Thursday, 28 April 2011

Why saying YES to AV is a vote for accountable politics

A third of the public is still undecided on AV. I suspect part of the reason why they remain to be convinced is that there are two conversations taking place in every announcement on AV: debating the merits of the policy change itself and pushing naked party political advantage. We seem unable to divorce one from the other and as a result, cynicism is rife about this referendum. I’ll try my best to honestly disentangle them.

For me, the main reasons I favour AV are around fairness:

· First Past The Post (FPTP) worked as a system when we were largely a two-party state, but now smaller parties fare much worse under it in proportion to their national vote. Change would take us a closer step towards proportionality, albeit modestly.
· One of the striking things I noticed at the time of the expenses scandal was that MPs (from all parties) who held the safest seats were more likely to abuse the system. I’d argue that solid majorities leave politicians less concerned with how their voters perceive their behaviour. The need to earn second preference votes will inevitably force them to change this outlook.
· The extremist parties such as the BNP won’t be able to use AV to gain a foothold in Parliament because their support is shallow beyond their first preference core vote.
· It won’t cost any more than FPTP.
· You still only get one vote, just more of an investment in your representatives, because they will be voted for by at least 50% of voters.

Looking at my self-interested Green Party perspective:

· Yes, research seems to indicate that there would be a reasonable improvement for our electoral chances. Traditionally, many people don’t vote for us because they fear their vote would be wasted, when they should vote tactically to prevent a disliked party getting into office. AV would allow them to give us their first preference, knowing that if we don’t succeed, they still have their insurance policy vote. This would allow voters to express real choice.
· Even if it doesn’t translate into seats, I argue that it would effect public perceptions of us and force the media to engage with us more seriously. Over the longer term, this shift would serve to build confidence in us amongst voters who wouldn’t ordinarily consider us.
· Under AV, second preference votes will become essential in elections. It means that the other major parties would be more likely to court our voters on our issues in order to obtain their second preferences. This should translate into our policies being championed by others, which I am not going to argue with!

I believe this change represents a modest step in the right direction. It’s by no means a perfect model, but I can’t lose sight that this fight has been going on for decades. At least this incremental change takes us a step further towards a more fair and proportional system - and AV would be likely to strengthen the hand of those political parties truly committed to longer-term change and overhaul of democracy.

At a time when the public is disenchanted with politicians, this referendum is a wake up call for them to listen to us, account for our views and fight slightly harder for our votes. Why would you sniff at the chance to tell politicians we expect more?

Monday, 25 April 2011

Crossroads: Gay rights in the UK

Last week, the Sunday Times reported that if a general election was called right now, a majority of gay men would vote Conservative. The story piqued enough interest to make it around Twitter and the gay press. My natural instinct was to raise a slightly arch eyebrow and ask to see the data that back it up, but then realised that the article was prompting the wrong discussion.

Before I get to that, I should reflect upon the original story. Unsurprisingly, the data becomes unreliable even on the most superficial examination. The story stemmed from 1,100 gay men responding to a poll on a social networking site called Jake. This site is specifically targeted at LGBT career professionals. It is extremely business-orientated, going as far to sell itself as an ideal platform for corporations to raise their profile and ability to influence in the marketplace. I’m not arguing that this is problematic. It is heartening to see figures within the business world striving to capacity-build success amongst LGBT individuals within their ranks. That said, it isn’t a stretch to argue that this particular niche might be a tad more sympathetic to the Conservatives than your average poll of gay men.

For those with longer memories, the site is also owned and run by Ivan Massow, a gay entrepreneur who enjoys a rather interesting past with the Conservative Party. His most notable claims to fame are that he used to be a flatmate of Michael Gove, the current Education Secretary and also famously acted as Margaret Thatcher’s escort to the 1999 Conservative Party conference! He remains, after a brief flirtation with Labour, an active member of the Conservatives.

Finally, and probably most significantly, the vote actually showed that in an election called now, 36% of the respondents would vote Conservative, 34% would vote Labour and 22% would vote Liberal Democrat. Hardly the ringing endorsement it first appears. I’ll say nothing about the fact that the Greens don’t even appear in the poll!

But the discussion we should be having isn’t which political party is most popular with gay men. Debating the merits of each party platform towards gay equality can only get us so far. Instead, I believe those of us campaigning for LGBT rights within political parties should acknowledge that we stand at a crossroads. In the last decade, the Labour Government legislated for equality and removed the vast majority of discriminatory laws on the statute books. These successes have taken the wind out of the sails of political parties’ courting of the gay vote, because by and large, they are now all singing largely from the same hymn sheet in tackling the remaining discriminatory laws and practices.

So here is the real debate. How should the political agenda now evolve between the LGBT community and political parties? What should the Green Party be doing? That is a discussion for another day...

Friday, 22 April 2011

Local Elections 2011: Delivering Green credibility

For those of us with political nerd tendencies, we are two weeks away from a particularly fascinating set of council elections. Whilst I’ll be scouring the results nationally to see how other Green Parties have fared, you’ll not be surprised to learn that I’m going to be especially keen on seeing what the results will mean for my local party, Brighton & Hove!

For this blog to be relevant, I’m keen to try and locate my views as much as possible in a real life context. As well as being a general member of Brighton & Hove Green Party, I was lucky enough to be the Secretary of the local party here during the recent General Election, so am hoping my analysis reflects a number of different perspectives. And remains constructive!

As you may be aware, we have achieved a great deal here in successive Council elections: from three to six to twelve Councillors and a final thirteenth as a result of a Hove by-election. This support is mainly concentrated in the central part of the city. The hard-working records of our elected representatives went a long way towards proving our credibility during the historic election of Caroline Lucas as the Green Party’s first MP.

