In which I wonder if we’ve got it all wrong about… taxation

Taxation is a big issue in any election. Nobody likes paying tax. When Daniel Defoe coined the phrase ‘Death and taxes’ it was probably with the awareness that the latter is scarcely more popular than the former. Lower taxes are the classic carrot that politicians can dangle in front of the electorate, but in this election David Cameron has gone even further. He’s not only promised not to raise income tax, VAT or national insurance but to pass legislation ensuring that a Conservative government would be prevented from raising those taxes.

That’s crazy. It’s crazy because he’s basing his own policy on the notion that he can’t be trusted unless he passes a law to stop himself, and it’s crazy because essentially what he’s promising is that nothing unexpected will happen during the next five years. By binding his tax raising powers, he’s guaranteeing that nothing will happen between now and 2020 that might cause the government to need to raise more money. There will be no wars, no need to increase our national security, no pandemic diseases, no population spikes, no financial crises. Everything will absolutely definitely trundle along as it is now. Now if I thought that guaranteeing that was within David Cameron’s powers, then I might consider voting for him, but that would imply that he’s not merely a unusually shinyly foreheaded politician, but also a time-traveling wizard master. And who wouldn’t vote for a time traveling wizard master? That sounds way cool.

Despite it being crazy, Cameron clearly thinks that this promise is going to be popular though, because an insane leader is preferable to a leader who tries to raise income tax. There’s a wider political rhetoric in this country that uses the phrase ‘tax and spend’ as if taxing and then spending that money was a wholly terrible thing for a government to do, rather than the one key thing that all governments exist to do. The accusation of being the party of ‘tax and spend’ has been used as a stick to beat politicians, particularly Labour politicians for years. Here’s a little example from 2002. The accusation ‘You’re just going to tax and spend,’ can be thrown at politicians and not one of them has the good sense to say, ‘Well yes. So are you. That’s what governments are for.’

And the problem here is that politicians don’t say that, because they think that voters won’t like it. They think that we are sufficiently dim to prefer to shiny shiny carrot of ‘We won’t raise….’ rather than being bright enough to recognise that no politician can guarantee that, because they’re led by events and changing circumstances just as much as everyone else. Are we really that stupid? Do we really not understand the basic notion that if we want schools, and hospitals, and police, and street cleaning and all the other terribly useful things that are just sort of there without us ever really thinking about them at all then that costs money and governments raise the money they spend through tax?

There are some basic campaigning truths. You don’t say you’re going to raise taxes. If people then notice that that might mean you’re going to cut services, you make it very clear that you’re only really going to cut those services over there, you know the ones that only affect other people. And if people try to look over there, then you wave your big shiny carrot* in front of them instead.

And those I my election musings for today. Come back tomorrow when it’ll be all about coalition building. Whoop-de-doo.

* Not a euphemism**

** No. Really. Seriously. Not a euphemism. I’m talking about David Cameron and Ed Miliband here. What sort of weirdo do you think I am? Ew.

In which I wonder if we’ve got it all wrong about… migration

We’ve made it to election week. Well done everyone who’s still standing. Even more well done if you haven’t started skipping past the politics section on news websites and turning the TV over every time a party leader appears. I seem to have got through the campaign without blogging about politics at all, which feels a bit wrong, but demonstrates, I think, the level of election weariness I’m currently running at. I describe myself as a politics nerd, but I’ve been struggling to get mentally involved with this campaign at all.

However, the election is nearly upon us so I think it’s probably time to engage nerd brain and get my politics on. This week will be all about the election. Well it will until Thursday – then it’s really all over bar the voting (and counting). So this Monday to Wednesday half-week period will be all about the election, and the first topic is… migration.

The in-bound element of migration is an area where we’ve really seen how a small party can set the political agenda if they are sufficiently focussed on one thing, and repeat that one thing often enough, while employing a ‘man of the people’ sort of vibe and holding a pint of proper British beer. The Tories and Labour are both keen to talk up how they would deal with immigration and the language is all about control, reduction and clamping down.

