Archive for category Society

Political parties must trust voters

Whenever a political party finds itself in a self-created crisis, the common diagnosis is that its ills are a product of the public losing trust in that party. This is true of the Conservatives in the 1990s, of Blair’s Labour Party in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and the Scottish Liberal Democrats following their electoral annihilation in 2011.

The notion that parties suffer as a direct result of public losing trust in them is a compelling one, not least because it contains a great deal of truth. But such an analysis is a superficial one that observes the symptom rather than the cause.

The loss of faith in political parties – and in politics itself – is simply a by-product of politicians losing faith in the people they represent. Party structures are often archaic, products of old ways of thinking, inward-looking and relating only to an ever-decreasing number of party faithful and untrusting of public opinion. If that is what political parties remain, then it is little wonder that people will lose faith in what they offer.

When parties become disconnected with voters, it is because the vital conversations are not happening. And they don’t happen because, whether they realise it or not, parties don’t trust the public. Only last weekend, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg suggested that even the party membership could not possibly understand something as complex as the Justice and Security Bill. This condescending attitude, the assumption that mere voters can elect a government but cannot be trusted to grasp policy detail, is not an uncommon one. It is evident in Clegg’s dogged defence of coalition, George Osborne’s obstinacy in sticking to economic plans that are evidently not working, Jeremy Hunt’s patronising and frankly insulting assertion that NHS reforms are being carried out in the public interest, and (until 2011) in a misguided refusal to allow Scots the opportunity to vote in an independence referendum. This is a far from exhaustive list of examples.

When politicians don’t trust the public, they become defensive. Very defensive. It’s not an attractive trait in someone elected to serve the public. Generally, it does little to win votes. Clegg’s refusal to do anything in response to the public verdict on his party reflected in recent elections – other than to “take it on the chin” and stubbornly carry on – is further evidence of an unwillingness to listen to and trust the voters’ expressed views, and again does very little to aid his or the party’s appeal.

Political parties must learn to trust, in order to be trusted. How does this happen? Any political party aspiring to future success needs to think beyond innovative campaigning methods, however useful new approaches to political evangelism might be. Instead, parties need to root themselves in people’s experience, move beyond the tribal political landscape to engage and listen, become a focal point for a vibrant, open, national conversation and be able to bring people together to argue, collaborate and negotiate.

Party politics is closed for many. There is very little public participation. But as the voluntary sector and pressure organisations such as 38 Degrees and Unlock Democracy have shown, this isn’t for lack of interest. What these organisations recognise is the centrality of relationship to conversation. Political parties, on the other hand, are too focused on delivery. Clegg is particular is keen to play up the role his party have played in “delivering” on various fronts. All that matters for him is that something measurable occurs which can be claimed as an achievement. That, however, is not how the public works. They care little for management speak. Instead they prefer approaches that suggest compassion, understanding and empathy. The managerial language itself is a product of a misguided attempt to convince those that don’t trust to do so, without ever showing a willingness to trust what the public are saying.

As a growing number of popular causes demonstrate, the public are not shy about expressing their concerns, fears, aspirations and hopes. This is changing our politics, but perversely many of the newly politicised don’t see conventional party politics as their natural home. The reaction of parties to such groups, especially single issue campaigns, is often one of suspicion – thus reinforcing the mutual inability to trust.

Top-down approaches and obsession with “delivery” is born out of an inability to trust and in turn breeds distrust. This is the politics of the past. Not only do parties have to start trusting people, but those people have to feel this to be true.

The instinct to direct, control and lead the conversation speaks of a mindset that cannot trust voters; an imperial mindset that, even in the 21st century, believes that a disconnected cabal knows best. The desire to control and command does not lend itself to trust others, or indeed to being trusted. Neither do such inclinations do much for furthering positive relationships, whose centrality and importance to fulfilled living is self-evident. A political party that trusts the public will not only listen but be receptive. It will seek to empower rather than control. Its identity will stem from experience of engaging with voters, rather than vice versa. It will promote relationship above delivery; working with people rather than for them. Such relationships will inevitably be challenging but they will also be supportive.

In the 1980s, the SDP realised this. The SDP trusted people, perhaps insufficiently – but they were quick to style themselves as an alternative to the politics based on mistrust of “ordinary” people. The SDP failed to break the allegorical mould either electorally or culturally, but a new approach was pioneered: trusting people to stand up for their own interests. Perhaps the sad demise of the SDP is one reason why trusting voters didn’t catch on – it seemed there was little electoral advantage to be gained from it.

