Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

Standing up for democracy

That we face immense difficulties economically and otherwise is obvious on the day of Osborne’s autumn statement.  But how many noticed that on its eve a heavyweight commentator on Newsnight suggested, albeit somewhat tentatively, that we might have to consider alternatives to democracy to deal with the problems?

The commentator concerned was Gillian Tett of the Financial Times whose writing I generally like so I wonder how much this was just a loose comment made in the heat of the moment and how much she was reflecting a strand of opinion among the Great and the Good.  The relevent bit of the conversation was as follows (starts at 17: 40, lightly edited)

Tett: “The chief economist of the BIS, the central bank of central banks, gave a devastating speech recently where he pointed out that the real problem is that economic cycles tend to happen in multi-decade periods and governments only last for a few years and you have this fundamental clash right now that you need governments to be able to take a 5 – 10 year view and unfortunately they are looking at 1-2 years at the most – and that’s a real problem”.

Paxman: “Well, there’s no way round that  … not if you believe in democracy”.

Tett: “Not unless you start looking at more technocratic solutions like Mario Monti in Italy or something like that….  Maybe the next decade or two is going to be about people questioning this balance of how democracy works and looking at more technocratic solutions because the economic choices confronting the West right now are so painful that the pressure is not going to evaporate quickly”.

There is certainly a long wave component to economic cycles – that is hardly a new thought.  And the mismatch between political horizons and the longer ones supposedly required for effective long-term management of the economy is nothing new either.  They are certainly issues, but they are hardly the “real problem” – even when combined – so the proposed technocratic solution is predicated on a faulty analysis.

The real problem is (to put it at its simplest) that there is too much debt (not just the government debt that the Coalition obsesses about but also private debt) and that inequality is too high (these are, of course, linked).  Debt and inequality combine to work like a sea anchor on the economy, preventing it from making proper headway so the only answer is to write off some of the debt and reduce inequality.  That would indeed be painful to the 1% who own most of the debt.  But how does that compare with having no job, no home, no hope – and hungry children?

Any democracy, however imperfect, is likely to come down on the side of the 99% eventually even if the entire political establishment has lost the plot as completely as ours has.   And strangely enough, policies crafted for the benefit of the 99% are exactly what is required economically as well as for natural justice.




Greek forecast fail

Here’s one simple graph that reveals an awful lot about the mess in Greece.  It shows how Greek GDP has changed over the last few years and how well the experts of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (collectively the ‘Troika’) have forecast it since the start of the crisis.

It’s not too easy to read but the black line is the actual change in Greek GDP (expressed as the percentage change on the previous year) and goes from a little over 3.5% in 2007 to around -7% in 2011.  The dotted red lines are successive annual forecasts from 2008 to 2012  (H/T Zero Hedge/Follow the Money).

Obviously, the Troika is totally and consistently incompetent at forecasting.  To be so reliably bad it must be sticking to a wholly wrong theory of how an economy works.  It’ as bad a series of misses as you would expect if NASA was trying to send a probe to Mars while remaining unshakably convinced of the Ptolemaic theory that the Sun and other planets go round the Earth.

The only other reason I can think of is that these were never intended to be serious forecasts at all; that they were just a way of dressing up a real strategy that dare not speak its name – for instance that it was a way for those calling the shots (i.e. largely France and Germany) to save their banks from bankruptcy by buying time for them to get their money out of Greece and dump the losses onto unsuspecting Eurozone taxpayers.

The two explanations are not mutually exclusive so could both be true.  That would be my bet but either way how much longer can it go on?  The new Chinese leadership is apparently reading de Toqueville on the causes of the French Revolution.  EU leaders should join them.

Hague channels Mugabe

The Foreign Office’s threat to lift the Ecuadorian Embassy’s diplomatic status over the Assange affair is a disgrace.  As Carl Gardner points out the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 permits the Secretary of State to withdraw diplomatic recognition from premises for various reasons but ONLY “if he is satisfied that to do so is permissible under international law” – and, in this case, that means the Vienna Convention which requires the UK government to facilitate the acquisition of suitable premises.