And I can’t help but wonder if we’ve got this fundamentally wrong. I don’t just wonder whether the main political parties in the UK in 2015 have got it wrong. I wonder whether actually the whole of the developed world has got it wrong right back to the birth of the UN and the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. What that document says is that people have the right to ‘seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ It also says that a person has the right to not be ‘arbitrarily deprived of his nationality, nor denied the right change his nationality.’ What if in our most basic declaration on human rights we just said the people have the right to move across borders as and when they please? What if we established the right to migrate as a fundamental human right?

The urge to move to where you can best provide food, shelter and security for yourself and your nearest and dearest is a basic human urge. Whether we’re looking at the very first humans in Africa glancing at the big hill on the edge of their territory and wondering if there was more food and water over there, or at kids growing up in the countryside and moving to the city to find work, the reality is that from the very beginnings of humanity through to the present day we’re a species who move in search of sustenance and security. Why shouldn’t that be recognised in our most basic declaration of who we are and how we have the right to live?

Politically and ethically I think it makes sense too. The main driver of large-scale migration across national borders is inequality. People who are well-fed, comfortably-housed, and able to earn enough to maintain that situation are far less likely to move across continents. But if you made migration easier, surely that would change? Surely richer countries would be deluged with immigrants? Well maybe, in the short term. But in the longer term making migration easier, I suspect, would also make it less common. Stick with me – that’s not as bonkers as it sounds.

At the moment richer governments deal with migration by placing legal limits and controls on who can migrate into their countries. Dealing with migration is all about legislation, border controls, and refusing entry or removing people from the country. If governments were denied those options, maybe they’d have no choice but to deal with the fundamental inequalities that drive immigration. At the moment we’re able to pull up the drawbridge and close our eyes to poverty, violence, and anything else that goes on beyond our borders. If we were no longer allowed to do that we’d have no choice but think about how we actually make the world a more equal place. In the long term that means fairer trade and interaction with poorer countries, better peace-keeping, and a move away from the sort of foreign policy that creates and perpetuates inequality.

And yes, I know – I’m sounding a little bit ‘I believe the children are the future’, and I’m a stirring chord change away from waving my lighter in the air, but I’m not going to apologise for that. Moving around is something people have always done. I’m an economic migrant myself, and I simply don’t see why the fact that I was able to do that without crossing any national borders makes me intrinsically less of a threat than some guy cramming himself onto an overcrowded boat somewhere on the north African coast, so what I’d like to hear from the people who want me to elect them is a lot less about ‘control’ and ‘clamping down’ and a lot more about global equality and fairness.

And that’s my thought for today. Come back tomorrow when it’ll be all about tax, which is a really really fun topic. I promise it is.

In which there are still three whole months until the general election

I generally consider myself to be a person who is quite interested in politics. I can usually generate a blog post about an issue of the day if pressured to do so. I have opinions on all sorts of things: page 3 – no; fox hunting – definitely not; same sex marriage – sure, if you want to. But I’m finding that three whole months away from the General Election I already have election fatigue.

I’m feeling, already, as though the bulk of the political news that I read or hear is washing over me like white noise, and, I think, the reason for that is simple – the news, as it is reported, is nebulous. There are precious few actual facts in there to get hold of. Take this story from the BBC as an example. The headline, technically speaking, offers factual information – David Cameron has been challenged about his claim that a new Tory government wouldn’t cut per pupil education funding, but the fact is simply that some people have said some things, and some other people have said other things.

The story itself jumps between announcements about per pupil education funding and announcements about numbers of schools becoming academies – yes those are both to do with education policy, but they are quite distinct issues.  That’s not my problem though. My problem is that essentially the entire article is made of up X said, ‘…’ but Y said, ‘…’.

To be fair, there’s a handy video clip from the Prime Minister’s speech at the top of the article so you can see for yourself a little bit of what he actually announced. That’s good, but watching the clip just makes the article itself look worse. For example, take this paragraph: ‘Mr Cameron, speaking at Kingsmead school in north London, said that every secondary school in this “requires improvement” category would be expected to become an academy.’ Well maybe he did say that at another point in the speech, but in the clip attached to the article he talks about schools that can’t ‘demonstrate the capacity to improve themselves’ – that might not be the same as ‘every school’ at all, or it might just be waffle to obscure the ‘every school’ element. There’s no way of knowing from this article.