The SDP (and, for that matter, their Alliance partners) knew that voters respond more positively to discussion about the kind of society we want to create rather than precise policy details and programmes for government. They dared to suggest that people were more important than manifestos and political institutions – something also identified by Alex Salmond’s SNP who were elected to majority government in 2011 in spite of, rather than because of, their key political objective.

Why should politicians trust voters? Firstly, because they need to abandon the false belief that it is politicians, and political parties, that wield power. This notion is faintly ridiculous today, not least in the aftermath of a global recession. Secondly, when today’s political parties all have a problem with diversity and rapidly shrinking memberships, trusting voters and daring to engage positively with them will bring much needed vitality and freshness into the political sphere. And thirdly, because if parties refuse to change they will inevitably die.

Labour mistakenly placed its trust in PR consultants, managers and professional politicians. For all the talk of “the Big Society”, the Conservatives show insufficient willingness to do things very differently. The Liberal Democrats are focused on “delivery”, lacking the insight to recognise that the attitudes at the heart of this emphasis are entirely at odds with their claimed ethos of empowering society. The SNP is no stranger to centralising instincts and its victory in 2011, while admittedly the product of voters trusting the First Minister more than his Labour counterpart, was the result of a brilliant campaign to achieve an immediate need rather than an indication of longer-term change of political culture.

A parent or teacher hopes that they can, via their efforts, help a child to fulfil his or her potential. They place trust in the child. It is through such relationships that the child in turn learns to trust. This is a simple metaphor but it applies to modern politics. A politics that is above this reality of human relationship and interaction does not deserve to survive. As the desire for love is everywhere, so is that for democracy – even those cynical about politics support democracy. That democracy must be deepened rather than demeaned, expanded rather than diminished as people are enabled to positively impact the world in which they live.

That is the reality, and it is one central to party development. People treated as strangers and outsiders are not trusted, and thus it is no surprise when they don’t trust in return. Learning to trust could be either the key to a revival in electoral fortunes or for securing future success. But electoral good fortune cannot be an end in itself. Trevor Jones once told Liberal Assembly “I love those votes!” but times have moved on and we must be more focused than ever on the voter rather than the vote. Real pluralism demands quality conversation between political parties and the public – with support groups, charities, trade unions, service users and non-partisan political groups.

Political conversation in recent decades has essentially been a matter of politicians presenting their pre-conceived schemes to the public and asking for their approval. That arrangement is no longer fit for purpose. Our political parties must learn to lead democratic conversations, trusting the public to do what politicians themselves do: talk, debate, argue, negotiate, find solutions, work together, look forward, consider options and make plans.

Trusting is never easy but, if our democracy is not only to survive but be strengthened and revitalised, it is essential. Who is up to the challenge?

The unbearable lightness of being petitioned.

Slavoj Zizek lecturing in Liverpool

Slavoj Zizek: Taking stock from the Eastern bloc

Another email into my inbox from one of several campaigning groups, asking me to lend me name to an undoubtedly worthy cause. The mechanisms of such campaigns are fairly familiar – an issue is located and a campaign started to make those who hold power realise that it is in their own interests to listen. It is a strange manifestation of a vaguely democratic mode of thinking with its basis in the idea of a benign but uninformed leader, or if you are more cynical, of a government desperately sensitive about the ability of single issues to define or destabilise.

It is similar to what Slavoj Zizek has called the humanisation of capitalism in his thinking on the way which society is required to ‘highlight’ certain issues through consumerism, the support of charity and the construction of individual everyday people as a moral guide in the behaviour of governments, corporations and institutions. It relies very heavily on the centrist addiction to general social doxa and public opinion which has come to define contemporary British politics, evidenced by the protestations of senior politicians that they are ‘listening’.

It must be said that dogma is just as dangerous as the apparent contemporary  lack thereof (though one might argue that centrism is a kind of dogma in itself). As Milan Kundera writes on the nature of mass protest in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”

The heart of Kundera’s argument is that any movement reliant on the orchestration of thousands of people shouting in union has closed its mind to the possibilities of dialogue, nuance, and independent thought. It is not desirable to live in a society in which problems are solved by shouting loudly – by protest instead of construction – even if we might happen to loosely agree with what is being espoused.

The same might be said for the process of governance by headline and petition. Pressuring politicians into making the decisions we might wish them to make implies a sense of resignation, or perhaps a lack of self-confidence, when it comes to thinking and speaking for ourselves.

