Monday, February 08, 2010 

The same old new politics.

At times during the expenses furore, which continues to flicker, further fuelled by David Cameron's denunciations of Gordon Brown today, I sometimes felt like the only person in the country not enraged by the graft and misappropriation of public money. That was what, when you reduced the entire fiasco down to its very bare bones, it was all about. It wasn't, as the Tory MP notoriously complained, that people were envious or jealous of his "very large house", but he was in the right area. It was instead that these already generally well off individuals were feather-bedded to the extent that they didn't even have to pay for their food or to furnish their houses. If you want to be pretentious about it, it was a microcosm of what our society itself has become: a turbo-economy where those, whether either rich or extremely poor, are to a certain extent protected against the effects which the rest are beholden to, with the result being a sometimes justifiable sense of grievance against them. Where wealth is everything, don't be surprised if the bitten occasionally bite back.

The mood was, and still is, profoundly anti-politics. It isn't anger directed at one political party, but at politics itself, which is why Cameron's attempt to try to associate Gordon Brown directly with those MPs who have been charged with false accounting is unlikely to succeed. It also overlooks that even though no Conservative or Liberal Democrat MP was charged with a criminal offence, of those who had to pay back the most, 5 of the top 6 were Conservatives, including Liam Fox, Cameron's defence spokesman. As also previously argued, the attempt, mainly by politicians themselves as well as the ex-broadsheet media excluding the Telegraph to turn the anger into a case for constitutional and parliamentary reform also seemed to miss the point of the rage: those who wanted the equivalent of heads on pikes or an immediate general election weren't interested in slow and steady changes to fix how parliament works; they just wanted the MPs who had abused their expenses out. That also hasn't changed over time, and while Cameron is to be commended for keeping up the pressure for change, it's hardly likely that many votes for the Tories are going to be picked up on the back of reforming the current lobbying system.

It's difficult not to think that Cameron personally attacking Brown might have something to do with Brown's mentioning of he who must not be named: Lord Ashcroft. Ashcroft is also the spectre hanging over Cameron's entire speech: he wants anyone sitting in parliament to be a full UK taxpayer in the United Kingdom, yet he can't even confirm that the deputy chairman of his party is just that. He wants to "shine the light of transparency on lobbying in our country", yet if you donate £50,000 a year to the party you can join "The Leader's Group" and gain personal access to "David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches".

The entire speech is one that just screams of either never coming close to being implemented or coming back to haunt them. At four separate occasions he claims that "we are a new generation at ease with openness and trust". Really? Would this be the same Conservative party that seems to be imposing top-down control on MPs and prospective MPs use of blogs and social-networking sites? This is a party that even as it denounces Labour's past use of various spin doctors employs the likes of Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton, the former accused at an employment tribunal of leading the bullying of a journalist who suffered from depression. It's an easy allusion to make, but it really is all so reminiscent of Tony Blair: the repetition, the claims of being entirely clean, a new break, yet even while it sounds good, it's next to impossible to believe almost any of it. In that sense, it's Blair at his very worst: trying desperately to convince of his good intentions whilst failing to do just that. Even Blair at his worst though wouldn't have made such stonking great errors as talking up parliament as formerly being an unimpeachable institution once famous for "radical legislation, elevated debate and forensic scrutiny of laws"; has it really been anything like that since the 60s? Nor would he have made the mistake of claiming that a monologue exists where parliament talks and the country listens; parliament may well talk but the country either doesn't listen, or as the Heresiarch suggests, it jeers.

The only part that rings true is also the funniest and most puzzling. At the end he desperately appeals to the media to change its attitude as well, a part worth quoting in full:

But this change also needs something else. It requires a change in the attitude not just of politicians, but of the media too. I want to see a whole new culture of responsibility from those who report the news. You are the lens through which people view the actions of this Parliament. That gives you a great duty to our democracy.

I want to see a proper distinction between honest mistakes made by good, decent people whose intentions were honourable and those who set out to deliberately mislead, swindle and deceive.

Most people who pursue a career in politics do so because they want to serve and because they want to do good. That should be recognised. Parliament does important and effective work, yet it is barely reported.

And remember when you’re putting good people down, you could be putting good people off from entering politics. I’m not telling you how to do your job. I’m just saying that if you want to change politics as much as I do, this is something we’ve got to do together. We have a shared responsibility.

