Sunday, 25 April 2010

A very undemocratic democracy

Last week I outlined briefly the political system in this country. I alluded to some weaknesses but said I’d talk about them this week, so that’s what I am going to do.

As I said, we each vote in our constituency for a Member of Parliament who then represents the whole of the constituency. This MP is decided simply by who gets the most votes; he (or she) doesn’t need a majority, just the largest minority. Indeed in most of the country MPs do not have the vote of the majority of their constituency. This means that over half of the people who voted in most constituencies voted for someone other than the person who is sent to Parliament on behalf of them. Even when an MP gets a majority, he only represents 51% (or whatever his majority is) of the constituency. The other 49% (or however many) are not actually represented in Parliament. Indeed if you add it up over the country, on average over 50% of the voters are not actually represented by anyone in Parliament. Unless you vote for the same person as enough other people in your constituency, your view will not be represented in Parliament at all. It’s worth stopping for a moment and letting that fact detonate in your brain.

The views of over half of the people who vote are not represented in Parliament.

I talked last week about the fact that some classes of society tend to vote for a certain party and that some individuals will almost always vote for a certain party no matter what happens. This means that each of the parties can essentially guarantee a particular proportion of the vote. This is the case in most countries, but it has horrible consequences given our political system. The way the constituencies are distributed (so that each one has roughly equal number of voters), most constituencies lie in an area where a large chunk of voters know for whom they will vote. These usually form a large minority, large enough for the MP representing that party to be fairly certain of winning the election in that constituency each time around. No matter how most people vote in the constituency there is literally no way in which an MP from a different party will win. If you live in one of these ‘safe’ seats, there is literally no point in voting because the result of a foregone conclusion.

Approximately 400 of the 650 constituencies are ‘safe’. Labour has the most of these, with the Tories close behind and the Lib Dems quite far behind. This means that Labour and to a slightly lesser extent Conservatives have a massive head start over everyone else in each election. They can assume ownership of the majority of the constituencies. Come 6th May, then, only 250 of the constituencies will be contested. That accounts for just over a third of the country. This means that your vote only matters in about 38% of the country. Again, pause for a second and let that sink in.

Not only are the views of over half of the people who vote not represented in Parliament, but for 62% of the country there is no point in voting, because it wont count for anything.

Now this may seem like enough evidence to say that our political system is undemocratic and unfair, but bad news comes in threes, so let’s look at what happens when we get in Parliament.

Most of the time one party has enough MPs to form a majority government. That means that, so long as they keep the support of their backbenchers, the government can force through any piece of legislation they want. They can do effectively anything they like. For five years we have essentially a one party state with a free hand to do what they will. Despite having a parliamentary majority, you have to go back to the Second World War to find an election in which any one party had over 50% of the popular vote. That means that a party without the support of the majority of the populace can rule with impunity. So let’s stop and take stock of what we’ve decided so far.

Not only are the views of over half of the people who vote are not represented in Parliament, but for 62% of the country there is no point in voting, because it wont count for anything and when they get to parliament, the winning party can run the country on their own, despite not having the support of the majority of the country. And we call this a democracy. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that we have a whole second chamber which is entirely unelected.

So we can conclude that our entire electoral system (called First Past the Post, often shortened to FPtP for obvious reasons) is entirely undemocratic, unfair and unreasonable. The solution? Proportional Representation (or PR for short), a system which simply counts up votes and assigns seats to each party in proportion to the number of votes. It means that everyone is represented, everyone’s view matters and only a party with over 50% of the vote can rule alone. In most cases this will require politicians to work together on a cross-party basis. This may be difficult for British politicians, but they manage it in most of the rest of Europe, so why I see no reason why it wont work here.

Monday, 19 April 2010

I don't do politics

Last Thursday was a first for British politics. The three main party leaders had a live, televised debate for the first time in British history. No wonder then that it was so regulated and controlled as to feel very unnatural. Nonetheless it was both enlightening and slightly disconcerting, hopefully setting a benchmark for future debates both in this and in future elections. Given that this will be the first in a number of election based blogs in the lead-up to 6th May, I might as well get some of the basics down first. If you’re wondering, I won’t be voting on 6th May because I don’t turn 18 until June, and no, I’m not bitter or pissed of at all, don’t be silly.