It’s impossible to believe that the Government would indulge in such heavy-handed tactics if the affair was really about an incident originally described by the Swedish police as “not a serious enough crime for an arrest warrant.”    What it’s really about is perverting the rule of law for the convenience of an American administration which has been embarrassed by Assange’s activities, wants revenge and is leaning on everyone to get its hands on him.  It’s about a President who is determined to do away with due process and suspend Habeas Corpus all in the name of the War on Terror but really to suppress dissent.

One way and another the UK is heading down a legal and ethical rabbit hole if it persists with this course.

All in all, the UK government has set out on a foolish and ill-considered path.  If it continues it will put Britain in the same class as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe which flouted international norms by opening a British diplomatic bag a few years ago.  Does William Hague really wanted to be classed, along with Mugabe, as someone with no regard for the laws and norms of civilisation?

Democracy – when more is less

Well before it has launched one of Cameron’s most cherished policies – the planned move to elect police commissioners for all 41 police authorities in England and Wales – is looking like a very bad idea indeed and one that ultimately raises important questions about the practical limits of democracy.

On Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Nick Herbert, Minister for policing and criminal justice repeatedly refused to answer Evan Davis’s perfectly reasonable question about what would constitute a reasonable turnout at the elections in November and whether he would be happy with 15%, saying only that he wanted it to be as large as possible.  Well, yes of course.   Ministers are usually very happy to set targets for others but strangely reticent when it comes to setting any for themselves.  It is bad news indeed if the minister is not privately confident of hitting a measly 15% turnout.

Then there is the question of costs.  Nick Herbert was emphatic that the estimated cost of a state-funded mailshot at £25 – £35 million is too much for the government to afford at this time so candidates will NOT get one.  Earth to Whitehall; policies that are unaffordable are, err, umm, unaffordable.   Yet it’s not that spending on campaigning including mailshots isn’t allowed; earlier on the same programme Ann Barnes who is standing as an independent  in Kent explained that the population she has to reach is 1.7 million, equivalent to over 17 parliamentary constituencies and the allowable expenses in the last six weeks alone are £228,ooo.  This is on top of a £5,0000 deposit.

Cameron’s notion (also from ‘Today”) was apparently that, “Community leaders and pioneers of all sorts… [should stand]”.   In practice, it means only those with the backing of a political machine and the army of free deliverers that brings with it.  The only independents with much chance are those with serious financial backing.

Multi-millionaires are not normally ‘community leaders’ in the usual sense so who might get such backing and in return for what?  The precedent from the USA where many positions are elected that we would regard as administrative appointments – everything from county clerks to judges – is not good.  The track record is that vested interests, even criminal ones, can buy privileged access to the system.  Media magnates have a particular advantage.  Incumbents with plum jobs have to keep those who will finance their re-election happy however unsavory they might be and even if it means bending the law – or driving a coach and horses through it.  Although some voters will know what is going on there is no practical and affordable way of telling the majority, at least not in the face of organised disinformation.  And when turnouts are very low, as Nick Herbert obviously expects but won’t admit, the opportunities for buying elections are that much the greater.   If I were Murdoch I would regard this as the perfect opportunity to buy insurance against any further or future exposures.

The conclusion I draw is that democracy is not about voting as often as possible or for as many posts as possible.  Elections should be arranged and financed in such a way that there is a level playing field that gives independents (and/or minor party candidates) a reasonable chance of ejecting incumbents.  Inter alia, that means that cost must NOT be a significant factor.  And there must be an effective exchange of information and opinion independent of the candidates where their relative merits and demerits can be freely discussed.  The national media (increasingly supplemented by new media) provides this for Westminster elections but only weakly for local elections which is partly why there is so much ‘cross talk’ from national trends.  But for police commissioners?  I don’t see any suitable forum.  As for who might regard £250k or so as a good investment wealthy but public-spirited citizens would be well down my list of likely candidates; top would be power-crazed media magnates and organised crime.


Clegg’s bicycle shed

An apocryphal story (attributed to C. Northcote Parkinson) tells of a board of directors who had only two items on the agenda of their monthly meeting.  The first was a proposed £100 million investment in a new plant that would be a make or break investment for the company; the second what colour to paint the bicycle shed at head office.  The first was disposed of in two minutes, but agreeing the best colour for the bicycle shed took the rest of the afternoon.