This isn’t BBC bashing. I just happen to have picked a BBC article. I could have gone for pretty much any newspaper, tv station or website, because what we have here is a very normal example of current journalism. It’s journalism without the skills, or time, or inclination, or incentive, or possibly backbone, to do very much actual journalistic work. It’s a process that goes something like this:

1) A politician makes a speech. A journalist picks out a few choice quotes, or possibly just accepts the few choice quotes picked out by the party in the accompanying press release.

2) The journalist knows that’s not enough. Their story needs balance, so they add a few quotes from opposition politicians disputing the thing the first politician said.

3) If they’re feeling really dedicated they probably have some notion that they should be looking into the politicians’ claims, so they add another quote from a relevant trade union or academic or random passer by who’s prepared to reckon something.

4) They publish their story.

There’s nothing actually wrong about it, but the process of filtering all those quotes through a professional news reporting organisation hasn’t added anything. There’s nothing that goes above or beyond what the people giving the quotes wanted to say. None of those claims or quotes get checked or probed, because the story is simply the reporting what each of the people quoted said, and it’s definitely true that they said it, so that’s all fine. The problem is that nobody reading these articles actually knows anymore about what is true than before they started reading. If anything, they know less because of all the additional white noise they’re now carrying around in their heads.

Of course we need reporting on what politicians say they’re going to do, and what rival politicians see as the problems with those plans, but the reality is that not everything that is reckoned, even when it’s reckoned by a front bench politician, has equal value. Lots of things fall into the grey area of opinion or projection, but lots of other things don’t. Some things are simply true or not, and without a mainstream media prepared to call anything at all as ‘true’ or ‘false’ it’s left to each of us to filter out the white noise. The danger with that is that the vastness of the range of information and opinion that washes over us leaves us overwhelmed and in a position where, when faced with a ballot paper, it’s very easy to wrinkle our brows and just give up on the whole idea of being able to make any sort of informed choice at all.

So maybe that’s a thing I could do to try to break through my election apathy – my own little mini fact checks right here in Alison Blogville. It’s an idea, anyway.

In which I offer contemplative musings (and a leaflet-based points system) on how to vote

So this Thursday is election day in locations across the UK. I appreciate how some of you might have missed this exciting news nugget by doing things like living in other countries. However, here in the UK, we are in the grip of election fever. I’m sorry. That’s not right. It turns out I’m in the grip of  fever, but I’ve got antibiotics so I’ll probably be fine in a couple of days.

The local elections have, however, pretty much failed to raise an eyebrow, let alone a fever. The possible exception to this is in our esteemed capital, where they’ve managed to boil the whole business of local elections down to a simple act of trying to remember whether it’s the balding whingey one or the blond bonkers one’s turn this year.

Here, in the hotly contested political battleground of St Suburbans ward in Normal Town, we don’t have those easily identifiable political personalities to pick between. We also don’t have very much sense of what each political party stands for in local terms. A nice Labour leaflet about how the Tories are cutting tax for higher earners is all very well, but I’m not entirely clear how my choice of local ward Councillor is going to change that.

The obvious response to this problem is apathy. And I’m not going to spend too long arguing against that. I’ve never bought the notion that voting should be compulsory. That would just mean that a whole load of people who don’t know and don’t care get rounded up and shoved into polling booths. Frankly, if you’re not fussed enough to put an X on a sheet of paper without compulsion, I’m really not that bothered about you not getting your say.

However, I do think voting is important. People fought wars, threw themselves under racehorses and drafted lengthy parliamentary amendments for my right to vote, so, personally, I’m fairly commited to exercising that right.

Local elections are a conundrum though – if only someone provided a handy set of suggestions for how to select who to vote for. If only that existed in blog form, preferably in some sort of numbered list.

Well here you go. To follow this guide you will need to start by collecting all the random election leaflets off your doormat (or retrieving them from the recycling). We will be adopting a leaflet-based points system. This means that, in my case, I can disregard the Lib Dem and Green candidates straight away as they haven’t even managed to send me a leaflet. Tough break for them, but sometimes you do have to be ruthless about these things.