The idea of certain parts of the media treating any politician other than the very few it decides it likes in such a way is hilarious. This though is someone who has been treated up till now by the vast majority of it in a completely timorous, even sycophantic fashion, in difference to how those outside it have routinely ridiculed him. He surely doesn't believe that this will change anything, and in any event he uses them just as much as they use him; why then make the appeal at all? Is it for public consumption, although again few are likely to read or have seen his speech in full? Just as you don't believe for a second that Cameron has any real truck with what he calls "social responsibility", the idea that the media think they have any wider responsibility other than to their shareholders or owners is ludicrous.

It is instructive though that the one real reform that would truly redistribute power to the people is the one that the Conservatives refuse to trust the electorate with: Brown's sudden conversion to the alternative vote may be cynical or have ulterior motives, and it may not be proportional, but it would give voters something approaching a real choice over who governs us. A new politics sounds good, but it will remain the same old politics unless you genuinely feel you can make a difference. Starting with the electoral system itself would make the most sense, and would still fit in with the actual anti-politics mood, enabling you to vote the equivalent of none of the above and still make a point. Anything else is likely to fail to make an impact.

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Friday, June 19, 2009 

Hardly the end of the affair.

When it comes to shooting yourself in the foot, the parliamentary authorities have done the equivalent of blowing the entire appendage off with a sawn-off shotgun. The expenses scandal was finally begin to simmer down, the Telegraph having already deciphered and disseminated all the most outrageous claims, with the full release of the documents in full threatening to be a damp squib, only of interest for those who really wish to know exactly what their MP's favourite taxpayer-funded meal is. By censoring almost the entirety of some of the claims, all they've succeeded in doing is bringing the bile back to the very front of the throat of every phone-in ranter in the country.

At times since the Telegraph first splashed on their ill-gotten gained CD/DVD, I've felt like the only person in the country not to be demanding that MPs be summarily executed with their heads then displayed atop spikes on London Bridge. Of course, that MPs have turned out to be such humongous hypocrites, evading tax, whether it was "allowed" under the rules or not, claiming that they live with their sister and spending our money on duck houses and cleaning moats is certainly disreputable, but I find it hard to summon any great fury mainly because except in a very few tiny cases, there seems to have been no actual rules broken, let alone fraud. As much as some claim to be whiter than whiter, most of us will probably admit to trying it on at times; at worst, what most have done is simply stretched the rules as they existed, while some went further and did so to absolute breaking point, such as Gerald Kaufman with his attempt to charge the taxpayer for an £8,000 Bang and Olfsen TV. That I find for some reason far more enraging than some of the more notorious claims. Equally, the opprobrium hasn't fallen on those most deserving of it: those that have other highly rewarding interests that still didn't think that claiming for "seagrass", mugs from Tate Modern and "Elephant lamps", as Michael Gove did could possibly be objectionable. Then there's just bitter, wormwood-esque irony, like George Osborne claiming a staggering £47 for 2 DVDs featuring a speech of his on "value for taxpayers' money".

Mostly though, as I've mentioned before, there just seems little reason to get angry when there are so many more important things to be livid about. We are talking at most, of millions of pounds being improperly spent or claimed; at the moment we're currently paying around £30bn simply on the interest from our current debt. There's the millions, if not billions being spent on management consultants; the billions being wasted because of the government obsession with the private finance initative; and the countless billions being poured into the toilet which is this government's repeated, incessant, hapless IT schemes. These though are mindboggling sums, which cannot be directly linked to any one individual, hence there's no one to blame. Whether it's bankers, where Fred Goodwin rapidly became the biggest hate figure in the country, or Margaret Moran or Hazel Blears, we can instead put a face to the fury. It's the same with benefit fraud, where the newspapers always have a field day. It doesn't seem though that anything other than money could have caused such a scandal, or at least one which has inspired such rage and gone on for so long. It isn't the case, as Anthony Steen put it, that people were envious of his big house; it is however those whom have failed to benefit from the boom years who are now falling even further behind are fuming at how MPs could kit out their houses and pay their food bills without even a thought for how their own constituents are having to live.

More depressing is how the momentum which was behind the moves towards reform, which went hand in hand with the revelations in the Telegraph for some time, has suddenly dropped off. Partially it fell away as attention turned to whether Gordon Brown was going to survive as prime minister or not, but it also seems to have failed because MPs were only ever paying lip service to it, and as the race to be the next speaker has shown, as attention has turned away so has the belief that there has to be change. The House of Commons is a notoriously conservative institution, overturning even Robin Cook's minor reforms to the working hours because some MPs felt it had ruined the "atmosphere", and as the everlasting cliche goes, turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas given the choice, but you would have thought that even they would have realised that something has to be done. It does remain whether or not the public themselves ever were really behind such wide-ranging reform, but it is still quite clearly what is needed to re-energise politics. The exchanges of the last week, with the nonsense on stilts which has been the portraying of Cameron as "Mr 10%" and the general refusal to even be slightly straight with the public on the cuts which are going to have to come have only reinforced that. The European election results were both a warning and an opportunity: they showed politics at its worst and best, with the BNP victories because Labour voters stayed at home, and the successes of other minor parties showing the breadth of political dissent and debate which is stifled in the three party consensus which is Westminster. Only those that are prepared to end that monopoly deserve to be supported at the next election, and whatever our thoughts on the expenses furore, we will have them to thank if it does eventually lead to the change which is so desperately needed.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009 