Anyway the election is essentially fought between the three major parties. One of which is the Labour Party, led by Gordon Brown, who is the current Prime Minister. Labour have been in power for the last 13 years, having won 3 elections in a row under Tony Blair. Despite the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Blair didn’t do too bad a job as Prime Minister, things started going down hill since Brown took over in 2007 because he’s an uncharismatic lump of lard who seemed to have made a good chancellor until the economic collapse showed that he had not done as good a job as everyone presumed. Despite being wildly unpopular, the Labour Party will still get quite a lot of seats in parliament because a large number of the working class vote Labour on principle.

Likewise much of the middle and upper class will vote Conservative on principle. Otherwise known as the Tories, they’re led by David Cameron who is quite a lot better than the plethora of morons they’ve had leading them over the last 13 years in opposition. After the walking disaster that was John Major, who lost the election in 1997, the Tories have steadily rebuilt and modernised, by which I mean they’ve become as close to Labour as possible without actually being Labour.

It’s worth noting at this point that, while ‘Labour’ as a name has strong left-wing, socialist implications, the Labour Party are actually pretty central politically. In order to avoid offending anyone, Blair made the party as boring and insubstantial as possible in 1997 and won the election because of it. In order to win this election David Cameron has done much the same to the Conservatives, so we now have two major political parties in Britain with very little to choose between them.

Which leads us to the Liberal Democrats. The third party. The one that hasn’t been in power for 65 years. Their leader is Nick Clegg, who is slightly different from Brown and Cameron, but not much. There’s not much to say about the Lib Dems really because they’ve been a political non-entity for so long. They’ve never really had the chance to compete with the Tories or Labour on the main stage so has never been able to muscle their way into any sort of political power. It didn’t help that they had mostly useless fools as leaders until Clegg came along and, in part, revitalised them.

It’s worth just explaining the British political briefly so everyone is on the same page. Essentially we don’t vote for leaders, we vote for Members of Parliament (MPs) representing different parties. The country is divided into constituencies, each represented by one MP. We vote for which person we want to be sent to represent our constituencies in Parliament. The party with the most MPs takes power. For any piece of legislation to be made into law is has to be voted for by Parliament. This means that the party in power needs to either have a majority or the agreement of enough MPs not in their party to get legislation through. Usually the former is the case, although it seems likely that this time around no party will get an absolute majority in Parliament, leading to a Hung Parliament and the party with the significant minority looking to form a coalition. There are obvious weaknesses to this system, which I hope to go into some other time. I also have not mentioned the House of Lords because it’s a bit confusing to start bringing in stuff about a second house as well. Again I’ll go into that next week.

In terms of the debate on Thursday, I think Nick Clegg did best, offering himself (and his party) as a viable alternative to the other two parties. He had a great opportunity to tell people about the Lib Dems and their policies and took it really well. Nonetheless the debate was far from satisfactory. None of the three leaders displayed any evidence of being driven by any principles, it was all pragmatic, for-the-moment policies, none of which showed much consistency. They’re just trying as hard as they can to appeal to as many people as possible without promising things which are obviously unworkable.

This is indicative of the problem with politics, especially in this country. It’s no longer about what is best for the country or what is right on principle; it’s about what will get the most votes. Come election time, and indeed the rest of the time for anyone not in power, all that matters is whose face can appear the shiniest and whose policies can bribe enough people into voting for them. Elections are no longer battle between liberals, socialists and conservatives where principles and ideals matter; they’re headlong races for the centre ground with each party throwing principles to the wind and trying desperately not to offend anyone. Essentially it makes it boring as hell because if someone is interesting it usually implies that they are in some way objectionable to a group of people. In trying to remove any possibility to offence they remove any interest and actually make quite a lot of politics boring.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to dedicate the next two or three blogs to it, because it’s still quite interesting. More interesting that anything else that is happening.

Monday, 12 April 2010


Remember these three stories I wrote before? I did another one. Enjoy.

Blind. Write a short scene from a third-person attached point of view of a character who has just lost his or her sight. Do not tell us how this person became blind. 400 words.

The bedroom was painted beige, or possible off-white, Graham had never been able to decide. It did not help that he’d never worked out the difference between beige and off-white. The carpet was dark blue, with light blue snowflake-like patterns that weren’t really snowflakes, but he’s never decided on what else to call them. Whatever they were, they matched the pale blue curtains with dark blue snowflake-like patterns. This, however, failed to match the red and black stripped bedding. Neither the red, nor the beige, nor the blue matched the light brown draws and cupboard that lined the wall opposite his bed. Against one wall stood a dark brown bookcase stacked to the top with books, ranging from row upon row of thick fantasy novels to tall newish books about art and architecture. On one wall was pinned a poster of women wearing next to nothing taken from the lad’s mags strewn across the floor, next to a collage of postcards and pictures of buildings spanning thousands of years, collected over years of travel and research.