 

1. Candidates should be rewarded for detail

Detail is good. Detail is what makes the difference between an intention and a policy. Any sentence that starts “We would support…” or “We would like to see better…” should be viewed with suspicion. These sentences merely suggest a willingness to go along with someone else who could be bothered to do something about whatever the issue at hand might be. They don’t suggest definite actions. Look for the detail. They gain points for that.

At my house the Tory is doing surprisingly well – perhaps because he’s the sitting councillor he has more facts and figures about what he’s up to that most of the others. There’s an independent also scoring well. Labour and UKIP are poor so far.

 

2. Look for local policies

There is a tendency to view local elections as a mid-term referendum on the sitting government. This means that parties are tempted to pack their election literature with guff about national policy. Unless it’s a policy that can meaningfully be changed at a local election that’s all just leaflet space filler. Ignore it. If it pleases you, you can even put big red lines through all the stuff that local councillors have no influence over. So that’s everything to do with Income Tax, defence, the NHS, our membership of the EU and university tuition fees, gone. I should warn you, you might not have much leaflet left.

On my count – Tory and Independent are still in the lead. Labour have made a bit of a comeback. UKIP definitely trailing.

3. Be wary of lunacy

There is a certain sort of person who stands in local elections. Of course, I mean civic minded, hard working, community spirited people. There is then another sort of person who stands in local elections. The loon. With care you can spot them. I suggest starting with the punctuation and layout of the leaflet. Excessive use of exclamation marks, randomly placed capitalisation, a willingness to pop quotation marks around almost any word or phrase – all these are symptomatic of an overly excitable mind, and also of a person without a friend prepared to proofread their election leaflet. That’s the first sign.

Further evidence can be gleaned from the obligatory “About the candidate” section on the leaflet. Writing these must be hell – it’s like a personal ad designed to appeal to all ages, genders and proclivities. However, any mention of a self-consiously zany hobby should cause concern.

Don’t want to be cruel, but, from my leaflet selection, I think UKIP are definitely out of the running at this point. Sorry.

4. Oh yeah, and do you actually agree with any of the policies?

Some commentators would suggest you consider this first, but I find that thinning the leaflet pile on the criteria above makes this stage much more manageable. For me, I’m guessing this is where the Tory is going to lose ground.

 

So by my own system the candidate who wins my vote is an independent socialist called Peter. That’s a turn-up for the books. Without this, clearly deeply well thought out, process I’d probably have voted Labour or even for the leaflet-less Lib Dem, but the system doesn’t lie. Maybe Labour and Lib Dem will learn from this for next time.

So that’s me mused out for the day. Please do subscribe in one way or another if you like my occasional ramblings, and do join in the chat. How do you pick who to vote for, if you vote at all? Was it unfair of me to disregard the Green, when leaflet production really isn’t very green at all? Any improvements and amendments to The System will be considered.

In which democracy isn’t working

There is a well-known political saying, variously attributed to Joseph De Maistre, George Bernard Shaw and Alexis de Toqueville (if you’re a proper pedant, I *think* Toqueville is right, but feel free to correct me in the comments) that “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Looking at our current rulers I find this depressing. So just in case any of you were feeling prematurely bouncy with festive cheer, I thought a nice little blog post about the inadequacy of government might bring you all back down to earth.

Here’s how a representative democracy is supposed to work. Some people have ideas about how stuff should be and make those ideas public for the masses to consider. The ideas are scrutinised by other people with different ideas who point out the potential pitfalls. All of these people’s ideas are further scrutinised by an independent and rigorous free press, and by an informed and interested electorate. That electorate then pick the people whose ideas seem least likely to bankrupt the country. The winning people form a government and have a go at putting their ideas into action, all the time having their most foolhardy excesses checked and exposed by the opposing people, the judiciary and that lovely free press we heard about earlier. To break my own rule about never quoting a talking advertising animal in public, “Simples.”

But that whole system seems to have broken down. Rather than having politicians who believe stuff, we have a generation of politicians who see their role as being to identify what voters want and then present an impression that they agree, regardless of whether they do or not. We have no bravery in politics anymore, no willingness to say “I think this. Here’s why it’s a good idea,” and accept that if people don’t agree you won’t win.