To sign a petition asking the Prime Minister for clemency in one area or another is, on a purely functional level, a good thing. Demonstrably so in fact. The well-orchestrated campaign to save woodland in England and Wales proved that there is indeed a point in letter writing, and that governments do indeed care about what voters think, albeit perhaps only as a means of self preservation.

But to look at the genesis of these petitions is to understand how the spread and cultivation of political campaigns work. There are very few people who see politics as a distinct part of their identity, though they are generally good and fair-minded, and would indeed probably find their views in line with a particular political party when asked. By inviting people to lend their support to various worthy causes they become not instigators but respondents.

Furthermore, the petition-writing masses who operate on an issue by issue basis cannot fundamentally change the way in which a society works. This is why we have elections, and this is also why certain quarters are so terrified by the idea of the British parliament operating a system of fair elections. You might call it the illusion of empowerment. We are invited to approve or reject someone else’s ideas, but rarely are we asked by ourselves to produce a blueprint for the future.

Like Zizek’s analysis of the pitfalls of ethical consumerism, causing a bad government to make one fewer bad decision is as transformative as buying a cup of rainforest alliance coffee from a company which dodges billions in tax, and comes no closer to giving people the agency which should be their democratic right.

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A political machine that gives change

I’m leaving Sweden, again. It feels good to be heading back to my flat in Leith, to Stereo in Glasgow and all my friends, to the Cairngorms, to Frightened Rabbit and Easter Road, CalMac ferries and Scotrail sprinter trains. I would also have put Innis and Gunn Rum Cask on the list, but the Swedish alcohol monopoly sees fit to stock the stuff to an admirable degree.

I’ve been away for a half-year now, watching the independence referendum from afar. I’ve seen TV clips of Johann Lamont declare Scotland a something-for-nothing society before finishing my breakfast and going to work with better paid colleagues at publicly funded Swedish universities. I’ve been forced to turn down Facebook invites to a succession of Nordic Horizons events at the Scottish Parliament, but then had the pleasure of seeing the ideas they promote in action every day.

I’ve heard the Better Together campaign say that modern Scotland is as good as it gets, then walked out of my front door to see a version of urban life which is in many ways better.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a Green party take its place as the third party in parliament and take on both left and right on the environment, on child poverty and on the terrible state of privatized railways. Every day on my way to the metro station I pass three different council-run nursery schools and men with pushchairs taking their paternity leave whilst their partners return to work.

I’ve been able to live cheaply in cooperatively run housing with district heating and communal facilities, so well insulated that I often don’t even need to have the radiator on.

I’ve met young Green activists who, unlike young people in Scotland and the rest of Britain, seem to have a genuine belief in their ability to change their country for the better.  I’ve hung out with girls from a design school who one day decided that all of the products they made should have zero environmental impact and then set about making it happen.

I’ve talked to writers and journalists who are all part of a vibrant cultural arena, and seen what proper funding can do for political diversity (all Swedish parliamentary parties are given money to stimulate debate and encourage youth politics, as well as to maintain a small staff).

I will be sad to leave Sweden, though it is not a country without its own problems (not least a worrying consumerism which accompanies being one of the world’s richest countries), but I come back over the North Sea with a sincere belief that a Scandinavian style approach in Scotland is not just desirable, but both possible and necessary. Britain today is not as good as it gets.

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Free care for the elderly. So good, people are dying for it.

If you want to pass on anything of value to your children, you have to make sure you leave this life before you get too sick or old.

That is the ghastly situation that Scotland’s senior generation faces at the moment. It’s nothing to do with those nasty Tories, this is a heartless scandal that is made entirely in Scotland.

The much vaunted ‘free care for the elderly’ is very much a misnomer as requiring such care can suck you of your home and your savings in less than a year. The rules include the following:

“Those with personal capital assessable assets (and ½ of any jointly held assessable assets) exceeding only £24,750 (2012/13) have to pay for all of their accommodation costs.”

It is suspiciously difficult to find any information on how much accommodation costs at a care home in the UK, let alone Scotland, but Partnership suggests the following:

“On average an individual can expect to pay around £27,144 a year for a residential care home, rising to over £38,000 if nursing is required. “ The weekly figure quoted for Scotland was £566/week, or £29,432/year, which is already above the £24,750 cut-off for having to pay your own way. Kiss goodbye to the fruits of your hard-earned labour if you can’t look after yourself.

Basically, as I understand it, even if you had a mere £100,000 capital locked up in a family home, you would have to liquidate that asset to pay for the first three or four years of your care before the Government would provide the much vaunted ‘free’ element that it is so keen to boast of on its glossy pamphlets.