From expenses to going soft in the head.

After taking an age to respond, with Labour still yet to make anything like the stand which the Conservatives have, you have to wonder whether what began as a crisis in politicians rather than necessarily in parliament itself has started to get out of hand. Not because the proposals for more general reform, especially those set out today by David Cameron, are too radical, but instead because they don't seem to be actually targeting what enraged the public in the first place: personal enrichment rather than general democratic failings.

One of the things that few commentators seem to have attempted to adequately answer is why the expenses debacle, rather than other recent general failures, whether you include the Iraq war, the previous loans for coronets scandal, or more recently the banking collapse and with it the breakdown of what had been a consensus of how the country could be run, has been the straw that broke the camel's back. The former and the latter have cost and will cost sums that dwarf the money which MPs have claimed for second houses, duck houses or duck a l'orange, while our involvement in Iraq has directly cost the lives of thousands, and indirectly hundreds of thousands, and from which it will take our reputation decades to recover.

Certainly, part of it is just a logical progression from the rage that was briefly directed at bankers, although again their greed puts MPs' second home allowances and other perks into stark contrast, albeit bankers were then not using public money for their bonuses. Recessions often are cathartic, and the anger and bitterness that come with the sudden change in circumstances has to be directed somewhere, but at MPs as a whole rather than just at a set of individuals within a party or at one party in particular is something new. Admittedly, this has been building for some time, as more and more, again admittedly with some justice, have started decrying politicians as all the same. Still though this alone doesn't quite explain why the loathing has reached such a crescendo. We seem to want our MPs both to be above the kind of temptations which befall many of us mere mortals, while also being as normal as politicians can be. When it turns out that MPs are, unsurprisingly, just as liable to bend the rules as far as they can go as the rest of us are, for which they should nontheless be condemned, it still seems completely disproportionate for them to come in for the savaging which has been raining down on their heads now for close to 3 weeks.

From this has spawned the obvious look for quick fixes to a system which has been broken for quite some time. The real demand though seems to be far more simple: everyone out, and everyone out now. This is something that the current politicians are hardly likely to accede to, and so there has to be an alternative found. Those who have long sought reform for principles both pure and personal have also found a perfect opportunity to perhaps finally get their way, echoing the Rahm Emanuel quote that you should not let a good crisis go to waste. All this though seems to be ignoring what the public themselves want: they mostly don't seem to care about the inner workings of parliamentary committees or what votes are whipped and which aren't; they just want the rotten out and a new lot in and to let them work it out.

All of us are however making numerous assumptions here. Fact is, we simply don't know how this is going to pan out; it might yet peter out as the Telegraph's revelations eventually do, or it might keep going until an election has to sort it out. This is why the most attractive proposal of all so far has been Alan Johnson's, for a referendum on proportional representation to be held at the same time as that election. That will fundamentally answer the question on whether the thirst for reform is long lasting and thoughtful or short and ugly.

It's also instructive that proportional representation is one of the few things that David Cameron has actively ruled out, in what has been variously described as either the most radical thing ever, "the spirit of Glasnost", as Cameron's Guardian article rather pompously puts it, or more plausiably, as politics having gone soft in the head. Instructive in that it's one of the few things that genuinely would change the way politics is run, while Cameron's other lauded promises, or not even that, potential aspirations are tinkering at the edge. Some of his proposals are simply laughable, such as the idea that the person who currently employs Andy Coulson as his chief spin doctor is going to be the one that puts an end to sofa government, promised by Brown and also broken. He wants to end the quangocracy without naming a single one which he actually plans to abolish, as so do many others who rant against them. He wants to tackle the power grabs by the EU and judges, without leaving Europe and without withdrawing presumably from the ECHR, making the ripping up of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a British bill of rights an utter waste of time. Then there is just the madness of ultra-Blairism still writ large within the Cameroons: ending the "state monopoly" in education, which is in actual fact local authority control, giving parents the power to set up their own schools, as if they have the time or will to do so. The similar powers on housing seem to be a recipe for banana-ism: build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything, while on policing seem destined to result in the futility of "bobbies on the beat" while politicising the organisation. He meanwhile has nothing whatsoever to say on Lords reform, the monarchy or on the anachronisms of Westminster itself which seem to be kept only so that tourists can experience the quaint old-worldiness of the mother of all parliaments.