When Graham woke up the room was black. Rubbing his eyes he got out from under the covers of his black duvet cover and put his naked foot onto the black carpet. His next step had him cursing as he almost slipped on the lad’s mag that he failed to see. He fumbled along the black painted wall for the light switch. He heard the click of the switch as he pushed it, but nothing happened. All he saw was black. He flicked the light on and off in the desperate hope that the lights would come on. They did not.

His hands shot to his eyes, clawing desperately for something to cover them, but he found only his eyes, their soft roundness taunted him as he stared at the blackness. His arms flailed around him, trying to find anything that could be blocking his sight, but his hands found only the hard wood of his black wardrobe. There was a loud thwack as his hand collided with it. Pain surged up his arm and he shook his hand in frustration. He held it up in front of his face to inspect the damage, and saw only black.

Graham sighed. He could feel the course fabric of his black carpet under his feet and hear the roar of rush hour traffic through his black curtains. He could feel the aching pain in his fingers and smell the familiar scent of his room. But he could see only blackness.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Legal highs?

Earlier this week the Home Secretary Alan Johnson said that he would make the drug Methadone a Class B drug, joining Cannabis and Amphetamine Sulphate among others, and thus carry a 5 year jail sentence for possession and a 14 year sentence for supply. This move followed a report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which made the recommendation. Not only has this decision led to one member of the Advisory Council resign because he thought it was rushed, it is also completely the wrong decision and indicative of the incorrect way in which we view drug laws in this country and by extension the way in which the law is used.

Drug laws are currently constructed loosely on the basis of danger to the public (with the notable exceptions of Alcohol and Tobacco). The most dangerous, like Heroin and LSD are Class A drugs and carry the most severe sentence, whereas less dangerous drugs like Tranquilisers and Ketamine are Class C drugs and carry a far less severe sentence. You get a more severe sentence for supplying drugs to other people than you do for simply possessing them for your own usage. These laws seem to make sense (apart from the ones about Alcohol and Tobacco), if you make the assumption that laws are there to protect the citizens of a country.

However this is to forget that laws are also there to protect civil liberties, not curtail them. There is no obligation for the law to protect citizens from themselves; if they choose to take Acid then they live with the potential consequences of a bad trip. The government exists not to say what its citizens can and cannot do with their own bodies, but to protect their right to do what they want, no matter how harmful that might be to themselves. It is only when in individuals actions impinge on the freedom or safety of another citizen against his of her will that the government is morally obliged to intervene.

Drug laws assume that it is the role of government to tell people what they can and (more often) cannot do. This is to say that the role of government is to provide a moral compass for citizens. This of course makes one wonder how the government plans on deciding what is moral and what is not. Given that the only authority a government has is that given to it by the democratic process, that is the power of 51% of the populace, it has no authority to tell the other 49% what they should do. Indeed given that, after an election, those in power have 5 years to do what they will without reference to the populace, they have no right to tell anyone what they should do. Even if a law has the favour of the vast majority of the populace (as drugs laws tend to), they still have no right to make that law because it will inevitable go against the will of a few citizens. Government is for everyone, not just the majority.

The government’s role is to protect the right of the citizens; those rights are life, liberty and property. So the government’s sole role is protection, not prescription of morality. This is not to say that anything goes morally; there are still moral principles which everyone should abide by, but these take the form of virtues; way of acting and ways of being which cannot be prescribed by government. It is up to the individual to decide how they should act, not the government. This requires that people take responsibility for their actions and abstain from something not because it’s illegal but because it’s immoral.

I don’t think drugs should be legal because I think it’s moral to take drugs (I think any kind of drug taking to excess – yes that includes alcohol – is deeply immoral), I think drugs should be legal because I think it is deeply dangerous to allow the government to dictate ethics to us. Laws should not be based on what could potentially harm the individual; it should be up to the individual to decide he or she should be doing with his or her own body. Allowing the government to take the responsibility of deciding what is and is not moral will not mahe us better people. It also skews our vision of morality, so that it no longer focuses on in the individual, as it should, but focuses on the collective. I think it would be worth us bearing in mind that a society is simply a collection of individuals; we should not elect people on the basis of what would be best for the society as a whole, but based on what would be best for the individual within that society, and that is always more liberty and fewer laws trying to pamper and protect citizens from responsibility.