Buoyed by this recent success, yet mindful of the mountain to climb, this has been our strongest and most ambitious campaign so far. It has given us to the confidence to try and move our message out to the outer wards with a vision that is realistic, progressive and feels like a positive road map out of financial insecurity. It has also been really heartening to see a number of our new candidates developing in confidence throughout the campaign and working as a counter-weight to front-line service cuts.

On the downside, we have a Conservative administration pushing forward the austerity agenda, a local Labour party that is rapidly regrouping and mounting unemployment in the city. The Liberal Democrats are an exceptionally small presence here, so their current unpopularity will have very little concrete impact.

After the dust settles on the election in the next two weeks, I’ll be coming back to look at the results and give my reflections as to what we can learn from the outcome nationally, as well as lessons particular to Brighton & Hove. I’d also love to hear your views too, so please get in touch!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The New Paternalism: Legislating through the back door

You have to give the Coalition Government some credit. They aren’t letting the grass grow under their feet. Whilst in presentational terms, they come across as dis-organised, arrogant and amateur – they are actually achieving a significant amount of their policy aims in record time.

Whilst their “red tape challenge” had slipped quietly under the radar, the ramifications for what it actually entails for good Government are now becoming shockingly clear. Aside from Tory favourites such as taxation policy and national security, every other regulation in the country is now under the microscope and in danger of abolition. In his own words, Cameron is arguing that all regulations should be scrapped unless a good enough rationale is given to retain them. Open season has now commenced for the public to comment, with the emphasis upon "irrelevant until proven useful". And guess who will be the final arbiter in whether regulations have proven their worth during this exercise?

In fact, there is something rather smart about Cameron’s Red Tape Challenge. It looks cost effective, appears inclusive and seems common sense. Unfortunately, buried amongst the easily-mocked regulations offered up as examples of bad practice to the right-wing press, whole swathes of essential legislation are under threat. The accusation levelled against these regulations are that they constrain business efficiency and cost the tax-payer valuable money we cannot afford.

We are talking about the newly-minted Climate Change Act that Cameron supported prior to the General Election, the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the National Park Act. We need to put pressure upon him to respond to organisations such as Greenpeace or 38 Degrees, who are insisting that he comes out unequivocally against attacks upon these core environmental protections. Never mind the environmental costs, these don’t even make long-term economic sense.

The vultures are also circling around the Equality Act, which if repealed would strip away anti-discrimination legislation. Most notably, this includes the protections now available to the LGBT community which have been fought for over the last 25 years. We must not lose sight that some of these regulations enshrine principles more precious than can be calculated on a business ledger.

The real scandal here is that the Coalition Government is neatly circumventing democracy under the pretence of opening up Government to public scrutiny. This exercise is tacitly giving them permission to remove those regulations that they don’t agree with. This can now be done without the inconvenience of full public debate or having to stand on an electoral platform that explicitly argues for repeal of this legislation. The ease with which these laws could be swept away horrifies me.

Whilst there is merit in taking a fresh eye to how Government functions and accounts for our taxes, we have to fight for open scrutiny and to start bringing this 21st century-branded paternalism out from under the radar.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Why austerity poses a crucial challenge to the Greens

The scent of political change is in the air. The MP expenses scandal and loss of faith in the Liberal Democrats has dealt a further body blow to trust in politicians. There is a rapidly intensifying crush of voices denouncing the political “austerity” agenda.

Much of the difference between the three main political parties has focused upon the timing and severity of cuts. In that context, the Green Party pledge that “fairness is worth fighting for” and opposition to cuts in front-line services has enjoyed more resonance than initially expected. Voter alienation could find voice in single-issue campaigns opposing these policies, but I believe the Green Party has a generational opportunity to increase our credibility if we can demonstrate solidarity and earn a leadership role in these campaigns.

More than most, younger people are feeling the quality of their lives materially affected by the increase in taxes, cuts in essential services and the rising unemployment figures. They are seeing the ladders of social mobility, education and career opportunities being kicked away from beneath them.

The Green Party has a traditionally strong relationship with students, tending to engage more consistently with this group throughout the electoral cycle, not just during elections. The new economic consensus is shaping younger people’s expectations of what they will be able to achieve in their lives: prevalence of debt, marketisation of their education, inability to afford their own homes and a dismantling of public services upon which many will depend. It is our duty to give voice to how bleak this situation is becoming and work closely with those most affected to articulate constructive solutions.

How do we engage these newly energised individuals in our mission? I believe we need to dig deep for a positive vision for society, rooted in our core values of fairness, equity and sustainable growth. We need the conviction to move beyond uncritical opposition to financial austerity and sketch out a route-map towards an achievable and re-configured economy.

How do we start this process? The Young Greens are a key partner in giving voice to this new vision and I’m heartened to see the party looking at how best to invest in their work. We should resource their engagement in common cause with activists from across these struggles and facilitate a nuanced understanding of the impact of cuts back into our evolving policy development process.

Our challenge is also to make ourselves more accessible to newcomers. My local party, Brighton and Hove Greens, have enjoyed an influx of new members since the election of Caroline Lucas MP. We must guard against adopting command and control approaches to membership which concentrate exclusively on (admittedly important) leafleting and canvassing. I feel that political life should be about learning, influencing and enjoying being part of a collective endeavour to improve the world around us. To that end, we must work hard to harness the time and energy of those passionate enough to join, in ways that reflect their interests and skills.

This debate parallels my own evolution from environmental and LGBT activism, to embracing and becoming part of party political life. Over the coming months, I will be writing this blog to chart my experience of this journey and to identify the opportunities and challenges ahead for those of us passionately engaging in building a strong Green political movement. I hope you will continue to share it with me!