Cynicism is easy, but it's difficult not to be when you reflect of how many in opposition have promised reform along these lines only for it not to materialise once power has been grabbed and when such changes are no longer so attractive. You can't help but think all we might eventually get from Cameron's changes are the schools and parliamentary debate on YouTube; that again though, might all be the public themselves want. It's difficult not to reflect that the old adage we get the politicians and politics we deserve still rings as true as ever.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 

Louise Casey and engaging communities in fighting crime.

It can't be a bad life being Louise Casey, former "respek" tsar and now delivering blue sky thinking on the criminal justice system as a whole. No doubt being generously remunerated, she last week received the Order of the Bath in the Queen's birthday honours. Not bad for what most people consider the most heinous of failures, as the anti-social behaviour order thinking which she did so much to influence is being binned, whilst reoffending rates among the young taken through the criminal justice system spiral to all-time highs, with the highest number ever imprisoned also achieved.

Casey is therefore the perfect choice to deliver either her coup de grace or the start of something which could go anywhere, which is her "Engaging communities in fighting crime" (PDF) report. Here's the paradox that runs throughout her tortuous and at times combative, some would say grating prose: Casey agrees that in actual fact, on the crime front, much is rosy. She completely agrees with all the experts and seasoned commentators that however you frame it, crime has fallen dramatically over the last 10 years. What's more, victims are receiving a better standard of care from the CJS; there are record numbers of police officers and the neighbourhood policing teams are working well; public concern about anti-social behaviour, despite indications to the contrary, has fallen; the CJS has been reformed substantially, with more offenders than ever brought to justice and sentenced more harshly than previously; and 93% now pay fines which are handed down from court, probably because the bailiffs are now being employed to follow them up.

All this progress is however not enough for Casey: despite these improvements, the public's view of the situation on crime and the CJS is exceptionally poor, with hardly anyone trusting the statistics and none having faith in the system to protect the victims rather than the offenders. This, according to Casey, is a Very Bad Thing. She doesn't seem to think however that this is the direct result of the government giving up on attempting to make its point, or that it has in fact given in to the very worst of the scaremongering about the crime situation by accepting much of the tabloid critique of where justice is failing, and therefore encouraging this view that crime is worse than it is because the prisons are full and sentences are forever being toughened; she instead decides it's directly a result of the criminal justice system and its failing to provide adequate information, whilst also not being prepared to listen to the public, however ill-informed and reactionary they are. This is in fact is Casey directly disregarding the above view:

There are some who argue that the Government and the Criminal Justice System must not allow itself to be swayed by public opinion; that pandering to public opinion leads to ‘mob rule’ and an uncivilised society. But, currently, the system is so far away from pandering to public opinion that this seems the remotest of risks and, if anything, there is a greater risk of the public withdrawing even further from the active part they need to play. Radical change is needed to get the public more engaged in tackling crime and to stop the erosion of community spirit.

How Casey can come out with such abject piffle after 10 years of the government of which she's technically a part of pandering to the very worst of tabloid demands over crime and punishment is dismaying on its own; what's more dismaying is that she actually seems to believe it.

That is the main flaw in the report. Rather than there being a problem either with Casey's analysis, most of her conclusions or the methods used to gauge public opinion for the study, what it comes down to is Casey's tone, not just in her casual dismissal of concerns over "human rights", as evidenced by her interview on this morning's BBC Breakfast, it's in her moral righteousness which she expresses throughout. Here are a couple of samples just from her introduction:

This review is not a strategy or statement of government policy. Rather it is an analysis of what I have found by looking at the evidence, talking to the powers that be, the frontline workers and above all, the public. It’s a common-sense view on what further changes need to be made to build confidence and trust, and some suggestions on how those changes should happen.

Whenever someone invokes "common-sense", you have to set your bullshit meter to a higher level than it was previously on. So it proves in the conclusion to her introduction:

Most of all I would urge policy makers, professionals, lobby groups and law makers to take note of one thing – the public are not daft. They know what’s wrong, they know what’s right, and they know what they want on crime and justice. And it’s time action was taken on their terms.