However daft this may sound it’s pretty much the ranking of priorities Nick Clegg has chosen.   For many liberals reforming the House of Lords is a spot that must be scratched.  Fair enough – but how important is it in the scheme of things?   I have seen no compelling evidence that its existing form is a serious impediment to good government nor that the proposed changes would improve decision-making in Westminster.   Such evidence may exist but, if so, advocates of the bill have failed to make the case.  If anything the evidence is to the contrary;  there have been several occasions in recent years when I have been delighted that the Lords has, in effect, asked the Commons to reconsider some point and  I remain to be convinced that a reformed HoL would have done as well.  If composed largely of Westminster Village insiders (who else would stand?) it would be at great risk of succumbing to the waves of groupthink that periodically sweep the Commons.   Hence it is no surprise that the comments on this LDV post suggest widespread reservations about the bill’s specific proposals even among liberals.   In short, HoL reform remains firmly in the bicycle shed category.

In contrast the evolving financial mess and associated banking criminality are an existential crisis for Britain and moreover one that exposes the complete bankruptcy of Conservative thinking – not to mention how compromised some of their leading characters are.   And where is Clegg?   AWOL as far as I can tell.

Can we please focus on the things that really matter; things where we should be offering leadership.






Quasi-judicial nonsense

Can we please end all this nonsense about the decision on News Corporation’s takeover of BSkyB being “quasi-judicial”.  It’s not, it never was and it never will be.

Naturally, it’s always suited the oligopolists to pretend that somehow how the economy is run and who controls it are no concern of mere politicians.  Thus it was that a few months ago when Vince Cable incautiously revealed his views to a Telegraph sting operation he had his knuckles very smartly rapped despite the fact that he was merely expressing views that an overwhelming majority of Lib Dems would have shared even then.  Thus it was also that earlier today Radio 4’s World at One reported that, “Culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has written to Ofcom seeking fresh advice on News Corp’s takeover bid for BSkyB.” 

And who is Ofcom?  Craig Murray takes a very dim view of its board.   If asked to opine, this unelected bunch of quangocrats might just turn out to be entirely impartial and judicial?  But they just as easily might not to be.  Most probably they would go down the “His Master’s Voice” route – divining the real view (not necessarily the publicly expressed view) of the ruling establishment (in this case Cameron and Co) and recommending that.  It’s what good bureaucrats do.

But, whatever they might do it would most certainly be done far from the sterilizing glare of any daylight.  This is not the proper way to conduct public business.

Consider this; many consider the way appointments are made to the House of Lords to be an affront because of the supposed lack of democratic legitimacy.  Maybe so.  But where does that leave News Corp which gives Murdoch far more power than any dozen or two of the noble Lords?  He has consistently used his power as a press baron to promote his own right-wing views; kowtowing at his court has become a feature of the run up to general elections?  And he’s not even a citizen.

So I say forget the “quasi-judicial” nonsense.

Parliament should, in effect, “call in” the decision.  Ofcom, the Competition Commission and other unelected bodies may be suitable venues for day-to-day stuff but they are most certainly not the proper forum for this debate.   It is pretty obvious that Murdoch doesn’t have majority support in the Commons; even Cameron may be too embarrassed to support him overtly.

So, following the excellent dictum that no good crisis should go to waste, lets take the opportunity to sort this out and take a POLITICAL decision, not just to kick the can down the road, but to say once and for all that News Corporation is not a suitable owner for BSkyB.  And as a first approximation that means reducing their shareholding to 25% or less or News Corp retains effective control.




This is why any sort of voting machine is a bad idea

It’s obvious really.  Traditional voting in person paper systems are hard to corrupt; too many people would have to be involved.  And because it’s difficult to do and certain to be detected there is litttle incentive even to try which is ultimately the best protection of all.

With voting machines a reasonably capable hacker can steal any election, and much more cheaply than by campaigning.  And if moderately well done, no-one would ever know – not for sure.