of the population. Back in 1980, their number was less than 1%. Such rapid demographic change is clearly a shock to a small, conservative country. Some have taken Swiss citizenship and other naturalised. Turkish, Albanian and Bosniak migrants are the largest Muslim ethnic groups, the latter two groups a result of Balkan civil wars during the 90s. Concentrations of the Muslim population are found in the large cities of Zürich, Geneva and Basel, but, unlike the UK, the Muslim population of Switzerland is fairly evenly distributed throughout the country. Continue reading
Yesterday, I attended my very first conference as a member of the Labour Representation Committee. I was a little apprehensive that, after deciding on the LRC for my political home, I would come face to face with the mass membership and realise that I wasn’t in the right place. I am glad to report that my comrades have proved my fears unfounded. In other sections of the Left, the address ‘comrade’ can be so loaded, even to becoming a weapon, but here I felt genuine warmth whenever that word was used.
Tony Benn, veteran inspiration of the Labour Left, opened the conference with a short, well-received speech. He spoke of the historical LRC, set up to give voice to the Labour Movement in politics, firstly through the Liberal Party, and then going on to found the Labour Party. He pointed out that after New Labour’s divorce from the grassroots Labour Movement, the present LRC is just as needed to bring our voice into politics. Finally, he restated one of his key political themes that, if there can be full employment and no shortage of bombs and tanks in the Second World War, why can’t we put that energy and indefatigability into winning the peace. It was good to see Tony Benn after his recent operation, although looking a little weak of body, still strong in spirit.
From the outset, the fault lines within the LRC were clearly visible — between the membership who were in the Labour Party, keeping the faith though battered and bruised by New Labour bullying, and the membership outside of Labour in the disaffiliated unions and the various small Communist and Trotskyist tendencies that affiliate to the LRC. However, the fault lines are publicly cherished, and the open, democratic nature of the LRC is designed to act as a bridge between these groups, working together for democratic socialism. As with any radical political meeting, there were two people who demonstrate that they feel radicalism is an excuse for nuttiness: a ranting ex-Trot and an absurd Posadist. They were met with a polite but firm response from conference: sit down and shut up if you have nothing sensible to say.
A good representation from the CWU were at conference, and received resounding support for their defensive strike action at Royal Mail. Industrial issues for journalists and civil servants were also brought up as resolutions. The RMT brought a resolution in support of the People’s Charter, which was supported. Please do visit their website, read the charter and sign it; it could be a useful symbol for unity in the Left and opposition to the neoliberal policies of the mainstream parties. Continue reading