Well no, the public aren't daft, and of course they know what they think is wrong and what's right and what they want. What matters is whether those thoughts are actually implementable, not likely to make things worse is in the long-term rather than better, and which don't infringe on the rights of us all. Judging by some of the responses which feature in the report, some of them would certainly fall short on not just one, but all three such measures. It would have been nice for Casey to have pointed out that the public are not infallible, and that public opinion is not always the best barometer of what to go by in politics. Instead she wishes to set herself up as a crusader for what the public demands, a bellwether that can get things done. That this is not always the best way to achieve change should surely not be necessary to point out to her.

One of the main problems I have with the conclusions, or rather what she proposes, is in essence nothing to do with them at all; it's that they're not collected in the actual report at any stage for ease of reading, instead spreading them throughout the report. That this will make the casual reader despair instantly isn't encouraging for the chances of anyone outside saddos like myself or policy wonks reading the thing. Once you've got through relative sections and past such incisive contributions from the public as calling the CPS the "criminal protection service" and "I'm all for human rights but what about the people who have been victims?" the great majority are benign, or indeed, generally ones that would help to improve the system. The headlines have predictably been on the high visibility jackets and posters of the convicted, on which more in a second, but the recommendations on the creation of a Public Commissioner on Crime, for the Victims' Surcharge to be directly spent on projects that support victims and a Victims' Compensation Fund and for separate seating arrangements in courts (a bugbear of a certain Ms Newlove) are all sound ones. Less instantly positive are Casey's proposals for the expansion of anonymous witness protection, which greatly increase the potential for miscarriages of justice and for the dragging through the courts of personal vendettas, even if only to be expanded to the "vulnerable", i.e. the disabled and elderly, as it then raises the question on where the line itself will be eventually drawn.

As alluded to above, the most contentious of Casey's proposals are on what needs to be changed in the community service system. Straight off the bat, she wants it to be renamed to "Community Payback". That community service is not all just about directly serving those who have been wronged but also about helping to rehabilitate the offender, something that has been shown to be highly challenging to next to impossible in prison itself goes out of the window entirely; indeed, Casey wants it to be directly tended out to private firms rather than operated by the probation service. That this will just add another layer of bureaucracy when the private firms need to refer an offender back if they haven't turned up or have refused to take part seems to have passed Casey by. Thankfully, the poster idea doesn't seem to have actually turned up in the report itself, and there also isn't a specific mention of those on it having to wear a bib or sash declaring they are on "Community Payback"; all she makes clear is that the punishment should be visible and demanding, and not something that the public themselves would choose to do. That in some areas this might leave those in charge with very little to actually get those on "Community Payback" to do also seems to have been ignored; where there isn't graffiti to be cleaned or rubbish to be picked up, which incidentally often are jobs that are done also by those getting paid, what exactly will be they doing? Breaking rocks? Doing push-ups? Casey doesn't say. Also, as has been pointed out, in some areas those on community service already are highly visible and do the above. That it doesn't seem to have altered the impression that it's a soft option, possibly because that's what the popular press always refers to it as, regardless of how much the government toughens it doesn't seem to have registered.

It's this that lets the report down because so much else in it is praiseworthy. All of her recommendations on how to tackle the lack of trust in the statistics relating to crime are excellent ones which deserve to be adopted immediately: an wholly independent body that releases them, a Statistics Authority that draws up a protocol on the responsible use of such figures that all, including politicians, the media and interest groups would be expected to sign up to, information on local crime published monthly, and crime maps available online. There's also this quite wonderful piece of information on just how the public react when told about crime going up or down that really ought to have shaped the whole report:

In a survey of 1,808 members of the public for the review, when told crime had decreased and asked who should take the credit, 46% credited the police, 21% said they didn’t believe crime had decreased, and only 15% credited the Government.

But when told crime had increased and asked who should take most of the blame, 42% blamed the Government, 32% blamed parents and only 20% blamed the police.

Interestingly, while a significant number of people spontaneously challenged the statement that crime had decreased, none challenged the statement that it had increased. And only 12% blamed criminals for an increase in crime.

That's the sort of bullshit challenging research that could have been the centrepiece of Casey's investigation. Instead, rather than directly challenging the public and such orthodoxy, she panders to it, and criticises others for being patronising towards the public by not taking their views seriously enough. There has to be a middle way: accepting that the public's concerns are real, that change is necessary in most of the cases where Casey has pointed out, but also directly challenging some of the notions which the public has that simply aren't backed by the current evidence base. We haven't yet found such a solution, and there certainly isn't one on the horizon, nor is it here in this report.

David Howarth - Toughing it out on justice

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