We have reached a position where the suggestion that a politician has a definite ideology is seen as a weakness. Ed Milliband, for example, was elected Labour leader largely because he was seen as being willing to move the party back to the left of UK politics. That viewpoint won him considerable support amongst the trade union wing of the party, but he’s spent the months since trying to disassociate himself from the “Red Ed” tag. He hasn’t supported public sector unions on strike action. He’s been largely absent from the debate on cuts in areas like welfare benefits and legal aid. Reading his press coverage it is increasingly difficult to identify what Ed really thinks.

I’ve picked on Ed Milliband here. I could just as easily have gone for Dave or Nick or George or even Tony. None of these are politicians interested in standing out, in looking or sounding different, in making an impassioned case for a particular set of ideas. They’re interested in being elected. They may have passionate ideas about what they’d do if they were elected, but they don’t us to know what those ideas are.  

And that’s not entirely their fault. They are the babies of an informal system of political education that irons out difference and passion at every turn. We have a generation of politicians who attended the same schools, the same universities, worked in the same politics-related consultancies, and entered parliament with little or no work experience outside the Westminster bubble. They sound bland and samey because they are bland and samey.

A generation ago our Prime Minister was a grammar-school scholarship girl, who studied Chemistry and worked as a research chemist in the food industry whilst unsucessfully candidating in Dartford. Somewhere alongside the job and the political campaigning she also managed to qualify as a barrister. Voters also knew where she stood. She was, in my opinion, pretty much as wrong as one can be about most things, but at least you knew what she thought.

But that’s all changed. Telling voters what you think is no longer considered important. Getting the most favourable coverage, causing least offence and not making a gaffe are the new priorities. In political debate, meaning has been the primary casualty of the new media-savvy approach. Politicians are concerned about things like “hard-working families,” “the squeezed middle” and “creating a Big Society.” The broader the brushstrokes, the less specific the message, the less likely it is to offend.

And political reporting isn’t helping. Rather than questioning and scrutinizing politicians, journalists often simply copy and paste the pre-approved quotes from the press release and crack on with the rest of their day. There are reasons for this, ranging from commercial pressures in the newspaper industry to individual networks of friends and contacts too precious to displease, but too little political journalism is currently focussed on scrutinizing policies and ideas. (There are some exceptions – I know I’ve bigged it up before, but please allow me another quick plug for C4’s rather brilliant FactCheck blog). 

Where people outside the mainstream political parties attempt to throw open the discussion, news coverage still tends to engage more with the people and the side-controversies, than with the content of any real debate. Thus, coverage of the Occupy London camp focusses on whether the protestors really are using their tents overnight, which members of the St Paul’s clergy have resigned, and what legal action is being proposed/taken, rather than on what the protestors are asking for and how/if politicians are responding.

There are options to how we fix this inadequate state of affairs. We could jettison the whole democracy thing and just have a dictator. I’m more than happy to volunteer for the role, providing I can be known as Queen Alison, rather than President or Prime Minister. It just sounds so much foxier, and implies ownership of good jewellery, which I like.

However, populaces all over the world are currently rising all up and getting a bit fighty to try to win for themselves the voting rights we have taken for granted for too long, so maybe we should give democracy another shot. To make it work you all need to agree to make yourselves informed voters. It’s tricky but doable. Google will help you. Even mainstream newspapers will help if you teach yourself to read them with a critical eye (Andrew Marr’s book My Trade has a great section on how to sift the content from the fluff in an average newspaper article.) I’d also warmly encourage you to ask questions of your own representatives. We can all do this. Come the revolution I’ll be at my computer sending a tersely worded email to my MP.

At the same time, journalists need to start doing some actual journalism. Between us we might be able to start to pressure our elected representatives into saying what they really think.

Finally, our politicians need to collectively agree that, on balance, they probably ought to get out more and talk to people who don’t look and sound just like them. They could all agree to get jobs for a few years and only stand for future election after a full decade of doing something completely different. That might give them time outside the Westminster pressure cooker to grow a personality and, maybe even decide what they really think.