More worrying is the apparent creeping privatisation that is still percolating through the system, seemingly unchecked. So not only are older people handing over their savings and selling their homes to pay for their own care, but part of their money is going into the profits of big business that often, too often, can’t meet basic standards. It can’t be right. The issues around Southern Cross and Elsie Inglis are two of many examples where private care for what should be a public provision just doesn’t work.

At a sprightly early 30s, I’m far from being an expert on the issue, but the more I read about what lies ahead for Scotland’s elderly, the more I realise that we are so far away from having a truly civilised society that we might as well start again from a blank sheet of paper. Rather than decide what level of tax we want to pay and work how far it goes, why has no political party worked out what costs are required to run a modern, compassionate, cradle-to-grave nation and then adjusted the tax levels accordingly?

Teaching our children to a satisfactory standard cost x, ensuring a decent minimum level of health standards (including looking after our elderly) costs y and policing our numbers to a degree where we all feel reasonably safe costs z. Add everything up and spread that necessary income across the taxes accordingly. The obvious explanation for this not having taken place is that the result would be tax rises and the political party who proposed them at the next election would get unjustly stuffed. Witness the Scottish Greens last year who failed to take advantage of a Lib Dem implosion, no doubt due to their argument that relatively minuscule tax rises were unavoidable.

Sweden gets it, of course. A VAT rate of 25% vs ours of 20%, an income tax rate of 48% vs ours of 40%, a Corporation Tax rate of 26% vs ours of 24% (23% from 2014). Sweden benefits from a state monopoly on booze, a law against people owning second homes, shared parental leave, generous social security and a health service every bit as effective as the NHS but at about a quarter of the price. The result? A balanced, prosperous, healthy, civilised society that can afford, amongst other things, genuine free care for the elderly.

Suggest to a Swede that one needs to sell their home to be looked after by the state and be prepared to be embarrassed by their stupefied reaction.

If the numbers in Scotland don’t add up, then the numbers don’t add up and we just have to try something else. We surely can’t continue to asset strip the elderly in order to make Scotland’s ends meet.

Work as child’s play

At the start of the week BBC Two documented in ‘Babies in the Office’ how Addison Lee, London’s biggest cab hire firm, became the first company in the UK to allow staff to care for their babies while working in the office.

With childcare costs at an all time high such schemes appear to promise salvation for hard-pressed parents.

Just think; you could continue to come into work and keep earning, without having to spend any of that hard earned cash on paying for someone else to look after Junior. After all, they’d be parked in the buggy next to your desk. Sure, with the crying and feeding and burping your productivity might suffer, and your BlackBerry probably isn’t going to survive dousing in baby sick. But your work-life balance is going to be in perfect harmony.

Except it isn’t. Childcare in Britain is in crisis, and the solution isn’t compelling people to cart their babies into the office.

According to the Daycare Trust, only 21% of councils in Scotland provide enough state-funded childcare to enable parents to work full-time – the figures are 46% in England and 17% in Wales. The average cost of part-time childcare for a toddler now exceeds £100 per week – £5,000 per year – in many parts of Britain, meaning parents spend an average of a third of their income on private childcare, in comparison to 10% of income in Denmark.

Parents have the primary responsibility for meeting the needs of their children, but that doesn’t mean they hold the sole responsibility. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a good proverb for good reason: children’s care, welfare and education is a public good, conferring externalities beyond the direct beneficiaries of toddlers and parents.

I don’t have children, but I know I benefit from the population being healthy, literate and good citizens, and that’s a process that starts from the earliest years. It’s therefore a process I’m happy to pay for through taxation.

People should be able to enjoy becoming and being parents, without the pressure of returning to work too soon. That needs extended parental leave for both parents, shared equally or divided in favour of whoever wishes to be the primary caregiver. People should also be able to return to work, instead of being compelled through economics to stay at home to care for their children, or to give up most of their earnings to pay for someone else to care for them. That means flexible, family-friendly working and decent state funded childcare beyond the hours of 9 to 5.

None of these things are beyond grasp. Many employers offer flexible parental leave and working hours and there is an infrastructure for council-delivered daycare. There’s more scope for companies to get involved too, in offering crèches to help reduce costs for staff.

Addison Lee and the 170 firms in the United States (where there is no statutory right to maternity pay) that allow staff to bring their babies to work might think they are being family-friendly. But properly enabling parents to separate work and life, through flexibility on the part of the employer and funding on the part of government would be even family-friendlier.